The 9.6% improvement in the Labour vote between the general elections of 2015 and 2017 was the biggest increase for the party since the Labour landslide of 1945. The Socialist Workers Party said that millions had voted for “real change” and it was “a great boost” to “all who campaigned against austerity and racism”. A young apprentice put it simply to the Guardian “I want a country that’s fair to everyone, where everyone’s happy, with poverty eradicated. Something similar to what Corbyn wants. Corbyn’s on our side, not like May.” Other young people were reported as seeing Corbyn as “compassionate” and representing a “new type of politics”.
Real discontent, but Labour only offer capitalist answers
There are many reasons for people to be discontented in Britain, mostly rooted in the state of the economy. Talk of the value of the pound being at its lowest level for 30 years, or GDP growth being sluggish can seem very abstract, but low wages, precarious employment, cuts in services, difficulties in finding decent affordable accommodation, they are all tangible manifestations of the impact of the economic crisis on people’s lives. But it’s not just these ‘bread and butter’ questions: people are also concerned with the global state of the environment, with the proliferation of military conflicts, with the possibility of terrorist attacks.
This is the context of the increased vote for Labour. The Conservative manifesto claimed “We do not believe in untrammelled free markets. We reject the cult of selfish individualism. We abhor social division, injustice, unfairness and inequality.” They offered increased state intervention in certain areas of the economy. They wanted to improve “workers’ rights” and be the party of “ordinary working people”. After the last 7 years of Conservative government it was clear that some workers might be inclined to look elsewhere.
Labour offered more money for the NHS, the abolition of university fees, an increased minimum wage, increased taxes for high earners, as well as the renationalisation of the railways, post office, electricity and water companies. Although they were criticised for encouraging belief in a Magic Money Tree, many Tory promises were also uncosted.
It was not as though Labour didn’t take the financial situation seriously. They intended to eliminate the deficit within five years and balance spending with the amount raised in taxes. Without resorting to debt this would definitely mean cuts as a Labour government tried to live within its means. They couldn’t promise not to freeze benefits because, as Emily Thornberry put it “We shouldn’t be promising things we can’t afford.”
Some areas would not be subject to cuts. They promised to maintain defence spending at 2% of GDP, including the renewal of the Trident nuclear weapons system, and increase the resources available to the police and security services. The approach to war is one of opposition to “unilateral aggressive wars of intervention”, which means they will support any wars that are supported by NATO or the United Nations. Use of nuclear weapons is not ruled out, although Labour do say they will be “extremely cautious” in their use. As for immigration Labour say that “freedom of movement will end when we leave the European Union” and therefore proposed a new system of immigration controls which would involve “employer sponsorship, work permits, visa regulations or a tailored mix of all these.”
Rule for the few
People don’t generally read manifestos, they’re like the small print in contracts. But if you look at the programme of the Labour Party it’s in continuity with the rest of modern social democracy. Corbyn used the Blair slogan from 1997 when he said Labour would “rule for the many, not the few”. It wasn’t true then and it’s not true twenty years later. The Labour programme is for state capitalism, which has been the dominant trend over capitalism’s last century internationally. Labour’s call for an increased role for the state means an increased role for a capitalist state, a state that can only act on behalf of the capitalist ruling class. In the present system of production founded on wage labour, workers exchange their labour power for wages, and any surplus value created goes to the capitalist class whether in the shape of individual entrepreneurs, big corporations, or state bureaucracies.
The Labour Party does not propose disturbing this central relationship in capitalist society. The exploitation of the working class will continue. In opposition, they will criticise government policy, but once they take their turn in government they will ensure the management of the economy, the defence of British capitalism and the advancement of British imperialism. In government or opposition, they have consistently upheld the needs of capitalist exploitation. This is true not only for the past hundred years of the Labour party in Britain - it’s no less the case for the last century of social democracy internationally. All these parties have shown that they support imperialist wars, carry out repression against workers’ struggles, and spin a web of lies about offering an alternative to capitalism.
The dangerous appeal of the left
Overall, we are in a period where the bourgeoisie, particularly in Britain, is having great difficulties in the deployment of its political apparatus. One element that has experienced a recent revival is the Labour Party. It offers illusions of social change through parliament and democracy, where the reality is the continuation of capitalist rule. Social change for the working class doesn’t come from trooping through polling stations to vote for left wing capitalist parties. Workers, from small struggles and an initial questioning of capitalism to the point where they can establish themselves as a conscious independent force against capitalism and its state, need to lose all illusions in state capitalism and its proponents. Labour is just another face of the bourgeoisie, but, where the parties of the right are readily rejected by thoughtful workers, illusions in the left are widespread and insidious.