Last week’s elections results have posed a dilemma before the British ruling class. They wanted a strong Tory government to introduce draconian anti-working class measures. The electorate denied them that pleasure. Now they are seeking to patch together some form of government that can guarantee them the same programme, but on a much more unstable base.
The recent general election and council elections in Britain have produced an unstable parliamentary situation, which is a reflection of the real instability that exists in society as a whole. Not only did the result produce a hung parliament with no overall majority for any party, but Britain could even end up with a Tory/Liberal coalition, the first time for more than 70 years.
Britain is facing a calamitous economic situation, and has the biggest budget deficit in Europe. That is why the ruling class was looking for a strong Tory government to carry out the draconian austerity measures needed. Without a strong government facing an enraged working class, they would have great difficulty in implementing such a programme of cuts. The Labour government, weak and battered, could no longer deliver such policies without a massive revolt. The Establishment were banking on a Tory victory.
These past few years all their efforts have been directed towards getting a majority Tory government elected. However, as the saying goes, the best laid plans of mice and men often go astray. The MPs expenses scandal was clearly “uncovered” in order to damage the Labour government. It ended up damaging both mainstream parties, and undermining confidence in the very institution of parliament.
Another important element that the British ruling class did not take into account sufficiently was that the workers have not forgotten what the Tories did last time they were in office. In 1997 there was a massive swing to Labour precisely because ordinary working people were fed up with the cuts, the privatisations, the anti-trade union laws of the Tories. Thus, although Cameron tried to present himself as the man who would bring “change” to Britain, the majority of the electorate said “thanks, but no thanks”. That is precisely because they knew what kind of “change” they would bring about: an attack on working class people.
That is why the Tories failed to win sufficient support to form a majority government, with only 36% of the vote and 306 seats. Labour, in spite of some polls indicating it could come in third, managed to come second in terms of seats (258) with a 29% share of the vote, only one percent higher than the historic defeat of 1983.
At that time, the “left” Michael Foot was attacked by the right wing for producing “the longest suicide note in history”. Then, we were told, a left leaning Labour Party was unelectable. They then proceeded to witch-hunt the left, in particular the Marxists, and eventually ended up with Tony Blair at the helm.
Finally they had an “electable” Labour Party. In 1997 Labour won a massive victory, and went on to win several other victories in subsequent years. Those victories were used by the Blairite wing of the party to strengthen its grip. Anyone in the party that criticised the Blairites was told that Blair could win elections and “keep the Tories out”. Now, after 13 years of “New” Labour government, we see how electable these people are. They have lost power with a similar level of support to that under Michael Foot! This is a complete condemnation of right-wing policies and represents a complete rejection of Blairism. And thanks to the bourgeois carpet-baggers, leaching off the labour movement, the Tories are once more the main party in parliament.
Nevertheless, in spite of all the sell-outs, cuts, privatisations, etc., the working class in the industrial urban areas of Britain rallied to Labour to stop the return of the Tories, still hated after more than 18 years of Thatcherism. This was reflected in the increased turnout over 2005, up from 60% to just over 65%.
This increased turnout did not help the Liberal Democrats who seemed to be experiencing a surge in the polls prior to the election. They had tried to portray themselves as something new and fresh, something “clean”. But on fundamental issues of economic policy there are no real differences between the Liberal Democrats and the Tories, or with the right-wing of Labour. Instead of gaining seats, they ended up with 57, five fewer seats than in 2005, with 23% of the vote.
This reveals an important element in the equation. Huge class polarisation is taking place in British society as the economic crisis impacts on the weaker layers, on the poor, the unemployed, and the working class as a whole. This polarisation was expressed in the elections. The increase of class tensions squeezed the Liberals and the other remaining parties. The Greens managed to take one solitary seat in Brighton. The other “independents”, like Esta Rantzen, were soundly defeated, as were the British National Party.
Even with the support of the Sun and other tabloid newspapers, who tried to depict Cameron as another Obama, the Tories failed miserably. They are now being forced to try to cobble together a deal with the Liberals to form a government. Whether this will actually lead to a coalition or not, it is not possible to say at this stage. The other option is a minority Tory government with external support from the Liberals. However, that would be an extremely unstable government, always having to seek support for each Bill that is presented in parliament, never being sure of what majority they would get.
That is not the kind of government that is required. The bourgeois understand that the pressures of the world crisis of capitalism require urgent measures, which involve massive cuts in public spending, sacking many public sector workers, holding down wages and so on. For the government to have a chance of getting such a programme passed in parliament it would require a solid majority. That is why the Establishment would prefer a coalition, hoping to bind something together long enough to carry through the austerity measures needed. But whatever the outcome, it will be a government not of stability but of crisis.
A closer analysis of the election results are of great interest. Firstly, they show that neither New Labour nor the Tories were able to convince the electorate. The 18 years of Thatcherite government prior to 1997 and the 13 years of Labour government that followed have left their mark. For more than 30 years the British workers have suffered a constant attack on welfare and on working conditions. The Blair government introduced working tax credits and the minimum wage, which benefited many working class families. However, at the same time, on all fundamental issues of economic policy it continued on from where the Tories had left off.
Some on the ultra-left fringes of the labour movement satisfied themselves with stating that there was no difference between the “three bourgeois” parties, i.e. Labour, Liberal Democrats and Tories. But that is not how the working class of this country viewed it. Otherwise how does one explain the voting patterns, particularly in the industrial urban centres where the working class is concentrated? When push comes to shove, the working class always tend to support the Labour Party. They instinctively regard it, despite all the disappointments of the last 13 years, as their party, warts and all. For them, at least at this stage, there was simply no alternative.
The increased turnout was clearly an indication that a significant layer of the working class, that had previously stopped voting, decided to come out to block the Tories. Not only did they successfully deny the Tories a majority in parliament, but in most of the urban town councils they voted Labour back in! In some areas there was even a swing to Labour.
Where the left Labour candidates stood they managed to increase their vote, most notably John McDonnell (who increased his vote by 2,500) and Jeremy Corbyn (who increased his vote by 8,000). This confirms what the Marxists have always said, i.e. that when left policies are combined with the name of the traditional mass party of the British working class this has a big impact.
In Scotland, there was a swing to Labour as Labour MPs were returned with massive majorities. Labour took back Glasgow East from the SNP. In Glasgow NE, Labour increased on its by-election result to a 15,000 majority over the SNP. The Tories only managed to hold on to one seat in Scotland. The boasts of the nationalists that they would gain 20 seats were completely dashed, winning only the same number of seats, 6 in all. The turnout in some parts of Scotland was 77%, a substantial rise on the previous election. The Central Belt of Scotland remains a red belt. This again confirms the point that workers decided consciously to come out to block the Tories by supporting Labour.
In Wales, however, Labour lost four seats to the Tories, increasing their representation from three to eight, while Blaenau Gwent was won back to Labour. However, Labour still has 26 seats, the biggest party by far.
As we have seen, in the local elections, Labour did well. They managed to seize back Sheffield and Liverpool councils from the Lib Dems and wiped out the British National Party in Barking and Dagenham, which lost all its 12 councillors. The BNP were also hammered by Labour in Stoke, forcing it into third place, and in Burnley. Across the country they lost 24 seats and only managed to hold on to a mere 19.
This shows the weakness of the BNP which can be swept aside when the class moves. Again, the analysis of the Marxists on the so-called “threat of fascism” was confirmed. We have explained that the historical basis for fascism has been whittled away during decades in which the overwhelming majority of the population has been proletarianised. Not so long ago the media was full of reports about the “racism” of working class people in places like Dagenham. Now what will they have to say? With a greater turnout of working class voters, the BNP was smashed, and all its seats were lost to Labour.
Labour succeeded in gaining fourteen councils, including Enfield, Coventry, Doncaster, Hartlepool, Oxford and St Helens, and increasing its number of councillors nationally by nearly 400. The London borough of Newham is 100% Labour, with all the opposition cleared out. It also regained Barnet. In Tower Hamlets, we have more Labour councillors today than at any time since 1982. In London as elsewhere, the areas where most Blacks and Asians live came out solidly for Labour.
Labour held on and advanced in most of its working class strongholds. In Barking, Nick Griffin of the BNP was standing, hoping to build on their earlier successes in the council elections. But Labour pushed Nick Griffin into third place, a humiliating experience which will no doubt provoke a crisis inside the BNP, and possibly even splits at a later stage.
It is a fact that the workers rallied to Labour to defeat the racists. The UAF’s role was minimal, simply trying to frighten people by shouting about the “dangers of fascism”. Apart from a few leaflets, all their propaganda was concentrated upon calling for workers to vote anything, including the Tories or UKIP, but not the BNP. This reveals the total lack of understanding of the UAF as to what is really required. Right-wing Tories and UKIP are equally racist. Therefore to call for a vote for these parties as if they were somehow better is utter nonsense, and working class people cannot connect to such propaganda.
What the vote in Barking and Dagenham reveals is that after a period on the council the BNP has been exposed somewhat, and despite a poor official campaign by Labour, workers rallied to vote Labour into Parliament and the council, taking 51 seats out of 51.
The total vote nationally for Labour was 8,600,000, with a loss of 91 seats. This is a clear defeat for Brown (and Blair before him) and his de facto Tory policies. However, as we said, the party held on to its core vote and even strengthened its position in its traditional working class strongholds. This is after 13 years of New Labour government which has squandered the massive support gained in 1997, where Labour had gained a majority of nearly 180 seats.
Disillusionment with the Blair/Brown government eroded Labour’s support, opening the way for another Tory victory. This is the consequence of right-wing policies based upon capitalism. This is the real lesson for Labour activists. Only a socialist programme can answer the needs of working people, and that requires a complete break from New Labour policies.
No doubt, many Labour Party activists and many in the ranks of the trade unions will have heaved a sigh of relief and not seeing the party trounced as they had been accustomed to expect over the past couple of years. But is this what many in the labour movement voted for back in 1997? Can we be happy with the fact that “we didn’t do as badly as we had expected”? No, what is required is a serious analysis of the past 13 years, of the policies adopted and the effect they had on the electorate.
We cannot be satisfied with this. What we need is to develop a completely different programme and set of policies, based on the principles of socialism, on the principle that big business should pay for the crisis. That can only mean a programme based on the key demand of nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy under democratic workers’ control and management. That is the only way we will be able to defend jobs, schools, hospitals, pensions and solve all the ills provoked by this rotten, stinking corpse of capitalism.
Another lesson of this election is the failure of all those who attempted to build an alternative to Labour. Once again, this election has proved the point made repeatedly by the Marxist tendency that it is not possible to simply jump over the traditional mass organisations of the working class. They have established deep roots which will not be displaced by the establishment of small left groupings on the fringes of the movement, despite more than a decade of Blairite policies.
While we fully appreciate the frustration and disgust with New Labour by millions of workers, when the chips were down, they turned out to vote Labour as there was NO REALISTIC ALTERNATIVE. The choice for them was either vote Labour or not to vote at all. That is why groups like RESPECT, Socialist Alternative, Scottish Socialist Party, Socialist Labour Party, Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, Workers’ Revolutionary Party and Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), failed to make any impact. In fact, their results were worse than in the past. This is not a reflection on the integrity of the individual candidates who stood, many of them good class fighters, such as Rob Williams, but the fact that where the class perceives a danger from the Tories, they will rally to their traditional organisation and ignore these fringe groups. This is especially the case in working class areas.
In London, George Galloway, the only Respect MP lost his seat to Labour and came third after the Tories. Given their poor showing and the loss of its only MP, it is quite possible that RESPECT will now tend to disintegrate. The SSP in Scotland continues to limp along, but it has long lost any hope of making the breakthrough it originally thought possible. Many believed that they could at least be the second workers’ party in Scotland. However, the 3,157 votes it achieved across 10 constituencies, which averages 315 votes per candidate, were even less than the poor showing in the last election in 2005. So rather than strengthening their electoral base, despite everything, it has got much weaker and in reality reduced them to an irrelevant fringe group.
The Socialist Alternative, which is the Socialist Party of England and Wales and part of TUSC, stood in some seats. In Coventry, Huddersfield and Lewisham they had five councillors who were defending their seats this time around. In every case, apart from one, they lost their seats to Labour. In contrast, in Coventry the Labour Party gained six seats, while the SP lost one of its two, to Labour. This was a big blow considering that these seats were held up by the SP as the way forward, where socialist candidates could defeat Labour.
One explanation provided for this setback seems to be that there was an increased turnout of those voting. What this means is that they are saying that when more workers turn out they vote Labour! And they vote Labour to stop the Tories, i.e. according to the sectarian logic, the workers vote for one bourgeois party (Labour) to stop another (the Tories). This simply doesn’t make sense. If there ever was a moment when small forces standing to the left of Labour should have had a chance it was in these elections. Labour has been in power for 13 years; many workers are disillusioned with Labour; and some should be looking for an alternative. Instead what happens? Not only do the workers turn to Labour, they even vote out the few independent lefts that had been elected previously.
The Marxists have explained many times that when the mass of workers – who previously have not moved – begin to take political action they turn to their traditional mass organisations. This is precisely what has happened in these elections.
In Swansea West, the TUSC candidate was Rob Williams who is the convenor of the former Ford plant and was victimised last year but reinstated. He was well-known as a class fighter, but despite this he only managed to pick up 179 votes (0.5%), less than the workers he represents in his own workplace. He came ninth out of nine candidates. Labour, described by Rob as a “capitalist party”, won the seat with over 12,000 votes.
In Coventry South, the TUSC candidate gained 691 votes (1.5%), while Labour picked up over 19,000 (41.8%). In Coventry North East, the TUSC got 370 (0.8%), while Labour got nearly 20,000 votes (42.8%). In Coventry North East, Dave Nellist, the ex-Labour MP, stood for TUSC and achieved 1,592 (3.7%), but the Labour candidate got over 21,000 votes (49.3%).
Dave Nellist, the most well-known TUSC candidate, who was kicked out of the Labour Party, got around 10,000 votes when he challenged Labour in 1992, as the outgoing Labour MP. People regarded him as the real Labour candidate in those conditions. But as the years have gone by his vote has fallen consistently.
In 2001, Labour got 22,739, while Dave Nellist polled 2,638, and the BNP got 737 votes. In the 2005 election, Labour scored 21,178, but Dave’s vote went down to 1,874. There was no BNP candidate that year. But today, Labour got 21,384, an increase on the last election, while Dave went down further to1,592 votes. The BNP got 1,863 votes. This speaks volumes about the loyalty of the working class towards the Labour Party, despite everything. And Dave Nellist was the best placed candidate, having been an MP previously, who was widely respected in the Coventry labour movement.
If you add up the votes of the TUSC candidates across the 40 odd seats they stood in, their combined vote was only HALF the vote achieved by John McDonnell alone in Hayes and Harlington. After all the effort put in and the money spent, this is what they managed to achieve. It speaks for itself.
In Manchester Central, while Labour got over 21,000 votes (52.7%), the SLP got 153 votes (0.4%), the WRP got 59 votes (0.1%), and the Socialist Equality got 54 votes (0.1%). These left groups are achieving votes on a par with the Monster Raving Looney Party. The same goes for Camberwell and Peckham, where Labour picked up over 27,000 votes, while the SLP got 184 votes (0.4%), the WRP got 211 votes (0.5%) and the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty manage 75 votes (0.2%).
If there was ever a time when these fringe groups should have made some kind of gains or even break through, it is now. After 13 years of right-wing Labour government where there is widespread disillusionment, if there was to be any real alternative, then it was now. However, events have proved otherwise. While Labour’s national vote has gone down, and the party has lost more MPs than at any time since 1931, the Labour core vote has remained firm. By and large, the workers have rallied to Labour in their traditional heartlands.
This more than ever confirms the fact that it is not possible to write off the Labour Party as many on the far left have attempted to do. The idea of creating an alternative to Labour on the electoral front has once again completely failed. We must learn the lessons, that only through a struggle within the trade unions and the Labour Party can the party be changed. The mass of the trade unions are affiliated and finance the party. It is time they took it back for the working class. The Blairites have been given a bloody nose. We should use this defeat to further the struggle to clear out the carpet-baggers and transform the party into a fighting organisation of working people. This must go hand in hand with the fight for socialist polices as the only alternative to capitalism.
For years we have argued that there is no short-cut to building a genuine fighting party of the working class. We have been going against the stream for some years, arguing this point. Many on the ultra-left fringe laughed at the idea that what is required is patient work in the mass organisations. So they attempted various options, such as the Socialist Alliance in the past and more recently No2EU. In these elections they tried it again, either as TUSC, Respect, or the various other formations. All have failed.
Does that mean that there is no other road? No, as Lenin explained, our task is “to patiently explain” and build up a Marxist tendency rooted inside the mass organisations, the trade unions and the Labour Party. The period we are entering will prove to be the most turbulent in history. The crisis is severe, as the events in Greece confirm. Intensified class struggle is the perspective ahead of us. There will be ups and downs, periods of intense conflict, with major strikes and even general strikes, followed by periods of temporary retreat. But in the process the workers will start to draw conclusions. Whatever government is formed, whether a minority Tory government, or a coalition of some kind, the programme will be the same. The bourgeois are preparing for war, war of the classes. The workers will not take what is coming lying down.
This will be a period in which the ideas of genuine Marxism will be more relevant than ever, and it is our task to take these ideas to the workers wherever they are, in the trade unions, in the workplaces, and also within the Labour Party itself.