Militant and Wilson’s Government

Chapter Three


IN BRITAIN this period saw the beginning of a transformation of the organised labour movement. The Labour government of 1964, with a small majority of four, went back to the polls in March 1966. 

The result was a decisive victory for Labour with Harold Wilson re-elected as prime minister. But, given the state of British capitalism, recorded in our pages, the Labour government moved from mild reforms in the first period following October 1964 to counter-reforms.

Very quickly after the election victory of 1966, the government introduced a “total freeze on wages and prices for a period of six months”. 

Cartoon by Alan Hardman

Militant predicted that while the right-wing trade union leaders would acquiesce to this policy, it would inevitably break down as workers’ resistance grew. The incomes policy brought the government into collision with organised labour, which had supported the re-election of Wilson with high hopes of an improvement in their situation.

Seamens’ strike

In July 1966 a seamens’ strike broke out. Wilson darkly hinted at a “communist conspiracy” and declared that the Executive Committee (EC) of the seamens’ union (NUS) was under the control of a “tightly-knit group of politically motivated men”. One of the members of the EC of the NUS at that time was John Prescott, now deputy leader of the Labour Party.

Starting the strike very tentatively, the seamen became more and more militant as it developed. Even the right-wing dominated NUS leadership began to demand the nationalisation of the industry. They denounced “the shipowners’ handling of an industry essential to a maritime country. Subsidy to a group of private and grossly overpowerful magnates is contrary to all the traditions of the labour movement – we say that the shipping industry’s crisis should be finally resolved by nationalisation.”

The strike, fought over six-and-a-half weeks, showed the magnificent solidarity of the seamen and resulted in some concessions being made. The 40-hour week was granted a year earlier than the owners intended. Nevertheless, a complete victory was prevented because the right-wing union EC refused to carry through the call for a complete strike of all British shipping.

The Trades Union Congress, foreshadowing what happened in the miners’ strike in the 1980s, and most other unions, did not offer direct assistance to the seamen. Nevertheless, this time, unlike in previous industrial disputes (as with the Dockers, for instance, during the Labour government of 1945-51), Wilson did not dare use troops or the Royal Navy. Militant predicted that the NUS would inevitably be transformed by this struggle, and this is subsequently what happened.

Industrial action

During 1968 a series of strikes began to break out in other industries on a local level, the strike of the sewing machinists at Fords and other movements were symptomatic of the emergence of working-class women. 

Militant in October 1968 commented on a “Liverpool strike wave”. Building workers came out on strike and marched through Liverpool city centre in September. Municipal busmen had come out for 13 weeks in Liverpool just prior to this. Dockers had struck and there was growing dissatisfaction in the English Electric plants in Liverpool because of a merger between the company and GEC. 

Correctly, workers feared massive redundancies. This movement was paralleled by strikes in other parts of the country, particularly in the Midlands, which reflected the growing dissatisfaction with the policies, or lack of them, of the trade union and Labour leadership. Subsequent actions by the GEC/AEI/English Electric bosses entirely justified the workers’ fears.

In August 1969, they declared that 4,800 men and women would be made redundant nationally, with over 3,000 concentrated in Merseyside. 1,500 were to go in the Netherton, East Lancashire Road, factory. The stewards immediately proposed a one-day strike which was successful at all three Liverpool factories. A mass march also took place on the strike day through the streets of Liverpool. 

There was overwhelming support for an all-out strike against redundancies. Two “sit-down” strikes had also taken place in the East Lancashire Road factory which indicated the growing resolve of the workers to use whatever means necessary to defend the factory from closure. Militant called for the whole of the combine to be called out and demanded nationalisation under workers’ control of this firm which had clearly failed the workers.

Workers’ control?

International events, above all in France in the previous year, had popularised the ideas of workers’ democracy and workers’ control. The idea of a takeover, of an occupation of the factory to prevent redundancies began to grow, particularly amongst the advanced workers and the shop stewards committees. But there was no clear understanding of the ideas of workers’ control or workers’ management and in particular the difference between the two conceptions.

Under the direction of the Institute for Workers Control, run from Nottingham by Ken Coates, who subsequently became a Labour Member of the European Parliament, the idea of taking over the factory and continuing production was supported by some stewards. Militant, on the other hand, was in favour of stopping production and occupying the factory to prevent redundancies. The GEC management and the capitalist press were terrified of this development. Every dirty trick was then used to distort the workers’ case and vilify the shop stewards.

The shop stewards, however, did not prepare the workers adequately. They believed it was sufficient to issue a call, to make a case at a mass meeting, and the workers would follow. On the day of a scheduled mass meeting to discuss occupation, members of management led a counter-demonstration along with a right-wing shop steward who spoke admiringly of management “co-operation”. 

They took over the platform at the mass meeting. Loudhailers were supplied by the management to a right-wing shop steward who shouted down and drowned out the voice of the convenor, Wally Brown. The result was confusion and defeat for the idea of a takeover by a vote of two to one. The management then sought to use this to undermine the stewards. Nevertheless, an overwhelming vote of confidence was given to the action committee to continue the fight by other means.

An indication of the mood that developed at this time and furthered by the takeover proposal was that Hugh Scanlon, then president of the engineering union, the AEU, declared in an interview in the Morning Star that his union would not tolerate sackings and called for “work or full pay”. The election of Scanlon, an avowed Marxist at that time, as president of the engineers’ union, of Jack Jones as general secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, and of Lawrence Daly as the mineworkers’ union general secretary, indicated the swing towards the left which was beginning to take place amongst the more politically conscious sections of the working class. This process was not restricted to the unions. The Labour Party also began to swing leftwards.

Militant’s first three million votes

This was most clearly reflected at the 1968 Labour Party conference. Militant ran a headline in November of that year: “Almost three million votes for alternative socialist policy”. A resolution was moved by Liverpool Borough Labour Party and seconded by Bristol North-East Constituency Labour Party (CLP) calling for the

taking into public ownership [of]… the 300 monopolies, private banks, finance houses and insurance companies now dominating the economy, and… producing a positive national plan anchored to socialist production. (1)

The conference carried by five million votes to one million “the repeal of the anti-trade union legislation” of the Prices and Incomes policy.

The Liverpool resolution was the most striking example of the growing support for Militant. It found more and more of an echo amongst leftward moving workers, above all amongst the youth. By 1969 we could report:

The attendance of more than 150 people at the Militant meeting [at the 1969 Labour Party Young Socialists’ conference] addressed by Peter Taaffe and of more than 250 at the Militant forum with Tribune, where the differences between the two journals were clearly brought out, is an indication that the discussion around the ideas of Marxism will clearly continue and develop within the movement. (2)

In Place of Strife

A decisive issue in pushing Labour and trade union members to the left was the decision of the Labour government to carry out the bidding of big business and introduce anti-trade union legislation. The misnamed “In Place of Strife” proposed “compulsory strike ballots”, “cooling-off periods” and other measures to curtail the power of organised labour.

It was met by an outcry amongst workers, provoking a series of warning strikes at local, regional and national level. This forced the TUC to oppose the government on this issue. This measure, upon which Thatcher and the Tories subsequently based their vicious anti-union laws in the 1980s, was proposed by ‘left-winger’ Barbara Castle, who was the employment minister at the time. Even Tony Benn, then occupying a ‘centre’ political position, initially supported Castle’s anti-union laws in the Labour cabinet.

But the implacable opposition of the organised Labour and trade union movement resulted in a split in the Cabinet. James Callaghan, reflecting the pressure of the trade union leadership, came out in open opposition to Wilson. Eventually a majority of the Cabinet opposed the Wilson-Castle proposals. If Wilson had not backed down in the teeth of this opposition, he would have been replaced as prime minister.

But the ruling class were furious at this development. These were the minimum measures they required – the shackling of the unions – in order for their programme of cuts in living standards to be carried through. A chorus began to develop about the “chaos” and “anarchy” which allegedly manifested itself in society, at football matches and on the factory floor. A howl went up in favour of the replacement of the Labour government by a “national government” along the lines of Ramsay MacDonald’s in 1931. There was even talk of the need for a military coup under Lord Mountbatten, a solution canvassed at the time by the owner of the Daily Mirror, Cecil King.

In January 1969, we reported on the

thinly disguised venom [of] The Times, main organ of British capitalism, [which] came out on 9 December in a long editorial statement for the formation of a ‘National Government’… The owner of The Times, Roy Thomson, with his editor William Rees-Mogg, unsuccessful Tory parliamentary candidate, joined up with Cecil King, the Daily Mirror, and a motley crew of Tories and ex-Labour renegades in a campaign of slander against the labour movement. (4)

That a section of the capitalists were turning in this direction was an expression of the crisis of British capitalism at that stage. But Militant pointed out:

1968 is not 1931. The industrial power of the working class has never been greater. Moreover, there has been a significant shift towards the left by the active elements in the unions and the Labour Party in the term of this Labour government.4

It was the fear that Labour would be pushed further and irretrievably towards the left which stayed the hands of the capitalists at that stage. However, this theme of a ‘national government’ was to come back many times in subsequent years when the capitalists felt that Labour was incapable and the Tories too enfeebled to carry out its wishes.