Pre-election Britain – crisis brewing on all fronts

Britain's Prime Minister Cameron arrives at an informal summit of European Union leaders in BrusselsThe 2015 general election is a mere eight months away yet impossible to call. But, as Hannah Sell, Socialist Party (England & Wales) deputy general secretary writes, what is clear is that none of the capitalist parties hold any real attraction for working class voters.

The French government crisis, with the eviction of several ministers, has led to a flurry of commentary in the capitalist press and comparisons with a future Labour government in Britain. Likenesses have long been drawn between French President François Hollande, of the misnamed Socialist Party, and Ed Miliband, leader of the Labour Party.

Some of the similarities are seemingly superficial. Even before his election Hollande was known as ‘flanby’ because he resembled a bland, wobbly French dessert. Others are more profound. Hollande is now on 17% in the polls – the most unpopular president in the history of the Fifth Republic. His fate is likely to be shared by Miliband if Labour manages to win the general election.

This is not certain. Hollande was elected primarily because of anger with the previous right-wing government of Nicolas Sarkozy. But Hollande also attempted to increase his electoral support by giving the impression that his presidency would mark a certain change from the completely pro-big business policies of Sarkozy. In particular Hollande promised a 75% tax on the top rate of income of the super-rich. Instead he has presided over continuing economic crisis and the same old austerity policies, leading to his massive unpopularity.

Polly Toynbee wrote in the Guardian that: “the Labour leadership has “learn[ed] the salutary lessons of François Hollande’s over-promising and under-delivering”. But Miliband and his advisors have looked at France and not drawn the conclusion that Labour should make and carry out bold promises, but rather promise almost nothing! This is not a recipe for mobilising popular support!

Endless austerity

Nonetheless, despite themselves, Labour can form the next government – possibly even a majority government, although a minority government or coalition is probably more likely as people vote for them in desperation to get rid of the Tories and hoping against hope that Labour will at least offer some respite from endless austerity.

Hollande’s government shows how those hopes will be shattered. Hollande is no socialist in terms of favouring public ownership and planning, but he did before the election at least nod in the direction of that wing of the capitalist class that favoured trying to spend their way out of economic crisis; although from the beginning he also planned austerity measures. He only proposed to lengthen the time he aimed to take to eliminate France’s deficit by one year!

Once in power, his government has been completely ineffectual, ground between the giant millstones of the powerful French working class on the one hand and the French capitalists on the other. He signed up to the demands of the majority of the capitalists – for austerity and vicious attacks on the working class as a means to restore their profits – but was afraid of the mass uprising of the French working class that could be provoked by fully implementing such a programme. His government has pleased no one but irritated everyone.

Now the ‘Keynesian’ wing of the government has been ruthlessly spat out at the behest of the dominant section of the French capitalist class, and also of the eurozone’s dominant power, Germany. In a sign of how Hollande was dancing to the tune of the capitalists, he sacked the industry minister Arnaud Montebourg for saying continued austerity was a ‘financial absurdity’. This was just as one right-wing daily ‘L’Opinion’ was in the middle of a 14-part cartoon entitled ‘the kidnapping of Arnaud Montebourg’ in which he was kidnapped by a group of neoliberals in order to save France!

Enormous mistake

The French capitalists are making an enormous mistake however, if they imagine that removing the ‘unreliable’ elements in the French government will make the French working class accept austerity. On the contrary Montebourg and Co were only very faintly echoing the anger of the French working class, which at some stage will be expressed in mass protests. Monteburg has been replaced by a vicious neoliberal and former Rothschild investment banker, Emmanuel Marcon. He is reported to have been horrified at Hollande’s original promise to tax the super-rich, declaring: “It’s Cuba, without the sun!”

In the next period we are likely to see a significant new upturn in struggle by the French working class as they attempt to stop the threatened €50 billion worth of cuts being implemented. Under the pressure of French workers’ anger, splits in the Socialist Party can take place. New opportunities for the French left will be posed to create a genuine mass party of the working class with a real socialist programme.

Responding to the situation, Guardian columnist Larry Elliot wrote a piece imagining France in 2017 with the far-right Front National politician Marine Le Pen about to win the presidential election. It concludes: “[In 2014] the policy errors of the late 1920s and early 1930s were repeated, resulting in longer dole queues and rising levels of poverty. Parties on the extreme left and extreme right were dismissed as irrelevant. But support for them grew. And grew.”

While Elliot is only speculating, he makes an important point. Capitalism is incapable of offering a secure, comfortable future for the vast majority: both the working class and growing sections of the middle class. The resulting failure of the capitalist parties of all stripes to offer anything except endless misery means that millions of workers are starting to look for an alternative.

The absence of powerful workers’ parties has, in many countries, allowed the far right to partially step into the vacuum, demagogically claiming to stand up for ‘the little men and women’ while whipping up anti-immigrant feelings. In reality, these parties also defend the capitalist system and offer no way forward for the working class. The only way to cut across them is the building of mass parties of the working class on radical, socialist programmes. This will be on the agenda in the next period not only in France, but also in Britain and other countries of Europe.

Volatile politics

This is understood by the most far-thinking sections of the British capitalist class. Writing in the Sunday Times (10/08/14), the managing editor of the Economist warns of the consequences of the growth of inequality in Britain. He concludes: “Tony Blair liked to think he was re-inventing the Labour party for a moderate and middle class future. In fact, he was retrofitting it for a world about to disappear.”

He adds: “The crisis of the middle class will create increasingly volatile politics. Minority parties such as Ukip may make dramatic gains. But even if they fail the Westminster mould is hard to break – disruption is coming. Protest groups will become more combustible as old certainties are removed. Established parties will flirt with more radical ideas – withdrawal from the European Union on the right and nationalisation of industry on the left – as they compete to harness popular anger.”

It is not a coincidence that the Observer (31/08/14), in an article on low pay in Britain, quoted a US billionaire, Nick Hanauer, who is a self-proclaimed supporter of the Seattle $15 an hour minimum wage, pointing out that “the CEO-to-worker pay ratio since the 1950s has risen by a staggering 1,000%” and warning: “I see pitchforks … it is the masses that are the source of growth and prosperity, not us rich guys.”

It is in this context that the right-wing media in Britain are hysterically decrying Miliband as ‘red Ed’. Nothing in Labour’s programme is any threat to the interests of British capitalism. On the contrary, on issue after issue – from the building of council housing, to the reversal of cuts to local authorities, to free schools, to tuition fees, to the repeal of the anti-trade union laws – Labour is unwilling to move even more than a hair’s breadth from the policy of the current government. This was summed up at Labour’s policy forum, which – in the only vote of the whole weekend – overwhelmingly agreed with sticking with Tory spending plans for Labour’s first year in government.

However, the capitalists still fear that a Labour government could awaken demands by the working class for serious measures in their interests – such as nationalisation of the utility companies, a living wage, and a mass programme of council house building. They are right to be afraid, but these appetites will be awakened regardless of who wins the election.

The coming storm is indicated by the differences between this and any other pre-election period in the last 30 years. For the majority, desperation to get rid of the Con-Dems is not translated into enthusiasm for Labour. Instead there is a deep-rooted feeling that ‘they are all the same’.

Fracturing support

This will result in many not voting, although others will go out and vote Labour through gritted teeth as the best means to get rid of the ‘current lot’. The fracturing in support for the traditional parties is shown by the possibility of Tory defector Douglas Carswell being elected as a Ukip MP in Clacton. If he succeeds in this it could lead to other Tory defections to Ukip, even before the general election.

If Labour cannot even beat the Tories in such circumstances, the demand to build a real anti-austerity party will be taken up by significant sections of workers.

If Labour wins, however, they will not have a honeymoon in the traditional sense. While there is bound to be a certain mood to ‘give Labour a chance’ workers will not put up with years more austerity from Labour before they take matters into their own hands both through strikes, and by beginning to build a mass political alternative.

The fact that a new wave of coordinated strike action is developing even before the general election is a clear harbinger of what is to come. In the past the leaders of the Labour-affiliated trade unions would have argued there was no need to strike in a pre-election period, because a Labour government would act to solve workers’ problems. Today this argument is simply untenable.

Instead, even the most uncritically pro-Labour union leaders – like Dave Prentis, general secretary of Unison – are forced to call strike action and pose it as a means to put pressure on a Labour government. Prentis may hope that it will prove unnecessary to strike again under a Labour government but, on the contrary, the demand for a 24-hour general strike against austerity will come back onto the agenda with renewed force beyond the general election.

Socialist transformation

The root of the unpopularity of all the major parties is the fact that they act within the framework of capitalism – an increasingly diseased and crisis-ridden system. In Britain the myth that the economy was recovering has fuelled workers’ anger – because it jarred so sharply with the reality of endless belt-tightening. Now, however, even the propaganda of recovery is petering out, as the prospect of a further slowdown looms. The lurch back into recession that is now taking place in the UK’s biggest market, the eurozone, including in its powerhouse Germany will further aggravate the crisis here.

Even during the formal ‘recovery’ wages have shown no sign of recovering. The Bank of England has declared that, in real terms, wages will continue to contract again this year. The Deputy Governor of the Bank of England, Ben Broadbent, has even speculated that years of austerity may have permanently ‘lowered workers’ wage demands’! On the contrary, at a certain stage the working class will demand its share, which is a factor in the autumn’s public sector coordinated action.

A Labour government will have no solution to the economic crisis. Throughout the time New Labour was in power the profits of British capitalism became increasingly reliant on the growing finance sector, huge credit bubbles and privatising public services. New Labour welcomed all of this, with Gordon Brown even declaring that ‘boom and bust’ had been abolished. That, however, was in a time of boom. Now British capitalism is using the same old methods in order to restore its profits.

The economy a Labour government would inherit would be an infinitely sicker version of what they presided over before. The prospect of a new financial crisis – for which Labour would again take the blame – is posed. In that situation Miliband would beat even Hollande in the records of unpopular prime ministers. Labour, like Pasok in Greece, could shatter.

The shaky situation on all fronts – social, economic and political – means that we cannot predict the outcome of the general election with any certainty. It is possible however, to be certain that the next government will be unstable and crisis-ridden. It is also possible to be certain that it will face massive opposition from the working class and that the idea of a new mass party of the working class will have opportunities to become reality.

The last five years have been a brutal school for workers – as they have experienced first-hand what 21st century capitalism means.

Many, particularly from the younger generation, can very quickly draw the conclusions that there is no choice but to launch a determined, mass struggle against austerity, but also that the only way to end austerity is to fight for the socialist transformation of society.

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