A New Labour minority government, or a coalition of New Labour with the LibDems, are growing possibilities. A less likely development is a LibDem/Tory coalition but this cannot be excluded either. Least likely is a coalition of all three establishment parties. If there is a hung parliament, a second election later in the year (as occurred in 1974) is very possible. A period of political instability at the top is almost certain.
Whichever party wins the general election, it is clear the working class will be asked to pay for the crisis of the system. On the Channel Four debate on economic policy on 29 March the Chancellor, Alistair Darling, his Tory rival, George Osborne and Lib Dem, Vince Cable, were at one in arguing for savage cuts after the election.
David Prosser of The Independent newspaper summed this up simply: “The Tory/Labour divide is a political not economic one”. He further comments: “The idea that there is some mammoth divide between Mr. Osborne and Mr. Darling on when to start work cutting the deficit is a myth”. The only real difference is one of timing. The Tories will immediately go for the jugular in attacking public sector services and wages, probably with an “emergency” budget along the lines of the infamous 1981 budget of Geoffrey Howe, Chancellor in Margaret Thatcher’s first government.
Darling’s recent budget was designed to show that New Labour would cut more “fairly” than the Tories. Its central message was that New Labour, after an initial delay, would cut £78 billion from public services over the next four years however. Darling described his planned cuts as “deeper and tougher” than Margaret Thatcher’s – these would be the deepest cuts since the early 1920s.
The two main parties have said that they will ring-fence spending on health, education and overseas development. This, as John Lanchester comments in the London Review of Books, means “cuts everywhere else of 16%”. He goes on: “Cuts of that magnitude have never been achieved in this country. Mrs. Thatcher managed to cut some areas of public spending to zero growth; the difference between that
and a contraction of 16% is unimaginable”.
Cuts, cuts, cuts…no matter who wins
Lanchester then says what this would mean: “At the transport ministry, an 18% reduction would take out more than a third of the department’s grant to Network Rail; a 24% reduction is about equivalent to ending all current and capital expenditure on roads. At the Ministry of Justice, an 18% reduction broadly equates to closing all the courts, a 24% cut to shutting two-thirds of all prisons”.
Already the working class is reeling from the effects of the recession. Over 2.5 million are on the dole. Millions of workers have, in effect, traded a cut in living standards for holding on to their jobs through short-time working and wage cuts. The proportion of adults in two jobs has rocketed from 26% to 38% of the labour force in the last year, that is, more than one in three British workers are now compelled to have two jobs in order to keep their heads above water. Since Britain’s economy stuttered into growth, national income has grown by £27 billion. £24 billion of that is made up of increased profits and only £2 billion from increased wages.
It is very possible that we will see a “double-dip” recession or an L-shaped recession. A double-dip recession occurs when the economy temporarily limps back into growth, only to once again slip back into recession a few months later. An example of an L-shaped recession occurred in Japan following the bursting of an asset price bubble in 1990. The economy suffered from deflation and experienced years of recession or sluggish growth and has never returned to the high growth rates experienced from 1950 to 1990. There is no rosy scenario ahead for the economy or for the living standards of working class people.
Over the years of the boom, working class consumption was financed by the growth of mortgage and other personal debt. That option has ended. For years to come, working class people will be paying off debt at the same time as real wages contract and the public services they receive are slashed.
Significant sections of the organised working class, including civil servants, railway workers, BA cabin crew and others, are refusing to bow down in the face of attacks on pay, conditions and jobs. This is a foretaste of what is to come. Beyond the general election, as in Greece and Spain, huge anti-cuts movements are on the cards.
Strikes and social movements in opposition to cuts will be the order of the day in the years to come. Working class people will turn to their trade unions, and will transform those unions if they don’t reflect their interests. An increasing number of traditional Labour voters will come to realise that the party no longer reflects their interests and that they need a new political voice if they are to protect their living standards.
Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition – An important step forward
The Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) is standing 40 candidates in the general and local elections in England, Scotland and Wales. The decision to establish the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) has been widely welcomed by many fighting trade unionists. Three regional councils of the Rail, Maritime and Transport workers union (RMT) have declared in support. The TUSC steering committee includes, all in a personal capacity, the RMT general secretary Bob Crow, the general secretary of the Prison Officers Association, Brian Caton, the PCS assistant general secretary, Chris Baugh, and PCS vice president, John McInally.
Coalition candidates include former RMT executive member Mick Tosh, standing in Portsmouth North, Keith Gibson, a leader of last year’s Lindsey Oil Refinery construction workers’ unofficial strike committee, who is challenging cabinet member Alan Johnson in Hull West, Socialist Party councillor and former Labour MP Dave Nellist, standing against Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth in Coventry North East, and a former Labour parliamentary candidate, Dave Hill, in Brighton Kemptown.
The TUSC steering committee for Scotland includes representatives from the regional council of the Fire Brigades Union, and branch officers from the RMT, the Communication Workers Union, the PCS civil servants’ union and the largest Unison branch in Scotland.
TUSC has been established as a federal umbrella coalition, with an agreed core policy statement but with participating candidates and organisations accountable for their own campaigns. A number of socialist organisations, including the Socialist Party in England and Wales, Solidarity in Scotland, the Walsall-based Democratic Labour Party, Socialist Resistance and the Socialist Workers Party are members of the Coalition.
TUSC offers a way forward for trade unionists on what can be done now – in this particular election – to begin to overcome the crisis of working class political representation. Many trade unionists are cautious in their approach however. They recognize that New Labour is not their party and will launch even sharper attacks on workers’ living standards if it wins the election, but are very concerned about the possibility of a Tory government.
The Socialist Party believes that the Labour Party has now been totally transformed into a party which bases itself completely on the logic of capitalism. Previously, as a “capitalist workers’ party” (a party with pro-capitalist leaders but with democratic structures that allowed the working class to fight for its interests), the Labour Party always had the potential to act at least as a check on the capitalist class. This was a factor that the capitalist class had to take into account.
Workers need a political voice
Now the situation is completely different. Without the re-establishment of at least the basis of independent working class political representation, the capitalists will feel less constrained in imposing their austerity policies.
TUSC will not fully provide the necessary alternative but it is still an important step forward. Above all, by drawing in the most combative sections of the working class in defence of jobs, public services and workers’ rights, it can help to prepare the necessary forces to take forward the argument for a new political vehicle for workers in the post-election period. Not to do everything possible now to help that process would be a mistake.
A new mass political vehicle for workers, a new workers’ party which could fill the present vacuum, will not necessarily develop through the official structures of the unions. It is certainly unlikely that a majority of the larger unions would initially embrace a new party – in the same way that the biggest unions remained wedded to the Liberal Party in the early days of the Labour Representation Committee (the forerunner of the Labour Party).
But big events loom which will relentlessly pose before trade unionists in struggle the need for a political alternative. TUSC can play a critical role in developing this consciousness.
Trade unions are still the basic organisations of the working class, which gives them enormous social weight. For the Socialist Party, the importance of TUSC lies above all in its potential as a catalyst in the trade unions for the idea of working class political representation. It can also play a role in drawing together anti-cuts campaigns, environmental campaigners, anti-racist groups and others. It is only secondarily a vehicle for developing “left unity”, in other words, of socialist organisations collaborating for specific goals, or “left regroupment”, the bringing together of different socialist groups into one organisation.
The founding of the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) in February 1900 was greeted by The Clarion, a popular socialist newspaper of the time, as “a little cloud, no bigger than a man’s fist, which may grow into a United Labour Party”.
TUSC is certainly not a new LRC, which itself was not pre-ordained to develop into a mass party. It contested just 15 seats in the 1900 general election and affiliated union membership halved in its first year. The period ahead will be turbulent. The Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition is today just a modest step on the road to establishing independent working class political representation but its potential role, as it fills out or as a precursor to future developments, is immense.