Interview with Barbara Castle

Barbara Castle speaks

Barbara Castle has recently republished her diaries and her memoirs will be published early next year. L&TUR spoke to her a few weeks ago about her time as a minister in the Labour governments of the 1960s and mid-1970s

L&TUR Relations between the party and the unions form a very large part of you diaries, and as you were a central figure in the government in the 1960s and 1970s we would be very interested in your reflections on those times. For example, do you think that In Place or Strife was a lost opportunity?

B.C. I’d start by making one thing clear: I didn’t set up the Donovan Commission. The Donovan Commission had been set up by Harold Wilson and my predecessor Ray Gunter, not by me. But I had the report and I had to deal with it. And that meant I had to sit down and study intensively what should be the relations between the government and trade unions. How far should be we want to encourage confrontation in industry? What were the unions themselves looking for? What was the Labour Government wanting to get from the trade unions?

In thinking this through my philosophy developed. I wanted to strengthen collective bargaining. And, as Donovan himself had pointed out, this meant strengthening the trade unions.

First and foremost In Place of Strife was a charter of trade union rights. For the first time it gave a statutory right to belong to a trade union and did not give, as the Tory legislation gave, a statutory right not to belong to a trade union. It called for the legalising of the closed shop and sympathetic strikes which, in the context of trade union history, had merely been a form of ‘borrowed strength’, with the stronger being able to help the weaker.

I was the one who introduced the concept of the right of appeal against unfair dismissal, and said categorically that sacking someone for belonging to a trade union would be automatically unfair dismissal. In Place of Strife proposed the setting up of a trade union development fund. to help unions to equip themselves with their role in society by, for example, training their shop stewards. It gave a union the right to take an employer who refused to recognise it to the Commission for Industrial Relations for a ruling which would be binding on the employer and on the unions.

It also embodied the principle that not only had unions in the right circumstances the right of recognition but the right to bargain constructively. This was one of the things that George Woodcock had stressed the need for in the Donovan Commission. All these were in In Place of Strife.

L&TUR And they were the major things as far as you were concerned?

B.C. Yes, but I also stressed that the purpose was to strengthen conciliation procedures in industry, a point made in the Donovan Report. So if there were obstacles to this process on the trade union side they must be ready to adjust them in line with the new philosophy. From that came the concept of the conciliation pause. At that time the Labour government was struggling to cope with enormous economic difficulties, partly due to the mistaken struggle to support Sterling, but also due to world factors. And yet we had a massive outcrop of unofficial and unconstitutional strikes.

I never at any stage sought to put a curb on unofficial strikes. One of the key sentences in In Place of Strife is that the right of a worker to withdraw his labour is an essential freedom in a democracy. I was trying to deal with a wave of anarchy in industry, particularly in the motor industry.

I wrote at that time that industrial anarchy never leads to revolutionary change. It is more likely to lead to counter-revolution. I wasn’t an anarchist. I wanted to achieve profound revolutionary reform by democratic means. There is a paragraph in my diaries, which are being republished, which sums it up and which I would like  to read to you:

“Typical of the industrial anarchy we faced was the walkout of 22 machine setters at the Girling Brakes Works because as members of the AEF they refused to accept the instructions of an ATMS chargehand. As they were key men producing a key component for the motor industry their action led to 5000 workers being laid off and to growing public hostility to the trade unions. It was this strike in which a few men were able to do massive damage in a highly integrated industry which led to the concept of the conciliation pause I was later to employ in In Place of Strife.”

The strike was unconstitutional because the men had not followed any conciliation procedure. The point there was that I made this a political issue. I never believed that industrial relations matters should be handled by Courts. It is quite inappropriate, as Ted Heath’s attempt to embroil the trade unions in a rigid legal straitjacket was to prove so dramatically. So we set up instead an Industrial Board and the decision to refer this dispute to this Board was to be mine as Secretary of State. There was to be no right by an employer or a worker to take a case to Court. The Secretary of State had to stand up in the House of Commons and justify the decision politically.

And what did the conciliation pause involve? First it placed an obligation on the employer. And in all my legislation I laid the onus on the employer first, because I believe that the prime responsibility for good industrial relations lies with the management. So first the employer had to revert to the status qua if there had been a change in practice, for instance the arbitrary dismissal of an employee or a sudden change in working conditions.

It followed that if you bind the employer to do something then you can’t leave the workers or union free to continue striking against the employer who is obeying the law. That is anarchy. That never helps working people, only organisation helps them. So the Board could rule  that there must be a 28 day conciliation pause during which an attempt would be made to use conciliation machinery that might not have existed before or which had not been used first. At the end of 28 days the men were entirely free to resume the strike. Yet that was called a penal power against trade unions!

Another problem I set out to deal with was trade union recognition. There had been many disputes for trade union recognition and In Place of Strife gave the union the right to take the matter to the Commission for Industrial Relations. You will remember again that it was not a court of law. It was composed of employers and trade unionists, and I made George Woodcock, General Secretary of the TUC up to that moment, its first Chairman . The Commission would rule whether a union should be recognised, or which of two unions should be recognised. The employer was under a legal obligation to accept the ruling, subject to a fine if he didn’t.

L&TUR But what if another union challenged the Commission’s ruling and went on strike?

B.C. You cannot have a situation in which having laid a legal obligation on an employer you leave unions free to strike against him to try to make him break the law. Now that was another thing that was held against me. The third thing was union ballots before strikes. And now the trade unions say they want to see that in Labour Government legislation.

L&TUR And the ballots have strengthened the unions?

B.C. They now appear to think so. So the talk that this was penalising on trade unions was a load of rubbish. Anarchy in industry was losing public support for trade unionism I wanted to strengthen the power of the trade unions, but to make it a positive power and not a negative one.

I said to them ‘Here you have elected a government with the help of a lot of trade union money to try to solve the country’s economic problems and introduce social justice among our people. And you have got to accept some share of the responsibility of making it economically possible for your government to carry out what you want it to . .’

It is relatively easy to exercise negative power – to stop something happening. But what we need is for working people to use positive power to change society. And that means sometimes subordinating sectional interests to the wider interest. I saw this as the key to our problem.

Of course there could still be an argument, and still is an argument, as to whether my even mentioning penal powers like the conciliation pause encouraged the Tories to go ahead with their own legislation when they got their chance. But I don’t believe that at all. They had their own legislation all ready and my aim was to stop them getting their chance. The wave of unconstitutional strikes was strengthening the standing of the Tories in the public mind. I was out to save us from Heathism and Thatcherism. So I have no apologies whatsoever to make for In Place of Strife.

L&TUR That’s a good robust defence.  So you would obviously regard it was a lost opportunity?

B.C. Yes

L&TUR Without hypothetical, can you see the opportunity leading onto Thatcherism?

B.C. Well, of course we got Ted Heath first. And we got his Industrial Relations Bill, and I led the opposition from the Front Bench in the House of Commons against the Bill. It was the opposite of what I had been trying to do. He was seeking to weaken the trade unions, to tie them into a legal straitjacket.

We defeated the Heath policy in 1970 thanks to his total misreading of the public mood. His legal restraints and they had led to absurd situations and obvious injustices . And public opinion had swung back again, certainly to the miner’s cause – remember Heath had said that he wasn’t going to have a prices and incomes board then set up the whole machinery – when the Relativities Report of the Pay Board came out it showed that the miners were getting less than the Coal Board claimed and that they were right and had an injustice.

Public opinion was vital here and L think public opinion in this country is pretty shrewd, so that once the trade unions showed themselves in a positive light, of having a sense of responsibility towards the public they will get the support of the public. This has been shown recently with the ambulance workers’ dispute.  Two trade union leaders stand out as examples of what I mean. One is Jack Jones with his campaign for pensioners. He took away the image of short-sighted selfishness from the trade unions and showed them as people who would fight for all who needed help. The other trade union leader show showed these qualities was Roger Poole during the ambulance workers’ strike. The ambulance workers leaned over backwards to make sure the public did not suffer. There are of course others, but these two stand out. So the public will reward us if we show we care about them.

L&TUR The Party and the unions had another bite at the cherry with the Social Contract. Looking back would you say that the unions hadn’t learned their lesson along the lines you have indicated, because that was another chance to get a good relation established?

B.C. I believe that the Social Contract grew out of this terrible argument and bitterness in the movement over In Place of Strife, because I had forced the unions to face up to the need to be constructive.

L&TUR To face up to their power and responsibility?

B.C. Yes, but the Labour Government too had learned from its mistakes. One of its profound mistakes in the 1960s had been the statutory prices and incomes policy, which again I inherited. That policy was one of the reasons why the unions were so bitter about my industrial relations legislation. They resented the concept of a statutory restraint of wages without any effective quid pro quo on the employers’ side. There was effectively no real prices policy, as I show in my diaries. There are lessons for us all in that story, how I battled with the Treasury to get a fairly balanced prices and incomes policy, and they wouldn’t let me hold prices down. So it became one-sided against the workers.


This article appeared in September 1990, in Issue 19 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  You can find more from the era at