16 JULY 1977, Page 4

Political commentary

Calamity by three votes

John Grigg

The miners have a habit of reaching decisions as disastrous for themselves as for the country by agonisingly narrow margins. In January 1972 they voted by a ballot majority of only three percentage points in favour of the strike which demonstrated the power of new picketing methods and shattered the conventions upon which free collective bargaining depended. This led to the Heath government's policy to control prices and incomes by statute, which in turn was destroyed by wildly escalating world commodity prices and by the NUM's deliberate use of industrial power for political ends.

The other day, at their conference at Tynemouth, the miners voted by a majority of only three (137 to 134) against acceptance of any nationally negotiated incentive scheme that would adjust earnings to the performance of individual collieries and workfaces. Negotiations for such a scheme were well advanced and the NCB was hoping that it might be in operation before the end of the year. As well as rejecting the proposed national scheme, delegates reaffirmed by the same three-vote majority their union's 1974 ballot decision against local incentive schemes.

The rejection of incentives was even more calamitous than the call for wage increases of up to £64 a week, because British miners would deserve to be far more highly paid if only they would produce more coal. (Indeed, wage levels generally in Britain should be much higher than they are, but cannot safely be raised without the assurance that productivity, too, will rise.) In the absence of incentives there seems to be little hope of the miners producing more. Today, despite buoyant demand for coal, output and productivity in the industry are both in decline.

The NUM's militancy since 1972 has done immeasurable damage to the British economy, and has even created a serious threat to our political system. But it has brought only limited real gains to the miners. On paper they have secured big pay increases, but in reality these have been largely nullified by the inflation which they have done so much to aggravate.

After two major strikes, the miners' average earnings are still only £5 a week higher than average earnings for the country as a whole (£75, compared with £70). In 1974, more especially, the value of their gains was swiftly engulfed in the inflationary torrent which their own action let loose, But experience seems to have taught them nothing. With inflation already at an unacceptable rate, they are prepared to start the whole ghastly cycle over again.

Joseph Gormley's warnings and pleas

were disregarded, and so were Jack Jones's at the conference of his enormous union later in the week. The TGWU vote gave the coup de grace to the Government-TUC policy of voluntary pay restraint. If another wages explosion is to be avoided the Government will have to act on its own, because power in the trade unions has clearly passed, for the time being, from the 'generals' to the 'colonels', or even in some cases to the 'sergeant-majors'.

Some misguided people on the right may welcome this development, but in fact it is a national catastrophe. Trade union power is far more dangerous when it is anarchically deployed than when it is subject to some moderating influence from the centre. The 'generals' relatively responsible attitude towards inflation has, admittedly, been combined with a troublesome addiction to obsolete left-wing dogmas, so that the socalled social contract has been too much of a socialist contract. But the 'colonels' and 'sergeant-majors' tend to be more rather than less doctrinaire. Anarchy on pay will not, therefore, be offset by any weakening of ideology.

Nothing, in any case, could genuinely mitigate the horror of a wages free-for-all in present circumstances. Giles Radice was right to say in the House of Commons last Thursday that it would 'undo all the sacrifices that trade unionists have made over the last two years, and abort any economic recovery'. But Mr Callaghan did not sound quite the same note of unqualified alarm. In the event of a wages explosion, he said, 'a great deal of the hopes that we have for reducing inflation will be destroyed'.

The Government has consistently failed to give the country, and the trade unions in particular, the necessary lead on this supremely important issue. There has been too much talk about the Promised Land and far too little about the desert that has first to be crossed.

Mr Wedgwood Benn spoke to the miners after their fatal votes, and he did say that large wage increases would have to be earned. But he also resorted to the familiar tactic of implying that nasty-minded capitalists 'at home and abroad' were to blame for Labour's difficulties. Mr Callaghan and Mr Healey must not look for scapegoats. They must accept their own responsibility, and must be ready to part company with any colleagues who are unwilling to share it.

Their task has been made no easier by the untimely leak of a study of economic prospects which, apparently, a group of official 'experts' is due to submit to the Common Market finance ministers later this month. According to Keith Richardson in the Sun day Times, this study assumes that 'wages will rise faster than the British Government's 10 per cent forecast,' but concludes — unbelievably —that 'this would be good rather than harmful, because the extra money would be spent and so help to create extra jobs.'

The absurdity of the group's conclusion becomes obvious in the light of the conditions attached to it. It depends., the 'experts' say, upon 'wages not getting too far out of control, and the extra money being spent on goods made in British factories rather than on imports.' But of course these conditions would not be met — or would be met only if Britain were subjected to the protectionist and authoritarian siege economy which the left has been putting forward as 'the socialist alternative'. In other words, meeting them would involve, among other things, Britain's withdrawal from the Common Market.

If the anonymous officials in Brussels were all under-cover agents of the Soviet Union, they could hardly, therefore, be doing a better job of promoting Russian interests. In fact, they are presumably guilty of no more than the special form of silliness which the word 'expert' has come to connote, above all in the field of economics.

The right course for the Government would be to bring in a statutory prices and incomes policy, combined with threshold agreements and limited tax concessions. Unfortunately this would seem almost 'a repeat of Mr Heath's policy, which has been anathematised by Labour (as well as by a large section of the Tory Party). But when the country is in danger, patriotic statesmen must not be inhibited by out-of-date slogans and theories.

The truth is that Mr Heath's anti-inflation policy had much to commend it, and that one aspect of it — threshold agreements — has far more to commend it now than in 1973-4, when the precipitous rise in world commodity prices turned it into an inflationary nightmare. Today commodity prices are falling and thresholds would be likely to have a reassuring effect without any subsequent ill-effects.

The politics of a statutory prices and incomes policy, introduced by Mr Cal laghan, would be fascinating. He could not, of course, introduce it at all without the support of a majority in his Cabinet and the PLP, and he would need to be able to count upon at least the acquiescence of a considerable number of trade unions.

Granted these indispensable conditions, the policy would have the merit, from his point of view, of cementing his agreement with the Liberals and of throwing the Tories into some confusion. It would be difficult for Mr Heath to vote against his own policy, and the general public would not take very kindly to a voting alliance in Parliament between the official Opposition, the left wing of the Labour Party, and probably also the regional parties, to defeat a Government which at last was acting manifestly in the national interest.