Mervyn King, unelected governor of the Bank of England, spoke on behalf of the majority of Britain’s capitalist class when he welcomed the government’s cuts plans and egged it on to go further in its emergency budget. It should not be forgotten that it was Brown, in 1997, who first gave the Bank of England independence from the government, freeing it to campaign blatantly on behalf of the capitalist class. However, Cameron and Clegg do not need egging on. The £6 billion worth of cuts that has been declared is the tip of an enormous iceberg. It is not certain how quickly the rest of the iceberg will be revealed but there is no doubt that it will be. The cuts that will be announced in the emergency budget will only be the beginning. According to the Financial Times (13 May 2010), “Mr Osborne will have to announce public spending cuts of £57 billion a year from a non-protected budget of about £260 billion – cuts of about 22%. It goes without saying that this will prove a sharp test of political will… Britain’s public sector will face similar austerity measures to those seen in Ireland, Greece, Portugal and Spain.”
It will and, like in those countries, we will see mass movements of the working class in opposition to the cuts. Such movements can force even strong governments to retreat. In Britain the profound weakness and division of this ‘government of losers’ will be revealed.
LibDem voters’ illusions shattered
Almost seven million people voted Liberal Democrat. The vast majority did so believing that the Liberal Democrat’s were a radical, anti-Tory party. Now their illusions have been brutally shattered as the Liberal Democrats have gaily burned their election manifesto in return for a taste of power. The only establishment party that made a claim to be against the war in Afghanistan, the Liberal Democrats’ negotiators have accepted the continuation of the occupation without a moment’s hesitation.
They have signed up just as eagerly for the Tories’ plans to slash public spending. The Tories, determined to make sure that the coalition partner takes its share of the blame have surrounded the chancellor, George Osborne, with a Liberal Democrat guard of axmen. Vince Cable has become business secretary. David Laws, a millionaire and ex-managing director of JP Morgan, has taken on the job of chief secretary of the treasury, a job which the Tory, Philip Hammond, who held the shadow post, predicted would result in its occupant’s face being stuck on dartboards in workplaces up and down the country. The Liberal Democrats have also taken on the job of Scottish secretary. The memories of Thatcherism run so deep in Scotland that the Tories remain virtually unelectable – with only one seat! The LibDems currently have seven but, by tying their wagon to the Tories, they too will now face oblivion in Scotland.
Millions of Liberal Democrat voters, and many – perhaps even a majority – of its activists will abandon the Liberal Democrats because of what they see as a terrible betrayal. At parliamentary level, however, it seems that for now that the coalition has been reluctantly accepted even by more radical Liberal Democrat MPs. This is only possible because the Liberal Democrats – although always a capitalist party – has suffered its own equivalent to Blairism. Clegg and his allies around the ‘Orange Book’ have successfully fought to move the party to the right on a whole number of issues; particularly on economic questions. The result is a situation where the Tory negotiators can describe, probably genuinely, their happiness in discovering that they had so much in common with their LibDem counterparts – both ‘socially liberal and economically conservative’, as William Hague put it. Cameron and co were forced into this coalition by their failure to win a majority. But now it exists they are trying to use it for their own ends, including leaning on the Liberal Democrats against the Tories own ultra-conservative wing. The leadership of the Tories has been prepared to contemplate allowing the possibility of joining the rest of the world and allowing a referendum on moving the voting system away from ‘first past the post’, in order to attempt to create a stable government together with the Liberal Democrats.
The Tories have also been prepared to promise fixed-term parliaments and, in an anti-democratic measure which even has an element of parliamentary bonapartism, to promise that the support of 55% of MPs will be required in order to dissolve parliament. Even if this measure makes it on to the statute books, which is far from certain, it will not be workable in reality. If 51% of MPs vote to dissolve parliament no government is going to be able to refuse to call a general election on the grounds that 55% is required constitutionally!
Despite all the efforts of Clegg and Cameron to create a stable government, this weak and rickety coalition is likely to shatter under the pressure of events at a certain point, probably in response to mass movements of the working class. Radical LibDem MPs may be reluctantly acquiescing to the situation now, but the pressure on them will be enormous when their ministers are proposing 22% cuts in public spending. The LibDems won many young people’s votes by claiming that they would abolish tuition fees – although, in reality, Clegg had already used the economic crisis as an excuse to postpone this pledge into the distant future. Now LibDem MPs are likely to be sitting on their hands while their government lifts the cap on tuition fees and slaughters university spending. Combined with growing mass youth unemployment – already the highest in twenty years – this will lead to an explosive situation amongst young people in Britain. Youth Fight for Jobs will have a crucial role to play in organising that anger, including by initiating school student and student strikes.
The measures planned by the government are very likely, as we have warned, lead to a ‘double-dip’ recession. As David Blanchflower, ex-member of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee, put it on 12 May: “Anybody who is going to start cutting in [the current economic position] is basically going to push us into that death spiral. That’s what we’ve avoided until this date. We need to be stimulating growth, not withdrawing multiple billions out of the system.” This is accurate, but it is not preventing the representatives of capitalism worldwide bowing to the will of the market – that is to the views of a handful of billionaire gamblers – and demanding speedy cuts in public spending. In Spain the prime minister, Zapatero, has announced a new ‘surprise’ cut of 5% in civil service pay after he received a phone call from Obama pleading with him to take “resolute action”.
The Spanish working class has given a ‘resolute response’ by calling a public sector general strike. We are at the beginning, Europe-wide, of what will be the mother of all battles to defend workers from the onslaught of capital. Twenty years ago in Britain our party, (then the Militant) led the 18 million-strong movement that brought down Thatcher – the Iron Lady – and her hated poll tax. Clegg and Cameron are more like Chihuahuas (as Boris Johnson suggested) than iron men, but we are going to need a similar movement to defeat them and their cuts. With the poll tax, even without the intervention of organised socialists, there would have been a mass outpouring of rage against the iniquity of the tax. Our role was to channel the anger into an organised movement. The scale of the cuts coming in Britain means we will face the same situation, but more so. It is true that the political understanding of the working class has not yet caught up with the changed economic situation, and that the confusion that exists can be prolonged by the lack of a mass workers’ party. But, despite these complications, the working class will be forced to fight back to defend itself and over time will draw political conclusions out of its experience in those struggles.
Nonetheless, socialists have a vital task in campaigning for a programme that will take the movement forward at each stage. There is no doubt that the right-wing trade union leaders will want to try and compromise with the government – accepting some cuts to try and prevent others. But only a militant, determined struggle against all cuts will be successful. In Britain, the first step needs to be a campaign for a massive national trade union led demonstration against all cuts in public services. This needs to be linked to the development of local anti-cuts committees to bring together the different campaigns in preparation for the mass movement that will be necessary. In Britain, as in other countries, the need for general strike action, probably initially across the public sector, will be posed at a certain stage.
This needs to be linked to arguing the case for a socialist alternative to capitalism. Unlike the governments of Europe, we do not accept the dictacts of the markets. Rather than bending the knee to these billionaire blackmailers the power to hold governments and whole peoples to ransom should be taken from them. Not only should the banks be nationalised under democratic workers’ control and management, but a state monopoly of foreign trade should be introduced.
It was to put the case for a socialist alternative that the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) stood in the general election. As has been explained elsewhere, TUSC’s excellent campaigns were not fully reflected in the votes we received. This was partly because TUSC had not had time to establish a national profile but also, as we expected, because many workers who agreed with us felt that they had no choice but to vote for New Labour in order to try and stop the Tories. This did not represent support for New Labour, which, unlike the Labour Party of the past, is a capitalist party, but rather the hope that the cuts would be a little gentler under a New Labour government. Ironically, Margaret Hodge, the millionaire New Labour MP for Barking, accurately described the reality when she pleaded with a voter on London TV, “just hold your nose and vote for me”; in that case to stop both the BNP and the Tories. In fact, although New Labour said that it would not fully wield the axe in this year, there would have been no fundamental difference between the cuts of a New Labour government and those of the current coalition. As Alistair Darling explained, New Labour’s cuts would have been ‘deeper and tougher than those of Thatcher’.
Since the election, some have argued that there is a possibility of shifting New Labour back to the left now that it is out of power. We do not think this is on the agenda. After the election a trickle of people joining the Labour Party has been reported, about twelve per constituency, partly disillusioned LibDems. However, to stand a chance of reclaiming capitalist New Labour for the working class it would take a mass influx into the party – of trade unionists and young people – determined to rebuild the democratic structures which have long been destroyed. To put it mildly, this has not been the experience of the other ex-social democratic parties in Europe, which have not altered their capitalist character when out of power and have largely remained empty shells. What is more, new left formations – in particular SYRIZA in Greece – have come into being while the ex-workers’ parties have been out of power. TUSC represents an important preparatory step towards such a formation – which could come into being very quickly under the impact of the stormy events that are coming.
In response to our calls for a new mass workers’ party, Len McCluskey, general secretary candidate for UNITE, has said that UNITE would launch a major campaign to reclaim the Labour Party under his leadership. We think this is a mistaken strategy. We argue for UNITE to stop funding New Labour and to begin to build a new party. Nonetheless, a serious campaign to reclaim New Labour by affiliated trade unions would be a huge step forward on the current policy of the majority of the union leaders of clinging to the coat-tails of the Brownites and the Blairites.
A serious campaign would have to demand that Labour adopts a socialist programme. Key demands would include the repeal of all the anti-trade union laws and opposition to all cuts in public services, not just in words but in action. Up and down the country Labour councils are going to be implementing the government’s massive cuts in public spending ‘under protest’. It would be necessary to demand that they ‘take the Liverpool road’ and, following the example of Liverpool City Council in the 1980s, refuse to implement cuts, mobilising the workforce and population in a mass campaign in their support. Such a campaign of defiance could quickly bring down the Tory/Liberal government. It would also be necessary to demand that the pro-capitalist and pro-war Blairites and Brownites be expelled from the party. Linked to this would be the rebuilding of democracy within the Labour Party, which is currently non-existent at national level. The trade unions, the main funders of New Labour, no longer even have the right to move motions at the toothless annual conference.
We do not think that a campaign to reclaim New Labour could succeed. However, was it to do so we would turn towards such a development. Equally, if we are proved correct, the affiliated trade unions would need to draw the conclusion that New Labour could not be reclaimed and take the road of building a new mass party of the working class.
David Milliband: “The heir to Blair who voted to invade Iraq, outhawked the Bush administration during the 2008 Gerogia crisis and has continued to hanker after the marketisation of pulic services.” (The Guardian, 13 May)
The first issue which will test the strength of the left in New Labour is the debate over its next leader. The character of New Labour is summed up by David Milliband, the current favourite to take the leadership. Seamas Milne described him accurately (Guardian, 13 May 2010): “The heir to Blair who voted to invade Iraq, outhawked the Bush administration during the 2008 Georgia crisis and has continued to hanker after the marketisation of public services.” The two Eds – Milliband and Balls – are no better. There are no political differences between these candidates. Were they in power the policies that they would be implementing would be almost indistinguishable from those of the Tory/LibDem coalition.
However, Socialist Campaign Group MP, John McDonnell, has indicated he will stand again. Last time he could not get the 48 MPs required to even get on the ballot paper, demonstrating the weakness of the Labour left. This time the threshold is lower, at 33 MPs, but there are now only 18 Labour Representation Committee-backed MPs in parliament. McDonnell is almost certain to be the only candidate that stands in defence of workers’ interests. Therefore, as Socialist Party members will argue, all affiliated trade unions, if they are serious about fighting to reclaim New Labour, should mandate their sponsored MPs to back him.
Mass movements ahead
The general election campaign was the worst in living memory. Nonetheless, it marked an important turning point in Britain’s history. Cameron and Clegg have not created a ‘new’ kind of politics. Their coalition is one more government for the billionaires and the bankers – but the profound crisis of capitalist profit system means that it will be a more brutal, vicious, anti-working class government than anything we have seen in our lifetimes. As in Greece, Spain and other countries the working class will respond with mass resistance. We will have opportunities to build mass support for socialism, as the only real alternative to the appalling brutality of the market.