For Old Labour’s left and right, the 1945 Attlee government is enshrined in the party’s folklore. But was it socialist? The Attlee government upheld rather than challenged inequalities of power and wealth. At the hands of what many workers believed to be ‘their’ government, striking dockers, gas workers, miners and lorry drivers were denounced, spied upon and prosecuted. Two States of Emergency were proclaimed against them and two more were narrowly averted. Above all, the government used blacklegs against these strikes, often with the connivance of the strikers’ own trade union leaders. On 18 different occasions between 1945 and 1951, the government sent troops, sometimes 20,000 of them, across picket lines to take over strikers’ jobs. By 1948, it has been argued, ‘strike-breaking had become almost second nature to the Cabinet’ according to K. Jeffery and P. Hennessy author of How Attlee Stood Up to Strikers, in The Times of 21 November 1979. The 1945 Atlee government revived the Supply and Transport Organisation which the Tories of 1926 had used to help crush the General Strike. And it did so with the active involvement of two of the most famous left-wing leaders Labour has produced – Aneurin Bevan and Sir Stafford Cripps.
It was a Tory, Rab Butler, who re-shaped education. Labour Party Conference policy on comprehensive schooling was shunned in favour of Butler’s inegalitarian system of selection. It was a Liberal, Lord Beveridge, who outlined what became the Welfare State. In foreign policy, Labour helped to crush risings in, for example, Vietnam, Malaya and Greece; it took the initiative in establishing NATO. In secret (most Ministers were kept in the dark) it spent millions on developing an atomic weapons programme, cooking the government books to hide the fact.
Even a number of Tories, Churchill among them, were willing to countenance a degree of nationalisation. The nationalisation of the mines and civil airlines went through parliament in 1946; followed by road, rail and canal transport, and electricity in 1947; gas in 1948; and iron and steel in 1949. Labour offered an extraordinarily generous compensation to the former owners of nationalised concerns. George Bernard Shaw had once suggested that nationalisation need not affect the workers in the slightest: to them it ‘would only be a change of masters’. So it proved. By 1951, a mere nine of the 47 full-time members and seven of the 48 part-time members of the Boards of the nationalised industries were trade unionists, and five of the Boards had no trade unionist among their full-time members at all. Most directors were simply drawn from the existing managerial hierarchies. Nor was it any different outside the boardrooms: in the mines, for example, the same old faces remained in charge at every level. The previous theory that nationalisation was a step to-wards achieving socialism and workers’ control became in effect a means to-wards technical rationalization, an improved method of administration and management. Sir Stafford Cripps declared there was ‘not as yet a very large number of workers in Britain capable of taking over large enterprises ...”
Labour and strike-breaking were hardly strangers. The 1924 government, Labour’s first, re-activated the Supply and Transport Committee in the face of a dock strike and declared a State of Emergency over a strike by London bus and tram workers. Bevin, then leader of the TGWU. told a Labour Party Conference:
‘I know something about emergency powers. The first Labour Government rushed down to Windsor to get them signed in order to operate on me, and I have a vivid recollection of it, and we were only striking to restore a cut – not a very serious crime. I do not like emergency powers, not even when they are operated by my friends.’ How his attitude changed.
Dockers had been given a guaranteed minimum wage and an end to the worst features of the casual labour system, but on terms which imposed an industrial discipline, often exercised by their own trade union officials. An eruption of anger against such conditions had led in March 1945 to a one week strike by 13,000 London and Tilbury dockers. The strikers went back to work after being promised an inquiry into the working of the National Dock Labour Corporation. Their anger could hardly have been assuaged when the inquiry sat under the chairmanship of Corporation chief Lord Ammon and proceeded to rebuke the dockers in terms that endless, subsequent docks inquiries would echo – their strike was wrong and they should use the agreed negotiating machinery. Within weeks, the dockers found themselves under attack again.
In the London Docks on 28 May, a special piecework agreement was abruptly scrapped. Dockers found themselves working on the same ship and the same cargo, and earning considerably lower rates of pay. The dockers responded with a ‘go slow’, and a demand for an increase in basic pay from 16 shillings (80p) to 25 shillings (£1.25) a day, only to find full-time officials of the largest docks’ union, the Transport and General Workers, denouncing the dispute’s unofficial leaders as irresponsible elements and urging a return to work and acceptance of what some felt to be an insulting offer by the employers. Similar demands led to strikes by dockers in Glasgow, Grimsby, Immingham, Swansea, Cardiff and Plymouth. As in London in March, troops were sent into each port to unload ships. In London, the ‘go slow’ was already faltering when, on 31 July, about 300 troops moved into the Surrey Docks, the last major centre of resistance. Two weeks later, the dockers admitted defeat, an experience further embittered by the suspension of 900 men and the failure of the Labour government to answer the locked-out dockers’ appeal to intervene.
But discontent continued to simmer until it re-ignited once more. On 9 October the Cabinet sent in troops to unload strike-bound food at Liverpool Docks. A relatively small affair of a lighting strike two weeks earlier by 60 dockers at Bidston had brought out all 15,000 dockers on Merseyside and many more elsewhere in a spontaneous demand for the 25 shilling claim. The strike was spread to London, Middlesbrough and South Shields. By 11 October, roughly 40,000 dockers were out and almost every port was at a standstill. A mass meeting on Merseyside passed a vote of no confidence in the union’s leading docks’ official, Jack Donovan, while another at Manchester gave the same thumbs-down to all the union’s dock officials ‘For 20 years we have been dictated to by them’, said one striker. ‘They have become our masters instead of our servants’, claimed another. As a strike leaflet complained:
‘We have pleaded, begged aid for the unions to fight for better conditions. The unions have pledged us that they are going forward, that the official machinery has been set in motion. It has been set in motion round and round, getting nowhere, nothing happening. This has been going on for years. And the dockers decided to take the matter into their own hands and demand government intervention. We don’t want the moon, just a little comfort and security.’
The dockers’ repeated appeals to ‘their’ government to step in went unheeded. Minister of Labour George Isaacs again and again gave the Commons his stock Ministerial response to strikes – ‘that the strikers and not the employers were to blame’.
Some 21,000 troops were drafted into eight different ports before the strike collapsed in early November. It proved a hollow victory. The strike eventually won the dockers an increase of three shillings a day, the biggest in their history.
On 6 January 1947, anger over the rejection, after nine months of talks, of a London lorry drivers’ claim for a 44-hour week led to an unofficial strike. In many respects, the dispute bore the hallmarks of the explosion in the docks: the exasperation with the negotiating machinery and TGWU officialdom, the emergence of a central rank and file strike committee, the rapid spreading of the strike throughout the country, and, of course, the use of troops. The strike threatened food supplies at a time of severe shortages and rationing – encouraged the government to take a hard line. Public hostility was fanned by the press. On 13 January, troops were sent into Smithfield Market, the centre of the strike, provoking sympathy walk-outs in other major London markets and by nearly 10,000 London dockers. By 15 January, some 28,000 workers were out nationally and the possibility of a total stoppage throughout the country loomed. The Cabinet decided that the dispute should be put before a Joint Industrial Council specially created for the purpose. This done, the strike was called off and most of its major demands were eventually conceded.
On May Day 1947. Another dock strike was in progress, this time in Glasgow, where the threat of 500 redundancies had sparked the dispute. In London, 10,000 port workers, mostly members of the stevedores’ and lightermen’s unions, had come out in sympathy. Troops had been sent into Glasgow three weeks earlier. The committee drew up plans to use military labour in London, considered the declaration of a State of Emergency and agreed to warn the TUC that the government intended to prosecute the leaders of unofficial strikes. The measures were stillborn: the strike ended the next day.