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The Labour Movement in the early 1970s

This is a series of articles published The Communist, a monthly paper published by the British and Irish Communist Organisation, [1] a small group formed round a core of mainly Irish labourers based in Cork, Dublin, Belfast and London.

The articles are divided here into three sections. The first two sections consist of a running commentary on the events of 1972-3 by the Labour historian NINA FISHMAN, then writing under the name 'Nina Stead'. The third part, with material mostly published anonymously by Nina and others, concentrates more directly on the issue of Workers Control, in the run-up to, and period following, publication of the Bullock Report on Industrial Democracy. A fourth section has been added on the 1984 miners' strike, seen as a consequence of the failures of the 1970s.

1) The dockers strike, 1972

2) The offer of tripartite (government, TUC, CBI) organisation of the British economy and the controversy in the B&ICO over an evolutionary rather than a revolutionary perspective for the development of working class politics.

3) The B&ICO policy statement on Workers Control and other material related to the controversy over the Bullock Report.

4) An afterword on the disastrous 1984 miners' strike, the consequence of the failures of the 1970s

[1] In Ireland the B&ICO was best known for developing the 'two nations' view of Irish history, arguing that the Ulster Protestants were a distinct national community and that there was no Socialist justification for the attempt to force or wheedle them into a 'United Ireland'. 

But the B&ICO's view of British politics was equally 'heretical' in the eyes of the mainstream left - and equally proved right by the course of events.

By the 1970s Keynesian economics had enabled a substantial shift in the organisation of British industry away from the logic of capitalist competition towards the fulfilment of consciously decided social objectives. 

This put the trade union movement in a very strong position. Demands that could not have been met according to the normal rules of capitalist competition could be met by government intervention and the use of 'public money.' The new logic had been accepted by the representatives of the managerial class - the Conservative Party and the CBI. But it was coming to the end of its tether. It had reached the point at which the power that was being used to increase living standards for well organised sections of the working class was becoming an obstacle to the wider interest of 'society' ie of the class as a whole. 

The Labour Government in the 1960s had attempted to regulate the situation through policies to control prices and incomes and through the proposals in Barbara Castle's paper In Place of Strife. In the 1970s, the period of these articles, the Conservative government under Edward Heath actually went further, offering the TUC a role in the overall determination of national economic policy. 

The instinct of the mainstream left was to push for maximum militancy hoping for an eventual revolutionary overthrow of the whole existing order. The B&ICO argued that this was a perverse strategy. What was needed and what was on offer in the current situation was that the working class through its institutions had to develop the skills of a ruling class - as those skills had been developed by the 'bourgeoisie' in the days of its rise to power in the 18th/19th centuries. They had to take responsibility for resolving, not exacerbating, the problems of the whole society.

The issue came to a head with the publication in 1977 of the Report of the Committee on Industrial Democracy, under the chairmanship of Lord Bullock, biographer of Ernest Bevin. This was offering the possibility that the organised working class would have a controlling say (formally an equal say with the representatives of the shareholding interest but effectively a controlling say) in the management of all major British industries. With such power however would come responsibility, in the first instance responsibility in the context of a capitalist society. The Labour movement in general, with very few exceptions, refused it.

With the result that Margaret Thatcher was able - indeed almost obliged given the economic damage wreaked by irresponsible Trade Union power - to tear up the Keynesian consensus; and a managerial class responsible to no-one except shareholders primarily interested in their dividends was allowed to run riot.

In Britain, then, the class war was fought and the other side won. But the development in Ireland was a little different. In 1987 the Irish government under Charles Haughey published a Programme for National Recovery - the basis for the remarkable period of development in Ireland which followed, the so-called 'Celtic tiger'. The programme was, to quote Philip O'Connor (an important article currently - Jan 2017 - available here): 'agreed by consensus among the social partners – the state, trade unions, business and employer bodies and farmer organisations.' 

It allowed for extensive union involvement in all the stages of its implementation and instituted a system of national wage bargaining very like what could have been achieved in Britain in the 1970s had the unions had the intelligence to want it. That the Irish unions responded so much better is at least partly due to the fact that by that time there were people in positions of influence in the Irish trade union movement who had either been members of the B&ICO in the 1970s or who had followed these debates.

These articles are being republished here in the hopes that a similar change of culture has been or can be achieved within the British Labour movement.