The relationship between the Conservative Party and the organised working class is fundamental to the making of modern British politics. Although always a minority, the organised working class was perceived by Conservatives as a challenge, a threat and an opportunity. The book’s fundamental question is ‘why throughout its history was the Conservative Party so accommodating towards the organised working class?’ And why in the space of a relatively few years did it abandon this heritage? For much of the party’s history its leaders calculated they had more to gain from the unions’ political inclusion, but during the 1980s Conservative governments marginalised the organised working class to a degree that previously would have been thought politically disastrous for the party. This shift altered British politics profoundly.
This sets out the book’s argument. The Conservative Party and the unions were mutually constitutive and for much of the last century Conservative policy was in major respects directed towards accommodating the trade unions and organised working class. Successive Conservative leaderships pursued a policy of inclusion despite hostility from the party grassroots. The Introduction also introduces concepts central to the analysis.
This chapter explores the difficulty of separating the working class from the trade unions; the party therefore accepted (albeit reluctantly) the unions’ existence whilst criticising the unions’ supposed vulnerability to control by politically motivated groups who usurped the unions’ for their own political purposes. An important figure in the development of Conservatism’s strategy was Disraeli, whose government passed legislation for the unions’ development. Many Conservatives feared industrialisation would, via the growth of democracy, culminate in socialism and saw unions as part of this trend. The response was to accord the unions a degree of legal privilege that was intended to be a settlement of the union question. Industrial conflict, however, re-emerged during the 1890s and in the years before 1914 there was an upsurge in industrial unrest that suggested a transformation of politics. This was reflected in what many Conservatives saw as granting excessive legal privileges to unions that now displayed a far higher degree of industrial and political activism, reflected in the formation of the Labour Party. The party, however, failed to develop a coherent response to the rise of the organised working class.
The Conservatives had little option but to acquiesce in the Liberal Government’s policies but this changed with the outbreak of war. War demanded both the management of production and mass political consent, and this new politics forced Conservatives to consider, first, the current and future role of the unions in governance and, second, the party’s institutional relationship with the organised working class. In this period the party attempted to develop a Conservative trade union organisation to appeal directly to the organised working class. This organisation failed to prosper. Conservatives had to accept a growing union involvement in public policy, and although this role would decline with peace, Conservatives accepted that unions had a legitimate consultative and representative role in making public policy. Industrial militancy, with its political implications, and the by now traditional Conservative critique of the unions were strongly opposed, and there was a growing demand from within the party for dramatic measures designed to reduce union power.
Despite the 1926 General Strike the party under Stanley Baldwin maintained and expanded the Government’s relationship with the unions. Baldwin’s amplification of One Nation politics and endorsement of voluntarism necessitated holding Conservative hostility to the unions in check. Conservatives were in government for most of the inter-war period, during which the unions’ reputation shifted from a quasi-revolutionary threat to a bulwark of the status quo. A long-term effect of the General Strike was to confirm the growing relationship between the State and the TUC, and reinforced the party leadership’s determination to keep ‘politics’ out of industrial relations. Rearmament after 1934 put a strain on this relationship, as the TUC sought to expand its role, whilst the Chamberlain Government sought to limit its influence in order to avoid a political threat to the status quo.
The fall of Neville Chamberlain and the emergence of the Churchill coalition had crucial consequences for the party’s relationship with the unions. The shift under the Coalition to ‘a people’s war’, symbolised by the Labour Party’s presence and particularly by Ernest Bevin’s role at the Ministry of Labour and National Service, produced a significant increase in the influence and political weight of the organised working class. Conservatives recognised this, but proved unable to develop an effective response, although, as prime minister, Churchill was able to hold the line in a couple of cases to the satisfaction of the party. The Conservative critique of the unions underwent little significant change, but the reappearance of industrial conflict in 1944, changes in public policy that favoured the working class and, of course, electoral defeat in 1945 stimulated grave disquiet.
Confronted by the upheavals of total war and the radicalism of the post-1945 Labour Government, the Conservative Party strove to develop a response. Balancing those who called for the party’s adaptation to Labour’s new order and those who called for its rolling back proved difficult. The Conservative’s narrow election victory in 1951 meant that its room for political manoeuvre was severely restricted and the Conservative governments of the period found themselves aspiring to running Labour’s State better than Labour. This also applied to relations with the unions and the organised working class, as the Conservative Government struggled to balance full employment, low inflation and higher public spending in an often crisis‑ridden economy. The party attempted to revive its union organisation in an effort to increase its influence amongst their members. During this period, although the party welcomed electoral success, many came to see the trade unions as a problem requiring remedial action, but Conservative governments continued to place a high value on maintaining established relations in the interest of stability and governance.
During the 1950s successive Conservative governments found themselves confronted by a complex policy problem: how to combine full employment with low inflation. Within this, union wage demands and the growth of industrial, especially unofficial, action loomed large. Central to government strategy was exploiting the traditional consultative relationship with the unions and the TUC to endorse and promote wage moderation and curb unofficial strikes. This was, however, opposed by rank-and-file union members and their leaders, and the result was an increase in internal conflict in the unions that undermined the State’s relationship with the unions. As efforts to enmesh the unions in a tighter relationship failed, increasing numbers of Conservatives were attracted to the radical reform of trade union and industrial relations law.
By 1964 the party leadership and membership seemed to be converging on a common diagnosis of ‘the union problem’. The failure of Conservative experiments in government with tripartism stimulated further the existing interest in legal reform. This was reinforced by the bitter conflicts over incomes policy and union reform that characterised the 1964–70 Labour Governments. Drawing on a trend in Conservative thinking that emerged in 1958, by 1968 the Conservative Party seemed committed to the extensive legal reform of unions and industrial relations as part of its determination to address ‘the British disease’. When the Conservatives entered government in 1970, this, and a seeming commitment to a more free-market approach, appeared to herald a radical departure from post-war governance. However, under the pressure of events the essentially pragmatic Heath Government speedily changed course in a number of key policy areas and also found itself in direct conflict with the trade unions, first over the Industrial Relations Act and then over incomes policy. This culminated in the ‘who governs’ election of February 1974 that precipitated the fall of the Heath Government.
After 1974 and under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher, the party reinstituted an extensive and radical rethink of its attitudes and policies towards the organised working class, actively contemplating the measures likely to be needed in order to avoid a repeat of the Heath Government’s experiences. In opposition, therefore, the party undertook a number of extensive studies into the dimensions of the problem and developed a strategy to handle serious confrontations with the unions. The party invested considerable resources in attempting to revive its union organisation. For a time this played an important role in the party. The collapse of the 1974–1979 Labour Government and ‘the Winter of Discontent’ brought a Conservative government to office, which was determined to deal with ‘the union problem’. It did not come into office with a fully developed programme; both union and industrial relations legislation was passed piecemeal, and was an incremental response, and likewise, the countermeasures needed to meet serious industrial confrontation were developed over time and in response to events. Particularly significant for both was the steel strike. By 1990 when Mrs Thatcher left office the unions’ legal, political and industrial environment had been transformed, with the unions effectively excluded, and the political salience of the organise working class ended.