Photo: Paul Mattsson

Photo: Paul Mattsson   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

Britain in 2022: Build a coordinated working-class fightback

Hannah Sell, Socialist Party general secretary

“One more strike and he’s out”, declared longstanding Tory MP Roger Gale in the wake of the kicking his party got from voters in the Shropshire North byelection, previously held by the Tories for almost two centuries. Gale meant that Johnson is in the last chance saloon with the Tory backbenches, but for the working class this should be a rallying cry for 2022, not just to get rid of Johnson but the whole rotten Tory government and the capitalist system they defend.

The Tories’ Shropshire North byelection disaster is a reflection of the rising tide of fury at the government. The byelection was triggered by the ousting, as a result of his blatant corruption, of ex-Tory cabinet minister Owen Paterson, despite Johnson’s inept attempts to change the rules in order to save him. This is just one of a series of events that have driven home to millions of people the self-serving cronyism of this Tory government. From the 46 contracts for PPE handed out to the mates of politicians or Whitehall officials, to the disdain for the majority summed up in Downing Street’s blatant breaking of the lockdown rules they’d imposed on the country.

The root cause of anger at the Tories is not, however, their many individual acts of corruption and incompetence, but what the majority have suffered under Tory rule. The appalling levels of poverty in Britain are summed up in the tragedy of child mortality in Britain, which, according to the British Medical Journal, has been growing for three years in succession, and is now 30% higher than the average in the EU.

With inflation soaring past 5%, living standards are being squeezed hard for all but a few. That is set to get worse as the government’s National Insurance hike kicks in next year, and energy bills increase by an expected average of £500 a year. Millions of people are already struggling to pay their bills and feed themselves and their families. They include the 5.6 million public sector workers given a real-terms pay cut by the Tory government, plus all those who’ve had their Universal Credit cutback. If the soaring levels of the Omicron variant lead to a new economic slowdown there could also be a new surge of job losses. Even without that, however, there will only be one way to prevent 2022 being a year of Covid austerity, and that is a coordinated working-class fightback.

Rising tide of struggle

The potential for such a fightback has been clearly shown in the closing months of this year. Unite the union reports that in the first 100 days since Sharon Graham took over as general secretary, £25 million extra has been won in members’ pay packets. This is not only as a result of Sharon’s support for Unite members taking action, but also a growing determination to fight back which is resulting in victories for strikers in Unite and other unions. The UCU union’s higher education strike is an example of the angry mood, as are the RMT’s Transport for London strikes.

However, it is the growing number of localised all-out strikes of private sector workers that are the clearest indication of the sea change which is taking place. In recent weeks the pages of the Socialist have been jam-packed with reports from strikes, with many pushing the employers back – from the Clarks workers defeating ‘fire and rehire’ to the Wincanton lorry drivers gaining a 24.4% pay rise.

A rise in the number of strikes is not only a phenomenon in Britain. In the US, corporate profit margins were the highest in 70 years in the third quarter of 2021, which has been followed by record end-of-year bonuses for Wall Street. In the same period wages fell in real terms by 0.5%. In response, the rise in industrial militancy which began before the pandemic has resurged.

In October 2021 it was estimated that strikes had taken place against 178 US employers, with other workers winning victories just by threatening strike action. As the Washington Post put it, “The strike drives in 2021 run the gamut of American industry: Nurses and health workers in California and Oregon; oil workers in New York; cereal factory workers in Michigan, Nebraska, Pennsylvania and Tennessee; television and film production crews in Hollywood; and more.”

In many countries of Europe a similar increase in strikes is beginning, with sections of workers, often spearheaded by transport workers, acting to demand wage increases. These include teachers in Hungary, nursery staff in Austria, rail workers in France, and many more. In Belgium, even the police force has been organising mass protests over wages and pensions.

While strikes are still at a relatively low level by historical standards, they are on an upward curve. Already there are rumblings from big business trying to blame workers’ wage rises for inflation. This is total nonsense. How are wage rises responsible for soaring global energy prices and shortages in semiconductors?

In reality, the share of wealth taken by workers in Britain, along with those in the US and many other countries, has been shrinking for many decades, while the wealth of the capitalist class has soared. In Britain, around £130 billion a year from 1980 to today has been transferred from the pockets of the working class to the capitalist class. That process was already in full swing before the 2007-08 Great Recession and has accelerated since. The working class has no control over the decisions by capitalist governments, banks and employers that can lead to inflation, but if it is able, via struggle, to force the bosses to transfer some of their vast wealth back into the pockets of the majority, it would in itself have no inflationary effect whatsoever.

The capitalist class, or at least its most thinking sections, sense the rumble of the coming earthquakes, rightly fearing the inevitable mighty workers’ fightbacks ahead. The pandemic has not only enormously heightened the underlying anger in society, it has also increased awareness that it is working-class people who are ‘essential’ to keep society running, and therefore have the power to change it.

Potential for social and student movements

Outbursts of struggle in 2022 are inevitable, therefore. Not only workers’ strike action, but also new and resurging social struggles, whether a new phase of the Black Lives Matter movement, mass protests for action against climate change, or others. Social movements on economic issues are also brewing – including against the rising tide of evictions and among students on the issue of free education.

The fact that the National Union of Students, after a decade of virtual inactivity, has called a national day of protest for free education, including a mass demonstration in London, shows how deeply students’ outlook has been altered by the pandemic. Prior to Labour calling for free education under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, this demand had seemed unrealistic to the majority of several generations of students. Once Corbyn called for it, students overwhelmingly turned out to vote for Labour’s manifesto in the 2017 and 2019 elections.

Then, during the pandemic, students have experienced paying £9,000 a year for a largely online education. Some have also taken part in the biggest student rent strikes since the 1970s, successfully winning back at least some of the rent they’d been forced to pay for accommodation they weren’t even living in for most of the year. Starmer has been studiously silent on tuition fees ever since winning the Labour leadership – while his mentor, Tony Blair (originally responsible for introducing fees in 1997) is asserting it is essential to drop Corbyn’s free education pledge.

No longer able to look to Labour to deliver free education, students are starting to look to their own strength. The potential exists for the biggest student demonstrations since the 2010 mass demonstration that occupied Tory party HQ after the Tory/Liberal coalition increased tuition fees threefold. The students could have been victorious if the leadership of the trade union movement, which took coordinated action the following year in 2011, had backed them in a joint struggle against the Tory government.

Coordinated action will be required in 2022. A starting point would be coordinating strike action for a decent pay rise for all public sector workers. That doesn’t mean that the fightback can move at the pace of the slowest, but that left union leaders organise a ‘coalition of the willing’ to maximise the possibilities for joint action. The Tories’ anti-democratic anti-trade union laws are an obstacle to national action. But while defying them cannot be done lightly, without weighing up the relative balance of forces and possible consequences, they cannot be allowed to block effective action. Coordinated and well-prepared strike action would be able to defeat both the Tories and their repressive anti-trade union laws, which unfortunately the trade union leaders allowed to pass with only token resistance.

Tories in crisis

Whatever movements erupt in 2022 they will face a deeply divided, weak Tory government, led by a lame duck prime minister. Back when Johnson won the 2019 election we predicted, against the prevailing mood, that he would prove to be weak. On 13 December, the morning after the general election, we declared:

“The seeming strength of Johnson’s government will be shattered by coming events. In 1987 Margaret Thatcher had a majority of 102. Within twelve months the campaign of mass non-payment against the poll tax, led by Militant, now the Socialist Party, had begun. It turned the Iron Lady into Iron filings, forcing her resignation in 1990. Today the Tory party is far weaker than it was then. It is bitterly divided, and Johnson has only been able to win by distancing himself from his own party, using populist rhetoric to falsely claim he is standing up for ‘the people’. This was a ‘snapshot’, a very ephemeral result with even Johnson having to acknowledge workers had only lent him their votes.”

Now Johnson’s authority is completely shot. That he became prime minister – elected as Tory leader in 2019 by just 92,153 Tory party members – is ultimately a reflection of the anger and alienation felt towards all governmental parties that act in the interests of the capitalist class. The posturing of Johnson, the ‘poundland Trump’, rhetorically attacking his own party, was the only means by which the Tories could win a general election.

The Johnson government is now fractured in multiple ways. Even before Omicron the economy had stalled, with virtually no growth, and is still 0.5% smaller than it was pre-pandemic. Divisions within the capitalist class – and the Tory party – abound on how to respond. In the end their splits are caused by the fact that nothing they do can solve the problems of their ailing system.

Such are the difficulties they face, however, they have had no choice but to rip up the policies of the previous neo-liberal era, and, for example, spend £1.7 billion bailing out the Bulb energy company. This effective nationalisation bears no resemblance whatsoever to socialist nationalisation, however. Socialist nationalisation means taking the company from the private owners, with compensation paid only on the basis of proven need, and running it under democratic workers’ control and management. Johnson handed taxpayers’ money over to Bulb’s owners, leaving them in charge of the company.

These kind of measures are being combined with a continuation of privatisation of public services, in an attempt to find more profitable fields of investment for the capitalist class. Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s visit to the US featured negotiations with private healthcare companies about buying parts of the NHS! At the same time Covid austerity – cuts to benefits and public services – continue to bite.

Now, with Omicron leading to new economic difficulties, the divisions among the Tories on the way forward are growing. It is likely that, over the coming months, the one thing they unite on is the need to ditch Johnson! Who to replace him with, and what direction the party should go in, will be another question, however. The right-populist wing of the Tory party has been dramatically strengthened under Johnson. It cannot be excluded that he would be replaced by someone more ‘Trumpian’ even than Johnson.

The Northern Ireland protocol is another illustration of the Tories’ problems. The timing of the resignation of David Frost, the Brexit minister, was triggered by the disagreements on how to deal with Omicron, but what lay behind it was a bust-up on the Northern Ireland Protocol negotiations. Throughout the whole process, for both the EU and the British government, the risk of escalating sectarian conflict has come second to defending their own narrow interests. However, the Johnson government is under massive pressure to avoid the damaging economic and political consequences of triggering Article 16, including from US President Biden.

Therefore the search for a ‘compromise’ deal is on. Doing so remains, however, extremely difficult given the EU’s need to defend the single market, the objections of many of Northern Ireland’s Protestants to any border in the Irish sea, and the threat Johnson faces from the right of his party if he is seen to make concessions to the EU – as has been graphically demonstrated by Frost’s resignation.

Starmer’s New Labour

Clearly, a united struggle of the working class against Covid austerity could force this motley crew out of office. The question is then posed, however, of who would replace them. For Britain’s capitalist class, looking on at yet another Johnson car crash, they have one cause for comfort. Their fear that a Corbyn-led government might have taken serious measures in defence of the working class has been replaced with confidence that the opposition can now be relied on to act in their interests.

Already Johnson has had to rely on Labour votes to pass the latest Covid prevention measures, yet Labour did not take the opportunity to demand, to give just one example, full pay for all those who have to self-isolate. In the coming months there are likely to be further examples of, in reality, an element of a ‘national government’, as Starmer’s Labour loyally does the bidding of the capitalist class on different issues.

It is not even clear if Labour members of the House of Lords are going to be instructed to vote down the brutal, anti-democratic additions to the already anti-democratic Police and Crime Bill. These additions include, for example, being able to ban named individuals from participating in demos, and would be defeated if Labour voted against them. Yet under Starmer, previously responsible for jailing protestors as Director of Public Prosecutions, Labour has had a woeful record on defending the right to protest, with only 34 Labour MPs voting against the ‘Spycops’ bill which gives undercover police immunity. Starmer has donned Tony Blair’s clothes. When New Labour was in power under Blair and Brown every anti-trade union law remained on the statute book.

The fundamental character of Starmer’s New Labour was summed up by his speech to the bosses’ CBI conference. While Johnson’s was burbling about Peppa Pig, Starmer made a speech that was music to their ears, emphasising “fiscal discipline”, “never spending money just for the sake of it” and “stable government”, all thinly disguised code for acting in the interests of the capitalist class.

This urgently poses the question of the workers’ movement fighting to create its own political party, which fights in the interests of the working class. Such a party will not be created in one act, but will be essential for the struggles ahead. Jeremy Corbyn remains excluded from sitting as a Labour MP, with seemingly no prospect of that changing. Were he to declare his intention to stand as an independent that could have a certain galvanising effect.

Regardless of this, however, most important is the action taken by the trade union movement. Sharon Graham, general secretary of Unite, which is still affiliated to Labour, has correctly talked about the need for ‘workers’ politics’. The decision of this year’s Unite conference to call on Labour councils to set “no cuts, needs based budgets”, gives a clear starting point for a ‘workers’ politics’. Unfortunately, however, it is clear that Labour councils under Starmer will not follow this road. On the contrary, they are planning to continue to cut already decimated services, plus workers’ pay and conditions.

In London alone Labour councils actually accumulated an extra £1.2 billion in reserves last year, instead of spending that money on defending services while launching a campaign to demand the government cough up what is needed.

That is why Socialist Party members are moving resolutions in their trade union branches up and down the country, to encourage branch members “to consider standing as anti-cuts candidates in the council elections scheduled for May 2022, noting that there is nothing that prevents them standing as candidates, in a personal capacity, for any party which truly supports trade unionist and socialist principles.” If hundreds, or even thousands, of trade unionists were to agree to stand as anti-cuts council candidates in next May’s elections, from both affiliated and unaffiliated trade unions, it would be an important step forward in the fight for a new mass workers’ party. For those that wish to use it, the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) will be available as a banner under which they can stand.

In the class battles likely to rage in 2022, the Socialist Party will be fighting for every possible step forward for the working class, including for the defeat of this rotten, Tory government and for the creation of a mass party of the working class. At the same time we will be campaigning to increase support for our socialist programme.

No wonder that the search for an alternative to capitalism is on the rise; with a majority of young people considering themselves socialist. Capitalism is no longer able to take society forward. Only by taking decisive socialist measures will it be possible to harness the enormous wealth, science and technique that capitalism has created through the labour of the working class, to start to meet people’s needs, and to safeguard the environment.

That would require breaking with profit-driven, ailing capitalism and taking the major corporations and banks which dominate the economy into democratic public ownership, allowing the development of a democratic, socialist planned economy in Britain and internationally.

The priorities of a socialist economy would be decided democratically. Instead of filling the coffers of corporate chief executives, priorities would include providing a real, living income for all, mass building of high-quality and carbon-neutral housing, and creating and expanding decent public services, health care and education. If you want to join the fight for a socialist world, join the Socialist Party in 2022.