The Running Commentary column from the November 1984 issue of the Socialist Standard
When members of the Thatcher government are questioned about their policies their programmed response is to trot out some esoteric statistics which are supposed to prove that success is imminent and that it would, therefore, be foolish for them to change course now. They have been arguing like this almost since they came to power in 1979, ignoring the other, strikingly non-esoteric, statistics which undermine their case.
In September a report produced for the government's Office of Population Censuses and Surveys showed death rates among unemployed men to be at least 21 per cent higher than might be expected and of women in their families to be 20 per cent higher. A few days later two doctors at the Ruchill Hospital in Glasgow stated that children in the more deprived parts of the city are up to 100 times more likely to suffer illnesses severe enough to need hospital treatment than those in the less deprived areas. And a few days after that a campaign launched to improve conditions for people whose only home is a bedsitter claimed that about half a million people are living in squalid and dangerous accommodation and that some 600 of them have been killed in fires in bedsitter houses between 1978 and 1982.
Poverty is a matter of stress and stigma; it is a degrading, repressive, distorting pressure on the lives of millions of people, making them emotionally crippled for life. But it is also a direct, physical threat; it makes us bodily sick, it kills us through what coroners call accidents and through avoidable diseases.
No capitalist party has the answer to poverty; it is the badge of capitalism and its cure is a matter beyond any debate about the trivial differences between Labour and Tory.
Roy Hattersley is the half of Labour’s dream ticket to Westminster who has recently been falling down on his job of trying to please all of the people all of the time. In fact he has cast doubt, as others have been doing for some time now, on the once-sacred policy of nationalisation. This upset the lefties in the party and it made others ask why. if Hattersley thinks like this, he should be in a party which was once responsible for so much state control.
One response to Hattersley’s unoriginal and panicky musings came, as might be expected, from Ian Mikardo, who is one of those eternal guardians of the Labour Party’s conscience, which means that he still believes state-run coal mines, railways and steel works don’t shut down "uneconomic" units and do not sack "redundant” workers.
Scornfully rejecting Hattersley’s advocacy of private industry, Mikardo said: “Eighty per cent of productive capital is privately owned . . . Most of the productive capacity has its organisation decided by 200 or 300 people whose principal incentive is to the dividend they pay themselves or their shareholders and not the dividend they pay the community”. (The Times, 1 October 1984.)
This situation, which Mikardo complains about, exists after 17 years of Labour government during the past 40 years — a period long enough for them to have redeemed their original promise to abolish capitalism and to so transform social relationships that production would be carried on in the interests of the community.
The Labour Party did not carry this through because it was not their policy; instead they stood for tinkering with the capitalist system. Their failure to establish socialism has nothing to do with the betrayal of original principles. They kept faith with their nature as a party of capitalism and they left power with the system as firmly entrenched as ever.
By the standards which count — meaning by the number of votes they attract or repel - the 1984 conference contest was a hands-down win for the Tories. The Labour Party were in their customary disarray and did nothing to dispel the popular image of them as subverting the gallant police effort to stand against savage pickets and to protect the freedom of the British workers to be exploited only when it pays the employers. The Liberals' votes on the issue of nuclear weapons gave them the appearance of a bunch of disorderly, if innocent. dupes of the Kremlin.
In contrast the Tories were on the offensive as the party who will defend to the last drop of our blood the freedom of the British ruling class to impose the capitalist rationale — no profit, no production. The bomb attack on Thatcher’s hotel served only to heighten the Tories’ heroic image. As the representatives flexed their knees and their wrists in the endless standing ovations, an important fact was ecstatically obscured. With 3½ million unemployed and an intensifying burden of misery for the workers, the Thatcher government is proving to be no more successful at running British capitalism than were their discredited opponents.
But of course the conferences are not meant to be much more than propaganda exercises. No one in their senses really expects a government to take any notice of what party activists get up to in their annual seaside beano. Capitalist political parties cannot operate in a properly democratic way: the demands of the system cannot allow open, full and informed participation in decisions. The conferences are all part of an elaborate, sordid game, in which the one effective rule is that the majority of the people are losers.