Greasy Pole: Byers Market
Perhaps it was because he feared that Blair is coming across too effectively that William Hague complained in Prime Minister’s Questions about whether a British Prime Minister should spend time solemnly discussing a barmy football coach’s religion. Perhaps it was because Blair realised uncomfortably that the Tory leader had a point that made him react so sourly: he could scarcely believe, he snarled, that Hague had raised the matter—ignoring the fact that he had been the first to try to exploit that particular piece of mind-numbing triviality.
This may have been entertaining to football obsessives or students of the techniques of spin doctoring but it obscured the fact that this government came to power on promises to be something new, to so change the capitalist system that it actually worked in a way which had never been experienced before—that is to say in the interests of the majority of its people. That is what politics should be about; it is what should concern people when they vote at an election. On that basis, a more interesting and significant statement was recently (on 2 February) made by Stephen Byers, who took over as Minister for Trade and Industry when Peter Mandelson had to resign over the little matter of borrowing a lot of money to buy an exceedingly posh house.
When Byers got his promotion there may have been a few traditionalists in the party still clinging to the delusion that their party in power really could change how this society operates. They may have hoped, remembering that Byers was once well known as a stroppy leftist local councillor, that he would regard it as a priority to use the power of his new job to bring about that redistribution of wealth which the Labour Party were supposed to stand for. They would have been as disappointed.
“The reality [said Byers] is that wealth creation is now more important than wealth redistribution . . . Governments should not hinder (entrepreneurs) but work to ensure the market functions properly and contributes to creating a strong, just and fair society . . . I firmly believe that the best way to address inequality and social exclusion is to create a more affluent, more successful Britain with opportunities for everyone to fulfil their potential.”
Byers was sharing his thoughts on how to make everyone rich—although some rather richer than others—with a gathering of business people in the Mansion House, in the very heart of the City. We must also understand that this latest exponent of the “trickle down” theory of wealth distribution has recently been through the familiar process which renders the wildest and most romantic left wingers tamely compliant to the demands of capitalism as soon as they get a sniff of power.
But what happened when, a few days after making this speech, he had an opportunity to put into practise his new-favoured theories about leaving the market to work its own way without any interference from the government? On 5 February the news broke that the German car manufacturer BMW, which also owns the Rover car company in England, was considering the closure of the Rover plant in Longbridge which would put about 14,000 people out of work and affect tens of thousands in ancillary firms largely dependent on Rover as their market. The Rover plant is under threat because it was heading to make a loss of up to £400 million this year, after an investment by BMW of £2.5 billion not to mention the buying price of £800 million.
With the market for cars looking close to saturation it seems good sense for BMW to close Longbridge; after all, like any other company they are in business to make profits and not to give charity to thousands of workers or to make life easier for a minister in the British government. As an admirer of the way market forces operate Byers should have greeted this news with enthuisism. But tens of thousands unemployed workers are not fertile electoral material. And what kind of start would he have made in his new job if his message to those unemployed was that they were the inevitable victims of economic forces which, they would eventually agree, work to the benefit of us all?
So Byers forgot what he had said at the Mansion House and he intervened with BMW, to try to affect the way in which the car market is operating. “I intend to talk to Professor Milberg (the new chairman of BMW) this weekend,” he droned, “to stress to him the importance that the Government attaches to Rover and Longbridge. The Government has a very constructive relationship with BMW . . .” If BMW agreed to keep the plant open Byers will provide financial help to modernise it. Then he will be free to make another speech, stressing how vital it is for governments to be always ready to intervene if they are likely to get some bad publicity—and antagonise a lot of voters–through the closure of a factory which is losing money.
And if he does speak like that we may be sure he will not mention another way in which the market operates. Many recent surveys on the effects of poverty in the family have highlighted the fact that parents often go without food in order to make sure their children have something to eat. Almost without exception they say that they can rarely afford meat. The Guardian of 6 February had something to say about another side of this. Their reporter John Vidal went to see how hill farmers, who raise sheep, get on with the market for their produce. One farmer described the situation as “all doom and gloom” because prices are so low that he can hardly give away his animals. He had just tried to sell some at rock bottom prices only to be told that he would have to pay to have them taken off his hands. Another farmer told Vidal that in some cases sheep were being slaughtered and buried rather than trying to sell them. So while families suffer through being unable to afford perfectly good meat, edible sheep are being wasted—and all in the service of the market which Byers thinks is such a logical, useful safeguard of our welfare.
Even in the face of this we should not assume that Byers does not understand how capitalism works—how it can only operate on the basis of producing wealth for sale at a profit and not on meeting the needs of human beings. We should not assume that he is unaware of the fact that if profits cannot be made production stops and workers are thrown out of jobs. We should not assume that when he was drivelling on about the importance of creating wealth as distinct from its redistribution he was in ignorance of the fact that the wealth creators are the working class, who need to be employed in order to live and who in their jobs are exploited and degraded and then, if the wealth they have created cannot be sold at a profit, are deprived of that livelihood. Any militant leftist will have discussed these issues to the point of exhaustion. Byers now behaves as if he was never concerned. This may be seen as his achievement. Or it may turn out to be his insuperable problem.