Britain: ‘Lesser’ or ‘greater’ evil is not a real choice

Main parties competing to slash our jobs and services – new party for workers, not bosses needed

Like an impenetrable sea mist, the prospect of a Tory government hung over New Labour’s conference in Brighton. What this will mean in increased suffering and pain for working-class people has been indicated but not yet fully spelt out in all its brutal detail by David Cameron and his cronies at the Tory party conference in Manchester.

The empty chairs in the voluminous hall in Brighton at the beginning of the Labour conference – matched by the absent stalls of the formerly fawning big business supporters of New Labour – is in contrast to the brash self-confidence on view at the Tories’ conference. Salivating at the prospect of the goodies that will fall into their laps from a Cameron Tory cabinet, big business, present in Manchester, is rushing into Cameron’s corner.

The Financial Times, that only yesterday applauded and urged on Gordon Brown’s pro-capitalist policies, now jeers: “Where were all the young men in Marks and Spencer suits who used to strut around carrying files and BlackBerries, looking fearfully self-important? Gone to the Tories every one”. William Keegan, Keynesian capitalist economist of the Observer but with a pronounced New Labour bias, wails: “Was New Labour’s historical role to save capitalism and collapse in the process?” Well… yes!

The Socialist Party and The Socialist predicted that this would be the outcome of New Labour’s bending of the knee to big capital. The alternative to the blind alley of New Labour? A new mass-based, trade union supported party of the working class.

The potential for such a party in Britain has been illustrated by the recent general elections in Germany, where the Left party’s vote increased from 8.7% to 11.9%, and in Portugal where the Left Bloc increased its vote from 6.4% to 9.9%. In the Greek general election, Syriza did not do as well as it could have done – receiving 4.6% of the vote and winning 13 seats – because its leadership moved to the right. It did not sufficiently explain and convince workers of the vital need to develop an alternative to the pro-capitalist parties, including those of the election victors, the so-called socialist party Pasok.

That a new left formation, as a precursor to a new mass workers’ party, has not yet taken shape in Britain, is largely down to the attitude of the majority of trade union leaders. They have clung to the trouser legs of Brown and New Labour as he has put the boot in – and continues to do so – to their union members and their aspirations.

These union leaders foster the myth that New Labour is now susceptible to trade union pressure for measures in favour of working-class people. But Brown at this ‘conference’ made policy on the hoof without any decision of the conference.

When the Labour Party was a workers’ party at the bottom, with an active and participatory rank and file, the annual conference played a big role in shaping policy. Now Brown announces, without real discussion or debate, proposals to change the electoral system to the undemocratic form of so-called ‘proportional representation’, the ‘alternative vote’.

Some spending was promised – to the chagrin of the capitalists and their press – on, for instance, helping the elderly who are now forced to sell their homes to pay for social care, more apprenticeships, etc. But this is put in the shade by the acceptance of cuts by Brown and his cabinet.

Whether it be cuts ‘in general’, the ‘savage’ cuts of the Liberal Democrats, whose leader Nick Clegg laughably suggested a programme of “progressive austerity”, or the same mantra from Cameron or George Osborne, the message is the same: working-class people are expected to pay for a crisis not of their making, in the form of mass sackings in the public sector and the savaging of services.

With the enemy at the gate and the prospect of Cameron entering 10 Downing Street, Brown flirted at the Labour party conference with ‘a whiff of the class struggle’. Incredibly, this St George of the free markets – with Tony Blair the slayer of the dragon of socialism – threatened restrictions on bankers’ bonuses and attacked “right-wing fundamentalism that says you just leave everything to the market”.

Is this the same Gordon Brown who a mere two years ago, alongside his financial secretary Ed Balls, spoke to City bankers in the most glowing terms about the role of finance capital, with his government resting firmly on the capitalist ‘market’?

The reason for the volte face was hypocritically spelt out by a Labour minister, speaking to the Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland: “We celebrated the freedom of people in the City to make grotesque sums of money when we believed that it would pay for what we wanted to do. Now we believe you have to intervene.”

‘Intervene’ against whom and what for, is the question working-class people will ask. Bankers’ bonuses will not be abolished, at best merely trimmed for a short time. Their abolition would only be possible on the basis of the complete nationalisation of the banking sector and the finance ‘industry’, and a state monopoly of foreign trade to prevent the capitalists from blackmailing governments through the ‘repatriation’ or ‘export’ of their capital and profits abroad. Such proposals are as welcome to Brown as holy water would be to the devil!

Media ‘counter-revolution’

The intervention of Murdoch in openly coming out for the Tories was a little expression of a media ‘counter-revolution’, which acted to mobilise the trade union leaders even further behind New Labour. But hasn’t the execrable Murdoch always endorsed Tories? Wasn’t this the case when Blair flew to Murdoch’s Great Barrier Reef retreat in 1995 and got down on his knees to plead for support for New Labour?

Murdoch only supported Blair because he transformed Labour into a new and more effective Tory party at that time. Switching support has nothing to do with principle but is a recognition that from the point of view of the capitalists, New Labour’s shelf life is almost used up.

Nevertheless, it was good that Tony Woodley, joint general secretary of the trade union Unite, publicly ripped up the Sun on the rostrum of the conference, correctly pointing out that it was already discredited in Liverpool because of its nauseating denigration of the Hillsborough football stadium victims.

He could have added that Murdoch is even more hated nationally for the role of his journals in backing Margaret Thatcher when she crushed the miners, attacked the Liverpool city councillors, the Wapping and Warrington print workers, etc.

One election expert has stated that the effect of the Sun in an election in a changed Britain will be “zero”. Yet, the capitalist media – and the Sun is a mad dog example of this par excellence – does have the power to enormously confuse, by denigrating the left and therefore at least to partially shape events. The only way that this can be countered effectively is through a mass party independently mobilising the working class and, in turn, affecting the middle class as well. The problem for Brown is that his pro-capitalist policies have emptied his party of ‘troops on the ground’ who could do this, nor does he have the policies.

Polly Toynbee, a Guardian columnist, in commenting on the catastrophe of New Labour, cannot resist once again throwing in a disparaging remark about the “militant madmen of Liverpool”. These “madmen” and women, the heroic Liverpool city council, led by Militant supporters (forerunners of the Socialist Party) won every election with record turnouts and the highest Labour vote ever when they were in power between 1983 and 1987.

In contrast, what is Polly Toynbee’s record? She argued that by getting rid of the “ultra-left”, ie Militant, the Labour Party would be restored to “sanity”, electoral victory would therefore beckon and, with it, a new social-democratic paradise be ushered in by New Labour. What is the record of her ‘sensible’ and ‘sane’ heroes, Brown and Blair, together with the whole New Labour project? Cameron knocking at the doors of 10 Downing Street with Labour languishing up to 15% behind in the polls.

Back to the 1930s?

Cameron and Osborne have promised to turn back the wheel of history to the 1930s, with swingeing attacks on those on benefit, an early increase in the pension age, a public sector pay freeze and mass privatisation of state welfare services. An architect of their policies is David Freud, recently in the employ of New Labour but now comfortably ensconced at Cameron’s side, and awarded a place in the House of Lords with New Labour’s assent!

How incredible it is that the Tories announce such sweeping cuts in the period before a general election. If New Labour wasn’t doing its best to match those cuts, the Tories would be facing great difficulties electorally, and wouldn’t have the degree of poll lead they presently have.

At the last general election in 2005, just over three out of five electors, 61.3%, actually voted. One in ten voted for a party other than the big three, Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. This was the highest vote for ‘other parties’ since 1945. Both the Tory and Labour parties have seen their memberships collapse; Labour from an official 400,000 in 1997 (a myth) to an ‘official’ 150,000 today.

It is not just in the south of England that Labour’s vote has declined but, as recent polls have indicated, a catastrophic collapse is taking place in the north, where the Tories until now had been reduced to a sect. At the last general election, Labour had a 19% lead in this region and now the Tories are, incredibly, 4% ahead. It is this situation, a looming electoral massacre, which has propelled the trade union leaders to cling even more to the coat-tails of Brown.

To some extent, this reflects the desperation of many workers who wish to prevent a Tory victory. The idea of ‘lesser evilism’ is being played on heavily, both by the New Labour leadership and the trade union tops as well. This was in full display in Brighton. This, however, is a short-sighted policy which puts the trade union leadership in a Jekyll and Hyde position.

Out of one corner of their mouths they support Brown, while out of the other corner they denounce his proposals for cuts. The trade union leaders in the public sector have rubbished Brown’s claim that ‘frontline services’ will be safe in the public sector and cuts will be done in the ‘backrooms’.

An extra 700,000 workers will be made unemployed, the TUC estimates, if the Tories win. According to the economist David Blanchflower, unemployment could go up to five million if Cameron is elected. But New Labour will also add to the expected three million dole queue. Ed Balls, the education secretary, has been urged to sack 40,000 teaching assistants and 3,000 heads or deputy heads of schools. A total of £2 billion of education cuts is promised.

The Tories promise to go one better with a report last weekend that they will carry through widespread sackings of teachers in the North-east, Liverpool and London – militant areas for the National Union of Teachers and other teachers’ unions – and then privatise schools en masse. The choice the trade union leaders offer to their members is between the alleged ‘lesser evil’ of Brown and his cuts packages, and savage cuts from the other two capitalist parties. This is no real choice.

Now is the time to come out boldly for a real alternative. The RMT-led initiative for a socialist, independent electoral alternative at the next election will give workers a choice, which is urgently needed in the face of an economic situation for capitalism that is far worse than it has been during the last 12 years. The record vote in a consultative ballot of London post workers to withdraw from the political levy that is funding New Labour represents the future.

The trade union leaders dragging at the heels of Brown are living in the discredited past. Working class people’s fear of the Tories is real. But if they are defeated in the election, what will workers get instead? A different version of the Tories by a New Labour government serving up more of the same pro-bosses policies and worse.

Volatility

Such is voter volatility in Britain today that the outcome of the election – even Brown’s continued tenure as Labour leader – is still in the balance. It is not even excluded that if Labour is still 15% behind in the polls at Christmas, there will be another attempt at a ‘midnight stabbing’ of Brown. To be replaced by whom? David Miliband, James Purnell, Peter Mandelson? To merely pose the question shows that this is no choice for workers looking for a new road.

The complete degeneration of Labour into a capitalist party, and the desperation of New Labour for an election victory at all costs is shown by the rehabilitation of Mandelson. He himself reminded the conference of Blair’s words, that New Labour would ‘really’ be ‘New Labour’ when it learned to love Mandelson!

This was code for it becoming a completely capitalist party. It has arrived at that point, as shown by the hosannas to him from the right and the so-called left of New Labour. This is the man who only a few days before, said that he was prepared to work with a Cameron government, and who is the main advocate of the privatisation of Royal Mail!

New Labour is not returning to its ‘social-democratic’ past. The grave crisis of capitalism indicates that there is no room for this, with austerity as the theme of ‘progressive’, modern capitalism. The task of all the main parties in Britain is to manage this terrible crisis of capitalism – indicated by the huge rise in unemployment to almost 10% now in the US.

It is an organic crisis of capitalism which can be solved at the expense of the capitalist class or of the working class. We need a new party in Britain that will choose the first option and mobilise the working class for socialist change.

“What is interesting about the Tory party led by David Cameron is not that it shares a similar belief [to ex-PM Margaret Thatcher] in the need to unshackle the private sector, but that this is combined with a deep-seated antipathy towards the activities of large swathes of public sector employees. There is a venom in the way many talk about it and an ill concealed relish in the idea that it will soon be put to the sword. The NHS is of course off limits, as to a lesser extent is education. But there is nothing short of contempt for almost everything else. It is now seen as a Tory mission to wipe out huge tracts of it. Because they believe that all the money is wasted, most of the employees don’t really have proper jobs and very little of value is achieved, the view is taking shape that a Tory government should slash public expenditure by far more than anyone has yet imagined and do so within days of taking office so that the need to do so can be blamed on the mess inherited from Labour”.

From an article in the London Evening Standard (5.10.09) by Anthony Hilton

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