Monday, June 26, 2017

The Socialist Party and the Labour Party (1907)

From the March 1907 issue of the Socialist Standard

A Wing of the Liberal Party
We of The Socialist Party of Great Britain have cherished no fond delusions concerning the Labour Party. From our inception we have consistently opposed it, and the proceedings at its recent Conference confirm us in our antagonistic attitude.

In our Declaration of Principles, adopted on June 15, 1904, we declared “war against all other political parties, whether alleged labour or avowedly capitalist,” and in that reference the Labour Party (then the L.R.C.) was included. In the first issue of the Socialist Standard (Sept. 1904) we described the L.R.C. as the working-class wing of the Liberal Party, [It is amusing to note that "Justice" has lately arrived at the same conclusion.] with whom the I.L.P., who had neither the courage to proclaim themselves Socialists nor to disavow Socialism, were coquetting. After two and a half years not a word of our description need be withdrawn.

As might be expected, the President’s address at Belfast was a model of moderation, well reflecting the conduct of the members in the House of Commons. Referring to the artist who, at the end of the General Election cartooned the leader as "Queer Hardie,” he said : "We were a queer party, and a queer party we have proved ourselves to be. Absolutely mistrusted at the beginning of the year, we finished the year with the praise of all impartial critics. For sensibility, adaptability, and respectability, the Labour Party stood first in the British House of Commons.” Admirable! No phrasing of ours could better describe them.

They were a queer party and they are a queer party. On the one side Mr. H. Quelch of the S.D.F. Executive (who wants to smash the Liberal Party) and lesser lights of that body, not there as represeuiatives of the S.D.F., but sneaking in as trade union delegates; at the other extreme, Mr. R. Bell, M.P., who makes no secret of his Liberalism, risking even his position as trade union official in defence of it, a striking contrast to the servility of Will Thorne and other S.D.F. men, who, because they are trade union officials and might lose their jobs if they refused (so runs the S.D.F. excuse) have been permitted time after time to support Liberal candidates, a crime for which ordinary members of the S.D.F. have been expelled; and between these two, all sorts and conditions of men and women, lacking principle, lacking policy, and therefore an easy prey to the astute and plausible professional politicians who lay in wait for them.

As They Darn Well Please
Readers of the Socialist Standard who remember the extent to which the Labour Party candidates made compacts with Liberals at the General Election, and pledged themselves so many directions in order to secure votes, will not be surprised at the effort made to throw over the Party and leave the members in the House free to do as they “darn well please.” Their original recommendation, however, was even too strong for some of their most trusted (or cutest) supporters, and it was amended ultimately carried as follows: "That resolutions instructing the Parliamentary Party as to their action in the House of Commons be taken as the opinion of the Conference on the understanding that the time and method of giving effect to these instructions be left to the Party in the House in conjunction with the National Executive.” “Respectability and adaptability" indeed! Keir Hardie and A. Henderson complained that the affiliated societies were continually pestering them at their party meetings and, of course, they wished to put a stop to this! Is not this the attitude always taken up by “respectable and adaptable” Liberals and Tories? Conferences may come and go, resolutions may be passed, reforms may be urged or demanded, Newcastle or other programmes may be formulated, but the rank and file, whose votes and work and, in the case of the Labour Party, whose pence have been the means of transforming these “pestered” legislators from mere agitators or carpet baggers into “respectable” esquires, are referred to the exigencies of the political situation and told that, although they may pass resolutions, they must not expect their members (no longer their delegates, but their members) to carry them out. We fear the Labour movement must endure many editions of John Burns before it comes to its senses.

S.D.F. Jesuits
The S.D.F. members made a determined attempt on the second day of the Conference to provide a bridge over which that body might again walk into the ranks of the Labour Party and share its funds for disappointed S.D.F. candidates. These men were not there as delegates of the S.D.F., as we have already pointed out. That body joined the L.R.C. when it was first formed, but afterwards withdrew, for reasons which have been different every time they have endeavoured to explain them. Certain it is they regret their withdrawal and are now pursuing a Jesuitical policy. Despite this withdrawal and despite the fact that the S.D.F. has declared “it is not the business of Socialists to ‘permeate’ a ‘labour’ party, any more than the Liberal or Conservative Party," its prominent members are permitted to attend the Conference and its branches are allowed to affiliate to local Labour Parties. Its members are allowed to break its rules by running as Labour Party candidates, thus securing labour Party Funds, and the S.D.F. itself officially supports “Labour” candidates. The official S.D.F. call this “policy," but neither they nor the rank and file can prove it to be either honest or logical.

A Very Ultimate Object
And so in the names of various trade unions, W. Atkinson, H. Quelch, T. N. Cathrall, J. Gribble, and other S.D.F. men submitted a resolution to make the ultimate object of the Labour Party the overthrow of the present system of capitalism and the institution of public ownership and control of the means of life.” The mover wished the Party to have “something to attain, something to strive for, something worth striving for." only it must be "ultimate.” Don’t frighten people by striving for it now. One by one the I.L.P. men rose “as Socialists" to oppose it. Hardie would have voted for it had it been moved in another way, (Oh! respectable and adaptable M.P.). and so on. But Hardie was certainly right, and none knew it better than Quelch & Co., when he pointed out that the people behind the delegates were not Socialists. And by the same token the people behind the “Labour" M.P’s are not Socialists, the victory of the "Labour" candidates was not a victory for Socialism and therefore not a victory for Labour. but, as we showed in our issue last March, a victory for confusion.

Can it be wondered at that a party such as these confusionists should full victims to the professional politicians and the sections supporting them. The recommendation submitted by the E.C. on the “Temperance” question professed a desire to confer full and unfettered power upon localities for dealing with the licensing question in accordance with "local opinion" and then rendered this impossible by laying down the definite propositions upon which localities were to vote. If a locality desired free trade in drink, for instance, it could not obtain it under the Labour Party’s “full and unfettered power.” In short, they fell into the local option trap, as no doubt A. Henderson, D. J. Shackleton and others intended they should.

Although claiming to be concerned with only “practical politics” the Labour M.P’s would have no programme drawn up by the Conference. Shackleton put the matter in a nutshell when he declared that if candidates were to be tied down their chances of being returned would be reduced. If, for instance, he and Mr. Gill were compelled to put the abolition of child labour on their programmes they might lose their seats and the society they represented might have to withdraw their payment of £900 per year. And, of course, the delegates decided that £900 sterling and the presence of two such "sensible, respectable and adaptable” men in the House of Commons was much more important than the yearly slaughter of thousands of children in the factory towns the gentlemen represent!

Voteless Women, Workless Workers
And so the Conference went on, each resolution that was submitted proving how greatly different were the views of the delegates even upon what they regard as “practical politics". And on the last day there occurred the scene that showed what manner of man Keir Hardie is. At a public demonstration held previously at Ulster Hall, he had declared that “they were democrats, they believed in the will of the people.” On the last day of Conference a Suffrage resolution was passed with which Hardie disagreed. He immediately showed what kind of democrat he was, just as he had previously shown what kind of a Socialist he was. He said that if the resolution was intended to restrict the action of the Party in the House, he would have to seriously consider whether he could remain a member. He could not give up his principles, and so on. This was, of course, very pretty but it was hardly "democratic". Moreover, how greatly Hardie has changed since 1893. In October of that year he was asked to part in an Adult Suffrage Demonstration in Trafalgar Square, organised by the S.D.F. He declined, accusing the S.D.F. of "desertion of the cause of Socialism." "Is the case of the three million voteless workers," he asked, "whose hard lot you are so eager to champion, worse than that of the four million, including dependents, workless workers? By your present action you proclaim it to be so, and in this every sweater in the land will agree with you. Whether the best men among your own members will is another question.” But to-day Hardie, having in the meantime become “sensible, respectable and (particularly) adaptable” is quite prepared to put a few thousand propertied women, whose only lack is votes, in front of millions of men, women and children who lack first, last, and always, food.

The attitude of the S.P.G.B. towards the Labour Party remains the same as when our Party was formed. Events have proved that our position is the correct one. We agree with Hardie that you cannot go beyond the position taken up by the people behind you. The people are not yet Socialists. Hardie, Thorne, and the other Labour members did not win their seats on Socialist principles, and therefore cannot fight for those principles in the House. We are opposed to every non-Socialist as well as anti-Socialist party—we are therefore opposed to the Labour Party. Capitalism has nothing to fear from these “sensible, respectable, and adaptable” members of the Labour Party, and the capitalists know it. They are a queer party. A , true party of the workers must be a straight party, not a queer one. It must stand for Socialism at, as well as between the elections. It must endeavour to prevent people who are not Socialists voting for its candidates. Neither the S.D.F., I.L.P., nor Labour Party do this. The workers must therefore reject them. This, the straight, uncompromising policy, is the policy of The Socialist Party of Great Britain. The S.P.G.B. is therefore (he party of the workers. 
Jack Kent







Who's going to clean the sewers? (2002)

From the January 2002 issue of the Socialist Standard
When the idea of a society based on voluntary work is proposed, the question of who would volunteer for "dirty work" is often raised
One of the first questions asked when discussing socialism is "who's going to clean the sewers?" This apparently simple question contains so many actual problems and mistaken ideas about not only socialism but our lives now that it is effectively unanswerable in that form. So let's look at the actual situation, of sewers and work in them.
I saw a film recently, called Enemy at the Gates. One of the most striking things about this film is the amount of time they spend crawling around sewers and other crap-carrying pipes. In fact, in the book from which the film was made one of their comrades is overcome by the noxious gases within the sewers and suffocates. Nonetheless their lives are seen as heroic; they receive awards and medals from the highest sources; their comrades shower them with honours and acclaim; every soldier in Stalingrad wants to join them; and the unit itself has the highest morale possible despite its privations. We as the viewing public are not meant to see any contradiction in this belief or behaviour.
What's going on here? They're in a sewer for christ's sake! They have to lie in crap for hours without moving, at great personal risk, for little material reward: in fact they have all volunteered for the privilege. Something is obviously wrong with the sewer argument.
Perhaps we can narrow down the problem with a real and tragic pair of situations. In the above example their presence in the sewer is secondary to their primary activity, sniping on the enemy. Let's look at the case of cleaning up radioactive waste, which far exceeds the sewer as an unpleasant environment. On the one hand we have the heroic sacrifice of the firemen of Chernobyl who, knowing full well the risks of exposure, nevertheless laboured to bring the situation under control whilst under no perceptible duress. Many suffered from cancer; many died; many are still dying. On the other hand we have the situation of Turks in Germany routinely hired to clean out nuclear reactors under hazardous conditions, according to Gunther Grass. These two groups are performing exactly the same activity, i.e. cleaning an area from radiation, in extremely unpleasant and hazardous conditions, yet the fire-fighters are rightly remembered as heroes and received decorations for valour while the cleaners suffer their cancers in silence without even health care for their incurred diseases.
From this it becomes obvious that the sewer is the conditions of work, and a pipe full of crap is just a pipe full of crap. It's the work that stinks. So what's the difference?
Our heroes are labouring for the good of their community. Their activity confirms their humanity, to themselves, and their community confirms it to them in their respect and gratitude or love as Marx called it in his early philosophical manuscripts of 1844. Marx put it this way:
  1. They express and experience their own power to shape the world.
  2. They fulfil their human "nature"; they identify the needs of their society and fulfil them.
  3. They act for others; they are an essential part of their society, experienced directly by group activity as one acts for all.
  4. By expressing their own life they express the lives of their comrades, and of all within their society.
Their lives are like mirrors from which their natures shine forth.
Our Turks perceive their world differently. Their activity is a denial of their existence; they are slaves to their work rather than liberated by it. The purpose of their activity is to obtain someone else's object, i.e. other commodities. They are self-enslaving, their production is a torment, they recreate their social world as one of commodities. Since their needs are only met by other commodities bought with their commodity which requires this torment to continue, they come, says Marx, to resent the well-being of another as their own ill fortune and to minimise their demands on life. Their own minds, mediated by society, become a hellish place.
It's all a bit dialectical (Marx often is), but the meaning is clear. It is producing under the conditions of commodity production that creates work as an unpleasant chore, not the physical conditions themselves. Socialism has no sewers, only pipes carrying crap, since it abolishes this commodity production.
"We choose to go to the moon, and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard". JFK
So, now we're rid of the sewer, what of the pipe? It still doesn't smell that sweet. Should we abolish the pipe as well? Obviously, modern technology has far superseded our Victorian drainage systems, which in the long term would be better replaced. Socialism will entail new applications of technology and the abolition of unnecessary routine work. But we need a focus for struggle, now as humanity to get the best from the universe rather than against each other. Otherwise how will we express our lives for each other? Our first few years, perhaps even the first generation, will have plenty to do, replacing old with new and tearing out the control systems of capitalism, ensuring all existing needs are met. And then? Desires must be cultivated to be fulfilled, struggles must be fought in order to be won.
Simon Wigley

Obituary: John Keir Stewart (1968)

Obituary from the October 1968 issue of the Socialist Standard

We have just received the news of the death of another old Comrade on the other side of the world: John Keir Stewart of the Socialist Party of New Zealand. The 1914/18. war, and the unemployment which followed, played a large part in making Stewart a socialist. After he joined the SPNZ his house was always open to comrades and students of Socialism and there are many in both Australia and New Zealand who were introduced to Socialism within the warm hospitality of John Stewart and his wife Annie.

For about twenty live years Stewart was literature secretary of the Petone and Wellington Branch and only ceased his work for Socialism when illness forced him from the field. He was 73 years old when he died. The host of people who had the privilege of knowing and working with John Stewart mourn his death; they have lost a Comrade in every sense of the term.



The Review Column: American Conventions (1968)

The Review Column from the September 1968 issue of the Socialist Standard

American Conventions
The gaudy ballyhoo of the Democratic and Republican Conventions in America, coming live onto British television screens, gave many people over here the impression that American politicians do not take their business seriously.

This is an amusing notion, considering the record of the men who got the nominations, of the outgoing President and of all their predecessors. All are or were tough, ambitious men, testifying to the fact that the political fight for power over American capitalism is a savage and ruthless affair.

Nobody should think that this does not also apply elsewhere, as a study of the career of Harold Wilson will show. In other countries, too, the political knives are wielded under a cloak of ballyhoo. This is what happens every time a Labour leader makes a speech at a miners’ gala, every time a Tory leader stands up for Land of Hope and Glory.

It is happening when a foreign head of state is paraded through London with the Royal Family, and at almost every public appearance of almost every leader of capitalism.

The alternative to this ballyhoo would be for them to tell the truth. There have been many satirical pieces written, on what would happen if ever a politician publicly dropped the mask. Even when one or other of them has involuntarily come near to doing this — for example George Brown—nobody takes them seriously.

Perhaps, then, the working class not only accept the ballyhoo—perhaps they actually need it. Capitalism is a system of class power, in which conflicting interests and ruling groups struggle for a dominant place.

This struggle is considered important enough to justify almost anything, of which ballyhoo is perhaps among the least offensive. Its existence simply proves something which workers should ponder, as they watch it all happen on the screens in their homes—that capitalism is such a society that it cannot bring its affairs into the light of day but must needs hide them under a cloak of false enthusiasm and optimism.


Why fuss about Scientology?
Is Scientology a fraud? It is difficult to understand anyone being taken in by this religion—for that it what it is— unless they were beyond the boundaries of hope, were ready to grasp the last tuft of grass as they felt themselves going over the cliff edge.

Some people like that are attracted by the cult, as they are by ail sorts of peculiar theories outside the orthodox medical profession (who have had some pretty queer theories themselves). But none of the other unorthodox ideas has come under such a weight of official suppression as Scientology has recently.

Home Secretary Callaghan has refused entry to Britain of the cult’s leader. Minister of Health Robinson has described Scientology as “socially harmful”.

But the leader in this has been the Australian state of Victoria, which has a total ban on the movement. The practice of Scientology there carries a fine of up to £100 for a first, and imprisonment for a later, offence.

This ban followed a report which condemned Scientology as “perverted . . . debased . . . fantastic . . . impossible . . .  evil . . .” which is a pretty exhaustive vocabulary of abuse.

However justified these descriptions may be—and the scientologists have several libel actions on the go—the obvious question they provoke is why all these august politicians and institutions should suddenly want to protect us against socially harmful theories.

If they are anxious to expose and prevent fraud, why not start with their own parties, which consistently appeal for votes on fraudulent election promises? Why not denounce the social system which legally robs millions of people of the results of their work?

We do not need men like Callaghan and Robinson to protect us from social harm, but if they are worried about it there is plenty of scope for them. They might make a speech about the distorting effect which capitalism has upon peoples’ lives, which so often goads those people into the despair which makes them easy prey for the medical (as distinct from the political) quack.


The Pope and the Pill
The unsurprising Papal edict on birth control brought the deepest anguish only to working class Catholics. The rich ones—like the Kennedys—can raise large families without any economic problems.

One thing the Encyclical has not done is to end the long dispute about Catholicism and contraceptives. Thus we have recently been entertained with some arguments whose sophistry makes the old one about the number of angels dancing on the needle point look positively clumsy.

For example: did not God give man the ability to make artificial contraceptives in the same way as he gave him the rhythm method which the Pope approves?

For example: if it is sinful to destroy life in human spermatazoa is it not also sinful to destroy it with pesticides, or with anti-biotics, or with the weapons of war?

Through all this the Catholics did not pursue an undeviating course. The Encyclical kept open an escape route by implying an approval of contraception by means of an artificially induced menstrual regularity—which might be taken to include the Pill. And there was Cardinal Heenan’s double act of approving the Pope’s decision while saying that Catholics who practised birth control could also accept the sacrament.

These sophistries are typical of those needed to bolster religious dogma, especially when it is under pressure from the material facts of life.

Intellectual dishonesty and hair-splitting is an unsettling business, much as the Church must be accustomed to it. For the rest of us, the simple way out of the difficulty is to recognise the overwhelming evidence against religion and to look at life in terms not of bigotry but of human interest.


The Peace Society (1921)

From the November 1921 issue of the Socialist Standard

A Demonstration was held on Thursday, October 13th, at the Central Hall, to further the agitation for Disarmament. It should be obvious that the Capitalist Governments of the world arm against each other because they must, war being the logical and necessary outcome of their economic rivalry. While, therefore, the prospect of economising, by mutual agreement to limit expenditure, is attractive to the employing class who have to bear the burden, to appeal to a national group of Capitalists to give up their only defence against their like-minded predatory neighbours and against the workers from whose robbery the privileged position of the Capitalist Class arises, is to ask them to commit suicide, and will naturally be given the amount of consideration such a proposal would deserve. Is it to be expected that our Capitalist rulers, armed to the teeth to defend their private property, will scrap their armaments and voluntarily sacrifice their hold on the world’s wealth merely in response to an appeal from muddle-headed reformers?

This is the measure of the futility of the well-meaning people who support such ventures.

The Bishop of London, distinguished for his Christianly ferocious thirst for blood in the late war, asked God’s blessing on the Washington Conference, meaning, no doubt, that he hoped the Empire would find favour in the sight of the Lord and get a thumping big share of the spoils in the partition of China. The speakers, ex front-line, front-page, and front-bench warriors, were no doubt doing their duty by the Ruling Class in talking platitudes about peace in the present interlude between the last “last war” and the next “last war,” because at the moment it is desirable to distract Working Class attention from the lining-up for the conflict to decide the mastery of the Pacific.

There were the usual jibes against the workers for their failure to oppose the war, from the lips of one-time recruiting sergeants like MacDonald; and Mr. Edo Fimmen, who, as Secretary of the International Federation of Trade Unions, only a month or two ago was explaining to Sam Gompers that when his Federation talked about “Socialisation," it distinctly did not mean Socialism, and had the impudence to claim the right to speak on behalf of the Socialist workers of Europe.

The slogan under which the meeting was advertised was: “Rally in your thousands to support the war to end war.” This must have brought back to the speakers happy memories of the dope they were handing out to the workers in 1914.
Edgar Hardcastle

When Labour Ruled? (4) (1992)

A Short Story from the February 1992 issue of the Socialist Standard

If Labour Wins . . .

When the Labour Party won the general election of June 1992 Neil Kinnock, who had something of a name as a crooner, might have burst out with the Frank Sinatra song High Hopes. A couple of years later, when he was locked in secret, desperate negotiations over an alliance with the Liberal Democrats, he might have tried Stanley Holloway’s Get Me To The Church On Time. And when the Labour Party, exasperated by Kinnock’s compulsive alliterations and wisecracks in face of yet another disastrous experience of power, got rid of him a fitting accompaniment might have been There Go My Dreams.

In fact Labour only just managed to scrape home in the election—an overall majority of seven seats was hardly a rich harvest from all those years of trimming and twisting, searching for the polices most likely to bring in the votes. Nevertheless there was a spring in Kinnock's step as he set out for Buckingham Palace, to kiss hands, bow and scrape, walk backwards, vow allegiance to the Crown and do anything provided it helped him to take up residence in Number Ten.

The new Prime Minister’s first job was to appear on television, making a speech which had been written some time before. There would, he guaranteed, be no truck with the past. He knew that previous Labour governments had not been without their faults (he had spent a lot of time, as an intensely ambitious politician in opposition, studying them) but he could give his personal assurance that the mistakes of the past would not be repeated. Without actually mentioning Harold Wilson, he declared that his would not be a government dominated by one person; to the accompaniment of grim smiles from his rivals he said that we would henceforward be governed by a team. It would be a caring government, cherishing the like of the National Health Service (which it had cut back during its last spell in power) and working tirelessly for a nuclear-free world (although in the past it had started up the British nuclear armoury and had supported every one of British capitalism’s wars). It would work in harmony with the trade unions to ensure a growth in prosperity so rational and controlled that it would benefit both sides of the negotiating table (he put from his mind Labour’s history of attempting to impose statutory wage restraint and the consequent warring with the unions). He almost repeated one of the sillier assertions of his deputy. Roy Hattersley. who once babbled that "a socialist incomes policy can protect, rather than diminish, real earnings . . . ” Why should he give Hattersely some free publicity?

Inheritance
Labour made its case plain, in its 1989 Policy Review, when it announced its intention. not to dismantle capitalism and its production of wealth for sale and profit, but to "make the market work" to maintain and strengthen the profitability of British industry. They were concerned not just with using their association with unions to keep wages in check; they had worked hard to cement a partnership with the employers as well to help them compete against foreign competition. This yearning for financial orthodoxy and economic competence was welcomed by the Investors Chronicle, which thought that "Labour's economic policy . . . contains nothing to which the City objects violently on principle”.

It was as well that Labour took these precautions because, far from introducing the revolution, they had merely taken on the running of British capitalism. As a Tory ex-minister put it: "The Labour Government have inherited our problems. They seem also to have inherited our solutions". While this was perfectly true Labour’s long spell in opposition had placed it under an obligation to produce "solutions" which seemed fresh and radically different from the Tories. The traditional way of doing this—which Labour followed—was to give the old “solutions” dazzlingly new names. Wage restraint became The Culture of Co-operation and measures to increase the capitalists' profits were called Positive in Partnership. Apart from that they could only hope for luck to run their way, for something to turn up so that they could claim the credit for a period of boom. If that didn't happen—well there was always the chance of the voters again being gullible enough to blame an economic crisis on to "unfair" foreign competition or sinister currency manipulators in distant capitals or Britain's notoriously greedy and lazy workers.
 
Cartoon by Peter Rigg.
Lectures
But luck did not run their way. During their first six months in office a yawning deficit in the balance of trade opened up. Ministers, still mindful of that alliance with the unions, began to make coded threats about the reluctance of workers in the British car and electronics industries to be exploited as intensely as their counterparts in Germany and Japan. In the money markets, where a lot can be made and lost simultaneously—but not by production-line workers—sterling came under pressure, which was worrying for anyone who was concerned about any threat to "our” currency and even more so for the ministers who were supposed to protect it.

The world economy slid deeper into the recession which did so much to undermine the support for John Major’s government, the effects of which Labour had promised to control. Investment and production declined while unemployment and bankruptcies zoomed upwards. Although it was not the best of times to press for higher wages, the unions were under pressure from their membership to try to catch up the ground lost under the Tories. Strikes, both official and unofficial, became headline news again and the gutter press could each choose a union leader as their current bogey.

Neil Kinnock had promised to be a prime minister of action, so he quickly sent John Smith to the TV studios to lecture the workers on why they should work harder, hold back their pay claims and stop buying imported goods. "We all agree," said Smith (as if “we all" had agreed), “that we cannot spend what we have not earned. There are no quick fixes. The government must be aware of the economic realities. If that means we have to postpone some of our social ambitions, then we have to do so”. This speech was a great disappointment to the people who were encouraged to believe that the Labour Party did have quick fixes which they could apply to control problems like recessions.

Losses
As the Labour government floundered about like a drunken soldier they began to lose crucial by-elections, even in places like South Wales where Tories had once been as rare as an endangered species. Kinnock’s last desperate bid to stem this tide was to try for an alliance with the Liberal Democrats. When this was frustrated by the Lib/Dems’ insistence that Labour was more right-wing than the Tories it was clear that Kinnock’s time was up. But who to replace him? John Smith’s stamina was suspect, especially after his banqueting forays into the City to win the confidence of the bankers and the merchants there. Roy Hattersley’s day was past and in any case he resembled himself on Spitting Image too closely. Tony Blair, having pushed his case as Labour's youthful future, thereby damned himself as a perpetual Peter Pan. Margaret Beckett was ambitious enough but she roused chilling memories of Thatcher. Gordon Brown was a poor TV performer, with his sepulchral denunciations of working class extravagances.

Labour felt they needed cheering up and that, as it turned out, was the crucial factor when the Men In Red Ties called on Kinnock to give him notice to quit Number Ten. In the election for the new leader, one of the candidates was Des Topper, a hardened left-winger from a Midlands mining constituency who was famous for his tireless harrying of ministers, employers and Tories and anyone else who he saw as obstructing his version of the workers’ paradise—which was actually little more than regular, reliable wage-slavery and cheap beer at the colliery club. Topper stood for the leadership as a gesture towards what he saw as Labour's forgotten principles. But to cheer themselves up the Labour Party elected him and when they had recovered from their surprise the PR and media experts closed in about him.

Changed man
True to his promise to give the workers the chance to vote for Labour's allegedly lost alleged principles Topper quickly called a general election (in fact he had little choice since their majority had disappeared in those by-elections). He then appeared on TV. to rally the nation to Labour’s banner. He was a changed man. On the advice of an expensive tailor his sports jacket and loud shirt—once his trade marks in the Commons—were replaced by a sober grey suit and discreetly striped shirt. His hair, which had once been long and aggressively floppy, was trimmed enough to satisfy a City banker. He put on some weight so that he no longer looked so agonisingly principled. His Midlands accent was tamed into a Home Counties drawl. And he learned to tell us that Labour’s anti-working class policies were socialism and to accuse anyone with any doubts about it of making it easy for the Tories to win back power.

His speech to the nation was most moving, even if it had been written by somebody else. "We recognise", he said, staring earnestly into the homes of his audience, "that this great party of ours had made some mistakes in the past. We shall not repeat those mistakes in the future. I give you my personal guarantee that we shall . . ."
Ivan

When Labour Ruled (3) (1992)

From the January 1992 issue of the Socialist Standard

In their wildest dreams—and some of them have been pretty wild—the Labour Party could not have hoped for more auspicious circumstances in which to contest a general election than they had in February 1974. Quite simply, the Heath government handed them victory on a plate, liberally garnished with enough propaganda material to satisfy the hungriest opposition. The Tories had won power in 1970, against most expectations, with what seemed a clearly-defined policy on unions, industrial disputes and state investment in industry. These were quickly modified, or abandoned. or applied with such purpose that the country was sunk into the misery of the Three Day Week—and that over Christmas.

In contrast to the Tories’ apparent yearning to return to the days of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the Labour Party under Harold Wilson could offer the guarantee that their close relationships with the unions would get the factories and the power stations working again, the street lights and the television sets on. and the grateful workers co-operating by moderating their wage claims. What was surprising was that the Labour Party only just scraped back into office, as a minority government. Their eventual defeat five years later was not so surprising because by then they also were branded as a party of confusion and compromise and by the chaos of the so-called Winter of Discontent.

Familiar faces
But there was more to that defeat than the strikes and disruption of that winter. When Labour took over in March 1974 (a few days after the election were spent in Heath trying to survive in a coalition with the Liberals; as their leader then was Jeremy Thorpe it was probably just as well for them that the negotiations failed) they had a lot going for them.They were experienced and capable in the techniques of government; they knew how to run a ministry, deal with the higher-ranking civil servants, fight their battles in the Cabinet, persuade the working class that they were not doing what they actually were doing and so on. Such deceptions are always better received by the voters if they came from a familiar face and in people like Wilson. Callaghan, Healey and Jenkins Labour had some very familiar faces indeed. They had made themselves familiar during their previous spell in power, telling the working class that British capitalism was in crisis and they must tighten their belts to rescue it.

Cartoon by Peter Rigg.
Barbara Castle, who was another familiar face mainly because as Minister of Transport she had brought in the breathalyser, excitedly confided to her diary: "We could turn out to be the most successful Labour government in history”. Harold Wilson promised everyone that the mistakes of the 1964-70 Labour government would not be repeated; for one thing he would confine himself to a relaxed vigilance to ensure that Labour carried out the promises in its election manifesto. On one past "mistake" he was specific. "A wage freeze is totally unacceptable. It would destroy this government", he informed the Cabinet in December that year.

Within three days of the return the government had ended Heath’s state of emergency and Three Day Week, mainly by settling the coal strike. The Pay Board, set up by the Heath government to check on wage claims which were above the official limits, was abolished and in July statutory wage restraint was ended. Other titbits were thrown to a relieved and expectant electorate—a freeze on rents, a promise to increase pensions, control prices and subsidise food. Museum admission charges were abolished—who now remembers that they were ever free?

Social Contract
Labour’s alternative to the Heath governments statutory wage restraint was the Social Contract. This was the central plank of their wages policy which guaranteed an end to strikes and other industrial disruption. "It is”, Wilson assured us in their manifesto for the election in October 1974, "about economic justice between individuals and regions. It is about co-operation and conciliation, not conflict and confrontation". In fact there was nothing new about the Social Contract since it was wage restraint by another name, based on the hope that the unions would moderate their wage claims in return for something called the Social Wage which covered things like state benefits, subsidies and rent control.

In October 1974, hoping that the workers would agree with their own assessment of their brief time in office (according to Wilson "no post-war British Government has achieved more in six months”) Labour called another election. Their hopes were not reflected in the re-election results; although there were 42 more Labour MP’s than Tories their overall majority was only three. To make matters worse the government was confronted with economic problems which made the Social Contract and the other promises in their manifesto look decidedly fragile—at a time when they could no longer blame the Tories for the mess they inherited.

Except that there was a different Chancellor of the Exchequer, it was like 1966 all over again. Early in 1975 Denis Healey was telling the unions, the Cabinet and anyone else who would listen that British capitalism's big problem was "inflation", and to beat it he proposed to cut public expenditure by £1 billion, including £62 million from the National Health Service. This was a bit puzzling to those Labour Party supporters who had believed their own propaganda that economic problems could easily be dealt with by increasing public expenditure. Some of them may also have wondered about Healey’s orthodox insistence that "inflation" was caused by excessive wage claims and his pressing for rises to be limited to ten percent which he knew, with prices rising as they were, would mean an effective cut in living standards of 2.5 percent. Was this, they may have asked themselves, what was meant by the Social Contract?

Soaking the rich
In any case the Social Contract did not survive for very long. In July 1975 the government more or less admitted that the whole idea was a lot of vote-catching nonsense when they announced a policy of virtually statutory wage restraint under which rises would be limited to £6 a week. The responsibility for such exposure of Labour's electoral deceits was. of course, laid on greedy and irresponsible workers, who may have been taken in by Healey's promise to squeeze the rich "until the pips squeak" and were unimpressed in a different way when he revised this, in February 1978, to "there is no way of avoiding (public expenditure cuts) by soaking the rich". Labour’s desperate excuse for their assaults on workers' living standards had always been that the alternative was even worse— mass unemployment. But this argument began to lose its terrors for the workers as, apart from what else was happening, unemployment began to rise—in January 1975 to 700,000 and a year later to well over a million.

Serious doubts about whether the government was losing their nerve were stimulated when, in July 1978, they produced a White Paper, Winning the Hattie Against Inflation, which announced their intention to hold pay rises to five percent and to impose sanctions against companies which settled above this level. In the circles where the pips were not yet squeaking—the CBI and the City—the White Paper's promise of tighter controls on wages got a relieved welcome. In other circles, especially those where the lower paid no longer had any pips worth squeaking, it was regarded as the last straw. At the end of 1978 there was a flood of pay claims way above the White Papers limit. Local authority manual workers put in for 40 percent, road haulage and tanker drivers 25 percent to 30 percent and Ford settled a claim at 17 percent.

The media, where there was general agreement that workers were readier to live nearer the poverty line, illustrated their point with poignant pictures of streets obstructed with uncollected rubbish and stories of bodies lying unburied because of striking gravediggers. Among such workers. whose interests the Labour Party had promised to protect with special tenderness, the bitter realisation came that they had been conned.

By-elections
The Labour government’s excuse for all this was that they were fighting a battle which, provided we all obeyed orders, would result in a final solution to the economic problems of British capitalism and so unprecedented prosperity for us all. The extent to which this was believed can by gauged by the succession of by-election defeats in safe seats such as Walsall North, Stechford, Roy Jenkins’s old constituency (he had shrewdly removed himself to a remunerative and insulated job in Europe), and. greatest blow of all, the mining seat at Ashfield. Labour’s response to this was not to stand by their principles, go down fighting or any of the things mentioned in The Red Flag. Instead they compromised all they claimed to stand for, including that precious manifesto, by entering into a pact with the Liberals. This enabled them to carry on for a while; they were not embarrassed at the price they had to pay for their wretched survival.

By the end of their time in office the Labour Party had proved as conclusively as possible that capitalism was out of their control. Many of the promises they had made in opposition could not be fulfilled; many others, such as the Social Contract, had been tried only to be abandoned as failures. They had failed to do the one thing—eliminate unemployment, which Healey had described when in opposition in 1972 as “by far the biggest single cause of avoidable human misery and suffering”. When they lost power in 1979 there were 1.5 million people out of work. In 1974 they had promised that they could easily deal with such problems. Confronted with their failure to do so they resorted to hysterical attacks on the working class, such as their encouragement to cross picket lines and report over-forceful pickets to the police.

Labour's time in power had prepared the workers into an acceptance of the Thatcher policies of so-called monetarism, cuts in public expenditure, screwing down state benefit claimants, restricting trade union power, and so on. The Tories exploited this situation to the full. Just as Labour had had victory handed to them on a plate in 1974 so the Conservatives had it five years later. There is a lesson in this, about the impotence of capitalism’s political parties in face of the system’s problems and their cynical response to it. Labour’s hope now is that we shall forget those lamentable years when they were the government and trust them to have a new approach, fresh ideas and a reborn determination not to make the same mistakes again. Well, whoever and whatever may be on their side in this, history is not.
Ivan