WORKPLACE MILITANCY VERSUS UNION BUREAUCRACY:
After the 1955 general election, Attlee retired as leader, paving the way for Gaitskell who was to win the election for leader, which was then held exclusively amongst MPs. Nye Bevan contested the leadership against right-wingers Herbert Morrison and Hugh Gaitskell but the winner’s lead over the left’s candidate in an exhaustive ballot of only Labour MPs was fairly comfortable, despite the fact that the loser was more popular amongst Labour and trade union activists. Gaitskell won 157 votes, with Bevan and Morrison obtaining 70 and 40 votes respectively. Three powerful men, Arthur Deakin of the TGWU, Will Lawther of the NUM and Tom Williamson of the NUGMW had all but determined the result of the leadership contest. This weakness initiated a debate about not only the method of selection, but the nature of the new leader.
Nonetheless, Bevan became first Shadow Colonial Secretary, and then Shadow Foreign Secretary in 1956. In this position, he was a powerful critic of the Tory government’s actions in the Suez Crisis, noticeably delivering a high profile speech in Trafalgar Square on 4th November 1956 and in the House of Commons on 5 December 1956. That year, he was also elected as party treasurer, beating George Brown.
Whilst Labour headed rightwards, the unions wee shifting to the left. Another example of Butskellism was the question of industrial militancy, which the leaderships of the three main political parties all deprecated as it once more came onto the agenda. Strikes had been quite rare in the early 1950s, but from 1955 onwards they became increasingly common. Right-wing Labour hostility to union militancy easily combined with a feeling that Labour needed to radically shift its appeal rightwards. Seemingly concerned at the Liberal Party’s apparent revival, Gaitskell unsuccessfully proposed the abolition of Clause 4 of the Labour Party’s constitution, which committed it to socialism. Tension in the party mounted at this onslaught against the very foundations of the organisation.
One factor that right-wing leaders pointed to was the apparent and sudden prosperity which came with relatively full employment, supposedly causing workers to become more Tory-minded. But this was a double edged sword, since business and government were becoming focused attention on the ‘problem’ of wages drift. Defined as the tendency for the average level of wages paid to rise faster than official wage rates due to increases in overtime, or upgrading of job descriptions, or other localised special payment, establishment noises about the conception were really more worried that the balance of wealth was being affected in favour of labour. But the reason that a strong wages movement began to take force was simply that prices were rocketing, especially of those of basic foodstuffs and of housing costs. Wages lacked behind prices until the effects of a fierce fight back began to close the gap.
Fig: The Retail Price Index (unbroken line) and the Wage Rate Index (broken line) 1947-1955
Source: World News 3rd December 1955
A Tory Government had even taken steps to force wages restraint and this had of course had an immediate effect on employment. With less money around, it argued, demand was stifled and the need for labour trimmed. Although, Communists pointed out, in 1953 the total amount of company profits had been £3,153 million, more than enough capital, if it were properly used! The working week was also too high, the main demand then was for a standard 44-hour, five-day week. [Communist Party, `A policy for Britain: general election manifesto’, (1955)] To make matters worse, the wartime birth bulge, which created what we now call `the baby-boomers’, caused a serious problem in employment, especially in manufacturing.
In sharp contrast to today’s labour market, employment in this sector was massively significant, having risen to an all-time peak of 39% of the workforce in 1951. [Mike Savage and Andrew Miles `The Remaking of the British Working Class 1840-1940, Routledge, 1994, pp.22-3] With any economic upswing, employers faced a chronic labour shortage and labour felt its muscles. The labour supply position became acute, especially so with skilled engineering workers and of unskilled workers in all trades.
One decisive feature of the mid-1950s was the plain fact that employment in manufacturing had risen to an all-time peak of around 40% of the workforce and it remained at a high level throughout the decade. But another aspect of significance was that by this period, it was abundantly clear that the demand for labour, especially strong in engineering, was fixated upon a lack of supply of young people.
There is a sense on which the very notion of young people as an independent force in society now emerged for the first time. Until 1950 the term `teenager’ had even been unknown and young people were known as youths once they displayed signs of puberty. The contradiction was that becoming fully adult was only accepted at the age of 21 but most began their working lives at the age of 15.
Unlike many working class movements in other countries, British counterparts have rarely considered the need to establish special bodies, sub-committees, conferences and the like, for youth. But the Communist Party and its Young Communist League have long displayed a special regard for fostering the future of young workers. What has now come to be dubbed the baby-boomer generation was one of the first to display age-related solidarity and to develop militancy around issues directly related to their youth.
Under the influence of the Communist Party, the trade union movement in Scotland had established long established a Youth Conference as part of the Scottish TUC and the AEU had its own structures. In the post-war period, the British TUC discussed the experiences but went no further. Although in 1954 the General Council was forced to prove its interest by making a statement urging more participation of younger union members. Under pressure from the AEU in 1955, the General Council told the union that it considered that there was enough being done in respect of youth. The next year, the clerical workers union, CAWU, and the AEU presented a motion favouring the establishment of a youth conference and committee of the TUC. The advisory body would be comprised of young workers elected at an annual youth conference and some General Council members, but the notion was just too much for the TUC and it failed to win sufficient support.
More substantially, throughout the 1950s there were sporadic and significant apprentices’ strikes in engineering and shipbuilding, testament both to the organising influence of the Communist Party in these industries and to the growing awareness of strength and the contradictory lack of say on their lot amongst young workers, which the Young Communist League was easily able to tap into. The secretary of the Clyde Apprentices Committee, a really significant body in this period, was always a member of the YCL. Whilst a hint in the name of the CAC reveals that its inspiration was the unofficial and adult Clyde Workers’ Committee of the First World War that was central to the emergence of the modern shop stewards’ movement.
It was Challenge that, in 1950, pointed out the pre-war engineering apprenctices had made history and, in effect, challenged the new breed of the day as to whether they would emulate their elder brothers and cousins: