|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
Issue 172 October 2013
Britain’s weak and divided government
David Cameron has been strutting around on the world stage, loudly demanding military action against Syria. Yet when it came to it, he could not even get the support of his own parliament! HANNAH SELL assesses the meaning of this dramatic political defeat.
On 15 February 2003 up to 30 million people demonstrated against the Iraq war in more than 60 countries worldwide. Over a million demonstrated in London. The Socialist Party argued at the time that this should have been followed by a 24-hour general strike, which would have forced Tony Blair and co to pull back from participating in the invasion. We also explained that, had a mass workers’ party existed, able to give a clear voice to the millions who opposed the war, the anti-war movement would have been strengthened enormously. Even as it was, the demonstration shook the government to its core, with Blair famously telling his children to be ready to move out of Downing Street as the fate of the government hung in the balance.
Thirteen years previously, US president George Bush Snr had declared the ‘New World Order’. Following the collapse of Stalinism, the US was now the only global superpower, with military spending equal to the combined spending of the 15 states that came after it. History, we were told, had ended and a vista of capitalist democracy and stability opened before us, with the US acting as the world’s policeman. But when George W Bush led the US in invading and occupying Iraq and Afghanistan he graphically demonstrated not the strength, but the limits to US power. As we predicted, the US-led occupations created misery and disorder, not order, in the Middle East. They also called into being another superpower, potentially the most powerful on the planet, in the form of the massive anti-war movement that swept the world.
This year the Iraq anti-war movement has scored its first victory. David Cameron’s historic defeat in the House of Commons on 29 August over taking part in the bombing of Syria – by 285 to 272 votes – was a direct consequence of the invasion of Iraq a decade earlier. So large did Iraq loom over proceedings that in the parliamentary debate two MPs mistakenly talked about Saddam Hussein instead of Bashar al-Assad!
The stepping back of Britain has triggered a complete unravelling of Barack Obama’s plans for quick air strikes against Syria. Clearly, this is not because Britain would have had a decisive military role to play in any attack. The USA’s military power has declined – responsible for 39% of global military expenditure in 2012 compared to around 50% previously. Nonetheless, it still dwarfs other countries. China comes second (9.5%), Russia third (5.2%) and Britain a distant fourth (3.5%).
However, Cameron’s defeat shattered Obama’s already very fragile fig-leaf of an international ‘coalition’, leaving the reality exposed that this would be a virtually unilateral strike by US imperialism. This exacerbated the widespread hesitation among sections of the US capitalist class, including the military, about the dangers of escalating conflict in the Middle East and ‘blowback’ in the US and globally. All this for a bombing which would achieve nothing, other than maintaining US prestige following Obama’s statement that a chemical weapons attack would constitute a ‘red line’.
Above all, Cameron’s defeat highlighted the unpopularity of an attack on Syria, not just in Britain but in the US. US imperialism is terrified about reigniting a mass anti-war movement, this time against the background of the deepest crisis of capitalism in 80 years. More than seven out of ten Americans and four out of five Britons currently oppose an attack on Syria.
For imperialism this raises a real fear about the obstacle ‘the other superpower’ could be to the prosecution of future wars. In the wake of its defeat in Vietnam, the ‘Vietnam syndrome’ severely limited the ability of US imperialism to intervene abroad militarily. Only the attacks on 9/11 made it possible for George W Bush to invade and occupy Iraq. But now the ‘Iraq syndrome’ has left US, and British, imperialism with extreme difficulties in committing ground troops and even, in the case of Syria, carry out bombing raids. It is not precluded that a missile attack on Syria could be proposed again, further down the road. However, capitalist politicians on both sides of the Atlantic are now very nervous of doing so. The potential deal for Syria to hand over its chemical weapons has offered Obama a temporary way to retreat from an attack while saving face, but to have to be ‘rescued’ by the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, is also a further serious blow to the prestige of US imperialism.
The Tory party, as the main party of British capitalism, was once known as being far-sighted, thinking through the consequences of its actions for decades ahead. It is an indication of the decline of British imperialism to a third-rate power that Cameron and co seem incapable of thinking beyond next week, never mind the next year.
Along with France, it is Cameron’s government which has been banging the war drums since the start of the civil war in Syria, demanding increased western military intervention. Stupidly, despite all the experience of Iraq, they imagined Assad would be easily overthrown. Instead, as we warned, an intractable sectarian civil war between the regime and insurgents has developed, with no prospects for a quick resolution. Yet Cameron continued to campaign for war, only to discover that he could not even get support for air-strikes through his own parliament!
In Britain this was the first defeat of a government over going to war since the defeat of Tory prime minister Lord North in 1782, over the continuation of the war against the American colonies fighting for independence. Lord North resigned a month later. The Con-Dem coalition was already weak, facing problems on numerous issues from Europe to Universal Credit, and has been dealt a body blow by this defeat, yet it remains in power. A central reason for this is the woeful role of the parliamentary opposition, the Labour Party. Cameron was furious with Ed Miliband because Labour failed to support the government, apparently describing Miliband as a ‘copper-bottomed shit’. However, Miliband has gained no kudos for the defeat of the government. On the contrary, his net satisfaction rate has slumped even further to minus 36, below Cameron’s rating!
Voters remember that it was a Labour government which launched the invasion of Iraq and understood that Miliband did not actually oppose the attack on Syria. He had, in fact, initially indicated that Labour would vote for the government motion. It was only after a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party at lunchtime on the day of the vote that Miliband was forced to change his mind and withdraw support for the government. Instead, Labour moved an amendment, not opposing an airstrike on Syria but demanding "the production of compelling evidence that the Syrian regime was responsible for the use of these weapons". The amendment was also defeated, by 332 votes to 220. It is probable that Miliband did not realise the likely scale of the Tory rebellion, and therefore thought the government motion would narrowly pass without Labour support.
A comparison can be drawn between Miliband’s stance on Syria and that of Labour prime minister Harold Wilson towards the Vietnam war between 1964 and 1970. Unlike Blair in relation to Iraq, Wilson was never able to commit British troops to Vietnam, despite giving general support to the US. To do so would have risked the potential fall of the government as a result of huge opposition from within the Labour Party which, at that stage, still had a mass working-class membership which was able to influence the party via its democratic structures. By the time Blair went to war in Iraq, however, Labour had been transformed from a capitalist workers’ party – with a working-class base albeit with a capitalist leadership – into a capitalist party.
It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that the Parliamentary Labour Party’s pressure on Miliband over Syria is an indication that the party has been ‘reclaimed’ by the working class. On the contrary, the Falkirk affair has demonstrated clearly the impossibility of influencing Labour via its now non-existent democratic structures. It was the post-Iraq public opposition to an attack on Syria – and a fear of the electoral consequences of supporting it – which forced Miliband to hesitate. Incredibly, however, the most Blairite wing of the Labour Party – led by Blair himself – has been in open revolt against Miliband’s position.
Labour was pushed into a stumbling and hesitant opposition to the attack on Syria. Nonetheless, the vote on 29 August gave a glimpse of what could be achieved if the government faced an opposition worthy of the name. Ironically, Labour’s rare and semi-accidental defiance of the government has highlighted the urgent need for a new mass party, armed with a socialist programme capable of providing the working class with a powerful voice against pro-capitalist policies both inside and outside parliament.
Miliband’s Blairite course
‘I get it’, Cameron was forced to declare as he promised to abide by the will of parliament. If Labour was prepared to oppose the war on the working class in Britain – to vote against cuts in public services, to promise to immediately renationalise Royal Mail (which would instantly scupper the government’s plans to privatise it) and to kick the privateers out of the NHS, to name a few – this government could have been brought down years ago. Labour, of course, has done none of that, instead pledging to continue with Tory austerity.
Rather than determined opposition to the government, Miliband has concentrated on ‘standing up’ to the trade unions and the working class. Following Miliband’s woeful speech to the TUC, the president of the PCS (civil servants’ union) and Socialist Party member, Janice Godrich, received the biggest cheer of the morning when she demanded to know if Miliband was prepared to oppose austerity. His answer was unequivocal: Labour would continue with austerity in order to appear ‘credible’. Even Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the TUC, felt obliged to criticise Labour for supporting a "vanilla version of austerity".
Miliband also made clear his intention to press ahead with breaking the formal link between the trade unions and the Labour Party, thereby destroying the final remnants of the trade unions’ collective voice within the Labour Party. Clearly, some trade union leaders are hoping against hope that Miliband will retreat when faced with a dramatic cut in party funding, a point the GMB general union has hammered home by announcing its funding to Labour will be cut by over £1 million from January next year. However, a ‘compromise’ would make no fundamental difference.
Some of Miliband’s advisors have intimated that a fudge could be found, such as the formal link between Labour and the unions being broken at a special conference in March 2014, but the current limited voting rights of the trade unions remaining for a ‘transitional period’, perhaps beyond the general election. Even if this was agreed, it would only prolong the full implementation of the Labour leadership’s plans. The end result would be the same: the final destruction of the last remnants of a collective voice for the trade unions within the Labour Party. Given the immediate attacks on Miliband by Cameron for being ‘chicken’, and the considerable pressure from the Blairites to go ‘all the way’, it is still possible Miliband will force through all the proposals at the spring special conference.
In contrast to GMB general secretary Paul Kenny’s clear opposition to Miliband’s proposals, when he correctly pointed out that the trade unions have more members than all of the capitalist parties put together, Len McCluskey, general secretary of the Unite union, has continued to take an equivocal position. Shockingly, he even managed to praise Miliband’s speech to the TUC, saying he had "looked like a real leader" and was beginning to "seal the deal with workers"!
However, among the ranks of Unite – and all the affiliated trade unions – there is enormous anger at Miliband’s proposals. For many thousands of trade unionists this is seen as a defining moment from which there are only two possible outcomes. Either the Labour leadership’s proposals are defeated, and that acts as a springboard for a major campaign to ‘reclaim’ the Labour Party, or the proposals are passed and the unions move to found a new mass workers’ party.
Following the experience of Falkirk the second option is seen as more likely by growing numbers of trade unionists, including those who have until recently held hopes that Labour can be pushed back to the left. The Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) is doing vital preparatory work for the creation of such a party, including its plans to stand anti-cuts candidates in hundreds of seats in the May 2014 local council elections.
Government weakness exposed
The defeat of the government on Syria has not only highlighted the need for a political alternative to austerity, it has also brought home to millions the weakness of the government. Thirty Tory and nine Lib Dem MPs voted against the government’s motion on Syria. The Tories in the main came from the right wing of the party. Their attitude was summed up by Tory MP Crispin Blunt’s hope that the vote would "relieve ourselves of some of this imperial pretension that a country of our size can seek to be involved in every conceivable conflict that's going on around the world". The strength of this isolationist approach, within a party which once led the most powerful imperialist country on the planet, is another indication of the feeble character of British capitalism today, reflected in its main political party.
The Tory rebels are increasingly in open revolt against Cameron and, emboldened by the vote on Syria, are likely to come into more and more frequent opposition to the government. Already this government has seen a number of post-war records for rebellions, including 81 Tory MPs rebelling on Europe and 150 over gay marriage. At the same time, a section of the Liberal Democrats are clearly trying to distance themselves from the government, and to openly court Labour in the hope of forming a Lib/Lab coalition post-general election. The social base of both parties is at a historically low level. Membership of the Tories is thought to have dropped below 100,000, and the Lib Dems below 40,000.
Even without a mass political alternative to austerity, if the leaderships of the trade unions had been prepared to organise a serious struggle against the cuts this government would already be history. Their failure to do so means that the enormous anger that exists in British society currently has no viable outlet. At this year’s TUC congress, however, it was clear that the pressure on the trade union leaders to act is growing. Even Dave Prentis, general secretary of Unison, was forced to make a militant sounding speech in favour of co-ordinated strike action. The RMT’s motion to continue to discuss a general strike was passed, despite behind the scenes pressure on the RMT to drop it. If the TUC was to call a 24-hour general strike against austerity, it would get huge public support within the trade unions and well beyond their current membership. A movement would be created even bigger than the 2002-03 anti-war movement.
The leadership of the TUC is terrified of calling such a strike, not least because it would conjure into being a movement that it could not control. Nonetheless, despite the obstacles at the top, steps towards important strike action are taking place, including among teachers, fire-fighters and postal workers. It is urgent that all live disputes are co-ordinated, as a step towards a 24-hour general strike. In addition, it is important that the whole trade union movement declares its solidarity with any trade union or workers who are threatened with the anti-trade union laws.
In particular, it is possible that Royal Mail management will attempt to use the anti-trade union laws to try and prevent strike action by postal workers, which will be over pay and conditions but also in opposition to privatisation. If they do so, particularly given rank-and-file postal workers’ history of unofficial action, there will be the possibility of widespread defiance of the anti-union laws. If the CWU faces legal threats as a result, the whole trade union movement would have to urgently come to its defence, threatening an immediate 24-hour general strike.
There are many other issues over which major struggles could develop in the coming months. So brutal is the relentless driving down of workers’ living standards in Britain that even Oxfam has warned it is unsustainable. A fight-back, in one form or another, is coming. The Syria crisis has demonstrated to millions how weak the government that is destroying their lives actually is. It was defeated by the after-echoes of a mass movement that reached its peak ten years ago. Now we need a movement on a similar scale against austerity, but this time going beyond demonstrations and organising both general strike action and its own political voice.