The left and the labour movement in the General Election

Submitted by Matthew on 16 April, 2010 - 2:40

How should the working-class left respond to the general election and the cuts that are likely to follow, whichever party wins? Solidarity spoke to a range of activists (all in a personal capacity) from across the left.

What “efficiency savings” really mean

Christine Hulme is vice-chair of the PCS Department of Work and Pensions South-East Region, and secretary of Slough constituency Labour Party.

There is a lot of talk now about “efficiency savings” in the civil service. It’s not new. That has been part of the spending reviews for many years.

The difference between Tories and Labour at this point is that Labour have laid out the spending review for years ahead. The Tories have provided no detail, just given a ballpark figure of the spending cuts they want.

They have given a commitment to no compulsory redundancies, and I think they may be able to keep to that, but only because in a department like mine, Job Centre Plus, we have 84,000 staff... of whom 15,000 are temps.

Public sector pensions are at risk. Whichever party wins the election will attack our pensions. Labour will probably try to increase the retirement age and to impose a rise in staff contributions. The Tories will try the same sort of thing, but more of it.

In Slough, the constituency Labour Party is well organised, though bureaucratic, and we canvass every week all year round, not just at election time.

We have 550 members in the constituency, and of those about 150 more or less regularly active. A lot of the Labour activists are also involved in local community activity, in the Pakistani or Kashmiri communities, and they are used to being out on the streets.

It helps in terms of policy locally that the Labour councillors and activists have to hear what people want, on the doorstep. But in the general election, so far, it’s a choice for the voters between bad and really, really bad. The immediate issue is the speed of cuts. The Tory party is wedded to the idea of making cuts and contracting out more services quickly.

In Slough, the Labour Party tends to focus in its campaigning on a few good things the Labour government has done — the minimum wage, child tax credit, SureStart...

I have also been active in the Labour campaign in Hayes and Harlington, where John McDonnell is standing. There the campaign is focused instead on what a real Labour government should be doing, about affordable housing, or fighting redundancies, for example.

In Hayes and Harlington the difficulty is to get voters to see John McDonnell and his politics as something separate from the general record of the Labour government. But John McDonnell has a reputation as a hard-working, campaigning MP on a range of issues, and that helps.

Take on the financial system!

Katy Clark is Labour candidate and outgoing MP in Ayrshire North and Arran.

The general election is a really important time because it’s about the only opportunity that people get to show what they think. I find it concerning that many people aren’t even sure whether they are going to vote at all.

That’s partly because they see there is not much to choose between the main parties. I hope people are given real choice, in the weeks to come, by the Labour Party.

We’re facing massive cuts in public spending, especially if the Tories get in, but so far the issue of National Insurance increases has been dominating the economic debate.

I want to see real debate about the economic crisis we’ve been through, what caused it, and how we make sure it doesn’t happen again.

What would I say about that? We need to regulate the banks; take on the financial system; make people understand where power really lies, in the big banks and the multinationals, and take them on.

Labour has failed women

Rebecca Galbraith is an ESOL teacher and socialist feminist activist campaigning with Feminist Fightback.

Three issues I think are particularly important for socialists, in and beyond the election, are the public service cuts, the increase in racist politics, particularly against migrants, and the abolition of welfare support.

I work at Hackney College, one of the many Further Education colleges facing cuts and compulsory redundancies. We hear about the deficit, and the need to make cutbacks so often that it is understandable many people start to feel the government has no choice.

We are told to “tighten our belts” and that we are all in this together — we need to counter this. There is a notion that free education, state-funded childcare, etc, are something “nice to have” that we cannot afford now. We are told that there are not enough resources to go around. We can see the consequences of this with anti-migrant racism, and media attacks on benefit claimants.

Thinking about FE, there are colleges who don’t have money left in reserves and who will struggle to stay open, let alone say no to the cuts. We need to put pressure on managers to stop the cuts, but more so we need to show that the government doesn’t have to cut. Our intervention needs to be made now, around the time of the election, when politicians are nominally more susceptible to pressure.

In union campaigns against the cuts we need to go beyond the industrial issues and look at the political demands the class struggle needs. There are a lot of strikes at the moment, and that trend could continue, but these could well be depoliticised, unless we can make the socialist voice stronger and the labour movement political voice stronger.

Jenny Sutton is running as a TUSC candidate with the backing of UCU London Region. I’m supporting her campaign because it is closely tied to the UCU campaign against the cuts, it pushes for this to be as political as possible. It has a strong gender, race and class analysis and it shows the Labour Party’s attack on education for what it is.

There have been questions in UCU meetings about the union’s ties to Labour, how we hold Labour to account, how we hold the unions to account. I don’t think it is wrong for unions to support independent candidates. Among other things, it is a way of holding Labour to account. Yet, living in Hackney, there is no socialist running so the Labour choice is to vote for Meg Hillier — a supporter of Yarl’s Wood detention centre, among other crimes. While I agree broadly with the AWL arguments about the Labour-union link it feels fairly abstract, and the prospect of voting for Labour now, galling.

Both Tories and Labour are targeting women voters. This is contemptible, given their records. I think many feminists won’t vote at all because all the parties are so bad for women. Clearly the Tories will be qualitatively worse. Already Cameron has spoken to the Catholic Church about lowering the abortion time limit from 24 to 20 weeks and allowing faith schools to opt out of teaching sex education. At the same time Labour’s record has been appalling.

There is a case for feminists putting forward their own analysis and alternative programme, but this task seems fairly daunting for such a small socialist feminist movement to take on. More plausibly, socialist feminists should get involved and support candidates like Jill Mountford or Jenny Sutton who make the fight for women’s rights explicit in their campaigns.

Build collective strength

Ryan Slaughter is an organiser for Community, a union formed from the merger of steel, ceramics and textile workers’ unions. His comments come from a longer interview about Community’s campaigns to organise betting shop workers, which will appear in the next issue of Solidarity.

Community is affiliated to the Labour Party, and that is about changing where the Labour Party is. We want people to be affiliated to CLPs and active within Trades Councils and debating their issues.

In recent years people who’ve attended CLP meetings aren’t workers and people who’re engaged in day-to-day struggles. We want people to understand the importance of engaging in politics and getting active in it.

A Tory government would be very damaging for us. Things like union learning programmes would go straight away, and those pots of money are so crucial to our movement. When you’ve got people who’ve worked in a steel mill since they were 16 and suddenly lose their job in their 50s, the union movement can use those resources to help their members develop the skills to get a new start and opportunities. Those programmes would be under threat under a Tory government.

The trade union movement can learn from what we’ve done in the betting shop sector. Winning recognition agreements is important but it’s not the be-all and end-all.

Fundamentally it’s about how you organise. We could’ve gone for a partnership approach or voluntary relationships, but we decided to organise directly and build up workers’ collective confidence. If recognition or an official relationship with management comes as a result then fine, but it’s not the starting point. With a Tory government will come serious attacks on recognition agreements, and bosses pushing for de-recognition. That means the union movement has to set about building up our collective strength on the ground, from the bottom-up.

Break with Labour

Luke Hawksbee is a student activist in the Education Not for Sale network and an anarchist.

I think we’re seeing the pinnacle of stagnation in our political culture. A hung parliament in particular would be the product not of a consciously divided society but of an electorate blind to class interests.

As a student activist, a potential Tory government for me would mean more privatisation, deeper cuts, higher fees, greater exclusion of the vulnerable, and the erosion of the public services students depend on. In short – more work for me!

It’s high time unions and the left groups broke with Labour. I may not necessarily believe a mass working-class party is the key to revolution, but I do believe it can be a bulwark against the attacks on us and a step forward in class consciousness. New Labour is no longer working-class in any sense, and the policy of tailing the trade union bureaucracy just isn’t working.

Unity in the face of cuts is essential. When it comes to students, that means drawing the links to the rest of the public sector as a first step. Expecting more than this would be wildly optimistic.

The first step towards building working-class anti-capitalism as a real force in British society would be a concerted and active effort to crush sectarianism from below. We need open debate and serious collaboration.

Even a “new Old Labour”-type organisation, with new militants active within it, would be a step forward.

Lib Dems are not radical

Chris Marks is Vice-President Education at Hull University Union and stood as a socialist candidate for the presidency of the National Union of Students.

Our student union is promoting a hustings in the SU along with the UCU, on the premise of putting pressure on candidates around pro-worker, pro-student policies.

There is some vague pro-Lib Dem sentiment among students but that’s not really reflected at Hull. Lib Dems control the city council, but it’s Labour in the student areas.

The Liberals are certainly not a progressive or radical alternative. They’re also talking about making cuts. They’ve dropped their commitment to free education and working-class activists shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that they’ll be any different from the other two parties.

Socialist Campaign to Stop the Tories and Fascists

New supporters of the Socialist Campaign to Stop the Tories and Fascists over the last couple of weeks include David Drew, Labour MP for Stroud; Pete Firmin, Joint Secretary of the Labour Representation Committee and political officer of CWU London West End Amal branch; and Dave Osler, Hackney North CLP and blogger at davidosler.com.

The campaign links a Labour vote to keep out the Tories with an effort to organise in the labour movement for working-class policies and for the unions to call Labour to account on those policies.

Christine Hulme, secretary of Slough CLP and vice-chair of PCS DWP South-East region, Val Graham, Derbyshire Unison and Chesterfield CLP, and Jason Hill, vice chair Musicians’ Union Midlands Region, and activist in North Staffordshire Campaign Against Racism and Fascism, Andrew Coates, Branch Chair UNITE 1/460 Ipswich, and Theo Simon, lead singer of Seize The Day, are among many others who have also signed up. All signatories are in a personal capacity.

Some of the new signatories have taken bundles of SCSTF leaflets to distribute, or joined other SCSTF supporters as we go onto the streets to take the message to a broader public.

In Islington, north London, we have a local SCSTF leaflet for our street stalls, written by Climate Camp activists who independently came to roughly the same political conclusions as SCSTF.

A comment by one young woman who stopped at the SCSTF Islington stall last Saturday, 10 April, encapsulates the reason why we need these stalls.

Taking copies of all the literature she could get, she said it was good to come across because it was the first election she’d been able to vote in, and no-one seemed to be giving her any information.

The media are full of election coverage, giving all the information anyone could ever want about Sarah Brown’s and Samantha Cameron’s dress sense, and (in the style of a commentator giving tennis scores) about the latest wobbles in the opinion polls.

But quite likely this woman won’t have had anyone offering her serious, informative discussion about the election, face-to-face.

In comparison with previous close-fought general elections, the streets are eerily quiet.

There are few other political stalls. There are few posters about. Many left-minded people are stuck in a mindset where they will go and vote Labour with gritted teeth on 6 May, or maybe just sit it out, but do not see their way forward clearly enough to be vocal and outgoing about election choices.

The job of SCSTF is to rally those who are — or can be made to be — vocal and outgoing, so that we can use the election to offer others a broader political perspective.

The basic SCSTF statement has now been produced as a printed broadsheet. Special SCSTF leaflets are available against the BNP (£20 per thousand), on cuts, on inequality, on housing, on women’s rights, and on green jobs. SCSTF posters are available to display on stalls and noticeboards.

All of this material is available from the SCSTF website. Also downloadable from the website is the trade-union petition against cuts, a useful tool for approaching people when doing street stalls or going door to door.

By the time this article reaches most readers, we will have not much more than two weeks until polling day. Two weeks to rouse ourselves to get out there and offer some answers to people like that young woman in Islington.

In those two weeks we also have to find time to prepare for follow-up after 6 May.

In London, the SCSTF is co-sponsoring a conference initiated by the Labour Representation Committee for 15 May — “After the election, join the resistance” — and is setting up its own post-election organising meeting to take place on the same day as the broader conference, after the close of the conference and in the same place.

In Sheffield, SCSTF supporters are discussing with local Labour Representation Committee organisers plans for a joint SCSTF-LRC follow-up meeting on 19 May.

http://bit.ly/scstf

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