Britain on the boil

Rising strike action and economic and political crises are central features of the situation in Britain as we enter 2023. How do we see these processes developing in the period ahead? Below Socialism Today prints the draft British Perspectives document written for debate at the Socialist Party’s national congress in February, which addresses these and other vital issues for the class struggle today.

The background to the 2023 national congress is economic crisis, a weak government and, above all, dramatically intensified class struggle. In December 2022 an estimated 1.5 million days were lost to strike action, the highest level for over thirty years. As January 2023 opens, the strike wave is continuing to escalate. It has widespread popular support.

What, however, are the prospects for class struggle beyond the immediate period? As this statement elaborates, the as yet uncertain outcome of the current strikes will be an important factor shaping future developments. But regardless of the results of these battles, we are at the beginning of a new period of increased working-class combativity.

Clear successes for the trade unions in the present disputes would partially relieve the desperate of cost-of-living squeeze and enormously strengthen the confidence of the working class for inevitable future battles. On the other side, even if the current wave of struggle does not lead to clear victories for workers, or if defeats are suffered, it will not prevent new conflicts erupting. The current strike movement marks a turning point, a decisive departure from the previous period of prolonged low levels of struggle.

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The fight for trade union unity

The strike wave has raised the prospect of the weak and divided Tory government of Rishi Sunak, the third Conservative prime minister in a year, being forced out of office by mass struggle. But, asks ROB WILLIAMS, is the trade union movement capable of such a victory? What are the obstacles in the way and can they be overcome? What is the role of the militant unions in the fight for a united struggle?

The Covid pandemic was one in a series of crises that has beset global capitalism in the last decade and a half, starting with the credit crunch ‘Great Recession’ of 2007-08 and resulting brutal austerity. Each crisis has had profound effects on the confidence and consciousness of the main classes in society – the capitalists and the working class. In particular, they have revealed the historical weaknesses of British capitalism, provoking a crisis of political representation for the capitalist establishment, which reached a nadir in the Boris Johnson and Liz Truss governments last year.

Yet Sunak’s government is still attempting to hold the line on the pay squeeze. Not only is it doing this in regard to its own employees, public sector workers, but also appears to have been supporting the intransigence of the employers on the railways and in Royal Mail. However, this is because of the government’s weakness rather than its strength, desperate as it is to not open a door that other workers could pile through. The Tories have also finally announced their plans to implement new anti-union legislation. This move, along with the lack of progress on pay, has ratcheted up the pressure on the union leaders to call joint strike action.

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February 2003 revisited

The mass anti-war demonstrations that took place twenty years ago this month, with an estimated 30 million people marching in over 600 cities across the globe on 15 February 2003, marked a turning point in the development of broad political consciousness in the era that had begun with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
The collapse of the Stalinist dictatorships of Russia and Eastern Europe which that event symbolised, opened up a new period of capitalist triumphalism in which US imperialism dominated the world as the only superpower. For the next decade, under the banner of ‘globalisation’ and the untrammelled operation of the ‘free market’, US corporations set the agenda for the world economy, their interests implicitly underwritten by Washington’s military preponderance.
The aura of mighty US imperialism was undermined however by the ‘low-tech’ al-Qaeda attacks of 9/11, horrific terrorist atrocities with no prospect of unseating the US ruling class but nonetheless the first assault on the American mainland since 1846 and with more fatalities than at Pearl Harbour in 1941. Determined to re-assert US prestige, president George W Bush launched an invasion of Afghanistan – where the al-Qaeda leadership had sheltered – and, having quickly overthrown the Taliban by December 2001, then turned his attention to Iraq.
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Global Warning: After the COP circus has gone

World media attention briefly shone on Egypt while it hosted COP27 in November 2022. Since then, less has been said about the continuing daily struggles facing workers and youth. Falling living standards, failing public services and brutal repression are the prospects for 2023, as throughout 2022.

Egypt’s economy had not recovered from the Covid pandemic when the Russia Ukraine war exploded. Around 82% of its wheat was imported from these two countries. The Egyptian pound’s falling value increased the cost of imports. Food and drink prices were up 31% in the year to November. Choosing between pricier bread or higher government spending to keep the subsidised price stable for 70% of the population, the government held the subsidised price – but cut the weight of a loaf from 110 to 90 grams. Workers and the poor are reducing the amount of food they eat and buy for their families and often looking for extra work.

Foreign debt reached record levels of nearly $158 billion last March. Government debt (already high) increased further, forcing it to look for new loans. The finance minister reported a $16 billion funding gap over the next four years and negotiated with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a $16 billion loan – its fourth since 2016. After six months of negotiations, Egypt only got $3 billion. The conditions for a higher sum proved unacceptable.

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Corporate greed, deregulation, and state neglect

Show Me The Bodies: how we let Grenfell happen

By Peter Apps, One World, 2022, £10.99

Reviewed by Paul Kershaw

This important book starts with a description of a council block where a faulty electrical appliance set fire to panels recently installed on the external walls, turning what should have been a minor incident into a tragedy. Mothers and children, staying put in their homes on the advice of the fire brigade, died. I thought he was describing Grenfell. But in fact, this is Lakanal House in Southwark. The lessons of this 2009 fire were not learned.

The title ‘Show me the bodies’ comes from the response of Brian Martin, the civil servant responsible for fire safety guidance at the privatised national research laboratory, the BRE. Six people died at Lakanal, and it was just one of a series of fires. But not enough bodies apparently to justify tightening regulations.

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Exploiting suffering with drug lies

Empire of Pain: The secret history of the Sackler dynasty

By Patrick Radden Keefe, Picador/Doubleday, 2022, £10-99

Reviewed by Niall Mulholland

Visitors to museums and educational establishments such as the V&A Museum in London and Oxford University will be acquainted with the name of Sackler. This is the billionaire family from the United States which for decades has funded many aspects of these institutions and other world-renowned galleries and universities like the Louvre, Yale, and Harvard. Less well-known until recent years of revelations is that the Sacklers’ great wealth comes from the suffering of many people, particularly the poor.

An estimated half-a-million Americans have died from opioid-related overdoses since 1999, and millions more have become addicted. The Sackler family, through their company Purdue Pharma, made a painkiller drug in the 1990s called OxyContin, which is twice as powerful as morphine. They sold it as a slow-release drug and claimed that it was less addictive than other opiates. Scandalously, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved OxyContin without testing the company’s claims. This created the conditions for an opioid epidemic in the United States and elsewhere. Not only was the drug addictive for many users, addicts soon discovered that by crushing the OxyContin pills they could ingest them much faster and get an immediate high.

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For those written out of official history

Chris Killip’s working-class photography exhibition

The Photographers’ Gallery, 16-18 Ramilles Street, London W1F 7LW, to 19 February.

£8 admission, £5 concessions, £6.50/£4 online advance booking, every Friday free from 5pm.

This exhibition will also be at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, from 20 May.

Reviewed by Dave Beale

Work and the lack of it impose a hard and bitter toll on working-class communities. This was particularly so in the era of Margaret Thatcher, and it’s these years and these communities that the photographs of Chris Killip capture with such power and impact. A new exhibition and book celebrate his work.

Shot in black and white, mostly with medium and large-format film cameras, Killip’s photographs couldn’t be more relevant in the context of today’s cost-of-living and economic crisis.

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