Release of the 'Pentonville Five', 1973


Conservative Government 1970-1974

A principal pledge in the 1970 Conservative election manifesto was the completion, in a more thorough, consistent manner, of the job which Wilson and Castle had started. With surprising efficiency, the Conservatives' Industrial Relations Bill was framed and implemented within a year, at the same time as the final stages in the negotiations for Britain's entry into the Common Market. The TUC General Council adopted an obstructive attitude towards the new government from the first. Although Jack Jones was later to describe Heath as the best Prime Minister with whom he had dealings, at the time he and Scanlon were publicly, and apparently relentlessly, hostile. (1) Victor Feather may have been minded to do business pragmatically with the Heath government once the Industrial Relations Bill became law, but having challenged the Labour government for daring to place legal strictures on trade union operations, the TUC could hardly be seen to accept the same kind of regulation from the Tories.

Nevertheless, in 1971, it was likely that the Industrial Relations Act would not only survive, but also endure. Outside the public arena, Jones and Scanlon recognised the overwhelming importance of unions being seen to serve their members' interests in an everyday working environment. They knew that unless they complied with the law of the land, their lay representatives and officials would be in no position to do so. A problem for Heath was that the Industrial Relations Act had affected vested interests in strategic places - civil servants in the Ministry of Labour, some of the most conservative judiciary and a critical mass of industrial relations experts. There is also the fact that his government had the genuine bad luck to encounter and have to deal simultaneously with critical situations in Northern Ireland, the economy, industrial relations and also had to face the problem of piloting the Treaty to enter the Common Market through a bad-tempered parliament.

When the industrial conflicts between 1972-4 are recalled now, they seem to be wildly improbable. These events, including the miners' strikes of 1972 and 1974, the national dock strike of 1972 and during it the arrest, conviction and then release of five dockworkers, unfolded with a momentum and intensity that led many observers then (and even now) to explain them by different variants of conspiracy theory. They attributed supernormal influence to the leftwing of the trade union movement and explained the effectiveness of the conflicts to the keen agitation and propaganda of the various leftwing political groups active on the industrial front. It is too soon to offer a definitive political history of this remarkable time. But when it appears, despite the belief of many contemporary Labour leaders and their union colleagues, Bert Ramelson, the British Communist Party's industrial organiser, is unlikely to be assigned the role of chief orchestrator.

Ramelson encouraged shop stewards and other militant union activists to organise alongside official union structures to exert pressure effectively upon the official institutions and on Labour MPs to oppose In Place of Strife and incomes policy. The principal 'unofficial' body, the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions (based primarily in engineering), was oblivious of any wider political issues. Most of its affiliated bodies were shop stewards committees. Stewards, who were mainly Labour supporters (and frequently Labour Party members), stressed the importance of unions remaining independent from the state and not being incorporated into it and thereby weakened. They perceived state regulation as an unmitigated and sinister danger and depicted it as such to their members. Their arguments were difficult to distinguish from those being put forward at the time by Jones, Scanlon and Feather. Woodcock's earlier steps, which had moved the trade union movement towards a closer, public co-operation with government, were now disregarded and the TUC moved backwards.

The most important concern for Jones and Scanlon was to keep faith with their rank and file members, by which they meant committed union activists and loyalists. They believed that this must be their first duty, putting it above even their duty as responsible leaders to deal with the government. Other members of the General Council took the contrary view, notably Jack Cooper, Tom Jackson and Sidney Greene. But Jones and Scanlon, a historically unique example on the General Council of the TGWU and AEU joining forces, were relentless in their hostility, publicly (and probably privately) committed to resisting any "state control" of industrial relations. The failure of the General Council to keep control of events in 1972-4 must be borne by its members. They share responsibility, along with the Conservative government and the Labour shadow cabinet, for allowing the opportunity of achieving a consensus about incomes policy, economic growth, and industrial relations law to slip away.

Len Murray, who succeeded Victor Feather as TUC General Secretary in April 1973, recalled how near to agreement the talks between Jones and Scanlon on the one side and Heath and ministers on the other had come in 1974. They sought a way through the problem of whether the mineworkers could be judged to be a special case and allowed a pay increase above the norm provided for in the government's incomes policy. Murray felt Heath was being badly advised and was also too tired to focus properly on the discussions. (2) Having been unable to reach an agreement, the Heath government faced a second national miners' strike for which they were again ill-prepared. They called an emergency general election in February 1974 and fought the campaign in an equally ad hoc manner on the slogan "Who governs Britain?", with the implication that the voters' choice was not between Conservative and Labour, but between Conservative and the National Union of Mineworkers.

Though Harold Wilson was not sanguine about Labour's chances, he lost no time in capitalising on Heath's apparent mishandling of the NUM strike. Portraying Labour as the only party capable of doing business with the unions, he deployed tactical flair in putting Heath, already on the defensive, literally onto the ropes. Enoch Powell's advice to the electorate to vote Labour probably made a decisive difference in key marginal seats in the West Midlands. Powell gave his recommendation on the basis that Wilson was likely to reverse the Conservative government's decision in 1971 to sign the Treaty of Rome, as a result of which Britain became a member of the European Economic Community (Common Market, now called the European Union). The electorate were divided on the main issues of union power and the Common Market and confused by a lacklustre campaign. The Conservatives gained a higher percentage of the popular vote, but Labour won more seats and Wilson was able to form a minority government with Liberal Party support.

Professor Nina Fishman, Senior Lecturer, History, University of Westminster, School of Social Sciences, Humanities and Languages

(1) Jack Jones, 'Union Man', 1986, p. 259

(2) Interview with Lord Murray by Nina Fishman, 2 November 1995