Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/737/15432
Editorial of the Socialist
Labour Party conference - not fighting austerity
Income will not return to pre-crisis levels until 2020 and Tory leader David Cameron says there is no 'plan B' - just unrelenting austerity.
Contained in that fact is unbearable suffering: children without enough to eat, with the Con-Dems' cold cruelty encapsulated in the recent news that a baby starved to death in Tory-run Westminster; the elderly choosing between food and fuel; and families unable to pay their rent as benefits are slashed and wages stagnate.
Many working class and middle class people will have hoped that Labour Party conference showed there is a party ready to fight this.
Media commentators, particularly Polly Toynbee, went into paroxysms of ecstasy during the conference, particularly after leader Ed Miliband's 70 minute speech on 'One Nation' Britain, claiming the slogan from the Tory prime minister of the late 19th century Benjamin Disraeli. In fact, Miliband uttered the phrase 44 times!
Speaking without notes he attacked the bankers - but also denied he was 'Red Ed'. The conference revealed a party with no plans to provide a lead in the fight against cuts - far from it.
One demonstration of this is Labour's apparent complacency about the welfare state being destroyed over the next three years - willing to wait patiently for a 2015 general election rather than seeking any of the many opportunities to push for a vote of no confidence.
Perhaps the most revealing speech of the Labour conference was that of shadow chancellor Ed Balls, continuing his theme from TUC Congress where he made it clear that a Labour government would continue with austerity measures.
Labour, he confirmed, would continue the pay freeze, would maintain Thatcher's anti-union laws and would not commit to renationalising the railways.
Reversing government policy on all these issues would be immensely popular. In particular, amid the farcical Con-Dem retreat on the West Coast mainline soon after the announcement of further hikes in fares, renationalising the railways has enormous support among working class and middle class people.
In Manchester, Balls was unrepentant, almost boasting that he would make "tough decisions... it's not my job to make everyone happy", stating that Labour would continue the cuts.
Unfortunately, some of the trade union leaders, even those who argue against austerity, remain tied to Labour. "Ed Miliband made it abundantly clear that Labour will get us off the miserable path dug by this government.
"His speech marks the long-awaited rebirth of a radical social democracy in this country. We can now start hoping once again.
"In particular, working class people can feel that the party is back on their side." This is the verdict of Len McCluskey, Unite general secretary, and echoed by other union leaders like Paul Kenny of the GMB after the Labour leader's speech.
Considering that the union leaders went into conference attacking the Labour leaders for their stated intention to stick with the Con-Dem cuts, including the pay freeze, many union members will be asking what's changed to signal this conversion? But perhaps of more importance, what will be the effect on their strategy going forward?
Two days before the speech, Len told the Sunday Times: "Of course we are trying to influence the party again.
"It really is a question of us having to go to our activists and get them to join the Labour Party. The answer we get back is 'why?' and we have got to be able to say that we are trying to win Labour back for our core values: a belief in collectivism, a belief in fairness, justice, equality, decency and respect and to kick the new Labour cuckoos out of our nest."
However Len and Co must look reality square in the eyes and acknowledge that nowhere during this conference was there evidence of the trade unions' influence on the party.
In fact, a motion was passed which merely 'noted' the pay freeze in the public sector. Instead of proposing a programme to defend workers and trade union members, the conference seemed to be looking at how to defend the jobs of Labour councillors!
One of the most nauseating moments was the sight of Tony Benn's son Hilary praising Labour councils who have all implemented the Con-Dem cuts: "Now while Labour councils are fighting for a fair deal for their communities, they are also facing impossible, agonising choices.
"But with a quiet and steely determination, they are making those choices not because they don't care, but because they do.
To choose is to express our Labour values and to show that we can make a difference to people's lives... however tough it gets... we don't write people off. We stretch out a hand and pull each other up."
Not one Labour council has made a stand against the cuts. But some Labour councillors are starting to rebel: in Lambeth, Southampton and Hull.
Those who have voted against cuts are now suspended from their Labour groups with the threat of de-selection before the next council election.
It is their anti-cuts battle that the leaders of the affiliated unions should put themselves at the head of.
The Socialist Party does not share Len McCluskey's belief that Labour can be reclaimed for working class people.
Every time Len senses a glimmer of hope with 'one nation Ed', Miliband's action ridicules him. After a delegate shouted out a defence of comprehensive schools during a 15-year old Academy school student's speech, the Labour leader showed a refusal to condemn privatisation in education when he later tweeted: "The person who shouted during the speech by a year eleven pupil was totally wrong and doesn't speak for Labour. The hundreds who applauded her do."
During the Blair and Brown years the affiliated unions were powerless to check, let alone reverse New Labour's neoliberal direction.
This speech confirmed that Miliband is essentially no different from his predecessors. Trade unions backing anti-cuts candidates in elections would put far more pressure on Labour from the left than the current strategy of the Labour-affiliated unions, in a similar way that Jean-Luc Mélenchon's Left Front pushed François Hollande leftwards during the French presidential election.
But reclaiming the Labour Party for the working class would require a mass influx of workers, organised around a campaign to remove the Blairites and recreate the party's democratic structures.
A socialist programme would need to be adopted, including opposition to all cuts. The Socialist Party has concluded that this is not possible - and that instead what is required is the creation of a new mass party of the working class.
If such a party stood on Unite's programme of opposing and reversing all the cuts, abolishing the anti-union laws, etc, it would provide a positive pole of attraction for all those millions of people opposed to the Con-Dems' austerity.
The Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition is an attempt to build a bridge to such a party. Plans to build it should be stepped up, including holding meetings and debates on the issue of political representation and developing supporters groups inside the unions.
See debate with Owen Jones in October's Socialism Today, the Socialist Party's magazine: www.socialismtoday.org
In The Socialist 10 October 2012:
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