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.
One could question, too, the author’s treatment of the political element in strikes. He is right to show the negligible importance of political strikes in Britain’s industrial history. But when the workers in a nationalised industry go on strike against the consequences of Government policies, it is hardly possible to keep political factors out of the campaign. Allen criticises, by implication, the leaders of the London Bus Strike in 1958 for “mixing their industrial claims with political issues”. Yet the miners and railwaymen are now facing the threat of decentralisation. While this can be presented as a matter of economic and political policy, it can also affect the wages of a million workers. If the NUM and the NUR decide to throw their full weight against the change, it will hardly be possible to avoid the “mixing” which Allen appears to deprecate.
This is a valuable book because it provokes more questions than it answers, because it gives rise to a discussion of neglected topics and because, above all, it provides so many of the facts which we must have if our “new thinking” is to become more than a joke gone sour.