Tony Cliff & Donny Gluckstein

The Labour Party

14. The Labour Party
under the Heath Government

The industrial scene

UNION MILITANCY had mushroomed in face of the economic difficulties and the failures of the Wilson government. It was given further impetus by the policies of the new Tory government led by Edward Heath. Legislation on industrial relations, and a determination to control public sector wages produced a series of strike explosions.

An Industrial Relations Bill was introduced in December 1970 which had affinities with In Place of Strife. Again there was to be a register of unions, exclusion from which would mean the loss of legal immunities, and a cooling-off period (in this case sixty days). Secret ballots reappeared, along with an industrial court – the National Industrial Relations Court (NIRC). The closed shop was in be banned and collective agreements would be legally binding unless they included a written statement to the contrary.

The union leadership reacted far more sharply against the Tories. The TUC held a series of national, regional and local meetings, a rally in the Albert Hall and many open air demonstrations, including a 140,000-strong march on 21 February 1971. The TUC called on the unions not to register under the Act, and practically all sizeable unions responded. All unions employed the draft clause suggested by the TUC for collective agreements, stating: ‘This is not a legally enforceable agreement.’

However, when Labour is out of office, union bureaucrats do not change their spots entirely. The TUC still rejected industrial action. In spite of this, one-day protest strikes did take place, organised by the rank and file, involving 600,000 workers on 8 December 1970, 180,000 on 12 January 1971 and about 1,250,000 on both 1 March and 18 March 1971.

One high point in workers’ struggle was over sackings at Upper Clyde Shipbuilders (UCS). On the afternoon of 24 June 1971 more than 100,000 workers in Glasgow stopped work. Half of them demonstrated through the city. This was the largest Clydeside protest demonstration since the General Strike. A month later John Davies, the secretary for industry, announced that employment in the UCS yards would be cut from 8,500 to 2,500. Next day the workers of UCS took control of the four yards.

On 10 August a meeting of more than 1,200 shop stewards from all over Scotland and the north of England unanimously endorsed the plan for a work-in, and appealed for financial support for the workers of UCS. On 18 August, some 200,000 Scottish workers downed tools, and about 80,000 of them went on a demonstration. The shock to the government was immense. David McNee, head of Strathclyde police, phoned Downing Street and made it clear he would not take responsibility for civil order unless the government kept UCS open. Heath obliged by making a U-turn.

In July 1972 five London dockers were imprisoned in Pentonville for breaking the industrial relations law. All 44,000 dockers struck unofficially. Fleet Street followed suit and a number of engineering workers also came out. It seemed even the union bureaucracy might lose control unless it acted. On 26 July the General Council called a one-day strike for 31 July. The government took fright, and on the very day the General Council issued the call, the House of Lords took the dramatic step of altering the law to get Heath off the hook. The men were freed immediately; the TUC dropped the call for strike.

There were more than 200 occupations of shipyards, factories, offices and workshops between 1972 and 1974. Workers also won important battles on the wages front. The most significant were the magnificent miners’ strikes of 1972 and 1974.

The first of these involved a great deal of rank and file activity and industrial solidarity which culminated in the ‘battle of Saltley gates’. Thousands of miners, assisted by some 20,000 striking engineers, shut a strategic Midlands coke depot and thereby insured the success of the strike. The second miners’ strike, during the winter of 1973-4, though more passive than its predecessor, finally precipitated the downfall of the Tories and forced the general election which returned Labour to office.

The total of strike days reached 10,980,000 in 1970 and I 1,551,000 in 1971, climbing to 23,909,000 in 1972 – the highest figures since the 1920s. The average number of strike days in 1945–54 had been 2,073,000, in 1955–64 3,889,000, and 1965–9 1,951,000.

The political strike reappeared in Britain for the first time in over half a century. As political strikes are not officially counted, one has to rely on estimates for their size. One estimate suggests that official and unofficial strikes against the Industrial Relations Act in 1970–71 involved twice as many workers as the entire year’s industrial disputes. [1]

Circumstances had forced both Labour and Tory governments in conduct a general attack on the workers on behalf of the ruling lass. But government intervention – incomes policy, industrial relations legislation, pressure towards productivity deals – forced workers to generalise their own struggles too. Ingrained sectionalism began to be overcome. In the words of Colin Crouch:

In part it has been the very reforms designed to re-institutionalise local action – incomes policy, reforms to bargaining structures and payment systems, productivity bargaining, and industrial relations reform – which have broken the local isolation of militant action and given it wider repercussions both economically and politically. The growth of shop-floor militancy initially produced a government response which forced industrial relations to become intensely politicised. [2]

One labour historian, Royden Harrison, called the struggle during Heath’s government

the most extraordinary triumph of trade unionism in its long conflict with government ... The Labour Unrest of 1970–74 was far more massive and incomparably more successful than its predecessor of 1910 to 1914. Millions of workers became involved ... Some of them began to exhibit an ominous concern with the conditions of distribution as well as production ... But it was the coal miners, through their victories in the two Februaries of 1972 and 1974 who gave to this Labour Unrest a structure, a final roundness and completeness which their contribution of 1912 had failed to supply to the earlier experience. First, they blew the Government ‘off course’; then they landed it on the rocks. First, they compelled the Prime Minister to receive them in 10 Downing Street – which he had sworn he would never do – and forced him to concede more in 24 hours than had been conceded in the last 24 years. Then two years later their strike led him to introduce the three day week – a novel system of Government by catastrophe – for which he was rewarded with defeat at the General Election.

Nothing like this had ever been heard of before! [3]

Under Heath the government was compelled to declare a State of Emergency no less than five times! What was the positive, active role of the Labour Party in these massive struggles? The same as during the Labour Unrest of 1910–14: none.

Who led the massive industrial struggles?

Trotsky wrote of the apparently unplanned February 1917 revolution that: ‘The mystic doctrine of spontaneousness explains nothing.’ [4] This is true of all mass action. There was a leadership in 1970–74, but it did not come from the Labour Party.

Industrial militants traditionally looked to the Communist Party. In 1966 this had founded the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions (LCDTU). Although the Communist Party had the direct allegiance of only a minority of the country’s 300,000 or so stewards, it had the ability to lead the shop stewards’ movement as a whole. The left Labour stewards, by contrast, had no similar organisation, and Labour’s politics led away from any idea of such a body as the LCDTU. It was the Liaison Committee which organised the one-day strike involving half a million workers against Labour’s In Place of Strife in 1969 and the massive unofficial strikes against the Industrial Relations legislation. Communist Party militants led the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders’ struggle, and the solidarity action to back it. The work-in adopted by UCS shop stewards popularised factory occupations throughout Britain.

Like the New Unionist leaders of 1889, the syndicalists and the wartime shop stewards, the leadership of the rank and file struggle of the 1970s was a small organisation standing outside the constraints of parliamentarism. Indeed it was only to the degree that the Communist Party was independent of the trade union bureaucracy and electoral methods, that it was able to channel the militant resistance to capitalism.

But that independent position was already gravely compromised by the Communist Party’s leadership. They had long abandoned revolutionary socialism for a policy of changing British society through achieving ‘a majority of Left Labour and Communist MPs’. This logic had not yet nullified the membership’s lighting ability, but it sapped it inexorably. The effect was to water down criticism of the Labour left and left union bureaucrats. Stress was put on a bureaucratic alliance with these forces in opposition to the right.

Since the 1960s the main form of Communist Party intervention in industry has been the creation of ‘Broad Lefts’ – alliances with Labour left-wingers in the trade unions, whose main task was organising resolutions and electing left officials. The same approach affected the alliance of Broad Lefts across the unions – the LCDTU.

The contradiction between rank-and-file militancy and the cultivation of left union officials blunted the impact of the LCDTU. The crunch came in 1972. On 10 June 1200 LCDTU delegates met to call for industrial action against the Tory Industrial Relations Act. But when the Pentonville five were jailed the following month, the LCDTU took no action because the Communist Party was desperate to accommodate Jack Jones, leader of the TGWU, who opposed industrial action. Four docks shop stewards wrote to Socialist Worker: ‘If the average docker who took part in this struggle was asked what the LCDTU did, they would not even know who they were’. [5] Thereafter the LCDTU was little more than a rump, calling conferences to pass resolutions but not leading any action.

Because the Communist Party’s politics were stifling the ability of its rank and file militants to lead, this gave others an opportunity to occupy a little of the space vacated. The once minuscule International Socialists (IS), predecessors of the Socialist Workers Party, were able to launch new initiatives, because, unlike the Labour Party and to an increasing extent the Communist Party, the IS stressed the importance that socialist politics should have a firm base among workers at the point of production, in the workplaces. As Alex Callinicos records:

Between 1971 and 1974 IS was transformed from being a predominantly student to a predominantly working-class organization. Crucial in this process was the decision by the IS conference of May 1973 to build factory branches. By the next conference, in September 1974, IS had nearly 4,000 members and some forty factory branches. At the same time, IS members in various industries and unions had launched rank-and-file papers whose aim was to group around them militants who did not fully share their ideas but who were prepared to work with them around concrete issues such as higher wages ... these papers had by 1973 achieved a small, but nonetheless significant circulation.

In the light of the LCDTU’s paralysis and its own growing workplace base, IS took the first step towards building a national rank-and-file movement by calling a delegate conference to discuss the prospects of such a movement on 30 March 1974. 500 delegates representing 270 trade union bodies attended, and set up the National Rank and File Organising Committee. A second conference in November of the same year attracted delegates from a larger number of bodies, including 49 shop stewards’ committees, despite Communist Party attempts at a witch-hunt, A new, albeit small movement had, it seemed, been born. [6]

There could hardly be a greater contrast between these efforts by a tiny group of revolutionaries to relate to working-class activity and what even the most left-wing of the Labour Party were doing at the time. To underline this one needs but read Eric Heffer’s book, The Class Struggle in Parliament: A Socialist View of Industrial Relations, published in 1973. Its theme was the struggle against the Tory Industrial Relations Act. Heffer was not only on the left of the party, but had been a trade union militant before being elected to parliament. Yet out of 339 pages, the UCS occupation, it seems, deserved only six lines; the miners’ strike, one page; Pentonville and the national dock strike, again, one page. As against this, the ‘brilliant’ [Heffer’s word] speech of the right-wing Labour MP Brian Walden against the Tory Industrial Relations Bill takes three whole pages! Heffer explains in his book that he did his best not to antagonise the official leadership of the TUC or Harold Wilson. He says he favoured a one-day strike against the Bill but did not speak openly for it ‘because I was tied by Front Bench responsibilities,’ [7] [and] ‘I did not want to get at cross purposes with what Harold Wilson had said.’ [8]

The Labour Party as such did nothing to develop mass militancy, although a great number of Labour Party supporters were involved in the action. Once more they were not acting as members of the party.

The echo of the battle: Labour’s customary leftward swing

Labour does not positively lead the working class, but it tails the class in certain circumstances. The two factors that always pushed Labour leftwards – pressure from without, and falling from office – now combined. Spurred on by the tremendous industrial militancy of the time, and in reaction to the Wilson government’s miserable performance and the right-wing policy of the Tories, the party swung sharply to the left. At the core of the Labour left was the alliance of the TGWU and the AEU, led respectively by Jack |ones and Hugh Scanlon. At the 1973 Conference their combined strength accounted for 1,971,000 votes out of a total trade union vote of 5,449,000, and a total conference vote of 6,197,000. This block vote provided the base for a powerful left-wing thrust.

Now the Labour leadership used radical rhetoric. Tony Benn staked his claim as the spokesman of the Left and appeared at the UCS occupation chatting to stewards. But even traditional right-wingers like Denis Healey became political chameleons. Healey told the 1973 conference:

Our job is to get power, and we join battle armed with the most radical and comprehensive programme we have had since 1945. Its aim is honestly stated, to bring about a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of working people and their families. (Applause) ... We are going to introduce a tax on wealth. We are going to turn the estate duty into a real tax ... I warn you, there are going to be howls of anguish from the 80,000 rich people. [9]

Successive Labour Party conferences passed resolutions for more public ownership. Between 1971 and 1973 they supported nationalisation of banking, insurance and building societies, the building industry, finance houses, road haulage, shipbuilding and repair. Labour’s Programme for Britain (1972) proposed to take back undertakings denationalised since 1970, without compensation. It advocated extending public ownership to North Sea oil, ports, pharmaceuticals, financial institutions, banking, shipbuilding and repairing, and building land.

Labour adopted extreme unilateral nuclear disarmament policies, the 1973 conference deciding:

it is opposed to any British defence policy which is based on the use or threatened use of nuclear weapons, either by this country or its allies, demands the closing down of all nuclear bases, British and American on British soil or in British waters, and demands that this pledge be included in the General Election manifesto. [10]

Even the party’s national executive showed growing left influence and a degree of independence from the actions of the parliamentary leadership.

After the previous Labour government’s cavalier attitude towards conference resolutions, party democracy and the supremacy of conference were all the rage. At the 1970 Labour conference Jack Jones powerfully attacked elitism in government:

For too many Members of Parliament the constituency Labour Party is a bit of a nuisance, a device for giving him a free hand as the mood takes him ... we need greater influence from below, not less. [11]

In the spirit of his speech the following resolution was carried by 3,085,000 votes to 2,801,000, against the executive:

This Conference believes that the Parliamentary Labour Party leaders, whether in government or opposition, should reflect the views and aspirations of the Labour and Trade Union Movement, by framing their policies on Annual Conference decisions ... it deplores the Parliamentary Labour Party’s refusal to act on Conference decisions.’ [12]

In 1971 Scanlon demanded ‘a definite decision that decisions of the Party Conference are binding on us all, and that includes every MP in this Party,’ [13] while the 1973 party programme promised that ‘Policy in the Labour Party is made by the members. The long-term programme of the Party is determined by Annual Conference.’ The party had embarked on a struggle which would culminate in the constitutional changes made at the 1981 Wembley Special Conference.

The birth of the Alternative Economic Strategy

The Labour Party conference of 1973 adopted what was to become known as the Alternative Economic Strategy. It was prompted by the failure of traditional Keynesianism under the Wilson government. Wilson had sacrificed expansion to maintain the confidence of the financial markets and improve the balance of payments. To do so he held down wages and raised taxes on working people, ending with the fiasco of In Place of Strife.

Labour’s 1973 programme concluded that Britain must break the chains that tied the country to world capitalism, and with massive national reconstruction restore its position as a major industrial power. The programme rested ‘on three major pillar ... new public enterprise ... the planning agreements system ... [and] a new Industry Act’.

New public enterprise was necessary to break complete ‘domination of the economy by a few leading firms.’ Therefore,

only direct control, through ownership, of a substantial and vital sector of the growth industries, mainly in manufacturing, which hold the key to investment performance, will allow a Labour Government of the future to achieve its essential planning objectives in the national interest. [An] expanded public sector is a key element of the planning process ...

Public ownership would be exercised through a National Enterprise Board (NEB) based on ‘existing State shareholdings ... with a substantial addition of ... some twenty-five of our largest [private] manufacturers.’ This would be required ‘very early in the life of the Board.’ [14]

Apparently George Brown’s National Plan had not failed because planning capitalism is impossible. It had just not been ambitious enough. So the programme called for a Planning Agreements system, to include:

all the major companies in this country ... certainly the largest 100 or so manufacturing firms – and all the major public enterprises. Its role will include the following: to get up-to-date information [which] will concern both past performance and advance programmes ... investment, prices, product development, marketing, exports and import requirements.

Labour would use this to:

provide a systematic basis for making large companies accountable for their behaviour, and for bringing into line those which refuse to co-operate.

To make international capital accountable, special measures were suggested:

We shall seek to ensure, for example, that the Government has the right to appoint public directors to the resident subsidiary companies of non-resident multi-nationals and to the main boards of resident multi-nationals; that the state – possibly through the NEB – is able to acquire shares in the parent company of multi-nationals and place a director in the board ...

This was nothing if ambitious. Judith Hart said on 24 June 1973 that the NEB would be used radically to transform the structure of the economy:

at the end of a five-year term one-third of the turnover of the top 100 manufacturers, who account for about half of our net manufacturing output and two-fifths of their profits and about half their employment, should be invested with the board. [15]

To do this all that was needed was for the six hundred or so individuals reclining on the benches of the Palace of Westminster to pass a New Industry Act. Instantly the government would have real powers to intervene. All the above measures, the programme claimed, would remedy the comparatively low rates of investment in the British economy, hence rebuilding British industrial capacity and raising its productivity to world levels. To reduce the influence of international capitalism, Britain should leave the EEC. Only then could economic sovereignty be regained, only then could the British state plan the national economy.

As the Alternative Economic Strategy was developed, new elements were introduced such as stringent control over the export of capital. Sterling would cease to be an international currency and would no longer be freely convertible. Foreign exchange controls would aim not only to halt runs on the pound, but also to prevent the expansion of British firms abroad rather than in the domestic economy. While the bulk of the economy would still be privately owned, the state would be the dominant force.

Safeguarded by import quotas from balance-of-payments problems, the government would make the achievement of full employment and economic growth its top priorities. This would be achieved by expanding demand; in this way Keynesian policy would come back into its own. In essence the Alternative Economic Strategy was nothing but revamped nationalist Keynesianism.

To strengthen the popular support for the Alternative Economic Strategy, Labour’s Programme 1973 offered a few extra goodies. After all if you are writing a cheque that will bounce, why not enter some astronomic figure?:

Economic Equality:

... We are therefore now determined to launch a fundamental attack on the principle of the hereditary transmission of great wealth, with its associated power and privilege, and the accumulation of unearned gains ...

Industrial Democracy:

... we are considering the provision of direct representation for workers – with this representation being based firmly upon trade union channels, and being directly accountable to the workers in the company concerned. We are also considering with the TUC introducing the ‘Supervisory Board’ to British company structure. Such a Board would then be responsible for overall company policy and practice ...

The Alternative Economic Strategy was completely unrealistic, utopian. With the bulk of industry remaining in private hands, with profit as the main spur of economic activity, would the most powerful sector of British capital – the multi-nationals and the banks – meekly accept the nationalisation of 25 leading companies and the diktat of the state and its planning agreements? Would the multi-nationals acquiesce with the appointment of directors by the government without a fight? Would they accept democratic control of industry? Would the present state machine – the civil service, judiciary, police and army – break the ‘strike of capital’ if big business resisted?

The Alternative Economic Strategy, it seemed, would be good for the workers – achieving full employment – and for the nation – restoring the international competitiveness of the British economy. It was the old, tired Labour synthesis of class and nation, reworked.

The picketing of Saltley gates, which led to the closing of a coke depot in the Midlands, seems pale in comparison with these world-shattering proposals. Yet the battle of Saltley gates had one important advantage, it advanced the real workers’ movement to a position of confidence and power it had not held for half a century. The Alternative Economic Strategy, on the other hand, was totally stillborn.

The Social Contract

An integral part of Labour’s Programme 1973 was ‘a far reaching social contract between workers and the Government – a contract which can be renewed each year as circumstances and as new opportunities present themselves.’ The way for such an agreement had been prepared by the establishment, in January 1972 of a joint ‘Liaison Committee’ of the Parliamentary Labour Party, party executive and the TUC. In February 1973 this produced a compact, titled Economic Policy and the Cost of Living which became part of the 1973 programme of the party.

The compact included the repeal of the Industrial Relations Act, extension of industrial democracy, a Royal Commission on incomes distribution, and the establishment of a Conciliation and Arbitration Service. It also mentioned new public enterprises, effective public supervision of the investment policies of large private corporations, new taxes on wealth, a redistribution of wealth and income, and direct statutory control of prices, particularly of food, housing and rent. Finally there were commitments on pensions, housing, health service charges and withdrawal from the EEC.

Through the influence of Jones, Scanlon, Benn and the Communist Party’s network of supporters, the idea of Social Contracts and Alternative Economic Strategies filtered down to a substantial number of militants.

In the 1974 election the Social Contract proved invaluable to Labour. Its campaign, far from reflecting the fighting minority, stressed that the Social Contract proved that Labour could handle the unions when Heath could not. But its greatest role was to come. As we shall see, after 1974 it was the Social Contract – in support of which the left union leaders Jones and Scanlon played a crucial role – which strangled the rank and file militancy which had gripped Britain under Heath.

Parasite Lost

Given the radical policies adopted by Labour conferences during the years of the Heath government, it is surprising to find that the organised Labour left was weak. The Tribune Group was the only serious force, and for such influence as it had it depended on a number of big unions which for the moment went along with it. Despite Tribune’s vocal denunciation of past Labour government policies there were close links between the its former editor Michael Foot, the party leader Harold Wilson, and the TGWU general secretary Jack Jones. It was this triumvirate that acted as a reconciling force between the party executive and the leadership of the PLP. Who of the three was paramount became obvious after Wilson was returned to Downing Street in 1974. He dragged the big unions along, and they in turn pulled the Tribunite left.

Indeed despite the mighty industrial struggles and the left rhetoric, the Labour Party did not do well at all. Individual membership of the party actually went down. It was 690,191 in 1970, and 665,379 in 1973. As pointed out elsewhere, membership figures were distorted by the rule that every constituency party must affiliate on the basis of at least 1,000 members. Nevertheless the figures make the general trend clear.

Things were also bad electorally. In the four years of the second Wilson government, 1966–1970, Labour lost 15 seats in parliamentary by-elections and won none. Under Heath, between 1970 and 1974, Labour had made only one gain from the Tories, while in 1973 it lost Lincoln to Dick Taverne, the Labour renegade who became a Social Democrat, Rochdale to the Liberals, and Govan to the Scottish Nationalists. The memory of the 1966–70 Labour government was still fresh in the minds of the voters. The experience of the Wilson government had lowered the threshold of Labour’s electoral support on a long-term basis.

The Labour vote did not benefit from the radicalising effect of class struggle. This was a serious sign for the future. Since the birth of the Labour Party there had been a link, albeit indirect and tenuous, but real nevertheless, between the class struggle and voting Labour. Now the aspirations aroused by victories of workers’ struggle at Pentonville, Saltley and many other places seemed so divorced from the known record of what Labour could offer that lor a growing number of workers, the link had snapped.

Thus only a minority of workers drew general political conclusions from the great struggles of the early 1970s. As a result, although Labour won the general election of February 1974, its vote was lower than in 1970 by 531,904, or 6 per cent. Compared to 1966, there had been a loss of 1,418,560 – or 10 per cent. The 1974 election added a new twist to the see-saw effect described earlier. Having tried both Labour and Tories under conditions of crisis, many voters abandoned the two major parties in the elusive search for a better parliamentary alternative. The growth of nationalist parties was one sign of this, but the main beneficiaries were the Liberals. Their share of the vote, which had been 8.5 per cent in 1966, now stood at 19.3 per cent. It was this that allowed Labour to defeat the Tories. [1*]

Nevertheless, Labour had come to office with an extremely radical left-wing programme and during the greatest wave of working-class struggle for half a century. How would the party respond?


1*. A sign of the disillusionment with both main parties was that together Tories and Labour had received 96.8 per cent of the votes in 1951; in 1974 this dropped to only 74.9 per cent.


1. M. Silver, Recent British Strike Trends: A Factual Analysis, in British Journal of Industrial Relations, January 1973.

2. C. Crouch, The Intensification of Industrial Conflict in the United Kingdom, in C. Crouch and A. Pizzomo (eds.), The Resurgence of Class Conflicts in Western Europe Since 1968 (London 1978), p. 253.

3. R. Harrison, editor’s introduction to The Independent Collier (Hassocks 1978), p. 1.

4. L. Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution (London 1977), p. 169.

5. Socialist Worker, 14 April 1973.

6. A. Callinicos, The Rank and File Movement Today, in International Socialism, 2 : 17, Autumn 1982.

7. E. Heffer, The Class Struggle in Parliament: a Socialist View of Industrial Relations (London 1973), p. 232.

8. Heffer, p. 242.

9. Labour Conference 1973, pp. 128–9.

10. Labour Conference 1973, p. 301.

11. Labour Conference 1970, p. 176.

12. Labour Conference 1970, p. 176.

13. Labour Conference 1971, p. 342.

14. Labour’s Programme 1973 (emphasis added).

15. M. Hatfield, The House the Left Built (London 1978), p. 210 (emphasis added).

Last updated on 20 October 2017