Archive article from The Socialist Issue 329
2004 - A New Year Of Political Struggle
AT THE start of a new year, PETER TAAFFE, general secretary of the Socialist Party, says that working people in Britain are likely to face a new period of struggle and political ferment in 2004.
IN THE past year, Britain entered a period of upheaval and turbulence.
There were huge antiwar demonstrations which convulsed Britain and the world - compelling the New York Times to comment on the emergence of a "new superpower" - together with the rise in militancy and strikes in industry.
Years of accumulated anger suddenly burst out in the so-called 'wildcat', unofficial action by Heathrow Airport check-in staff. This was followed by the tremendous spontaneous action by the postal workers. In one mighty sweep Thatcher's vicious anti-union laws, shamefully upheld by Blair's New Labour government, were pushed aside.
If the trade union leaders possessed one-tenth of the determination of these workers then these laws would be already a dead letter. Instead, the union leadership - including, unfortunately, some of the so-called 'awkward squad' - act like Rabbie Burns's "timorous beastie" in shamefully acquiescing to these laws.
This new mood results from a boiling anger amongst working people at the virtual 'reign of terror' - in effect, a semi-dictatorship of capital in the workplace. Tony Woodley, the newly-elected General Secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union, reflected this when he called for action against the bosses.
"The only thing that talks louder than money is the united voice of mobilised people," [The Guardian, 8 December 2003].
Unfortunately, he then went on to argue that "Government tax and economic aid policies should do more to reward the good investor and punish the bad."
The implication is that a solution must be sought to the pressing problems of working class people from the 'good capitalists' rather than the bad ones. But capitalism is a system based upon production for profit not social need.
Of course, working people, through their trade unions, must use their power to defend their conditions and rights and fight for improvements. But there must be no illusions that 'good' investors, read capitalists, can solve their problems as opposed to 'bad'. All capitalists are motivated to maximise their profits at the expense of the working class.
YET, ACCORDING to the regular sermons of Gordon Brown, Britain has tamed capitalism and avoided the economic perils of recession, unlike Europe, Japan and the US. On the surface, it appears as though there is a relatively 'benign' economic situation in this country, with unemployment officially at a 28-year low.
This statistic does not take account of hidden unemployment. New Labour, like the Tories before them, have massaged the figures and concocted a whole series of 'make-work' measures to remove the long-term unemployed from the register; millions have been shifted to the disabled category.
Moreover, employment growth has tended to concentrate around the south-east hub and other 'bright' conurbations. But the reality below the surface is that poverty, in all its guises - deprivation, the gap between rich and poor - has worsened under New Labour's rule.
The UK has the worst poverty in the European Union, the longest working hours and the lowest 'social spending'. Three times more UK children fall beneath the poverty threshold than in 1970. A tenth of the population received pay rises averaging 7.3% last year, while the bottom tenth got 4.5%.
Manufacturing industry has collapsed, from seven million employees in the 1970s, when it accounted for 40% of domestic product, to 3.5 million today, now less than 20% of the economy. In the next period, all areas of Britain, with the possible exception of South-west England, are expected to suffer job losses.
British capitalism now exists not on improving production techniques but on low-paid labour. In this way, more value is squeezed from the labour of the working class. Investment collapsed last year, as did foreign direct investment which, in the 1990s, helped sustain British capitalism by plugging the gap left by the collapse of industry.
However, the comfort blanket of the growth in services to replace manufacturing has now been snatched away, as big business 'relocates' jobs in the service sector to Asia and Eastern Europe. 50,000 call centre jobs have gone in the last two years, with an estimate of two million banking and insurance jobs out of 13 million destined to follow.
The 'sucking sound of jobs disappearing' from Britain has even alarmed the CBI and produced panic stations in the government. But is this not an expression of the 'free market' extolled by Blair and Brown?
Workers in the countries to which these jobs are going receive one-tenth of the wages of the workers they have replaced. Even if British capitalism was capable in the medium and long-term of plugging the 'jobs gap' left by the outsourcing of hundreds of thousands of jobs abroad, the net result for British workers, particularly the low paid, would be fewer job opportunities and, in general, a lowering of wages and conditions.
A nice earner
LIKE THE US, the British workforce is in danger of becoming 'hamburger flippers' on the basis of diseased capitalism. High-paid, high technology employment is to be replaced by low-paid, sweated labour.
However, out of such combustible conditions can come a resurgent working class and labour movement fightback. The long-term, even medium-term, future is dim indeed for British capitalism and, on that basis, for the working class as long as this system is maintained.
In desperation, the British capitalists, led by Blair and Brown of course, have a half-formed idea that the continued prominence of the City of London in finance can now be linked to the expansion of the education and health sectors as foreign 'earners' for Britain. This idea partly fuels the Blairites' drive for the speeding up of privatisation and the development of a two-tier health service.
It is also the central economic idea behind 'top-up' fees. Blair has made it clear that the 'variable' element is 'non-negotiable' for the very reason that this is a key for the development of the British equivalent of the US's 'Ivy League' elite universities.
Annual fees will start at £3,000 but some could rapidly increase to £15,000 or even £20,000. This is against the background of recent figures which show that very few working class young people make it to Oxford or Cambridge Universities.
However, Blair's top-up fee proposals have infuriated not just sections of the middle class but workers as well. They see the limited opportunities provided in the post-1945 boom - where sons and daughters of working-class families could make it to university for the first time - being snatched away by this government.
Over 100 Labour MPs are threatening to vote against the government, which could bring down Blair. If they are bought off by mealy-mouthed 'concessions' then they could face the wrath of the electorate, particularly in marginal constituencies at the next election. It is clear that the social-democratic dream of a 'ladder of opportunity' provided by education has been shattered by Blair and Brown.
Market rules - we pay
THE WORKING class has been given a harsh lesson in the realities of capitalism under New Labour, as with the Tories before. It is destined to become worse under the baton of Brown. In his pre-Budget statement in December he admitted that the deficit in the public finances would balloon to £37 billion, compared to the £10 billion he estimated only a year ago.
This means cuts in the public sector, which can take the form of tax increases, possibly of a disguised kind, and direct cuts. Brown is desperately trying to delay these until after the next election - possibly in 18 months time - but cuts are coming.
This is on top of the increases in council tax, now almost as unpopular as the poll tax under the Tories. Cuts in council spending could drastically impact on education and other vital services. Yet Britain still suffers from the sado-monetarism of Thatcher, when social spending was savagely cut in order to pay for tax cuts for the rich.
New Labour has presided over "the lowest public sector investment, since the Second World War, according to an Observer/Institute of Fiscal Studies analysis." [The Observer, 14 December 2003]
The consequences of this are evident in the collapse of the infrastructure. Sewers are collapsing, power cuts have taken place and will increase in frequency in the future, and there will be gas explosions and problems including water shortages.
The most blatant example of this catastrophic neglect and privatisation is on the railways. They have not been completely re-nationalised, primarily for ideological reasons. If such a step was taken it would shatter the New Labour mantra that 'state ownership does not work'.
Also, half-owned state railways can still be exploited by the privateers to milk them of exorbitant profits. Nevertheless, this patent failure and partial re-nationalisation is of ideological significance. It has shattered the illusion that 'the market' is the only provider of effective goods and services.
The British working class, with the longest working week in Western Europe, is set to revolt against the New Labour government's continuing opt-out from the EU working time regulations, which limit the working week to 48 hours.
Four million British workers currently work longer than the 48-hour ceiling, and about 1.6 million of them are not paid for their overtime. Research has shown "the link between heart disease, stress and long hours". [The Guardian, 1 October 2003]
As in 2003, this is preparing the ground for a massive upsurge of the working class, not just on wages but in the future on the issue of cutting the working week.
HOWEVER, THE key to harnessing the new mood which is developing, is programme, organisation and leadership. The election of the left-wing 'awkward squad' represented a big step forward for the trade union movement compared to the right-wing leaders who preceded them.
However, the industrial and political limitations of many of this 'awkward squad' have been recently highlighted. Some are hesitant about leading workers into action and have an almost fatalistic attitude that privatisation cannot be defeated. It could be defeated by a mobilised working class and labour movement.
The neo-liberal offensive can be resisted, as the general strikes in France, Austria and Italy have demonstrated. Britain is no exception: the anger is tremendous at the robbery which has taken place on the issues of pensions, wages and other conditions.
Brown has also signalled a further impoverishment of public sector workers by replacing the Retail Price Index as the main measurement of inflation with 'HICP' (the Harmonised Index of Consumer Prices - the measurement of inflation used in the euro zone), which will effectively fiddle the figures for inflation in Britain as it determines wage agreements.
The 'awkward squad' possess a similar, in some senses worse, lack of confidence on the political terrain. Some cling to the false notion that Labour can be 'reclaimed'.
This at a time when Labour is moving even further to the right; 63% of the delegates at the Labour Party conference did not even want to discuss the Gulf War. George Galloway has been expelled, despite the opposition of Michael Foot, Tony Woodley and Tony Benn.
Bob Crow, for instance, can support the disaffiliation of the rail workers from the Labour Party in Scotland and their affiliation to the Scottish Socialist Party, which is a big step forward. But at the same time he has stressed that the RMT "still remains affiliated" to the Labour Party nationally.
Why? New Labour is no different in England and Wales than in Scotland. The need for a new mass workers' party has never been greater. The proposed 'Respect Unity Coalition', an alliance of George Galloway, the Socialist Workers Party and non-socialists like George Monbiot, is unfortunately not yet that alternative. It is not based on a clear class analysis or programme, nor does it propose a clear socialist alternative to Labour.
The authors of this project did not consult the Socialist Party or others on the left. This despite the splendid victory in Lewisham where the Socialist Party had our second councillor elected, bringing the number of elected Socialist Party councillors nationally to five.
We will give critical support to all genuine socialists standing in elections who seriously oppose New Labour and fight for a socialist alternative. But this is not unqualified. Moreover, neither we nor ordinary working class men and women, particularly the trade union rank and file, will acquiesce to a top-down proposal that has not been agreed upon in the course of discussion and debate.
A new workers' party
THE NEED to create a new, mass socialist alternative is urgent. The BNP are competing to fill the vacuum that exists, helped by the modern 'Herod', David Blunkett, who threatens to take away the children of asylum seekers.
British society is at a crossroads. If Blair is replaced by Brown this could foster illusions that Labour is in the process of being 'reclaimed' by the social-democratic 'sleepers', who will allegedly come out into the open. In reality, however, the character of the Labour Party will not be changed by this. Nor will illusions in Brown last for any length of time.
The combination of big events with an initiative by a leading figure or figures calling for a new party or pre-party will find a big echo in Britain at the present time. We stand for the maximum unity of the left and are prepared to form electoral pacts with others. But we will not repeat the experience of the Socialist Alliance, which has declined, as we predicted, into not so much an SWP 'front' but into the SWP.
The new period that has opened up in Britain is going to be one of increased struggle, strikes, mass demonstrations and a general political ferment. Above all, it will provide an opportunity for raising the level of understanding of working-class people and particularly young people in the ideas of socialism, which is a key to a new Britain and a new world.