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An action programme for Britain

23 April 2014

This Action Programme was published in 2014, in the aftermath of the defeat of the 2010-11 student revolt, and the 2011-12 pensions’ dispute.

Britain needs a revolution. The great crash of 2008 and the economic depression that followed were caused by a systemic failure of capitalism.

The austerity that followed was not the fault of Labour’s overspending, but because a trillion pounds of taxpayers’ money was handed over to the banks. Now we are paying for the bosses’ crisis.

Unemployment has soared to 2.3 million. Benefits and pensions have been slashed. The NHS, the state education system and public services have been cut to the bone or privatised.

Workers, benefit claimants, young people, the disabled and pensioners have fought back, sometimes heroically. But time and again, our leaders in the Labour Party, the trade unions and even social movements have suspended action or signed away our rights.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Thousands of people are looking for an alternative to a system which provides for the few, not the many.

An Action Programme for Britain is Workers Power’s contribution to the debate about how to achieve the revolutionary transformation we need. But it is also a guide to struggle now.

We encourage every socialist and activist to discuss the ideas in these pages—and to put them into practice.

Tory Britain—a land of poverty and inequality

The Tories are pointing to Britain’s shallow ‘economic recovery’ as proof their austerity is working. But for most the Great Recession’s effects are still blighting our lives.

Official figures admit 2.3 million people are still out of work. One in five young people are jobless.
But these government numbers only tell half the story. The Trades Union Congress says more than four million people can’t get a job.

When you add benefit cuts, soaring rents and low pay, you get plummeting living standards across the country.

One in three children now lives in poverty. So do one in five working age adults without children. With college fees beyond reach for hundreds of thousands, many young people have no prospect of work or education. A recent report warns that 750,000 young people feel they have nothing to live for and that one in three has “suicidal thoughts”.

For those in work, real wages have been falling for seven years. Public sector wages were frozen for three years and pegged to one per cent since—much less than inflation. The TUC says “the average worker will lose around £6,000 by 2014 as a result of wages failing to keep pace with rising prices”. Public sector wages have lost around 20 per cent of their purchasing power; many private sector workers suffered pay freezes and short hours.

No wonder more than five million people are now classed as low paid, on less than £13,600 a year (60 per cent of the national average).

Sex discrimination means women already earned less than men before the crisis. Today more than one in four working women earns less than the living wage.

The government’s Business Department admits “about one in 10 of the UK’s entire private sector workforce—2.3m people—is in ‘precarious employment’”. This includes a million people on zero hours contracts, with no guaranteed work or pay.

Preying on the poor, payday loan companies, pawnbrokers, and bookmakers are spreading like a rash.
Meanwhile some have not suffered at all—they’ve profited at the poor’s expense. Last year 18,000 people in Britain earned £1 million or more. Only two years earlier the figure was 10,000.

Twenty-three of these millionaires are sitting in David Cameron and Nick Clegg’s cabinet. Whether in recovery or recession, they press on with policies that make the rich richer and the poor poorer.
Tory austerity is a distribution of wealth from the poor to the rich. It is a policy we can and must resist.

Tory economic policy—make the poor pay for the crisis

Here’s how the Tories are trying to make the working class pay for the recession.

Tory ideology—’there is no alternative’

These Tory policies are more than just Etonian hatred for the poor. Governments all over the world are forcing through austerity programmes like this.

This is the capitalist class’s solution to an historic crisis of their system.

The worldwide downturn that began in 2007 will not disappear through a short-lived credit-fuelled recovery or a pre-election boom.

The world is going backwards because of an overall decline in rates of return for investment. The whole system is run for profit and profit alone, so if the capitalists do not get sufficient profit per pound invested, they will not invest.

The bankers and corporations believe they can only escape from stagnation by cutting their “unnecessary overheads”—like staffing levels, workers’ pay, and corporate taxes that fund public health, welfare and education—and by privatising public services. If this means closing down “failing” industries and services (which just means failing to make sufficient profits), if it means sacking hundreds of thousands of workers, freezing wages, pushing millions into temporary and insecure employment and zero hours contracts, then so be it. That is their solution to the crisis.

Yet politicians of all the main parties say there is no alternative to austerity. Even Labour says austerity is inevitable (though maybe it could be done a little more ‘slowly’ and ‘fairly’). Across the media commentators and politicians hammer home the message that we simply can’t afford to pay for services any more and that cutting public spending is the only way. In Margaret Thatcher’s infamous phrase, “there is no alternative” to making the poor pay for the crisis.

But it just isn’t true. There is an alternative. We could make the rich pay to rebuild our society.

Eliminate the deficit by taxing the rich, taking over the banks and corporations and cancelling state debt and interest payments to billionaire bondholders.

Put millions back to work by drawing up a democratic plan of production, expanding health care, affordable house-building, education, flood defences and sustainable energy.

The fight against austerity—potential squandered

Inevitably the Credit Crunch of 2008 and the Great Recession of 2009 led to resistance. In France and then Greece, a series of one-day general strikes brought right wing governments to the brink of collapse. In Spain and the US occupations filled the city centres. In Tunisia and then Egypt general strikes, with mass demonstrations on the streets and in the squares, erupted into outright revolution and brought brutal regimes crashing down.

Resistance flared up in Britain too. Students rebelled against tuition fee hikes and benefit cuts, trashed the Tories’ offices and fought the police on the steps of parliament. Millions struck and hundreds of thousands marched in one-day protests against the Tories’ pension robbery.

The student protests of 2010, the summer riots in 2011, the rash of local demonstrations against hospital closures and other cuts show that even where no official lead is given, anger boils over, and people start organising struggles themselves, from below. Examples of such grassroots leadership are the successful strikes by electricians on construction sites (Sparks), and most recently by the bakers at Hovis and the Tres Cosas migrant cleaners.

But overall in the UK resistance simply did not match the scale of the Tory attack.

The biggest scandal is that the Coalition announced its intention to break up the National Health Service back in 2010, and then started to roll out its cuts and privatisations without nationwide industrial action being called. Only in September 2013—two and a half years down the line—did the TUC or the principal health unions call a mass national demonstration. And since then, they have done nothing.

For all their talk of coordinated action, the union leaders have failed to coordinate and unite resistance. The pensions struggle of 2011 was sold out after only one day of mass action.

Since then union leaders, whether on the right or the left wing of the TUC, have tamely allowed the anti-union laws to prevent a class-wide response to a political attack on the entire welfare state.

Despite being led by supposedly left-wing general secretaries, the Communications Workers Union has avoided any decisive action while the Royal Mail has been sold off, and the Fire Brigades Union has launched only occasional strikes for a few hours—yes, hours—at a time, while London fire services have been decimated.

Then came the crisis at the Grangemouth plant, where Unite, which is the biggest union in Britain and led by supposedly militant General Secretary Len McCluskey, accepted the most humiliating terms of surrender from Ineos, including a no-strike deal, when they could have occupied the plant and raised a call for solidarity action across the country.

When the chips are down the ‘militant’ left-wing union leaders hardly behave any differently to the ‘moderate’ right wing union leaders. This is because none of them have an alternative to the status quo—neither fighting tactics nor a political solution. It’s the same story every time: symbolic but impotent protests, fear of breaking the anti-union laws, and then just waiting for a Labour government that will not reverse the cuts, tax the rich, or abolish the anti-union laws anyway.

If we want to resist effectively, we will need to be willing to break the law, as the Tolpuddle Martyrs did. Today’s union leaders are too comfortable, too scared to follow the example of their great predecessors. We need to fight for mass strike action, culminating in an all-out united strike against the cuts, in defiance of the law. And we will need to do it without the union leaders if necessary.

A crisis of leadership

A succession of defeats since the 1980s has weakened the labour movement. There are major obstacles that have to be overcome. But these defeats were not a result of unstoppable objective processes. They were a result of the action or inaction of real people, with names and faces, whose false strategies led to defeat.

Of course we live in a changed world from the ’70s and ’80s. We’ve seen the anti-union laws, a halving of union numbers since 1980, the weakening of workplace organisation, a switch to precarious employment in new industries where unions are virtually unknown, and a decline in strike figures since the “golden age” of the 1970s. The absence of a mass socialist party means too often the capitalists’ ideas go unchallenged.

But these changes demand that we recover the militant tactics and forms of organisation of the 1970s and of earlier periods of resistance—lost for a long while, but recoverable by a new generation of fighters who are not daunted by defeats, whose horizons have not been narrowed and whose imaginations have not been dulled.

Just as it would be wrong to suggest that workers are simply straining at the bit for action, held back only by a thin layer of leaders at the top, so it would fly in the face of recent experience to say workers would not respond to a fighting lead.

From the pension strikes to the student revolt, not one of the actions against the Tories over the last three years failed because of a lack of support from below.

In each case, it was the failure of the union leaders to act that delivered defeat. That is why we must combine campaigning for united action with an initiative to build a rank and file alternative, independent of the leaders.

For a rank and file movement in the trade unions

We’ve heard more than enough from do-nothing top-table speakers at annual rallies. The initiative needs to come from below, from the rank and file, from the local forces actually fighting the cuts and closures, day to day.

We need the union membership at grassroots level to debate and decide on a plan of action to stop the retreat and re-launch a national fight back. We need an assembly of their delegates to decide on action and set out to implement it.

This would mean defying the Tory anti-trade union laws, the most savage and undemocratic in Europe. If we all acted together as a mass force they could be made unenforceable, just like Heath’s anti-union laws were in the 1970s.

On the other hand to wait passively for an election in 2015, as the Labour Party leaders urge us and as the union leaders hope in secret, would be to let the bosses inflict yet another historic defeat on the working class, like those of the 1980s. Then it was a matter shutting down industries where the unions were strong. Now Cameron is out to destroy the public sector, the remaining bastion of strong trade unionism.

When employers threaten closures, we need to occupy workplaces to save our jobs. If we link militant trade union action to a mass social movement on the streets—in defence of the NHS, pensions, education, wages and jobs—if we strike together as one, we could force Cameron and the employers to back down, weakening their government potentially fatally.

When their officials have refused to sanction action or actually sabotaged it, workers have recently have created new ‘pop-up unions’ or joined independent unions like the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) or the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB), to carry on their struggle. This is a completely justified tactic. But “dual carding” or  “pop up unions” will not prove effective as the strategy for reclaiming the unions from the bureaucrats. It would still leave six million workers in their hands. To transform the unions into fighting and democratic bodies a rank and file  movement is needed; in every union and across all the unions  It should fight for workers control of all disputes,  negotiations and settlements—by mass meetings and elected strike committees.

A rank and file movement in every union, coordinated nationally across the unions, could take control of all disputes and negotiations.

It could make union officials subject to regular election, fully accountable and recallable, and put them on the average pay of their members.

Our watchword would be: fight with the union leaders where possible, without them where necessary.
We need a massive campaign to organise the huge number not in unions—especially those in precarious and low paid jobs. The Tres Cosas campaign among University of London cleaners and the Sparks’ campaign against de-skilling on construction sites showed what could be done. Unite’s community branches and the bakers’ union BFAWU’s campaign to unionise fast food workers could provide the basis for future victories.

All these show that workers will join unions that fight for them and that encourage them to control their own struggles democratically.

‘People’s Assemblies’ have been held in cities across the country. Together with them, trades councils, union branches, student unions and community campaigns and organisations should send delegates to local councils of action. These can become organising centres against the cuts and deliver active solidarity for all those fighting back. They could draw in delegates from all anticuts, antiracist and women’s rights campaigns, from workplaces, estates, schools and colleges.

With strong grassroots organisations—brought together in a national structure—we would be able to coordinate struggles without relying on the union leaders. We’d be able to move towards the mass strikes we need, without them being constantly called off or sold out.

A programme of action

The task is twofold. First is to defend the system of public services and welfare that the workers’ movement wrenched from an unwilling ruling class. Second is to renew the ideal that inspired them: a society based on production for the needs of millions, not the greed of the millionaires; a society of full employment; a society of equality and freedom; a society without exploitation; a socialist society.

Beyond Labour

Despite Ed Miliband’s 2013 conference pledges to abolish the bedroom tax, freeze fuel bills and build 200,000 affordable homes a year by 2020, over the past three years the Labour Party has:

The Old Labour “socialism” of reducing social inequality has disappeared without a trace; the identification with the unions and the working class has been all but abandoned; the domination of openly pro-capitalist ideas in Labour is near total. The representation of the Labour left in parliament, in local government, in the constituencies has shrunk to an all-time low.

Labour cannot be converted into an instrument of socialist transition. That is why we need a new party of the working class, a party of struggle against capitalism, based on those fighting capitalism in the here and now. A party that can win working people to the only real solution that is in their interests – a socialist solution.

This party should focus on today’s struggles: defending the NHS, opposing the bedroom tax, making the rich pay to save our services, fighting for jobs, for a future for the young and a decent retirement for the elderly.

At the same time this new party should connect these struggles to the fight for a socialist transformation of society.

The party will oppose the pro-capitalist ideas that are spread by the media, and that foment a pathological individualism that glorifies selfishness, status and celebrity and denigrates collectivity and solidarity.

It will fight the denigration and persecution of benefit claimants and the long-term unemployed, which portray them as scroungers when the rich dodge far more in taxes than is lost through invalid benefit claims.

Our party will fight the British nationalism that blames unemployment, bad housing and stretched health and social services on fictional “floods” of East European migrants, Roma and others. Our party should protest against racism in all its many forms, from the merely “casual” to attacks and abuse in the streets and communities.

A new workers’ party can fight this by exposure, by mockery, and by stimulating the creation of a combative counterculture, based on giving working people, youth and women a voice.
In short a new workers’ party must put socialism back on the agenda for millions. And this is not primarily a question of winning elections; this must be a do-it-yourself solution, carried out by the direct action of millions and not just voted for. In the words of Karl Marx, “the emancipation of the working class is the task of the working class itself”.

Revolution—the capitalists will never give up without a fight

Any serious reforms we can force out of the ruling class will be short-lived if the working class does not take the power.

No matter how many MPs we get into Westminster, the capitalists and their unelected servants in the state machinery—the judges, police chiefs, senior civil servants and so on—would still rule us; their media would still fool us, and the bosses would still exploit us.

As long as the real power of the state—the police, the army, and the judiciary—remains firmly in the hands of the billionaires and their agents, then their ownership of the banks, industry, commerce and the media is safe. Even if a government of workers’ parties had mass support on the streets and in the workplaces, nothing would decisively change, as long as this support remained disarmed, relying on its deadly enemies to enforce its decisions.

Observe how the police have behaved in recent times: kettling teenagers in the snow for hours; arresting demonstrators en masse without evidence; beating peaceful protesters; killing black prisoners with impunity.

In Iraq and Afghanistan the army have tortured detainees and executed unarmed prisoners; at home, police spies infiltrate peaceful protest movements.

Imagine what these forces would be ordered do, when the system they defend is really threatened. If we want to overthrow this system we need to be ready.

When riot police break up our demonstrations then we should organise defence guards for each march. This happens spontaneously anyway; revolutionaries only seek to make it more determined, disciplined and far-sighted. If fascists terrorise Muslim communities and threaten to attack mosques then we organise multi-ethnic defence teams to stop them.

In the end only a revolution that breaks up the machinery of repression, undermining the discipline of the army, winning over the rank and file soldiers, arming the people and creating a workers’ militia, will be able to impose its will.

At the same time the immense economic power of the bosses will be used to undermine any workers’ government, unless and until workers seize control of the factories, banks, supermarkets and offices.
To expropriate the banks and big corporations, and resist the inevitable violence of the ruling class, a workers’ government would need the armed force to make its decisions count. To carry out measures in the interests of the majority, and not become an elite in its own right, the government would need to be made up of recallable delegates from councils of action representing all working people, without privileges for anyone.

On this basis it will finally be possible to democratically plan the economy, taking giant steps to abolish poverty, exploitation and social inequality.

With power in the hands of the millions we will raise the call to the workers of the world to take British-owned enterprises abroad into their own hands, and extend the revolution across the globe -– to eradicate the exploitation of the working class, the oppression of women, racism and war, and to open the road to a classless and stateless society.

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