Whilst it cannot be totally excluded, it is now extremely unlikely that New Labour will win the election. Brown is hoping that there will be a rapid improvement in the economy or that David Cameron and the Tories will trip up in some unforeseen way. The latter is possible, the former extremely unlikely. Only weak economic growth is likely though even this will improve Brown’s chances if he gains some credit for the economic measures he took to counter recession in 2008-2009. It should be remembered that Neil Kinnock seemed almost certain to win the 1992 election but failed to do so despite the fall of Thatcher (precipitated by the defeat inflicted by the anti-Poll Tax movement), Tory divisions over Europe and the 1990-1992 recession.
The Tories need to climb an electoral mountain to win enough seats to form a majority government. At the present time opinion polls suggest they can do it but the memory of the Thatcher years has not faded for millions of voters, most especially working class voters. Now that the Tories have taken off the mask and appear as they truly are, the outcome of the election is a little more uncertain.
The Tory shadow cabinet is almost entirely made up of millionaire public schoolboys and they are falling over each other in their desire to be the most vigorous proponent of vicious attacks on public services. As the election nears a certain swing back to New Labour – not a measure of real support but a reflection of revulsion towards and fear of the Tories – may occur (there is evidence that this has already happened in recent by-elections). That alone is unlikely to decide the outcome of the election. The abstention rate amongst working class people, who see no party to vote for, will be of key importance. A hung parliament, with no party gaining a majority is entirely possible. The result could be a weak minority or unstable coalition government, or even a second general election within a short period as in 1974.
Whichever party wins the election we can say with certainty that major attacks on the working class, and major class battles, lie ahead. In recent months we have seen the CWU national strike in which Brown and Mandelson were at one with the Tories in backing Royal Mail management. And when British Airways cabin crew voted overwhelmingly for action they were denied their democratic rights by the courts. Neither dispute is in any sense settled and the prospect of further action remains.
Prolonged economic crisis
This year may end with anaemic growth but the question is whether any upturn can be sustained for more than a few months as unemployment continues to rise and massive personal, company and government debts constrict spending.
It is very possible that we will see a W-shaped (or “double-dip”) recession. It is also possible that we will see an L-shaped recession. 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.
Over the past 15 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.
Gordon Brown and David Cameron agree “the books need to be balanced”. For these politicians, both of whom represent the interests of the ruling class, that means that the creators of wealth, the working class, must pay for the mistakes of the parasites of the City of London. Public spending will be slashed whichever party wins the next election-probably by between 10% and 20%-and taxes which hit working class people the hardest will rise.
For an increasing number of traditional Labour voters the party no longer reflects their interests. A new mass party which represents the interests of working class people is clearly needed. Some of Labour’s traditional voters have switched to other parties but far greater numbers simply stayed at home. Labour has relied on the fact that its supporters have had nowhere else to go. Many of these voters, whose communities were decimated under Thatcher, would never vote Conservative. Increasingly however they see little to choose between New Labour and the Tories.
Threat of far-right
The attacks of New Labour, and the failure to build a credible mass left alternative, has allowed the BNP to gain an electoral base. It now has two MEPs and approximately 100 councillors. It is challenging Labour in many of its heartlands. A survey of the wards that produced the 25 best BNP votes in recent elections shows that all but one rank well below average in the Indices of Deprivation and the one exception, Queensbury in Bradford, is roughly average in terms of deprivation.
Where will a mass workers party come from?
The road ahead will be difficult – mass parties are not easily built. The opportunities will come however. New fresh layers of workers and youth will move into action and will seek a political voice.
There have been a number of important developments since it became clear that New Labour no longer represents working people, even in a distorted way. The Fire Brigades Union and the RMT union have broken from New Labour and the militant civil service union PCS has established a political fund and is discussing the way forward. Motions to disaffiliate from New Labour now come up regularly at most union conferences.
“Reclaiming” Labour, in the sense that it was previously understood, is not a viable option in any real sense. It is very difficult to see the emergence of a genuine mass left within Labour in the future. In the context of a crushing electoral defeat, and the desertion from New Labour of a layer of carpet baggers, there may well be turmoil within Labour’s ranks, but the key is the creation of a new party for working class and young people from new layers who move into action in the coming period.
A left electoral platform backed by Bob Crow, General Secretary of the RMT railworkers union, the Socialist Party (linked to the Socialist Party in Ireland) and the Communist Party of Britain, and possibly by other political groups and trade unions will stand in the general election. It will probably stand in a limited number of seats, targeting New Labour cabinet ministers in particular. Even this limited left electoral challenge is an important development however. It will put down a marker for the future, when social upheavals and class battles prepare the ground for the emergence of a credible new working class party.