This month, The Winter of Discontent by Tara Martin López is our chosen #FreeReadFriday title. Learn more about the book below through our chat with the author, before it’s available to download free this Friday (7th of October).
Tara Martin López is Professor of Sociology at Peninsula College.*
1. What prompted you to write this book?
I first heard of the Winter of Discontent when discussing politics with a British friend who continually referred to how bad things were in 1979 when trade unions were supposedly “out of control.” According to him Margaret Thatcher intervened and brought Britain out of a socialist mire. I was amazed not only that a person born in 1980 would have such a potent memory of the event, but also that it was a touchstone of his conversations decades later. He also used this series of events as a political cudgel against the Labour movement and social democracy. My interest was immediately piqued, and I sought to work under historian Sheila Rowbotham at the University of Manchester to write my Ph.D. thesis on the topic. After finishing my Ph.D., I was awarded fellowships from both the Barry Amiel and Norman Melburn Trust and the Lipman-Miliband Trust, which allowed me to expand my research.
As I was completing this work, a series called “Studies in Labour History” appeared at Liverpool University Press. I thought my work would be a perfect match for that series. I was elated when LUP accepted my proposal because it gave me the opportunity to share research on an extremely important topic with a broader audience.
2. What is the main argument of the book?
I argue that Conservative and Labour Party politics were primarily responsible for the particular contours of the myth of the Winter of Discontent. Many politicians like Margaret Thatcher effectively used the Winter of Discontent as a symbol of the “bad old days of socialism” to warn British voters away from electing Labour for more than a decade. However, while this dominant image of the Winter of Discontent arose out of a very real sense of chaos and crisis in the late 1970s, I demonstrate that the mythical resonance of these experiences only developed after the series of strikes had been resolved. Furthermore, I assert that instead of a fratricidal act, rank-and-file activists and local trade union leaders were engaged in activism that was hoping to address declining real wages and shifts in the ideological, gender, and racial composition of the trade union movement and the Labour Party. This series of strikes must also be seen in the context of evolving social movements such as the New Left and the Women’s Movement. I contend that the memories of local trade union leaders and grassroots activists involved in the strikes challenge the grim implications of the myth of the Winter of Discontent. More specifically, among some of the female trade unionists, the strikes of 1978-79 provided a transformative inroad into broader activism in the Labour movement for years to come. Finally, I assert that the different rememberings of the Winter of Discontent have distinctly shaped participants’ political identities, which, in turn, helped to reconfigure the political landscape of the Left decades later.
3. Why do you think the roles of female and black activists during the strikes have been largely ignored in the past?
I think the primary reasons lie in traditions of historical scholarship, limitations in archival material, and the gendered nature of the myth of the Winter of Discontent.
Unfortunately, the absence of these women and black activists has been part of the long tradition of erasing the contributions of women, people of color, and especially women of color, from the historical narrative. Labour historians’ emphasis on social class, in particular, tended to sideline equally important issues of gender, race, ethnicity, and sexuality. However, I had the privilege of researching at a time where the works of people like Sheila Rowbotham, Ava Baron, and Paul Gilroy had begun to open new lines of inquiry into these areas.
Previous accounts of the time period also privileged the perspectives of politicians and male trade unionists. By relying heavily on the biographies of Conservative and Labour politicians as primary sources, for example, by and large, perspectives were limited to those of white, middle to upper class, men. Newspapers, on the other hand, provided a broader spectrum of perspectives, including those of black activists and women, but still the coverage did not explore how and why these individuals became politically active. That is why it was so important for me to conduct oral histories with both women and men involved in these strikes. These oral histories, therefore, provided essential insight into the perspectives of women and black activists that were ignored for so long.
Finally, the absence of female activists, in particular, served a political agenda. A key element of this myth was that Margaret Thatcher was the one leader tough enough to stand up to the “trade union bully boys” who had crippled Britain during the 1970s. Politically, the potency of that dichotomous image would have been undermined if the historical reality of working class women as striking trade unionists had been brought to the fore.
4. Why do you think the myths surrounding the ‘greedy’ workers during the Winter of Discontent became so embedded?
The particular nature of the strikes, and, again, politics, played a key role in perpetuating this myth of “greedy” workers during the Winter of Discontent.
With the rise of the service sector in the UK during the 1970s, which coincided with the growth of female employment in these jobs, strikes were no longer just factory stoppages. For instance, care assistants for the elderly and the disabled were tasked with taking strike action during the Winter of Discontent without hurting the people they served. The oral histories reveal the creative ways people took action, like not doing a patient’s hair one day, but still providing essential care. Nonetheless, such strikes, especially in the NHS, provoked particular ire in the media. Headlines in The Daily Mail read “Target for Today – Sick Children” or “Patients Sent Home – Some Will Die.” I think the strikes of junior doctors in the NHS this year demonstrate the continued struggle such workers have in regards to addressing issues of workplace justice while providing essential care.
I further demonstrate that both Conservative and Labour Party politicians were instrumental in embedding the negative image of workers in popular memory. The Conservative Party, along with major media outlets like The Sun, not only evoked images of the Winter of Discontent and conniving workers in the 1979 General Election, but in subsequent General Elections, as symbols of Labour incompetence. Ironically, New Labour leaders subsequently used the same images to reinvent the party by telling voters that it was no longer the “party of the Winter of Discontent” that had been besieged by so called “greedy workers” in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
You can download The Winter of Discontent ebook free on Friday 7th of October using code FreeReadFriday at the checkout. See our blog for more instructions.
*Photo by Emma Jones