Britain before the October 20 TUC demonstration
The feel-good Olympics can not disguise the catastrophic position facing British capitalism, or the potential for social explosions inherent in the situation. PETER TAAFFE looks at Britain in the run-up to the October 20 TUC demonstration, and what will be needed next to step up the fight against austerity.
THE 20 OCTOBER demonstration called by the TUC is a pivotal occasion for the working-class movement of Britain. It could be a launching pad for a colossal mass movement, reflected in the calling of a one-day general strike of both public and private sector workers, or it could signify just another occasion for ‘letting off steam’ with no further decisive action proposed.
We have had 26 March – the biggest specifically working-class demonstration since 1926 – the successful 30 June strike of some public sector unions and 30 November’s one-day strike over public-sector pensions. Faced with eye-watering cuts – without doubt the greatest attack on the working class in generations – only resolute action, by mobilising the colossal potential power of the trade unions, is capable of stopping this government, forcing a general election and turfing them out of office. This is what working people are increasingly yearning for. Yet the anodyne slogan chosen by the TUC – ‘for a future that works’ – is nebulous and does not indict, as it should, British capitalism and its political representatives for promising a future of endless austerity. If the ‘future’ is going to work for the majority, it will not be on the basis of rotten British capitalism.
This article was first published in Socialism Today, magazine of the Socialist Party (CWI England & Wales)
Frances O’Grady, general secretary designate of the TUC, wrote in the Observer of “a growing consensus about the alternative, as even business leaders speak out”. It is true that some backers of the coalition government have taken fright at the catastrophic position of capitalism and particularly the social effects of ‘Slasher’ Osborne’s policies, which threaten a mass uprising of the working class. They have urged him to ‘change tack’. But their motivation is to save and strengthen capitalism – a system based upon production for profit and not social need – which today involves further attacks on the working class. While suggesting a ‘reflationary’ package of measures particularly aimed at infrastructure, in the main they still support the government’s austerity programme.
The shrinking economy
THERE CAN BE no ‘consensus’, therefore, with the representatives of big business if the unions are to successfully defend working-class people. Nor can there be agreement with those, like Ed Miliband or Guardian writers, who urge that we fight for ‘a better capitalism’. In the past, ideologists of British capitalism could point to successful ‘models’ – such as in Scandinavia – to be emulated here. Now Sweden is the poster boy for brutal neo-liberal policies. Throughout Europe, virtually every capitalist government is mired in crisis and systematically putting the boot into the working class, taking back gains they gave in the past. The crisis in the eurozone is destined to get worse and the fallout will be felt globally. Added to the term ‘Grexit’ – signifying a Greek default and exit from the euro – and ‘Spanic’ – a conflation of Spain and panic – the Economist magazine has now coined the phrase ‘Brixit’, suggesting Britain, at a certain stage, eventually being forced to leave the EU itself.
This alone indicates the depths of the crisis in Britain that no amount of patchwork or fruitless searches for an illusory ‘better, improved capitalism’ can solve. The alarm is palpable within the circles of the ruling class. The right-wing National Institute of Economic and Social Research declared in August: “The deterioration in the UK’s economy has been more pronounced than even we expected”. They admit the economy could shrink by at least another half a percent this year. This comes on top of statistics which are “incontrovertibly awful” with the UK economy shrinking by 0.7% last year. In July, manufacturing sector activity fell at the fastest pace for four years. Construction has virtually seized up – despite the dire need for new housing – with the production of bricks dropping by two thirds since 2007!
Keynesian economists are warning of calamitous future consequences if the Con-Dem squeeze is maintained. The “cumulative loss of output over the period 2011-21 amounts to £239 billion in constant 2010 prices. This is equivalent to 16.5% of 2010 GDP”, wrote the Financial Times. The Bank of England governor has warned that we are only halfway through the economic crisis. Not to be outdone, David Cameron declared in the Daily Telegraph that it will go on “till the end of the decade”. Overall, the economy is 4.5% lower than it was prior to the beginning of the crisis in 2008. This represents a slower rate of ‘recovery’ than followed the Great Depression of the 1930s. But as the ship threatens to capsize, ‘first mate’ Osborne waves his ‘AAA’ rating bestowed on the British economy by bond markets. This just signifies that Britain, at the moment, is a ‘less bad’ alternative compared to the likes of Greece, Spain and Italy, as far as the bond vigilantes are concerned. As the economy sinks, even this fig leaf could disappear.
Youth will revolt
THE REMORSELESS RISE of unemployment and particularly long-term unemployment will continue. The government made much of recent small drops in the official unemployment figures but this was a mirage as most of the jobs were in London, with many of them temporary and linked to the Olympics. The real picture shows that 440,000 people have been without a job for two years or more and the scandal of youth unemployment remains. As sure as night follows day, there will be a movement amongst young people, including further riots, unless the labour movement positively harnesses the anger in the struggle against the government and its system. But mere denunciations of unemployment will not be enough. In the run-up and in the aftermath of the October demonstration, real hope can only be given to the unemployed generation by offering a combative fighting programme and perspectives for a complete change in society.
This necessarily poses a class and socialist alternative which should be at the heart of the TUC campaign. The recent revelations of the ‘crimes and misdemeanours’ of the capitalists provide enough ammunition to indict them and their system. Why didn’t Frances O’Grady mention the Libor scandal, the criminal behaviour of some big businessmen, noticeably of HSBC, including involvement in money-laundering, in her Observer article? These are not some minor infringements but reflect an organised conspiracy to defraud bank users, mostly working people. She could have particularly drawn attention to the involvement of the coalition government through the shadowy Lord Green, Britain’s trade minister, and formerly chairperson of HSBC bank. The US Senate indicted HSBC for a “pervasively polluted” culture, which involved its subsidiaries moving billions of dollars around the financial system from countries such as Iran and Syria, as well as moving cash for the Mexican drug cartels. In other words, a pillar of the Tory establishment in Britain is directly linked to the poisoning of youth in Britain worldwide through drug addiction.
Exemplary punishment is necessary for these lords of finance. But these examples should also be used to demand that power be taken out of the hands of these criminals – who should automatically stand trial and be jailed if necessary – through public ownership. Yet this is an idea for all the main parties which dare not speak its name, particularly a bold call and a plan for the nationalisation of the banks and finance. Witness the current gyrations over the majority state-owned bank RBS. So frustrated are they with the inability of this bank as well as the banks as a whole to provide finance to ailing capitalist industry that even Tory ministers have posed the question of complete nationalisation of RBS. But it is former Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling who is to the right of Tory ministers in shamefully opposing this! Could there be a better demonstration of the openly bourgeois character of New Labour than this?
When in power, Darling’s master Tony Blair, when confronted with the disaster on the privatised railways and a clamour for public ownership, declared that any measure was possible “but don’t call it nationalisation”! The same refrain can now be heard from right-wing Tories like Redwood. Why? They understand as we do that once the state, however reluctantly, steps in and nationalises a bankrupt industry, then the appetite increases with the eating and others could suffer a similar fate. It was not for nothing that Friedrich Engels declared that when the state is forced to step in and take such drastic measures it could be an expression of “the invading socialist revolution”. Moreover, given the past experience of the labour movement and the working class, the model of ‘state capitalism’ – nationalised industries but with a heavily bureaucratised administrative structure – would be unacceptable. Workers’ control and workers’ management will be immediately placed on the agenda.
There is no ‘better capitalism’
LIKE THE DEVIL avoids holy water, so every proponent of ‘better capitalism’ will refuse to grasp the nettle of public ownership, with individual industries but particularly the commanding heights of the economy. Yet the brutal experience of five years of what some say is the worst crisis of capitalism for 100 years, shows that this is the only way to begin to solve the problems of society and the working class. It is impossible to otherwise control the voracious appetite of the rich, particularly given the dismantling of even the limited controls which existed before the era of neo-liberalism.
This is illustrated by recent revelations in the Observer about how a global super-rich has exploited “gaps in cross-border tax rules to hide $21 trillion offshore”. This is equal to the gross domestic product of the two biggest capitalist economies in the world, America and Japan! It mocks the suffering of the more than 200 million unemployed worldwide – which does not take account of the underemployed or part-timers. This largess lies idle, is completely ‘fallow’, for one very simple reason: it does not pay the financiers and the capitalists to act otherwise. This means that if the world working class and poor must go to hell in a handcart so be it!
Yet there is no suggestion of the TUC using examples like this in the run-up to 20 October and afterwards to consistently drive home how the inherently unequal and wasteful character of capitalism means that it is incapable of acting otherwise, because it is based upon the maximisation of profits by big business and the exploitation of the working class. Inequality is woven into the very fabric of capitalism, whether it goes under the signboard of ‘better’ or ‘bad’ capitalism. The very act whereby in the production process the capitalists receive unpaid labour from the labour of the working class – profits – underlines the whole character of the system. Therefore not one of the gains of the working class can ever be of a permanent character particularly in this period of an organic and drawn-out crisis.
This does not mean that concessions cannot be forced from capitalism even within the framework of the system itself. Nor does it imply that we adopt a ‘maximalist’ position in demanding all or nothing. On the contrary, it is necessary to be ruthlessly realistic in assessing the stage of battle, including the confidence of the working class itself, with the government and the employers so far. What is the state of readiness, the outlook and understanding of the working class, at all levels, in so far as it is possible to measure this accurately? The confidence of the working class, including its guiding layers, is not high. The government has won the first round. So far, it has been largely successful in inflicting at least 10% cuts in the public sector – due in the main to the retreat and betrayal of right-wing leaders of unions such as Unison – despite ferocious resistance on the part of the more left unions, such as the PCS, RMT and FBU, and militant layers of workers including Unison rank-and-file members themselves. There have been quite large-scale voluntary redundancies but also sackings, particularly of militants, to which the disgraceful right-wing union leaderships have acquiesced.
When, however, the government attempted to impose compulsory redundancies in the Passport Office in Newport, South Wales, strike action was proposed by the PCS which resulted in a frenzied denunciation of the union with subsequent claims of a ‘climb down’ by the union side. In reality, the pre-Olympics strike had only been called off because of promises for the creation of 1,000 jobs by the government. This underlines the importance of threatening and actually taking decisive strike action to meet government threats. Noticeable in the strike was the disgraceful role of BBC radio presenters who actually urged government ministers to allow the strike to take place and suggested that the workers then be sacked! When the chips are down, when decisive class interests are at stake, all pretence at ‘impartiality’ by the BBC just as much as the Murdoch empire, is thrown out of the window. In reality, the government was proposing to legally ban the strike if an agreement could not have been reached. This did not prove necessary because of the agreement but not a peep of protest emanated from the ranks of New Labour. On the contrary, they fully support Thatcher’s vicious anti-union laws, as did Blair for 13 years. This alone is all that is required to see that New Labour, under whatever leader, is not prepared to stand up for the interests of the unions as the guardians of the working class. It poses sharply the issue of a new mass workers’ party.
The cuts to come
THIS ILLUSTRATES JUST what is at stake for the working class in the fraught economic, social and political situation in Britain at this stage. To some extent the London Olympics – as with Greece eight years ago – have temporarily acted to cover up the intense class gulf which exists. Organised sport today plays a ‘peaceful’ role as wars did in the past in rallying the ‘nation’ and temporarily banishing class realities. However, such events generate a mood which is ephemeral and temporary. And yet some realities did penetrate the corporate ‘blanket’ surrounding the Olympics, as in Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony. Its theme of a ‘people’s history’ – including fleeting images of the Tolpuddle martyrs, Jarrow marchers, suffragettes, etc, as well as a defence of the NHS – was justifiably widely applauded both in Britain and abroad. The denunciation of this by one Tory MP as a ‘lefty’ spectacle, ‘unworthy’ of Britain, was answered by the Tories’ resident buffoon, Boris Johnson: “The games won’t be remotely inclusive, not on the track. They will be ruthlessly, dazzlingly elitist”. And this was underlined by Peter Wilby in the Guardian who contrasted the facilities of former England cricketer Ed Smith at his private school – fees of over £30,000 a year – which were better than even England’s facilities, with that of the sister who went to a state school and therefore was denied the opportunity accorded to him. Moreover, the systematic selling off of school playing fields and the cuts to school sport programmes are not forgotten. Under the previous Tory government of Thatcher and Major, around 10,000 school sports areas were sold, while New Labour sold off 200, according to the Daily Mirror.
The vast majority of people enormously enjoyed the Olympics with its splendid demonstration of the amazing feats of the human body and youth in general. But this cannot disguise the fact that in this country sports facilities for the vast majority of young people, particularly the working class and the poor, have been cut by this and the previous government. And it is not the only sphere in which savage cuts have taken place and will continue unless resisted in the next period.
The cuts programme so far has inflicted unprecedented suffering on the poor, including the working poor, the disabled, the health service, education, and employment rights, etc. In this sense, the Tory government have done the trade union and labour movement a ‘favour’ in generalising the cuts to affect practically every sector. Even those who could formally be included in the ranks of the middle-class and Tory supporters have been alienated. The police for instance – Theresa May was met with stony silence at their conference – have seen their numbers reduced by 5,000 at least with more cuts to come. Thousands of doctors and nurses are facing wage reductions; 19 health trusts in South-West England are preparing to break away from national wage agreements in order to ruthlessly cut pay and conditions. The government is fully backing this with their proposal to break national agreements and introduce regional pay.
Wages are still frozen and have, in effect, been cut as even economists admit that the biggest reductions in ‘wage costs’ in the past period have occurred in Ireland and Britain. The Rowntree Trust estimates that a family with two children would have to earn £37,000 to achieve “a socially acceptable standard of living”. Even this amount is not fully adequate in London, when transport, housing, etc, are taken into account. But millions of workers in London and throughout the country will never attain such a standard. The Rowntree Trust concludes: “Many working people face the risk of sliding into poverty”. This is the grim reality already for millions.
Moreover, the suffering particularly of the very poorest is to be remorselessly increased by measures in the pipeline. The latest is the vicious ‘reform’ of the council tax, which promises to become a new poll tax potentially affecting millions of households that presently receive council tax benefit. From next April, the benefit will be cut by 10%. However, each local authority will be given the cash sum handed out in benefit in their area (less 10%) to distribute as they please. They will have to continue paying to the vulnerable, pensioners, disabled, etc, so the burden will fall probably on low-income households and the working poor. Instead of preparing an almighty campaign of resistance, councils, including ‘Labour’ councils like Waltham Forest in London merely say: “In order to meet the timetable set by government we need to have your opinions by 30 September 2012”. They face a loss of £3 million in council tax support and in a belly crawling statement the authority says: “The council’s budget does not provide for the loss of funding; so we need to consider how we can save this amount from the new scheme… We have to make some difficult decisions about who gets financial support and how much”. In other words they are preparing to pass on the costs and they want the population of the borough to choose who should suffer and what size the axe should be!
October 20 must be more than a parade
AT THE SAME time, the government is preparing to vastly extend its privatisation programme in the biggest wave of ‘outsourcing’ since the 1980s. This is despite the disaster of Labour’s PFI experiment, the blunders of G4S’s ‘management’ of Olympic security (the company will still claim its £57 million fee), the equally chaotic privatised railways, and the disaster of an increasingly privatised NHS. No matter what the cost or the scale of chaos, privatisation is absolutely vital for capitalism today because it is seen as a profitable outlet for the billions presently locked in the vaults of big business and the banks.
This illustrates sharply the dilemma facing the whole of the labour movement in the run-up to 20 October and beyond. If this shaky coalition government is to be stopped in its tracks, the campaign must involve not just public-sector workers but also those in the private sector. In some countries in the neo-colonial world, the working class has resorted to a general strike but broadened it out into a ‘hartal’ which embraces the rural population. This campaign must set its sights on something similar by reaching all corners of the country, not just mobilising those who are already in trade unions but those who have been and will be affected by the cuts, which is the majority of the population. This must reach beyond trade union membership. Overall 26% of all workers are in trade unions, with over 50% in the public sector while in the private sector it is only about 15%. Yet decisive action on 20 October and beyond can lead to a surge in trade union membership. This must lead to the biggest demonstration in working-class history but whose theme should be: ‘We are planning for a one-day general strike if this government does not back away from all aspects of its austerity programme’. The TUC should be bombarded with calls to set the day for a general strike. Mass meetings should be held in all workplaces and communities to popularise the idea of a general strike and what it means. October 20 should not be just another parade but an occasion to drive home the grim realities of class society, what the government has in store for the majority of the population and the socialist alternative.
The Cameron-Clegg coalition government is already in disarray over the jettisoning of the House of Lords Bill. The Liberal Democrats – men and women of ‘principle’ – in retaliation are threatening to sabotage legislation changing the electoral boundaries, which previously they supported. It is possible that the government could be brought down on this issue, but it is more likely that Cameron will be compelled to accept defeat on the boundaries as the price to pay for the continuation of the coalition. As Benjamin Franklin commented: “We must hang together or assuredly we will hang separately”. But so socially and politically explosive is the situation in Britain today that any number of issues could trigger the downfall of the coalition.
Decisive strike action of a general character would represent a massive blow to the government and prepare the way for its downfall at a general election. We have never had in Britain even a one-day general strike since 1926. The closest we came was in 1972 over the jailing of the Pentonville Five dockers. The TUC general council was compelled by the massive walkouts that were taking place to ratify a 24-hour general strike – but they did so safe in the knowledge that they would never be forced to act on the decision, because the government had already taken steps to free the dockers, through the ‘fairy godmother’ of the Official Solicitor.
Set the day!
A ONE-DAY general strike – even one that initially embraced the existing trade union membership of six million members at least – would be an earthquake in the conditions in Britain today. Things would never be the same as working people felt their power and strength as the most significant social force in society. And a one-day general strike could be achieved. Of course, there are legal impediments but a way can be found to overcome these with a general declaration at the upcoming TUC conference followed by a pledge at the mass meetings on 20 October that the British trade union movement will mobilise for a one-day general strike. Then individual unions can find the best way of coordinating action on an agreed date.
There was a time when the general council of the TUC was seen as a ‘council of war’ for the working class. Unfortunately, with the decline of industrial struggle combined with the perfidious role of right-wing trade union leaders, this idea was pushed into the background. But now the working class must go on the offensive and its leading bodies must be fit for purpose. Too many recent trade union leaders come from an ‘assembly line’ of trade union ‘organising academies’ and not from the harsh environment of the shop floor, the workplace, etc.
Therefore, their view of effective trade unionism is one of ‘compromise through negotiation’. However, in general in war – and this government is conducting a brutal class war – achievements in negotiations are prepared by victories on the battlefield. A further weakness is that the trade union leadership – with the exception of the PCS, RMT, FBU, etc – still fosters the illusion that ‘everything will change with the advent of a Miliband-led Labour government’. This leads to a conscious policy in some cases of downplaying or even preventing workers from taking effective action because the cavalry in the shape of a Labour government will ride to the rescue at an unspecified future date. This despite the fact that Miliband has given ample warning of how he is likely to act if he comes to office in attacking public-sector strikes, and shifting Labour in its internal structure even further to the right.
In July he set out proposals to “recruit business people as parliamentary candidates”. These “potential candidates”, moreover, “will not even have to be Labour members to apply to the ‘special stream’ of the party’s future candidates”. New Labour is unmistakeably a capitalist formation that will massively disappoint workers if it comes to power and particularly if the trade union leaders do not warn of this beforehand, as the Socialist Party does. The need for a new mass workers’ party becomes ever more urgent with each passing day.
A massive turnout – the biggest in British history – on 20 October followed by a one-day general strike, unless the government completely abandons its austerity programme, can achieve a significant and historic victory for the working class. Any other road spells ultimate disaster which will engender massive discontent on the part of workers and trade unionists, with the certainty of a call for a renewal of trade unions from top to bottom and the election of new, fighting, militant leaders.