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Vote Labour

Workers Action

THERE ARE some on the left who hope that May 5 will see Labour punished at the polls, with abstention and protest voting by former Labour supporters leading to the loss of a number of seats. Of course, the real responsibility for any such defection will he with the New Labour leadership, which from its starting point of embracing neo-liberal economics and big business, and distancing itself from the labour movement, has gone on to introduce a raft of right-wing policies from foundation hospitals and university top-up fees to the privatisation of air traffic control and identity cards, and has enthusiastically joined the United States in waging war on Afghanistan and Iraq.

While it is possible to understand why some people will express their disenchantment with the government by staying at home, and why others will vote for parties that were against the invasion of Iraq or whose policies in general seem to be to the left of Labour’s, we have to point out that this is not the best way to build an effective left opposition to the Blairites, and that in the worst case scenario, it could be the critical factor in giving the election to the Tories.

Teaching the government a lesson by reducing its majority in parliament is all very well in theory, but it’s too complex a form of tactical voting to have any control over. How do you campaign for some people to vote for parties other than Labour or to abstain, but for most people to vote Labour so that there’s no chance of the Tories winning the election? And anyway, what about the poor folk in the constituencies that get landed with Tory MPs as a result of this tactic?

Playing with fire
Socialists who think along these lines, like Tariq Ali who declares that he is voting for the Lib Dems in Hornsey and Wood Green because that is the only way to get rid of Barbara Roche, or those who will be campaigning for Respect or other leftwing candidates, are playing with fire. If enough people in enough constituencies follow their example – and one presumes that that is what they intend – then Labour will be defeated, the Tories will form the next government, and the Lib Dems will be strengthened.

The favoured outcome for some on the left is that Labour loses its overall majority and is forced into a coalition with the Lib Dems – after all, they argue, many Lib Dem policies are to the left of Labour’s. But, if anything, the Lib Dems have moved to the right over the last couple of years. no doubt because many of their target seats are Tory-held. For example, they opposed the rises in the minimum wage announced by the government in March 2003. Vince Cable, then their trade and industry spokesman, said: "Making a commitment to a two-year deal, at levels significantly above inflation and at nearly double the current level of average earnings growth, sets a dangerous precedent at a time of almost unparalleled uncertainty." They are in favour of PFI, the privatisation of selected state assets, ending national pay bargaining in the public sector, cutting thousands of civil service jobs, and what amounts to a strike ban in essential services. Although they opposed the actual invasion of Iraq, they support the occupation and played no part whatsoever in building the anti-war movement. They also supported the Nato bombing of Yugoslavia.

Stirring up prejudice
Would it make any difference if there were a Tory government in place of New Labour? For millions of workers on low or average incomes, yes, most certainly! There is a danger of underestimating the Tories: they are the party of wealth and privilege, ideologues of inequality who are dedicated to cutting public spending in order to fund tax cuts to the already well-off, holding down wages and smashing the unions. Their election campaign has centred on "dogwhistle" policies designed to stir up primitive racist prejudice against gypsies and non-white immigrants. Among the things they say they will do if they form the next government are: reduce the number of university places, opt out of the European Social Chapter to "liberate small businesses from job-destroying employment legislation", cut 235,000 civil service jobs, subsidise patients to have operations done privately and pupils to go to independent schools, extend the "right to buy" to housing association tenants, implement a massive programme of road building and extend the franchises of the train operators, abolish the New Deal and privatise Jobcentre Plus, and freeze the minimum wage. Respect may set out to punish New Labour, but if the Tories get back it will be ordinary workers who feel the pain.

Workers Action is unequivocally in favour of returning a Labour government. We believe that the best conditions for fighting against the New Labour leadership are when the trade union and labour movement is strong and combative, not when it is demoralised and under siege from the Tories. Moreover, we consider it the primary duty of socialists to fight for the raising of living standards and the extension of fights, and while the difference between a Tory and a New Labour government is in some respects a matter of degree, the period since May 1997 has seen, among other things, political reform (notably devolution in Scotland and Wales), improved living standards for the poorest sections of society through the minimum wage and family credit, progressive social legislation such as the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 which gives public authorities a statutory duty to promote race equality, the repeal of Clause 28 and the lowering of the gay age of consent to 16, more money for health and education, and increased funding for the arts, including the restoration of free entry to major museums and galleries.

We do not think that any of the left-of-Labour parties represent a serious alternative in this election. Even if George Galloway defeats Oona King in Bethnal Green and Bow, this will be attributable to the particular demographics of that part of cast London and won’t significantly alter the balance of forces. And while Respect is clearly going to win the support of many people who are sincerely opposed to the war on Iraq, its tactic of presenting itself as "the party for Muslims" reinforces the view that it is a single-issue campaign group rather than an inclusive socialist party, and, more seriously, could open the door to communalist politics.

Of course, as currently constituted, the Labour Party offers no guarantees as to its ability to defend workers’ jobs, wages and conditions. If this is to become a possibility, the left in the party will have to be considerably strengthened and its influence in the wider labour movement increased. To this end, socialists should concentrate their efforts in this election on ensuring that the highest number of left-wing MPs will be sitting on the Labour benches in the next parliament. So when we call for the biggest possible Labour vote on May 5, we are not giving anything to New Labour; indeed, we recognise that New Labour is a serious obstacle on the road to meaningful reforms, never mind socialism, and that the success of future struggles will in no small part depend on the decisive defeat of the New Labour faction.

From Workers Action No.29, Election Special, April 2005