The Political Notebook column from the October 1979 issue of the Socialist Standard
As the days get shorter you may care to be reminded of last winter. Remember the crocodile tears shed by the Tories over the sick who were endangered because of the strikes in the NHS, the hypocrisy over schoolchildren who could not continue their studies, the nauseating cant spewed out over the dead who were not being buried because of the grave-diggers' strike, the simulated sympathies they whipped up for the OAPs and claimants who were unable to collect their weekly pittances because of civil service strikes? The humanity shown by the Tories was truly impressive. Now they are in office several people, including some union leaders, have noticed something odd. Those same humane Tories, so concerned over the young, the sick, the old and the dead, are now ruthlessly trying to reduce government expenditure with the result that services for these groups are going to be hit far worse than by any of last winter's strikes.
For example, education spending is being slashed, and long term prospects for the young in education are thus becoming far worse than anything that might result from a few short strikes. With a savage nineteenth century anachronism like Rhodes Boyson in charge (as much use as swine fever to agriculture, as one Labour MP put it), the Tories are laying about higher education like Samson in the Temple. The NHS is being drastically cut too. So workers who are suffering from illnesses (many caused by capitalism anyway) will have even less chance of being admitted to hospital, and will get even poorer services when they get there. Where are the crocodile tears now? The Tories are looking after the profit system; the tears will look after themselves.
Of course, it was not only the Tories who suddenly pretended to be concerned about working class living standards in last year's show of union strength. Their twin brother, the Labour Party, also have their share of people who can say black when they mean white. The Labour government were as concerned as any to try to get workers back to work. And, as few fireman would have forgotten, their ruthlessness in breaking strikes was quite impressive. Is it too much to hope that union members will see through the party that the trade unions created and realise that the Labour Party, just like the Tories, when faced with the realities of capitalism promise one thing but always do another.
It seems that at least one trade union leader is coming round to the point of view that unions only exist to struggle to improve the working conditions of their members and ought not to be concerned in supporting capitalist political parties. The August and September ITV strike brought forth the following from Alan Sapper, leader of the ACTT:
"We are a capitalist trade union", says Mr. Alan Sapper, leader of the biggest of the ITV technicians' unions. "We are selling the labour of our members for the highest and best price, using any and every related reason to get it. That is what a trade union leader does. He is not a philosopher or a socialist writer. I am a trade union negotiator and I am selling a product." (The Guardian, 23 August 1979.)
We have been saying something similar for seventy-five years. But the realisation that workers sell their mental and physical energies in a market for the highest price possible is only half the story. What follows is that the actions of trade unions are limited by the forces of capitalism itself, with the result that however high a price the unions negotiate for the sale of their members' abilities, every wage deal is a 'sell-out'. This is because no capitalist will employ workers unless he is going to get a profit out of the deal. That means he is going to get something for nothing. If he cannot get that, production is stopped.
Up in smoke
Sections of the left have claimed to be able to bring exploitation to an end by the use of the co-operative. There are several variants on this particular version of slavery run in the interests of the slaves. The basic idea is for workers to combine with management to run a factory in the interests of the employees. It is of course a pipe-dream, and as the realities of capitalism break in on the cooperatives, their ideals go up in smoke. In the 1970s this particular dream has been pushed hard by the pipe of Tony Benn. In a smoky fog of euphoric confusion, this Labour Party answer to Noddy in Toyland helped create the Meriden motor cycle co-operative. The workers were going to run the factory, and the problems of production for a ruthlessly competitive market were to vanish. They did not. The co-operative has had to lay off workers and is under intense pressure to repay the interest due on the original loan made by the then Labour government to enable it to start.
The final irony is not that the capitalist system has defeated another Utopian scheme. The co-operative is almost certain to be shut down because it cannot pay its debts to the local Coventry Council. Coventry gave the co-operative ten days in which to pay the outstanding rates of £72,000 (The Guardian, 22 August 1979). If the co-operative does not pay (it almost certainly can't), the Council will bring court proceedings which may be the end of Meriden. The Coventry Council is Labour.
Another Labour Party pipe-dream was the post-war 'new towns' and local authority high-rise developments. The idea this time was to try to improve the workers' housing conditions. Millions of pounds were spent on these prestigious new developments. And now some of the most expensive attempts to take workers out of the slums have resulted in merely producing different types of slums. Six of the new towns — Corby, Harlow, Stevenage, Bracknell. Sedgefield and Peterlee — are facing particular difficulties. They are trying to get the Department of the Environment to pay the bills of millions of pounds that will now have to be spent to make their new slums inhabitable.
Generally the houses have a multitude of faults. So far everything from leaking roofs to rotting timbers and cracking walls have been detected. It seems that in the great rush to build the houses to establish the new towns, a certain amount of caution was thrown to the wind. (The Guardian, 20 August 1979.)
Peterlee, a new town of some 26,000 inhabitants in a mining community in County Durham, has problems that no doubt sound familiar to many of our readers. "The flat-roof houses in Peterlee have caused enormous problems. Many of them leak badly, walls are cracking, wall tiles are corroding, gable ends are deteriorating, and windows and doors are rotting." If anything, the high-rise flat movement has been even more of a disaster. For example, the pride of the Liverpool Corporation development in Everton has been abandoned completely after the developments became uninhabitable. The locals called the developments 'The Piggeries'.
Housing for the working class has always been cheap and nasty. In the rush for low cost production, it is not so much caution that is thrown to the wind but the interests of workers that are thrown to the dogs or, in this case, frequently the rats that often invade these new developments. However, design faults and poor building are not the result of technical inability. These faults are the inevitable outcome of production for the bottom end of the market. In capitalism, the new workers' homes of one year are the slums of next year. Sometimes the interval between prestige development and embarrassing unhabitability is remarkably short.
Another fabrication that does not always last the pace is the protesting folk singer. Remember the swinging sixties and Bob Dylan? He was going to bring the revolution by strumming a guitar and stringing together a few rhyming couplets. Well, this hero of the protest movement, who still has a large following of ageing mums and dads and over-30 teenagers, has become a 'born again Christian'. He has joined that select group, including revolutionary hero President Jimmy (I'm alright God) Carter, who call themselves the brothers and sisters of Christ. (The Guardian, 31 August 1979.) Instead of lyrics that make the youth of America steam up to protest about Vietnam or some other horror of late twentieth century capitalism, the lyrics now include lines like: "God don't make promises that he don't keep". No doubt the new album will sell well at services and Sunday schools. We might be entertained by trendy vicars leading with Dylan's songs instead of hymns from the pulpit. Dylan's financial staff will face such a prospect with equanimity. Meantime, the real revolutionary task goes on, and Dylan is just another has-been who wanted to change the world without doing anything about it.