Tony Cliff Tony Cliff

As part of a series of articles marking the 50th anniversary of a tremendous year for the British working class, we republish Tony Cliff’s overview of the decisive events of 1972

1972 was a significant year of struggle and solidarity for the British working class which rocked the Tory government. To mark the 50th anniversary and to remind us of the lessons we can bring to the struggle today, Counterfire is publishing a series of articles on some of the key moments of the year.

Strikes figure

One measure of class struggle is the number of days which are “lost” to strike action:

Between 1953–64 an average of 1,081,000 days were lost each year. By 1969 this had risen to 6,876,000. Between January and October 1972, a total of 22,202,000 days were “lost” with strikes lasting an average of 17 days.

1972 was a tremendous year for Britain’s working class. The struggle rose to new heights, both in terms of the number of workers involved, the size of strikes and their length, and above all in the quality of the struggle. There have been far more large-scale and prolonged strikes this year than in the previous ten years. November and December figures have not yet been published, but there is no doubt that the total number of strike days has reached or exceeded 30 million this year. If one excludes miners’ strikes, only once in British history has the number of strike days been greater – that was in 1919.

The year 1972 saw the first national miners’ strike since 1926 – and this time the miners won – and the biggest building strike ever, with 300,000 out over 12 weeks. The last similar confrontation was in 1923, when the employers locked the builders out.

The quality of the struggle has also been very advanced. There has been a purely political strike, to free the Pentonville Five. There has been a solidarity strike of 50,000 Birmingham engineers in support of the miners, 10,000 of them marching to Saltley Coke Depot. For the first time we have had strikes in support of old age pensioners, with 6,000 construction workers in Anchor, near Scunthorpe, coming out. The workers have shown great initiative.

But the trade union bureaucracy has been treacherous. Look at the miners’ strike. The government offered the miners only £2. The official claim of the miners’ union was £9, £6 and £5. Joe Gormley[1]  declared on the eve of the strike that if the government had raised the offer just a little the strike would not have taken place – he would probably have signed for £3. The Tory press was absolutely convinced the government would win this round as they won against the postmen[2]. They were looking for a confrontation. It was the initiative of the miners’ rank and file, in picketing power stations instead of wasting effort on picketing the pits, that led the way. Helped by railwaymen, lorry drivers and workers in the power industry, they won a magnificent victory.

While 60 percent of the miners of Barnsley went on picket duty outside Yorkshire, the Labour MP for Barnsley contributed to victory by standing for a whole ten minutes on the picket line at Battersea power station. By sheer accident the television cameras were there at the same time. We shouldn’t criticise. It was cold, and he had to rush back to the House of Commons for some important vote, probably on dog licensing.

The shadow minister for fuel and power, Harold Lever, attacked the Tories for mismanaging the dispute, declaring that if Labour had been in power they would have settled the miners’ wage claim for less than the Tories. While the leaders did not manage to prevent the miners’ victory, they did manage to sign an agreement sabotaging future battles, by allowing the date of the agreement to be shifted from November to February. Until now the annual agreement has run from November to November. The present one runs until February 1973.

If at the end of February the Coal Board rejects the NUM claim, the executive will have to organise a ballot and prepare miners for action, which will take a month or two. For miners to go on strike in summer is not the best of tactics. The 1926 General Strike, remember, started in May. Ice cream workers should have agreements from May to May, miners from November to November. Although the rank and file miners won the battle in spite of the bureaucrats, the latter managed to sabotage the next round.

Again, look at the dockers’ struggle. It was a magnificent victory over the government when the five dockers were freed. The strike was unofficial. Jack Jones[3] kept his mouth shut, and did nothing at all to help the dockers. Reg Prentice, the shadow minister of labour, attacked the five dockers for breaking the law, and seeking self advertisement.

Barbara Castle was more hypocritical[4]. The Pentonville Five were arrested on the anniversary of the Tolpuddle Martyrs. In Place of Strife Babs put a wreath on the grave of one of them. If he were not dead, and if she were in power, she would surely have put him in Pentonville instead. After the Pentonville Five were freed Jack Jones threw his weight and that of the union on the side of the dockers and job security, declaring an official strike, which lasted three weeks. If 41,000 dockers could win an unofficial strike, the support of a union of 1,700,000 should surely have won them the official one. But the result was the Aldington-Jones sell-out. Lord Aldington, former Tory MP, former vice-chairman of the Tory Party who gave £30,000 to buy Morning Cloud[5] for Ted Heath, the vice-chairman of GEC who sacked more than 50,000 workers over four years. The Aldington-Jones deal was sold to the dockers by Jack Jones with promises of job security.

Building rank and file organisations

After the Pentonville Five affair the Tory government was reeling. In July and August the Tory press spoke of Ted Heath’s government being bankrupt. But in September the TUC snatched victory out of defeat for this government. It was Vic Feather[6] and the TUC who suggested the idea of an incomes policy at the September conference in Brighton. Ted Heath spelt it out by suggesting an all-round rise of £2, and thus the ground was prepared for the 90-day freeze.

The fantastic potential power of the rank and file and the treason of the trade union bureaucracy make it necessary now, more than ever, to build rank and file organisations in the unions to fight for democratic control, and to create combat organisations connecting workers from different places of work so that they can discuss questions of strategy and tactics. The struggle over the past year has also shown that it is important to bridge the gulf that exists in many factories and other places of work between the militants and the rest of the workers. For a long time battles were won in individual shops by mobilising a small number of workers, or by threatening to do so. With today’s mass confrontations the key problem is how to involve a massive number of workers in the struggle.

Often militants in one factory are without any contact with workers in the factory next door, or with the workers in another factory of the same empire. No less serious, however, is that militant shop stewards do not always involve their own workers in discussing the strategy and tactics needed to raise their fighting strength and understanding of the issues facing them. During 1972 members of the International Socialists participated in launching a number of rank and file papers – the Collier, the Steelworker, the Dockworker, among others. We decided also to build Socialist Worker groups in factories. 

Selling the workers’ paper

The aim is to discuss with workers the general question of socialist politics facing the working class. Such groups should be active and intervening at all stages of the struggle. They should dig deeper roots for Socialist Worker inside the factory, by increasing its sale, getting reports for it, criticising it, and collecting donations. The paper is more and more a workers’ paper – not a paper just for workers. It is written to a large extent by workers in struggle. But however good the paper, improvements and criticism are always necessary. When Lenin said the paper is an organiser, he meant not only, say, the car workers’ paper, but also separate factory bulletins in different car factories, written by militants in the factory itself, read by the whole workforce in the factory, not only the minority of militant socialists.

If decisive proof were needed that cabbage-patch militancy is not enough, the case of James Goad and the Lucas Birmingham factories has given it. The Sudbury Lucas workers, where Goad used to work, went on strike against the Industrial Relations Court’s £50,000 fine on the engineering union and called on their Birmingham colleagues to come to their aid. But under the influence of the right wing officials the Birmingham Lucas shop stewards decided not to take any action. If they had decided differently and the 20,000 Lucas workers had come out in solidarity with Sudbury, the impact would have been tremendous. The snowball effect could have been as big as the Pentonville Five.

Things could have turned out very differently if the left in Lucas Birmingham were better organised. Many of the militant stewards did not know about the stewards’ meeting. Not one of the stewards knew that a request from the Sudbury strikers to send a delegation to the Birmingham meeting had been turned down by the district secretary. Members of the International Socialists and other militant workers in Lucas Birmingham factories started a monthly bulletin called Lucas Worker about a month ago. Had they started it, say, a year earlier … if … if … A different initiative from the local Lucas leadership could have brought a totally different outcome.

The struggle in one field – in Birmingham Lucas – can become decisive for the whole labour movement. In the great chain of events, even an individual link can be decisive at a particular point in time. Socialists, organising in their place of work, should see their work as relevant not only to the workers directly involved, but also, potentially, to the whole of the working class.

In the second issue of the Dockworker, published a few days ago, a docker’s wife wrote a marvellous letter. I shall quote just the final paragraph: “After trying for ten years ‘officially’ to get these [thalidomide] kids some money, without success, it’s about time that something was done ‘unofficially’. I am surprised that dockers have not done something about blacking Distillers’ products, which I am sure are exported through some docks in the country.” She is absolutely right. The dockers who could free the Pentonville Five have the industrial power to force Distillers to cough up money for those unfortunate children. The workers have the power to force the Tory government to give a £16 pension to the old age pensioners. They have the power to smash the Tory government. They have the power to blow capitalism to kingdom come. 1972 has gone. Welcome to 1973.


[1] Joe Gormley was the President of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM).

[2] In 1971 the Conservative government inflicted a severe defeat on the postal workers. It took several years for their union to recover from this defeat.

[3] Jack Jones was the “left-wing” General Secretary of the Transport & General Workers Union, at that time the largest union in the country.

[4] Barbara Castle, who had a reputation for being a left-winger, had been Minister for Labour in the in Labour government in 1969 and had proposed In Place of Strife, a white paper aimed at restricting and penalising official strikes.

[5] Morning Cloud was the yacht of the Conservative prime minister, Ted Heath.

[6] Vic Feather was General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress (TUC).


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Tony Cliff

Born in Palestine to Zionist parents in 1917, Ygael Gluckstein became a Trotskyist during the 1930s and played a leading role in the attempt to forge a movement uniting Arab and Jewish workers. At the end of of the Second World war he moved to Britain and adopted the pseudonym Tony Cliff, later founding the International Socialists, and the Socialist Workers Party. Cliff’s works are available on the Marxist Internet Archive. For more on Cliff’slife see his autobiography ‘A World to Win: Life of a Revolutionary’ and Ian Birchall’s  'Tony Cliff: A Marxist for His Time'