by V. L. Allen,
dr. allen writes in a dry, flat, matter-of-fact style, oddly reminiscent of Lord Attlee’s. There are occasions, such as the 1921 Coal Dispute or the 1926 General Strike, when this heightens the drama of his narrative. Elsewhere the unadorned, almost colourless prose makes needlessly heavy going of the intricacies of collective bargaining or of labour relations in nationalised industries.
The book deals with the relationship of trade unions to the central government in Britain in an attempt to assess their influence and power. The author exercises a masterly control over his facts, and carefully cultivated legends about the irresponsible power of trade union oligarchs will not survive a study of his evidence. Under Conservative governments, the unions’ influence on legislation is marginal and with Labour in power it is sometimes even less than that. Indeed, the uneasiness of the relationships between Labour ministers and their industrial allies is still, after four Labour governments, one of the dozen major unsolved problems of the British working class movement.
Like so many assiduous research workers, Vic Allen sometimes suffers from the defects of his merits. He tends to ignore the realities of power in favour of the constitutional and procedural formalities in which they are cloaked. While influence is an elusive concept, power is not. It depends upon the possession of sanctions. Trade unionists have two—the ability to vote and the ability to strike. So long as the Labour Party remains a possible alternative government and while the general level of employment remains high, trade unions wield a great deal of negative power. They can hardly hope to sponsor pieces of class legislation as blatant as—for example—Commercial Television or the Town and Country Planning Act of 1958. But they have so far successfully blocked proposals for worsening their own legal status, while attacks on the social services have been delayed by the probability that they would provoke vigorous compensatory wage claims. In rightly demonstrating the inability of the unions to exercise much direct influence on legislation, while neglecting their considerable negative powers, Vic Allen presents too gloomy a picture of the prevailing balance of class forces.