Britain: Britain’s no choice election

Since the introduction of universal suffrage, the gap between the world of Westminster and the reality of people’s lives has never been greater. In mid-February, when New Labour launched its election campaign, the country was seized by a feeling of leaden gloom at the thought of another three months of election propaganda. Tony Blair has talked about the danger of the nation ‘sleepwalking into a Conservative victory’, but it is not apathy that is hanging like a pall over the general election, but alienation from all mainstream parties.

The general election campaign has started in earnest. With so little to choose between the main parties, however, the election is already marked by vitriolic personal abuse and dirty tricks, as well as the early use of the immigration race-card.

Britain’s no choice election

Far from being apathetic, the working class in Britain stands on the brink of its biggest conflict with New Labour yet. All local government unions and the civil servants union (PCS) have voted overwhelming (from 66% to 87%) for strike action against the government’s onslaught on pension rights. "Threat of biggest one-day strike since 1926", screamed the Financial Times. While this may be an exaggeration, it would be the biggest number of workers involved in simultaneous strike action for over 20 years. As we go to press, negotiations between the government and public-sector unions are continuing, and a retreat by the government is possible.

Even if the government makes temporary concessions to prevent strike action before the general election, it is clear that it is squaring up for a showdown with public-sector unions. Given the anger and determination of trade unionists, even the most right-wing union leaders are under enormous pressure to lead a fight.

But not one whiff of this class conflict has surfaced in the general election campaign. Never has a general election been so devoid of real political debate. As a result, the turnout is likely to be even lower than the historical low of 59% in 2001. According to a Mori poll in February, only 45% of people were definitely intending to vote, and that this could result in an actual turnout of 51%. Those who will not vote are overwhelmingly working class, ‘traditional Labour voters’.

Even in 2001, New Labour’s lack of a base in society was demonstrated when, for the first time ever, there were more people who did not vote at all than voted for the governing party. If it was to be re-elected with the same vote share but a 51% turnout, then it would have the endorsement of fewer than one in five of those eligible to vote. Labour voters would be outnumbered two to one by non-voters.

New Labour is a severely weakened party and Tony Blair is a damaged prime minister. The parliamentary fiasco over the anti-terror legislation (when a majority in the House of Lords forced the government to backtrack on some of the most authoritarian proposals) further undermined them, but it is the Iraq war that remains the biggest single event in Blair’s transformation from ‘Teflon Tony’ to electoral liability. The latest revelation that the written briefing by the attorney-general, Lord Goldsmith, (the supposed ‘legal basis’ for the war in Iraq) never even existed, has deepened the perception that Blair cannot be trusted. Opposition to the occupation in Iraq is now at a higher level than at any stage since the war began. While a feeling of powerlessness means that this is not, at this stage, reflected in the size of anti-war demonstrations, it is a major element in the extreme reluctance of many who voted Labour in the last two elections to do so again.

Discontent with New Labour goes far deeper than opposition to the war. At root it is an expression of anger at the inequality of Blair’s Britain, and the neo-liberal policies the government has pursued. The most recent opinion polls show that almost 60% of people are deeply dissatisfied with New Labour. However, despite not being in power, 45% of people are also dissatisfied with Tory leader Michael Howard.

Tories still hated

New Labour’s greatest asset is the deep-seated hatred of the Tories for the crimes they committed during 18 years in office. Former Home Secretary Michael Howard is a constant reminder of the Tories’ record in office. The government is desperately hoping that fear of a Tory victory will increase Labour support, as workers come out with gritted teeth to stop the Tories scraping in. This undoubtedly helped New Labour in 2001, when the Tories were less serious contenders than they are today.

New Labour, however, cannot rely on the anti-Tory vote to the extent it has done in the past. If the Tories seem to be a real threat, a section, particularly of older workers, will vote Labour, but there is no guarantee that this will be enough. There are indications that disillusionment with the government is so profound amongst sections of the working class that they no longer see New Labour as being even marginally better than the Tories. Over pensions, a common proposal from rank-and-file local government trade unionists has been to strike on election day, on the basis that elections are ‘something the government actually cares about’ and so it would be forced to listen to their demands. Historically, given the ‘parliamentary illusions’ of the British working class, such ideas have rarely been raised, and certainly not at such an early stage of a struggle. However, local government workers are reflecting the feelings of millions of working-class people, sick of the identikit policies of the three main parties, who would be happy for the election campaign to be stopped.

After years of flat-lining the Tories have an Everest to climb to win the election. The parliamentary arithmetic means that, on the basis of an even swing to the Tories across the country, they would need a twelve-point lead to win the election. Impossible as that sounds, it would be wrong to assume that a Labour victory is guaranteed. Even The Guardian has started to panic: "Labour can only hope… to spin a delicate majority come May". In 2001 not a single press commentator believed the Tories could win. This time is different. While a Labour victory is still most likely, New Labour’s nightmare of a repeat of 1970 (when Ted Heath defeated Harold Wilson in an unexpected victory for the Tories) is being mentioned frequently in the press. Wilson, when asked to explain what went wrong, said that "people could not tell the difference between Tory and Labour". Today, this is 100 times truer than it was then. On the basis of a very low turnout, no result can be excluded.

Brown’s Britain

The Tories’ lack of credibility on the economy is a factor in New Labour’s favour. The Chancellor, Gordon Brown, ludicrously claims that New Labour has delivered the longest period of economic growth since records began in 1701! It is true that, unlike the big players in Europe (with large manufacturing bases seriously affected in recent economic crises), Britain appears to have escaped the worst ravages of economic stagnation. The low-wage and sweated labour economy of Britain, together with the City of London’s income from financial ‘services’, have provided a cushion against unfavourable economic winds from abroad.

However, this temporary cushion has brought no relief for big sections of the working class. For the richest in society Britain is truly booming. The wealth of the top 1% has doubled under New Labour, from £355 billion to £797 billion, according to the Office for National Statistics. (This is more than the government spent in the last five years on education, the NHS and housing combined.) The gap between the rich and poor has continued to widen. Nearly twice as many people have relatively low incomes as 25 years ago. This is reflected in every aspect of working people’s lives, including how long they last! Thirty years ago men from poorer backgrounds died 5.5 years before their more prosperous contemporaries, now the gap is 7.5 years. On top of shorter life expectancy, illness means that men from poorer backgrounds suffer almost 17 years more ill health than the rich.

Unemployment, nominally at one of its lowest levels ever, is in reality considerably higher. Since New Labour was elected over one million manufacturing jobs have been destroyed, and the slaughter continues, with an estimated 26,000 manufacturing jobs expected to go in the first quarter of 2005 alone. Some jobs have been replaced by lower-paid, insecure, service jobs, but for a generation of male workers, particularly in the North and Midlands there have been no replacement jobs. For example, in the former coalfields ravaged by Thatcher 20 years ago, ‘real’ joblessness among men in 13 former coalfields is still more than 11%, while official unemployment is only 3.5%.

The weakness of manufacturing is a reflection of the serious economic and social situation confronting British capitalism. This means that, whoever wins the election, a diet of increased cuts, privatisation and tax rises is on the agenda. A foretaste of the reality of the next government was given in Brown’s budget. Faced with borrowing £34 billion this year alone (Brown previously predicted borrowing £18bn over the entire economic cycle), Brown was unable make any ‘giveaway’ worth the name. In 2001 Brown went on a modest pre-election spending spree, increasing net spending by £3.6 billion. This time, he has tightened spending by £265 million. Hidden amongst derisory ‘sweeteners’ (such as the one-off £200 council tax rebate for pensioners) to try and secure the ‘grey vote’, there were even attacks on the working class, including draconian measures against those on incapacity benefit

It would be wrong to imagine that Brown has taxed the rich in this budget. The supposed ‘windfall tax’ against the oil companies is actually only the bringing forward of an existing taxation plan. The UK Offshore Operators Association declared nonchalantly: "Overall there is no increase in the tax burden on our industry". With years of cuts in corporation tax and with BP recording record profits of $16.2 billion for 2004, the money Brown has taken in taxes is not even a drop of oil in the ocean!

The next government will face a dramatically more difficult financial situation. Up to now, the British economy and, thereby, the minimal spending on public services, has been buoyed up by the growth in consumption which, as in the US and other ‘Anglo-Saxon’ countries, has been a big factor in sustaining overall economic growth. The housing bubble has been crucial to this, allowing increased spending with refinancing of mortgages. This has led, however, to colossal household debt of 140% of annual income, now clearly unsustainable.

Plan of attack

Some capitalist experts hope that this will not result in a repetition of the housing market collapse of the early 1990s, with a drop in prices that resulted in repossessions and homelessness. Interest rates are lower now and they argue that householders may just hang on to property and wait for ‘better times’. But this discounts the likelihood of a serious world economic crisis, which will severely impact on Britain, as well as the underlying economic weakness of British capitalism. In addition, the cushion of North Sea oil is running out, with oil imports exceeding exports in June for the first time in eleven years. The rising oil price will cut Britain’s economic growth, which will lead to a rise in unemployment and eventually squeeze profit margins. This in turn will force big business to resist even the meagre wage increases being granted at the present time.

Even before a recession, British and world capitalism are desperate to drastically reduce the working class’s share of the economy to boost the profitability of big business in order to sustain the economic merry-go-round. Germany is a terrible warning to the British workers – as Thatcher’s Britain was to the Germans in the past. Under the whip of the Schröder government, fast-track Thatcherism is the order of the day, with the welfare state in tatters, wages reduced to poverty levels, and a savage lengthening of the working week. While the intensity of attacks vary depending on the economic situation, any government that accepts the logic of the capitalist market will follow fundamentally the same policies of privatisation, lengthening the working week and working life, and destruction of the welfare state. While the programme of the Tory party takes privatisation of what is left of the public sector further and faster than New Labour, the differences are marginal.

The hope of those like Labour ex-deputy leader Roy Hattersley, that the party will return to social democratic policies – by which he means the maintenance of a minimal state sector, opposition to wholesale privatisation and improvements in living standards – is a romantic dream. It is just as deluded to believe that Brown stands for such a programme. While, to further his leadership ambitions, Brown may occasionally emphasis the cigarette-paper-width differences with Blair on this or that issue, he is a dyed-in-the-wool neo-liberal, who regularly berates the likes of Schröder for not being sufficiently vigorous in attacks on the working class! Worldwide all the pro-capitalist parties are moving in the opposite direction to that which the working class will move in the next period.

The National Health Service (NHS), one of the great achievements of the 1945 Labour government, will be drastically undermined by New Labour in a third term. The basic premise of the NHS – free, high-quality healthcare available to all – is already being rapidly eroded. New Labour is attempting to dramatically expand privatisation with the introduction of foundation hospitals and privately-run Direct Treatment Centres. Conditions have deteriorated as a result. A leaked Department of Health memo has revealed that cataract operations will each cost the health service £115 more than when carried out in-house, not least because the surgeons performing it will be paid £500,000 a year! The Tories will take the process one stage further, allowing individual patients to use public money, in the form of vouchers, to go to a private hospital.

On public housing New Labour’s policies are a programme for outright privatisation. Housing minister, Keith Hill, has already told MPs that he is ‘tearing up’ tenants’ rights to a decent home if they vote to keep their council landlords. Even the Labour MP Austin Mitchell described the government’s policy in the following terms: "Nominally, the councils are being given three choices: stock transfer (ie privatisation), PFI (ie privatisation) and ALMOs (arm’s-length management organisation – the first of a two-stage privatisation process). As this Hobson’s choice demonstrates, Prescott’s purpose is to privatise housing that councils have taken years to build up".

Despite the lack of an alternative, tenants up and down the country have voted against privatisation. In Birmingham two-thirds of 88,000 council tenants voted against, forcing the government to exempt the council from the July deadline. However, there is no mainstream party that shares these council tenants’ views. The Tories’ policy is identical to New Labour’s and, while the Liberal Democrats say they want tenants to have the option of continued council housing, they have voted against it time and again on local councils. Even the Greens, where they have six councillors on Brighton council, voted in favour of the ALMO option.

On public-sector pensions all three mainstream parties support raising the pension age. With their normal attempt to straddle two horses, the Liberal Democrats argue that the planned public-sector strike could have been avoided ‘if the government had been prepared to compromise’, but then proceed to support 90% of the government’s policy.

Despite their fluffy coating, the Liberal Democrats are further to the right on some issues. For example, they are promising to privatise areas New Labour has not got round to – prisons and the Royal Mint. And they have shown their true colours by promising to ban strikes in ‘key industries’ – trying to take away the one means workers have to defend themselves.

The left alternative

Unfortunately, the vase majority of workers who want to vote against neo-liberal policies will literally have no-one to vote for in this election. As yet, no significant left alternative to New Labour has emerged from the trade unions. Over the last 18 months the Rail, Maritime and Transport workers’ union (RMT) has been expelled from New Labour for supporting the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP), and the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) voted to break with New Labour, against the recommendation of the union’s leadership. While these are important steps forward, criminally, the majority of national trade union leaders, including most of the so-called ‘awkward squad’, expend enormous energy trying to protect and defend the Labour Party. (Dave Prentis, general secretary of UNISON, has even attempted to blame the current attacks on public-sector pensions solely on the Tories who left office eight years ago!) However just as, in the wake of a bitter conflict with the government, fire-fighters defied their leaders and broke with New Labour, other sections of workers will take the same road as they join the mighty battles that are looming.

Nonetheless, in this election only a relatively small number of seats will have socialists contesting them. In Scotland the SSP is aiming to contest every seat. In England and Wales, the Socialist Party is standing 15 candidates, as part of an electoral alliance, the Socialist Green Unity Coalition, which will provide workers in up to 30 seats with the chance to vote for socialist ideas. In some other seats it is to be hoped that genuine anti-cuts and anti-privatisation candidates will stand. In addition, Respect, led by George Galloway MP and the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), will stand in 28 seats, and hopes to get Galloway elected in the Bethnal Green and Bow constituency.

In the seats Respect contests radical workers and youth will rightly be pleased to have the chance to vote for candidates to the left of New Labour, candidates who are opposed to cuts, privatisation and the war in Iraq. However, it is regrettable that Galloway has missed the opportunity to launch an open, democratic formation – standing on an explicitly socialist programme – which would have had the possibility of drawing in anti-capitalist youth, trade unionists, community campaigners and socialists – using this election to prepare for a new party of the working class. Unfortunately, Respect has not taken this route. This represents another missed opportunity, after the Socialist Labour Party and the Socialist Alliance, on the road to a new formation to represent the working class. Respect is not a socialist organisation, but primarily an electoral machine for George Galloway. It aims mainly at the Muslim community, which, in the wake of the Iraq war, have moved dramatically away from Labour. However, up until now, Respect has not done this as part of an attempt to win working-class Muslims to the idea of a new party representing all sections of the working class, but in an opportunist way, appealing to Muslims simply on the basis of their religion.

The race-card

Given the lack of a mass left alternative to New Labour, it is not surprising that the central social and economic issues are not dominating the election campaign. As a result, it is not pensions, pay or the NHS that is the biggest issue but immigration – with 40% of voters thinking it is important, and 23% thinking it is the single most important issue.

There are those on the left who will write off the British working class as a reactionary mass because of the role that immigration is playing in this election. But this is profoundly mistaken. It is, of course, true that racist ideas have gained ground under the impact of racist, anti-immigrant propaganda from New Labour, the Tories and the tabloids. Immigration is being used consciously by New Labour and the Tories as an electoral tool. New Labour hopes it can undercut the Tories and the far-right by stealing their clothes – inevitably, it is having the opposite effect. It is not for nothing that Nick Griffin, the BNP’s leader, described Labour’s former Home Secretary David Blunkett as the BNP’s "best recruiting sergeant".

Socialists have to stand firm against this avalanche of propaganda and defend the rights of asylum seekers and immigrants, including opposing the detention of asylum seekers, asylum centres, and the prosecution of asylum seekers without papers, along with all the rest of the government’s reactionary anti-asylum legislation. At the same time, we have to understand that a major factor in the fear of increased immigration is the fear of seeing already over-stretched, under-funded public services overwhelmed. All the mainstream parties are in favour of privatising and cutting public services, and the vast majority of the population never hear any major force in society arguing against the relentless onslaught. At the same time, every mainstream party, to one degree or another, is attempting to lay the blame for overstretched resources at the door of asylum seekers and immigrants in general. The results are inevitable.

In reality, as New Labour’s recent proposals on immigration quotas makes clear, the government is not opposed to increased immigration. While it is happy to keep asylum seekers in inhumane conditions in detention centres, or arbitrarily deport them sometimes to face torture and death in the countries they fled from, New Labour favours increased immigration – providing it assists big business, which is what the quotas are designed to do.

The Economist summed up the attitude of a section of the ruling class when it argued in favour of lifting immigration controls: "The gap between labour’s rewards in the poor and the rich countries, even for something as menial as clearing tables, dwarfs the gap between the prices of traded goods from different parts of the world. The potential gains [to capitalist profits] from liberalising migration therefore dwarf those from removing barriers to world trade".

Big business has used globalisation of the economy as a means to dramatically increase profits. One aspect of this has been moving production abroad to countries where labour is cheaper. Now they want to try and globalise labour by encouraging cheaper labour to travel to richer countries and to drive down wages in those countries. Although a majority of the ruling class do not advocate the lifting of all immigration controls, they are keen to take advantage of cheap labour, illegal and legal. Supermarket giant, Tesco, which recently announced record profits of £3.5 million a day, has been exposed as relying on suppliers who exploit extremely low-paid, immigrant agricultural labourers, under the control of brutal gang masters.

The public sector is fundamentally no different. The British nursing register shows that the number of nurses being certified from Botswana, Ghana, Malawi, Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe – all former British colonies – has soared since 1999. As a result, more than 60% of nursing positions remain unfilled in countries such as Ghana and Malawi.

Workers from other countries are being used to plug the ‘skills gap’ in Britain. However, the skills shortages that exist in many parts of the public sector are a reflection of New Labour’s unwillingness to put the resources into training and, in particular, to raise public-sector workers’ wages. Forty percent of newly qualified teachers leave teaching within their first three years in the job as a result of stress and low pay. In London in particular, the response of New Labour has been to rely on immigrant workers to plug the gap. The Jamaican government complained that 600 teachers moved abroad to work in 2004 alone, mainly to Britain and the US. However, the better pay and conditions are far from luxurious. In one London school immigrant teachers were housed in Portakabins in the school playground!

As socialists we steadfastly oppose the scapegoating and fight for the rights of asylum seekers and economic migrants. On quotas, we have to ask, in whose interests are they being introduced? They are not being introduced in the interests of the low-paid workers who fill the quotas; nor in the interests of workers already in Britain who, as The Economist explained, will face their wages being ‘levelled down’.

Rebuilding the workers’ movement

The trade union movement has a critical role to play in determining to what degree quotas achieve the aims of big business. The trade unionisation of immigrants is not a new issue for the British working class, but it will form a vital aspect of both the struggle against low pay and the struggle against racism in the coming years. If the trade union movement were to launch a serious struggle against low pay, specifically taking up the rights of immigrant workers, it would transform the political landscape.

This issue is linked to the need to rebuild the trade union movement amongst the working class as a whole, particularly in the private sector. There have recently been a number of strikes threatened in the private sector, including the possibility of further action by low-paid baggage handlers at Heathrow Airport. However, only one fifth of private-sector workers are members of a trade union, and the levels amongst young private-sector workers are dramatically lower. TUC membership is at its lowest level since 1944, partly because of objective factors such as the contraction of manufacturing. Some of it, however, is due to ineffective leadership and policies. On the basis of their experience of capitalism in the coming years young workers will inevitably be drawn into struggle and attracted to the unions. But the obstacle of union leaders, who in many cases are unwilling to lead determined struggle, could be a seriously complicating factor in the rebuilding of the movement. By contrast, where a lead is given the union movement grows. It is not coincidence that the PCS is now one of the fastest growing unions in Europe.

In the short term, a one-day public-sector strike on pensions, if it goes ahead, would have a major effect in enabling workers to get a glimpse of their potential power. It would give confidence to the working class, first and foremost in the public sector, but also in the private sector. It is extremely important that public-sector unions link their struggle to the need to defend pensions in the private sector. Over the last few years, more than half-a-million workers in 380 private-sector companies have been told that their pensions are gone forever because the owners took a ‘pensions holiday’ and stopped paying into workers’ pension funds. The fight to defend these workers, alongside a campaign for a living state pension, has to be a central part of the public-sector unions’ campaign. But the starting point must be an understanding that victory will require a determined, militant struggle. A one-day public-sector strike would be a tremendous beginning – but it would take preparedness for further action, including longer public-sector strike action, to secure a victory.

Unfortunately, in general, with the exception of fighting leaders like Mark Serwotka of PCS, most trade union leaders have been docile and ineffective in the teeth of the employers’ offensive. It is an indication of the mood on pensions, which has become a ‘line in the sand’ for public-sector workers, that even Dave Prentis has been forced to ballot for a strike in the run-up to the general election. The fact he has been up for re-election is one reason he has gone so far, but the primary factor is the mood of UNISON members. Similarly, in the teachers’ union, NUT, the leadership has been forced to hold a strike ballot after a consultative ballot gave overwhelming support for strike action, despite it being offered as one of six different means of prosecuting the campaign, in an effort to confuse!

Whether Tory or Labour the next government will be elected with an unprecedentedly weak base of support. And post-election, given the inevitable failures of capitalism and the escalation of attacks on living conditions, conflict between the new government and the working class is guaranteed, no matter how hard the trade union bureaucracy try to hold struggle back. The young people who have been radicalised by the anti-war movement are a precursor of the wider radicalisation that will take place as workers enter struggle. Just as in Germany, where a majority now believe that socialism ‘is a good idea’, socialist ideas will gain strength in Britain. This does not mean there will be no complications. If, as he is clearly expecting, Brown takes the leadership of the Labour Party, Hattersley, Prentis and their ilk will declare that ‘old Labour’ has returned. Temporarily, sections of workers may cling to the hope that this is true – but reality will very soon smash those fragile illusions. The growth of socialist ideas will not come primarily as a result of socialist argumentation (although it plays a crucial role), but as a result of the brutal experience of the next government, and the reality of 21st century capitalism.

From the April edition of Socialism Today, magazine of the Socialist Party, cwi in England and Wales.

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April 2005