Britain: The struggles to come

No fundamental change to be expected from the Labour Party

A Tory majority government has been elected in Britain for the first time since 1992. That this follows five years of savage cut-backs to the public sector – by the Con-Dem coalition – is the greatest indictment of New Labour. It also raises profound issues for the trade unions and for the inevitable mass struggles to come.

In the aftermath of the British general election, contrasting emotions were evident in the opposing camps. The Tories were naturally triumphant – as were their capitalist backers – at the prospect of five more years in power, with an overall Tory majority won for the first time in over 20 years. This victory was all the sweeter for prime minister David Cameron given that he confessed to the other party leaders – Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband – at the second world war commemorations, that he expected to be preparing a resignation speech for himself and his government!

The mood within the workers’ movement was exactly the opposite: disappointment, dejection and even despair at the prospect of five more years of pain, cuts in jobs, services and living standards, as well as an onslaught on trade union and democratic rights. But also evident among the more politically aware workers was the realisation that there would be no ‘saviour’ ready to ride over the hill and rescue them from the brutal government. They would have to rely on their own forces in the battles to come.

Within a week of the elections, the Financial Times reported that 100,000 civil servants would be sacked. That comes on top of the one million public-sector workers made redundant in the previous five years through the Tories’ ‘long-term economic plan’ to chop away at the ‘big state’ through a programme of savage privatisation. However, Cameron would be well advised to heed the advice of the 19th-century general and politician, the Duke of Wellington: “Nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won”. There is nothing now to protect this government from the accumulated anger and bitterness of the poor and the working class.

The shield of their coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, has been shredded as that party has been reduced to a mere eight seats. We predicted at the beginning of their unholy alliance with the Tories in 2010 that they would be toast. The election has shown that this is without a trace of butter or jam! They are not quite back to the position of the early 1950s, when they had under 3% of the vote, but they are confronted with the pitiful sight of a quarter of their parliamentary party – two MPs – competing for the lonely position of the leader of what is now an imitation of Shakespeare’s ‘ragamuffin army’!

Blairite charge

Labour’s defeat led to a rush to judgment by the bourgeois and its press, echoed by the Labour right: that Miliband failed because he and the campaign alienated ‘the people’, because it was too left-wing and socialist. The ‘John Lewis family’ and the ‘aspirational’ sections of the population were allegedly put off by strident attacks on the rich, the ‘wealth creators’.

This was the theme of the Blairites, with the ‘eminence grise’ of the right, Baron Mandelson, leading the charge. Tristram Hunt and Liz Kendall fetched up the rear as they set out their credentials to be the next leader of the Labour Party. However, Hunt quickly withdrew because he could not assemble the required 35 nominations from the parliamentary Labour Party, but also to consolidate support for Liz Kendall, who up to now has hardly appeared on the radar of the labour movement.

Kendall has attacked Len McCluskey, the general secretary of Unite the Union, for even daring to intervene in the Labour leadership campaign. She also, incredibly, seeks to out-Tory the Tories literally, by calling for 2% of GDP to be allocated to ‘defence’, a pledge that even Cameron and chancellor George Osborne have refused to make.

However, the Blairites have selective memories. Haven’t they lost four million Labour votes since 1997– three million from the working class – during their stewardship of the party since the 1990s, when they managed to swing the Labour Party to the right? Did they not effectively eliminate Labour’s long-term aspiration for socialism? Gordon Brown continued the work of Tony Blair in the run-up to the 2010 general election. Miliband, in effect, carried on this work in this campaign. It is true that there were tinges of radical phraseology but they were accompanied by a public embrace of the cuts agenda of the Tories – ‘austerity-lite’ – a perpetuation of poverty.

There is so much nonsense in the arguments about the left and socialists alienating ‘aspirational’ sections of the population. The working class is inherently ‘aspirational’ and, therefore, instinctively opposed to capitalism, the dog-eat-dog society, which cannot satisfy their aspirations and needs. In the post-war economic boom of 1950-75, for instance, capitalism was able to afford a few crumbs off its rich table. Even then, the organised labour movement opposed the capitalist system, defeated Labour’s right wing, led by Hugh Gaitskell, the original ‘Blairite’, and defended the long-term aspiration of socialism enshrined in Clause IV Part 4 of Labour’s constitution.

In fact, the goal of socialism was a recognition by broad swathes of workers that capitalism could not solve their ‘aspirations’, particularly in a period of an acute economic crisis through which we are presently passing. The Economist, the brutal face of world capitalism, confessed a few weeks ago that its system was going through “a grinding economic slump which crushed real wages” and, with it, the overall living standards of the working class.

It is not just Miliband who has failed in recent elections. His social-democratic cousins in Greece, Spain and elsewhere have suffered electoral shipwreck because they were insufficiently distinguished in class terms and programme from the open bourgeois parties. The devastating economic crisis that began in 2008 has shattered the basis of social democracy. In more benign or rosy economic circumstances, they were able to promise reforms and were sometimes able to deliver some benefits, albeit not enough, to the working class. That has now disappeared and, therefore, all parties which remain within the framework of capitalism are forced down the path of austerity – of course, with much wringing of hands and regret.

No right turn

The social conditions existing in Britain could and should have resulted in a defeat of the Tories. That they did not suffer a crushing electoral setback was not down to the British working class turning to the right, as some have argued. Indeed, a closer examination of electoral statistics showed that the Tory vote actually increased only fractionally, by 0.8%. Labour’s vote increased and in London, with a mixed ethnic population, significantly so. A letter to the Financial Times put the issue succinctly: “The overall vote of Conservative, LibDem and UK Independence Party has dropped from 62% to 57.4%, while Labour, SNP and the Greens have increased their total share from 31.7% to 38.9%. There has been a reasonable shift left of voters’ intentions, yet a dramatic shift right in the government”.

Tory pollster Lord Ashcroft reinforced this when he analysed the reasons why almost four million voters opted for the UK Independence Party (UKIP). It came second in 120 seats. While seduced into supporting UKIP’s leader, Nigel Farage, and his party on immigration, on other issues such as opposition to austerity, support for the NHS, etc, they leaned towards the left. Labour’s incapacity to answer their fears on immigration could only have been assuaged by fighting against poverty wages, accompanied by a living wage of at least £10 an hour, as the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) demanded. This would have laid the basis for class unity.

Moreover, the unmasking of Farage, a former City speculator, as the TUSC election broadcast showed, could have opened up clear class divisions among UKIP voters. This could have been underpinned by linking it to the idea of a change in society, socialism, which was completely anathema to Miliband and his entourage. This, together with the scandalous refusal of Miliband to form a united front, an ‘anti-austerity alliance’, with the Scottish National Party (SNP), were probably the two crucial factors responsible for fatally undermining Labour’s chances.

The popularity of the SNP and the Scottish people’s wholesale rejection of ‘red Tories’, like the discredited ex-leader of Scottish Labour, Jim Murphy, was not restricted to Scotland. After the leaders’ debates Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP were enthusiastically embraced by workers and sections of the middle class in England, who were looking for a lead in the battle against savage Tory austerity. There were petitions launched in northern England with the slogan: ‘take us with you’! In Merseyside, a semi-serious petition has been launched, taken up by the Liverpool Echo, calling for secession of that part of England north of the line from Merseyside to the Humber.

The SNP has been allowed temporarily to pick up the discarded clothes of social democracy, by promising reforms, a fight against cuts, maintaining present services, etc. But it has already presided over cuts and more will be in the pipeline. The SNP is in a situation a bit similar to Cameron. The scale of the victory in Scotland means it will not be able to hide when the government cuts the ‘grant’ to Scotland, in the form of ceding a measure of fiscal autonomy. The SNP will be ground between the two millstones of an aroused and politically alert Scottish working class and the pressure to be ‘practical’: to remain within the framework of capitalism, which means administering cut-backs. Significant opportunities will exist for Scottish TUSC to grow in this situation.

A system in decay

The Tory government will employ the tactics of shock-and-awe in its projected onslaught against the living standards of the working class, its organisations and also on democracy itself. Nevertheless, it has attempted to camouflage its real intentions – with Cameron and, incredibly, the hated Osborne widely derided even in Conservative circles for this relentless pursuit of austerity – by now employing the language of ‘inclusiveness’ and ‘blue-collar conservatism’. We have been here before, with Cameron extolling the virtues of ‘compassionate conservatism’ only then to sign up to vicious capitalist austerity. This led to Osborne being booed by disabled protesters and others at the London Olympics in 2012.

The impression has been reinforced by the recent return to Britain of former Cameron adviser, Steve Hinton, with his synthetic criticisms of the British ‘ruling class’, while ruthlessly defending capitalism to the hilt. He recommended that this country follow the model of the US with its supposed small business entrepreneur culture. The truth is that the US is a billionaire-dominated ‘democracy’ where the likes of the Koch brothers are able to buy elections.

The idea that a capitalist renaissance will be generated by the mushrooming of small businesses is a reflection of the senile decay of capitalism and its spokespeople. The five million who are ‘self-employed’ are more like the Chinese or Russian peasants of old, trying to scratch out a living on economically unviable units. In the past, it was possible in some countries like Italy for small businesses to play a certain role in the economic growth which took place during the boom. But in this crisis, small businesses have gone to the wall with many disappearing. Small businesses and the middle class in general are under economic siege, unable to get loans from the banks and, in general, experiencing a hand-to-mouth existence.

It is true that the labour movement must win over the intermediate layers of society, but this can only be achieved by a consistent and relentless struggle against the big monopolies, including the banks, which strangle not just the working class but the middle class as well. Moreover, whenever the working class moves into action, it draws behind it significant sections of the intermediate layers in society.

Napoleon may have described Britain as a ‘nation of shopkeepers’. In reality, however, it was powerful industrial firms, which in time became giant monopolies, that allowed Britain to become the ‘workshop of the world’ and demolish all in its path by capturing world markets and establishing its rule over one quarter of humankind. That situation is now merely a historical memory as Britain shrinks to the level of a second or even a third-rate power, no longer able to fight a Falklands-type war, for instance, because it cannot afford even one aircraft carrier!

Inept Miliband

Its declining military power merely mirrors its devastating economic decline, with all that means for the position of the working class in terms of drastically declining living standards. The Tories managed to hide this uncomfortable fact in the cacophony of North Korea-style propaganda, orchestrated by Lynton Crosby, during the election campaign. Miliband was not too left or socialist but exactly the opposite. So inept was Miliband that he even allowed the Tories to peddle the myth that it was Labour not capitalism that caused the economic crisis.

Over the past five years, he has propagated the idea of a mythical ‘responsible capitalism’. Just how ‘responsible’ is shown by the recent revelations that six of the biggest banks have paid a total fine of $5.6 billion ‘voluntarily’ for rigging the markets in a “scandal, the FBI said, involving criminality on a massive scale” (Financial Times). This is on top of what the banks have already paid out because of the Libor scandal – involving the illegal setting of interest rates – to the tune of $9 billion. Not one banker has gone to jail! You can be sure that long prison sentences await the Hatton Garden diamond burglars, christened the ‘Diamond Geezers’ because they were mostly old-age pensioners.

Modern capitalism is rife with corruption, making colossal profits from drug running, prostitution, etc. The ‘owners’ of industry, and the CEOs who manage these companies on their behalf while stuffing their pockets with gold, are not the ‘wealth creators’ which they and their apologists, including the right-wing of the labour movement, claim them to be. The real creator of wealth (value) is the working class. It is the goose which lays the golden egg of profits (surplus value) which, in the words of Karl Marx, is the “unpaid labour of the working class”. Mandelson – again, only after the election – ludicrously accused Miliband of pursuing a ‘class war’ against the rich and wealthy, something which Mandelson could never be accused of given his infamous admission that he is “relaxed about the filthy rich”.

Yet the class struggle – over the division of the surplus value created by the labour of the working class – exists, irrespective of Mandelson’s childish illusions. And it is not just the open right-wingers, such as Labour leadership contenders like Yvette Cooper. Her father was a past president of the civil service union, Prospect, which is lining up with the government against the militant civil service union, PCS. Mandelson has been joined by Sadiq Khan, standing for selection as Labour’s candidate for mayor of London, together with Andy Burnham, front runner in the leadership contest. They all subscribe to the idea of the need to appeal to ‘those above’ as well as those at the base of society.

We prefer the words of billionaire Warren Buffett: “Of course there is a class struggle and it is my class which is winning it”. This has the merit, at least, of posing issues in all their brutal honesty, in contrast to the sugary illusions that ‘we are all in it together’, which is not just the philosophy of Cameron and Osborne but of the unreconstructed right-wing of the Labour Party.

Even the Sunday Times – from the systematically-lying Murdoch stable and therefore signed-up supporters of the Tories in the election – through its political commentator, Adam Boulton, cynically admitted after the election: “The defining moment was Miliband’s refusal to admit that the last Labour government overspent when he was challenged by a live television audience. In part, it’s a bum rap. The Tories backed the Blair-Brown government’s spending plans at the time. The UK government did not cause the banking crisis, as the Conservatives claim. And, yes, the economy was already growing when George Osborne grabbed the controls”.

Only after the election, as the Financial Times informed us, did the Office for National Statistics report: “Almost a third of the British population, more than 19 million people, fell below the poverty line for at least one year between 2010 and 2013. The figure was higher than the 25% average across the EU as a whole and was only exceeded by Greece and Latvia”. This section of the population is not able to shop in John Lewis because their parlous circumstances compel them to frequent Poundshop, Lidl and Aldi. Some do not even shop at all because they are too busy lining up at food banks, which have increased 15-fold since 2010.

How was it then, with conditions like this and with 60,000 people being evicted from their homes last year because they could not pay the rent, the highest for 14 years, that Cameron’s wretched government managed to return to power? The election campaign left in its wake the pervasive feeling that the Con-Dem government was there for the taking, that it could have been defeated. Therefore, the election was a battle lost that could have been won.

The TUSC challenge

TUSC, the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, in contrast, conducted an energetic and forceful campaign, without the financial backing – wasted money, as it turned out – which was given by the trade union leadership to Labour. Moreover, TUSC suffered a blackout from the whole media (see article, p16). It got very limited publicity, although its spokespersons were very effective, as were the candidates who appeared in hustings all over the country. In this election, TUSC arrived as a national force.

It was a considerable achievement to collect the resources, including finances, to stand in enough seats to secure a very effective election broadcast. It was tremendous to see a young firefighter boldly declaring to millions: “We save people, not banks”. This was despite the considerable lengths, bordering on sabotage, to which the capitalist broadcasting authorities went to try and prevent the broadcast from taking place. TUSC achieved a creditable total of just under 120,000 votes in the parliamentary and local elections that took place at the same time.

We anticipated sneering criticism from our opponents after the election, which is no different to that which was aimed against Labour pioneers like Keir Hardie. He received just 617 votes in his first attempt to break the workers’ movement away from the discredited Liberal party. He succeeded in the end and TUSC, or a similar movement along the same lines, will also become a reality. The same derision greeted James Connolly’s attempts in elections in Ireland and other pioneers elsewhere.

TUSC and its supporters, including the Socialist Party, are in no way deflected from the task of building on the achievements of this election. The criticisms, as yet, have been muted. The labour movement is digesting the effects of the election and pondering the upcoming Labour leadership contest. However, those who expect a fundamental change in the approach of Labour and its proposed leadership contestants are due to be severely disappointed once again.

Labour and the unions

It is clear that Andy Burnham is the preferred choice of the trade union leaders, probably including Len McCluskey. Yet Burnham has publicly criticised McCluskey for suggesting a ‘turn to the left’. Burnham also showed that he did not have a fundamentally different position to Miliband and Labour during the election or afterwards. He was responsible for Labour’s programme on health and yet, during the election, he attempted to dampen down expectations by pointing out that the NHS would not be able to meet everybody’s needs. Moreover, he has agreed with the orchestrated attacks from the right on the unions, criticising ‘interference’ in Labour’s election contest!

The trade union movement heaved the Labour Party up on its shoulders, created it from scratch, to become its political expression. It backed the introduction of socialist aims in 1918 following the Russian revolution and also prevented these from being expunged by the Labour right during the 1950s. Now, it is accused in effect, as Militant was in the 1980s, of being ‘a party within the party’. We predicted that this day would come after we were forced out of the Labour Party. We said the left would be attacked and that, eventually, the trade unions themselves would be effectively neutered until the Labour Party became a British version of the US Democratic Party. It is clearly the ‘second eleven’ of capitalism and a leadership will be elected that would be ‘safe’ and defend capitalism, like Blair did so effectively.

That situation has now come to pass but, unfortunately, the trade union leadership, including left-led unions like Unite and its general secretary Len McCluskey, have not drawn all the necessary conclusions. Unite drew on the desperation of its members to see the back of the Con-Dems to donate colossal sums to Labour before and during the campaign. This project has failed abjectly and it is necessary to conclude that there should be a clear break and the formation of a new workers’ party. TUSC, with the support of the RMT – and in the wake of the election hopefully others, including the unions, will join in the project – has given an idea of what would be possible if the weight and the finances of the unions were thrown behind it.

If we do not move in this direction, the union leaders will come into collision with the whole rank and file. They will be looking for a strategy of action to combat the government’s offensive against the unions with its new restrictive measures on ballots. Although barely 24% of the total electorate voted for the Tories in the election, they are proposing legislation that unions must achieve a 50% turnout in ballots for industrial action – and, in emergency services, that at least 40% of the total members balloted should be in agreement – for any action to take place. Even the Financial Times warned the government: “The 40% hurdle for essential services in effect requires workers to vote for action by a supermajority – a 55-45% majority for action on a 70% turnout would not be enough to organise action, for example. The Conservative general election vote fell short of this hurdle”.

However, editorials, even in the most prestigious capitalist journals, will not compel this government to step back. Only the most urgent and determined action holds out the possibility of achieving this. The rail workers, in their magnificent turnout and vote for the first national rail strike in 21 years, show all workers how they must react to this government. It is not enough to complain about the unions being reduced to begging like Oliver Twist, as TUC general secretary, Frances O’Grady, has done. All unions need a strategy of coordinated action, culminating in a one-day general strike. This, together with a clear rupture from the bankrupt, discredited Labour Party, are the minimum steps required for working-class people and their organisations to prepare to defeat the greatest challenge to them since the dark days of Thatcherism.

We have confidence that the basic core of the trade unions and the working class in general will meet the declaration of war by this government with a robust response. The choice is not struggle or no struggle but between organised action or scattered movements of young people and workers forced to act because of the nature of the attacks. The 5,000-strong demonstration in Bristol days after the general election and the mobilisation of young people in Downing Street are warnings of what is to come. The Socialist Party will play its full role in this battle.

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May 2015