ISJ Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

International Socialism, February 1975


Notes of the Month

‘The Least Bad Government’


From International Socialism, No.75, February 1975, pp.3-4.
Transcribed & marked up by by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


‘HERE IS evidence of the government’s march to the middle of the road’, noted the Economist‘s lead editorial of 11 January. ‘Three months after a general election which the Labour Party fought on one of it’s most extremist manifestos, Mr Harold Wilson has devoted his first major speech of 1975 to warning strikers that they may strike themselves out of a job. Mr James Callaghan is acting in pragmatic cahoots with a helpful prime minister of South Africa. Mr Tony Benn has been asking workers at British Leyland to co-operate in improving industrial relations within the context of a taxpayer’s rescue operation that is going to fall far short of the nationalisation of this most prominent nation-failer among Britain’s 25 largest capitalist firms. Mr Dennis Healey, after an emergency budget that was wholly devoted to diverting another 2 per cent of gnp towards disposable company profits, is bent mainly on persuading other finance ministers to use tax cuts to industry to reflate ... and to recycle petrodollars in a way that would give more power to the rather conservative International Monetary Fund. And still the left wing of the Labour Party hardly said boo.

‘With one proviso – namely, that it can introduce some sort of incomes policy some time soon – this government of Labour men and consensus measures could prove to be the least bad government Britain could have for this bad year of 1975.’

The calculation – and a similar one has appealed in other serious organs of conservative opinion, notably the Sunday Times – is that, after all, the Labour Party leadership can be relied upon to pursue Tory policies and that it has a very much better chance of disarming working class opposition to attacks on living standards than any Tory or ‘National’ government. As to the Labour Party’s left wing, it is assumed that it will prove, yet again, to be a paper tiger.

There is no doubt at all about the government’s ‘steady rightward drift’ as we noted last month. And there is some evidence for the second proposition, the ability to secure working class aquiescence to a greater degree than the Tories could hope for. At trade union machine level this is obvious enough. The very nearly unanimous acceptance of the plainly fraudulent ‘Social Contract’ by the union leaderships is a significant gain for the right and one that the Heath administration tried hard, but failed, to win in it’s last 18 months.

Now the ‘Contract’ is being redefined in terms less and less favourable to the working class.

‘It is far better that more people should be in work’ says Dennis Healey ‘even if that means accepting lower wages on average, than those. lucky enough to keep their jobs should scoop the pool while millions are living on the dole. That is what the Social Contract is all about.’

No question now of that famous ‘major distribution of both wealth and income’ in favour of the working class promised in Labour’s election manifesto. Harold Wilson’s claim that ‘the Social Contract is not just about wages’ appears in a new light. It is now a question of trading jobs for pay. Accept cuts in real pay and save jobs: Fight to defend living standards and push up unemployment.

This is exactly the argument used by governments and their ‘economic experts’ in the 1930s; indeed it is a version of ‘wages fund’ theory that was used by some nineteenth century economists to prove, to their own satisfaction at least, that trade unionism could not possibly benefit the working class as a whole. If some workers pushed up their pay, others must lose their jobs ‘Wages (in the aggregate – Ed.) not only depend upon the relative amount of capital and population but cannot, under the rule of competition, be affected by anything else,’ as John Stuart Mill explained it. Experience and theory alike showed the falsity of this proposition (indeed Mill himself came eventually to reflect it) but it now figures in the ‘new thinking’ of the Labour ‘moderates’.

And yet it is not simply amongst the leaderships that such arguments have plausibility. The remarkable lack of resistance to short-time working in the car industry, one of the best organised and militant of all, is an indication that many workers are confused and uncertain. The serious successes of right wing candidates in recent AUEW elections is another pointer (although here there are also special factors at work). All in all, the Economist has a case for ‘the least bad government’ theory from a capitalist point of view.

What can we expect now?

WE ARGUED the opposite case. We called for electoral support to Labour. We said that a Labour government in this time of crisis would be both reactionary and weak, that it would rapidly disillusion whole layers of it’s supporters, that it’s actions would facilitate the growth of the revolutionary left. And we do not think that we were mistaken.

Partly, it is a question of timing. It is a besetting sin of revolutionaries to telescope the course of events, to foreshorten the time scales. Labour has not yet been in office long enough for the realities of its policies, obvious to the ruling class, to become clear to large numbers of workers. Partly, it is a question of the cushioning of the British economy from the full impact of the recession. The British economy is floating on petrodollars. The £3,700 millions balance of payments deficit of 1974 (three times the 1973 deficit) has been nearly matched by the inflow of Arab oil money. This is what made it possible for average gross earnings to rise by 25 per cent over the years as against a 20 per cent inflation rate. Although the lower paid workers were decidedly worse off, the ‘Social Contract’ was relatively ineffective in achieving real wage cuts last year. But this cushion is extremely precarious. Unemployment, as well as short-time working, is now rising fast and the wages struggle is getting much harder. All this will affect the thinking of sections of workers in the next few months.

Partly, it is a question of the lack of a rallying centre sufficiently credible to appear as an alternative to right wing policies in the short term. There is a ready response to the case for a planned economy under workers control as the way out of the crisis. Numbers of workers, far beyond the immediate circles of the revolutionary left, are convinced or half convinced! of the correctness of the socialist case. But they do not, in general, see how society can be changed. The problem is one oi agency. Where is the organised force that can transform society? The gulf between the strength and influence of the revolutionaries and the magnitude of the task they set themselves is enormous.

It is quite possible that this gulf will not be bridged before a real revolutionary situation develops, that the revolutionary left will grow but that it’s growth will not reach the take-off point for mass organisations before a decisive class confrontation. It is even probable. In that case the prospect is, sooner or later, for the sort of situation that occurred in France in May 1968. The outcome can of course be very difficult. To the extent that IS sinks real roots in the working class (and it’s working class base is even now incomparably greater than that of the French Revolutionary left in 1968) it may grow very rapidly into a mass force in the course of the revolutionary crisis itself.

But this is not the only possibility. It has sometimes happened in the past that severe social crisis has produced major splits in social-democratic parties and that sizeable revolutionary organisations have been created by political struggle between revolutionary marxists and left reformist or ‘centralist’ leaders inside the left wing movement. This is how the German, French and Italian Communist Parties (revolutionary parties at that time) were created. The circumstances of the present are very different and no simple repetition of the events of 1920-21 is possible. But that does not at all mean there is no prospect of a big leftish movement arising independently (in the first instance) of the revolutionary left. Were such a development to occur and it is a real possibility, the immediate political problems facing revolutionaries would change considerably.

The Common Market Issue

THE RAPID ‘conversion’ of Wilson, Callaghan and Co. to a pro-Common Market position is likely to have important political consequences inside the Labour movement. In spite of the antics of Labour’s NEC and of the government itself, it is going to be very hard indeed to prevent the referendum splitting the party politically to a degree that will force some, at least, of the anti-market lefts into a sharply anti-government position. And if people like Benn, Foot and Heffer

actually break with the government on this issue, they will hardly be able to avoid becoming a focus for discontent with the government’s increasingly right wing stance.

The line-up of forces on the market issue itself will be:

Essentially, in the referendum campaign all those with an ‘establishment’ outlook and perspective will be lined up against all the ‘dissident’ trends including the far right. However, the heart and muscle of the anti camp will be the left of the Labour movement. Just as in the German re-armament debate (1954), a muddled, opportunistic and semi-nationalist left will find itself aligned with out and out chauvinists and rascists against the main political forces of British capitalism.

In this situation, our place is firmly and unequivocally in the ‘NO’ camp. Our task is to wage an aggressive internationalist and revolutionary propaganda within that camp, a camp which will include the vast majority of class-conscious workers. We must utilise every opportunity to play a leading part in any referendum campaign (including probably organisational participation) and to draw closer to the left social-democratic workers most of whom will not be active LP people) and to fight for our perspective and programme amongst them. Our slogans will include:

No to the Common Market; Yes to the Socialist United State of Europe
Socialist internationalism, not British chauvinism.

Build international links between organised workers; build international combine committees in the multinationals.

For trade union unity, one international federation of all genuine unions irrespective of political affiliations.

No ‘popular fronts’ with Tories, Powellites or Fascists.

For working class unity against the Common Market.

The Common Market referendum, then, is a possible source of a ‘Bevanite’ type of left-wing movement led by left-reformist MPs and their trade union allies. (The re-imposition of a statutory incomes policy is, of course, another). There is no certainty about this prospect. No one should underestimate the elasticity of the backbones of the Labour lefts or their capacity to lick the boot that kicks them. But given the growing severity of the economic situation and the shrinkage of the government’s field for manoeuvre it is at least on the cards that there may be a quite big left labour opposition in the not-too-distant future.

What would such an opposition amount to? It goes without saying that not the slightest political confidence could be placed in its leaders. What concerns us is that such a tendency, forced to generalise its opposition, could become a pole of attraction, for tens of thousands of workers (and students and others). It is not difficult to imagine the packed meetings assembled to hear the parliamentary stars on. The Crisis: Socialism is the Answer’ or some such theme.

Speculation about the possible organisational forms a ‘Bevanite’ movement might take would be altogether premature. What can be said at this stage is that revolutionary socialists need to be aware of the need to combine political firmness with sensitivity to possible developments in the broader movement and great organisational flexibility with respect to any such movement that may develop.

Top of page

ISJ Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

Last updated on 30.12.2007