With the 2015 general elections on the horizon, there is again a sense of optimism amongst left, progressive forces in the UK in view of a possible victory by the Labour Party next year. After years of one austerity budget after another, brutal cuts to public spending, job losses across the economy and intensified privatisation of the public sector, removing the current ConDem government has become ever more urgent. Nevertheless, what can we actually expect from a Labour government? In this blog post, I will critically reflect on this issue discussing two recent events, Len McCluskey’s, the general secretary of the large trade union Unite, almost unconditional support for Labour in the elections (BBC, 30 June 2014) and the Labour Party’s unwillingness to endorse and support the strike by public sector workers on 10 July 2014 (OTS News, 9 July 2014; Labour List, 8 July 2014).
Unconditional union support
At first sight, Unite’s unconditional support is understandable. The current government has viciously attacked trade unions and especially the Conservative coalition partner would like to limit the right to strike even further, by demanding that at least 50 per cent of union members have to vote in a ballot, before a strike can go ahead (BBC, 18 July 2014). And yet, what positive results can we expect from unconditional support? Does not the experience of the period from 1997 to 2010, when Labour was in power, demonstrate that the party is unwilling to reward this kind of support with positive actions? The Labour Party was in power for 13 years, but did not abolish Thatcher’s anti-trade union legislation, which is precisely the reason for why it is currently so difficult for unions to mobilise across society.
Labour’s unwillingness to support strike action
There can hardly be a clearer indication of Labour’s future governmental policy than its unwillingness to support the public sector strike on 10 July. Rather than speaking out in support of workers and outlining an alternative policy for the public sector, the party chose to stand on the sidelines. This is clearly an indication that the Labour Party has no interest in reversing the restructuring and privatisation of the public sector, nor is it likely to stop the downward pressure on wages and attack on pensions. After all, we must not forget that public sector restructuring had started under Tony Blair in the first place, be it in relation to the introduction of academies in the education system or the introduction of tuition fees in Higher Education, to mention just two examples. In many areas, the current government has simply completed New Labour policies in an extreme fashion.
Clearly, elections are not unimportant and yes, a Labour government, even if it continued certain austerity policies, is highly likely to be less vicious than the current government. Nevertheless, it should not be enough simply to settle for second best, the lesser evil. Unconditional support as provided by Unite is not the way forward here. Instead, this is now the time to engage with Labour and put pressure on it towards more progressive policies.
|People's Assembly demonstration, 21 July 2014; photo by David Holt.|
This can partly be achieved through an active extra-parliamentary movement. The People’s Assembly, through its national activities such as the demonstration in London on Saturday, 21 June 2014, as well as its various local assemblies, can be the movement, which unites opposition to austerity and demonstrates the party that there is a majority in the country in favour of more radical policies than austerity light. Partly, this is also the moment when progressive members of local Labour Party associations have the task and opportunity to move the party from the inside towards progressive policies. It may still all be possible!
Prof. Andreas Bieler
Professor of Political Economy
University of Nottingham/UK
Personal website: http://andreasbieler.net
21 July 2014