George Walford: The Good Old Days

Over the past months the golden aura of success around the Thatcher government has turned into a grey mist of depression, and Labour has made headway in the opinion polls. At the next election it will have been up to fifteen years since the last Labour government; many voters will have no very clear recollection of it, and some none at all. We print below two accounts of life under Labour and the arrangements Labour favours. The fact that neither author wrote with any intention of supporting the conclusions we draw from their work does nothing to weaken the point. Donald Rooum, writing in FREEDOM, July 1089:

Some supporters of council housing failed to distinguish between soft-hearted fancy and hard-nosed reality, and there were councils who had the same problem. They imagined that if they provided guaranteed-for-life tenancies, in sound accommodation, at rents the labouring classes could afford, then the labouring classes would benefit and the middle classes would pay for the provision through the rates. Such may have been the case for some times and places. But when I was a failed applicant for council housing, in working-class London borough in the 1950s, the beneficiaries were of the same social mix as those who a paid the subsidy.

There were two steps to getting a council flat. First, of course, you had to get on the waiting list. The qualification was to have a young family and live in worse than council accommodation. We got on the list easily.

Second, you had to reach a position on the list, such that you would be in a flat before the children grew up and left home. For this, the qualification was to live in council accommodation already. The best-known qualifiers were those who inhabited council ‘half-way houses’ (The equivalent of today’s B&B) because they were homeless, some of them bombed out ten years earlier. But this group did not in fact have first claim on available flats. Top priority went to the children of existing tenants.

If a below-average income had been a qualification we would have passed, but income was not on the questionnaire; perhaps it had been deleted because of the scandal of means-testing before the war. For all I know the original council tenants had been means-tested, but there had been upward social mobility among them as among every other group of workers, and the rules of guaranteed-for-life tenancies and priority for tenants’ children allowed some of the comparatively rich to enjoy the privilege, at the same time as they excluded the poor who had moved to London from elsewhere. One council tenant I knew had changed his job from practising a skilled craft to teaching it, and when I knew him was a Principal Lecturer (about the same salary as a bank manager). His daughter married an accountant and the young couple moved into a subsidised council flat ‘until they could save up for a house.’ I also knew four different proprietors of jobbing building firms, all of them council tenants.

We rented a basement, where the landlord engaged a two-man building firm to lay a damp-course. They were working carelessly so that the damp would bypass the barrier, and when I protested the reply was a speech about the rapacity of private landlords and how housing should be a public right. Needless to say, that unfeeling bastard and his partner were running their prosperous business from their council flats.

We were paying a not unreasonable seven pounds a week plus rates. I went to an anarchist meeting where a comrade invited us all to a demo, in my borough, in protest against a rise in council rents from thirty-five shillings to two pounds a week. The cost of maintenance had risen with inflation, and the council did not think the whole of the increase should be borne by us poor rate-payers. Even some anarchists are among those deluded by left-wing dreams.

Pieter Lawrence, writing in THE SOCIALIST STANDARD, July 1989:

What are the facts? Have a look at the 1974 Labour Party manifesto.

They said they would solve the problem of unemployment. What happened? Under the Labour government unemployment doubled. It went from 630,000 to over 1,300,000. This was the opposite to what they said they’d do.

They said they would increase the proportion of national resources allocated to the health service, education, welfare, pensions and other benefits. What happened? Under Callaghan as Prime Minister and Healey as Chancellor they cut spending on all these services.

They said that with an expanding economy industrial relations would be improved. What happened? The country was beset with the chaos of strikes – the notorious winter of discontent which actually led to the Tories under Thatcher being voted into power.

They said they would defend the poor against the rich. What happened? When they took office, wages and salaries accounted for 72 per cent of all distributed income. Profits took 28 per cent. When they left office, wages and salaries accounted for 68 per cent and profits took 32 per cent. This again was the opposite of what they said would happen.

It is of course easy to accuse one’s opponents of deceit, but such charges cancel out. It is no more reasonable to think that Wilson and Callaghan meant things to turn out the way they did than that Thatcher, Lawson and their colleagues intended the conditions we now face. Once people have have become sufficiently aware of society to be interested in forming governments, or in supporting or opposing them, then they tend to act according to principles. Sometimes individuals fall short, but groups, and particularly the large groups represented by governments, declare their intentions and seek consistently to follow what their ideology indicates to be the proper course. The fact that they so regularly fail to realise the golden promise held out by science and technology, the reason we find ourselves, time after time, whichever side is in office, with people suffering, powers misused and capacity lying idle, arises from the fact that each political movement, in striving to exclude the others from power, prevents their ideologies from taking a full part in the operations of society. To the extent that either individual interest or the communal welfare is established as the sole principle on which society shall operate, the influence of the suppressed principle comes to operate as a destructive influence. Under the system favoured by Labour, council tenants able to afford private housing exclude some of those for whom municipal services are intended. Under Thatcherism the reduction in public safety-nets, intended to keep resources in the active sectors where they will be most productive, causes disaster and revulsion when the economy takes a down-turn.

from Ideological Commentary 41, September 1989.