SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 185 February 2015

Britain’s tipping point election

As the general election approaches, the political situation in Britain is more unstable than for many decades. The outcome is impossible to predict, reflecting the unprecedented unpopularity of all the major capitalist parties – rooted in the continued economic crisis. We print an edited extract from the draft British perspectives document to be discussed at the Socialist Party national congress in February.

The weakening of the social base of the major parties is reaching a tipping point. In the next period, faced with increased class struggle and social explosions, these depleted parties can suffer serious splits or even be destroyed. The Liberal Democrats are facing electoral annihilation; current polls suggest they could be reduced to less than 20 seats. The Tory party, once more than two million strong, now has fewer than 170,000 members – average age 74! – and is bound to shrink further.

It is staggering that this husk of a party is not guaranteed to go down to devastating defeat in May. Not only has it inflicted years of misery on the majority of the population, its election campaign is based on a pledge to reduce the public sector to the size it was in the 1930s, proclaiming that five years of austerity was ‘just the beginning’. These policies are profoundly unpopular. In opinion polls taken immediately after George Osborne’s autumn spending review, two thirds of the population thought that his plans were ‘wrong’ and ‘extreme’. However, the Tories were not appealing to the majority but to their ‘core’ vote they have barely been able to reach beyond since they last won a majority government in 1992. The brutal spending review was an opportunity for Labour to rally the support of the majority who opposed it. It signally failed to do so, only creeping up a couple of points in some polls.

The Labour leadership’s endless ‘me too’ mantra is breath-taking in its relentlessness, showing how obvious it has become that there is no fundamental difference between the Tories and Labour. As a result, both parties’ support is oscillating at around 30%, which would give them no chance of forming a majority government. It is 14 years since any party won 40% of the vote, which used to be regarded as the benchmark for a government.

Whatever the character of the government after 7 May, it will not be a reliable tool through which the capitalist class will be able to govern. The Tory party remains the favoured choice of the majority of capitalists but it does not represent the collective views of their class in the way it did in the past. Its claim to have halved the deficit has been met with incredulity, even by normally loyal publications like The Spectator, which accused the Tories of telling ‘porkies’.

To try and cut across the UK Independence Party (UKIP), the Tories are increasingly using English nationalist rhetoric, have hinted that they might move the referendum on Europe forward from 2017, and have refused to rule out a coalition with UKIP. While this may limit votes haemorrhaging to UKIP in the short term, David Cameron will not be able to just ‘put it back in the box’ after the election. In fact, these moves would only fuel UKIP and make it more difficult for a Tory-led government to act in the objective interests of British capitalism, particularly on Europe.

A section of the capitalist class is also worried that the scale of the cuts and the growth of inequality will further depress demand and create social unrest leading, in the future, to revolutionary upheavals. This was reflected in the outrage expressed even by the BBC to Osborne’s spending review. At this stage, however, the majority of the capitalist class see the only way to restore their system to health is to drive the share taken by the working class back to the levels of the 19th century. They therefore support the Tories’ insane spending plans, even while the more far-sighted seriously doubt their capacity to carry them out, given the mass opposition they will face. A Financial Times survey showed that a big majority of capitalist economists believe Osborne’s plan for an extra "£50 billion of spending cuts was not credible and not likely to be achieved".

The same survey showed a distinct lack of alarm about the prospect of a Labour government, which they felt would "continue with deficit reduction more or less as planned". The right-wing press’s hysteria against the prospect of a supposedly ‘red’ Miliband government is laughable, given the completely pro-capitalist character of Labour’s programme. In fact, the hullaballoo is not about Labour but the crisis-ridden character of 21st century capitalism, and the capitalists’ correct fear of mass working-class revolt.

Nonetheless, serious sections of the capitalist class understand that a Labour-led government would attempt to act in their interests. On Europe, the economists surveyed suggested that a Labour government would be more reliable, as it is not promising a referendum on Europe – which would lead to sharp falls in business confidence and investment. What the capitalist economists in the FT survey feared most was what is currently most likely: a weak, unstable, minority or coalition government.

Another coalition

While increasing numbers of working-class people dismiss the three main parties as ‘the same’, another layer will vote Labour hoping that it will be a little less brutal than the Tories. It is probably still more likely that hatred of the Tories will mean that enough workers will ‘hold their noses’ and vote Labour for it to come out as the biggest party. However, this is not guaranteed. It is likely that the Tories will try to find a few election bribes for the March budget; although they are severely constrained by the way this would undermine their mantra about the need for endless austerity. It is Labour’s weakness that could allow the Tories to edge ahead. Nonetheless, if the Tories are again the largest party, any government they form will be extremely unstable.

There will be little left of the Lib Dems who would be even weaker partners, having lost more than half their seats. In order to try and avoid complete electoral disaster the Lib Dems are increasingly openly attacking the Tories. This will increase the already strong mood in the Tory party that it would be better to be a minority government, propped up from the outside by the Democratic Unionists (DUP) from Northern Ireland and UKIP. Cameron has promised Tory MPs a vote on forming a new coalition. A failure to deliver this could lead to an immediate split in the fragile Tory party, with more MPs leaving for UKIP.

Another Tory-led government would be far weaker than the current coalition – in both parliamentary arithmetic and social base. In 2010, there was a section of the middle class, even some workers, who accepted Cameron’s propaganda about ‘caring Conservatism’. That has long since gone. There are still a few who hope that the pain they have suffered has been a necessary precursor to renewed prosperity. That illusion is being shattered. The inability of the Tories to reach significant sections of the population has worsened during the last five years. In Scotland and the North of England, they have been wiped out. There is not a single Tory councillor in Manchester, Newcastle, Liverpool or Sheffield, or in numerous London boroughs.

If Labour comes out as the biggest party it would prefer a coalition with the Lib Dems, to take some of the flak for its continued attacks on workers’ living standards. Such a coalition would not be seen in the way it would have been in the past, given the change in the class character of the Labour Party. On the contrary, many workers would welcome it initially as a means to keep the Tories out. It is far from certain, however, that the numbers for a Lab-Lib coalition would add up.

On current polls, the Scottish National Party (SNP) will have more MPs than the Lib Dems. The SNP has ruled out a coalition with the Tories. It may join one with Labour but would be more likely to prop up a Labour government from outside. The SNP would demand concessions in return, in particular on more devolved powers for Scotland, over and above those already agreed through the Smith commission. Without further, major concessions the question of a new independence referendum will be on the agenda, sooner rather than later.

Austerity, Labour-style

There would be little substantial difference between a Labour or Tory minority government. Tony Blair has already started to lay the blame for Labour losing the general election on Miliband’s crime of being too ‘left-wing’. In fact, Miliband had no choice but to distance Labour from Blairism, indelibly associated with the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and with completing the Tories’ deregulation of finance capitalism. No politician now could get away with Peter Mandelson’s infamous comment that Labour was "intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich". The depth of the crisis and growing anger against inequality mean that even the Tories have to play lip service to clamping down on tax evasion – while, in reality, doing all they can to assist it.

Nonetheless, Labour’s election programme is indistinguishable from Blairism. One or two small reforms have been promised, including increasing the minimum wage to £8 an hour by 2020 – about 25p an hour increase a year! The pledge to build 200,000 houses a year by 2020 is barely higher than the numbers currently being built and far short of what is necessary to solve the housing crisis. There is no pledge to enable the building of council and genuinely social housing, the only way to secure an increased availability of affordable accommodation.

Labour has refused to commit to the renationalisation of any of the privatised utilities, not even City Link, which collapsed on new year’s eve, or Royal Mail – the latter sold off at a bargain price, making an instant £1.5 billion for the Tories’ friends in the City. Only on the NHS has Labour promised anything, pledging to repeal the Health and Social Care Act. It has not, however, agreed to reverse the privatisation which underpins it. The centrepiece of Miliband’s conference speech was an increase of £2.5 billion a year in NHS spending, far less than is needed even to avert the developing health service crisis. Moreover, Labour’s insistence that it will stick with Tory spending plans means that it has had to admit that it will not implement this minor pledge before halfway through its term of office! The pledge to freeze energy prices for 20 months, while popular, is no more radical than Gordon Brown’s 1997 one-off windfall tax on the energy companies. Renationalisation of the energy companies, consistently supported by over 70% of the population, has been completely ruled out.

On some issues Labour would be less vicious than today’s Con-Dem coalition. It may pull back on a few of the anti-trade union measures, such as ending the check-off in large parts of the civil service. That would not cost money or require legislation. But it has not even pledged to do this, and may refuse to, fearing the accusation of being in hock to the ‘union barons’. Labour will also not be unduly concerned by blows being struck against the unions, in particular the PCS civil servants’ union, which has been a consistent opponent of austerity. The central issue is that Labour will continue with public-spending cuts until the deficit is ‘eliminated’. Already £35 billion has been cut, pushing even basic services close to collapse. The savage cuts to benefits, the abolition of the Independent Living Fund and a litany of other crimes, mean that the safety net that previously existed has already been badly undermined.

Next year’s local authority budgets, set just weeks before the general election, will be cut by a further 13%, on average. Labour-led Coventry council has announced that it will close almost every children and family centre, community, play and adult education centres in the city. In Liverpool, 23 of 26 Sure Start centres are threatened with closure. The cuts that a Labour government would try and implement will come on top of this carnage.

There will be mass resistance which even some right-wing Labour councillors can be forced to respond to. Until now, Labour councils have loyally implemented the Tory cuts, although there is a small but growing band of councillors who have been unwilling to do so. Faced with a Labour government trying to take public services back to the 1930s, there will be more councillors who reach breaking point and refuse to implement the cuts. In Greece, 20 councils that had implemented misery for years reached a tipping point and, albeit hesitatingly, took a stand against implementing further cuts.

A Labour-led government would be entirely different to those of 1997-2010, not in its politics but in the depth of the crisis of the capitalist system it would defend, and its weakness and inability to do so effectively. It is no exaggeration to predict that Labour could be virtually destroyed by its attempts to implement austerity – like Pasok in Greece. This process could be intensified if, as is likely, a new stage of the economic crisis develops.

Protest votes

The biggest problems for the major parties are huge unpopularity and weakened social bases. This leaves them unable to weather shocks they could previously have coped with. As these parties are weakened, other ‘populist’ forces are stepping into the vacuum. This process will accelerate, particularly before the formation of a new workers’ party which will also be firmly on the agenda. The argument of Labour loyalists that it is impossible to build a new party beyond the big three is being rapidly undermined by events. In the general election, many will protest by staying at home. Unprecedented numbers of voters will also choose parties they see as a means of expressing protest.

No-one any longer believes that UKIP is just a by-election phenomenon which returns to a tiny vote in the general election. While its vote could be squeezed, it may win several more seats than its current two. Even if it doesn’t, UKIP will win significant votes in a number of seats which will have a bearing on the election result. What is more, UKIP will be a factor in politics from the start of the next parliament, even if it has only a handful of MPs. However, if UKIP props up a Tory government this would begin to undermine its status as a party of protest.

While UKIP threatens more Tory than Labour seats, it is taking votes from across the political spectrum and is a serious threat to Labour as well. This was made clear in last year’s Heywood and Middleton by-election, when UKIP was only 617 votes from defeating Labour, which had a majority of 6,000 in 2010.

UKIP is a right-wing populist party, whose leadership emanates from Tory party ‘head-bangers’. A large part of UKIP’s funding comes from that minority of financiers and hedge-fund managers who believe the City of London would be better off freed from the ‘constraints’ of EU regulations. Even so, it has been able partially to step into the vacuum left by the absence of a mass workers’ party. The capitalist establishment has, at times, encouraged this, seeing UKIP as a safer outlet for people’s anger compared to far-right organisations like the BNP and, above all, the development of a workers’ party. Nevertheless, UKIP is a destabilising factor, particularly for the mainstream parties.

UKIP has gained an echo partially by falsely blaming immigrants for the problems workers face. The biggest factor in its success, however, is a desire to use it as a weapon to punish the main political parties. Most UKIP voters stand to the left of UKIP and all the establishment parties. One YouGov poll showed 78% of them support the renationalisation of the energy companies, 73% the renationalisation of the railways, and 57% want zero-hour contracts banned. In response, UKIP has had to give its propaganda a more left-wing tinge – like all right-wing populist parties in Europe. UKIP’s previous support for a flat-rate tax has been hastily dropped. When Margaret Thatcher died, UKIP leader, Nigel Farage, said he was the only politician "keeping Thatcherism alive". Now, he is attempting to distance himself from Thatcher’s legacy, which he has described as "divisive".

Farage has dismissed UKIP’s 2010 general election manifesto as "drivel". Its 2015 manifesto has not yet been published. While it is unlikely to make it into the manifesto, UKIP’s financial affairs spokesperson has even spoken in favour of nationalising the railways. The contrast between UKIP’s core support and the layer of disillusioned workers now voting for it, in some cases even joining it, is increasing the party’s instability. Such is the heterogeneous character of its membership, it is not even excluded that a few UKIP councillors could refuse to vote for cuts. However, while UKIP is inherently unstable, this does not mean it is about to fall apart. Given the scale of the vacuum, it could be a semi-stable force in politics for a period.

On a smaller scale, the Greens are also acting as a repository for protest votes – around 12% of those who in 2010 voted Lib Dem (then seen as to the left of Labour) say they will back the Greens (see article on page 17). But their leader, Natalie Bennett, has said that the Greens would be prepared to vote for Labour’s cuts budgets in order to keep a minority Labour government in office. Locally, they have been prepared to join coalitions with all of the major parties, including the Tories.

Labour-affiliated unions

In the last year, the Collins Review destroyed the final vestiges of a collective voice for the trade unions within the Labour Party. For all the sound and fury expressed by the leaders of the major affiliated unions, they dutifully voted to end their unions’ power at the special conference called to debate the issue – like turkeys voting for Christmas. The only union to vote against the proposals was the Bakers’ Union, which was blocked from speaking at the conference.

Since then, the leaders of the big affiliated unions have played a central role in ‘keeping the troops in order’. For example, they tried to prevent any opposition resolutions at the 2014 Labour Policy Forum. As a result, only one amendment calling for a Labour government to "reject Tory spending plans for 2015-16" – moved by a constituency representative – was voted on. It was defeated, 125 to 14.

In the run-up to the election the majority of the members of affiliated unions will acquiesce to their leadership giving large donations to Labour because of the fear of another five years of Tory-led government. However, even in this pre-election period, discontent and anger are growing over this issue. This is posed most starkly in Scotland where, since the referendum, a layer of workers have been leaving the trade unions because they see them as linked to Labour. This was most dramatic in Usdaw, the shop workers’ union, which actually campaigned for a ‘No’ vote – officials feared that 6,000 members (13%) would resign. In Unite, where the independence referendum came on top of the Falkirk debacle – when Miliband called in the police against Unite/Labour activists – anger is particularly sharp.

The election of ultra-Blairite Jim Murphy as leader of the Labour Party in Scotland poses the issue even more baldly. Prior to Murphy’s election, Len McCluskey, Unite general secretary, said it would be a "political death sentence" for Labour to choose Murphy. At December’s Unite United Left meeting, McCluskey seemed to accept that Murphy’s victory would result in Unite in Scotland refusing to affiliate to Labour, and demanding a formal rule change at this year’s union conference – just six weeks after the general election. The Unite leadership will not want to embarrass the Labour leadership, particularly if it has won the election, and so will try and head off that discussion.

Nonetheless, this clearly shows the pressure that is developing from below, and the speed with which events can happen in Unite, particularly in Scotland, but increasingly also in England and Wales. If Unite branches support left-of-Labour candidates, it will put the Labour leadership in a very awkward position. The RMT was expelled from the party in 2004 for backing socialists. But Unite is on another level, as Labour’s biggest funder.

Preparation for a new workers’ party

The Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) challenge in the 2015 elections is enormously important. While TUSC is unlikely to make breakthroughs, it is aiming to stand widely enough to be granted an election broadcast and to begin to be seen as a national force. Last year’s election challenge involved an important layer of trade unionists and activists as TUSC candidates, including an unprecedented number of RMT members, but also considerable numbers from other unions, including Unite, Unison, PCS, FBU and POA. TUSC aims to build on that, encouraging the most politically conscious layer of the working class to fight for a new party by standing as candidates.

This is vital preparation for the new party that will be on the agenda whether the Tories win – and more and more workers ask: ‘what is the point of Labour?’ – or a Labour-led government is formed which will continue with austerity. It is likely that, in the period after the election, even left union leaders will continue to hesitate about taking decisive steps to build a new party. However, the developments from below, harnessed by TUSC, will begin to create a new party which will force them to act, at a certain stage.

The political situation is extremely unstable, making it impossible to predict exactly how events will develop. Nonetheless, some points are clear. The next government will be highly unstable and crisis-ridden but will attempt to carry out further, large-scale austerity. While there are difficulties and complications – a legacy of the last 20 years – that government will face massive opposition from the working class on a bigger scale than we have seen in the last five years. Consciousness has not yet caught up with objective reality but that process has begun in the brutal school of the Con-Dem years.

The lessons of that experience will not be drawn by all sections of the working class at the same time but in a series of battles over an extensive period. The fury at the capitalist parties, combined with the failure of the trade union leaders, can mean we see anti-party and anarchistic ideas developing on a broader scale than we have seen up until now. On the other hand, the formation of a substantial new workers’ party, which will be on the agenda, can partially cut across this provided it has a socialist programme and fighting approach. The Socialist Party has a crucial role to play in this process.

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