Published:

Bristol-city-council-logo50 years ago today, after a boycott by passengers, the Bristol Omnibus Company ended their ban on employing ethnic minorities as bus drivers and bus conductors. Newsnight had a report on the matter last night.

The "colour bar" was supported by region of the Transport and General Workers Union (as Unite the Union was then known.)

Such a mentality in the trade unions was not unusual, at home or abroad. In South Africa the white trade unions keenly supported the "pass laws" which meant their members did not have to face a competitive labour market.

There were other restrictions which had an indirect racist impact.

Most notoriously the Dock Labour Scheme (abolished by Margaret Thatcher in 1989) effectively excluded black people from becoming dockers. The jobs were passed down the generations to the sons of existing dockers. The Transport and General Workers Union had control of recruitment.


So far as the "colour bar" on Bristol buses was concerned this not only had the support of the unions but also of Labour-run Bristol City Council.

This was crucial as the Bristol Omnibus Company was owned by the local council. The buses were a state monopoly.

The colour bar was requested by the Transport and General Workers Union. To have rebuffed it would have meant recruiting non union drivers and ending the closed shop agreement that was in place. But it was the council that was ultimately responsible.

Ian Patey, the general manager of the Bristol Omnibus Company, favoured the policy of only employing white as drivers or conductors. But he didn't decide the policy – he was answerable to the Labour councillors on Bristol's Joint Transport Committee. Taking on the unions and ending the closed shop to defeat racism would have been possible. However the problem was that the Labour Party was beholden to the unions – how times change…

The Labour councillors backed the colour bar. When Alderman Henry Hennessey spoke out against it as a lonely voice the Labour Group threatened him with expulsion at a meeting on May 3rd 1963.

Bristol City Council has noted the anniversary. Yet the article on their website makes no acknowledgement – let alone offers any regret – for their own responsibility for the scandal.

It is true that the local Labour MP Tony Benn supported the boycott. That is to his credit. The Labour leader Harold Wilson also did. However the extent of support for the apartheid policy on bus recruitment – not just in the trade unions but also among Labour councillors – has been rather glossed over by Newsnight.

As Paul Stephenson says:

"It was the city council that was ultimately responsible."

The BBC also indentified state intervention as the solution with the 1965 Race Relations Act. Yet it was the consumer boycott which meant that a black person in Bristol could get a job on a bus. While despite that act being passed a black person in Bristol could still not get a job on the docks.

What if there had been competing private bus companies in Bristol? Certainly there could still have been racism facing Guy Bailey – the young black man whose rejected job application prompted the boycott. However he would at least have had the chance to apply for work at another company.

You can have a colour bar. Or a competitive labour market. You can not have both. The market, not socialism, is the enemy of racism.

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