Party & Programme  •  Theory

Autumn 2013 Political-economic perspectives

15 September 2013

Adopted by the National Committee, 15 September 2013.

A: The Economy

George Osborne boasts that Britain’s economy is “turning a corner” and “those in favour of a Plan B have lost the argument”. This bragging seems to be based on little beyond the latest GDP figures, which show the economy grew by 0.7 per cent between April and June this year. On top of 0.3 per cent growth in the first quarter, the economy is predicted to reach one per cent for the third quarter. Yet statistics show that has been the slowest recovery from a recession for 100 years – a nil-growth economy for the past three years. It is now 66 months since the start of the recession in 2008, and UK GDP is still 2.9 per cent below its starting level.

The UK’s performance contrasts unfavourably with the severe recessions of 1920-24 and 1930-34 when GDP was nearly 7 per cent higher after the same length of time. And Thatcher’s deliberate slump of 1979-1983 saw GDP growth of 5 per cent within five-and-a-half years. Growth has been lower in the UK since the fourth quarter of 2010 than in Canada, France, Germany or the US.

 Nevertheless, a cyclical recovery – boosted by that in the USA – is undoubtedly now underway. The OECD has upped its forecast for the UK to 1.5 per cent growth in 2013, but below the 1.6 per cent it forecasts for Japan and the 1.7 per cent for the US. However this recovery still has powerful elements of artificial stimulation – just as the stronger US recovery is based on massive increases in money supply – quantitative easing. 

With one eye fixed firmly on the 2015 election Osborne’s encouragement of private debt has an explosive contradiction built into it. Many economists expect Osborne’s mortgage subsidies – designed to make house owners feel good as their property prices rise – to inflate another housing bubble. Thus the artificial boom economy of the pre-crisis years is still central to the cyclical upturn. Osborne – who denounces public debt – is once again encouraging private debt hoping to fuel a consumer-led boom rather than the manufacturing and export-led boom he predicted.

However Osborne’s “boom” has yet to bring any feel good factor to working people. Average wages have fallen in real terms by 5.5 per cent, almost £1,500 a year, or £28 a week, since 2010. All state pensions and benefits have lost value too, as rising food, fuel, transport and housing costs cause millions to fall below the breadline and thousands to resort to food banks. Child poverty has risen to 3.5 million – more than one in four. Recent figures show that almost 60 per cent of jobs created since Spring 2010 have been in lower-paid sectors such as retail and residential care, where median hourly pay is less than a quarter of the national hourly median.

The number of unemployed remains at 2.5 million, with nearly a million youth out of work and the same figure for the long-term jobless – a 20-year high. In Europe, only Greek, Portuguese and Dutch workers have fared worse. Homelessness is actually on the rise. Latest figures from the Office for National Statistics shows a rise of 5 per cent between April and June 2013 compared with the same quarter a year ago.

If the pressure on real wages and indebtedness continues the combustible materials for an explosion of wage struggles will grow, especially amongst workers with skills in short supply if the recovery continues. But political factors can also be critical here. Cameron has shown himself to be far from a sure-footed operator in the way he grossly underestimated the willingness of the population (sensed even by the Tory MPs) to undertake another military adventure in the Middle East.

If Cameron and Osborne try to use the law or parliament to repress industrial or community resistance they could face a major explosion at home. We should not forget that great upsurges of workers’ struggles in 1924-6 in Britain, in 1934-6 in France and the USA, all came after a severe depression and in conditions of weakened union strength. Indeed this prompted the desire to act “all together” rather than continue to be picked off sector by sector.

The Coalition’s destruction reaches critical mass

The Tory-Lib Dem coalition has just suffered a heavy blow to its prestige by losing the vote in the Commons on Syria. This was clearly a humiliation for David Cameron, in part inflicted by 29 of his own backbenchers. It indicates that many in the Conservative Party do not like or support his (phoney) liberal image and fear the rise of UKIP can only be halted by a sharp turn to the right – on Europe, on immigration, on such issues as gay marriage.

The Lib-Dems on the other hand are in a quandary – how to gradually put clear yellow water between themselves and the Tories in the run-up to an election without rupturing the coalition and giving Cameron the excuse to go to the country when the Lib-Dems might be annihilated. The tensions between Vince Cable and Nick Clegg reflect this dilemma.

Thus the Coalition is far from solid or united. If at any time over the past three years it had been hit fair and square by a powerfully social movement, spearheaded by the unions, supported by Labour, it could have been brought down. That it has not is testimony to the cowardice of “our” leaders.

So despite all these problems the Tories and their allies carry on with their assault on the legacy of 1945.

Work and Pensions’ Secretary Iain Duncan Smith – along with Osborne – has kept up the barrage of attacks on “dependency culture” and the “skivers versus strivers” theme to cap benefits – a measure that will increase child poverty and family break ups. But his flagship reform, the Universal Credit, is in a mess and will not now be rolled out nationally until after the 2015 election.

The Work Programme, despite costing £5bn has missed every target set for helping people to find work, and in half the areas that are running the scheme it has proved more ineffective than doing nothing at all. Only 130,000 of the 1.2 million people who have been through it since 2011 are now in work. The Youth Contract, Nick Clegg’s bright idea to persuade businesses to take on young people who’d been out of work for more than six months, by giving them £1 billion of public money (a bribe for bosses to provide jobs for 160,000 young people) flopped with a take-up of just 4,690 recruits from June 2012 to May 2013.

Personal independence payments (PIPs) are the replacement for disability living allowance (DLA) – the benefit package that helps 3.2 million seriously disabled people with the costs of their care and mobility needs. Ministers complained that “at present 71 per cent get the disability benefit for life, without any systematic reassessments ” and are “festering” on benefits – a downright lie. This replacement scheme too is in near meltdown thanks in part to courageous opposition by the organisations of the disabled such as Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC). Ministers panicked at the idea of an avalanche of news stories about the half a million profoundly disabled people set to lose out under the new benefit just before an election.

Over 400,000 public sector workers have been sacked, with as many jobs again threatened and the pay freeze has effectively continued. We now know that up to one million workers are on zero hour contracts, which are used by one in four companies. Given all this and the bedroom tax and further attacks on welfare, it’s no wonder one million families are using the loan shark pay-day loan companies while 500,000 are forced to use food banks, the modern-day soup kitchens.

The NHS is being dismantled and privatised. Last year the government implemented the Health and Social Care Act, which saw Andrew Lansley’s nightmare vision for the dismantlement of the NHS enshrined in law. From April 2013, 211 CCGs replaced 150 Primary Care Trusts as the commissioners of most NHS services in England. They now control around two-thirds of the NHS budget. The Act forces these organisations to give private companies the chance to compete for contracts, leading to a race to the bottom in quality of service and staff conditions as private companies bid against each other for contracts.

But Lansley’s Act is only the fulfilment of the Blair and Brown government’s relentless encroachment of market principles and practices into the provision of healthcare. Back in 2002, Labour’s Alan Milburn championed the Bill that created Foundation Trusts that are run much like private businesses and whose success is judged on “financial viability”. Hospitals throughout the country are now facing bankruptcy. Barts Health Trust in East London, Britain’s biggest NHS Trust, has announced it is losing £2 million a week. The trust is saddled with a ruinous PFI debt of £1 billion costing £115 million a year, i.e. £2 million a week.

Education Secretary Michael Gove, dubbed by the Daily Mail “the cabinet’s greatest success story”, is only so if success is measured by the swathe of destruction he is carving – cutting 1,000 jobs at the Department for Education; a quarter of its workforce – rolling out huge numbers of new academies and free schools, to be run by “private providers”, on contract to Gove’s Ministry. His 2013 School Teachers’ Pay and Conditions Document envisages the abolition of teachers’ national pay scales; another part of breaking up a national education system and preparing it for privatisation.

This break-up too is an attempt to marketise the state school system, bring in more and more private funding and eventually privatise at least the most market-successful parts. He has also set out to drive the curriculum back to that of the 1950s grammar schools and to this end examinations will be transformed. Although Gove has been forced to retreat from his plans to scrap GCSEs for a new English Baccalaureate (EBacc), from 2017 GCSEs will be overhauled with no coursework, more vigorous, essay-based exams and no re-sits, which will disadvantage poorer and working class students.

Meanwhile the effects of Gove’s victory in 2010, allowing universities to massively raise tuition fees have become clear. It is exactly what the left warned about. Economics Professor Peter Dolton (University of Sussex) warns that 10 to 15 percent of universities could be forced into administration in the foreseeable future. He says, “Low-quality universities charging £9,000 a year will go to the wall” The average student intake was down by four or five percent in 2012. As a result of the academic fees hike many UK Universities will face huge cuts, takeovers by their “higher quality” rivals in the Russell Group, or outright bankruptcy.

Combined with racist restrictions on the rights of foreign students to study in Britain, in 2013 London Met saw its intake fall by 43 per cent, the University of Bolton (down 25 per cent), the University of Greenwich (down 23 per cent) and Leeds Metropolitan University (down 23 per cent). The University of East London has seen a drop of 20.4 percent. What is plain is that universities with more working or lower middle class catchments will go to the wall, and when a university goes into administration, it will have a huge impact on small businesses and the local community as a whole. Private universities, in contrast, are booming. Applications to the Buckingham University, which offers two-year courses it says are more cost-effective, more than doubled.

The bedroom tax, the cap on Housing Benefit and limit of 5 years for new council tenancies will lead increasingly to gentrification on the one hand and ghettoization on the other, with thousands of families uprooted and displaced. Even a UN inspector has said these changes “constitute a breach of human rights laws”. Overcrowding and lack of affordable housing represent an intensifying crisis. In London, with one in ten families awaiting social housing; in England and Wales, the same figure stands at one in 12. As a result, many households have been forced into the high rent private sector, which has increased 86 percent in the last three years, while others face homelessness, which has risen 26 percent in the last two years. Underpinning this problem is the UK’s failure to build affordable housing. Currently, the average British salary is £26,500. Comparatively, the average house price is £238,976 – nine times more than most people will earn in a year. In the last decade, house building has also slumped.

The government promise to build 170,000 new “affordable homes” by 2015 is a drop in the ocean when it comes to addressing the one million homes needed by 2021 if the housing shortfall is to be solved. In the 1950s and 1960s governments Tory as well as Labour built double that figure annually. As always the government prefers to accommodate buyers – with their five per cent mortgage for first time home owners – but will only increase long-term debt, and sees public money used to fund private ownership.

In recent weeks the government has unleashed a vicious new campaign against immigrant workers. The campaign commenced with the widely derided ‘racist van’, which drove around London emblazoned with the message ‘In the UK illegally? Go home or face arrest’, but has stepped up with the launch of a series of UK Border Agency (UKBA) raids and stop and search checks at transport hubs. Now the vile Tory tabloids are stirring up islamophobia against the tiny number of Muslim women who wear the full veil or niqab. No doubt UKIP will use the European elections to ramp up the anti-immigrant hysteria and the EDL will continue with its attempts to march into Muslim areas.

The fight back in the workplace and community

As Tory MPs and delegates gather in Manchester on 29 September, tens of thousands of trade unionists and service users hit hard by the cuts will march against the destruction of the NHS. Twelve months ago TUC Congress passed the prison officers’ union (POA) motion, calling on the TUC to consider “the practicalities of a general strike” to oppose the Con-Dem austerity offensive.

But talk of a general strike remained just that for the leaders – talk. Yet whenever union members have been called out – or when they have rallied at local level – the results have been inspiring. It is the official leadership of the working class – in the unions and the Labour Party – that is unwilling to fight.

Many will ask how it has been possible for this resolution and the mass coordinated action it called for to still be sitting on the table, particularly when the cuts are biting deeper than ever. The answer lies in the timidity of the union leaders – left as well as right. The lower levels of strike action in 2012, – 1,389,700 working days lost in 2011, 248,800 in 2012, the lowest figure since 2005 (160,000) – is due to the sabotage of the coordinated action launched by them under the banner of opposing public sector pension reforms.

It would be a bankrupt policy to passively wait for the rank and file to lead their leaders. Spontaneous eruptions can of course occur but generally workers look to their leaders to lead. And over the last year and a half they have looked in vain. Of course the left, especially the far left can and has in the past initiated mass struggles and given a voice to rank and file demands for action. But the far left in this crisis has proved divided, obsessed with its own sectarian projects and lately wracked by splits and losses. The libertarian alternative we saw in Occupy and Uncut has proved itself incapable of sustained action or of opening a bridgehead to the mass forces in the official unions.

As union leaders dither over what action to take next, we need to build a movement that transcends its current fragmentation and coordinates local grassroots struggles against cuts to the NHS.

There are many positive signs for a successful renewal of the fight this autumn and winter:

On 31 July Lewisham Hospital won an important victory against Health minister Jeremy Hunt’s plans to close its A&E service as the High Court ruled it was “unlawful”. This followed a concerted campaign by Save Lewisham Hospital – comprised of campaigners, health workers and community groups – to defend their service. Last January 25,000 local residents marched against the plans, following door-to-door leafleting by activists. However, Lewisham Hospital continues to be threatened with partial closure to bail out the South London Hospital Trust, which has PFI schemes devouring 18% of its income. This shows that we have to be vigilant – but also that local victories cannot be secured until we have won nationally.

Strike action against attacks on jobs, pay and working conditions is also a key feature of the resistance. The strike by Unison members in the Mid-Yorkshire Hospital Trust against ‘down-banding’ pay cuts is one such example. Leeds Pathology staff are also taking strike action against new shift patterns leading to inadequate staffing levels and a large drop in take home pay. Local strikes by health workers, bolstered by public support, could begin to redevelop a militant anti-cuts movement to stop the Tories’ slash and burn of the NHS.

Workers in Crown Post Offices and Royal Mail are set to strike this autumn against job cuts, closures, the pay freeze and hanging over it all privatization. There was a 96 per cent consultative ballot vote to oppose Royal Mail privatisation in June. Royal Mail and Parcelforce workers will start balloting on 20 September, with the result to be announced on 3 October. A strike could follow at the earliest on 10 October.

The announcement of Royal Mail’s rush privatisation on 12 September is a provocation against the CWU, based on the gamble that the union will call too little action, too strung out to have a powerful effect. Another ploy by management and the government may be the fact that the union leaders, for fear of confronting the anti-union laws, have not dared direct the strike openly against privatisation. They could be manoeuvred into claiming a victory over any concession on wages or pensions and thus privatisation go through unchallenged.

But because the material base of the CWU bureaucracy is under threat, most of their members work for Royal Mail, and because the workforce has a tradition of unofficial action, the strikes could get “out of hand” and turn into an all-out indefinite one. Postal worker militants must urgently organise to take control of the strike and transcend their syndicalist tendency to leave the bureaucracy in place while the rank and file burn themselves out. If they can defeat the government, they can become a beacon of struggle for the rest of the class, but they will need massive solidarity from other unionists and from a campaign to mobilise public support.

Teachers and firefighters are also in line to take action on a national scale. Teachers in the north west have already held a one day strike in June and the NUT-NASUWT plan a joint strike action in the Midlands, Yorkshire, Eastern regions and half of Wales in the week beginning 30 September. London, the South East, South West, the Northern region and the other half of Wales will follow suit in the week beginning 14 October. FBU members have voted by 78% to take strike action on pensions – this would be their first national strike in over a decade. Under the proposals, firefighters over 50 who fail the fitness standards are likely to be sacked without a proper pension as the previously promised ‘redeployment to less physically demanding posts’ will not happen. Firefighters already pay over 12% of their salary in pension contributions, which have steadily increased over the last few years.

The PCS civil service union has won its battle to keep the ‘check off’ system for union subs collection in DCLG government department. NHS workers from West Yorkshire to East London are defending jobs, services and conditions by mounting pickets. RMT members on London Overground held a 48-hour strike in London in August over plans to cut 130 jobs.

In another inspiring struggle members of the bakers’ union BFAWU went on strike at the Hovis plant in Wigan. After two weeks they forced management to concede the abolition of zero hours contracts – a historic victory since this is the first time workers have succeeded in doing this. To the immense credit of the Hovis workers they then decided to continue to strike for agency workers to be put on a permanent contracts too. Militant picketing is facing police repression and arrests and requires solidarity from other trade unionists and socialists until they win.

Blacklisted Unite union shop steward Frank Morris won his struggle for reinstatement on the Crossrail project on 9th September – a victory, not just for Unite but the whole of the trade union movement.

The TUC pledges action – once again. Let’s make it happen

The 2013 TUC in Bournemouth once again saw pressure building for co-ordinated industrial action on pay, jobs and conditions. Delegates overwhelmingly approved calls for a midweek “day of action” across the country. The TUC general council will consult individual unions about the timing. Delegates in Bournemouth also supported the People’s Assembly Against Austerity proposed by Unite’s Steve Turner and furthermore instructed the TUC general council to prepare a “co-ordinated programme of civil and industrial action involving trade unions and other campaigns.”

So the TUC has pledged itself to action. Once again they have written a cheque but “forgotten” to date it. That must be a task for the rank and file, the local Peoples Assemblies and the left. Clearly massive pressure needs to be brought on them to name the day – in November – and launch a massive campaign in every workplace for it. The march on Tory Party Conference on 29 September must be the starting point for this and for relaunching mass resistance on a scale greater and certainly more sustained than in 2011.

We need to prepare for the government and the courts to attempt to declare a day of action unlawful, to threaten the unions with fines and sequestration for losses incurred and the retreat or surrender of union executives. Clearly we need to warn workers of the need to prepare to face down the anti-union laws and their own leaders’ cowardice.

We have to undo the disorientation, demoralisation, the downsizing of the belief in what is possible that have characterised the years 2012-2013. We have to raise the hopes and horizons dashed when the ill-conceived (un)coordinated action on pensions was betrayed by the union leaders and when the destruction of the NHS, the public education and welfare systems was allowed to proceed without anything beyond localised and piecemeal resistance.

The TUC’s day of action if it happens will be central to this and can act as a focus for all the sectional struggles to initiate a veritable strike wave in which agitation for the TUC to call a general strike can really take off. Local People’s Assemblies, rank and file groupings and youth groups would flourish in such an atmosphere. Any such serious upsurge in the class struggle will certainly blow away many of the reactionary ideological cobwebs that have accumulated in the minds of the reformist and centrist left in the last 18 months and will make a clear revolutionary strategy no longer sound like wild ravings or sectarianism.

The People’s Assembly – will it unite the fight back?

The People’s Assembly against Austerity on 22 June succeeded in attracting large and enthusiastic crowds to Westminster Central Hall. But impressive as the turnout was this was an Assembly only in the literal sense; i.e. an audience assembled to hear a series of top table speakers; not in the sense of being a deliberative body deciding on measures that will change tack from the present lack of direction that many people plainly feel. Above all it did not address the serious misleadership, both trade union and political, which the movement is suffering from.

The reason was plain enough. Those who organised it – Unite, Counterfire, the Communist Party of Britain, are supporters of the present “Left” leadership and its direction. They were determined no one should criticize this leadership and its failing strategy. The only plenary sessions – the open and closing rallies – were short and absolutely inconsequential. The draft statement put before the closing session was not in fact debated at all. It was a calendar of events running out in November.

Large carefully vetted platforms of speakers dominated the “workshops” too, in fact these were themselves mass meetings 400-600 strong, though with a little bit more floor participation. The workshop on mobilising the millions/re-unionising the UK did not have a single rank and file militant on the platform. Indeed removed from the published list of speakers was building worker militant and Unite member Frank Morris, blacklisted by Crossrail. This session was in no sense a council of war to discuss a militant unionization drive where the experience of the building workers would have been invaluable. The only exception was the one addressed by ken Loach who had been banished from the plenary sessions for fear he would mention Left Unity and the need to break from Labour.

In short the entire event was bereft of anything like a debate on the strategy and tactics needed for a united movement to go forward and win. A debate on strategy means precisely hearing alternative, considering conflicting strategies and choosing (yes by voting!) the one the majority judges can win.

What should have been central was how to kick out the coalition before it does irreparable damage to all the post-war social gains of the working class and how to put in its place a government that would not only halt this destruction but restore it in full and achieve full employment and decent wages and pensions. Instead the Labour Party and its present leadership – who have pledged to continue with the cuts not reverse them – were hardly even mentioned by the main platform speakers.

The CPB, Counterfire, Unite have an unspoken but fixed and determined wait-for-Labour perspective covered by a “carry on protesting” approach for the People’s Assembly. What they ignore is that the next two years will see a tipping point in the process of the destruction of our health and education system. Indeed undoubtedly Balls and Miliband’s Blue Labour will also have dumped the defence of even greater sections of the welfare state. Indeed their advisers are busy convincing them that it is a disaster that voters see them as “the party of welfare” – urging them to dance to the Tory media’s “strivers not skivers” tune.

If the People’s Assembly and its local versions are to realize its one vital potential service – to unite an anti-cuts movement divided by the front organizations set up by the rival left groups – we must ensure these Assemblies are not talking shops but bodies to unite and organise local and national struggles, to push the unions for the decisive all-out strike action that alone can save the NHS, the education system, smash the bedroom tax and all the other critical struggles we face.

But to do this will require a vigorous and uncompromising fight against the bureaucratic forces and their CPB and Counterfire advisers to break their stranglehold of the next PA and turn it into a real council of war. They are no better than the SWP and the Socialist Party and their failed fronts. The anticuts movement may be under new management – though Lindsey German, John Rees and Andrew Murray are rather familiar figures – but the strategy is just the same.

At a local level it will require a struggle against the shortsighted localists who defend the autonomy of “their” campaigns against “outside interference”, who wish to “keep politics out”; who oppose taking any decisions or adopting any policies. These widespread libertarian notions “from below” are just as ineffective as the bureaucratic stranglehold “from above”. Indeed the two are nicely complementary. Both can agree not to take any nationally coordinated effective action.

If the local People’s Assemblies fail to take break free from the “talking shop” model of the national People’s Assembly then workers will have to look for other avenues to develop real councils of action in which to co-ordinate and support local and national strikes.

Unite Fightback – a first step towards reviving rank and file organisation

 Saturday 25 May saw a 65- strong meeting in London agree to found a new rank and file grouping in Unite. It was the first national gathering of Jerry Hicks’ supporters, which followed his nearly 80,000 votes, 36 per cent of those cast, in the General Secretary election. It was preceded by several regional and local rallies, where the idea of setting up a grassroots organization on the basis of the policies in Jerry’s election platform was warmly received.

Jerry Hicks’ platform stood unequivocally for: Election of all officials – Funding Labour only if they support pro-working class policies; General Secretary to receive an average wage, £26,000, not £122,000; Rank and file organisations in every sector; Confronting anti-union laws and supporting unofficial action; one million “green” jobs; election of all officials and a rank and file group in all of Unite’s 26 sectors.

This was the basis of the new organization with the promise that future meetings would produce a more elaborated series of policies. Workers Power drafted a resolution laying down the character of the organization and – amended by the SWP (mainly to change the name of the group from “Unite Rank & File” to “Unite Fight Back” and explicitly to exclude non-Unite members and fulltime officials) – it was passed by a large majority.

This is potentially an advance on any oppositional grouping in the trade union movement today. The Socialist Teachers Alliance, PCS Left Unity and Unison United Left, all see their role as limited to defeating the right in elections but, once in office, they cautiously avoid any bold tactics that might endanger their seats – even at the expense of members’ jobs, pay and conditions. This leads these broad lefts to conservatism at the crucial moment, as they tail the least politically developed members.

The Socialist Party and SWP tightly control the broader, cross-union bodies –the National Shop Stewards’ Network and Unite the Resistance – with pretensions to be movements of the shop stewards and the rank and file respectively. Because these political groups claim – to their own members and the wider movement – to be real “parties”, their leaders feel the need to entice union general secretaries onto their platforms to prove the power of their influence. In return, they promising neither to interfere in the bureaucrats’ control over their union nor to criticize and organize against them when they sell out or prevaricate. The only difference is that the Socialist Party tends to defend “their” bureaucrats’ sell-outs, e.g. BA cabin crews, while the SWP categorise bureaucratic betrayals as “mistakes”.

Unfortunately however the ten-person steering committee that was elected in May has not met since then nor have the various agreements – launching a regular newsletter etc. – been fulfilled. However in mid-September SWP-members active in UFB and Jerry Hicks have started to canvas for a launch conference of Unite Fight Back to be held in late October or early November. This is a move in the right direction, however, they appear to have by-passed the elected steering committee and there is now the opposite danger – rushing to a conference which after serious lack of activity could lead to a poor conference. A more for a more realistic timetable and serious preparation for it by the steering committee, plus intervening in current Unite struggles could avert these dangers and lead to a bigger and more productive conference.

The Sparks’ “rank and file movement” – never fully independent of the left bureaucracy – has come under McCluskey and Co.’s influence to some degree. But still Unite is probably the most promising union, especially with 80 per cent of its members in the private sector and with it being open to organisng the unorganised. Unison is another union where a rank and file resistance (to witch hunting etc.) exists and where all efforts should be expended to build an independent rank and file movement.


A serious debate on the theory and practice of trade unionism today and the role of rank and file organizations needs to be opened up – and opportunities for this will occur in the struggles of the coming months – postal workers, teachers, firefighters, health workers, resistance to zero time contracts and others. If a real strike wave of many sectors develops and grassroots militants play a major role in the struggle. Then the call for a national rank and file movement will become more relevant.  But this requires agitation and leadership, not tailism and waiting for spontaneous developments or some mystical rise in workers’ confidence – the objective process helps those who first help themselves.

Labour and the Unions – can Miliband keep them on board?

 Labour is still “the political wing of the labour movement” and “the party of the trade unions” if the millions it receives from the unions is anything to go by. In the first two years after Ed Milband became leader the unions gave “their party” over £20 million. £7.5 million came from Len McCluskey’s Unite alone. Yet all they have got for it is a relentless march away from pro- union policies. Miliband and Balls are brushing off the union leaders’ policy suggestions even more rudely than did Blair and Brown.

On the very day the People’s Assembly was meeting in London, in Birmingham Ed Miliband was addressing the National Policy Making Forum, the body that has virtually usurped the Labour Party Conference. He said “Nobody here should be under any illusions: the next Labour government will have to plan in 2015 for falling Departmental spending. And our starting point for 2015-16 is that we won’t be able to reverse the cuts in day to day, current spending unless it is fully funded from savings elsewhere or extra revenue, not from more borrowing.”

Over the summer Miliband has launched a campaign to “reform” the unions’ relationship with the party by replacing the present affiliated membership with individual membership claiming it will be possible to push up the latter from 200,000 to 500,000. Union leaders have told him he is living in cloud cuckoo land and that only 10-12 per cent of the existing affiliated members would join Labour on this basis.

They are certainly right. At a time when discontent with Labour is at an all time high amongst active union members, as represented at annual union conferences, and when they are finding it difficult to justify the millions they pay over every year and before elections, the Labour leadership sets out to remove all collective influence by unions as unions in the party they founded and funded for a hundred years and more. Clearly Miliband does not want to lose the union money.

There have been estimates that proposed changes to Labour’s funding links with unions will cost the party at least £9m. And Labour is strapped for cash. Blair’s millionaires have long departed. Labour had outstanding debts of £12.79 million at the end of June. Clearly too the unions get extremely poor value for their huge donations it as it is. Indeed the threat to withdraw it is the only power they have given the way Labour’s Constitution was repeatedly changed in the 1980s and 1990s.

Over the past two decades under successive Labour leaders the organic link between Labour and the unions has been weakened to an incredible degree in all spheres. In its conference and the electoral collage that elects Labour leaders, they are easily outvoted by the constituencies. The latter are now largely purged of left-wingers, as is the PLP.

 Today the organic link is largely reduced to a cash nexus. But what a powerful weapon this could still be if the union leaders dared to use it. In the three months to the end of June, Labour received a total of £3,136,447 in union political donations, of which 72 per cent came from five of the biggest unions. Unite gave £772,195, the GMB £485,830, UNISON £458,080, USDAW £411,147 and the CWU £143,121. You might think that those who pay the piper would call the tune. Not a bit of it. The unions are just a milk cow for the parliamentary hierarchy.

However it seems Miliband has pushed the Labour-loyal union leaders a bit too roughly. In fact they are being driven to limited actions by what they know is the simmering fury of their members – at least the union activists who attend branch meetings and national conferences. The 65-strong GMB executive in a near-unanimous vote on 4 September announced that it would cut the number of its members affiliated to Labour from 420,000 to 50,000 next January, slashing the amount of affiliation funds that would be paid to the party in 2014 from £1.2m to £150,000. The union has until now affiliated 420,000 of its members to Labour, paying £3 per member per year, but that figure will be cut to 50,000 from January.

Then on 8 September Unison followed suit and announced that the number of its members who were affiliated to the Labour party is to be cut (albeit more modestly than the GMB) from 500,000 to 430,000, costing the party £210,000 a year.

How did this unprecedented row begin? Effectively with Unite ‘s “Political Strategy”, approved by the union in late 2012. This expressed “bitter disappointment” with Labour’s record in office and launched a campaign to “win 5,000 Unite members to join the Labour party by December 2012”. It urged Unite activists “to consider becoming [Labour] candidates at all levels”. It stated, “We are deadly serious about transforming Labour.” And as well they might be. Since Miliband became leader, fees and donations from Unite alone have totalled £8.4m.

The Blairite right and the so-called centre left (in fact centre right) around Jon Cruddas and the Blue Labour advisors to Miliband were alarmed by this and leaked to the Tory Press. They set out to stymie Unite by mobilising the Tories and their press. Here we can see the utterly bourgeois character of the Labour Party bureaucracy and the great majority of the parliamentary party.

In the build up to the selection of a Labour candidate in Falkirk, the union recruited around 100 new Labour members from its ranks, under a scheme introduced under Blair, which allowed multiple memberships to be paid for with a single union cheque. In July, the Labour leadership called in the police who found there was no evidence for a criminal inquiry. An internal Labour inquiry has subsequently found there was no wrongdoing according to party rules, yet Miliband refuses to publish it or apologise for the witch-hunt. Thanks to the Labour right wing’s calculated leaks the Tory press set up a hue and cry, spreading the issue to the whole question of Labour union affiliation and funding. As ever Miliband dances to the tune of the Tory media.

Len McCluskey has ruefully observed, “The real power in politics is in Westminster. All that happened in Falkirk was – and it was an extreme example, because we’d been so successful in getting 100-odd people to join – we challenged the power that has long belonged to the party apparatchiks.” McCluskey too is trying to threaten Labour whilst still declaring his support for Miliband.

 Speaking at the Durham Miner’s Gala on July 13, McCluskey observed:

“The parliamentary Labour party today does not look like, or think like, the working class communities it seeks to represent. That is a serious problem. It is increasingly the preserve of people who glide from university to think tank to the green benches, without ever sniffing the air of the real world.”

A recent McCluskey interview reported in the Guardian on 30 August informed us:

 “And he doesn’t rule out Unite eventually taking its ball elsewhere? “I wouldn’t rule anything out,” he says. … Though he is working hard for a Labour victory in 2015, he thinks this will be possible only with “a radical alternative to austerity”. If the Tories win, he tells me, “I fear for the existence of the Labour party. (…) You could grow a new political party out of something like that, I suggest. He laughs. “Yeah, of course you could.”

Unison’s Dave Prentis also said at the TUC that, “We will campaign, we will organise and move to coordinated action across sectors And when we move to action, we expect the Labour Party, our Labour Party, to be there with us, supporting us.” Even he cannot hope for this.

But a final break with Labour will not happen without a massive push from the left and below, including putting demands on the party in the run-up to 2015: no handing over of cash for Labour until we see the policy results the unions demand. The left must use these heated words against the leaders when they climb down. They are past masters at huffing and puffing but never get round to blowing Labour’s house down and building a new one.

Miliband’s speech at the Labour’s Brighton Conference does nevertheless represent an olive branch to the union leaders. Doubtless they will now sell them to their members as opening up some real distance between Labour and the coalition. It is a timely reminder that Labour – for all the right wing binge of the past two decades does remain what Lenin and Trotsky called a bourgeois workers party and therefore capable of promising reforms to win workers votes. This means that revolutionaries have to address any Labour promises that could open up a clash with the capitalist class and demand their deepening and extension – encouraging the unions and the constituency membership to press for this.

Miliband’s pledges included the abolition of the hated bedroom tax, and a two-year freeze on energy bills. The letter was greeted with threats of power cuts from the companies and the Tory press; to which Miliband and Balls responded with threats to restructure the industry. In fact only total renationalisation without compensation would put a stop to the rampant parasitism that the Tories privatisation brought about.

Another more substantial promise is the promise that Labour would build 200,000 new homes a year until 2020 – i.e. a million new homes in a five-year term. Again the question is will they be social housing not just in terms of being “affordable” by ordinary working people but will they be socially owned? Highly unlikely if it were left to the two Eds but we should demand the union leaders and Labour constituencies and councils demand they be built according to locally decided and democratically priorities, for rent and that direct works departments be restored and charged with the job so that the private building contractors don’t siphon off public money to boost their profits. 

He also promised a 100,000 new apprenticeship places for young workers though with the nasty suggestion they were needed to keep out foreign workers. He also promised to lower the voting age to 16.

Left Unity – a faltering start

A group around Kate Hudson and Andrew Burgin founded the 14th November Movement for Left Unity in 2012 and with Ken Loach launched a Left Unity Appeal which reached a high of 9000 signatories by its first national meeting in May 11.

It has probably loosely organised a few hundred people in the project but only the November 30 “founding conference” will tell. The May national meeting agreed only on the principle of ‘one member, one vote’ i.e. it unwisely refused affiliation by the left groups its name proclaimed it wished to unite and blocked their representation on any steering committee. It did not pass any policy document – rejecting a very basic statement from Kate Hudson and the ad hoc organising groups thanks to an intervention by Nick Wrack of the Independent Socialist Network.

It set up the institution of the National Delegate Meeting which meets every six weeks or so. But at the first NDC meeting Nick Wrack outmanoeuvred the ten-person directly elected grouping around the Burgin-Hudson and Socialist Resistance – a sort of proto leadership. This effectively dissolved the de- facto organising group in London leaving LU without even the shadow of a legitimate leadership. This was undoubtedly what led to the formation of the platforms around the warring factions.

Two platform documents The Case for the Left Party Platform (Burgin and Hudson) and the Socialist Party Platform (Nick Wrack) were published. The platforms contained contrasting visions of what a new Left Party should model itself on. Roughly the LPP envisages something like Syriza or the Front de Gauche, or perhaps even Respect (without George Galloway), i.e. a left reformist party, whose socialism is only one of a spectrum of progressive goals.

The SPP envisages a more traditionally socialist, working class, even Marxist party; albeit one that does not explicitly identify itself as revolutionary. In fact what they have in mind seems something very close to a pre-1914 Second International model that fails to identify itself as revolutionary. Whatever the justification for this was originally the onset of the imperialist epoch tested it to destruction and to repeat the experiment a whole century later seems quixotic to put it mildly.

Workers Power in response submitted a Class Struggle Platform, which argued that that LU’s founding conference on 30 November will not meaningfully be able to define itself as a revolutionary Marxist Party. Not because we regard this as an unnecessary or impossible goal but because the content of these terms needs to given a concrete programmatic expression understood by all who vote on them. Given the present demographic of LU – many former-members of centrist groups who harbour strong prejudices against “left groups” and “democratic centralism” this would not lead to a favourable outcome.

Also Workers Power does genuinely want to see a real mass influx of working class militants both from from the unions and from Labour Party members and voters, even if many of them are inevitably “socialists” in the traditional Labour Party (reformist) sense. It is the duty of revolutionary communists – Leninists, Trotskyists – which we unashamedly regard ourselves to be – to win these people to our ideas in action. How? By demonstrating in practice in the class struggle the superiority of these methods to those of reformism and centrism.

The point of our Class Struggle Platform is to prove that its demands and slogans are both objectively necessary and contain elements of a transitional method – rank and file movement, councils of action, self-defence groups, a workers government – to guide today’s struggles.

Unlike the supporters of the Left Party Platform and Socialist Resistance, Workers Power believes that trying to build a significant left reformist party in Britain today is neither desirable in principle nor is it possible in practice. We do not believe that left reformist parties will do duty for some sort of pre-ordained stage of “defending the NHS”, etc. as Alan Thornett of Socialist Resistance argues. In periods of deep capitalist crisis reformist parties will disastrously betray the working class as we saw with Rifondazione Comunista and will see with the Front de Gauche and Syriza in the years ahead.

In practical terms, given that the British equivalent of the forces that made up such “broad” or “new left” parties – the left trade union leaders, the Labour Left and the Communist Party of Britain-Morning Star are all vehemently opposed to Left Unity or any sort of breach with Labour “yet”, this perspective is a utopia as well as a reactionary objective in itself.

What Left Unity must become if it is to survive and play an important role is to grow into a party of grass roots activists who can address the strategic confusion of the British Labour Movement. This means an organisation that dares to say what is, whatever the present leaders of the resistance try to limit us to. And one that sets out to build real organs of the fightback, not under the domination of a sect or of the union general secretaries.

If the LPP and the SPP – as rumour has it – cannot bear to stay in the same organisation if the other viewpoint wins out, then this would be a shame indeed; another abortive attempt at new party building to add to the rather long list in Britain. If on the other hand Left Unity can agree on an immediate programme of action and work together on this basis over the next year it should be possible to build a spirit of solidarity that will greatly aid the holding of comradely debates about a strategic programme including our fundamental goals and a workable constitution.

Stop the retreat – start the counteroffensive

2012-13 saw a serious fall-off in the level of national resistance and a splintering of its forces. It saw damaging splits in the left and a turn to the right of many would-be revolutionaries. But the launch of Left Unity and the People’s Assembly plus the decision of the TUC to – at long last – call a mid-week day of action holds out hopes of stopping the retreat and rallying our forces against the Coalition’s relentless attacks.  

This year 2013-14 could well be our final opportunity to stop the irreparable destruction of the NHS, other major parts of the Welfare State and the Public Education System. The siren calls of an election year will soon begin to be heard claiming it is “too late” to mobilise effective direct action and that all we can do is to wait and vote for Labour.

The lessons we can draw from three years of uncoordinated and all too often inactive resistance by the unions and the TUC shows the necessity for the rank and file to organise both within the individual unions and across them. We must do all we can to turn the fragmented economic, sectional and localised struggles into a nationwide political struggle, which can smash the coalition apart, defying and trashing the anti-union laws in the process and setting the unions free.

The tasks that face the revolutionary left in the coming period are considerable but not insurmountable. Its state is “serious but not desperate” though for those who refuse to face up to the challenges their condition is indeed “desperate but not serious”. We have to be serious about building a real revolutionary organisation in Britain in the coming years.

The lessons of the slow motion disintegration of the SWP have shown the necessity of building a really Leninist Party; one that is not forever tailing behind the working class – timidly brandishing its political thermometer to see if it has enough “confidence” for the decisive struggle ahead. We need an organisation with the politics, the numbers and the implantation to offer leadership and a strategy for victory. A party with democratic not bureaucratic centralism.

The entire left, the rank and file militants in the unions, revolutionaries who have learnt the lessons of the SWP crisis, the sincere fighters still in the Labour Party, need to get their act together and unite their forces – in the unions, in the communities, in the People’s Assemblies. Those who already recognize the need to break from Labour and create a new party need to combine their forces in Left Unity – take action together on an agreed platform in the struggles ahead and debate “grand strategy” – i.e. a full political programme – in the year ahead.

But we also need to unite all those revolutionaries who, in the words of the great Manifesto “disdain to conceal their views and intentions” and who “openly declare that their aims can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of every existing social order.”

A list of urgent tasks faces us in the coming period. Workers Power believes these include:


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