Whatever illusions remain in the Labour party’s commitment to propping up capitalist rule come rain or shine should have been shattered by “Red Ed ” Miliband’s latest foot-in-mouth U-turn on welfare reform.
In truth, nobody could really claim lack of warning for the Labour leader’s shambolic retreat from his earlier “left” posturing. Every speech on the “ConDem cuts” ever uttered by Miliband, by his lieutenants, or by even the humblest social democrat-minded foot soldier in every corner of the workers’ movement, has concentrated its fire on unfair cuts, on savage cuts, on cuts that are too rapid or too ideological. Any suggestion that these cuts are now an essential requirement of capitalism, destined to dominate the agenda of whichever bourgeois party rules, Labour included, meets with blank incomprehension or outright hostility wherever Labour’s influence still lingers on like a bad smell.
So for example in a recent issue of Red Pepper readers were told by Owen Jones, in the course of urging us all to unite with ” Labour activists” to fight austerity, that the capitalist crisis has been “hijacked very ably by the right”. Again and again, even in the midst of the most vigorous anti-cuts campaigns, we run into similar suggestions that the Tories are over-egging the gravity of the crisis in order to panic everyone into swallowing their “ideological” agenda.
Yet the reality is that the bourgeoisie are underestimating the depth of the crisis, a crisis of overproduction which has been thirty years in the making and now promises to dwarf the two earlier crises which shaped the twentieth century and beyond as the “epoch of wars and revolutions”, as Lenin aptly phrased it. Capitalism talks down the scope, depth and duration of the crisis, hoping thereby to lull workers into enduring hardships which are presented as “temporary“. Meanwhile social democracy plays a key role in immunising workers against the revolutionary implications of the crisis. When the crisis is over, goes the story, we can all get back into trying to arm-wrestle a “fairer” share of the capitalist cake. For the moment, however, even that conservative perspective is too radical. The best that can be hoped for right now, we are told, is a “fairer” distribution of the pain! Hence Miliband’s latest public embrace of what most of the left still insist on dubbing the “ConDem” cuts, but which are more accurately described as capitalist cuts, pure and simple.
On 6 June Miliband plucked up his courage and owned up to Labour’s love affair with austerity. Seeking to curry electoral favour by flattering the prejudices of the most backward elements of society, and terrified of Labour losing the opportunity to clamber on board the “blame the scroungers” bandwagon, he finally spilt the beans. If Labour are returned to government they will slap a three-year cap on welfare spending. The infamous fitness-to-work tests introduced by the ConDems, which have seen terminal cancer patients and patients on kidney dialysis machines forced to seek work and have triggered at least one suicide, are not to be scrapped but merely “reformed” – presumably with the Atos butchers replaced by some other cowboy outfit.
Labour is also retreating from its earlier supposedly “principled” defence of universal benefits and opposition to means testing, awakening the bitterest memories of the Thirties. Recipients of both child benefit and the winter fuel subsidy will now be required to prove they are poor enough to qualify. Whilst posing as an egalitarian attack on handouts to the privileged, these moves in practice ensure that such benefits will come to be identified as “poor people’s benefits” which can safely be left to dwindle away once deprived of the support of influential middle class opinion.
Similarly the plan to offer an inferior rate of Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) to those who have had less opportunity to contribute national insurance payments than other job seekers uses a veneer of “fairness” to smuggle through another divisive and punitive rigging of the system. Worst off under the new rule would likely be young people who have had no chance to clock up the proposed five year threshold to qualify for income-based JSA (a threshold to be raised from the current two-year qualifying period). Also likely to be hit would be the long-term unemployed and women (or men) who have taken time out to raise the next generation of workers. In line with this are other commitments announced by Miliband that unemployed people with children between the ages of three and four are to lose benefits if they do not prepare for work.
Labour pretends that it can solve the housing crisis by telling local councils to persuade private landlords to lower the rents, thereby lowering expenditure on housing benefit and freeing up cash to invest in new housing. How local councils are expected to achieve this conjuring trick without any means of compulsion is not clear. What is clear is that, by hook or by crook, Labour intends to join the ConDems in taking an axe to existing levels of housing benefit. The rest is flannel.
The only benefit rise mentioned in Miliband’s announcement was the plan to pay low-wage employers a subsidy to raise wages from the minimum wage to a living wage. The obvious alternative plan (to oblige employers to pay a decent wage in the first place) does not get a mention.
Miliband’s contribution to the scuttling of the welfare state indeed stretched “from the cradle to the grave“. No sooner had he effectively admitted that Labour’s child poverty target is on ice, he rushed ahead to sell the pass on pension rights, blathering that “as people live longer, the age at which people retire will have to increase.”
In his entire speech on 6 June, Miliband got just one thing right, when he complained that “some people get something for nothing and other people get nothing for something”. What Miliband had in mind, of course, was the legendary ” social security scrounger“. However could we not much better apply this motto to the relations which obtain between capitalist and worker? It is the proletariat, the people of no property with nothing to sell but their own labour power, that in truth “get nothing for something”. And it is the capitalist, who derives surplus value from the unpaid portion of the worker’s labour, who truly “gets something for nothing”. As the class struggle sharpens under the impulsion of capitalist crisis, the stark outlines of this contradiction of class interests cannot but impress themselves the more forcibly upon workers’ consciousness, preparing fertile ground for the propagation of Marxism-Leninism, the science of the self-emancipation of the proletarian masses.