On 9 April this year, the Labour party took its fourth consecutive defeat in a General Election. Coming after a long electoral campaign in which the Labour party had been given the lead by most opinion polls, its failure to win the vote triggered a whole range of interrogations - none of which are altogether new.
Thus questions were raised about the "electability" of the Labour party from quarters as wide apart as liberal business circles, the "Left Democracy" group - or former CPGB - and even groups belonging to the revolutionary left.
Labour politicians, of course, were not questioning their own "electability". From the morning following the election countless heirs apparent started lining up for Kinnock's and Hattersley's positions at the head of the Labour party. So far the main differences between them seem to be over proportional representation - that is, whether the Labour party needs an alliance with the Liberal-Democrats to become electable again - and over whether the Labour party's links with the unions are an electoral liability. In any case, as far as Labour politicians are concerned the only real issue worth taking up is that of the next General Election, sometime in 1996-97.
These face-saving, soul-searching and career-building exercises have something in common - total disregard for the feelings of the working class as expressed in the election itself, utter contempt for the problems faced by workers today and tomorrow, and complete indifference as to how the working class could deal with these problems.
Likewise, those, in left quarters, who are wisely arguing today what a mistake it was for Labour not to have stood on a "clearly socialist platform" are trying to keep alive the same old pie-in-the-sky tactics which should have been scrapped long ago. Of course these comrades also happen to be the same who called for a Labour vote in the election with, and more often without, reservations.
Labour's failure to win the election, they say, must be blamed on the Labour leadership and its policies, and consequently, that leadership must be changed. But what sense is there in blaming a truck driver for the inability of his truck to fly? Change the driver and all you get is the same old truck! The real issue is rather whether you need such a truck in the first place and whether clinging to that truck is not going to prevent you from flying for ever.
Such is, and always was, the real question for the working class, and therefore for revolutionary communists. Is there anything for the working class to gain from Labour coming to power? Can it boost workers' confidence? Can it change the balance of forces against the bosses? Is a Labour government the indispensible prerequisite for the working class to start defending their interests against the capitalists, let alone to change society, that so many people make it out to be?
Our answer to these questions is unambiguous: no, the working class has nothing to gain from a Labour government and therefore nothing to regret in the last election. The Labour party, as an institution, is, and always was, on the other side of the class fence, on the side of the capitalists. Labour party members may have all sorts of illusions as to its ability to bring about a less unjust society, but the real function of the Labour party has long been established as an integral part of the machinery of domination of the capitalist class over society.
Labour's choices in the last election
In many respects, the last general election provides yet another example of the particular role played by the Labour party in society.
We, revolutionary communists, argued time and again, before and during the election campaign, that there was no stake for the working class in this election. First because the power of the capitalists does not rest on Parliament or on the government, but on a huge state machinery which cannot be changed in an election, for the simple reason that it is not elected. And second because the working class could not even use this election as a means to express its own aspirations - for, with the exception of a handful of isolated individual candidates, no-one, and certainly no party, stood in the election for the purpose of upholding the interests of the working class against those of the rich in the economic crisis.
In this respect, undoubtedly, the language, politics and leadership style of the Labour party played an important role. There was nothing to choose between the aims expressed by Labour and the Tories. Both claimed first and foremost to be the "party of industry", of "healthy capitalism", of "recovery" for business, at a time when nearly three million unemployed workers were on the receiving end of what "healthy capitalism" really means and many more millions were experiencing reduced standards of living while financial profits were growing sky-high.
In this context, Labour's policies were and could only appear as a slightly watered-down version of that of the Tories. Worse, Labour's insistence on increasing income taxes for above-average wage-earners while undertaking not to harm capitalist profits in any way, was an unmistakable indication that more concessions were likely to be demanded by Labour from workers: since Labour was not prepared to take the money were it was, that is in the pockets of the big companies and shareholders, any increase in investment by the state would have to be financed by working people one way or another. And after all the record of Labour councils on the poll tax, the millions of court orders they served on non-payers, not to mention those thrown in jail, showed that the Labour party is certainly not beyond making working people foot the bill.
Was this the actual reason why millions did not bother to vote in working-class areas or consciously chose not to vote Labour? We do not know for sure, but it seems a reasonable assessment. What we do know though, is that while the Tories were able to mobilise their electorate in better-off areas, the Labour party proved unable to mobilise its working-class electorate.
The point is not so much that Labour's policies failed to enthuse its potential electorate, but rather that the Labour leadership consciously chose such policies despite the potential electoral risk involved - a risk which they were in a better position to measure than anybody else - and that the Labour party as a whole endorsed these policies without an open rebellion in its ranks.
In adopting these policies, the Labour party only adapted to the overall political situation. Over the past two decades, economic crisis has settled worldwide. Despite temporary so-called "recoveries", which were limited to the rich countries, the crisis has become deeper and deeper. The bourgeoisie can no longer have its politicians whipping up expectations among the working class for electoral reasons. By stating in no uncertain terms their intention to preserve profits, Labour politicians only chose to toe the line laid down for them by the bourgeoisie, just as they always have. Only, this time, the line was tougher than it ever was in the previous decades.
The Labour party, just another bourgeois party
The Labour party is "different" from other parties in two respects. First because there is a significant number of politicised workers within it and around it, who are genuinely trying to fight for the interests of their class. Second, because of the way it is seen by a vast section of the working class, as a party which is somehow more on their side than any other.
Let it be said that, as working-class revolutionaries, we feel in solidarity with the workers who have illusions about the policies of the Labour party and that we draw a clear line between these workers and the Labour politicians who speculate on their illusions. Let it be said also that we do not rejoice at the reduced support for the Labour party in the working class. For the time being at least, this reduced support does not mean that workers are more conscious of what the Labour party is about, but rather less confident in their collective ability to change society.
But let it be said also that our solidarity with those who choose to express their working-class identity by voting for the Labour party does not extend to the Labour party as an apparatus, nor to the institution it has become in British politics.
Many of the illusions in the Labour party stem from its "links" with the unions. What these links really amount to is illustrated today by union leaders such as John Edmonds of the GMB and Bill Jordan of the AEU who campaign enthusiastically in favour of ending the unions' block vote in the Labour party. Their basic argument is to say that the Labour party should get rid of the tabloid-made image of a party which is under the control of a crowd of bloody-minded union activists. So much for Labour's historical "links" with the unions. Image-building is obviously far more important for union leaders themselves.
Not that this attempt at revamping the Labour party's image in the electorate will change much in its actual relations with the unions. It will not prevent the union bureaucracy from playing a decisive role, publicly or privately, in the leading structures of the party. Nor will it remove the party from the control of the union membership, simply because such a control never existed.
Technically, several million workers are also members of the Labour party through their membership of a union. While a significant number of them are not actually aware of this, some are loyal Tory voters. Many more do not conceive of the possibility to have a say in Labour's policies, not any more in any case than they have a say in the policies of their own unions, which they certainly do not. And when some do try to have a say, a very effective bureaucratic machine is ready waiting for them, as was shown by the hundreds of activists who were expelled from the Labour party, not only recently, but also in every decade in the past.
The idea of the Labour party being, in any measure, representative of the union membership is a fraud, which the Labour leadership uses sometimes to retain its working-class electorate and sometimes to discipline the working class, when it is not both.
In reality, the only real link that the Labour party has with the unions is with the union bureaucracy. The latter are still the largest provider of funds for Labour's finances. They still sponsor most Labour MPs. And they are still the primary reason why the capitalists might wish, under certain circumstances, to have a Labour government in office rather than the traditional Eton-Oxbridge style Tory ministers. When social unrest becomes a major problem for the bourgeoisie, the fact that Labour can rely on the help of the union bureaucracy is its major selling point with the bourgeoisie. To that extent, but only to that extent, the Labour party needs to retain its links with the union bureaucracy, for fear of losing its potential value in the eyes of the bourgeoisie. But, as we can see today, Labour still has plenty of leeway as far as the precise nature of this link is concerned. And the possibility of the Labour party evolving towards something similar to the Democratic party in the USA, in other words a duplicate of the Tory party in every way, including in terms of its social composition, with the same kind of business-like relationship with the union bureaucracy, cannot be dismissed.
In fact such has been more or less the course followed by the Labour party ever since the twenties, when it replaced the old Liberal party in the two-party government system. It is fully integrated in the machinery of the state. Labour politicians not only sit in Parliament and in local councils. They also sit day in and day out, together with union bureaucrats, in all sorts of state-related bodies where they brush shoulders with representatives of the bosses and top civil servants. The Shadow Cabinet itself liaises constantly with the actual Cabinet. Tory and Labour politicians may seem to belong to opposite sides when it comes to a general election, but they are on first-name terms and mingle in the same circles. And when Labour politicians come to power, they share their predecessors' pre-occupations and fundamental social choices. In this respect, nothing is more telling than to look at the experience of Labour governments over the past decades.
Labour in the sixties
Despite the previous thirteen years of Conservative government, to say that, in October 1964, the Labour Party came back to office riding a wave of enthusiasm would be slight exaggeration. In fact the turnout was lower than in the 1959 election and Labour only won thanks to a sizeable shift from the Tories to the Liberals. Had just 900 voters either not voted Labour or abstained, Wilson would have lost the election. However the electoral system allowed the Labour Party a majority of five in the Commons. The Party leader, Harold Wilson, a former secretary with Lord Beveridge and an ex-Liberal turned Labour in 1945, became prime minister.
During the election campaign, Wilson appealed heavily to the electorate's frustration over past Tory election commitments which were never fulfilled. Twelve days before polling day, in Glasgow, Wilson issued this reminder to an Edinburgh rally: «The people, when they vote, will have regard to the fact that there have been three sunshine elections - always followed by restrictionist policies ».
No sooner had Labour got into office, however, than it immediately proceeded to introduce such "restrictionist policies". A 15% import surcharge was introduced, as well as a 6p rise in the standard rate of income tax, another 6p on petrol and increased National Insurance contributions for employees. True, prescription charges were removed. But the brunt of the savings, aimed at reducing the gaping budget deficit, was to be financed first and foremost by the working class. As Chancellor James Callaghan was quick to point out, this was all the Tories' fault anyway...
More of the same was yet to come. The following April, controls over consumer credit were tightened while capital gains tax and corporation tax were reduced. Then, in July 1965, new sacrifices were imposed on workers. Drastic cuts in public expenditure were introduced. Many road building schemes were cancelled, local authorities' ability to borrow was curtailed and so services were cut.
Hardly a year had gone by since Wilson's pledge, in his first television broadcast as prime minister, that «if things are going to be tough, we as a national family must show that we care for the old, the sick and those in great need ». By July 1965 he was already showing where his "care" went. As he then said in the Commons, it was vital «to reassure the world trading community and the holders of sterling balances of our utter determination to make Britain strong and sterling strong ».
Indeed Wilson proceeded to reassure the rich while obviously considering that low-paid workers were not among those in need. By September, a National Board for Prices and Incomes (NBPI) was set up with the full backing of the TUC, an old Labour Party trick if ever there was one. Under the pretext of keeping a balanced check on both profits and wages, the scene was really set to control wage increases, with the help of the union leadership. Significantly enough the NBPI's appointed chairman was an Aubrey Jones, a former Conservative minister and a leading industrialist.
These moves were welcomed by the international banking community which provided the Labour government with a further $3bn loan, giving it some breathing space for the next few months. Wilson made the best of the opportunity and started to build up for a new general election. A few cosmetic measures were dramatically introduced, the most popular of which was the Rent Act which gave immediate security of tenure to most tenants but, as it turned out later, provided hardly any real protection against high rents and certainly did not help to house the homeless.
Wilson turns against workers' militancy
By January 1966, Wilson claimed that the tough times were now over and that at last the Labour Party was in a position to start implementing its "National Plan", in other words to start building the "modern" and "social-orientated" economy which had been the motto of the 1964 election campaign. With more budgetary leeway and a slight improvement in world trade to back his government, Wilson called an early election in March 1966.
The Labour Party's election campaign was entirely centered on the threat that a Tory victory would mean for Wilson's "National Plan". And those who dared to question Wilson's ability to finance his grandiose plans without forcing wages down were rebuffed in no uncertain terms: «a wage freeze, if by that you mean a law to hold back wage increases, that would be unthinkable ».
This strategy did work in the end. As Richard Crossman, a then leading Labour figure, wrote cynically in his diary: «As it was we had given the electorate time to get to like our style and see how active we were. But they haven't had enough time to see our actions put into effect and recognize them as failures ». Despite all the cuts introduced by the Labour Party, the electorate took Wilson's word and gave him the second biggest electoral victory in Labour's history with a 48 seat majority but on the lowest turn-out since 1945.
What Labour's "modern" economy and National Plan were really about became clear within weeks. Wilson launched an «incomes crusade » as he described it. He called for an «end to bloody-mindedness on both sides of industry », pledged that progress would start «as soon as the rule book is relegated to the industrial museum » and castigated «restrictive practices » on the part of the unions - a language not dissimilar to more recent Thatcherite rhetoric.
By contrast, when confronted with the «bloody-mindedness » and the «restrictive practices » of the capitalist class which resisted investing in Britain's ailing heavy industry, Wilson never resorted to abuse. Instead he offered subsidies. Under the chairmanship of Frank Keaton, the then chairman of textile giant Courtaulds, the Industrial Reorganization Committee (IRC) proceeded to pump state money into big business. Some of today's major British groups owe their present existence to Wilson's IRC: GEC, Rover, ICL, to name but a few.
Wilson was enjoying an unquestionable honeymoon with the bosses. Not so with workers though. In May 1966 the government's guidelines limiting wage increases to a miserly 3 to 3.5% came up against determined militancy.
Surprisingly the challenge came from the first official seamen's strike for fifty years which started on 15 May 1966. Three days later Richard Crossman wrote in his diary: «The Cabinet is formally committed to breaking the strike in a way we didn't break the doctors', the judges' and the civil servants' strikes ». There lay, in a nutshell, the main feature of Wilson's incomes policy: helpful to the bosses, lenient to professionals, tough to ordinary workers.
Wilson resorted to all the tricks in his book to torpedo the strike. He first set up a so-called "independent" inquiry which came, as planned, to the conclusion that the seamen's claim was way over the top. When this failed to stop the strike, Wilson tried the "Red Plot" tactic.
Four weeks into the strike, he exposed in the Commons «this tightly knit group of politically motivated men who, as the last General Election showed, utterly failed to secure acceptance of their views by the British electorate, but who are now determined to exercise back-stage pressures, forcing great hardships on the members of the unions and their families, and endangering the security of the industry and the economic welfare of the nation ».
The smear campaign against Communist Party activists was obvious. It was so blatantly biased that even the Daily Mail refused to publish the smears so obligingly provided to the press by government officials.
The "red scare"'s main purpose was to provide the union bureaucrats with a good pretext to resist the pressure of the rank-and-file. As to disciplining the rank-and-file, this was to be done by means of a state of emergency declared in all British ports late in June. In the end, the NUS leadership backed down.
From wages freeze to attacks on union rights
Two weeks after the end of the seamen's strike, Wilson announced the toughest austerity plan since 1949. In addition to further restrictions on consumer credit (whose main victims were workers on average pay), indirect and excise taxes were increased. Half-a-billion pounds worth of investment programmes in nationalised industries, housing and public services were scrapped. Worst of all, a legally binding six-months freeze of all wages was declared, to be followed by a period of wage restraint.
Wilson's aim was all too clear: «Hours of work have been reduced and incomes have been rising faster than productivity. What is needed is a shake-out which will release the nation's manpower (..) This redeployment can be achieved only by cuts in the present inflated level of demand, both in private and public sectors ». In other words, Wilson was arguing that workers' living standards had to be lowered and jobs slashed, in order to force workers to accept overtime and flexibility. As to the TUC General Council, it just backed Wilson all the way.
Soon Wilson's policies began to bite on workers' conditions. They did not prevent a 14.2% devaluation in November 1967, resulting in immediate price increases in the shops. But they did bring about inflation and a rapid increase in unemployment which broke the half-a-million barrier as early as January 1967, the highest level reached since the 30s.
Workers did not take it lying down though. Unofficial strikes became more frequent, something that Wilson, in his search for a convenient scapegoat, was quick to expose as «self-inflicted wounds (..) which have needlessly thrown tens of thousands out of work ».
In October 1967, however, Wilson was faced with another kind of challenge. In London and Liverpool the dockers walked out over threats against agreed wages and conditions. Wilson lost no time in resorting to the same red-scare tactics which had been so successful against the seamen, all the more so, as this time, CP activists were prominent in the leadership of the strikers, among them Jack Dash, chairman of the London port-workers committee. But this time the smear campaign was a complete flop and the strike went on for nine-weeks regardless.
In the first quarter of 1968, yet another austerity package was introduced. Prescription charges were re-introduced, National Insurance stamp was increased, free milk in secondary schools was ended (an idea which Thatcher took further later on but did not initiate), indirect taxes were increased once more while income tax allowances were reduced.
This policy only boosted workers' militancy. Between 1967 and 1969, strikes increased. As early as December 1967, in the middle of the dock strike, the bosses' confederation, the CBI, started making disapproving noises against this government which was proving unable in the end to discipline the workforce. Wilson's honeymoon with the capitalists seemed to be in danger.
So a commission chaired by a Labour Lord, Lord Donovan, was set up to look into «the unions' restrictive practices ». The purpose of the commission said in advance what its finding were likely to be. Eventually they were encapsulated in a famous White paper called "In Place of Strife" issued in January 1969 by Barbara Castle, then Employment minister.
On the one hand the White Paper sought to address some of the long-standing grievances among the union bureaucracy. It made recognition of unions by employers virtually compulsory. It also provided a greater protection to union activists by bringing more safeguards against dismissal.
In exchange, the internal workings of unions were to be placed under legal scrutiny, much in the same way as under Thatcher's union laws. Thus independent auditors were to oversee unions' finances while the courts were to be the ultimate arbitrator in all conflicts between individual workers and the unions' machineries.
In effect these proposals turned the unions even more into institutions within the institutions of the state. Workers could sue union leaders just in the same way as they could sue their local authority over the lack of repairs in their council estate or their bank manager over the mishandling of their savings. At the same time they removed even further the union bureaucracy from any direct collective control from the membership.
But the really decisive proposal of "In Place of Strife" had to do with limiting the right to strike. The government was given the authority to impose a 28-days "cooling off" period on any strike and a postal ballot if it so wished. More importantly it made all unofficial strikes illegal and made unofficial strikers liable for damages.
In the end, the TUC felt it could not "sell" such a bill to the membership. In June 1969, the General Council made a solemn undertaking to take any action required to stem the wave of unofficial strikes. In exchange the government decided that further consultations would be held on the subject and the bill was postponed till the next Parliamentary session.
From Wilson to Thatcher
As industrial disruption failed to slow down, Wilson needed a fresh mandate to back his policies and anyway the 1966 Parliament's life was drawing to a close. Wilson called a General Election in June. Until the last minute it looked as though Wilson would get a third term. The morning after election day, however, the Tories had regained a 15 seat overall majority and the Labour party was back in opposition. Labour's share of the vote as well as the turnout were the lowest since World War II. Without any possible doubt, Labour's policies had driven millions of voters, mostly among the poorer layers of the population, to abstain, thereby laying the ground for a return to more overt, although not necessarily more effective, anti-working-class policies under the new Tory government.
The Heath interlude
In most respects, the Tory government under Heath was an interlude rather than a turning point. The Tories' sales pitch had been that, unlike Wilson, they would be able to control wages and stem industrial action. To achieve this, they only had to pick up from where Wilson had left off.
Wilson's Pay Board and Price Commission were given reinforced powers, soon to be followed by the introduction of a rather watered down implementation of "In Place of Strife", the Industrial Relations Act.
Heath managed to get both workers and bosses lined up against him. The January 1972 miners' strike resulted in a state of emergency. But industrial action continued to spread culminating in the reactions against the jailing of the Pentonville Five under the Industrial Relations Act, in June 1972. In August another state of emergency was declared as a result of the dockers strike. The following year more sections of workers took action against the wage freeze and Mayday 1973 was celebrated by 2 million workers on strike. Heath's subsequent and final clash with the miners, beginning in November 1973, confirmed the worst fears of the bosses and the CBI as to the Tories' ability to quash workers' militancy.
In the context of an energy crisis precipitated by the Yom Kippur War, the miners put forward a wage demand which would allow them to catch up with inflation, which was running at 28%, starting with an immediate overtime ban.
Heath reacted by calling his third state of emergency followed shortly by the introduction of a 3-day week in industry along with other measures, allegedly to save electricity. This, of course, was a gross over-reaction which made little economic sense. Unless its main purpose was to trigger a massive swing to the Tories in reaction to workers' militancy.
In any case, it failed to deter further strikes. While other sections of workers joined in the demand for wage increases, and the railworkers began a go-slow, the ballot among the miners showed an 81% majority for strike action.
Moreover when Heath called a general election right in the middle of the miners' strike, his strong-handed tactics against the miners proved unconvincing. Heath chose to campaign on the issue of who ruled Britain - the "unions" or the government. It was a flop.
On the eve of the election the CBI Chairman was quoted as saying that the Industrial Relations Act had sullied relations with the unions and should be repealed. Heath's gamble on getting support from middle class voters on the basis of anti-strike feelings backfired.
Wilson's narrow return to office
In contrast to Heath's blatant impotence, Labour's campaign was centred around a "Social Contract" already agreed with the TUC leadership.
The essence of the "Social Contract" as espoused by their manifesto went as follows: «Only practical action by the Government to create a much fairer distribution of national wealth can convince the worker and his family and his trade union that an 'incomes policy' is not some kind of trick to force him, particularly if he works in a public service or nationalised industry, to bear the brunt of the national burden ».
Therefore the "Social Contract" involved dismantling Heath's (in fact Wilson's) Pay Board, repealing the Industrial Relations Act and introducing an Employment Protection Act, an Industrial Democracy Act and a wealth tax. In exchange, union leaders pledged to contain wage demands.
As a final proof of his ability to handle industrial unrest, Wilson even got the reputedly left-wing leader of the train drivers, Ray Buckton, to call off a threatened strike.
The Labour Party succeeded in convincing just enough voters. In fact Labour's share of the vote was only 37.2% as opposed to the Tories' 38.1%. However, thanks to Britain's very peculiar electoral system Labour still managed to secure 301 seats to the Conservatives 296. But the most striking feature of the election was in fact the drop in support for both the Labour Party and the Conservatives.
Once back in office with this hung Parliament, Labour got down to business. The miners' strike was sold out within days, the 3-day week and state of emergency ended. The most offensive aspects of Tory policies were taken off the statute book to allow union leaders to argue that the government was delivering its side of the "Social Contract" and that this justified wage restraint. Although this was rather an over-statement since Wilson's first budget postponed the wealth tax until discussions could take place on the «precise form it should take ».
Despite the "Social Contract"'s promise of industrial peace, already in May, the train drivers were back on strike. Then, in July, hospital workers started a prolonged strike: Wilson's response was to set up the arbitration board ACAS as a means to take the heat out of the dispute.
The September TUC conference was part of a build-up to the forthcoming general election, set for October, aimed at giving Labour an overall majority. «We're all for getting Labour's re-election with a big majority and that's what it's all about this week », said Jack Jones, so-called "left" leader of the TGWU.
Wilson's closing address put Labour's strategy in a nutshell: «The Labour Government wants to see industry prosper, and this means a Stock Market strong and confident to help industry raise the finance required for industrial investment... For this investors must have the confidence in the viability of industry and that means its profitability ». He then told delegates that living standards would do well to stay the same over the next two years and conference agreed to moderate wage increases. Jack Jones called this a vision of «a new Jerusalem »...
In the election, these tactics proved successful, although the turn out dropped from 78.8% to 72%. Labour was returned with a narrow 2% swing increasing their seats to 319 and giving them a narrow overall majority.
Hand-outs for the rich and budget cuts for the poor
With the election out of the way, Wilson could set about its main task - to bring about "profitability" for the bosses.
Labour's White Paper on «The Regeneration of British Industry » set out the framework in which this was going to be done. This aimed at providing the investments that the capitalists were not prepared to take out of their own profits.
A National Enterprise Board (NEB) was set up in November 1975. £1bn were to be used immediately to help investment-starved businesses, administer government holdings of shares in companies and acquire new ones. It was not long before customers were lining up for loans. Under the British Leyland Act of 1975, the NEB aquired 95% of equity of the ailing motor giant. State funds were injected into more allegedly sick industries and by 1976, companies wholly or partly owned by the state included Ferranti, Alfred Herbert, Rolls Royce, Dunford and Elliot, Triang, and Harland and Wolff. The passing of the Aircraft and Shipbuilding nationalisation Bill allowed them to take over these industries as well. Not only was the government prepared to invest on behalf of the capitalists, it was also prepared to buy their shares well above the going price.
The bailing out of US-owned Chrysler in 1975 to the tune of £162m to avoid a total shut-down and the loss of 27,000 jobs, provided yet another instance of direct subsidy to big business. But part of the deal was 8,300 redundancies. In fact, the Chrysler deal was no exception. The government's aim in nationalising or subsidising industries was rationalisation and this meant job losses in any event.
Labour's Chancellor, Denis Healey, however, also became the first "privatisor", selling off 17% of the government's holding in BP, a most profitable business if there ever was one, reducing the state's share to 51% in 1977.
As if these hand-outs to the rich were not enough, instead of the famous wealth tax included in Labour's election manifesto, more incentives for the wealthy were introduced! Tax on companies had been alleviated early on by the Labour government In addition tax relief on stock appreciation was introduced, which meant that the shareholder's additional income as a result of rising share prices was partly tax-free.
To fund all these hand-outs to the rich, Healey introduced massive cuts in public spending, which reached £4bn in 1977/78 alone.
Thus real spending on the NHS did not keep up with inflation, and was sometimes cut by as much as 12% a year as in 1975/76. No wonder available beds fell by 35,000 between 1974 and 1979, down to 361,700.
Likewise, in 1976, at a time when there was an estimated 100,000 homeless, real spending on housing was 1% down from 1974. As to the share of education as a proportion of total spending, it was cut by 0.5% between 1973 and 1975, which probably accounted partly for the fact that over the same period, the proportion of pupils staying on at school after 16 dropped from 1 in 3 to 1 in 4.
In fact, under Labour, the only area of public expenditure which showed a consistent yearly rise was police and prisons...!
The squeeze on the working class.
Labour had come to power in 1974 to stem social unrest. But in so doing it was also to prove itself adept at getting the pound out of the pocket of workers.
The "Social Contract" turned out to be exactly the trick that Labour's 1974 election manifesto asserted it was not. It was an incomes policy which differed only from that of Heath's in that it was being sold to workers by the likes of the T&G's Jack Jones or the AUEW's Jimmy Scanlon..
In 1974, as a result of settlements with miners and other groups of workers, wages rose by 26.4%. However they were still far from keeping up with inflation, thereby fuelling demand for yet higher wage increases. Surface workers in the mines for instance had not kept up with underground workers and put in a wage demand for a 94% increase.
Of course it was one thing for union leaders to put in a wage claim in response to members' pressure, and quite another for them to organise a fight for it. These repeated claims did however precipitate the Labour Government to find a better way to impose wage restraint as, clearly, the "Social Contract" in its present form was not stopping wage demands being way above the limits set.
Jack Jones proposed, instead of the voluntary wage restraint of the Social Contract, a flat rate increase of £6 for everyone with salaries below £8,500 - which meant that given inflation at 26%, anyone earning over £23/week or £1,200 a year was in fact bound to take a wage cut. ( Average take-home pay for men was £60/w) This was nonetheless endorsed by the TUC conference in September 1975 and held firm until the autumn of 1976. Jack Jones was adamant: «Back the £6 limit or the government may fall ». That evening Len Murray, the TUC General Secretary, and five other union leaders entertained the directors of the Bank of England to dinner.
The following year, the plan was for a 3% limit on wages in exchange for a reduction in income tax. However the TUC leaders felt they could not sell that to members and so made a compromise at 5% which was agreed at their next conference, although not without dissent. It was to hold until July 1977. In exchange, companies were banned from increasing their prices beyond a 3% limit as a result of wage settlements. Or so the government said, since there was no practical way of enforcing this. On the other hand, companies were only too willing to use this rule to justify low wage increases paid for by higher productivity. This led to speed ups and more overtime working. The end result of this productivity drive was to be expected: by mid-1977 unemployment was over 1.5m, three times its 1974 level.
The incomes policy of course did not work the same way for everybody. For those on high salaries, there were other ways to get enhancement of living standards - like company cars, medical insurance, low interest mortgages, free travel, etc. not to mention golden handshakes for those who were moving on elsewhere...
As to companies themselves, the "Social Contract" had made 1976 a very good year for them, with profit leaps of 84% for Unilever, 42% for Rank Hovis, 63% for the four main British banks, to name a few. But 1977 and its wage freeze was even better with profits increasing by 33% in the first three months - over five times better than during Heath's wages freeze period!
Nor had shareholders any cause to be unhappy either. Despite so-called controls on dividends, by a complicated arrangement, GEC's shareholders were paid out in the form of exchangeable notes the grand total of £172m in 1976. As the Financial Times said quite to the point, «this underlines the absurdity of dividend controls », adding in January 1977: «There is no evidence that dividend controls, by enabling companies to retain more of their profits have encouraged them to spend more on new plant and equipment ». And surely the Financial Times knew what they were talking about...
Towards a confrontation with the working class
The wage freeze policy was beginning to fall apart by mid 1977 though it was in any event due to end in August that year. The TUC general council voted for a return to collective bargaining under pressure from branches through the union Annual Delegate Conferences. But the government decided that future pay settlements should be kept to the limit of 10%. The TUC conference agreed in September that union members should have only one pay rise over the next year despite high inflation of 15.8%.
Between 1976 and 1978 average real earnings fell for the first time since the mid 1920's, as a result of the wage freeze. But by 1977 strikes began to pick up again. This time Callaghan, who had taken over from Wilson in April 1976, did not stop at resorting to overt repression.
When the firemen went on strike in 1977/78, a state of emergency was declared and the army was called in with their "Green Goddess" vehicles to break the strike. This marked the beginning of a permanent feature in government policy to resort to the army to break strikes affecting emergency services.
Then came Grunwicks, an obscure photo-processing plant in North London. After almost a year on strike in support of workers sacked for forming a union, mass picketting started in June 1977, culminating in a "day of action" on 11 July 1977, when 11,000 people turned up. The resulting violent confrontations with the police, sent there by the government to quell the militant pickets were too much for the respectable and responsible TUC to be seen to countenance. They refused to back secondary action. The boss, George Ward won his case in court and the strikers were defeated by the vacuum created around them by the union leaders.
In 1978, the so-called "left-wingers", Jones and Scanlon had retired from the leadership of their unions to be replaced by the so-called "right-wingers", Duffy and Moss Evans. Len Murray was at the helm of the TUC. Callaghan again imposed a 5% pay limit for the next twelve months. This time the TUC conference rejected it. But during the conference Ford workers were on strike against the 5% limit and it was decided tactically that the TUC ought to be seen to support them at this point.
The Ford workers, after nine weeks of strike won a settlement of 17%. In fact, they were to be the heralds of the so-called "Winter of Discontent" which was to spread to many sections of workers whose wages had been left far behind during Labour's tenure.
While lorry and oil tankers drivers strike were announcing a nationwide strike for January 1979, ASLEF drivers began striking on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Then public sector workers, including dustmen, grave diggers, health workers and civil servants went on strike. Ambulance crews had their strike broken by the intervention of the army. But eventually a deal was made involving a 9% increase for most workers.
This "Winter of Discontent" could have brought together all discontented workers, provided it showed a way towards an all out fightback, including against the Labour Government. Instead, though it created massive havoc, it remained a collection of parallel sectional strikes only concerned with their own sectional demands. And union leaders made sure it remained this way. As a result it failed to attract other sections to join in. Not only did this wave of strikes fail to boost the confidence of the working class, but it even alienated sections of it.
Behind striking workers' backs, therefore, the TUC was able to strike in a different way altogether - they struck yet another deal with the government - a new "Concordat". This involved agreeing a "code of conduct" for strikes, limiting picketting, and even scaling down action if a company was losing profits! The aim of course being to try and tame strikes. "In Place of Strife" was back on the agenda.
The abortive rise of the National Front
Throughout its time in office, the Labour party consistently lost credit. In the eyes of the upper and middle classes, of course, who no longer saw them as capable of stemming the tide of discontent in the working class; but also in the eyes of the working class and petty bourgeoisie, who resented Labour's ruthless attacks on the worst off. A symptom of this loss of credit and of the potential consequences involved was the rise of the National Front.
By 1978/79 it was estimated that the membership of the National Front was around 12-14,000 and had been stagnant for the previous two years. Their attempts at organising street demonstrations to widen their base were unsuccessful, and never more than about 1,000 to 2,000 strong.
However their electoral gains stood in contrast to this. In February 1974 they fielded 54 candidates and obtained 75,870 votes, with 2.3% on average in those constituencies. In six Labour-held seats they scored more than 4% of the vote. Then, in the October 1974 election they increased their vote to 112,000, running 90 candidates. Between 1974 and 1979, the NF stood in by-elections and council elections and gained increasing support and, in the 1977 Greater London Council elections, they managed to score 119,000 votes.
The Labour and Tory party both responded to this increase in electoral support for the NF by going along with its racist demagogy. Thatcher made her famous speech warning that «this country might be swamped by people with a different culture ». In reply, the Labour Home Secretary, Rees announced that in 1977 he had signed over 1100 deportation orders and the Parliamentary Select Committee Report on Immigration recommended the tightening up of immigration controls. In doing so, both parties gave respectability to the NF's "ideas"
As it happened the NF lifespan was too short for it to develop further. Although it was able to stand 303 candidates in the May 1979 election and to score 190,747 votes, its share of the vote went down. And anyway, by that time, the political space which it had been allowed previously had vanished. The Tories had won a 44-seats majority and Labour had registered yet another fall to 36.9%. A number of NF cadres switched to the Tories in their search for a career. And Thatcher sounded enough of a radical reactionary for most of the NF's electorate to feel re-assured. In the end the NF gradually disappeared as a political force.
The areas where the NF got a lot of its support and active supporters were indicative of what had fed the NF's growth. It was mostly working class areas, hard-hit by the wages squeeze and the rise in unemployment, like Birmingham, Bradford, the steel town Corby and above all the East End of London.
Many of its recruits were young workers, often unemployed, with no other political experience than that of a Labour government, which they hated together with everything that was related to it in their view, including working-class traditions. They fell for the populist demagogy of the NF mostly because it seemed to be the only force around opposed to this rotten Labour government, and determined to put up a radical fight against it. Only a small minority among these supporters ever got involved in the racist attacks which were the main training ground and propaganda weapon for NF thugs. But the risk was there of a potential threat for the working class as a whole at a time when the working class was being disarmed and disorientated by the policies of the Labour and union bureaucracies.
Thatcher crawls out of Callaghan's clothes
The 1979 general election pushed the Labour party backstage for the following decade and beyond, leaving the front stage of the political scene to the Tories.
This period saw the most comprehensive onslaught on working-class conditions since the Great Depression of the thirties. Massive unemployment, job insecurity, lower real incomes and shrinking benefits became the day-to-day bread of the working class. And this gave substance to the idea that Thatcher's regime, if not Thatcher herself, must have had something special about them to be able to force so much down the throat of the working class. To the extent that in the mid-eighties it was not unusual among Left activists to call the Tories' regime a police state, if not a fascist one.
Yet, it only takes a quick glance outside the borders of Britain to see that much the same policies were implemented throughout Europe with similar results. The only difference being in most cases one of timing rather than one of content. Thatcher's regime was not that exceptional after all! What was exceptional rather was the extent of the world economic crisis and the determination of the capitalists to make the working class pay for it.
For all the rhetoric about Thatcher's policies, very little was new in them. In fact many of these policies were the actual continuation of those initiated by Wilson and Callaghan in the 60s and the 70s, only this time in the context of a deeper economic crisis.
Labour governments had resorted to nationalisation as a means to boost profits in the short term and to carry out the modernisation and rationalisation which the capitalists were unwilling to pay for. Thatcher only finished the job, first by completing the rationalisation process and the trimming down of the workforce, and then by returning the resulting profitable operations to the private sector.
Likewise cuts in public spending, in housing and social and health services, which had been initiated by Wilson or Callaghan, were continued under Thatcher. Thus for instance the number of beds in NHS hospitals: under Labour it went down by an average 6,900 a year between between 1974 and 1979, while under Thatcher the average was 6,100 between 1979 and 1985. Same policies, comparable results!
But certainly the most blatant example of the continuity from Labour to the Tories was Thatcher's "anti-union" legislation. Most of its content was already part of the Donovan report and of Labour's "In Place of Strife". In fact, in many ways, Thatcher did not go as far as was recommended by "In Place of Strife".
The most significant difference between Thatcher's approach and that of previous Labour governments had to do with the method Thatcher used to introduce her laws. As opposed to the previous Labour governments, Thatcher never sought, at least never publicly, an explicit agreement with the TUC. Which of course does not mean that the Tories took no notice of the concerns, interests and wishes of the union bureaucracy.
Let us not forget the numerous public bodies, though remote from public eyes, where TUC representatives sat with government ministers and senior civil servants all year round. There was no shortage of opportunity for government officials to sound out the union bureaucracy about their planned legislation, nor for union bureaucrats to bargain with government officials. And no doubt they did without ever referring back to the membership.
In fact there is plenty of evidence that Thatcher's first concern was to avoid a head-on confrontation with the union bureaucracy. Why otherwise, for example, would the government have chosen, in April 1984, to vote down an amendment to its Trade Union Act from the Conservative MP for Bridlington, John Townsend, which required union members to "contract in" to pay to a political fund? Thatcher was not out to deplete the Labour Party's kitty or embarrass the union bureaucracy and she proved it.
Up to 1984 and the miners' strike, Thatcher's main target was picketting. But the measures she took were largely psychological. After all, before Thatcher's time, many pickets had been charged for obstruction or threatening behaviour, if not worse, by the police and massive policing had been used against lawful pickets in the Grunwick strike in 1977. On the whole picketting had always been and will always be a matter of balance of forces: the mass pickets outside the Saltley depot during the 1972 miners' strike and those outside Wapping in 1986 were both illegal but no amount of policing managed to prevent them.
Thatcher's, or rather the bosses', real target in the end was those unofficial strikes which had plagued the industry in the 60s and the 70s, forced an all-out confrontation in the steel industry in 1981 and again in the coal mines in 1984, and which, despite many pledges to that effect, the union bureaucracy had never proved able to police themselves in the past. But Thatcher waited for nearly nine years and the lowest level of industrial militancy for decades, before she started legal moves against unofficial strikes. Even then, she did not go as far as Barbara Castle's 1969 proposal to enforce a 28-days compulsory cooling-off period.
It is true that, in the process, the union bureaucracy's prerogatives were altered, but certainly not reduced. If anything Thatcher's laws have made the union leadership more independent from the membership, and the unions' operation more integrated, more institutionalised, more bound to the scrutiny of the courts, exactly in the way suggested by "In Place of Strife". And the fact that the repeal of Thatcher's anti-union laws is no longer part of the Labour party's programme is certainly telling. After all, under the stricter conditions of a more drastic economic crisis, the Tories only implemented Labour's own contingency plans!
The attitude of the Labour and union leaders whenever a fightback seemed to be on the agenda, was certainly telling too. Thus, in 1981, they condemned the inner-cities rioters. Then, during the miners' strike, they exposed the "pickets' violence" against the police. More recently, over the poll tax, they condamned the Trafalgar Square demonstrators and were adamant that people should not break the law by refusing to pay the tax. Throughout the eighties, Labour always stopped short of upsetting Thatcher's plans to boost profits at the expense of workers, thereby showing their fundamental agreement with the Tories' political aims.
The case of France under Mitterrand
Since the Tories were in government in the eighties and not the Labour party, the latter can always claim the benefit of the doubt and deny frantically that a Labour government would have implemented the same kind of policies as Thatcher did. And of course, there is no way they can be disproved. Nor would it make any sense to indulge into rewriting history and try to imagine what would have happened had Labour won the 1979 election instead of Thatcher.
Rather than arguing over such imaginary developments, one only has to cross the Channel and look, for instance, at what happened in France under Mitterrand, or under Gonzalves in Spain.
Since its relaunch in 1972, under Mitterrand's leadership, the French Socialist party based its strategy on the "Union of the Left", an electoral pact bringing together the Socialist Party itself, the Communist party and various tiny centre-left groupings of politicians. The alliance could rely on the support of the overwhelming majority of the French union bureaucracy, namely that of the Communist Party-led CGT confederation, of the two smaller Socialist Party-controlled confederations CFDT and FO, and of the teachers' confederation FEN.
Eventually, in 1981, Mitterrand was elected president thanks to this strategy. He then immediately called a general election which gave him an overall majority in Parliament as long as the Communist Party was prepared to support him. It is worth noting that the shift to the alliance in the electorate was very small and that within the alliance itself, there had been a shift to the right, from the Communist Party to the Socialist Party, which reflected several things: misgivings towards the Communist Party among its own electorate, tactical voting by former Communist Party voters who felt that it would be more effective to vote for the Socialist Party than for a Communist Party defending exactly the same policies anyway, and a low level of militancy in the working class which meant that most workers were more willing to cross their fingers and hope that a Socialist government would sort things out for them rather than prepared to make sure that it did through direct action in the plants and in the streets.
Thatcherite policies and poisonous "gifts" to the working class
There are striking similarities between the Tories' fourteen years in office and Mitterrand's eleven years. Unemployment in France is now above 3 million. The duration of unemployment benefit was reduced as well as its amount but became taxable. Earnings-related unemployement benefit was mostly scrapped. Since there was nothing similar to the old supplementary benefit system in Britain, something called the RMI or "re-insertion minimum income", was introduced for the poorest among the poorest, but it only benefits about 200,000 people. Homelessness reappeared on a large scale together with soup-kitchens organised every day in the largest towns by religious charities. Pensions were drastically reduced through new taxation, increasing poverty in a significant way. The Health service experienced large cuts. Patients were made to pay a whole range of services that used to be free for all, like bed rentals and meals in hospitals, and a large number of currently prescribed medicines.
As far as workers in employment are concerned, the SMIC, the national legally-enforced minimum wage, ceased to be applicable to hundreds of thousands using devices similar to Thatcher's YOP and YTS. Laws against unfair dismissal and industry-wide wage scales ceased to be applicable to millions due to the introduction of a new type of "short-term" employment contract aimed at providing the bosses with a flexible and cheap workforce. Regulations on overtime were changed to allow companies to have some overtime worked without having to pay any premium. Overall, according to official figures, real wages have gone down by 20 to 25% over the past ten years.
Such is the record of the Socialist governments in France. While precise comparisons are made difficult by differences in the welfare and tax systems, it is easy to see that Mitterrand's record in lowering the standards of living of the working class is comparable if not more drastic than Thatcher's.
Much the same can be said about Mitterrand's policy towards the rich. Although income tax was not reduced in the way it was in Britain (but it was much lower to start with), so-called tax incentives to investors were generously distributed to the wealthy, particularly to shareholders. Enormous profits were given away on government gilts.
Mitterrand did nationalise part of the industry in the early years of his reign, but this was only a way of freeing the existing shareholders of the burden of having to invest in these industries, while offering them an inflated price for their shares. The most profitable sections of these industries were re-privatised later on, at a give-away price, after massive state investments and state-financed redundancies, a process very similar to what happened in Britain with, say, British Telecom or British Leyland. And recently, the part-privatisation of the main oil and insurance companies has been decided. This time Mitterrand is not even undoing what he did before: insurance companies were nationalised just after World War II and the oil companies, Total and Elf, were always state-controlled. There again, give-away prices have been announced and the financial world is getting ready to make rich pickings.
There was more to Mitterrand's regime than these Thatcherite policies. Even what was presented by Mitterrand as "social advances" ended up as a means of lowering the standards of living of workers. For instance, the introduction of the 39-hours week, a slight improvement on the existing legal 40-hours week won after the June 1936 general strike. But the way this legal change was introduced often turned it into a worsening of existing conditions. For instance, the government's decree did not say whether monthly wages were to be kept at the same level. Many companies interpreted it in the most restricted sense, cutting workers' wages by 2.5%. And it often took weeks of industrial action for workers to get it right. In some cases, particularly in smaller workplaces, the wage cut became effective.
Likewise the reduction of pension age to 60 for everyone, which was in fact partly aimed at reducing unemployment figures, was accompanied by a reduction in real pensions. In addition, last year, the minimum number of years in employment required to get the full amount of state pension was increased from 37.5 years to 40 years: as a result many future pensioners will never get a full pension, particularly women who stopped working for several years to take care of kids.
Nor was Mitterrand's regime more tolerant towards industrial action than the Tories. The major difference is that it was able to rely most of the time on the absolute, open and total support of the union bureaucracy. Thus, in 1982, when the Talbot workers went on strike against redundancies, they had to confront not only the company, but the government and the CGT leadership. Later the same year, when workers in four car assembly plants, mostly immigrant, went on unofficial strike against the government-declared wage freeze, not only were they faced with the open hostility of the union leaders, but the 70-strong rank-and-file strike committee which led the strike in the Chausson factory was accused by the Socialist prime minister Mauroy, of being manipulated by the "ayatollahs". This so-called "socialist" government did not hesitate to whip up racial prejudices against workers who were fighting its wages freeze.
And one should make no mistake about these developments. The Socialist Party regime did not give up one by one its previous commitments due to the growing pressures of the economic crisis or of the bosses. All its moves were carefully planned, almost from the beginning, in fact as early as 1982, in close consultation with the CNPF, the French equivalent of the CBI, and with the top level of the union bureaucracy.
The rise of the far-right: Mitterrand's ugly offshoot
Much has been said about the rise of the National Front in France. As is shown by parallel developments taking place in most European countries, but also by the spectacular return, in the United States, of reactionary ideas such as support for the death penalty and opposition to abortion, the rise of the National Front in France is part of a much wider shift to the right worldwide. But it has developed in a way quite specific to the context of Mitterrand's government, as a direct consequence of its policies.
Up to 1983, the far right was irrelevant in every sense. It had no electoral support and few active supporters. It really grew, in electoral terms, with the number of people who felt they had been deceived by what they had considered so far as the "left" parties. Once this trend started to become visible, the far right began to recruit, mostly among second-rate politicians belonging to the main right-wing parties, not out of conviction, but because these usually untalented individuals suddenly saw an unexpected chance to make a career.
From then onwards, the National Front's vote went on growing, stabilising over the past three years at the 15% mark. This, it must be said, is still only an electoral growth. Despite this, there are far fewer far-right activists in France than there were, say in the 60s, at a time when the far-right was irrelevant in elections; and the French far-right is for instance much less active than it seems to be in the former East-Germany. For the time being at least. But the potential danger is there. The National Front does not need, for the time being, to resort to physical tactics, nor does the bourgeoisie need it. Simply because the working class is not fighting. And the National Front can use this time to develop its milieu and its support, to create a buffer of organisations around it from which at some later stage they will be able to draw the troops needed for more agressive policies if they need to.
The far right's electoral growth fed on three elements. First on the general shift to the right in society which made its crude racist and anti-communist rhetoric acceptable for a section of the middle-class electorate. Second on the growing numbers of people in the poorest layers of society, including in the working class, who were looking for ways of expressing their anger against the government's policies and found that voting for the National Front was the most effortless way of doing so. Third, and foremost, on the shrinking visible presence of working-class political ideas and organisations within the working class itself.
The fact that "left" parties were seen implementing such drastic policies against the working class in collaboration with the union leadership led to working-class political and union activists who were at the receiving end of the grassroot's frustration, becoming demoralised and dropping out of activity. In the cafés or on the shopfloor, the pressure against racist prejudices, for instance, which had come previously from these same activists, became more patchy, opening the way for more overt racism. The network of working-class organisations, whether in the factories or in the council estates, turned into a skeleton in many areas.
In many respects this situation is not dissimilar to, and in some respect even not as bad as that in the British working class, where union branches have long been empty shells with a handful of activists mostly cut off from the membership and where active political activity among workers is by and large inexistent.
The difference, however, and it is a major one, is the fact that here, most workers blame the Tories and give Labour the benefit of the doubt. Workers may take shelter in individualism, they may be despondent, even cynical about politics and union organisations, but they do not blame working-class ideas for their situation. Whereas in France, where the same policies were implemented in the name of "socialism", working-class ideas and even the simple concept of collective action, came to be blamed more or less consciously by a layer of the working class and of the poorest sections of society.
Such is really the rotten ground on which the French far right has grown, one which was laid down unquestionably by the slavish policies of the French equivalent of the Labour party towards the capitalists.
"Reformist" parties... for the benefit of the capitalists
Parties such as the Labour Party in Britain or Mitterrand's Socialist Party in France are usually called "reformist" because of their alleged will to bring about reforms for the benefit of the working class. While few workers would ever believe that the Labour Party can change anything fundamental in society, or even take on the capitalists, many do believe that a Labour government would somehow reduce the burden on their shoulders and shift part of it onto the shoulders of the rich.
Yet, if the record of the Labour governments in the 60s and the 70s shows anything, it is precisely that it never was the case. On the contrary these governments acted as faithful trustees of the capitalists and waged a permanent war on their behalf against the militancy of the working class in order to keep its standard of living down. There was never any question of making the rich pay the cost of introducing reforms that would improve the lives of working people.
Even Labour's postwar government was not the "reforming" government that it has been made out to be since, at least not for the benefit of the working class. While the setting up of the NHS was progress in terms of the rationalisation it represented, neither the NHS nor the welfare system, which was introduced in the same period, were aimed at increasing the working class' share of social wealth, rather the opposite.
Faced with a working class which had all sorts of accounts to settle following the hardhips of the war, the bosses had no choice but to provide them with some form of benefit. The form they chose, the NHS and the welfare state, was initially drafted by various Tory and Liberal politicians as the cheapest possible, in so far as it was highly centralised and partly paid by the workers themselves. To all intents and purposes, these reforms were primarily designed to minimise the cost of keeping a large workforce on hand for the capitalists. And in fact, similar reforms were introduced throughout the rich countries during the same period: in France, by a government led by General De Gaulle, who could hardly be called a leftwinger, and some time later in Japan and in Germany, by semi-military regimes which were largely puppets of US imperialism.
More or less the same could be said of all the other measures taken by Labour between 1945 and 1951. They were all aimed at using state funds to increase profits, by keeping wages low and taking over the burden of investments from the capitalists, just as was the case under every government since, whether Labour or Tory.
Of course, there is a division of labour between the Labour party and its Tory playmate. Each of them has its own constituency in the electorate and their language and image are tailored to keep it. Labour claims to stand for the interests of the little guy while the Tories stand for those who can afford «the right to choose and the right to own », as Major puts it. But this is only rhetoric. When it comes to serious business, that is when they are in government or when there is a crisis situation, like during the miners' strike or the Gulf War, both parties stand up in defence of big business against any challenge or threat, whether it be the militancy of the working class or the demands of a Third World dictator.
Labour and Tories - the twins
The similarities between Mitterrand's policies and Thatcher's policies in the 80s are not coincidental. Nor is the fact that the same policies were implemented, with various local nuances, throughout the rich capitalist countries, by every government, regardless of its political label. To the extent that, in France, most people have already forgotten that a right-wing government was in office for a short time in 1986-88: that shows how indistinguishable its right-wing policies were from those of the previous and subsequent Socialist Party governments.
The last two decades of world capitalist crisis has gradually made the difference between left-wing and right-wing parliamentary parties even less significant - in terms of their policies, but this is not really new, and even in terms of the language they use.
Thus, today, across the rich countries, right-wing as well as left-wing governments can be seen striving to reduce all forms of benefits for the working class to the bare bone while offering always more handouts to companies and shareholders. Not that they are in any way forced to do so by economic circumstances. The states of the rich countries are far from being bankrupt and could easily re-allocate their expenditures to cater for a much more comprehensive health and welfare systems. In trimming them down these governments are only toeing the line laid down by the capitalist class.
The capitalists' increased demands are partly due, of course, to the crisis itself, because they need more incentives for capital, more state orders, more state subsidies, in order to maintain the same level of profits. But they are also the result of the existing balance of forces in the class struggle, partly itself a consequence of high unemployment, which provides the bosses with the confidence to claim a yet bigger share of the social wealth for themselves at the expense of the working masses.
And the deeper the economic crisis, the more precarious the situation of the working class, the more blows it takes without fighting back, the more the confidence of the bosses will grow, the more governments and aspiring ministers, will strive to help the capitalists squeeze more social wealth out of the working masses.
The increased pressure by the capitalist class on society is also reflected in other ways, in particular through a shift to the right across society, even in some sections of the working class itself, and through all sorts of old reactionary ideas which are coming back to the fore, like support for the death penalty and opposition to abortion. All this is part of a process which involves the whole of society and not just in Britain. And, in fact, so was the "yuppification" of the Labour and union bureaucracy in the late 80s. Neither Smith's "party of industry" rhetoric, nor Norman Willis' "filofax" unionism, are the by-product of some evil mind. They are only reflections of the reactionary pressure of capitalism on society.
Today, this pressure permeates every layer in society, in the poorest where it is reflected by a degree of cynicism towards politics in general and elections in particular, and in the better-off layers where the overt search for selfish individual satisfaction has become much more acceptable. From the mid-80s onwards, the Labour leadership responded to this change in the mood of the electorate, by shifting to the right in its language, in the hope of regaining from the Tories that small layer of voters it needed in order to get back into office. But even this shift was to no avail, or maybe it was both too little and too much: too little to allow Labour to win over the new voters they were aiming at and too much to allow them to fully mobilise their traditional working class electorate.
Those who question the "electability" of the Labour party, those who argue that it should change its name, may well be right in a sense, at least from an electoral point of view. More than ever the core of the working class, its most conscious section, is a minority in the electorate and it may well be the case that in order to become "electable" again, at least in the present circumstances, the Labour party would need to get rid of what little remains of its past links with the working class, to look like a bourgeois party similar to the others, just like the Liberal-Democrats and the Tories. It may also be the case that in doing so Labour would lose its remaining support among working-class voters and remain unelectable anyway.
In any case, behind Labour's past or present opportunistic changes in language, there is little change in its policies. It remains what it always was - a party that aims at using the illusions of working people to get promoted to government and become the faithful and trustworthy managers of capitalism, no more no less. And whether Labour is "electable" or not is therefore of no consequence to the working class.
Politics must become a weapon for the working class
By betraying their commitments and turning the screw on working people, past Labour governments only succeeded in giving a bad name to what Labour represented in the eyes of most people - the ideas of working-class solidarity and organisation, in particular. Those who believed that Labour would do something for them and who discovered in the end that all Labour had achieved was to bring back a Tory government with a vengeance, were disorientated, demoralised and often disgusted. And the late 70s in Britain as well as today's situation in France show how far this demoralisation can go, to the extent of feeding the development of significant far-right organisations.
Today's demoralisation and depoliticisation in the working class is of course a consequence of the economic crisis. But let's be sure, it is also a consequence of the past and present policies of the Labour and union leaders, whether in office or in opposition - policies which are aimed, first and foremost, at keeping the working class away from the political scene.
After the large anti-poll tax demonstrations in February-March 1990, particularly after the one in Trafalgar Square, there was a sense of achievement and of expectancy on the shopfloor, even among workers who had had no part in any of these demonstrations: at last the workers' anger against the poll-tax was being heard!
Likewise, what is going to count in the months and years to come, is the possibility for the discontented to express their anger and to gauge their numbers and determination. Whether the ministers in government are Labour or Tory will make no difference. Only the working class regaining a sense of its strength, of its capacity to influence events and to fight the system, can make a difference.
Even the current resurgence of reactionary ideas in society would soon be a thing of the past if the working class was seen fighting again, with its own political voice, and determined to defeat the diktats of the rich.
Of course, for the overwhelming majority of workers, politics is a somewhat unintelligible world that belongs to the politicians, stretching from the House of Commons to "Question Time", in which there is no space for ordinary workers, except maybe on election day. Yet politics have everything to do with ordinary people. The tens of thousands who demonstrated in Trafalgar Square on 31 March 1990, or the few thousand miners who played an active role all along during the miners' strike, had more impact on the political scene than the eleven million or so who voted Labour on 9 April.
Politics and political ideas may be the favourite game of Oxbridge graduates who make a career out of it. But in the real world, it is the balance of forces between classes, involving millions of ordinary people, that is decisive in shaping the political landscape. And a company chief executive may well be willing to listen to a team of bright economists advising him to implement so-called "Japanese"-style work practices, but only as long as he is not confronted by thousands of workers putting tools down and taking to the streets.
Yes, politics must be brought back into the working class. Not the politics of the politicians whose outlook never goes beyond the laws and the rules enacted by the capitalists to protect their own interests. But politics which can be a weapon in the hands of workers; politics that allow them to act today and to prepare for tomorrow; politics that help them to be more effective by being better organised; politics, finally, that are aimed at changing society by getting rid of its injustice and irrationality - in other words the politics of communism.