Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/576/7202
Britain in the 1970s
Betrayals that led to Thatcher's victory
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, as she will always be remembered, cartoon by Alan Hardman
30 years ago, the Tory Party leader Margaret Thatcher won a general election which was to prove a sea change in British politics. Thatcher promoted a virulent form of free-market capitalism. She oversaw an unprecedented shift in wealth from rich to poor. Massive tax cuts for the rich, wholesale selling off of state industry and repeated attacks on the welfare state and workers' organisations - still continued today by the now totally pro-big business Labour Party - were the landscape of the 1980s.
DAVE GORTON looks at the workers' struggles of the 1970s that preceded Thatcher's victory, and shows how disenchantment with the Labour Party led to Thatcher coming to power.
Britain awoke on 4 May 1979 to newly elected Conservative prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, declaring from the steps of 10 Downing Street: "Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope."
The devastation wrought in working class communities over the following decade brought little harmony, truth, faith or hope. Instead, the political landscape of Britain changed profoundly and the lead instigator of this wreckage, Thatcher herself, entered the annals of history as the most hated prime minister of all time.
By the mid-1970s, the post-war economic upturn had well and truly ended and Britain's decline was more marked than the rest of, what were then called, the advanced western countries. Between 1964 and 1978, Britain's share of the world market for car production, shipbuilding, steel and transport equipment had more than halved. By 1978, China, two decades before it became a major world industrial player, was producing more steel than Britain.
Inflation was rampant, officially peaking at 26.9% in 1975 and unemployment rose more or less gradually throughout the 1970s. The most memorable, and probably effective, campaign poster of the Conservative Party in 1979 showed a snaking dole queue with the caption: "Labour isn't working". Part of Thatcher's deception was that she knew Tory policies were not going to lower unemployment and, indeed, it continued to climb in the early 1980s.
In the early part of the 1970s, British workers had flexed their industrial muscle, particularly the big battalions including the miners. Successful strikes in 1972 and 1974 became reference points and, later, something Thatcher and her cohorts were determined to revenge.
In 1974, the Conservative prime minister Ted Heath called a general election on the question of 'who governs Britain - the government or the miners?' The response was clear - the miners! The Labour Party was elected under Harold Wilson, replaced two years later on his unexpected resignation, by Jim Callaghan.
Unwilling to challenge capitalism, Labour limited itself to seeking to manage it better. But in the midst of the major capitalist crisis unfolding in the 1970s, this was going to have little benefit for ordinary workers. The mostly right-wing leaders of the trade unions signed a 'social contract' with the government to keep down wages in the face of these problems. The social contract was soon dubbed 'the social con-trick' by workers who saw their earnings diminish as inflation spiralled. Between 1975 and 1977, the purchasing power of the average worker with two children fell by 7%.
In 1976, Callaghan and chancellor Denis Healey went cap in hand to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a £2.3 billion bailout. Healey told the IMF the social contract with the trade unions had reduced the average increase in earnings from 27.6% in 1975 to 13.9% in 1976. Of course, the IMF attached stringent conditions to the loan - Healey was required to increase taxation and cut spending on housing, health and food subsidies. Industry was expected to adjust to inflation by cutting jobs.
Callaghan's Labour government ministers were puppets of the bosses capitalist system, photo Alan Hardman
1977 saw strikes of British Leyland car workers, Heathrow airport workers and film processing workers at Grunwicks, an anti-union factory in Brent, North London where 137 workers had been sacked for striking against the employer's refusal to recognise a trade union. The mostly Asian workforce received massive support from trade unionists throughout Britain and mass pickets became commonplace - one involved an enormous 12,000 people, including miners.
Solidarity action came from postal workers in particular, before their union instructed them to return to work. Eventually, through further inaction by right-wing union leaders, the strike was lost. It helped seal the Labour government's reputation, through its refusal to intervene, as being pro-business rather than pro-worker.
The firefighters came out on strike in November 1977 with massive public sympathy. The strike was solid. As usual, firefighters provided emergency cover including rushing, still wearing picket armbands, to a fire at St Andrew's hospital in Bow, east London. "We couldn't let them die. For God's sake, it was a hospital, what else could we do but come and help?"
Instead of settling, the government used troops to try to break the strike - and failed. The firefighters didn't achieve the pay rise they originally struck for but did achieve 10% immediately and the introduction of a pay formula linking future rises to earnings in industry. The social contract was coming apart at the seams.
In 1978, with inflation still outstripping wage rises, instead of returning to free collective bargaining as promised just a year earlier, the Labour government announced an incomes policy limiting wage rises to 5%. The social contract was meant to be a voluntary curb on wages; this was now a direct government attack on living standards which had already plummeted.
Demonstrating - like most of today's trade union leaders - that their real priority is maintaining the Labour Party in power rather than defending the livelihoods of those who pay their wages, some of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) leadership initially accepted the new policy. But this couldn't last. The 1978 TUC congress rejected the 5% barrier as the trade union tops had been unable to convince even their own union national executives of the need for pay restraint. The TUC chair, postal workers' general secretary Tom Jackson, railed against the TUC's "negative attitude", claiming it had lost its way by opposing 5%. The very next day, his UPW (Union of Post Office Workers) put him back on the right track by announcing it was submitting a claim for a 24.4% wage increase!
Even 'left' leaders like Jack Jones of the TGWU, whilst bemoaning the government's attacks on ordinary workers, offered little alternative. He told his union's 1975 conference: "We simply must help to keep this Labour government in office".
Redundancy haunted the working class then as now. Cartoon by Alan Hardman
The pressure on the government built as unions throughout industry started to submit wage claims aimed at making up lost ground. The incomes policy was in tatters from the day the TUC congress rejected it, but it would still need action before the government and the employers would accept this. It didn't take long for that action to materialise.
Ford car workers at Halewood on Merseyside walked out on 22 September 1978 (or rather they ran out, buckling the factory gates in the process!) soon to be followed by Ford workers in Southampton and the huge London Dagenham plant, which emptied in just a quarter of an hour. All 57,000 Ford workers were on strike by 26 September, without a solitary strikebreaker.
This immense display of working class power was all 'unofficial'. The unions didn't make it official until over a week later, after the Labour Party conference where a motion moved by a supporter of Militant (the forerunner of the Socialist Party) calling for rejection of the 5% limit was overwhelmingly endorsed by four million votes to two million.
As soon as that conference decision was taken, Ford's management sought to re-open negotiations saying the 5% figure was no longer "operative".
The strikers won a 17% pay rise in November, rendering the incomes policy completely redundant. The Ford strike opened the floodgates of what became known later as the 'winter of discontent'. The bakers went on strike in late 1978, followed by a huge movement first of tanker and other lorry drivers then railway workers and council workers at the beginning of 1979. 1.5 million workers struck on 22 January 1979, the largest single day of strike action since the 1926 general strike. The Beefeaters at the Tower of London went on strike for the first time in their 500 year existence!
The tanker drivers' stoppage meant the country virtually ran out of petrol and the capitalist media delighted in showing scenes of huge tailbacks outside petrol station forecourts, whilst wringing their hands at the audacity of working people trying to extract a living wage from the bosses.
The press and television almost fell over themselves to show pictures of vast amounts of rubbish piling up in London's Leicester Square because the refuse collectors were out. When gravediggers in Liverpool took action we were treated to hysterical reporting about the threat of unburied bodies piling up.
Workers take centre stage
At almost every turn and as each new section joined the strikes, workers had to battle against their own national trade union leaderships and sometimes even local shop stewards. Some strikes were only made official so trade union leaders could regain control; this was clearly the case in the lorry drivers' dispute. But workers showed determination to stand up to the government attack.
In some cities, noticeably Hull and Liverpool, strike committees were formed and took control of the movement and distribution of goods including food, giving a glimpse of how elected committees could draw up and implement a socialist plan of production in a future society. The Daily Telegraph fumed: "Workers were taking managerial decisions"!
While later, during the election campaign, the Tories concentrated on what they termed an 'abuse of power' by the trade unions, the strategists inside the party and of capitalism in general could see exactly what was happening.
The political editor of The Guardian, Peter Jenkins, wrote on the day before the massive January strike: "If the country risks becoming ungovernable it is not because of the power of the unions, it is rather because they are powerless to control their members. The national leaders have lost all control." Similarly, the Washington Post commented: "The most significant change is that the leaders of the union movement have lost control over their rank and file. The workers have taken things into their own hands". In his pamphlet Solving the Union Problem is the Key to Britain's Recovery, Keith Joseph, Thatcher's 'guru', stated: "We are now seeing militants increasingly taking over control from union officials".
In total 9,306,000 working days were lost in industrial disputes in 1978, rising to 29,474,000 in 1979, the vast majority prior to the May election. And all of this without significant action by the miners and the dockers, traditionally in the vanguard of British strike movements in the past.
Thatcher dinosaurs proposed savage attacks on the living standards of working people, photo Alan Hardman
In November 1978, Labour had a lead of 5% over the Conservatives, which turned to a Conservative lead of 7.5% in January 1979, and 20% in February. Disillusioned by the attacks from 'their own party', workers were turning away in droves. The middle classes, seeing how Labour was treating its natural support and feeling the pinch of Labour's economic nightmare themselves, needed no further excuses to turn towards Thatcher and the Tories. They reverted to what was then considered the 'natural' party of capitalism in Britain.
Thatcher saw the power of the working class and was horrified. In a speech in January she outlined three areas in industrial relations the Tories wanted to change.
These were: ending the closed shop, introducing "widespread secret ballots throughout the trade union movement" and introducing a no-strike law in "fire services, hospitals, gas, water, electricity and others".
In fact the final one was excluded from the Tory Party manifesto in 1979 and Thatcher never felt confident enough to attempt to introduce a widespread no-strike policy although it was made illegal for prison officers to withdraw their labour.
The capitalist media, echoed by the right-wing in the labour movement, claim these so-called democratising proposals were the key to Thatcher's victory. Far nearer the truth was that Labour was voted out on its record on the economy rather than any promises to curb the power of workers' organisations.
During its term of office Labour had already lost the 'safe' seats of Workington and Walsall North in November 1976 (and almost lost Newcastle Central), followed by Stechford in Birmingham in March 1977 and a month later, almost unbelievably, the mining town of Ashfield in Nottinghamshire where a 23,000 majority was overturned in a 21% swing to the Tories.
These losses meant Labour no longer had a majority in parliament and so relied for two years on support from the Liberals, the Scottish and Welsh nationalists and even the Ulster Unionists.
The Tories won the general election with a lower percentage of the vote (44%) than in their previous victory in 1970 but with a big gain of three million votes on 1974. Labour lost 51 seats. Its betrayal of the working class was complete.
Trade union growth in the 1970s
There was massive growth in trade union membership and density in the early 1970s in Britain. The struggles against the 1971 Industrial Relations Act and the victories of the miners played no small part in this growth. By 1976, over 11 million workers were organised in trade unions - more than 50% of the working population.
Some unions witnessed spectacular growth, most noticeably two of the three unions that later went on to merge into today's Unison. The Confederation of Health Service Employees (COHSE) had 67,000 members in 1969; by 1976 it stood at over 200,000. The National Union of Public Employees (NUPE) grew by an incredible 112,000 members in the 18 months before June 1976; a 22% increase!
Union density was far higher in 1974 than today with over 90% of all workers involved in transport (excluding distribution) organised in a union, almost 90% in post and telecommunications, over 85% in education and local government and 90% in national government. Even those working in the insurance, banking and finance sectors, relative latecomers to organised trade unionism, could count on a density of almost 45%.
Many industries had closed shop arrangements - agreements that workers in that industry would be members of the appropriate trade union. This gave trade unions some element of control over employment and prevented bosses from abusing recruitment procedures by only hiring non-trade unionists who they could subsequently use as scabs in industrial disputes.
Of course, this was an anathema to the capitalist system and the 'free market'. As the closed shop system was based on workers' unity, Thatcher had to get rid of it to maintain her divide and rule policies.
Labour's rightward shift
While Thatcher attacked the working class, Kinnock connived to destroy Militant, photo Alan Hardman
The right-wing in the trade unions and the Labour Party failed to learn from the mass movements. For them, militant trade unionism equalled electoral defeat, therefore for Labour to get back in, militant trade unionism had to be stamped out.
While the left had some initial success in democratising the Labour Party, this was subsequently overshadowed by witch-hunts launched against leftwingers, especially Militant, and by other measures taken by the party leadership.
The right created disunity which, together with a lack of left-wing policies, lost Labour the general elections in 1983 and 1987. This spelt the end of Labour as a party for the working class. By the early 1990s, Labour was preparing to rid its constitution of Clause 4, part 4, signalling in written words what the leadership had ditched long before - the aim of removing capitalism and replacing it with a socialist society.
The election of Tony Blair saw this come to fruition. The policies of Blair's party, continuing under Gordon Brown, are barely different to those of the hated Thatcher: pro-privatisation, in favour of legal restrictions on workers' rights to defend their jobs and livelihoods, and prepared to dismantle the welfare state brought into existence by their predecessors.
In The Socialist 22 April 2009:
Environment and socialism
Socialist Party election campaign
Socialist Party youth and students
Socialist Party campaigns
International socialist news and analysis
Marxist analysis: history
Socialist Party workplace news