The 1970s was a decade in Britain defined by power struggles between the government and trade unions. Beginning with coal miners’ strikes and ending with the biggest collective strikes Britain has ever seen, millions of people were affected and the country faced serious political and economic challenges as the attitude of post-war affluence wore off.
For many, one of the defining features of the decade was the brief introduction of the three day working week in order to save electricity during an energy crisis. Despite only lasting 2 months, it proved to be an event which shaped politics for the rest of the decade, and several more to come.
A looming energy crisis
Britain was largely reliant on coal for energy at the time, and whilst mining had never been a hugely well-paid industry, wages stagnated following the end of the Second World War. By the 1970s, the National Union of Mineworkers proposed a 43% pay rise for its members, threatening to strike if their demands were not met.
After negotiations between the government and the unions failed, miners went on strike in January 1972: a month later, a state of emergency was declared as electricity supplies ran low. Planned blackouts were used to manage the supply crisis but it didn’t stop severe industry disruptions and thousands of people losing their jobs.
By the end of February the government and NUM reached a compromise and the strike was called off. However, the crisis was far from over.
In 1973, there was a global oil crisis. Arab countries embargoed oil supplies to countries that supported Israel in the Yom Kippur War: whilst Britain did not use large amounts of oil, it was a secondary source of energy.
When the miners had further pay disputes and voted for strike action, the government was extremely concerned. In order to conserve the ever-limited supplies of coal, the then Prime Minister, Edward Heath, announced in December 1973 that from 1 January 1974, commercial consumption of electricity (i.e. for non-essential services and businesses) would be limited to three days per week.
It is clear from documents from the time that the government viewed the miners as directly responsible for the introduction of the policy, but realised that articulating this too strongly would not help resolve the dispute.
The three day working week in action
From 1 January 1974, electricity was severely limited. Businesses had to limit their electricity usage to three consecutive days a week, and within that hours were severely limited. Essential services like hospitals, supermarkets and printing presses were exempt.
TV channels were forced to stop broadcasting promptly at 10:30pm every night, people worked by candlelight and torchlight, wrapped themselves in blankets and duvets to keep warm and boiled water to wash in.
Unsurprisingly this had a huge economic impact. Many small businesses did not survive despite the government’s attempts to ensure economic stability and prevent inflation. Wages went unpaid, people were laid off and life was tough.
The government discussed restoring electricity for 5 days a week, but it was thought that this would be taken as a sign of weakness and simply further the miners’ resolve. However, they did recognise that Britain’s economy was nearly at collapse: the three day working week was causing massive strain and a solution needed to be found urgently.
The solution? A general election
On 7 February 1974, Prime Minister Edward Heath called a snap election. The February 1974 general election was dominated by the three day working week and miners’ strike as an issue: Heath believed that this was a politically opportune time to hold an election because he thought, broadly speaking, the public agreed with the Tories’ hardline stance on the issue of union power and strikes.
This proved to be something of a miscalculation. Whilst the Conservatives won the most seats, they still lost 28 seats, and with them, their parliamentary majority. Failing to secure the support of Liberal or Ulster Unionist MPs, the Conservatives were unable to form a government.
The new Labour minority government, led by Harold Wilson, immediately increased the miners’ wages by a whopping 35% following their election and the three day working week was brought to an end on 7 March 1974, when normal service resumed. Although this number seems big, it actually brought their wages in line with standards and expectations set out by the government commissioned Wilberforce Enquiry.
Following their re-election, this time with a majority, in October 1974, Labour went on to increase the miners’ wages further in February 1975 when further industrial action was threatened.
Trade union disputes were far from over however
Whilst Labour’s actions brought the disastrous three day working week to an end, disputes between the government and trade unions were not permanently settled. In late 1978, strikes began again as trade unions demanded pay rises which the government was unable to give whilst simultaneously controlling inflation.
Strikes began with Ford workers, and resulted in public sector workers also striking. Binmen, nurses, gravediggers, lorry drivers and train drivers, to name but a few, went on strike over the winter of 1978-9. The mass disruption and freezing conditions of those months earned this period the title of the ‘Winter of Discontent’ and a powerful place in collective memory.
The 1979 election saw the Conservatives returned to power in a landslide victory, using the slogan ‘Labour isn’t working’ as one of their key election tools. The so-called Winter of Discontent continues to be evoked in political rhetoric today as an example of a time when the government lost control and it set the Labour Party back considerably in politics for nearly two decades.