Britain

The general election and the tasks of the working class

12 June 2024
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Workers Power Political Committee

WHAT IS at is at stake in the general election? According to the opinion polls, not a lot, really. Labour will win with a solid majority and in government will stick to policies not dramatically different from the present Tory administration. However, behind that superficial appearance of continuity, British politics is more likely to be entering a period of instability and potentially far-reaching change.

The contrast reflects the reality of the very different social forces represented by the two parties. More than that, it is a result of the changes that have taken place within those forces. The long established alliance of different sections of big capital that controlled the Conservative and Unionist Party has been breaking up for decades, Brexit being the most obvious evidence of that. The likely humiliation of a Labour landslide will deepen the splits within the party, perhaps even leading to the creation of a new far-right populist party—enter Nigel Farage. And where will the traditional ‘One Nation’ Tories go?

Labour

Meanwhile, the Labour Party, rooted in working class organisations and communities but committed to the survival of British capital, is trying to re-establish itself as a reliable alternative government after a brief interlude when it appeared it might favour its roots at the expense of capital. Keir Starmer has turned out to be the perfect figure for this task. As a former senior figure in the state apparatus, the Director of Public Prosecutions, he had already proven his complete loyalty to the state itself, rather than any particular fraction of capital.

Like any loyal servant, he was more than willing to lie for his master. To get elected as the leader of the party, he promised not to ‘oversteer’ away from the policies in Jeremy Corbyn’s 2017 and 2019 manifestos, and to unite the party. His ten pledges included increasing income tax for the top 5% of earners, abolishing tuition fees, re-introducing ‘common ownership’ of rail, mail, energy and water companies and ending outsourcing in the NHS, local government and the justice system. He also said Labour would work to reintroduce free movement of labour with the EU and scrap Universal Credit’s ‘inhumane’ work capability assessments, the two-child limit and benefits caps.

Four years on, the tune is very different. Now the constant refrain is that ‘Labour has changed’ from what it was under Corbyn and is now ‘ready to work with business’ to achieve ‘stability’. There will be no tax rises for the top 5% of earners, no ‘uncosted’ expenditure on the NHS, social care or education. Bankrupted local authorities, like Birmingham, cannot look to a Labour government to bail them out.

Gone too is the major measure aimed at combatting climate change. The 2022 Green Prosperity Plan promised £28 billion a year until 2030, to ‘turn Britain’s economy around’ and ‘help us win the race for the next generation of jobs’. First it was reduced to only a target for the second half of a first term, then it was slashed to £6.5 billion plus start-up costs for a green investment bank and the transition to green steel. Only GB Energy remains, though Starmer insists even this will be an ‘investment vehicle, not an energy company’.

As for the trade unions, at best they can expect only a modest repeal of the most recent anti-union laws. Starmer and Reeves have promised a ‘full and comprehensive consultation’ with Britain’s bosses on ‘Labour’s Plan to Make Work Pay, in other words, a veto on anything they deem too radical or too costly.

The reason for all this is Starmer’s determination to prove Labour can be trusted with the economy by adopting spending limits set by the Office of Budget Responsibility, which claims there is a £55bn black hole in the government’s finances. Since Reeves has promised neither to raise income or wealth taxes, nor to increase borrowing, there can be no more money for the NHS, education or local councils. But defence spending will go up. Bombs not books, warfare not welfare, it seems.

There are no grounds for doubting Starmer’s willingness to implement such policies. Barring completely unforeseen circumstances, there are also no grounds for doubting that he will be Prime Minister on 5 July. Moreover, he will be PM because millions of working class voters will have voted for him in the belief that he will, at least, be ‘better than the Tories’.

At the same time, it is clear that there is no great enthusiasm for Labour under Starmer. There certainly will not be millions of young voters flocking to the polls as they did in 2017 when Corbyn destroyed Theresa May’s parliamentary majority and came close to actually winning the election.

We can safely predict that Starmer’s government will soon come into conflict with many of those who voted for it. While it may seem paradoxical to some, that is why we urge a vote for Labour on 4 July. Some on the left oppose this in the belief that the priority is to ‘Stop Starmer’. No doubt by that they mean stop the imposition of Starmer’s policies, but their conclusion, whether that is abstention or voting for another party or electoral alliance, is wrong. Starmer’s policies are the policies required by British capital. If Labour does not win, they will be implemented by some other party or coalition. In Opposition, Labour would then continue to present itself as the alternative. In office, there is no hiding place.

Tasks of the working class

Key measures called for by the unions but likely to be resisted by a Labour government include repealing Tory legislation which demands a 50% turnout for strike ballots and the repeal of the minimum service law which restricts industrial action in the NHS and elsewhere. Unions also demand a ban on employers’ right to ‘fire and rehire’ on worse terms, as happened at British Gas, plus increased maternity and sick pay, legal protection against unfair dismissal from day-one, a ban on zero-hours contracts and union access to workplaces for recruitment.

It is in the struggle against a Labour government on such issues that the forces necessary for real social change can be mobilised and organised across the whole spectrum of interests: workers’ rights, wages, jobs, social services as well as foreign policy issues such as defence of Palestinian rights. Such struggles could, in time, generate new political currents and organisations. To the extent they can prevent Starmer implementing his policies, they will begin to divide Labour itself, contributing to a wider realignment in British politics.

In some places, significant forces have already begun to develop as a result of opposition to Starmer’s leadership of Labour, the most obvious being the campaign to re-elect Jeremy Corbyn. In such cases, it is legitimate for revolutionaries to add what weight they can to those campaigns. However, there are also several examples of electoral alliances and candidacies that frankly represent nothing but themselves and these do not deserve support.

The task of socialists is to hasten the day when the massed ranks of angry, combative workers and the socially oppressed confront a Labour government—and those trade union leaders who choose to defend a pro-capitalist government rather than the needs of their members. We need to break the unions from the Labour Party and win them to the fight for socialism.

That struggle starts by placing clear demands on Labour—to tax the rich to fund public services, to nationalise the giant monopolies and privatised sectors under workers’ control and without compensation, to stop arming Israel and cut all links to the genocidal Zionist state. To succeed it will need to develop new forms of struggle and organisation.

And that means a new kind of party, a revolutionary combat party that is prepared to smash capitalism and usher in the era of socialism, both here and internationally. Ultimately, that is what is at stake in this election.

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