What was the Winter of Discontent?
In the winter of 1978–79, a wave of strikes erupted across Britain as workers rejected the Labour government’s attempt to impose wage limits in the face of rising inflation
This period of dispute between the Labour government and powerful trade unions became known as the ‘Winter of Discontent’. Here, historian Keith Laybourn explains how events unfolded…
How did the ‘Winter of Discontent’ begin?
Tensions dated back to 1974, when the Labour Party won the October general election with a narrow majority, with its manifesto Getting Britain Back to Work. This manifesto promised a new round of nationalisation; settlement of the miners’ wage claims; and a new arrangement with the trade unions called the ‘Social Contract’.
Under the ‘Social Contract’, the trade unions agreed to voluntarily curb wage demands in exchange for the Labour government increasing public control over private industry and extending (and improving) social welfare measures. However, the failure of the government to curb inflation and the weakness of the pound (a product of poor economic growth), prompted it to draw from the reserve assets of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in December 1975 and to seek a loan from the IMF in October 1976.
The loans required the abandonment of the government’s commitment to increased public control of industry and to improving social welfare measures. The trade unions felt betrayed and, faced with rising inflation, they effectively abandoned their policy of voluntary wage restraint in the late summer and autumn of 1978 and the spring of 1979.
Against the backdrop of a bitterly cold winter in 1978–79, hundreds of thousands of municipal workers went on strike nationally. More than 2,000 workers went on strike in the Liverpool and Merseyside area – rubbish was left uncollected, hospital services were reduced, and bodies went unburied.
The first strikes
The ‘Winter of Discontent’ began on 24 August 1978, when Ford car workers put in a claim for a £20 per week rise and a 35-hour week, which amounted to a rise of 25 per cent in annual pay. They were offered 5 per cent, and on 22 September 1978 they struck. Around nine weeks later, the strike settled with a 16.5 per cent wage increase.
In January 1979 (between the 1st and the 14th), some 20,000 railwaymen held four one-day strikes. There were strikes by haulage drivers, petrol tank drivers, and eventually municipal workers – 1,250,000 of them organised a one-day national strike on 22 January 1979. The most notorious incident was the grave diggers’ strike on Merseyside, which hit the headlines with the press vilifying trade unions for their lack of sympathy with the bereaved, and, it was argued, with the needs of the nation.
Were the strikes successful?
Most of these varied strikes led to substantial pay rises, but the strikers themselves were pilloried by the press as “folk devils” and destroyers of the British economy. Indeed, public opinion moved against the strikers, and Shirley Williams, the education secretary, fuelled tensions when she stated, as recorded in The Times on 20 January 1979, that:
Tomorrow, many children will not be able to attend [school] because of the caretakers’ strike, coupled with the appalling threat from some NUPE [National Union of Public Employees] officials that children will be physically stopped from crossing the picket line.
The ‘Winter of Discontent’ culminated in the election of Margaret Thatcher in May 1979. Thatcher’s Conservative government introduced major restrictions on trade union power.
The failure of the Labour government undoubtedly contributed to its defeat in the 1979 general election – its casual and careless attitude to the strikes was epitomised in Prime Minister James Callaghan’s comment, on his return to Britain from a summit with world leaders in Guadeloupe, that “there was no mounting chaos in Britain”. This prompted the headline in The Sun on 11 January 1979: “Crisis? What Crisis?”
Keith Laybourn is a specialist in the labour history of the first half of the 20th century. He is Diamond Jubilee Professor Emeritus at the University of Huddersfield and president of the Society for the Study of Labour History. He is also the author of 50 books