Unemployment debate

Source: Militant, no. 86 (December 10, 1971)
Transcription: Francesco 2010
Proofread: Fred 2010
Markup: Niklas 2010

All workers in the labour and trade union movement should get copies of Hansard [the official government publication covering the House of Commons Daily Debates] for 22nd November, dealing with the debate on unemployment. It shows the complete bankruptcy of the Tories, but also the failure of the Labour leaders to provide a viable and socialist alternative to the crisis at the present time. I shall quote extensively to demonstrate this.

What unemployment means, and the extent of the crisis was demonstrated by the Labour MP for Bradford South in Parliament on 25th November:

“A week ago, the Chairman of the Yorkshire and Humberside group of the Engineering Industries’ Association…warned that ‘Unless something was done soon, Yorkshire could become another Scotland or North-East’…We must all try to get the appalling unemployment figures down…After talking with my constituents, who came here yesterday from Bradford, I formed the very firm impression that never again would working people in this country tolerate the long years of degradation known to us and some of our fathers in the bad and hungry thirties…”

There is nothing concrete in the solutions offered. To appeal to the government of the employers against the employers is like appealing to Beelzebub against Satan. In the West Midlands there is now 7.8 percent unemployment. 14 adult males are looking for every available job, in the North-West it is 15 and in Scotland 36. In the areas of long-term unemployment, the North-East, Ulster and Wales, the figures are similar or even worse.

Barbara Castle, from the opposition front bench, opening the debate on unemployment quoted an editorial in The Times declaring:

“Unemployment is at its present level quite simply as the result of a combination of forecasting mistakes, and of a conscious policy preference for unemployment over accelerating inflation. The trouble is we have had both.”

After Barber had been speaking for a while, he was interrupted by a right-wing Labour MP:

“Will he (Barber) take back what he said about this being a political issue, because all shades of opinion are represented in this lobby this afternoon?”

This example of belly-crawling before the Conservatives was gladly taken up by Barber:

“If I understand the honourable gentleman aright, he is saying that this occasion should not be made a party political matter, in which case I agree with him.”

Employers invest for profit

This on the issue of unemployment and the right to work, the most fundamental political issue with which the working class is faced.

Barber went on to say:

“Demand and output have on the whole been rising, but productivity has been rising too, and indeed has been rising very fast. In the past, when we have had a period of unusually rapid growth of productivity, it has generally been in the context of a strong upsurge in demand and production, but the past 12 to 18 months have, in this important respect, been different. At a time of rather moderate growth in production, the growth of productivity has been unusually large.

“In fact, in the third quarter of this year output per head in the index of production industries is provisionally estimated at 6.25 percent higher than in the same period last year…But the concomitant of this remarkable improvement in productivity has on this occasion been the very large increase in unemployment.”

The blunt truth being that the workers have worked themselves out of a job. This shows the falsity of the argument of the Tories, which was used by Barber:

“The simple truth is that people have been literally pricing themselves out of jobs…”

“Whatever may have happened during this past year…He [Wilson] will deny that when he was Prime Minister, unemployment increased very considerably. Perhaps he will tell us one day whether he planned to ensure that unemployment at the time of the 1970 general election was at the highest level in any June for 20 or 30 years…”

In reply to the arguments of Barber, Frederick Lee, Labour MP, declared:

“I regret it as much as anyone but any trade union which is trying to break even for its members cannot accept an increase of less than 11 or 12 percent.”

He spoke for a “reasoned prices and incomes policy…” and argued for the Tories to abandon, in effect, Toryism! “The government must abandon economic policies which as a by-product produce unemployment…” And wagging a finger at big business: “With all the incentives offered now, I think it wrong that private enterprise should not be investing…”

There is a brutally simple answer to such whinings. Employers invest for profit; if it does not pay them, they will close down factories as easily as they close the doors of their Rolls and Jaguars.

Enoch Powell, the prophet of racialism and reaction, was in a theorising mood:

“The monetary belief, or the monetary myth, with which a whole generation has been reared—that an injection of money into the system is the automatic cure for unemployment—has collapsed in the face of the experience of the past 4 or 5 years.”

That should be the end of the delusion fostered also by the Labour leaders, that tinkering with the economy can solve the problems of capitalism. This illusion was still put forward in the debate, by Labour MPs, both left and right.

The Ulster Unionist, Mr. Onslow, declared openly and crudely:

“We need to adjust ourselves to this situation. We might as well ask ourselves among other things: how many unemployed graduates do we need in our society, let alone how many can we afford? In a situation which can best be defined, not by emotive reference to unemployment, with all the overtones that carried from the past, but as a condition of labour surplus, which defines it more accurately, should find it easier to feel our way towards some answers.”

The unemployed workers will feel better if they are told that they are not unemployed, but surplus to requirements! Change the name of a capitalist sewer and it will stink just as bad!

Norman Atkinson, speaking for the Tribune left, started off chauvinistically:

“I welcome…that the government will not countenance the giving of grants on any foreign contracts for infrastructure and work…”

However, he put forward some demands which should be strongly supported in the labour movement, by demanding that the trade unions have access to the books of the employers:

“What is happening in the capital market and in investment; who is getting what out of the kitty, in the firm; that all this information must be given to the unions, which will then negotiate their wage against price maxima.”

Jenkins, for the Labour right, as usual put forward the position which the capitalists stood for the day before yesterday:

“My second question is to raise the much more fundamental issue of whether the government are receding from the basic principle in the 1943 White Paper, and taking refuge in the view that if there is severe inflation in the economy, it absolves them from their central employment responsibility…[The government] plaintively saying that it is nothing to do with them and it is the fault of these who drove themselves into unemployment.”

Jenkins has learned nothing

“More basic patterns of expenditure on food, clothing and fuel show very little, if any, real growth. That is not only a cause of holding back the economy; it is also a result of millions of people—the old, the low paid, and the unemployed—having no opportunity at all to increase their purchases of the necessities of life…”

As the Tories have jeeringly pointed out, when he was Chancellor the same thing happened!

“What is the sense of proclaiming that profits are king and then failing to get a spark of investment enthusiasm out of most of the most profitable companies? Their doctrinaire beliefs…An uncontrolled market economy is as incapable of producing full employment now as it was in the thirties.”

Jenkins has learned nothing from the experience of the last Labour government, that it is impossible to control capitalism. That so long as the big monopolies control 85 percent of the wealth, it is their interests which will dictate to the capitalist state and not vice-versa. That this is so was shown by the admission of Carr in the winding-up debate:

“Therefore if we are to discuss this subject seriously, and I believe that this is what the country as a whole, and most of the unemployed, want, everyone has to admit that the sort of measures of demand management which appeared to work, and indeed did work, to control the overall level of unemployment in the past, now seem to have lost at least some of their previous effectiveness, or, if not their effectiveness in the end, in total, at least something of the speed at which they produced results, and it is worth noting that in the last year or so, other countries have been having the same experience. In other words, we may be entering a period when the old principles of demand management based on Keynes and the rest may no longer be operating as governments here of all parties, and governments in many countries, had come to expect them, with justice, to work hitherto.”

After this jeremiad he appealed:

“to all boards of directors to hasten their investment decisions and have confidence in the future. We appeal also to the trade unions to make and press their claims with realism and responsibility.”

Marxists have explained over and over again during the last decades that it was an illusion that so-called Keynesian measures could control the economy. Now the fall in the rate of profit internationally is coming together with other factors which are making for an end of the prolonged world economic upswing which followed the last war.

The Labour leaders would have even less success than the Tories in producing a growth of the economy if they tried to “control” the basic laws of the economy itself. The economy cannot go forward without massive investment, at each swing of the cycle even more massive investment. But capitalists do not invest for growth but for profit. If their profits do not increase, there would be a “strike of capital.”

Four-day week without reduction in pay

Meanwhile the classic phenomena of capitalism are manifesting themselves—poverty amid plenty, idle factories and idle workers, enormous sums of idle capital but no investment. One million unemployed workers productively employed could produce at least £3 a week extra for every family in Britain. Only 64 percent of productive capital is being used in Britain. Used to the maximum extent, it would mean greatly lowered hours and increased standards of living for all, including the poor, the sick, the old, the unemployed.

One thing stands in the way, as Karl Marx explained 100 years ago in Capital. The taking-over of the means of production of wealth, the factories, land, banks and insurance companies owned by a tiny handful, would banish the spectre of war, unemployment and poverty. Linked to workers’ management and control, it would mean a high standard of living for all.

We have given quotations from the Labour leaders, right and left. Why are they not organising a campaign on the crisis facing capitalism?

At the present time, the CAWU has forced a 4 day week in many factories facing redundancy. But this has been with a reduction in pay. Why should the workers bear the burden of capitalism’s crisis, which the employers and their government are responsible for? No sackings! For a 4-day week without reduction in pay! No overtime but a sliding scale of wages to compensate for the ever-increasing rise in prices!