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The Other Side of the Eighties in Britain, 1983-1988: The Miners and The Militants.   Leave a comment

Labour – Dropping the Donkey Jacket:

From 1980 to 1983, Michael Foot’s leadership had saved the Labour Party from splitting into two, but in all other respects, it was a disaster. He was too old, too decent, too gentle to take on the hard left or to modernise his party. Foot’s policies were those of a would-be parliamentary revolutionary detained in the second-hand bookshops in Hay-on-Wye. I enjoyed this experience myself in 1982, with a minibus full of bookish ‘revolutionaries’ from Cardiff, who went up there, as it happened, via Foot’s constituency. When roused, which was often, his Cromwellian hair would flap across a face contorted with passion, his hands would whip around excitedly and denunciations would pour forth from him with a fluency ‘old Noll’ would have envied. During his time as leader, he was in his late sixties, and would have been PM at seventy, had he won the 1983 General Election, which, of course, was never a remote possibility. Unlike Thatcher, he was contemptuous of the shallow presentational tricks demanded by television, and he could look dishevelled, being famously denounced for wearing a ‘donkey jacket’, in reality, a Burberry-style woollen coat, at the Remembrance Service at the Cenotaph. But he was more skilled than anyone I saw then or have seen since, in whipping up the socialist faithful in public meetings, or in finger-stabbing attacks on the Tory government in the House of Commons, both in open debates and questions to the PM. He would have been happier communing with Jonathan Swift and my Gulliver forbears in Banbury than attempting to operate in a political system which depended on television performances, ruthless organisation and managerial discipline. He was a political poet in an age of prose.

Nobody in the early eighties could have reined in its wilder members; Foot did his best but led the party to its worst defeat in modern times, on the basis of a hard-left, anti-Europe, anti-nuclear, pro-nationalisation manifest famously described by Gerald Kaufman as the longest suicide note in history. Kaufman had also urged Foot to stand down before the election. It was a measure of the affection felt for him that his ‘swift’ retirement after the defeat was greeted with little recrimination. Yet it also meant that when Neil Kinnock won the subsequent leadership election he had a mandate for change no previous Labour leader had enjoyed. He won with seventy-one per cent of the electoral college votes, against nineteen per cent for Roy Hattersley. Tony Benn was out of Parliament, having lost his Bristol seat, and so could not stand as the standard-bearer of the hard left. Kinnock had been elected after a series of blistering campaign speeches, a Tribunite left-winger who, like Foot, advocated the unilateral abandonment of all Britain’s nuclear weapons, believed in nationalisation and planning and wanted Britain to withdraw from the European Community. A South Wales MP from the same Bevanite stock as Foot, he also supported the abolition of private medicine and the repeal of the Tory trade union reforms. To begin with, the only fights he picked with the Bennites were over the campaign to force Labour MPs to undergo mandatory reselection, which handed a noose to local Militant activists. Yet after the chaos of the 1983 Campaign, he was also sure that the party was in need of radical remedies.

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To win power, Labour needed to present itself better in the age of the modern mass media. Patricia Hewitt (pictured above), known for her campaigning on civil liberties, joined Kinnock’s new team. She was chosen to fight Leicester East in the 1983 Election but was unsuccessful. In her new role, she began trying to control interviews and placing the leader in more flattering settings than those Foot had found himself in. Kinnock knew how unsightly ‘old’ Labour had looked to the rest of the country and was prepared to be groomed. He gathered around him a ‘Pontypool front row’ of tough, aggressive heavy-weights, including Charles Clarke, the former communist NUS leader; John Reid, another former communist and Glaswegian backbench bruiser. Hewitt herself and Peter Mandelson, grandson of Herbert Morrison and Labour’s side-stepping future director of communications, led the three-quarter line with Kinnock himself as the able scrum-half. Kinnock was the first to flirt with the once-abhorred world of advertising and to seek out the support of pro-Labour pop artists such as Tracy Ullman and Billy Bragg. In this, he was drawing on a long tradition on the Welsh left, from Paul Robeson to the Hennesseys. He smartened up his own style, curtailing the informal mateyness which had made him popular among the ‘boyos’ and introduced a new code of discipline in the shadow cabinet.

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Neil Kinnock attacking the Militant Tendency at the party conference in 1985.

In the Commons, he tried hard to discomfit Thatcher at her awesome best, which was difficult and mostly unsuccessful. The mutual loathing between them was clear for all to see, and as Thatcher’s popularity began to decline in 1984, Labour’s poll ratings slowly began to improve. But the party harboured a vocal minority of revolutionaries of one kind or another. They included not only the long-term supporters of Tony Benn, like Jeremy Corbyn, but also Arthur Scargill and his brand of insurrectionary syndicalism; the Trotskyist Militant Tendency, a front for the Revolutionary Socialist League, which had been steadily infiltrating the party since the sixties; and assorted hard-left local councillors, like Derek Hatton in Liverpool, a Militant member who were determined to defy Thatcher’s government, no matter how big its democratic mandate, by various ‘ultra-vires’ and illegal stratagems. Kinnock dealt with them all. Had he not done so New Labour would never have happened, yet he himself was a passionate democratic socialist whose own politics were well to the left of the country.

Neil Kinnock was beginning a tough journey towards the centre-ground of British politics, which meant leaving behind people who sounded much like his younger self. On this journey, much of his natural wit and rhetoric would be silenced. He had created his leadership team as if it were a rugby team, involved in a confrontational contact sport against opponents who were fellow enthusiasts, but with their own alternative strategy. He found that political leadership was more serious, drearier and nastier than rugby. And week after week, he was also confronting someone in Thatcher someone whose principles had been set firm long before and whose politics clearly and consistently expressed those principles on the field of play. Yet, like a Welsh scrum-half, he was always on the move, always having to shadow and shade, to side-step and shimmy, playing the ball back into the scrum or sideways to his three-quarters rather than kicking it forward. The press soon dubbed him ‘the Welsh windbag’, due to his long, discursive answers in interviews.

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The first and toughest example of what he was up against came with the miners’ strike. Neil Kinnock and Arthur Scargill (above) had already shown their loathing for each other over the mainstream leadership’s battles with the Bennites. The NUM President was probably the only person on the planet that Kinnock hated more than Thatcher. He distrusted Scargill’s aims, despised his tactics and realised early on that he was certain to fail. In this, he was sharing the views of the South Wales NUM who had already forced a U-turn on closures from an unprepared Thatcher in 1981. Yet they, and he had to remain true to their own traditions and heritage. They both found themselves in an embarrassing situation, but more importantly, they realised that like it or not, they were in an existential struggle. As the violence spread, the Conservatives in the Commons and their press continually goaded and hounded him to denounce the use of ‘flying pickets’ and to praise the police. He simply could not do so, as so many on his own side had experienced the violence of the police, or heard about it from those who had. For him to attack the embattled trade union would be seen as the ultimate betrayal by a Labour leader. He was caught between the rock of Thatcher and hard place of Scargill. In the coalfields, even in South Wales, he was shunned on the picket lines as the miner’s son too “frit” in Thatcher’s favourite phrase, to come to the support of the miners in their hour of need. Secretly, however, there was some sympathy for his impossible situation among the leadership of the South Wales NUM. Kinnock at least managed to avoid fusing Labour and the NUM in the mind of many Labour voters, ensuring that Scargill’s ultimate, utter defeat was his alone. But this lost year destroyed his early momentum and stole his hwyl, his Welsh well-spring of ‘evangelical’ socialist spirit.

The Enemy Within?:

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Above: Striking Yorkshire miners barrack moderate union leaders in Sheffield.

The first Thatcher government was had been dominated by the Falklands War; the second was dominated by the miners’ strike. Spurred on by ‘the spirit of the Falklands’, the government took a more confrontational attitude towards the trade unions after the 1983 General Election. This year-long battle, 1984-5, was the longest strike in British history, the most bitter, bloody and tragic industrial dispute since the General Strike and six-month Miners’ Lock-out of 1926. The strike was eventually defeated, amid scenes of mass picketing and running battles between the police and the miners. It resulted in the total defeat of the miners followed by the end of deep coal-mining in Britain. In reality, the strike simply accelerated the continuing severe contraction in the industry which had begun in the early eighties and which the South Wales NUM had successfully resisted in what turned out, however, to be a Pyrrhic victory. By 1984, the government had both the resources, the popular mandate and the dogged determination to withstand the miners’ demands. The industry had all but vanished from Kent, while in Durham two-thirds of the pits were closed. They were the only real source of employment to local communities, so the social impact of closures proved devastating. In the Durham pit villages, the entire local economy was crippled and the miners’ housing estates gradually became the ghost areas they remain today.

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The government had little interest in ensuring the survival of the industry, with its troublesome and well-organised union which had already won a national strike against the Heath government a decade earlier. For the Thatcher government, the closures resulting from the defeat of the strike were a price it was willing to pay in order to teach bigger lessons. Later, the Prime Minister of the time reflected on these:

What the strike’s defeat established was that Britain could not be made ungovernable by the Fascist Left. Marxists wanted to defy the law of the land in order to defy the laws of economics. They failed and in doing so demonstrated just how mutually dependent the free economy and a free society really are.

It was a confrontation which was soaked in history on all sides. For the Tories, it was essential revenge for Heath’s humiliation, a score they had long been eager to settle; Margaret Thatcher spoke of Arthur Scargill and the miners’ leaders as ‘the enemy within’, as compared to Galtieri, the enemy without. For thousands of traditionally ‘militant’ miners, it was their last chance to end decades of pit closures and save their communities, which were under mortal threat. For their leader Arthur Scargill, it was an attempt to follow Mick McGahey in pulling down the government and winning a class war. He was no more interested than the government, as at least the other former, more moderate leaders had been, in the details of pay packets, or in a pit-by-pit review to determine which pits were truly uneconomic. He was determined to force the government, in Thatcher’s contemptuous phrase, to pay for mud to be mined rather than see a single job lost.

The Thatcher government had prepared more carefully than Scargill. Following the settlement with the South Wales NUM, the National Coal Board (NCB) had spent the intervening two years working with the Energy Secretary, Nigel Lawson, to pile up supplies of coal at the power stations; stocks had steadily grown, while consumption and production both fell. Following the riots in Toxteth and Brixton, the police had been retrained and equipped with full riot gear without which, ministers later confessed, they would have been unable to beat the pickets. Meanwhile, Thatcher had appointed a Scottish-born Australian, Ian MacGregor, to run the NCB. He had a fierce reputation as a union-buster in the US and had been brought back to Britain to run British Steel where closures and 65,000 job cuts had won him the title ‘Mac the Knife’. Margaret Thatcher admired him as a tough, no-nonsense man, a refreshing change from her cabinet, though she later turned against him for his lack of political nous. His plan was to cut the workforce of 202,000 by 44,000 in two years, then take another twenty thousand jobs out. Twenty pits would be closed, to begin with. When he turned up to visit mines, he was abused, pelted with flour bombs and, on one occasion, knocked to the ground.

Arthur Scargill was now relishing the coming fight as much as Thatcher. In the miners’ confrontation with Heath, Scargill had led the flying pickets at the gates of the Saltley coke depot outside Birmingham. Some sense of both his revolutionary ‘purity’, combined with characteristic Yorkshire bluntness, comes from an exchange he had with Dai Francis, the Welsh Miners’ leader at that time. He had called Francis to ask for Welsh pickets to go to Birmingham and help at the depot. Francis asked when they were needed and Scargill replied:

“Tomorrow, Saturday.”

“But Wales are playing Scotland at Cardiff Arms Park.”

“But Dai, the working class are playing the ruling class at Saltley.”

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Many found Scargill inspiring; many others found him scary. Like Francis, he had been a Communist, but unlike Dai (pictured above, behind the poster, during the 1972 strike), he retained hard-line Marxist views and a penchant for denouncing anyone who disagreed with him. Kim Howells, also a former Communist and an officer of the South Wales NUM, gained a sense of Scargill’s megalomania when, just prior the 1984-5 strike, he visited his HQ in Barnsley, already known as ‘Arthur’s Castle’. Howells, a historian of the Welsh Labour movement, later becoming an MP and New Labour minister, was taken aback to find him sitting at this Mussolini desk with a great space in front of it. Behind him was a huge painting of himself on the back of a lorry, posed like Lenin, urging picketing workers in London to overthrow the ruling class. Howells thought anyone who could put up a painting like that was nuts and returned to Pontypridd to express his fears to the Welsh miners:

And of course the South Wales executive almost to a man agreed with me. But then they said, “He’s the only one we’ve got, see, boy.  The Left has decided.”

Scargill had indeed been elected by a huge margin and had set about turning the NUM’s once moderate executive, led by Joe Gormley, into a militant group. The Scottish Miners’ leader, Mick McGahey, although older and wiser than his President, was his Vice-President. Scargill had been ramping up the rhetoric for some time. He had told the NUM Conference in 1982, …

If we do not save our pits from closure then all our other struggles will become meaningless … Protection of the industry is my first priority because without jobs all our other claims lack substance and become mere shadows. Without jobs, our members are nothing …

Given what was about to happen to his members’ jobs as a result of his uncompromising position in the strike, there is a black irony in those words. By insisting that no pits should be closed on economic grounds, even if the coal was exhausted, and that more investment would always find more coal, from his point of view the losses were irrelevant. He made sure that confrontation would not be avoided. An alternative strategy put forward by researchers for the South Wales NUM was that it was the NCB’s economic arguments that needed to be exposed, along with the fact that it was using the Miners’ Pension Fund to invest in the production of cheap coal in Poland and South Africa. It’s definition of what was ‘economic’ in Britain rested on the comparative cost of importing this coal from overseas. If the NCB had invested these funds at home, the pits in Britain would not be viewed as being as ‘uneconomic’ as they claimed. But Scargill was either not clever enough to deploy these arguments or too determined to pursue the purity of his brand of revolutionary syndicalism, or both.

The NUM votes which allowed the strike to start covered both pay and closures, but from the start Scargill emphasised the closures. To strike to protect jobs, particularly other people’s jobs, in other people’s villages and other countries’ pits, gave the confrontation an air of nobility and sacrifice which a mere wages dispute would not have enjoyed. But national wage disputes had, for more than sixty years, been about arguments over the ‘price of coal’ and the relative difficulties of extracting it from a variety of seams in very different depths across the various coalfields. Neil Kinnock, the son and grandson of Welsh miners, found it impossible to condemn Scargill’s strategy without alienating support for Labour in its heartlands. He did his best to argue the economics of the miners’ case, and to condemn the harshness of the Tory attitude towards them, but these simply ran parallel to polarised arguments which were soon dividing the nation.

Moreover, like Kinnock, Scargill was a formidable organiser and conference-hall speaker, though there was little economic analysis to back up his rhetoric. Yet not even he would be able to persuade every part of the industry to strike. Earlier ballots had shown consistent majorities against striking. In Nottinghamshire, seventy-two per cent of the areas 32,000 voted against striking. The small coalfields of South Derbyshire and Leicestershire were also against. Even in South Wales, half of the NUM lodges failed to vote for a strike. Overall, of the seventy thousand miners who were balloted in the run-up to the dispute, fifty thousand had voted to keep working. Scargill knew he could not win a national ballot, so he decided on a rolling series of locally called strikes, coalfield by coalfield, beginning in Yorkshire, then Scotland, followed by Derbyshire and South Wales. These strikes would merely be approved by the national union. It was a domino strategy; the regional strikes would add up to a national strike, but without a national ballot.

But Scargill needed to be sure the dominoes would fall. He used the famous flying pickets from militant areas to shut down less militant ones. Angry miners were sent in coaches and convoys of cars to close working pits and the coke depots, vital hubs of the coal economy. Without the pickets, who to begin with rarely needed to use violence to achieve their end, far fewer pits would have come out. But after scenes of physical confrontation around Britain, by April 1984 four miners in five were on strike. There were huge set-piece confrontations with riot-equipped police bused up from London or down from Scotland, Yorkshire to Kent and Wales to Yorkshire, generally used outside their own areas in order to avoid mixed loyalties. As Andrew Marr has written, …

It was as if the country had been taken over by historical re-enactments of civil war battles, the Sealed Knot Society run rampant. Aggressive picketing was built into the fabric of the strike. Old country and regional rivalries flared up, Lancashire men against Yorkshire men, South Wales miners in Nottinghamshire.

The Nottinghamshire miners turned out to be critical since without them the power stations, even with the mix of nuclear and oil, supplemented by careful stockpiling, might have begun to run short and the government would have been in deep trouble. To Scargill’s disdain, however, other unions also refused to come out in sympathy, thus robbing him of the prospect of a General Strike, and it soon became clear that the NUM had made other errors in their historical re-enactments. Many miners were baffled from the beginning as to why Scargill had opted to strike in the spring when the demand for energy was relatively low and the stocks at the power stations were not running down at anything like the rate which the NUM needed in order to make their action effective. This was confirmed by confidential briefings from the power workers, and it seemed that the government just had to sit out the strike.

In this civil war, the police had the cavalry, while the miners were limited to the late twentieth-century equivalent of Oakey’s dragoons at Naseby, their flying pickets, supporting their poor bloody infantry, albeit well-drilled and organised. Using horses, baton charges and techniques learned in the aftermath of the street battles at Toxteth and Brixton, the police defended working miners with a determination which delighted the Tories and alarmed many others, not just the agitators for civil rights. An event which soon became known as the Battle of Orgreave (in South Yorkshire) was particularly brutal, involving ‘Ironside’ charges by mounted police in lobster-pot style helmets into thousands of miners with home-made pikes and pick-axe handles.

The NUM could count on almost fanatical loyalty in coalfield towns and villages across Britain. Miners gave up their cars, sold their furniture, saw their wives and children suffer and lost all they had in the cause of solidarity. Food parcels arrived from other parts of Britain, from France and most famously, from Soviet Russia. But there was a gritty courage and selflessness in mining communities which, even after more than seventy years of struggle, most of the rest of Britain could barely understand. But an uglier side to this particularly desperate struggle also emerged when a taxi-driver was killed taking a working miner to work in Wales. A block of concrete was dropped from a pedestrian bridge onto his cab, an act swiftly condemned by the South Wales NUM.

In Durham, the buses taking other ‘scabs’ to work in the pits were barraged with rocks and stones, as later portrayed in the film Billy Elliot. The windows had to be protected with metal grills. There were murderous threats made to strike-breaking miners and their families, and even trade union ‘allies’ were abused. Norman Willis, the amiable general secretary of the TUC, had a noose dangled over his head when he spoke at one miners’ meeting. This violence was relayed to the rest of the country on the nightly news at a time when the whole nation still watched together. I remember the sense of helplessness I felt watching the desperation of the Welsh miners from my ‘exile’ in Lancashire, having failed to find a teaching post in the depressed Rhondda in 1983. My Lancastrian colleagues were as divided as the rest of the country over the strike, often within themselves as well as from others. In the end, we found it impossible to talk about the news, no matter how much it affected us.

Eventually, threatened by legal action on the part of the Yorkshire miners claiming they had been denied a ballot, the NUM was forced onto the back foot. The South Wales NUM led the calls from within for a national ballot to decide on whether the strike should continue. Scargill’s decision to accept a donation from Colonel Gaddafi of Libya found him slithering from any moral ground he had once occupied. As with Galtieri, Thatcher was lucky in the enemies ‘chosen’ for her. Slowly, month by month, the strike began to crumble and miners began to trail back to work. A vote to strike by pit safety officers and overseers, which would have shut down the working pits, was narrowly avoided by the government. By January 1985, ten months after they had first been brought out, strikers were returning to work at the rate of 2,500 a week, and by the end of February, more than half the NUM’s membership was back at work. In some cases, especially in South Wales, they marched back proudly behind brass bands.

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Above: ‘No way out!’ – picketing miners caught and handcuffed to a lamp-post by police.

Scargill’s gamble had gone catastrophically wrong. He has been compared to a First World War general, a donkey sending lions to the slaughter, though at Orgreave and elsewhere, he had stood with them too. But the political forces engaged against the miners in 1984 were entirely superior in strength to those at the disposal of the ill-prepared Heath administration of ten years earlier. A shrewder, non-revolutionary leader would not have chosen to take on Thatcher’s government at the time Scargill did, or having done so, would have found a compromise after the first months of the dispute. Today, there are only a few thousand miners left of the two hundred thousand who went on strike. An industry which had once made Britain into a great industrial power, but was always dangerous, disease-causing, dirty and polluting, finally lay down and died. For the Conservatives and perhaps for, by the end of the strike, the majority of the moderate British people, Scargill and his lieutenants were fighting parliamentary democracy and were, therefore, an enemy which had to be defeated. But the miners of Durham, Derbyshire, Kent, Fife, Yorkshire, Wales and Lancashire were nobody’s enemy. They were abnormally hard-working, traditional people justifiably worried about losing their jobs and loyal to their union, if not to the stubborn syndicalists in its national leadership.

Out with the Old Industries; in with the New:

In Tyneside and Merseyside, a more general deindustrialisation accompanied the colliery closures. Whole sections of industry, not only coal but also steel and shipbuilding, virtually vanished from many of their traditional areas.  Of all the areas of Britain, Northern Ireland suffered the highest level of unemployment, partly because the continuing sectarian violence discouraged investment. In February 1986, there were officially over 3.4 million unemployed, although statistics were manipulated for political reasons and the real figure is a matter of speculation. The socially corrosive effects were felt nationally, manifested in further inner-city rioting in 1985. Inner London was just as vulnerable as Liverpool, a crucial contributory factor being the number of young men of Asian and Caribbean origin who saw no hope of ever entering employment: opportunities were minimal and they felt particularly discriminated against. The term ‘underclass’ was increasingly used to describe those who felt themselves to be completely excluded from the benefits of prosperity.

Prosperity there certainly was, for those who found alternative employment in the service industries. Between 1983 and 1987, about 1.5 million new jobs were created. Most of these were for women, and part-time vacancies predominated. The total number of men in full-time employment fell still further, and many who left the manufacturing for the service sector earned much-reduced incomes. The economic recovery that led to the growth of this new employment was based mainly on finance, banking and credit. Little was invested in British manufacturing. Far more was invested overseas; British foreign investments rose from 2.7 billion in 1975 to a staggering 90 billion in 1985. At the same time, there was a certain amount of re-industrialisation in the South East, where new industries employing the most advanced technology grew. In fact, many industries shed a large proportion of their workforce but, using new technology, maintained or improved their output.

These new industries were not confined to the South East of England: Nissan built the most productive car plant in Europe at Sunderland. After an extensive review, Sunderland was chosen for its skilled workforce and its location near major ports. The plant was completed in 1986 as the subsidiary Nissan Motor Manufacturing (UK) Ltd. Siemens established a microchip plant at Wallsend on Tyneside in which it invested 1.1 billion. But such industries tended not to be large-scale employers of local workers. Siemens only employed about 1,800. Traditional regionally-based industries continued to suffer a dramatic decline during this period. Coal-mining, for example, was decimated in the years following the 1984-5 strike, not least because of the shift of the electricity generation of the industry towards alternative energy sources, especially gas. During 1984-7 the coal industry shed 170,000 workers.

The North-South Divide – a Political Complex?:

By the late 1980s, the north-south divide in Britain seemed as intractable as it had all century, with high unemployment particularly concentrated in the declining extractive and manufacturing industries of the North of England, Scotland and Wales. That the north-south divide increasingly had a political as well as an economic complexion was borne out by the outcome of the 1987 General Election. While Margaret Thatcher was swept back to power for the third time, her healthy Conservative majority largely based on the voters of the South and East of England. North of a line roughly between the Severn and the Humber, the long decline of the Tories, especially in Scotland, where they were reduced to ten seats, was increasingly apparent. At the same time, the national two-party system seemed to be breaking down. South of the Severn-Humber line, where Labour seats were now very rare outside London, the Liberal-SDP Alliance were the main challengers to the Conservatives in many constituencies.

The Labour Party continued to pay a heavy price for its internal divisions, as well as for the bitterness engendered by the miners’ strike. It is hardly Neil Kinnock’s fault that he is remembered for his imprecise long-windedness, the product of self-critical and painful political readjustment. His admirers recall his great platform speeches, the saw-edged wit and air-punching passion. There was one occasion, however, when Kinnock spoke so well that he united most of the political world in admiration. This happened at the Labour conference in Bournemouth in October 1985. A few days before the conference, Liverpool City Council, formally Labour-run but in fact controlled by the Revolutionary Socialist League, had sent out redundancy notices to its thirty-one thousand staff. The revolutionaries, known by the name of their newspaper, Militant, were a party-within-a-party, a parasitic body within Labour. They had some five thousand members who paid a proportion of their incomes to the RSL so that the Militant Tendency had a hundred and forty full-time workers, more than the staff of the Social Democrats and Liberals combined. They had a presence all around Britain, but Liverpool was their great stronghold. There they practised Trotsky’s politics of the transitional demand, the tactic of making impossible demands for more spending and higher wages so that when the ‘capitalist lackeys’ refused these demands, they could push on to the next stage, leading to collapse and revolution.

In Liverpool, where they were building thousands of new council houses, this strategy meant setting an illegal council budget and cheerfully bankrupting the city. Sending out the redundancy notices to the council’s entire staff was supposed to show Thatcher they would not back down, or shrink from the resulting chaos. Like Scargill, Militant’s leaders thought they could destroy the Tories on the streets. Kinnock had thought of taking them on a year earlier but had decided that the miners’ strike made that impossible. The Liverpool mayhem gave him his chance, so in the middle of his speech at Bournemouth, he struck. It was time, he said, for Labour to show the public that it was serious. Implausible promises would not bring political victory:

I’ll tell you what happens with impossible promises. You start with far-fetched resolutions. They are then pickled into a rigid dogma, a code, and you go through the years sticking to that, outdated, misplaced, irrelevant to the real needs, and you end in the grotesque chaos of a Labour council – a Labour council – hiring taxis to scuttle round a city handing out redundancy notices to its own workers.

By now he had whipped himself into real anger, a peak of righteous indignation, but he remained in control. His enemies were in front of him, and all the pent-up frustrations of the past year were being released. The hall came alive. Militant leaders like Derek Hatton stood up and yelled ‘lies!’ Boos came from the hard left, and some of their MPs walked out, but Kinnock was applauded by the majority in the hall, including his mainstream left supporters. Kinnock went on with a defiant glare at his opponents:

I’m telling you, and you’ll listen, you can’t play politics with people’s jobs and with people’s services, or with their homes. … The people will not, cannot abide posturing. They cannot respect the gesture-generals or the tendency tacticians.

Most of those interviewed in the hall and many watching live on television, claimed it was the most courageous speech they had ever heard from a Labour leader, though the hard left remained venomously hostile. By the end of the following month, Liverpool District Labour Party, from which Militant drew its power, was suspended and an inquiry was set up. By the spring of 1986, the leaders of Militant had been identified and charged with behaving in a way which was incompatible with Labour membership. The process of expelling them was noisy, legally fraught and time-consuming, though more than a hundred of them were eventually expelled. There was a strong tide towards Kinnock across the rest of the party, with many left-wingers cutting their ties to the Militant Tendency. There were many battles with the hard left to come, and several pro-Militant MPs were elected in the 1987 Election. These included two Coventry MPs, Dave Nellist and John Hughes, ‘representing’ my own constituency, whose sole significant, though memorable ‘contribution’ in the House of Commons was to interrupt prayers. Yet by standing up openly to the Trotskyist menace, as Wilson, Callaghan and Foot had patently failed to do, Kinnock gave his party a fresh start. It began to draw away from the SDP-Liberal Alliance in the polls and did better in local elections. It was the moment when the New Labour project became possible.

A Third Victory and a Turning of the Tide:

Yet neither this internal victory nor the sharper management that Kinnock introduced, would bring the party much good against Thatcher in the following general election. Labour was still behind the public mood. Despite mass unemployment, Thatcher’s free-market optimism was winning through, and Labour was still committed to re-nationalisation, planning, a National Investment Bank and unilateral nuclear disarmament, a personal cause of both Neil and his wife, Glenys, over the previous twenty years. The Cold War was thawing and it was not a time for the old certainties, but for the Kinnocks support for CND was fundamental to their political make-up. So he stuck to the policy, even as he came to realise how damaging it was to Labour’s image among swing voters. Under Labour, all the British and US nuclear bases would be closed, the Trident nuclear submarine force cancelled, all existing missiles scrapped and the UK would no longer expect any nuclear protection from the US in time of war. Instead, more money would be spent on tanks and conventional warships. All of this did them a lot of good among many traditional Labour supporters; Glenys turned up at the women’s protest camp at Greenham Common. But it was derided in the press and helped the SDP to garner support from the ‘middle England’ people Labour needed to win back. In the 1987 General Election campaign, Kinnock’s explanation about why Britain would not simply surrender if threatened by a Soviet nuclear attack sounded as if he was advocating some kind of Home Guard guerrilla campaign once the Russians had arrived. With policies like this, he was unlikely to put Thatcher under serious pressure.

When the 1987 election campaign began, Thatcher had a clear idea about what her third administration would do. She wanted more choice for the users of state services. There would be independent state schools outside the control of local councillors, called grant-maintained schools.  In the health services, though it was barely mentioned in the manifesto, she wanted money to follow the patient. Tenants would be given more rights. The basic rate of income tax would be cut and she would finally sort out local government, ending the ‘rates’ and bringing in a new tax. On paper, the programme seemed coherent, which was more than could be said for the Tory campaign itself. Just as Kinnock’s team had achieved a rare harmony and discipline, Conservative Central Office was riven by conflict between politicians and ad-men. The Labour Party closed the gap to just four points and Mrs Thatcher’s personal ratings also fell as Kinnock’s climbed. He was seen surrounded by admiring crowds, young people, nurses, waving and smiling, little worried by the hostile press. In the event, the Conservatives didn’t need to worry. Despite a last-minute poll suggesting a hung parliament, and the late surge in Labour’s self-confidence, the Tories romped home with an overall majority of 101 seats, almost exactly the share, forty-two per cent, they had won in 1983. Labour made just twenty net gains, and Kinnock, at home in Bedwellty, was inconsolable. Not even the plaudits his team had won from the press for the brilliance, verve and professionalism of their campaign would lift his mood.

The SDP-Liberal Alliance had been floundering in the polls for some time, caught between Labour’s modest revival and Thatcher’s basic and continuing popularity with a large section of voters. The rumours of the death of Labour had been greatly exaggerated, and the ‘beauty contest’ between the two Davids, Steel and Owen, had been the butt of much media mockery. Owen’s SDP had its parliamentary presence cut from eight MPs to five, losing Roy Jenkins in the process. While most of the party merged with the Liberals, an Owenite rump limped on for a while. Good PR, packaging and labelling were not good enough for either Labour or the SDP. In 1987, Thatcher had not yet created the country she dreamed of, but she could argue that she had won a third consecutive victory, not on the strength of military triumph, but on the basis of her ideas for transforming Britain. She also wanted to transform the European Community into a free-trade area extending to the Baltic, the Carpathians and the Balkans. In that, she was opposed from just across the Channel and from within her own cabinet.

In the late eighties, Thatcher’s economic revolution overreached itself. The inflationary boom happened due to the expansion of credit and a belief among ministers that, somehow, the old laws of economics had been abolished; Britain was now supposed to be on a continual upward spiral of prosperity. But then, on 27 October 1986, the London Stock Exchange ceased to exist as the institution had formerly done. Its physical floor, once heaving with life, was replaced by dealing done by computer and phone. The volume of trading was fifteen times greater than it had been in the early eighties. This became known as ‘the Big Bang’ and a country which had exported two billion pounds-worth of financial services per year before it was soon exporting twelve times that amount. The effect of this on ordinary Britons was to take the brake off mortgage lending, turning traditional building societies into banks which started to thrust credit at the British public. Borrowing suddenly became a good thing to do and mortgages were extended rather than being paid off. The old rules about the maximum multiple of income began to dissolve. From being two and a half times the homeowner’s annual salary, four times became acceptable in many cases. House prices began to rise accordingly and a more general High Street splurge was fuelled by the extra credit now freely available. During 1986-88 a borrowing frenzy gripped the country, egged on by swaggering speeches about Britain’s ‘economic miracle’ from the Chancellor, Nigel Lawson, and the Prime Minister. Lawson later acknowledged:

My real mistake as Chancellor was to create a climate of optimism that, in the end, encouraged borrowers to borrow more than they should.

In politics, the freeing up and deregulation of the City of London gave Margaret Thatcher and her ministers an entirely loyal and secure base of rich, articulate supporters who helped see her through some tough battles. The banks spread the get-rich-quick prospect to millions of British people through privatisation share issues and the country, for a time, came closer to the share-owning democracy that Thatcher dreamed of.

The year after the election, 1988, was the real year of hubris. The Thatcher government began an attack on independent institutions and bullying the professions. Senior judges came under tighter political control and University lecturers lost the academic tenure they had enjoyed since the Middle Ages. In Kenneth Baker’s Great Education Reform Bill (‘Gerbil’) of that year, Whitehall grabbed direct control over the running of the school curriculum, creating a vast new state bureaucracy to dictate what should be taught, when and how, and then to monitor the results. Teachers could do nothing. The cabinet debated the detail of maths courses; Mrs Thatcher spent much of her time worrying about the teaching of history. Working with history teachers, I well remember the frustration felt by them at being forced to return to issues of factual content rather than being able to continue to enthuse young people with a love for exploring sources and discovering evidence for themselves. Mrs Thatcher preferred arbitrary rules of knowledge to the development of know-how. She was at her happiest when dividing up the past into packages of ‘history’ and ‘current affairs’. For example, the 1956 Hungarian Revolution was, she said, part of history, whereas the 1968 Prague Spring was, twenty years on, still part of ‘current affairs’ and so should not appear in the history curriculum, despite the obvious connections between the two events. It happened at a time when education ministers were complaining bitterly about the lack of talent, not among teachers, but among civil servants, the same people they were handing more power to. A Hungarian history teacher, visiting our advisory service in Birmingham, expressed his discomfort, having visited a secondary school in London where no-one in a Humanities’ class could tell him where, geographically, his country was.

At that time, my mother was coming to the end of a long career in NHS administration as Secretary of the Community Health Council (‘The Patients’ Friend’) in Coventry which, as elsewhere, had brought together local elected councillors, health service practitioners and managers, and patients’ groups to oversee the local hospitals and clinics and to deal with complaints. But the government did not trust local representatives and professionals to work together to improve the health service, so the Treasury seized control of budgets and contracts. To administer the new system, five hundred NHS ‘trusts’ were formed, and any involvement by elected local representatives was brutally terminated. As with Thatcher’s education reforms, the effect of these reforms was to create a new bureaucracy overseeing a regiment of quangos (quasi/ non-governmental organisations). She later wrote:

We wanted all hospitals to have greater responsibility for their affairs.  … the self-governing hospitals to be virtually independent.

In reality, ‘deregulation’ of care and ‘privatisation’ of services were the orders of the day. Every detail of the ‘internal market’ contracts was set down from the centre, from pay to borrowing to staffing. The rhetoric of choice in practice meant an incompetent dictatorship of bills, contracts and instructions. Those who were able to vote with their chequebooks did so. Between 1980 and 1990, the number of people covered by the private health insurance Bupa nearly doubled, from 3.5 million to a little under seven million. Hubris about what the State could and could not do was to be found everywhere. In housing, 1988 saw the establishment of unelected Housing Action Trusts to take over the old responsibility of local authorities for providing what is now known as ‘affordable housing’. Mrs Thatcher claimed that she was trying to pull the State off people’s backs. In her memoirs, she wrote of her third government,

… the root cause of our contemporary social problems … was that the State had been doing too much.

Yet her government was intervening in public services more and more. The more self-assured she became, the less she trusted others to make the necessary changes to these. That meant accruing more power to the central state. The institutions most heart in this process were local councils and authorities. Under the British constitution, local government is defenceless against a ‘Big Sister’ PM, with a secure parliamentary majority and a loyal cabinet. So it could easily be hacked away, but sooner or later alternative centres of power, both at a local and national level, would be required to replace it and, in so doing, overthrew the overbearing leader.

Sources:

Andrew Marr (2008), A History of Modern Britain. Basingstoke: Pan Macmillan.

Peter Catterall, Roger Middleton & John Swift (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. London: Penguin Books.

 

 

 

Posted October 1, 2018 by TeamBritanniaHu in Affluence, Birmingham, Britain, British history, Britons, Caribbean, Coalfields, Cold War, Communism, Conservative Party, Coventry, democracy, Europe, European Economic Community, France, guerilla warfare, History, Humanities, Hungary, Ireland, Journalism, Labour Party, Marxism, Midlands, Migration, Militancy, Narrative, National Health Service (NHS), nationalisation, Population, Remembrance, Revolution, Russia, Social Service, south Wales, Thatcherism, Uncategorized, Unemployment, USA, USSR, Victorian, Wales, Welfare State

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Family Life, Labour and Leisure: The Forward March of Women In Britain, 1930-40 (Chapter Two).   Leave a comment

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Chapter Two: Fertility and Factory Work

On the whole, the practice of women going out to work has, except in time of war, traditionally been restricted to widows, spinsters and wives living apart from their husbands. This was the state of affairs in 1936 when ‘Poverty and Progress’ was written, for B. S. Rowntree’s second survey of York showed that… only an insignificant handful of women supplemented their husband’s earnings by going out to work.

Since 1935 however, the situation has changed in three respects. First there is now virtually no unemployment. Second, large increases in the prices of clothing and household sundries have in many cases been accompanied by a considerable decline in quality so that housekeeping has become very expensive. Third, the fact that, on the whole, the working class is more prosperous than it has ever been, has created a desire in many families for goods that would formerly have been rejected without consideration, as being entirely beyond their means. All these factors have combined to induce many women to go out to work even though their husbands are in full-time employment.

B. S. Rowntree & G. R. Lavers, Poverty and the Welfare State (1951), p. 54.

Perhaps we might add, based on evidence presented in the last chapter, that it was the refusal of many middle-class and working-class husbands to countenance the purchase of labour-saving devices, especially washing machines, that forced their wives to go out to work in order to establish the independent means necessary to make such purchases on behalf of the family. Once the machine was installed, it saved so much of a woman’s domestic labour that she was permanently free to work full-time outside the home, except during childbirth and the early years of nurturing children.

Over the first four decades of the twentieth century, marrying habits remained remarkably stable – the average age at which ‘bachelors’ married remained constant at twenty-eight years, and the average age at which ‘spinsters’ married was twenty-six. Thus, in 1938 over one-third of all bachelors and spinsters who married were between the ages of twenty-five and twenty-nine. There was normally very little age difference between bride and the bridegroom in Britain. In 1938, fifty-eight thousand out of the four hundred thousand families were between men and women who were both in the same age group (25-29), and another sixty thousand were between partners who were both in the twenty-one to twenty-four age group. The average age of females at marriage had fallen a little by then, and the figures showing the ‘marital condition’ of British women aged twenty to forty-four show that there has been no decline in their ability or readiness to marry, but rather an increase, so that at the end of the inter-war period the proportion of women who had taken at least the first step towards family life was considerably higher in 1938 than in 1931, especially for those under twenty-five, among whom it had risen from a quarter to nearly a third.

One probable explanation of the higher marriage rate immediately before the Second World War is that not until then did the supply of new dwellings catch up with the increase in the number of families. Only in the four years, 1935-39 was there a marked easing of the housing situation when the output of new dwellings when the output of new dwellings was maintained at 360,000 per annum, while the number of additional families each year was only a hundred thousand. By 1939, the average family size was 3.59 persons, as compared with 4.35 before the First World War. Only twenty-five percent of families contained five or more persons, and only one person in every three was part of a household as large as this. By 1939 the representative British citizen, whether child or adult, was sharing his or her domestic life with at most two other people; and households containing four children had become, according to Mark Abrams, semi-shameful anachronisms.

 

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Before 1938, the number of official statistical sources that could throw light on British family life was extremely limited, but it was in July of that year that the Office of Population Statistics was established with the main purpose of ensuring that every birth, legitimate or otherwise, live or stillborn, must be registered along with other facts including the age of the mother and the interval since marriage, and the number of existing siblings. When the results of these records for England and Wales for the second half of 1938, 1939 and 1940 were published, they threw considerable light, for the first time, on the pattern of married life in this country at the end of the inter-war period. During these thirty months, there were about eleven and a half million women aged fifteen to forty-nine in England and Wales. Just over half of them were married, and these married women produced 600,000 maternities per annum, roughly one for every ten married women. In each year, one-quarter of these maternities were those of married women under twenty-five, one third were those of those aged twenty-five to twenty-nine, and another quarter those of women aged thirty to thirty-four. Child-bearing over the age of thirty-five had become very unusual in English and Welsh families by this time.

Of all females aged fifteen to twenty-four, only eighteen percent were married, but nearly half the maternities of these women were completed within eight months of marriage. According to Mark Abrams, The general picture was that the “typical” English wife and mother in the years before the second world war was a young woman who, at twenty-four years of age, married a husband of twenty-six. Her first maternity would come two years later and for almost half of these women this was also their last maternity, but the remainder went on to have a second maternity three or four years later. In 1939 young wives on depressed Tyneside aimed at much the same size of family as young wives in the prosperous suburbs of the Home Counties; the outstanding differences in fertility between Tyneside wives and those of the Home Counties were to be found among those over thirty-five years of age, i.e. those who had passed their childhood in a pre-1918 world; the Tyneside housewives in this age group were producing relatively forty percent more children than their southern sisters.

Over the inter-war period there was, then, very little change in the general attitude towards marrying; year by year much the same proportion of the population at risk started married life, and the age at which men and women took this step remained fairly constant. The new recruits, however, at least until the late 1930s, were largely the survivors of the high birth rates of the pre-World War One world, and the number of married couples, therefore, increased rapidly. One result of this was that the families of Great Britain increased rapidly, from 8,955,000 in 1911 to 12,300,000 in 1939; and this, in its turn, meant a demand for an additional three to four million dwellings. Between 1911 and 1939 the working population of Britain increased by twenty percent. In peacetime women formed thirty percent of this working population; most of them were young spinsters, but in the late thirties and during the war, young married women tended to continue at work at least until the birth of their first child.

In Coventry, the continuity of factory employment for women, begun in the 1890s, is clearly apparent in census data for 1911, 1921 and 1931. The table above shows the percentage of female workers in major occupational groupings for these years. The table below shows the continuing importance of textiles, but also its relative decline by 1931. In 1921 one quarter of all female workers were employed in the textile group, but this had declined to just under one fifth by 1931. Metalwork employed a remarkably stable ten percent of female workers over the whole period. The growth area was in electrical apparatus, which grew from nothing to five percent by nearly 1931 and then nearly trebled by 1939, as shown in table 5.1. from Josie Castle’s article (below).

 

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This industry expanded rapidly in the thirties as a source of employment for unskilled women at a time when employment in rayon began to stagnate and eventually to decline. By 1939 GEC had become the largest single employer of women in Coventry, a position which it held post-1945. Personal service continued to account for a fifth of women workers in the thirties, including cleaning and serving in hotels, lodgings, restaurants, hospitals and forms of laundry work, together with private domestic service. Despite the national trends in this latter area, which revealed an overall decline, in Coventry, a sharp decline in 1921 was followed by a recovery to about fifteen percent of the female workforce in 1931. It was this resurgence which was largely responsible for the fact that personal service supplanted textiles as the largest single occupation for females in Coventry in 1931.

The proportion of female clerks and typists was only slightly higher in 1931 than a decade earlier, showing the same trend as the national figures. Tertiary occupations for women, including shops, expanded only slowly in Coventry to 1931, again reflecting the national trend. Overall, the proportion of professional women actually declined to three percent in 1931, from five percent in 1911.

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Table 5.2 above shows how many women of working age actually worked over the same period, both for Coventry and Great Britain. Up to 1931, one-third of all women of working age were actually at work and, again, this figure was close to the national average, while that for married women was lower. It is impossible to get details on the marital status of the local workforce from the 1931 Census but from other evidence, it continued low and still presented problems to war-time authorities seeking female labour for Coventry industries. It is difficult to explain the reluctance of married female Coventrians to participate in paid employment. Oral evidence collected in the 1980s suggests that, in addition to the operation of a marriage bar operated by Courtaulds, many women workers in large-scale production based on assembly lines were glad to leave behind the grinding monotony of this work.

Between 1931 and 1939 the fastest growing source of employment for females in Coventry was the electrical apparatus group, followed by the metal industries. Textiles and textile goods increased slowly but employment in rayon fell. Rearmament and the actual onset of war brought labour shortages to the engineering sector which filled them using women. But the reluctance of married women to work continued into the war years. Thus, although we have no precise statistical information on marital status and participation rates for the 1930s, it seems reasonable to assume that few married women worked in Coventry. The quantitative picture of female employment in Coventry shows a very high proportion of women workers in secondary industries, with fewer in tertiary industries than in Britain as a whole and in other cities, most notably in nearby Birmingham.

Within the range of secondary industries in 1921, textiles employed the largest number of females, 3,852. From other sources, Josie Castle was able to establish that forty percent of this number worked for one firm, Courtaulds on the Foleshill Road. By 1920 Courtaulds was the largest artificial silk producer in the world, and the Coventry factory was producing half of the company’s total British output and had become the base for an empire of yarn mills reaching across the Atlantic. Although output at Coventry was overtaken during the twenties by that at Courtaulds other plants, Coventry remained the firm’s nerve centre. The research laboratories moved there in 1925 and thenceforth a wide range of new developments, including the acetate process in 1928, originated and were tested at Coventry. British output of rayon rose by five hundred percent between 1921 and 1928 and sixty percent of it was Courtauld’s. However, they had to settle for more moderate profits in the thirties.

The process of rayon manufacture had important implications for the gender division of labour on the shop floor. All work involving heavy machinery and potent chemicals was allocated to males. Women looked after the final drying and the sorting and checking of the skeins for defects, and their despatching other women for winding on to cones, pirns or bobbins, or for making into warps or wefts, before final dispatch. All of this work was clean and safe, nearly half of it requiring no machinery at all. Where machines were operated by women, as in reeling, they were light and relatively simple, posing no danger to stray limbs or hair. All work was clean by the very nature of the product as both shop and workers were kept spotless for the sake of the rayon. These arrangements meant that women workers did not have to work with men, any contact with the opposite sex being restricted through their supervision by foremen. As a result, management at Courtaulds made determined efforts to create a special moral atmosphere for its women workers.

By contrast, the work and the nature of the product at the GEC did not lend itself to the exclusive reservation of dirty and dangerous work to men, nor to segregation of the sexes on the shop floor. If either of these conditions obtained, the occurrence was entirely unplanned, as in the case of foreman Haydn Roberts’ female charges, at least as far as the management was concerned. The local image of the GEC was much like that of any engineering factory – dirty and noisy but with the variation that there were plenty of jobs for women. Overshadowed by Courtaulds as a major employer of female labour in the 1920s, the GEC grew rapidly in the thirties to overtake Courtaulds in this respect. Inter-war development in wireless radios and telephones required larger numbers of unskilled females, and Coventry had these in abundance. At Coventry, GEC manufactured automatic and manual telephone exchanges, telephone instruments and repeater equipment as well as wireless receiving sets, loudspeakers and all kinds of wireless accessories.

It catered for a very large home market as well as a substantial export trade mainly to the Empire. The production of equipment was organised on the mass production process and bench assembly methods. Manufacturing was distributed amongst twenty-one sections and shops. Heavier production work was generally left to men; the Frame Shop and Ebonite Moulding shops were 100% male, but women operated presses set up for them by skilled males in the Press Shop and in cable-making. Adjusting, Coil winding, Polishing, Buffing, Lacquering, Testing and Finishing, Wiring and Wireless Assembly were left almost entirely to unskilled women. Most of this work involved the production of thousands of identical small parts, requiring close attention to detail and considerable manual dexterity.  The twenties’ boom in telephone and wireless continued into the thirties, with the half million radios sold in Britain in 1930 turning into two million by 1937. Profits fell during the general depression of 1929-31, but, like Courtaulds, GEC weathered these years better than most British manufacturers. By 1939 the Company had as many employees as Courtaulds, and more of them were female – 3,450 compared with 2,100. The Table below shows the full scale of this expansion and the dominance of women workers in the workforce throughout the decade.

Some of this work was was dangerous as well. One former worker remembered a girl on one of the big presses losing her thumb, and another lost only the tip of a finger but later died of septicaemia in hospital. Thus some female workers at the GEC worked under much dirtier and more dangerous conditions than their sisters at Courtaulds where there appear to have been few if any accidents involving women workers. In the mid-thirties Courtaulds made a fetish of safety precautions, but apart from some concerns of the Medical Officer of Health about sulphur on the women’s hands, it is reasonable to conclude that Courtaulds was far safer for women workers. The two firms provided very different working conditions for their female workers, partly due to the nature of their products, and contrasts quickly found their way into local mythology. The ingredients of this myth were the recruitment policies, wages, pay systems, work discipline, welfare, sporting and social activities operated by the two firms.

From The Loudspeaker (the house magazine), as well as from old photographs and oral reminiscences it is possible to build up a picture of the GEC’s operations. Interior views show expanses of a floor with bank after bank of presses and lathes often beneath a tangle of wiring, pulleys, blocks and tackles. Many shops were noisy and dirty and all were pervaded by the mingled smell of oil, hot metal and dust characteristic of engineering works. Outside, whereas Courtaulds was reminiscent of the solid Victorian textile mills, GEC was unmistakably a modern engineering factory.

Courtaulds efforts to maintain cleanliness, safety and respectability, originally devised to overcome the reluctance of the local working class to enter the rayon factory, remained in place even when the problems of recruitment lessened. Instead, these operated in the twenties to give a certain cachet to being or having been, a Courtauld’s girl, not only amongst employees but also local employers. This superior image was still useful to a firm employing large numbers of female juveniles in the thirties when a constant one-third of the firm’s female workforce was under eighteen. Courtaulds took girls as soon as they were eligible for work at fourteen. The operation of a marriage bar kept up the numbers of juveniles; as senior girls left their places were filled by new fourteen-year-old recruits.

Their reputation for respectability was a relief to parents fearful for the physical and moral safety of such youthful offspring, although only 14.5 percent of GEC’s insured female workforce was under eighteen in 1935. Courtaulds also offered higher wages to its unskilled female labour than elsewhere at least until 1937. By the mid-thirties, GEC’s expansion meant that its workers were earning more regular piecework bonuses and could expect to earn close to the Courtaulds top rate which by this time had been cut to thirty-four shillings. GEC also paid more than other local employers. One female worker earned thirty shillings a week as a chargehand when she left the Company in 1937.

The dual effects of recovery and rearmament tightened up the Coventry labour market after 1935. Employers, especially in engineering, began to compete for any available labour. Courtaulds’ reputation as a high payer for women was severely threatened. Nonetheless, there were no rises until November 1939, despite industrial disputes in 1937. The GEC was also able to attract married women, some of whom were barred from Courtaulds by marriage. Added to this, the work discipline at Courtaulds was notoriously strict, as many of its female workers recalled:

In the warehouse’s two sorting rooms there were distributed about four hundred girls. The girls sat in rows stretching the full length of the very big rooms. Between the rows were wide gangways where the foreman patrolled. Each row was was divided into sections of thirty or so with a female chargehand. Talking was forbidden. If you were caught talking too often your name went in ‘the book’ and you did get caught because ‘you were watched all the time’. The first stint lasted from 8 a.m. to 12 noon and there was no tea break. Girls wishing to use the lavatory took a check from the chargehand and hurried out. Any absence longer than five minutes was also noted in the foreman’s conduct book. Each girl had a daily quota of skeins for checking and sorting … a few girls, who persistently failed to make the daily quotas, getting the sack. The work had to be up to standard as well. Each skein sorted was marked with a girl’s own number and the checkers reported faulty work to the foreman. If the work failed to improve the next pay increment was stopped.

The work was not only monotonous but also tough on the eyes. Even management acknowledged that sorting required good eyesight. Sorters took the skeins of rayon from the drying room. Each skein had to be shaken out and hung on a peg where the worker spread it to look for broken threads. Good eyesight was needed for this and the only ‘aid’ the girls had were the compulsory black overalls worn by all sorters, against which the white silk stood out. Some of the skeins when shaken released clouds of acrid dust. One ex-worker described the effect as like peeling onions; your eyes would be streaming. Often her eyes hurt so much that she had to go to the surgery to get drops for them.

The reeling department was attached to the spinning and reelers came closest of all the women workers to the chemical processes of production. Finished cakes were doffed on to stacks with slide-through trades to the reeling section, the other half of the long building housing the spinning workers. The girls got the cakes still smelling of sulphur, fresh from their baths of acid:

The smell was terrible. After a few days one did get used to it, but the odour would cling to your clothes; even laundering did not remove it … Courtaulds employees were well known in Coventry, because of the aroma surrounding them.

But in the warehouse and other places where women worked the smell was not so obvious and never permeated clothing. Reeling was more physically taxing than sorting. Instead of rows of seated girls quietly grading silk skeins, there were rows of reeling machines, eighteen or twenty to each girl, who hurried endlessly between them:

Sometimes you ran … you were never cold, the sweat poured off you. I had eighteen machines. As one stopped, I laced it, then the next one stopped and I had to lace that. By the time you got to the end the other end would be stopped and you’d start again.

Why did the women workers put up with these conditions? High wages were crucial both for the girls and their parents. Most families, especially large ones, depended on more than one wage earner to tide them over periods of seasonal unemployment which was characteristic of the Coventry labour market. But there were other explanatory factors. Almost as important as wages to the acceptance of work discipline at Courtaulds was the way in which working-class girls were brought up. Their experiences within the family bred low expectations for themselves and a sense of obligation towards both parents and siblings. This was often a harsh discipline in itself and it began at an early age. The régime at school was just as tough and so, for many fourteen-year-old girls starting work at Courtaulds, the work discipline was somewhat familiar. For some, however, it was more like a concentration camp. 

Family or friends working at Courtaulds would arrange a job for a girl as soon as she turned fourteen. They spoke to the foreman and ‘booked’ an impending vacancy. Therefore, the new worker began with a sense of both familial involvement and an obligation to the foreman which helped to weaken any rejection of working conditions. Moreover, girls were brought up in an environment in which early marriage and a lifetime of domestic labour were the norms for women. Factory work was an interlude before marriage so that the monotony and harshness were more easily borne because they were not perceived as a life sentence. Nevertheless, parental control did not always breed passivity. One ex-worker recalls how her father, a strong trade unionist, ordered her to strike with her fellow workers in October 1937. She was twenty-four at the time, and was loath to go out against her foreman, but was marginally more frightened of her father.

The stern Victorian ‘paterfamilias’ provided a strong model for the work discipline at Courtaulds. The former workers remembered their foremen with dislike. In sorting, Alf Barnett, a really nasty man who stood where you couldn’t see him and watched all the time to put your name in his book so you lost your rise. Alf was capable of reducing a woman to tears if her work came too often from the checkers as unsatisfactory. But work discipline at Courtaulds was also concerned with both the inner and outer cleanliness of the female workforce.

For Courtaulds cleanliness became godliness and in the person of Nurse Gaskin, management assumed responsibility for an astonishing degree of ‘personal hygiene’ in its workers. Appointed as Nurse in 1911, she had become Lady Superintendent by 1931. She devoted herself wholly to the morality and cleanliness of the works; the women workers saw her as a Tartar whom no one dared cross. She subjected all new recruits to an intense medical scrutiny, requiring them to strip while she asked them searching questions about skin trouble and menstrual irregularity. Popular myth held that it was she who instituted the monthly supervised bath mandatory for all female workers together with an inspection of the hair for nits. This concern for outward cleanliness was matched by an equal effort to preserve inner moral health:

(Nurse Gaskin) … ruled the female staff with a rod of iron. She toured the factory twice a day and any girl wearing too short a dress or a sleeveless garment would be sent home and told to dress respectably for the next day. The nurse would be round early next morning to make sure that the girl was dressed in what she deemed suitable. Anyone caught chatting to a member of the opposite sex was “on the carpet”. Even the canteen had separate rooms for men and girls.

The efforts to maintain gender segregation met with the approval of parents, some of whom went even further than the Company by forbidding their daughters to attend the mixed dances in the firm’s ballroom. Despite this, evidence from the company magazine The Rayoneer’s engagement columns suggests that many marriages were made at work. The Company’s concern for the personal hygiene and moral welfare of its workers were part of a ‘welfare capitalist’ policy popular with many firms at the time and certainly with its Chairman, Samuel Courtauld. He was known in business circles for his advanced ‘leftist’ views because of his espousal of such organisations as the Industrial Welfare Society, to which Seebohm Rowntree also belonged, and he was known to be in favour of state intervention in the economy during the war. From this mix of directorial influences, authoritarian managerial styles, welfare provision, work processes and wage structures, and control of the labour market, there emerged a distinctive environment for Courtaulds workers

 

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004 (2)

At GEC the same factors interacted to give a different environment. Wages were lower, the work process was entirely different owing to the nature of the product, and so were workers’ attitudes to their jobs. For example, the job hierarchy which developed between the sorting and reeling processes at Courtaulds had no parallel at GEC. From the oral evidence, jobs where earnings were higher at GEC often involved dirty work with dangerous machines. Moreover, in 1935 the Company’s attempts to return to an individual bonus system provoked the first major strike since its arrival in Coventry. Three thousand workers came out, the T&GWU was called in and eventually, the strike was settled on terms more favourable to management.

This payment system produced a form of factory discipline quite different from that at Courtaulds. The bonus scheme meant that workers were largely self-disciplined so that the focus of resentment was rarely the foreman: it became instead the rate-fixer. One ex-worker remembered the rate-fixer glowering behind her, stopwatch in hand,

… swearing you could do more than that … talk about being brought to tears … He’d set the basic rate at so much per thousand and you’d always be racing to do more.

But the rate-fixers visits were comparatively intermittent compared with those of the bullying foremen in Courtaulds. The women were also able to make toilet visits, within reason, and to take the occasional drink and snack breaks at their place of work. Possibly because of this more relaxed attitude on the part of the management, there was a more ‘homely’ atmosphere at the GEC. Nevertheless, women at Courtaulds with more than ten years service got leaving gratuities of ten shillings for each year of service, whereas workers with ten years’ service at the GEC were dubbed ‘dependables’ and given a badge and a gold-plated pencil. All Courtaulds workers received generous gifts at New Year each year.

Management at GEC did not share Courtaulds’ concern for respectability. The roles of the GEC nurses were far less intense than those of Nurse Gaskin. The Ambulance Department dealt with minor accidents and provided a couch for those afflicted by headaches or fainting. Attendance at the surgery was voluntary and since workers were either docked or put on waiting time if they left the shop floor for medical attention, they kept visits to a bare minimum. The nurses did not double as moral vigilantes, either. Pregnancies went undetected for long periods, so much so that one girl working on the heavy presses, who came into labour on the job, set off for home and gave birth on the way home in a hedge. By contrast, Nurse Gaskin had at least one girl dismissed on suspicion of pregnancy, unjustly as it turned out. A fourteen-year-old recruit to Courtaulds might work for six to ten years, and during their later working years, most were courting. However, they were often engaged for two or three years before marrying, by which time they had saved enough to buy a house with their fiancés. Such objectives made time at work seem like an interlude before the real business of life.

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GEC employees had a Sick Benefit Fund to which two-thirds of all employees belonged, more females than males, paying sixpence per week. Employees at both firms had sporting clubs using buildings and grounds supplied by the firms, and where necessary, company transport to away fixtures. In this, both GEC and Courtaulds workers were in tune with the company welfare movement which stressed sport as promoting their physical and mental health. The GEC had football fields, cricket pitches and even a golf course. Both firms had swimming clubs. On the social side, both firms had ballrooms which achieved local popularity. Courtaulds’ ballroom had had a high status since the twenties and in 1937 GEC built a new one of palatial proportions which eclipsed all others in local estimation. For Courtaulds workers, balls and outings were the chief opportunities for men and women to socialise and some of these contacts led on to marriage. In February 1938, out of twenty-one marriages announced at Main Works and Little Heath, nine were between couples where both worked at Courtaulds.

In terms of industrial relations, Courtaulds did not officially recognise the T&GWU until 1937. Some skilled male workers both there and at the GEC belonged to craft unions, but the bulk of the workers at both firms were unskilled and semi-skilled process workers, both male and female. But the T&GWU remained curiously inactive in Coventry, though it did use the 1931 strike to recruit workers from Courtaulds, and it remained an undercover organisation and did not gain significant numbers until the 1937 strike. Neither firm was immune to the pressures of a labour market invigorated by rearmament after 1936. Worker unrest created opportunities for the T&GWU which came into the factories on the basis of existing disputes involving organised women, recruited heavily, and then settled the disputes over the heads of the strikers in such a way as to suit management rather than the workers.

The T&GWU organised among males at Courtaulds factories in Flint and Wolverhampton but made little effort to recruit women workers there or at Coventry. Ernest Bevin seems to have been cautious about over-reaching in the early thirties and women workers were peripheral to his concerns so that he left the Union’s business in Coventry to local officials. The ‘easing out’ of Alice Arnold, a well-known local Labour leader, from this enclave of ex-Workers’ Union organisers meant that it was entirely male and inexperienced in organising textile workers, especially females, who were therefore left to organise themselves.

A spontaneous ‘wildcat’ strike followed an incident in the Courtaulds warehouse in 1931. Workloads were arbitrarily increased one Monday morning, following on a previous intensification of their rate sorting about eighteen months before. During the dinner hour, the women talked among themselves and decided not to return that day. Instead, they stood outside in the yard beneath the warehouse. The chargehand eventually persuaded them to return to work by threatening them with pay cuts. Nothing came of the incident and the increased workloads remained. Some of the women joined the T&GWU, but with little effect. A more widespread strike occurred at the factory, beginning on 30 April 1931, in response to planned speed-ups and wage cuts. But this was started by the men. These spinners had to return to work on the company’s terms, accepting a ten percent wage-cut. This was much less than the twenty percent cut which had previously been imposed on the women.

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In 1935, there was a ‘wildcat’ incident at GEC. Management introduced a conveyor track for the girls to shunt part-assembled selectors from one part of their section to another. At the same time, the management docked the bonus, arguing that it was the track alone which increased production. The girls struck, refusing to use the track unless the bonus was restored. It was, and they quickly resumed work. We didn’t need a union, we did it ourselves, was the recollection of one of the women. She never belonged to a union and could not recollect anyone else in her section joining either. Another women worker said that it wasn’t allowed: You’d have got the sack. Courtaulds’ workers had even firmer recollections of this. One joined in the 1937 strike but soon dropped out when she didn’t get strike pay. She couldn’t justify the expense of the dues when there was nothing to show for it.

This time, though, trouble had begun among the women and spread to the men. The immediate cause or catalyst for the strike is not known, but one recollection is that management lifted the marriage bar in favour of one worker, but this is disputed. It was more likely that it was caused by the atmosphere of general unrest over the higher wages being paid in the shadow factories since girls were leaving both GEC and Courtaulds for jobs in them. The strike at Courtaulds started for no apparent reason:

A crowd of girls came running into the reeling department and shouted, “come on, we’re all out on strike”. Everything was a muddle, no one knew what was happening … someone switched the machines off and we were more or less forced out. Quite frankly to me it was all a great adventure and a break from a boring job. I never really knew the why’s and wherefores of the strike, rumours were rife: 1. a girl had been sacked unfairly; 2. our pay was to be cut; 3. we were on strike for more money. I can’t remember how long it lasted, but we started back in dribs and drabs … but things hadn’t altered except that we were on short time for a long time.

These experiences of women workers at Courtaulds and GEC are similar to those identified for car workers, both in Coventry and Cowley: long periods of passive acceptance broken only rarely by spontaneous, unorganised but thoroughgoing strikes. These episodes were few, however, and did little to relieve harsh and monotonous work régimes. The GEC’s women workers had a small victory and a larger defeat; at Courtaulds, they lost on each occasion. Despite differences in pay systems, discipline and welfare arrangements, female workers at both firms showed little resistance to changes in working practices, to speed-ups and intensification. But they did demonstrate a willingness to take collective action which the T&GWU failed to capitalise on. For their part, the Union showed little interest in organising women workers, who would probably have joined had any effort been made to recruit them. The majority simply believed that management would not have allowed it.

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Though Coventry was, by the mid-thirties, a small but significant island of prosperity offering opportunities for both men and women which did not exist elsewhere, the nature of women’s work remained unchanged. It remained the province of the young, unskilled and temporary. For Coventrian women the major change was the relative decline of Courtaulds during the latter part of the decade, yielding first place to the GEC after 1935. The rise of the latter was a portent of factory work in the post-war world which relied on married, part-time female workers, still cheap and passive but no longer so juvenile. War also brought to an end an era in Coventry in which factory work for girls meant GEC and Courtaulds.

(to be continued…)

…..

 

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