SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 181 September 2014

The stakes are raised in pre-election Britain

The establishment political parties are jockeying for position ahead of next year’s general and local elections. They have little to offer, of course, except the bitter pill of continued savage austerity, with different flavoured coatings. What marks out this pre-election period, however, is the rising working-class anger, including a new wave of public-sector strikes. HANNAH SELL reports.

For over four years Britain has been ruled by a Tory-led government which has implemented the most savage cuts in public spending since the 1930s. The first response of the working class to the coalition’s attacks was mass protests and strikes, culminating in the public-sector strike over pensions on 30 November 2011. Following the derailment of that movement – because the majority of union leaders settled for a few crumbs – the government has been able to force through huge cuts without mass trade union opposition. But now, in the run up to next May’s general election, union struggle is again in the ascendancy. On 14 October, for the second time in four months, public-sector workers will take part in co-ordinated strike action over pay. This is the first time in several decades that a pre-election period has seen rising workers’ struggle.

The continuing, profound crisis of world and British capitalism has had a devastating impact on workers’ living conditions – and on their outlook. The hopes and illusions of the majority – that this crisis would prove temporary and things would go back to normal – have been eaten away by seven years of shrinking incomes. The government quango, the Office for Budget Responsibility, estimates it will take until at least 2018 for real incomes to reach 2009/10 levels. This may prove optimistic! The propaganda of ‘recovery’ jars so sharply with workers’ own experience that it has increased anger at austerity. Whichever of the major parties wins the general election it will attempt to continue the capitalists’ programme of endless austerity. However, neither the Tories nor Labour, in coalition or governing alone, has the social base and popularity to do so without facing mass opposition and social strife.

The main local government trade unions, Unison, GMB and Unite, whose entry into the field of battle has been central to broadening this autumn’s strike action, are all Labour affiliates. In the past, leaders of such unions would have told their members that there was no need to strike because a Labour government would solve their problems. This is not viable today. Instead, even Unison general secretary, Dave Prentis, the most moderate of union leaders, is posing the strikes as a means to put pressure on a future Labour government. He said: "it is time for Labour to make up its mind", adding: "Our members and all those taking action need a sign from the party that they can expect better from a future Labour government".

The lack of any such sign will not, of course, prevent the leaders of the affiliated trade unions campaigning for their members to vote Labour, tapping into their desire to get rid of the Tories. Nonetheless, it gives an indication of the huge pressure that a Labour government or Labour-led coalition would come under from the organised working class. Len McCluskey, general secretary of Unite, has talked about the need for a new workers’ party after the general election. The reality of a Labour government implementing austerity will force this demand to the fore.

However, the pre-election attempt by leaders of the major affiliated unions to protect the Labour Party leadership does a huge disservice to trade unionists. It politically disarms them for what they will face after the election. This was shown in stark relief at the Labour Policy Forum (18-20 July) to discuss the outline of Labour’s election manifesto. The chair introduced it as having the ‘spirit of ‘45’, but there was none of that spirit in the policies agreed, and overwhelmingly accepted by the union leaders.

Reports of the forum emphasised how ‘self-disciplined’ it was, with decisions reached by ‘consensus’ in all but one case. According to Labour Party NEC member, Ann Black, the affiliated unions’ representatives played a central role in ‘helping to mediate’ in order to prevent anything as unpleasant as votes taking place. There was one vote, over a motion, moved by a constituency representative, calling for a Labour government to "reject Tory spending plans for 2015/16". It was defeated by 125 to 14. A majority of the union representatives opposed the amendment. To say they secured a few crumbs for their members in return for their loyal backing of austerity would be a very generous description.

Few concrete pledges

The capitalist press continues to characterise New Labour leader, Miliband, as ‘red Ed’. The Financial Times (6 July) pleaded in an editorial for him to stop seeing "business as a foe, not an ally". Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson have made impassioned pleas for Miliband not to ‘veer left’. This can create the impression that the Labour leadership is planning to make major changes in the interests of the majority, the working class, if it wins the election.

Without doubt, some of the policy headlines that came out of the forum are popular. Polly Toynbee, for example, summarised them as: "a million homes, raising the minimum wage towards a living wage, secure tenancies, letting the state compete to take back the railways, abolishing the bedroom tax, good vocational education, and standing up to vested interests such as the energy cartel". However, as will become clear if Labour forms the next government, there is almost no substance to these proposals. This is already recognised, at least partially, by many workers. One ComRes poll taken just before this year’s local and euro elections on 22 May showed that, although many of Labour’s policy announcements were popular, a majority of voters did not believe that Labour would implement them.

On housing, Miliband has promised that, by 2020, a Labour government would be building 200,000 new homes a year. In response to speculation that this would mean a million homes over the course of the next government, a Labour housing spokesperson told the New Statesman that this was not the case: "There have been a lot of promises made on house-building in the past and those have not been met. Our target of 200,000 by 2020 is ambitious but realistic". It is the very opposite. In 2012, according to the housing charity, Shelter, 125,000 houses were built. So Labour is not promising to double house-building but only to increase it by 75,000 a year – and it is only promising this very limited aim in the final year of a Labour government.

Shelter estimates that at least 250,000 houses a year need to be built to start to solve the housing crisis. Key to solving the crisis is genuinely affordable housing. This means taking the decisions out of the hands of the profiteers. Yet Miliband is proposing nothing that would alter New Labour’s abysmal record – only 7,813 council houses were built in its thirteen years in power (1997-2010). Michael Lyons, who heads Labour’s commission on housing, has made it clear that he does not agree with the very moderate proposal of the Labour-led Local Government Association that councils be allowed to borrow against their housing stock to build council housing, because of the ‘need’ to stick with Tory spending plans.

No concrete pledges have been made on the minimum wage, other than it will be linked to average earnings. At what level, Miliband has refused to comment! He has refused to commit to introducing the living wage (£8.80 an hour in London, £7.65 elsewhere). A similar sorry tale can be told on the renationalisation of the railways, which one opinion poll showed has 93% support. The shadow cabinet is with the other 7%. Its ‘radical’ proposal is to allow public-sector bodies to bid for rail franchises, which will be decided on who offers the best value for money for ‘taxpayers’. In other words, the private-sector values of super-exploitation of the workforce and cutting corners on safety are what will win private or public companies the franchise.

The shadow cabinet has yet to announce its general election pledges for the National Health Service, and is rumoured to be considering proposing some extra funding. But it says that any extra spending will have to be paid for either by further cuts elsewhere, or by only pledging to increase NHS spending in the misty future when the deficit is paid off! Labour has said it will repeal the Health and Social Care Act, but will not reverse the bulk of the NHS privatisation which underpins it.

On student tuition fees, Black admits that she failed to get the Labour Policy Forum to call "for fees to be scrapped, substantially reduced, or changed to a graduate tax". On schools policy, Tristram Hunt refused to promise to reverse the carnage created by Michael Gove. He stated: "Nearly 30% of children were enrolled in free schools and academies, and simply returning to the old local education authorities was not an option". Crucially, there is no pledge to repeal the vice-like anti-trade union laws. Indeed, during the last tube workers’ strike, Miliband said he would consider following the Tories and introduce a minimum turnout requirement for a strike ballot in the public sector to be legal.

No left turn

Objectively, these policies are indistinguishable from Blairism. Yet the majority of trade union leaders are attempting to give them a left-wing gloss, probably feeling that to do otherwise would endanger a Labour victory. What really endangers a Labour victory, however, is its empty, pro-capitalist programme, which workers can see regardless of attempts to dress it up. Toynbee summed up why she believed people would vote Labour: "Because Labour will cut more fairly". The Labour leadership, she suggests, has "learn[ed] the salutary lessons of François Hollande’s over-promising and under-delivering" so, instead, is making sure it promises almost nothing. This is not a recipe for mobilising popular support!

For this reason a Labour victory at the general election is not guaranteed. Nonetheless, the hatred of the Tories could push Labour into power despite itself, particularly as the Tories’ claim to have led Britain into recovery is being exposed. There are other factors which may further undermine the Tories, including developments in the quagmire of Iraq, and the potential scandal surrounding inaction over historical child abuse cases. Even a majority Labour government is possible, although it is perhaps more likely that Labour will fall short of this but be the largest party.

Even if Labour’s most ‘radical’ policies were fully implemented, they would be no more than minor irritations for any section of the capitalist class. And Labour’s refusal to promise a referendum on remaining in the European Union is consciously designed to appeal to big business, in contrast to the anti-EU fervour that is gripping much of the Tory party. Why then, if Labour is so clearly a safe party for capitalism, does Miliband get attacked in the press as being ‘too left’? In fact, the capitalist class is not united in its opposition to Labour. While Labour’s donations from big business are currently dwarfed by those received by the Tories, they are not insignificant. In 2013 and the first half of 2014, Labour received over £1.3 million in donations from companies and a number of large donations from business people. These included £1.6 million from John Mills, the owner of JML household products, who dismissed Labour’s plans to cap energy prices as ‘just rhetoric’. Other major donors include property magnate David Garrard, whose £600,000 cheque was the biggest single donation made in the last quarter to any party.

Inevitable upheavals

The hullaballoo against Labour’s supposedly ‘red’ policies is not about Labour, but the crisis-ridden character of 21st century capitalism – and the capitalists’ fear of mass working-class revolt. The only road the capitalist class can see out of the crisis is by driving the living conditions of the working class into the dirt, through lower wages and cutting the social wage (public services). The privatisation of public services also opens up important fields of investment for the capitalists. None of this is new: ‘reform’ of public services has meant their privatisation ever since Thatcher; and the share of wealth taken by the working class has been shrinking for decades. However, as the size of the pie has shrunk, the fight over the division of smaller resources has become much more acute. There is enormous anger developing among the working class and big sections of the middle class which will find expression at a certain stage.

This is understood by the most intelligent capitalist commentators. Writing in the Sunday Times (10 August), the management editor of the Economist warned of the consequences of the growth of inequality and how "the middle class is being torn asunder". He wrote that many previously "middle class jobs" are being automated and deskilled, resulting in the majority of "submerging professionals" being pushed down into the ranks of the working class. He did not add that better-off sections of the working class are also being pushed into low-skilled, low-paid jobs.

He concluded: "Tony Blair liked to think he was reinventing the Labour party for a moderate and middle-class future. In fact, he was retrofitting it for a world about to disappear". He added: "The crisis of the middle class will create increasingly volatile politics. Minority parties such as UKIP may make dramatic gains. But even if they fail – the Westminster mould is hard to break – disruption is coming. Protest groups will become more combustible as old certainties are removed. Established parties will flirt with more radical ideas – withdrawal from the European Union on the right and nationalisation of industry on the left – as they compete to harness popular anger".

It is in this context that the capitalist class is trying to shout down and discredit even the very timid proposals being put forward by New Labour. It fears that they will awaken an appetite among the working class to fight for more serious measures, such as nationalisation and democratic workers’ control of publicly-owned companies. In fact, such desires will be awakened regardless of who wins the election.

The propaganda about a ‘return to growth’ in the UK economy is paper-thin. Following the puny formal growth of the last year, business confidence has now dipped as the prospect of a further slowdown looms. Manufacturing production fell 1.3% in the three months to May. The lurch back into recession that is now taking place in Britain’s biggest market, the eurozone (including its powerhouse, Germany), will have a further negative effect on UK exports, already suffering from the strength of sterling.

Even during the so-called recovery, there has been no recovery in pay – with wage growth lower than the rate of inflation. Capitalist economists have expressed bafflement about why, as unemployment falls, wages have also continued to fall. One reason is that work no longer means a full-time, permanent job. Many new jobs are part-time and temporary, earning barely more than Job Seekers Allowance. Britain’s economy bears more and more resemblance to Spain or Portugal, with 4.5 million self-employed workers, more than any other country in western Europe – two-fifths of all new jobs since 2010 have been self-employed. Most are self-employed because it is the only option available. This is the future facing the next generation: low-paid, unskilled, insecure work.

Upheavals are inevitable. The urgent task of the workers’ movement is to prepare for them. The public-sector strikes in the autumn can play an important role in that process, raising the confidence and cohesion of the organised working class, and readying it to face the post-election battles. Another serious task is to organise the low paid, non-unionised workers who now make up a majority of the working class. The Fast Food Rights campaign against zero-hour contracts and for £10 an hour is an important precursor to the kind of mass organising drives that are needed.

Another vital job is the development of a political alternative to the capitalist parties based on the working class. The Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) will step up its preparatory work for the creation of such a party by standing candidates in the elections next May. It will be in the post-election period, however, that decisive steps towards a new party are likely to come. If Labour cannot beat the Con-Dems, the cry of ‘what is the point of Labour?’ will become deafening. If Labour comes to power, the reality of a Labour government will show that the answer to that question is ‘to protect the interests of the 1%’.

Even prior to a mass party of the working class coming into being, the existing parties – representing the interests of capitalism – will face increasing turmoil after the election. If Miliband cannot even succeed in evicting the hated Tories – a party so far removed from the lives of the majority that a cabinet minister resigned because he said he could not live on £90,000 a year (plus £173,000 expenses in 2013) – he will be jettisoned as Labour leader. That would open up a new crisis in the party, with the ultra-Blairites, in a complete inversion of reality, arguing that Miliband lost because he was ‘too left wing’.

Tory divisions

The Tories increasingly realise that it is highly unlikely that they could win a majority, and that even another Con-Dem coalition – or Tory minority government – would be an uphill task. Some polls have shown that replacing David Cameron with Boris Johnson could do the trick, although the Tory leadership probably realises that the reality of Johnson as leader would quickly shatter his poll ratings. If the Tories lose the general election, however, it is not impossible that Johnson’s ambitions could be realised. What better sums up the sorry state of what was once the most successful capitalist party on the planet that a buffoon like Johnson stands a chance of becoming its leader?

If Labour manages to throw away the general election, a new Tory-led government would face huge social explosions. In 2010 there was a section of the middle class, and even of workers, who believed Cameron’s guff about ‘caring Conservatism’. That is long since gone. Even now, however, there are a few who hope that the pain they have suffered was a necessary precursor to renewed prosperity. That illusion will be shattered. The inability of the Tories to reach significant sections of the population has, if anything, worsened during the last five years.

It is possible that the Tories will preside over Scotland voting for independence, which would be a disaster for their prestige and that of British capitalism. Even if, as seems more likely, that does not happen, there is no doubt that a central factor in Scottish workers voting ‘yes’ is hatred of the Tories. In the North of England, the Tories have been wiped out. There is not a single Tory councillor in Manchester, Newcastle, Liverpool or Sheffield. The same can be said for numerous London boroughs. The resignation of Baroness Warsi over Gaza will have deepened the profound antipathy that exists among the big majority of those from ethnic minorities who see the Tories as the ‘racist’, ‘nasty’ party.

Tory divisions will also come to the fore if the party wins a second term. If the UK Independence Party manages to gain a handful of MPs this would further destabilise the Tory parliamentary party, particularly if the Tories have to rule as a minority government, perhaps trying to rely on both Liberal and UKIP votes. Cameron has managed partially to hive off the huge problem of Europe by pledging to have a referendum in 2017. In a second term, however, he would probably have to find a way to justify staying in Europe – which is in the interests of the majority of the capitalist class – despite the opposition of most of his party, a substantial section of which could defect to UKIP. Nor will Labour escape problems on Europe. Out of power, the Tories will scream for a referendum, which would be popular with a majority of the population.

A new Labour government?

If Labour wins, its problems will also just be beginning. Many workers, relieved that the Con-Dems have gone, would be willing to give Labour a chance. More than ever before, however, a large section considers that ‘they are all the same’ and expects no difference from Labour. Some would temporarily suspend their disbelief, but this would not be a honeymoon period in the old sense. On the contrary, as soon as Labour starts (immediately) ‘taking difficult decisions’ – making cuts! – there will be the potential for mass opposition, as is shown by the strikes taking place before the election.

A 24-hour general strike against austerity, which the TUC has been forced to ‘consider’ for three years but has not called, would be put firmly on the agenda. In such a situation Labour, as any capitalist party, could be forced to give concessions to the working class. The capitalists could acquiesce to this temporarily, in order to maintain their rule, but would attempt to claw back what had been given at a later stage.

The economic situation will do nothing to assist a Labour government. Throughout the time New Labour was in power the profits of British capitalism became increasingly reliant on the growing finance sector, huge credit bubbles and privatising public services. New Labour welcomed that, with Gordon Brown even declaring that ‘boom and bust’ had been abolished. That was in a time of boom. Now, British capitalism is using the same old methods to restore its profits. The economy a Labour government would inherit would be an infinitely sicker version of what they presided over before. The prospect is posed of a new financial crisis, for which Labour would again take the blame. In that situation, Miliband would beat even Hollande in the unpopularity records. Labour could shatter, like Pasok in Greece.

It is also likely that Labour would not have a large, or perhaps any, majority. A coalition with the tattered remnants of the Lib-Dems is one possibility, although some Lib-Dems fear another coalition would mean their complete collapse. They might prefer to let Labour rule as a minority government, backing it from outside, perhaps alongside the Scottish National Party.

The unstable character of Britain today means that it is not possible to predict the outcome of the general election with any certainty. Nonetheless, it is certain that the next government will be unstable and crisis-ridden. It will certainly face massive opposition from the working class. The last five years have been a brutal school for workers. They have experienced first-hand what 21st century capitalism means. Many, particularly from the younger generation, can very quickly draw the conclusion that there is no choice but to launch a determined, mass struggle against austerity – but also that the only way to end austerity is to fight for the socialist transformation of society.

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