Turning fantasy into reality

Around the left

Never underestimate the power of dogma and wishful thinking. This can be the only conclusion to draw from reading the publications of the Socialist Workers Party. Ever since New Labour’s resounding general election victory, the SWP has proffered the extremely silly, if not madcap, thesis that we witnessed a “class vote” last May - ie, Blair rode to power on a swell of leftwing opinion.

The obvious corollary to this thesis is that the further New Labour drifts to the right, the more unpopular it will get - ‘old Labour’ supporters will become disillusioned. This analysis by the SWP serves the useful function of justifying its automatic ‘vote Labour, but’ position. By definition the defeat of the Tories - consistently presented as the main evil in SWP propaganda - and the election of (New) Labour could only be an advance for the working class.

Therefore, it was only to be expected that Socialist Worker rushed into print - albeit somewhat foolhardily - when The Guardian appeared to come to the aid of the SWP’s ailing political line. “Labour’s post-election honeymoon is now at an end”, ran the Guardian article. Alex Callinicos reprints this line and quotes enthusiastically from a pre-budget Guardian/ICM poll, which reported that the “government’s lead over the Tories, 36% in October, has now dropped back to 13%, the level at the general election last May” (March 21).

“Why is Labour’s lead slipping?”, asks comrade Callinicos: “The answer is that [people] do not support carving up the welfare state”. 

Comrade Callinicos continues:

“The attitudes revealed by the poll are a world away from the thrust of New Labour’s welfare ‘reform’. Which is to deny benefits to the poor and vulnerable as a way of forcing them into low paid jobs. But the most interesting aspect of the poll did not get the headline treatment. Only 36% thought Labour should stick to its infamous election pledge to respect Tory levels of income tax and government spending even if that meant cutting back on public services. By contrast, the Guardian says, 56% wanted higher public expenditure even if it meant breaking the election pledges on tax and public expenditure.

“So what Gordon Brown contemptuously likes to call ‘tax and spend’ - the ‘old Labour’ policies of using the state to redistribute wealth and income tax from rich to poor - would be popular. Yet Brown is rumoured to be planning to extend the commitment to Tory targets from its original two years to the entire life of the present parliament.

Here we have the key to Labour’s shrinking lead. It lies in Labour’s failure to radically break with Tory policies” (my emphasis).

After Brown’s budget, The Times published a Mori opinion poll. It stated:

“Support for Labour has hardened to 53%, up a point since late February, after slipping for four months running. The Tories are unchanged on 28%, with the Liberal Democrats down a point at 14%. Some 57% of the people questioned believed that Gordon Brown’s package was good for the country, while only 22% felt it was bad. On a personal level - where people are generally more sceptical - 33% thought [the budget] was good for them compared with 39% who thought it bad. This is the best rating since the Lawson budget of a decade ago … The balance of those satisfied against those dissatisfied with the way the country is being run has risen from plus one to plus eight points, while the ‘net balance’ of those who believe the economy will improve rather than get worse in the coming year has risen from plus two to four” (March 26).

So, who do we believe? The Callinicos/SWP spin on the pre-budget Guardian/ICM poll about “Labour’s shrinking lead” or The Times’ post-budget Mori poll about how support for Labour has “hardened”? In fact, an intelligent - ie, non-dogmatic - reading of both polls does not reveal any great paradox or contradiction. The truth is relatively simple. It was only natural that New Labour’s opinion poll ratings shot up after the general election period. Everybody wants to be on the winning side. Then eventually, as always in a Tweedledum-Tweedledee bourgeois democracy, the government loses popularity. But with all the fanfare and hype surrounding Brown’s budget, it went up again.

In other words, the working class does not exist in any real, political sense. It only exists in a purely sociological sense, as atomised and alienated voting - and poll - fodder. With no alternative vision of society, with capitalism looking triumphant and eternal, when the masses are told that Brown’s budget is ‘good for Britain, hence good for you’, many accept it - and, in that sense, support it.

There was no ‘class vote’ last May. There is no imminent ‘class’ anger which threatens to dislodge New Labour. The sooner comrade Callinicos and the SWP realise this the better - and the more chance we have of turning comrade Callinicos’ fantasy into a potential actuality.

Don Preston