Saving Social Democracy? Hugh Clegg and the Post-War Programme to Reform British Workplace Industrial Relations: Too Little, Too Late?

  • Peter Ackers
Part of the Palgrave Studies in the History of Social Movements book series (PSHSM)


This chapter explores the distinctive British Industrial Relations experience following the Second World War. I argue that while the 1945 Labour Government was a turning point in many areas of British life, with the arrival of social democratic planning, trade unions were an exception, returning to ‘free collective bargaining’. By 1964, however, when Labour returned to power, there was a growing Industrial Relations crisis of unofficial strikes, inflation and restrictive working practice. The Wilson governments tried to institutionalise tripartite relations between labour, capital and state through a national Incomes Policy. The ‘Oxford School’ of Industrial Relations academics, led by Hugh Clegg and Allan Flanders, were key influences on this social democratic reform strategy and especially the 1968 Donovan Report. This proposed reforming chaotic workplace bargaining into an ordered form of Productivity Bargaining. I argue that this was a ‘suppressed historical opportunity’ to entrench social democracy and the main chance to save Britain’s nascent, coordinated-market model. Failure led directly to Thatcherism and the 1979 triumph of the liberal-market alternative. Reasons for failure included political impatience with the slow pace of voluntary Industrial Relations Reform; too few social democrats in the Labour Party and trade unions, leading to a neglect of the politics of production; and the sectional, factional character of British trade unions. In the last case, the Communist Party and the ‘broad left’ played an important role, championing destructive economic militancy against social democratic Incomes Policy, under the rhetorical cover of a fight for ‘Socialism’.

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Peter Ackers
    • 1
    • 2
  1. 1.Loughborough UniversityLoughboroughUK
  2. 2.Griffith UniversityBrisbaneAustralia

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