The Ruling Class
For some years now we have charted the devastation of British manufacturing. This continues apace as the investment and output figures provided here testify. Alongside this development we have charted also the degeneration of the British ruling class, from a class that saw centuries ahead, to the current degenerates who can’t see past their bank balances. In The New Situation in Britain we devoted considerable space to the crisis of the three Cs of the establishment, the Crown, the Church and the Conservative Party. These are not mere sideshows but accurately reflect the profound crisis within the ruling class who increasingly lack any confidence in the long term future of their system.
For reasons of space, we will not go into these questions in as much detail here. Nevertheless, it is important to continue to analyse these developments.
There have been no new major scandals involving the royals, but they have failed to recover any support as a constant drip of stories undermines each attempt to restore their authority. After his grandmother’s death Prince Charles, despite being one of the biggest landowners in Britain, decided to move into her now empty house. However, he felt that a few million pounds needed to be spent on redecoration, new wiring etc. The taxpayer footed the bill.
The crisis in the Church of England continues to deepen. The ‘troublesome priest’, Archbishop Rowan Williams has been barred from conducting communion in 350 Church of England parishes because of his support for women priests. Like the previous struggle over homosexuality, this is a serious crisis reflecting a split between those who fear any further undermining of the church’s authority by adopting more modern, liberal attitudes, and those who believe that their authority will continue to decline unless they adopt such changes.
The Tory Party has failed to make any serious recovery despite the unprecedented crisis facing Blair. They secured a victory in the English local elections earlier in the year, but again this was due more to the collapse in turnout by Labour voters than any real recovery for the Tories.
Incidentally, as we predicted in January, while the Tories benefited from disillusionment with Blair in England in the sense of a low turnout, in Scotland and Wales there was a certain rise in support for those to the left of Blair. In Scotland both the SSP of Sheridan and the Greens (who are perceived as being to the left whatever the reality may be) picked up a handful of seats. Meanwhile in Wales the opposition to Blair came from Labour itself. By adopting a handful of minor reforms, most notably the abolition of prescription charges, Labour was able to gain an overall majority in the Welsh Assembly, in which they previously shared power with the Liberals.
To return to the degeneration of the ruling class however, one example of the philistine nature of our current rulers is provided by the television show Restoration. Here, with an eye to the popularity of Big Brother and Pop Idol, the more cultured BBC2 gives viewers the opportunity to vote by phone on which one of three historic buildings to save and restore. At one time, a century and more ago, the ruling class used to spend their own money on such projects with an eye on history, heritage and culture. Today’s pygmies have no such long view. Not only are they not prepared to protect art and culture, except as a hedge investment, they are even undermining the very infrastructure of the country and the economy in the pursuit of a quick profit.
A doom-laden report by the Institution of Civil Engineers, a much respected 200 year old body, claims that Britain could face serious power cuts regularly by the year 2020. By then 80 percent of the gas used to fuel Britain’s power stations and domestic central heating will have to be piped in “from politically unstable countries thousands of miles away.”
Vulnerability to events in the countries through which the gas pipeline runs (Algeria, Russia and Iran) is compounded by Britain’s lack of gas storage space for a strategic reserve. While Germany and France maintain an emergency reserve of 70 days of gas, Britain has less than 48 hours capacity.
The ICE’s report concludes “A return to the blackouts that marked the three-day week and the country grinding to a halt are very real possibilities in less than twenty years time.” This is no mere scaremongering. Simon Skilling, head of UK strategy at electricity generator Powergen, admitted, “It is feasible that by 2020 the lights could go out.”
When this report was published it gained little attention in the media. Short term, fast buck, asset stripping means we didn’t have to wait 17 years to find out just what an appalling state Britain’s infrastructure is now in.
The astonishing sight of a quarter of a million people having to be evacuated from the London Underground on September 2, traffic lights out and trains stopped short in mid journey with passengers being led to safety along railway lines by workers carrying torches is perhaps the most graphic example of the descent of Britain. These are scenes one might expect to see in Nigeria or India, not a so-called advanced western economy which claims to be the fourth richest in the world. Yet this astonishing result of privatisation, asset stripping and under investment came only weeks after a devastating power cut in the United States. At that time The National Grid went on record as saying that that sort of thing could never happen here. “Our record speaks for itself”, they added.
Professor Ian Fells, an adviser to the World Energy Council said the London power cut “proves that the system is frail and needs more investment… Since we privatised our electricity companies it’s become extremely difficult to get investment in the infrastructure.” He added that extra funding was urgently needed before an even bigger blackout became inevitable. “I predicted that this might happen in winter but not in the middle of summer. The fact that this could happen now is a very bad sign for the industry. It should act as a warning. If we don’t heed these warnings we could slide down to become a third world country… The policy is to leave energy to the free market but it needs political incentive. The industry is there for profit. If they get away with power cuts like this they will never improve the system.”
London Mayor Ken Livingstone has called for an inquiry. He should call for the nationalisation of the entire energy sector, production and distribution, under workers’ control and management. Just as the catastrophe of railway privatisation has made the idea of nationalisation widely popular for transport, no doubt power cuts like this will lead to widespread calls for public ownership of energy. At the same time each new disaster of this kind makes the idea of privatisation in general more and more unpalatable, preparing major battles against Blair’s attempts to extend privateering into public services.
Livingstone complained that millions of pounds will have been lost by businesses as a result of the power cut. No doubt this is true, but our friends in the Square Mile carried on unaffected, powered by back up generators.
Until last year the Underground transport system received electricity from its own independent power station at Lots Road in Fulham, south London. This enabled the system to continue operating even during the Blitz. What German bombers failed to destroy however, was simply switched off by a Labour government last October.
At a ceremony held to turn the tube’s own power station off, Paul Godier, London Underground’s managing director praised Seeboard Powerlink, the firm behind a private finance initiative (PFI) project to replace the generator. Vincent de Rivaz, Seeboard’s chairman, hailed the “culmination of an exciting project that has been delivered by the private sector in close cooperation with London Underground”. His company, he promised, would “contrive to work with London Underground to provide a safe, reliable power system for the remaining 26 years of our 30-year contract”.
Among the big companies in the PFI scheme are the heroes of rail maintenance, Balfour Beatty; and a property company called Circadian which will shortly, in exchange for relatively small payments to London Underground, be developing the area round the power station with luxury flats worth some £500m.
This is just the kind of project New Labour loves. The transport minister, John Spellar – taking time out from his fruitless efforts to rebuild the shattered right wing inside the AEEU – ceremonially turned the key that switched off the old power station. He then declared the PFI scheme a “good example of the public and private sectors working together to improve services for travellers in London”.
It is hard to understand how a good way to “improve services for travellers in London” is to plunge them into darkness and chaos, or how a PFI project he lavishly praised so transparently failed to plug a ghastly gap in the privatised electricity supply system.
It is events which transform the outlook of the working class, and indeed all classes. By events we don’t just mean strikes, demonstrations or economic crises. War, for example, is a decisive event affecting the outlook of society. So too sometimes are ‘accidents’ like the death of Dr. Kelly. Power cuts like the one that gripped London on September 2 can also have a dramatic effect.
On the day when every newspaper should have carried headlines about the massive power failure caused by privatisation, the king of spin managed to grab the headlines for himself, by resigning. It was widely known that Alastair Campbell was going anyway and has his memoirs ready for publication when he runs short of cash. One cannot help thinking the timing might have something to with what his old friend Jo Moore called a good way to bury bad news. No doubt his main concern was exoneration by the Hutton inquiry from the charges of rewriting the dossier which was used as an excuse for British troops being sent to war in Iraq.
Very few people had ever believed the claims of Bush and Blair about Iraq’s possession of Weapons of Mass Destruction. Given the level of opposition to war in Britain, Blair and co found it necessary to push the boat out a little further and claim that those weapons could be used in 45 minutes flat. Iraq therefore represented a clear and present danger. This was never very convincing, and with each passing day that these mysterious weapons were not found the opinion that Blair and co were liars spread. Nevertheless, they might have got away with it if it were not for their obsession with spin and the silencing of criticism. Their shameful bullying of the BBC and above all of weapons expert Dr. David Kelly has only served to create a new crisis, and bring the whole question into sharp focus. Ironically, Dr. Kelly supported war with Iraq, but it seems that because he was not happy with having to distort intelligence documents for propaganda purposes he was hounded to the very edge of reason, and beyond to take his own life. The impact of his death has been one of shock and awe. It has resulted in the Hutton inquiry, which in turn has resulted in startling revelations, each more shocking than the last, exposing Blair and his coterie of advisers as a veritable nest of vipers.
The Hutton Inquiry – a serous crisis for Blair
The lies and falsifications exposed by Hutton represent a severe crisis for Blair, the most serious he has faced to date. Several careers are on the line. Campbell has already gone. Hoon, the Secretary of State for Defence, will no doubt follow. Ultimately even Blair himself may have to pay with his job.
Some journalists have written that this is all a diversion. The Hutton inquiry is only serving to draw attention away from the lies that led Britain into war, and to pass the buck from Blair to lower ranking officials. This is no doubt the usual purpose of an inquiry of this kind, to act as a distraction, to give the impression that the matter is being dealt with, to exonerate those at the top and scapegoat others. While this is undoubtedly the formal purpose of the Hutton inquiry, the repercussions are far more important. To dismiss it as a mere episode is to completely fail to understand the role such accidents as this play in politics. What these people fail to comprehend as they pore over the meaning of each word spoken and each sigh uttered is that not much of this detail means anything. It is they who are being distracted. Meanwhile, for the majority, all that matters is the smell of corruption, someone is lying, someone is covering up and Blair is in it up to his neck.
It is almost unprecedented that a Prime Minister be dragged before such an inquiry to account for his actions. The only previous example was the Scott inquiry when Tory Prime Minister John Major was forced to answer questions about, ironically, Britain’s sale of arms to Iraq.
Not that Hutton will finally, after the inquiry has dragged on a few months longer, call on Blair to resign. The formal outcome is quite predictable and not that important. The real result, which is already becoming evident, is that Blair is widely seen as a liar. His image as Mr. Honest lies in ruins. The non-stick finish has worn off Teflon Tony. In the latest poll by YouGov, for the first time, following his appearance before Hutton, more people think he should resign than not. Their survey published on September 7, found that 43 percent believe he should go, compared to 42 percent who say he should stay and 15 percent who remain undecided. Six percent more think he should resign following his evidence to the inquiry than before. His attempts to distance himself from the lies of the dossier and for responsibility for the treatment of Dr. Kelly have failed utterly. 82 percent blame Hoon and the Ministry of Defence, but at the same time, 79 percent blame Blair and Number Ten.
Predictably, the evidence, including Geoff Hoon’s attempt to pass the buck directly to Blair and Campbell, has not yet placed Blair himself at many meetings that discussed the Iraq dossier, Andrew Gilligan’s broadcasts or what to do about Dr. Kelly. Blair himself has not left much of a paper trail. The inquiry will not turn up a handwritten note from Blair instructing officials to rewrite the dossier, nor a tape of Blair calling for ‘extreme prejudice’ to be executed in relation to Dr. Kelly. That is not what is meant by describing the present scandal as Blair’s Watergate. He will, in all likelihood be personally exonerated by Hutton. However, unlike in previous scandals involving Blair’s government, this time he will not escape innocent in the eyes of the majority of the population.
When attempting to pin down Blair’s own role in his government’s more dubious episodes in the past – the Ecclestone donation, the Hinduja passport affair and so on – one is reminded of TS Eliot’s Macavity the Mystery Cat,
His powers of levitation
Would make a fakir stare,
And when you reach scene of crime –
Macavity’s not there!
The evidence of Blair’s Praetorian Guard – Campbell, Jonathan Powell, David Manning and John Scarlett – has inevitably placed the prime minister at one remove from key events. For all his buck stops here rhetoric Blair was clearly attempting to distance himself from any scandal. The inquiry will eventually distribute the blame around fairly evenly and leave Blair out of it. When we said that this affair could cost Blair his job we did not mean he would be forced to resign by the findings of the inquiry. Instead, the real judgement will be delivered by the labour movement and by the electorate. The shine has well and truly worn off Blair. An election is due in two years time. If it were any further away Blair would no doubt face a challenge from within. Cook and others are waiting in the wings. They may yet challenge for the leadership. At this moment it seems more likely that they would wait until after the next election. A Labour win with a very much reduced majority would soon prompt a challenge. Defeat, which is now a serious possibility, if not the most likely outcome, would see the knives out everywhere. Sooner or later Blair is finished. All the conditions which laid the basis for Blair and so-called Blairism are being transformed into their opposite.
In the meantime Blair will undoubtedly scapegoat Hoon. Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his friends for his life. Unlike his predecessors Mandelson, Byers and co, however, Hoon was not so willing to fall on his own sword. His willingness to pass the buck during his evidence before Hutton has earned him the nickname Secretary of State for Self-Defence.
Hoon gave the inquiry a detailed account of how Downing Street took a deep interest in exposing Dr Kelly’s name to the press. While denying his own involvement on several important points, he named 10 senior officials, including the most senior civil servant in the Ministry of Defence, Sir Kevin Tebbit. The Defence Secretary gave the impression of being a marginal player in government. He admitted that he had seen a draft of the controversial government dossier on Iraq only a week before publication on September 24 last year and had made no comment on it. This man is supposed to be in charge of Britain’s defence ministry. The implication is clear. Major decisions are not taken by the cabinet, which is acting as a rubber stamp for the machinations of Blair’s office.
Even before his performance at the inquiry Hoon was being billed as the Blair administration’s sacrificial lamb. Following Campbell’s voluntary exit – through the front door, no doubt to sneak in the back door with Mandelson and co as an unofficial adviser – Hoon will no doubt be dumped next. His buck passing and complete lack of knowledge, or so he claimed, of the daily operations of the department he is meant to be running were indeed quite comical. The audience, some of whom queued all night to watch ministers defend themselves, found Hoon’s evidence laughable.
One account in the press helpfully added a description of the audience’s reaction to his performance.
“I can see that as a shorthand account of what I had described to him it would have summarised, in a sense, the alternatives available… ” (A rumble of laughter.) “It was simply, perhaps, Alastair’s summary of the material that I had set out to him… ” (More laughter.) “I do not recall using the phrase… “
“I did not see this Q and A and played no part in its preparation,” Hoon claimed.
“What’s your job? Doorman?” one man in the audience was moved to ask. “He just pours the tea, doesn’t he?” commented another.
Meanwhile, other evidence presented was more worrying for Blair and co. Brian Jones, a retired branch head of the defence intelligence analysis staff, told the inquiry he felt the 45-minute claim warranted inclusion in the dossier but that it should have been made clear that it was only a ‘tentative claim’. He added that his department had also been concerned about “the tendency… to, shall we say, over-egg certain assessments, particularly in relation to the production of chemical weapons”.
All this is very unfortunate for the ruling class. Blair is their man, but they would not be that bothered if all that was at stake here was the career of one or two politicians. More worrying for them, the veil has been partially lifted on the workings of the British state, releasing a stench of corruption and intrigue in the corridors of power. It is important for the ruling class to maintain the myth that what democracy means is the rule of the will of the majority. In reality under capitalism ultimately it is the banks and the monopolies who decide. Blair and co do their bidding in the interests of their system, with little concern for the desires and aspirations of the majority.
It was certainly not the will of the people to go to war. To sway public opinion Blair and co resorted to lying, falsifying documents and persecuting a scientist so maniacally that they drove him to suicide. They partially and temporarily succeeded in their aim. At the outbreak of war, opposition became somewhat muted. However, their propaganda success has been short-lived.
The scenes of bullying and clumsy intimidation of the press and of Dr. Kelly has stunned and shocked the nation. This is not what they intended by a policy of ‘shock and awe’.
This whole affair tells us a great deal about the sham of bourgeois democracy and the façade of parliamentary rule. We devoted a great deal of space in The New Situation in Britain to the monarchy, the crisis gripping the ruling class and the constitution. Likewise the current scandal is of enormous importance and should not be passed over as a mere detail or episode.
We have commented previously on the anti-democratic behaviour of Blair and co. The dependence of the Blair government on an unelected coterie of spindoctors and special advisers has been further exposed by the revelations of the Hutton inquiry.
The Guardian was quite right in commenting “this episode casts light on something larger than one administration or several careers. It exposes the way we are governed. In other words, it should not surprise us that things keep going wrong, whether it’s arms to Iraq, BSE, foot and mouth, or now this. The machine is broken. The centre of government has become too powerful, the rest of the body politic has grown too weak and the latter has no ability to hold the former in check. Sacking the driver might feel therapeutic, but we need to do more than that: we need to change the machine.”
Indeed it is the entire system which needs to be replaced. However, The Guardian has in mind changing the machinery of parliament to make it work better, changing the majorities on select committees etc, in other words, reforming the machinery of government to make it more democratic. What they fail to grasp is that the machinery of government is constructed and reformed in the image required by the rule of capital. They dream of a fair, open, democratic state resting on the present economic system. This is utterly utopian.
Marxists do not have any illusions in bourgeois parliaments. Bourgeois democracy is extremely restricted. In reality, all the important decisions are taken by the monopolies and the banks. We do however, defend those democratic rights and conditions which have been conquered in struggle by the working class. It stands to reason that democracy, however restricted, is a better system for the working class to develop its organisations and struggles within than open dictatorship. In the present epoch those democratic rights that have been won by the working class are constantly in danger. Democratic rights, including the rights and powers of parliaments, are being undermined because they do not coincide with the needs of the capitalists.
In addition Blair and co have been systematically undermining those democratic rights, desperate to prove their willingness and their ability to run affairs in the interests of the bosses. This process began under the Tories. Under Blair the government’s powers have increasingly been passed from Parliament to the cabinet and, in turn, from the cabinet to the Prime Ministers office and a clique of unelected advisers. This has now been exposed for all to see.
As a result Campbell had to go, and hurried announcements were made about the abandonment of spin, and the return of government communications responsibilities to civil servants. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, an increasingly isolated Blair has begun to organise a new “kitchen cabinet”, in reality a kind of kitchen junta, to bring back his most trusted aides, including the twice disgraced Peter Mandelson, and Stephen Byers. This demonstrates just how narrow is Blair’s base of support inside even the Parliamentary Labour Party and for that matter the cabinet. Blair is utterly dependent on a close circle of unelected advisers. In the late Victorian masterpiece Trilby the heroine needs her Svengali because without his magical powers of ventriloquism she sang horribly flat. Blair needs not one but a whole plethora of such figures to sell his policies which are increasingly out of tune with the population.
For all the claims that spin had been abandoned as a result of Hutton, at the TUC Blair’s speech at a dinner for union leaders on ‘fairness and listening to everyone’, was immediately translated to the reporters waiting outside as a strongly worded attack on the left, and in particular new T&G General Secretary Tony Woodley’s appeal for a shift to the left at the top of the Labour Party to stop the Tories getting back in. The spin doctors cannot be dispensed with because they are all Blair has left to rest upon.
We have pointed out previously how successive US Presidents had based their policies on the advice of astrologers and fortune tellers. The British Prime Minister, following the Blairites obsession with style over substance, takes advice from a ‘lifestyle guru’, Carol Caplin. Whether taking policy advice from some nut with a crystal ball is better or worse than believing that what you wear when you make policy statements is more important than the policy itself is a matter of opinion.
As we predicted the war in Iraq opened up new divisions at all levels in the Labour Party, even inside the cabinet, leading to the resignations of Cook and Short. Cook in particular is preparing his challenge for the Labour leadership. He is about to publish a new book Point of Departure on his principles and beliefs. Its subtitle should be Vote Cook for Leader. Whether Blair faces a challenge before or after the next election is impossible to predict at this stage, it depends on unfolding events.
For the moment Blair is attempting to regroup and retrench. He is now skating on very thin ice. We maintain our previous position sooner or later Blair and Blairism is now finished. He and his bourgeois tendency within the labour movement represent yesterday’s conditions. They represented a long period of electoral and industrial defeats, and a lack of activity in the movement which allowed the right wing to gain a stranglehold inside the unions and the Labour Party. That grip has already been broken in the unions. In the next period it will be broken inside the Labour Party too.
There has been no qualitative change in the nature of the Labour Party. As our tendency, and our tendency alone, has explained Labour remains firmly wedded to the unions and it is changes there that presage changes in the party to come.
The policy of the bourgeois media all along has been to use and then discredit the Labour Party. The ruling class were quite happy for several years to rest on Blair, after all he was doing a good job for them. That remains the case at present. However, now they are becoming uneasy, they believe, quite correctly that the changes taking place in the unions will sooner or later be reflected in the Labour Party. The minute Blair’s grip at the top is weakened they will dump on Blair and co from a great height.
The development of a new left inside the Labour Party following developments in the unions and reflecting changes in society in general is inevitable. The next period will see a left-right polarisation inside the Labour Party, in which the unions will play a key role. On the basis of events new splits inside Labour can even reach similar proportions to those in the 1930s. The timing and personalities involved cannot be accurately predicted. The Blairites will leave in droves when to stay will no longer enhance their careers. Blairism will be vomited out of the party and the ruling class will turn the venom of their media on the Labour movement once more. They will turn back to their more stable base, the Tories, which despite their woes and crises remains the main party of the British ruling class.
The Trade Unions
This process has already begun. The establishment of a government forum ‘to discuss public sector reform’ with the unions has met the predictable venomous reception from the Mail and co. Of course, Blair has no real intention of discussing anything with union leaders. This is a sham, a cover behind which Blair intends to proceed with his privatisation of public services.
The TUC general secretary, Brendan Barber, promised that the forum would not prove a talking shop, but “a chance for real dialogue at the stage of policy formation”. Public sector unions need no longer be presented with faits accomplis.
The reality is that Blair has no intention of changing course or of ‘listening to the unions’. However the fact that such a forum has even been established, that such a front is needed, demonstrates the pressure being felt by the government of increased militancy and the shift to the left in a number of unions. Nevertheless Blair intends to carry on with his pro-capitalist policy of privatising public services. He is not for turning. Remaining on this course will prepare a major confrontation with the unions which in turn will accelerate the process of polarisation within the Labour Party.
In The New Situation in Britain we devoted a lot of space to the new mood of militancy expressed in the strikes of local government workers and firefighters, and the connection between this changing mood and a beginning of a shift to the left in the unions. Those lines remain entirely valid and are now being confirmed with statistics which always tend to lag behind the real situation. Indeed this process is continuing to unfold in precisely the way we thought. Woodley was elected general secretary of the T&G; a new left deputy general secretary was elected in the CWU putting further pressure on Billy Hayes. A left executive was elected in PCS, and the upcoming election for the executive of Amicus looks set to go the same way.
The defeat of Mick Rix in ASLEF was not the turning of the tide in favour of the right wing as some papers predicted, but an aberration, and a warning that the process of radicalisation in the unions is only just beginning. A conscious effort is still required to organise a campaign amongst the membership, in order to expose and defeat the right wing in the movement. Such a campaign in Amicus could see a decisive victory for the left in the executive elections. A left executive will put more pressure on Simpson as General Secretary of Britain’s powerful industrial and engineering union. Expressing the changed mood and outlook of the ranks Amicus could then play a decisive role in the next period in the entire labour movement.
Developments inside the TUC have confirmed the continued shift to the left across the trade unions. One step further removed from the workers than individual unions, nevertheless the growing mood of militancy is reflected here too, both in the passing of motions against Blair’s privatisation policies, and the re-election of Jeremy Dear and, after missing out narrowly last year, the RMT’s Bob Crow to the General Council.
Elections in the unions provide us with one important piece of evidence about the changes taking place in the outlook of the working class. Figures for industrial action and ballots are also important. However, statistics can be interpreted in many ways, on their own they tell us very little. It is vital for us to see them in the context of the overall processes at work in society, in the economy in politics and in every aspect of life. We must see them not in isolation from other events, but as part of a process. Therefore it is important not to base ourselves on one statistic, any more than we should base ourselves on one poll or one anecdote. Instead we must collate as much information as possible, all the available evidence, and see it in the context of what went before, if we are to understand what is likely to come next.
Last year marked a 12-year high in the number of days spent on strike. Railway workers and London’s postal workers are set to take industrial action in the near future. For years we answered the nonsense of ‘experts’ in the press about the ‘end of the class struggle.’ This gibberish was still being repeated nine months ago when The New Situation in Britain was published. Now the facts are answering them for us.
Official statistics recorded 1,323,000 working days spent on strike last year, the highest since 1990, as firefighters and local government workers took to the picket lines. The total was more than double the 525,100 counted in 2001 and over twice an annual average of 496,000 in the previous decade.
Compared to the seventies and eighties last year’s figure still appears to be very small. In the 1980s, an annual average of 7.2m days was spent on strike, although that was a fall on the 12.9m in the 1970s. Strikes occupied 24m days alone in 1972 (45% in the pits) during Ted Heath’s spell in Downing Street and 27m in 1984 (this time 80% in the pits) when Thatcher was in Number Ten, and the miners were left out in the cold..
Upwards of 29m working days were spent on strike in 1979, a postwar record, and the total is regularly, if wrongly, pinned on the winter of discontent towards the end of Callaghan’s Labour government. Just over half of the 29m strike days were, in fact, accumulated during a national engineering dispute after Thatcher had moved into No 10, in a struggle for a shorter working week. In other words, that period of militancy did not end with the electoral defeat of Labour, it continued in the first period of Tory rule and was expressed politically too in the shift to the left inside the Labour Party which almost secured Tony Bann the deputy leadership.
Even those years appear relatively harmonious, however, compared with the greatest of all British industrial conflagrations – the 1926 General Strike and lengthy miners’ dispute of the same year – which saw an incredible 162m days spent on strike or locked out from work.
Current figures may fall short of these records, but the important thing is not the number itself, but the trend, the direction the figures are moving in, their causes, and the context of events in society against which these developments unfold.
Was the first national firefighters’ strike for a quarter of a century, and the first-ever joint national strike by blue and white collar council workers, concrete evidence of a new wave of militancy? This is what we argued. At the time the media was dominated by stories arguing that this was not the case. Now, nine months later, they have changed their minds, and that view is shared by the 370 big companies, collectively employing 1.7m people, and 22 trade unions, covered by a recent survey conducted by the law firm DLA. According to their report, a third of public sector employers, half of those in the private sector and two-thirds in the recently privatised sector, are braced for a surge in strike ballots and stoppages in the coming 12 months.
We have previously explained the relationship between this growing militancy and the election of a new layer of left wing officials in the unions. At the time the media was full of denials of such a relationship. Now we read this everywhere. Eventually these people come to the same conclusions as the Marxists, although somewhat slower and in a particularly distorted black and white variation.
“A new, assertive, more confident generation of left-leaning trade union general secretaries was elected to lead their members rather than hold them back”, argues Kevin Maguire in The Guardian. This is true of course but it fails to mention the pressure being placed on these leaders by the rank and file, and the changing outlook which led the members of the unions concerned to elect new leaders.
Job insecurity, unprecedented levels of indebtedness and stress, low pay, all serve to undermine any attempt by the bosses or the union leaders to peddle the myth of social partnership. British workers have taken the whip from these masters long enough. The result is a new militant outlook, more industrial disputes, and more activity inside the unions. More activity means a shift to the left. The right always rests on inactivity and a lack of participation by the membership. That was the case for most of the Nineties. This was the basis for the swing far to the right at the tops of the unions, and in turn was one of the conditions which allowed Blairism to rise to the top of the Labour Party, as scum rises to the surface of stagnant water. This whole process is now being transformed into its opposite.
The staff of collapsed no-win, no-fee personal injury firm The Accident Group found themselves with no-job, no-pay when they were sacked without warning by text message in May before a strike ballot was discussed. British Airways check-in staff walked out on unofficial strike at Heathrow in July in order to pre-empt management plans to impose electronic timekeeping. If an increase in militancy were simply a result of new left leaders not only would we have no explanation for how such leaders come to be elected, but we would have no explanation for the BA strike, which was clearly against the wishes of Bill Morris and co at the top of the union. For Marxists it is necessary to understand the impact of events on the outlook of workers. The years of pent-up anger, long hours of toil, historic levels of indebtedness and stress, the failure of Blair and co to solve anything, the war in Iraq, all combine to draw the proverbial ‘line in the sand’. The patience of the working class can only be pushed so far.
An analysis of days spent on strike last year published in June’s Labour Market Trends by an official in the Office for National Statistics noted that, although the 1,323,000 working days was a 12-year high, the number of stoppages was the lowest on record. There were just 146 labour disputes in 2002 that resulted in stoppages, with just two of the disputes, the firefighters and a one-day council strike, accounting for around 60% of the strike days.
In other words the vital change illustrated by these figures is that these were major national strikes, as opposed to the very bitter, but usually very local disputes in the previous period.
The first six months of 2003 saw just 186,000 days lost on strike – leading some journalists to ponder that last year’s jump was an aberration. They are deluding themselves, however. Marxists do not take such an empirical view basing ourselves on bald statistics alone. As we have pointed out on many occasions workers cannot be on strike perpetually. There are ebbs and flows in the number and size of disputes taking place. At the TUC the bosses’ leader, Digby Jones of the CBI, appealed for “a return to moderate trade unionism”. The bosses are clearly shaken by the rising tide of militancy, even though it is still in its early stages.
All the available evidence – and it is our task to analyse all the factors in the economy, in politics, in international relations, in the relations between the classes which can help us understand the direction in which events are moving – points to a stormy period ahead in British politics. Workers cannot be on strike permanently, that is self-evident, but a new period of struggles on the industrial front has undoubtedly begun. This is intimately and dialectically linked with a shift to the left in the unions, and an increased activity and participation in the movement. This must inevitably find a reflection inside the Labour Party.
The new left General Secretary of the powerful T&GWU, Tony Woodley, a vocal advocate of the campaign to reclaim Labour, spells this out in a recent article in The Guardian, “Working people need a coherent and unified political voice, underpinned by an electoral discipline. It is clear that this will largely fall to the trade unions, which founded Labour and have sustained it through good times and bad. I believe that the majority of union affiliates to the party now share a broad common policy agenda – and also share a desire to see Labour’s policy making democratically opened up once more.”
Woodley, like Labour MP Glenda Jackson before him, has called on Blair to resign over the war in Iraq. His call for a shift to the left at the top of the Labour Party in order to prevent the Tories winning the next election has already gained an echo in the movement, prompting Blair’s spin doctors to make a public reply. Understandably given the Blair government’s capitalist policies and their treatment of the working class, the bourgeois idea of breaking the link between the unions and Labour gained some ground in the movement. This development was to the delight of the sectarian groups on the fringes of the movement who saw it as proof of their ‘theory’ that the Labour Party was now no different to the Tories and the Liberals. Unfortunately for them however, this was a temporary phenomenon, which has now run its course. The revulsion felt by sections of workers at their union being formally linked to the actions of Blair is entirely justified. However, as soon as there is the real prospect of a struggle within the workers’ organisation, especially a struggle by the unions to reclaim the Labour Party, support for this policy based on frustration collapses.
Whilst the FBU and Bectu are continuing to move towards disaffiliation, this idea has failed to gain much support elsewhere. In all the big unions, UNISON, the T&G, Amicus, the GMB and others, new left leaders, or old leaders under renewed pressure from below, are instead calling for the union movement to co-ordinate a campaign to reclaim Labour. Mick Rix has made a more concrete call for a campaign to organise the deselection of MPs who support privatisation etc. He is now calling for the convening of a conference of trade union and Labour Party members to take the party back. Organised seriously, taken to every member of the party and every trade unionist such a campaign would undoubtedly get a real echo. The idea of disaffiliation has now run out of steam. The process which is now underway will not see more impotent splits of small groups to the left, but a polarisation and a struggle between left and right within the unions, and within the Labour Party
Add to this already explosive mix the current political crisis of Blairism, and we can assume that this process of radicalisation and renewed activity in the movement will be accompanied by splits and divisions at every level of the party, and immense opportunities for our ideas in the next few years. There is no guarantee that Blair will last until the next election. If he does there is no guarantee that Labour would win. That may still be the most likely variant. But win or lose the next election, the next period will see the end of Blair, the development of a new left inside the Labour Party and the unions reflecting events in society. The process which brought Blair to power in the first place is moving into reverse, just as the conditions which Blairism reflected are turning into their opposite. Blair is faced with a political crisis, a weak and unstable economy and the prospect of a major confrontation with the working class.
This is not the end of the matter for us of course, but just the beginning. It will be the beginning of a new period in which we can build the Marxist tendency in the labour movement. Of course we must fight alongside the left in the unions and inside the Labour Party where they are raising progressive policies, and calling for greater democracy. However, the left always bring with them too all the outdated reformist nostrums of yesteryear, Keynesianism etc. We must be able to answer these.
The task of Marxism is to make conscious the unconscious strivings of the working class. The molecular process of change within the working class is conditioned by the crisis of capitalism which is unfolding at the present time. White-collar workers, industrial workers, students and youth, all sections will be looking for answers to their problems and the problems of society. Those answers can only be provided by the ideas of Marxism. Therefore we must study those ideas and take them into the labour movement energetically and enthusiastically. We must explain that only the socialist transformation of society can meet the needs and aspirations of the working class, and put an end to the nightmare of capitalism.
Theory is the bedrock of our tendency. Our attention to this question throughout the very complex period which now lies behind us allowed us to remain on course. A continued, even increased attention to the question of theory and education will be vital in the stormy period opening up in Britain and internationally. Along with our work in the labour movement, and an energetic turn towards the youth, this is the precondition for building support for the ideas of Marxism, and building becomes more urgent by the day. Events are beginning to speed up even here in formerly sleepy old Britain and we must be prepared. We must be prepared with ideas, and we must get organised in readiness for the great events which impend.
See The New Situation in Britain (London, 28/02/03)