"If elections could change anything, they would be abolished", as the saying goes. The coming 7th May general election will only confirm this "founding principle" of the capitalists' "democratic" system! Whichever party majority or coalition comes out of the ballot box, its policy will be to carry on making the working class pay the full price for the capitalist crisis, just like its predecessors.
Of course, as always, each one of the main parties is trying to present the electorate with some sort of "original" medicine, which is supposed to work wonders in mending this crisis-ridden economy - if only to try to motivate their own voters to come out on election day. But only the packagings of their medicines are different, not the contents.
For the working class, the record of these parties in office is there to show what they have in store.
No-one can forget that if the ConDems have presided over a drastic fall in living standards for the poorest, it was Labour that initiated the race to the bottom of workers' conditions, by promoting the casualisation of labour - under Blair's "flexible labour market" - before the crisis.
Nor can anyone forget how, after the crisis broke out, it was Labour that opened the tap of public funds - first for the banks and then for the entire capitalist class - in one of the largest bailout operations worldwide.
At a time when the governments of the rich countries and the rich themselves are making so much noise over the Greek bailout - and insisting that Greece should repay every penny, regardless of the already catastrophic social situation of its population - it is worth remembering that the bailout engineered by Labour was more than four times larger - and all of it was just for the benefit of British capitalists. What's more, these capitalists have never been asked, let alone forced, to repay it!
It is the cost of Labour's initial bailout, together with that of the subsequent generous extensions added by both Labour and the ConDems, which the working class has been paying for, ever since, in the name of making up for a ballooning state deficit and national debt which has only benefited British capital.
The Tories mobilise their troops
For the sake of the current election campaign, the ConDem coalition has broken into its separate components.
Prior to this, the Lib-Dems had been living a double life, by maintaining a minimal profile as government ministers and, at the same time, trying to fight an uphill battle to avoid a likely disaster, given their discredit after 5 years in bed with the Tories.
As to the Tories, their strategy seems to be two-fold for the time being. Firstly, they are banking on the fact that the turnout will remain low among working class voters and that Labour will be unable to mobilise its traditional electorate. And, secondly, they are focusing their election campaign on mobilising their own traditional electorate by whipping up all the prejudices which permeate this milieu, while, at the same time, trying to counter the appeal that Ukip is likely to have among this electorate and beyond.
Of course, one of the Tories' problems - and not a small one - is that, despite their £35bn worth of cuts since coming into office, they failed, virtually every year, to reach their own deficit reduction targets - which does not look too good in front of a whole section of their electorate. Another one of their problems is the scandals which keep cropping up around the banking system, with the latest - HSBC's huge tax scam while the taxman looked the other way - being potentially the most damaging.
So, for the benefit of these voters, the Tories need to have something to show for themselves. This was the reason behind the tax cuts Cameron announced, supposedly to reward "the people whose hard work and personal sacrifices have got us through these difficult times". This involves a £70/week gift for higher-rate taxpayers, whereas those on the lower rate are supposed to be satisfied with only £10/week. As if the low-paid were not those who have made the most sacrifices and worked the hardest - while they still had a job! But never mind!
However, in the small print, Cameron proposes to implement these tax cuts by the end of the next Parliament - provided he is returned to office, of course. It seems that his spin-doctors believe that a pinch of fool's gold-dust is enough to earn votes...
Nevertheless, this gold dust will be expensive, since its estimated cost will be £7bn. Maybe this is what Osborne intends to pay for, among other things, with the £12bn additional cut in the welfare budget he has announced, mostly at the expense of those who will not benefit from the announced tax cuts, because their income is too low for them to pay taxes anyway!
However, while the logic behind this renewed attack on the welfare budget is partly financial, it is also political - especially during the election period. It fits in perfectly with Cameron's latest offensive against benefit claimants, which made the headlines in February.
There was, for instance, his plan to cut ESA (long-term sickness benefit) to claimants with "treatable" conditions, if they refuse to undergo treatment. Of course, Cameron did not bother to mention that treatment for these conditions is not even on offer in the under-funded, over-loaded NHS that his government has presided over.
On this occasion, the focus on obesity in the Tory press, as one of these "treatable" conditions was not innocuous. It was deliberately aimed at playing to the prejudices of people for whom "obesity" cannot possibly be a justification for not being in work. But this was precisely the aim of the exercise. Cameron was out to demonstrate that, if re-elected, the Tories would be even tougher on the unemployed than ever before.
Another announcement made by Cameron during a visit to Sussex, on February 18th, was aimed at playing to the same kind of prejudices, this time towards jobless youth. His plan involves forcing the young unemployed to do six months of unpaid community work before they can get any benefits. Of course, in the Tory book and probably for many of their better-off voters, young workers should not get any payments which come out of their cherished taxes - and too bad if they can't find a job on which they can make a living!
The Tories' problems with Ukip
While the Tories can easily counter Ukip in terms of credibility as a long-established party of government, which protects the interests of the better-off, it is quite a different matter when it comes to other issues.
One thing that the Tories cannot really respond to is Ukip's attempt to widen its audience by posing as the "real party of British workers". For instance, there is nothing that Cameron can say in reply to Farage's recent commitment to repeal the very unpopular "bedroom tax" - at least not without losing face and turning his policy of cutting benefits into a farce.
Nor can Cameron go further than he has already, in his demagogic overbidding with Ukip against immigrant workers - at least not without generating increasing opposition from British companies.
But the area which is most difficult for the Tories is the issue of Britain's membership of the EU. Having used Europe as a scarecrow to justify everything that went wrong this side of the Channel for years, the Tories helped to set up the springboard from which Ukip jumped to prominence. And, in the coming ballot, Ukip is threatening to reap the harvest of the Tories' demagogy by hijacking a section of its electorate.
But, by the introduction of a whole series of discriminatory measures against EU workers, the promise of an in-out referendum in 2017 and the hint that it may even take place one year earlier, Cameron has already done as much as he could do, this side of the election.
In theory, this should be enough for the Tories to secure the anti-EU vote for themselves. After all, no-one outside Cameron's party is ever likely to deliver on this referendum and everyone knows that Ukip is highly unlikely to come anywhere close to being in government, even as a junior partner. But in practice, the discredit of the main parties among large sections of the electorate is such that Farage's demagogy may still win a sizeable share of the anti-EU vote to his party.
The only move that might provide the Tory party with better protection against a sizeable outflow of anti-EU votes, would be Cameron committing himself personally - or, even better, his party to an "out" vote in 2017. But this is precisely what Cameron cannot afford to do.
This is not due, of course, to Cameron's sympathy for the EU - even for a "reformed" one, to use his favourite phrase - but to the demands of a far superior authority. Like all important policy choices which are supposedly made by elected Parliaments and governments, this one will be made, ultimately, in the City boardrooms, as a function of the interests of British capital.
At the best of times, British companies object, on principle, to the idea of losing free access to the huge EU market which has been so profitable for them. This is most likely to dictate the main parties' political choices if and when the in-out referendum does take place - even if it means whipping into line a cohort of "rebel" backbenchers.
However, today is not decision time anyway, but only an election campaign. Besides, and even more importantly, there are particular reasons for big business to demand extreme caution from its politicians at this particular point in time.
Indeed, the leading circles of big business are not stupid enough to believe in Osborne's hot air. They know full well that the crisis is not over, neither in Britain, nor anywhere else for that matter, just as they know from the experience of the past that it does not take a lot for mayhem to break out on financial markets. The last thing they want is for Cameron to cause a wave of speculation on these markets - which would have unforeseeable consequences, especially for the pound - by pledging his future government to take Britain out of the EU, just for the sake of boosting the Tories' electoral fortune. And, being a "responsible" politician whose task is, first and foremost, to protect the interests of the capitalist class, Cameron is unlikely to risk rocking the boat by stepping up his overbidding against Ukip over the EU.
Labour crab-walking towards polling day
Before getting into office, in 1997, Blair made a bit of a media coup with his "New Labour" rebranding of the party. With it came the insistence that there would be "no free ride and no free lunch" for the working class under a Labour government (as if this had ever been the case before!). Later on, having won the election, Blair declared that Labour in government aimed to be "business-friendly" in partnership with British employers - and so it was, both under Blair and, later, under Gordon Brown. Over the next 13 years, they defended the interests of British capital against the working class in Britain, but also against the impoverished populations of Afghanistan, Iraq, Sierra-Leone, etc.
Then came the first cracks in the system, before the crisis, when Labour really came into its own, organising a bailout on a scale which would have made even the Tories think twice, for fear of the political consequences. Gordon Brown did not think twice. He poured a colossal amount of public funds into the coffers of the big banks and took the first of a long series of austerity measures against the working class. Two years later, Labour got its come-uppance when the Tories topped the poll, against the backdrop of huge abstention, despite the discredit that they had earned from the Thatcher years.
Well, this time round, unlike Blair, Ed Miliband and his right-hand man, Ed Balls, have not even bothered to wait for the election. Months before the ballot, they have announced how far backwards they are prepared to bend over, in order to meet the demands of British capital.
They have repeated again and again that they would not reverse the ConDem cuts - so, for instance, forget about benefit levels being restored to their pre-2010 level, taking inflation into account. Nor will they reverse a cut by stealth inflicted by the ConDems on a whole range of benefits and pensions, by replacing the RPI index (which includes housing costs) with the CPI index (which does not) as a measure of inflation.
Nor will Labour "uncut" the tens of thousands of public sector jobs which have been cut by the ConDems. But then, this should hardly come as a surprise, since it was Gordon Brown who launched the first massive wave of public sector job cuts!
Even worse, maybe, is the fact that Labour has no intention of ending the punitive "benefit cap" introduced by the ConDems against the poorest - which is predictable, since they supported it when it was introduced by Cameron. Nor is there any question of ending the systematic harassment and sanctions regime imposed on the unemployed in JobCentres - hardly surprising either, since it started under Blair!
In fact, the list of what a Labour government will not change could carry on in this way almost forever. It is more or less the list of all of the measures taken by the ConDems in order to turn the screw on the working class majority, for the benefit of the wealthy and big business.
However, now that the election is getting closer, the time has come for Labour to look for ways of mobilising its traditional electorate, increasing its vote and countering the attraction exercised by Ukip on some Labour voters who may be misled into thinking that voting for this nasty offshoot of the Tory party is a way of voting against the main parties and/or the system.
Since the beginning of the year, Labour has been making carefully scheduled announcements in order to demonstrate that it is concerned about the difficulties faced by the working class and that it is determined to do something about them. Or, at least this is what Miliband's spin-doctors are trying to get working class voters to swallow. However, not only is the substance of these announcements insubstantial, but each time one of them is made, supposedly addressed to working class voters, another one crops up which is squarely aimed at reassuring the bosses. And this is what makes Miliband look as if he is crab-walking sideways into the election, with his face constantly turned, not towards the electorate, but towards the City, checking that he has the nod of the powers-that-be.
The two Eds ready to play ball with business
So, what has Labour to offer working class voters? One headline promise concerns the "bedroom tax", which, according to Miliband, will be repealed as soon as Labour gets in. So far so good.
Then comes the question of wages, since a central plank of the joint campaign waged by Labour and the TUC over the past year has been to expose the fact that the standard of living of the majority of the population has gone down under the ConDems. So Miliband has pulled the famous "Living Wage" promise out of his conjurer's bag. This product of a co-operation between some very big companies, the TUC leadership, Labour and a number of other institutions and charities is set, today, at £7.85/hour outside London and £9.15/hour within London. Even that is not great, certainly not in London. But at least it would be better than the present derisory £6.50/hour adult minimum wage - that is, provided the "Living Wage" is paid at its maximum rate immediately, and not in 5 years' time.
Except that this is not what Labour has in mind. There is no question of Miliband making anything compulsory for the bosses. He has already explained many times that a Labour government would offer a subsidy to the employer for any job paid at the level of the "Living Wage" - although how much and when, he did not say. However, Miliband did make at least one promise which will be compulsory for the bosses: to bring the adult rate of the statutory minimum wage to £8/hour - but only in 2020! Even today, such a rate would not be enough to pay the bills in many parts of Britain, on a full-time job - let alone a part-time one. But the bosses have nothing to worry about!
One area in which there might be some progress, if it was implemented, is Labour's promise to ban zero-hour contracts. But who would enforce it? There is no question of repealing the fee for industrial tribunals introduced by the ConDems. Nor is there any mention that anything will be done about the "self-employed" status which is used and abused by so many employers in order to impose an implicit "zero-hour" contract, but also deprive them of any legal protection or welfare provision. But then, of course, there are many more self-employed than workers who are already formally employed on a "zero-hour" contract. And one does need to have a law degree to figure out how the bosses are going to dodge that one!
Another headline of Labour's election programme is what it plans in order to tackle the increase in inequality which took place over the last Parliament - although it should be noted that, there again, this increase really began under Blair, even before the crisis!
So, they pledge to introduce a so-called "mansion tax" - £3,000/year for those living in a house worth over £2m. Assuming that the property appreciates by 5% a year (which is a minimum), the tax will only represents 3% of this appreciation - in other words, peanuts! Of course, there is also the 50p top rate of income tax, cancelled by the ConDems, which will be restored. But how bold a move is that? Not very, in fact, given that for the first 9 years of her rule, Thatcher herself kept this top rate at 60%!
Is that all? Well, almost. Labour also says, following the HSBC tax scandal, that it will clamp down on tax evasion - as every government says, but never does - and that it will tighten the rules concerning the bonuses of bankers caught red-handed in a scam. But we still have to see a banker prosecuted, let alone jailed for any of the long series of scams in which they were implicated, including the biggest of all - the 2008 banking crash. Instead of a prison cell, they got a golden bailout, all thanks to Labour! And there's no point in looking for a change of mind in this respect in Labour's election manifesto - the City is as sacred as ever for them!
What is most striking is that every measure which causes the slightest displeasure to the bosses comes together with another measure designed to please them. So, as seen before, the "Living Wage" for workers comes with a subsidy to their employers.
The new "mansion tax" and 50p top rate come with a quid pro quo: Miliband's pledge that Britain's corporation tax rate will be kept at its current level - which is the lowest among the G7 countries - while business rates will be reduced. Meanwhile, a Labour government will "devolve" £30bn worth of infrastructure investment to politicians in the regions - a big bounty for business, since local decision-making will ensure that it will be easier for companies to influence these decisions and get all the contracts and money they could wish for!
Ironically, Miliband made these announcements during a visit to a Jaguar-Land-Rover engine plant, in Wolverhampton, just two days before Cameron paid a similar visit to a Rolls-Royce factory, at Goodwood, Sussex - where he promised things which were not very different!
For a counter-offensive of the working class
Is there anything for the working class to choose between the Tories' "hard" version of austerity and Labour's "soft" version? No, because both are designed to make the working class pay for the capitalists' crisis, without addressing any of the urgent problems with which it is confronted.
Both Osborne and Balls set themselves objectives in similar terms - to reduce the government deficit every year until, eventually, they achieve a surplus. Except that, whether the method used is "hard" or "soft", someone has to pay for that reduction. And in this respect, there is total agreement between Tories and Labour. There is no question of them getting the money from where it is actually hoarded: in the accounts of the capitalist class, both those of their companies and the private accounts and assets held in the bank vaults (in Britain as well as in Switzerland, Jersey, or whatever other tax haven).
When the whole economy collapses worldwide, as it has done since 2008, forcing tens of millions of workers into unemployment in the rich countries and many more into poverty in both the rich and poor parts of the world, what are needed are emergency measures which can address the social catastrophe faced by those at the receiving end of this crisis.
All the wealth in this society is either stashed away by a tiny number of very rich capitalists or produced by the labour of the working class and transformed into capitalist profits. It is this wealth that can provide the means to stop the social catastrophe of the crisis. The £14bn stashed away by British tax evaders in HSBC's Swiss branch would be enough to fund the £12bn that Osborne says he wants to cut from the welfare budget over the coming 5 years. And this is just in one bank in just one tax haven. In fact, this amount is small change compared to the dividends paid out by British companies - over £100bn in 2014 alone. This is the kind of wealth that the British capitalist class takes out of the economy year in and year out, by exploiting the labour of tens of millions of workers. Isn't it high time this wealth was used for the benefit of society as a whole?
Of course, this will not happen as a result of the May 7th election. There will not even be a way of saying that this is the only way forward, by voting for one party or another, because none of them is clearly proposing a policy which would allow the working class to achieve this aim.
And yet, this is the only way the working class can shape its future, by getting out of the chaotic dead end of this capitalist crisis. The ballot box is just a means of expressing an opinion. No real change has ever been achieved this way. In fact, no real change has ever been achieved since the advent of capitalism, without the working class using its collective strength and its economic muscle, in the streets, the factories and the offices, to challenge the monopoly exercised by the capitalists over the means of production.
What the ballot box cannot achieve, the class struggle can achieve - provided the working class rebuilds its confidence by responding to every attack with a counter-attack, mobilises itself on the largest possible scale behind common objectives which can really address its problems and builds organisations capable of providing a leadership for its struggles. This road may seem long and full of obstacles. But there is no other way. And the working class has the collective strength and the resources to overcome all of the obstacles in its path.