“We are not getting excited about the election.” (Duncan Hallas, a central leader of the Socialist Workers Party, in Socialist Worker, on the eve of the 1979 general election which gave power to Thatcher’s Tories.)
One of two things. Either the outcome — the new government — of a May 2010 general election, is a matter of little or no consequence to the working class and to the labour movement and therefore a matter of indifference to socialists. Or it is of consequence, perhaps of great consequence, to the working class and therefore of great importance to socialists. We think it is important.
Only a fool will believe that the Tories are now a “benign party”. At the very least, the Tories in power will drive with special energy to cut working-class living standards. Their commitment to a speedy liquidation of the debt incurred by the government to bail out the bankers implies that.
As the election looms, the Tories are coyly fudging, mudging and backtracking from their bold talk at the height of the economic crisis of 2008-9. They don’t want to play Gordon Brown’s game in the election and let themselves be branded as a party of super-cutters. Don’t believe them!
They have said openly that they will consider extending the anti-union laws to ban public service strikes.
They will target the public sector unions, the conditions they have won, and try to smash them up.
In the narrowest sense they will use government power to cosset the rich. They now have a bizarre international political affiliation: in the European Parliament they are linked with a small cluster of right and far-right parties.
In Northern Ireland, the Tory party is negotiating behind the scenes to create a “pan-Unionist bloc”, that would include the Paisleyite DUP. Though that party has many features peculiar to itself and to Northern Ireland, it would not be too inaccurate to bracket it loosely with the British BNP. A Tory victory may pour petrol on the still-glowing embers of sectarian-national-communal conflict in Northern Ireland.
And therefore, what follows for the working class and for socialists? Hostility to the Tories, certainly. And therefore? Organise to fight them in the election? Apart from a small smattering of socialist candidates, there will be no socialist alternative in the election — no possible socialist government on offer. What follows as the New Labour government seemingly heads for defeat in the general election is a question about New Labour now. This is posed more urgently now than for many years.
Can we regard the Labour Party in any sense as a desirable alternative to the Tories and a new Tory, or Tory-Lib Dem, government? We believe we can and that we must. There are two main reasons for that conclusion.
For the first time in many years there are now significant differences in policy and intent between New Labour and the Tory party — between the Labour Party and the traditional party of the British capitalist class.
Shallow, essentially demagogic, “anti-Toryism” has played a malign role in the labour movement in modern times, licensing virtually anything that was calculated to defeat the Tories. In the 1980s and 90s, the Labour Party inched slowly towards neo-Thatcherism under the banner of “anti-Toryism”. Even so, the Tories remain the fundamental party of the British ruling-class.
As ex-Prime Minister John Major once said of his organisation, the Tory party is “one of the greatest fighting political machines” in Europe. It is the “fighting machine” of the British capitalist class. It would be foolish to underestimate it.
Certainly, New Labour in power has, for a dozen years, also acted as a party of the ruling-class, a neo-Thatcherite government of the ruling-class and of the rich. To take one of many notorious examples, it has kept the working class locked in the Thatcher-imposed anti-union laws, which — by banning solidarity strikes — outlaw much that makes for effective trade union action.
If the Tories in power go on to ban public service strikes, they will be building on what the Labour government has preserved of the old Tory anti-working class enactments of the 1980s.
But the Labour government has also brought in important limited reforms such as tax credits. It has raised taxes for the rich in response to the economic crisis.
Symptomatically — though this is now, like everything else in the run-up to the general election, fudged — the Tories have advocated tax cuts for the rich.
They opposed the emergency — pro-capitalist — actions of the government in 2009 to prevent the social catastrophe of a collapse of the banks.
In short, there are now significant political differences between the two parties, one of which will form the government after May 2010. Do these differences matter to the working class? Yes they do!
They do not make New Labour anything other than a boss-serving government and a shackled, trussed-up remnant of the old Labour Party, but nevertheless there are significant differences. These things should matter to socialists. They matter to Solidarity.
That, in part, is the reason we say vote Labour in the general election wherever there is not a credible socialist candidate.
But the fundamental difference between Labour and the Tories is, however, not one of policy. There are important differences in policy between the Democrats and Republicans in the USA; we do not therefore back the Democrats.
Trade union links
The difference is that the big trade unions are affiliated to the Labour Party and finance it.
Even now, despite massive structural changes, the unions retain a considerable degree of power in the Labour Party — power, if they use it, to affect policy and power, to impose structural changes that would put into reverse the quasi-abolition of the old Labour Party over the last fifteen years by the Blair-Brown gang.
The union-Labour link, though altered, and despite a couple of trade union disaffiliations, has survived the grim years of New Labour government. There is now talk — it may be no more than talk — amongst union leaders of restoring like the old Labour Party conference. An all-shaping fact of the New Labour years is that the unions either haven’t used their power or, in the early Blair years, used it to help Blair-Brown-Mandelson destroy the old Labour Party structures.
The tragedy has been that, because of the quietude of the rank-and-file, initiative here has lain entirely with the union bureaucrats, who have chosen to play the role of donkey to rider with the New Labour gang. Socialists must up the fight to change that, to bring the rank-and-file of the unions into the equation.
Even so, in the general election, the Labour Party will be backed and financed by the unions as their contender to form the next government. Make any qualifications you like — and the qualifications are massive — the Labour Party will be the party of the unions in the general election.
If the link between the unions and Labour is the fundamental reason why socialists will say “vote Labour” in the general election, there is an additional reason: the aching lack of any half-way credible alternative on the left of the Labour Party. It is important to assess how this came about.
Weakness of the left
The years of New Labour government — and before the British war with Iraq and the economic crisis and its aftershocks, it looked like New Labour would go on and on — were years in which, as working-class ties to the government party were stretched and snapped, a serviceable socialist left might have been created. The AWL took part in efforts to create it, notably the Socialist Alliance (which had a sizeable presence in the 2001 general election).
The SA did badly in that general election. Workers’ Liberty magazine summed up the results thus: “The Socialist Alliance has little... to congratulate itself for. With very few exceptions our impact on the electorate was not noticeably greater than that which any half-way presentable socialist candidate would have made in any suitable constituency at any time in the last hundred years.”
Any hope of developing from the limited advances won in the 2001 election were destroyed by the SWP and its political satellites. Together with George Galloway MP, they created “Respect-George Galloway” (that was its registered name). Galloway was never more than a self-serving, wealth-chasing, middle-left Labour politician (and in addition one with odious hard-Stalinist opinions).
“Respect-George Galloway” linked itself to Islamic clerical-fascists in Britain, the Muslim Brotherhood offshoot Muslim Association of Britain, and in Iraq, Palestine and the rest of the Middle East. They celebrated the victory of Hamas in the Palestinian election of 2006!
In a Britain in which the BNP was growing alarmingly, exploiting working-class dissatisfaction with the New Labour government, “Respect-George Galloway” branded themselves as Muslim communalists — “the best fighters for Muslims” — and thus sealed themselves off from the white working class, for whom “black and white, unite and fight” made sense, but adoptive Muslim communalism never could.
All possibility of developing a working-class alternative to the left of the New Labour party and government was thus squandered in reactionary — that is what the alliance with Muslim clerical-fascism was and is: reactionary — political foolishness, rooted in a muddled and reactionary “anti-imperialism”.
They allied the British left not with working-class (or even bourgeois) democrats in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine, but with clerical-fascists, Sunni supremacists, the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
For its part, the Socialist Party has a disablingly black-and-white, over-simplified view of the labour movement, asserting that there is nothing at all left of the old Labour Party.
In an earlier incarnation, they had a no less simple-mindedly black-and-white — and wrong — view in which they saw the Labour Party as a pure emanation of working-class politics. In office in Liverpool in the mid-80s, the Socialist Party under its present leaders disgraced itself by self-serving timidity in face of the Tory government (see www.workersliberty.org/node/6876).
The SWP has said they want to stand a few candidates in the election. The Socialist Party will stand a handful. It will be a marginal activity in the general election. These candidates will be about building support for these organisations not about building genuine left unity and certainly not about offering an alternative government to the Tories.
In short, there is no credible socialist alternative to the Labour Party in the election. How unpalatable a choice New Labour is, is shown by the fact that Brown too stands for cuts — different cuts, perhaps lesser cuts, at a different rate and tempo, but cuts nonetheless.
But the choice the working class, and socialists who look to the working class and the labour movement, face is either abstention and a vote here and there for socialist candidates, or a vote for Labour. Cynical abstention is a rotten option for workers. We need an alternative political campaign which cuts across that cynicism.
The bulk of the labour movement will rightly call for a Labour vote. Labour movement militants — many “with gritted teeth” — will vote Labour, and call on their workmates to do the same.
We say: “vote Labour and prepare to fight, whoever wins — Tory or Labour.”
Vote Labour, prepare to fight
There may be some anti-Labour socialist candidates who should be voted for. The Alliance for Workers’ Liberty is standing one such candidate, Jill Mountford, for the purpose of making essential socialist propaganda (and of course, of building the AWL). But in most places, in general, we say: vote Labour!
Yet, saying “vote Labour" with all the reservations listed here raises a further question for socialists: do we just shrug and say “vote Labour”, and between now and the election, passively accept the politics of the Brown Labour Party and the New Labour government? That is the easy option, but we should not do that!
We cannot do that on pain of political self-betrayal. We need a campaign to stop the Tories and fascists, and for a Labour vote, a campaign that simultaneously advocates and organises labour movement people and socialist and anti-capitalist activists around anti-Brown, anti-New Labour policies.
We need not an indolent, passive “vote Labour” posture, but an active socialist campaign that combines stopping the Tories and fascists now with a simultaneous fight against Brown and New Labour — now, and after the election, whether Brown loses or wins.
Such a campaign should base itself on a class struggle programme of demands: for jobs, against cuts and privatisations, in defence of public services.
There is a precedent for such a campaign. Faced in 1979 with a terrible choice between the Callaghan Labour government and the Thatcher Tories, a choice comparable with our choice in 2010, socialists organised a “Socialist Campaign for a Labour Victory”. Its purpose was to campaign actively for a Labour vote and for anti-Callaghan government policies. It organised militants to continue the fight for those policies against the Callaghan Labour leadership, in and out of government.
Many important things are different now. There was then a mass Labour Party which on a rank-and-file level was bitterly opposed to the Callaghan government. There is nothing like that now. But we are where we are.
As the American Trotskyist James P Cannon used to say: the cardinal question in politics is “what to do next”. Politics is always about now. Socialists relate to the “now”, decide what to do next, always with an eye to what best serves the tomorrow we work to shape, what best serves the longer term interests of the working class and of socialism.
Nevertheless we must relate to the political issues now, if we are not to accept relegation to the realm of general, abstract, socialist high-propaganda.
Events — especially the political decrepitude of the would-be left — have for a long time forced the AWL into a heavy emphasis on propaganda, into polemics with the kitsch left. That was necessary but it was not from free choice. Other possibilities are, or may be, now opening up.
The general election will, most likely, one way or another bring to a close the chapter of labour movement political history we have been living through for the last 15 and more years. A new chapter will, perhaps — we say no more than most likely will — open. Many things may become possible that were impossible for a long time. Now, in the run up to the General Election, it is not a matter only of speculation but of action, of doing what can be done here and now, to prepare.
That is why in the run-up to the May 2010 general election, we will be supporting the exploratory efforts to organise a Socialist Campaign to Stop the Tories and Fascists.