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What’s the point of voting Labour?

Long before the delayed publication of its election manifesto, the Labour Party leadership made very clear what their real priorities in government would be.

In a glossy pamphlet called ‘A Better Plan for Business’ they explained how a whole range of policies would be used to protect profits and reduce costs for employers.

On taxation they would maintain the “most competitive Corporation Tax rate in the G7”, and cut, then freeze, business rates for “more than 1.5 million small businesses”.

Less taxation will inevitably put even more pressure on public spending and on this Ed Balls and company promised to cap child benefit rises for two years and social security spending in each spending review, in other words, every year. Moreover, they will ensure that, outside “a few protected areas”, departmental spending would continue to fall “until we balance the books”. This means continuing with the Tory cuts across most of the public sector.

The pamphlet also promised that the manifesto would contain “no proposals for any new spending paid for by additional borrowing” and proudly pointed out that the Institute for Fiscal Studies had identified Labour as “the most cautious” of the three main Parties, and the only one that has not announced an overall net giveaway.

On a broader scale, the pamphlet welcomed the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), describing it as “a trade agreement between the US and the EU, that has the potential to boost trade and growth, secure and create jobs, and extend choice for consumers”.

In reality, TTIP is intended to remove “regulatory barriers” to international trade, meaning the removal of, for example, trade union rights, health and safety legislation and environmental protection laws and the opening of all areas of public provision of services to competitive tendering.

In a further bid to subsidise firms with public money and assets, there is a proposal to introduce “Technical Degrees” at universities, which “will give firms real influence over the curriculum to ensure they can meet their specialist skills gaps”.

The message could not be clearer: Labour’s priority will be to use both legislation and public assets to boost private profits.
Why, then, does this paper call for a vote for Labour?

There are, essentially, two reasons, one short term the other long term, and they are both related to the character of the Labour Party. Any party that has played a central role in society for any length of time must reflect and express the political ideas and interests of a social class, or section of a class.

Labour was founded, over a century ago, by workers’ organisations, primarily the trades unions or, to be more precise, the trade union leaders. That fact sets it apart from other parties, even if there are similarities of policy.

It is why, despite Labour’s promises to big business, 103 prominent business leaders wrote an open letter to the Daily Telegraph in which they praised the Tory policies of the present government and warned that any “change in course will threaten jobs and deter investment. This would send a negative message about Britain and put the recovery at risk”.

What these business interests recognise is that, while Miliband and Balls may make policy, they do not make it in circumstances of their own choosing. Because of the historic link to the trades unions and, through them, to the wider working class, Labour in office is subject to very real pressures that mean there are also important differences of policy.

This is why polls repeatedly show that Labour is more “trusted” to maintain the NHS. People remember that, even under Blair, billions were transferred to the NHS to overcome the budgetary crisis inherited from the Tories in 1997.

Moreover, Labour’s roots in the working class could also obstruct, delay or alter the implementation of its pro-business policies. In the short term, that could be an advantage to the working class, allowing it, for example, to organise to defend gains made in the past or to force concessions either from government or from employers. However, for the potential to be turned into reality requires a willingness to fight a Labour government and that is by no means guaranteed.

What is guaranteed is that, when the chips are down, Labour will be prepared to force through what the bosses want, even at the cost of attacking its own supporters. This was very clearly the case in the Blair and Brown governments, which not only enthusiastically collaborated with the US in Middle Eastern wars but also introduced student fees, initiated the internal market in the NHS, opened the way to academies in compulsory education and refused to repeal the anti-union laws.

It is obvious that the experience of those governments has seriously eroded Labour’s working class base, most spectacularly in Scotland but, to one degree or another, practically everywhere. This brings us to the second, longer-term, reason for voting Labour, even despite that experience.

First of all, disillusion with Labour is far from complete, probably even in Scotland, certainly elsewhere, and, as history has shown, if Labour remains out of office it could recover at least some of its lost support. With Labour back in government, the reality of its policies will erode working class support further.

More importantly, ultimately, disillusion with the Labour Party is not the same as disillusion with “Labourism”, or reformism in general. If the decline, or collapse, of the Labour Party were only to result in the formation of a new party with a leadership genuinely committed to trying to reform capitalism, a kind of Labour Party Mark Two, that would not resolve the problem.

For Marxists, the only strategy for the overthrow of capitalism is one in which the working class, a majority of the population in any developed capitalist society, organises itself to take power into its own hands in the form of democratically elected workers’ councils.

Building a party committed to that strategy means fighting against the reformist strategy and that is better done with a Labour Party in government than with the same party in the role of opposition, particularly in the context of an unresolved economic crisis such as we have now.

The combination of short term considerations, Labour having to appeal to its working class base, being distrusted by the bosses and at least hampered in its implementation of anti-working class policies, and the longer term considerations of leading the working class to break with reformism as a whole, is why we call for a vote for Labour in the great majority of constituencies where there is no socialist candidate or no representative of ongoing working class struggle.

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