Labour Party facing disintegration?

The outcome of the General Election may have been in doubt until the final moments, but the victory of the Conservatives following five years of punishing austerity for the working class demonstrates that the Labour Party presented no real opposition. It could not credibly reconcile its pro-austerity position with satisfying the needs of the working class and sections of the middle class. While it increased its support by one million votes across England and Wales, this was far short of the five million it had lost since 1997. With the trouncing it received in Scotland, losing 40 seats to the Scottish National Party (SNP), Labour ended up with 232 seats, 26 fewer than it had in the previous parliament. The Conservatives, with 331 seats, now have an unexpected overall majority of 12. ROBERT CLOUGH reports.

Why did Labour lose?

Labour lost for two reasons. First, it could not convince the ruling class that its ‘austerity-lite’ programme would be adequate. Second, it was unable to convince sections of the middle class and upper layers of the working class that their material privileges would be safe with a Labour government. Only 29% of C1 voters (Supervisory, junior managerial, administrative and lower professional occupations) voted Labour compared to 47% in 1997, and only 32% of C2 voters (skilled manual occupations) compared to 54% in 1997. Turnout was highest for those most inclined to vote Conservative: 78% of those aged 65 or more voted, dividing 47% for the Tories and 23% for Labour. By contrast, only 43% of under-25s voted, with 43% supporting Labour and 27% voting Conservative.

In Scotland, the opportunist anti-austerity position of the SNP allowed it to take 50% of the vote. Swings from Labour were 20%, 30% and more as voters took revenge on the Scottish Labour Party, the ‘Red Tories’ who had orchestrated the ‘No’ campaign in the September 2014 independence referendum. The SNP ended up with 56 out of 59 Scottish seats, Labour with just one.

Only in London did Labour significantly improve its performance from 2010, in major part because it increased its support from minority ethnic voters. Its share of the vote rose seven percentage points from 36.6% to 43.8%, which gained it an extra seven seats, four from the Conservatives. It now holds 45 London constituencies against the Tories’ 27. Outside London, the Conservatives were the main beneficiaries of the collapse of the LibDem vote in England and Wales: they took 27 of the 49 seats the LibDems lost while Labour could only manage 11. Key marginal constituencies in the Midlands and North swung to the Conservatives rather than Labour, as UKIP attracted significant support from C2 voters (19% compared to 13% overall).

Social democracy undermined

Throughout the election campaign, Labour tried to reconcile the irreconcilable, committing itself to reducing the public deficit while offering sufficient crumbs to the working class to secure its support. However, the crisis of imperialism is such that the ruling class can no longer afford to buy off large sections of the working class to the extent that it could before the 2007 financial crisis. The outcome is a continuous narrowing of the basis for social democracy, undermining the chances of Labour winning this or future elections.

Commenting on the electoral collapse of social democratic parties in Greece and Spain, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, the economics editor of the Daily Telegraph wrote: ‘You can defend European Monetary Union [austerity] policies, or you can defend your political base, but you cannot do both.’ The same contradiction faces the Labour Party. It has to be pro-austerity to prove it will defend the interests of British imperialism and the City of London – otherwise it can never form a government. But these very policies will undermine the foundation of its political support – better-off sections of the working class, particularly in the public sector.

Labour was on the back foot throughout the election campaign: when challenged on Question Time, Labour leader Ed Miliband was unable to rebut the charge that the last Labour government’s excessive spending on state welfare had been the cause of the crisis in 2007 – ‘Labour’s recession’, according to the Tories. Protestations that Labour was committed to protecting the interests of the City of London, that it was, in the words of Shadow Education Secretary Tristram Hunt, ‘a furiously, passionately, aggressively pro-business party’, were all in vain. Even its timid gestures to cap electricity prices and introduce some banking regulation were met with fury from the billionaire press. Pledges to impose a mansion tax, raise the top level of income tax to 50% and end non-domiciliary tax status were criticised as crushing the ‘aspirations’ of the mass of the British population. In the end, C1 and C2 voters believed the Conservative myth of economic recovery and decided that Labour would squander it.

Labour leadership contest: Oxbridge 4, Rest 0

Given the scale of Labour’s defeat, Miliband had no choice but to resign as Party leader. The race to replace him is being presented as a contest between ‘modernisers’ and an old guard. Both trends are equally reactionary and whoever finally emerges as the leader will have nothing to offer the working class. Candidates will want to demonstrate that they will defend ruling class interests while assuring the materially privileged that their ‘aspirations’ will be met. As if to prove that nothing will change, all four leadership candidates are graduates of Oxford or Cambridge.

Setting out the concerns of the ‘modernisers’, Shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umunna asked after the election: ‘Why did we do so badly in England? First, we spoke to our core voters, not to aspirational, middle-class ones ... we had too little to say to the majority in the middle. Second, we allowed the impression to arise that we were not on the side of those who are doing well...we talked too little about those creating wealth and doing the right thing.’ When Umunna and other Labour politicians talk about ‘wealth creators’ they mean those who live off this wealth – capitalists and the self-employed, and not those who really create it – the working class. Tristram Hunt pitched in as well: ‘the issue in England is this double bind of losing traditional Labour communities often under pressure from UKIP, and not speaking to an aspirational, John Lewis couple’. Their joint concern is how to get the better-off back on side in conditions where, in fact, growing numbers face proletarianisation.

The standard bearer for the modernisers in the leadership contest, Shadow Health Minister Liz Kendall, who is supported by both Umunna and Hunt, has now condemned Labour’s election pledges to freeze energy prices and cut university tuition fees. In setting out her stall for the ruling class, she says: ‘I want to lead a Labour Party that’s genuinely as passionate about wealth creation as we are about wealth distribution.’ Her passion for ‘wealth creators’ is not in doubt – she is against the 50% top rate of income tax. There is nothing in her platform however, let alone passion, about wealth distribution in favour of the working class.

‘Resetting’ Labour’s relationship with business

The modernisers are not alone in pitching to the ruling class. Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper, who has the support of 50 Labour MPs for her leadership bid, is also determined to distance herself from Labour’s election campaign. Criticising Miliband’s supposed counter-position of ‘predators and producers’ she says: ‘We need to reset our relationship with business around a shared vision for building an economy that faces the future … Too often in the past our rhetoric undermined that positive relationship with business, and with the creation of jobs and wealth for the future’, adding ‘We can’t be set against the government’s recent cut in corporation tax for the future…[or] against the wealth creators and drivers of our future economic growth…[or] against business, and too many believed we were.’ She has as little to offer the working class as Kendall – its interests do not feature in the debate.

The priorities of the current front runner, Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham, are no different. Bring forward the EU referendum to 2016, he says, so that business will face less uncertainty. He is against Labour’s mansion tax as it epitomised the ‘politics of envy’ – a hackneyed Tory phrase. His key issues are: ‘our economic credibility, our relationship with business – which is linked to that – and, thirdly, immigration’. He wants to make sure that migrant workers from the EU cannot claim benefits until they have been here for two years. On immigration he has form. When he contested the leadership in 2010 he said ‘Immigration to me was the most important issue of the [2010] election, and it was for many of the voters’, arguing that ‘We were behind on the issue all the time’. Pandering to the racist vote is part of his appeal. His strategy, then, is to appeal to business and the better-off sections of the working class, and at the same time win back the UKIP voters with anti-immigration policies. Left out of consideration in the electoral beauty contest are the real hardworking families who struggle to survive on poverty wages, and the poorest sections of the working class who are forced to survive on benefits.

In 2010 Burnham argued that people felt that Labour was not on their side any more, and that this ‘came out through this feeling about benefits – it was a feeling that was really cemented by the credit crunch really. People had had wage freezes and wage cuts. People were anxious about their jobs, they felt that the government had its priorities wrong at times – that money and help was going to people who were not, like them, trying to do the right things.’ The inference is that those on benefits were not ‘trying to do the right things’, and that furthermore they were scroungers and shirkers. His enthusiasm for hammering those on benefits remains undiminished: on 28 May, he told business leaders that he wanted to counter the view that Labour was ‘soft on people who want something for nothing’.

Shadow Secretary for Work and Pensions Rachel Reeves took this view to a logical conclusion early on in the 2015 election campaign when she said ‘We are not the party of people on benefits. We don’t want to be seen, and we’re not, the party to represent those out of work.’ In case there was any doubt, she has confirmed Labour’s support for a reduced overall benefit cap: ‘Labour supports a benefit cap to ensure people are always better off in work than on benefits and we will support a reduction in the cap to £23,000 to ensure this principle is met.’ Reeves, who is also an enthusiast for workfare, supports Burnham’s leadership bid.

What of the union leadership?

Key to the survival of the Labour Party is the support of the trade union leadership, especially Unite the Union which gives millions of pounds to the Labour Party every year and which either sponsors or has given financial backing to 147 out of the current 232 Labour MPs. In April 2014, its General Secretary, Len McCluskey, declared that if Labour supported a cautious ‘austerity-lite’ policy it would lose at the general election and Unite might consider supporting a separate party ‘representing the interests of ordinary people’.

Within two months he had changed his tune, telling the union conference ‘let there be no doubt. Unite stands fully behind Labour and Ed Miliband in the increasingly radical agenda he has outlined. It is a people’s agenda and this union will be proud to fight alongside Labour to secure it.’ Nothing had changed: Labour was still committed to austerity, and it had no intention of even repealing any of the anti-trade union laws.

Fast forward to after the election, and the ‘increasingly radical agenda’ had vanished into thin air: ‘The policy offer was not particularly radical. Radicalism would have meant taking railways back into public ownership, for example, or challenging the City’s grip on the economy.’ Labour, McCluskey says, did not lose ‘because it was too “left wing”’, but ‘because of its muddled message on austerity… it accepted a need to balance the budget and eliminate the deficit which left it playing on Tory ground. Once this was conceded, Labour was on a hiding to nothing.’ Would this mean that Unite would sever the Labour Party link as McCluskey had suggested a year earlier? On 17 May, he apparently said yes, the next day, he definitely said no: ‘This idea that we’re considering disaffiliating from the Labour Party is nonsense, we’re not considering that at all.’ It has all been just hot air.

No electoral opposition

Although the SNP vote demonstrated an overwhelming rejection of austerity in Scotland, in England and Wales there was no such development. The ostensibly anti-austerity Green Party made limited headway: it failed to gain any more seats than the one in Brighton and Hove it had won in 2010. While it won over 1,100,000 votes, this represented a mere 3.8% of the total. The opportunist left performed disastrously: altogether, 135 candidates standing for the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition obtained just 36,420 votes. All that it demonstrated was its own irrelevance. Neither its individual candidates nor the organisation as a whole represented anything within the working class. In such conditions there is no possibility of using the election process to make any progress.

A different strategy

The Conservatives were elected despite their failure to solve Britain’s economic crisis even with a vicious austerity programme aimed at the weakest and most vulnerable sections of the working class. They are now offering more of the same: savage cuts in welfare spending and on local government services, more drastic anti-trade union legislation, massive attacks on housing and working conditions, more health service privatisation, and so on. Labour councils will act as the agents of the Tory government, cutting more jobs and services while managing hikes in the bedroom tax and reductions in the overall benefit cap. Evictions, already rising, will soar. Poverty and inequality will increase. There is no choice but to fight back.

In building resistance, we have to break with strategies that have failed over the last five years. For years Labour leaders told us that the solution was the re-election of a Labour government. For years trade union leaders told us the same. That has failed. Many on the left told us that the trade unions would spearhead the fightback. Nowhere over the last five years have the unions seriously resisted austerity. They have colluded with local council cuts. They have ignored the attack on state welfare. They capitulated in the fight over pensions. They do not organise the mass of the working class, only a privileged minority mainly in the state sector. They will remain tied to the Labour Party. We cannot rely on them.

We need to create something new: a movement that is based on the mass of the working class, not on its more privileged layers or the middle class. Such a movement will have to be open and democratic – there can be no bans or proscriptions on those who agree with its aims. The movement will have to reject the call by the social democratic left to build an alternative to the Labour Party. This will be no more than a Mark 2 Labour Party, equally committed to capitalism however radical its rhetoric. A new movement will need to bury the Labour Party. It will need to bury capitalism since austerity shows that capitalism cannot meet the needs of the working class. Creative forms of direct action are required, not stale marches with the politically backward demand to ‘kick out the Tories’: this is just code for replacing them with a Labour government. Above all the movement needs to be one which will turn the fight against austerity into one for socialism, the only form of social organisation that can begin to solve the problems facing the working class.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 245 June/July 2015


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