From International Socialism, No.18, Autumn 1964, pp.1-2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
Whatever the outcome this October, the main domestic political issue in the country is almost certainly going to revolve around wage freeze or ‘planned increase in wages’ or an ‘incomes policy’, depending on how you look at it. If Labour wins, as seems likely, this promises to be an especially critical issue: around it will crystallise the main alliances and attitudes within and towards the Party for the next few years. The problem itself is simple. Despite the Tories’ pre-election boom which will have cost the country £500 million in foreign exchange debts by the end of the year and another £350 million next year, production and exports have stood still. Over the decade of Tory rule, economic growth, at an average two to three percent per year, has been slower than that of every major competitor internationally. At the same time, prices have risen and wages advanced. Unless, the argument runs, these can be kept down and production jacked up – unless, in other words, Capital can be persuaded to invest more without having to face a substantially larger wage bill – the economy will enter a cumulative decline with dire consequences for everybody. Whether the argument is right or not is immaterial for the moment. What is important is that the Labour leadership accepts it and are therefore prepared to act upon it. In fact, they have already begun to do so. They have extracted promises from the TUC, as from the most important trade-union leaders individually, to confine official wage claims within the limits of increased productivity; and, presumably, not to advance any claims at all if productivity does not increase, as it has not this year and might well not for another year while the post-election balance of payments crisis is being weathered.
The political left seems completely bemused by the unanimity at the top. It was to be expected of the soggies like Tribune that they approve the new policy. Haven’t they been as quiet as mice about NATO, nuclear disarmament, nationalisation and other crucial issues since Wilson’s elevation to leadership? But bewilderment has radiated farther. The Voice of the Unions and The Week, normally more critical than Tribune, have tied themselves down to a policy scarcely different, albeit with much subtle argument and involution.
Witness Ken Coates in The Week (30 July) ‘Everybody in the unions already pays lip service to the principle that all income must be controlled if any are.’ Therefore, let us ring these lips by accepting wage control on condition that profits are also controlled; and, in order to ensure that profits are in fact controlled, let us demand that the employers ‘open the books’. He continues: ‘the employers’ books are their most jealously guarded secrets. There is no evidence that they will open them for anyone. By asking them to do so, we force them to wreck the incomes policy, and take the rap from the public, instead of upending it ourselves ... If the books were opened to us, what would that mean? ... that there would be a precise answer to every problem about which unions wished to negotiate’ (emphasis in the original).
Factually this is nonsense. There is plenty of evidence that the employers will open their books – not for anyone to be sure, but to the unions if pushed hard enough. The International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union has been scanning them for years in the United States. Nor have we to go so far: the nationalised industries here have been presenting detailed accounts to Parliament for a decade and more, to be used at will by any union member or anyone else for that matter. And do these books and accounts ‘contain a precise answer to every problem’ besetting the American garment worker, or British miner or railwayman? Automation? Unemployment? Class society? What the conditional wage freezers do not seem to understand is that the books are not a conspiracy to hide from workers their due within the capitalist system (although occasionally they might well be used in this way). They are monitors of the system; no more, no less. So long as the system is unquestioned in its larger details, so long will open books not solve any major problem for the working class. On the contrary, they might act as much to reduce as to inflame demands: according to the books, agriculture is heavily subsidised; should agricultural workers therefore accept a cut in wages?
This is more than an argument about book-keeping in a capitalist society. It has to do with the kind of demand we should be making of the Labour Government and whom we should persuade to voice it. The Week wants us to make classic ‘transitional demands’ – ideologically acceptable but practically unobtainable within the system – that will act as ratchets to prevent such a government falling back from its commitments. We say that transitional slogans are magnificent banners in a battle – but where’s the battle? – that they are excellent in rallying a diffuse class-consciousness around specific demands in a period of mass political involvement – but where’s the mass political involvement? Without these, the struggle to get the transitional demand voiced takes precedence over the demand itself; the arena of struggle becomes the corridors of Congress House; and the direction – towards gaining a few individuals within trade-union officialdom, whose job it is to keep the fragments of class associated somehow and who can therefore see some significance in the slogans. The reality of a few leftish officials tends to substitute for the potentiality of a working class and we have Coates writing: ‘What takes [the workers] into class-consciousness is organisation: nothing else. The leaders of their organisations express what mind there is of collective commitment ... Thus, Frank Cousins is of the utmost importance, as is Ernie Roberts ...’ And so, from qualified support for wage freeze we are led through a conspiratorial view of capitalism and anacronistic transitional demands to unqualified support for leftish trade-union leaders!
Socialists can have none of this. To say ‘no’ to wage freeze is not a purely defensive posture, not purely negative. Said in unison by a sufficient body of workers, acted upon effectively it can instil a knowledge of mutual dependence and common goals that needs no interpretation by a trade-union elite and that can yet make Capital tremble.
Last updated on 20.8.2007