Britain: Back socialist and anti-war candidates – prepare for battles to come

With the UK general election less than a month away Labour Party leader, Keir Starmer, remains on course for Downing Street. “Things can maybe get a bit better”, was how the Economist magazine summed up its very faint hopes in the incoming Labour government. Millions of people who, on 4 July, will grit their teeth and vote Labour feel the same, but for very different reasons to the pro-capitalist, neoliberal Economist.

Desperation to get rid of the Tories is virtually universal. At the same time, however, workers’ anger at the almost total absence of Labour pledges to qualitatively improve their lives, has pushed a number of national trade union leaders to break with tradition and make some criticisms of Labour’s programme, even in the midst of the general election campaign. Sharon Graham, general secretary of Unite – Labour’s biggest affiliate refused to join in the rubber stamping of the party’s manifesto because of the weakness of its pledges on workers’ rights.

She has not been alone in voicing criticism. Matt Wrack, leader of the Fire Brigades Union, warned that public sector pay had to increase under Labour or strikes would be on the agenda. Mick Lynch, general secretary of the Rail Maritime and Transport (RMT) union, which is not affiliated to Labour, used his Newsnight appearance on 4 June to argue that Labour should “rebuild our infrastructure, our care service, our NHS” and “reskill the country, get good jobs into working-class communities, and re-equip working-class housing.”

More broadly, Mick Lynch rightly dared to challenge the universal acceptance in the capitalist media of the ‘financial constraints’ facing the next government. “There is plenty of money in the country, it’s just a matter of whether you want to get some of it and distribute it more equitably.”

Every bit of pressure to defend workers’ interests exerted on Starmer’s New Labour by the trade union movement is welcome. But even for those trade union leaders who have criticised Starmer, their fundamental position is still that because Labour is the only currently available alternative government, there is no choice but to campaign for it in this election.

Growing anger

It is patently true that Starmer’s Labour is going to win the general election, and there is no way to achieve a workers’ government on 4 July. But it does not follow that the trade union movement should back Starmer. It was also true, for example, that a workers’ government was not on the cards when the Labour Party – then the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) – was founded in 1900. At that time, workers were also faced with a choice of two capitalist parties – then it was the Conservatives and the Liberal Party – and the LRC, with just 15 candidates in that year’s election, was only a modest start to the process of creating a new party of the working class. Nonetheless, it was vital that the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants (ASRS), predecessor to the RMT, played a key role in that modest beginning.

And today there are many workers and young people who – angered by Starmer’s pro-capitalist, pro-war policies – don’t accept that there is ‘no choice’ but to back Labour. The record number of candidates standing in this election, including 461 standing as independents, is one reflection of the growing anger with all the establishment parties, including Starmer’s Labour.

Had left trade union leaders, along with Jeremy Corbyn and others, fought to establish a clear mass, democratic workers’ party with socialist policies for this election it would have been able to win the support of many workers and young people who instead will vote for independents, Greens, or not vote at all.

Even some of those who will vote for Reform UK could have been won to such a party: just as over a million ex-UKIP voters cast a ballot for Jeremy Corbyn in 2017. Had only the first steps towards such a party been taken – perhaps winning a handful of MPs – it would have done far more to exert pressure on Starmer’s Labour than verbal criticism.

While that opportunity has not been taken, there are nonetheless left and workers’ candidates standing in this election, including Jeremy Corbyn and other left independents. Forty, including Socialist Party members, are standing under the banner of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition. That is vital preparation for the attacks that working class is going to face under the next government.

Economic crisis

Mick Lynch is quite right to point out that Britain is a rich country. The gap between the few at the top and the working-class majority has grown massively. The average pay of the chief executives of the hundred biggest companies on the London stock market is up from 47 times that of the average worker in 1998 to a gigantic 145 times today.

However, the failure of Starmer’s New Labour to propose taking even a sliver of the huge wealth held by the capitalist elite in order to “distribute it more equitably” is not just a reflection of ‘excessive caution’, or a desire not to ‘frighten Middle England’. It reflects that Starmer’s New Labour is determined to act in the interests of British capitalism: which expects the working class to pay for its ailing state of health.

The positive policies that Mick Lynch correctly argues for – like mass council house building, for example – were implemented by Labour and even Tory governments in the 1950s and 1960s. That was a very different era, however, when a unique combination of global factors meant that the capitalist class was forced to make significant concessions to the working class over a few decades.

By contrast, over the last nine years we’ve seen the ruling class react with utter horror to the huge enthusiasm that was engendered among millions when Jeremy Corbyn put forward policies like mass council house building. In order to make Labour once more a reliable representative of the interests of capitalism, every last remnant of Corbynism has been driven from it.

So today the Economist is able to be very clear that the interests of the elites will be better served by Starmer’s Labour than by the rapidly disintegrating Tory party. That reflects the predominant view of the capitalist class. As US bankers JP Morgan put it, a Labour victory would be a “net positive” for the finance markets.

The reason the Economist’s hopes in a Starmer government are nonetheless so very faint is because of its despair at the depth of the crisis of British capitalism. It points out, for example, that, if current growth trends continue, by 2031 Britain will be poorer per person than Poland.

That is why there is a ‘conspiracy of silence’ on what the establishment parties’ spending plans actually mean for the future prospects for the working class in Britain. The expected continuation of very low growth in Britain’s economy, as the Economist and others have pointed out, makes Labour’s claimed plans utterly unrealistic.

Sticking by the Tories ‘fiscal rules’, as Starmer has pledged to do, would mean – if growth averages 1.1% per year, as it has since 2008 – a ‘black hole’ in the public finances of around £60 billion. In other words, Starmer’s Labour, acting in the interests of British capitalism, is set to oversee a new era of yet more austerity, including tax rises and attacks on the living conditions of the working-class majority.

Workers’ struggle

What conclusions does the workers’ movement need to draw? Not that it will be impossible for the working class to wrest concessions from the next government. A Starmer administration would not be the first capitalist government to, for example, increase public sector pay, repeal anti-union laws – more than they currently intend, and to make concessions to students facing poverty and huge debts. None of this will be achieved by asking nicely, however, but will require mass workers’ struggle. And that struggle will be enormously strengthened if it also has a political voice.

All steps towards that – including in this election maximising the vote for candidates defending the principles of trade unionism and socialism – must be pursued.

However, to win what is really needed – to create a society which provides the elements of a decent life for all, such as secure high-quality housing, well-paid work, and a living pension, and to carry out a green transition – will require fundamental socialist change. Capitalism is no longer capable of taking society forward, and as long as the levers of power remain in the hands of the capitalists, steps forward won under mass pressure will be temporary.

That is why the Socialist Party stands for the nationalisation, under democratic workers’ control, of the major monopolies and banks that dominate the economy, with compensation paid only on the basis of proven need. This is a vital step to breaking the stranglehold of the capitalist class, and laying the basis for the development of a socialist plan of production, where all the science and technique created by capitalism could be harnessed and developed to meet the needs of all.

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June 2024