Need for a working class political challenge
Gordon Brown – clinging to power by his fingertips
U-turns, backtracking, mistakes, lies, defeats, clutching at straws – all everyday occurrences for a government clinging to power by its fingertips.
An historic vote collapse in the council and European elections, defeated over attempts to ‘clean up’ parliament, forced into u-turns on Iraq inquiries and ID cards, Gordon Brown’s New Labour has now temporarily shelved Royal Mail privatisation, and plans to nationalise the east coast rail service when its private owner, National Express, defaults on payments.
Also, Brown is deep in the row over spending cuts. The Tories let the cat out of the bag and admitted that a Tory government would slash public spending by 10%. Brown attempted to draw a line between “Tory cuts and Labour investment” when it is abundantly clear that Labour would be a government of cuts too. Postponing any concrete spending announcements until after an election, Brown’s claimed ‘continued rises in spending’ have been shown to be mostly due to increased interest payments on debt. He blundered his way through parliamentary debate on the issue, at one point talking about “zero per cent rises” in spending. Finally he had to admit to “a deficit reduction plan for the future”, “efficiency savings” and said it would be “fine” if “certain programmes” are cut.
Brown has managed to hold on to the premiership largely because of the weakness of the opposition within his own party. He is widely seen as a very lame – if not dead – duck, with Peter Mandelson (Business Secretary) now pulling the strings. There is a sense of malaise in the Labour Party leadership as they cast around for policies and put decisions on hold. Some think it is better to keep Brown in place till the general election because they don’t believe that removing him will improve the chance of saving their skins. They reason that a late election may allow time for “green shoots” to develop in the economy and put some distance from the expenses scandals, thus avoiding a wholesale election wipe-out.
Nevertheless, some senior figures are restless and attempts could be made to remove Brown before May 2010, or further upheavals could trigger an earlier election. Upcoming byelections could also deliver death blows.
John Hutton, who resigned as Defence secretary, stirred up the arguments about spending commitments by saying: “I don’t think you can go on saying we can continue to spend as if nothing has happened in the last year or so”. Alan Johnson, who many hoped – prior to him being made Home Secretary – would make a move against Brown, has also shown signs of unrest, apparently unilaterally announcing changes to the policy on compulsory ID cards.
Foreign secretary David Miliband, who made a failed move against Brown last year and is still touted as a possible successor, claims it is necessary to “reinvent” Labour. He argues that New Labour needs to “listen to and lead” trade unionists and donate some of its money to charity. So the Labour Party is to be reduced to the role of Victorian-style philanthropy, donating a few crumbs to the poor! Trade unionists don’t want Labour to pass on their money to charity; a political party funded by workers should be fighting to change the lives of working people so that reliance on charity is not necessary.
Miliband’s feeble effort to make Labour appear to be on the side of the working class has some similarities to Harriet Harman with her Equalities Bill, which aims to improve access to services for people from deprived backgrounds. Meanwhile, others give up entirely on the idea of winning working class votes and argue for Labour to run after the middle class vote, which it has turned away as well. The gap between rich and poor has become greater under New Labour than ever before. But Communities Secretary John Denham argues that laws aimed at closing the gap will alienate Middle England.
However, there are no real political differences between these Labour leaders and none of them offer a solution. Harman aims to redistribute existing inadequate services, in effect squeezing access of middle class people to services in order to provide for people from poorer backgrounds; Denham’s solution is simply to leave things as they are. No leading Labour figures argue for an increase in public spending to serve the needs of all.
Incredibly, some trade union leaders still desperately search through the wreckage of Brown’s leadership for proof of a leftward turn. Billy Hayes, leader of the CWU postal workers’ union, claimed that the u-turn on Royal Mail demonstrates that Labour is listening. But it demonstrates nothing of the sort. The withdrawal of Royal Mail privatisation is temporary until after the election, because the Labour leadership fears further rebellions and defeats, and because there was only one private sector bidder, low-level private equity company CVC Capital. As BBC correspondent James Landale put it, Mandelson recognised: “there was no point having the row if the sale were not possible”.
Similarly, the threatened nationalisation of east coast rail is not because of any ideological change of heart. Gordon Brown has not finally realised what the majority of the public have known for a long time, that the railways should be renationalised. Private rail companies are failing and to prevent a collapse of rail infrastructure, the government has had to step in. But it sees this purely as a short-term measure and aims to give the railways back to private companies as soon as they are profitable again.
Last week Gordon Brown delivered his manifesto: “Building Britain’s future”. While avoiding talking about cuts, he made it completely clear that Labour will remain a party of privatisation, including, for example, providing health services through private companies and education through private tutors. As explained in last week’s Socialist, Brown attempted to “sugar the pill” of future cuts with announcements on house building, which in reality amount to only 3,000 extra council houses, while there are nearly five million on the waiting lists.
Audit Commission boss Steve Bundred said: “A pain-free way of cutting spending would be to freeze public sector pay, or at least impose severe pay restraint”. Pain-free for who? Not low paid workers. Incredibly it has been left to the Tories to argue against a blanket freeze. But it is clear that a policy of cutting public sector pay and pensions is common to all the mainstream parties.
New Labour faces possible annihilation in the general election. However, the Tories are not sitting pretty, and could have scored an own goal in their brazen talk of cuts. The political scene is so volatile that a minority government or hung parliament cannot be ruled out.
Many commentators, and some Labour “lefts” like MP John Cruddas, are now debating whether the Labour Party is finished. It is quite possible that if the parliamentary Labour Party is reduced drastically after the next election, there could be splits and realignments. What is clear is that the Labour Party was finished as a workers’ party a long time ago. The failure of New Labour has now led to the election of two BNP MEPs, as angry people in traditional Labour heartlands seek an alternative that they hope will stand up for them. The situation is crying out for significant working class forces to create a serious working class electoral challenge.
The rail workers’ union, the RMT, took a historic step in June when it initiated No2EU-Yes to Democracy to stand in the European elections, the first time in 100 years a national union stood against Labour. They were joined by the Socialist Party and other organisations, but now need to be joined by many more militant trade unionists and campaigners to ensure that a working class socialist alternative is presented in the general election, as a step towards a new party of the working class.