Hannah Sell, Socialist Party General Secretary

The Socialist Party enters 2023 full of optimism. The reasons for pessimism or even despair are obvious. 2022 was a year of dramatically falling living standards, frightening climate change, and the horror of war; and all this is set to continue. As inflation has soared, billions more people around the world are left struggling to afford the basic necessities of life. This increasingly barbaric capitalist system offers fat profits for a very few, and impoverishment for the majority. In 2022, for the first time this century, real monthly wages fell on a global basis. At the same time, capitalism is incapable of taking the kind of thoroughgoing measures that are needed to combat and reverse climate change.

In 2022, however, in Britain and other countries, a force re-entered the scene of history which could bring about the fundamental change needed. It is the Socialist Party’s confidence in the ability of the working class and oppressed to build a better democratic socialist world which is the basis for our optimism.  Look, for example, at the heroic Iranian movement for ‘women, life, freedom’ which has repeatedly faced down the brutal dictatorial Iranian regime. Or the Sri Lankan masses’ response to their complete impoverishment, with shortages of every necessity, rising up and sweeping the Gotabaya Rajapaksa presidency from office with the biggest general strike since 1980. Hundreds of millions of people worldwide cheered when they saw the Sri Lankan population take over Gotabaya’s opulent palace – sweeping up the grand staircase and swimming in his luxury pool.

Of course, none of the heroic movements that erupted in 2022 have yet achieved fundamental change. In Sri Lanka Gotabaya was thrown out but a pro-capitalist government continues to preside over misery and increasing repression.  That does not negate the potential power of the Sri Lankan uprising. Instead it points to the need for the masses to be organised in their own party, capable of establishing a workers’ government that is determined to defy the dictates of the international markets, and to start to build a socialist society in the interests of the Sri Lankan people.

The same tasks will be posed here in Britain. In 2022, workers in Britain acted together collectively in a way we have not seen for generations. Just two years ago, during the pandemic, the government’s Office for National Statistics stopped even bothering to collect strike figures, which had been at record lows throughout the pre-pandemic years. Capitalist newspapers had long since got rid of ‘industrial correspondents’ as unnecessary relics of a bygone era. The only way to find out about the workers’ movement, and strikes that did happen, was to read the workers’ press, particularly the Socialist.

Now, however, while the Socialist is still by far the best place to hear from the workers involved about their struggles, every news bulletin and mainstream newspaper has been forced to give front pages over to the 1.5 million strike days lost in December 2022 alone – compared for example to a total of 39,000 workers taking strike action, mostly for one day, in 2017.

Unsurprisingly, the pro-capitalist press has mainly covered the strikes to attack them, but their relentless propaganda about strikers ‘stealing Christmas’ has not cut across public support, which opinion polls show as at a higher level now than when the strike wave began six months ago. On the contrary, a new generation is discovering that the only reason that it has any rights at work, including Christmas holidays, is that working-class people – organised collectively in trade unions – fought for them. The working class and much of the middle class suffered the worst fall in living standards since the Second World War last year, and are facing an average further 3.8% fall in disposable incomes in 2023, at the same time as rising interest rates begin to make it harder to pay mortgages. They have experienced public services, above all the NHS, in a state of collapse. The result is a powerful mood of solidarity with the strikes.

Weak Tories try to dig in

At the time of writing, scrooge-like, the multimillionaires heading the Tory government have refused to concede a penny to the strikers, or even to talk to them about pay! However, their seeming intransigence does not stem from a position of strength, but of weakness. The Tory Party and the capitalist class as a whole can see no easy way to defeat the strikes. They hope that the financial hardship of those strikers who started first – particularly the CWU and RMT – will lead to those strikes starting to crumble. As the resounding reballots show, however, there is no sign of that happening so far. Nonetheless, it is vital that the whole trade union movement builds a massive strike solidarity fund in order to prevent any group of workers being starved back to work, and to make it easier to escalate the action.

For the government, making concessions would give confidence to others to fight, but ‘standing firm’ means a rising tide of industrial action that could force the Tories out of office. Not every ballot has managed to overcome the existing Tory anti-union laws, but millions of workers could still potentially be involved in strike action. And the cracks in this deeply divided ‘zombie government’ are showing, particularly around the nurses’ strike – where Tory backbenchers, under the weight of public opinion, are starting to demand concessions.

The pressures at the top were also reflected in the comment by Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, Britain’s most senior military officer, that the military was not “spare capacity” and it would be “slightly perilous” to treat the armed forces as the “ultimate backstop” for strikes. It is completely unprecedented for a serving senior military figure to even implicitly criticise a Tory government’s policy in this way.

His comments are one indication of the deep splits at the top of British society as a result of the growing economic and social crisis of their system. Radakin sensed the growing anger among the army ranks facing providing strike cover over Christmas for which they had little or no training, and themselves suffering austerity with a below inflation 3.75% pay rise in 2022. Seeing the strike wave, many rank-and-file ‘squaddies’ will be drawing the conclusion that they too should have the right to join a trade union and to strike. It is the fear of this growing radicalisation that motivated Radakin’s intervention.

Radakin’s remarks are a sign that the capitalist class are starting to fear for the future of their system. They are a tiny minority of society, whose wealth stems from the exploitation of the majority. The repressive apparatus of the state machine, including the army and police, plays – in the last analysis – a vital part in maintaining the capitalists’ rule. That the state’s neutrality is an illusion was illustrated a few years ago by the response of senior military figures to the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader. General Sir Nicholas Houghton, then chief of the defence staff, said he would “worry” if Corbyn’s views were translated into power, while Michael Clarke of the military think tank the Royal United Services Institute argued that “the armed forces don’t belong to the government, they belong to the monarch.” However, as we said at the time, the generals could not have got support from the working-class ranks of the army to take action against a government that had the active support of working-class people. The obvious anger of soldiers at this government’s attempts to use them as strike breakers is an indication that discontent is brewing at the base of the army, as in the rest of society.

For maximum unity in action

The potential exists for a united strike movement to force this government out of office. Inevitably, attempts are being made to weaken the movement by trying to create divisions between strikes, with right-wing papers like the Daily Express calling for concessions to be made to the nurses while attacking the RMT. The leadership of the trade union movement should be united in the face of these attacks, forcefully arguing that all workers deserve at least an inflation-matching pay rise, and that the victory of one group should be seen as a step forward for the whole class. Arguments for unity need, of course, to be combined with stepping up unity in action.

The interviews given by the new Trades Union Congress (TUC) general secretary, Paul Nowak, have been more combative in tone than his predecessor, Frances O’Grady. Unfortunately, however, his conclusions have fallen far short of what is needed. In the Financial Times he claims to have read the great Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, but it seems none of it stuck! He is reported to play down talk of a general strike “pointing out that such a mass walkout would fall foul of trade union legislation, and would make little sense to groups as disparate as teachers and physiotherapists who were worried about pay, but hardly inclined to militancy.”

Nowak’s ‘moderate’ conclusions are following the same tradition as O’Grady and many others TUC leaders before her. However, while O’Grady was TUC general secretary at a time of few strikes, Nowak is ‘leading’ the movement at a time when a new generation are having to strike and rapidly drawing conclusions as a result. Nowak is right when he says many of the strikers have never considered themselves ‘militant’, but they are learning that for a worker to be called a militant is the inevitable consequence of standing up against the attacks raining down.

Build for a 24-hour general strike

On picket lines up and down the country, while all kinds of discussions are taking place on what tactics are needed to win, there is one issue on which there is unanimity – that a 24-hour general strike is needed. Everyone can see that it makes sense for all the different groups of workers involved in action to strike together on one day, linked to the demands for decent pay rises for all and to get the Tories out. This alone would involve millions of workers and be a significant step towards a one-day general strike. If local demos were called in every town and city, there is no doubt that other workers, students and retired people would choose to participate. Discussions between unions on naming a day for such action, probably in early February, are currently taking place. If the TUC fails to act, the leaderships of all unions with live ballots need to work together to do what is necessary.

In the same Financial Times interview Nowak correctly warns of the Tories’ threat of new anti-union legislation, while also pledging that “our unions…will still find ways to take effective action”. Unfortunately, however, his plan to fight the anti-union legislation appears to be limited to “challenging it legally”.

There is nothing wrong in principle with fighting the Tories via legal means, but – as almost every union that has taken action in recent years knows all too well – the odds in the capitalist courts are stacked against the workers’ movement. Any legal action can only be a secondary adjunct to an industrial response. The Tories’ hesitation in bringing in further new anti-union laws up until now has been because of their fear, as transport secretary Mark Harper admitted, that doing so could provoke the trade unions into escalating their strike action. The Tories have seen how their sister party in Ontario, Canada was forced to withdraw new anti-strike laws over the course of a weekend in the face of the trade union movement threatening general strike action. Here too, if the government proceeds, the only way to stop new repressive legislation is by demonstrating the power and determination of our movement.

If the TUC in Britain was to respond to new anti-union legislation in the way that happened in Ontario, the laws would be history and so could this weak Tory government. Not only would such a strike terrify the capitalist elite, it would also massively increase the confidence and cohesion of the working class.

The vast majority of those currently taking strike action have never done so before, including many of those who are now stewards and reps. Lessons of the past are still being relearned, for example of democratically organised mass picketing blocking scabs entering the workplace. This is inevitable given how new striking is for most, but the struggle itself educates, and ideas on how to ensure strikes win are already developing rapidly. Understanding the collective strength of the working class is a vital aspect of developing class consciousness. The great mass rally of postal workers outside parliament on 9 December – followed by a march to Buckingham Palace – had a huge effect on raising the fighting spirit of CWU members. Imagine the electrifying effect of everyone ‘striking together’.

Urgent need for a political voice for the working class

Another issue that is beginning to be discussed on picket lines is how workers’ collective strength could be increased by also having a political voice. There is a desperate desire to get the Tories out, and a Keir Starmer-led Labour government is on the agenda. However, Nowak, a representative of the trade union movement, has used his platform to warn trade unionists that Labour “can’t turn on the taps from day one”. This is a very thinly disguised way of defending a Starmer-led government continuing with Tory austerity, and appealing to public sector trade unionists not to take strike action when Labour is in power.

At this year’s conference of the Confederation of British Industry, Starmer was greeted with unprecedented enthusiasm, whereas Sunak had a very cool reception. Above all, this is because the majority of the capitalist class now believe that a Labour government would be more able to implement their programme of attacks on the working class more effectively than this broken Tory government.

Historically, the capitalist class has repeatedly relied on the pro-capitalist leadership of the Labour Party to use their authority as the party of the working class to implement unpopular policies in government.

This time as well, relief that the Tories were gone would result in workers giving a Labour government ‘a chance’, desperately hoping that it would act in their interests. Nonetheless, Labour today is not seen by workers as ‘their party’ in the way it was in the past.

The brutal pro-capitalist reality of Starmer’s New Labour would shatter the inevitable initial hopes. The capitalist elite will demand Starmer presides over a far more vicious anti-working class programme than New Labour Mark I did under Tony Blair. In 1997 the economy grew by 4.9%, whereas Starmer would be coming to power against the background of a recession which the capitalist class is determined the working class should pay for.

Starmer and his shadow cabinet are already doing their upmost to make clear that they will govern in the interests of the capitalist elite. True, Starmer has said that an incoming Labour government would – unlike the Tories – be prepared to negotiate on pay. However, he and his shadow cabinet have repeatedly made clear that they would not agree to inflation-matching pay claims. In other words, they too would impose savage real-terms pay cuts on public sector workers.

At the same time, Starmer has refused to even commit to repealing new anti-trade union laws, and Wes Streeting, shadow health minister, has also pledged to expand privatisation in the NHS! Starmer has promised to “wipe the slate clean” of policies from Corbyn’s 2019 manifesto, such as renationalisation of Royal Mail. In doing so he is demonstrating his intention to completely ignore the policies passed by Labour Party conference this year when it comes to drawing up Labour’s election manifesto. Yet imagine what a powerful weapon it would be for strikers in the Royal Mail strike if Labour was promising to nationalise, without any compensation to the fat-cat shareholders, as soon as it won the general election! In fact, a central factor in the Tories clinging on to power as long as they have is the lack of any real political alternative.

While Starmer would claim the credit for an election victory, in reality this Tory government will have been ousted as a result of the anger of the population at what they are suffering. Many will see the strike wave as being the main expression of that anger. A Labour government will be facing a working class that has gained in confidence and strength, and will not accept austerity and wage cuts for long, whatever the name of the party in government.

This is a very different era to the 1990s. The strike wave is only the latest experience that is forging the outlook of the new generation. Growing up in the era of the post-2008 Great Recession, they have only experienced capitalism in crisis. Then came the pandemic. Opinion polls show that voters reaching 40 today are considerably more left wing than when they were 20, a reversal of the ‘tradition’ of moving to the right with age. With capitalism offering them no prospect of a secure home, a well-paid job, or halting climate change, the majority are looking for an alternative to the left. Starmer’s government would act in the interests of capitalism. Therefore the need to begin building a new mass party of the working class, based on the workers’ movement and with a socialist programme, will be posed urgently in this period. The Socialist Party, as part of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, will do all we can to assist in taking steps in that direction, including by standing candidates in the next general election. Alongside this the Socialist Party works with others to transform the trade unions into fighting, democratic bodies.

2022 was a year when the failures of capitalism were writ large. But it was also a year of dramatically increased struggle against those failings. 2023 will be a year of continued struggle, and of increasing opportunities for socialist ideas to gain in strength.

As part of the Committee for a Workers’ International, we fight to convince a new generation, in Britain and worldwide, of the need for, and the possibility of, the socialist transformation of society. Nationalisation of the major banks and corporations that dominate the economy, around 150 in the case of Britain, under workers’ control and management would lay the basis for the development of a socialist plan of production. Such a plan would create the basis to transform peoples’ existence. Hunger and poverty would quickly become a thing of the past. The science and technique created by capitalism could be harnessed to meet the needs of all while protecting the planet.