Britain - Revolutionaries and the May 1st general election

Apr/May 1997

Not even Tory politicians themselves seem to have any more doubts as to the outcome of the May 1st general election. In view of Labour's 26% lead in the polls, a replay of the 1992 opinion polls' fiasco is no longer considered a possibility. Even the arch-conservative business weekly The Economist admitted, in its March 22nd issue, that "it would take a miracle to save the Tories".

But the ultimate consecration of the expected reversal of the Tory Party's fate, was the Sun's "historic announcement", on March 18th, with "The Sun backs Blair, give change a chance" splashed across its front page. The last time this champion of British patriotism - and any reactionary prejudice for that matter, so long as it can boost sales - made such a stand against the Tories, was in the 60s, long before it became a Thatcherite mouthpiece: the Sun never swims against the stream.

A no-choice election

So, after 18 years in opposition, the Labour party will almost certainly make it to Downing Street. Moreover, if its vote remains in line with its current lead in the opinion polls, Labour may even secure a large majority in the House of Commons, possibly one of its largest majorities ever.

In any case, and regardless of the size of its majority, there can be no doubt as to the policies Labour will implement.

Blair and the party leadership have left no space for working people to expect any change. They have made it absolutely clear that they plan simply to take government affairs onward from where the Tory government will leave them.

There will be no change in the pro-business policies of the state or in the slashing of public expenditure; no reversal of the drastic rolling back of the welfare state and public services, implemented under the past Tory governments; no repeal of the Tory legislation against workers' rights. The fight against unemployment will remain a pretext for channelling massive state subsidies to private companies, without creating a single permanent job in return. The conditions imposed on working people will remain dictated, before anything else, by the requirements of capitalist profit. The official credo will remain identical - namely that the only cure to today's social ills is to boost the profits of the bourgeoisie. Under this hypocritical pretext a massive share of the national income will continue to be diverted into the coffers of the capitalist class. All this has been spelt out at length, without the slightest ambiguity by the Labour leadership over the past six months or so.

Voting for Labour will not even be a way of voting against the Tories and their past record - the Tories cannot be disavowed by voting for people who have put all their effort into dressing themselves and their party up as Tory clones. Nor will voting Labour be a way of voting against Tory policies in the future, because that is exactly what Labour intends to implement.

In fact, voting for any of the parliamentary parties' candidates will be voting for the same anti-working class policies under different labels and packagings. In that sense, voting on May 1st will be like filling in a National Lottery ticket for a draw with no jackpot, and in fact no prizes at all - a con and a waste of time.

Worse, whichever party workers choose to vote for, their votes will be used against them, to justify yet more attacks against their standards of living, and yet more concessions for the capitalists. If Labour wins a large majority, Blair will boast of having won an overwhelming endorsement for his pro-business agenda. If Labour wins only a small majority, or if there is a hung parliament, Blair will use the alleged fragility of his government as a justification for his planned handouts to the rich, by disguising them as concessions to the opposition parties - as the Labour governments of the 70s did, under the pretext of a Lib-Lab alliance. Heads the bosses win, tails workers lose - the vote is fixed before it even takes place.

For the working class, no decisive change can ever be brought about through the ballot box - neither the capitalists who hold the levers of the economy, nor the top civil servants and army officers who handle the controls of the state machinery are ever elected. But, in theory at least, elections could be used by working people to express some of their aspirations or anger, in other words to make a political statement. The May 1st election will not even allow this, in any case not through voting for one of the parties which stand candidates on a scale large enough for their votes to have a national significance. Because voting for any of these parties will have the same meaning - an acceptance of the fact that profit should come first and working people last.

The SLP's "alternative"

One of the unusual features of this year's general election is the number of candidates standing independently from the Labour party, and to its left - the largest since the 1979 election, at least judging from the statements of intention issued by various organisations, since the actual candidates will only be confirmed within a few weeks of the election.

Among them, the Socialist Labour party should be standing the largest slate, with around 100 candidates, according to Arthur Scargill's own recent statements. If the past rules for time allocation in the media hold this time round, this should give the SLP the possibility of using party political broadcast time both on the radio and on television. Already this announcement has enabled the SLP to attract a little interest from the media and corresponding coverage.

How does the SLP present itself in this election? At the time of writing, it has not yet issued an election manifesto and there is a possibility that it will not issue a national manifesto, due to the deep divisions which exist in its ranks as to its content. However, an article by the SLP vice- president, Pat Sikorski, published in the March/April issue of Socialist News, the SLP's paper, provides a general idea on the SLP's election focus:

"Our party represents the only real Socialist alternative to the three major parties, each of which supports capitalism and the free market. (..) Having scrapped Socialist aims and values, New Labour cannot undo the damage of the past 18 years. Only Socialist policies can combat unemployment, low pay, poverty; eliminate homelessness and bad housing; rebuild the NHS, our education system and industries. The SLP believes in direct action, whether it be community, industrial or ecological, to confront the evils of our dangerous, divided society and contaminated environment. We also believe in seeking local authority and parliamentary representation for our principles and policies."

Further on, in the same issue of Socialist News, Scargill answers those who are dissatisfied with the party's poor showing in the recent Wirral South by-election (156 votes and less than 1% of the poll), by underlining the reasons for the SLP to stand in elections: "We must contest elections wherever finances and resources allow; it is fundamental to show our fellow citizens that there is an alternative to the free market capitalism now espoused by New Labour, the Lib Dems and the Tories - the alternative is embodied in the SLP, whose policies can create the conditions necessary for establishing a Socialist Britain on common ownership."

Predictably, these statements show the same ambiguity which has marked the SLP ever since Scargill took the initiative to set it up, at the end of 1995. As a party, its programme is no more than a slightly modernised version of what the Labour Party programme used to be eighty years or so ago, in the period following World War I. The ambiguity lies in the SLP setting itself what it calls "Socialist aims", such as the common ownership of the means of production and distribution (as Labour's old Clause Four used to do) without ever spelling out how these aims can be achieved.

Of course, the SLP programme, just as Pat Sikorski in the article quoted before, does pay lip service to the role of "direct action". But this is no more than lip service. What "direct action" has the SLP been trying to build since it was launched? Even its press does not have very much to say about this, except references to the usual "campaigns". And yet, it did have a few significant opportunities. For instance, the SLP leadership includes a number of prominent union activists in the railways and the London Underground (like Pat Sikorski and Bob Crow, the RMT deputy general secretary, among others). These are areas in which there has been some industrial unrest over the past year, and there are still today a number of disputes in the privatised railways. Has the SLP spelt out its own policy for its members and supporters in these industries, to help them have an impact in this year's dispute? It has not. On the contrary, Scargill himself indicated in no uncertain terms, at an SLP conference last year, that the SLP would not try to formulate a policy for its members in the unions, let alone act as a consistent body fighting for a specific policy within the unions.

The point is that the SLP's "direct action" stops where the authority of the union bureaucracy begins. And this, of course, nullifies any claim that the SLP's programme can help the working class to bring about any change or "undo the damage of the past 18 years", since this is clearly not what the union bureaucracy plans to do.

Since the "direct action" of the working class is thus disregarded as an instrument through which the SLP's "Socialist policies" could "combat unemployment, low pay, poverty" as Sikorski claims, how else is that going to be achieved? Presumably either through the SLP winning positions in parliament and implementing these policies, which is highly improbable, or through influencing Labour MPs who might be dissatisfied with Blair and turn to the SLP as a result. In other words, the SLP is standing in the election on the same basis as the Labour Left would have done, twenty or thirty years ago, to influence the policies of the Labour government from within Parliament - except that today, the Labour Party is no longer prepared to allow that sort of relative independence within its own ranks.

The constituencies chosen so far by the SLP confirm that its target is indeed the traditional Labour Left electorate, or what is left of it, rather than the mass of working class voters. Thus for instance, Scargill will be standing in Newport East against Alan Howarth, the Tory defector who Blair has just imposed on the local constituency party. Likewise, there will be an SLP candidate in Peckham and Camberwell against one of Blair's most vocal supporters on the Labour's frontbench, Harriet Harman. But it seems there is no question of the SLP standing candidates against Labour MPs who are considered as being to the left of Blair.

Ultimately, for all the criticisms that the SLP levels at the Labour party leadership, voting for the SLP will be nothing more than saying that the working class should rely on Labour to resume its "old Labour" stand, or on the SLP to play this role. It will be harking back to the same Labour Party which delivered both the austerity measures and wage contracts of the 70s and today's New Labour, but certainly not expressing the need for the fightback against the capitalist offensive which would be needed today in order to stop the rot.

The Socialist Party - SLP without an "L"?

In the revolutionary left, the newly-launched Socialist Party (formally Militant Labour) should be standing candidates in two dozen or so constituencies. The editorial of the March issue of the SP's monthly Socialism Today presents the group's election campaign:

"In spite of Blair's zero-promises, many workers still believe some improvement will be possible under a Labour government. Many are hoping against hope. Frustrated expectations, lost illusions, will quickly turn to anger. The public-sector pay freeze, together with more job losses, will provoke big industrial battles. Once Labour is in, the temporary resignation - even despair - reinforced by passive pro-Blair trade-union leaders, will rapidly evaporate. New Labour's conservative policies are a recipe for deep social conflict and renewed working class struggle. By standing candidates in the coming general election, the Socialist Party is preparing for those events. We want to see a massive defeat of the Tories. But we warn what will happen under a Labour government. Above all we aim to present the case for a socialist alternative to capitalism. We are campaigning not simply for votes but to arm the working class with a programme for rebuilding through struggle a mass movement for the root and branch transformation of society."

At first glance, the Socialist Party's stand may sound much more promising than that of the SLP, since at least it does refer to the working class fighting back and it speaks about the need to "arm the working class with a programme for rebuilding through struggle a mass movement for the root and branch transformation of society".

This programme is the "Manifesto 1997" issued by the SP for its launch - a 32-page pamphlet in which the SP proposes a long list of measures in such areas as education, low pay, employment, benefits, pensions, housing, health, environment, justice and democracy - not unlike Labour's election manifesto in the 60s and 70s, only pitched at a higher level. But nowhere does it say how these measures are to be implemented, nor whether they will have to be imposed by the struggles of the working class. One has to wait until the Manifesto's very last paragraph to find a reference to the need for a fight ("we have no alternative but to fight back, consign capitalism to the museums where it belongs and make the new century a new socialist start for working class people") and even then, it does not say where the previous list of measures fits in. This is definitely not a programme designed to provide the basis for a fight, let alone "for rebuilding through struggle a mass movement for the root and branch transformation of society".

But then this contradiction between the SP's claim and the content of its programme, probably reflects another very basic contradiction in which the Militant Labour comrades entangled themselves when they launched the Socialist Party - that of activists who base themselves on the Trotskyist programme, while setting up a new, "broader" Party which does not want to make any reference to the revolution for fear of repelling potential recruits, particularly disenchanted supporters of the Labour party who are straight reformists.

In this the SP has something in common with the SLP - it presents itself first and foremost as a "radical" version of the Labour party. But there is more to it. "We want to see a massive defeat of the Tories", says the Socialist Party. Why? Because it would make a difference for the working class? To be sure, the SP adds immediately: "But we warn what will happen under a Labour government." But it is already too late, the damage is already done and the ambiguity is sown.

What is the problem for revolutionaries today, if not to dispel the slightest remaining illusion about Labour? And to invite workers to celebrate "a massive defeat of the Tories" as a victory - which is what the SP effectively does - is already encouraging the illusion that Labour is somehow a lesser evil than the Tories, regardless of the qualifications which might be added afterwards. But is it a lesser evil? Isn't it the case that, on the contrary, under a Labour government, the bourgeoisie might feel more confident and more demanding, knowing that it can rely on the active support of the union bureaucracy to police the working class in order not to "rock the boat"? And shouldn't revolutionaries consider it their task to warn the working class against this possibility, at least as clearly as against Blair's policies?

Likewise, it may be the case that Labour will end up triggering "anger", "deep social conflict and renewed working class struggle" and that "the temporary resignation will rapidly evaporate" - no such possibility can be dismissed out of hand. But will it automatically be the case? Does a Labour victory mean that workers will necessarily be in a better position to fight, which is what the SP implies? What if things go the other way, as it has been the case in France, for instance, after the Socialist party came into office, in 1981? What if the working class waits passively for the new government to do something - for instance to take measures to stop the onslaught on wages and jobs - only to become disoriented and confused when they realise that Labour is doing nothing of the sort, quite the opposite? And if indeed they start to fight, shouldn't revolutionaries warn them against the risk of having to face a much more determined opposition on the part of the union bureaucracy than anything they have seen for the past decade?

And yes, this would mean admitting, or at least considering the possibility, that, under Labour, things could indeed become worse, and possibly much worse than many workers, and certainly most union activists, imagine today. But then, of course, such warnings may not be very popular with the milieu that the Socialist Party is really addressing itself to - the very same milieu, which harks back to a more left- sounding Labour party, that the SLP is also targeting.

A missed opportunity

Today a majority of the working class is probably conscious of the fact that nothing will change under Labour. If workers vote for Labour - and a majority of those who will bother to vote will probably do so - it will be primarily out of resentment, if not hatred against the Tory party, but certainly not due to any enthusiasm for Labour's policies.

The fact that expectations in the Labour party are at a record low amongst working people does not mean, however, that they have no illusions in the future Labour government - even if these are illusions about what Labour will not do rather than about what Labour will do. And surely the role of revolutionaries should be to do whatever they can to dispel these illusions, at least among the most conscious workers. This is indispensable if the working class is to face the new conditions, and the new attacks of the bourgeoisie, under the future Labour government, with its eyes open. If revolutionaries fail to do this, no-one else will do it for them.

The general election could have provided revolutionaries with an opportunity to do just that, by giving them a platform to address workers on a much larger scale than they can normally. Of course, some revolutionary groups, including our own, are too weak to take advantage of such an opportunity. They would only be able to have, at best, a token presence in this election - which would be politically pointless. But what about the others? Surely organisations like the Socialist Party or the SWP, which often boast about the size of their memberships, would probably have had the militant and organisational resources to use this election to the full, thereby preparing the future. Yet, they chose not to. The former will have only a token presence on the basis of an ambiguous message, while the latter will be totally absent, having chosen to call for a qualified Labour vote, thereby leaving the field entirely free to Labour and renouncing its responsibilities.

Yet, had a revolutionary organisation been prepared to stand candidates on a scale large enough for them to be visible to a large section of the working class, it would have been in a position to spell out the clear warnings that need to be issued against all illusions, either in the Tories' departure or in Labour's return to government. Using this platform, these candidates could have spelt out the need to prepare for a counte-offensive of the working class, which will have to be fought on three fronts - against the bosses and the Labour government and against the union machineries as well. They could have publicised the objectives on which this counter offensive could be based - objectives which would have to provide an answer to the main problems which the working class is confronted with today, not just in terms of demands, but in terms of what role workers in struggle could play to ensure that these objectives are achieved.

To what extent, given the limited audience, and even more limited credit, of the revolutionary left, this message would be heard, we do not know. But trying to do it was the only way to find out. When an opportunity is missed, it is missed forever. And the working class will have every right and every reason to blame the revolutionary movement for its political absence or abstention in a period where workers desperately need a policy to reverse the social balance of forces in their favour.