The Fires of Perfect Liberty: Labouring Men and Women of England 1851-1951, Part Ten.   Leave a comment

The Road to 1945 and Beyond (2/3)

009Most observers expected the Conservatives to win the General Election in the summer of 1945. However, both before and during the war there had been a strong movement to the Labour Party which could be detected in both by-elections and opinion polls. Yet The Times found nothing remarkable in the Conservatives losing both Chelmsford and Motherwell in April 1945. Churchill, like many other observers, confused heartfelt public votes of gratitude for the way he had led the British people over the past five years of war with votes in the ballot box for how they wanted to be led over the next five years of peace. Some workers were prepared to carry their gratitude into the polling stations. When the Labour Party agent called on my grandparents to make the usual arrangements to turn their front room into the campaign office, he was amazed to see a poster of Churchill in the bay window, with the words Let us go Forward Together on it. Vera told him that he would have to find somewhere else to run the campaign from, as she felt she had to support Mr Churchill. This was the only occasion she did not actively support the Labour Party from the 1929 election, when she gained the vote, right through to 1979. Pugnaciously over-confident, Churchill ran the national campaign of abrasive vilification against the welfare state plans of the Labour Party. Their execution of these plans would, he said in a broadcast on 4 June, inevitably involve…

…some form of Gestapo, no doubt very humanely directed in the first instance. And this would nip opinion in the bud… it would gather all the power to the supreme party and the party leaders, rising like stately pinnacles above their vast bureaucracies of civil servants, no longer servants and no longer civil… My friends, I must tell you that a Socialist Policy is abhorrent to the British ideas of freedom… a free Parliament, is odious to the Socialist doctrinaire.


069His attempt to demonise socialism as being somehow outside the mainstream of British history was an extraordinary reversion to the polemics of the mid-twenties, despite all the collaboration of wartime coalition and the acceptance by the reform group of Conservative MPs of the principles and many of the proposed practices of the Beveridge Report. In a quietly sardonic reply, Clement Attlee, still a relatively unknown figure to many of the electorate, told them that he realised what the aim of Churchill’s twisting of Labour policy had been. He wanted the electors to understand how great was the difference between Winston Churchill, the great leader in war of a united nation, and Mr Churchill, the party leader of the Conservatives.

He had feared that those who had accepted his leadership in war might be tempted out of gratitude to follow him further now thanked him for having disillusioned them so thoroughly.

Churchill was confident enough of the outcome of the election to go to a summit meeting at Potsdam with Stalin and Truman on 15 July. Stalin told him that his sources indicated a Tory majority of eighty. But the big-hitters in the Labour Party had removed their gloves, and went for the Tories. Sidney Silverman gave voice to a now popular demand to be rid of the threat of a return to the pre-war conditions which the Tories had presided over:

The victory of free men and women over Nazism and Fascism is a challenge to us all … shall we face again poverty and unemployment? … we have brought freedom to so many people. Let us now liberate ourselves.

006 (3)At the Labour Party Conference held just before the General Election, Aneurin Bevan (right) whipped up the emotional counter-current by stating that, our aim was the political extinction of the Tory Party. That was almost what happened as the results came in on 26 July, confounding and dumbfounding most observers. In a turn-out of seventy-three per cent, Labour won 393 seats to the Conservatives’ 213, giving them an absolute majority of 154. For the first time in its history, the Labour Party received almost forty per cent of the votes of the total electorate and almost half of all the votes cast. At no election in the interwar period was the poll so heavy.

In every area of the country, not just the traditional strongholds, they swept to victory and the size of the national swing towards them was twelve per cent. With the MacDonald Factor now a distant memory, the reunited party gained 226 seats where in 1935 a Labour candidate had been defeated. These seats included parts of England normally considered beyond the reach of Labour, e.g. the Home Counties, the Eastern Counties, the East Midlands and the South West. Perhaps the most significant results came in the industrial Midlands, where the Unionist constituencies dominated by the Chamberlain dynasty for more than half a century, were wiped out.

003Perhaps this was due, at least in part, to the facts published by the Birmingham Social Survey Committee at the beginning of the war, which showed that on some housing estates on the city’s outskirts, fourteen per cent of families had insufficient income to buy the minimum diet recommended by the British Medical Association, and this at a time when both employment and earnings were higher than ever before in Birmingham’s long industrial history. More than one-third of the children living on the Kingstanding estate were living below the national poverty line.

As G. D. H. Cole, Chairman of the Fabian Society pointed out, in 1945, in his preface to Mark Abrams’ book on The Condition of the British People, 1911-45, pointed out that even regional statistics tended to obscure the continuance of absolute poverty and slumdom in every big city, of serious malnutrition, especially in the larger families, and of sharp inequalities of educational and social opportunity.

For millions, Labour’s landslide seemed like the millennium they had dreamed would replace the threats of mass unemployment, poverty and war. It also reflected the economic advances and progress that many had made, which gave them an enhanced sense of self-confidence, which has since been demonstrated as almost a prerequisite of subsequent Labour electoral victories. The general mood of optimism rather than that of desperation experienced before the war was what persuaded many non-traditional voters to back Labour. Never before had a government been elected with such enthusiasm and with such a mandate for radical social change. Bonfires were again lit in the streets, old men openly wept with joy, for the long night was over. Clement Attlee had awaited the election results at Transport House and calmly accepted the victory.

008The photograph (right) shows him with Arthur Deakin, second on the left, front row, acting General Secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union. In the House of Commons the party stood and sang The Red Flag to the disbelief and demoralised bewilderment of the Conservative opposition who had shared Churchill’s belief that a socialist Britain could not be Britain. Hugh Dalton recalled the atmosphere among his Labour Colleagues:

There was a new society to be built; and we had the power to build it. There was exhilaration and confidence. We felt exalted, dedicated, walking on air, walking with destiny.

Mark Abrams concluded that the first generation of products of the Secondary and Technical schools had responded to Attlee’s call for courage, imagination and social conscience. He added, perhaps somewhat nervously, that, at least for the time being they had ignored those whose appeal was to envy, self-seeking and retreat from social responsibility. The next five years would show them if, in the Labour Party, they had found a way out from the old unsatisfying life of political apathy, perplexity and cynicism. The confidence and the determination of Labour to act to assure them of this after their electoral success was summed up by the phrase, We are the masters now!, (…and for some time to come!) used by the Attorney-General, Harvey Shawcross, during a debate in 1946. In the event, they had a little over six years, in which much was achieved despite the continuing austerity and uneasy peace which followed the war.

The Labour government was quick to honour its pledge to nationalise the mines, the terms of the Coal Industry Nationalisation Bill being published on 21 December 1945. Eventually, after passage through Commons and the formation of the National Coal Board, the vesting date was finally set for 1 January 1947. Whatever the misgivings of many trades unionists on the final structure for the administration of the industry, the miners, after generations of exploitation and fierce struggle, acclaimed with enthusiasm the Act that passed the ownership of the mines to the people. The pictorial illustrations and slogans which adorned the lodge banners throughout the mining communities left no doubt as to the importance the miners gave to nationalisation.

009It was a euphoria born of decades of oppression; for the old miners, this was the realisation of a dream, while for the young, their hope for the future. The photograph of George Short (left), born in 1872, who started work underground at the age of twelve, perfectly illustrates the mood of 1947. In his face is a life of work and hardship, while at his side the banner of the NCB symbolises hope realised at the end of a working life, a dignified conclusion and the beginning of a better future for the miners as a whole, at least for a few decades to come.

 Apart from the more predictable consequences of six years of war, the government also had to contend with the particularly harsh winter of January and February 1947, memories of which remained acute for years, even decades, afterwards. Temperatures had been at their lowest for over a century, while unemployment had briefly risen to prewar levels of two and a half million, and the floods that came with the thaw wrought destruction on the nation’s agriculture. Nevertheless, the recovery was back on course by the end of that year and in 1948, bread, potatoes and preserves were taken off ration, followed the next year by clothes, boots and shoes.


013However, milk, tea, sugar meat, bacon, butter, fats, and soap all remained on ration (right), and the fresh meat allocation was a minuscule eight pennyworth a week. Austerity was a word reiterated remorselessly by the Tory press and bombsites and derelict buildings remained as ugly reminders that post-war reconstruction was still at its beginning. However, if life was indeed austere, it was better for the majority than it had been in the years before the war.

In Suffolk, however, most of the basic realties of life continued; young men continued to be conscripted for two years’ voluntary two years’ National Service, rationing remained in place and so did the Americans, with whom many Suffolkers had a love-hate relationship. They were amused at the way the Yanks rushed round the quaint villages taking photos and making brass rubbings in the churches, but were not so amused when they danced with local girls or told the local people how they had won the war for them. Gradually, the airfields were abandoned, Nissen huts were sold off to farmers, and the Defence Ministry personnel went back to London, leaving the country houses they had commandeered to decay. Old problems returned to plague the county once again – unemployment and rural depopulation, low land and property values, and urban sprawl. Council estates were built to replace war damage and cater for the growing town populations. However, the overall population of the county, which had been decreasing for over a century, fell to 475,000 by 1951.

Railway traffic declined and several Suffolk branch lines closed well before the Beeching Axe fell. Reinvesting in exhausted railways was not a priority after the war. Railway nationalisation was soon followed by rail closures, so that by the early fifties nearly two thousand kilometres (1,200 miles) of railway had been closed to passenger traffic. Industrial change brought the loss of staple coal and textile traffic. Britain’s compact industrial geography also diminished any long-haul advantages that railways had over modern road transport. Comparatively low-cost bus services damaged the railways further. Road transport recovered slowly from vehicle and fuel shortages after the war. Road haulage was assisted by the lifting of the twenty-five mile limit on road freight consignments. Yet, even though private car ownership and use expanded to three million, between 1939 and 1952 there was practically no major road improvement or new road construction anywhere in Britain. Without a developed inland transport network, Suffolk was one of the areas that could not share in the slow national return to prosperity from the early fifties.

The Labour government was at pains to make its collectivist economic programme look patriotically legitimate. Taking twenty per cent of the economy into public ownership was called nationalisation. In addition to the mines, the steelworks, the railways, the nascent road haulage industry, and the airlines were all taken into public ownership. Public utilities, such as gas, electricity and the cable and wireless companies were all nationalised, as indeed was another great British institution, the Bank of England. The new public enterprises were also given patriotic corporate identities: British Steel, the British Overseas Airways Corporation, British Railways. Being British was recast as being a member of a community of shared ownership, obligations and benefits: co-op Britain. It would also be a Britain in which the most socially damaged areas of Wales, Scotland and industrial England would have the same rights as those of southern England. This time, to revisit Orwell’s metaphor, the right family members would be in control, and there would be no poor relations.

The reforms carried through by the Labour governments were not irreversible, but the fact that the Conservative administrations of Churchill and Macmillan chose not to reverse them shows how much of a post-war political consensus had been established by 1951. The creation of the National Health Service by Aneurin Bevan in 1948, despite considerable political and medical profession opposition, and his commitment to building publicly owned, rented housing. This was a massive programme of reform, unprecedented in scope and scale, even compared with the reforms of the Liberal governments of 1906-11, which were not, in any case, a programme, offered to the electorate in a manifesto. On housing, health and social insurance, Labour kept the promises it made in Let Us Face the Future, and went into the 1950 General Election pointing out in its manifesto, Let Us Win Through Together that it had placed on the Statute Book four Great Acts of Parliament – the National Insurance, Industrial Injuries, National Assistance and National Health Services Acts.

Over a million new houses were built, a comprehensive social insurance scheme was begun and the National Health Service was inaugurated. Surveys suggested that, by 1951, poverty had been all but eliminated. The postwar years also saw full employment, and the government established special development areas, in which half the new buildings of the late 1940s were sited, in an attempt to avoid a return to the depressed areas of the prewar decade. A dozen new towns were built, the first of an eventual twenty-seven, designed to draw population from over-crowded cities like London, and to create balanced urban communities.

The degree of success which historians, with the benefit of hindsight, ascribe to these reforms, depends on their view of The Welfare State. Writing in 1979, the year that Margaret Thatcher came to power promising to roll back the (Welfare) State, Bédarida pointed out that while the Labour government had started with boundless ambition, envisaging a total transformation of society, they were only able to achieve a fraction of their programme, the setting up of the Welfare State. Bédarida defines this as a new social set-up that guaranteed a minimum of security and benefit to all, but also points to the broader meanings that the concept acquired in both historical and contemporary perspectives:

The expression soon acquired official status, appearing in the Oxford English Dictionary as early as 1955 as a polity so organised that every member of the community is assured of his due maintenance with the most advantageous conditions possible for all… But Bédarida felt that this was a narrow and rather technical definition… amounting to little more than an enlargement of social services. The phrase needed to be viewed, in his opinion, in a wider context to give it its fuller meaning. In this sense it stood as the symbol of the structure of post-war Britain – a society with a mixed economy and full employment, where individualism is tempered by state intervention, where the right to work and a basic standard of living are guaranteed, and the working-class movement, now accepted and recognised, finds its rightful place in the nation… He went on:

In seeking to determine the significance of the Welfare State one must bear three points in mind. Firstly, to use the word ’revolution’ is to devalue its meaning… In the second place, the arrival of the Welfare State was situated in the mainstream of the history of democratic freedom, linking the pioneers of the London Corresponding Society with the militants of the Independent Labour Party… the Nonconformist Conscience with Christian Socialism… Finally, if the Welfare State was the grandchild of Beveridge and Keynes, it was no less the child of the Fabians, since it concentrated on legislative, administrative and centralising methods to the detriment of ’workers’ control’. But in thus stamping on any frail aspiration towards a libertarian organisation of society, Labour laid itself open to a charge that would weigh heavily on it in the future, namely that of wanting to impose a bureaucratic form of socialism.    

Attlee’s administrations were not revolutionary by nature, but rather evolutionary in approach, ensuring a proper balance between making necessary radical changes while at the same time keeping the continuity of British institutions and traditions, especially those connected with the constitutional monarchy. There was little debate between the parties at the time as to whether a Welfare State was needed, though there were differences about how soon it could be afforded, and about the means by which it would be achieved. In its 1945 Manifesto, the Labour Party had accepted that such great national programmes of education, health and social services were likely to be costly, and that only an efficient and prosperous nation could afford them in full measure, but, they argued, there was no good reason why Britain should not afford such programmes. Though the manifesto had not referred to Beveridge by name, it acknowledged that while the Party had played a leading part in the long campaign for… social provision against rainy days, this was not, exclusively, their proposition.

In its 1950 Manifesto, it also pointed out that the first major national programme, that of Education, had already been enacted in 1944, by the Wartime Coalition, with the Conservative Minister, R A Butler guiding the legislation through Parliament. The 1944 Act gave LEAs a framework within which to make their postwar plans. Each LEA was therefore required to produce a Development Plan to indicate their intentions to the Ministry. The first Development Plan for Coventry, prepared in June 1946, revealed that Coventry had a school age population of thirty thousand. The Authority traced its problems back to the 1920s and 1930s when a rapid growth in population resulted in insufficient school accommodation. The war-time destruction and devastation of school buildings had exaggerated the accommodation difficulties still further. If it was to comply with the requirements of the Act, it indicated that it not only had to rebuild and repair war damaged schools, but it also had to complete the Hadow reorganisation of its schools which was started before the war. Only when this had been completed could it commence new developments in secondary education.


Despite the Ministry’s inclination towards a tripartite division of secondary schooling, shared by the new Labour administration, Coventry proposed multilateral schools. The 1946 Development Plan contained a proposal for ten multilateral schools with eight-form entry, giving a total of twelve and a half thousand places, with three Voluntary Modern schools (two Catholic, one Church of England), two single-sex boarding schools and two independent boys’ grammar schools making up the remaining three thousand places needed. However, the Ministry felt that the Plan had underestimated the size of the city’s school population and future needs for schools. Secondly, they considered the proposed multilateral schools were not sufficiently large, and that they should be increased to ten form entry. This was partly because the main consideration was how many pupils were required in these schools to produce a viable post-sixteen, or sixth form. The Authority submitted a revised plan in which it met some of the Ministry’s objections. However, the question of school size remained unsettled, and the LEA also shifted in its terminology and definition of the schools towards the comprehensive ideal, at least as an ultimate goal. The main practical difference between the two models was that a multilateral school was envisaged as offering a diversity of curricula, whereas a comprehensive school was one in which all pupils would follow a common curriculum to sixteen. In Coventry, the two terms were used interchangeably, because providing multilateral types of schooling on the same site meant that Coventry’s secondary schools would also provide elements of the tripartite system. By the early part of 1949 the LEA had decided in favour of comprehensive schools. This idea was applauded by the local press in March when a reporter stated:

Coventry is to be one of the first authorities to build a new school of the ’Comprehensive’ type. The idea is one favoured by the Ministry of Education. It has been brought forward because of the pressure on school accommodation now and to come. In Coventry the shortage is chronic, and any scheme that will provide more and better classrooms is welcomed.

A 1948 survey made by the Ministry of Education into the physical conditions of the city’s schools estimated that, overall, twenty per cent of their classrooms were in poor huts, hired accommodation and other makeshift premises. In addition, more than a quarter of all secondary school classes contained more than forty pupils, a situation that HMI (His Majesty’s Inspectors) regarded as a most unsatisfactory position for both the children and the teachers. In 1950, their report on one city secondary school commented its dilapidated wooden huts, both containing two classrooms, one an annexe hired by the LEA a quarter of a mile away, a poor, ill-lit building without playing space, the use of which could only be justified by the present critical emergency. One headmaster who was a member of the city’s special advisory group commented forty years later that, even if there had been no Education Act in 1944, Coventry would have needed to develop new schools as much of what remained of the prewar provision after the bombing was inadequate. Coventry’s move towards comprehensive schools can therefore be attributed to several factors relating to postwar accommodation, overcrowding, the poor quality of existing buildings and the ever-growing demand for places from the increasing population. The Authority could justifiably claim that, unlike other LEAs, the special circumstances facing it gave it few options but to adopt and develop a comprehensive school system. By the time Churchill’s Conservative Government came to power in 1951, the die was already cast, and it the Authority’s case was irresistible.

Coventry is named in numerous books on the development of the education system in England and Wales as a pioneer in the comprehensive movement, a champion of the cause of revolutionising the English school system. However, to understand the reality and significance of the later development of comprehensive education in Coventry, it is important to ask how, in its conception, it was defined locally. Until the early 1950s comprehensive education was only a vague idea in the English and Welsh school system. There were no buildings to visit, nor were any schools which could be seen in operation. There was little agreement in contemporary writing about what constituted a comprehensive school. The key element in the concept in Coventry was that it could start with first principles, with a range of local planners, including administrators, architects, councillors, educationists and teachers able to work together to translate a set of abstract ideas into educational practice, for the benefit of all the city’s children. Just as, at the national level, Bevan was concerned to develop the NHS as an example of socialist Britain working in practice, so the postwar Coventry school system, although also having some ideological origins, was, essentially, a practical expression of a municipal socialism already well-established in the City corporation.

001Alongside the redevelopment of Coventry’s secondary school system, the first part of the City Architect’s plan for the bomb-damaged central area came to fruition in 1948, with the completion of Broadgate House. However, Donald Gibson’s city plan was not published until 1951. Brave new Coventry, with its precinct shopping centre (right), ring road and new Cathedral became an early symbol of Britain’s postwar rejuvenation.

017From the 1951 Festival of Britain showground  (left) to the Pathe newsreel, Coventry was presented as a snapshot of life in post-austerity Britain. Gibson’s first problem was that, unlike in other bomb-damaged centres such as Exeter, there were few substantial buildings of character for the architect to respect. What remained after the bombing was a hotchpotch of medieval wood frame edifices and tatty Victorian in filling.

There were no graceful corner structures to build around, nor were there many major buildings in the heart of the central area, such as Exeter’s magnificent market hall, which warranted preservation.

Secondly, in terms of its population, Coventry was probably like nowhere else in mid-twentieth century Britain. Nearly half of the local citizens had come from elsewhere in Britain, most of these from quite remote industrial areas, and a high proportion of the remainder were the children of migrants. The sense of local identity and character among the population was weaker than in many other Midland cities, such as nearby Birmingham, Leicester and Nottingham. The planning authorities had somehow to create a sense of civic loyalty among these newly arrived Coventrians, so they were pleasantly surprised when the plan for wholesale redevelopment of the city centre met with considerable enthusiasm, with droves of citizens, old and new, visiting the model exhibition. The transport department ran a special bus tour of the city centre with a planning official on board pointing out the main areas of redevelopment to the passengers. Perhaps this reaction was to be expected during the dark days of post-war austerity in a large working class city that had recently suffered so much. In particular, the idea of a new centre with bountiful retail outlets gave all Coventrians something to look forward to.

No-one would doubt that the achievements of the Labour governments were considerable. They undertook the massive dual task of social reconstruction and social transformation with vigour, and attempted to establish a new social order. Yet their success in this area must be viewed against their economic failures and inept foreign policy. The creation of the Welfare State did not, by itself, bring about a transformation of society. It was symbolic of that aim, but was also, in many ways, a substitute for it. Besides, most of the Labour ministers also remained loyal supporters of what Orwell had called The Lion and the Unicorn back in 1941, committed, in true Methodist fashion, to doing things decently and in order, even though they were more semi-detached from the Establishment than those in the National and Coalition governments.

The main problems they faced were the huge war debts, larger than any other nation in history, and was precariously dependent on American aid, and these two factors ultimately crippled the new government. In addition, whether they liked the fact or not, Britain was still committed to crippling defence costs around the world, rising to ten per cent of gross domestic product, far higher than that of any other European state. The idealistic assumption was made, mistakenly, that public ownership of key industries, with its replacement of the incentive for private profit replaced by cooperative enterprise, would somehow lead to greater productivity. There were periods in 1948 and 1950 when export surges made these projections look more realistic, but these were not sustained. They were the result of the same kind of pattern of post-war demand that Britain had experienced in the immediate aftermath of world war one. Eventually, the British economy would have to contend with the long-term reality of shrinking demand for its exports. As G. D. H. Cole had realistically pointed out in 1945, it was undeniable that Britain had lagged behind many other countries in developing its productivity and had thus failed adequately to increase the size of the cake which the Labour government had now to share out with less monstrous unfairness than before. He had also warned:

 It will become much more important to ensure that industry adjusts itself to providing types of employment to match the composition of the labour force, and that the State takes a hand in ensuring that the available labour is used with due regard to social priorities of production under the conditions of full employment.

As the case of Coventry shows, this restructuring failed to happen over the following six years of Labour rule, at least as far as the corporate or private motor manufacturing and light engineering industries were concerned. In addition, US loans came with firm conditions that Britain continue to play a major role in the Atlantic Alliance in resisting the growing communist threats, especially in those regions where it had maintained imperial dominance before the war, including the Middle East. In 1949, having tried to assert Britain’s independence from the USA, Bevin found himself negotiating Marshall Aid for Britain, and paying a high price for it in loss of that same independence. Not only were American B-29 bombers stationed in East Anglia from 1948, with nuclear capacity from 1950, but from 1951 Britain followed the USA into the Korean War. Then the government had to accept increased expenditure on the armed forces, cutting welfare spending, which resulted in Aneurin Bevan’s resignation and also triggered a balance of payments crisis and a second general election is as many years. It was a temporary deficit, but by the time balance had been restored, in 1953, Labour was out of office.

The Labour government kept its promise to see through the transition to Indian Independence in August 1947, and the Commonwealth became a multi-racial institution, eventually replacing the Empire. Nevertheless, in the short-term, welfare-state Britain was still committed to replacing an old empire with a new one. Ernest Bevin, now Foreign Secretary, turned out to be almost as much of an imperialist as Churchill. He had begun his working life as a Somerset farm labourer’s boy, but perhaps it was his battles with the communists in the Labour movement in the 1930s which had turned him into such an ardent defender of Empire by the beginning of the Cold War era.

010Besides, new markets were being found for the British engineering products which had supplied the expanding home market before the war, including Morris Minors from Cowley and Rolls-Royce engines from Coventry, in return for a steady supply of petroleum to drive the same engines back home. The photograph of car workers on the assembly line in Cowley in 1946 shows that a boom in production was already well underway by 1950.

In 1945 fewer than seventeen thousand cars were manufactured in Britain, but by 1950 the figure had reached a record level of well over half a million, many being sold to Middle Eastern countries, thus improving the country’s balance of trade figures.

In Coventry, the most crucial divergence between the Standard Motor Company, supremely successful in delivering war contracts, came at the end of the War. Most of the other companies sought to roll back wartime union gains and to re-establish prewar wages and conditions as far as possible, though in practice with little success. John Black’s strategy was in complete contrast to this approach. He foresaw both an acute shortage of labour and an insatiable market for cars and opted to continue his high wage/ high output pattern into peacetime as a springboard to lift Standard into the league of mass producers. His initiative was strongly supported by Jack Jones, but brought him into conflict with the Coventry District Engineering Employers’ Association, leading to the Company’s expulsion from the Engineering Employers’ Federation nationally. Black believed that his policy was one which all the other Coventry firms would be forced to follow, but in practice he was proved wrong. Standard was not able to achieve a quantitative leap in its share of the market, and other firms found that they did not have to follow his lead in order to recruit the labour that they required. Over the next decade wage levels at Standard slowly fell back towards the more normal high wages of other Coventry motor manufacturers.

Nevertheless, the 1945/48 Agreement which initiated this system was a quite remarkable one, even for a time of full employment. It cut hours to forty-two and a half per week, compared with the average of forty-four for Federated firms, though it was not until 1948 that a comprehensive agreement covering the organisation of production and payment was concluded. It provided for the reduction of the number of gangs from over a hundred to fifteen at the main plant at Canley, with one giant gang at the Banner Lane engine works. The previous sixty-eight job grades were cut down to just eight, bonus was to be paid on gang output and prices were to be negotiated with each gang. There was an average twenty per cent wage increase and a guaranteed minimum wage of five pounds per week for all adult male workers. In addition, all labour would be recruit through the union, thus ensuring de facto a closed shop. Not only did this agreement concede high wages, but it also institutionalised large gangs as powerful bargaining units. It was also the less skilled workers, disproportionately represented in the TGWU who benefited most.

As far as John Black was concerned, the object was to devise an incentive system with a close correlation of effort, output and rewards, put it in place and then leave it to run itself. However, the price paid in terms of loss of traditional managerial control was high. The shop stewards enjoyed a great deal of job control: stopwatches were banned and all final prices had to be agreed with them as well as the gangs. The union controlled both the hiring of labour and the amount of overtime to be worked. After 1946 there was a very real sense that, while the company was riding the crest of a wave, it was the shop stewards who were running the company. In 1950 Black tried to get back control over hiring and to cut back on high-priced gangs, but was forced to back down through shop-floor action. In addition, there were divisive pressures within the incentive system, leading to rivalries both within and between gangs. In the early years of the Standard system, Black’s unique managerial strategy had linked up with the nascent union organisation and each had strengthened the other. The dominance of the TGWU and the unusually strong links between its District Secretary, Jack Jones, and the shop stewards, helped to achieve coherence on the union side. However, for all the progress that the system achieved within the works, it was geared to an expansion into the front rank of mass producers in Britain that never materialised.

At the Rootes assembly works at Ryton, on the outskirts of the city, and their engine plant at Stoke, a significant shop floor organisation had come about during the war but, unlike at Standard, it only flourished after a bitter attempt by management to roll back union gains between 1944 and 1946. The company attempted to tighten works discipline and push piecework prices down to prewar levels using redundancies and victimisations of leading shop stewards. After a long struggle culminating in a major strike in 1946, union organisation held the line. The strike victory owed something to the intervention of the Ministry of Labour who suspended half the redundancy notices, but more to the widespread district support from other factories and union branches who realised its strategic importance. Management backed down, but they did not immediately reconcile themselves to the union presence. In 1947 the Rootes brothers decided on a frontal assault on what they regarded as the Communist troublemakers of the unions, and sacked sixty Trim shop workers including the leading stewards in the plant. To their surprise, the NUVB Executive made the resulting strike official, and a lengthy dispute was only ended with a compromise settlement when they agreed to allow half the sackings to stand as long as the other half, including the non-Communist steward, were reinstated. Thereafter the management at Rootes adopted a more conciliatory style. By 1950 Rootes’ Coventry factories were 99 per cent unionised.

Before the Second World War, Jaguar too had been a bitterly anti-union firm. The founder and owner, Sir William Lyons, finally formally recognised the unions in 1946, but the hostility lingered on. Between 1946 and 1951 the firm continued to dislodge the unions but failed mainly because of the strategic strength of skilled NUVB workers in the Body and Trim shops. Jaguar were still making prewar quality models by prewar methods in a prewar factory and they were heavily dependent on scarce craft skills in these departments. In the late 1940s recurrent short-time and lay-offs, mainly due to component shortages and restricted steel allocations, were the main causes of conflict. Despite these periodic clashes, including an eight-week strike over the sacking of two leading stewards in 1951, during which the NUVB held firm, the management at Jaguar accepted the permanence of the unions.

Workplace relations at Alfred Herbert, the leading machine tool firm in Coventry, present a sharp contrast to the three motor firms. Herbert’s before the war was a classic anti-union, paternalistic shop. Many of these elements were also to be found in the motor firms in those years, yet the Herbert system came through the war and postwar boom more or less intact. Unionism developed considerably during the war, but it did so largely on the basis of a female membership that was almost entirely excluded from the factory once the war ended. Even during the war, union organisation lacked self-confidence and tended to rely on arbitration rather than exerting direct pressure in the shops. After the war unions were tolerated but they had almost no bargaining power and were only consulted on a few limited issues such as pensions.

In the postwar boom, Coventry engineering workers pushed shop-floor bargaining further than any other comparable group of workers. Energetic sectional bargaining and direct workplace democracy won significant gains, though shop floor bargaining was always more cooperative and less confrontational than has often been argued. As local factories struggled to switch from arms to motor production it became essential for employers to involve the unions in shop floor management. Unions were granted recognition, high wage settlements and an element of control over recruitment. Many local firms prospered in the immediate postwar period with virtually no structure of junior management. The short-term benefits of this system of shop floor bargaining are demonstrated by Coventry’s increasing share of the UK motor market in the years 1945-50, in particular at Standard, where despite John Black’s disappointment at not breaking into the top rank of the industry. that share rose by forty per cent.

Posted November 10, 2014 by TeamBritanniaHu in Uncategorized

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