In 1964, the Labour government inherited a Britain with a difficult economic situation, and an emerging threat of trade union power. However, there was a feeling of optimism in the air at the time – people had high expectations for Wilson’s government, as they seemed more in touch with the social and cultural trends of the time. In 1966, Labour was able to consolidate its position with a further election victory that gave it a sizeable am majority. Wilson then lost the General Election to Edward Heath in 1970. The Labour government then came back into power in March 1974, and found himself in a much less promising position than he had been in 1964. The most common perception of the years from 1964 – 1979 is that of a successful management of government in terms of retaining party unity, successful enforcement of certain aspects of social policies, and unsuccessful management of the economy and industrial relations with the trade unions. Both successful elements and unsuccessful elements are part of the umbrella term of ‘domestic affairs’ – what directly affects Britain, and its citizens.
Wilson’s image, management and tactics throughout the earlier portion of the Labour governments made the Labour Party successful in foreign affairs. Wilson reflected modernisation. He was seen as classless, a far cry from the previous Old Etonian styles of Eden, Macmillan and Douglas-Home. He was the first Prime Minister to be educated at a state secondary school, he smoked a pipe during television interviews, and spoke with a Yorkshire accent. He was a skilful and relaxed performer on television. The fact that Wilson’s image projected a more modern, newer Labour Party, endeared the people to him and gave them a feeling of optimism – especially during the early 1960s.
Labour generally had success in enforcing social and educational legislation, especially in the period from 1964-1970. One if the key figures in the changing of Britain to become a more permissive society was Roy Jenkins, the Home Secretary, who found himself in a position in which he could influence society. Labour didn’t start the period with a ‘liberalising agenda’ - their manifesto for the 1964 election had no alludes to moral issues. However, the late 1960s saw an emergence of backbenchers making private members’ bills, which allowed them to bring forward a number of reforms. Reforms at the time included the end of capital punishment – in 1965, on a free vote, hanging was abolished for a trial period of five years, and in 1969 this was made permanents. Jenkins also refused to authorise the beatings of prisoners, and brought in majority verdicts for English juries, as opposed to unanimity. There was also a reform on divorces – until the 1960s, to get divorced, it had to be proven that one party had committed adultery. The Divorce Reform Act, passed in 1969, meant that a couple could end their marriage on the grounds of ‘irretrievable breakdown’ – couples could divorce if they had lived apart for two years and both partners agreed to the divorce, or if they lived apart for five years and one partner wanted the divorce. The Divorce Act allowed people more freedom and choice, and is said to have empowered women – however, some people don’t see the passing of the Act as a success, as it could be seen to have been, because they said it compromised the institution of marriage. Abortion was another controversial issue at the time. Until 1967, abortion (except of strictly medical grounds) was illegal. Between 100,000 to 200,000 illegal abortions were performed each year, and around 35,000 women were admitted to hospital every year. The Liberal MP David Steel led the reform campaign in Parliament, supported by the Labour government and also a number of Conservatives, and Roy Jenkins ensured an all-night Commons sitting in order to pass the bill. The Abortion Act permitted the legal termination of a pregnancy within the first 28 weeks, under medical supervision and with the written consent of two doctors. This was a success, because it allowed women more freedom over their own bodies. The Labour Party also decriminalised homosexual relations. Up until the 1960s, men could be imprisoned for two years for participating in homosexual acts – with Jenkins’ support, Leo Abse, a backbencher managed to get enough parliamentary time for his private members’ bill to become law as the 1967 Sexual Offences Act. This decriminalised homosexual acts, providing that both partners consented, that both were over the age of 21, and that the acts themselves happened in private. In terms of education, Labour made an attempt to convert the majority of schools into comprehensive schools. Tony Crosland, Minister of Education in 1965, issues Circular 10/15 to all Local Education Authorities, requesting them to convert to comprehensive schools. By 1970, only 8 authorities had failed to do so, and there were 1145 comprehensive schools. This was successful, as it helped bridge the gap between the middle classes and the working class. The social reforms of the 1960s were a success in domestic affairs, as they made for a more permissive, free Britain, which made Britons happier and more favourable of the Labour Government at the time.
One of the biggest struggles for the Labour Governments from 1964 to 1979 was the economy, and how it was managed. By 1964, it was widely accepted that Britain was lagging behind other countries, such as West Germany and Japan. The affluence of the post-war boom had not been reflected or growth rates, and Britain seemed to be trapped in a cycle of ‘Stop-Go’ – bursts of prosperity leading to inflation and regular crises over the balance of payments. Wilson’s government needed to work to reorganise the economy to break out of this cycle – they also needed to solve the problem of the £800 million deficit they had inherited. Wilson and his Chancellor of the Exchequer at the time, James Callaghan, wanted to avoid devaluation (which they argued would make Britain weak in relation to other countries) and deflation (which they argued was just a perpetuation of the old ‘Stop-Go’ policy. Wilson set up the Department of Economic Affairs, led by George Brown. Brown set up growth targets, and attempted to establish voluntary agreement about wages and prices with industrial trade union leaders. However, this all came to no avail – the government did eventually have to devaluate, damaging its credibility and marking itself as a failure. In the later government of 1974, the economic reforms took place. The first major problem that Labour had was the surge in inflation due to the rush of large wage increases that were deemed necessary to get out of the industrial crisis that had crushed the previous Conservative government under Heath. In 1975, the budget imposed by Denis Healey imposed steep rises in taxation and public spending was cut (not a popular move amongst the Labour party). The National Enterprise Board was also set up in 1974 under Tony Benn to administer the government’s share-holdings in private companies, and give financial aid. It aimed to increase investment, but by 1975 its effectiveness was being questioned, and a more formal pay restraint policy was introduced – a change in policy that intensified party divisions. Overall, throughout the time period, Britain’s economy was weak – however, there were periods of success with Jenkins and Callaghan as Chancellors of the Exchequer.
The collapse of the relationship between trade unions and the Labour government is arguably the biggest failure of the governments. In the early years, it was seen as essential to keep the unions happy. Wilson employed Frank Cousins, a trade unionist, Minister of Technology. Wilson was relying on union cooperation with his prices and incomes policies; George Brown tried to negotiate wage agreements with trade unions to bring down inflation. However, in 1966 and 1967, industrial relations with the trade unionists began to deteriorate. The strike by the National Union of Seamen added to the sterling crisis of 1966, and seemed to demonstrate the fact that old-style union bosses were losing some of their control – ‘wildcat’ strikes by local activists became popular; people didn’t want to take orders from people at ‘the top’. Wilson and his new employment MP, Barbara Castle, started planning to limit unofficial strikes, and a white paper was produced – ‘In Place of Strife.’ ‘In Place of Strife’ strengthened the unions in dealing with employers in some ways, but were difficult for the unions to accept in other – the proposal was that there would be a 28 day ‘cooling off’ period before a strike went ahead, the government could impose settlements when two trade unions were in dispute, strike ballots could be imposed, and an industrial relations court would be able to prosecute people who broke the rules. The proposals were supported by a lot of voters, and Labour MPs like Roy Jenkins, but infuriated the trade unions, and people on the left side of the Labour Party. Wilson eventually gave in, and climbed down, humiliating the government and showing ‘In Place of Strife’ to be a failure before it even started.
When Labour came back into government in 1974, Wilson wanted to portray the image that the Labour government had a better relationship with the trade unions than Heath’s government had. Wilson successfully ended the state of emergency and the concept of the three-day week. Both the Minister of Industry (Tony Benn) and the Minister of Employment (Michael Foot) were left-wing MPs, which would appease the trade unions. When Denis Healey issued two budgets, the first in Mach and the second in July, both aimed to deal with the economic crisis without aggravating the trade unions. However, this didn’t last long. Under Callaghan’s leadership, the Government capped wage increase, and proposed a wage increase limit of 5%, which the trade unions refused. The Ford lorry driver strike, which gained the workers a 15% wage increase after a 9 week strike caused a wave of industrial action and major disruption. Lorry drivers, train drivers held strikes as they always had, but shock followed strikes of public sector workers, like hospital porters and clerical staff in councils, and, above all, dustmen and gravediggers. The psychological effect of the winter of 1978 to 1979 (the ‘Winter of discontent’) had a devastating impact on public mood – the media perpetuated images of rotting, uncollected rubbish littering the streets, and dead bodies lying forgotten, with no graves to be buried in. The Winter of discontent fell just before a General Elections. The electorate were convinced that the Labour government had failed to cope with the demands of the trade unions, and needed a more right-wing approach; hence the election of Margaret Thatcher, and the adoptions of Thatcherism as an ideology.
I think that the earlier Labour Government, of the 1964 – 1970 period had a lot of success in domestic affairs, especially in regard to social aspects. They successfully changed Britain’s culture for the better – however, they also set themselves up for later problems, with their relationship with the trade unions, and their refusal to devaluate until it was too late to salvage their credibility. Some of these problems however, like the economy were inherited and were out of Labour’s control – ergo the Labour Party cannot be blamed for them. I think that the Wilson and Callaghan’s governments of 1974 – 1979 experiences more failures than successes in terms of domestic affairs – their attitude and dealings with the trade unions needed to be more harsh, as Thatcher eventually was. It was their appeasement to the trade unions, that, in my opinion, caused the Labour Party to be viewed as an eventual failure, not getting back into Parliament until the leadership of Tony Blair.