According to a study published in the Observer on 23 September, living standards for poor and middling (that is, working-class) households in Britain will continue falling up to 2020, and by then will be 15% lower, for the worse-off, than in 2010.
The prediction assumes, optimistically, that overall economic growth will start again this year and run quite rapidly from 2015 to 2020. Even in that case, the tax-and-benefit changes made by the Cameron-Clegg coalition, and increasing inequality of wages which results from weakened trade unions, will work things so that by 2020 high-income households will be 15% better off than in 2010, but poorer households will be 15% below our 2010 level.
The prediction also excludes the increase in social inequity which will come from cuts in health, education, and other public services.
Mervyn King, governor of the Bank of England, has already said: “One has to go back to the 1920s to find a time when real wages fell over a period of six years”.
Now the unprecedented squeeze on the working class, while the wealthy prosper, is set to continue to 2020.
So the run-up to 20 October shows us a groundswell of working-class opinion that the Cameron-Clegg coalition, and its policies, must be ousted as soon as possible. But to replace them with what?
There is as yet no adequate debate in the labour movement on that. Shouting about one-day general strikes, or two-day general strikes, or general “fury”, which can “crack the coalition” or “kick out rotten Tories”, is no substitute for that debate, because it begs the question of the replacement.
The only alternative governing party with any links to the labour movement is Labour. But how will a Labour government tackle the capitalist crisis?
The Labour Party conference which starts in Manchester on 30 September should be the forum for the debate. But Luke Akehurst, a prominent figure close to the leadership, writes on Labour List: “This year I cannot think of a serious fight that will happen at conference”.
“For decades”, says Akehurst, “conference witnessed intense battles between the Labour left and right.
These were “over policies issues like nationalisation and nuclear disarmament, and over rule changes designed to change the balance of power between unions, CLPs, leader and PLP”.
But now, or so Akehurst hopes, Labour has reached some sort of “end of history”, or Buddhist condition of higher tranquillity, in which no debate is necessary — nor any questioning of a still-neoliberal Labour policy.
In fact there are issues on the agenda. Bridgend Constituency Labour Party (CLP) has a rule change to allow Conference to amend National Policy Forum documents, a measure which despite its seeming abstruseness would actually allow unions and CLPs to gain control over Labour policy.
There will be other rule changes from the National Executive, bounced on delegates with little or no notice.
Some CLPs have put in contemporary motions calling for Labour to commit to restoring the Health Service.
A National Policy Forum report will be put to conference. As Jon Lansman writes on leftfutures.org, the way this report has been prepared and released just a few weeks before conference “reveals that little has yet changed in the way Labour makes its policy since the bad old days of New Labour...
On Trident, for example, the report promises only to “wait for the Lib Dems’ Trident Alternatives Review, the framework of which only includes alternative nuclear weapon options, not scrapping a Trident replacement altogether”.
On the NHS, the NPF report makes no commitment to a concerted restoration of the NHS as a public service, and no commitment to reverse the £20 billion Tory cuts in the NHS.
Probably the platform will try to bounce the report through conference on a single vote, with no scope for voting in parts, let alone amendments. The conference authorities are also likely to seek ways to rule out of order or otherwise sideline grassroots submissions like Bridgend’s and the NHS motions.
There should be, but won’t be, a debate at conference about whether Labour is going for a majority in 2015, or a coalition with the Lib-Dems. In a book published late in August, Peter Hain stated that for practical purposes his aim is a coalition with the Lib-Dems.
Even on the left, coalition has supporters. Jon Lansman, at leftfutures.org, has proposed aiming to break the Lib-Dems from the Tory coalition and negotiate a new Lab/Lib coalition to run to 2015.
Why ever should Labour want to forego the opportunity of a general election if the Tories get into such trouble that the coalition breaks up?
In any case, a government which serves the working class even minimally cannot be constructed in coalition with the relentlessly neo-liberal Lib Dems. Mark Ferguson of Labour List, no left-winger, has written rightly that “a huge proportion of Labour supporters find the notion of going into coalition with the Lib Dems a fairly gruesome thought”.
Opening out debate depends on the big unions, which have the clout to force issues onto the conference agenda and insist on a fair hearing for different views.
This year the Unite union has adopted a new policy document which commits it to a more active stance in the Labour Party.
However, the Unite motion for Labour Party conference, so we understand, is a bland one about increasing investment. And the National Coordinating Committee of Unite’s “United Left” has declared (28 July) that the union “cannot” support Unite members who are Labour councillors and vote in line with Unite policy against the cuts: “there is a need to protect the Labour whip”.
There is a greater need to help the working class protect itself against the capitalist onslaught.