Trotsky was fond of explaining that big shifts and changes in the consciousness of the working class came as a result of the accumulation of contradictions, of small changes in the political and economic situation. Small changes that is, which reflect deeper processes which sooner or later break through the surface of events.
It seems that Socialist Appeal has been patiently explaining for a long time now, that the pressures have been building up in British society. Increased house prices lead to greater and greater pressures on young workers in particular. Fuel and food price increases have stoked up the pressure even further and pay restraint and cuts particularly in the public sector have had an effect on the trade union movement. Inflation has officially risen to 3.3%. But that underestimates the huge effect that the price increases are having on workers. In a way the last period resembled the long drawn out period of hot sticky weather before a thunderstorm. It’s obvious that there’s going to be a change and the longer it is delayed the worse the storm is when it eventually breaks.
In essence the collapse of Northern Rock and the crisis in the world financial markets represented the political equivalent of the storm breaking. We commented last summer that Gordon Brown had "bounced" into choppy water. But the political outcome of the crisis has been more of a flood. As we have explained many times before, no country, not even the most developed, can operate independently of the world market. If that’s true for the USA, then it’s far more so for Britain. The crisis frames the political outlook of all classes in society.
Labour is now at its lowest ebb. The policies of the right wing leaders have been proven to be absolutely hopeless in the light of the crisis of capitalism. But there’s no surprise in that. The logic of capitalism in crisis undermines any programme or policy that seeks to remain within the bounds of the profit system. The right wing, particularly Blair and Brown consciously sought to present themselves as the genuine party of big business. They are intimately bound up in the crisis of capitalism – and they have no alternative to offer. The only option available on the basis of capitalism will be to make the workers pay for the crisis. But it seems that they have exhausted their credit with the bourgeois. The bosses are beginning to line up behind the Tories.
There is a sea change going on in British society. But we have to be clear, the perspective for the next period flows from the experience of the past period. On the political front a large minority of workers sat on their hands in the local elections. But it will take some time for the disillusionment and anger to feed through into the ranks of the Labour Party. There is a clear reason for this. The Party is by and large empty and despite the growth of the Labour Representation Committee and the role of the Marxist tendency, it’s unlikely that there will be a big shift to the left this side of the general election. As for the little sects, they have no answers. All they can manage is to tail end the anti Labour mood.
On the industrial front, there is obviously a crisis developing in the public sector. It’s clear that the leaderships of the Party and UNISON in particular have fought hard to hold the line on pay this year. The experience of the wage restraint policy after 1974 under Labour was that it took a long time before the workers moved, but that only made the movement more intense when it came. The 1970s were a period where the consciousness of the class developed rapidly on the back of wave after wave of struggles.
The recent fuel tanker drivers’ dispute was very significant. The strike was an offensive struggle, around a 13.2% pay claim.
The petrol companies are awash with money, and the driver’s wages hadn’t increased for years. It echoes the sort of struggles that took place in the past, when capitalism was booming and the bosses could afford to make concessions. But equally it represents the music of the future, there have been big changes building up.
Sooner or later the working class will have to move to defend itself against real cuts in wages and attacks on jobs. Rising inflation and recession are a dangerous combination; many workers will be frightened for their jobs and worrying how they can pay their bills. Uncertainty and instability will anger the most advanced layers and many workers will begin to draw the conclusion that they have no choice but to fight.
Under these conditions we can begin to lay the basis for a powerful Marxist tendency in the trade unions, among the youth and also within the Labour Party.
Lenin wrote of patiently awaiting a break in the situation. Sooner or later the consciousness of the working class always catches up with events. Given all of the problems and uncertainty that have built up, something has to give.