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Lessons of the British election

The South African Federation of Trade Unions is shocked and concerned by the victory of the extreme right-wing, elitist, racist and xenophobic Conservative Party in the British general election, and the defeat of a Labour Party which fought on its most radical programme ever, on 12 December 2019.

Led by Boris Johnson, a member of England’s rich elite capitalist class, his new government will soon forget the few empty populist promises he made to get his party elected and inflict misery on the working class and the poor.

As a consequence of austerity cuts in public services by the Conservative government, the UK already has more than 14 million people living in poverty, including 4.5 million children, as a result of cuts in social benefits.

One in 50 households used a charity-funded food bank in the last year, and at least 3 million food parcels were given out following austerity cuts since 2010, when only a small number of food banks even existed.

And a growing number of these poor are employed workers. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation have revealed that more than 500,000 British workers have been swept into working poverty over the past five years. The number of people with a job but living below the breadline has risen faster than employment and 4 million workers lived in poverty last year, meaning about one in eight are now classified as working poor.

This trend has accompanied the collapse of manufacturing industry and the growing casualisation of the labour force. More workers are forced to accept zero-hours contracts and insecure forms of employment. This will all sound very familiar to South African workers.

The government has been slashing spending on the National Health Service (NHS) by an average 1.3% a year. There are more than 17,000 fewer hospital beds despite the health needs of the population growing. There are record-breaking waiting times for patients in emergency departments. There are currently 43,000 unfilled nursing vacancies. Patients waiting for hours on trolleys in hospital corridors are an almost daily occurrence.

All these problems will now get far worse as Johnson is given a free hand to impose further austerity and shift the balance of wealth even further in favour of the billionaire capitalist elite, increasingly dominated by the financial dealers, who produce nothing but make fortunes by gambling on the money markets and laundering it away in tax havens, leaving even less for healthcare, educational and welfare.

They may soon not need to export their riches, since the main reason for Johnson and Co leaving to European Union (Brexit) is to turn Britain itself into a giant tax haven where global big business will be free from any restrictions on their drive to maximise their profits, including protecting workers’ and consumers’ rights, curbing monopolisation and saving the planet from global warming.

Trade unions will also now see more threats to workers’ rights, which have already been under attack. The latest outrage is the court order outlawing a strike by Post Office workers, whose union had complied with the law, held a postal ballot, won a 97.1% vote for the strike but then had it declared unlawful because of the union leadership “consciously and deliberately interfering” with the ballot by arguing favour of a Yes vote! Is that not precisely what a union leadership is elected to do?

The question South African workers are bound to ask is how, given the scale of these attacks, the Conservatives could possibly have convinced so many working people in traditionally labour-voting areas to vote for them and give them a big Parliamentary majority.

This is even more worrying because the opposition Labour Party fought on a programme of radical reforms, including a £10-an-hour (R200) minimum wage, increased house building, huge investments in the NHS, ending zero-hour contracts, free education, pension increases and the renationalisation of basic services – water, electricity, gas and railways. It would have been a real step forward for millions of workers who have suffered a decade of falling living standards.

The party ought have been able to build an invincible mass campaign based its slogans of “It’s Time For Real Change” and “For the Many, Not the Few”. Yet it suffered one of the worst defeats in its history, losing 59 seats, most of them in working-class areas. In Scotland, where as recently as 2010, Labour held 41 out of 59 parliamentary seats, this has now been reduced to just one!

There are several reasons for this defeat:

1. The role of the media, especially newspapers

The print media, owned by billionaires like Rupert Murdoch, waged a disgusting campaign of distortion and lies against Labour and, in particular, personalised attacks on its leader Jeremy Corbyn.

They lied that he wanted to disband the army, ban the MI5 Intelligence service and supported terrorists. They falsely accused him of anti-semitism, because of his refusal to condemn those who support the struggle of the people Palestine against the Israeli apartheid government.

These lies were then repeated and embellished by Conservative leaders, who ludicrously compared Corbyn’s policies with Stalin’s murder of thousands of Russian peasants, the Kulaks.

This led to a widespread and totally unjustified ‘dislike’ and ‘distrust’ of Corbyn by disillusioned voters, who could be heard in TV ‘vox-pop’ interviews repeating the views about him which had they had read in right-wing papers.

2. The ‘Blairite’ sabotage

Sabotage of labour’s campaign came not only from its enemies in the media and the Conservatives but from the enemy within. Both before and during the election campaign the supporters of former ‘New Labour’ leader Tony Blair and his right-wing policies continued to undermine both Corbyn and the party’s radical policies.

They echoed the Tory lies about him being unfit to be prime minister and this ‘extremist’ policies. 15 ex-Labour MPs placed adverts in northern papers the day before the election urging people not to vote for Corbyn.

Many Labour candidates openly undermined Corbyn, failing to even mention him or the manifesto in their leaflets. All this left Corbyn fighting with one hand tied behind his back.

He should have openly exposed and condemned this sabotage, and countered the media’s lies of the media – not by trying to ‘moderate’ his commitment to the party’s manifesto but by campaigning more vigorously for its bold, fighting socialist programme.

3. The Brexit issue

The Conservatives centred their campaign around the slogan ‘Get Brexit done!’ They successfully exploited the anger amongst many working-class people who voted in the 2016 referendum in favour of leaving the European Union (EU) but who are frustrated by the government’s failure to implement this decision. Johnson cynically dodged the fact this it was his party which had failed to ‘Do Brexit’ because of splits within its own ranks and shifted the blame onto opposition parties.

He also disguised the fact that the Conservatives’ reasons for wanting to leave the EU were entirely different from those of most of ‘leave’ voters. Johnson wanted to free capitalists from EU regulations which stood in the way of their pursuit of profit. And to mobilise support for this he resorted to all manner of nationalistic and racist demagogy to whip up support for ‘getting Brexit done’.

The working-class vote for Brexit on the other hand was an angry protest against everything they had suffered in a decade of austerity, for which they rightly saw the EU bosses’ club as at least partly responsible.

Johnson’s Brexit deal is a vicious pro-big business strategy which will further undermine workers’ rights. Against the background of growing global economic crisis, any illusions that Johnson’s deal is what ‘the people’ voted for will be destroyed by his government’s actions.

Labour, whose leaders were also split on the issue, tried to resolve this by adopting a compromise policy, drafted by union leaders, which left voters confused. While correctly opposing Johnson’s reckless pro-big business Brexit legislation and calling for a second referendum on any Brexit deal, it left Labour with no policy on what position they would support in any such referendum.

The confusion was exacerbated by Labour’s perceived collaboration in Parliament with Conservative and Liberal Democrat pro-capitalist EU remainers.

Instead they should have supported Brexit from a class and internationalist viewpoint, rejecting the idea that simply leaving the EU would in itself solve the workers’ problems within the framework of a capitalist economy and instead counterposing uniting workers in a campaign for a socialist federation of Europe.

4. Scotland

Labour’s defeat was made far worse by the collapse of its support in Scotland, once a labour bastion, with a proud history of workers’ struggle over decades.

This was the result of a fatal mistake by Labour of ignoring the national question in Scotland, and joining the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in a campaign against a second referendum on independence.

Labour should have supported the right of the Scottish people to self-determination and linked this to an internationalist call for workers’ unity across the UK and Europe.

Now, the Conservative victory and the inevitable attacks on living standards and workers’ rights will lead to even more support for Scotland to be independent of an English-based monopoly capitalists elite.

5. Socialism

The problem at the heart of Labour’s campaign, which links all the issues above is the lack of a clear socialist programme to spell out how all the promises in the party’s manifesto would be carried out.

The legacy of the Blair years is reflected not only in the role of the treacherous Blairite leaders but in the policies for which they were responsible. The governments led by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown failed miserably to implement the promises made in their manifestos. On the contrary they imposed pro-capitalist austerity programmes little different from those of the Conservatives.

Although Corbyn’s manifesto was far more ambitious than theirs, with much bolder reforms, it failed to answer the fear of many workers that it would once again be fine words with no deeds to follow. There were also concerns that Labour-controlled local councils have been implementing the government’s austerity cuts in education, healthcare and public transport.

The Labour campaign failed to spell out that its policies would be met with fanatical opposition from the capitalist elite and its political allies in the Conservative, Liberal Democrat and right-wing leaders in its own party and those in the media.

They could only implement their manifesto promises through a complete transfer of wealth and power from the capitalists to the majority, under the leadership of the working class.

To defeat this the ruling class would use every weapon in their armoury, both legal and illegal, to wreck a government trying to implement such policies and the only way to defeat the counter-attack would be to build a mass campaign in the workplaces and communities, and mass rallies in the streets like those we are seeing today in Chile, France, Colombia, Algeria, Sudan and Lebanon.

These are the important lessons for the South African working class of Labour’s electoral defeat in Britain. SAFTU sends a message of solidarity to its comrades the British labour movement and wishes them well in their coming battles.