Tony Cliff

Ten years on

(26 May 1979)

Based on a speech at the Skegness Rally of the SWP, Easter 1979.
Socialist Worker, No. 631, 26 May 1979.
Reprinted in Chris Harman (ed.), In the Heat of the Struggle, pp. 181–2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

To grasp the present and try to foresee the future one must understand the past. The present is nothing but a moment containing elements from the past and the future. We have a new Tory government. To guess the prospects of the class struggle under Margaret Thatcher it is useful to look back at the class struggle over the last decade.

The ten-year period divides easily into two, more or less equal, parts: 1969–74 and 1974–79.

The first five years was a period when the class struggle achieved a level unprecedented in British working class history for generations. We had two national miners’ strikes. One of them smashed to pieces the incomes policy of the Tory government. The other forced the government to introduce a three-day week and then to lose power

We had a national unofficial docks strike challenging the government’s Industrial Relations Act. And the Pentonville prisoners were set free.

The same period saw the first ever national building workers strike; the first national teachers’ strike and the first national hospital workers’ strike. We had a national strike by the engineers against the Industrial Relations Act which forced the government to lift the court fine on the AUEW.

Workers facing sackings and factory closure in over 200 factories occupied them, a tactic completely new to the British working class. This chapter ended abruptly with the electoral victory of Labour in February 1974.

The next five years were radically different. We did not have one national strike in any key section of the class. The struggle was incomparably more fragmented, the level was far lower The number of days on strike in 1976 was the lowest for ten years.

One reason given for this change is that it was simple loyalty to Labour that cut the level of struggle. This wouldn’t wash in 1969. The strikes of the dustmen and the teachers did smash through Wilson’s incomes policy. Loyalty to Labour by itself would not have held the dam.

A second reason put forward is the incomes policy. However, all the historical experience showed that incomes policy by itself only stemmed the battle for a year, or at best, two years.

The third reason given is that militancy was dampened by unemployment. Again, historical experience shows that well-organised workers can be whipped into greater militancy by the threat of the sack.

To understand the downturn in the class struggle in 1974–79 one must look to the cause in the weaknesses of the labour movement – general causes that were very much in evidence in the first five years. I gave a list of workers’ struggles that ended victoriously in the years 1969–74. Alas a whole number of important battles in the same period ended in defeat.

In 1971 the seven week long and bitter strike of the postmen ended in a complete victory for the employers. In 1972 the wage claim of two million engineering workers ended in the dust. In 1973 the building workers’ strike, with all its militancy and flying pickets, was accompanied with the arrest and imprisonment of the Shrewsbury pickets. They were not freed. In other words, sectionalism was still rampant in the labour movement.

The generalising and unifying element in all those strikes was a deep anti-Tory feeling. The alternatives to the Tories meant the Labour Party.

Once Labour was in power that general opposition collapsed. In all the struggles of 1969–74 the union officials kept complete control over the national strikes. The spearhead of the union bureaucracy at that time were the left leaders, Scanlon and Jones.

With Labour in power all the union leaders moved towards the social contract – this time spearheaded by the same “terrible twins”.

The worst inheritance of the trade union bureaucracy during the social contract was that scabbing became respectable. We must remember how Jimmy Airlie, the convenor of Govan shipyard, scabbed on the yard workers of Swan Hunter in Newcastle, accepting the blacked Polish ships. Labour laid the foundations and the Tories will now build the structure by using the law.


Last updated on 3 February 2017