Debate on the Address

Part of Orders of the Day — King's Speech – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 24th October 1947.

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Photo of Mr Ellis Smith Mr Ellis Smith , Stoke-on-Trent Stoke 12:00 am, 24th October 1947

I want to reply to the hon. Member for North Blackpool (Mr. Low). I want to be friends with the overwhelming number of people who visit that great seaside resort, Blackpool. I understand that we are in a serious economic crisis. If we are, who allowed these furs to be imported? Why have we allowed valuable labour and manpower to be spent in making coats of this kind? Who has allowed it? Why should we allow such beautiful photographs as are used in this publication to be devoted to this purpose? It must have taken weeks and weeks for skilled craftsmen to make the blocks for these photographs. Why allow this beautiful art paper to be used in this way, and who has allowed it? Well might the Press this morning be overwhelming in their support of what they realise it is going to mean to this country.

We were told yesterday that more machinery will have to be exported. Is there a plan for engineering production? Have the Engineering Advisory Council been consulted? Have the engineering trade unions been consulted? We were told that it was proposed to postpone all less essential things. I want to ask today whether housing is considered to be less essential? If so, it is going to mean a first-class scandal. The late Arthur Henderson, whose friendship I treasure and whose memory is going to remain evergreen, would never have stood for this. He proved that in 1931, and no one knows that better than does the Foreign Secretary.

These proposals were worked out by the officials of the Planning Board who have nothing in common with the Labour movement of this country. If anyone doubts that, let him read the Conservative publications that can be bought in Victoria Street. Ten months ago the Prime Minister said we were going to prepare a four-year plan. The export programme will create waves of disillusionment within twelve months. It is a wrong approach. Instead of an approach to secure maximum production, we have an approach to secure maximum exports. Thus will start again a mad scramble for markets which will develop economic rivalry that will give rise to political tension, with the result that in no time we shall be back again where we were between the two wars. Anyone who has any doubts about this should read of the struggle which is taking place at the present time for exports in the motor industry. Let them consider where we have got to in regard to price. We should have had a national over-all plan and from this we could have built up world co-operation.

Concern was expressed yesterday about the saleability of what we produce. I share that concern. Unless action is taken now along the lines I have suggested, the outcome will have a terrible effect on many of us, and particularly on the wages of the working people of this country. I want to draw attention to the difference between British 1939 prices and United States prices. We find what those prices were by a comparison of the prices for raw materials in the States as compared with Britain. The differences are—benzine, 272; calcium carbide, 144; caustic soda, 121; sulphur, 206; and there are similar figures for other chemical productions. Therefore, I am pleading for an immediate, minute investigation into the cost of all raw materials in this country. Unless steps are taken upon a grand basis and unless we take the constructive scientific way forward, which is what I am advocating, then the crisis in which we are now involved will be ever recurring and will become a perpetual crisis. We must plan and take adequate steps to deal with it. Twenty-eight years ago a Departmental Committee reported on trusts. This is what they recommended: We are unanimously of the opinion that it would be desirable to institute in the United Kingdom machinery for the investigation of the operation of monopolies, trusts and combines. After two years has any action been taken with regard to that? If not, the time has arrived when the Government ought to regard this as a most urgent problem. If they are asking us to work harder, they ought to take steps to reduce the costs of production in every possible way. Therefore, I am pleading today for a full investigation into monopolies, cartels and trade associations. I should like to know what the prices were which prevailed in a business prior to the formation of a trade association and the prices prevailing after the formation of a trade association. Those who investigate should have the full authority of this House to send for persons and papers.

What were the arrangements made before the war, and are those arrangements still in operation, for instance, between I.G. Farbenindustrie, I.C.I. and the Trafford Chemical Company? What Was the German connection with the Magnesium Electron Company, Manchester? In the building industry I understand there are 600 trade associations and everything that goes into a house is "ringed" in some way. If it was right to press this matter as we did before the war, then it is more urgently necessary that we should press it at the present time. The Trade Union Congress asked for full investigation into this on 14th November, 1944.

I would like to ask whether there is one hon. or right hon. Gentleman present who attaches to the Government of the day the whole responsibility for this serious economic crisis. If there is, I would direct his attention to the publication of the Tory Reform Committee, called "Tools for the Next Job." What do we find in this publication? It says: The task is not simply to repair the ravages of war, but to make good arrears of re-equipment which have accumulated during the past 45 years and to replace obsolete by up-to-the-minute ideas, techniques and equipment. This aim can only be achieved if the whole productive power of the nation is employed efficiently. The resulting loss of output can only be met by constantly increasing business efficiency by means of greater output per man-hour. All students of industrial affairs will agree with those words. Then the committee goes on, in another publication, to show the output per man-hour in our country and output per man-hour in the United States.

We have arrived at a very serious historical period in our country. We have to produce more. I want to be as generous as I possibly can with those who have the serious responsibility of dealing with these matters. We need modernisation of our industry. For too long have we obtained production by taking the maximum energy out of our people and too little energy out of the machines. I am not going to make too much of this matter at this stage, because I hope that those who are responsible will have regard to the urgent need for a planned capital expenditure in order to increase production by modernising our equipment and not by exploiting human labour to the extent that has taken place during the past 50 years.

I ask that a planned capital expenditure programme shall be worked out as soon as possible. The pre-war Russian reinvestment figure was 40 per cent. whereas our own was 7 per cent. Between 1938 and 1943, the United States' capital expenditure in industry was £4,000 millions, whereas in our own country it was £650 millions. These figures should give us something to think about. The textile industry is in a serious situation. Our own needs are so urgent that the industry must play a great part, as it always did in the past, in contributing to our export trade. I would remind this House that between 1920 and 1932, capital on which our people were having to earn a return had been watered by bonus shares to the extent of five or six times its value. In 1932 the wages of our people were £2 16s., £1 13s. and £1 3s. Cotton operatives have never worked harder than they are working at the present time, but the average earnings in 1946 were £5 10s. for men and just over £3 for women. Many women are working harder and faster than they ever did, and yet they are getting only £2 15s. per week. There are girls from Ireland who have been recently brought over, and who are now sick of the whole business. After six months' working and training, they are working hard in the mills of Lancashire for £2 15s. a week.

I close on the note upon which I started. The working class of this country have built up a powerful working-class movement. During the whole of that time, our people have been exploited, persecuted and victimised. Millions of people have given their lives in order to build up this party, which is a section of our movement. The working class will rally to overcome our urgent economic needs, and I want to prove worthy of the groat men and women who have helped to build up this movement. I remember when that noble character, George Lansbury, stood in his place in this House. His ideas were not accepted at that time, but now that we have passed through two world wars some of us are beginning to reconsider those ideas. Those of us who have enjoyed the friendship of working-class leaders like Robert Smillie and Peter Lee must keep those names and the principles for which they stood ever green in our minds. In this difficult period of our history we must determine to be worthy of them. We encourage all people from all walks of life into this party, but at the same time we must remember that the party has been built up for the purpose of emancipating the common people of this country. That is the clear call that we must all keep in our minds and of which we must prove ourselves worthy.