Monday, February 22, 2021

Caught In The Act: At Issue (1992)

The Caught In The Act Column from the February 1992 issue of the Socialist Standard

At Issue

Months before polling day the 1992 general election has got under way. Along with the frantic politician’s speeches, the polls and the press conferences we are being deluged with what Tony Benn would call "ishoos" — diverting and irrelevant matter which the politicians exploit in order to undermine their opponents and suck up votes for themselves.

One such issue is the argument about whether taxes would be higher under a Labour government than under the Tories. In this argument tradition is powerful: the Conservatives have always represented themselves as the party of low taxation, fixing Labour in the voters’ minds as the avaricious collector, and profligate spender of taxes. The Labour Party, skewered on this attack, have had a hard time pointing out that it is hardly justified by the evidence and that they are as prudent and stingy about the finances of British capitalism as any Tory could be.

What both parties ignore is that the whole issue is irrelevant because the majority of people — the working class — do not effectively pay taxes and indeed can't pay them. Our income is determined by what it takes to reproduce ourselves as wage labour, whatever apparent deductions are on our wage-slips at the end of the month or week.

Taxes are a charge on the class who can afford to pay them and in whose interests they are collected — the capitalist, employing class. The state machine in all of its manifestations exists to protect and maintain the position of the capitalist class and they pay for it to do that. Workers who allow themselves to be misled about this and who vote for one capitalist party or the other on the basis of whether they will raise or lower taxes are wasting their votes and denying their own political power.


Another point at which the Tories are making some powerful attacks is the Labour Party policy towards the armed forces. Their ease here is that a Labour government, influenced by the pacifists and nuclear disarmers who infest their party membership, would reduce the British forces to impotence and so leave us undefended. This is always a popular issue — after all we need "our" soldiers, sailors and airmen to prevent the Germans, Russians, French, Japanese or whichever group happens to be the enemy at the time from pouring into this country and raping our grandmothers while they generally defile the British Way Of Life. On the other hand the Tories, their ranks thick with ex-officers, can be trusted to protect All That We Hold Dear.

Reality is rather different. As we have seen under the present government Tory ministers do not shrink from slashing back the forces to what British capitalism can afford. While Labour has done the same thing in similar circumstances, they have always made it clear that in government they are quite unmoved by the woolier opinions of their membership: they have supported every one of British capitalism’s wars and they have maintained, protected and used British forces whenever they saw this as necessary, they could not have put it any clearer than in their 1989 Policy Review: "Labour is determined that in the 1990s and beyond, Britain shall be properly defended ..."

In any case, the people who will vote about this in their millions do not have a Britain to defend; all they have is their degraded status as workers. The issue of which party will keep the larger forces should not intrude into the polling booths.


So is there no important issue? Is nothing at slake in the election? Well, as a start, we can say that whether the Labour or Tory party wins, the class structure of society will not be changed in any significant way. One effect of this will be that the inequalities in society — the existence of riches and poverty will continue to be something politicians promise to do something about.

A recent study by Inland Revenue, dealing with marketable wealth — goods which can be sold quickly as well as savings and investments — stated that in 1989 the richest ten per cent of the population owned 53 per cent — more than the other 90 per cent put together., the poorest 50 per cent owned just six per cent of the wealth. These figures will not surprise anyone who has been concerned to look behind the political sham fight to the real issues. They will come as no surprise to anyone who knows that poverty is basic to capitalism and will not be eradicated by voting for the parties who support capitalism's continuing.

New Image

In the run up to polling day the Tories have had to confront the problems of ridding themselves of the lingering image of what has been called Thatcherism. It is instructive to observe how they have set about this task. The object has been to wipe out the memory of our being subjected to the harsh but bracing winds of the market system and to convince us that we are now cossetted in the warmth and comfort of a new, caring Tory Party. It has been to replace Thatcher’s style as a strident, abrasive dictator with Major's image as the nice guy next door.

This has been done with a ruthless thoroughness of which the Tories, experienced as they are in political in-fighting, are the masters. It has been done with no regard to the fact that Thatcher's style and characteristics were once represented to us, by the very people who are now trying to eradicate them, as vitally necessary to our welfare and even our survival.

To some people — the Tories hope to a lot of voters — this will come as an easeful relief. But should we accept so easily that we can be manipulated in this way? Is a social system supportable when it requires such massive cynicism to defend its political representatives? What justifies all this investment in deceit? The answer is that elections are times when society can be up for grabs. The working class —the majority of the voters — do not have to choose between one bunch of cynical impotents and another, so that capitalism carries on. They can replace this social system with one based on human interests with all that that implies. That is the issue at the election — food for thought and for conscious political action.

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