The Labour Party and Trade Unions

Labour and the unions: lessons of experience

by Brendan Clifford
Reviewing Lewis Minkin: The Contentious Alliance: Trade Unions and the Labour Party.[1]

The trouble with this enormous book is that it is not quite a reference work and not quite a political narrative. It would be much more useful if it was definitely one or the other.

The Labour movement in Britain at present has neither a theoretical nor a traditional orientation. The explosion of theoretical theory in the late 1960s and early 1970s blew apart whatever connection there had previously been between thought and accomplishment. It discredited experience as a basis of thought both in general terms and with reference to Labour politics. ‘Political science’ became the order of the day. The ‘Labourism’ or ’empiricism’ of the wartime generation was scorned. But, while ’empiricism’ had failed to deliver all that had been hoped for, it had accomplished something that lasted. Political science, on the other hand, not only failed to accomplish anything, but led to what Minkin calls ‘disaster’.

Minkin mentions the disaster but does not in any sense explain it. He says:

“Jones and Scanlon retired in 1978. New union leaders, Moss Evans … and Terry Duffy … replaced them. The linkage of Party and union leaders remained close, but there was not the same personal authority and trust. In any case, the understanding went badly wrong in the period leading up to and following the announcement of the 5 percent pay policy. The failure to hold an election in the autumn of 1978 after five of the Neddy Six had recommended it, undermined confidence .Above all, for a crucial period, the Prime Minister and the Chancellor failed to heed the warning from their union allies that the pay norm was too low. too rigid and likely to provoke a reaction from the members. After that came disaster.

“The disaster was all the more significant because the 1970s were marked by ideological developments which were in the consequences momentous for the Labour Party and the unions.

“These were difficult years for the ex-Revisionists. Still a majority among the political leadership, they … now had to face a realigned block vote and a major loss of power in the Party-without obvious issues upon which they could mobilise a counter-assault on the Left” (page 123).

Loss of an election is not of itself a disaster. Minkin does not specify why 1979 was a disaster. I would describe it as a disaster because it led to an internal collapse of the Labour movement and a breakdown of the political consensus favourable to the working class which Attlee and Bevin had established in 1945. And it seems to me that Callaghan’s 5 per cent pay policy and failure to hold the election in 1978 are very insufficient in the way of causes to explain why Thatcher’s 1979 victory led to the internal collapse of Labour and to two further Thatcher victories.

Minkin does not mention the Report of the Bullock Committee on Industrial Democracy in connection with the ‘disaster’ of 1979. That Report seemed to me at the time to be a watershed in British social development. What kind of watershed it would be depended on whether it was implemented or rejected, but either way it was a watershed and things would never be the same again. Labour and trade union power had become so great that British society could no longer encompass it as a protest movement. The working class would either take a decisive step towards becoming the ruling class – taking on all the complex problems which that entails – or it would be pushed back into a position of subservience.

A combination of Left and Right in both the trade unions and the Labour Party made certain that the Bullock proposals were brushed aside. And Ken Coates, leader of the Institute for Workers’ Control, who had been blathering about workers’ control for ten or fifteen years, used his influence to kill it when Bullock put it on the agenda. It became clear that for him, as for socialist ideologists in general, workers’ control was pie in the sky – a beautiful ideal which should not be tainted by any attempt to realise it

Bullock’s name does not even appear in Minkin’s Index. But the Report is mentioned incidentally in a section entitled “Jones’ (sic) egalitarianism” (pp. 173- 4):

“Jones … opposed, and grew increasingly critical of, ‘the talking shops’ involved in the tripartite structure created after the Chequers meeting in November 1975. But locked into this structure, he found it difficult to seize any initiative. and Scanlon showed no interest in doing so. Indeed, on the Left’ s industrial policy, Scan/on’ s attitude varied from the evasive to the robustly dismissive.

“This developing difference in approach between Jones and Scanlon was a feature of several policy areas …

“The difference between them was most marked over industrial democracy. Jones deeply resented criticism from the Left that he was unconcerned with the wider Party purpose of ‘a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of wealth and power towards working people and their families’. For him, trade unionism and socialist values fused in the proposals for industrial democracy …

“There is no doubt that once the first objectives of the TUC (the abolition of the Industrial Relations Act and its replacement by the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act and the Employment Protection Act) had been achieved, then industrial democracy moved to the forefront of Jones’ concern.

“The measure of the priority he gave to these proposals was the fact that, with support from Michael Foot, he was prepared to push for an immediate Bill in 1975, despite the fact that he knew that several other trade union leaders were sceptical, despite signs of hostility from sections of the Cabinet, and despite the fact that he knew that there was fierce opposition from the Treasury, from the City and from most employers. The opposition was strong enough to avoid commitment to an immediate Bill and a Commission of Enquiry was instituted as a delaying device. But renewed pressure from the TUC secured favourable terms of reference and a composition which shaped to a considerable extent the outcome of the report. Jones himself was a forceful member of the committee. The majority report with its ‘2 x plus y’ formula was not the simple parity which Jones wanted but its principles … were near enough to those of the TUC for it to receive a vitriolic response from the opponents of ‘trade union power’. The Cabinet majority showed their own reservations and the result was a deadlock between the Ministers concerned. By this stage in 1977, Jones’ own position was weakening and he could do little. At the time of his retirement the delayed Government White Paper was still awaited.

“For Jones it was a major set-back; for Scanlon it was virtually an irrelevance. Though they had shared the platforms and auspices of the Institute for Workers’ Control, there was a sharp difference of view as to what this involved. Scanlon had always doubted that there could be workers’ control in a nationalised industry without ‘the commanding heights of the economy’ coming into public ownership. This view, traditional on the Left in the AUEW, was easily compatible with pure oppositional trade unionism in the early 1970s and just as easily shed in its entirety once the commitment to nationalisation itself had receded.”

The ‘fundamental and irreversible shift in wealth and power’ is something I remember well, and I knew at the time that it was only a phrase. Insofar as it took any definite shape it was in the form of mere legislation. As Minkin says, “Even the disappointing record of the second phase of the 1974-9 Labour Government … was not bereft of legislation and governmental measures welcome to the unions” (page 655). But mere legislation is easily undone by more legislation, particularly when the group favoured by it becomes unpopular. The rights and privileges accorded to trade unions by Foot’s legislation were easily done away with by Thatcher and replaced with penalties.

If the Bullock proposals had been implemented they would have become part of the structure of society, accomplished facts of social reality.

I did not at the time see the ‘2x + y’ formula as second best.  It meant equality of representation on boards of directors for shareholders and workers, the ‘y’ element being a chairman (and in larger firms a few technical experts) appointed from outside. I thought that was more in accordance with the British mode of development than providing fora workers’ majority at the outset would have been, for reasons that I explained at the time. Given the demoralised condition of the capitalists at the time, it was a virtual certainty that wherever the workers applied themselves in earnest to the business of managing an enterprise they would quickly become the predominant influence in it And if they did not apply themselves in earnest, what ground was there for putting them in control?

I recall that in Tribune and New Left Review in those times there was much chatter about ‘Gramscian hegemony’ and articles about ‘What The Ruling Class Does When It Rules’. I don’t suppose Ernie Bevin ever bothered his head with the concept of Gramscian hegemony. But he knew what a ruling class does when it rules, and there was a lot of working class hegemony in his sphere of influence. But when a Committee of Inquiry made proposals to establish workers in positions from which they might establish hegemony in industry, the theoretical theorists of hegemony all shied away and reverted to attitudes which implied a simple-minded and cataclysmic revolutionism. And Hugh Scanlon was atone with Frank Chapple on the issue.

‘Left’ and ‘Right’ ceased to have any effective political meaning at that juncture. And it mattered little that the ‘ex-Revisionists’ were facing a loss of power to the ‘Left’ because both had run out of perspective.

Barbara Castle’s attempt to put trade-unionism on a footing of law designed sympathetically to its interest was opposed by a great agitation in the country, with the Communist Party at its head, and was shot down in Cabinet by Jim Callaghan, leader of the Right. That decade from In Place of Strife to the Bullock Report was a period when the harnessing of organised working class power to hegemonic social structures presented itself as the central problem of practical politics in Britain. A Left/Right combination wrecked every attempted solution (including that proposed by Ted Heath in the second phase of his Government). Eventually the utterly crude solution of Thatcherism was resorted to – and many of those who had wrecked the attempts at progressive solutions quickly adapted themselves to Thatcherism and grossly exaggerated its potential.

Minkin uses the terms ‘Left’ and Right’ without giving them any specific meaning, and his bias is clearly towards the Left. But the great structural reform of 1945 was an achievement of the Right. And it is that reform which was so securely based that in 12 years of absolute power Thatcher could do nothing about it. The Left reforms of the 1970s were very easily reversed.

While Nye Bevan proved to be an excellent administrator when given the job of constructing the NHS, the political framework within which he became effective was an achievement of the Right with which Bevan had been at daggers drawn for many years before 1945.

Minkin mentions their dispute over the Beveridge proposals, but he does not explain what their conflicting views were or consider which was better calculated to achieve a lasting reform. It is many years since I read the material of that dispute. As I recall it, Bevin wanted to implicate Churchill and the Tories in enacting the Beveridge proposals. Bevan saw that as class collaboration and he wanted Beveridge to be made an antagonistic party issue. Bevin wanted to use the power the Labour Party held in the wartime Coalition to begin implementing the Beveridge reform during the life of the Coalition. He had known plenty of conflict in his time, and had become influential by the ability with which he had conducted his side of it. Now he wanted to use the power of Labour in the wartime Coalition to begin the enactment of a fundamental reform while the Tories were in no position to oppose it. Bevan, on the other hand, appeared to see party conflict as an end in itself, and was inclined to see a reform enacted by a Labour/Tory consensus as defeat and betrayal.

Minkin reflects as follows:

“It remains an intriguing historical question as to whether, in these unique external conditions of electoral radicalism, the Left could have organised and sustained a full-scale constitutional revolt which, like that of 1979, aimed to transform the distribution of power within the Party. Certainly at no other time in Labour Party history was the wider context so favourable” (page 66).

But if the Left had achieved its 1979 breakthrough in 1944, would 1945 ever have happened? The achievements of the 1979 reorientation suggest that it would not And Minkin concedes that

“in Labour Party terms, this Leftwing advance suffered from several limitations. It was spearheaded in many cases by a Left outside the Party – the Communist Party, whose members were prohibited from participating at the Labour Party Conference” (page 67).

Minkin only mentions the Communist Party dimension incidentally, but it has perhaps been the most debilitating influence on the Labour Party over the past forty years. This is a strange oversight since it was precisely through the Trade Union/Labour Party connection that the Communist Party had a base in the Labour Party.

During the 1930s and 1940s a realistic programme of reform was conceived and implemented by the Attlee/Bevin tendency in the Labour Party. One has to take language as one finds it, and language says that the Attlee/Bevin tendency was Right wing – even though it conducted the most purposeful expenditure of working class political power ever seen in Britain.

Minkin takes Bevin as being representative of “the anti-intellectualism of some trade unionists” (page 14). In fact, Bevin had the most original and powerful intellect in the British Labour movement of his own or any other time. While he lived the Labour Party had a mind of its own. After he died it came increasingly under the influence of the Communist Party. The Kinnock leadership was thick with people who first made their mark as CP propagandists.

I came to the conclusion about 25 years ago that, despite all its ‘theory’, the Communist Party made purposeful thought about the real world impossible. That may have seemed paradoxical then. But it must now be recognised as the most obvious common sense, seeing how the world of Communist Parties has destroyed itself. And those who have proved to be so incompetent in the conduct of their own states have naturally not had a beneficial effect on the Labour Party.

The British Labour movement will only find its social bearings again when it comes to terms with the fact that its most substantial achievement in the way of social reform was accomplished by a form of politics which is customarily described as Right, and that the other wing of the movement, the Left, which has shaped the uses of language, has, when left to its own devices, been ineffective at best.

The relationship of the Party leadership to the trade unions on the one hand and to the Party activists on the other is not an abstract organisational matter. This complex of relationships works as a political party when there is competent and purposeful political leadership pursuing a realisable aim, and doesn’t work when there isn’t. It is not reducible to a clear organisational scheme. The business of the Labour leadership is to represent a great and permanent social interest in a way that enables it periodically to gain sufficient support from the fluctuating part of the electorate to form the Government. That will not be done in the Kinnock/ Gould manner by presenting a bland ‘image’.

 (The second part of this book, covering the Kinnock period, will be the subject of a second article in a later issue of L&TUR. Ed.)


This article appeared in May 1992, in Issue 29 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs. For more, see

[1] Edinburgh University Press, 1991, 704 pages, hardback, £65.00.