1970s >> 1974 >> no-836-april-1974

Labour Government: the Worst of Illusions!

Here we are on the roundabout again. The music’s started and the leader astride his cock-horse bellowing “Coats off!”; all the Miss Lefts holding their Mr. Rights’ hands in ministerial toy cars; the flashing lights and the promise of the Time of Our Lives.

The Labour fair comes every few years, and it’s always the same. It starts with offering the biggest prizes and the highest rides, it ends up broke creeping away in the dark. Then, of course, they will quarrel among themselves: the Bearded Lady wishing she’d never met the coconut-shy man, and the whole lot swearing they’ll have a new leader. But they have to make up in the end — it’s their living, after all. They hatch a new programme and get different music, and eventually the old pitch is won back. And because there are always people who have forgotten the last time or weren’t there, the show swings — for a day or two.

If you think it’s all fun and part of life, et cetera, it isn’t. We pay for this lousy charade. The entrance fee is the toil of our lives; the prize-packets are empty.

In The Observer on 3rd March, under the heading “Myths of the Election”, a Professor King proposed and praised the syllogism “I am working class, Labour is for the working class, therefore I am Labour”. The logic is fine; the premise is false. Certainly the Labour Party was built on the blind hope of working men and women that something better than the capitalist system offers could be obtained from the capitalist system. But for those who are not blind, it has done untold harm to the working class. First, by simply administering capitalism (whenever it gets the chance) determinedly to show it can do the same as the Tories. Second and more important, by its debasement of the word Socialism to a hucksters’ slogan — turning the true answer to working-class problems into a synonym for worthless reform and compromise.

The Labour Party is anti-working-class, but let the position be clearly understood. Intentions good or bad do not come into it: indeed, they are determined by capitalism. Some Labour politicians know what they are doing, others do not. Some begin with ideals, others with the desire for a parliamentary career. The forming factor, however, is that Labour sets out to be a governing party — that is, to take on running the capitalist system. Given that, all the failures and “regrettable necessities” follow. Because there is no way capitalism will run except its own way, and whoever tries to direct it is directed by it instead.

Nevertheless, it is impossible not to be appalled by the sheer charlatanism of the Labour Party, the mixture of cunning and stupidity which all its life has characterized it. The world is full of disillusioned former Labourites, slapped down — any time in sixty years — from their belief that some line existed that their party would draw. The prototypes still belong to the first ascent to office in the nineteen-twenties. The “radicals” and “wild men” of 1924 dressing-up to bow and scrape to royalty; the first Labour Housing Minister anxiously disclaiming “real socialism” to profess “real capitalism”. As illustrative as any was Valentine McEntee. Standing on his Saturday-night soap-box he’d twirl his moustache and proclaim that when Labour ruled there would be no House of Lords; and there he lies in the local cemetery — a Lord himself, deceased.

Have times changed? Not at all. It was the Labour Party which won power overwhelmingly in 1945 with the claim “We are socialists, and proud of it” — for one of its leaders, Herbert Morrison, to announce a year later: “The Labour Party does not intend to abolish the profit motive” (speech reported in The Observer, 28.10.46). It was Labour leaders Wilson and Crossman who preened themselves on having kept working-class living standards down:

The fact is that since 1945 the British trade unionist could have enjoyed a far higher wage packet . . . Instead of doing so, however, they exercised extreme wage restraint. This they justified by pointing out to the worker the benefits he enjoyed under the Welfare State — food prices kept artificially low by food subsidies; rents kept artificially low by housing subsidies; rent restriction; and, in addition, the Health Service.

(R. Crossman, Daily Mirror 15.11.55).

I believe that the unions have shown great restraint since the war. In a sellers’ market they could have made and exacted much bigger claims for their members than they have done.

(H. Wilson, House of Commons 25.7.57)

The pride in this cheap-skate achievement was well founded. Under a Labour “wage restraint” policy 1947-51 the cost of living rose 29 per cent., wages by only 22 per cent.

Labour has attracted the pacifist element. It is difficult to see why, except in terms of total misapprehension of the Labour Party’s position. Its record on war and war preparation is indistinguishable from that of the Tories. It has supported capitalism’s wars just as jingoistically, and its government elected in 1950 launched the biggest rearmament drive in history. Labour leaders explained that the working class must suffer in the interests of war preparation:

This new defence programme is going to mean sacrifices from all of us. It will mean postponing for a time a rise in our standard of living.

(E. Shinwell, Minister of Defence, in a broadcast, Feb. 1951)

Let those who profess to be united with us in their resistance to aggression recognize that this resistance involves high costs and great sacrifices for the people of this country.

(H. Wilson, speech, 10.12.50)
The last Labour government promised and gave practical help to the Americans in the Vietnam war. Servicemen were trained and British airfields in the East used as U.S. bases; napalm was manufactured, and British companies sent large consignments of military equipment.

 

Gaitskell made Labour’s stance clear in a speech to the Vienna Conference in June 1957:

Before 1914 the Socialist International was a pacifist, revolutionary organization. That is neither relevant nor practical today.

(Reynolds’ News 7.6.57)

 

What of the recent Election and the new Labour government? It is worth recalling what the last one did, on the same issues of industrial relations, prices and incomes, and the Common Market. In the attacks on the Torys’ Industrial Relations Act, it appears to have been forgotten that the Labour government’s actions in 1965-66 also stampeded the Left. George Brown’s plan for an Incomes Bill was described by Clive Jenkins as “fundamentally authoritarian and anti-trade union” (Tribune, 17.9.65). Thirty Labour M.P.s abstained from voting on the Prices and Incomes Act of 1966, and the trade-union leader Frank Cousins resigned from the Government.

 

In the Election Wilson made prices his central issue, promising “a real, a radical, a relevant attack on rising prices”. So it was instructive to see Shirley Williams, immediately on her appointment as Secretary for Prices and Consumer Protection, saying there was little she could do:

 

Her aim was not so much to reduce prices which was impossible but to moderate the rate of inflation which was expected to rise from 12 to 15 per cent later this year.

(Guardian 7th March; our emphasis)

 

Did Wilson and his colleagues know it was impossible to reduce prices, when they were asking to be elected? Of course they did. Yet they went mouthing their hypocritical nonsense, trading on the hopes of hard-pushed working people — and on the good name of Socialism.

 

As for the Common Market, to be in or out makes no difference to working-class fortunes. No doubt most Labour leaders know that too, and look only for whatever political capital is afforded either way. For the sake of this, did rank-and-file Labour members really swallow Enoch Powell’s support, which was not repudiated and apparently worked to help catch votes? In 1964 Wilson described the Powellite M.P. for Smethwick as a “parliamentarv leper” for his racialism. Should he not have said the same to Powell in 1974?

 

For the record, Wilson supported Britain’s joining the Market in 1960 (“the Six have created a virile, expanding, dynamic community”); opposed it in 1962 (“we are not entitled to sell our friends and kinsmen down the river”); made it conditional in 1965 and 1966 (“we shall go in if the conditions are right”); became an enthusiast in 1967 (“really effective technological cooperation . . .  is possible only if we are in One Market”); and has now obtained election again by spreading an impression that Labour will get Britain out (and that it matters).

 

There is a literary phrase: “the willing suspension of disbelief”. That seems to be the condition for supporting Labour. Granted, they could do no better if the utmost probity were their rule — the capitalist system is intractable. But, on the evidence, there must be a willing suspension of disgust too. This is the party no Socialist would join or vote for.

 

Robert Barltrop