Saving UK industry: Steel, UCS & the Tories

In Uncategorized on April 13, 2016 by kmflett

Saving UK industry: Steel, UCS & the Tories


The decision of Indian based firm Tata to, in effect, close its remaining UK steel plants is very bad news for the workers and communities directly involved. Job losses will be considerably larger than those directly involved if the closures go ahead.

Iron and steel along with coal were the bottom line of Britain’s industrial dominance in the nineteenth century and employed huge numbers.

Steel manufacture declined during the twentieth century when it suffered from lack of investment in private hands. There were two periods of nationalisation, after 1949 and from 1967 to 1998. Both were initiated by a Labour Government although they were a long way from any idea of workers control that might really have saved the industry.

Occasional references in Tony Benn’s Diaries make it clear that Labour Governments struggled with the steel industry, investing in it and modernising it but also taking decisions on closures at places like Corby.

The future of the steel industry has tended to rest on the organisation of steel workers themselves and the political pressure they can exert rather than the activity of Government Ministers in isolation.

Britain can of course import (at the moment) very cheap steel from China but it might be reasonably argued that this is hardly the most prudent way of proceeding in the longer term,

The fight to save steel continues, hopefully with activity by unions and union members in steel (Unite, GMB and Community) to the fore.

A Commons debate on 12th April, initiated by Labour, saw Business Minister Javid answer many questions except of course any relating to what he was actually going to do to save steel and jobs at Port Talbot or make the British Steel pension fund continues to be solvent.

There is an interesting historical parallel with the Heath Tory Government of 1970-1974.

In 1971 Upper Clyde Shipbuilders went into liquidation because the Government would not provide £6m to keep them going. The claim was that the shipyards were ‘lame ducks’ and you will hear the same point made by hard right commentators about steel now.

The workforce was led by Communist and Labour shop stewards and decided to go into occupation of the shipyards to keep them working and stop closure.

The Labour Shadow Industry Secretary was then Tony Benn.

In his diary (14th June 1971) he noted ‘I drafted a statement on UCS calling for public ownership and workers control in the yard itself..I saw Harold Wilson and he approved the draft’.

Benn met, attended public meetings called by and worked with the UCS shop stewards. He found their demands of working with management to determine how the shipyards should be run to be modest.

The Government made a statement on UCS on 29th July 1971, pessimistic about saving the shipyards. Labour called a debate for August 2nd which forced Tory Premier Heath to cancel his Admiral’s Cup yacht racing for the day.

At least for the Labour led Commons debate on steel on 12th April Mr Javid was not on this occasion in Australia.

Reviewing the year on 31st December Benn noted ‘In supporting UCS I came up against another group of people, namely the right wing of the Labour Party, which is opposed to my support of shop stewards…’ Benn’s support for UCS did not make him popular with some in the PLP not least because numbers of UCS stewards were Communists.

Yet though Benn faced opposition from the Tories and some in his own Party his decision to back those who fought to keep shipbuilding on the Clyde at UCS proved correct. He recorded in his Diary (28th February 1972) that ‘John Davies announced £35m for Govan shipbuilders at UCS’.

The Tories had been forced by the shipyard workers occupation and resolute Labour support for them to recognise that with some public investment the shipyards far from being a ‘lame duck’ had a decent future.

The shipyards currently do work for BAE Systems including warships.

Fast forward 45 years…

After ruling out the nationalisation of steel on ideological grounds Mr Javid then said that the Government might co-invest with a new owner at Port Talbot. In the Commons debate on 12th April the MP for the area covering the plant Stephen Kinnock pressed him on this, underlining that Mr Javid had done little or nothing so far to actively keep steel production going in South Wales.

So far that is where matters rest. The lesson of UCS suggests that pressure from below needs to continue




2 Responses to “Saving UK industry: Steel, UCS & the Tories”

  1. Some lessons – positive and negative – from UCS. Worth reading – despite the author’s subsequenbt development:

  2. Thanks, will have a look

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