Spoil Your Ballot!

Break with Brown & the Labour traitors!

When asked if his planned cuts would be worse than those carried out by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, Labour Chancellor Alistair Darling, known for occasionally straying off-message, replied: ‘They will be deeper and tougher’ (www.bbc.co.uk, 25 March 2010). Regardless of who wins the general election on 6 May, it is clear that the main contenders all intend to impose brutal austerity measures on those least able to pay, in order to rescue British capitalism from the worst economic downturn since the 1930s.

Seldom have the electoral options for British workers been more dismal. After 13 years in office, Labour is deeply unpopular. Its working-class base is disillusioned by years of pandering to the City while breaking promise after promise to ‘lift children out of poverty’ and improve the health and education systems. The low point was probably the 2008 decision to bail out the banks while jobs disappeared and working-class living standards shrank. Recent scandals involving corrupt ministers highlight New Labour’s venality and squalid subservience to the rich and powerful. Many of the Labour Party’s fair-weather bourgeois backers are now turning to the Tories as the party best equipped to administer the shock therapy prescribed by the ideologues of the financial elites.

Labour has returned to its traditional dependence on the trade-union bureaucracy for funding, but offers virtually nothing in exchange. Seumas Milne of the Guardian (17 March 2010), observed:

‘The idea that the government is in thrall to the unions doesn't bear even the most cursory consideration. Not only have ministers, as in every other major national dispute of the past decade, backed the employer and condemned the [British Airways] strike - even if Brown yesterday reverted to a more even-handed call for a negotiated agreement. But during 13 years in office the government has steadfastly refused to repeal any significant part of the Thatcher anti-union legislation that has hamstrung employees from defending themselves and certainly prolonged the current BA dispute.

‘As anyone who has been paying the slightest attention to public life under New Labour is well aware, it is bankers and businessmen, not trade unionists, who have been calling the shots - with calamitous consequences for us all.’

Despite Labour’s historic role in helping the trade-union leaders defuse working-class struggles, Marxists do sometimes call for critical electoral support to such ‘bourgeois workers parties’ in situations where the popular masses have illusions that they will take on the bosses and fight for the interests of the oppressed and downtrodden. But today, in Britain, there are no such illusions in the Labour Party, which has proven, by word and deed, that it has no intention of acting on behalf of working people. Those workers who vote Labour do so only because they see it as the ‘lesser evil’.

Yet most of Britain’s ostensibly Marxist organisations are supporting the re-election of Labour as a better alternative than ‘letting in the Tories’. Marxists do not take positions on elections on the basis of lesser-evilism or reflex adaptation to the existing (backward) consciousness of the working class. Revolutionaries design their electoral tactics to intersect progressive tendencies within the workers’ movement and to promote greater class consciousness. Calling for a vote to Gordon Brown’s Labour Party has exactly the opposite effect, and any ‘revolutionary’ groups which make such a call are in fact promoting Labourite illusions that have already been rejected by the most advanced elements of the class.

SWP: ‘Dampen anger and bitterness’

The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) are at least honest enough to admit that their tactics are not determined by substantive political questions, but simply on the basis of how much popular support Labour has:

‘The nature of the voter base is the key to making a judgement on whether to call for a Labour vote. Working class people will vote for Labour in their millions because they still see it as a class vote. They have expectations that Labour still will, or at least ought to, represent their interest in a way that the Tories don't even pretend to do. It's not even about the policies Labour is promising; it is about the perception of its class allegiance. What is important is the sense of entitlement that workers have from a Labour government.’
(Socialist Review, March 2010)

The SWP leadership is well aware that there is ‘a very real debate happening across the wider working class movement’ (ibid.) on whether or not to vote Labour. ‘Alongside disillusioned ex-Labour supporters is a generation of young people who have known nothing but resistance to the neoliberal and imperialist policies of Blair and Brown’ (ibid.). So the task the SWP has set itself is to find ways to entice these young people to cast a vote for the very party that represents these policies.

The SWP leaders have attempted to hedge their bets, in case things do not turn out as they expect, by spelling out the limits of their support: ‘This is not an argument to campaign or canvass for Labour. Socialists are not in the business of attempting to dampen people’s anger and bitterness against Labour’ (ibid.). Yet this is precisely the effect of self-proclaimed revolutionaries like the SWP advocating a vote for Labour. The SWP’s claim that they would like to stand candidates against Labour in ‘hundreds of seats’ if only they had the resources is another obvious attempt to give their support to Brown et al a slightly more militant cover.

Workers Power: ‘An obstacle to revolutionary agitation’

Unlike the SWP, Workers Power temporarily suppressed their auto-Labourism in 2005:

'In previous elections, we have called on workers and activists to vote for Labour – not because we believed they would implement socialist measures, but to put them to the test of office and, in so doing, break people's illusions in them. They have been tested and, in the eyes of millions, found wanting.

'To repeat such a call, after eight years of hard Labour, would not facilitate – but present an obstacle to revolutionary agitation and propaganda for a new workers party.'
(Workers Power, April 2005)

In 2005 there was little chance that Labour would lose. This has now changed, and so has Workers Power’s policy. In 2010, after five more years of ‘hard Labour’, there are fewer illusions than ever, but now Workers Power declare that ‘[t]he threat of a Tory government opens up a new situation in Britain’ in which:

‘it seems likely that the argument of the big union leaders and Labour left will resonate with large sections of the working class and result in a holding up of Labour’s vote in the election.… [This] will also be a good thing insofar as it, firstly, testifies to the fact that millions of working people don’t want to pay for the bosses’ crisis and, secondly, provides further opportunities to open up the contradiction between workers and Labour over the next term.’
(‘How should socialists vote in the General Election?’ Resolution of the Workers Power National Committee, January 2010, www.workerspower.com)

For all their talk about providing revolutionary leadership, Workers Power’s policy boils down to a call to vote Labour because workers are likely to do so anyway. The only ‘contradiction’ this tactic ‘opens up’ is the one between Workers Power’s revolutionary pretensions and its reflexive loyalty to British imperialism’s social-democratic lackeys. In a pathetic attempt to rationalise their servile Labourism, Workers Power suggest that their flip flop is occasioned by a left turn from the Labour leaders:

‘over December we saw a limited turn by Labour to the left in terms of both the more classical social democratic rhetoric the government choose and also at the policy level. This was not simply a calculated move to solidify their core support in the working class…. It is actually based on the quite correct recognition by the government, that there is popular anger across the popular classes with the rich, particularly the bankers, and a related feeling that ordinary people should not have to pay the cost of the recession.’

It is hard to miss the popular anger. But why should ‘revolutionaries’ cover for those whose policy is to bail out the speculators and make ‘ordinary people’ pick up the tab? In an election year of course the Labour cynics are going to throw a bone or two to working people (made considerably easier by Conservative leader David Cameron’s willingness to claim the mantle of Margaret Thatcher). The Labour election manifesto gives predictably mixed messages – increases in the minimum wage versus the continued semi-privatisation of health and education. Free school meals and other ideas floated by Ed Miliband, the minister responsible for drafting the manifesto, in an interview with the Guardian as recently as 19 March were missing from the final document. Miliband was careful to specify that the manifesto’s paltry offerings would be subject to an ‘affordability test’, which means that Labour has made no real commitment to implement any of them.

Like the SWP, Workers Power are worried that ‘[a]n unprecedented number of vanguard activists are today powerfully disillusioned with the Labour Party and its policies in office’ (‘How should socialists vote in the General Election?’). This is very true – there is today an unusual opportunity to intersect the consciousness of an important layer of ‘vanguard activists’ within the working class. But doing so requires a hard break with the Labour traitors.

For years Workers Power and sundry other fake-Trotskyists rationalised their Labour loyalism with vague talk of ‘exposing’ the reformists. Now that the Labour leaders are fully exposed, and much of their historic proletarian base ‘powerfully disillusioned’, Workers Power plaintively bleat: ‘We should demand that even at this late hour they should drop their pro-boss agenda and adopt policies to help workers’ (Workers Power, February 2010). Everyone knows that there is no chance of Brown deciding to ‘drop his pro-boss agenda’, but Workers Power will be voting for him anyway, absurdly claiming that ‘A big Labour vote in these elections will show that millions of voters don’t want to pay the costs of the bosses’ crisis’ (‘How should socialists vote in the General Election?’). In reality, a vote for Labour is a green light to continue the policies of the past 13 years.

Bourgeois elections can provide Marxists with an opportunity to speak to a larger audience than usual, whether by standing revolutionary candidates or giving critical electoral support to other working-class candidates whose campaigns in some way draw a real class line. Revolutionaries do not fetishise voting and in this election a successful campaign for spoilt ballot papers would send a powerful political message. In Workers Power’s Labourite universe this option simply does not exist: ‘we are left with a highly contradictory situation, requiring flexibility in tactics and rejecting any form of sectarian abstentionism’ (ibid.).

While the leadership of the SWP, Workers Power et al are terrified of sharing blame for a Tory victory, the more advanced layers of the working class are not so timid. Members of the RMT rail trade union have not only cut off funding and disaffiliated from Labour, they also voted for strike action only a month before the election, disregarding squeals of protest about the ‘risks’ of increasing the Tory vote. The strike ballot was then ruled invalid under the anti-trade union laws brought in by the Tories and maintained by Labour, demonstrating beyond doubt that the only way that workers can protect past gains and win new ones is through hard class struggle – the issue of whether or not Labour is left in charge of spearheading the bosses’ attacks is essentially irrelevant.

No platform for fascists!

The growing threat posed by the fascists, which has been fuelled by the economic meltdown, is a significant new factor in the current political equation. The SWP’s slogan ‘Don’t Vote BNP’ implies that the fascists can be dealt with in the electoral arena, and is also meant to suggest that the way to do so is by electing Labour candidates. Such notions are not only false, but dangerous.

The British National Party (BNP) and its unofficial combat wing, the English Defence League (EDL), are thriving. The anxieties created by the deteriorating economic situation and the failure of the trade-union leadership to offer any serious resistance to capitalist attacks are important elements in this, but hardly less important is the right-wing Labour government’s attempts to compete with the racists by cooking up more ‘sensible’ proposals for restricting immigration. The Labour manifesto declares that: ‘As growth returns we want to see rising levels of employment and wages, not rising immigration’, and proposes that English tests for prospective immigrants should be made more difficult.

Labour’s policy was on display in Bolton in March when the police trapped anti-fascist protesters in the town square and then turned dogs on them, while permitting EDL thugs to freely wander the streets. Local Labour MPs David Crausby, Brian Iddon and Ruth Kelly contented themselves with a meek statement that ‘[w]e celebrate the diversity of Bolton and unite to create One Bolton, recognising the differences, celebrating communities and commit to encouraging harmony’ (www.bolton.gov.uk/website). These cynics are members of a government which ‘encourages harmony’ by herding asylum seekers into detention centres and instructing their cops to target young Asians on the streets in the name of ‘preventing terrorism’. The Labour version of state racism has only spurred the growth of the fascists, while fostering divisions in the workers’ movement.

Meetings, demonstrations and television appearances of the BNP and EDL need to be vigorously ‘no platformed’ with mass mobilisations based on the trade unions. The fascists’ humiliation on the street will lead to humiliation at the ballot box. If they are permitted to roam at will and present themselves as a viable political alternative, they will become ever more dangerous.

TUSC: Reformists Regressing

The New Labour project was launched in 1994 with newly elected party leader Tony Blair renouncing any vestigial connection to ‘socialism’ with the abolition of Clause 4. Immediately after winning the 1997 election, Blair and Brown’s decision to permit the Bank of England to control interest rates signalled that ‘the economy’ (that is, capitalist profitability) would take priority over anything else. Labour won two more general elections in 2001 and 2005, with shrinking support among the more advanced layers of the working class.

It is hardly surprising that there were several attempts to establish a left alternative to Labour – the Socialist Labour Party, the Socialist Alliance, Respect and No2EU. But there is little to show for a decade and a half of manoeuvres and haggling, and the latter two lash-ups descended into outright class collaboration.

The latest attempt to create a left-of-Labour alternative, the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), was cobbled together a few months ago in behind-the-scenes negotiations by participants in the nationalist/popular-frontist No2EU coalition (see ‘Militant tactics & poisonous nationalism’, 1917, No 32). Endorsed by the Socialist Party, the SWP, Tommy Sheridan’s Solidarity, and prominent trade union leaders like the RMT’s Bob Crow, 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.

The programme does include a call to ‘Repeal the anti-trade union laws’ but avoids any suggestion of the necessity to defy the restrictions on picketing and bans on solidarity strikes, beyond a generic reference to ‘solidarity with workers taking action’. This omission is presumably dictated by concern that trade-union officials might be put off by any suggestion of breaking these anti-worker laws, as this could potentially threaten their privileged position.

The various components huddling under the TUSC umbrella cannot even agree on a policy towards Brown’s Labour Party:

‘We recognise that there will be Labour and non-Labour candidates standing in the general election who agree with our policies, who share our socialist aspirations and who will be supported by left and labour movement organisations participating in our coalition.

‘We also recognise that there are different strategic views about the way forward for the left in Britain, whether the Labour Party can be reclaimed by the labour movement, or whether a new workers' party needs to be established.’

Know your enemy

The full measure of the rottenness of this ‘socialist coalition’ is revealed in its demand to ‘Reinstate full trade union rights to prison officers’. The presence of Brian Caton, head of the  Prison Officers Association (POA), on the TUSC leadership and his prominence as a public speaker for the coalition says it all. Although he has recently been celebrated by the Socialist Party as a star new recruit, Caton and his fellow POA members are not part of the working class but agents of the repressive apparatus of the capitalist state. At the TUSC launch meeting, Caton attempted to deflect opposition to the POA with a few criticisms of some of its members’ worst excesses, before suggesting that he’d like to flood TUSC with screws: ‘I would have liked to have seen this place filled with prison officers.’ 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.

The Socialist Party, unlike the SWP and Workers Power, is opposed to voting for Brown, but on the mistaken grounds that Labour is no longer a bourgeois workers’ party – a party that despite its bourgeois programme retains an organic connection to the working class through the trade-union bureaucracy. The Socialist Party is the main animator of TUSC, and its supporters (led by former Labour MP Dave Nellist) make up a majority of TUSC candidates. While there is some discontent among a few of the Socialist Party’s more left-wing members over Caton’s recruitment, it is fully consistent with their traditional view of screws and cops as ‘workers in uniform’ whose demands for higher pay and better conditions deserve support (see ‘Which Side Are You On? Screws Out of the TUC!’, 1917, No. 30).

The TUSC launch in London on 25 March was attended by fewer than 200 people, but leading Socialist Party member Hannah Sell nonetheless proclaimed it to be ‘the beginning of the development of a mass force’. Caton was even more enthusiastic, absurdly declaring: ‘Tonight should be remembered for centuries to come.’ The SWP, while generally positive, was more restrained, describing TUSC as ‘taking the first steps along the road to building a socialist alternative to Labour’ (Socialist Review, March 2010). Workers Power and the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) would have liked to participate in the coalition, but are not thought by the TUSC leadership to have a big enough following to warrant an official franchise. Workers Power report: ‘Some candidates, including the Workers Power candidate in Vauxhall, Jeremy Drinkall, were barred from standing for TUSC because they were standing against “left” Labour MPs (in Vauxhall, this is Kate Hoey)’ (www.workerspower.com, 26 March 2010).

Despite being rejected, Drinkall wishes ‘all the TUSC candidates the best in their campaigns’ (http://drinkall4vauxhall.blogspot.com, 27 March 2010). He is standing on an ‘Anticapitalist’ ticket, has published an ‘Anticapitalist Manifesto’, and writes a blog on local issues. He is openly critical of Labour: ‘Vauxhall has always voted Labour – no one can remember the last time we voted any other way. But what have we got in return? Labour has forgotten the working class communities in “safe seats” like this’ http://drinkall4vauxhall.blogspot.com/p/one-solution-revolution.html). If there is no reason to vote Labour in Vauxhall because they have ‘forgotten the working class’ (or, to be a bit more accurate, attacked working people on behalf of the bosses) why vote for them anywhere? Drinkall offers no explanation.

Workers Power’s attitude towards Caton and the screws is similarly inconsistent. On the one hand, they gesture in the direction of the Marxist view:

‘Socialists and many workers often find themselves on the wrong side of the prison service. It is an arm of the state, in the last analysis there to protect capitalist property and social hierarchy.’
(Workers Power, September 2007)

Yet on the other they support the screws when they go out on strike:

‘But we do support prison wardens' right to organise and to strike, and their demands for better pay, just as we support prisoners' demands for democratic rights and better conditions. Any action that weakens the ability of the capitalist class to exploit and rule us has to be a good thing.’

Workers Power supporters might well ask themselves how better pay and better equipment for the agents of capitalist repression is likely to ‘weak[en] the ability of the capitalist class to exploit and rule us’. In practice Workers Power’s position is essentially the same as the Socialist Party’s, which is why their report of the TUSC launch meeting uncritically cites Caton’s declaration: ‘This is the time when socialism becomes real’ (www.workerspower.com, 26 March 2010).

Programme first

The heightened popular interest in politics during election campaigns provides a potential opportunity for the left to reach a considerably broader audience than usual. Yet, rather than seeking to pose the fundamental ideas of Marxism in the clearest, sharpest and most pedagogic fashion, the response of most of Britain’s ostensibly revolutionary organisations is to water down their programme to the point that it becomes virtually indistinguishable from mainstream social-democratic reformism.

More than 70 years ago Leon Trotsky wrote in the Transitional Programme that ‘[t]he historical crisis of mankind is reduced to the crisis of the revolutionary leadership’. This remains true today. In addressing the problems and concerns of ordinary working people, revolutionaries have a duty to say what we want, how we propose to get there and what obstacles must be overcome. The struggle to create a mass revolutionary workers’ party will be fraught with difficulties, and there will inevitably be detours and setbacks along the way. But unless we are clear about the need to forge a party based on the fundamental revolutionary principles that led the Russian workers to victory in 1917, that victory can never be repeated.

In Britain today workers need a revolutionary leadership that is committed to strictly upholding the political independence of the working class, rejecting class collaboration, opposing imperialist military intervention in Afghanistan and elsewhere, and combating every expression of nationalism, chauvinism and racism. This means repudiating any suggestion that cops and screws are fellow workers, and combating the pernicious social-democratic illusion that the bourgeois state – a mechanism created to protect and defend a system of oppression and privilege - can be incrementally reformed into an instrument of social liberation.

The revolutionary party would put forward a programme that addresses the most immediate needs of workers for decent jobs, better wages, shorter hours, free quality health care and childcare. It would also take the lead in defence of immigrant communities and the left against fascist violence and repression by the state, and seek to initiate a vigorous campaign to smash the anti-trade union laws through mass action and defiance. As Trotsky explained, the essential task of Marxists is to link all such partial and limited issues to the need for ‘the revolutionary conquest of power’ and the establishment of organs of workers’ rule.

Today we are far from achieving that goal. But this is no reason to cast a vote for the Labour traitors or for those whose idea of a ‘socialist’ campaign is to march shoulder to shoulder with screws and cops. In this election the best and clearest way for a class-conscious working person to express disgust with more than a decade of ‘hard Labour’ and a commitment to fight for a socialist future is to vote ‘none of the above’ and spoil your ballot!

Posted: 14 April 2010