The Greasy Pole: Naming the Day
Will he, or won’t he? Should he, or shouldn’t he? Can he or can’t he? All over the country millions of people will be asking these questions, agonising in sympathy with John Major as he grapples with a historically vital dilemma. Should he call a general election in the near future—this summer, for example—or should he wait until his government has run its full term in 1997?
Advice for him will come thick and fast, to Downing Street, Chequers, Huntingdon or wherever he may be. Some of it will doubtlessly come from Tory MPs who sit nervously on vulnerable majorities. There will be much reference to precedent—to Wilson’s misplaced confidence in 1970, Heath’s misreading of the political situation in 1974, Callaghan leaving it late in 1979 . . . All of this will have a common theme. The timing of an election is all-important, in fact it can make the difference between winning and losing. People who vote are so fragile in their political knowledge, have such puny memories, are so pliant in their intentions, that they can be easily induced by promises and deceptions into changing their minds about which way they vote. So with a bit of clever calculation, some well-crafted bribes and a canny sense of timing, any government can win its way back to power—again and again and again. Even a government like John Major’s, which day-after-day is exposed for its impotence and cynicism and contempt for the workers.
For example the Chancellor of the Exchequer has recently announced some reductions in the base rate—the last one on 1 January. This is seen as good news, as a promise that soon the economy will boom, unemployment will reduce, everyone will be happier and more prosperous. There is no factual reason for workers to think like that; reality is that whether interest rates are high or low has no significant effect on our living standards.
But reducing base rates is seen as good news for the economy and so for people’s welfare and so for the Tory Party. As the Guardian put it: “the intense political pressure on the Chancellor, Kenneth Clarke, to boost the government’s fortunes was underlined yesterday when he brushed aside Bank of England misgivings and cut interest rates for the second successive month.” Bank of England governor Eddie George is, said the Guardian, “. . . plainly wary that it is the political timetable, of an election in the next 15 months, which is governing the Chancellor’s monetary stance . . .” Another one to be wary was Labour’s shadow chancellor Gordon Brown, who sulkily tried to play down the change in the rate. In fact, whichever side of this bogus argument they took, both Labour and Conservative were agreed that there are votes in the matter of interest rates and they both want to grab as many of them as they can.
What is important about this bogus argument is what it tells us about how the parties of capitalism regard elections and the people who vote in them and how to manipulate the whole timing to their own advantage. The government of the day treats an election as a time to try to divert attention away from its obvious failure to do anything about the problems characteristic of capitalist society and towards what it represents as its successes That is why the government tries so hard to convince us that people who are suffering the more extreme poverty do so because of some intrinsic personal fallibility while at the same time they tell us about how many fraudulent claimants of state benefits their investigators have uncovered. That is why in 1983 the Thatcher government submerged the memories of the problems they met in 1981 in a neurotic, reactionary hysteria as Thatcher handbagging the Argentinians. (Of course at the time she did get some help from the Labour Party with its splits and its election of Michael Foot as leader . . .)
By the same token whenever Tory ministers review conditions in Britain in 1996 they do so on the assumption that all reasonable people know things are getting better and better, everyone getting more prosperous, more healthy, more secure. Crime is falling day-by-day. If we believe enough of this often enough the Tories will be encouraged to give us a chance to show how grateful we are for all they have done for us by voting for them in an election.
Except that it is not quite like that. For one thing Britain is fast gaining a reputation as the sweatshop of Europe, as workers are forced to put in longer hours under the stress of unemployment. This kind of pressure produces its own problems. apart from physical illness such as cancer and heart disease (according to the Health and Safety Executive, stress-related sickness results in 90 million days absence from work annually). There is also a human cost, in mental breakdown, broken families and. in some cases, suicide.
None of this will be highlighted by Major, when he finally tells us the date of the election. Neither will he address the question of why, if his government had been so successful, he has to worry about the timing of the election. Why can’t he just leave the success to speak for itself and let his government stay in power for its full term, confident that the success will bring in the votes?
Perhaps he knows how impotent his government—like any other—really is to affect the course of capitalism and it does to the lives of human beings. Perhaps he knows that the timing of elections is a massive exercise in cynicism, which reveals the contempt which capitalism’s parties have for the workers and the support they regularly give to this social system. There is an effective response this. The voters—the working class—can realise the power they hold to radically change society, to make parties like Labour and Conservative a sordid irrelevance. If that happens John Major will be relieved of the stress of choosing a date for polling, like a gambler hoping he’s on a lucky streak.