Odds against Mr Wilson and Jack Jones
Mr Jack Jones's undeniable triumph at Blackpool was undoubtedly considerable comfort to the Prime Minister, whose total conviction is that he can defeat inflation only if his new incomes policy works. There was, moreover, an encouraging indication at Blackpool that increasing numbers of trade unionists, recognising that their militancy in recent years has significantly contributed not so much to inflation as to unemployment and bankruptcy, were now anxious to moderate their wage demands. However, there was one significant silence at Blackpool, that of Mr Hugh Scanlon, President of the AUEW: Mr Scanlon has long since sundered his alliance with Mr Jones; he is opposed root and branch to any form of incomes policy, even the relatively unsophisticated one now favoured by Mr Wilson; but he failed to take the opportunity of speaking in the main economic debate at the conference. His strategy is clear: he is not prepared to take the odium which, given Mr Jones's stance, attaches to militancy; but he is convinced that the present package will fail, and he stands ready to take up the cudgels on behalf of trade union socialism once Mr Wilson and Mr Jones have been discredited.
What prospect is there that this will happen? Certainly, if anybody could make an incomes policy work as a weapon in the battle of inflation it would be Mr Jones. Both within his own union and in the trade union movement generally, his efficiency and ruthlessness in the service of causes which he supports recalls the great days of Ernest Bevin, and his performance at Blackpool indicated that he is as little averse to using the muscle of Britain's largest trade union against dissenters within the movement. But, for Mr Jones to succeed, Mr Wilson and Mr Healey will have to bring off a most difficult tightrope act. As they know perfectly well, for their anti-inflation policy to succeed there must be an increase in unemployment, a decline in welfare standards, a sharp reduction in public expenditure and, in particular, a decrease in spending on industrial subsidisation. If all these things happen too quickly Mr Jones will be unable to keep his troops in line; if they do not happen quickly enough inflation will go on galloping ahead to the destruction of government and trade unions alike. On Mr Wilson's side is the fact that the inflationary effect of Mr Heath's over-spending has lost most of its impact, partly because of the delayed effect of Lord Barber's last reductions in public spending. Against him is the fact that the cutbacks already signalled by the government, and particularly by Mr Crosland, are far too small to weigh in the balance against a public expenditure deficit of nine billion pounds.
The political season ahead is going to be difficult beyond belief, for the Government is going to have to face not only the problem of making little cuts here and there, and ignoring various worthy causes — all, so to speak, when the trade unions are not looking — but it is also, if it is serious about tackling inflation, going to have to go back on various of its manifesto commitments as well. So far even Mr Benn — in his latest letter to his constituents — has preserved, in the face of the doubts and worries of the Labour movement, the fiction that the government will be able, without considerable damage to the national economy, to carry out a thorough-going socialisation of Britain. There are, of course, a large number of intelligent and able left wingers who see that this cannot be done — simply because the manifesto commitments will be too expensive — but want the attempt to be made anyway because, like Mr Benn, they are perfectly prepared to accept an economic collapse as part of the price they will have to pay for the destruction of British capitalism and the introduction of what they consider to be — rightly — real socialism. They are all the happier in this prospect because — as, again, Mr Benn's letter demonstrates — they have had some success in persuading people that the failures of the British economy are the failures of capitalism, rather than of government. Mr Wilson and Mr Healey have no desire to go so far but, given their tactical problems with the trade unions, and their strategic problems with the implementation of the manifesto, it is difficult to see how they can avoid falling foul of one section of their party or another.
The first indication of how determined Mr Wilson and his ministers really are will come with the Queen's Speech at the opening of the new parliamentary session. There are numerous pieces of legislation already in the pipeline — from the Community Land Bill to the nationalisation of the aircraft industry — which will involve truly enormous increases in public expenditure, and in the bureaucracy needed to administer state activity as well. Unless the great majority of these are to be postponed, then there is no possibility whatsoever that the Government will be able to edge its way out of its present difficulties.
Since the Prime Minister is inclined to think only for the day, there is not much chance of his seeing the wisdom of such postponements. He is also, of course, the unwitting and helpless victim of the unavoidable contradictions which plague an advanced socialist party in a democratic country with a mixed and ailing economy. There is, quite simply, no possibility of implementing the policies of such a party which are designed to effect an irreversible restructuring of the economy and society of such a country without first producing a wreckage. The Labour Party is now in a much more advanced state of socialist commitment than it has been at any time since the war, and the British economy is in more trouble than it has been at any time during that period, so the contradictions Mr Wilson faces in his attempt to restore economic health to Britain are virtually insurmountable. And one of the first victims of his failure will, it seems, be Mr Jack Jones.