For a General Strike to Smash Austerity!

Con-Dem & Labour: Different Knife, Same Cuts

David Cameron’s ruling Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition hopes to inoculate British capitalism from the economic contagion spreading across the Eurozone by imposing the same draconian austerity measures which have brought social tensions to a head in Europe’s southern tier, most notably Greece. The British government has drastically cut public expenditures through measures that include freezing child benefits and public-sector pay, and “reassessing” the disability payments of 1.5 million beneficiaries. After the chancellor’s 2011 “autumn statement,” the Institute of Fiscal Studies predicted that between 2009 and 2013, real median household income will fall by over seven percent (Guardian, 1 December 2011).

Thousands of services—including youth centers, libraries and refugee advice facilities—have been closed down, and major steps have been taken toward privatizing public health services. Britain’s economy is stalled, with growth below one percent and falling, and the government has a budget deficit in excess of £150 billion. More than 2.5 million people are out of work (including a million youth aged 18-24), while an estimated 10 percent of children already live in “severe” poverty (defined as a family living on less than half the average income). These figures are expected to rise further as a result of the latest round of cuts.

Reprinted below is a leaflet first distributed at a 26 March 2011 national demonstration called by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) that drew over a quarter of a million people. Many of the marchers expressed anger at the current trade-union leadership’s refusal to initiate anything more than impotent, token protests. While one-day public-sector strikes were held in June and November 2011, the union bureaucrats have shown little appetite for serious resistance to the capitalist offensive. As a result, opposition to the current attacks has taken on various forms: from wildcat strikes by construction workers; to a series of “Occupy”-style encampments across the country; to three days of urban rioting last summer (see article on page 16).

In the face of this vicious and continuing assault by the bosses and their state, mass strikes and other forms of coordinated united-front action are both urgently necessary and entirely possible given the widespread anxiety and growing anger at the base of society. Yet the organizations of Britain’s ostensibly revolutionary left (the largest of which are the Socialist Party and Socialist Workers Party) whose supporters include scores of trade-union shop stewards and workplace activists, as well as thousands of other militants, have thus far not even attempted to initiate any serious united-front mobilization for rank-and-file action to overcome the sabotage of the sell-out TUC leadership. They have instead focused on promoting their own, competing, anti-cuts front groups. This petty organizational sectarianism is, at bottom, an expression of political paralysis resulting from decades of opportunist adaptation to the pro-capitalist Labour tops and the union misleaders.

The Con-Dem’s vicious austerity measures are now being dutifully imposed across the country by local authorities—Tory, Lib-Dem and Labour. An attack of this scale demands a unified response by all those affected—public and private sector workers, young and old, women and men, employed and unemployed—in opposition to all the cuts. To be drawn into discussions of what is least bad to cut is to accept the government’s programme.

We must begin by clearly identifying the root of the problem—capitalism—and aim to make it impossible for the ruling class to conduct business as usual. A movement that merely aims to dull the pain that capitalism inflicts will be incapable of stopping the attacks. Petitions and press releases are entirely insufficient—serious resistance will involve going beyond what is permitted by the reactionary laws created by politicians whose only concern is to serve the interests of the rich.

A serious struggle against the cuts must remain entirely free of the Labour traitors who have enforced ‘neo-liberal’ policies for 13 years, retained the Tory anti-union laws and are now administering savage cuts in councils across the country. During the election campaign Labour promised to cut as deep and hard as the Tories. Now Labour politicians, and the trade-union leaders who fund them, are pretending to oppose the policy they endorsed. We should not be deceived by this charade. Working people need to form a new party that will really stand for our interests.

The recent student protests, which so vividly illustrated the power of mass protest, rejected the toady Labourite leadership of the National Union of Students. On their own, students do not have the social weight to fundamentally change society, or even to prevent the imposition of higher fees and restore the EMA [Education Maintenance Allowance], but student protest can provide important support for struggles by education workers and the wider organised working class. We need to aim for mass actions that hit the capitalists where it hurts with co-ordinated strikes, mass defiance of the anti-union legal straitjacket and a perspective of building up to a general strike to smash the cuts.

United resistance to all the cuts!

Vigorous strikes by public sector workers in defence of the health service, childcare facilities, youth centres, libraries and all services under threat could rally support from those who depend on them. The disproportionate impact on women should be addressed by mobilising to win equal rights in the workplace, free childcare and free healthcare, including contraception and abortion. An effective resistance must also seek to organise mass opposition to evictions and repossessions, and the seizure of empty housing to house the homeless.

In order to gain mass popular support, a movement to smash the cuts needs to boldly proclaim that we will not pay for the capitalists’ crisis. All workers must resist benefit cuts for the unemployed, redundancies and workplace closures. The answer to unemployment is to demand that the available work and hours be divided among those able to work, on full pay. Enforcing this is likely to require mass occupations of workplaces, whether the business is profitable or unprofitable.

The capitalists’ divide and rule tactic of blaming unemployment and inadequate public services on immigration must be answered with a fight to stop all deportations and detentions, and the demand for full citizenship rights for all immigrants. All foreign workers should be brought into the trade unions on equal rates of pay, and alliances forged with trade unions across the European Union and beyond. David Cameron’s tirades against ‘multi-culturalism’ echo the racist filth of the fascist BNP [British National Party] and EDL [English Defence League], which feed on social and economic crisis. These groups pose a deadly threat to the trade unions and the oppressed, and must be driven off the streets by mass militant direct action.

The police attacking and kettling our demonstrations are not ‘workers in uniform’ but the armed thugs of the bosses. To deter such aggressive tactics we need organised workers’ defence guards, and a political fight to kick cops and screws out of the union movement.

The major obstacle to effectively resisting the attacks is the fact that the leadership of the British working class are lackeys of the bosses. The trade union leaders who have put up no resistance and taken months to organise a national demonstration cannot be expected to sanction effective strike action. It is necessary to get rid of them, replacing them not with a politically heterogeneous rank and file movement but with leaders who are prepared to openly defy the anti-union laws and are committed to a programme of revolutionary class struggle aimed at breaking up the capitalists’ state and replacing it with organs of working class power.

Alternative’ visions of capitalism

The Eton-educated millionaire cabinet ministers have perversely seized on the capitalists’ financial crisis as an opportunity to redistribute more of society’s resources in favour of the rich and powerful. Cuts to public spending are designed to improve the bottom line of the banks and corporations. There are some differences within the ruling class—advocates of balancing the books whatever the cost currently have the upper hand, but others argue for more gradual cuts or even a Keynesian infusion strategy of public spending. In the long run neither approach will serve the interests of working people.

The TUC’s publicity for the 26 March [2011] demonstration describes it as a ‘March for the Alternative: Jobs, Growth, Justice’, and argues that cuts are ‘not an economic necessity’. With graphs and charts showing that British debt is not as bad as some other countries, a recent TUC pamphlet proposes a fantastic ‘alternative’ in which cuts are made more fairly, taxes and spending increased and the British economy sails out of recession:

Cuts are not the cure says that spending cuts and last month’s VAT increase hit the poor and those on middle incomes while a fair tax regime that raises more money from the finance sector through a Robin Hood tax and cracks down on tax avoidance and evasion would be a fairer way of tightening belts.’

The Coalition of Resistance (COR) was launched in August 2010 with a founding statement, signed by Tony Benn and 73 other luminaries including Labour and Green MPs, that makes a similar proposal:

‘An alternative budget would place the banks under democratic control, and raise revenue by increasing tax for the rich, plugging tax loopholes, withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, abolishing the nuclear “deterrent” by cancelling the Trident replacement.
‘An alternative strategy could use these resources to: support welfare; develop homes, schools, and hospitals; and foster a green approach to public spending—investing in renewable energy and public transport, thereby creating a million jobs.’

Right to Work (RTW), run by the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) also puts forward essentially the same plan and asserts that the cuts are simply a choice of the Con-Dem coalition, a view summed up in the publicity blurb for the RTW pamphlet, ‘Defending the Welfare State’:

‘The cuts are being made while big business and the rich fail to pay billions in taxes and while billions more are squandered on illegal wars and a new generation of nuclear weapons.
‘This pamphlet argues that Cameron’s cuts are completely unnecessary. It seeks to arm activists with the arguments they need to use at work or college.
‘The money is there to pay for decent public services for all. We have to resist the Tory assault on our way of life and build a movement capable of opposing the cuts and fighting for a better world.’

The COR and RTW have agreed to co-ordinate their attempts to pressure the government to shift its priorities but, co-ordinated or not, this kind of mealy mouthed cap-in-hand approach is virtually guaranteed to fail. What is necessary is a broad united front anti-cuts movement focused on building militant mass resistance to the capitalist attacks. Within such a movement revolutionaries would seek to win adherents to a perspective of uprooting, rather than reforming, capitalism.

Beware false friends

A major point in the agreement between the COR and RTW is that ‘both campaigns would work with Labour Party members who supported the aims of the campaigns’. In fact, what this signals is an orientation towards working with any Labour representative who wants to jump on the anti-cuts bandwagon and score some points against the Tories. Individual Labour members who are genuinely prepared to fight should not be deterred from joining the anti-cuts movement, but they are putting themselves on a collision course with their own party. What is necessary is a decisive split with the Labour traitors who assured the City and global markets during the election campaign that they would ‘responsibly’ attack the working class on behalf of Britain’s financial institutions.

On the local level there is an illusion that the way to fight cuts is via Labour Party councillors. Austerity budgets have now been imposed by Labour-controlled local authorities all over the country, but we have yet to hear of a Labour councillor voting against any of them. Even Councillor Kingsley Abrams in Lambeth, who was suspended from the Labour whip for supporting the protests, abstained when it came to the actual vote on a budget containing £37 million of cuts. The six Labour councillors in Hackney who issued a strongly worded statement opposed to the cuts then turned around and voted to pass the budget.

The only way that any local councils are going to refuse to pass on the cuts and thereby shatter the cosy tri-partisan consensus is if they face angry mass opposition. The Labour Party operates as an agency of the capitalists within the working class. To look for it to lead a fight is to cripple any prospect of effective resistance from the start.

This issue is starkly posed in debates over whether to invite Labour councillors who have voted for the cuts to speak at protests. A long article in the SWP’s theoretical journal on ‘The student revolt and the crisis’ concludes:

‘It is also important that this unity in action stretches into the Labour Party, which continues to hold the loyalty of core sections of the working class….Existing Labour-controlled councils are already implementing cuts in jobs and services. This is an illustration of how Labourism both expresses and contains workers’ resistance. But the best way to confront this contradiction is by working with and against Labour politicians and activists within the movement against austerity rather than by trying to restrict that movement to the would-be politically enlightened.’
International Socialism 129, Winter 2011

It seems entirely reasonable to ‘restrict’ speaking rights at anti-cuts events to those who actually oppose the cuts—but not for the SWP, who routinely invite Labour speakers onto platforms. Socialist Worker (19 February [2011]) specifically criticised the Socialist Party’s Dave Nellist for arguing ‘that we shouldn’t work with Labour councillors who don’t renounce all cuts.’

Workers Power gives the SWP’s line a more left-sounding spin. Back in October, when Ed Miliband was complaining about ‘irresponsible strikes’, it declared that he needed to be ‘forced off the fence’ (Workers Power, 8 October 2010). What fence? Miliband has always had both feet firmly planted in the capitalist field.

In a resolution dated 16 February 2011, calling for a ‘united front policy towards Labour’, Workers Power asked:

‘Should Labour councilors who have already voted for cuts be allowed to speak on anti-cuts platforms? This is a local tactical question, not one of principle. Such a tactic might help to expose pro-cuts Labour councilors in front of their voters, but at other times it may be divisive and cause unnecessary divisions in the local anti-cuts movement.’
—‘Policy: council elections, councillors and anti-cuts candidates’

The Labour Party is a bourgeois workers’ party, based on the trade union bureaucracy, and firmly committed to the interests of British capital. It has betrayed the working class time and again. Only those who have no serious intention of resisting could consider welcoming people who vote for cuts into the anti-cuts movement. Social democrats often talk tough and make big promises when they are out of office—but Labour is not even doing that!

In the same resolution, Workers Power opposes standing ‘anti-cuts’ candidates in the May [2011] local elections and instead calls for re-electing the Labour councillors who voted for austerity budgets:

‘However if local anticuts groups decide, at democratically convened mass meetings, to stand anti-cuts candidates against our advice then, in the interests of unity, we may decide to campaign with them to help try to build the anticuts movement. But this will naturally depend on local priorities and it won’t change our general position in the election of a critical vote for Labour.’

Labourism by another name

The Socialist Party offer the following advice to Labour councils:

‘By using their reserves and borrowing powers to avoid making cuts, councils can gain time to build a mass movement in their support. Manchester city council, for example, is estimated to have £100 million in reserves. To strengthen such a stand—and this answers the lie that there is “nothing Labour can do”—Ed Miliband could promise that an incoming Labour government would write off all local authority debts incurred from avoiding cuts.’
Socialism Today, March 2011

It is conceivable that in the run up to the next general election Ed Miliband will promise something like this. But once elected it is certain that he will do no such thing. It is odd for the Socialist Party to even suggest this, considering that they long ago declared Labour to be simply a bourgeois party like the Lib-Dems and Tories.

Instead the Socialist Party promotes warmed up Labourism, calling for a ‘new mass workers’ party’ to contest elections on an explicitly reformist basis:

‘The battle against the cuts is a top priority for the working class, but it must be linked to the need to argue for an electoral alternative. The Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) actually assumes even greater importance in this battle and it should strongly feature in all the anti-cuts battles. Without a serious electoral challenge, there is a danger, for example, that councillors carrying out cuts can remain impervious to the suffering that their callous approach can cause. Industrial action is vital, of course, but it must be buttressed by pressure for candidates—trade unionists in the first instance—to challenge them in elections.’
Socialism Today, February 2011

Through the auspices of the National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN), which they dominate, the Socialist Party has set up their own anti-cuts movement on the grounds that the Labour loyalism of the COR and RTW prevents them from opposing all cuts. There is some truth to this observation, but the non-SP wing of the NSSN opposed the idea of a third anti-cuts coalition:

‘Anyone concerned about the real interests of the working class cannot but realise that we need to unite the existing campaigns into one, democratic, mass movement—and certainly resist any attempt to launch yet another campaign.’
Workers Power, 31 January 2011

Unity is, of course, not an end in itself—it all depends on political programme. It is necessary for all those who want to fight the cuts to come together to discuss how to proceed in order to win this struggle. But one thing is clear from the start—effective resistance means politically breaking with those who fetishise capitalist legality or ‘unity’ with Labour traitors.

A crisis of leadership

TUC leader Brendan Barber’s vague talk of strike action, which he treats as just one means of protest among many, is only intended to contain and channel militant sentiments in the ranks. Barber laid out TUC policy quite clearly back on 28 January [2011]: ‘No-one is talking about a general strike, but of course these attacks on our members could well give rise to industrial action around specific disputes’ (Independent). The cuts are not a bunch of ‘specific disputes’, but a generalised attack, and defeating them requires a generalised response—exactly what Barber is afraid of.

The trade union lefts like the RMT’s [National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers] Bob Crow, Mark Serwotka of the PCS [Public and Commercial Services Union], Matt Wrack of the FBU [Fire Brigades Union] and Jeremy Dear of the NUJ [National Union of Journalists] have been talking big, but doing little. Like the leaders of the larger unions, they hide behind legal bans on solidarity strikes and the complex balloting procedures required by the law. Even the most elementary strike co-ordination, let alone a real general strike, will require shredding these reactionary entanglements.

A general strike is not a revolution, but it does raise the question of who holds power in society. The current leadership of the workers’ movement (and most of the left) demonstrate little appetite for a fight. It is necessary to show the ruling class that their attacks will be vigorously repulsed—but the forces capable of leading successful resistance are not yet in place. What is needed is a leadership committed to a programme of working-class independence, rejection of any sort of alliances with capitalist parties, and the determination to wage militant class struggle. Revolutionaries seeking to construct a party capable of providing such leadership could win a hearing in workplace-based strike committees, which, if co-ordinated at the local and national levels, could provide a mechanism to carry out a general strike and circumvent the sabotage of the trade union bureaucrats.

Beating back the current offensive is the immediate task. But it is only a beginning, because the capitalists will inevitably launch new assaults. To secure a decent future, working people need to struggle to get rid of the entire dog-eat-dog system of production for profit. Only the working class, led by a revolutionary party linked to militant leadership in the trade unions, can open the road to a world in which the production and distribution of wealth are organised to benefit the many, not the few.