Thursday, September 21, 2023

Figuratively speaking (1952)

From the September 1952 issue of the Socialist Standard

A report of wage cuts by the John Lewis multiple stores is given by the " Liverpool Post ” of 30th June in a quotation from the house magazine of that 60 store concern, and Mr. John Spedan Lewis is quoted as follows
"Our sales this year are at the rate of 20 per cent. below last year. Obviously you cannot go on like that without making some adjustment . . .

“The shareholders in our group get only moderate fixed dividends. The average rate is under 4½ per cent. Everything beyond that goes to our workers.

“ Over the last 23 years since I introduced the scheme they have had more than £2,750,000 additional to what they would otherwise have got. In other words, they have had the amount which would have been my income less taxation and I have worked gratis for them ever since it started."
(Our Italics.)
On perusing this literary bombshell, the 10,000 wage slaves of Messrs. Lewis’ may consider themselves rather fortunate in having a boss like Mr. Lewis and accept the reduced price of their labour power pacifically, whilst no doubt, vaguely wondering why they have not noticed Mr. Lewis working so hard for them ! If, however, they carefully consider the figures quoted, as we shall show below, they may then realize the deception served on them as a “ softening up ” process for wage cuts.

The shareholders “only” got a “ moderate ” 4½ per cent. from this 60 store, £14,000,000 organisation, but the 10,000 greedy workers have grabbed £2,750,000 over and above their wages during the last 23 years. This represents, roughly, about 5s. each per week. At the present cost of living, of course it would pay for the cat’s milk.

As a single salary, the amount would be, again roughly speaking, about £5,000 per annum, a “useful addition’’ to Mr. Lewis’ present income. Obviously he must have a “present income” otherwise he could not have existed working so hard for his workers. Here we see why these figures mean so much to Mr. Lewis and so little to his wage slaves.

In passing we wonder what the high pressure salesmen have been doing, to “allow” that 20 per cent. drop in sales ? Shades of Henry Ford, Bedaux and the rest, this won’t do, Mr. Lewis, bad for “morale” and all that. But we shed no tears over the drop in sales, that is Mr. Lewis’ concern and whilst he advocates wage cuts to offset the reduction in sales, we advocate Socialism to cut the wages system out of existence, thereby dropping sales (not an alarming 20 per cent. Mr. Lewis), but altogether. No selling, no buying of labour power or any other commodity. Just plain simple production for use.

Get the idea, Buddies ? What about it
G. R. Russell.

"Tuppence all the way" (1952)

From the September 1952 issue of the Socialist Standard

Or three sections for a penny! Those workers who were familiar with London Passenger Transport at the time of the so-called General Strike, and subsequently experienced unemployment, will have clear recollections of the trams which in those days were still under control of the London County Council and competed with the “private enterprise” passenger transport provided by the then London General Omnibus Company (L.G.O.C.) and the "pirate buses."

It was of great advantage for an unemployed worker who signed on at the City Labour Exchange or at his Union offices, to be able to board one of “our” trams at Camberwell Gate Walworth Road, and travel to the Embankment (Blackfriars) for a penny! This midday travel concession could also be taken advantage of on buses where they ran on parallel routes with the Trams.

Those living further out, in Lewisham or Clapham, were able to take advantage of the concession that, providing you reached your suburban destination before 4.30 p.m., it was “tuppence all the way ! ”

Most of us are now familiar with the development of the Control of London Passenger Transport: and, now that it is under state control, midnight of Saturday, July 5th, saw the finish of the last London trams, operating from the New Cross tram depot.

The increase in the cheap midday fares and their ultimate withdrawal was the inevitable outcome of the elimination of competition resulting from the setting-up of the London Passenger Transport Board (L.P.T.B.) and its culmination in the present-day London Transport Executive (L.T.E.) which is merely a department of that State octopus, the Transport Commission.

The workers today then, who require transport to and from their place of employment, are given the “privilege” of travelling threepence all the way, provided they reach their destination before 8 a.m. On the return journey home from work it is full fare ! Gone are the tuppenny and fourpenny workman’s return tickets—such are the fruits of “ progress.”

While many of us, no doubt, will breathe a sigh of relief that our ear drums will not any longer be offended by the rattling, grinding crescendo of noise that indicated the approach of a tram, we should remember that the unpleasant noise of travel is infinitely preferable to the even more unpleasant noise of war.

For, workers should not be under any delusion that the trams have been taken off the main roads of London for philanthropic reasons. Our masters may be much concerned that their racehorses or prize cattle are conveyed by the most up-to-date methods of transport. But we doubt that they lost any sleep on behalf of the crowded workers who endeavoured to keep on their feet—or their last meal down—as they swayed, swerved and rattled on their way to and from work, packed together like the proverbial sardines!

The antiquated London trams—often referred to by some workers as boxes on square wheels—could have been removed long ago and replaced by more modern and comfortable means of transport. But what this would have cost in millions of pounds far outweighed any alleged consideration for those workers who are not in a position (by reason of the limitations of the contents of the pay packet) to take advantage of other and more congenial forms of transport.

We would remind workers in London and elsewhere that it is also the intention of the transport authorities to cease from extending the trolley-bus services and to replace these also with the modern diesel-engine omnibus.

Workers might well ask themselves what all this points to. The cessation of trolley-bus services means an economy in the upkeep of a costly overhead system necessary to convey precious electrical current. The obsolete tram lines will yield thousands of tons of precious steel so necessary to the armament programme of British capitalism and its “allies.” Steel that Mr. Winston Churchill pleaded for in America recently. Steel that is required to build the weapons of war! For it is in war that capitalism finds the need for a modern and efficient fleet of mobile buses which, when workers are not required to shed their blood in their masters’ interests—will continue to convey them to and from their place of employment, on payment of the due fare, despite damage to roadways through bombing.

We saw the result of bombing in London during the second world war and its effect on passenger transport vehicles. If the overhead system of a trolley-bus service is laid on the ground as a result of “enemy” activity then those vehicles are immobile until repairs are effected; this makes apparent the limited availability of the trolley-bus in time of war and its inferiority compared to the independent diesel-engined modern bus, free to come and go !

Likewise the tram track which has been "hit,” necessitating a trunk bus service over that part of the tramway that is out of action. While it is possible to push trolley-buses off main roads, it is not a practical proposition to push a tram up a side street if the track is damaged or the tram has been put out of action. So, in addition to questions of relative cost the powers that be have also, no doubt, been influenced by the fact that it would be impossible to maintain an outmoded tramway system in an important metropolis like London in the event of World War III with possibility of large-scale devastation, resulting in streets made impassable by debris and craters and stranded trams adding to the chaos.

In war an important consideration would be facility for moving troops rapidly through London should the necessity arise. To this end a large fleet of modern double-decker buses could be a useful contribution. And it won’t be "tuppence all the way ! ”

Employers' attitude hardening (1952)

From the September 1952 issue of the Socialist Standard

As might be expected, with world competition becoming more acute in export markets and with Government encouragement to resist demands for higher wages the attitude of employers is hardening.

Thus the Wholesale Clothing Manufacturers’ Association has rejected a claim for another 6d. an hour for 200,000 workers on the plea of “the unsettled state of the trade ” (Daily Telegraph 12/8/1952).

Workers on strike at the Fairey Aviation Company’s works, at Stockport, have been out for eight weeks in their strike over the refusal of four inspectors to join a union and over the subsequent dismissal of two shop stewards for holding a meeting on the firm’s premises in working hours without permission. The Company have remained adamant although the strike “has held up production on important Air Ministry contracts for nearly two months . . .” (Manchester Guardian 16/8/1952.)

And it was stated by Mr. Tanner, President of the A.E.U., that before the Employers’ Federation rejected the Engineering and Shipbuilders workers’ wage claim they had carried out a census of all their members asking them not only whether they favoured refusal to grant any increase but also whether, in the event of refusal, they were prepared to face a dispute (News Chronicle 14/8/1952).

Doubtless British workers will have taken note of the success of the American steel-workers’ strike and it remains to be seen whether the British engineering firms with armament orders booming are prepared to face the losses involved in a prolonged hold up. 
Edgar Hardcastle

About Socialism (1987)

From the September 1987 issue of the Socialist Standard

1. What is the Socialist Party of Great Britain?

It is a political party, separate from all others, Left, Right or Centre. It stands for the sole aim of establishing a world social system based upon human need instead of private or state profit. The Object and Declaration of Principles printed in this introductory leaflet were adopted by the Socialist Party in 1904 and have been maintained without compromise since then. In other countries there are companion parties sharing the same object and principles, and they too remain independent from all other political parties.

2. What is capitalism?

Capitalism is the social system which now exists in all countries of the world. Under this system, the means of production and distribution (land, factories, offices, transport, media, etc.) are monopolised by a minority, the capitalist class. All wealth is produced by us, the majority working class, who sell our mental and physical energies to the capitalists in return for a price called a wage or salary. The object of wealth production is to create goods and services which can be sold on the market at a profit. Not only do the capitalists live off the profits they obtain from exploiting the working class, but, as a class, they go on accumulating wealth extracted from each generation of workers.

3. Can capitalism be reformed in our interests?

No: as long as capitalism exists, profits will come before needs. Some reforms are welcomed by some workers, but no reform can abolish the fundamental contradiction between profit and need which is built into the present system. No matter whether promises to make capitalism run in the interests of the workers are made sincerely or by opportunist politicians they are bound to fail, for such a promise is like offering to run the slaughter house in the interests of the cattle.

4. Is nationalisation an alternative to capitalism?

No: nationalised industries simply mean that workers are exploited by the state, acting on behalf of the capitalists of one country, rather than by an individual capitalist or company. The workers in nationalised British Leyland are no less the servants of profit than workers in privately-owned Ford. The mines no more belong to "the public" or the miners now than they did before 1947 when they were nationalised. Nationalisation is state capitalism.

5. Are there any “socialist countries”?

No: the so-called socialist countries are systems of state capitalism. In Russia and its empire, in China, Cuba, Albania, Yugoslavia and the other countries which call themselves socialist, social power is monopolised by privileged Party bureaucrats. The features of capitalism, as outlined above, are all present. An examination of international commerce shows that the bogus socialist states are part of the world capitalist market and cannot detach themselves from the requirements of profit.

6. What is the meaning of socialism?

Socialism does not yet exist. When it is established it must be on a worldwide basis, as an alternative to the outdated system of world capitalism. In a socialist society there will be common ownership and democratic control of the earth by its inhabitants. No minority class will be in a position to dictate to the majority that production must be geared to profit. There will be no owners: everything will belong to everyone. Production will be solely for use, not for sale. The only questions society will need to ask about wealth production will be: what do people require, and can the needs be met? These questions will be answered on the basis of the resources available to meet such needs. Then, unlike now, modern technology and communications will be able to be used to their fullest extent. The basic socialist principle will be that people give according to their abilities and take according to their self-defined needs. Work will be on the basis of voluntary co-operation: the coercion of wage and salary work will be abolished. There will be no buying or selling and money will not be necessary, in a society of common ownership and free access. For the first time ever the people of the world will have common possession of the planet earth.

7. How will socialism solve the problems of society?

Capitalism, with its constant drive to serve profit before need, throws up an endless stream of problems. Most workers in Britain feel insecure about their future; almost one in four families with children living below the official government poverty line; many old people live in dangerously cold conditions each winter and thousands die; millions of our fellow men and women are dying of starvation — tens of thousands of them each day. A society based on production for use will end those problems because the priority of socialist society will be the fullest possible satisfaction of needs. At the moment food is destroyed and farmers are subsidised not to produce more: yet many millions are malnourished. At the moment hospital queues are growing longer and people are dying of curable illnesses; yet it is not "economically viable" to provide decent health treatment for all. In a socialist society nothing short of the best will be good enough for any human being.

8. What about human nature?

Human behaviour is not fixed, but determined by the kind of society people are conditioned to live in. The capitalist jungle produces vicious, competitive ways of thinking and acting. But we humans are able to adapt our behaviour and there is no reason why our rational desire for comfort and human welfare should not allow us to co-operate. Even under capitalism people often obtain pleasure from doing a good turn for others; few people enjoy participating in the "civilised" warfare of the daily rat-race. Think how much better it would be if society was based on co-operation.

9. Are socialists democrats?

Yes: the Socialist Party has no leaders. It is a democratic organisation controlled by its members. It understands that Socialism can only be established by a conscious majority of workers — that workers must liberate themselves and will not be liberated by leaders or parties. Socialism will not be brought about by a dedicated minority "smashing the state", as some left-wingers would have it. Nor do the activities of paid, professional politicians have anything to do with Socialism — the experience of seven Labour governments has shown this. Once a majority of the working class understand and want Socialism, they will take the necessary step to organise consciously for the democratic conquest of political power. There will be no Socialism without a socialist majority.

10. What is the next step?

Many workers know that there is something wrong and want to change society. Some join reform groups in the hope that capitalism can be patched up, but such efforts are futile because you cannot run a system of class exploitation in the interests of the exploited majority. People who fear a nuclear war may join CND. but as long as nation states exist, economic rivalry means that the world will never be safe from the threat of war. There are countless dedicated campaigns and good causes which many sincere people are caught up in, but there is only one solution to the problems of capitalism and that is to get rid of it, and establish Socialism. Before we can do that we need socialists; winning workers to that cause requires knowledge, principles and an enthusiasm for change. These qualities can be developed by anyone — and are essential for anyone who is serious about changing society. Capitalism in the 1980s is still a system of waste, deprivation and frightening insecurity. You owe it to yourself to find out about the one movement which stands for the alternative.

If you have read this set of principles and agree with some or all of them, contact the Socialist Party with your questions and ideas about what you can do to help speed the progress towards Socialism.

Running Commentary: Patriots at work (1987)

The Running Commentary column from the September 1987 issue of the Socialist Standard

Patriots at work

In the whole of the world there are probably no more fervent patriots than Peter Wright and Oliver North.

To prove it, they were prepared to go to unusual lengths. North arranged to supply arms to the Contras in defiance of a Congressional decision against it and then made elaborate arrangements to hide the evidence in the memory holes and the shredding machines of Washington. One senator described it as a military junta established to circumvent the checks and balances of the American Constitution.

Wright, in his own words, "bugged and burgled" his way wherever and whenever it suited his purpose. He knew of other officers in M15 who tried to organise a romantic covert operation to undermine the democratically-elected Wilson government — on the grounds that, in the view of these officers. Wilson was a "menace". And he kept quiet about all this until he went into an embittered retirement.

Both of these men justify what they did on the grounds that they were acting in the "national interest"; both deny that they would ever contemplate doing anything likely to harm "their" country. Peter Wright is now rather too old and sick to look like an example of tragic heroism; but Oliver North — well, we all know about the adulation his confessions provoked among his fellow patriots in America.

But one thing patriots are supposed to worship and to protect is the way of life in "their" country — which must include its system of government and its laws. Obeying the law is not a matter of convenience or expediency — something to be done at one time and not at another, something for others to do but not for yourself. If a country's governmental system and its laws are "good” — as Wright and North, as staunch patriots, must think — then to obey them and to conform to them should be a matter of pride and pleasure rather than of anguish and hardship.

So what are we to make of these patriots, who claim the right to choose when and how they accept what "their" country represents? Of course they cannot claim to be consistent or sincere in their beliefs. But that is only the beginning. Patriotism — which, as we have said, is no more than a belief — is not consistent or logical. We are justified in being proud only about our achievements but the place where we are born, our parents, the nationality label which is stuck on us, are accidents and not achievements. So the basis of patriotism — pride in country — is false.

Patriotism claims that the artificial national state boundaries of capitalism divide the human race not just in terms of territory but of ability and temperament: but there is no evidence to sustain this. Across all the boundaries — of race and sex as well as of nation — the class divide of capitalism operates and it is the only one which is of any significance when we consider human interests and progress to a better society.

So if Wright and North are confused — or deceitful, cynical, ruthless, whichever is preferred -— they are really only behaving as patriots must. And that should be enough to convince anyone of the case for international working class unity.

Gorbachev’s gift

We all know how Mikhail Gorbachev is seen as a "liberalising reformist" leading the Russian people to "communism". He urges people to work harder and improve productivity and factories to become more independent in pursuit of greater profit.

Gorbachev, however, is not just good at telling others what to do. He is himself participating in the process of glasnost and perestroika (openess and restructuring). With this aim in mind the state capitalist boss has donated 50,000 roubles (£50,000) to the Soviet Cultural Fund for a statue of Vasili Tyorkin to be built in Smolensk (Central Russia). Vasili Tyorkin is the soldier hero in a poem by Alexander Tvardovsky.

This money, we are told by Soviet Weekly (11 July 1987) came out of the foreign royalties for Gorbachev's books and other writings. As a member of the Russian ruling class, with a few roubles to spare, Gorbachev is quite happy to use his pin money like this for two reasons.

Any new monument which is not another tribute to Lenin will be welcome by most people and will enhance the popularity of the present leader.

A statue which helps to spread absurd patriotic notions that Russia is worth dying for is likely to be welcomed by the whole Russian capitalist class since it is their way of life that the working class might one day be called on to defend in war.
Mike Tavener

Dictatorial democrats

This is a good time to remember that the Gang of Four broke with the Labour Party partly because of their anger and dismay at that party's persistent internal feuding. Break the mould of these outworn, traditional parties, they argued, and instead fashion a new one in which reason and moderation would prevail. Then all disputes would be settled simply because nobody would be adopting preformed, dogmatic stances. Sounded good, thought a lot of people who were also fed up with Labour's apparent will for its own destruction.

Trouble — serious trouble — started when the Alliance, having kidded themselves that they were about to become a serious prospect to have an influence in the government, were so badly mauled in the last election. The response of the mould-breakers to this was anything but innovative. They resorted to the excuse which Labour and Conservative Parties regularly use when they lose an election. There is nothing wrong, they asserted, with our principles or our policies; the problem lies with our failure to present them effectively enough.

In the case of the Alliance, they decided that they had suffered precisely because they were an alliance — that the regular appearance of two Davids on our TV screens cost them crucial support among workers who like consistency, strength and single-mindedness in their leaders. It was thus that the Alliance came up with the idea of a formal merger between the Liberals and the SDP — one party, one leader.

Now moderation and reasonableness should have welcomed such an idea — or at least been prepared to discuss it in an objective. constructive frame of mind. In fact, the campaign leading up to the referendum on the merger was notable for its lack of these very things. Abuse and mud-slinging would be moderate terms to describe what was said by some Alliance members about others.

If that were not enough many members of the SDP. including some of its leaders, made it quite clear that if the vote went against their wishes they would not accept it. David Owen adopted this attitude. Rosie Barnes was another: "If merger takes place." she said. "There will be a Social Democratic Party which remains behind. Four of the MPs will remain Social Democrats and David Owen will be our leader

So this is a good time to ask: What sort of democrat is it (and what sort of democracy do they envisage) who contests an issue leading to a vote but has no intention of being influenced if the majority is against them.

The merger debate in the Alliance has revealed, if it were still needed, the true nature of that organisation — as another party of capitalism with all the cynicism and trickery of those they claim to despise.

Bitter harvest (1987)

From the September 1987 issue of the Socialist Standard

Record cereal harvests in Britain and the whole Common Market were forecast at the Royal Show yesterday, foreshadowing a major budgetary headache for Brussels bureaucrats struggling desperately to keep burgeoning and costly surpluses in check.

The record. 171 million metric tons for the EEC harvest, was forecast by Mr Simon Gourlay, president of the National Farmers’ Union.

With a harvest of this size in prospect, he said, by November there would be tremendous pressure on the Brussels Commission to introduce direct measures to rationalise European cereals production at the earliest possible opportunity.

He did not speculate at Stoneleigh on what form this rationalisation might take, but today he is to have talks in Brussels on the NFU's ideas for a set-aside scheme to take excess cereal-growing land out of grain production.
(from the Daily Telegraph, 9 July 1987)

Exit a formidable opponent (1987)

From the September 1987 issue of the Socialist Standard

Of all the MPs who did not return after the election to the House of Commons none expose more clearly the present purpose of parliament, the motivation of their party and the unpleasant realities of capitalist politics than the recently ennobled Lord Callaghan.

After their defeat the Labour Party are, once more, in the throes of something called "Bringing The Party Up To Date", which actually means purging themselves of any policies or so-called principles which are suspected of losing them votes. A letter from "Lifelong Tribune Supporter", Walter Cairns, of the University of Dundee, in the Guardian of 22 July put it like this:
Kinnock and Gould . . . enjoy my unqualified support in their endeavours to refashion the party's image into that of a modern and efficient movement for socialism.
Among the contradictions and misconceptions which crowd this letter from an eminent academic lawyer, one thing stands out. Even while they are advocating policies like refashioning the party image, based on the cynical presumptions of a capitalist society, Labour supporters are capable of claiming that they are doing so with the object of establishing socialism.

If the Labour Party — somehow, somewhere. sometime — does stand for socialism it must follow that its membership consists of socialists — of people who understand socialism and are agreed about the urgency of setting it up in place of capitalism. It must also follow that these people think, speak and act like socialists; for example they oppose any discrimination based on sex or race, they deny that production for profit is a constructive social motivation, they understand that a class society must give rise to class conflict, they reject the principle of political leadership. Applying these standards to the record of James Callaghan reveals conclusive evidence about the authentic character of the Labour Party — that it is not a socialist party but one which stands, quite clearly, for capitalism.

Callaghans early life was an impoverished struggle from which, not untypically, he drew the wrong conclusions. For one thing, the extremities of his family's poverty had something to do with his father's death in 1921, while he was still young, as a result of what he went through in the Navy during the First World War but this did not deter Callaghan from joining the Navy himself during the Second World War. He had left school to become a junior clerk in the Inland Revenue and had risen through his union, the Association of Officers of Taxes. In 1945 he was returned to the Commons for one of the Cardiff constituencies — some prudently left-wing stances during the 1930s had attracted the attention and patronage of Hugh Dalton and Harold Laski. He passed the war quietly in Naval Intelligence. Perhaps after all he did learn something from his father’s death.

Callaghan's rise was something of a mystery to political observers. He had not gone to university, he was not charismatic like Bevan, or sophisticated like Crossman or earthy like Bevin. He had no gift for sweeping rhetoric or quicksilver repartee. What he did have, instead, was a dogged resolve to climb the greasy pole of political power and. to help in this, a cunning feel for many ingrained working class prejudices. Peter Walker, who in these matters knows what he is talking about, described Callaghan the Prime Minister:
We have a Prime Minister, who is good on television; who looks like Stanley Baldwin; who lives like Stanley Baldwin; and Stanley Baldwin with the vote of the Labour Party and North Sea Oil is a very formidable opponent. (Financial Times, 16 December. 1967.)
When the first Wilson government was elected in 1964, Callaghan’s eminence in the Labour Party was enough to see him installed as Chancellor of the Exchequer. This was an unusually tricky appointment. Labour's promise of prosperity through a massive surge in productivity in an age restless with the new technology had led to the setting up of the Department of Economic Affairs (DEA). a new ministry with a brief to blast away the Treasury’s cobwebs of financial orthodoxy. Callaghan, when he was Shadow Chancellor, had made no secret of the orthodoxy of the policies he intended to follow. Speaking at a Yorkshire miners’ summer school in 1962. he warned that ". . . substantial changes are necessary in the reorganisation of Britain’s economy and in the methods of wage-fixing", by which he meant formal "planning" of wage rises. In the same speech Callaghan denounced the Macmillan government for their handling of industrial relations and for governing the country by gimmicks. (Guardian, 28 August. 1962). Probably, the miners loved it. They could not have known that Callaghan was an admirer of, and a close collaborator with, Reginald Maudling, who as Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer was an important practitioner of government by gimmick:
There was a mutual liking and confidence between Maudling and myself. During his tenure of office he did not hesitate to talk privately and frankly to me about his concerns. I reciprocated during my period at the Treasury . . . (James Callaghan, Time and Chance, 1987.)
The Wilson government was dogged by the "central problem" of the balance of payments. They hoped to control the economy through the DEA's National Plan and through the joint Declaration of Intent by the government. the employers and the unions that the way to improve the world standing of British capitalism was for everyone to volunteer to be moderate and restrained about their income. It did not take long for the realities of capitalism to wreck that fantasy and for the Labour government to make moderation and restraint compulsory. At the Labour conference in 1966 Callaghan revealed that what they actually meant by "voluntary" was "under threat of compulsion”:
Those who wanted to force the government to use compulsion have had their way. Perhaps they are proud of their victory but they have done no service to the ordinary men and women of this country, nor to the trade union movement.
This speech also spelled it out that when the government talked about moderation in incomes they really meant in working class incomes — in wages. The income of the capitalist class (who are not "ordinary men and women") did not come into the reckoning.

According to Richard Crossman, Callaghan's apparent nonchalance concealed a panic at the continuing economic crises which at times left him virtually paralysed. For one thing he was under severe pressure to devalue the pound an issue on which he had not only nailed his colours to the mast but burned his boats into the bargain. In the Commons in July 1967 he again stated his opposition to devaluation as". . . not the way out of Britain’s difficulties". So when, in November that year, the government which had promised to raise real standards decided to cut them by devaluing the pound Callaghan had no way out. In what was described as a resignation he swapped offices with Roy Jenkins, to become Home Secretary. It was not a bad reward for a minister whose impotence in face of capitalism's crises had been so harshly exposed.

Callaghan's time as Home Secretary was notable for his pushing through in seven days the Commonwealth Immigration Act of 1968 — a panicky reaction to the prejudices maliciously excited by the likes of Duncan Sandys and Enoch Powell over the Asian immigration from Kenya and Uganda. His justification for this measure — that unless the public were confident that immigration was effectively controlled there would be continuing riots and tension (Time and Chance) may have secured a few racist votes for the Labour Party but it contradicted their claim to stand for the free, humane co-operative world of socialism and it was in any case a wretchedly specious argument for trying to appease the appetite of a dangerous prejudice.

Labour’s return to power in 1974 allowed Callaghan to become Foreign Secretary and when Wilson resigned in 1976 he moved predictably into Number Ten, a politician unusually experienced in the three great offices of state below that of Prime Minister. In theory, then, he should have been an historic success. In practice it was very different. His government soon decided that the agreement for voluntary pay restraint negotiated with the unions by Wilson and Michael Foot should be extended. They set a limit of five per cent and threatened sanctions against any company which settled pay claims above that figure. Healey, the Chancellor, was wielding a savage axe on public expenditure. aiming for cuts totalling £3,000 million over the next two years. Callaghan informed the 1976 Labour conference that Keynesian policies, which had once given theoretical sustenance to Labour manifesto writers, were now dead:
We used to think that you could spend your way out of a recession and increase employment by cutting taxes and boosting government spending. I tell you in all candour that that option no longer exists . . .
This was greeted as a typical piece of Callaghan common sense; it took no account of the effect which the cuts were to have in, for one, the National Health Service:
Standards of care in the health service have drastically worsened through the lack of money, more work and shortage of nurses, the Royal College of Nurses said yesterday.
(Guardian, 31 October 1987.)
For a while Callaghan seemed to be getting away with those policies but resentment against the government deepened and the Labour Party lost a series of by-elections, most notably in mining and industrial seats like Ashfield and Workington. As their majority dwindled away Callaghan, rather than surrender power, came to an arrangement with the Liberals in which whatever was left of Labour policies were compromised for the sake of Liberal support in parliament.

In the summer of 1978 the unions began to indicate that they had had enough of pay restraint. Many trade unionists were employed in socially vital work for wages below what they could get on Social Security. After a week in the sewage works or the sewers, in ambulances or hospital kitchens they were compelled to scrabble for Family Income Supplement. In the previous winter Callaghan's government had used troops to break the firemen's strike but no detachment of Green Goddesses could have withstood the flood of disruption of the winter of discontent. Callaghan, the Prime Minister who had come up through the trade union movement. was in favour of trying to dragoon the strikers in a State of Emergency but settled for merely urging workers to betray their class interests by crossing picket lines: ''Everyone," he said in the Commons, "has the right to work and everyone has the right to cross a picket line. It is not a sacred object and I hope they will do so". (Guardian 24 January, 1979).

Labour optimism of 1964 was no more than a sour memory when, in March 1979, Callaghan's government were defeated on a motion of confidence and so were forced into an election. The DEA, the National Plan, the technological revolution, the planned growth of productivity and of incomes, were all consigned to the already crowded history of broken promises. In her diaries Barbara Castle described the end of Labour's dream as "stagnant output, high unemployment and falling living standards." This last was, of course, a reference to the condition of the working class for the capitalists were doing rather well. Healey had warned the rich that he would squeeze them until the pips squeaked but as Labour left office the income of the richest one per cent exceeded that of the poorest 20 per cent. In several senses the way had been paved for the age of Thatcher, which the Labour Party now regard as so calamitous. If there were any of what might be called justice in these matters. Callaghan should have shrunk, shame-faced, into obscurity. Instead he subsided into an honoured place on the back benches, with more time to spend on his adored Sussex farm. And when he announced his resignation from parliament he was quickly given a title as reward for all he tried to do, and did, for the interests of the British capitalist class.

His memoirs (Time and Chance) is a curiously passionless book, except when Callaghan launches into extravagant praise for some fellow political trickster. Criticism is, at worst, muted. Perhaps, after all, he does experience some twinges of doubt; perhaps what happened during those dismal years is too much to recall with any strength. He failed to keep a promise to do the impossible, to control an uncontrollable social system which operates on laws based on the interests of a small minority of parasites. In these fruitless endeavours he was indeed a formidable opponent — of the working class where he originated, the class who are the real producers in society. There is a useful lesson in his story. The significance of politicians is not their strength but their impotence and what this tells us about our class power to change society.

What now for trade unions? (1987)

From the September 1987 issue of the Socialist Standard

There are no doubt thousands of trade unionists throughout the country who believe that the third term of office achieved by the Conservatives will spell disaster for the trade union movement.

Since the Conservatives were returned to office in 1979 they have introduced legislation to restrict the ability of trade unionists to take action to defend and improve their living standards. This has occurred when the economic recession has already limited the unions' effectiveness.

The 1980 and 1982 Employment Acts restricted the right to strike, made individual workers and their unions liable for damages arising from disruption caused by striking and picketing, placed further limitations on picketing and made closed shop agreements still more difficult to achieve. The 1984 Trade Union Act made it compulsory to hold secret ballots for union elections, strike decisions and political funds. The new Conservative administration is committed to further repressive union legislation which will follow proposals outlined in a Green Paper produced earlier this year. If, as is likely, these proposals become law protection for the closed shop will be ended and industrial action to enforce one will be unlawful. Unions will be unable to discipline members who refuse to take part in industrial action. Members will be able to prevent unions calling for industrial action unless they have won majority support in a ballot. Union ballots will have to be fully postal, independently supervised and will apply to the election of union presidents and general secretaries. Trustees of union funds will be bound not to allow funds to be used in contravention of court orders. This will be enforced by a new commissioner for union affairs to help members bring court actions against their unions and there will be new powers for the certification officer.

Effects of economic depression
In the 1970s trade unions seemed to be in a fairly healthy condition. They had been largely able to frustrate attempts by the Heath government to weaken the trade union movement through the Industrial Relations Act of 1971. The miners twice gained major victories over that same government over pay claims in 1972 and 1974. The election of a Labour government in 1974 resulted in the Social Contract 1975-8 but with the breakdown of that agreement a new wave of industrial action broke out in 1978, culminating in strike action by low paid public sector workers in the winter of discontent in 1979. That year saw the victory of the first Thatcher administration from which point the influence of the trade union movement has been in decline. In 1979 trade union membership in Britain stood at 13.5 million; by 1984 it had fallen to just over 11 million and it is now estimated to be around 10 million. The 1980s have seen the defeat in prolonged strikes of what were previously seen to be the most powerful groups of workers, most notably the miners and printers.

In looking at the future prospects for the trade union movement it would be wrong to conclude that the problems of trade unionists are simply due to recent Conservative legislation. As the decline in membership indicates, much of their present weak state is due to the economic depression and this can be shown by looking at previous periods of trade depression. For example in the great depression in the latter part of the nineteenth century membership of TUC affiliated unions fell from 1,192,000 in 1874 to 464,000 in 1881. In the depression between the two world wars union membership fell from 8,337,000 in 1920 to 4,387,000 in 1933. As at the present time, in these periods the working class suffered major defeats, the most notable examples being the collapse of the 1926 General Strike and the subsequent defeat of the seven month coal strike in the same year.

Under capitalism labour power is a commodity. bought and sold on the market and as with all commodities it is subject to economic laws such as demand and supply. At times like the present, when the demand for labour power is low the weapon of industrial action to improve wages and conditions is blunted. The year 1980 saw the lowest number of strikes since 1941. Out of the 11,910,000 working days lost in industrial disputes 8.954,000 were in the metal manufacturing sector and these were almost entirely due to the national steel strike, which accounted for 74 per cent of all working days lost during that year. The return of mass unemployment has meant that workers are unlikely to win strikes particularly long ones. It has also affected the willingness of workers to engage in strike action as those still in work feel insecure. Whereas in the 1950s and 1960s between one in 20 and one in 30 workers were out of a job the proportion since 1982 has been around one in eight.

Divide and rule
These conditions also create divisions in the working class. In the normal respect competition in the labour market is divisive and so hinders working class unity. With the effects of an economic depression this division is further heightened. Unemployment and increased competition for scarce jobs divides workers on the basis of gender since, owing to socialised patterns of belief, a woman's role in the labour market is regarded as secondary and employment of female labour is seen as being at the expense of male employment. The division of workers along the lines of race also gets worse as black workers are seen to be taking "British jobs" (even though they are most probably "British” themselves). Workers are also divided on the basis of where they live as some regions are worse hit than others. Such an example is the so-called North-South divide. That such a divide exists in the minds of workers was clearly shown in the June election. The major point is that economic conditions reduce the effectiveness of trade union action and in the end these factors are even more important than anti-union legislation.

Popular misconceptions
There can be little doubt that the Conservative policy of reform of the trade union movement was an important factor in their election victory as even after eight years of repressive legislation unions still remain unpopular with much of the electorate. This unpopularity of trade unions is based on three misconceptions — that unions are too powerful and are capable of bringing down elected governments; that part of British capitalism's economic decline was due to a high level of strike activity; that unions are undemocratic and operate against the interests of their members.

On the first point it is impossible for a government to be brought down by industrial action on its own. even a general strike. In such a situation the repressive and ideological apparatus of the state will remain in control of the government and such action would soon be crushed. In reality strikes are almost entirely due to workers seeking to defend and improve their living standards. For example in the period 1965-74 pay was the dominant reason for strikes; 83.3 per cent of the working days lost due to disputes in that period were due to conflicts over wage related issues. The conflict of the late 1970s after the breakdown of the Social Contract showed a similar pattern. In 1979 3,804,700 out of the 4,120,800 workers involved in strikes were in dispute over issues connected with pay.

Official figures also indicate that Britain is not particularly strike prone. The Department of Employment paper no 15, 1978 Strikes in Britain, showed that on average only two per cent of UK manufacturing plants, employing only 20 per cent of manufacturing workers, experience strikes long enough to be recorded by the department. As far as comparison with other countries is concerned different analysis shows that in the recent past Britain's strike record is far from being the worst in the industrialised world. Depending on the data used Britain is sixth or seventh among countries for which adequate information is available.

The third claim is that unions are undemocratic and that members need protection from them. While trade unions may not be perfect models of democratic organisations the Conservative Party and business leaders have nothing to teach them in terms of democratic procedure as an examination of the structure of industrial and financial organisations would soon reveal. Trade unions are organisations of the working class which as long as capitalism exists are needed if workers are not to be completely degraded, even though their ability to protect workers is subject to limitations in times of economic recession.

If workers are to make full use of these organisations of self defence they cannot afford to rely on the so-called democracy imposed from outside. The idea behind the latest Conservative proposals is to weaken working class organisation. What should also be rejected is the new type of unionism — the no strike deals preached by leaders like Hammond — or any moves to divert unions away from their class role. Members do need to gain more control over their unions but this can only come about through participation. involvement and a developing political class consciousness. Pressure for increased union democracy must come from members themselves. Decision making at all levels including decisions regarding industrial action need to be based on democratic discussion and a freeing of information so that members can make decisions on a knowledge of the facts. The election of union officers at all levels requires that members have knowledge of who they are voting for and what the candidates stand for.

Trade unions and capitalism
Workers should join trade unions, take an active role in them. However this defensive battle is one where workers have to run ever faster in order to remain in the same place. History has shown us that these same battles have to be fought over and over again. Instead of simply organising to get the best out of a system where the majority are economically coerced to spend much of their lives in unfulfilling and soul destroying employment, a system where they are treated not as human beings but as economic units who are simply to be used to create values over and above that of their labour power, workers must set themselves a higher goal — creation of a society where the differing skills of the people can be used to benefit society as a whole rather than only a small minority.

On June 11 last the overwhelming majority of the working class, both trade unionists and non-trade unionists, voted for parties committed to maintaining the present system. As expected this election showed that the working class remained down on their knees asking leaders to do their thinking for them. At present the prospects for the trade unions look bleak. With an economic upturn they could improve but at best we can look forward to a continuation of this vicious circle. Only when the working class develop a political awareness of the need to establish a different society that ends minority control of the means of producing the things we need to live, will we begin to see workers creating a different kind of trade union movement. We shall see unions that are democratically controlled by their members, able to defend workers in their struggles within capitalism.
Ray Carr

Economics Exposed: Do we need the market mechanism? (1987)

The Economics Exposed column from the September 1987 issue of the Socialist Standard

Defenders of capitalism claim that the market mechanism is the only way of distributing goods across a modern global society. Without profit and loss, without buying and selling, they say. how could we organise production? If all goods and services were available free, as they would be in socialism, then how could we make decisions about what to produce and when, how and where to produce it?

At the moment these decisions are taken on the basis of reducing costs to a minimum, in order to maximise profit. The money system allocates values to every conceivable useful or useless item, allowing us to make comparisons between options, always on this basis of reducing cost. Cost, in turn, relates to labour time and hence the attempts of major companies to make "rational" capitalist decisions also show their results in the dole queues.

Socialism will do away with this whole system of relative values and with the price tags which express them. Instead, in a system of production for use. not profit, the focus will be on whether a given production process is geared to serving human needs. Does it result in meeting human requirements? In many cases, people may well prefer a form of production which is less intensive. cheap and "productive" in capitalist terms. In a socialist society, the democratic framework would be developed for such choices freely to be made.

And what about the question of consumption? Champions of the market system tell us that goods have to be supplied in response to how people are "choosing" to spend the paltry pocket money referred to as wages. In socialism, goods will still be supplied in response to people's expressed preferences, and these preferences will still be made ultimately clear by what people choose to take from the shelves of the stores. The difference would be, however, that in a sane society such choices would be made freely rather than under the artificial conditions of scarcity and effective rationing which cloud and distort the picture today.

Modern technology has been used already to develop stock control methods which could usefully be adapted for use in a socialist system of distribution. In a number of large chains, when an item is bought and passes through the cash desk, it is automatically recorded as sold and this information is relayed by computer to the department which deals with ordering further supplies. This can even be organised so that the level of output in a factory is informed by the same information. Once a certain amount of stability has been reached in the levels of "demand", a self-regulating system can develop in which all production levels are constantly monitored and are tied directly to the levels of consumption observed at local stores. This also, of course, encompasses the issue of personal choice, as a range of goods would be in those stores, and the popularity of each would be reflected in the computerised information received.

The existence of a buying and selling system. of money and of profit and loss, hinders and complicates the process outlined here. In contrast, a socialist system of free access would allow needs to be catered for freely in this way. Likewise, the existence of competition between productive units and between distribution outlets makes a mockery of any attempt to efficiently deliver, to humanity as a whole, the best that can be provided by modern production methods. Socialism will involve using co-operation on a world-wide scale to quantify human needs in real terms (not "money terms") and to provide for those needs swiftly.
Clifford Slapper

Fifty Years Ago (1987)

From the September 1987 issue of the Socialist Standard

Fifty years ago, in 1937, I had managed to survive three years of life on the dole and, more importantly, had discovered the Socialist Party of Great Britain, offering the only practical alternative to such a life.

The 1929 Wall Street Crash had signalled that capitalism was in for one of its periodic slumps, but despite that in 1931 I landed a so-called permanent job as an LM&S Railway staff joiner. However as Marx said "the only permanence is change" and in 1934 the LM&S reduced its staff, pitching our gang of joiners, plumbers, painters and labourers on to the scrap heap of the unemployed. I found myself signing on at the Albion Street labour exchange in Salford (where Walter Greenwood. author of Love On The Dole had also signed on). My weekly allowance for myself, wife and two children was thirty four shillings out of which I had to pay ten shillings rent. (£1.70 and 50p respectively). The rent was for a bug infested attic flat in Higher Broughton. Many houses in the Broughton area were infested with bugs. Indeed on one occasion I had obtained the keys of another flat from a Mr Lever who then lived in Northumberland Street, Higher Broughton. I had decided to take the flat and had deposited two suitcases there when I noticed something moving on one of the cupboard shelves and to my horror found colonies of bed bugs all over the flat and behind the wallpaper. I quickly removed my suitcases and returned the keys to Mr Lever, declining his offer to have his property fumigated for me.

In an attempt to escape those bed bugs. I fled from Higher Broughton into a house in Lower Broughton as no bugs were to be seen there. I had only been there one night when larger colonies of bugs than ever attacked us. They had been hiding behind the skirting boards. An old man with the longest beard I ever saw sat next door on his doorstep and politely enquired of me . . . "Vell, how you like your house, eh?" . . . I told him how much I disliked it and he waved a hand airily, remarking complacently "Vell, a few bugs".

The gambling "solution"?
Trying to beat the depression with various money making schemes. I finally got hooked on horse racing, although 1 had never gambled in my life before. In those days, the only legal way to gamble off course was to send one's bets by post to Scottish bookmakers and I chose to deal with McLauchlan's of Glasgow and Edinburgh who accepted bets so long as they were time postmarked prior to time of races concerned. To my delight my very first two commissions won me £40 and I decided to study the game from all angles, even sending over to Dublin for a copy of The Irish Horse (an excellent book on breeding) and burned the midnight oil studying systems by the dozen, many of them my own invention. Some of those were successful for a season, but the next season something would inevitably go haywire.

Incidentally, the racing programmes in the daily press in public libraries in the mid-thirties were erased by black ink so that the unemployed, who could ill afford the price of the Sporting Life were denied something so readily available to those frequenting Ascot's Lawns. Also the Black Maria police vans used to prowl around Britain's back street betting dens before 1962 when betting became, for working class punters, a respectable activity. After a period of successful bets with McLauchlans. they placed a restriction on my bets by writing to tell me. that. . . "In future your bets must be in our office before racing" . . . I was torpedoed because that meant posting my bets the day before actual racing which was really restricting me to ante post betting, which was useless to me. So I joined the back street "tapes on the wall" dens from then on, moving from one area to another to evade the Black Marias.

Non-union exploitation
The official union rate for joiners when I joined the ASW (Amalgamated Society of Woodworkers) in 1929 was 1/7½d an hour (about 8p) but the railway rate, when I joined the NUR was l/4d. But there were other benefits such as a guaranteed week with no loss of time for being rained off or foggy weather plus quarter fare travelling facilities anywhere on the railway. After a year of the dole queues I decided to try a non-union firm of cabinet makers situated in the old Ford Auto works in First Avenue, Trafford Park. I was offered 10d an hour which of course I refused and after haggling with them I agreed to start at one shilling an hour. In that factory, many men were doing the same job for different rates. My mate on the other side of the bench was getting 10d; I was getting a shilling - considered a top rate there. We worked from 8am until 8pm with two half hour breaks for tea snacks and they charged us ½d for hot water to brew up. On my first day there a foreman came over to me and shouted in my ear above the din of the machinery: "Any more talking and you're outside". So we became silent automatons, trying to meet the target rate of twenty minutes to fit five drawers in a cabinet by planing off a quarter inch of American oak from each drawer, an impossible task set by management and none of us did better than a half hour minimum. It was of course planing by hand with one's own tools, not machine planing. I got home at 9pm and sank into a chair too tired to wash until later. After six months of that the firm laid us off for a temporary period which I decided to make permanent, so I said goodbye to Trafford Park and its hateful environment of wage slavery which I've no desire to re-visit.

But we've come a long way since those days haven't we? Today there is Social Security. acid rain, nuclear bombs and three million on the dole. Berlin Walls, Belfast ghettos and apartheid . . .
G R Russell

The morality of slums (1987)

From the September 1987 issue of the Socialist Standard

It has become fashionable of late to look back with a certain nostalgia to an age of "Victorian values". In fact, it was an age of often heartless cruelty and indifference. When it did not patronise the poor with a sickly sentimentality, it abandoned them to the cold calculus of market forces.

Underlying these attitudes there is a recurring theme: the sense of apprehension at the prospect of social disorder. Indeed, change was. to a great extent, induced by the need to evolve more effective strategies to defuse that threat as old solutions proved increasingly ineffective.

Before 1850 the threat of social disorder appeared to centre on the industrial north, not metropolitan London. The Industrial Revolution had given rise to large-scale factory production and the very methods of combination that industrialisation had promoted served in a sense to make the working class more amenable to control. It created disciplined structures through which conflict could be mediated at the same time as it enabled workers to mitigate some of the harsher consequences of industrialisation by means of mutual aid.

But just as the industrialised north seemed to project a more subdued image, so the Metropolis itself began to take on a more threatening prospect. The concern to which this gave rise needs to be set in the context of mid-Victorian optimism about the inexorable march of progress which coloured contemporary perceptions of poverty. It came to be seen as a residual feature of a bygone age. The poor, it was believed, owed their poverty to the subjective defects in their personality, rather than the structural inadequacies of the market economy. The solution to poverty, therefore, was to socialise the poor into an appropriate morality that emphasised thrift and hard work.

It was. therefore, with mounting alarm that the Victorian ruling class viewed what appeared to be a large and growing number of the underprivileged — especially the "casual poor" — slipping beyond its control. How had this situation come about?

Prior to the Industrial Revolution London contained a wide range of handicraft industries producing high value consumer goods. In addition, there was a significant semi-processing and capital goods sector. Relatively crude and costly methods of transportation ensured that proximity to the market was a vital factor and London was favoured precisely because it was such a sizeable market. As well as that it was a major port and seat of government.

The Industrial Revolution significantly altered the economic base of London. Firstly, it greatly reduced its attraction as a centre for semi-processing and capital goods production. Its distance from sources of coal and iron put it at a competitive disadvantage because of the cost of transporting these materials. In addition, London suffered from an acute shortage of space — and thus, high land values — which inhibited the growth of large-scale steam-powered factory production.

Secondly, London's role as an administrative. commercial and trading centre was considerably enhanced by the Industrial Revolution. The construction of an elaborate railway network radiating outward from the city sucked in people and products in ever greater quantities, magnifying London's importance as a market at the same time as it facilitated the relocation of low-value bulk production industries away from the city. The acquisition of colonies abroad emphasised the role of London as a port through which manufactures were exported and raw materials were imported.

Casual labour
It is against this background that the problem of casual labour in London emerged. Casual labour is closely associated with irregularity of production, with seasonality.

One way in which seasonality is manifested is in variation in demand for certain products and demand for consumer goods is inherently more volatile than that for capital goods. This poses a dilemma for the manufacturers. Production can be maintained at a steady pace but this would entail some stockpiling. Alternatively, production can be closely tailored to meet demand by reducing capital costs to a minimum and organising output on the basis of shorter production runs.

By and large, it was this latter option that London manufacturers were forced to accept. Consumer goods industries that were able to remain in London, despite intensive competition for space, were nevertheless prevented by that very competition from introducing large-scale factory-based methods of production, and the result was a particular method of production known as "sweating".

The substitution of skilled labour by sweated labour had the advantage for manufacturers of reducing labour costs. Moreover, the invention of relatively cheap hand-driven technology such as the sewing machine removed the need to employ skilled labour. Production could be concentrated in small workshops employing casual labour, thus reducing rental overheads as well. In the case of some industries, namely the clothing industry, this process was taken a stage further with work being carried out on a contract basis from the homes of the casually employed.

Another way in which seasonality manifested itself was in variation in supply. This was mainly a climatic phenomenon. Harsh winters, for example, could severely disrupt the activities of the port and the delivery of such commodities as grain and Baltic timber. This problem was largely overcome by the construction of steamships from the 1880s onwards. The building trade was also affected. By slowing down or bringing to a complete standstill all building work, bad weather not only aggravated the housing problem but caused extra distress in the form of unemployment.

The general increase in unemployment during the winter months, in conjunction with the inevitable rise in the price of fuel and foodstuffs, sharply intensified the plight of the poor. Moreover, superimposed on these annual variations was the more long-term cyclical pattern of trade itself affecting the wider economy. When a trade slump coincided with a bad winter the consequences could be catastrophic. Such a coincidence usually occasioned serious unrest, the most dramatic example of this being the 1886 Riot.

To sum up. the proportion of the workforce casually employed in Victorian London was substantial and this can be largely attributed to the fact that so much of London's economic base was subject to seasonal factors. Seasonality necessitated a large reserve army of workers which greatly undermined the bargaining position of the casually employed. Though poverty was by no means confined to casual labour, casual labour, without doubt, represented the sharp edge of poverty.

Most mid-Victorian social commentators, however, would not have concurred with such an analysis. Conventional belief affirmed, as has been stated, that poverty was simply the outward manifestation of certain moral failings. Yet such failings were themselves seen as the product of a bad environment. Above all. it was the environment of the slum that insidiously sapped the moral strength of an individual.

Victorian slums
Slum conditions existed in many parts of Victorian London. Some were reputedly the haunts of the "dangerous classes", the criminal elements in society. Law enforcement in most of these areas was minimal. To a large extent they existed as isolated islands beyond the reach of the authorities, seedbeds of vice that affronted the stern display of public morality. It was for these reasons that they were regarded as a social threat, symbolically reinforced by the festering, insanitary conditions that encouraged the spread of disease. That threat invited resolute action in the form of street clearances. Yet no sooner had a slum been pulled down than another seemed to materialise in the vicinity. It was obvious that the problem was not being solved but merely displaced from one area to another.

Casual labour did not encourage geographical mobility. Workers had to be constantly on the look-out for work which, in turn, depended on an intimate knowledge of the vicinity. Also, low and irregular wages ensured that the only mode of transport available to the casual poor was walking. This in itself removed the possibility of commuting from the suburbs. Home work, mainly by married women, put them at the mercy of contractors and compelled them to remain in the locality at the same time as it denied them the opportunity to search for work elsewhere. The system of credit used also restricted geographical mobility. It was common practice for goods to be purchased on credit during the winter and the arrears to be paid off in the more prosperous summer months. However, this arrangement depended on a degree of personal trust which meant being known in the area. Moreover, in such areas there was to be found a strong working-class culture that made for a sense of cohesion in the face of otherwise unendurable surroundings. This met with the strong disapproval of the Victorian authorities: the mores of the working class often clashed with the need for a disciplined workforce.

Working class education
This conflict was particularly apparent in the area of education. There was, before the advent of state schools and co-existing with state-aided church schools, an extensive underground network of tiny cottage schools autonomously run by the working class for the education of children. Even a kitchen might serve as a classroom and instruction was highly informal. Victorian commentators, however, were appalled by this apparent laxity. They were also utterly bemused by the fact that parents preferred by and large to send their children to such schools rather than to the local church school which charged a comparable fee.

Yet this incomprehension stemmed from an ideological perspective that refused to acknowledge the realities the working class had to contend with. Thus one of the reasons working people chose to send their children to a cottage school was the flexibility it offered. It was attuned to the rhythm of life among the casual poor.

At the beginning of the Victorian era. central London was still largely residential in character. Suburbanisation had begun in the previous century but was confined to a wealthy elite, the "carriage folk". The growth of London in the course of the nineteenth century. created and sharply intensified a central contradiction.

On the one hand, that growth both stimulated. and was stimulated by. the outward expansion of certain activities that necessitated the conversion of residential land for other purposes. On the other, the nature of their employment and the lack of access to affordable and reliable transport from the suburbs, exerted a centripetal force on casual workers — and even most skilled workers at the time — compelling them to remain within the central area. The result was a dramatic rise in levels of overcrowding right up to and beyond the 1880s when cheaper forms of mass transport became available, facilitating a spurt of working class suburbanisation.

Several factors were responsible for the demolition of housing and the resultant overcrowding. in the central area. One of these were street clearances. Another was the construction of the railway network. Likewise, the extension of the docks, particularly before 1850, was responsible for the displacement of many thousands of workers. So too was the construction of offices and workshops.

Class divisions
All these factors — street clearances, the development of the docks and the railways and the construction of offices and workshops — indicative of London's changing economic base, profoundly altered the physical structure of the city. The pattern that emerged was an increasingly polarised one. Unlike the Georgian period when rich and poor often lived in the same locality, even the same building, class divisions to an ever greater extent coincided with geographical divisions. By the mid-Victorian period this process was virtually complete. Rich and poor lived in largely separate worlds cut off from one another by a no-man's land of commercial development.

This gave rise to growing disquiet among certain sections of the Victorian elite for a number of reasons. Firstly, it was felt that the quality of administration in the poorer districts was bound to deteriorate on account of the departure of the "professional classes" to the suburbs. This would result in a more lax application of the law particularly relating to the eradication of insanitary conditions.

Secondly, the segregation of the classes completely unsettled the delicate balance between Poor Law relief and charity. Under the Poor Law. each district had its own Poor Law union responsible for the relief of the poor in that district. But the displacement of the poor from the richer vestries lightened the rate burden there as it added to the burden on poorer vestries. Indeed, this provided a further incentive for vestries to embark on a programme of slum clearance. But such a state of affairs was effectively terminated by the Metropolitan Poor Act of 1867 which spread the burden of poor relief across the metropolis as a whole. Meanwhile there was a great increase in the flow of charity to the poorer districts to compensate for the additional rate burden they had to bear.

This in fact provided a third reason for the sense of disquiet. Such charity was distributed in a wholly haphazard fashion. This, according to its critics, made the system extremely vulnerable to abuse. The vast wealth of London exerted an irresistible attraction to vagrants from far and wide. The vagrant was seen as a social parasite, corrupted by a life on charity and able to manipulate. with the practised ease of a professional. the gullible giver of alms. He set a bad example to the "honest poor" and they would find it difficult not to follow that example. Whatever other motives there may have been for charity it is clear that a major consideration was to defuse unrest. The segregation of the rich and poor was perceived by the former as a loss of control over the latter. Indiscriminate charity failed to restore this control because it depersonalised the act of giving.

Philanthropy of 5 per cent
It was precisely in order to systematise charitable relief, to circumvent the alleged machinations of the "clever pauper", that the Society for Organising Charitable Relief and Repressing Mendicity was founded in 1869 — otherwise known as the Charity Organisation Society (COS). Together with the new Metropolitan-wide Poor Law Board these bodies represented a much more centralised approach to the relief of the poor, an approach foisted on social reformers by the geographical separation of the classes. By putting charity on a "sound basis", it was hoped that the poor would come to gratefully accept their "dependence" on the rich. It was a hope that hardly squared with another Victorian ideology entertained — that workers should raise themselves up by their own bootstraps, become as bourgeois as the bourgeoisie itself.

Alongside such efforts to halt the "demoralisation of the poor", various attempts were made to improve the housing conditions they suffered.The "philanthropy at five per cent" movement represented by organisations such as the Peabody Trust was one such attempt. It led to the construction of "Model Dwellings" which were intended to house a substantial number of the poor. In fact, it failed miserably in this. By 1873. a mere 27,000 had been housed in these Model Dwellings. More importantly those who were housed were not the casual poor but the better off sections of the working class. Construction costs and the need to maintain a margin of profit, determined the level of rent which proved way beyond what the casual poor could afford.

Moreover, regulations laid down by the Peabody Trust such as an obligation on tenants to keep up with their payments or face eviction, made no allowance for the economic circumstances of the casual poor. In addition, at a time when occupancy rates were steadily rising throughout the poorer districts of London, residents were not permitted to take in lodgers — a traditional working class method of supplementing income.

Another method by which it was hoped to ameliorate the housing conditions of the poor was sanitary legislation. One example of this was the 1868 Torrens Act which enabled a vestry, on the advice of a medical officer. to declare a house unfit and order its owner to carry out the necessary repairs or have it demolished. In fact many vestries preferred by and large not to exercise such powers. Indeed, had they done so this would have aggravated housing conditions considerably by increasing local overcrowding in the remaining households.

Another piece of legislation, the 1875 Cross Act, also attempted to tackle the problem of housing. However the Act was based on the assumption that skilled workers would vacate the inner areas and move to the suburbs while the casual poor would take their place — the "levelling up theory". In the event the hopes of the reformers proved premature. Commuting from the periphery was still beyond the reach of most artisans. Of those who did relocate, many encountered intractable difficulties that forced them to return: the lack of work for spouses, unreliable trains and higher food prices. This highlighted another and much more disturbing development in the eyes of the Victorian ruling class: the gradual blurring of distinctions between skilled artisans and the casual poor.

Henry Mayhew, writing in the 1850s. observed that "in passing from the skilled operative of the West-end to the unskilled workman of the Eastern quarter of London, the moral and intellectual change is so great that it seems as if we were in a new land and among another race". It was the perception of such differences that helped to ease the passing of the 1867 Reform Bill amid the tensions of the 1860s whereby the franchise was extended to skilled workers in the towns. This was seen to provide a bulwark against social chaos. And in the 1870s it seemed as if the problem of the casual poor had been lessened by the beneficial influences of philanthropy and private enterprise.

By the 1880s. however, it was becoming apparent that something had gone badly wrong. The problem of the casual poor had not disappeared. On the contrary, as a Royal Commission on Housing revealed, it was much larger than most had expected and was steadily getting worse. Charles Booth, sceptical at first of the claims of Hyndman, the SDF leader, of widespread poverty, accepted his challenge to investigate the matter for himself and found that this was indeed the case.

Even more alarmingly, the artisans were being increasingly subjected to the same insanitary overcrowded conditions with which the casual poor had to contend, which had had such a "demoralising effect upon their character". Moreover, with the onset of a trade slump, artisans too were being made unemployed in increasing numbers, were being pushed downwards into the ranks of the casual poor. As an employer remarked to a COS Committee on Exceptional Distress: "We have always found as to the artisan, that if he happens to be out of work for three months, he is never the same man again. He becomes demoralised".

Changing perceptions
The 1880s. however, was more than just a decade scarred by economic crisis. It was a period of structural readjustment in ruling class ideology driven by the need to avert "revolution". It was a period when the increasing challenge of "collectivist" ideas could only be met by evolving a more collectivist approach to social problems, by moving away from the free market doctrines of the mid-Victorian period towards state welfare. The economic crisis of the 1880s passed and in the 1890s the tempo of working class suburbanisation began to quicken. Improved methods of mass transportation and subsidised travel began to have an effect, gradually relieving the population pressures on the inner areas.

But the perception of the casual poor also changed. Urban existence had long been seen as inimical to health and morals while the enfeeblement of the urban poor was contrasted with the robustness of the agricultural labourer. Now agricultural depression threatened to depopulate the countryside and flood the towns with yet more of the nation's poor. The theory of the "survival of the fittest" which seemed to legitimise the weeding out of the less fortunate, was now suspended by the advances in medical science and even more importantly by the improvement in sanitary conditions about which the "privileged classes" had professed such concern. The fear of national “degeneration" to which this gave rise increasingly informed the thoughts of politicians and economists against a background of Britain's declining industrial supremacy. Such a fear came to provide a rationalisation for a more statist approach to the solution of social problems, an approach that the very development of capitalism had made functionally imperative.

In Victorian London the perception of the casual poor was systematically distorted by an ideology that took little account of their needs in order to justify the need for them as cheap labour. In modern London, the "casual poor" may not be as proportionately significant as a century ago. But poverty is relative and it takes different forms. Its reality cannot be adequately encompassed by statistics or sanitised by the rhetorical claim that we have never had it so good.
Robin Cox