The British General Election and the perspectives for the Labour Party

On 7th June, the people of Britain will go to the polls to elect the next government. According to all the polls Labour is set to gain a hefty majority over the Conservatives. The polls show that Labour is now leading the Tories by a massive 28 points. The personal rating of Tory leader William Hague is just 13 per cent.

"According to our poll," writes The Economist (19 May), "54 per cent of people intend to vote Labour. With support for the Tories down to 26 per cent, they could face a defeat on the scale that Labour suffered in 1983, when it got 28 per cent of the vote."

Yet the election campaign has been as dead as a Dodo, and the great majority show little interest and less enthusiasm for either New Labour or the Tories. The general election turnout is likely to be low - some have even predicted the lowest for over 100 years. The reason for this alleged "voter apathy" is not hard to find.

Hopes dashed

In May 1997, Labour won a landslide majority after 18 long years of right wing Tory government. Tony Blair, the new leader of the Labour Party promised a new and "radical" policy to build a "better Britain". But once installed in Number Ten Downing Street he has followed a policy tailored exclusively to the interests of Big Business.

One of the first actions he took was to give the Bank of England control over interest rates, thus handing over effective control of economic policy to the representatives of the City. Next, he announced that Labour would restrict its public spending to the cash limits set by the defeated Tory administration.

The austerity policies of the Blair government led to attacks on the poorest and most vulnerable groups in British society, such as single parents. The pensioners were offered an insulting rise of 75 pence. Although they later gave more, the insult is not forgotten.

In stark contrast to this "tough" line with the poor, the Blairites are openly bragging about their friendship with business. Chancellor Gordon Brown has boasted that Britain has "the lowest rate in history of British corporation tax, the lowest of any major country in Europe and the lowest rate of any major industrialised country anywhere, including Japan and the United States."

He might have added that Britain also now has some of the longest hours, lowest pay and worst working conditions of any major industrialised country. At present, British workers work 25 per cent longer hours than workers in Europe or the USA. Polly Townsend, writing in The Guardian (23/3/01) points out: "The OECD - conservative economists - finds Britain has the least market regulation, the lowest corporation tax (lower than any time in history) and the lowest employment costs - not just lower than the rest of Europe, but when everything is added on (including US employers' health insurance) lower than the US too. Social insurance and labour taxes average 24 per cent in Europe and only 13 per cent in Britain."

The Blair government has done little to remedy this. The introduction of the minimum wage was a step forward, but it was set at such a low rate as to water it down completely. Even a large part of the notorious Tory anti-trade union legislation - which restricts trade union rights to a far greater extent than in any other industrialised nation - have not been rescinded.

Pro-Business policy

While Blair struts around the world stage, parts of Britain are falling to almost Third-World levels. Public housing, education and transport are in a lamentable state. The much-vaunted National Health Service is now in ruins. Once Britain led the world in health. Now, according to the World Health Organisation, 25000 Britons who died of cancer every year would have lived if the NHS was at the best European levels. Expenditure on health in Britain is only one third of US levels, and one half that of France.

After decades of neglect, the infrastructure is crumbling. The Observer (27 May) pointed out that investment in the public sector under New Labour has been even lower than under Thatcher: "Investment in hospitals, schools and transport infrastructure sunk to the lowest sustained level since the Second World War during Labour's four years in power [....] Overall real investment declined by 4.4 per cent a year, a larger decline than was registered during Margaret Thatcher's premiership."

Yet the answer of Blair and the Labour Right is to privatise and invite Big Business to invest in public services. Corporate executives have been appointed to the cabinet and hundreds of quangos. Most of the assets of the state are gradually being privatised by means of the private finance initiative. The better regulation task force, which was to defend workers and consumers from the erosion of standards by big business lobbying, has been handed to the head of Northern Foods. Even where privatisation is not yet a fact, the public sector is forced to imitate the methods of the private sector. But people can see that the so-called Private Finance Initiative is nothing but a fraud. There are fewer hospital beds and worse terms of employment than before.

These policies have been disastrous for Labour. They have led to a series of devastating defeats in Wales and Scotland and in the European elections. Above all, they led to an unprecedented routing of the official Labour candidate in the election for the mayor of London. For lack of an alternative, and to keep the Tories out, the working class will vote for Labour in the general election. But they will do so with neither enthusiasm nor conviction.

When Labour wins on 7 June it will not be because of, but in spite of, Tony Blair.

Why Labour will win

Despite everything, Labour will win this election by a sizeable margin. This is a decisive answer to those on the fringes of the labour movement who have left the Labour Party and are desperately striving to build phantom "revolutionary" armies in the clouds.

Although many working class people are disappointed with Blair and his policies, they see no alternative to the Labour Party at the present time. They do not want a return to Tory rule and therefore have rallied once more to Labour. Blair and the Labour right wing will try to present this as a victory for the pro-capitalist policies of the leadership. It is nothing of the kind. Beneath the surface, there is a simmering discontent, anger and frustration which will inevitably surface in the next period and will have far-reaching effects inside the Labour Party.

The prospect of a Labour victory is based primarily on the world boom which has kept the British economy afloat over the past four years. Despite the increased polarisation of wealth and the increase in stress at work, real wages have continued to rise while inflation remains low. The effects of the economic slowdown have not yet been felt by most people. As the Financial Times put it: "With unemployment and mortgage rates at historical lows and house prices continuing to rise after last year's boom, the feelgood factor remains high".

However, this 'boom' has not improved the lot of many workers in the industrial areas, where there is a considerable degree of dissatisfaction, and all the indicators are now pointing in the direction of a recession in the forthcoming period. Thus, the second Blair administration will not be like the first one. There is no enthusiasm for Labour, as there was in 1951 or even 1966, when Labour was forced to go to the polls for a second time. This is especially the case in the traditional working class areas of Britain. They will vote to give the Labour government a second chance. But If the Blairite leadership thinks it can just resume where it left off, it is in for a rude awakening. They will not wait indefinitely for the big changes they have been promised.

The discontent with Blair is particularly strong among the activists in the Party and especially in the unions, which are still organically linked to the Labour Party. Once the election is out of the way, the decks will be cleared for action. Already before the election, it is possible to see the beginnings of a change of mood on the industrial front, with a spate of unofficial strikes in the post office, and strikes on the London Underground, the railways etc. This is a sign of things to come.

The gathering storm

There are already storm clouds gathering on the horizon. The outlook is looking very bleak as the world economy begins to slow down. In the United States manufacturing is already in recession. Its economy is running a current account deficit of 4 per cent a year. Investment is falling rapidly and stocks are being run down in an attempt to boost flagging profitability. In a desperate attempt to prevent a slump, the Fed cut interest rates for the fifth time in as many months.

The tame economists try to argue that Britain will not be affected by the slowdown in the United States. This argument is completely phoney. In Britain manufacturing output fell in the first quarter of the year - the sharpest fall since early 1999, in the aftermath of the last global slowdown. Output fell sharply in new economy sectors such as electronics and in old economy industries. Again, according to the CBI manufacturing has undergone the biggest drop in business confidence since January 1999. This will increase a hundred-fold as the world economy slides into global recession.

The inherent weakness of British capitalism is shown by the persistently high figures of unemployment. It is true that unemployment has fallen, but it still remains in the region of one million. And the official figures understate the true position, since they exclude up to three million people who are looking for work but excluded from receiving benefits.

In the past two decades a large part of Britain's manufacturing base has been destroyed. The level of investment in industry has lagged behind that of Germany, France and other countries. Even formally backward Italy has overtaken Britain, and Spain is not far behind. The former workshop of the world has been largely turned into a parasitic rentier economy based on banking and services, like France before the Second World War. This has had serious social consequences.

Workers who were made redundant in mining, steel and car manufacturing have been made unemployed or been pushed into low paid jobs in the service sector. The situation in many of the older industrial areas in the North resembles Dickensian England. And this is the situation in a boom. What will happen in a slump?

A world economic crisis will rapidly reveal the underlying weakness of British capitalism. It will strip away the budget surplus as unemployment rises and tax revenues fall. The bankers, the City of London and big business will demand austerity measures in their interests. At the same time there will be growing resistance to such policies from the working class, reflecting itself in growing opposition particularly within the trade unions.

Crisis in the Tory Party

For the last 20 years, there has been an offensive of capitalism under the banner of the Market. This international counter-offensive of Capital was launched by Margaret Thatcher and then taken up by Reagan in the USA. The British working class, which led the way in the strike wave of the 1970s, bore the brunt of the employers' offensive and paid the heaviest price in terms of the destruction of workers' rights, wages and conditions.

But this process has its limits. This was shown by the fall of Thatcher - caused, let us not forget, by the mass rebellion against the Poll Tax - and the resounding defeat of the Tories in the 1997 general election. This already indicated the beginnings of a turn in the tide in Britain.

The Tory Party is now deeply divided and in crisis. Unable to present a credible alternative to the policies of the Blairites, they have tried to play first the race card ("asylum seekers"), then the question of the Euro. But all these manoeuvres have failed. The problem of the Tories is simply stated: Blair has stolen their clothes. Since he was elected he has consistently done everything Big Business has asked of him. They therefore have no need of the Tories at the present time.

The cosy relation between Blair and Big Business has led some to conclude that Labour is now a bourgeois party. That is a complete misreading of the actual state of affairs. The ruling class does not trust the Labour Party because of its links to the trade unions and the working class. Of course, they will back Blair because he is their man. But they understand very well that the Labour Party is not Tony Blair.

As long as Blair is able to control the working class and carry out a capitalist policy, they will continue to support him. But there are limits to this. At a certain point, it will not be possible for Blair and the right wing to keep the rank and file in check. At this point they will unceremoniously turn against Labour and go back to supporting the Tories, probably under new leadership. The Tory humiliation at the polls will open up a period of crisis in the Tory Party. Probably William Hague will be replaced by a more "credible" leader like Michael Portillo.

Changing mood

As in mechanics so in society, every action has an equal and opposite reaction. The unpopularity of Thatcherite policies was shown in 1997 when the working class, and a big part of the middle class voted overwhelmingly for a change. But no change has been forthcoming from Blair's New Labour. With the exception of a hypocritical "social" rhetoric, it has been a question of "more of the same".

However, the situation in Britain is changing. After two decades of mild reaction, the mood is shifting. This is shown by the polls already referred to which show clearly that the mass of people now reject privatisation. It is now generally understood that privatisation is just a licence to plunder the public sector. Only six per cent of voters (13 per cent of Tory voters) support the running of public services by private companies.

All the polls show that privatisation is now unpopular in Britain, with even Tory voters demanding the renationalisation of the railways by huge majorities. 76 per cent of all voters want renationalisation, including an incredible 71 per cent of Tory voters. 60 per cent are against private pensions. Half of labour voters (48 per cent of all voters) say that British Telecom should be renationalised. Fifty per cent say that workers in the public sector are underpaid. This shows that there is a sea-change in public opinion in Britain. The red light is flashing for the Blairites.

Yet the self-styled realists of the Labour leadership, who claim to be listening to the views of the electorate, remain deaf to all this. They are determined to maintain their right-wing pro-business line to the bitter end. The Blair government insists in pushing through creeping privatisation of the schools and hospitals, as well as the London Underground and Air Traffic Control.

Buoyed up by the prospect of an unexpectedly easy victory, Tony Blair will be even more arrogant than heretofore. In the past he has talked of his war against "the forces of conservatism", by which he means the trade unions. The ruling class will be egging him on to confront the unions in the public sector and press on with his "radical" (capitalist) agenda. But the mass of working people will no longer be so patient and tolerant as they were under the first Blair administration. They will insist that Labour acts in their interests. The Blairites will find themselves ground between two mill stones.

The working class in general learns from experience. The election of the first Blair government was a necessary part of the learning process whereby the masses put their leaders to the test. The real attitude of the workers to Blair was shown in a whole series of partial elections in Wales, Scotland, London etc., where they registered an unprecedented protest. All this constitutes an absolutely unavoidable stage in the development of consciousness. The know-nothing sects interpreted this as proof that the working class was moving away from Labour. The present election will show just how little they have understood. The workers, having taken stock of the position, will vote Labour to keep out the open representatives of Big Business. But after the election, their attitude to the government will not be the same as before.

For a time after the last general election, the workers were inclined to give Labour the benefit of the doubt. But that will no longer be the case under the next Blair government. The impatience and frustration of the workers has been expressed in a series of unofficial strikes in the Post Office (also threatened with creeping privatisation). The depressed mood of the past is slowly beginning to change to one of anger.

The trade union leaders who have so far largely succeeded in keeping the lid on will be under pressure to act. In the recent period there have not been many strikes, but in many cases there have been big majorities for strike action where ballots have been held. Not long ago, the RMT rail workers' union voted eleven to one in favour of strike action on the London Underground - the biggest majority ever for strike action on the Underground.

The union leaders have tried to avoid strike action, pointing to the danger of legal action under the anti trade union laws which, disgracefully, remain on the statute books. But this will not hold back the workers indefinitely. The unofficial (and illegal) strikes in the Post Office is a warning of things to come. If the union leaders continue to drag their feet, they will face outright rebellion in one union conference after another. There will be a wave of unofficial actions which the leaders will have to make official in the end.

At a certain stage, the union leaders will be pushed into semi-opposition, or even open opposition to Blair. The recent events in Greece, where the right wing union leaders were forced to organise two general strikes against the government of Simitis, the Greek Tony Blair, is an indication of where Britain is heading.

The only reason why the class has not moved before now has been the absence of a point of reference. The Labour Left has been generally cowed and inactive. But that will change. Under these circumstances, opposition will mount in the Labour Party, even within the Parliamentary Labour Party. The right wing will be rapidly discredited. Crisis will follow crisis. There will be sudden and unexpected turns in the situation which sooner or later must find their reflection inside the Labour Party.

Despite all Blair's efforts the organic link between the Labour Party and the unions has not been broken. The unions and the rank and file will demand policies in the interests of working people. On the basis of events, at a certain stage, a mass Left will emerge within the Labour and trade union movement. The ideas of the Marxist tendency in the unions and the Labour Party will gain a growing echo. But the prior condition for success is that the Marxists must participate and connect with the movement, not preach from the sidelines.

The process that will open up was already anticipated in the Livingstone affair in London. In protest at the high-handed conduct of the Labour leadership in refusing to accept the democratic decision of the London Labour Party, there was a revolt of the rank and file. The whole Party was in a state of ferment. Overnight, not just the local branches but also the affiliated unions sprang to life. True, the movement subsided again when Livingstone left the Party. But it showed the shape of things to come. In the next period, there will be many other incidents like that which will shake up every Party branch and union all over Britain.

Those people who continually ask themselves how it is possible that the British workers continue to vote for Blair reveal a complete lack of understanding of how the class moves. It is sufficient to pose the question concretely to get the right answer. Where is the alternative to Blair? The Tories? Certainly not. The Labour Left? But they are invisible! The sects who fiddle and fuss on the fringes of the Labour movement? That is just a joke. In the elections next week the working class will once again vote Labour, not because they like Blair or his policy, but simply because there is no alternative to the Labour Party. Not to see this is to understand nothing about the real situation in Britain.

In politics as in life, there are generally no short cuts to success. Marxism will gain a foothold in the British working class to the degree that it connects with the real movement of the working people and establishes itself through patient work. Events, events, events are needed to educate the class through its own experience and actions. The victory of the Labour Party on 7 June is not the end of the story, but only the closing of one chapter and the opening of a new chapter. It will be particularly stormy one.