The People’s Programme for the Crisis, distributed in the name of LEAP as the world’s stock markets went into free-fall, is in danger of underestimating the nature of the unprecedented economic, social and political conditions we are living through. The fear of outright financial collapse and economic slump is evident in every newspaper. Ruling political elites on both sides of the Atlantic are preparing for the worst while in public hoping for the best.
There were persistent reports that members of the House of Representatives were warned that failure to pass the $700 billion bail-out package could lead to martial law and the deployment of troops on the streets. In Germany, mindful of the consequences of economic collapse from history, the government legalised the domestic military operations of the Bundeswehr while it tried to rescue Hypo Real and other banks. In Britain, the consensus growing around New Labour smacks of coalition government.
The recall of Peter Mandelson, a key advocate and exponent of the neo-liberal agenda, and the inclusion of financier Paul Myners as minister for the City as part of the economic “war cabinet” strengthens the capitalist outlook of New Labour. One cabinet minister reportedly said: “British business will be thinking, actually, Peter Mandelson's a good person to be in charge of our interests in government."
For those in the labour movement who seriously want to confront the issues, the global credit crisis provides unparalleled opportunities to expose not just the failure of capitalism as an economic and financial system but also to expose New Labour. Ordinary people in financial difficulties as a result of losing their jobs, rising loan charges or lack of credit are left to their own devices. They are at the mercy of the very same banks that are being lined up for a massive government hand-out. Increasing numbers of people’s homes are being repossessed while the bankers form a queue for state aid.
The financial meltdown thus has the merit of clearing the air in a political sense. Who can deny now that the New Labour government is a corporate and bankers’ regime, which is deploying the power and resources of the capitalist state to try and save the system from itself? Where are the differences in outlook between New Labour and other capitalist parties like the Tories or Liberal Democrats? You can use a microscope if you want, but you won’t discover anything significant.
In these circumstances, there is absolutely no point in focusing protest and pressure on the New Labour government in the hope that it may somehow, in some miraculous, semi-religious fashion, undergo a conversion and become anti-capitalist. New Labour is what it is and has been since the Blair/Brown/Mandelson counter-revolution that began in the early 1990s.
Under these conditions, LEAP’s appeal to the New Labour government “to act urgently to protect the British people against the economic turmoil that was not of their making” is at best even-handedly misguided, and is in danger of lending credibility to the government at a time when it is rapidly losing the plot.
The policy proposals are themselves somewhat unrealistic, irrespective of who they are addressed to. Nationalising the banks is a challenging prospect given that Barclays PLC for example, ranked as the 25th largest company in the world, is a major global financial services provider operating in Europe, North America, the Middle East, Latin America, Australia, Asia and Africa.
Cutting interest rates can have little effect on the global crisis and risks a further inflationary surge to add to the close to 50% hike in electricity bills, and 15+% rise in grocery bills already experienced this year. Reducing the influence of the Bank of England is advocated at a time when it has already been greatly diminished by the globalisation of the financial system. Converting repossessions to social rentals is progressive but leaves the majority trapped into repaying vastly inflated mortgage debt. Strengthening rights and representation at work will not answer mass unemployment as long as the system of private ownership of global corporations is left in place.
A new line of attack is required. LEAP should seize the chance created by the crisis to campaign in the labour and trade union movement against the government, in the spirit that workers fought the Callaghan government in 1978-9, whose policies opened the door for Thatcherism (and later, Blairism).
Such a campaign could easily show how the crash of 2008 arises from a system based on the ruthless pursuit of profit and that alternatives are urgently needed from a practical point of view. Policies developed in opposition to a bankers’ bail-out would raise the possibility of reorganising the economy along not-for-profit lines. This could best be done by revisiting some well-established principles in the light of conditions transformed by corporate-driven globalisation.
They could, for example, incorporate new forms of democratic power. Democracy could and should be extended through co-operative forms of ownership and workplace control of major corporations, enterprises and services. Restoring the right to strike and freedom for trade unions along with new social rights in areas such as housing, education, transport and care would be essential. LEAP should use its connections to seize the initiative and urge supportive trade union leaders to adopt this strategy and mobilise their members around a programme of action.
As to who is to implement such a democratic socialist programme – given that New Labour can’t and won’t - this question of questions will need to be raised, discussed, debated and resolved in the course of building an independent movement to defend jobs and living standards at the expense of capitalism itself.