The Political Notes column from the January 1982 issue of the Socialist Standard
A changed man
Since he lost the Tory leadership to Margaret Thatcher, Ted Heath is a changed man. To begin with, he has started making jokes even if not very good ones. Like pleading with his fans at the last Tory conference not to applaud him because “it may irritate your neighbour”.
Heath’s place in British political history is fixed in the battle he had with the miners over their pay claim, the apex of a long campaign by his government to hold back wages. Soon after the defeat in the February 1974 election, Heath was banished by Thatcher to what Fleet Street likes to call the political wilderness.
But the wilderness is proving to be not so inhospitable. With time on his hands, Heath has been able to take a part-time job. He is now the Chairman of the International Advisory Council of International Reporting Information Systems (IRIS).
IRIS assembles and processes through a computer information on world affairs which it receives from the media world wide as well as its own agents. Anyone with something over £15,000 a year to spend can have access to this computerised picture of capitalism in the 1980s. Heath has been taken on to check that the information about political and economical topics is accurate.
We might wonder why IRIS should think that a politician is best qualified for a job like checking the accuracy of information. And why one like Heath, who has never been famous for consistency?
For example, there is the matter of his wage; IRIS is paying him according to the Daily Telegraph, quoting “impeccable IRIS management sources” — £50,000 a year. His hours at the job will not be too demanding; Heath says they will amount to “a few days a year”.
When Heath was Prime Minister he was always very sensitive about what he saw as workers getting too much money for too little work. But we need not fear that he will lose sleep in justifying the deal, for every capitalist politician knows that the workers’ place is to do all the useful, constructive work in society while living in poverty. And that is something which does not, and will not, change.
Fifteen years ago there was a serious housing situation in this country. Then Shelter sprang up, with its whizz kid director Des Wilson, trumpeting that they were going to rouse the nation’s conscience and make housing a number one issue so that something would be done about it.
Today there is still a serious housing situation in this country; in fact, according to Wilson — who is no longer in charge of Shelter — it is getting worse. Councils are building one sixth, and private builders about one half, of the number of houses they were putting up when Shelter was formed. Existing houses are sliding (often literally) into disrepair; local authorities say there are 547,000 unfit homes in England alone and over one million lacking one or more basic amenity.
About 1½ million people are on council housing lists; some of them have been there for years and have virtually no chance of being rehoused.
This desperate situation is illustrated for the crazy muddle that it is by the fact that some 250,000 building workers are registered as unemployed. Bricks in their millions are being stockpiled. The material is there; the human ability is there. But the profit priority of capitalism prevents the homes being built.
Wilson says bitterly “ . . . those of us who spoke out about the scandal of Britain’s housing problem in 1966, when Shelter was launched, find ourselves back at square one”. It does not seem to occur to him that he must share the blame for this.
Like all those who tinker with capitalism, Wilson assumed (for there is no evidence for anything stronger than an assumption) that the system’s ailments can be reformed out of existence. This is a policy which encourages workers to support capitalism, on the argument that it does not need to be a system which is unable to meet human needs. But that, inexorably, is the reality of it — as Shelter is now finding out.
By their blindness to this feature of capitalism, organisations like Shelter actually aggravate the very problems they claim to be able to solve. Which means that while whizz kids sparkle the suffering goes on.
The martyr of Southwark
At a stroke Peter Tatchell was transformed by Foot’s harsh words about him in the Commons. From an obscure candidate in what was once a rock safe Labour scat, Tatchell became that most ephemeral of things — a popular left wing martyr.
It all began with Tatchell’s article in London Labour Briefing, in which, in characteristically obscure wording, he seemed to advocate the kind of protest action which Foot himself was once associated with. But of course it is permissible to march, demonstrate and protest when you arc nowhere near government, or don’t want to get into office. Foot’s problem is holding together the Labour Party as an alternative administration for British capitalism. The indiscretions of his past are now an embarrassment to him.
In fact, the Labour leader cannot fairly complain. The Labour Party takes in everyone and anyone, with rarely any reference to their opinions. You pay your money; you take your membership card. In the case of Tatchell, they have recruited someone who can write this:
Without . . . a mass popular base consciously demanding and organising for a thorough-going socialist transformation of our society, the prospects of electing a radical Labour government look bleak indeed.
Clearly, Tatchell does not realise that if there were a mass of workers consciously demanding a transformation of society the last thing they would do would be to elect a Labour government to try to run capitalism. Their very consciousness would inform them that the Labour Party is one of their many enemies, standing for the interests of the British capitalist class.
Then again, a politically aware majority of workers will not be wasting their time electing governments, whether they are called radical or not. No government can establish socialism, which must be the task of the working class themselves, using a democratic tool to bring in the society which, among other things, will abolish government.
The Labour candidate (as he was) for Bermondsey is palpably confused. His clash with Foot is a case of misguided youth against cynical age. Not an inspiring spectacle; but then, when has the Labour Party inspired anything other than disgust?