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Lindsey German

Before the flood?

(Winter 1993)

From International Socialism 2:61, Winter 1993.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Riots, slump, decay and despair: these are the results of John Major’s term in office. The Tory party which briefly united around Major just three years ago, and rejoiced at his re-election 18 months later, is now deeply divided on every issue from Europe to taxation, from Bosnia to privatisation. Its divisions reflect a much wider ideological splintering as the different ruling class interests which grouped together in the 1980s under the hegemony of Thatcherism find themselves bitterly divided.

Economic collapse has undermined the ideological certainty. Perhaps the most intense opposition to the Tories stems from many who once accepted Tory policies. Now they feel betrayed. This leaves even the ruling class with no real confidence that the present government can do anything to end the economic and social crisis which has them in its grip. This is a huge change in the political climate.

Thatcher was able to impose her policies not because she never compromised – the ludicrous claim made in her memoirs – but because the ruling class in Britain largely accepted the Thatcherite project in the 1980s. There was widespread opposition to the early government policies during the recession of 1980–81, especially from manufacturing industry. But once the economy began to grow again, that resistance began to disappear. By 1986 and 1987, when powerful groups of workers had already been defeated, when the economy was growing very fast and when even unemployment figures were falling, Britain’s rulers really did begin to believe that the Thatcher miracle had worked, that slump was a thing of the past and that Britain could lead Europe economically and politically.

The reversal of economic fortunes exposed the solution of the 1980s as a sham. The British ruling class was faced with uncomfortable choices. The argument over entry into the Exchange Rate Mechanism of the European Monetary System was about these choices. The options were to become a junior partner in the EC on relatively unfavourable terms, or stay outside a fully integrated Europe on even more unfavourable terms. The political crisis which erupted on Black Wednesday, 15 September 1992, when the pound was forced out of the ERM, laid bare these splits. The prestige of the Tory government has never recovered. As Tory right winger Simon Heffer put it recently, ‘The worst problem facing the Tory Party ... is that the government has still not rebuilt its moral authority after the political catastrophe of Black Wednesday 13 months ago.’ [1]

The crisis at the top is partly a reflection of and partly creates a crisis among the lower middle classes. The popular dissatisfaction and bitterness among the traditionally stable backbone of the Conservative Party is now rampant. It is all the more fierce for coming from people who placed absolute faith in Thatcherism but who now find their businesses bankrupted, their homes repossessed and even managerial jobs under attack. The political alliance which included the ruling class, most of the middle classes and substantial sections of workers has broken down. It was symbolised by Rupert Murdoch’s Sun, whose uncritical and enthusiastic reflection of Thatcherism conveyed many of its ideas in popular form. Any cursory glance at the paper in the days following Black Wednesday reveals how that enthusiasm has been turned to angry opposition, reflecting a sense of betrayal.

Among many workers too there has been a sharp political shift. The effect of the market has produced a political revulsion among many people who were once tempted to believe in its miraculous qualities. At the root of this change in political mood has been the attack on workers’ living standards through the poll tax and the accelerated assault on the welfare state. Millions of workers who thought themselves secure have found themselves disillusioned. Since the election Major’s premiership has been exposed as weak, indecisive, unpleasant and vindictive, and quite often unable to carry a majority of people with it in any of its central policies. Far from the Major years representing a period of calm following the turbulence of Thatcherism, they have produced a level of discontent and anger, and increased politicisation, greater than anything seen in Britain for many years.

Recession and stagnation have marked Major’s entire period of office. Options supposedly available to buy the Tories out of their problems, for example the ‘windfall’ subsidy provided by North Sea oil in the early to mid-1980s, or the injections of billions of pounds’ worth of public money to win the miners’ strike of 1984–5 are simply no longer available. At an individual level workers have found that their jobs are no longer secure as unemployment has soared, wages have been held down and overtime has disappeared.

The effect of the Tories’ crisis has been that their ‘mandate’ won in the 1992 election has effectively been eroded. The rot began just three months after the election victory. CBI boss Howard Davies was calling for a wage freeze, there was a sterling crisis and the stench of corruption, scandal and decay around the government even before the crises over the ERM and pit closures.

Tory and ruling class hopes that signs of economic recovery would restore their fortunes have so far proved false. The internal crisis of the Tory party as well as its disastrous showing in opinion polls by the spring and summer of 1993 (between 23 and 28 percent in August 1993) indicate that the Tories are as unpopular as ever. [2]

And yet among socialists and trade unionists there is still a great deal of unease. Labour is well ahead in the opinion polls (but it has been before) and its leadership seems incapable of giving either voice or direction to protests. The feeling of October 1992, when hundreds of thousands marched for the miners and succeeded in shaking the government to its foundations, has been allowed to dissipate. Subsequent strikes at the Timex factory in Dundee and at University College Hospital in London succeeded in galvanising very wide layers of support but did not mark signal victories.

The significant numbers of one day or half day strikes which take place tend to remain under the control of the trade union leaders. Meanwhile, job losses seem to pile up without any action against them, conditions in virtually every workplace are under attack – in both the private and the public sectors – and wage increases are at very low levels. Union membership still seems to be falling inexorably, the number of strike days is extremely low and the unions are repeatedly described as ‘dinosaurs’ by government and media alike.

So is it all an illusion? Will the discontent and anger find an outlet in mass strikes which can defeat the government and reverse the years of attacks on workers which were such a feature of the 1980s, or will it be dispersed by lack of clear direction and leadership? Even worse, with last year’s victory of the BNP candidate in the Isle of Dogs, will the mood of bitterness turn in a much nastier direction, with racism being used to divide and rule those workers who have suffered so much from the crisis?

Will the Tories and the ruling class manage to regain the offensive, scoring a significant defeat against workers’ organisation? Or will the working class movement eventually succeed in rolling back some of these attacks? The sort of stand off between the two sides which we have witnessed over the past three years cannot, after all, continue indefinitely. What are the prospects?

Great expectations?

The most frequently expressed hope of Tory politicians is that everything will come right when the economy does. Then, it is said, their popularity will return. The disaffection of millions of erstwhile Tory supporters will disappear, according to this view, if they can once again afford to buy houses and consumer durables, go on holidays and earn higher real wages. That means returning security to the jobs market and ensuring that earnings rise. This in turn means replacing the recession and stagnation of the past three years with a new boom. Recovery will both create a mood of contentment among those now disaffected with the government, and obviate unpopular or difficult governmental decisions. Increasing taxation, for example, will be unnecessary if economic growth is sufficient. Right wing cabinet minister John Redwood described this scenario in a recent interview:

I think we are now coming out of recession quite quickly. I think commentators are estimating the extent of the recovery already. That is becoming manifest in new car sales, developments in the housing market and it is certainly fully recognised by the stock market which has been hitting new highs for many months. There has been a rush by private investors to participate now that the market has risen quite a long way. I think all that is really quite positive. Looking to the future, I see a good period for strengthening and broadening the base of popular capitalism. [3]

On this analysis, the most superficial aspects of recovery will be sufficient to win new devotees of ‘popular capitalism’, ready once again to buy their council houses and stocks and shares, to set up their small businesses and to buy their new company cars. It is the Tory ideal, and as remote from reality as most idealised pictures. Nonetheless, a parallel view is also promoted by sections of the left, including much of the Labour leadership. They do not believe in ‘popular capitalism’, but believe that most workers do. Any dissatisfaction with the government is shortlived, they argue, and will disappear when there is money in workers’ pockets.

But Tory optimists and Labour cynics are wrong on both counts: the Thatcher-Lawson boom cannot be repeated in the near future, and any economic upturn is unlikely to eradicate the sorts of difficulties which the Tories face. The government cannot look forward to an easy solution to their economic problems – and so will not be able to solve their political problems.

Hopes of economic recovery are absolutely central to the Tories’ political strategy. Such a recovery is, according to various government sources, just around the corner. Just as they found the recession shocking precisely because it was so inexplicable, so they expect recovery to be like blue skies after rain. They are likely to be sorely disillusioned. There is no certainty of sustained recovery. It is true that expectations are high, with the majority of surveys of bosses and managers revealing an optimistic future for sustained growth of their industries. But expectations are not matched by hard facts. One typical survey – among manufacturing employers – showed a high degree of optimism, with 57 percent of companies predicting growth of up to 10 percent during 1993, while another 26 percent saw growth at over 10 percent this year. A staggering 96 percent believed their companies would grow significantly over the next three years. But, as the author of the survey pointed out:

Given their failure to meet 1992’s targets, however, it seems that Britain’s manufacturers are being over optimistic. How will they achieve such a major reversal in their fortunes? Is an economic upturn of the magnitude necessary to support this predicted growth really ‘just around the corner’? [4]

The optimism is certainly not matched by the facts. There was growth in Gross Domestic Product during the first half of 1993, but it remained very slight, with output still well below the figure when recession began. Recovery has also been patchy and uneven, with some sectors of the economy doing much better than others. There is no hard evidence that this recovery can be sustained. Even government figures have had to be revised downwards. Earlier in 1993 it was estimated that manufacturing output since autumn 1992 had grown by more than 3 percent – that figure has had to be cut nearly in half to 1.8 percent. [5] Other figures registered a larger than expected fall in manufacturing investment in the second quarter of 1993 after several quarters of slow upward growth. [6] A recent CBI survey showed that manufacturing order books had fallen from earlier 1993 levels in the majority of its regions. [7] Treasury statistics issued in the autumn of 1993 pointed to a slight slowdown in growth which was at only 0.4 percent (excluding oil and gas) between July and September. But manufacturing output actually shrank, and one economist cautioned that the figures were anyway ‘extremely unreliable’, while another said that ‘the economy is starting to slow down’. [8]

Reports of a sustained recovery are therefore much exaggerated, and there is every possibility that the pattern of recovery will at best be similar to the United States in the past year: low levels of growth which peter out, then re-emerge, but never really develop. Very few jobs are created and many problems of the recession, such as huge levels of debt, remain central features.

Recession affected Britain much earlier and much more deeply than virtually any of its major competitors. ‘Recovery to what?’ is therefore a real question in an economy where ‘UK output fell by 4 percent between the second quarter of 1990 and the second quarter of 1992 and has not yet returned to its level at the beginning of 1989’. [9] The August 1993 poll of economic forecasters in the Economist projected UK growth at 1.6 percent and at 2.6 percent for 1994. This is a better rate than most of its European competitors who have only recently gone into recession, but compares highly unfavourably with projections for the US, Canada and Australia (the other long standing victims of ‘Anglo-Saxon recession’). [10] The current boast of government ministers, that Britain’s will be the fastest growing economy in Europe in 1993, is misleading. The big European economies were growing quite strongly during the early 1990s when output in Britain was falling. [11] In any case, Britain’s export markets are heavily connected to countries such as Germany. Recession there affects British capitalism, as the recent layoffs at the big car factories have shown. Despite an upturn in car sales in Britain, the car market in continental Europe shrank dramatically during 1993, thus affecting exports from Britain. [12]

Is British capitalism therefore in a position to compete with its main rivals and so solve its problems even if a recovery is sustained? The answer is no, if past performance, even during the booming 1980s, is a guide. If we date growth back to 1979, rather than to the end of recession in 1981 as the Tories prefer to do, we find that the total increase in output in manufacturing industry during that period was 7 percent. Manufacturing capacity increased by the same amount – not bad for Europe, but lagging behind the US and Japan where capacity grew by 32 percent and 39 percent respectively. If we go further back, British manufacturing capacity between 1970 and 1990 grew by 19 percent, but by 43 percent in the big three European economies, 86 percent in the US and 129 percent in Japan. [13] Although there has been an increase in investment in manufacturing capacity, this may not reflect a growth in jobs or output but rather that ‘the UK may simply be replacing the wrong sort of capacity with more efficient and up-to-date equipment’. If this is the case, ‘the danger is that Britain will still be left with a small and efficient manufacturing sector that is too small for the nation’s future prosperity’. [14]

Inability to compete through lack of a sufficiently large manufacturing sector can be compounded by the other problems facing British capitalism, some of them products of the recession, others the legacy of the Lawson boom: high unemployment, bankruptcies, a colossal debt hangover, lack of investment, a record public sector borrowing deficit and a balance of trade deficit which threatens to suck in even more imports when economic upturn comes. Budget deficit and public debt far – from being eradicated, as we were told in the late 1980s – are likely to remain a running sore in the British economy for a long time to come. Recent projections by the International Monetary Fund about the budget deficits show just how serious this problem is:

The UK in particular is on an explosive course: by 1998, its budget deficit is expected to remain more than twice as great as that needed to stabilise its debt ratio. Little wonder that the IMF privately fears that the debt threat is moving north. These days it is the build-up of first world debt, not Africa’s lingering crisis, that haunts the sleep of IMF officials. [15]

Unemployment levels remain high despite minute falls in the jobless levels through the summer of 1993 – with official figures of 3 million and an overall rate of 10.4 percent. [16] The jobs which we were told had been created by the Lawson boom of the mid-1980s have simply not been sustained. The figures are fairly staggering. Employment fell by 1.4 million between 1979 and 1983 during the first Thatcher recession. It then rose during the boom to not only replace those lost but create another 1.9 million jobs in total. However, since 1990 the second Thatcher recession has removed nearly all of these jobs – with only half a million net extra jobs being created since 1978! ‘Over the period 1979–92, US employment grew by 19 percent, French employment by 3 percent and UK employment by 0.4 percent.’ [17]

So expansion of employment – even in the low wage, low tech jobs which have marked much of the new employment in recent years – has been negligible. But perhaps the greatest hidden fear of the employers is that an increase in industrial output and signs of real recovery will lead to demands for big wage increases. Wage rises have been held down in recent years through a combination of low inflation, recession and lack of industrial struggle. The Tory government has insisted on a wage freeze in the public sector for 1994. Its aim is to put down a marker to private industry (it fears that private sector wage increases will get out of control) while at the same time taking a hard line on public spending. [18] But the political backlash against the government is in large part a result of its assault on public sector spending so far. Attacks on a wider front are only likely to raise the level of general political opposition to the Tories’ policies and to ruling class strategy. It is to this that we now turn.

Breaking all the records

At the very least, if we are to live within a market capitalist system, it is unsatisfactory that we should have doubts about its moral foundations. One or two recent speeches, even by some members of the present government, betray a worrying insecurity ... Once the legitimacy of egalitarianism is accepted, however much equality there is, the cry will always be for more of it. [19]

These were the words of Lord Lawson of Blaby who in his previous incarnation as Chancellor of the Exchequer presided over the frothy boom of the late 1980s, the overheating of the economy and the onset of slump. His is the authentic voice of 1980s Thatcherism: confident, arrogant and a passionate advocate of inequality. Like Gordon Gekko in the film Wall Street, Lawson believes that ‘greed is good’. Such views could be echoed by half a dozen former cabinet ministers who also now sit in the House of Lords.

Yet despite the excesses of the 1993 Tory party conference with its attempts to find scapegoats among single parents, ‘foreigners’ and young criminals, there are still not many of the present cabinet who would dare to be so blatant as Lawson. Most pretend that they are more committed to egalitarianism, to choice, against the excesses of the very wealthy. Yet very few people believe them. They are, if anything, even more unpopular than their predecessors. As a recent Daily Telegraph article pointed out, ‘the government and the Conservative Party continue to establish new records in Gallup’s surveys’. These new records include that ‘the proportion of voters “approving” of the government’s record, 12.2 percent, has remained below 20 percent for 10 months ... a tiny 23 percent of voters now say they would back the Conservatives ... fewer than 20 percent of voters are “satisfied” with Mr Major as prime minister ... No previous prime minister ever fell below 20 percent. [20]

Why are they so unpopular? After all, when Major replaced Thatcher in the winter of 1990 he had offended few people even inside the Tory party, let alone outside. He had the virtue of not being Margaret Thatcher, which alone raised his popularity a few notches, and he fought the leadership campaign largely on the claim that he understood ordinary people because he had spent a short period of his life in Brixton. Today he is pilloried in the newspapers, hated by many in his own party and despised by millions of working people.

There are three main components of this dramatic change in fortune: the Tories’ own political mistakes, the worsening and intractable problems which face the mass of ordinary workers, and the increased politicisation of millions of people.

The Tories’ own mistakes

It was commonplace for both the Major cabinet and the press to assume that the removal of Thatcher would restore Tory popularity. Consequently there was little if any attempt to alter most of the policies which had contributed to her growing unpopularity. This was even true of the poll tax, where Major and Heseltine were reluctant to completely abandon the notion of a tax on individuals, and where the final form of the council tax was a hybrid between a property and a personal tax. [21] Levels of non-payment remained extremely high. Months after Thatcher’s departure thousands were still being taken to court for refusing to pay. Although the levels of poll tax were held down in March 1991 by adding 2.5 percent to the level of value added tax, the poll tax itself was only finally abolished in March of 1993.

John Major had the briefest ‘honeymoon’, which did not even last through the Gulf War, preventing him from exploiting that victory in the way that Thatcher had done with the Falklands War in 1982. The simple explanation for his failure was the terrible impact of the recession, whose adverse affects seemed to be accelerating daily by the spring of 1991 when the figures for unemployment hit 2 million. [22] Everyone could see it coming. Two thousand five hundred workers were sacked in a single day in January 1992 from firms including Peugeot, Ford, BICC and NatWest. British Airways announced 4,600 jobs to go, and British Steel 800. [23] By February 1,500 were losing their jobs every day.

The government was completely paralysed by the recession and its political consequences. It had no clear idea what to do, veering from complete inactivity to Norman Lamont’s declaration that unemployment was ‘a price worth paying’ to get inflation down. If it was tempted to buy its way out of problems, this was not apparent. The recession meant pressure to keep spending low. The ideological commitment to Thatcherism and a remoteness from the concerns of ordinary people all compounded its unpopularity.

During the heyday of Thatcher’s rule the Ridley Plan – to isolate and then defeat different groups of workers – successfully guided government strategy. Major’s government, in contrast, acted in ways which only worsened its position by uniting those opposed to it. The government continued and sometimes accelerated its attacks on welfare, the health service, housing and jobs. It pushed through vicious attacks if it thought it could get away with them, but its weakness meant that it could also easily be forced to retreat if it met even limited opposition.

So in late 1991 and early 1992 it increased levels of public spending and retreated from or avoided a whole number of potential industrial confrontations. The rail workers, for example, found British Rail’s ‘final offer’ of 7 percent was upped to nearly 8 percent. [24] Money was found to bring down the NHS waiting lists in the months before the election. The promises were that recovery was just around the corner – and growth would mean taxes could stay low, spending would not have to be cut, new jobs would be created.

But two events soon pushed government standing to new lows. Black Wednesday, 15 September 1992, was the day Major and Lamont spent billions of pounds shoring up the pound to no avail, and demonstrated their willingness to raise interest rates by 5 percent in a matter of hours. There could not have been a greater blow to a government which claimed there was no more money for hospitals or schools, and which said it had the interests of mortgage holders at heart. And Black Wednesday contributed to the mood of anger and hostility which erupted just a month later on the announcement that 31 pits were to be closed, effectively destroying the coal industry and the lives of whole communities.

Since then Major’s unpopularity has been constant, as he stumbles from crisis to crisis over the Maastricht Treaty (only ratified through a deal with the Ulster Unionists and arm twisting of Tory rebels), the universally unpopular VAT on fuel and the retreat on testing in schools and other Tory education ‘reforms’. Various leaks of proposed cuts in social security spending such as raising the pension age of both sexes to 67 or of women to 65, cutting invalidity benefit or restricting unemployment benefit to six months instead of a year, have all contributed to this unpopularity.

The once reliable loyalty of Tory supporters is no longer certain, as the Tories’ catastrophic defeats in the Newbury and Christchurch by-elections show. Even members of the Tory party, including loyal activists, are extremely disaffected, though this manifests itself in the paradox both of nostalgia for the ‘strong government’ of Thatcher and disquiet at the attacks on welfare. Two long standing party activists, a retired surgeon and a dentist in Cheshire, were quoted in a recent Observer magazine feature:

I think the way [Thatcher] was got rid of was appalling. I honestly remember thinking I didn’t want to have anything more to do with the party. We all reluctantly felt after she had gone we should have Major. I think we all thought he was a very nice man. Then he came in and won the election and it has all gone from bad to worse.

They cite their main objections to the government as the defence of David Mellor by John Major, Major’s failure to call a referendum on the Maastricht Treaty, the Matrix-Churchill case and ‘the most appalling thing was the miners: we just looked like a party that didn’t care at all. Totally insensitive. And that got people really upset. I don’t think they showed any compassion or respect’. [25]

Similar attitudes were shown when John Major visited the West Country after losing the Christchurch by-election. The local Tory membership officer said, ‘It’s a very loyal party but it’s had the worst year ever. [26] The 1993 Conservative Party conference in Blackpool contained fewer local representatives – ‘there were fewer of them this year, many regulars having suffered such a crash of morale that they did not attend.’ [27]

The demoralisation among those who a few years ago would have been the enthusiastic cheerleaders of Margaret Thatcher gives some notion of the ideological collapse of ‘popular Toryism’ and indeed ‘popular capitalism’. The collapse seems provoked by two aspects of the crisis: from the ravages of the system itself as boom has turned into slump and forced unemployment and poverty on millions who once believed they could find a comfortable niche within the system and, at the top of the social pile, the behaviour of the Tory government, big businessmen and others close to it, who have been revealed as greedy, corrupt, sleazy and unprincipled. Public outcry over top directors’ pay or over business funding of the Tory party is an indicator of this.

But these factors alone clearly cannot explain the political shift which has taken place since Thatcher went. During the 1980s there were equally huge increases in top people’s pay, funding of the Tories by big business was equally prevalent and there was as much corruption. Nor can the change be explained by John Major’s personality – he became leader of the Tories precisely because he did not have the force of personality of Thatcher. The real reason lies with much more fundamental problems which it will take much more than cosmetic changes to alter.

Put simply, the economic difficulties facing British capitalism are much more severe than problems created by a single recession. Britain’s declining standing as a great power internationally has left it with a legacy of spending, particularly in the areas of defence and welfare, which are no longer sustainable without taking much more from workers in the form of taxation, or else cutting into profits. But the government has so far been unable or unwilling to do either, and so has had to continue funding public spending at an even higher level than in the late 1980s. [28] The boom hid, but did not solve, this problem which has come back to haunt the Tories with a vengeance.

The worsening situation for most workers

’A nation at ease with itself’ is hardly how most people would describe life in Britain today. Here is the view of financial journalist Christopher Huhne:

In time, our form of capitalism will come to resemble the American variety. We will not regard ourselves as part of a society, but merely as individuals who must fend for ourselves as best we may, and devil take the hindmost.

With even more of the poor always with us, we will not seek to provide security as a public good; we will buy burglar and car alarms, anti-theft radios, private picket gates. We will earn more and spend more just to maintain the same sense of security we had when society was kinder and fairer. We will drive from a night-watchman-protected dormitory through ghettoes of the underclass to security-coded office buildings. Shut out the world, we want to be rich – whatever the cost. [29]

While this picture depicts the ‘yuppie nightmare’ which many national newspaper journalists no doubt fear, it also portrays a popular view of 1990s Britain – even if from the other side of the fence to most of us. Society is more violent, the ‘old values’ have broken down, there is a growing gap between rich and poor, and any idea of consensus politics has completely disappeared.

Certainly those who believed that the old evils of capitalism were gradually disappearing to be replaced with a more just, fairer society have been sorely disappointed. The Beveridge Report published in 1942 indicated the great problems of British society which needed to be eradicated – want, ignorance, disease, squalor and idleness. The basis of the post-war welfare state, and the political ideas which underpinned it, were intended to ensure that these miseries disappeared. Full employment, a national health service, council house building and adequate state benefits for the old, sick and disabled were regarded as its foundations.

The reality has turned out rather different. Unemployment is running at 10 percent of the population overall, the male rate being even higher. [30] The real situation is much worse than the figures indicate. Many men who would previously have been classified as unemployed are now categorised as ‘economically inactive’. ‘On average in the 1980s ... 14.9 percent of UK prime age males were out of work.’ [31] Poverty has grown, with 11.33 million people on or below the supplementary benefit/income support level in 1989 compared with 7.74 in 1979. [32] The decline of NHS funding has meant an alarming rise in preventible diseases such as dysentery. NHS provision is inadequate in many areas. For example, 14,000 babies in need of special care were, according to one report, competing for only 800 beds, two thirds of which were paid for by charities. [33] In 1992, 400,000 people were registered as homeless, but the housing charity Shelter puts the real figure at closer to 2 million. Around 150,000 young people become homeless each year. [34] Those with houses are not always so much better off. Although in the last two decades there has been a sharp reduction in the number of houses lacking amenities (such as baths, inside toilets, hot and cold running water), there has been only a marginal reduction in the number of ‘unfit’ dwellings, and an actual increase in the number of those in serious disrepair. [35]

The sense of decay pervading Britain comes from the worsening situation in all these areas. The slashing of capital spending on hospitals, schools, housing and other areas of infrastructure has resulted in virtually every publicly funded building being in need of repair, redecoration or complete rebuilding. The contrast between the public and private sectors could not be greater.

However, we should not assume that this picture of decay is one which only affects an ‘underclass.’ The attacks on welfare, jobs, housing and health care affect the vast majority of the population. We should be wary of assuming that figures for inequality of income distribution apply only to the very rich and the very poor. There is no doubt that the gap between rich and poor has widened, but the full picture of British society is not at all what the ruling class and the middle class commentators would have us believe.

Poverty is supposedly restricted to a small minority of those living mainly on state benefits. So Christopher Huhne quotes a recent government report arguing that it demonstrates that the bottom 10 percent in Britain ‘have suffered real falls in their income since 1979 despite the enormous increases for everyone else’. [36]

But ‘everyone else’ has not done quite as well as Huhne and others imply. They have certainly not been the recipients of ‘enormous increases’. Basing its figures on the government’s own statistics, the Commission on Social Justice has demonstrated that nearly two thirds of the population have an income below the average. [37] This hardly fits in with the ‘two thirds prosperous, one third poor’ image we are constantly bombarded with by, among others, Labour leader John Smith. Indeed, the past 15 years have shown a marked move away from egalitarianism towards a widening gap between rich and poor – not just the poorest. So ‘the bottom half of the population now receive only a quarter of the total income, compared to a third in 1979’. [38] In addition, changes in income for the bottom half of the population are demonstrative. It is true that average income rose 36 percent per household between 1979 and 1990–91. [39] But the share of the bottom tenth declined by 14 percent, that of the second bottom tenth stayed the same, the third, fourth and fifth lowest share increased by 7, 16 and 22 percent respectively – all much less than the average.

A small proportion of the rich have got much richer. Even government figures which tend to underestimate real ownership of wealth show that the top 2 percent own a quarter of all wealth, and the top 10 percent a full half of all wealth. [40] And ‘of the £31 billion given away in tax cuts between 1979 and 1992, 27 percent or £8.7 billion went to the top 1 percent of income earners. £15.2 billion went to the top 10 percent and 15 percent or £4.8 billion went to the bottom 50 percent.’ [41]

The net result of this redistribution in favour of the rich has been to leave the mass of those in work far from comfortably off. A chart produced by the Commission on Social Justice recently demonstrated that 36.7 million people live on incomes below £250 per week. Only half a million earn over £1,000 a week. [42] The average weekly disposable income for households stands at £280.04, with average family expenditure at £272.10. But expenditure is rising at twice the level of inflation. [43] The bulk of that income is spent on essentials. A whacking £95.70 is spent on or around the house, if the costs of housing, fuel, light and power, and household goods and services are taken together. Another £47.70 goes on food and £42.90 on motoring and travel, leaving £85.80 per week for every other bit of family expenditure: clothes, holidays, books and newspapers, sports and entertainment, alcohol and tobacco. [44]

Many of the families eligible for the family credit benefit do not claim it because they do not realise they are meant to be ‘poor’. Explaining the failure of this benefit to reach more than 64 percent of eligible families, a recent survey concluded that ‘they did not realise they were entitled to means tested benefit. They tended to be white collar couples who were buying their own home.’ [45]

What’s happening to pay?

During the 1980s wages rose in real terms for most workers (although benefits for pensioners and those on social security, as well as student grants, failed to keep pace). Attacks on welfare, anti-union laws and privatisation were accompanied by significant wage rises in many areas, which helped to prevent more general industrial opposition to government policies. Most people therefore felt themselves better off year by year. As Hugo Young has put it, writing of the 1987 election campaign:

Inflation did not rise above 5 percent at any point during this parliament. In the four years after the 1983 election, average weekly earnings rose by 14 percent in real terms ... All employed people, therefore, felt better off, even if ministers had made a mess of the rest of their programme. [46]

This remained the case up to the 1992 election, since fear of confrontation over pay led to substantial increases in a whole number of industries.

Now there are signs that the situation is beginning to change. Government figures recently revealed that ‘pre-tax personal incomes between April and June [1993] showed their first quarterly fall for 27 years, partly because of low wage increases, a fall in social security benefits and weaker investment income.’ [47]

Indeed, it would appear that manual workers have seen their living standards and wage levels held below the rate of inflation, while managerial and administrative white collar grades have been rewarded with increases much higher than the average. If we add to this the effects of short time working, lay offs, periods of unemployment and a cutback in overtime, we can see that the financial situation of many workers, especially manual workers, has deteriorated fairly sharply in the last year or two. The lower paid, who include the bulk of manual workers, have been disproportionately hard hit.

The government’s latest New Earnings Survey shows that manual workers have been particularly badly hit, with average manual wages only increasing by 2.5 percent, compared with a rise of 4.4 percent for non-manual occupations. These averages hide the extent to which managers’ pay has risen much faster than routine white collar workers. Some workers suffered real wage cuts in 1992–93. Non-manual women workers under 18 suffered pay cuts of 9.3 percent, and all full time women workers under 18 saw pay cuts of 5.9 percent. Royal Mail manual workers, for example, also suffered a pay cut of 3.2 percent.

The survey gave the weekly average male manual gross wage at £274.30, while non-manuals averaged £418.20. Women manuals averaged £177.10 and non-manuals £268.70. Despite the claims of Labour’s leadership several years ago that dockers were earning £400 a week, even at 1993 levels, 89.1 percent of male manual workers had gross weekly earnings of less than that amount. [48]

These figures are the result of squeezes on both the private and public sector wage levels. A Confederation of British Industry survey put manufacturing industry pay rises between April and June 1993 at 2.3 percent, the lowest for at least 16 years. It also claimed that ‘pay freezes of less than 12 months are widespread, affecting about one in three manufacturers and one in four service sector companies’. [49] There are disputes about whether private sector pay settlements are now beginning to rise again. For example, Incomes Data Services argues that the number of pay deals between 2 and 4 percent is rising, and the number of pay freezes and pay pauses is declining. [50] There is no doubt, however, that the level of wage increases has remained low and shows little sign of dramatic change.

The current public sector pay freeze is at least partly justified by the Tories on the grounds that public sector pay is rising at faster levels than private sector. But, while it is true that for the last three years (up to April 1993) the figures show public sector pay increasing faster than that in the private sector, this balance may already have changed. [51] In any case the overall figure hides a great deal of unevenness, with some of the lowest paid receiving barely any increases on already very low basic pay, while many managers and administrators have received substantial increases. More significantly, the long term decline of public sector pay compared with private is marked: since the early 1970s public sector pay has fallen by nearly a fifth relative to the private sector, and since the Clegg comparability awards of the early 1980s it has fallen by over 10 percent. [52]

These comparative figures are hardly likely to be improved by the public sector freeze on wages imposed at 1.5 percent for 1993–94 and now extended for a second year, and the continuing stagnation in many parts of private industry. Both government and employers are stressing the need to keep wage increases low. If they are successful, then many British workers will discover that they are becoming worse off.

The government wants to pursue a strategy of holding wages down and so will welcome such a development. But the political consequences of such a change in workers’ fortunes for the first time since the late 1970s will be explosive. The second year of public sector pay freeze is a very risky strategy indeed, which is why only last June Chancellor of the Exchequer Kenneth Clarke claimed he had reservations about such a policy since it led to a ‘bounce-back after the restraint. The longer you keep it on the more ... the dangers become.’ [53] The possibility of holding the line on wages, as the Tories did in 1993–94, but then finding more and more disputes including strikes the following year, is one which the government does not relish. Historically, pay struggles in response to pay restraint and wage freezes have often had a generalising and politicising effect on the unions. Struggles against pay freezes have frequently been successful in winning higher wage levels, at first for ‘exceptional cases’ but then for more and more groups of workers who follow the ‘exceptions’.

Given the general decline in living standards in recent years, there will be widespread anger about further wage restraint. That in turn is likely to be compounded by the growing differences between workers’ wages and those of managers and bosses. Professionals’ pay has risen by 5.7 percent in the year up to April 1993, and that of managers by 6.2 percent. [54] But, although twice the increase gained by manual workers, it pales into insignificance next to the huge increases paid to company directors. Their average basic salary increased by 6.2 percent, but even this hides the extent to which top directors in particular have benefited. The average chief executive receives basic pay of £157,706, which nearly doubles to £261,327 when all the perks are taken into account. This in turn doubles again when share options, worth on average £298,320, are included. [55] The employers are continuing to reward themselves extremely generously – something which will fuel discontent about the pay freeze imposed on the rest of us.

The increase in poverty is not just caused by low wages, however, but is compounded by two other crucial factors: the level of taxation and the level of debt. The level of taxation is set to rise by £6 billion in March 1994 and £10 billion in March 1995 – and this does not take into account any further tax increases in Chancellor Clarke’s autumn 1993 budget. Despite successive cuts in income tax and a reduction of the top earners’ rate of tax from 83 percent to 40 percent, the overall burden of taxation has risen under both Thatcher and Major. It has been shifted onto National Insurance contributions and onto value added tax, extended now to domestic fuel and threatened with extension to newspapers, children’s clothes and even food. [56] The impact, as the tax is essentially regressive, has been to place a greater burden on the poor. Estimates of the March 1994 and 1995 increases, which also limit mortgage tax relief to 20 percent, show that the vast majority of households will lose around 2 percent of their incomes, but the lowest 10 percent of households will lose 3 percent, while the top 10 percent will lose only 1.5 percent of their incomes. [57] The regressive nature of the taxation – leaving the rich proportionately least burdened – is set to continue, leaving the vast majority feeling worse off.

The other key factor responsible for destroying the feeling of well-being so prevalent even among many workers during the 1980s is the debt hangover. This does not affect just the big companies, but also millions of households. The Thatcher years saw a gigantic expansion of personal debt. At the centre of this was the housing boom and the huge increase both in the number of mortgage holders and the levels of repayment with which they were burdened. In 1989, 29 percent of those with a mortgage were paying £3,000 a year or over, and another 21 percent were paying between £2,000 and £3,000. [58]

In 1981 the number of mortgages stood at 6.3 million. By 1991 it had risen to 9.6 million. Whereas arrears of over 12 months stood at 5,500 in 1982, they had reached 13,800 in 1989, 36,100 in 1990 and a staggering 59,700 in 1991. Arrears of between six and 12 months rose from 21,500 in 1981 to 66,800 in 1989, 123,100 in 1990 and 162,200 in 1991. Repossessions nearly trebled between 1989 and 1990 to 43,900. [59]

Housing debt was the largest but by no means the only area of debt. Workers were encouraged to borrow with very little restraint through the boom years of the 1980s. This made it seem as if their pay levels were actually considerably higher than they were, as credit cards took the ‘waiting out of wanting’. In contrast the effect of the ‘debt hangover’ is to make their actual wage levels today lower than they might at first seem. Total personal sector debt trebled between 1980 and 1992, from £100 billion to £300 billion. ‘As a percentage of total disposable income, personal-sector debt rose from less than half in 1980 to more than disposable income in 1990.’ [60] Nor have most workers managed to repay much debt. Indeed, one report recently claimed that ‘the proportion of consumers getting into debt rose in the second quarter [of 1993]’. [61] Levels of debt have only turned down very slightly in the depth of the recession, suggesting the costs of servicing the debts make it impossible to pay them off in full. This often leads to new debt being taken on.

No wonder any comfortable feeling of well being has disappeared.

The changed political climate

It is hard to overestimate the change in political mood which has taken place since Thatcher’s heyday. At root is the change in the economy: economic expansion, skill shortages in many areas, boom industries in many parts of the country, rising property prices which gave those workers with mortgages a sense of growing prosperity, rising real incomes, all contributed to the complacency of the mid to late 1980s. Those who worried about riots, rising crime, homelessness, or the decline of health and education provision were told that these problems would be solved as the free market took hold. The wealth generated by companies and rich individuals would eventually ‘trickle down’ to everyone. But the rich had to be allowed to get richer, public spending had to continue being reined back, otherwise the magical forces of the market would not be able to work.

This view was always only rather grudgingly and partially accepted by most workers. Thatcherism has been described as being ‘hegemonic’ during the 1980s, suggesting a positive and enthusiastic endorsement of Thatcherite values by millions of workers. This was never the case. Electorally, the Tories remained a minority party throughout the decade. Politically, the grasping, selfish, yuppie values associated with the creed never permeated to the mass of ordinary working people. So even at the height of ‘Thatcherism’ after the defeat of the year long miners’ strike in 1985, and during the Lawson boom, most people espoused collectivist, welfarist and egalitarian attitudes over most issues. Indeed, comparisons between opinion surveys in the mid-1970s and those in 1983 and 1986 show that Thatcher’s rule created a higher awareness of the social causes of poverty in the later years. [62] Labour’s electoral doldrums were still mainly a result of its attacks on workers when last in government in 1974–79 and the failure of its local councils to protect people from Tory policies. Its constant moves towards Tory ground did not help. And Thatcher could not have won most of her victories without a degree of treachery from within the workers’ movement itself. The miners’ strike could not have been defeated without the splits in the Labour Party and TUC over the strike. Rupert Murdoch could not have moved to Wapping and smashed the print unions without the willingness of the electricians’ union to recruit scabs. And when the attacks on the NHS became obvious in 1988, there was a national wave of sympathy for the striking Manchester nurses which forced the government onto the defensive – a position it has occupied ever since.

Once the boom began to come to an end, even the superficial gains which most workers had made during the Thatcher years looked less attractive. The residue left after the tide went out included record debt, millions with mortgages they could not afford – often on houses whose value fell far lower than the value of the mortgage itself – the decline of overtime, bonuses and other opportunities to augment salaries whose basic levels were quite low. On top of this was the continuing decline in the public sector: transport, hospitals, libraries – and, perhaps most important, the looming threat of unemployment.

The sense of betrayal felt by millions during the recession has been tangible. Workers were cajoled, persuaded and bribed into buying houses, using easy credit to buy cars, holidays and furniture, on the assumption that the good times would never come to an end. Then they did. The economy ran out of control, and could not slow down gradually. Instead it crashed to a halt. This reversal of fortunes was part of what led to a change in attitudes. But the common assumption, even by some on the left, that hostility to government and other changes in attitudes are simply the product of workers being directly hit in the pocket is false. If we look more closely at the changes in attitudes which have taken place, they clearly stem from a much broader and deeper disaffection with society.

It is true that many people are centrally concerned about one question; whether their jobs are safe. Despite a fall in total unemployment for a few months in the spring and summer of 1993, the number of people who feared they would be thrown on the dole grew. For example, in August 1993, 47 percent of those asked said they were very or fairly concerned about losing their job. [63] The same survey demonstrated that between April and August 1993 the number of people aged under 24 who worried about redundancy and unemployment rose from 40 percent to 50 percent. The number of unskilled and semi-skilled manual workers concerned about the dole rose from 44 to 53 percent. But we should remember that fear of unemployment is not something limited to the ‘down’ side of the business cycle. Mass unemployment, varying between the historically high levels of 1 million and 3 million, has haunted British society for 20 years. That fear has been translated into hatred of a government which has presided over unemployment.

Attitudes on other issues have also shifted. So another poll, conducted in September 1993, showed that 77 percent thought that ‘there is one law for the rich and one for the poor.’ Only 18 percent favoured privatisation, and 46 percent thought that ‘more socialist planning would be the best way to solve Britain’s economic problems’ – including 24 percent of Tory voters questioned. [64] Polls on taxation show a similar change in attitudes. Not only do a clear majority favour increasing taxes rather than cutting public spending, they also favour increasing the higher rate of tax. In a recent poll 59 percent wanted the higher rate raised, compared with 41 percent wanting the basic rate raised and only 14 percent wanting higher VAT. The most popular area for cuts was defence spending, with 64 percent in favour. Even cuts in social security benefit – the favourite Tory scapegoat – were only favoured by 31 percent of those questioned. [65]

Perhaps even greater changes of attitudes have taken place in areas which cannot be considered narrowly economic. Education – long an area where the left has been on the defensive and a small band of right wingers have been making the running – has become an arena where the right has found itself totally isolated. A recent poll showed that 73 percent of those polled thought league tables were ‘damaging’ and 83 percent were against moving teacher training to classrooms. Testing at seven years old was thought unnecessary by 66 percent. [66]

A similar change in attitudes has undermined the sorts of institutions which most people believe are central to any sort of consensus in British politics: parliament, the judiciary, the police, the monarchy. Respect for such institutions seems to be at an all time low. A recent poll in the Financial Times showed that the institutions most perceived to have improved between 1992 and 1993 were the supermarkets, while those seen to have got worse included prisons, law courts, the police, hospitals, transport, job centres and social security offices. [67]

The justice system is widely perceived as being corrupt and unfair. The Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four and the Judith Ward case are just three of the Irish cases which have undermined popular faith in the police and the judiciary. But it is clear that rottenness and corruption of the system extends to many supposedly non-political cases such as the M25 Three or the Taylor Sisters. And Winston Silcott languishes in jail despite being cleared of the killing of PC Blakelock.

The monarchy has been badly tarnished by the successive royal scandals, the queen’s grudging and belated agreement to pay some tax and the monarchy’s demand that the taxpayer foot the bill for repairing the fire damage at Windsor Castle. Parliament is seen as full of politicians on the make. By 1991, fewer people expressed public confidence in the police, legal system, education, parliament, the church, the civil service and the press than had done so in 1981. The only two areas which attracted higher public confidence in 1991 than ten years previously were the armed forces and the trade unions. [68]

The employers’ offensive

The employers were as surprised as anyone when boom turned to recession. True there had been agonising since 1988 about what would happen to the economy. How would the overheating of the economy develop? Would there be a soft landing or a hard landing? Were company assets over-valued? But these were a minority of worried voices. Most employers just got on with making the most of the good times. They responded to the speed and severity of recession in the traditional way: in addition to plant closures and job losses they attempted wage cuts or freezes, lay offs and attacks on conditions. Large numbers of workers suffered attempts to reduce or abolish tea breaks and benefits, and, in some places, to impose temporary contracts on new workers. Everywhere the recession was used as a means of trying to worsen workers’ conditions and to tilt the balance between workers and employers in favour of the latter.

By 1990 such incursions were well under way. However, despite the pessimism of the trade union leaders that fear of unemployment would frighten anyone who even thought about fighting back, these attacks met with opposition, although of varying degrees of intensity and success. An attempt to restructure working patterns at Rolls-Royce was rolled back by the threat of action. Shipyard workers at Yarrow’s in Glasgow managed to stop new workers being taken on at a lower rate. [69] The effect of recession on different industries and groups of workers was uneven. So pay increases still tended to be in double figures (compared with 1993 they seem astronomical), with 12 to 13 percent at Ford and Vauxhall [70], and 12.5 percent offered at Jaguar, Coventry (a figure narrowly accepted, with two fifths of workers against the deal). [71] It was as though the employers were willing to pay for industrial peace so that they could squeeze the last drops of profit out of the boom. They were also still suffering from one of the features of late 1980s expansion – skill shortages. Although overall jobs were being lost, the shortage of skills was still acute in certain industries. So, for example, in late 1990 some British Rail signals staff won 25 percent wage increases in order to keep their skills in the industry. [72] But the picture was very uneven. At the same time, there were moves towards wage cuts. [73]

The past three years have been characterised, however, by a remarkable failure on the part of the employers to really use the recession to attack workers’ organisation on the scale that they would like. The period has seen employers move onto the offensive, encounter at least verbal opposition, and very often make at least some tactical retreat rather than move into full confrontation with their workforce. This outcome is all the more remarkable given the general nature of the attacks. It was commonplace early in the recession to argue that this was a ‘services recession’ and that manufacturing industry would not be so badly hit. In reality the slump has affected every area of industry, and the attacks on wages and conditions have applied across both the private and the public sectors, creating a situation whereby today no worker (and indeed no member of lower or middle management) feels secure in his or her job, and where every worker is facing threats of change in working conditions.

The generalised nature of the attacks is one reason why the political mood is so volatile and angry. The attacks have tended to have a contradictory effect. The whole point of privatisation, market testing in the civil service, or indeed ‘rationalisation programmes’ in the private sector has been to cut jobs, raise levels of productivity and introduce ‘flexibility’ within the particular workforce. There have been two simultaneous reactions to this. The first is a sense of demoralisation and weakening of workers’ organisation, as shop stewards find their position under attack and workers find ‘custom and practice’ undermined. Such feelings of demoralisation tend to play into the employers’ hands. At the same time the attacks can have the opposite effect. So there can be an increased level of fightback, as the employers’ offensive forces often previously passive and ‘moderate’ groups of workers into action.

Even groups of workers such as college lecturers, who only two decades ago would have hardly considered themselves as trade unionists, are now turning to militant action, including strikes, as the only means of defending their conditions. The motivation is simple: from relatively privileged conditions compared with many workers (short hours, reasonable working conditions and above average pay) they find themselves subject to downward pressure on wages, and speed up at work – increased through-put of students, longer hours, shorter holidays, administrative burdens on top of teaching work. Some of the old attitudes still linger, but they increasingly see their work as little different from routine clerical work. Teachers are suffering the same sorts of pressure, with their work becoming harder and less valued. The boycott of school tests received almost total support from teachers (and even head teachers), reflecting both the accumulation of years of bitterness at worsening conditions, and a feeling that the only way of stopping the attacks is through industrial action.

The view of the trade union leaders and many in the media that ‘workers won’t fight in a recession’ has been shown to be very wide of the mark. The past three years have seen a willingness to fight over pay, jobs and conditions. Sometimes the levels of anger have expressed themselves in struggles over non-economic issues, such as the 1,500 strong Oxford post office workers’ strike in opposition to sexual harassment of a female worker by a supervisor. [74] However, it is also true that these strikes have not led to a generalised fightback, or to any qualitative change in the industrial struggle over the past three years. Why has that been the case, and how can we overcome the weaknesses of the movement?

What is the nature of the fightback?

A pattern has emerged in recent years. Attacks take place on workers from government and private sector employers. The scale of the attack provokes in nearly every case real resentment and opposition. The workers concerned protest. They stage ballots, lobbies and one day strikes. At every stage the union leaders will reflect this anger only in the most passive and obsequious way. They caution against strikes, rush to compromise with the employers (sometimes before any real concession is made), and do their utmost to restrict the action to the most token and limited kind. The outcome is usually, therefore, at best compromise, at worst sell out which results in defeat for the workers concerned, who in turn face victimisation and demoralisation.

Time and again the picture of the disputes during the last three years is one of false starts, militant feeling and often a real urge for action which is frittered away by months of balloting and negotiations. We can see this early in the recession in disputes such as the long running Greenwich housing workers’ strike, or the strike by British Rail guards at Manchester Piccadilly in the autumn of 1990. TUC leader Norman Willis stated in January 1991 that ‘now is not the time for class warriors on either side to be locked into an historic conflict over allocation of fast disappearing spoils which will destroy their own and their colleagues’ jobs’. [75] Such views have remained the watchwords of the union leaders right through the recession years.

Yet the seemingly unfavourable circumstances existing in the first half of 1991 – steeply accelerating job losses and deepening recession against the background of the Gulf War – did not stop many groups of workers from disregarding Willis’s advice. The main impetus for many of these strikes was employers raising the stakes in one way or another – imposing cuts in jobs, victimising shop stewards and union activists, changing rotas and shift patterns to squeeze more work out of the workforce. But the strikes very often showed a militancy and involvement which took them beyond the purely defensive. A strike at Glasgow’s Queen Street station over management attacks on guards led to a partial victory for the workers. In the same week, in January 1991, 2,000 Tower Hamlets council workers staged a one day strike against victimisation, there were votes to strike at GM buses in Manchester over the sacking of a union chair, and Southwark council workers voted to strike against the cuts. [76]

By March and April 1991 the stage was set for bigger confrontations. Rail and tube workers, members of the RMT union, were set for a fight over job cuts. There was every sign that the fight over pay would take off among a wide range of workers: there were the possibilities of battles in health, power, steel and the BBC. [77] In May the tube workers’ ballot – overwhelmingly in favour of strike – was announced, and at the same time textile workers, post office counter staff and rail workers were balloting over pay. [78]

There were signs that the militant and successful strikes over government pay policy in the summer of 1989 could be repeated. A mini strike wave in the north east of England took place as 600 ship repairers at Appledore’s struck over pay and were sacked, 1,500 Tyneside bus drivers struck over pay, AEI Cables workers in Gateshead joined an indefinite pay strike and 1,000 Teesside British Steel workers rejected a 4 percent pay offer. [79] In Glasgow 1,600 Kvaerner Govan shipyard workers walked out against the advice of their officials and shop stewards over pay and shift changes. [80] Perhaps most remarkable, not in terms of industrial action but in demonstration of the change of mood since the mid-1980s, workers at Rupert Murdoch’s Wapping plant voted six to one for action ‘short of a strike’ and printers held up production in protest at redundancies and new shift patterns. [81]

The mood was certainly not for surrendering to the employers’ demands. Indeed, a much more common feeling was that the recession was the fault of government and employers and that they should pay for it. The mood continued into the summer, when bus workers from the London Forest company came out on indefinite strike against pay cuts and changed working conditions. [82] But none of the strikes succeeded in marking a wider breakthrough, although many of them ended in at least a partial victory. Throughout the union leaders were for compromise and retreat. They increasingly used the imminent election as an argument against direct action. So at the NALGO and COHSE union conferences that year the key argument was that defence of the NHS had to wait for a Labour government. [83]

A combination of union leaders’ reluctance to take the struggle forward, and the employers backing off when faced with the threat of or some limited industrial action meant the promise of action was not fulfilled. Sometimes too the employers just dug their heels in and sat out long strikes, such as those at Albacom and Craven Tasker in Scotland. By the autumn of 1991 there were signs that this sort of confrontation with the employers was becoming more of a pattern. For example, in engineering there were disputes at the two workplaces mentioned plus Unipart, Perkins Diesels and Marston. [84]

The prospect of an approaching election made the union leaders more cautious than usual, with the AEU hailing a single-union deal with Toyota, [85] which conceded a 39 hour working week at a time when most major engineering plants had won 37 hours. GMB leader John Edmonds declared that the Tories would use ‘industrial trouble as a desperate election ploy’. [86] In the last months of 1991 and the first months of 1992 the level of struggle was low, with just a handful of often very long and bitterly fought strikes, such as the dispute at the Rotherham Advertiser over union derecognition, and the militant but ultimately defeated strike at Manchester’s GEC Alsthom plant against compulsory redundancies. [87]

The mood to ‘wait for Labour’ played a great part in ensuring that industrial struggle remained muted, although there were strikes and demonstrations against local government cuts, and strike ballots on the London underground over job losses, among Barclays Bank workers over pay, and at Blue Circle Cement against a pay freeze. [88]

The election result itself destroyed the ‘wait for Labour’ argument in one blow. Although it caused further demoralisation to tens of thousands of activists, the sense of shock and bewilderment which greeted the Tory victory did not last for very long. Within three months of the election, there had been a sharp change of mood reflected not necessarily in the number of struggles but in their militancy and intensity, and in the sense of crisis already facing the Major government. Waves of protest at the cuts in education, health and council services swept London in the summer of 1992. The mood of anger was created by a further sense of betrayal among those, some of whom had voted Tory in April, suffering from further job losses and cuts. Socialist Worker’s headline of 20 June summed it up: ‘Major’s big lie: slump continues, record dole queues, savage new cuts’. [89]

Black Wednesday dramatically increased the sense of tension. Sackings were continuing inexorably – with 3,000 jobs going at British Aerospace and 1,500 at Ford – when the announcement over pit closures on 13 October brought to a head all the resentment and anger into one giant protest which threatened to bring down the government just six months after its election.

In every workplace in every local community all but the most diehard right wingers were horrified at plans to destroy what was left of the coal industry. Local demonstrations in support of the miners and two gigantic marches in London attracted near universal support. Talk of general strike was on the lips of people who had voted Tory the previous April. John Major’s personal unpopularity now exceeded that of Thatcher. The movement round the miners saw the resurgence of a level of generalised working class consciousness which had not been seen for many years. The weekday demonstration called by the miners and their supporters in central London attracted sizeable contingents of workers from every city in the country. There was sporadic strike action, especially where local militants argued for it, even though this was discouraged by the trade union leaders. Delegations came from post offices, fire stations, construction sites, from Ford and Vauxhall, Rolls-Royce, Rover Longbridge, from rail depots, hospitals, schools and council offices. [90]

The movement around the miners created a feeling of confidence among workers generally. At the end of October Daily Mirror journalists occupied their newsroom in protest at the appointment of union buster David Montgomery. Newham council workers went back on all out strike in their long running dispute over sackings. Workers staged a brief occupation of their ice cream factory against closure in Kirkby, Merseyside. [91] The Tories were completely taken aback and fearful that the protests could spread to industrial action elsewhere, hence their U-turn intended to take the sting out of the controversy. The announcement that the queen would agree to pay tax followed shortly afterwards, as they tried desperately to shore up support and appease some of those who increasingly realised that their society was based on class inequality.

Perhaps most important, however, was the role of the union leaders themselves, both in taking control of the movement and in trying to deflect it into lobbying, ‘broad’ popular front campaigns with Tory MPs, and away from any notion of industrial action. Crucially they prevented other workers from taking the sort of action which could build the growing opposition to the government. So Jimmy Knapp, leader of the RMT union, called off the tube workers’ strike – after three votes for action – on the grounds that there was no real mood for a strike! [92]

As a result the pits campaign had really lost its momentum by the time, months later, that Heseltine produced his ‘reprieve’ for some of the pits. The trade union leaders and the Labour Party gave the government time, and it used the time to defuse the anger, make minor concessions, and claim that the ‘free market’ (actually a market totally rigged in favour of gas and nuclear power), not the government, was forcing the closures through. The outcome of the TUC strategy has been disaster: all the 31 originally threatened pits will close and probably more besides. The much vaunted Tory rebellion eventually amounted to five MPs, a year after the original closure announcement had provoked so much anger. [93] This represents a complete frittering away of the biggest mass campaign for years by the leaders of the working class movement.

We can see the same picture in microcosm in a whole number of the disputes which broke out during 1993. These have been characterised by higher levels of bitterness even than those of the previous summer, let alone those before the election. There is more of a sense that it is better to fight and be defeated than do nothing, since the advantage of doing nothing becomes less and less when jobs are going on such a massive scale, and when so many workers are having to work harder for less money. Two disputes in particular reflect this mood. Timex workers in Dundee (mostly women) refused to accept worsened conditions imposed on them by management and struck. They preferred to see the factory close (the eventual outcome) than to see the union broken and workers in Dundee forced onto worse conditions. The huge support for their lengthy strike demonstrated how many other workers agreed with them. But the failure of the strike to move beyond picketing to winning blacking from other British Timex plants (illegal under the anti-union laws and therefore expressly forbidden by the engineering union leaders) meant they were never able to really deal a body blow to the company.

The strike by nurses at University College Hospital, London, against closure again attracted huge levels of (albeit more localised) support. The nurses struck knowing that the alternative would be job losses anyway. The six week strike was an incredible achievement given the lack of health service tradition over all out strike action, and the lukewarm support from the nurses’ union, UNISON. But in the end the relatively small scale strike, popular as it was, could not overcome the lack of action elsewhere and UNISON’s failure to give it full support, finally pulling the plug on finance for the dispute. The nurses went back with management agreeing not to discipline the strike’s leaders. Yet both strikes demonstrate the lengths to which workers are prepared to go, and the anger that such disputes represent.

How can we sum up the events of the class struggle in the past few years? The majority of disputes have been characterised by extreme bitterness. This has become more marked over the past year. The mood after the election has been quite different from what went before.

This, obviously, is a subjective view. There is no easy way of measuring why workers do or do not strike. And the strike figures certainly show a very low level of strike activity. In 1991 there were 800,000 days ‘lost’ through industrial disputes, supposedly the lowest figure for 100 years. But they were also very low in 1976, in 1981–83 and in 1986–87. The number of stoppages is also the lowest for 50 years, although, as the government statisticians themselves admit, ‘small stoppages involving fewer than ten workers or lasting less than one day are excluded from the statistics ... disputes not resulting in a stoppage of work are not included in the statistics. [94]

What we learn from the figures therefore is that there is little mood among the official leaders to call disputes (unlike the two high points of strike days in recent years, the 1979 Winter of Discontent and the 1984–85 miners’ strike). Nor is there a mood of militancy among workers sufficient to see the figures climb without the blessing of the union officials. But the figures do not tell us much more.

Most important of all, it is impossible to judge the political situation simply by reference to the strike figures or even the industrial struggle alone. There are several other factors to take into account. Firstly, there are a number of strikes balloted for successfully which simply do not take place – usually because the employers make some concessions and the union leaders accept a compromise. There are some disputes which do not even get to the final strike ballot – the dispute of the firefighters, in the summer and autumn of 1993 over the retention of their pay formula would not show up in any of these figures. Half day strikes over cuts, or walkouts in support of the miners, or that of the council workers in the Isle of Dogs in protest at the election of a fascist councillor, would similarly be ignored.

Secondly, much of the industrial action which does take place is restricted to one day strikes at most. There have been very large numbers of these over the past three years – by council workers in various parts of the country, by teachers (for example Islington teachers staged three one day strikes in the summer of 1992 against compulsory redundancies) [95], by London bus workers, and by rail workers. Very often they attract overwhelming support and high levels of militancy. The Islington teachers voted 85 percent for strike action on a 92 percent turnout, for example. But, because the strikes are restricted to one day affairs, they very often do not have a lasting impact on the consciousness of the workers themselves or on other workers.

The third feature of the disputes which never surfaces in the statistics is the growing anger and disgust of a minority of those involved with the sell outs of the trade union leaders. In every dispute a minority sees through the dominant strategy and wants to do something more. Although this minority is not usually sufficient to alter the balance of forces, it makes it harder for the union leaders to get their own way. One important example of this was the UCW strike in Cardiff in the summer of 1993. The strike involved high levels of militancy and solidarity from other post workers, only to be sold short by an official who was then besieged in his office by angry workers. [96]

All these factors help to paint a much more complex picture of the industrial scene than the one with which we are usually presented. And the mood of militancy extends far beyond workplace issues to embrace anger at attacks on living standards, the problems of debt, the huge increases in bosses’ salaries, rising taxation under the Tories, and the rundown of the NHS. There is a substantial degree of rank and file anger which is belied by the strike figures.

Evidence of the breadth of protest is there in the demonstrations, campaigns and pickets which have occurred over a range of issues in recent years. The opposition to what is happening to the NHS has extended far beyond those directly working in the health service, with huge levels of support from other workers. There have been militant protests at the siting of yet more superstores on greenfield sites. The attempt to stop a motorway through the Hampshire beauty spot of Twyford Down failed, but not before direct action required injunctions to stop the protesters. As the result of a similar protest, plans to drive a motorway through ancient woodland in south east London were abandoned, and there have been continuing demonstrations to stop the bulldozers demolishing houses in east London for the M11 link road. Every city and many towns in Britain can point to similar grass roots resistance.

Protesters over job losses, schools cuts and environmental damage have been joined by campaigners against VAT on fuel. Largely led by pensioners, who have demonstrated and lobbied repeatedly against this iniquitous tax increase, it is likely to become one of the biggest issues facing the Major government in 1994.

The British National Party election victory in September 1993 raised the political temperature in Britain considerably. The size of opposition to the fascists was demonstrated in the Unity demonstration in Welling the following month, when nearly 600 coaches helped to bring 60,000 people from every corner of the country to demand the closure of the BNP’s headquarters.

Given the high level of politicisation in Britain today, large numbers of people are drawing the connections between these different issues. Unfortunately they are given little leadership or direction from those at the head of the labour movement.

Softly, softly: the Labour and trade union leaders

The Thatcher and Major years have revealed a crisis of Labourism. The worst phase of this crisis was during the early 1980s when Thatcher’s second election victory led to a sharp shift to the right under Neil Kinnock, then the party’s new leader. This move to the right has continued in the decade since, with the gradual abandonment of every major policy on which Labour stood in the early 1980s. By the 1992 election any idea of Labour as a party committed to radical change had all but disappeared, as its policy accepted more and more of the Tory ground on economic strategy, unemployment, defence and foreign policy and privatisation.

Of the four pillars of the post-war settlement – counter-cyclical demand management, mixed economy, full employment, welfare state – only the last remained inviolate. Its improvement, however, depended upon the economic growth expected from an orthodox liberal managerial posture, aided by the ERM, in conjunction with a long term industrial strategy whose harvest was, by definition, for the future. ‘Supply-side socialism’ was, in effect, what one observer dubbed a ‘left Heseltinism’. [97]

After the 1992 defeat even the welfare state has been less than inviolate. So Labour’s ‘modernisers’ are moving away from ideas of collective provision such as universal benefits, using the excuse that many people no longer need them, or that they subsidise the middle classes. They have also moved away from their traditional economic mixture of high taxation and high public spending. The Commission on Social Justice, set up by John Smith in January 1993 to ‘think the unthinkable’ about the future of the welfare state, is engaged in producing new Labour policies which will almost certainly concede many Tory arguments. Labour’s ambition to run a more modern, efficient British capitalism, regardless of the cost to workers, is clear.

Labour’s move rightwards has not been without a price. It has suffered internal conflict, including expulsion of many left wing activists and repeated faction fights within the party, but has come little closer to achieving parliamentary power. Labour’s lead in the opinion polls, which was beginning to evaporate as early as September 1991, disappeared completely on polling day itself. This led to Kinnock’s departure, and the conclusion by the bulk of Labour’s membership, as well as its leaders, that Labour had to further ‘modernise’ – loosen its links with the unions and appeal to the middle classes who, the story goes, were put off by fears of higher taxation under Labour.

To date this strategy has had little success. Labour is ahead in the opinion polls – but there would be something badly wrong if it were not, given the record unpopularity of the Tories. November 1993 figures put Labour at between 40 and 45 percent, not exactly an overwhelming endorsement. [98] Labour’s lack of differentiation from the other parties means that it still does not seem a sufficiently distinct alternative. Its record in local government – it now has the largest number of local government seats – of cuts, redundancies, and jailings over the poll tax has also helped tarnish its image.

The Labour Party also has huge internal problems. Labour is withering at its roots, a recent survey shows. Its activists are deserting in droves, its membership shrinking fast, and there is no obvious sign of how this trend can be reversed. Nearly 7,000 Labour Party members contributed to the survey by Patrick Seyd and Paul Whiteley which shows deep disaffection among Labour activists and a sharp decline in activism. For example, ‘in 1990, 82 percent of members had been involved in some form of party campaign in the previous year, whereas by 1992 only 56 percent had.’ Less people were delivering leaflets, canvassing and attending meetings by 1992; the only activity which had increased was giving money. Former members questioned about why they had left revealed a quarter quit because Labour abandoned basic principles or moved too far to the right. A further quarter mentioned specific policies, particularly Labour’s support for the Gulf War. [99]

These findings are very serious for Labour, although perhaps not surprising for many active on the left in Britain, as Labour’s lack of inspiration, willingness to fight and its attacks on activists has left its members disoriented, demoralised and passive. It is in danger of becoming an increasingly old party with a smaller and smaller membership, a finding which the survey’s authors say means that ‘the activists are a diminishing number, and Labour could thus become a parliamentary head with no roots’. [100]

The lack of concern felt by much of Labour’s leadership for these sorts of problems has led to the divisions expressed during the past year between Labour’s ‘modernisers’ and ‘traditionalists’. This is not obviously a clear left-right split, since most of the protagonists are still hostile to the far left, and since even in the traditionally left wing constituency parties there has clearly been a sharp rightward shift. [101] Instead it reflects a feeling that the ‘modernising’ changes are threatening the whole basis of Labour as a party capable of delivering any reforms and making it indistinguishable from the Tories. Talk of leapfrogging over the Tories often leads some shadow cabinet members closer to the Tory right than to its left wing, as Ian Aitken, by no means a Labour left winger, has pointed out:

We have the remarkable spectacle of the post-Thatcherite Tory party riven from top to bottom over exactly the question at issue – namely, whether to raise taxes in order to maintain effective services, or cut services in order to maintain low taxes. Yet Mr Brown has chosen this very moment to attach himself, however tentatively, to the right wing side of the argument. [102]

The same sort of fear appears in the debate on the link between the unions and Labour, with some thinking that one member one vote will throw the baby out with the bathwater and leave Labour weaker, not stronger. Peter Hain, the ‘soft left’ MP for Neath, has argued that:

To win, a party must first motivate its members, its potential recruits and its core voters. That will not be sufficient but it is an essential precondition for victory. By such a test, the modernisers are failing badly. The steady demoralisation of the party’s membership has accelerated with every modernising lurch – and is now almost terminal. [103]

The message put across by Hain and those union leaders such as Bill Morris and John Edmonds who led the fight against one member one vote (the attempt to substitute individual votes in constituencies for any collective trade union input) at Labour’s conference is that leapfrogging has gone too far. The ‘modernisation’ of Labour’s 1992 election campaign left it with a vote barely higher than the two previous elections, but with a much smaller and more demoralised membership. Yet the ‘traditionalists’ are denounced as old fashioned, even though it is much more likely that they reflect a feeling of discontent among Labour and trade union activists. A typical expression of this mood – not from hard left wingers who have in large part been driven out of the party, but from the centre left of the party – came from a Labour member in Norwich, a large, active ‘traditional’ party:

It’s absolute bollocks to say the electorate doesn’t want us to retain those links [with the unions]. I’ve done about 50 meetings on the subject around the south [of England], and everyone thinks the present constitutional debate is an irrelevance. People are more concerned about the health service, education and crime. It’s a media myth, and I think I represent the mainstream in that view. [104]

The narrow vote which eventually brought the modernisers victory at Labour’s 1993 conference in the move towards one member one vote has not resolved this tension. John Smith was forced to make concessions towards the importance of the unions, both at the TUC’s own congress and at Labour Party conference itself, in order to win the votes of a whole number of affiliated unions. Indeed, Smith claimed the move would strengthen the link between the party and the unions in his conference speech. [105] He could not win without reaffirming some of the ‘traditional values’ of Labour. He, along with his shadow chancellor, Gordon Brown, then seemed to distance themselves from arch moderniser Tony Blair. [106] And the media, having demanded the vote, then claimed that Labour was still in hock to the unions and that little had changed, thus negating the point of changing the voting system anyway.

The argument over one member one vote is symptomatic of Labour’s problems. Like the generals in the First World War it is continually fighting the battles of the previous war. Its changes are therefore either too little too late, and denounced by the media as brought about grudgingly or the changes fail to match the mood of the public opinion the leadership is so desperate to chase. The decline in its active membership leads Labour into a vicious circle. The leaders are more and more out of touch, and in many parts of the country – especially the south of England – have effectively written off the possibility of victory. There are fewer and fewer active members in these areas to campaign and argue with potential voters, so the whole place is abandoned to the Liberals. Liberal victory is then in turn hailed as evidence that Labour cannot win. It will take more than conference debate to shake the Labour leadership from this course. It will require events outside the narrow world of parliamentary party politics to push Labour in another direction.

What of the union leaders? Despite their often bitter differences over how much they influence Labour policy, and their justifiable resentment at the idea that the unions lost Labour the 1992 election, they have no serious alternative strategy. Labour’s leadership may be reluctant to endorse any industrial action, but the union leaders themselves are hardly more enthusiastic. The head of the TUC, John Monks, said recently that calls for days of strike action were ‘simplistic’. At a time when a TUC commissioned poll found that nearly eight out of ten people thought trade unions were necessary to protect workers’ interests, Monks declared:

The job of unions is to avoid strikes, particularly ones of any duration. There is often an initial enthusiasm among workers when they embark on industrial action. But during strikes income is lost, job security threatened and people are vulnerable to victimisation. Strikes can be necessary against bad employers, but they are a weapon of last resort. [107]

In evidence to the House of Commons employment committee the TUC outlined its strategy of worker-employer participation to strengthen British capitalism: unions can help competitiveness, and collective bargaining can lead to smoother workplace relations. As the Financial Times reported, ‘the TUC denies any inherent conflict between capital and labour in the workplace.’ The TUC document argues that ‘it does not follow that trade unionists are less committed to their company than other employees.’ [108] There is no sign that most of the trade union leaders differ in any crucial respect from this view. So, despite angry words when the government announced a second year of public sector wage freeze last September, they rapidly retreated from any notion of strike action. John Edmonds argued that ‘the chancellor’s pay freeze is an attempt to trap public sector workers into a strike and to take the spotlight off his own difficulties’, while the TGWU’s Jack Dromey declared that ‘it is clear that part of the government’s agenda is to trap us and thereby trap the Labour Party’. [109]

This approach has dominated the union leaders’ attitude to industrial action throughout the Major years. They argue that such action is outdated, and that the successive legal constraints passed by the Tories prevent strikes being successful. There is no doubting the effect of the law on disputes. The engineering union officials and Scottish TUC successfully argued against mass picketing and blacking of goods in the Timex dispute. There are countless examples where action has been prevented because the union officials claim it is illegal and will bankrupt the union.

Yet although the union leaders portray themselves as the helpless victims of the law, there is some evidence that they use the law as a shield to hide their own lack of militancy. It is quite clear that the main function of the anti-union laws is to reinforce the union leaders’ own caution and conservatism, and that most of the time, even when there is not much industrial action involved, the laws remain paper tigers. A London School of Economics survey of negotiators from 25 trade unions, representing over 5 million workers, found widespread support among them for pre-strike ballots, with 68 percent finding them ‘a good thing for trade unions’. The survey also found that employers were reluctant to use the law. It says that ‘legal proceedings – or even a solicitor’s letter – are still clearly the exception’. Only a quarter of those questioned said employers had threatened to use the law over industrial action – and only a quarter of these (i.e. just one-sixteenth of the total) had even begun legal proceedings. [110]

So the real picture is that employers are still loathe to use the law in industrial disputes – luckily for them the officials’ reluctance to call action means they are not often faced with the choice. Time and again in the past three years they have claimed there was not the support for action or that proposed action was illegal. Even when officials have wanted some limited action they are so fearful of the law that they refuse to call it directly, instead couching their language in veiled hints which do not help to mobilise. In particular, they keep any disputes which do break out as narrowly based as possible, refusing to call any solidarity action which is, of course, illegal. This was most apparent round the miners in October and November 1992, when solidarity strikes were rejected as a strategy, and replaced by one of winning public opinion and lobbying dissident Tories.

The right wing of the movement was enthusiastic about this strategy; if the left was less so, it raised no public opposition. Even Arthur Scargill went along with the TUC’s campaign uncritically, at least in public. Claiming that he would act when the time was right, he attacked those (such as the Socialist Workers Party) who argued in November and December for occupations of the pits in order to escalate the campaign. [111]

However, it would be wrong to assume that the only reason for lack of militancy inside the working class is the conservatism of the trade union leaders. If this were the case, it would be relatively easy to sweep them out of the way on a tide of militant generalised struggle. But the picture is much more complicated than this. There are many instances when the rank and file does not fight, even when the union leaders urge action. An analysis of why there is not more militancy has to take account of the working class movement as a whole. How do we explain it?

The feeling among the trade union leaders does not exist in isolation at the top of the movement, but rests on and is reflected by a whole layer of shop stewards, convenors, trade union branch secretaries and trades council activists. They hate what is happening to them at work, the weakening of the unions and the attacks on the welfare state. They feel that something has to be done to roll back these attacks. But they are the victims of the Thatcher and Major years – and even of the Callaghan Labour government before them. The downturn in class struggle during those years, the successive defeat of strong groups of workers such as the miners and print workers, has left them with a sense of powerlessness. They feel that very little can be done to change things, and that the only hope is the election of a Labour government. They are not even optimistic about that. They reflect a strong element of pessimism and cynicism, caused partly by the national union leaders who they feel are out of touch with them and with ordinary workers. But they are also sceptical about the ability of ordinary workers to fight after years of accepting Tory attacks.

Yet this pessimism jostles side by side with more militant ideas even in the mind of a single individual: these are the activists who, for example, reflected a much higher level of militancy at the union conferences in the spring and summer of 1993, but at the same time feel that they cannot carry industrial action in the health service or fire brigade. This pessimism reflects the attitudes of the Labour and trade union leaders, with the assumption that direct action never works and that all that can be done is to rely on voting to change things. This in turn leads to passivity among many workers which itself reinforces the same reformist conclusions.

In every dispute or strike all sorts of different ideas and considerations are in competition for the allegiance of those involved. Anger at a particular grievance, a deep sense of injustice as custom and practice are unilaterally varied, the erosion of wage levels and living standards, all create motivation for action. But there is always fear and hesitation at the same time: will there be victimisations or sackings, is it worth striking for the money involved, can anything be gained from an intransigent government or employer? Here the subjective question of confidence, of experience of strikes, of some assessment of the balance of forces, is vitally important.

In this sense the role of leadership is particularly important today. Even though the picture is not simply that the leaders hold back the members, it is true that the conservatism of the union leaders is very often strongly in contrast with the militants who get involved in disputes. So, even where there is a fight, the union leaders can influence levels of confidence and militancy. But so can organised socialists. The fact that this fine balance between fightback and retreat exists is the great change since the 1980s – and a great challenge for the left.

The future in the present

Writing in this journal 15 years ago, Tony Cliff explained why the working class movement had gone into decline from the mid-1970s. He explained the erosion of rank and file workers’ organisation of shop stewards, and the limitations of industrial militancy in a period of economic and political crisis. The early 1970s had seen a workers’ industrial offensive on the one hand and political generalisation by the employers on the other:

The unstable balance between the political generalisation on the employers’ side and the industrial militancy on the workers’ side could lead to one of two extremes: to political generalisation of the industrial militancy, or to the decline of sectional militancy. The latter took place as a result of the misleadership of the trade union bureaucracy, the Labour left and the Communist Party. [112]

With the onset of economic crisis, politics are absolutely central to leadership inside the workers’ movement:

[the crisis] cannot be met with the weapons of yesteryear. Such fragmented reaction will not do now, on the wages front, not to say on the front of cuts, closures and unemployment. The muddled thinking of workers in the years of the boom did not prevent them from still improving their material conditions. Now what happens in the grey matter of workers’ heads is decisive for their material well-being. Politics, socialist politics, has therefore to be brought to the shop floor. [113]

Then the movement faced a turning point between decline and advance. The failure of the movement as a whole to learn the correct lessons from the disputes led to a whole series of defeats during the 1980s. Now we face another turning point between further decline or revival. In both cases socialist politics are vital.

The struggles of the Major years have only reinforced the analysis outlined above. Since it was written we have seen two recessions and a boom which delivered little permanent improvement in the living standards of most workers. The crisis of capitalism has proved to be lengthy, intractable and met with increasingly desperate solutions. What would have been very straightforward questions with simple answers 30 years ago – how do we create full employment, where will the money come from for new hospitals, can we provide a good living standard for the old? – are now issues which bring into question the very future of capitalism. When the employers and government describe high unemployment as a natural disaster or hospital closures as a natural consequence of the market, those fighting on such issues have to be prepared to question the priorities of the system itself.

The working class movement will not be rebuilt on the old syndicalist notion of stronger unions alone, but will have politics – socialist politics – at its centre. Despite the relatively small number of socialists in workplaces today, their numbers are growing as a result of the series of economic and political crises internationally, and their influence on the industrial struggle is becoming greater. Socialists played a crucial role in Timex, in the UCH strike and in the resistance to pit closures. Unfortunately in none of these was their influence sufficiently strong to tip the balance in favour of victory rather than defeat. But the situation can change, both through the numerical growth of socialist organisation and through the influence it can exert on a much wider layer of militants. The role of Socialist Worker is central to this. It can become the thread linking a network of militants far beyond the Socialist Workers Party, arguing for solidarity, rejecting the divisions inside the working class movement of race and sex, carrying an alternative strategy to that put forward by those at the top of the movement. It can therefore be the key to rebuilding strong rank and file organisation.

The early 1990s have seen the working class movement leave the worst years of the downturn. The government no longer dares to use a strategy such as the Ridley Plan which led to the defeat of one powerful group of workers after another. The employers do not at present have the confidence to organise a union busting operation like that organised by Rupert Murdoch at Wapping. The working class movement is poised on the brink of volatile struggles, the outcome of which is by no means certain or foreseeable. Either the workers’ movement scores some decisive victories or eventually it can be once more defeated, with predictable consequences. Although there is a large politicised minority inside the working class movement, it lacks confidence and political direction. Socialist organisation and publications can help to provide that direction.

The period ahead will be stormy. The British ruling class is determined to force down the living standards of British workers at the same time as raising productivity. The ‘social wage’ will be further cut back. A deeply unpopular government will attempt to scapegoat various sections of society – from immigrants to New Age travellers. But discontent is certain to continue – taxation is set to rise, further cutting into already eroded real wages, and a further year of public sector pay freeze is under way.

At the same time, the battering the working class has taken under Thatcher and Major has left it fairly intact. Union membership remains high, at over 40 percent of employed workers. [114] The attitude of British workers is still very strongly in favour of state provision in areas such as health and welfare. [115] The lack of big industrial struggles in the past three years has a great deal to do with the caution of both the employers and the leaders of the working class movement. The signs are that the contradictions of British capitalism will lead that to change.


1. S. Heffer, The Beginning of the End, Spectator, 16 October 1993.

2. See Pollwatch, New Statesman and Society, 3 September 1993.

3. Interview with John Redwood, Independent, 9 September 1993.

4. High Hopes, Poor Strategies: Can Industry Plan for Growth? (Pera International, London) p. 4.

5. Central Statistical Office figures, Independent, 15 September 1993.

6. Central Statistical Office figures, Financial Times, 22 September 1993.

7. Financial Times, 12 August 1993.

8. Recovery slow but steady (sic) by Robert Chote, Independent, 23 October 1993.

9. Financial Times, 16 August 1993.

10. Economist, 7 August 1993, p. 99.

11. See D. Beecham, No Exit Ahead, in Socialist Review, June 1993.

12. A CBI survey published at the end of October showed manufacturing orders and output flat, export orders falling and industrial jobs going. Slow or no growth in continental Europe was held to be a major factor in this gloomy picture. See Financial Times, 27 October 1993.

13. Economics notebook by P. Norman, Financial Times, 8 March 1993.

14. Ibid.

15. E. Balls, Lurking Threat of First World Debt Crisis, Financial Times, 27 September 1993.

16. Financial Times, 13 August 1993.

17. See E. Balls, Financial Times, 6 September 1993.

18. See B. Clement, Anger Over Clarke Ultimatum, Independent, 15 September 1993.

19. Speech by Lord Lawson (formerly Nigel Lawson) to the British Association for the Advancement of Science (sic!), reported in Financial Times, 1 September 1993.

20. Gallup report by A. King, Daily Telegraph, 6 August 1993.

21. See Socialist Worker, 23 February 1991, for reports of Tory disarray over the poll tax, and for reports of Labour councils attacking non-payers.

22. See Socialist Worker, 27 April 1991.

23. See Socialist Worker, 19 January 1991, 9 February 1991, 23 February 1991.

24. See Socialist Worker, 1 June 1991.

25. A. Billen, Tory Party Blues, Observer Magazine, 26 September 1993.

26. Quoted in L. German, The Crisis of British Politics, Socialist Review 168, October 1993.

27. S. Heffer, The Beginning of the End, Spectator, 16 October 1993.

28. See L. German, The Last Days of Thatcher? in International Socialism 48, Autumn 1990, pp. 15–19, for both the unpopularity caused by attacks on public spending and the inability of the government to really cut substantially the proportion of national wealth which went into spending.

29. C. Huhne, Tory Choice that Hurts the Poorest, Independent on Sunday (Business Section), 4 July 1993.

30. Financial Times, 13 August 1993.

31. E. Balls, Missing the Unemployment-Deregulation Link, Financial Times, 6 September 1993.

32. Institute for Public Policy Research, The Justice Gap (London 1993) p. 21.

33. Ibid., p. 29.

34. Ibid., p. 24.

35. Social Trends, (HMSO, London 1992) p. 148.

36. C. Huhne, op. cit..

37. The Justice Gap, p. 44.

38. Ibid.

39. See Households Below Average Income (HMSO, London 1993).

40. The Justice Gap, p. 47.

41. Ibid.

42. See Independent, 19 July 1993.

43. Family Expenditure Survey, quoted in Observer, 5 September 1993.

44. Ibid.

45. Independent, 8 September 1993.

46. H. Young, One of Us (final edition, London 1991) pp. 501–502.

47. Central Statistic Office figures, Financial Times, 22 September 1993.

48. New Earnings Survey 1993, Part A (HMSO, London).

49. Quoted in Financial Times, 16 August 1993.

50. Incomes Data Services Report 647, August 1993.

51. New Earnings Survey 1993, op. cit.

52. C. Huhne, Public Pay Policy is not Productive, Independent on Sunday (Business Section) 19 September 1993.

53. Interviewed in Financial Times, 26, 27 June 1993.

54. New Earnings Survey, op. cit.

55. Bacon and Woodrow survey quoted in Financial Times, 11 October 1993.

56. Social Trends (HMSO, London, 1993) p. 90.

57. H. Sutherland, Poorest could be hardest hit, Independent, 17 March 1993.

58. Social Trends (HMSO, London, 1992) p. 153.

59. Ibid., p. 154.

60. E. Tucker, Debt tightens its grip and threatens to hit recovery, Financial Times, 29 July 1993.

61. Financial Times, 9 July 1993.

62. In response to the question, ‘Why do you think there are people who live in need?’ a Eurobarometer survey in 1976 showed the following responses: because they have been unlucky 10 percent, because of laziness or lack of willpower 43 percent, because of injustice in our society 16 percent, and it’s an inevitable part of modern life 17 percent. A study in 1983 put the responses at 13 percent, 22 percent, 32 percent and 25 percent respectively, while a 1986 study showed 11 percent, 19 percent, 25 percent and 37 percent. There was a marked increase in those who blamed it on injustice or an inevitable part of modern life, while there was an even steeper fall in those who blamed the individuals concerned. See British Social Attitudes (Aldershot 1987), p. 10.

63. Redundancy fear survives upturn, Financial Times, 31 August 1993.

64. ICM poll, Guardian, 17 September 1993.

65. ICM poll, Guardian, 18 September 1993.

66. Observer and Cassell poll, Observer, 5 September 1993.

67. Public services rapped, Financial Times, 26 August 1993.

68. Social and Economic Trends for Local Government survey, quoted in UNISON magazine, London, October 1993..

69. Socialist Worker, 13 October 1990.

70. Socialist Worker, 27 October 1990.

71. Socialist Worker, 17 November 1990.

72. Socialist Worker, 27 October 1990.

73. The most notorious example at the time was at Toleman’s in Essex. See Socialist Worker, 27 October 1990.

74. Socialist Worker, 10 November 1990.

75. Socialist Worker, 12 January 1991.

76. Socialist Worker, 26 January 1991.

77. See Socialist Worker, 6 April 1991 and 13 April 1991.

78. Socialist Worker, 4 May 1991.

79. Socialist Worker, 11 May 1991 and 18 May 1991.

80. Socialist Worker, 18 May 1991.

81. Socialist Worker, 1 June 1991 and 25 May 1991.

82. Socialist Worker, 20 July 1991.

83. Socialist Worker, 22 June 1991.

84. Socialist Worker, 12 October 1991.

85. Socialist Worker, 9 November 1991.

86. Socialist Worker, 12 October 1991.

87. Socialist Worker, 22 February 1992 and 7 March 1992.

88. Socialist Worker, 14 March 1992 and 28 March 1992.

89. Socialist Worker, 20 June 1992.

90. For a much more detailed (though still incomplete) list of who came from where see C. Kimber, On the Move, in Socialist Review, November 1992.

91. See Socialist Worker, 24 October, 31 October and 7 November 1992.

92. Socialist Worker, 28 November 1992.

93. See Five Tories defy whip in coal vote, Financial Times, 28 October 1993.

94. Social Trends (HMSO, London, 1992) p. 59, and see Appendix, pt. 4, p. 191.

95. Socialist Worker, 4 July 1992.

96. Socialist Worker, 21 August 1993.

97. G. Elliott, Labourism and the English Genius (London 1993) pp. 161–162.

98. Pollwatch, New Statesman, 3 September 1993.

99. Survey reported in Guardian, 25 September 1993.

100. Ibid.

101. Indicative of this is the change in composition of the constituency section of Labour’s NEC, once the bastion of the left, now not even including Tony Benn, and electing such right wingers as Gordon Brown and Tony Blair (although interestingly at the 1993 Labour conference both received lower votes than in 1992).

102. I. Aitken, Brown’s Thatcherite gobbledegook, New Statesman, 3 September 1993.

103. Quoted in Observer, 12 September 1993.

104. Local party basing success on traditional brand of socialism, Guardian, 25 September 1993.

105. See Conference Notebook by P. Stephens, Financial Times, 30 September 1993.

106. Ibid.

107. John Monks interviewed in Independent on Sunday, 5 September 1993.

108. Quoted in Financial Times, 6 October 1993.

109. Quoted in Financial Times, 18 September 1993.

110. Survey carved out by the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics, quoted in Financial Times, 31 August 1993.

111. Reported by Socialist Worker journalist Mike Simons and SWP miners about a meeting in Armthorpe, Yorkshire, in November 1992 when Scargill rounded on the left.

112. T. Cliff, The Balance of Class Forces, International Socialism 6, Autumn 1979, p. 45.

113. Ibid., p. 45.

114. See Notes of the Month, Socialist Review, October 1993. Also see Social Trends (HMSO, London 1993) pp. 158–159.

115. Britain ranked with Italy as top of several countries (the others were the US, Australia, West Germany and Austria) for believing that government should provide health care, and decent living standards for the old and unemployed, and reduce income differences between rich and poor. See British Social Attitudes, special international report (Aldershot 1989), p. 41.

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