Britain’s class battle-lines are drawn

A quarter-of-a-million people protested through London and Glasgow raising the need for trade union-led struggle

The Tories may have only won a small majority in May’s general election but they are hell-bent on driving through brutal austerity policies – alongside further attacks on trade union and democratic rights. This drew up to a quarter-of-a-million people to protest through London and Glasgow, raising the need for trade union-led struggle. HANNAH SELL reports.

On Saturday 20 June, just six weeks after the general election, a huge anti-austerity march snaked its way through the streets of London. Estimates of its size were up to a quarter of a million. The demonstration was not dominated by organised blocs of trade unionists – although they were present on the march – but mainly by young people, many on their first protest. Galvanised to act by the election of a Tory majority government, the mood was serious. While many had not participated in the movement against austerity under the Con-Dems, some of the lessons of those struggles had been absorbed. There was widespread recognition that one demonstration would not be enough to defeat the Tories and that further action would be needed.

What that action should be was less clear to demonstrators, although they were certainly not just waiting for Labour to rescue them. That Labour also supports austerity was widely understood. Left-winger Jeremy Corbyn was the only one of the Labour leadership contenders to attend the march. Even as the demonstrators were travelling home, chancellor George Osborne and work and pensions minister Iain Duncan Smith (IDS) reiterated their plans to cut £12 billion from welfare spending. With the exception of Corbyn, the reaction of the other Labour leadership contenders was that of a Greek chorus, echoing the views of the main protagonist as they rushed to say that, while they might not support every dot and comma of IDS’s savagery, they also supported further benefit cuts.

The Socialist Party’s call for a 24-hour general strike against austerity was well received, as was the call from the platform by Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the civil servants’ trade union (PCS), for co-ordinated strike action against austerity. From the other platform speakers, unfortunately, there was little guidance on what to do next. Charlotte Church and other celebrities made impassioned and sometimes moving speeches. The onus, however, was on the demonstration organisers, the politicians and particularly the trade union leaders to point the way forward on how austerity could be defeated. Len McCluskey – leader of Britain’s biggest trade union, Unite – had retreated from his call for a 24-hour general strike at the anti-austerity demonstration in 2012, and limited himself this time to calling for a big demonstration at the Tory party conference in Manchester.

This is a major abdication of responsibility at a time when a serious struggle against the Tories’ attacks is desperately needed and would clearly gain support, as the 20 June demonstration indicated. The gap between the appetite and need for a fightback, on the one hand, and the preparedness of the trade union leaders to lead one, on the other, is greater now than at any time under the Con-Dem government. The turnout on the People’s Assembly demo is only one indication of increased combativity. There are also increasing local or sectional strikes taking place.

All-out strikes, virtually unheard of five years ago, are becoming more frequent, as with the Dundee porters and Glasgow homelessness workers. The plan for the first strike of all London Underground unions for over a decade is another straw in the wind, indicating the feeling that ‘there is no cavalry coming over the hill’, so we have no choice but to fight. The ballot result for Aslef, the train/tube drivers’ union – 98.7% in favour of action on an 81% turnout – makes a mockery of the Tories’ threatened new anti-union laws. Unfortunately, the voice of this and other important workers’ struggles was not really heard from the platform of the demo.

A weak Tory government

It is clear that there will be massive resistance to this very weak government. The question is whether that resistance will be organised and led by the workers’ movement, or whether it will remain more disparate and inchoate. There is no doubt that an organised movement could defeat David Cameron’s government, which received the votes of only 24.4% of the electorate, making it the least popular Tory administration since universal (male) suffrage was introduced in 1918.

There is a certain comparison that can be drawn with John Major’s government. Back in 1992 it was considered an unexpected and great triumph that Major had managed to lead the Tories to victory, albeit with a slender majority of 21. But Major is not now remembered for winning the election but for the miserable five years that followed, when the Tories were profoundly split on Europe and the economy was in recession following the pound crashing out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism.

When the Tory government moved to close the majority of the remaining deep coalmines in Britain it was met with massive opposition. Two huge trade union demonstrations took place in London which were notable for the support they had even among upper-middle-class sections of the London population. It is a myth spun by the Blairites that Tony Blair conjured a miracle when Labour swept to power in 1997. Labour could have defeated that weak, divided and hated Tory government under any leader.

There are, however, very important differences between the Major government and this one. Firstly, Cameron’s government is even weaker, with a majority of only 12. Just over 42% of those who voted in the 1992 election (on a 78% turnout) backed the Tories, compared to just under 37% (on a 66% turnout) in 2015. Secondly, weak and clinging to power, Major – other than the assault on the miners – did not attempt to carry out wide-scale attacks on the working class. That will not be the case with Cameron and co. On the contrary, they are attempting ‘shock and awe’, trying to cow opposition with the sheer scale of the assault they are launching.

Cameron could yet come to regret this election victory. While it was the preferred choice of the capitalist class, the Tory party is not a reliable tool through which it can govern. The Tories are extremely short-sighted, attempting to rush ahead with further attacks on the working class without taking heed of the potential consequences. In part, this is probably because they see the extreme weakness of the leadership of the opposition, unfortunately including the majority of the trade union leaders, making the mistake of imagining that these leaders are representative of the mood below.

Economic alarm

Serious capitalist commentators are warning them to pull back, or at least slow up on the onslaught. The OECD has downgraded the UK’s economic growth forecast and warned that the severe public-spending cuts being proposed would impact adversely on growth. The IMF went further, calling on Britain to abandon debt reduction as a key target, arguing that Britain was one of those countries “which are in a more comfortable position to fund themselves at exceptionally low interest rates, and which could indeed simply live with their debt (allowing their debt ratio to decline through growth or windfall revenues)”. Even the government’s own quango, the Office for Budget Responsibility, has warned that the steep cuts planned in the first year of this parliament will be an economic “roller coaster”.

These expressions of fear partially reflect the real danger of the cuts pushing the economy back into formal recession, at a time when the supposed recovery has barely been felt in workers’ pockets. What recovery there is has been fuelled mainly by the partial re-inflation of the financial bubbles which, when they burst, triggered the 2007-08 economic crisis. Household debts are now back to 95% of GDP, the same level as in 2004, and are predicted to reach 182% in 2018, higher than the 2007 pre-crisis peak. This is not sustainable. A new financial crisis will be on the cards at a certain stage. Even if this is less severe in absolute terms than in 2007/08, it would come on top of the last eight years, in which the capitalist class’s arsenal for combating such a crisis has largely been used up.

A new phase of economic crisis could be triggered by the uncertainty created by the EU referendum. It could also be triggered by global events, not least the ongoing turmoil in the eurozone. Moreover, Britain’s financial system is particularly exposed to crisis in China’s finance system, with British banks loaning more to Chinese banks than any other country. In this situation the Tories’ proposal to pass a law binding the government to refrain from carrying out any income tax, VAT or national insurance increases for the next five years is laughable, and very unlikely to be abided by.

However, it is not only the economic consequences of the government’s plans that alarm serious capitalist commentators. It is also the danger of an uprising, fuelled by all the accumulated anger of the last five years, against the government’s cuts. Even Janan Ganesh, a Financial Times commentator who generally backs Osborne uncritically, has now warned him against the consequences of trying to “finish Thatcher’s unfinished business”. Yet this is exactly what the privileged members of the exclusive Bullingdon Club are attempting.

Austerity onslaught

Not yet all of the threatened £12 billion a year of benefit cuts have been specified. However, they are to include a freeze on all working-age benefits, the abolition of housing benefit for 18-21 year-olds, and a lowering of the benefit cap by £3,000 a year. A joint statement by Osborne and IDS, while full of propaganda about ‘making work pay’, actually makes it clear that the government is intending to cut in-work benefits. If the government is to get anywhere near its target for cuts it will have to do this. In 2013, for example, personal tax credits cost £29.91 billion compared to just £4.91 billion spent on Job Seekers’ Allowance. Both were dwarfed by state pensions, which cost £74.22 billion.

Politically, the Tories are very cautious about attacking pensioners who are still more likely to vote for them. But attacking tax credits is likely to be almost as toxic. There have been reports of divisions in the cabinet over the consequences of such a blatant attack on the ‘hard-working families’ that the government claims to support. Only if it was combined with a dramatic increase in the minimum wage would such cuts gain some acceptance. This is not on the cards. Cameron has made it clear that all that is on offer is £8-an-hour by 2020 – up 25p/hour each year – the same puny offer that Labour made in the general election campaign. This will not be enough to compensate for any substantial cut in tax credits.

To increase the minimum wage more substantially would create uproar among the big-business backers of the Tory party, who have become accustomed to being subsidised by the benefit system. Last year, for example, £11 billion in tax credits was claimed by the employees of the major supermarkets. The result of cutting tax credits will be to strip bare the normality of low pay in Britain, which will prepare the ground for a revolt on the issue. In 2011, 3.3 million households were reliant on tax credits, more than three quarters of them with children. Since then the numbers have increased.

Alongside the cuts in benefits, the queen’s speech (which sets out the government’s agenda) also pledged to extend the ‘right-to-buy’ scheme to housing associations. It is not clear how it will be able to implement this, as housing associations are not public-sector bodies, but – as far as it is carried out – it will further intensify Britain’s already acute housing crisis. Margaret Thatcher’s ‘property-owning democracy’ lies in tatters. Nationally, the average age of a first-time buyer has reached 38 and is expected to climb to 40 by the end of the decade. In London it has already reached 52! Increasingly, young people are resigned to spending their lives in the private rented sector.

There are five million people on the waiting list for social housing, when there are only 4.1 million social homes in existence. The massive sell-off of council housing that has taken place under right-to-buy over recent decades means that the number of council homes is now around half what it was. Today, almost half of ‘social housing’ belongs to housing associations. Much of this falls far short of what social housing should be, with rents already rocketing towards ‘market rates’. Even this very inadequate safety net could be smashed by the Tories’ plans. The majority of housing associations say they would only be able to replace half of the homes sold off.

Even without further sell-offs, the housing crisis is acute. Official figures show that the number of people sleeping rough has increased by 70% since 2010. Evictions reached record levels in 2014, with 115 people a day thrown onto the streets, as a result of a combination of soaring private-sector rents – especially in London and the south east – and benefit cuts. However, a majority of evictions as a result of cuts came from social landlords, many of them Labour councils! Campaigns to defend social housing and prevent evictions have sprung up across London, with the potential to spread much more widely.

In addition, the queen’s speech included plans to increase the number of schools turned into academies by 500 through fiat from above. This too could provoke a revolt, potentially a successful one. Just days after the speech, teaching unions, parents and school students in Lewisham succeeded in halting the academisation of three schools following a determined campaign with strike action at its heart.

The unions’ potential power

All of these attacks on the working class are being combined with a general attempt to curtail democratic rights. Even though opposition within the Tory party appears to be staying the hand of the government on its proposal to repeal the Human Rights Act (which incorporates the European Convention on Human Rights into English law), the proposed ‘snoopers’ charter’ would, under the guise of opposing terrorism, increase the already considerable powers of the state to make peaceful protests illegal. How such legislation would be used has already been demonstrated by the way the extensive, anti-democratic legislation introduced under successive Labour governments – again, supposedly there solely to prevent terrorism – has repeatedly been used to kettle, stop-and-search and arrest peaceful protesters.

Most important, however, is the attempt to shackle the trade unions through further, highly repressive anti-union laws. If the government’s plans make it to the statute book it will mean that strikes will only be legal if ballots have a 50% turnout. For strikes in essential services they would have to win a yes vote from at least 40% of the total union members balloted. On the one hand, this shows that, short-sighted as they are, the Tories have a better understanding than the trade union leaders of the potential power of the workers’ movement to defeat the government.

Nonetheless, the Tories are miscalculating. The Economist warned: “This plan could backfire. The most successful unions, such as the RMT, usually command high enough turnouts for the new thresholds not to make much difference. Meanwhile, the new law might galvanise members who have not voted before in strike ballots… The public may even be more sympathetic to strikers if they feel the unions are being unduly squeezed… Rather than weakening the unions, Mr Cameron may end up strengthening them”. (30 May)

If the trade union movement was to launch a serious campaign against both austerity and the anti-trade union laws, not only would the new proposals never make it onto the statute book, the existing anti-union laws could be pushed aside. The National Shop Stewards Network has correctly demanded that the TUC should call a massive weekday demonstration when the anti-union legislation is first discussed in parliament, as a step towards a 24-hour general strike against austerity and in defence of democratic rights. Such a strike would have huge popular support and would win a new generation to the trade union movement.

At this stage, however, Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the TUC, has instead focussed on the “need to create new models of trade unionism” where ‘consumer boycotts’ could be used so that “collective bargaining almost becomes ‘citizen bargaining’ with the employer, to win fair treatment for workers”. (Observer, 14 June) O’Grady refers to the difficulties of organising ‘baristas and cinema workers and shopworkers’ but her so-called strategy is a complete abdication of responsibility by the leader of Britain’s trade unions. It is true that there are millions of workers – predominantly young and low paid, often in the retail and service sectors – who have not been touched by the trade union movement. But the way to win them is to use the power of the trade union movement – with over six million members – to fight for their interests.

A serious strategy to fight austerity with the demand – now adopted by the TUC – of a £10/hour minimum wage at its heart, would attract millions of workers to the trade union movement. Consumer boycotts can sometimes play a supplementary role but are no replacement for the most important weapon workers have in the battle in the workplace: to collectively withdraw their labour. This is even shown in the example O’Grady gives of the Ritzy cinema strike, where the threatened consumer boycott was in solidarity with the strike action already taking place.

If the workers’ movement was to take decisive action against austerity it would be able to act as a spine around which the many disparate campaigns could coalesce. This was graphically shown by the People’s Assembly demonstration on 20 June. While the demonstration was supported by twelve trade unions, including the TUC, this was done largely passively, without a serious attempt to mobilise. However, the predominantly young people who turned up and marched were looking to the trade union movement to give them a lead, understanding that strike action was the most effective means by which they could defeat the government.

Unfortunately, the blockage at the top of the trade unions means that such a lead is not yet on offer. If the TUC is not prepared to call action, the left trade union leaders need to come together to co-ordinate action. At the same time, the task is posed urgently of fighting to transform the trade unions into fighting democratic bodies. Ironically, as the Economist warned, the Tories’ anti-union legislation can speed up that process, as trade unionists are hardened by the attacks they face from the government. Crucial to the process will be the winning of the new generation – who face a choice between never-ending low pay or fighting back – to the trade union movement.

Anti-austerity politics

The other vital issue posed by the battle against the Tories is the need for the anti-austerity movement to have a political voice. Many of the demonstrators on the 20 June demonstration had been among the 118,000 who voted for the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) in the elections on 7 May. Others had voted Green, seeing the Greens at this stage as a better-known party through which they could protest. However, many of those who voted Green or even joined the party expressed dissatisfaction with Brighton’s Green-led council for implementing Tory cuts, and fully supported TUSC’s proposal to bring together the widest possible anti-cuts challenge in next May’s local elections. In a situation where even the Tory-led Local Government Association has commented despairingly that, after 40% cuts in funding over the last five years, further cuts will “push councils to breaking point”, the need for councillors who are prepared to stand and fight for their constituents will be urgently put next May.

In the short term, however, there was also discussion among demonstrators about whether voting for Jeremy Corbyn to be Labour leader offers a way forward. Several platform speakers, including Mark Serwotka, general secretary of PCS, called on those present to pay £3 to become a ‘Labour Party supporter’ so that they could vote for him. The People’s Assembly refused to give TUSC a speaker, so the case for solving the crisis of working-class political representation by building a new 100% anti-austerity force was not heard.

Unfortunately, Jeremy Corbyn’s nomination does not represent a shift left in the parliamentary Labour Party. In fact, he was only able to scrape onto the ballot paper as a result of being nominated by a raft of right-wing MPs, including David Lammy, Frank Field and Jon Cruddas. They probably did so confident that he would be defeated decisively, but must now be worrying that he could get a significant vote.

Socialists welcome the opportunity created by Jeremy Corbyn’s presence on the ballot paper to create debate on a left alternative to austerity. However, we do not believe the outcome of the contest will be the reclaiming of the Labour Party for the workers’ movement. To suggest that it will is to misdirect the movement. It is ironic that the complete destruction of the Labour Party’s democratic structures, through which the trade union movement could express its collective voice, has left the Labour leadership contest a virtual lottery in which, for £3, any individual – Labour supporter or not – can vote.

On this occasion this may result in an increase in the left vote – as anti-austerity campaigners and trade unionists sign up – but it is equally possible for individual Tory supporters to vote in the contest! In the unlikely event that this lottery resulted in Jeremy Corbyn winning, this would lead to a revolt by the pro-capitalist elements that have the Labour Party in a stranglehold and they would not accept Corybn as leader. They would, as Bertolt Brecht famously put it, be determined to dissolve the electorate and appoint a new one! If this was met with a resolute campaign to defy the Blairites, however, it could put a new mass socialist force on the agenda.

In the far more likely event of one of the ‘three horrors’ winning, Corbyn should draw the obvious conclusion and break from Labour to launch a new anti-austerity workers’ party. There is no doubt that one of the motivations of Corbyn’s right-wing nominators was to make it easier for the leaders of the affiliated trade unions to justify remaining in the Labour fold. Even Dave Prentis, general secretary of Unison, had been forced to comment to the Independent that his union might have to “review its links with Labour”. This reflects the growing pressure from below to break the link. If Andy Burnham, who is just a Blairite with a northern accent, had been the ‘left’ candidate, pressure to break from Labour was threatening to overwhelm the affiliated union leaders.

Corbyn’s candidature has eased that pressure slightly and temporarily. Typically, it was noticeable that Prentis’ speech at Unison conference managed to praise Jeremy Corbyn without calling for a vote for him! However, such manoeuvres by the right-wing union leaders will not buy indefinite time. The need for a new mass workers’ party – which the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition is preparing the ground for – is being placed more and more firmly on the agenda.

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June 2015