Two months ago David Cameron’s Tory Party was heading for a general election win decisive enough to push through its programme of “deep” cuts and extensive privatisations.
Labour then narrowed the gap in the polls. But that minor reversal in Labour’s fortunes had more to do with dismay at the Tories’ unashamed agenda of cuts than with positive support for Labour’s own programme. That too promised cuts, less cuts but cuts all the same.
In the last weeks before 6 May there has been a Lib Dem surge. A hung Parliament is widely predicted.
Some working-class voters may have been persuaded that levering the Lib Dems into power — as a junior partner in a coalition government — could put a brake on the cuts. If that is the case, millions of people could wake up on 7 May with something they did not expect. What was Nick Clegg’s promise to voters? “Cuts that are savage and bold”.
A Tory-Lib Dem coalition government — with its bigger than normal electoral mandate — could even be less inhibited than a straight Tory regime about pushing through cuts. And a Labour/Lib Dem coalition will cut harshly too.
Most of the blame for this sorry state of affairs lies squarely with Labour’s leaders who, since 1994, have systematically turned the Labour Party into a shameless lackey of the ruling-class and of the rich. They hacked back the democratic channels in the party that made it possible for them to be put under political pressure.
They have disillusioned millions of working-class people.
Blame also lies with the leaders of the trade unions, who have woefully mis-served their members, the workers who will now be hit by cuts in benefits, jobs and services. The major trade unions all chose to stay inside Labour (not without logic), but failed to use the leverage they had to alter the course of New Labour in government or even to protest against it effectively.
Yet New Labour is still backed and financed by the biggest unions, and the unions still have potential political weight. That is a fundamental reason why we advocate a vote for Labour on 6 May, where there is no credible socialist candidate.
An effective fight against the cuts will not be based on vaguely social-democratic policies about “fairness” (such as the Greens sometimes advocate) but will come from inside the labour movement, and will be based on adequate working-class policies.
Our advocacy of a vote for Labour is tied to a fight to get the unions to rebuild their strength to do what is needed politically. In the first place the unions should stop any chance of a coalition between Labour and the Lib Dems after the election. They should use the power they have in society to mount thoroughgoing opposition to the cuts, in workplaces, in communities.
In this election the AWL is active around two political projects, both of which we want to build on.
We are backing the Socialist Campaign to Stop the Tories and Fascists, which advocates better political organisation of the left in the unions and where feasible in the Labour Party. We combined advocating a Labour vote with educational and preparatory work against New Labour. We argue for that idea on street stalls and doorsteps, wherever we have activists.
That political work needs to continue. If the unions do not mount a fight they will, even after the new government has been in place for quite a short time, further demobilise workers, spread demoralisation and fertilise the ground for the far right. We must organise to make them fight.
AWL is also standing our own socialist candidate, Jill Mountford, in Camberwell and Peckham, south London. Jill is standing against New Labour’s Deputy Leader Harriet Harman. The campaign has been proposing clear socialist ideas, canvassing for support on the many run-down council estates in the constituency. It is one way to get across the key message — cuts are not inevitable.
The AWL believes we need to persuade the rest of the left — including those that are standing under the banner of the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition — that a very clear and distinct socialist message is necessary. While individual socialist candidates will have worthwhile things to say in this election, the left as a whole needs vastly better politics if it is to be of any use in the big struggles that lie ahead of us. Those battles will not be won by using vague or populist arguments or by accommodating to the spinelessness of the trade union bureaucracy.
We say money for public services can easily be found — by raising across-the-board taxes on the wealthy and big business. We say the bosses — not the workers — should pay for the crisis in their capitalist system. That is the policy we advocate for a government which serves the interests of the workers — for the workers’ government which we want the labour movement to aim to create.