Socialist Worker
Socialist Worker

Labour’s betrayal is nothing new

by Ian Birchall

Ed Miliband and Ed Balls have said that Labour must prove itself as a “responsible opposition” by accepting wage freezes and pay cuts.

Millions who see Labour as the only alternative to the gang of rich bullies in the Tory cabinet will have been deeply disappointed.

Unite general secretary Len McCluskey pointed out that those who have campaigned and struck against Tory cuts are now “disenfranchised”.

The Guardian—which has a quite undeserved reputation for being on the left—responded with a sneer about the unions wanting “a Labour leader who would jump when they whistled”.

The idea that Miliband—or any Labour leader—is a tool of the trade unions is a fantasy. It is dreamt up by journalists whose knowledge of the real world does not extend beyond talking to other journalists in the pub.

Sadly, there is absolutely nothing new about the line being pushed by Miliband and Balls.

The Labour Party was created by the trade unions. But when it comes to making a choice between trade unionism and the interests of the bosses, Labour leaders have never been in any doubt.

In 1945 Clement Attlee headed what is generally seen as the most radical Labour government ever.

But just five days after coming to power he sent troops into the Surrey Docks in London to break a strike. Troops were used against strikers another 17 times before 1951.

In 1964 prime minister Harold Wilson carried the hopes of many socialists for a fairer society.

But in 1966, faced with a financial crisis—a very minor one by present-day standards—he introduced a six month pay freeze.

Wilson and Barbara Castle, a well known left winger, planned “In Place of Strife”, a plan for laws to limit trade union rights.

Though this was defeated, it paved the way for the anti-union laws that later Tory governments would introduce.

Strike

In 1974 Labour came to power as a result of a miners’ strike which forced Tory leader Edward Heath into a premature general election.

But Wilson and his successor, James Callaghan, showed no gratitude to the trade union activists and voters who had put them into office.

Labour introduced the Social Contract—often known as the “Social Con Trick”. In 1975 this became a legal limitation on wage increases—accompanied by massive cuts in public spending.

The introduction of the pay controls brought jubilation on the stock exchange. Shares rose by £2 billion on the Tuesday afternoon that Labour chancellor Denis Healey announced the new limit on wage rises.

Between 1948 and 1973 real wages (measured against prices) had risen by an average of 2 percent per year. During Labour’s five years they fell by an average of 1.6 percent.

But left wingers Michael Foot and Tony Benn sat in the cabinet and did not resign. Foot, once a fiery leftist, told Labour Party conference that they should show “the red flame of socialist courage” in accepting wage controls.

So there is nothing new in the abject mumbling of Balls and Miliband. Yet there has been a change.

The old Labour right wing, men like Hugh Gaitskell and Anthony Crosland, hated left wingers and trade union militants. But they were in favour of redistributing wealth.

Labour’s 1973 election programme promised a “fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of working people and their families”. The present bunch do not even promise a redistribution of wealth.

Until a real alternative emerges, socialists will go on voting Labour.

But if we want an alternative it will come from below—from those who built last March’s massive demonstration and the 30 November strike.

Labour promises to act on behalf of working people. But when it comes to the crunch, it will always opt in favour of the existing order.

In the words of the great socialist William Morris, we need a movement that is built “by us, and not for us”.


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Tue 24 Jan 2012, 18:08 GMT
Issue No. 2287
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