Britain: Organising against Tory austerity starts now

Potential for industrial response to cuts but needs determined leadership and campaigning

John McInally, the national Vice-President of the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) – the sixth largest union in Britain – and a Socialist Party member, writes (in a personal capacity) on what response is needed from the unions to the new Tory government austerity onslaught and poses the need for the unions to cut their losses with failed pro-big business Labour and to help build a new workers’ party on fighting, anti-cuts, pro-working class programme.

While the corporate elite celebrate the return of their government, millions of fearful working people are contemplating how they can survive another five years of austerity. Pay freezes, cuts and privatisation, destruction of communities, a massive further rise in inequality, benefit cuts, exclusion and marginalisation of large sections of society, zero-hour contracts, the full scale privatisation of education and the national health service.

All this demands that the work of organising the resistance must start now. And that is no more important than in the trade union movement. Public sector workers will be at the sharp end of austerity but also at the centre of the opposition. With a fighting programme embracing both an industrial and political strategy it is entirely possible that the smiles can be wiped off the faces of this kleptomaniac Tory cabal sooner rather than later.

Labour lost this election because it failed to provide any serious alternative to austerity. One detail serves to illustrate this fact: When Miliband ruled out a "progressive" alliance with the Scottish National Party (SNP) and said he would actually prefer to see the Tories form the next government, he essentially announced his priority was to defend austerity not the working class. At that point, he destroyed the hopes of many of an anti-austerity alliance.

He showed that Labour had learned nothing from the Scottish independence referendum when the Yes campaign was transformed into a people’s revolt against austerity. Then Labour stood with Cameron in defence not just of the union but austerity itself.

Opposing austerity

The SNP is itself a cuts-making party but built huge support by astutely positioning itself a few steps to the left of Labour and using anti-austerity rhetoric.

But it has also demonstrated the enormous potential for an anti-austerity political force. While it may be forced further left by the weight of expectation to oppose austerity, it is tied to ’the market’, and has, so far, implemented Westminster cuts and is likely to continue to do so.

It would be an utter travesty if the SNP, at a time when it is extending the privatisation of the Scottish transport system and holding down the wages of Scottish government workers, for instance, assumes the leadership mantle of the anti-austerity resistance. The left, especially those left leaders in the Labour-affiliated unions, must now put aside the failed strategy aimed at reclaiming Labour and face the historic task of building a political alternative.

So inept was their campaign, Labour even failed to challenge the Tory lie that the deficit was entirely the fault of the previous Labour government rather than the global economic meltdown of 2008.

Despite the fact that Labour went to the electorate with an austerity-lite agenda the Tory press and New Labourites, like the reptilian Mandelson, are saying Labour must return to the "centre ground". It is hard not to imagine these corporate mouth-pieces laughing their heads off behind closed doors at the scale of lies they think they can get away with.

Trade union link with Labour

Mandelson is now calling for a break in the link between the trade unions and Labour. In fact, the Collins Review, voted for by almost all affiliate unions, means they have no organised influence in the selection of the new Labour leader. But even if they did have influence, the idea that a ’left’ candidate standing on an anti-austerity programme would be selected or indeed that there is a party to be ’reclaimed’, now represents a delusional, pathological failure to face up to reality.

The creation of New Labour and the destruction of the Labour party as an effective vehicle for working class political representation was one of the biggest defeats ever suffered by the British working class. Building an alternative was never going to be an easy task. Inevitably repeated efforts would be made to reclaim the Labour party. But the leaders of the affiliated unions – who will no doubt have one more fruitless attempt to elect a ’left’ leader – have for some time acted as a fetter on the building of a political alternative to Labour and are now a real obstacle.

In Scotland, Labour were widely perceived as the "Red Tories" and if Labour councillors backed by affiliated unions implement any more Tory cuts then hatred towards them will build to a very high pitch.

Voters not moved right

Those whose despair leads them to believe this election result shows a shift to the right in society are profoundly wrong. The Tories won the election with only 24% of the potential electorate. Workers don’t want austerity but with no adequate vehicle through which to express that opposition they either stayed at home or voted for those parties seen as part of the anti-austerity ’alliance’: the Greens etc.

The vote for the United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip) amongst workers is essentially part of the same process – albeit in a crudely distorted way – that had led Scottish workers to go behind the SNP in huge numbers; an attempt to find a political voice that will speak out for them and represent their interests.

John McInally, national Vice-President, PCS

The Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) did not have the social weight to channel the anti-austerity mood but achieving over 100,000 votes for its clear anti-austerity, no cuts, no privatisation stand is a considerable achievement. TUSC was entirely correct to stand on a ’no cuts’ policy. It would have been a mistake of historic proportions to have no anti-cuts voice heard in this election.

TUSC gave a glimpse of the potential for standing candidates on a clear anti-austerity programme. No doubt the sneering and snarling toward TUSC from within the labour and trade union movement will continue but it is beginning to sound increasingly unconvincing and reminiscent of those who urged workers to stick with the Liberals when the emerging Labour Party sought their support.

Industrial response

Temporarily blocked on the political front, the potential for an industrial response to austerity is considerable; but only with determined leadership and a campaigning strategy that not only defines what we oppose – austerity, but what we need – a fair and equal society. The Trade Union Congress (TUC) must now be compelled to lead from the front.

The TUC must ensure there is no repeat of the lack of leadership in the 2011 pensions’ dispute that saw a public sector general strike followed by a humiliating surrender that opened the doors to further attacks on the public sector and a deepening of austerity.

Rather than reacting to events, the TUC must now pull together the unions to implement its policy of building coordinated campaigns against the pay freeze and build unity in action against austerity. Our movement, at every level, including the TUC, must now accept the policy long advocated by the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) and a few other unions of ‘No Cuts, No Privatisation!’, as the only viable basis on which to fight austerity.

The Tories may feel emboldened enough to introduce further anti-union laws, including raising the threshold for strike ballots. While rejecting defeatist talk that such a move would make it impossible to win ballots, the union movement must prepare to defy any such restrictions. If the upcoming Queens Speech contains such legislation the movement must mobilise before it is introduced in the most united and effective fashion, with the TUC calling unions together to set out a campaigning response, including coordinated action and potentially a one-day general strike.

The TUC must now also accept that the ’first past the post’ electoral system is completely undemocratic and proportional representation must be a key democratic and, in fact, key anti-austerity demand.

An honest, mature and fraternal debate must now take place in our movement on how we can build an alternative to Labour. There can be no more excuses. Those who think the process of building such an alternative will take years or even decades fundamentally misunderstand the depth of the crisis within capitalism itself and the potential support amongst workers for such a project.

Union left organisations, like PCS Left Unity, other united lefts and left leaders must work closely together to address the key tasks facing our movement including: –

  • Building an industrial strategy based on coordinated campaigning and industrial action to challenge and defeat the cuts and privatisation programme aimed at destroying the NHS, welfare state and other public services.
  • Building the widest possible anti-austerity alliance in society, rooted in the workplaces, communities and educational establishments involving use of all necessary campaigning strategies including direct action, non-cooperation etc.
  • Building effective left organisations in every trade union, campaigning for socialist policies and fighting, democratic socialist leaderships.
  • Building a political alternative to Labour based on a socialist programme including reversal of privatisation, extension of public ownership and a socialist programme, which also includes the democratic demand for proportional representation.

We are in a war – class war: this is the true nature of capitalist society, the reality of which has been partially disguised due in large measure to the civilising impact of gains won by previous generations of workers, like the welfare state. Those gains are systematically being removed and the brutal and brutalising nature of class society is increasingly becoming apparent to millions.

The trade union movement can only effectively fight for its members and class if it understands that all the talk of partnership, and so on, is now a fantasy – it is ’us and them’.

Concessions will only be won on the basis of industrial strength, determined leadership and a willingness to struggle.

The two great tasks facing this generation of socialists in the trade union movement remain the same as before this election: to build campaigning union leaderships prepared to defend members’ jobs, conditions and defend public services; and to fight for effective political representation and build a party that will fight for our class in the way that the Tories, with Labour as the elite’s reliable second division, fight for theirs.

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May 2015