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Colin Barker

[Prices & Incomes Board]

(Autumn 1966)

From The Notebook, International Socialism (1st series), No.26, Autumn 1966, pp.5-6.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Colin Barker writes (27 July): To date the Prices and Incomes Board has published 18 separate reports on a variety of industries and problems, and its functions and thinking are now remarkably clear. Essentially the Board is an instrument for change in the longer term, as the opening paragraphs of the first report (Road Haulage Charges) assert: the Board’s job is to examine and deal with, not immediate problems connected with the balance of payments, etc, but ‘old habits, inherited attitudes, and institutional arrangements.’

The Board’s central function is that of asserting the longer-term interests of British capital as a whole, both against the short-term interests of sections of the capitalist class, where they conflict, and (especially) against all working-class interests. These long-term capitalist interests require alterations in and strengthening of certain ruling-class institutions and the weakening of working-class institutions.

Efficiency of British capital as a whole in world markets is the central goal and criterion; efficient competition requires, in the price- and wage-fixing areas, a slowing down of the rate of inflation and a faster rise in productivity. From the initial total acceptance of capitalist values the various judgements follow with sharp logic; within a framework of irrational market assumptions, Aubrey Jones’ boys are supremely rational. In the present economic context, a central Governmental problem remains the failure of managements in both the ‘private’ and ‘public’ sectors to discipline their workers sufficiently. Disciplining managers to discipline their workers is thus a necessary task for the Board, given the absence of market forces tending in this direction (until we join the EEC). Current arrangements permit employers to pass on cost increases rather than attack their workers; and customers, often similarly placed, accept price rises and pass them on again; thus the inflationary spiral is maintained. One function of the Board, therefore, is to urge customers to resist price increases, as in road haulage (I; XIV) and printing (II). Where more effective Governmental control is possible, this is recommended, or threatened. Thus ‘financial discipline’ over the managements of nationalised industries must be tightened – gas and electricity (VII, 23), railways (VIII, 46-58), coal (XII, 58-62) – ‘to prevent slackness in management.’ In the absence of market pressures that would force managements on to the attack, the Government must set private industry a firm example – industrial civil service (XVIII, 23, 32, 51). True, pressure for greater ‘managerial initiative’ in nationalised industries conflicts with the parliamentary accountability of these industries, but in such a conflict the demands of bureaucratic capitalist efficiency must win over the vestiges of parliamentary democracy (XVIII, 44). Where direct Governmental control over managements is not practicable, veiled threats are possible: thus the monopolistic brewers are warned that the Government might assist competition a little (?) if ‘the pace of change’ in brewing is not hotted up (XIII, 43) or might refer them to the PIB again (XIII, 48). In other industries, however, there is too much competition, and current legislation on restrictive practices requires reconsideration: bakers should get together more to reduce the varieties of bread (III, 39) and there is a suggestion that more exchange of information between the two detergent firms might enable them to reduce advertising costs of £9½ millions a year (IV, 46, 57).

Generally further concentration of capital is highly desirable – though, needless to say, no mention is made of nationalisation. Standardisation of products, with attendant improvements in efficiency and cheapness, should follow: breads (III, 39, 44-46) and beers (XIII, 37) should be standardised, and inter-company agreements encouraged; gas and electricity capital purchasing is to be centralised and limited to a few contractors only (VII, 73). The processes of concentration in road haulage and baking are regrettably slow.

The Board’s main fire, however, is directed at the institutions of wage bargaining. In particular, the principle of comparability comes under attack – in the reports on electricity supply clerks (V), bank employees (VI, 13), railway staff (VIII, 20-21), bakers (IX, 10), Scottish teachers (XV, 38-40), busmen (XVI), and industrial civil servants (XVIII, 5-17). In general, it has been true in Britain that wage movements have depended to a considerable extent on comparisons made by groups of workers with other workers, and the Board is concerned to break down this institutionalised working-class means of maintaining a rough form of equity. While the electricity supply clerks were permitted to benefit (to the tune of an eight per cent rise) from their ‘sense of disturbance’ at a productivity award to manual workers in the industry, an award that upset traditional notions about differentials, later groups have been forced to go disturbed and unpaid.

In particular, the process of comparison is attacked because it does take account of variations in workers’ contributions to productivity (e.g. XVIII, 25). Anything hindering the ‘more efficient utilisation of labour’ is to be deplored, from shop-floor controls and working rules (printing and baking) to the refusal by road haulage workers to work schedules based on driving speeds of 40 mph. All the partial controls that workers have established over their conditions of work are henceforth to be sacrificed (with or without ‘compensation’) on the altar of higher productivity. Trade-union leaders are prepared to accept this, but workers unfortunately won’t – so the unions must take steps to control their workers (VII, 77-78). No wage rises are to be granted on the simple expectation of continuing inflation, which means the end of cost-of-living bonuses (II, 55; VI, 28). Overtime must be cut, because it leads to ‘slackness’ and ‘inefficiency’ (I; III), and shift-working and the seven-day week are to be encouraged. Uniform wage rises for all workers in an industry are under attack; workers must pay for all their wage rises by working harder (VIII, 74). At the same time firms must seek to raise their profit rates to encourage investment (IX, 25). Labour shortages must be solved, not by paying higher wages, but by getting the existing labour-forces to labour harder and to abandon existing rules and practices (XVI, 18-31; etc). Managements must institute new methods of control, to keep tabs on their workers – like tachographs on long-distance lorries (I, 44; XIV, 35). In short, workers must be placed unreservedly at the service of capital, with no thought of their enlarging their share of the cake.

At the same time, there are no guarantees that any of this will lead to a higher standard of living, or that it will stop inflation. A whole host of capitalist assumptions continue, hardly mentioned: resources will continue to be wasted on defence (X, 4) and the armed forces are not discouraged from their aim of recruiting one in five of the young men in the age-group 15-19 who are not disqualified or ‘lost to higher education.’ Advertising costs may be a little high, but the principle is not attacked – despite the fact that just two firms with stable shares of the market spend £8 millions a year advertising the same product (in different packets) on television. Road haulage and bus managements are to solve their problems, as always, off the workers’ backs, and not as a result of any radical reconstruction of the transport and delivery system. Railway workers must bear their sacrifices to the altar of free enterprise road haulage. If anything differentials are to be widened (eg VI, 47); certainly there’s none of that flannel about paying lower-paid workers more (VIII; XVI) or narrowing differentials (XV). In an unplanned world market, where prices of imports cannot be controlled (III, 6; IV, 20), workers are to accept planning directed against themselves. No account is taken, in discussing the financial difficulties of the nationalised industries, of the burden of compensation to former shareholders who’ve been pulling in the cash for up to 20 years. No comment is offered on the practice of differential pricing of the products of the nationalised industries, a practice that throws additional burdens on the worker-consumer and gives a sub to the ‘industrial’ consumer. The PIB can cheerily note the ‘increased productivity’ of the armed services on their ‘overseas commitments’ – a phrase that should bring joy to the hearts of workers in Aden, Malaysia, Guyana ...

The TUC rejected the Tories’ National Incomes Commission of 1962. Labour’s Prices and Incomes Board has far sharper teeth, but the TUC sees only the toothpaste. (Frank Cousins refused to give evidence for the busmen’s report (XVI) but the T&G bakers were not so well served, as the Board gratefully notes (XVIII, 8).) The Government is arming itself rapidly; rank-and-file trade unionists should be looking to their slings.

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Last updated: 17.12.2007