This document is a statement on Britain, an analysis which was agreed
unanimously at the national conference of Socialist Appeal in April.
The statement constitutes an analysis of the deepening social,
political and economic crisis of British capitalism. This perspective
applies the method of Marxism to these developments, seeking to uncover
the trends and processes within, and serves as a guide to action for
all those workers and youth who want to struggle for a socialist
transformation of society.
The last 25 years in the main has
been one of retreat for the working class, especially on the industrial front.
As we have already stated, the de-industrialisation of Britain and the
domination of the trade unions by the right wing for most of this period have
resulted in trade union membership falling to under seven million. While PCS,
NUJ and other white-collar unions have increased their membership, membership
in the industrial and general unions have declined. Where unions have engaged
in militant action, such as the RMT, they have grown.
Over the last decade the trend
within the unions started to change and they have steadily shifted to the left,
with openly Blairite leaders, such as Sir Ken Jackson, being removed. However,
the calibre of the left reformists varies enormously. The GMB, UNISON, TGWU and
AMICUS have formed a so-called "left" block in the TUC and Labour Party, and are
under pressure to challenge the Blair agenda. Despite this, including pressure
from the broad lefts, none of these unions have yet dared come out in support
of McDonnell, and are engaged in horse-deals with Brown.
The imminent merger of the TGWU
and AMICUS, with the GMB possibly joining later, will create the biggest union
in British history, with more than 2 million members. Potentially, it wields a
colossal power that extends across the whole of British industry. The merger
itself has been carried through under pressure from the top of the union,
attempting to maintain its position in the face of falling membership. However,
it has tapped into the urge for unity within the rank and file. For Marxists,
our attitude to union mergers is not a principled question but a tactical one.
It goes without saying that, other things being equal, we defend any measure
that increases the cohesion and strength of the organized working class.
However, we stand firmly for a democratic rule book and militant policies.
Some mergers are driven by the
interests of the trade union bureaucracy. With declining membership mergers are
seen as a way out, offering lump sums and huge pensions for those who choose
retirement. They can be used to reduce union democracy in the process. If it
were possible, we would prefer genuine industrial unions which unite workers on
industrial lines, instead of craft unionism or the combination of different
groups of workers along arbitrary lines that cut across all natural divisions.
A clear example of this is the rail industry where workers are currently
divided between three separate unions. One union for all railway workers would
be a great advance.
However, truth is concrete. Trade
unions have developed historically and general unions have come into being. Of
course, under these circumstances, we do not advocate the break-up of unions
which do not correspond with the principles of industrial unionism. Likewise,
we cannot oppose, in principle, the development of so-called "super unions". In
reality, the TGWU or AMICUS are already "super unions". The same is true of
UNISON, which was created in 1993 out of the merger of COHSE, NUPE and NALGO.
The members of all three former unions were in favour of the merger. We also
supported this position. The unification of manual and white-collar workers in
local authorities and the health service was a step forward. Of course, the
leadership has manoeuvred to defend its interests by watering down union
democracy. Our task in the union is to fight for union democracy and a militant
policy that can defend workers.
Of course, it is not correct to
support every merger. We opposed the EETPU and AUEW merger. Although the
formation of the new AEEU would mean the creation of a potentially powerful
union, it was clear that the democratic structures of the old AUEW would be
completely destroyed in the new structure. As we explained at the time, the new
union under the control of the arch right wing became a company union. The
merger with MSF to form Amicus, also under Sir Ken Jackson, was likewise
However, despite its undemocratic
structures and arch right-wing leadership, the growing discontent in the rank
and file with "partnership" deals, resulted in the defeat of Jackson and the
victory of the Gazette grouping. This was a big step forward and opened
up the way, at least partially, for greater union democracy and the restoration
of the election of full-time officials. Although supported at conference, it
remained largely a dead letter under the current leadership, except for one
election in Yorkshire.
This turn to the left, however
partial, has affected all the unions, even the most bureaucratic. This is an
argument against the sects who stated that the right-wing unions could never be
changed. On the basis of events, the unions will be transformed and
retransformed. With set backs, interruptions, backsliding, there will be
further moves to the left in the trade unions in the coming period.
Whatever the circumstances, our
task has always been to fight within the existing trade unions for a militant
programme, as well as a democratic structure. At the end of the day, it is the
movement of the class that will bring about change. While we understand the
interests of the bureaucracy, we also understand the instincts of workers for
greater unity in face of the employers’ offensive. Although we opposed the
terms of the merger of the TGWU and Amicus, we must build bridges to the left
elements within the newly merged union that we need to influence and win over to
militant policies, union democracy and accountability.
While the figures for strike days
lost are at historically low levels, there have been numerous short and bitter
disputes. A number of these disputes have been illegal. The trade union leaders
continue to play the role of damping down militancy and repudiating strikes, as
in Amicus. Many workers have voted for industrial action, but have not got as
far as a strike, such as the Nissan workers. The anti-union legislation is
still being used to tie up the union leaders who are terrified of breaking the
law and having their assets seized. Where the union leadership has campaigned
and given confidence to the membership, as in the PCS, the membership has
Marxists have a duty to find a
road to the youth. "A revolutionary party must of necessity base itself on the
youth", stated Trotsky. To attract the most conscious youth we have to appeal
to them directly under the banner of Marxism. We have to appeal to the idealism
of youth, inspire them with the struggles against imperialism and so on. This
has proved decisive in reaching a new layer of youth. Young people are in a
deeply radicalised state at the present time. Issues such as the war in Iraq,
revolution in Latin America, climate change, nuclear weapons, global poverty
and the role of imperialism generally, has served to politicise young people.
Youth are responsive to internationalism.
Most youth who do not go into
careers or dead end jobs, end up in further education. There they are faced
with high tuition fees and loans which have meant a spiralling of debt. As a
consequence most students are forced to take part-time jobs to make ends meet.
They are closer to the working class than at any other time in history. This is
a positive development.
Youth today have no experience of
the Thatcher years or Tory governments. Their life experience has been largely
confined to Blairism. As a consequence, most political youth identify the New
Labour government with tuition fees, war in Iraq, Trident, and a right-wing
agenda. It is no wonder that the majority of youth are not attracted to the
Labour Party at the present time. Of course, this will change in the future.
But at the present time the Labour Party is regarded as responsible for unjust
war, seen every night on the TV screens.
The Blairites deliberately
destroyed Labour’s youth section. Young Labour is a hollow shell, used as a
vehicle for personal advancement. Blair did not want a Labour Party, let alone
a genuine youth section open to revolutionary ideas. Few youth are involved in
the trade unions, but where unions have genuine youth sections as in PCS, we
must actively participate. The attempt by the LRC to establish a youth
organisation has failed to take off at this stage. Though they managed to get a
small number of young activists to a launch conference, this has not developed
into real organisation.
A genuine Labour youth
organization will most likely be re-established when the Left take back control
of the party in the future. In the meantime the Marxists need to build up our
own youth forces, educating and training them in the ideas and methods of
Marxism, for when that opportunity arises. That in turn means a great degree of
flexibility in our approach.
By their very nature youth are
more radical in their outlook. These days there are precious few
apprenticeships available. A layer of youth is affected by unemployment or is
forced onto cheap labour New Deal schemes. The majority of jobs open to youth
are low paid and so many have gone into further education, where they are
affected by rising debt.
In British society, there has been
an immense accumulation of contradictions for more than two or three decades.
For the majority of the working class, and even for sections of the middle
class, gone are the days of hope, a future of progress and prosperity. Gone are
the illusions that this generation will be better than the last. The reality
under Thatcher and Blair has put paid to that.
In the past, capitalism and its
apologists were able to offer some prospects for the future. Today, where even
pension rights are being undermined, there is foreboding about what the future
holds. Millions have attempted to find a way out on the basis of capitalism,
through working harder and longer. But it is like being on a treadmill. There
is a growing realization that there is no real way out on this basis. The
present situation in Britain cannot be sustained indefinitely.
The last few decades have been
difficult ones for the working class and the activists in particular. The
movement has been thrown back. Many have been deeply affected by the setbacks
of those years. But things are slowly beginning to turn around, as can be seen
from the last days of Blair, the McDonnell campaign and the changes in the
The working class has gone through
the school of Blair, and is likely to go through the school of Gordon Brown.
This is an inevitable process. The working class always learns through
experience and they are experiencing reformism (or rather counter-reformism) in
practice. It is a harsh but necessary lesson of what capitalism has to offer in
the twenty-first century. However, the old mole of revolution, to use Marx’s
words, is burrowing deep into the foundations of British society.
Contradictions are piling up and will explode at a certain stage. All that is
needed is a point of reference.
Great shocks impend that will
transform the situation. The past privileged position of British capitalism,
which allowed it to create a privileged position for the upper strata of the
working class, has long gone. Today, in terms of working conditions, the
British working class is trailing behind its European counterparts. Britain has
been pushed back. The majority of workers are at the end of their tether.
Conditions determine consciousness.
The working class is drawing important lessons from the last decade. There is a
growing polarization within British society. The pressures within the trade
unions that caused a shift to the left will be replicated in the Labour Party.
Things are beginning to change as evidenced by the McDonnell challenge.
Whatever happens, things cannot stay the same. The myth of Blairism has been
exposed. We must monitor developments in the Labour Party closely and be
prepared to respond to opportunities that arise on a local, regional or
After decades of relative calm,
all the elements are piling up for a reawakening of the working class in
Britain. In the 1890s, Engels referred to the 40-year slumber of the British
workers after the defeat of Chartism. The British working class was affected in
a similar way after the defeat of the miners. But now a new generation of
fighters is beginning to come to the fore, which will serve to renew the mass
organizations in the coming period, pushing them further to the left.
The Marxist tendency has a crucial
role in the coming period. We are entering an epoch of storm and stress, of
important class battles, of sharp changes in consciousness. The British working
class, which has lagged behind the workers in the rest of Europe in the last
period, will quickly catch up. Workers do not go on strike for the sake of it.
They only take action when they need to. Conditions are forcing them in this
direction. When the masses move into action they will move through their
existing mass organizations, starting with the trade unions. These
organizations will be tested and retested. In the course of these profound
changes, the forces of Marxism will begin to connect with the advanced layers
of workers and youth because the ideas of Marxism will correspond to their
aspirations. If we remain firm in principles, with flexible tactics, a sense of
proportion and a correct approach, the future will be assured.
Perspectives are not a blueprint,
but only a guide to action. All the combustible material is present for big
movements in the future. Explosions are inevitable. But to ask exactly "when?"
is to ask the wrong question of perspectives. The question that matters is will
we be ready for the events that lie before us?
Now, more than ever before,
British Perspectives are inseparably linked to the question of tasks and the
building of the forces of Marxism. This is of paramount importance. Leon
Trotsky’s optimistic advice to the young British Left Opposition in the early
1930s still has much relevance today. "The British Left Opposition must begin
systematic work. You must establish our staff-centre though a small one. You
must build your own publication, even on a modest scale… It is necessary to
have a steady, uninterrupted activity, to educate our cadres, although in the
first stages few. The fundamental power of history is in our favour."