From the October 1980 issue of the Socialist Standard
In the 19th and early part of the 20th century the Liberal Party formed the main political opposition to the Tories. After the 1st World War it collapsed electorally and has been in the doldrums ever since. Now, with increasing support in the opinion polls and widespread cynicism about the other two parties, Liberals again believe, as the mood of their Annual Conference showed, that they can make an electoral comeback.
A Liberal government is needed, according to their new President, Richard Holme, “for the reconstruction and regeneration of the failed British system” (from 1984 — The Real Alternative. The Task for Liberals Now, Liberal Publications Dept, 1979, p. 14). The past failures of the two big parties stem, they argue, from both Labour and Tory putting the interests of certain groups within the community before the interests of the community as a whole. Labour policy, they say, favours the trade unions while the Tories support big business. They, the Liberals, on the other hand owe no allegiance to any particular group and so “are free to reconcile conflicting interests”. A Liberal government would, they contend, be a “government of national harmony” which would revive the British economy and create new prosperity and opportunities for the British people.
Their way of creating economic harmony would be through “industrial democracy”. “Employees would share control with shareholders and participate in decisions through elected Works Councils”, said their 1979 election manifesto, which also talked about “profit-sharing” and encouraging employees to buy shares in the firm they work for. Other economic measures would aim at “an adequate minimum income for all” and “widening the distribution and individual ownership of wealth”.
Is the Liberal analysis of Britain's problems a fair one and would their suggested solutions work? Their suggestion that Labour governments generally give support to workers organised in trade unions is the first point that needs to be considered. A look at Labour’s record is instructive. During their 1945-50 term of office they used troops to break strikes (this happened again in 1977 during the firemen’s strike) and took striking workers (gas employees and dockers) to court. In 1969, before the Tories brought in their Industrial Relations Act, Labour had been close to introducing its own. And during all post-war Labour administrations we have had policies of wage freeze or wage restraint — the use or threat of legislation to keep down wages. Such facts show that, despite their historic association with the trade union movement and their continued financial dependence upon it, the Labour Party’s policies are no more aimed at defending workers’ interests than those practised by the Tories. The Labour Party in power does what any other government committed to administering British capitalism has always done and must always do. It aims to preserve the status quo, a society in which a small minority (the capitalist class) own most of the wealth and the vast majority (the working class) own nothing to speak of and in order to live are compelled to sell their energies to an employer for a wage or salary.
What follows from this is that any future Liberal government would have to tailor its policies to fit this situation of minority ownership of wealth just as much as past Labour or Tory governments. And this would make the task of reconciling “conflicting interests” far more difficult than they imagine. The conflicts that arose would be no less constant and no more susceptible to harmonious solution than they are now, for they are part of the very nature of a social system in which workers are driven by economic need to take action on pay and working conditions and employers arc driven by the pressures of competition to produce cheaply yet profitably. This causes that continuous head-on clash between employee and employer known as the class struggle.
No amount of “industrial democracy” could make any difference to this. It might sometimes take the edge off workers’ pay demands, but even were it possible to enforce it by legislation it could have little practical effect in the long term. It would soon become obvious to workers that any say they had in the decisions taken by their firm was wholly conditioned by its vital need to produce for a profit. They would also quickly realise that their ownership of a small number of shares in their employer’s business made no difference to their need to sell their labour power for a living and therefore offered no real incentive to them to work harder, produce more or refrain from pressing wage claims.
As for the other economic reforms on the Liberal agenda, (“adequate minimum income for all” and “widening the distribution and individual ownership of wealth”) such proposals have frequently been on other parties’ manifestos and are no more workable now than they were then. An income adequate for one person may be quite inadequate for another whose needs are different, and exactly how do you legislate to significantly increase the ownership of wealth of those dependent on a wage or salary for their living?
Another thing any future Liberal government would discover is that the extent to which they can impose and enforce their measures depends far less on their determination to do so than on the conditions prevailing at the time. One of their present ‘ideals’ is to halt the building of nuclear power stations to protect the environment. The decision whether to carry through such a policy once they were in power however would be based not on ideals but on whether other more economical ways of producing energy were available. Another of their stated aims is to involve the mass of people in decision-making by setting up local district and neighbourhood councils, so-called “community politics”. But once again this measure would only be pursued if its usefulness to the smooth functioning of the system outweighed other contrary factors, including the cost.
In other words the Liberals’ room for manoeuvre would be very small. Rather than their imposing their measures on the system, the system would impose measures upon them. And this is the reason why, despite apparently wide divergences of views between political parties, when in power they all pursue strikingly similar policies. It is also why the Liberal administrations of the 19th century, despite their commitment to reform legislation, presided over some of the blackest years in British working-class history. So when in 1970 the Report of the Liberal Commission said: “Recent governments have shown themselves unable to escape from a long series of ad hoc decisions; taking decisions on a day-to-day basis, reacting to the pressures of immediate events, rather than attempting to follow any consistent direction or design” (p. 11), it was involuntarily drawing attention to the way a Liberal government itself would be forced to behave if elected to power.
Nor does it end there. The tangle of problems facing any party seriously competing to administer capitalism inevitably breeds within that party frustration and conflicting opinions as to how best to tackle those problems. This leads to internal splits and intrigues of the type so well known in the Labour and Tory parties and it is worth pointing out to starry-eyed Liberals that in the Liberal heyday bitter internal strife characterised their party too, contributing greatly to its decline.
So despite the apparent unity of purpose with which the Liberals face the future after their Blackpool conference, such unity would be unlikely to survive a term in office, especially if that office were shared with another party as recently proposed by Liberal leader David Steel with his suggestion for a “radical coalition” with sections of the Labour Party as a “credible alternative government in 1983 or 1984” (Guardian, 8 August 1980). As an observer has pointed out: “When the Liberals have seemed to be on the verge of breaking through to become once again a majority party, their behaviour has begun to resemble the two large rivals” (Stanley Henig, European Political Parties, George Allen and Unwin, London, 1969, p. 435). Even a faint sniff of power in 1977-78 (Lib- Lab pact) was enough to cause loud disunity among Liberal MPs and supporters.
To be fair, however, many of the delegates at Blackpool were not just interested in putting a political party in power. Many were people who are genuinely concerned by today’s massive social problems and support the Liberal Party because it seems to offer help in solving them. For apart from their programme of economic reforms, the Liberals, by their attention to such issues as housing, environment, racism and civil liberties have carefully cultivated the image of a “caring party”, one of principles not pragmatism, one that caters for the needs of the individual and the underdog in society. The same kind of image in fact as projected by the Labour Party in 1964 after 13 years of Tory rule and one that has been repeatedly punctured since. The pity is that those who really do care about the kind of world we live in should seek fulfilment in working for political parties which can only let them down.