Labour Party Leaders Make Unemployment
Nearly eleven years ago, in the autumn of 1919, the hoardings of this country were plastered with posters bearing the familiar features of Messrs. J. R. Clynes, J. H. Thomas, John Hodge, and J. T. Brownlie. They were exhorting us to “produce more, earn more and get more.” Each in his own words elaborated this little slogan in order to induce the workers to work harder.
Mr. J. R. Clynes, M.P., explained that a “greater yield of commodities is essential in order that an abundance of products should pull down prices and place upon the market all the things which are necessary for improved housing, cheaper food and clothing, of which the workers are in urgent need.” He added that he urged the workers “to turn their minds to improved systems of production, primarily in the interests of the workers themselves.”
Mr. J. H. Thomas, M.P., said, “more and more we are coming to understand that if we are to avoid bankruptcy and national ruin, agreements must be kept and production increased”; and again, “I urge the working classes to realise the necessity of having the wheels of industry going well.”
Mr. John Hodge, M.P., wrote “in sorrow and pain” at the thought that workers might be led astray by the doctrines of revolutionaries. If the workers did not increase output, then, said Mr. Hodge, they would be “workless and wageless.”
Other “labour leaders” preaching the same doctrine were Philip Snowden (in the official organ of the I.L.P.), Mr. Bevin and Mr. W. Brace.
We did not accept the economic theories of the labour leaders and the employers, nor did we believe their promises of future prosperity for the workers. We held the increased production campaign to be opposed to working class interests, and said so. Our temerity called forth an indignant reply from Mr. Clynes in the columns of Reynolds’ Newspaper on November 30th, 1919.
Clynes Among The Prophets
Mr. Clynes based his case there on the statement that “greater production can be brought about without any benefit to the master class, but with great benefit to the working class. Even if it did give some benefit to some employers, it would give far greater benefit to many employees.”
He went on to make a prophecy :—
If there ever was a risk of over-production, causing unemployment, there is none now. For at least a dozen years there must be conditions of shortage which, with the best energy and effort, cannot be removed. We are in arrears. We need have no fear of the supply exceeding the demand.
Let us now see what time has done with the “theories,” the promises, and the prophecies of these trusted leaders of labour.
Mr. Clynes promised that prices would be “pulled down.” Were they?
In October, 1919, prices were 125% above the 1914 level (Ministry of Labour Cost of Living Index). By October, 1920, they had risen enormously and were 164% above the 1914 level.
Eventually prices came down again, but did this result in the workers getting the improved housing and cheaper food and clothing, of which, in Mr. Clynes’ words, they were “in urgent need”? Prices fell, but wages came down correspondingly and the need of the workers is as urgent as ever it was.
J. H. Thomas wanted the workers to realise the necessity of “having the wheels of industry going well”; but neither he, nor Clynes could answer our criticism that the “wheels of industry” belong to the master class and are permitted to turn only when the master class choose to have them turning. It was not greater production as such, but greater profits the employers wanted, and as soon as their interests demanded it they were sacking the workers by the hundred thousand and reducing wages by an aggregate of hundreds of millions of pounds a year. This is what we foretold and what Clynes denied. .
Clynes promised “at least a dozen years” of full employment. What actually happened? The destruction of war, far from taking twelve years to replace, did not require that number of months.
At the time Mr. Clynes wrote his article there were already over half a million registered unemployed (19th September, 1919, 530,336. See Ministry of Labour Gazette, October, 1919).
By the middle of 1921 the number of unemployed was well over the two millions, excluding workers on short-time.
Since then the figure has never fallen materially below the million line and now it is at a million and a half.
John Hodge said that the workers would be “workless and wageless” if they did not increase output. So they increased output, and one and a half million are—”workless and wageless.”
Clynes was certain that “we need have no fear of the supply exceeding the demand.” In a sense he is correct; the employers have got busy organising among themselves to see that the supply shall not exceed the demand of the market at prices profitable to them. Read what the Manchester Guardian has to say in its editorial on February 10th, under the heading 44 Overproduction—the Demon to be exorcised.”—
Schemes for restricting the output of rubber are old friends, but the latest version is a joint Anglo-Dutch restrictive campaign. The tea-growers of Ceylon, India, and Java have been in conclave. The tin producers of Malay have conferred with those of Bolivia, and the wheat-growers of Canada . . . have sought alliances not only in the U.S.A. but in Argentina. We understand that near Sydney, Australia, there is a spot at which the carts of a retailing trust may be observed tipping cartloads of good food over a cliff into the sea.
It is interesting to notice that J. H. Thomas has finally admitted that overproduction is a reality under capitalism.
Speaking at a luncheon given by the Nottingham District of the Federation of British Industries on March 20th, 1930, he said:—
Curiously enough one of the great anomalies at that moment was that the main cause of the world depression, as well as our own, was overproduction. How many of them would challenge him when he said that over-production of cotton was playing a more disastrous part in our unemployed and industrial position than any other ? (Times, March 22nd, 1980.)
Clynes appears to have learned nothing in the intervening years; either that or he feels confident of his ability to feed the workers for ever on promises. In 1919 he was helping the employers to swell their profits by preaching increased production. Now he is repeating the old trick but uses the new-fangled term, “rationalisation.” In a speech at Miles Platting on February 9th, 1930 (reported in the Manchester Guardian on February 10th), he admitted that rationalisation increases the amount of unemployment; but nevertheless urged the workers to bear it with patience “because it was a kind of surgery that was being applied to industry, and after it industry would rise stronger and better able to compete with the world.”
In 1919 he promised 12 years full employment. After 11 years of unemployment at a height unknown before, he has the impudence to urge the workers to be patient while the employing class in this country make their position more secure and their profits more vast.
In 1919 we said that Socialism alone could solve the economic problems of the workers. Thomas, Clynes, and the rest of the labour leaders counselled co-operation with the employers in the running of the capitalist system. That is still their only policy.
(Socialist Standard, May 1930)