The Socialist Party’s annual Socialism weekend in November included a session on the cost-of-living Enough is Enough! campaign launched this summer. Published below is an edited version of the contribution to the discussion made by CLIVE HEEMSKERK, a Socialist Party executive committee member and the national election agent of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC).
When the agenda was being discussed for this year’s Socialism event the answer to the question posed in the title of this session – ‘Is Enough is Enough enough?’ – was potentially more open than it is today.
The national strike action, in particular that on the railways by the RMT transport workers’ union which began in June – followed by the national strikes by the Communications Workers Union (CWU) in BT and Royal Mail in July and August – touched the consciousness of millions of workers, in Britain and also internationally.
The capitalist establishment politicians and their media, led by the ‘state-affiliated’ broadcaster the BBC, didn’t know how to deal with the biggest strikes by the RMT since the union’s formation in 1990. They veered from questioning how ‘impactful’ they were, often reporting from an empty station platform as they did so, to implying that ‘selfish’ union members were ‘holding the country to ransom’.
But they were not able to ignore the clear message of the strikes that the working class was ‘back in action’ – and that the trade unions were once again a ‘subjective factor’ in society, a force able to shape events.
The trade unions had never ‘gone away’ of course, even when, for example, in 2017, just 33,000 workers took industrial action in Britain, the lowest number since records started in 1893. They still remained as the Socialist Party consistently argued, often against others on the left, the basic core organisations of the working class. This is not for ‘ideological’ reasons, that workers like the ‘idea’ of trade unions, but because they are the first line of defence for workers’ material interests, the conditions they share with each other, their collective class interests – and therefore with far greater potential social weight even than other comparatively-sized voluntary organisations.
Even if the only ‘peacetime’ connection to the union that the majority of members have outside of strike action is their membership subs – which for the 81,500 members of the RMT is £280 a year at the full rate – that is a bigger commitment, for example, than that made by somebody who joins the Labour Party with membership subs of £56 a year (£28 reduced rate, £3 for students). Or the Conservative Party, which you can join for £25 a year (£5 for under 26-year olds) – and decide who the prime minister is! By the way there were fewer people, 81,326, who voted for Liz Truss in the Conservative Party’s summer leadership election than there are RMT members – and even less, 60,399, who voted for Rishi Sunak.
So when the cost-of-living campaign Enough is Enough was launched in August with Dave Ward, the CWU general secretary, and Mick Lynch and Eddie Dempsey, respectively the RMT general secretary and senior assistant general secretary, to the fore, it was a more open question as to whether or not it might be ‘enough’ to provide a political expression of the interests of the working class that are being fought for in the workplace; to establish a new ‘workers’ politics’.
That, of course, was one of the pledges made by Sharon Graham in her campaign to win the Unite general secretary election in 2021, for ‘workers politics’ in contrast to the idea of limiting the trade union movement’s political activity within the confining framework of the Labour Party. And now we had trade union leaders on the frontline explicitly questioning where Sir Keir Starmer stood, on the side of the workers or on the side of the bosses, at enthusiastic rallies attended by hundreds across the country – in some cases, the biggest seen in a town or city since the mass rallies to hear Jeremy Corbyn in the 2017 general election campaign.
But that was in the sunny days of August and it is now three months later in November.
Potential still there
That is not to say at all that the potential for a ‘new workers’ politics’ is any less than it was in the summer; on the contrary it is even greater now.
When the first RMT strike took place Boris Johnson was still prime minister. Two prime ministers later the Tories are 22 percentage points behind on average in the opinion polls. And even though Starmer and the shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves have no alternative to the second age of austerity that is underway the most likely prospect now is for, at the very least, a minority Starmer government but possibly a 1997-scale Tory meltdown. So in that respect, in that there is less threat of a Tory victory in the general election that must be held in the next two years, there is more ‘room’ for workers and young people to think, what type of alternative should there be?
On the industrial plane it is even more clear now how ferocious the battles are in Royal Mail and on the railways. But the results of the re-ballots the RMT had to undergo as a result of the anti-union laws – which revealed an increase in union membership, a turnout of 70%, and an average ‘Yes’ vote of 91% to continue the strike action across the different train operating companies and Network Rail – shows the determination of the members and the deep roots that the unions have. Meanwhile the arrival of the ‘public sector cavalry’ in the NHS, education and the civil service shows the possibilities that are there for generalised workers’ action against the different aspects of the austerity agenda. The demand for a political expression of this movement will only grow.
And then, in a ‘negative proof’ of the need for a new workers’ politics but also the potential for it, there has been the consolidation of Blairism within the Labour Party under Starmer, which is also even clearer now than in the summer.
Firstly, that’s so politically. Many of the cuts to public spending announced in the November autumn statement by the chancellor Jeremy Hunt have been back-loaded for after 2024, to come into effect under a new government (if the Tories are not forced to an election earlier). And Starmer and Reeves could not be clearer in their commitment to ‘closing the £55 billion gap’ and the demands of ‘market discipline’.
And secondly, Starmer’s revived Blairism has consolidated its hold organisationally – in this year’s elections for the nine individual members’ reps on the Labour Party’s ruling national executive committee (NEC), for example, the four candidates backed by the left-wing Momentum group received just 22,649 first preference votes, 32.4% of the total cast, and lost one of their seats. The right-wing ‘Labour To Win’ slate won 30,605 first preference votes, 43.8%, and picked up another NEC seat.
Measured in terms of support in the NEC elections, the Labour left is back to the levels it was achieving under New Labour Mark One – for example in the 2008 NEC elections when the top candidate for the left-wing slate, then known as the Grassroots Alliance, polled 20,203. And it is way below the 313,209 votes that Jeremy Corbyn won to be re-elected as Labour leader in 2016 to see off the challenge of Owen Smith, following the infamous ‘chicken coup’ by 172 members of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) who voted no confidence in Corbyn.
Meanwhile at this year’s Labour conference, in a vote that has been almost unremarked upon by most of the left, 59.4% of the delegates voted against a constitutional amendment that would have allowed Jeremy Corbyn’s Islington North constituency party the chance to select him as a parliamentary candidate despite his continued suspension from the PLP. There was a higher vote to debar Corbyn as a Labour candidate by constituency delegates (61.6%) than there was by the affiliated organisations’ delegates, which includes delegates from the Jewish Labour Movement and other societies but mainly the eleven trade unions affiliated to Labour. But there was still a majority against Corbyn (56.7%) in this section too, with the right-wing union leaders backing the Starmer leadership against Unite, the CWU, the Fire Brigades Union and the ASLEF train drivers’ union.
It could not be clearer that Corbynism has been decisively defeated inside the Labour Party. But that does not mean that the hundreds of thousands of people initially enthused by Corbyn’s leadership have disappeared or that they, and even more significantly the new layers of workers politicised by the strike movement, could not form the basis of a new mass workers’ party.
But the founding leaders of Enough is Enough – Dave Ward and the CWU Head of Communications Chris Webb, Mick Lynch and Eddie Dempsey, and the Coventry South MP Zarah Sultana – do not see themselves as preparing a new political vehicle of the working class. And certainly not one that will challenge the new Blairism at the ballot box.
A conscious strategy
Such a position is not an accidental omission but a conscious strategy, linked to a definite ‘theory of change’. This was spelt out by Mick Lynch in an interview in the Tribune magazine (July 27) just before the launch of Enough is Enough.
“We’ve got a situation where some trade unions are overtly saying, ‘We’re not that bothered about what the Labour Party is saying’,” Mick argued, identifying himself with that trend, “to some degree”. Labour is “not going to change the landscape politically – but we can do it industrially”.
“The labour movement in its broadest sense, magazines like yours, along with the trade unions, we’ve just got to say, ‘We’ve got permanent values and they don’t change because of the political landscape’. That might be decent wages, or a charter for workers and those out of work that can’t be changed. Minimum standards that are legislated for or enforced by collective bargaining. Council houses, public ownership, we’ve got to keep talking about these permanent values”.
“Then Starmer, or whoever succeeds him” – this was at the time of the ‘Beergate’ investigation when, if Starmer had been found to have breached Covid regulations at an event in Durham in 2021, he would have resigned as leader – they would “have to say, ‘I had better go to where those permanent values are’…”.
“I think the unions will have to refound and restate what the permanent values of our movement are. Then the political side of the movement will have to relate to that standard. That’s the way to shift them”.
The Tribune editor, Ronan Burtenshaw, reiterated the ‘strategy’ in an article, ‘Why Tribune Supports #EnoughIsEnough’, describing the role of the new campaign: “We need to build a movement that can rally people behind a set of popular demands… That is the only way to unite our struggles, change the national conversation and build pressure for concessions from the government”. (Tribune, 10 August 2022) “Westminster politics” – which can only be code for contesting elections – “isn’t coming to save us” he went on. “We can only turn the tide in our workplaces and our communities”.
Mick Lynch and Dave Ward are certainly not the only labour movement leaders who have put forward such an approach, that the task effectively is to create ‘a climate of opinion’ which it would be politically impossible to stand against. It actually also describes the Peace and Justice Project launched by Jeremy Corbyn – and Zarah Sultana – in January 2021, with the goal of ‘building networks for progressive change’ between social movements and trade unions, combining “research and analysis with campaigning and organising”. (The Guardian, 14 December 2020) But not a new party, with an electoral arm.
And then there is the People’s Assembly, which was launched in February 2013 with an open letter, signed by amongst others Tony Benn, the PCS civil servants’ union general secretary Mark Serwotka, ASLEF’s Mick Whelan, and Kevin Courtney from the National Union of Teachers (now the joint general secretary of the National Education Union), as “a national forum for anti-austerity views which, while increasingly popular, are barely represented in parliament”. But again, not with a view to actually organise to stand candidates for parliament or anywhere else.
Vacating the field to the right
There are also groups like the Right to Food campaign or the ‘community union’ Acorn who try and organise practical support for working class communities on a local level – including pop-up food banks, pre-school breakfast clubs, support for private renters and so on – which, of course, no one could oppose. But at the same time, if there is not a political arm to the campaign – including standing in elections – they are letting local councils off the hook, particularly Labour-controlled ones, who are not providing the services which could meet the needs identified by such community campaigning.
It is a fact that the 125 councils across Britain that have Labour-led administrations control between them spending power of at least £82 billion – greater than the state budgets of 16 European Union countries! – and hold around £20 billion in usable reserves. Why should the workers’ movement allow those resources to remain unchallenged in the hands of the Blairites?
The Socialist Party has been criticised by some on the left for placing too much emphasis on what local councillors could do; it has been said that our criticism that one of the mistakes of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party was that he allowed local right-wing councillors to continue implementing austerity policies in the town halls is ‘trivial’. But local councils are responsible for one fifth of all public spending in Britain and, while they would have to take on their local finance officers and the government to use their powers to fight the cost-of-living crisis locally, they have the capacity to do so if they chose. (See Resetting The Council Cuts Battleground, in Socialism Today No.259, July-August 2022)
Is it ‘trivial’ to point that out? But if a ‘Labour’ politician cannot stand up today to a stony-faced municipal finance officer how can they be expected to stand up to the Bank of England, the international bondholders and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) under a future Labour government facing the pressure of the ‘markets’?
To give just one example. To implement the policy of the Right to Food campaign – and now also that of Enough is Enough – of extending free school meals to all primary pupils, which was promised in Labour’s 2019 general election manifesto under Jeremy Corbyn, would cost £900 million. That could be implemented this week if there were councillors in our town halls prepared to fight. But again that comes back to the question – what do you do at the ballot box?
Capitalist politicians do move under pressure, including governments – that’s absolutely correct. But if those capitalist politicians retain power they will return again and again to take back the gains won, because the capitalist system that they defend is a system based on the constant struggle between class interests, ultimately to maximise the profits of the private owners of the means of producing the goods and services that we need.
A number of books have been produced after the defeat of Corbynism putting forward the strategy that motivates the founders of the Enough is Enough campaign. One of them, published just after the 2019 general election – Twenty-First Century Socialism by Jeremy Gilbert – argues that “sometimes” achieving profound societal change “can simply mean creating, defending, or building up institutions that are not organised along capitalist lines” such as the NHS.
And it is true that the NHS has become ‘a permanent value’, in the terminology used by Mick. The idea of free health care available to all is rooted in broad public consciousness in Britain today, which wasn’t the case a hundred years ago in the inter-war period for example, or in the USA.
But it’s not permanent, as we are seeing now, with underfunding of the NHS designed to undermine the idea of universal provision, to force desperate patients seeking treatment to look at private healthcare. The “permanent values” embodied in the NHS are sadly not something “that can’t be changed”. And “the political side of the movement” – and we’re talking here about Wes Streeting as a future health minister under a Starmer government facing the demands of the capitalist system – will not “have to relate to that standard” when the ‘markets’ say no.
That’s why the RMT retains the commitment in its rulebook to “the supersession of the capitalist system by a socialistic order of society”, so that the working class can fully and permanently secure its interests.
But for that we need a mass workers’ party fighting for socialist change, as the trade union movement concluded over 120 years ago when it moved to set up its own independent party, with the RMT’s predecessor union to the fore. Is that Keir Starmer’s Labour Party? If not, then what needs to be done?
Steps to a mass workers’ party
The prospect now is for a Starmer-led government to come to power in the next 18 months or so. But it would be entirely possible to get a block of workers’ MPs in the next parliament if steps were taken now by the left-led trade unions to establish a new party or, at least, organise an election coalition list.
This could also include Jeremy Corbyn standing independently in Islington North, and the Corbyn-supporting former MP Emma Dent Coad, debarred from the long list of potential candidates for her old seat of Kensington despite the backing of Unite. Or Sam Tarry, deselected by the Blairites as the MP for Ilford South after his ousting from the shadow cabinet for appearing on a railworkers’ picket line; or the Tower Hamlets Socialist Campaign Group MP Apsana Begum, also facing a deselection challenge. There is no reason why a union-organised election list could not get at least a small block of MPs elected, operating as a parliamentary group unbound by the Labour whips.
Under a Starmer government implementing an austerity agenda such a block could rapidly develop as the leading opposition force. We shouldn’t forget how Syriza in Greece rose from winning just 4.6% of the vote in October 2009 in the first general election after the financial crash of 2007-08 to becoming the second place party in the two general elections held in 2012 – winning 26.9% of the vote in June 2012 – and then, 30 months later, winning the January 2015 general election.
True, the weakness of Syriza’s programme – it was not prepared to nationalise the banks and major monopolies which, with capital controls, was necessary to prevent the flood of capital out of the country that took place – led the Syriza government of Alexis Tsipras to capitulate to the austerity demands of the ‘Trokia’, the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the IMF, just six months later in July 2015. And that’s an important lesson for this discussion on Enough is Enough, which does say that the “energy companies must be brought into public ownership” in its demands but doesn’t go beyond that in terms of a programme of public ownership of the key levers of the economy.
But the point here is that the experience of Syriza’s growth in a society facing ‘eye-watering’ austerity presided over by the Greek equivalent of the Labour Party – the PASOK party under George Papandreou won the 2009 general election with 43.9% of the vote – gives a glimpse of what is possible, if the first step of a workers’ list at the next general election was to be taken.
A campaign for a general election challenge
But that’s not the strategy or perspective of the founding leaders of Enough is Enough. The CWU remains affiliated to the Labour Party and even a motion for the union to adopt the same fighting anti-austerity policy as Unite – critically, to call on Labour councillors to support “balanced, no cuts needs-based budgets” – was ruled out of order at the union’s conference in April.
Meanwhile, at the RMT’s AGM (its annual conference) in July Mick Lynch was to the fore in opposing a motion from Coventry RMT which argued for support for Jeremy Corbyn standing independently in the general election; to back “pro-trade union, anti-austerity candidates in local and general elections” – which could, of course, include left-wing Labour candidates; and, lastly, to approach the recently disaffiliated BFAWU bakers’ union and Unite to organise a conference to discuss the possibility of a new union-based party to meet “the historic crisis of political representation facing the working class”. Mick also spoke strongly in favour of a motion withdrawing the RMT from the TUSC steering committee “if TUSC wishes to continue as a political party standing in elections”, overturning the AGM decision made in 2012 under the leadership of the late Bob Crow, a co-founder of TUSC with the Socialist Party and others in 2010.
This is not a new position by Mick Lynch who, for example, supported the unsuccessful proposal for the RMT to re-affiliate to the Labour Party at a special general meeting on the issue in 2018. He also opposed the majority decision of the union’s NEC in July 2020, agreed then by ten votes to four, to support the resumption of TUSC’s electoral activity (suspended for parliamentary elections under Corbyn) “in the new conditions of a Starmer leadership and the continued implementation of austerity cuts by many Labour-led authorities”.
Not insignificantly, the way the debate on Labour re-affiliation was conducted in the union – with a branch consultation, a formal discussion paper, negotiations in which the RMT was able to question why its anti-cuts policies were not being implemented by Labour local authorities and so on – contrasts with how Enough is Enough was established, announced in the media just five weeks after this year’s AGM and not discussed there at all. This shows that while the RMT is listed as supporting Enough is Enough on the campaign’s website, with the CWU, Tribune, Acorn, and the Right to Food Campaign, it is not being viewed as a sufficiently important political decision to require a formal union debate.
And that is because, unfortunately, Enough is Enough is not the significant initiative it could have been, even in its lack of a democratic, accountable structure (it is actually a registered private limited company with just two directors). The real political debate facing the RMT, and the trade union movement as a whole, unanswered by Enough is Enough – how to get a vehicle for working class political representation to meet the new age of austerity – will go on.
So what should be done? The Socialist Party, as part of TUSC – with its inclusive, federal character that prevents the domination of the coalition by any one organisation – is campaigning for a workers’ list to be in place for the next general election, and has been part of the ‘20-city tour’ of TUSC-hosted meetings organised under the heading, ‘Enough is Enough, but what do we do at the ballot box?’
But if, as we pose it, there is no more authoritative election coalition in place than TUSC before the next general election, we need to have a ‘Plan B’ for the biggest possible slate of trade unionists, socialists, anti-austerity community campaigners and others under the TUSC umbrella. And that has to be prepared for now, by extending the TUSC tour of meetings into the new year; taking up the proposal from the TUSC steering committee to organise for local delegations of trade unionists and so on to meet Labour’s prospective parliamentary candidates to put them on the spot about where they stand on the commitments made in the 2019 Labour manifesto; and to organise the biggest possible number of candidates in the local elections, in 229 councils, scheduled for May 2023.