Labour needs to fight the right wing offensive

By Stephen MacAvoy

The formation of the Conservative-led coalition represents a sharp rightwards shift in the British political situation. Working class living standards are set to face an onslaught with the deepest public service cuts since the Second World War and the weakening of pay and working conditions of millions of people. The coming assault on the public sector far out shadows that undertaken by Thatcher.

Whilst all the mainstream parties fought the general election on the basis of cuts – a blatant attempt to restore capitalist profitability by making the working class pay for the economic crisis – the balance of forces for the working class under a Conservative led government, with a large majority provided by the Liberal Democrats, is clearly much worse than it would have been under a Labour government or Labour-led coalition.

This victory for right wing forces takes place in the context of the working class being on the defensive with a stepped-up offensive by imperialism internationally seeking to make the working class pay for the economic downturn. This offensive includes the victory of more pro-US forces in the major countries of Europe over the past period, which reduces a tension at the heart of the coalition – the division between more pro-US (in the form of the Conservatives) and more pro-European (Liberal Democrats). Barack Obama enthusiastically welcomed the formation of the new government with the Tories at the helm.

An alliance for savage cuts

Already the agenda of the Conservative-Liberal coalition is clear. So far it has agreed that the deficit is to be reduced overwhelmingly by spending cuts which will affect the majority of people rather than by progressive measures or investment led growth. The first £6bn of cuts in this “age of austerity” will be spelled out in more detail in an emergency budget on 22 June – but this will just be the thin end of the wedge with estimates that nearly £60bn of cuts will be made by 2014/15. The coalition has already announced measures to limit tax credits, scrap the Child Trust Fund, for the part-privatisation of Royal Mail, to scrap National Insurance increases for employers but maintain them for employees, cut by 10,000 the planned extra university places, provide for a greater role for the private sector in “free schools” and a “review” of all employment law to “maximise flexibility” amongst other measures.

The aim of this reactionary agenda is not to restore growth to the wider economy from which all of society could share. On the contrary, the cuts will worsen the economic prospects by cutting demand and above all the investment required to restore substantial growth. Instead the aim is to ensure a greater share of the economic cake for the capitalists by reducing the amount that goes to the working class in wages and in the form of public services people use.

Whilst the election results did not deliver the Conservatives the mandate to form a majority government, the coalition with the Liberal Democrats will not act as a progressive brake on the Conservatives. Instead it will guarantee a strong majority with which to carry out a reactionary agenda. Between them the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats won 59.0% of the popular vote, the largest share for a subsequent government since World War Two.

Nick Clegg has been preparing for such a deal over a number of years, despite the confusion of some on the centre-left about the Liberal Democrats’ political orientation. Following his election in 2007, Clegg – a key member of the free-market Orange book group – shifted the Liberal Democrats rightwards in order to increase its appeal to the Conservatives. Clegg discarded progressive taxation policies, down-played calls for electoral reform and, in the wake of the world financial crisis, called for “savage cuts”. This has continued since the election as the Liberals have sacrificed many of the manifesto pledges that they used to pose themselves to the left of the Labour Party, such as the scrapping of Trident, proportional representation, an amnesty for illegal immigrants and opposition to nuclear power – the latter on which it will now abstain in any parliamentary votes rather than oppose it as its manifesto had stated.

As the coalition’s reactionary measures will be met with deep unpopularity and a backlash from the population, it is seeking to put into place mechanisms to safeguard itself. This includes fixed terms for five years (when average time between elections has been four); the vote to dissolve parliament before calling a general election requiring 55 per cent support in the House of Commons (meaning the Liberal Democrats cannot withdraw their support from the Tories and cause a general election as the Lib-Dems, Labour and other parties altogether hold less than 55 per cent of the seats); and stuffing the House of Lords with many more Conservatives and Liberals to weaken opposition there. More longer-term systematic gerrymandering by reducing the number of Parliamentary seats and recasting the constituency boundaries will further weaken Labour.

To limit the ability of the working class to fight back, the coalition is also seeking to implement restrictions to political party funding that would weaken the trade union movement’s historic link with the Labour Party. This is clearly an attack on both the trade unions’ and the Labour party’s ability to oppose and resist the attacks.

Reconfiguration of British politics

The general election results underlined a number of long term trends in voting patterns reflecting the reconfiguration of British politics away from a two-party system. Around 35% of voters backed parties other than Labour and the Conservatives – the highest such share since 1918.

These longer term trends include: the ongoing decline in the Tory share of the vote; the building up of ‘third forces’ in light of this Tory decline (mainly the Liberal Democrats but also the SNP in Scotland); and the inability of Labour to secure the levels of support achieved in the 1945–1966 period where it regularly won with levels of support of 43–50%.

The Conservative vote has been in general decline for 80 years since its peak in 1931 when it achieved its highest ever level of 60.7%, whilst its post-World War Two peak was 49.6% in 1955. Since these peaks, each time the Conservatives have won a general election, their vote was generally lower than at the previous victory and each time they lost an election their vote fell to a lower level than the previous defeat. At May’s general election, this trend continued, with the Tories polling just 36.1% of the vote, five percent below the level they received in 1992, the last time that they were the largest party. Moreover in many areas the Conservatives remain weak. In England, their strongest base, the Tories failed to reach 40% and their vote was concentrated in the South, the countryside and the suburbs. In Scotland they came fourth with just 16% of the votes and only one seat. In Wales they came second with just 26%. In the North of Ireland a new joint Conservative and Ulster Unionist platform failed to win any seats and secured just 15%.

Similarly, the Liberal Democrats registered a further advance consistent with their steady growth since 1951 when they won just 2.6%. They increased both the number and the share of the vote despite the loss of seats. The Liberal Democrats’ 6.8 million votes, 23% of the total, was an increase on 6 million and 22% in 2005. Their share of the vote was higher than any post-war election except 1983 when the Liberal-SDP Alliance had 27.6%. However, the increase in support for the Liberals at just 1% was the smallest increase in a number of years, partially squeezed by the two main parties.

The central issue at stake in the election – whether the Labour government would be replaced by the Tories – placed a squeeze on political parties to the left, which did not increase their shares of the vote. The Greens won the same proportion as in 2005 (although it did win its first MP seat) whilst Respect lost its MP, though in the three main seats it contested it received 25.1%; 17.5% and 16.8%. The Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition obtained only an average of 0.9% in the 39 seats it contested. In contrast, forces on the right of the Tories, the BNP and UKIP, did not get driven backwards – increasing their vote by 2.1% to 5%.

It is this continuation of the historic decline of the Tory party that meant a coalition was required to secure a stable government that can carry through cuts. However, whilst this may have been necessary for the Conservatives, it was a choice for the Liberal Democrats, with implications that will undermine their future levels of support as the government they are in engages in attacks the population’s living standards. In turn, this provides an opportunity for Labour to reconnect with much of the electorate it has alienated, particularly if it pursues the correct policies.

Labour – damaged by Blairism and calls to be tougher than Thatcher

For Labour the downward trend of support seen under New Labour continued at this election – but at a lesser rate than in the Blair years. Faced with the immediate attacks on living standards posed by a Tory government, Labour’s support did not collapse.

Moreover, with a very right-wing coalition government in power there is the potential for a growth of the Labour Party. Already it is reported thousands of people have already joined since the election and it appears that in inner-city areas with large Muslim populations Labour did better.

Whilst over the next period, Labour is likely to be the main repository of anti-coalition anger amongst the population, it is not yet determined whether it will oppose the biggest assault on the working class in decades – or whether it will capitulate. To a degree, the response will be determined by the outcome of the Labour leadership election, but the Blairites are suggesting that the coalition should not be fought, that it will naturally collapse and Labour will then be able to forge its own alliance with the Liberals.

The lessons of the 1997–2010 period of government are totally clear. The most right-wing Labour government in history destroyed an electoral coalition that had seen Labour win 13.5 million votes in 1997 but lose five million votes whilst in power – overwhelmingly under Tony Blair’s leadership. Nearly three million votes were lost by the end of the first term Labour government alone – one where the government prided itself on sticking to extremely tight Tory spending limits for the first two years. A further million votes were lost in 2005 following the Iraq war. In short, under Tony Blair’s time as leader, Labour’s right wing economics and neo-conservative international agenda lost Labour four million votes in general elections, despite economic growth at the time. Support for Labour continued to erode (with it standing at 30-32% in opinion polls) in the months up to Blair being forced from office in April 2007.

Blairite David Miliband is the current favourite to win the leadership. His foreign policy and domestic agenda largely represents a capitulation to the current coalition government. Seumas Milne was correct to describe Miliband as “the heir to Blair who voted to invade Iraq, out-hawked the Bush administration during the 2008 Georgian crisis and has continued to hanker after the marketisation of public services”. Johann Hari said “Peter Mandelson is merrily pushing him as the Blairite who can most attract wealthy donors and remains unrepentant about Iraq.”

A David Miliband victory would also undermine the fight against the explicit attempt to marginalise/destroy the trade union link to Labour. The Blairites, in particular, have long supported breaking the union link as a step towards fulfilling an historic merger with the Liberal Democrats, a view reflected in Peter Mandelson’s and Tony Blair’s thesis that the establishment of the Labour Party was a historic mistake. The merger with the Lib-Dems element of this project is not immediately likely due to the Tory-Lib Dem coalition. However proposals to weaken the unions are likely. Also there may be proposals to reduce the say of Labour Party members in general, including along the lines of David Miliband’s proposal of “primaries” for candidate selections.

Of the two currents able to win Labour’s leadership the Blairites are the least likely to challenge the Tories and will cede the most political ground. So it is preferable that the other current (Brownite) wins this coming contest. All currents to the left of these two have insufficient support to win but can play a positive role in shaping the debate. Following Diane Abbott’s declaration of her candidacy for leader, both Brownite candidates – Ed Balls and Ed Miliband – clarified their opposition to the Iraq war.

Building mass opposition to the reactionary agenda

The decisive issue in the class struggle over the next period of time will be the level of resistance to the assault on living standards due to be unleashed. The role of the left wing of the labour movement will be an important issue.

The case for investment not cuts needs to be championed – breaking from the framework on which Labour fought the election. Cuts will attack the living standards of millions of people and will make a return to recession more likely. Ceding to a cuts agenda will be electorally damaging for any political party. This is evident from the standing of the main parties in the run-up to the general election. In the 12 months up to the general election, support for the Tories diminished when they emphasised cuts. Likewise, when Labour was expressing a limited alternative to the Tory cuts, the Conservatives lead shrank and dropped to just 2% in some polls on the eve of the March 2010 budget. However, once Alistair Darling delivered the budget, and stated that Labour would undertake cuts worse than Thatcher, Labour’s support in the polls dropped significantly. This was the main cause of the fall in support, not a failure to set a sufficiently right wing agenda, for example on immigration, as Andy Burnham, another Blairite candidate for leader, has claimed.

A coherent alternative to the Tories’ policies must also include challenging the racism currently being whipped up to divert blame from the real causes of the decline in living standards, which is right wing economic polices. Already the scapegoating of immigrants has taken a prominent role in the Labour leadership contest. This should be opposed not only because it is morally wrong and will be used to whip up an assault on a section of the population, but its impact is to divide and disorientate, and therefore weaken, working class resistance. Electorally, Labour also stands to lose most from pursuing such a xenophobic line as it will alienate ethnic minority voters who are a major component of the most deprived sections of the working class, and are a core constituency of its support in most metropolitan areas.

Some resistance to the right wing coalition should be anticipated over the next period. Unfortunately this is starting from a low level, with the working class currently in a much weaker political position than at the beginning of the struggle against the Thatcher government in 1979. The drastic decline in strike days in the intervening three decades and decline in trade union membership are indicators of this. Another indicator has been the declining strength of left currents within the Labour Party. The working class now receives a smaller share of national income – in the ten years to 1976 wages accounted for 60%, but in the ten years to 2006 this had fallen to 54 per cent.

However, left forces in the labour movement have not been extinguished, both inside and outside the Labour Party. A united front to resist the offensive is required that opposes not just the economic assault on living standards, but also the imperialist military ventures and racism.