1980s >> 1987 >> no-1000-december-1987

Facing facts

When certain words and phrases are used by politicians, they must be received with the greatest caution and suspicion, not to say alarm. For example the favourite phrase “every right-thinking person”, which often precedes a statement of outrageous bigotry, actually means “everyone who agrees with me”. Then there is “the national interest”, which is used to describe some policy operating in the interests of a small but socially superior minority and against the interests of what might more properly be called “the nation” — the majority. And then there is the word “realism” which is at present being worked to death by Kinnock and Gould and their supporters in the Labour Party. Nobody should be deceived by this use of the word “reality”; it does not mean that Labour Party leaders, after all those years of dealing in the fallacies that they can control this social system, are suddenly facing up to the fact of their impotence. Neither does it mean they are about to tell the voters about the futility of trying to reform capitalism into amiability.

In fact the word has been in fashion for some time now-, workers should have taken fright before this. A few years ago Len Murray, before he was ennobled and was General Secretary of the TUC, warned the unions about something which he called the “new realism”. His message was that these are hard times for the unions — that high unemployment tends to reduce union membership as it undermines their bargaining power. This is not an original insight into capitalism — socialists have been pointing this out for a very long time. Capitalism’s economy moves in cycles of boom and recession, good times and bad times for workers’ ability to extract better wages and conditions from their employers. Murray’s realism did not extend to this type of analysis, nor did he go on to the conclusion that this marks the limitations of trade union effectiveness, confined to the uphill task of defending workers’ living standards under capitalism as distinct from the permanent solution to their problems resulting from the revolutionary social change from capitalism to socialism. He didn’t say that — perhaps he didn’t even realise it — because apart from being Britain’s number one trade unionist he was — and is — a supporter of the Labour Party whose existence depends on the workers failing to grasp such vital realities.

Kinnock’s concern for what he calls reality was expressed in his leader’s speech at this year’s conference, when he said that any serious party which did not, after three consecutive defeats, conduct a rigorous review of its policies would be betraying itself and its principles. This was yet another unoriginal thought, for Labour have been in this state before and have reacted in the same way, almost with the same words. At their 1959 conference, smarting from the widely unforeseen defeat which Macmillan’s Tories inflicted on them, Labour delegates heard their leader Gaitskell tell them that

  . . . this is the third successive general election we have lost and the fourth in which we have lost seats. This is a grave development and we must take it seriously.

Gaitskell’s response to this — like Kinnock’s today — was that Labour should take a critical look at the programmes they put forward when they sustained their defeat, with a view to purging them of all vote-losing content. Another way of saying this is that what was realistic only a few months ago —what was claimed to be a policy to revive British industry. raise the people from poverty to prosperity, bring about a world safe for peace — is now unrealistic. What this says for Labour’s manifesto writers hardly bears thinking about. When they wrote in the 1987 election pledge, guarded and veiled as it was, about British nuclear weapons, did they foresee that it would be so quickly transformed into something even more obscure, into the promise to “. . . work to ensure that we have policies that are capable of dealing with the changed conditions of the 1990s in a way that will enhance the prospects of removing reliance on nuclear weapons”? There are enough conditions and asides in that sentence of Kinnock’s to satisfy the most hardened manifesto writer and to smokescreen the ardent eyes of any CND member who still believes that a Labour government would actually take any notice of conference decisions for a unilateral abandonment of the British bomb. Reality, for Kinnock, does not extend to clarity.

Kinnock denies now that he is trying to build a party in the image of the yuppie. In 1959 that word had not been coined, the big bang was not so much as an embryonic whimper and the London docklands were full of ships and cranes and warehouses. But Gaitskell was calling for new Labour policies because of

  . . . the changing character of labour, full employment, new housing, the new way of living based on the telly, the fridge, the car and the glossy magazines. All these have had their effect on our political strength.

Kinnock’s version of this same plea, sprinkled with references to poverty and homelessness. highlighted increasing home ownership, workers buying shares and the shift from large scale heavy industry towards high technology labour extensive manufacturing. Both these leaders might have put their case more simply, not to say more honestly. They might both have said that Labour will rearrange its policies to suit the prejudices and misconceptions of the voters. Whatever delusions the dockers of the 1950s lived and worked by, election promises had to be found to fit in with them. However misguidedly workers today view their lives, their employment, their prospects, must also dominate the content of Labour’s future appeal for votes. Workers who think that buying a few shares and taking on a mortgage changes their class position are not concerned with reality but with a monstrous delusion and if the Labour Party courts their votes rather than tell them that they are deluded they are pandering to an insidious ignorance in the cause of winning power.

For the Labour Party reality is no constant thing; it is nothing to do with any political principles. It changes from one election to another, almost from one month to another. Their reality is fashioned by their need to grab votes; what attracts votes is realistic, what repels them is unrealistic, the produce of minds barred with a “Do Not Disturb” notice. This was expressed in Kinnock’s ringing call for a discipline “ensuring that every word, every deed, every statement and action is related completely to the attaining of victory”. Many Labour supporters will see nothing wrong in this — after all, what is the party in business for? And isn’t a Labour government different from, more humane than, a Tory one? Well, what is the actual effect of this unprincipled scramble for votes? If the means are to be justified by the ends, what do the ends mean to us? History records that the differences between Labour governments and Tory ones were negligible to the point of being almost indistinguishable. For example, in October 1964 Harold Wilson announced the first of his government’s many assaults on working-class conditions:

  We cannot afford attitudes anywhere, on either side of industry, which stand in the way of higher production or lower costs. The old fashioned restrictive practices have no place.

This dose of Labour Party 1960s realism was not unwelcome to the previous Tory Chancellor, Reginald Maudling, who, that very same day, rushed to reassure everyone that nothing was changed:

  Given a national determination to sweep away restrictions and accept change and an effective incomes policy the prospects are good. It is true the Labour Government have inherited our problems. They seem also to have inherited our solutions!

As the reality of that government became more and more apparent, there was dissatisfaction throughout the Labour Party. Some members seemed to believe that it should somehow be different from a Tory government. Some of the party leaders — like George Brown and Ray Gunter — had other reasons for their disillusionment. It all amounted to an inability to accept that any party which sets out to run capitalism cannot but disappoint those who regarded it as an organisation based on political principles. This was also the story with the next Labour administration, which went down in defeat in 1979 having laid the foundations of much of what has become known as Thatcherism. For the overwhelming, enduring reality is that there is nothing to choose between the parties which stand for capitalism and particularly between the two big parties, who are in immediate rivalry for power. Playing for votes from workers who do not accept the need to end capitalism and replace it with socialism means that an election-winning party has to run the capitalist system, whatever promises they have made on the road to power. This means that they must do a great many things which, in line with what they have claimed to be their principles, they should not do. It would be more accurate to say that capitalism runs its leaders rather than the other way round. And it is all justified in the name of reality, while those who point out the uselessness of it are derided as dreamers, subversives and worse.

This results in the continuation of the society which is essentially based on the interests of the minority who own the means of life — on the unequal, exploitative relationship between the owning class and those who need to be employed by them in order to live. This is the root of mass poverty and all that it means in terms of bad housing, sickness. repression and so on. Politicians make speeches which not only ignore these facts but often set out deliberately to obscure them. There is nothing of reality in this; it is all deception and distortion. But things do not have to be like this; we do not have to live in a society where political parties compete for support from the uninformed, the apathetic, the confused, the cynical. Facing reality would be a great step forward for the people of the world, which would mean we were about to see some important changes.

Ivan