‘Though you would never know it from the campaigns’ petty squabbling, the country is heading for profound and potentially irrevocable change’, declares the Economist (2 May 2015). The capitalist press is filled with reports on the unpredictability of Thursday’s general election, but there is a general consensus that neither Labour nor the Conservatives is likely to command an overall majority. Possible outcomes include either party trying to maintain a minority government, a grand coalition or some sort of rainbow coalition. But it might as well be a patchwork polka-dot coalition for all the difference it will make for the working class. Whatever combination of bourgeois politicos hold office after 7 May, workers and the poor will continue to suffer. That much at least is certain.
The Economist favours a repeat performance from the Tory/Liberal Democrat alliance that has slashed hundreds of millions of pounds of spending over the past five years and is openly planning billions more. Wages have fallen steadily in real terms, popular living standards are lower and the division between rich and poor is wider than ever. A million workers on zero-hour contracts are part of the ever growing ‘precariat’. Welfare ‘reforms’ such as the bedroom tax and household benefit caps and a desperate shortage of affordable housing have produced a surge in homelessness: ‘Official estimates of rough sleeper numbers in England in 2013 were 2,414 – up 37% since 2010. But the [independent] study’s estimates based on local data suggest that the true figure could be at least four times that’ (Guardian, 4 February 2015). Meanwhile, large chunks of the National Health Service continue to be sold off, and state education has been dramatically eroded through the creeping privatisation of schools.
Working people need their own political organisation to resist this comprehensive capitalist offensive.
That organisation is not the Labour Party. Five years after they were running their own austerity programme in government, the Labour leadership seems unable to decide whether to pitch themselves as better at managing the economy (administering cuts) than the Tories, or as champions of a more humane version of austerity with reforms like scrapping the bedroom tax and reducing university tuition by a third. Anyone who can remember the Blair/Brown government should be aware that once in power Labour would soon be pleading ‘necessity’ as a justification for a whole range of new attacks. Nevertheless, because Labour cultivates a less posh and more socially liberal image, large sections of the working class will end up voting for them as their parents and grandparents did. The servile sycophancy of major trade-union leaders (paralleled by most of the ostensibly revolutionary left) helps promote illusions in Labour as a lesser evil, although more advanced sections (eg, rail workers, firefighters and communications workers) have begun breaking from reflex Labourism in recent years.
Marxists recognise that Labour’s continuing connection to the trade unions means that it remains a bourgeois workers party. In circumstances when such a party turns to the left and projects a willingness to fight for the rights of the poor and exploited, revolutionaries could consider offering ‘critical support’ – calling for a vote to Labour in order to exploit the contradictions between the illusions and hopes of its working-class base and its pro-capitalist programme. But those who pursue a policy of strategic ‘auto-Labourism’, by advocating a vote for a party that stands on its record of vicious attacks only half a decade earlier, merely confess their own resignation to the status quo, whatever ‘Marxist’ phrases might be employed to disguise it.
Ed Miliband must retain the fiction that he is aiming for an absolute majority, but everyone knows that Labour will eagerly participate in a coalition – formal or informal – if that’s what it takes to secure power. The outcome would be a cross-class bloc that is premised on serving the interests of capital at the expense of the popular masses – what Marxists refer to as a popular front. There was little outcry when Birmingham Labour MP Gisela Stuart suggested that Labour should not rule out forming a ‘grand coalition’ with the Tories if neither party wins a majority. If that seems the best way to establish ‘stable’ rule for British capitalism, then that is what Labour will do.
Unprecedented levels of disillusionment in the three main parties has led to shifts in the political landscape over the past five years, with an increased number of voters indicating that they will not opt for any of the major parties. One beneficiary of this is the UK Independence Party (UKIP), which has seen an increase in support since the last general election, gaining 24 MEPs in the 2014 European elections. UKIP is picking up votes from far-right organisations such as the British National Party (BNP), from the anti-EU wing of the Tories, and also from traditionally Labour working-class voters, ground down by recession and suffering from a low level of class consciousness. UKIP is a ‘party of despair’ that scapegoats immigrants for all of society’s ailments. A measure of UKIP’s success is the fact that all the main parties have shifted to the right as they compete to show their anti-immigration credentials.
The Scottish National Party (SNP) has seen a massive surge in support after its narrow defeat in the referendum on Scottish independence last September, and has enjoyed significant media coverage in the run up to the general election. During the referendum campaign, left nationalism was extremely popular in the Scottish working class and, true to form, most left organisations tailed along, claiming a working-class dynamic in the bourgeois nationalist ‘Yes’ camp (see ‘Scotland’s Independence Referendum: Austerity, nationalism & class collaboration’). Some, following the lead of Scotland’s best known ‘revolutionary’, Tommy Sheridan, have translated this to outright electoral support to the SNP, abandoning the class line entirely.
With SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon touted as ‘winner’ of the seven-way televised leader debates, the party seems poised to win the vast majority of seats in Scotland. Despite some rhetorical opposition to the ‘ideological’ austerity plans of Labour and the Tories, the SNP is committed to wield its votes in Westminster in the interests of Scottish capitalism. Plaid Cymru, the smaller Welsh nationalist equivalent, plays a similar role.
Like the nationalists, the bourgeois Green Party, whose members and policies cover virtually the entire political spectrum, is positioning itself to Labour’s left for this campaign. It promises to scrap university tuition fees, repeal the bedroom tax and the 2012 Health and Social Care Act and carry out a popular pledge to renationalise the railways. On the left of the party we have the Green candidate for Redcar, Peter Pinkney, who is president of the RMT trade union and says he wants to ‘abolish capitalism and replace it with a socialist system’ (Morning Star, 24 June 2014). If Pinkney is serious about this claim, why is he running on the slate of a party that stands for green-tinted capitalism?
Whenever British Greens have achieved power at the municipal level they have quickly reneged on their anti-austerity promises. In Brighton and Hove City Council, where the Greens are the biggest party, only a handful of party ‘rebels’ voted against a Labour/Green ‘compromise’ budget of cuts for 2015/16. Greens in Bristol and other councils, as well as in Ireland and Germany, have a similar track record of participating in the administration of austerity capitalism.
Instead of auto-Labourism or chasing petit-bourgeois Greens and nationalists, Marxists set as our goal the struggle to build a political organisation that is committed to fight for the historic interests of working people. This is the declared purpose of Left Unity, an electoral project which has been around for a couple of years and is fielding a small number of parliamentary candidates. We attended local Left Unity meetings for a few months, including its first policy conference in Manchester in March 2014 – an event that was chiefly consumed with bureaucracy and conversations about how best to manage capitalism if the party was elected. Although there are individual branches with inclinations to both serious political discussion and practical intervention in social struggle, Left Unity as a whole is a politically stagnant lash-up without a serious base in the working class, or a programme that goes beyond reformist tinkering. It has moreover openly declared support for (and no-contest pacts with) Greens and Labour leftists.
Most Left Unity parliamentary candidates are standing on a joint platform with a larger electoral force, the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), a formation with a similar left-reformist programme. Founded for the 2010 general election, TUSC is in essence an electoral front rolled out for local and parliamentary elections, a bloc between the Socialist Party, Socialist Workers Party and the RMT. It is standing a significant number of candidates this year: 130 for parliament and 600 more in the simultaneous local elections. TUSC has support among grassroots activists, is committed to a ‘no cuts’ policy and advocates independent working-class representation. Yet little has changed in its reformist framework since we noted in 2010:
‘TUSC is an umbrella under which each constituent group is free to run candidates with their own programme provided they also endorse the general TUSC policies including a call for “democratic public ownership of the major companies and banks that dominate the economy” and a list of demands such as the right to asylum, free health care, free education and an end to the war in Afghanistan (www.tusc.org.uk/policy.php).
‘These demands, tailored to appeal to disillusioned Labour supporters, are quite deliberately set in a social-democratic context. There is no mention of the expropriation of big capital – merely a muddle-headed reformist call for “public ownership” of “major” firms, which implies nothing more radical than the nationalisation of British Steel in the 1960s. The need to replace the existing bourgeois state apparatus with organs of working-class power is, of course, entirely absent, as is any discussion of the need to smash the growing threat posed by the BNP and EDL.’
(‘Spoil Your Ballot! Break with Brown & the Labour traitors!’ 14 April 2010)
In February the Socialist Party, the main organisers of TUSC, were busy offering advice to ‘left’ councillors on reformist bookkeeping tricks for managing capitalism more fairly:
‘The Socialist party has argued that councils should, instead of making cuts, use their reserves and prudential borrowing powers, in the first instance, to give them time to mount a mass campaign. Now, with the general election only two months away, why not use that stopgap and demand that an incoming Labour government underwrites any debt?’
(‘Councils at breaking point: the strategy to fight back’, 25 February 2015))
The main barrier to Marxists advocating any sort of electoral support to TUSC is its enthusiastic embrace of the Prison Officers’ Association (POA), revealed in the demand to ‘Reinstate full trade union rights to prison officers’. The TUSC steering committee includes Steve Gillan (POA general secretary), Joe Simpson (POA assistant general secretary and TUSC candidate for the Enfield North constituency) and Brian Caton (former POA general secretary, feted by the Socialist Party in 2010 as a star new recruit). Screws, like cops, are not part of the working class but agents of the repressive apparatus of the capitalist state, as we argued five years ago:
‘The Socialist Party’s decision to embrace the thugs who enforce capitalist rule as fellow workers dramatically illustrates the distance that separates them from the most fundamental elements of class-struggle politics. The willingness of the other ostensibly “revolutionary” groups in TUSC to participate in a coalition alongside Caton and his crew signifies that they are little better.’
(‘Spoil Your Ballot! Break with Brown & the Labour traitors!’).
Many supporters of TUSC and Left Unity are also calling for a vote to Labour in seats where no left candidate is standing. Most of Britain’s ostensibly revolutionary groups seem to be stuck in an eternal time loop, exhibiting more attachment to Labour than the majority of class-conscious workers. The job of revolutionaries is to combat illusions in Labourism, not to follow along behind until the last worker sees through this political agent of British imperialism. It is a telling indictment of the supposedly ‘revolutionary’ formations of the British left that most of them have yet to politically break from the Labour traitors.
One exception is the Socialist Party, which refuses any support to Labour, but to justify this position finds it necessary to falsely assert that Labour is now an outright bourgeois party without an organic connection to the mass organisations of the working class. This is simply the flip-side of the notion that Marxists must always vote for a reformist workers party.
Workers Power, the flagship section of the League for the Fifth International, remains the classic exponent of reflex Labourism:
‘Because of the party’s continued connections to the trade unions, millions of working class people still hope that by supporting it they will get a better life and some protection from the Tories. Supporting Labour at the polls, while demanding that they go much further than current policies, can raise the horizons of the great mass of the working class.’
(‘Election 2015 – a race to the bottom’, February 2015)
It is nonsensical to assert that it will somehow ‘raise the horizons’ of working people to promote illusions that Miliband and his crew of parliamentary cretins might somehow adopt class-struggle tactics. Yet this is the core of Workers Power’s policy of advocating votes to Labour while simultaneously proclaiming ‘we demand of Labour candidates that they break with all forms of austerity and support the fightback against it, here and now and if they get into government’ (‘General Election 2015: the choice is simple’, March 2015). There is no reason to imagine that Labour will do anything remotely like this. Given that neither Miliband nor any other leading party figure make any pretence of such a ‘break’, Workers Power’s ‘demand’ that they do so amounts to providing left cover for Labour’s anti-working class campaign.
Workers Power supplements this with the promotion of parallel illusions in rank and file trade-union control of Labour: ‘Union members, whose subs fund Labour, should insist it carries out the policies of no cuts and renationalisation that their own conferences have repeatedly voted for’ (‘Election 2015 – a race to the bottom’). Revolutionaries instead fight for trade unions to disaffiliate from Labour and seek to forge a party committed to fighting the bosses, not coddling them.
In a Newsnight interview in October 2013, comedian Russell Brand caused some outrage across the political spectrum by calling on people not to vote. “Why pretend?” he asked, “Why be complicit in this ridiculous illusion?” Although Brand has since changed his tune, endorsing Labour and the Green MP Caroline Lucas, his interview hit a nerve as an expression of a view particularly widespread amongst the young. Marxists do not boycott elections on principle but neither do we fetishise the vote. When there is no candidate worth voting for, we should say so. In this case, spoiling your ballot paper is a legitimate tactic through which revolutionaries can take advantage of the greater awareness of political issues during an election campaign, without endorsing the illusion that there is a candidate that expresses, in some way, the interests of the oppressed and exploited. Don’t play the ‘lesser evil’ game! Write ‘no choice for workers’ on your ballot.
Marxists participate in bourgeois elections without illusions in the limits and the function of ‘democracy’ for the ruling class. Under capitalism most important decisions are made outside the formal political channels with elections serving chiefly as a means of legitimating the rule of a tiny minority with apparent popular approval. The right to cast a ballot every five years is portrayed by the capitalist media as evidence that state policy reflects the will of the people.
In theory the voters are supreme, but in reality the choices are limited to what the capitalist class permits. This is why it is not possible to use the existing bourgeois state to pursue workers’ interests – that requires smashing up the existing state apparatus and replacing it with new ‘armed bodies’ committed to defending a new egalitarian social order. To do this requires a mass revolutionary workers’ party, which would utilise elections as a political platform to campaign against capitalist austerity, sexism, racism and imperialist war, while advocating the creation of workers’ councils and the seizure of power to form a workers’ government which would base production on human need and not profit. But this will not be possible while the leadership of the left and workers’ movement set their sights so desperately low. Down with the misleaders! Build a revolutionary party!