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International Socialism, January 1975


Notes of the Month

The State of Labour


From International Socialism, No.74, January 1975, pp.3-4.
Transcribed & marked up by by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


THIS TIME last year the Tory government was enforcing its ‘three day working’ lockout; a desperate gamble to break the will of the miners and so bring an end to their overtime ban. It had been heralded by an ‘appeal to the nation’ TV broadcast by Ted Heath.

Twelve months later, almost to the week, Michael Foot, the idol of the Labour Party’s left wing, made his TV ‘appeal to the nation’. The words and phrases were indeed different. But the message was identical: the miners must moderate their pay demands, the country is in danger.

History rarely repeats itself. We are not about to see a repetition of the events of January and February 1974. Indeed Foot’s intervention, helped by TUC pressure, achieved its immediate end. The NUM executive obliged. The more enduring significance of Foot’s speech is symbolic. In twelve short months this ‘tribune of the people’ has come to occupy the familiar role of poacher turned gamekeeper.

This lifelong defender of civil liberties is a member and spokesman of a government which not only retains internment without charge or trial in the six counties but increases police powers and gives itself the right to outlaw political organisations in Britain. This militant opponent of ‘the rich mans club’, the Common Market, is a member of a government which is manifestly manoevouring hard to retain its membership. And so on and so on. Foot himself is symbolic. The government’s ‘left face’, his political somersaults highlight its steady rightward drift.

In the first months of its existence this government took certain steps that raised its credit amongst politically conscious workers. It abolished statutory wage controls. It repealed the Industrial Relations Act. It repealed the Housing Finance Act. It introduced limited price control and food subsidies.

Of course it is easy enough to explain that the miners’ had wrecked the statutory pay policy (as they had earlier wrecked Heath’s ‘confrontation’ policy) and that the ‘social contract’ approach was the only readily available alternative; that the Industrial Relations Act (especially after Sir John Donaldson’s final spectacular clash with the AUEW in May) had become a liability to the employers and that its repeal (and that of the Housing Act) were absolutely essential if the ‘social contract’ was to be got off the ground.

All this is true but it does not alter the facts. And ‘facts are chiels that winna ding’, they speak louder than explanations. No doubt this has had comparitively little effect on the demands for pay rises at grass roots level. It has had a powerful effect on the trade union machines through which most of them are refracted.

Industrial actions, like the Scottish strike wave, and the fear of them in other cases have made the ‘social contract’ creak badly. But this does not at all.mean that the idea of the ‘social contract’ is generally seen for the fraud that it is. Many, perhaps most, of the actual strikers regard themselves as ‘special cases’ in so far as they think about the matter in general political terms. This political credibility, this belief that the government is significantly different to the Tories is now coming under strain. Healy’s budget, the relaxation of price controls to boost profit, the rate of inflation, the Common Market ‘re-negotiation’ and the unemployment to come, all this and more represent a growing convergence of Labour and Tory policy. And a new wages policy is on the way.

No more will be heard of the nationalisation of the ‘top 25 companies’. State regulation and state intervention in industry will indeed continue to increase. Under Sir Don Ryder the National Enterprise Board will press forward the trend to increase state holdings in industry towards the levels existing in France and Italy. But the ‘socialist’ gloss is transparently thin.

In the immediate future the effects of all this will be to erode the government’s support in the lower echelons of the trade union movement. In the slightly longer term the question of what is the political alternative will become more and more pressing. One thing is clear. Much more emphasis has to be put, in our propaganda, on the need for a planned economy, democratically controlled by the producers, on the general socialist case.

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