Mr. Aubrey Jones
, the Tory M.P. and former Minister of Supply and Minister of Fuel and Power, who left Parliament at the invitation of the Labour Government to become Chairman of the National Board for Prices and Incomes contributed to the Observer
on 5th December an article “Why an Incomes Policy Really Matters”—described in the Editorial introduction as expounding “the philosophy behind the work of his Board”. And a very curious philosophy it turned out to be.
This son of a Welsh coal miner, who travelled through the local secondary school and the London School of Economics into journalism, big business and politics seems to have gathered on the way very little understanding of the world we live in or of the problem he sets out to solve. This is hardly surprising, because the “facts” on which he builds his argument are mostly of doubtful validity and his beliefs about how social change occurs are not even half true. The one surprise he presents us with is that, unlike most politicians, he modestly confesses that he does not know the solution to his problem (any member of the Socialist Party of Goat Britain could help him out on this).
That the world he sees around him is largely imaginary can be demonstrated by a few samples.
Leading in with the belief that political equality was achieved by the first half of the present Century and economic equality is being achieved in the second half, he finds that we now have the ’‘supreme power” of society not at the top but at the bottom: in the Trade Unions who force weak and reluctant manufacturers to push up prices against the equally defenceless purchasers of their goods. Then comes Mr. Jones’ problem:
The only answer to supreme power is to build up a body of conventions, of moral restraints, which will ensure that it is responsibly used. This was the only answer to power at the top. It is the only answer now to power at the bottom. And this is what an Incomes Policy is all about. The problem is whether democracy or popular government can be saved from itself. I do not know the answer.
He does not just say that this is so but builds up his case on what he thinks he sees happening in almost all the countries of the “free world”.
He starts by rejecting the idea that it is comparatively full employment which gives the unions a better bargaining position than they have when unemployment is heavy. For him full employment is not a cause but an effect, the cause being that everyone, including governments, employers and wage- fixing bodies has been won over to the idea of “fairness or rough equality”, so that everyone, whether his bargaining position is relatively strong or weak, is entitled “to enjoy an increase equal to that being enjoyed by others and in a general way to catch up with others”. This he says “is the ethos of contemporary society”.
Mr. Jones’ theory deals with the increase of people’s incomes but his argument suggests that arithmetic could not have been one of his more successful studies. The Board’s idea of standard increase is round about 3½%, but giving such an increase, far from enabling the low incomes to catch up with the higher ones, simply widens the gap. Three and a half per cent on say, £15,000 a year would be £525. Three and a half per cent on an income of £500 would raise it by only £17 10s. 0d. so that the gap between the two incomes would widen by another £507 10s. 0d. It is, of course, true that the Board envisages the possibility of a larger percentage for the lowest incomes, but in order to keep the gap at its old amount of £14,500 the £500 would have to be increased by over 100 per cent.
And of course, there isn’t any evidence that Mr. Jones’ “ethos of contemporary society” has had the slightest effect on equalising incomes, either incomes among wage and salary earners or property incomes. Ministry of Labour figures of earnings of full-time adult male manual workers show a range from under £7 a week to £20, £30 and over, with a small number getting over £50. And the women average less than half the average for men. In the meantime the number of property incomes at the millionaire level is going up.
But what Mr. Jones does not see at all in modern society is even more revealing that what he “sees through a glass darkly.” Throughout his article he never once notices the capitalist structure of society all over the “free world” (not to mention the other half). He deals all the time with annual incomes and never with accumulated wealth, the ownership of property, shares in companies, Government stocks etc. He looks at supreme power and its possessors and imagines that these are now the Trade Unions but does not notice that the ownership of accumulated wealth is where it always was —not in the hands of the working class.
Let him turn up an issue of the Observer for 10th March, 1963 and read there about “the fantastically unequal distribution of wealth”, the one per cent of the population (a mere 364,000 adults) who own between them 38 per cent of total personal wealth, a nice little sum estimated at £21,500 million. Let him for comparison search out 364,000 of the Trade Unionists who, he says, have supreme power, and see if they own £21,500 million. As he specifically mentions the workers in electricity he might start there: or with the two million people who each year get National Assistance.
Doesn’t Mr. Jones know about the ownership of wealth? Bad as his arithmetic is he cannot not know: Statistics have been available for at least 100 years. Tory, Liberal and Labour politicians (at election times and whilst they were in Opposition) have continually talked about it and promised to do something. The fact of ten per cent of the population owning 90 per cent of the wealth featured in the Labour Party Election Manifesto nearly half a century ago, in 1918. The late Hugh Gaitskell was still talking about it at the 1959 election. Nothing has changed. Capitalism has just gone on, plainly visible to those with eyes to see, but invisible to Mr. Jones and completely unperturbed by the imaginary impact of his imaginary new “ethos of contemporary society”.
Socialists could tell him how to solve the real problem of the working class by ending capitalism and along with it all the structure of property incomes, profits, wages, prices, etc. But this is something unknown to Mr. Jones’ philosophy.