In his article ‘The Trap of an Incomes Policy’ in New Left Review 34 Bob Rowthorn makes a number of criticisms both of the Government’s Incomes Policy and also of our support for an advance towards socialism through pressure for an incomes policy. Our support was, of course, for an incomes policy, not as it is now, but as the Government might be forced to make it. Since, however, it is not always clear when Rowthorn is attacking us and when he is attacking the Government, it will be best if we first sort out what we do not believe, and cannot therefore be accused of, and then go on to show what we do believe and are advocating as a policy for the Unions.
Three of the four main arguments of Rowthorn, therefore, fail to touch us in that we agree that George Brown’s policy, and the National Plan itself, would perpetuate the present unequal distribution of incomes, that trade union demands are not the prime cause of inflation and that devaluation is the better answer to the balance of payments crisis. The fourth, that any incomes policy would in the present circumstances lead to the emasculation of the whole Labour movement, we shall deal with as we develop our case.
The argument about devaluation should be got out of the way at once, since it is almost entirely a red herring, just as is the argument about cutting the
Rowthorn’s economic analysis, which he claims to be shared by all supporters of incomes policy—socialist as well as others—is a travesty of economic argument. It consists first in limiting the effects of inflation to the balance of payments; secondly, in asserting that inflation is caused by the trade unions who in conditions of full employment can ‘force up the level of wages more rapidly than productivity rises’. If they had been able to do this for wages as a whole, then the share of profits in the National Income relatively to the share of wages would have fallen. In fact since 1958 it has been steadily rising. It might be argued that this is because the number of wage-earners has been falling and the salariat has been increasing, but this argument fails because company profits have been rising faster since 1958 than all employment income per head.
It is precisely this increasing inequality that concerns us. The unequal distribution of incomes, even more than slow growth and unbalanced foreign payments, are a symptom of the fundamental contradiction of capitalism: that between the further growth of the forces of production and the character of the existing property and market relations. It is not by chance that lower income groups suffer worst from inflation and the gap between them and the better paid wage and salary earners widens. To survive, capital must expand but it must also exploit.