Where do workers stand against the backdrop of the first 20 months of this coalition government?
What is a coalition? A coalition is “a temporary alliance for combined action”. We have to think about what is meant by “temporary” and what is meant by “combined action”? Temporary will mean for as long as the threat they perceive is greater than their own differences. And what is combined action and who is it against?
The who are us. Not the CPBML, though we are part of their problem, but the British working class – that is, the overwhelming majority of the British people: you, me, us.
It is worth a slight digression back into history to reflect on what was happening 100 years ago, in 1911, and what was next for the working class then.
It was a period of unprecedented working class rebellion – miners, seafarers, transport workers, railway workers, school children, engineers – lasting until the opening shots of, and only stopped by, the 1914-18 war. The strikes, equated to insurrection, were not dealt with by the niceties of anti-union legislation but were brutally attacked by troops and police occupying striking city after striking city. There were 70 million days lost through strike action, later to be mirrored by the millions slaughtered in the war. There was at the same time the first tinkering with state pensions and national insurance.
Part of the crowd at the TUC’s 26 March demonstration in London against cuts. To capitalism, all workers are disposable.
Europe was in an arms race unprecedented in history. There was the threat of war – who remembers Agadir in Morocco? – another North African sovereign state? France and Germany were squaring up to one another, tipping the world ever nearer to war.
There were plenty of parliamentary diversions – the Liberals’ Parliament Bill tamed the Tory hereditary Lords – and Cameron promises the same now!
Ramsay McDonald, never a traitor to capitalism, was elected as the first Labour leader. Then as now, all parliamentary political parties were for the preservation of capitalism.
Poverty and disease, slums and unemployment, unprecedented financial crisis, Britain’s Empire at its zenith and war on the world from Ireland to India, never a day of peace under British Imperialism.
Then looking back further, to 1811, and what next for Britain’s workers? The Rising of the Luddites starts that year and lasts five years. The Combination Acts are half way through their 25 years of notoriety for suppressing trade unions, silencing freedom of speech and strangling freedom of association. Parliamentary parties are a thing of the future – the ruling class then did not need such things as they truly knew their place: to rule. There is war across Europe and the Americas, and disease, poverty, slums, ignorance, unemployment, debt, financial mayhem at home.
Why this digression? It is to reinforce that we are a long-established, educated, skilled, millions-strong working class of 21st-century Britain. To show we have been here before, heard all their excuses before but also that this time we have to act differently to before.
We have a history of struggle and progress and we have a history of fighting the same old ruling class, which manifests itself today as the Coalition and yesterday’s Parliamentary Labour Party.
All parliamentarian political parties represent capitalism. There is no attempt to pretend otherwise. The Labour Party was about living with capitalism, making capitalism nice. That safety net is no more as Labour doesn’t even pretend to be anything other than a capitalist party wedded to market driven capitalism.
The challenges today
The first challenge is the falsehood that only market-driven capitalism can resolve the crisis of market driven capitalism. What an idiotic concept: we’re in a deep hole so let’s dig it deeper!
There is the crisis of the eurozone, not of our making, but requiring £1.75 trillion to bail out their banking mates. Ditto the crisis of the USA – not of our making, but trillions of dollars to bail out their banking mates. Ditto the crisis of the banks - not of our making. From 2008 to date £1.5 trillion has been given to the bankers, greater than Britain’s gross domestic product. Then there’s the crisis of the stock exchange. Here, we see millions of pounds in, out, lost, shake it all about. One trader loses £1.75 billion – is he a rogue? Yes – for getting caught!
Such crises are the crisis of capitalism, theirs not ours. But be clear: for them to survive the threat to themselves that they have created, they will willingly sacrifice us.
Capitalists aspire to the early days of capitalism in Britain, described as bloody in tooth and claw. This is not about wealth creation through manufacture and export. This is about dispossessing us and looting the things that have given us identity, aspiration, skill, expectation and hope. This is about attacking all social and civil structures where we have advanced as a class during the last 200 years.
The Coalition will attack and apply the Big Lie of this market nonsense to everything: education and skills – at all levels: the NHS; local participatory democracy; housing; planning; employment rights; employment terms and conditions; equality; workplace dignity; workplace justice; wages; pensions; health and safety; industry; agriculture; the quality of life; the right to work; leisure; the right to live; the right to peace.
These attacks will be wrapped up in empty words: freedom; individual choice; deregulation – cutting red tape; human rights; balancing the deficit; war as peace; criminality but not for bankers; tightening our belts not theirs; they are only following (EU) orders; mass migration is good for us because it makes Britain competitive.
The re-establishment of the century’s long relationship between “Master and Servant” remains a central goal of the coalition. They are intent on destroying the trade unions by additional legislation, by destroying our ability to bargain, by destroying our ability to organise, by destroying collective wages etc.
They intend to reduce us to the status of pre-Industrial Revolution serfs but in the 21st century. Fatalistic, god-fearing, unquestioning, mindless, scared, defeated cannon fodder.
Fighting back: Halloween protest at Kingston Hospital, south London.
Photo: Unison London Region
The Coalition strategy is to atomise us, destroy our collective identity, which is only created by being at work, fragment our unions, fragment the workplace and create modern-day serfdom. You can see it among over 20 per cent of Britain’s labour force, who exist as the new low wage economy earning the minimum wage or less. In those employed on zero contracts, no enhanced wage rates, minimum holidays, with no job stability or security. Around 85 per cent of private sector workers have no independent voice, have no collective strength and have the “freedom” to accept their lot. Take it or leave it – no pension, no pay increase, wage cuts etc. The flexible, casualised semi-permanently unemployed workforce at the beck and call of greedy, short-term callous employers backed by their government really is Britain of the 1800s.
We face the prospect of war being cranked up by the USA and its war on the world. The 2010 50-year defence treaty with France really reads as preparation for war. It does fit neatly into the Coalition’s continued warmongering in Iraq, Afghanistan and the murderous illegal assault on Libya. Libya which had the best education, health and secular society in Africa has been bombed back flat by Cameron, the EU and NATO. Truly letting loose the biblical horrors of plague, war, famine and death on the Libyan people all in the pursuit of returning the oilfields to British and US control.
We have the numbers
Why don’t we recognise the immense strength we have? We have the numbers – 30 million workers in Britain. We have a history of struggle, resistance and sacrifice. We have the skills, the ingenuity, the knowledge to design, build and run whatever we turn our hand and brain to. We have, though deficient in some areas, a trade union history second to none. What are we frightened of – why don’t we use our strength?
A month ago a few rioters paralysed London. Incidentally an even fewer number of bankers have been paralysing the country for years. Safety on the streets was not restored by 16,000 police, drawn incidentally from as far North as Durham, but by the people of London who said: enough. Why don’t we say enough to failing education, failing health, unemployment, failing infrastructure, capitalist criminality – all of which emanate from a failed capitalism?
So what is then next for British workers? It is changing that mind-set which hands leadership and responsibility over to someone else, historically Labour MPs. We have to develop the debate with our class about what taking responsibility really means. It means taking charge, taking power. We have to reassert power in the workplace: unionised, collective, well-organised participatory class democracy. We have to determine a plan for Britain of work, of skill, of power.
So how long is temporary? As long as we allow it to be.
“Workers have to change
their own mindset if
Britain is to survive…”
Voting coalition MPs out may be attractive to some but remember the South of England is nearly 100 per cent Tory MPs bar London. One of the first attacks of the government was to re-draw the electoral constituencies to make electoral change almost impossible. There is a long and well established Tory–Liberal tradition of gerrymandering elections, redrawing borders and splintering nations as practised from Ireland to India and now their own backyard.
Combined action against the working class by a tiny minority without mandate but with the power of the state has to be met by combined action by us. For once and for all let’s do away with the delusion that you can reform, improve, or change the state other than by shattering it.
Workers have to change their own mindset if Britain is to survive.
We are no longer in a period of getting by with gradualism and reform as during the barbarism of the early days of the Industrial Revolution. The reformist post-war settlement was destroyed by Thatcher in 1979. Though we saw off the Tories in 1997 the working class didn’t take advantage of the period between 1997 and 2010 to rebuild, to re-group or re-occupy ground we had lost.
What next for British workers? We have had 200 years of war, poverty, unemployment, parliamentary circuses and financial crises. Do we want more?
The choice is ours, but to survive and go forward has to be without capitalism. The upending of this apple cart of idiocy masquerading as society means revolution. Calculated, planned, thought-out revolution. ■
This article is an edited version of a speech given at a CPBML public meeting in London in September.