We are now, ladies and gentlemen, approaching the period of mud-slinging, evasions and lies which goes under the name of a general election.
The campaigns which the two main parties carry out cost them both a lot of money and this in itself promises to be one of the smaller issues in the election. For the Conservatives, and some of their supporters, spend much more on their propaganda than the Labour Party does. This has given the Labour Party the chance to pull out of the cupboard one of their favourite bogymen—the corrupt Tory in the pay of rich industrialists who expect some legislative favours in return for the money they have lashed out on Central Oflice propaganda.
In the two years up to the last election the Conservatives spent about £468,000 on advertising and during the campaign itself £475,915. (These figures, and some of the others in this article, are taken from some contributions to The Guardian by its Labour correspondent, Mark Arnold Foster.) A Labour candidate recently estimated, in Socialist Commentary, that the Tories put about £1 million a year into all forms of central expenditure The pre-election spending goes into the sort of campaign which Colman, Prentis and Varley waged so successfully for the Macmillan government and into the sort of posters which are now dominating so many hoardings, with Douglas-Home’s head tilting massively into a goofy smile, promising us Straight Talk and Action. (Even if we did not already know it, all the emphasis on action and energy among politicians would tell us that an election was near.)
Apart from their own spending, the Tories are supported by some industrial groups, and some companies, who donate to their funds (Fisons gave £2,320 in 1962) and who push out anti-nationalisation propaganda. Before the last election these groups spent £1,435,000 on this sort of activity.
The Labour Party are also supported by outside contributions which we shall deal with later. But even so, their expenditure does not come anywhere near that of the Conservatives. In 1959, every Tory vote cost the party 3s. 6d., against the 1s. 8d. which every one of their votes cost the Labour Party.
The amount which a candidate may spend on his campaign is limited by the Representation of the Peoples Act to £450 plus 1½d. or 2d. per elector, depending on whether the constituency is town or country. But the Act only applies to the period of the campaign itself. Money which is spent on propaganda before the election is announced escapes the Act’s restrictions. That is why we are now being treated to press advertisements which innocently tell us how efficiently the steel industry is being run under private enterprise and to others less innocently worded, which are outright attacks on nationalisation. All of these are paid for by the steel companies or by groups like Aims of Industry.
Any business man who wants to make an anonymous contribution to the fight against nationalisation can send his money to Aims of Industry, or to other groups like British United Industrialists or the Economic League. All three of these have some impressively rich and powerful chiefs of commerce and industry among their sponsors. In many ways, the Economic League is different from the other two; it is more of a storm troopers’ organisation, running its little green vans all over the country, holding meetings at factory gates and street corners, offering a lecture service to apprentices and supervisors.
The Labour Party say that they want these organisations brought out into the open. They want them to publish their accounts; they want all the companies who donate to political parties to say so. They also think that the Tories should publish their accounts. They hint darkly about rich men secretly master-minding the Tory government. This may be fruitful propaganda for the Labour Party; it may also be a useful excuse if they lose the election. Nothing so soothes the disappointment of a defeated Labour man as the conviction that, although the common people are solidly behind him, he has been robbed by the underhanded intervention of the unscrupulous rich.
The Conservatives like to say that the hand outs they receive from the industrialists are no different from the support which Labour gets from its affiliated Trade Unions. Certainly, trade union money is important to the Labour Party; in 1962 the Transport and General Workers gave them £37,500, the AEU £29,047, the mineworkers £20,124. Apart from this, there are the sponsored candidates who are financed by their unions. But the big difference is that the unions publish the details of their contributions and that any member who does not want to pay the political levy (and none of them should want to) can quite easily contract out of it. This is in contrast to the secrecy which surrounds the donations to the Tory Party.
We can expect the Labour Party to plug the line that it is undemocratic for a political party to be financed by outside organisations and to spend a lot of money on its campaigns. Expensive propaganda is popularly supposed to obscure the issues in an election and to undermine the simple voter’s ability to see clearly through to the heart of things. This, incidentally, was said a few years ago about the last electoral campaign of Dr. Adenauer, when his Christian Democratic Party swept back to power in West Germany and some political observers professed to see a threat to democracy in the costly campaign which the CDU had waged. This idea is important—and importantly wrong—enough to be dealt with in stages.
First of all, is it true that political parties are dominated by the organisations who donate funds to them? Has the Conservative government gone out of its way not to upset its supporters in industry and commerce? Far from it. Its 1962 Budget, for example, was criticised by the journal of the National Association of British Manufacturers as giving assistance to the car, television and radio industries
. . . at the expense of other industries notably furniture and clothing which are in no position to help others. The injustice to the users of heavy hydrocarbon oils remains. The concession on estate duties is too small to be significant for small, privately owned businesses and the 10 per cent surcharge on revenue and purchase tax has, in most cases been consolidated, becoming a permanency with the possibility of a further 10 per cent addition.
The same government has forced large scale amalgamation among aircraft firms. It has imposed vast cuts in the cotton industry and in its intention to abolish resale price maintenance has upset many of the small shopkeepers who, we are told, have faithfully supported it for years.
Similarly, it is wrong to say that the Labour Party is dominated by the Trade Unions and that a Labour government would therefore knuckle under to strikes and other industrial action. The last Labour government fought wage claims all the way along the line and took a much tougher line with unofficial strikes (official ones were hardly heard of in those days) than the Tories have done. In fact, although they were formally linked with the Trade Unions, the 1945/51 Labour government opposed every attempt to apply the object—the improvement of working class conditions—which every union should have.
This can all be put into perspective. Political parties do not get power in order to pay off electoral debts nor to favour any industry or group of industries. Whatever may have been true in the past, modern parties in this country want power simply to run British capitalism in the overall interest of its capitalist class. Sometimes this means — as it did in 1945 — that some basic industries must b: nationalised. Sometimes — as it did later — that others must be amalgamated. Or—as it does now—that there must be some control on the speculative development of land. Both Labour and Conservative parties broadly agree on what British capitalism needs to have done and both are prepared to do it.
If, that is, enough people vote for them. That is why they spend so much money in trying to persuade us to do just that.
There is nothing intrinsically undemocratic in expensive election campaigns. It is no empty truism to say that democracy depends upon the existence of democrats. That fact is too often ignored; the Labour Party are ignoring it when they say that the donations to Tory funds are undemocratic. For what sort of a democrat is it who can be swayed by expensive publicity into voting against his convictions? Who falls for Douglas-Home’s smile? Or for Wilson’s thumbs- up? Or Grimond’s lock of hair?
Only the politically ignorant will be impressed by such things. And since the Labour Party, like all the other capitalist parties, exploits political ignorance, it can hardly complain if the person who blindly voted Labour yesterday just as blindly votes Tory tomorrow. It cannot even complain when the same person follows the racist or some other demagogue and blindly votes to abolish what little democracy he has— and abolish, perhaps, the Labour Party along with it.
Capitalism itself rests upon ignorance, and its political parties, with their symbols and slogans, their banners and big drums, are all up to their necks in it. The mass of the people are taken in by the ballyhoo. They support the system of private property for the flimsiest of reasons and never seriously consider the proposition that there is a better way of running the world. As long as such ideas keep their grip, the world will remain in confusion. Apart from anything else, democracy will always be unsafe.
Both Labour and Conservative parties support this chaos of ignorance. Beside that momentous fact, what does it really matter which has the bigger posters, or the more press advertisements, or bangs the bigger drum?