By IAN AITKEN, Political Correspondent
The Prime Minister last night issued,a grim challenge to British Leyland car workers to end their appalling record of strikes and industrial disruption or face the possibility that the Government might be forced to drop its massive programme of State investment designed to rescue their firm from disaster.
The warning, which was aimed specifically at BLMC employees but clearly has wider implications at a time when firms are queueing up for Government aid, came just as British Leyland announced that it was laying off more than 12,000 workers at two plants in Cowley because of a decision by 250 engine tuners and rectifiers to go ahead with their planned strike on Monday. Efforts to avert the stoppage were still going on last night But the strike decision gave added force to Mr Wilson’s gravely worded message, delivered to Labour supporters in his Huyton constituency. Mr Wilson said the Government’s aim was to put production, exports , and job s at BLMC on a secure and profitable basis. But , although this could be achieved with the necessary State investment , its success did not depend upon the Government alone.
“In a very real sense the success of public intervention to fight the threat of unemployment means a full contribution, a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay by everyone for whose security we are fighting,” he said.
But Mr Wilson went on to outline the deplorable strike record of the motor industry in general and BLMC – in particular. British Leyland’s Austin-Morris sector alone had lost more than 350,000 man-days in 1974, or about a fifth of the total lost by the car industry as a whole. Yet the car industry, with only just over 2 per cent of Britain’s workforce , had accounted for one-eighth of all the man-days lost in 1974, a year which included the coal mining dispute – and nearly a third of the total loss in 1973.
The right s and wrongs of these disputes were now a matter, of history, said Mr Wilson. But then he added his clear warning for 1975.
“What is not a matter for argument for the future is this,” he said. ” With public capital and an appropriate degree of public control involved , the Government could not justify to Parliament or to the taxpayer the subsidising of large factories involving thousands of jobs , which could not pay their way, but which are failing to do so because of manifestly avoidable stoppages of production.”
Mr Wilson conceded that public finance did not call for any interference with the established arrangements for settling disagreements in industry. But he went on: “What is at stake in Britain in 1975 and the year after that is the future of the employment of our people. That, from now on, depends not only on Government finance and participation but on the wider and wholehearted participation of all those whose future and whose families future depend on the success of the decisions the Government has taken and. will take , and which they intend to see through.”
The implications of these somewhat convoluted sentences were nevertheless clear. The speech, and its timing, plainly signals a firm decision by the Government that the time has come to deliver a serious jolt not only to car workers but to all other employees who stand to lose their jobs in a general economic collapse. Earlier Mr Wilson insisted that the whole emphasis of the Government’ s internal policies was directed to maintaining employment.
The most important and spectacular example had been its decision to come to the rescue of British Leyland. But he said significantly that BLMC could have prospered without State aid if it had closed its unprofitable plants and settled down as a much smaller unit Yet the Government had decided to maintain the firm as a major producer , a major exporter, and a major employer of labour . That meant a costly programme of investment , and it was now clear that the money would have to come from the Government because experience had shown that it would not come from private finance.
That, in turn, entailed “appropriate Government participation in the equity and in control of the firm.”
He said an urgent study was already being conducted into the firm’s requirements by Sir Don Ryder , the new Whitehall industrial adviser. Urgent action would be taken on the basis of that examination , aimed at putting production , exports and jobs on a secure basis.
Last night, Mr John Pardoe, Liberal spokesman on economics, said that Mr Wilson’s plain words were not enough. He insisted that an incomes policy and a wage freeze were now urgently needed to avoid hyper-inflation and mass unemployment. Yet neither could be implemented by the Wilson Government without splitting the Labour Party. Mr Leslie Huckfield (Nuneaton), a Labour back-bencher , said Mr Wilson’s remarks showed that be knew very little about the car industry.
He went on: “If he talked to any of my constituents working at Jaguar, Triumph, or Morris Engines in Coventry, he would find that there is a real determination to make British Leyland succeed, especially under public ownership. The real culprit is the chronic failure of management to invest when Continental car workers have twice as much investment at their elbow as those who work for British Leyland. These are the comparisons that the Prime Minister ought to be making instead of blaming my constituents.”
The Opposition’s employment spokesman, Mr James Prior, said every worker in the car and other industries should ” listen carefully” to what Mr Wilson had said.
“He is at last stating some home truths which others have been expressing for a long while;” said Mr Prior.
“What a pity he has not done it before. The Government’s responsibility is to help to control inflation , not to bale out companies who lose as a result of it.”