In the least surprising item of news for many years, Gordon Brown announced on Wednesday that there will be a general election on May 6. And the announcement has sent the national news media into its usual flap, with commentators on the TV standing outside any conceivable public building talking about the nation's time to make a decision, the public's opportunity to take a new course and suchlike drivel. "Real change," "fresh start," "clear and straightforward mandate," all the old cliches are being dusted down and dragged out of the cupboard for a few more weeks of use before being packed tidily away for another five years or so, and then it will be back to business as usual. But, as usual, no-one's talking about the elephant in the room. The three biggest parties will be making the case frenetically for their particular political positions and their entitlement to our vote. But most of their work will be in attempting to manufacture differences with the other parties when those differences, for the most part, barely exist. Off we will go to the polls on May 6 as if it doesn't matter that you would have to walk a country mile to find an anti-Afghanistan war candidate in those three parties worth voting for.
They will plead for our votes, but they won't present an alternative to hacking back public sector jobs, pensions and wages to pay for the bankers' profligacy. They will cajole pensioners for the grey vote while competing with each other to keep the elderly in poverty. They will beg for the student vote while racing to see who can cut most out of the education budget. They will cry freedom while collaborating in developing the most repressive legal system in the Western world, with workers' rights, refugees' rights and the rights of minorities their chosen targets. They will, whichever party wins the election, preside over the biggest gap between rich and poor for generations. And they will do all this in the battered and abused name of democracy. The electorate will face the prospect of selecting a government, of whichever colour, dedicated to inequality, privilege and exploitation. So where does this newspaper go when talking to socialists and democrats? It's not an easy position and there isn't a glib, easy answer, but here goes anyway.
It would be easy to say "don't vote war criminal," but considering that almost the entire House of Commons was pro-war and voted time and again to back the Iraq killing, that doesn't take us very far. But we certainly will understand if people feel unable to vote for members of the wartime Cabinet. However, in most cases, we will still call for a Labour vote, not simply because there are a few in that party still worthy of the name, but also because its depredations on working people are generally less vicious that the Tories' and the chances of influencing it in a progessive direction are better. But it's not as simple as that. Labour, without any pressure for progressive change, finds it all too easy to backslide and there must be progressive electoral alternatives posed to maintain that pressure. There will be perhaps a double handful of progressive non-Labour candidates which this paper feels worthy of support, and we will highlight them during the course of the campaign. You will be fortunate if one of them is standing in your constituency. Elsewhere, it's not an easy thing for any socialist to do, to vote for the collection of fools and knaves that Labour seems to think worthy of candidacy. But the alternative is far worse and the fight to win the labour movement for progressive policies will continue whatever the election result.
Importantly, it will continue outside Parliament as well as inside. Parliamentary politics are not the be-all and end-all of the march of progress. And the Labour Party should mark this well. Post-election,that march will continue. Either with or without the party. The papers and the Tory Party are convinced that the current set of industrial disputes are a key election issue that may decisively influence the outcome. This is probably overstating the case. Whether a significant proportion of people will be swayed in their vote one way or the other because of the mini-strike wave is highly debatable. However, it is worth looking at what the official positions of the parties are towards the strikes as it draws out something fundamental about the parties we may be voting for on May 6. The Conservatives are clear. They are against these strikes, just as they are against all instances of working people having a say over their working lives. I doubt anyone was shocked to hear David Cameron encouraging people to cross the picket line and denouncing anyone who did not condemn the strikes in the most strident terms. He's the enemy, that's his job.
What about the Liberal Democrats though? Sometimes seen as a left-leaning alternative to Labour, perhaps they've come out with some moderate position trying to please both sides? Sadly, no. Lib Dem deputy leader Vince Cable said on Radio Four's Any Questions that he wanted to bring in new anti-union laws to "curb" rail workers being able to go on strike. It's true the Lib Dems have been attempting to appear reasonable - they denounce both management and unions equally - but the only practical action they discuss is calling off the strike action and bringing in legislation to stop it happening again. Certainly when Cable's boss Nick Clegg went out of his way to compare the tax-dodger Lord Ashcroft with the Unite union he wasn't trying to make friends among those fighting to protect workers' rights and conditions. Comparing the exploited with the exploiters while condemning any instance of workers making their voice heard is ultimately an extremely reactionary position. Labour is more contradictory. It may be taking money from the unions but, sadly, the Conservative rhetoric that the party is "a wholly owned subsidiary of the unions" is very far from the truth. Labour's rhetoric has been less confrontational than the Tories, but it still denounces the strike action rather than offering solidarity and support. There are honourable exceptions to this.
We know their names well. These are the same Labour MPs who are always on the right side of every struggle, but outside this ever-diminishing golden circle, the majority of Labour candidates standing at this election are opposed to the industrial action and are more than reluctant to offer any support to trade unionists fighting for a decent deal. It seems that "a future fair for all" doesn't include trade unionists. The number of Labour members who celebrated the ruling against the RMT's strike action was extremely distressing. The rail workers' struggle was seen as at best bad timing and at worst an irresponsible attempt to derail Labour's election chances - hardly a voice was raised to support their demands, and certainly none from the leadership. Darren Johnson of the Greens made his position clear on the ruling when he said that "the ability to strike is a fundamental democratic right and much of what we take for granted today has been won from exercising that right. It was deeply troubling when the law courts intervened in the RMT strike and it calls their neutrality into question." He went on to say that "likewise the reaction from the press and three largest parliamentary parties over the recent spate of industrial actions from the RMT, Unite and PCS among others has been very disappointing. "Far from endorsing these democratic decisions and examining the issues coolly they have simply sided with the employers, ignoring the extremely strong cases put by union members."
How about Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National Party? It's undoubtedly true that both parties have taken votes from traditional Labour base, so do they reflect those traditional Labour values towards trade unions? Well, yes and no. Yes for Plaid and no for the SNP, to be exact. Plaid Cymru Assembly Members refused to cross the picket line during the recent PCS strike and Leanne Wood AM joined the pickets and spoke at their rallies. She denounced Labour, saying that it seems "hell-bent on doing the Tories' dirty work for them by making it cheap to sack civil servants ahead of the anticipated post-general election cull of public services.
"As an example of a party losing touch with its core support, this is up there with the abolition of the lower rate of income tax. Casino capitalism and greed has led us to this position, yet it will be those who use public services who will be made to pay for the mistakes of the bankers yet again. "The poor are being robbed to pay the rich - a reversal of the Robin Hood principle. The PCS dispute is merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to a sustained all-out attack on the public sector and the thousands of loyal workers that keep our services running smoothly and efficiently, often for little more that the minimum wage."
However Plaid's Scottish friends were less exemplary. Angus SNP MP Mike Weir welcomed the cancellation of the rail strikes, although in fairness he did sound a note of caution saying: "The use of the courts to ban strikes is inflammatory as far as the union is concerned." When it came to the PCS strike the SNP members crossed the picket lines and showed no solidarity for PCS workers. Who else is there? Well, there will of course be a handful of left candidates from the Scottish Socialist Party, the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), Respect and others whose support and solidarity for the strike action was 100 per cent consistent. Mick Tosh, who is standing for TUSC in Portsmouth North, responded to the decision on the RMT strike ballot by saying: "This is simply undemocratic. The right to strike is every worker's most basic right and it is a right which needs to be defended. "The pending action by rail workers was not only about defending jobs but about defending public safety. This undemocratic intervention is another clear example of the need to repeal the anti-trade union laws established by Thatcher. I am standing to repeal these draconian laws and give workers their rights back." It's difficult to be much clearer than that. There are many other issues to vote on in this election, and nobody should simply use the attitude towards industrial action as their sole deciding factor. However, when it comes to this election and strike action we need to look outside of the three parties of the political centre to see even the ABCs of solidarity and support for workers' struggles.
A blog for the socially and politically conscious, written by a young, gay activist who strongly believes in equality and justice.