Labour’s run up or run down

The most casual readers of the daily press will have noticed that of late there have been two subjects which have occupied the attention of the forecasters. One is who will win the World Cup. The other is when Harold Wilson will call the next general election.

Now we all know that political journalists have to live. But this business of articles claiming to be authoritative probes into the Prime Minister’s innermost calculations on the timing of the election seems, like the sale of Christmas cards, to be starting earlier and earlier. Wilson, after all, has a whole year to play with — and in the absence of some sudden crisis or development he will probably need every minute of it.

Wilson has amply demonstrated during the past five years that, even though he had plenty of opportunity to do so, he is not a man to lose his nerve. One of the more fascinating spectacles of recent days has been the cool cheek of Labour’s campaign to refurbish their image. The mind reels at the assertion that Labour’s ideals—wage freeze, unemployment, implication in Vietnam and Biafra—are our ideals. It reels at the claim that Labour has soul. Soul in the panic racist legislation they have rushed through? Soul in their encouragement of industrial rationalisation — which means redundancy, upheaval and intensified exploitation?

The soul campaign was part of Labour’s effort to play a very old trick—and one which has often been successful. This is the trick of optimism. It need not be specific—indeed it is more effective for being as vague as possible—but it must set out to create an impression of wellbeing. This is the explanation for all the blabber which came frothing from ministerial lips a couple of months back about the Seventies. The conclusion we were all supposed to draw from all this was that December 31 1969 was the last day of a rather gloomy, unenlightened age while January 1 1970 was the beginning of a new, exciting expansion prosperity and conquest.

From the government’s point of view, the big drawback to this kind of campaign is that it needs quite a bit of time to work its magic. This may be all very well if no unforeseen crisis looms over the first horizons of the glorious Seventies and if the Tory onslaughts can be held at bay. In that event, the Labour government will be lucky to be judged solely on their failure to deliver the goods—an apt phrase, in view of the evidence that voters largely mark their crosses according to how a government’s term has improved or worsened their lives materially.

Last November, for example, New Society published a review of opinions of life in the Sixties and of what was hoped for in the Seventies. They gave over a thousand people a list of changes which took place in the Sixties and asked them to say which had pleased them most and which they objected to the most. Now the sampling method is of course very limited in its validity, especially when it is confined by a structured list of questions. But anyone who takes an interest in political propaganda will not be surprised to know that over half of those interviewed in this survey said they were most pleased with higher old age pensions and 18 per cent liked what they called their rising standard of living.

High on the list of dislikes were student unrest and coloured immigration—two issues which, in various disguises, are almost certain to appear in the election programmes of both the big parties. When the people in the survey were asked what they most hoped for from the Seventies they were still strong on material aspects. Their highest preferences were for keeping prices down, keeping unemployment low and “getting the country’s economy sound”.

Perhaps the government has managed to convince enough voters that the balance of payments problem, which not so long ago was the insistent reason for us all taking cuts in our standard of living, has been solved by a combination of economic wizardry and discovering a massive book-keeping mistake. In line with this, some of the pressure has been taken off wages and, as prices also climb, the Labour government seem to have resumed the traditional policy of most post-war British governments of continual, gentle inflation. At one time Wilson may have had ambitions to make his name by ending this policy once and for all but if he had he has been beaten, just like the rest and his defeat may be worth some votes from workers who have forgotten his promises to keep prices down and end inflation.

It will be harder for Labour to keep up a front on other issues. On unemployment, for example, it seems to have become accepted that each winter there should be something be 600,000 out of work; the figure for January was 629,000. Unemployment is largely a regional matter, being highest in the North, Wales and Scotland (although even in the “affluent” South-East there are hard-hit pockets like the Isle of Thanet.) The Labour Party answer to this, just like that of the Tories, is to offer financial inducements to industry to set up factories in the low employment regions, This sounds very simple and anyone who reads the official advertisements aimed at businessmen, telling them about the concessions awaiting any firm going to the development areas, must wonder how any sane board could resist the offer. But capitalism’s profit motive applies itself in many complex ways and in the event Labour’s policy, like others before it, has failed to end unemployment or to spread it evenly; the three worst regions still have about 4 per cent of their workforce on the dole.

Another hot political issue is housing. In the 1955 election Anthony Eden, who was then Conservative leader, made a lot of headlines with a promise that a Tory government would build 300,000 houses a year. Since then the bidding has crept up until now hardly a murmur is raised at Labour’s current promise to be responsible for 500,000 new homes a year. Performance has been rather different. The highest post-war figure was 413,715 in 1968—and last year there was a slump to 366,793, the lowest since Labour came back to power.

The Conservatives can of course be relied upon to make the indignant most of this situation—even if to do so they have to forget that they also failed to solve the housing problem. But anyone who is concerned with housing as something which affects human beings, and not just a convenient plank in a political party’s platform, must by now have come to the conclusion that any figures for homes completed, or not completed, is almost meaningless. To begin with, it takes no account of the rate at which old homes are decaying into slumdom. Then there is the fact that the lower a worker’s income the higher proportion of it be must spend on housing. The result of this is that a worker’s housing difficulties actually increase as he becomes less able to deal with them. And this is a developing trend, which threatens to overtake an increasing number of workers—to climb, in fact, up the wage scale.

The government will have to do a certain amount of agile capering to dodge this sort of issue and if past experience is anything to go by will obscure the real debate with statistics of homes completed, what the Tories didn’t do and so on. It will also be helpful to them if they can divert attention from such problems by discovering new ones and sure enough there has recently been a great deal of fuss about pollution. Everyone now seems to be against pollution — even some of the firms who are responsible for so much of it. The knowledge of pollution has been available for a very long time, except that anyone who spoke out on it was always classified as a crank or trouble maker standing in the way of the advance to the age of white hot technology. Now that capitalist politicians have got hold of it, one is entitled to wonder what they have in store for us—what officially legalised pollution, what smokescreen to cover other issues.

Finally, there is the publicity campaign on Wilson himself who, after lying low for so long, is suddenly seen to be still Prime Minister. No opposition leader can ever hope to rival the publicity a Prime Minister gets when he is out and about on the great affairs of capitalism’s states. We can expect full coverage for everything Wilson does from now on, as we got it for his trip to America. If all goes well for him, he might even decide to start giving us some more of those straight-between-the-eyes talks on television.

In one way or another workers—even those who vote Tory—will accept this as right and proper and part of the natural order of things. Labour M.P. Raymond Fletcher wrote in a recent issue of Encounter that “. . . capitalism works and most people are quite content to let it.” What Fletcher is really saying, of course, is that the Labour Party has failed and he is fed up. There is a certain justice in this failure because Labour said they could make capitalism work; they called it Socialism, helping the confusion which makes workers support the system. But it is wrong to say that workers are content with capitalism. All around us, every day, we see evidence of their discontents, their struggles, their suppressions. If they are politically stubborn this is because they can see no alternative to capitalism. So they go on putting their cross down for Labour or Tory—in ignorance, or perhaps anger, or even despair.