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From The Socialist newspaper, 18 March 2015

Use your vote to hit the 1%

Build the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition

Hannah Sell, Socialist Party deputy general secretary
Leicester TUSC supporters protest, photo by Leicester TUSC

Leicester TUSC supporters protest, photo by Leicester TUSC   (Click to enlarge)

The general election is taking place in less than eight weeks' time, yet half of voters do not yet know who they are going to vote for. Old political loyalties have been eroded over decades, and are now heading towards a qualitative breakdown.

In particular workers' traditional loyalty to Labour has steeply declined. From 1997 until they were defeated in 2010, Labour lost five million votes. Despite widespread hatred of the current government, Labour leader Ed Miliband has not been able to win the majority of these lost voters back. In Scotland 'traditional' Labour voters are abandoning the party in vast numbers. As a result this is the hardest election to predict in many decades.

At root this is because Labour today is a capitalist party. Unlike in the past when 'old' Labour, though it had a capitalist leadership, was nonetheless a workers' party at its base. It could, via its democratic structures, be pressured by the working class.

In the past when Labour had been defeated, particularly after 1979, a strong leftward move developed in the ranks of the Labour Party. Following 2010 this has been completely absent. Labour's pro-austerity programme has been accepted by the party with barely any protest.

Trade union leaders

What should be the response of socialists and those opposed to austerity to this situation? For the majority of trade union leaders the answer has been to do everything possible to maximise the Labour vote despite its woeful policies. This has included giving vast amounts of their members' money to Labour - 7 million in the last quarter of 2014 alone.

Contrary to the baying of the right-wing press, this money has not given the unions any influence over Labour. Labour's democratic structures have long since been destroyed and the final remnants were torn down with the passage of the Collins Review last year.

When rumours circulated recently that Unite the Union would withdraw a 1.5 million donation if they didn't get their chosen candidate on the shortlist for Halifax constituency (denied by the union's general secretary Len McCluskey) it was revealed to what lengths the Labour leadership would go in order to prevent even the tiniest whiff of union 'influence'. Tony Blair immediately stepped in to round up a big-business backer of Labour to pledge to replace the money in order to prevent Unite having any say over the shortlist, never mind over any more significant decisions!

No doubt millions of workers will vote Labour on 7 May, desperate to get rid of the Tories and hoping against hope that a Labour government will at least take its foot off the austerity accelerator. These faint hopes are being fanned by the leaders of the Labour-affiliated trade unions, even those who have previously been correctly critical of the right-wing character of the Labour leadership. At last year's Unite conference, for example, Len McCluskey declared: "Unite stands fully behind Labour and Ed Miliband in the increasingly radical agenda he has outlined. It is a people's agenda and this union will be proud to fight alongside Labour to secure it."

In reality, however, Labour's agenda is not radical or in the interests of 'the people'. Over the last five years the majority in Britain have suffered a severe drop in living standards - the greatest since the Victorian era - and Labour is not putting forward any significant measures to reverse the situation other than a small increase in the minimum wage - by 2020! Reaching 8 an hour by then is an increase of about 30p a year! Public sector workers meanwhile will face a continuation of the current 1% pay limit.

Over 35 billion has been cut from public services, more than at any time since World War Two. Already many services have ceased to exist, and yet more cuts are piling up. The local authority budgets agreed in recent weeks will mean an average further cut in spending of 8.8%. Labour has said it will not reverse any of these cuts but, on the contrary, will make far more.

It has taken time for the full horror of these cuts to be felt. Millions of people have done all they can to survive despite the safety net being cut from under them. More and more, however, are now facing destitution. The number using food banks has tripled in the last year, reaching over a million.

Housing crisis

Homelessness has rocketed - mainly as a result of private landlords evicting tenants. At night time the centre of London - amid the luxury dwellings of the super-rich - is filled with huddled figures sleeping in doorways. Yet Labour has ruled out building significant numbers of council homes, and will not reverse the cuts to public services or benefits (other than the bedroom tax) that have led to this misery. On the contrary Rachel Reeves, the shadow welfare minister, has declared Labour will be tougher on benefits than the Tories!

Of course on some issues Labour would be less vicious than the Tories. Labour has promised to repeal the hated Health and Social Care Act, although not to reverse the NHS privatisation which underpins it. It has also promised to repeal the bedroom tax. This is welcome, but as every local authority - including those led by Labour - has implemented the tax up until now, enormous damage has been done that this would be too late to reverse. There are now 1,500 council and housing associations homes standing empty because the original tenants were forced to leave as a result of the bedroom tax.

It is clear that after 7 May Britain will have a weak and unstable coalition or minority government which - whether Tory or Labour-led - will continue to implement austerity. Far from being 'better' than the governments of Blair or Brown, a Miliband-led government will be compelled by the crisis of the capitalist system - the logic of which Labour fully accepts - to carry out far more brutal attacks on the working class. To foster illusions that Labour offers a real alternative is to leave the working class woefully unprepared for the huge struggles we are going to face to defend our living standards.

What is the best way to prepare those struggles? Not to call for a vote for 'austerity-lite', which entails taking some responsibility for the actions of a future Labour government, but to begin to build a new party of the working class. If a significant section of the trade union movement had taken this path during the last five years we could face a very different political terrain today.

In 2011 the trade union movement was able to mobilise millions - on demonstrations and in strike action - against austerity. The only political alternative put forward from the platforms, however, was to vote Labour. Given Labour's record in power, and when Labour councils are loyally implementing the cuts carnage demanded by the Con-Dems, is it any wonder that this strategy has not met with an enthusiastic response?

The hopes of some on the left that it would be possible to convince workers to join the Labour Party en masse and to fight to 'reclaim' it have largely fallen at the first hurdle; most trade unionists cannot be convinced to join a party they no longer see as 'theirs'. Last year the leadership of Unite only affiliated 400,000 of their 1.42 million members to the Labour Party, recognising that the majority of their members no longer identify with the party.

The same process has taken place in every union. Only 32% of Unison members, for example, pay into the Labour-affiliated political fund. The percentage doing so fell to this level under the last Labour government, but have not recovered at all while Labour has been in opposition.

Europe

No amount of pleas by union leaders will prevent the fracturing of support for Labour among workers. It is a process that has been taking place over decades and is now accelerating. Nor is it specific to Britain.

Across Europe social democratic parties - the equivalents of Labour - have, when in government, acted virtually identically to the 'traditional' capitalist parties. They have implemented brutal austerity and become profoundly unpopular as a result. The virtual destruction of Pasok in Greece is the ultimate example of this, but the same process has taken place in Spain, France and even in Sweden - the traditional 'home' of social democracy.

As no new mass party has been launched by a significant section of the trade union movement, protest votes have gone to the Greens to some extent, but above all to the divisive and right wing Ukip.

Some in the trade unions argue a new party cannot be built because of the electoral system - 'if only we had proportional representation - everything would be possible'. This is an argument for endless passivity, leaving the working class with a choice between austerity and austerity-lite for an eternity.

The capitalist class is never going to make it easy to build a new party that opposes its interests. Socialists should campaign for proportional representation but - precisely because it would give opportunities for a new workers' party - the capitalist class will resist it for as long as they can. Only by taking action and building a significant workers' party that includes a change in the electoral system in its programme will it be possible to build an irresistible momentum on this issue.

History

Alongside this it is argued that a new party would split the 'left' vote and let the Tories in. This does not hold water as the history of the Labour Party itself confirms. In the early days of Labour and its precursors its founders were constantly told that they had to support the capitalist Liberal Party, otherwise they would let the Tories in.

Yet the Labour Representation Committee (LRC), forerunner to the Labour Party, made a qualitative breakthrough under a Tory, not a Liberal government. From 1900 to 1903 its affiliated membership grew from 375,000 to 861,000. In the 1906 general election the Liberals evicted the Tories on a landslide, but the LRC also had 29 MPs elected.

This was not only under first-past-the-post, but before the introduction of universal suffrage! And it was the leftward pressure created by the LRC's success which forced the incoming Liberal government to repeal the vicious Taff Vale anti-trade union laws. In the following decades the Labour Party became a mass party, eclipsing the Liberals.

Imagine today how a new party with a similar base of support to the LRC - based on a fighting, socialist programme - would have a huge impact on the political situation. It would severely undermine Ukip - winning to its banner those many workers who are voting for Ukip mainly to show their anger with the establishment parties. And it would do more to put leftward pressure on Labour than any amount of trying to influence Labour from within, just as the LRC pressured the Liberals 110 years ago, or as Ukip is acting to push capitalist politics to the right. The existence of such a party would put the working class in a much stronger position to fight against the continued misery it will face under the next government.

The Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) was co-founded by the late Bob Crow, then general secretary of the transport workers' union the RMT, in 2010 "to enable trade unionists, community campaigners and socialists to stand against the pro-austerity establishment parties." It is supported by the RMT, alongside the Socialist Party, other socialists, and a wide range of leading trade unionists.

It is a beginning - a step towards the kind of party that is needed. It is not yet a strong enough force to contest every seat in the general election, but it will contest over 135 parliamentary seats and up to 1,000 council seats. It will offer - at least for the minority of workers its voice can reach - a determined socialist alternative to austerity.

The support it gets can act to hasten the development of a new mass workers' party beyond the general election. Joining the fight to build TUSC means playing an important role in the historic fight we face against austerity and austerity-lite.


The Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) is an electoral alliance that stands candidates against all cuts and privatisation. It involves the RMT transport workers' union, leading members of other trade unions including the PCS, NUT and POA, as well as the Socialist Party and other left and anti-cuts groups and individuals.

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In The Socialist 18 March 2015:


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A parting of the ways with Solidarity

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