Published below is the nationally agreed document on British Perspectives, which was unanimously approved at Socialist Alternative’s recent England, Wales and Scotland Congress.
Perspectives, for us is about developing an analysis which can be a guide to action. We ask (and attempt to answer) in this document questions like: How will the economy develop? What will change about working class consciousness? How will the capitalist class try to resolve its own crisis? Where will the strike wave go?
Discussing to develop a correct analysis of these questions is essential for socialists. Although some events referenced in this text have since passed, we hope (and believe) that our readers will find this to be a valuable resource in navigating the stormy period ahead in Britain and worldwide.
You know things are changing when Britain is one of the most politically exciting places to be in Europe, perhaps the world. And this was undoubtedly the case in 2022, as the deep and multifaceted crisis of British capitalism exploded onto the surface again and again. While this crisis was perhaps most obvious in the political sphere – 3 Prime Ministers and half of the entire 21st century’s chancellors of the exchequer served in 2022 – its roots are much deeper. Britain faces huge overlapping economic, political, geopolitical, national, environmental, and social crises, and a whole lot more.
The working class is already suffering the consequences. For our class, 2022 was a year of suffering, of impoverishment, hunger, and worry. Wages declined by more than any year since 1922, and overall living standards fell by more than has ever been recorded. Inflation has devastated the finances of millions, including many better paid working class and middle class people, suffering the impact of mortgage hikes. But as always, this is hitting the most oppressed and downtrodden the hardest. In addition, extreme heat and cold, driven by capitalism’s climate catastrophe, have meant unnecessary death and destruction, as shoddy accommodation and the energy crisis turns something as mundane as the weather into a nightmare for the poorest people.
And we know that worse is to come. 2023 will not offer respite, but the continuation and deepening of the crisis. We inhabit a decaying, decadent imperialist power, which is dragging the working class, youth and all the oppressed through dystopian landscapes on its long march of decline. History has taught us that it will not leave the scene of history voluntarily, or simply “collapse” some day and give way to something better. The ruling capitalist class staggers on, “resolving” each crisis over the bones of working people’s lives, and preparing the next crisis, to “rinse and repeat”. Marxists understand that these crises will only be ended by the working class, stepping in to assume the position of master of society, and establishing a socialist system.
The British working class is currently not sufficiently prepared for this task. Its consciousness and level of political and industrial organisation still lags far behind the needs of the objective situation. Yet this will not be overcome in a gradual and linear way, and the last year has shown how rapidly big shifts can start to take place. 2022 was a year in which the working class’ huge power and potential to lead a fundamental change was on display. December 2022 saw the biggest strike wave for over 20 years, and at the time of writing (Dec 2022), the months which follow look like they may exceed it. Mick Lynch’s assertion the ‘the working class is back’ went viral, precisely because it encapsulated both the living struggle and the changed consciousness of British society. However the current strike wave unfolds, the genie is out of the bottle: a strengthened, emboldened, and increasingly militant working class will continue to put its stamp on events as the decade continues.
However, to really defeat the juggernaut of misery which is coming our way, the labour movement must address its own crisis, which to paraphrase the opening line of Leon Trotsky’s “Transitional Programme”, is the most decisive problem of the current political situation, both in Britain and internationally. Our class suffers from a crisis of organisation, in that its unions are only beginning to recover from a 30+ year process of decline and with the absence of a mass working class political party. It also suffers from a political and ideological crisis of consciousness: an inspiring political awakening is taking place, but which is still in its early stages, still marked by the absence of a mass layer of workers and youth who are consciously fighting for fundamental socialist change. Ultimately, these crises are intertwined with the most decisive one: the crisis of leadership of the working class, the absence of what Marxists call “the subjective factor”. Both industrially and politically, the leadership of our movement does not grasp the real nature of the challenges we face, nor possess the political alternative necessary to end them.
International Socialist Alternative exists to pave the way for resolving these crises, ultimately by building a mass revolutionary party which can lead the working class to power. To do so, we must be significantly bigger and stronger than we are today with many more cadre members. This will require a colossal effort, determination and discipline on the part of the existing Marxist cadre we are organising today, as well as in the coming period. But above all, it will require clear ideas and an understanding of the world and country in which we operate. Discussing British Perspectives is about just that: collectively grappling with the main processes underway in events in England, Scotland and Wales, to gain an understanding which can assist us in intervening to build our forces and impact on events themselves.
In ISA it should go without saying that understanding events in Britain is impossible without understanding the global processes which drive them. This is especially the case today, as the features that dominate our lives and the work of SA in Britain are so clearly part of, and often at the sharp edge of, global events – the pandemic, the climate crisis and the war in Ukraine being the most obvious examples. Therefore, this document should be read alongside the World Perspectives material was recently agreed at ISA’s 13th World Congress in January/February:
- Epoch of multiple crises: We have a world to win!
- How the multi-faceted global crisis affects different regions
The special crisis of British capitalism: The “Sick Man of Europe”
The decline of British capitalism is a long-term process, which in reality began more than a century ago, even before it clearly lost top spot in the global imperialist pecking order to the US. However, this long term process of decline has been accelerated by every major global crisis and turning point since, as the parasitic ruling class stumbles from one blunder to the next.
For example, when the “stagflationary” economic crisis of the 1970s hit Britain particularly hard, Britain was referred to internationally as the “sick man of Europe”. But Thatcherism’s neoliberal “solution” of de-industrialisation and financialisation of the economy only set in motion a spiral of declining investment and productivity in the real economy (hidden beneath headline economic figures inflated by the speculative bubble in the financial sector) which further weakened the fundamentals of the economy. Once again following the 2008 recession, the Tories’ and Liberal Democrats’ “solution” of an age of austerity further undermined the economy – something even most mainstream bourgeois economists now agree on.
Productivity growth is arguably the most important measure for a modern economy. These are figures which take out much of the ‘froth’ that finance capitalism can generate which artificially inflates GDP figures and get to the heart of the matter: is the economy growing in its ability to produce more with less labour and if so how fast? Looking at these figures, the fundamental weakness of parasitic British capitalism is revealed. At the end of the 20th century, UK productivity already lagged significantly behind that of not only the US, but also France, Italy and Germany. This decline was then accelerated after the 2008 recession, when between 2009 and 2019, the UK’s productivity growth rate was estimated to be the lowest in 250 years! By 2021, UK productivity (measured as GDP per hour worked) was lower than every single one of its 13 neighbouring North Western European economies.
The roots of this problem are in the British capitalists’ short sighted prioritisation of immediate profit over long term growth and stability. Both in industry and in parliament, the British capitalist class has undermined its base of stability leaving it more vulnerable to economic shocks. Instead of costly investment in innovation, technology and technique, they have time and time again resorted to intensifying the exploitation of the working class (driving down pay and conditions) to improve their profit margins and pursue economic “growth”. Their surplus profits have been wasted in the name of personal accumulation and moonshot economic speculation (cryptocurrencies and building projects like BritishVolt being examples, although marginal ones) and the casino of worldwide stock markets.
The special crisis of British capitalism today can be summed up as one of long-term trends of decline interacting with new shocks to the system, producing a particularly grave outcome. Our “Covid recession” in 2020 was worse than in any other European country. The same is predicted to be the case for the recession we are now entering. The IMF predicts that the UK will have the longest and deepest recession of any major Western economy, and in the entire G7 with the exception of the Russian economy, which has been hammered by unprecedented sanctions.
The specific shocks to the world economy which are pushing it into recession right now, have again hit Britain especially hard. An outsized dependence on natural gas for energy and heating – the result of decades of criminal refusal to invest in green energy in pursuit of super-profits, and underinvestment in gas storage facilities – has dramatically worsened the energy crisis. For working class families, this has been exacerbated by the poorest home insulation in Europe. The Tories’ botched up Brexit combined with rock-bottom wages has turbo-charged labour shortages in key sectors which have also driven up inflation. Successive Tory governments’ gambles in the sovereign debt markets, which tied a huge amount of UK government debt costs to inflation, have made the country’s sovereign debt problem – a major ticking time bomb – unnecessarily much worse.
All of this has pushed the economy towards a “tipping point”. This was seen in the utter chaos of Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng’s calamitous few days in power. As the pound plummeted and bond markets crashed, former US Secretary of the Treasury, Larry Summers, led a chorus of economists when he wrote, “The UK is behaving a bit like an emerging market turning itself into a submerging market”. While things have temporarily stabilised since then, this episode shows how global markets can simply ‘lose faith’ in Britain’s economy.
While predictions for the 2023 recession are already bad, there are a number of scenarios which could tip the economy into an even more devastating downturn. With no end in sight to the war in Ukraine, next year’s energy crisis is predicted to be even worse. As things stand, in April the government subsidy for energy bills will come to an end, which will dramatically impact households and small businesses.
The Bank of England’s fiscal policies have gone into reverse. They have halted the hugely generous handouts to big business through the Quantitative Easing Programme and instead now pursue a policy of ‘Quantitative Squeezing’ sucking money out of the economy. Their interest rate hikes are deliberately designed to push the economy into recession – to squash inflation by shrinking the money in circulation through unemployment and pay cuts – itself an indictment of the dysfunctional anarchy of capitalism, but they are also “flying blind” to an important degree. No one knows just how big a rate rise will be required to “cool” the economy while avoiding a much bigger recession than desired.
Potentially more importantly however, is the wider and longer term impact of the widespread impoverishment which this stagflationary crisis is already causing. A recent study by the New Economics Foundation think tank predicted that already by 2024, thirty million people in the UK will be unable to afford what the public considers to be a decent standard of living (defined as lacking the resources to put food on the table, buy new clothes or occasionally treat themselves and their families). This picture, which is just the tip of the iceberg, will unleash a tsunami of falling demand in the economy.
For Marxists, analysing the economy is crucial. In the final analysis, it is the motor which drives the class struggle. But we analyse the economy not to simply collect data on how bad things are, but to draw political conclusions. While the impact on the class struggle, strike wave and other movements will be further analysed below, the picture described above points towards one crucial political conclusion. That the continued private ownership and control of the commanding heights of the British economy can only mean increasing pauperisation, social disintegration and hardship, unless working class power forces concessions. Ultimately, the objective situation has never been more overripe for socialist policies, based on nationalisation under democratic workers’ control and a planned economy. Capitalism is driving the economy and the working class into a cul-de-sac. But workers everywhere, as we have predicted, are asserting themselves and fighting back.
The specific character of British capitalism makes it almost impossible for the ruling class to “rebalance” the economy on a capitalist basis, and points towards a continued reliance on low pay and financial speculation while infrastructure falls apart. This guarantees that in general British economic crises will be deeper and last longer, while demands for public ownership and action to address shortages will grow stronger. It also poses the necessity of the state stepping in repeatedly to bail out market failures, such as banks and energy companies, which in turn poses the likelihood of further limited steps towards full or partial nationalisation of the most “broken” companies or sectors (as happened with the 2008 bank bailouts), and a major debt crisis at a certain stage. The sense among young and working-class people that “the whole system is broken” will also deepen.
Home of the Cold War hawks: The geopolitics of British imperialism’s decline
We have previously analysed how the Tories’ Brexit, and the general rise in nationalism in UK politics in the last decade or so, represented a response to Britain’s decline and a desperate attempt to reassert its ‘global’ standing among a beleaguered minority of ‘little Englander’ capitalists. While it must be acknowledged that Brexit has not opened up the gates of the apocalypse which “project fear” predicted in advance of the 2016 referendum (which we should remember in part represented an important popular revolt against the neoliberal establishment, however horribly this became distorted and diverted into a nationalist direction in its aftermath), Brexit has had no economic benefit so far with the majority of big capitalist corporations seeing it as a ‘challenge’ or ‘obstacle’ to profitable business. It is most certainly an aggravating factor in the current crisis.
One of the ‘benefits’ of Brexit for British capitalism which policymakers have been keen to ‘unlock’ is the ability to take a stronger independent stance in a world dominated by growing inter-imperialist rivalry. For British capitalism, this can only mean one thing – striving to outcompete rivals for the job of Uncle Sam’s most loyal poodle. Over the course of the last few years, Tory governments (with the Labour, Lib Dem and SNP leaderships in lockstep) have attempted to stand out with a ‘hawkish’ stance on the US-led side of the New Cold War which we have identified as the dominant geopolitical dividing line of the 2020s.
David Cameron’s “new golden era” of relations with Chinese capitalism has bitten the dust most unceremoniously. Beginning with Johnson’s reversal on Huawei’s role in 5G, parliament has passed several bills targeting Chinese investment. Several important deals have been dissolved by government decree on national security grounds, most recently Chinese investments in the massive new Sizewell C nuclear power plant. This is part of a powerful global process of ‘decoupling’ between rival imperialist blocs and will go further in coming years.
There is no sign of the US or European capitalism filling the investment gap which has or will be left by the ejection of Chinese, Russian and other investment from the British economy. This will further undermine the sectors Cameron & Co directed this investment towards: housing and commercial property (now possibly tipping towards a period of falling prices which can inherently slip into a crash threatening the wider economy), and our collapsing infrastructure.
But the Tories have saved their best lines for the “hot” war in Ukraine, which is fundamentally part of the same inter imperialist conflict. Boris Johnson is a lot more popular in Kyiv than in Carlisle and reports suggest that the UK government played a ‘leading’ role, behind the US, in pushing wavering NATO allies towards a tougher line in support of Ukraine. UK military aid to Ukraine has been second only to the US, committing over £2.5 billion in 2022, roughly equivalent to the annual “funding envelope” for NHS England. Britain was the first country to openly sign up for the training of Ukrainian troops, of which 10,000 have already been sent to the frontline.
While not universal, it is currently the case that the government’s position in relation to these conflicts is not, at this stage, widely opposed or challenged among the population in general. This is inevitable when subjected to the barrage of propaganda that accompanies such events. On such issues, Marxists must be prepared to temporarily swim against the stream, and point to the true nature of this inter-imperialist conflict, exposing the reactionary aims of both sides.
We wholeheartedly oppose Russia’s imperialist invasion of Ukraine and call for independent working class resistance within Ukraine and international working class solidarity for peace and socialism, with the need for mass struggle by the Russian working class against the Putin regime especially crucial. However, we do not support the intervention of ‘our’ imperialists in this war, nor do we believe their intentions have anything to do with freedom or democracy. The Western imperialist narrative of the New Cold War as a clash between freedom-lovers and authoritarians is a cynical smokescreen to cover up a conflict between two equally ugly and reactionary blocs of looters, criminals and tyrants.
We stand in the traditions of genuine working class internationalism. In the words of Karl Liebknecht, who heroically stood against the drive for the German Social Democratic Party (the contemporary label for revolutionary Marxism) to support the first world war: “the main enemy is at home!”. This approach, which was put into practice by the Bolshevik leadership of the October 1917 revolution, who took Russia out of the imperialist First World War, means in essence that the most important important contribution the working class movement can make to end war and imperialism is to work to bring down our “own” national ruling class.
The national question: Closer to breaking point
The national question – in essence the question of the integrity of the UK as a nation state – is another age-old problem which is being shaken up by new crises. While there is nothing new about tensions in Northern Ireland, or more recently mass support for independence in Scotland, new tipping points are being reached which must be seriously underlined. Most of the major crises facing capitalism have the same broad impact on these situations – strengthening, not diminishing the centrifugal tendencies (definition: tendencies to disintegrate) which fuel the UK’s national questions.
The most fundamental tipping points are being passed in Northern Ireland, 100 years since the foundation of the Northern Irish state from partition. Several recent events would have been unthinkable to the state’s founders and put into question some of the fundamental pillars of the state itself and the Good Friday Agreement resulting from the ‘peace process’. These include Sinn Fein emerging as the largest party from the last Assembly elections, and even more importantly, the publication of census figures which place Catholics in a majority for the first time.
The paralysis of the power-sharing institutions (at the time of writing) due to the boycott of the Democratic Unionist Party, while nominally triggered by Brexit and the ongoing crisis with the NI protocol, in reality reflects the existential crisis of the institutions in this new scenario and the mood among the Protestant population. Predictably, pressure from Sinn Fein for a “border poll” (referendum) on Irish unity has increased in this context. However, illusions (which exist among many in the British Left) that the demographic shift in Northern Ireland will simply inevitably result in a united Ireland will be dispelled by events.
Already, indications of increased activity and preparations for a return to activity by Loyalist paramilitaries are present. Given the depth of sectarian division in Northern Ireland, which has only deepened since the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement which institutionalised a binary divide between Catholic/Nationalists and Protestant/Unionists, Northern Irish protestants would not simply accept being forced into a capitalist united Ireland. Our party’s perspective and strategy of building united organisation and struggle of the working class will be more crucial than ever in the coming period, to prevent a slide backwards into sectarian conflict. We stand for a socialist Ireland, as part of a free and voluntary socialist federation with Scotland, England & Wales, with the right of self-de- termination for all nations and communities who wish for autonomy, up to and including independence. Only socialist policies and united socialist struggle can break down sectarian barriers and lay the basis for a shared future for workers and the oppressed in Ireland and internationally.
Perspectives for the independence movement in Scotland are dealt with later on in this text. Almost every major political feature of British politics since the 2014 referendum – from Brexit, to Covid, to the crises of successive Tory governments – has served to strengthen the momentum behind independence, most importantly consolidating it in the minds of many workers and youth as a crucial part of the path away from the reactionary reality of politics in Britain. While there is still not a clear and consistent majority for independence in all polls, young people and working class people in the main urban centres (the decisive social forces for change) are significantly more likely to support independence.
The November 2022 ruling of the UK Supreme Court that the Scottish Parliament cannot call a referendum on independence without Westminster approval, is significant in that it exposes the involuntary nature of the ‘unity’ of the UK, which the British ruling class has attempted to obscure in recent years. While the issue of independence is still not in the front line of the situation in Scotland in the same way as in 2014, our perspective must be that it will reemerge, and with vigour during the coming period, fed by new episodes of crisis.
While the Welsh national question is far from the same level of turbulence, it remains a factor in our per- spectives which should not be neglected. Among younger generations, recent years have seen the beginning of a search for progressive change via the pathway of independence, with the relative success of “Yes Cymru” and several significant pro-independence demonstrations numbering in the thousands and reaching beyond the traditional rural nationalist “hardcore” for the first time in many years. While support for independence is currently a minority position in the population, polls show a consistent majority in favour of greater autonomy for the Welsh parliament. In Wales, where our forces are still very small, we must strive to develop a fuller understanding of the dynamic in the national question and develop a clearer orientation.
Tory Trumpification and end of the neoliberal era
The changes that have taken place within British politics since the Tories won back power in 2015 have been colossal. This is particularly the case for the Tory party. While both parties had important changes in leadership following the 2015 election, Boris Johnson did what Jeremy Corbyn did not: carry out a thorough transformation of the party in his own political image. The transformation of the world’s oldest and most successful capitalist party in this period has expressed, in a nutshell, the process we have referred to as the “end of neoliberalism”.
From Cameron to Johnson (with Theresa May in between), the Tories have gone from being in the vanguard of neoliberal austerity-merchants internationally, to the vanguard of “Trumpification” of traditional right-wing parties. The takeover of the party by Boris Johnson, a skilful political operator who we have unfortunately not seen the end of, was part of an international trend on the right of global politics, best expressed in the US Republican party.
Brexit was the hook around which this transformation was hung. Right-wing politics is moving in an increasingly nationalistic direction internationally and Britain is no exception. The pivoting of the Tories to American-style “culture wars” politics is another side of this change. This reflects the new deep political polarisation which marks the current situation, as well as an orientation by the Tories to a small, but electorally important, layer of older, mostly middle-class, reactionary voters who are moving to the right (while the rest of society overall moves to the left). Increasingly rabid and extreme anti-refugee rhetoric, and attacks on trans people are part of the same picture. At times, especially in the absence of leadership from the workers’ movement and with the lack of political representation for our class, a layer of mostly older and less engaged working-class people can also be drawn towards support for reactionary forces like this. An instinctive distrust of hypocritical ‘woke capitalism’ and a reaction against some forms of petty bourgeois identity politics can feed into an instinctive hostility to the capitalist establishment being subverted in this way. But, in general, this kind of working class support for reactionary forces is more superficial and more temporary than among the most right wing sections of the middle classes.
The end of the neoliberal era has also been graphically played out in economic policy over the last 2 years. This is well expressed in relation to corporation tax. Between 2010 and 2016, the Tories cut the rate from 24% to 19%, and George Osborne set out gung-ho plans to slash the rate further, to 15%. Fast-forward to 2021, and then-chancellor Rishi Sunak is announcing plans to drive the rate up to 25%!
The parody-like rise and fall of Truss and Kwarteng, whose “shock and awe” attempt to bulldoze economic policy back to “small state” Thatcherism was out-lasted by a lettuce, was another dramatic confirmation of the end of the neoliberal era. As we have pointed out however, the ditching of the neoliberal playbook does not mean capitalism is becoming more humane. While the configuration of policies will differ, with more reliance on state intervention and even measures like windfall taxes and other levies on the rich, the fundamental class nature of policies remains the same: policies to save capitalism and profits, and make the working class and middle classes pay for it.
While the debacle of the Truss administration was undoubtedly humiliating for the Tory right wing which propelled her into number 10, it would be profoundly mis- taken to see Sunak’s return to Number 10 as the end of Tory Trumpification or the return of traditional ‘one nation’ (aka neoliberal) Tories to dominance within the party. Throughout both leadership ‘elections’ in 2022, the most popular figure by far among Tory members remained Boris Johnson. The economic, geopolitical and other roots of the trans- formation of the Tory Party have not gone away, and will become stronger in the next period. In the case of a Labour government, we can expect the Tories to move even further in this direction, potentially with Johnson back at the helm.
When Truss’ mini-budget brought the British economy to the brink of financial crisis, the consequences of British capitalism’s political crisis for its economic crisis were revealed. The manifold crises of British capitalism all relate to and mutually impact upon each other. The Trumpification of the Tory party is also an important factor in the class struggle. What Marxists call “the whip of counter-revolution” can provoke and drive forward mass movements on a myriad of issues, from the strike wave to struggles in defence of trans rights and against the war on refugees.
Strike wave, labour movement perspectives and our programme
The organised working class is back with a vengeance. The new Winter of Discontent that ironically began in the Summer of 2022 has categorically rebuffed the notion that the workers’ movement was a spent force. Despite the complete reversal of Corbynism within Labour, once again depriving workers of any significant political voice, class politics is arguably a far more important feature of the mainstream discourse now than it was at any time during Corbyn’s leadership. The capitalist media, which is loath to report on trade union affairs and has largely ignored them over the course of the last three decades, has been forced to make workers’ action headline news day after day. The attempts of reactionary journalists to take a “business as usual” approach to smearing strikers have been met with contempt and derision by workers.
Despite the deeply disruptive nature of the strikes – itself a marker of the huge power of many of those striking – public support for those on the picket lines has remained extremely strong. A December Savanta Comres poll examining attitudes to the main strikes underway put public support for striking NHS workers at triple the rate of public opposition, with majorities also supporting rail, mail and teachers’ strike. This is a significant development which is alarming the establishment and undermining the Tories electoral support even further.
A strike wave which began with the rail workers and posties has built to include university workers, nurses, ambulance workers, baggage handlers, border guards, highway workers, bus drivers, and driving examiners (to give a very much non-exhaustive list). Amazon workers in Coventry have voted for strike action in a historic first for the UK. At the time of writing, a crucial ballot is underway in schools, with teachers and support staff (who have already taken impressive strike action in Scotland) set to strike in the new year should thresholds be met. Firefighters are also balloting, along with many other smaller groups of workers. Indeed, if it weren’t for the impact of undemocratic ballot thresholds originating in Tory anti-union laws, the existing strike wave could have been still wider – with narrow misses in local government and a number of NHS trusts for example.
December 2022 saw the most strike days lost in a single month since 1989 – the year of the collapse of the Soviet Union which ushered in a wave of capitalist triumphalism. It should go without saying that as Marxists we see the organised working class as the key agent of revolutionary change. The significance of this statistic can therefore not be underestimated. It is a marker of the change of era which we have pointed to. The age of neoliberalism required for its fully-fledged establishment an historic defeat of the working class.
The new age of disorder which has emerged amid economic crisis, pandemic and war, has so far been one in which the crucial role of the working class in running society is highlighted starkly, and the basis for a substantial shift in the balance of class forces is being prepared. In Britain, a country whose ruling class were ‘early adopters’ of neoliberal orthodoxy in Europe, the special crisis faced for this system in capitalism’s birthplace has led to it now being in the ‘advance’ of a resurgence in workers’ struggle. As such, while there will be multiple setbacks and complications, we should expect December 2022 to be the music of a new and tumultuous future – one in which the opportunities presented to those whose politics is based on the potential power of workers will be great.
The opening months of Rishi Sunak’s premiership have been one long attempt to paper over what are less cracks and more gargantuan faultlines in his party. As is explained elsewhere, he has achieved only a temporary and partial restabilisation. But through much of late 2022 the most important ‘unifier’ that Sunak has had to keep his warring MPs on side, is the shared desire to make workers pay for the current economic crisis by inflicting a crushing defeat on the burgeoning workers’ struggles that have broken out. In particular, he is determined to respond to the strikes with fresh draconian legislation. ‘Everything’ is therefore said to be potentially on the table – with possible legislation to create minimum service levels for transport strikes or even ban strikes by frontline NHS staff.
The Tories’ gamble has been that as the strikes continue and disruption to people’s everyday lives intensifies, the public’s attitude towards strikers will harden, making new tough laws popular – even a potential vote winner. But at the time of writing, there are hints that divisions may be starting to emerge among the Tories in government as to how to deal with the still growing industrial unrest.
The strikes by nurses and ambulance workers, while not the largest in terms of the number of workers’ involved, have had a huge political impact and have acted as a certain rallying point – boosting the morale of workers involved in longer running action like those in rail and mail. The fact that these are strikes involving those on the frontline in the NHS – a historic conquest of the working class – and that these were the revered ‘heroes’ of the pandemic, has guaranteed this. Public support for these strikes remains incredibly high. Big majorities clearly identify the government as being responsible for the strikes in all polls. It is equally significant that the RCN (Royal College of Nurses), which was once a haven for those in the NHS who did not want to strike, has so far taken the lead in the health disputes and will shortly be joined by the British Medical Association (representing junior doctors and GPs). For the first time in the history of the NHS, the potential exists for all the unions to be on strike together. We should raise the demand for co- ordinated action in this sector, which, if it should take place, would be hugely significant.
Making the case for this will require bold interventions on the picket lines. But it will also have to be based on a realistic picture of the actual approach of the health union leaderships. By and large, the RCN bureaucracy’s approach in the strikes has been considerably more conservative than those of the other major unions. They have in effect publicly boycotted coordination during the key strike dates of 1 February and 15 March. No doubt this has behind it the misguided idea that by distancing the RCN from the rest of the workers’ movement, the Tories will be more motivated to ‘do business’ with them, or that if they are too combative and militant the government will be unwilling to negotiate. We need to be prepared to sharply take up these methods with our programme.
The approach of the RCN bureaucracy has been somewhat reflected at a local level, although not uniformly. In many areas comrades reported a very political mood, openness to our ideas, and a rough understanding about the need for coordinated strike action and a general strike. Whereas some branches have reported a certain hesitance on picket lines at being associated with ‘outside’ banners, such as local NHS campaigns and Enough is Enough. In some cases other unions have been told not to raise their banners and flags by the RCN officialdom for the sake of ‘keeping politics out’ of the strike.
As of now, there does not seem to be a perceived well-organised rank-and-file opposition to this policy. However, Marxists know that tomorrow’s consciousness will not be exactly the same as yesterday’s. The rank-and-file activists of the RCN, since the union dropped its ‘no strike clause’ in recent years, are almost entirely brand new, untested and are still in the early days of forming an independent view through the heat of the struggle. Potentially quickly, a new layer of union activists will likely develop to take on this conservative approach. We will respond positively and assist this as much as possible.
This rather undermines the Tory hope of the strikes becoming increasingly unpopular as disruption to people’s lives increases. This has led to the jitters which seem to be developing among some MPs – with a potential alternative approach of ‘divide and rule’, with improved pay offers to particular groups of workers, such as nurses, alongside crackdown measures aimed primarily at others (such as the transport strikes). But such an approach is also extremely risky for the government. The rejection of the Scottish government’s improved offer for NHS workers by the RCN and GMB unions shows that the anger that has bubbled over in these strikes cannot simply be placated with any offers which remain substantially below inflation. Meanwhile, even small concessions can spur on struggle and whet the appetite for more.
While public opinion is an important factor in disputes, with an impact on the morale of the workforce, and the politicians if the strike is in the public sector, it is rarely the most decisive factor in the success or otherwise of a strike. The key questions are: does action effectively halt or disrupt production? Can the resolve and solidarity of striking workers be maintained? Is there a path forward to escalate the action? Can action be coordinated and expanded to include more sections of workers? The popularity of the demand for a general strike, which we were among the first to pose clearly, speaks to the sense that, as we write this, momentum is with the strike movement. Workers instinctively understand that it is by bringing struggles together that action becomes most impactful. This opens up space for us to discuss with those workers drawing these conclusions on the picket lines and on the streets about what strategy will be needed to achieve this.
At this stage, consciousness around the idea of a general strike remains fairly abstract. There is broad support for the idea of ‘striking together’ – and a general strike is seen as the best expression of this. But there is not yet a clear picture for most workers of what steps could be taken concretely to push things in this direction. Part of our role, along with boldly raising the general strike as a demand, is to point towards what needs to be done to make it a reality.
This means raising the need within unions that are already in dispute, to fight for union leaderships to maximise every possible potential avenue for coordination. We call for militant rank and file workers to create a model for how such coordination could work by launching local unified strike committees and/or working through organisations like Enough Is Enough (EIE) to host joint strike day protests, rallies and solidarity meetings. The widespread discussion (at the time of writing) about the TUC calling a day of coordinated action on 1 February, is something we can seize on to point to the true potential that exists. With workers in almost every sector facing pay cuts in the context of inflation, and the threat of anti-union laws that are an attack on the entire movement, there is scope to work towards something that looks very much like a general strike based on the disputes which are already in development.
A call from the TUC could accelerate this process and help raise the possibility of currently unorganised groups of workers being mobilised to take action too, in the model of the semi-spontaneous Amazon strikes in the summer of 2022. But while we do call on the TUC to play this role, given its rotten right-wing leadership, our greater emphasis is on what can still be possible without it taking the lead. The leadership of Unite, and the left majority that currently exists on the NEC of Unison have a significant weight within the movement – with over a million workers in each union. So far, Sharon Graham and the other union general secretaries have not taken the step of clearly working towards generalised strike action, despite the idea of a general strike having featured in some of the speeches of figures like Mick Lynch and co. A successful day of coordinated strikes on 1 February or another date could raise workers’ sights and lay the foundation for an actual general strike. With new anti-union laws on the cards – this is the kind of response that is necessary to have any hope of pushing them back.
A crucial question in how the ongoing strike wave will develop remains bound up with the success or failure of its most prominent and long-running disputes: those of train staff and postal workers. Both Mick Lynch and Dave Ward (the general secretaries of RMT and CWU respectively) have grown in popularity both internally in their unions and become extremely well liked public figures for the broader working class. This speaks to the enormous popularity of those who are seen to be prepared to fight. Indeed, it would be fair to say that this duo has had a dramatically more important impact on the political discussion in Britain than Keir Starmer or Angela Rayner over the last months.
Both the union’s disputes are of critical importance. In Royal Mail, the employers have raised the stakes by launching an all out assault on the union’s right to organise within the company. Similarly on the railways, the government has intervened to prevent a deal being made that would involve making significant concessions to the unions from the Train Operating Companies, and is threatening new legislation specifically targeting transport unions. The stakes could hardly be higher.
In each of these disputes the tactics being pushed by the union leaderships are important to examine. It is very positive that after something of a break from action on the railways both unions went ahead with substantial programmes of action over the Christmas period. This is particularly significant as there is a significant danger that if action stays at the level of spaced out and infrequent 24-48 hour strikes without a clear programme for escalation, this can start to exhaust the workforce while remaining at a ‘tolerable’ level for the government and employers. For the rail strikes, a crucial demand we must raise is for disputes to be wholly democratised – with the election of strike committees to meet both locally and nationally, with the remit of determining strategy and overseeing negotiations. This demand goes hand in hand with our overall programme – continuing to call for maximum coordination and escalation of the strikes.
While the hundreds of thousands of workers taking strike action for the first time are filling out the unions with new activists however, some the old leaderships of the unions remain, and are being significantly tested by events. The decision taken principally by UCU General Secretary Jo Grady but also by Unison and other campus unions to ‘pause’ strike action in the University sector without a new offer from employers is a clear warning of the potential for union leaders to capitulate under pres- sure. Significantly, elected lay negotiators were excluded from the talks that led to this outcome. Other unions have also now announced ‘pauses’ in industrial action in the NHS, which has been made easier to justify by the cowardice of union leaders in the university disputes.
While new layers of workers taking action are rejuvenating the labour movement, it is also important to recognise that these new layers may not automatically understand the danger of calling off strikes without an improved offer to consult members on. These new layers may also not automatically understand the importance of lay democracy in the trade unions or the need for democratic control of industrial action. As struggle in the workplace intensifies, many workers will, through their own experience, begin to draw this conclusion – a process which must be accelerated and deepened through the clear and patient explanation of Marxists.
The fact that this wave of action has been led from the front by the groups of workers who are currently best organised comes as no surprise to Marxists. But a crucial component of the rearming of the working class is the mass entry of the huge numbers of unorganised workers (especially in the private sector) into trade union struggle. We should not expect that this will happen in one go or in only one way. In most cases so far, workers have organised themselves through the existing trade unions, which have been compelled to struggle. Broadly speaking this remains the most likely course in the future, not least as the trade union bureaucracies are determined to co-opt moves towards independent organisation, and the small ‘new’ unions which have emerged remain very limited in reach. However, even without the emergence of a large ‘new’ union movement, the organisation of hundreds of thousands or millions of new members within the existing trade union movement would tend to force the unions towards more militant action and open up opportunities for electing many more class fighters to key union positions at local and national levels.
A victory won by any of the major groups of workers taking action can enliven the imaginations of millions as to what organising can make possible. It will also test out leaderships, left and right, and continue to deepen the polarisation inside the unions between an emerging new activist layer in the workplaces and a bureaucracy incapable of leading struggles to serious victory, which will continue to push the process of development of rank and file caucuses, broad left initiatives, and demands for more democratic and rep-led structures in the unions.
Meanwhile examples – both local and international – can give workers a model to follow. The Amazon and Starbucks unionisation drives in the US are rich in lessons. In particular, they highlight the crucial importance of connect- ing the need to organise with the fight for real improvements in workers’ wages and/or conditions, and the importance of building a core of pro-union workers with tight and effective organisation early on. Similar lessons from US developments can be learned in relation to developing left-wing oppositional currents inside the unions and the need for these to be implanted in the workplaces. While this form of ‘new unionism’ is at an earlier stage in the UK, it has the potential to explode in the next period and remains of huge strategic importance for socialists and for the workers’ movement more widely. SA members in the workplace can potentially play an important part in this if they are trained in our methods and working as part of SA structures including our union caucuses. A dynamic approach to such potential developments is therefore vital for Socialist Alternative.
War on refugees
The so-called ‘war on woke’ has come at a time where an unstable political party, which is part of an unstable system, is trying to shore up support by causing division between working class people. Fearing the growth in unity and solidarity, symbolised by the public support for the recent strikes, capitalism resorts to old divide and rule tactics. Their aim is to claim the political ground of the right and the hard-right to turn that into electoral support and support for their anti-working class policies. In UK politics today, attacking refugees or trans people, goes hand in hand with attacking the organised working class.
The vast majority of people hold views counter to those of the Tories on social issues, shown even by opinion polls such as The British Social Attitudes survey which found that the majority of people thought that equal rights for people of colour and LGBTQ+ people haven’t ‘gone far enough’ – a change from even 10 years ago. However, the Tories have had some success in pushing a narrative that those in ‘small boats’ coming across the English Channel are not ‘genuine asylum seekers’. The same day that far right terrorist Andrew Leak threw a petrol bomb at an immigration detention centre, Suella Braverman, Home Secretary, talked of an ‘invasion’ of refugees. ‘Deserving’ refugees from Ukraine are pitted against the ‘undeserving’ from the Middle East, Africa and Albania.
The approach of the ruling class towards the question of migration has always had a contradiction at
its heart. On the one hand, businesses cry out for migrant workers, whom they can super-exploit in low-paid and insecure jobs, and on the other, racism against migrants of all kinds is whipped up by representatives of the same ruling class. The changes in the labour market – with an increase in the number of vacancies rather than workers competing with each other for jobs – means that consciousness around immigration has shifted. Sympathy with those in desperate situations caused by poverty or war is generally speaking, broadly more prevalent than misguided ideas about migrants “taking” jobs and services from those already living here. This marks a significant step forward in consciousness. The recent protests organised by refugees inside detention centres are likely to spread given the dire conditions people are forced to survive in. These can potentially combine with solidarity protests taking place out- side detention centres and mobilisations in towns and cities to prevent deportations as we have already seen in the cases of direct community action to stop deportations in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Manchester and Peckham, alongside the mass outpouring of anger which helped to temporarily prevent the Tories’ Rwanda deportation plans in June 2022.
However, as well as shifts towards anti-racist consciousness among wide layers of people, there will also be a deepening polarisation on the issue, and the face of reaction showing at key points. There is the danger of violence and far-right mobilisations against refugees like those seen in Knowsley in early February. Government ‘culture war’ rhetoric has already encouraged the far right to attempt a further series of violent protests against asylum seekers, as well as other targets such as LGBTQ+ events. Though these have had mixed results, the potential for their arguments to gain an echo still pose a real danger. One of the key tasks of the workers movement in the strike wave will be to organise not only against the far-right threat, but also to actively take up the struggle for trans and refugee rights, in solidarity with all those who suffer oppression and liberation movements. This is why Socialist Alternative members in the unions led a drive for union branches to mass motions in solidarity with trans people.
We will need to use our interventions to push trade unions and other movements towards effective mobilisations against racism, linked with the strikes. As well as building turnouts for counter-protests, we argue that the unions will have to push for workplace actions against racism, and for unions to overtly oppose the scapegoating of migrants and refugees for low wages and unaffordable housing. It will be crucial to incorporate our socialist feminist campaigning into these interventions to help counter attempts by the far right to portray themselves as “protecting women and girls” from sexual violence and harassment by male asylum seekers.
We support all protests and argue for the labour movement to organise migrant workers and refugees and to build a struggle of the multiracial working class to fight racism. We support full rights to settle for migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, with the right to work and unionise without discrimination in pay and conditions. We demand the closure of all detention centres and rehousing of refugees in decent conditions and for an end to all racist deportations. As an immediate step to end the small boat crossing crisis, we call for the setting up of humanitarian ‘safe passage’ routes.
Trans rights under attack
The oppressed group which is most under attack in the Tory ‘culture wars’ is transgender people. Proposed changes to the GRA have been dropped and trans people are used as scapegoats for the erosion of the rights of women. This has also been reflected in the Labour Party and in some trade union bureaucracies, where sections of the movement mistakenly buy into the race-to-the-bottom outlook of the capitalist class with the idea of competing rights and competing access to services.
Suella Braverman has described herself as being against ‘trans ideology’ whilst the new Conservative Party chair Nadim Zahawi dreams of bringing in a new version of the anti-LGBTQ+ Section 28 in schools. These dangerous ideas are backed up by Sunak who wants schools to be “more careful” in how they teach on LGBTQ+ issues and has said he wants to reverse “recent trends to erase women via the use of clumsy, gender-neutral language”. He plans to remove the protection of trans people from the Equality Act, which makes it illegal for people to be discriminated against on the basis of gender reassignment.
In Scotland, the SNP and the Scottish Greens are pursuing changes to the GRA to make it easier for trans people to choose their gender identity and make legal changes, which we support. However, Sunak has threatened to intervene to block the reforms. If this happens, it will be the first time that the Tories have acted to prevent the Scottish Parliament making legal changes (other than denying a second referendum) and will have ramifications beyond the issue of trans rights. This reflects the extent of the culture wars, particularly focused on transgender issues as a key battleground. It also reflects the instability inherent in the situation around the national question – potentially acting as a trigger for further support for independence and giving fuel to the SNP argument that Westminster is acting as ‘democracy deniers’. Achieving the right to self-identify is important, but it will not, in itself, solve the issues many trans people face. For example, trans people are discriminated against in the workplace with one in three employers saying in a recent survey that they wouldn’t knowingly hire a trans person.
However, this step forward in Scotland will give confidence to trans people across the UK to renew the struggle for legal changes, particularly under a future Labour government. There is likely to be an upswing in Reclaim Pride and Trans Pride events as radicalised working class LGBTQ+ people move against ‘Rainbow Capitalism’ and develop a movement which is anti-capitalist in nature. This was already seen on show in Pride events during 2022, for instance in Glasgow Pride with the presence of homemade placards in support of the rail workers striking on the same day featured on the march. Our slogan of “LGBTQ+ solidarity with the rail strikes” in particular got a response among the most politicised and radicalising layers on Pride marches. We should continue to intervene in Pride, Trans Pride and other events with material which seeks to link together the demands of the anti-capitalist section of the LGBTQ+ struggle with the demands of the organised working class as a whole, and push within the trade union movement to add the demands of the LGBTQ+ community to their banner.
In reaction to radicalisation of young people and a rejection of traditional and restrictive gender roles, the Tories and the ruling class more generally are trying to reassert reactionary ideas and norms on gender and sexuality. These are rooted in gender oppression, particularly the historic control of the female body (specifically the ability to repro- duce) and the role of the family as a unit of social control (perpetuating gender roles and class positions, saving money for the state whilst producing disciplined workers). The Conservative Party is based on the ideals of the ‘traditional’ nuclear family. Misogyny and LGBTQ+phobia is within its very DNA.
Inflamed polarisation, but the working class putting its stamp on events
Whilst the consciousness of important sections of working class and young people is shifting to the left, the impact of economic and political crises on the outlook of the working class will never be only in one direction. As we have seen in other countries across the world, as well as the surge of the left there has also been the growth of the far-right. This is not an equal phenomenon – the support for trade unions, the strikes and for organisations such as Enough is Enough are vastly bigger than for the right wing – but there is still a minority of the population who can provide a social base of support for reactionary ideas. There has been a rise in recorded hate crimes in general, for example. Over two thirds of all hate crimes are racially motivated, up 19% in the year ending March 2022, with only a small fraction of crimes ending in a charge. Dr Neville Lawrence, the father of Stephen Lawrence, who was stabbed to death in a racist attack in 1993, recently insisted that policing is still affected by institutional racism. Amongst some younger people there has been an increase in sexist views and the number of people participating in online Incel (“involuntary celibate” – extreme misogynistic and far right group) forums. This is fuelled by characters like Andrew Tate, who hobnobs with Tommy Robinson and Nigel Farage, and produces violent misogynistic videos. The bloody consequences of this hate speech was shown in the Plymouth murders in 2021.
The establishment is implicated to its very core in the continued attacks on women, from the recent confession of a sitting Met police officer to dozens of counts of rape and sexual assault, to the vicious villainising of teachers and nurses fighting for better pay and conditions for their patients and students, to spiralling household costs. This reality will continue to have a radicalising effect on women and gender non-conforming people, who increasingly draw the conclusion that the current system offers no solution to their exploitation. While the the Tories are unlikely to launch a full-scale attack on abortion rights, Sunak’s government has made no secret of its unwillingness to protect even this long-enshrined right, with Sunak appointing anti-abortion ministers to Health and Equalities positions – who among other things have openly supported the harassment of women outside abortion clinics.
In particular, in recent years, egregious cases of gender-based violence have seen tensions bubble, and in the case of the murder of Sarah Everard, erupt into collective action. Any illusion that the state can offer women even the most basic of protections has been shattered, with the Metropolitan police found to be institutionally misogynistic, following revelations of the crimes of serial rapist and serving police officer, David Carrick, just over one year after the murder of Sarah Everard. While the large protests that erupted after the death of Sarah Everard dissipated quickly, the depth of anger associated with such violence will undoubtedly continue to impact on consciousness with more people being open to socialist feminism as they conclude that safety for women and LGBTQ+ people is not possible under capitalism because it breeds gender based violence.
Protests are likely after these type revelations, as we saw with the spontaneous protests against the increase in spiking in bars. We should take a lead in organising demonstrations. Our Socialist Feminist Alternative work, therefore, remains very important. The 8th March and 25th November days of action are becoming key parts of our calendar as we witness a reemergence of feminist struggle and seek to build a socialist feminist wing of the movement. This includes raising our programme on the police: democratic control by workers’ organisations to drive out the racist, sexist and LGBTQ+phobic officers. There will also be other opportunities for us to take a lead in the movement, to call protests or link up with existing events such as the March for Midwives, March of the Mummies and spontaneous protests against gendered violence such as those against spiking. There will also be a mushrooming in the number of women involved in the trade union struggles in next year, including health and education workers. This experience will only increase the use of working class methods in struggles against special oppression, such as strikes and mass protests, as the working class put its stamp on events.
This, twinned with the influx of young workers radicalised on issues of oppression could have an explosive impact. Signs of this can already be seen in recent revelations of a particularly vile culture of sexism, bullying and harassment at the top of a number of high-profile union leaderships. As socialist feminists, we reject the idea that in the midst of a strike wave the issue of conduct and abuse in the workers’ movement is ‘secondary’. Instead, we highlight the importance of rank and file women and gender non-conforming workers having the confidence and freedom to speak out. Our programme of lay democracy, especially the right to elect and recall all senior union officials, and rank-and-file organisation in the unions, twinned with a bold socialist feminist approach means Socialist Feminist Alternative will face opportunities to make major breakthroughs in the unions on this question in the next period.
While the Black Lives Matter movement is at something of a low ebb currently, a seething current of anger exists within Black and Brown communities; this particularly relates to the treatment of people of colour by the police, but is also expressed in demands to “decolonise education”. This tinderbox of rage could be lit by the spark of a death at the hands of the police, or after police contact – the police shooting of Mark Duggan in 2011 led to riots and protests throughout London, and more recently the police murder of George Floyd in the US led to large protests in the UK.
The disgraceful strip-search carried out on a black teenage girl, Child Q, at her Hackney school led to protests by pupils and the local community. Despite complaints against the officers and the school being upheld, no-one was adequately held to account. Protests took place in London following the death of Chris Kaba at the hands of police in September 2022 and hundreds of people, overwhelmingly people of colour, attended a mass meeting in Coventry after the death of Darren Cumberbatch in 2017 when police were called to his bail hostel. Sadly no organisation existed in any of these cases, either locally or nationally, to channel that anger, and the movement dissipated – a phenomenon that has been seen elsewhere.
There is currently a lack of clear leadership for those looking to fight back against racism and police brutality. While many trade unions have robust anti-racist policies on paper, the workers’ movement does not currently offer a lead in wider anti-racist struggles, and nor are there substantial working-class led Black or Asian organisations doing so. In many cases, this lack of leadership has led to young, often very young, Black people taking up the mantle themselves. This is also reflected in the role played by often self-appointed community leaders, who have been content to lead people of colour down the dead end of appealing to the better nature of those in power.
The proposals made by Socialist Alternative for “the development of a structure of membership, chapters or branches that are enabled to make decisions that members can take part in and ‘own’, also to elect leaderships which are tried and tested in the heat of the campaign” would have enabled the development of a strong and youthful leadership in the anti-racist movement. While there is a strong mood to fight back against police racism and state violence, especially among younger people, institutionalised racism (as highlighted by the Casey Review) sees police officers continue to walk away without consequences after causing death, trauma or serious injury, and there is not currently a sustained movement on the streets to combat this.
We should be prepared to make sharp turns towards movements against racism, which are most likely to be expressed in protests primarily against police violence and repression. These movements are likely to re-emerge suddenly and may dissipate just as suddenly, as has happened in many other movements, in the absence of a serious anti-racist organisation. At the same time we should be arguing that the trade unions campaign seriously on the issue of racism and all forms of oppression, as we are currently doing in relation to the workers movement and the fight against transphobia.
Tories: Government of fossil fuels
In the aftermath of the huge protests at COP26 in November 2021, the capitalist class internationally is still not prepared to take the decisive action necessary to tackle the crisis. In fact, the Tory government is going in the other direction by awarding new licences for oil and gas explora- tion in the North Sea and approving the opening of a new coal mine in Cumbria. The problem is not only in Westminster. The Scottish government has also closed wind turbine manufacturers and continues to champion a fossil fuel-based perspective for their vision of a capitalist independent Scotland, a dead end for the planet as well as the living standards of the working class.
In part, this failure is a result of the drive for profit: political parties representing the interests of British capitalism which do not view renewable energies as sufficiently profitable in the short term and have their sights firmly set on billions of pounds lying dormant under the North Sea. But it is also driven by the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the New Cold War. Britain, like many other countries, relies on energy imports and has reduced its fuel storage facilities over the previous decades, meaning that we are now facing extreme price hikes and even the prospect of blackouts.
The space for climate action has, in recent years, largely been filled by Just Stop Oil, Extinction Rebellion and Insulate Britain – small groups who focus on direct action. This represents a temporary retreat from the methods used by Youth Strike for Climate based on mass action and the idea of striking. Whilst the overwhelming majority of people agree with the message of Just Stop Oil, many are alienated by their methods. We defend the right of anyone to protest, and support the use of direct action and civil disobedience which we argue should be used in the way which is most effective, building public sympathy and support and clearly targeting the polluters and politicians rather than ordinary people. We completely oppose the criminalisation of climate protesters, some of whom have received 5 or 6 month prison sentences.
The ongoing impact of climate change will impact consciousness beyond those already attracted to climate protests. The hottest day in 2022 saw 638 excess deaths in the UK alone, whilst the cold snap over the winter coincided with the increase in energy bills. Internationally, extreme weather can cause food shortages and therefore price rises, which will add to the cost of living crisis. This will bring the effects of climate chaos into the everyday lives of working class people and add to the growing feeling of urgency that something needs to be done to save the planet.
As the strike wave has developed, it has had an impact on the strategy of climate organisations. By highlighting the strength of working-class mass mobilisation, Just Stop Oil have been pushed toward organising visits to picket lines (although limited), and Extinction Rebellion have announced a turn toward mass protest. As the protests continue, they are likely to gain support rather than lose it, particularly in the face of the pro-fossil fuel policies of the government. We should encourage the positive steps that have been taken by climate activists, and work to deepen them, with a strategy including the concrete involvement of the labour movement in climate protests, linking up with the power of the strike wave, including workers in polluting industries, demanding retraining and the transfer of skills to renewable energy as well as demands for nationalised free public transport, publicly-funded retrofitting and the nation- alisation of energy.
Movement for Scottish independence
A majority of people in Scotland currently support Scottish independence according to opinion polls. At the time of writing, the SNP is predicted to win 51% of the Scottish vote at the next Westminster elections, reflecting that it is still seen as the only available vehicle through which people can struggle for independence at this stage. The SNP continues to maintain its position that any referendum will need to be ‘lawful’, but the Supreme Court has ruled that the people of Scotland do not have the right to self-determination and both of the main political parties at Westminster are opposed to allowing a new referendum. So how can a referendum be won? A mass movement will need to be built, which the SNP will not be prepared to do. Despite the rhetoric of calling the UK a prison, there are only so many times Nicola Sturgeon can describe elections as ‘de-facto referendums’ and continue to get high votes for the SNP, without a strategy to go further.
The SNP will do everything possible to resist lead- ing the type of movement necessary to demand a referendum, or to organise one ‘illegally’, or to win independence itself. Fundamentally this is because they are not willing to mobilise a mass movement of the working class, fearing losing control of such a movement – which would pose a danger to capitalist rule in Scotland. As we have consistently explained, the main reason for support for independence is the desire for progressive policies in Scotland, such as funding of public services, decent pay rises, nationalisation and so on, which threaten to go beyond the bounds of what capitalism is prepared to concede at this stage.
Continuing to focus on reelection in the name of independence – with no gains being made for the Scottish working class – can temporarily allow the SNP to escape being fully held to account for its pro-capitalist policies, but there is not unlimited patience on the part of those who want independence. Protests demanding independence will, at some point, take on a different character. We have seen a split to the right in the form of Alba, which has failed to build significant support, and we will also see splits within the movement to the left led by young people and progressive workers, searching for a more explicitly left-wing pro-independence political voice. The entry of the Scottish Greens into the SNP government has also cut across their potential to lead a more left wing opposition pole within the pro independence movement.
We need to be politically prepared for such a development, which on paper could sound extremely radical, and for our role in relation to such a development which would be to emphasise class questions and a clear revolutionary socialist programme linked to a mass mobilisation for independence and socialism. If sufficiently sharp, an intervention like this would offer major opportunities for us in Scotland, but the opportunist pressures for ‘left unity’ inevitable in such a development will be something we have to resist while pointing to how class unity offers a way out for the masses. The Labour Party, which is firmly committed to a unionist position and a strategy of competing with the Tories for anti-independence votes, are not going to fill this vacuum, despite making noises in the direction of further devolution (more on the Labour Party below).
We must continue to sharply call out the SNP as ultimately another pro-capitalist party seeking to mislead the working class. A party which is on the other side of the barricades in the strike wave and climate movement and has abandoned any pretence of opposing imperialist war cannot be trusted to lead the struggle for democratic and national rights for the Scottish people. We call for the building of a new working class party which stands for a socialist independent Scotland as part of a voluntary socialist federation with Wales, England and Ireland in a socialist Europe. Key to the development of such a party will also be winning the support of a significant section of the trade union movement for a correct position on the national question.
Overall, the capitalist crisis will continue to radicalise swathes of the population who through their experiences will draw conclusions about the bankruptcy of this system and the need for an alternative. However, the absence of a mass political voice for this radicalisation will mean that it will develop in a more protracted and contradictory way. There will be ebbs and flows in protest movements, with different issues coming to the fore at different times, and we will face a complex situation which we will need to intervene into skillfully, trying to draw out the main tasks for the movement as a whole, and building our forces amongst the most advanced layer. Generally, despite polarisation, we can be optimistic about the widening influence of the working class, and the support for mass action, as the ranks of the organised working class continue to flourish.
Starmer’s counter-revolution complete
In the context of this radicalisation, Starmer’s Labour Party is not an attractive alternative which will succeed at mobilising working class and young people anywhere in Britain. Beyond half hearted rhetorical appeals, Labour are not likely to push very hard for a general election. They have consistently taken an approach of criticising the government on some issues, but until recently not going as far as demanding an end to Tory rule – with two Prime Ministers having been appointed without facing a vote from the public. They are not keen to take on the disastrous economic and social situation, knowing they will quickly have to implement unpopular policies and face immediate battles with the trade unions.
Starmer has completed the counter-revolution in the Labour Party at a national level, in the parliamentary party and in most of Labour’s structures, driving out most of the remaining socialist and left wing activists, apart from a small number in a minority of local areas, or others who have to focus their work outside of the Labour Party e.g. EIE. The Labour Party is extremely unlikely to be a significant field of political struggle in the next couple of years, with the possible exception of a small number of localities where the left retains an influence.
Going further than just not supporting strike action, a shadow cabinet member was sacked for visiting
a picket line. Deputy Leader Angela Rayner has publicly said that a Labour government would not give public sector workers inflation-matching pay rises, and is shaking off her former dubious Corbynista credentials by opposing nationalisation. The Labour Party conference last year was an example of Labour siding with big business over the working class – symbolised by singing the national anthem for the first time. Starmer has blatantly engaged in a huge well-funded initiative, dubbed the “Prawn Cocktail Offensive 2.0” (in reference to Tony Blair’s similar strategy), to woo big business, and has now met the Directors of all the leading FTSE 100 companies, winning many plaudits from the sworn enemies of the working class.
Elections at this stage are not seen in general as the most important way of fighting back, which is especially true of local government and by-elections which have seen very low turnouts, as the working class is tending to rely instead on its own strength in strikes. However, this doesn’t mean that when the general election arrives (at some time in the next year), that people won’t participate in it in a mass way. Labour are likely to win – despite Keir Starmer, not because of his leadership. They have a strong lead in the opinion polls currently but this can change as events unfold in the run up to the next general election. It can depend on how a general election is called and the role that both the main political parties play.
Labour have put forward policies which they think will be popular but which don’t tackle the economic status quo, which ultimately they support. Gordon Brown’s report and proposals for further devolution and democratic reform may gain some support – particularly in Northern regions, Wales and Scotland. However, they are not enough to really enthuse mass support in the way that Corbyn’s policies did or reverse growing support for independence in Scotland. Facing a cost of living crisis and increasingly poor working conditions, most working class people will have other priorities. It’s an attempt to match the Tories’ ‘levelling up’ promises which won some of the ‘red wall’ seats. But giving more power to local areas without matching that with fund- ing will leave people questioning how effective it might be. Local governments would be given three-year agreements on funding, but if it’s not enough to pay for the services required locally, we are still likely to see the development of anti-cuts groups at a local level demanding a reversal of cuts since 2010.
Labour’s proposals to replace the House of Lords with a smaller, elected second chamber will be attractive to many. Calling it an Assembly of the Nations and Regions and in theory giving more power to the devolved powers and regions will add to that attraction. However, it is not straightforward and there will be significant campaigns against change with comparisons to the dysfunctional US Senate and warnings of political stalemate. It is an opportunity for us to advance aspects of our programme for the abolition of the House of Lords, but for more democratic accountability of elected representatives such as the right of recall and MPs earning the average wage of the working class people they represent. Along with it, we should advance our demand for the abolition of the monarchy – especially around the coronation – and any other vestige of feudalism in our political system. This will need to be linked to us rais- ing in a bolder way the need for workers’ democracy – not just accountability of parliament but genuine democracy in workplaces and communities too, based on socialist public ownership.
Support for Labour will be mainly due to lesser evilism – and a desire to end Tory chaos with a party which now appears to be more stable – not because of the support for Starmer’s Blairite policies and approach. However, there may also be illusions in Starmer by some sections of the working class who support some of his policies. This will be backed up by some former Corbyn-supporting MPs and spokespeople who are still clinging to the Labour Party rather than take the step to form a new party. The closer to the election we get, the more support Starmer will get from sections of the media, trade unions and even campaigns like Enough is Enough whose leaders are likely to pursue a line of argument that we need to all get behind Starmer to get the Tories out. This will be coupled with ideas that the trade union movement can have an influence on the Labour Party in government to win gains for the working class.
Perspectives for a Labour government
In reality, over the last few decades the weight of influence of the trade union movement in the Labour Party has been eroded, with usually only the right wing leaders being able to play an individual role, using the ‘struggle’ in the Labour Party as an excuse to continue handing over blank cheques. There is now the beginning of a kick-back against this by some in the trade unions – including Sharon Graham after she won the Unite General Secretary position and the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union voting to disaffiliate from the Labour Party. Under a Labour government this process will speed up. More than that, there will be very little loyalty to Starmer and Labour amongst those voting for them in the general election – it could very quickly turn into anger as illusions are smashed by the actions of a Labour government.
Whilst Starmer is sometimes viewed as a latter-day Blair, and there are some similarities, if he wins a general election he will inherit a completely different set of circumstances to 1997. Blair won three general elections on the basis of Tory disarray and some populist and socially progressive policies which he very swiftly spurned in office. The Tories are close to falling apart and their in-fighting will only intensify if they are thrown out of government, and Starmer’s pro-privatisation and anti-working class agenda is similar to that of Blair’s. But Starmer will not be able to provide ‘crumbs from the table’ in the way that Labour did previously.
Blair came to power during an economic boom, fuelled by credit, when the cost of borrowing was much cheaper. Public sector spending was focused on handouts to private companies, of course, but Starmer would be faced with the choice of having to take more money from the rich or make attacks on the working class in a much more intense way than Blair faced.
Blair is also held up as being responsible for saving the union, helping to broker the Good Friday Agreement and carrying out devolution to Scotland and Wales. Starmer inherits a Labour Party which has lost support in Scotland, including as a result of its position on Scottish independence which it shows no signs of correcting. Labour are trying to win back votes in Scotland by promising greater borrowing powers and directly elected mayors. Their position of trying to rebuild relations with the EU may also be attractive to some in Scotland – many of those who support independence would also support the idea that Scotland could rejoin the EU. Keir Starmer not only opposes Scottish independence but has said that in a border poll in Northern Ireland, he would campaign for it to ‘stay British’.
Need for a new party of the working class
A Starmer government would become a government of crisis relatively quickly. However, it is not automatic that working class struggle would continue in the same way. It is likely to mean further battles within trade unions on the question of support for the Labour Party, with right wing leaders such as Christine McAnea of Unison not wanting a head-to-head with the party she supports. Organisations such as EIE, or other organisations with similar forces involved (should EIE disappear or diminish as a factor), may try to divert the movement into ‘influencing’ the Labour Party rather than fighting it. Mick Lynch, seen as a militant for his role as RMT general secretary and correctly challenging the right wing press, has argued within the RMT for it to reaffiliate to the Labour Party, for example.
The other side to this is the broadening of left leaderships in the trade unions, and the pressure that will come from below. Unite may well lead the way, decreasing funding to the Labour Party and then at some stage disaffiliating. In this situation, it will be important for us to base ourselves on the rank and file of the unions, who will not have the same loyalty to the Labour Party as in the past, and to argue against attempts to ‘depoliticise’ the trade union movement, or to outsource ‘politics’ to campaign groups funded by the trade unions.
It is unlikely that a new party of the working class will be built from the tops of the trade unions. Instead it will be from in the workplaces and communities. It will need to involve the organised working class and will need to be based on the struggle of trade unionists, alongside social movements including those fighting against racism, sexism, LGBTQ+phobia and climate change. Under a Labour government this process could be sped up and we will be actively involved in fighting to establish and mobilise support for such an organisation.
It is not likely that a new party, which will stand in elections, will be established before the next general election, although some candidates to the left of Labour may stand and in one or two cases get some support. If Jeremy Corbyn were to stand as an independent candidate in Islington North, for example, he would, of course, have a strong chance of being elected. At this stage, our perspective is that the most significant opportunities for a new left party will emerge after the next election.
In preparing for a Labour government in the trade unions, we must explain that some demands can be put on the Labour Party to include policies in a manifesto and more importantly, to force it to act. This could include a massive campaign of industrial and political action to ensure the renationalisation of rail (as promised by Starmer) and to demand the nationalisation of mail and energy. However, ultimately the Labour Party will not be accountable to the movement, but to the demands of capitalism, a system it is committed to defending. The trade unions will need to be prepared to fight against low pay, poor working conditions and anti-trade union laws regardless of the party which wins the election.
We may need to face up to some in the move- ment who will have illusions in Starmer, but in general we should direct our focus to the need for the working class to be organised independently and to fight for its own political voice. Many working class people understand that the Labour Party will not represent them, but this cannot be allowed to turn into disillusionment with political struggle. Demands need to be placed in a firm way on the left Labour MPs and the trade union leaders – they need to fight for the working class, and if they are not prepared to do this, the movement should campaign for representatives who will represent working class interests. The time is becoming ripe for a new mass political movement of the working class, more so now than has been the case for a number of decades.
2023 marks the centenary of the first specifically “Trotskyist” movement, the Left Opposition, in whose immortal tradition we continue to place ourselves. The essence of this tradition is the consistent defence – in the face of capitulations and betrayals by Stalinists, reformists and others – of the perspective of international socialist revolution and the building of a revolutionary party as the most pressing historical task of revolutionaries. The contribution of numerous generations who have kept the flame of Trotskyism alive since then, through many trials and tribulations – including the veteran members of ISA – has ensured that these ideas are available to today’s young generations, who need them more than ever.
It is among these young generations that the main raw material exists for a bigger, stronger revolutionary party in the 2020s. This has already been on display in our work in England, Scotland and Wales in the last months and years. We have encountered, on campuses and in schools, on the streets and in workplaces, a generation which has only known capitalism to be a system of “permacrisis” (the Collins Dictionary word of the year for 2022!). In this way, decrepit 21st century capitalism is producing one of the most radical young generations in history, with enormous revolutionary potential.
Its political radicalisation is expressed in wide- spread anger against all forms of oppression, and an increasingly universal understanding that the problems we face as a society are systemic in nature. Through the climate strikes movement, BLM, Corbynism, the Sarah Everard protests, etc, this generation, or at least its most advanced layer, has already accumulated some experience in struggle. This is now being added to by the experience of a new wave of struggle against a new crisis, with the organised working class playing the undisputed leading role, which can propel the learning of further important lessons about the kind of movement we need to really win change.
This document is intended to assist Socialist Alternative to politically prepare for one of the most dra- matic historical epochs which Trotskyists have faced. As we have outlined, this will be a period full of revolutionary opportunity – including the opportunity for a revolutionary party to grow substantially – but also one in which the danger of counter-revolution will loom large. To face up to both opportunities and dangers, our organisation will need several key attributes. Above all, clarity in our political ideas and perspectives. But without determination, organisation, sacrifice and discipline, even the greatest of ideas cannot become a material force. A correct political perspective should imbue political confidence among ISA cadre, which in turn must imbue us with confidence to boldly build our forces.