Created: Sunday, 11 June 2017 15:24
Written by Robert Clough
The result of the 2017 general election, a hung parliament, is a nightmare for the ruling class. It follows the disastrous outcome of the 2016 Brexit referendum to which its dominant sections were completely opposed. Now Brexit negotiations will start on 19 June without any clear direction. Even though Prime Minister May has announced she has made a deal with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in the north of Ireland to form a new government, its majority will be so slender that it cannot be the ‘strong and stable’ administration she promised. It will be government by the walking wounded, and even so, the result brings nothing positive for the working class. ROBERT CLOUGH reports.
That the supposedly anti-austerity Labour Party did not get a majority partly reflects the fact that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and his social democratic supporters have ensured that no movement of effective working class resistance has emerged despite seven years of savage austerity. Corbyn’s priority has been to ensure that Labour holds together as a credible electoral force, and this means making political concessions to maintain unity. While many young people gave him enthusiastic support, the nature of electoral politics means that apart from voting for Labour, their relationship to the political process was entirely passive. In contrast, the principle task facing socialists and communists is to build an active movement of the working class out on the streets and in working class communities.
Make June the end of May
Ever since May opportunistically called the election to give her a whiphand in dealing with splits within the Conservative Party, opinion polls put her consistently in the lead and many predicted a landslide. That lead was steadily eroded throughout the six-week campaign as Labour started to win back support among aspiring sections of the working class and the middle class. By the day of the election, the Tory lead was reduced to 2.5%. The Tories lost 13 seats despite a swing in their favour of 5.5%. In 2015, the Tories polled 11.3 million votes; in 2017 they increased this to 13.65 million as the UKIP vote collapsed from 3.9 million votes (12.9%) in 2015 to just under 600,000 (1.85%). Labour’s share of the ballot however rose by 9.5% to 40% as its vote increased from 9.35 million in 2015 to 12.85 million in 2017.
Among the Tories to lose their seats were two health ministers, David Mowat and Nicola Blackwood, and Ben Gummer, who advised on the Tory manifesto. Home Secretary Amber Rudd only just managed to hold on to Hastings with a majority slashed from nearly 5,000 to 346.
May pitched her election campaign almost entirely on her self-proclaimed ability to provide ‘strong and stable’ leadership in the Brexit negotiations, with a plan whose content she decided she could not divulge. Campaign literature almost completely excluded mention of the Conservative Party; cabinet members played a peripheral role. She had hardly any engagement with ordinary members of the public: her televised ‘events’ were carefully choreographed and almost always held in front of audiences of selected Tories. The shameless and unending repetition of ‘strong and stable’ made her a laughing stock especially when she performed a U-turn over the so-called dementia tax and then denied she had done so. Her dire performance has reopened the divisions in the Tory party and will cost her the leadership: the ruling class will not trust her to lead Brexit negotiations.
Corbyn’s political concessions
Throughout the election campaign, Corbyn showed he was more than willing to make political concessions in order to improve his chances. The Labour election manifesto declared Labour’s commitment to Trident renewal, to the NATO alliance and to maintaining defence spending at or above 2% of GDP. It called for 10,000 extra police, 3,000 extra prison officers and 500 extra border guards to enforce immigration laws, and repeated the long-standing Labour mantra ‘to be tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime’. A commitment to think very seriously before using weapons of mass destruction included in an early draft of the manifesto was dropped. All this was to reassure the ruling class that Labour in power would defend British imperialism’s worldwide interests.
Within this reactionary, pro-imperialist framework, the manifesto, with its appeal to younger people, was far from being the radical document praised to the skies by the left:
• On education, while there was an implication that Local Education Authorities would have some powers restored, there was no commitment to end the enormous private sector involvement in education provision.
• On health, promises that the NHS would be safe in Labour’s hands proved at best disingenuous. Analysing the figures Labour provided, the Institute of Fiscal Studies calculated that its promised £12bn extra by 2022/23 was equivalent to an annual increase of 2% over the lifetime of the parliament, half the generally accepted level of NHS inflation when the pressure of both a growing and an ageing population is taken into account.
• On state benefits, the manifesto maintained an unspoken distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor. Thus benefit cuts for disabled people would be reversed and the punitive elements in the regime ended. It would also end the bedroom tax, two-thirds of whose victims are people with disabilities. But there were no promises for others who are out of work: no mention of the overall benefit cap which is already resulting in evictions of whole families, or ending the freeze on working age benefits.
• On housing, often repeated claims that Labour would build half a million new homes for social rent were an exaggeration. All the manifesto promised was that ‘By the end of the next Parliament we will be building at least 100,000 council and housing association homes a year for genuinely affordable rent or sale.’
• On nationalisation, the promises were especially modest given the hype: railway franchises would be allowed to run their course before being taken over by the government, no more than was promised by former leader Ed Miliband in 2015.
• On local government, among the generalities about providing adequate support, there were no commitments to restore lost funding, nor to end the Tory plan to finance council spending from council tax and local business rates alone.
To support his declaration that ‘the first duty of any government is to keep its citizens safe, and this will be my number one priority as prime minister’, Corbyn promised: ‘Labour will meet all our obligations to our NATO allies, including military action as a last resort.’ This meant that ‘We will invest properly in our police service, we will invest properly in our armed services, the numbers in the armed services have gone down, the navy are crying out for more ships, the air force are crying out for more surveillance aircraft. We would fund them properly to achieve all of that.’ This was the voice of Labour imperialism; and if Corbyn was occasionally not on-message, his shadow cabinet colleagues were there to put him right – Shadow Defence Secretary Nia Griffith saying of Trident ‘We are prepared to use it, and I’m certainly prepared to use it’ and Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry explicitly ruling out a total ban on the export of arms to Saudi Arabia.
The parliamentary delusions of the left
Throughout the campaign Corbyn was able to attract large and enthusiastic crowds at his rallies who wanted to see change. But his most determined and uncritical supporters were drawn from the social democratic organisations outside the Labour Party such as the Morning Star, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and the Socialist Party (SP). Recasting some very modest reforms in the Labour manifesto as a step in a socialist direction, they peddled the illusion that parliament would somehow dish out benefits to the working class rather than address the interests of British imperialism. Socialist Worker’s front page on the eve of the election implored us to ‘Back Corbyn – Vote Labour’. A Socialist Worker assertion that ‘Corbyn showed that, if you confidently put forward left-wing ideas, you can get an audience’ followed a claim that the manifesto ‘was a radical shift from the “austerity-lite” that Labour has offered in recent years’. The SP was no different, urging Corbyn ‘to make sure that the message of “for the many, not the few” and the left-wing manifesto pledges are heard by everyone’ (The Socialist, 24 May); its slogan of ‘Corbyn in – Tories out’ was as politically empty as that of the SWP. The absurdity is that in supporting Corbyn they wanted to vote for Labour candidates, 80% of whom wish to get rid of Corbyn.
We are now entering a period of political turbulence. Brexit negotiations start on 19 June; on the European side they will be driven by the imperialist interests of Germany and France and they will not want to make any concessions. Far from it; they will want to displace the City of London as the financial centre of Europe. They will be unimpressed by May’s soundbite that no deal is better than a bad deal – no deal will be a bad deal and a disaster for British imperialism. Already Brexit is having an economic impact: GDP growth was down to 0.2% in the first quarter of this year, the lowest of the G7 economies, and wages fell by 0.2% over the period as inflation climbed to 2.7%. A Brexit bill of between €60bn-100bn is on the cards; worse will undoubtedly come as negotiations proceed.
Tory splits open up
Inevitably the Tories are now fighting like ferrets in a bag. John Major gambled on the EU and lost. David Cameron gambled on the EU and lost. Now May has followed suit. The Daily Mail and The Sun were quick to turn on her for the shambles. The knives are out for leading eurosceptic and Brexit Secretary David Davis, with one minister blaming him in the Daily Telegraph for the debacle since he had advised May to call the election. Other unnamed eurosceptic ‘senior Tories’ are warning against any softening of Brexit: they are alarmed by an alliance with the DUP which is opposed to a hard border with the Twenty-Six Counties of Ireland since it would be ruinous for the Six-County statelet economy. Endorsed by loyalist paramilitary organisations, the DUP is anti-abortion, anti-gay rights and leader Arlene Foster is mired in the £500m Renewable Heat Incentive scandal.
However long the Tory-DUP government lasts, austerity will continue. Council services and jobs will be slashed. Precarious working conditions will become more pervasive; wages will fall further. Working age benefits will remain frozen, thousands of families will be made homeless by the Bedroom Tax and the reduced overall benefit cap. There will be no relief for the NHS and social care funding crises. Poverty within the working class will become deeper and more extensive and will hit sections of the middle class as they experience proletarianisation. Resistance will be branded as extremism and subject to increasing criminalisation.
Build a class struggle movement
No election can change the fact that millions of working class people still face a desperate future. They have no organisation to represent their interests. Labour-run councils in the major cities will continue slashing jobs and services to ensure that they remain within their budgets. They will continue pleading that they have no choice, and continue to urge us to wait for the future election of a Labour government.
Far from stopping austerity, Corbyn and his social democratic supporters will continue to obstruct or stifle any challenge to the ruling class. Their commitment to parliamentary politics requires only that their supporters turn up on occasion to fill in a ballot form. Anything beyond this represents a threat, something that may spin out of their control. For the young people who are enthusiastically supporting Corbyn’s programme, Labour’s failure to honour its promises risks driving them away from political involvement. In contrast, socialists and communists want to build a movement that is active, that is out on the streets, defending the NHS and education, campaigning for decent housing, fighting evictions and council cuts, challenging racism and war. The passivity that accompanies electoral politics is the opposite of what the working class needs. Those who want to achieve change have to get active and build a movement which is committed to class struggle. The RCG is committed to this aim – join us today.