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Tories plan ‘100 day offensive’ – working class needs to prepare defences

By Richard Brenner

Britain now has a government determined to force through another huge programme of cuts (£18bn to welfare alone) and dig up cornerstones of the post-1945 welfare system: public health, education, housing.

The Tories are likely to be in a hurry, and will take advantage of the ‘first 100 days’ to go on the offensive, for three reasons:

  • They calculate that opposition will be disorganised because millions are disoriented and dismayed by the outcome of the election. A Tory majority government was not the outcome they anticipated and flew in the face of the polls and even their own expectations;
  • The Blairite Labour right will now launch a carefully prepared campaign, backed 100 per cent by the media, to ‘take back’ the Labour Party, throwing even the tame centre-left onto the defensive and making public opposition to a Tory offensive even more muted;
  • The new government has a parliamentary majority of just 15 seats. This will erode over time through by-elections and the natural attrition of support as their “reforms” alienate ever larger numbers of people. So they can’t rely on governing until 2020 without close votes, defeats and even a late-term Callaghan-style confidence vote. With only around 19 potential allies in the Commons, including 10 Unionists from Northern Ireland, one from UKIP and eight LibDems to prop them up, the Tories know they need to get on with it.

For these reasons, the working class movement needs to quickly assimilate the lessons of the election debacle and reorient to resist the imminent Tory offensive. We should begin by insisting that with a minority of votes cast, the Tories do not have a mandate for their programme of cuts and privatisation and should be resisted through a mass movement and action outside parliament.

This struggle will be industrial, resisting cuts, closures, pay restraint and privatisation by campaigning for joint strike action, backed by direct action through marches and occupations; it will be social and community based too.

It will be political, resisting the rise of the right in the Labour Party and the unions, renewing efforts to get the unions and the left to establish a new mass working class party.

It will be theoretical, because we will have to defeat ‘new analyses’ that will echo the Blairite offensive and throw responsibility for the defeat back on the working class itself, reviving Eurocommunist narratives about the working class being inherently incapable of beating the British bosses and their party without a strategic alliance with liberalism (in this case they will probably choose the left liberal Greens).

The Tories’ outright victory was caused not primarily by Britain’s undemocratic electoral system (though just 36.9 per cent of the votes has given them an overall Commons majority), nor primarily by media bias (though only one two national mainstream newspapers backed Labour while several campaigned aggressively for the Tories), but by the contradictions racking the Tories’ opponents.

In Scotland, the independence referendum catalysed widespread opposition to austerity into a nationalist upsurge that converted Labour’s prior clear poll lead in Scotland into this unprecedented SNP victory. Labour’s historic defeat was its own doing, caused by its failure to oppose austerity, its selection of hated arch-Blairite Jim Murphy as leader and – above all else – by the fact that it campaigned in September 2014 not for the unity of the working class in Britain, not for extending the achievements of the united British labour movement like the NHS, but alongside the Tories and the LibDems for the preservation of UK establishment. Despite the bourgeois SNP’s actual record of fiscal conservatism in office, Sturgeon’s anti-austerity rhetoric contrasted with Labour’s narrative of ‘more caring cuts’ and ‘balancing the budget in a fairer way’. Yet even the SNP’s near clean-sweep would not on its own have given Cameron his absolute majority, had it not been for Labour’s failure to capitalise on anti-austerity feeling in England.

The LibDems were nearly annihilated and rightly so. The working class and the lower layers of the middle class, unable to send their children to education without being saddled with heavy debt, will not easily forget how Clegg abandoned his promises, nor how cheaply his party sold its lightly-held principles for a chance of office. Many of the Lib Dems’ votes went to the Tories; some, especially the students and hipster middle classes, went to the Greens; a significant portion went to Labour. But not enough to win the election. The simple reason was that Labour offered no coherent alternative to austerity such as could radicalise the middle class and pull them to the left, as happened in Scotland.

UKIP’s 3.9 million votes may have only given them one seat but it represents a significant increase in far right ideas. They made headway mainly among Tory voters on the east coast but also among the less class conscious sections of unorganised and desperate workers in depressed northern towns, southern England and even Wales. Again, workers who fall victim to anti-immigrant demagogy can only be dislodged, neutralised or won over by a stronger anti-establishment message than UKIP, a more consistent opposition to austerity, not by austerity lite and soft anti-immigrant arguments such as Labour delivered.

In England and Wales Miliband did try to reconnect with Labour’s traditional voting base but didn’t dare to break consistently and clearly with Blairism by blaming the cuts and austerity on the bankers, the bailout of the banks and the consequent spiralling of the national debt. Why? Because this would have meant a real and serious self-criticism for the bailout under Brown. Instead Balls apologized for over-spending on the public sector and welfare, reinforcing the Tories’ big lie that the crisis was caused by Labour’s investment in health, schools and services.

The only alternative would have been to have explicitly broken from the cuts/austerity agenda and to argue for “making the rich pay”. All Miliband’s soft left policies – like the Mansion Tax, the freeze on energy bills, clamping down on non-dom tax breaks, limiting zero-hours contracts – were hugely popular. But they were set in a confused and incoherent context of child benefit cuts, commitments to fiscal control, tight limits to public spending. Janus-faced, Labour couldn’t capitalise on opposition to austerity, couldn’t rouse an enthusiastic alternative to the Tories.

This meant that when the Tories and their press tried to frighten middle class opinion in England with the ‘threat’ of a Labour-SNP government pursuing an anti-austerity agenda, those same English voters bought it, partly because given Labour’s policy they barely heard the case against austerity.

Now, scarcely able to conceal their delight at Labour’s defeat, the Blairites are on the rampage, blaming the fallen Miliband for alienating Middle England with mansion taxes and rent controls. In fact Miliband and his trade union backers would have had to move much further left to keep hold of Scotland and unseat the Tories in England. The Blairites’ argue that no left-wing Labour Party can ever be elected and the party must move back to the centre, break with the unions, and reach out to the aspirational, modern, middle classes and workers in the new economy.

The answer to this self-serving crypto-Tory rubbish is simple, but we won’t be hearing much of it on the TV and in the Labour Party over the weeks and months ahead. It is this:

  • If left-wing anti-austerity policies alienate voters, how come they just won overwhelmingly in Scotland?
  • If Miliband’s soft centre-leftism was not right wing or pro-business enough to win in the centres of the ‘aspirational modern, new economy’, then how come Labour advanced strongly in London on 7 May?
  • If it is somehow wrong for the unions to influence Labour, why isn’t it wrong for big business to influence the Tories? Why shouldn’t our class have an instrument of its own, just as the bosses have?
  • What’s the point of winning elections if it leads to more neoliberal austerity anyway?

At the end of the day, elections express the balance of forces in the class struggle, the level of political consciousness, confidence, organisation and direction of the respective social classes. The stark fact is that the 2015 election reflected a working class movement that had already suffered a very significant defeat from which it has not begun to recover.

This was the failure of the labour, trade union, student and socialist organisations to create and maintain a movement of resistance that had the scale, longevity, tactics or leadership to defeat the ConDem offensive in 2010-11. The high point of the struggle, after the students were left to fight energetically but alone, was a few one-day ‘coordinated strikes’, each of which was answered enthusiastically by union members but was then discoordinated and wound down by the union leaders. In this Len McCluskey, the national figurehead of the left and leader of Unite, Britain’s biggest union and Labour’s biggest paymaster, is the one most culpable for The Farce Last Time.

Where then for the left in this new difficult situation?

In the economic or industrial struggle, we need to promote campaigns for strike action, backed by marches and occupations, against the Tory cuts, against closures, against sell-offs and pay freezes. This can only happen by working now to form a cross-union rank and file movement to both pressure union leaders to act and prepare to take action without them when necessary. The local and regional People’s Assemblies can be rallying points for this, if they go beyond platforms for speakers and become democratic, delegate-based organisations, local coordinations of struggle, that can make decisions and launch actions, challenging official leaders when need be and wresting control of strikes and actions from them when possible. This mans organising people from across the trade unions, local campaigns, socialist and antiracist groups and, yes, the Labour Party. With nine million votes, the affiliation of several large trade unions comprising millions of members, with strong growth in support in London and as the official opposition, the very notion that Labour is about to disappear, that we have already heard from some of the more superficial commentators on the left, is simply absurd.

In the political struggle, we need to encourage and support any left-wingers left in the Labour Party to stand firm against the Blairite challenge, whether it comes from Blair’s preferred candidate Chuka Umunna or elsewhere, and to stand on a clear programme of opposition to austerity, to all cuts, to militarism and war. But we can put next to no hope in such a challenge being successful, nor in the soft left doing anything other than knuckling down under the Blairite Restoration. Therefore we need to redouble efforts to move towards the formation of a new mass working class party.

McCluskey repeatedly toys with this idea without having the slightest intention of doing anything about it. In this – just as he toys with the idea of a general strike – he simultaneously recognises the strategic necessities of the resistance, and obstructs efforts to realise them. Therefore trade unionists need to push for their funds to be redirected to a national conference for working class representation, and the existing parties and initiatives of the left – TUSC, Left Unity and their component groupings – need to push for this too, with the simple goal of founding a new party, one with a clear name and recognisable banner that workers could actually rally to. And this needs to base itself firmly not on electioneering every few years, but on supporting, promoting and extending social and community struggles, like the resistance to gentrification and the housing crisis that is spreading across east and south London, and like the localised resistance to the Bedroom Tax and evictions, which must surely now assume an organised national form.

As the Tories work hard to push through their counter- reforms we need to try our best to mobilise massive protests outside parliament and nationwide, as students did over tuition fees and the EMA in November 2010, and as the union leaders should have done when Lansley’s’ NHS “reforms” were being debated. The aim should be to stop them being implemented and make them unworkable.

This means we need a new party whose number one priority is waging the class struggle, fighting to beat the Tory attacks through action, before the next election. This means the party should debate and adopt an action programme that sets out the way to beat the Tories and links it to the fight for an anticapitalist workers’ government and social revolution.

In the theoretical struggle, we will need to challenge the inevitable ideological consequence of defeat: a surge of revisionism from the left-wing intelligentsia, which jumps at setbacks for the working class to promote strategic accommodation to the middle class and to liberalism. In 2015 they will suggest that the working class and the labour movement cannot beat the Tories, that structural changes in British capitalism like the decline of manufacturing mean that the working class cannot win, that while the working class may still be a fundamentally revolutionary class somewhere, this one isn’t, and that ‘non-class’ populism alone can secure a majority of the people, so the left should join the Greens and/or the SNP or Plaid Cymru , or at least reach a strategic accommodation with them. In fact, of course, the radical policies of the middle class Greens and the bourgeois nationalists are sign that their leaders recognise the class interests of Labour’s core working class base and try to dislodge it through left-wing rhetoric, as populists have done throughout modern history.

It is one thing for working class people to be swayed by this under the blows of the crisis and Labour’s lukewarm policies; it is quite another for the self-identified Marxist left to be taken in by it, as if the words spoken by political leaders were of greater significance than the class forces they represent and the social roots of their political machines. Therefore, whilst always calling on the working class supporters of the nationalists and the Greens to join us on the streets in the struggles against austerity, racism and war, we must absolutely reject any calls for political support for the populists and stand firm on the principle of working class independence. Success in this struggle against the inevitable growth of revisionism in the years ahead depends on the emergence of a strong revolutionary Marxist organisation.

On Europe, the Tories look set to move quickly towards their promised ‘In-Out’ referendum. It would be disastrous for the left to back those reactionary forces campaigning for British withdrawal. Without giving a single iota of support to the undemocratic institutions of the EU, let alone moves towards consolidating a European imperial power, a Little England outside of Europe would be a huge step backwards for the working class economically and in terms of internationalism and solidarity.

Nor should we campaign for Scotland to leave the UK. Notwithstanding their clean sweep of the seats, the SNP repeatedly insisted that the election was not a referendum on independence and cannot claim that it expresses a majority for secession. Unless and until the Scottish people as a whole want it, socialists have nothing to gain from the creation of a small separate imperialist Scotland alongside an imperialist England and Wales. Yes, if Scotland leaves the UK, the English and Welsh working class will be in a worse position. But so will the Scottish working class, devoid of even the most attenuated political representation, ideologically tied to their bosses through a shared party and a common illusion, unprepared to resist an offensive from a fiscally prudent, experienced, pragmatic bourgeois government in Edinburgh.

The election was notable for an almost total lack of any serious discussion of the great geopolitical and economic changes that are shaping our times. Parties debated the contribution (or not) that immigrants make to British business without mentioning the boatloads of refugees drowning in the Med as they spoke. None offered sanctuary to a single additional refugee. They made joint commitments to defence spending while the Tories and the generals issued bellicose threats to Russia and sent troops to Ukraine. When Miliband so much as mentioned Britain’s blame for destabilising Libya, he was met with such a chorus of bourgeois propaganda that he didn’t dare mention foreign policy again.

The revival of the left in this new situation must take the opposite starting point – that the bosses’ offensive is international, effecting workers everywhere, that solidarity with resistance in Greece, and Spain and Ukraine strengthens us, that the workers of all countries are stronger together, and that the resistance to Tory austerity is part of a broader fight for a socialist united states of Europe. This is the only strategic alternative to the wave of nationalism and parochialism that overran us on 7 May.

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