Taking on the ‘lesser evil’ argument

The ‘don’t stand against Labour’ argument is back, as the prospect of a general election looms. Here we reprint, in shortened form, an article written by CLIVE HEEMSKERK and first published in The Socialist No.840, 21 January 2015, which shows how these issues were dealt with under Ed Miliband’s Labour leadership in the run-up to the general election and local council contests in May 2015.

“A great many voters will be rightly angry on 8 May”, wrote Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee in her New Year’s Eve assessment of politics in 2015, because they felt obliged to “chose the least worst of two parties from which they feel increasingly alienated”.

But, she went on, there is no alternative to voting Labour on May 7 because “another five years of the Conservatives” would set “an irreversible seal” on the government’s policies. Obeying “the tactical diktats of the two-party game” is an “iron rule” and those backing anyone else will have “wasted their vote”.

As polling day gets nearer this argument will be repeated again and again. And not just in the pages of The Guardian which, with one or two maverick exceptions, is a house-journal of ‘austerity Labour’. Many trade union leaders also do not want to answer this profoundly pessimistic idea.

But the argument is wrong. The alienation from the establishment parties, conceded by Toynbee, is so deep that it is approaching a qualitative shift. Whatever government emerges from the 2015 general election will be weak and unstable.

Yes, it will attempt to push through austerity measures but they will not be as easily imposed as Toynbee imagines, and certainly not ‘irreversible’. Yes, the opposition in the workplaces and communities will have to be organised more boldly and extensively, particularly by the main union leaders, than in the last five years. Opportunities to unseat Cameron – from the 2011 public sector pension strikes to the 2014 Scottish referendum – were not taken only because they failed to give a lead.

But one thing is clear. Voting for the establishment parties will only bolster the justification they give when they face opposition to their policies, the fig leaf of electoral ‘legitimacy’. Backing the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), on the other hand, is not a ‘wasted vote’ but another step in the fight back.

Austerity Labour

Not surprisingly, Polly Toynbee isn’t able to make a positive case for voting Labour. The New Year skirmish between the parties on public spending once again shows why.

The Tories claimed that Labour had made ‘unfunded’ spending commitments of £21 billion above the government’s current plans. In response Labour issued a ‘rebuttal dossier’, entitled ‘The Tories Smear Analysis of Labour Policy’, which mainly consisted of denying that the policy commitments had ever been made.

Shadow chancellor Ed Balls insisted that when Labour criticise certain cuts this does not mean that they will be reversed. He singled out local council spending cuts, and the 1% public sector pay limit, as two examples that a Labour government would categorically not undo. No wonder Toynbee says that “keeping expectations low while inspiring enthusiasm to get the vote out” is a “tricky balancing act”.

Toynbee also acknowledges the alienation from the capitalist establishment parties that exists. But when she talks about a government doing “irreversible damage” while “lacking the consent of more than a third” she underestimates how deep it has become.

Many commentators have made similar points to Toynbee – that this could be the first general election where the combined vote for Labour and the Conservatives is less than 65%. But a more significant figure is what the two parties score as a percentage of the total electorate, not just those who vote.

In 1951 80% of the population voted for either Labour (40.3%) or the Tories (39.6%). In 2010 the combined figure had fallen to 42%. Old allegiances are breaking down. Whatever the result this time in terms of parliamentary seats, the election ‘winner’ is likely to have less of a social base than any government before it. It will not be able to impose its will if opposition is organised.

What if the Tories win?

But what about Polly Toynbee’s implied argument that, however weak its popular support, having secured a parliamentary majority a new Tory-led government would be in a position to carry through a five-year ‘irreversible’ assault on the remnants of the welfare state? Wouldn’t the Tories have a ‘mandate’ for their policies?

Ironically, Toynbee’s article appeared in the same edition of The Guardian that carried reports of the cabinet papers released under the 30-year rule on the 1985 debates in Margaret Thatcher’s government over plans to introduce the poll tax. This was the measure – the tipping point – that provoked the mass movement, given organisational cohesion by Militant, the predecessor of the Socialist Party, which led to her downfall.

The papers showed that in May 1985 the Tory cabinet did not agree with replacing domestic rates on households by an individual residential charge. The then chancellor Nigel Lawson warned of ‘political catastrophe’ and the home secretary Douglas Hurd even compared the likely enforcement difficulties with the problem of collecting BBC licence fees in west Belfast. But by November 1985 the cabinet had changed their minds.

What had changed between May and November 1985? In the spring twenty Labour councils had come together to defy the Tories’ rate-capping cuts on local government. By the summer, however, all bar Liverpool and Lambeth councils had capitulated. In October Labour leader Neil Kinnock made his infamous Labour Party conference speech attacking Liverpool council. Clearly, by November, having measured the preparedness to fight of the Labour Party and trade union leaderships – and ‘radical journalists’ like Toynbee (then in the Social Democratic Party) – the Tories had regained their confidence to move on to their next assault.

The Guardian editorialised on the newly-released papers as an example only of personal hubris by Thatcher and her then policy advisor (and current Tory MP) Oliver Letwin. But that misses the real lesson for today.

The Tory government of 1983-87 had won with 42% of the vote (31% of the electorate, far more than the next government will receive). But the cabinet papers show that they still had to act cautiously when they discussed introducing the poll tax, only moving when the labour movement showed weakness.

The lesson for 2015 is not to vote for the austerity parties, to add to their claim to have ‘electoral legitimacy’. Instead the task is to prepare the ground politically, industrially, amongst young people and in working class communities for the battles to come whoever wins. Standing in elections is part of that process.

A workers’ voice

Toynbee tries to present her position as one that shows concern “for those at the sharp end, the low-paid, the food bank users, bedroom tax debtors and all who struggle with rising rents and unpayable bills on fallen incomes”. She contrasts her call for a Labour vote with the “Westminster watchers” enjoying “the larks” another inconclusive election result would create.

But in fact she is as equally divorced as the “political junkies” she criticises from the real social forces developing on the ground. Tender concern for the consequences of rampant capitalism, six years after the great recession, will not stop the developing rage. Attempting to stuff it back into “the tactical diktats of the two-party game” is both futile and feeds reaction. If there is no outlet in a working class alternative then UKIP’s right wing populism can partially occupy the vacuum.

Socialists will be sympathetic to the many workers, particularly that older layer, who will reluctantly vote Labour as “the least worst” option. But a new Labour government, or the post-election positioning that will occur both between and within the parliamentary parties in the event that no one party has an overall majority, will show once again – there is no mass political organisation consistently opposed to austerity.

The question will be posed in even starker relief – where is the political voice of the working class? The TUSC challenge in both the general election and the local elections, however modest the results may be this time, points the way forward. [In the event, TUSC candidates polled 118,125 votes in 2015]. No trade unionist, socialist or working class community campaigner should stand aside from the fight.