The hue, cry and bunting of devolved power holds no rewards for our side, argues John Westmoreland
One of the hallmarks of neoliberalism is its utter contempt for democracy. Neoliberal politicians cloak all their arguments in the rights of the individual in the manner of classical liberalism. Thus the war on Iraq was a war for democracy. The anti-trades union laws are to protect the individual. The privatisation of education is to ‘liberate’ schools from bureaucracy.
What all the above examples, and many others too, have in common, is the empowerment of big business under the guise of liberal values. When it comes to democracy neoliberalism has a problem. Democracy can potentially derail the neoliberal project, and therefore where neoliberalism is triumphant, authoritarian forms of government are preferred.
The obvious examples are the ousting of the socialist government of Allende in Chile, and its replacement by a military Junta headed by Pinochet. This was followed by complete freedom for US corporations and the subjugation of the Chilean labour movement through imprisonment, torture and murder. The war in Iraq similarly opened up the state-run oil and other areas of industry (70 per cent of the Iraqi economy) to US corporations such as Halliburton.
In the UK Thatcher and Blair moved the Neoliberal project on by leaps and bounds. Their view promoted the idea that rival political philosophies and principles were an obstacle to economic development. Blair was for ever mouthing that he wasn’t ‘playing politics’ but ‘doing what is right for the country’. The attacks on Jeremy Corbyn are in the same vein. He is demeaned as sincere but irrelevant.
‘The country’ and ‘the national interest’ are simply the interests of big business in the neoliberal lexicon. Politicians are only tolerated if they operate with that understanding in mind. Tom Watson gets it. Jeremy Corbyn does not.
For local government the impact of neoliberalism has been immense. Many Conservatives would happily dispense completely with local government. They see running the local economy as being a management role which is in the gift of business, completely removed from the influence of ordinary people. The constant demand for fewer councillors (and MPs) is based on the need for executive power in place of democratic mandates.
Big business can pretty much get its way these days because the vast wealth they control can be used to threaten, blackmail and destroy democratic opposition. The financial terrorism that the banks and their political lackeys subjected Greece to is ample testimony of their power and viciousness. In the UK we are now controlled by managers in councils, colleges and hospitals, who have learned the Neoliberal language of enforced austerity.
How many times have you heard some management weasel justify cuts to teachers or social workers with the lame, “we have to take tough decisions”, as if there was no alternative to austerity? Tough for you – a gift for their corporate masters. But the economic determinism that neoliberal austerity demands can be resisted.
However much the bosses want to dispense with democracy they can’t get rid of it without removing the gloss of liberal values that they cloak their policies in. In Labour’s working class heartlands the strategy has been to discipline Labour councils by imposing tight budgets that require cuts to be made – but leave the final decision to the council themselves. The beauty of this is that Tory cuts in council budgets appear as Labour choosing to make cuts to services.
Labour has received much criticism from their voting base for not fighting the Tory cuts, and to the delight of the media this has given UKIP a foothold in many former Labour strongholds. This then gives the right another stick to beat Labour with. The result has been that Labour councils tend to be increasingly conservative in their ambitions and seek to win elections by arguing that Labour can run the council better than their rivals.
A significant (and thoroughly neoliberal) feature of local democracy is the election of mayors. The election of mayors has of course done nothing for democracy. The ideal mayor is nothing more than an electorally approved CEO for the council. From a neoliberal point of view an elected mayor would be the powerful and well rewarded servant, waiting on business. Mayors are accountable to civil servants in Whitehall and budgets depend on being business-friendly. Executive power is thus increased by having a mayor, and democracy takes another step backwards. Tony Blair introduced elected mayors with the stated intention to ‘fast-track change’ – or short-circuit democracy.
From an embattled Labour perspective the ideal mayoral candidate is someone who is managerially adept and safe. The idea of Labour’s selection committees putting forward a Corbynite for the mayor’s job is virtually non-existent – and yet that is exactly what we need.
Labour councils and their personnel have been completely unable to resist the force of Neoliberal policies. Rather they have been taken over and shaped by the very neoliberalism their voting base wants them to oppose.
Let’s take the manifesto of Doncaster’s mayoral candidate, Ros Jones, as a case in point. Ros offers six pledges to voters in Doncaster in her ‘long-term plan for Doncaster’. They are:
- More high-skilled, high-paid jobs – not difficult when warehousing and call centres dominate the economy.
- £2 in every £3 spent by the council to go to Doncaster companies – nonsensical by any standard. What about companies from Barnsley or Scunthorpe? Which PFI scheme is a ‘Doncaster company’?
- Regeneration programmes for town centres across the borough – what about the rest of the town? Putting a pretty face on poverty will not make it go away.
- More council houses and affordable private housing for Doncaster people – what about breaking the private landlords’ stranglehold on their tenants?
- Clamp down on anti-social behaviour – imposing cuts on Doncaster is the most anti-social behaviour we face.
- Back our veterans with jobs, housing and guaranteed school places - why the veterans? Doesn’t everyone want the same treatment? Labour should back equality of opportunity, not sow division.
The overall message is clear. Ros has been and will continue to be good for business. Neoliberal Tory policies have massively cut Doncaster’s budget and led to the closure of old peoples’ homes, the sacking of wardens for sheltered housing, a chronic social care crisis and the loss of hundreds of jobs, plus the complete academisation of all our secondary schools. Yet none of this is worth a sentence. Instead we get the message that under Labour the cuts are not having too much of an effect, and if Ros continues to do the bidding of the corporations Doncaster can blossom with skilled jobs and new houses.
To the delight of the Tories Labour managerialism sells the message that the cuts are sensible and if managed intelligently Doncaster will be okay. Yet every former pit village has a social crisis. Every shop has a collection bin for the food bank. Doncaster pensioners are stuck in the Infirmary because there is no adequate support to enable them to return home.
The mayoral election in Doncaster and elsewhere will see the other parties launch their attack on Labour’s weakest point – their inability to resist the cuts and to defend the most vulnerable in the community. The mayoral election could have been an opportunity to turn the tide. Instead it will further alienate Labour voters and offer opportunities to the right wing parties who will promise to stand up for Doncaster. Just imagine the difference a socialist mayor could make to Doncaster.
Imagine a mayor that exposed the damage that privatisation has done to our schools and stood on teachers’ picket lines. Imagine a mayor that condemned spending on Trident when Doncaster is being savaged by the Tories. Imagine a mayor that exposed the social care crisis is Doncaster and called on trade unions and campaigners to fight back against the Tories. Imagine if several towns had socialist mayors.
Desirable as it is, the prospect of us getting anywhere near a Corbynesque mayor or local administration at the moment is miniscule. Labour are trapped and will continue to do business as usual. The Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) will be standing a candidate against Labour and will announce their candidate as the socialist alternative. However, TUSC is not really a genuine trade union coalition. None of the big unions support TUSC, and its campaigning base is narrow.
The practice of TUSC candidates standing against Labour is to attack Labour from the left. They do this in the belief that if Labour is further discredited they will pick up votes. In Doncaster the opposite has been true. Attacking Labour from the left has played into the hands of UKIP who also attack Labour’s record on cutting social provision. TUSC can’t win, and their campaigning simply feeds the bitterness of Labour voters who feel let down.
However there is a better way to get what we need than through elections and the petty party patriotism that dogs the left. We need to build a movement. A movement that assumes the leadership of the working class and takes the fight to the Tories on every front. The Tories need a frontal assault on their most cherished prejudices. We need to attack privilege, imperialism and their inherent racism. Above all we need a rival form of democracy with meetings in every former pit village and on the streets to turn the tide on the Tories.
Those Labour party members who want to see a clean break from the stagnation which New Labour brought to the party need to look at where the key to change really lies. Does it rest in the hands of the committees, subcommittees, wards and branches which are all geared to delivering results within a system defined by Tory central government? Or does it lie in the hands of the people of Doncaster who are desperately waiting on our trade unions and Labour politicians to give a lead in stopping the erosion of services and quality of life which is intensifying by the day.
Jeremy Corbyn talks about constructing a society based on caring for the needy and providing quality services as a bedrock for our children to thrive. This won’t be achieved if we continue to work within the Tory rules.
John is a history teacher and UCU rep. He is an active member of the People's Assembly and writes regularly for Counterfire.