Tony Cliff

The charge of the right brigade

(October 1983)

From Socialist Review, No. 58, October 1983, pp. 5–7.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The TUC was marked by a shift to the right. In a speech to the SWP National Committee Tony Cliff summed up its implications.

It is clear what happened at the TUC. There has been a massive shift to the right.

On the question of talking to Tebbit the vote was six to four – six million to four million. And on the question of distancing the TUC from the Labour Party, six to four. And on the reconstruction of the General Council, six to four. These aren’t exact figures – they’re to give you an indication. There was a massive move to the right – no question about it.

At the same time we have to keep a sense of proportion about the dimension of the thing. We can compare talking to Tebbit with the Mond-Turner talks in 1927. Turner was then the head of the TUC and Mond the head of ICI. The analogy should not be pushed too far. In one way it is not as bad a situation as it was at that time. In another way it is worse than it was then.

The sell out of the General Strike of 1926 followed a whole series of other sellouts, other defeats for the working class movement like Black Friday 1921, the lockout of the engineers in 1922, the smashing of the building workers in 1924. The result was that the trade union movement declined from eight million to four million. That’s collapse, a real collapse.

The situation today is that the trade union movement has declined from l3½ million to 11½ million. The truth of the matter is, that is a decline, a very serious decline. But it is nothing like what happened fifty years ago.

Apart from the statistics there is the question of organisation. In terms of shop organisation, no matter what we say, fulltime convenors becoming cut off from the base and so on, the truth is that shop organisation is incomparably stronger today than it was in the twenties and thirties. Take the question of the engineers. When the lockout came in 1922, there were practically no shop stewards to speak of in the engineering industry.

Today, we have still about three hundred thousand shop stewards – that’s a rough estimate. Therefore the decline is nothing like as serious as it was after 1926. In politics it is important not just to know the trends.

Serious retreat

The question of proportion is terribly important. The same story if it is repeated on a big scale is different from if it happens on a small scale.

In another way the retreat is more serious than it was at that time. It is more serious because this phenomenon of the separation of the trade unions from the Labour Party.

In the twenties and thirties the trade unions remained with the Labour Party. With the appearance of the SDP the question of separation is on the agenda. I’ll try to show why this is so important for us.

The erosion of the unions is going to continue. Unemployment is a fact of life. It will continue.

The fact of the cuts in the public sector is important for trade unionism, because the rate of unionisation in the public sector is twice as high worker for worker as in the private sector.

Cuts in the public sector mean cuts in trade unionism. Privatisation means cuts in trade unionism.

To the extent that there is a shift from manual to white collar employment, it also means a cut in trade unionism. Of course, we are absolutely right to stress that most white collar workers are workers. But the rate of unionisation of white collar workers is considerably smaller than manual workers.

White-collar workers are by and large less militant than manual workers. It is a fact that NALGO workers are not as tough as the NUM in terms of their ability to fight.

People talk about shop steward organisation – shop stewards are appearing but on a much smaller scale. The density of shop stewards in white collar areas is still much less than among manual workers.

More important they relate much less to the rank and file than do manual workers. You still find the phenomenon in schools of school reps who are headmasters.

In the NALGO branches you find that in a branch of six, eight, ten thousand members the branch committee is nearly all managers, that is people who have control over the opportunity of those below to rise in the scale. And you find quite a lot of alienation among the rank and file towards the leadership of the NALGO branches.

The new industries, industries which are terribly important for us in terms of the future – if anyone looks to Slough, Swindon, Reading, Oxford, looks at the new electronics industries generally – they will see that the new industries are much less unionised than the old ones.

Why? The main reason is the size of those industries. There is a direct proportion, by and large, between the size of the enterprise and the level of unionisation. In factories of 2,000 or more workers, unionisation is massive. In factories of 500, unionisation is big. In factories of 50, unionisation is very low.

For workers to move from Labour to the Tories is a very difficult process. I’m not saying for individual workers – as a matter of fact more workers voted Tory than Alliance in the last election – but in terms of an organised move away from Labour, the SDP is extremely important.

When Shirley Williams says that fifteen trade unions agreed to discuss with the SDP I think she’s lying. I think she’s exaggerating the number. But the fact is that the Bakers union agreed to discuss with Dr Owen. By the way, the Bakers union is led by the Militant.

I don’t believe there are fifteen unions, two million members, but it is a symptom. And the reason is a very obvious one. When in the last election only 39 percent of trade unionists voted Labour, 32 percent voted Tory and 28 percent voted Alliance, then the arguments of Tebbit for the separation of Labour from the trade unions is there. Tebbit is cutting with the grain.

We have to face the reality. Only 39 percent of trade unionists voted Labour. A third of the miners didn’t vote Labour. The miners used to vote solidly for Labour. You had as many Tory miners as you had SWP members on the CBI. You took it for granted they were Labour or maybe Communist. You certainly didn’t have a third of them voting Tory or Alliance. It is because of that that the separation is on the cards.

Broad left crisis

I don’t think it will happen in 1983. But the threat of it will shape events between now and 1988. Len Murray met Neil Kinnock a few days ago, and I’m ready to bet on what Murray said to Kinnock. He said to Kinnock:

‘The TUC is realistic, you must be realistic. There is a threat of separation in the TUC. Unless you behave, we are in trouble.’

The pressure on the Labour Party to move to the right is absolutely enormous.

The mechanism of moving to the right in the Labour Party is not the same as it is in the TUC. It will not be as extreme as it was in the TUC.

Two things depressed me about the TUC. The first was when Frank Chapple spoke. By and large, in his introduction, he got away with it. And he was speaking as an extreme right winger. It was a marvellous conference for Frank Chapple. There is no doubt about it.

When Scargill spoke, he got a standing ovation. It was a minority – certainly on television it looked like a minority, but he got a standing ovation. I’ll tell you what it really means. Come the Labour Party conference, there is the activist element that will give standing ovations to Scargill and so on.

If you look at the six million to four million majority for the right in the TUC. That two million for separation was by and large the unions not affiliated to the Labour Party – NALGO, NUT, CPSA and so on. Those unions will not be present at the Labour Party Conference.

Because of the activists and because of the absence of representatives of the non-affiliated unions, the shift to the right will not be as massive. But the shift to the right is taking place.

There are two other points. One is about the Broad Lefts. Because of what happened in the TUC in the country generally what we have been saying about the Broad Lefts is correct, except we have to be clear about the timing. It is much quicker, much accelerated recently.

The Broad Left is in crisis – that’s absolutely true, but is it accelerating or not? – the TUC gave me the answer. The most effective right wing presence in the TUC is not really Frank Chapple – it is Alisdair Graham. He was the most effective speaker for the right wing.

He was standing, there representing a union that a year ago was under Broad Left control. Now, he is saying, we are in control, and they shut up. His main target is another union which is still under Broad Left control, in fact the most prominent union under Broad Left control – the NUM.

When Alisdair Graham was attacking Scargill, I was cringing. It sounded so true. Everything he said rang true. He said:

‘Scargill threatens industrial action, extra-parliamentary action for political aims. We are still waiting for Scargill to get industrial action on industrial issues. Scargill has failed three times, while I led the civil servants on strike.’

He doesn’t say how he led them, but that’s besides the point.

You have these two extremes – the NUM. the most important Broad Left controlled union, in complete disarray. And you have this Alasdair Graham, in control, from an ex-Broad Left Union, leading the right. It sums it all up.

I’ll tell you what will accelerate it. It is the struggle in the POEU. The POEU are now being put to. the test. Tomorrow is the conference of the POEU, and I’m not trying to prophesy what they’ll do. But I’ll tell you one thing I’m absolutely convinced they will not do. They will not go for an all out strike.

To have selective strikes in the hospitals – you can argue it. It is stupid, but you can argue it. The same in the civil service. But to have selective strikes in British Telecom – you must be completely mad.

When Maggie Thatcher says privatisation is absolutely key for the Tories, they are not going to give it up because of selective strikes. It is like shooting elephants with a pea-shooter.

The POEU is not able to get an all out strike. The selective strikes didn’t touch anything. All experience shows that it is more difficult to move from selective strike to all out strike if selective action goes on too long.

No set-piece action

I don’t mind at all if you start a strike in one section of five people and the next day it spreads to ten, the next day to a hundred and the next to a thousand. But to have the same twenty people in London out of a union of 140,000 taking action week after week after week and nobody notices, because managers are doing their jobs and if the managers don’t, other members of the union will, is another matter.

Whatever happens tomorrow at the POEU conference I’m absolutely convinced that it will call the bluff of the Broad Left. After the collapse of the CPSA, the catastrophic situation in the NUM and what I think will be the catastrophe in the POEU, there is the NUR.

The NUR is being taken to the cleaners. What you have there is the Broad Left in control, but accepting worse conditions than Sidney Weighell did five years ago.

The crisis of the Broad Left is very serious. So where does that lead to for us?

We have all the shambles of the move to the right in the TUC and the Labour Party, crisis in the Broad Left, crisis in the Communist Party.

So what remains? Is there going to be big national disputes like the hospital workers? Or better still, the miners on strike? I personally think it is not on.

If I am wrong and tomorrow there is a national strike of civil servants, Socialist Worker won’t say: ‘at the National Committee we said this couldn’t happen, therefore it hasn’t happened’. Of course not. But it is important not to orient towards set-piece strikes.

Remember how set-piece strikes take place. In 1974 it was the miners who broke through and got something like 30 percent. The result was that the hospital workers got 30 percent. The teachers got a special arrangement. The local government workers got a similar figure. It was one section which broke through – in this case the miners, a very important section, which had an impact on the rest of the class.

A different process

In 1979 when we had the winter of discontent, it was a different process. In this case it was not the public sector which broke through but the private sector. It was Fords which was out for eight or nine weeks and got 17 percent wage rise. The guideline was at the time 5 percent. British Oxygen got a similar deal and then the haulage workers got 20 percent. Then of course we had a whole lot of other groups of workers getting through and fighting.

This time in the public sector I don’t believe the miners are going to fight. I’m not saying they’ll accept the 3 percent – I think they’ll take 5 or 6 percent. I can’t see them at present fighting. Now of course if I’m wrong, the whole picture changes.

In the public sector there is not really one group of workers acting as an example to the rest of the class at present. That is because there are situations where a single success is catching, and situations where a single success isn’t catching. It depends on the general mood of the class.

There are also situations where defeat isn’t catching. For example, the postmen in the early seventies; out for about eleven weeks and they got nothing. They were absolutely smashed. But it didn’t influence the rest of the class because the class was generally confident. Today the class is not confident. And therefore though I believe that Vauxhall are going to get the 8 percent – they have got the offer raised from 5 percent to 6½ percent after guerrilla strikes in Luton and Ellesmere Port – I don’t believe for one minute that the 8 percent will be an example to the rest of the class.

The fact that BL Truck Division accepted 2½ percent at the lime that negotiations were going on in Vauxhall, Ford and the rest of the car industry on much higher figures shows that the situation is very patchy, much less generalised. If it isn’t generalised in the private sector, it is not going to be generalised in the public sector. I am not saying there won’t be guerrilla war, hospitals on strike here and there, teachers on strike and so on.

That is why our orientation must be on the small struggle. We must put the emphasis there – five times over. The situation hasn’t been changed by the TUC – on the contrary, it underlines it.

Everything we have said has been underlined by the events of the last few months and will be accelerated. There will be more and more patchiness and therefore more and more need to relate to these individual strikes and struggles. The emphasis must be on the need to intervene from the outside.

The problem is how do you intervene from outside? For so long we’ve thought in generalisations that we haven’t thought through what it means to intervene from outside in the present situation.

We have always intervened from outside to some extent. In the period 1970-74 when we intervened from the outside we made some mistakes. The damage that we did was not as serious as all that.

In the present situation it is a different story. Our weight is much greater in our intervention from outside. Therefore the impact of our mistakes is incomparably more serious.

Because the class is in a much weaker condition than it was in 1970/74 a mistake in intervention is much more dangerous.

We must be absolutely clear about our intervention. The first thing is to get the level right. Never suggest things which aren’t possible. Never play to the gallery, pretending you can do things which can’t be done.

Another thing that worries me is the reception of Roger Cox’s article in Socialist Review a couple of issues ago. There is a danger that it will get distorted by being taken out of context.

The central issue is not facility time: in certain situations you are forced to have facility time because that is the only way you can organise. If you need 100 percent facility time, then the question is: why not share it between five people?

The central question is: how do we rebuild shop stewards’ organisation? We are for socialists becoming shop stewards. The conditions we make are that they relate to their base and they are honest about their politics.

That means fighting on issues your own base does not agree with – like for example, Ireland. Of course you will not get 100 percent agreement – you will get elected despite your position on Ireland, but everybody will know what you stand for.

The fact is that today shop stewards are almost always the organisers of picketing in the small strikes of today. I read a study that found that 71 percent of pickets were organised by stewards from the dispute, three percent by stewards from outside the dispute. Twenty percent were organised by local fulltime officials and only six percent were organised by workers who were not shop stewards.

If you are talking about intervention, either from outside or from inside, then you have got to talk about shop stewards, about how their role can be improved and strengthened.

That brings me to my last point. We always talk about the importance of politics in the present period. Of course that means talking about Chile and Brazil, but above all it means stressing the self-activity of the working class. The stress on self-activity runs right through from organising the picket line to win a strike to the fact that socialism can only be achieved by self-activity and not by trade union bureaucrats, Labour MPs or Russian tanks.

Because of the decline of the Labour lefts, because of the crisis of the broad lefts, because of the general patchiness of the struggle, we have the possibility of building the party. We often talk about building by ones and twos. The only thing that worries me is that we don’t do it. If we make sure the politics are central, then we can.


Last updated on 3.12.2004