Will Labour lose?
The present Labour government appears to have run out of steam, but trading one group of career politicians for another is not the answer
An astute observer once said “governments are not elected…they are dismissed”. According to this view, after a party has had a period in power the electorate consciously aims to get rid of it by voting for a rival party in a decision regarded as the “lesser of two evils”. And it is undoubtedly true that every government – regardless of political banner – has always ended by alienating the electorate that once supported it. Many voters believe politicians are dishonest or have become cynical about elections, reasoning that “60-seconds of democracy” is small recompense for five years of neglect and policies that rarely express their preferences. If elections are so meaningless, some reflect, then there can be little point in voting – a sentiment borne out by low electoral turnout.
Despite being unable to find lasting solutions to workers’ problems, political parties must always try to combat voter disillusionment. Behaving like chameleons, they must search for ways to improve their image, reinvigorate old policies and give the appearance that this time things will be different, this time the electorate will be given exactly what it wants. Before the 1997 general election the Labour Party successfully engineered its own metamorphosis, re-branding policies and redefining its agenda. The commitment to nationalisation enshrined in the 1918 Party constitution was abolished and Trade Union influence over policy – always more mythical than real – was publicly abandoned. Its image, thus transformed, seemed revitalised and business, media and the electorate acclaimed the party that now called itself New Labour.
But nine years after the Labour Party was enthusiastically swept into government, the same electorate cannot wait to dismiss them. Reviewing the May local elections results the Electoral Reform Society concluded the Labour government faces “wipe-out” in the next general election and “predicts that Labour stand to lose 149 of its present 355 MPs bringing its commons strength down to 206 – even worse than 1983”. Ministers have responded with conciliatory messages that Labour will listen more closely in future and, in the words of John Prescott, “renew itself after nine years in government”.(Observer, 28 May)
In the third week of June this year, Labour’s tattered image took another knock when an Ipsos Mori poll revealed that one in four Labour supporters wants their party to lose the next election. The poll deduced that “the leadership is becoming increasingly divorced from its own grass roots, 23 per cent agree Labour should be kicked out of power”. Supporters wanted the party to experience “a period out of office to rethink what they stand for and what their vision is for the future”. A majority of those polled expects the next general election to end with either a hung parliament or a Tory majority, believing a re-launched Conservative Party to be more in touch with what ordinary people think. In the wake of hospital cutbacks, Home Office scandals and the ‘peerages for cash’ fiasco, Hazel Blears conceded, “the voters are angry that we have taken our eye off the ball”. (Observer, 18 June).
At the end of June, Labour Party fortunes went from bad to worse. In the double election in Blaenau Gwent – where Parliamentary and Welsh Assembly by-elections were held simultaneously – an embittered electorate took revenge by voting down both Labour Party candidates. The elections were prompted by the death of Peter Law, who had defected from Labour and succeeded in overturning a 19,000 Labour majority in 2005. Until it was lost, Blaenau Gwent, whose past MPs include Aneurin Bevan and Michael Foot, was regarded as Labour’s safest seat. Defeat in the Assembly election denied Labour of the majority it hoped to regain in the Welsh Assembly.
The wave of disillusionment is not just confined to Labour voters, however, with disaffection spreading inside the Labour Party itself. Labour Party membership has declined dramatically since 1997 and is now below the 200,000 mark – the lowest level since Ramsay MacDonald split the party in the 1930s. The membership has grown weary of being implicated in what the media call a “conspiracy of lies,” and resentful of arrogant leadership. A YouGov poll presented to the Compass conference on 17 June found that only 25 percent of Labour Party members believe they influence Party policy, while three-quarters felt policy had been hijacked by rich donors whose influence has grown as membership has shrunk. The Labour Party, desperately short of funds and like many of the electorate struggling with debt – estimated at £27 million –, must either depend on millionaires or turn to state funding, a move not popular with the public.
Aware of growing hostility, many senior members are distancing themselves from Prime Minister Blair by announcing that the Labour Party under Brown’s leadership will revitalise itself and re-brand unpalatable policies. “The trouble with the current approach is that we will go out of power for 15 years,” grumbled Michael Willis, speaking to the Compass conference. Like many, he blames Iraq and Blair’s presidential style for the electorate’s resentment. (Guardian, 19 June). Every effort is being made to show ‘clear water’ between Labour under Blair and what Labour might be like under Brown. “Too many traditional Labour supporters felt the government had taken their goodwill for granted and said government was getting more difficult,” said Ed Balls, Economic Secretary to the Treasury. Brown’s political allies promise greater Party equality, reducing dominance of Whitehall and “restoring progressive politics.” (Guardian, 19 June)
But if forecasters can be believed it now seems likely, irrespective of who actually leads the Party, that Labour will lose the next general election. Yet does it really matter which party forms the next government?
Capitalism is a splintered society; divided not just by sectional ownership of the means of production but by the economic rivalry of independent states striving to exercise authority over given geographical areas. Conventional political parties endorse the framework of capitalism and compete to win control over the state and to administer the economic system within its boundaries, which necessarily means perpetuating the wages system and the persistent hardship for wage and salary earners. The policies propounded by these parties are similar because they are manifestations of the same political imperative – a continuation of capitalism – and are distinguishable only to the extent that they propose different organisation methods to administer the same economic system.
Voters vote governments out because they appear incompetent, incapable of finding solutions to the daily problems that confronts wage and salary earners. But government can never solve these problems because their permanent solution lies only in the abolition of capitalism and the wages system. Economic laws that politicians are powerless to change and leave little room for manoeuvre determine what politicians do and how they must react. It is not the deceitfulness of politicians that is the problem but rather the economic structure of society.
But it is not just political parties that refuse to think outside the framework of capitalism. Most wage and salary earners rarely question the structure of society and passively support the system that always works against them. In misguided expressions of defiance that flow from frustration and lack of understanding, voters repeatedly swap Labour governments for Conservative, or Conservative governments for Labour – as they have on seven separate occasions since the second world war – in the hope that it will somehow make a difference. They are always disappointed by the outcome. Mandating a political party to administer capitalism means that workers surrender political power to their class enemy and condone the continuation of their own exploitation, their insecurity and their poverty – a lesson that workers seem unable to grasp as the same mistake is slavishly repeated over and over again.
But while trading one group of careerist politicians for another can never be the answer, changing society’s economic structure is the only answer.
Capitalism exists only because workers allow it to exist. Changing the structure of society, however, is not as simple as changing political allegiance to a party. Capitalism is based firmly on a principle of leadership, where a minority in secret makes decisions and the excluded majority is told what they should do and how they should think. Changing the world’s economic structure by converting the means of production from class ownership to common ownership requires that workers individually understand what they want and actively combine to change their condition. Socialism cannot be delivered by leaders and is achievable only by the concerted action of a politically conscious mass movement without direction or leaders, for only then will the majority become the decision-makers.
The task may be daunting but must begin somewhere. Workers would do well to start by considering whether capitalism – under any political party – is really the future they want.