Bleak expectations

With Rishi Sunak probably having little chance of winning the next election and Keir Starmer waiting in the wings, we should expect Austerity 3.0, writes Eddie Ford

It is now very likely that the UK will officially enter a recession when the next set of figures are published in three months’ time. According to the Office for National Statistics, the economy shrank by 0.2% between July and September, as households and businesses struggled with soaring inflation. Forecasts show that the economy will probably continue to contract in the last few months of this year. As for the Bank of England, it is expecting a prolonged UK recession that will last until the end of 2023.

Of course, we have Jeremy Hunt’s financial statement this week, where he is expected to present his “eye-wateringly difficult” choices, after being told by the Office for Budget Responsibility that the UK’s public finances have deteriorated by £70 billion since March, with a budget deficit of £31.6 billion forecast in 2026-27 (I am writing the day before his statement is due - a dangerous business). We are told to expect Austerity 2.0.

In view of all this, we should expect the current strike wave to continue - the Royal College of Nursing has just voted for strike action across most of the country, for example, and industrial action is now expected to begin before the end of this year. The RMT has called off various strikes earlier this month to allow negotiations with Network Rail and train companies, but now the members have voted again - this time with over 90% in favour. Similarly, members of the CWU, which suspended its action last week following a legal challenge by Royal Mail, are due to take part in three days of strikes before the end of November. And now firefighters are to vote on whether to go on strike after a 5% pay offer was rejected.

There is bound to be resistance when workers are being offered pay rises of between 2% to 5%, while inflation officially stands at 11.1% - on the back of energy price rises, despite the supposed price cap guarantee. Food price inflation has just hit 16.2% - up from 14.5% in September. In other words, workers are expected to accept what in reality is a vicious pay cut.

Yes, we have had pay restraint for a long time, but that did not matter quite so much when inflation was very low. But what workers are undergoing now are very substantial cuts to their living standards, with even teachers and nurses now using food banks - an outrageous situation. Therefore we should expect the working class to keep fighting back. The government is desperately trying to hold the line - meaning it is a question of who gives in first.

Except for extraordinary developments, it is impossible to see Rishi Sunak not losing the next general election. There is no magic way out, as both the economics, and - more crucially - the politics, do not add up. I am not saying this merely because a whole string of opinion polls give Labour a record lead. Rather, it is more a case of the government running out of ideas - exemplified by a new chancellor coming in who repudiates all the ideas of his predecessor, and Tory prime ministers coming and going like buses.

Every indication so far points towards a Labour victory when the election is called in a couple of years time. Once again, at the risk of sounding obsessive, those on the left who told us that Sir Keir Starmer does not really want to become prime minister - he is far more interested in attacking the left, apparently - gave us a textbook example of delusional politics. Of course, the attacks on the left continue - eg, barring potentially troublesome leftwingers from long lists of parliamentary candidates, or just kicking out Labour members deemed to be off-message. But the fundamental point is that Sir Keir has much larger ambitions.

There is no doubt that under Starmer we will see the most rightwing Labour government ever. Sure, previous Labour administrations have been led by rightwingers, but we also had the phenomenon of a minority of those who identified as left sitting around the cabinet table. For example, Tony Blair’s deputy prime minister, John Prescott, provided a useful service because he would come out with leftwing-sounding statements, thus helping to keep the unions on board. There were other ministers from the soft left too: eg, Michael Meacher and Clare Short.

But, if you look around Starmer’s shadow cabinet, can you find a leftwinger? There is Angela Rayner. She did, after all, once share a flat with Rebecca Long-Bailey and is reported to be personally close to Sam Tarry. Politically, however, she is in Labour terms an ambitious mainstreamer who uses her working class origins as a badge of honour. By any reasonable assumption, what remains of the left in the Parliamentary Labour Party will be further reduced in 2024 - even if Labour gets a large majority, which is more than possible. Indeed, the larger the majority, arguably the less important the left becomes. Does anyone seriously think that Starmer is going to ask someone like John McDonnell or Richard Burgon to join the cabinet? That could happen if the tempo of the class struggle increased substantially, but as things stand now it looks highly unlikely.


When it comes to the Labour left, however, we should be careful not to write it off altogether. It does have the potential to renew itself - the current union struggles add to that possibility. On the other hand, it is also possible that the Labour left might further wither and eventually die. Ultimately, it is an open-ended question - there is no law which says that the Labour left must revive.

Looking at a weakened Tory Party, a lot of comrades on the left are raising the demand for an immediate general election. They especially concentrate on the fact that Rishi Sunak took over after a coronation and Liz Truss got the top job by securing a majority of the party rank and file - even if she only lasted for a few weeks. It is worthwhile pointing out that some comrades have been calling for a general election since 2010. But subsequently we have had three - one of which went disastrously wrong for Theresa May in 2017, when she brilliantly lost the Tory majority, and another, in December 2019, which went swimmingly well for Boris Johnson.

But the excitable leftwing placards demanding the ousting of May, Johnson, Truss, etc, beg an obvious question. For example, when it came to replacing David Cameron, who would do the job? As the Weekly Worker said at the time, it was either going to be May, Johnson or Gove. It was not going to be a leftwing firebrand heading a workers’ government, that is for sure. But just imagine for a moment that, by magic, we could dump Sunak, then we would very likely end up with Sir Keir. True, many comrades are committed to the theory of spontaneity. That is, a strike leads to a general strike which leads to an insurrection, and so on. If such an improbable scenario were to occur in the absence of a powerful Marxist party, then we would actually be setting ourselves up for slaughter, not state power.

Naturally, we see contorted attempts to excuse this perspective. There are those on the left who, admitting that if a general election were called today it would result in a Starmer government, then invite us to believe that he would somehow be easier to pressurise. But there is no iron law which decrees that Labour governments are more likely to accede to working class demands than Tory ones. If you are old enough to remember Ted Heath’s anti-trade union laws, that Tory government was possible to pressurise because the working class movement in the 1970s was organisationally strong. But then we got a Labour government that, yes, allowed the trade union membership to grow but the price to pay was the bureaucratisation of the movement. In particular, curbing shop-steward power and taking disputes into industrial tribunals instead of strike action. Previously, when someone was sacked, the shop steward or convenor would bring out the entire workforce in solidarity - hence the employer normally settled and the worker was quickly reinstated.

Now what happens when someone gets the sack is that the matter goes via the union’s legal department to an industrial tribunal. Then, a year or two down the line, either some money is paid out or some sort of settlement is reached - with the brothers and sisters in the workplace none the wiser about the outcome.

Under the Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan Labour government in the 1970s, the trade union bureaucracy agreed to wage restraint under the so-called Social Contract and its phases 1, 2 and 3 and then the Social Concordat. Living standards were squeezed to the point where there was rank-and-file rebellion - against not only the government, but also the union bureaucracy. In the meantime, we had the Tories and their press talking about Britain being ‘ungovernable’, thanks to the ‘overwhelming’ power of the unions, etc. All this followed by a Tory general election victory and the Margaret Thatcher government.

Therefore the idea that there is some sort of automatic mechanism in place with Labour governments that makes things go ever more leftwards is a complete fantasy. Accompanying this idea of pressurising a Labour government there is, of course, the likely call not to ‘rock the boat’ for fear of a Tory return.


The only positive thing to say about the prospect of a Labour government - depending on its majority and other factors - is that it brings onto the agenda the search for a political alternative. Clearly this is something we would certainly welcome and seek to engage with, if it is any sort of a serious project. However, as things stand today, the chances are that it will be essentially more of the same. Another broad-left formation roughly along the lines of the Socialist Alliance, where you pretend to be old Labour, with most of the participating leftwing groups agreeing to keep their Marxism to themselves when it comes to elections. Hopefully, it will be nothing like the abomination that was Respect, but anything can happen these days - the very fact that the Socialist Workers Party, etc, went for it in the first place does say a great deal about the state of the left.

With a Keir Starmer government, all this sort of stuff and more could happen - and therefore at the very least it would become a site for struggle as far as communists are concerned. What must also be realised, however, is that all the talk about how bad things are for the Tories almost automatically means that things will not look particularly good for an incoming Labour government either. If we are getting Austerity 2.0 under Jeremy Hunt, then we should prepare ourselves for Austerity 3.0 with Labour’s Rachel Reeves.