Ups and downs of the rank and file

Issue: 121

Jack Robertson

John McIlroy, Nina Fishman and Alan Campbell (eds), The Post-War Compromise: British Trade Unions and Industrial Politics 1945-64 and The High Tide of British Trade Unionism: Trade Unions and Industrial Politics 196479 (Merlin, 2007), £18.95 each

These two volumes bring together essays from an impressive array of contributors on different aspects of industrial politics in the British trade union movement in the years after the Second World War. Authors include two of the country’s leading industrial correspondents during this period, Geoffrey Goodman of the Daily Mirror and Robert Taylor of the Financial Times. Other articles are penned by a number of leading industrial relations specialists and labour historians such as Eric Hobsbawm, John Kelly, Richard Hyman and John Foster.

Perhaps the most valuable of the two books is the first, which covers the immediate post-war period from 1945 to 1964. What went on in these years is often either mistakenly overlooked as of no real significance or regarded more disparagingly as an illustration of narrow sectionalism at its very worst. One of the coeditors of these books, Nina Fishman, has done a particularly good job of demonstrating that there was in fact a lot going on beneath the surface during this period. She spotlights the important role played by Communist Party members in building a network of rank and file militants in the engineering and shipbuilding industries, and among London bus workers. There is an equally valuable companion piece by Jim Phillips on the relationship between rank and file dock workers and their union leaderships at this time.

What really characterises the period up to the election of Harold Wilson’s Labour government in 1964 is that it coincides with a prolonged post-war boom, during which shop stewards organisation in a number of key industries was able to wrest concessions from employers almost at will. It is perfectly true that the political horizons of many of these militants were extremely limited, often barely extending beyond their own factory gates. But it is also the case that this brand of “do it yourself” reformism, primarily based on successful negotiation of piece_rate bonus payments, bred a degree of confidence in workers’ own independent organisation. This was to provide the springboard for the historic battles of the early 1970s.

An indication of just how lively the industrial scene was particularly in the late 1950s and early 1960s emerges well in Geoffrey Goodman’s article explaining the pivotal role played by industrial correspondents on the national newspapers. There were so many stoppages in some industries that these reporters, who at the time took precedence over the parliamentary press corps, were regularly referred to as strike correspondents. Typically these disputes involved small numbers of workers, but there were a lot of them—between two and three thousand a year across all industries, including mining (where the strike rate was especially high) in every year between 1955 and 1964.

Perhaps the most notable feature of this period was that there can rarely have been such a divergence between what was going on at rank and file level and the ideology of a predominantly right wing leadership in major unions such as the TGWU, NUM and AUEW. And there can be few other times when the influence of the Labour Party was of such little direct relevance on the shop floor, or when the divergence between parliamentary politics and economic militancy has been so pronounced. In industries such as the docks, mining and engineering not only were the vast majority of strikes unofficial, but management had normally caved in within the first couple of days. This meant full_time officials rarely even knew what was going on—let alone being able to put the brake on action.

When a royal commission was eventually set up by Wilson to deal with the threat posed by the nascent shop stewards movement it was found that the shipyards, mines, docks and car manufacturing industries, which together accounted for only 4 percent of the labour force in Britain, were responsible for 53 percent of all strike days in the country.

Lord Donovan, who headed the inquiry, made a number of recommendations on how best to deprive shop stewards in key industries of the essential bases of their support. These involved a range of measures which included the replacement of piecework bonus schemes with other forms of productivity deals and more of an emphasis on company-wide and industry_wide pay bargaining, both of which undermined the day to day role performed by shop stewards at factory level and in individual departments. In addition there was a deliberate policy to encourage the establishment of full-time convenors and shop stewards to police the rank and file and increase the degree to which they were incorporated into the lower levels of the trade union bureaucracy.

In the event, it took a while before the impact of these recommendations became fully apparent, mainly because of the extraordinary upsurge of industrial militancy that exploded during the period from 1970 to 1972 after the election of Ted Heath’s government and the introduction of the Tories’ Industrial Relations Act.

Now the sectional militancy was almost completely transcended by a fantastic generalisation of rank and file activity, most evident in the widespread solidarity campaign in support of the UCS shipyard occupation, the secondary strike action taken by workers in Fleet Street and elsewhere in support of the Pentonville Five, and the flying pickets organised by the rank and file miners to close power stations. Perhaps the most dramatic manifestation of all was the mobilisation of tens of thousands of car workers in Birmingham by their shop stewards who, following direct appeals from rank and file mine workers, joined the miners’ picket lines at Saltley Gates at the main coal distribution plant in the Midlands.

None of these electrifying victories could possibly have been achieved had it not been for the gradual build up of confidence developed within the rank and file over the preceding decade or so, even though most of the battles they had been involved in could be dismissed as purely “economistic”. These day to day struggles were important because they involved the membership, maintained traditions of discussion and involvement in regular workplace meetings and were generally successful because they held fast to basic trade union principles such as refusal to cross a picket line. Nor would these victories have been possible had it not been for the crucial part played by industrial militants, the majority of whom were members of the Communist Party, but with an increasing involvement of younger stewards who had gravitated towards the emerging revolutionary left.

The great conundrum of the two periods covered by these volumes is how it came about that by the mid-1970s the tremendous victories chalked up by the shop stewards organisation in the period 1970 to 1974 were already being seriously eroded. Eventually the self-activity of the rank and file, so evident in these heroic struggles, was to be almost entirely superseded by reliance on left wing leaders of the two biggest unions, Jack Jones of the TGWU and Hugh Scanlon of the AUEW. They in turn were able to achieve what their right wing predecessors had signally failed to do. This time, with the full backing of leading lights in the shop stewards movement such as Derek Robinson at British Leyland and Jimmie Airlie at UCS, they were able to deflect the militancy of the rank and file away from a further generalisation of the struggle and towards an early accommodation with the language of national interest, industrial participation and legitimised scabbing under a new Labour government, now headed by Jim Callaghan.

Unfortunately, this is not a question that receives anything like the attention it deserves in the second volume of this compilation. One obvious explanation for this is that it raises uncomfortable questions for a good number of the contributors about the role of the Communist Party during this period and the way in which its “broad left” strategy effectively took the leadership of the shop stewards movement into a historic dead end. Another is that the full range of contributions is so diverse and from such a variety of standpoints that the overall survey lacks cohesion and one or two of the contributions clearly either do not understand or wilfully misrepresent the International Socialists/Socialist Workers Party role in this period and its approach to rank and file work.

For an antidote and a much needed dose of clarity, International Socialism readers could do worse than revisit Tony Cliff’s exceptional article on “The Balance of Class Forces in Recent Years”, the original “downturn” document, which more than stands the test of time and which first appeared in this journal.1

Cliff’s article summed up his view that, although some indicators pointed to the conclusion that the strength of workers’ organisation continued on an upward curve in the second half of the 1970s, in fact the underlying trend was a downward one. To take one example, trade union membership grew year on year throughout the 1970s until it reached a high point in 1979. On the face of it, this must have meant that workers’ power in relation to the employers had grown faster between 1975 and 1979 (an average increase of 314,000 a year) than between 1971 and 1974 (an average increase of 144,000 a year).

The problem was that a large part of the increase that took place in the 1970s was as a result of “closed shop” agreements between union officials and the employers, which increased membership numbers but did very little to strengthen trade union organisation. The other main growth in union membership in the 1970s was in the white collar unions, which had very little tradition of struggle and independent organisation but which grew by 18.7 percent between 1970 and 1974, compared to a decline of 1.3 percent in the manual unions over the same period.

As Cliff commented, “Therefore, it would be very mechanical, not to say banal, to conclude from the growth of union membership that the balance of class forces shifted in favour of the working class.” By most other indicators it had become increasingly apparent that the tremendous upsurge of militancy between 1970 and 1972 was not being sustained. The most important reason for this was that neither the trade union bureaucracy nor the leadership of the Communist Party was prepared to sanction any further advances for the rank and file and, unfortunately, those who had been in the forefront of the great struggles in the docks, mining, engineering and shipyards were either not strong enough numerically or were too weak politically to resist the retreat.

It is true, of course, there was another national miners’ strike in 1974 which brought down the Tory government. But the most noticeable feature of the strike this time round was that it was led from the top, not by the rank and file. There were no flying pickets, no mass pickets and a very low level of rank and file involvement all round. The examples of solidarity action, which had been absolutely crucial for winning the fight over the Pentonville Five and at Saltley in 1972, became increasingly few and far between in the second half of the 1970s. Even when superhuman efforts were made to mobilise a large number of workers in support of vital disputes, such as the battle for union recognition at Grunwick’s, there was never quite enough confidence in the rank and file to overcome the reluctance of the trade union leaders to authorise an effective campaign of secondary action by blocking mail going in and out of the depot. The result was a totally unnecessary and demoralising defeat, which more than outweighed the signal victories for BOC lorry drivers and Ford workers shortly afterwards.

By illustrating his case with this and other examples, Cliff was able to show that a qualitative shift had taken place since the early 1970s which, though we might not have liked it much, was a fact that needed to be faced. The SWP’s forerunner, the International Socialists, had grown by leaps and bounds between 1968 and 1974, by which time they had 4,000 members, 40 factory branches and more than a dozen rank and file papers. The aim was to create a national rank and file movement founded on similar principles to the ones led by earlier generations of socialists in Britain, at the time of the First World War and the Russian Revolution, and again in the 1930s. Although the rank and file papers were tremendously successful for a few years, in the event the entire initiative was stillborn and it took a while to realise why.

The “downturn” theory helped us to understand that we had been trying to build just at a time when the pendulum of class struggle had started to swing back in the bosses’ favour. The erosion of rank and file organisation and confidence identified by Cliff was depriving the potential rank and file of its base and was yet another symptom of the way the balance of class forces had shifted under the 1974-9 Labour government.

Although Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon were able to win acquiescence to Labour’s social contract pay policy (which held down workers’ wages at a time of sky-rocketing inflation and massive redundancies), resistance to this policy did eventually erupt in the form of a revolt of the low paid led by leaders of the unions such as the National Union of Public Employees (NUPE) in what became known as the “winter of discontent”. But again, although this led to one of the highest number of days lost through strike action in any year, the outbreak was in no way comparable to the triumphs of the early 1970s.

This became all too clear in the 1980s when Margaret Thatcher set out to wreak her revenge on all those groups of workers who had humiliated her predecessor, Edward Heath, a decade earlier. Because the balance of power had by now shifted not only from labour to capital but also from the rank and file to the trade union bureaucracy, the full-time officials were no longer under pressure from a self_confident shopfloor and the result was that they presided over defeat after defeat.

They were ably assisted in this by media pundits, many of them former Marxists, who now expounded theories of “new realism” and “the end of the working class” which provided the theoretical underpinning first for Neil Kinnock and then for New Labour. The most prominent of these was Eric Hobsbawm, one of the key contributors to these two volumes, who first published his famous article “The Forward March of Labour Halted?” in the Communist Party’s monthly, Marxism Today, at about the same time as Cliff’s “downturn” thesis.

In Hobsbawm’s overblown and thoroughly pessimistic analysis the working class had entered a period of almost terminal decline in about 1945. The best parts of the books reviewed here show that the working class was still alive and kicking long after this. What Cliff’s much more dynamic analysis provides is an overview, lacking from these books, in which the class struggle not only ebbs and flows, but within which molecular developments take place both inside the working class and in the relationship between rank and file workers and the trade union leadership which vitally affect the outcome at each stage.

So the years of lockouts and sackings between 1920 and 1926, for example, go a long way to explaining why the General Strike turned into such a disastrous defeat (and also go a long way to explaining why the miners’ strike of 1984-5 lasted for so long and ultimately ended in defeat as well). By contrast, the great victories of the early 1970s and of the first shop stewards movement were founded on a build-up of rank and file confidence in preceding years.

Some of the contributors to these books provide useful insights, but overall the collection is marred by the pretence that what they provide is a balanced and unbiased account of what went on in this period. Far from representing academically neutral viewpoints, most of the contributions are in fact highly contestable and in a number of cases just plain wrong.


1: International Socialism 6 (autumn 1979). The article is available online at