Or at least it was once as simple as that. In the days when the Labour Party was in apparently endless opposition it was possible for them to argue that they had some real differences from the Conservatives. They could put forward programmes which, because there was small chance of them ever being put to the test, could be suitably adventurous. They could even, in a controlled and qualified way, talk about something they liked to call socialism. A substantial number of workers were impressed by it and voted, for or against Labour, under the notion that they were making an active choice between two basically differing points of view.
But now that we have had a substantial experience of Labour government, under a selection of Prime Ministers who have been left wingers in their time and who have “changed” just at the moment when their panting followers were rejoicing that at last the Promised Land had been reached, the task of the propagandists is rather different. Now, it is not so much to convince people that it is worth making a choice between Labour and Tory as to get them to think that there are any differences to make the choice about.
So we might expect to witness, over the next few months (assuming, as many political observers are, that the Callaghan government will not be able to hang on much longer than this autumn) an intensifying effort to find, and then emphasise, the smallest of points of dispute between the two big parties.
In fact this has started already; the direct attacks on Margaret Thatcher by Denis Healey, in the Ilford North by-election and by Callaghan soon after the Labour defeat there, are part of the customary campaign all capitalist parties wage, to convince us that their leaders are better than the others. In this case, though, there were pointers to a possible trend in Labour Party propaganda in the election.
Both Callaghan and Healey accused Thatcher of stirring up trouble on the issue of race (Healey said she was acting as a recruiting sergeant for the National Front). The inference we are invited to draw from this is that the Labour Party would never fish in such dangerously muddy waters, that they are unsullied by the slightest touch of racism and that on this issue—emotive, explosive, destructive as it is—there is a genuine difference between the two parties. And the inference we are invited to draw from this, again, is that the Tories stand for a compromise (or perhaps even agreement) with racism and the Labour Party stand against it.
But this would only deceive a Rip Van Winkle, someone who had been unconscious of the recent history of British politics. It was, of course, the Conservative government who introduced the first Immigration Act, in 1962, in an effort to assuage the racist ideas which were growing as the early immigrants came to this country, to settle in places like Brixton and Smethwick and Southall. At that time the Labour Party thought the Tories had delivered to them a golden opportunity to scoop up votes and Hugh Gaitskell, who was then the leader of the Labour Party, immediately launched into a fierce assault on the Act, on the grounds that whatever excuses were made for it, it was a piece of racist legislation.
Well Gaitskell did not live to see the results of his campaign but it was pretty clear that they were not at all what he had hoped for. In the next general election, in 1964, the name of Smethwick was written into British political history when the Tory candidate overthrew Wilson’s prospective Foreign Secretary—Patrick Gordon Walker—largely by playing on the prejudices of the workers in the constituency who objected to the inflow of immigrants.
This, and the even worse blow when Gordon Walker failed to get into Parliament at his second attempt at a staged by-election, was enough to persuade the Labour Party that a little readjustment was needed in their policies. Naturally they would still mention things like the brotherhood of man and equal rights for all whatever the colour of their skin and so on. But at the same time they worked to implement, and to tighten up on, the Immigration Act which they had previously condemned in such forthright terms.
It was predictable, that they would eventually come out in the open with their own racist laws and sure enough, in the panic over the Kenyan Asians in 1968, frightened for their miserable lives at the polls by the rabble rousing of Enoch Powell and Duncan Sandys and the hysteria of the moment, Labour gave birth to its own Immigration Act which, to all intents and purposes, finished the argument that they had differences with the Tories over the matter.
The situation, as the military are fond of reporting, has now stabilised. Both the big parties, in their concern to hang onto their votes, are now ready to introduce further discriminatory laws and, as the hysteria grows, to think up new variations on them. These laws have nothing to do with easing pressure on resources like housing, social services, available employment; there were problems in these fields long, long before the first West Indian walked the streets of Brixton or the first Asian gazed at the gasworked landscape of Southall. They have everything to do with a desperate attempt to stop the sliding away of votes to the more openly racist organisations like the National Front.
Both Labour and Conservative Parties are trying to pre-empt the National Front, to undermine its progress by appearing almost as discriminatory as the discriminators. At the very best this is a dangerous gamble, as the Nationalists found to their cost in Nazi Germany. And it leaves the all-important question: when Labour or Tory have got power by pandering to racist prejudices, what do they do with, how do they control, those prejudices?
The essential unity of Labour and Tory over immigration controls will not prevent them, when the time comes, pretending to the voters that they have differences in principle on the issue. This should deceive nobody with any kind of memory for recent history and there are plenty of other examples to remember. It has long been a point of Conservative propaganda, that the Labour Party is a revolutionary party which, knowingly or not, would be responsible for overturning capitalism and substituting something like the state organised society of privilege (in fact, a variety of capitalism) which exists in Russia.
Part of this myth is that the Labour Party is dominated by the trade unions and allows them to have a decisive say in the government of British capitalism. And runs the argument, capitalism run under the influence of the likes of Hugh Scanlon and Joe Gormley is almost like capitalism in the Kremlin.
The reality is a lot more sober. By a mixture of threats, force, determination and negotiation this Labour government have shown that, far from the unions running riot under them, they are the party with the most hope of controlling wage claims. And all this without a head-on confrontation like the pitched battle of 1973 and 1974, between Heath and the miners or even the clashes which have marked the history of previous Labour governments. Perhaps Labour has learnt, since the days when they prosecuted striking dockers, the facts of life and economic power under capitalism—and have done a deal with them.
One of the important facts of capitalist life is that it is a class divided system, in which two groups of people, between them making up the population of the developed world, face each other in conflict over the ownership of wealth. The parties of capitalism try to hide this fact, by talking about a unity of interests, about everyone working for the national good as if the interests of the coal miner are the same as those of the stock holder.
But while they are saying this those same parties are themselves fighting the class war, but on the other side of the line. They stand for the interests of the ruling class, for the propping up of a social system in which a minority own and control the means of living with all that follows from that in terms of poverty against privilege, freedom against repression.
Any differences they may have are over the tactics to be used in that propping up and in fighting that class war. At times, as in 1973, a government may decide on the tactics of confrontation; at others they may use the policy of conciliation, of trying to persuade the workers on the other side of the struggle not to use any power they may have, to negotiate rather than use force in the sense of a strike or something similar.
And when it comes to an election they are again united, in their respective appeal to the political naivety of the working class who are open to be convinced that minor differences on issues like immigration or trade unions are worth voting for or against. One result of this is that race is now in the forefront of British politics and promises to be a dominating factor in the next general election. This should be a lesson to anyone who thinks it possible to make progress towards Socialism with a policy of compromise with political ignorance or of winning support on day to day issues.
Labour or Tory, capitalism rules and that is not O.K.