Issue 251 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published April 2001 Copyright © Socialist Review

Four years hard Labour


Labour's attacks on workers looks set to continue into its second term, as Lindsey German explains

Labour pains...
No 5

  • The Inland Revenue says that many employers are failing to pay the minimum wage. The TUC estimates the number of affected workers to be 170,000.
  • The government will fight this election on the claim that things have in fact got better for ordinary people in Britain during the past four years. The claim is contradicted by the experience of millions. Some things are undeniable even by the most loyal Blairite, however. This government has had more money at its disposal to spend on health, welfare and education than any other Labour government in history, yet it has spent very little. It stuck to Tory spending limits for its first two years. Even now, with an election imminent, several departments have been found to have underspent their budgets by several billions, so great was their desire to be prudent and responsible. The government surplus stands at record levels, yet Gordon Brown boasts that he has repaid more of the national debt in one year than all previous governments did in the last 50 years.

    While small amounts of money have been reshuffled around among some of the poorest in the country, Labour has done nothing to introduce regulations which will curb some of the excesses of capital and help working people. Britain remains the most deregulated member of the EU, with less employment rights and benefits than countries such as France or Germany. British workers work the longest hours in western Europe. Meanwhile everything is done to help the bosses who profit from this deregulation. Blair met 23 leading industrialists at Chequers shortly before the budget to reassure them that, despite the rhetoric of Labour's forthcoming election campaign, his government remained business friendly. Big business has no reason to fear the rhetoric, which is mild enough, let alone the reality. The gap between rich and poor continues to grow.

    An appalling and inadequate public sector has become a byword for Britain, as the NHS stretches to breaking point, schools suffer an acute teacher shortage, and public transport becomes ever more unreliable and dilapidated. The government's only answer is privatisation, yet this has been a disaster at every turn. The state of the railways should be a warning, yet Labour backs further sell-offs of air traffic control and the London tube. Individual welfare has also been privatised. Young people are now expected to borrow to pay for their education, to borrow again when they want somewhere to live because of the disappearance of cheap housing, and to pay privately all their working lives to receive any kind of adequate pension. No wonder private debt is at record highs and savings are at record lows.

    Underpinning all this is a shameful ideological onslaught which preaches the virtues of work as the solution to all social problems and condemns those who, for whatever reason, cannot work. The only provisions for the unemployed in the budget were schemes for hard to employ over 25s, for former drug addicts, and for getting lone parents into work. While 'working families' were given increased tax credits, unemployed families received virtually nothing.

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    The frightening part of all this is that things will not get any better under a future Labour government. This is what is on offer when the government has more money than it knows what to do with, when the economy is booming, and when Tony Blair wants our votes and so is prepared to throw in a few sops to workers, such as increasing the minimum wage from its pitiful level of 3.70 to the nearly as pitiful 4.10. What will happen after an election, especially if recession in Japan and the US--the two largest economies in the world--begins to have its inevitable impact on jobs and investment here in Britain?

    We already know what the second term will look like. Despite the hopes of impractical dreamers like the journalist Polly Toynbee, who expects a more egalitarian Labour agenda, we can face more of the same. There will be the same privatisation even in hospitals, schools and housing which attacks the very heart of the welfare state. There will be the same attacks on workers, as bosses threaten to take their investment elsewhere and Labour caves in. There will be the same slavish devotion to the needs of global capital, with Britain leading the way in areas such as arms trading and pharmaceutical price fixing. There will be the same trend towards authoritarianism, with the attacks on civil liberties such as the right to jury trial. There will be the same scapegoating of refugees and asylum seekers.

    And if large parts of the world do go into recession, there will be even more exhortations to make sacrifices as economic crisis hits. Already there are threats of confrontation with workers who are fighting back. Post office workers taking unofficial strike action have been threatened with the sack as employers and government try to enforce privatisation. No wonder that Blair wants an election rapidly--so that he can carry through his programme more efficiently afterwards.

    Yet past policies and the threat of even worse in the future have built resistance. A minority of working class people have begun to take action against Blairism--in the post office, on the tubes, in schools and hospitals. The discontent and support for issues such as rail renationalisation are massive inside the working class. This is the importance of the Socialist Alliance electorally. It can begin to focus this discontent and provide a future alternative to Labour. For the first time in more than half a century there is a small but viable and growing left alternative to Labour which can begin to mount a political and electoral challenge. That challenge can help to shape the level of resistance and fightback in Blair's second term.

    A force to be reckoned with

    There is a left alternative at the general election and it's the Socialist Alliance, says Chris Bambery
    A new generation of activists
    A new generation of activists

    'Back in the early 1980s at the height of Labour's civil war, Sir Keith Joseph, the architect of Thatcherism, confided to fellow Tory Norman Lamont that "one day there will be a Labour government that believes in capitalism, and that will be our greatest achievement". Under Brown's guidance, Labour has fully embraced the market, privatisation and low taxation' (Larry Elliott and Mark Milner, the Guardian, 8 March).

    The forthcoming general election offers socialists a major prize that has eluded us for over a century since the foundation of the Labour Party--if we get this election campaign right. For over a century socialists have repeatedly come up against the barrier of Labourism. By that we mean not just the size and strength of the Labour Party itself, but an ideology which permeated the British working class movement.

    The hold of Labourism has meant socialists have been restricted to the periphery of the working class. We are now seeing a seismic shift of the kind that none of us has ever experienced. Labour's traditional base is eroding, and eroding rapidly. In unions like the Communication Workers Union there is now a debate raging about the political levy paid to the Labour Party by union members. Rank and file workers are refusing to pay it. Where socialists have a presence the argument is that the money should be switched to the Socialist Alliance. Where we do not, workers are simply withdrawing from paying into the political fund (something we do not support).

    The Socialist Alliance has advanced from being a coalition of the far left to becoming a real force in the working class, organising many activists who were once central to the Labour Party locally along with a wide range of other activists. Its task is not just to galvanise those who have already broken with New Labour. A successful election campaign--one which breaks out of the fringe vote the far left has experienced in the past and repeats the success of Preston, Tottenham, Anniesland and Falkirk West-- will send a message to hundreds of thousands of others who are not yet confident that we can offer them a home if they break with Labour.

    A successful Socialist Alliance election campaign can also have two other effects. It can feed in to the growing mood of resistance on the shopfloor. It is quite likely that a Labour victory will be followed by a full scale attack on the CWU in the Post Office. A big Socialist Alliance vote will send postal workers and other groups the message that the support and solidarity are there if they strike. It can also help bring about a fusion of the discontent among traditional Labour voters with the new anti-capitalist radicalisation we have seen since Seattle. The Socialist Alliance campaign has to address issues like Third world debt, the G8 summit in Genoa and the ruling class consensus, shared by all the major parties, round the neoliberal economic agenda. At election rallies we want speakers from anti-capitalist campaigns, but we also want to win anti-capitalist activists to campaigning for the Socialist Alliance.

    A mass campaign is needed

    In every area there are hundreds of people who are furious at Blair and looking for a real alternative at the forthcoming election. Often these people will not have the time or the level of commitment of existing activists on the left. But to create a mass campaign we need to involve them. If a pensioner or single parent has time during the day we should ensure they do leafleting, telephone canvassing or whatever. School students can stand as Socialist Alliance candidates in school mock elections. Every Socialist Alliance needs a diary of activity for each day of the campaign where people can slot themselves in when and where it suits them. In each constituency in which the Socialist Alliance is standing there should be a weekly constituency meeting which aims to draw in 75 to 100 or more people. This, for instance, could be at 8.30pm on a Wednesday after people have been out campaigning. A guest speaker from a campaign, a trade union or wherever can do a five or ten minute speech. Someone, the election agent or candidate, can introduce a report on how the campaign is going. There should be space for people to make their suggestions as to how the campaign can be more effective. At the close we can split into ward groups to plan the week ahead. At those weekly meetings we should encourage campaigns and those involved in the Socialist Alliance to have stalls. If in each constituency we could hold a meeting of such a size it would become an energy force in the local working class community.

    Protesting for the Dudley strikers--the Socialist Alliance can galvanise all those who are angry against the Blair government
    Protesting for the Dudley strikers--the Socialist Alliance can galvanise all those who are angry against the Blair government

    The Socialist Workers Party is experiencing a massive break from the experiences which have shaped our members over the last two decades. Discontent with New Labour, the growing anti-capitalist movement and the growth of shopfloor resistance mark a major shift. They are creating a real radicalisation across Britain. During the 1980s the working class took defeat after defeat. The left was marginalised. In the 1990s there was a slow revival of confidence but the left was marked by a deep sense of pessimism after the collapse of the USSR. In the 1980s socialists had to hold together under attack from the right. In the 1990s we had to counter that pessimism. This meant we were relatively isolated. Our emphasis was on the weekly branch, which provided the ideological cement holding things together, and the weekly Saturday sale that was our public face.

    Today the changing political situation requires us to break with this method. The way we built the party in the early and mid-1970s at a time of growing working class insurgency and radicalisation on the campuses provides richer experiences on which we can draw. Then, for instance, we could recruit whole groups of workers or students to revolutionary socialism. At Globalise Resistance we saw the same thing. Then the emphasis was far less on the weekly branch meeting or the Saturday sale. Central to getting a massive increase in the sale of Socialist Worker was getting individuals to take and sell the paper in their workplace or community.

    The SWP wants the Socialist Alliance to get the biggest possible vote and to mushroom into a real force in British politics. That is our priority. The election campaign is much more than just winning new recruits and selling more papers. Experience of elections in the late 1970s shows that such gains were lost when the vote was dire. That is why we want every SWP member in England and Wales to build a Socialist Alliance wherever they can--in a workplace, college or estate. But as we campaign with people they will naturally want to discuss politics and our viewpoint. It should be natural that we sell Socialist Worker and our other publications to those we are campaigning with. Socialist Worker should be seen as the paper you need to read to know what is happening in the election campaign and elsewhere. Large numbers of Socialist Alliance activists and supporters buy and read it. As Steve Johnston, the Socialist Alliance candidate in Leeds Central, puts it, 'We need to get back to those agitational days when you had a bagful of papers, stickers, felt tip pens, pamphlets and clipboards.' People who are deserting Labour are looking for a new home. They want and expect us to discuss with them. From such discussions it should flow naturally that we ask them to join. Some will, others won't, but we can continue a dialogue over the coming weeks and months as we work together. We also need to sharpen our ideological cutting edge with Socialist Worker meetings and educationals. We need to win those around us to the view that we are seeing a massive new radicalisation that the left must relate to or die. The coming weeks will be ones of intense activity. Let's go to it!

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