Issue 242 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published June 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review
Job losses mount across industry from cars to banking. There is a vicious campaign against refugees and asylum seekers where Labour and Tories compete to introduce more draconian measures. More and more people feel alienated from the political system, as witnessed by the low turnout in the May elections on the one hand, and the growth of the anti-capitalist protests on the other. All this seems eerily reminiscent of the mid-term of previous Labour governments. This government too, despite a record majority, has become bogged down. It disappoints its supporters, allows the right wing to make the running--the more Hague shifts to the right the more Labour seeks to follow him--and it fails to deliver even its basic pledges.
This is creating a polarisation. Many people are pushed to the left: the massive vote for Ken Livingstone and for left alternatives to Labour in London, the turnout on the Rover demonstration in April, the protests from union leaders about the scapegoating of asylum seekers, are all illustrations of this. But there is also -- at present around asylum seekers but in the future possibly around the euro and Little Englandism--a minority polarisation to the right which seeks to blame 'foreigners' for the plight of British workers.
So far the dominant mood inside the working class is to the left, in the sense of looking towards collective solutions to the problems of working class people. But this is not automatic and people's ideas can go in all sorts of different directions. That is why it is so important that socialists put forward an alternative, and that they demonstrate concretely how things can change.
The vote for socialists in London was a step forward precisely because it was based on active campaigning on a range of issues. It also got the most resonance where socialists did something to try to change things, whether against council house sales or in defence of asylum seekers. The key to increasing confidence and struggle in the future is the extent that we can build on such activity.
The stakes are very high. There is growing discontent with capitalism, with a planned protest in Prague in September which will hopefully become the 'European Seattle'. The attack on workers' lives and conditions continues daily. And workers will continue to be disappointed until they start acting to change the world themselves, rather than putting their faith in others to do it for them.
Ken Livingstone's conciliatory appointments, his speeches to the City of London and his compromise with Labour over tube privatisation do not bode well for the future. If workers who voted for him are not to find their hopes dashed, they will need to rely on their own strength and organisation to bring about change.
If this is true in London, it is equally true elsewhere. Workers hoped that a Labour government would mean a break with the past. Instead it has been keeping the same policies and attacking the public sector. The weakest in society have seen no real change. The experience of the Labour government demonstrates yet again that nothing really changes just by changing those at the top. Real change can only come from below by people fighting for it. The racism and scapegoating also demonstrate the cost of not fighting for such change and allowing the right wing to set the agenda.
The forthcoming demonstration in support of asylum seekers is crucial. But equally important are the many fights to defend jobs and services under attack across the country, which can help to rebuild working class confidence and rebuild the left.