Shock news: it’s not 1979 – or 1990

Those comparing the unions’ campaign to the Winter of Discontent or the poll tax protests are living in the past, or cloud cuckoo land.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume
Columnist

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Topics Politics UK

Here is the news. This is not 1979. In other news, it’s not 1990 either. These facts may seem largely self-evident to anybody in possession of a 2010 calendar. But not, it seems, to many in the UK media or among our politicians and trade union leaders, to judge by this week’s Life on Mars-style discussion about strikes and protests against public spending cuts.

When union bosses at the TUC conference promised action against the Lib-Con coalition’s coming cuts, it immediately had the media screaming about the nightmare of another Winter of Discontent, comparing it to the mass strikes of 1978-79 that helped bring down the Labour government. For their part, most union leaders preferred to draw parallels with the 1990 campaign against the poll tax that helped to bring down Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher.

Both sides thus revealed that they are living not only in the past, but in what used to be called Cloud Cuckoo Land.

So, it’s 1979 all over again is it? That year there were a record 13.2million recorded members of British trade unions. And workers from tanker drivers to nurses and grave diggers to car factory hands staged a wave of strikes that added up to 29million working days lost in industrial action – another record – mostly against the government’s policies of imposing pay restraint.

On one day of action alone in early 1979, the union leaders called out 1.5million public sector workers, the largest show of working-class strength since the General Strike of 1926. But the TUC spent most of its efforts on restraining the industrial action, just as the union chiefs had toiled for years to make its members accept real pay cuts as part of their ‘social contract’ with the Labour government. Many of the militant strikes were led by the shop stewards, local union reps beyond the control of the national office bureaucrats.

Today, by contrast, there are around 7.6million trade union members – just over half of the 1979 figure, despite the expansion of the workforce over the past 30 years. In 2009, with employees almost everywhere suffering the fallout from the recession, there were only 455,000 working days lost through industrial action – around 1.5 per cent of the 1979 total. And remember the predictions of a ‘spring and summer of discontent’ earlier this year? The only strike to make the news since has been the small dispute involving the BA cabin crew.

In fact, the situation for union leaders hoping to mobilise their members today is even bleaker than those bare statistics suggest. The remaining trade union membership is overwhelmingly concentrated in the public sector, where employers still negotiate ‘sweetheart’ deals with union officials. But most of them are trade unionists only on paper; it forms no real part of their identity. The words of the Strawbs’ old Seventies hit record – ‘You don’t get me / I’m part of the union / Til the day I die’ – might as well have been recorded on Mars for all its message means today. The union leaders have no means to connect with and mobilise the mass of their members. And nor, despite the sterling efforts of a few hardcore trade unionists at local level, is there any longer the sort of vibrant shop stewards’ movement that led the militant action 30 years ago.

There will be strikes and protests, of course, as the cuts bite. But all in all, there seems as much chance of the trade unions recreating the Winter of Discontent just now as there is of Nottingham Forest repeating their 1979 European Cup win. The prospect of such a wave of union militancy exists largely in the time-warped imaginations of conservative media scaremongers, trying to look tough as they prepare for a fantasy class war.

What of the notion that we might be going forward to 1990 this winter? This is the historical parallel that national trade union leaders were keen to try to draw at the TUC this week. These bureaucrats see the Winter of Discontent now as an embarrassing outburst of militancy, especially as it was aimed against their ‘own’ Labour government. How much nicer for the old boys to try to recreate cosy images of the popular protests against the poll tax that helped to bring down Thatcher (while of course glossing over the poll tax riots, that unfortunate mass outbreak of civil disorder on the big demo in London)? And Cameron’s a Tory, right, like her, right, so obviously it will be just the same!

Well, maybe – but far more likely, not. The campaign against the poll tax represented perhaps the last gasp of the politics of the old left and labour movement that had been thoroughly trounced through the Thatcher years. It was the culmination of a decade of deeply felt bitterness against Thatcher and her Tory governments. When she was forced from office by her own Conservative colleagues in November 1990, the left and the unions celebrated as if it was their victory, some sort of payback for the miners’ strike of 1984/85, and a triumph for the poll tax campaign. So narrow was the political focus of this campaign, however, that once Thatcher had been replaced by Tory prime minister John Major and the poll tax (or ‘community charge’) had been replaced by the council tax, it simply faded away. And that was the end of the left as a significant force in British politics.

Yet compared to the political stasis of today, the fag-end radicalism of 1990 looks like a highpoint of protest politics. The dominant mood of this moment is not anti-Toryism but anti-politics, not radicalism but fatalism as millions await their fate in the coming cuts. It is not possible simply to recreate the conditions of 20 years ago out of the thin, smoke-free air of TUC committee meetings.

The fact that most of the union leaders are talking about recreating the moderate middle-class alliances of 1990 in a broad ‘counter-coalition’ is itself an admission of their weakness, an acknowledgement that they could not mobilise mass industrial action even if they wanted. The discussion of tactics this week was also quite telling. There was Bob Crow, leader of the railworkers’ union and champion of what remains of the militant left, talking not only about ‘coordinated’ strikes but also about a campaign of ‘civil disobedience’ that could involve activists dressed as ‘Batman climbing up Number 10 to Spiderman going up Buckingham Palace’.

If the trade unions really were capable of causing industrial havoc, as some in the media claim, why would their militants feel the need to pinch their fancy-dress tactics from a handful of crankish protesters such as Fathers For Justice?

There is also, by the way, another lesson from 1990 that the Labour Party and trade union leaders might be less keen to dwell on. Despite the relative strength of their poll tax campaign compared to anything on offer today, they could not really connect with or control the feeling of public anger even back then. After the London poll tax riots in April 1990, the loyalist New Statesman noted that ‘Labour is no longer the party of the working class… [N]ot even Tony Benn can speak to the young working people who ran amok last Saturday.’ How much less chance do the old gents of the TUC and the young accountants of the Labour leadership stand of making a connection with and mobilising the disaffected young today? If the sense of powerless fury should spill over into some unrest this time, they will of course be the first to condemn it.

(That was around the same time that Benn, still seen as the great hope of the Labour left, asked me in astonishment during a debate on the future of the left if I was seriously suggesting that ‘young people don’t care about the Tolpuddle Martyrs [of 1834]?’. I had to tell him that in my experience they did not much care about the Miners’ Strike, which had only ended five years before…)

On the brighter side, it is of course true that the government any potential protest movement will be facing this time around is not the same as those of the past, either. Despite the shrill cries from the desperate wing of the left, Cameron is no Thatcher. His coalition government is a shadow of the sort of hardline regime the unions faced in the Seventies and Eighties, and has already made clear it wants to work with the union leaders to implement the cuts (and don’t underestimate how many concessions some of them might make in gratitude for being thrown a bone of ‘consultation’). This is more like a stand-off between two paper armies than a re-run of past political and industrial battles.

Whatever the best way to respond to the cuts and challenge the (all-party) politics of austerity might be today, it will not be found in yesterday’s news. The first step is surely to face up to the world as it is, rather than as some might wish it to be. Otherwise there will certainly be plenty of discontent this winter – as in ‘a longing for something better than the present situation’. But what difference will it make?

Then again, the sight of the substantial Brother Crow in a Batman suit and tights might just be enough to put the wind up the Lib-Cons.

Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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Topics Politics UK

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