Expect broken promises

Enough is Enough will not deliver a new workers’ party. On the contrary it will enhance the career prospects of the likes of Andy Burnham and return masses of angry people to the Labour fold, argues James Harvey

The cost of living crisis and the impending hike in energy bills have not only exposed the nature of contemporary capitalism; they also reveal the utter bankruptcy of both bourgeois politicians and what passes for much of the left.

The Tory leadership contest is staggering towards its final phases as a Thatcherite Dutch auction of even more tax cuts, reduced public spending and unspecified future ‘action’ to tackle the energy crisis and soaring inflation. These appeals to the certainties of the 1980s are obviously calculated to strike a chord with the middle-aged and elderly Tory selectorate and it is unlikely that any promises made now will withstand contact with reality when the new leader (almost certainly Truss) gets into No10. Indeed, given the way that Johnson’s government ripped up the economics textbooks with its Covid socialism, we cannot rule out that something similar might be done to deal with the energy crisis.

The precedents for state intervention and direct controls, even nationalisation, implemented by Tory governments are certainly there: if the crisis is severe and threatening enough, a capitalist state will take whatever action is necessary to preserve the basic integrity of the whole system, whatever the cost to particular sectors or individual capitalists. So, given the importance of energy supplies for the economy and indeed for the whole of society, it would be unwise to take the election pitches of the two Tory leadership contenders as the final word. If a drastic shift in policy and the abandonment of economic orthodoxy is needed, we can be sure that a capitalist government will do it.

If the main capitalist party can take bold action in defence of its system, there are no such dramatic promises from British capitalism’s current ‘second eleven’ - the Labour Party under its pro-capitalist leadership. Sir Keir’s twin-track strategy is one of proving to two audiences that he is a safe and, above all, reliable pair of hands - in contrast to the proven chaos and incompetence of Boris Johnson, or the fresh uncertainties of either a Liz Truss or Rishi Sunak premiership. Starmer’s war on the Labour left and his faithful tailing of the USA and “the western alliance” is an important part of his reassurance to both British and international capitalism that it is business as usual at the top of the Labour Party after the scares of the Corbyn years.

In electoral terms Starmer’s timid parliamentarism and triangulation are directed towards another less tangible, but nevertheless very real, audience for Labour politicians: namely ‘middle England’ - ‘Mondeo Man’, ‘Worcester Woman’, ‘the squeezed middle’- call them what you will. Thus, Starmer’s strategy is to make no radical commitments beyond fiddling with the energy price cap and other cosmetic changes to the current system of regulation.1 As the energy crisis has developed over the summer, the Labour leadership’s focus has remained on the incompetence and the stasis at the heart of government, rather than any fundamental critique of how the system operates.

None of this should come as a surprise. It goes without saying that Starmer’s position on the strike wave, the cost of living crisis and rising energy bills is roundly condemned on the left. Slagging off Starmer is the easy part. But it is how we analyse the reasons for the Labour leadership’s timid, pro-capitalist politics and the alternative that we pose that are the most revealing about the current state of the left.

Official left

Take the Morning Star, the paper of the Communist Party of Britain, for instance. Traditionally, the paper has enjoyed a deal of influence over the official Labour left and the trade union bureaucracy, so its political reach goes beyond the ranks of the CPB. The paper has continually attacked the current Labour leadership and bemoaned how Starmer has frequently wasted opportunities to take the attack to the Tories. Thus, it laments how, during a period of rising anger over energy bills and the huge profits of the big providers, “Labour misses the open goal of calling for nationalisation” and even risks being outflanked from the left by the new Tory prime minister!2

The Morning Star’s editor writes more in sorrow than in anger and, like a candid friend, offers advice to Starmer about how to improve Labour’s electoral prospects. If you accept the premises of bourgeois electoral politics it is not a bad pitch - be more radical and reflect the popular moods of anger and demands for action, the friend suggests. The problem is that this is not a communist position.

For all its denunciations of Starmer’s failures, the CPB’s critique is one of degree, not fundamentals. Its strategy for achieving socialism remains its programme, Britain’s road to socialism - a series of Labour and left Labour governments utilising the bourgeois state as an essentially neutral instrument, backed by a broad anti-monopoly alliance, to build socialism in one country.3 With some variations, this parliamentary road was also the strategy of the Corbyn leadership and it continues to be dominant on the Labour left, both amongst those who remain inside Labour and those in the ranks of the expelled.

The immediate tactical implications of this strategy are the CPB’s and official Labour left’s focus on the absolute priority of electing a Labour government. This has meant throughout Labour’s history that the left has made endless concessions to the openly pro-capitalist Labour right in the interests of ‘unity’, rooted in the absolute imperative that the party must remain intact, because a Labour government is supposed to be the key instrument for advancing the cause of socialism. The major error that both the CPB and the official Labour left make is to ignore the contradictory nature of Labour as a bourgeois workers’ party: that is, while the leadership is structurally part of the capitalist class and its state, the party is also rooted in the organised working class through the trade unions. As such Labour will reflect the class struggle and will spontaneously reproduce a left wing. However, without a strong, hegemonic Communist Party acting as a political and ideological pole of attraction in opposition to Labourism, the historical experience of the Labour left, no matter how radical it sees itself, has been that it is structurally bound to Labourism and thus remains politically imprisoned by capitalism.

If the left does not fundamentally break with Labourism it will simply repeat all the mistakes and the defeats of the past. Corbyn’s endless concessions to the right and his political retreats in the face of capitalist pressure was no mere personal failing: rather it reflects the nature and historical trajectory of left reformism in its political rapprochement with capitalism and its agents in the Labour bureaucracy.

Which brings us back to Starmer. If he wins the next election, his government will probably be the most rightwing Labour government in history … and, beforehand, that is what might well recommend Sir Keir to a swathe of capitalist opinion. Who, so the reasoning will go, is better placed to deal with the wave of strikes and militant protests: Liz Truss or Sir Keir? Truss promises confrontation and more draconian legislation. In the midst of an energy crisis, soaring inflation and a tight labour market, that would be high risk. On the other hand, Sir Keir promises negotiations and measures necessary to ameliorate the situation. The establishment, big business and sections of the media could well swing behind Sir Keir and his patriotic Blue Labour project (not least with finances).

The class struggle is gathering pace and is resulting in a wave of strikes and militant threats by trade union leaders. While leaders such as Mick Lynch and Sharon Graham have put some considerable distance between themselves and the current Labour leadership, it is highly unlikely that they will pin their flag to a new workers’ party. Politically the likes of Lynch and Graham owe far more to narrow trade unionism than any kind of socialism. Their focus is on wages and workplace conditions, not the constitution, forming governments and high politics.

This makes them vulnerable if, and it is a big ‘if’, prime minister Truss plays the ‘Ukraine’ card and declares a state of emergency which not only bans strikes, but imposes a lower price cap on gas and electricity prices, brings back rent controls, introduces some kind of rationing system and, instead of cutting taxes for the rich, raises their taxes. All done, of course, in the name of defending the nation, resisting Putin’s economic war on the west and standing up for plucky little Ukraine.

This brings us to the limits of Enough is Enough. Fronted by the RMT’s Mick Lynch and Eddy Dempsey, along with Dave Ward (CWU), Labour’s Greater Manchester mayor, Andy Burnham and Labour left MP, Zarah Sultana, its five demands are limited, but thoroughly unobjectable: 1. A real wage rise; 2. Slash energy bills; 3. End food poverty; 4. Decent homes for all; 5. Tax the rich. Only the most hopeless sectarian would stand aloof. Already over 500,000 have signed up.

However, to imagine that such a top-down, lowest common denominator campaign represents a new dawn, a step in the direction of breaking with the Labour Party, that would be foolish in the extreme. On the contrary, Enough is Enough will deliver masses of people into the hands of the Labour Party, albeit with the hope that Sir Keir can be replaced at some point by Andy Burnham - a consummate New Labour careerist under Tony Blair and then Gordon Brown, who is now busily reinventing himself as the leader of the acceptable Labour Party left.

Of course Sir Keir might have plans up his sleave which would scupper all such schemes. He could seek to deLabourise Labour in the manner Blair sought to do but couldn’t, ie, break the trade union link. However, for the moment at least, that seems unlikely.

Let’s see what he has to say at this month’s TUC Congress in Brighton … and let’s see what sort of reception he gets. He might be calculating on triggering boos and heckles from the conference floor in order to please and reassure his capitalist masters. We shall see.

  1. www.theguardian.com/business/2022/aug/13/keir-starmer-demands-ban-on-raising-energy-prices.↩︎

  2. morningstaronline.co.uk/article/e/labour-misses-open-goal-calling-nationalisation.↩︎

  3. www.communistparty.org.uk/brs-study-guide.↩︎