Confusion Confounded

Whatever happened to our Wages? Norman Atkinson M.P. Tribune Publications. 1s.

Norman Atkinson, Labour M.P. for Tottenham, argues three main propositions—that wages since 1938 have barely kept pace with prices and have actually fallen behind in some industries; that this is because all the governments, Labour and Tory, have pursued wrong policies; and that this can be remedied in future if they take his advice.

The information he offers adds little to what is generally known and where it attempts to go further it is based on arguments which will not bear examination. His explanation of why things went wrong is absurd and his remedies useless. Nevertheless, the pamphlet has its importance because it is typical of the emptiness of the case made by so called ‘left wing’ Labour M.P.s.

Like many back-bench M.P.s who got into Parliament on the Labour bandwagon and hope to do so again, Atkinson wants to dissociate himself from some of his government’s unpopular measures, notably its incomes policy. This calls for some delicate weaving between saying that Labour Government is useless to the workers and defending it because he wants it to be returned again.

He won’t go along with workers who think that it does not matter whether the government is Tory or Labour, yet he admits that policies on prices and incomes “have been consistent over .twenty years” i.e. from Labour to Tory and back again to Labour. (He presents a nice balance for the last four years of Tory government and the first four years of Labour government—wages under Wilson fared “marginally better” than under the Tories, but the Tories when they tried to keep wages down “apologised like gentlemen”, quite unlike “wind and brass George Brown”.)

His summary on wages and prices as the following piece of double talks: –

“It will be evident from the following Tables that some wage earners have suffered a drop from their 1938 living standards whilst others have made little or no progress, but this is not to deny that the quality of life has improved immensely. Of course it has!”

So the quantity is down but the quality is immensely better; whatever that may mean.

He dodges blaming the government directly, by saying that the wrong policies of Labour and Tory governments have not been due to the intention of keeping wages down but resulted from the governments having been bamboozled by the officials at the Treasury, whose thinking is “tipped slightly in favour of capital.”

He offers no explanation whatever why the governments which appoint high Treasury officials have to take from them advice which the governments think is unsound.

His other bugbear is “the City” as distinct from the manufacturing capitalists, yet it is noticeable that among his examples of inadequate wages he includes Fords. The founder of Fords shared Atkinson’s adverse view of bankers but how exactly did the City prevent Fords from paying higher wages?

On the wages-prices issue it has been generally accepted that on average workers earnings have, since 1938, got appreciably ahead of average prices but with some industries failing to keep pace, and with wide variations of price increase for different groups of workers.

Atkinson argues that the official index figures of average price and rent increases between 1938 and 1968, an increase of 270 per cent, is an understatement because the amount people spend on alcohol and tobacco is more than they care to admit to Ministry officials (and to their wives). It was the Ministry which drew the attention to this. What Atkinson has failed to do is to assess the likely amount of this understatement. If the amount spent on these items were twice as large as the amount admitted it would raise the 270 per cent to something in the region of 280 per cent. Mr. Atkinson however, produces a figure of 371 per cent as the amount that “can perhaps be considered the rise in the cost of living of a family of two adults and one child earning average wages”.

He does this by taking as his figure for rent and rates one household in the London Borough of Haringey and assuming that an expenditure of £4.8.6 on rent, representing 23 per cent of the family’s total weekly expenditure is typical. This is quite out of line with the Ministry’s average figures for the country as a whole and he makes no attempt to show that the information collected by the Ministry in their periodical inquiries is wrong. The Ministry of course, as its figures are national averages, takes into account low-rented areas of the country and a proportion of controlled rents.

When it comes to remedies Atkinson produces only some old specifics which have all been tried without success. They are “import selectivity”, which presumably means restrictions on imports; “domestic price repression” (maximum prices) and productivity bargaining, plus one other obscure passage which says that “we must campaign on both fronts and thus strengthen the Labour Party’s industrial base”. Charitably interpreted, this would appear to mean that the workers should first elect a Labour government and strike against its policies.

For a century or more capitalists and economists dreamed of a paradise in which booms went smoothly for ever. Socialists, with facts on their side, maintained that capitalism does not and cannot operate in that way. Atkinson clearly has not lost his faith in capitalism.


(Socialist Standard, January 1970)