Events today are moving very quickly, especially compared to the past. The situation has never been so volatile as now. Every day seems to bring a new twist in the situation. Amidst the deepest crisis of capitalism in over 300 years, we face unprecedented political, social, and economic turmoil in Britain.
The consequences for the British working class and its organisations are immense. In this context, what are the challenges facing us in the coming period?
Firstly, we need to grasp the concrete realities. The economic slump and the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic have wreaked havoc. This has been compounded by an inept Tory government.
The severity of the crisis is a reflection of the complete impasse of capitalism. Before the Second World War, Trotsky wrote that the ruling class were tobogganing towards disaster with their eyes closed. This is a fitting description of the British ruling class today, who seem paralysed.
Despite massive state handouts, the giant corporations and banks are now beginning to shed labour at an alarming rate. The number of redundancies between August and November was the largest ever recorded at over 300,000. As the furlough scheme is removed, the working class will feel a massive impact.
Small businesses are also being crushed, as tens of thousands are driven out of business, especially under the lockdowns. Many small businesses have lost everything and are struggling to make ends meet, while the working class, following on from a decade of real wage cuts, are being pushed further down.
The ruling class has rushed to bailout the capitalist system, pouring billions into the pockets of big business to shore up the economy. This has sent deficits and debt levels soaring.
And who is going to pay for all this? As before, the working class is being asked to pay the bill. Following on from a decade of austerity, further wage cuts are now taking place. ‘Fire and rehire’ schemes are expanding, meaning falling wages and worsening conditions.
Public sector pay is to be frozen with few exceptions. ‘Essential’ workers are no longer seen as essential. The social services that people rely upon will be drastically cut and taxes increased, especially indirect taxes that fall on the poorest layers of society.
There are discussions at the top of government about how to ‘deregulate’ the British economy in the face of Brexit. The Tory government is looking to sweep away provisions safeguarding working hours. Working 48 hours a week or more will become the norm in this new ‘free enterprise’ Britain.
The trade union movement needs to galvanise itself for the battles that lie ahead. This means no more ‘business as usual’.
They should take their stand on the basis of the slogan put forward by the miners’ leader, A.J. Cook, in the 1920s: Not a penny off the pay, not a minute on the day. The working class must not pay for the crisis, which was not of their creation.
Need to fight back
Up until now the trade union leaders have, by and large, acted as a brake on the movement. There were ample opportunities over the last decade to launch a concerted fightback, but they were squandered.
The struggle over pensions in 2011 was such an opportunity, which showed great promise. Over two million workers came out, in what was effectively a one-day public sector general strike. But the opportunity was sabotaged, especially by the Unison leadership.
Faced with such weakness, the government was emboldened to launch a sustained attack on the public sector, undermining terms and conditions, cutting jobs, and increasing privatisation and outsourcing.
Despite this failure nationally, there has been resistance at a local level, with battles over outsourcing, wage cuts, etc.
In 2019, for example, hundreds of care home workers in Birmingham, facing a Labour-controlled authority, engaged in 35 days of strike action and defeated attempts to cut their pay and jobs. Similarly, there were successes in Wigan, Doncaster, and elsewhere.
Despite these examples of local resistance, the union leadership refused to organise a national campaign and strategy to meet these attacks.
The unions are now faced with a wave of attempts to ‘fire and rehire’. In Tower Hamlets, the Labour council introduced such a policy, where the workforce was sacked and rehired on worse terms and conditions. In particular, the new contract dramatically reduced severance pay – a preparation for future mass redundancies.
Croydon council is now facing bankruptcy and is planning savage cuts. As in Tower Hamlets, this will lead to increasing industrial action by workers. This could become a flashpoint for the struggle inside the Labour Party.
Pressure from below
The anger and stress amongst the workers is palpable. That is why those unions that have shown resistance – such as the NEU, which has threatened strike action over any attempt to force teachers back to work in unsafe conditions – have attracted thousands of new members. Some 16,000 new members joined the NEU within four days in January, when the union launched a battle against the reopening of schools in England.
We've had over 16,000 new members in the last 3 days. Welcome to the NEU. We are the voice of education.— National Education Union (@NEUnion) January 4, 2021
Join us now: https://t.co/Y4sLh8LDLM #MakeSchoolsSafe to #ProtectCommunities pic.twitter.com/HfO2vOuupr
The leadership of the TUC has been shell-shocked by events, and has been left hopelessly out of touch. While they recognise there is a crisis, they are keen to throw the employers a lifeline until things eventually return to ‘normal’. They are empirics.
They are wedded to capitalism – at least of a nicer, kinder variety. But there is no such ‘nicer, kinder capitalism’. There is only the capitalism we see, which is in deep crisis and is red in tooth and claw.
The trade union leaders see their role, not as class fighters, but as mediators in the class struggle. They therefore become a barrier to workers who are looking to move into action.
But we are in a period of sharp and sudden changes in the situation. Whatever their conservative outlook, the trade union leaders will be under intense pressure to reflect these profound changes. If they do not, they will be in danger of being replaced.
With this dramatic change in the objective situation, and an employers’ offensive underway, the whole trade union movement is going to be shaken from top to bottom.
It is certainly true that the trade union movement has experienced a long period of defeats and setbacks over the last 40 years. This has undermined confidence, especially in the ability to win national strikes in a difficult climate.
This pessimism and lack of confidence – promoted by the trade union bureaucracy – has been used to hold back any struggle. It has permeated the movement and even affected the activists.
The leaders have also hidden behind the anti-trade union laws to stymie industrial action. As a result of these retreats, many activists have drifted out of the movement or dropped by the wayside.
Of course, there were unions who stood out against this pessimism, such as left-led unions like the RMT and PCS.
Against the attacks and general uncertainty, the mood is beginning to change, reflecting a growing ferment in the working class. Resistance is beginning to take shape.
Important elections are taking place in Unison, Unite, and GMB. These could usher in significant changes. Unison, the biggest union in Britain, has traditionally acted as a bulwark for the right wing throughout the labour and trade union movement. A left victory in the Unison NEC elections, which is entirely possible, would be an earthquake.
The left could already have scored a historic victory in the recent Unison general secretary election, had the left vote not been split three ways. There should have been a single candidate and campaign around Paul Holmes, the candidate chosen by the Broad Left. Unfortunately sectarianism and prestige politics, especially from the so-called Socialist Party, prevented this.
UNISON general election result:— Jorge Martin (@marxistJorge) January 11, 2021
Christina McAnea – 63,900 (47.7%)
Paul Holmes – 45,220 (33.76%)
Roger McKenzie – 14,450 (10.79%)
Hugo Pierre – 10,382(7.75%)
The left should have stood united. Shame on the Socialist Party. Congratulations @Paul4GenSec, great result.
Tragically, the same mistake could unfold in Unite, with disastrous consequences. There are potentially three left candidates in the fight for a new general secretary, but only one right-wing candidate. Unless the left can agree on one candidate, they could split the vote, as was seen in Unison, and allow the right to win. This would be criminal.
We are entering a stormy period, the likes of which we have never seen before. In the battle ahead, the capitalist system will be questioned by millions of workers. These struggles will reactivate older layers, but will also bring fresh layers into the struggle – those untainted by past defeats.
Young workers and women workers will be the hardest hit, pushing them into activity. A new generation of militants, determined to fight, will come up against the union bureaucracy, creating new opportunities for transforming the unions. These layers will also be far more open to Marxist ideas.
Labour civil war
At this moment the attention is drawn to the civil war within the Labour Party, which has important implications for the movement.
With the victory of Sir Keir Starmer as Labour leader, the party has been declared as being “under new management”. In other words, with Corbyn gone, the pro-capitalist elements are back in the saddle.
There is currently a ruthless struggle on the part of the right wing to consolidate its control throughout the party. This means driving out the left-wing rank and file and ridding themselves of the legacy of ‘Corbynism’.
To shift the party to the right, they are operating in the most ruthless and arrogant manner imaginable – banning democratic discussion within local parties and suspending members who dare oppose them.
They pressed the nuclear option by suspending Corbyn from Labour Party membership; and, when he was readmitted, suspending him from the Parliamentary Labour Party – that is, removing him as a Labour MP.
In this, Starmer is faithfully carrying out the diktats of the right wing and big business. Faced with this onslaught, the Labour left has retreated, instead of going on the offensive. They behaved like lambs to the slaughter, simply protesting and appealing for ‘unity’. As the Bible states, “‘Peace, peace,’ they cry, when there is no peace”.
Despite growing unrest and protests from local parties, Starmer and Labour general secretary David Evans are simply doubling down on their attacks against the left.
The situation is crying out for a bold lead from the top. In the absence of this, it is unsurprising that many good activists are leaving the party, or dropping out of activity. Others are burying their heads in the sand, hoping that the situation will blow over. But this will not happen. The right wing has tasted blood and will not relent.
It is time the left picked up the gauntlet. There is a great deal at stake. The many resolutions passed supporting Corbyn must be given backbone. Above all, there needs to be a clear strategy.
That is why, as a first step, we unequivocally support the demand for an immediate special recall Labour Party conference, to discuss this crisis and put forward solutions. After all, the Labour conference is the supreme body of the party.
Neither the National Executive Committee, not the general secretary, nor the Labour leader, nor the Parliamentary Labour Party can resolve this crisis in the interests of the membership. In fact, they are responsible for this state of affairs. They have accused members of bringing the party into disrepute – but it is they through their actions that have done this.
Only the national conference, composed of democratically elected delegates from affiliated trade unions, local parties, and socialist societies, can resolve this crisis. It is the only body with the necessary political and moral authority.
What is stopping this from happening? Absolutely nothing.
The NEC has the necessary power to call a special party conference with immediate effect. They must be bombarded with resolutions calling for such a conference. They must be forced to face the rank and file.
The left unions have a key role in this. They can bring pressure to bear on the NEC and hold its members to account.
An emergency recall national conference would allow delegates from the 2019 conference to attend. Those unable or eligible to attend can be replaced by others elected in their place. As Labour’s constitution states, the agenda and business of such a conference should be open to any motion dealing with the current crisis and how it can be resolved.
For our part, we would campaign for motions of no confidence and resolutions extending the democracy of the party. This should include a vote on introducing open selection (or mandatory reselection) for Labour MPs. Similarly, any leadership contender must currently gain the support of a certain proportion of Labour MPs in order to get on the ballot; removing this threshold should also be discussed.
The question of who should and who should not be a member of the PLP should be decided here too. How can the party take one decision and the PLP take the opposite position? The PLP must not be a law unto itself, but must be subordinate to the democratic will of the party.
Question of leadership
If the left is serious about a fightback, it should not prevaricate and dither. Time is of the essence!
The left must take the bull by the horns and act decisively. Only this can stem the flow of members leaving the party, demoralised by the lack of action from the left. In fact, if the left was to make a decisive stand, it would see an influx of members back into the party. The fate of the struggle is in their hands.
The outcome of this struggle between left and right – a struggle between those who defend capitalism and those who seek to challenge it – is not preordained. What we have is a struggle of living forces. But leadership is crucial in any struggle. A bad leadership can lead to a defeat and a rout. A good leadership can galvanise the ranks, inspire confidence, and secure victory.
The first condition of success is to recognise what is. This is a fight to the finish. The right wing represents the interests of capitalism within the Labour Party, and carries out their wishes in the most brutal fashion. They are Tory infiltrators and careerists, eager to do the bidding of big business. It is this that explains Starmer’s ‘me-tooism’ with the Tories, and his constant talk of the ‘national interest’ – i.e. the interests of capitalism.
The Blairites, and through them the ruling class, lost control of the party under Corbyn. Now they are fighting to get it back. They will never give up in this quest. We must therefore make sure that they are decisively defeated.
The struggle to bring back Clause 4, the party’s commitment to socialism, and the need for open selection are part and parcel of this struggle to defeat the right wing.
Which way forward?
There is no point in simply protesting and offering no viable alternative. The idea of simply cutting the trade union funding to the Labour Party – whilst sounding ‘radical’ – offers no real way forward. In fact, it is only the appearance of action, failing to deal with the real issue: how to defeat the right wing.
In fact, the right wing would be delighted if the unions reduce their influence over the party. Starmer has already been busy rebuilding bridges with rich donors as an alternative.
Some on the left have raised the idea of the unions disaffiliating from the Labour Party altogether. Again, this reflects the growing anger and frustration felt towards the right-wing drift of the party. However, this is no solution either.
If some left-wing unions disaffiliate, what do the right wing care? In fact, they would be thrilled. Such proposals are born out of frustration, but do not offer a clear perspective.
The first task is to learn the lessons of the past – most importantly, how have the right wing been allowed to regain control over the party?
The blame lies with the leaders of the Labour left; especially those who, under Corbyn, attempted to appease the right wing.
The PLP was the centre of the counter-revolutionary conspiracy against Corbyn and the left. They engaged in sabotage all along the line, day-in and day-out. But the left failed to deal with this fifth column. Instead they looked for compromise and ‘peaceful coexistence’. They insisted on unity when the right wing were stabbing them in the back.
Of course, the mass media were culpable in this right-wing agenda. But what do you expect? They represent the interests of capitalism and back their agents within the Labour Party.
Unfortunately, every attack from the right was met with hesitation and retreat from the left. Such a strategy meant inevitable defeat.
Immediately following the 2019 election, the right wing stepped up their offensive to blame Corbyn for everything. He faced a Niagara of lies and falsehoods.
Then, after Corbyn stepped down (mistakenly), Starmer presented himself as the ‘unity’ candidate, telling fairy tales to the membership of how he was going to heal all the wounds of the past and win the next election.
Of course, as soon as he was elected, Starmer revealed his true colours, shifting to the right and bringing back all the old right-wing hacks into the shadow cabinet. He cleared out the nominal lefts and prepared the ground for an attack on the membership, using ‘antisemitism’ as a cover to claim Corbyn’s scalp.
Ideas of Marxism
The right wing have pursued their agenda with iron determination. By comparison, the lefts have been as weak as dishwater. Wherever the right have met opposition, they have acted mercilessly, suspending all those who dare to oppose them. Under the cover of the pandemic, they are conducting a scorched earth policy.
But with apparent confidence comes arrogance. The diktats of the general secretary are preparing a backlash as opposition grows. But the left must act swiftly.
What is needed from the left is the same ruthlessness that is shown by the right. But this is what has been lacking up until now. It is time to make your mind up. Either the left fight like lions, or we face being trampled underfoot.
We have everything to play for. There can be many twists and turns in the situation. Much will depend on the reaction of the left leaders.
But whatever happens, one thing is certain. There will be no stability given the gravity of the situation. The crisis of British capitalism is too deep for that. Under these circumstances, the right has nothing to offer other than more of the same.
Even if they manage to tighten their grip, this will not be long lasting. Under the pressure of events, a new, harder left will emerge.
Battles on the industrial front will also spill over onto the political front. The perspective is therefore one not of passivity, but of the most convulsive epoch in history. Events, events, events – that is what will transform and retransform the situation.
The scene is being set for heightened class struggle and unprecedented social upheaval, as has never been seen before. In this situation, the ideas of Marxism – which makes no compromise with capitalism – will gain a growing echo, and will become an increasingly important factor in the equation.