Redundancy payment: “Workers in every industry are facing the problems of redundancy” Militant’s Alan Hardman captured the agony (Click for full image)
WHILE THE 1969 events were unfolding in Ireland, 10,000 Merseyside Dockers went on strike over the refusal of container base employers to take on Dockers registered under the Dock Labour Scheme which guaranteed minimum wages and conditions.
This was the beginning of a massive rationalisation of the labour force which was subsequently to result in the decimation of the dock labour force.
After initial confusion, the whole of the docklands came out in support of workers who had boycotted containers at depots where unregistered labour was employed. This was a foretaste of the battles to come, which would spark one of the greatest post-war industrial struggles in the early 1970s.
The determination of the Dockers enabled Jack Jones, who was then the secretary-elect of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, to emerge from negotiations with a settlement far better than he had originally put forward. Militant had warned:
Workers in every industry are facing the problems of redundancy. The mines and railways have revealed the end product in concrete terms. Containerisation alone will affect other main employment sources on Merseyside… The Labour Party has committed itself to the nationalisation of the docks. This policy must be carried out as the only lasting solution to this problem. (1)
This was a fitting end to the tumultuous decade of the 1960s, which had started with the events leading to the formation of the Labour government and the establishment of Militant and ended against the backdrop of worldwide social and socialist upheavals and growing radicalisation in the British labour movement.
Looking towards the next decade, Militant’s editorial in January 1970 was headed: “Into the ‘70s – a decade of revolution”. This was an accurate forecast of what was to come in the next ten years. Our editorial declared:
In marked contrast to the beginning of the 1960s, the coming decade of the 70s is looked towards with foreboding by all shades of capitalist opinion. At its outset, the ruling class hailed the 1960s as a ‘new age’. The mass unemployment, misery and class battles of the 1930s were no more; ‘social harmony’ was to be entrenched with only a few remaining social problems to be tidied up and ‘the affluent society’ would then be consolidated. (2)
Only months into the new decade this prognosis was being borne out. The Labour government was defeated in the June 1970 general election “amidst scenes of wild jubilation at the Stock Exchange, the rocketing of shares in the market by a record £1,500 million (£30 for every man, woman and child in the country).” The Tories had been returned to power with an overall majority of 30 on 18 June.
Owing to the disillusionment which had set in by the counter-reform policies of the Wilson government, the turnout was the lowest of any election since 1935! In the traditional strongholds of Labour in London, the mass abstention of the workers (a majority in some cases) indicated the deep unease at the campaign conducted by the Labour leaders and their record when in power. (3)
Overall, the Labour vote had dropped by 888,000 with its share of the total vote dropping from 47.9 per cent in 1966 to 43 per cent. Significantly, the drop in the turnout compared to 1966 was four per cent, from 76 per cent to 72 per cent. This almost solely accounted for the overall drop in the Labour vote. Pointing to the lessons of the Labour government, we stated:
The Marxist wing of the labour movement consistently warned that tinkering with the system, attempting to manage capitalism better than the party of the capitalists themselves would inevitably lead to a setback for Labour. (4)
In trying to draw the lessons of Labour’s defeat, Hugh Scanlon, President of the AUEW, declared: “In future, the trade union movement will have to raise the fundamental issues of control and ownership of industry.”
The victory of the Tories will result in titanic class battles in Britain, as Jack Jones explained, the like of which has not been seen since the days of the Chartists, if they proceed to translate their reactionary promises into action. (5)
Lodged in the situation which was developing in Britain was the possibility of a general strike. Heath, the new Tory Premier, made more than one veiled warning of such a possibility. In November 1970 Militant warned:
The Tory government, joining battle with the entire labour movement, is staking everything on winning a test case against the local council manual workers. Determined to crush the revolt of the low-paid, it has thrown every available weapon against them: press hysteria, high-paid ‘volunteer’ strike breakers, gangs of down-and-out blacklegs, and Her Majesty’s troops. (6)
The Times even went to the lengths when dealing with the dangers of inflation to include in an article an ominous reference to “some sort of authoritarian regime” if inflation reached the rate of 50 per cent.
The first thing to do, and the simplest, is to start beating strikes. The local authorities should be given total support in refusing to make any further offer, even if the strike lasts for months. The next stage should be to make it a national rule that any strike is followed by the immediate withdrawal of all offers made before the strike. (7)
The Heath government was to heed this advice.
Industrial Relations Bill
Before the year was out, Heath’s Tory government had announced its intention to savagely curb trade union rights with the introduction of its Industrial Relations Bill. Thousands of workers marched in protest on 8 December and Militant reported a “huge sale of over 1,000 copies up and down the country.” (8)
Early into the new year an immense movement of opposition to the anti-union bill began. We reported:
The new year saw a wave of strikes throughout the Midlands. On 11 January, 20,000 Wolverhampton workers marched through the streets during working hours… The next day, probably 1.5 million workers were involved in one way or another in action against the ‘bosses’ charter’… Large sections of trade unionists have demanded national industrial action from the TUC. (9)
Militant explained that it was one thing to introduce anti-union legislation and quite another to implement it in the charged situation which existed at the beginning of the 1970s. What is written through working-class strength and organisation cannot be erased by a stroke of the pen, even by the “mighty legislative pen” of Westminster.
Upper Clyde Shipbuilders
The Heath government was to learn a bitter lesson in this regard during the ensuing months and years. Militant also reported on the gathering mood of opposition to the plans of the Tory government to close the huge Upper Clyde Shipbuilders (UCS) in Glasgow. In response to this attack, the workers had occupied the shipyards in their famous ‘sit-in’. Militant reported:
Clydeside is beginning to take on its previous ruddy hue. The occupation of the yards, the spreading of the strike, these are the immediate tasks of the UCS workers. It is the responsibility of the entire labour movement to take up the cry for nationalisation of the shipbuilding and shipping industry, and for an end to the businessmen’s government. No more deals – scrap the system, not the yards. (10)
In our 3 September issue, we featured the UCS struggle on our front page. There had been massive support for the occupation with huge demonstrations in Glasgow on 18 August. But the government and their appointed ‘liquidator’ were quite happy
to see ships being built by workers whose wages were being paid by collections amongst workmates and in the labour movement generally… It is necessary to upset the calculations of the ruling class by a policy of action now! Isolated to just one section of the shipbuilding industry the ‘work-in’ cannot maintain itself indefinitely. (11)
A call was therefore made for the nationalisation of the yards as the only guarantee against massive redundancies. At the same time, Militant was to the fore in giving support to the occupation. This movement had put its stamp not only on the outlook of the Scottish working class but in a sense on the whole of the labour movement.
Tony Benn, who participated in the mass demonstrations and spoke to the stewards and the workers, was affected by the rising militancy displayed in the UCS struggle. He had been on the right, or at best in the centre-left, during the Labour government. Now, under the influence of events, he began to evolve towards the left. This represented not just a personal evolution but the big shifts in consciousness which had taken place amongst advanced workers.
There was an almost continuous rise in consciousness and combativity in the period of 1970-74. There was a certain pause after the Labour government of 1974-79 came to power. But in general the movement steadily evolved towards the left, culminating in the battles between 1979 and 1981 over left policies and Benn’s challenge for the Deputy Leadership of the Labour Party.
At the time of the UCS struggle, Militant came out clearly not just for the nationalisation of UCS “but… Swan Hunter’s, which lost £10 million last year, Cammell Laird’s, Harland and Wolf, indeed the whole industry is completely unviable on a capitalist basis.”
How true these words ring today with the closure of Cammel Laird’s and now a death sentence hanging over Swan Hunter and a minimum workforce at Harland and Wolf. Militant demanded that the industry
must be nationalised under workers’ control. Occupation of the yards, on the basis of demanding immediate nationalisation through an enabling bill would shake the Tory government to its foundations. The Tories rushed in an enabling bill to nationalise Rolls Royce. The labour movement must press for similar action for shipbuilding. (12)
The bosses, it was declared,
made shipbuilding a bankrupt industry – make them redundant, with no bonuses for the mess they have left behind. Provide other work, with no reduction in pay, or maintain the men in their present jobs.
[Above all]: If the Tories and their system cannot guarantee the minimum requirement of a worker, the right to a job, then they and their system must be scrapped and a Labour government, based on taking over the 350 major monopolies, must be brought to power. (13)
But UCS was not the only struggle which convulsed industry in 1971. A work-to-rule by power workers had taken place in January. A power worker, writing for Militant, stated: “We were hardly a militant section of the trade union movement but the Tories have really hardened us up.” The Evening Standard had depicted the men as ‘animals’. Militant also reported that “John Davis, the Minister of Industry, actually called upon individuals to ‘harass’ electricity workers and their families for their action.” (14)
Rolls Royce workers were also threatened with complete closure of their factory in March 1971 and management tried to use the threat of bankruptcy to undermine their resistance to a wage standstill policy.
The demand for a General Strike
Above all, these battles were taking place against the backcloth of mass opposition to the Industrial Relations Bill. This culminated in February 1971 in a huge 300,000-strong TUC demonstration marching from Hyde Park to Trafalgar Square, where the call for a general strike was taken up, amongst others, by the huge miners’ contingent. Heath himself had mentioned in a TV broadcast his preparedness to “face up” to a general strike.
The issue of a general strike became a hotly debated question in the workers’ movement at this stage. Some ‘theoreticians’ came out in favour of an unlimited general strike. Militant, on the contrary, echoing Trotsky’s warning to examine the issue of a general strike in a ‘painstaking’ fashion, argued that a 24-hour general strike of the whole of the organised trade union and labour movement was the most effective way of combating the government at that stage.
In a series of articles, we pointed that an all-out general strike “poses the question of power”. It is an ‘either/or’ situation where the working class goes fully towards the seizure of power or can face a defeat, sometimes a crushing defeat. This was the lesson of 1926, and, in a different historical situation, the recent general strike in France in 1968.
It was necessary to elaborate a programme of preparing the working class for such a struggle. Moreover, a 24-hour general strike in Britain would have much greater consequences than the 24-hour strikes which had become quite common in Italy, for instance. Once the full power of the working class had been demonstrated in a one-day stoppage, an entirely unprecedented situation would open up. At a certain stage, the Marxists themselves would launch the slogan of an unlimited general strike, but only after proper preparation and with the working class fully politically armed and understanding what was involved.
Our organisation grows
Militant, still smaller than rival organisations claiming to be Marxist or Trotskyist, was struggling to leave behind its swaddling clothes to become a significant force within the labour movement. In the changed political and social situation of Britain, confidently looking towards expanding, we declared in October 1970:
Apart from the increase in circulation, we have produced leaflets on all the major industrial and political issues. Supporters in a number of areas now produce regular local editions and supplements. In the trade unions it has been necessary to produce special pamphlets going more fully into specific problems facing these industries.
We have seen established under the impetus of the growing militancy of the white-collar workers and our teacher supporters the regular production of Militant Teacher, which of course covers the whole spectrum of education… The Militant International Review (our magazine) is now produced every three months.
Greater financial and other commitments from our supporters were called for:
To publish all that needs to appear, it is essential that we have a Militant with more pages, and, as a first priority, on a more frequent basis. All of this is linked to the acquisition of our own press, and a move to new premises… The Editorial Board have set the target of a fortnightly Militant by the end of the year. (15)
By February 1971, we could report:
This month has seen a big step forward for the supporters of Militant. We have moved into our new premises at 375 Cambridge Heath Road, London. This has only been possible by the devoted and strenuous efforts of our supporters in carrying out massive improvements and repairs to the building. (16)
These premises were bought from the Independent Labour Party (ILP), and were in a state of dereliction. In effect Militant had bought for £3,500 the shell of a building. To become habitable it had to be completely renovated from top to bottom: drains had to be laid, joists put in, floors completely rebuilt, walls plastered.
The headline over the October 1970 editorial read, “Build the Militant!” This acquired a particular practical significance for those pioneers who laboured to construct the first really independent headquarters of Militant.
Into a back shed was packed Militant’s first precious printing press, acquired through the diligence of Militant’s first printer, Alan Hardman. Also stuffed into this shed was a very archaic folding machine. The plates for the press were made elsewhere. Never to be forgotten by those involved at this time was the extremely antiquated “varityper” on which all the articles for the first issue of the fortnightly Militant were set. Patrick Craven in particular performed miracles on this machine for the first few issues. The first fortnightly Militant was produced and sold with no more than 217 committed supporters throughout the country.
Big financial sacrifices had been made: “In the last month outstanding amongst many donations was a magnificent £60 from two supporters in Bristol.” This step could not have been taken at a more opportune moment. “On the 12 January demonstrations against the Tory government’s anti-union bill our sellers rapidly exhausted their supplies of papers.”17
Once a Fortnight
Some supporters mentioned that “as soon as the workers saw the headlines “Down with businessmen’s government” they reached for their money!” Only seven months later, in September 1971, the first fortnightly Militant was launched:
With the awakening of the working class to political life, they (the working class) would move into the unions and from there into the ward and Constituency Labour Parties… But the policies of the Labour leaders are only preparing for an even greater defeat than last time… The only policy which will save the labour movement from disaster is a Marxist one, as argued by Militant… Our paper can become a real weapon for the workers if you, the readers, write for it, criticise and, above all, send us cash to ensure we maintain the fortnightly and go to the weekly Militant at the beginning of next year. (18)
As 1971 drew to a close the editors predicted that the next year would see
the gathering storm. The British workers in 1971 have not yet thrown out the Tories or their hated system. But they achieved more than in any year since the war: three mass strikes and a gigantic march of 300,000 against the Industrial Relations Act; two token strikes of 150,000 Scottish workers in support of the mass action by UCS workers; the Plessey sit-in; heroic struggles by many sections of workers, notably the postmen and Ford workers; more mass strikes around the TUC lobby on unemployment; and a landslide rout of the Tories in the municipal elections. (19)
Now every week
Very soon we were able to take another big step forward. Militant went weekly on 28 January 1972. It was a red letter day for all supporters of the paper and for Marxism in Britain. “This is the first issue of the weekly Militant. In the short space of three months, we have changed from a fortnightly to a weekly.” The number of committed supporters had increased considerably. Between the launch of the fortnightly and the weekly 137 new supporters had been recruited. However, the total number of supporters was still only 354. The weekly could not have been launched at a better time, coming as it did in the midst of a miners’ strike. We announced:
The miners’ ranks are firm. They are determined to win their full demands… The government is quite prepared to see the mines ruined and the machinery shattered, costing more than the miners’ full demands, rather than concede their just demands… The TUC is dillydallying and vacillating; the Tories are cunningly representing their class implacably, behind the scenes, pushing the Coal Board to resist the claim of the miners, as a blow against the whole of the working class.
If the miners are defeated, the entire working class is defeated. Let the TUC show the same resolution as our class enemies! Mobilise the entire organised movement in solidarity with the miners as a warning to the government against unemployment, rising prices and in solidarity with the miners. The TUC must organise a one-day general strike. (20)
Fighting Rent increases
At the same time, the Tories launched a sharp attack on tenants in the Housing Finance Bill. The purpose was to drive councils, in particular Labour ones, to increase rents. The mass opposition to the Housing Finance Bill was, however, undermined by the NEC of the Labour Party which proposed a campaign of “neutralising or lessening” the increases and “delaying” the effects of the Bill. The NEC and their lawyers advised the movement not to take the Bill head on, but to grapple with legal technicalities. Militant quoted the statement of the NEC:
After much heart-searching, the National Executive has decided not to recommend Labour councils to refuse point-blank to carry through the increases. This is because the government could then appoint a housing commissioner with far wider powers than just raising rents. (21)
This anticipated the role of the right wing in all major battles that were to confront the labour movement in the next period. The same attitude by the leadership was shown in the battle in Liverpool in the 1980s. Militant counterposed to this an active programme of resistance:
The only way to break the proposed law is to break it. The NEC must: (1) call on all Labour councils and local government workers not to implement the rent increases imposed by the bill. (2) Mobilise all tenants and the whole of the working class to back Labour councillors and local government workers, with demonstrations against Tory councils and housing commissioners who impose the increases; with full support, including industrial action, for tenants who refuse to pay these increases and for Labour councils who refuse to impose them, especially in the event of legal action being taken against either tenants or councillors.
An indication of the mood in Labour ranks was the fact that the London Regional Council of the party had called for
an immediate freeze on all council private rents; taking over of all empty property, including office blocks, to use as at least temporary accommodation; cancellation of all council debts; institution of interest-free loans to local authorities; replacement of rent tribunals with committees of elected representatives of tenants’ associations, trade unions and the labour movement; an immediate target of one million new houses per year; the nationalisation under democratic workers’ control of the building industry and the land, together with the banks, building societies, insurance companies and finance houses with minimum compensation on the basis of need. (22)
This highlights just how far the ‘modern-day’ Labour Party has moved in a rightward direction. Such a principled resolution, moved by supporters of Militant, was accepted by the London Labour Party. Other regions of the Labour Party followed suit. In the South West, for instance, the same kind of demands for resistance were made.
There was big opposition to the Tories’ housing bill from all sections of the labour movement. But only the heroic councillors of Clay Cross were prepared to go to the end in defiance of the government. Like the Liverpool councillors in the 1980s, they were surcharged and banned from office. Their struggle was fully supported and reported in the pages of Militant (and some of the Clay Cross Labour Party members became Militant supporters). On 8 December, for instance, Militant reported:
Last Sunday, well over 2,000 tenants and members of the Labour Party demonstrated at Clay Cross in Derbyshire, in support of the Labour council’s firm refusal to implement the Tory Housing Finance Act… The solid support of the local tenants was indicated by the fact that the march increased in size five times over as it passed through the council estate and people came out to swell the ranks.
Graham Skinner, one of the famous ‘Skinner’ family (brother Dennis, Labour MP for Bolsover, is the best known), and one of the 11 Clay Cross Labour Party councillors, speaking to Militant commented:
The other Labour councils have caved in because they were afraid of the implications of not implementing the Act. I can’t say that I sympathise with them because I feel that if every Labour council had taken the same stand that we had taken, the Housing Finance Act would never have got off the ground.
A lot of councillors are basically councillors for their own ego, in my opinion. They get elected on promises and then forget what they were put in for. We at Clay Cross don’t forget. We carry out every policy that we issue in our election manifesto. (23)
Miners’ Strike 1972 – Saltley Gates
Militant, although still a small force, nevertheless played an important role in some of the key battles of 1972. The epic miners’ strike of that year, the first since 1926, was fully reported in our pages. Militant supporters in Birmingham had played a key role in tipping off the NUM pickets in Birmingham that Saltley Gate was being used as a collecting depot for “scab coal”. Lorry drivers from all over the country were arriving at Saltley Gate.
On 18 February, an eye-witness report on what became known as the ‘Battle of Saltley Gate’ began: “At first there were only ten of us, then 20, 50, 500 and finally 10,000.” It had been in response to a tip-off by members of the local Labour Party Young Socialists that the NUM moved into Birmingham. ‘Cowboy’ lorrydrivers from all over Britain
driving for large back-handers from their employers’ were arriving at Saltley Gate to collect ‘virtual slag’ to sell at inflated prices. But by Sunday 6 February the number of pickets grew to over 500 and the real struggle began.
Initially these pickets managed to turn back a number of lorries but eventually the police arrived in numbers.
It became increasingly clear that only a massive influx of miners or the combined efforts of the local trade unions, would close the depot and defeat the police tactics. (24)
A virtual guerrilla war took place between miners and pickets on the one side and the police on the other, leading to the final confrontation.
The (police) squads picked out non-miners deliberately, particularly students, so that they could claim that the miners were being incited by others. The chairman of our local LPYS and a local Labour Party ward member were arrested on trumped-up charges. As the police went for long-haired youths, they actually arrested several young miners from South Wales, much to their surprise! They were obviously not aware of the change in working-class fashions.
They were really out to get me by the Wednesday, but the miners followed me around, staying close to me so that I could not be picked out by the police. Many miners gave evidence to support students and others unfairly arrested. The police could not split the solidarity of the picket line by their tactics.
Neither could the press. The Birmingham Mail carried an article arguing that the trouble at the depot was caused by “anarchists and Maoists”!
Arthur Scargill, who was in Birmingham at that time, acted in a typically bold fashion when car plant stewards came with collections of money to the miners’ headquarters. Instead of expressing gratitude, Scargill refused to accept this financial help, demanding instead that the stewards call their members out in solidarity with the miners. We reported:
The response from the Birmingham working class was magnificent. Deputations from SU Carburettors, Rover car works, local building workers, were the first there. Women from SU marched to the picket, to a tremendously warm response, and women from the Transport and General Workers’ Union handed out free sandwiches and soup each day.
Under mass pressure
the AUEW decided on a one-day strike for the Thursday (10 February). Sections of the TGWU, including lorry drivers, pledged support. The police and Gas Board chiefs said they would keep the gates open, whatever, sure that they would call the bluff of the picket leaders. But when they saw phalanx upon phalanx of banner-waving workers marching on the depot, they were astonished… Men from Dunlops, British Leyland, Rover, Drop Forge, GEC, etc were there.
Birmingham industry was at a standstill and 10,000 people flooded the square outside the depot, stopping the movement of all traffic. The police closed the gates for the day. Victory was ours. I cannot describe to you the feeling of joy, relief and solidarity that descended over all of us there. Leaflets I brought to hand out were taken out of my hand in bundles by total strangers who distributed them for me – it was like what Petrograd 1917 must have been!
The next day an agreement was signed with the Gas Board, that only essential supplies could be moved, supervised by the NUM and driven only by the TGWU members… The struggle was won by workers in action, united by the organised leadership of the trade union movement in Birmingham… It is also concrete proof of our demand on the TUC to take general action to mobilise the unions nationally in support of the miners. (25)
This incident had a decisive effect in shaping the outlook of workers and bosses. It infuriated the Tories who prepared to take revenge later.
The pulse quickens
The year 1972, particularly the first six or seven months, was one of the most tumultuous in the history of the labour movement since 1945. Militant still had small forces. But to re-read the pages of the paper, even for those who lived through the events, is to feel the increased pulse of the labour movement and the working class at that time.
One section of the working class after another appeared to be on strike or considering strike action. In April the paper carried the headline: “Tories incite violence against railmen.” Sporadic strike action by railworkers, according to the Daily Express “infuriated passengers on the 5.24 from Waterloo to Dorking” who then decided to “hijack their train at Epsom when the driver plans to leave them.” Militant pointed out that “as a result of this vicious sort of propaganda, hundreds of railwaymen have been jostled, hit and spat upon by sections of the ‘Bowler Hat Brigade’.” (26) We also reported a sit-in by Oxford carworkers at the BLMC (British Leyland) body plant.
But the issue in 1972 which brought Britain to the brink of a general strike, for the first time since 1926, revolved around the battle of the Dockers against containerisation. The real purpose of Heath’s Industrial Relations Act was demonstrated in this dispute.
Sir John Donaldson, High Court judge and head of the newly established Industrial Relations Court, declared that the union leaders must discipline and even expel their members, area officials and shop stewards, if his court should dictate so. Failure to do so would be met with charges of contempt of court and the unions heavily fined. Refusal to comply resulted in fines of £5,000 and £50,000 on the Transport and General Workers’ Union.
The arguments of Militant about the nature of the Act and the analysis of class relations were demonstrated in May, June and July, 1972. Through the medium of the government, the capitalists were attempting to bind the unions to the state and convert the leadership into what the American socialist Daniel De Leon (1852-1914) called ‘Labour lieutenants of capital’.
Some union leaders in the Technical Administrative and Supervisory Staffs (TASS), declared their intention to pursue a policy of “non-compliance” with the Act. But prominent left trade union leader Jack Jones announced that the TGWU would not undertake any “illegal actions”. Under pressure from Jones, the executive committee of the union agreed – but only by the casting vote of the chairman – to pay the court’s fines. Militant pointed out that if the whole of the trade union movement defied the court, there would not be enough jails to contain those who would defy the act.
Jimmy Symes, chairman of the Liverpool dock shop stewards committee, told Militant, “Unions weren’t built on funds; they were built on the blood and sweat of their members. The strength of any union depends on its shopfloor.” (27)
But the government was using the docks’ dispute as a trial of strength with organised labour. In June 35,000 dockworkers, backed by millions of other workers, “in one day of action have reduced the Tory Industrial Relations Act to ashes and humbled the government which tried to use it to dragoon the trade union movement.” (28)
However, the dispute on containerisation, centring on Chobham Farm in east London, threatened at one stage to become a fratricidal struggle between different sections of the same union, the Transport and General Workers’ Union.
Militant suggested a conference of the Dockers and workers involved in Chobham Farm and the containerisation issue as a means of working out a common policy in opposition to the employers. The bosses believed they could exploit the divisions between the workers at Chobham Farm and elsewhere. Using Donaldson and the Industrial Relations Court, five Dockers’ leaders were jailed in July. As soon as the imprisonment took place any ‘sectional’ conflict evaporated and a mass movement developed from below. This more and more assumed the proportions of a general strike.
Mass Movement from below
And it was not just token or one-day action which developed. In the most militant areas, workers were talking about coming out for longer. This movement had all the features of a potential ‘1968’. Even the general council of the TUC came out in favour of a 24-hour general strike, but only after it had become clear that the Dockers were about to be released. As soon as the government and the capitalists saw the reaction of the working class as a whole, they suddenly improvised a ‘fairy godmother’, in the form of the Official Solicitor, who intervened and secured the release of the Dockers. This prevented a general strike from taking place.
This movement vindicated the analysis of Militant. The paper had argued that lodged in the explosive situation in Britain was the possibility of a general strike.
It was not just the heavy battalions which moved into action. Previously inert sections of society were infected with the general disaffected mood which percolated through industry and society throughout the year of 1972. In May of that year Militant reported:
Last Tuesday (9 May) saw a march of over 3,000 school students from the North London area to protest against conditions in schools. Two young comprehensive schoolgirls stated: “Nine out of ten of us don’t stand a chance of getting a proper job when we leave school. We’ve all had enough; it is our future which is at stake and we plan to do something about it.” (29)
This was at a time when unemployment had barely touched a million. This movement, in which young Militant supporters participated, foreshadowed an even bigger movement which developed in the 1980s. The fact that Militant could intervene in such movements, with young, fresh forces, was itself a reflection of the growth and support of the Labour Party Young Socialists and within this a huge increase in the support for Militant.
Labour Party Young Socialists
Militant had gained the majority on the Labour Party Young Socialists National Committee by 1972. This became a powerful weapon for intervening in workers’ struggles and the labour movement generally. The paper reported on 23 June, 1972: “Over 100 delegates from tenants associations, trade unions and Labour Party branches attended the London LPYS conference of tenants and Labour.” 30 The LPYS was to the fore in the intervention in all the big disputes of 1972 and attracted to its banner the best, most combative, elements amongst the youth.