Ted Grant

Bevin defends his Anti-Labour laws

Written: May 1944
Source: Socialist Appeal, vol. 5 no. 22 (May 1944)
Transcription: Lisi 2004
Markup/Proofread:: Emil 2006

There is a conspiracy in Britain at the present time, a vicious conspiracy by the capitalists to take away the rights of the working class under the guise of an attack upon Trotskyist “agitators”. And in this they have the wholehearted support of the top strata of the trade union bureaucrats.

Hand in hand with the lynch campaign against the Trotskyists, has gone a campaign of slander and vilification against the miners, engineers, apprentices and other workers provoked into taking strike action by the policies of the employers and their Government.

The debate in Parliament on the new anti-strike, anti-Labour laws has shown the meaning of these new regulations very clearly. Any miner or engineer knows that the recent strikes were not caused by “agitators” but by the stupid and arrogant attitude of the employers and of the Government departments concerned. And not least by the high-handed and undemocratic actions of the trade union leaders, who made agreements bristling with anomalies and provocations without bothering to consult the men they were supposed to represent, to find out if they were in agreement with the conditions or not.

In preparing to launch an attack on the workers in 1924, the ruling class framed the leaders of the Communist Party in the now notorious Campbell Case.[1] This was a preparation for the General Strike which the ruling class was provoking. Today, in preparing to beat down the workers, the capitalists once again prepare to jail those who represent the interests of the workers—the communists, the genuine revolutionary communists are being arrested and persecuted.

Thus, this new Law, Defence Regulation 1AA,[2] as has been openly stated, is aimed at the Revolutionary Communist Party because of the fear of the power of the ideas of revolutionary socialism which must gain greater and greater support from the working class in the days to come. Nevertheless, the wider implications of the new regulation reveal it as one of the biggest blows against the working class since the Combination Laws, and beside which the Trade Disputes Act seems a piece of amateur bungling in its efforts to hamstring the working class.

Mr. Neil Maclean, Labour member for Govan assessing the position stated:

“All you need do now is to put into the Regulation authority for a Judge to transport people overseas to penal settlements and we shall be back to the days of the Tolpuddle martyrs. The Minister of Labour is one of those who took part in a demonstration to celebrate the place of the Tolpuddle martyrs in trade union history, but he is now taking part in throwing back the trade union movement. Of course, the regulation satisfies a large number of Hon. Members [members of parliament] who do not like trade unionism and think it should not be permitted. It was they who cheered when the Trades Disputes Bill was brought into the House, who welcomed it and voted [it] into law. Their successors are likely to walk into the lobby today and vote for the continuation of this Regulation which has already been established.”

But the peculiar feature of this new Regulation, and one for which it would be difficult to find an exact parallel in British Trade Union history, is the open recognition of the gulf that now exists between the union bureaucrats and the working class. A gulf which is to be bridged, not by the bureaucrats attempting to regain the confidence of the workers, or consulting the workers before committing themselves to signing agreements with the employers, but by calling in the aid of the police to protect the bureaucrats from all “militants” and “unofficial’ movements in the workshop.

Aneurin Bevan, who is close to these trade union bureaucrats was compelled to say:

“It is an astonishing situation to see Conservative members giving special legal protection not to trade unions but to trade union officials because it is trade union officials who are invoking the law against their own members. Do not let anybody on this side of the House think that he is defending the trade unions; he is defending the trade union official, who has arterio-sclerosis, and who cannot readjust himself to his membership. He is defending the official who has become so unpopular among his own membership that the only way he can keep them in order is to threaten them with five years in gaol. Whenever you get the rank and file at trade union meetings this Regulation will be opposed. The General Council of the T.U.C., at the top, supports it, but the worker at the bottom opposes it. The further you get away from the trade union official to the rank and file, the less support the Regulation gets. The more you move away from reality, from the robust, dignified, normal worker, to the jaded, cynical, irresponsible trade union official the more support the Regulation gets. That is the situation.”

The effect of this law on the shop steward and trade union organisation in the factories, if carried out, would make any worker liable who suggested strike action—after negotiations have failed to give the workers any satisfaction. Any reaction by the workers to victimisation of shop stewards or convenors would make the workers liable to five years. If any worker indignantly threatened strike action against an arbitrary wage reduction, he would be immediately liable.

The new Regulation declares:

“No person shall declare, instigate or incite any other person to take part in, or shall otherwise act in furtherance of any strike, among persons engaged in the performance of essential services, or any lock-out of persons so engaged.”

The effect of this is to make any expression of sympathy or support for workers on strike punishable by five years imprisonment and a fine of 500. Further, anyone who takes, or advocates any action which can be construed as leading to a strike in any industry, at any meeting or discussion which is not an officially convened union meeting, makes himself liable to the same penalty. If the union bureaucrats continue to sign agreements with which the rank and file disagrees, a protest expressed other than through the official machinery of the union would make any worker voicing it guilty of the same offence. Any workers who protest outside a union branch against any agreements signed by trade union officials whether they have been consulted or not; could be proceeded against under the new Regulation, if it could be said that this might lead to strike action.

This is only one aspect of this vicious Regulation. It is intended to place the workers in the power of the employers, bound hand and foot. But the Tories could never, at the present time, have succeeded in getting away with such legislation without the active assistance of the trade union bureaucrats. The bureaucrats are calling in the assistance of the police against their own membership. If the trade union bureaucrats genuinely represented their members, or signed agreements they were confident would get the support of the workers, how could such a nightmare situation arise in the Labour movement?

It is clear that the union leaders are expecting storms in industry in Britain in the future, not because of “agitators” but because of the unbearable strain and conditions to which the workers have been subjected. They propose to cure this, not by demanding “sacrifices” from the rapacious bosses, but by siding with the bosses and calling in the police to whip the workers into line. That is how they have degenerated!

The role of the Communist Party

Because of the alarm and fear within their own ranks, and because of the tremendous opposition of the rank and file trade unionists throughout the country, the Stalinists have been compelled to offer demagogic opposition to the Regulation. Mr. D. N. Pritt, Stalinist stooge in Parliament, analysed many flaws in the Act, but went on to say that it was not necessary to pass new laws against the Trotskyists. In reply to a jeer from Ernest Bevin, who asked if he wanted 18B, Pritt answered:

“Not only 18B but also 2D. The Government, instead of supplying paper for the Socialist Appeal should stop the paper itself.”

Thus, these traitors, who have sold out to the boss class, ask for police aid against their revolutionary opponents. This attitude of the Stalinists is particularly despicable in view of their agitation against 18B and the use of the emergency regulations to suppress the Daily Worker. Then we opposed with all our forces the use of reactionary legislation against any section of the Labour movement, even if we disagreed with them completely. Because a blow at one section is a blow at the whole Labour movement.

But these renegades will resort to any measure to stifle the voice of revolutionary communism which tells the truth to the workers. 18B used against one section of the Labour movement, the Trotskyists, could just as easily be used against the working class as a whole, once the precedent is established. Bevin made this clear in his speech when he showed that this legislation directed against Trotskyism today could be used against Stalinism as well, if Stalin changed his foreign policy, and his British flunkeys switched the line once again. Indeed, Bevin attempted to justify the Regulations as much by the future danger of the Stalinists as against the Trotskyists :


“I did consider this Regulation a long time ago. I thought it would become inevitable. That was when this war was called an imperialist war, and I was getting strikes all up and down the country, without provocation, and by design. (An Hon. Member: ‘Were they Trotskyists?’)—No, they were a majority, who suddenly decided that this war was not an imperialist war. The Trotskyists were ‘wee frees’, who did not accept that. At the critical moment this change came, and, in my anxiety not to introduce anything else, we went on without taking any further steps. Until this development took place, when the second front was really in danger, and when at the moment—and I say this with a great sense of responsibility—we cannot afford to have our industrial machine upset by the changes in diplomacy or anything else that is going on between Governments. I say that with emphasis. We cannot afford to have shop stewards and other people turned on to us at a critical moment in this country’s history, whichever side it comes from...”

“I regard the life of this country as being at stake in this, because I believe that this country has the right to govern itself, and not to be governed by anybody else outside...”

Bevin has introduced this Regulation after consideration with the T.U.C. tops, as he explains it “democratically” and because it “affects them.” But as usual, he has not consulted the rank and file trade unionists who are the ones to be affected. Thus, this Government which has no mandate from the electorate passes this new tyrannical legislation into effect...

The endorsement of the Regulation was a foregone conclusion. What was important was the number of Labour M.P.s who voted against—23. And the number who abstained—14. That is one third of the Labour M.P.s. This is a reflection of the pressure and indignation of the Labour workers. But by itself a vote in the House of Commons is worthless, without a struggle to extricate the Labour and Trade Union movement from the stranglehold of Big Business. The coalition is responsible! Wage a campaign to end the coalition, must be the answer.

If the trade union movement is not to be destroyed, the workers must fight to restore democratic control over their officials. No trade union official should have a life-long job but must come up for re-election every two or three years. It is because the Trotskyists struggle for this programme that they are hated by the trade union bureaucrats. They fear for their jobs if it is left to a democratic decision of the workers.

Fight in the unions, factories, and branches for the repeal of this, and all other anti-working class regulations, including the Trade Disputes Act!