Tuesday, February 24, 2015

When Labour ruled (1) (1991)

From the November 1991 issue of the Socialist Standard

On 3 September, the Rt Hon Baroness Castle of Blackburn appeared on the Channel Four "Opinions" programme to urge us not to let that marvellous achievement, The Welfare State, be taken away from us. She reminisced for half-an-hour upon the setting up of the National Health Service and how the post-war Labour governments engaged experts to explain to them what poverty was, so that they could devise schemes like Family Allowances in an attempt to combat it.

While fondly remembering her own part as plain Barbara Castle in all the this, she seemed to forget her part in Labour's other record on poverty: its consistent and often vicious efforts to hold down wages—at the same time as inflating the currency to make them worth less.

The Welfare State was only ever a collection of schemes for regulating poverty. Full-scale war had brought out clearly again, as in 1914, what a sorry state the British working class was in. Armed forces medical staff found that a large proportion of the conscripts were undernourished and unhealthy—not the stuff of which efficient, ruthless fighting machines are made. The Liberal, Sir William (later Lord) Beveridge was commissioned by the wartime coalition government to produce a report suggesting practical means by which British capitalism could ensure that it had a healthy and efficient workforce for the economic war that would follow the bombing war.

The war was a crisis for British capitalism. No-one knew how it would end. Like the economist Keynes, some years before, many of the British capitalist class feared that a social system which could produce a slump like that of the 1930s and then a war like that of the 1940s might well be overthrown, particularly as Russia (which they thought of as socialist) was one of the main allies against Germany, Italy and Japan. Many politicians, particularly Labour and Liberal, felt that the state must intervene to ameliorate the worst effects of unemployment, dire poverty and the poor health that resulted from them. Keynes had assured them that it was possible for governments to prevent slumps and unemployment through applying appropriate fiscal controls.

Discussion about post-war society and what it should be like began quite early on in the war. Propaganda films and radio broadcasts for civilians as well as the armed forces placed considerable emphasis upon "what we were fighting for" as well as what the war was supposed to be against.

The wartime conditions in which this discussion took place was those of extensive state control. Political parties had been been largely submerged in the coalition government and almost every aspect of civilian life was controlled, as it was for soldiers, sailors and airmen. By the time the war ended, state control of the economy and of a great part of people's lives had come to seem normal and inevitable to the British working class.

Labour takes charge
The Second World War gave the Labour Party its greatest opportunity. But it also exposed its fundamental impotence as a party to represent the British working class. The editorial in the March 1943 Socialist Standard put it like this:
The latest tragi-comedy is the complete outmanoeuvring of the Labour Party on the Beveridge Report. They have demanded for years (as a stepping stone to something or other) a much improved system of unemployment and sickness benefits and old-age pensions. One familiar demand put forward at Labour Party (e.g., in 1923) was that unemployment pay should be at trade union rates. Along comes the capitalist politician Beveridge with a much less favourable scheme, and the Labour Party, fearful lest this second-best scheme should be endangered, gives it their qualified approval. Now the Government announces that it too approves of the scheme, but with modifications and postponements. The Labour Party, now fearful of "diehard" opposition, finds itself hesitant about endangering the modified scheme, which is, in itself, two steps backward from its own. But how can it deny its own doctrine that "anything is better than nothing"?
The Family Allowances  Act, as a first stage in a comprehensive social security scheme, was introduced by the coalition government in 1945. The Labour government, elected with an overwhelming majority in July of that year, seized upon the whole Beveridge scheme as its own and introduced the National Insurance Act in 1946.  

A great deal of rationing and many wartime controls were continued under the post-war Labour government. Like a good, capitalist government, they were concerned in case workers should force up wages under conditions of expanding production and full employment, so reducing profits, and they imposed a wage freeze.

The level of optimism in the country was high and the Labour Party was able to plead for tolerance from the workers towards the austerity regime the government was maintaining, on the grounds that it would only be a temporary state of affairs until expanding industrial output brought full prosperity. The absolutely vital thing, they insisted, was for workers to work harder and produce more for export. However, in spite of assurances by the Deputy Prime Minister, Herbert Morrison, to a meeting of cotton workers in Manchester in April 1948, the British textile industry was already meeting intense competition and protectionism from the USA and Japan. The confident assurances of full employment  upon which the whole plan rested were already beginning to look unrealistic in the competitive post-war world.

In 1949, the Labour government suffered its first financial crisis and the pound fell sharply in value. The government devalued it by 30 percent, after denying that it would do so. In October, the government passed the National Health Service (Amendment) Act, taking the power to impose a charge on prescriptions, although they did not impose one. In 1951, a further Act did impose charges for false teeth and glasses. After two elections in that year a sufficient number of the British working class voted Conservative to throw Labour out.

It was not simply the long succession of increases in health charges that followed which eroded British workers' faith in the Welfare State: the state itself had repeatedly even under Labour revealed its true colours as the agent of the employing class. It used laws and the courts to hold down wages, and it used troops to break strikes. Above all, however, the lie that governments could control the economy was exposed so often that hardly anyone could go on believing it.

For socialists, the trouble has been that this hotch-potch of poor relief and incomes control, together with the nationalisation of major industries, was called "socialism" by the Labour Party themselves as well by other politicians such as Margaret Thatcher. The result has been that, as well as becoming rightly sceptical about politicians' promises, many of our fellow workers gave become completely cynical about all political action. We have a lot of work to do.
Ron Cook

Next month we look at the anti-working-class record of the Wilson government which managed the affairs of British capitalism between 1964 and 1970.

All In Pictures (1977)

Book Review from the April 1977 issue of the Socialist Standard

Marx For Beginners by Rius. Writers & Readers Publishing Co-operative (London), £1.

It had to come! Marx in comic-strip form! Friend Rius's amusing booklet has already achieved a high circulation in many countries. As a way of popularising Marx's teachings it has much to commend it, and is not to be despised.

Despite a certain number of flaws (one-third of the world is not Communist) in keeping with common misconceptions, some of it is quite impressive. The potted review of the History of Philosophic Thought is heroic; and, despite the author's protestations to the contrary, shows considerably more than a nodding acquaintance with the subject.

The idea of sprinkling his cartoons and text with the actual writings of Marx (and Engels) is inspired, and the exposition of surplus-value novel. Marx's himself expressed the view that unlettered working men frequently understood his stuff much better than erudite Prussian professors; so that our author's modest claim not to have yet unravelled all of Marx need not detain us.

The flaws? First, there is not Communism in Russia. The conclusion of the book, which attributes a synthesis of Marx's ideas to Lenin, is throughly misleading. Second, Marx did not say anywhere that "Capitalism was on the road to final collapse". In fact Rius himself refutes this in another place by exploding the notion that Socialism comes about automatically. The so-called "immediate measures" in The Communist Manifesto were not Socialist measures—and, lastly, Marx was not "a tough guy who knew how to command". In his personal life he relied entirely in reasoned discussion, as every Socialist is bound to do.

Apart from these things—very readable; most amusing; to be read with the critical appraisal characteristic of the modern Socialist.

Turning the screw (1984)

From the February 1984 issue of the Socialist Standard

Three years ago the company I worked for announced it was closing. It was part of an ailing industrial giant which was itself finally sunk soon after when the banks withdrew their support. During the three month run-down period rumours that a "consortium" of managerial staff was trying to buy the place kept our hopes alive. Those of us who had been kept on to finish outstanding work knew that if the consortium didn't employ us then we would have little chance of a job anywhere else so we worked like we've never worked before. That deal fell through but an American multi-national moved in and bought the company. We soon learned that not everyone still working there would be employed by the new owners so each of us redoubled his efforts in the hope of being offered one of the available jobs.

A week after the old company finally closed some of us, the lucky ones, started work for the new company. A few days earlier we had been interviewed and the terms of employment had been spelled out to us. The wages would be increased by a few pounds but there would have to be "flexibility" which meant doing work previously done by other workers, and although there was to be no anti-trade union policy there would be no closed shop either. This last part didn't bother me, for workers who have to be forced to join a union are no asset to it and may actually be a source of weakness.

None of us will ever forget the first few months of working for the new owners. If we had been going like the hammers of hell before then it was nothing compared to what we now had to go through. The management, obviously wishing to impress their bosses, hounded us from clocking on till clocking off. No longer did we dare linger over our newspapers for another minute after starting time, take an unofficial cup of tea in the afternoon or wash up five minutes early. Some of us, even though we had a job, were applying for every job we saw advertised in the press, even if it meant working away from home. Nothing, we felt , could be worse than this.

Around this time government ministers were crowing about how the growth of unemployment had produced a different climate in industrial relations. "There is a new sense of realism among workers today" they said, and added that because of this productivity in Britain was rising. If what was happening to us was typical of the rest of the country then no wonder!

Frequent reminders of what job prospects were like outside were provided by former workmates whenever we met them. "It's hopeless" they told us. "I've been everywhere and there's nothing doing". On top of this we were hearing of other places in our line of work having redundancies or even closing and so increasing the supply of labour on an already glutted market. In the circumstances the management could walk all over us and we just had to take it, even when the heating was left off as an "economy measure" during the bitter cold at the end of 1981.

As time passed the pace became less frantic and gradually conditions changed to something approaching sanity, although we still had to work harder than any of us had been used to. At the end of the first year we had a 10 per cent rise without any haggling and the order book, we were told, was full enough. More men were being taken on and extra machinery installed, so the future was looking more secure. We should have known better.

Then last month came the visit from "the Yanks". The place was spruced up for these representatives of the parent company and they duly paraded through the factory wearing safety helmets, protective ear-muffs and big smiles. It was noticeable that the works management who accompanied them weren't smiling. All week we heard stories that the visitors were less than impressed with how things were going and that harsh words were being spoken.

On the following Monday afternoon the shop stewards were sent for. When they returned they called a meeting of all the hourly-paid employees and broke the news that there would be ten redundancies. The men were stunned. How could this be?, they asked. There was plenty of work now and for some time in the future. No matter, the visitors had decreed that the work must be done with less employees. The factory, they had said, was still only breaking even and would have to become profitable by mid-1984 when the situation would be reviewed. The ten men to go (plus one from the office) would be told next day and everyone at the meeting began to look around and calculate how much better or worse his chances were compared to the others.

Inevitably, the usual divisions between the workers emerged. The factory personnel raged because only one office staff was to go. "Bloody ridiculous" they said, "we're producers, not them". National prejudices also had an airing. It was the greed of those "Yankee bastards" that was to blame, as if British employers would have acted any differently in the same situation. My workmates, like most other workers, haven't begun to understand that their jobs are only provided on the basis that they will produce a surplus over and above their wages. Some of them even claimed that they have "a right to a job" which also must mean that employers have a duty to employ them whether they need them or not. Investors put their cash in order to make a profit, not to keep workers in jobs. There is no other way in which capitalism can operate. Next day at two o'clock the foremen broke the news to the chosen ten and told them to collect their money and go. Within twenty minutes they had gone with two weeks plus two days pay. The rest of us were shocked at this treatment but there wasn't a lot we could do about it.

Next day our foreman gave us a little talk. What it boiled down to was that the arm and leg we had given the new owners still wasn't enough and we would have to do even better in future. Apparently, the company have a factory in America which makes the same product as ourselves and the visitors claimed that the American workers are making it faster than we do. The implication was obvious enough but it doesn't stretch the imagination too much to picture those American workers being told that it is we who are the danger to their jobs because we get paid a lot less.

What about my workmates, what are their ideas and how have they been affected by all these experiences? Like most other workers they aren't in the least interested in politics. In fact some of them don't even have a reasonable trade union consciousness and blame nearly all their problems not on the capitalist system, but on other workers. A few weeks before the redundancy I overheard one of them saying "What I'd like to see is a wee bit more money for us and a wee bit less for them". Curious, I asked him who "them" was. "The unemployed" he said. When I asked him why, he replied "because there's not a big enough differential between what I get and what they get". He shared the widely-heard belief that people on the dole receive huge payments, although this didn't prevent him being terrified later on when he thought he was to be one of the ten. Luckily for him he wasn't.

Almost all of my workmates buy tabloid newspapers like the Sun which reflect, rather than mould their generally reactionary ideas. The talk at tea and lunch breaks, besides being about the usual subjects like football and gambling, often resolves around pet hates like the English, "poofs" and blacks. Our shop steward even refers to the latter as "jungle bunnies". They have experienced living under Labour governments and they know what life is like in the "communist" countries, so none of them sees any hope that things could ever be different. They imagine that the present social order has always been and always must be. I do my best, but where else do they ever hear anyone arguing the case for a world of production for use, without wages, prices, pensions, privileges and bosses? Because I am on my own I can be dismissed as a political flat-earther.

And yet, I know that they, like me, felt anger and humiliation at having to scramble for a job. Nor do they enjoy the feat of the sack whenever we hit a "quiet patch" or having to jump if the foreman or one of the "big shots" appears. And they worry, not only about their own futures, but of those of their children. The only thing wrong with the socialist case is that is has too few adherents and because is this socialists are unable to take advantage of the massive working-class discontent which exists.
Vic Vanni