Mike Macnair reviews the mainstream election campaign and the inadequate response of the left
Watching the general election campaign is watching an electoral fraud in progress. Of course, direct ballot-rigging will be limited – confined to the exploitation of the postal vote rules here and there. We are not about to see the massive stuffing of ballot boxes in the style of the recent ‘elections’ of Ahmadinejad in Iran or Karzai in Afghanistan, or even the fraudulent use of election qualification rules and ballot errors like the 2000 US presidential election.
But the outcome of the election, whatever it is, will be governed by the systematic fraudulent misrepresentations – suggestio falsi (suggestion of falsehood) and suppressio veri (suppression of the truth) – of the main parties and the state and capitalist mass media. The vast majority of voters will have no opportunity to make choices not governed by these fraudulent operations. It is as if there were no way to buy medicines – except from three fraudulent ‘internet pharmacies’, none of whom will in reality deliver what has been paid for.
All capitalist elections have to be largely governed by fraud: who would vote for the Bankers Atlanticist New Labour Party, Bankers Atlanticist Conservative Party or Bankers Atlanticist Liberal Democratic Party, if given their right names? Even before universal suffrage, who would have voted for the Landlords and Bankers Imperialist Whig (Liberal) Party or the Landlords and Bankers Imperialist Tory (Conservative) Party? The capitalist class is a small minority in society, and it can only rule in elections by winning support from the lower orders for parties which it controls through machineries of corruption. But the fraudulent character of this election campaign is unusually striking.
Part (but only part) of that fraudulent character is the effective exclusion of the political representation of the interests of the working class. Historically, since the 1900s these interests have been (very imperfectly) represented by the Labour Party or, more exactly, by its left wing. But the media, by crying ‘class war’ and ‘no return to the 70s’, has scared off the Labour leadership from its very tentative attempts earlier in the campaign to raise issues of working class interests, and New Labour, desperately short of activists on the ground, is running an ultra-centralised campaign through commercial mail shots and call-centres. Meanwhile, the far left is characterised by illusions of unity with the right and real internal fragmentation, which preclude effective campaigning.
Tweedledum and Tweedledee
The Tories, who remain front-runners, and New Labour have both run fundamentally dishonest campaigns. Recent Tory posters, after early debacles, promise ‘workfare’ schemes (which New Labour has already introduced). They accuse Gordon Brown of increasing social inequality (which Tory tax policy would undoubtedly exacerbate) and of releasing tens of thousands of prisoners early. This last policy the Tories would undoubtedly continue: the alternatives are either to reduce the use of imprisonment for property crimes (hardly a likely Tory policy) or massive spending on new jails (also unlikely when huge public spending cuts are in the offing).
New Labour’s dishonesty is slightly different in character. “A future fair for all” was immediately spoofed, most effectively as “a future vague for all”. The real essence of the campaign, however, is to remind voters of Cameron’s and Osborne’s early promises of ‘slash and burn’ cuts in public expenditure, and warn (more or less carefully) targeted groups of voters of Tory cuts affecting their particular interests. Pensioners’ benefits has become a cause célèbre, as the Tories have accused New Labour of lying.
Both sides promise ‘fundamental reforms’ in the way politics is done. In both there is one or another sort of catch. Cameron defends ‘first past the post’ (FPTP); and promotes presidential politics – in the leaders’ ‘debate’, he proposed that the election of a new party leader should trigger a general election and touted directly elected mayors. The effect would be to further reduce the choice available to electors – from policies to administrators. Brown proposes the unqualified ‘alternative vote’ (AV) system, which would force politicians onto the centre ground and disenfranchise altogether both left and right, accentuating the problem that ‘all politicians are the same’. His ‘solution’ to the parliamentary expenses scandal is to give yet more power to the lawyers at the expense of politics. Cameron was first off in support of ‘open primaries’ – ie, allowing the media and the advertisers to select party candidates – but Miliband and others jumped on the bandwagon. The reality is that what is on offer from both sides is to deepen the tendency for the limited democratic elements in the constitution to be eviscerated by control by the state, media and lawyers.
The three-way leaders’ ‘debates’ have been entirely stage-managed and almost totally bereft of any genuine exchange of ideas. The media coverage has largely turned on presentational trivia. The underlying agenda is presidentialist: we are to vote for leaders as potential prime ministers, not to make choices about policies or our representation by MPs.
The Scottish National Party is entirely right to argue (in its litigation against the BBC) that the effect is anti-democratic and amounts to bias in favour of the three parties represented in the debate, in violation of the BBC’s charter. That is not to say that the SNP’s narrow Scots-sectionalist agenda is in any way desirable: but its narrowness and that of Plaid Cymru should be exposed to the full view of the electorate. The SNP predictably lost its case, and the UK Independence Party’s threat to sue will fail too: no judge will rock the political boat to the extent that ruling against the debates would involve.
But the debate format has allowed the Liberal Democrats in the person of Nick Clegg to claim to be offering a ‘real alternative’; and their support shot up in the polls after the first debate and has remained in the high 20s since – high enough to make a hung parliament a realistic possibility. In effect, Clegg has – at least temporarily – been able to capitalise on the ‘anti-politics’ mood which has been around for some time and exacerbated since the expenses scandal broke. ‘Cleggstasy’, coined by some hack last week, is singularly appropriate: the current Lib Dem-ism is precisely like a drug which provides the illusion of ‘goodwill to all men’.
The Lib Dems have, of course, fewer MPs than the other parties, and probably proportionately fewer simple careerists than Labour or the Tories. So they have been less hard hit by the expenses scandal. But there is no more reason to believe that the Lib Dems would bring ‘real change’ than to believe the Tories or New Labour would. The new voting system the Lib Dems propose is the single transferable vote (STV) with larger multi-member constituencies. But, as Moshé Machover has shown in these pages and elsewhere, STV can produce results as unrepresentative as FPTP; and like AV it tends to reinforce the centre and thus deny voters the full range of choices.
Nonetheless, a new voting system would represent a real change. So one acid test of the Lib Dems’ claim to stand for change will be whether they will insist on early legislation for proportional representation as a condition of joining a coalition or giving support to a minority government. In fact, it seems most unlikely. As I write, the sovereign debt crisis which has been focussed on Greece is deepening, spreading and bringing sharp falls in stock markets round the world. Since the 2004 ‘Orange book’ the Lib Dem leadership has moved sharply towards neoliberal orthodoxy, and part of its current selling package is Vince Cable in the debate between the chancellor of the exchequer and his two shadows. Surely, when presented both with sovereign debt crisis and the opportunity to show that they are ‘serious and responsible’ in order to get a foot in the ministerial door, the Lib Dems will say that serious constitutional change has to wait until the crisis has been sorted out.
We are not without evidence for this judgment from the Lib Dems’ prior practice. Anyone who has followed the news of Lib Dem election campaigns in the localities will know that they are characterised by more direct dishonesty (false allegations about shares of the vote and about other candidates) and more sheer opportunism (saying what they think the voters wish to hear) than either of the other two parties. Moreover, the Lib Dems are in office in a wide range of places in local government, usually in coalition with the Tories. Their conduct in local government has negligible relation to their electoral promises. Moreover, that their election campaign is fraudulent too is shown by the silences they share with the other main parties.
Don’t mention the war
The Independent on Sunday (April 18) used this headline to describe what it called a ‘conspiracy of silence’ on Afghanistan. Its poll found 77% of respondents wanted the withdrawal of troops. But this public opinion found no reflection in the leaders’ ‘debate’ and has no reflection in the policy of the three main parties. The Lib Dems try to exploit the fact that they ‘opposed’ the invasion of Iraq, by which they mean that they opposed invasion without a UN mandate; but when UK forces were sent in they ‘rallied behind the troops’. They have never opposed the war in Afghanistan (which has been UN-sanctioned all along) and continue to support it.
Behind this silence is something more fundamental: Britain’s place in the world. At the leaders’ ‘debate’ Cameron and Brown joined together in attacking Clegg over the Lib Dems’ unwillingness to support the planned replacement for the Trident nuclear submarine system. Renewal will cost upwards of £20 billion, and the costs (and dubious military value) have led some retired military figures to argue against replacement. Why on earth cling to a system which is expensive, crowds out other military hardware in the defence budget and in any case effectively dependent on the US? (Though Brown claims that Trident is not dual-keyed, its predecessor, Polaris, was, and both the subs and the missiles are dependent on US supply and servicing.) On Europe, too, the Lib Dems were targeted as too ‘Europhile’ by Conservative and New Labour alike.
Beneath these issues lie the Atlanticist commitments of all British parties, the Lib Dems included, and of the British state. ‘Don’t mention the war’ in another sense. In 1940-41 the financial dominance and independent defence capability of the British empire collapsed. After tough negotiations in 1940 the US bailed Britain out, on terms whereby Britain would be subordinate to the US, playing a role analogous to Britain’s stronger continental satellites in the 18th century. Down to the Suez crisis of 1956 British policymakers hoped to recover an autonomous position; by the mid-1960s they had abandoned this hope.
Thatcher’s neoliberal turn and the ‘big bang’ in the City meant a further surrender of autonomy to the US. The UK had now become an offshore financial centre with a limited material economy attached to it. But its ability to function as an offshore financial centre depended, and still depends, on US support. In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, France and Germany could take an autonomous line. The UK could not, or could not without wrecking the City and, as a result, risking radical and wrenching change on a scale comparable to the fates of the eastern European economies after 1989. David Miliband said in October 2009: “For 60 years Europe, with Britain eventually playing its part, has developed a distinctive, successful model of social market economies and liberal politics. Now we are challenged to be a global player. It is, therefore, a choice that no responsible British government can afford to shirk.” This is code for the necessary Atlanticism of any “responsible British government” – and therefore of the three main parties, however much the electorate may be opposed to its results in wars and military waste.
Quiet about the cuts
This week the media finally picked up on the fact that the main parties must, in reality, be planning much more extensive cuts and tax rises than any of them are admitting. The Financial Times (April 26) suggested that on the parties’ own claims about halving the deficit £37 billion needs to be cut: its major suggestions include a 5% across-the-board cut in public sector pay, freezing all benefits, means-testing child benefit, making 10% cuts in the devolved budgets in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, stopping all school building projects, halving spending on roads, and scrapping pensioners’ winter fuel payments, free TV licences and concessionary fares. Alternatively, the basic rate of income tax could go up to 25% to raise £20 billion, VAT to 20% to raise £12 billion and national insurance by some unspecified amount. On April 27 the Institute for Fiscal Studies got in on the act: it suggested that the Conservatives on their plans need to make around £64 billion of cuts (of which they have specified so far £18 billion), Labour £51 billion (£7 billion specified), and the Lib Dems £47 billion (£7 billion).
These figures depend, of course, on the parties taking their existing spending and tax commitments at all seriously – which seems, frankly, in the highest degree unlikely. They also depend on two assumptions about the economy. The first is that the contagion of the sovereign debt crisis will not spread so far as to severely increase the yields on gilts (which would mean the UK government had to find more money to pay interest). The second is that neither the sovereign debt crisis, nor the pending cuts themselves, will produce a second leg down in the recession – which would result in a more or less serious fall in tax receipts.
In this context it is not surprising that it has been remarked of the Conservatives’ ‘big society’ slogan and the concrete suggestion of privatising schools through ‘parent cooperatives’ that there is no money available for it: so that the leader of Tory flagship Kent County Council points out that the only way to pay for it would be to make schools remaining in the public sector worse.
It is characteristic of fraudsters that they play up the good things their product or service will offer – but do not mention the downside risks. Both on the Afghanistan war, ‘defence’ and Britain’s place in the world, and on the scale of the cuts that they are actually contemplating, the main parties are engaged in just such suppressio veri.
Machinery of fraud
A large part of the con man’s trick is to reduce the information available to the mark. The primary fraudulent misrepresentations are expected to crowd out other information, less attractively presented, which might conflict with them; but also pressure is put on to ‘close the deal’ before the mark has had an opportunity to rethink.
Electoral fraud works in the same way. The primary fraudulent misrepresentations are broadcast by paid advertising and the state and advertising-funded media, crowding out other messages (indeed, the phenomena of junk mail, billboard advertising and flyposting for clubs and gigs themselves work to drown out all forms of political communication not backed by advertising agencies or the mass media). The role of the advertising-funded mass media is, in fact, central to corruption and sleaze, because the only way (within the rules of the game) that politicians can hope to counter the biases of the mass media and behind them the advertisers, is to buy commercial advertising, which demands donations from the rich, which in turn demands the policy pay-off to the donors.
Meanwhile, elections happen once every five years, and the campaign is short. The message from both the media and the main parties is that the job of elections is to choose a government. So don’t waste your vote – or your thinking time – on fringe parties. Close the deal! Political action in local government elections and the internal life of parties, which can provide some degree of political life outside the ‘government election season’, is as far as possible closed down: by FPTP, which results in big-party control of councils and ‘rotten boroughs’; by the enormous expansion of judicial review (why fight for council policies when the lawyers will tell you what to do anyhow?); and, in the Labour Party, by bureaucratic intervention from the central apparatus, backed up if necessary by the trade union bureaucracy. Only in general elections are the voters to be allowed to make ‘real choices’. Close the deal! Close the deal now!
The anarchists produced a true slogan about capitalist elections: ‘Whoever you vote for, the government will get in.’ It would be even truer to say: ‘Whichever of the main parties you vote for, you will have been conned.’
Working class political representation
In the opening of the 1880 Programme of the Parti Ouvrier Karl Marx wrote that a political party of the working class “must be pursued by all the means the proletariat has at its disposal, including universal suffrage, which will thus be transformed from the instrument of deception that it has been until now into an instrument of emancipation.” A hundred and thirty years later, universal suffrage remains an ‘instrument of deception’. And part of that instrument of deception is the Bankers Atlanticist New Labour Party.
Labour was founded as a political party of the working class, though the apple contained from the beginning a worm at its core: the dictatorship of the trade union officials and the autonomy of the MPs. Even so, down to the 1970s the Labour Party did to some extent represent the political interests of the working class. And in doing so it did reduce the extent to which elections could be conducted through pure and simple fraud.
It did so primarily not through its leadership. Ramsay MacDonald or Ernie Bevin, Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson and so on were just as much bureaucrats and careerists as today’s politicians and just as prone to lie to the electorate. Rather, on the one hand. the idea of the Labour Party as a party of the independent interests of the working class legitimised political speech about the interests of the working class. And, on the other, the organisation of activists at the base, the imperfectly democratic constitutional structures of Labour conference, constituency Labour parties, and so on, and the labour movement press (the Daily Herald, Tribune and so on) provided spaces in which it was possible for working class people to debate and discuss what the interests of the class were and put them forward. These spaces were not, unlike the 19th century bourgeois press or today’s media, controlled by the media barons and the advertisers.
The existence of the organisations of the labour movement at the base and its press did not guarantee fraud-free elections. But they did mitigate the control of the fraudsters over political communications. They did so by providing alternative channels of political communication accessible to the working class.
Today almost all of this is gone. It is gone because, by the 1970s, the capitalist class judged that the concessions it had made to the working class in the post-war period gave the working class too much power. The capitalist class through the state and the media therefore forced the leadership of the mass workers’ organisations to choose between their loyalty to the nation-state and the constitution, on the one hand, and independent organisation of the working class, on the other. Under the 1974-79 Wilson government, and all the more under Thatcher, the overwhelming majority of the leaders of the labour movement chose loyalty to Britain and to the constitution. The result was not the disappearance of trade unions or labour movement organisations, but rather that these organisations became subordinated to and incorporated within the order of legal-bureaucratic-advertising-media control of political communication.
Almost all that is left is the idea of a Labour Party. Many media types would like to be rid of this, too, and see the Liberal Democrats return to the throne they held in the 19th century as the Liberal Party, the throne held today in the US by the Democrats. In the present state of the polls, it does not look as if they will achieve their aim; and it is far from clear that British capital as such shares it. Trade unions have been dramatically weakened, but they can still from time to time mobilise their members and obstruct employers’ plans. Through the Labour Party the trade union bureaucracy is incorporated in the rules of the constitutional game; breaking that link in the hope of remaking it through the Lib Dems would be high-risk.
The alternative contenders for recreating working class political representation and undermining the hold of the fraudsters on politics are the left, both within and outside Labour. Both sides of the coin are today extraordinarily weak.
The left inside Labour is paralysed by its attachment to the party as such, which means – in effect – attachment to the careerist fraudsters who constitute the party leadership. To fight exclusively within the party and its (withered) official structures and (ultra-narrow) opportunities for debate means to seek allies to your right, among the Labour ‘centre-left’: this much is visible even in the Labour Representation Committee’s list of recommended Labour candidates. But then the ‘centre-left’ is seeking allies to its right … and so what can be said in debate is almost exclusively limited to what is ‘acceptable opposition’ in the eyes of the New Labour right of the party.
It is perfectly conceivable that if after May 6 Labour is faced with a Lib Dem-Tory coalition, the party will shift to the left in the hope of regaining lost ground or at least providing a vision for opposition. The problem is that to restore Labour as a party of (imperfect) political representation of the working class it would be necessary to liquidate the ‘reforms’ of the period between Wilson (on reselection of MPs) and Blair; and, in addition, to embark on a campaign to delegitimise the judiciary and delegitimise the media, both in relation to industrial action and in relation to local government, in order to restore the grassroots by gradually breaking the stranglehold of these institutions on local and political action. To do so would not be to seek an insurrectionary general strike; but it would be to break with the path of constitutionalism.
Equally, under present conditions it is extraordinarily difficult to defend the independent interests of the working class at all without fighting to do so on at least a European scale. If the UK is to borrow money on international money markets, which it must do in order to keep going under the existing constitutional order, it must maintain ‘credibility’ with the capitalist lenders; and in order to pay them it must preserve UK ‘competitiveness’. Both mean attacks on working class living standards and working conditions. Merely to print money to avoid cuts would produce a rapid collapse. Economic ‘autarky’ within Britain would lead to millions starving in short order; the same is all the more true of an ‘independent socialist Scotland’. On a European scale, however, the working class could refuse the demands of the bankers, break free of the limits of the deficit-finance nation-state and take over running the economy as a whole in its own interests.
The Labour left could, potentially, spearhead a political fightback. But to do so it would have to break free of its own Labour-constitutionalism and nationalism.
Outside the Labour Party there are many candidates of different left formations of one sort or another. Most of them are complete no-hopers, aiming at most to do some small-scale propaganda for their own small-scale organisation. So we have the Socialist Equality Party (two candidates), Communist League (also two), Workers Revolutionary Party (seven), Workers Power (one), Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (one). The Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain is standing six candidates on the same general approach.
Arthur Scargill’s proprietary Socialist Labour Party is standing 24 candidates, and in spite of its almost non-existence on the ground will no doubt get at least as good a vote as other far-left candidates – quite likely better because of the Scargill name. In Scotland the Scottish Socialist Party is standing 10 candidates. Not that many years ago both of these organisations represented serious potential for the reorganisation of the left to challenge New Labour; in both cases that potential has been squandered.
The idea of unity of the left is represented in two different ways, by Respect and by the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition.
Respect does objectively represent a small section of the working class: workers of south Asian – principally Pakistani and Bengali – ethnic origin, in inner east London and inner Birmingham. It has made serious efforts to organise on the ground and has the advantage of consistent use of a name and the prominence of George Galloway MP. Since its split with the Socialist Workers Party it has moved somewhat to the left. However, it remains an organisation which does not set out to represent the working class as a class, but to create a ‘rainbow coalition’ or people’s front. It is also hard to see how, even if Respect does well on May 6, it can break out of its existing ghettoes.
Tusc is a lash-up, an attempt to create a sort of fiction of unity under the methods of the isolationism of its principal constituents, the Socialist Party in England and Wales and the SWP – and hence, in Scotland, these two groups’ joint front with Tommy Sheridan, Solidarity. Originally it also included the CPB, which pulled out to run its own campaign (although CPB member John Metcalfe is the Tusc candidate in Carlisle); RMT general secretary Bob Crow, theoretically a backer of Tusc, has said he will join the CPB in campaigning on election day. The bureaucratic lash-up of Tusc’s creation has meant an extraordinarily late and inefficient entry on the campaign, as can be seen from other reports in this paper. The degree of unity involved can be judged by the fact that Socialist Worker reports only the campaigns of SWP-backed candidates, The Socialist only those backed by SPEW.
Tusc is politically stronger than Respect, in that its name expresses more clearly the political representation of the working class. It is sharply weaker as an electoral project, and politically, on questions of democracy both in the state and in the movement.
The left inside Labour and the left outside Labour have a common political weakness. They both cling to the illusion of unity with forces to their right; and in doing so refuse to unite with forces with whom they have common ground. The illusion of unity with the right is most obvious in the Labour left, but it, just like the ‘outside left’, is internally splintered between different factions (Briefing, Socialist Appeal and so on) which weakens the effectiveness of its work. The splintering is most obvious outside Labour; but the illusion of unity with the right is also present. It expresses itself in the Labourite character of the comrades’ electoral platforms and campaigns, which focus on economic issues and ignore or downplay democratic ones – even when, as in this election, questions like proportional representation are at the centre of the campaign.
CPGB comrades have attempted, with varying success, to give personal support to Tusc candidates as well as to Respect in east London and to the Labour left campaign of John McDonnell MP of the Labour Representation Committee in Hayes and Harlington. We have not put the same effort into the campaigns of other more or less supportable far-left groups or individual candidates. The reason is that, however weakly, the LRC, Respect and Tusc pose the question of the unity of the left.
To overcome the dominance of the fraudsters we need to recover and develop the political representation of the working class. The great illusions of the splintered left are founded on two ideas.
The first is the idea that the political representation of the working class can be recovered within the framework of Labourism – whether inside or outside the Labour Party. The loss of working class political representation through Labour is not an accident, but resulted from choices made by capital, which have reshaped the British constitution in favour of lawyerisation and bureaucratic and media control – which in turn have caused a withering of labour movement organisations. These will not be rebuilt without systematic campaigning on the constitutional issues in order to undermine the legitimacy of the media and the courts. Nor will the idea of socialism in Britain alone be remotely plausible to electors. The effort to reclaim Labour, or build a new Labourite Party, will therefore lead merely to failure or to tailing the Labour right (directly or indirectly).
The second is the illusion that the political representation of the working class can be recovered without overcoming the disunity of the Marxist left and its extraordinarily short attention span. The reality is that regaining political representation means a long, hard grind in the localities, in local elections, local campaigns, and so on, and in rebuilding trade union organisation at the base, workers’ education, etc: the work that the precursors of the Labour Party did. It also means building up workers’ media – not a party paper, but many local and sectoral papers. This sort of work needs our combined efforts if it is to be at all effective. Without a common party, what we get is ineffective, competing projects and at best bureaucratic lash-ups which have negligible political impact.
- ‘Proportional representation and Brown’s opportunist ploy’ Weekly Worker April 1.
- news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/8646612.stm As of writing, the IFS website (www.ifs.org) is down, so that it is not possible to see more detail.
- ‘Sleaze is back’ Weekly Worker July 20 2006.