Britain: After 26 March demonstration

For a 24 hour general strike!

The 26 March London march against the austerity policies of the Con-Dem government, called by the TUC six months ago, will undoubtedly be the biggest demonstration since the massive anti-war marches of 2003. This national demonstration follows a wave of local and regional demonstrations, including occupations of council budget-setting meetings. This is an answer to Mervyn King, governor of the Bank of England, who said he was “surprised that the degree of public anger has not been greater than it has”, given that working people were being asked to pay the price of the financial crisis.

Most of the local marches were organised by rank-and-file activists, with Socialist Party members playing a prominent role in many areas. No doubt, these local demonstrations would have had a much bigger impact had the trade union leaders used their resources to mobilise for action. The national demonstration is long overdue. It will demonstrate the enormous potential power of the working class and its allies among students and the middle class. But by itself, a demonstration, however massive, will not stop the cuts or bring down the government. The unavoidable question will be: What action now?

Even the TUC has called the demonstration a ‘march for an alternative’. However, it does not spell out either a course of further action or an effective economic alternative. Implicit in the approach of the TUC leaders, as well as other trade union leaders, is the ‘strategy’ of waiting for the return of another Labour government.

The need for political representation

New Labour, now under the leadership of Ed Miliband, offers no real alternative to the Con-Dem coalition. It accepts that some cuts are necessary. In essence, its policy is to carry out ‘fiscal consolidation’ (cuts in public spending, increases in workers’ tax and pension contributions) over a longer period. Waiting for the return of a New Labour government at the next general election is therefore no real alternative. By that time, the Con-Dems will have carried through devastating cuts – unless they are stopped by a massive, sustained movement of the working class.

The political bankruptcy of New Labour underlines the need for an electoral alternative to provide working-class representation. An important part of the battle against the cuts will be standing scores of anti-cuts candidates in the May local elections. Many will stand under the banner of TUSC, the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, which together with the Socialist Party involves militant trade unionists from the RMT transport workers’ union, PCS civil service union, and other unions. While mobilising opposition to local councils attempting to implement savage cuts, this electoral campaign should be seen as a step towards building a mass party of the working class which offers a socialist alternative to the three major capitalist parties.

For a 24-hour general strike

For trade unionists, however, the most important next step will be strike action. There will undoubtedly be many local strikes, and trade union leaders should be supporting such action rather than attempting to block it. But the devastating, national scale of the cuts being implemented by the Con-Dem government poses the need for national strike action, coordinated between the public-sector unions. This is made all the more urgent by the assault on pensions, with increased contributions and reduced benefits.

On the issue of pensions, the PCS is discussing balloting for action in May or June, and the NUT (National Union of Teachers) and UCU (University and College Union) are also discussing action in the next few months. Other public-sector unions, however, are not so far proposing action.

Yet pension ‘reforms’ – devastating cuts – are already being implemented, and we need action as soon as possible. The public-sector unions should coordinate balloting and proposals for national action, with the aim of a 24-hour general strike, also involving unions in private-sector industries (such as the railways) that are also facing cuts. With determination, the obstacles posed by Britain’s repressive anti-trade union laws could be overcome.

The first public-sector union national strike action should be accompanied by a national mid-week demonstration against cuts and attacks on pensions. This would give workers from across the public sector the opportunity of supporting strike action, and would increase the pressure on other public-sector unions to build for a one-day public-sector strike. Students could also be mobilised to join such a day of action.

The 26 March will enormously raise the confidence of workers, and should be used as a launch pad for escalating such mass action against the cuts.

An ultra-free market offensive

Referring to the savage reduction in working-class living standards, and worse to come under the Con-Dem government, the TUC general secretary, Brendan Barber, appealed to George Osborne: “The chancellor should show he understands people’s concerns by doing more to promote jobs and a sustainable recovery, rather than simply offering sweeteners in the budget for big business and introducing measures that will mean a further deterioration of working conditions”. (TUC press release, 21 March)

Barber shows that he has no understanding of the role played by the Con-Dem government. Osborne and co are not merely trying to overcome the effects of the financial crisis. They are using the crisis as an opportunity to ruthlessly cut back the role of the state in the economy (widening the scope for profit-making private business) and savagely cutting back on public services, including the health service which they claimed they would protect. This programme has an ideological basis, which reflects the interests of finance capital, which favours an ultra-free market economy. How would Osborne ‘understand people’s concerns’?

Undoubtedly, there are some sections of the capitalist class, particularly those who reflect the interests of manufacturing industry, who (like the New Labour leaders) favour spreading the cuts over a longer period. For instance, Jonathan Portes, director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (a think-tank traditionally close to the Treasury), writes: “Given this economic weakness, and the large amount of spare capacity in the economy, stretching out the fiscal consolidation by scaling back spending cuts seems reasonable”. He dismisses the idea that short-term deficit reduction is necessary to avoid a government borrowing crisis as gross exaggeration: “…to liken the UK to Greece is scaremongering”. Pointing out that there are already over a million young people unemployed, he argues that the postponement of cuts and promotion of economic growth would be a more effective policy.

However, it is still a capitalist policy: slow cuts and spread out austerity as opposed to the ‘instant’ deficit reduction proposed by Osborne, that may well push British capitalism into another downturn.

For a socialist economic policy

Some on the left have rightly raised the question of what is our alternative. For instance, George Monbiot (writing in The Guardian, 6 March), says that we need to “unite behind what we want, not just against what we do not want”. Monbiot proposes a policy based on a big increase in taxation on the wealthy and big business, cuts in arms expenditure, and a massive expansion in public services. He also advocates the creation of green jobs through environmental projects. The proposed measures are all desirable in themselves and, if implemented, would improve the conditions of working people. It is possible that, given a deep economic crisis and a mass working-class movement, a capitalist government could concede some of these demands, if only temporarily.

But the policy advocated by Monbiot does not address the class character of capitalism: big business, which operates for profit, would not tamely accept a big increase in taxation, or a sustained expansion of expenditure on welfare, education, the NHS, etc. Big business is already sitting on piles of cash, because it is not currently profitable to invest in new productive capacity. They would use all their economic and social powers to resist ‘punitive’ taxation and redistributive public spending on services for working people.

We need not merely an alternative policy, but an alternative to the current system, which is based on profit and the anarchy of the market. We need an economy which meets the needs of the majority. This raises the question of control of the economy, which could only be achieved through nationalisation of the banks and the big monopolies in the manufacturing and service sectors. The commanding heights of the economy should be run on the basis of a plan by democratic bodies made up of elected representatives from trade unions, community groups, consumer organisations, etc. Successful socialist planning would also require collaboration with the workers of other countries to begin a process of economic planning internationally.

Socialists are at the forefront of the drive to build an effective mass movement against the cuts and, at the same time, we raise the need for clear, socialist aims.

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April 2011