One step forward, two steps back

In recent years the Trades Unions have voluntarily subjected themselves to a policy of wage restraint at the request of the Labour Government. This year, however, the TUC has firmly rejected the government’s proposal of a 5 per cent “guideline” for 1979 which must have been welcomed by many trade unionists.

It is worth considering exactly what the Labour Government has been trying to achieve with its income policies over the last few years. Is it really all a part of the so-called “battle” against inflation? We think not. Denis Healey has hinted at the real answer:

“What we are aiming for is something like the West German system, where Unions, Government and Employers agree each year on the increase in earnings compatible with the needs of the national economy” (Guardian July 22 1978).

What, you may ask, is in the interests of the “national economy”, or to be more accurate a capitalist economy? The answer to that is to have the lowest wage-bill possible.

Socialists have always stressed the need for workers to organize in Trades Unions in order to defend the levels of their wages and conditions (and wherever possible, to improve them). Therefore the decision not to go along with further government wage restraint which by definition can only prevent them from doing this work, can be seen as a step forward.

But it was patently obvious to all concerned that the announcement of this decision would cause acute embarrassment to the Labour Party, and so it was that the TUC also took its two steps backwards.

First of all they declared that the TUC would offer its election fighting services to the Labour Party in whatever way the executive wants to use them”. In the words of Moss Evans, General Secretary of the TGWU, “We will be working exceptionally hard to get the Labour Party re-elected” (Guardian July 31 1978).

Secondly, on the very same day of the TUC Press Conference which announced the decision to reject the pay policy, Callaghan and Murray appeared on a common platform to register their “highest common factor of agreement on social and economic policy” and begrudgingly admit that on a couple of points their views “may diverge rather than converge” (Guardian July 27 1978).

They had, in fact, summoned the press to launch a new document prepared by the TUC—Labour Party Liaison Committee entitled “Into the Eighties”, which was designed to bolster the image of cooperation between the Labour Party and the Unions. From the Socialist point of view it confirms that the Trade Union Movement is (sadly) still committed to support of the stale and useless reformist Labour Party policies.

The TUC argues that it must take an interest in the standard of living of its members which includes “. . . the food on the trade unionist’s table, the clothes on his back, the roof over his head . . .” (ABC of the TUC April 1977). This in itself is an essential attitude, but we must disagree that the Labour Party is the party best able to pursue the interests of the working class. An examination of “Into the Eighties” will demonstrate why.

The statement frequently speaks of “a speedy return to full employment”. We weren’t aware that it ever existed. It promises that the Labour Party will give “high priority” to housing, the health service, education, social services etc. etc. It promises a fairer distribution of wealth, lower prices, care for old age pensioners, the one-parent family, the disabled. In short just about every promise the Labour Party has made over its seventy odd years of existence. During that time it has formed a number of governments and yet we challenge you to name one social problem which has disappeared. There isn’t one. Why is this?

It is because the Labour Party is committed to the idea of running capitalism and believes that this can be done in the interests of the working class:

We set out below ten points on which we are determined to make progress and we will have to agree on the rolling programme of priorities, having regard to the economic circumstances of the time (“Into the Eighties”, item 37, our emphasis).


      There is no reason why such a policy need be incompatible with proper levels of profitability in British industry. (“Into the Eighties”, item 38).

This is a thoroughly utopian and unrealistic policy. The first and only priority of a capitalist economy is to make a profit. Everything else, including the standard of living of the workers, is subjugated to this aim. We maintain the support of the Labour Party can never satisfy the interests of the working class.

We reiterate the need for workers to organise in trades unions in order to defend their wages and conditions, but at the same time point out that this activity in general can only be useful as a defensive mechanism against the harsh realities of living under capitalism. If living standards can be forced up when market conditions allow, they will just as surely be forced down in times of crises. The last few years has proved this. Trade Union activity can only fight the effects of capitalism, not the causes of those effects, it can retard a downward movement of the spiral, not change its direction.

So if the Labour Party is no answer, and Trades Unions only a defensive mechanism, what is the way forward for the working class? We can only repeat the advice of Karl Marx, who advised workers:

They ought to understand that, with all the miseries it imposes upon them, the present system simultaneously engenders the material conditions and the social forms necessary for an economical reconstruction of society. Instead of the conservative motto “A fair days wage for a fair days work!” they ought to inscribe on their banners the revolutionary watchword “Abolition of the wages system!” (Value, Price and Profit).

A resolution will appear on the agenda of the TUC Conference this month endorsing the statement “Into the Eighties”. We hope that trade unionists will oppose it and consider instead the alternative of revolutionary socialism.

Ian Westgate