From International Socialism (1st series), No.59, June 1973, p.22.
Transcribed & marked up by by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
Incomes Policy and the Public Sector
Routledge & Kegan, £3.50
A promising title ... but a boring reality. 264 pages of facts, often trivial, reported but rarely analysed. The book is useful if you want detailed information about the Cardiff bus industry 1965-70, or any of the other areas Balfour covers – local government, universities, airlines – and it may be useful to militants in these areas looking for good facts to tell their fellow-workers.
The book has a good bibliography, including a list of all the Prices and Incomes Board reports with their command numbers. Anyone who’s ever tried to find a government paper in a library without that number will appreciate the value of this – but who buys a book for its bibliography?
It is on analysis that this book is very weak. Balfour does not even begin to ask the right questions. He says in his concluding chapter, ‘Incomes policy can best exist in ... the knowledge that the economy is expanding.’ But he nowhere explains that incomes policy is the result precisely of the failure of the economy to expand, of the difficulties that British capitalism has had to face since the mid-1960s, with the fall-off in growth rates, and lowered profitability. It is these which make it necessary for the ruling class to cut back on ‘costs’ (i.e. wages) tend introduce incomes policies as a way of doing that.
Balfour understands some of the factors involved: he understands that strikes became easier after the war because of the Welfare State; that employers were more willing to concede wage claims because a strike by a small group could have an enormous effect throughout industry, causing thousands of lay-offs and leaving expensive machinery idle. But he does not understand the causes of these factors, or that an economic situation cannot be changed by one measure, such as an incomes policy.
Balfour’s failings are perhaps summed up in his postscript – ‘the XYZ of Incomes Policy’ – This is an attempt to sum up the experience of incomes policy with three ‘theories’ – the ‘tough’, the ‘rational’, and the ‘realistic’. The final note starts with this sentence: ‘The above programme will not be effective unless it commands majority support, which needs moral, legal or political sanctions against the minority who exploit the restraint of others.’
That begs the whole question of what majority support means, how a government can try to get it, and why it is important to them. Indeed the entire book begs the question of what an incomes policy is, and why it is important. Thus his theories at the end say nothing that isn’t banal, where it isn’t simply meaningless.
Last updated on 25.12.2007