Government Policy

Part of Orders of the Day — King's Speech – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 29th October 1947.

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Photo of Mr Benjamin Parkin Mr Benjamin Parkin , Stroud 12:00 am, 29th October 1947

It has been a great pleasure to listen to the speech by the hon. Lady the Member for Anglesey (Lady Megan Lloyd George). It is indeed refreshing to listen to a speech from the benches opposite which is really concerned with present-day policies and with the job we have to do now and in the future. After all, we are supposed to be discussing the problems indicated in the Gracious Speech for the next 12 months, and up to now, from the benches "opposite above the Gangway, we have listened to a series of petulant criticisms of what went on last year or the year before or just before the Election. One has the impression that hon. Members opposite enjoyed themselves during the Recess working up a speech which got better and better each time they delivered it and they really must make it now in the House before it is too late. At the same time, they have lost touch with the situation in the country, because, although the economic situation is so grave and although the people of this country will suffer worse things in the material sense before this winter is out, yet there is amongst the workers of the country the beginning of a feeling that they are understanding what is required of them and can beat the difficulties ahead because now they see the way out. It is only now that the Government have got somewhere, in an overall project for industry, which can be understood by the country as a whole in relation to our export needs, so that we can get down to the details and put a target ahead of the ordinary workers in the country.

It is about one aspect of the improvement in the situation that I wish to speak. I wish to refer to the prospects of improved trade relations with Eastern Europe, with those countries of Socialist reconstruction who are beginning to see the results of their efforts in the last two years, the benefits of getting their devastated lands back into cultivation, and the benefits of their own planning systems. The importance to the future of this Government of improved relations, particularly improved trade relations, with those countries is very clearly understood by the Opposition. In fact, the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Eden) paid a delicate tribute to their importance by introducing into the early part of his speech an attack on those hon. Members of our party who went to Eastern Europe. I thought it was a gentlemanly thing on his part to rush in to the defence of the Government in spite of the fact that his own reputation still bears the scars of the attacks made by members of the present Government on him as Foreign Secretary when they were in Spain. In spite of this recollection, he rushes in to invent an entirely new constitutional doctrine—that no one must criticise the Government from outside the country. He need not have troubled himself.

I am sure that my colleagues and Friends on this side of the House do not need to be reassured that the party which travelled around Eastern Europe did not spend its time attacking the Government. It is a monstrous suggestion to imply that anything of the kind was done. On the contrary, we had the opportunity to explain to the people there a good many things which have been left unexplained in the last two years. We explained a few things about the nature and structure of the Labour Movement which seemed in some cases to put us in a rather different light to them, an explanation which might well be studied by the Opposition were it not that it would have a very depressing effect on them. We had to explain that the Labour Movement is not like many Social Democratic parties on the Continent, a tightly-disciplined party with a political philosophy within narrow limits, but a movement containing all elements in the working classes, Marxist and non-Marxists, right-wing and left-wing, Co-operatives, vegetarians and trade unionists. We even have a few members who present Tory criticism in a purposeful and cogent way because of the inadequacies of the Opposition when it comes to a Debate like this. We represent something similar to the National Front which the countries in Eastern Europe have formed to carry out their own plan.

For the same reason, the Labour movement will never split. It is necessary sometimes to explain that, although we have differences of opinion, we never carry them to the length of splitting because it is understood before we start that there are differences of opinion. If high hopes are sometimes entertained by the Opposition that a word of criticism here and there is the beginning of disaster to the Labour movement, one can only remind them of the words of King Charles II to his brother: They will never get rid of me to make you King, James. That was a comforting explanation to some of our friends in Eastern Europe.

Of the trade treaties which are in course of negotiation, I propose to say very little because one does not wish to make any remarks which might upset negotiations while they are in progress, but one or two things need to be said. First, with regard to the agreement with the Soviet Union which is the largest and most important of the agreements at which we ought to aim and which we ought very shortly to secure. It is obvious that both Governments seriously and earnestly wanted a trade agreement. Therefore, when examining the reasons why the negotiations were broken, one is driven to the conclusion that one side doubted the ability or the goodwill of the other really to carry an agreement to its conclusion. Therefore if the negotiations are to be reopened, one side must not merely indicate willingness to reopen negotiations but must lay down specific proposals upon which they can be reopened.

The second point is that there is no doubt that we have not been able to convince the other side that we could deliver the goods they want in return for food and raw materials. That is unfortunate. They have a wrong view of the situation, and it requires re-presenting to them. Not only the Soviet Union but also Yugoslavia have had unfortunate experiences over the question of guarantees. In view of the way things are run in this country, we have obviously not a State bulk buying and selling organisation for the export trade, and therefore we need to assure the negotiators on the other side that commitments will be fulfilled. I should have thought it would have helped the Government in their industrial policy at home to take on certain obligations as targets to present to the trade unions and industries. I should have thought that it would have helped a good deal on a subject such as steel rails or timber-cutting machinery—some of which is made in my constituency, and the Russians would be very glad to receive it—if one could say to the industry concerned, "It is up to you to reach a certain target. We have committed ourselves on your behalf to reach it. If you can reach it or exceed it, so much the better because there is more to be bought with the produce of your labour." It would have helped a good deal in carrying out what I referred to as the implementation in detail of the overall plans now set out by the Government if one could quote specific trade treaties of this kind.

It is a little unfortunate that when negotiators come to this country to inquire what they may buy in exchange for what they sell, they are sometimes turned loose in the countryside, and told "You can go round the factories and look for yourselves." Today industrialists have very full order books. They all think they are made for life and that if only the Government were to disappear they could get enormous quantities of raw materials and carry out the orders they have on their books. In fact those order books are largely bogus because they are duplicated. At the first breath of a depression, the whole thing will collapse and they will be searching for orders. At the moment they are liable to take a weary line with people knocking at the door and suggesting further business. It would be better if the Government played a more vigorous role in arranging co-ordinated deliveries of certain articles.

I want to say no more about negotiations for trade treaties which may be in progress, but I suggest that as a result of what our little group has been seeing and hearing in the last few weeks these targets to be held up in front of our people as incentives can be progressive and augmented. For instance, in Yugoslavia my hon. Friend the Member for Horn-church (Mr. Bing) has suddenly made himself an expert on the statistics of tobacco growing and smoking, and he made a large number of inquiries about Yugoslav tobacco which proved quite an attractive proposition to the Ministers who talked to us about it. Indeed, Marshal Tito himself expressed a special interest in our suggestion that there would be a great future for Yugoslav tobacco, if it could be grown from the type of plant which people in this country like to smoke. I do not want to talk about that as an element in the existing negotiations, for I have no means of knowing whether tobacco is one of the subjects now being discussed, but I think it can be held before the people of this country as a possible extra.

It could be explained that if certain industries produce more than the target, there is an immediate and attractive reward in the way of a fresh import that we can afford. Going to the northern part of the Continent one had similar discussion with Mr. Hilary Mine, the Minister for Industry in Poland, who was talking about the great improvement in agricultural production in his country. He talked rather proudly of the rapid increase in the pig and poultry population. We know we want maize from somewhere else to increase our own pig and poultry population, and I am sure the Government will do all in their power to get that maize which we know now to be surplus. At the same time we can get still more from Poland in addition to the trade agreement which has already been made, for it is clear that, if they are offered deliveries of machinery and of the equipment they need, the Poles are prepared to forego the consumption themselves of this agricultural surplus and will sell it to us.

If we can hold up in front of the people in this country these targets—so much we have now got for bare existence; the next 10 per cent. means bacon and eggs back on the breakfast table; the next 5 per cent. tobacco and other attractive luxuries from overseas—I am sure it would help the Government in the implementation of these enormous tasks which the Minister for Economic Affairs was expounding to us the other day. He has had the duty in the last 12 months of talking again and again in vast global figures which are practically incomprehensible to ordinary people. They do not in themselves provide an incentive; in fact, sometimes he said, "This is not even a target. It is a statement of what we should have to do if we were to meet our obligations." Broken down into targets, industry by industry, that begins to make sense. Broken down into targets, industry by industry, the Minister for Economic Affairs can get over that unfortunate attitude which I detected the other day that this was democracy on the defence, and get back into the enthusiasm which he himself engendered and observed when he used to go round the factories as Minister of Aircraft Production during the war.

Of course the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Lyttelton) who is so amused by that remark, just would not know what it meant. That is where the real barrier lies in the House. It is a sort of emotional barrier which is quite insurmountable from that side, and I do not think that hon. Members opposite are capable of understanding that the Minister for Economic Affairs can go into a factory canteen at lunch time, address the workers as "comrades," and get an emotional response which brings that increase in production, energy and devotion which will solve our problems. I know it is a thing which, with their point of view, they will never understand but, at the same time, it is so easy from our point of view to get this extra 10 per cent. of enthusiasm and energy from the workers if they know what the target is, and how to go to it.

The Minister for Economic Affairs said that these targets and projects had to be understood right the way down to the factory and workshop level. He has put a lot of time into getting the rather intellectual acceptance of managements on the other side of the cold facts of the situation. Now that has to be translated into an emotional acceptance and enthusiasm on the part of the only people who can produce the goods, those who get their hands dirty. He has spoken several times also about the importance of works councils, joint production committees and so on. That is not democracy on the defence; that is, as the Lord President said, democracy on the march, and that is why, in spite of the meagre material prospects before us in the next few months the Labour movement, as a whole, is gaining courage rather than losing it, and gaining enthusiasm rather than losing it, because we can begin to see our way through.

There is one thing I will touch on before I sit down—these curious rumours about food subsidies. It has been suggested that the Government have been considering removing the subsidies on food. That has not been confirmed or denied, but it is important to point out that if we are really to get this democracy of workshop level working towards targets which can be understood; if we are really to get an enthusiasm for working overtime, for removing restrictive practices, for exceeding norms of output, breaking targets, and so on, we must start with stability at the bottom, we must start with stability of the wage structure. If we are to have a wages policy, we must have a profits policy, we must have some willingness from the other side to enter into an agreement that if there is stability on the one hand, there will be stability on the other. It would be more attractive to us if works councils and joint production committees could have, by law, the right of access to all the information about the accounts of the projects and plans of the firms for which they work.

With good will, however, the same results can very frequently be obtained. I have known them obtained by managements declaring at annual shareholders meetings that they do not intend to pay more than a certain percentage on the shares, so that people who want to speculate in them can take that as a tip and leave them alone; by saying that it is their intention over the next period of years to pay everything above that into re-equipment, expansion and improvement. That helps the morale of the workers a great deal. I have known firms who have explained the balance-sheets honestly to their works councils. That helped a great deal. If there can be assurance, there is no objection to high earnings on the part of technicians or managements. We in this movement have no objection to high earnings; what we object to is that the extra efforts of workers and of managements should be dissipated in inflationary payments to people who merely own shares and have not been near the factory for years. Let the high earnings be paid to managements for good results by all means, and let incentives be given to the workers. However this basic stability of wage structure, if the worker is to accept it, cannot be monkeyed about with by the Chancellor of the Exchequer by the sudden imposition of a poll tax.

If the Government are thinking that the standard of life cannot be maintained over the next six months or so, they ought to say so frankly. If they are going to "do a 1931" they ought to do it properly, and not in an underhand way. If they have not the courage to go ahead and get this extra production, which will fill this gap by the methods I have suggested, and if they really feel there must be a deflationary Measure, let them be honest and not suddenly impose this poll tax on the people, this sudden abolition of the same amount for all classes through the food subsidy. It must be remembered that there are many industries in this country where the average wage is less than £6 a week. There are some where it is less than £5, but I do not want to take extreme cases. It is a very serious matter to cut off 10s., 12s., or 15s. a week from a family income of that size in that way. [An HON. MEMBER: "It is intended to do it."] It may be intended to do it, but, I warn the Government that if it is done there are all sorts of ways in which workers can upset stability. They can go slow, and object to all sorts of existing agreements which have been come to in their particular industry. There are all sorts of ways of defeating a move of this kind. The Government must have the absolute confidence of the workers at workshop level that their basic standard is guaranteed, and that it is not going to be fooled about with.

The ideal on which we fought the Election was to implement our duty following on the war. It was a war against the forces of progress, and against the workers of. Europe. The workers in Europe have won the war and have to carry out their duty of consolidating those gains. Our duty in this democratic country is that of enabling democracy to grow and go forward towards controlling material things, and on that this whole movement is based. That is why we are not in the least deterred by the scoldings of hon. Members opposite at this stage. The Labour movement will take fresh enthusiasm at this point and carry on with its programme undismayed.