The following is taken from Socialism Today issue 149 June 2011
Can the anti-cuts movement find a political voice?
MAY’S ELECTIONS FOR the Scottish parliament, the Welsh assembly and English local councils were the first gauge on the electoral plane of the gathering opposition to the Con-Dem government’s austerity agenda.
The overarching verdict was a crushing repudiation of the Liberal Democrats. They were disproportionately hit, compared to their Tory coalition ‘partners’, largely because, after 13 years of New Labour government, they had managed to position themselves as a perceived ‘radical alternative’ to the two main establishment parties. The subsequent disabusing of the hopes of many of their supporters when they joined the coalition, produced a deeper reaction.
In the poll for constituency members of the Scottish parliament (MSPs), the Liberal Democrats lost 55% of the votes they won in the last Scottish elections in 2007 (168,518), and 52% of their regional MSP list vote. In Wales they lost fewer seats – one assembly member compared to twelve MSPs – but their absolute vote still fell by one third. In the English local elections the Liberal Democrats lost 40% of the 1,846 seats they were defending (748), and control of nine of the 19 councils they held before May. This was an electoral massacre on an industrial scale.
The Tories, in contrast, did not suffer to nearly the same degree. In Scotland they lost 17% of their absolute vote in the constituencies poll compared to 2007, 13% in the regional lists, but in Wales they marginally increased their vote. In the English local elections they won an extra 86 councillors, largely at the expense of the Liberal Democrats, and took control of a further four councils.
Over 9,000 council seats were up for election in England, in every region with the exception of the London boroughs and a handful of unitary authorities, but not even the establishment parties contested every seat. A sample of 2,500 wards where they did, however, in which 6.3 million people voted, gave the Tories a 38% share of the vote, Labour 37% and the Liberal Democrats 16%. (Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher, The Sunday Times, 8 May) This compares with the results in 2007, in the same local election cycle, when the Tories polled 40%, Labour 26% and the Lib Dems 24%.
The referendum on changing the parliamentary election system to the ‘Alternative Vote’ method, also held on 5 May, mobilised established Tory voters and was probably one factor for the more limited rebound against the Tories. But there were other factors as well.
ICM have conducted a series of polls for The Guardian newspaper tracking the rise in the number of respondents saying that ‘the cuts go too far’. A majority agreeing with this was first recorded late last year, after George Osborne’s comprehensive spending review, up from 43% holding that view in September before the plans were announced. But a class divide was also revealed, with 50% of so-called ‘AB’ voters agreeing that the cuts are ‘right or should go further’ while ‘DE’ manual, unskilled and unemployed workers were firmly opposed. Opinion has moved further against the cuts – reflected in the massive 26 March anti-cuts demonstration – but the full impact of what they really involve, and how widely they will hit, is still to be felt.
In reality, such polls are merely a record of a lagging consciousness. The conference votes for strike ballots by the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) and the ‘moderate’ Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) union, and the open hostility to the Con-Dems from bodies such as the Police Federation, the Royal College of Nursing, and other NHS ‘professional colleges’, point to how the opposition to the cuts will deepen and widen into a perfect storm. Then both parties of the coalition will meet their electoral nemesis.
A limited Labour recovery
THE MAIN ELECTORAL beneficiary as the mood against the cuts further develops will be the Labour Party. This is not out of enthusiasm for, or even a full awareness of, Labour’s own cuts policy. Osborne’s austerity plan aims for UK public debt to peak at 70.3% of GDP in 2013-14 compared to Labour’s last budget target of 74.9%, which would still have involved ‘cuts worse than Thatcher’s’, according to the then chancellor, Alistair Darling. But Labour is still seen at least to be a viable governmental alternative to the Con-Dems and, in the absence of a mass working-class political alternative, electoral support will ebb and flow between the parties, much as it does in the USA between the Republicans and the allegedly more ‘labour-friendly’ Democrats.
This was one trend in the May elections, particularly for the Welsh assembly where Labour put on 86,752 votes in the constituency seats compared to 2007, a 22% increase in absolute votes. This was replicated in some urban areas in north England and the Midlands. Labour won an additional 857 councillors and took control of 26 councils, taking its total in England outside of London to 57.
But Labour’s recovery was certainly not uniform in the English council elections. It gained Ipswich in Suffolk and Gravesham in Kent. But, as the shadow culture secretary, Ivan Lewis, conceded, "there was little sign of those squeezed middle voters in the south-east, south-west and east of England returning to Labour". (The Guardian, 12 May)
This year was the largest of the four-yearly local election cycles, with 9,396 of the country’s 18,225 council seats up for election. Before May, Labour was behind the Liberal Democrats in these seats, with just 1,620 councillors, although that has now been reversed. But Labour had cumulatively lost over 1,400 seats in this cycle since 1999 and those losses have not yet been recouped.
Where Labour did win, expectations will be raised that the new councils will be a shield, at least, against the cuts. And the cuts could be stopped in their tracks if the Labour Party took a clear stand of opposition. If Labour leader Ed Miliband, for example, was to commit an incoming Labour government to reimburse councils who exhaust their reserves or borrow rather than make the savage cuts demanded of them, then not one council would have a reason to make the cuts.
The same pledge could be made to other public and semi-public bodies like universities, health authorities, housing associations, etc, to encourage them to incur ‘temporary’ deficits to avoid implementing cuts. Almost one in five secondary schools and one in ten primaries entered the 2010-11 financial year in the red, with a total deficit of £161 million, the highest since records began a decade ago. (The Guardian, 5 April) A NAHT survey found 37% of schools expected to make redundancies for the new autumn term. (The Guardian, 29 April) Labour could pledge to reimburse any school governing board that refused to make these cuts and the jobs would be saved.
But Labour, nationally and locally, has shown it will not take such a stance. Labour councils have lined up to pass on government cuts, with no attempt at resistance. They have not used their powers to lead the opposition to the NHS ‘reforms’, for example, by organising consultative ballots or initiating ‘referrals’ to block the preparations for the handover of health commissioning to the proposed new GP consortia. In a letter issued after the alleged ‘pause’ in the legislative process, David Nicholson, the NHS chief executive, claimed that nine in ten local councils had applied instead to be ‘early implementers’ of the reform provisions. (The Guardian, 16 April) Labour is not a vehicle to resist the cuts.
The absence of a workers’ party, to call it by its right name, is an important factor in how far the capitalists and their political representatives will dare to go in pushing through their austerity agenda. In the past, Labour was a ‘capitalist workers’ party’, a party with pro-capitalist leaders but with democratic structures that gave an opportunity for workers to fight for their interests, principally through the unions. It had the potential to act at least as a check on the capitalists, fearful of radicalising Labour’s working-class base. But this is no longer the case. The review of Labour’s structure introduced by Miliband in March as the election campaign got under way – under the heading, Refounding Labour: a party for the new generation – shows how far the Labour Party has already been ‘refounded’ as a ‘normal’ capitalist party like the US Democrats, and the next steps planned in this process (see box).
Significantly for how Labour is now perceived by many workers, in the first three unions with a political fund to ballot for national strike action against the cuts – the PCS civil service union, the National Union of Teachers (NUT) and the University and College Union (UCU) – there is no broadly-supported call being raised for affiliation to the Labour Party, and certainly not as a means of enhancing the unions’ anti-cuts struggle. There are 1.673 million trade unionists in TUC-affiliated unions (out of a total TUC membership of 6.2 million) who pay into a political fund in unions not affiliated to Labour – PCS, the RMT transport workers’ union, the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), NUT, UCU, etc – or, in Unison, the public-sector union, members who choose to pay into the general political fund and not the affiliated Labour Link fund.
Twelve unions are still affiliated to Labour, with 2.727 million members who pay into their political funds. But in the ‘big three’ in particular, which organise in the public sector – Unison, and the Unite and GMB general workers’ unions – the question will be relentlessly posed in the anti-cuts struggles ahead: if Labour is not the vehicle, what needs to be done politically to resist the cuts?
As a result, two processes can develop in tandem as the anti-cuts movement builds. Labour can pick up electoral support, including in ‘the south’, as the first alternative to hand in the polling booth against the Con-Dem hatchet-men. At the same time, amongst increasingly broader layers drawing on their experience of fighting the cuts, opposition can grow to Labour as well. This could include new forces which, if rooted in a mass opposition to the cuts, including in the trade unions, will not necessarily be completely ‘squeezed out’ on the electoral field.
Other outlets for protest
MAY’S ELECTIONS GAVE some early signs that this ‘dual process’ is already underway: that while Labour will regain ground electorally, other outlets of protest can develop too. This was certainly shown by the results in Scotland.
The Scottish elections were a disaster for Labour, its worst result in the country since 1931, with the Scottish National Party (SNP) gaining an absolute majority in the Scottish parliament with 69 MSPs. Labour lost votes compared to its already poor performance in 2007 – 71,856 in the regional list vote (12%). Although it fared better in the constituency vote – a loss of 17,913 votes (3%) on 2007 – because of the collapse of the Con-Dems, particularly the Liberal Democrats, the SNP picked up 32 constituency MSPs, with Labour losing 20.
"Labour’s invitation to back the party as the best way of giving David Cameron a bloody nose", wrote John Curtice of Strathclyde University, "was one voters felt able to refuse". (The Guardian, 7 May) The results confirmed the findings of a pre-election survey conducted for The Scotsman newspaper which showed that 50% of Scots – more than voted for the SNP – believed that "the SNP would do a better job of standing up for Scotland against the coalition" than Labour. (The Guardian, 3 May) ‘Standing up for Scotland’ means, of course, different things for different people and classes. The SNP, their campaign bankrolled by big business figures, are proven defenders of capitalist interests – which will mean them attempting to meet the costs of the economic crisis by attacking jobs and services. But for Scottish workers and big sections of the middle class it means, above all, fighting savage austerity.
There is a parallel here with the situation that began to develop after Thatcher’s third election victory in 1987 when she moved to introduce the poll tax in Scotland a year ahead of England and Wales, despite having no ‘mandate’ in Scotland – there were just ten Scottish Tory MPs out of 72. Seventeen months after the general election, in November 1988, there was a by-election in the rock-solid Labour seat of Glasgow Govan. The SNP triumphed, overturning a 19,509 Labour majority, with two main slogans: ‘We’re not paying the poll tax’ and ‘the feeble fifty won’t stand up to Thatcher’, referring to Labour’s 50 Scottish MPs.
The SNP subsequently refused to support a campaign of mass non-payment of the poll tax, with SNP councillors, in the main, going along with Labour in implementing punitive enforcement measures against non-payers. The resultant political vacuum, that the most conscious anti-poll tax fighters had no political outlet, was an important factor in the early electoral successes of Scottish Militant Labour (SML), the predecessor of the Socialist Party Scotland, when it was formed in 1992. SML won four seats on Glasgow council in May 1992, just weeks after another Tory victory in the April 1992 general election (in which Tommy Sheridan came second in Glasgow Pollok with 6,287 votes, 19.3%). From May 1992 to February 1994, SML polled 33.3% of the total votes cast in 17 local council contests with Labour (36.1%) and the SNP (22.8%), winning six.
The success of SML laid the basis for the development of the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP), which was able to win representation in the Scottish parliament from 1999 to 2007. Tragically this position was thrown away as a result of the subsequent political mistakes and actions of the SSP leadership, including their role in the prosecution and jailing of Tommy Sheridan, leaving a clear field for the SNP in the Scottish parliament for the last four years. (See: www.socialistworld.net for a full analysis of the Scottish results.)
But now there is no hiding place for the SNP, even if the Con-Dems in Westminster concede amendments to the Scotland bill on corporation tax or higher borrowing powers for the Scottish parliament. The SNP will generate new opposition, and new opportunities to rebuild independent working-class political representation, as it attempts to preside over projected cuts of £3.3 billion to jobs and services in Scotland.
Testing the Greens
AT THE OTHER end of Britain, in the south coast city of Brighton, the Green Party emerged as the main electoral outlet for opposition to the cuts. With 33% of the city-wide vote, the Greens surged from 13 to 23 councillors, displacing the Tories as the largest group (down from 26 to 18 councillors), while Labour remained with 13 seats.
The Greens also gained councillors in Bristol, Bolsover, Kings Lynn, Solihull, Stafford, Reading – where they now hold the balance of power – and Norwich, consolidating their position as the second party in a ‘hung council’. They now have 130 councillors in 43 local authorities.
The Greens’ record in local government, however, shows that they will disappoint those who see them as a shield against the cuts. In the south London borough of Lewisham, for example, for four years (2006-10), two Socialist Party and six Green councillors sat in a hung council, with Labour as the largest party but without an overall majority. The Socialist Party and Green councillors sometimes voted together against all the other parties, for example, in opposing plans to cut local hospital A&E services, or in support of the 2008 national teachers’ strike. But the Greens more often opposed the Socialist Party councillors’ proposals to resist the establishment parties’ pro-market agenda, siding with New Labour on key votes, or abstaining to help give it a majority, including votes on cutting council services, homes privatisation plans, and academy schools.
Such vacillation by the Greens is not accidental. Public representatives such as councillors or MPs who stand out are put under extreme pressure from the establishment politicians, backed up by the media and senior civil servants or, locally, by council executive officers, to ‘be realistic’, to accept ‘officers’ guidance’, and generally follow the logic of pro-capitalist policies. The Green Party has not emerged as an expression of the political interests of the working class, with no acceptance amongst its members of a class analysis of society and not based on working-class organisations, in particular the trade unions. Neither does it have a clear alternative to the capitalist ‘free-market’ system. When the stakes are high, therefore, the majority of Green councillors will be unable to resist.
The Brighton Greens have now formed a minority administration, promising a review of the previously agreed £24 million council budget cuts. But their own ‘alternative budget’, which they presented to the March council budget-making meeting, accepted that deep cuts had to be made, ruling out the idea of setting a ‘needs budget’ that would not pass on the Con-Dems’ cuts. While the Greens may continue to pick up electoral support in the vacuum that exists, they will not provide an effective political voice for the anti-cuts movement.
The TUSC election campaign
MAY’S ELECTIONS TOOK place just five weeks after the half-a-million plus Trades Union Congress (TUC) organised anti-cuts demonstration on 26 March. But this magnificent manifestation on the streets of the enormous latent power of the working class and its basic organisations, the trade unions, did not transform consciousness as it could have done, at least immediately.
The TUC leadership organised nothing to follow up the demonstration. The possibility of co-ordinated strike action on 30 June by 750,000 civil servants, teachers and lecturers against the attack on public-sector pensions has come about only because of the initiative of the left-led PCS union (with Socialist Party members to the fore) and the NUT. The inspiring ‘Hardest Hit’ demonstration on 11 May to defend people with disabilities against the vicious government assault was organised and built for by the UK Disabled People’s Council, the Disability Benefits Consortium, and charities like Mencap, Sense and the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB), but not the TUC leaders. The momentum from 26 March was dissipated, even though its effects on thinking – the confidence it gave millions of workers – will resurface.
Instead, the TUC leaders diverted attention to the elections, a ‘lower form of struggle’. Elections are always just a snapshot of a moment in time, an episodic conjuncture, rather than a 3-D film of an ongoing process. But it was at this conjuncture – with a royal wedding diversion thrown in just a week before! – that the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) conducted its first local election campaign.
TUSC was set up last year to enable trade unionists, community campaigners and socialists who wanted to resist the pro-austerity consensus of the establishment parties to stand candidates in the 2010 general election. It came out of a series of discussions by participants in the No2EU-Yes to Democracy coalition, which contested the 2009 European elections with the official support of the RMT, the Socialist Party, and others – the first time a trade union had officially backed a national electoral challenge to Labour since the party’s foundation. It is a coalition with a national steering committee which includes, in a personal capacity, leading officials of the RMT, PCS and NUT, including RMT general secretary Bob Crow. The Socialist Party, involved from the outset, and the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), which joined later, are also represented on the committee.
TUSC was established as a federal ‘umbrella’ coalition, with an agreed core policy statement endorsed by all its candidates but with participating organisations accountable for their own campaigns. For the local elections, a policy platform was agreed at a conference in January that committed TUSC council candidates to a clear anti-cuts stance. This included opposition to all cuts to council jobs, services, pay and conditions, a rejection of above-inflation increases in council tax, rent and service charges to compensate for government cuts, and opposition to the privatisation of council services, or the ‘half-way house’ transfer of council services to ‘social enterprises’ or ‘arms-length’ management organisations. When it came to government cuts to council funding, TUSC had a clear position that councils should refuse to implement the cuts, supporting the use of reserves and prudential borrowing powers – or a needs budget with an identified deficit if that was the only way to avoid cuts – as a prelude to mobilising the mass campaign that is necessary to force the government to make up councils’ funding shortfall.
The TUSC intervention was an extremely modest start. Exaggeration only underplays the scale of the task ahead – and there are limits to what can be gauged from results measured in hundreds rather than thousands. Nevertheless, the 177 candidates standing under the TUSC umbrella, in 50 councils, together polled over 25,000 votes. (A full breakdown of the results is available on the TUSC website at www.tusc.org.uk). Unfortunately, three sitting councillors were defeated, while polling over 30% of the vote. But in 19 seats TUSC candidates polled over 10% and, in nearly a third of wards contested, the TUSC vote was more than 5%. TUSC outpolled a Liberal Democrat candidate in one out of every eight seats where there was a contest.
Overall, in the wards TUSC contested, Labour polled 245,000 votes. In other words, for every ten Labour voters there was one person who voted for TUSC. In some areas the ratio was better: one TUSC voter for every seven Labour voters in Salford and Walsall, one-to-four for the seven TUSC candidates in Rugby. Labour won Gravesham in Kent – where Miliband held his post-election photocall – but failed to make further breakthroughs there, despite having targeted the county as a ‘gateway’ to the south. In the Kent seats contested by TUSC there was one TUSC voter (1,967 in total) to every five for Labour (9,210).
In eight wards contested by TUSC the Labour Party was so moribund that it either did not stand a candidate or stood for less than the total number of seats up for election. TUSC candidates in these wards included an RMT regional president, a Unite branch secretary, a Unison branch officer and a NASUWT teachers’ union association officer – trade unionists whose only means of fighting the cuts on the political plane was by picking up the TUSC banner.
But of course TUSC, at this stage, was not able to emerge as the ‘political wing’ of the anti-cuts movement: even to the degree, for example, that Scottish Militant Labour (SML) was able to develop in the aftermath of the victorious anti-poll tax struggle. Similarly, the Socialist Party in Ireland won councillors and then a parliamentary seat (in 1997) initially as a result of leading a mass movement against water charges, paving the way for the presence of five United Left Alliance TDs in the Irish parliament today, including the returning Joe Higgins. These experiences, however, do show how a vehicle for working class political representation, or at least a pre-formation of one, can be built out of mass struggles. And these will develop, on a far greater scale than even the anti-poll tax struggle, in the coming movement against the cuts.
TUSC is not a ‘finished product’ (see box) and other forces, perhaps based on trade unions thrown into action against the cuts or mass community campaigns, may emerge as the ‘political voice’ of the anti-cuts movement. But it is a portender of what needs to be done – and which still could achieve electoral breakthroughs in the events ahead – for building working class political representation as part of the struggle to turn back the ‘age of austerity’ and for socialism.