Trade unionists protesting outside Parliament. Photo: Paul Mattsson
Trade unionists protesting outside Parliament. Photo: Paul Mattsson

We need a workers’ general election stand

Editorial of the Socialist issue 1265

The Tories are out of ideas on how to cover up the rottenness of the ‘free-market’ capitalist system they defend. That was the message of the 2024 budget. And the message, although not new, has been received, loud and clear. With local elections on 2 May, polls leave the Tories with about 20% support, a historic low.

Rather than bring the party together around a bold offering, the budget, like every measure they manage to announce, has deepened the already deep divisions within the party.

In the aftermath, suspended former party chair Lee Anderson has defected to Reform UK. A fight about military spending has also broken out. The party is weak and split, and unable to unite around a way forward. ‘Viciousness signalling’ is all they can offer.

Polling shows that for the ninth month in a row, most of us believe things are getting worse. That belief is based on experience. This will be the first parliament in modern history that leaves living standards behind where it started.

The housing, cost-of-living and public services crises roll on – and Chancellor Hunt’s national insurance cut solves nothing. Despite the inflation rate dropping to its lowest level for three years, food and fuel bills remain higher than they were pre-pandemic. Nearly one-in-three of the poorest fifth of households skipped meals in recent months.

The misery isn’t confined to the poorest. As another 1.5 million households remortgage this year, many living in Tory-held seats, they face an average annual housing costs rise of around £1,800. That will be accompanied by rent rises, exacerbating the misery of homelessness and home-precariousness.

Billions of pounds of cuts

It is also anticipated that the budget requires a further £19 billion of cuts to unprotected public services after the next election. That’s equivalent to three-quarters the size of those cuts delivered in the early 2010s, which devastated public services.

Those cuts triggered big protests, including a historic three-quarters-of-a-million trade unionists marching on 26 March 2011 against austerity. That autumn, public sector workers went on strike to defend pensions, effectively a public sector general strike. Unfortunately, right-wing trade union leaders failed to build on that and the movement ebbed at that stage.

Today, with anger rising and the prospect of it finding expression in mass action that could go further than 2011, the Tories seek to threaten the democratic right to protest and to spread division in order to weaken our opposition.

So-called ‘extremism’

As the Socialist goes to press, Tory minister Michael Gove is set to announce a new definition of extremism. Even on this, the Tories cannot agree. Nonetheless, it will have a poisonous impact through promoting anti-Muslim bigotry if there is no bold opposition to it.

Poisonous and racist though it is, the new definition of extremism should also be seen as another piece of political theatre, a desperate hope from some at Tory HQ, that can be pushed aside by a determined mass movement.

It follows a press conference outside 10 Downing Street after the Rochdale by-election, when Prime Minister Rishi Sunak spoke of a “shocking increase in extremist disruption and criminality” in Britain. His previous attempts to clamp down on Gaza protests resulted in him being forced to sack his then Home Secretary Suella Braverman. The movement needs to build on that.

Tory legislation cannot prevent the anger at the slaughter in Gaza and the cost-of-living crisis from finding expression. Another piece of political performance art, the Tory anti-strike Minimum Service Levels (MSL) legislation, was exposed when there was an attempt to use it against striking train drivers.

In January, train operator LNER – one of four now under direct state control – took steps towards using the MSL during the planned rolling strikes by train drivers. The drivers’ union Aslef responded by calling five additional days of strikes, instead of the originally planned 24-hour action. LNER backed down. Trade union action defeated the bosses and the Tory legislation they sought to use against workers.

The lesson is that Tory attacks on the right to organise and protest, and their attempts to divide us, can be defeated – by being organised. The trade unions need to take this experience to the heart of the anti-war movement. The trade union leaders could make it clear that the Gaza marches are places for trade union members who are inevitably among the growing numbers who support a ceasefire and have sympathy for the Palestinians. That would start to answer the Tory attempts to use racist anti-Muslim rhetoric to divide us.

The trade unions could enormously further strengthen the anti-war movement by – as the Socialist Party has raised in Unite, one of the main unions in the arms manufacturing sector – calling a national meeting of reps in this industry and other related sectors such as docks and logistics, to discuss what action is possible. Even such a meeting being called would put more pressure on the weak and divided Tory government. Commitment to defend to the hilt any workers victimised for anti-war activity would make employers and the Tories think twice about issuing attacks, as LNER shows.

Political voice needed

What the anti-war movement and the trade unions lack is a political voice to oppose these measures and attacks in parliament. Labour does not offer an alternative to the Tory budget, including the cuts that flow from it; it offers no alternative when it comes to opposing Tory warmongering and racism; and it cannot be relied on to defend the right to protest.

The Blair government, Keir Starmer’s model, introduced divisive anti-terror legislation with anti-Muslim propaganda that fed a certain growth of the racist right. Starmer has not challenged attacks on democratic rights. The Starmer-led government we will see this year, like Blair’s, will seek to defend capitalist class interests, and will therefore be forced to further try to prevent workers and young people from taking action in defence of living standards and in opposition to war.

But the Rochdale by-election showed the potential for a workers’ voice to be built. It is now too late to build a new party to challenge for a May general election, but it is not too late for a workers’ list of candidates, including left MPs standing outside of Labour.

The Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) is pulling together anti-war, trade unionist, student, and socialist candidates, for the general and local government elections. The TUSC basic programme offers a means to unite on a clear class basis – opposition to warmongers and austerity cutters.

There will also be those who argue that the issues of disagreement that exist make a united general election challenge impossible. But that would be a mistake. Part of the building of a new mass workers’ party will be the hammering out of a programme between living forces of the movement.

Even steps towards a new party will provide a forum for debate, independent of the defenders of capitalism and their racist, divisive rhetoric. Within that, the Socialist Party will be fighting for democratic organisation. And within that, for a socialist programme which will be necessary to take the working class forward in the fight to take power from the capitalists and transform society. We are confident that ever-growing numbers will be won to this, in the battle for ideas that will inevitably be part of the struggles ahead.