Is the Labour Government Crumbling Away?
Like rotten timber, the Labour government is crumbling before our eyes. The departure of Ray Gunter, which was only the latest evidence of decay, had a significance all of its own. Gunter has never been famous for being a rebel; loyalty has always been his line—loyalty through thick and thin, through incomes policy and Vietnam, through prescription charges and unemployment. There must have been extremely powerful pressure upon him to bring about his change of role and so suddenly lose his desire to be a member of Wilson’s government. Of course Gunter may have been disappointed at the recent promotion of Barbara Castle over his head; but it is reasonable to think that, had the government been in better shape, he would have managed to swallow his pique. What probably made up his mind was Labour’s poor showing at the polls, and the likelihood that they will be heavily defeated if they fight the next election under Wilson.
Gunter has every reason to be worried—and, if the by-elections are anything to go by, so have the majority of Labour M.P.s. On current form, there are hardly fifty seats Labour could expect to hang on to if there were a general election to-morrow. Such have been their humiliations, as one stronghold after another has fallen, that they actually welcomed the Nelson and Colne defeat with relief because the swing against them there was only around eleven per cent. The voters, it is clear, are not grateful for the age of technological capitalism which Wilson promised to bring in.
Meanwhile, the problem the government have pledged again and again to solve refuses stubbornly to go away. When they came into power in 1964, Labour made a big thing of the deficit in the British balance of payments; they were quite sure that this was the basic cause of many of our troubles and that when they had got the balance into surplus we would all feel terrific benefits. This was, of course, a lie but the millions of workers who have always taken as one of their first concerns the fortunes of the British capitalist class were duly impressed. They hopefully accepted Labour’s promise to protect and enhance those fortunes, under the delusion that they would thus do themselves a bit of good.
Callaghan first of all promised that he would get a surplus in 1966. But the great day when the Chancellor was to announce the end of the payments deficit came and went and the deficit was still there. This, said the government, was only a postponement—one or two other difficulties had intervened but everything would be alright by 1967. By 1967 the date of arrival at the Promised Land had become 1968. Now it is 1969, or 1970, or never. The latest trade figures give the government no encouragement. The deficit persists which means that, leave alone establishing Socialism, the Labour Party cannot even master the anarchies of the capitalist system they are trying to organise.
If, by some near-miracle, the balance of payments problem was solved the government would lose one of the arguments they have used to justify another of their unpopular policies—the wage freeze. Ever since the prices and incomes policy was born we have been ceaselessly lectured by Labour politicians on the iniquity of higher wages because, they said, these have a directly adverse effect on the British balance of payments. (Gunter was always particularly keen and verbose on this point.)
This was another lie from the Labour government but any effect it may have had is clearly wearing off. The railwaymen having called off their strike in 1966 just in time for Wilson to call the general election, find that the promises which were used to persuade them to stay at work have not been kept; they have, in fact, got nowhere and they have protested. The engineers have already had a token strike in support of a pay claim and others may follow. BOAC’s pilots have made their famous contribution to trade union history. From many quarters, the incomes policy is under fire but so far there has been no talk of any unionists being prosecuted for defying the Prices and Incomes Act which the Labour government introduced with the object of holding wages down.
The plain fact is that this government is now branded as a failure. Wilson, once the political master, is now discredited and exposed as a trickster. (The Tories are trying to cash in on this with massive technicolour posters of Ted Heath looking like an overgrown choirboy, eyes gazing out frank and level, with the slogan “Edward Heath—Man of Integrity.” Get it?) It is not so long ago that Wilson had the ear of a national audience. Yet when, in the middle of the uproar over Enoch Powell, he tried to get into the act by announcing that he would shortly make a “major” statement on racialism there was barely a flicker of interest. It was no different when the statement came out; it was received in apathy. Nobody wants to listen to Wilson any more.
But the Prime Minister, famous for his strong nerve, is hanging on, presumably hoping that something will turn up. He claims that his policies are succeeding; in the House of Commons on July 2 he was talking about “. . . new and spectacular evidence from all over the country showing the great robust strength of British industries”—a statement very 4 much in the style of the war communiques in Orwell’s 1984. Wilson can try occasional gimmicks, like restricting the powers of the House of Lords as a punishment for their naughty rebellion over Rhodesian sanctions. This might just have started a modern Peers versus People battle, which would have been a convenient diversion from all those embarrassing and persistent discussions of Labour’s record.
One idea the government have decided to try is a “mid term manifesto”, which will come out just before the Labour Party conference in the Autumn, in which they will admit to having made mistakes but plead to be on the right road and to deserve another chance. (This manifesto is largely the brain child of Anthony Wedgwood Benn, who is where he is only because the Macmillan government pushed through an Act which enables the renunciation of peerages. As a result we got Douglas-Home as Prime Minister and such as Quintin Hogg and Wedgwood Benn in the Commons—which seems a good argument against reforming the House of Lords.)
There is no reason to think that a mid term confession will be any more successful than any of the other ruses the government have tried. Wilson must be one of the most precarious Premiers ever. There are continual stories in the press of plots to unseat him. Not only Cecil King thinks he should go — so do the Observer and the Times and the Economist, to name only three of the organs of responsible capitalist opinion and each of them has been helpful enough to suggest a way in which his party can be rid of him. Several names have been put forward for the succession and among them, interestingly enough, is that of Barbara Castle. Imagine an election which might result in the first woman Prime Minister of Great Britain! What a super gimmick that would be! What a thick smokescreen would be ejected over Labour’s history, as the battles of the Suffragettes were fought all over again! It would certainly be overlooked, that the sex of capitalism’s leaders is unimportant; that there is nothing in Castle’s record, nor in that of any other woman Minister, to encourage the idea that women are any better able to solve capitalism’s problems than are men, or that they run the system any differently or more humanely than men.
But all that, if anywhere, is in the future; for the moment we are left with Ray Gunter, who could not be mistaken for a woman and who has never pretended to be a humane administrator of capitalism. One of the first things Gunter did after his resignation was to suggest that the Labour Party needs a new leader. He wants, he said, to ” . . . sit back and think about the terrible danger into which this great movement is getting”, by which he probably means the chances of electoral annihilation, because a sense of danger seems to have taken hold of Gunter only after all those by elections. The other reasons he gave for his resignation—the Cabinet being “overweighted with intellectuals”, the alienation of the ordinary working man from the Labour Party—are not new to the Wilson government and they applied to the Attlee government. But Attlee’s hold on the Premiership was never insecure for the simple reason that his party held on to their votes and their seats.
One thing which can be guaranteed wonderfully to concentrate the minds of politicians is the prospect of being rejected by the voters. The Labour Party, never let it be forgotten, have always claimed that the secret of success was to get into power, on no matter what programme, and then think about reforming capitalism and even introducing Socialism—or rather what some of them think of as Socialism. The result of this theory can be seen at Westminster now—a party with a single-minded obsession with power, entirely without interest in, or indeed knowledge of, Socialism and prepared to try almost any dirty and cynical trick to stay in power. Thus we have the nauseating spectacle of Labour M.P.s hanging together in a unity cemented by their own fear of electoral slaughter, keeping in office the man they know is a liability because at the first sign of revolt from them he will threaten to call the election which would consign most of them to oblivion.
What this amounts to is that the Labour government is being kept in power by its own unpopularity, because it dare not face an election. This is an interesting situation for a party which, when it suits it, condemns the House of Lords as unrepresentative. It is an interesting situation for a party which has claimed to be democratic and to be based upon principle. And it is an impossible situation for a party which once said that they would bring in Socialism. Let us at least hope that, when the Labour government have finally crumbled away, we shall hear no more of that particular piece of monumental nonsense.