Hannah Sell, Socialist Party General Secretary
Internationally, 2023 saw unimaginable horror being suffered by Palestinians in Gaza, the continuation of the grinding Ukraine war with hundreds of thousands of casualties, and a COP28 conference that failed to agree any proposals that will seriously combat climate change. Here in Britain, we are still in the midst of the worst squeeze on workers’ incomes since the 1950s, the NHS is in meltdown, and the hated Tory government has introduced new anti-trade union legislation. There are many reasons to look towards 2024 with trepidation.
The working class is back!
However, war, misery and austerity were only one side of the year that has just passed. The other side was summed up by Mick Lynch, general secretary of the transport workers’ union, the RMT, when he declared that “the working class is back”. We agree. Over the course of the last eighteen months, we have seen the largest number of workers on strike in Britain for three decades. Similarly, the level of strikes, including across the car industry, has surged in the US, reaching 4.5 million days lost in October 2023. Both have seen the highest level of industrial action since the collapse of Stalinism in Russia and Eastern Europe in the early 1990s.
The Stalinist regimes were brutal dictatorships which bore no resemblance to genuine socialism, but their collapse and the seeming triumph of capitalism as ‘the only possible system’, pushed back workers’ consciousness and organisation globally. Now, the working class in a number of countries is beginning to rise from its knees. The working class, ultimately responsible for creating the capitalists’ profits and for keeping society running, is potentially the most powerful force in society.
The magnificent and ongoing mass anti-war movement against the onslaught on Gaza is another indication of the increased combativity of many workers and young people. The movements have alarmed the Israeli government. Israel’s prime minister Netanyahu has fretted about the “huge demonstrations in Western capitals”. In Britain, the anti-war movement can also claim credit for the sacking of ultra-right wing home secretary Suella Braverman.
But there is, of course, a huge gap between the current level of cohesion, confidence and understanding of the working class today, and what is required to successfully transform the world by bringing this rotten capitalist system to an end. That will require mass organisations of the working class with conscious leaderships armed with a socialist programme and a determination to fight for it, both in Britain and internationally.
Tasks for 2024
Clearly, more attacks will rain down on the working class and poor in 2024. It is also clear that they will not be accepted – further strikes and protests will be on the agenda. But what role can socialists play in Britain to both increase the chances of individual struggles being victorious and to help prepare the ground for the successful socialist transformation of society?
Vital will be campaigning to prepare the movement for a Starmer-led government. With Sunak’s approval rating plunging to the depths of Boris Johnson’s unpopularity when he was forced out, and even approaching Liz Truss levels, it is clear to everyone that Starmer is on course to be next prime minister.
Millions will rejoice when the Tories are finally booted out of office, but a Starmer-led government will act on behalf of the capitalist class. Like a rattlesnake’s warning rattle, Starmer is doing all he can to let working-class people know that he will attack their interests in office. Starmer’s position on the assault on Gaza has been no different to that of the Tories and the Biden administration. He has openly admitted that his priority is not to stop the slaughter but rather to “align with our international allies”. His predecessor Tony Blair was equally anxious to “align” with US imperialism. As a result, his government took part in the invasion of Iraq which resulted in half a million or more dead, and destabilised the whole region. Starmer has already made clear he will behave no differently.
Nor will things be different when it comes to domestic policy. Labour’s Policy Forum did not even agree the most modest reforms – like introducing universal free school meals at a time when 2.5 million children are regularly going hungry. Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting has ruled out meeting the junior doctors’ pay claim and has pledged greater private involvement in the NHS. Corbyn’s manifesto pledges of public ownership of mail, energy, and telecoms have all been ditched. Starmer’s own £28 billion pledge for Green Capital Investment, far short of what is needed, has been delayed and threatened with the chop altogether on the grounds that it is necessary to reassure “the markets”.
Even Starmer will have to provide a few small concessions to the working class. For example, he has pledged to repeal the anti-union Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act, but not the huge swathes of anti-union laws introduced over the last forty years. In essence, however, doing the bidding of the markets is going to mean a continuation of brutal austerity. At a time when the UK economy is contracting, and with the national debt having reached 100% of Gross Domestic Product, this will be far more the case than under the first incarnation of New Labour.
Facing up to reality
Unfortunately, however, the overwhelming majority of national trade union leaders are not prepared to face up to the reality of the next Labour government, and therefore are not preparing the working class to defend its interests under it. The RMT is not affiliated to Labour, and Mick Lynch has gone further than many others in declaring that the trade unions will need to, “under a new government, exert themselves as an independent working-class movement.” Nonetheless, he argues that there is no choice but supporting Labour at the general election. At the same time, he and other national union leaders continue to appeal to Starmer to make clear what he stands for and whose side he is on. This obscures the fact Starmer could not be clearer that he is on the side of the capitalist elite.
The workers’ movement would be in a much stronger position if even a few of its leaders had recognised that under the next government it will need both a fighting industrial stance and its own political voice. Even a small bloc of MPs in parliament fighting for working-class interests, including for example Jeremy Corbyn and others excluded from Labour, would increase the pressure on a Labour government enormously. We got a glimpse of the enthusiasm that a new workers’ party could engender from the launch of Enough is Enough – led by Mick Lynch, and Dave Ward of the CWU – back in 2022. Half a million people signed up, but because its leadership was not prepared to launch a new party it is now almost forgotten.
However, the massive anger against Starmer’s support for the war on Gaza, particularly among those from Muslim backgrounds, has again shown the vacuum that exists to the left of Labour. It is essential, however, that such a party is democratic and based on the working class, and is not limited to one issue alone, but rather has a clear programme in opposition to every aspect of both the Tories’ and Starmer’s pro-capitalist warmongering agenda. The Socialist Party, as part of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, is campaigning for the strongest possible workers’ list in the general election.
Battle lines beyond the general election
The majority of the capitalist class in Britain are now putting their hopes in a Starmer-led government to defend their profits and their system. They expect the leadership of the trade union movement will be willing to attempt to prevent strike action against a Labour government. It is already clear that many trade union leaders will try to play this role, and that this may have some limited effect for a while as workers give Labour ‘a chance’.
However, after the experiences of the last decade, the working class is far more ready to take action to defend its interests than it was back in the late 1990s when Blair came to power. The new year’s message from Pat Cullen, general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), which until the last eighteen months had never taken strike action, is undoubtedly only a faint echo of the mood of her members. She declares: “Politicians only granted us modest progress – enough to save their own skins but not the revolution that nursing needs and patients deserve. Would we do it over again? Yes,” and she goes on, “2024 is a general election year and every party will be challenged by the RCN to demonstrate clear vision and hard cash for nursing, the NHS and social care.” Many of the strikes over the last two years have only won limited concessions, but nonetheless, the central lesson that has been drawn by broad sections of workers is that ‘striking works’. Collective action, once decried as something from a bygone age, is now firmly back on the agenda.
In addition, today working-class people overwhelmingly do not see Labour as ‘their’ party, as was the case in the past. On the contrary, it is almost only hatred of the Tories which will mobilise the Labour vote. Even if Labour wins a big majority – as polls currently predict – it is likely to be on a low turnout, and with sizeable numbers voting for ‘protest’ parties, including both the Greens and Reform UK. It would only be the collapse of the Tory vote that would be responsible for Labour’s majority. This is a completely different situation to under Corbyn’s leadership, with his anti-austerity manifesto, when Labour twice got over 10 million votes for the first time since 2001.
Even if trade union leaders were to succeed in blocking national strike action for a time, it will not prevent struggle. There will be local strikes, but also a myriad of protests on different issues are possible – including new movements against women’s oppression, BLM protests, student struggles, and protests on environmental issues. However, it will be very difficult for right-wing trade union leaders to hold back national struggle, even in the short term. This will be a major battle line in the trade union movement.
For example, in Unite, general secretary Sharon Graham has defended the union’s affiliation to Labour, but her record of being prepared to authorise strike action against Labour authorities, and to publicly attack them, means she still faces opposition within the union officialdom and, behind them, from the Labour leadership and the capitalist class. Unless under a Labour government she completely abandons the militant industrial programme on which she was elected, a ferocious campaign to remove her will develop in the run-up to the next general secretary election in April 2026.
An important part of the Socialist Party’s role in the post-election period will be to campaign for all the trade unions to adopt a militant fighting strategy against the government’s attacks, and for the development of democratic fighting broad lefts in order to organise for that policy, including fighting to win union elections. Alongside that we will continue to campaign for the unions to have a political voice. The close-run election for civil servants’ union PCS general secretary, with Socialist Party member Marion Lloyd coming within 800 votes of winning, shows the appetite among a new generation of union activists to elect fighting leaders. We will fight to make sure they have the opportunity to do so across the movement, including in the forthcoming PCS executive and Presidential elections.
A new wave of struggle before the election?
The power of the working class could be further demonstrated before the election, particularly if the new anti-union minimum service legislation (MSL) is used against a group of workers. Whereas the last round of anti-union laws in 2016 was allowed to pass by the TUC leadership with no serious opposition, this time pressure from below has led to the TUC Special Congress passing a motion which does agree some important measures which, if implemented, could defeat the new laws. Socialist Party members on the national executives of unions including the National Education Union and Unite, and as part of the National Shop Stewards’ Network, have campaigned to harness the pressure from below and maximise the pressure on the TUC leadership to take effective action.
The measures the TUC agreed include developing “practical solidarity plans for unions actively engaged in strategies of non-compliance”, supporting “any worker subject to a work notice, including with support from across the trade union movement, if their employer disciplines them in any way”, and ensuring “that where any affiliate is facing significant risk of sanctions because of this legislation, we convene an emergency meeting of the Executive Committee to consider options for providing practical, industrial, financial and/or political backing to that union”.
The TUC has also agreed to call an “urgent demonstration in the event a work notice is deployed, and a union or worker is sanctioned in relation to a work notice”. The first concrete step that has been taken is for a national demonstration in Cheltenham on 27 January. The reason given for the location is to combine the protest with commemorating the anniversary of the banning of trade unions at GCHQ, which is based in Cheltenham. This is an important anniversary, but it would have been far better to call a national demonstration on the MSL in a major city to maximise the turnout. Regardless of the location, however, it is important that the demonstration is built for as a real show of strength.
It is a sign of the pressure from below that the TUC leadership is, at least in part, talking the talk on the MSL, but it will be necessary to walk the walk to ensure any attempt to use it is defeated. However, given the increased confidence of the working class to take industrial action and the strong feeling that we are facing a weak Tory government in its dying days, the mood from below to defy attempts to use this unjust law will be strong. If the MSL is defeated by workers’ action, it would add enormously to the confidence of the working class that it had driven the Tories out of office.
Join the Socialist Party
However events pan out in 2024, it is clear that an incoming Starmer-led government will be acting in the interests of ailing British capitalism, and it will be the working class that is expected to pay the price. However, Starmer will face mass opposition. He will face a working class that has begun to rediscover the power of collective action and a population that is disillusioned with capitalism, with many looking for an alternative to this rotten system.
Starmer may be feeling smug because he defeated Corbynism within Labour. However, Corbyn’s popularity stemmed from the inability of the capitalist ‘system’ to meet the needs of the majority combined with increasing support for socialist ideas, particularly among the young, and both remain. Today two thirds of young people consider themselves socialists. There is no prospect of them accepting the ‘iron-clad fiscal discipline’ that will be on offer from Starmer’s New Labour.
The Socialist Party will be fighting tenaciously for every step needed to maximise the ability of the working class and young people to defend their interests. Above all, we will be campaigning to win mass support for the socialist transformation of society. As a starting point, that will require taking the levers of power out of the hands of the capitalists, nationalising the major corporations and banks, and beginning to build a democratic planned economy, able to meet the needs of humanity and the environment. If you agree, join us.