Ted Grant

Blackpool, October 1972: LP conference—analysis and perspectives

Source: Militant, no. 126 (October 13, 1972)
Transcription: Francesco 2010
Proofread: Alan 2010
Markup: Niklas 2010

The social and economic background to the Labour Party conference this year, and its effects on the trade union and Labour Party membership, illustrate the idea of Marx that “the revolution sometimes needs the whip of the counter-revolution”. The most reactionary Conservative government since the 1920s, possibly this century, has expressed itself with savage attacks on the living standards, trade union rights, social services and the skilled and low paid sections of the workers. They have certainly observed the injunction “to him that hath shall be given and to him that hath not shall be taken away that which he hath” by taxing the poor and giving to the rich in cutting surtax and income tax on higher incomes and lavish subsidies to industry.

This offensive has been generated by the crisis of British capitalism which forced big business and their government to try and put the burden on the working class. Two years of the policy of confrontation with the unions has resulted in a strike wave, the biggest since the general strike of 1926.

Whole new layers of workers have been involved in strike action such as the municipal workers and now the low-paid hospital workers. The workers have been aroused and radicalised as they have not been for decades. This was bound to be reflected in the trade union and labour movement. The process of radicalisation had already begun even before the Tory government had come to power. The election of left leaders in the T&GWU, the AUEW and the NUM was an indication of deep-going processes taking place in the active sections of the labour movement.

This process has now shown itself clearly in the Labour Party conference. It has shown the deep-going aspirations of the rank and file to change society. The resolutions carried, against the recommendations of the NEC, on nationalisation of the banks, insurance companies and major monopolies with minimum compensation and for the reimbursing of councillors who fall foul of the Housing Finance Act, was an expression of the mood of the delegates in the trade unions and Labour Party.

Left gestures

It was also a reaction to the failures of the 1964-70 Labour government. The active layers in the labour movement have understood that the timid policies and capitulation to big business resulted in ignominious defeat.

However the reactions are contradictory. Many of the leaders have bowed to the mood of the rank and file and made left gestures at the conference without intending them seriously. Even Jenkins and other right wing leaders have begun to talk about socialism as the need of the times.

The Programme for Britain has been analysed in issue no. 124 of the Militant so there is no need to repeat this here. But a glittering programme of reform was set out by right winger Dennis Healey on behalf of the NEC which could only be completed…in ten years!

The contradictory character of the conference was shown by the resolutions and debate on the European Common Market. Despite the fiery words of the majority of the NEC against entry—even before the conference—Programme for Britain was produced with sections taking membership of the Common Market for granted and assumed as a basis for its calculations.

The resolution of the NEC and the speech of Wilson were intentionally ambiguous.

The Tribune meeting, supposedly the high spot of the left at the conference indicates the real weakness of the Tribune tendency. Jones, Mikardo and Foot expressed indignation—correctly—at the monstrous cruelty and callousness of the treatment of old age pensioners in the miserable pittance given to them on which they have to exist, but in 45 minutes of rhetoric by Michael Foot there was never a word on the serious problem of challenging the real power of big business.

Jones spoke of “finding the money” by taxing the rich by a “wealth tax” and giving the money to pensioners and improving the social services. He did not indicate, even if such a programme were carried out, the inevitable effect on investment. From the point of view of capitalism, Heath and his pirate crew are correct in trying to get a favourable climate for investment by concessions to big business and wealthy surtax payers.

Only the programme of planning involved in carrying out the resolution on nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy could lay the basis for a planned economy and undreamed of increases in living standards for every section of the working class.

But Jack Jones, one of the more militant of the union leaders, and Michael Foot, the avowed leader of the Tribune left obviously regarded the resolution as a harmless gesture to be ignored immediately it was passed.

They still have illusions, despite the experience of the past ten years, and especially the last two years, that a radical programme of reform is compatible with the continued existence of capitalism.

This is sowing the seeds of a terrible conflict in the Labour Party with the accession to power of the next Labour government. The attempted reconciliation with the extreme right wing, the rump of the Gaitskell-Jenkins tendency, which is still well represented in the Parliamentary party but pitifully weak in the constituencies, with pleas for “unity” shows the lack of perspective and the illusions of the left.

This is stoking up unpleasant surprises for them as the right wing bides its time for revenge. This will come when the right begins to reflect the pressures of big business and the mass media as a capitalist Trojan horse within the Parliamentary party.

At this stage the mass of the party has enormous illusions in the left leaders and they in turn have illusions in their capacity to “manage the capitalist economy”. These illusions are reinforced by the fact that Heath has borrowed most of the economic measures or methods of the last Labour government in a desperate attempt to solve the organic crisis of British capitalism.

The fact that they are not working and did not work under the Labour government makes no impression on them. There are none so blind as those that will not see. They dream they will do better next time with the same methods that led to the collapse.

Nevertheless, despite the incorrigible sectarians of the ultra-left grouplets outside the movement, vital processes of change are taking place in the labour movement. These sectarians are the other side of the medal of the Tribune tendency. They have not the remotest understanding of the way the labour movement develops and learns through experience. The rank and file of the trade unions and the Labour Party have moved overwhelmingly to the left in their attitudes and aspirations.

The changed situation can be seen if we compare this conference to the conferences of ten years ago. Then the right wing dominated the trade unions and the Labour Party. It was only a decade or so ago that Gaitskell tried to turn the Labour Party into a revamped version of the old Liberal Party when the trade unions were appendages to it. He wished to drop even the formal goal of socialism. Even in that period of reaction this was defeated by the active members of the constituencies and trade unions.

The real change is indicated by the attitude of Nye Bevan who, at a Tribune meeting at the Labour conference in Brighton, repudiated the speech of the then NUPE general secretary calling for a programme of nationalisation of the banks, insurance companies and monopolies, on the same lines as the resolution passed at this year’s conference. He was appalled at the extremist demands of “this wild man of the unions”, which showed, he said, that Tribune were not “wild men of the left”.

Transformation of party

Many constituency parties were turned into a shell when the right wing had control. This reflected the apathy and indifference of the mass of the workers in that period. Today, of course, many constituency organisations are not in much better shape. But a large section, perhaps the majority are beginning to put on new life and be revived as working class organisations.

This conference marks a step in the transformation of the labour movement. The same process of change to the left that is taking place in the unions is also taking [place] in the Labour Party.

The experience of the impotence of the Labour government of 1964-1970 to change society or enact a radical programme of reform has had a profound effect on the consciousness of the active layers of the trade union and labour movement. They are trying to assimilate the lessons. Hence the support for what amounts to a revolutionary transformation of society in the nationalisation resolution.

At the same time it acts as a warning by the leaders of the giant unions that the Parliamentary Party must “do something next time to deliver the goods.”

The attitude of the conference was shown by the attitude taken to the Labour Party Young Socialists. For the first time, at least since the war, they are to have a representative on the national executive committee of the Labour Party. This resolution was passed overwhelmingly. It is an indication of the mood.

However the complacency of the Tribune left was expressed in the Tribune meeting. They seemed to think that in the euphoria of left victory the problems facing the labour movement would be easily surmounted. In reality the problems are only now beginning to be posed seriously in the labour movement.

Class conflict in [the] party

There is the problem of conference decisions and the binding of the Parliamentary Labour Party to carry them out. Clearly the Parliamentary Party does not consider itself bound by conference decisions, or even by the decisions of the NEC. This poses the inevitability of collision between them under the next Labour government, which will be buffeted by the insoluble crisis, which is inevitable on a capitalist basis, exacerbating all the problems facing Britain.

There is a class basis for this conflict. A big section of the Parliamentary Party consists of barristers, company directors and professional people who have not the remotest conception of socialism or the real problems of the working people. They were selected at a time when the class consciousness in the constituencies was at a low ebb and mass participation was lacking in the Labour Party and even the union branches.

Consequently they are a survival of the Gaitskell era, which still hangs on. They have not changed their attitude of class collaboration and of condescending “do-goodism” towards the working class. Their attitude is expressed by Jenkins’ denunciation of the “selfishness” of the skilled workers, with never a word of condemnation of the inequities of class society and the malevolent domination of the economy by monopoly capitalism.

The coming conflict between the right and left with the advent of the next Labour government as a reflection of the class struggle, finds the “left” leadership completely unprepared. There is no worked out programme for measures against capitalism. The ritual passing of resolutions in reality does not commit the Parliamentary Party to anything.

Barbara Castle, in speaking at the conference on the programme of state owned industry spoke of nationalising only part of pharmaceuticals. If they are not even now speaking of nationalising the whole of the pharmaceutical industry, how can they be expected to tackle the monopoly banks and monopoly insurance companies?

Reforms galore!

So much for the resolution passed at conference! Barbara Castle said in her speech:

“the answer is control from the inside; not by having a state monopoly, but by having a state owned sector within the drugs industry. We are working out a plan for public ownership within the pharmaceutical industry.”

Reforms galore, of course, were promised by lefts and rights, but when it comes to carrying them out, that will be a different question. The ruling class does not take this too seriously, with their experience of Labour governments. The Labour leadership reversed their decisions for reform, remaining within the framework of capitalism, under the pressures of big business and capitalist reality.

Dennis Healey, the shadow chancellor, said that:

“if Labour did not get their policy right on jobs and prices, the next time they were in power, they would not be able to carry out the rest of their programme, there would not be the money for it.”

He gave no indication, no more than the leadership, left and right, of how they would solve the problem. In the Evening Standard of Thursday October 5th, there was an interesting article by John Lind, formerly of the capitalist Institute of Economic and Social Research, in which he deals with the crisis in Britain. He admits that Keynesian methods have failed and that both the Conservative and the coming Labour government have no policies to deal with the developing capitalist crisis.

All the programmes of “soaking the rich” and the elaborate reforms will fail because on a capitalist basis there will not be “the money for it.”

Investment for profit

In the debate in Parliament on the budget Conservative MP Sir John Boyd-Carpenter in his last speech in the House provided the reason for the failures of previous Labour governments and the fatal flaw in the programme of reform on a capitalist basis when he said:

“Boards of directors who take the actual decisions on how to invest their shareholder’s money will not be lured into doing this—and ought not in their duty to their shareholders to be lured into doing this—by all the investment incentives in the world unless they have confidence that that investment has a reasonable chance of bringing in a substantial profit, a reasonable share of which profit their shareholders will retain.”

The union leaders do not take these resolutions very seriously because after these radical resolutions were passed they went back to the TUC and the “practical” business of trying to collaborate with the Heath government on a prices and incomes policy!

Carry out decisions!

However, even if they arrive at agreement, this will break down because it will mean a cut in living standards for all the workers, whether low paid and skilled. Under the pressure of the organised workers the agreement will rapidly break down.

The passing of revolutionary resolutions has nevertheless left the capitalists alarmed and uneasy. It has enormous implications for the future. A campaign must be waged by the Marxist wing for all Labour parties and trade unions to organise a campaign around the resolutions passed at conference.

A campaign is required to explain the necessity of such measures in order to guarantee full employment and decent standards for all. At the same time a campaign must be waged to bind the Parliamentary Party and the NEC to carry out conference decisions.

This will be one of the main lessons within the next Labour government. The demand to carry out conference decisions will gain enormous support in the unions and Labour parties. But the question is, who decides? the remote Parliamentary Party or the party conference based on the grass roots? This will become a burning issue.

Under the blows of the capitalist reaction, of the mass media and the obscene racialist ranting, the organised workers in the labour movement will come to understand the need for the Marxist method, Marxist ideas and Marxist policies as the only solution to the problems facing the labour movement.


Socialist programme passed at Labour Party conference

(32) This conference declares that the planned development of the productive resources of society is the key to building a socialist Britain.

Conference recognises that the gross inequalities of society, the disparity between the regions, unemployment and poverty can only be removed when the decisive sectors of the economy are taken into public ownership. Conference calls upon the national executive committee to formulate a socialist plan of production, based on the public ownership, with minimum compensation, of the commanding heights of the economy; such a programme to include the following measures:

(a) The re-nationalisation of all hived off sectors of publicly owned industries, without compensation;

(b) an enabling bill to secure the public ownership of major monopolies;

(c) public ownership of land, building industry and finance houses;

(d) setting up of industrial enterprises in areas of high unemployment.

Conference, believing that such a programme can only succeed with the active participation of trade unions and working people in general, calls for a plan for the democratic control of industry through workers’ control and management.

Moved by Shipley CLP

Seconded by Brighton Kemptown CLP