Anthony Barber – 1965 Comments on Labour’s Election Pledges

The comments made by Anthony Barber, the then Conservative MP for Altrincham and Sale, in the House of Commons on 29 July 1965.

I beg to move, That this House deplores the Government’s failure to honour their election pledges. As we approach the day when we rise for the Summer Recess, I think that both sides of the House will agree that it is not inappropriate to take stock of the events of this first Session of the Labour Government and, in particular, in this debate today, to ponder the contrast between promise and performance which, in a democracy, is rightly one of the most influential criteria governing the decisions of the electorate.

In the main, I propose to concern myself not with the casual proposals and promises of those Labour Members of little significance in their party, but with the specific election pledges made in the Labour Party’s General Election manifesto and with pledges made by those who are now members of the Labour Government.

We are concerned in this debate not merely with a profusion of broken promises, which I shall show is on a scale unparalleled in modern times, but also—and I think that this is of more fundamental importance—with the effect of electoral deceit on the status of political life in this country. I say that because although politics in a free society is bound inevitably to throw up some men who command little respect, we have hitherto been fortunate, unlike many other countries, in attracting into Parliament, in the main, men and women of sincere convictions and high purpose.

But we shall not continue to do so if politics is thought of merely as a game in which one party is prepared to outbid the other with cynical disregard for the implementation of the pledges which they give. It is no good the First Secretary putting his hand on his forehead like that. I shall refer to him in a few minutes and to some of the things which he said during the General Election.

I believe that when the history of these times comes to be written the apposite chapter heading for last October’s Socialist victory will be, “The Great Deception”. The Government, in their first Session, have dissipated virtually every ounce of good will with which they came to office, and they have done so not merely because they have exhibited a degree of incompetence which I think must have surprised even the Prime Minister at times; they have done so not merely because they have failed to fulfil the expectations of last October; they have lost the good will of the nation primarily because it is now clear to those who voted Socialist last October that they were the victims of a political swindle.

Let me turn to some of the specific promises made by Labour leaders. If I start with taxation I do so for three reasons. First, there were no promises made by the Leaders of the Labour Party at the last election which had wider coverage than those concerning taxation. Secondly, because Socialism has always been associated, I believe quite rightly, with high and rising taxation, a specific promise not to increase taxation was calculated to have, and did have, a profound effect on the uncommitted voter. Thirdly, there is no more blatant example of political deception than this particular promise.

Let me remind the House of the record—and I am pleased that the Prime Minister is to reply to the debate, because I want, first, to remind the House once again of the words used by the right hon. Gentleman himself when he appeared before millions of television viewers on 15th September. This is what he said: we can carry out our programme without any general increase in taxation. Does the right hon. Gentleman still stand by that statement? If he does will he now endorse that pledge by promising that during the lifetime of this Parliament taxation will be reduced by £500 million a year, the amount by which his right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has already increased it, for there is no other way of redeeming that pledge? I will willingly give way to the right hon. Gentleman if he wishes to intervene now.

Hon. Members

Get on.

Mr. Barber

In that case I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will answer this question when he replies to the debate.

It was not only the Prime Minister. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster who, for years, as we all know, had been the architect of the Labour Party’s taxation policy—and I am pleased to see him in his place this afternoon—made this misguided promise, that Labour will not need to increase the general level of taxation to pay for its programme.

And, finally, the unequivocal undertaking of the man who it was known at the time would be the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the event of the Labour Party gaining power—and who is today, in fact, the Chancellor of the Exchequer. He could hardly have made himself clearer when he said in his speech on the eve of the poll: The whole basis of our case is that increased social expenditure will be financed out of the growing expansion of British industry.

Hon. Members

Hear, hear.

Mr. Barber

Before hon. Gentlemen opposite cheer, there is a little more of that quotation. As if to make doubly sure that he got the votes he was seeking, he rammed home the point with these words: As far as we are concerned, the fulfilment of our social programme depends upon the achievement of a faster rate of growth in the economy.

Hon. Members

Hear, hear.

Mr. Barber

I hope that hon. Gentlemen opposite will cheer the next sentence which was uttered by the Chancellor: We shall not cash cheques until the money is in the bank.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer (Mr. James Callaghan)

Hear, hear.

Mr. Barber

The right hon. Gentleman says, “Hear, hear”, but what is the simple truth? What has actually happened? Within six months of taking office the right hon. Gentleman had increased taxation by no less than £500 million a year.

Hon. Members

Why?

Mr. Barber

The Hon. Gentlemen opposite need not worry. I will be coming to the economic situation in a few moments. There is not an hon. Member in the House who would pretend that if the country had known last October what was in store for it the Labour Party would have won the three crucial marginal seats which now give the Government their only authority to govern. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. We are all in favour of joy, but it cannot be wholly unconfined otherwise we cannot make progress. It is much easier to listen to one speech than to several speeches simultaneously.

Mr. Barber

As I was saying, every hon. Member knows perfectly well that the Labour Party would not have won the last election if it had been known that when in government hon. Gentlemen opposite would increase taxation by no less than £500 million a year. The fact is that the nation was duped, and every hon. Gentleman opposite knows it. If they do not accept my words let them put both their sincerity and their record to the test by going to the country this autumn.

Mr. Robert Maxwell (Buckingham) rose—

Hon. Members

Sit down.

Mr. Maxwell

Would the right hon. Gentleman not agree that had his right hon. Friend the Member for Barnet (Mr. Maudling) and all his other colleagues in the former Administration “come clean” with the nation about the £800 million deficit there would now be less than half the present number of hon. Members sitting on the benches opposite?

Mr. Barber

The hon. Gentleman should listen to what I am saying.

Hon. Members

Answer.

Mr. Barber

A moment ago I said that I would deal with the economic position of last October shortly.

The truth is that the Prime Minister dare not go to the country this autumn because he knows that not only will the nation note the contrast between their Government’s promises and their performance, but that the nation will also note the contrast between the Labour Government’s immediate taxation increases of £500 million a year and previous Conservative Governments’ taxation cuts totalling more than £2,000 million a year.

It is as well to remember, when considering what the present Chancellor of the Exchequer has done, that during the 13 years of Conservative administration we five times reduced taxation for all taxpayers. Now, in one fell swoop, the Labour Government, running true to form, are back on the old familiar Socialist road of high and rising taxation.

What of that other form of taxation, rates? I hope that the Prime Minister will deal with the pledges that were made concerning rates. What is preventing the Government now from honouring their pledge to give relief from rates? Why is it that the Minister of Housing and Local Government and other Ministers associated with this matter have been so coy? I remind the Prime Minister of the pledge made in the General Election manifesto of the Labour Party, a pledge to give relief to the ratepayer which was in no way qualified by reference to reviews or investigations.

These words appeared in that manifesto: We shall also seek to lighten the burden of rates which today falls heavily on those with low incomes. While the reform of the rate system and investigation of alternative forms of local government finance may take some time to accomplish, we shall seek to give early relief to ratepayers by transferring a larger part of the burden of public expenditure from the local authorities to the Exchequer. The people really are entitled to know why nothing has been done. We all realise that the Government, as promised, have set up an inquiry, but during the election campaign the right hon. Gentleman who sits on the Front Bench opposite, sniggering next to the Prime Minister, the First Secretary, went out of his way to deal with this very point. I hope that the First Secretary will take note of what he said. Perhaps he does not remember.

Hon. Members

Get on.

Mr. Barber

I will. The First Secretary referred to the inquiry which is now in progress and asked this simple question: What are we going to do while we are waiting? Then he answered his question in these words: Labour will transfer some of the burden of the local ratepayers to the Government. What does the right hon. Gentleman say about that today? That was a clear promise to the electors at that time and they took him at his word. They will not do so next time, and then he will have to wipe the smile from his face. I have no doubt that the First Secretary was eminently successful in securing a few thousand more votes for the Labour Party, but what a sordid way of proceeding.

Why have the Government done nothing to help? Certainly, they cannot rely on the hackneyed excuse that they have not had enough parliamentary time, because the Minister of Housing and Local Government was presented with an ideal opportunity in December, when he had to fix the general grant to be given to local authorities for the next two years. If the right hon. Gentleman had meant to keep his promise all he had to do was simply to increase the proportion to be paid by the Exchequer. Nothing could have been more simple. But no. He chose not to do it. He deliberately acted in breach of the pledge which had been given, which was formally set out in the manifesto and endorsed by the First Secretary.

What is even worse is that the increases in rates this year under the Labour Government have soared beyond all expectations. If the House doubts my words I will, once again, give the figures of the percentage increases in recent years. In 1960–61 the increase was 7.3 per cent.; 1961–62, 7.3 per cent.; 1962–63, 8.8 per cent.; 1963–64, 10.5 per cent.; 1964–65, 8 per cent. And now, in this first year of Socialism, the rates are going up on average by no less than 14 per cent. The Prime Minister, the First Secretary and the Minister of Housing and Local Government may all have forgotten the ratepayers, but I assure the House that the ratepayers will not so easily forget the three right hon. Gentlemen.

As to the cost of living, I do not propose to add to the compelling evidence adduced by my hon. and right hon. Friends in yesterday’s debate. I would only say that there is not a man or woman in Britain who does not now regard with unmitigated cynicism the First Secretary’s election boast that the rise in the cost of living … can, must and will be halted. For all the Labour Party’s talk about co-operation with the trade unions, there is no one, from the most humble elector to the Minister of Technology himself, who any more seriously pretends that the First Secretary’s incomes policy is other than a monumental flop.

On top of the increased taxation and the increased rates there come the increased mortgage interest rates, which are also somewhat the concern of the First Secretary of State, in view of what he said during the election. If I were to retail to the House the innumerable promises made by almost every member of the Government and every Labour candidate concerning lower interest rates for the would-be home owner, I doubt very much whether we should rise for the Summer Recess next week.

They all stem, however, from the unequivocal promise to introduce specially favourable rates for “intending owner-occupiers”, which was set out in the Labour Party’s election manifesto. Of course, the masterly inactivity of the Minister of Housing and Local Government over these past few months has been common knowledge amongst those who are now having to pay the unprecedented rate of 6¾ per cent.—and, in some cases, 7 per cent.—for their mortgages.

But only last Thursday there was a gleam of hope. It then seemed that at last something might be done to help the owner-occupier, for there appeared the following newspaper report: ‘Exploratory talks about a possible plan for subsidising house mortgages have been taking place between the Minister of Housing and his advisers and the council of the Building Societies Association.’ This was said yesterday by Mr. Donald Gould, the association’s chairman. He said that an attempt was being made to find out how to implement the Government’s election manifesto promises. That was last Thursday. By Tuesday, only five days later, the Chancellor of the Exchequer had found the answer—the whole promised scheme was to be deferred indefinitely. It is no exaggeration to say that of the whole tarnished record of this Government, the unfulfilled pledge to the owner-occupier is the most callous.

I say that because—and I am sure that every hon. and right hon. Member opposite knows this, also—those who are buying their own homes are frequently, and we see this in our constituencies, among the most over-stretched financially of our middle-class society—

Mr. William Hamilton (Fife, West)

What does the right hon. Gentleman know about that?

Mr. Barber

Those people switched to the Labour Party in their tens of thousands on the promise that they were to get a better deal. The Government have had every opportunity to redeem that pledge. They have not done so.

What reasons have been advanced for this lack of action? First, the Minister of Housing and Local Government said that there was no time, but the whole world knows that but for the courageous action of a handful of hon. Members opposite the Prime Minister certainly took the view that there was time in this Session to nationalise the steel industry, and certainly there was time for a Finance Bill, which most people now agree was largely irrelevant to the difficulties we face—[Interruption.]

The second reason put forward is that the economic situation does not permit of the promised relief, but where is the Prime Minister’s conviction which he so expressly and forcefully revealed in opposition? I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman is not so vain as to read his own speeches, but perhaps I can remind him of this one—

The Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Wilson)

At least I write my own speeches.

Mr. Barber

The right hon. Gentleman will be telling us that he writes his own teleprompters soon.

This is what the right hon. Gentleman said when in opposition: As a result of the Government’s monetary policies … the householder is already paying what many people will consider to be an excessive rate of interest to the building societies though, as the hon. Member for Wimbledon made clear, that cannot be laid at the doors of the building societies. It must be laid at the door of the Government’s monetary policies.”—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 2nd July, 1957; Vol. 472, c. 948–9.] The right hon. Gentleman was right—let no one doubt now where the responsibility lies.

But perhaps the most blatant breach of faith of all concerns the specific promise of an income guarantee. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) for having drawn my attention to certain facts which I believe the whole House will, in view of what the Chancellor said two days ago, consider to be highly relevant. I want the House to be under no illusion as to the calculated electoral appeal of the way in which this pledge was given—and it is no good the right hon. Gentleman the First Secretary of State mumbling there. This, for many people who took the Labour Party at its word, is a very serious matter indeed.

I should also like the House to be under no illusion as to the significance of the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s announcement two days ago, as I understood him to say, that there can be no question of introducing the income guarantee scheme for at least another year, and there was no hint of an undertaking that it might be introduced even after that. But, of course, even had the Chancellor of the Exchequer given such an undertaking, in view of what has happened during the past few months the whole nation would have received it as just another worthless Labour pledge.

If anyone doubts the electoral appeal of the income guarantee scheme and its coverage among the population, let me start by quoting a short passage from the Labour Party’s document “New Frontiers for Social Security”. It states: … in addition to our long-term reform of National Insurance, there must be a special rescue operation designed to bring immediate relief to these forgotten millions. The remedy we have in mind is a quite novel kind of Income Guarantee … Then came the General Election, and the widely- publicised passage in the Prime Minister’s own election address, which I am sure he will remember well. He said: An income guarantee will ensure that everyone has enough to live on as of right and without recourse to National Assistance. This will come without delay. The Prime Minister, I understand, is to speak next in this debate, and on this matter, the whole country—or at least the millions who were enticed by that pledge—are entitled to the answer from the right hon. Gentleman himself.

And let us have no more of this nonsense—[HON. MEMBERS: “Hear, hear.”]—about the introduction of an income guarantee, scheme being dependent on the state of the economy. This, I will tell the benches opposite, is a very important matter for millions of people, and if hon. and right hon. Members opposite treat it as a joke, and it is known outside, it will redound only to their discredit. There can be no question of the income guarantee scheme being dependent for its introduction upon the state of the economy.

I say that because, on this particular point, the Labour Party’s election manifesto was crystal clear. The Labour Party document “The New Britain stated: … we stress again that, with the exception of the early introduction of the income guarantee, the key factor in determining the speed at which new and better levels of benefit can he introduced, will be the rate at which the British economy can advance. “With the exception of the early introduction of the income guarantee”—the House will see that of all the social security benefits promised by the Labour Party, this was the benefit that was specifically excepted from the provision that the timing depended on economic progress.

The Prime Minister, realising the electoral advantage to be gained by promulgating this scheme, repeatedly drove home the point during the election campaign. In a broadcast to the nation, he said: … I pledge the Labour Government to urgent action to deal with this problem … to ensure to each a guaranteed and adequate income … To millions of television viewers, on another occasion, he answered a question about retired people with these words: What we are going to do now, and we’re going to do it early because the problem is urgent and it’s needed … is to provide a guaranteed minimum, below which no one will be allowed to fall. Then he went on to say: … substantially more than the existing National Assistance scale. If I may divert for a moment from the misguided trust of the electorate in what the right hon. Gentleman said to the near ridiculous, there must be no more shattered Member of the Government than the right hon. Lady the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance, whom I am happy to see in her place, for it was she who told the nation: We have no doubt about it that with men like Harold Wilson, George Brown and Jim Callaghan leading this country we shall be able to afford all the benefits outlined in this statement. It is no disrespect to the right hon. Lady to say that perhaps on this occasion we can discount her gullibility, because she is not generally a very gullible person.

In the light of the Prime Minister’s election manifesto, we are entitled to a full explanation from him. [Interruption.] It is all very well the Prime Minister once again talking to his right hon. Friend the First Secretary. I do not know whether he is discussing the answer, but I must tell him this, because we have never had an answer on the point before and he is committed on it in his election address. It will take a little more than the Prime Minister’s slick banter if he is to get off this hook.

Dr. Jeremy Bray (Middlesbrough, West)

If the right hon. Gentleman will refer to the passage from which he has just quoted he will see that of the five measures relating to social security, of which only the income guarantee was exempted from the relationship to the state of the economy, three have already been carried out.

Mr. Barber

The hon. Member has not been following my argument with his usual perspicacity. I was referring to the income guarantee scheme. No doubt we shall have from the Prime Minister the reasons—apart from the economic ones, which are not relevant according to the “New Britain”—why it has not been introduced.

The Prime Minister will doubtless know—I hope that he will give me his attention, because this is a matter which concerns a quarter of a million old people. The Prime Minister will doubtless know that one of the reasons which has been given consistently for turning down the proposals in the Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Abingdon (Mr. Neave), which, the House will remember, was intended to give the old-age pension to a quarter of a million men and women who are at present excluded, was the impending income guarantee scheme.

As the scheme is now to be deferred for at least a year, perhaps the Prime Minister will tell us whether, next session, the Government, if they are still in office—[HON. MEMBERS: “We will be.”]—will give time for my hon. Friend’s Bill. The Chancellor of the Exchequer is nodding. I do not know whether he is giving time or simply exuding a little confidence.

Mr. Callaghan

I was saying that we shall still be here.

Mr. Barber

I hope that the Prime Minister will say something on this point.

It is only because I want to leave plenty of time for my hon. Friends to develop the case which I have made that I do not propose to deal with the multitude of other pledges given by those who are now members of the Labour Government.

Mr. Ivor Richard (Barons Court) rose—

Mr. Barber

I cannot give way. I do not want to take too long. [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Dr. Horace King)

Order. If the right hon. Gentleman says that he will not give way, no bullying will make him.

Mr. Barber

I will give way to the hon. Member.

Mr. Richard

I am obliged. A quarter of an hour ago the right hon. Gentleman promised that he would deal specifically with the economic situation last October. Does he and his party accept responsibility for the balance of payments situation as it was on 15th October, 1964? If he does, will the right hon. Gentleman answer, on behalf of his party, one simple question which we have asked for the last 10 months: should we, faced with that situation, have raised any taxes at all, and, if so, what?

Mr. Barber

The hon. Member will not alter my speech one iota—[HON. MEMBERS: “Answer.”]—for the simple reason that I intended to deal with that precise point.

There is not time to deal with all the pledges, for example, the pledge given, I do not doubt, in all sincerity by a member of the Administration for whom I have a great respect, and that is my successor at the Ministry of Health. I refer to the pledge, of which the Prime Minister knows because he has dealt with it in the past, to set up four new medical schools at least. I was Minister of Health at the time when that pledge was given and I know the impact which it made on the family doctor. Perhaps the Prime Minister will tell us when he speaks whether this pledge is also discarded.

What about the hospital building programme? The Prime Minister, in his election address, promised—[Interruption.] I wish that the First Secretary would stop interrupting. [HON. MEMBERS: “Get on with it.”] This is a question which, I am sure, the Prime Minister will want to answer, because in his election address he promised that the hospital building programme would be revised. I will tell the right hon. Gentleman and his right hon. Friends what the result of that revision has been to date. As to building projects costing more than £100,000, there are to be no new ones this year. Twenty of the major projects which I approved for starting this year have now been postponed by the Minister of Health. No doubt the Prime Minister will wish to comment on this, because so far we have not had an answer on this point from any right hon. Gentleman on the Government Front Bench.

Mr. Laurence Pavitt (Willesden, West) rose—

Mr. Barber

I cannot give way. I do not want to take too long.

Other pledges were held out for higher education, technical colleges and universities. I understand that the building of these is now to be postponed in accordance with the announcement by the Chancellor of the Exchequer on Tuesday. I would not dream of entering the preserve of the Left-wing members of the Labour Party, so I leave them to pursue the pledges concerning the nationalisation of steel and nuclear policy.

On Monday, we are to have a debate on the economic situation. When I appeared on television with the First Secretary on Tuesday night, after the Chancellor of the Exchequer had announced his measures, the First Secretary admitted that his right hon. Friend, in his statement, had given no reasons for the sudden switch in policy over the previous 12 days. I wish, therefore, as we are to have a debate on the economic situation on Monday, to make only one point, which is relevant to this debate and which is the point raised by the two hon. Members in their interventions, a point which I intended to deal with in any event because it is relevant to the question of election pledges.

On Tuesday, the Chancellor in his statement, discarded one pledge after another. To the Prime Minister and to the two hon. Members who have intervened, I say that the time has now passed, for reasons which I will explain, when anyone in his right senses can any longer accept as an excuse the reference back to the situation last October. [HON. MEMBERS: “Nonsense.”] I will explain why.

Mr. Richard

Answer the question.

Mr. Barber

Certainly, by the time of the autumn Budget in November last year—nobody will deny this—the Chancellor of the Exchequer, I am sure he will agree, at that time was in full possession of all the facts. He pretended to the nation that there were things he had not known until he got into office, but by November he was certainly in full possession of the facts, and he then introduced his autumn Budget and he told the House that he deemed it to be enough.

Then, in his April Budget, the right hon. Gentleman changed his mind again, and again he told us that he was taking all the action he then deemed to be necessary. He told us so in his Budget speech. Then, on Third Reading of the Finance Bill, when the Chancellor followed me, he gratuitously made this statement to the House about his taxation proposals, and as it is so important and quite short I propose to remind the House of it.

The right hon. Gentleman said this—only 13 or 14 days ago: There is a temptation to assume, because the effects of these measures”— those were his Budget measures— are not immediately obvious, that we should rush into further measures which would have the effect of restraining the economy even more. This would be an unfortunate thing to do and I am resisting the temptation to do it.”—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 15th July, 1965; Vol. 716, c. 911.] That was only a fortnight ago to the day. The electorate, in the light of those proposals, can draw only one conclusion, and that is that the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues have failed.

On 15th October last year the Prime Minister set himself the objective of 100 days’ dynamic action. What the right hon. Gentleman has achieved is nine months of creeping disillusion. The nation is sick and tired of the right hon. Gentleman and his Government. They have forfeited the confidence of the British people. They have forfeited the confidence of our friends abroad.

Mr. Richard rose—

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

Order. If the hon. Member persists in interrupting I shall have to ask him to leave the Chamber.

Mr. Barber

I would conclude by saying this to the right hon. Gentleman. If he has a jot of statesmanship left in him let him put the national interest first. Let him go to the country.