4 NOVEMBER 1972, Page 10


Militants and moderates

Terry Pitt

Whenever trouble faces the British economy—whether it be industrial ineffici ency (1961), international finance (1967) or pure pig-headed government (1972) — the easiest scapegoat has always been the collective organisations of labour. In Pratts Club and Whites the strident tones of 'subversion,' 'anarchy ' or 'chaos' have been heard; while the analysts of Tory strategy have rubbed their hands and raised the age-old cry, " Who governs the country?" accompanied by the chorus of lobby correspondents who automatically assume that such an election would result in a Tory landslide. It ain't, of course, necessarily so.

I write on Monday as the Downing Street talks are about to resume; and I may be proved completely wrong. But I dare to say that Paul Ferris, Edward Heath and the more cautious of Labour's own are wrong to apply conventional wisdom to the present trade union force in Britain. The tone of Ferris's book* is set in the first few pages. The very first name to be mentioned is, amazingly, that of Bert Ramelson, industrial organiser of the Communist Party. In the next few pages of text we are told that Hugh Scanlon "seized" the presidency of the engineers Union; that the Transport Workers "moved abruptly" to the left when " Deakin was replaced as General Secretary by Frank Cousins" (apparently, after thorough research, Ferris missed the fact that the T&GWU had a General Secretary called Jock Tiffin between the two!); and that Lawrence Daly, who beat Joe Gormley by the narrowest of votes for the Miners' Union secretaryship, has as his greatest significance an article he wrote in 1961 for Political Quarterly.

Forget, please, the fact that John Boyd would almost certainly have beaten Trades unions began with S'partactis. They may have produced by 1960 suCh leaders as Williamson, Lawther and Deakin, but that did not mean that working people had been bought-off by the abolition of rationing and the gradual availability of TV and motor cars. It meant that the working class had, in its infinite optimism, assumed that government had abandoned Adam Smith in favour of Keynes and Beveridge — though neither assumed a redistribution of either income or wealth, both seemed to hold out great comfort for those who had historicallY been exploited by capital. It is here that the true conflict begins. Earlier this year Mr Heath said that the fight against rising prices "after the miners' strike" must "go on more vigorously." No one has yet commented oa his choice of the Sunday Evening 'Godspot ' for a Ministerial broadcast on the subject, but a socio-economic breakdown, of the viewing figures at that hour could have given a clue to alert commentators.

That completely apart, the very next day Land Security Investment Trust paid £4 million for Artillery Mansions, a block of London flats valued in the books at £467,370. Tenants of that (private) block will soon, if they have not already done so, hear the same cry of " economic rents " as now faces millions of council tenants.

The Most difficult fact to get across in the present hysteria about wages and inflation is that prices and wages are often not directly connected. Wages are a part of the costs. In some cases wage increases have to be passed on in h:gher prices, in many more cases wage increases can be absorbed; collective bargains which lead to great productivity increases ought to lead to reduced prices, and in several critical fields prices have little or nothing to do With wages — they are determined by government policy.

Let us take the last case first. The major items of expenditure for the vast majority of famiies in Britain are food and rent. Food prices, as those who do not know will soon learn, depend enormously on subsidies and levies. To the extent that they depend on wages, the wages are (for 53 per cent of our food) the wages of workers in New Zealand, Canada, Israel, etc. So to blame British trades unions for inflation in food prices — 20.4 per cent of all consumer expenditure — is patent rot.

The second biggest claim on Britain's weekly wage packet is housing. The rise in rents and rates, together with scandalous inflation in land prices, mean rocketing housing costs for everyone. Again, to pretend that workers' wage demands led to this outrageous inflation is criminal. The very opposite is the case.

Having said this, let us concede that in some spvcific occupations wages do (and must) have a specific impact on the price of goods and services. In the Post Office. for example, wages and salaries represent 53.4 Per cent of expenditure and the only way of giving the postmen a fairer wage is to raise postal charges or (as we do with the farmers) subsidise the industry. For British Rail wages and salaries represent 61 per cent of expenditure, and even a modest rise for railwaymen would require a decision on fares or subsidy. For the Coal Board the breakdown shows expenditure comprising 53 per cent on incomes, alongside figures of 7.9 per cent depreciation (£78.3 million) on investment and 3.7 per cent (£36.8 million) on interest Charges.

The point about the nationalised industries is their special role of public service and their special burden of debt Charges. It is always open to us to write Off capital debt, and/or to take a decision on subsidy versus price rise. If for social reasons we tell BEA to maintain ' nonProfitable ' Highlands and Islands services, Should the cost be borne by all of us or ."1Y by other BEA passengers? That only is the question. If public transport fares contribute to inflation the only question is Whether the railwaymen should carry the burden in low wages, or whether the whole community should be responsible through subsidy.

The private sector has its share of sfinilar cases. The cost of producing 30,000 coPies Of Mr Ferris's book (which I obtained as a commercial quotation from a large paperback printer) would be approximately 7p per copy. Earlier this year, in reviewing another book, I found that Anthony Sampson's publishers had earned one million pounds from his three books in nine years. The Penguin Publishing Company, incidentally, in the last figures I have (for 1970) declared more than 50 per cent rise in profits alongside only 19 per cent increase in sales.

I wish that Paul Ferris had dealt with these points of economics before meandering into whether Lawrence Daly looks " pugnacious" without his porkpie hat. More important, when he actually gets round to trade union analysis I wish he would forget his obsession with the fringeleft groups. These people did not bring new muscle into the TUC General Council; government policy and working class experience did. At this point it may be worth noting that the last serious Gallup analysis, admittedly several years ago, found startling support for trade union officials both among their members and among the general public. To the question, "Do you think trade union officials are or are not efficient?" 55 per cent of the public and 69 per cent of union members said efficient — as against 13 per cent and 14 per cent respectively responding against, Perhaps more important, no less than 82 per cent of trade union members agreed that "trade unions should try to get their members to work efficiently." So much for subversion, or even just plain slacking!

Much of the support found today for trade union demands is the result of three phenomena — the experience cf their leaders in dealing with various governments since the first Macmillan attempts at planning in 1961 (it has been, in case the point is missed. NEDC representatives talking in Downing Street this week, not the General Council); second, the substantial impact that criticism of television's "when did you stop beating your wildcat strikers?" approach has had — interviews today are in far more depth and are more often allowing the lads to put their case; third, the positive avalanche of trade union research and publishing in the last ten years. The Ford workers understood the unions' case because every one of them received a substantial pamphlet explaining the details. The size and scope of an Engineering pay claim may, as Ferris says so absurdly, be such that "no newspaper could ever print it in full for fear of sending its readers to sleep," •but that does not stop the unions from printing in full and negotiating in full.

The TUC, after years of calling for things like frank figures and getting only things like Frank Figgures, is itself the biggest publisher of all. Its annual Economic Review, monthly Review of Collective Bargaining Developments, and manifold special reports and surveys are more and more widely read by serious trade unionists. Those who, like Paul Ferris, ignore these development do so at their peril. "Reds under the bed" may scare the old ladies of Cheltenham, but it was the massed engineering workers of Birmingham who closed the Saltley coke depot — and who, with their colleagues, are now demanding a government which Will tackle the problems of the working people. I think they just might get it.

Terry Pitt is Head of the Labour Party Research Department.