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Crisis. What Crisis?

Updated Monday 16th February 2015

What provided the background for the 1979 Winter of Discontent and why did this background contribute to the James Callaghan's loss of power? 

Rubbish piled up Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC Rubbish piled up during the Winter of Discontent The 1970s are often seen as the decade of crisis and chaos, invoking images of disorder and decline and challenges to the authority of the state in the form of terrorism, coups and conspiracies of various sorts. And strikes. 
 
In Britain, more days were lost from strikes in this period than from any other. And despite some notable trade union victories over the decade, which was one born from a more widespread radicalism of the 1960s, the strikes in retrospect are almost always regarded as negative events. This is mainly because of the memory of the so-called ‘Winter of Discontent’ which precipitated the end of an era of Labour government.    
 
By the beginning of the decade, British trade unions had revived under the leaderships of Jack Jones in the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU) and Hugh Scanlon of the Amalgamated Engineering Union (AEU), two of the biggest unions. Between them and others they comprised a ‘broad left’ union base whose influence increased throughout the 1970s. They were initially backed by Bert Ramelson, the Communist Party’s legendary industrial organiser, who exerted much influence through the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions, and had the ear of both of them. 
 

Arthur Scargill 

 
The same period saw the rise of Arthur Scargill of the National Union of Mineworkers as a prominent player in British industrial politics, as well as the increased unionisation of public sector and white-collar workers.
 
Shop stewards, namely local or workplace based officials, also grew in power and influence and there were many more unofficial strikes and secondary or flying’ pickets; that is members of other unions showing solidarity by joining the picketing of other unions and moving from site to site.
 
Edward Heath’s Conservative government of 1970 to 1974 was dominated by industrial unrest. In 1969, the unions had seen off Labour Government In Place of Strife proposals for ballots before strikes and a ‘cooling-off’ period after and during the year 1970 itself over 10 million working days were lost through strike action.
 
The first National Miners’ strike since The General Strike of 1926 occurred in 1972 and lasted seven weeks, culminating in the clash at ‘Saltley Gates’ in Birmingham when union members kept the gates of the Coke depot closed
 

Power cuts

 
Though the miners initially demanded a 40 per cent pay increase they managed to secure a major increase in pay and over twice what the government had initially offered. This was regarded as a significant victory and, combined with frequent power cuts, had brought increasing pressure on the government so that by the end of 1973 it had decided to initiate a three day week to save fuel costs.
 
This period culminated in the 1974 General Election which Heath, on a ‘who governs?’ platform, lost narrowly to the Labour Party. His attempt to restore authority had clearly failed in the face of the militant strike actions. 
 
Against the background of this industrial unrest and rising inflation, with the consequences of the 1973 oil crisis still evident, the incoming Labour Government (which increased its majority at a second election in October 1974) sought to introduce a ‘Social Contract’ to restrict wage increases in return for other social reforms, such as extending public ownership, control of company profits, the redistribution of wealth and the creation of a National Enterprise Board.
 
The Social Contract proposal came from Jack Jones himself and had the support of other left wing leaders and endorsed by the TUC. However, the original idea was effectively lost and it was watered down to little more than another incomes policy falling short of socio-economic reforms and delivered over different phases. 
 
The Social Contract created a split between the Broad Left and the communists as well as members of different unions, as it meant an end to ‘free collective bargaining’; that is to say unions bargaining with employers without the imposition of incomes policies.
 
As it was intended to be at the heart of Labour’s economic and industrial strategy, its ultimate failure precipitated some of the disputes to come, with individual unions negotiating with employers and pay disputes frequently emerging. Against the background of escalating inflation , the Labour government was forced to retreat in 1976 to the International Monetary Fund for a loan. 
 

Divisions

 
Strikes continued however, though by now they were less co-ordinated and more narrowly focused. Indeed, according to Professor Eric Hobsbawm in the 1978 Marx Memorial lecture entitled ‘The Forward March of Labour Halted?’, such sectionalism and rising divisions between workers had become a feature of recent industrial disputes.
 
The political consequences of strike action, he argued, needed to be taken seriously. There was a difference, he suggested, between industrial militancy, when it was focused solely on economic questions, and political radicalism. This, together with the erosion of older class communities and the decline in manual occupations, meant for him that the political advances of working class trade unionism had come to a halt. This was despite the rise in the number of strikes.
 
It was against this background that the ‘winter of discontent’, with striking gravediggers, nurses and other public sector employees, had severe consequences for the Labour Party.  
 

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