Editorial from the October 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard
At the Labour Party Conference in September, Jeremy Corbyn successfully saw off his challenger, Owen Smith, and will be leading the Party into the next General Election with promises to build half a million council homes, nationalise the railways and invest in the Green economy. Will a Corbyn-led government be able to live up to its promises?
The history of previous Labour governments does not augur well. Like Jeremy Corbyn, they made bold pledges, but faced with the reality of the capitalist system, they had to backpedal or go into reverse and implement anti-working class policies that would have made the Tories proud.
Ramsay MacDonald, Prime Minister of the 1929-31 Labour government, cut unemployment benefit and public sector pay in response to the Great Depression. Clement Attlee's 1945-51 government did establish the NHS and introduced some reforms that were beneficial to workers, but it also sent in troops to break the dockers' strike of 1949 and developed the UK's first nuclear weapons. Its nationalisation of the coal and steel industries was not the victory for the working class as some imagine, as these industries, like their counterparts in the private sector, have to operate at a profit, and this, at times, involved pay disputes, redundancies and strike action.
In response to a balance of payments crisis, Harold Wilson's government of 1964-1970 introduced an incomes policy to limit workers wages, and re-introduced prescription charges in the NHS. It opposed the seamen's strike of 1966 and, although stopping short of sending troops, it supported the American war effort in Vietnam. It also gave its backing to the Nigerian government, in its civil war against the Biafran people, which resulted in mass starvation.
The Labour government of 1974-1979, in response to the recession of 1974-75, initiated a programme of public expenditure cuts and, in order to combat inflation, introduced an income policy restricting workers’ pay, which resulted in the winter of discontent in 1979. It also employed troops to break the firefighters' strike in 1978.
Then came along New Labour in 1997, which also promised a bright future after the Tory years. It introduced the Private Finance Initiative bill, which introduced private capital into the public services, and participated in the invasion of Iraq.
The Labour Party was formed in 1906 not with the aim of abolishing capitalism but with that of reforming it in favour of working class people. But capitalism can only work in one way -- to accumulate wealth in the interests of those who own and control the means of production at the expense of those who have to work to create this wealth. Labour governments can implement some reforms, but cannot change fundamentally the way capitalism works.
When workers are presented with our case for abolishing capitalism and establishing a world society of common ownership without wages, money or nation states, they usually dismiss this as utopian and argue that it is more realistic to elect a reforming Labour government. However, we say that it is the policy of the Labour Party to reform capitalism that is utopian, and that our vision of socialism is the only realistic option.