Article for Hampstead and Highgate Express
This Election is being held against a background of uncertain economic factors. The prices of foodstuffs, raw materials, and oil, which we have to buy from overseas have risen at an unprecedented rate over the last two years, and are now the largest component in rising prices at home. The cost of these essential imports has not been matched by the prices which overseas customers are paying for our exports, and we have therefore a serious balance of payments problem.
For a time we may have to moderate our expectations of a rising standard of living, while we learn to live within the nation's means. In the longer term, the prospects improve as oil begins to flow in larger quantities from the seas around our shores. But the next 5 or 6 years will be very difficult for any Government. This makes it important that the Government elected by the people on the 28th February should have a good majority, preferably a clear 50 over all other parties combined. Any prospect of a close finish, or of one party holding the balance, would only result in another Election in a short time. In British politics, small majorities lead to short Parliamentary terms, and large majorities (100 in 1959) lead to 5 year Parliaments. [end p1]
I believe that there are two main points in the 1974 Election:
First, Do we wish to have wage inflation added to world commodity price increases? We Conservatives say no. If we continue to pay ourselves more for the same amount of production, the result is bound to be even larger price increases. The question then arises—what method should we use to contain wage and salary increases. We have tried voluntary policies. Mr Maudling, when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1963 set up the National Incomes Commission but the Trade Unions would not co-operate. The Labour Party tried Declarations of Intent, copper-bottomed promises and solemn and binding undertakings. After 1970 we had talks with the C.B.I. and the T.U.C. to try to get a voluntary policy, but to no avail. Most of us would prefer a non-statutory policy and we must have another try at the beginning of the next Parliament, but in the absence of a voluntary policy, what then? This brings me to the other main point:
Second, Are wage settlements to be determined by the brute force of industrial strife? Are the strongest to get whatever they ask while the weakest lose out? If that is to be the method, justice, reasonableness and fairness will be lost from our way of life. [end p2]
In the basence of a voluntary agreement the alternative is a policy approved by a democratically elected Parliament. That is what we have now. How does this reflect on the present situation? The miners have a claim. The settlement must be fair to them, fair to the rest of our people who have wage-claims, many of whom have already settled, and fair to all those who will have to foot the bill in increased prices or taxes or both. But the fairness should be decided by the same rules which apply to others—the rules of the code plus independent judgement by the Pay Board along the lines of the Relativities report. Other groups can also apply to have their claims similarly determined. Not industrial might, but fairness and reason, as approved by Parliament, should be the method.
We believe that part of the present industrial problems arise because too few of the ordinary Trade Union members take part in the Unions' affairs, particularly in elections for their executives. In our Manifesto we therefore say: “We shall provide more effective control for the majority of Union members by ensuring that they have the opportunity to elect the governing bodies and national leaders of their unions by a postal ballot.” If we can persuade the moderates to become active we believe we shall made a great contribution to the future of good industrial relations. [end p3]
Other points will be raised during the Election campaign. Pensions: This Conservative Government has a better record on pensions than any previous government. For the first time we have pensions for the over 80s, pension reviews annually, (now to be six-monthly) and a fair deal for public service pensioners.
Education: like other public services has been affected by the cuts announced by the Anthony BarberChancellor on 17th December. As a result education expenditure for next year has suffered. Nevertheless, total expenditure is still expected to of the order of £3,500m. Building programmes to meet basic needs for both primary and secondary schools, nursery schools, minor works, special schools and a proportion of the further education programme will go ahead. Above all, we now have 80,000 more teachers in the schools than four years ago, and we expect about another 20,000 next year.
I said at the beginning that we were in difficult and in some ways unknown economic circumstances. It is right therefore that I should finish by repeating the warning in the Conservative Manifesto: “If the situation requires further further action—whether it be in the field of public expenditure, or of tax or monetary policies—we shall not hesitate to take it, but the basis of our firm action will be fairness.”