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British General Election 2010: Workers vote Labour to stop Tories – Lib Dems rush into Tory talks

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• No to all cuts coalitions!
• For a workers’ united front against the cuts!

The big story of the 2010 General Election is that millions of working class people voted for Labour to keep the Tories out. They succeeded in denying the Tories a majority – but they may not have stopped them from forming a government.

Only six months ago nearly every commentator was expecting a massive Tory landslide. But Labour succeeded in narrowing the gap and blocked David Cameron and the Tories from a gaining an overall parliamentary majority.

With only 36.2 per cent of the popular vote, the Tories’ claim that they have a mandate for a vicious programme of austerity is completely bogus. The Liberal Democrat surge turned out to be little more than a ripple. They scored just one percentage point more than in 2005.

The attempt by Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg to form a “savage cuts” coalition with Cameron flies in the face of what his voters wanted. Despite huge differences in policy, on education, climate change, tax, immigration, Trident and above all voting reform, the Lib Dem leaders immediately signalled that they wanted some kind of agreement with the Tories – who duly responded with an offer of a formal coalition.

No wonder – in conditions of deep economic crisis, the election provoked a deep political crisis too. With no one party able to command an overall majority, there is only one way that the capitalists can get what they most desire – a strong government able to impose the most sweeping programme of cuts since the 1930s. That is a Tory-Liberal coalition, which alone can deliver a strong parliamentary majority, short of a further election in the autumn or the New Year.

With such overriding priorities for capital – and given the prospect of ministerial positions for Clegg and his finance spokesman Vince Cable – it is no surprise that the inherently opportunist Lib Dem leaders are riding roughshod on the anti-Tory aspirations of their middle class voters and members and are steering full speed towards a Tory coalition.

They may not succeed – they need formal backing from their MPs and Executive, and possibly from their members too. And so, if the Great Blue-Yellow Cuts Coalition is stillborn, another unpalatable prospect looms.

A shaky Labour–Lib Dem coalition under Brown, Miliband, Johnson, Harman or Balls would also not offer any real protection against cuts.

Brown has already called for £9 billion cuts this year – only one billion less than Nick Clegg and Vince Cable. With the union leaders protecting such a government as “the only way to stop the Tories” we would still be subjected to the death of a thousand cuts with the union leaders tying our hands behind our backs.

But such a government would be deeply unstable, with a tiny majority of one or two MPs, even if it drew in the Scottish and Welsh nationalists, the Green and the Alliance party.

Political instability

The positive outcome of this election is that it is unlikely to produce the “strong and stable government” the politicians and the bosses are crying out for.

Good. Because they want this strong government to make the working class and the lower middle classes pay the astronomical costs of the crisis.

We can stop this offensive. Whichever parties are in power, the period ahead is one in which a mass movement against the cuts in pay, jobs, pensions and services can sweep the UK.

Fighting back against every cut, reaching out to trade unionists, the Labour Party’s rank and file and above all the eight million Labour voters, we can mobilise in tremendous numbers to defend our welfare state.

If we face a Tory-Liberal Cuts Coalition, then the entire Labour movement must unite. We need a workers’ united front to smash the austerity, combining the determined industrial action we saw in the Great Miners’ Strike with the vast popular mobilisation we saw in the Great Poll Tax Revolt. That way we can drive the illegitimate coalition from power, discrediting the Tories and Liberals for years and opening a fight to make the bosses pay.

If Labour forms a coalition with the Liberals, we will need to build a mass campaign against the cuts to force a crisis in the Labour party, to end the coalition with the capitalist Liberals and open a huge debate in the Labour and trade union movement on the way forward to beat the crisis.

In either case, the key will be the formation of action committees to unite the resistance at local, regional and national level, drawing in delegates from across the movement. The Right to Work Conference in London on 22 May presents an important opportunity.

Savage cuts ahead

The main parties, including Labour, did all they could to bury the question of the sheer size of the cuts necessary to slash Britain's record £163bn budget deficit - i.e. to pay back the very bankers and financial speculators responsible for the most severe capitalist crisis since the Second World War.

Tory, Labour and Liberals argued over ‘investment’ versus ‘cuts’, but the fact is they all sought to conceal the real scale of the cuts ahead during the election campaign.

But as socialists campaigning on the doorsteps and in the workplaces can all report, this was the overriding concern of working class voters.

It was left however to the financial press and various economic institutes to reveal the size of the cuts ahead. The Financial Times, voice of the markets, editorialised on May Day that the Tories "will need to sack public sector staff, cut their wages, slash benefits, reduce pensions and axe services.”

Mervin King, governor of the Bank of England, warned that the any party carrying out such cuts will be out of power “for at least a generation.”

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, predicted that 500,000 public sector jobs would have to go, with 100,000 of them in the NHS, if the Tory target of slashing the deficit in a single parliament is to be met.

The Independent on 7 May reported that Whitehall top civil servants – the permanent and unelected servants of the capitalist class - have been preparing a list of the cuts the politicians have only hinted about. They have fleshed out Cameron's “emergency budget within 50 days” to include “a freeze on public sector pay for all but the lowest-paid workers, axing thousands of civil service jobs, raising the state pension age for men from 65 to 66 within two years. It also includes “curbing the numbers of people claiming invalidity benefit, and the £19.7bn housing benefit budget.”

Cameron stated on the BBC's Andrew Marr Show that if Britain was to avoid a Greek scenario then cuts would have to go far deeper than any of the leaders had so far admitted.

On show here was the very essence of capitalist democracy: lie to the electorate to get elected and then claim they gave you a mandate for what you concealed from them.

Having failed to win a majority of seats let alone the popular vote, the Tories do not have a mandate to govern, let alone a mandate for their vicious austerity programme. Let no one in the working class movement – particularly, the leaders of the big unions – claim we must respect their ‘democratic’ mandate. On the contrary, now the battle against cuts must continue outside of parliament.

Let’s follow the Greek example - general strikes, mass demonstrations, an uprising of the youth – and bring down the cutters coalition, whatever its political complexion will prove to be.

Labour’s recovery

In 2008 and 2009 opinion polls regularly showed the Tories with up to forty per cent of the vote and Labour slumping to as little as 20 per cent – an unprecedented Tory landslide in the making.

But in May 2010 millions of workers confounded these predictions as they looked to Labour as their only protection against the Tories.

They did so despite thirteen years in which Tony Blair and Gordon Brown dragged Britain into brutal wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, pushed privatisation into healthcare and education, let social inequality rip, and doled out £1 trillion to the bankers.

In the local elections this turn was even clearer. Labour made a major advance in the councils regaining control of 15, including Coventry and Liverpool, and gaining 414 extra seats nationally, reversing some of the serious defeats they had suffered in local government since 1999.

That the general elections coincided with the locals – where for many years, a number of working class voters had stayed away or protest voted – helped the Labour cause. But to this we also have to add, the terrible experience of cutting Tory-Lib Dem councils that many urban areas have experienced over the last years also encouraging a turn back to Labour.

Labour’s recovery however was very uneven.

It was very strong in Scotland, winning nearly 42 per cent of the vote, where it kept the Tories to their single seat and prevented any surge by the Scottish Nationalists and the Liberals, and much stronger than expected in the inner London boroughs and northern urban heartlands. But in southern England the Tories practically swept the board, reversing almost without exception the Labour gains of 1997.

Indeed there was enormous local variation in the swings between the parties. High turnouts and big swings to Labour in some constituencies, low turn outs in others, big swings to the Tories on high turnouts outs elsewhere. And there were even big swings from the Liberal Democrats to the Tories too with the party losing 20 per cent of the seats they held in the last parliament to the Tories.

For this reason – that there was no uniform swing nationally from one party to another – it became impossible to determine what the result was till well into late Friday morning.

Where the fascist British National Party posed the threat of a breakthrough, in outer East London and in Stoke on Trent, traditional Labour voters, youth and immigrants rallied in huge numbers to Labour, after waging an active anti-BNP campaign on the streets for weeks. In Barking the vote for Labour’s Margaret Hodge rose from 13,826 in 2005 to 24,628 in 2010, humiliating BNP leader Nick Griffin.

The Labour left not only shared in the revival but also exceeded it. The left wing of the Labour Party, the Labour Representation Committee (LRC), did almost universally well.

Its chairman John McDonnell increased his vote by over 4,000 votes in Hayes and Harlington, winning an astounding 54.8 per cent of the vote, and Jeremy Corbyn too increased his vote by over 8,000 (swing of 3 per cent) in Islington North.

The LRC will have around 20 MPs in the new Parliament. These MPs were the ones who strongly opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and rebelled in the Commons against most of New Labour’s anti-working class “reforms”.

But, at the same time, the votes of candidates to the left of Labour were poor - squeezed by a return to Labour, which the mass of the working class clearly saw as the first line defence against a jobs and services slashing Tory Party.

Bosses looking for an austerity coalition

The British capitalists were looking for a Tory government with a clear majority in parliament to carry through austerity measures. Despite having the overwhelming support of the right wing media and facing a Labour government that had been in power for 13 years, and having twice as much money as Labour to spend on their campaign, they failed to win sufficient support amongst the working and middle classes.

Historically a party of the landowning aristocracy, of the public school and Old Etonian wing of the bourgeoisie, which in the 20th century became the party of choice for the ruling class as a whole, the Tories are today a party in long term decline, as is shown by the narrowness of their election win despite 13 years of Labour rule. The peculiarities and downright unfairness of the British electoral system played into the hands of the Tories in the Thatcher years, but in this election it meant Labour and Liberal voters looked to vote tactically in key swing seats to hold back the Tory advance.

Now they are forced to look to the Liberal Democrats to secure a ‘strong’ austerity government and they may well be successful.

After all, Nick Clegg is the most right wing Liberal Democrat leader in decades. He represents an attempt by the right of the party to move away from the left of centre politics of the Kennedy and Ashdown era, in which the party – in a period of a rightist Labour government introducing neoliberal measures in the public sector and waging unpopular wars – sought to position itself to the left, taking advantage of disenchantment amongst Labour’s traditional base.

Not anchored in either of the fundamental social classes, the Liberal Democrats are an unstable and vacillating force, zig-zagging between Labour and the Tories. Clegg saw in the crisis a new period of austerity opening up, and sought to realign the economic policy of the party on more overtly pro-boss lines.

Even in advance of the election he was touting Cameron’s right to try to form a coalition if the Tories had the largest number of MPs in a hung parliament. But no such “right” exists in British constitutional practice; nor does a sitting prime minister have to resign until another party leader has assembled a working majority.

All Clegg’s eagerness showed was his preference – a block with the Tories – perhaps even sacrificing hopes of electoral reforms to win it.

Under the excuse that the country needs "stable government", Clegg and Vince Cable are eager to take cabinet posts to make the working class pay the cost of the crisis. However their party’s rank and file and their 6.8 million voters did not vote to get David Cameron as their prime minister.

A return to Lib-Labism?

But what might conceivably still persuade the Liberals to hold Clegg back from his designs, is that taking office in a Tory dominated coalition will prove a poisoned chalice. The Tories are the least likely to deliver any substantive concession on PR and would tie the Lib Dems into their programme of historic cuts.

So Labour is still wooing the Liberal Democrats.

Culture Secretary Ben Bradshaw is openly calling for a "progressive" coalition, as have numerous centre-left commentators, if the Lib-Dem talks with the Tories fail.

Brown wants to cling on to power in order to go even further down the road of anti-working class policies he has pursued for 13 years.

But it is not only New Labour MPs who are looking for a “progressive coalition”. The Morning Star is now urging this as the latest version of the old Stalinist strategy – the Popular Front, a formal alliance that ties workers’ organisations to the openly capitalist parties.

This is the last thing we need. What don't need class collaboration with the supposed representatives of the progressive middle classes, but class struggle by workers against the cuts.

Brown and Milliband plus Clegg and Vince Cable would put together an austerity package, maybe a bit different in tempo but not in substance to Cameron’s, and it would only take a run of the pound or a slump in the markets for them to quickly catch up with his timetable.

Meanwhile the leaders of the big unions would continue to try to sabotage our fight back, so as not destabilise the government and bring forward new elections and a return of the Tories.

It is plain that the eight million people who voted Labour did so for protection against the cuts.

And it is hardly surprising, well aware of this reality, that many Labour MPs are starting to brief the press against the idea of a ‘new coalition’, achieved at the expense of conceding to a new electoral system that would disadvantage them into the future. Their rationale is that if they bided their time for a couple of years outside of office, they could regroup, change their leader, and return later to win a future election.

In the meantime the Tories would introduce their ‘savage cuts’, making them hugely unpopular in just a few years. And on the back of a popular backlash against the Tories, Labour could then return, winning in a landslide with no need for concessions to the Liberals on electoral reform.

If the Liberals were implicated in the Tory cuts as part of a formal or informal coalition, then this would be even better for a new, post-Brown, Labour Party.

Principled socialists should say unequivocally ‘no coalition’ with the openly bosses’ parties, and demand the Labour Party mobilises at every level, including in the unions, to take the struggle against Tory cuts onto the streets and into the workplaces.

Enormous democratic deficit

The elections once again revealed the total unfairness of the British electoral system.

How is it, for example, that the Green Party – whatever criticisms we might have of their middle class politics – could return only one MP on the back of 238,000 votes?

The Liberal Democrats too won just 57 MPs for their 6.8 million votes – that’s 8 per cent of the seats in parliament with 23 per cent of the vote.

More Liberal and Green MPs in Parliament would not help the working class in its struggles. But the left and working class movement too feels the effect of this undemocratic system.

It requires large concentrations of support in one or two constituencies, focuses the attention of the parties on a hundred or so ‘swing seats’ and encourages passivity in the rest.

Of the major parties only the Liberal Democrats support fully proportional electoral reform. Whilst opposing a coalition with the bourgeois Liberal Democrats, all socialists and working class activists should as a matter of principle demand electoral reform with a fully proportional system list system to break the undemocratic First Past the Post system.

We should do so regardless (and in spite of) the manoeuvrings amongst the mainstream parties around the formation of a new government.

Leading Lib Dems indeed are already signalling they will drop this in exchange for sharing power with Cameron’s Tories.

This makes it all the more important for the working class movement independently to demand a proportional system from all the political parties, including Labour.

Far right rejected at polls – will they return to the streets?

The BNP failed to win Barking and lost all 12 of its councillors in the local authority. In Stoke they lost two of their councillors.

This is excellent. But there is still no room for complacency.

The BNP vote rose to over half a million, admittedly because they stood in more seats. The only reason they have no seats at all is thanks to the undemocratic electoral system.

But this can be no justification for the first-past-the-post system since it also blocks the way to revolutionary antifascist candidates and allows the far right to grow and fester beneath the surface of ‘respectable’ mainstream politics.

The near weekly street marches by English Defence League thugs in towns and cities with large Muslim communities, show the threat that the resurgent fascists can present in a time of deep capitalist crisis.

Rejected in their key target seats, the BNP might also join these thugs on the streets, perhaps with a new leader if Griffin is overthrown by more hardline elements in his party.

A Tory-Lib-Dem austerity programme will raise this threat, not dampen it, as unemployed and middle class masses enraged by the crisis will be looking not only for progressive answers, but also to lash out in reactionary outbursts too.

And the fascists can organise such people into a fighting force against the labour movement, Asian and black people and the left.

All the more reason to step up the fight to deny the fascists the streets – by launching an Antifascist Defence League.

The failure of the far left

For forces to the left of Labour, with a few exceptions, the election results were very poor.

Only a handful of candidates from the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) got even several hundred, with only two getting more than a thousand votes.

These included well-known former Labour MP Dave Nellist in Coventry and Jenny Sutton in Tottenham, who received energetic support from the Socialist Workers Party, the largest far-left organisation in Britain.

In addition David Henry received 730 votes in Salford & Eccles, thanks to the backing of a strong local campaign against discredited Labour MP Hazel Blears.

In these cases candidates scored between one and three per cent of the vote. However most TUSC candidates got less than one per cent.

For example, Linamar car plant convenor Rob Williams, a leading, well-respected union militant and Socialist Party member, got 179 votes in Swansea West.

In the end this is a punishment for the failure of the left wing of the working class movement over the last ten years to use the opportunity of a long period of Labour government to take steps to a new working class party. Faced with the prospect of fierce attacks from the Tories workers clearly look to political parties, not to a scattered array of left wing candidates in coalitions hobbled together at the last minute.

This was also the case for Workers Power’s candidate in Vauxhall, Jeremy Drinkall, who won 109 votes. Unable to stand as part of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, our application turned down due to Vauxhall Labour MP Kate Hoey’s relationship with the RMT union, we stood on an ‘anticapitalist’ ticket on a clear revolutionary platform.

A small organisation, with few resources, little money and without a great deal of experience of electoral work in recent years, we nonetheless ran an energetic campaign, putting out scores of thousands of leaflets, with a clear political message, and an excellent candidate who spoke particularly well at hustings, getting a warn response from local people.

No doubt there are a lot of things we could have done better, but even the slickest electoral operation would not have fundamentally changed the overall position, which was that there was a generalised turn of the working class back to Labour to stop the Tories. The closer we got to polling day, the more we encountered voters on the estates who had initially pledged us their support, but who eventually decided to vote Labour to stop the threat of a Tory government.

A new party of the working class built out of the struggles of the last decade could have provided an alternative pole of attraction, but without this, the fragmented left was largely unable to win support from a significant section of even the most advanced workers.

Good electoral results were scored by the cross class non-socialist Respect party in Birmingham Hall Green and Poplar Limehouse in London, where Salma Yaqoob scored 25 per cent of the vote, only 4,000 behind Labour, and George Galloway won 17.5 per cent respectively. In Brighton Pavilion the middle class Green Party’s Caroline Lucas returned the party’s first MP.

This showing for what are essentially left liberal parties may lead to a revival of the idea on the left that a populist, red-green alliance, could be forged in the period ahead. This would not only be a mistake in principle but also counter-productive in practice at a time when we need to defend the idea of working class independence against the danger of a Lib-Lab pact, and bring large sections of the class into struggle against the crisis.

Conclusion

Whichever combination of capitalist politicians forms a government over the days ahead, they will launch an attack on the working class, an austerity package that will provoke mass resistance.

If the government is weak in terms of its parliamentary majority this may start off as cutting in stages, attacking the most vulnerable sectors of public employees first.

This was just the way Thatcher started. She left the miners for five years, but when she came to them many of the unions were shattered and demoralised by her attacks.

We must not allow this to happen at any cost. But a markets crisis, a re-eruption of the global crisis caused by sovereign debt, could give just the pretext for appeals to “national unity” in parliament to railroad through a Greek-style austerity programme – massive cuts across the board.

For the moment, the struggle now continues outside parliament - though the twenty or so left MPs in the LRC should use the chamber to denounce the cuts and call for mass resistance.

The election showed clearly that despite its rightist evolution under Blair and Brown the Labour Party remains what Lenin and Trotsky called a ‘bourgeois workers’ party’ - i.e., one based on the working class, but at the same time carrying out thoroughly capitalist policies with a leadership totally loyal to the workers classes’ enemies: the bosses.

The fact that workers rallied to Labour as a defensive bulwark against the Tory “savage cutters” also demonstrates this. From 2007 onwards New Labours billionaire supporters wooed by Brown as well as Blair, were like rats leaving the sinking ship. That left the unions to pick up £10 million tab for the election campaign, in return for only the most vague promises on public sector investment.

There is a tremendous opportunity provided by the current situation, due to the political instability inherent in coalition rule or a minority government, and the fact the Tories lack any credible popular mandate for their austerity programme.

We need to rally the eight million workers who voted for Labour, arguing now for them to take the struggle onto the streets and into the workplaces to defeat the austerity programme. Indeed, now the critical task of the day, will be fighting for a workers' united front against the cuts, for joint committees of action to link the up the struggles from below. By organising on a national and local basis, co-ordinated with delegate-based structures, they will be able to demand action from the union leaders, and also organise it without them when necessary too.

In the period ahead socialists must turn to the millions of working class, Labour supporters and remaining two hundred thousand or so party members, seeking to form a strong united front of resistance to the Tory cuts.

We should also urge them to settle accounts with the right wing Labour leaders and their manoeuvres for a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. The more Labour members and supporters are drawn into activity on the ground against the cuts, the more open they will become to militant anticapitalist ideas.

The failure to create a new party on an anticapitalist programme leaves the working class not just without an electoral alternative to Labour, but without a mass fighting organisation to lead resistance to the coming savage austerity programme and to direct it towards a challenge to the system.

We have to reiterate that the working class urgently needs a revolutionary anticapitalist party, many tens of thousands strong, to coordinate the fight back and seize the opportunities presented by the massive capitalist crisis still unfolding, so that we can put an end to this rotten system once and for all.

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