By Daniel Esson
As most Labour governments tend to be, the Wilson ministry of 1964-70 was far from tranquil. Taking power in 1964 with a wafer-thin majority of just four, the Wilson years were a time of significant change in Britain with the trade unions central to debates.
Graeter change could have come, if now-forgotten plans were put into motion. Iit might be an exercise in ‘what-ifs’ or alternate history, but all the present is contingent on the past. This period of Labour history is one worth understanding.
First, some context is necessary. The liberalising social reforms of the Wilson government are often, and rightly, lauded as making substantial social progress. Brought to the Commons as Private Members Bills, albeit supported by much of the Labour cabinet, the government legalised abortion, decriminalised racial discrimination and same-sex intercourse, and abolished the death penalty and theatre censorship.
However, it wasn’t all plain sailing. Economic troubles led them to implement forms of austerity via the reintroduction of prescription charges, cuts to roadworks and housing programs, the abolition of free milk for secondary school students, and various other measures which led to campaign pledges being reneged on.
The unfulfilled promises of most relevance to this topic, however, were economic ones. The manifesto pledged national growth and full employment, and national economic development and planning with a decisive role for trade unions, mainly facilitated through the National Economic Development Council (NEDC), set up by Harold Macmillan in 1962.
At the time, the Parliamentary Labour Party was strongly linked to the trade union movement, with 114 directly trade union-sponsored Labour MPs in 1966, and strong presence in the Cabinet. Deputy Prime Minister George Brown and Home Secretary James Callaghan were both renowned for strong links to the unions. The Minister for Technology, Frank Cousins, was actively serving as General Secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU). However, he resigned from the Cabinet in 1966.
Due to a myriad of economic problems, in 1965, the government released the National Plan, which included price controls and limits on the rates and amount at which incomes could rise. There was a broad difference of opinion on the policy across the labour movement. It was particularly unpopular within the trade unions, where some viewed it as an obstruction to their right to demand higher wages through free collective bargaining. However, others thought it a price worth paying for the progressive reforms the government instituted.
After increasing their majority in 1966, legislation became much more comfortable to pass, but economic and industrial strife remained the spectre at the governments’ feast. Shortly after the election, the National Union of Seamen declared a strike, demanding a 16 hour cut in their working week.
Far from acceding to their demands, Wilson declared a state of emergencyand announced a six-month wage freeze. The 1967 conference, as Lewis Minkin has observed, was a watershed moment which would define the relationship with the unions for years to come. Two sizeable unions, the Engineers and Transport Workers, which controlled large proportions of the block vote at Labour conference, cemented their position firmly to the left of the leadership, and made it much harder for the party leadership, and therefore the government, to gain internal support for their policies.
These all set the stage for one of the most infamous White Papers of the post-war era; In Place of Strife. Proposed by the formidable Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity, Barbara Castle, the document was a comprehensive model for significant British trade unionism and industrial planning reform.
So controversial was the notion of a white paper on the topic, and so cunning was Wilson, that it was drafted in secrecy, between Castle and him. The report proposed an Industrial Board with extraordinary powers to enforce agreed settlements in industrial disputes, the creation of a new statutory body, absorbing the powers and responsibilities of the National Board for Prices and Incomes, “which would be concerned with the whole range of problems involved in the public accountability for economic performance of private industry and the public sector”.
These measures would have, for better or worse, totally transformed British industrial policy. Depending on your perspective, the report itself drips with the Wilsonian political canniness (or Machiavellianism) one would expect. The opening section acknowledges that the Trades Union Congress (TUC) had already passed motions through their Congress calling for an end to all Prices and Income legislation. It goes on to list mutually exclusive policy choices the government could’ve taken, all of which are caveated with acknowledgement of likely TUC resistance. The proposals never made it past the Cabinet, mainly due to Callaghan and trade unionist allies’ opposition.
The most poignant reform of In Place of Strife suggested was the one now seen as self-evidently so necessary, but then considered radical; compulsory balloting by unions before calling a strike, should the Secretary of State for Employment order them to. The change, combined with the report’s suggestions to end “closed shop” industries where membership of a trade union was compulsory for employment, is now seen as a moderate pre-emption of other trade union reform; those of Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher.
Heath’s set of reforms were codified as the Industrial Relations Act (IRA) 1971. Based on promises made in the Conservative manifesto, the bill, much like In Place of Strife, sought to address the Lord Donovan’s Royal Commission on Trade Unions and Employers Associations’ conclusions.Heath’s reforms conferred unions’ new responsibilities and put legal restrictions on wildcat strike action, but did not give workers as much formalised protection as the Donovan report recommended. The IRA was met by resistance from the trade unions, with the TUC passing a resolution binding member unions to oppose it. Several trade unions were suspended for complying with the bill while the TGWU being twice fined for contempt of court for noncompliance.
The bill began a period of industrial to-ing and fro-ing, with the 1974 Labour Government repealing it. Despite Callaghan being an ally of the trade unions when he eventually became Prime Minister, they would not spare him their wrath, made most evident by the 1979 Winter of Discontent.
A harsh winter of protracted strikes, three-day weeks and political chaos laid fertile ground for Margaret Thatcher to unceremoniously eject Callaghan from office, on a platform of brutal crackdowns on the trade unions.
Whether or not the proposals of In Place of Strife could’ve worked is a matter of contentious debate. It could have crashed and burned and widened the rift between Labour and the unions, or it could have revolutionised British industry, doing away with the “outdated measures” and “restrictive practices on either side of industry” of which Wilson spoke in his famous 1963 speech. If adopted, the recommendations could have ushered in the post-war settlement’s demise, or overhauled it, while stealing the wind from the Tories sails, disarming them of a valuable political weapon and neutralising the attack line that Labour represented the industrial and economic model of yesteryear.
Today we can see that the industrial chaos of the 60s and 70s shaped both modern Britain, and the modern Labour Party. With the current prevalence of a year-zero view of Labour history as beginning with either Corbyn or Blair, we would all do well to avail ourselves of less well-sung chapters in our history.
Daniel Esson is a third-year politics student at the University of Kent and an aspiring journalist. He writes for Backbench.com and does editing work for the university newspaper InQuire, and is particularly interested in writing about left-wing politics and economics. He tweets at https://twitter.com/dannyesson