The Callaghan government and the British ‘winter of discontent’

This book examines the causes, character and impact of the 'winter of discontent' in British politics, particularly the strikes of 1978–1979 and the role of the government in managing industrial relations. It examines how the media reported the industrial strife, the significance of the 'winter of discontent' in the history of the Conservative Party and its impact on the 1979 general election. The role of the media coverage of the British 'winter of discontent' raises a number of interesting historical and methodological questions. The book focuses on how the media including the national and local press, television and radio, reported the causes, character and impact of 'winter of discontent' in Britain. Press hostility towards the unions was particularly unrestrained during the industrial unrest of September 1978 to March 1979, at a time when trade union membership peaked at 13 million. Currently, the cultural, economic, social and political histories of the 1970s are being subjected to increasingly detailed scrutiny by historians and social scientists. From September 1978 to March 1979, the Callaghan government appeared to be swept by a wave of strikes, go-slows and industrial stoppages. The 'winter of discontent' has now become coded shorthand for poor economic performance, over-mighty union barons, industrial anarchy and an ailing Labour administration that, according to its political opponents, made Britain 'the sick man of Europe'.

The next Lansbury generation and Labour politics, 1881–1951

This chapter explores the predominant influences of family, social class and community that shaped the career paths, and the political and social activism, of Bessie and George Lansbury's family in British politics. In 1920 the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) was formed, by which time the surviving Lansbury children were now in their adult years with an age range spreading over twenty-three years. In 1912 Dorothy Lansbury married Ernest Thurtle in Philadelphia, USA, the beginning of a significant and long-lasting partnership on the left in British politics spanning the inter-war years and beyond the Second World War. Ernest Thurtle moved the Local Authorities (Birth Control) Enabling Bill in Parliament under the Ten-Minute Rule. Dorothy became Vice-President of the Abortion Law Reform Association (ALRA), a position she held until her retirement from public life in 1962.

in Labour and working-class lives

This chapter examines the development and character of Conservative trade union policy during Margaret Thatcher's leadership of the opposition from 1975 to 1979. It focuses on to the impact of the 'winter of discontent' as the major turning point in Conservative electoral fortunes that eventually culminated in the May 1979 election victory. The 'winter of discontent' represented a watershed in late twentieth century British politics. Thatcher recalled that the industrial troubles which beset Callaghan's government contributed to the electoral gains of the Conservatives in 1979. At Westminster, Thatcher castigated the government's attempt to penalise the profitable Ford Company, a major exporter as 'blatant injustice'. Thatcher was well briefed by the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), and other informants, who supplied her office with regular situation reports which revealed the widespread industrial action comprising strikes, overtime bans, work-to-rules and similar stoppages.

in Crisis? What crisis?
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The ‘winter of discontent’ – views from abroad

On 6 January 1979, the New York Times carried the headline 'Britain will sell fighters to China, James Callaghan says at summit meeting'. The British Prime Minister had left behind the growing industrial strife of the 'winter of discontent', on which the US media remained understandably mainly silent. Norrister's perceptive reporting for the Washington Post highlighted several key aspects of the causes and much of the character of the British 'winter of discontent'. Moreover, the public sector strikes amounted to more of a "peasants' revolt" than normal industrial stoppages. Another view of the British 'winter of discontent' was provided from the other side of the world, Australia. In 1978, Ralph Willis made a fact finding visit to Britain to discuss industrial relations policies with members of the Callaghan government and senior trade union leaders.

in Crisis? What crisis?
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This chapter examines the last days of the James Callaghan government in 1979, from the vote of confidence on 28 March to polling day on 3 May, has two main purposes. First, it questions how far the turbulent events of the 1978-79 winter contributed to the downfall of the Callaghan administration in March 1979 and Labour's subsequent defeat in the 1979 general election. Second, the chapter explores why the 'winter of discontent' in the years after 1979 has remained so prominent in British politics. With the party conducting an acrimonious inquest into its electoral defeat, Denis Healey had few doubts about why Labour had lost in 1979. The 'winter of discontent' was a significant factor in a disappointing prodevolution vote. Callaghan's response to Margaret Thatcher was to focus on the new agreement, the St Valentine's Day Concordat, between the government and the Trades Union Congress (TUC).

in Crisis? What crisis?
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‘Winters of discontent’

This chapter examines the causes, character and impact of the 'winter of discontent' in British politics, particularly the strikes of 1978-79 and the role of the government in managing industrial relations. The immediate origins of the 'winter of discontent' can be located in the breakdown of Labour's social contract with the unions. The Grunwick dispute had significant implications for British industrial relations. And secondly, there was the first official national strike by the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), from 14 November 1977 to 16 January 1978. In 1976, owing to a major sterling crisis, the James Callaghan government had been forced to negotiate a £2.3 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in Washington, DC, to defend the British pound. The IMF's terms demanded extensive cuts in government public expenditure, especially in health, housing and education.

in Crisis? What crisis?

This chapter analyses why James Callaghan deferred the general election in the autumn of 1978, which has been the subject of considerable debate, and considers evidence revealed in recently released Cabinet papers. It assesses how far a lost opportunity contributed to the collapse of the Labour government's social contract with the unions and the advent of the 'winter of discontent' of 1978-79. Callaghan carried out wider soundings about the possibility of a Labour victory if he called the election in the autumn. In the end, Callaghan's decision to postpone the election in the autumn 1978 had devastating repercussions that were milestones on the way to Labour's election defeat in May 1979. His government was forced into a new parliamentary term without the support of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) and was beset by industrial troubles that winter.

in Crisis? What crisis?

The initial walk-outs at the Halewood and Southampton Ford plants were quickly followed by walk-outs at Ford's Daventry, Swansea and Basildon plants, as well as the main Dagenham plant beside the River Thames in Essex. In the history of post-war British industrial conflict, the Ford strike from September to November 1978 represents a major dispute, but has received relatively little analysis. The 'winter of discontent' is remembered primarily for industrial action by public sector workers, especially between January and March 1979. The figure for the pay increase that resolved the strike, which attracted intense media coverage, acted as a pace setter for groups of workers in both the private and public sectors in the annual pay round. The government suffered a calamitous defeat in failing to secure parliamentary support for its policy of sanctions against Ford, as well as against other private companies that breached the 5 percent guideline.

in Crisis? What crisis?

This chapter explores the causes, character and impact of the large scale industrial action by lorry drivers and the interplay of forces between government, unions and employers at the centre of the 'winter of discontent' that swept Britain. These two industrial disputes also throw significant light on the state's contingency plans for crisis management in industrial relations. There was a considerable difference between Transport House and Whitehall in London and the various areas where the road hauliers' strike took a strong hold through the lay membership rather than union officials. The Transport and General Workers' Union (TGWU) soon made the strike official in an attempt by its leadership to secure control over the dispute. In January 1979 pay policy dominated Cabinet discussions. In Parliament, Margaret Thatcher called for a declaration of a state of emergency to deal with the road hauliers' strike.

in Crisis? What crisis?

The Heath government had introduced five states of emergency in four years, which had led to its defeat at the polls in February 1974. The National Day of Action, a French-style one-day strike, had been organised jointly for the first time by four of the major unions for public service employees. The union had more women members than any other British trade union. By 1980 the National Association of Local Government Officers (NALGO) had 391,000 women members. The new union provided health service trade unionism and recruited from workers principally in the National Health Service (NHS). The principal cause of the public sector strikes was in fact chronic low pay. As Tara Martin has shown, women played a significant role in the 'winter of discontent' in the largely male world of trade union politics, particularly in the strikes in the service sector industries.

in Crisis? What crisis?