Labour government? No way forward for the working class

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As the Tory government staggers from one crisis to another, the odds of an early second general election grow. Prime Minister May’s bung of £1bn to get the parliamentary support of 12 neo-fascist Democratic Unionist Party MPs has provided her with a slender majority, but one which is at constant risk. Symptomatic of an unstable and dysfunctional government are:

  • May’s lies that austerity was coming to an end when it is set to continue till after 2020,
  • her appalling performance over the Grenfell Tower disaster,
  • the obvious divisions within the cabinet over Brexit negotiations,
  • Chancellor Philip Hammond’s dismissal of public sector workers as ‘overpaid’ in response to Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s proposal to lift the pay cap.

In conditions of deepening economic crisis, which Brexit and parliamentary chaos will only worsen, the ruling class may need to act, and it is now more likely to accept the alternative of a Corbyn-led Labour government. Robert Clough reports.

For the present, Labour’s unexpectedly strong showing in the June general election has quelled the ambition of open reactionaries within the Labour Party to unseat Corbyn as its leader. But the divisions have not disappeared and will be compounded by the differences that exist between Brexit opponents – the majority of Labour MPs and its electoral support – and Brexit supporters. Corbyn has moved to limit these divisions by stating a Labour government will unconditionally guarantee the rights of the three million EU citizens resident in Britain. He is also promising a Brexit negotiation stance which defends jobs and working conditions – something which is entirely beyond his control. Labour is now riding high in opinion polls, at one point in early July holding an 8% lead over the Tories after trailing by 21% in April. But Labour’s electoral rise has not galvanised any resistance to austerity, and nor is it intended to: Corbyn’s role is to ensure that working class anger is stifled and contained within the bounds of what is in the Labour Party’s electoral interests.

Who voted Labour?

To win a general election, Labour needs to assemble an electoral alliance which includes both the mass of the working class and its better-off sections, something which it achieved in 1997 and then progressively lost from 2001 onwards. In June, it managed to recover support from both the more affluent and from the poorest sections of the working class, but not from layers in between.

A Policy Network report, Don’t forget the middle, confirmed earlier surveys by YouGov and Tory donor Lord Ashcroft, that professionals and affluent white collar workers (social groups ABC1) voted Labour rather than Tory, with a margin of 2-3%. Breaking its sample down into five household income groups, Policy Network found that where household income was:

  • less than £14,000pa, voters split 44%-36% in favour of Labour as opposed to the Tories,
  • between £35,000-£55,000pa, voters split 43%-40% the same way,
  • more than £55,000pa, voters still preferred Labour, by 46% to 37%.

This is consistent with YouGov, which found that those in full-time or part-time work voted Labour rather than Tory, as did those who were out of work or not working, or studying. However, Policy Network also found that in-between household income groups preferred Tory rather than Labour: 44% to 39% where household income was in the range £14,000-£21,000pa, and 48% to 33% where household income was between £21,000 and £34,000pa. It is these two income groups which Policy Network describes as the ‘middle’ and which, it argues, Labour must not forget if it is to win an election outright.

The Policy Network figures do not include any adjustment for age. The YouGov survey showed that pensioners supported the Tories against Labour overwhelmingly: 63% as against 24%. Ashcroft confirmed that those who voted Tory were older, and that they were also likely to be outright owners of their homes, although not to have a higher education qualification. It is clear that pensioners (median household income £21,800pa) are over-represented in Policy Network’s in-between income groups, and that is why its survey finds that voters in the two groups preferred the Tories. Policy Network characterises them as ‘socially conservative working class voters’, but their votes are needed if Labour is to win a general election outright.

Social chauvinism

How will Labour appeal to these layers? Step forward the English Labour Network led by MPs John Denham and Jon Cruddas. Arguing that Labour had lost support among older, working-class voters living outside the big cities, who had seen jobs disappear but found migration disconcerting, Denham said ‘They are strongly patriotic, believe in community and contribution and, like it or not, were much more likely to vote leave’ and that Labour will only win their support by ‘respecting who they are and showing we understand their fears and concerns.’ It is a refrain that has been heard consistently since Labour lost the 2010 election: ‘fears and concerns’ is code for chauvinism and racism, and an excuse for insisting that Labour must be tougher on migration. Sam Tarry, co-leader of Labour’s 2017 election campaign, says that Labour can be ‘an English Labour party that demonstrates that a socialist vision is a patriotic one, because nothing is more patriotic than building a society for the many; not the few’. National chauvinism can go hand-in-hand with handouts for the working class. Corbyn is conceding to these reactionary notions, talking about the ‘wholesale importation of underpaid workers from central Europe in order to destroy conditions, particularly in the construction industry’. The implication is clear: it is immigration that is the cause of such destruction, rather than the rapacious monopolies.

Opportunist fantasy land
Backward ideas to appeal to a backward section of the working class: this is a far cry from the rosy picture painted by an opportunist, social democratic left desperate for a future Labour victory. Socialist Review, monthly magazine of the SWP, claims that ‘Corbyn was explicit about what was on offer, describing the election as “the establishment versus the people”…As a consequence, class issues dominated the election.’ This is just wishful thinking: class did not feature at all in Labour’s manifesto (although 10,000 extra police and 3,000 more prison officers did), and the widespread applause for a ‘left-wing’ manifesto ignored its completely reactionary pro-imperialist framework (see FRFI 258). Far more to the point, Policy Network says that ‘Corbyn’s decision to largely eschew the language of “socialism” appears to have paid off in building a broad electoral alliance for Labour.’

The SWP is not alone in its fantasy land: the Socialist Party is demanding that ‘left-led trade unions must urgently build on Jeremy Corbyn’s election campaign momentum to really transform Labour into a working class, socialist party.’ Nothing of the kind is going to happen: as Corbyn has made clear, there will be no MP re-selection battles, and Labour councils will still be required to set cuts budgets which punish the poor. Far from driving the right-wing out of the Labour Party as the Socialist Party wants, Corbyn will accommodate them in order to ensure that Labour remains a viable electoral force.

Build a movement
Continuing this daydream, Socialist Review claims that the election result has shifted the balance of class forces in favour of the working class. This is nonsense. Since Corbyn became leader, local anti-austerity campaigns up and down the country have withered away, as have struggles to defend a crumbling NHS. Trade union resistance remains next to non-existent: days lost through industrial action remain at historic lows – junior doctor strikes accounted for 40% of the mere 320,000 days lost in 2016. The first five months of 2017 have seen fewer than 120,000 days lost. The claim that Corbyn’s leadership victories would stimulate the fight against austerity has proved the opposite of the truth. His role has been to prevent the widespread anti-austerity sentiment from translating into a real movement out on the streets, channelling it instead into the dead-end of electoral politics.

As the prospect of a further general election looms, Corbyn and his social democratic supporters will redouble their efforts to obstruct or stifle any challenge to the ruling class. Its leaders sense that Labour can win, and nothing will be allowed to undermine such an enticing prospect. A Labour victory, however, will not represent anything positive for the working class. The ruling class knows that it will always be able to control it through the openly pro-imperialist, reactionary majority of Labour MPs. The only way forward for the working class is to oppose Labour and its opportunist allies and build a movement that is active, that is out on the streets, defending the NHS, education and state welfare, campaigning for decent housing, fighting evictions and council cuts, challenging racism and war.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 259 August/September 2017