Britain: Labour and the cuts

Friday, 06 May 2011
Print

Saturday 26th March 2011 marked a watershed point for the modern Labour Party. The Trade Union Congress had called for workers, students, pensioners and all those affected by the coalition cuts to converge on the capital. The question was: would Labour show up to the party too?

E "Red Ed", leader of the Labour Party, speaking at the CBI annual conference last year. Photo: The CBI"Red Ed", leader of the Labour Party, speaking at the CBI annual conference last year. Photo: The CBI d Miliband, having been labelled “Red Ed” for winning the Labour leadership elections thanks to the votes of trade union members, was now put under pressure by the same politicians and papers, who told him that he would be signing his own suicide note by accepting an invitation to speak at the post-march rally in Hyde Park.
Miliband, to his credit, did accept the invitation. He talked of the struggles of the past – the  suffragettes, the civil rights activists, and the anti-apartheid movement – and he referred to the creation of the NHS, the establishment of the welfare state, and the construction of social housing that followed Labour’s landslide victory in 1945.

It’s interesting to note, however, what Miliband didn’t say in his speech. Referring to the suffragettes, civil rights activists, and the anti-apartheid movement is very good, but maybe Miliband should have mentioned that these were not entirely peaceful, legal movements. Far from it – these were militant struggles, fought by unions and working people, using industrial action that was often classed as  illegal. At the time, those participating in these movements were considered to be unruly vandals and dangerous rebels by many politicians.

Will Ed Miliband support a similar level of militancy to that seen in the historical movements that he praises retrospectively? Is it just the ends of these struggles that he admires (the right to vote, etc.) or does he also respect their means? To give a concrete example, will the Labour Party leadership support illegal and militant actions, such as wildcat strikes or occupations of universities, that may be undertaken by workers and students in defence of jobs and education respectively? Would Ed Miliband be willing to back joint industrial action to stop the cuts, as was suggested by trade union leaders at the rally?

Change

There are many in the Labour Party who became comfortable in the peaceful and calm atmosphere that surrounded the Blair-era. Between 1997 and 2008, things seemed to be getting better for everyone. The economy was growing; the City was making money and generating vast amounts of tax revenue; everyone else was benefitting from increased spending on public services. The magical Third Way – the alchemy of the political world; the perpetual motion machine of economics – had been discovered. The mantra everywhere was “today is better than yesterday, and tomorrow will be better than today.”

Those who thought that the Labour Party could be all things to all people will have to think again. No longer can one party sit on the fence and attempt to appease both the bosses and the workers; the bankers and the masses. The idea of class divide is no longer a historical, anachronistic concept. As a result of the economic crisis, society is becoming increasing polarised into two great classes. On the one hand we see the power of finance capital, with the EU and the IMF dictating austerity programmes on behalf of financial speculators to countries like Greece, Portugal, and Ireland. In Britain, these people are politically represented by the Coalition. With 18 millionaires in the Coalition cabinet, and with the Tories receiving 50% of their funding from the City, it is clear that we have a government of the rich, by the rich, for the rich. On the other hand we have the rest of society who are being made to pay for the crisis and who will be affected by the cuts: workers and trade unionists; mothers and children; pensioners and students.

Unions

Many of those who have become used to the peaceful and calm years in the Labour Party were worried about Ed Miliband speaking at the TUC rally. They don’t like the fact that the trade unions have any influence over the Labour Party. They see trade unions as a thing of the past; an electoral hindrance. This forgets a couple of basic facts: firstly, the trade unions represent around seven million people; secondly, the trade unions founded the Labour Party. It may sound tautological, but the Labour Party is supposed to be the party of labour.

It should be emphasised that backing the trade unions does not mean backing “vested interests”. As we saw on the 26th March, the trade unions have the power to unite everyone. The demonstration was called by the TUC, but was attended by people from all walks of life who had one thing in common: they don’t want these cuts.

This leads to another problem with Miliband’s speech: the current idea in the Labour Party leadership is that people are for cuts, just not the coalition cuts. This is thoroughly false. The “slower and lower” plan put forward by Balls and Miliband is no solution. People do not want to see any cuts, yet we are told that the idea of no cuts is unrealistic and idealistic; that some cuts are necessary, but that Miliband, Balls, and co. will administer the fair cuts. The real idealism is to expect ordinary people to pay for the crisis whilst banks announce profits of £24bn for last year and whilst the collective wealth of Britain’s 1000 richest people increases by 30% to £336bn. Where are the fair cuts? Cuts to bankers’ bonuses and big business’ profits? Yes please! But again, the real idealism is to think that we can just politely ask the bankers and big business to hand over their money, as the reformists are suggesting with “alternatives” such as “plugging the tax gap,” “reducing tax evasion and avoidance” and “introducing a Robin Hood tax.” 

Capital

We live in a world where capital is liquid and dynamic and can be moved out of the country in a flash. The only way to stop this is to take the economy out of private hands and place it under public control – to nationalise the banks, infrastructure, and industrial monopolies, and run them democratically in the interests of everyone.

The reality is that even the smallest reforms must be fought for. The 40-hour week and the right to vote were not won lightly, but were fought for through struggle. Miliband made references in his speech to the reforms that were brought in by the Labour government of 1945: the NHS; the welfare state; social housing. What he did not mention, however, is that these reforms will be taken away if we do not fight to keep them: social housing was sold off by Thatcher; the welfare state is under attack from the Coalition; the NHS is being privatised by the backdoor. As Aneurin Bevan said, “The NHS will last as long as there are folk left with the faith to fight for it.”

The trade unions are in the strongest position to unite the whole of the anti-cuts movement and send a powerful message to the government, starting with a 24-hour general strike. The might of the labour movement is the only power equivalent to that of the finance capital that is dictating the depth and speed of these cuts. But the labour movement cannot fight solely on the economic front; the working class needs political representation also, in the shape of a party that is free from the influence of finance and big business.

In short, we need a party of the labour movement, by the labour movement, for the labour movement. We need a leadership that is willing to fight for workers and youth; to fight for a radical transformation of society; to fight for socialism.

Source: Socialist Appeal (Britain)