Published: 25 March 2015
Author: Rob Holt
In Britain we are 45 days from the 2015 general election. After five years of a Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government with its austerity programme of cuts and more cuts, the two main parties ? Conservatives and Labour – significantly lead all others, with a tiny two point advantage to Labour.
Given the severity of the cuts, the falling living standards and what Labour calls ?the cost of living crisis? we should have expected a much stronger Labour lead. But the British working class are wearied by the effects of a deep recession and a litany of political scandals. The mood is one of apathy, ?a plague on all your houses? being the dominant sentiment.
Against this backdrop we see one party, the right-wing, anti-immigration, pro-Thatcherite UK Independence Party (UKIP) as the only in England seen as presenting something different from the mainstream. And able for the first time to attract a sizeable minority working class vote, knocking the Liberal Democrats into fourth or even fifth place. However this party has little traction in other parts of the United Kingdom.
The other party on the rise is the Green Party, though its vote and accompanying support is far softer and its active base predominantly middle class.
Labour?s Poor Alternative
Labour should of course be romping ahead in the polls but a combination of weak leadership and towing the line of an austerity agenda, leave it struggling to stay ahead of the Tories. Socialists have responded to this situation in a variety of ways.
But let?s deal first with the issue of voting Labour and the calls in some quarters to either abstain or vote for smaller left parties and organisations. In my view, there exist only two situations in the current period where it can be permissible for socialists to vote for a party other than Labour:
- Labour has a large majority in a particular constituency and a solid campaign-driven vote for a socialist candidate would not cause Labour to lose the seat. Let?s not be sectarian here: it can be a left Green, Communist Party, Trade Union & Socialist Coalition (TUSC) candidate, or whoever looks likely to be the primary beneficiary of the socialist vote.
- The Labour candidate has such an appalling track record of supporting anti working class legislation that you just can?t stomach placing a tick in the box. However, the candidate needs to be pretty appalling in terms of record, and the Constituency should not be a Labour marginal (i.e. one which could be easily won by a Conservative candidate).
In all other situations the vote should go to the Labour Party.
Of course Labour will carry out cuts, will continue on a path of austerity – albeit ?austerity lite? – will defend the market economy and finance capital. We?ve known this since the party?s inception and a glance back at the history of the Party will reveal swings left and right. What we see currently is not a new phenomenon.
Given the viable alternatives in the present period (i.e none), a vote for the only party with solid roots in the working class and trade union movement must be a vote for Labour. Given the current very close polling situation, voting for a smaller left party – none of which have the remotest chance of winning a seat – risks delivering victory to the Tories to either govern as the largest party, form a coalition with the Liberals or, worse, parties even further to the right. This must not be allowed to happen.
Even under the leadership of Miliband & Co, the Labour Party has pledged to abolish several hated Tory initiatives such as the bedroom tax, and tax cuts for higher earners. But the Institute for Fiscal Studies also calculates that Labour would cut budgets far less aggressively than the Conservatives, to the tune of a whopping ?33bn and will borrow to maintain budgets and service. There is no free lunch of course, and such a debt would have to be serviced. However, the economic indicators for the short term might well assist Labour in moderating the cuts, and perhaps even increasing some budgets. Many pundits have spent the past five years speculating on when bank base rates will begin to rise. A cursory examination of fixed rate products offered by the banks over the past five years for both savings bonds and mortgages reveals the uncertainly of these predictions with fixed premiums of up to 2% being offered in addition to the usual margins ? guesstimates would perhaps be a better characterisation in the circumstances.
When we step aside from the ill-informed predictions from the bourgeois economists we may well see interest rates remaining at their current levels. Certainly, the published minutes from the Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) show no real appetite for a rise in base rates. Indeed, there have been calls in recent weeks to cut rates even further.
In tandem with historically low base rates we now have ultra-low inflation. And for the first time since the financial crash of 2008, earnings are starting to pull ahead of inflationary pressures for many. This sits on the back of generally falling food prices as large producers and supermarkets enter a frenzy of competition, and oil prices sit at historic lows of $50 a barrel. Given the current conflict between the Western imperialist powers and Russia doesn?t look to end any time soon, and oil is a primary commodity with which to harm the Russian economy through collapsing prices, we can expect these historically low prices to continue for some time. This in turn is reducing energy costs for industry and might well feed into consumer energy costs given the government scrutiny on this sector in the face of public anger.
Moreover, the UK economy is experiencing very modest but sustained growth which is forecast to remain above 2% for the next 2-3 years. Offset against this are the declining or stagnant GDPs on the continent which could harm the UK economy, though to what degree is open to speculation.
It is important to recognise these economic factors and not pretend these indicators and trends don?t exist, for that is the surest way to develop false perspectives. We trick the working class with false tales of doom at our peril!
We are on the cusp, in Britain at least, of a modest and likely short-lived recovery. Not sufficient to make any substantial, material change to the lives or workers but enough to assist an incoming Labour government in avoiding a duplication of the past 5 years, and to avoid ramping-up the cuts agenda.
Damning with faint praise?
This hardly a ringing endorsement of Labour?s prospects, but it remains fundamental to understand that, outside of a period of sustained capitalist boom, Labour will cut budgets and hit workers when forced to do so and driven by events, while the Conservatives will cut regardless of events as a matter of ideology. Labour is tempered in its dalliances with the ruling class by its affiliated trade unions and historic working class base, while the Tories are in turn driven by the class interests of its rich backers.
In no way should this be seen as a defense of social democracy, merely a commentary on the current situation and likely short term developments. The ultimate goal is of course is to replace these rotten organisations and bring about a socialist transformation of society, but we must not mistake cyclical changes in the nature of these organisation for their imminent demise.
Are The Greens a Viable Alternative?
It is patently not the Green Party which offers a radical alternative to Labour. It has no roots in the working class or trade union movement. Moreover it cannot make the link between the realisation of its green agenda and the necessity of a planned economy for the delivery of such an agenda. Bluntly, a green program is undeliverable under capitalism because the constant requirement for the latter to expand makes it incompatible with any meaningful program of green planning. During periods of expansion capitalism will wantonly consume resources, with complete disregard for environmental concerns, while in periods of economic contraction, austerity makes green projects unaffordable to the capitalist class. Therefore under capitalism, Greens will always backtrack on the progressive elements within their program because they refuse to accept the need to break ? completely ? with capitalism. Allied to this, their lack of class perspective and roots ensure they cannot rally the working class to defend progressive policies.
It?s perhaps worth taking a moment to examine the reasons behind the apparent rise of the Greens in electoral terms. In some senses the rise in support for the Green Party mirrors the earlier increase in votes for the Liberal Democrats. The Liberal Democrats for some time under the last long-lasting Labour Government of Blair and Brown post themselves as a left-of-Labour repository for the protest vote. Typically these voters were socially liberal, nominally green though not in any meaningful way, and some were petit bourgeois ?socialists?. With the near collapse of the Liberal Democratic vote following its current participation in an ?austerity? coalition with the Conservatives that has implementation drastic cutbacks in working people?s living standards and welfare benefits, a large chunk of Liberal Democratic voters are finding their way to the Green Party. Of course there will also be some angry left Labour voters moving to the greens, and certainly some socialist minded youth, but not in sufficient numbers for concern.
How Would a New Mass Party of Labour Develop?
Well, it wouldn?t ? at least not in the current period because the objective conditions are not sufficiently developed for the creation of such a mass party to the left of Labour. ALL attempts to ?build? such a party over many decades have failed. The working class does not like small parties of the left and tends to ignore them, as the comrades in the Socialist Party, Left Unity, SWP and Respect, to name just a few, know only too well.
The sad and inconvenient fact we must face is that overwhelmingly the working class still clings to the idea that a reformist Labour government is the only alternative to the Tories. Matters are a little different in Scotland and we will look at this in due course. Only events, coupled with patiently explaining to the most politically conscious workers the inevitable failings of reformism, can possibly create the conditions for the new mass party of labour. Well-meaning socialists cannot short circuit this process. Reformist governments must be tested, often several times before workers finally conclude that an alternative is required. And such a point would likely be signalled by the mass disaffiliation of the trade unions from Labour.
Critics will produce pages of indictments against the record of Labour and exclaim that the party is now in the hands of the right, to which we must all surely nod enthusiastically in agreement. But this gets us nowhere since what the Marxists think is less important than the collective opinions and actions of the working class, a class which history teaches tends to move in predictable ways. At this point it?s perhaps worth remembering the work of Marxists working within the Labour Party during the capitalist boom years of the 1950s and early 1960s, a period during which the ideas of Marxism fell largely upon deaf ears. Ted Grant, founder of the Marxist group ?Militant? summed up the problem thus:
?We had to fight against the stream and it was hard going. The Labour Party and the trade unions were fully in the grip of right wing Neanderthal men and women. In Liverpool, where we had our main base, the Labour Party was controlled by the Braddocks, who told people wanting to join the Party: ?Sorry, we?re full up!?
?This perspective was shown to be correct by future developments. But many did not understand it. They could not understand the real way in which the working class develops ? which can only be through the mass organisations. In Britain this means the Labour party and the trade unions.?
?We have heard the same thing many times in the past! But the ultra-lefts have learned nothing. They are not capable of learning. These people, though they call themselves Marxists, have not got the foggiest idea of how the masses move. They will always move through the traditional mass organisations ? the Labour Party and the unions. That is a law. Outside the unions and the Labour Party there is nothing.?
?Nothing? is perhaps overstating the situation somewhat, but the impressive successes achieved by Ted Grant?s group stand as testament to the above method and perspective.
Scotland ? a Political Earthquake?
Recent developments in Scotland have certainly shown a more pronounced swing away from the Labour Party, but where have they gone? ? largely to the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP).
While it?s certainly true that the SNP has positioned itself to the left of Scottish Labour, this is a very recent development, and is by no means characteristic of the SNP. It must be said that the SNP even today is hardly red in tooth and claw. It remains a left-of-centre reformist party and from the support now being given to it we can therefore conclude that the Scottish working class has far from given up on left reformist parties. Certainly we have seen some youth in particular moving to the more radical Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) and Radical Independence Campaign (RIC) but these remain a million miles away from being mass workers parties.
We must therefore tread carefully around these unfolding events and not allow a few months of activity to dictate future tactics. Much has been made of the ?collapse? of Scottish Labour since it will likely lose most of its MPs to the SNP. However the latest polls still indicate support at around 28%, most certainly severely down but not out. Scottish Labour must not be written-off as a spent force, though work to propagate the ideas of Marxism should clearly be focused elsewhere at the present time.
The Greek Example
On the question of developing the mass workers parties, the Greek experience is instructive to our analysis. Syriza, a very new party, only gained momentum after the established left party PASOK was voted into office on an anti austerity program and proceeded to implement the cruellest and deepest austerity seen in Europe since the 1930s. This is the real experience, coupled with over thirty totally ineffective 1-2 day general strikes which tested the bureaucratic and reformist trade union leaders, which has helped a new party to the left of PASOK to come to prominence. Such conditions do not yet exist in the UK. Therefore all talk of creating a new mass party is premature.
Perspectives for the Labour Party
On the Labour Party specifically and the opportunity it presents for Marxists, it is far from finished. As world capitalism lurches from one crisis to the next, and as growth in many countries goes into reverse in the coming period, the objective world conditions will change. This will in time impact the UK economy and in turn the militancy of the working class and unions, for which the Labour Party remains the political arm. Therefore we can expect the emergence of left wing trends and factions within the party as in decades past. It remains the task of socialists to utilise these trends and movements within the party and win them to a revolutionary socialist program.
Of course there are many avenues for work aside from the Labour Party and trade unions, and focus for activity must shift according to the opportunities presented through these organisations in any given period. In lean periods for Labour and/or union activity it is surely sensible to work within the student movement, trades councils, action groups, even single issue pressure groups where there exists an identifiable opportunity to intervene with a Marxist perspective, though not in a parasitic way typical of some established small left groups. It is important to work with the host organisation, not raid it for bodies and dash for the exit, for this is ultimately corrosive and destructive to the labour movement.
In summary, the situation within Britain requires a flexible approach to working with the mass organisations, and the smaller organisations formed by and for the masses to advance their demands. Perspectives must reflect a two speed approach to the mass organisations and specifically the Labour Party: recognising that while the Labour Party is today largely empty of left activists and workers, socialists must focus efforts on external work, while recognising that events will likely require a change of tactics in the medium or long term as events impacting upon the labour movement find expression again through its established mass party.