Britain: Just the beginning

50,000-strong student march an example to workers’ movement

When 50,000 students marched through London on November 10 both the police and student union leaders were shocked at the scale of the mobilisation. This was, however, an indication of the depth of the anger at the Con-Dem coalition’s savage cuts and a growing determination to fight back. In this article, Peter Taaffe assesses the significance of this event and the potential to build an all-Britain movement against the government’s plans.

“You are low in the pain pecking order”. So wrote Polly Toynbee, the Guardian writer, about students and their opposition to the government’s massive increase in tuition fees. This appeared on the Saturday before the 50,000 student demonstration in London which ended in the siege of the Tory party headquarters in Millbank Tower. The clear implication was that students deserve less sympathy than others facing the government’s spending axe.

But this was not the view of the bulk of the government’s intended victims – facing savage cuts in housing benefit and welfare payments, swingeing job losses at national level in the civil service and local government – in the aftermath of the demonstration. There was a collective sigh of relief on the part of working-class people that, ‘at last’, someone was prepared to take action against the cuts. The students had opened a massive breach in the government’s defences which, if taken up by the trade unions in particular, opens new possibilities for defeating the greatest attacks on working-class people in 80 years.

Iain Duncan Smith’s attacks on those on benefit and the unemployed is a slave’s charter, straight out of the book of this government’s predecessors in the 1930s national government. Like measures provoke like responses. Riots followed the attacks of the 1930s and the students have given a whiff of what is to come today. Not for nothing was Duncan Smith – when he was the ill-fated leader of the Tory party – referred to by his own side behind his back by his initials IDS: ‘in deep shit’. Those sentiments will return.

Nevertheless, the students have acted, if not yet as a ‘detonator’, at least as an example, a lever for others moving into action, particularly the trade unions. Indeed, the TUC rushed out a statement in solidarity with the students and proposed a common front against the cuts. It invited them to demonstrate with workers and trade unions… on 26 March 2011, four months later! Even the baleful leadership of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) was quicker off the mark than the TUC. When 40,000 students marched in Dublin, it responded by calling a mass demonstration on 27 November. There is no excuse for the TUC to delay any further when trade union members, let alone the millions of other victims of the Tory-Lib Dem cuts, are crying out for a lead in the form of a mass demonstration which can shake this government to its foundations.

Of course, the students were encouraged to turn out on November 10 by the tremendous response to the National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) initiated demonstrations on 23 October. This, and the visceral hatred which has built up amongst young people at the sheer viciousness, the character and scale of the cuts inflicted on them, meant that from John O’Groats to Lands End tens of thousands mobilised. They were determined to show what they felt about the actions of the Con-Dem millionaire cabinet.

Deep hostility to coalition parties

Particular venom was reserved for the Lib Dems, especially their leader, Nick Clegg. Like the mighty anti-poll tax demonstrations in the early 1990s, this demonstration was marked by home-made improvised banners: ‘Nick Clegg, shame on you for turning blue’, and ‘I want my vote back’, were two of the more ‘polite’ demands and insults hurled by young people. Clegg and the Lib Dems had promised complete opposition to tuition fees before the election. Therefore, the betrayal of Clegg and the ‘saintly’ Vince Cable, soon to make an appearance on Strictly Come Dancing, was particularly keenly felt. Fancy footwork won’t save Cable this time!

Reflecting the astonishing change in mood since the election, in a matter of months we have gone from ‘Cleggmania’ to ‘Clegg hatred’. In the aftermath of the demonstration, the National Union of Students (NUS) has outlined a ‘decapitation’ policy in seats held by the Lib Dems, particularly Clegg’s seat in Sheffield. This will involve attempting to get 20% of the electorate to oppose him and demand his recall, thus triggering a by-election.

The average student will pay at least £15 a week for 30 years to pay off their debts under the government’s proposal. This at a time when bankers have made an additional £7 billion in bonuses! In the theoretically ‘state-owned’ Lloyds Bank, the chief executive officer gets £8 million a year! Through ending the educational maintenance allowance (EMA), £30 a week will be taken from 16-18-year-olds – £1,560 a year! This will particularly impact on students from poor backgrounds, many of whom will be condemned to a dead-end of low-paid jobs or unemployment. The effects on further education colleges will be horrendous and could result in wholesale closures and mass sackings. A mass mobilisation of young people, together with teachers, could stop one of the meanest attacks in its tracks!

The hostility to the Tories is as deep if not deeper as that displayed towards the Lib Dems. One group of youth on the demonstration chanted, ‘Tory scum here we come’. When sentiments of this character are expressed, by completely politically inexperienced sections of young people, a huge change in consciousness and political outlook is gestating. On 10 November, an element of France came to the streets of London.

The students were playing the role, however unconsciously, of the light cavalry, forcing an opening through which decisive battalions of the working class will move in the next period. When some Marxists in the 1960s imagined that students were more decisive than the working class as a force for change, linking this with the idea that they were the detonator of revolution and the creation of ‘red bases’ in the universities, Militant (now the Socialist Party) totally rejected this. We pointed out that the students can be a barometer of big changes in the political outlook of other sections of society, not just the middle class but, above all, the working class today.

Under certain circumstances, they can act as a trigger to initiate a more decisive movement of the working class. This was undoubtedly the case in France in May 1968 when the students, particularly after they had been attacked brutally by armed police on mass demonstrations, led on to the greatest general strike in history with ten million workers occupying factories and workplaces. But students in other countries, such as Germany, although on the surface a much bigger movement, were not able to have the same effect at the time. The reason for this was to be found in the entirely different economic and social conditions in Germany as opposed to France, where all the ingredients for the working-class revolt were prepared by the measures of the semi-dictatorship of General de Gaulle in the previous ten years.

Sustained government offensive

Without big and sustained opposition, the government is free to go on the offensive against all of those who dare to raise their heads to fight the cuts, including students in the first instance. While there was an element of France in the demonstration, there is also a whiff of Kazakhstan in the reaction of the right-wing press and media, with the Sun and the Daily Mail in the vanguard. Dipping their pens in mad-dog saliva, they vilified 16-, 17- and 18-year-old students as ‘thugs’, alongside TV journalists, providing all the information – photographs and ‘first-hand’ accounts of ‘criminal damage’. This has been used by the police to charge more than 60 students with various offences connected to the demonstration. The loud chorus of denunciations, from government ministers to the leader of the NUS, was itself ‘despicable’. Nobody approves of ‘mindless violence’ but, in this case, the damage that was done to property was minimal compared to the violence the government and its system is inflicting on young people through the measures which it has already announced, quite apart from that which is to come.

Young people have had their futures snatched away from them and they are expected to behave in a docile manner. Teachers have begun to turn young people away from applying to universities – a record number from colleges and universities this year – to get them to apply for jobs! Recent figures on unemployment have shown this future is one of low-paid, dead-end, part-time jobs. The reality in Britain today is of mass unemployment, but there was an attempt to hide it by claiming the numbers had decreased recently. On the contrary, as an examination of the figures shows, full-time jobs are disappearing at a rate of knots typically to be replaced by part-time, short-term jobs. The government hopes that this will create a casualised labour force – already constituting more than a quarter of the workforce – on very low pay and not represented by trade unions.

In that sense, criticism that the government is acting for ideological reasons has more than a grain of truth. Under cover of the organic crisis of the system, the ruling class is urging the government to further weight the balance of forces in its favour against the working class and its organisations.

Before coming to power in May, Duncan Smith pictured himself as emanating from the ‘compassionate’ wing of the Tory party. Not any more! There are currently five million people claiming benefits, with 1.9 million children in workless households. The government blames the previous New Labour administration for this. While New Labour did nothing to change this situation, in reality – as is widely understood – this is the result of Thatcher’s policy of hiding the real unemployment figures arising from the slash-and-burn methods of the 1980s. She was able to do this because of the bonus of North Sea oil income. That has gone, and now the most deprived, downtrodden and oppressed sections of the working class must pay, by turning back to the 1930s. How is it possible, as the government expects, for the more than 2.5 million officially unemployed to find jobs when, according to its own figures, there are only half a million vacancies on offer? And IDS’s solution? Like Norman Tebbit, chairman of the Tory party in the 1980s, the jobless are urged no longer to get on a bike but a bus!

Unbelievably, Labour’s frontbench spokesman, Douglas Alexander, indicated that he would back the phased reforms of housing benefit and that his party supported the stricter incapacity benefit tests! In reality, many of the measures which the government is now implementing were first thought of by New Labour. Labour ‘sanctions’ were, according to Toynbee, “exceedingly tough”. Indeed, last year, 379,030 people had benefits withdrawn for failing to seek work! The government’s safety net for those facing hardship as a result of swingeing benefit cuts amounts to a drop in the ocean, a mere £1.30 a month per household in the first year, according to housing associations. Taken together, the attacks on housing benefits and wages amount to a colossal exercise in reducing the working class’s share of national income, a modern-day version of the late 18th and early 19th centuries’ measures – the infamous Speenhamland system – where unemployed workers laboured in exchange for the price of loaves of bread!

Global tensions

The net result of all this means a colossal polarisation of the classes not seen for 20 years and possibly exceeding the near civil war situation during the miners’ strike of 1984/85. Can the coalition government force through its draconian measures without confronting mass resistance, defeat and the disintegration of the government? This partly depends upon how resistance is organised and also on the development of the economy which, in turn, is shaped by processes in the world economy.

Contrary to all the expectations of Clegg and prime minister David Cameron, the world economy is not going to come to their aid. Even Cameron had a dim recognition of this when he warned the G20 economic summit that a great ‘depression’ is still not ruled out, particularly if the major capitalist powers do not ‘get their act together’. The Financial Times described this gathering as a meeting of “G20 leading squabblers”.

The two elephants – China and the US – were engaged in a thinly veiled ‘war’ over their respective currencies. Faced with the collapse of its manufacturing base by about 40% and the rise of China’s industrial might, Barack Obama, on behalf of US capitalism, has attempted to put China on economic rations. But, unlike in the 1980s when Japan was economically cut down to size – compelled to raise the value of its currency and hence make its exports dearer through the Plaza agreement – this does not appear to be working in the case of China. The US has attempted to flood the world with dollars and drive down its value, hoping to compel China to revalue its currency. This currency, the yuan (renminbi), could be injected into the world economy by the Chinese, resulting in its devaluation, thus cutting across the plans of the US. This is just one aspect of a currency conflict, ‘a war by other means’, which is an expression of low-level protectionism that could spiral out of control into open conflict and enormously aggravate the underlying economic crisis, as in the 1930s.

All the claims of the capitalist economists about a substantial recovery are an illusion. Yes, there has been an overall technical ‘growth’ – even in America, where it is claimed the economy has grown by 2%. But this has not fundamentally altered the plight of the unemployed and the working class generally. Even Obama has conceded the situation does not feel like a recovery. The US would need to create 300,000 new jobs a month just to stand still but is only creating 150,000. Moreover, according to Nouriel Roubini, the well-known capitalist economist who predicted, with the Marxists, the likelihood of an economic collapse, capacity utilisation is running at only 70% in the US and Europe.

In Britain, if all of chancellor George Osborne’s cuts go through in two years, 10% of production would be lost! Could one have a more striking demonstration of the incapacity of capitalism today? Nor will the $600 billion injection of extra liquidity, through the second round of quantative easing into the economy, solve the problems of the US economy. The last such efforts merely resulted in saving one million jobs, yet eight million workers were still ejected from the factories.

Ireland’s European crisis

The most devastating example of the failure of ‘modern’ capitalism is being played out in Ireland. Only six years ago, this country was seen by its inhabitants as the ‘happiest’, in a poll of 100 countries. This was while the so-called ‘Celtic tiger’ was still steaming ahead. Not any more, as the economy has imploded under the weight of the colossal greed of the banks and speculators. With this has evaporated the hopes and aspirations of the majority of the population. The working class, of course, is expected to foot the bill. But not it alone. The middle-class has also been driven to the depths of despair. Ireland is now populated with ‘post-Easter sales’ and ‘scorched shopping malls’. Even Osborne rushed to offer the besieged Irish government a loan of £7 billion alongside the European Central Bank’s ‘rescue package’.

There is not an atom of altruism in this action by Osborne. It is naked self-interest, an act on behalf of British capitalism as a whole, particularly the banks that are exposed to Ireland’s economic travails. In fact, just like the Greek bailout earlier this year, Ireland’s economy must be prevented from collapsing immediately as that could provoke a banking crisis in Britain, Germany and elsewhere in Europe. What we face is not just an Irish economic collapse but a European banking crisis. How easily Osborne can lend £7 billion to save his system and yet claims to be unable to find sufficient resources to ‘bail out’ the unemployed, sick and disabled.

This crisis has reduced Ireland almost to its former colonial status, subject to the whims of foreign capitalists and their institutions. It is almost as if Ireland’s independence from Britain is being cancelled out by the weightier might of international capital. The Irish Times commented in an editorial on 18 November: “It may seem strange to some that The Irish Times would ask whether this is what the men of 1916 died for: a bailout from the German chancellor with a few shillings of sympathy from the British chancellor on the side. There is the shame of it all. Having obtained our political independence from Britain to be the masters of our own affairs, we have now surrendered our sovereignty to the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund”.

In all probability, these measures will not ultimately prevent the default of Greece, Ireland, and even Spain – and, possibly, Britain could follow further down the line. One thing is certain: if the cuts are carried out to the letter, the crisis in Britain will be enormously aggravated. Even the IMF concedes this in its latest report on the British economy. It expects growth to be scaled down, slashing its forecast in 2011 from 2.5% to 1.7%, precisely because of the cuts to public expenditure. When it comes to economic perspectives, the government – particularly the ‘economically illiterate’ Osborne – has less predictive powers than the late famous octopus, Paul, which, it seems, accurately foretold some world cup results!

British capitalism’s weak position

The idea that Britain will somehow be able to profit in world markets through increased exports, thus engendering greater wealth and income which would cushion the effects of the cuts, is hogwash. True, outside the iron hoops of the euro, the pound has been allowed to devalue by about 25% in two years, theoretically giving British exports a big advantage over their competitors. The problem, however, is the stagnant markets internationally and the fact that the greater competitive power and weight of German capitalism, China and others will put Britain in the shade.

It is a chimera, therefore, that the British economy can absorb in such a short timescale the cuts promised by the coalition without serious effects. The Bank of England will undoubtedly follow the US Federal Reserve and pump resources into the economy, in reality, into the banks. But earlier attempts at quantitative easing have not worked and nor will this one. Almost three million people are struggling to pay their mortgages, an increase of 80% on a year ago, according to the housing charity Shelter.

On the other hand, the Keynesians who argue that the present debt is ‘manageable’ on a capitalist basis are mistaken. It is true that the scale of the debt is not on the same level as Greece, Portugal or Ireland – even of Britain in the past. Indeed, such are the few profitable outlets for capital worldwide that the bond traders have moved in to buy British bonds. They are guided by one principle: which is the most profitable and, above all, safest investment in a very risky world? Once they smell the incapacity of governments to rein in deficits, then they will soon escape to richer pastures. It is also true that tax avoidance in Britain amounts to roughly two thirds of the present deficit of the government. Therefore, at one fell swoop, it should be possible to cut the deficit!

The problem is that this is virtually impossible unless the government uses wide economic powers. This poses the question of the complete nationalisation of the banks and finance houses under workers’ control and management. Even this would need the cooperation of workers throughout workplaces and industry with the powers – workers’ control – to really open the books, discover the scale of tax avoidance taking place, and bring offenders to book. In other words, socialist measures are needed even to eliminate tax avoidance and evasion, which the overwhelming majority of ordinary working people would support. If the deficit balloons – despite all the cuts that the government carries through, and as has happened in Ireland and will happen in Greece – the bond vigilantes, rather than being mollified, will demand greater and greater rewards in the form of a higher ‘yield’, that is, interest on their investments in bonds. This will escalate the cost of financing the debt, which will be extracted from the pockets of the working and middle classes.

Therefore, a repetition of previous runs on the pound is entirely possible even if the government carries through draconian cuts. There is little prospect of an economic renaissance under this government. In the last two quarters of 2010, the economy ‘grew’ by the magnificent totals of 0.8% and 0.5% – the mountain laboured and produced a flea! The result of all this will be not only a jobless, but a job-loss, so-called ‘recovery’. It will be against a background of chronic and long-term unemployment, particularly amongst young people.

What kind of fight back?

The coming revolt of the working class and youth could lead to an uprising, foreshadowed by the events of 10 November, against the measures of this government. But for this to take a clear, positive form, the organisations of the working class must mobilise for struggle now. It took 18 months before the first riots took place against the measures of the Thatcher government. It took less than six months before the streets of London witnessed similar events under Cameron.

The choice is not between struggle and no struggle. Working-class people have no alternative but to fight given the character and scale of the attacks. The choice is between a conscious, organised movement – led by the trade unions on a programme of effective resistance – and an inchoate, scattered struggle. The Socialist Party has done and will do everything in its power to help to direct the opposition to the cuts and government into the former. But the time for action is now, before the cuts fully strike and further disorient and demoralise working people. This was how the poll tax was defeated. This is why it is crucial that, before a colossal jobs cull is implemented, a positive lead is given by the TUC or, failing that, by the left trade unions.

The rally in Manchester on the issue of youth unemployment on 29 January can ventilate the indignation of working people against what is to come. It is vital that confidence is given to all in the struggle, at the same time driving home the realities of capitalist society. At the local level, already long lists of job cuts – sometimes of the proportions of a telephone directory – have been outlined. The government intends to reduce public-sector pensions. Strikes, mass demonstrations and occupations are therefore posed. Britain will join hands with France, Greece, Spain, Portugal and Ireland in mass movements against rotten and diseased capitalism.

Crucial in this battle is the outlining of correct strategy and tactics. In the first instance, this is more important than the mere reiteration of the need for ‘unity’. The anti-poll tax struggle succeeded because of the programme and methods formulated and defended by Militant at each stage of the battle. The current struggle, it is true, is not a simple repetition of that earlier one. But the overriding lesson of this experience, as with the struggle of Liverpool council from 1983-87, is the need for the battle to be organised on the basis of a clear programme.

There is no point in proclaiming ‘resistance’ to the cuts while conceding that ‘some cuts’ may be necessary. The very simple demand that not one job should be cut, not one nursery, library or local resource should close, is the correct one to adopt if unity is to be achieved. On the road of New Labour’s policy of cuts, but at a slower pace, lies disaster. This programme – in particular New Labour councils’ stated intentions to carry through the diktats of the government – will be ferociously resisted by a mass movement from below. In this situation, the National Shop Stewards Network, which will launch an all-Britain anti-cuts movement at its January conference, offers the best way forward.

So unstable is this government that it could collapse at any time. The opposition within the Liberal Democrats to the path chosen by Clegg and the execrable Cable is growing. It is manifested in the defection of a parliamentary Lib Dem candidate to Labour, and in open opposition to the measures of the government with the prospect of more parliamentary revolts – albeit on a limited basis – than in the whole of the last parliament. The Lib Dems could be reduced to a capitalist ‘sect’ in the event of a new election. The attempt of the government to introduce the alternative vote referendum, married to a blatant attempt at gerrymandering parliamentary seats which it wants to reduce from 650 to 600, will not forestall the colossal pressure that is developing from below against its plans.

New Labour has ‘recovered’ in the polls since the debacle of last May’s general election. This is mostly a reflex action of largely passive voters against the brutality of the Con-Dem government. It is not resulting in a mass influx into the Labour Party’s ranks, apart from a number of refugees from the Lib Dems. Indeed, it is very unlikely that New Labour can engender genuine support and enthusiasm on the basis of its present political trajectory.

Ed Miliband, its new leader, has already made his intentions clear. Having garnered the trade union votes in the leadership contest – without any demands for real change from the union leaders – he then promptly refused to speak at the trade union rally at Westminster! In his advice to Miliband, Neil Kinnock, multimillionaire former witch-finder general and leader of the Labour Party, says that nothing should be promised to the electorate in terms of future reforms! Alexander, as mentioned earlier, has rolled in behind the anti-poor policies of Duncan Smith.

No plan B

And yet, never in history has the ruling class of Britain, or elsewhere for that matter, been so divided over what to do. There are many voices in the ranks of the capitalists – some of them within the Bank of England’s monetary committee – predicting disaster for the economy and their society on the basis of the present road of Osborne and Cameron. While claiming that they do not have a ‘plan B’ – in other words, a plan for a possible retreat – when faced with a mass upsurge of working-class opposition, they will be forced to backpedal. A previous Tory prime minister, Edward Heath, had no plan B when he took power in 1970. He threatened to stand up to a general strike and, by implication, defeat it. Yet, when the Upper Clyde shipbuilders occupied their workplace in 1971, the government undertook a huge u-turn. Already, opposition at local level to the closure of nurseries and other facilities are forcing some retreats by councils. This will be repeated in the battles to come.

But this present Tory crew will not be easily thrown off course. They are preparing for a showdown with different sections of the working class and, if necessary, the labour movement as a whole. This is indicated by the strike-breaking measures deployed in the London fire-fighters’ dispute. This has been followed up by the London Evening Standard suggesting the recruitment of a scab army to defeat the tube workers in London in their battle against job cuts and attacks on services. The Observer even leaked the information that the police, in the aftermath of 10 November, floated the idea of the ‘militarisation’ of ‘security’. This would involve the purchase of armoured cars and airborne drones – the kind used in Afghanistan – to use against future demonstrations.

The period opening up is the most important since the 1980s for the labour movement and could exceed the scale of the movements then. It is necessary for the most conscious sections of the movement to prepare for this situation. This involves not only industrial struggles, but also social movements on housing, education, etc. It means stepping up the political challenge on the electoral front – represented by the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) – a vital necessity if the ground is going to be prepared for a new mass workers’ party in Britain.

The ruling class is preparing for war. So must the labour movement, although the great majority of working-class people are not sufficiently conscious yet of what will be involved in this battle. However, events are the greatest teacher for the broad mass of the working class. The students who participated on the November 10 demonstration received a very brutal ‘education’ at the hands of the state. We will not allow young people to be scapegoated for perceived ‘transgressions’, because they stood up for themselves and working people as a whole. Mobilise fully against attacks on students! Prepare for the mother of all battles against the cuts and build a bigger force for socialism than has not been seen in Britain for 20 years!

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November 2010