Sunday, 8 May 2011

Lessons For Labour

The results from the elections can be summarised as follows. The Liberals are finished as an independent party. Their vote is decimated, going to Labour in the North and Wales, to the Tories in the South, and to the SNP in Scotland. The Tories vote holds up in the South due to the defection of Liberals, and because the Tories have done what those who voted for them expected of them.
The SNP did well because it avoided the issue of independence, and ran an effective Presidential campaign based around its charismatic leader. Politics has become more clearly divided along class lines. The problem, for Labour, remains how to win over those sections of the working-class and middle class, that currently identify more closely with the Tories, without alienating its core vote.

As I wrote in my blog, Time For Labour To Euthenise The Liberals, after the Bradford By-Election,

“In reality the Liberal-Tories have become a single party. There is no real ideological difference between Clegg, Osborne, Cable, and Cameron. The reason the Liberal vote has so severely collapsed, even more than that of the Tories, is that they feigned Left for electoral purposes, and have now been exposed for the vicious, right-wing, Capitalist Party serving the interests of the petit-bourgeoisie, and reactionary elements in society that they have always been. That is why they were able to secure the votes of those elements in Oldham.

The inevitable conclusion has to be for Clegg and Co. to merge with the Tories.
Electorally, what support they had in the centre-left has gone. The only votes they can now expect to pick up are those of the hard right, and in the majority of seats - certainly after yesterday's débâcle - there is no reason for those voters to lend their vote to the monkey when they can vote for the organ grinder.”

The only reason that the Liberals did not lose more Councillors, and more Councils last night, is because in most elections it was only a third of the seats up for election. In places like Stoke, where the whole Council was up for election, the Liberals were completely liquidated, Labour taking 38 out of the 44 seats, and wiping the BNP filth off the electoral map in the process. The Liberals are shown as having 15% of the vote nationally, but even this flatters their position. The turnout in local elections is always much lower than in Parliamentary elections, usually only about half. As it is normally Labour voters who stay away, its likely that, in a General Election, the Liberals would be down to around an 8% share of the vote, which is what most Opinion Polls currently estimate too.

All last night, senior Liberals were responding by saying that the Leadership would now have to be tougher on fighting for Liberal policies within the Government. But, that is a pipe dream. Having just been annihilated in these elections, the Liberals are in no position to dictate to the Tory wing of the Liberal-Tory Government. They know that if they tried to back or to get further concessions from the Tories, they could be ignored. The Liberals cannot walk out of the Government now, unless they have a death wish.
Although, an immediate General Election would probably bring a Labour Government with a small majority, Cameron, could conceivably hold out the hope of turning things round during such a Campaign. The Liberals over the weekend have been arguing that the lesson they have drawn is that their supporters want them to present their own identity more clearly. But, the reality is the Liberals have no identity now separate to that of the Tories. As I wrote in my blog At Last Liberals Commit Hari Kiri, the Liberals have always been defined by their Opportunism, posing as alternatives to Labour in the North and to the Tories in the South. But, that genie is now out of the bottle. Increasingly, as has been seen in the last few days, the Liberals will define themselves by attacking Labour by adopting all of the Tories arguments over the Cuts, despite the fact that before the Election the Liberals rejected those arguments, and as David Laws has admitted were even arguing during the Coalition talks that the Cuts were a mistake, and that the issue of the deficit had been hyped up.
The Tories, and particularly their right-wing, will see last night as the basis of pushing further to the Right, and continuing to use the Liberals as a human shield. The Liberals, at least in Parliament, have nowhere to go, and the logic has to be for them to simply merge with their co-thinkers in the Tory Party. That is what happened the last time the Liberals were in a Coalition Government with their Tory co-thinkers.

Labour should learn the lesson from that. The Liberals are now toxic. Any idea, such as that previously floated by the Labour Right, of trying to bring the Liberals on board has to be abandoned. Ed Miliband was right to refuse to stand on a platform with Clegg for the AV campaign. In fact, he was wrong to have stood on the same platform as any Liberal or Tory MP during that campaign. But, that lesson has to be learned in every Council Chamber throughout the land. Labour should stand on its own or not at all in running Councils. Where it is in opposition, it should use the opportunity to take a position of “extreme revolutionary opposition”, using whatever tactics are necessary in the Chamber to frustrate the Cuts and privatisation, and using the Chamber and other opportunities as a tribune to proclaim and organise its support for all workers in the area taking action.

But, where Labour is in control, its tactics need to be flexible. In areas where a powerful extra-Parliamentary opposition to the Cuts is built, extending not just across the Public sector unions, but across the working-class as a whole in the area, Labour Councillors need to be pressed to refuse to implement the Cuts. They should discuss openly with the anti-Cuts movement in the area, the tactics to be used in developing the campaign, and resisting the inevitable intervention of Central Government to take over the Council.
But, despite the March 26th demonstration, and despite the plans for strike action over Pensions, there is little evidence as yet, that the size and strength of movement necessary to defeat the Cuts in a head on battle exists. Demanding that Labour Councillors act like some kind of political suicide bomber, martyring themselves for no real advantage is absurd.

That is not an argument for letting Labour Councillors off the hook. Even without engaging in such adventurist tactics, there are lots of things that Labour Councillors can do. Exactly what will depend on local conditions. But, Labour Councillors should at the very least provide the maximum support they can for all groups opposing the Cuts, using their position to be the best advocates for those struggles within the media both locally and nationally.

But, workers re already showing that they are themselves rediscovering old tactics, such as the Occupation, which are for more relevant to fighting the Cuts than simple strike action.
That in itself raises questions about how Occupations can be developed to go beyond that, as the workers at Upper Clyde Shipbuilders did with their work-in, and as many French workers did in 1968, when having occupied the factories, they restarted production under workers control. At both UCS, and after 1968 in France, the limitation of those actions was displayed by the fact, that ownership of the Capital was restored to Capitalists, and given up by the workers.
To private Capitalists in France, and to the British State Capitalist in the case of UCS. If workers are to advance, then, as has happened in Argentina and elsewhere, workers having Occupied, and restarted production, have to retain ownership, by setting up Workers Co-ops, demanding that the State ratify the change of ownership. Only in that way can Workers Control really be introduced, and production of goods and services be organised to meet the needs of workers rather than to meet the needs of Capital.

Labour can play an important role in this regard. Back in the 1980's, having lost the 1983 General Election, and with workers faith in State Capitalism having been shown to have disappeared, Roy Hattersley, put forward a document arguing for the Party to look at the issue of social ownership, in the context of how it could be achieved by other methods other than the failed old nationalised industries. It is time for the Party to seriously address this issue. Time and again, we have seen that so long as property remains in Capitalist hands, including the hands of the Central or Local Capitalist State, it is insecure. Worse, even when it is not under threat of destruction, it is used like all Capital as a means of exploiting and oppressing Labour. We cannot put off the issue of workers ownership and control until some time in the distant future.

The The Co-op Party, is affiliated to the Labour Party. The Co-op itself has huge resources. The Co-op Bank alone has over £75 billion of assets. As a core part of the Labour Movement, it is necessary to ensure that these assets, this financial muscle is used, strategically to advance the cause of workers against Capital.
Where Libraries, Schools or other services and facilities are occupied, the Labour Party, with the relevant Trades Unions, and local anti-cuts organisations, should ensure that they continue to provide a service under Workers Control, and with a democratic input from service users. I have previously set out, how in the short term we should call on workers in the Council Offices to ensure that their wages continue to be paid, and that local residents organise a Rent and Council Strike to finance the continued operation.
But, in the longer term, Labour should develop a strategic project to transfer all of these facilities directly into the hands of the workers who run them, and the workers who rely on them. Mobilising the resources of the Co-op to buy up where necessary such facilities is one way of taking forward such a strategy.

When the council I worked for sold its housing stock to an ALMO, it sold each house for just £6,000! Of course, the Head of Housing, who became the Chief Executive of the ALMO, along with the other top Managers saw their salaries double overnight. But, it shows how Labour in control of these Councils could sell off assets on the cheap to organised groups of workers to run as Worker Owned Co-ops. After all that is what the Tories did in the interests of the rich when they sold off nationalised industries on the cheap etc. Once out of the hands of the State Capitalist, this property becomes secure in the hands of workers, as the bosses within the State can no longer dictate to workers what Rents should be, how much shall be spent on repairs, what regulations should apply to what workers can do with the houses and so on.
The same would be true, of Libraries, Schools, Post Offices, Leisure Centres, and Health and Social Services. Moreover, as workers we would have a direct interest in ensuring that all these services worked together co-operatively to meet our needs in the most efficient manner, whilst securing good pay and conditions for those that worked in them.

In fact, if Labour and the Trades Unions were clever they could extend this principle to their advantage. One of the reasons that Trades Unions dither over organising action, is the fear of being fined and bankrupted by the Capitalist Courts. If the Labour party, the Trades Unions and the Co-op worked together they could get round this. The Trades Unions could sign over all their assets, including their cash to the Co-op Bank. In that way they would have no funds to be sequestrated, no assets for the State to take from them. In return, the Co-op Bank could agree to provide, interest free loans to the trades Unions during any period of Industrial Action. The advantage would also be that these considerable sums of workers money, could be used here and now to finance workers take over of State Capitalist property, and private Capital, where firms were going bust that could be profitably taken over by their workers.

This is the key as to how to deal with the dilemma of how to win over the votes of the majority of workers and sections of the middle class required not just for electoral success, but for the establishment of Socialism, without alienating the core Labour vote. The reality is that Social Democratic parties such as Labour have continued to lose support since WWII, because the basis upon which they sought to organise society – a Fabian view of some kind of Capitalism tamed by Welfarism – is not viable.
The alternative of most of the Left, which amounts to only demanding even greater amounts of welfare and redistribution is even less viable.
At the end of the 19th Century, with Britain dominant within the world the enlightened sections of Big Capital realised that it was in their interests to incorporate the working-class, and to ensure social peace and stability via the “Social-Democratic Consensus”. That meant introducing some measures of minimum social security, some measures that limited the excesses of Capitalism – which as Engels says could be easily accommodated by Big Capital, but impinged on their smaller brethren thereby benefiting the Big Capitalists.
The same was true in Germany, where a rapidly rising economy under Bismark was actually the first to introduce such measures of Welfare Capitalism. And, the same was true in the US, where Henry Ford, recognised the importance of retaining his workers by paying them much higher salaries, offering them welfare benefits etc. that tied them to the company. These measures could be paid for out of the large and growing quantities of Surplus Value being accrued.

But, after WWII, these expenditures grew. When the Long Wave Boom began to falter in the late 60's, it was only possible to raise the funds needed for the growing Capitalist State by raising the prices it charged for the commodities it provided – Healthcare, Social Care, Education, Pensions, Unemployment Insurance – and those prices took the form of taxes. But, for Capital the payment of Tax is largely a voluntary act. Indeed, even for the very rich that is the case.
The higher charges for these services could only be levied upon workers and the middle classes. It was not surprising then that faced with what already were evidently poor quality services provided by the Capitalist State, large numbers of workers, and certainly of the middle class began to object to the price they were being asked to pay. Any strategy based on the continued provision of poor quality state capitalist services, financed by high levels of taxation on better off workers, and the middle class is doomed to failure.

And, the reality is, as I pointed out in my blog Who Are The Middle Classes?, in what way does it make any sense to lump a middle class person earning £100,000 in the same bracket as say Lakshmi Mittal, who with his wealth of £20 billion, could even at just a 2.5% return on that wealth have annual earnings of £500 million??? According to the Rich List released today the number of billionaires in Britain has risen from just over 50 to nearly 80.
It makes no sense whatsoever to group these people, or any of those others whose annual income is measured in the millions and tens or hundreds of millions, with those whose earnings are measured in the thousands or tens of thousands. In fact, this latter group are those who Engels referred to as those to whom the German Socialists sought to recruit when they were strong enough to handle them, because of their importance for the economy, but who for the same reason could cause them considerable problems if the Socialists were forced to take power, before having incorporated them.

That is the task we have now. If Labour were to attempt to focus its policies simply on trying to cater for the needs of the poorest section of the working-class, or those that have fallen out of its ranks into the Urban Poor, it will fail. But, a socialist policy cannot be built on simply trying to secure middle class votes in the way that New Labour did, because that will not only result in the loss of its core vote to the BNP and other populists, but it will not provide a sound basis for retaining those middle class votes either. Socialism is not about redistributing income from the affluent to less affluent, but about bringing about a fundamental change in the way in which production is organised, and thereby not only raising the amount of wealth created, but also creating the basis of ownership, which ensures that wealth is more equitably distributed.

In a world economy, where the economic strength of Britain, and other developed economies is seriously on the wane, and it is struggling to compete with new, dynamic economies in Asia, and Latin America, the old Fabian vision of Welfarist, State Capitalism, and redistribution of income is even less tenable than it was in the past.
We need to build Socialism now, by using every opportunity to shift the means of production out of the hands of Capital – be it Private or State Capital – and into the hands of workers. In many ways, the current struggle over Cuts and Privatisation, provide an opportune moment to bring that change about. Labour should enthuse its potential voters and supporters by ditching, for good, the failed notions of Fabianism and Statism, and begin to build a real, working-class alternative based upon the self-activity, and self-government of the working class, that can provide a pole of attraction for the middle class too.

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