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International Socialism, Summer 1962


Notes of the Quarter

3. The Wages Front


From International Socialism (1st series), No.9, Summer 1962, p.3.
Thanks to Ted Crawford & the late Will Fancy.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Tories have been in for eleven years. Their only contribution to the seesaw between inflation and industrial stagnation has mounted to no more than pious exhortation to ‘both sides’ to exercise ‘responsibility.’ Year after year, Chancellors, Ministers of Labour, Prime Ministers, have called for no increases in wages beyond increases in productivity. No one is clear how to relate the dictum to individual productivity, the productivity of one firm, industry or the whole country. Macmillan and the dominant strand in the Cabinet have played for pious exhortation, full employment and the £ come before expansion (so the economic lurch into stagnation when the £ begins to wobble); a minority (Thorneycroft) took the opposite position in 1957 – if the stability of the £ came first, the then possible threat of unemployment would keep wages demands down and allow expansion. The issue remains unresolved, but the recent performance of the port employers shows how little the Government can rely even on its friends when profits are still to be made.

Neddy has now produced its growth estimate of 4 per cent, and this at a time when internationally capitalism has reached a sticking point of sorts. With full employment in the major industrial countries, hence rising costs and pressures on profit margins, the only leeway for individual countries is in driving down relative wages. Kennedy’s stand against Big Steel (through finding an important blackleg) and Erhard’s cut in car tariffs to expose Volkswagen and force down its prices indicate that Government action is taking extraordinary forms to force employers into line. How will the British Government achieve the same results? So far those it employed – the railwaymen, the busmen, the teachers, the nurses – have taken the rap for the unwillingness of private employers to stand firm against workers. The dockers however drove straight through wage restraint and demonstrated once again that it is not desert, productivity or the cost-of-living that wins but sheer organized strength.

What is the next move? The buffer state of Trade Union leadership separating workers and employers looks increasingly bewildered at which way to play it – Greene plays for the Government, the TUC joins Neddy, the Transport and General plays against. Ultimately, Thorneycroft is right – only the margin of unemployment can weaken the workers’ position. There is no sign that this will happen automatically, yet the Government cannot wait indefinitely – especially when other Governments are taking unorthodox and indirect action to control labour. The Government could, like Erhard, cut tariffs but this is a blunt instrument when Britain is not inside the Common Market. On the other hand, British capitalism is perhaps not as productive of capitalist blacklegs as the American (the degree of cartelization and industry control is greater in Britain).

No, the only answer immediately obvious is an accelerated attempt to get into the Common Market, so that enhanced competition can be used to refuse wage claims, while an open showdown with the workers is avoided.

Socialists should be quite clear on the process. Both the twists and turns of the Government, and the present bottleneck in competitive international trade should be adequate lessons of the trends. The same challenge to the power of labour and to its living standards exist under the cover of common interest as always – and should be fought in the same way.

This is no argument to join the blind rush away from Europe. Membership of the Common Market is one method capitalist Britain might adopt in order to pass the costs of sharper competition on to working class Britain, it is not the only one, nor the cause of pay pauses and suchlike. This is rather an argument to reverse the current priorities of the labour leadership – to declare our agnosticism about ruling class methods and our belief in the dockers’ eight per cent.

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