From International Socialism, No.83, November 1975, pp.3-5.
Transcribed by Mike Pearn.
Marked up by by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
Two milestones on the gallop to the right by the ‘official’ leadership of the British working class movement; the 107th Trade Union Congress voted by 6.9 million to 3.4 million to support the ‘voluntary’ £6 wage-cutting policy, the Labour Party voted overwhelmingly in the same sense and rejected outright all demands that the government reflates the economy.
It is ironic to recall, so short are ‘official’ memories, that the ‘Social Contract’ incomes policy (and its £6 successor) was originally sold as the alternative to massive unemployment. Not so very long ago Len Murray, Jack Jones, Denis Healey and Harold Wilson were proclaiming that wage restraint was the way to avoid unemployment. Not any more. Now we have both wage-cutting ‘wage restraint’ policies and a quarter million unemployed.
The whole debate, in the official machine, has shifted much further to the right. It is admitted that government economic policy will force down real earnings. It is taken for granted that unemployment will continue to rise. The question is now: when will government measures to revive the economy be possible?
Len Murray told the TUC that unemployment was now intolerable, but reflation could not start until inflation was ended, therefore wage restraint (i.e. wage cutting) was the way forward. Jack Jones argued that ‘We can’t afford the luxury of handing power to Mrs Thatcher’ so wage cutting and unemployment must be accepted. Keep the Tories out by stealing their policies!
At the Labour Party conference the process was carried a stage further. Michael Foot, in his ‘the flame of socialist courage’ speech, declared,
‘People sometimes say that we will agree to some arrangement between the trade unions and the government about wages, but only when you have got the full panoply of socialist measures actually put into operation ... I understand the argument but I say it is unworkable. For anyone to argue that there should be no concession to a Labour government on such matters, until all the others are in operation is a recipe for its destruction.’
The famous ‘fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of wealth and power in favour of working people and their families’, promised in 1973 and 1974, is postponed into the indefinite future. Meanwhile the redistribution is to be all the other way. On top of the inter-related policies of countering inflation by cutting wages and pushing up unemployment, there is to be a heavy squeeze on welfare spending.
Denis Healey, in a speech which – like Foot’s – got a standing ovation, stated: ‘There is no chance of regenerating British industry unless we can narrow the gap between what we are spending in the public sector and what we are raising in taxes.’ The social wage too, is to be cut and cut drastically – with all the consequences in yet more unemployment and poverty that this implies.
To summarise: both congress and conference endorsed the most right-wing economic policies attempted by any government since the Thirties, policies that abandon any attempt even to moderate the boom-slump cycle, policies which will shift ’the balance of wealth’ still further towards the rich, both directly and indirectly, policies designed wholly and solely in the capitalist interest.
The policies as such are not in the least surprising. The Labour Party today, as we have often pointed out, is a party of reformism without reforms, of reformism in reverse. This has not been a popular view. A wide range of ’left-wingers’ of varying political complexions, have argued that the Labour Party could be, indeed was being, pulled to the left. Only an ostrich can now hold that position – but there are plenty of ostriches about.
The right wing scored crushing victories at TUC and Labour Party conference. The left is split (with some of its most prominent former leaders in the right-wing camp), impotent and without any new perspective. The remaining ‘left’ MPs still talk about ‘Labour manifesto’, a document with about as much contemporary relevance as the Doomsday book, and take what comfort they can from such small beer as Eric Heffer’s election to Labour’s NEC.
In spite of Ian Mikardo’s much advertised clash with Jack Jones, they have neither the inclination nor the ability to lead any serious struggle against the government. Inevitably, they end up as half-heated apologists for it. More than half the ‘new intake’ of 1974 labour MPs joined the Tribune group. It boasts over one hundred members. Yet never, within living memory, has the opposition by ‘left-wing’ parliamentarians to a right-wing government been so feeble; even in parliament, let alone outside it.
Partly this is a consequence of their politics. Aside from the out-and-out opportunists – a numerous breed – the Tribunite MPs are wedded to the ‘win the Labour Party for socialist policies’ strategy and the accompanying ‘don’t rock the boat’ psychology. Partly it is a consequence of their lack of a power base. The decay of the ward and constituency organisations of working class activism have left the MPs suspended in the air.
The unions are a different matter altogether. It was the shift into opposition by important sections of the trade union bureaucracies in response to the Wilson-Castle In Place of Strife bill, the post-1966 incomes policy and the Heath Industrial Relations Act, that created the basis for Tribunite ‘leftism’ in parliament and for the apparent slide to the left of the whole Labour Party in 1970-74.
It was a widespread illusion on the soggy left that this was a permanent state of affairs. Just before the Labour Party regained office, Ken Coates, the guru of the Institute for Workers’ Control, wrote:
‘How can anyone today, in this situation of unparalleled union strength and self-confidence, lead the Labour Party without winning the broadly-based support of the unions? ... Unlike Lowther and Williamson, whose capacity to uphold conservative policies rested on widespread mass lethargy, Jones and Scanlon can only lend their weight to policies which carry support in an active and self-assertive rank and file. Of course they could always theoretically abandon the rank and file but if they ever did, they would be of little value to the establishment without it. All this means, quite plainly, that the unions will not be easily diverted from the pursuit of serious social change.’
This was at least written in advance of events, but similar notions are still being put about. The Communist Party, in particular, continues to deceive itself that ‘left advance’ continues. The September issue of its theoretical journal Marxism Today contained a keynote article by ex-general secretary Gollan which, regardless of what was happening in the world, repeated the old formulas:
‘The struggle against the Industrial Relations Act speeded up the left advance which had started before then. We have seen the emergence of left leadership in key unions and a left group on the General Council. Left policies have developed with beginnings of an alternative economic strategy. There has been a corresponding effect of all this in the Labour Party in which the trade unions vote is decisive. Robert McKenzie in his book British Political Parties saw the relationship of the trade unions to the Labour Party as the key to its right wing control and hence to the smooth working of the British political system ... It is precisely this which is changing, first in the Labour Party conference, then in the Labour Party executive and to a lesser extent in the Parliamentary Labour Party with the Tribune group.’
After the triumph of the right at the TUC, the October issue of Marxism Today commented editorially:
‘Symptomatic of this mood [of “deep apprehension”] and, incidentally, of the growth of left influence, is the fact that the General Council was compelled to argue that no worker should receive less than £6 and that the stand-still should last for the next twelve months only ... In the elections for the General council, further left and progressive gains were made: Bill Leys, John Martin, Reg Birch, with the right-winger Roy Grantham defeated.’
After ‘left advances’ like this, who needs a right wing? The first requirement, as Trotsky once wrote, is to look reality in the face. And the reality is that a very right-wing Labour government has the active support of the bulk of the rest, in its reactionary policies. To change this state of affairs it is necessary to understand how it has come about.
It is a remarkable fact that, as the Labour Party has become more and more conservative over the last eighteen months, a number of the grouplets on the revolutionary left have moved into it, or have come to orientate more and more upon it. New versions of the old ‘Make the Left MPs Fight’ slogan proliferate. ‘Remove the Wilson Leadership’ (in favour of what?) is a current favourite.
The excitement generate by the Prentice affair has led some ‘marxists’ to grasp with renewed enthusiasm the perspective of raising up a new crop of ‘left MPs’ by capturing enough votes in General Management Committees to secure the rejection of some of the most outspoken – and vulnerable – right-wingers. It is rather unlikely that this process will go very far. But suppose it does. What then? A strengthening of the ‘left trends’ in the parliamentary party and party conference? A new Labour’s Programme 1973? But we have been here before.
The fact is that the ‘left MPs’. old or new, are not going to fight; at least not in advance of a new shift in the position of the trade union leaderships. At the time of the Common market dispute it looked, for a time, possible for a leftish parliamentary opposition – with significant middle level trade union support – might develop. The decisive victory of the right in the referendum and the subsequent capitulation of the anti-marketers have killed that prospect stone-dead for the foreseeable future.
Even if, as is quite likely, growing popular discontent gives some Labour MPs courage enough to make some critical speeches, they will not attempt to lead an organised oppositional movement at the grass roots. Some of them will reflect, follow such a movement (at a safe distance); lead it they will not.
The development of a serious oppositional movement is bound up with the creation of an open revolutionary party, a genuine communist party. It is only around this force that there is any real prospect of a break with the sterile politics of resolution-mongering and fictitious ‘left advances’. those ‘Marxists’ and ‘revolutionaries’ who, in the actual situation of today, bury themselves in the decaying Labour Party machine are demonstrating their irreleve3nce, their incapacity to understand the needs – of the movement.
The growth of a bigger and move effective rank and file movement is indispensable. Now that the ‘left’ union leaders are either supporting the government or, like the Broad Left in the AUEW, demonstrating their incapacity to effectively involve the membership in struggles against government policy, the necessity is greater than ever.
The decay of the ‘official’ left naturally produces problems as well as opportunities. The strengthening of the right, and especially its capture of the national leadership of the AUEW may make the going harder in the short run. But the longer term outlook is bright. The conditions which in the pat, have made a real grass roots movement possible are coming again.
This is the central arena for revolutionaries today. Now forces, won in struggle, form the only realistic basis for a genuine ‘left advance’. in this issue we examine again the lessons of past experience and the problems of applying them to the rank and file movement today.
The revolutionary party will grow along with, and as an integral part of the rank and file movement. But other streams will run into it as well. The international crisis of capitalism and the increasing political instability of a whole range of regimes, the revolutionary situation in Portugal, the impending collapse of the Franco dictatorship and so on; will produce a growing feedback into Britain. More than ever, a consistent internationalist outlook must form the core of our politics.
Last updated on 21.2.2008