Search for a Wages Policy
By JOHN COLE
TIIR three phases of the Government's in- comes policy have now become four. The 'pause' ended in April, and the intermediate phase has just been brought' to an untimely end by the Civil Service Arbitration Tribunal's award of 4 per cent. to 485,000 of the Govern- ment's own employees. This, coming on top of the docks settlement and the gradual snuffing of the 'guiding light' of 21 per cent. by the granting of larger increases to many of the smaller and less significant groups of workers, has left a vacuum. The next phase in the Government's plan is for the National Economic Development Council to produce a long-term policy for in- comes.
But Neddy's members, and particularly its Director-General, Sir Robert Shone, are deter- mined not to put this most difficult of all its tasks at the top of the agenda, lest the initial amiability between employer and union members should not survive the argument. So the greatest optimist in the world—and, in this context. Mr. Selwyn Lloyd has some claim to the title— cannot expect anything worthwhile on wages out of Neddy before next summer.
What will happen during this vacuum of a full year is all too obvious. It is debatable whether the Government's maladroit handling of the two early phases has pushed opinion one inch in the direction of the greater discipline in wage claims which it wants. But even assuming that it has, the year will see a steady drift back to the com- plete free-for-all, with the pressure intensified by the anger of people who feel that they were left behind during the pause. All the damage that was done to industrial relations will have been in vain. So, the Government may reflect, will the political damage it suffered in places like Orpington, where the poorly organised white- collar workers felt that this was a simple policy of the weakest to the wall.
Now that it is over, what is the lesson to be learnt from this unfortunate first stage of the Government's inevitable effort to get a policy on incomes? The principal one is both sobering for the Government and satisfying to democrats— that in a free society in peacetime, no govern- ment can hope to achieve any objective, how- ever desirable, on the basis that the end justifies the means. The Chancellor's determination to tackle wage inflation, the ever-present spectre at the nation's feast of prosperity, was all to his credit, and it is his misfortune that the Govern- ment's unscrupulous methods of tackling it have robbed him of the praise that was his due.
'Unscrupulous' is not too strong a word., What is the point in the Minister of Labour's going preaching to the unruly shop-stewards of the motor industry about the sanctity of industrial agreements and promises if the Government is prepared to do whatever is expedient about its own agreements? Indeed, until last week, the message of the past year in labour relations was this: that not only the Communists in the unions, but the Government, as representative of the community, now accepted that might was right.
They proved it with the railwaymen, who were not willing to strike; they proved-it with the 'M' grade of the industrial civil service and the Ad- miralty men, who were unable to do so for tactical reasons; they proved it by the surrender to the electricity supply workers, whom Mr. Frank Foulkes presented as straining at the leash; they proved it—when all the dissimulation about Mr. Macmillan's Saturday lunch had been dispelled— by the docks settlement; the probation officers, the nurses, the postmen and the Post Office engineers (who even had their arbitration award whittled down by the Government) learned that there is no protective law in labour relations when you are weak.
But justice has not been wholly mocked, and the mills of Sir George Honeyman, the chairman of the Civil Service Arbitration Tribunal, have ground small. The Treasury has really been a victim of its own folly here. Perhaps it is too much to expect the men at Great George Street, beset by all their other troubles, to be expert in labour relations. Some simple souls like me used to think that they could take the advice of the Ministry of Labour before walking with ammuni- tion boots through the velvet lawns of industrial agreements, arbitration and the rest. But if the water-tight-compartments mentality of Whitehall develops much further, the boilermakers will be sending Mr. Ted Hill down for a refresher course on demarcation.
On one subject, no expertise was necessary, however, and that was the probable effect on arbitrators of having their powers turned on and off like a tap by the Government. When the Treasury withdrew from Sir George's tribunal the power to fix operative dates for its awards, and so effectively suspended arbitration in the Civil Service, there was a shout of protest from the unions. Mr. Richard Hayward, leader of the staff side in the Civil Service, has always placed his whole faith in unfettered arbitration, eschew- ing the wordy threats of half-baked, work-to- rule campaigns in some his constituent unions. Well, Mr. Hayward was proved right last week. The arbitrators may not have protested publicly when their powers were suspended a few months ago, but they thought their own thoughts, and waited.
After listening to the most explicit demands that a government spokesman has ever put to such a tribunal for its policy to be supported, the arbitrators cocked a dignified snook at the Treasury. As is usual, no reasons were given for the award. But no carefully-penned declaration of principles could have said more clearly than the 4 per cent. that this independent body does not recognise the right of a government to enter a game halfway through, and make its own rules. So we are back where we started in the search for an incomes policy, though if the Govern men accepts Sir George's lesson it may do better in future.