Britain - From the "lesser evil" blackmail to the real battles to come

May/Jun 2001

The outbreak of politicking surrounding the "pledge" presented by the Council for Racial Equality to party candidates shed a revealing light on the current "non-election" campaign.

That a number of Tory politicians would refuse to sign a pledge to refrain from using the race card in the election, was obviously not a surprise. There have always been outspoken racists congregating within the right-wing of the Tory party, for lack of a better platform in the dual-party system. And Tory leaders have never been too choosy about these bedfellows, so long as they did not cause them too much embarassment. But above all, since John Major's days in particular, the Tories' policy has been indeed to play if not the race card, at least something that is very close to it, in order to mobilise support - for instance by blowing the issue of asylum seekers out of all proportion or by whipping up nationalist and xenophobic prejudices over Europe. And whatever William Hague and others may claim hypocritically today, to make a distinction between the xenophobic card and the race card is just playing on words.

Not that signing up to this pledge was binding the Tories to anything in fact - bourgeois politicians are used to saying one thing and doing the opposite. Those who did not sign up to the CRE pledge probably had their own personal reasons - whether it be an arch-reactionary dinosaur about to retire, like the Yorkshire East MP John Townend, or an ambitious upstart aiming for William Hague's position, like Michael Portillo. But this does not mean that they were in any way at odds with their party's policy. If William Hague was able to sign the CRE pledge while, at the same time, making vocal speeches against the "danger" of illegal immigrants and European institutions taking over Britain, anyone else in his party could have signed it, including the most outspoken racists.

This is where the hypocrisy of this whole charade around the CRE pledge lies. Because what is true of the Tories is true of Labour as well.

Of course Blair did make a big show of instructing every prospective Labour candidates to sign the pledge - although some are clearly dragging their feet, including Gordon Brown himself, who insisted that he would do it "only in due time". And of course, Labour also likes to claim the high moral ground when it comes to racism, by boasting of its "inclusive" policy towards ethnic minorities. But, in fact, this policy has always had more to do with tokenism, political correctness and electoral calculations than actual anti-racism.

Indeed, has the Labour government's official "anti- racism" stopped it from following the Tories in their demagogic campaign against illegal immigrants over the past four years? Far from it. As we discuss elsewhere in this issue of Class Struggle, Labour has willingly embarked on a demagogic overbidding. Blair and Straw have gone further in tightening the noose around the necks of asylums seekers than the Tories dared when they were in office. And by taking drastic measures against immigrants, as if they were some kind of a "threat" for the population, this government has done even more to fuel racist prejudices than Hague's discredited party could ever have done.

In fact Blair's irresponsible demagogy is exposed by the CRE's initiative itself. No-one will ever believe that timely and stage- managed as it was, this initiative was not inspired one way or another by Millbank itself. By diverting the election campaign's focus towards the issue of racism, Labour's spin doctors have only succeeded in providing a platform to a number of loony politicians and reactionary demagogues whose racist garbage would never have had any echo in the media otherwise.

How to make Labour look different?

In Blair's convoluted politicking, this manoeuvre has a logic of its own, however. After the past four years during which his government has not only continued the past Tory policies, but actually gone much further in implementing them, how can Blair convince his disenchanted electorate that Labour is still, in some ways, better than the Tories or at least the "lesser of two evils"?

As far as working people and the jobless are concerned, there is indeed not one area in which the policies of the two parties are significantly different today. On most of the issues that count, they use the same language - that of the bosses. They have the same objectives - to boost profits and dividends at the expense of the jobs, working conditions and standard of the living of the working class. They share the same determination to reduce social expenditure to the bare minimum and transform what is left of public services, at local and central level, into the milchcow of a clique of parasitic companies. Behind Labour's "compassionate" language about health and education lies a cynical scheme to entrust more and more the health of the population and the future of children to profit-making companies - something that the Tories never dared to consider overtly when they were in office and, as far as education is concerned at least, are still cautious enough not to endorse publicly today. As to Brown's so-called "unprecedented" increase of public investment, it has not even reached the level of the early 1990s!

For a whole section of the working class electorate, who has been at the receiving end of Labour's policies, the balance sheet of its term in office is unfortunately all too easy to draw. It comes down to a reduction in their standard of living and a further and spectacular deterioration of public services. Why should they feel concerned by a change of government? Why should they even bother to vote?

This is where, undoubtedly, the CRE pledge comes in, to allow Blair to impress on Labour's traditional electorate the idea that on some issues at least, and preferably on issues which involve no cost to the state and the capitalist class, the Tories are significantly worse than Labour.

Of course, a demagogic gesture such as signing the CRE pledge commits Labour to nothing more than its "inclusive" policy towards ethnic minorities does. The black youth who are at the receiving end of the police's racism today are well placed to know the value of Labour's tokenism. The Stephen Lawrence inquiry may have led to the admission of "institutional racism" in the ranks of the police - but even then with extreme reluctance on the part of Jack Straw - and to the setting up of a whole new layer of police bureaucracy to report on racially-motivated crimes, but it has not changed anything to the cops' unofficial "stop-and-search" policy against black youth in working class districts.

But then Labour's objective is not to get its working class voters to believe that it will improve things during its next term in office, but to convince them that if the Tories were to come back to office or even to increase their representation in the Commons, things would get worse.

Enough of the "lesser evil" blackmail!

Of course, this is not a new argument on the part of Labour. But what makes it even more cynical today is that Blair and his government have consistently implemented the very same policies that they had denounced when they were implemented by past Tory governments. And now Blair comes back to the workers who brought him to power because they had had enough of the Tories' policies, and has the nerve to tell them that they will have more of the same anyway, but that they have no choice other than Labour!

However, whichever "evil" workers vote for, their votes will be used against them, to go on justifying the same policies. If the Tory vote goes up, Blair will use it as an additional argument not to upset the City and "middle England". If Labour's vote goes up, he will use this as a vindication of his policies. As to the Lib-Dems, given their eagerness to be admitted by Labour into the corridors of government, they can be counted as a section of Blair's fan-club.

Voting for Labour will not be voting for "the lesser of two evils", it will be endorsing in advance more cuts in public services, more leniency on the part of ministers towards job- slashing companies, more attacks on pensions and health provisions, more measures facilitating the casualisation of labour. In short, it will be voting for the bosses against workers' interests.

However, contrary to Blair's claim, many working class voters will have a choice in the coming election. For once, they will be able to vote for candidates who oppose clearly the policy of this government - not from the point of view of parliamentary politics but from the point of view of the interests of working people and the jobless.

The Socialist Alliance, in particular, a coalition formed by five revolutionary organisations, will be standing 90 or so candidates in England and Wales on the basis of such a programme. Workers' Fight does not have the resources to participate in this election, neither as part of this coalition nor on its own. This is why, regardless of the political differences we may have with the Socialist Alliance, we support its candidates in this election.

Indeed the only way for workers to vote against Blair's anti- working class policies, will be to vote for candidates who, like those of the Socialist Alliance, are stating clearly that they oppose the degradation imposed on workers' conditions, the massive job cuts in industry, the flow of handouts granted by the state to big companies and the running down of public services.

Given the deeply undemocratic workings of the electoral system, which is tailor-made for the two main parties, these candidates are unlikely to be elected. And even if they were, this would still not change anything fundamental in the working of government. But voting for them will be a clear way for those workers who have had enough of the greed of the bosses and who are not prepared to keep their heads down in front of their attacks, to stand up and be counted.

And if these candidates get a sizeable share of the vote, even if it is only a few hundred thousand, it will be an almost unprecedented event - there has been no clear independent workers' vote since the 1930s in this country. If so, this time, Blair will no longer be able to claim that he enjoys the unanimous support of working people, not even by default. And the odds are that both the future Labour government and the bosses will take this vote into account and think twice before pushing their luck in future.

The real battles will come afterwards

But the decisive battles will not be fought in the election. They will come afterwards, once the Labour party, having secured another term, feels it has enough room for manoeuvre to force its agenda down the throats of the working class. Blair has made no secret of his agenda for the next term, including a drastic extension of the New Deal to all unemployed and an extensive privatisation programme, particularly in education and local services - which means yet more cuts in jobs and services.

And we can be assured that the bosses are preparing themselves to use this period to the best of their advantage as well.

In fact, the latest wave of redundancies, since December last year, gives a foretaste of what the capitalists and their trustees in government have in store for the working class. According to the Engineering Employers Federation's own figures, 105,000 jobs disappeared in manufacturing over the year up to last February and a total of 150,000 are expected to disappear for the whole of 2001! And this is manufacturing only. But in the first three months of this year already, 9,500 redundancies have been announced in the largest banks and insurance companies, not to mention 5,000 job cuts in the Post Office and a few thousand others as part of a running redundancy programme at British Telecom.

This is not the first wave of redundancies. Most of the major companies have been shedding jobs at one point or another over the past four years. With very few exceptions these companies were making large profits and intended to make even more through "efficiency savings" - as they call them when they want to deprive workers of their jobs, as if their "efficiency" could be a justification to cut a full-time permanent job when so many workers are forced to make a living on casual, low-paid and often parti-time jobs. And all along, these rich companies have got away with boosting their profits at the expense of the working class.

At no point did the Labour government intervene to stop this job massacre - it is a matter for the company, a "commercial decision", said Byers, not a matter for the government.

When Motorola, one of the world's richest and largest electronics and arms manufacturers announced the closure of its Bathgate plant in Scotland, with 3,100 redundancies, earlier this year, Blair made a big show of demanding that Motorola should repay the £16m subsidy it was awarded over the previous six years. Whether this will be actually repaid, we will never know. But why on earth was such a rich company awarded any money at all from government funds in the first place? Why should the working class subsidise company profits and shareholders' dividends through its taxes? Should the working class accept that stopping companies from depriving workers of their livelihood is "not a matter for government", while lining the pockets of profitable companies is considered as the role of government?

At the beginning of May, when Corus announced that it would not budge over its decision to cut another 6,000 jobs, thereby transforming part of South Wales and Yorkshire into industrial deserts, Blair made the grandiose gesture of announcing an unprecedented £2,500 redundancy payment by the state to all 12,000 workers made redundant by Corus since last November. As if this was a gift to the workers. Not only is this amount insulting towards workers who stand almost no chance of finding a similar job (assuming they find a job at all) but it is in fact a subsidy to Corus dressed up as a "generous" gesture to the workforce. And to top it all, Blair announced in the same breath that £105m would be distributed to local businesses to protect them from the loss of business due to the plant closures. But of course, there is no guarantee whatsoever that these local businesses will not take these funds and close down!

Shouldn't Corus be made to pay its debts in full to the workforce, including the proper damages these workers should be awarded for being deprived of what had been so far a relatively decent job, compared to those who have been created over the past decade? Why should public money be used to cover Corus' debt, when this company still has huge assets across the world, including in Britain? Shouldn't Corus and its shareholders be forced, on the contrary, to find the necessary funds out of their own pockets? And if they cannot honour their debts, shouldn't the state confiscate the company's assets and use them to keep as many jobs as possible, by operating at cost price and reconverting production where necessary?

There are already many cases like Corus and Motorola among the dozens of rich companies which have announced redundancies since the beginning of this year. And judging from the turn of events in the electronics industry, there will be many others in the coming weeks and months.

If the working class does not want to foot the bill yet again, for the ups and downs of the bosses' profits, it will have to force this government to take radical measures against the companies which cut jobs while making profits. It will have to impose its will on whoever is in office so that the assets of such companies are taken into public ownership without compensation, to ensure that jobs are preserved - not by splashing out public funds on shareholders, but by making them pay for the damage they cause. The working class will also have to stop the government itself from shedding jobs - whether in the Post Office or in local government. It will have to insist that, on the contrary, public funds are used to create more jobs in public services, jobs which are socially useful and allow workers to make a decent living, and that in order to finance these jobs, taxes on profits and wealth are increased substantially.

No elected government - that is no government formed by the parliamentary parties - will ever consider such radical measures without being taken by the throat and forced to do so by a large- scale mobilisation of the working class in the streets and the workplaces, using not the ballot box, but the weapons of the class struggle. But without such radical measures and, therefore, without such a mobilisation, there will be no let-up in the attacks of the capitalists against the working class and no way for workers to regain the ground lost over the past two decades.

5 May 2001