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Articles on this Page
- 06/21/14--15:18: _A new mood to resist
- 06/21/14--15:18: _After the elections...
- 06/21/14--15:18: _UK: a dangerous shi...
- 07/07/14--09:07: _Hoarding cash
- 07/07/14--09:07: _Redistribute work
- 07/07/14--09:07: _After 10 July: esca...
- 09/02/14--08:59: _Cameron's headache
- 11/27/14--10:26: _How can the left to...
- 02/01/15--06:52: _What Green growth m...
- 03/31/15--04:20: _Why is Labour so weak?
- 01/04/16--13:23: _Social Class in the...
- 04/30/16--09:16: _Signs of recovery
- 09/05/16--07:59: _How do we best back...
- 03/03/17--04:23: _Striking back after...
- 03/31/17--08:03: _Michelangelo and Se...
- 02/09/17--16:00: _Pay: the cap doesn'...
- 06/01/18--10:25: _After the local ele...
- 06/21/14--15:18: A new mood to resist
- 06/21/14--15:18: After the elections...Europe between hope and despair
- 06/21/14--15:18: UK: a dangerous shift to the right
- 07/07/14--09:07: Hoarding cash
- 07/07/14--09:07: Redistribute work
- 07/07/14--09:07: After 10 July: escalate the strikes
- 09/02/14--08:59: Cameron's headache
- 11/27/14--10:26: How can the left topple the bosses' Europe?
- 02/01/15--06:52: What Green growth means for the left
- 03/31/15--04:20: Why is Labour so weak?
- 01/04/16--13:23: Social Class in the 21st Century
- 04/30/16--09:16: Signs of recovery
- 09/05/16--07:59: How do we best back Corbyn?
- 03/03/17--04:23: Striking back after the Trade Union Act
- 03/31/17--08:03: Michelangelo and Sebastiano
- 02/09/17--16:00: Pay: the cap doesn't fit
- 06/01/18--10:25: After the local elections: can the stalemate be broken?
Teachers, firefighters, council workers and health workers are all moving to either strike or hold ballots for strikes. Socialist Review looks at the shift in mood and argues that any strikes will be very political.
Suddenly the logjam could be broken. The announcement that Unison members in health and local government in England will be balloted over pay, plus a decision by the National Union of Teachers' (NUT) conference to call a further one-day strike in the summer term and the move for a new round of strikes by firefighters in early May mark a step change on the industrial front.
Add to this the potential for Unite and the GMB to strike alongside Unison and the resumption of the dispute on London Underground, then it's likely that the next few months will see the return of major set-piece strikes.
The potential for coordinated strikes also exists with the NUT executive expressing its willingness to come out on the same day if Unison calls a local government strike in early July. That could see nearly a million workers taking action. A strike by Unison across the NHS - potentially in the autumn if the ballot wins - would add 400,000 to the scale (and Unite has another 100,000 in health).
In addition, the flurry of militant local strikes - and victories - that Socialist Review reported on last month continues. Outsourced workers at Ealing hospital and the School of African and Oriental Studies in central London have made significant gains to their pay, holidays and other terms after sustained action.
A spate of action has also taken place on construction sites over attempts by employers to shift the costs of new rules governing self-employment onto agency workers. Strikers at Care UK - another outsourcing health employer - in Doncaster plan to strike for 14 days in a major escalation of their action while Lambeth College lecturers have announced an all-out strike.
There is a real sense that the movement is recovering from the doldrums that followed the abandonment by union leaders of the fight over public sector pensions after 2.5 million struck in November 2011.
What lies behind this change of gear? Firstly, pressure inside the unions has continued to build up about the sustained assault on workers' living standards and working conditions.
Pay is one flashpoint. Unison estimates that its members in local government have seen their pay fall by 18 percent in real terms since 2010 after a succession of pay freezes and below inflation increases.
George Osborne's boast that the cost of living crisis is now over will jar with workers facing a pay offer that would give the vast majority just 1 percent with inflation running at 1.6 percent on the government's preferred CPI measure, but at 2.5 percent on the RPI index which includes housing costs. No wonder 70 percent rejected the offer in a consultative ballot.
Unison's head of local government, Heather Wakefield, was right to note that the latest pay offer "is the straw that breaks the camel's back". But pay is also acting as a lightning rod for wider anger at all the attacks workers have faced.
A section of the union leaderships are putting themselves at the head of this feeling from below. Dave Prentis, Unison's general secretary, pushed the move to ballot in both health and local government.
In the NUT, where the argument for months was whether it was possible to strike without the other main teaching union the NASUWT, the success of the 26 March strike shifted the debate to one about the tempo and scale of strikes that will be needed.
Prentis no doubt also wants to send a signal to Ed Miliband that the union leaders cannot be ignored and that the Labour manifesto for the general election needs to reflect some of their concerns. He told Unison health conference, "Our job isn't just to get the coalition out. Our job is to make the Labour Party stand up for ordinary people. Millions hate this government but will still believe there is no alternative if they don't hear an alternative from our party."
Any strikes will be highly political - the questions of workers' pay, pensions and conditions are inextricably tied up with the neoliberal free market reforms that the coalition has driven even further into the public sector.
A strike on the London tube is a major challenge to the authority of London Mayor Boris Johnson that could put paid to his Tory leadership ambitions. Socialists have to campaign to draw out these ideological questions and to mobilise wider forces behind the strikes, boosting strikers' confidence and isolating the government.
The question that will also be posed at some point will be whether the strikes are simply protests before attention shifts back to getting Labour elected in 2015 or a serious fight to make real gains.
The union leaderships both give expression to the mood at the bottom and seek to contain it. The retreat by the UCU leadership in the higher education dispute, where a rotten deal on pay has been put out to ballot without any recommendation to reject, serves as a warning.
Confident political strikes combined with an argument for escalating action can throw the government onto the defensive and break the consensus on austerity that has come from the top of society, and which Labour has accepted. Major strikes will also be a welcome alternative to the divisions peddled by Ukip.
"Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold."
So wrote the Irish poet W B Yeats as he surveyed the turmoil across Europe in 1919.
It would be an exaggeration to say that Yeats words fit Europe's political situation in the wake of the European elections.
The centre is holding but the fraying at numerous edges is obvious.
In Greece, the radical left Syriza won more votes than the Tories of New Democracy, raising questions about how long the current government can survive.
In Spain one in five voted to the left of the main social democratic party. In France, it was Marine Le Pen and the fascist Front National which topped a national poll. The same was true for Ukip in Britain.
The centre did hold in Germany, the most powerful state in Europe. In Italy the centre left Democratic Party under its new leader Matteo Renzi's saw its vote leap to win a commanding victory.
But Renzi may find his support rapidly crumbles as he attempts to push neoliberal measures through, as it has for Francois Hollande, elected with enthusiasm as French president two years ago.
Europe may have returned to a faltering growth but 26 million remained unemployed across the European Union.
The crisis and austerity have placed huge pressures on the social and political structures build up in earlier periods to bind people to the system.
Those countries that have seen the highest level of struggle, above all Greece and Spain, saw the greatest advances for the left.
But rise of racist and fascist parties should sound an alarm that if the working movement doesn't provide a focus, the forces of barbarism will seek to exploit the bitterness in society.
In this issue of Socialist Review we take snapshots of political developments in Britain, France, Denmark, Ireland, Spain and Greece.
UK: a dangerous shift to the right
France: a warning from Europe
Denmark: crisis for the right despite strong Euro vote
Greece moves to the left
Indignados surge in Spanish polls
Ireland: a huge step forward
The shock results for Ukip are dragging mainstream politics further to the right, including the Labour Party. Mark L Thomas argues that this can only give a further boost to the racists.
Ukip's victory in the European elections last month marks a dramatic and dangerous development in British politics. Not since Herbert Asquith led the old Liberal Party to its final victory in 1910 has any party other than Labour or the Tories won a national election.
While the turnout in the European elections was low - and Ukip's 27.5 percent of the vote represents only 9 percent of the total registered electorate - and the media, especially the BBC, did amplify Ukip's success, there can be no complacency about the fact that a racist populist party won 4.35 million votes. This was an increase of 1.7 million on its previous record tally in 2004.
Ukip also won a further 161 local councillors, further entrenching itself in a series of towns and cities. While Ukip's projected share of the vote fell from 23 percent in last year's local elections to 17 percent this year, this should be placed alongside the fact that last May's local elections were predominantly for county councils while this year's were mainly in the big cities.
Ukip's rise reflects a shift to the right in mainstream politics and it is destablising the established parties as they search for an effective response.
The elections were a catastrophe for the Lib Dems, who lost all but one of their MEPs. The abortive coup by Lord Oakeshott seems to have failed after Vince Cable stepped back from an open challenge to party leader Nick Clegg. But simmering discontent is likely to be a feature of life for the Lib Dems as its MPs can now see the writing on the wall in next May's general election.
David Cameron took some comfort in that the Tories only finished two points behind Labour in the European elections. But Cameron immediately sought to assuage Tory Eurospectics by mounting a campaign of opposition to the appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker, the veteran EU fixer, as the next head of the European Commission.
Labour made gains by winning 324 more local councillors, but its overall projected share of the vote in the local elections was just 2 percent ahead of the Tories. In the 1996 local elections, the year before Labour returned to office, it was 16 percent ahead.
Although Labour saw its vote in the European elections rise by nearly 10 percent over its previous performance in 2009, that election was at the lowest point of Gordon Brown's popularity and represented Labour's worst ever result.
Labour still looks unconvincing as a future government - if it wins, it may well end up as a weak government with little popular mandate. It is paying the price for its failure to offer any alternative to austerity, and the bitter memories of New Labour's failures and betrayals in office.
Ukip's capacity to take seats even across a range of northern towns and cities has jolted Labour out of its complacent idea that Ukip is only a threat to the Tories. It won ten councillors in Rotherham, and in Barnsley it equalled Labour in the European elections. Across Sheffield, where Ukip won three councillors, it came a strong second to Labour, positioning itself as the key challenger to Labour.
Labour's toxic debate
But the debate in Labour is polarising between "Blue Labour" advocates of curbing immigration in the name of protecting workers from the ravages of the market and neoliberals like Tony Blair who want to keep Britain "open for business".
So the Labour MP John Mann has made calls for Labour to expose Ukip's Thatcherism but combined this with asking, "How is it fair that a youth can be born in a council house, live in it for 18 years and then lose out in allocation to a Polish family who have been in the country for a few months.
"How is this social justice? Why is it fair that a 58 year old man, disabled from coal mining, loses his incapacity benefit, but a family new to the country gets full housing benefit?"
Not only is this pandering to the myths and scapegoating put about by Ukip, but Mann goes on to equate the destructive effects of global capital with the free movement of labour in the European Union.
"It is not socially sustainable to allow flexible labour markets, free movement of labour and capital and have social justice. Why do people think that Google and Facebook base themselves in Ireland and Amazon in Luxembourg?... No free flow of capital to avoid taxes... No open market in labour in the United Kingdom... Ed Miliband needs to commit Labour to a people's Europe, by announcing that he will tear up the single market in labour and capital."
The powerless become the symbol - and scapegoat - for the powerful. Multinational corporate tax dodgers like Amazon are conflated with a migrant factory worker.
Calls to limit the free movement of workers were also made by John Prescott and John Denham, a former parliamentary aide to Ed Miliband. Denham disgracefully echoed the language of the right when he called on Labour to abandon its "politically correct" approach to immigration.
The signs are that the Labour leadership is responding to these calls. Ed Balls called for Labour to make "more noise" over immigration and Miliband's speech in Thurrock a few days after the elections linked the loss of secure jobs with immigration from Eastern Europe and a "growing west African community".
The response of two former Blairite ministers, Alan Milburn and John Hutton, in the Times was to warn against responding to Ukip's success with tightening immigration controls - "give an inch on this issue; Nigel Farage takes a mile."
But their reason was that, "A fortress Britain cannot work in a modern globalised economy." The Blairites see Miliband's willingness to take a harder stance on immigration as a sign of a supposed lack of commitment to the free market.
The arguments of Milburn, Hutton and Blair are dressed up as a form of anti-racist internationalism but in reality they are defending a world where capital can move without any democratic hindrance and draw on a vast pool of competing workers.
For the loudest voices inside Labour defending migrants to be those who are the greatest advocates of global capital would be a disaster.
What both those in Labour who equate workers' interests with restricting foreign labour and those who equate workers' interests with globalised capital have in common is that they both see the free movement of labour and capital as indissoluble.
But socialists should defend the right of workers to cross borders. The key to defending workers' interests is not more powers for border guards to discriminate, but the strengthening of working class collective organisation, above all in the workplace, and uniting all workers in Britain to challenge capital.
Hackney MP Diane Abbott has been one of the few voices among Labour politicians to challenge Miliband on a principled anti-racist basis insisting that the party should avoid "getting into the gutter with Ukip to tussle for anti-immigrant votes".
As she points out, echoing Ukip's arguments far from eroding its support will simply confirm the myths and prejudices it draws on.
Who voted for Ukip?
A major poll commissioned by Tory peer Lord Ashcroft immediately after the European elections suggested that just over half of Ukip's voters had voted Tory in 2010 while nearly a fifth had voted Lib Dem. Around 15 percent had voted Labour in 2010.
Steve Fisher, an Oxford academic, more speculatively suggests after an analysis of the shift in wards between the parties in the local elections on his electionsetc blog that "between 2010 and 2012 Ukip took votes mainly from the Conservatives, but between 2012 and 2014 they have had more success in attracting Labour voters."
The Black Country in the West Midlands provides one snapshot of an uneven pattern across the country. Ukip's fourth biggest haul of council seats came in Dudley where it gained seven seats. Ukip did take a previously solid Tory ward, but overall it seems to have hit the Labour vote harder than the Tories, across Dudley at least.
There is also some evidence that Ukip was able to tap into the "protest vote" that had previously gone elsewhere. So Ukip took a Dudley ward that has also previously elected a leading Green activist as councillor.
In Walsall, Democratic Labour, a local split from Labour, saw its vote slump in a ward it had been able in the past to get a councillor elected, with Ukip coming a strong second.
The Lib Dems lost both seats they were defending in Walsall to Ukip and the one Ukip gain in Wolverhampton was also the Lib Dems' one remaining seat on the council.
Another source of votes may well have been from people who had previously voted for the Nazi BNP. In three of the Dudley wards where Ukip won seats, the BNP had in the past decade been able to win over 20 percent of the vote.
This is also true in two of the three seats Ukip took in Walsall. The one Ukip gain in Sandwell was in a ward where the BNP came within 20 votes of taking all three councillors.
The rise of Ukip wasn't the cause of the BNP's decline - anti-fascist campaigns by Unite Against Fascism and others had already broken its base in places like Barking and Stoke in 2010, before the Ukip surge. But Ukip has benefitted from the BNP's decline.
So there is some evidence that Ukip is beginning, probably on a limited basis, to erode some sections of Labour's core vote even if it is still largely intact. Ukip is also picking up votes from other sections of workers who have in the past either looked to the Lib Dems or the Tories.
Leon Trotsky observed that he constantly came across three groups of workers - the minority of outright reactionaries who repeated the arguments of the ruling class and directed their frustrations at their fellow workers; another minority who consistently stood up for their fellow workers and challenged the bosses; and the majority, the "vacillating mass in the middle".
The key to the class struggle is to organise and give confidence to the class conscious minority so that they are able to exercise more influence over the middle ground and isolate the more backward, reactionary elements.
As we argued in December's Socialist Review, a majority of workers retain a basic class feeling and identity and remain committed to renationalisation of the railways and energy companies, as well as supporting state intervention to provide health services and to reduce inequality.
But over welfare benefits and immigration the picture is much less favourable, though there are deep reserves of anti-racism in British society, if they are mobilised.
The danger is that the rise of Ukip can boost the confidence of the more racist elements, increase their influence and start to marginalise the left wing ideas many workers hold. Labour's pandering to Ukip will not hinder this process.
Two things need to happen. Firstly, the Stand Up to Ukip campaign is vital to providing a genuine anti-racist challenge to Ukip that links the party's polices to its defence of big business and the bankers. Socialists need to fight to give it broad backing in every locality.
Secondly, the potential that exists to revive mass national strikes over pay and pensions across local government and the schools - and maybe other areas too - needs to be turned into reality. The curtailing by union leaders of the public sector fight over pensions in November 2011 helped create a vacuum from which Ukip has benefitted.
If over a million workers return to the streets and pickets lines next month this can provide an alternative to Ukip's scapegoating based on the fight against austerity by a multi-racial working class.
Many thanks to Martin Lynch for information about the Black Country
To sign the Stand Up To Ukip launch statement go tostanduptoukip.org
Big corporations are cash rich. The 2,000 biggest companies by capital expenditure are sitting on a cash mountain of gross £2.6 trillion.
But they aren’t spending it on new rounds of capital investment despite all the talk of an economic recovery.
Standard & Poor estimate that such spending is likely to fall by 0.5 percent this year in real terms. This follows a 1 percent decline in 2013.
And in “emerging markets” such as China, Brazil, Russia and India, the rate of decline in capital investment is even faster, falling by 4 percent in 2013 with a similar decline likely this year.
One problem is that the largest 2,000 companies are also highly indebted. Globally, net corporate debt rose from £5.9 trillion in 2012 to £6.5 trillion in 2013.
“There was a lot of hope that a clear improvement in the economic cycle might trigger the second stage when companies feel more comfortable and start spending their cash,” Gareth Williams, corporate economist at Standard & Poor’s in London, told the Financial Times.
“For a variety of reasons this isn’t going to happen and it raises questions about the robustness of the recovery this year.”
Professor John Aston, president of the UK Faculty of Public Health which represents 3,300 public health experts working in the NHS, local government and academia, has called for the end of the five day week.
Ashton argues that a four-day week would reduce high levels of work-related stress, allow people to people spend more time with their families and reduce ill health. It would also lower unemployment. Ashton says there is “a maldistribution of work” and it is damaging many people’s health.
“We should be moving towards a four-day week because the problem we have in the world of work is you’ve got a proportion of the population who are working too hard and a proportion that haven’t got jobs.”
“My concern is that too many people are working too long hours and too hard, and too many people aren’t working at all. A large number of people are working crazy hours and a significant amount of people can’t get work.”
Workers in Britain work some of the longest hours in Europe. A survey in 2011 found that full time workers in Britain work an average of 42.7 hours per week, with only Greek and Austrian workers working longer hours in the EU.
There are also record numbers of part time workers who want to work more hours to pay their bill and 2.16 million are officially out of work.
The insanity of capitalism means that millions are overworked while millions are also either underemployed or left on the dole.
10 July is set to see a second round of public sector mass strikes under the Conservative- Liberal coalition government following the pension strikes of June and November 2011.
As such the strike by around 1.4 million workers across schools, councils, fire stations and civil service workplaces breaks an unwritten rule among most of the trade union leadership: that in the run-up to a general election (now less than ten months away) big official strikes that raise the spectre of “union power” in the Tory press are to be avoided in the drive to get Labour into government.
Why is this happening?
There are a number of elements that are coming together and interacting.
First is the issue of pay. Pressure on pay has built up and become a lightning rod for a wider bitterness at years of austerity. David Cameron and George Osborne’s boasts of an economic recovery, invisible to most workers, have only aggravated that mood.
Unison estimates that the local government employers’ offer of 1 percent would leave most of the workforce facing a 20 percent pay cut in real terms since the coalition came to office and imposed successive annual pay freezes.
And local government workers are already low paid. Over a million, two thirds, earn less than £21,000 a year. And of those, over half a million earn less than the living wage of £7.65 an hour.
In fact, those on the lowest local government pay band are struggling to keep ahead of the statutory minimum. The current employers’ offer would leave such workers earning just 25 pence an hour more than the minimum wage even after its next rise in October.
According to payment specialists VocaLink, who analyse bank transactions to measure wages, monthly wages for public sector workers fell by £127.31 between the end of March 2008 and March this year.
Note that this points to the fact that public sector pay restraint began under the preceding Labour government, not with the coalition.
In fact under Labour a pay revolt was gathering pace in 2008 when the NUT, PCS and UCU unions struck together in April, followed by local government workers coming out for two days in the summer.
The combination of the financial crisis that broke that September, after the collapse of the US investment bank Lehman Brothers, and the recession killed off the momentum building up over pay.
The impact of the economic crisis and austerity was to create a mood of fear among workers about the consequences of unemployment.
But among millions of workers it also created a deepening bitterness about being forced to shoulder the cost a crisis they hadn’t created. Now, as the economy “recovers”, pay has returned to centre stage.
The succession of militant and inspiring local strikes at Hovis in Wigan, Edinburgh College, Ealing hospital, Care UK in Doncaster, and Lambeth College and elsewhere has also helped sharpen the mood. If workers can fight locally, why can’t the union leaders call national action? The People’s Assembly meetings and demonstration in London have been another sign of a desire among layers of workers for a more serious fightback.
Secondly, there has been a shift among a section of the union leaderships. The decision by the National Union of Teachers to strike on 26 March helped break the logjam.
The leadership’s argument that it was only possible to strike if the other big teachers’ union, the NASUWT, joined in was eventually overcome after hard and protracted debates inside the union.
The success of the March strike shifted the debate in the NUT from whether it was possible to strike at all, to debate about when to strike next and how to escalate action.
The other crucial link in the chain was Unison’s backing for action in local government and, in principle, in the NHS (though health workers were not balloted for 10 July).
Dave Prentis, who played a key role in the abandonment of the pensions fight, has clearly decided to give some expression to the mood among his members over pay and austerity.
There were reports that Prentis told a meeting of all the public sector trade unions at the TUC that they should all be looking to coordinate strikes. Revealingly, Prentis also talked about the need to “send a shot across Labour’s bows”.
Prentis is evidently bitter at Ed Miliband’s reforms to Labour’s link with the unions which were voted through at a Special Conference in March. (Prentis told Unison reps in Newcastle that the Collins Review into the Labour-union link was “six months of time wasting that no one else cared about, that did nothing for the people they are supposed to represent”.)
Prentis wants to remind Miliband that the union leaders remain a significant social force as part of the battle over the shape of Labour’s manifesto for the 2015 election and how far it will offer any alternative, however limited, to austerity.
The trade union bureaucracy established the Labour Party at the beginning of the 20th century to represent its interests in parliament.
Union officials needed to offer an alternative to militancy from below which can run the risk of escaping their control.
This remains true a century later. But Labour’s credibility has been eroded by the years of New Labour in office, and Miliband and Ed Balls’s acceptance of Tory spending plans.
Prentis wants to see Labour make a better offer to the unions that he can in turn defend in front of his members. The question of Labour and political representation is feeding into a shift on the industrial front, for the moment at least.
This underlines the importance of an analysis of the trade union bureaucracy as a contradictory force that mediates between the two main classes in capitalist society, workers and capital.
Trade union officials are a conservative layer. But they are not, unless they want to eventually be bypassed by either their members or the employers, simply a permanently immovable block.
At points they will seek to initiate action, just as at other points they will seek to contain and derail it.
The sell-out of the 2011 pension strikes by the leaders of the big three unions (Unison, GMB and Unite) a few days before Christmas has cast a long shadow.
It produced an understandable cynicism among layers of activists about the union leaders. This mood contained a progressive element of awareness of the gap between the interests of the rank and file.
But against a backdrop of low levels of confidence it also fed a mood of passivity and frustration that risked dismissing any move by the union leaders as simply presaging a sell-out.
Instead the challenge for activists is to seize on any moves towards action by the leadership as an opportunity to rebuild confidence and to raise arguments for further action that can go beyond protest strikes to a serious fightback.
That will involve hard arguments. Unison is already talking about two days of further action, probably in September. The dates should be named and Unison activists in health should campaign to be balloted in time to join local government workers on the picket lines.
At some point there is every likelihood that Prentis will also want to curtail any further action and focus on getting Labour elected, whatever his criticisms. Indeed, Len McCluskey’s speech to Unite’s conference in Liverpool marked a major shift towards subordinating everything to returning Labour to office next year.
So McCluskey insisted that “the most important challenge Unite will face over the next 11 months is winning next year’s general election… We have a clear and vital choice before us. It’s whether we can evict the present ruinous Conservative coalition from office and get a Labour prime minister into Downing Street. There is no third option.”
In April the Daily Mirror could report that McCluskey had told journalists that Unite might consider a break from Labour if it failed to offer an alternative to austerity and lost the next election. And Unite cut the affiliation fees it pays to Labour by £1.5 million after the special conference.
But McCluskey now seems to have declared such debates over, at least this side of the election: “There is a time to have heated arguments within the Labour Party about policy. There is even a time to discuss the future of the party itself”, but “that time is not now.”
And McCluskey made it clear that Unite would ensure Labour’s general election campaign would be well funded. The combination of deepening class bitterness with a lack of rank and file confidence has repeatedly created a momentum for officially called coordinated mass strikes.
We saw this in 2008, 2011 and now in 2014. In 2008 and on an even bigger scale in 2011 the strikes were marked by real enthusiasm from below but which was ultimately unable to prevent the union leaders retreating after a period.
The aim has to be to use each mass strike to push the process of rebuilding union organisation and confidence further along and to create local networks around initiatives such as Unite the Resistance that can embody these lessons and help argue for escalation rather than retreat.
David Cameron probably has had better days as prime minister than when one of his Eurospectic MPs, Douglas Carswell, defected to Ukip. Even worse, Carswell stepped down from parliament to force a by-election which could lead to Ukip’s first elected MP being returned, just months before a general election. This would be used to say that Ukip is not a wasted vote when it comes to parliamentary, as well as European, elections.
A far worse day may not far off though. If Scots confound the pollsters (and the polls showed the No lead narrowing in the final weeks of the referendum campaign) and vote Yes to independence it would create a first rate political crisis in the Tory party and the state with which it has long been identified. After all, ever since 1912 and the Home Rule crisis over Ireland, the official name of the Tories has been the Conservative and Unionist Party.
One reason the referendum result is unpredictable is that the turnout is certain to be markedly higher than at any general election for a long time.
This reflects two things. One is that the referendum offers a real choice, again in contrast to what many feel about the lack of an alternative offered by the mainstream parties, especially Labour as it has shifted right over the last few decades.
The second reason is the enthusiasm the Yes campaign has been able to tap into. Scottish workers, like English and Welsh workers, are bitter at the constant erosion of public services, rising inequality and pressures on living standards. But the low level of industrial militancy has fed a sense of powerlessness about fighting collectively to change these conditions. The independence referendum has offered a focus for that bitterness because it offers the hope that something could change, and change for the better.
The Scottish National Party’s (SNP) rise has been because it adopted much of the social democratic language once associated with, but now largely abandoned, by Labour. But Alex Salmond, the SNP leader, has fought the referendum campaign too often on the basis of stressing what won’t change if Scotland votes for independence — he would keep the pound, the queen and stay in Nato. Such caution, reflecting not least the SNP’s ties to sections of Scottish business, is liable to dampen working class support for a Yes vote rather than enthuse it.
But the left has been able to intervene and shape the referendum debates with considerable success by raising class questions on the doorstep and at innumerable public meetings. Tommy Sheridan, for example, the former member of the Scottish Parliament, will have spoken to around a hundred public meetings with thousands in attendance across Scotland on the socialist case for independence by the time the polls open on 18 September.
One reflection of the resonance of class arguments for rejecting the British state was that Alex Salmond was able to decisively triumph over Labour’s Alistair Darling in the second TV debate by going on the offensive over NHS privatisation under both the Tories and Labour.
Why should socialists support Scottish independence? After all, it would simply create another capitalist state and Scotland is not an oppressed country in the way, say, Palestine is. The key reason is that workers have no interest in maintaining the unity of the British state.
The break up of Britain, once the dominant empire in the world, enslaving millions of people around the globe, and still today a major power, would be a blow to imperialism. It would raise questions about the fate of Britain’s nuclear weapons, with the SNP still committed to removing Trident from its base at Faslane, in turn raising questions about Britain’s continued permanent seat in the UN Security Council.
A Yes vote would also unleash a wave of expectations about real change — an end to austerity, privatisation and warmongering. This would clash, of course, against the continued reality of capitalist rule and would have to be turned into real struggles to make any progress, encouraged by a strengthened Scottish left. But that potential is there — and that would have implications not just north of the border but south of it too.
Now that would really give not just Cameron a major headache, but Ed Miliband too.
The rise of left formations such as Syriza and Podemos presents new challenges
Over the past two months a string of remarkable opinion polls have appeared across Europe that point to big opportunities — and big challenges — for the left. In Greece the radical left party Syriza, which came close to winning the 2012 general elections, has moved to being 5 to 10 percent ahead of the ruling conservative New Democracy party. Some polls in the Irish Republic have seen Sinn Fein nose ahead of both the ruling Fine Gael party and the once dominant party of Irish capitalism, Fianna Fail.
But most remarkable of all was a poll in the Spanish El Pais newspaper in early November which put Podemos on 27.7 percent, beating both the main opposition PSOE Socialist Party and the ruling conservative Popular Party. Another poll at the end of the month put Podemos also even further ahead at 28.3 percent. Whereas both Syriza (or at least its main component Synaspismos) and Sinn Fein have existed for over two decades, Podemos was formed only at the start of this year.
Podemos’s rise has been nothing short of meteoric. It stunned everyone by winning 5 MEPs in May’s European elections after receiving 1.2 million votes on a programme calling for the abolition of tax havens, a guaranteed minimum income and lowering the retirement age to 60.
In mid-October around 8,000 activists packed into the huge Palacio Vistalegre auditorium in Madrid for the inaugural “citizens’ assembly” of Podemos. Another 150,000 people took part online. Podemos now has around 1,000 local branches that hold mass meetings frequently, sometimes in public spaces — an echo of the Indignados movement that occupied public squares across Spain.
Podemos’s rise is the sharpest expression of a much wider trend across Europe. Decades of neoliberalism, now compounded by austerity, have led to political polarisation and fragmentation across Europe. The erosion of old certainties about life for millions of workers and young people is undermining support for the old political order.
This process of political fracturing is uneven and it is much more accelerated in some countries than others, but almost nowhere is completely immune. The left is not the only force seeking to gain from this turmoil. The racist right is also exploiting the disillusionment with the traditional political set-up. Marine Le Pen’s fascist National Front topped the European elections in France, as did the racist Danish People’s Party in Denmark and Ukip in Britain. Europe is polarising fast and this presents opportunities as well as terrible dangers. Brian Richardson assesses the rise of the racist right and the movement against it elsewhere in this issue.
Peter Mair, the Irish political scientist who died in 2011, in his posthumously published work Ruling the Void argues that we are witnessing the “the hollowing of western democracy” with turnout at elections and membership of the once dominant parties falling. Electoral instability has also increased, with greater numbers of voters switching parties from one election to the next. One of Mair’s co-researchers, Ingrid van Biezen, estimates that, on average, membership of political parties in the continent’s established democracies has almost halved since 1980.
Such an erosion of support for the traditional parties represents a dangerous moment for any ruling class. Much of the time the majority of workers accept, or at least tolerate, the capitalist system because no alternative appears possible. A liberal democratic framework enables people to feel they have some control over their lives, and grievances about particular aspects of the system can be generally absorbed within the competitive interplay of political parties. An ebbing of that toleration can make explosions of anger from below more difficult to contain.
A crisis in the old way of ruling for the capitalist class opens up space for new forces to emerge — both those that seek to give greater expression to working class interests and that can begin to develop a generalised challenge to capitalism, and those that seek to stoke up nationalism and racism and look to authoritarian solutions to the crisis.
A key question, then, is what kind of left is required to make sure there is a progressive rather than reactionary solution to the crisis shaking much of the European political order?
Ireland, Greece and Spain all have general elections due not later than the next 18 months. In Greece an election may be called early next year if the government cannot muster 180 votes in parliament to elect a new Greek president in February. Syriza could find itself in office within months.
This means that the forces of the radical left are likely to face big tests in the period ahead. What strategies are the rising forces of the left across Europe pursuing? The best description is left reformist — in other words, a more radical version of the notion that gains can be won for workers through using the existing state to curb the power of the market and big business.
But many of Syriza’s supporters, and especially some of its international champions, would reject this claim, arguing that Syriza has transcended the old dilemma of reform or revolution and that a “left government” can open the door to a real challenge to austerity and inequality.
Canadian Marxist Sam Gindin for example, writing earlier this year in the Guardian, praised Syriza’s commitment to “radical reforms” and argued, “The question for the 21st century is not reform v revolution, but rather what kinds of reforms, with what kinds of popular movements behind them engaging in the kinds of mobilisations that can inspire similar developments elsewhere, can prove revolutionary enough to withstand the pressures of capitalism.”
But the danger is that such formulations evade the harsh realities that continue to shape 21st century capitalism every bit as much as they did in the 20th century.
A left government will face huge pressures from the media, the state machine and big business for any radical left force to prove its “respectability” and “ability to govern”. And a left government will have no real control over any of these institutions, all of which will remain unelected hierarchies driven by the imperatives of defending capitalist production and society.
When Syriza looked like it might win the Greek elections in June 2012, these same forces unleashed a huge blackmail operation that threatened economic collapse if the party came to office. We saw a similar “project fear” reach fever pitch in the UK in September when it seemed that Scots might vote for an independent state.
Such pressures would only intensify if a radical left government took office. The unelected power blocs would seek to either break any signs of radicalism (as happened to Labour governments in Britain in 1966-70 and 1974-79, and to Francois Mitterrand’s first Socialist Party government in France in 1981-83) or, if necessary, mobilise force to overthrow any left government that threatened capital’s interests (as was the fate of Salvador Allende’s reformist socialist government in Chile in the early 1970s).
There are already signs that the proximity of office has seen Syriza shift right in response to such pressures. As The Economist, that fervent champion of neoliberalism, noted a few weeks ago, “Alexis Tsipras, the 40-year-old Syriza leader, has been building bridges with EU leaders in Brussels and the German government in Berlin... European officials say he is no longer the intransigent firebrand who promised in 2012 to tear up the ‘barbarous memorandum’ if he came to power. Mr Tsipras has quietly tried to reassure potential investors bringing in money from abroad that Greece would be a business-friendly member of the euro zone under a Syriza government.”
Some recent pieces in the Financial Times also suggest that sections of the ruling class believe they can work with some the new left forces. FT columnist Wolfgang Münchau has praised Syriza’s and Podemos’s calls for increased public sector investment and debt renegotiation as the only realistic alternative to a Europe drifting into “the economic equivalent of a nuclear winter”. And an FT editorial welcomed Die Linke taking control of its first regional government in the east German state of Thuringia.
Such collaboration is not without its complications. So the FT argued that “to win trust, Die Linke should revise its unrealistic foreign and economic policies” — that the party should drop its anti-capitalism and opposition to Nato in order to win the trust of German and European capital.
If Syriza is sometimes presented as beyond the old left debate about reform or revolution, Podemos’s leadership often describe their party as beyond left and right altogether. They argue that the central division in society is no longer between socialists and conservatives but between the people versus “the caste” — the corrupt political establishment that has ruled the Spanish state since the transition to liberal democracy in 1978.
This attempt to reach out and appeal beyond those who identify with the left, and to try and distinguish Podemos from the failed traditions of parliamentary reformism practised by PSOE and the Spanish Communist Party has had some real advantages. But there is also a need to be clear about the real nature of capitalist society and the continuing centrality of class division. The “political caste” with its corrupt web of relations between politicians, the media and bankers is only the most visible aspect of a much wider structure of capitalist power.
So Carolina Bescansa, a spokesperson for Podemos’s leadership, can refer to the majority of businesspeople being “worthy and decent” — suggesting, presumably, that they can be allies against corrupt politicians. But the question is not one of employers being good or bad people but the structural compulsion on capitalists to exploit their workforces if they are to avoid being eventually taken over or driven out of business. Any serious fight to deliver real gains for workers will require confrontation, not cooperation, with capital.
The core leadership group in Podemos around Pablo Iglesias, a young Madrid academic, have been strongly influenced by the Latin American left and especially Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Rafael Correa in Ecuador. Yet the hallmark of both was the attempt to use the existing institutions of capitalist society to deliver reforms.
Both Syriza and Podemos are a reflection of a huge radicalisation from below but they are also subject to pressures from above — and both have moved to create more centralised internal structures that increase the authority of the central leadership as the proximity of governmental office grows.
So Syriza, often presented as a “broad left party” that unites revolutionaries and reformists, voted at its 2013 conference to dissolve its constituent organisations and shift from being a coalition to a single party. The left within Syriza argued this would increase the control of the leadership over dissenting groups, but was defeated. The same conference also agreed that party president (Tsipras) would be elected by the party conference rather than the Central Committee.
A key debate at Podemos’s Citizens’ Assembly was also over internal organisational structures. But despite much talk of the “horizontalism” of Podemos over the hierarchical nature of the traditional parties, the team around Iglesias pushed for a more centralised model to be adopted.
This included a single general secretary who would be able to select an advisory body that would then be ratified by a Citizens’ Council directly elected by the members. An alternative proposal, supported by three of Podemos’s MEPs and backed by many of those most active in the local branches, for three general secretaries and for the elected Citizens’ Council to select the advisory council was heavily defeated through an online vote.
Iglesias and his supporters argued their proposals were superior on the basis that they could deliver election victories. Iglesias has a huge profile thanks to his presence in TV shows where he has very effectively challenged pro-austerity politicians, and this profile has been a central feature of Podemos’s success.
Podemos also voted to back proposals from Iglesias’s team to stop members of other parties standing for leadership positions. This has had the immediate effect of preventing supporters of the Anti-Capitalist Left, the Fourth International group in Spain, from standing for key positions, even though it co-founded Podemos with those around Iglesias.
The rise of left reformism is a sign of an immense radicalisation among large numbers of people across Europe. It also offers a much bigger audience to debate socialist ideas and the potential emergence of networks of activists able to influence significant numbers of workers. But the crisis of the older established reformist organisations that have historically dominated the workers’ movement does not mean that reformism is dead.
The revolutionary left has to find ways to relate to left reformism, to go through shared experiences of struggle with those who are searching for radical alternatives and patiently argue that the key to any change is collective struggle from below, and a rejection of any notion that the institutions of capitalist society are potentially progressive.
Sometimes this can mean being part of left reformist formations, sometimes it means maintaining organisational separation while seeking to work with those attracted to left reformists.
The radicalisation we are witnessing across swathes of Europe is a huge opportunity. But if the left fails to turn this into a real onslaught on capitalism then the racists and fascists will seek to seize on the disillusionment that can follow.
The Greens' advance in the polls is welcome because it shows the clear mood for radical change in the UK. But, as Mark L Thomas argues, there are limits to the project the party presents.
One of the most interesting and optimistic developments in British politics is the sudden growth in popularity of the Green Party. Last month the Greens announced that the combined membership of the Green Party of England and Wales and the Scottish Greens, at just under 45,000, had surpassed both the Lib Dems and Ukip. In the 2010 general election the Greens got an average of around 1.8 percent; last year they began to move towards 5 percent in opinion polls. In some recent polls they have hit double figures. That suggests that up to 2 million people are considering voting Green.
Anyone who wants to understand why the Greens’ popularity has suddenly shot up could do worse than watch the video of party leader Natalie Bennett’s recent talk to a 600-strong audience at Exeter University. Bennett’s argument is that we face three interlinked crises in society: a neoliberal economic model that benefits only the rich; a social crisis in which poverty afflicts not just those on benefits but one in five of those in work; and an environmental crisis wider than the question of climate change. Bennett calls for an end to the privatisation of public services, a wealth tax of 1 to 2 percent on those worth more than £3 million, the abolition of tuition fees, a basic guaranteed income for all, and for tax-dodging multinationals such as Amazon to pay more taxes and better wages.
Bennett also points to a crisis of politics, where the main parties offer near-identical policies, breeding deep disillusion with the political system. The solution is a “peaceful political revolution” to create a society based on “the common good”, not the interests of the rich few.
Two things immediately stand out. Firstly, except for the environmental reference, this is the kind of speech a social democrat could have made a generation ago, but which Labour has long abandoned. Secondly, for a speech from the leader of the Green Party the environment gets a remarkably brief mention. Central to the Greens’ success has been a much more overt linking of the environmental crisis to wider questions of economic and political power.
When millions of people looked to Labour at the 1997 general election to offer some kind of challenge to the Tories’ pro-market policies, the Greens were marginalised. They polled just 0.3 percent. New Labour’s betrayals and the failure of the initial hopes that Ed Miliband would reverse this course, combined with the discovery that the Lib Dems’ claims to provide an alternative were entirely bogus, have provided the Greens with the space to grow.
The combination of the Greens’ opposition to austerity, war and racism — instead of Labour’s slavish support for US-led wars and pandering to Ukip’s anti-immigrant racism (the Greens’ slogan in the Rochester and Strood by-election was “Say no to racism”) — has got an echo. That the Greens stood on the right side of the Scottish referendum and identified clearly with the vibrant, left-leaning Yes campaign also boosted their credibility.
The fact that such arguments are proving hugely popular is a sign that British politics is not fated to move to the right, dancing to Ukip’s tune. It is a direct challenge to the tired old arguments of much of the current Labour leadership that more left wing policies can’t attract votes. A large swathe of society is well to the left of Miliband, and with a fragmented socialist left so far unable to create a serious pole of attraction, the Greens have captured some of that mood and given it an organisational form.
The Green Party has always had two souls. It has contained both people who stood for a radical and progressive reorganisation of society and “eco-liberals” who placed an emphasis on individual change. Such individualism is not incompatible with support for using the market to deal with environmental crises or appealing to big business to “go green”. The former Green Party leader, Jonathan Porritt, exemplified this trend.
After the Greens made a major breakthrough in the 1989 European elections with 15 percent of the vote, Porritt pushed for the party to become more “professional” and moderate in order to break into parliament and even government. That project collapsed when the party made no impact at the 1992 general election. Porritt then moved closer to Tony Blair, who appointed him an adviser on sustainable development. Porritt also became an advocate of market mechanisms to protect the environment and ended up as a board member of Wessex Water and Willmott Dixon, a major property developer, as well as a confidant of Prince Charles.
Under Porritt the Greens seemed to identify the problem in society as excessive consumerism — which could very easily be perceived as suggesting the solution was for working class people to make sacrifices in their living standards. While such arguments haven’t completely disappeared, the Greens today put forward a very different argument, routinely attacking the government’s austerity measures and Labour’s failure to challenge them. They are now more likely to be seen as defending workers’ living standards.
Green Party supporter Adam Ramsay argues that the “Greens have always been on the left. But they haven’t always been very good at sounding like it...there’s long been a sense that Greens are a single-issue environmental party... With Caroline [Lucas] and then Natalie out in front, and with the (left leaning and very influential) Young Greens and groups like Green Left organising among the activists, the image presented in recent years has been much more consistently left. Gone are the days of ‘not left or right but forwards’. The party is now clearly an electoral expression of the emerging new left.”
Ramsay points to some tensions that this left turn has produced. A minority of “old fashioned ecologist liberals” have set up a group to challenge the “watermelons” (green on the outside, red in the middle) around the party leadership and launched a newsletter at the Green Party conference called “The Kiwi and the Lime” (green all the way through), though without much apparent success. The real debate with those people looking to the Greens as an alternative is simple: how are we going to get the kind of far-reaching change that Greens talk about?
Bennett’s call for a “peaceful political revolution” is, in reality, the old social democratic argument — vote for change through electing MPs. But there is no more a green parliamentary road to be discovered than the elusive red one. Of course, more radical arguments being put in the media, in election campaigns, in parliament and so on are very useful and far from insignificant. But this is not at all the same as having the actual power to drive through radical social change.
Big business and the state will fiercely resist even the mildest challenge to profitability, such as imposing a living wage, let alone attempts to democratise and even break up large-scale corporations, as Green policies call for. Indeed Greens sometimes argue that big business has an interest in the creation of a more equal and environmentally sustainable society. Yet the drive to endless blind accumulation and exploitation is not a subjective choice but is driven by competition between rival capitals, and the cost of any slackening is corporate death either through take-over or bankruptcy.
The gap between the vision of a society that puts people before profit and the commitment to doing this through the rules of parliamentary politics and negotiated consensus with multinational capital also explains why some of the Greens’ policies are not quite as radical as they at first seem. So they are for a £10 an hour minimum wage, but only by 2020. They challenge anti-migrant racism but the emphasis is mainly on admitting more refugees from conflicts and a more humane, non-discriminatory, immigration system. And they are much less clear on whether they would remove all immigration controls (which are, by definition, discriminatory and inhumane). The Greens oppose war but look to the United Nations — designed to ensure the dominance of the big imperialist powers through the Security Council — to help foster peace.
This electoralism is also the reason why the experience of Greens in office is so often little different from that of the Labour-type parties they criticise. The German Greens in government backed Nato’s war in Kosovo. The Irish Greens in coalition with Fianna Fail bailed out the Irish banks and imposed austerity. And the one UK local authority run by the Greens, Brighton council, has pushed through cuts and attacked its workforce in a way little different from Labour councils.
So how should the left respond to the Green surge? Firstly, it is another welcome sign that there is a mood for a radical challenge to the mainstream and Labour’s acceptance of austerity. Secondly, the Greens are ultimately not the alternative we need. We need more radical answers that focus on the irreconcilability of the class divide in society and how mass struggle will be necessary to address this, especially through finding ways to mobilise workers’ potential collective power at the point of production. Thirdly, at every opportunity socialists should seek to draw in and work alongside Greens in campaigns to broaden the breadth of mobilisations, but also engaging in patient, fraternal debate about how neoliberalism, war and racism can be not just opposed but defeated. Are the Greens as radical as the people joining them? In some cases, possibly; in many cases, the answer may be no.
Finally, the rise of the Greens further underlines the need for the creation of a bigger, more united left challenge to Labour.
After five years of the Tories' austerity programme, and unrelenting assault on the welfare state, Labour should be roaring ahead in the polls. Mark L Thomas explains why this is not the case.
Why isn’t Labour a shoo-in for May’s general election? The Conservative-LibDem coalition has driven through the biggest onslaught on public services, the welfare state and workers’ wages in decades, yet Labour has been unable to develop anything close to a convincing lead over the Tories, and in some polls even falls behind them. As a result, the outcome of the general election remains very unpredictable.
Labour is failing to inspire. Even many of those planning to vote for Labour are troubled at its timidity and lacklustre performance.
So Polly Toynbee, writing in the Guardian, vents her frustration with Labour’s weakness:
“The slogan at Labour’s [Spring] conference — ‘A Better Plan: A Better Future’ — was not exactly a pulse-racer. Ed Miliband’s speech was fine, but not newsworthy. Momentum in the last year — at a snail’s pace — has been with Cameron... Only indignation and downright outrage at Cameron and Osborne’s plans can cut through. Miliband doesn’t burn with fury.”
But it’s difficult to burn with indignation towards something if you largely agree with it. Labour’s Achilles heel is simple: it has committed itself to accepting that the priority for the next government is to reduce public spending in order to eradicate the budget deficit. Labour is committed to matching the Tory’s spending plans for 2015-16 and to balancing the budget by the end of the next parliament. Just before Christmas, shadow chancellor Ed Balls spelt out what this would mean — under a Labour government departmental spending budgets would be cut not just in 2015-16 but for each year until the overall budget deficit is balanced.
Of course, Labour has made some promises — to abolish the bedroom tax, a 20-month price freeze on energy bills (not renationalisation of energy companies), and scrapping the Health and Social Care Act for the NHS. But Labour’s central commitment to “austerity with a red rosette”, as PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka once dubbed it, colours everything. So Labour may want to (temporarily) freeze energy bills but it also wants to freeze public sector pay.
Labour says it will abolish the bedroom tax but has also said it will cap welfare spending. Rachel Reeves, shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, boasts that Labour will be tougher than the Tories on cutting the benefits bill and says that Labour does not represent people who are out of work: “We are not the party of people on benefits.”
Drops of honey
Labour offers a few drops of honey but these come inside barrel loads of tar. The result doesn’t taste too good. And ideologically Labour is terrible. Yvette Cooper’s response to Theresa May’s latest clampdown on “Islamist extremists” who “reject our values” isn’t, of course, to challenge the Islamophobia that lies at the heart of May’s assault but rather to complain that the government has been too soft and too slow on the issue.
Labour’s response to the rise of Ukip has been to pander to its racist scapegoating of immigrants. Far from preventing Labour supporters switching to Ukip, this simply legitimises Farage’s myth that immigration is the central problem in society. And Labour’s defence of the union in the Scottish referendum may have saved the British state but at the price of jeopardising the future of the Labour Party in Scotland. The polls are now consistently predicting a seismic shift in Scottish politics with the SNP likely to rout Labour north of the border.
It is Labour’s unwillingness to launch, even rhetorically, any serious challenge to big business and the rich that leaves it so hamstrung and uninspiring — and leaking support to the Greens and the SNP. Labour’s stance can’t even be explained by electoral opportunism. The public mood — no thanks to any confident arguments from the Labour leadership — has moved against austerity.
A survey by the British Election Study of 16,000 voters in mid-March found that only 25 percent accepted the argument that it was “absolutely necessary” to cut the deficit. The researchers concluded that “the Tories have much work to do if they are to convince voters that a range of key policies are working”. Survey after survey has found huge public support for renationalisation of the rail, energy and water companies and to immediately return the post office to public hands, but Labour is promising to do none of these.
Labour is not only unable any longer to offer reforms that benefit workers in office, but is unable to even promise reforms when it is seeking office. Tony Cliff, the founder of the Socialist Workers Party, on the eve of Tony Blair’s election in 1997 pointed out that:
“Since the Second World War every Labour government has been more right wing than the one before. In 1945-51 unemployment never rose above 1 percent. There was a lot of welfare, a new NHS, 200,000 council houses built annually... There was nationalisation of key industries. During the next Labour government of 1964-70 unemployment reached about 3 percent, there was hardly any improvement in welfare, hardly any new nationalisation, and then in 1974-79 there was a massive attack on workers. For the first time since the war real wages went down.”
Why is every Labour government worse than its predecessor? Cliff’s answer was very clear: Labour operates within the framework of the capitalist system. The health of the system — and that means its profitability, the driving force of capitalism — is what conditions Labour’s ability to deliver reforms:
“So long as capitalism is expanding, the cake is increasing, the capitalist can have a big chunk in the form of profits, and workers get crumbs in the form of wages and social services. But when the system stops expanding at a decent rate, something has to give and under capitalism that is always the workers’ share. Because you can have capitalism with high wages, you can have capitalism with low wages, but you cannot have capitalism without profits.”
As British capitalism came under more pressure from its rivals, such as the revived post-war Germany, in the late 1960s and then as the system experienced a series of major crises from the mid-1970s to the huge financial and economic crisis of 2008-9, the need to squeeze workers’ conditions increased. Labour governments used to make promises of radical change and then find themselves powerless to control capital and so were forced into humiliating retreats.
Harold Wilson, in his account of his second term as Labour prime minister in 1974-76, described how the economic and industrial policy his government was elected on was altered against its will by the international financial community, from cautious treasurers of international corporations, to currency operators and money speculators — who Wilson collectively called “the bailiffs”. As socialist journalist Paul Foot later noted, “The bailiffs! What a turn of phrase! Wilson saw his elected government as tenants whose security of policy was subject to the greedy whims of bailiffs. Just as in 1948-1950, and 1966-1970, the unelected bailiffs evicted the elected government from their policy!”
Tony Blair’s solution to this problem was simple: do nothing to confront the will of capital and instead embrace it and worship the market
Cliff’s prognosis about the future Blair government was borne out. Labour in office from 1997 to 2010, far from abandoning the Tories’ drive to subject public services and the welfare state to market forces, deepened this process — and hitched the British state firmly to the US war on terror under George W Bush.
The result was that Labour lost 5 million votes between 1997 and 2010, culminating in its second worst vote since 1918. Miliband has attempted to take one or two steps away from the legacy of Blair and New Labour. So he has criticised the invasion of Iraq and on occasion denounced some firms as “predators” but Miliband remains deeply tied to Labour’s capitulation to neoliberalism and the interests of big business.
Of course, Labour remains a different kind of party to the Tories. One measure of this can be seen by following the money. Labour is still dependent for its funding on the unions. In fact, Labour has become more dependent on union money since it lost office in 2010. Trade union money has made up nearly 70 percent of donations to Labour. Under the last parliament this was closer to 40 percent. Labour’s biggest backer is Unite. In early February, the Financial Times reported that Unite had given £16.3 million to Labour since May 2010 — 27 percent of all big donations to Labour. Len McCluskey has of course got very little for his money — Labour has not shifted left. But nor has Miliband been able to reduce Labour’s dependence on union money.
At the same time, the Tories have become more financially dependent on a small number of City hedge fund backers over this parliament.
And millions of workers will still vote Labour — not because they love austerity but because they hate the Tories and desperately hope Labour will blunt the worst of the attacks, even if many of them worry that even this modest hope may be too much. But the need for a socialist alternative to Labour has rarely been clearer.
Some books are wrong, but in interesting ways. This is such a work.
Mike Savage and a team of colleagues were the authors of the Great British Class Survey, which they claim as the biggest ever survey of class in Britain with over 161,000 respondents. This book draws on the survey together with a series of revealing interviews about how people perceive and experience class in modern Britain.
Savage’s main claim is that class remains central to Britain today but that classes are being “fundamentally remade”. He argues that the old demarcation lines that once separated the working class from the middle class have blurred while simultaneously a super-rich elite has pulled ever further away from the rest of us.
Savage suggests that there are two clearly delineated classes in society — the rich elite at the top made up of around 6 percent of the population, and a precariat, suffering low pay and insecurity at the bottom and making up about 15 percent of people. In between he identifies another five broad classes within society (established middle class, technical middle class, new affluent workers, traditional workers and emerging service workers).
Savage and his co-thinkers are very influenced by the work of the late radical French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu who identified three types of capital which can accumulate over time to reproduce class privilege. These are economic capital (income, wealth, savings, etc), social capital (our social networks) and cultural capital (especially where this helps legitimise a sense of entitlement). This leads Savage to be critical of what he sees as an older tendency to equate classes with “groupings of occupations”.
Marxists however have never sought to reduce class to a static set of occupations. Rather class is rooted in the way the production of wealth is organised through exploitation. Savage dismisses the whole notion of exploitation with an unsatisfactory wave of the hand as “moralistic”. But this means that while the authors focus on how the elite reproduce and legitimise themselves they never ask how they gain their wealth in the first place. The emphasis is on class reproduction not class formation.
A second consequence of abandoning any notion of exploitation is the tendency to see the class structure as overly fragmented. So while on the surface a teacher can appear to have little in common with an office cleaner, what binds them together as part of the same class with the same interests is the reality of shared exploitation. In fact the working class has always been internally differentiated but collectively exploited. And much of the claim that the old boundaries between the working class and middle class have dissolved is rather superficial. The old distinction between workers paid a weekly wage and middle class “staff” with a monthly salary have gone, it’s true. But this reflects the way a swathe of once relatively privileged white collar office jobs have been proletarianised, with pay and conditions little different from manual workers.
With these important qualifications, there is much of interest in this book — especially about the structure of the elite and how class privilege is sustained and legitimised. Savage argues that the elite is no longer rooted in a closed, aristocratic, landed “Establishment” but neither is it composed of the self-made rich who loom large in contemporary culture. Savage’s focus is wider than just the top 1 percent but what he calls the “ordinary rich”.
This elite, with an average household income of £89,000 and average savings of £142,000, Savage describes as “a wealthy class…which basks in the sun, with very high levels of affluence”. At its core lies a corporate elite of senior managers, ie the core of the capitalist class, even though Savage prefers the looser and weaker term “elite”. Savage also points to the way this class is increasingly focused on London. He argues that the weight of regional elites outside of London has declined since the mid-20th century with the capital now acting as the “single incubator for the elite”.
The authors offer much thought provoking material on how the tensions between a formal claim that society is meritocratic and the reality of continuing class privilege play out in society. So, for example, they note that the older hierarchy between a prized “highbrow” culture (opera, theatre, the visual arts) and popular culture promoted on mass media has, especially among younger affluent generations, broken down. But it has been replaced by what they call the “new snobbery” based on a claimed exercise of a sophisticated judgement based on individual informed choice in contrast to the mass of people (ie the majority of the working class) who supposedly lack such discernment and are perceived as simply being unthinking and externally influenced by others or the media. This is held up as affirmation of the individual superiority of the affluent.
This is a book which is weak on the origins and underlying nature of class but perceptive about its outward manifestations and forms of ideological legitimation.
The junior doctors' dispute has combined with teachers’ anger and the Tory crisis to present new opportunities
The government has stumbled into a key trial of strength with junior doctors, who by the end of April had taken five rounds of escalating strikes, including a full walkout without cover. As the BBC’s health correspondent wrote after the full walkout, “this is going to be a fight to the bitter end…both sides have been briefing about how determined they are not to give ground. But who will break first? Ministers or doctors?” The answer will have far reaching consequences.
The attack on unsocial hours payments which lies at the centre of the junior doctors’ dispute was meant to be the opening round of a wider fight whose real target is the whole million-strong NHS staff. The Tories calculated that the junior doctors, who hadn’t struck since 1975, would offer an easy first victory. This has turned out to be a serious misjudgement. Alongside this, the sudden announcement by George Osborne in his ill-fated budget in March that every school in England would be forced to become an academy by 2022 sparked an explosion of anger among teachers and parents. It has also has reached deep into the Tory party itself. This transformed the mood inside the National Union of Teachers (NUT) which voted at their Easter conference to ballot for a series of “discontinuous” national strikes (ie not just for one day) and starting this term, to demand the reinstatement of national pay and bargaining. Together with the impressive victory by Scottish FE lectures, what we are seeing is the return of national action as bigger groups of workers than we have seen over the last couple of years show a willingness to have a go at the government and employers.
The past couple of years had seen a retreat from national action by the union leaders but a recurrent pattern of tough, protracted local disputes, often winning real gains or resulting in outright victories. Emblematic of this pattern was the 111 day strike at the National Gallery in London, which escalated to an indefinite strike, forced the reinstatement of victimised PCS union rep Candy Udwin and won major guarantees over terms and conditions for outsourced staff. But there were also key strikes by hospital porters in Dundee (13 weeks), homelessness caseworkers at Glasgow City Council (16 weeks), Lambeth College workers (42 days) as well as others.
This pattern continues, though sometimes with much quicker victories. So both admin staff and lecturers walked out unofficially to win the reinstatement of suspended Unison rep Sandy Nicoll at Soas, University of London, while Grangemouth dockers in Scotland forced the withdrawal of new shift patterns after winning solidarity from tanker drivers who refused to cross their picket lines. Strikes at Small Heath school in Birmingham defeated plans for an academy (though a key battle to reinstate victimised NUT rep Simon O’Hara remains) and there has been a flurry of strikes in the post, often over victimisations, at Bridgwater, Cupar in Fife and elsewhere. Teachers in West Dunbartonshire have held repeated strikes and threw out an offer that had seen strikes suspended at one point. CCTV operators and school janitors at Glasgow council have struck and other groups at the council are being balloted. Museum workers in Wales began an indefinite strike (again over pay for weekends) at the end of April.
These are important signs that beneath the apparently becalmed state of British industrial relations, with very low overall strike figures, there is a willingness among some workers not just to strike but to do so with determination and a spirit of combativity. But too often such strikes, however much they can inspire other activists and trade unionists, never gain the national visibility that could act to spur other groups of workers to fight by proving that action gets results. That’s why the junior doctors’ dispute — and 300,000 teachers moving towards strikes — is so significant: they are national events that cannot be missed.
Of course, we have in some senses been here before. Even since union leaders threw away the chance to score a breakthrough over the pensions dispute in 2011, we have seen other opportunities arise. In 2013 the two biggest teaching unions, the NUT and NASUWT, struck together in a series of regional strikes which were then abandoned. A year later local government workers and civil servants struck over pay, but a second strike planned for October 2014 was called off. Two four hour strikes by 500,000 health workers — the first national NHS pay strikes for 32 years — did take place in October and November 2014, only for this momentum to be squandered with no further strikes called. Each round in this cycle of mobilisation and retreat has produced frustration, sometimes leading to revolt (a special conference of Unison local government workers inflicted a defeat on the leadership but was unable to get action restarted) but more often to a sense of demoralisation and disengagement with the unions (witness the often dismal levels of voting in internal union elections).
So will history inevitably repeat itself once again? There are some differences that need to be taken into account.
Firstly, the junior doctors represent a new layer, thrown freshly into battle, who both lack experience of struggle but also any experience of defeat and who have grown in confidence and bitterness towards the Tories during the dispute. As recently as 2007 when thousands of junior doctors protested in London over reforms to medical training introduced by Labour, the then leader of the opposition, David Cameron, received a welcome reception when he spoke to the crowd. And even at last year’s junior doctors’ conference a motion calling for “strengthening links with other trade unions” was lost. Yet in practice this is exactly what has happened over the last few months. So trade unionists have joined junior doctors’ picket lines, and increasingly junior doctors are being invited to speak at union branches and conferences and, at least in some places, the BMA has started to hold joint rallies and marches addressed by other trade unionists, or in the case of the very successful joint BMA and NUT march in London on the first day of the full walkout on 26 April, organise them with other unions. In the face of repeated attacks by sections of the press and the Tories, and in the search for solidarity, a layer of junior doctors have begun to identify with the organised working class.
A second difference is that the mood inside the NUT shows signs of being much greater than 2011 or 2013. An emergency London demonstration the week after Osborne’s announcement, and when term was winding down for Easter, saw 2,000 teachers turn out, with smaller protests held across the country. (See below for more on the NUT.)
The third difference is the weakness of the other side. Despite winning their first majority government since John Major in 1992, the Tories are in some trouble with less than a year passing. The toxic combination of growing difficulties in imposing endless austerity, a fading economic recovery and a civil war over the EU referendum inside the Tory party fanning disputes that might have been containable into uncontrollable fires, more or less destroyed Osborne’s budget. After Iain Duncan’s Smith’s explosive resignation, Osborne was forced first to announce that planned cuts to disability benefits were to be scrapped and then that any further welfare cuts were effectively on hold.
This was followed by a major industrial crisis hitting the government with the decision by Tata steel to abandon UK production and sell its plants including Port Talbot in south Wales. The contrast was stark between Corbyn’s immediate demands for state intervention to protect jobs and the Tories’ floundering as they countenanced nationalisation, ruled it out and ruled (partial) nationalisation back in. And while the market threatened to rip apart communities in south Wales and northern England because there is “too much” steel in a world crying out for massive investment in renewable energy, the leak of the Panama Papers amply demonstrated that for the rich the market offers seemingly limitless opportunities to place their wealth beyond any public scrutiny. The most important point is that the weakness and division among the Tories has been visible to anyone that even pays passing interest to politics. The notion that the government can be beaten is much easier to see.
Building solidarity with the junior doctors is central to turning this potential into real defeats for the government. And here we face a problem. Too many union leaderships are sitting on the sidelines. The utter failure of the steel unions to call even a demonstration (except the one in Brussels they organised with Tata steel a few months ago) or to call for the industry to be nationalised have wasted both an opportunity to rock the Tories and the best guarantee of saving jobs. And despite verbal support too little has been done by the union leaderships to support the junior doctors who have effectively been left to fight alone for too long. In particular, the failure of Unison to open up another front inside the NHS over impending attacks on unsocial hours, something Unison health activists have been pushing for and raising on the union’s health executive, stands out. And the TUC’s attitude appears to have been good luck to the junior doctors but since the BMA is not affiliated to the TUC then it’s no responsibility of ours. And over the Trade Union Bill’s threat to union rights, the TUC’s approach has been to focus on lobbying the Lords for favourable amendments rather than any attempt at a serious mobilisation of union members to stop the bill.
Socialists have to combine incessant demands that the TUC and other unions act to support the junior doctors — for example by the TUC calling a national demonstration — with fighting to deliver concrete acts of solidarity with the junior doctors now and teachers in the near future on whatever scale possible. Similarly there must be continuous pressure for unions to fight together if possible but no concession to the idea that unions can win only if there is coordinated action. This is made easier by the fact that both disputes raise vital political questions — the fate of the health service and the education system in the hands of a Tory government determined to push forward an agenda of neoliberal, market driven “reforms”. Indeed, Jeremy Corbyn’s dramatic catapult from backbench obscurity to Labour leader precisely rested on a widespread sense that Labour had failed to challenge, let alone stem, this destruction of the postwar welfare state.
The key to solidarity is tapping into that political mood — and such an understanding exists in much of the NUT and among many junior doctors. So junior doctors chanting “Save Our NHS” on their protests while the NUT adorns its conference with banners rejecting “Exam factories” helps carry the need to support their battles to a far wider audience and puts the government on the defensive. Socialist activists inside and outside the NHS have helped push forward local solidarity initiatives, such as the 200-strong rally by trade unionist and junior doctors at University College London Hospital during the first 48-hour strike in early March, and the vibrant 1,500-strong march in east London on the same day.
The decision by the NUT to co-organise a march with the BMA on 26 April in London and the move by the PCS and FBU to raise a call for the TUC to hold a day of action in support of the junior doctors marked significant steps forward. The TUC General Council disgracefully failed to act on this call, though it didn’t rule out considering it again in the future — every activist should get behind the demand for a day of action and a national demonstration. And Unite the Resistance can play a valuable role in providing a framework for discussions between activists and parts of the trade union leaderships about concrete solidarity action.
And in every union socialists need to be arguing that the combination of the fight by junior doctors, the ballot by teachers, the victory in Scottish colleges and above all the demonstrable weakness and division among the Tories, means this is a good time to fight. If not now, when? And if the answer is waiting for Labour in 2020 then not only is that too late, but Corbyn will only survive if there is a fightback against the Tories.
Forced academisation: a teacher speaks out
The government’s plan to academise every school in England, outlined in the misnamed “Educational Excellence Everywhere” White Paper, is coming seriously unstuck. Schools minister Nicky Morgan is already facing huge opposition, not only from teachers and their unions but also from leaders of Tory councils and whole swathes of Tory MPs who disagree with the removal of parental choice and who fear for the future of small rural schools.
A slavish addiction to the free market stands behind the Tories’ plans. Their vision is based on the US charter school system where all too often you can find 50 to 60 children, sometimes as young as five or six, sat “learning” in front of computer screens.
The lessons are taught by unqualified staff on low wages and using teaching materials sold to the school by the big edu-businesses such as Pearson’s. The result is de-skilled teachers in an exam factory education system.
Two things stand in the way of this Tory dream. Firstly, the system of democratic accountability of schools via the Local Authorities; secondly, the terms and conditions that teaching unions have won for teachers over the past few decades. Forced academisation is intended to remove these two barriers to neoliberal privatisation.
The National Union of Teachers annual conference took the decision to campaign against forced academisation and to ballot its members for strike action to restore national pay and conditions for teachers. This ballot covers all teachers, including those who currently work in an academy or free school.
Since the conference decision was taken, local NUT meetings have seen unprecedented numbers attending — in some areas double the size of meetings during the 2011 pensions revolt. Similarly, the response from parents has been huge, with over 300 attending the Parents Defending Education meeting initiated by the Anti-Academies Alliance and poet Michael Rosen.
News reports of an imminent U-turn on forced academisation abound and it looks as though the government may allow Local Authorities to form their own Multi-Academy Trusts as a way of quelling the anger.
However, this will not change the fact that this is privatisation through the back door. Moreover, it will not reverse the erosion of teachers’ national pay and conditions of service over the past few years, with many schools now choosing not to follow national guidance.
We should see any climb down as a battle won, but we must also fight on to victory in the wider war. Teachers must go on the offensive now to win national terms and conditions and thereby also undermine the privatisation of education in England.
NUT executive member for inner London (personal capacity)
For the second summer in a row Jeremy Corbyn has been out on the road battling for the Labour leadership. Mark L Thomas looks at the dynamics of the campaign and the prospects for the Labour Party once the contest is over.
The summer was dominated by the bitter fight over the Labour leadership. The majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) gambled that the Brexit vote could be used to launch an onslaught on Jeremy Corbyn, who they deemed insufficiently enthusiastic for the Remain cause after he refused (rightly) to campaign alongside pro-Remain Tories or drop his entirely justified criticisms of the EU. The aim was to force Corbyn to resign without risking a vote by the Labour membership. But the no confidence vote by 172 Labour MPs (out of 230), the hourly Shadow Cabinet resignations, the fusillade of attacks hurled at Corbyn during PLP meetings (designed according to one report to “break him as a man”) all failed to dislodge him.
Corbyn’s resolve can only have been steeled by the immediate and massive mobilisations in his defence. So Corbyn was able to go straight from a reportedly brutal PLP meeting inside parliament to speak to a crowd of over 5,000 people gathered at 24 hours notice in Parliament Square, who made both their support for Corbyn and contempt for the manoeuvres of the PLP very vocal.
This combination of manoeuvres from above by the PLP, eagerly amplified and encouraged by the media, and massive mobilisations from below to defend Corbyn set the pattern for the weeks that followed. The meetings that Corbyn addressed in the leadership election last year were impressive enough but even those pale before the size of the turnouts this summer. Over just one weekend a tour of northern cities saw Corbyn address enthusiastic crowds of over 2,000 in Leeds, 3,000 in Hull and anywhere between 5,000 and 10,000 in Liverpool.
Equally remarkable has been the size of rallies in areas less historically associated with Labour support, such as Milton Keynes where 1,500 turned out, or the thousands who attended in Redruth in Cornwall. All this was matched by a renewed surge in membership — with over 100,000 joining the Labour Party in just a few weeks. Labour’s membership now stands at around 550,000 — higher than its peak under Tony Blair shortly after the 1997 election (405,000).
One sign of how much has changed since then is that the Labour Right has been forced to abandon one of the battering rams it used successfully against its opponents on the party’s left in the 1990s — the call for “OMOV”, one member one vote, first under John Smith and then under Tony Blair. This was designed to erode the influence of the union leaders inside the Labour Party, weaken the influence of class politics — which at least indirectly, the union leaders reflect — and put the left on the defensive as opponents of democracy. A mass of atomised new members, influenced by the mass media and the string of defeats Labour suffered at the polls under Thatcher in the 1980s and then John Major in 1992, would help reshape the party in the image of Tony Blair and pave the way for electoral success.
It seemed to work and became the template for the Labour right. Indeed, as recently as 2013 the Labour right successfully pushed through the Collins Reforms that introduced the category of “registered supporters” for non-Labour Party members, forced Labour supporters in the unions affiliated to the party to actively “opt-in” to gain voting rights, and introduced OMOV for the election of the Labour leadership by abolishing the old electoral college made up of MPs, the unions and members. The assumption was that this would create an electorate more under the sway of the PLP (and media) and further weaken the ability of the union leaders to influence the choice of leader.
The Labour right has been horrified by the results as instead of being fatally weakened the Labour left underwent a Lazarus-like resurrection around Corbyn. The right’s retreat from OMOV has been rapid and crude — using their influence in the party’s apparatus to exclude recent members from the leadership ballot and defending this, at considerable cost, in the courts; hiking the supporter’s fee from £3 to £25 and only allowing a two-day window to register; trying, unsuccessfully, to keep Corbyn off the ballot paper itself.
All this has been coupled with a relentless campaign of smears accusing Corbyn supporters of abuse, thuggery, anti-Semitism, and most recently ridiculous claims of Trotskyist infiltration, as if this could explain the huge backing Corbyn has received.
Such tactics are a sign of the weakness of the Labour right. Further proof of this is that the candidate the PLP finally alighted on to challenge Corbyn once a leadership election was unavoidable, the unimpressive Owen Smith, has had to try and distance himself from Blair — claiming, rather unconvincingly, to be a socialist and stealing many of Corbyn’s policies.
All of this reflects the fact that the unresolved contradictions of Corbyn’s surprise victory last year have erupted. Where elsewhere the desire for a radical left alternative has been captured by smaller left forces outside the dominant social democratic party, like Syriza in Greece, or completely new parties, such as Podemos in the Spanish state, in Britain this has taken place within the hollowed out structures of the Labour Party. All conventional wisdom among politicians and pundits dictates that when a leader loses the support of 80 percent of his or her MPs, they have no option but to step down. But Corbyn did not emerge conventionally as leader from within the parliamentary party as the figure best placed to pursue its interests, but by a rebellion against the PLP and its inability to offer any real opposition to austerity and the Tories’ war on the welfare state.
One consequence is that the weakness of Corbyn’s support inside the PLP means that his supporters are forced again and again to mobilise to defend him — at Constituency Labour Party meetings, at public rallies and even demonstrations in the streets. In the process they have come up against at least some of the key bulwarks of ruling class power: the Labour right, the mass media, the courts. This has opened wider political questions and raised the need for greater organisation by the left inside Labour.
A significant feature of the current balance of forces inside Labour favouring the left — and it seems almost inevitable that Corbyn is heading for victory when the result is announced on 24 September — is that there is split between a major section of the trade union bureaucracy and the majority of the PLP. Corbyn won the formal nominations of eight Labour affiliated unions while four backed Smith — but crucially Corbyn has continued to win, as he did last year, the backing of the two biggest unions, Unite and Unison.
Driven by the desire to see a Labour government more sympathetic to their interests than those under Blair and Brown, the backing of key union leaders gives powerful reinforcement to Corbyn’s position. But this support is neither unconditional nor universal. So Unite’s Len McCluskey told the Guardian: “I don’t think Jeremy has any problem with the test of electability. He wants the ability to implement the mandate to put forward an alternative. They’ve got to be given the chance…the idea of trying to get rid of him now is absolutely wrong.” But he hinted that if the polls hadn’t shifted in a couple of years, then this support might be withdrawn: “If there was a view that we needed a new leader, someone would say: well, you can’t do that six weeks before a general election. That’s why 2018 is spoken about by people.”
Unison general secretary Dave Prentis was more forthright, putting out a press statement alongside the announcement that Unison was nominating Corbyn that attacked “witch hunts” of MPs, councillors and party staff and calling for unity — in effect holding out an olive branch to the right and sending a signal that the Unison leadership is opposed to any attempt to discipline them through deselections, etc. The third and fourth biggest affiliated unions, the GMB and USDAW, both backed Smith — a sign that the Labour right still has friends in the union bureaucracy. Were the big battalions of Unite and Unison to turn against Corbyn this would make his position much more difficult.
The battle cry of the Labour right is “The left can’t win elections”, “Jeremy Corbyn is another Michael Foot”, “Labour faces a return to disastrous 1983 levels of support”. One point this overlooks is that the Labour right itself stopped being electable sometime around a decade ago — that’s why people like Tom Watson engineered a coup to push out Tony Blair, who had become electorally toxic by 2006, but then found that Gordon Brown, the other key architect of New Labour, was equally unable to stop the rot. In fact, by 2010 New Labour’s leadership of the party had taken them back to 1983 levels of support!
So whereas in 1983 Labour received 8.456 million votes (27.6 percent of the total), in 2010 Labour got just 150,000 more than this with 8.606 million votes or 29 percent of the total. In fact, apart from 1983 there have only been three other occasions since 1935 when Labour has received under 10 million votes at a general election. These occurred under Blair, Brown and Miliband in 2005, 2010 and 2015. And along the way Labour saw its number of MPs in Scotland collapse from 41 to one.
But how will the hundreds of thousands of people who have joined Labour to back Corbyn relate to the millions Labour needs to persuade if it is to win a general election? A radical Labour programme backed by effective arguments from the leadership that challenge the market, put the case for renationalisation, challenge myths that blame migrants, and so on, would make a difference. Equally, the revival of Labour as a mass party potentially gives it a network of activists who can take those arguments into communities and workplaces that Labour has long retreated from.
But the most important factor shaping whether workers will back a radical Labour platform is their overall confidence to challenge ruling class ideas that insist you can’t challenge the market. And this crucially depends on the level of struggle. Workers who are actively engaged in collective struggle are far more likely to reject the arguments peddled by the media than those who remain isolated and passive. But that points to the need to build such struggles.
Could Labour split? Certainly, there has been much speculation that MPs opposed to Corbyn would split away. In 1981 the trigger for this move was the threat by the deselections at the hands of the Bennite left. But even then only 28 Labour MPs ultimately defected to the SDP, which despite spectacular polling at points and winning nearly 8 million votes in 1983 (after forming an alliance with the old Liberal Party), never managed to make a decisive breakthrough, let alone to displace Labour as the main opposition party. And the ambitious generation of MPs who formed the SDP never served in ministerial office again.
A split from Labour would be a considerable gamble, to say the least — though some MPs may do so, especially if the talk of deselections was to become a reality. But more likely is that they will wage a war of attrition against Corbyn’s leadership and place pressure on Corbyn to moderate his message and seek unity with at least sections of the PLP.
In other words, the pattern of the last year could continue — the Labour right unreconciled to Corbyn and the PLP majority refusing to accept his mandate but equally unable to force him out. Corbyn did attempt to work with the PLP — the decision not to sack Hilary Benn as shadow foreign secretary after his speech in favour of bombing Syria last December was the clearest, but far from only, example. Far from generating loyalty, Benn simply continued to use his position to help orchestrate the shadow cabinet revolt against Corbyn.
Many of those around Momentum may well now want to see a much more implacable line taken against the Labour right and especially Labour MPs who refuse to accept Corbyn’s mandate, but the pressure on Corbyn to maintain unity — including from some of those backing him in the trade union bureaucracy — will be considerable.
The SWP’s starting point continues to be that we take unequivocal sides with Corbyn against those trying to depose him. But Corbyn’s position will be immeasurably strengthened if the level of struggle rises — and, in fact, this path offers the most certain route to creating an electoral majority for Corbyn. But that requires socialist organisation which is not orientated on Labour’s internal battles but is organised to encourage greater working class resistance — and that also requires rejecting the traditional divide between politics and economics that has always shaped the Labour Party, including its left. Crucially this must mean a willingness to challenge at points the trade union bureaucracy, and not just the wing that opposes Corbyn, but also pro-Corbyn union leaders when they fail to fight.
Such arguments need to be put patiently and wherever possible within the context of joint activity between revolutionaries and the new Labour left around anti-racism, solidarity with strikes, opposition to wars, and so on. And the revolutionary left also needs to argue a simple point: if the ruling class are prepared to launch this level of political and media onslaught towards Corbyn now, how would they respond to a Corbyn-led government? The ruling class has so far deployed just a fraction of its weaponry — investment strikes, currency crisis, sabotage by the senior civil services and judiciary, manoeuvres by the secret services have all been utilised with devastating effect against previous reforming Labour governments to ensure these presented no threat to the profits and stability of British capitalism.
The autonomist-turned-Corbyn supporter (and former Trotskyist) Paul Mason is mistaken to now argue, as he did in the Guardian last month, that, “Should a left wing Labour party come to power — either on its own or in coalition with left nationalists — it is likely to be able to govern relatively free of politicised sabotage from the state” because “the rule of law is stronger now” than in the early 1980s. The bulwarks defending capitalism remain intact — the onslaught versus Syriza which broke its anti-austerity stance is a potent reminder of that.
These are exciting times for the left in Britain but the movement around Corbyn will face repeated tests in the months and years to come — and a non-sectarian but independent revolutionary left can play an important part in the ultimate evolution of that movement.
With the Tories’ latest anti-union attacks set to become law,
Mark L Thomas argues that there are ways to initiate struggle that can help stregthen workplace organisation, and prepare for clashes to come.
The Tories’ new Trade Union Act, which passed through parliament last year, is due to come into legal effect this month. The new restrictions it contains, above all thresholds for strike ballots, will further curtail the legal space for strikes.
As the excellent analysis of the new laws when they were first mooted by the Tories in 2015 by two industrial relations experts, Ralph Darlington and John Dobson, makes clear, the act is “the most sweeping and radical tightening of the rules of industrial action seen since the Thatcher era of the 1980s” placing “enormous obstacles to unions’ ability to strike” (The Conservative Government’s Proposed Ballot Thresholds: The Challenge to Trade Unions, Salford Business School, August 2015).
Most sharply, the new laws place in question the prospects for future large-scale national strikes. The Act withdraws legal protection from strikes which occur without a prior 50 percent turnout in a ballot. And for a list of “important public services”, such as ambulance staff or train drivers, an additional hurdle requires 40 percent of all those eligible to vote — whether they actually vote or not — to vote yes to industrial action!
To see the scale of impact this could have, look at some of the evidence Darlington and Dobson carefully assemble. They examined 158 strike ballots across a range of unions between 1997 and 2015. Most of these were successful with majority votes to strike. But under the new law only 85 of the 158 strike ballots would have hit the required 50 percent turnout. And even more dramatic would have been the impact on the overall number able to legally strike: 444,000 workers could have taken legal strike action but 3.3 million workers would not have been able to do so.
The strike figures have been pretty miserable over the last couple of decades compared to the 1970s or even the 1980s, but imagine what they would be like if the 50 percent threshold had applied!
Strikes in individual workplaces will be least affected and, crucially, large-scale national strikes involving hundreds of thousands, for example across the NHS or civil service, will be hit hardest.
How the union movement responds to these new legal restrictions is a key question. The pattern of disputes we have seen since the mid-2000s, when moves towards coordinated national strikes first emerged, has been a combination of episodic national public sector disputes, and a modest level of local disputes — sometimes winning important gains, sometimes being a real focus for solidarity and resistance but not able to transform the overall level of struggle.
If nothing changes the future will simply be one where a sprinkling of local struggles continue but without even the occasional national focus. This would be woefully inadequate in the face of the scale of attacks workers are facing.
How should the socialist left in the unions respond? Firstly, we shouldn’t simply accept the constraints of the law. Even if it is mostly propaganda for the moment given the attitude of most union leaders, we should still argue that at some point the anti-union laws will have to be defied. And when a group of workers do find themselves clashing with the law, the scale of solidarity that can be mobilised can play a decisive role in the outcome of that clash.
Secondly, we should not concede the argument that the new thresholds for large-scale national ballots can never be met. A recent article on the Communist Party linked Trade Union Futures website suggested that low turnouts in national ballots have occurred because outsourcing and privatisation mean that “national collective bargaining structures and processes and the strikes used to support them are becoming more remote from meaningful outcomes for members”.
The fragmentation of many public services through the role of private companies is real, and growing. But national bargaining does still exist in swathes of the public sector (and chunks of private industry) and does touch on vital questions. There is no reason why, for example, the question of pay which is still negotiated nationally for hundreds of thousands of NHS workers should be a “remote” question for workers whose pay has been squeezed for years.
The “lack of meaningful outcomes for members” comes closer to part of the real problem — too often national strikes have been called, and then abandoned after one or two days of action by union leaderships, even when they have been well supported. If workers had more confidence that their leaderships were serious about a real fight for tangible gains, more would perhaps see participation in ballots as worthwhile.
Another pivotal issue is the state of workplace organisation. What national union leaderships do is vital, especially when there is a lack of confidence among the rank and file — how the union nationally mobilises, how it communicates arguments for action to members, the resources put in place to get a good vote, whether they are able to convincingly demonstrate they are serious about a battle, and so on.
But a union head office alone cannot deliver high turnout — good workplace organisation, where the union is a visible presence, where reps and other activists are trusted and motivated to carry the argument for action and know how to organise to maximise the vote, is the other vital ingredient. And the single most effective way of strengthening workplace organisation is through struggle — passivity leads to atrophy, mobilisation and struggle develop sinews and muscle.
Interestingly the one union that is best placed to beat the 50 percent thresholds in a large scale national ballot is the CWU. In Royal Mail the union held three national ballots over the last decade (2007, 2009 and 2013). In each case around 115-120,000 postal workers were balloted and in each case not only did this result in solid majorities but the turnouts would easily have beaten the new thresholds (at 67, 66 and 63 percent respectively). This reflects the fact that the CWU still possesses a significant level of workplace organisation in the postal delivery offices and big mail centres.
So we have to continue to argue for national action and we have to have answers to how the ballot turnouts out can be driven up. But the argument for even holding national ballots will get harder to win in most cases.
One important response is to look for whatever opportunities arise to initiate and lead local disputes. The impressive fight by the teaching assistants in Durham and Derby — not a group of workers with a strong tradition of militancy — have relied on local leaderships (and in the case of Durham, one that had to fight hard against the local Unison bureaucracy to even get a ballot).
Durham especially then became a national focus for solidarity. The very lack of overall struggle can mean that where a serious fight is launched, it can become a major focus for solidarity and inspiration. This in turn can provide a platform for a wider debate inside the union about the potential to increase the level of resistance. We need more Durhams.
But local strikes are not enough even if they can act as powerful examples. And if national action may get harder to win, even if the argument cannot be abandoned, then we need to rethink our strike strategies.
Revolutionaries, it has often been said, must act as the memory of the class, recalling the great historical experiences of the working class — the Russian Revolution, the Paris Commune and so on. The post strike of 2003 doesn’t perhaps loom as large nor was as earth shattering, but for the immediate problem we face it also is worth revisiting. This now largely forgotten episode (outside the CWU, that is) points to the fact that when national action seems off the table, other strike strategies can be tested and prove effective.
That year the CWU held a national ballot in the post — and lost it. But in the weeks that followed a combination of an official regional strike in London alongside a spreading wave of unofficial (and illegal) action gave Royal Mail management a “good hiding”, as one militant told Socialist Worker at the time.
A section of the London CWU leadership, sceptical about the prospects for national action, had been determined to get action and so pushed for a parallel separate ballot over a demand for an increase in London Weighting. A 200 strong London and South East reps’ meeting threatened to call unofficial action unless a ballot was granted.
After the national ballot was lost, Royal Mail management tried to tear up national and local agreements. But rank and file posties, starting in Oxford, fought back magnificently, with unofficial walkouts which forced bosses to retreat. London, which had won its separate ballot, then struck officially (and struck alongside 45,000 council workers also demanding increases to London Weighting).
London’s official action and Oxford’s success gave rise to a rapidly spreading wave of unofficial strikes as other offices across the country refused to handle the mail of offices already on strike. Within a few weeks the post was on the brink of a national unofficial strike — and management crumbled.
It was Royal Mail management, not the CWU, which was humiliated. What had not been possible to win in a postal ballot was won on the picket line after the strongest, best organised offices gave a lead.
Now widespread unofficial action certainly isn’t where most unions and workplaces are currently at. So what strategies are available?
There are some interesting straws in the wind. In the NUT, where last July’s national one-day strike has not been followed up, the scale of funding cuts and workload increase, will raise the question of strikes in individual schools — and socialists have to fight for more of these. But can we go beyond this?
An SWP member of the NUT national executive, Jess Edwards, in a blog post has floated some ideas: “If a number of schools were threatening strike action, there are other possibilities.
“For example, why don’t those schools link up with each other to strike on the same day or organise to go in to other schools to raise solidarity? What if there were possibilities for action across a whole borough, Multi-Academy Trust or academy chain? What if there were possibilities to coordinate on a bigger scale — across London for example?”
There have been discussions in London NUT about a day of action against cuts. This could involve members in all sorts of activities from small but important things like leafleting parents to bigger things like lunchtime demonstrations or strike action.
At a meeting of Unison’s Health Service Group executive last month, the union leadership argued that each of Unison’s regions should be looking to encourage and support at least one local NHS dispute over regrading to boost pay. This was counter-posed to a national ballot this year over yet another 1 percent pay offer in the NHS which was rejected with the claim that no mood exists that could meet the new thresholds in a ballot.
Some on the left simply counter-posed the two as well — rejecting any talk of increased local action as a disastrous retreat from national action. Yet an all or nothing approach over national action is liable to result in… nothing.
A far better response came from those, including by SWP members on the Heath Service executive, arguing that more local strikes in the NHS, with regional and national union support, would be a welcome step forward while continuing to argue for the need for national action. Indeed more local strikes — especially if they lead to tangible gains — can act as a way of rebuilding confidence and organisation, a central way that national ballot turnouts could be boosted.
How can socialists most effectively translate arguing for action — whether national, regional or local — into being able to deliver action? A central method must be to continually relate to the widespread politicisation inside the working class. The sharpest edge of that is over anti-racism where a large minority are horrified by the rise in race hatred.
Raising issues around anti-racism and creating an atmosphere at work — affiliating your union branch to Stand up to Racism, doing stalls and leafletting, getting people to wear badges at work, organising to take delegations from work to local rallies and demonstrations along with the union banner — is the best way to create a nucleus of people in your workplace and union branch who can lead action in the future.
And when Donald Trump comes on his state visit it cannot be beyond the realms of possibility to get protests and even some walkouts, however brief, in a number of workplaces. And that in turn would make an important step towards rebuilding the workplace organisation that can deliver more action across all fronts.
Michelangelo stood at the very pinnacle of the Renaissance. The revolutionary ideas of the Renaissance were based on novel ways of living which in turn gave rise to powerful new forms and techniques of artistic expression.
The basis of this was new forms of wealth creation, with production beginning to be orientated on market exchange rather than immediate use (either for the peasants’ subsistence or the lords’ stomach). The wealth of Florence and its great banking families such as the Medici was based on its domination of cloth production, which at its height employed 30,000 people.
But while such developments looked forward to the new world of capitalism they gestated slowly within the womb of the old order, with feudal and non-feudal social relations co-existing for centuries.
The new and old co-existed within the ideas and art of the Renaissance too. The new “humanism” of the Renaissance focused on the natural and human rather than the abstract symbolism of the divine, yet the subject matter remained dominated by the Christian narrative. In Michelangelo’s greatest sculptures, such as David or his Pietá depicting the Virgin Mary holding the body of her son, the dead Christ (a reproduction of which is featured in this exhibition — the original is in the Vatican), the emotional intensity of loss and suffering he evokes reaches heights unseen in western art for centuries.
The early work of Michelangelo is full of confident optimism about the growth of human capacities. The two marble statues of The Risen Christ, on display here represent a profound sense of confidence with Christ depicted as perfected humanity, a second Adam.
But Michelangelo also lived through the traumatic end of the Renaissance. The Church faced unprecedented challenges which would lead to the Counter‑Reformation and princely rule which would destroy the new society emerging in Italy’s city states. In 1517 Martin Luther published his scathing attack on the Church’s corruption, drew the southern German towns behind him, and launched the Protestant Reformation. A decade later, the armies of the Holy Roman Emperor sacked Rome and besieged the Pope for months.
With the papacy paralysed, Florence rebelled against Medici rule and established a new Republic, one of the most radical episodes in the city’s history. Michelangelo directly participated, overseeing the reinforcement of the city’s fortifications. But the Republic was smashed with the Medici restored by papal armies three years later. No wonder Michelangelo’s stunning Last Judgement could evoke so powerfully the biblical vision of the end of time — an era was ending, at least in Italy.
This exhibition only provides a glimpse of all this. The focus is on the relationship between Michelangelo and Sebastiano, the leading Venetian painter of his day but who has long slipped into obscurity. They clearly learnt from each other and Sebastiano’s use of oil to paint, something Michelangelo rarely used, had a great future before it. But Michelangelo was a giant and Sebastiano stood in his shadow.
The curator’s guide and notes barely hint at the tumult of the High Renaissance and its coming eclipse in favour of a narrower focus on the development of artistic style and the protagonists’ personal history. No matter — even a glimpse of greatness is worth it.
Labour’s stunning result in the general election has changed the mood in Britain, writes Mark L Thomas. The new found confidence of workers to challenge Tory rule needs to translate into action.
Public sector pay has moved to the centre of political debate. This poses a pivotal question — will the new confidence inside the left and the wider labour movement move beyond the ballot box and the Labour Party and into an increased level of struggle in the workplace?
A public sector pay cap has been in place for seven years, though pay rises were hardly generous before that under Labour. In the first two years (2011–13) public sector pay was simply frozen for all but the lowest earners. Then from 2013 pay rises were capped at 1 percent, with the government announcing last year that this will continue to 2019–20.
The impact has been deep. The Resolution Foundation estimates that if the government got away with its original plan, by 2019–20 workers in education, health, social work and public administration would have suffered a decade and a half of lost pay growth.
But the feeling that enough is enough and that it is now possible to challenge the pay cap is due to the altered political situation and not simply the cumulative economic pain. If Labour had been trounced in June the mood over pay would be very different with fatalism probably prevailing.
But 8 June changed everything. Labour’s stunning advance on an anti-austerity platform and the loss of the government’s parliamentary majority deeply shook the Tories.
And the confidence that can come from feeling that the leader of the opposition will defend your action from attacks from the right rather than concede, or worse echo them, and moreover can win the public debate, is a huge boost for public sector workers who have often been vilified as undeserving.
The election also was a deafeningly clear signal to the Tories that simply carrying on with austerity in the old way would carry a high price for a weakened government facing the immense challenges of Brexit.
To rub salt into the wounds, just as some Tories including even some members of the cabinet started to speculate that the pay cap would have to go, the Tories shook their very own “magic money tree” to find £1 billion to draw the DUP into a confidence and supply arrangements to prop them up in office.
May has now effectively signalled that the pay cap will be reformed — and that “flexibility” will have to be introduced. But the Tories will attempt to do so on their own terms, conceding the least possible to the fewest groups of workers.
So the Tories announced that the police will get a 2 percent award for the current year while prison officers will get 1.7 percent. Both will be financed out of existing budgets and both are still below inflation and so remain pay cuts. And this is the best on offer so far.
But to paraphrase Alexis de Tocqueville on the pre-revolution French monarchy, the most dangerous moment for a bad government is when it begins to reform. Trying to stem eroding support by hinting at changes that raise expectations only to dash them can be a perilous course.
This has created a mood inside workplaces to do something about breaking the pay cap. This mood is having an impact at the top of the unions too. Unions covering local government workers and school support staff have put in a pay claim for 5 percent and a “living wage” of £8.45 an hour for the lowest paid.
And 14 health unions have written directly to the chancellor, Phillip Hammond, bypassing their pay review body, to demand 3.9 percent plus an £800 flat rate on top for all health workers (which would disproportionately benefit the lowest paid).
Unison in health has been under pressure from the Royal College of Nursing which has been running a lively campaign against the pay cap including rallies and a threat to ballot for industrial action in some form if there is no movement by the budget on 22 November. If the RCN did take action it would be the first time in its 113 year history.
In both local government and health, there is an obvious question that must be raised in workplace meetings, at rallies and inside the unions’ structures — what will happen if the claim is not met? Activists cannot just wait and watch but have to start pushing for ballots if the claims are rejected. It means holding workplace meetings, pushing for local pay rallies and so on — some of which are already taking place such as the London pay march and rally on 17 October and using the Unite the Resistance pamphlet on pay for which John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, has provided an introduction — effectively encouraging the argument for strikes.
And arguments for action over pay need to be raised inside the NEU (the newly merged NUT and ATL education union) and in the FBU where firefighters rejected their executive’s call to accept a 2 percent increase tied to strings around new work responsibilities.
Both the PCS civil service union and the college lecturers’ union UCU in further education have announced consultative ballots to prepare the way for strike ballots. At a fringe meeting organised by the Trade Union Co-Ordinating Group (which brings together a number of left-led unions) Mark Serwotka, PCS general secretary, argued that if there is no movement to end the pay cap in the November budget, every union should follow suit with at least a consultative ballot and build towards coordinated public sector strikes.
Serwotka at the same meeting also outlined three important red lines for the battle over the pay cap. Firstly, the pay cap must end for all public sector workers and all attempts at divide and rule where some workers get pay rises and others don’t must be resisted. Secondly, pay rises have to be fully funded by the government and not come out of existing austerity budgets, which can only mean more cuts to jobs and services. And thirdly, pay rises have to be above inflation.
Inflation is currently running at 2.9 percent on the government’s preferred Consumer Prices Index (CPI). But the Retail Price Index (RPI), which includes housing costs, is rather more realistic at 3.9 percent.
Labour, however, has indicated that it will only support rises in line with inflation, as Corbyn told Andrew Marr in a TV interview and Angela Rayner, the shadow education secretary, confirmed in an interview with the Today programme during Labour’s conference. Yet this doesn’t begin to reverse the years of falling real pay.
Any real pay fight should also be bold on low pay and raise the demand for a £10 per hour minimum wage — a key issue for the historic first strike by workers in two McDonald’s branches in Britain last month. This would help enthuse and draw young workers towards the organised labour movement and start to rebuild the unions among young workers especially — a pressing task.
The 2016 Trade Union Act requires ballots to achieve not just a majority for strike action but a minimum 50 percent turnout as well. For some groups of workers in “important public services” such as under-17 education, emergency health workers and firefighters there is an additional hurdle that 40 percent of all those balloted must vote to strike, regardless of how many actually vote.
Can these thresholds be beaten? Some union leaders are privately highly pessimistic. The danger is that their vision is restricted to political lobbying over the pay cap and to then wait for Labour to get elected.
But the current ballot by the CWU among over 100,000 postal workers in Royal Mail is providing the first large-scale test of the thresholds and a template of how it can be done.
Facing major attacks by a now privatised Royal Mail on pensions, working conditions — with pay also an issue — the union has led a serious campaign including good use of online communication with regular video updates and even a livestreamed “mass meeting” with general secretary Dave Ward and the lead post negotiator, Terry Pullinger, which got over 35,000 views. But crucially, in office after office the CWU has held round after round of workplace meetings to put the union’s case, challenge management’s propaganda and then to fight for the biggest Yes vote and turnout in the ballot. The CWU estimates over 1,000 of these meetings have taken place.
A “national day of gate meetings” to build the ballot was followed by a national “get the vote out day” with pictures on the union’s twitter feed (@CWUnews) of whole offices going to the post box to collectively send off their ballot papers. The union has also mobilised political support, hosting huge meetings with Jeremy Corbyn to promote Labour’s call for the renationalisation of the postal service.
Converting the bitterness and anger over pay into action faces higher legal hurdles than in the past. But a combination of connecting with the new political mood and a real lead in the unions that carries the argument for action into every workplace and demonstrates the union is up for serious a fight can maximise the potential to beat the ballot thresholds.
Major public sector strikes would strike a blow, perhaps even a fatal one, at the Tories’ propelling Corbyn into government sooner rather than later. But they would also begin to fashion a movement that goes beyond the ballot box and starts to build the only real counter power to check and challenge the inevitable onslaught a Corbyn government would face from the ruling class.
And a real fight over pay would have another indispensable impact. It would transform the debate about migrants in Britain. Every picket line and strike rally would direct anger at squeezed living standards towards those at the top, instead of mistakenly towards those at the bottom. It would create a powerful symbol of unity inside workplaces across the country between British born, EU migrant and non-EU migrant workers.
It’s time to shake the magic tree for our side.
Mark L Thomas assesses the state of the Labour party after the council ballots in early May which failed to deliver a decisive result for either side
The results of the local elections in England last month were decried as a failure for Corbyn and Labour by the Tories, with much of the media coverage taking this as their cue. The usual suspects among Corbyn’s opponents on the Labour right were quick to add their voices suggesting that “peak Corbyn” had been reached.
In reply, the Labour left robustly defended the results as an untrammelled success for Labour and another step towards Downing Street for Corbyn.
But neither of these interpretations really capture what the local elections actually point to.
Firstly, and most obviously, the local elections as the first big electoral test since last year’s general election confirm that electoral politics — at least in England — is now firmly polarised between the two main parties.
Labour and the Tories between them won nearly 17 out every 20 council seats up for election in May.
Ukip collapsed, clinging on to just three councillors and losing 123. The party’s general secretary was left comparing Ukip to the medieval “black death” (something he strangely seemed to believe was a positive quality!).
Ukip’s electoral disintegration might seem like old news. But in 2014, the year when the council seats contested this year were last up for election, Ukip was riding the peak of its wave of support. Indeed, in the elections to the European parliament held on the same day as the 2014 local elections Ukip finished top — the first time any party apart from Labour or the Tories had won a nationwide vote since 1910. Ukip’s collapse has primarily benefited the Tories, though Labour will have taken some of its former vote.
The much trumpeted Lib Dem revival — they gained 75 council seats — is from a very low base following the shattering of much of its electoral support.
The decades-long erosion of support for the two main parties and the rise of challengers — Lib Dems, SNP, Plaid Cymru, Ukip, the Greens — peaked in the 2015 general election but went into sharp reverse last June, with the exception of the SNP in Scotland. The local elections suggest little has changed since then. Labour confirmed it has advanced, but the Tories did not collapse.
Of course Labour won more council seats (2,350) and saw the biggest net gain (79), while the Tories took 1,332, an overall loss of 35 councillors.
But the local elections are only a partial snapshot of the national picture. Less than a quarter of the total number of council seats across the UK were up for re-election, mainly concentrated in the bigger urban centres of England.
Labour gained control of Kirklees, Plymouth and Tower Hamlets but lost control of Derby, Nuneaton & Bedworth and Redditch.
And in London, Labour had its best results since 1971 — indeed almost all its net gains came from the capital (and were particularly concentrated in Tower Hamlets, Redbridge and Wandsworth). In fact, Labour came very close to defeating the Tories in Wandsworth, where Labour gained seven seats while the Tories lost eight (and according to the Britain Elects Twitter feed, Labour’s share of the vote was higher than the Tories across the borough as a whole). Losing Wandsworth would have been very uncomfortable for Theresa May.
But there was no great breakthrough for Labour and the picture of an electoral stalemate is if anything confirmed.
The results underline that there is no certainty that Labour will win the next general election. Simply waiting for the Tories to collapse is a poor strategy.
The local elections had too little of the feeling of insurgency and radicalism from Labour that we saw in the general election last year.
Labour under Corbyn is no longer the outsider with nothing to lose but instead increasingly styles itself as a government in waiting. And there has been no challenge to the policy of Labour councils implementing the cuts locally.
But acting as a respectable government in waiting with a mass, but essentially conventional electoral operation, limits its potential to further increase its wider support.
That requires more, not less struggle and radicalism. Its absence risks allowing the Tories to cling on.
And that in turn gives Corbyn’s opponents on the right — inside and outside Labour — the space to regroup and go on the attack. The outcome of the general election shocked such forces and throw them into some disarray.
But they have regrouped and in the sustained campaign to tar Corbyn and the left with antisemitism they have found an effective stick to intimidate and paralyse Corbyn and the Labour left.
Antisemitism must be challenged wherever it appears. But the ferocity of these attacks are little to do with the actual, limited, existence of antisemitism in the Labour Party and everything to do with attacking and undermining the left.
But the response from Corbyn and Momentum has been largely to concede the ground and not to call out the attacks as a witch hunt.
As a result Ken Livingstone, former London Mayor and a key figurehead of the Labour left, has been forced out of the Labour Party, without any real fight since he resigned, for comments that may have been ill-judged politically but were not antisemitic. The belief that this will stop the attacks on the left is an act of wishful thinking. Labour is now a party where there is no space for Livingstone, but there is for Tony Blair or the Labour Friends of Israel.
The situation urgently calls for a much, much greater level of struggle and resistance to throw the Tories onto the defensive and increase their divisions. The decision by the PCS union at its annual conference last month to ballot for strikes over pay is a step in the right direction, but one too few other unions look like matching.
Yet the potential to be bold and take the fight to the Tories clearly exists. The best example has been the Windrush scandal. The widespread anger at the revelations that the Tories’ creation of a “hostile environment” for migrants had threatened the residency rights of thousands of people who had come from the Caribbean, especially in the 1950s and 60s to work in Britain’s public services and labour-starved industries, threw the government onto the defensive.
The protests initiated by Stand Up to Racism, alongside others, captured the public mood and boosted the confidence of Diane Abbott, Labour’s shadow home secretary, to not only harry the Tories on this with considerable effect but also to promise that a future Labour government would close down detentions centres such as Yarl’s Wood.
Two other points should be made in the light of the local elections.
One is over Brexit. The results underline that heeding the pressure to position Labour as an anti-Brexit force, either through support for continued British membership of the single market or joining the calls for a second referendum would not only be politically disastrous — the single market would be a major impediment to the kind of break with neoliberalism enshrined in last year’s Labour manifesto, for example — but would also damage Labour electorally. It would allow the Tories to pose as the only party willing to act on the referendum results, especially in Leave voting areas of the Midlands and the North.
Secondly, the local elections have altered some of the political make up of Labour councils. Local government has long been a bastion of the Labour right since the collapse of “municipal socialism” in the late 1980s. But this election will have seen more pro-Corbyn councillors elected. In some areas, the left will now have some influence on the direction and policy of Labour councils. And in Haringey council, the left is now the dominant force.
This is directly related to the struggle to stop the Haringey Development Vehicle (HDV), a collaboration between the Labour right council leadership and major property developers, which would have led to widespread social cleansing in the borough. The campaign to stop HDV united socialists and activists outside the Labour Party with the newly expanded Labour left. In turn that led to a struggle for control of the local Labour Party and the council, with the left emerging as clear winners.
But what will the left do with the council now that they run it? As Joseph Ejiofor, the new leader of Haringey council (and a member of Momentum’s National Coordinating Group), told the London Evening Standard, “Over the next four years it will be down to us to show everybody what this mythical beast the ‘Corbyn council’ actually does.”
Of course, the first step is putting the last nails in the HDV’s coffin. But a left council needs to show it will challenge austerity, not simply implement it while blaming the Tories and waiting for a Labour government. The words of George Lansbury, leader of Poplar council in east London after the First World War (and later the most left wing leader in Labour’s history, apart from Corbyn) still apply, “The workers must be given tangible proof that a Labour administration means something different from capitalist administration, and in a nutshell this means diverting wealth from wealthy ratepayers to the poor.”
This is an anticipation of the great questions that will be posed if Labour under Corbyn does come to government office.