From International Socialism, No.42, February/March 1970, pp.1-2.
Transcribed by Mike Pearn.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
The tone of official politics is increasingly dominated by the certainty of a general election within the next 12 months. Both parties are making a noisy but marginal adjustments to their proclaimed policies so as to appeal to their traditional supporters. Labour leaders promise occasional pieces of legislation to no immediate advantage to capital (although to little disadvantage either – hence talk of yet again abolishing prescription charges, of extending the scope of rent restriction acts, of enforcing equal pay. Hence also the likelihood (providing the world economy does not suffer too much from the expected US recession) of a short pre-election boom. At the same time the Tories’ attempt to strengthen the commitment of their followers by indulging in rightist rhetoric. They raise the spectre of ‘law and order’; they mouth concern at the government’s failure to enact meaningful anti-union laws; they do little to discourage the open racialism of their own right wing; they demand tax changes; they even mutter about state interference in industry. Yet they know that given the real balance of social forces outside parliament their policies in power would differ only in details from Wilson’s.
Despite the emphasis and exaggeration of party differences as the election draws nearer, the outcome will not alter the strict correlation between the needs of capitalism and the policies of whichever government is elected. Even in classical reformist terms, a Labour victory offers little. For five years the Wilson government has proved to be, if anything, more successful at carrying through ruling class policies than the Conservatives. It was able to manipulate ideological loyalties so as to gain acquiescence in incomes policy and wage freeze. It was able to squeeze welfare expenditure – cutting down on free milk, postponing the raising of the school leaving age, persuading Labour local authorities to charge ‘economic’ rents, and so on. It alone could carry through a reduction in average real net earnings for the first time in a generation. In addition, precisely because it has not been committed to some of the elements in the traditional Tory ideology, labour has been able to implement the sorts of policies required by the advanced sectors of British capital: speeding up the fusion of the State and big business; pouring in massive funds to lubricate mergers and to encourage technological development; nationalising steel in order to ensure an efficient supply of raw materials for key manufacturing sectors; liquidating unprofitable defence commitments east of Suez.
In the past social democratic governments have been able to improve working class conditions at the national level only when such changes correspond with the needs of capital: on the one hand in reducing extra-parliamentary discontent, on the other in rationalising the workings of the system itself. When there has not been this congruence of interests, such government s have always gone back on their promises. What is unusual about the present government is not that it has been unable to introduce reforms, but rather that this failure has created so little political reaction within the working-class movement itself.
This can only be explained by developments present long before Labour came to power – what we have referred to as the ‘shift in the locus of reformism’. throughout the nineteen fifties and after the permanent arms economy provided the basis for a continual expansion of capitalism. The living standards for employed workers could undergo continual improvements. These were gained, however, not as a result of national battles but through numerous fragmented and isolated battles waged at the shop – floor level. The trade union apparatus played a minimal but essential role in that it continued to be the focus of minimal class identity and to provide the framework upon which organisation in each shop was based. The reformist political organisations played virtually no role at all. The loyalties defined and emphasised in struggle were not to the Labour Party: nor could the benefits accruing to the class in any way be ascribed to it. While in opposition Labour could at least lay claim to being the custodian of gains obtainable through fragmented parochial struggles, however militant – pensions, welfare benefits, housing. But in a period of full employment these were marginal concerns for the best organised and most conscious sections of the class. And labour in power has abandoned its claim to be able to offer improvements in even these areas.
The overall result is that while Labour has been able to offer less to the class, the mass of workers have expected less from Labour. Hence the apathy towards institutions built with so much effort over so may years, the decline in real membership, the drainage of activists fro the local party organisations. Hence also the pathetic spectacle of the official Labour left: claiming to represent the best traditions of the movement, yet unable to mobilise any section of the class, with few ties with real workers, dependent upon the residual loyalty of Labour supporters to a political machine with Wilson at the top for their parliamentary seats, therefore unable to criticise his betrayals effectively.
The experience of the last four years has not altered the fundamentals of this response. Indeed, in some ways they have been strengthened by the unified offensive of employers and government working against working-class gains of the previous 20 years. Even now as whole sections begin to react against real depreciations in living standards or increased fatigue following productivity deals, the reaction typically takes the form of a rediscovery of trade union consciousness, insofar as there is a national response to national problems, this is an industrial response expressed through union channels, official and unofficial. Typical are the teachers’ struggle and the movement for parity with the Midlands in the motor industry. Precisely what characterises these is that although they raise political questions in the sense that they clearly defy government policy, they are still far from posing explicitly alternative political programmes (correct or otherwise) to the government’s. even those left reformist trade union leaders who could, if they wished, cash in politically on the discontent below, refused to give flesh and blood to their own proclaimed vaguely oppositional sentiments. Indeed, they continue to dole out the funds that maintain Wilson’s apparatus.
In electoral terms this means that how the mass of workers vote is determined by the remnants of old loyalties. Increased numbers may abstain. But while trade union militancy is seen as opening a door for reforms, new and viable working-class political allegiances cannot be expected to develop. Those workers least aware of their class identity and most gullible to ruling-class myths will continue to vote tory. Those most militant and most conscious of their opposition to the status quo will see no choice but to vote Labour. Even where there might be an alternative on the left (a CP candidate, an independent leftist, or even a revolutionary candidate) this will not be seen as offering any credible alternative as far as class goals are concerned; at best it will provide an opportunity for registering individual dissent from government policies.
What applies to militants in general also applies to the revolutionary Left. Unless the completely unexpected occurs the election will not provide opportunities for participation in any major regroupment of class forces. Even opportunities for making propaganda through electoral participation will be minimal. One corollary of the shift in the locus of reformism is a general decline in real interest in elections – at least unless a major social crisis occurs (as in, say, Northern Ireland last year). Yet propaganda remains the only activity open to us.
At the same time we cannot be completely indifferent to the outcome of the elections. The politics of Labour might be more or less identical to the Tories. The relationship between the Labour Party and the organised working-class might be weaker than in the past. But in their relation to class forces the two parties are still not identical. A Labour victory will indicate support for capitalist policies disguised to varying degrees so as to gain working-class votes; a Tory victory will mean support for open and undisguised ruling-class domination. The latter will be seen a defeat, albeit a minor one, for anti-capitalist forces. And in a sense it would be: certainly any growth in the Tory vote would represent an erosion of minima class identity among workers and therefore a real, although small, weakening of working-class strength. Leftists in the Labour movement will, of course, blame such an erosion on the policies of Labourism itself. But such a task would be harder if it seemed that leftists had in fact encouraged a labour defeat.
Further, although it cannot be said that at present many people have positive illusions in the reformist pretensions of the Labour leaders, a Tory victory would actually create these. Ex-Ministers would lead protests against the very continuation of their own policies (as castle and Greenwood were on unemployment demonstrations in 1963). It would be that much more difficult to show the inapplicability of reformist alternatives.
For these reasons, although our main aim in the election period should be to make propaganda against the policies of the Labour government and to indicate the source of these in reformist theory and practice, it would be a mistake, although not a major one, for the Left to call for a vote ‘against both Tories’ and to urge abstention. This would be to claim that a vote for the overt party of capital and for the shamefaced party of capital are the same, a claim which most militant workers still reject. It would be to accentuate precisely what differentiates us from most workers, not what we have in common. If there were anything like a credible alternative to offer this would be justified; if there is not it only makes the long term task of relating revolutionary politics to the aspirations of ordinary workers that much more difficult.
Last updated on 27.12.2007