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The ‘Winter of Discontent’ in British Politics

Convened by: Dr Lawrence Black, University of Durham; Dr Hugh Pemberton, University of Bristol; and Professor Pat Thane FBA, Institute of Historical Research, University of London

Chair: Peter Riddell, Chief Political Commentator of the Times and Senior Fellow of the Institute for Government

Speakers: Lord Baker, Former Conservative Home Secretary, Professor Colin Hay, University of Sheffield, Lord Lea, former Assistant General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress and Lord Lipsey, Special Adviser to the Prime Minister 1977-79 and political journalist.

The industrial strife that beset the Callaghan government in the winter of 1978/79, ‘the winter of discontent’, was seen at the time as a key factor in Labour’s defeat in the general election of 1979 but continued to resonate in British politics for many years after; indeed its echoes are still plainly with us in press coverage and political rhetoric today.

22 January 2009 was the 30th anniversary of the first public sector ‘day of action’ during the ‘winter of discontent’ - often seen as the most important strike since 1926.

This discussion meeting considered the causes and consequences of the ‘winter of discontent’ over both the short- and long-term. Did it represent a genuine crisis for the UK state and the last gasp of the postwar social democratic settlement? How did the Conservatives use the conflict in industrial relations during that winter in their political rhetoric and policy over the ensuing decades? Did the 'winter of discontent' help or hinder the reconstruction of the Labour Party first under Neil Kinnock and then under Tony Blair? Why do the reverberations of the 'winter of discontent' continue to be heard so clearly in British political discourse today?

The evening began with a paper by Colin Hay, Professor of Political Analysis, University of Sheffield.