The Socialist 11 October 2007 |
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Brown's expedient election climb-down
Gordon Brown and David Cameron play 'Snap', cartoon by Suz
Gordon Brown's rapid recoil from the idea of holding an autumn election was a blatant example of the opportunism that typifies all the leaders of the main political parties. No-one was convinced by his declaration that he wanted time to show his "vision for the future".
If his "vision" had been an end to NHS cuts and privatisation, an end to student fees, abandoning the 2% pay limit for public-sector workers, significantly increasing the state pension and minimum wage, and other policies along these lines, he would have had no trouble in winning an autumn election.
However, his vision is one of further cuts and privatisation and other attacks on living standards. The similarity between the main parties on these issues contrasts with huge frustration and insecurity in the population as a whole. This has created a highly volatile situation in Britain.
The Tories only had to throw in the hand grenade of an increased inheritance tax threshold to undermine New Labour's support in crucial marginal seats. Within the space of a week, Brown went from an expected clear general election victory, to a likely reduced majority or even loss.
An ICM poll of 83 key marginal seats found the Tories on 44% compared with 38% for Labour. It also confirmed that Labour voters were less likely to turn out than Tory voters. Even Home Secretary Jacqui Smith could have lost her seat.
Labour's strategy is now to undermine the Tories by stealing elements of their recent proposals, just as the Tories have stolen repeatedly from Labour, both attempting to occupy the 'centre' ground. The chancellor, Alistair Darling, has signalled he will make some limited tax increases for private equity fat cats and 'non-domiciled' super-wealthy individuals.
Badly stung by the Tories' proposal to increase the inheritance tax threshold from its present £300,000 to £1 million, he has promised to increase it to £700,000 by 2010.
The Tories were easily able to exploit the issue of inheritance tax because house prices have increased by over 130% since Labour came to power in 1997, whereas the inheritance tax threshold has increased by just 32%. It was estimated that the families of over a quarter of house owners in the 30 most key marginal election seats would be liable for inheritance tax when the owners die.
These figures show that New Labour has increasingly used the tax to penalise middle class and more well-off working-class people rather than to stop inheritance of massive wealth by the children of the super-rich – which perpetuates vast inequality. Over 70% of the government's income from inheritance tax has come from estates of £500,000 or less.
For the Tories, Brown's election decision was ideal; they did not seriously expect to win an autumn election and they succeeding in avoiding it and damaging Brown at the same time. The Labour leaders' arrogant confidence came crashing down as they recognised the damage they had done to themselves. Their 'spin' had badly backfired – particularly as they had not realised how much the threat of an imminent general election would motivate the Tories to pull together and produce some election bribes.
The climb-down created new divisions in the parliamentary Labour Party, with many MPs blaming Brown's 'youthful' advisers like Ed Balls and Ed Miliband for the fiasco.
One called them "teenagers" and MP Peter Kilfoyle derided them by saying: "They've never been anywhere, they've never done anything, they owe their positions to the prime minister". This is the pot calling the kettle black as Kilfoyle's only claim to fame was being a leading witch-hunter of Militant supporters in Liverpool in the 1980s.
Gordon Brown himself has been damaged most of all. Having played on the idea of being a 'conviction' politician, in this case he based his policy on expediency. He made things worse by dashing to Iraq in the week before the anticipated election announcement and making misleading statements on troop withdrawal, which was seen as shabby opportunism.
An anonymous cabinet minister was reported as saying that the hastily postponed election "isn't an issue that ordinary voters are talking about". But he or she was overly-dismissive. While not being of great interest to most voters and coming as a relief to many, Brown's volte-face has certainly been noticed widely and recognised as a sign of fear and weakness.
As articles on the socialist's front page and below indicate, the public sector unions should make the most of this weakness by pushing ahead strongly now with their pay demands to achieve decent settlements, and to stop the privatisation of Royal Mail.
The out-going managing director of the IMF has warned that the global credit squeeze will force governments worldwide to make substantial reductions in their budgets.
This is in a situation where the Brown government is already only planning 1.9% a year growth in spending over the next three years. This compares disastrously with the inadequate 4% a year increases over the last eight years.
Brown may well regret not calling an election this autumn if he goes on to face much greater economic problems – as is very likely – together with a backlash from working-class people against government imposed austerity. The Tories and Lib Dems have nothing better to offer. It is therefore becoming increasingly urgent that concrete steps are taken to build a new mass workers' party that can pose a working-class challenge to the present three main parties.