There is a lot more to this election result
than the overturn of smug opinion pollsters. Until a few short months ago, the record of the Wilson government seemed to have finished Labour off. They had tried to freeze wages, had introduced the first anti-trade union laws for some forty years. They had openly attacked working class living standards, had connived at the slaughter in Vietnam. Biafra and other places. They had presided over the highest stable level of unemployment since the war. Wilson was exposed as a tawdry trickster, whose deft hands had grown cranky through overuse, as the salesman nobody would buy a used bicycle from.
Then came one or two gimmicks, some of them — for example the sudden announcement of higher social security benefits — quite openly heralding the approach of the general election. The brakes came off wages — officially. There was an abrupt, strange solution of the foreign trade problems of British capitalism. Labour suddenly stopped talking about our spendthrift ways and started talking again about ideals and good living.
For some reason which they have yet to explain, the polls began at the same time to record equally sudden rises in support for the Labour Party and it was this, it seems, which persuaded Wilson to try for another term of office and to run the election campaign as if it was no more than a formal interlude between one Labour government and another.
This contradicted a trend which has been discernible in recent general elections. that a governing party’s fate is scaled a couple of years before polling. If there is any encouragement in this trend, it is that at any rate it makes it appear that workers judge a government on something like its record. If Labour had at the last minute pulled back all those lost votes, it might have been a sign that empty gimmicks and lies were crucially effective in an election. And, in terms of working class political awareness, that would have been especially depressing.
In the event, the working class have shown that once again they are disillusioned with Labour government. Wilson’s dream of turning his party from one which supplied administrations for British capitalism at times of risky, experimental interludes between the even running of Tory governments, is shattered. For Labour, now, the inquests, the recriminations — and the soft sound of knives being buried between someone’s shoulder blades. This is no time for Wilson to allow his back to get too far away from the wall.
This scene would probably have been witnessed in the Conservative Party, had they lost the election. The political parties of capitalism, whatever their protestations, exist with the object of winning power over capitalism, by any means they deem necessary. Failure to win power brings dire consequences for the party leaders. If Heath had lost, when so recently he seemed set to win. and at a time when he is under such pressure from Powell, it would have probably provoked one of the Tory Party’s historic crises.
The history of the Tory Party is spotted with such crises — and at each one it has been clear that the gentleman’s party is no stranger to vicious, ruthless infighting when the occasion demands it. Even after the victory, Heath cannot be safe; the power-hungry politicians of capitalism never give up their struggle. When Heath was first elected Tory leader, it was Iain Macleod who was reported to have said that this was not the end of the fight for the leadership, but the beginning.
After every election there is a period of honeymoon. We can expect the government to tell us that they have discovered a truly shocking mess left by the Labour men, like an absent landlord coming home after a long, riotous party in his house. They too will issue stern warnings about the state of the economy and about the need for the working class to tighten their belts to put the situation to rights. It will not be very long before the honeymoon sours and disillusionment settles in. After a time this will reach the pitch when the voters decide to experiment once again with another party in government — and if the Labour Party have not torn themselves to pieces by then they may come back to power.
The background to all this is the continued existence of capitalism. And capitalism carries with it the essential poverty of the vast mass of its people; the basic inability to control the anarchy of its market economy: the unavoidable continuum of its rivalry of interests which lead to war. The parties of capitalism promise to abolish the system’s problems, ignoring the fact that they are part of the system and will always defeat the reformers.
In this election the Conservatives, who wailed about Wilson’s patent dishonesty, produced a manifesto which overflowed with glowing promises to put right all our wrongs. So abundant, so extravagant, were these pledges (Edward Heath’s word for them) that at times they read almost hysterically. But here is one short passage from the manifesto, which did something to summarise some of the wilder ones:
A better tomorrow for all: for the families that are homeless today, for the unemployed, for the children still in poverty, and for the old and lonely.
There is no reason to think the Tories will be any more successful than their predecessors, of either party, at honouring their pledges. The phrase A Better Tomorrow, so hopefully bandied about now, will soon take its place among the embarrassing memories which the politicians would rather forget.
Each time a government changes, the working class are casting their votes in deception that new faces at Whitehall will have an effect on their problems and will bring them a better life. But each time they turn their faces against a fundamental assessment of their interests and their standing in society. They ignore the facts of capitalism and the record of futility and failure which accompanies Labour, Tory, Liberal and the rest. In 1970, as before, the workers voted in their millions for capitalism. On this particular occasion they fell for the promise of a better tomorrow. They could have—and should be working for now — the best possible today, tomorrow and always.