Created: Tuesday, 14 April 2015 13:27
Written by Robert Clough
The purpose of a general election is to allow the ruling class to select the government that will best represent its interests, and at the same time to perpetuate the illusion that we live in a democracy which is capable of benefitting the working class. Yet it is evident that the major parties, the Tories, the LibDems, Labour and the SNP, will run the economy in the interests of British imperialism and the City of London, and that whatever combination forms the next government, it will ensure the working class continues to pay for the crisis. Those who claim to stand on an anti-austerity platform are lending credibility to a fraudulent process. There is no possibility of a positive outcome for the working class: the election is a distraction from the real task of defeating the ruling class offensive. Robert Clough reports.
The Tories have set out their stall:
- further cuts in state spending which will involve reductions of 25% for unprotected departments such as local government;
- proposals for a savage £12bn reduction in working-age state benefits which will include a continued freeze on up-rating benefits, continuation of the bedroom tax and reducing the overall benefit cap from £26,000 a year to £23,000;
- real-term cuts in NHS spending with further fragmentation and privatisation of its services;
- repeal of the Human Rights Act;
- more anti-trade union legislation one aim of which will be to outlaw strikes which do not have 50% support from the workforce involved – a requirement which could leave Parliament without a single MP if it were enacted for the general election.
Tax cuts will be on offer for the better-off, as will financial support for housebuyers, together with bribes for pensioners to buy their homes or cash in their annuities.
Labour’s five pledges
At the top of Labour’s list of five pledges for the general election is a commitment to a ‘strong economic foundation’. That involves a commitment to the Coalition’s spending plans for 2015/16 which include the latest round of council cuts. It also means that it will not roll back any of the cuts of the last five years. Its other pledges are:
- Higher living standards for working people, a commitment which excludes those who are out of work or public sector workers who will still be subject to a wage freeze. This boils down to raising the minimum wage to a miserable £8 an hour – but only by the end of the parliament – and ending ‘exploitative’ zero hours contracts when all zero hours contracts are exploitative. A proposal to provide 25 hours free childcare for three and four-year-old children is a very limited extension of the current provision of 15 hours childcare, and is dependent on raising sufficient money from a bank levy.
- An NHS with time to care – but with pointedly no commitment to meet the £8bn funding gap identified by the Stevens Report (see p5).
- Controls on immigration – to ensure it does not lose the racist vote to UKIP it wants to ban migrant workers from receiving benefits for two years rather than the current three months. Labour election leaflets speak of ‘Labour’s tough new approach to immigration’, claiming that ‘The Tories have lost control of our borders’ and pledging to bring in 1,000 extra border staff and introduce ‘fingerprint checks to clamp down on illegal immigrants’. In a nakedly racist side-swipe the leaflets also say that ‘People who rely on public services have a right to expect that staff like nurses and care workers can speak English. That is why Labour will make sure that all frontline public sector staff can speak English’ – as if that was not part of any recruitment process.
- A country where the next generation can do better than the last – which boils down to cutting student fees to £6,000 a year, still double that set by the last Labour government, and creating 80,000 apprenticeships by 2020.
Labour: ‘aggressively pro-business’
At best only crumbs are on offer, but the Labour leadership has bigger fish to fry. Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls has spoken of his determination ‘that the City of London remains one of the world’s most successful financial centres’, and has sought to reassure City of London leaders by telling them in February that ‘you might hear anti-City sentiment from Ed Miliband but you’ll never hear it from me.’ According to the Financial Times (3 February 2015) ‘A number of senior figures express confidence in private that the likes of Mr Balls and Mr Umunna [Shadow Business Secretary] understand the importance of the City in terms of jobs and tax revenue.’ More crudely, Shadow Education Secretary Tristram Hunt, in dismissing Tory claims that Labour is anti-business, has said ‘I’m enormously enthusiastic about businessmen and women making money, about delivering shareholder return, about making a profit ... We are a furiously, passionately, aggressively pro-business party.’
Claimants not wanted
It is certainly not a furiously, passionately, aggressively pro-state welfare party. The repeal of the bedroom tax is a concession that Labour can afford to make because the tax is unworkable, but this will not herald any change in its punitive attitude towards state welfare. As Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Rachel Reeves told The Guardian (17 March 2015): ‘We are not the party of people on benefits. We don’t want to be seen, and we’re not, the party to represent those out of work.’ Emphasising her support for benefit sanctions, she said that under a Labour government, ‘There will still be sanctions. If it is clear that someone is deliberately trying to avoid work then they shouldn’t be getting benefits.’
Pandering to the prejudice that the unemployed are unemployed because they are work-shy is seen by Labour as a vote-winner. It underpins a commitment to workfare represented by its Compulsory Job Guarantee whereby anyone over 25 who has been out of work for more than two years will have to take a job working 25 hours a week on the minimum wage or lose their benefits. On top of this they will have to undergo 10 hours a week unpaid ‘training and development’. Under-25s will be forced into work after one year. The employer will not have to pay anything as the government will bear the cost. Given that most of the jobs will be unskilled, the 10 hours of unpaid training will turn into 10 hours of unpaid work and the claimant will end up being paid less than the minimum wage. It will allow employers to undermine working conditions even further. Reeves says the Guarantee ‘is in stark contrast to the current rules which allow unemployed people to spend a lifetime claiming JSA without being offered or required to take a day’s paid work.’ Reeves thinks ‘shirker’ even if she never uses the term.
Fewer houses than the 1930s
With housing campaigns in London making the headlines, Labour will try to make something of its pledge to build 200,000 houses a year although this is only a target to be met by 2020. It is way short of the estimated 250,000 houses a year required to meet current demand and does not include any commitment to a council house building programme. Shadow Housing Minister Jack Dromey has ruled out ending Right to Buy which will further reduce council housing stock. And to put the pledge in a historical context: during the 1930s there was only one year when fewer than 200,000 houses were built (1931, 185,000); the annual average for the decade was over 300,000. With increasing housing shortages Labour’s proposed rent controls will have no effect – in conditions where demand continues to outstrip supply, private landlords will continue to have the whip hand.
However vindictive and brutal Tory election proposals for the working class are, Labour is equally determined to defend a system which leeches off the rest of the world and which cannot meet the basic needs of ordinary people. The ruling class will continue to call the shots regardless of the outcome of this general election. The call ‘kick out the Tories’ has one purpose: to sow illusions in Labour and in parliamentary politics. It will not put an end to five years of capitulation. That requires people organised in campaigns of direct action outside the official Labour and trade union movement. The housing campaigns in London are showing the way: our job is to build on their achievements.
Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 244 April/May 2015