Lord Robens and his Problems
MARGARET STEWART writes:
The National Coal Board's accounts, just pub- lished, show that the Board just about broke even financially in the fifteen months which ended in March, 1964, and that it sold about 250 million tons of coal during this period. These results are reasonably healthy and certainly do not confirm the fears recently expressed that the Board would again be in the red. There is. however, considerable uncertainty about its future, and the developments in the North Sea search' for oil and natural gas represent a new and unpredictable factor in the situation.
Lord Robens has now been chairman of the Coal Board for nearly four years. He was one of several Labour MPs who left active politics during the doldrums that followed the 1959 debacle—among them, Hilary, Marquand, Geoffrey de Freitas, George Chetwynd and Kenneth Younger. Now de Freitas looks like making a Comeback, but one de Freitas does not make a summer, and there are no signs of arty other re-entries to the lists. Certainly Lord Robens Is not an immediate contender. He means to run his full term; i.e., until February, 1966; He has even been-thinking of a second term of office (if offered)—but 1966 is a long way ahead, and his is a job which would daunt even the toughest business executive.
At present, however, Lord Robens has not reached any decision about his future. Some people, recalling the bitter antagonism during the Bevanite rows of the 1950s, might say that he was too much on the right to fit into a Wilson Cabinet. But Harold Wilson has too high a respect for technical proficiency to let any old feuds rankle and has shown no inhibitions about former Gaitskell henchmen in his Shadow ap- pointments. Lord Robens, on his side, has been impressed by Mr. Wilson's performance since he became Leader, and there is no doubt that together they would make a formidalile alliance.
The success of the Robens regime at the Coal Board cannot yet be measured. He has staked his reputation on three main policy objectives:
1. To maintain output at 200 million tons a
2.To get the Coal Board out of the red; and 3. To hold prices stable.
So far, he has succeeded in all three objectives. The 200-million-ton mark was reached in 1963, the Board had a financial surplus, and there has been no general rise in prices for three and a half years.
The Board, however, is known to be under pressure from the Government to lower its sights and aim at a more 'realistic' target of about 180 million tons, or even less. Robens is, in his own words, 'relentlessly' sticking to the 200- million-ton figure. The Board argues that if the forecast that Britain's energy require- ments will reach over 300 mil- lion tons a year by 1966 is correct, it is only reasonable that coal should supply two- thirds of this total. The alter- native would be drastically to speed the closing-down of uneconomic pits—there are now estimated to be about 140 pits which between them lost about £28 million in 1963. To do so would mean sacking thousands of miners. Economists might argue the theoretical case for moving men from a declining occu- pation to expanding indust- ries, but this overlooks the social consequences of such a move. In any case, it would be difficult, to say the least, to retrain an elderly miner to operate a computer.
Lord Robens and the Board have also been under pressure from the miners and had a very rough ride this summer. The threat of a national coal strike, which loomed in May, was averted by the union leaders' decision to adopt de- laying tactics and refer the wages issue to a coalfields ballot. The ballot produced
a two-to-one majority in favour of accept- ing the NCB offer of increases ranging from 7s. 6d. to 12s. a week for about 300,000 daily paid men and craftsmen—the absolute limit to which it was prepared to go. The vote, hailed by the more moderate leaders as a vindication of their policy, was a setback for the militants who had been conducting a remorseless cam- paign against Lord Robens. Indeed, to thumb through the press reports during April and May, months of rising tension over the protracted paY negotiations, one would imagine oneself back n the 1920s, when the miners really were down- trodden and depressed, and the coal owners a set of 'hard-faced businessmen.'
With the ballot out of the way and the pros- pect of coalfields peace assured, the men's leaders will turn to the formidable task of working out a new wages structure for the industry. They have promised to report to a delegate conference bY January. There is undoubtedly a very real conflict between the interests of the production workers and the craftsmen, which has been accentuated by the increasing tempo of mechanisation.
At the moment, thanks to almost superhuman salesmanship efforts, coal is precariously holding its own, though local strikes and go-slows and the milder 'weather in the first months of the year combined to upset calculations, and pro- ductivity has not increased at the hoped-for. rate. The coal lobby is successfully resisting the oil lobby (to lift the fuel-oil tax would mean a loss of ten to twelve million tons of coal). The Board has negotiated satisfactory long-term contracts for the power stations, but the gas in- dustry is increasingly turning to oil distillates and the railways no longer provide a .market, 1 he household front has been surprisingly well held. A recent market survey showed that of 418,000 new central-heating installations in 1963, solid fuel accounted for over half the total.
The balance, however, is very delicate. The coal industry's prospects, like those of every other industry, will inevitably be affected by what happens in October. The Conservative approach is somewhat schizophrenic—the desire to claim 'success for -coal is tempered with anxiety not to provide an advertisement for nationalisation. A new Conservative Government might not be so kind to Hobart House as the present one has been. As for the Labour Party, it is committed to a 'national fuel policy,' though nobody knows' quite what that means in terms of the mid-1960s. This is certainly another of those awkward questions buzzing round Harold Wilson's head. Any government, whatever its complexion, will have to deal with the coal in- dustry on economic, not political, grounds.