Discussions on political representation as elemental class rage develops under the surface of society
From 22 to 25 September the Labour Party will be holding its annual conference in Brighton. Despite the hatred of the government, its defeat over Syria and continuing punishing austerity, Labour is failing spectacularly to forge ahead in the polls. At the recent National Committee Hannah Sell, Socialist Party deputy general secretary, introduced a session on the situation in Britain. The following is based on her speech and the discussion that followed.
The historic defeat of Prime Minister David Cameron’s plans to bomb Syria was only the latest in a long list of crises. No British government had been defeated on the question of war since the American war of independence. Then, in 1782, it led to the government’s collapse. For now Cameron has suffered a body blow – but the government remains in place.
However, from the referendum on Europe, to gay marriage, to Lords reform, to corruption scandals, to universal credit, to HS2, to the lobbying bill, it appears that crises are the new normal.
Labour leader Ed Miliband was momentarily able to take some credit for Cameron’s humiliation. But in reality it was the 2003 anti-Iraq war movement scoring its first victory. Most people, like the Socialist Party, oppose the bombing of Syria: seven out of ten Americans and four out of five people in Britain are against an attack. This fed through to (in particular slim-margined) Labour backbenchers and forced Miliband, initially prepared to support Cameron, into opposition.
The Daily Mail’s Max Hastings correctly described it as: "characteristically feeble of Labour’s leader: he has seized on a tactical issue rather than a principled one." People understood what occurred and Miliband remains even more unpopular than Cameron, with a net satisfaction rating of -36! The incredible rottenness of New Labour was revealed when the Blairite wing insisted Miliband should have supported the warmongers, as Labour MPs did in 2003.
So, for now, the government is still standing. But it has been profoundly weakened. With 30 Tories opposing and 30 staying away from the recall of parliament, the scale of opposition to Cameron on his own back benches was exposed.
Cameron was forced to say that he "gets it" and he won’t take part in a US intervention. This can change further down the road, but at this stage cross-party fear of the electoral consequences means another vote is unlikely. The task now is to force the government to ’get it’ on austerity.
Cameron and Co may believe that they are getting away with making the biggest cuts to living standards since Queen Victoria’s day. Seeing the lowest level of strike action since 2005 they may conclude that the working class has given up the fight. But they would be wrong.
Below the surface a volcano of anger is bubbling up, fuelled by many issues. Despite promises to mend their ways the latest expenses scandal reveals that MPs’ snouts have remained firmly within the trough. According to the recent British Social Attitudes survey (BSA) just 18% have faith in the government to put the ’nation’s needs’ first.
But it isn’t just MPs that are seen as corrupt. Trust in all the institutions of capitalism has been undermined. This includes the capitalist media after Murdochgate and the Leveson revelations; governments and GCHQ following the spying scandals; and the infiltration of Stephen Lawrence’s family and the socialist-led Youth Against Racism in Europe (YRE), as well as their utterly despicable behaviour at Hillsborough, has added to suspicion of the police.
What is missing, given this huge, elemental, working class anger and distrust of the bloated elite is a clear signal from the leadership of the unions, the main working class organisations, of how it is possible to fight back.
The Socialist Party has been campaigning for a 24-hour general strike, supporting the National Shop Stewards Network call for the TUC to ’name the day’. It’s obvious to workers, especially those involved in struggles of their own, that it makes sense to come out together.
Mood for action
If the trade union leaders gave a lead workers would respond. When Unite general secretary Len McCluskey took a show of hands in support of a 24-hour general strike at the 20 October TUC demo against austerity last year the response was overwhelming. In the demo’s wake a Guardian poll revealed 82% support for a general strike.
Calls for action are answered with enthusiasm – on 30 November 2011 an estimated two million public sector workers joined the pension strike to register their opposition to austerity.
Despite serious hesitation at the union tops that pressure has not dissipated, and even the most right-wing trade union leaders can be forced to respond. At this year’s TUC Unison general secretary Dave Prentis, key to the pension strike betrayal, was forced to put on a left face and to move a motion that called for coordinated action over the public sector pay freeze. The RMT’s motion, which called for the general strike to ’remain on the table’, was passed.
This autumn serious action is looming. This can make it harder for the right-wing trade union leadership to continue to hold generalised action back.
Postal workers in the CWU appear ready to fight the privatisation of Royal Mail. A CWU indicative ballot found that 96% were against privatisation. They are now balloting for strike action.
Of course Labour could prevent the sell-off at a stroke by promising to renationalise the service if elected in 2015. That would scare off any potential investors. But, given a Labour government tried to sell it off in 2009, this is unlikely.
Teachers in the NUT and NASUWT have called two days of cross-regional action with a plan to have national action in November. There is also a mood in the PCS civil service union to continue action and, following a 78% vote for action, firefighters in the FBU are likely to follow suit.
All these strikes must be supported to the maximum. But no opportunity must be lost to also argue the case for coordinated action, as a step towards a 24-hour general strike with pressure put on the TUC to ’name the day’.
But these disputes will not necessarily be the only way the seething anger below finds expression, especially while the block at the top remains and generalised action is delayed. Explosions from below can take unexpected forms as they did in Brazil where the initial spark for a mass movement was a few pence increase in the Sao Paulo bus fares.
The whole-scale attack on the NHS could similarly be a trigger to mass action exploding. The TUC demo on 29 September is very important but so too are the many local campaigns. The role of health workers must be to the fore. Cuts and privatisation are also continuing apace at the universities and could spark localised student movements.
Over half of the 150,000 people receiving emergency food aid from Trussell food banks between April and June were referred because of benefit delays, sanctions, and financial difficulties relating to the bedroom tax and abolition of council tax relief.
The government partially succeeded in dividing working class people on the question of benefits, thanks to the complete lack of opposition from Labour. However public opinion is beginning to change. The number of people who think benefits are too high has dropped from 67% to 51% according to the BSA. 93% of those born after 1979 oppose cuts to benefits, health and education.
Tory Chancellor George Osborne has trumpeted glimmers of good news on the economic front. But his claims are overstated – in a world of ailing economies Britain’s remains among the sickest. The UK ’recovery’ is the slowest in 100 years, slower than any other G7 economy with the exception of Italy. The UK economy is still 3.3% smaller than it was in 2007.
Even the boss of Next admitted that: "In real terms, people are still getting poorer." Wages have fallen for six consecutive years. Average wages in Britain have fallen further than almost any other country in Europe – a massive 5.5% since 2010.
Unemployment remains high, officially at 7.8%. The number of people out of work for more than a year has reached a 17-year high of 915,000 and youth unemployment has risen to over one in five young people out of work.
Underemployment is the main factor keeping this figure down. It is now estimated that 5.5 million workers are on zero-hour contracts plus more in other forms of temporary, casual, part-time work. Two years ago the Socialist correctly described this precariat as "a modern manifestation of the ’reserve army of the unemployed’, as written about by Karl Marx, who analysed capitalism."
Many of these workers are not currently organised in the unions – but nonetheless they can be a tinderbox. In the US fast food workers are organising to demand decent pay and the right to be in a union.
Struggles like that will erupt here and a few victories, such as that of the Hovis workers in the bakers’ BFAWU union against zero-hour contracts could open the floodgates. Like the ’new unionism’ of the late 19th and early 20th centuries we could see organised struggles of the currently unorganised take centre-stage.
Any formal stuttering into economic growth has been largely fuelled by Osborne’s attempts to engineer a house-price boom. This is a short-sighted attempt that is driven primarily by the Tories’ own electoral needs. But even among elements of the capitalist class there is concern that they risk reflating the massive housing bubble. There is no possibility of this triggering significant and sustained real growth. It could potentially lead instead to a new stage of the crisis.
The after effects of the previous bubble still remain – a huge millstone of debt hangs around the necks of the working and middle classes. Six years into the great recession household debt remains a massive 140% of gross domestic product (GDP), compared with 100% in 2000.
So it is hardly surprising that workers hope, even against hope, that there is someone on their side to trounce the Con-Demons in the Coalition who have meted out this misery. And it is into this situation that Miliband has opened up the question of the link between the Labour Party and the trade unions.
Dancing to the tune not only of the Tories and big business, but also of the Blairites, Miliband has sought to use the Falkirk affair as an excuse to carry out the final smashing of the remnants of the working class’s collective voice in Labour. Despite the police and internal inquiry exonerating Unite he says he is pressing ahead with ’reform’.
Certain myths have taken flight. Dave Prentis, for example, argued that the problem is one of bad timing and that opening up division between Labour and the unions risks the 2015 election. But a Labour victory is threatened by one thing: the Labour leadership’s wholehearted commitment to maintaining Tory spending plans in the next parliament. It begs the question – what is the point of voting Labour?
But Prentis did at least criticise Miliband. Unfortunately Len McCluskey, general secretary of Unite, has not led the way on the question of political representation. While the GMB’s general secretary, Paul Kenny, has threatened to slash his union’s funding to Labour by over a million pounds if the link with Labour is broken, Len McCluskey has not clearly opposed Miliband’s proposals. At one stage he even described the status quo (that is the unions having a collective political voice) as ’indefensible’.
Despite Miliband’s woeful speech to the TUC congress, clearly the union leaders hope that Miliband may partially retreat; delaying a reduction of the union’s voting rights within the Labour Party until after the spring conference. Even if Miliband was to do this, it is clear that he intends to go ahead with abolishing the trade union link, and will take clear steps towards it at the special spring conference.
However, at even the faintest whiff of Miliband retreating on this issue, the tabloid press, Cameron, and no doubt the Blairite wing of his own party, screamed ’chicken’. Under this pressure, Miliband may well completely break the link, despite the financial consequences for the Labour Party.
But the genie is out of the bottle – even if the process becomes more protracted. The question of how the organised working class can have a political voice is being discussed across the trade union movement. The Socialist Party argues that Labour has long since ceased to be such a voice, and that the trade union movement should break the link with Labour and found a new mass workers’ party. Alongside the RMT and others, we take part in the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) which is doing important preparatory work for the creation of such a party.
Nonetheless, those trade unionists who are arguing to fight against the breaking of the link have a far better approach than the few who argue to accept it, but to continue to support Labour. If the trade unions were to go to the special conference and vote en masse against these proposals it would be the first significant rebellion against the Labour leadership’s destruction of working class political representation. This could create a political earthquake. The possibility would be posed of the Labour Party being riven in two, with the pro-capitalist elements on the one hand and the trade unions on the other.
For Labour to be reclaimed by the working class would require far more; the trade unions would have to struggle for the adoption of a fighting programme – including ending austerity and public sector cuts, of a mass council house building programme, a living wage, and repeal of the anti-trade union laws; the expulsion of the pro-capitalist elements, and the recreation of the party’s democratic structures.
Given the grip of the pro-capitalist elements in the party we do not judge such a campaign would be likely to succeed. Even if it did not, however, the result of fighting to defend the collective political voice of the working class could be the emergence of a powerful new mass workers’ party from within the shell of pro-capitalist New Labour.
Even now the current debate is leading more and more trade unionists – including those who previously thought Labour could be reclaimed – to conclude that the time has come to found a new party of the working class. Correctly, they see it as essential that such a party be based on the collective representation of the working class via the trade unions.
The approach of TUSC, based on the trade unions and a democratic federal structure while also giving individual participants a democratic voice, has been confirmed by events.
These discussions on political representation are taking place while an elemental class rage is developing under the surface of society in Britain. Despite the obstacles at the top of the trade union movement this anger will find an outlet and erupt at a certain stage. The result will be struggles on a scale not seen for generations. The fight for a mass political voice for the working class – armed with a socialist programme – will be a vital part of those struggles.