By Mark L Thomas
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Neither fish nor fowl

This article is over 8 years, 10 months old
Issue 384

Something surprising happened in September. Ed Miliband managed to dominate the party conference season and even make mainstream politics spark to life for once.

Miliband’s decision to respond to the Tories’ boast the economic “recovery” vindicates their austerity measures by focusing on what he rightly called the “cost of living crisis” gave some expression to the mood among millions of workers across Britain.

What gave Miliband’s speech to Labour’s conference some teeth was that it was combined with some concrete proposals. Most notable were Miliband’s announcements that a Labour government would impose a cap on energy prices for 20 months and that it would also abolish the hated Bedroom Tax.

The contrast with the Tories’ talk of extending austerity to 2020-which would be a decade of squeezing public spending-appeared sharp. Just as we saw Miliband give some, however limited, expression to popular opposition to an attack on Syria, so he has now moved to express some of the class bitterness towards profiteering companies and over the assaults on some of the poorest in society.

The decision to commit Labour to repealing the Bedroom Tax is testimony to the campaigning over the issue over the last seven to eight months that has shifted public opinion from an initial majority in support to now around 60 percent opposition (even a third of Tory voters say they oppose it!). With mass non-payment of the shortfall in rent created by the Bedroom Tax showing every sign of continuing demands that Labour councils should not evict tenants over the Bedroom Tax must be redoubled.

The Tories calculated that attacks on the welfare state would be popular and that Labour would largely go along with this. The fact that the government now finds itself isolated over the Bedroom Tax (even the LibDem conference voted to abolish it) is an important sign of how mass campaigning from below can shift opinion.

But there are sharp limits to Labour’s willingness to express class anger. One sign is the Labour leadership’s unwillingness to reverse the current privatisation of the Royal Mail, despite’s Labour conference voting for such a committment.

Even more fundamentally underneath the arguments about the energy companies or bankers’ bonuses or the NHS, there remains a consensus about austerity at the top. The announcement by Labour at the start of the summer that it would accept working within the Tory spending plans for the first year of a Labour government and to impose a three year cap on overall “structural” welfare spending signalled the sharp limits to any challenge to the market by a future Labour government.

Miliband may not have dwelt on this in his speech to Labour’s conference, though Ed Balls, the shadow chancellor made sure the message was clearly understood. Miliband’s “One Nation” message of “responsible capitalism” can be mobilised, with some effect, against those at the top, but it also is an acceptance of the logic of the market and its driving force, profitability. This will constrain and subvert any shift to the left by Labour.

Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein in their history of the Labour Party point to the contradictory nature of a party with seeks to combine workers’ class feelings with an overall acceptance of the system. Labour from the outset has neither been simply a capitalist party, nor a workers’ party but combines both (though with the latter firmly subordinated to the former)-it has always been “neither fish nor fowl” as Cliff and Gluckstein put it.

This means socialists should neither simply treat Labour as the same as Tories or LibDems but nor should they simply cheerlead if it offers a few reforms. Miliband’s programme is far less radical than that put forward by Francois Hollande when he won the French presidency for the Socialist Party, yet Hollande’s retreats and commitment to neoliberalism have already provoked widespread discontent.

And the TUC congress that preceded the party conferences also showed the way Miliband’s “One Nation” rhetoric can be turned against working class organisation. Miliband’s calls to alter Labour’s relationship to the trade unions involves an attempt to dilute the collective expression of class inside Labour’s structures.

Miliband wants trade unionists to actively choose to “opt in” to giving money to Labour, instead of opting out as most unions affiliated to Labour currently offer. In return they will have the same membership status as other individual Labour members. Miliband wants a direct individual relationship to Labour supporting trade unionists rather than a collective one mediated through their union.

This has created real anger right at the top of the union bureaucracy, though the real red line for the union bureaucracy would be any subsequent moves to reduce their 50 percent vote at Labour’s conference or the third of the vote in Labour leadership elections.

The debate about Labour will be a thread that runs through the working class movement and through any strikes in the public sector this autumn. Socialists should intervene in this debate and challenge the whole notion of “responsible capitalism” and insist that we cannot subordinate any fightback to waiting for a Labour government committed to austerity.

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