In 1970, just like today, the Labour Party seemed dead from
the neck up. After six years of desperately disappointing government, Labour
had been unceremoniously bundled out of office. The Tories were back, aiming to
put the boot in to the working class.
From his photos, the 1964-70 Labour Prime Minister Harold
Wilson seems a quintessentially pipe smoking ‘old Labour’ figure. In fact he
was like Tony Blair in many ways. He abandoned ‘old fashioned’ policies dealing
with the class divide and inequality in Britain in favour of meaningless
rhetoric about ‘the white heat of the technological revolution’. As with Blair,
it was all smoke and mirrors.
By 1970, six years of economic and political failure had
left the Party a shell. By 1969 the
swing against Labour meant that they controlled only 13 local councils in
Britain. Young people abandoned party politics in favour of campaigning on
single issues, particularly against the war in Vietnam.
As the world economy slowed down, the Tories under Heath
came in determined to cut down the power of the unions. Precisely as a result
of the impending crisis, the trade unions were turning left. Scanlon and Jones,
dubbed the terrible twins, were elected leaders of the Amalgamated Union of
Engineering Workers and Transport & General Workers Union. (These unions
are now the core of the new giant union Unite.) The two began to mobilise the
block vote of their unions, traditionally used as a bastion of the right, in
support of left wing policies at Labour Party Conference.
Heath introduced a new Industrial Relations Act and jailed
five dockers. This provoked a huge response from the working class. (See 35
years ago – Britain on the verge of revolution) After receiving a bloody nose
from the miners, Heath called an election in 1974 under the slogan ‘who runs
the country – the government or the unions? The message he got back from the
electorate was loud and clear. ‘Not you, matey!’ Labour was back.
And the right wing Labour leaders had to adapt to the mood
of the working class. During the 1974 election Denis Healey promised, as
Chancellor of the Exchequer, to ‘squeeze the rich till the pips squeaked.’ The
election manifesto promised to achieve ‘a fundamental and irreversible shift in
wealth and power in favour of working people and their families’.
The 1974 Labour government coincided with the first general
recession for world capitalism since the Second World War. Inflation, which had
been on the rise throughout the post-War period was now galloping along at more
than 20% a year in Britain. Wilson and Callaghan, both right wing Labourites to
the marrow, determined to pull the chestnuts out of the fire for the ruling
class. Wilson declared that ‘one man’s wage increase is another man’s price
increase’. The ‘fight against inflation’ was really a fight against working
class living standards. The ‘social contract’ and ‘incomes policy’ really meant
wage restraint. Grudgingly the trade union leaders accepted three rounds of
this wage restraint. Working class loyalty to ‘their’ government was stretched
to the limit. One of the achievements of the Wilson-Callaghan government was
the biggest fall in the standard of living of working people since the War. In
the year from mid-1975 alone wages were held to 14% while prices went up by 26%
Though the Labour government was doing the dirty work for
the boss class, and doing it very effectively for a while, the capitalists did
not show any gratitude. Britain, then regarded as the sick man of Europe, was
losing out to other capitalist nations. This particular crisis of British
capitalism overlaid the general doldrums the world economy was going through at
the time. It manifested itself as a balance of payments crisis. Britain was
importing more goods than it was exporting. ‘We’ could not pay our way in the
world. In 1976 the International Monetary Fund stepped in and demanded cuts.
The Labour government was humiliated. It had to shred its social programme to
pay for these cuts.
Finally working class patience ran out. Workers had put up
with Phases One, Two and Three of wage restraint with less and less optimism
and support. By Phase Four, workers had had enough. There was an explosion of
anger and strikes from low paid public sector workers. It was called the
‘winter of discontent’ and Labour were defeated in the 1979 election.
As in 1964-1970, the 1974-79 government was a right wing
Labour government – and an even more abject failure so far as the working class
was concerned. Like the previous administration, its failure led to the revival
of the Tories at the polls. Thatcher swept to power in 1979, determined to
settle accounts with the trade unions and roll back all the welfare gains
working people had made since the Second World War.
Labour activists had become increasingly exasperated at the
car crash that was the 1974-79 administration. But they had a problem. The
establishment had set things up so the right wing had permanent, unassailable
ascendancy over the Labour Party. Wilson and Callaghan had both been selected
as leader by the Parliamentary Party alone, without trade unions or individual
members having any say so. The MPs
became accustomed to their cosy life at Westminster and saw themselves as
having a job for life.
Activists had always been to the left of their
‘representatives’ in Parliament. Ever since the 1950s all seven places on the National Executive Committee
of the Party elected from the constituencies had been held by left-wingers. But
they wanted their elected representatives and the leader to be accountable, and
for the Party as a whole via the NEC to have control over the manifesto.
Formerly dead Labour Parties were being taken over by activists with an agenda
It was also time for a radical change in policy. At Party
Conference, a resolution from Shipley was passed calling upon the next Labour
government to nationalise the commanding heights of the economy.
And there were some changes. After Callaghan resigned,
Michael Foot, an ex left -winger, was elected as leader by the Parliamentary
Party. Still his deputy was the veteran right winger Denis Healey.
However a special Conference at Wembley in 1981 had accepted
the case for the leader and deputy to be elected by the Party as a whole. The election
was to be conducted by an electoral college consisting of MPs, Party members
and the trade unions’ block vote. The PLP still had 30% of the vote, but the
constituencies had 30% and the trade unions 40%.
In 1981 Healey was challenged for the post of deputy leader
by Tony Benn, the representative of the left. The MPs of course mainly plumped
for Healey. The activists rooted for Benn. The trade union block vote was the
decider. The AUEW had by now been taken over by the right wing. Healey beat
Benn by a whisker. This was the high water mark of the challenge to the right
in the party.
For the ruling class it seemed the Labour party was starting
to slip out of their control. They needed a safe second eleven to put into
government when the Tories became discredited.
This was not an academic question. After Thatcher took over
in 1979, her harsh economic policies helped push dole queues over three
million. Whole swathes of British industry went under. At this time the Tories
were miles behind in the opinion polls. Nobody thought Thatcher could be
De-selection of unrepresentative right wingers was now
possible. Every time democracy was exercised in this way, the press trumpeted
that Labour was ‘in a state of civil war.’ So, as a master stroke, the
establishment split the Labour Party. Leading right wingers such as Shirley
Williams split away to form the Social Democratic Party. They were generals
without an army. The split did not extend to the Labour ranks, but it was
obviously demoralising. The SDP argued they had split because the Labour Party
was now under the control of the left. Really they had split because they
feared democracy coming to them in the Labour movement.
In fact the right wing had not disappeared from the Labour
Party. Healey and the old right wing were still entrenched, but not in
undisputed charge. The party was formally committed to nuclear disarmament and
to getting out of the European Union as they went into the 1983 election
campaign. On economic matters, the programme was to the right of the 1974
manifesto that had won the election then.
Right winger Gerald Kaufman called the manifesto ‘the
longest suicide note in history’. It was a strange suicide. The right wing held
a pillow to the Party’s nose and mouth until breathing ceased. They conducted a
policy of deliberate sabotage. They had decided a defeat for Labour was their
best option. By putting the blame on the left they could re-take charge of the
Party later on. Ex-leader Callaghan publicly came out against the non-nuclear
defence policy in the middle of the election campaign. None of the right wing
spokesmen were prepared to defend the policies Labour was campaigning on. At
the same time they began organising to take back complete control of the Party.
The hapless Foot was
not prepared to state on TV on the Panorama programme whether he would call for
a vote for the official Labour candidate in Bradford North, Pat Wall a Militant
supporter, or the de-selected MP, who was standing as an independent – as a
spoiler for the traditional Labour voters. Foot was trying to hold together a
Party that the right wing were pulling apart.
Wrapped in the flag after the victorious war with Argentina
over the Falklands islands, Thatcher was buoyed up by the ‘Falklands factor.’
Thatcher’s victory left her free to deal one blow after another to the working
Labour’s resistance to Thatcherism was enfeebled by election
defeat. The SDP had achieved their main aim of spreading confusion.
The 1983 result was a catastrophe for Labour. They received
the lowest share of the vote since 1918. Labour’s right wing was not downcast.
They were exultant. They were quite prepared to destroy the Party. They had
made it seem that the ‘left’ were unelectable. Engineering the 1983 defeat was
for them the first step in regaining unfettered control of the Party. If the
working class suffered a decade of Tory attacks in the process, then so be it.
The working class will always move into action when the
wages and conditions they have achieved are under threat. Their first port of
call is the trade unions. But class struggle will also reflect itself in the
Labour Party. Labour has gone left before. It will go left again.