The Winter Of Discontent: High Tide

Alan Hardman cartoon - Prime Minister James Callaghan is trampled into the dirt
Alan Hardman cartoon - Prime Minister James Callaghan is trampled into the dirt

Chapter Fifteen


IN 1978 it was developments within the Labour Party which stood out, intertwined with events in industry. The issue of Labour Party democracy was once more the key question which emerged in the course of the year. 

Ray Apps, well known as a Militant supporter, was a member of the Labour Party National Executive Committee working party on the issue of the reselection of MPs. The right were fighting a rearguard action with Prime Minister Callaghan, desperately manoeuvring to prevent the principle of election and reselection of MPs being enshrined in the constitution. 

Writing in Militant, Ray Apps declared: 

We [the left] consider it vital that, together with the procedure for automatic reselection the local parties should have the right to proceed without reference to the National Executive Committee. (1)

In May we were able to report “Liverpool: Marxist policies win votes.” A number of Militant supporters were elected to the city council. Derek Hatton, who had been won to Militant in 1978, standing for the first time in Tuebrook Ward. He increased the Labour vote by 50 per cent, pushing the Liberals into third place, but was not elected on this occasion. 

Many commentators then and since seek to explain support for Militant in Liverpool as arising from some kind of ‘conspiracy’ or due to a ‘raiding party’ tactic. In fact it was patience and consistent work over a period of time, a combination of being the most hard-working members of the party and winning support for our ideas, that allowed Militant to become the dominant trend within the Liverpool labour movement.

1978 Labour Party Conference

We made a magnificent intervention at the 1978 Labour Party conference.

The background to the conference was the growing revolt against the ‘five per cent limit’ imposed on workers’ wages by the Labour government. The Ford strike, which had recently broken out, transformed the mood of the conference and shattered all the plans of the right-wing Labour cabinet. 

It was a Militant supporter, Terry Duffy, delegate from Liverpool Wavertree, who successfully moved the resolution rejecting the five per cent, which in effect shattered the Social Contract and opened the floodgates to the industrial movement. He pointed out that the trade unions had formed the Labour Party and maintained their loyalty to the party, but today the unions had to say: “Enough is enough. Workers will not stand for any more cuts in living standards.” (2)

The conference hall also echoed to calls for socialist policies. Re-selection of MPs was a major theme, as it was for the next three conferences until the historical decision in favour was secured in 1981. The rearguard battle of the PLP against reselection was summed up in the speech of Joe Ashton, the right-wing Labour MP, who complained in the conference debate on the issue: “I’ve got just four minutes to save 300 jobs.” Militant commented that this showed “his greater attachment to his career than the party workers who gave him the ‘job’.” (3)

It was not just on this issue but on a whole range of social questions that the conference took a radical stance. NUPE leader, Alan Fisher, spoke at the conference to Militant, explaining “why we are fighting for the £60 minimum wage.” He stated:

We know from the views that Militant has expressed that they have supported us in the low pay campaign; they’ve supported my own union in the battle we had during the last two years over the question of cuts in public expenditure. (4)

Summing up the mood of the conference Militant’s editorial declared: “How many Labour activists can remember an annual conference which came out so decisively against the main planks of the Labour government’s economic policy?” (5)

At the very successful Militant Readers’ Meeting organised on the Tuesday of the conference, Ray Apps declared:

The events of yesterday’s debate were a historic event for the labour movement and a complete surprise for the right-wing leaders in the Party and the trade unions… Unless Jim Callaghan is prepared to bend and come to an agreement with the TUC that would give workers a higher rise than five per cent, the government will be heading for disaster. (6)

The conference decisions gave an enormous boost to the Ford workers. The paper carried the slogans of the demonstrators outside the negotiations between the employers and the trade unions: “£20 on the pay; one hour off the day; productivity deals no way.” (7)

Because Militant had now become a sizeable organisation with a national network of support, it was able, through the work of our supporters, to have the most complete coverage of any newspaper on the dispute. We carried reports showing the colossal support of women in the dispute: “We Ford wives are a hundred per cent with the strikers.” (8) This was particularly important given the attempt of the Tory press to whip up an alleged ‘wives’ revolt’ against the strike.

The strike gathered momentum, with the hardening mood of the strikers indicated on Friday 3 November, when 16,000 Dagenham workers rejected the company’s so-called ‘final offer’. News of this ignited celebrations in the other plants throughout the country.

During the course of the strike the electricians’ leader, Frank Chapple, as usual, sought to derail industrial action by refusing to pay his Ford members strike pay. This provoked a movement from the EETPU members: “Ford electricians occupy EETPU headquarters.” (9)

After a battle lasting for over a month, agreement was reached with the bosses which smashed the five per cent limit. The workers chalked up an increase of nearly 17 per cent – 9.5 per cent on the basic rate, two per cent on holiday pay and five per cent attendance allowance. This was accompanied by so-called ‘penalty clauses’ and the 35-hour week was not achieved.

But the strike enormously enhanced the confidence of the working class and boosted other workers ready to take action. One section of workers who were encouraged by the Ford dispute and were featured heavily in the pages of the Militant was the bakery workers who came out on strike.

This union had undergone an astonishing transformation. Previously controlled by Neanderthal right-wingers the situation had so changed that by 1978 Sam Maddox, the general secretary of the union, was writing in the pages of Militant urging support from other workers. (10)

Militant growth in Trade Unions

Militant grew substantially in this period amongst the youth in the Labour Party and in the trade unions. The most significant development was the growth of Militant’s support within the unions. In the Post Office Engineering Union (POEU), later to become the National Communication Workers’ Union (NCU), Militant’s influence and support grew substantially. Post Office engineers were pressing for the immediate implementation of the 35-hour week while the right-wing leaders of the union were dragging their feet.

In the Civil and Public Services Association (CPSA), the opposition to the right-wing leadership went even further. At the CPSA conference in May there were gains for the left. Four Militant supporters were elected onto the national executive committee. The run up to this conference had been marked by a vicious political assault on a prominent official, Terry Adams. He was on the right’s political hit list for being an alleged ‘member/supporter’ of Militant. But a determined fightback from below had defeated all the attempts of the right wing to carry through sackings of dissident officials.

Militant warned in October:

Sooner or later… the strategists of capital will conclude that the Labour government has served its purpose as far as they are concerned. In any case, if the government continues its present policies into next year, especially if it takes on more and more sections of workers fighting for decent living standards, it will virtually ensure a defeat for Labour. (11)

These prophetic words were unfortunately borne out in the May 1979 general election.

Before then, however, we saw from the depths of society the most oppressed and low paid step onto the scene. The general radicalised mood had politically affected the unions. Much to the fury of Tory MPs and the capitalist press, the National Union of Railwaymen had taken a decision to expel any member who proved to be a member of the National Front.

Long before the Tories came to power Militant warned that Thatcher 

would eventually be forced to launch an offensive against the working class and its organisations. Ridley indicates this [Ridley, a Tory MP, had prepared a blueprint for confronting the unions]: ‘In the first or second year after the Tories’ election, there might be a major challenge from a trade union either over a wage claim or redundancies.’

Ridley foresaw that this would come in the mines and therefore proposed: 

(a) build up of maximum coal stocks, particularly at the power stations; (b) make contingency plans to import coal; (c) encourage the recruitment of non-union lorry drivers by haulage companies to help move coal where necessary; (d) introduce dual coal/oil firing in all power stations as quickly as possible. (12)

Right-wing Tory MP Ronald Bell, again indicating the future role of the Tories, stated: “Strike-breaking must become the most honourable profession of all.” (13)

Floodgates opened

1979 was a decisive year in many respects. No sooner had the year opened than in area by area, lorry drivers began to come out on strike, sick of years of low pay and long hours. Lorry drivers at Tilbury commented to Militant: “Well, I’ve just read your report in Militant and there’s nothing more to say. That’s the best report we’ve ever seen; it’s a good paper”. (14)

Discontent was welling up from below. This movement became what the enemies of the labour movement called “the dirty jobs strike” and “the winter of discontent”. A movement was developing which had some of the features of a rolling general strike. The London Evening Standard once more urged the government to use troops against strikers and pickets. 

Alongside lorry drivers, train drivers were also drawn into the movement. The mood was shown on the historic 22 January demonstration of public-sector manual workers where 80,000 marched through the streets of London.

Meanwhile, throughout the country an estimated one million public-sector workers took some form of strike action. But then the employers and their kept press began an offensive. Ambulance drivers who had come out on strike were predictably blamed for some deaths that had taken place. 

Nevertheless, the movement proved to be irresistible. The health service was affected, local authority workers were drawn in. Thatcher declared: “Now we find that the place (Britain) is practically being run by strikers’ committees… they are ‘allowing’ access to food. They are ‘allowing’ certain lorries to go through.” (15)

It was true that, as Militant pointed out, nothing moved in parts of the country without the permission of strike committees. This had very little to do with the trade union leaders but arose from an irresistible rank-and-file movement from below. 

The bitterness of the tops in society was indicated by the fact that a consultant surgeon, Mr Patrick Chesterman based at Reading Hospital, demanded from patients who turned up for treatment to know whether they were trade unionists. If they answered ‘yes’, he then stated “I am not seeing trade unionists today” and they were refused treatment. Militant pointed out that “the demand for a living wage is seen as treachery by the capitalists.” (16)

The movement of different sections of workers prompted Militant to comment in an editorial:

To ensure [a victory], the unions nationally should give clear direction to workers in key sections – such as water and refuse collection – to become fully involved in the action. This must be backed up by joint shop stewards committees in every local authority, university, area health authority and water authority, planning and co-ordinating activity. Liaison is also essential across these four public-sector industries. (17)

The ruling class attempted to denigrate the strikers by seizing on the refusal of gravediggers in Liverpool to “bury the dead”. Militant supported the action of the low paid, but on all occasions linked this to the maintenance of ‘emergency services’ in order to cut across the attempt of the capitalists to attack strikers as ‘irresponsible’.

The Labour leaders would later attempt to blame the 1979 election defeat on the alleged negative effects of the revolt of the low paid in that year. In reality, it was the government’s actions in holding down wages and conditions, bending the knee to capital, that stored up the huge opposition of working people which burst out in the ‘winter of discontent’. 

A socialist fighting leadership of the movement would have based itself upon the demands of working people and linked the struggle for a minimum wage and a cut in the working week to the idea of changing society. But in the immediate period prior to the election, the Labour leaders did everything to play into the hands of the Tories.

Scotland – Majority for Devolution

They alienated the population of Scotland, for instance, by the way that the referendum on ‘devolution’ was conducted in March 1979. A majority of those who had voted, 51.6 per cent, were in favour of the setting up of a Scottish assembly as proposed in the Labour government’s Scotland Act. Militant supported the demand for a Scottish Parliament but with powers to introduce socialist measures.

But opponents of devolution had inserted a clause in the Act stipulating that at least 40 per cent of those eligible must vote in favour before they would accept the decision. And yet if this ‘qualification’ had been applied to parliamentary elections, hardly a government since 1945 would have been eligible to assume office. The Labour leaders’ double standards in 1979, as well as the general decline of Britain, was to store up future problems for the labour movement in Scotland. Their actions were to give a boost to nationalism over a period of time.

Iranian Revolution

Not neglecting international issues, and not withstanding the huge fermentation in Britain, Militant drew attention to important events abroad. Internationally, the Iranian revolution dominated the early months of 1979.

Militant considered this development so important that one of its leading supporters, Bob Labi, went to Tehran to witness the mood in the aftermath of the overthrow of the Shah.

His visit was at the suggestion of an Iranian exile group who said they would put us in contact with factory and oil workers. However, the person who was supposed to meet Bob in Tehran did not go back because it was too dangerous and did not tell us of his change of plans. Bob only realised this after a long wait at Tehran airport! So Bob was on his own, not knowing the language and without a translator. This did not stop him discussing with activists or attending demonstrations.

The 1979 Iranian revolution was rich in lessons for the working class on a world scale. It shattered the idea that armed force by a totalitarian ‘authoritarian’ regime can bridle the masses for ever. But the tragedy was that there was no genuine Marxist movement capable of harnessing the movement which overthrew the Shah and setting up a democratic socialist state.

The opportunist policy of the Communist Party, the Tudeh – sometimes supporting the ‘modernising’ role of the Shah – had left a vacuum which the radical Islamic fundamentalists were allowed to fill. In the beginning, Khomeini’s fundamentalists were compelled, because the masses were armed and determined, to proceed very, very cautiously to derail the revolution. 

Eventually, however, they ended by concentrating power exclusively in their own hands. Effective power rested in the hands of the Revolutionary Islamic Committee. This body, however, was under enormous pressure from the masses. 

In the first stages, the Bazargan government strove to preserve capitalism. The real power, however, was in the hands of the committees and the militias, which were politically under the influence of Khomeini. Indeed, Bazargan was actually appointed by Khomeini as prime minister and was in effect forced to rely on Khomeini to carry out the necessary government measures.

With mass demonstrations demanding action against unemployment, and increases in wages, etc., the Khomeini regime announced in July 1979 the nationalisation of all insurance companies, which followed the takeover of the banks. The regime was clearly a bonapartist one, balancing between an aroused working class, the capitalists and the bazaar merchants. The shift towards the left on economic policy was however accompanied with ruthless repression against all opponents of the ‘Party of God’, the mullahs’ party.

In September 26 oppositional newspapers were closed. Khomeini had consistently opposed the left, denouncing those who wanted to continue a general strike as “traitors. We should smash them in the mouth.” (18)

Nevertheless, in many factories workers’ committees or trade unions were formed and the workers were drawing up a list of social demands. Following his visit to Tehran, Bob Labi wrote:

Workers have not only been fighting for purely economic demands. Many workers, in particularly the oil workers in Abadan and tractor workers in Tabriz, have been calling for the sacking of the old bosses and the right to elect new managers themselves. 

Workers at the General Heating and Ventilation factory in Tehran have been given permission by the government to run their factory themselves after the old bosses had fled. At the same time, a struggle has been developing for full trade union rights and the dismissal of the old SAVAK (secret police) appointed ‘workers’ representatives’.

He went on to comment:

All that is preventing the rapid overthrow of capitalism in Iran is the absence of an independent workers’ party campaigning on… a Marxist programme. (19)

The original hope of the Iranian revolution for a new chapter of democracy and socialism was to be dashed on the rock of Islamic fundamentalism. Nevertheless, the lessons of the Iranian revolution – how the masses move, how a well-armed capitalist army can disintegrate, the laws of revolution and counter-revolution – were drawn on by Militant when analysing other situations in the following years.