From the post-war promise to the polarised present: five decades of the Labour movement

Set against the ever-changing industrial landscape of working-class Britain, The House of Shades spans five decades of the lives, and deaths, of the Webster family. In this article, John Harris reflects on the Labour movement over the span of those five decades.

Everything changed in 1979: in all the statistics and figures that show how much Britain has been transformed over the last four or five decades, it is that year that crops up time and time again.

That May, the Labour Party lost power after five tumultuous years, and Margaret Thatcher began her upturning of so many of the political and economic certainties that had held sway after the Second World War. But 1979 was also the year that, by a whole host of measures, economic inequality in the United Kingdom reached an all-time low. In 1938, the richest 10% of households had taken 35% of the country’s total income; forty years later, that figure had dropped to just over 20% of the UK’s income. 1979’s rate of child poverty was 13%. Around a third of people lived in what is now called social housing, nearly all of which was provided by local councils. You did not see homeless people sleeping on the streets, nor had anyone come up with the term “food bank”.

Because history is written by its winners, the late 1970s is still seen as a time of all-encompassing social decay and breakdown. There is truth in that picture, and we should also not lose sight of how narrow and bigoted many of that time’s social attitudes were. But it should surely be possible to look back and appreciate that some things were definitely lost - not just a set of conventions and arrangements that kept most people away from poverty and insecurity, but a labour movement strong enough to ensure that those things were kept in place. Again, in that sense, 1979 is very symbolic: that year, trade union membership reached a historic peak of 13.2 million people, just over half the entire national workforce.

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Dustmen strikes as part of the Winter of Discontent, 1979 (Trinity Mirror / Mirrorpix / Alamy Stock Photo).

From a modern vantage point, it might be difficult to appreciate what that meant. The idea of organising workers, along with support for the Labour Party and a narrative of collective working-class advance, was woven into millions of British lives. An everyday culture was built not around revolution, but a dependable level of security and respect, and a drive to ensure that people’s lives were always improving. Up-close, what this entailed could look arcane and excluding (as one character in The House of Shades puts it, “the pressing issues of the day addressed and minuted, the fascinating formalities, the never-heard-before speeches”). The world of the trade unions was certainly dominated by white men, often too consumed by protecting their position rather than reaching out to workers who were at the very bottom of the labour hierarchy, where rights and entitlements remained a distant dream.

But when powerful interests threatened to push back the labour movement’s gains, the unions always had an answer. In 1970, Jack Jones, the-then General Secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union, tore into the Conservative politicians who were decrying “irresponsible” union wage claims, some of whom were already working on the ideas that Thatcher would soon put into practice. “Let them go down and work in the mines, or work in the racket and tension of a machine shop, or try to keep pace with a fast assembly line,” he said. “Let them work in a dank, dirty hold of a ship, sweating one minute and shivering the next, with rats and insects lurking about, and then say their wage claims are irresponsible.” Here was a basic notion of a social contract: the idea that in return for hard graft - and physical danger - workers were entitled to the security that the unions defended.

This play, set in Nottingham, begins in 1965, when a newly-elected Labour government had been elected and the post-war social settlement was still intact. Essentially Victorian attitudes were waning, as proved by the moves to legalise abortion and to end the criminalisation of gay people. Meanwhile, a trade union movement that was still growing in power and influence faced an economy that was already showing signs of dysfunction and decline. For a time, one fed into the other, as the unions either fought off attacks on their members’ living standards, or pushed to protect them from rising instability. The most spectacular examples came in 1972 and 1974, under the Conservative government led by Edward Heath. Coalminers’ wages had fallen behind those of industrial workers, and the result was a seven-week strike that saw the miners come out on top. Two years later, another miners’ strike effectively brought the government down: arguably the high point of union power, and the beginning of the short and turbulent era of British history that climaxed with the mess of industrial unrest termed The Winter Of Discontent.

Then came Thatcher. At the very start, she privately said she would "neglect no opportunity to erode trade union membership". Her antipathy to the unions was not just about the kind of economy she wanted to create: it was also about her guiding philosophy, and how hostile she was to the kind of collectivism that represented something very different from the thinking she absorbed in her father’s grocer’s shop. Not long after her first election victory, she came up with jaw-dropping lines for a set-piece speech that were eventually cut, but which spoke volumes about what she wanted to do. “Morality is personal,” she said. “There is no such thing as collective conscience, collective kindness, collective gentleness, collective freedom. To talk of social justice, social responsibility.. may be easy and make us feel good, but it does not absolve each of us from personal responsibility.”

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10th August 1984 Labour Party Young Socialists march with banners to support miners (Jeff Morgan 01 / Alamy Stock Photo).

The script of The House of Shades eventually shifts to 1985, another very significant year, when the winners and losers of ’72 were reversed. The defeat of the miners’ strike of 1984-5 amounted to a drastic weakening of organised labour itself, symbolically opening the way for what followed: successive privatisations of state-owned industries, endless cuts to the welfare state, and the cutting-adrift of old industrial areas, which struggled - and still do - to find sustainable replacements for what had been shut down or moved out. From politicians, there was a lot of talk about “ambition” and “aspiration”, but all over Britain, a new reality took root, of fragile-looking retail parks, low-paid care work, and precarious jobs in the breathless world of “logistics”. When The House of Shades moves to 1996 - “There’s nothing round here anymore,” observes one character, “[just] boozers and hairdressers” - these changes are palpable.

In many places, the waning of the trade union movement and the hollowing-out of old industries (in Nottingham, the early 2000s saw the iconic Raleigh bike company shift production to Southeast Asia) did not seem to affect support for the Labour Party. But in 2016, the vote for Brexit, partly built on the resentment and anger sown by years of deindustrialisation, saw what remained of old political loyalties fatally weaken. This story’s climactic dateline came three years later, when scores of areas that were once loyal to the Labour Party returned Conservative MPs, full of talk of “levelling up” the more deprived parts of country: an idea that shows no convincing signs of materialising, and has now been all but lost among inflation, a huge decline in the value of people’s wages, and the continued rise of insecure work.

There is a solution to those things, but the ruling party remains as hostile to it as ever. Trade union membership now stands at 6.5 million, almost exactly half the 1979 figure. At the last count, the rate of child poverty in Britain was 27%, a figure that will be pushed higher by the mounting cost of living crisis. The richest 10% now take just under a half of the UK’s income. More and more people, including those who have jobs, need help to buy food. These things are connected. They always are.

“I earn six pound seventy an hour,” says one character in The House of Shades. “I get forty hours work one week and a text message giving me ten hours the next - on that week I’m eating cereal. Even when I am getting forty hours regular, on my wage I’m a broken washing machine away from eating cereal.”

This is a voice that often seems to define 21st century Britain, but it is also possible to detect glimmers of hope. For four years now, trade union membership has been quietly increasing. In such cutting-edge jobs as delivery driving and courier work, there are new, agile trade unions - The Independent Workers’ Union Of Great Britain, the United Voices of the World - that organise diverse collections of people, and win real victories. The formalities and hierarchies that defined the labour movement of yesteryear are mercifully thin on the ground, but the motivating ideas are all but identical. The House of Shades is partly about a communion between the present and past: here, perhaps, is a perfect example.

John Harris is a Guardian columnist, who writes about politics, inequality and work.

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