Widgetized Section

Go to Admin » Appearance » Widgets » and move Gabfire Widget: Social into that MastheadOverlay zone

Labour’s left turn and what to do about it



By Jeremy Dewar


Ed Miliband surprised supporters and opponents at the Labour Party conference this year. If they were expecting a copying of the Coalition’s policies, and defiant rhetoric aimed at the unions, then they were well wide of the mark.

The sense that this was a break from Tony Blair’s New Labour was captured when Miliband did a photo-shoot from Brighton Promenade.

“When will you bring back socialism?” heckled a man at the back.

“That’s what we are doing, sir,” came the reply.

Left turn?

On the crucial question of housing, Miliband promised to abolish the bedroom tax, which has, according to the National Housing Federation, already caused over 330,000 households to fall into rent arrears. He said that if elected, Labour would start a house-building programme that would reach 200,000 new homes per year by 2020.

He also threatened property developers sitting on “land banks” to “either use the land or lose the land”. Councils would be granted the right to fine landowners, who refuse to build on vacant plots preferring to wait for house prices to leap upwards, and issue compulsory purchase orders to those who refuse. This was enough to lead that other Bullingdon Boy, Boris Johnson, to compare Miliband to Robert Mugabe!

Low pay is another issue that millions of workers suffer from week in week out. On this, Miliband said he would raise the maximum penalty on bosses paying less than the minimum wage tenfold from the current paltry £5,000 to £50,000. He also announced plans to set up a review to assess the present, totally inadequate minimum wage and recommend higher levels in certain sectors, like catering and retail. He also issued a vaguer promise to investigate the abuse of zero-hour contracts.

The biggest explosion – from the bosses – came when Miliband pledged: “If we win the election 2015, the next Labour government will freeze gas and electricity prices until the start of 2017.” Needless to say, the privateers, who have made billions since the sell-off of Britain’s utilities and have overseen a 40 per cent price hike in home fuel bills in the last five years, were apoplectic at this proposition, threatening to shut down all new investment in infrastructure and renewable energy production. They lights will go out they threatened.

There were other popular announcements: “wraparound childcare from 8 to 6” as primary schools are kept open; switching business tax breaks from the handful of top multinationals to the 1.5 million small businesses; and forcing some businesses to fund apprenticeship schemes in return for employing skilled non-EU nationals.

Labour’s shadow health secretary Andy Burnham popular with the party membership, but hated by the Blairites, raised loud applause at the Manchester NHS demo when he pledged that a Labour government would repeal Andrew Lansley’s Health and Social Care Act in its first year of government.

Where’s the catch?

So is this all that it seems to be? Has Miliband, this summer’s scourge of the unions, turned into Red Ed overnight? Do the Daily Mail’s smears that he is a chip off the old block of his Marxist dad “who hated Britain” indeed give some hopes we can expect red-blooded socialism from the son?

Well, no and – no. But what it does represent is something of a departure from Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s strategy of “triangulation”, i.e. taking the workers and trade unionists’ votes for granted, while moving policy as close to the Tories and the selfish middle class electorate as possible. Curiously the Tories are doing the same thing in the opposite direction.

With the threat of Nigel Farage poaching their members, Cameron feels obliged to consolidate the Tories traditional base amongst the reactionary middle classes: more racism, more hammering the “skivers” and the unions. Cameron, once a hoody-hugging Clarke Kent, has had to do a quick change into the Thatcherite Superman.

But Labour’s left turn is still more a matter of style than substance.

The two Eds have made it clear that all these promised measures would be financed from existing budgets, not from extra borrowing or taxation. They will keep to the Coalition’s spending limits for at least two years, until 2017. Shadow Chancellor Balls even offered to send his proposals to the Office for Budget Responsibility to check this is so.

Remember, a verbal contract is not worth the paper it’s written on. These pledges are not in the bag of the manifesto yet. Before the 1997 election John Prescott, Labour’s transport spokesperson, promised a “publicly-owned, publicly-accountable” railway system. Conference resolutions demanded it. New Labour’s Manifesto said nothing of the sort and, of course, Virgin and Stagecoach are still ripping us off after 13 years of Labour in the “boom years”,

This year, Labour conference adopted a resolution for the renationalisation of Royal Mail. Within days, shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna told the press that a future Labour government would not reverse the sell-off.

Then we have to look more carefully at the pledges themselves. The house-building promise is the most substantial. But 200,000 new starts by 2020 probably does not mean, as some have claimed, a million homes in five years – but rather the maximum annual build. And the shortage of affordable housing is between two and four times that size. Way back in 1955 the Tories pledged 300,000 council homes a year and met their target!

And if this is left to the private sector, then it will also tied to a guarantee of future profits, which will impact on rents and quality. In short, unless it is council housing built by direct labour teams then the programme is very likely to fall short of expectation and need.

The proposed energy price freeze drew hysterical threats from the big gas and electric companies that the lights would go out. This too is also bluff; because the energy bosses, who have been ripping of consumers in boom time and crisis alike, know that they can circumvent any well-signalled, time-limited price freeze by raising prices just before and after the period.


Labour and the unions

Throughout Ed Miliband’s speech, the TV cameras flitted across the beaming faces of the union leaders, especially Unite’s Len McCluskey. And why not beam? This speech does represent an olive branch to the union leaders and they will doubtless sell it to their members as proving Labour, for all the summer’s rudeness to the unions, is still “our party” and “the only game in town”.

Revolutionaries of course have to criticise all this for the humbug it is and warn of coming sell-outs. But it is also a timely reminder that Labour – for all the right wing binge of the past two decades – remains what Lenin and Trotsky originally called it: a bourgeois workers party. It still remains capable of promising reforms to win workers votes. Therefore we cannot just “kill it with curses”, as Lenin himself warned.

It means that revolutionaries – whilst working to win thousands of the frontline fighters against the Tories to building a new workers party- also have to reach out to the millions who will vote Labour thinking it offers something different to the ConDem misery.

We have address each and every Labour promise that could open up a clash with the capitalist class, but demand their deepening and extension – encouraging the unions and Labour’s constituency membership to press for this.

If Labour weasels on its promises, we will convince far greater numbers of the need for a break with Labour. If Labour on the other hand is forced by pressure from its own supporters to adopt measures that provoke ferocious resistance from the bosses, this will sharply raise and politicise the class struggle and enable revolutionaries to find a place in the front rank of a united front with Labour supporters to defeat the parasites.

If you agree with this article, please join or donate
Send news, comments and reports to contact@workerspower.co.uk

Sign up for our Newsletter

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *