As previously noted in this blog, the (often trumpeted by the left) landslide Labour government of 1945-51 took power claiming ‘the principles of our policy are based on the brotherhood of man.’ In practice, while much of the post-war welfare state, eg the NHS, dates from this time, this government also had no issue using the state apparatus to clamp down on any group of workers seeking to improve their lot through striking. As the leadership of the trade unions were largely integrated into the state apparatus during WW2, many strikes in wartime and in the post-war period were unofficial, wildcat, organised from below.
Less than a week after taking power in 1945 the Labour government has sent troops in to break a London dock dispute. This dynamic was to continue throughout the life of the Labour administration.
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 15 months earlier: 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, the bitter scenes between Deakin and the strikers, the accusations of trotskyist infiltration and, of course, the use of troops, in this case the Army, Royal Navy and RAF.
Public hostility fanned by the press – the strike threatened food supplies at a time of severe shortages and rationing – encouraged the government to take a hard line. On 11 January, The Times commented:
‘In spite of the fact that the Minister of Labour has intimated his intention to break the strike the men are dissatisfied that he has given no assurance to them that he will take steps to modify or in any way improve the negotiating machinery of the Central Wages Board, which the unions and the men agree is out of date and cumbersome.’
On January 13, the Labour Government sent troops into Smithfield Market, one of the main centres of workplace organising, in an attempt to break the strike.
This was hardly the fist time the army had been ordered into Smithfield – several times since 1945, various disputes there had been face with military interventions. Mostly, as with the numerous dock strikes dealt with in this way, this had intensified the disputes – from relatively small, local, wildcat actions, sending in the army had provoked massive strikes in reply. The January 1947 dispute was no different. Following the pattern of the previous year, all Smithfield meat and provision workers came out in sympathy with the hauliers, followed by sympathy walk-outs in other major London markets and by nearly 10,000 London dockers. By all accounts the uniformed blackleg labour made a right old mess of the market.
By 15 January, some 28,000 workers were out nationally and the possibility of a total stoppage throughout the country loomed.
The Labour Cabinet resolved in public to try to speed up industrial negotiating machinery; behind closed doors it was putting into action its plans for emergency organisation. Ministers, and senior civil servants, had been discussing the question of resuscitating the Supply and Transport Organisation’ (STO), a secret emergency network which had been set up during the mass strikes of 1919, been used as the basis for recruiting scabs in the 1926 General Strike, but was allowed to lapse in 1939. (Since the ideology of unity the war provided was a more powerful motivating force than simple force…)
The Industrial Emergencies Committee (IEC), formed during the autumn 1945 dock strike but never convened, had finally been activated on 15 January. After discussing the thorny question of recruiting volunteer labour, the committee sat again at 3pm the next day to consider a possible declaration of a State of Emergency: while it was in session, news arrived that the strike had been called off.
The dispute had been 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. The Times concluded:
‘If there is one thing which can be more damaging to the orderly conduct of industrial relations than an unofficial strike, it is a successful unofficial strike.’
Troops continued to be used against striking workers, throughout the Labour government’s life. Although a number of the Labour ministers had come up through the trade union movement, many from the left, they shared a vision of how ‘socialism’ would be introduced. Grassroots demands for a bigger share of the pie, from workers hard hit by war austerity and post-war hardship, were at a low level, but potentially could inspire other movements, which could threaten to derail the economic rebuilding the government was relying on.
Who knows what a possible future left Labour government, headed, by, say, Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, would do, in a similar situation…?
Some interesting articles on the 1945-51 labour government and use of troops, Emergency Powers, etc:
An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.