By KD Tait
The attention of the world is rightly focused on the second Nakba waged by the Israeli army against the Palestinians in Gaza. But in virtually every corner of the world, 2024 promises an intensification of the miseries inflicted on the working class and oppressed by great power rivalry, ecological collapse, and economic decline.
To the horrors in Gaza we can note the ongoing attempt by Russian imperialism to partition and subjugate Ukraine; the ethnic cleansing of 100,000 Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh; two million refugees and 43,000 dead in Myanmar; seven military coups in sub-Saharan Africa as the imperialist powers jockey for influence; the crushing of the Sudanese revolution; and most recently, Ecuador standing on the precipice of internal collapse. Add to all this the hottest year on record with its attendant famine, drought and floods.
2024 will see the most elections in history. The USA, Russia and India will go to the polls along with dozens of other countries, including the UK and European Union. But while some elections will be more democratic than others, the dominant theme will reflect the continued rise of the populist right at the expense of traditional ruling parties, whether openly capitalist or social-democratic.
The global character of the crisis, the pressing need for international solidarity with oppressed peoples, and workers’ struggles, demands firstly, a united front of working class forces, and ultimately the unification of the working class vanguard into revolutionary parties and a new, Fifth International.
As the UK prepares for a general election sometime this year, there is a real prospect of Labour ending 14 years of Tory misrule. Keir Starmer puts his party’s 41 percent to 24 percent polling lead against the Tories down to his decision to hew as closely as possible to the ruling party on public spending, taxation, and immigration.
The NHS has just had its worst winter performance since modern records began, even taking out the impact of strikes provoked entirely by the government. Major local authorities are facing bankruptcy thanks to central funding cuts. Schools are literally falling to pieces, and profiteers are raking it in from public transport, social care and utilities.
Yet Starmer’s prescription is ‘tough choices and iron-clad fiscal rules’. Translation: forget about taxing the obscene wealth accumulated by the bosses to invest in public services, a green transition, or decent jobs, homes and pensions for those who create the wealth — the workers. Instead Labour wants to stick to ‘fiscal rules’ drawn up by the Tories and their friends in the City.
Not content with boasting of ‘breaking new ground’ in Labour’s relationship with business, Starmer chose the Sunday Telegraph to lavish praise on the Tory leader most hated by working people: ‘Margaret Thatcher sought to drag Britain out of its stupor by setting loose our natural entrepreneurialism. That ‘entrepreneurialism’ consisted of a vicious class war against workers’ jobs, organisations and communities whose scars continue to disfigure the country four decades later.
A general election campaign can upset all poll leads. But if the present course is maintained Labour is on course for a parliamentary majority on the basis of the least ambitious manifesto it has ever put. Before the campaign had even begun, the party had ditched its pledge to invest £28bn in a green transition. The pledge has become an ‘aim’ to be reached at the end of a first term.
Labour has always been a fundamentally racist and imperialist party; first a loyal servant of the Empire, and subsequently a loyal toady to US imperialism. Dependent on the votes of immigrant workers, but remaining ideologically and materially conditioned by the interests of the labour aristocracy and white collar professionals.
Sir Keir Starmer, knight of the realm, and former chief of Britain’s state prosecutors, hardly needs to burnish his ruling class credentials. But leading as he does, a party which embodies, in however distorted a way, the aspirations of working people and their trade unions, to push back against the untrammeled economic dictatorship of the bosses, he finds it necessary to reassure them of his imperialist bona fides. That is what explains his refusal to call for a ceasefire in Gaza; his unconditional support for Nato; his pandering to chauvinism by stigmatising immigration as ‘driving down the terms and conditions of the British people’.
Over the last 18 months, a series of national pay strikes prompted a big rise in trade union membership and hopes of a revival in trade union militancy following the dormant period that set in after the defeat of the pension strikes during 2011-12. The trade union leaders were forced into action by double digit inflation and the Tories’ undeclared ‘incomes policy’ designed to hold public pay rises to 5 per cent, in order to hold down wages in the wider economy.
Unions won large mandates for strike action, with the most well organised sections busting the Tory 50 percent turnout threshold. But despite all the talk of coordination and even ‘general strikes’, the TUC refused to act as a general staff for the movement, and even the ‘left’ general secretaries coordinated their campaign to ensure the movement did not build up momentum. They refused to call a real campaign of escalating action, and refused to coordinate their demands. Separately they fought, and separately they went down to defeat: none of the national pay strikes secured inflation-proof pay rises.
The result in most cases was a tactical rather than a strategic defeat, but the defeat of the CWU in Royal Mail, and the ability of bosses to successfully impose fire-and-rehire at British Gas and the illegal mass sacking of 700 seafarers at P&O shows ‘left’ leaders are unwilling to offer a fighting lead even in well-organised sections of workers if that means turning an industrial dispute into a political fight with the government. The less said about Unison, which found itself unable to organise a national dispute in either the NHS or local government, the better.
While there were important examples of rank and file organisation, particularly with NHS Workers Say No successfully rejecting a below-inflation pay offer, there are few signs that the organised left within the unions are able or willing to break with their addiction to ‘broad leftism’ that shackles militant workers to the ‘left wing’ of the trade union bureaucracy.
Three attempts to call rank and file conferences in 2023 did not lead to more than loose networks associated with one or another small political organisation. Unofficial action is now almost unheard of: the clearest demonstration of this new low was the inability of CWU members to act over Royal Mail’s sacking of 400 union members during its recent dispute. The anti-union laws outlaw all effective forms of industrial action, but it is clear that the union bureaucracy is unwilling to put any real pressure on a Labour government to make a clean sweep of this reactionary legislation.
A major factor in the trade union leaders’ ultra-conservative strategy during the strike wave was their expectation that the slow-motion disintegration of Johnson’s government, followed by the City’s overthrow of the Truss/Kwarteng cabinet, would trigger a snap general election. For the TUC and Labour leaders of the organised working class, an election taking place against the backdrop of a mobilised working class struggle is the nightmare scenario. But with a general election now all but certain to take place this year, the union leaders will be determined to keep industrial disputes off the agenda.
Labour’s refusal even to support the pay claims of the unions who fund it shows there will be no surprises in government. If Starmer is carried into Number 10 on the back of a collapse in the Tory vote, it is clear he will be no friend of the working class. Indeed he has promised as much himself. Working people need a party that is committed to breaking with the bosses, not propping up their system. But Labour in government can be put on the spot in a way it can’t when in opposition. When pushed, the Labour and union bureaucracy will always put the interests of the bosses ahead of those of the workers. Imposing the test of office on it is the surest way of breaking the hold of Labourism over the most militant and class conscious parts of the movement.
In the run up to the election we should focus every effort on forcing the trade unions that provide the funds and people to elect Labour to insist that it takes up the progressive policies voted for in union and party conferences, and puts them in the manifesto.
Since the balance of forces as it stands following Starmer’s purge and the miserable capitulation of Momentum and the Campaign Group, suggests that a Labour government will be the most right wing in postwar history, the working class movement needs to draw up its own programme of demands that it will fight for during the election and from day one of the next government.