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Labour leaders and strikes: the lesson of Wilson and the Miners

Ed Miliband’s lack of backing for trade unions on strike on 30th June disappointed some, but in fact no Labour leader has ever backed strikes. It is worth looking at how Harold Wilson handled the miners’ strike of 1974, where Labour won a general election against all expectations.

Wilson was a politician with extraordinary talent, who won four general elections, and twice held the party together through crises when factionalism looked set to tear it apart. Wilson’s record in managing the party was more successful than Tony Blair’s as Blair, like Gaitskell, behaved as if those within the party who did not share his own vision, should be silenced, excluded and manouvered against.

However Wilson’s government of 1964 to 1970 had been a gruelling experience. He took power in the most challenging of contexts, in the previous 24 hours China had exploded its first Atomic Bomb, Khrushchev had been overthrown the same day, and within minutes of entering 10 Downing Street, Wilson was telephoned by US President Johnson to be advised that crucial US support for the ailing British economy, and particularly Sterling, was conditional on Britain’s support for US foreign policy in South East Asia.

The British economy inherited from the Tories was in a much worse state than Labour had counted on, and plans for social reform that had been reasonably predicated upon modest plans for growth could not be financed. Stuart Holland’s 1975 book The Socialist Challenge discusses the unraveling of Wilson’s economic policy, and stalling economic growth also exacerbated conflict with the unions. Ben Pimlott’s magisterial biography of Wilson also explains what an enormous and disproportionate distraction the Rhodesia crisis created, taking up time and attention that was needed elsewhere.

The complicated legacy of Wilson’s first government saw significant progressive change in Britain, but the party was exhausted; and the internal divisions of the Gaitskell years had resurfaced by the time of the 1970 election defeat. The long running disloyalty and personal disruption from George Brown now seems like a historical footnote, but the pro-European agenda and personal ambitions of Roy Jenkins would bear bitter fruit.

In opposition again after 1970, the Croslandite right became openly and publicly disloyal seeking to destabilise the leader. Jenkins’s resignation from the Shadow Cabinet over the issue of the EU referendum in 1972 seems in hindsight like a dress rehearsal for the subsequent defection of his coterie to the SDP a few years later. Jenkins has since admitted that he wanted Labour to lose in 1974.

The miners’ strike of 1974 was over the question of pay, but it also showed a growing gulf in attitudes towards trade unions between the Labour and Conservative parties. During the Wilson government, the Party had sought to use the In Place of Strife legislation to contain industrial militancy, but Wilson learned from its failure; and in opposition Labour adopted an approach based upon the buzz word of “liaison” to negotiate a decline in industrial action in exchange for government policy concessions, particularly the establishment of ACAS and the Health and Safety at Work Act. Though this turn around did involve the bizarre spectacle of Labour front bencher Barbara Castle passionately denouncing the policy that she had equally passionately advocated as a government minister; but sometimes such pragmatism is a virtue in politics.

In contrast, the Tories were locked into an escalating cycle of confrontation, despite Edward Heath himself being personally inclined to conciliation with unions; and the Tory Prime Minister and TGWU leader Jack Jones had a high regard for one another, having met in Republican Spain in 1936.  In October 1973, the Tory government introduced “Phase Three” of income policy, which gave a 7% norm for wage rises.

However, the outbreak of war in the Middle East created an oil crisis that quadrupled oil prices, both pushing inflation up significantly above that 7% expectation, and also strengthening the bargaining position of the miners, who imposed an overtime ban, and pursued a pay claim, despite having been offered 16.5%

This was an extremely dangerous situation for Labour, where the opinion polls were giving cautious grounds for optimism before the miners’ dispute. The Labour Party was also divided. The left wanted the party to back the miners, the right – particularly Reg Prentice – wanted Labour to oppose any strike. Wilson was clear about the dangers of party disunity, and also that taking a strong line against the strikes could be counterproductive to the party’s allies within the NUM.

Wilson met with the unions before Christmas in 1973 and hammered out what his approach would be. To quote Ben Pilmott:

Wilson laid down what became the accepted line: the Tories were the extremists, Labour the voice of Reason. Throughout the dispute Labour must play the public-interest card. If an election was called, Labour should seek to be the “national government”, and we must go for national unity.

Robin Day for the BBC asked Wilson on 3rd January whether he would give the miners more than 16.5%, and he replied “Yes of course”. However, rather than criticise the government’s failure to make concessions to the NUM, Wilson blamed Heath for failing to negotiate. On 23rd January a party political broadcast used sound bites about the “national interest”, “working together” and pledged that a “Labour government would knit the nation into one”.

On 4th February 1974 the miners announced an 81% vote in favour of a strike. On 7th February Heath announced a general election to be held on 28th over the single issue of “who runs Britain”. Labour was already 4% behind in the polls.

Had Labour backed the miners, then Heath’s gamble would almost certainly have paid off, pushing Labour down to its core vote of those who self-identified with the unions and Labour’s industrial heritage. Certainly the press was unrelentingly hostile, and talked down Labour’s chances.

Instead Wilson adroitly sidestepped the issue. Through a four stranded strategy:

  • Firstly, he constantly repeated that the real issue was Tory economic mismanagement “which has turned Britain from the path of prosperity to the road to ruin”
  • Secondly, Wilson condemned Heath’s intransigence to the miners, and argued that the government should convene negotiations via the TUC, involving all three party leaders, and the CBI, as well as the NUM. (The mineworkers themselves assisted in making the government look extremist by adopting a restrained code of practice on picketing that would have made a vicarage croquet match look rowdy in comparison). Wilson stressed how Heath’s approach of encouraging confrontation was strengthening the hand of the hard left in the unions.
  • Aware that this studied neutrality could leave Labour candidates floundering under questioning, Wilson immersed himself in the detail of the substantive disagreement at the heart of the dispute, and he bludgeoned interviewers with facts and figures, suggesting that it was the Tories lack of understanding that had caused the strike. This was a perfect approach for both demonstrating Labour’s greater competence at governance, while also seeming to be above taking sides.
  • His master stroke was to reveal during the election that miners were actually paid 8% less than the average for manual workers, causing the government to look foolish.

The result was that Labour won the general election, and the NUM won their strike. Had Labour backed the strike, then they would probably have lost the election, and paradoxically that would also have made it more difficult for the miners to win (although the NUM had won in 1972).

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