Discussion: The Labour Party and the Fightback against Austerity
Working class families in Wales and throughout the UK are increasingly experiencing the consequences of austerity politics and paying for the bankers’ crisis. Just a quick look at the Cardiff Against the Bedroom Tax Facebook group gives a clear idea as to what people are experiencing and how they are trying to respond. Here, for example, is a copy of a letter received by a tenant from Cynon Taf Community Housing Group about her mounting rent arrears; thousands of families across Wales will be experiencing this on a weekly basis and then, in about three months, the evictions will start. The latest edition of Red Pepper includes a good ‘mythbuster’ article on housing and another recounts tenants’ experiences and how they are starting to fight back.
Turning to the workplace: the latest ONS figures show real wages have fallen by 8.9% since 2009 and are now back to 2003 levels, caused by a combination of pay freezes and economic restructuring. ‘Restructuring’ of course covers a multitude of attacks which are reflected in the TUC analysis on the real level of unemployment and the daily announcements of further attacks on workers’ rights: gangmaster legislation weakened; minimum wage attacked; Agriculture Wages Board being wound up; equality rights undermined, all over the last four weeks. I experienced this recently when interviewing applicants for a part time job on behalf of my local community council. A look at the 76 CVs revealed a chilling longitudinal pattern of secure jobs being lost around 2007 / 2008 followed by a pattern of short term employment with each new job paying less and, knowing some of the employers, with much worse conditions: hence the attraction of our community council job.
Resistance is being organised, both at work and in the wider community. The Bedroom Tax campaign is gradually getting underway through a huge amount of hard work around council estates and areas of social housing – as can be seen from the Facebook and Red Pepper references cited above – and through the work of organisation like the Welsh Tenants Federation. In the workplace, the Unite website is an insight into the level of workplace action and the range of issues union members are facing. Last week, the TUC met to discuss a report on the feasibility of calling a general strike. A number of unions, such as Unite, are supporting the call, and such a decision would lift the campaign against the Tories to a new level, providing a focus for us all to work toward.
What can and should we do as Labour party members? We can act at a number of levels. Branches could consider drawing up an action plan, reaching out to those who are affected by the Tories’ policies by helping to provide advice and build action around the Bedroom Tax and other welfare changes, as well as linking these to the pressure people are experiencing at work. At a basic level, this could follow the type of activity that has been referred to above but also arguing against the Tories’ austerity politics, proposing alternatives that should be Labour party policy. Clearly, this can be linked to recruitment, but we should be prepared to work in unity with others on the left who wish to organise a fightback and develop alternatives. A good example of how a local campaign can link community and workplace politics is this one from Portland, Oregon in the US.
We could also address the issue of Labour party support and political leadership within the party. Clearly a local campaign would benefit immensely if local Labour councillors were prepared to be involved and to take the campaign into the council chamber. Local branches and constituency parties can also provide coordination and support to community action and prioritise: supporting trade union action through solidarity resolutions, collections and by attending demonstration and picket lines. The resolution that we initiated and helped to pass at the Welsh Labour conference in March provides a start in arguing for this type of action. If the level of mobilisation and fightback can be raised over the next few months, it will start to provide the political support for a radical Labour party manifesto for the coming EU and general elections.
Four directions for Labour?
The departure of David Miliband has left the Blairites and the New Labour ‘Progress’ organisation without a knight to carry their flag into battle. Whilst he was an MP, David Miliband could wait in the wings for his brother to trip and step forward to save the day. Bereft of this option, a frontal attack has been launched, led by the man himself, aimed at pulling the other brother, Ed, at least closer into their fold. And – who knows? – if this doesn’t work there is always the SDP model to take out of the cupboard.
Tony Blair’s article in the New Statesman, which initiated this tactic, has been widely quoted but is worth a read itself. It is rhetorically clever, attempting to take the intellectual high ground by referring to a ‘guiding principle’ – ‘that we are seekers after answers and not the repository for people’s anger’. What a wonderful way to set up a straw man argument; how democratic; how reasonable. Of course it is possible to do both but not in Tony Blair’s world. All the right boxes are ticked: global world; Labour government didn’t create the deficit problem – the ‘financial tsunami’ did; we must deal with reality etc. Then, as we are ‘seekers after answers’, a list of reasonable-sounding questions are asked. But among the rhetoric is the neo-liberal argument: ‘systems we created post 1945 have to change radically’; and then the killer what we need is ‘one simple test: what produces growth and jobs?’
‘There is roughly $1trn (£650bn) of UK corporate reserves. What would give companies the confidence to invest it? What does a modern industrial strategy look like? How do we rebuild the financial sector? There is no need to provide every bit of detail. People don’t expect it. But they want to know where we’re coming from because that is a clue as to where we would go, if elected.’
Just read and think what is being said here: each of these questions could have a left and a right answer; but we won’t say which before an election – we just need to provide ‘clues’. Then, when we are in power, guess which way Tony Blair would wish us to jump? Used cars come very much to mind.
Well, that is one direction for Labour and Ed Miliband responded by arguing that all parties need to move on and move forward and that is what Labour is doing now. Perhaps the clearest and most positive picture of what this may mean is provided by a collection of policy statements by Ed and his frontbench colleagues, brought together on Eoin Clarke’s ‘Green Benches’ blog. And, as Jon Lansman argues in Left Futures, the policy development process is not yet finished so there is much to build on. This is the second possible direction.
Then, in the last week in an interview with the newly re-elected general secretary of Unite Len McCluskey – interestingly in the New Statesman as well – a third possible direction emerges.
‘In a sharp warning to Miliband, he predicts that Labour will lose the general election if it adopts a policy of “austerity-lite” and supports cuts in public spending. “We believe that Ed should try to create a radical alternative. My personal fear, and that of my union, is that if he goes to the electorate with an austerity-lite programme, then he will get defeated.”’
Len continues to warn Ed Miliband of the dangers of Progress, Blair and their supporters in the shadow cabinet saying that “If he [Miliband] is daft enough to get sucked into the old Blairite ‘neoliberalism wasn’t too bad and we just need to tinker with it a little bit’ . . . then not only will he fail but I fear for the future of the Labour Party.” Here is the argument for a radically alternative programme based upon challenging capitalism and its neo-liberal agenda. Ed Miliband has now responded putting a considerable distance between himself as Labour leader and Len McCluskey’s comments, stating through a ‘spokesman’: "This attempt to divide the Labour Party is reprehensible. It is the kind of politics that lost Labour many elections in the 1980s. It won't work. It is wrong. It is disloyal to the party he claims to represent." Well, the rhetoric is certainly there but it is not yet clear if it amounts to a rejection of the radical alternative Len was suggesting.
The dangerous fourth outcome for the direction of the party is that the Labour left is frightened off the debate by fear of electoral consequences. We are at a critical time where, if we are not careful, we can persuade ourselves that in the absence of a growing mobilisation of anger and action against the Tories that we have missed the radical chance, and now have to compromise with the politics and policies of austerity. This would involve agreeing to pay for the bankers’ crisis, at least in part, and being left to ameliorate the hurt and damage whilst being quiet, in order to maximise the chances of winning at the next election: it is the post-1992 scenario repeated.
How should the socialist left respond to this approach?
First, if we are convinced that capitalism is facing major structural problems, with severe consequences for the economy and climate alike, then should we not have the confidence to take the debate and the radical solutions to the electorate? As Compass argues – from a less radical, more pragmatic perspective – if the policies of the next Labour government do even begin to provide a solution to these deep seated problems, failure as a government and massive electoral defeat beckon very rapidly.
Second, the arguments supporting the neo-liberal and austerity politics have not yet become the new consensus and are suffering from the twin attacks of their own contradictions and the weight of alternative evidence.
Third, as argued above, the fightback is not over, the anger remains, is growing and even the TUC is discussing a one day general strike, so with our support further mobilisation is on the cards.
Fourth, the battle for a radical Labour manifesto is about having the confidence to face the real and frightening realities of capitalism: it is very much part of the fight for socialism and democracy against barbarism: we should be confident to carry it through, working with our allies in the trade unions and communities.
As Welsh Labour Grassroots, we are in a position to initiate such a campaign in those branches and constituencies where we have members. Are we up for it?