By R. Banks and Alex Rutherford
The growing cost of living crisis and increasing public alarm at what it will mean pose the urgent need for a united front between all those affected by inflation.
It needs to bring together union members and those who want to join a fighting union; the unemployed and underemployed; pensioners, students and benefit claimants. Inflation is slashing all our incomes. We all need to fight back together.
But while there is a strong urge for such unity at grass roots level, as can be seen on the sizable numbers expressing their solidarity on visits to the picket lines and the thousand-strong rallies organised by Enough Is Enough, there is less evidence of concord from some of the union tops. Indeed it seems that the bad old habit of setting up separate branded campaigns by various parties and unions is still in operation.
Enough is Enough and Don’t Pay are the new campaigns which have hit the headlines. In addition Unite intends to launch Unite for a Workers’ Economy and smaller campaigns such as Cost of Living Action have been launched. The older ‘fronts’, the People’s Assembly and People before Profit, are also competing in a crowded marketplace. In this case we believe mergers and rationalisations are in order, but the initiative will probably have to come from below.
Enough is Enough
The CWU union initiated Enough is Enough with support from figures in the Labour left and Tribune magazine, providing its political ballast. It has drawn in the Renters Union, Acorn and Right to Food. Mick Lynch of the RMT, Zara Sultana MP and Andy Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester, have spoken on its platforms. Its strength is that it aims to combine the trade union struggle with community action. This initiative is certainly to be applauded
In less than a month the campaign has garnered more than 500,000 sign-ups and has held large rallies up and down the country, with militant speeches drawing a warm reception from the thousands gathered.
However, so far follow-up has been slow. And although EiE say they do want local organisations, emails asking for help in setting these up have gone unanswered.
Groups need to be organised on the basis of metropolitan boroughs, towns and cities with deep roots in workplaces and neighbourhoods. Indeed activists are already setting up local strike solidarity groups –we should encourage them to affiliate to EiE or become its local branches.
The campaign’s five demands are: a real pay rise; slash energy bills; end food poverty; decent homes for all; tax the rich. What these mean in practice and how we are going to fight for them needs to be discussed at local level. Should they be added to – nationalise the energy firms, for example? What action could we take –demos, flash mob occupations, unofficial walkouts?
Activist networks, trades councils, tenants associations, Labour lefts and campaign groups, along with union branches, could form the base units of EiE, which can then branch out into the estates and workplaces. Once they are established, a national conference of such groups could then elaborate a strategy to defend the whole working class from this crisis.
Don’t Pay is an attempt to emulate the anti-poll tax campaign, when mass non-payment forced the Tory government to withdraw its the tax. Similar campaigns, especially in Ireland, have shown the tactic can be transferred to consumer bills.
But Don’t Pay’s demands are minimal: freezing the energy cap at its current extortionate level of £1,971 is no better than Keir Starmer’s inadequate policy. The cap should be pushed back to pre-crisis levels. It is also a very narrow basis for a campaign, when the costs of food, transport and rents are all skyrocketing.
Moreover Truss and Kwarteng are devising a way to defuse the anger by introducing a three-year package to freeze energy prices or targeted benefits to pensioners or those on universal credit. This could take the sting out of October’s lifting of the cap but keep prices above the market rate for the rest of the decade: not a ‘handout’ but a loan.
Like EiE there is hardly any local organisation for Don’t Pay – beyond WhatsApp groups. By this stage of the poll tax rebellion, there were large local groups, demos in every town and city and two national conferences.
Around 150,000 have pledged not to pay, but action will only be taken by the campaign if they receive 1,000,000 sign ups by 1 October. The numbers don’t stack up. But if the leadership does nothing to mobilise those 150,000 willing activists, it would be a criminal waste of potential.
At the moment both the campaigns have too limited an outlook as far as their demands and solutions go. We need an RPI-plus pay and benefit uplift, on top of cutting energy bills. We need to fight to nationalise the energy sector and place it under workers’ control. If any employer invokes anti-union laws or Truss puts new ones before parliament, then we will need political mass strike action.
None of the defects of the campaigns we have mentioned should make socialists refuse to build them. The union leaders’ and Labour MPs’ avoidance of supporting Don’t Pay is a reformist prejudice against anything remotely ‘illegal’ or ‘irresponsible’. But some form of mass civil disobedience, like mass nonpayment, can help force the government to yield to our demands.
Our task is to create democratic coordinating committees that can unite industrial and political campaigns in common action. The local solidarity groups that have emerged across London boroughs could prove the most useful way of linking the various campaigns and tactics.
In the context of a real mass upsurge of strikes and direct action, our aim should be to develop them into councils of action, drawing in delegates from union branches and the community, extending solidarity for all and taking bold action to expose the profiteers and authorities and challenge their whole profit system.
Enough Is Enough has called a nationwide day of action for 1 October. Let’s make this the focus for uniting the movement and launching the fightback.