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Vote Labour – and build a socialist alternative

By Marcus Halaby

As next year’s general election approaches, working class people across Britain will be thinking about who to vote for, or whether to vote at all. Labour’s abject failure to oppose austerity has allowed capitalist parties like the Scottish National Party and the middle class Greens to pose as a radical alternative to Labour’s left, leading some labour movement activists to propose voting for them instead.

We should reject this outright. Labour’s continued connections to the six million-strong trade unions joins its mass base to the workers’ movement in a way that populist parties that do not have these structural connections to the organised working class do not have to worry about.

The millions who will vote Labour despite its inadequacies will do so out of a hope for protection from the Tories’ assault on their living standards, a hope that socialists want to relate to and transform into concrete demands for change.

No one on the left should imagine that they can overcome Labour’s hold on working class electoral politics by imitating the demagogic populism of the SNP or the Greens, which aims to destroy the idea of class politics altogether by dissolving the working class into “the people”. In every constituency where there are no explicitly socialist candidates with real roots in local or national struggles, defending working class interests from a class standpoint, we will call for a vote for Labour in 2015.

All the same, we should criticise sharply Labour’s neoliberal and pro-capitalist policies on benefits, privatisation, pay, immigration and war, and campaign for a new mass party of the working class. Such a party will have to avoid Labour’s key vulnerability, of being locked inside a media and opinion poll induced consensus misleadingly called “public opinion”, in reality manufactured by a capitalist ruling class.

It is this neoliberal consensus that produces the correct perception by millions of voters that, whatever the parties say in the hickhack of “party politics”, their policies in government are remarkably similar.

Placing demands on Labour

That’s why we should place demands on Labour, to reject austerity and address working class needs for jobs, housing, and public services, in a way that can mobilise Labour’s mass base in the unions and in working class communities.
For example, take Miliband’s confusing and woefully inadequate pledge to build “200,000 homes a year by 2020”. What does this mean? Would Labour not build any homes in the years 2015-19? And what sort of homes: council, rip-off housing association or private and for sale only? The pledge is deliberately vague because it’s not meant to be delivered – and it won’t be without massive pressure from below, whether from the unions still affiliated to Labour or from struggles outside of it.

We should demand Labour builds 200,000 homes every year – a million new homes during the next Labour government. They should be council owned, with affordable rents and secure tenancies. Direct labour teams should build them, with an army of young apprentices trained to use the latest, greenest construction technologies. And we should press our demands with working class methods: strikes, street protests, movements against cuts and against racism.

Key to this pressure will be a movement to break the unions from Labour and build a new working class party, one that can challenge Labour’s monopoly on the working class vote. There is no contradiction in this, quite the opposite. Demanding Labour fights for the working class while in office only has leverage if it is coupled with the threat to break from it if it does not.

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