1970s >> 1979 >> no-893-january-1979

More hard labour

Originally the ideals and aspirations of the Labour Party were lofty. It claimed to be anti-Liberal and anti-Tory, opposed to war, in favour of higher wages and trade union demands, and in the forefront of pressure for social reform. But what has happened in reality when the Labour Party has found itself in power?

Firstly it has supported two world wars in coalition with the Tories and the Liberals and has been an active party to other localised conflicts like Biafra and Vietnam. After preaching disarmament it has supported the building and testing of nuclear weapons and imposed conscription in peacetime.

Secondly, on the wages front, it has consistently practiced policies of “wage restraint” while unemployment has grown steadily (reaching its post-war maximum with the present administration) and prices have risen rapidly. In 1949 and 1967 Labour deliberately raised prices by devaluing the currency. Four months before the 1967 devaluation the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, James Callaghan, had said in Parliament that such a measure was unthinkable as it would necessarily cause “a reduction in the wage levels and real wage standards of every member of the working class of this country” (Hansard, 24 July 1969 Cols. 99- 100). To efforts by workers to defend their living standards the Labour Party has replied with the use of troops (docks and fire services) and in 1950 even went as far as to put on trial gas workers and dockers striking in defiance of an old Act of Parliament.

Thirdly, on social reform, the Labour Party, after setting up the National Health Service as envisaged by the coalition government during the war, passed an Act of Parliament levying prescription charges and in 1951 imposed charges for the supply of health service dentures and spectacles. (Harold Wilson resigned over this issue by the way, then later as Prime Minister endorsed the charges and increased them). At the beginning of their immediate post-war administration Labour had also promised to solve the housing problem. Aneurin Bevan made the hopelessly optimistic claim that “when the next election occurs there will be no housing problem in Great Britain for the British working class” (Hansard, Vol. 453, Col 1202, 1946). Over 20 years later they were still at it when the then Labour Secretary of State for Wales (now speaker of the House of Commons), George Thomas, said of the 1968 Rent Act: “Within 10 years of this Act no one in Wales should be living in an unfit house”. (The Times, 31 Jan. 1969).

To all these charges the Labour Party would reply that they couldn’t help themselves. They didn’t want to support wars, keep down wages, see prices and unemployment rising and not be able to house people. Everything that happened, and still happens, is due to circumstances beyond their control — the state of world trade, the actions of other governments, and so on. Quite true, but the point is that when a Party, whatever label it gives itself, takes power with a mandate to administer capitalism, it will have very little choice about how it does the job. It will be subject to the fluctuating economic conditions of a world governed by impersonal market forces and divided into separate states, each one competing with the other to earn profits for its business interests. What seems “sensible”, therefore, and in the general interest in a Party’s pre-election manifesto, will soon fall by the way side if found to be contrary to the imperatives of production for profit.

And any of the early illusions the Labour Party had about “taking the profit out of capitalism” have long since been dispelled. It found that even nationalised industries had to be run on profit-making or cost-benefit lines and that its aim to transfer wealth from the rich to the poor had to be abandoned. It proved impossible to impose egalitarian principles on a system which, by its very nature, dictates that the vast majority of the wealth will be owned by a small minority of the population.

So it is not for their good intentions that we have disagreed with Labour supporters, but for their false presupposition that once in power their Party could and would reshape the capitalist system to their heart’s content. Now, however, with the Labour Party so much in power in recent years and having so little to show for it, even among the keenest Labourites this belief is beginning to wane. How much longer for them to see that, instead of the Labour Party gradually changing capitalism, capitalism has gradually changed the Labour Party?

What then is our alternative to voting Labour (or Tory or Liberal for that matter) in the next election? A vote for the set-up Labour (and the other big political parties) stand for is a vote to remain enslaved. Enslaved by the wages system and the world market which, regardless of government action, decree unemployment, slumps, trade wars sometimes leading to real wars, destruction of food “surpluses”, mental anxiety, wreckage of the environment, adulterated food, shoddy houses and ugly cities. The only worthwhile vote is for a political party having as its sole aim the replacement of this system by another, one which we call Socialism and define as a world of common ownership, democratic control, production for use and free access. In this country this means voting for the Socialist Party of Great Britain where it presents candidates and, where not, registering your view by writing the words WORLD SOCIALISM — SPGB across your ballot paper.

Labourites may say that the kind of world we propose is what they themselves favour in the long term and what, bit by bit, successive Labour governments, if given a chance, will move towards. Meanwhile, however, they must deal with real immediate issues.

Let it be said unequivocally that Socialism will not arise naturally “bit-by-bit” through the policies of parties elected on a programme of reforming capitalism. It will only be introduced when the majority of people turn their backs on the inevitably vain attempts of the capitalist parties to tinker with the present system and cast votes for a world of real democracy, real equality and real cooperative human activity.