David Breen

Soccer for Suckers

(January 1954)

From Socialist Review, Vol. 3 No. 5, January 1954, pp. 5–6.
Transcribed by Ian Birchall, Nina Kidron & Richard Kuper.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Lieutenant-Colonel Hussein Shafei, one of the twelve-man Junta that rules Egypt, wrote of British “socialists” and Tories in power: they always work “like a united football team, with the same gaol. If the right wing is pressed it passes the ball to the left wing in order to manoeuvre for a goal.” (News Chronicle, 16-12-53). Shafei was interested primarily in British foreign policy, which, Labour come, Labour go, shows such a monotonous regularity that once seen, it never need be looked at again. But this Changing Guard at Buckingham Palace is not only a tourist attraction inviting comment from those affected by British foreign policy; anybody who cares to look at the figures can see that the Labour Government – reputed to have created a “revolution” in the lives of the working people – did nothing, simply nothing, to change the setup of British capitalist society. What it did do – for which the Tories are truly grateful – was to make the Capitalist machine run a little more smoothly: debits (losing concerns) were nationalised and made the responsibility of the people, credits (the profit-making concerns) were no concern of theirs.

When attacked on their foreign policy, their nationalisation policy, and so on, the Labour Party leaders always counter with the argument that the Labour Government changed Britain from a capitalist country into a Welfare State, i.e., into a state which has as its object “the enhancement of the personal welfare of the individual citizen.” Did it? Has the personal welfare of the individual citizen been enhanced during Labour’s term of office? On the whole, no. The proportion of the national income spent on social services at the end of the Labour Government’s term was the same as that spent in the last year of the pre-war Tory Government. Besides, the present-day Tory Government has left the Welfare structure intact although it has cut into it to some extent. The ball was successfully passed from right to left, and from left back to right in a well- co-ordinated move. Same ball, same team.

The Labour Party leaders always point proudly to their record in office. Look, they say, the Tories spent only 2 per cent of the national income on education in 1938–39, while Labour raised it by 10 per cent to 2.2 per cent of the national income by 1950–1951. Very true, BUT, in the same period the number of children between the ages of five and fourteen attending state-aided schools increased by exactly 10 per cent, so that the increase in total expenditure was neutralised, and the individual school child was no better provided for than before. Besides, the Tory Government that replaced Labour kept to the self-same figure – 2.2 per cent of the national income was spent by the Tories for the same purpose in 1951–52. It seems that the Tories are quite satisfied with Labour’s education policy.

The case of education illustrates a much wider issue – a big proportion of the rise in social service expenditure was a result not of a change in policy or in social service law but of a change in the numbers of people to whom the law applies. For example, between 1938 and 1951 the population of the United Kingdom increased by 2,800,000, of which fully 2,500,000 benefited automatically from the social services. These, the very young and the very old, would have benefited even under the old Tory social service regime, so that the Tory Government of 1938 would have had to add a further £50–80 million were they faced with the present size and age distribution of the population. This alone would have pushed up the proportion of the national income spent by the Tories on social services before the war by something like 16 per cent.

The Labour leadership also likes to take credit for initiating welfare services where they had only brought previously-existing private benefits under state control – as if diverting a stream can make the volume of water greater! For example, in 1938–39 some £12–15 million were paid out by Friendly Societies in sickness and other benefits, and another £10 million by employers – these sums were not included in social service statistics, because they did not flow through official channels. Since then these funds are administered by the State in the National Insurance and Industrial Injuries Schemes. The worker has gained nothing by the change, although it looks as though he has. Same ball, same team.

The same applies to health services, the pride of the Welfare State. What came out of the wage packet before the war as a private doctor’s fee, is now deducted from earnings in the form of taxes and paid over to the National Health Service. In both cases, the worker paid for medical attention out of his own pocket. This does not mean to say that medical attention has not improved on the whole because on the one hand there has been a process of equalisation in benefits, so that the use of the National Health Scheme depends on need rather than income, and on the other hand the standard of living has risen during this period, which means that in any case more money would have gone towards medical attention than otherwise.

The figures can spin tales like these from here to eternity. Their theme is that the Labour Government cut the national cake strictly according to the pattern adopted by the Tories before and continued by the Tories afterwards. Here and there Labour managed to add a few crumbs which would otherwise have been left for big business, to the workers’ slice. But there was no change in principle. The Labour Party leaders were and still are wedded to British capitalism with its three supporting pillars: profit-making concerns must be left in private hands, social services must be covered by taxing the working class, and British imperialism must never die. As long as these remain intact, the Labour leadership will put up a heroic defence for working-class rights, huge hosts of words will storm parliament and possibly be victorious, only to bring home triumphantly a few paltry concessions allowed by an enfeebled capitalist class at a time when the national cake was growing anyway. The cake increased because the post-war world was a boom world: the wholesale destruction caused by the war, the exclusion of Germany and Japan from competition and other factors led to full employment not only in Labour England but in conservative France. In England which was relatively undamaged by the war, full employment was connected with a rising standard of living, in badly damaged France the standard of living was prevented from falling. But as soon as the cake stopped growing, that is, as soon as German and Japanese exports started competing with the British, American competition was intensified and the price of imports rose, and, as soon as the British capitalist class regained its strength by feeding on the bigger cake, the Labour leadership was caught helpless. Having initiated no far reaching changes on the home front which would have given it unqualified workers’ support, it was weakened also on the international front. The Labour leadership then joined the arms race – in 1938–39 when the Tories were preparing for war, social service expenditure still exceeded expenditure on defence by £10,000,00. The 1951–52 “peace” budget, prepared by the Labour Government, provided for a defence expenditure which was greater than the combined social services and food subsides bills. The Tories themselves could not have done better.

Same ball, same team.

Last updated on 16 February 2017