Socialist Party documents

British Perspectives 2008


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Summer of discontent?

Many comparisons can be made between the Brown government and the Callaghan government of 1976-79. The economic crisis Britain is facing will certainly be the worst since 1992 but could be the worst since the mid-70s.

James Callaghan took over from Harold Wilson and, very similarly to Brown, started the build up for a general election before pulling back at the last minute.

His government, even weaker than Brown's, limped on with a virtually non-existent majority, until being defeated by Margaret Thatcher in 1979.

Despite its weakness, with British capitalism in a severe crisis, Callaghan and his government fought to carry through the anti-working class, 'monetarist' policies which Thatcher later developed.

Wilson and Callaghan's 'Incomes policy' bears a strong resemblance to Brown's attempts to hold down public-sector pay, although it was actually considerably less inequitable.

For example, in 1975, under pressure from the trade union movement which had bought down the Ted Heath's Tory government, a deal was negotiated with the trade union leaders which gave a flat-rate increase of 6 a week for all those earning up to 8,500 a year.

Those earning more than that were not to get any increase at all. Nonetheless, given the high levels of inflation, Callaghan's incomes policy, combined with draconian cuts in public services, meant increased hardship for the majority of workers.

In 1978 he announced pay increases had to stay below 5%. Just as today the national trade union leaders attempted to hold back a strike movement, citing the danger of 'letting the Tories in'.

They were unable to do so. The result was the 'Winter of Discontent' in 1978-79 - the largest strike movement since the 1926 general strike.

The possibility of a similar movement is undoubtedly present today. There are other similarities. Like Callaghan it is clear that Brown will be a very weak prime minister throughout the rest of his term of office.

He has moved incredibly quickly from being seen as an improvement on Tony Blair to being seen as a continuation of the same - only less slick.

The sleaze allegations which dogged Blair's government now equally affect Brown. Hain has been the first to have to resign because of allegations of sleaze but he is unlikely to be the last.

The various lost CD and laptop scandals have made the government look ridiculous and have forced Brown to retreat on the question of ID cards.

Most damaging of all, however, is the Northern Rock crisis. Brown's strength was his reputation for economic competence. Northern Rock marked the beginning of the end of that reputation.

Without doubt his intention is to try and hang on until 2010, hoping to sit out a recession and trade union discontent.

It is still too early to say whether he will succeed, and it cannot be ruled out that he will be forced to go next year.

Nor can we be certain what the outcome of the next general election will be, particularly if it is not until 2010.

Nonetheless, it is clear that the Tories stand a better chance of winning a majority than at any time since 1997.

There are, of course, important differences between the current period and the 1970s. At this stage the level of class struggle is much lower today than was the case then. In the 1970s the Labour Party was split from top to bottom as the largely working-class membership revolted against the government's policies.

The experience of the Callaghan government led to a swing to the left in the Labour Party which meant that Tony Benn came within a hair's breadth of winning the Deputy Leadership in 1981.

Today the policies of the New Labour government are accepted virtually without a peep from the Parliamentary Labour Party or at Labour Party conference.

When workers do enter struggle against the Labour government their reaction is not, as it was for many in the 1970s, to use the structures of the Labour Party to fight to change the government's position.

On the contrary they react by fighting to sever all links with Labour. This was shown by the fire-fighters' vote to disaffiliate from Labour in the wake of their 2002 strike, and is likely to be shown by a similar mood at the CWU conference this year.


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