|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
Issue 226 March 2019
Britain’s historic political crisis
Brexit has blown apart the political establishment. Theresa May’s minority government stumbles on, her Tory party completely split. Jeremy Corbyn leads a Labour Party where MPs openly talk of desertion to some new ‘centre’ party. An anaemic economy barely limps along. In an edited extract from the British perspectives document for the Socialist Party’s national congress in March, HANNAH SELL examines this unprecedented crisis.
Capitalist commentators are wringing their hands in despair at the shambolic incompetence of Britain’s Tory government. However, the highly dysfunctional character of Theresa May’s government is not simply an accident of leadership. It reflects the increasing inability of the capitalist class to rule in the old way. At root, this is part of the continuing legacy of the 2007-08 economic crisis.
Last year saw the end of the ‘synchronised’ world growth that the capitalist class had hailed in 2017. In reality, this was uneven, with Britain largely excluded. Now, the weak recovery appears to be reaching its limits. Nouriel Roubini, one of the very few capitalist economists to foresee the 2007 financial crisis, predicts that 2019 will be "a year of synchronised global deceleration". He then lists seven risk factors, topped by the slowdown in China and the possibility of growing trade wars, which are likely to lead to the world economy entering a major new crisis.
Against a background of global economic storm clouds, British capitalism is facing its own localised hurricane. The Bank of England has predicted 2019 will see the weakest UK growth since 2009. The economic and political instability caused by Brexit uncertainty is highlighting all the weaknesses of British capitalism. The announcements by multinational corporations of their intention to relocate to other countries are, in some cases, an opportunity to blame Brexit for planned job cuts. Nonetheless, big-business panic over the consequences of a disorderly Brexit is real.
The underlying weakness of British capitalism is shown by countless indicators. Productivity per hour has still not returned to its pre-crisis peak, and lags far behind the other major economies. In 2008, nine of the world’s biggest 100 corporations were UK owned. Now, the figure is only five. The economy remains dominated by the service sector, particularly finance. It is driven by consumer spending, which relies on an enormous burden of personal debt. Average household debt is now over £15,000, the highest ever in Britain.
A new economic crisis will have a profound effect on the outlook of the working class. Recent years – the supposed ‘recovery’ – have seen wage restraint and increasing poverty. At last, in the second half of 2018, there was a small increase in average wage growth, but this still left average pay lower in real terms than before the crisis. The growing housing catastrophe and savage cuts to benefits – most recently, the horror of universal credit – are unwinding history, sending the poorest sections of the working class back to the hunger, misery and homelessness of the pre-1945 era. Enormous social explosions are being prepared, and could even put the magnificent, if leaderless, gilets jaunes movement in France into the shade. They will take place against the background of a deeply divided capitalist class, which cannot see how to effectively defend its rotten system.
Splits at the top
At the time of writing, the Tory party is on the verge of a shattering split, with May straining every nerve to hold it intact. Desperately trying to avoid going down as the woman who destroyed the oldest party in the world, she is risking a disorderly no-deal Brexit, with all the problems that would mean for the capitalist class. Despite her efforts, it is clear that – whether now or later – Brexit will be a trigger for the death of the Tory party in its current form.
Given the crisis, in other circumstances, the majority of the capitalist class would have turned to the parliamentary Labour Party by now as the best means to defend their interests. Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, however, makes them extremely reluctant to take this path. They do not trust Corbyn to act reliably in the interests of capitalism. Above all, they fear the enthusiasm of big sections of the working class for a Corbyn-led government, which might push him to take more radical socialist measures than he currently intends, particularly in a new stage of economic crisis.
Right now, the fog of Brexit hangs over everything. This is combined with a substantial ebbing of the enthusiasm for Corbyn that had been generated in the 2017 snap election. That means that the relationship is not clear between the crisis of capitalist politics, on the one hand, and the alienation and bitter anger of the majority of the working class and sections of the middle class, on the other. The latter is the main cause of the former. The Brexit vote, which was a serious blow to the capitalist class and dramatically escalated the crisis in the Tory party, was at root a working-class revolt against the existing order.
Since then, the capitalist class has worked to ‘step back’ the Brexit vote hoping that, if it cannot be reversed, Bino (Brexit in name only) could be achieved at least. This is still possible. However, they are hampered at each stage by the ingrained mistrust of the capitalist establishment among the majority of the working class. Despite endless horror stories about the future after a ‘hard’ Brexit, the shift in opinion polls is too small for any certainty about the result in the event of a second referendum. Except that holding one would be seen as a betrayal by many Brexit-voting workers and would dramatically undermine the authority of the institutions of capitalism even further. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader in 2015, his re-election in 2016, and the increase in Labour’s vote in the 2017 general election, indicate the potential popularity of a left-wing alternative to the capitalist politicians.
Events have spiralled out of the control of the capitalist class, leaving it groping at each stage to find a way to defend its interests. Inherent in the situation is for both Labour and the Tories to split, with a new ‘centre’ party formed to more reliably represent the interests of capitalism. However, this would not be easy or risk-free for the capitalist class. Objective reality will force events in this direction but it could be a protracted process with shifting components.
For the capitalists, the breakup of the existing political framework is highly risky and it is ruled out that it would give them any long-term political stability. As shown by the deep-seated unpopularity of the Macron government in France, a new centre party – once the great hope of the Blairites – would have a very shallow social base. At the same time, it would create the basis for new parties – a populist Trumpite one based on the right of the Tory party, and a Corbynite party shorn of part of Labour’s pro-capitalist wing.
Both, particularly the latter, would be destabilising for British capitalism. It is possible that steps will be taken in that direction in the short term – in effect, an informal national government with Blairites voting to keep May in power. It is also possible, however, that there will be no Labour split prior to a general election – or only a small one – as a majority of Blairites stay in order to be best placed to sabotage a future Corbyn-led government.
Labour’s right and left
The root cause of the capitalist class’s disarray is not widely understood because of the failure of the workers’ movement to give a clear lead. Despite enormous accumulated anger at the continued undermining of living standards, the level of strike action remains at a historic low. Official strike days lost in 2017 were the lowest since records began in 1893, and continued at a similar level in 2018. The majority of trade union leaders are using members’ hopes in a potential Corbyn-led government as a means to avoid action to defend living conditions now. This gives a glimpse of the role they would attempt to play to hold back the demands of the working class under such a government.
At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn has put forward policies which, while limited, have the potential to enthuse large sections of the working and middle classes. Yet, at every stage, he has failed to attempt to use his position to mobilise a working-class movement, instead seeing his role strictly within the confines of parliament and the existing framework of capitalist society.
Any better policy statements by Corbyn are consistently muffled to the point of being inaudible by the dominance of the pro-capitalist wing of the Labour Party, both in parliament and at local authority level. Jeremy Corbyn and shadow chancellor John McDonnell have avoided breaking with the open representatives of capitalism within the Labour Party under the banner of ‘party unity’, rather than acting to transform Labour into a party of the working class. The latest example is the seemingly successful attempt to pressurise Liverpool Wavertree constituency Labour Party into dropping plans for a no-confidence vote in the Blairite MP Luciana Berger. This is despite her being one of those openly discussing the possibility of forming a new centre party.
Nonetheless, Corbyn has not – at the time of writing – completely capitulated to the pro-capitalist remainer wing of Labour with a call for a second referendum as an alternative to proceeding with Brexit. Nor has he – as yet – made the mistake of giving support to May’s Tory Brexit deal. He has managed, albeit hesitantly and unclearly, to focus instead on calling for a general election and a Brexit in the interests of the working class.
In maintaining this position he has had no support from the supposed left leaders of Momentum – originally set up to back Corbyn – but has relied in particular on the backing of Len McCluskey, general secretary of the Unite union, Labour’s biggest affiliate. As a result of a motion moved by a Socialist Party member, Unite supports mandatory reselection of MPs, although the union’s leadership has not fought for the implementation of this policy. Nonetheless, partly as a result of our influence but also the pressure from below, McCluskey has put a clearer position on the role of the Blairites and on Brexit than other figures.
Left leaders’ responsibility
In the period after Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader many on the left pointed to Momentum, and the supposedly ‘horizontal’ method of organisation of Podemos in Spain, as the best means to democratise Labour and push it to the left. The trade unions, it was argued, were a bulwark of the right. In countering this we fight for the voice of the unions within Labour to be brought under the democratic control of union members. But we have consistently argued that, far from further undermining the unions’ power within Labour, it was necessary to fight for it to be restored and extended, as an essential part of transforming Labour into a workers’ party.
The responsibility of the Labour leaders and the majority of trade union leaders for the current foggy situation is difficult to overstate. If, at the time of the referendum campaign in 2016, Corbyn had stood by his previous position of opposing the EU as a neoliberal capitalist club, he could have led the Brexit working-class revolt in an entirely different direction. Instead, a space was opened up for the pro-capitalist, right-wing Brexiteers to step into.
One consequence of this is the growth in confidence of far-right, racist forces. They are still small, and do not have a cohesive party, but there is a danger they could make gains, something the workers’ movement needs to mobilise against to prevent. We have an essential role to play in fighting for the workers’ movement to combat racism – for example, the Windrush scandal, refugee crisis and racist attacks – with a class approach that seeks to unite all sections of the working class in a fight for jobs and homes for all.
The processes taking place in Britain are not unique. Globally, the first response of the working class to the crisis of capitalism was to look towards the left and the workers’ movement. It is their weakness and the failure of their leadership that has left space for right and far-right populist forces. After 30 years marked by an absence of mass workers’ parties and a low level of socialist consciousness, the first mass political expressions of this search for a left-wing alternative have been characterised by their limited programmes and unstable character.
This is true of formations like Podemos and also Corbynism. While the last Labour manifesto was a break with the neoliberal programme of Blairism, it falls far short of the left reformism of the past, including that put forward by Jeremy Corbyn himself. Today, although Corbyn calls himself a socialist, and is broadly seen as one, he does not raise his programme in terms of the necessary steps to end capitalism and build a new socialist order. Objectively speaking, the 2017 election manifesto was not to the left of the manifestos of Neil Kinnock and others in the past.
At the same time, the layers who have become active in the Labour Party, particularly the minority that stayed active, have tended to be middle class. This is partly reflected by the approach of the majority of them to Brexit. This was not preordained but reflected the instinct of many workers that Corbyn does not ‘have what it takes’ to fight for their interests against the capitalist class. Had Corbyn been prepared to demonstrate otherwise – in his programme and in a determination to transform Labour into a workers’ party – hundreds of thousands of workers would have been enthused to become active. Such a workers’ party would still be unstable, its leaders faced with a choice of taking decisive measures to overturn capitalism or capitulate to its demands. Nonetheless, because of its base among the working class, it would tend to be more radical and more stable than the ephemeral character of Corbynism.
Despite the growing lack of confidence in Jeremy Corbyn at the moment, it would be wrong to conclude that this could not be reversed in the event of a snap general election. The sudden upsurge of enthusiasm that took place in a few short weeks in 2017 could be repeated, provided he once again puts forward a manifesto that is perceived to be in the interests of the working class. It would be vital, however, that he comes out fighting for such a programme as, even more than last time, he would probably be facing a Tory campaign based overwhelmingly on a nationalist appeal that only they can deliver Brexit.
That could only be cut across by a combative programme in the interests of the working class. While not guaranteed, the election of a Corbyn-led government remains implicit in the situation. If the deadlock in the Tory party continues, the capitalist class, much as it fears such a prospect, may have no choice but to put the working class through the experience of Corbynism.
Hopes in and pressure on a Corbyn government
Inevitably, in the early stages of a Corbyn-led government, there would be enormous hopes that the lives of the majority would improve. At the same time, the capitalist class would be determined to force the government to do its bidding. It is possible, of course, that it would be aided by Labour leading a minority government. Even a majority Labour government would really be a minority for Corbynism, given the predominance of pro-capitalist MPs in the parliamentary Labour Party. It would therefore be unstable and crisis-ridden from the start, particularly if, as is likely, it came to power against the background of economic turmoil.
A certain comparison could be drawn with the short-lived Labour minority government of January to November 1924, the first ever Labour-led administration. It also came to power following crisis in the Tory party. Within days there was a strike of 110,000 dock workers. The strike was settled after it won a pay rise, but the Labour government – determined to prove to the capitalist class that it was ‘fit to govern’ – had put in place plans to use troops to break the strike. This was a warning of the role the right-wing Labour MPs and their echoes in the trade union leaderships would go on to play in the 1926 general strike.
The government was crisis-ridden from day one, and most of Labour’s programme was not carried out. Nonetheless, under pressure from below, the government did introduce some reforms in the interests of the working class, particularly the Wheatley Housing Act which resulted in the building of over half-a-million council homes by 1933. The misery that capitalism meant for the working class remained, however, and the 1924 government was an essential part of the preparation for the mighty general strike. The working class, thwarted on the political front, turned to extra-parliamentary measures.
Jeremy Corbyn, and John McDonnell in particular, are following the same road as the 1924 Labour leaders in bending over backwards to show capitalism they are not dangerous, with visits to the City, promises not to introduce capital controls, and so on. Continuation on this path would mean betrayal of the working class. We have to warn against this, not by abstract denunciations but by putting forward a positive programme to explain what measures would be necessary for a Corbyn government to act in the interests of the working class.
Trade unions in struggle
It is not possible to predict precisely what events are ahead, but it is clear that the current conjuncture, mired in the fog of Brexit, is coming to an end. We have to be ready for a new phase of struggle. The gilets jaunes movement gives a glimpse of how the enormous accumulated anger of the working class will explode in new struggles once it finds an outlet, and that this will not necessarily be through the existing structures of the trade unions initially.
This is in no way to lessen the importance of the work we do in the union movement today, which is essential preparation for what is to come. Imagine what power the gilets jaunes would have had if the French trade union movement had put itself decisively at the head of the movement from the beginning and called general strike action. There is no doubt that the TUC leaders in Britain would resist taking such action with even more determination than their French equivalents. However, the positions and authority we have won in the trade union movement will be an important factor in forcing action from below.
The tenacity with which the Socialist Party has fought to defend our ideas and programme in the PCS civil service union, against an attempted witch-hunt by a left trade union leader, is an enormous credit to our party. It is also vital preparation for the struggles that would take place under a Corbyn-led government, and for the inevitable pressure to hold back the fight for workers’ interests.
At this stage, the right-wing trade union leaders are using the prospect of a Corbyn government and the draconian anti-trade union laws as justification for inaction. Nonetheless, where a lead has been given there have been some important sectional and local strikes. The magnificent strike for equal pay in Glasgow, in which our sister party in Scotland played a key role, and the Homecare strike in Birmingham, are two examples. So are the long-running, determined rail strikes to keep guards on trains. There have also been some significant strikes of workers in previously unorganised sectors, notably McDonald’s and TGI Fridays.
Nonetheless, overall union density has fallen to 23.5%, and is lower still in the private sector. A large majority of workers have no direct experience of trade unions as tools for collective struggle in defence of their interests. It would be a serious error, however, to conclude from this that we should downgrade the importance of our union work. As workers search for a means to fight back against the bosses where they directly come up against them – in the workplaces – it is inevitable that they will look to trade unions.
In some cases, this could mean founding new unions, but the dominant trend in Britain is likely to be first testing out existing ones, and only moving to set up new organisations if they meet an immovable obstacle in the union structures. Even when orienting towards new formations, our base in the existing unions is an invaluable asset, as has been shown by our work in the National Shop Stewards Network.
Whenever strikes take place workers tend to join the unions in big numbers. However, while bigger sections of the working class will become involved in trade union battles, this does not mean that overall union density will return to the levels of the post-war upswing, which was an exceptional historical period. We could see elements of the points raised by Leon Trotsky in the 1930s, when he put forward the demand for factory or workplace committees to draw in all layers of workers involved in a struggle beyond those active in the union structures. Such bodies are generally only posed at times of mass struggle, but may have some relevance in the coming period. It is perhaps more likely in Britain that workers will join the existing unions in the course of a struggle, even if they do not automatically remain involved once it is over.
As the 2017 election demonstrated, big layers of young people are looking towards socialistic ideas. At this stage, this is not reflected in mass struggle, but that will change. Movements of students are likely, not only in relation to their own living conditions and the enormous debt burden they face, but also on social issues, such as the environment, women’s oppression, and anti-racism.
Overall, the explosive economic and social situation means that perspectives, particularly for the short term, are hard to predict. But the different factors which are impelling events are very clear: the crisis of British capitalism and its institutions; the search by the working class for an alternative to the misery that capitalism offers; and the weak, amorphous character, in Corbynism, of the first attempts to build a mass political alternative in this era. Socialists have a vital and urgent job of reaching out to the workers and youth who are searching for an alternative to the existing order, fighting alongside them and explaining what is necessary for the socialist transformation of society, in order to prepare for the mighty events ahead.