Socialist Appeal - British section of the International Marxist Tendency

We publish here the second part of a discussion document, written by the editorial board of Socialist Appeal, which outlines the economic and political perspectives for Britain. In this second part, the document discusses the developments and processes taking place within the trade unions. In particular, the analysis focusses on the role of the reformist leaderships in the labour movement, who have failed to provide a fighting socialist alternative to working people.

We publish here the second part of a discussion document, written by the editorial board of Socialist Appeal, which outlines the economic and political perspectives for Britain. In this second part, the document discusses the developments and processes taking place within the trade unions. In particular, the analysis focusses on the role of the reformist leaderships in the labour movement, who have failed to provide a fighting socialist alternative to working people.

[Read part one]

The trade unions

This brutal picture is producing record levels of discontent, frustration and rage in society. The riots in many cities in Britain in 2011, reminiscent of the riots in 1981, were an indication of this growing discontent. The mass student demonstrations over tuition fees, not seen for generations, were also a symptom of this situation. The youth, especially the student youth, are always a barometer of deep underlying moods in society. Soon after, pressure arose in the trade unions for action against the government attacks. This resulted in the biggest trade union demonstration in history and was followed by millions taking strike action over the threat to pensions. Where the TUC raised its little finger to support a lobby of the Tory Party conference, 50,000 responded to the call.

For the first time since 1926, the TUC Congress passed a resolution to examine the practicalities of calling a general strike against the Coalition. All this showed the potential for mass action, but in the hands of the TUC leaders, such potential has been squandered. 18 months later and they are still “considering” the practicalities. Even in the case of the “left” McCluskey, his support for a general strike against the Coalition is merely verbal. It is used for speeches at rallies, but is not linked to practice. Experience shows he recoils from decisive action, let alone a general strike.

Instead of coordinating strike action, the TUC has simply sat on its hands, paralysed by inaction. Different unions, mostly in the public sector, have entered the fray in one dispute after another, but with no clear strategy, except by calling a series of one day strikes. The attempts to build a united front in the public sector have been largely derailed, as the main unions went their own separate ways. Even the left unions, like PCS and NUT, failed to link up their struggles. And yet here has never been a more appropriate time for united action.

To many workers, attempts to force the government to retreat using limited forms of action seem futile. They instinctively see the need for unity. Even where unions have increased the number of strike days, the action still remains limited, permitting the employers to avoid major disruption. Single days of strike action either lead on to all-out action or they will eventually dissipate. What is the point of losing days’ pay with little result to show for? The members are then blamed by the leadership for a lack of fight. But workers are not stupid. When they see union leaders acting in a half-hearted way, it does not inspire confidence, and serves to spread confusion. Under present conditions, selective action is not a threat to employers or government, but can simply serve to wear workers down. This reflects not unwillingness to fight, but a failure of leadership to lead effectively.

The trade unions have enormous power - potentially. They could bring the government to its knees if they wanted. The PCS union alone could bring vital areas of government to a standstill. UNITE could bring the country to a halt by withdrawing its members in the power industries or transport. UNISON could also paralyse key sectors. The GMB is in the same position. They have the power, but they are afraid to use it. They panic at the very thought of taking such militant action.

Of course, we are in favour of such campaigns as UNITE’s “leverage” campaign, but they can be no substitute for industrial action. When it comes down to it, the trade union bureaucracy is terrified of an all-out clash with the employers or state. They do their damnedest to prevent such a thing. The ruling class knows what these leaders are made of. When Lloyd George met the leaders of the Triple Alliance (miners, transport workers and rail workers) he said that if they used their industrial muscle they would win. “But if you do so,” said Lloyd George, “have you weighed the consequences? The strike will be in defiance of the government of the country and by its very success will precipitate a constitutional crisis of the first importance. For, if a force arises in the state which is stronger than the state itself, then it must be ready to take on the functions of the state, or withdraw and accept the authority of the state.” “Gentlemen,” said the Prime Minister quietly, “have you considered this, and if you have, are you ready?” “From that moment on,” said Robert Smillie, the miners’ leader, “we were beaten and we knew we were.”

This sums up the dilemma and cowardice of the trade union leaders at decisive times. Instead of rising to the challenge, they capitulate for lack of an alternative. In 1974, the left trade union leaders Hugh Scanlon and Jack Jones were terrified at the movement they had unleashed. “We were starring at the abyss”, stated Jones, “so we had to retreat.” It is for this reason, as Trotsky explained, that trade unions must either become revolutionary or they must capitulate and accept the dictates of capital. In this epoch especially, there is little room for compromise.

We have seen this fact very graphically in the recent period. We had the case of the postal workers’ dispute. There was a threat to terms and conditions as a result of privatisation and the union called a strike ballot. Despite overwhelming support for action, the ballot for action came too late. The company had already been privatised before the ballot result was announced. The whole thing was a shambles, exposing the weakness of the CWU leadership, which served to hand management the initiative. In the end, the CWU leadership cobbled together a deal which involved a three-year no-strike agreement. This is exactly what the management wanted, namely, three years of industrial peace to allow the privatisation to work.


However, the biggest disappointment recently was the defeat at Grangemouth, which has serious implications for the future. The defeat, dressed up by union leaders as something else, is a blow to the confidence and morale of workers, at least in the short term. The employer was seeking to impose savage changes in terms and conditions (the “survival plan”) and even closed down the plant. The workers were faced with the stark choice of either fighting the announced closure or giving in to blackmail. Instead of mobilising the workers for action, putting the full weight of the union behind the battle, the UNITE union leadership capitulated without a fight, which was the worst possible outcome. The trade unions leaders were wringing their hands about the awful employer. However, the leaders of UNITE were lagging woefully behind the situation. “We were up against a phenomenon we have never come across before”, said one Unite official, clearly shocked at what had happened. Len McCluskey, UNITE’s general secretary, denied that the union had been humiliated, saying the “ultimatum” was “not the way 21st-century industrial relations should be conducted”, as if the class war was a game of cricket.

In a war - and this is a class war - the opposing sides weigh up the strengths and weaknesses of their opponents. Ever since Ratcliffe, the owner of Grangemouth was defeated over proposed changes to pensions in 2008, the bosses have preparing the ground for a new confrontation. One does not have to have a degree in military strategy to understand this. The bosses would have taken fully into consideration the big concessions given by the UNITE leadership to employers elsewhere who threatened redundancies or closures. The deal at Vauxhalls on Merseyside, where the workers were forced to accept big changes to their terms and conditions in return for keeping their jobs, was an obvious example. This involved UNITE, who attempted to keep the concessions under wraps. The defeat of the UNITE union over the British Airways dispute is another example, where again, the workers were forced to accept significant changes to keep their jobs. These failures, dressed up as “negotiated concessions”, by the trade union leaders simply give confidence to the bosses. Weakness invites aggression and Ratcliffe took full advantage.

It is clear that Ratcliffe prepared the ground for a conflict at Grangemouth, beginning with the victimisation of Stevie Deans, one of the two full-time convenors. The union secured a big majority for industrial action over this incident, instituting a work-to-rule and overtime ban, and announced a 48-hour strike. Ratcliffe closed the plant ahead of the strike, locking out the workers. The union reacted by calling off the strike, but the plant remained closed. Ratcliffe was holding a gun to the heads of the workers and demanded that the workers agree to his “survival plan” before the plant would reopen. This included an end to the final salary pension scheme, a three-year wage freeze, cuts in bonuses, cuts in overtime pay and shift allowances, a three-year no-strike agreement, and an end to full-time union convenors on site. This constituted a draconian attack which could not go unanswered.

The bosses’ propaganda machine churned out the story that the company was in financial difficulties and losing £10 million every month. They made sure the figures were fiddled to put the plant in a poor financial light. Thus, it was the workers, who wanted to hold onto their hard-won gains, and not the bosses, who were portrayed as “greedy” and “unreasonable”.

Ratcliffe went over the head of the union and sent every worker an ultimatum: sign the new terms and conditions or else face the consequences. He attempted to split the workers, especially those in the petrochemical plant and the refinery. The union correctly told workers not to sign the new contracts and over 70% of workers followed this advice. Within a few days, management announced that the petrochemical plant would permanently close with a loss of 800 jobs. The oil refinery would also remain closed until further notice.

The employer had declared war. It was clear the union leaders were shocked at his ruthlessness. They thought they could force a deal as in the past. They failed to prepare the ground. Instead, the employer staged a provocation. But the union should never have made threats it did not intend to carry out. The fact is the union had a very powerful weapon in its hands: they had a large base in the petrochemical refinery. The plant supplied the bulk of fuel to Scotland and the North of England. An official strike at Grangemouth, linked to an occupation, could be used to send pickets to all refineries to bring them to a standstill, as in the Lindsey oil refinery dispute a few years ago. Tanker drivers are also organised by UNITE nationally. None of these drivers would have crossed an official picket line. Within a short period, the strike would have paralysed large sections of industry and brought the employers to their knees.

Initially, the workers made a call for the nationalisation of Grangemouth, which had been earlier privatised. This showed a high level of consciousness. This should have been the union’s central demand - nationalisation without compensation and under workers’ control, to take such a vital industry out of the clutches of the likes of Ratcliffe. It would have put the pro-business SNP government in Scotland, who were alarmed at the situation and working hand-in-hand with the London government, on the spot.

The example of UCS in 1971, where the workers organised a “work-in”, became a cause celebre and an inspiration to all those workers fighting closures and attacks. Grangemouth could have been the same. The difference being that the situation would have immediately escalated. The Stalinist leaders at UCS organised a “work in” and refused to organise an occupation. They also refused to spread the dispute. The dispute at Grangemouth could have been brought to a head in a matter of days! However, the union leaders managed to steal humiliating defeat from the jaws of potential victory. They have senselessly frittered away the power they had. The UNITE leadership threw in the towel, saying the workers were not prepared to fight and they had no alternative to surrender. Len McCluskey went to Grangemouth to sign the deal “warts and all” to keep the plant open and save the jobs.

“We’re not going to allow 800 jobs to go. We’re not going to allow the community of Grangemouth to become a ghost town and the security of Scotland be put in peril”, he said. McCluskey described our position as ultra-left, but we cannot gloss over this defeat. As Trotsky explained in the late 1930s, “above all, we must clearly tell the masses what’s what. It is unacceptable to play hide-and-seek.” The lack of a fight at Grangemouth has resulted in the full-time union convenors being banned from the site. It represents a humiliating climb down by UNITE. They succeeded in turning a victory for workers everywhere into a defeat, which will have a negative effect nationally.

Crisis of leadership

This whole episode reflects the crisis of leadership within the trade union and Labour movement. Where successes have been made, as in the Besna (“sparks”) dispute, the bosses were beaten back by the initiative and courage of the rank and file. If it had been left to the union official in the construction industry, who was dismissive about taking action and initially attacked the rank and file committee as “cancerous”, the dispute would have ended in defeat.

The UNITE leadership sees itself as very “practical”. But at Grangemouth, it failed to prepare for an all-out struggle, believing the conflict could be handled “the way 21st-century industrial relations should be conducted.” In fact, they had no plan or strategy, but hoped that Ratcliffe would cave in by mere threats. But threats need to be carried through or they are meaningless. The union leadership made a complete blunder. The cause of the defeat in Grangemouth certainly does not lie with the workers. They were prepared to fight. However, if there is no leadership in face of a ruthless employer, then they will see no alternative but to accept the bosses’ terms. Of course, this is not the end of the matter, far from it. At a certain point, the workers will recover from this setback and fight to retrieve their position.

Another example of the lack of leadership concerns the BAE job cuts and closure of shipbuilding at Portsmouth Dockyard. It is quite clear that the trade unions were aware of the threat a year and more in advance and did nothing to prepare. The local leadership in the Portsmouth Dockyard, as elsewhere, acted as a barrier to the movement of the workers. Despite wide public support and practical efforts by other local trade unionists, both public and private sector, no real campaign was organised and any mood among the workers was allowed to dissipate. The company has been allowed to go ahead with a largely voluntary redundancy programme, funded by the taxpayer. But workers in other sectors will learn lessons from this episode, as in the case of Grangemouth, and in time will replace the leaders who have effectively betrayed them with a fighting leadership.

UNITE is the biggest trade union in Britain with 1.42 million members. It is on the left and has enormous potential power. The ruling class, although understanding clearly the weakness of UNITE’s leaders, nevertheless fears the union’s potential strength. As a result, it has been subject to attacks by the Tories and the capitalist press, especially regarding its “leverage” campaign involving an inflatable rat. While, of course, we defend the union against these attacks from the capitalists, we do it in our own way. We want militant unions that tell the truth and defend the working class. We want unions that fight against capitalism and offer a socialist perspective. Every step forward UNITE has taken, we support. Under pressure from the rank and file, the union played a progressive role in the Besna dispute and in Crossrail. However, every step backwards, every retreat and every concession to big business, we oppose. The Grangemouth example is a case in point. We need to tell the workers the truth and not embellish the facts. Only in this way can we raise the level of understanding of workers.

Reformism without reforms

If the truth is to be told, none of the union leaders have any confidence in the working class. All of them, including the lefts, view the crisis as simply “ideological”, brought about by the actions of wicked Tories. “It is sad that you have a government locked into a particular ideological philosophy that brings so much hurt and pain to ordinary working people”, stated Len McCluskey recently in the Daily Mirror (10/9/13). The responsibility for the crisis is reduced to ideology and not the contradictions of the capitalist system. They think that simply by changing policies (or government) this will resolve the problem. They have no understanding whatsoever of the nature of the present crisis as a protracted terminal crisis of capitalism. They somehow think it is possible to return to the past. They pride themselves on being “practical”, but they are in reality the worst utopians of all. Even when they speak about “socialism”, which is seldom, it is an abstract idea with no content. Apparently, even Ed Balls agrees with “socialism”, as long as it does not refer to the economy, or in other words, does not touch the power of the capitalist class! For him, “socialism” is a responsible capitalism, based on “social justice”, whatever that means. The trade union leaders accept the continuation of capitalism. As arbiters they seek “compromise” and conciliation between the classes. However, in this epoch of capitalist crisis, there is no longer any middle ground.

In reality, the right-wing reformists are no different from the open representatives of big business. Both accept capitalism and the dictates of capital. They also argue that eliminating the deficit is the way forward, despite the fact that it will cut the market and deepen the crisis. In contrast, the Labour and trade union “lefts” simply argue for Keynesian policies, when there is no room for increased state spending at the present time. Capitalism can no longer afford such luxuries. The system demands counter-reforms! That is why all governments are cutting back on everything. It is not a personal or “ideological” question, but the logic of capitalism.

Marxists are in favour of higher wages and more spending on schools and hospitals, but we do not limit ourselves to what capitalism can afford. The lefts talk vaguely of a “programme for growth” instead of austerity, as if it is a choice on a menu. In some way, they believe we can borrow our way out of the crisis, as if the problem is simply of demand and not over-production. Firstly, we are dealing with a world crisis of capitalism, not simply a little local difficulty. Borrowing is incompatible with a policy to reduce the budget deficit. In any case, state borrowing has to be paid for and the money can only come from two sources: either by taxing the working class, which will cut into the market, or tax the capitalists, which will cut into investment. In reality, the government has already been pumping vast amounts of money into the economy, month by month, through Quantitative Easing, but to no avail. For capitalism, it is not simply about markets, but profitable markets.

In a sense, both the monetarists and Keynesians are right, but they only see one side of the problem, not the problem as a whole. Either way, they cannot overcome the contradictions of capitalism. While we attack the monetarists, we must make no concessions to Keynesian arguments, which are also attempting to square the capitalist circle. At the same time, the orthodox economists have no solution except more austerity, which aggravates the crisis.

The European capitalists are pressing Germany, which has a surplus, to expand its economy to provide a market for the rest of Europe. But the Germans are not prepared to foot the bill. It is every capitalist for himself, the devil takes the hind most! Whatever they do will be wrong. On the road of austerity, there is no way out. In fact, it will only make matters worse by cutting the market for capitalism. However, on the road of Keynesianism there is also no solution. Marxism explainsthere is no way out on the road of capitalism, as events are demonstrating. Of course, we also understand that there is no final crisis of capitalism. The system will not collapse on its own. But this crisis can last decades if they system is not overthrown by the working class. What is certain is that the “boom years” of the past are gone forever. This epoch of austerity is now a permanent feature of capitalist decline.

Trotsky on the trade unions

The trade union leaders are blind to this situation. It confirms what Trotsky said that the trade union leaders are the most conservative force in society. They are frightened of their potential power and do everything in their power to dampen down the mood. In this epoch of capitalist decline, the trade unions are faced with a choice: fight to challenge capitalism or capitulate. “Capitalism can continue to maintain itself only by lowering the standard of living of the working class”, explained Trotsky. “Under these conditions, trade unions can either transform themselves into revolutionary organisations or become lieutenants of capital in the intensified exploitation of the workers.”

“Unfortunately, no one in the upper tier of the trade unions has yet dared to deduce from the sharpening social struggle such bold conclusions as those made by the capitalist reaction,” continued Trotsky. “This is the key to the situation. The leaders of capital think and act immeasurably more firmly, more consistently, and more daringly than do the leaders of the workers – these sceptics, routinists, bureaucrats, who smother the fighting spirit of the masses.” (Our emphasis)

“The trade union leaders come out with platitudes at the very time when each worker senses a catastrophe overhead.” Our programme must be linked to the overthrow of capitalism, explained Trotsky.

“Of course, this programme involves struggle, not prostration. The trade unions have two possibilities: either to manoeuvre, tack back and forth, retreat, close their eyes and capitulate bit by bit in order not to ‘upset’ the owners and not ‘provoke’ reaction… Another route is to understand the inexorable nature of the present crisis and to lead the masses onto the offensive.”

This is our stand. Events will further transform the trade unions. Pressure will mount. Those leaders who act as a brake will be pushed aside by those who wish to fight. The unions will be a vital arena for revolutionary schooling. Our task must be to train up Marxist cadres in the trade unions.

Conditions and consciousness

“Men make their own history”, but not under circumstances of their choosing, explained Marx. Consciousness tends to lag behind the objective situation. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living. The last sixty years of upswing and relative boom conditions, where capitalism experienced a new lease of life in the post-war period, allowing the working class to win big concessions, deeply affect the outlook of the masses.

These decades of reformist domination, in which living standards increased enormously compare to the inter-war period, certainly left its mark. “Capitalism has been portrayed as a system of continual progress and consistent improvement...In Britain the religion of capitalist progress was more potent than anywhere else. And it was just this that formed the foundation of the conservative tendencies in the labour movement itself and especially in the trade unions,” stated Trotsky in relation to problems of the British Labour Movement. In 1932, after the victory of the National Government, Trotsky explained that despite the slump, “the political superstructure in this arch-conservative country extraordinarily lags behind the changes in its economic basis. Before having recourse to new political forms and methods, all the classes of the British nation are attempting time and again to ransack the old storerooms, to turn the old clothes of their grandfathers and grandmothers inside out.”

In other words, the crisis of capitalism, despite its depth, does not mean that workers move in a straight line or draw immediate revolutionary conditions. It will take big events to wash away past prejudices. Nevertheless, things are definitely changing. The molecular processes in the minds of the masses are unfolding. However, changes in consciousness take place in a series of leaps and shocks. Workers learn not through books but through experience, explained Lenin. The capitalist crisis, and all that means, is having an effect.

The Old Mole of Revolution, to use the expression of Marx, is burrowing deep in British society. Events are hammering away at peoples’ consciousness. They know that there is something very wrong. This explains the changing mood. In every opinion poll, there are big majorities in favour of nationalising the energy companies, taking back into public ownership the Royal Mail, the railways, water companies, and other industries that were privatised. There is a growing hatred for the bankers and big business sharks, who receive millions, but who wreak hardship on everyone else. There is a growing hatred of capitalism and all it stands for, while the Labour leadership talks blandly about “responsible” capitalism.

These changes in opinion are profoundly symptomatic. They are preparing the ground for a qualitative change in the situation, which will ultimately lead to the British revolution. Today, the masses are a thousand times more to the left of the Labour leadership, who accept the market and the laws of capitalism. This radicalisation is above all effecting the youth, who are at the sharp end of the crisis.

“If David Cameron genuinely believes ‘Red’ Ed Miliband is a socialist then a new poll suggesting the public are far to the left of Labour and want state control of key sectors of the economy, will be enough to provoke nightmares of a Marxist revolution in Downing Street”, stated an article in the International Business Times (5/11/13)

Support for nationalisation; sympathy for revolution

Fears about this new radical mood were expressed by Alistair Heath, the right wing editor of CityAM, who is deeply distressed at the situation. “Slowly but surely, the public is turning its back on the free market economy and embracing an atavistic version of socialism which, if implemented, would end in tears.” He is referring to a YouGov opinion poll for the Centre for Labour and Social Studies, which revealed that voters do not believe that either party is on the side of working people, including 38% who didn’t see either Cameron or Miliband as being on the side of working people. This says a lot of how people perceive the Labour leader, who is regarded as closer to the Tories than to themselves. Some 67% believe Royal Mail should be in state hands, as against 22% who back privatisation. Surprisingly, by 48% to 43%, even Tory voters refused to back privatisation. The same goes for the railways, public utilities and energy companies. 80% said they were not personally benefiting from the “recovery”, with 70% of Tory voters feeling the same way.

But Heath’s conclusion is very interesting! “Supporters of a market economy have a very big problem”, he says. “Unless they address the concerns of the public, they will be annihilated.”

This is a warning to the ruling class. But they are powerless to intervene. It says a lot about the state of Britain today. While industrial action remains on a low level, the level of hatred for capitalism is extremely high. We cannot gauge the level of radicalisation by strike statistics alone. That would be formalism. We need to take a broader view involving the picture as a whole. These subterranean feelings are preparing an explosion. We must not be taken unawares. We are in a period of sharp and sudden changes.

It is no accident that the interview with Russell Brand, where he came out for a revolution to overthrow the economic and social order, went viral on YouTube with over 10 million views. He is expressing a view which resonates with millions of people, especially the youth.

Even the Church of England, once described as the Tory party at prayer, has issued warnings about the gulf between rich and poor and the growing opposition to money making. These warnings are nothing to do with the plight of the poor and everything to do with propping up capitalism. The Church is part of the Establishment and sees the need to call attention to this dangerous state of affairs in society. The chief function of morality is the justification of capitalism, dispensed through the services of professional petty-bourgeois theoreticians and moralists.

Paradoxically, the crisis of British capitalism precisely reflects itself in a crisis of morality, the Church, and the pillars of the establishment. The crisis in the Church of England over women bishops and gay rights is followed by the scandals over MPs’expenses, scandals over phone-tapping by press barons, corruption involving Police Chiefs, cover-ups over Hillsborough and Orgreave, and the personal involvement of the Prime Minister with the likes of Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brooks, who are currently on trial. We are witnessing a profound crisis of the whole capitalist Establishment, even touching members of the Royal family and their dealings with corrupt businessmen and rotten regimes. This is dangerous for the ruling class who will need to use the monarchy as a reserve weapon in the future.

This monstrous cesspit is being increasingly exposed for all to see. It reflects the rottenness of British capitalism. This is extremely dangerous at a time when the authority of the Establishment must be used to justify and enforce the biggest assault on living standards in generations.