Pieter Lawrence

The Job of Governing

Source: Socialist Standard, August 1966.
Transcription: Socialist Party of Great Britain.
HTML Markup: Adam Buick
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2016). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit "Marxists Internet Archive" as your source.

In the last two general elections, the Labour Party was able to present itself as the party who would "get Britain moving". Trading on the sense of weary failure that inevitably attached itself to the Tories, the Labour party came forward with an air of dashing modernity. Despite the note of appropriate caution, "this was not going to be easy", they left no doubt that they were the people who would sweep away "tired toryism" and ring in an era of fast moving progress. They spoke in racy terms about rising incomes and expanding social services against a background of technical development and high productivity. In fact we have found that the so-called incomes policy has meant nothing more in practice than a continuous government attempt to prevent wage and salary increases. As for the free deployment of society's technical resources, we find that it is as crippled as ever it was. The only things which are recently new in the Labour government's management of capitalism are red baiting and the legal intimidation of trade unionists.

Under Labour, capitalism is limping along from crisis to crisis in much the same way as it always has, and for the immediate future, there is no prospect of it doing anything else.

During the recent elections, the Socialist Party of Great Britain said that nothing could come of the optimism generated by the Labour Party. We knew that the post election periods would be times of creeping disillusion. This is not because the Labour Party has no genuine desire to do something about social problems, but because the ideas they have about how to deal with these problems are mistaken ones. Moreover, it is doubtful whether the Labour Party can even correctly define the nature of these problems.

Reforms v. Revolution

It is worth recalling the debate that went on during and before the first years of the existence of the Labour Party and the Socialist Party of Great Britain. In those days the parties were nearer to each other in the sense that they shared a clearer understanding of the phraseology that both parties used. Those who were active in the Labour Party and I.L.P. argued that through a process of reforms, including nationalisation, capitalism could be gradually abolished. The very least that was claimed for this reformist programme was that as an expression of a mass working class movement it would achieve a more equal distribution of wealth throughout society.

This argument embodied many disastrous errors. One of these errors was the denial that Socialism presupposes a majority of Socialists. It was enough, they thought, to have a government whose intentions were right. Another error was in thinking that capitalism was susceptible to the kind of manipulation and control that their argument assumed.

The Labour Party has moved a long way from talking seriously about Socialism. Its public speakers cannot utter the word "capitalism" without obvious embarrassment or as a slip of the tongue.

The Labour Party frankly cares more about votes than it does about ideas. It has on more than one occasion achieved power, but power to do what? The only power the Labour Party has is the power to run capitalism, and even then not in the way the Labour Party would like, but largely in response to the economic and international pressures bearing on them. The abiding anti-climax of Labour Party politics is that as a party it has achieved the power that its early members dreamed of, but the power they have is worthless. This situation is inherited directly from their mistaken ideas about capitalism both past and present. It is one of the ironies of history that the Labour Party, the social springboard of which was the working class, should now manage a system which can only be damaging to the interests of the working class. They may have once set out to tame capitalism, but in fact capitalism has tamed them.

The Seamen's Strike

One of the most recent examples of the way the Labour Government is running capitalism against the interests of workers was the role played in the Seaman's strike. From the very beginning of the dispute, the government, apart from one or two hypocritical references to the real "grievances" of the Seamen, in fact supported the stand of the shipowners throughout. The effect of the government's stand was at all times to encourage the shipowners to resist the Seamen's demands. This attitude was even carried to the point when during the strike the government look the initiative from the employers in resisting the Seamen. The fact that the government justified its stand around such dubious concepts as the "national interest" and their so-called incomes policy, has no bearing whatever on the clash of interests that was involved.

The Seamen found what working men have always found, that in the hard economic reality of their struggle, they were confronted not only by the employers, but also by the state, this time in the form of a Labour government.

"The Incomes Policy"

Even if the ideas of the Labour government about an "incomes policy" are not consciously dishonest, they are completely impracticable. Under Labour government management, there was to be an even rate of growth with productive output steadily expanding. They envisaged stable prices. They envisaged an overall productivity rate of 4 per cent, per year. Related to this steady increase of wealth, they saw rising incomes for every section of the community and expanding social services, hospitals, schools, roads, etc. Listening to its speakers, it was always possible, particularly at election times, to take a brief trip in the Labour Party dream boat.

The reason the Conservative government during its thirteen years of office, or any other government in the past, failed to achieve these controlled results from the economy was not due to their lack of intention or technique. This government will also fail. They are naive to think otherwise. They will of course blame this in part to a "scramble for higher wages". The absurdity of the government's position is that although they manage a system that is dominated by commercial competition and the pursuit of narrow economic gains whenever the moment is favourable, they expect people to behave as though this were not so. They wish in fact that capitalism would not be capitalism. Even so, there is no evidence whatsoever that restraint on the part of workers in pursuing wage increases would in any way affect the cycle of expansion and contraction inherent in capitalist economics. The real result of the government's so-called "incomes policy" is that it always comes down on the side of the employers in the struggle over the division of wealth.

"The National Interest"

One of the more confusing ideas that gains renewed currency during industrial conflicts is the spurious myth of the "national interest" Though the effect of appeals to national loyalty on the course of a dispute is very doubtful, it is one of the means by which governments attempt to show up strike action in a bad light. The phrase "against the national interest" carries with it the implication of a small group of men holding the community to ransom over narrow selfish ends. Significantly, it is always strike action that is "against the national interest". It is never relatively low wages or intolerable working conditions.

At its best, the idea of a "national interest" turns a blind eye to the realities of capitalism, that is, class divided society. Within an economic set-up based on exploitation and dominated by commercialism with intense competition within slates and between states, there can be no such thing as a community interest. There is the individual's struggle to get what lie can out of life. There is the endless battle between trade unionists and employers over wages and conditions. There is no harmony of mutual interests, either national or otherwise.

At its worst, the talk of a "national interest" is a cynical attempt to persuade under-privileged men to set aside their demands in favour of social ideals that capitalism by its very nature could never achieve.

The vindication of Socialist theory

The policies of Labour governments have shown the correctness of the Socialist stand during the early debates. Events have shown that the fundamental problem of capitalism that is the social production, but private expropriation of wealth, cannot be altered by a programme of social reforms. Experience now shows that any government landed with the problem of managing capitalism, regardless of its determination to achieve change, must shape its policies to the economic requirements of the situation they find themselves in. In the case of the Labour Party, these economic pressures, both domestic and international, will make a mockery of whatever aspirations the Labour Party is now left with.

The problems of the Labour government are not the legacy of Tory mismanagement. In the wake of its own inevitable failure, it will leave to the next Tory government the same kind of mess. What the Labour government is really up against is the anarchy of capitalist production and that endless war of economic attrition, the class struggle.

Current Political Dangers

The Labour Party has nude a great deal of its ability to control capitalism, yet its programmes have not even begun to get off the ground. Wilson & Co. will go on banging their heads against the brick wall of capitalism with mounting frustration. In view of all that is expected of them and what they expect of themselves, their failure will become desperate. In politics, a desperate failure is a dangerous failure. The red-baiting episode during the Seamen's strike together with the penalties of imprisonment of trade unionists embodied in the Prices and Incomes Bill are ominous signs. It is possible that the government may tempt to go much further in creating a general atmosphere of intimidation and victimisation. If indeed this happens, it will he the vile fruit of erroneous theories.

In a recent debate in the House of Commons, as a rebuke aimed at one of his party. Mr. Wilson said "You know, some of us have the job of governing". The remark was intended to separate the "responsible" from the irresponsible, but in fact it expressed everything that is wrong about the Labour Party and the Labour government. For his own party's ability to deal with social problems, Mr. Wilson could not have chosen a more succinct epitaph.