Workers Hammer No. 230
May elections: no choice for workers, minorities
We need a class-struggle workers party
In the eyes of the state, Malcolm Burge’s life was worth £809.79 net. That was the amount in “overpaid” benefits that Newham council demanded from him after they slashed his housing benefits by half, driving the penniless 66-year-old retired gardener to light a match to a can of petrol and burn himself to death last June. In November, 39-year-old Julia Kelly of Northampton, who suffered severe chronic back pain, was hounded to suicide when the Department of Work and Pensions insisted she pay back £4000 in disability payments that were retroactively denied her.
Day in and day out, countless lives are snuffed out or devastated in a less newsworthy manner. One “revelation” of official state cruelty follows another. Job centre staff are threatened with “performance reviews” if they do not meet their target of punitive measures, depriving the most desperate and downtrodden of benefits for weeks or months at a time for as little as being a few minutes late to job centres (that have no jobs). The number of such sanctions imposed annually soared after the global recession started to bite, climbing to more than 900,000 last year. In direct proportion, the number of emergency parcels handed out by food banks likewise soared above 900,000 in the year up to April 2014, almost triple the figure a year before.
Does anyone truly believe that the dystopia that is capitalist Britain today will be significantly bettered by whoever steps into No 10 Downing Street in May? The choices on offer come down to which party is the least distrusted and despised. David Cameron’s Tories revel in being “red in tooth and claw” in grinding the victims of unbridled capitalist greed. Ed Miliband’s shadow work and pensions secretary, Rachel Reeves, has declared that Labour in office will be “tougher” than the Tories in slashing benefits (Guardian, 12 October 2013). The Liberal Democrats lost whatever shred of credibility they had by entering into Cameron’s government and promptly reneging on their pledge to oppose any tuition fee increases, further burdening those who manage to make it to university with a lifetime of debt. And all three parties vie to keep up with the in-your-face racists of Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party (UKIP) in bashing immigrants and Muslims.
Farage’s vile denunciation of British Muslims, referring to them as a “fifth column”, only gave voice to the policies the Tories, and Labour before them, have actually implemented. It was Labour which joined the US-led wars against Iraq and Afghanistan, and fanned murderous hatred of Muslims at home under the rubric of the “war on terror”. It was Labour’s privatisation schemes (including of chunks of the NHS) which led to the situation where billions have been shovelled to a handful of capitalists at the expense of working people and the poor. Tories and Labour together have presided over an ever more oppressive state in which the chasm between filthy rich and desperately poor has widened continuously.
Not surprisingly, as elsewhere in recession- and austerity-ridden Europe, more marginal parties are coming to the fore. On the right, UKIP is leeching votes from not only prospective Tory but also many Labour voters who buy into the lie that immigrants are to blame for the impoverishment of Britain’s working people. On the other side are the Scottish Nationalists (SNP) and the Greens, bourgeois parties that have adopted a populist posture to position themselves to the left of Labour as it has moved to the right. Posing as opponents of austerity, friends of working people and champions of all good things, the environmentalist Green Party are gaining support, crucially including from elements of the trade union bureaucracy.
The SNP are tapping into just hatred of Westminster rule and austerity policies, the better to win voters to their own version of capitalist oppression. Decades ago, Scots who despised the SNP’s fundamental conservatism dubbed them “Tartan Tories” — a term dating to 1979, when SNP MPs formed a bloc with Thatcher to bring down the Callaghan Labour government. The SNP have since retooled, winning votes on the basis of administering a gentler, more humane capitalism, eg, keeping universities in Scotland free (for Scots and non-UK EU citizens!). They remain loyal to the monarchy and pledge that an independent Scotland will remain in the EU and NATO.
As Marxists we oppose the monarchy, the House of Lords and indeed the whole entity known as the “United Kingdom”, of which the Westminster parliament is the linchpin. The City of London and its Home Counties environs are the core of British capitalism and lord it over other regions of England as well as over Scotland and Wales. We uphold the right of self-determination for the Scottish people. We advocated neither a yes nor a no vote in last September’s referendum and, while opposing all forms of English chauvinism, we warned against illusions in Scottish nationalism.
Some six months after losing the referendum on independence, the Scottish Nationalists look set to sweep much of Scotland, continuing Scottish Labour’s meltdown. The SNP’s popularity has set off such English-chauvinist hysteria that one might be forgiven for thinking that the tame Scottish nationalists are about to re-enact the Jacobite rising of 1745. Cameron, echoed by voices within Labour itself, has called on Miliband to rule out a future Labour/SNP coalition government, howling: “You cannot let the people who want to break up our country into the government of our country.” Miliband, who is never found wanting when his UK loyalism is questioned, shot back: “There will be no SNP ministers in any government I lead” (mirror.co.uk, 16 March). Another Tory, Lord Baker, has mooted a possible Tory/Labour coalition to keep out the SNP.
Whatever the differences between Tories and Labour — and people may be forgiven for finding them hard to detect these days — and however unpredictable the outcome of the upcoming election, one thing is certain. This election offers nothing for working people but the prospect of more capitalist oppression, racism and war. What we need is nowhere on offer but must be built: a revolutionary party of the working class committed to fighting for the interests of all the exploited and oppressed against capitalism and its attendant miseries.
The strange death of “old” Labour
The SNP is expected to win a significant number of seats at the expense of Labour, which grew toxic in many parts of Scotland for spearheading the crusade for a “no” vote in the referendum. A commentator in the London Review of Books (9 October 2014) described the scene when 60 Labour MPs arrived in Glasgow and were “chased through the streets by a guy in a rickshaw who was playing the Star Wars theme and hollering through a megaphone: ‘Welcome, imperial masters! Welcome to Scotland, imperial masters! People of Glasgow, here are your imperial masters!’ As one blogger said, that was surely the moment Labour in Scotland died.”
Labour’s decline in Scotland reflects broader changes that have taken place throughout Britain over the years. In an insightful piece titled “Labour vanishes” (London Review of Books, 20 November 2014), Ross McKibbin observes:
“Anyone wishing to chart the fragmentation of the party system and the origins of Labour’s predicament could start in 1951. In that year’s election 97 per cent of the electorate voted either Labour or Conservative: 49 per cent Labour and 48 per cent Conservative.... By 2010 only 65 per cent of voters and, given the low turnout, only 42 per cent of the electorate — supported one or the other of the two major parties. Next year that figure may well be lower and the number of serious parties higher: five in England, four in Scotland (six if we include Ukip and the Greens), five in Wales if we include the Greens, five in Northern Ireland excluding various independents....
“In 1951 about 70 per cent of voters were in or from the manual working class. Today the figure is less than 40 per cent. For Labour, these figures are dire. Not all manual workers voted Labour in 1951, but the majority did, and they had no doubt that Labour was the party of the working man and woman (though more that of the working man): they identified with it. None of this is true today.”
The Attlee government elected in 1945 was the high point of British Labourism, hailed to this day by sundry leftists as the embodiment of its “socialist soul” for its nationalisations and the launch of the National Health Service. With a declining industrial base and a crumbling empire, Britain emerged from World War II as a poor cousin of the US, by then the hegemonic imperialist power. Labour was entrusted with the task of salvaging clapped out British imperialism. As Ceylonese (Lankan) Trotskyist Doric de Souza noted in the Fourth International (July/August 1947), journal of the then-Trotskyist US Socialist Workers Party: “In the face of popular hostility to capitalism in Britain, and popular disgust with the old ‘muddling’ policies of the Conservatives, so openly designed to protect vested interests, the British capitalist class had no alternative but to let the Labor Party hold the baby, certain that while this party was able to deceive and soothe the masses by its ‘socialist program’ it would do nothing to jeopardize the fundamental interests of British capitalism.”
Faced with continuing economic decline, subsequent Labour governments were saddled with the need to curtail the power of the trade unions while maintaining Labour’s working-class base, culminating in the “winter of discontent” under the Callaghan government in 1978-79. Thatcher came into office promising to do the job that Labour couldn’t do, pursuing nakedly union-bashing policies and devastating much of the remaining industrial base on which trade union power rested. Today it is commonly acknowledged that Thatcher’s defeat of the heroic 1984-85 miners strike was a pivotal event in this regard. Yet the union bureaucrats who now point to the defeat of the miners and the flood of anti-union laws as evidence that struggle is impossible are of the same political breed as those, “left” and right, who allowed the defiant miners to face the power of the capitalist state alone, while Labour leader Neil Kinnock abetted Thatcher by violence-baiting the miners for daring to build mass pickets.
It was left to Tony Blair to draw the conclusion that the way forward for Labour was to eliminate the contradiction at its base by getting rid of its historic link with the unions and transforming it into an outright bourgeois party. For some years now, Labour has been moribund as a reformist party of the working class, though it still retains the financial and political support of a number of sizeable unions.
The union bureaucrats, especially the leaders of Unite, the largest union, chose Ed Miliband as Labour leader in 2010 and embarked on a policy designed to “reclaim” Labour from the Blairites. The fruit of this policy was seen when the Labour leadership set up Unite for a vicious witch-hunting campaign at Scotland’s Grangemouth oil refinery in 2013 (see “Union bashing at Grangemouth”, Workers Hammer no 225, Winter 2013-14). Piling injury atop injury, last autumn the party leadership nominated arch-Blairite Jim Murphy, who is rightly despised for, among other things, his role in that witch hunt, to head up Scottish Labour. Unite, Unison and the GMB launched a vocal campaign for their own candidate, with Unite head Len McCluskey arguing that Murphy’s election would be a political “death sentence” for Labour (Telegraph, 13 November 2014). Meanwhile all three union leaderships demonstrated their fealty to Labour in their usual fashion, giving the party a total of £3.6 million — the largest donations Labour received. Labour took the money and kicked them in the teeth: Murphy was elected without a hitch.
No vote to TUSC!
Seeking to harvest votes from Labour’s alienated trade union base, the Greens have branched out from their comfort zone of anti-fracking and anti-nuke demonstrations. According to the Morning Star (10 March), for the first time ever, the Green Party will have a presence at the TUC conference this year. For years the Greens have been warmly received by the PCS public sector union, whose head Mark Serwotka has voted Green in the past. The president of the RMT, Peter Pinkney, is running for MP in Redcar, a traditional Labour stronghold. RMT officials are drawn in particular to the Greens’ call to renationalise the railways. Far from being a socialist demand, this is simply a recognition that it is irrational — and deeply unpopular with the public — for essential services to be parcelled out to individual capitalists and speculators.
The Greens are a bourgeois party, thoroughly committed to capitalism. While in Britain today they claim to oppose austerity, the Green call for less consumption is inherently hostile to the industrial working class — and to social progress. In Brighton, where they have a majority on the city council, they have passed one budget after another implementing government cuts while pushing for a 5.9 per cent council tax increase that would hit the poor the hardest. However, to truly appreciate the hollowness of the Green pledge to peace and happiness, one need only consider Germany, where the German Greens were part of the government for seven years until 2005. During this time they pandered to the racist right by passing an immigration law that shut the door to most unskilled migrants. When Germany joined the US-led wars against Serbia and Afghanistan, its foreign minister was a Green, Joschka Fischer. Recently German Green leader Rebecca Harms has been among the most fervent MEPs in pushing for Western sanctions against Putin’s Russia.
The fact that a number of union officials are signing up with the Greens is a sore spot for the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), which is running its own “anti-austerity” campaign. The RMT’s Pinkney, now running for the Greens, was a member of the TUSC steering committee in February 2013, as was the late Bob Crow. The history of TUSC is rotten to the core. It was formed by the Socialist Party and Crow in 2010 as a by-product of chauvinist strikes against the employment of foreign workers at British construction sites in 2009. TUSC proudly includes on its steering committee — alongside the Socialist Party, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and assorted trade union bureaucrats — leaders of the Prison Officers Association: the men and women responsible for inflicting sadistic misery on the wretched inmates of Her Majesty’s prisons. That they should be embraced as “comrades” by the rest of the TUSC leadership says it all about these fake socialists. We say: cops and screws out of the trade union movement!
According to the Socialist Party, the Greens are not “the answer” because they are “forced to basically accept the economic framework set out for them by capitalism” (socialistparty.org.uk, 28 January). The SWP similarly avers that the Greens are not a working-class party. Yet such verities do not stand in the way of the SWP calling for a vote to Green MP Caroline Lucas in Brighton (Socialist Worker, 20 January). Political support to bourgeois formations violates the basic Marxist principle of proletarian class independence. However, any mention of principle must leave these reformist fakers scratching their heads.
Buried in “What TUSC stands for” is the slogan: “No to austerity and anti-working class policies, whether from the EU or Britain”. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to notice that this deftly avoids the question of whether TUSC is for or against the European Union — which Labour strongly supports — or the single currency. Feeling the pressure of UKIP on the Tories’ right flank, Cameron has vowed to hold a referendum on EU membership if he is re-elected. The growth of UKIP — and other racist anti-immigrant and fascist parties throughout Europe — partly results from the failure of the mass reformist and fake socialist parties to oppose the EU, with many peddling the myth of a benignly capitalist “social Europe”. In fact, under the banner of the “flexible labour market” the EU has rolled back trade union rights, imposing low wages and precarious work contracts, while callously presiding over the deaths of thousands upon thousands of desperate immigrants who drown on the shoals of racist “Fortress Europe”. No deportations! Full citizenship rights for all who make it here!
As proletarian internationalists, we have consistently opposed the imperialist EU — and the euro — on principle. It was originally established as an adjunct of NATO, the imperialist military alliance created by the US to “roll back Communism” and destroy the Soviet Union. From its beginnings it has been a mechanism by which the combined capitalist powers impose austerity on their own working classes. The dominant powers subordinate the weaker ones, such as Greece, Ireland and the former deformed workers states of Eastern Europe. The oppressive relationship fuels great-power chauvinism in the oppressor states and a nationalist reaction in the oppressed countries.
Across western Europe, many of the social programmes known as the “welfare state” were granted by the capitalist ruling classes in the aftermath of World War II as a response to the existence of the Soviet Union, a degenerated workers state which represented an alternative to capitalist exploitation and misery. In the wake of capitalist counterrevolution in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, which the various reformist left groups supported, they have dispensed with lip service to the notion of socialist revolution. As miserable as capitalism has proven itself to be, they have accepted that there is no alternative. Having offered “old” Labour nostrums about the social welfare state, the reformists today limit their horizons simply to the fight against further austerity cuts — a “fight”, moreover, confined to the small change of parliamentary combinations. Class struggle has been deleted from their vocabulary. Workers Power, more candid than most, asserts in a 10 February article titled: “We can’t afford another Tory government” that the Tories can be stopped from winning another term. “To do this”, they say, “the unions are key”. And how so — “working class voters will not turn out in their millions unless we can force the union leaders to place clear demands on Labour”. This, then, is the task left to the unions, the defensive organisations of the working class: to sucker the millions of workers who have come to despise Labour back into the fold. And the task of the reformist left fringe? To provide the bureaucrats with the soothing language to do the trick.
The unions are indeed key to turning things around — not by coralling voting cattle for Labour but by engaging in some hard class struggle. Because they have their hands on the levers of production, the working class uniquely has the social power and interest to drive back the attacks on working people, immigrants and all the oppressed. The situation is pretty grim for the unions these days, but far from hopeless. Instead of a leadership that urges workers to bow to the bosses’ laws and stomps on any indication of the will to struggle, the unions need a leadership that motivates and educates the proletariat on the necessity and inevitability of collective labour struggle against the exploiters, that advances a bold strategy to organise the unorganised — including migrant workers — and to revive the strength of the trade unions, that seeks to fight union-bashing privatisation schemes not in the courtroom but on the picket line, that does not limit itself to what the capitalists say is affordable but demands what the workers need. Such a leadership will be based on the understanding that there are no common interests between the working class and the capitalist class. It will be built in the crucible of struggle, including political struggle against the pro-capitalist union misleaders.
We seek to build a multiethnic revolutionary workers party, dedicated to the task of leading the working class to power. This requires socialist revolution to overthrow the entire capitalist order, shattering the bourgeois state and erecting a workers state — the dictatorship of the proletariat — to expropriate the capitalist bloodsuckers. Socialist revolutions in the major capitalist countries will lay the basis for rationally planned economies based on an international division of labour, leading to a qualitative development of the productive forces that opens the road to the elimination of poverty, oppression and war and the creation of a classless, egalitarian socialist society.