What Choice for Workers?
Labour, trade unions and reformist dead ends
British Supplement to 1917, April 2005
Tony Blair goes to the electorate on 5 May at the head of a party, created by the organisations of the British working class over a century ago, that today presents itself as little more than a tool of the bosses. A vote for the collection of swindlers, hypocrites and traitors running on the Labour ticket is a vote against the interests of the working class. Those who purport to offer some sort of socialist leadership and yet advocate voting for Tony Blair are little more than brokers for the Labour lieutenants of capital.
The interests of the working class are counterposed to those of the Labour traitors, bourgeois liberals, trade-union careerists, and ‘socialists’ who cannot draw an elemental class line. Workers desperately need a party committed to a programme of struggle for working-class interests and, ultimately, working-class power.
The warmongers want your vote
Tony Blair is famous for the broad grin he carefully cultivated for the television cameras well before he ran for prime minister in 1997. Eight years and several imperialist wars later, he looks older and troubled – and not without reason.
Labour’s support has been battered by opposition to the cowardly war on Iraq. Its policy of privatisations, service cuts and attacks on the living standards of working people has also alienated much of its traditional base. In the June 2004 European and local elections, widely seen as a referendum on the Labour government, Blair’s party fell to third place behind the Tories and Liberal Democrats, and lost several of its historic strongholds.
The only thing keeping Blair and Labour in the game is the fact that the Tories and Michael Howard, the author of the poll tax under Thatcher, remain unpopular. To their right is the UK Independence Party, which picked up a sizeable protest vote in June 2004, and beyond them the fascist British National Party, with a small but fairly solid voting base. The Liberal Democrats got most of the protest votes to the left of Labour because of their criticism of the Iraq war, with fewer votes going to the petty-bourgeois Greens and the Socialist Workers Party’s openly class-collaborationist Respect coalition. None of these formations even claimed to represent the working class.
Labour openly governs for the rich, not the poor. Its privatisation policies have meant massive subsidies for big corporations, with vital public services like transport and health being thrown to the wolves of private enterprise while working people pick up the tab. Labour has been presiding over a decline in British manufacturing, of which the closure of the Longbridge Rover plant is one significant example. Desperate last-minute government subsidies failed to keep the plant open and only served to further enrich the crooked Rover bosses at the expense of the workers of south Birmingham.
Imperialist aggression overseas always goes hand-in-hand with increased repression at home. Labour’s ‘anti-terror’ laws have introduced detention without trial, and Blair promises more attacks on civil liberties in the future, including a new catch-all offence of ‘acts preparatory to terrorism’. The controversial ID card scheme has been temporarily shelved for the election, but it is clear that Labour intends to proceed with this and other police-state measures if they are returned to power. Under the Labour government, intercepts of phone calls and email have doubled, and the data collected can now be retained far longer and shared more widely than was previously legal. In March Labour Home Secretary Charles Clarke banned all demonstrations against G8 ministers meeting in Derby. The resulting operation (which cost over £2 million and involved 2,000 cops) was described by Derbyshire police as ‘the biggest security operation since the miner’s [sic] strike’ (Guardian, 18 March).
The ‘war on terrorism’ has meant increased racist attacks on Muslims and immigrants. The Muslim Council of Britain has complained that the ‘anti-terror’ laws target Muslims for ‘high-profile raids, stop and search activities and sensationalist media coverage’ (Daily Telegraph, 11 April). Meanwhile, Labour competes with the Tories to see who can be toughest on immigrants: ‘What the British people want are strict controls that work, not plans that are uncosted and unworkable.… Tory policy would make abuse of the system worse, not better’ (Labour Party website, 10 April). In a classic case of ‘a good day to bury bad news’, the government used the pope’s funeral to announce ‘changes to the visa service’. Henceforth no visa applications from Nigerians aged 18-30 will be accepted on the grounds that there have been high levels of fraud. The Working Holidaymaker Scheme was also suspended for Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Botswana and Namibia.
These attacks on civil liberties and the war itself have produced some tepid opposition within the Labour Party. In May 2003, 27 Labour MPs voted against what they considered an ‘illegal’ bill to crush the firefighters’ strike. Two months earlier, Tony Blair had faced the biggest parliamentary revolt in modern history when a third of all Labour MPs voted against the attack on Iraq. Despite this, Blair’s huge majority and Tory support gave him a 396-217 victory. The revolt of the Labour backbenchers was largely confined to expressing concern that Blair was tying Britain too closely to the United States, and particularly the Bush administration’s dismissal of established institutions of imperialist rule like the United Nations.
In the wilderness, but not too far
Labour MP George Galloway, unlike his colleagues, seriously opposed the attack on Iraq, and for that he was expelled from the party in October 2003. This was certainly not his intention:
‘I’m a centre-left Labour man. I’ve never been in the Campaign Group, I’ve never been a Trotskyist, I’ve never been a Communist, I occupy a piece of political ground that was once commonplace but can be caricatured as being extreme now only because of how the political centre of gravity has moved.’
(Scotsman, 19 May 2003)
Galloway quickly became the prominent spokesperson for the ‘Stop the War’ coalition, which the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), true to form, managed to both dominate and liquidate into. The SWP were so happy to have a ‘big name’ on board that they have studiously ignored his own candid self-assessments. The SWP leadership applauds Galloway as a principled socialist and militant anti-imperialist, but in reality he is a maverick politician to the right of Tony Benn. Benn came to Galloway’s defence during the investigations leading to his expulsion, and afterwards observed: ‘It was a grave mistake. George is a principled and courageous man who opposed the war like the Pope, Kofi Annan, and millions of people across Scotland and elsewhere’ (Herald, 24 October 2003). Galloway’s anti-war stance was a mixture of pacifist moralism and Arab nationalism. Like the late pope, his opposition was without an ounce of working-class content.
Galloway was not the first Labour politician to run afoul of party headquarters for opposing government policies. Ken Livingstone was expelled from the Labour Party in 2000, but, with the backing of most of the ostensibly Marxist left, he subsequently defeated the official Labour candidate to win the post of mayor of London on an openly class-collaborationist ticket (see ‘The left flank of chameleon Ken’, Marxist Bulletin, No. 11).
Livingstone was too successful not to be re-admitted to the party. He showed his gratitude by praising Chancellor Gordon Brown ‘for steering Britain through “very painful and severe recessions”‘ (Guardian, 10 January 2004). Since re-joining the party he has said little about the war on Iraq, rising tuition fees and the privatisation of London Underground, issues on which he had previously opposed Labour’s policy. In a January 2004 election leaflet Livingstone boasted that one of his major achievements was to have hired more cops: ‘We have funded an extra 3,480 police officers, on top of the anti-terrorism officers and community support officers provided by the government. London now has more police than at any time in its history‘ (emphasis in original).
In June 2004 Livingstone won London for Labour. Once again he was supported by much of the left. The Respect mayoral candidate – leading SWP member Lindsay German – coyly suggested to her supporters in an election leaflet: ‘In the second column, your second preference, you may want to vote for Ken Livingstone’. Livingstone proceeded to make his political and class allegiances abundantly clear by his call for scabbing on a strike of RMT tube workers: ‘Were I a member of the RMT, for the first time in my life I would cross a picket line next Tuesday. Londoners are being made collateral damage for a national strike against Network Rail.… I have said in the strongest possible terms, in stronger terms than I have ever used … this is completely unacceptable behaviour’ (Evening Standard, 24 June 2004).
‘The unions can huff and puff…’
Labour remains a bourgeois workers’ party – the trade unions play a significant role, and the party still receives the votes of most of the working class. Most of the TUC leadership remain die-hard Labour loyalists and hope only to moderate its anti-working class policies. The events of the past decade in particular show that this is a dead-end. An alternative to Labour is not only necessary but long overdue – working people need a party that is clearly committed to fighting the bosses, not serving them.
Contrary to the expectations of Labour’s ‘Marxist’ loyalists, Blair’s victory in 1997 did not touch off a wave of workers’ struggles. Working days lost to labour disputes since he came to power average well under a million per year, compared to 7.2 million in the 1980s and 12.9 million in the 1970s (Labour Market Trends, www.statistics.gov.uk).
During the summer of 2004, the leadership of the four most powerful trade unions – the TGWU, Unison, Amicus and the GMB – assumed a more belligerent posture towards the Blair government’s pro-business agenda. The GMB turned down Labour’s request for £744,000 to fight the general election, and announced that they would instead back individual Labour candidates who support union policy. General Secretary David Prentis declared at the 2004 Unison conference, ‘we will not keep our heads down and gobs shut for Labour’ (Unison website, 22 June 2004). Derek Simpson, general secretary of Amicus, and Tony Woodley, general secretary of the TGWU, threatened to derail Blair’s upcoming referendum on the European constitution: ‘the prime minister has chosen to make his pro-constitution pitch on the premise of rejecting any and every EU initiative that might improve the lot of British workers. In so doing, he is making it impossible for trade unions to support a yes vote in the referendum’ (Guardian, 30 June 2004).
However, this hostility is largely aimed at Tony Blair. The objective is not to replace the Labour government, but simply swap Blair for his chancellor Gordon Brown who, despite minor differences, has been a willing participant and enthusiastic architect of the whole New Labour project.
In February 2004 the government rejected calls by the unions for minor improvements in the legal rights of workers, including the elimination of the right of firms to sack striking workers eight weeks into a dispute. The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) was delighted and its deputy director general commented: ‘The unions can huff and puff, but most people will see the government’s decision to leave the key provisions of the act alone, as a victory for common sense’ (Guardian, 28 February 2004).
The Times of 8 July 2004 quoted the arrogant comment of one ‘senior government figure’: ‘The trade unions are playing a very dangerous game. It is not us putting the issue of the Labour link on the agenda, it is them. We are not going to change our policies because of this kind of blackmail.’ In fact, Blair did make some minor concessions a few weeks later at Labour’s National Policy Forum in Warwick. Under the ‘Warwick agreement’ employers can no longer include the eight bank holidays in the statutory four weeks holiday, striking workers can now only be sacked after twelve weeks rather than eight, a commission was set up to investigate the pay gap between men and women, and assurances were made that other issues would be looked into.
However, as the Financial Times put it, ‘a list of far-reaching demands presented by a new generation of leftwing union leaders was rebuffed’ (27 July 2004). One of the key issues was whether employers should be required to contribute to pension plans, but there were no promises made on this. The bourgeois press is predicting a pensions crisis as the real value of state pensions declines and companies change their final salary schemes (i.e., with a guaranteed income) into ‘money purchase’ schemes subject to the whim of the stock market.
John Cridland of the CBI employers’ body was so pleased that he described the deal as a ‘score draw’, but it was enough to save union funding for the Labour Party. And not only funding. The big four unions backed Blair at the September 2004 Labour Party conference (where they controlled 40 percent of the vote) in defeating a motion calling on the government to ‘name an early date for the withdrawal of British forces’ from Iraq. The GMB’s Yvonne Ritchie pleaded: ‘My union opposed the invasion, and we remain opposed. However, we cannot rewrite history … the consequences of us leaving would be to plunge Iraq into civil war’ (Guardian, 30 September 2004).
‘Our bastards, or just bastards?’
This leaves the union leadership deeply divided over how to respond to Blair’s anti-working-class attacks. There were sharp debates at Unison’s 2003 and 2004 conferences. A substantial minority proposed that the union support selected candidates standing against Labour, but the leadership has so far managed to defeat such proposals. An internal report, commissioned by the leadership, expressed concern that: ‘The ultimate goal of many opponents is the same – the replacement of the Labour party by some kind of revolutionary socialist workers party, with Unison members’ funds playing a key role in this objective’ (Guardian, 30 May 2003). For the labour aristocrats who run the unions such a development would be a nightmare.
There is a layer of relatively advanced workers within the trade unions who are eager to investigate alternatives to Blair and his ‘New Labour’ gang. The Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT) was expelled from the Labour Party in early 2004 for allowing branches to affiliate to the Scottish Socialist Party. At its June 2004 conference the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) voted to disaffiliate, with delegate Tony Maguire posing the pertinent question, ‘Are these our bastards, or just bastards?’ (Financial Times, 18 June 2004). While the ‘awkward squad’ trade union lefts, who have been winning key positions in a number of unions, are not as radical as the bourgeois press likes to paint them, their election is an indication of the mood of the rank and file.
Over the last few years the government has paid out millions to compensate the privatised train operators for RMT strikes over issues of safety, working conditions and pay. The rail industry owners are among the prime beneficiaries of Labour’s privatisation policies. After British Rail was privatised subsidies have increased substantially – for the financial year of 2002-03 they were £270m higher than in the year before privatisation (New Statesman, 27 October 2003). The government ensures profitability through public subsidies, while the rail bosses keep the profits. The chaos and decay of the railway system, highlighted by a series of fatal crashes, has not caused Blair et al to re-evaluate their policy of ‘profit before people’.
Firefighters were particularly enraged that management and government reneged on even the modest pay rises agreed at the end of their months-long strike in 2002-03. Blair’s deputy John Prescott presented a bill restoring emergency powers repealed by the Tories in 1959, which allowed the government to set the pay, conditions and working practices of firefighters, thus effectively abolishing the right to free collective bargaining. In June 2003 the firefighters were granted a mere 16 percent pay rise over two and a half years in return for accepting the ‘re-structuring’ of the fire service.
The government’s victory was chiefly a result of the FBU leadership’s passivity. While gaining wide sympathy amongst the population, the strike remained isolated due to the unwillingness of other unions to support the firefighters – with cowardly trade-union leaders hiding behind capitalist laws prohibiting solidarity strike action. A serious class-struggle leadership of the TUC would have been organising such strikes to back the FBU, to bolster their picket lines, and to cut transport and communications for the military scabs called in to break the strike.
The firefighters’ strike was the most serious obstacle faced by the British government in preparing to attack Iraq. It was far more serious than the opposition of the spineless Labour Party ‘lefts’ who advocated undertaking the piratical adventure under a UN flag. It was more significant than the millions-strong peace marches politically dominated by clerics and pacifists. The extension of working-class struggle against the invasion, including spreading the exemplary actions of Scottish rail workers who refused to move military materiel, could have sparked an anti-war movement actually capable of derailing the plans of the British war criminals. But the leadership of the trade unions was not prepared or willing to carry out such a fight, nor even to offer any serious backing for the firefighters’ demands on pay and conditions.
The ‘awkward squad’ trade union leaders went no further than RMT leader Bob Crow’s call for ‘a campaign of peaceful civil disobedience’ against the war (Financial Times, 19 March 2003). Crow and Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), were prominent participants in the pacifist Stop the War Coalition, but neither attempted to organise a single trade-union-based action against the imperialist invasion.
The departure of the RMT and the FBU from Labour’s fold (which only took place when Crow and firefighters’ leader Andy Gilchrist were pressured by their base) has not changed the fact that all the major unions are still closely tied to New Labour, but it does represent a healthy sign that sections of the British workers’ movement are finally prepared to break with the Labour traitors.
The fundamental issue posed in any future political re-alignment of the British trade-union movement must be the recognition of the centrality of the class line. In several unions a debate is raging over whether to fund political campaigns at all, with many workers who are disgusted by Labour’s betrayals mistakenly arguing for depoliticising the unions. But one way or another, trade unions must inevitably be political. What matters is that union funds should be used to advance the interests of the working class and the oppressed.
SSP: Scottish first, socialist second
The impulse of RMT and other union militants to support the candidates of the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) against Labour is quite understandable. The SSP talks of socialism and the working class and stands for public ownership of the railways, the repeal of the anti-trade-union laws and an end to the privatisation of public services. Many of its demands, such as abolishing council tax, higher minimum wages, expansion of public sector employment and opposition to the occupation of Iraq, appeal to workers. The SSP now has six members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) and has real influence among Scottish workers.
Yet the SSP is not the party the working class needs. Its promotion of Scottish independence (rationalised as a necessary first step to socialism) threatens to undermine links with English and Welsh workers on the one hand, while leading to alliances with openly bourgeois Scottish parties on the other.
The SSP is campaigning for the Calton Hill Declaration, associated with Colin Fox, Tommy Sheridan’s successor as SSP leader, which calls for ‘an independent Scottish Republic’. Noting that almost a third of the Scottish Parliament are ‘pro-independent’, the SSP say: ‘Independence is alive, well and has the potential to provide the driver for a radical red/green politics which challenge the current pro-market consensus blanketing Scottish politics’ (Scottish Socialist Voice, 23 July 2004). The bulk of that ‘third’ is made up of the clearly ‘pro-market’ Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP).
In launching their ‘Independence Convention’ last September with the support of some SNP MSPs Sheridan proclaimed: ‘I’m very enthusiastic about the prospect of a wide-ranging campaign, united to promote the principle of independence that cuts across party lines’ (Scotsman, 26 September 2004). An ‘independent Scottish Republic’ cuts across party lines because it also cuts across class lines. The SSP claims to have as its ultimate aim ‘a free Scottish socialist republic’ but its policy of seeking allies on the basis of petty-bourgeois nationalism points in a different direction.
The SSP’s opposition to the war was tinged with social patriotism. Frances Curran, one of their MSPs, explained before she got elected ‘that the SSP was anti-war, but not anti-British troops. She supported calls for civil disobedience against the war and said the troops would be safest at home’ (Herald, 2 April 2003). Revolutionaries are not particularly concerned with the welfare of the professional soldiers who sign up as hitmen for the imperialist gangsters in semi-colonies like Iraq. We want to see the UK/US forces driven out of Iraq by any means necessary. Any defeat suffered by them is a victory for the international working class.
We have in the past called for votes to the SSP because their candidates drew a rough class line. But the recent intensified approaches to the SNP and Greens exclude that tactic in this election. Former SNP member Lloyd Quinan, interviewed in Scottish Socialist Voice (26 February 2004) just after he joined the SSP, summed up his understanding of their politics with the following non sequitur: ‘Nationalism is a revolutionary, internationalist idea’. Scottish workers deserve better than this. There is nothing inherently revolutionary about nationalism – it is a bourgeois ideology. Revolutionary internationalists defend the right of Scots to self-determination, but we do not currently advocate the exercise of this right. Scottish, English and Welsh workers are not divided by bitter national antagonisms, and at this point an independent Scottish state would only represent an unnecessary division between them.
No Respect for the class line
The marriage between Galloway and the SWP culminated in the formation of the Respect coalition, which sought to capitalise on anti-war sentiment in the June 2004 EU and local elections. Respect was organised from the outset as a broad, cross-class formation (see our leaflet ‘RESPECT-able Reformism and Cross-class “Unity”‘). It has turned out to be little more than the SWP in drag with Galloway as a figurehead, after prominent figures like George Monbiot dropped away when a projected alliance with the Greens failed to materialise. Respect did manage to get the former president of the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB), Anas Altikriti, to stand as a candidate. Two months before the election the MAB’s enthusiasm for Respect increased after Galloway’s declaration that he was opposed to abortion.
The SWP tried to downplay the backwardness of Respect’s star candidate with Lindsay German admitting in the Guardian (13 July 2004): ‘Those of us who have long supported women’s and gay liberation have now picked up some unlikely supporters.’ But in order to maintain Respect as a ‘special kind of united front’ the SWP has opted to avoid this touchy subject. Their silence is particularly shameful in light of recent talk by Michael Howard and others about imposing further restrictions on late-term abortions, and Labour’s refusal to seriously defend even the inadequate abortion provisions currently available.
The founders of Respect make much of the fact that it is not organised around any particular political programme: ‘Respect. It’s a young word. It’s a black word. It’s the first postmodern name for an electoral political movement; most are one or other arrangement of the words The, Something, and Party. With respect, we’re different’ (Galloway, Observer, 25 April 2004).
But not different enough to gain the 1 million votes Galloway was dreaming of in the June 2004 elections. Respect ended up with only 1.7% of the vote in the EU elections. In the local elections, Respect had outstanding results in a number of boroughs in East London as well as in Preston and Birmingham. But it appears that in each case this was due to large Muslim communities voting for their candidate, who just happened to appear on the Respect ticket.
The SWP has little to show for the resources it has thrown into Respect. The Socialist Alliance, a reformist propaganda bloc dominated by the SWP, was wound up in order to appeal to broader forces, yet Respect’s electoral results were not much better than those of its predecessor. Meanwhile attendance at the SWP’s annual ‘Marxism’ summer school was down last year, perhaps reflecting difficulties reconciling the group’s ‘broad’ non-socialist political activity with its nominal Marxist ideology.
In the general election Respect is once again targeting areas with high Muslim populations, loudly proclaiming: ‘Respect stands for the whole community’ (Respect, Newham special edition, undated early 2005). The problem with this is that the Muslim ‘community’, like any other ethnic or religious grouping in British society today, is divided into different social classes and includes members of the property owning, oppressing class. The attempt to tailor Respect’s politics to the ‘whole community’ can only bind Muslim workers to their ‘own’ capitalists and obscurantist imams while also promoting the division of the working class along racial/ethnic lines.
Workers Power’s long Labourite hangover
Workers Power, which had participated in the Socialist Alliance, drew the line at Respect, describing it as a ‘non-class populist’ formation not worth voting for. And, after years of electoral support to Labour, the April 2005 issue of Workers Power finally declared: ‘No vote to Labour. Build a new workers’ party.’
They tried to explain this shift as follows:
‘In previous elections, we have called on workers and activists to vote for Labour – not because we believed they would implement socialist measures, but to put them to the test of office and, in so doing, break people’s illusions in them. They have been tested and, in the eyes of millions, found wanting.
‘To repeat such a call, after eight years of hard Labour, would not facilitate – but present an obstacle to revolutionary agitation and propaganda for a new workers party.’
What Workers Power cannot explain is why this was not true in 2001 after four ‘years of hard Labour’ or, indeed, last year when they were still supporting Labour in the local elections: ‘Here by actually voting Labour we can keep piling pressure on the Labour Party, keeping them exposed to the scrutiny of office and raising demands on them to act in working class interests by blocking local cuts and privatisation.’ This appeal appeared in small print in the same edition in which these confusionists were loudly opposing Labour in the simultaneous EU elections: ‘Let’s use the Euro elections to bring down Blair. Don’t vote Labour – write Troops Out of Iraq on your ballot paper’ (Workers Power, June 2004).
Who knows what might be hidden in the small print of this new position? What is the meaning of the statement ‘we should support genuine candidates of struggle, who are standing on a ticket of combating Labour’s policies and are pledged to continue fighting the next Labour government’ (Workers Power, April)? Do these unnamed ‘genuine candidates of struggle’ perhaps include the Labour left MPs?
Socialist Party: In Lula’s footsteps
The SWP’s largest rival, the Socialist Party (SP), was initially enthusiastic about Galloway and the prospects for building a mass political alternative to New Labour:
‘British workers should borrow from the best examples of their brothers and sisters worldwide. The construction of a mighty mass party, which stood clearly under the signboard of socialism in the first instance, the Workers Party (PT) in Brazil, began its life in a series of ‘assemblies’ where the idea of such a party was propagated by authoritative figures such as Lula, then a workers’ leader. Similarly George Galloway, who has assumed great prominence and authority as one of the main spokespersons of the anti-war movement, together with left trade union leaders and other authoritative figures such as Dave Nellist, could play such a role now in Britain.’
(Socialism Today, March 2003)
Typically, the SP ignored the connection between the watery reformist brand of ‘socialism’ that Lula advocated ‘in the first instance’ and the fact that the PT today heads a government that is implementing IMF-dictated austerity. The fact that the SP is still trying to pass off the PT as one of ‘the best examples’ for workers struggles would be criminally cynical if it were not so monumentally stupid.
While the SP did not join Respect, they wished it well, and in June 2004 Socialist Party councillor Ian Page ran in south London on a joint ticket with Respect. The SP has formed its own electoral coalition for the election, the Socialist Green Unity Coalition, with several smaller groups including the Alliance for Workers Liberty, the Leeds-centred Alliance for Green Socialism (AGS), the Socialist Alliance Democracy Platform and the internet-based Socialist Unity Network.
The Coalition’s Manifesto contains simple one-sentence statements on a long list of issues. While many are supportable reformist demands garnished with green phrases, the manifesto lacks any analysis of the state of British society, and advances no coherent strategy for change. There is no suggestion that the existing capitalist social order must be overturned.
Of course politics is about more than formal programmes – political organisations must be judged on what they actually do. And the SP’s recent record in the union movement does not even match the militant reformist tone of its electoral propaganda. When the government recently threatened to introduce legislation that would increase the pension age in the public sector from 60 to 65 years, the leaders of many public sector unions promptly balloted their members for strike action and received an overwhelming mandate. The PCS, whose national executive is heavily influenced by the SP, declared that it was ready to strike at the end of March. But Blair decided that it would be best to get the elections out of the way before confronting public sector workers, and so proposed another round of ‘genuine’ negotiations. This cheap gesture was enough to get the trade-union leaders to call off the projected strike. The outcome still hangs in the balance, but an important opportunity to administer a stinging defeat to the government was missed. Everybody knows postponing this fight will make it more difficult to win. But the SP is so anxious to alibi the role of PCS chief Mark Serwotka that it is ludicrously attempting to spin this cowardly retreat as a victory:
‘Although some will be frustrated that the strike action is suspended, knowing that to have forced the government to climbdown after strike action would have greatly increased the confidence of working-class people, nevertheless, the fact is that the unions have won a major victory without a shot being fired.’
(Socialist, 19 March)
Describing capitulations as victories only serves to disarm the workers at a time when it is necessary to prepare for battle. The government’s attack can still be defeated, but the first step is to start calling things by their right names. And that means an open political fight in the trade union movement to expose all those responsible, particularly left-talking misleaders like Serwotka.
The SP’s partners in its electoral bloc are all to its right, and one component, the AGS, seems from its manifesto to be no more than eco-liberals. One point of agreement between the AGS and the SP is their shared vision of creating a nicer police force under capitalism. The AGS manifesto states: ‘The keys to a safe and lawful society are making sure all our people have a stake in society, making our environment lived-in, open and unfriendly to crime, and making the police a natural part of the community’ (AGS website). The AGS does not understand that the police are a ‘natural’ part of capitalist society – they are the chief instrument for ensuring that the exploiters are able to continue to exploit. The AGS complains that ‘local police forces are not sufficiently accountable to local people’. In the television series ‘The League of Gentlemen’ the famous question is: ‘Are you local?’ – but for socialists the question of social class is paramount. The capitalist state, including the police, is an apparatus of oppression which must be smashed and replaced by an instrument dedicated to defending the interests of the victims of capitalism, i.e., a workers’ state. The SP, which pretends to be a revolutionary Trotskyist organisation, has a record of opportunistically promoting reformist illusions, like the possibility of ‘community control’ of the police under capitalism. The petty-bourgeois greens of the AGS take such reformist notions to their logical conclusion with demands that Britain and other imperialist powers act as a progressive force in world politics. Under the heading ‘Imperialism’ the AGS manifesto proclaims:
‘Britain must stop being the sidekick of an imperialist USA. Our economy, our democratic systems and our foreign policy has to cease to be a junior partner to the United States serving the interests of the unaccountable multi-nationals. Instead, all these must serve the British people.
‘Our new economy will start from sustainability, democracy and serving the needs of the people. Our armed forces will become part of European Union or United Nations forces if they had to serve abroad. We will close down all our overseas bases and kick out all American forces currently occupying any of our territory. This will mean their removal from Diego Garcia and Menwith Hill. The billions of pounds freed up will help us finance much of we have proposed in our manifesto [sic]. The Iraq occupation alone is costing us one million pounds a day.
‘Our vision is that the British economy becomes more like Norway or the Netherlands than the US. This will not be socialism but it will be a giant stride towards it.’
The talk of ‘our armed forces’ and ‘our territory’ is only the logical extension of the insistence that the police are ‘workers in uniform’, a perversion of Marxism that the SP defends to this day. The two-stage model for socialism, with an immediate objective of making Britain more like Norway or the Netherlands, is simply too idiotic to comment on.
Of course socialists must seek to politically engage youth attracted to green politics and win the best of them to a socialist perspective. But the SP is not seeking to expose the deficiencies of green liberalism and explain the superiority of revolutionary socialism. Its alliance with the AGS is simply a political non-aggression pact, which is why it describes all its bloc partners, including the AGS, as ‘socialist’.
Vacuum on the left
Since the 2001 general election, most of the British ‘far left’ has continued to shift rightwards, to the extent that the majority has come to view the elementary principle of working-class political independence from the bourgeoisie as sectarianism.
In this election class-conscious workers have no one to vote for, but revolutionaries don’t advise people to just stay at home on election day. The capitalist media labels those who won’t participate in this bourgeois dogfight as ‘apathetic’, but we say go to the polling booth and spoil your ballot – denounce the occupation of Iraq or the state of our schools and hospitals, or simply leave it blank.
The task of genuine socialists today is to bring the revolutionary traditions of the past to a new generation of young fighters. This means combating the pessimism and demoralisation that lead supposed socialists (who, when they were young, may have been motivated by genuinely revolutionary impulses) to suggest that cuddling up to trade-union bureaucrats, vicars, mullahs and liberals represents a short cut to mass influence. The duty of revolutionary Marxists, in a period of political drift to the right, is to swim against the stream.
If we are not strong enough to run our own candidates on a revolutionary programme we may critically support candidates who represent, at least in an elemental sense, the principle that the interests of the working class and those of their oppressors are fundamentally incompatible. If there are no candidates that meet that criterion, as there are not in this election, genuine socialists are unable to cast a positive ballot. In that case we will cast a negative ballot – a spoiled ballot – while continuing to participate in demonstrations and discussions, on picket lines and in every other field of struggle to which we have access, in order to regroup the forces that will be capable of leading the larger battles of the future. We look forward to the day when British workers will have the chance to vote for revolutionary candidates. But we do not lose sight of the fact that the trip to the ballot box every few years is only one small facet of the political life of the working class and ultimately not a particularly important one.
British workers desperately need a political party that, unlike Labour, serves the interests of those who work for a living, not their bosses. A real workers’ party independent of the capitalists can only be built on the basis of consistent internationalist opposition to the military adventures of the British ruling class. It must act as a tribune of all the oppressed and, for example, champion full citizenship rights for all immigrants. A genuinely socialist party would teach the working class to view the repressive apparatus of the capitalists as their enemy, and to recognise the simple fact that the bourgeois army and police force can never be fundamentally transformed – they must be dismantled and replaced with organs of working-class power.
And that requires a social revolution which fundamentally changes the structure of British society, expropriates the expropriators, and thus lays the basis for a new egalitarian world order in which human need, not private profit, determines social priorities.