Running Commentary: Book-keeping

Although they are not actually on the picket lines, the accountants are in a titanic clash over the coal strike, on the issue of whether the mines are really losing money or not. On one side, arguing that the National Coal Board has got it wrong because it doesn’t keep its books properly, are two professors of accounting and financial management (yes, there are such people). The development of the professors’ argument is that if the NCB kept its books differently the coal mines would be seen to be making a profit. Then the NCB could stop closing pits, it might even re-open some which it has already closed and the strikers could all go back down the mines.

The argument apparently revolves around something called fixed or central overheads, which have nothing to do with pit props but which are of vital concern to accountants. The Coal Board calculates that these overheads are saved if a pit is shut down but the professors assert that they are merely reallocated among surviving pits. Applying this argument to Cortonwood colliery, where the present dispute began and which the strikers have called their Alamo, would mean that the pit showed a profit of £5.5 a tonne instead of a loss of £6.2 a tonne.

The accountants are in battle over an issue of great significance to capitalism because coal, like all other wealth, is at present turned out with the motive of making a profit. But to anyone whose concern is with human welfare, there is another significance. Whatever the book-keeping system, whether the coal mines are in the accounts as making a profit or a loss, the production of coal has continued, by the human process of applying the miners’ working skills to natural materials. This illustrates the true nature of capitalism’s need to produce profit and to accumulate capital — an encumbrance on society’s productivity which a sane world will not tolerate.

Lurking somewhere among the pin-striped ranks of MPs. merchant bankers and stockbrokers there are quite a few people who were once in open revolt against institutions like Parliament and the City. Mostly, they expressed their anger in the student riots of the 1960s, which were written up as the beginning of the end of the acquisitive society — the short, sharp shock to get socialism without the tiresome wait for the working class to understand and want it.

At the time this sounded pretty seductive, especially to youngsters who enjoyed shocking others or being shocked themselves. However, over the years the revolutionary ardour of the rioters has cooled as they have submerged themselves in the daily grind of getting a living or the less arduous business of raking in the dividends.

What about the rioters’ heirs, the young people who now populate the universities? Among the ancient stones and the dozing spires there is a similar tranquil acceptance of the priorities of capitalism. The universities, to put it another way, are no longer hot-beds of dissent. All is quiet at Essex; in deepest Sussex they are not stirring. “We are concerned.” says one report about the undergraduates of Cambridge, “about current political apathy on the part of students in the presence of numerous national and international problems”. In Oxford the students are compliant enough to give the “bulldogs” — who are appointed by the university to police the undergraduates — an unusually easy life.

There are indeed plenty of reasons for the students to protest. They stay quiet, the only noise from them being the industrious scratch of pens, the devoted turning of pages, the gentle hum of labouring brains, because they are disciplined to be like that from the fear of not being able to get a job when they graduate. Unemployment, says the president of the Cambridge students’ union, and the fierce competition it brings, concentrates the students’ minds on their work.

So were those famous riots no more than futile ephemera? They did not bring capitalism down; they did not change the system’s priorities; they did not “raise consciousness”. What they did was to divert workers’ attentions and energies away from the real work of understanding this iniquitous social system and using that understanding to abolish it.

Quite a few Labour Party members would like to see the back of one of their most illustrious recruits, but the person concerned won’t go of his own accord. This is not surprising because the Most Illustrious Recruit in question is that famous millionaire and benefactor of the starving Ethiopians, Robert Maxwell, who is not well known for bending to the wishes or the opinions of those around him.

Maxwell, it may be remembered, is the man who was not deterred by his Czechoslovak origins from originating the I’m Backing Britain campaign. He was also the Labour MP for Buckingham and is now owner of the Pergamon Press and the Daily Mirror and, if not the owner at any rate the chairman of, Oxford United Football Club.

None of these interests, however, seem to have bothered the members of Oxford East Labour Party where, we must assume, they pride themselves on their socialist principles or at least on what passes for them. What makes them want to get rid of Maxwell is the fact that he resorted to the courts to evict redundant print workers who were occupying his London plant.

The members are outraged that someone they should be greeting as a fellow socialist should use the provisions of the Tory Employment Act against his workers. The fellow socialist is sure that he didn’t need Tory laws; he used some of the legislation which was on the Statute Book under the last Labour government, kept there to protect the property rights of the British ruling class.

The passions of the Oxford East members seem spent to no avail because, according to the Guardian (19 November 1984) Maxwell’s place in the Labour Party is safeguarded by his ownership of the Daily Mirror, the one mass-circulation paper to support the party. Who would want to upset so valuable a vote-winner?

Whatever the outcome of this shabby dispute, the members of the Oxford East Labour Party might ask themselves a few questions about the nature of their party, about its capacity to include someone with the political opinions of Robert Maxwell and about why it is reluctant to expel him. Can such a party lay claim to be socialist? As Maxwell’s Mirror might put it. the answer is NO!!!