Tuesday, October 22, 2019

The Sunny Side of the Street (1995)

Coronation Street, 1995
TV Review from the February 1995 issue of the Socialist Standard

Among the visual litter of second-rate soap operas, sitcoms and gameshows one programme has stood out like a beacon for over thirty years now. If the unthinkable ever happened and it was removed from our TV screens, a storm of protest would be guaranteed. It is well written, superbly acted and tremendously likeable. It is, of course, Coronation Street.

Coronation Street is what the pundits like to call a ‘national institution' and watching it it is easy to see how they came to that conclusion. At an emotional level, not only does it hold a special place in the heart of many viewers (unusual itself for a TV programme these days) it reflects a wider set of social values which viewers can easily identify with. It is a cosy, homely type of programme that you can curl up in front of on a winter's night. As has been tirelessly pointed out. the only real problem with it is that it does not reflect a cosy, homely world. Indeed, Coronation Street, its detractors claim, does not reflect reality at all. It portrays a world that does not exist anywhere any more. It is a terraced Victorian street with cobbles, a corner shop and an old-fashioned English pub. the sort of self-contained community that is dying out everywhere. Furthermore, Coronation Street largely neglects the type of problems associated with this decline.

At the time of writing, there is not a single unemployed person on Coronation Street. There is nobody with a drug problem. Nobody, apparently, even on anti-depressants or tranquilisers. Only one person. Emily Bishop, with a past history of mental illness. No one is active in a pressure group or political party of any sort, and there do not appear to be any trade unionists. Most bizarrely, for an inner-city Manchester street, there is not one Asian family and interestingly — as has been spotted by many a comedian with an axe to grind — the corner shop is run by a white couple called Reg and Maureen. Throughout its entire history, in fact, Coronation Street's corner shop has carried the flag for white Middle England. And of course, there is no one in Coronation Street who is — you know — in any way ‘funny’, sexually. Raquel's recent dalliance with Curly Watts is as close as it gets.

This all sounds like a terrible indictment, and in some ways it is. Coronation Street is a hopelessly unrepresentative television programme. Even if we momentarily disregard the sociological breakdowns and the discrepancies they reveal, comparatively few characters in the Street are in any way likely. Most are quite bizarre, though often entertainingly so. Has anyone ever met anybody in real life remotely like Reg Hallsworth? Or Mavis and Derek? Or Raquel? The question is superfluous — of course nobody has. and certainly not in the one little street. They are extreme characterisations of the comic variety, exaggerated almost — though not quite — out of recognition altogether. In truth, they have far more in common with comedian Harry Enfield than with anything or anyone to be found in miserable old Albert Square. Enfield’s “Mr ‘You don’t want to do it like that"’ seems to draw heavily on Percy Sugden.

Paradoxically for the greatest British soap opera, its characters are often more in the tradition of the British sitcom — more Captain Mainwairing or Gordon Brittas than Arthur Fowler, more Hattie Jacques and Joan Sims than Mandy Jordache. They are not, to hazard a guess, meant to be real people at all. It is hard to think of other characters in any other British soap opera who fall into this category.

Not them again.
Extreme characterisations often provide for good comedy, and this is one of the secrets of the Street's success. Compare it to BBC I‘s EastEnders and this becomes apparent very quickly indeed. While EastEnders goes in for a highly distorted version of ‘social realism’, the Street doesn't bother its head — its philosophy is that it is drama and laughs that people want more than murder, mayhem and misery. And that is precisely why it is held in such affection by millions of workers. Without too great a leap of the imagination, it gives them a sense of what life might be like if it wasn’t so bloody boring most of the time. lts appeal may be less obviously based on escapism than racy Dallas or glitzy Dynasty, but escapism it is nevertheless.

Despite their occasional traumas, the characters in Coronation Street are genuinely interesting specimens who are, encouragingly, rather nice with it. They are, as they say up North, decent folk. Has Alma a malicious bone in her body? Have Sally and Kevin, or Rita? It would not appear so. Best of all, they seem to inhabit a real community in every sense of the term. Not a sprawling housing estate plagued by packs of dogs and discarded syringes, nor the amorphous sprawl of suburbia but a place where people genuinely care about one another and then nip in to the local boozer to finish off the day with a pint and a gossip. It is a bit of a fantasy, true, but a lovely one.

It would be easy enough to sneer at all this, but Coronation Street deserves better. It cannot even be dismissed as a mere capitalist utopia, for although there are clearly elements of this, it is a strange utopia where the inhabitants live in poky, claustrophobic little terraced houses without any greenery in sight. Instead Coronation Street is best seen as an antidote to the myriad other TV programmes that portray the working class as vicious morons without an ounce of feeling or compassion in their entire bodies. If the producers of EastEnders got their grimy little hands on it, Nicky Platt would soon be selling crack cocaine on the corner of Rosumund Street and giving heroin to little Sarah-Louise while Betty Turpin would be running a brothel above the Rover's Return. Would that be more realistic? Hardly. It would simply be to swop one excess for another.

Though it has its faults, Coronation Street has more going for it than most soap operas. Crucially, it has never really endorsed the ethics of the market driven economy, and its least likeable characters. Mike Baldwin and Steve MacDonald are both petty capitalists, interestingly enough. And when realism — in a genuine rather than the over dramatised form of otvher soaps — rears its head, it is often for Vera Duckworth or Curly Watts to bemoan their existence as a 'wage slave' after a long day in the supermarket. Most of the characters, though idiosyncratic enough, appear reasonably intelligent — only screaming, bawling Tracy Barlow seems to have caught the EastEnders disease so far, and this too is encouraging.

Coronation Street will surely continue to do what it does best: provide an engaging pastiche of working class life with humour and vigour. It can generally leave the issues campaigning and 'social realism' to Brookside, the petty arguments and grind to EastEnders and the gratuitous violence and bad sets to Prisoner Cell Block H. It has little to learn from any of them while it continues to depict a working class with humour, a certain degree of confidence and more than one brain cell to collectively rub together. For this alone, its deficiencies can be forgiven. That is its greatest achievement over thirty years and more, and in a world dominated by a cynical, bitter and twisted media, it is not to be sniffed at.
Dave Perrin

Mr Belloc and the Servile State. (1929)

From the October 1929 issue of the Socialist Standard

Mr. Hilaire Belloc lectured recently on a favourite topic – the Servile State – at the Co-operative Summer School, held at the L.C.C. Training College. His address (delivered on Tuesday, August 27th) was reported in the Co-operative News on 7th September. After some very sound remarks on the dominance which belongs to the capitalist class through their ownership and control of the means of production and distribution, Mr. Belloc went on to air his views on Socialism. He said: –
  Under Socialism all men were to be in the servile state. There were to be no free men ordering other men about, but the politicians were to do that instead.
When Mr. Belloc uses the word ‘Socialism’, he possibly has in mind the administration of capitalism by Government experts, a theory beloved by the Fabians, who do the thinking for the Labour Party; but that is to give the word a meaning which robs it of sense and usefulness.

The existing subjection of the workers is due – as Mr. Belloc agrees – to the private ownership of the means of life.

How, then, can Socialism, i.e., social ownership, lead to the servile state? And how else than by social ownership can the evils of private or non-social ownership be eradicated? We are told that Mr. Belloc offers to enter into written controversy on the subject. We shall be pleased to offer him space in the Socialist Standard to defend his extraordinary statements about Socialism.

Blogger's Note:
See 'Mr. Belloc and the Servile State' from the November 1929 issue of the Socialist Standard.

"Red" Vienna and "Red" London (1929)

From the October 1929 issue of the Socialist Standard

In recent years we have heard much talk of the wonders of Vienna under its Labour Council. It has been held up as a model of “Socialist” administration, although there is nothing in its record of municipal houses and baths, etc., which has anything whatever to do with Socialism. Vienna, to many members of the I.L.P. and the Labour Party, has been the equivalent of Moscow to the Communists: a sort of Mecca. Now Mr. Herbert Morrison, M.P., Minister of Transport and former Secretary of the London Labour Party, has been to Vienna, and comes back to tell us that capitalism in Vienna is just like our own brand. He says (Daily Herald, 10th September) “it would be misleading to say that Vienna is, in general ahead of English towns.” There is one other little thing we learn from his visit to Vienna. That is that the Viennese Labourites are just as credulous and willing to believe tall stories as their British counterpart. To the I.L.P. Capitalist Vienna is “Red Vienna,” and to the Viennese, London, it appears, is “Red London.” In the Arbeiter-Zeitung (Vienna, 4th September), an article on the electoral successes of the London Labour Parties describes Mr. Morrison as “The man who has made London red.”

We who, unfortunately, live in London and carry on the uphill work of trying to make Socialists did not know that Mr. Morrison had already done this for us. We did not even know that Mr. Morrison and his party were trying to. So also our Socialist friends in Vienna were completely unaware that Vienna is "Socialist Vienna," and although Mr. Morrison now informs them of this fact they still refuse to be persuaded. It requires distance to lend enchantment to the view of capitalism when seen from the angle of the factory bench, the office desk, the working class home, or the Labour Exchange.
Edgar Hardcastle

The S.L.P. and the S.P.G.B. (1929)

From the July 1929 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Weekly People”—the official organ of the Socialist Labour Party of America, in its issue for April 13th— attempts to reply to our recent references to their policy and their continual decline. (See January "Socialist Standard.")

We accused them of making Marx responsible for the statement "that only the Unions can set on foot the true political party of Labour."

They now repeat the old story that their source of information is a reformist periodical run by the German section of the New York Socialist Party. This organ, the "Volkszeitung," which the S.L.P. never tired of denouncing, is again admitted to be the only source of their knowledge of Marx’s alleged statement. When and where Marx made such an utterance they have never discovered.

"The Weekly People" attempt to find support for their position in "Value, Price and Profit,” but, unfortunately, they are unable to quote any extracts which tells us that only the Trade Unions can set on foot the true political party.

On the other hand, Marx’s reference to the limitations of Union activity is striking:—
   "As to the limitation of the working day in England, as in all other countries, it has never been settled, except by legislative interference. Without the working men’s continuous pressure from without, that interference would never have taken place. But, at all events, the result was not to be attained by private settlement between the working men and the capitalists. This very necessity of general political action affords the proof that in its merely economic action, capital is the stronger side.” — (“Value, Price and Profit.”)
We accused the S.L.P. of claiming that "Religion is a private matter.”

They deny it is a public matter, and leave that as their answer. The function of religion as an instrument of capitalism in clouding the worker’s mind is completely ignored by the S.L.P. So also is the fact that Socialism is based on Science.

The S.L.P. does not seem to know that the Socialist view of history is a material one, and has nothing in common with the religious concept of the universe. No wonder the S.L.P. fades. 
Adolph Kohn

On the Eve of the Referendum in Northern Ireland – Workers Have a Choice! (1973)

From the March 1973 issue of the Socialist Standard

Fellow Workers,

This Referendum is a sham. You are being offered a false choice. The constitutional position of Northern Ireland is not an issue of any concern to you.

Whether Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom or becomes part of the Republic of Ireland will make no difference whatsoever to the basic structure of society where a privileged class monopolises the means of production while the rest have to work for wages and where wealth is produced not to satisfy human needs but for sale with a view to profit. It won’t even make much difference to your present standard of living in terms of wage levels, housing, unemployment and the other problems you face.

Yet it is this class structure of society — which exists equally in Britain, Northern Ireland and the Republic — that is the basic cause of the economic and social problems faced by the great majority of society, those who, whatever their religious background, depend for a living on earning a wage or salary. This is why a mere constitutional change will make no difference, not even a radical one achieved by violence.

Look at the Twenty-Six Counties which achieved “Independence” in 1921 after a bloody war against the British Army. What difference has this made to the position of wage and salary earners there? It has merely provided a different political framework within which they can suffer the problems of capitalism, governed by Irish, instead of British, politicians representing capitalist interests. It has meant little more than painting the pillar boxes green. And painting the pillar boxes in Northern Ireland green is about all voting to join the Republic would achieve. Not of course that staying part of the United Kingdom is going to make any difference to these problems either.

The only change that will is a world-wide social revolution that would make all that is in and on the Earth the common heritage of all mankind to be used to provide an abundance of wealth to which all could have free access according to need. This essentially peaceful revolution can only occur when the great majority of wage and salary earners in all countries are in favour of it and organise democratically to carry it out. It involves a rejection of all nationalism and all attempts to solve problems on a national scale. In the context of Northern Ireland it requires you to reject both Republicanism and Unionism, and their various offshoots.

For years you have allowed yourselves to be enmeshed in a political argument, even to the extent of killing and being killed, that was of no concern to you. The Republicans, on the one hand, sought your support for the establishment of an independent All-Ireland State. The Unionists, on the other hand, wanted you to back their demand that the North-East of Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom. Both sides have not hesitated to use violence, legal and illegal. Because, as far as the capitalist interests they represented were concerned, the issues at stake were vital: Should or should not the highly industrialised area round Belfast have been cut off from the rest of industrial Britain behind the tariff walls of an industrially-backward Irish State? Should or should not the Belfast capitalists have been denied free access to the markets of the British Empire just so that the smaller capitalists of the rest of Ireland should be protected from British competition?

These were the purely capitalist issues that lay behind the facade of religious and constitutional conflict. But for the past ten or so years, as first the Anglo-Irish Free Trade Agreement of 1965 and now the Common Market show, this issue no longer divides the capitalists of Ireland. But, unfortunately, their battles of yesterday continue to be fought by some of you today.

Though a sham, this Referendum does at least provide a chance for you to protest against the kind of politics that has dominated this part of the world for nearly a hundred years and which has brought it to the brink of an utterly pointless civil war. If you want to register your rejection of both Irish Republicanism and British Unionism in favour of World Socialism, we suggest you don’t abstain but go to the polling booths and write the words “World Socialism” across your ballot papers.

50 Years Ago: This Age of Discontent (1973)

The 50 Years Ago column from the March 1973 issue of the Socialist Standard

The non-socialists see certain evils in the world, evils which grow more glaring as the years pass, and all they can do is to say in effect, “Let us destroy these abominable evils, and if in doing so, we at the same time, destroy associations of peoples, even if we thereby wipe out mankind itself; better chaos or annihilation, than the degradation and prostitution of life as it is today.”

The Socialist, however, has no desire for social chaos or atavism, or total annihilation; these visions of despair would drift into nothingness if people could only be brought to understand— to understand themselves and the social system under which they live and which makes them the unhappy beings that they are. We are endeavouring to give our non-Socialist fellow workers an exposition of life as it now is as it might soon be, and as, eventually it will be.

What we desire is a sane and healthy system of society, to be created on the dead ashes of the system which is passing, wherein no man shall be called upon to sacrifice his ability and no woman her body in order to obtain the wherewithal to live; wherein the workman, the artist, the scientist (possibly a trinity in one person) may unite with and dovetail into one another in the production of wealth, which would be the property of an appreciative and enlightened humanity; not, as now, the property of a few unworthy and unappreciative parasites.

(From an article “The Age of Discontent” by F. J. Webb in the Socialist Standard, March 1923.)

Aspect: Increasing Misery (1971)

The Aspect column from the January 1971 issue of the Socialist Standard

The theory of The Socialist Party of Great Britain is Marxist in the sense that certain of our key ideas about society, economics and politics are derived from Karl Marx.

Although our case rests entirely on its own merits and not on what Marx may or may not have said, we have always been ready to defend Marx’s views where we believe them to be correct against criticisms based on an ignorance of what he wrote.

Recently for instance, the Guardian claimed that “Marx has been proved wrong on fundamentals; the workers far from being denied a fair share of profits and so becoming poorer, are vastly better off”. Is this true? Was it fundamental to Marx’s economic theory that under capitalism the workers would come to own less and less material possessions?

The short answer is, No. Marx did not believe that the amount of goods and services the workers consumed would necessarily have to decline. What he did say was that the misery of the workers would increase, but he did not equate this misery with destitution. For him, as we shall see, misery referred to the general circumstances under which workers, however well-paid, had to live and work.

Poverty can be used in two senses: absolutely, to refer to a low standard of living in terms of a given small amount of goods and services, or relatively, to refer to a low standard of living compared with that of others. There can be no doubt as to where Marx stood on this issue. In one of his earliest economic writings Wage Labour and Capital (first given as a series of lectures in 1847, and revised and republished by Engels in 1891) Marx wrote:
  A house may be large or small; as long as the surrounding houses are equally small it satisfies all demands for a dwelling. But let a palace arise beside the little house, and it shrinks from a little house to a hut. The little house shows now that its owner has only very slight or no demands to make; and however high it may shoot up in the course of civilization, if the neighbouring palace grows an equal or even greater extent, the occupant of the relatively small house will feel more and more uncomfortable, dissatisfied and cramped within its four walls. 
  A noticeable increase in wages presupposes a rapid growth of productive capital. The rapid growth of productive capital brings about an equally rapid growth of wealth, luxury, social wants, social enjoyments. Thus, although the enjoyments of the worker have risen, the social satisfaction that they give has fallen in comparison with the increased enjoyments of the capitalist, which are inaccessible to the worker, in comparison with the state of development of society in general. Our desires and pleasures spring from society; we measure them, therefore, by society and not by the objects which serve for their satisfaction. Because they are of a social nature, they are of a relative nature.” (Marx-Engels Selected Works, Vol. 1, pp.93-94, Moscow, 1958)
Marx understood subsistence, too, in a relative sense. According to his theory, wages fluctuate about the subsistence level of the worker. Certain critics (and even supporters) have taken this to mean that there was a fixed amount of goods and services above which real wages could never rise. This so-called Iron Law of Wages was repudiated by Marx. He regarded the subsistence level as something which varied not only amongst workers of different skills but also from place to place, in the same place at different times and even, to a small extent, under the influence of the workers’ own trade union activities.

To suggest that Marx expected wages to fall towards, and even below, some absolute poverty line is to misunderstand him completely.

Marx also writes in Wage Labour and Capital that, even though the most favourable situation for the working class under capitalism is the fastest possible growth of capital, “however much it may improve the material existence of the worker, does not remove the antagonism between his interests and … the interests of the capitalists” (p.98). Marx returned to this theme in Chapter XXV of Capital which considers “the ‘influence of the growth of capital on the lot of the labouring class”.

Marx’s comments on the occasions when the wages of some workers have risen as a result of a temporary labour shortage again make it quite clear that high wages do not end the economic exploitation of the working class.
  The more or less favourable circumstances in which the wage-working class supports and multiplies itself, in no way alters the fundamental character of capitalist production.” (p.613).
  A rise in the price of labour, as a consequence of accumulation of capital, only means, in fact, that the length and weight of the golden chain the wage-worker has already forged for himself, allow of a relaxation of the tension of it. (p.618, Moscow, 1961). 
Later in the same chapter just before the passage about the “accumulation of misery”, Marx explicitly states that high wages do not affect the misery of workers either:
   In proportion as capital accumulates, the lot of the labourer, be his payment high or low, must grow worse. (p.645)
Clearly by misery Marx cannot have meant absolute poverty. For, as this passage shows, workers may be better off materially but still worse off in some other sense. This referred to the conditions under which they had to work. Marx mentions the boring drudgery workers had to perform under capitalism in place of the pleasure they could get in a Socialist society from creating useful things. He also mentions the fact that workers are employed by capitalists and deprived by them of the fruits of their labour. As he put it in 1875 in a criticism of the Iron Law of Wages:
  The wage-worker has permission to work for his own subsistence, that is, to live, only insofar as he workers for a certain time gratis for the capitalist (and hence also for the latter’s  co-consumers of surplus value); that the whole capitalist system of production turns on the increase of this gratis labour by extending the working day or by developing the productivity, that is, increasing the intensity of labour power, etc.; that, consequently, the system of wage labour is a system of slavery, and indeed of a slavery which becomes more severe in proportion as the social productive forces of labour develop, whether the worker receives better or worse payment. (“Critique of the Gotha Programme”, Selected Works, Vol. II, p.29)
In the next article we will examine this concept of “relative wages” which Marx did believe would tend to decline under capitalism.

In the meantime readers are referred to two useful articles: 

  • Poverty or Misery? Socialist Standard, January 1957
  • Marx’s “Increasing Misery” Doctrine by Thomas Sowell, American Economic Review, March 1960.

Aspect: Relative Wages (1971)

The Aspect column from the February 1971 issue of the Socialist Standard

Last month we refuted the suggestion that Marx held that under capitalism the amount of goods received by the working class would gradually fall below the poverty line. We showed that by “misery” Marx could not have meant absolute poverty of destitution because he stated on a number of occasions that working class misery would grow, even if wages were high. Finally, we promised to examine in this issue the concept of “relative wages”.

Marx first introduces this concept of  in Wage Labour and Capital, one of his early lectures on economics dating from 1847.

In section IV Marx distinguishes three relations involving wages:

First, the actual sum of money the worker receives from his employer which he calls “nominal wages” and which we would now call “money wages”.

Second, the actual amount of goods and services which at any time this sum of money will buy, or “real wages”.

(In this age of inflation workers are all too familiar with this distinction.)

Marx himself had not invented this idea; it was originally put forward by David Ricardo. Indeed at this time before he had fully worked out his theories Marx could properly be described as a “Ricardian socialist”, as the followers of Ricardo who gave his theories an anti-capitalist aspect were called.

Relative wages (i.e., the workers share in the product of their labour) can fall even though real wages (i.e., the amount of goods they receive) have risen, as a simple example will show.

Because value is measured by the amount of labour expended over time, the total amount of new value produced in a given time will always be the same (provided the skills of the workers remain unchanged). Thus if productivity increases and more wealth is produced in the same period, then the prices of each individual commodity will fall but the total value of all of them together will remain the same. Assume that, as a result of an increase in productivity, prices fall by 5 per cent. If wages remained unchanged, then real wages would rise by nearly 5 per cent. Relative wages, however, would be unchanged. But say money wages were to fall but not by as much as prices. The workers would still be better off in terms of the goods they received but their relative wages would have fallen.

As Marx put it:
  The share of capital relative to the share of labour has risen. The division of social wealth between capital and labour has become still more unequal. With the same capital, the capitalist commands a greater quantity of labour. The power of the capitalist over the working class has grown, the social position of the worker has deteriorated, has been depressed one step further below that of the capitalist. (Wage Labour and Capital, section IV)
Nearly twenty years later in 1865 Marx returned to this theme in another popular lecture on economics. Here he assumes that wages fall by as much as prices, which would mean that the workers would be no better off materially, and comments:
   Although the labourer’s absolute standard of life would have remained the same, his relative wages, and therewith his relative social position, as compared with that of the capitalist, would have been lowered. If the working man should resist that reduction of  relative wages, he would only try to get some share in the increased productive powers of his own labour, and to maintain his former relative position in the social scale. (Value, Price and Profit, Chapter XIII)
We are now in a position to say in what sense Socialists think the working class tends to become worse off as capitalism develops. They tend to become worse off in terms of the value of the amount of goods they receive compared with the value of what they produce. Saying that under capitalism the share of the working class in the wealth they produce will tend to fall is quite a different proposition to saying that the amount of goods and services they receive will fall. Most of those who accuse Marx of having believed that capitalism would reduce the working class to starvation have failed to understand this key distinction, which he took over from Ricardo, between relative wages and real wages. Relative, rather than real, wages is what tends to decline.

Capitalism is not to be justified by comparing the standard of living of most workers today with the lower standard of their grandfathers’ yesterday. The valid comparison is between what people get today and what they would get if modern industry were commonly owned and geared to producing for use not profit.

In any event, the case for Socialism does not rest on capitalism producing a poverty-stricken and down-trodden working class. Indeed, if capitalism were to do this Socialism would be impossible because it could not be  established by what Marx called “one level mass of broken wretches past salvation” (Value, Price and Profit). Socialism, both for its establishment and for its functioning, demands people who have learned the technical and social skills needed to live in a modern technological society. It is by training the working class in this rather than by completely impoverishing them that capitalism undermines itself and produces its own grave-diggers.

The case for Socialism rests on the fact that a society based on the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production can provide a better life for people who are now members of the working class, in terms of quality as well as in terms of satisfying material needs, than can capitalism.

Notice (1971)

From the February 1971 issue of the Socialist Standard

Sadly we have news that Rudolph Frank died in Vienna on Wednesday January 20th. He had been ill for a while. He was 87 years of age and until Xmas had been very active. An obituary will be in the March Socialist Standard. We extend sympathy to his family.

False friends and industrial relations (1971)

From the April 1971 issue of the Socialist Standard

It is astonishing how many organisations seem to have found a new love for freedom in their attitude to the Tories' trade union legislation. If it wasn’t so tragic it would be funny to hear the Communist Party trying to square the circle by supporting totalitarianism under Communist Parties and opposing the British government’s intention to limit the freedom of unions by state legislation.

The biggest prize for hypocrisy, though, must go to Wilson for his attempt not only to jump on the pro-union bandwagon, with his speech at the Albert Hall on 12 January but to take over and drive it along the road of his own political ambitions. When we think of the Labour Party’s In Place of Strife, the sheer hypocrisy, even in a world that has produced masters in the art, leaves us breathless.

The only straightforward interpretation of the facts is that of the Socialist: That in a society where a minority own the means of wealth production and distribution, and the majority have to sell their ability to work there must be economic antagonism. People accept that when they go into a shop to buy something there is an antagonism of interest between them and the shopkeeper; he trying to sell as high as he can, they to buy as cheaply as they can. But it seems that some people have difficulty in fully appreciating that the same economic antagonism exists between the buyers and sellers of labour power.

The balance of power in the deal is generally on the side of the employer, because the worker has very little in reserve like savings, and depends on selling his labour power to get the very essentials for living. Very early on in the history of capitalism, the worker found that by uniting he could even up the situation a bit, and so unions were born. Since those days every gain the worker has obtained has had to be fought for, and workers have died in the bitter struggles. Nothing has been given the worker, and it would be as well if self-appointed champions of freedom like Carr were to remember this.

In the course of all these struggles the workers have learned some bitter lessons. They have been "sold” by their leaders; this is why they still insist on their own shop floor rights. They have suffered from “blacklegs”, and free riders, so they fight for the closed shop.

Now, in order to weaken the position of the worker, force down the present standard of living and increase the profit margins, the government is trying to increase unemployment and prices, and to limit the ability of the worker to defend himself. That the Industrial Relations Bill is an attack on the organised worker is undeniable, and this fact is being ably demonstrated by the legal industrial specialists who are going to have a heyday over it. For some of the small print will produce some very long and lengthy legal arguments. Without a doubt some lawyers are about to make their fortunes at the expense of the working class.

The tragedy is that everybody is beginning to believe some, if not all, of the fallacious arguments on which the Bill is based. The arguments go something like this: In order to "give” the worker a job the employer must sell his goods at a profit, so the worker and the employer have an identity of interest, and as the government depends on a viable economy for social services, it is in everyone’s interest to keep down wages and prices, etc., etc.

We see the fallacy in this as soon as we realise that present society depends on the exploitation of the workers for continuance. But only a few trade unionists see this exploitation process for what it is, and they are not encouraged to do so by their own leaders, who help to perpetuate ignorance of the real solution to working class problems. It seems a confirmation of the old propaganda trick, that if you say a lie often enough, and with enough conviction, it will be accepted as the truth. This is also happening in respect of the claim that increases in wages are the cause of inflation. For the real cause, the increase of the Bank of England note circulation, and the consequent reduction in the value of money, has been the policy of all governments in post war years.

The Labour Party, and the TUC have gone along with supporting capitalism for years, and have no real alternative to offer the union members. In fact the TUC are like tired old men who just want a peaceful life till it is time for them to enter the House of Lords and wait for the undertaker. The Communist Party is still at its old game of trying to cause enough industrial confusion, so that it can come to power riding on the back of the workers. The tragedy is that the government are exploiting the detestation that workers have for the Communist Party, by picturing all the demonstrations against the Bill as part of a Kremlin plot. In fact there are probably some die-hard Tories who actually believe this nonsense.

The TUC have recognised that support for the Bill is a result of political ignorance, and are preparing to spend thousands of pounds trying to show the workers the inherent dangers. That this will be too late and too little is probably going to be proved. That the Unions will, and should, fight state legislation that limits their ability to defend their hard-won economic gains is obvious, and Socialists will be, and are, helping in that fight as individual members of trade unions. But we are also members of the Socialist Party of Great Britain and stand for the overthrow of capitalism, and the introduction of a new form of society, namely, Socialism — so that we are opposed to capitalism with or without the Industrial Relations Bill.
Terry Lord

The Post Office strike (1971)

From the April 1971 issue of the Socialist Standard
   A participant looks at the recent strike from a Socialist viewpoint
"Even strikes,” Engels wrote in 1892, "were now found out to be occasionally very useful, especially when provoked by the masters themselves, at their own time”. (Preface to the Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844). We are not of course suggesting that the Post Office so bungled its labour relations as to deliberately provoke 200,000 of its employees organised in the Union of Post Office Workers (UPW) to strike for seven weeks but, as we shall see, the Post Office did gain something. Postmen, counter clerks, telephone and telegraph operators are not noted for their industrial militancy. Until October 1969 when the Post Office changed from a government department to a public corporation (or nationalised industry) its employees enjoyed civil service status. Their unions had no strike funds and civil service procedures (Whitley Councils) largely governed the scope of their trade union activity. But it was not this change in the status of the Post Office alone which produced a fighting spirit in its workers. Rather was this due to changes that had taken place generally which also necessitated a new set-up at the Post Office. On the one hand, once effective civil service procedures seem to have become too cumbersome for the task of transforming the Post Office to meet the future needs of capitalism. On the other hand, the fringe benefits going to petty civil servants had become largely irrelevant in times of relatively full employment and inflation. A secure job loses its attraction when there is plenty of better-paid work around. A pension is not worth much whilst inflation reduces its purchasing power. The only advantage, and a dubious one at that, is that for some there is plenty of overtime. The new Post Office set-up threatens the old security of employment with nothing to compensate for its loss.

The operative grades in the Post Office officially have only two unions to represent their interests, the UPW and POEU (Post Office Engineering Union). This contrasts with the motor industry where twenty or so unions are operating. Nevertheless, in the case of the UPW, the only thing that unites counter-clerks, postmen, cleaners, telephone and telegraph operators and various other grades is that they are members of the one union. The divisions among "colleagues” are well illustrated by the case of the telephone operators in the overseas exchanges in London. There are men and women, international and continental, English and French speaking operators. These differences may be permutated to produce numerous conflicts and no unity in the face of the one employer. The dayshift is operated by women and the nightshift by men. Some men felt this necessitated a separate organisation to look after their interests. For 40 years the National Guild of Telephonists (NGT) competed with the UPW for the loyalties of male telephone operators in Britain. Attempts were made to merge the two unions following the change of Post Office status. A substantial number of NGT members refused to follow the recommendation of their executive. The Post Office withdrew recognition from the NGT in September, and 10,000 or so bitter opponents of the UPW sought to keep their organisation alive with a new executive and new national officers. That the Post Office Board Member for Industrial Relations, Sir Richard Hayward, was a former UPW man and that the UPW made little effort to conceal the ambition to do away with its rival, gave NGT members some reason to suspect that, as they might put it, a deal had been cooked up between the two to the detriment of the male telephonist. In their view, the UPW exists to serve the interests of postmen alone; the UPW would thus sell out the telephonists who are only a minority in that union in exchange for agreements favourable to the postmen.

The NGT also argue that the Post Office could economise on the telephone service by having it operated by women only. There is some truth in this. Although theoretically there is equal pay for men and women, there are differential pay scales according to age and experience that make it cheaper in practice to employ women. A girl of 16 must wait until she has worked at the Post Office 12 years before earning the full rate as a telephone operator. Male operators, as night workers, must be 21 or over. A man or woman of 21 has seven years to wait before getting the full rate. Anyone starting at the age of 25 or over has three years to wait. The tendency has been for men to become telephonists late in their working lives (though this may be changing) whilst women take it up in their teens. NGT members’ worst fears were confirmed when last September they took strike action in an attempt to regain recognition. Women volunteers worked through the night with no UPW intervention by either male or female representatives to prevent this blatant strike breaking. This incidentally, is one reason why the NGT helped to break the recent UPW strike.

Another union was formed among overseas telegraph operators dissatisfied with the UPW. This was the TWU (Telecommunications Workers Union). Its founders aimed to set up one union to cover both technicians and operators in telecommunications, not only in the Post Office but outside as well. They reasoned that, as automation increased, more and more of the work done by Post Office operators would be handled by operators on the private switchboards of industrial and commercial concerns. At the same time the maintenance technicians would become more vital to the whole system. Hence all these workers should organise into one Union catering for their interests. This grand scheme came to an end during the recent strike.

On October 30, the UPW put in its pay-claim. Their journal The Post described it:
  The claim is in three parts. First, a 15 per cent increase. Secondly, a minimum increase of £3 for all our members who are at their maximum and, thirdly, substantial reductions in the incremental scale. (November 7)
and went on:
Our claim is just and fair and ought to be satisfied in negotiation during these next two months.
Two months went by and The Post of January 16 had these headlines: 7 per cent or 8 per cent — nowhere near enough. So much for fair and just claims.

On Wednesday January 20 the strike started. It ended on Monday March 8 with no advance on the 8 per cent, but a public enquiry into the working and finances of the Post Office.

This was a clear victory for the employer. If the whole business had been executed according to carefully laid down plans by the Post Office, it could not have gone better for them. The timing was right; the Christmas rush was over. The strike proved pretty lucrative to the Post Office in that the right people scabbed. For although the postmen were almost all on strike, this was not so with the telephonists. About half of the male and female operators continued working. The Times under the heading Postal Strike leads to large gains for Telephone and Telex wrote:
  The number of daytime calls being handled by the telephone services since the start of the postal strike has risen by up to 30 per cent, with a 50 per cent increase in the volume of traffic during the cheap rate period . . . International subscriber dialing to Europe was up by 20 per cent since the start of the strike and traffic to the United States had increased by 40 per cent . . . Telex, both nationally and internationally has been under very heavy pressure and with traffic increase running at 20 per cent . . . (10 February)
Later on, the benefit to the Post Office was to be confirmed by the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications. Loss on post was £500,000 rising to £700,000 per week. As for telephones, the following exchange took place in the House of Commons on February 15:
  Mr. Barnes — What is the additional level of dialed telephone calls as a result of the strike? What extra revenue was produced?
  Mr. Chataway (The Minister) — The Post Office has made clear that there has been a substantial increase and there will have been a consequent increase of revenue . . . But with that there will have been increased costs, but there is no doubt on balance the Post Office has benefited.
No doubt cost-conscious executives must have got more ideas on streamlining the telephone service from the strike than they ever got from the enquiry made by outside efficiency experts. The telecomunications side has a bright, that is profitable, future. Not so the postal side. A postal strike is just the thing to show off the superiority of telephones and telex. It must be a Post Office accountant’s dream to see postal losses being turned into telecommunication profits. Lastly, it turned out well for the Post Office that the UPW ran into financial difficulties and ended the strike early enough to save the Giro system from an aggravation of its serious difficulties.

The strike altered nothing insofar as the employer/ employee relationship goes. The employer always has the upper hand, even if the workers gain their full demands. It is not enough to be loyal to a union; both the UPW and the NGT lost and the employer won. It is not enough to have grand schemes for organising workers as the TWU had; some of them struck and others scabbed and their schemes evaporated when put to the test. POEU members continued to work and the sub post offices stayed open. Whilst it is true that the employer divides and rules; the workers seem all too ready to be divided. What is now lacking is the knowledge amongst all trade unionists that as workers they have a common interest that overrides all their petty differences. The factor that now hinders the workers’ industrial struggles is also the major obstacle to their engaging in useful political activity. The day cannot come too soon when all workers see beyond the limitations of trade unionism and move on to engage in the political struggle for Socialism.