On Richard Pryke’s Labour and the City

Richard Pryke’s resignation is immensely to his credit, and indicates integrity that is hard to come by in the venal world of Wilsonian ‘consensus’. His article is an interesting account of what has happened since October 1964, but one is left with feeling that an analysis should begin where he leaves off. This is perhaps no accident, for he unconsciously indicates his theoretical basis in the body of his article. This needs to be noted and weighed.

Firstly, he says, ‘When Labour was returned to power in October 1964 it was not, nor does the fact now need emphasizing, as well prepared in the economic field as in some other areas.’ Later he goes on, ‘The Labour Party’s policy for the planned modernization of British industry, however excellent in general conception, had not been thought out in sufficient detail’. One must question the underlying assumption here, which is that the Labour Government’s failure (if failure it be) is somehow related to a lack of technical expertise. Rather than the lack of expertise, which is debatable, I think it is, or should be, clear that the policies now being pursued stem from a much deeper-rooted malaise, i.e. to a lack of a socialist strategy. Let me refresh some memories about what George Brown wrote in his introduction to that now forgotten document ‘The National Plan’. He said: ‘Most manufacturing industry and commerce is, and will continue to be, largely governed by the market economy . . . Care will be taken not to destroy the complex mechanisms on which the market economy is based’. This, in the light of that has happened since 1964, cannot be shrugged off as one of George’s ‘little mistakes’; rather it was an express commitment by the Labour Government that it did not intend to attack the capitalist power structure in Britain.

Richard Pryke continues, ‘One reason for the Party’s inadequate preparation in the economic field was that it was devoting most of its energy and resources to getting back into power . . . Watching the incredible mistakes of the Conservatives they thought they could manage things better’. Again one has to question the validity of the underlying assumptions here. Would it not be more correct to assume that the Labour leaders acted on the belief that once in power they would have the resources of the civil service at their disposal, and so did not need to be engaged in detailed planning prior to assuming office. This, of course, being predicated on the happy vision that the civil service is only an instrument, and will respond to a light touch of Wilsonian helmsmanship.

Again, one must ask, were the mistakes of the Tories so incredible from their own point of view’, and indeed were they mistakes? The fact that they almost scraped home in October 1964 indicates that perhaps their electoral judgment was not so misplaced. As far as their economic judgment is concerned their conjectural timing was admirable—the boom was in full spate for the election year. On a deeper level, i.e. the general malaise of the British economy, they were circumvented by the relationship of class forces within Britain. It has been left to a Labour Government to deal with this. I think that Richard Pryke makes an unwarrantable assumption that the preparation was inadequate; inadequate for what? For an assault on capitalism yes, but for other purposes—hardly. Within the given framework the Labour Government has not given such a bad account of itself.