A Labour Government – but where’s the Socialism?

Chapter Nine


AFTER THE savage attacks on the working class under the Tory government a certain relief was felt by workers with the election of a Labour government. 

Nevertheless, there was also a determined mood to push for the implementation of radical policies. This was demonstrated at the LPYS conference and rally at Easter 1974. Tony Benn opened the conference and

praised the work of the LPYS in the election campaign, particularly the decisive intervention of 400 Young Socialists in the key Bristol South-East seat. He conveyed the gratitude of the local party… He said that the Tories were out to neutralise the Labour government and exert pressure for the formation of a national coalition. (1)

At this conference, Nick Bradley, the Militant candidate from the Deptford Labour Party Young Socialists, was elected as the LPYS representative on the NEC of the Labour Party by 143 votes with his nearest rival, Rose Digiorgio, receiving only 18 votes. All the meetings and the rallies were full to capacity indicating that the LPYS was the strongest youth organisation, not just in Britain but – certainly politically – in the whole of Western Europe.

In Britain, following the election of Labour, workers were pressing forward in an attempt to ensure the implementation of the reforms which had been promised. In the Health Service, for instance, at Charing Cross Hospital, the NUPE branch moved to ban ‘private practice’. This represented an attempt to force Health Minister Barbara Castle’s hand but reduced Tory spokesmen to apoplexy. Militant reported: “Already 110 hospitals in the North East and many others in Yorkshire and Manchester have been operating a ban on private patients.” The article pointed out:

What has really sent a shiver through their spines has been that these workers have taken seriously the programme of the Labour government. (2)

In retrospect and in view of the catastrophic position in the Health Service today, with the virtual dismantling of the NHS, these movements were extremely significant. It demonstrates that if Labour had then based itself upon the movement of workers from below, and linked this to a change in society, the present health nightmare which confronts workers could have been entirely avoided.

Ian Burge, a long-standing Militant supporter and a leading steward at the London Hospital (who tragically died in 1980), wrote in a characteristically incisive article:

Ancilliary workers in some hospitals have in fact been operating sanctions against private treatment since the strike campaign on wages in early 1973.

He demanded:

Take over the drug companies and use this money to pay the health workers a decent wage. Abolish private medicine, give all support to the healthworkers’ campaign. Let the health service be run by elected workers in the service, with trade unionist delegates from the district and government representatives. 3)

Scotland: Home Rule?

At the same time, in Scotland the future themes played out in full today were developing in outline. In August 1974 Militant carried an article headed: “Scottish Parliament: will it answer workers’ needs?” It pointed out that the executive committee of the Labour Party in Scotland had voted by six votes to five to recommend “opposition to any form of Assembly”! The Scottish Labour Party in effect said that an Assembly was irrelevant, stating:

The essential strategy of the Labour Party is to bring about a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of working people and their families. In the light of this criteria… constitutional tinkering does not make a meaningful contribution towards achieving our socialist objectives.

Militant was only just beginning to formulate a clear analysis and a programme which took account of the growth of national feelings in Scotland. Nevertheless, Militant argued:

If the majority of Scottish people desire a Scottish Parliament, or if there is a majority for complete self-government, this is their right, and Labour would be bound to support it. There can be no question of maintaining the ‘United Kingdom’ against the will of the people of Scotland. (4)

The national question in Scotland was to come back onto the political agenda again and again. It compelled the Marxists to undertake a re-evaluation of the issue and to work out a programme capable of answering the legitimate national demands of the Scottish people. We did not always have complete agreement within our ranks, even losing some supporters when we argued for a programme for national rights. Subsequent events demonstrated that only Militant was capable of working out such a programme. This is one reason why in 1995, Scottish Militant Labour has had a bigger effect on this and other issues than any other organisation in Scotland.

October – Our Tenth Birthday and a General Election

October saw the tenth anniversary of the founding of Militant. A special celebration article in the paper referred to the statements in our first issue. The editors claimed: “Militant has lived up to those aims.”

The sunny optimism of the strategists of capital still lingered on in the early 1960s. They had relegated to the pages of history the terms ‘slump’ and ‘mass unemployment’, ‘poverty’ and ‘starvation’. They maintained that these denoted an age of barbarism which the ‘new capitalism’ had put an end to once and for all. (5)

The editorial compared the mood of the capitalists in the 1960s to that which existed in 1974, particularly following the Portuguese, Greek and US upheavals. Reflecting this pessimism, Willy Brandt (leader of the SPD) the West German ‘Labour Party’, had stated following the Portuguese events that “Communism (meaning in this case the taking of power by the working class) or fascism” was the choice Europe faced in the following 20 years. Militant believed:

the next stage in the struggle in Britain will be a further swing towards the left. However, victory over the Tories and the system which breeds them can only be achieved on the basis of the re-arming of the Labour movement with a socialist – a Marxist – programme. (6)

Militant’s support had received a big boost in 1973 and 1974. By July 1974 the number of organised supporters stood at 517.

And this was underlined by the general election, the second in 1974, which was called in October. Labour won a tiny majority. The Tories were massacred in Scotland and Wales; in both areas they were forced into third place behind Labour and the Nationalists. The Tory Party received its lowest ever share of the poll, a mere 35.7 per cent of the vote. An indication of the swing towards Labour was that between February and October 1974 the Tory vote dropped by over 1.5 million votes. At the same time the Liberal shadows of the Tory Party had suffered a crushing rebuff, dropping 700,000 votes while fielding an extra 100 candidates.

Labour Wins: Militant warns: Capital strikes

The result meant that workers extended more time to the Labour leaders to fulfil their promises. The majority would have been greater if an enthusiastic, radical, socialist campaign had been conducted as urged by Militant. Despite the victory, Labour leader Wilson announced on TV on the Tuesday following the election (8 October) that he would immediately open talks with the CBI. Militant commented:

Along this road lies disaster for the labour movement. It was not idle speculation when the editor of The Times commented two days before the election that the party that won the election would be the party most likely to be destroyed by events!

We continued:

The top 20 companies are controlled by just 297 men. 85 per cent of production is in the hands of 250 giant monopolies. (7)

The government would either have to capitulate to the monopolies or rest on the labour movement and carry out socialist policies. The Labour leaders advanced the idea of a so-called ‘social contract’, which was “wage restraint by any other name.”

Within weeks, Militant’s predictions had been borne out, as sections of the ruling class threatened a ‘strike of capital’. Pilkington Glass, for instance, had declared that they would refuse to invest unless the government capitulated to the demands of the CBI. This was followed by similar declarations by the bosses of Hawker Siddeley and Metal Box. We pointed out “What else is this but the most blatant blackmail? They are sending the CBI leaders to 10 Downing Street, with a savage threat to the Labour government: ‘Capitulate to us or else’!”

In November, Labour held its rearranged party conference in Central Hall, Westminster, which lasted for only two days. The conference took place just six weeks after the election. Ray Apps, a delegate to the conference, warned of the dangers facing the Labour government if conference decisions were not implemented. He wrote in Militant:

It has to be said that the government has given in to this [the bosses’] blackmail… Handouts of £1,600 million have been made to big business. (8)

A few crumbs had been left over for the working people, ‘in the form of family allowances and pensions increases’ but these were to be delayed until the spring of the next year.

As an indication of what was to come, the financial editor of The Times praised Chancellor Healey’s “tough orthodoxy”. The conference reflected the outline of the future clashes in the party. Callaghan opened the conference with threats that inflation and unemployment would spiral unless the social contract was upheld. General secretary Ron Hayward, on the other hand, attacked those “who would treat the conference with contempt”. He said that ward secretaries were more important to the party than ministers!

The emergence of Militant during the election campaign, and our growing strength, clearly reflected at this conference, sent shivers down the spines of the right wing. It set the scene for the witch-hunt which was soon to begin and unfolded over more than a decade, first against Militant and then against the rest of the left.

Birmingham Bombed

In November, the horrific Birmingham Pub bombings took place, resulting in the death of 19 people and the injuring, scarring and maiming of nearly 200 predominantly young people. Militant declared unequivocally: “Bombings play into the hands of reaction.” Militant had consistently opposed the oppressive role of British imperialism in Ireland. But at the same time we had opposed the disastrous policies of terrorism of the Provisional IRA. 

The extension of the campaign to Britain held out potentially disastrous consequences for the British working class. Militant pointed out that “whoever planted them, the fact stands out that the Birmingham bombs can only benefit the interests of the enemies of both British and Irish workers.” The immediate aftermath resulted in a backlash against Irish workers in Birmingham and other parts of the country. This was undoubtedly whipped up by the small fascist groups who reared their heads after the bombing.

This incident also provided the opportunity for the British ruling class, through the Labour Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins, to rush through repressive legislation. This was the ‘Prevention of Terrorism Act’ which has been used to harass and intimidate innocent Irish and other workers for over 20 years. Moreover, the bombings led to the arrest of the totally innocent Birmingham Six and their inhuman incarceration in British jails. It also created the hysterical atmosphere which was to later lead to the jailing of innocent people like Judith Ward, the Guildford Four, and others. Militant reported:

At the huge British Leyland Longbridge factory, fights have broken out between British and Irish men who have worked together for years. In 30 leading Birmingham factories workers have struck, demanding action against the IRA. (9)

But the effects were not confined to Britain, as Militant commented: “The worst reaction will probably be in Northern Ireland itself, and the brunt will be borne by precisely the people that the IRA claims to protect – the Catholic workers.” (10)

The intervention of the fascists, however, could not succeed in channelling the anger at the bombings in a sustained reactionary direction. Far more important in the consciousness of workers in Birmingham and elsewhere was the daily problem of struggling to live and their ability to face up to the offensive that was being conducted by the employers.

The Rising Tide of Industrial Struggle

An intensive struggle was unfolding on the factory floor as the employers sought to take revenge for the defeat of their party in the general election. Reflecting the increased growth of Marxists in the factories, the pages of Militant carried many detailed reports of what was taking place.

In September 1974 an article by Bill Mullins, who was a British Leyland senior shop steward representing 10,000 workers, wrote:

It is difficult for someone who has never worked in a car factory to visualise the destructive nature of the work, destructive to the body because of the pace of the work, destructive to the mind because of the mind-bending repetition of the work.

A ferocious offensive was being conducted by management who were

saying that the workers of BLMC must take a drop in their standards of living because they will not be able to afford the sort of minimum pay increases that are necessary to remain at the present standard of living.

The article concluded:

The answer must be that the workers are not prepared to pay for the mismanagement and incompetence of the company. The demands should be: a minimum increase of £15 a week; the books to be opened [for inspection] to the trade unions. The nationalisation under workers’ control of British Leyland. (11)

A Sword of Damocles, in the form of threatened closure, was held over the heads of Leyland workers. Even though it was the country’s largest private employer (about 160,000 workers at this time) reports circulated in the capitalist press showed that the company was in difficulties and was turning to the Labour government for financial handouts.

Detailed, explanatory articles by Militant supporters Bill Mullins and Bob Ashworth, who both worked at Rover Solihull, showed up the state of the company. Militant published a resolution from the Rover production workers in Solihull who, among other things, demanded that if BLMC was asking for ‘government cash handouts’, then the Labour and trade union movement must

demand that the Labour government nationalises BLMC under workers’ control with members of the board of management being elected on the following basis: one-third elected by workers within BLMC; one-third elected by the TUC; one-third appointed by the government. (12)

A meeting in Birmingham of all Leyland convenors nationally passed the resolution from the Rover Solihull plant which demanded workers’ control. Some amendments were carried to the resolution but, nevertheless, the fact that a significant group of workers had demanded workers’ control of their industry indicated the mood that was developing. Even Labour MPs were affected.

At a meeting organised in Preston by the Labour Party Young Socialists, with 80 in attendance, a Labour MP, George Rodgers, agreed with all the speakers that nationalisation was the only way out. This was in sharp contrast to the Labour government’s proposals, to be implemented through the recently formed National Enterprise Board (NEB). Militant pointed out that “over half of British manufacturing output is controlled by the top 100 companies”. Moreover, the Tories, through ‘state intervention’ had doled out between 1970 and 1974 £3 billion (£2 million a day) to their friends in big business.

Despite the clamour for the nationalisation of failing capitalist firms, the Labour government, through the NEB, continued the policy of bailing them out. Tony Benn, as Industry Minister, presided over this policy, which was increasingly criticised by both Labour and trade union members.

The Shrewsbury Two

At the same time, the building bosses and their legal hirelings were refusing to budge in the face of a wave of protests demanding the release of the jailed Shrewsbury pickets. In November the appeal of the pickets was turned down. This was followed by protest strike action by Glasgow shipyard workers, building workers and others who marched on Ucatt headquarters in Glasgow to demand action to free “their jailed brothers”. Similar action took place in Liverpool, Edinburgh and other parts of the country.

Demands were sent to the Labour Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins, calling for the pickets to be released. A telegram from over 100 Merseyside building shop stewards to Jenkins declared: “We supported you in your re-election to the government. We ask you now to support us.”

The example of the release of the Pentonville Dockers because of mass pressure was still fresh in the minds of both building workers and the ten-million-strong trade union movement. However, calls to the TUC and the Ucatt leadership unfortunately fell on deaf ears. The Shrewsbury pickets were to languish in jail. Against the general background of the industrial upsurge in militancy, in the 1970s, the lack of will of the TUC to mobilise the labour movement with all its power to force the release of the Shrewsbury pickets was perhaps the most shameful.

Temperature rises – fire at our office

In the midst of these events, in February 1975, Militant suffered a big blow. One of our buildings in Commercial Road, East London, was gutted by fire and some vital printing machinery and most of the upper floors of the building were destroyed. This did not cripple Militant because the main headquarters was in a separate building.

Nevertheless, the 14 February issue of Militant was produced under exceptionally difficult conditions. An urgent appeal was made to Militant supporters, who responded magnificently. For a time the paper had to be produced without colour. As soon as the means to go back to regular production was acquired a two-colour, 16-page paper was back in production.