Britain - The coming "dateless" and stakeless election

Feb/Mar 2001

Although Blair has still to make his much awaited announcement regarding the date of the coming general election, unquestionably the past few months have had the taste and feel of an election campaign. And what is known, at the time of writing, of Brown's March Budget can only reinforce this feeling - if there was ever an election budget, this is it!

Obviously this government is determined to keep the official election campaign as short as possible. It is not hard to understand why. The longer the "silly season", the more registered voters are likely to respond to the main parties' politicking by voting with their feet out of disgust.

This has been a consistent and increasingly conspicuous pattern since the 1997 general election. Already Labour's so-called "sweeping victory" was marked by the lowest turnout since 1935. Subsequent elections - whether by-elections or more large-scale polls such as local and European elections - showed even lower turnouts. The only exception was Scotland. But even there, the turnout deteriorated significantly after the high point reached in the devolution referendum - thereby showing that just as everywhere else, Scottish voters were feeling increasingly that with so few differences between the parties contending for office there was hardly any point of bothering to vote.

If anything the electorate's cynicism towards politicians has increased, particularly among working class voters. Over the past few weeks every opinion poll has shown a significant drop in the number of voters intending to use their ballot papers this May compared with 1997. It is estimated that in the coming general election, the proportion of abstentions could be as much as 7 points higher than in 1997 - the highest level in a general election since World War I.

Blair knows that such a low turnout will damage his position. It would do so in two ways. First, of course, because with a 64% or so turnout it will be hard for him to present his second-term government as one which represents "the people, all the people", as he claimed after the 1997 election. But much more importantly, if opinion polls are anything to go by, this lower turnout is likely to affect primarily Labour's own electorate. The Labour party machinery is so conscious of this risk that at its February Scottish conference in Glasgow, it warned party activists that should 15% of Labour's 1997 voters fail to remain loyal, Blair's majority might be cut by 120 seats. Of course, this is only a speculative estimate, which is probably distorted by the determination of the Labour machinery to mobilise the ranks of the party. But the mere fact that this warning was issued shows that Blair probably no longer believes that the votes of Labour's working class electorate can be taken for granted. And with good reason too.

Not that there is much risk of a significant number of working class Labour voters turning to the Conservatives because they distrust Blair's policy, as was the case in the 1980s. Despite the Tories' hysterical demagogy against the euro, immigration and anything "foreign", they have failed to rebuild anything comparable to the populist appeal their party had during the Thatcher years. Their image is, far more than in the previous two decades, that of an arrogant reactionary rump, mostly concerned with cutting the taxes paid by the rich and the public services that remain for the poor. And anyway the days of the Tories' reign are still too close for working class people to have forgotten the role they played in launching the policies that Blair has been continuing over the past four years.

Nor are many Labour working class voters likely to turn to the Liberal-Democrats - a party which, over the past four years, has appeared consistently as a middle-class appendage of Blair's government, leaning mildly to its left when this was of no consequence, but solidly behind its policies whenever the stakes were significant.

But on the other hand, why would working class voters give their votes to Labour - that is, to a party which has consistently rebuffed and deceived them, trampled on their interests and, generally speaking, given a free ride to the bosses by helping them to go on the rampage against working people and the jobless? Why would they not try to express their rejection of Blair's policies, even if only in a negative fashion - by voting with their feet- for lack of a better way of expressing their discontent?

And this is Blair's big problem. Despite Labour's obsession with presenting itself as a "center-left party" which dismisses the division of society into classes, it cannot hope to win an election only with the votes of the petty-bourgeoisie - there are far too many contenders for the favours of this constituency. And although Blair managed to win a large chunk of the petty- bourgeois vote in 1997, he is unlikely to make any progress in that direction. Hence the need for Labour to maintain its vote among its working class electorate at all costs (except, of course, at the cost of doing anything which might displease the bosses, but this goes without saying).

So, over the past weeks, Blair and his ministers have been working overtime to try to convince working class voters that contrary to what they might think (and contrary to all evidence), the government is doing a lot for them.

Hence the numerous high-profile announcements made about the new Children's Credit, the increased level of the Working Family Tax Credit, the unusual uprating of the state basic pension over and above inflation, the increased maternity leave (although not so much publicity is made about the fact that the benefits paid for the extended period will be far too low for any mother to survive on such a ridiculous income), etc..

However, all these measures and promises which are now being presented as "new" benefits granted by a "caring" government to working class voters are in fact old news. They were already announced, in some cases as much as two years ago, as part of Blair's welfare reform. But then, of course, such little PR tricks are normal practice for this government. In politicians' jargon they are called "relaunches" - the use of the vocabulary of advertising is, of course, not a coincidence.

What is noticeable, however, is the way in which these measures are being repackaged for the occasion, to fit the needs of Blair's election campaign.

For instance, the Working Family Tax Credit (WFTC), which was originally portrayed as a means to pull the poorest families with at least one adult in employment out of poverty, is now presented as a much broader measure which, together with Children Credit, will benefit many more working class families.

Both presentations are, of course, grossly misleading anyway. While Children Credit will indeed benefit a large range of families, its value is small and it only replaces previous benefits in the form of a tax credit. WFTC, on the other hand, is targeted at low income families only, but without even guaranteeing a significant improvement in their standard of living, due to the way it affects other means-tested benefits. But above all, WFTC was primarily designed to push more workers into low paid casual jobs. Rather than a a benefit for workers, it is a subsidy for the scrooge bosses who are allowed to get away with paying such low wages. And this is why, no doubt, Brown has announced his intention to expand this scheme to single people in employment.

But above all, these announcements are deliberately misleading. Behind the claim of aiming at "helping" working people and "fighting poverty", they conceal new attacks against the working class. Blair's pension reform, of which the April uprating of the basic state pension is one element, is a case in point which is discussed at length elsewhere in this issue. But so is the WFTC, with its many perverse effects. For instance the numerous cases reported by a recent survey published by the National Association of CABs in which workers were sacked by small employers for claiming the WFTC. Doing the paperwork required was considered too much by these bosses (or more likely they did not want to keep any accounts of the wages paid for fear of the tax man) and since there is no provision in the law which would protect workers against such practices, they are worse off than with the old benefit system, which had nothing to do with employers.

Given all this, working class voters would be ill-advised to take Brown's and Blair's good words at face value and be led into believing that at last their interests are taken into account.

There may be one exception, however, in the list of Labour's announcements - something which might be really new. According to newspapers reports, the minimum wage, this sacred cow of the CBI, may become a target for Blair's pre-election largesse. Indeed these reports have been referring to discussions over the possibility of a 10% increase. After so many refusals by Blair's government to uprate the starvation rate of the minimum wage, this would indeed be a departure from past policies. Not that the new rate - at just over £4/hr - would be much of a step forward, particularly for part-timers, but the increase would be an unusual gesture (albeit one agreed in advance by the bosses, since £4/hr just happens to be the level that Digby Jones, the CBI's director-general, considers "tolerable" for British industry). If these rumours turn out to be true, they will undoubtedly show that Blair is going out of his way to woo the votes of low-paid workers - i.e. precisely the social group in which the turnout in elections is usually lowest.

But whether part-time and low-paid workers will be grateful to Blair for this gesture is another question. Indeed they would have every reason to dismiss it as cynical posturing. And not just because of the fact that this remains at best a lousy rate. But also because if it had not been for Blair's policy of forcing the unemployed into casual jobs, cutting public service jobs and encouraging the mushrooming of cow-boy contractors, many of these low-paid workers would probably be in full-time permanent jobs today.

More generally, how can this government expect that four years of consistent pro-business policies and attacks against the standard of living of the working class will be offset by a handful of misleading announcements?

How could workers forget the benevolence of this government towards the bosses, the new tax cuts and subsidies they have been granted, the enormous profits large companies have been allowed to make while they were cutting jobs left, right and center across the country? How could workers forget the traps laid against them by this government in its employment legislation, which allowed companies to impose long and flexible working hours under the cover of a 48hr law and the courts to impose injunctions against strikers on the basis of Labour's amendments of the Tories' anti-strike laws (as the RMT found out, for instance, during the last strike in the London Underground)?

And all this talk about Labour's "caring" government is not just hot air. It is an insult to the intelligence of the working class.

In the past months, almost every week has brought to the fore another example of the way in which this government has been squeezing public services at the expense of the working population while falling over itself to meet the greed for profit of the capitalist class.

Prescott may use tough words to express his determination to bring the private railway companies into line over safety. But when an accident does happen, such as that at Hatfield, which exposes the criminal negligence of these companies, his government's only response is to offer more state subsidies to the criminals.

Brown may keep announcing that more and more billions are splashed out at the NHS, but week after week new scandals emerge, which are as many proofs of the degradation of the health system for lack of investment - whether it be a shortage of acute beds here, long patient queues there, hospital infections or the closure of emergency wards elsewhere, etc.. Meanwhile billions of public funds are going straight into the pockets of private contractors (among which is Balfour Beatty, the company responsible for the cracked rails in the Hatfield derailment!) for the building of privately-run PFI hospitals.

Blunkett may revel in the wonders he has achieved in meeting the targets that he has set himself in education, but classes are closed all over the country due to a huge shortage of teachers and school buildings are not being repaired for lack of funds (except in those schools where parents are rich enough to foot the bill out of their pockets). Meanwhile the government is promoting the development of a whole new parasitic industry of private education contractors to replace so-called "ill- performing" education authorities in managing schools.

As to local services, most working class voters are well-placed to measure how fast they are being run down under Labour, in the name of cost-effectiveness, by means of wholesale job cuts and contracting out.

And it is these policies that working class voters are expected to endorse in the coming election, by voting Labour, or indeed for any of the main parties? When the only way this election could be of any use, would be if it provided working class voters with a means of expressing their discontent against these policies and their conviction that they must be opposed.

Unfortunately, whether this election takes place on May 3rd, or before or after, there will be no way for working class voters to use their ballot paper in such a way - except maybe in a few dozen constituencies in England and Wales, where revolutionary organisations will be putting up candidates. As a result, the working class will be largely deprived of a voice in this election. It will not have the possibility of using it to measure the strength of its discontent by voting everywhere for candidates who stand clearly and squarely for the defence of its class interests.

This is why there will be no stake whatsoever for the working class in the coming general election. This is not new, of course. And as always, the only developments that will really matter and which would impose at last a real change of direction in favour of the working class, will not come out of the voting stations, but out of the class struggle.

3rd March 2001