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Andrew Glyn

1974–79 Labour Government:
What Went Wrong?

(March 1980)

From Militant, No. 496, 28 March 1980, p. 6.
Transcribed by Iain Dalton.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

In a previous issue of Militant [29 February] Andrew Glyn reviewed a Fabian pamphlet on the 1974–79 Labour government. In this article, he looks at the arguments contained in What went wrong? edited by Ken Coates [Spokesman Books £2.95]

The Fabian pamphlet provided a wealth of information on how the Labour government, despite some achievements, failed completely to bring about a fundamental shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of working people and their families as promised in the 1974 manifesto.

In fact as it showed, living standards for working people fell over this period. The Fabian writers totally failed though to explain why a Labour government should so diligently carry out the dictates of the ruling class.

The Spokesman volume, representing generally a Tribunite position, does not really advance the argument that much further.

Francis Cripps and Frances Morrell (Tony Benn’s advisers) make the extraordinary statement that if only the Labour government had been prepared to break with the EEC “they would then have been free to implement Labour’s re-nationalisation programme, control excess imports by trade agreements and maintain full employment.”

The absurdity of this obsession with the EEC should have been clear from Tom Forrester’s article on industrial strategy, in which he points out that even the top civil servant in the Department of Trade admitted that Labour’s plans had to be modified “because of intense hostility from industry.” (Readers of Forrester’s notorious mole-baiting article in New Society will be surprised to learn he can actually put together an article not composed entirely of gossip.)

Low profitability

Michael Barratt Brown says the decline in British industry can be attributed “directly to the outflow of industrial and finance capital” which meant that “the wealth generated in Britain has been siphoned out to the main centres of capital accumulation, above all inside the EEC.” He ignores the fact that private investment overseas, even at its peak of £3 billion in 1978, was actually less than profits earned abroad, so in no sense represented a siphoning off of wealth created in the UK.

As he himself emphasises it was low profitability and lack of a docile labour force which explained low UK investment.

Michael Meacher points out the links between the civil servants and industry (between 1974 and 1977 26 civil servants of Permanent Secretary level were recruited by private firms), and explains how civil servants can obstruct a minister attempting to implement party policy (a theme also taken up by Tony Been recently).

But what good would more sympathetic civil servants have been to Benn, when Wilson, as prime minister, had accepted that

“Private industry must have the necessary confidence to maintain and increase investment. And confidence demands that a clear frontier be defined between what is public and what is private industry”?

While the authors accept that it was pressure from the capitalists that forced the government to retreat, the discussion of how a future Labour government could defeat the pressure is quite inadequate. Of course, control by the PLP is essential (and Geoff Bish gives a graphic description of how the NEC was outmanoeuvred by Callaghan over the 1979 Manifesto).

Labour’s programme

But there is very little analysis in the book of whether Labour’s programme was adequate in the first place, of whether it is in fact possible for a Labour government to control the economy while leaving the overwhelming majority of the means of production in private hands.

Stuart Holland correctly emphasises that no serious attempt was made to implement Labour’s programme but that does not mean that all that is necessary is to repeat the demands of the Alternative Economic Strategy without reassessing if they are feasible in the light of the experience of the last Labour government.

It is also indicative of a narrow parliamentary view to say “without the accountability of government to parliament and parliament to the Party, there is little chance of reversing the dominance of capital over labour in class relations.”

Holland does not appear to recognise that any attempt to break the power of private capital could only be based on a mass mobilisation of the labour movement, a condition a hundred times more important than the views of civil servants, the integrity of parliamentary leaders, or the rights of backbench MPs.

Whether the Alternative Economic Strategy put forward by the parliamentary left is adequate, how to achieve the active support necessary to carry through a socialist programme, these should be the central questions raised in the minds of the activists by the experience of the 1974–79 government.

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