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Joe Bord © 2005


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The British general election will be held, as expected, on 5 May. The British left will have to decide whether to participate in the election, and if so, which way to vote. The practical arguments against abstention are telling: at stake are sharp questions of foreign policy, public service reform, civil liberties and political milieu. The same is true of mid-level economic issues (principally the direction of state spending). The boundaries set by globalised capital do allow for a pretty wide variation in policy. Even if some leftists do not see parliamentarianism as the focus of their activity, they should not ignore it when its composition can be influenced. Meanwhile, the majority of the left is right to think that elections are still fairly important. This means that a survey of the formal party spectrum might be useful. The panoramic view suggests that where possible in the constituencies, a ballot should be cast for Labour's internal opposition, which is the most extensive force on the electoral left. Lists of such MP's are provided below, and readers are recommended to scout out non-sitting Labour prospective parliamentary candidates. Otherwise, a vote for the Liberal Democrats, and then the Green party (in that order) is the least bad of the available alternatives.

Looking round from the right: I take it that nobody reading these pages will be attracted to the racism of the BNP, the obsessive euroscepticism of UKIP, or the egomania of Kilroy. That leaves the Conservative party, and some scrutiny is needed before its claims are dismissed out of hand. After all, one distinguished socialist journal has argued that New Labour are so iniquitous that any mainstream vote, including a Tory one, is permissible to boot them out. Blair's record of humanitarian warfare is much bloodier than Margaret Thatcher's. If the Economist thinks that New Labour is the best conservative government around then even the actual Conservative party should be preferred by the left. The difference between New Labour and the Conservatives is merely the distinction between the low and high road to neo-liberalism. The destination is the same, and the traditional "half an inch" between social democratic timidity and Tory rapacity has now disappeared. The argument is rather confusing (are New Labour as bad as the Tories or worse?) but the upshot is clear: if a Conservative vote is the most effective opposition gesture - as it must be in most constituencies - then so be it.

This is not all. On certain issues the Conservatives have tacked to the left of the government. The Tories now promise to restore the earnings link for revaluing the state pension (which they kindly scrapped). This would be paid for by reducing means-tested benefits. Pensioners would receive discounts on the local property levy, the council tax. Students can look forwards to full scholarships. It's just that there would be fewer of them: the Tories would halt university expansion, in practice favouring the higher income groups who already participate in higher education. The overall increase in public expenditure projected for the next five years would be broadly maintained. Although Conservatives have been hostile to constitutional reform and human rights legislation, they have erratically defended "ancient liberties". They have opposed limitations to jury trial and the executive imprisonment implied by the recent anti-terror bill. Michael Howard's relations with the White House are notoriously bad, and it is at least conceivable that Tory foreign policy cynicism would keep Britain from further neo-con embroilments (much as John Major's government resisted liberal intervention in the Balkans).

Now for the bad news. The Conservatives are aiming for a radical subversion of the National Health Service and state schooling. Patients will be allowed to take a public subsidy of up to fifty percent of the cost of treatment with them once they turn to the private sector. Those rich enough to pay for half of the expense will be assisted by the taxpayer to jump the queue. Similarly, parents will be permitted to take funding with them (in effect, a voucher) to any state or private secondary school. Local education planning will be rendered nugatory and widespread academic selection re-introduced if individual schools so wish. As the Tories want to preserve levels of public spending, this means that the state will be reconfigured to the detriment of the poor. Or to put it another way, the Tories want to keep public transfers, but cut their positive redistribution. The state will stand more rudely than ever before for the social defence of the middle-class.

If New Labour has signified liberal expansionism, the Tories by contrast are intent on building fortress Britain. The Conservatives envisage a massive expansion in police and prison numbers, ending early release schemes and cutting community sentences. They want to pull out of the 1951 United Nations convention on refugees while imposing restrictive quotas on both economic immigration and asylum. Opposed to the European constitution and the euro, a Howard government would press for a "renegotiation" of Britain's place in the European Union. Tory tepidity towards George Bush falls into this broader isolationist and nationalist pattern.

In short, the Conservatives stand for the defensive state. The focus has moved away from privatisation and tax cuts, although one can safely assume that these will continue to erode the public services in a piecemeal manner over the medium term. No: the shrinking of the public sector has already been the heroic work of the Thatcherite phase with its Majorite and Blairite extensions. Richer pensioners, students, patients and parents all now stand to gain from a Howard government. People who need to use education and healthcare without the means to supplement vouchers or their equivalents will suffer. Immigrants, asylum-seekers, and those from marginalised communities will be punished. The Tories will probably distance themselves from a pro-Bush foreign policy. In practice, however, it is hard to see the Conservatives sharply breaking from Washington over the principal legacy issue of Iraq. Tory Britain will withdraw when the United States lets it. There is surely little in this that any self-respecting socialist or left liberal could vote for. One can't simply vote Conservative because one finds New Labour repellent. It is mad to put Michael Howard in Downing Street on this platform, particularly as there are electoral alternatives.

The most serious of these, in terms of sheer electoral size, is the Liberal Democrats. There is no doubt that significant portions of the LibDem platform have been crafted to draw disillusioned leftwing support away from the Labour party. Charles Kennedy's party deserves credit for having expressed reservations over the invasion of Iraq. More significantly, Charles Kennedy has floated the idea of setting the expiry of the United Nations occupation mandate in December 2005, as a deadline for the commencement of British withdrawal. This will be discussed more fully below. On other fronts, the Liberal Democrats support the European constitution - but also the euro with its outmoded deflationist bias. Like the Tories, the LibDems propose a move away from the means-testing of pensioners, this time through the provision of free personal care for the elderly. The introduction of a top rate of income taxation of fifty pence in the pound would be symbolically redistributive at the threshold proposed. The move from council tax to a local income tax would be moderately so. In higher education, the LibDems advocate a middle-class subsidy, namely the abolition of means-tested fees without reintroduction of the grant. On the home front, the Liberal Democrats oppose the introduction of identity cards, the removal of judicial oversight and due process from terrorist cases, and reject the expansion of prisons. Their attitude towards immigration is probably the sanest of all the major parties, allowing asylum-seekers to work and introducing a flexible work-permits scheme.

Habitual LibDem themes such as proportional representation for the House of Commons are less in evidence than formerly, and the domestic constitutional agenda has receded. More significant, and unwelcome, are the inroads that deregulationist ideology has made into the party. It is not fair to judge the whole party by the Orange Book [also here] penned by the party right wing (which, among, other things, proposes the dismantling of the universal NHS in favour of an insurance-based system) yet official policy debate raises questions. The party leadership has drawn up a proposal to abolish the right to strike in essential services. This would also cancel the representative right of union leaderships to decide where political levy payments may be sent. The LibDems definitely plan to discontinue the child trust fund initiative set up by the government - this constitutes a rare attempt to redistribute assets, in addition to income and collective goods. The Department for Trade and Industry is to be scrapped, and it isn't clear where support for small businesses and science and technology will go. The central setting of standards in health and education will be stripped in favour of "localism", which must mean that greater inequalities in basic services will emerge across the country. These standards have often proven unwieldy, but have also produced tangible improvements in areas such as primary education. Finally, Charles Kennedy's party has opposed the measures taken by the government to reduce crime and insecurity concentrated in working-class areas.

Clearly, the Liberal Democrats are better than the Conservatives. Yet they do not represent a really satisfactory choice for the left. Once access to services and trade union representation are taken into account, Liberal policies are rather less egalitarian than the government's. Progressive policies on civil rights and income taxes have to be balanced against commitment to the euro and discreet middle-class subsidies. An election at the height of the Iraq crisis might conceivably have justified a LibDem vote in order to head off the march to war, but the poll now is to be held after the fact, where the premium must be on making the best of a precarious situation. On this, a careful pragmatic judgment needs to be made about the balance between the Liberal Democrats and Labour's internal opposition.<

Our panoramic sweep would naturally take in the Labour party at this juncture, but given the way in which the LibDems have reached out to disaffected leftists, it makes more sense first to examine the socialist and ecological fringe parties, who are essentially pitching for the same section of the left vote. This boils down to an argument about the Iraq war and occupation. This is well understood by the Respect / Unity Coalition marshalled by George Galloway, the Socialist Workers Party and sundry dissidents and Islamists. The fledgling organisation possesses limited resources and membership, so it is unreasonable to expect the same level of policy development as the major parties. Even so, the crudity of its positions beyond the middle east arena points to its character as a makeshift pole attempting to attract former Labour supporters aggrieved by the war. At the time of writing there is nothing that looks like an alternative budget or tax policy. Wish lists cover a wide range of demands -- renationalisation of the utilities, renewed council house building, public investment without public-private finance schemes -- but without any sense of trade, currency, or fiscal policy. In contrast, the Greens do possess a well-developed set of measures on environmental taxation, the public ownership of the railways and alternative energy. They oppose the euro, and more regrettably, the European constitution, without which the expanded European Union is likely to grind to a halt. Yet the real field of debate where the fringe parties hope to make gains is the war.

Both the Greens and Respect advocate an immediate withdrawal of coalition troops from Iraq. The Green party hope to fill the gap with a United Nations force drawn from nations unconnected with the original invasion. However, they recognise the difficulties involved in putting such a force together, and do not think that this is a reason for delaying withdrawal. In effect, they present a recipe for an allied evacuation that will leave the transitional government and the insurgents to fight it out. In contrast, Respect backs the insurgency, which it calls a "national liberation movement". The sectarian killers of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, or the Zarqawi group, are either part of the resistance or incidental to it. It is important to grasp that Respect backs the national liberation insurgents against whatever collaborator or quisling government that might be thrown up by the transitional process. This is irrespective of any elections held under occupation.

If the Green policy is despairing, the Respect position is truly ruthless. There is a desperate logic to it - the same sort of logic that leads sections of the left to support Palestinian suicide bombings inside Israel. Victory in the people's war is justifiable by any means necessary against a superpower and its cohorts. Defeat of the US "global offensive" is the overriding objective, and if full-blown civil conflict in Iraq is the price, then so much the worse. No constitution building can redeem the imperialist enterprise, nor a graduated timetable linked to such a process. There are some hints of uneasiness with this absolutist approach. It is noticeable that both Respect and the "Stop the War Coalition" (which Respect endorses) have downplayed the 30 January Iraq elections. George Galloway denounces the polls as a farce but also expresses fear that Iraq is undergoing "Yugoslavisation". He now calls for withdrawal over a "short" period of time through negotiation between the Americans and the insurgents - a prospect that he admits is "far-fetched". The Respecters do not seem to be able or willing to register that the mass parties that contested the election -- in particular the parties of the Shi'ite majority -- now possess a democratic mandate. In the Respect cosmology the transitional political formations are simply projections of the occupiers, with no intrinsic legitimacy. One might draw a parallel with old Irish republican attitudes towards the Ulster Unionists. The idea that the transitional government might have a role in negotiating the withdrawal is not something the Respecters want to acknowledge.

These criticisms do not, however, meet the Green argument, which is that without backing the insurgency the coalition should withdraw its troops immediately. For even if precipitate retreat were to lead to a horrifying upsurge in violence, is this truly worse than the dangers inherent in the current situation abetted by Britain? We all know what happened in Fallujah. If security is made the condition of withdrawal, then the coalition will never be obliged to withdraw, as chronic low-level guerrilla warfare settles in. It should be borne in mind that all arguments in practice relate to the British contingent, a small if significant fraction of the US-dominated occupying force. The UK could, in fact, walk away without ending the occupation immediately, as Spain did, so long as we are prepared to contemplate serious damage to the "special relationship". This is where the Green unwillingness to embrace the political aspect of the European project becomes a problem. Anti-European anti-Americanism would leave Britain seriously isolated.

In sum, then, the Green position on Iraq is tenable, even if all its implications have not been thought through. However, it is not the optimal policy. This would be phased withdrawal of British troops explicitly tied to the constitutional timetable (not the achievement of a perfect peace). A constitutional referendum is scheduled for Autumn 2005, and new legislative elections by the end of the year. We have a duty to see this process to completion: else the wrongheaded invasion will have brought nothing but catastrophe. Calling the transitional government "puppets" ignores the mass basis of the participating Shi'ite and Kurdish parties, who represent the great majority of the people of Iraq.

Continue to Part Two




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