From the April 1966 issue of the Socialist Standard
He has it all now; even the place in history which he is said to pine for. Mr. Harold Wilson will be remembered as the first Labour Prime Minister to lead his party back to Westminster with an increased majority.
It has never happened before; but then never before has there been a government like this one, and never before has there been a Labour Premier like Mr. Wilson. Never before has the so-called left wing, with its nostalgia for the days when Labour dabbled in theories of what it called Socialism, been so thoroughly tamed. The Labour government has made a public pride of the fact that it would have none of theories or principles; its first concern has been to run British capitalism as its day to day affairs demanded.
This is what is meant by a word which was often used to describe the Wilson government during the election: pragmatic. The Economist said on February 26th: "Mr. Wilson has been a socialist in small things and a pragmatist in big ones.” William Davis, the Financial Editor of The Guardian, wrote on 28th February: ‘‘I do not believe . . . that . . . Wilson the pragmatist would go easy with the trade unions and aim nasty blows at business men.” And Mr. Wilson himself claimed, when he was being interviewed in television's Election Forum on March 10th, “We have been a pragmatic government.”
It is also what was meant by the slogan on which the Labour Party fought the election: You Know Labour Government Works. Not, we should notice, You Know Labour Government Is Socialism, nor even You Know Labour Government Is Good For You. Only the claim that Labour government works. And now that they are back again stronger than before it is time for those who voted for a return of Labour government to ask themselves what is meant by the word “works”.
What was the record of the last Labour government? To begin with, they did take off the prescription charges and they did increase pensions, as they said they would in their 1964 manifesto to The New Britain. These are the usual sort of sops which new governments dish out, giving them the chance to pose as benefactors of the working class. The sops are also an excuse for a government to claim that they stick to their principles—that, in other words, they are not pragmatists. It is, of course, convenient for governments to make such claims occasionally, at other times it is convenient for them to make the opposite claim.
The Wilson government did not bring in any measure concerned with what was once thought to be a basic principle of the Labour Party. They did not introduce any nationalisation measures. They talked about steel; indeed the nationalisation of this industry has been the cause of so well-publicised an argument that it would have been difficult for a Labour government to drop the idea entirely. It was a typical piece of Wilson manipulating that his government kept saying that steel was about to be taken over but never actually got around to it.
Nationalisation is not, and never has been, anything to do with Socialism. The point is that the Labour Party always claimed that it was Socialism in itself; it is no coincidence that they have changed their mind, as they have come out openly as an alternative administration of British capitalism which the voters can try when they get tired for a while with the Conservatives.
Nationalisation was not the only matter on which Labour government “worked”. The days when Hugh Gaitskell raged against the barely concealed colour bar in the Commonwealth Immigration Act were quietly put out of mind and the Labour government were seen in practice to impose harsher restrictions on coloured immigrants than the Tories had done. This was all part of a sordid, dangerous auction in which both sides were bidding for the racialist vote, in an effort to win certain constituencies where racial feeling runs high. On this issue alone the Labour Party were revealed as a vote-grabbing, expedient conscious, unprincipled political rabble. Did Labour government “work” for the coloured immigrant, as it made his life even harder than it need be under capitalism by pandering to the racist prejudices of the frustrated workers around him?
It seems a long time ago, now, that the Labour Party were deceiving supporters of nuclear disarmament that they would get rid of the independent British Bomb. In the 1964 election they made great play of what they called the “myth of the independent British nuclear deterrent,” and claimed that anyone who supported this myth did so only because of a nostalgia for the days when Britannia very nearly ruled the entire world.
But myth or no, the fact is that there has been no change in the British nuclear weaponry. True, the Labour government said that they were opposed to the Multilateral Force and would prefer something which was for all practical purposes the same—something called the Atlantic Nuclear Force. That was about the only change they went out for. Certainly they never wanted to abolish the British Bomb, let alone all Bombs, let alone war itself. The greatest contribution the Labour government made to the field of so-called Defence was that they introduced, under the guidance of Denis Healey (a man who was once regarded as an extreme Communist)—the policy of what they called cost-effectiveness. This was another way of saying that they were determined the British capitalist class should get full value for the immense amounts of money they spend on weapons.
On many other matters the Labour government, in proving that they worked, upset many of their supporters. These supporters thought that their government would judge an issue like the war in Vietnam on humane grounds. Had they known anything about the workings of capitalist parties they would not have been so disappointed when Mr. Wilson so wholeheartedly supported the Americans in their actions there. While Mr. Wilson did so, of course, the bombings went on and the Vietnamese villagers and their children perished wholesale beneath the napalm.
On wages there was less excuse for disappointment; the Labour Party have always made plain their intention to try to control them. But even solid Labour trade unionists were upset when their government actually introduced the Prices and Incomes Bill, which was the sort of measure no Conservative government had dared to bring in. In their battles in this field, the Labour government were openly standing for the interests of the British capitalist class against the wage claims of the workers—many of whom worked so hard for Labour’s return.
There is no reason to suppose that this next Labour government will be any different. They have made it clear that their first pre-occupation will be with the problems of the British capitalist class; the very first specific object stated in their manifesto in the last election was: “It is our aim to achieve balance in our international payments by the end of this year.” Plainly, more disappointments are in store for the friends of Labour rule.
This, then, is what is meant by a Labour government which works. It means a few minor reforms, most of which are of no benefit to the working class. It means the abandonment of principle and its replacement by mealy-mouthed expediency. It means a disregard for human problems and welfare, and a pandering to the bleakest of prejudices. It means a continuation of the social system which terrorises and degrades human beings all over the world.
There need be no surprise that little interest was shown in the alternative to capitalism at the election. The biggest change of opinion is called a landslide; it would need a veritable earthquake in social awareness to change society from one of despair into one of hope. The earthquake did not, of course, happen and the foundations of capitalism—the self deception, the prejudice, the apathy and the plain ignorance with which the working class blight their own lives—are unshaken.