|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
Issue 171 September 2013
Prospects for struggle
The working class in Britain is more than five years into the worst assault on its living standards in eighty years and an elemental class rage is developing greater than anything seen for generations. But this anger currently has no viable outlet and remains, simmering, below the seeming surface calm. Inevitably though, argues HANNAH SELL, as happened in Turkey and Brazil over the summer, at a certain stage the anger will find a focus and erupt.
The single most important issue for the majority of workers in Britain is the driving down of living standards. Average wages in Britain have fallen further than almost any other country in Europe – a massive 5.5% since 2010 – to their lowest level since 2003. Only the devastated economies of Greece and Portugal, alongside the Netherlands, have suffered a greater fall. The average family has only enough money to survive for 34 days – one pay cheque away from destitution.
Meanwhile, the meagre safety net which previously existed is being systematically ripped apart. The director of the Trussell Trust, the biggest distributor of food banks in Britain, has slammed as "shameful" Iain Duncan Smith’s claim that the 200% explosion in demand for food parcels from April is unrelated to the slashing of benefits that took place at the same time. According to Trussell, more than half of the 150,000 people receiving emergency food aid from its food banks between April and June were referred because of benefit delays, sanctions, and financial difficulties relating to the bedroom tax and abolition of council tax relief.
The media coverage of a few of the tragic suicides of victims of benefit cuts is a glimpse of the despair that millions are facing. Cuts introduced by central government have been ruthlessly implemented at local authority level. In Sheffield the Labour council issued summonses for 6,500 people for council tax arrears to appear in court on the same day. Hundreds of the city’s poorest queued around the court building, dragged there for amounts averaging a paltry £172.
Unemployment is officially 7.8%, with long-term unemployment at a 17-year high of 915,000. Real levels of unemployment are far greater than the official figures but have been disguised by the scourge of zero-hour contracts and other forms of temporary, casual, part-time work. There are 1.45 million people in part-time work but looking for a full-time job, many working for just a few hours a week. As Larry Elliott put it in The Guardian (4 August), this is a new form of "the reserve army of labour", described by Karl Marx 150 years ago, used by the capitalist class to drive down wages for the working class as a whole, with workers unable to earn enough even to feed themselves and put a roof over their heads. Elliott declared: "These were the sorts of labour market practices that gave rise to trade unions in the first place. Back then they had a name: exploitation".
The name remains the same! The conditions faced by the working class are preparing the ground for an uprising on a huge scale, comparable with the ‘new unionism’ which erupted at the end of the 19th century and gave birth to the general trade unions. Friedrich Engels wrote of the mighty dockworkers’ strike of 1889: "Hitherto the East End was bogged down in passive poverty… And this host of utterly despondent men, who every morning when the dock gates open fight a regular battle among themselves to get closest to the fellow who does the hiring… This motley crowd… has managed to unite 40,000 strong, to maintain discipline and to strike fear into the hearts of the mighty dock companies. How glad I am to have lived to see this day!" (Letter to Bernstein, 22 August 1889)
The equivalent today includes factory workers, but also cleaners, caterers and retail workers. Most have never been touched by the union movement. They are, as Marx described, currently a class ‘in themselves’ (bound together by common conditions), but not yet ‘for itself’ (conscious of its class interests), but the ground is being prepared for their uprising. It could be sparked by one victory, as was the case with the match girls’ strike of 1888. It is an urgent task for the trade union movement to organise this mass of low-paid super-exploited workers. What is more, opportunities will exist to win this generation, for whom capitalism offers a future far harder than that of their parents, in their tens of thousands to the need for the socialist transformation of society.
The trade union movement remains, potentially, the strongest force in society, with around 6.5 million members. If it had given a clear lead in the struggle against austerity – starting by calling a 24-hour general strike – unorganised workers would have already flocked to its banner in their millions. The political and industrial situation would have been transformed. The fall of the government would be posed. Yet, Britain lost only 248,800 days to strike action last year, the lowest level since 2005. The first half of 2013 has continued with a similar level of strikes. Considering the calamity facing the working class, superficially this seems inexplicable.
Undoubtedly, right-wing trade union leaders will use the low level of strikes to argue that the mood for a general strike against austerity does not exist. Nothing could be further from the truth. Opinion polls show a clear majority against government austerity in general – 58% in a ComRes poll for the Independent on 30 April, for example. There have been polls supposedly suggesting young people are more supportive of austerity than their parents. But, according to the British Social Attitudes Survey, 93% of people born after 1979 are opposed to cuts in health, education or social benefits.
It is true that the government has been able to create a certain division between workers and so-called ‘scroungers’. They have been able to get away with this only because Labour has echoed the same propaganda. However, the brutal reality of benefit cuts is starting to change the mood, as the response to the bedroom tax has demonstrated.
The real problem is the absence of any lead from the TUC. In 2011, when a public-sector general strike was called for 30 November, the response was tremendous. It resulted in 1.39 million official strike days being lost, more than five times higher than the following year, and the highest since 1990. The level of strikes then plummeted because the right-wing union leaders pulled the plug on further action. As is traditional, Brendan Barber, then TUC general secretary, has now received a knighthood as a reward for services rendered.
Millions of workers were left feeling demoralised that, despite their own preparedness to struggle, their unions had abandoned the battle. Since then, under pressure from below, harnessed by the National Shop Stewards’ Network (NSSN), in September 2012 the TUC congress voted to ‘consider the practicalities’ of a general strike. However, the TUC leadership will drag its feet for as long as possible, and can get away with this for a period because of the lingering effects of the last two decades: the throwing back of socialist consciousness and the weakening of the understanding of the working class of its own power as a collective force. This means that, despite the popularity of a general strike (82% support in one Guardian poll), workers in general do not see the possibility of organising for a general strike from below, or of forcing trade union leaders to call one. This will change through bitter experience, as a new layer of union militants is forged by fighting austerity.
The TUC leadership has only ever called action after it has begun to develop from below, as happened when it last called a general strike in 1972. Today, the profound character of the capitalist crisis paradoxically increases the degree to which the trade union leaders are an obstacle to action. In an epoch of crisis all struggles, even sectional strikes, have a greater tendency to come into conflict with the capitalist system itself. An indefinite general strike always poses the question of power, of who runs society. But, in the current situation, even a 24-hour general strike or warning strike would at least begin to pose that question. This is more so in Britain, where general strike action is less common than in southern Europe. The capitalist class is aware of this and exerts enormous pressure on the trade union leaders to be ‘responsible’ and avoid struggles developing. On the other side, the right-wing union leaders, who see capitalism as the only possible system and are therefore bound by its logic, are terrified of conjuring up a movement which they would not be able to control, and which would qualitatively increase the confidence of the working class in its own power.
The gigantic block created by the right-wing leaders will not be able to prevent a new strike movement indefinitely. An important factor in how long the blockage remains in place is the role played by the left trade union leaders. There is an urgent need for the most militant unions to coordinate strike action. This, in turn, would add enormously to the pressure on the TUC to call everyone out. In 2011 it was only the coordinated action by some public-sector unions in June which forced virtually all public-sector unions to call action for 30 November.
There are prospects for a new round of co-ordinated action in the autumn, with the PCS, the biggest teaching unions (NUT, NASUWT), the CWU and the FBU all planning or considering action in response to devastating attacks on their members’ working conditions and to the public services they provide. If all these unions strike together it will be a significant step towards a 24-hour general strike against austerity.
An array of flashpoints
Even while the blockage at the top seems immovable, the working class can find ways to go round it. Explosions can take place on all kinds of issues, sometimes of a seemingly secondary character, as workers search for an effective means of fighting back. The campaign against the bedroom tax has some features of this. Housing associations have reported widespread non-payment, with up to 50% of affected tenants paying nothing to cover the shortfall left by benefit cuts. Clearly, the levels of non-payment primarily reflect the impossibility of tenants finding the money to pay. However, it appears that where anti-bedroom tax campaigns have been strongest non-payment levels are highest. For example, in Glasgow, heartland of the anti-bedroom tax campaign, two-thirds of the 7,350 tenants of Glasgow and Cube housing associations have not paid or have underpaid.
The ‘ring of steel’ formed around the home of a fellow tenant to prevent her eviction in Kirkby, Merseyside, shows how anti-eviction armies can spring up if councils and housing associations try to proceed with evictions resulting from benefit cuts. Many of those taking part in anti-bedroom tax campaigns are not directly affected, but feel that this attack on the poorest is the ‘final straw’ and something must be done. The pressure from below has forced a number of local authorities and housing associations to find ways to ameliorate the effects of the tax. Most recently, the Tory council for Welwyn Hatfield, where the ex-housing minister Grant Shapps is MP, has reclassified hundreds of ‘spare rooms’ as box rooms, thereby exempting tenants from the tax.
The campaign against the bedroom tax – and other benefit cuts – has the potential to become a focus for opposition comparable to the anti-eviction movement in Spain. There campaigns against evictions due to mortgage arrears have prevented over 1,000 evictions and are enormously popular, with 89% support in opinion polls, despite regularly being slandered as ‘terrorists’ by the capitalist media.
Other issues could also explode. The destruction of the NHS has already led to huge local conflagrations, such as the 50,000 who marched in Stafford in April in defence of the local hospital. The demand to ‘shut down the town’ with a town-wide day or half-day general strike is now receiving widespread support. It would have more the character of an Indian ‘hartal’ with wide sections of the population – including small business people – walking out of work to take part in another massive demonstration, this time on a weekday. The one concrete piece of co-ordinated action the TUC has called is a national demonstration outside Tory party conference on 29 September in defence of the NHS. While this falls far short of what the situation requires, it has the potential to be sizeable and, potentially, a springboard to further action.
Paradoxically, the urge to fight back against austerity could be strengthened by the current, very small, economic recovery. In a world of ailing economies, Britain remains among the sickest. The UK ‘recovery’ is the slowest in 100 years, slower than any other G7 economy with the exception of Italy. The UK economy is still 3.3% smaller than it was in 2007. But within a period of economic depression, however, there are bound to be some stages of weak growth. There has been a limited recovery in manufacturing, although production is only 3% higher than the low point of 2009.
The formal stuttering of the economy into growth is partly the result of Osborne’s attempt to reflate the massive housing bubble, which artificially extended the last boom. There is no possibility of this triggering significant and sustained real growth. The after effects of the previous bubble still remain, in the form of a huge millstone of debt around the necks of the working and middle classes, leaving them largely unable to take out more credit. Six years into the great recession household debt remains a massive 140% of gross domestic product (GDP), compared with 100% in 2000. Wages, meanwhile, have fallen for six consecutive years. At the same time, the banks remain unwilling to lend. Further economic shocks, whether triggered by crisis in the eurozone, new banking meltdowns, or the slowdown in China, will plunge the UK into a further deepening of the crisis.
Completing Labour’s transformation
Contrary to claims in the capitalist press, it is not the strength of the economy but the weakness of the opposition that has led to a narrowing of Labour’s poll lead. While it may still win the election, or at least achieve its real aim of a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, this will be purely because of hatred for the current government, rather than any positive appeal. Labour has committed to continuing with Tory spending plans beyond the election and has refused to promise to repeal even the most barbarous cuts such as the bedroom tax. No wonder many have concluded there is no point in voting Labour – when all that is on offer is Tory policies presented in a less decisive fashion!
The only time the Labour leadership has acted ‘firmly’ in the last six months was when, in response to demands from the Tories and the capitalist class, Ed Miliband called the police into investigate the UNITE union’s role in the Falkirk parliamentary selection. The police refused to pursue the enquiry as there was insufficient evidence. Tom Watson MP declared: "This is just preposterous. Unions have less influence over selection than they have had in 100 years". (Guardian, 16 August) Miliband, however, has continued to dance to the Tories’ tune on this, as on all, issues. Twenty years after a special spring Labour conference abolished Clause IV, the socialist clause in the Labour Party’s constitution, Miliband is attempting to repeat the same trick. This time it will be the remnants of the trade unions’ collective voice within the Labour Party that are to be abolished.
In doing so, Miliband wants to take to its final conclusion the process of transforming Labour into a capitalist party. Labour was founded by the trade unions to provide a political voice for the organised working class. Tony Blair long since declared that this was a mistake, and that the working class should have continued to support the capitalist Liberal party.
The process of fundamentally undermining the collective voice of the unions within the Labour Party began with John Smith’s introduction of one member one vote (OMOV). John Prescott accurately commented that this was even more important than the abolition of Clause IV. OMOV meant using a passive membership – sitting at home and seeing debates within the party via the capitalist media – against the more active layers who participated in the democratic structures of the party. At the same time the union block at conference was reduced from 90% to 49%. The organised working class was able to put pressure on the Labour leadership via the block vote. It is true, of course, that right-wing union leaders often wielded the block vote against their own members’ interests. That is why we called – as part of our programme for democratic, fighting trade unions – for democratic trade union checks over the block vote. Nonetheless, the reduction of the block vote was an essential part of transforming Labour into a capitalist party.
Blair then went further and stripped the Labour conference of its policy-making power so it was merely a consultative body. The details of Labour’s latest proposals are still being discussed, but it is clear that the complete abolition of the block vote is being proposed. These proposals are very similar to those imposed on the unions by Tory prime minister Stanley Baldwin in 1927, after the defeat of the general strike, in order to weaken the working class.
If the trade unions were to vote en masse against these proposals it would be the first significant rebellion against the Labour leadership’s destruction of working-class political representation and would have the potential to create a political earthquake. The possibility would be posed of the Labour Party being riven in two, with the pro-capitalist elements on the one hand and the unions on the other.
For Labour to be reclaimed by the working class would require far more. The trade unions would have to struggle for the adoption of a fighting programme – including ending austerity and public-sector cuts, of a mass council house building programme, a living wage, and repeal of the anti-trade union laws – and the recreation of the party’s democratic structures. Given the grip of the pro-capitalist elements on the party such a campaign would be most unlikely to succeed. Even if it did not, however, the result of fighting to defend the collective political voice of the working class could be the emergence of a powerful new mass workers’ party from within the shell of pro-capitalist new Labour.
Time to fill the vacuum
Unfortunately, this scenario is not what will develop at the special conference. The leadership of UNITE, the largest Labour-affiliated trade union, has not opposed Miliband’s plans. General secretary Len McCluskey has called the status quo (the unions having a collective political voice) ‘indefensible’. Dave Prentis, general secretary of UNISON, has attacked the Labour leadership for raising the trade union link now, but has not opposed Miliband on the substance of the issue.
Other affiliated-union leaders, however, including Billy Hayes of the CWU and the GMB’s Paul Kenny, have indicated opposition to the proposals. More importantly, it has started to crystallise a feeling among many trade unionists that an alternative to Labour is needed. The faint hopes that Miliband would shift Labour to the left are being pulverised by his consistent failure to oppose Tory policies. The resolution passed by the North West UNITE regional committee is an indication of the mood already developing among many activists. It called for UNITE to: "convene a meeting of trade unions and trade unionists with the aim of creating a new workers’ party which would meet the union’s demands for a programme of policies including scrapping the cuts, the anti-union laws and renationalising all public services". Particularly in the aftermath of the special conference, the potential will exist for this demand to become a reality.
The Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), involving the RMT transport workers’ union, other leading trade unionists, socialists and community campaigns, is acting as a precursor for such a mass party. The events developing in the trade unions confirm the approach of TUSC, which is based on the unions and a democratic federal structure, while also giving individual participants a democratic voice. This contrasts to those on the left, including the leadership of Left Unity, who argue mistakenly that a new left party must be based on OMOV, the very measure used by the right wing to transform Labour into a capitalist party.
Labour, meanwhile, will be in danger of being destroyed. All capitalist parties are having their social base undermined as a result of their support for austerity. The Tories fear that their membership has fallen below 100,000, the lowest in the party’s history. Labour’s membership is only 187,000. It is ruled out that breaking the formal link with the unions will result in a significant number of individual trade unionists joining the party.
Financially, Labour hopes to scrape through by having the same relationship with the unions as the Democrats in the US, or the Liberals in Britain before the formation of Labour: huge donations without any democratic influence on policy. Since 1989, for example, the largest single contributor to the Democrats, the Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, has given $45 million (Wall Street Journal, 10 October 2012). Given the history of the Labour Party in Britain, however, its leadership is profoundly mistaken to imagine that the union leaders will easily be able to get away with ‘handing over the cash’ once the union link has been broken. In the run-up to the general election, trade unionists may well reluctantly accept this in the hope that Labour can defeat the Tories. Even then, the clamour will grow to also fund other candidates, who actually defend workers’ interests.
Beyond the general election this position will become unsustainable. If Labour manages to throw victory away, the union leaders’ argument that they must continue to ‘fund Labour to defeat the Tories’ will become laughable. On the other side, if Labour wins it will continue to implement austerity and will face the same fate as François Hollande, the most unpopular president in the history of France’s fifth republic, or even of PASOK in Greece which, having done the bidding of the troika, has been virtually annihilated electorally. The left coalition, Syriza, because it stood against austerity, surged from 4% to being the favourite to win the next election. Similarly, left forces in Spain and Portugal are seeing a marked increase in electoral support.
Syriza, however, also holds another lesson for a new mass workers’ party in Britain. Capitalism – worldwide and in Greece – has exerted enormous pressure on its leadership to make the party ‘safe’ for capitalism. Under this pressure, Syriza’s leadership has moved decisively to the right, including dropping the call for nationalisation of key sectors of the economy. This demonstrates the vital role of a clear Marxist current within a future mass workers’ party, in order to fight for a programme that is in the interests of the working class – a socialist programme – against the determined efforts the capitalists will make to shift to the right any party that the working class sees as its own.