Martin Thomas was an active socialist and trade unionist in 1974, when Britain elected a Labour government seen at the time as left-wing. He spoke to Solidarity.
Q. Today people think of the 1945 Labour government as maybe left-wing, but not the Labour government of 1974-9. If we’re looking for experiences to learn from for the possibility of a Corbyn government in the next few years, surely that’s not one of them?
A. Denis Healey, the Chancellor in that 1974 government, told the Labour conference in October 1973: “There are going to be howls of anguish from the rich”.
He followed up a few days before polling with the promise to “squeeze property speculators until the pips squeak”.
The Labour manifesto summed up by proposing “a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of working people and their families”.
Plenty were sceptical about whether Healey and the new prime minister, Harold Wilson, would deliver. Wilson had been a “Bevanite” (the equivalent then of a “Corbynista”) in the 1950s, but plenty remembered the dismal record of his 1964-70 Labour administration. The radically sceptical revolutionary left was feistier and more energetic than it is now.
Yet this was a Labour government brought to power on a wave of working-class militancy and radicalisation, a government of a Labour Party which had won an election called by the harassed Tories on the theme “who rules, government or unions?” by siding with the unions.
The Labour government reflected both the political inadequacies of the labour movement as it was then — and the strength, confidence, and political reach of that movement. That is why we had a sort-of-left government.
The manifesto sided with the miners, whose industrial dispute with the government had spurred it to call the snap election. The Labour government settled the dispute on the miners’ terms.
The manifesto promised to repeal Tory laws which forced councils to raise council rents. The Labour government did repeal them. It promised protections for private tenants and the homeless which were delivered.
It promised to and did repeal the law, mild by present standards, which the Tory government had brought in to quell strikes.
The Labour government also introduced the Equal Pay Act, the Sex Discrimination Act, and the Health and Safety at Work Act.
Its undelivered promises included a Wealth Tax; sweeping nationalisations — North Sea oil and gas, shipbuilding, ship repair, ports, aerospace, pharmaceuticals, road haulage, construction, and machine tools — and “steps to make the management of existing nationalised industries more responsible to the workers in the industry”.
Q. What did its supporters expect the left government to do?
A. They certainly expected it to settle with the miners and to reverse the worst measures of the Tory government of 1970-4, which had attempted a Thatcher-type program but soon been thrown off course by militant workers’ struggles.
Beyond that, as far as I can make out, everything was vague. The activist left had failed to educate a sufficiently large body of working-class opinion in clear measuring-standards for what a government serving the working class should do.
We had a strong labour movement. Trade-union membership had been growing uninterruptedly since 1934, and would peak at 12 million members in 1979. Shop-steward organisation, previously concentrated in engineering, expanded to many white-collar sections new to trade-unionism. Strikes were on a broadly rising trend from about 1956 through to 1985.
Yet the political culture of the labour movement was decayed. “Socialism”, to most people who supported it, meant no more than a hoped-for gradual process of expanding welfare and reining in bosses’ abuses. The Communist Party was still influential (20,000 members even in 1979), but it was a demoralised mixture of bewildered Stalinist nostalgics and reformers who were on the way to bland liberalism. The revolutionary left had some influence, but also many vagaries.
In 1978, when this 1974-9 Labour government was visibly reduced to floundering administration of a capitalist system in grievous crisis, the veteran Communist Party cynic Eric Hobsbawm gave a famous lecture entitled “The Forward March of Labour Halted”. The leader who took Labour to the right in the late 1980s, Neil Kinnock, would later hail Hobsbawm as his teacher: “the most sagacious Marxist”.
You might say that the mass of Labour voters of 1974 believed in a vaguely social-democratic “Forward March of Labour” in history, and expected the Labour government to restart that “forward march”.
Q. What happened?
A. The Labour government did repeal the most-hated Tory laws. Labour had said that it would restore industrial peace by a “social contract” under which the unions would go slow on militancy in return for the Labour government expanding welfare measures. In fact neither side of that contract held, at least initially. Strikes continued at a high level.
Meanwhile, world capitalism was in its biggest crisis since World War 2. Economic output began to sag in 1973, slumped drastically in 1974, and kept falling until late in 1975. Inflation reached 24.2% per year in 1975. Unemployment rose from 2.6% in 1973 (then considered high) towards 5.7% in 1977.
Both the Labour government, and the broad labour movement, lacked ideas to deal with this crisis.
They were scared. In the first year of the Labour government, some feverishly-extrapolating would-be Marxists (notably the “Mandelite” IMG) speculated that this government would suffer similarly to the Allende reformist government in Chile, which had been overthrown by a very bloody military coup, following CIA-backed destabilisation, in September 1973.
The top layers of the ruling class were less panicky. They were confident that Labour would administer capitalism passably. But in 1974, according to later testimony by Michael Carver, then the Chief of Defence Staff, “fairly senior officers were ill-advised enough to make suggestions that perhaps, if things got terribly bad, the army would have to do something about it...”
By June 1975, Jack Jones, the leftish leader of the strongest union, the TGWU (now part of Unite), was so convinced of the coup danger than he persuaded the government to scrap its manifesto commitment against binding wage controls and introduce a flat-rate limit on pay rises of £6 per week (about £60 in today’s values).
Jones’s authority, many workers’ bewilderment at the economic chaos, and the fact that for some workers £6 was the biggest weekly pay rise they’d ever had, combined to make this pay limit effective. Strikes declined sharply.
Simultaneously the parliamentary Labour left crumbled in demoralisation when withdrawal from the EU was rejected 67%-33% in a referendum in June 1975. For the parliamentary left then, EU withdrawal was the politico-economic cure-all.
By 1976-8 the government was imposing heavy cuts on the NHS and other social spending under the terms of a deal it had had to do with the IMF, and opposition from the parliamentary Labour left had collapsed.
Q. How did the left in the labour movement, outside government, respond?
A. Most of the revolutionary left had gone along with the parliamentary Labour left in describing EU withdrawal as somehow anti-capitalist, and were equally flummoxed by the referendum result. The forerunners of Workers’ Liberty were almost alone on the left in dissenting.
In 1975-6 the mood on the “broad” left could perhaps be described as unhappy but stunned. There were local anti-cuts committees. Industrial struggle revived bit by bit from early 1977, to culminate in large public-sector strikes in the “Winter of Discontent” of 1978-9.
By 1979, frustration had accumulated so that a big left surge developed in the Labour Party, around demands to democratise the party.
But by then workers’ confidence in industrial class struggle had already declined. It was not extinguished. The miners would strike for a full year in 1984-5, and at points in that year come close to defeating the Tories. But rank-and-file organisation was already thinner, the will to challenge incumbent union officials already weaker, the cumulative impact of many years of mass unemployment already greater.
The top trade union officials, many of whom went along with the first stages of the Labour left surge, were able to come to an agreement with the Labour leaders to stifle it in 1982. Many leaders of the Labour left took on leading positions in Labour councils, and there, in the battles against Tory cuts, trained themselves in temporising and accommodation.
Q. What lessons for today?
A. The ideological, political, and economic-class-struggle aspects of the left response, all across the 1970s, were chronically out of kilter with each other. Which is another way of saying that Marxists had been unable to seize the great opportunities given by radicalisations in the late 1960s and early 1970s to build a revolutionary Marxist organisation sufficiently strong to knit struggles together.
If we do not use the “sunny” times — the periods when most things seem to be going the left’s way, and so demarcation and education seem like unnecessary bother — then we will not have the means to tackle the “storms” when, suddenly, the difficulties are visibly greater.