Britain: Preparing for the revolts to come

Demonstrating to defend the right to protest in Sheffield. (Photo: Yorkshire Socialist Party)

On 27 and 28 March, the Socialist Party’s national committee met to discuss political developments in Britain and the tasks of the Socialist Party in the coming months.

While the Covid pandemic continues to ravage the globe, the capitalist classes of the world are – if anything – even more frightened of what they will face as the virus’s grip lessens. They understand that the pandemic has acted to accelerate the crisis of their system and has revealed its failings to billions of people.

It has also disrupted all the existing relations in society, between national capitalist classes, different sections of the capitalists, and above all between the working-class and poor majority and the ruling elites.  While humanity will rejoice when the pandemic recedes, it is excluded that it will be followed by stability and healthy growth for capitalism worldwide. On the contrary, the period ahead will be one of increased conflict and turmoil, both between nations and classes.

Capitalists fear revolt

It is fear of the revolts to come – foreshadowed by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement on the one side and Trump’s electoral base on the other – that is the biggest single factor in the huge $1.9 billion stimulus package introduced in the US by the new Biden presidency. After forty years of wage stagnation for the majority, over 140 million Americans officially lived in poverty before the pandemic. Now their situation is far worse. The stimulus is supported by the majority of the US capitalist class – one survey showed 71% of CEOs agree with it – because they hope it will kick start growth and shore up the social basis of capitalism in the US.

The measures included in the stimulus will be welcomed by millions of Americans who urgently need to pay off debts and buy necessities. But they fall far short of the New Deal, which the stimulus package has been compared to, which was implemented by US capitalism in the 1930s. This time the measures so far agreed are short-term cash payments into workers’ pockets rather than any longer-term improvement in their incomes or living conditions. Even the introduction of a federal $15-an-hour minimum wage was dropped from the final package. The stimulus will increase short-term US growth. Given the size of the US economy, it is also predicted to increase global growth figures, but it will not achieve Biden’s goal of stability for the US.

For all its inadequacies, however, Biden’s stimulus dwarfs the proposals of the capitalist classes of Europe, never mind puny British capitalism. The government here is relying entirely on the continued rollout of the vaccine to limit hospitalisation and death from any third wave, and therefore to fuel economic recovery.

Having suffered the deepest recession in three centuries, the opening up of society will, of course, lead to some economic growth. A section of those who’ve kept their jobs on full pay have been able to accumulate significant savings, estimated to be over £100 billion. The boost from spending some accumulated savings will be limited, however, and will not overcome any of the underlying crises of British capitalism.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, even on the basis of no new economic crisis erupting, the UK’s economy will be 3% below its pre-crisis trend in 2024, and real earnings will be 4.3% below-equal to an average of £1,200 a year. Johnson is deluded if he thinks that even those sections of the working class who get to enjoy temporarily ‘splashing some cash’, will shrug off a further sustained pay squeeze or forget what they have suffered in the last year. Many will have relatives and friends who’ve lost their jobs or even their lives during the pandemic.

Post-pandemic austerity

At the same time, the Tory government has brutally signalled its intention of inflicting post-pandemic austerity on the working class. The wealth of Britain’s billionaires soared by 35% during the pandemic, but it is the workers who kept society running, often risking their own health to do so, who are expected to tighten their belts. That is made clear by the proposed public sector pay freeze and puny 1% increase for health workers. It is also demonstrated by the new round of savage austerity being inflicted on local authority jobs and services. Councils are still facing a £600 million Covid deficit, with 94% of them planning further cuts in the next financial year, combined with a collective £2 billion hike in council taxes.

The furlough scheme is due to finish at the end of September, with Universal Credit simultaneously slashed. Those already unemployed will be left without enough to survive on at the same time as their numbers are swelled. Workers of all ages will be affected, but young people face the biggest nightmare. Two-thirds of the fall in employment to date is among young people.

At the same time, employers are taking advantage of the pandemic to try to drive down wages and conditions via ‘fire and rehire’ and other measures. In many industries, a savage offensive is taking place against fighting trade union representatives, including Socialist Party members (see article), in order to prepare the ground for attacks on the workforce as a whole.

To get ready for the inevitable reaction from the working class to the Tories and bosses’ offensive, Johnson’s government is trying to beef up state repression and curtail democratic rights. The police and crime bill, which puts new legal limits on the right to protest and threatens protestors who damage statues with ten years in prison, is one indication of that, as are the police attacks on peaceful protesters against the bill.

None of these anti-democratic measures will work, however. Already the threat of the bill has spurred predominantly young protests in town and cities across the country, bringing together many of those who have demonstrated on different issues – from BLM, to A-level results, to attending vigils for Sarah Everard. The determination of young protestors has not, unfortunately, been equalled by the leadership of the trade union movement. While many individual trade unionists have taken to the streets alongside the Socialist Party, an organised trade union presence has largely been absent.

Given the tsunami of attacks that are going to rain down on the working class and young people, no laws will prevent all kinds of protest movements from erupting, some of which will be able to force the government to retreat. However, what is needed is a united movement – bringing together all the disparate forces of the working class and young people who are opposing post-pandemic austerity. The trade unions, with more than six million members, are the biggest democratic working-class organisations in Britain and have the potential power to coordinate a united struggle against all the government and bosses’ attacks.

Unions must lead

In the first phase of the pandemic, the majority of trade union leaders fell into the trap of ‘national unity’, accepting the false idea that the Tories and the trade union movement held common interests: summed up by Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the TUC, appearing for photographs with the Tory chancellor (finance minister) on the steps of his Downing Street official residence. Today, a crisis remains at the top of the trade union movement.

An essential task for socialists is to campaign for the election of fighting left trade union leaders, alongside striving for the trade unions to fight in defence of their own members and for coordinated action against Covid austerity. In the immediate period, mobilising for a national day of action for the right to protest and in support of NHS workers’ demands for a 15% pay rise, linked to breaking the public sector pay cap, would be an important step to prepare for coordinated strike action.

If a lead was given, there is no doubt that the trade union movement could begin to harness the enormous anger that has accumulated over the last year and weld it into a movement capable of forcing the Tories out of office.

However, the question in many workers minds is – what is the alternative? A year after Keir Starmer was elected Labour leader he is plunging in the polls, with Labour suffering a 16-point drop in its favourability rating. Starmer’s leadership is entirely motivated by convincing the capitalist elite that he is a reliable representative of their interests and that he is annihilating Corbynism.

From that point of view, his leadership has been a success – but not electorally! Incredibly, despite everything he has done, Prime Minister Johnson is currently ahead in the polls. This is not an endorsement of the Tories, but a condemnation of Starmer’s pro-capitalist policies.

Len McCluskey, the left general secretary of Labour’s largest affiliated union – Unite  – has rightly argued that Labour is currently seen at best as “dull, absent of convictions or presence, at worse as opportunistic”, and called for Starmer to change tack. However, there is not the remotest chance of this happening. From the minute he was elected, Starmer has been systematically junking the left policies of the Corbyn era, as well as the man himself.

Blair’s henchman Peter Mandelson has called for Starmer to launch a policy review, and openly ditch Corbyn’s policies for “credible, affordable” ones, by which he means pro-capitalist. Mandelson’s wish has already been achieved by degrees. Repeatedly asked about the Labour policy of nationalising British Telecom’s Openreach, Starmer has refused to answer, instead promising to be “pro-business”. Nationalisation is barely ever mentioned. Even when faced with the collapse of Liberty Steel Labour leaders have failed to make a clear call for public ownership, only half-heartedly suggesting it shouldn’t be ruled out.

“greed and capitalism”

Johnson blurted out his real views when he claimed that “greed and capitalism” were responsible for the development of the vaccine. Dimly aware of the growing anger at the greed of capitalism, he tried to write off his remarks as a joke.

Up until the end of last year, the greedy pharmaceutical companies had received £11.7 billion from the UK government alone to subsidise the development of the vaccine. None of the pharmaceutical companies, however, are prepared for ‘their’ intellectual property rights to the vaccine formulae to be waived in order to allow neo-colonial countries to produce their own. Capitalist greed comes before saving lives every time. Imagine if a Labour leader was prepared to demand that – instead of handing billions to the pharmaceutical companies – they should be nationalised, under democratic workers’ control and management, in order to produce vaccines and medicines for need and not profit. Such a policy would be enormously popular, but it would require coming into opposition to British capitalism, which is unimaginable for Starmer.

When Johnson won the general election just fifteen months ago the representatives of capitalism were ecstatic that Jeremy Corbyn, who they decried as a ‘Marxist’, had been defeated. As the profound crisis in their system has been laid bare by the Covid pandemic, they must be thanking their lucky stars that at least they’ve got a man they can rely on as leader of the Labour Party. For the working class, however, that raises the urgent need for a party that they can rely on to fight in their interests.

Unfortunately, at this stage, Corbyn and the left leaders of Labour-affiliated trade unions appear to still be hoping against hope that Labour can somehow be pushed back to the left and that perhaps the courts can force the reinstatement of Corbyn to the Parliamentary Labour Party.

The dangers of relying primarily on the capitalist courts as the means to fight Labour’s capitalist leadership were demonstrated by the outrageous £65,000 costs heaped on Anna Rothery, the Liverpool mayoral candidate supported by Corbyn and Unite when she unsuccessfully challenged her exclusion from the selection ballot. If Rothery was to stand as an independent, on a clear anti-cuts programme and backed by Unite, it would transform the political situation in Liverpool. Unfortunately, she does not appear to be intending to do so. Yet an anti-cuts, pro-working class voice is desperately needed at the ballot box both in Liverpool and nationally.

That is why a vital part of our national committee discussion was mobilising in support of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition’s (TUSC) challenge in the May elections, in which the Socialist Party is playing an important role. TUSC is standing for the Liverpool and Bristol mayoral positions, plus for the Greater London Assembly list seats (see article), the Scottish parliament, Welsh Senedd and over 300 council seats. TUSC will be providing a means for fighting trade unionists, working-class community and social movement campaigners, and socialists of all organisations or none – to stand in unity under a common electoral umbrella. It is a small, but important, step towards solving the crisis of working-class political representation.

Alongside campaigning for TUSC, we will also be building the Socialist Party, trying to reach the many thousands of workers and young people who have drawn the conclusion during the pandemic that we need to break with the profit-driven ailing capitalist system and create a democratic socialist alternative. The starting point for doing so would be to take the major corporations and banks that dominate the economy into democratic public ownership, in order to harness their resources to develop a socialist planned economy driven by the needs of humanity and the planet, not the profits of a few.





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April 2021