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Exit Stage Right – Why isn’t Labour offering an alternative to Tory austerity?

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Issue 2411
Exit stage right for Labours front bench?
Exit stage right for Labour’s front bench?

For four years the Tories have attacked workers’ living standards and devastated public services with cuts and privatisation. They threaten to go even further in the next parliament.

As TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady put it at the Unite union policy conference earlier this month, “They want to finish what Margaret Thatcher started.”

And for trade union leaders such as O’Grady, the way to stop them is to make sure that Labour wins next year’s general election.  She argued, “If the Tories win, the consequences will be horrific”. 

When Ed Miliband was elected leader of the Labour Party, the right wing press dubbed him “Red Ed”.  He was said to be in the pocket of the unions, poised to bash business and bring back “socialism”. 

Even Tony Benn said he believed Miliband was a socialist. 

He’s made left noises on a number of issues. He’s promised to freeze energy prices and repeal the bedroom tax. And he has attacked the “cost of living crisis”—though without supporting strikes over pay or opposing cuts to benefits. 

But Miliband has been quick to backtrack whenever he’s been accused of being too left wing. 

It’s not just Miliband. The rest of Labour’s front bench toe the same line.

For example, shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt rightly denounced free schools as an “ideological attack out of control”. But then he clarified that he was only against “some” of the Tory measures.

Labour’s habit of wobbling and vacillating is no accident. 

Partly it’s because the party leadership is committed to matching Tory spending plans in the next parliament. 

So every cut the Tories are planning has to be matched by one of Labour’s—and progressive measures have to be limited or balanced by funding cuts.


This surrender to austerity isn’t about making Labour more popular, even if some of its leading strategists obsess about chasing right wing votes.

When Miliband announces measures to freeze energy prices or control spiralling rents he has massive support from working class people.

Polls show large majorities in support of renationalising privatised utilities and railways. If Labour adopted these measures it would be much more popular—yet its leadership refuses to even consider them.

It is a damning indictment of their strategy that despite the widespread hatred of the Tories among ordinary people Labour’s poll leads have tumbled.

But they don’t want to raise workers’ expectations of a future Labour government too high, creating demands they won’t want to fulfil.

The Labour Party isn’t the same as the Tories—a ruling class party unashamedly on the bosses’ side.

It was created “out of the bowels” of the trade union movement, to respond to a need for working class political representation. But it was set up at a time when workers’ struggles were at a low ebb.

The point of Labour was to represent workers’ interests not through their own struggles, but by winning control of the capitalist state and using it to bring about reforms. 

Elections can change the make up of parliament. But the power of the bankers, the bosses, the army and police doesn’t dissolve when the ballots are counted.

This means Labour governments find themselves managing capitalism and trying to maintain it. 

And there is a fundamental contradiction between defending a system built on exploitation and fighting for the interests of the exploited.

This means that when push comes to shove in a crisis, a Labour government is in no position to meet the demands of its working class supporters. Instead it will come down against them in favour of the “national interest”.

The Russian revolutionary Lenin described Labour’s contradictory structure in the period just after the First World War. Most of its members were from the organised working class, but it was led by “the worst kind of reactionaries”. 

Public sector workers struck over pay under the last Labour government

Public sector workers struck over pay under the last Labour government

More recently, Tony Blair was certainly the worst of reactionaries, and he tilted Labour much further to the right than before.

He wanted to turn Labour into an out and out capitalist party like the Democrats in the US.


Miliband in turn has tried to marginalise the unions. He turned on Unite in the row about accusations of vote rigging during candidate selection in Falkirk.

The link to the organised working class remains. There are still many workers and union militants who will not only vote Labour, but pour resources into its election campaign. 

Many look back to “Old Labour”, which certainly looks better in comparison to Blair and Miliband. But there was no golden age to go back to.  

After 1945 the Labour government under Clement Attlee set up the NHS.  However, it also passed an austerity budget to fund the Korean War and sent in troops to break strikes. 

Harold Wilson came into power promising a “New Britain” of rising living standards. But as economic crisis returned, Wilson tried to curb pay rises and trade union rights. 

He was followed by James Callaghan, whose spending cuts—made in “the national interest”—paved the way for Margaret Thatcher.

Miliband is in the same tradition. In a recent speech he made clear that his priority was to deal with the “long term productivity and competitiveness challenges facing our country”.

Miliband says this won’t be achieved with “big spending by government, but with big reforms”. 

That’s what the much trumpeted policy review run by Jon Cruddas MP was about. His proposals aren’t that “radical” and many are quite reactionary. He represents a faction of the Labour Party that want to go further to the right on some issues, while abandoning parts of Blairism.


But even they are hampered by the leadership’s commitment to austerity—or as Cruddas calls it, the “dead hand” of Ed Balls. Balls meanwhile promises the “most competitive corporate tax rate in the G7”. 

To implement reforms that benefit workers requires a clear break with austerity, and with any attempt to maintain the bosses’ system.

There’s a glaring need for a left of Labour challenge that says so loud and clear. The fact that Unite general secretary Len McCluskey has said he would consider setting up an alternative is a recognition of how frustrated workers are with Labour. 

But a left challenge to Labour won’t come about of its own accord. Electoral advances for the left in places such as in Spain and Greece have followed an upsurge in workers’ struggle. 

That’s where our strength actually lies—not in parliament but in the workplace. Workers keep capitalism going, and that gives them the power to bring it to a halt.

The current battles aren’t just about pay or terms and conditions. They raise political questions about how society is run and by whom. 

When teachers strike, it’s to defend education from Michael Gove’s attacks. Council workers’ strikes raise the issue of how services are organised and funded. Firefighters defending pensions are a challenge to bosses who discard older workers.

The Tories are terrified of mass action. We should build on that strength and try and generalise the struggle for a better society. 

There is an alternative to austerity, but it’s one Labour can’t deliver. It means breaking with the needs of capitalism and fighting for a socialist society that puts people first, not profit.

That means workers taking power into their own hands, through their own activity.

How much are broken promises worth to trade unions?

Union leaders who tell their members to back Labour aren’t happy about how the party  takes them for granted.

Shadow minister Rachel Reeves told the GMB union conference that Labour would only deal with “abuses” of  zero hour contracts, not ban them.

GMB general secretary Paul Kenny attacked the contracts.

“If you ask me, just outlaw them,” he said. “If you want our help and our cash, then we demand your loyalty.”

Unite is Labour’s biggest backer, but general secretary Len McCluskey is also often one of its most vocal critics. 

He has warned Ed Miliband not to heed the “siren voices of austerity-lite”.

Union leaders have sought to influence Labour policy and “reclaim” the party. 

Unite has actively pursued a political strategy of recruiting union members to the Labour Party and trying to get them selected in parliamentary seats. The GMB and other unions have been doing similar things. 

Yet as the general election nears, the priority is to make sure that Labour is elected—no matter what its policies or candidates.

We’ve been here before, ten years ago.

In 2004 the Labour and union leaders signed up to the “Warwick Agreement”. Tony Blair made more than 50 policy pledges for £10 million for the reelection campaign. 

Tony Woodley of the TGWU—one of the unions that later merged to form Unite—claimed that “It would go down as being a watershed because it showed the Labour leadership had no choice but to treat us with respect.”

The agreement sealed union support for Labour’s 2005 election campaign. The promises proved to be empty. 

There’s no reason Miliband couldn’t also break any promises he makes to the unions in exchange for their cash.

But so far, he hasn’t really had to make any.

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