Don’t prop up Labour

The Glasgow East election result, where Labour lost its 25th safest seat on a 22% swing to the Scottish Nationalist Party, showed that the meltdown in Labour’s electoral support (see report in FRFI 203) has become critical. It follows the Henley by-election on 26 June, when Labour’s share of the vote fell from 14.8% in 2005 to 3.1%; the candidate lost his deposit and came fifth behind the Greens and the BNP with just over 1,000 votes. The electoral coalition that brought Labour to government in 1997 and sustained its significant, albeit diminishing, majorities in 2001 and 2005 is disintegrating rapidly under its mismanagement of the deepening economic crisis. Real socialists must welcome this development and use it to build a real working class anti-imperialist and anti-racist movement. Robert Clough reports.

Glasgow East is probably the most impoverished constituency anywhere in Britain. It has the highest number of benefit claimants – 11,000 – those who will be most affected by Work and Pensions Secretary Purnell’s proposed forced labour scheme. Although the official unemployment rate is 10%, twice the national average; in fact half the adult population have to live on benefits, and 40% of the children in the constituency live in workless households. According to the Campaign to End Child Poverty, 60% of the children in the constituency live below the poverty line. Male life expectancy is estimated to be 69 years, eight years lower than the average. Half of all adults have no educational qualifications and fewer than half of all households own a car. These are the poor on whose votes Labour has depended in the past, but who have been completely abandoned by the Labour government. They returned the compliment with a body blow for Gordon Brown.

Labour’s deepening unpopularity has a number of sources:
• The Northern Rock debacle, when Labour gave a handout of £24m, guaranteed all savings to the tune of a further £30m, whilst those with Northern Rock mortgages faced a huge increase in monthly repayments and its staff faced redundancy;
• The abolition of the 10% tax band which was effectively a wage cut for the low-paid, followed by the unseemly parliamentary bartering to buy off Labour MPs when they threatened to vote against the government;
• The dramatic rises in food and fuel prices over the past year which have disproportionately affected the working class and worsened inequality;
• The failure to build more than a handful of council houses, coupled with a limited social housing programme, forcing people into sub-
standard private rented accommodation or to take out mortgages they can now no longer afford;
• The lies that were told to support the invasion of Iraq, the conduct of its occupation and the war in Afghanistan and the totally bogus war on terror;
• The media and government-fuelled perception that immigration is out of control and that this is the source of housing and job shortages.

In 1997, Labour was able to assemble an electoral coalition of its traditional working class support, its privileged layers and the middle class disenchanted with the Tories. The corporate and banking interests in the City were won by an assurance that a Labour government would guarantee its interests. By 2005, this coalition had started to fray considerably around the edges: Labour’s share of the vote had fallen to 36%, or to a mere 22% of the electorate as a whole. Turnout at 61% was higher than in 2001, but below the 71% of 1997. With fewer than 10 million votes in 2005, Labour had lost the support of 3.5 million voters in the intervening eight years. The losses had been particular severe amongst social group C1 voters (professional, lower management and clerical): in 1997, 47% of those voting supported Labour, in 2005 this had fallen to 32% as against 36% for the Tories. Amongst C2s (skilled manual workers) there had been a smaller but still significant fall, from 54% to 40%, but this still exceeded support for the Tories, 33%.

Now that recession looms, the middle class and better-off sections of the working class are abandoning Labour because they blame the government for the housing crisis and their uncertain future. Meanwhile, the mass of the working class are deserting Labour because of rising food prices, the abolition of the 10% tax band, and continuing inequality which will now be exacerbated by rising unemployment. On top of this, corporate and banking capital is becoming disillusioned with Labour’s mismanagement of the economy, and is starting to move behind the Tories. Whilst Labour will seek to avoid a general election for as long as possible, its hand may be forced as the economic crisis becomes uncontrollable. In those circumstances no socialist can give it any support.

However, as always happens when Labour faces a crisis, the left rides to its rescue. Tony Woodley, Joint General Secretary of the Unite union, argues that ‘The Labour party, the first major socialist party to embrace neo-liberalism, now has to let go of it to have any future...Only in Britain is the centre-left still hobbled by a timid leadership that believes the market can do no wrong, that a widening wealth gap is a matter of indifference, and that state intervention and regulation are dirty words. These ideological blinkers need to be discarded before Labour charges over an electoral cliff.’ (The Guardian, 25 July 2008). He urges the adoption of ‘old Labour’ measures such as stopping NHS privatisation and ending university tuition fees.

Woodley is not alone. Worried by Labour’s local election prospects, left MP John McDonnell issued a 10-point May Day manifesto to ‘win back the support of our people’. The ten points include calls to end privatisation, raise taxes on the rich, increase pensions and introduce a trade union freedom bill, but nothing is said about racism, repression, or the occupations of Afghanistan or Iraq. The majority of the left outside of the Labour Party has endorsed these points, Respect Renewal, the SWP and its Left Alternative amongst them. But how can you remain a socialist and seek the rescue of the racist, imperialist Labour Party? Left MP Jeremy Corbyn may condemn Purnell’s workfare proposals as ‘against the principles of the welfare state’, but why are his principles so elastic that he continues to be a member of a party which is a byword for total reaction? We can ask the same thing of John McDonnell: if he can describe the proposals correctly as a ‘moral disgrace’, why is it then not a ‘moral disgrace’ for him to continue in the same party as Purnell? He describes the introduction of 42-days detention as drawing ‘a line in the sand’, but where has he drawn his own ‘line in the sand’? When will he leave the Labour Party?

Socialists cannot give these Labour lefts the blank cheque they get from the likes of Respect or the SWP. Where are the demands on these MPs to stick by their principles, leave this reactionary party and build a new opposition to it? Recently, SWP leader John Rees articulated the left’s fears when he attacked those in the trade union leadership who want to suppress criticism of the Labour government for fear of helping the Tories:

‘The problem with this approach is that it demobilises the very people upon whom a Labour government must depend for its support – trade unionists, anti-war campaigners, anti-racists and the tens of thousands who are fighting to defend the welfare state. Rather than rescue the government this strategy further undermines it and makes the situation worse.’

But far from getting trade unionists, anti-war campaigners, anti-racists and the thousands who are fighting to defend the welfare state to come to the rescue of the Labour government, socialists should be organising amongst them to do quite the opposite. Socialists should not have endorsed Ken Livingstone; they should not still be issuing coded calls to vote Labour against the BNP. They should not be spreading the illusion that the way forward for the working class is in alliance with the ever-diminishing Labour left.

Instead, they should be saying that the McDonnells, Corbyns and Benns of this world have had too many chances to draw their lines in the sand, and that they are part of the problem, not the solution. They should be shouting from the rooftops that there can be no effective working class resistance unless it breaks completely and unconditionally from the Labour Party.

FRFI 204 August / September 2008

 

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