Paul Foot

Stop the Cuts

‘Every step the Tories have taken in this field has meant lightening the burden on the rich at the expense of increasing the burden on the poor, and we shall reverse all that (loud applause).’
Denis Healey, ‘Shadow’ Chancellor of the Exchequer, Labour Party Conference, October 2, 1973.

‘Although I have cut expenditure in many social fields, I have been increasing expenditures in the business field. The relief I have given in tax concessions on stock appreciation is higher than any relief afforded to business anywhere in the world during this period of high inflation. And very few manufacturing companies will be paying any tax at all in consequence this year’.
Denis Healey, Chancellor of the Exchequer, interviews in Business Week, 29 March 1976.

Why can’t Labour help us?

Maureen Robertson and all her friends and family have voted Labour all their lives. They say that ‘Labour is for the working man’.

If they’d read Labour’s Programme, 1973 (which they haven’t) they’d have been confirmed in that belief. It shows how the Tories have wasted the society’s wealth by not investing. It points to all the horrors of capitalist society. And it promises that Labour will do something about it.

‘Our basic socialist goals lie at the very heart of our programme’ says the document, on page one. Then it lists its six main aims:

The document promises that a Labour Government would take control. There would be no social service cuts. On the contrary:

‘Educational expenditure will be increased with a major priority in this sector being nursery schools.’

‘It is clear that more money must be spent on the health service.’

These ideas formed the basis of Labour’s manifestos in the two elections of 1974. Yet now, only 18 months after they were last elected, the Labour Government has reversed every one of those six major promises. There has been a shift of wealth towards the rich and powerful; power is more fully vested in irresponsible capitalism than before; poverty is on the increase; there has been a shift away from job creation, housing, education and social benefits.

Why? Because the foundation stone of the document – that Labour would have the power to change things has been exploded. The Labour Government set out confidently. It repealed the Industrial Relations Act and the Tory Rent Act. It introduced its Industry Act. But before long, it found it was at the mercy of a system which it could do nothing to control.

On Monday, June 30, 1975, Harold Wilson, in a speech at the Royal Agricultural Show, promised ‘no panic measures’. He meant that there would be no wage freeze.

The wage freeze, he said, had failed before. It had failed under the Tories, and the country had enough failures of that kind. The next day, about £30m of sterling were sold on the international exchange rates. The gold reserves in the Bank of England started to slide. Immediately, Wilson summoned his Ministers and the trades union leaders, in particular Jack Jones of the Transport and General Workers Union. ‘Panic measures’ were hammered out. A £6 wage limit was imposed on the working class.

One of the main justifications for the wage freeze was that it was better to freeze wages than to cut public spending. The Chancellor explained that ‘it was better to tackle inflation’ without harming our public spending programmes’. The Tories kept up their attack on public spending.

In March the Labour Government capitulated on public spending. They . will capitulate again. As I write (April 4), the pound is ‘plummeting’. Soon there will be proposals for further, even more drastic cuts.

A ‘plummeting pound’ terrifies a Labour Government. They are haunted by the prospect that all the nation’s reserves will vanish. If the Government allows all the reserves to vanish, they will have to take complete control of the economy and. run it themselves. They would be kissing goodbye to the people who control the economy now – bankers, industrialists, speculators and so on.

The Labour Government depends on its ability to reform the capitalist system. But if the capitalist system is in decline, then it must be strengthened so that it can be reformed.

If the economy ‘falters’ then a Labour Government will do everything in its power to revive it again.

By curious coincidence, the economy ‘falters’ every time Labour gets elected – and every time a Labour Government plans to damage capitalist interests. This happened in 1948, in 1964, in 1966 and 1967 and now again in 1975 and 1976. All Labour Governments, however big their majority, have followed the same wretched path. In the face of sterling crisis and investment strikes, they have abandoned their objectives, reversed their manifesto. The cheeky, confident Labour Ministers who strode into their Ministries on the day after election day, full of radical ideas and intentions, become zombies, wandering this way and that, sometimes bullied, sometimes flattered, always controlled by forces which they never seem fully to understand.

Capitalism is a mighty system with enormous strength and power. It can move huge resources from one country to the next in order to promote economic crisis. It is united when it finds a common class enemy.

Against this corporate might, a handful of individuals in a Labour Government are hopelessly weak. They have no power save the textbook power of Parliament. They have to run an economy which is controlled by people with hostile interests. Their philosophy of gradual reform urges them not to agitate the masses who elected them. They believe, above all else, in their own power to change the system on their own. They hang on to that belief long after their impotence is exposed.

Everytime a Labour Government fails, a lot of Labour supporters say:

“Maybe, if more Left-wingers had been in the Government, they would have behaved differently.”

Some people – not many, but some – put their faith in the Tribune Group of Labour MPs, who stand for more militant policies.

39 Tribune MPs abstained after the cuts debate on March 10th – and the Government lost their motion.

But the Left MPs on their own are as impotent as the government. Their alternative policy to Healey’s cuts is to increase taxation!

Brian Sedgemore, MP for Luton West, told Socialist Worker (20 March):

“We played our trump card. And we’ve been aced. We have shown how impotent parliamentary votes are. We can give some sort of minor lead, but we don’t have the power. We ought to establish a much closer tie-up with the shop floor and the trade union leaders.”

As if to confirm this thesis – three weeks later the left wing MPs voted for the Government’s defence policy – though they opposed it. The reason? Not to embarrass Michael Foot in the fight for the party leadership.

Another left-wing MP, Dennis Skinner, spoke at the Assembly on Unemployment on March 20: Dennis said:

“Parliament is not for the working class. We can only do anything of value there when the working class outside Parliament is united in action – and pushes us.”

The same goes for trade union leaders. Many trade unionists argue that the cuts can be saved by lobbying and persuasion from trade union leaders. Most of these leaders are against the cuts, they argue.

They have great influence with the Labour Government. Surely, they can change the government’s mind.

But the most powerful trade union leaders supported the recent cuts. On the day after the White paper announcing the cuts was published, the engineering union’s president, Hugh Scanlon, told an audience in Glasgow:

“We support the government completely and absolutely in its general strategy. We are not against the cuts in principle, but against the cuts in certain directions – for example in education and some social services.”

Ten days later, on March 15, Scanlon joined with Jack Jones of the Transport Workers’ Union and David Basnett, the right-wing general secretary of the Municipal Workers’ Union, in a joint statement supporting the public spending cuts – and wishing the government well.

It’s true that other trade union leaders, who represent workers closely affected by the cuts, have spoken out angrily against them. Men like Geoffrey Drain of the local government workers union and Alan Fisher of the National Union of Public Employees have denounced the cuts and pledged their unions to campaign against them.

Both unions, and the teachers’ union have circulated some excellent booklets and leaflets exposing the cuts.

But all the trade union leaders are in the same position as the Government and labour MPs. Their job, as they see it, is to negotiate on behalf of their members. They prefer to negotiate without activating or agitating their members. They see themselves as part of a system rather than enemies of it. Left to themselves, they prefer to compromise rather than to use the industrial strength of their union.

When the compromises are rejected and the resignations spurned, these leaders prefer to support the authorities than to use the industrial strength of their members against the authorities.

There is one simple lesson from all this:

IT IS NO USE WAITING FOR YOUR REPRESENTATIVES TO STOP THE CUTS FOR YOU. MPs won’t go on voting against the cuts – trade union leaders won’t use the industrial strength of their unions UNLESS THEY ARE SHOVED INTO ACTION BY THEIR RANK AND FILE.

Unless they are shoved into action by their rank and file, the cuts are here to stay – with much worse to come.


Last updated on 24 July 2018