Issue 187 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published June 1995 Copyright © Socialist Review
I can't help feeling that over the coming months one response to every attempt at industrial struggle, from union leaders and Labour politicians, will be don't rock the boat but wait for Labour to get elected. It's an argument that doesn't pass the test of history.
We only have to go back to the early 1970s to see how different things can be when workers fight back. Although today Ted Heath is seen as a moderate Tory, at the time of his election in 1970 he was determined to impose curbs on union rights. His Industrial Relations Act was if anything more drastic than any of the anti-union laws Thatcher managed to introduce.
In February 1971 over 140,000 came out onto the streets on a 'Kill the Bill' demonstration. Meanwhile workers were challenging the government on the question of pay.
In 1972 the miners went on strike. Their pay was low. Now the miners were determined to catch up and--rejecting a pay offer of less than 10 percent--voted for strike action.
The miners were solid and so the key to victory was closing down the coke depots. To do this the miners began using flying pickets. The most famous of these pickets was at Saltley Gates where miners were joined by thousands of other trade unionists.
Tory cabinet minister Jim Prior describes how:
In other words, the intimidation and force of the Heath government and its Industrial Relations Act had failed. The miners returned to work with a 20 percent plus pay rise.
With pay restraint now in tatters the Industrial Relations Act suffered a similar fate later that year.
Five striking dockers were arrested and sent to Pentonville prison. Mass demonstrations were called outside Pentonville and a one day general strike was called for 31 July. The government was forced to back down and the Pentonville Five were released without having to purge their contempt.
The Industrial Relations Act was dead in all but name.
Heath's government was now punch drunk, and in 1974 was dealt its final blow by the miners who went on strike for a second time. He put the country on a three day working week, but with no sign of the strike weakening decided to call an election. Heath's gamble failed and he was thrown out of office.
The trade union movement had defended itself against the attacks with spectacular success. A success that meant Labour (who in the late 1960s had tried to introduce their own anti-union laws) could not possibly begin to think of keeping or amending the act (as Blair seeks to do with Thatcher's laws), but had to scrap it altogether.
The struggles from below had determined that Labour had to get rid of the worst Tory anti working class measures, just as those struggles had destroyed Heath himself. Waiting for Labour would have produced very different results. Heath may well have survived, and even if he hadn't there would have been less pressure on Labour.
Labour in opposition to Heath had kept its distance from workers' struggles, a pattern that was repeated by Neil Kinnock in opposition to Margaret Thatcher during the 1980s.
After her third election victory in 1987 Thatcher's self belief took her off somewhere into the stratosphere, and while there she introduced what she proclaimed as her flagship--the poll tax. It turned out to be her Titanic.
The tax was designed especially to ease the burden on the rich while greatly increasing it on ordinary working people. Nicholas Ridley described it as a very fair tax because now 'a duke and his gardener will he paying the same amount'.
Kinnock insisted the law must not be broken and the tax must he paid until Labour got elected and got rid of it. Millions disagreed and refused to pay the tax. Tens of thousands demonstrated outside their local town halls as the poll tax was set. Finally 100,000 demonstrated in Trafalgar Square with the march ending in the biggest riot in Britain this century.
The riot killed the poll tax and killed off Thatcher's reign. Just as well really, because had we waited we would have been disappointed. In 1992 Kinnock again lost to the Tories. Yet more people had refused to pay the poll tax than eventually voted for Labour, and the highest standing Kinnocks Labour ever reached in the polls was immediately after the Trafalgar Square riot.
The lessons of all this are there to he learnt. If we want to defend our education, our health service, our standard of living, we will do so most effectively by fighting now and waiting for no one.
Whether a Blair government is a pale pink reflection of the Tories, or is forced to make substantial changes, will depend very much on whether we fight now or we simply wait and hope.