From International Socialism, No. 123, Summer 2009.
Copyright © 2009 International Socialism.
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The results of elections to the European Parliament have delivered a devastating shock to New Labour. Its share of the vote was the lowest since something approaching universal suffrage was conceded in 1918, and it trailed behind the right populists of the UK Independence Party (UKIP). David Cameron’s Tories now seem the inevitable victors in the general election set to take place in the next ten months. And the success of the Nazi British National Party (BNP) in gaining two seats adds to the toxicity of the shock.
Behind the figures lies a simple reality. Big chunks of Labour’s supporters have abandoned it because they feel it has abandoned them. This applies both to manual workers who have voted Labour for three generations and to white collar workers, the majority of who first swung behind the party in 1997.
The reasons are easy to see. Unemployment is expected to rise to three million over the coming year and millions more do not know whether their jobs are safe. Real wages of manual workers (still 45 percent of the workforce) have been declining for four or five years – and over the past year so have those of white collar workers. On top of that came the scandal over MPs’ expenses, with half respondents in an opinion poll believing all MPs are corrupt. Traditional Labour voters have woken up each morning to hear that their MPs have been claiming more in expenses than many workers are paid. The issue hurts Labour more than the Tories because Labour’s core vote has come from those with some class sense, however vague, who assume that the Tories are only concerned with enriching themselves.
For commentators in the liberal media the UKIP and BNP votes are to be expected from “the white working class”. Their simplistic arguments are not supported by research into voting patterns (see Martin Smith’s article on the BNP in this issue). They also pay little account to the realities of working class consciousness in Britain. This has always contained contradictory elements, with a sense of class solidarity intermingling with acceptance of what Karl Marx called “the ideas of the ruling class”. This contradictory combination always characterised old Labour and the core of the trade union bureaucracy, with their diluted class message on the one hand and their acceptance of nationalism, “Britishness”, the monarchy and the “civilising role” of the empire on the other.
The mixture was never homogenous across the working class. A minority always accepted ruling class ideas wholesale – the third of manual workers who, as “deference voters”, opted for the Tories in election after election, accounting for half of Tory votes from the 1940s to the 1970s. At the other end of the spectrum was another minority with left Labour or Communist-influenced ideas who held strongly class-based attitudes and were determinedly anti-racist, even if there remained a tinge of nationalism emanating from leaders integrated into the political establishment. In between were the majority of workers who would shift in one direction and then the other under the influence of events – particularly the success or failure of class struggles – and of the ideas coming from either side.
Under the impact of the crisis UKIP and the BNP are providing a focus for the right wing minority and enabling it to set the tone for many in the middle, while the left are paralysed and atomised, despite playing a central role in holding together unions that remain the biggest “civil society” organisations.
The paralysis of the left wing minority goes back to something we have stressed again and again in this journal – the stultifying refusal of the main union leaderships and most of the former Labour left to provide any clear lead in opposition to the effects of the crisis and to the policies pursued by New Labour. It is worth remembering that only last September many union leaders, including those running the biggest union, Unite, as well as figures on the left such as Ken Livingstone, were praising Gordon Brown’s response to the crisis. Since then we have had the spectacle of one of Unite’s leaders, Derek Simpson, encouraging workers to raise the slogan “British jobs for British workers”. Some on the left have gone so far as to praise as a “victory” the outcome of a construction dispute in Wales that led to Polish workers being sacked, with use of the phrase “social dumping” to describe unemployed workers seeking jobs outside their country or region of birth.
Such an approach can only encourage workers to accept the argument of the right that people of all classes in Britain should unite together against immigrants. It plays into the hands of the BNP, who have been able to adopt the “British Jobs for British Workers” slogan as their own, and of UKIP with its slogan “No to unlimited immigration”.
What could have been a step forward for the left, the decision of Bob Crow of the RMT rail workers’ union to back a national list in the European elections, went off track because of the same willingness to substitute the politics of nation for those of class. The list’s name, “No to EU, Yes to Democracy”, gives the game away. It implies that the European Union is not just one source of exploitation and oppression but the major one, ignoring the role of British capital – and this at a time when the New Labour government has been handing billions to British bankers. A slogan such as “No to the bankers” might have been able to tap the basic, even if diffuse, class anger that exploded on the City of London demonstration on 1 April. No2EU failed miserably to do so – confusing the left, getting only about 1 percent of the vote and failing to provide any focus for working class bitterness.
Yet the potential for class feeling to come to the fore still exists. This was shown by the sequence of events that led from the occupation over redundancies at the Waterford Crystal factory in Ireland to that of the Visteon factories in Belfast and then in Enfield, north London. The Enfield plant was not one with any great record of militancy in recent decades. But the other examples were enough to spur the workers to take action – and then to discover that they had enough power to force Ford (which sold off Visteon some years back but which still depended on it for components to such a degree that it had lent the firm millions to keep it operating) to agree to significant redundancy payments. Huge votes for strike action by tube workers and postal workers suggest we are going to see more real expressions of class feeling.
The Euro election results only express one element in popular consciousness. Moods can change rapidly, as we have seen at least twice in the past four decades at the fag end of Labour governments. In 1968 London’s dockers struck for the day and marched in support of the racist Enoch Powell, yet from early 1969 onwards there was an upsurge of militancy led by networks of left influenced shop stewards which shifted the whole political spectrum. In 1977 the Nazis of the National Front picked up more than 100,000 votes in the Greater London Council elections. Yet they lost their influence as networks of left activists led resistance to the Thatcher government, starting with the huge 100,000-strong demonstrations against unemployment in 1981 and culminating in the miners’ strike of 1984–5. The resistance on that occasion may not have been successful but it did provide an extra-parliamentary focus for the left.
Anti-fascist agitation was immensely important on both occasions – particularly the role of the Anti Nazi League in the late 1970s. Likewise, mobilisations by Unite Against Fascism will be crucial in beating back the Nazis today. But such activity can only be of limited effectiveness without a wider sense of an alternative to what is happening to people’s lives.
This is especially true today, as the economic crisis puts pressure on capitalism to launch assaults on wide sections of the working class, with about half of all workers saying they face wage freezes or even cuts, major employers scrapping final salary pension schemes and the leaders of all three mainstream parties agreeing on massive public sector cuts after the next general election.
It has been in the interests of all parties’ leaders to keep quiet about the coming attacks. New Labour went into attack mode when the Tories’ shadow health minister, Andrew Lansley, let slip that they expect to implement 10 percent cuts, yet the Financial Times reports that this is what Treasury officials, working for Labour, “boasted behind the scenes” that they were preparing back in April. David Cameron let it be known that he will move to take such measures quickly if he wins the election. He apparently believes that “Margaret Thatcher made a mistake by waiting two years after her 1979 election victory before delivering her tough economic medicine”. But he also recognises how difficult and unpopular this might be.
The worries for those in high places are not only electoral. There is also concern that a Tory government will enter office merely in reaction to the disenchantment with New Labour and will not have the aura of legitimacy required to push through the measures our rulers believe are necessary. Business organisations have been expressing anxieties about the furore over MPs’ expenses. They complain it is a distraction from the real tasks of government and opposition alike. Their fears are justified. Coming so soon after the anger over bankers’ bonuses, it throws into a clear light the gap between the “suits” of all sorts – in the City, the political establishment and industry – and those expected to pay for the mess they have led the economy into.
They will be doing their best over the next few months to try to rectify things. For the tabloids this will, no doubt, mean more attacks on asylum seekers, more stories about the luxurious lives supposedly led by those on benefits, more gratuitous Islamophobia and the message that we all have to make sacrifices.
This pushes to the fore once again the urgent necessity for the left to try to pull its forces together to fill the political vacuum. There are hundreds of thousands of activists in Britain who think of themselves as being to the left of Labour. Most will have wished, as they heard the European election results, that there had been a viable left alternative on the ballot paper. This was clear, for instance, in the reception to an open letter issued by the Socialist Workers Party. And there are millions of people who would vote for a pole of attraction to the left of Labour in the general elections – and so provide a counter-focus to the racist and semi-racist right – if they thought a viable one existed.
The British “first past the post” electoral system, with minority votes often seeming like wasted votes, has always created difficulties in providing such a focus. It is even harder than in countries such as France where 4 percent of votes makes you a recognised part of the political scene, or Germany where 5 percent wins dozens of parliamentary seats. But that does not do away with the urgency of campaigning to pull the left’s forces together. The central obstacle to past attempts to do so is that key national figures of the left – most left union leaders, the handful of left MPs – have insisted that there cannot be a break with Labour, despite half the membership of the party leaving over the past dozen years. This was, in the final analysis, what doomed the Socialist Labour Party, the Socialist Alliance, Respect and now No2EU.
Sometimes a threatening shock spurs people to sudden action. There was a sign of this with the magnificent and militant protests against the BNP after the election results emerged. Now is the time to see if the feeling can take on a new political form. The alternative is to cling to the hull of the Labour Party as it sinks into a sea infested with UKIP and BNP sharks.
We do not know whether campaigning for a political alternative will gain enough critical mass to bring it about before the general election. But in any case, the networks drawn together in the process would help in the wider extra-parliamentary resistance to what capitalism has in store for us. There will be an urgent need in the months ahead for coordination in support of whatever struggles occur, in standing by those subject to abuse by the gutter press and in preparing for the fightback against the inevitable onslaught on the public services.
Last updated on 3.12.2011