Daniel Morley analyses the latest developments in the Labour leadership election – a contest that is notable for its complete lack of originality, variety, or inspiration. The only options on offer to Labour supporters are between various shades of Blairism, none of which will solve the problems facing the working class in this time of deep capitalist crisis.
Reformism in a time of capitalist crisis resembles “windmills whose sails turn in a strong wind but fail to produce a single pound of flour because there is no corn for them to grind” (Trotsky, Notes on the Situation in Britain 1925-6). The ‘ideas’ and policies on offer in the Labour leadership election are as empty as the corn silos of capitalism are bare, and there is zero prospect of anything of substance emerging from Labour in this leadership election.
Liz Kendall, a frontrunner in the contest, has managed to grasp that Labour “didn’t have any ideas” in the election campaign. She seems to think that simply asserting the absence of ideas before is equivalent to having ideas now; but it is not, and she most certainly does not, nor do any of her rivals. So far the election campaign has been distinguished by a lamentable narrowness and uniformity. To say that Kendall and the others are politically empty barely comprehends the vapidity on display. The buzzword abstractions and euphemisms of ‘aspiration’ and ‘innovation’, utilised by all candidates alike, plumb such depths of fakery that they make Blair’s PR machine appear rich in content and sincerity.
Every single one of the four current candidates, as well as the two who withdrew early on (Chuka Umunna and Tristram Hunt), have willingly swallowed hook line and sinker the ‘argument’, or rather prejudice, that the reason for Labour’s defeat in the general election is that it failed to resonate with ‘aspirational’ voters and to have a sufficiently business-friendly message. This is obviously predicated on the idea that a large proportion of the electorate is motivated by enthusiasm for the so-called ‘wealth creators’ of big business, and themselves have a realistic aspiration to become such ‘wealth creators’ at the top of society. For a party founded on the basis of the trade union movement and directly taking its name from the exploited working class, this conceit shared by all the candidates reveals an absolute lack of belief in the party itself.
According to these ‘leaders’, the party has lost its ‘emotional’ connection with voters; its message has not gotten through somehow. But we are never given an explanation of what this emotional connection and message did, or should, consist of. There is no content in anything they say, only the vaguest of abstractions. Andy Burnham, somehow considered the ‘left’ and trade union candidate, says that the way to get this mysterious emotional connection back “can’t possibly be to choose one group of voters above another”, despite the name and appeal of the party always being precisely that – that it ‘chose’ the labouring class over the moneyed classes. He says Labour mustn’t “only speak to people on ‘0 hours contracts’” – but then emphasises that the party must help “all businesses, small and large, to get on and grow”. In other words, he believes the party must choose the ‘aspirations’ of business owners as against the aspirations of their employees on 0 hours contracts.
Burnham, who still supports the Iraq war and Blairism in general, was keen to “assert his independence from the trade unions by saying he will not take any union cash to fund his Labour leadership campaign. He has said he will defend unions, but has stressed the need to appeal to businesses, including big ones.”
“Positive relationship with business”
Yvette Cooper, considered joint favourite with Burnham, is campaigning on the idea that “Labour needs to reset its relationship with business, adding that former leader Ed Miliband’s divisional rhetoric of “predators and producers” was mistaken.” She “will also promise to back government plans to cut corporation tax and vows that she will set up a prominent business advisory group that will advise her as party leader.”
She believes that “too often in the past our rhetoric undermined that positive relationship with business, and with the creation of jobs and wealth for the future. People knew how we wanted to stop exploitation in the workplace, but not how we’d grow our workplaces to create more jobs and stronger growth.” In a not so veiled way, Cooper admits that under capitalism a party must be either against exploitation or in favour of it, and Cooper (and all the rest) evidently are in favour of more exploitation to help ‘job creation’.
Chuka Umunna, in his statement backing Liz Kendall after suspiciously quitting the race because of its pressure and scrutiny, declares with thinly veiled contempt for the party’s socialist origins that “the party must move beyond its comfort zone and find new ways of realising its age-old goals of equality and freedom…Living up to our age-old mission demands a willingness to grapple with the economic, social and global challenges as they are before us now.”
His favoured candidate Kendall would realise Labour’s ‘age-old goals of equality’ by cutting the top rate of income tax, the raising of which was one of Labour’s few hugely popular policies, and by agreeing with the Tories’ policy of benefit capping irrespective of circumstances and need. Umunna’s champion of equality in the new era – an era of unprecedented inequality that would demand drastic measures to curtail – has described as ‘fantasy’ the idea that Labour Party lost for not being left-wing enough. Kendall, the cold-hearted realist, wants to lead the Labour Party on a policy of increasing defence spending to 2% of GDP – more than what the Tories propose – in a country strapped for cash, and with a public decisively against war! She prefers this ‘realism’ to the ‘fantasy’ of actually bothering to find out why Labour has lost so many working class voters.
The illusion of choice
There is pressure on MPs to switch nominations for party leader to ensure that the contest is not reduced to being simply Burnham vs Cooper – each candidate needs 35 MPs to nominate them to then be on the ballot of party members. Labour MPs Stephen Kinnock and Jo Cox have written a letter urging nomination transfers to candidates with less than the 35 threshold, arguing that “We want our members and supporters to be faced with a range of voices and ideas, not a shortlist of one or two. This diversity will improve the quality of our internal debate, and will ultimately improve the decisions we take.” This assumes that any of the candidacies actually reflect any tangible ideas and represent a ‘range of voices and ideas’, which they most certainly do not.
Frankly it makes no difference whether Liz Kendall and Mary Creagh get on the ballot alongside Burnham and Cooper, for every one of them represents the same empty shell of bourgeois toadyism. As it stands, the contest is an opaque, meaningless exchange of platitudes and abstract phrases between bland politicians. They all resemble the hated non-entities and phonies whom the capitalists hire as managers to talk down to their workers with slick management-speak. Left MP Ian Lavery’s mooted candidacy would have been a breath of fresh air, reality and real diversity in this contest, but to his shame he has backed the Blairite Burnham instead.
The managers employed in a business are of course just puppets for its owners, and like puppets, they cannot think for themselves. These would be leaders of the Labour Party do not care for the party’s actual fortunes, nor for the future of the working class under capitalism. They try to befuddle party members and the public by masking their otherwise open and total support for big business with vague and confusing claims about some ‘knowledge economy’ and the danger of the UK being left behind as business cycles change and speed up if the party doesn’t ditch its ‘outdated’ trade union based conceptions.
Quite what this nonsense is supposed to mean is hard to tell, but a justification for more labour ‘flexibility’ and privatisations, deregulation and tax cuts for business so that Britain adapts to the future and creates good jobs it most certainly is not. It is nothing other than the same old holding labour completely prostrate for capital to run amok. It is precisely deindustrialisation that has led to the fact that “Britain’s economy has shifted more towards low-skilled jobs and less towards high-skilled ones compared with other European countries, according to Oxford university research.” The same research “also found a correlation between countries with strong union membership, such as Denmark, and higher growth in high-skilled roles.” Those countries with an ‘old fashioned’ strong trade unionism are those with the most modern and competitive workforces.
No hope or future under capitalism
Embracing the future of capitalism in concrete reality means embracing vast inequality, unemployment and degrading jobs. The weak British capitalists need to compensate for their lack of competitiveness, for their backward technology, by relentlessly attacking the rights of the working class. The confusing (and confused) talk of trade unionism as a backward obstacle to a modern economy is a cover for the very opposite – for the decaying, parasitic character of British capitalism, and it is to the shame of the Labour leaders that they enthusiastically echo rather than combat this lie.
It is well known that Britain has become more and more unequal. Inequality has reached proportions that are dangerous from a capitalist point of view; it has reached revolutionary proportions. Britain is the only country in the G7 group of leading economies where inequality has increased over the past 100 years. Britain has, since 2008, seen a sharper fall in wages than every other country in the G20, including bailed out Spain! Housing, one of life’s most fundamental needs, has become unaffordable throughout society, for working and middle class people alike, and this has revolutionary implications. A recent report by the charity Shelter revealed that there are only 43 suitable properties available in London that are ‘affordable’ for a young family buying their first home. The charity Trust for London finds that a third of all Londoners – inhabitants of one of the richest cities in the world – cannot afford a decent standard of living, i.e. being able to afford food, shelter, clothing and ‘luxury’ items, such as a child’s birthday present or a cheap meal out up to twice a month.
This is the reality for Labour’s working class base, and it is set to get much worse over this parliament. It is no surprise that most people in Britain want political parties to be much harder on business, think Britain is far too unequal, and support nationalisation of utilities, rail and the banks. And yet this profoundly changed and worsening situation is something none of the prospective Labour leaders has anything to say about, none of them have any confidence of giving voice to. Instead, they talk of the need to make tax cuts for the rich and find embarrassing any language expressing the interests of the majority of exploited workers. When they talk of aspiration, they mean the ‘aspiration’ of the super-rich for untrammelled exploitation. Capitalism is the enemy of aspiration for the vast majority who struggle to make ends meet.
Losing the working class vote
There are none so blind as those who will not see. Lost in the mazes of the Palace of Westminster and the right wing din of the chattering classes, these leaders have forgotten to seriously consider the reasons for their loss. But they don’t have to look far to find out. Jon Trickett, a well-known Labour MP, writes in the New Statesman that,
“In 2005 I produced evidence that Labour had lost 4 million voters since the election in 1997. A substantial part of these missing millions were traditional working class voters. This pattern has continued over the last 10 years.
“In a minor tidal wave of what looks like pre planned statements, a group of commentators have argued that what lost the election was a failure to tap into the hopes of “aspirational” voters.
“However, there is not a shred of evidence for their argument. The explanations for our defeat are deeper than this simplistic assessment.
“The truth is that Labour recovered amongst middle class voters but has suffered a cataclysmic decline among working class voters.
“It is possible to scrutinise now the initial voting analysis provided to me by the House of Commons Library.
“If we compare the election results for our last election victory in 2005 with the result last Thursday and analyse by social class, a very interesting pattern emerges.
“Here are the figures.
“It is possible here to see that the proportions of AB and C1 voters [i.e. the more middle-class ones] who voted Labour in the last three elections has held steady. Indeed Ed Miliband’s leadership led to a mild recovery of these voters between 2010 and 2015, (as it did among the C2 group.)
“Labour’s electoral base last Thursday was by far the most middle class we have secured in our history. A strategy based on a misunderstanding of what is happening in our country will not work. We cannot expect to win an election without reaching out to other layers of the population and equally mobilising those Labour identifiers who didn’t bother to vote.”
This same trend is revealed in the fact that all twenty of the seats in Britain with the lowest turnout were won by Labour.
“It is a reminder of how apathy and disillusionment permeate many of the party’s heartlands. Even in Doncaster North, Ed Miliband was re-elected on a turnout of just 55.7 per cent: here, the number of Labour voters has collapsed from 34,135 in 1992 to 20,708 today.
“It is even worse elsewhere. In Stoke-on-Trent Central, Labour has shed 14,000 votes since 1997. Would-be Labour leader Tristram Hunt is Britain’s least popular MP: a derisory 19 per cent of constituents voted for him. Stoke-on-Trent Central was the sole seat in Britain where the majority of the electorate did not vote.” (Tom Wigmore, New Statesman, 13 May 2015)
It is precisely the callous and patronising disdain for the ‘traditional’ working class, which is not only very much in existence but whose ranks are swelling as society becomes economically polarised, that has lost Labour the 2010 and 2015 elections. Labour has plenty of middle class votes. But the votes of millions of working class people for whom the party was founded have disappeared thanks precisely to Labour’s total capitulation to big business.
No salvation in “Tory-lite”
Meanwhile, these ‘dinosaur’ unions about whom all the candidates feel so ashamed, are a great deal more popular today than all the politicians of Westminster. According to Ipsos Mori, 78% of people feel that trade unions are ‘essential to protect workers’ interests’. Other polls show that far more people are positive towards the unions backing Labour than they are towards big business backing the Tories, and an opinion poll commissioned by BBC News found that 61% of people supported 2011’s massive public sector strikes. When we add to this the mass support for rail, utility and bank nationalisation, it is very apparent why Labour cannot win elections – it is far to the right of most people.
It is true that opinion polls do show that most people who chose not to vote Labour did so because they felt it could not be trusted with the economy. That would appear to be a reason for Labour justifying a turn to the right. But this figure requires analysis. First of all, it does not break down respondents by class – a chunk of voters rejecting Labour on this basis will be better off people who normally vote Tory anyway, and another chunk will be working class ‘traditional’ Labour supporters.
In the case of the latter, such workers have a point. Labour does not have a credible economic programme; it is merely Tory-lite, austerity-lite. There is, after all, a very real problem for capitalism – that of the deficit, and workers are not stupid. Thus, when Labour promises a ‘nicer’ regime, with more spending on public services and lower tuition fees, workers – not necessarily right-wing ones – naturally ask, ‘how can this be paid for? Isn’t there a massive deficit?’ To which the Labour leaders say, ‘yes, of course! And we’ll also cut that’. Given this confusion, many workers will not vote at all. Others may vote Tory, because out of the two parties proposing austerity to cut the deficit, at least they are the ones more confident and clear-headed about doing so!
The way to win such workers is to clearly explain that the crisis was caused by capitalism and the rich, who should therefore pay for it. Labour must boldly offer a socialist alternative to end the crisis – they should campaign on nationalising the property of big business which has evidently caused the crisis and deficit. That is more credible than decades of austerity with a ‘nice face’.
But it is no surprise that all these candidates fail to understand this. They are so wedded to the capitalist system that any break with it seems inconceivable. But down this road there is only poverty and exploitation for millions of workers. But what do the Labour leaders know of this world?
Will the real opposition please stand up?
Many wondered what Chuka Umunna’s real motivations were for bizarrely withdrawing from the leadership contest only a few days after so confidently entering it. He cited ‘pressure’ and unwanted ‘scrutiny’ on himself and his family. We now have a good idea why he could not stand the spotlight. It has emerged in the last week that Umunna,
“is a member of the exclusive M Den club behind the Bank of England which sells £150 steaks and cognac up to £4,000…Umunna keeps a £300 cognac locker and has one of fifty electronic keys to a secret entrance to the restaurant…Umunna was [often] seen [here] during the Election campaign, after long days spent persuading voters to embrace Labour’s work and welfare policies.
“Nicknamed the ‘boys’ playground’, it’s packed with expensive toys and artwork. A £10,000 pop art picture of a topless woman leaning over a snooker table by American photographer Miles Aldridge hangs on the wall.”
“‘Members of the Den have tended to be sporting legends, musicians and leaders of industry,’ manager Martin Williams explained last week.
“‘We love welcoming Chuka here so much that we’ve even opened a polo-themed pop-up bar here for the summer and named it Chuka.’”
With a shower like this in charge, many have commented that in this parliament it is the SNP that will be the real opposition to the Tories. They certainly know how to present themselves as serious leaders opposing the rotten establishment. Where this will lead it is too early to tell, but the fact that the SNP leaders will be on British television screens regularly leading the line, boldly and confidently attacking the Tories on their austerity policies, has big implications not just for Scottish but for British politics. It was after the televised leaders debates, in which for the first time the SNP really spoke to a British, not Scottish, audience, that Google registered huge numbers searching for ‘How can I vote SNP in England?’
It is not ruled out that the SNP’s more consistent and bold opposition can lead to a realignment on the UK left and encourage a split in the Labour Party, especially if the latter’s leaders vote for Tory austerity. Eilidh Whiteford, the SNP’s Westminster Social Justice Spokesperson has already said that “Labour need to show some backbone and use the Queen’s Speech to challenge the Tories on their austerity measures.”
The dead end of social democracy
Bourgeois democracy in general is in crisis, which only reflects the crisis of the economic system it is based on. The rule of the market can only afford the illusion of democracy when there is enough cash to give politicians actual choices. The fate of Greece’s ‘radical anti-austerity’ Syriza government has only shown what was always true – the unelected market and its financiers decide everything that matters.
This is now so apparent that layers of the ruling class itself can see it and are shocked at the reality of their own system, stripped of its halo. Steve Hilton, formerly David Cameron’s director of strategy, is no stranger to how our system actually works. And he reveals this to us in an article for the Sunday TImes, in which he says that,
“too many of the people who make decisions go to the same dinner parties and send their children to the same schools.
“Arguing that governments often act for the rich and privileged rather than the poor or needy, [Hilton] says that democracy is in “crisis” because essentially the same group remains in charge, regardless of election results.
“”Our democracies are increasingly captured by a ruling class that seeks to perpetuate its privileges,” Mr Hilton wrote.
“Regardless of who’s in office, the same people are in power. It is a democracy in name only, operating on behalf of a tiny elite no matter the electoral outcome.”
This is straight from the horse’s mouth. Capitalism is in deep, prolonged crisis. Debt levels are unprecedentedly high and keep going up. Inequality is rampant and growing. Mass unemployment stalks the world. And everywhere we find that the politicians of all hues committed to capitalism are revealed as fools with no understanding of the society they are supposed to lead. “If the atrophy of capitalism produces the atrophy of the Social Democracy, then the approaching death of capitalism cannot but denote the early death of the Social Democracy.” Social democracy as an alternative for the working class is dead, capitalism has killed it. The choice is clear – capitalist austerity or socialist transformation of society!