NUM

Communist Attitudes towards Polish Migration to Post-War Britain

This post was inspired by a recent analysis on the reception of Polish migrants by the NUM in Wales in 1940s and 1950s by Daryl Leeworthy over at his History on the Dole blog. It had formerly been an article that I was trying to write on the subject, but has been on the backburner for a long time. Sections will be included in my forthcoming book on the Communist Party of Great Britain and the politics of ‘race’, which will be published by Brill’s Historical Materialism series. As usual, feedback is welcome!

Harry Pollitt, General Secretary of the CPGB and opponent of Polish miners in the UK

Harry Pollitt, General Secretary of the CPGB and opponent of Polish miners in the UK

The CPGB and colonial migrants

When Afro-Caribbean workers started to migrate to Britain in large numbers during the 1940s and the 1950s, the Communist Party was one of the principal organisations that appealed to these immigrants. Many of those who were attracted to the Communist Party had been political activists or trade unionists in their home countries and looked to the Party, as both an anti-colonial force internationally and an influential trade union presence domestically. The Party had a tradition of involvement in the anti-colonial movement, with chief theoretician on anti-colonial policies, R. Palme Dutt, citing Stalin’s Foundations of Leninism: ‘Stalin emphasized that “the victory of the working class in the developed countries”, e.g. in Britain, “is impossible” unless this common front and alliance with the struggles of the colonial peoples is established’.[1] Viewing the people in the British colonies as ‘fellow fighters… against the common enemy’ of British imperialism,[2] the Party welcomed the black immigrants and attempted to incorporate them into the Party, with varying levels of success.

The Communist Party acknowledged that racial discrimination was evident in Britain, but for the most part, this was attributed to a ‘prejudiced, stupid and sometimes vicious minority’, identified as ‘fascists’, ‘Tories and employers’ and ‘Leaders of the Government’.[3] This largely absolved the working class from being responsible for acts of racial discrimination as race prejudice was largely seen as ‘a conscious part of the policy of the most reactionary sections of British capitalism’.[4] However the Party did admit that ‘amongst a minority of workers, some racial feelings still exist’.[5] In the 1955 pamphlet, No Colour Bar in Britain, the CPGB welcomed immigration from the Commonwealth, claiming that the arrival of ‘colonial workers’ was a ‘great opportunity before British working people’.[6] In a declaration of CPGB policy, the pamphlet stated that the ‘attitude of the Communist Party is clear… It welcomes the arrival of colonial immigrants’, stressing that ‘colonial people are British subjects’ and were entitled to enter Britain freely.[7] For immigrants from outside the Commonwealth, the Party’s attitude was much more divisive.

The campaign against Polish resettlement

In May 1946, the Labour Government announced the formation of the Polish Resettlement Corps, a ‘noncombatant military unit… in which Polish veterans were encouraged to enrol by promise of resettlement’ to direct Polish workers into ‘essential’ industries, such as construction, agriculture and coal mining.[8] The TUC and various unions ‘voiced suspicions about threats to jobs and conditions of employment’, as well as the ‘potential threat’ to British working class politics and culture posed by these European recruits.[9] The Communist Party was heavily involved in opposition to the migration and settlement of Poles and other Eastern Europeans in the late 1940s. As the polarisation of the Cold War began to take place, the CPGB greeted the establishment of the People’s Democracies and was, in the words of socialist journalist Paul Foot, ‘upset that anyone should not volunteer to enjoy the rigours of Stalinism in the Russian satellites of East Europe’.[10]

The Polish workers were labelled ‘fascist Poles’ and were treated with ‘accustomed shabbiness and chauvinism’ by the Party.[11] In the Parliamentary debate on the Polish Resettlement Bill in early 1947, the two MPs who opposed the bill were Phil Piratin and Willie Gallacher (Communist MPs for Mile End and West Fife respectively). Piratin declared that the Polish Resettlement Corps was ‘an affront to the Polish Government and a hindering of its progress’, and a ‘dangerous move for this country to maintain a body of men under a reactionary leadership’.[12] In a 1946 leaflet titled ‘No British Jobs for Fascist Poles’, the CPGB claimed that ‘at least a third’ of the 160,000 Polish troops in Britain ‘actually fought for Hitler’, while ‘the remainder are fascists who do not wish to return to their own country’.[13] The CPGB claimed that ‘nearly 2 million organised British workers have expressed their opposition to the presence in this country of these Polish troops’ and the Party proposed repatriating them to Poland where ‘they should accept the democratic will of the majority of the people and work for the reconstruction of their own country’.[14]

As well as these ‘political’ objections, the Party press made other accusations towards the Poles, particularly the sexual threat of the Polish migrants to British women and the Poles taking vacant housing away from homeless Britons during a shortage of adequate housing. The Daily Worker accused Polish officers of fraternising with young girls at a Polish Army camp in Yorkshire, with the ‘majority of the girls [being] between 14 and 18 years of age’.[15] A few months earlier, at the height of the Squatters Movement led by the CPGB,[16] the paper reported that Poles were being given accommodation at various camps, while squatters were being fined and removed from housing.[17] Syd Abbott declared in the December 1946 issue of the Communist Review:

if the Government would send home Anders and his Poles, many of them fascists, a further 265 camps occupied by 120,000 Polish troops, could be freed, and made available to house the people.[18]

These accusations were similar to the racist falsehoods that numerous people accused Commonwealth migrants of, which the Communists routinely refuted in their anti-racist activities.

The CPGB saw the Polish Resettlement Corps, routinely described as ‘Anders’ Poles’ after conservative Polish leader General Anders under British command, as an ‘anti-Soviet [and] anti-democratic’ force, whose presence in Britain was ‘obviously insincere’.[19] While depicted by the British Government and British industry as a solution to the post-war labour shortage, the Communist Party claimed that the Poles of the Resettlement Corps had no desire to ‘be absorbed as loyal citizens of this country’, but looked to ‘use Britain as a temporary base from which to pursue, at some future date, an armed crusade against the U.S.S.R. and the new Poland’.[20] The Daily Worker quoted a statement by the Polish Embassy in London, saying that the resettlement of Poles was ‘nothing but diplomatic eyewash’, adding ‘No sensible person… can understand why training for civilian jobs should be carried out according to units and arms’[21] – evidence for the Communist Party that Poles in Britain were organising resistance to the Polish Government.

Welsh miners’ leader and member of the CPGB’s Executive Committee, Arthur Horner announced in 1945 that the Communist Party would ‘not allow the importation of foreign – Polish, Italian, or even Irish – labour to stifle the demands of the British people to have decent conditions in British mines’.[22] In the 1946 leaflet, the Party declared that there was ‘no room in Britain for fascists’ and that there was ‘no reason why British jobs should be given to these Poles’.[23] In February 1947, Horner, now General Secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), spoke against foreign workers in the mining industry, declaring that the Government ‘might get Poles or displaced persons but not coal’.[24] The Party declared that the Poles ‘should be sent home, to work out their own salvation’ and according to Paul Foot, Piratin and Gallacher ‘never missed an opportunity to point out that the Poles were dirty, lazy and corrupt’.[25] In Parliament, Piratin routinely asked the Government whether Polish workers were trade union members or willing to work as directed by the Ministry of Labour. Piratin was accused of having a ‘vendetta against Poles who want to work here rather than return to Communist Poland’, but Piratin claimed that his persistent questioning was ‘merely to ensure that such Poles who are in this country do not in any way scab or blackleg on British labour’.[26]

Even in 1955, while the Party tried to combat racism amongst workers against Commonwealth immigrants, Party literature claimed that the ‘real menace… comes from the far greater number of displaced Poles and Germans whose attitude is hostile to militant trade unionism’.[27] This was compared with the black immigrant workers, who were seen to have the ability to ‘greatly strengthen the fight of the trade unions’.[28] The contradicting attitudes can also be seen in the oral history of CPGB member and Secretary of the Armthorpe NUM Branch, Jock Kane, originally recorded by radical journalist Charles Parker. In one section, Kane described an argument with the NUM area leaders over black workers:

Then I’d another run-in with them about coloured labour. He wasn’t going to have coloured labour. He wasn’t having any ‘half-caste bastards’ running about the streets of his villages. I said: ‘You’re a Nazi. We fought a bloody war to defeat bastards like you.’[29]

But Kane’s description of the Polish miners was very different, accusing them of being work-shy and a hostile class:

I can remember in 1947 we paid wages to thousands of Poles for months and months on end. They never came into this industry and never did a bloody day’s work… There were thousands of Polish ex-army men in camps… A shower of arrogant bloody swine, ex-officer bloody class, and the coal board paid them wages for months on end.[30]

In a 1961 pamphlet, John Moss wrote that immigration had little effect on the total population increase that Britain had experienced in the early post-war period,[31] but the Party still objected to the presence of around 100,000 Poles and other Eastern Europeans and their apparent drain on resources. This campaign against Polish immigration and settlement ran counter to the very arguments the CPGB had been using to convince British workers that immigrants from the Commonwealth were not in competition for employment, housing or welfare.

Back in 1947, R. Palme Dutt discussed that the ‘crucial shortage of man-power’,[32] linking the CPGB’s anti-colonial programme with opposition to the Polish workers. As Dutt argued continually through the late 1940s and into the 1950s, Britain’s maintenance of its colonies, its role in NATO and its other activities during the Cold War caused a huge drain on its economy, resources and manpower.[33] Dutt cited that in November 1946, over 1.5 million men were in the armed forces, while another 474,000 were ‘engaged in making equipment and supplies for the armed forces’ – ‘a total of close on two millions [sic] or one-tenth of the available man-power’.[34] Meanwhile more than half a million workers were needed in British industry to assist with reconstruction, with the British Government enthusiastically recruiting European labour, including the Poles. Dutt lamented the fact that the Government’s solution was ‘sought to be found in the settlement of Polish fascists in Britain or the retention of German prisoners of war’.[35] For Dutt, decolonisation and end of Britain’s involvement in ‘imperialist commitments in the Near East or the Far East’ was the solution to Britain’s labour shortage, rather than recruiting Polish ‘fascists’.[36]

The Communist Party were also sceptical whether the deployment of the Polish Resettlement Corps to the mines would actually have any impact upon the labour shortage, with the Daily Worker reporting that less than 2,000 Polish workers – ‘not half of whom are trained miners’ – would be available by mid-1947.[37] In an interview with the Evening Standard’s Industrial Reporter, Arthur Horner, under the headline ‘Foreigners: Mr. Horner Says NO’, stated that ‘[e]ven if the Poles were willing to come into the industry they could not be taught English and be trained to work in the mines in less than six months’.[38] Thus the Daily Worker’s Industrial Reporter, George Sinfield, asked rhetorically, ‘Is this infinitesimal force worth the big and detrimental repercussions it might have if it were used?’[39] If this was the case, the implication the Communists were making was that the British Government was not interested in recruiting Polish workers to fill the gaps in the labour market, but for a more sinister political purpose, possibly to rein in militancy amongst the miners or provide assistance to anti-Communist forces in the early manoeuvres of the Cold War. The Daily Worker posed rhetorically whether to Labour Government’s moves to nationalise coal production was to be counter-balanced by ‘the introduction of men who hold trade unionism in contempt’ or ‘the introduction of men who are avowed opponents of their own Government, which is backed by all working-class parties in Poland’.[40]

The Trades Union Congress and immigration

The reasoning that the CPGB opposed the Polish migrants purely on the grounds that the CPGB was devoted to the Soviet Union and the Peoples’ Republics in Eastern Europe can only be part of the reason for the hostility towards the Poles. While this can be an easily identifiable target for criticising the CPGB, it doesn’t explain why anti-Polish sentiment was expressed by a large number of trade unionists and why the TUC voted against the settlement of Polish soldiers in 1946. As Paul Burnham wrote, ‘[t]his was not just a campaign of the Communist Party’.[41] At the TUC Congress in 1946, the General Council of the TUC demanded that, ‘no Poles should be employed in any grade in any industry where suitable British labour was available’, with a bloc majority of 884,000 voting for this.[42] Although the TUC is not a monolithic organisation and cannot be seen as interchangeable with the various policies and actions of the entire labour movement, some authors have seen a convergence at this point between the protectionist nationalism of the TUC and the sentiments put forward by the CPGB. Both Keith Tompson and Robert Winder have used a quote from Harry Pollitt to demonstrate the hostility of the labour movement towards the Poles and a reflection that the unions were ‘traditional opponents of migrant workers’ in general:

I ask you, does it make sense that we allow 500,000 of our best young people to put their names down for emigration abroad, when at the same time we employ Poles who ought to be back in their own country…?[43]

But it would be rash to conflate the attitudes and motives of the Communist Party with that of the Trades Union Congress. Although the CPGB was influential in some trade unions, it would not have been able to influence the decisions of the TUC General Council. It is also important to note that it was during this time that Cold War was taking shape and that anti-communist sentiment started to grow within the British trade union movement, specifically within the higher echelons of the TUC. As Richard Stevens has demonstrated, during the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s, ‘[t]he TUC remained deeply involved in anti-Communist activity’.[44]

While the CPGB’s opposition to the Polish workers can be viewed, ideologically at least, as contradictory to their general anti-racist position, the TUC’s policy on ‘race’ and immigration during this period has long been described as ‘muddled’.[45] The exclusionism of the trade unions opposed Polish and other Eastern European workers can be viewed as similar to their opposition to workers who migrated from the Commonwealth. The general policy of the TUC, as Barry Munslow wrote, had been to ‘play down the subject, stress the need for immigrants to integrate and oppose special provisions’.[46] The TUC General Council expressed the need for immigration controls and implicitly accepted that it was the immigrants that were ‘the problem’ and the ‘view that immigration should be controlled flowed logically from that premise’.[47] While the Congress opposed, on paper, racial discrimination, their position on immigration was that ‘immigrants were a problem and their arrival in Britain should consequently be controlled’.[48]

Neville Kirk has recently argued that in the early post-war period, in comparison with the explicit racism of the Australian labour movement, the British labour movement ‘adopted a predominantly positive attitude to the issues of immigration and “race”’, stating that the TUC ‘prided itself on its efforts to promote trade unionism and worker solidarity, irrespective of colour’.[49] But the fact is that the TUC did support immigration controls and in the case of the Polish workers, called explicitly for Poles to be prevented from entering the British job market, or if they were employed, that the Poles would be the first dismissed. The trade unions may have ‘opposed on economic grounds’ to the introduction of the Polish workers, as ‘trade union leaders and members feared alike the return of the mass unemployment of the 1930s’, but Diana Kay and Robert Miles have also suggested that there was also a ‘vigorous nationalism [that] ran through the trade union movement’.[50] Citing Kay and Miles, Kenneth Lunn noted that the argument has been made that the British labour movements’ response to European immigration was ‘not racist’.[51] A similar argument is made by Stephen Catterall and Keith Gildart in their study of trade union reactions to Polish and Italian miners in the post-war era, arguing that, rather than racism or xenophobia:

[h]ostility from rank and file members arose from the perceived ‘threat’ that the workers posed as a result of prodigious output performance and the mining skills they brought or through domestic and social tensions.[52]

While fears about job security and unemployment may help to explain why racist sentiments were expressed by trade union members, it cannot excuse that Polish workers faced discrimination based on their nationality. As Kenneth Lunn declared, ‘[b]y any reasonable definition, a policy of “Poles out first” is racist’.[53]

Conclusion

In 2004, Paul Burnham stated that ‘[t]he response to the Polish migrants is not an episode that reflects any credit on the left in Britain’.[54] The opposition to the Polish workers in Britain in the late 1940s has been overlooked by many historians of the British left and of British immigration, contrasted with the research concentrated upon the impact that black migration had upon post-war Britain and the left’s anti-racist work in the 1960s and 1970s. But when it has been the focus of research, the opposition has been construed in several different ways, with the actions of the Communist Party of Great Britain during this period under particular scrutiny. Some have used the TUC’s opposition, shared by the CPGB, to portray the British labour movement as nationalistic protectionists, who opposed Polish migrants, just as they opposed migrants from the Caribbean and South Asia. Others have used the CPGB’s opposition to demonstrate their loyalty to Stalinism and their descent into nationalism, following the Popular Front politics on the Second World War. However the Party’s opposition to the Polish workers has not been contrasted with their acceptance of West Indian migrants. This presents a dilemma for those who want to essentialise the CPGB as either inherently racist or inherently Stalinist, as both inclinations can be found within the Party’s disparate approach to post-war migration. The Party’s support for the Soviet Union did affect their position on Polish workers who did not want to return to the Soviet bloc, but it doesn’t explain why they were receptive of West Indian workers or why the TUC adopted a similar approach.

This piece has argued that the CPGB’s opposition to the Polish workers was partially inspired by the Party’s loyalty to the Soviet Union, but the Party was also imbued with a sense of Soviet-inspired internationalism and anti-colonialism which saw the Communists (on paper at least) champion West Indian migrants who came to Britain in the late 1940s as comrades against imperialism and capitalism. The Party welcomed these migrants who arrived in the early post-war period, declaring in 1955, ‘It is most urgent that the Labour movement… set out to welcome the coloured workers who come to this country and win them for the trade unions’.[55] However the anti-racist rhetoric of the CPGB literature did not always filter down into the Party’s rank-and-file, nor was the Party able to counter the often xenophobic attitudes of the wider labour movement. The CPGB was primarily made up of skilled and semi-skilled workers and in the in the early post-war era, it was significantly representative of the nation’s working class.[56] The Communist Party, by recruiting workers, could not be immune to some forms of racial prejudice amongst its members, with racist beliefs harboured within the working class and the institutions of the labour movement, such as the TUC. This wider chauvinism in the labour movement can also be a partial explanation for the hostility directed towards the Polish workers, that reflected a streak of nationalism or ‘jingoism’, but also a misplaced apprehension towards migrant workers in a time of economic and industrial uncertainty. The opposition to Polish workers put forward by the CPGB is a murky episode in the Party’s history, but the reasons for this opposition, like that of the wider labour movement, are much more than complex than other scholars and commentators have previously suggested. At the same time, the vocal (and leadership endorsed) opposition to the Poles seems an aberration in the history of the CPGB’s anti-racist work, where the Party made quite significant efforts to highlight the issue of racism in Britain and recruit Commonwealth migrants into the CPGB. But similar to the longer history of the CPGB’s anti-racism, the Party tried to balance its position between its commitments to the anti-racist and anti-colonial struggles and its attempts to maintain its influence to the wider labour movement, which in the end, cost the Party support from both sides.

The different ways in how sections of the British labour movement have reacted to migration from Europe is still a contentious issue today, as the free movement of labour within the European Union allows many migrants from Central and Eastern Europe to work and settle in Britain. In early 2009 a significant number of workers went on unofficial strikes across Britain in response to several companies employing non-union workers, primarily from Italy and Portugal. The aim of the strikes seemed to be quite varied, with a wider range of different organisations and interest groups intervening.[57] Some saw the strike as a response to employers using non-union labour to drive down wages, while others focused on the supra-capitalist structures of the European Union. But the most controversial element of the strike was the slogan, ‘British jobs for British workers’, used by some involved in the strike to rally against foreign workers, the European Union and the New Labour Government. Although many denounced the use of this slogan, the fact that it was raised shows that issues faced by the British Labour movement, and the Communist Party, in the 1940s and 1950s in regards to migrant workers still remain today. The response to migrant workers by the British labour movement has often been one of solidarity, but resistance has reared its head on many occasions, but even this resistance is informed by a number of different factors, including xenophobia/racism, fear of competition, issues of class and international concerns. As Catterall and Gildart have argued, ‘even the most enlightened sections of organised labour could take reactionary measures when faced with economic uncertainty and threats to job security’.[58] This article has shown, despite the anti-racist, anti-fascist and anti-colonialist work that the British labour movement and the British left has conducted over the years, opposition to foreign workers has been an problem that it has suffered from on a number of occasions, and one, unfortunately, that seems to still be of concern in the twenty first century. But while any forms of racism or xenophobia within the labour movement must be countered, it is just as important to understand the reasons for this racism and how it is manifested.

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[1] R. Palme Dutt, ‘Britain and the Colonies – II’, World News, 9 January, 1954, p. 25; J. V. Stalin, Works vol. 6, Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1954, p. 150

[2] Harry Pollitt, Britain Arise, London, 1952, p. 18

[3] P. Bolsover, No Colour Bar in Britain, p. 10

[4] P. Bolsover, No Colour Bar in Britain, p. 10

[5] CPGB, Brothers in the Fight for a Better Life, London, 1954, p. 11

[6] P. Bolsover, No Colour Bar in Britain, p. 3

[7] P. Bolsover, No Colour Bar in Britain, p. 10

[8] K. Paul, Whitewashing Britain, p. 68

[9] Ken Lunn, ‘Complex Encounters: Trade Unions, Immigration and Racism’, in John McIlroy, Nina Fishman & Alan Campbell, British Trade Unions and Industrial Politics, vol. II: The High Tide of Trade Unionism, 1964-79, Aldershot, 1999, p. 74

[10] Paul Foot, Immigration and Race in British Politics, Harmondsworth, 1965, p. 118

[11] Harry Pollitt, No British Jobs for Fascist Poles, CPGB flyer, London, 1946, Ref. 35/3, CPGB Leaflets, Working Class Movement Library, Manchester; P. Foot, Immigration and Race in British Politics, p. 118

[12] Hansard, 12 February, 1947, col. 428

[13] H. Pollitt, No British Jobs for Fascist Poles

[14] H. Pollitt, No British Jobs for Fascist Poles

[15] Daily Worker, 16 December, 1946

[16] For further information on the Squatters’ Movement, see: James Hinton, ‘Self-Help and Socialism: The Squatters’ Movement of 1946’, History Workshop Journal, 25, 1988, pp. 100-126; Noreen Branson, The History of the Communist Party of Great Britain 1941-1951, Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1997, pp. 118 –128

[17] Daily Worker, 23 August, 1946

[18] Syd Abbott, ‘The Mood of the People’, Communist Review, December 1946, p. 7

[19] Daily Worker, 18 December, 1946

[20] Daily Worker, 18 December, 1946

[21] Daily Worker, 22 August, 1946

[22] Arthur Horner, ‘The Communist Party and the Coal Crisis’, 25 November, 1945, from Marxist Internet Archive, http://www.marxists.org/archive/horner/1945/11/coal.htm, accessed 28 July, 2010

[23] H. Pollitt, No British Jobs for Fascist Poles

[24] Cited in, Paul Flewers, ‘Hitting the Pits: The Communist Party of Great Britain and the National Union of Miners’, New Interventions, 7/1, Winter 1996, p. 21

[25] H. Pollitt, No British Jobs for Fascist Poles; Paul Foot, ‘Immigration and the British Labour Movement’, International Socialism, 1/22, Autumn 1965, p. 10

[26] Hansard, 19 February, 1948 col. 1333

[27] P. Bolsover, No Colour Bar in Britain, p. 7

[28] P. Bolsover, No Colour Bar in Britain, p. 7

[29] Jock Kane, with Betty Kane and Charles Parker, No Wonder We Were All Rebels – An Oral History, http://www.grahamstevenson.me.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=697&Itemid=63, accessed 1 December, 2009

[30] J. Kane, No Wonder We Were All Rebels

[31] John Moss, Together Say No Discrimination, London, 1961, p. 8

[32] R. Palme Dutt, ‘Britain and Empire’, Labour Monthly, February 1947, p. 34

[33] See: R. Palme Dutt, Crisis of Britain and the British Empire: Marxist Study Themes no. 7, CPGB pamphlet, London, 1953; R. Palme Dutt, The Crisis of Britain and the British Empire, Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1957;

[34] R.P. Dutt, ‘Britian and Empire’, p. 34

[35] R.P. Dutt, ‘Britian and Empire’, p. 34

[36] R.P. Dutt, ‘Britian and Empire’, pp. 34-35

[37] Daily Worker, 23 December, 1946

[38] Arthur Horner, interviewed by Anne Kelly, Evening Standard, February, 1947, from Security Service file on Arthur Horner, KV 2/1527, National Archives, London

[39] Daily Worker, 23 December, 1946

[40] Daily Worker, 18 December, 1946

[41] Paul Burnham, ‘The Squatters of 1946: South Bucks Squatting in the National Context’, paper presented at the New Socialist Approaches to History seminar series, Institute of Historical Research, London, 23 February 2004

[42] TUC, The General Council’s Report to the 78th Annual Congress, TUC, Brighton, 1946, p. 171; p. 364

[43] Cited in, Keith Tompson, Under Siege: Racial Violence in Britain Today, London, 1988, p. 71; R. Winder, Bloody Foreigners, pp. 323-324

[44] Richard Stevens, ‘Cold War Politics: Communism and Anti-Communism in the Trade Unions’, in Alan Campbell, Nina Fishman & John McIlroy, British Trade Unions and Industrial Politics, vol. I: The Post-War Compromise, 1945-64, Aldershot, 1999, p. 171

[45] Beryl Radin, ‘Coloured Workers and British Trade Unions’, Race, 8/2, p. 161

[46] Barry Munslow, ‘Immigrants, Racism and British Workers’, in David Coates & Gordon Johnson (eds), Socialist Arguments, Oxford, 1983, p. 204

[47] Robert Miles & Annie Phizacklea, The TUC, Black Workers and New Commonwealth Immigration, 1954-1973, Bristol, 1977, p. 7; p. 11

[48] R. Miles & A. Phizacklea, The TUC, Black Workers and New Commonwealth Immigration, 1954-1973, p. 2

[49] Neville Kirk, ‘Traditionalists and Progressives: Labor, Race and Immigration in Post-World War II Australia and Britain’, Australian Historical Studies, 39/1, 2008, p. 64; p. 67

[50] Diana Kay & Robert Miles, Refugees or Migrant Workers? European Volunteer Workers in Britain 1946-1951, London, 1992, pp. 76-77

[51] Kenneth Lunn, ‘Race Relations or Industrial Relations?: Race and Labour in Britain, 1880-1950’, in Kenneth Lunn (ed.) Race and Labour in Twentieth-Century Britain, London, 1985, p. 24

[52] Stephen Catterall & Keith Gildart, ‘Outsiders: Trade Union Responses to Polish and Italian Coal Miners in Two British Coalfields, 1945-54’, in Stefan Berger, Andy Croll & Norman LaPorte (eds), Towards a Comparative History of Coalfield Socieities, Ashgate, Aldershot, 2005, p. 164

[53] K. Lunn, ‘Race Relations or Industrial Relations?: Race and Labour in Britain, 1880-1950’, p. 24

[54] P. Burnham, ‘The Squatters of 1946’

[55] ‘Talking Points On… Colonial Workers in Britain’, World News, 19 March, 1955, p. 238

[56] K. Newton, The Sociology of British Communism, p. 55; Geoff Andrews, Endgames and New Times: The Final Years of British Communism 1964-1991, Lawrence & Wishart, London, 2004, pp. 23-24

[57] See: Audrey Gillan & Andrew Sparrow, ‘Strikes Spread Across Britain as Oil Refinery Protest Escalates’, The Guardian, 30 January, 2009; ‘This is a Strike Against Bosses’, Morning Star, 1 February, 2009; Socialist Party, ‘Lindsey Refinery: Workers Show Their Strength’, The Socialist, 4 February, 2009; James Turley, ‘Critical Support for Wildcat Strikes’, Weekly Worker, 5 February, 2009, p. 4; ‘Blame the Bosses not “Foreign Workers”’, Socialist Worker, 7 February, 2009, p. 1; p. 3

[58] S. Catterall & K. Gildart, ‘Outsiders’, p. 174

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The British left and the end of the miners strike: A guide to online sources

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On 5 March, 1985, the miners’ strike against the Thatcher government came to an end when the National Union of Mineworkers called off the strike. A decisive moment in the history of the British labour movement and in the history of Margaret Thatcher’s Prime Ministership, it wasn’t so clear-cut for the British left at the time. This post is a collection of the various reactions by sections of the British left to the end of the miners’ strike that can be found online. I am trying to finish up a few other things at the moment, but I compiled this to hopefully turn into an article in the (hopefully) near future.

In April 1985, the Communist Party’s Marxism Today featured a roundtable dedicated to assessing the strike, featuring several members of the NUM in different capacities. One of the most interesting things about this roundtable is the debate over whether the end of the strike could be labelled a ‘defeat’. The journal also ran two pieces on the future of the NUM by Hywel Francis in April and August 1985 (with the April piece being much more positive than the August piece). In a piece in the journal in May 1985, Jimmy Airlie wrote:

It will be the height of folly and do the movement and the miners in particular a disservice if the Left failed to that the miners have suffered a major defeat. The strike ended not with a negotiated settlement, but under the compulsion of an accelerating drift back to work…

In the March issue of Socialist Worker Review, the SWP’s Tony Cliff compared the defeat with the end of the 1926 strike and again, much of the blame for the end of the strike was laid at the feet of the TUC. In the same issue, the SWP warned against the retreat into ‘Labourism’ by Militant and the ‘abandonment’ of class politics by the Eurocommunists and argued that only a revolutionary party, like the SWP, could offer a way forward. The SWP’s theoretical journal, International Socialism published a lengthy piece by Alex Callinicos and Mike Simons on the strike which essentially argued this at great length, stating in their conclusion:

The ultimate reason why the miners lost was because capital had a determined, ruthless, highly class-conscious leadership while the working class did not. Fortunately the working class lost only a battle in 1985. But to win the war will require a different sort of leadership, one which builds on every workers’ struggle in order to launch eventually an assault on the citadel of capitalist power in the state machine.

A revolutionary party was seen as necessary for providing the labour movement with strong leadership and a commitment to revolutionary socialism.

The journal edited by John Saville and Ralph Miliband, Socialist Register, featured two pieces on the end of the strike. One by Richard Hyman and one by John Saville, with Saville looking at the strike as the end result of the Conservatives’ long-held plan for tackling the unions developed from the mid-1970s.

Copies of The Militant have not been digitised yet (as well as their journal Militant International Review), but here is Peter Taaffe’s account of the strike, taken from his book on the history of Militant, written in the early 1990s.

Apart from these larger left-wing groups, many of the smaller groups had their own interpretation of the end of the strike. The Spartacist League, in its paper the Workers’ Hammer, declared, ‘The strike has been defeated, but the NUM had been broken”. Red Action portrayed the end of the miners’ strike as a symbol of the Thatcher’s pursuit of privatisation and the strike’s end gave Thatcher the ‘authority’ to take on any industry that the Tories wanted,

And here is a view of the strike from the Communist Party of Australia’s Australian Left Review.

This is only a small sample of the available literature. If anyone can point me to more online stuff (or even interested in collaborating on writing something on this – hint hint), please let me know.

Thatcher, the Brighton bombing and the British left

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Like July 1981, October 1984 was a crisis point for Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government. The miners’ strike was now six months in and Thatcher faced possible strike action by the pit deputies’ union, Nacods, which would have increased the severity of the strike. If Nacods had initiated strike action, many believe that Thatcher would not have been able to endure the effect that it would have on the British economy. In July 1984, Thatcher had addressed a private meeting of the 1922 Committee, a pressure group within the Conservative Party, and has referred to the miners as the ‘enemy within’. From papers released by the Margaret Thatcher Foundation this month, we now know that she was going to return to this theme at the Conservatives’ 1984 Party Conference, to be held in Brighton.

However the Brighton Conference became known for a different set of events. On the morning of October 12, 1984, a bomb planted by the Provisional IRA exploded in the hotel hosting the conference. Five people, including one MP, were killed and another 31 were injured. It was revealed this week that Thatcher ripped up her original ‘enemy within’ speech and gave a defiant speech to those who remained at the conference.

In the week of the bombing, the Tories lead over Labour was 2 per cent, according to The Guardian/ICM polls, but this rose to 9 per cent the following month. The Tories experienced a fillip in the polls until February 1985 when they returned to a 2 per cent lead. But resentment towards Thatcher was still high and many were unsympathetic about the near miss.

Cabinet's response to the bombing

Cabinet’s response to the bombing: CAB 128/79/10, National Archives, p. 1.

I wondered how the British far left responded to the bombing in the midst of one of the most important strikes in contemporary British history. Thanks to the staff at the Working Class Movement Library in Salford, I was able to get copies of the Morning Star and Socialist Worker from the days following the bombing.

As a way of bit of background information, the Communist Party of Great Britain, to which the Morning Star was still nominally attached at this stage, was opposed to the bombing campaign of the Provisional IRA. At the Party’s 1981 Congress, a resolution on Ireland stated:

Congress unreservedly condemns the military campaign of the Provisional IRA in Britain and Ireland. The result is not just continual violence taking the lives of hundreds more people, Irish and British, but also a deepening political polarisation within the working class in Northern Ireland…

The SWP, on the other hand, supported the Provisional IRA in their struggle against British ‘imperialism’, but did not necessarily condone their bombing campaign. A 1980 pamphlet (scanned by the Irish Left Archive) stated:

As socialists we give full support to all those who fight oppression and for the right of self-determination, whereever in the world they may be. This applies equally to the Provisionals, who are fighting a war against the oppression of a minority in Britain’s oldest colony. But this does not mean that we necessarily support the politics of the Provisionals, nor we consider them socialists, nor that we support all the tactics they use.

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The Morning Star covered the story on the front page of the newspaper the day after the bombing, complemented by a statement by the paper’s staff under the headline, ‘No to Terrorism’. The statement began with the sentence:

The Provisional IRA bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton was a piece of reckless adventurism which should be condemned without reservation.

The statement continued with the proposal that a ‘democratic solution’ to the problems in Northern Ireland (and in Britain) would ‘need not terrorism, but mass extra-parliamentary activity combined with the struggle inside parliament.’ It followed with:

Terrorism divides the working people and makes it more difficult to establish the unity between the working people of Britain and Ireland which is needed to solve problem in Northern Ireland.

It opens the door of more and more authoritarian measures which are then applied to the left as a whole.

The statement condemned the failure of the British labour movement to effectively mobilise around the issue of Northern Ireland and concluded with this passage:

The failure to grasp this problem, and mobilise the mass movement needed, leaves the vacuum which is then filled by desperate acts of terrorism.

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The Socialist Worker in the week following the bombing (20 Oct) did not put the bombing on the front page, instead focusing on the breakdown of ACAS proceedings between the NUM and the government. Coverage of the bombing was relegated to page 2. The paper featured two articles detailing the violence of the British Army and the RUC in Northern Ireland, explaining why the Provisional IRA enjoyed popular support. And like the Morning Star, the paper carried a statement from the SWP on the bombing under the headline ‘No Way to Win’. This statement acknowledged that many socialists would not have been upset if the bombing had inflicted more casualties amongst the Conservatives, but still condemned the bombing as the incorrect way to defeat Thatcher and to remove the British from Northern Ireland. The paper said:

We think the IRA made a mistake in planting the bomb last week, because such methods are not going to inflict a real defeat on the Tories…

In fact, the result would have been very different. The establishment would have found another set of Tory politicians to represent them, and these would have used the confusion caused by the bombing to push through repressive measures aimed at anyone sympathising with the cause of Irish freedom…

Indeed it would have made it easier for the system to continue in both Britain and Ireland. In Britain it would provide a wonderful excuse for the Tories to increase their repressive powers. In Ireland, it would have encouraged the illusion that a few courageous people with guns and bombs can act as a substitute for the struggles of the mass of the people.

The SWP stated that they would not condemn the IRA in the manner of the right-wing press, but also understood that the IRA ‘cannot win by bombing campaigns’. The SWP concluded:

The only thing which can shift an employing class is the mass activity and resistance of those its exploits. No amount of individual heroics or clever military stunts can substitute for that.

I wasn’t able to find copies of Militant or Newsline from this period, but due to the wonders of the internet, I thought it would be interesting to also look at how Red Action, a small splinter group from the SWP dedicated to militant anti-fascism, reacted to the bombing, as all copies of Red Action are now online. The attitude of Red Action towards the bombing is significant because Red Action was probably the most pro-Republican leftist group in Britain at the time. As Mark Hayes has written on his chapter on Red Action in our forthcoming volume on the British far left:

Red Action supported local Irish activities and sustained practical political contact with Republican paramilitary organisations. Red Action believed that genuine revolutionary socialist groups should place Irish national liberation high on their agenda.64 According to Red Action the liberal left in Britain had, in effect, abandoned the issue of ‘Northern Ireland’ when the struggle for civil liberties was transformed into an armed insurrection. Even the Trotskyist left, which had the habit of offering ‘conditional support’ for Republicanism, was decidedly equivocal when it came to the use of armalites and semtex… Red Action, on the other hand, resolved to offer unwavering support.

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Issue 15 of Red Action from November 1984 contrasted the IRA bombing with the sinking of the Belgrano by the British (under Thatcher’s orders) during the Falklands War and argued that violence was given a moral worth depending on who perpetrated it. The paper noted that the reaction from the working class towards the bombing was quite muted and that this had changed from the anti-Irish sentiment that was prevalent during the 1970s. It was argued that this latest bombing incident was different because it ‘attacked an obvious and clearly political target’ and because the government ‘had done no favours to the British working class since it had been in office’.

Using the example of the 1981 riots, Red Action stated that the paramilitary policing tactics employed in Northern Ireland were now being used on the British mainland. The group thought that this might create a greater understanding in Britain of the Republican cause. The article finished with this:

Perhaps some of the working class are now beginning to realise that the IRA/INLA are not looney crazed terrorists – just people who realised that the only way that their voice would be heard was by their taking direct physical action against the state.

It cannot be said that the news of the Brighton bomb brought cheers of ‘up the provos’ [sic] but there were plenty of people who thought that it would hsve been better if it had been more successful.

The Brighton bomb gave Thatcher a brief respite from the pressure of the miners strike and public opinion swung behind her momentarily for the first time really ‘since the Falklands War. But many of those who were involved in the strike did not sympathise with Thatcher in the wake of the bombing, although most were critical of the strategies used by the Provisional IRA. The bombing also solidified in her mind that the ‘enemy within’ was a clear and present threat, even though if she wasn’t willing to say it on October 13, 1984 – Irish Republicans, trade unionists, communists, etc, were to be handled with the necessary toughness that the situation required. This line of thinking informed the political and criminal justice outlook of the Thatcher government until its end in November 1990.

40 years since the beginning of the ‘three day week’

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This week marks the 40th anniversary of the beginning of the ‘three day week’, which lasted from 1 January to 6 March 1974. The ‘three day week’ was an initiative by the Heath Government to avoid the stand-still of Britain’s industry in response to the Oil Crisis of late 1973 and the threat of a strike by the National Union of Mineworkers (who were on a ‘work to rule’ basis at the time). It involved cutting electricity supplies to three consecutive days per week to conserve coal stocks, which was threatened by a strike by mineworkers.

A search of the digitised Cabinet Papers available through the National Archives show how the Heath Government approached the looming threat of a strike by the NUM and the energy crisis faced by Britain in 1973-74. One Cabinet meeting from 20 December, 1973 outlined the problem facing the Heath Government and the basis for the implementation of the ‘three day week’:

Government must not appear to be working for a major confrontation with the unions on the issue of the Stage 3 Pay Code. It was possible that the Executive of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) wanted such a confrontation or that their actions would produce it. [The Secretary for State for Employment] believed that it was important for the Government to do all that they could to avoid a confrontation. They must be seen to be at once firm and reasonable…

Meanwhile the Government must go ahead with the arrangements to introduce the three-day working week. On this the trades union leaders and the Labour Party had moved closer together, Mr Jack Jones being the link, and were representing that the resulting hardships were wholly the fault of the Government. The Government must make it clear that the measures were wholly the result of the industrial action by the NUM and ASLEF, and that if that action were brought to an end the oil shortage would persist but the three-day working week would no longer be necessary. It was important that Ministers should co-ordinate their actions and their speeches closely in handling the current crisis, and he hoped that his colleagues would comment freely on the strategy that he had proposed…

In discussion it was argued that the Government should not appear to use the three-day week as a threat to the unions. The facts must be presented in a low key emphasising the overriding need to meet the fuel shortage. It might help to encourage public participation if more facts and figures could be made available. It would be unwise to disclose the amounts of fuel stocks or the current estimates of the period of possible endurance but the public might be encouraged to learn of the savings achieved by power economies, though the figures so far (which increased from 5 per cent on 14 December to 12 per cent on 18 December) were not taken from a typical period. It was also suggested that it could be helpful to involve the voluntary organisations.

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After nearly four weeks of the strike (and two weeks before Heath announced a snap general election), the Government considered relaxing some of the restrictions, but did not want to look like they were relenting to the pressures of the NUM. In a Cabinet meeting on 24 January, 1974, the following debate was had:

[D]uring the past week, coal stocks at power stations had fallen by only 100, 000 tons. Stocks stood at 13.6 million tons at power stations, and 1.8 million tons elsewhere, and if circumstances remained unchanged could be expected to increase slightly over the next two weeks. Against this background some relaxation of the existing electricity restrictions could be allowed. The most effective pattern would be to let productive industry work a five-day week, restricting electricity consumption to 80 per cent of normal…

However, the likelihood that the Executive of the NUM would decide to hold a ballot of their members on the issue of strike action was a factor which could have a major influence on the nature and timing of the relaxations. The choice lay between going ahead with the planned relaxation but making it clear that a strike would lead to even more severe restrictions being imposed, or making minor changes to the incidence of the present restrictions to conserve fuel stocks in the face of the strike threat. It was estimated that, if a total strike occurred, the continuance of the present restrictions would enable stocks to last six to seven weeks. The relaxations would reduce endurance by three or four days if a strike occurred within the next three weeks. Endurance might be prolonged slightly by increasing the use of oil at power stations, or increasing the import of coal, but even the most stringent restrictions could not prevent the breakdown of electricity supplies within seven to eight weeks of the onset of a total strike.

In discussion, it was argued that any relaxation which led to increased electricity consumption would represent a major change of policy. Hitherto the aim had been to restrict consumption to prolong endurance. The miners had always sought to deplete stocks by action short of a strike, and then impose a total strike when the economy was least able to resist it. Relaxation now, would be seen as a sign of weakness on the part of the Government: the miners would be encouraged in their resolve, since a relaxation would be taken as firm evidence that the economy could not stand a three-day week and that the Government, rather than impose even harsher measures, would quickly settle with them. Public opinion would almost certainly see relaxation in face of the risk of a strike as an act of great imprudence.

On the other hand, it was strongly argued that the restriction of the working week to three days could not be endured much longer. There were signs that many companies, large and small, would soon be in difficulties, and this could have wide repercussions throughout the economy. The trade figures would inevitably get worse if short-time work continued. The ability of the economy to withstand restrictions was a much more critical factor for the endurance of the country than were the fuel stocks. Moreover to maintain the present restrictions would be seen as a tacit admission that the Government expected the majority of miners to vote for a strike. Such a policy would be interpreted as an intensified form of Government confrontation with the unions and it would provide a continuing excuse for the TUC to maintain their protests.

No decision was made by the Cabinet at that meeting and on 7 February, Heath called an election for 28 February. On 10 February, the NUM went on strike and the ‘three day week’ continued. Labour’s minority government victory brought an end to the strike and the ‘three day week’ in early March 1974.

The ‘three day week’ cast a long shadow over Britain during the 1970s and 1980s. After the collapse of the Labour’s ‘Social Contract’ with the Trades Union Congress in the mid-1970s, the outbreak of industrial action led many to fear a return to the ‘three day week’. Margaret Thatcher, who was part of the Heath Government that lost in the 1974 election, learnt from the ‘three day week’ and the NUM strike, making sure that coal supplies were plentiful in 1984 before confronting the NUM again. This 12 week period in early 1974 has become one of the symbols of Britain’s crisis during the 1970s and has been used as a shorthand for the economic troubles of the post-war welfare state.

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Last week, a scholar in The Independent argued that 1973 was one of the most significant year in British history, but it might be argued that 1974, with the ‘three day week’, the NUM strike and the dual electoral victories of Labour, might pip its predecessor as being more significant.