|July 1970||After the shock of losing the election, the Labour Party shows a noticeable sense of purpose, evaluating its policies and rejuvenating its constitution. Widely considered to have been disloyal to Harold Wilson in the last Cabinet, Roy Jenkins resigns as Deputy Leader. Despite the defeat, nobody seriously contends to replace Wilson, who states "I know what's going on, I'm going on!"|
|March 1971||With the replacement of the Daily Herald by The Sun, Labour launches Labour Weekly in 1971 and gave it complete editorial freedom. This is a conscious echo of George Lansbury's Labour Weekly which ran in the 1920s. Circulation soon grows to 25,000; the paper taking a generally Leftist perspective, rather than being a bland party mouthpiece.|
|August 1971||Margaret Thatcher as Education Secretary begins to make her mark as 'the milk snatcher,' cutting back on free school milk for secondary school pupils. A regressive and unworkable Industrial Relations Act offends even the CBI. In fact, the early years of the Heath government can be seen as 'protoype Thatcherism' with a disastrously tight incomes policy. Harold Wilson coins a term, "Selsdon Man," to describe the harshness of this period, based upon the surprisingly right-wing manifesto launched at the Selsdon Hotel. When Heath relaxes monetary policy, the result is to be ballooning inflation, fuelled by a short-lived property boom.|
|January 1972||The miners declare a strike for seven weeks, resulting in 135 pits being closed in South Wales. The working week is reduced to three days as an emergency measure. Ted Heath's government soon capitulates, leading to a large pay rise for the miners.|
|July 1972||A national dock strike is characteristic of the industrial unrest in this period. The strike is an attempt to protect workers from compulsory redundancies. The government again declares a state of emergency. Once again, the settlement conditions are quite favourable.|
|January 1973||Britain enters the EEC. Ted Heath sees this as a personal triumph, but the conditions are quite detrimental to the British economy.|
|October 1973||The first major re-statement of party policy for many years - 'Labour's Programme 1973.' This is to be the basis of the 1974 election manifesto, pledging to bring about a 'fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of working people and their families.' A reference in this programme is made to a 'far reaching Social Contract between workers and the Government.'|
Tony Benn plays an integral part in writing the 1973 Programme, with Stuart Holland the major contributor. The programme is to form the kernel of the Left's demands for a long time to come. It recommends wholesale nationalisation of top industries; not just struggling businesses, but successful ones. Harold Wilson had drily commented in the late '60s that running Marks & Spencer as efficiently as the Co-op was slightly misguided; certainly this reflected doubts within the Shadow Cabinet about the Programme.
New ideas were percolating into the Party, however, particularly concerning constitutional reform and industrial democracy. A new generation, which had emerged from the ferment of 1960s activism, is starting to influence the Party.
|November 1973||The TUC-Labour Party Joint Liason Committee elucidates its ideas in the document 'Economic Policy and the Cost of Living.' It contains original thought related to wages control -in the context of a much reduced income gap throughout Britain. The thinking is that these various plans could sit together in a future socialist Britain to create a new social contract. Whilst many in the Party look forward, the opposition of Harold Wilson works fairly effectively in exposing what was regarded at the time as a truly dreadful Conservative government with no positive aspects to it whatever. Food prices, housing costs and unemployment rocket.|
The Arab oil-producing nations decide in October to stop exports of oil to countries which had supported Israel in the Israeli-Egyptian war. In addition to this, a separate agreement is made which mean the oil price quadruples. When the Oil Crisis of 1973 hit, Britain's debts spiral, with a #2,000 million trade deficit.
The miners ban overtime after seeing a popularly-supported wage claim of 31% rejected. The Conservatives see their incomes policy going down the pan, so force a confrontation. Despite large reserves of coal and the fact that the miners are still working a normal week, a State of Emergency is declared, with a three-day week and the plastering of buildings with 'Switch off Something' stickers.
|February 1974||The miners decide to strike in February 1974, and Heath calls an election on the issue 'who governs Britain?' Labour's response is to promise the repeal of iniquitous Tory legislation and propose measures to control inflation whilst protecting the poor. An increase in public ownership and industrial democracy is proposed. Most importantly, Labour promises to get Britain 'Back to Work with Labour.'
The result is a Labour Minority Government after the Liberals reject Heath's offer of a coalition. The miners strike is quickly settled with a 29% pay increase. Two new departments are quickly introduced by the new government - the Department of Energy, headed by Eric Varley, and Prices and Consumer Protection, of which Shirley Williams takes charge. To prevent a rerun of the fractitious relationship between Party and government, special advisers are drafted in from Transport House.
|March 1974||The Trade Union and Labour Relations Act is introduced, ending much of the bad feeling between government and unions. The rest of the year contains positive news for trades unions. Legal rights are added for union representatives and full-time officials, including paid release from work to undertake training in industrial relations and health and safety.|
|April 1974||The Local Government Act comes into effect, completely redrawing the administrative map in England and Wales.|
|October 1974||Violence surrounding Northern Ireland continues to spread into mainland Britain, with the Guildford bombing leading to the wrongful conviction of four innocent people, while the Birmingham pub bombings kill 21 people. Whilst Labour stands committed in principle to republicanism, in practice this is hard to implement, as Northern Ireland hovers on the brink of civil war.
With a strong Cabinet in terms of both experience and ability, Labour seem well placed to deal with the emergency economic situation: GDP has been hit by the Three Day Week. Pensions and other benefits are increased as rents and mortgage rates are frozen. Shirley Williams introduces tough price controls on bread, flour and butter.
New laws to outlaw discrimination against women, take development land into public ownership and re-distribute wealth with a Capital Transfer Tax are quickly implemented. The National Enterprise Board is designated the mammoth task of re-vitalising British industry.
The Cabinet call another election, focussing upon the quality of its leaders throughout the campaign. Despite the overall majority of just three which results, opposition in Parliament is very splintered, with a high Liberal vote and respectable showings for nationalist parties in Wales and Scotland. The Labour Party's manifesto in the second election is a tame affair in many regards.
Labour has a few years to attempt to defuse the economic mess, but has to tread particularly carefully. A statutory pay policy is introduced in a piecemeal and sensitive manner, whilst a plan to nationalise the top twenty companies is totally discarded. In fields such as education, egalitarian instincts are to be immediately repressed, as private and grammar schools are left to their own devices; even allowed to maintain their charitable tax-breaks. The consolodation of a comprehensive system is to take place against a selective backdrop; arguably undermining the new system from the very beginning.
|June 1975||Harold Wilson renegotiates the terms of EU membership, but still finds one-third of the Cabinet and more than half of the Parliamentary Party opposed to continued membership. To his credit, he does not attempt to enforce his pro-European views on either the country or the Party. He is actually unable to force Cabinet ministers on the NEC to use their influence to soften its opposition to the Common Market. In these circumstances, a referendum is considered to be the best way forward.
The opposition to continued membership has less resources, tending to draw upon the political skills of mavericks and, specifically, advocates of the Commonwealth, such as Benn, Michael Foot, Barbara Castle and Peter Shore. With the mainstream of both parties in favour of remaining in the EC, the referendum result of two-to-one in favour of membership is emphatic. This does not, however, remove Europe as a contentious issue for the Party.
|August 1975||British Leyland, comprising much of the British car industry, comes under government control. This provides many problems for the government in years to come, as the company's industrial relations and poor designs become part of the government's overall responsibility. In the circumstances, nationalisation at least prevents BL's collapse, with the loss of many jobs. The aftershocks of the oil crisis and the 3-day week, currency uncertainty and general economic chaos leads to "staginflation" - as unemployment and inflation both rise.|
|December 1975||By the end of 1975 the trade unions have come to a voluntary agreement to restrict the pay demands of their members - at a time when inflation reaches 22%.|
|April 1976||As early as 1972, Harold Wilson had informed a number of people that he had no plans to be Prime Minister for more than three years the next time Labour were elected. As it turned out, this becomes two years, as he announces his retirement in to the shock of the Party and the country as a whole.
Wilson had come under some fire for what now looks like naive over-generosity in the New Years Honours List, and his health may well be failing at this point. There is, perhaps, an overdependence upon the Prime Ministerial scotch whisky. However, his style had been relaxed and statesmanlike in his last government, mainly reserving his ire and distrust for Tony Benn.
Bearing in mind Wilson's success as a party manager and his very real lasting achievements as Prime Minister, the speed with which he is denigrated from a position of the greatest respect to that of total pariah seems extreme. Upon retirement, his reputation falls faster than an Austin Maxi off a cliff; he is ostracised by both left and right of the Parliamentary Party, and is largely ignored and even despised for some years afterwards. In retrospect, we can see this as showing that the Party itself begins to polarise after his retirement; and centrists in this situation can find themselves knocked down from both sides.
The leadership election that follows offers clear-cut choices between the left and right of the party. James Callaghan, on the Right of the party, is the winner, beating Michael Foot, Roy Jenkins, Tony Benn, Tony Crosland and Denis Healey. Now the Cabinet is re-organised, to the detriment of left-wingers and Wilson people. Barbara Castle, Bob Mellish and Willie Ross are sacked.
Jim Callaghan gives a comforting reassurance at a time when sterling and prices were causing a crisis. It seems that the Left within the Party has been pushed back. Trades unions are commonly becoming associated with the economic problems associated with rapidly rising wages - pressure on the currency and inflation. In fact, some of the disputes could be over unimportant, trivial issues. But there are other causes of Britain's industrial problems: poor industrial designs, outmoded management methods and an anti-meritocratic "old school tie" boardroom culture. These are less publicly highlighted. Callaghan's leadership is to be, in these circumstances, stable and conservative. The 1973 Programme and new Social Contract recede into the distance. What remains is an incomes policy.