Orders of the Day — Unemployment

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 24th January 1972.

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Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Huyton 12:00 am, 24th January 1972

I am coming to that in a moment. Hon. Gentlemen will have to take this whether they like it or not. I referred to the Chancellor's misconceived mini-Budget of 1970. The House will recall the Budget of last spring, the euphoria on the benches opposite, the waving of Order Papers. Hon. Members may not recall my comments on that occasion immediately after, but they will get them again now. I said: My first impression is that … this Budget fails to rise to the occasion with which he was presented [Laughter.] When they have got over their Budget euphoria and looked across the two-year period and what the Chancellor has announced, hon. Members opposite will be less than enchanted by it…The Chancellor knows that in economic terms he is starting from a situation in which we are spiralling down into the deepest recession since the War… As I warned one of the right hon. Gentleman's predecessors 15 years ago—and the advice was not taken at the time—you can pull a piece of string, but you cannot push it. … It is a Budget which not only hon. Gentlemen opposite but the country as a whole will regret before many months are out."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 30th March, 1971; Vol. 814, c. 1399–1407.] Do any of them deny that today? Nothing caused more amusement than the reference to pushing a piece of string. Now nine months, three or four mini-Budgets and £4,000 million later, the right hon. Gentleman is still pushing that piece of string.

July was the Chancellor's tour de force. Even he was inebriated by the exuberance of his Treasury draft. He promised an effect on the unemployment figures in "a couple of months". That was in July. When he spoke, registered unemployment was 829,600. Today it is over 1,020,000. A couple of months, he will have learned, is a long time in politics.

By the autumn his break-through was postponed to the spring, then to the late spring, then next autumn. Yesterday every economic commentator gloomily forecast 800,000 unemployed by this time next year—my own estimate for some months past, on the assumption of no fundamental change in the Tory Government's policy, just as last April I forecast 1 million unemployed by this month.

The House will have seen both the Financial Times independent survey of industrialists, indicating little reduction in the basic, seasonably adjusted, rate of unemployment and yesterday's lead story in the Sunday Times business section headed "1,000,000; no hope of more jobs say top firms." The Secretary of State, in his speech in Cambridge last night, repeated the same warning. So let us not have from hon. Members opposite the usual excuses—that it is all the fault of the previous Government, of the trade unions, of prices and of strikes.

We have had the excuse about strikes before. Prior to the last election the Prime Minister spoke about strikes in nearly every speech he made, and certainly if there were a by-election or a Greater London Council election the next day. I wonder whether he has worked this out: by the end of this month, man-days lost through industrial stoppages will have reached 27 million after 19 months of the present Administration. I agree that losses of output through strikes during our period of office were too high, but the man-days lost in 19 months of the right hon. Gentleman's Administration represent more than the total man-days lost under the Labour Government from October, 1964, to June, 1970.

The Prime Minister used that as his great stick for beating the Labour Government. [Interruption.] I have given my calculation to the end of this month. I know that the right hon. Gentleman is checking the figures, but they have been checked—not to worry. My hon. Friends have frequently stressed the loss of man-days caused by strikes compared with the loss of man-days caused by unemployment. I calculate that the avoidable loss of output, of man-days, caused by unemployment as a result of the present Government's first 19 months of office—unregistered unemployment to offset against the irreducible minimum, whatever that is—is not the 27 million which the Government have achieved in respect of industrial stoppages but 300 million man-days. By the end of this month that figure will have increased very markedly.

I have dealt with the alibis which we must expect to hear tonight. Perhaps I have anticipated the right hon. Gentleman's speech in full. We may also hear from him the charge which he made twice just before the Recess, that the Opposition have, or, as he kindly put it, the Leader of the Opposition has, no policy for dealing with unemployment. I do not know where he has been all these months when my right hon. Friends and I have been setting out what needs to be done. Why has not the right hon. Gentleman heard it? Perhaps we should have put it in French and then he might have got a copy.

To put the matter in English—and I intend to conclude on this matter—[HON MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] Right hon. and hon. Members opposite do not like having these matters brought home to them, but since the Government have no policy—and that will be the whole basis of the right hon. Gentleman's speech—they might listen to ours. I propose to set out six points of principle which the right hon. Gentleman has not accepted but which I ask him to accept in his speech.

First, I ask the right hon. Gentleman to proclaim the right to work of the British trade unionist. Sixty-five years ago this party introduced a Right to Work Bill in the House. Let the right hon. Gentleman at least accept the principle. "The right to work" is a phrase which has never been on his lips. Secondly, reaffirming the right to work, I ask the right hon. Gentleman to assert the Government's duty to achieve and maintain full employment. Thirdly, I ask him to affirm the right of all the regions to the achievement of the same level of employment and prosperity as adheres in the more favoured regions. This is socially and morally right in human terms. The right hon. Gentleman is Prime Minister of the whole of the United Kingdom and not just of the favoured area nearest to the Common Market.

The right to work is economically right. The whole history of the stop-go era which we are all resolved to end is one in which, following a slump leaving the development areas and other regions still under-employed, a boom develops which, in the more prosperous areas, rapidly pushes production close against capacity. The result under successive Governments has been that capacity shortages and shortages of skilled labour develop, the export drive from those key areas languishes, imports are sucked in, and a balance of payment crisis supervenes. Then the brakes are slammed on, and again we have nationwide measures which act most harshly against areas which have not recovered from the last slump. Through over-heating in the South, measures are invoked against Western and Northern areas which have barely emerged from the last freeze.