15 MARCH 1975, Page 6

Political Commentary

Labour how deep the divide?

Patrick Cosgrave

Some months ago I argued in this column that, despite appearances to the contrary, there was less division in the ranks of the Labour Party than there was among those of the Conservative Opposition. That argument would not, of course, prevail today. Save for a trivial outrider or two, and a handful of the determinedly disgruntled, the Conservative Party is today united. This is not to say that it is ready for government; or that Mrs Thatcher, if suddenly assumed into power tomorrow, would be certain in her own mind about what to do. Patently, that would not be the case, and a great deal of work remains to be tackled by the Tories before they can hope to provide Britain with able or consistent government. Does it remain true, though, that the Labour Party is not as divided as it appears? On a correct answer to that question Tory tactics might well depend.

Let us take, first of all, the dramatic row between Mr Reg Prentice and Mr Michael Foot, and the ambiguous interventions in the subject of their dispute by the Prime Minister. Here surely is evidence of a deep and bitter dispute? The press, and commentators in other media, have quickly dubbed Mr Prentice the moderate and Mr Foot the revolutionary — revolutionary either because, like Mr Benn, he wants to see trade union power rampant in the land, or because, being a romantic, he is unwilling to confess to himself that the trade unionists whose interests he has admired for so many years are quite devoid of any sense of the national interest. Because there is a ready acceptance of the truth of the belief that such a division does indeed exist between the Secretary of State for Education and the Secretary of State for Employment, there is a tendency for Conservatives to line up with the former against the latter. It is a silly tendency, for the truth is that the two men are wholly united in their basic aims; and the only difference between them is on methods.

To see the truth of this proposition Conservatives have only to ask themselves one question: how moderate is Mr Prentice as a Secretary of State for Education: how reasonable is he in that post; how careful of the rights and interests of citizens? The quick and true answer, of course, is that Mr Prentice is one of the most radical and radically destructive Education ministers Britain has ever seen, determined to sweep away every educational institution in the country which opposes him in the interests of the socialist dogma of which he is a standard-bearer. It could even be argued that Mr Prentice looks like being, in the long run, more destructive than Mr Foot. The Secretary of State for Employmen't may support ruinous economic policies, but these policies may quickly have to endure the. corrective of events, when they are made impossible to pursue by high unemployment caused by excessive spending. But, if Mr Prentice destroys the already declining British school system, there will be no corrective ready to hand.

The real economic difference between Mr Prentice and Mr Foot is this. Mr Prentice does not, in his heart, believe that the economic problems of Britain will be resolved without a return to a statutory incomes policy. He would like to see the unions behaving with restraint, and observing the terms of the social contract (whatever they may be). Mr Foot either believes that most unions are responsible organisations, concerned with the interests of the working classes as well as those of their onw members (though it is hard to believe that a man of his intelligence holds to any such view) or he has deliberately closed his eyes to the virtually total lack of interest of all the major unions in any cause other than their own, because he cannot bear the fact that the spectacle his open eyes would have to look on would destroy all the dreams of solidarity which he has cherished for a generation.

And the Prime Minister has, of course, his own and unvarying set of principles. He is deeply convinced that, as long as he is in office, all will come right in the end and, meanwhile, there must be no overt Labour split. Mr Wilson has long since ceased to believe that individual policies take one anywhere, or are worth adhering to. He believes in going through government and politics with a touch on the tiller here and there — slapping down Mr Prentice one week, implicitly supporting him the next — and in the hope that something or other will turn up.

The logical implication of Mr Foot's position is a wages free-for-all, with ho discipline, whether statutory or of the market, imposed on trade union demands. Mr Wilson, in his weekend speech at Taunton, spelled out exactly why this could not work: there is not enough money, and the full extent of the country's borrowing capacity has almost been reached, The logical implication of Mr Prentice's position is that, if all else fails, and if the unions will not restrain themselves, the Government will have to restrain them itself. Either position is absurd.

Mr Foot's position leads inevitably to economic bankruptcy, especially when it is added to the philosophy of Mr Wedgwood Benn. Mr Benn's philosophy is that — in bald summary — no worker should lose his job who does not want to and that, therefore, if a firm is failing, government and workers together must keep it in existence, especially with govern ment cash. Although the Prime Minister has endeavoured more than once to administer rhetorical correctives to this philosophy it remains true that it creates a climate in which — whatever the specific warnings to workers like those of British Leyland — bloody-minded trade unionists can make massive claims as they wish and, if they are strong enough, be pretty certain that government will bale them out in the end, or until the catastrophe. Now, Mr Foot and Mr Benn look forward to the Socialist millennium. But so, as his activities at the DES demonstrates, does Mr Prentice. He merely wants to arrive at it in a different way. If, as he believes, the social contract does not work, and if he eschews a free-for-all, he must admit one of two other disciplines — statutory control of incomes, or unemployment.

This is not the place to summarise the whole of the argument against all statutory incomes policies, save the quick and short freeze. They have never worked, and they never will work. They bring workers and government into immediate and painful conflict and a conflict in

which, moreover, right is *not all on government's side. For the prime cause of inflation is

government over-spending, and trade union selfishness is only a subsidiary cause. Moreover, as Mr Heath found out, incomes policies become more and more elaborate, bureaucratic and unworkable as time goes by, until they either collapse under the weight of their own contradictions or produce an economy wholly controlled by the state — the socialist econornY which Mr Foot and Mr Benn and Mr Prentice are all working towards. Let us assume the existence in Britain of a government that was determined to make n° further contribution towards inflation.

Through a high taxation and lower spending policy — the balance between the two would

depend on the precise makeup of the govern

ment, and its objectives in general terms — it would strive, over a period, to reduce the public sector spending deficit and balance the budget.

In Britain now this would take some time, especially as the government would wish to

minimise the socially undesirable side-effects

of choking off government spending too quickly. Now, such a policy would not

immediately, or even in the medium run, reduce

trade union militancy. Indeed, such have been the unhappy events of the last few years, under governments of both parties, that British trade union leaders have acquired so overweeninglY high an idea of themselves that it will probablY take a very long time indeed to cut them down to size.

Well then, what does a government bent orl reducing public expenditure do when con fronted by excessive wage demands? Without

seeking confrontation, or imposing statutorY controls it refuses to make available funds which it does not possess, either for the shoring up of business or the subsidisation of prices. Prices then rise, business contracts, and men

are thrown out of work. Almost certainlY, unless trade unionists receive a sudden injection of plain common sense, there will be 3 very painful period indeed, in which the most government can hope to do is protect to sorne extent the weaker elements in the communitY from the consequences of trade union actionci However, the great advantage of this Peri9 would be that, during it, it would become plal that the only creators of serious unemploymer" in Britain — and this has been true for marl years — are the union bosses. They are, as wrote the other week, not the working classes; but the bureaucracy of the working classes, all they care little for their members as long as they hold power. No socialist can, of course, say that, beca_e he is too deeply identified with the men Wil", make unemployment. Tories, however, can,. a„! long as they are not deluded into taking the si°,' of Mr Prentice against Mr Foot, in the sil'Y belief that Mr Prentice is a less extreme chaP than his ministerial colleague.