How good it is to see the new TUC General Secretary, Frances, shaping up so well as Leader of Britain’s unions? We badly need that broad-based leadership which has been the distinctive contribution of that body.
Founded in 1868 to coordinate the parliamentary lobbying of the then mainly craft unions, it did much to persuade both Liberal and Conservative governments to reform the far worse anti-union laws of those days. This led to what a later General Secretary,Walter Citrine, described as our Charter of Trade Union Rights of the 1870s – full legal status without incorporation; immunity from prosecution and attack on union funds and many more protections.
Still the emerging general unions preferred to retain total autonomy in pursuing their sectional trade interests until 1921, when they agreed to give the TUC General Council more powers to coordinate the industrial strength of individual unions. After the over-ambitious but well-meaning use of those powers in the ten day General Strike of 1926, it was the General Council under Walter Citrine as General Secretary, together with key union leaders, such as Ernest Bevin of the T&GWU, who then led the entire Labour Movement out of the Great Depression. This achieved impressive results with the restoration of union membership, extension of union recognition and government action against low pay throughout the 1930s. Together with the Labour leadership of Attlee, Morrison and Nye Beavan, the TUC laid the ground in policy terms for the most radical advances of the 1945-51 Labour government.
For a couple of decades afterwards, our generation reaped the fruits of the growing status of workers and trade unions in society. But seduced (perhaps) by the understandable materialistic and (less so) individualistic urges of the ’60s and ’70s, the unions fell back on following those membership urges, rather than exerting any leadership moderation.
This was encouraged by the then influential CPGB and the Left generally in unions – I know, I was part of it. That is not to say that the Right were paragons of wise counsel either. It was often a case of factional contests between the ‘Ins and the Outs’ for the plumbs of union office, rather than the wider interests of the membership. After George Woodcock’s thoughtful but over-cerebral stint, the TUC fell into line and ‘led’ our rear-guard action against (modest) union and industrial relations reform. We threw out ‘In Place of Strife’ and ‘Killed the Bill’ and with it two governments who, all things considered, were not anti-union and a hell of a lot better to deal with than what was to come with Thatcher. The TUC froze, immobilised by our divisions in the build up to the Miners’ syndicalist leadership’s attempt to get the waves to go back. After a time, John [Lord] Monks as General Secretary again ventured to the front with a serious approach to regaining the lost ground of the 1980s and ’90s through the EU Social Chapter and close working with the new Labour Government of 1997. Alas, this time it was the New Labour leadership which moved the goalposts with its distrust of all collective union effort and left him in the lurch.
So, here we are today, with the prospect of another Tory or right-wing Coalition government now a very real prospect in 2015. Admittedly, the latest self-inflicted wound has come from a gauche Labour leadership move over the ‘opt in’ option, on the pretext of bogus allegations in Falkirk. This is the wrong way to ‘reform’ the last collective power of unions (or more correctly of union General Secretaries or Executives of the largest unions) – the political levy. So, to get out of this jam without bringing down a quite good, if poorly advised, Labour leader, we need some stateswoman-like leadership. If the two wings of the movement can get their heads together over this one, it could lead on to better relationships generally.
Enter Frances O’ Grady. In addition to his recent committment to prioritise a statutory National Living Wage, with effective enforcement powers, Miliband should commit to restoring the legitimacy of responsible collective union influence in Labour and government counsels. Review the trade union laws with a view to repealing those which are one-sided and unjustifiably restrictive. We have lived with some of them – individual balloting requirement, for example, which no one now wants to abolish. End the war on the trade unions, in return for rule changes which commit all unions to again coordinate a considered approach through the TUC on political and other such matters.
Although you can overdo the ‘mea culpa’ style in politics, it is refreshing to get a politician who can admit it when he or his party get’s it wrong. It is one of Ed Miliband’s attractive features.
Now he has done it again, accepting blame for the last Labour administration’s failure to properly address falling wages. In what must be his first concrete policy announcement ahead of the next general election. At a Scottish Labour gathering in Edinburgh recently, he promised to make it a priority for the next Labour government to introduce a national living wage. (The Guardian, 24th August 2013). Wow, that is shouting louder!
No doubt he also had an eye on union audiences for the upcoming TUC and Labour Conferences where he could be in ‘hot water’ over his proposals to change the political levy system. However he or Lord Ray Collins (an old colleague from our young T&GWU days), dress it up, it seems they mean to change to an ‘opt in’ on an individual system of union contriutions, as opposed to our favoured collective basis.
Whatever is behind this new Living Wage’ proposal, good thinking. The Labour Party could be onto a winner with this upgrade of their last administration’s hugely popular Minimum Wage legislation. Of course, the bad employers’ lobby and most of the right wing media will cry ‘millions of jobs would be lost’, but public opinion is on his side here, I suspect. Ed is rightly focusing on the big squeeze on family finances under this uncaring coalition government. In Brent where I’m a councillor, we’ve adopted a Q Living Wage policy and people really think its the right way to go.
In a recent blog, I also highlighted HSBC Director of Research, Stephen King’s new book warning ‘of the dangers of such a lengthy wage freeze as workers in the western economies have recently endured. He described it as ‘the greatest redistribution of income to the asset and cash rich since the nineteenth century.’
The real issue is how a real living wage could be brought about in all the private sector workplaces, even if all the political parties signed up? Already with the much lower statutory minimum wage, new rules are having to be brought to ‘name and shame’ those numerous ‘bucket-shop’ employers who flout the law, but don’t get taken to court. There will also be practical issues of implementation, as we have on the Council, in some pockets of extreme low pay eg cleaning contracts. But these can be addressed over time with suitable mechanisms, proper consultation and representation of the workers concerned.
If Labour wills this end, they must also ‘will the means’ – an institutional framework which can be enforced by workplace organisations viz., trade unions. Unions must respond to this laudable initiative by coming up with workable proposals of their own to assist Labour in fleshing out such a framework. They should start working on the sectors where they recruit in harmony, rather than in rivalry for members. Don’t let’s leave it to the policy wonks or HR experts who surround the Labour Leader, who are sure to come up with a flawed mechanism, the weaknesses of which rogue employers and their ‘clever’ lawyers will already be working on.
Wage regulation is not rocket science, as it has been done before on a national scale, especially in the 1930s – last time the State was really concerned that ‘squeezed’ and poverty wages were a matter of serious social concern. Wages Councils, national agreements backed up by legislation and arbitration systems are well tried methods in Britain.. The initiatives taken then led to a major growth in trade union membership, union recognition and collective bargaining.
Here’s a real issue for unions and Labour to ‘get their teeth into’, rather than having barren wrangles about how the dwindling members’ pence of the political levy should be collected. By all means try new ways of engaging the millions of union members in politics, to ensure that the union voice is properly heard and representative of their views. But the real test of modern Labour’s payback for union funding, is whether they deliver on this new Living Wage commitment.
Unions21′s event: Fair Pay: The Fair Work Commission Debate – is at TUC Congress Monday 9th September. Read more here: http://www.unions21.org.uk/events/
Boy, does Alan Johnson, my former CWU General Secretary, have a tale to tell. Well known as one of the few genuinely working class MPs and former senior Ministers in Westminster, it was less expected that he would craft such an intimate but compelling account of his incredibly deprived childhood. It also evokes an amazing picture of west London working class life in the 1950s and ’60s.
‘This Boy’ (the title is from a Beatle’s number), is the genuine article. With humour, but not a little bitterness, he brilliantly describes how his Liverpool-Irish mum, Lily, held it all together for him and his elder sister,Linda, in the post-war slum-conditions of the Ladbroke Grove – Notting Hill (with its race riots in 1959) area. His ‘awol’ pub musician/gambler/womaniser dad, Steve, buzzed in and out (then out altogether). That’s how Alan saw it from age 8 to 14, though of course, memoirs are by definition, selective. To make matters worse, his mum died from a heart condition in 1964, leaving 16 year old sister Linda to fend for both of them, keeping them out of ‘care’. He was still at the grammar school to which his aspirant mum had sent him (this bright boy was one of the few then who passed his 11+ exams). Alan was also fortunate in being a teenager in ‘Swinging London’ of the 1960s, where he had access to all the best gigs and his musical talents blossomed playing in two bands. His other love, QPR, which he follows still, shows his sentimental side.
Alan’s account of his early life is so compelling that they are probably casting around for the actors to play the parts and characters which Alan has so sharply drawn in ‘loving’ detail. ‘This Boy’ justly reached number 3 in the hardcover best sellers lists. At £16.99, you don’t have to wait for the paperback – treat yourself to a good, easy, holiday read.
But I am looking forward to Alan’s next venture into print, taking the story on from the late ’60s, when he married aged 18, started as a ‘postie’ in Battersea and his involvement in the postal union (then the UPW). I want to know more about how his career took off on account of the major opportunities he got as a union official, eventually to become General Secretary of the UCW and the merged postal and telecoms CWU. I particularly want to hear the inside story of how he was talent-spotted by Tony Blair and piloted into Hull West (no NEC ‘Falkirk’ Inquiries then!). We in the CWU were sad when Alan was lured away by this rival Group’s blandishments, whose fee and status we couldn’t match.
Nonetheless, we wished him well and knew it would not be long before he went higher. They saw him as the ‘modernising union’ leader who best fitted their ‘project’ for ‘New Labour’ . With his anti-Post Office privatisation credentials, he helped them swing the abandonment of Clause IV at union and Labour conferences, and thus established Blair’s position as Labour leader. The rest is history. No wonder that he stayed with this fellow guitarist’s Group.
You don’t read many memoirs or biographies of union officials these days. This is very sad, as those officials who have recently retired, were involved in some of the most interesting times of the Thatcher era. This is partly a reflection of the fact that publishers are not interested in union matters. As a former Home Secretary and television pundit, Alan today has all the advantages. If only half of his childhood deprivations happened, good luck to him. But many of our union leaders (with as good life stories) are not without the contacts, resources and opportunities either to encourage publishers to take on able union writers. What ‘This Boy’ shows is that you have to have a story to tell (even if it isn’t your own story, but one you know well), and tell it well.
In Edward’s case, the Home Secretary’s authorisation (on Cabinet and Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin instructions), showed a lack of trust in the monarch rare in British history. They are said to have been panicking over the King’s intention to marry an American divorcee, while trying to ‘hush up’ a Cape (South Africa) ‘Times’ scoop that he was about to abdicate. This revelation has just come from the release of secret files, all highly classified, which recently turned up in the Cabinet office basement (so much for the ’30 Year Rule’)!
This extraordinary action by the Conservative government of the day, (Stanley Baldwin was Prime Minister), has still not been explained satisfactorily, in my view. Why were the Establishment so worried about the very popular young monarch’s private life? Enough to force his abdication apparently. I suppose people then were more strait-laced and scandalised by such ‘behaviour’. However, ‘worse things have happened at sea’, as they say, especially in the Royal Family of those days, even in the 1930s.
Edward Windsor, Prince of Wales, had been extremely popular, not least in the working class since he visited the miners in South Wales at the time of the General Strike in 1926, expressing sympathy with them. He was known as ”the Workers’ Prince” in some parts of the working class. Contrary to the impression given in the recent box-office hit, ‘The King’s Speech’, Churchill, (still ‘in the wilderness’), who spoke for some, wanted Edward to stay.
Yet, Sir Walter Citrine (as he had just become), TUC General Secretary, took the opposite view. Baldwin invited him and his wife, Doris, to Chequers in November 1936 to sound him out about feeling in the labour movement. In his very readable and informative autobiography, ‘Men and Matters’ (1964), he devoted a number of pages to their discussion. Baldwin told him that he had just been to see Edward at his retreat in Fort Belvedere, Windsor, for a most painful interview. He had accosted the King to be about his intended marriage to Mrs Simpson, (who had just divorced her second American husband to marry him), and told him bluntly, ‘you will not get away with it’ i.e. and remain King! He left Edward ‘to consider his position’ and on 10th December, Edward announced his abdication. The intercepted telegram from the ‘Cape Times’ of 6th December, therefore caused the panic, as they had the story. The Home Office even hauled the London editor before the Home Secretary and suppressed it.
Citrine’s invitation to Chequers was clearly part of the same Cabinet effort to shape public opinion on a critical affair of State. Baldwin seems to have regarded such contacts as an antidote to his traditional sources of advice and opinion. The people who normally had the Prime Minister’s ear were the elite governing world of the country and Empire then – for example, ‘The Times’ or the politicians and upper classes in ‘their long English country weekends’. He seems to have also respected Citrine’s judgement and they also had a chat about politics in general and especially about Citrine’s recent trip to the Soviet Union and book ‘I Search for Truth in Russia’, which he had read. Imagine David Cameron calling Frances O’ Grady in today on such a sensitive matter!
To his enormous relief, Citrine reassured Baldwin that ‘he was undoubtedly interpreting the minds of people in the Labour movement.’ The Labour leader, Clem Attlee, had also been consulted, with a similar outcome. Interestingly, Citrine opined that though they were republican in sentiment, the unions preferred the limited constitutional monarchy Britain enjoyed to that of the alternatives then dominant on the continent. The forced abdication was firm evidence of its vitality!
Citrine, who was then very active on anti-fascist platforms, went on to persuade Churchill, who shared one with him at the Albert Hall, not to go public for the king against the government. The Windsors departed in 1937, only to turn up in Berlin later that year at Hitler’s invitation! Perhaps this also had something to do with the Cabinet’s tough line? Certainly, the Windsors’ sympathies and many in the British upper classes, lay with Hitler’s fascist and anti-communist Germany (and Mussolini’s Italy), before he showed his true militaristic hand. This would certainly have been known to Citrine, because as President of the International Federation of Trade Unions, he had seen first hand what the Nazis were doing to the German and Austrian trade union movement.
I have waited some time to see it, but the dramatisation of the days of the 1974-9 Labour government, ‘This House’ at the Olivier National Theatre, which we just caught on the last night, was well worth it. It took us back to those heady days when we had a radical Labour government and a strong trade union movement.
I was then a very junior, but deeply committed, official in the mighty Jack Jones’ T&GWU at Transport House, Smith Square (we celebrated 2million plus members at the Festival Hall in 1976).
Although I had joined the Labour Party, my head was still full of Marxist dreams and so I didn’t appreciate what was going on in the real world across in Parliament. But ‘This House’ has captured the parliamentary side of the real thing. Its by an amazingly young new playwright, James Graham, who has talked to almost all the key players on both sides of the House then and ransacked Hansard for gems. Like the fact that ‘Big Ben’ stopped working for the first time ever (not even during the Blitz), during a critical part of the Party battle in the Chamber. This conflict at times came to physical blows and Members falling dead (though not in the Chamber, of course)! This unprecedented Big Ben stoppage is used by Graham very effectively to symbolise the end of an era and the beginning of a new one.
The play starts with the downfall of the Heath Conservative government in February 1974, when he went to the country with a ‘who governs – us or the unions?’ election question. The Coal Board – a nationalised industry since 1948 – had to cave in to the miners’ union in 1972 at ‘Saltley Gates’ in Birmingham. Heath’s attempt to ‘reform the unions’ with a fairly mild but over-legalistic framework – like Wilson’s Labour government before him- became a dead letter by 1973. This was in the face of one of the biggest TUC campaigns of civil disobedience ever. He had to release the ‘Pentonville Five’ London dockers or face a General Strike. In 1973\4, another national coal dispute and his attempt to counter a power workers strike, with a 3 day working week imposed on everybody, didn’t work either. Unsurprisingly, he got the ‘not you’ answer to his question from a bemused electorate. It was this that started the move, by a relatively unknown Tory woman MP from Finchley, to remove him as Tory leader in 1975. [See my 'We Made Thatcher' blog]
Although we never get to see ‘the Iron Lady’, her brooding presence is always there in the Tory Whips’ office and at the end, as her voiceover intones, ‘Where there is strife, may we bring harmony’ etc!!
As the new minority Labour government of Harold Wilson takes over, most of the action takes place in the respective party Whips’ offices. First one, and then the other, group of fixers in the ‘engine-rooms’, scheme, investigate and exploit every foible and weakness of their own ‘flock’ of MPs, to keep them voting for or against the government on all key issues eg a Bill to nationalise the Shipbuilding and Aerospace industries – would that we had one today! Scottish devolution was then but a Labour promise to keep the Scot Nats on board.
The action and dialogue is fast and furious, as the Whips in both parties, argue, curse (the bad language is choice but effective in recreating the torrid atmosphere), cajole, ‘bribe’ and generally lean on the self-interested, unfortunate or pig-headed MPs (about 30 ‘odds and sods’ Liberals, Scot Nats, Irish Nats and Unionists and a hard-core of far Left Labour MPs.) The dour but committed ‘hard-left’ ‘Audrey Wise of Coventry South West, is wonderfully portrayed. As is the headstrong Michael Heseltine, with his golden mane, as he removed the sacred mace and swung it around in the Chamber to the horror of all true ‘parliamentarians’. This was an outraged Tory reaction to an alleged Labour Whip flanker, calling one ‘paired’ MP to vote to save the government’s skin, again, the excuse being that they had not paired a minister, delayed elsewhere.
Events rush on to the breakdown of the ‘Social Contract’ in 1977, as unions return to ‘free collective bargaining’ in response to Prime Minister, Jim Callaghan’s insistence on a well-below inflation level pay increase limit. That imaginative, but too ‘top-down’ initiative of Jack Jones and the TUC, worked for a while, giving pay restraint/lower inflation in return for many of the core employment legal rights which workers still enjoy – despite their severe erosion today. However, the big union battalions at Ford’s and then the road haulage drivers, quickly drove ‘a coach and horses’ through Callaghan’s 5% limit with the connivance of the employers. Where are those battalions now? – depleted in numbers, non-unionised and far more poorly paid! Soon, the low paid local government and health service workers were getting in on the act in what became a most indisciplined affray. Rubbish piled up in city streets, hospitals ran short of vital medicines and the dead remained unburied in the winter of 1978/9 (‘the Winter of Discontent’). Callaghan had hung on to the summer of 1979, failing to call an election that Autumn, before the proverbial had hit the fan . Soon the Whips were packing their bags after losing a vote of confidence by one vote. The rest, as they say, is history.
If you get a chance to ever see,’This House’ (the final night was filmed and broadcast to twenty cinemas around the world – a new innovation for the Olivier, so it should be available on disc), make sure you do. Though a bit depressing at the end, as the Iron Lady emerges as Prime Minister, the ‘might have beens’ of that tempestuous decade continue to inform our debates in the trade unions. A very different relationship with today’s new Labour Party, has still to be hammered out. ‘This House’ is a reminder of what happens when the unions and Labour fail to get it right, as we have been doing ever since.
Talk of another General Strike does bring to mind the parallels with the last one in May 1926, eighty seven years ago this month.
Like today, a new General Secretary of the TUC with much to prove, Walter Citrine, had just arrived at their pokey office in Eccleston Square, Victoria. On the sudden death of the General Secretary, Fred Bramley, he was called back from a delegation to the Soviet Union to become Acting General Secretary – would the TUC opening diplomatic relations with what was still viewed widely as the ‘first workers’ state’?
Like today, there was a right-wing Conservative government which had bowed to Treasury, Bank of England and City financial orthodoxy and tied Britain once again to ‘the Gold Standard’, so depressing wages generally and making British exports, especially coal exports, uncompetitive. Keynes’ pamphlet, ‘The Economic Consequences of Mr Churchill’ (the Chancellor), exposing this stealthy impact, had a major influence on the union leaders, particularly Citrine. The miners were seen as the ‘shock troops’ to defend against a general employers’ offensive on wages. They had a fiery left-wing General Secretary, Arthur J. Cook, General Secretary of the Miners Federation – Arthur Scargill’s hero – and the TUC General Council fell in behind them.
In fact, the TUC did its best to avert that General Strike by intervening in the coal dispute negotiations, with the blessing of the Mineworkers Federation, its 800,000-strong largest affiliate. With the threat of a repeat of the wholly successful 1925 solidarity action by the rail and road transport unions (‘Red Friday’), they tried to pressurise the government into reining in the mine-owners who were ‘gung ho’ to lock-out the miners, cut their pay and increase their hours of work. They also tried to get the government to continue the coal subsidy and re-organise the industry. Citrine, who was involved in all the negotiations, thought they were close to doing so.
Two things prevented a settlement. First, the inflexibility of the miners leaders, who felt bound to their rank-and-file pit opinion ( ‘not a penny off the pay, not a minute on the day’). The TUC had not insisted on them giving full authority in writing to conduct and conclude it, before involving themselves in the fraught coal industry dispute. The other reason was that the hawks in the Cabinet, led by Churchill, (smarting from what they saw as the humiliating government retreat of ‘Red Friday”), wanted to ‘teach the unions a lesson’. They persuaded the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, to break off the negotiations using the pretext of a Daily Mail compositor’s refusal to set a clearly provocative anti-union front page.
So, on 4th May, the General Strike started in response to that government ultimatum to call off the General Strike. This followed a conference of 1300 union delegates at the Memorial Hall, Faraday Street, as each union roll-called their decisions after rousing speeches and songs. Amazingly, over 1.5 million workers walked out in support of the 1million miners already locked-out. Never before had so many British workers been out on strike together. The transport system in the cities ground to a halt (especially in London), as hardly any buses, trams or underground trains ran. The railways closed. The docks, furnaces, iron and steel, heavy chemical and power industries became as silent as the pits. One writer described it as a ‘strange and even eery experience’.
Amazingly, by the second week, it was still solid, with the engineering and other manufacturing workers coming out. Most European General Strikes only lasted days, despite their much more syndicalist traditions. Even the government realised that they were in uncharted waters, despite their middle class ‘Volunteers’, despite the propaganda of the BBC, their ‘British Gazette’, The Mail and The Times and their best efforts to undermine the will of the strikers. Surprisingly, there was hardly any disorder (many strikers played football with the police) and it was lovely sunny May weather.
However, the General Council leaders were becoming anxious as to where it was all going. They had never intended it as a political challenge to the government, but clearly that’s what it had developed into. You can’t close down the country (food was exempt), without any government intervention, and troops were being placed on standby in their barracks. At Wellington barracks, Citrine ‘saw troops drawn up on the parade ground. Some were practising with machine guns; others had gas masks on, while some were in full marching kit.’ Some, like Jimmy Thomas of the NUR had worried from the start that they would all be arrested and some even shot! His 455,000 rail workers had been solid from the start even though they faced legal challenges and for some, loss of pension. But he was also an MP (and had been a Minister in the 1924 Labour government), with contacts all round Westminster. He was close to the Labour leader, Ramsay MacDonald, who was now also worried.
Even tough strike leaders like Ernest Bevin, whose dockers would have stayed out as long as the miners, was also perturbed by the miners’ intransigence and unwillingness to consider the wider movement. They had tried to restart negotiations but they broke down again as the miners’ leaders would not budge. This really exasperated Citrine and the negotiating committee, as the Miners Federation had, supposedly, put the negotiations in the TUC’s hands. In the circumstances, Citrine gauged the mood of the General Council generally now as being to call it off, and retreat in an orderly fashion.
This was not to be. It is not clear from Citrine’s account – though he kept a daily diary and notes of all the key meetings – why they capitulated without a ‘return to work’ agreement, which would have safeguarded the strikers from victimisation. They only had ‘warm words’ from the Prime Minister and the King. The impression is that Baldwin issued the TUC with an ultimatum to call it off ‘forthwith’ or face the consequences – the use of police and troops to break the strike, and the General Council feared that this would have meant bloodshed. So, on the night of Tuesday 11th May, Citrine received a phone call from Downing Street saying ‘the Prime Minister wants to know whether you have any news for him. He [and the Cabinet] had been sitting up for you’. The General Council were waiting for the Miners’ leaders to tell them if they would compromise. On being told no, Citrine and the TUC President, Arthur Pugh of the Iron & Steel workers, and Thomas went into the Cabinet room to give a ‘haggard and drawn’ Baldwin and other Ministers their decision. When Pugh announced the calling-off of the strike, Baldwin replied, ‘I thank God for your decision’. It was back from the brink.
Hardly surprisingly, Citrine and the TUC leaders took a lot of ‘stick’ from the miners (who stayed out for another six months!), the Left and those later victimised – though most workers were relieved. A ‘post-mortem’ conference of all the unions in January 1927, overwhelmingly accepted their account. It rejected Arthur Cook and Herbert Smith’s Minerworker’s Federation version of things, though Citrine acknowledged that it had been ill-prepared and called off without consultation with them. He regarded it as ‘a protest against the degradation of the standards of life of millions of good trade unionists’. I’m sure that Len McCluskey would say the same today with much justification! But would he accept Citrine’s view that ‘the theory of the General Strike had never been thought out ‘ and that a stoppage on such a scale for any length of time, would inevitably be taken as ‘a challenge to the Constitution’?
Looking back in 1964, Citrine still didn’t resile from his long-held view – ‘I did not regard the General Strike as a failure’:
“We have had our General Strike. Imperfect as it has been…it was the most
magnificent effort of rank-and-file solidarity that the British movement has
The general employers’ offensive on pay did not happen.
Citrine was elected General Secretary at the September 1926 annual Congress, with the support of the Miners’ leaders, Cook and Smith, who respected his conduct during the whole coal dispute. He would serve with distinction – he became Lord Citrine of Wembley – for another twenty years in some of the most eventful decades of the twentieth century. He (and Bevin) would take the TUC in a different, less confrontational direction altogether after the strike, with considerable success (after the Great Depression 1928-34). By WW2 the TUC and the union movement were being described as another ‘estate of the realm’. But that is another story.
So, the story of the General Strike is many dimensional. It could not be repeated today. Talk of General Strikes, from a movement that is so much weaker, seem ‘cloud cuckoo’ stuff, though many of the same issues are around again to justify such a nation-wide protest. So, it is not enough for our ‘One Nation’ Labour theorists to simply reject the notion of such protests – Occupy, Uncut etc and Len McCluskey, are expressions of the desperation again setting in. They must also come up with alternative policies which are not based on Treasury, Bank of England and City orthodoxy in government economic policy. Who will write and act on, ‘The Economic Consequences of Mr Osborne’?
Source: Walter Citrine, ‘Men and Work’ (1964), Volume 1 of his very interesting autobiography.
While one part of the nation mourns the death of Baroness Thatcher, the rest of us are left ‘spitting tacks’, ‘dancing on her grave’ and bemoaning what she did to us – or are we? It seems to me that its all too late for that. The understandable anger of the mining and manufacturing communities and northern cities has come through the fog of biased reporting from the right-wing media and establishment. However, I searched in vain for a coherent, convincing analysis or thought-piece which put this right-wing icon into a perspective which I could come to grips with as a union and Labour person. Nor have I seen one either from union or Labour commentators.
As a young T&GWU negotiator on occupational pensions, I was introduced to her in 1983 and had a brief conversation/banter with her about the upcoming general election. I was brash enough to opine that she wouldn’t last and that Michael Foot would soon see her off! With surprising good humour, she said, ‘Oh, no,no,no – I’m here for some time yet’! I was also struck by her appearance – she was then quite a diminutive figure, not the high-powered media creation which she developed into.
I’ve reflected on that exchange many times over the years, (it isn’t often you get to have one with someone so important) – both on my naiveté and on her being proved so right. Having served as a national official and a Labour activist throughout her ‘reign’, I have formed the conclusion that it was we, both wings of the labour movement, which created the monster of Thatcherism. I mean this literally. If we hadn’t frustrated the efforts of one Labour government and a second Conservative, but by no means anti-union, Prime Minister (Ted Heath in 1974), in their efforts to reform our relationships, she would never have emerged as Tory Leader in 1975. Nor would she have become Prime Minister in 1979, after another debacle – ‘The Winter of Discontent’ - with such an anti-union manifesto.
That is not to say that those governments’ proposals were exactly right – though some of us might give ‘our back teeth’ for the mild ‘In Place of Strife’ or Industrial Relations Act 1971 framework of industrial relations law today. No, they were far from perfect and the accompanying incomes policies were also deficient in those inflationary times. It was our stupid, ‘over our dead bodies’, response which did for us. In our brash overconfidence, we saw it as ‘audacity’ that even an elected government could require us to change our ways. It was this which made ‘union power’ such a negative issue for Thatcher to exploit so skilfully. She did so, even with our own members, as the elections of 1979, 1983, 1987 and even as late as 1992, proved. And we can’t blame just Arthur Scargill for that obdurate stance.
The rest, as they say, is history. Even her toppling by her Conservative colleagues in 1990, did not change the climate she had created. By the time the pendulum had swung back to Labour, the unions had lost most of their power base. – the huge loss of membership and collective bargaining coverage due to the Thatcherite switch to a service economy and global finance. We in the unions, as well as the Labour Party were desperate to get back into ‘the game.’ As a result, we did not look too closely at the slick ‘New’ Labour prospectus from 1994 onwards. Some of it was clearly necessary, but I now deeply regret that we didn’t chew it more, as it proved a ‘thin gruel’ for thirteen years in government.
I think that we do now have another chance, as Ed Miliband is proving to be a much deeper Labour thinker than we’ve had as Leader for some time. He has many of the characteristics which made Thatcher so formidable – courage, determination and a distinctive philosophical outlook, but one that is in tune with Labour values and people. Hopefully, he will seek to restore a shared outlook and philosophy for the two wings of the labour movement. We are strongest together and a new-found social democratic unity would be the best reaction to Thatcher’s death.