Elections always nourish hopes. I had high hopes for the Labour Party in the 1964 election and was sure they would be fulfilled when Labour were returned to office for the first time in thirteen years. It would all begin. Things would start to go well because at last we had a government that cared about people, understood their problems and wanted to solve them. More than anything we had in Harold Wilson a leader with the flair and confidence to control events and shape the future in the general interest.
Wilson reigned for six years. During that time the cost of living went up by thirty per cent, unemployment doubled to 700,000, National Health charges were drastically increased, free milk for schoolchildren was abolished, racist legislation was passed and the government supported horrific wars in Vietnam and Nigeria. I wondered at the time why all this was happening because none of it had been in The New Britain, Labour's 1964 election manifesto. I was surprised at Harold Wilson too because all this meant that the reputation he had made for himself in opposition as some kind of political magician was now lost.
But this didn't stop me supporting Labour. Old ties are hard to break and, anyway, I didn’t see any alternative. I was puzzled however as to why, if Labour really cared, it hadn't tried harder to keep its promises. Perhaps it really hadn't, as it claimed, had enough time to clear up the mess the Tories had left behind and would do better next time.
But there wasn’t to be a next time, or not right away, because in 1970 the Tories were voted back in. Although I was disappointed, by this time I’d come into contact with some people calling themselves socialists who were actually telling you not to vote Labour in elections and who, I soon found out, had said the same thing at every election the Labour Party had ever contested. All the people I’d previously known as socialists, no matter how opposed to or sceptical of the Labour Party they were most of the time, considered it an article of faith to vote Labour in elections if only to “keep the Tories out”. But these “new”’ socialists said that there was no more point voting Labour than voting Tory and that a Labour government could only deceive and disappoint the workers who elected it. And when I started to look into the Labour Party’s record in office, 1 realised that this argument had history on its side. Labour governments in 1923-24, 1929-31 and 1945-51 had presided over rising levels of unemployment, falling living standards, strike breaking, militarism and scores of broken promises. What I'd just experienced was only the latest in a succession of similar failures that went back over forty years.
Does it always have to be like this? The Socialist Party of Great Britain has always said it does because the Labour Party in office has the same function as the Tory Party — to administer the capitalist system, and that system cannot be administered in the interests of the majority, those who have to work for a living. And if you look at this proposition, certain things become clear. “Capitalism" no longer appears just an empty word. It actually describes the world we live in, a world which depends on capital being invested by that small minority who own it with a view to making profit. If capital can’t be invested at a profit, it isn’t invested at all. This causes production to cease, regardless of the need people may have for the fruits of that production and it also causes workers to be unemployed. Governments of whatever colour and whatever their stated intentions, can be seen in their true light as guardians of the existing state of things and therefore working to preserve and protect the interests of that capital-owning minority.
Socialism too takes on a definite meaning. It has nothing to do with the particular method the Labour Party has of running capitalism but means a completely different kind of society from capitalism, the like of which we have not yet seen anywhere. It means a society where production doesn’t take place for profit but directly for use, where everything is owned in common, where all goods and services can be taken freely by everyone and where governments don’t rule but people participate democratically and meaningfully in their own affairs.
So is there no difference between the Labour and Tory parties? Only so far as each claims to govern according to its own distinctive values and philosophies. Labour says it is a party of humanitarianism, compassion for the underprivileged, intervention by the state to serve the interests of working people. The Tories also say that they are concerned about workers’ well-being but that what is ultimately of benefit to workers is the success of private enterprise and keeping state intervention to a minimum.
But “values” and “philosophies”, like manifesto promises, are discarded by both parties when they are faced with the reality of trying to keep capitalism on an even keel. British capitalism needs to keep its costs down in order to compete favourably with other national capitalisms in the world and this imposes on both Labour and Tory parties policies which have neither been part of their declared outlook nor corresponded to their pledges. And these policies have often been strikingly similar — wage restraint, cuts in education and social services, trade union curbs, inflation caused by printing an excess of inconvertible paper currency, and so on. Labour, despite its compassionate, peace-loving image and its sentimental links with the working class, has gone in for cuts in the health service, strike-breaking and war-making, while the Tories, despite their free market “principles" and tough, “stand on your own feet” reputation, have backed nationalisation (e.g. Rolls-Royce) and seemingly humane reforms (Supplementary Benefit legislation) when conditions dictated. And what unites the two parties — their commitment to operating capitalism and their adherence to its immediate dictates — is much more fundamental and important than the different values, rhetoric and promises supposedly dividing them.
So this election is not, as Tony Benn called it, “the most critical in this century” (South Wales Miners’ Conference, 10 May) nor is it, as the Guardian newspaper has said, “likely to decide the political direction of the UK for a generation”. It is an election like any other whose result will not touch the root cause of social problems, the system of production for profit, but will only alter minor details within the framework of that system. After the election the winning party will pull out the goodies from its manifesto cupboard only if they contain the ingredients the world market can digest. Michael Foot can bluster about reducing unemployment by “reflating the economy” and Margaret Thatcher can insist that the only way to get people back to work is to “stimulate investment". But “reflation” is a dead end, as Mitterand’s failure in France has shown, and investment will only be stimulated by the prospect of profit, which depends on the present slump in world trade easing off and markets beginning to expand. Only if this happens will the jobless figures go down and neither Foot nor Thatcher, nor any individual or political party, will have any influence in the matter.
On unemployment therefore, as on other issues, both will inevitably fail to keep their promises — perhaps through naivety, but certainly through their inability to control a system that is uncontrollable. But even if they miraculously managed to run capitalism according to their predetermined plans, they would still be failing — and in a more important way — the majority of those who elected them. They would be failing the wage and salary earners by fostering the illusion that there is no alternative way to organise things than through buying and selling and that any attempt to manage our affairs sanely — without markets, without wars, without wages and salaries, without governments, without the whole paraphernalia of buying and selling — is impossible, unrealistic and not an issue worth considering.
But then, in the final analysis, it is up to the majority not to be taken in by the illusions of the capitalist parties and their leaders and to take our own democratic political action to change things. As long as we leave our world in their hands, they will fail us and we will be failing ourselves.