Under the banner of the obvious (“A Year for Change”) David Cameron has ushered his party, the media and “political classes”, if not the rest of us, into full election mode.
The Tories have issued a draft manifesto, scheduled news conferences, the unveiling of posters and new internet campaigns some five months before the expected election date on 6 May. Labour has begun to enter the fray — but unless Brown experiences a Damascene conversion he has little new to say, and none of it positive.
Neither the powers of clairvoyance nor the collective intellect of Tory high-ups is required to appreciate that 2010 will indeed be a “year for change”. But the exact parameters of change are not fixed. Not even the bourgeois press and commentariat are united beyond the firm assumption that Gordon Brown will not be Prime Minister in six months time.
The election: more than a numbers game
A central concern for all parties is psephological: the numbers game.
Writing in “The World in 2010” — The Economist magazine’s annual peek into the future — political editor Andrew Miller is confident that for the Tories having fewer MPs than Labour during its 1980s low-point, a disadvantageous spread of support (far less clustered than Labour), and a need for a record-breaking swing, are surmountable obstacles. He writes that “the Tories will overcome these high hurdles to return to government after a gap of 13 years. They will be aided by a low turnout among traditional Labour supporters, by the waning of old party allegiances and by the fading grudges against the last Conservative government.”
The Economist’s “reasons” for a likely Tory victory are both more interesting and instructive for class-struggle socialists than opinion polls. It’s true that speculation over how big a majority Cameron will secure and whether or not Nick Clegg’s yellow-Tories will be a necessary crutch can be entertaining. It’s absolutely the case that post-election, the political landscape of the Commons will shape politics in the “real world” to some degree. But to make rational sense of what is to come, we must understand how things are now — and why.
A second insight into the dynamics of the coming election is given by Paul Whiteley, an academic from the University of Essex. Interviewed in Britain in 2010, the annual magazine of the Economic and Social Research Council, Whiteley predicts a record low turnout, especially in the 18-24 age bracket: “in 1983 just over 70 percent of the 18- to 24-year-olds voted. If you look at 2005, the last election study we did, it was just over 40 percent.” The reason for this decline? “Political parties are weakening in the minds of the electorate and in terms of declining membership.” Whiteley and his colleagues think that the decline is “permanent and will continue”.
Statistical sampling and modelling is one thing, but in isolation they tell us little about the real situation. So more widely “there is an incipient ‘crisis of political engagement’ in contemporary Britain” [‘Performance Politics and the British Voter’, Whiteley]. He claims further that “colleagues who worked on the old Soviet Union have identified the pathologies that can arise from over-centralisation, from diktats from the centre, from plans that are dominated from Whitehall. It becomes ineffective. There was a time in Britain, 20 to 40 years ago, when local government was quite an effective elected operation in its own right. It had its own legitimacy. Now that’s all gone. Local government is largely a bureaucracy run from Whitehall.”
These claims have something of the hysterical rants common to the Daily Mail and Express about them. But to dismiss such “colourful” phrases outright would be to miss something of the truth.
Writing in the September 1951 edition of New International, Max Shachtman analysed the structure and intentions of the post-war Labour government. His article, ‘Aspects of the Labor Government’, picked up on a theoretical consequence of the idea that Russia had become a “bureaucratic collectivist” society: namely that for Marxists, it was no longer possible to view the future of the world as either “capitalist” or “socialist”. New forms of society had and probably would continue to develop.
Most pertinent here is Shachtman’s analysis of how the Labour government penetrated sections of capitalism whilst vigorously staving off independent working-class action: “That the general position of the British working-class has improved under the Labor government is undeniable. That the general position of the bourgeoisie has deteriorated is equally undeniable ... It is they [the ‘labour officialdom’], first and foremost, who have benefited from the economic and political changes effected by the Labour government, just as it is they and not the working class itself that have effected the changes.”
Now Shachtman was writing of a Labour government that undertook the nationalisation of mass industries (mining, for example) and which increased economic regulation significantly above previous peacetime levels. He viewed this as essentially undermining the bourgeoisie and signalling a fundamental shift in the normal patterns of behaviour for a “capitalist government”. No such claims can be made for the “New Labour” governments of Blair and Brown. They have acted without reserve as the champions of capitalism and the bourgeoisie. Where they have undertaken the effective nationalisation several banks, it has been to aid and not hinder the bourgeoisie.
But what Blair and Brown have managed to do — and we see the consequences of it all around us — is fundamentally re-structure the political institutions of British society to both cut off the prospect of effective working-class action and to make the British economy an attractive “venue” for capitalists to do business. The New Labour elite have an unprecedented degree of bureaucratic control. Despite the disruption of the crisis in the financial system and the Tories knocking on the door of Ten Downing Street, they can still exercise this control.
The major negative consequence of this for the ruling Labour clique is the alienation of its traditional “base of support”. It is untenable to claim that for the large majority of workers — who recognise the Tories as outright class enemies and who identify with “Labour” in a general sense — “New Labour” in its most high profile manifestations represents them. Voter turnout will be low and it is this that will in all likelihood be Brown’s undoing.
Patterns of struggle
New Labour’s restructuring is in part a consequence of the non-combativeness of the unions and has itself had a major impact on the patterns of class struggle.
Take Whiteley’s comments on local government under New Labour. The example of Poplar in the 1920s stands as a textbook example of the combined political might of workers, working-class communities and their representatives in the face of an anti-working-class government, hyper-exploitative employers and greedy landlords (for further information see Guilty and Proud of It!, by AWL comrade Janine Booth).
Even where local government-focussed struggles ultimately failed — as in the 1980s — the failure was due to the political inadequacies of the organised left and labour movement rather than the strictures of a bureaucratic government.
In both these examples, independent working class action had a direct link to local and national government. The political demands of our class could be fought for and furthered through these institutions and channels.
Contrast these examples to the patterns of struggle that have emerged around opposition to the “City Academy” scheme. Academies, imposed on what the government labelled as “failing” schools, initially represented an inroad into the education system — one of the largest untapped markets globally — for capital. The English school system has been steadily marketised, whatever the vagaries and ever-changing complexion of those involved — be they “religious” or “philanthropic” — by this government. On direct command from Whitehall, circumventing the political structures of local government but utilising their organisational apparatus, “democratic accountability” and control of this public service has been eroded. Ultimately, it will be destroyed.
And no matter how much political pressure is exerted on or by locally elected politicians, they are have little power to stop such schemes. Direct pressure on central government is necessary. Collective action by education unions across school boroughs is ruled out because such action would constitute a “political strike”. In the few examples where Academy proposals have been defeated, it’s usually been a result of sponsors withdrawing to avoid the embarrassment of “bad press”. Industrial action by the unions in individual schools has added to the embarrassment but there is no evidence to suggest it’s decisive.
Similar changes — chronicled and analysed in this paper — have been forged within the Labour Party itself. Where once local branches and the affiliated trade unions could wield decisive influence over the Labour Party, no such democratic channels exist. The linking “valve” between the unions and Labour has become so degraded as to fundamentally change the relationship.
Whereas in the past the “valve” allowed for affiliated unions to assert working-class politics “upwards”, its main current function is to operate in the opposite direction: allowing for the extensive political marshalling of the trade union leaderships. The link never flowed in just one direction and the balance of forces means it is being used to cement the bureaucratic relations evident elsewhere.
The relationship between the unions and Labour cannot be described as totally reactionary because, however degraded, it remains technically possible to undo the changes. Whether or not this can happen depends greatly on this year’s events.
A year for fundamental “change”?
What will be the consequences of an electoral defeat for Labour on our class? What impact could the Tories have?
The first ten years of Blair’s government presented huge opportunities for the organised working class to exert itself politically: to win demands for a political economy of the working class and to make real, fundamental gains. The opportunities were missed and instead anti-working-class measure after anti-working-class measure was heaped upon us. Our class is now faced with the task of defending itself from further — fundamental — attacks, posed more sharply than in the recent past by the economic crisis.
The election is something of an irrelevance in terms of what the offensive will look like. Both major parties are committed to an economic agenda that will demand massive cuts in public spending — meaning massive cuts in public sector pay and jobs — and to a restructuring of the economy most advantageous for capital. This will mean a worsening of pay and conditions and further job losses across the economy.
But the party politics of the election will almost certainly have an impact on how sections of the trade union movement will operate — especially for Labour affiliated unions. Even those unaffiliated unions like PCS and RMT with — on paper at least — militant leaderships have proven themselves incapable of mounting effective industrial action in the relatively advantageous past.
In the place of coordinated, effective industrial action from the unions nationally we should expect to see — and be prepared to respond to — further such actions as those at Visteon, Lindsey and Vestas. We — the socialists — should argue for and organise where possible rank and file action and initiatives: whether in particular union groups, workplaces and communities. We should ensure that any militancy is turned towards making changes in our movement as a whole. Such moves would make for a year of fundamental change.