Britain - Another stakeless general election for the working class

Mar/Apr 2005

In keeping with what has come to be known as his "presidential style", Blair has still to announce the date of the coming general election - although, as we go to press, most commentators agree that it is likely to take place on May 5. Nevertheless, since the beginning of January, the main parties have been on the campaign trail. And just as in 2001 if not even more so, the most striking features of this campaign are, on the one hand how indistinguishable Labour's policies have become from those of their Tory rivals and, on the other, how remote these policies are from the predicament faced by working class voters.

It therefore comes as no surprise that the latest opinion polls point to yet another drop in the predicted turnout - down to 55%. If so, another 2m voters would be joining the 5m who had already given up voting between the 1997 and 2001 elections. This means that whoever forms the next government may well come to power with the support of under a third of the electorate, at most! And, so far, there is no indication that the populist overbidding which the two main parties have embarked on, in an attempt to capture voters' interest, is succeeding in reversing the abstentionist pull. Electioneering and spin-doctoring is one thing, but getting the electorate to forget the past record of these parties in office is quite another matter.

Howard's attempts to out-Blair his rival

The Tories' main themes have been consistent with what anyone would have expected from them. But on every issue, they have been wrong-footed in their attempts to outflank Labour.

So, on law and order, Howard's promise of 20,000 more prison places may well sound rather hollow, even among the Tories' own electorate, when compared to Labour's record.

After all, it was Blair, not his Tory predecessors, who propelled Britain into second place behind the USA in the rich countries' league table of the number of prisoners per inhabitant! And even though this may have done nothing to reduce crime rates, Labour ministers were quick to exhibit their full arsenal of law-and-order gimmicks, from tagging and policing of school truancy, to Anti-Social Behaviour Orders and curfews against youth, to prove that, unlike the Tories, they had a long-term policy to offer.

Of course, no-one on either side bothered even to mention the drastic cuts which have deprived the poorest areas of any amenities for the youth and left police squads as the only kind of "youth workers" available in most estates.

Likewise on immigration. When Howard unveiled his proposal to prevent immigrants suffering from diseases such as TB, hepatitis or HIV from settling in Britain, thereby echoing Blunkett's condemnation of immigrants for "flooding the NHS", Labour's response was not to denounce this cynical whipping up of xenophobia for what it was.

Instead, Labour's election co-ordinator Alan Milburn reminded journalists that Labour had already introduced TB screening for so-called "high-risk" immigrants as part of their visa application process and that Labour's "five year plan to get immigration under control" through the introduction of immigration quotas, went a lot further than Howard's "piecemeal proposals".

As to Howard's attempts at wooing pensioners' votes by promising to restore the link between the basic state pension and average earnings and to halve council taxes for the over-65s, he seems to assume that pensioners have very short memories.

But most will undoubtedly remember that it was a Tory government - Thatcher's - which linked the basic state pension to the cost-of-living index (which heavily underestimates purchasing power changes in staple items), thereby pushing the level of the state basic pension far below the poverty line. Just as they will certainly remember that it was another Tory government - John Major's - which introduced the council tax as a replacement for Thatcher's infamous poll tax, with its deeply unfair features, particularly the fact that it takes no account of people's income, thereby weighing most heavily on those who happen to be just above the threshold where tax rebates start to kick in.

Whether the Tories are more successful with their latest stunt aimed at exposing Labour's incompetence and wastefulness in running the NHS - the case of Margaret Dixon, a pensioner whose shoulder replacement operation had been postponed seven times - remains to be seen. But the odds are that it will not cut much ice among the majority of voters who witnessed the fast deterioration of the NHS under the past Tory governments. Even if things have not improved under Labour's privatisation by stealth - rather the opposite - they have certainly no reason to trust the Tories, who initiated this privatisation drive, to do any better.

Overall, the Tories' problem remains one of credibility. After eight years in opposition under Labour, they still appear to be far from recovering from the discredit accrued during their previous 18 years in office. If, nevertheless, they happen to win the coming election, it will not be due to their success in revamping their image among voters, but due to Labour's failure to counter the discredit generated by Blair's policies.

Iraq and "terrorism"

Although there has been a cross-party consensus to try to sweep the issue of the Iraq war under the carpet for the duration of the election campaign, there are still strong feelings about it among a large section of the electorate. As this is the first ballot which could, in theory, affect the government directly since the invasion, this section may choose to take advantage of it in order to censure Blair's policy and his lies in the run-up to the war.

Of course, these voters will not have a clear way of doing so by voting for any of the main parties since all of them either supported the invasion or, once faced with the fait accompli, endorsed the occupation of Iraq. This may be one more factor in boosting abstention. But, at the same time, it may also result in a shift from Labour to the smaller parties in Scotland and Wales, or to the 30-50 odd candidates that the anti-war Respect coalition plans to stand in England and Wales, thereby cutting Labour's lead over the Tories in a way which may have unpredictable consequences at a time when many Labour seats depend on slim majorities.

The Tories themselves are trying to take advantage of this situation for their own benefit, despite having supported Blair both over the invasion and occupation of Iraq. In the past, some Tory frontbenchers have criticised Blair for his "mishandling" of the Iraq issue, without putting the invasion itself into question or being much more precise about what they exactly meant. In the present election campaign, however, they are careful to avoid even going that far. Indeed, for the "responsible" politicians of the capitalist class, be they Tory or Labour, voters are not supposed to have a say in the affairs of the state!

Nevertheless, there is one related area in which the Tories have been trying to capitalise on the discontent over Iraq - Labour's difficulties in renewing its Prevention of Terrorism Act - by claiming to stand by the rights of the accused against an all-powerful state. This is a stance which can only be seen as cynical electioneering if one remembers Thatcher's bloody-mindedness against the Republican hunger strikers' demand for political status in jail in the early 1980s. At the time the Tory government did not just deny Republican prisoners the right to be recognised for what they were - political prisoners - but even the right to live!

In any case, the new Prevention of Terrorism Bill confronts Blair with a two-fold problem. He cannot just let the existing legislation lapse on 14th March, which is its planned expiry date, without renewing it. Otherwise he would appear to be distancing himself from Washington's "war on terrorism" and putting into question his entire foreign policy since he came into office. Nor can he just renew it as it is, despite his huge parliamentary majority, because of last December's Law Lords ruling which gave those jailed without trial under this legislation the right to appeal against their imprisonment. The prisoners are certain to win this appeal, thereby discrediting the government's scaremongering. At the same time, Blair cannot afford to allow this issue to interfere much longer with the election campaign as it can only revive anti-war feelings among the electorate.

Hence Charles Clarke's scramble and "concessions" to try to get this legislation through as fast as possible. Hence, also, Howard's "liberal"-sounding stance in defence of the rights of the accused - a stance that he can afford to take without questioning in any way the real issues behind Blair's policy on this matter.

Indeed, all this polemic is purely window-dressing. Whether control orders against alleged "terrorists" are signed by the Home minister, as provided for by the government's original draft, or by specially selected judges, as advocated by Howard and most of the politicians opposed to this draft, it will not change the fact that the accused will still not be allowed to challenge the allegations made against them, or that "evidence" from the secret services will still remain sufficient proof to categorise anyone as a terrorist. Nor will it change the extended stop and search powers granted to the police in the name of fighting "terrorism" - powers which they used, or rather abused, for instance, against pacifist demonstrators at a recent arms fair.

But this is precisely where the whole hypocrisy of this so-called "debate" lies. None of the protagonists disagrees on the real issues raised by this Bill. No-one even questioned Blair's scare-mongering, when he dared to state in the Commons that there were hundreds of terrorists walking free on the streets of Britain. If so, how come, over the 4 years during which this law has been in force, hundreds of people have been arrested under its provisions and all but a handful released without the government bringing any charge against them? Nor has anyone questioned the need for any special emergency legislation, even assuming there was a real terrorist threat. After all, hasn't the state already got far enough powers not to be granted even more, especially when these extended powers encourage the racism of the police against people of Asian origin?

The rise of inequality

The main problem facing Blair in this election, however, is his social record. It is not for nothing that four of his "six election pledges" deal with social issues, while the other two deal with law-and-order and immigration. If Labour is to mobilise its electorate and prevent a further drop in turnout in urban areas, it has to convince working class voters that they have a stake in this election.

But what stake can there be when, according to the government's own figures, since Labour came to power, the gap between rich and poor has increased more rapidly than under the previous Tory governments.

During the first five years of Labour's rule, the wealth of the 600,000 individuals who constitute the country's richest 1% doubled, despite the collapse of the stock market. Their share of national wealth increased from 20 to 23% - by the same 3% as during the previous 7 years under Major's Tory government. Meanwhile, the share of national wealth owned by the bottom 50% decreased from 7% to a miserly 5%.

Over the past 8 years, Labour has constantly claimed that its policy was to "lift the poor out of poverty". This aim justified the introduction of a bewildering system of welfare benefits, mostly in the form of tax credits, to replace the old system of cash social benefits. In particular, a number of these new benefits were targeted at children, officially designed to help the 30% of children who lived under the poverty line in Britain when Labour came into office.

Predictably, when a recent UN report gave Blair good marks for having lifted more children out of poverty than in any other industrialised country, this was hailed by ministers as a major success for their policies.

The small print of the report, however, told a different story. It pointed out that with 15% of children still living in households on less than 50% of average income, Britain remained in fourth place from the bottom among the world's 24 richest countries - despite being in fourth place from the top in terms of Gross Domestic Product!

At the other end of the age spectrum, one pensioner in five lives under the poverty line with an average income of £4,600/yr. By failing to maintain the real purchasing power of state pensions, Labour has only succeeded in forcing more pensioners to become entirely dependent on welfare. Over the years, Blair's ministers have repeated again and again that the state just could not afford to pay decent basic state pensions and that, in the future, workers would have to save for their old age. All Brown could deliver was a miserly Pension Tax Credit which guarantees a minimum income just above £100/w for a single pensioner - that is provided he or she has not got "too much" savings in the bank to qualify and manages to get the paper work done.

But if the state was so poor, how did Labour manage to find the resources to spend over £30bn a year on tax relief and rebates for private pensions, £8bn of which went to the 2.5% richest earners? This £8bn alone would have been enough to double the level of the basic state pension for the poorest 2m pensioners, thereby allowing them to live above the decency threshold, instead of offering the equivalent of the cost of a meal plus wine per week to 700,000 odd well-off earners who do not need that sort of money. But this would have meant taking from the rich in order to cater for the needs of the poor - precisely the sort of thing that Blair and his government are determined not to be seen doing.

This is all the more scandalous because during Labour's eight years in office, the average income of Britain's top managers and directors has increased five times faster than that of the workforce - by 165% between 1998 and 2004, compared with only 32% for average earnings. Even this comparison actually understates the extent of the growing gap between the rich and the poor, because in addition to including the pay of company fat cats, the average earnings index only takes into account full-time workers, while including income from overtime. In reality, for the vast majority of workers, wages have increased by far less than 32% over that period, and for some, wages have even gone down.

Poverty at work

Indeed, one of the features of Labour's tenure in office has been the emergence of the working poor. Admittedly this phenomenon had already begun under Major's Tory government, as a result of the first round of drastic cuts in unemployment benefit. But when Labour came to power, not only did Blair do nothing to reverse the Tories' attacks against the unemployed, but virtually every single change in the welfare system which was introduced over the following years, always under the pretext of "lifting the poor out of poverty", was really aimed at forcing more people into accepting any job on offer, no matter how precarious and low-paid.

This produced an explosion of casualisation, not just in construction or in the service, catering and retail industries, which always had a significant proportion of casual workers, but also in large manufacturing companies which had previously steered clear of such practices in order to maintain a cosy relationship with the union machineries. But union leaders expressed their willingness to jump through whatever hoops the bosses presented to them in order to help make "savings" and boosting "competitiveness". Since the government offered benefits designed to make the effect of low pay less unbearable, the bosses felt more confident to push their luck. They did so at first mostly through subcontracting or outsourcing part of their production to "independent" companies which employed a low-paid and often casual workforce, but increasingly also through resorting directly to hiring agency workers or workers on short-term contracts.

Indeed, behind Brown's hypocritical sermons on poverty, the real objective of benefits such as the Working Family Tax Credit and its more recent twins, which claimants only qualify for provided they can prove they do at least a few hours of paid work, was to create a thin cushion allowing the bosses to pay lower wages without having to face workers who would be desperate enough to feel they had nothing to lose by stirring up trouble at work.

The same objective lies behind Blair's plans to reduce the number of claimants on disability, incapacity and other long-term sickness benefits. This is his third attempt to act against this more vulnerable section of the population. His previous attempts failed partly because of a relatively strong opposition from within the ranks of his own party. But he has not given up. As far as this government is concerned even the most disadvantaged claimants must "earn" their benefits by being subjected to some form of exploitation and by contributing to the profits of the capitalist class.

In and of itself, of course, this is nothing new. The main purpose of the welfare system was always to provide the exploiters with a safety valve against the anger of the exploited, together with a workforce which is fit - and disposable - according to their needs. This was the prime motive behind the welfare system implemented by Labour in the post World War II period, at a time when the bosses desperately needed a cheap workforce to rebuild their profits and restore their control over the share of the world market which had slipped out of their hands during the war.

Today, although no recent war has dented the bosses' profits nor disorganised their system of exploitation, Labour's policy in this field is just as much designed to meet the capitalist class' appetite for yet more profits - an appetite which was whetted, but not satisfied by the previous Tory governments. Blair has changed this by turning the welfare system into a much more direct way of subsidising the bosses' profits. And it is precisely because, unlike the Tories, he has delivered the goods that the capitalists demanded, that Blair still enjoys such credit in the City.

Government-sponsored low pay

As the millions of workers forced to work on the minimum wage, if not below, know all too well, especially if they are among the country's 7m plus part-timers, tinkering with the welfare system has not been the only device used by the Labour government to push wages down. Ironically though, during the present election campaign, Blair has chosen to focus on the minimum wage by presenting it as one of the glowing achievements of his tenure in office. But who can make ends meet today on £4.85/hr or even on the £5.05/hr he has promised for next October?

Blair may have admitted, as he did in a recent press conference, that this is not "a king's ransom". But when he added in the same breath that "it's world away from the days when some people used to earn as little as £2/hr for long working weeks", he only exposed his upper-class ignorance of working people's conditions. As if an hourly rate had anything to do with the numbers of hours worked, especially since the average length of the working week for full-time workers has increased - not decreased - under Labour! As if £4.85 had more real purchasing power today than £2 in 1997, after the huge price hikes on basic necessities such as transport, housing, fuel, etc... that have taken place under Labour!

But then, what else could be expected from a politician who has just awarded himself a salary increase worth the equivalent of half an annual pay packet on the minimum wage - an increase which, of course, he certainly needs in order to pay for the multi-million pound home he has just bought in central London!

The fact is that instead of being a protection for workers against scrooge employers, the minimum wage has become a benchmark for low pay used in most non-skilled jobs.

But this minimum is not even respected. In February, the TUC issued a document exposing the way in which an increasing number of temp agencies were managing to pay workers below the minimum wage by resorting to arbitrary deductions for safety clothing, cashing pay cheques, accommodation, transport, etc.. Because temps have no security of employment, it added, few of them took the risk of filing a complaint against their employers as the legislation allows them to do in theory, for fear of losing their jobs.

On this account too, this Labour government bears a heavy responsibility - and not just because it gave the task of enforcing the minimal wage to the Inland Revenue, which is hardly equipped or staffed for this, while setting only ridiculous fines for rogue bosses who broke the law.

Having failed to block European legislation giving more rights to temporary and part-time workers (not for want of trying, though), Blair has succeeded so far in blocking a new European directive which would give temps employee status, with the same pay and holiday entitlement as other workers on the same job, after six weeks of continuous employment at the same workplace. Instead Blair has formed an alliance with Germany, Denmark and Ireland to insist, on behalf of British companies, that the qualifying period should be set at one year - which would deprive temps of any real protection since more than 3/4 of them spend less than a year in any given job.

The stakes here are high. In October last year, the TUC estimated that 2/3 of the European Union's temporary agency workers were in Britain. The possibility for companies to resort to temps, who they can sack whenever they choose, plays a big role in Blair's "flexible labour market". It also plays a role in dividing workers' ranks and undermining their ability to fight for their interests. These have been two good enough reasons for Blair to hold his ground, at the expense of workers' conditions and regardless of his past virtuous speeches against rogue employers, following the deaths of the Morecambe cockle-pickers.

The great pension robbery

Today's increased casualisation will have long-term consequences if the capitalist class and its trustees in government, Labour or Tories, are allowed to carry on down the present road. Indeed, not only does it affect the conditions of the working class as a whole, but it will affect even more seriously the conditions of future pensioners as they will have no income other than the state basic pension and welfare payments - if they still exist, which is not at all certain. Indeed few of today's casual workers are contributing - nor could afford to contribute - to occupational pensions, let alone private pension schemes. And many of those who are forced into part-time employment for any length of time are even unlikely to complete the required 40 years of full-time contribution to get the full amount of the state basic pension.

But having contributed to an occupational scheme for decades of one's working life is not even a guarantee of getting a substantial pension. Firstly because the pensions paid by occupational schemes are small, anyway. But secondly because, as was shown by a series of scandals following company bankruptcies in the steel industry in particular, the money owed to future pensioners is only paid once other creditors - banks, suppliers, etc.. - have been paid. So that, in these cases, workers found that they had lost not only their jobs but also most of the money they had contributed to their pension funds.

Faced with these scandals, the government produced a tiny compensation scheme which is unlikely to protect workers should a significant wave of sizeable bankruptcies take place. But what is even more significant about Labour's intervention on this issue, is that ministers stopped short of introducing any form of compulsion on companies to sort out potential problems.

There was no question, for instance, of giving workers absolute priority over all other creditors in case of bankruptcy - which would only be just, since, after all, the workforce produces every penny of income for the bosses! Nor was there any question of getting the country's large number of very profitable companies to plough back into their occupational funds the money they have taken out of them over the past two decades, either by taking a contribution holiday or by creaming off an alleged "surplus". And yet, again, every penny of the money stolen by these companies was due to workers' labour.

Not only has the Labour government failed to impose any constraints on companies to provide their workers with decent pensions, but it has looked on while company after company closed down final salary schemes in favour of money-purchase schemes and reduced their own contributions to these schemes as well as the pensions they are expected to pay to workers.

In the absence of a state scheme providing all pensioners with an income paid by all active workers, such a policy amounts to mortgaging the future for the working class in order to allow companies to boost their profit figures today. But when the present generation of workers retire, it will find itself with an even lower income than today's pensioners. In order to please its friends in the City, Labour is merely paving the way to more pensioner poverty in the future.

But as if this was not enough, the government has launched a wholesale attack against pension arrangements for all public sector workers, whether in the civil service, local authorities, the NHS, Education or the Fire Service. Only MPs and the police are exempt from the onslaught. Beyond the differences which exist between the existing arrangements for these various sections of workers, the aim of the exercise is to postpone retirement age by five years, to 65 (except for firefighters whose retirement age would be postponed to 55) and increase the age at which they can take early retirement by the same number of years.

Such is the sort of "progress" that Blair's Labour and their capitalist sponsors are offering to the working class - a society in which workers are supposed to be exploited till they drop dead, instead of being able to enjoy a well-deserved rest while they are still physically and mentally able to do it.

There is always an "after"

So, yes, the working class has many accounts to settle with Blair, his government and the Labour party. But it has no way to settle these accounts through the ballot box. Because a vote for any of the main parties will be a vote for just another form of the same policies. And none of the other candidates in this election clearly and squarely expresses and defends the interests of the working class.

Whoever wins the contest will carry on implementing the same policies. But this does not mean that the working class will have no means to defend its interests and regain some of the ground lost.

Take the case of the NHS and its internal market, for instance, and the way in which public money is being squandered there in order to allow private profiteers to take their share of the loot. Who is in a better position than NHS workers to expose the lies and waste of the "health market" for everyone to see - and to bring an end to all of this? They will have to break the stranglehold of "confidentiality" which is imposed on them to sweep the scandal under the carpet? Yes, they will have to. And they will have to stick together and seek the support of local patients in order to resist pressure from managers. But isn't this kind of control, exercised directly by workers where they work, perfectly achievable?

And the same method, the same kind of workers' control, could be applied to just about every other area of public services where the profiteers' greed is allowed to sneak in by the politicians in office.

Ultimately, of course, what will be decisive in reversing the present trend of attacks against the working class, is a change in the relationship of forces between the capitalists and workers. Such a change can only take place through a revival of the class struggle.

What has made the capitalist class so confident - and demanding - over the past two decades, is not the policy of governments. It is the fact that as time has passed, they have come to fear less and less the risk of harm to their profits from a militant backlash from the working class. It is now exactly twenty years since the end of the miners' strike. Since then, no conflict has been large enough to shake the arrogance of the bosses.

No-one wants to replay the defeat of the miners' strike. But a mobilisation at least on a similar scale will be needed in order for the working class to start reversing the present trend. Only this time, to be effective, it will have to break across sectional lines and make the capitalists feel that, this time, they are facing an uncertain future.