If at the start of 2023, the ruling class was regaining some optimism over the fortunes of British capitalism, this has been pushed back significantly. Despite recent indications that the UK has avoided a recession in the first quarter of 2023, growth has remained stagnant at best, still teetering on the edge of recession. Britain is still the only G7 economy not to have recovered to pre-pandemic levels.
Markets internationally continue to show their fragility. The collapse of Silicon Valley Bank in the US has sent shockwaves around financial markets the world over. Plans to “get inflation under control”, as put forward by Jeremy Hunt in the Budget, as well as Biden in the US and other capitalist leaders, have been deeply shaken.
The plan to use rising interest rates to increase unemployment, to bring down inflation by pushing up poverty, has also brought crashing down some of the financiers’ dodgier speculative gambles. Now the ruling class has two options: pressing ahead or keeping rates where they are. For working people, we pay either way, through losing our jobs or losing the purchasing power of our wages. We need determined industrial action to defend jobs and win inflation-proofed pay rises, and socialist policies instead of capitalist crisis.
However the cost of living crisis is still biting for the rest of us. In the three months leading up to January alone, workers’ pay fell by 3.2% in real terms when compared to inflation. It is for this reason that the strike wave has continued to play a defining role in British politics over the last year.
Workers strike back
After a decade of being forced to bear the brunt of cuts to services and declining wages, workers have organised historic strikes. On 15 March, this turning of the tide hit its peak, with 700,000 striking across various sectors of society – from teachers, to civil servants to junior doctors. Already, numerous groups of workers have won certain concessions. In doing so, they have proven that this weak, fractured Tory government can be beaten and forced to pay up. This has been despite fierce resistance, and a contemptuous attitude from Westminster, highlighted by last month’s leaked WhatsApp messages in which Matt Hancock described the teaching unions as a “bunch of absolute arses”.
However, we are yet to see on a national scale any pay victories that truly keep up with inflation or meet the demands workers have fought so hard for. This is not in any part due to a lack of determination from the workers themselves who are in fact the ones driving the strike wave. In the UCU, for instance, the union leadership in fact unilaterally called off strike action to negotiate a deal the members had already rejected in the last round of negotiations. Settlements being reached now are the result of strike action or the threat of strike action. But it is clear the deals could have gone much further.
However the class struggle, reawakened, is far from over. If in some unions, it seems that this round of strikes is coming to an end, it is equally clear that it will be followed up by other rounds of struggle. Next year’s pay claims, where not settled already, will still have to contend with a cost of living crisis. Settlements made now for the coming year’s pay will be quickly devalued by inflation, while other groups of workers move into action. Having rediscovered our strength as a class when we get organised, workers will be able to draw on a year of fighting experience to build an even stronger fightback.
This will also mean, where necessary, replacing union leaderships which have proven unable to provide real victories with ones that can take a bold lead. Socialist Alternative members are playing an active role in this. We put forward a strategy which coordinates and escalates action to defeat the employers and Tories, not just to get them to talk and then offer subpar pay rises, and for rank and file control over disputes.
Desperate government lashes out
The Tories remain on course for a crushing electoral defeat at the next general election (currently slated for 2024). Polling from Ipsos-Mori shows the Conservatives trailing Labour by a dramatic 23%. Out of desperation they have looked for any avenue possible to energise their right-wing base of hardcore supporters. This is the driving force behind their cynical ramping up of divisive culture war rhetoric.
Sunak’s ‘small boats’ law has been an example of this. Similarly with the ‘Rwanda Plan’ which has placed refugees into detention centres deemed “harsh and life threatening” by even the US government in a recent human rights report.
This vile political strategy, based on whipping up bigotry, appeals to only a narrow layer in society – not the majority of people who, in general, do not see small boat crossings as a serious concern. In fact, a World Values survey of 17 countries produced in February found that the UK was the least likely to support strict government measures against numbers of foreigners arriving in the country (31% of respondents), and the most likely to say that anyone should be able to come to the UK as long as there are jobs available (68%), and that the public mood has tended to become more open to immigration in recent years.
In that sense it is no wonder that, there has been widespread opposition to the Tories’ right-wing turn on refugee rights, transphobia and other ‘culture war’ talking points. But this opposition and revulsion needs to be organised and linked with the strikes as part of a movement that can bring together all those whose livelihoods, rights and lives are threatened by this government.
The trade unions themselves have a crucial role to play in building such a force. The potential for this has been put on display by branches of the NEU, Unite and other unions which have built impressive local mobilisations, with hundreds of local working class people taking to the streets against groups like Turning Point UK, and in defence of LGBTQ+ rights. Mick Lynch also received support for calling out the Tories’ attacks on refugee rights in the Autumn. There is big potential to fight back against the Tories’ culture war agenda. But beyond this it needs to be understood as a crucial element of the struggle of the workers’ movement itself. In order to win a real pay rise across the board, we have to organise the unorganised, including the many migrant workers this government is out to scapegoat. That cannot be done without defending against any attempts to undermine, divide and as a result weaken our movement.
Strike to bring down the Tories!
Meanwhile, Sunak’s government continues to limp along. The legacy of last year’s Partygate scandal is once again proving to be a long term thorn in its side, and there has been open revolt in the ranks of the party over the question of Brexit – including sections of the party voting against Sunak’s own Windsor Framework on Northern Ireland.
Millions of people will be eager right now to see the Tories out of power. But we cannot afford to wait another year until the general election to see the Tories out. We cannot rely on a Starmer-led Labour Party to provide the change we need when that happens – be that an end to the cost of living crisis, to attacks on LGBTQ+ people and refugees, or any of the other crises we are faced with.
At key moments, Starmer’s focus has been on mirroring the anti-migrant rhetoric of the Tories. On small boat crossings, Starmer has restricted criticism of the Tories to only the inefficiency and “unworkable” nature of the plans – with nothing to say on the vicious and inhumane nature of the plans themselves. Starmer still fails to enthuse the electorate. Data from Ipsos-Mori shows him sitting at a 31% approval rating, barely above Sunak’s own rating of 27%.
There is enormous potential to link the struggles taking place against this government, and to start to fill the vacuum of organised opposition to its policies. Such a vacuum remains the only reason Sunak and his ilk are still in power. But to do so means linking together and strengthening and stepping up the struggle. That itself means building an organisation active in these struggles, with a fighting strategy to build and link them together. Over the coming months, this is exactly what Socialist Alternative will be fighting for.
Photo: Paul McGowan