Building Castles in the Sky?

The fall, rise and rise again of Barbara Castle’s 1969 white paper ‘in place of strife’(IPS)

Everyone has been in that situation: You’re sitting at the bar, five drinks in and suddenly the topic of conversation changes to the unions. The right-winger in your group says that in smashing up the miners, Thatcher did a hard but necessary task, the left-winger talks about Tube drivers being the last bastion of the well-paid working class worker and the Centrist... well the centrist has a faraway look tinged with sadness. “If only we had implemented In Place of Strife (IPS)…”


Picture the scene; it’s 1969 and London may be swinging but Labour isn’t working. Unofficial strikes are crippling the British Economy and talks with the TUC to curtail these wildcat strikes have stalled. Enter Barbara Castle, Labours “Red Queen” and former left-wing firebrand. Castle and Wilson, working in secret with influential anti-trade union activists, create a white paper promising to curtail the worst of the Trade union excesses. This proves unacceptable to the majority of the party. Their objection? This new act would impose a secret ballot before strike action, ninety day cooling off periods and more worker involvement in the settling of pay disputes.

What may seem accepted political consensus today, was a Rubicon that no politician had dared to cross before. The unions, with their century old immunities and adversarial culture, were not ready to accept a move towards the more congenial, collaborative German method of industrial relations, where workers had a role in the running of the company and pay disputes were settled by equal representation boards. A move towards collaborative industrial relations would result in a loss of power for the unions, as they traded their localised right to strike for national frameworks. The powerful shop stewards would lose their status overnight, replaced with a new bureaucracy composed of ‘company men’. For unions that had fought for everything they had ever gained, it smacked of treachery and collusion.  Simply telling them it was “for the good of the country” was not enough.

IPS caused a split in the Labour cabinet at the time with the old school union boys, Jim Callaghan foremost among them, leading the revolt. With his cabinet in turmoil and the Unions threatening chaos if the white paper came to the house, IPS was killed dead before it set foot in parliament.  As a final indignity, when the Tories implemented their own trade union legislation a few years later, they pointed to Barbara Castle as the reason for the bill. In a strange twist of fate, it was Callaghan’s troubles with the unions which led to the first re-evaluation of IPS; indeed, Thatcher fought the ‘79 election on a platform of standing up to the unions. Her policies? A secret ballot before strike action and ninety day cooling off periods.

IPS’s later life is that almost every one of its policies, save for pay dispute boards, has been accepted by modern politics. Whether it is because it swam with the tide or created it is up for debate. Obituaries of Castle did mention IPS and scholarly articles may have mentioned it in their analysis of the Wilson cabinet, but it took until Andrew Marr made it the centrepiece of his evaluation of the 60’s British political landscape before it re-entered the mainstream of British political thought. His influential re-evaluation of IPS as the turning point for the Labour party, a turn brought about by ossified union dinosaurs, saw IPS (and the late 60’s Wilson Cabinet) re-constituted as proto-Blairism, the fabled third way. Thus IPS became the ultimate ‘what if’ question for Labour centrists at dinner parties, with only the backwards trade unions standing between Labour and forty years of continual governance.

When New Labour acquiesced to Thatcher’s trade union laws, it casually accepted all the worst parts of the IPS without the reforming nature of pay boards. Indeed, the New Labour years saw Labour again engulfed by a series of large scale industrial disputes, with some unions going as far to disaffiliate from the Labour party completely. When it came to down to the adversarial system or the “third way” New Labour shied away, preferring to pander to Sunday papers than engage in meaningful reform. The ‘lost chance’ if there was one, is that Labour would neither have  been rolling back the trade union laws nor heaping further regulation on top- but truly encouraging meaningful cooperation. IPS didn’t make sense to implement in 1969 but if Labour were not going to repeal the anti-trade union laws passed under the Thatcher government, then implementing it in 1997 may not have been that bad an idea.

But it’s not “what if” but “what is to be done?” That is the question that must be asked now.  Trade unions no longer hold the power or position they once did in the country and moving towards the German or Swedish system of compulsory union membership is politically untenable. We are too far down the road of the adversarial system to turn back now. Instead, IPS teaches us one thing for the future of trade union relations. The Labour movement was founded by the trade unions, but must be a party for every working person. For productivity to increase, to decrease strikes and to share the wealth of the country, every worker – union or not, must have a say in the running of their company. Whether it is employees in the board as in Norway or the John Lewis method of mass partnerships, it is essential that the British worker in the 21st century is not the enemy, nor the slave of the employer.

Carmen Maria Sekulic is a Young Fabians member

This article was first featured in Volume 19, Issue 1 | Autumn 2015 of Anticipations

Do you like this post?