1990s >> 1994 >> no-1083-november-1994

Labour, Tory … Same Old Story

Can you spot the difference? Which is the party of Law and Order, Family Values, Prudent Public Spending, the Market Economy: Labour or the Tories? Such is the public confusion over this that even the Tories have thought of exploiting it:

“Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, and other key members of the Cabinet favoured attacking Mr Blair as a pale copy of the Tory party. This is called ‘the Coke option’ by researchers who say the Tories represent ‘the real thing'” (Independent, 26 July).

Since Blair became Leader in July Labour’s strategy has been to criticise the Tories on their terms –as incompetent managers of the economy and unable to implement tough policies against criminals, single mothers and other scroungers. Guided by their marketing advisers, Labour politicians don’t attack the Tories’ policies but only the incompetent and ineffective way in which they are carried out. Vote for us, Blair is saying, and we’ll carry out these policies better than the Tories. The aim is to attract enough ex-Tory voters for him to be able to enter Number Ten as Britain’s next prime minister.

Labour being the vote-catching party it always has been, it had to come to this sooner or later: the end of Labour as a party of radical reform of capitalism. Labour never was a socialist party but it did once see its role as trying to shift the balance of power and wealth under capitalism in favour of working people. They never did do this of course nor, given the nature of capitalism, could they have done so. But this was what they said and this at least showed that they thought capitalism was far from being the acceptable economic system they now think it is.

Incredible as it might seem today, Denis (now Lord, of course) Healey told a cheering Labour Conference in 1973 that he was going to squeeze the rich till the pips squeaked:

“Our job is to get power, and we join battle armed with the most radical and comprehensive programme we have had since 1945. Its aim is honestly stated, to bring about a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of working people and their families . . . We are going to introduce a tax on wealth. We are going to turn the estate duty into a real tax… I warn you, there are going to be howls of anguish from the 80,000 rich people. “

Labour got to power, but it was working people who ended up getting squeezed till the pips squeaked. The result was a massive wave of strikes in the public sector over the winter of 1978/9 – and the election of the Tories under Thatcher pledged, as she openly boasted, to undo everything Labour claimed to champion. Which, as demanded by capitalism’s worsened economic conditions, she did and, spiteful woman that she was, with glee. State industries were privatised, council houses sold off, local services axed, welfare payments slashed and the health service subjected to market forces.

Power for what?

Today all that Labour has retained of Healey’s rhetoric are the first six words: “our job is to get power”. Since radical phrases, indeed any definite policies, are now perceived to be a drag on this drive to get power they have been ruthlessly abandoned. Just attack the Tories as incompetent and clapped out, the marketing team advise, and, anxious for power, the Labour politicians oblige.

But power for what? In the end, since they are only projecting themselves as better and more competent managers of the status quo, it amounts to power for its own sake. The Labour leaders want power because they are professional politicians and the ambition of every professional politician is to become a government minister.

Is this being too cynical? Can they be that bad? Perhaps not, but it doesn’t really matter since even if they were sincere (and, on the law of averages, some of them must be) they still wouldn’t be able to make the capitalist market economy work other than as a system that puts profits first and so as a problem-ridden system incapable of meeting human needs properly.

In so far as they might have a theory of what they would do if they get power it will be no different from that behind the failed policies of ail previous Labour governments : trying to redistribute profits towards socially desirable projects such as a better health service, better education and better housing.

This involves accepting the profit system –not a problem of course for Blair and company –and allowing firms to make the maximum profits, justified on the grounds that this also supposedly maximises the resources available for social spending.

The trouble is this makes what a reformist government can do depend on the profitability of capitalist industry. As Richard Crossman, a Labour politician who was to become a senior Cabinet Minister in the 1964 Wilson Labour government, wrote following Labour’s defeat in the 1959 election on such a classic reformist programme:

“A Socialist Government, it is often argued, would be able to finance the huge extension of welfare, education and other pubic services by encouraging a much faster rate of development in the private sector of industry and then taxing away a sufficient amount of the profits. This was the policy put forward by the Labour Party at the last election and in the short run any Labour Government would to attempt it. But experience should have taught us that the run might be very short indeed. In the Affluent Society no Government is able to give orders to Big Business. After one budget a Labour Chancellor who tried to squeeze private industry too hard would soon discover that he was not master in his own house and that there is a relatively low level above which taxation rates, whether on the individual or the company, are only raised at the cost of provoking tax evasion and avoidance so widespread that revenue is actually reduced. If the motive of your economy is the profit-making of large-scale modem private enterprise, a Labour Government must be prepared to allow very large profits indeed and to admit that the number of golden eggs he can remove is extremely limited. ” (Labour in the Affluent Society, 1960)

His answer was that Labour should therefore seek to establish an enlarged state sector so as to give a Labour government more room to manoeuvre. The present Labour leaders would recoil in horror at such as suggestion, not that anyway it would have worked to protect a Labour government from the economic pressures of capitalism to keep costs down and profits up. Nor that the Labour governments of which Crossman was subsequently a member made any real attempt to do it.

Profits first

In fact Labour ministers ended up making speeches accepting that profits should be encouraged. Here is how one of them (Harold Lever who, like Healey was later ennobled) put it:

“Labour’s economic plans are not in any way geared to more nationalisation; they are directed towards increased production on the basis of the continued existence of a large private sector. Within the terms of the profit system it is not possible, in the long run, to achieve sustained increases in output without an adequate flow of profit to promote and finance them. The Labour leadership know as well as any businessman that an engine which runs on profit cannot be made to move faster without extra fuel.” (Observer, 3 April 1966).

This could be Blair or Gordon Brown or any of the other Labour leaders speaking and well sums up what will be the only economic policy that a future Labour government will be able to pursue. Profits First, that’s the economic law of the capitalist system, which all governments of capitalism have to accept and apply.

If you accept the profit system, then you have to accept that profits have to be made and all that this implies, including opposing strikes, restraining wages and keeping taxes on Big Business low. Labour does accept the profit system, much more openly than they have done in the past, to the extent that today they are even prepared to advocate these things while still in opposition.

Nobody who is against the profit system has any place in Tony Blair’s bland new Labour Party. If you want more Law and Order, more Family Values, more blurred nothingness you might as well join Labour as the Tories or Liberals. But if you are a Socialist and want to get rid of the profit system you should be in a democratically-organised socialist party campaigning for socialism and nothing else.

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