Socialist Studies Socialist Studies

The Labour Party's Anti-Socialist Record

At election time, the various capitalist political parties urge us to give them our votes. Unfortunately, none of them stand for the workers’ interests; none of them stand for ending the wages system and production for profit, or for establishing Socialism. The best that any of them are willing to offer is a list of piecemeal reforms. But that is just tinkering with capitalism, not ending it.

The fact that there’s hardly any difference between them raises the question: why is there a multi-party system? Lloyd George argued in 1910 that capitalism needed the two-party system as “if the party system were destroyed, the class line must become the line of demarcation” - clearly, something to be avoided at all costs. In the SOCIALIST STANDARD (June 1914), the Socialist Party of Great Britain pointed out that: “When capitalist interests are threatened by the workers, both parties reveal themselves as one class”.

As for reforms, another SOCIALIST STANDARD article in 1915 pointed out that, after umpteen decades of futile reforms, the workers were still no better off, again quoting Lloyd George (Cardiff, 1911):

There are MILLIONS of men and women in this country who through no fault of their own are suffering unnecessarily... who go through life sodden in poverty, wretchedness and despair... You have greater poverty in the aggregate than you ever had, you have oppression of the weak by the strong, you have a more severe economic bondage than you probably ever had before.

Yet when the 1914 war broke out, the Liberal government, supported by Labour and Tory MPs, had no problem about passing measures to increase funding for the armed forces, postpone payment of government debt and protect the banks, to guarantee dividends to railway shareholders,. etc. As Socialists noted:

All this has been done in a FEW days, quickly, unanimously, and without discussion, by the two parties who were supposed to be enemies... They have now forgotten they are Tories and Liberals, but they never forget they are capitalists; and working in capitalist unison, they are moving heaven and earth to safeguard those interests now seriously threatened by ‘alien’ capitalists abroad. These things show they CAN move when they like. Why was it then that for over 6 years they deliberately refused to feed half-starved children on non-school days or increase the miserable half-penny rate allowed for food? Why did this government break its own signed agreement with the London Dockers, driving them back, with the use of armed force, to harsher conditions; refuse to concede miners the minimum wage of 5s. a day, or give dock navvies 6d. an hour - while giving MPs £8 per week?
The Futility of Reform, SOCIALIST STANDARD, February 1915

Under capitalism some things never change. Whichever party is in power, all governments keep workers’ pay as low as possible.

But it is quite OK for MPs to look out for themselves and feather their own nests. As for instance, when Labour politicians Stephen Byers, Patricia Hewitt and Geoffrey Hoon shamelessly touted for ‘consultancy’ work, claiming that for a mere £3,000 a day they could lobby their contacts, people in the corridors of power, to assist their business clients. Byers famously described himself as being like “a cab for hire”: All of these were former Labour government ministers, all were then being paid a handsome salary - plus ‘expenses’, and all were about to stand down from Parliament, with guaranteed pensions.

When Stephen Byers described himself as being “like a cab for hire”, that was close to the truth: he was acting like a mercenary, one of capitalism’s hirelings, which is a fair description of the Labour Party’s role. As former politicians queue up for jobs, their going rate is a lot more than it was in Lloyd George’s time. That £3,000 a day figure is small beer compared to what the former Prime Minister Tony Blair gets from trading on his connections. He is thought to have made over £20 million since leaving office.

After 13 years under Labour government, with at least five wars, two of them still costing lives daily, the issues raised in that 1915 SOCIALIST STANDARD article remain. There is still that same disgusting contrast. On the one hand, capitalist politicians furthering their careers, make available vast sums to fund wars and to protect bankers and speculators. They are however most reluctant to agree to any modest proposal to alleviate the misery of the working-class poor.

In government, all parties fight tooth and nail against any group of workers who dare to go on strike, even using armed force against them. This year, workers at British Airways have been on strike, in spite of vicious intimidation from the management and the hostility of most politicians. But striking workers find no friends among elected MPs, especially not from Labour, anxious to curry favour with the capitalist class.

We recall how, in the run-up to the 1997 election, Gordon Brown and Patricia Hewitt did the “prawn cocktail circuit”: this meant endless schmoozing in the City with investment bankers and hedge fund managers, reassuring them that when elected New Labour could be counted on to be “responsible”, to understand their concerns.

The Blair-Brown New Labour government was mean and stingy with its ‘targeting’ of any form of state help to members of the working class: this was increasingly done on a means-tested basis, and many state welfare payments, pensions etc, lagged behind the rising cost of living. But there was always money to be found for warfare: Gordon Brown boasted that while Labour was in power, he had increased spending for the armed forces, year after year.

So, while pensioners, the unemployed and the disabled had to struggle to get by, at the same time we learned that MPs and former ministers, people trading on their connections, could expect £3000 or more, not per month but per day! “It’s not what you know – it’s who you know that counts.”

Socialists have always seen the Labour Party as especially contemptible and opportunistic: no Socialist would touch the Labour Party with a barge-pole. From the first, the SPGB was clear about Labour’s reformist opportunism. Like the Independent Labour Party, the Labour Representation Committee, which later became the Labour Party, was in the habit of forming election pacts with the Liberal Party. As to what exactly the Labour Party actually stood for, this was left as vague as possible. At Labour’s Newcastle conference in 1900, Keir Hardie argued: “they did not want Toryism, Liberalism, or Socialism, only Labourism.” (quoted in THE MANIFESTO OF THE SOCIALIST PARTY OF GREAT BRITAIN, 1905, p30). ‘Labourism’ however remained undefined.

There was a strong religious stench about that early Labour Party. Stephen Timms, till recently a Treasury Minister, said in a speech (28 September 2009):

The Labour Party at its foundation in 1900 was a coalition of Marxists, Christian Socialists [sic] and Fabian middle class [sic] intellectuals. A historian famously claimed that the Labour Party owed more to Methodism than Marxism. The founder of the Labour Party, a patriarch in Labour's history, Keir Hardie, wrote in his diary in 1877 at the age of 21: ‘Today I have given my life to Jesus Christ’ .

In his book, NEW BRITAIN: MY VISION OF A YOUNG COUNTRY, Tony Blair set out New Labour’s principles, with a whole chapter on his Christian faith. He wrote that the self-interest championed by the Conservative Party clashed with Christian belief. This was rather ironic, as Blair was and is a keen practitioner of the ‘greed is good’ gospel of ‘enlightened self-interest’.

The SPGB saw from the start that the Labour Party was clearly not a Socialist Party. It was not based on an understanding of the class struggle, the basic conflict of interest between capital and labour, and the endless conflicts between employers and workers - a conflict of interests which can only be ended through democratic, class-conscious political action for Socialism and only for Socialism; in short, by revolutionary democratic political action by the working class to free itself of this worldwide system of class exploitation.

At the 2010 election, British workers were yet again urged to vote Labour “to keep the Tories out”. Little has changed - the same stupid argument was being used by Labour over 100 years ago. But as the SPGB argued then:

Of two evils choose the lesser, we are told; but... between the Liberal and Tory on the one hand, and Liberal-Labour on the other, the choice is between the devil and the deep blue sea.

As treachery and compromise were in the Labour Party’s DNA from the start, there is no way such a party could be of any use to the working class in organising to rid itself of the capitalist class system. So these elections where workers are only given a sham choice between Tory, Labour or Liberal candidates, as their potential representatives: these are as pointless as trying to choose between siding with Tweedledum or Tweedledee.

Such parties do not represent the workers’ interests. Where wars and strikes are concerned, they all agree with each other. They tell us that this or that war is “in the national interest” and has to be supported, but all strikes are invariably denounced as ill-judged, badly timed, utterly unjustifiable - in Gordon Brown’s words, “the wrong strike at the wrong time”, and so against the ‘national interest’. This so-called ‘national interest’ is a standard politicians’ evasion. The phrase deceptively suggests a unity of interest on the basis of ‘nationality’ but denies the reality of the class struggle which is worldwide, transcending national boundaries.

For instance, in the 2010 British Airways cabin crew strike, BA management had support from its competitors, including an Irish airline, Ryan Air. The union involved, Unite, likewise called on trade unions and workers in many other countries, for support. The fact is that the class struggle is real. There is an inevitable clash of interests between the interests of capital and the workers, a conflict that is especially acute in times of economic crisis and rising unemployment, when managers feel they can impose harsher conditions on workers, arguing that workers must tighten their belts or lose their jobs.

The reality behind this pretext is that forcing workers to take less pay, work longer hours and so on, is done to safeguard company profits, shareholders’ dividends and managers’ bonuses. Labour is a capitalist party: this explains why it is that, though trade unions have misguidedly supported the Labour Party from the start, the Labour Party never supports the unions against the employers.

Labour’s claims to be a Socialist party

From the start, the SPGB has argued against the Labour Party’s deceptive siren calls for measures of ‘palliation’, and for a revisionist policy of ‘gradualism’. Reformism was not then, and is not now, the way to end capitalism.

Throughout the last century, the SPGB has shown the Labour Party to be as much of an enemy to the Socialist cause as other, openly capitalist, parties like the Tories and the Liberals. It is hard to say which did more harm to the Socialist cause, in the 20th century, the Labour Party or the Bolsheviks. For instance, in the SOCIALIST STANDARD (January 1906), on the eve of a general election, this was the SPGB’s blunt assessment of the Labour Party (the LRC as it still was):

... without principles or object, and with only the most loosely defined policy, [it] has always been nothing more than the happy hunting-ground... for the man on the make, the political quack and charlatan.

If George Orwell was writing ANIMAL FARM now, at the end of the story, Blair, Mandelson, Prescott and co. would be among the greedy slobs seen guzzling at the table while the hardworking, hungry animals/workers watch - from outside.

What is the Labour Party for?

Back in the 1990s, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson re-branded their party ‘New Labour’, with its policy relabelled the ‘Third Way’ and ‘stakeholder capitalism’, whatever that meant. Central to their ‘project’ was to get rid of Clause 4 in the party’s constitution. But there was a slight problem: what to put in its place?

The founders of the Labour Party had been anxious not to be thought of as Socialists. In 1918 the party had decided to have a constitution drafted for it by Sidney Webb, and this included Clause 4. It was because of this commitment in their constitution, plus their policy of nationalisation, that the Labour Party was able to pose as a ‘Socialist’ party. The wording of that 1918 Clause 4 deserves looking at:

To secure for the producers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry, and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible, upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry and service.

But there are problems with this. As Socialists pointed out at the time, if you give “the full fruits of their industry” to the workers, what is to become of the rest of the community, the sick, the handicapped - all those too old, too young or too infirm for work? And to talk of “the producers by hand or by brain” is utter nonsense: manual workers cannot function unless they use their brains, and non-manual workers do not operate merely by ivory-tower thinking. Even doing abstract physics, you would need to be able to use your hands to write notes, to turn the pages of a book, or to use a computer.

What was missing from this Clause 4 was any reference to “democratic control by and in the interest of the whole community”. That omission cannot have been accidental. The SPGB’s very clear definition of Socialism, echoing that of William Morris and the Socialist League (THE MANIFESTO OF ENGLISH SOCIALISTS, 1893), had been in use since 1904, and was well known.

Labour’s 1918 Clause 4 was re-drafted ten years later to refer to “common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange”. But anyone using their grey matter for a moment would see that this too was nonsense. What need is there of money as a ‘means of exchange’ in a society based on “common ownership of all the means of production and distribution”? Where the means of production would be owned in common, so too would be all the products, which would mean that there would be no need for any “means of exchange”.

Socialism would mean an end to buying and selling, or even barter. Distribution would be based on the clear and simple principle of “from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs.”

What of ‘New’ Labour’s new improved Clause 4? Tony Blair’s 1995 lengthy re-write of Labour’s Clause 4 was even worse than the earlier versions:

A dynamic economy... in which the enterprise of the market and the rigour of competition are joined with the forces of partnership and co-operation to produce the wealth the nation needs.

From this painfully turgid prose, some words do stick out. “Market”, “enterprise”, “competition”: these would appeal, in a dog-whistle way, to so-called Middle England, code for business interests, and the more affluent workers.

This new Clause 4, which speaks of “the wealth the nation needs”, echoes the title of Adam Smith’s book, THE WEALTH OF NATIONS, the free market economists’ bible. There was nothing at all in Blair’s rewrite of Clause 4 to suggest any wish to change society, or even to represent the interests of the working class, of labour versus capital, of unions against employers.

What of Labour’s ‘Achievements?

Among the Labour Party’s early proposals for reforming capitalism (LABOUR AND THE NEW SOCIAL ORDER, 1918), there were demands for a National Minimum Wage at 30s a week; nationalisation of industry, of the land, and of insurance companies; progressive taxation to go as high as 19s in the £ for millionaires, and a capital levy aiming for “a systematic approach towards a healthy equality”, while apparently still “retaining a fairly large measure of inequality of income and wealth”. But as the SPGB pointed out:

Hardly any of these proposals came to anything, and those that were adopted have left capitalism essentially unchanged and unregenerate.

Here are two quotations (from Labour sources) to support that argument. * ... innumerable private fortunes are being heaped up... and the one-tenth of the population which owns nine-tenths of the riches of the UK, far from being made poorer, will find itself, in the aggregate, as a result of the war, drawing - in rent and interest and dividends – a larger nominal income than before.
Labour Party – Annual Report, 1918, p19

* In Britain on the eve of this war for democratic principles, nearly half the total national income went to 10 per cent of the population; 80 per cent of the total capital belonged to less than 6 per cent of the community... At one end of the social scale twelve million people earned less than 50s. a week. At the other end there were many thousands with incomes of over £200 a week and some with incomes of over £1,000 a week.

Such descriptions would be just as valid today, if adjusted to allow for inflation. For instance, consider how many workers have to struggle to get by on the mean, penny-pinching ‘national minimum wage’, or on short-term contracts, as temps, agency or casual workers, and even as ‘unpaid interns’. Consider too how pawnbrokers and loan sharks have flourished, charging exorbitant rates of interest. Yet this is after more than a decade of a Labour government in power, with a secure majority in the Commons. The social problems facing workers up and down the country are still as desperate as ever, as their insecurity, unemployment, misery and housing problems are again worsening.

The fact is that Labour in government has a terrible track record. In 1945 when Attlee’s post-war government was elected with a strong majority and popular support, one of the Labour MPs made this confident declaration:

Labour has no alibi left. If it fails to produce the goods – full employment, all-round national prosperity, international concord, health, homes and happiness for the whole people – it can fall back on no excuse.
Gerry Allingham, MP, 31 July 1945 – SOCIALIST STANDARD, Sept. 1945

The history books tell us that the 1945 Labour government did indeed deliver, in part, on some of their election promises. There was the Beveridge Plan for re-organising social welfare more efficiently and cheaply, based on compulsory deductions from the pay-packet; and the setting up of the NHS.

Both of these policies were in fact supported by the employers. National Insurance was seen as a way of reducing the administrative cost of the various complicated schemes which had sprung up in the 1930s, while the NHS could be seen as a way to improve the fitness of the workforce and reduce the amount of time lost due to illness or injury. Promises of such reforms had also been used as a way of motivating workers during WWII with the hope of better things to come, a world fit for homeless heroes.

There was also the all-party wartime pledge of ‘full employment’, backed by Keynesian policy: a mistaken policy based on the fallacy that mass unemployment can be prevented by boosting demand, by pump-priming the economy, even by printing money, a policy which led in time to inflation and ‘stagflation’, with ever-rising unemployment in the 1970s.

But as for the acute housing shortage in post-war Britain, where vast numbers of working-class homes had been bombed, and millions of workers and their families urgently needed re-housing, there was no money to be found by the Labour government for a proper housing programme, not until Tory governments took it on in the 1950s. However, Attlee’s peace-loving Labour government did find the money to start a secret nuclear weapons programme and maintained conscription, long after 1945. That was the first government to have a policy of peace-time conscription. And, when confronted by dockers on strike, Attlee’s Labour Government knew what they had to do in ‘the national interest’: they used troops to break the strike. So much for their claims to represent the interest of Labour against Capital, to be for the trade unions, or even to reform capitalism by means of ‘palliatives’.

Today, Labour is immensely proud of having introduced the National Minimum Wage, although some industries in the past did have a legally enforceable minimum wage. But as with the agricultural workers in the past, the minimum wage was and is hard to enforce. Today, there is widespread evasion of this law in some sectors, e.g. nursing homes, hotels and catering, and seasonal or casual land-work. When employers underpay, workers are fearful of reporting them - better low pay than no pay.

Another 1940s reform was the Family Allowance. This was touted by Elinor Rathbone before the war, to allow women to get hold of a bit of cash of their own. But it had an unfortunate side-effect – as the SPGB predicted. Wages had traditionally been calculated on the assumption that a worker generally needed to be paid enough to support both himself, and a wife and children.

But this was clearly wasteful. As one politician asked: “why pay workers for children that many of them don’t have?” It would clearly be cheaper if employers paid workers as if they were childless and single, and then, for those who actually had children, the wage could be topped up by a state allowance.

As a result, over time, wage rates have been pushed downwards - as the SPGB predicted - as the so-called ‘social wage’ is routinely taken into account when wages are negotiated. So what the capitalists appeared to have granted as a concession, they gave with one hand, only to take away with the other. Such is the true value of the Labour Party’s policy of ‘social reform’.

What of ‘full employment’?

Capitalistic production moves through certain periodical cycles. It moves through a state of quiescence, growing animation, prosperity, overtrade, crisis, and stagnation... During the phases of crisis and stagnation, the working man, if not thrown out of employment.... During the phases of crisis and stagnation, the working man, if not thrown out of employment altogether, is sure to have his wages lowered.

After more than a decade of Labour government with Gordon Brown repeating his boastful and ignorant claim to have “put an end to boom and bust forever”, he and others now claim that this crisis is “unprecedented”. But was it so very unforeseeable? Is it true to say it is “unprecedented”?

A book about the history of trade unionism described the depression of the early 1930s as “an unprecedented economic blizzard” (Henry Pelling, A HISTORY OF BRITISH TRADE UNIONISM, 1963, Pelican, p183). That was triggered by the crisis which threw Ramsay MacDonald into the arms of the Tories, and as a result split the Labour Party. Oddly, Gordon Brown seemed to have no knowledge of this. “What we did not see, nobody saw, was the possibility of markets’ failure” (Gordon Brown, GUARDIAN, 24 January 2009).

With “prudence for a purpose” Brown in charge, the UK National Debt grew a lot, meaning increasing dependence on the bond markets for government finance. As election day came nearer in 2010, the total National Debt was around £700 billion, and rising,

The Labour Party’s record is that they always leave government with unemployment higher than when they got into power. One consequence of Labour’s legacy of high unemployment and housing shortages is the risk of racism. The SPGB argues that capitalism is the root cause of race prejudice, as in our 1947 pamphlet THE RACIAL PROBLEM (p75):

[The workers] still have to contend with poverty, unemployment, insecurity and war. For the working class, capitalism is a society of mental, social and economic frustration: as such it breeds race-prejudice as a swamp breeds pestilence


Labour and War

Under New Labour, British workers in uniform have been involved in more wars than ever - possibly 5 or more, and at least two of these are still ongoing.

Even in the early days, the Labour Party has benefited from wars. The bloodbath of the First World War was supported by Labour from the start, Labour spokesmen were enthusiastic in going round the country urging workers to join up. At the end of that war, they got their reward when they were seen as a possible alternative to the Liberals as a party of government. Right from the start, in 1914, Labour officially declared:

The Head Office of the party, its entire machinery are to be placed at the disposal of the Government in their recruiting campaign.
SPGB MANIFESTO, 1920 edition – The Labour Leader, 9 Sept. 1914

Labour’s pious old fraud Keir Hardie wrote:

I have never said or written anything to dissuade our young men from enlisting. I know too well all there is at stake.

J Ramsay Macdonald, supposedly a pacifist, went even further:

I want the serious men of the Trade Unions, the brotherhoods, and similar movements, to face their duty. To such it is sufficient to say, ‘England has need of you’, and to say it in the right way.
DAILY CHRONICLE, 14 Sept. 1914

Not surprisingly, we say that the Labour Party and its leaders had blood on their hands. The SPGB, at the first chance it got, in September 1914, stated clearly: “No interests are at stake justifying the shedding of a drop of working-class blood”. From start to finish, the SPGB remained firmly opposed to the war. This was seen as a matter of Party principle - the principle of the class struggle and international class unity.

Then, as now, Socialists consistently argue that capitalism’s wars are fought over capitalist interests, such as the ownership and control of oil wells and pipelines, etc. Similarly with World War II, even with the arguments put about the need to fight Fascism and ‘defend democracy’. Likewise with all the wars fought since then: the SPGB holds to the principle of class interest, not ‘national interest’.

Labour by contrast prided itself on running WWII efficiently. For instance, Herbert Morrison (Mandelson’s revered grandfather), the wartime Home Secretary boasted:

Having had two wars in one lifetime, we are naturally running the second war rather better, very much better, than the first. If we have a third war in our lifetime and I hope we shall not – we shall run that war with almost complete perfection...
Quoted in SOCIALIST STANDARD, Oct. 1943

After World War II, British and US foreign policy was, and mostly still is, based mainly on the vital importance of controlling the oil resources of the Middle East. As Mark Curtis wrote in WEB OF DECEIT (2003, pp 15-6):

Oil is... the fundamental Anglo-American interest in the Middle East, and was described by British planners in 1947 as ‘a vital prize for any power interested in world influence or domination’. “We must at all costs maintain control of this oil”, British Foreign Secretary Selwyn Lloyd noted in 1956.

As the SPGB argued clearly, in a pamphlet published in the same year

There can be no capitalism without conflicts of economic interest. From these arise the national rivalries and hatreds, the fears and armaments which may at any time provoke war on a terrifying scale...

We argue that workers should disregard capitalism’s war propaganda:

It is not dictatorship, democracy, universal peace or pious sentiment that determines who the ‘enemy’ shall be. The ‘enemy’ is simply determined by what serves, or is expected to serve, the interests of capitalists... The real enemy of the world’s workers is always on their doorsteps. It is the capitalist class, both at home and abroad.

Labour’s Spurious Claims to be a Socialist Party

The Labour Party has never been a Socialist party. Nowadays it doesn’t even claim to be; but for many decades Labour politicians zealously promoted the myth that their policies meant Socialism. For instance, in April 1945, in LET US FACE THE FUTURE (p6, our italics), we read:

The Labour Party is a Socialist Party and proud of it. Its ultimate purpose at home is the establishment of the Socialist Commonwealth of Great Britain – free, democratic, efficient, progressive, public-spirited, its material resources organised in the service of the British people.
SPGB pamphlet, 1946, p10

Note that, for Labour, Socialism was seen only as its ultimate goal. By calling itself the “Labour Party”, it encouraged workers and the trade unions to suppose that it stood for the interests of Labour against Capital, i.e. for the working class against the employers. Our party regularly exposed this fraud, describing Labour politicians from the start as fakers.

In a 1945 book, VOTE LABOUR, WHY? the Labour Party appealed to every possible type of voter: a worker, a business man, a Christian, a manager, etc, and claimed to be standing for Socialism. Today’s ‘New Labour’ politicians declare that their policy is one of ‘partnership’ between employers and employees (see our pamphlet, NEW LABOUR - A PARTY OF CAPITALISM, 2nd edition, p5):

Economic prosperity in a competitive market is best achieved through partnership between employers and employees (POCKET POLICY GUIDE, 1997).

That dream of partnership in the workplace is an old Liberal Party policy, and is usually coupled with an altruistic desire by employers to have a union-free workforce or, at the least, a no-strike agreement.

At the Labour Party’s 1999 conference, Blair announced that “the class war is over...” (see NEW LABOUR - A PARTY OF CAPITALISM, SPGB, 2nd edition, p9). What this actually meant was that “The Labour. Government puts the interests of business first”, as Stephen Byers said in Parliament (2 March 2000).

For Labour politicians, this line was not new. Back in 1967, James Callaghan, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, was talking the same talk, telling the TUC: “I want industry to be profitable – it’s in your interest that industry should be profitable”[sic] (ibid., p15, see also LABOUR GOVERNMENT OR SOCIALISM, 1968).

Only those utterly ignorant of how capitalism works and where its profits come from - the unpaid labour of the working class - could hold such a view. These hireling labourite politicians choose simply to ignore the reality of the class struggle, the conflict of interests between workers and employers.

As a result, workers and unions who still support that fake ‘labour’ party, in spite of its truly horrible record, are again and again misled, with wars, unemployment, insecurity, poverty and exploitation as their inevitable reward for their loyalty at the polling booth.

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