The outcome of last Thursday’s general election victory represented an historic defeat for the working class in the UK. That seems like a startling statement, as it was only a parliamentary election after all, and the class struggle is not won by electioneering. That is a Marxist truism that is worth bearing in mind in most circumstances. But sometimes election results highlight trends on the ground in a very dramatic manner.
There has already been a beginning to social protest by youthful sections of the working class, against the new Tory government. The 4000 strong London demonstration on May 9th, which was unsurprisingly pushed around by the cops, demonstrated that. The advent of a unalloyed Tory government, minus the discarded and destroyed Nick Clegg and his Lib Dems, whose project is to declare war against all of the remnants of social security and post-WWII gains of the working class that Thatcher failed to smash in her offensive in the 1980s, as well as against migrants and refugees, will force the working class to fight back. But we had better be aware of the real significance of current events on the relationship of class forces, as part of preparing the working class on a wider level to resist.
A retrograde split in the working class
The formation of the Labour Party in the early 20th Century represented an historic step forward in terms of class consciousness by the working class of the island of Great Britain. This meant for the first time that the working class had its own putative political party, separate from the parties of the bosses, the Tories and Liberals. Labour was never any kind of regional party, it encompassed the core of the working class in England, Wales and Scotland.
Obviously Ireland, as a colonial country, had a separate and complex evolution in terms of politics and class consciousness, and is outside the framework of this article. Except to note that the key weakness of the Labour Party, that which more than anything constituted it as a bourgeois workers party, as opposed to a genuine working class party, was its support and subservience to British imperialism, despite its socialist rhetoric. This frequently included support for imperialist repression against Irish freedom fighters.
The outcome of the general election is a historic defeat for the working class in these islands because it clearly represents a split in the British working class along national lines. The adherence of the working class to a party, even a bourgeois workers party, is a key indicator of the existence of at least an elementary class consciousness. But the common element of this has been shattered, as the bulk of the Scottish working class now supports a different party. The undemocratic electoral system has exaggerated this in terms of the SNP winning almost all of the Scottish seats, but the reality on the ground is revealed through looking at the figures for the popular vote.
The SNP won over 50% of the vote, whereas Labour only took 24.3%. Not only that, but the SNP is hegemonic in all the key working class strongholds, centrally Glasgow. Labour’s only remaining MP in the whole of Scotland represents one of the least working-class suburban seats, in Edinburgh South, a seat that was for many years traditionally Tory.
The Independent summed up the situation on May 10th when it reported:
“Analysing the results, a senior SNP source told The Independent that Labour was ‘no longer reflective of working class areas’ in Scotland and that a ‘sea change’ appeared to be taking place in the country. ‘The animosity we used to get from people on the streets is now being visited on them,’ they added.”
But the SNP is not, unlike Labour, a bourgeois workers party. On the contrary, though it may be a bit short of overt bourgeois support at the moment, the real logic of its programme makes it the party of the ruling class of a future Scottish bourgeois state. There is enormous false consciousness about this at the moment – the left nationalism of the working-class masses clearly contains an element of confused class consciousness and even a combative class militancy, mixed in with nationalist conceptions about Scottish exceptionalism. But over time, such contradictions resolve themselves.
Right now, the ruling class has succeeded in splitting the working class base that traditionally supported Labour into two competing party components. However, this may also backfire, as it also has the dynamic of splitting up the United Kingdom state.
Pitfalls for the Tories.
Now the Scottish nationalists are the third party in a parliament with a Tory majority, Cameron is hoping to head off the threat of a further pro-independence backlash, leading to another independence referendum, by resolving to speedily implement the policies that were made in the referendum campaign for ‘devo-max’, the further devolution of mainly fiscal powers to the Scottish administration in Edinburgh. He hopes that this will be sufficient to head off the threat of a further, possibly successful, bid for independence.
But his own referendum demand over the European Union could bring about a renewed drive for separation. SNP leader and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has already demanded a Scottish veto on a British departure from the EU. It is actually this that could be the fulcrum for catalysing divisions in the Conservative Party over the EU, not the question of membership of the EU in a more general, principled sense, but the fact that Scotland will simply not tolerate being dragged out of the EU against its will.
There are significant forces in the Tory Party who are bent on the UK leaving the EU, but the fact that this may destroy the Union with Scotland is likely to modify the divisions, and also to exacerbate them. The number of permutations could be quite complex, since the strongest Unionists may also be the strongest anti-Europeans, that is how little-England chauvinism tends to work. So while it is not wise to make detailed forecasts as to how things will develop, these contradictory trends are likely to be very important for the future of the new Cameron government.
It is even possible that if the Scottish devolved government, perhaps after the Holyrood elections next year, calls another independence referendum, there could be some kind of legal/repressive attack on it for doing so. In such an event, it would be duty of workers in England and Wales to defend their right to do so by all means available, including demonstrations and strikes and not excluding mass-based use of force against the British government. The same would apply if there was a vote for independence followed by some kind of attempt to forcibly prevent its exercise.
The fact that Cameron and his ministers are insisting that the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence was a ‘once in a generation’ event makes it very likely that this will be a point of confrontation between London and Edinburgh. At the same time, the left should not advocate independence at this time, as Scottish left-nationalism could still be undercut if there were a serious struggle against the Cameron government, and the growth of a new left-wing party out of such a struggle.
Only if it was proven in practice that the divisions made such a joint struggle impossible would it be a correct tactic for Marxists to advocate separation, in order to dissipate the divisions. Those on the left who capitulate to the popularity of Scottish nationalism and advocate separation now are giving up on the possibility of such a struggle in advance, and pushing the working class into a situation where it is separated by state frontiers, which, though they are not insurmountable obstacles, are qualitatively more difficult to organise struggles across as when workers live under the same state power.
Blairites defeat Labour, then aim to seize the party with a lie.
The advent of the Tories means a concerted, further attack on the rights of the working class population in England and Wales, from which Scottish workers will have at least some temporary protection due to devolution. Devolution in Wales is much shallower and less significant. There will be attacks on the right to strike, with new laws on ballots that will make legal strikes much more difficult. ‘Human rights’ laws will be gutted. There will be massive attacks on public services, further attacks on the disabled, on the sick, on working class parents, and further privatisation in the National Health Service, with increased charging and/or driving people through cuts in provision towards private healthcare.
Meanwhile, the narrative that Labour lost the election because Ed Miliband was too left-wing will grow. The younger Miliband’s distancing of Labour from the worst aspects of Blairism and New Labour was woefully inadequate, but it was real. It came about because Miliband, feeling the pressure from Labour’s working class base for some real expression of working class political representation, placed himself at the head of it, making the requisite noises to gain union support and become leader. It never broke the influence of neo-liberalism and Blairism on the political elite that leads the party, however. It never had the will to do so.
In fact, it was Labour’s continuing overtly neo-liberal current that consolidated the division between Scottish workers and those in the rest of this island. A working class intervention in the independence referendum necessitated a separate, working class campaign to argue against separation, independent of the Tories and Liberal Democrats. The thrust of the argument being that it was necessary for English, Welsh and Scottish workers to form a united fist in order to crush their class enemies: centrally the Tories. Instead, Labour ran a joint campaign with the Coalition parties on the basis of British nationalism, based on a reactionary rubbishing of the left-wing sentiments of the Scottish workers.
While much of the Scottish left capitulated to nationalism, the only prominent Labour movement figure who waged such a principled, working class campaign against separation was George Galloway with ‘Just Say Naw’. But this did not have the forces to overshadow the bourgeois-unionist ‘Better Together’. Thus the SNP was massively strengthened by the referendum, even though it was defeated on the question itself. When Labour’s Scottish leader Johann Lamont resigned because of her misgivings about the conduct and implications of Labour’s joint campaign with the Tories, she was replaced by the arch-Blairite, Jim Murphy, who was already widely hated in Scotland. Thus the basis was laid for the SNP landslide victory and the ability of the Tories to whip up English nationalism to defeat Labour’s challenge in the election.
On the basis of this political ‘stab in the back’ by the Blairites, they now seek to take advantage of Labour’s defeat to seize power once again in the party on the basis of a flagrant lie, in reality involving collusion with the Tories. Which is exactly what is to be expected of them.
Break with neo-liberalism means break with capital
Neo-liberalism is not some incidental bad policy of capitalism – it is fundamental to the nature of the capitalist system in its state of extreme decay. For the rate of profit is so low in the advanced countries, due to the operation of the long-known law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, that in order to generate profit and a simulacrum of economic growth, asset bubbles and the like are not optional extras, but a fundamental necessity of this phase of capitalism. But as the 2008 Credit Crunch showed, asset bubbles can spectacularly burst and destabilise the whole system.
Asset bubbles combined with state subsidies for low wages and extravagantly expensive rents that are themselves the product of the same bubbles means in effect, that the capitalist system here is dependent on state-funded asset bubbles. Deficits therefore are indeed ‘structural’ and strategic, but not quite in the manner that the Tories mean. Squeezing the deficit means squeezing the subsidies to the poor, and is a policy that is not merely sadistic, but contradictory in economic terms.
It only makes sense if the conscious aim of the policy is to see hundreds of thousands, of what is considered a surplus population, die of starvation or untreated illness. In other words, what we are talking about is capitalist state-barbarism.
In the coming period there will have to be a reckoning of the British workers movement with neo-liberalism, and a complete break with it. This is irrespective of the fate of the Labour Party – as a bourgeois workers party, it will have to either expel completely its pro-capitalist leadership, or disappear. In any case, while Miliband’s pale-pink attempts to give Labour a posture of representing working class people against the super-rich meant that Labour deserved very critical support from genuine socialists in the just-concluded election, the election of a Blairite leadership in the aftermath of this defeat would mean that mainstream Labour candidates would cease to be supportable against the Tories.
There is much talk today of PASOKification of the Labour Party, meaning that it will suffer a chronic loss of working class support, leading to the growth of an alternative party, as happened to the Pan-Hellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) in Greece with the rise of SYRIZA. The fate of the Labour Party in Scotland shows that time is getting shorter in that regard. It also shows that there is nothing inevitable about a decaying social-democratic party being replaced by something fundamentally better.
SYRIZA in Greece rapidly became another, more left-wing, bourgeois workers party, and the offensive of the bosses against its new government has already resulted in major concessions to austerity and the agenda of the EU and its financial backers. In Scotland, the SNP is even less viable as a replacement for social democracy, having a nationalist, not working-class, programme and aims and for all its current working class support, not being a creation of the working class movement in any shape or form in the first place.
For a genuine Communist Party
What we need is for the existing would be Marxist and class struggle left to collaborate in putting together a genuine working class party. This must unite revolutionary socialists and the advanced, class conscious elements of the working class movement, and must have a democratic, open ethos of political debate and hammering out political strategy. It needs to be extremely democratic in fact, because the strategic problems that face the left today are far too complex to be subjected to the simplistic analysis and rigid, often conservative orthodoxies that are characteristic of today’s far left.
This means a party where public political debates are regarded as normal and healthy aspects of party life, and Marxist and socialist ideas can be debated in an unrestricted manner to analyse the complex developments of capitalist society today. We have confidence that society can be analysed through a materialist method, in order to bring about revolutionary social change, in a coherent manner, and a hegemonic socialist understanding of capitalist society today can once again sink deep roots in the working class. But this is a complex, collective effort, which will involve evolution and struggle through contradictions in the real world and their reflections in the sphere of ideas.
Such a party will not be a debating association, nor will it be a narrow factional-style grouping that will split at the slightest serious difference, because of bans on public argument about differences. It will be a party that will lead struggles, and at that point, practical party discipline will become necessary as with any organisation that seeks to act collectively. That, and not enforcement of an ‘orthodox’ party line on questions of analysis which everyone is obliged to repeat in public, was the original meaning of ‘democratic centralism’.
Splits will still occur in such a party, but unlike in the current fragmented far left, they will be over major, systematic departures from socialist politics, and not merely because an accidental majority at a given time forbids its critics to speak, and thus forces them to split in order to fight for their views.
A genuine working class party will thus resemble the real history, not the myth, of the Bolshevik/Communist Party that made the Russian Revolution,, where questions of strategy and tactics were indeed thrashed out in front of the advanced sections of the working class, and the party became stronger because of this. Parties such as Left Unity and Respect, notwithstanding the halfway-house perspectives (neither reformist nor revolutionary) of those who founded them, nevertheless if their open public position on debates could be transformed and re-directed, could be the vehicle for creating such a dynamic and interactive working class party. These organisations need to merge, and at the same time open up to the many more that will be forced to fight back against the current government in these circumstances. In that way, we can build an instrument that could acquire a real life of its own, and thus give back to the working class its own genuine class party.
For as Marx and Engels observed in the Communist Manifesto (1947):
“In what relation do the Communists stand to the proletarians as a whole?
The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to the other working-class parties.
They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole.
They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mould the proletarian movement.
The Communists are distinguished from the other working-class parties by this only: 1. In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality. 2. In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole.
The Communists, therefore, are on the one hand, practically, the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others; on the other hand, theoretically, they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement.
The immediate aim of the Communists is the same as that of all other proletarian parties: formation of the proletariat into a class, overthrow of the bourgeois supremacy, conquest of political power by the proletariat.”
The same fundamental principles must apply today in overcoming the treacherous legacy of the Labour Party, and creating a genuine workers party.