We face a government which has promised to continue and increase cuts, and to bring in new anti-union laws which will effectively ban large, multi-workplace public sector strikes.
Yet the small upturn of an industrial fightback which has already begun as the economic slump eases off (for some, at least), and unemployment recedes a bit (from 8.3% in November 2011 to 5.5% today) will continue.
The Tories have only 36.9% of the votes cast, almost the same number as in 2010. Most people don’t like the Tories. Their parliamentary majority is small. So long as activists remain resolute, the new Tory government can be pushed back on many fronts, in the same way as the Tories were often on the back foot in 1992-7, despite winning re-election in 1992.
The Tory mayor of London, Boris Johnson, sought to capitalise on his party’s victory by claiming that Labour lost because it went too far left and abandoned the so-called “centre ground”. The claim is nonsense, but some people in the Labour Party will pick up on it.
Labour had about as right-wing a leader in Scotland – Jim Murphy – as can be imagined. Result: the SNP landslide in Scotland was even bigger than expected.
Murphy should go, and the left should make a solid challenge in the new Scottish leadership election. There will be a new contest for the Labour Party leadership across Britain. The left should challenge there too, and certainly not let the contest be a shoo-in for Yvette Cooper or Andy Burnham or some such.
Ed Miliband’s combination of sporadic sallies against “predators” and in favour of “working people” with commitment to continued cuts; only microscopic, piecemeal additional taxes on the rich or restrictions on big-business profiteering; and no challenge to the banks – that combination didn’t work.
The bulk of the labour movement failed to challenge him. Although all the big unions have, on paper, more left-wing policies, none campaigned visibly on those policies during the election or, by way of loud clear demands on the Labour leadership, in the run-up.
The Socialist Campaign for a Labour Victory, which we supported, got a better, wider response than we expected. But it was starting from a low base in the labour movement left. Some labour-movement-left bodies which nominally backed the SCLV, such as the Labour Representation Committee, did not even summon up the energy to circulate and publicise the campaign.
With the onset of the great economic slump in 2008, political shifts of some sort became likely. The sober fact so far is that, with exceptions here and there, the left has not gained seriously from the shaking-up effect of the slump. Protests against the cuts in Britain were loud and lively in 2010-11, but have diminished since then even as the cuts have become more damaging. The Tories were able to make some headway with the idea that the cuts were after all “necessary”.
The strand in politics which has gained most from the slump, not just in Britain but worldwide, has been different sorts of “identity politics”. In Britain: the SNP and, fortunately to a smaller extent than once looked likely, UKIP. Elsewhere, very varied forms, in some cases very different indeed: the BJP, ISIS, the Front National, Catalan nationalism…
“Identity politics” comes in liberal or leftish variants as well as its more organic hard-right variants; but even the liberal or leftish variants are a hindrance in the fight against the ruling class. The SNP was able to present itself as leftish despite its record of cuts when governing Scotland. Its showing on 7 May makes another referendum for Scottish separation likely. This signifies, essentially, that anger against the Tories has been diverted into a nationalist blind alley instead of into class struggle.
The labour movement and the left can combat that diversion only by contesting the SNP from a position clearly to the left of it, not by adaptation to nationalism.
The left-of-Labour efforts, TUSC and Left Unity, did poorly, even when they had candidates quite well-known locally and a solid local group of campaign activists. What makes that worse was that both groups decided to run not on full socialist politics but on a trimmed-down “anti-cuts” platform, hoping that would bring them electoral success short-cutting the otherwise arduous process of winning people to socialist ideas. Getting a small-but-solid result for an explicit class-struggle socialist platform may be a real step forward; registering that 0.4% of an electorate have voted “against cuts” is not.
There is no way forward other than redoubled effort in workplaces and within the labour movement to win the arguments for socialism.
In 1992 there was a slightly similar election result. Most people expected Labour, under Neil Kinnock, to win narrowly; in fact the Tories won a fourth successive election victory.
The dismay on the left which followed that result was widespread and harmful, possibly even more harmful than the result itself. Within months of the election, in September 1992, the Tory government’s credibility was shattered by a financial crisis.
Realistically, it now looks difficult to stop the new Cameron administration triggering some developments which will take us backwards: the separation of Scotland (which Cameron doesn’t want, but which he is effectively promoting); the collapse of the Labour Party in Scotland into a rump, or maybe its formal winding-up; and the withdrawal of rump-Britain from the EU (which Cameron is also effectively promoting, and may or may not want). It will be harder to resist those developments because much of the left foolishly sees them as positive.
The point here, however, is that Cameron’s victory on 7 May does not at all guarantee that he can, for example, push through cuts and anti-union laws as drastic as he wants.
The Tory government elected in 1992 was unable to do anything decisive to take further Thatcher’s programme of crushing the labour movement and the welfare state. Then, the damage inside the labour movement from demobilisation after the election defeat was more long-lasting. By 1994 Tony Blair was able to win the Labour leadership by a large majority, on a clearly right-wing programme, and start to shut down the channels of democracy and accountability in the Labour Party. The main union leaders backed him.
Local Labour activists kicked up a stir when Blair dumped Labour’s public-ownership Clause Four in 1995, but the demobilisation of the activist left after 1992 left us much less able to grasp the opportunities created by the Tories’ disarray, and unable to stop Blair’s bandwagon.
The lesson for today is: don’t mourn, don’t mope, don’t mumble. Organise!