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Who do you vote for?

This article is over 11 years, 11 months old
Millions are bitterly angry at New Labour for attacking workers and waging war. But they don’t want the Tories. Simon Basketter looks at what socialists should say about the election
Issue 2188

The prospect of the Tories in government rightly fills many workers with horror. The party of Eton boys and bonus-grabbing bankers, the party that openly celebrates capitalism, could soon be in Number 10.

In workplaces and communities across Britain you will hear the argument that it’s important to vote Labour at the next general election.

But for many, all support for Labour has gone.

After 13 years of bloody war, privatisation and assaults on workers’ living standards, some workers say they will never vote Labour again.

Already the Labour vote has slumped by four million between 1997 and 2005.

Millions of workers are to the left of all the main parties over issues such as privatisation, ending the war in Afghanistan and making the rich pay for the economic crisis.

For that reason some on the left, including the Socialist Workers Party, have formed a left wing coalition to stand candidates.

We will take part in the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), and play a central role in some half dozen constituencies. We will also call for a vote for other groups – such as Respect – and individuals such as Dai Davies in Blaenau Gwent and Ricky Tomlinson in Liverpool.

Unfortunately in most areas, workers won’t have a TUSC or other left candidate to vote for.

The choice will be much more stark – vote Labour or don’t vote at all.

Socialist Worker has been at the centre of resistance to Labour’s attacks. We have not and will not cover up its horrendous record.


But there is an important difference between Labour and the Tories. Basically it comes down to class.

Labour still retains a link with the organised working class through its union affiliations. And workers vote far more heavily for Labour than any other party.

Around 50 to 60 percent of workers vote Labour at general elections, three or four times more than any other party.

Of course Labour’s actions since 1997 have narrowed this gap.

But the same essential pattern remains.

Labour’s membership has also slumped, from 407,000 in 1997 to around 150,000 or even fewer today.

And the proportion of manual and routine white collar workers in the party has also fallen.

But that has not transformed the nature of the party.

The Labour Party came into being to represent trade union leaders in parliament. The unions are still important to the party, although the union leaders are remarkably reluctant to use their power inside it in any meaningful way.

The Labour Party is based on the idea that workers can collectively change society while operating within the existing capitalist system.

It is a break from the idea that everything is best left to our “betters”. But it is still imprisoned by the severe limitations of capitalist democracy.

The Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin pointed out in the 1920s that “the Labour Party is a thoroughly bourgeois party, because although it consists of workers it is led by reactionaries, and the worst reactionaries at that, who act fully in the spirit of the bourgeoisie.”

It was, he said, a “bourgeois workers’ party”.

Some argue that the advent of “New Labour” has fundamentally changed the nature of the party. Certainly Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have praised the market in a way that few Labour leaders would have done before.

But the party remains essentially the same. Labour’s leaders can exercise influence only by making at least some verbal concessions to working class connections.


This hybrid character of the party has implications for socialists.

Many workers still see support for Labour as a way of standing up against the Tories and striving for a better society – despite the fact that Labour has implemented vicious Tory policies.

In any workplace or community you will find that the Labour voters are overwhelmingly less reactionary, less racist, and more open to ideas like class solidarity than the Tory voters.

A class line will open up as the election gets closer. Most workers will grudgingly line up with Labour against the Tories.

We are on the side of workers who want to stop the Tories, while making it clear that Labour’s total commitment to the existing system means it won’t deliver real change.

To back a vote for Labour, in the absence of a left alternative, is part of engaging with workers and building a movement from below.

Socialists must avoid the sanctuary of the ivory tower, where what passes for democracy can be observed with grim but irrelevant delight.

If the Tories win the election, reactionaries and employers throughout the land will rejoice – and celebrate by throwing more shit at us.

Many workers will feel depressed and less confident to fight.

This is very important for the struggles that will come – whoever wins the election.

We want the fight against the cuts to be shaped by a confident working class, not one that is on the back foot.

If Labour wins, workers will feel a little more confident, if only because the reactionaries aren’t celebrating.

Some people argue that the arrival of David Cameron as prime minister would lead to an explosion of struggle as the Labour-supporting union leaders release the reins on resistance.

But those who claim that mass unemployment and degradation are necessary conditions for resistance don’t understand social change.

Empty stomachs and hardship are far more likely to lead to despair and reaction than to insurrection.

Confidence matters in the class struggle.

When people lose confidence in themselves, they can turn to scapegoating Muslims, black or Asian people, migrant workers, women, gays and lesbians and other groups.

Our vote for Labour is not because we believe the party will act better than the Tories in government. We, and many workers, vote Labour in spite of the party’s record in government, not because of it.

Every Labour leader has promised to end “the scourge of unemployment” as Labour’s first Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald put it. Under MacDonald’s government, unemployment tripled in two years.

The Labour governments of Harold Wilson and James Callaghan in the 1960s and 1970s were responsible for the biggest public spending cuts ever known.

They pushed down the level of real wages.

This still didn’t stop most workers voting Labour.

Attacks on working people will grow whoever is elected this year.

This is because of the scale of the economic crisis, rather than which party is in government.

Part of encouraging confidence among workers means working with Labour supporters, members and voters in every campaign. We support them against the right wing.

All this matters because, before we have time to catch our breath, the Tory government (or a ramshackle Labour government, or some sort of coalition) will be on the attack.

It will hack away at the schools and hospitals that Labour has already weakened.


We can only protect jobs and conditions and key public services by building action outside parliament – by organising demonstrations and strikes. The confidence of the working class will be critical.

We need to encourage struggle and build a socialist organisation.

But the election will dominate politics for the next few months and socialists cannot remain neutral.

Our first electoral priority should be to make sure left of Labour candidates at the election do as well as possible. But we will also vote Labour against the Tories where there is no serious left of Labour candidate.

We also need to raise the flag of resistance in every workplace and every community.

We want struggle now, and we reject the notion that it should be held back in order to protect Labour from criticism.

And we will need much more struggle after the election.

Millions of workers will hold their breath, bite their lip and vote Labour. Every one of them will feel disappointed and indignant.

Hundreds of thousands of others will feel the same – and not vote.

In both cases their anger can be turned into action to stop the Tories’ attacks – if it is channelled into real resistance.

The key question is building and uniting networks of resistance and infusing the fightback with genuine socialist politics.

Socialists have to stand with these workers and focus on building that resistance.

That’s the way we can win real change.

Join debate

The SWP’s National Committee overwhelmingly passed a motion along the lines of this article last weekend. Further discussion will take place at the forthcoming Party Council. Send your views to [email protected]

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