Labour: one tweet away from a crisis

The reaction to a tweet sent on 19 November by the former shadow Attorney General Emily Thornberry on the day before the Rochester and Strood by-election demonstrates the crisis facing the Labour Party. Committed to austerity and the interests of the City of London, Labour is as much a ruling class party as either the Tories or the LibDems. It cannot represent the mass of the working class: the abject implementation by Labour councils of a fifth round of local council service cuts proves that its loyalties lie with the maintenance of a decaying and rotten capitalist system. Its fear of upsetting the ruling class is so great that it will not commit to undoing these cuts if it wins the 2015 general election, nor will it restore lost NHS funding or end the PFI contracts that ruin its finances, or even take the very elementary and massively popular step of renationalising the railways.

The Thornberry tweet, a photograph of a Strood house draped with three St George’s flags and with a white van parked outside, was deemed to be ‘disrespectful’ by leader Ed Miliband, adding ‘This is a party that was founded for working people, this is a party that I strive every day to make the party of working people. That’s why I was angry, that’s why it is right she has gone.’ Thornberry had resigned after refusing to apologise for sending the tweet: Miliband later said ‘It’s not the view we have of that family. Labour’s never had that view of disrespect and I’m afraid her tweet conveyed a sense of disrespect – that’s not my view, that’s not Labour’s view, it’s wrong, it never will be our view and that’s why I think it was right she resigned.’

The issue was never about the tweet itself but the crisis engulfing the Labour Party in general. Only days beforehand up to 20 Shadow Cabinet members were believed to be prepared to support a bid by arch-Blairite Alan Johnson to challenge Miliband for the leadership. Johnson declined to stand. Miliband lost further credibility when in a live interview he proved unable to defend Labour’s proposed Mansion Tax against minor celebrity Myleene Klass’s absurd claim that £2m would not buy a garage in London. Latest opinion polls put the Labour Party just three points ahead of the Tories at 33%. With the possible haemorrhaging of Labour seats in Scotland to the SNP at the general election, Labour MPs are panicking. Its support at the Rochester by-election plummeted by 11.7 percentage points to 16.8%. Although it retained its seat at the earlier Heywood and Middleton by-election on 9 October, UKIP came within 2.2% of the Labour vote.

Labour can only win a general election outright if it assembles a broad enough electoral coalition. The votes it can get from the mass of the working class are insufficient: it has to maximise the electoral support of sections of the middle class and of the better-off sections of the working class, especially those threatened with proletarianisation. Such votes are vital in the so-called swing constituencies. Labour cannot offer such sections anything of real progressive significance: to do so would be to breach its backing for continued cuts in state spending and forfeit the support of the ruling class. Hence it chases after the support of these better-off sections with proposals for further reactionary attacks on migrant workers (see front page) and state welfare. These layers in their majority regard state welfare as too generous and too easy to obtain.

Leading the charge on state welfare is Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Rachel Reeves, one of several Labour Shadow Cabinet MPs who receives sponsored support from accountants PricewaterhouseCoopers which has been exposed as organising tax avoidance schemes on an industrial scale. The stated aim is to make welfare benefits more conditional on national insurance contributions (NICs). The first step is to strip JSA entitlement from 100,000 18-21 year-olds who do not have Level 3 NVQ qualifications, and to lengthen the qualification period for higher rate JSA from two to five years of NICs. In practice this means that those most likely to need higher-rate JSA in the past – those working in casualised conditions – will no longer be entitled to it.

Labour will also continue with existing workfare policies and add a new one: 18 to 24-year-olds out of work for a year will be offered a state-funded job for six months – with those who refuse losing benefits. Claimants will have to work at least 25 hours a week on the minimum wage. It will be no more than a subsidy for poverty-pay companies. Benefit sanctions will remain in place although Reeves says Labour will abolish the system of unofficial Jobcentre targets. Labour will abolish the bedroom tax, but, its support for the overall benefit cap remains unchanged, as does its support for an overall cap on state welfare spending; there is no proposal to undo any of the Coalition caps on housing benefit levels.

The problem for Labour is that as it panders to the backwardness of these better-off layers so it has to intensify its attacks on the mass of the working class. Its refusal to offer even a shred of resistance to the appalling service and job cuts in Labour-run councils will lose it any support from those experiencing the brunt of such cuts, as they hear once again the litany of excuses from Labour councillors for what they are doing. Scotland shows the political frailty of the Labour Party at the moment: it will continue to remain one tweet away from another crisis.
Robert Clough

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 242 December 2014/January 2015


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