Britain- Labour's local election campaign, demagogy and overbidding

May/Jun 2006

As the present issue of Class Struggle goes to press, two days before this year's local elections, their actual outcome remains an open question. But long before election day, this Labour government looked set for yet another electoral blow - after losing ground in local government for eight consecutive years, ever since Blair came into office. The only question at this point is whether, after having already lost the overall majority it had built among local councillors across the country during the Tory years, Labour will manage to remain the largest party in the London boroughs and Metropolitan councils - i.e. in the country's working class strongholds, which have been Labour's main base of electoral support since its inception.

However, there are so many issues, national and local, over which working class voters may decide to turn away from Labour that the answer to this question may well be a foregone conclusion. Whether Labour voters choose to abstain, as has been the case increasingly in the past elections, or to vote for other candidates who appear, deceptively in most cases, to represent different policies, the result will the same. Those Labour councillors, who are still genuinely trying, against all odds and despite their own party leadership, to serve the interests of their constituents, are bound to foot the bill, once again, for Blair's anti-working class policies.

But so will working class voters in the councils that will be taken over by the Tories and Lib-Dems as a result of this election. Because they will soon find out, as others have in the past, that these parties can be even more enthusiastic and ruthless at implementing Blair's privatising and cost-cutting agenda in local government, than Labour itself.

A campaign aimed at the middle-class

Blair and the Labour party leadership know that they cannot easily fool workers into changing their minds about their policies in government. This is why the main plank of their election campaign has been targeted at the middle-class electorate, which they hoped to lure away from their main Tory and Lib-Dem rivals.

Education has been one of the three main themes of this campaign. This is ironical because Blair's flagship Education Bill is nothing but a revamped version of Thatcher's old system for helping schools to opt out from local council control, with the addition of more "managerial" jargon and the involvement of business and religious "sponsors" into the bargain. And it is even more ironical if one bears in mind that this Thacherite legislation would have failed its first reading in the Commons had Tory MPs not voted massively in its favour! Yet it is with this kind of "achievement" that Blair hopes to keep at bay its Tory rivals in local councils? But, surely, those voters who support such Tory policies are more likely to vote for the real thing, than for its Labour lookalike?

Likewise for the council tax, the second prong of Labour's campaign. As regards local council finances, the same causes have produced, under Labour, the same effects as they had under the past Tory governments. By cutting the real value of government grants to local councils, while pressurising them into devoting an increasing proportion of their budgets to buy services from private profiteers, Blair's government has crippled local government finances despite the "savings" dictated by Prescott's department. These "savings" have affected the poorest, sometimes dramatically, with basic services disappearing due to job cuts, while the farming out of council properties to so-called "social landlords" has driven rents upward, thereby increasing the already acute shortage of affordable housing. But these "savings" have failed to compensate for the increased parasitism of private sharks on council budgets. In order to avoid having to cut jobs and services to the bare bone, local councils raised their council tax by far more than the government would have liked - by 22% on average, over the past 3 years.

This looked bad for Labour's attempt at portraying itself as a low-tax administration in front of the middle-class electorate. So, eventually, Prescott came up with a revamped version of Thatcher's old recipe - capping. The councils which will overshoot the limits set by the government, will be "punished" by cuts in their grants - which, of course, can only make things worse for them. And it is even considered that their finances could be taken over by a business "squad" of accountants, much like a company going into receivership.

But, of course, there was never any question of re-vamping the Tory-manufactured council tax itself, despite the fact that it takes no account of income and that it rates a mansion at the same level as a large family house. Nor was there any question of giving back to councils the powers to raise larger business taxes from big companies. For this Labour government, the profiteers and wealthy must remain untouchable!

So, in the case of the council tax as well, Labour's campaign has been confined to championing a policy which, historically, belongs to the Tories, with the aim of convincing the better-off electorate that, under Labour, it will not be taxed to pay for the social needs of the working class.

Xenophobia raises its ugly head

The third prong of Labour's campaign was law and order - predictably so, as it has been one of this government's mottos since coming to power. So, ministers boasted endlessly about their "achievements" with ASBOs, community orders, electronic tagging and other forms of punitive measures against petty offenders. Never mind the fact that there is no evidence that these policies have been successful in any way, in reducing either petty criminality or unsocial behaviour.

The fact is, that apart from increasing the clout and arrogance of an already over-privileged police force, these measures are just window-dressing as long as nothing is done to address the causes of petty criminality and anti-social behaviour - whether it be the increasing dereliction and lack of educational resources in poor areas in many parts of the country, the casualisation of a growing part of the working class and youth, the growing gap between rich and poor, etc.. But, of course, none of the main parties raised these issues during this election campaign. Predictably so, as this would have put into question Labour's pro-business policies over the past nine years - policies with which none of these parties have any disagreement!

No doubt Blair felt confident that, on this account at least, he could claim some credit for his "achievements". After all, hasn't the present Labour government "succeeded" in bringing the level of the prison population in England and Wales to 143 inmates per 100,000 inhabitants - the highest in Western Europe - while estimates suggest that the recent turn to longer prison sentences should raise this level above the 200 mark before the end of the present decade? Labour probably thought that such a record would be music to the ears of a section of the voters it was targeting.

However, if there is an issue which is prone to dirty overbidding, law and order is it. In the end, Labour got caught in the trap of its own demagogy when, during the last fortnight before election day, the Tories unearthed a "scandal" exposing Home minister Clarke's "laxity" towards "foreign criminals".

Of course, underneath the strident xenophobic headlines of the papers, there was no case for Clarke to answer. It was alleged that his officials had allowed the release of "1000 foreign criminals" from British jails without the released prisoners being screened for deportation. The implication was that Britain had become a dangerous place to live in, with all these "criminals" at large and, what is more, foreign ones - no doubt, because home-grown criminals are considered far less dangerous by the Tories!

The truth, however, was that these "1000 foreign criminals" had been released over the 7 years between February 1999 and March 2006 and represented only a tiny fraction of all those released from detention during that period. Moreover, only 76 of these so-called "1000 criminals" were serious offenders. The rest were either petty offenders or immigrants, who had committed no crime, but who had been treated like criminals by the Home Office, which, in accordance with Labour's anti-immigrant legislation, had locked them up in detention centres, while they were awaiting an appeal to gain the right to remain in Britain.

This was a storm in a tea cup, which should have been brushed aside with contempt. However, it was Labour which had made a point, after its return into office, of not repealing the xenophobic legislation introduced by the previous Tory governments - in particular regulations which give the Home minister the right to deport convicted foreigners once they had done their time in jail, including those who had permanent residence permits. The Tories had proved that Clarke had failed to use this right. But there was no way Labour was going to allow the Tories to out-do them in pandering to xenophobic prejudices.

While the Tories were clamouring for his resignation, Clarke apologised profusely for his failures and Blair issued a scathing condemnation of the Home Office's "laxity". A frantic search for the "1000 foreign criminals" was launched across the country, with the media following these developments with glee, blowing them out of all proportions. In the end, this government's "all-inclusive multicultural" political correctness rubbed out to give way to a xenophobic demagogy, which became a feature of the election campaign.

The scarecrows are out

Labour's choice to play along with the Tories' xenophobic overbidding makes a farce of another ploy it chose to use during this election campaign, this time in the hope of convincing working class voters to use their ballot papers and vote Labour, no matter how reluctantly.

In April, a well-oiled media-driven campaign was launched warning of a "BNP threat". Employment minister Margaret Hodge was quoted making alarming statements claiming that, according to opinion polls, 25% to 30% of "white voters" in East London were "considering" voting for the BNP - especially in her Barking constituency, where the BNP scored 17% in the last general election. The implication of this campaign was that Labour's traditional voters should close ranks behind Labour candidates in each of the 362 wards were the BNP was standing - mostly in London boroughs and Metropolitan councils - and, in the name of stopping the BNP, that they should refrain from abstaining or making a protest vote for the Lib Dems, the Greens or Respect.

This is not the first time that Labour has dusted off the BNP scarecrow in order to bail itself out of trouble. Everyone remembers, for instance, how, when he was at the Home Office, Blunkett had the nerve to use the BNP threat in an attempt to soften the shock caused by his own attacks against immigrant workers among Labour voters.

This is not to say, of course, that the BNP should be seen as an innocuous element of the electoral folklore. They are the scum of politics, who live on prejudices, racist, xenophobic and otherwise, taken from the gutter - scums who pour oil on divisions within the ranks of the poorest. Behind their populist facade are men whose ambition it is to be appointed by the capitalists as wardens of an enslaved working class, whipped into line to serve the bosses in the name of "Britishness", the "Empire" and other nationalist junk. And yes, they are enemies of the working class.

But so are, in their own way, the politicians of the main parties, who all agree that the market and private profiteering should rule (and ruin) the lives of the working population and jobless. No-one would want to see BNP thugs winning a few seats in this election. But who would want Labour, the Tories or the Lib-Dems, triplet brothers in politics, to be able to brag of success on May 4th?

In any case, quite apart from being a crude electoral con, Labour's brandishing of the BNP scarecrow only ended up giving these thugs far more prominence than they deserved and providing them with a free advertising campaign they would never have had the means to afford!

More importantly, if the BNP and similar scum manage to find the ear of some voters here and there in the country's poor areas, whose responsibility is it?

To start with, isn't the government's own whipping up of prejudices against immigrants and foreigners playing into the hands of the BNP by giving respectability to its racist and xenophobic rants? But there are many other aspects of Labour's anti-working class policies which provide the BNP with ammunition.

For instance, the main gripe in the streets of Barking and other poor areas with a relatively high proportion of immigrants is the appalling state and shortage of council housing. But why is this housing crisis blamed on immigrants, if not because of Blair's policy of cutting the budget allocated to new council developments to nothing, including in areas which have already a high levels of homelessness, like Barking?

Likewise in the Midlands, where the BNP gained a small foothold in last year's local elections against the backdrop of the high level of unemployment caused by the collapse of local industries. Blair may not be directly responsible for the bosses' job cuts and their turn of the screw on workers, but he and the Labour leadership are responsible for the government's slavish indulgence towards capitalist profiteering and its on-going attacks against immigrant workers. All these factors, combined with the absence of a credible fighting alternative for those who are at the receiving end of these attacks and policies, give the BNP's "keep British jobs for British workers" demagogy a credibility it would never have otherwise.

Given this, voting for Labour - or any of the main parties - could not be a protection against the BNP, in that it merely endorses the anti-working class policies which provide the BNP with such a potentially fertile ground.

The missing voice of the working class

The fact is that, like in so many other elections in the past, the working class could have no voice in the May 4th election. No party has offered a way for working class voters to assert clearly their opposition to Blair's policies by stating openly the need for the working class to stand up collectively for its own interests - whether over his transferring of public services into the hands of private sharks, his attacks on workers' pensions, his rolling back of council services, etc.

Voting for any of the main parties is voting for all these policies, it is voting for the interests of the rich and shareholders against those of the working population and jobless. The Greens may sound to the left of Labour due to their opposition to the occupation of Iraq, but the preoccupations they express have nothing to do with the immediate problems faced by the working class.

As to Respect's 162 candidates, nearly 2/3 of whom have stood in the London boroughs of Newham and Tower Hamlets, their language may sound closer to the preoccupations of working people, but they carefully avoid any reference to the working class's capacity or need to fight for its own interests. Instead, they have presented themselves just like any other local council candidate, with a set of election promises. Only, in their case, they promised quite simply that, if voted in, they would overturn a large part of the government's social policies in just one council, or even one ward, single-handedly! However, some of their election material showed revealing "slips". In Newham, for instance, a Respect election leaflet promised to ensure, among other things, that the 2012 Olympic games would "benefit businesses", thereby pointing to the fact that Respect is a mixed crowd of far-left activists and Islamic fundamentalists, plus a number of, mostly religious, seasoned councillors who have defected from one of the 3 main parties - in other words, people who may be opposed to the occupation of Iraq, but whose concern for working class interests is far from unanimous.

In other words, just as in the last general election, voting for Respect may have been a way of expressing one's opposition to Blair's policy in Iraq, but certainly not a way of making a clear stand for workers' interests against the attacks implemented by the bosses and their Labour trustees in government.

But fortunately, the working class has other means at its disposal to stand up for its interests than the ballot box, if it chooses to use them. The concerted and generalised attacks against jobs, pensions and working conditions, carried out by the bosses and this government, provide, potentially, ready-made common ground which could cement together the forces of large sections of the working class, in a counter-offensive using the methods of the class struggle. It has been a long time since the bosses' wallets - where their hearts are located - last felt the shivers of fear caused by the collective action of the working class on a large scale in this country. It is high time they did!