‘Committing Political Suicide’: Barbara Castle, ‘In Place of Strife’ and the Battle to Save the Trade Unions

#OTD 1969. Commons debate Barbara Castle’s ‘In Place of Strife’ – her White Paper to reform Britain’s trade unions and wider industrial relations.

She wrote in her diary that ‘I am under no illusion that I may be committing political suicide’

A thread on her battle with the Labour Party and eventual defeat

Between 1964 and 1967 the average number of days lost through strikes was 2-3 million. By 1969 it had reached 6.8million with the motor industry hit hard.

The Donovan Commission – which had been set up in 1965 – finally reported in 1968. The major focus of the was to examine the ‘informal’ collective bargaining system that had developed between trade unions, managers, shop stewards and workers.

The Conservative Party developed its own plan ‘Fair Deal at Work’

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Barbara Castle, as Secretary for Employment and Productivity, sought advice from the CBI, the TUC and the Labour PLP on this issue. She wrote in her memoir that ‘there was little help from any of them’

Castle claimed the PLP shirked from making a decision

‘My consultation was sparsely attended’ and ‘I remarked that MPs were only interested in meetings where they could attack the government’s decisions. To ask them to make decisions themselves was a bit below the belt’

Castle worked on a plan, in her words, to ‘raise the status and rights of trade unions’ but in return ‘ask them to accept greater responsibilities in preventing the needless disruptions of the country’s economic life’.

Castle proposed a 28 day period of conciliation on unofficial strikes and secret ballots before official strikes could be held. In return, Castle proposed that employers recognise trade unions and for workers to have a statutory right to join.

It amounted to the replacement of voluntary collective bargaining with a formal system of industrial relations legislation.

She developed her ideas in the 1969 White Paper ‘In place of strife’ which was an inspired title from Nye Bevan’s ‘In Place of Fear’.

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Wilson was initially pleased with the plan. Castle claims that Wilson chuckled to her ‘you haven’t so much out-Heathed Heath, as outflanked him’.

Castle claimed her ‘left-wing friends were appalled when I demanded a quid pro quo from the trade unions…it was in fact a modest one, as all I asked was that the unions should co-operate in avoiding unnecessary strikes’

John Mendelson, a Tribune MP, spoke for a group of left-wing rebels when he claimed that if the trade unions opposed the plan then ‘it would be the duty of all MPs who regarded themselves as trade unionists to oppose the Government’.

After it was discussed in Cabinet, Richard Crossman recorded that he, Callaghan, Crosland, Marsh, Mason, Hart and Greenwood opposed the proposal.

When it was finally published in January 1969, only the Daily Mirror gave it an enthusiastic backing.

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Presenting it to the Commons Castle stated the case for reform:

‘The White Paper is not concerned with pious theories, but practical realities, and the realities are that working men and women have had to organise and struggle to win their proper status in society and their fair share of the growing national wealth’

‘They have bitter memories of the consequences to them of uncontrolled employer power, and of the struggles they have had to build up anything like equality of bargaining strength. Their success in doing so has been an essential ingredient in the development of British democracy’

‘Parliamentary democracy would be empty and meaningless unless it were underpinned by democratic institutions in the industrial field, and this is what trade unionism is all about’

‘We believe that trade unions and their representatives are important people, and we want them to behave as if they were; that is, with full recognition of their power and, therefore, of their responsibility’

‘But we cannot expect them to do so if they are treated as outlaws or,  at best, as a necessary evil. We believe that society should welcome the extension and strengthening of trade unionism and that the law should actively encourage it’

‘Under our Bill, therefore, the right to join a trade union will become part of every contract of employment, and employees will have a remedy if they are dismissed for trade union membership’

‘But no one on this side of the House—or even, I believe, in the trade union movement—is a syndicalist. We are Socialists. Passionately as we believe in industrial democracy, we know it must complement and not supersede parliamentary democracy’

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When the House voted at the end of the debate, 62 MPs voted against the motion. 55 of them were Labour MPs while another 40 abstained.

A few weeks later, Harold Wilson spoke in Prescot on the need to improve industrial relations. He argued that good money had been put into industry only to see

‘strike after strike frustrating the effort of Government, signalling a question mark to those industrialists who are attracted by the inducements the Government provide and who are considering establishing themselves here’.

However, the proposal came under great attack at Labour’s NEC meeting in March 1969. Joe Gormley, of the NUM, accused Castle of ‘souring the very voters that you’re going to have to rely on’.

Gormley put forward a motion ‘that they cannot agree to support any legislation being introduced based on all the suggestions contained in that document.

Subsequently, the motion was passed, with a minor amendment, formally setting the Labour Party in opposition to the Labour Government. Jim Callaghan became the leader of the rebels group defying the collective responsibility by voting in favour of the amendment.

Richard Crossman believed it was Callaghan’s attempt to re-package himself following his spell as Chancellor, to:

‘build up his position as a plain style man of the people who will have no nonsense’

Castle later wrote that it was the ‘crucial moment’ in the party’s history for ‘if we were to allow them to refuse to change any of their procedures in the national interest, the government was effectively their prisoner’

Castle dismissed her old comrade Michael Foot for having

‘grown fat on a diet of soft options because he never had to choose’

Wilson, after one Cabinet row, was reported to have said ‘I don’t mind running a green Cabinet, but I’m buggered if I’m going to run a yellow one’.

Yet with the TUC opposing the bill, and opposition in Cabinet and the PLP, In Place of Strife had no future. Castle reflected that it was ‘a policy which three quarters of the cabinet no longer believes in’.

In June, Wilson threatened resignation but was offered a route out through Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon. They offered Wilson a ‘binding and solemn’ agreement that the TUC would attempt to resolve unofficial disputes.

Castle later wrote that ‘I felt the trade union movement had done itself great harm by its ‘hands off us’ attitude and would pay the price under a Tory Government’.

With the trade unions now against her, and Callaghan the prime contender to succeed Harold Wilson, she claims she ‘knew I had wrecked any chances I might have of getting to the top’

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