Strike showdown reveals unions’ enduring hold over Labour’s fortunes


The writer is author of ‘Red Queen: The Authorised Biography of Barbara Castle’

In her old age Barbara Castle, Labour’s leading female politician of the 1960s, lived in an absurdly picturesque cottage in the Chiltern Hills. Visiting for the biography of her that I was writing, I would find her sitting at the kitchen table, unfailingly glamorous, often both smoking and using a nebuliser. It was the early years of the Blair government; she was torn between pleasure that Labour was in power and fury at what she saw as its lack of radical intent. It wouldn’t have come to this, she thought, if only she had won her battle to reform the trade unions.

It is 53 years since the hot day in June 1969 when Castle finally lost that intense, protracted fight, standing almost alone against most of the cabinet, the parliamentary party and the wider Labour movement — like St Sebastian, as Roy Jenkins put it. Her defeat set in motion a chain of events that led a decade later to an unprecedented winter of industrial action and in May 1979 to Margaret Thatcher’s win.

Next week, three days of industrial action by RMT, the transport union, will bring much of the country to a standstill. Ministers seem to relish a confrontation they can use to their political advantage while rail managers hint they are prepared to dig in and defeat the RMT in a miners moment.

It is hard for commuters struggling to get to work today to remember that until sometime in the early 1960s the trade unions, their membership already climbing towards a peak of 13mn, were seen as a partner in government, part of a Tory-instigated National Economic Development Council. By the time Labour had been forced to devalue the pound in 1967, soaring inflation and the demand for pay to keep pace had turned them into an enemy.

“In Place of Strife”, as Castle called the sprawling white paper she published early in 1969, offered a complex web of reforms of trade union law. These were meant in particular to suppress the unofficial strikes that caused chaos across industry. Those were the days when what Harold Wilson called “a tightly-knit group of politically motivated men” could bring a whole industry to a standstill. It was hard to decide which was more archaic, unions’ negotiating machinery or their employers’ assembly lines.

Rarely was there a strike for some broader objective like equal pay, as women sewing machinists at Ford’s Dagenham plant found as they fought for parity with male colleagues — the stoppages were often for obscure reasons. As Britain’s dwindling foreign currency reserves were thrown into the bottomless pit marked sterling, Castle transformed the old ministry of labour from a Whitehall backwater in to the nation’s industrial trouble shooter.

Insisting her plans were only to bring order to the disordered world of industrial disputes, in reality Castle’s project was as much political as economic. It was meant to show the world that Labour could handle the unions and manage the economy in the wider national interest. Her colleagues, under union pressure, refused to back it. The failure was seen as confirmation of a Tory narrative revived by Boris Johnson batting off Sir Keir Starmer at PMQs this week: his party in hock to union paymasters.

Today, Castle is remembered not as the politician who began to realign the Labour movement but for the Equal Pay Act of 1970. The trade unions, now untrammelled and emboldened, continued headlong down the road that culminated in mass unemployment and economic irrelevance. By the time of the self-destructive orgy of the winter of discontent in 1979, four-fifths of all adults polled by Ipsos and even three quarters of trade unionists thought they had too much power.

Over the next decade union membership halved. Union rights were eroded. Old industries closed. New ones were much harder to unionise. You don’t need to be watching James Graham’s extraordinary BBC TV series “Sherwood”, set in the long shadow of the 1984 miners’ strike, to be reminded how far we’ve come.

But Labour still struggles to find a coherent description of “the labour movement”. Most people, Ipsos found last time it asked in 2017, thought trade unions were essential to protect workers’ living standards. Even so, people still thought the Labour party was too close to them. Today’s Conservative strategists well understand that a strike by the RMT, the last powerful member of the old triple alliance of miners, transport and rail workers, will play much better for them than for Labour.

Looking back, the failure of In Place of Strife demonstrated that neither wing of the labour movement, unions or party, was ready to modernise or think creatively about how best politics could support workers and wider industry at the same time. There was no will to reconsider what the relationship should look like. Instead, Labour’s trade union MPs came within a hair’s breadth of bringing down their own government. And the unions merrily set off to meet their nemesis in Thatcher.

Labour and the unions’ marriage of convenience has staggered on for more than 50 years. If Starmer really wants voters to see a change, reinventing this relationship is the place to start.


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