Any major national strike while the Labour Party is in opposition poses a challenge for the party leader. Next Thursday, July 10th, hundreds of thousands of public sector workers will be on strike. The workers withdrawing their labour will include low paid cleaners, teaching assistants, carers, street cleaners, road sweepers and others.
These essential workers have suffered a 12% real terms pay cut since the coalition government took power. The decision to initiate industrial action has been made democratically through a secret postal ballot by the members in pursuit of their pay claim because the trade unions have found, in the face of an intransigent employers and a confrontational government, that no more can be achieved by negotiations alone.
It is appropriate for the Labour Party to acknowledge that the right to take lawful industrial action is an important civil liberty in a democratic society, but equally to regret that trade union members feel it necessary to take industrial action. Trade union members do not wish to lose pay by partaking in a strike, and everyone regrets that essential services are disrupted.
However, the Conservative and Liberal Democrat government is ultimately responsible because their economic policies have unnecessarily delayed economic recovery, and they have unfairly put the burden of austerity on the most vulnerable parts of society, and on those least able to bear it.
The strike on July 10th is therefore an opportunity for Ed Miliband to stress that the root cause of the conflict is the incompetence and economic mismanagement of the coalition government, and the failure of David Cameron and his cabinet to seek a fair resolution of the dispute in the wider national interest. Labour is the party that promotes harmonious industrial relations; the Conservatives are the party of conflict.
It is worth looking at how Harold Wilson handled the miners’ strike of 1974, where Labour won a general election against all expectations.
Wilson was a politician with extraordinary talent, who won four general elections, and twice held the party together through crises when factionalism looked set to tear it apart.
The miners’ strike of 1974 was over the question of pay, but it also showed a growing gulf in attitudes towards trade unions between the Labour and Conservative parties. During the Wilson government, the Party had sought to use the In Place of Strife legislation to contain industrial militancy, but Wilson learned from its failure; and in opposition Labour abandoned the idea of legislative constraints upon the unions and instead adopted an approach based upon the buzz word of “liaison” to negotiate a decline in industrial action in exchange for government policy concessions, particularly the establishment of ACAS and the Health and Safety at Work Act.
In contrast, the Tories were locked into an escalating cycle of confrontation. In October 1973, the Tory government introduced “Phase Three” of income policy, which gave a 7% norm for wage rises.
However, the outbreak of war in the Middle East created an oil crisis that quadrupled oil prices, both pushing inflation up significantly above that 7% expectation, and also strengthening the bargaining position of the miners, who imposed an overtime ban, and pursued a pay claim, despite having been offered 16.5%
This was an extremely dangerous situation for Labour, where the opinion polls were giving cautious grounds for optimism before the miners’ dispute. The Labour Party was also divided. The left wanted the party to back the miners, the right – particularly Reg Prentice – wanted Labour to oppose any strike. Wilson was clear about the dangers of party disunity, and also that taking a strong line against the strikes could be counterproductive to the party’s allies within the NUM.
Wilson met with the unions before Christmas in 1973 and hammered out what his approach would be. To quote Ben Pilmott:
Wilson laid down what became the accepted line: the Tories were the extremists, Labour the voice of Reason. Throughout the dispute Labour must play the public-interest card. If an election was called, Labour should seek to be the “national government”, and we must go for national unity.
Robin Day for the BBC asked Wilson on 3rd January whether he would give the miners more than 16.5%, and he replied “Yes of course”. However, rather than criticise the government’s failure to make concessions to the NUM, Wilson blamed Heath for failing to negotiate. On 23rd January a party political broadcast used sound bites about the “national interest”, “working together” and pledged that a “Labour government would knit the nation into one”.
On 4th February 1974 the miners announced an 81% vote in favour of a strike. Three days later Heath announced a general election to be held on 28th over the single issue of “who runs Britain”. Labour was already 4% behind in the polls.
Had Labour backed the miners, then Heath’s gamble would almost certainly have paid off, pushing Labour down to its core vote of those who self-identified with the unions and Labour’s industrial heritage. Certainly the press was unrelentingly hostile, and talked down Labour’s chances.
Instead Wilson adroitly sidestepped the issue. Through a four stranded strategy:
Firstly, he constantly repeated that the real issue was Tory economic mismanagement “which has turned Britain from the path of prosperity to the road to ruin”
Secondly, Wilson condemned Heath’s intransigence to the miners, and argued that the government should convene negotiations via the TUC, involving all three party leaders, and the CBI, as well as the NUM. (The mineworkers themselves assisted in making the government look extremist by adopting a restrained code of practice on picketing that would have made a vicarage croquet match look rowdy in comparison). Wilson stressed how Heath’s approach of encouraging confrontation was strengthening the hand of the hard left in the unions.
Finally, aware that this studied neutrality could leave Labour candidates floundering under questioning, Wilson immersed himself in the detail of the substantive disagreement at the heart of the dispute, and he bludgened interviewers with facts and figures, suggesting that it was the Tories lack of understanding that had caused the strike. This was a perfect approach for both demonstrating Labour’s greater competence at governence, while also seeming to be above taking sides. His master stroke was to reveal during the election that miners were actually paid 8% less than the average for manual workers, causing the government to look foolish.
The result was that Labour won the general election, and the NUM won their strike. Had Labour backed the strike, then they would probably have lost the election, and paradoxically that would also have made it more difficult for the miners to win.