WARMER BREEZES – THE WILSON ERA 1964-1979
From the later 1960s to 1980 it becomes virtually impossible to record Trades Council activity except through the fading memories of the participants. Year books were published, but with no annual report; minutes do not exist — one ex-secretary of the period burned 7 hundredweight of Trades Council records; and the Express & Star stopped sending reporters to meetings. Sam Clarke, secretary for much of the period, states that an Express & Star reporter would phone him the morning after a meeting and ask for a report, but it seldom found its way into the newspaper.
In October 1964 after 13 years of Tory rule, a Labour government was returned with a majority of just 4. It was to be the fate of all Labour governments to inherit a crisis of balance of payments deficits, to spend all their time requiring sacrifices from working people, only to leave a large surplus to an incoming Tory government. It was these circumstances that gave the love/opposition- more-in-sorrow-than-anger relationship of the trade union movement with the governments of Wilson, and later, Callaghan.
Wolverhampton Trades Council gave loyal support to Wilson’s ‘first 100 days’ as he grappled with the greatest balance of payments deficit in our history up to that point — £800m for 1964. Two particular problems beset Labour governments. The first was that when the balance of payments was in deficit there was an immediate crisis because the gold and dollar reserves were so small. The second was that deficits required immediate action to lower prices and thus increase exports. There were only two ways of doing this. One was to devalue the pound; this was only to be contemplated as a solution of last resort. The other was to control prices and incomes, which always amounted to little more than cutting wages. The luck of the Tories was that they avoided both these disasters. The first by inheriting massive oil revenues and the second by the floating of the pound after the collapse of the Bretton Wood post-war monetary system.
In a succession of measures the Labour government raised income tax by 6d, the rate of interest was raised from 5 per cent to 7 per cent, taxes on cigarettes and whisky were raised, hire purchase regulations tightened and drastic cuts made in public expenditure. After this successful belt tightening operation – the balance of payments deficit was halved in 1965 — the Labour government went to the polls and was returned with a large majority of 98.
From this time trade unionists considered that they should begin to reap the reward for their sacrifices. The government had established a National Board of Prices and Incomes, but as we know, influence on prices was minimal; dividend limitation only meant that these were taken at a later date, and the brunt fell on wages. Dissatisfaction began to surface.
In May 1966 the seamen struck against the most predatory of employers for better wages and conditions. Harold Wilson immediately dubbed this ‘a Communist plot’ (despite the fact that there was not a single Communist on the seamen’s executive). There was considerable public sympathy with the seamen and Wolverhampton Trades Council supported them with both moral and financial aid. In November another notable strike occurred at Roberts-Arundel of Stockport where a union- bashing American management was determined to end union representation at the firm. This bitter dispute lasted 18 months, a notable feature being the nation-wide ‘blacking’ of both suppliers and customers, which brought the firm to its knees. This strike was supported by the Wolverhampton Trades Council.
By June 1967 the sterling crises had returned. This brought from the government a six month standstill of prices and incomes and a further twelve months of ‘severe restraint’. In November the unthinkable had to be faced and the pound was devalued from $2.80 to $2.40.
The main foreign policy issue from 1965 became that of the direct participation of USA troops in the Vietnam War. Wolverhampton Trades Council opposed this war from the beginning and fully participated in the demonstrations and activity which continued until the end of the war. The 1960s was also the hey-day of CND and Ban the Bomb. Demonstrations both national and local were supported by the Trades Council.
From 1967 Labour fortunes were on the wane. The continual squeeze on wages also squeezed out any remaining element of Socialism in the Labour government’s policies and in June 1970 they paid the penalty — a record balance of payments surplus, but a Tory government.
When Heath took over he was determined to tame the trade unions. Unfortunately Barbara Castle had set him an example with her crass document In Place of Strife. This proposed what is still the basis of all Tory labour laws – ballots before strikes, cooling off periods, and fines for strikers. The TUC and trades councils, including Wolverhampton’s, had fought that one off, but before 1970 was out, Robert Carr had produced his Industrial Relations Bill.
This Bill created a vast series of offences for which workers could be taken to court — Unfair Industrial Practices. Trade Unions were to register with a new Registrar of Trades Unions and Employers’ Associations and have their rules vetted and approved. Registration was not compulsory, but an unregistered union lost all rights under the law. Agreements were to be ‘legally enforceable’, strikes were illegal until a ballot had been taken and ‘notice’ given (usually a week, but often a month) and in industries of national importance a 60 day ‘cooling off period’ could be enforced. Sympathetic action and closed shops were outlawed. To enforce this vast enserfment of working people a National Industrial Relations Court was set up presided over by the notorious Sir (now Lord and in hot water for the false imprisonment of the Guildford Four) Donaldson, an active member of the Tory party in his student days.
This Act created the greatest mass movement of protest in Britain since the General Strike. Opposition was at first led by the unofficial Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade unions and in December 30,000 Midland workers struck against what was still only a Bill. But May Day 1971 brought most of the large factories in Wolverhampton to a halt with the highly successful official TUC Day of Protest with the largest march that Wolverhampton had seen since 1926.
The protests did not prevent the Bill becoming law, but trade union action made the law inoperable, as will always be the case when there is anything like full employment.
Heath had further problems in 1971. The Upper Clyde Shipyards Work-in started in July. This was an entirely novel form of trade union protest where workers occupied the yards, continued working, and negotiated for new work to keep them open. The next year the great builders’ strike against the Lump and for the Builders’ Charter of higher wages and safer working conditions began. Building sites in Birmingham and the Black Country played a major role in these strikes under the organiser, Peter Carter. Unable to win the economic battles, the employers and government connived to bring a political trial of the Shrewsbury Twenty-Four. Men, admittedly without any connection with alleged violence that had occurred, were indicted under medieval laws for ‘conspiracy’ to cause this violence. They were sentenced to long terms of imprisonment. Early in 1972 Heath had his first brush with the miners and came off second best. All these actions were supported by Wolverhampton Trades Council.
Heath’s troubles came to an end early in 1974 when he again took on the miners who refused to adhere to his phase 3 Wage Freeze. This resulted in a blacked-out Britain of the Three Day Week. Heath went to the country on the slogan of Who Rules Britain? By a short-head it was decided that it wasn’t Ted Heath and Labour was returned but only as a minority government; a further election in October 1974 gave Wilson a wafer thin overall majority of just 4.
Once again the Tories had squandered a Labour created balance of payments surplus with Barber’s mad ‘dash for freedom’ resulting in a 1973 deficit of £900m and inflation of 10 per cent. A crisis budget in April raised income tax 3p. But the four-fold hike of oil prices by OPEC further fuelled inflation, brought mass unemployment, and created the conditions under which Thatcher was able to de-industrialise the West Midlands.
Unemployment was 770,000 in January 1974; it passed the lm mark in June and was 1.2m in December.
In May 1975 Wolverhampton rates rose by 30 per cent, the price of inflation and the Tory reorganisation of local government which had resulted in the Metropolitan County. Compulsory wage freezes were out for a Labour government, so a voluntary Social Contract was negotiated between the TUC and the government which accepted wage limitation.
In March 1976, to everyone’s astonishment, Harold Wilson resigned and Jim Callaghan became prime minister. In May, inflation peaked at 23 per cent. In December there was a savage mini-budget with cuts in food and housing subsidies, overseas aid and defence, and social services. Callaghan was forced, cap in hand, to the IMF with his ‘letter of intent’ in exchange for which he received a loan of nearly 4 billion dollars. 1977 brought the Lib-Lab Pact and massive local election losses in May.
Through all these events the Labour Party members were swinging left. Callaghan insisted on an impossible phase 4 of wage restraint. Unemployment was around 1.5m and wages had so far lost out to prices that low-paid workers could no longer exist on their wages. Strikes by local government workers and others brought the Winter of Discontent of 1978/9 with dustbins not emptied, hospital and ambulance workers left with no alternative but to strike to Tory cries of neglect of the sick.
The result was an election in May which brought Thatcher to power. A new era had begun.