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International Socialism, Spring 1965


Editorial 1

Labour in Office


From International Socialism (1st series), No.20, Spring 1965, pp.2-3.
Thanks to Ted Crawford & the late Will Fancy.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


‘... anyone who ever worked daily in close contact with a senior Minister or Prime Minister must often have reflected wryly on the popular use of the blessed word “power”. In the popular image, the great man arrives at his desk and pulls all sorts of fascinating levers, thus conferring fear and favour far and wide. In sober fact he finds insoluble and unsurmountable dilemmas crowding in upon him, which allow him hardly a quarter of an inch to move; because the public will not stand for this, the Chancellor cannot afford that, the Russians (sic) would be upset by something else, the ideal compromise happens to be statistically impossible, and the only other alternative would require legislation for which there is no time ...’ (from Socialism in the New Society (1962) by Douglas Jay, PC, MP, Personal Assistant to the Prime Minister 1945-46, Economic Secretary to the Treasury 1947-50, Financial Secretary to the Treasury 1950-51, President of the Board of Trade 1964-        .)

The first few months of Labour’s rule have failed to impress most liberal-left commentators, and the Wilsonite Labour left has been at pains to find excuses (in the economic crisis and the narrow Commons majority) to plug the gap between promise and fulfilment. In most respects, the ‘Hundred Days’ have proved to be no more than an exercise in rhetoric; even in Labour’s own terms of dirigisme and modernisation, no consistent, vigorous style of management has emerged. Instead of a ‘radical’, ‘reforming’ Administration scattering its technocratic image through the land, we have the spectacle of the traditional pressure groups of Tory Britain asserting and even enhancing their role in the deliberations of the new Government. The aircraft industry (bosses and scandalously misled workers united in a nationalist orgy) has preserved the Concord as a prototypical white elephant; the BMA has hastened to prove that its combativity as a privileged profession takes preference over its medical ethics; the Departmental top brass have won over their Ministers to the impossibility of early pension increases and the inevitability of certain of their predecessors’ policies. Thus Home Office still deports Bert Bensen, Commonwealth Office sticks to its fiddled Guiana constitution, and Defence blithely pursues its estimates beyond the two-thousand-million mark, while an ex-Liberal ‘Minister for Disarmament’ publicly encourages a fresh rise in arms spending (for ground forces). Amid the mish-mash of carefully-processed Whitehall gossip that is served up for political commentary at weekends, it seems clear that for all Wilson’s shrewd anticipation of Civil Service (and especially Treasury) obstructiveness, the restrictionist fiscal lobbies remain entrenched and threatening.

The period we are now witnessing might justly be called (to paraphrase recent essays in minstrelsy): The Breaking-In of the Prime Minister. In Zurich and the City, as in Whitehall and Washington, the guardians of international capital have been concerned to ensure Labour’s prompt and proper obeisance to the imperatives that they recognise. If at times the harsh limits of capitalist necessity have had to be marked out for the Government in private threats and public hints, on other occasions Labour has jumped to convince its gentleman-clients that Business Is As Usual. Brown and Callaghan may conscientiously disagree as to whether the new Budget should be ‘selectively disinflationary’ or ‘generally disinflationary’; both have taken care to reassure the bosses, by word and (in the winter Budget) in deed, that the axe will fall on living-standards rather than on profit incentives. In foreign policy and strategy, Wilson has personally excelled as pro-Washington appeaser and neo-colonial intransigent: ANF, Congo, Malaysia, Vietnam – the total after a bare six months is almost staggering. (Those who expected – and still expect – better things may be reminded that it was Wilson who in 1954 broke the Bevanite ranks by assuming Nye’s Shadow Cabinet seat after the latter resigned in opposition to SEATO.)

Most shameful of all, and least excusable by any invocation of ‘necessity’, has been the headlong retreat from the battle against racialism; first with the continued export of Buccaneer combat planes to Verwoerd, then with the actual tightening of counter-immigration controls. Even before Wilson took office, this journal warned (IS 15, Editorial 1) that the PLP was preparing the way for the operation of colour-bar controls under a Labour government; we did not dream of forecasting that the immigrant’s lot would be worse under a Soskice than under a Brooke.

This last capitulation, the sordid backlash of the Smethwick and Leyton results, should warn us against making light of the possibility of a defeat of the present Government from the Right. The Labour movement can take no comfort from the double victory of Tory racism over the Labour member most identified with racist policies in his own party’s record (Seretse Khama, Central African Federation). Equally, pressures such as those that have been mounted to ‘keep the RAF British’ or bring the doctors out against the NHS are reactionary and insupportable even when based on genuine grievances. The fall of the Government as a result of such campaigns is for the moment unlikely, but the danger of a nationalist or middle-class insurgency – which is a threat for the movement as a whole – should not be excluded for the future. The immediate peril is the likely influence of Right-wing pressures upon the formation and execution of Labour’s policy. In such contingencies, it is the duty of the Socialist Left to support the Government and press for the accomplishment of the threatened programme (e.g., nationalisation of steel, attack on the public schools). Socialists in the trade unions and Labour Party must at the saine time press these demands in the principled form (steel nationalisation under workers’ control, abolition of public schools) and not simply nuzzle up to Labour’s Centre.

What would be fatal for the Left would be to develop a politics of internal counter-pressure designed to offset influences from the Right. The first fruits of the Left-Centrist/Entrist tack are now visible in the conscription of ‘official-Left’ elements (Castle, Greenwood, Cousins) into Cabinet loyalties and the virtual silence of Old Guard and ‘new Boys’ of the backbench Left (except over Vietnam). While backbench revolts over foreign policy and defence are no doubt to be expected; and are amply deserved by the Government, we have yet to see any evidence of coherent Centrist/Entrist opposition to the impending attack on working-class standards and trade-union power via the so-called ‘incomes policy’. This is the single field in which the present Government cannot be accused of laxity and ditherings; under the ebullient patronage of George Brown a determined Campaign for the Abolition of the Class Struggle has unfolded, hitherto in rational stages: the Statement of Intent between employers, Government and TUC, the review body for wages and prices (but not profits). At a time of general price increases, these manoeuvres (which if successful are bound to limit working-class freedom of action) are either condoned of ignored by the bulk of the Labour Left. From the ranks of the former ‘New Left’, devoted chroniclers of the life of Karl Marx join with progressive economists in hailing the Statement of Intent and urging a host of bright ideas upon Callaghan, Brown and Wilson, that the class-struggle may be raised to a ‘higher level’ through State intervention. (It is becoming rapidly obvious that the British Labour movement can no longer hope to escape the Continental example of counter-revolutionary, academic ‘Marxisms’ such as have afflicted French and German Social-Democracy.) Opposition to ‘incomes-policy’, a term which reeks of mystification at best, of neo-capitalism at worst, remains a paramount task for the trade unions and the Socialist Left. This is the terrain on which struggle will be joined between workers and their bourgeois or bureaucratic opponents over the next period; it is here that we must take our stand.

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