Vote for Labour anti-cuts, anti-war candidates

Prepare for a political fightback, writes James Turley

On Saturday April 10, thousands are to gather in central London to march in defence of public services. The march is supported by all the major trade unions, and the organised left is, of course, expected to be out in force.

It is not difficult to see why. The election campaign is finally officially underway. Gordon Brown has made the obligatory trip to see the queen and the showdown is set for the date that everyone predicted anyway - May 6. Even Brown himself conceded it was the “least well-kept secret of recent years” (except perhaps his infamous bad temper).

The three main party leaders have issued their obligatory platitudinous sound bites - Brown, according to the BBC, will “fight hard for families on ‘modest incomes’”; David Cameron boasts of his party’s “big ideas”, while Nick Clegg apparently offers “real change”.

The electorate should not hold its breath - Cameron’s ‘big ideas’ remain invisible to the naked eye, and all of them, including Brown, are committed to substantial programmes of public sector cuts. ‘Debate’ on the issue remains focused on pedantic quibbles over when to cut and what.

The Tories have retreated somewhat from their proposed slash-and-burn rampage, adding old-fashioned Thatcherite tax cuts as a sweetener for the petty bourgeoisie - but they are somewhat predictably more up for a sustained offensive on living conditions than the Labour Party, which has to at least to pretend to be a bit more concerned than them about public services. Thus we get promises from Brown and Alastair Darling to continue some stimulus measures until the economy is on more solid ground - and when the time comes to cut, it will only be to make harmless-sounding ‘efficiency savings’.

The truth is, even these pretty microscopic differences are overblown. The history of ‘efficiency savings’, for a start, is a little chequered; under the last 13 years of Labour, they have tended to end up costing the state more than they save. The Tories, when Alastair Darling’s budget was announced recently, made some hay out of the fact that he would allocated money in the budget to find these ‘savings’ - the truth is that the overall cost will balloon well beyond the paltry few million allowed for in the chancellor’s red book.

Cameron, at any rate, has been somewhat caught out by his consistent promise to ‘recognise marriage in the tax system’ - ie, a tax cut for married couples, in the interests of exploiting reactionary ideology, and his declared intention to reverse the 1% rise in national insurance contributions in the budget. How, came the inevitable questions from the Labour benches, is Cameron going to pay for those?

The slippery PR man looked a little wrong-footed. He first tried, in an interview with the BBC, to downgrade the marriage proposal from a promise to an aspiration - but everyone knows that is just a euphemism for junking it. As for the NI cut, that is to be funded by - wait for it - efficiency savings. There is now the bizarre spectacle of political squabbles over whose efficiency savings are the more fictional.

As for the ‘when to cut’ problem, the differences again disappear on closer analysis. It is abundantly clear from history that these things are not decided in cabinet meetings, but rather are forced on whoever is in office. Any government committed to maintaining capitalism will inherit the same daunting problems - the shakiest of economic recoveries has yet to make any serious dent in unemployment; the spiralling budget deficit, on the other hand, is a source of considerable concern.

On top of that, there is the increasing industrial unrest. The National Union of Teachers and the Public and Commercial Services union have agreed to hold a joint strike ballot if the government - any government - attacks pensions, wages or conditions in the public sector. Since, for one example, Darling’s ‘efficiency savings’ somehow include cutting a whopping £30 billion off the NHS budget (that would be the same NHS whose front-line services are supposedly ring-fenced by all parties), it is clear that it will be the jobs, wages, pensions and conditions of workers of all public sector unions that will be in the firing line in the next parliament.

The mainstream parties, however, are already making noises against the unions, particularly the Conservatives, of course. They know that serious attempts to cut the deficit will antagonise the workers and are bound to provoke resistance. They are also liable to cause serious economic dislocation, and a so-called ‘double dip’ recession - which would see the economy go into freefall all over again. On the other hand, continuing with Keynesian stimulus measures (or even - dare to dream, liberals - serious reform of the financial sector), while having the benefit of pacifying the working class and stabilising the economy somewhat in the medium term, would eventually incur the wrath of the money markets and their paid persuaders in the bourgeois media. It is a big risk to take - and clearly the money markets have more teeth than the workers at this point.

As an aside, the notion that running an enormous deficit is necessarily economic suicide is partly a myth - though the recurrent crises of the 1930s, 1970s and today show that no model of capitalism - Keynesian, monetarist or anything else - can avoid running out of road in the long term. Concessions, even of a Keynesian type, have to be fought for - and the balance of class forces is a lot less encouraging in Britain than, say, Greece.

That begs the question: how do we redress that balance? Serious industrial and trade union action is undoubtedly a part of that. Every successful strike will weigh on the minds of our enemies, as they draw up their austerity measures and cuts. The flipside, however, is that every defeated strike emboldens the bourgeoisie and the government. For our struggles to have any real traction over time, they need to develop in a properly political direction rather than a ‘pure’ trade-union one.

At the moment, that means addressing the elections seriously. The left, as a whole, pushes one correct message - ‘Fight whoever wins.’ Now is certainly not the time to slip back into the complacent quietude that marked most of the Blair years. Unfortunately, the major far-left organisations in this country remain hopelessly confused on the elections issue - specifically on the Labour Party.

The Socialist Workers Party, probably still the largest of the left groups (although its persistent dishonesty on the question of membership figures makes it hard to tell), spent the last decade engaged in various electoral manoeuvres of its own - firstly through the Socialist Alliance, then Respect and finally Left Alternative. Throughout this period, the SWP largely acted as though Labour was purely and simply a party of the bosses - calling on the unions to disaffiliate, for example - and its electoral fronts posed in substance as ‘authentic’ left Labourism (toned down for the benefit of its Muslim allies in the case of Respect). This was a substantial reversal of its previous refusal to stand in elections and advocacy of an automatic Labour vote - ‘with no illusions’, naturally.

On May 6, four SWP candidates are standing under the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition banner. Behind that, however, the SWP has quietly shifted back to its old position - it now advocates a vote for Labour wherever there is no Tusc or other ‘viable’ left candidate (including certain Greens). Workers are likely to line up to vote Labour when it comes to the crunch; so we must vote with them, in order to “avoid the sanctuary of the ivory tower, where what passes for democracy can be observed with grim, but irrelevant delight” (Socialist Worker February 13). Which really begs the question: isn’t Tusc just such an “ivory tower” operation? What would be the point of standing under its banner at all, when the vast bulk of workers in Tusc-contested constituencies are just as likely to turn out for Labour as they are elsewhere?

The Socialist Party in England and Wales, which kick-started Tusc and its left nationalist predecessor, ‘No to the EU, Yes to Democracy’, remains faithful to the dogmatic view of Labour as a ‘pure’ bourgeois party it has espoused since abandoning the party itself almost two decades ago. It is more than possible for this to be exposed as the nonsense it is at a time when Labour may well be about to go into opposition and swing, as is traditional in such circumstances, to the left.

The SPEW line is based more on the bitter experience of Neil Kinnock’s anti-Trotskyist witch-hunts than any serious analysis of the Labour Party, which - as the reactionary press and, now, Socialist Worker alike never cease to remind us - remains substantially under the financial control of the trade unions. Even the parliamentary Labour Party, the part most closely integrated into the bourgeois state, retains at least a handful of dissidents, of which John McDonnell is the most prominent.

The only approach that makes sense is critical support for Labour candidates who commit to opposing cuts in public services, in words and in practice (in parliamentary votes and so on), and who take a principled stand for the immediate withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan (the other key issue for the working class in this election). We should look to split the best class fighters not from Labour so much as from Labourism, and that can only be done by holding Labour candidates to account on the key issues facing our class today.