17 NOVEMBER 1961, Page 5

Meshing into Gear

By JOHN COLE THE TUC's new economic policy report— which is being held in the files at Congress House as a repository of wisdom, rather than exposed to the vulgar gaze—offers the first real hope that the Chancellor's new national plan- ning body might succeed. It is still a thin hope, hemmed in by ifs and buts, but at least the young men in Mr. Woodcock's economic de- partment have revealed that the British trade union movement is not, as some observers bad thought, fixed in hopeless immobility.

The trouble about the TUC's economic advice to successive Conservative Chancellors over the past ten years is that it has appeared to take all and give nothing. Even when the Labour Party was planning its election policy three or four years ago, the words on wages which the unions consented to include were all fluff and air. A Labour Government would produce a just, equitable and expanding society, and then the unions would see what they could do to help: that was what it amounted to. It was not neces- sary for the Conservatives to exploit the obvious weakness: that the unions stood for 'planning— but not for 'us.' Labour's largest single electoral handicap was the absence, not so much of a written policy on wages, as of any sign that in- flation would be more controllable under a Labour Government. This probably influenced far more voters than did the distaste for nationalisation, about which the Right wing of the Labour Party has worried so much.

Now, softly and in private, the TUC General Council has faced some of the real prob- lems of the expanding economy which it has preached so assiduously. In place of the parrot cry of 'no redundancy,' from which Mr. Carron has never succeeded in wooing his AEU National Committee, the TUC has put a recog- nition that if some industries expand, others must contract, and that this means men losing their jobs. Indeed, it goes further and argues that a deliberate acceleration of the decline in doomed industries is justified. All this, of course, will be accompanied by measures to cushion the social effects—unemployment benefit much nearer a basic wage, proper compensation for redundancy and, above all, the chance of getting another job quickly. If individual British unions accept the thinking behind this report, it could cause them to become something more than wage-increase machines. The prospects of guarauteed annual wages, 'staff conditions' for manual workers (to remove one of the great props of English snobbery), and other social im- provements are almost limitless.

It should also cheer up businessmen who are wondering how the rigid British economy will fare if exposed to the rigours of the Common Market. No one should get the idea that the unions will henceforth consent to 'redundancy on the cheap.' They would be failing in their duty if they did, and unless British industry is prepared to pay, a proper price for a new mobility of labour between industries, the deal is off. An expanding, flexible economy is no great joy to a man who knows that his wife and children will suffer under it.

This, surely, is the time for enlightened em- ployers to initiate what the Ministry of Labour calls 'positive employment policies.' If a union has not the sense to ask for a redundancy agree- ment, why should an employer not offer one? (From a cynical point of view, it's a good way to disarm the trouble-makers.) If the motor in- dustry, for example, would spend some of the time it devotes at present to looking for Reds under the bed to finding how it can remove the permanent feeling of insecurity among its workers, it might have fewer strikes. No one doubts that agitators take their chances in the motor factories skilfully, but secret Communist meetings in Milan or Vienna are less important than the meeting a car-worker has with his wife when they discover that short-time or redun- dancy will interrupt the HP repayments on the washing-machine.

The new willingness which has germinated, in the back rooms of Congress House to safeguard the future as well as the present is also reflected in a section of the report on consumption. Although the unions will never consent to some abstract principle called 'wage restraint,' and although their ultimate aim for an expanding economy is, quite rightly, fatter wage packets, they do acknowledge that things might be diffi- cult in the first gear of expansion. A great con- centration on exports would be needed to solve the balance of payments problem, and a larger proportion of our resources would have to be devoted to investment. This means a slower rate of increase in consumption, and although the TUC would probably tolerate, even expect, higher taxation under a Labour Government to finance its social programme, it argues that if enormous tax increases are to be avoided and inflation held in check, compulsory savings are needed, in this interim period, to siphon off sur- plus purchasing power. Deferred benefits, such as sickness and pension schemes, are obvious goals for the unions, but there is also a sugges- tion that workers should be given interest-bear- ing government bonds, instead of the immediate large wage increases they would normally de- mand in a time of expansion.

All this, of course, should be accompanied by social and investment policies so radical that the other side of industry would find them hard to swallow. Before tliis document, it was only possible to guess at the width of the gap divid- ing Mr. Selwyn Lloyd's idea of planning from that of the TUC. Even now, it would be a help if the Chancellor was either clearer or franker about what he is trying to do. But at least the unions' cards, if not on the table, are neatly arranged in their hand, leaving the issue that much 'the clearer.' It is just a pity that the establishment of the planning board had to co- incide with the mutual suspicions and anger which are inseparable from the Government's wages 'pause.' After the Ombudsman, we badly need a government psychologist.