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Greasy Pole: All at Sea

Greasy Pole

It was 20 June 1966 and Harold Wilson, Labour Prime Minister extraordinaire, was addressing the House of Commons. It was not a good time for him. His government were in panic after the discrediting of their beguiling prospectus about the effortless erection of an all-embracing, sustainable prosperity. (What, you may ask, is new?) But Wilson was a past master at wriggling out of such situations, often by diverting attention onto scapegoats. For example there were the gnomes of Zurich – financiers operating in Switzerland where, apart from boringly making clocks, they concerned themselves with manipulating the currency markets so as to do something which Wilson called “selling sterling short”. Then there were people who had to keep their eye on the clocks so as to be in work on time, who did not have enough sterling to worry about whether it was sold short or long but who, because they were putting up a fight against the government's attempts to depress their living standards, were called “wreckers”. In fact they were motivated by a constructive desire to stop the government wrecking their modest expectations of life under Labour's capitalism – in employment, wages, housing and medical care.

When he got to his feet that day Wilson had another scapegoat to brandish. This was a vision as scary as any currency gnome for it was one of a “tightly-knit group of politically motivated men” who were bent on undermining all the government's efforts to realise their prospectus. Anyone hearing those words might have been excused for thinking that Wilson was warning people about himself because it would have been difficult to think of anyone more politically motivated – a more passionate and artful exponent of the underhand arts of political manipulation – than himself. And while it would not have been true to describe his Cabinet colleagues as “tightly knit” (because, typically, they were in persistent intrigue against each other) they included quite a few – Jim Callaghan, Richard Crossman, Denis Healey – who were sharply talented in playing the political game.

Strike
But of course politicians do not make a habit of criticising themselves, or apologising for their mistakes and broken promises. When Wilson talked about politically motivated men he was not denouncing his fellow tricksters in the Cabinet; he was talking about the executive of the National Union of Seamen, who were in the throes of a strike which had lasted a month and which was seen by the government as a fundamental challenge to one of their most important policies. Soon after they came to power the Wilson government had changed their line about introducing prosperity for everyone; it was now necessary to postpone the great day when all our problems would be solved. Meanwhile it was necessary for us to go through a time of austerity, which included voluntary restrictions on pay (used in this way the word “voluntary” means that unless a policy is accepted readily it will be imposed). This was a common policy of governments at that time, whether Tory or Labour and the degree of austerity varied. When the seamen were on strike the norm for rises had been fixed at 3.5 percent. The seamen were struggling for a reduction in their working week which would have amounted to a 17 percent pay rise. Crossman thought that the shipowners would have settled for that but the government – notably prominent ex-trade unionists like George Brown and Ray Gunter – considered the pay policy too important to be compromised. (Crossman also thought that, for a time, Wilson wanted to smash the seamen's union). It was a bitter dispute, which at any rate clarified beyond doubt for even the blindest and most ardent Labour supporter where their government stood and what its purpose was in power.

Among the tightly-knit politically motivated men in the gallery of the Commons listening to Wilson that day was a young man by the name of John Prescott. A few years before he had been a steward on a posh liner – something which the corpulent and sterile Tory MP Nicholas Soames relentlessly enjoys reminding him of by calling at him across the floor of the House: “A whisky and soda for me, Giovanni and a gin and tonic for my friend”; (this is an example of what passes for humour in the Mother of Parliaments). In 1966 Prescott had recently come ashore to work as an official of the NUS. He was a union militant, who had been blacklisted by three shipping lines and had once been sacked by the captain of the Mauretania, who was forced to re-employ him when the rest of the crew walked out. Prescott was particularly active in the strike; “We fight a good fight,” he declared, “and we are proud to ask for the solidarity and support of the labour movement at this critical time”. And he offered the kind of analysis of the background to the strike which would not find favour with a Labour minister:

“. . . behind the Government, in its resistance to our just demands, stand the International Banks, the financial powers which really direct the Government's anti-wages policy . . .”

Those were the days when he was building the reputation which still persuades desperate, disgruntled Labour supporters to look to him as the true conscience of their party. He still manages to excite and console them, in spite of his two Jaguars and his concern for the integrity of his wife's hairdo on a windy conference sea front, for he is the minister who raged about Tony Blair thinking he was “fucking Jesus Christ” and who had a punch-up with a man who threw an egg at him during an election campaign.

Flags of Convenience
The seamen's strike was about pay and conditions in an industry which, because of its peculiar nature, can make many of its workers vulnerable to a harsher degree of exploitation. There is, to begin with, the danger. There is the lack of security of employment. There is the separation from home, for long periods. There is the close, confined living conditions on board. There is the discipline, which can at times be almost military. These are some of the factors which have worked against effective trade unions and allowed the owners to boost their profits by employing the ruse of Flags of Convenience – registering their ships in countries which offer low or no taxes, where there may be a laxer attitude towards environmental issues as well as those of health and safety on board and where it is possible to recruit lower paid and more compliant crews by tapping into a supply of cheap labour abroad. Under Flags of Convenience it has been known for a ship to be taken through a process of registration and leasing in several countries, so complex that in the end it is difficult to tell who owns it and is responsible for paying the crew's wages. This set-up may be very lucrative for the maritime lawyers and the accountants but not so welcome for the crew.

In his former life as a trade unionist Prescott was always clear about what needed to be done, and what he intended to do, about protecting the welfare of his fellow workers. He declared the same kind of concerns when he began to climb the greasy pole. In his party's published maritime policy he assured sailors that a Labour government would “ensure that seafarers are protected by all relevant UK employment law” and in 1996 he told the Seafarers Conference of the RMT: “We want to ensure that this trade uses British ships with British crews, working in good conditions . . . we must not allow exemptions to deny seafarers their rights as in the past.” But it has turned out that Prescott was just as ready to go back on promises as the Labour ministers he had so emphatically denounced during the 1966 strike. In June this year the government introduced new regulations which encouraged British ship owners to take on sailors from abroad at pay rates much lower than the national wage – sometimes at rates as low as two pounds an hour. About 60 percent of the workforce on British ships are from abroad; a union spokesman said the present situation on recruitment is such that “John Prescott would be very lucky to get a job as a bar steward on any ship based in Hull. Certainly all the catering jobs are being taken by Poles or Portuguese”. The minister responsible for piloting the regulations through Parliament excused the policy of encouraging the ship owners to search out cheaper labour by assuring us that low pay was alright for workers from countries like the Philippines, Bangladesh, Poland or Portugal because they were “well off” by wage standards in their home country. It sounded almost as attractive for the employers as the Flags of Convenience.

MPs Angry
Naturally the proposed regulations brought forth a spasm of protest from Labour MPs, as if we are not accustomed by now to such futile posturing while the government carries on the day to day organisation of British capitalism, looking after the profits of the ruling class in whatever industry. Since 1929 every Labour government has come into office or power promising to learn from, and to avoid, the mistakes of their predecessors but in practice they have operated in roughly the same way. Prescott once put it like this :

“The goodwill of the bankers, the ill-will of the working class. How familiar a story that is of Labour Governments, when we cast our minds back to Ramsay MacDonald and the 1929-31 government”(Not Wanted On Voyage;The Seamen's Reply, with Charlie Hodgins, June 1966).

But now he is a member of a government which is performing just like those who were discredited in the past. Blair's government are as ruthless in running the capitalist system, under which workers are exploited for the enrichment of the employing class and to solidify the ruling status of that class. And one of its most ardent defenders is the man who came up from being a ship's steward to trade union militant to Labour MP to Deputy Prime Minister. There may be sailors who were naïve enough to believe that to have people like Prescott in the seats of power would improve their life prospects. They should have learned a bitter lesson.