Why is Labour so weak?

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After five years of the Tories' austerity programme, and unrelenting assault on the welfare state, Labour should be roaring ahead in the polls. Mark L Thomas explains why this is not the case.

Why isn’t Labour a shoo-in for May’s general election? The Conservative-LibDem coalition has driven through the biggest onslaught on public services, the welfare state and workers’ wages in decades, yet Labour has been unable to develop anything close to a convincing lead over the Tories, and in some polls even falls behind them. As a result, the outcome of the general election remains very unpredictable.

Labour is failing to inspire. Even many of those planning to vote for Labour are troubled at its timidity and lacklustre performance.
So Polly Toynbee, writing in the Guardian, vents her frustration with Labour’s weakness:

“The slogan at Labour’s [Spring] conference — ‘A Better Plan: A Better Future’ — was not exactly a pulse-racer. Ed Miliband’s speech was fine, but not newsworthy. Momentum in the last year — at a snail’s pace — has been with Cameron... Only indignation and downright outrage at Cameron and Osborne’s plans can cut through. Miliband doesn’t burn with fury.”

But it’s difficult to burn with indignation towards something if you largely agree with it. Labour’s Achilles heel is simple: it has committed itself to accepting that the priority for the next government is to reduce public spending in order to eradicate the budget deficit. Labour is committed to matching the Tory’s spending plans for 2015-16 and to balancing the budget by the end of the next parliament. Just before Christmas, shadow chancellor Ed Balls spelt out what this would mean — under a Labour government departmental spending budgets would be cut not just in 2015-16 but for each year until the overall budget deficit is balanced.

Of course, Labour has made some promises — to abolish the bedroom tax, a 20-month price freeze on energy bills (not renationalisation of energy companies), and scrapping the Health and Social Care Act for the NHS. But Labour’s central commitment to “austerity with a red rosette”, as PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka once dubbed it, colours everything. So Labour may want to (temporarily) freeze energy bills but it also wants to freeze public sector pay.

Labour says it will abolish the bedroom tax but has also said it will cap welfare spending. Rachel Reeves, shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, boasts that Labour will be tougher than the Tories on cutting the benefits bill and says that Labour does not represent people who are out of work: “We are not the party of people on benefits.”

Drops of honey
Labour offers a few drops of honey but these come inside barrel loads of tar. The result doesn’t taste too good. And ideologically Labour is terrible. Yvette Cooper’s response to Theresa May’s latest clampdown on “Islamist extremists” who “reject our values” isn’t, of course, to challenge the Islamophobia that lies at the heart of May’s assault but rather to complain that the government has been too soft and too slow on the issue.

Labour’s response to the rise of Ukip has been to pander to its racist scapegoating of immigrants. Far from preventing Labour supporters switching to Ukip, this simply legitimises Farage’s myth that immigration is the central problem in society. And Labour’s defence of the union in the Scottish referendum may have saved the British state but at the price of jeopardising the future of the Labour Party in Scotland. The polls are now consistently predicting a seismic shift in Scottish politics with the SNP likely to rout Labour north of the border.

It is Labour’s unwillingness to launch, even rhetorically, any serious challenge to big business and the rich that leaves it so hamstrung and uninspiring — and leaking support to the Greens and the SNP. Labour’s stance can’t even be explained by electoral opportunism. The public mood — no thanks to any confident arguments from the Labour leadership — has moved against austerity.

A survey by the British Election Study of 16,000 voters in mid-March found that only 25 percent accepted the argument that it was “absolutely necessary” to cut the deficit. The researchers concluded that “the Tories have much work to do if they are to convince voters that a range of key policies are working”. Survey after survey has found huge public support for renationalisation of the rail, energy and water companies and to immediately return the post office to public hands, but Labour is promising to do none of these.

Labour is not only unable any longer to offer reforms that benefit workers in office, but is unable to even promise reforms when it is seeking office. Tony Cliff, the founder of the Socialist Workers Party, on the eve of Tony Blair’s election in 1997 pointed out that:

“Since the Second World War every Labour government has been more right wing than the one before. In 1945-51 unemployment never rose above 1 percent. There was a lot of welfare, a new NHS, 200,000 council houses built annually... There was nationalisation of key industries. During the next Labour government of 1964-70 unemployment reached about 3 percent, there was hardly any improvement in welfare, hardly any new nationalisation, and then in 1974-79 there was a massive attack on workers. For the first time since the war real wages went down.”

Framework
Why is every Labour government worse than its predecessor? Cliff’s answer was very clear: Labour operates within the framework of the capitalist system. The health of the system — and that means its profitability, the driving force of capitalism — is what conditions Labour’s ability to deliver reforms:

“So long as capitalism is expanding, the cake is increasing, the capitalist can have a big chunk in the form of profits, and workers get crumbs in the form of wages and social services. But when the system stops expanding at a decent rate, something has to give and under capitalism that is always the workers’ share. Because you can have capitalism with high wages, you can have capitalism with low wages, but you cannot have capitalism without profits.”

As British capitalism came under more pressure from its rivals, such as the revived post-war Germany, in the late 1960s and then as the system experienced a series of major crises from the mid-1970s to the huge financial and economic crisis of 2008-9, the need to squeeze workers’ conditions increased. Labour governments used to make promises of radical change and then find themselves powerless to control capital and so were forced into humiliating retreats.

Harold Wilson, in his account of his second term as Labour prime minister in 1974-76, described how the economic and industrial policy his government was elected on was altered against its will by the international financial community, from cautious treasurers of international corporations, to currency operators and money speculators — who Wilson collectively called “the bailiffs”. As socialist journalist Paul Foot later noted, “The bailiffs! What a turn of phrase! Wilson saw his elected government as tenants whose security of policy was subject to the greedy whims of bailiffs. Just as in 1948-1950, and 1966-1970, the unelected bailiffs evicted the elected government from their policy!”

Tony Blair’s solution to this problem was simple: do nothing to confront the will of capital and instead embrace it and worship the market
Cliff’s prognosis about the future Blair government was borne out. Labour in office from 1997 to 2010, far from abandoning the Tories’ drive to subject public services and the welfare state to market forces, deepened this process — and hitched the British state firmly to the US war on terror under George W Bush.

The result was that Labour lost 5 million votes between 1997 and 2010, culminating in its second worst vote since 1918. Miliband has attempted to take one or two steps away from the legacy of Blair and New Labour. So he has criticised the invasion of Iraq and on occasion denounced some firms as “predators” but Miliband remains deeply tied to Labour’s capitulation to neoliberalism and the interests of big business.

Legacy
Of course, Labour remains a different kind of party to the Tories. One measure of this can be seen by following the money. Labour is still dependent for its funding on the unions. In fact, Labour has become more dependent on union money since it lost office in 2010. Trade union money has made up nearly 70 percent of donations to Labour. Under the last parliament this was closer to 40 percent. Labour’s biggest backer is Unite. In early February, the Financial Times reported that Unite had given £16.3 million to Labour since May 2010 — 27 percent of all big donations to Labour. Len McCluskey has of course got very little for his money — Labour has not shifted left. But nor has Miliband been able to reduce Labour’s dependence on union money.

At the same time, the Tories have become more financially dependent on a small number of City hedge fund backers over this parliament.

And millions of workers will still vote Labour — not because they love austerity but because they hate the Tories and desperately hope Labour will blunt the worst of the attacks, even if many of them worry that even this modest hope may be too much. But the need for a socialist alternative to Labour has rarely been clearer.