Labour, the left and the next General Election

photo: Department of Energy and Climate Change
Labour Party Leader - Ed Miliband

By Nicky Dempsey and Jane West

The media consensus on the assessment of both the Labour and Tory conferences indicates a growing acceptance of the political consequences of what the polls are showing – that Labour looks set to win the next General Election or at worst be the largest party, and this will occur under Ed Miliband’s leadership.

The polls are consistently showing Labour an average of 10 points ahead of the Tories, that the Lib Dems, languishing on 10% and below, are not being forgiven for the coalition with the Tories and abandoning their election promises, and in the absence of any improvement in the British economy, which is not on the cards, the Tories are mired below the 36% they gained in 2010.

The likely success for Labour in 2015 lies behind a reduction in the negative media coverage of Ed Miliband, whose ‘one nation’ conference speech was greeted with high praise across the media and in the Labour Party. It also underlies the reduced media enthusiasm to cover every tic of the Blairite right, whose agenda of an early leadership crisis and the crowning of David Miliband as the alternative party leader in advance of the 2015 election now seems a hopeless cause, and whose profile at Labour Party conference was distinctly muted compared to the last few of years.

It is therefore possible to more clearly see what is the likely course of the class struggle and its political refractions over the coming two and a half years.

Firstly, what will be the character of a Labour government elected under Ed Miliband’s leadership in 2015, and with Balls as Chancellor?

Despite illusions on the left, and complaints from the right that Labour’s economic policy has not been spelled out, in fact the position is entirely clear – the essential thrust of the Coalition’s austerity policies will be maintained. The only concession to concerns about the impact of the cuts is an entirely unclear promise that under Labour the cuts would be ‘fairer’, and that the pace of cuts would be marginally slowed.

This was clear from Ed Balls’ comment to the Guardian just prior to Party conference, that: ‘The public want to know that we are going to be ruthless and disciplined in how we go about public spending’. And was reiterated in his speech to conference when he returned to the mantra that ‘we cannot make any commitments now that the next Labour government will be able to reverse particular tax rises or spending cuts.’

There is no doubt that this is the common platform of the leadership, determined by Ed Miliband and endorsed by him. Interviewed on the Andrew Marr show (pdf p.12) ahead of the Labour Party conference, asked if Nick Clegg is right in asserting that, ‘whoever comes to power in 2015 is going to have to carry on austerity, carry on squeezing spending’, he replied, ‘Yes. I think that’s absolutely right.’

The scale of what is being proposed is breathtaking. From 2010 to the financial year 2016/17 the Coalition plan is for total fiscal tightening of £587 billion. Of this plan, spending cuts and tax increases of approximately £70 billion have been implemented to date or around 12% of the total.

If Labour commits to meet these austerity plans, it would mean in the two years following a 2015 general election it would have to find cuts of around half the £587bn total, or 4 times as much has already been cut by the Coalition. Even this may be an underestimate after Osborne’s spending review in October this year.

There are voices raised against making this level of commitment to the Tory cuts – for example Harriet Harman in the Spectator warned against making the same level of promise to stick to Tory plans that Gordon Brown made prior to the 1997 election.

And given the storm of protest that would greet any clear commitment of this type now, especially from the trade unions, the refusal to commit to policy positions for two years time has benefits in muting criticism from both the right and the left.

Where the Labour leadership does make its austerity policies clear, then the opposition this is likely to provoke also becomes clear. Ed Balls was booed at the TUC for saying he would maintain the public sector wage freeze.

But the overall direction of their policy is beyond doubt. There will be no fundamental change of course from the Coalition’s austerity. There is not even a promise to re-instate the 50p rate of tax on the very rich, nor to end pay restraint.

Without a shift in direction, Labour is on course to form the most right-wing government in economic terms since 1929.

This is not appreciated in the Labour Party ranks or in the trade unions.

Firstly, the fact that the Blairites were defeated by a candidate to their left has given Ed Miliband a rosy glow and considerable reservoir of goodwill on the left and in the wider labour movement. And make no mistake, David Miliband would have led an agenda to the right of Ed, probably pledging to implement the full Tory austerity agenda and actively seeking a coalition with the Lib Dems.

Secondly, with Labour ahead in the polls and in the mid-term of such a right-wing Tory government, there is a strong pressure in both the unions and in constituency parties not to rock the boat and to hunker down and get Labour elected. Some union leaders, like Len McCluskey, have made their differences clear in speeches and union statements, but they all retreated from a confrontation over motions at Labour Party conference. And an outright assault on the leadership would not seem good tactics when there is no question but that a Labour government is preferable to the Coalition, improving the relationship of forces between capital and labour and improving the latter’s position to resist the attacks.

Given this situation it is exceedingly unlikely that any mass political current will emerge to the left of the Labour leadership – whether inside the Labour Party or without – this side of the 2015 election, and the actual experience of a Labour government carrying out austerity policies.

However, this does not means that there may not be mass defensive struggles against the policies of the coalition, as began to emerge led by the student struggles in 2010, and in a series of mass demonstrations and one and two day strikes in the course of 2011. Such struggles might even force a u-turn on the Tories, although this is unlikely unless such struggles reached a pitch that is not on the cards at present. But such struggles certainly could increase the pressure on both the trade union leaderships to demand – and the Labour Party leadership to make – concessions on policy, which has to be the aim over the next couple of years.

Nor does it mean that the left should not strongly organise around putting forward the alternative policies that do really correspond to the hopes and aspirations that are being placed upon the next Labour government. Both the left within the Labour Party and outside the Labour Party – for example what remains of Respect after its recent blood-letting – need to present the case for real left reforms that begin to address the economic crisis in the interests of working people.

There are evident dangers for Labour in supporting austerity and cuts. Although it has gained in the polls from the 29% it got in 2010, the Tory vote has barely been dented hovering just below its 2010 36%. Labour could still lose this advantage before 2015 if it is seen as committed to continuing Tory policies.

More serious for Labour is the probable longer term impact of a very right-wing government that directly attacks the living standards of its core voters. Labour lost 4.9 million votes between 1997 and 2010 because of its right-wing economic and war-mongering policies. From a lower base of popular support and in much more severe economic circumstances, a repeat of that could lead to a mass desertion from Labour that is irrecoverable over more than one General Election.

These concerns mean that that currents to the left are likely to eventually emerge inside the Labour Party as well as outside.

For many within the labour movement, their reference point is the 1945 Labour government.

Then, faced with the exhaustion of a section of capital because of the war effort, the Labour government took control of key sectors of the economy in order to increase output. It also introduced a social safety net, set up the NHS and initiated a large-scale council house-building programme.

The current situation is characterised by an investment strike by capital, which is the source of both the recession and the deficit. The state can break that strike by taking control of resources held idly in banks and on corporate balance sheets and use them for a programme of house building, infrastructure, transport and education. Such a programme would restore growth, boost employment and reduce the deficit, allowing a re-expansion of welfare support and measures to mitigate poverty.

Both inside and outside the Labour Party the left needs to articulate a clear alternative to the continuation of austerity policies, with an economic programme that defends the interests of workers and the poor and a social programme that defends all of the oppressed.