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International Socialism, Autumn 1966


Editorial 1

Labour to Power


From International Socialism, No.26, Autumn 1966, p.1-2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


‘Full employment can only be maintained in a solvent society. The consequence of not earning an honest living is unemployment, and we had better face the fact.’ R. Gunter, 8 January.

The external crisis of the British economy this quarter has reduced Government policy to no more than a declaration of class war. The hints of glamorous reforms that brought Labour to office have faded like morning mist in the hot glare of power: if Wilson agrees to run British capitalism at a time when its profits can only be secured by open class warfare, when it needs, above everything else, to redistribute the national income from wages to profits, then Wilson must use the truncheon. The Government twists and turns to escape this logic, playing with words, juggling with moral cant, but that same logic cuts away, one by one, its practical commitments to even marginal concessions – ‘To be effective,’ The Times (28 July) says firmly, ‘a policy of wage standstill coupled with severe deflation must hurt. It is really not possible to impose this kind of policy and then to make exceptions on the grounds of welfare.’ This means it must hurt the British working class, it must hurt precisely those policies with which the Labour leadership justifies itself: employment, housing, planning, growth, welfare, health, education. What is left, after the ‘hurt,’ is a government dedicated to more radical class warfare than the Tories ever dared. Wilson has no more tricks up his sleeve, only colourful phrases or spurious bargains, a 10 per cent increase in supertax in exchange for 6-800,000 unemployed. The division of labour continues – some people inflict the hurt, others suffer it.

The actual economic situation is of little interest to those that had selected the target long before the pretext of an external crisis appeared. The panic about ‘national disaster’ and ‘decadence’ is as phoney as the chauvinistic blame assiduously pinned solely on foreign ‘gnomes,’ the Government’s scapegoat to evade responsibility; as phoney as Wilson’s denunciation of Tory illusions of imperial grandeur, when he is the most passionate devotee of just those illusions: an ‘East of Suez’ foreign policy, Britain as a world military power, sterling as a world currency. The fact that British exports have more than doubled in the past decade; that Britain is the third largest exporting country in the world; that imbalance in the trading account has been a regular feature of the economy since 1899; that Britain has had, since 1960, a lower rate of price and wage inflation than any of the major European countries, and also the lowest rate of increase in standard of living (8 per cent, compared to West Germany’s 37 per cent); that Britain was one of the four countries (the others were Ireland, Hungary and South Korea) where workers’ real wages actually declined last year, though profits rose 12 per cent; all this is of no interest when the ruling class, as the prelude to wage cuts, has decided unilaterally that we are morally degenerate.

The reason the facts are dismissed so cavalierly is precisely that the Government has not stated and cannot state its real priorities. It therefore hides them in clouds of masochistic gloom. Those priorities are that the British status quo will be maintained roughly intact (the nameplates only will change in steel), that the pound will not be devalued (that is, the City’s profits are assured), and that British troops will continue to be used in the Far East to support the US. Given these commitments, exports must increase to pay to preserve the City and to support US foreign policy; and to increase exports, they must be cheapened, so workers must pay to cheapen them and to expand profits so that investment increases; in its turn, the US underpins the pound lest the dollar be threatened. This simple complex of commitments rules out virtually all Labour’s election promises, all its elaborate historical aims (including the promise to maintain high employment), all that ostensibly keeps the Labour rank and file loyal. In the interstices of US foreign, military and financial policy, Wilson’s verbal agility has no room to move – promises for the remote future are his sole offer. There is, of course, one cause to congratulate the Prime Minister: in 1948 the Labour Party only reprinted the Communist Manifesto to celebrate its centenary – for the anniversary of Capital it is arranging a full-scale ‘happening’ to demonstrate cyclical crisis and the reserve army of labour. Will the Government succeed in continuing to bamboozle its followers? The incomes policy and legislation against shop-floor militancy were sold to labour on promises of an increasing national income, reforms without increased taxation and wage increases without struggle, an appeal that was particularly attractive to less organised workers and those legions of the white collar that man important sections of the Labour Party. The policy has to date been accepted by the overwhelming majority of the Labour movement – wage freeze and recession are seen as temporary aberrations. However, any redistribution of the national income achieved in the coming months is intended to be permanent, or the crisis measures will have failed; The Economist (23 July, p.330), more honest than the Government, presses to permit prices to increase while the wage freeze is on, so that there can be a once-for-all straight devaluation of workers’ real earnings that will not be recovered when the freeze thaws. The Prices and Incomes Bill is similarly not temporary – ‘restraint’ is to become a permanent feature in the British version of the Taft-Hartley Act, designed to cripple wage negotiations and prepare beforehand to stem the flood of wage claims that will come when the freeze is lifted. Economic dictatorship, moves towards a more totalitarian organisation of the labour movement, all are implicit in the bill. Socialists should be in no doubt as to their attitude – firm opposition to the Government’s attempt to pay for US policy out of the standard of living of British workers. But opposition is irrelevant without power, and that power lies with those most directly affected, the organised workers, whether in the form of trade-union opposition to a national wages freeze or shop-steward guerilla attempts to try and make up a little of what is lost at the national level with local wage drift. If the Government succeeds in getting the overwhelming majority of the unions to police its wage freeze, a particularly heavy burden will fall on the stewards – the importance of shop-floor bargaining, where it is possible, will be immensely augmented by the absence of national negotiations at just the time when stewards will be under intense attack from the State, the employers and many of the union leaders, in what will probably be recession conditions with anything between half and one million unemployed. However, because incomes policy and a wage freeze hit the working class as a whole, they impose a degree of unity of conditions on a fragmented movement, and could force it to think in political terms since opposition to each individual employer is now ultimately impossible; every individual wage struggle now opposes the State and is therefore necessarily political. Potentially, this is a promising situation for the growth of politically conscious industrial organisations. The callousness of the Government in subordinating the alleviation of poverty to the needs of capital accumulation, its subservience in domestic policy to the demands of the US, accelerate the crumbling of Social Democracy as a significant force in British politics. To replace it, there must be a socialist answer and socialist power.

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