The class war in Britain

The September meeting of the Socialist Party’s national committee discussed many facets of the class struggle gathering pace in Britain. Here we reproduce edited extracts on the monarchy, strike tactics and the Enough is Enough campaign from the introduction to the discussion made by the Socialist Party general secretary, HANNAH SELL.

For a moment the rising tide of class struggle in Britain was interrupted by the period of mourning following the death of Queen Elizabeth. Long planned by the ruling class, Operation London Bridge deluged the country in a tsunami of media coverage celebrating the monarchy. The aim of the capitalist establishment has undoubtedly been to create the same level of support for King Charles III as existed for his mother.

It is already clear that this will not succeed. A large part of the continued relative popularity of the monarchy was tied to the Queen, who over seventy years mainly managed to maintain the illusion that she was ‘above’ politics, and was associated with growth in working and middle-class living standards in the first decades of her reign.

However, while the monarchy has remained more popular than other institutions of British capitalism, support for it had already been hollowed out over recent decades. The latest figures from the National Centre for Social Research show the number who think it is ‘very’ or ‘quite important’ to have a monarchy has fallen to 55%, below 60% for the first time. At the same time their polling showed the highest ever level of support for the abolition of the monarchy at 25%; and at 31% among young people.

These figures are likely to temporarily change after the pomp and ceremony of the last two weeks. However, in the longer term Charles III’s reign is likely to see an accelerating decline in support for the monarchy. The capitalist class, while they have milked the current moment for all it is worth, is aware that the death of the Queen has weakened an institution that remains an important reserve weapon in defence of their system, the effectiveness of which is ultimately dependent on the level of social support for the royal family.

Even during the period of mourning, the public response has been more muted than they had hoped for. An enormous 29 million people used some part of their bank holiday to watch the funeral on TV, but that is less than the 31 million who watched the Euro final in July 2021. Meanwhile, the 300,000 who came to London for the lying-in-state was less than half the numbers predicted, and has been dwarfed by numerous demonstrations in recent decades – like the 750,000 trade unionists who marched against austerity in 2011, for example.

More importantly, however, while millions of people were momentarily caught up in celebrating the Queen’s life and mourning her death, it has had virtually no lasting impact. Two weeks later people’s focus has switched back to the cost of living crisis and a Tory government set on a course of naked class war, with tax cuts for the rich and misery for the rest of us and a new round of anti-union laws. Truss’s desperate scheme to gain some credit by touring the country with King Charles had to be rapidly ditched because the result would have been to massively discredit the new King – and the attempt to paint him as ‘above politics’ – by associating him with this increasingly hated Tory government.  

What approach should Marxists have taken to the brief hiatus in the class struggle following the Queen’s death? Regardless of the level of support for the monarchy in society at a particular moment, we explain its role as a reserve weapon for the capitalist class. We argue for the abolition of the monarchy along with the House of Lords in order to remove undemocratic institutions that would be used by the capitalist class to try and sabotage a socialist government, as was clearly demonstrated in Australia in November 1975 when the queen’s representative, the governor-general, removed the elected Labour prime minister Gough Whitlam.

At this stage only a minority, albeit a growing one, agrees with us that the monarchy should be abolished. Most still see it as an “innocent and decorative institution”, as Leon Trotsky described the perception of the working-class in Britain in the 1920s. In our material we do not limit ourselves to agreeing with the anger of that minority at the role of the monarchy and its unimaginable wealth (King Charles is now in charge of a property portfolio worth £15.6 billion), but of putting a programme of ‘patient explanation’ which politically arms the minority who oppose the monarchy in order to aid them in convincing the majority of the monarchy’s real role in defending the capitalist status quo.

What about the postponed strikes?

Some on the left have sharply criticised the leaderships of the RMT transport workers’ union and the CWU Royal Mail and BT workers’ union for postponing strike action in the immediate aftermath of the Queen’s death.  The editorial of the Socialist Worker newspaper on 10 September, for example, concluded that, “we should utterly reject every push by the monarcho-syndicalists at the top of the unions to call off protests and strikes”.

In discussions on social media others from a similar tradition developed their arguments for this approach. For example, John Rees, one of the leaders of the Counterfire group, responded to a post by a Unite the Union organiser defending the decisions of the CWU and RMT leadership to postpone the planned single days of strike action and explaining that, while Unite had left it to stewards committees at local level to decide whether to go ahead with action or not in the official mourning period, many had decided to delay. The Unite organiser concluded: “People are correct to say that the attacks from capital won’t cease in this period, but the worst thing we could do to mitigate that is to tank mass strikes in the long term to make a minority political point via the unions”.

Rees responded by stating that “this doesn’t really deal with what’s happening. Let’s start with the fact that between a quarter and a third of people in this country are republicans. That figure will be higher among workers, higher still among organised workers. The media and the establishment are trying to make the royalist minority the single dominant voice. Each retreat, each assumption that royalists are the nation, helps the establishment… and not just over this issue but over every trade union struggle as well. Postponing action is a losing strategy on all fronts”.

Unfortunately it is Rees who did not really deal with what was happening. His division of the working class into fixed categories of ‘advanced’ republicans and ‘backward’ royalists is completely false. It is probably true that, on average, more trade unionists oppose the monarchy than in the population as a whole. For example, at the time of the Platinum Jubilee a Yougov poll found that 48% of Labour voters were in favour of the monarchy, with 37% favouring an elected head of state, compared to 84% of Tories who supported the monarchy. However, there are extremely varied views among trade unionists, including among the most militant layer.

Under the impact of wall-to-wall media coverage about the Queen, many workers who would normally be neutral on the issue were momentarily caught up in the hoopla, associating the Queen with their own grandmothers, or in the case of older workers feeling nostalgic for the more stable era in which her reign began. Religious background, or a history of having served in the forces, was among a host of reasons why some trade unionists opposed striking in the immediate aftermath of the Queen’s death.  Others were themselves happy to strike, but were concerned that the strikes would be weakened if others had crossed the picket line, or if the strikes had lost some of the widespread popular support they have had up to now.

Tactics and strategy

Of course, another section of trade union activists were angry about the postponement of the strikes, fearing that this could be the start of a generalised retreat by their leaders. These fears were deepened because the statements postponing the strikes from both unions did not make clear that, unless management retreated, new action would be called as soon as possible. In the case of the CWU, who had to take the decision overnight, a public statement demanding no victimisation of workers who did not come in the next day (some not even knowing the strike was postponed) would also have helped to assuage members’ worries.

Nonetheless, the immediate fear that the postponements were the start of a retreat have been answered by October 1 being set as the biggest day of coordinated strike action so far, with the CWU, the train drivers’ union ASLEF, RMT and Unite-organised dockers at Felixstowe and Liverpool ports all set to be out. Nonetheless, there is no guarantee of the kind of determined action that will be needed to defeat the government and employers, including bigger scale coordinated action, and the need for militant trade unionists to step up organising for that is urgent.

What would have been achieved, however, by going ahead with every planned strike, regardless of the concrete balance of forces, in order to, as John Rees put it, cut across the establishment “trying to make the royalist minority the single dominant voice”? If the result had been even ten percent of those who had previously struck crossing the picket lines, it could have weakened the cohesion of the strikes and strengthened the confidence of management, potentially endangering the disputes and strengthening the position of the government. And any union leadership which weakened strikes on the immediate vital issues of pay and conditions by going ahead on the grounds of striking an ideological blow ‘against royalism’ would have had the opposite effect, alienating swathes of trade union members and handing a very powerful weapon to the capitalist establishment to use against the workers’ movement.  

The task now

It was clearly valid for the leadership of the RMT and CWU to postpone the strikes by a couple of weeks, given that they were one or two-day strikes which would not be made less effective by a short delay. Of course it was a different question for workers involved in all-out action. Pete Randle, the Coventry bin workers’ Unite rep, commented that, had their victorious all-out strike still being going on when the Queen died, “I’m guessing we would have met for an hour or so without flags or banners. Then gone home without any lobbying etc”. In other words continued the strike, but taken into account the mood of the strikers and other workers supporting their struggle in the way that they did it.

Similarly the TUC congress should have gone ahead as a council of war, bringing together delegates from across the workers’ movement to discuss how to escalate the fightback. However, it has now been rescheduled for mid-October, and all the same issues are posed. There are six motions on the agenda calling to coordinate the strikes: the battle will be to turn positive but vague aspirations into a fighting plan of action. An important step to broader coordinated strike action would be to turn the TUC lobby of parliament, now taking place on 2 November, into a mass midweek march on parliament, with all live ballots planning action that day.

Such a demonstration should be organised around a programme of demands that could appeal to broad sections of workers and young people. Central would be opposition to the anti-trade union laws, but also including inflation-proofed pay rises for all, a £15 an hour minimum wage, nationalisation of the energy companies, and living pensions and benefits. Without question such an approach would help to draw into active participation the millions who are currently looking towards the trade unions, and be an important step in the working class demonstrating its strength and determination to fightback. Alongside coordinated action it will also be vital that the TUC discusses how to assist those unions on the frontline, like the RMT and CWU, to escalate their action, for example by launching an appeal for a massive strike fund.

It is difficult to imagine a Tory government less capable of taking on and defeating a determined workers’ movement than the one led by Truss, which does not even have the support of one third of Tory MPs. Against the background of a rapidly worsening economic crisis, fuelled by the markets’ judgement that the Truss government is not up to the job, the prospect of a mass movement finally getting the Tories out of office is clearly on the agenda. A Sir Keir Starmer-led government would not act in workers’ interests, however. The opening of the 2022 Labour Party conference will be virtually indistinguishable from the Tories conference – both commencing by singing God Save the King. On top of Starmer’s relentless shift right, including pointedly refusing to call for nationalisation of the energy industry, this is one more invitation to Tories disaffected by Truss that they will be welcome in the capitalist-establishment-backing New Labour Party.

How to say Enough is Enough at the ballot box?

Nor is there any prospect of the dramatically weakened Labour left succeeding in changing the party’s direction. In the recent elections to the Labour Party’s ruling national executive committee (NEC), which are held biennially, the four candidates backed by Momentum, the left-wing group set up to support Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership, received just 22,649 first preference votes and lost one of its seats. This is back to the very low levels that the left received under New Labour Mark One; for example in the 2008 NEC elections when the top candidate for the left-wing Grassroots Alliance slate polled 20,203.

In contrast, in 2016 Jeremy Corbyn received 313,209 votes to be re-elected as Labour leader, from party members (166,216 votes), registered supporters and individual affiliated union members. Corbynism has been decisively defeated inside the Labour Party. That does not mean, however, that the hundreds of thousands of people initially enthused by Corbyn’s leadership have disappeared. On the contrary, as the crisis of capitalism has worsened, and the organised working class has started to fightback, the objective potential for a mass workers’ party with a socialist programme is greater than ever.

The support for the launch of the Enough is Enough campaign against the cost-of-living crisis is one indication of the potential, with 450,000 reported to have signed up. Meetings of a thousand or more have taken place in several cities. Workers and young people have turned out in big numbers to hear Mick Lynch and Dave Ward, general secretaries of the RMT and CWU respectively, alongside other speakers.

The demands of Enough is Enough are more limited than Jeremy Corbyn’s 2017 and 2019 general election manifestoes. For example, the campaign calls for public ownership of the energy companies but does not refer to nationalisation of mail, rail, water or telecoms – never mind wider public ownership. Its initial popularity, however, is tied to the rising surge of industrial struggle and the chord that Mick Lynch, in particular, struck when he came to prominence in the national media declaring that ‘the working class is back’. The campaign now has the backing of the national executive committees of the RMT and CWU, and is seen by many as a way of showing solidarity with the strikes by, for example, taking part in the rallies it has called on 1 October.

Enough is Enough shows the potential for a new party but it does not, at this stage, offer any answer to those looking for a political voice in the wake of Corbyn’s defeat. In early July, at this year’s annual general meeting (AGM – the annual conference) of the RMT, Mick Lynch argued forcefully against a resolution, which was defeated, which called for the union to back “pro-trade union, anti-austerity candidates in local and general elections”. It also called for the RMT to approach the BFAWU bakers union (which disaffiliated from Labour last year) 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”. While Mick Lynch said he did not support the RMT’s re-affiliation to the Labour Party, which he had argued for four years earlier, he was firmly against beginning to build a new workers’ party.

The politics of the struggle can’t be avoided

Enough is Enough was not mooted at the RMT AGM, but is clearly envisaged as an alternative to contesting the electoral field by the key trade union leaders involved in it. Along with Eddie Dempsey, the RMT’s senior assistant general secretary, Mick Lynch participated in a YouTube film ‘Down the Pub with Mick and Eddie’ in which they outlined their vision for Enough is Enough. Dempsey explicitly declared that “what it won’t be is a political party, it won’t stand in elections”, and that it “can’t be mired in the traditional left-wing stuff, it’s not some scheme to replace the Labour Party”. Most of those enthused by Enough is Enough, however, are exactly hoping for ‘traditional left wing stuff’ like nationalisation, fighting for workers’ rights and other socialist policies, and understand that achieving them requires fighting to build a working-class alternative to the Labour Party.

If, as it should, Enough is Enough develops democratic structures in which the unions that support it and others can discuss how its programme could be achieved, these issues and others will inevitably be posed. In the absence of a discussion on how to create a political voice for the working class, however, Enough is Enough will be used by establishment politicians who are trying to burnish their left credentials. In Watford the Liberal Democrat Mayor is speaking at the Enough is Enough launch rally, a member of the party that presided over five years of brutal austerity in coalition government with the Tories. Unless there is a clear answer given, why wouldn’t the impression be left that even the Liberal Democrats could represent the working class?

More generally, it is Labour Party politicians who are speaking on Enough is Enough platforms but again, on what criteria?  The Manchester region ‘metro-mayor’, Andy Burnham, for example, has signed up. Burnham, who stood against Jeremy Corbyn for Labour leader in 2015, does not come from the Labour left. When Corbyn resigned in 2019 he called for a new leader from the “mainstream tradition” by which he clearly meant, at best, less left wing. He has never called for Corbyn’s reinstatement to the parliamentary party. While he briefly feinted in the direction of standing up to the government during the pandemic, he folded when push came to shove and is presiding over £85 million worth of cuts to services in Manchester over the next three years.

None of that automatically precludes Burnham speaking on Enough is Enough platforms but he should not be given a free rein. Workers supporting the campaign in Manchester will want the opportunity to demand of him that he tells the Tory government that enough is actually enough and refuses to implement any more Tory cuts, instead adopting a budget to meet the needs of the working class in the area and launching a fight to demand the government restore lost funding to the region.

But if he continues to be unwilling to take this road he and politicians of his ilk are part of the problem not the solution. The need would remain for candidates who are willing to say ‘Enough is Enough’ on the electoral plane – in a new workers’ party, or an election coalition as a step towards one – just as trade unionists are increasingly saying it industrially.