Teachers striking in Slough on 1 February
Teachers striking in Slough on 1 February

Editorial of the Socialist Issue 1216

Around 300 delegates and visitors attended the Socialist Party conference 25-27 February. Longstanding Socialist Party campaigners were joined by many more recent recruits, some representing new branches of the party.

Discussions and debates covered the crisis of capitalism worldwide and here in Britain, and the growing numbers of workers fighting back against real-terms pay cuts and austerity. Most importantly, we discussed the role of the Socialist Party now and over the coming year.

Introducing the first discussion on the situation in Britain, Hannah Sell, Socialist Party general secretary, particularly welcomed new delegates, who have “joined at a good time, when Britain’s working class is re-entering the scene of history. We are witnessing a qualitatively larger scale of strike action, of a more serious character, than we’ve seen at any time in the last three decades.”

Workers’ voice

At the same time, Hannah pointed out that “the lack of a mass political voice for the workers’ movement is posed very starkly by Keir Starmer’s annihilation of the left wing within Labour”.

The conference agreed that the workers’ movement is facing an incredibly weak and divided Tory government. The fact that the traditional party of British capitalism – the Tories – is in such a sorry state is ultimately a reflection of the ailing character of British capitalism.

In a sense, the historical justification for the capitalist system was its ability to develop the productive forces – industry, science and technique. The decline of British capitalism is demonstrated by its non-existent productivity growth; which is at its lowestlevel for 250 years!

For 12 years, the Tories have tried to make the working class pay for the failures of capitalism – most recently and brutally by inflicting huge real-terms pay cuts and, as a result, are now hated throughout most of society.

However, the weakness of the government, and the huge potential power of the workers’ movement, does not mean that victories for our side are guaranteed. The majority of the national trade union leaders have not prepared their memberships for the current battles.

The low level of strikes in recent years means that most workers are striking for the first time in their lives. Our class learns more about the class nature of society in one day of strike action than a decade of inactivity, and lessons are being rapidly learnt in the course of the struggle. At each stage so far it has been pressure from below which has been the main force leading to continuation and escalation of the strike action.

The Socialist Party is playing an important role. We agreed that our central demand at this stage remains the call to build for a 24-hour general strike to bring all the struggles together – linked to demanding inflation-proof pay rises for all and scrapping the proposed and existing anti-trade union laws.

Budget Day strikes

The next days of coordinated strike action on 15-16 March could be a significant step towards a 24-hour general strike, and are currently set to include teachers, civil servants, junior doctors, lecturers, plus national rail and London Underground workers, with the possibility of more joining.

The strike movement could force the Tories out of office in short order. Socialist Party members would be cheering that along with millions of workers to see the Tories out on their ears, but it is clear that an incoming Starmer-led Labour government would be, as Socialist Party national committee member Dave Nellist put it: “A replacement Tory party, not a replacement for the Tory party”.

The Socialist Party conference agreed that the majority of the capitalist class would now actually prefer a Starmer-led Labour government to the current Tory administration, because it would be more able to successfully oversee pay cuts and austerity than this broken Tory government.  Many national trade union leaders would try to block strike action against a Labour government implementing pay restraint.

However, while initially there is bound to be widespread hopes that a Labour government has to be ‘at least better than the Tories’, those hopes will be shattered on the basis of events.

Starmer has made crystal clear that he intends to govern in the interests of the capitalist class, which will inevitably mean trying to implement highly unpopular policies. Having rediscovered how to fight for their own collective interests under the Tories, workers will not hold back indefinitely from striking against any government that attacks workers’ rights.

And even now, most workers do not see Starmer’s Labour as ‘their party’. Many will vote for it, seeing it as the most viable electoral weapon to use against the Tory government, but without any enthusiasm.

Our own party

Among both strikers and others, there is a growing recognition that what is really needed is for the workers’ movement to build its own party.  A recent poll in The Independent shows that 61% agree that the UK “needs a completely new type of political party to compete with the Conservatives and Labour for power”.

As Socialist Party executive committee member Sarah Sachs-Eldridge explained – introducing a session on our demand for a new mass workers’ party – a glimpse of the potential for such a party has been shown by the half a million people who have signed up for the Enough is Enough campaign, led by Dave Ward (CWU general secretary), and Mick Lynch (RMT general secretary). The leaders of that campaign see its role, however, as limited to putting demands on Labour.

Since Starmer’s speech declaring unequivocally that Jeremy Corbyn will not be allowed to stand as a Labour MP, and inviting other lefts to take the exit door too, enthusiasm has increased among trade unionists and young people for taking the first steps towards building a new mass workers’ party before the general election. Not least because it would be the most effective means to put pressure on Starmer. However, Starmer’s speech has so far been met with silence from both the few remaining left Labour MPs, and left trade union leaders.

In response, it was agreed that the Socialist Party will step up its campaign for steps towards a new mass workers’ party, and that as part of that “a central political campaign for the party in the next period will be the fight for the widest possible independent working-class challenge at the next general election, and in other electoral contests that may precede it, beginning with the local elections in 229 English councils in May”.

This will include campaigning for the passing of resolutions in the trade union movement enabling steps in that direction. Socialist Party members from Kirkby in Merseyside – who are playing a leading role in campaigning against racist attacks on asylum seekers, and for ‘jobs, homes and services for all’ – spoke to emphasise how the absence of a mass workers’ party left a vacuum which the racists and right populists would try to fill.

Discussion at our conference covered many issues, which can only be touched on here. The statement that was agreed on the political situation in Britain can be found at ‘Britain on the Boil.

Workers and youth

There were also important discussions on the Socialist Party’s work in the trade unions and in the universities. Plus discussions on building the Socialist Party, the need to raise finance to fund our activities – if you agree please donate at socialistparty.org.uk/donate – and the important role of this newspaper, the Socialist, and our sister publication, the monthly magazine Socialism Today. Elections to the Socialist Party national committee also took place.

The thread running through the whole conference was that, alongside fighting for every possible immediate step forward for the working class, our most urgent job is to argue for a socialist programme. And that permanent victories for the working class will come only with ending this barbarous capitalist system, and building a democratic socialist planned economy, under democratic working-class control, both in Britain and worldwide.

Budget Day 15 March

Junior doctors and others join the biggest coordinated action so far in the strike wave

Strike and march together on 15 March to defeat the bosses and the Tories

  • Following their huge vote of 98%, 45,000 junior doctors in the BMA have announced a three-day strike from 13-15 March. The HCSA doctors’ union will also strike, for the first time in its history
  • The University and College Union (UCU) has resumed its strike action, after a ‘pause’ for negotiations, and added 15 March to its programme of action
  • They will join teachers in England, and teachers and support staff in Wales, in the National Education Union (NEU); civil service workers in the PCS; and London Underground workers in RMT and Aslef
  • PCS has successfully reballoted in ten more employers, including revenue and customs (HMRC), the second biggest group. 33,000 more PCS members will now join the strike
  • Prospect union has also announced a strike on pay on 15 March, following an 80% vote for action on a 72% turnout. The strike will involve tens of thousands of staff across the civil service, including in the Met Office, Health and Safety Executive, and more
  • National Union of Journalist (NUJ) members at BBC England have won a ballot and will strike on 15 March

March together

The NEU has advertised a ‘carnival’ in Hyde Park and then a march to Trafalgar Square. The PCS has planned a march from Embankment, passing Downing Street, to Trafalgar Square.

Socialist Party members in the NEU have argued that calling a ‘carnival’ downplays the serious message of the strike. Calling a national demo like the postal workers did in December, with clear demands on pay and funding, could have coachloads of members from all areas flooding to London.

It would also mean that the striking workers from all the different unions taking action on Budget Day could march together. There is still time for the unions on strike to organise this and fill the streets of the capital while the Tories move their anti-working class budget in parliament.

  • RMT rail union, the NEU and UCU have strikes planned for 16 March too