The election Labour threw away

In an article for the forthcoming edition of Socialist Resistance Susan Moore looks at the impact of the election and why it turned out as it did

The result of the British general election was a shock for the overwhelming majority of people. But the surprise election of a Conservative majority government is a major defeat. Stories abound of people who had previously suggested there was no longer any difference between Labour and Tories were among those most upset when they realized the outcome and its implications.

The Queen’s speech makes clear that the impact of the Tory victory will be as bad as we could have feared.

Plans to further restrict trade union rights by requiring a 50% turn out and a 40% yes vote for industrial action were already clear priorities in the Tory party manifesto. The right to strike is under extremely serious assault.

UKIP and the Tory right will get their wish for a referendum on the question of membership of the European Union – and a carnival of reaction will ensue. And while the plan to fine migrants working illegally is unlikely to have a material effect on migration figures it further ramps up racism – including against those who have legal status.

The extension of the right to buy to Housing Association tenants in a situation where there is already a massive shortage of housing that meets people’s needs is another major assault. The fact that they will force councils to sell off the most valuable properties they have to fund this will make the situation even worse. Campaigns against the bedroom tax, against gentrification and in defence of public housing had already become more important in the last months of the coalition’s life. This will intensify further over the months ahead and the right to housing needs to become a central campaign for the left.

The question of defence of the NHS remains critical with the Tory mantra of a 24 hour day NHS sounding hollow to those who are losing local hospital services with cuts and privatisation abounding. And 7 day working for GPs won’t impress those who are seeing local surgeries close as GPs are retiring without being replaced. As Dr Nagpaul, the chairman of the BMA’s GP committee has pointed out there are not sufficient GPs to meet existing needs never mind to cover surgeries open for 7 days a week.

As the National Health Action Party’s Louise Irvine has said:

“We already spend the least of all G7 nations on health yet David Cameron is planning to fund our current NHS using money that doesn’t exist and efficiency savings that aren’t feasible and now he wants to stretch our NHS even further. Unless he pledges more money and more staff and urgently addresses the social care crisis, he will stretch our NHS so far that it will snap”.

In Education too the assault continues. Testing for 4 year olds will not just be something in a rewrite of Orwell’s 1984 but a reality in Tory Britain – the NUT’s campaign “too young to test” deserves wide support. And a Conservative Party which has long trumpeted on about choice is now saying that parents and teachers will lose their right to object to schools being forced to become academies. The excuse is that these are ‘failing’ schools and therefore no child should be left there one extra day – but Christine Blower of the NUT explained what is really behind it:

“The Government justifies this extended and accelerated privatisation of our school system by claiming that it cares about standards. Yet there is now a mountain of evidence which shows that there is no academy effect on standards in schools. Indeed, research by the Sutton Trust concluded that the very poor results of some chains – both for pupils generally and for the disadvantaged pupils they were particularly envisaged to support – comprised ‘a clear and urgent problem’.”

What is really at stake for the Tories is the production of a meek workforce for a neoliberal future. The stuff of nightmares indeed!
There are issues where the left needs to develop our own ideas – such as a response on the question of regional devolution which responds to people’s wish to have more say over their lives. After all Britain is one of the most centralized countries in Europe with local government having less power than in many other countries. But what the Tories have up their sleeve is not only the promotion of personality politics through directly elected mayors but a new means of furthering cuts and privatisation including further devastation of the National Health Service.

At the centre of the Tories’ programme will be their plans for £12 billion of welfare cuts, together with £13 billion reduction in government spending alongside raising £5 billion from tax avoidance measures in order to apparently balance the budget by 2018-19.

The reduction of the benefits cap to £23,000, which had been trailed in the Conservative manifesto and which the Supreme Court had found breaches the UN convention on the rights of the child, is there. The main rates of the majority of working age benefits, tax credits and Child Benefit are frozen for 2 years from 2016 to 2017. Eighteen to twenty-one year olds lose their automatic right to housing benefit, while the new Youth Allowance for the same age group looks like another workfare scheme.

Whether in fact the Tories can achieve their aspiration to balance the budget is complex – depending not only on the strength of the resistance but also on developments in the economy itself.

Despite all the trumpeting of Britain’s (and the Tory’s) economic prowess, the economy is only a step away from recession – and cuts of this magnitude could be the step too far. This means however that the attacks on this front are likely to be frontloaded.

We need to discuss and plan our response to these and other attacks, looking at the most effective way in each specific case to bring together the broadest possible opposition involving all those who want to fight on a particular question through developing democratic and inclusive organisations rooted in communities with trade unionists centrally involved.

But it is also important to explore why the election turned out the way it did.

Labour’s suicide in Scotland

The SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon had a brilliant election campaign, especially in the leaders’ debates where she shone – and a result that was even better. It gives the lie to those in the Labour Party machine who are arguing that Labour lost because it was too left wing – in Scotland it was the SNP’s anti-austerity stance that saw it all but wipe out its opponents north of the border, in the same way that increased votes for the Greens in many parts of England showed the same thing.

An important additional factor for the SNP was the fury that had been whipped up by the role key Labour figures – notably Alistair Darling and Gordon Brown – played in Project Fear, standing arm in arm with the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party, as well as with the Lib Dems, to terrify people with the thought of what dreadful things would befall them if the Yes campaign won a majority.
Such rhetoric was unbelievably continued during the election campaign itself where Scottish Labour tended to ignore the Tories and concentrate on what was wrong with the SNP.

No wonder so many people, including one who is now a Westminster MP for the SNP said that they had not left Labour, Labour had left them.

The anti-Trident stand of the SNP was important in securing its near clean-sweep. There is no doubt that the SNP will play a major role in politics across Britain as a whole – and the fight against Trident replacement will clearly be a key aspect of this.

This was underlined by the role the SNP’s Angus Robertson, leader of the party in Westminster, played in the debate on the Queen’s Speech. What a breath of fresh air in comparison with Harriet Harman’s mealy mouthed criticism of the government’s proposals for further poverty and divide and rule.

Robertson pointed out:

“The mammoth cumulative cuts to public services in the UK are estimated at about £146 billion. These decisions have a very real and devastating impact, most often on those vulnerable people and families who have the least. The IFS has found that the coalition’s tax and benefit changes have seen the poorest endure the largest proportionate losses. The IFS also estimates that by 2020 relative child poverty across the UK will increase to over 30%, affecting 4.3 million children—I repeat, 4.3 million children—and that would be a scandal. All of this comes at a time of widening wealth disparity, with the top 10% of society owning 44% of the wealth, while the bottom half owns just 9%”.

Labour determined to lurch further rightwards?

Labour’s election campaign was generally cautious. There were positive proposals – to abolish the hated bedroom tax, repeal the Health and Social Care Act, raise £2.5bn for the NHS from a mansion tax, freeze energy prices, ban zero hour contracts that restrict alternative employment and restore the 50% top tax rate for example.

But this was all in the framework of Ed Ball’s commitment to austerity lite which reduced the difference that people saw between them and the Tories or the confidence they felt that even the promises they stuck to would be carried through. It was miles away from the bold radical programme—aimed at ending austerity, relieving low pay, lifting people out of poverty, tackling the housing crisis, defending young people, abolishing tuition fees, controlling rents, re-establishing workplace rights, defending the NHS—that people are crying out for and which would have ensured a Labour majority.

Since the election defeat, the Blairites have been baying ever louder, demanding that the party move further to the right. They are promoting the lie that Labour lost the election because Ed Miliband had taken the party too far to the left. They bleat about aspiration in a situation where 35% of registered voters (and therefore a higher proportion of those who would be entitled to vote) did not do so because no one spoke for them. For the over million people who used food banks last year in Britain their ‘aspiration’ might well be to earn enough in a secure job not to have to do so.

David Miliband’s attack on his brother seems to leave open the possibility of him returning at some point in the future but in the meantime people who seem just as committed to maintaining a neoliberal path seem set to win the leadership election in the autumn.

Three women initially put themselves forward in this election – Liz Kendall, Yvette Cooper and Mary Creagh – but what a contrast between them and the three women who were so prominent in the leadership debates in Nicola Sturgeon, Leanne Wood and Natalie Bennett.

Even Andy Burnham who as Shadow Secretary of Health did stand up to some extent against the Tory attacks, and who may well get significant support from trade unionists, talks about not wanting to move the party to the left (or to the right) and about Blair’s ‘97 victory as the pinnacle of Labour’s success.

It’s true that Burnham defends the existence of a link with the unions in the way that other candidates don’t but his recent comments on ‘public concern on immigration’ underlines the fact that none of these candidates are supportable.

The surprise appearance of Jeremy Corbyn on the ballot paper is greatly to be welcomed – even if a significant number of those who nominated him have made it clear they don’t support his policies. Jeremy stands for a strong voice against austerity and war and for trade union rights.

Indeed there are few policy issues on which there is disagreement between the MP for Islington North and Left Unity – though like most of the Labour left he doesn’t support proportional representation. But sadly, although undoubtedly his part in the contest will encourage more activists to sign up as Labour supporters especially through their unions in order to vote for him, the core of the Labour establishment are much more interested in ‘reaching out’ to disaffected Lib Dems and moderate Tories than to campaigners, trade unionists and those who didn’t vote at all because they saw no alternative.

All this further underlines the need for a serious political alternative to the left of Labour – a role that Left Unity will be strengthened in its aspiration to fill if it is able to play a role in developing resistance to the Tory onslaught at local and national level as well as putting forward its ideas at elections.

UKIP not a flash in the pan

Though UKIP only won one MP on May 7 they saw their vote increase dramatically. It went up in a swing of 9.5% to 3881,099 votes, 12.6 % of the vote and the third largest on a UK-wide basis. They won significant numbers of votes in many of Labour’s traditional heartlands – indeed coming second to Labour in 44 working class constituencies. This included a significant increase in their support in Wales.

Nor should UKIPs successes in the local government elections be passed over lightly. They won their first council in Thanet but also increased their overall representation significantly. They now have 202 councillors – an increase of 176.

The subsequent debates inside UKIP, with Farage’s resignation being one of the shortest in history, and then the demotion and silencing of people who have raised any criticism of his leadership seem actually to have strengthened his position. This is not surprising as he is undoubtedly the person who has led the party to the success it has achieved – and for most backers the fact that he has achieved the referendum on the European Union is more significant than the fact that he didn’t win a Westminster seat.

A strategy to oppose UKIP has to involve building organisations like the Movement against Xenophobia whose ‘I am an immigrant campaign’ has been a powerful refutation to of the racism peddled not only by UKIP but by much of the media. Both the Tories and Labour rushed to undercut this by more and more anti-migrant rhetoric of their own – in Labour’s case with their vile mug. Left Unity, which has taken a strong pro-migrant stand and produced an excellent Migrant tTruth kKit needs to be putting resources into this campaign.

We also need strong campaigns in defence of the NHS, of council housing and other aspects of the welfare state. The failure of Labour to pose alternatives or fight to defend these services is part of what has led to UKIP’s rise.
What happened to the Liberal Democrats?

It was predictable that the Liberal Democrats would be punished by those who had voted for it in 2010 because of their betrayal on tuition fees. It was also not surprising that their plea that they had softened the rough edges of the Coalition cut little ice. On the one hand those who had voted for them because they believed progressive promises felt betrayed while those that support austerity decided the Tories would be more effective in driving through such an agenda.

What wasn’t predicted was the extent to which this would see the Liberal Democrats defeated in their own traditional heartland of the South West. The fact that they lost 49 seats, retaining only 8, with a swing against them of 15.2%, in the context of the Tory vote increasing only 0.8% and Labour 1.5% was the final piece of the puzzle that resulted in a Conservative majority government. Meanwhile Nick Clegg only held on to his seat because many Conservatives voted for him to prevent Labour taking the seat.

The left in the election

The results for those to the left of Labour were not good.

It was positive that Caroline Lucas increased her majority in Brighton. While the Greens lost their majority on the local council, punished for their failure to stick to their anti-austerity pledges, Lucas had succeeded in putting enough distance between herself and the council leadership under Jason Kitkat. Further it’s pleasing that there was a shift to the left amongst the Greens who were elected in the local elections.
But the undemocratic first past the post system meant that though the Greens increased their vote by 2.8% – more than Labour or the Tories – they were not rewarded by any further parliamentary seats. In the three-way marginal of Bristol West, where they were competing with both Labour and the Lib Dem incumbent, their vote increased by a whopping 23%, while the Liberal Democrat vote collapsed; with the result being a Labour gain. In Norwich South even their vote went marginally down as Labour again took the seat from the Liberal Democrat.

The National Health Action Party (NHAP) did moderately well in its first standing in a general election gaining 20,210 votes in 12 constituencies. This is a better showing than either UKIP or the Greens the first time they stood. This success was of course partly because for many people defence of the NHS is a central political issue but also because of the way the party organized. They rightly understood that the way to make the greatest impact was to stand a relatively small number of candidates in well-chosen seats (against high profile opponents such as Louise Irivine against Jeremy Hunt and Clive Peedell against Cameron). Their candidates were in place in good time and they ran a centralized publicity campaign.
The Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) may have won more votes than the NHAP with 36, 327 this was shared between 135 candidates – giving a poor average of 269 votes per candidate. TUSC’s justification for their determined drive to get more than 100 candidates – and in some cases to run what were in effect paper candidacies – was the impact they believed an election broadcast would make. In the context of the leaders’ debates in their various forms, party political broadcasts have significantly decreased in importance even when they are aired on the main channels – something that of course TUSC did not achieve. Even if it had it’s unlikely that a rather tired broadcast dominated by talking heads (overwhelmingly of older white men) would have had the impact people were claiming for it.

Perhaps more importantly in the great majority of places where it stood TUSC has no appearance on the ground outside of elections. The two main left organisations involved, the Socialist Party (SP) and Socialist Workers Party (SWP) campaign in their own names and under their own banners on a week to week basis. You cannot join TUSC as an individual and thus have any impact on its decisions.

The lesson from countries such as the Spanish state, where coalitions built by Podemos have just seen remarkably positive results in both Barcelona and Madrid is that those who are suffering as a result of austerity need and will support instruments that give a voice to the protests on the streets and in the communities – organisations that are as far away from TUSC as chalk from cheese.

Left Unity sees itself as the sister party of Podemos and other radical parties across Europe such as Syriza. Left Unity however did not have a good general election itself. The party stood ten candidates in the general election – seven of whom stood as joint candidates with TUSC. While the decision to focus on a few constituencies was right, too much was left to local branches to determine. While it is right that Left Unity is building a democratic structure very different from TUSC, in order to make an impact a general election it is important that there is a strategic plan – as can be seen by the impact of the NHAP.

Left Unity was late in deciding where to stand. There was no national process to decide on candidates – meaning that though the party has procedures to ensure that its internal structures need to be at least 50% women, this was not the case for its candidates in the general election.
Left Unity had a very good manifesto – imaginatively launched the day after parliament dissolved from a squat in London. This garnered some media coverage but beyond that it was almost impossible to break through nationally. Ed Potts in Exeter did get some exposure for beating Ben Bradshaw in a straw poll following a national hustings and other candidates did sterling work on the ground but the impact was extremely limited.

It is vital however that the conclusions drawn from a disappointing showing should be the right ones. The need for Left Unity as a democratic political party which campaigns on the streets, in the communities and in the workplaces – and which uses the opportunity of elections to put across its message to the largest number of people – is greater than ever in the context of a majority Conservative government.

The response to the election

There has been an important increase in resistance since May 8 especially amongst young people, who will undoubtedly be one of the groups at sharp end of the attacks to come. Cardiff held an anti-austerity protest the day after the election – and campaigners were delighted when Charlotte Church joined them. The demonstration of 4000 in Bristol called by students through social media, the occupation for free education in Manchester University and the sit-in of homeless people in Manchester’s Piccadilly Gardens and many other actions across the country indicate that the People’s Assembly protest on June 20, the first national anti-austerity demonstration since the election will provide an important focus for campaigners old and new.

And of course many people want not only to act against the government but to create forums to discuss strategies for resistance and change. Nine hundred people showed up for the Radical Left Assembly in central London on May 14 and subsequently significant local meetings have taken place in different parts of London. John McDonnell MP has launched Radical Labour which will carry discussion on the way forward as well as how we arrived here.

These initiatives should be welcomed but they do not contradict the need to build Left Unity as a political party which can put forward a coherent political alternative to the misery this government will mete out.

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