Scab Labour: Where do we go from here?

Bridget Phillipson is the U.K. Labour MP for Houghton and Sunderland South. “You’re not fit to be prime minister and you’ve got to resign,” she told Jeremy Corbyn at an extraordinary meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party after the Brexit vote last June. Today, “The Staggers, The New Statesman’s rolling politics blog” published an essay by Phillipson titled, Where do we go from here?
It is a very long read but eventually comes to the Lakoff-inspired conclusion that the Labour Party needs “to frame the debate again as one between collective action and its absence.”

And having formulated that clear sense of how the Britain of 2020 would be run differently between 2020 and 2025 by Labour, we need to work out how to persuade the electorate of that – to work out exactly how we should communicate our promises.

Before arriving at that stirring platitude, however, Phillipson let these dubious cats out of the bag:

I take the view that the right decisions for Britain’s future are not invariably the ones that are immediately and universally popular. If they were, all politicians would be redundant. Sometimes things that are true are deeply unpopular, and sometimes things that are popular would be catastrophic as policy choices. That to me is why we are a representative democracy rather than one governed by referendum after referendum. I also believe that as politicians we have a moral responsibility to tell the truth. …

If we pretend things that are true aren’t so, and pretend that seductively popular options which would actually damage us are without downsides, we deserve to get in trouble. The fastest way to lose trust is to be found out in deceit, and once we lose that trust, we will then find it very hard to gain the support we need to change what can and should be changed. It’s easy for those who don’t believe in government: they have nothing to lose from a diminution of faith in politics and politicians. As Labour politicians we have everything to lose: we have a double responsibility.

So to the point: the ‘lump of labour,’ the notion that there are a finite number of jobs to go round, is a long-known fallacy. Those who pretend otherwise or deny that finding should be treated with the same bemused contempt as Douglas Carswell when he claimed the tides were driven mainly by the sun. … There is something horribly un-socialist about blaming people for the consequences of political decisions of a right wing government. That is the politics of populism not socialism, the politics of easy answers rather than right answers.

If it is the “double responsibility” of Labour politicians to “tell the the truth,” it is a prerequisite responsibility for them to know what “the truth” is and not simply parrot something they happen to have heard from Jonathan Portes or Nigel Stanley. The claim about a lump-of-labour fallacy was conceived and propagated as the core reactionary “frame” for refuting the legitimacy of collective action by workers.

The history of the bogus fallacy claim is a long story but there are four episodes that underline its reactionary character. The first episode involves the factory riots of the late 18th and early 19th century. Following riots near Bolton in 1779, Dorning Rasbotham, a Lancashire magistrate published a pamphlet titled, “Thoughts on the Use of Machines in the Cotton Manufacture,” in which he trivialized and dismissed the grievances of the factory workers as being based on the false principle that there is “a certain quantity of labour to be performed. … if now machines perform a larger share than before, suppose one fourth part, so many hands as are necessary to work that fourth part, will be thrown out of work, or suffer in their wages.” Rasbotham’s refrain was recycled in the second decade of the 19th century to again dismiss and trivialize the grievances of the frame breakers who invoked the name of the mythical Ned Ludd.

The second episode occurred in the 1830’s in the context of hearings on the Ten-Hour Bill. Edward Carleton Tufnell, who had been an examiner for the 1833 Royal Commission on Employment of Children in Factories, subsequently authored the canonical anti-trade union tract, Character, Object and Effects of Trades’ Unions in which he alleged,

The Union calculated, that had the Ten-hour Bill passed, and all the present factories worked one-sixth less time, one-sixth more mills would have been built to supply the deficient production. The effect of this, as they fancied, would have been to cause a fresh demand for workmen; and hence, those out of employ would have been prevented from draining the pockets of those now in work, which would render their wages really as well as nominally high. Here we have the secret source of ninetenths of the clamour for the Ten-hour Factory Bill, and we assert, with the most unlimited confidence in the accuracy of our statement, that the advocacy of that Bill amongst the workmen, was neither more nor less than a trick to raise wages—a trick, too, of the clumsiest description; since it is quite plain, that no legislative enactment, whether of ten or any other number of hours could possibly save it from signal failure.

Tufnell’s claims of a calculation by the union and a “trick of the clumsiest description” were distilled from speculations offered in the testimony from an employer, Peter Ewart, during examination by the Royal Commission. There was no other evidence presented in those examinations to substantiate Ewart’s reply to the question, “What do you suppose to be the chief motive for the operatives here advocating the Ten-Hour Bill?” At the conclusion of his tract, Tufnell summed up his assessment of unions:

Were we asked to give a definition of a Trades’ Union, we should say, that it was a Society whose constitution is the worst of democracies, whose power is based on outrage, whose practice is tyranny, and whose end is self-destruction.

Rasbotham’s derogatory dismissal of the motives of rioting factory workers and Tufnell’s canard about the devious calculations of unions became the boilerplate 19th century reactionary rebuttal to the demands of workers. When engineering workers in Newcastle went on strike in 1872 for the nine-hour day, indignant letters appeared in the London Times ritually denouncing the “trick” of the unions in pursuit of higher wages. In his dispatch filed on the day the strike was settled, the London correspondent for the New York Times echoed claims that the leaders of the strike were secretly pursuing a sinister “ulterior design” to surreptitiously raise wages and characterized their rationale as follows:

The [Nine Hours] League is only an offshoot of the Unions… Their theory is that the amount of work to be done is a fixed quantity, and that in the interest of the operatives, it is necessary to spread it thin in order to make it go far.

By the end of the 19th century, the baseless claim about unions’ theory of a fixed amount of work had become a commonplace. The derisively pretentious “Theory of the Lump of Labour” was coined by David F. Schloss in 1891. Ten years later, The London Times  published a series of reports on “The Crisis in British Industry.” Edwin A. Pratt was subsequently identified as the author but William Collinson, who was the publicist for the strikebreaking National Free Labour Association claimed to have provided Pratt with the information. According to the Times reports, the supposed crisis in British industry was attributable to a diabolical yet inept Trade Union scheme in which:

It was hoped to “absorb” all the unemployed in course of time, not by the laudable and much-to-be-desired means of increasing the volume of trade, and hence, also, the amount of work to be done, but simply by obtaining employment for a larger number of persons on such work as there was already. The motive of this aspiration, however, was not one of philanthropy pure and simple. When all the unemployed had been absorbed the workers would have the employers entirely at their mercy, and would be able to command such wages and such terms as they might think fit. The general adoption of the eight hours system was to bring in a certain proportion of the unemployed; if there were still too many left the eight hours system was to be followed by a six hours system; while if, within the six, or eight, or any other term of hours, every one took things easy and did as little work as he conveniently could, still more openings would be found for the remaining unemployed, and still better would be the chances for the Socialist propaganda.

In the 20th century, the alleged lump-of-labour fallacy has become the go-to dismissal by newspaper columnists and textbook economists to proposals for shorter working time or concerns about persistent unemployment. Curiously, according to these experts, employment and wages are somehow impervious to the effects of automation, immigration, overtime work, off-shoring of manufacturing or the delay of pension eligibility. Anyone who suspects otherwise must be an ignorant populist and should be treated with the contempt they deserve. There is no evidence for the alleged belief in a fixed amount of work. The lump-of-labour fallacy claim is a lie that has been repeated so often and for so long that many people just assume it must be true. A little historical research shows otherwise.

What Bridget Phillipson needs to know about framing the debate “as one between collective action and its absence” is that 118 years ago, the political economist and anti-union polemicist Thomas Cree based his argument about “The evils of collective bargaining in trades’s unions” on the very same bogus claim. Cree rails against the “most serious evil” of collective bargaining, the belief by “most workmen” “(and the belief is not confined to workmen)” that “they are benefiting their class by doing each as little as possible, so as to make the work go over a greater number.” This (alleged) belief is, however, “economics upside down” and in reality, according to Cree:

The only means, apart from thrift, by which the material condition of the working class, or any class, can be improved is by an increase in general production. Given that increase, its distribution is automatic. Nothing can prevent the working classes from getting their full share of it. Prevent that increase, spread out the work so as to employ all the men, limit the output, and nothing can prevent the working class from suffering with everybody else. The trades’ unions lend their influence and authority to limit production sometimes expressly, as we have seen, sometimes tacitly.

The lump-of-labour fallacy is thus revealed in Cree’s screed as disbelief in the automatic distribution of any increase in production. In Cree’s view, collective action has only one purpose, whether expressly or tacitly: to limit production and, as a consequence to prevent the working classes from getting their full share of the increase of output. Is this really what Bridget Phillipson also believes? Of course not. She has unwittingly allied herself with the likes of Dorning Rasbotham, Edward Tuffnell, William Collinson and Thomas Cree because she trusted that Jonathan Portes and Nigel Stanley knew what they were talking about when they mouthed the lump of labour refrain. In turn, Portes and Stanley heard it from somebody who heard it from somebody who…

No, Bridget, the distribution of any increase in general production is not “automatic.” There are, in really many factors that “can prevent the working classes from getting their full share of it” and one of those factors is ignorance of the way the “laws of political economy” have been framed historically by the opponents of collective action.

Tom Walker is author of “Why Economists Dislike a Lump of Labor,Review of Social Economy, Vol. 65, No. 3 (Sept. 2007), pp. 279-291.

Abstract: The lump-of-labor fallacy has been called one of the “best known fallacies in economics.” It is widely cited in disparagement of policies for reducing the standard hours of work, yet the authenticity of the fallacy claim is questionable, and explanations of it are inconsistent and contradictory. This article discusses recent occurrences of the fallacy claim and investigates anomalies in the claim and its history. S.J. Chapman’s coherent and formerly highly regarded theory of the hours of labor is reviewed, and it is shown how that theory could lend credence to the job-creating potentiality of shorter working time policies. It concludes that substituting a dubious fallacy claim for an authentic economic theory may have obstructed fruitful dialogue about working time and the appropriate policies for regulating it.