Ted Grant

Election result a prelude to future storms

Source: Militant International Review, no. 35 (summer, 1987)
Transcription: Jo 2010
Markup: Niklas 2010

The result of the general election must have been a bitter blow to the hopes and aspirations of millions of workers, desperate to see an end to the years of Tory rule. Indeed the striking feature of the election was the enormous polarisation between the classes. This was revealed in the fate of the Liberal/SDP Alliance. Only a month before the election the media were trying to push their creation into second place ahead of Labour. But the capitalists’ dream that they could recreate the position of the past of two alternating capitalist parties, like the Republicans and Democrats in the USA, was rudely shattered. Contrary to the myth of the capitalist commentators, that the class divisions have been “blurred” in the south, even in London the Alliance vote fell at the expense of both Labour and the Tories. While in Scotland, Wales and the North there was a crushing defeat for the Tories and a victory for Labour. This is an anticipation of what will happen in the whole of Britain tomorrow.

In the 1955 election in Scotland, the Tories gained over 50 percent of the votes. In the course of three decades, they have been reduced to 24 percent. In Liverpool, because of the peculiar development of events and the decisive role of Marxism, the disasters have been even worse for the Tories. They secured 36 percent of the vote in 1979, 29 percent in 1983 and only 17 percent in this election. In Scotland the Labour Party has now 42 percent of the vote. But in Merseyside they received 47.5 percent and in Liverpool alone they have already reached the figure of 57 percent of the vote.

The Merseyside and Liverpool results show the superiority of Marxism over reformism. They are a direct consequence of the battle that was waged by the Council over four years, involving the mass of the working class population of Liverpool. They demonstrate that the policies of struggle, of mobilisation of the masses and leaning on the working class for support, are the means not only for successful struggle but also for electoral success. That also is undoubtedly a mirror of the future.

Yet, despite the evident class polarisation, the election result represented a severe defeat for the Labour Party. The scale of the Tory victory was entirely unexpected to everyone, including the Tories themselves. Prior to polling day Tebbit himself was extremely reluctant even to anticipate a majority of more than 50 seats. In the event, the Tories secured a majority of 101 and Labour increased its vote from 27.5 percent in 1983 to 30.8 percent in 1987, receiving less votes than when it lost in 1970. Even in pre-war elections Labour won at least 33-35 percent of the votes: in 1945 they won 48 percent. That the Tories could achieve such a victory after eight years of Thatcherism, of consistent attacks on social services, pensions, health and education, is an absolute disgrace for the labour movement. How can the scale of Labour’s defeat be accounted for? Trotsky explained that, “a political prediction does not have the shape of a finished plan, it is a working hypothesis.” A perspective is not a blueprint; it can only delineate the main processes taking place in society. It is not possible to work out concretely all the developments because of the multiplicity of divergent factors especially the subjective factor, in this case, the campaign and attitudes of the labour and trade union leadership.

In reality, the campaign was an absolute disaster. The labour and trade union leadership, especially the right wing, are responsible for what has taken place. The left was excluded and consequently the right should bear all the odium for the defeat.

Thus, according to the exit polls, only 43 percent of trade unionists voted for the Labour Party. Yet in the ballots for the political levy, in practically all the unions, between 80-90 percent voted for affiliation to the Labour Party and for the right to conduct political activities. A campaign along socialist lines could have mobilised a big majority of trade unionists to vote in their class interests and against the interests of big business. But the class issues were never raised during the election. The attempts to conciliate with the City and big business which were pushed forward by Kinnock and the other Labour leaders flew in the face of the day-to-day class struggle which is inevitable under capitalism.

Labour’s campaign

The Labour leaders did not even conduct this election campaign on the lines of those in the past. The campaign concentrated on health, education, social services, pensions and the day-to-day needs of the masses, which was correct. But this was not linked to the need to change the system as the only guarantee of working class living standards and conditions. No vision was given of what a socialist change would mean, even to the extent that it had been done in previous manifestos and previous campaigns of the Labour Party.

The way the campaign was conducted on defence and taxes were two of the main factors in the defeat. If the question of defence had been presented in a Marxist manner, it would have been an issue on which Labour would have gained votes instead of losing support. But the Labour leaders did not puncture the delusion that the minor nuclear arsenal that British capitalism could afford, could ever be a “deterrent”. And with their determination to spend the money saved from Trident on conventional weapons, they could not explain what social reforms could be achieved by scrapping nuclear weapons.

Even more, the way in which Hattersley, Smith and other right wing leaders presented the question of taxation can only leave the conclusion that if they had desired a defeat they could not have presented it in any other way! They learnt nothing from history, or from the experience of the working class in other countries. Walter Mondale suffered a disastrous defeat for the Democrats in the 1984 American Presidential elections when he said, in effect, “vote for me, and I’ll increase your taxes”, imagining that by putting forward an “honest” position he would gain support. Yet he won only one out of the 50 states in the United States as a result.

Had the question been presented in a correct way, explaining that the Tories had raised taxes for the working class more than any other government for many years, while giving lavish concessions to big business and the rich, then it could have been an election winner, especially as the Tories’ two pence cut in the level of income tax will be very temporary. It is inevitable, as the Daily Express inadvertently blurted out on its business pages, that whatever government won the election, on a capitalist basis, there would be an increase in the level of income tax of 4 points after the election. Thus the cut was merely a confidence trick played on the electorate by the Tories.

The campaign on the ground also was not waged in the same way as in the past. The Labour Party campaign was conducted from the top with a reliance on the TV and the right wing leaders of the Labour Party. There were very few meetings in the constituencies apart from the set pieces, by ticket only, at which the audience was vetted by Labour Party officials. In no way did they take advantage of the election to raise the ideas of socialism. In reality, there was not a fundamental difference in the campaign waged by the Liberals and the campaign waged by the Labour Party. Apart from incidentals, they more or less put forward the same demands and the same approach.

However, in addition to the subjective conditions leading to defeat, there are also objective conditions. 43 percent of the population lives in poverty, but the skilled section of the workers and those receiving high wages in private engineering and manufacturing industry actually increased their standard of living in the last two years. Of course Thatcher and her Cabinet were strenuously opposed to the wage increases which were given. Moreover, the increases have not been obtained by greater investment in machinery and plant, but by the increased exploitation of the workers, by rationalisation through the loss of jobs, and the increased productivity of labour, in other words, through the sweat, muscle and sinew of the worker. Nevertheless, on the basis of the big profits bonanza in the last two years due to the “boom” it was possible for the employers to give increases in wages and thus raise standards of living. In effect they agreed to give a share of the surplus extracted from the labour of the working class to the workers to avoid a struggle. The working class does not go on strike for the sake of it, but either in defence of living standards or to improve conditions, or in defence of trade union rights. Therefore there were no big struggles in private industry.

Thus while the official inflation figures were 4 percent a year, sections of the skilled workers and the top layer big earners in the working class in private industry had their standard of living increased, according to one calculation by Michael Meacher, by 20 percent in two years. Ivor Crewe in the Guardian pointed out that the months before the election saw a marked shift in people’s perception about the state of the economy. In September 1986 those who believed that “the general economic situation had got worse” outnumbered those who believed it had got better by 32 percentage points. By polling day the figures were reversed with 45 percent believing that the economic situation was improving against 30 percent who believed it had got worse, a lead of 15 percentage points. It was these factors in the West Midlands and in the South of England which were instrumental in the victory for the Tories.

A new recession

However, there is a new recession looming in the next one, two or three years, far deeper than previous recessions. The “candy floss” economy which has been built up on the basis of an artificial boom engineered to make certain of a Thatcher victory in the months before the election, will peter out. But nowhere was this perspective explained by the Labour leaders or the real catastrophe facing British capitalism outlined.

As the economic situation deteriorates, the employers will no longer be able to give concessions and will be compelled to savagely attack the standards and conditions of the workers. This will result in an explosion of struggle on the part of the workers such as has not been seen in Britain during the course of the last ten to twenty years. This is shown by the developments among the public sector workers. The customs officers, formerly a politically and industrially backward section, went on strike during the general election. The civil servants, post office workers, and teachers, also previously privileged and politically backward sections of workers, have also conducted a massive struggle against attempts to limit their wage increases and cut their standard of living.

The same process that we see among the public sector workers will take place in manufacturing industry, especially in engineering, in the coming period. Big battles are inevitable, in the South East as well as in the Midlands and the rest of the country. While the union leaders, at least in the first period, might move to the right as a consequence of the election defeat, the active rank and file will begin to move to the left.

In France, the [Gaullist RPR/UDF, the French] Tories gained a victory over the Socialist and Communist Parties and imagined that they could proceed with an enormous offensive against the working class. But after eight months they had to draw back, faced with a movement of millions of students and workers and the possibility of a virtual insurrectionary or pre-revolutionary situation unless they gave concessions. A similar situation could develop in Britain. The incipient split within the Tories between the “wets” and the “hards” still remains as an inevitable development in the future. Thatcher and the right wing Tories, despite the changes in government which have tilted it further to the right, may not be able to carry through the programme which they have set themselves.

The government will be blown apart by the crisis which will develop in the coming years. In reality, it is a pyrrhic victory for Thatcher. What we have seen in Wales, Scotland, the North East, Merseyside and the North West, will take place inevitably in the Midlands, East and West, and in London and the South East. The attempt to picture it as a North-South divide and not as a class divide is utterly false. Regional general strikes, and even the possibility of a national general strike, loom in the not too distant future. The development of a recession will have an enormous effect on all classes and on all parties.

The Labour Party

What will be the consequences of the Tories’ election victory within the Labour Party? The active rank and file of the trade unions and the Labour Party will want to know why there was another defeat after the debacle of 1983. The media is still enthusing over the Labour leadership’s “brilliant campaign”. In particular the venal, rotten, degenerate and corrupt capitalist press which savaged the Labour Party during the campaign, is now prepared to describe the campaign in glowing terms. That is because they are in favour of the non-class, so called “one nation” policy put forward by Kinnock and the right wing of the parliamentary party. The ruling class want Kinnock to remain leader of the Labour Party because they think the right wing will maintain its position so long as he maintains the leadership.

Having attacked the Labour Party in the most foul and scurrilous language, they now offer hypocritical “advice”. They are vociferously demanding the so-called “one member, one vote”, which in reality would dissolve the Labour Party and its structures into the broad mass of Labour supporters. They want to take the right to select and deselect MPs out of the hands of the trade unions and of the active layers in the constituencies. Then they might be able to have an effect, by hysterical and scurrilous attacks, on the candidates the Labour Party would choose.

Although it is still possible, it is unlikely that there will be a further split off of the right wing, at least in the immediate period ahead. Frank Field openly stated in the weeks before the General Election that, in the event of Labour losing, especially by a big majority, the extreme right wing of the Parliamentary Labour Party of between 20 and 50 Labour MPs, would be prepared to split to form some sort of alliance with the Liberals. Of course that is still possible in the future. However, the polarisation that took place during the election, which meant that the media could not give the same friendly support to the Alliance as in the last election for fear of taking votes away from the Tories rather than the Labour Party, resulted in a big defeat for the Alliance.

Now the Alliance is on verge of collapse, with the possibility of the disintegration of the SDP. Steel is pushing for a merger, primarily to absorb the SDP rank and file into the Liberal Party as a bolster against the “radical Liberals”. Such a merger will be a recipe for a future split in the Liberal Party itself.

Consequently, with no future in the Alliance, Labour’s right wing, careerists par excellence and not known for their enthusiasm to commit suicide in pursuit of an “ideal”, will hesitate more than once before they decide on a split. Of course this process will depend on the development of events in the Labour Party in the coming years.

Within one, two or three years a world recession will have a disastrous effect on the British economy and on industry generally. Once again unemployment will begin to rise, the conditions of the masses will be attacked and this will have an enormous effect within the Labour Party.

Developments in Liverpool are a glimpse of the future within the Labour Party in all regions of the country. A new period opens up worldwide, but in Europe and especially in Britain this will be of a stormy and turbulent character. The years between 1970 and 1974 were stormy, leading almost to a revolutionary situation within Britain. That was followed by the Labour Government and a further reaction in the Thatcher years of 1979-1987. Now there will inevitably be a new swing of the pendulum to the left.

Leftward shifts inevitable

In the last five years, the shifts in the trade unions and in the Labour Party have largely been to the right, with exceptions in certain industries and areas. Now in all areas, in all industries and within the labour and trade union movement itself, there will be massive shifts towards the left. It is true that for the immediate period ahead the right wing might even reinforce its grip on the Labour Party, but this v ill inevitably change as a consequence of the battles and storms which lie ahead. If one takes 3, 5, 10 years as a basis, the future will be one of the most turbulent and stormy periods in the whole history of the British working class.

The active layers in the unions - and many more will become active - will transform the shop stewards committees and union branches. The processes of change and development in the trade unions and in the Labour Party do not proceed in a straight line. Periods of reaction will be followed by stormy periods of transformation and re-transformation.

One layer after another will be involved in struggle. On the council estates and amongst tenants generally there will be stormy battles. The struggle against the Tories 1972 Housing Finance Act will pale by comparison with the movement that will unfold against the poll tax. Within the YTS, slave conditions and the conscription of 16 to 18 year olds will have, as an unwelcome by-product for the ruling class, the disciplining and the revolutionisation of the youth. The youth in the inner cities will inevitably explode as they face further attacks on conditions and standards. There will be stormy developments and battles amongst students too.

The very fact that workers have gained concessions in private industry in the last two years, particularly the upper layers, means that when these are taken away from them they will struggle even more ferociously to defend their standards and conditions. As workers begin to move towards the left and towards struggle, they will pull behind them large layers of the middle class, small businessmen and small shopkeepers. Many white collar workers too have already been affected. There has apparently been a 25 percent swing away from the Tories among teachers, a privileged section which previously overwhelmingly supported the Tories. As with teachers, so also with other professional layers. All sections of society will be involved in the ferment which will take place among the classes.

The right wing leadership of the Labour Party imagine that the next five years will be a repetition of the years through which we have gone. Of course, these were not free of enormous struggles by the miners, printers, railwaymen and other sections. But in reality we are on the threshold of the most turbulent and stormy period. In such an atmosphere, support for Marxism will grow feverishly. All the attempts to turn the Labour Party into a new version of the Liberals or the American Democratic Party will fail on the basis of the struggles of the workers, and the workers in turn will transform and re-transform the Labour Party and the trade unions many times.

The working class will learn, in the course of experience, the need to transform their organisations and to change society. It required the experience of the Labour government of 1974-79 to push the Labour Party and the trade unions far to the left. Since then there has been a reaction. As all history has demonstrated, periods of revolution are short and periods of reaction are long, and the reaction has lasted roughly 5-6 years in the Labour Party and the trade unions. Even then, it has not been a consistent movement of reaction, and there has been enormous support for the ideas of Marxism within the youth, sections of the Labour Party, the unions, on the estates, among the mass generally in Liverpool and in other areas of the country. This will be reinforced in the course of experience. In spite of flurries and zigzags to the right, which are inevitable, the pendulum will swing rapidly towards the left, even before the election of a new Labour government. In these stormy struggles, the ideas of Marxism will reveal their complete superiority over all other tendencies in the labour movement.

“A momentary snapshot”

This election has once again been a laboratory test of the difference between reformism and Marxism. It was a feature of the election, unprecedented in modern times, that the “Militant Tendency” was attacked by the leaders of the Tory Party, the Liberals and the SDP, and also by the Labour leaders. But where Marxists fought, there were big victories for Labour. Even in the seats contested by the official “left”, they did not get any better results because of their timidity, in putting forward socialist ideas and a socialist campaign.

One would search in vain through all the material of the Labour Party and the trade unions for an explanation that the Tories attacks are a consequence of the crisis of capitalism on a world scale and especially in Britain, and not the whims of Thatcher. It is as a consequence of this crisis that, inexorably, as a result of the experiences they will undergo, the working class will more and more come to understand the need to transform the Labour Party and to transform society. An election is just a momentary snapshot of the processes and of the attitudes in the minds of people at one moment in time and history. Far more decisive than the votes in the election are the processes of the class struggle, the processes of history, the development of the national and international crisis of capitalism which, in the last analysis, will determine the attitude and the response of workers, youth, students, and all sections of society.

The future lies with Marxism. No amount of witch-hunts, no amount of persecution, in industry, in the unions, in the Labour Party, in society as a whole, will be able to hold back the development of Marxism. Marxist ideas will conquer in the Labour Party and in the trade unions, preparing the way for the overthrow of capitalism and the transformation of society.