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2014: The ‘rejection election’

Now Trade Unions must lead our fightback

Hannah Sell, Socialist Party deputy general secretary

This was the ‘rejection election’. It once again demonstrated the depth of anger and alienation that exists with all Britain’s ‘traditional’ parties. In the aftermath of the election all of the major parties are licking their wounds, trying to put a brave face on the results.

In the European election a party other than the ‘big two’ won a national poll for the first time since 1910. The Tories were relegated to third place. The former ‘protest party’, the Lib Dems, was reduced to one MEP, coming fifth behind the Greens. Also in the local elections a sizable minority, estimated at 17%, voted for Ukip. Previously with two councillors in the seats up for election, Ukip now has over 160.

Anti-establishment vote

The central mood was a desire to kick all the ‘establishment’ parties or, as one Ukip voter put it, to “scare the government”, with the EU acting as a catch-all for a generalised anger. Six in ten Ukip supporters described their vote as a general protest because they were “unhappy with all established political parties at the moment”.

It has not been reported in the capitalist press, but an important minority of workers expressed their anger by voting for the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC). In the biggest left-of-Labour stand since the war, 561 no-cuts candidates stood in the local and other elections. They received over 65,000 votes.

In 21 councils TUSC polled over 1,000 votes. In ten of these, it was over 2,000. In Southampton anti-cuts councillor Keith Morrell was re-elected with a crushing majority. Labour, who had expelled Keith for voting against cuts, was reduced to third place behind Ukip.

Election day campaigning in Southampton, 22.5.14, photo N Chaffey

Election day campaigning in Southampton, Keith Morrell on the right of the photo, 22.5.14, photo N Chaffey   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

The Socialist Party – together with the RMT – also took part in No2EU-Yes to Workers’ Rights to offer a left and internationalist opposition to the bosses’ Europe in seven regions.

The Socialist Party had argued for the TUSC banner to be in the Euros and the locals. This would undoubtedly have given both campaigns a higher profile. However, it was not possible to convince some other forces involved in No2EU of this, particularly the Communist Party of Britain, and unfortunately, it made less impact than it did in 2009, when it was able to draw around it combative workers like the Lindsey construction strikers and Visteon car plant workers.

TUSC’s campaigns, in particular, were practical steps on the road to a new mass workers’ party. The need for such a party is increasingly urgent. Ukip is a right-wing populist party, controlled and funded by millionaires, aristocrats, press barons and stockbrokers, but it was given a media platform to pose as the party of the ‘little people’. It has been able to partially step into the huge vacuum in British politics.

Never before has the gap between the Westminster parties and the people they are supposed to represent been so great. Profound anger appears on the surface as so-called ‘apathy’. Over 30 million potential voters stayed at home.

Turnouts are often lowest in working class areas. For example, the turnout in Hull was only 21%, with the national average estimated at 36%. At root this reflects the continued crisis of capitalism. The government’s trumpeting of a return to economic growth is largely meaningless. Most people feel worse off today than before the recession. The Trussell Trust reports that the number of families needing three or more days of emergency food from one of their food banks has increased from 26,000 in 2009 to over 900,000 in 2014.

There have been attempts to play down Ukip’s result, pointing out that their council results were lower than the 23% they achieved last year and that they failed to make a breakthrough in London, where they received an average vote of 7%. However, last year’s elections were mainly county councils, overall more rural than the seats up this year.

This year, it is probably true that the Ukip threat, coupled with the Con-Dem experience, actually helped Labour in the capital. Alarmed at the nationalist and racist ideas put forward by Ukip candidates, a layer unenthusiastically voted Labour because they saw this as the best means to block Ukip.

In some other major cities the same thing happened to a degree, with Ukip doing less well than in many smaller conurbations where a larger section of traditional Labour voters voted for Ukip. In Rotherham, Ukip won nine of the 21 seats up for election, while Labour lost seven.

The reasons workers voted for Ukip are multi-stranded. Central is a desire to protest against the major parties but Ukip also used racism and nationalism. The BNP vote collapsed in these elections but probably transferred to Ukip. It should be no surprise to socialists that Ukip’s nationalism has gained an echo.

Nationalism has long been a political weapon used by the capitalist class to try to shore up support for their system in a time of economic crisis. Both Tories and Labour have used nationalism to some extent over recent years, creating space for Ukip.

And – in a semi-conscious attempt to create a ‘safe’ electoral outlet for workers’ anger – Ukip was given enormous publicity by the capitalist media. The New Statesman found that since 2011 Ukip has received press coverage far greater than any other ‘minor’ party, including those with MPs. Farage was given four times as much as the ‘peak’ coverage received by George Galloway of Respect or Caroline Lucas of the Greens, for example, never mind the media blackout suffered by TUSC.

Ukip taps into the widespread fears about the consequences of increased immigration. These fears are felt by many workers who consider themselves anti-racist but see big business using super-exploited migrants to lower wages, as well as over-stretched under-resourced public services.

Build a movement against cuts

In March 2011, the TUC organised a 750,000 strong national demonstration against austerity. Ukip supporters responded by trying to call a demonstration in support of cuts – a pathetic few hundred turned up (see Guardian report). This showed the balance of forces at that stage.

TUC demo 26 March 2011, photo Senan

TUC demo 26 March 2011, photo Senan   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

The trade union movement, with seven and a half million members, is potentially the most powerful force in society. Had the TUC used its demonstration as a launch pad to organise a serious struggle against austerity, it would have transformed the situation. Such a movement could have also cut across racism and nationalism – making clear that the only way to prevent ‘the race to the bottom’ was a united struggle for all workers to receive ‘the rate for the job’.

In particular, if a significant part of the trade union movement had launched a new workers’ party at that time it could have won the support of many of those workers who are currently looking to Ukip as a means to express their anger.

Building a clear electoral voice for workers is the only way to cut across Ukip. Unfortunately, some on the left, including the Socialist Workers Party – one of the components of TUSC – have launched a ‘don’t be used by Ukip’ campaign together with the parties of austerity, including joint leafleting, media stunts, etc. This is a disastrous policy that cannot reach workers looking to Ukip, while allowing Labour, in part to ‘use’ those opposed to Ukip to bolster their position.

It is anger at the establishment parties that has fuelled Ukip’s growth. Campaigning together with Labour and the Lib Dems against Ukip will only allow Ukip to claim that socialists are ‘no different to the rest’.

If Ukip was a fascistic party, akin to Golden Dawn in Greece – with a fighting force that carried out physical attacks on minorities and trade unionists – it would be correct for workers to organise defence of all those who faced attacks.

Even then the most important priority would be to organise independently around a clear socialist programme. However, this is not the character of Ukip, which is a right-wing populist force which concentrates at this stage exclusively on electoral politics. It is only the absence of a mass workers’ party that has allowed them the room to partially fill the vacuum.

Len Rowlands, RMT picket Whitechapel station & TUSC candidate St Peter's ward, Tower Hamlets

Len Rowlands, RMT picket Whitechapel station & TUSC candidate St Peter’s ward, Tower Hamlets   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

Unfortunately, at this stage, the majority of the trade union leaders are continuing to call for a vote for Labour. Nonetheless, an important minority of trade unionists – including the RMT transport union – are beginning the vital work of creating a new voice for workers via TUSC. Fifty RMT members stood as TUSC candidates and aim to build on this. This is essential preparation for the period beyond the general election. The cynics mock that it is impossible to build a new force to the left of Labour. This is nothing new!

At the end of the 19th century, the pessimists of the day poured scorn on the attempts of Kier Hardie and others to create a new workers’ party to the left of the Liberals and Tories. History, however, was on the side of those that fought to build a party of labour, just as it is on the side of those today who see that Labour has become another party of big business.

The Labour leadership has repeatedly made it clear that a Labour government will continue with austerity and public spending cuts. When workers take strike action against austerity, Miliband joins the chorus of opposition to their stance, even threatening that a Labour government would consider increasing the already highly-repressive anti-trade union laws.

It is the lack of any alternative to austerity that is responsible for Labour’s lacklustre performance on 22 May. While Labour won over 300 seats, its 31% of the vote is only up two points from 2013. This is not enough for the Labour leadership to feel confident of winning the general election.

Labour fails to capitalise

The election results and subsequent opinion polls have probably been enough to secure Miliband’s continued leadership, at least for now. Undoubtedly the conclusion that the ‘ultra-Blairites’ will draw is that Labour needs to move further to the right. Shadow chancellor Ed Balls has already said Labour must have ‘a louder drum beat on immigration’. Blairite careerist Alan Milburn and others are demanding that Miliband becomes more ‘pro-business’.

In reality, whenever Miliband has made statements that appear to be siding with the 99% against the 1%, they have been popular. A ComRes poll taken just before 22 May showed that Labour’s announcements on the minimum wage, capping rent increases, freezing energy prices and increasing the top rate of tax made voters more likely to vote Labour. However, the same poll showed that voters – correctly – did not believe that Labour would implement these policies.

The fact that Labour is overall still only a few points ahead in the polls is because it has a record of kowtowing to the billionaires and bankers in whose interests Britain is run. Labour implementing austerity at council level and memories of Labour’s record in office confirm workers’ scepticism.

If Labour forms the next government these fears will be proved 1,000-fold. A Labour government, because it will act in the interests of capitalism, would not even carry out all of the incredibly modest measures it is currently proposing to improve workers’ living standards, unless it was compelled to, like any other capitalist party would be, by a mass movement. Shadow secretary for work and pensions Rachel Reeves has talked of ‘saving’ Duncan-Smith’s vicious Universal Credit.

photo Paul Mattsson

photo Paul Mattsson   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

The task of building an electoral alternative to austerity will be urgent, as will the trade union struggle to defend workers’ living conditions.

Continued public sector pay restraint in a so-called recovery is one issue provoking a mood for action now. Planned coordinated strike action on 10 July will be important preparation for the huge struggles that will take place under the next government.

It is not yet possible to work out the likely outcome of the general election, given the unstable nature of politics in this period. If Labour manages to win, it will be down to the extreme unpopularity of the Tories and Liberals rather than enthusiasm for Labour.

A Liberal/Labour coalition is also a possible outcome of the general election. In some senses this would suit the Labour leadership, as they could use the Liberals as a fig-leaf to justify their anti-working class policies. However, having spent the last five years acting as a fig-leaf for the Tories, it is doubtful there will be enough Liberals left! Clegg could even be pushed aside in the coming months in a desperate attempt by the Lib Dems to limit the scale of their defeat.

The Lib Dems’ meltdown should be a warning to trade unionists still looking to Labour about the fate of parties that act in the interests of the capitalist class in a time of economic crisis. The inevitable result is extreme unpopularity at best, and oblivion at worst, as has been seen in Greece, France and other European countries.

Need for a new workers’ party

It is not possible to judge how well Ukip will do in the general election. At this stage only 51% of Ukip voters say they will vote for them at the general election. However, it is not excluded that they can increase this on a local basis with an intensive campaign. If Ukip manages to get one or more MPs elected it is possible that a number of the Tory Eurosceptic MPs could defect to Ukip after the general election.

The establishment of a semi-permanent right-wing populist force in Britain – comparable to those that exist in a number of European countries – would be a dangerous development in British politics. The only way to cut across this is the development of a genuine mass parties of the working class in Britain and internationally.

While they are modest, the achievements in this election – particularly the breadth of TUSC’s local election challenge – mark an important step on the road to building such a force.

This version of this article was first posted on the Socialist Party website on 27 May 2014 and may vary slightly from the version subsequently printed in The Socialist.