By elections: Austerity assault intensifies
The coalition is not as weak as last weeks election results suggest, says Peter Manson
Despite the dismal results from the three November 29 by-elections, where both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats were trounced, the coalition has shown that it intends to push ahead with fresh, devastating attacks on the population, and in particular the working class.
Readers will need no reminding of the intensity of the renewed assault heralded by chancellor George Osborne’s December 5 autumn statement. The cost-cutting, job-slashing austerity programme is to be extended by a year until 2017-18, with tens of thousands more public sector jobs to go and welfare benefits to be cut in real terms. This in itself gives the lie to the repeated assurances from the likes of the Socialist Workers Party that the coalition government is “incredibly weak”.1
The SWP’s internal Party Notes correctly points out that the Lib Dems are in “freefall” and both parties are divided over Leveson. But then the comrades add - rather contradictorily, it has to be said - that we are nevertheless facing “momentous assaults” on our class. This is absurdly illogical. How can people so “incredibly weak” inflict such damage? Of course, by saying that, the SWP leadership is attempting to inspire comrades to throw themselves into anti-cuts campaigning and general strike agitation with renewed vigour. They want us to believe that a show of strength from the movement will see the government start to hesitate, stumble and finally fall in the midst of the general strike.
Yes, the coalition partners are divided, but parties representing different constituencies will always be divided over some questions too - for example, the Tory Party is rent with divisions over the European Union. But this has never stopped bourgeois parties uniting against a common enemy - be it a rival power, a colonial rebellion or the working class.
And so it is with the current coalition. What alternative does either party have but to continue their alliance? Some Tories are canvassing a deal with the UK Independence Party on Europe and in general moving right on social issues in order to capture the Ukip vote. A hopeless strategy. Instead David Cameron and George Osborne seem determined to keep on keeping on: blame Labour for the national mess, stay social-liberal and promise that austerity will eventually work. Some might be tempted to interpret the results from Middlesbrough, Croydon North and Rotherham as demonstrating that the Tories are staring defeat in the face in 2015, but that would be a mistake. There will be plenty of room and opportunity for a Tory recovery before the next general election.
The same cannot be said, of course, for the Lib Dems. The Tories will certainly attempt to win their base - and there is good reason to believe that they could be successful. Meanwhile they can effectively treat their coalition partners as slaves until the 2015 election, when they can be offered either an official or semi-official pact in a limited number of constituencies or seats in the (unreformed) House of Lords for Nick Clegg, Vince Cable, Simon Hughes, etc.
In a sense, you could say that the big dip in Tory votes was normal by-election fare - the governing party is expected to lose support. Dropping to fifth in Rotherham was, however, very bad - the Conservative share of the vote was more than halved and candidate Simon Wilson barely saved his deposit at 5.42%. As for the Liberal Democrats, the results confirmed yet again that their participation in the coalition has almost certainly damaged them as a serious force in electoral politics for many years to come. Indeed it is quite possible to imagine the rump Lib Dems being reduced to a wing of the Tory Party, as happened to the National Liberals in the 20th century.
In Rotherham the Lib Dem share fell precipitously from 15.98% in 2010 to just 2.11% (and 451 votes) last week. That is the territory of fringe candidates like those of the left (see below). Similarly in Croydon North the party’s vote was cut from 13.98% to 3.5% - although in Middlesbrough its support was ‘merely’ halved (from 19.91% to 9.91%).
The big story was, of course, the advance of Ukip, which more than trebled its share of the vote in all three constituencies. Much has been made of the possibility that Ukip is now set to replace the hapless Lib Dems as the main recipient of protest votes. But we should not discount Nigel Farage’s dismissal of this: the Ukip leader declares that his party is now a serious contender - not just in by-elections, but as a more permanent force.
It is true that Ukip is on the extreme right of the mainstream, but its policies overlap significantly with those of the Tory right wing - over the EU and immigration in particular. Clearly, whereas the British National Party cannot realistically hope to gain true mass support - its roots are just too close to the British version of the German Nazis - Ukip most certainly could become a major force.
As might be expected in view of Ukip’s performance, the BNP lost ground in both Rotherham and Middlesbrough (it did not contest Croydon North). In fact in Middlesbrough its already low return in 2010 was halved. The truth is that a bunch of former Nazi fans gone respectable will never win the backing of the bourgeoisie - if we are talking about a potential street-fighting force to save British capital from revolution, look elsewhere. Swastikas and Sieg heil salutes do not exactly sit easily with the World War II myths of British chauvinism. While I am not suggesting that Farage is a fascist dictator in waiting, Ukip’s political programme, tone and middle class Britishness certainly make his party a more serious potential player than the BNP.
Amongst all this Ed Miliband will obviously be smugly content with the success of his ‘do nothing and wait’ strategy. Labour increased its share of the poll in all three seats (although in Rotherham, where the decision of the Labour council to bar a Ukip couple from fostering clearly boosted Ukip at Labour’s expense, the rise was only marginal). The way things are at the moment, Miliband does not even have to pose left. There is no upsurge from below to which he has to respond. Many workers are undoubtedly worried, even angry, at their predicament under austerity, but only a minority are motivated enough even to go to the polling station. While the union leaders are hardly chomping at the bit for strike action, they are not under a huge amount of pressure from their members either.
This is reflected in the lack of enthusiasm among workers for leftwing opponents of the coalition cuts agenda. For example, despite the claim by Respect national secretary Chris Chilvers on the eve of polling that Yvonne Ridley “has the lead” in Rotherham and Lee Jasper was “neck and neck” with Labour in Croydon, Respect’s two candidates could only manage 8.34% and 2.88% respectively.2 In fact, had it not been for comrade Chilvers’ ridiculous spin, the outcome would have been regarded as quite reasonable - especially compared to the usual left results. True, expectations may have risen since George Galloway’s tremendous win in Bradford West in March, but since then it has been back to normal - two weeks earlier Respect picked up just 1.1% in the Manchester Central by-election.
However, overall Respect is far ahead of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, whose candidates in Rotherham and Middlesbrough did very poorly. John Malcolm, a member of the Socialist Party in England Wales, won 277 votes (1.64%) in Middlesbrough, while National Union of Teachers activist Ralph Dyson could only manage 261 (1.22%) in Rotherham.
Partly in order to avoid this kind of embarrassment, Tusc had written to Respect back in May offering to “discuss how our two organisations can collaborate in the period ahead” and “how we can attempt to avoid an electoral clash”. Eventually comrade Chilvers replied, pointing out that Respect had already selected candidates for some forthcoming contests and “the Respect Party does not feel it has the right to ask that Tusc does not select candidates to contest these elections”. In fact it would be “improper for the Respect Party to ask Tusc to stand down”. Comrade Chilvers concluded by stating: “We entirely accept that Tusc will make its own decisions about whether to contest these elections, based upon its own analysis of the situation and its own best interests, just as the Respect Party has already made its decisions.” I think that was a ‘no’.3
It is just about possible that the vote for Tusc’s comrade Dyson suffered a little as a result of his decision to opt out of a local BBC radio live hustings session, to which, unsurprisingly, all Rotherham by-election candidates were invited, including the BNP’s Marlene Guest. As everyone knows, it is a matter of ‘principle’ that ‘fascists’ must not be given a platform, and so the debate went ahead without comrade Dyson, who did not even wait to make his anti-BNP statement on air before walking out (Labour’s Sarah Champion also decided at the last minute to stay away, but not out of ‘anti-fascist principle’: she told BBC Sheffield that door-to-door canvassing would be more likely to pull in votes on the eve of polling).
It has to be said that most of the left has really got itself into a twist over this question. It is not, and ought never to have been, a ‘principle’ not to debate with fascists (leaving aside the question of whether or not the BNP can still be accurately described as such). We must consider the best tactics in attempting to defeat our enemies, whether they be establishment pro-capitalists or fringe groups on the far right. In general the best means of defeating them is by forcefully arguing for our politics - or do we think those politics are so weak that we have no chance of winning the debate? It goes without saying that all this passes SPEW and the SWP by: for them it was much more sensible for comrade Dyson to no-platform himself.
Continuing this theme of leftwing foolishness, what should we make of the SWP decision to refuse to vote for Respect? Referring to Croydon, Socialist Worker stated: “Respect’s Lee Jasper has tapped into anger around police racism in the Croydon run-off. But Socialist Worker is not calling for a vote for him, following Respect leader George Galloway’s disgraceful and well-publicised comments on rape. Instead we encourage supporters to vote for Labour in this instance.”4
So, because Galloway made a clumsy and undiplomatic remark in support of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who is wanted by a vindictive USA for revealing embarrassing state secrets and also by Sweden for questioning over rape accusations, it is no longer possible to critically vote not just for comrade Galloway, but any Respect candidate? Presumably Tusc has withdrawn its offer to discuss electoral arrangements too then.
Is this the same SWP that uncritically supported George Galloway when it was part of Respect? The George Galloway who ensured that pro-abortion demands were kept out of Respect election material so as not to offend the sensibilities of good Catholics like himself, for whom abortion is the equivalent of murder? But the SWP did not need much persuading, because at the time it was wooing the Muslim Association of Britain and mosque leaders - who share Galloway’s views on this central question for women’s rights. And earlier this year it urged people in Egypt to vote for the Muslim Brotherhood, whose proposed constitution contains anti-women clauses that will make Galloway seem like a raving feminist.
By the way, the SWP’s support for Labour in Croydon was short-lived. The day after Socialist Worker came out, the online version of the article had been amended, and a new rider had been added: “An earlier version of this article called for a vote for Labour in the Croydon North by-election. This was an editorial error. Socialist Worker is not endorsing any of the candidates in the Croydon North by-election.”5
“Editorial error,” did they say? Come on, comrades, there is no shame in changing your line. Although in this case, you got it wrong in both cases. Why not offer critical support to Respect? Lee Jasper, despite his numerous failings, is not only a campaigner against “police racism”, but counts himself as part of the working class fightback against austerity. And, if you could not do that, for whatever bizarre reason, why not vote for the Labour candidate?
1. Party Notes December 3.
2. See Letters, November 29.
3. The correspondence can be viewed via the link at www.tusc.org.uk/press011212.php.
4. Socialist Worker December 1.