This text was drafted at the end of February and agreed at the SR conference on April 2nd.
1) A new political period
The SR conference in April will take place under dramatically different conditions than in recent years in what is effectively a new political period. The current political situation can be briefly summarised as follows:
1) We are going through the biggest economic crisis since the 1930s. It is the first in a fully globalised world and is a structural crisis of the system itself. After decades of casino capitalism the financial systems were in melt down worldwide and despite massive ‘recapitalisation’ of the banks in 2008, and the nationalisation of many of them, this crisis remains entirely unresolved. In Britain despite the actions of the ruling elite since 2007, and in particular because of the recent actions of the coalition, the crisis is set to get a lot worse — not least because of a mounting crisis in the Euro zone and its implications for the British economy.
2) It is a multiple crisis of the economy, energy, food, and of the ecology of the planet. Despite the attacks on climate science, which have set the movement back, the reality of climate change is inescapable. The past year has been the hottest on record with extreme weather events from the heat waves and fires in Russia to the floods in Pakistan, China, South East Asia and now Queensland, Brazil and Sri Lanka. The consequent loss of harvests and a consequent rise in food prices to an historically high level is already impacting the economic situation. Rising food prices were a factor in the revolt in Tunisia and are already having an impact in other parts of the Middle East and beyond. This situation, plus the end of easy-to- extract oil, is pushing commodity prices up relentlessly and making the change to renewable energy even more urgent.
3) We have entered a period not only of deep crisis but of mass revolt. The powerful democratic revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, and those underway in Libya and other Arab countries (at time of writing) have exploded in the weak links of capitalist globalisation and are rapidly changing the world political situation. It is difficult yet to fully assess these events but they are clearly a major development in the Arab world with shock waves hitting not just Libya but Algeria, Yemen and Jordon which opens up major new opportunities for the Palestinians to break out of the stranglehold in which they have been trapped. These remarkable revolts, which are in a process of permanent revolution, are the product of the rejection many years of brutal dictatorship on the one hand and the impact of the economic crisis on the region on the other, which has further impoverished millions of people already on the economic margins. To the general effects of the crisis has been added an explosion in the price of food and other commodities under the impact of recent floods and fires due to climate change and the escalating price of oil. These revolts are the first revolutions directly produced the world economic crisis which broke in 2008 and a dramatic indication of the kind of struggles to come across the globe as the impact of the crisis deepens.
4) The turn, early last year, by governments across Europe, from stimulus to austerity (in varying degrees) in order to make the working class pay for the crisis has resulted in mass struggle in Greece and in France with major protests including general strikes in Spain, Italy and Portugal. Up till now fiscal conservatism has won the arguments and held the line against this backlash and austerity has become the order of the day. Savage capitalism is getting a lot more brutal.
5) The ‘election’ in Britain last year of a right-wing slash and burn, Thatcherite, coalition government seeking a “small state” by a combination of cuts and privatisation/outsourcing of public services, has resulted in the biggest austerity programme since the inter-war period designed to end the welfare settlement and make the working class pay for a crisis created by the bankers. The current political situation in Britain is shaped by the following additional factors:
a) Britain has seen the deepest crisis amongst the major advanced capitalist countries and it is far from over. We are facing a new stage of crisis this year as the effects of coalition austerity take effect. This will result in a rapid rise in unemployment alongside a huge attack on living standards and will make a double-dip recession more likely.
b) A continuing disastrously low level of trade union struggle, with strikes still at an historically low level and a trade union movement still under the shadow of the defeats of the 1980s and with little sign of a change, at least with the major unions which are the key to the situation. The large affiliated unions have not changed course since the election, despite the right wing Tory –led coalition, and appear already committed to maintaining a passive, non-aggressive stance in the belief that this will ease the return of Labour to government at the next election, despite the huge cost to their members’ jobs ands conditions and the long-term loss of trade union bargaining power.
c) The abject response of the trade union leaders to this assault (in the major unions and the TUC) is matched by the sheer ineptitude of the Miliband Labour Leadership, which is hamstrung by the ideological grip of New Labour reflected in its lack of alternative vision and its own agenda of cuts and privatisation carried over from Labour in office. This double failure handed the initiative to the coalition, in a dangerous way, in its first six months of office.
d) The abdication of responsibility by the trade union and Labour leaderships has opened the door to a sectarian response by the far left, with the two biggest organisations setting up anti-cuts campaigns which are largely within their own orbit and control. The exception to this has been the emergence of CoR, which at least embraces a broad range of forces and is organised on an open and democratic basis.
e) A growing crisis of political legitimacy of bourgeois politics, which has been compounded by the Wikileaks exposures and the parliamentary expenses scandals, as well as the shamelessly broken promises by the governing parties, and the evident lack of democracy in the imposition of policies such as student fees. These have undermined the credibility of bourgeois rule, particularly in the eyes of a new, and still largely un-politicised, generation of angry youth, which is developing alongside the falling participation in traditional political activity and the downward trend in election turnout.
f) The emergence, at the end of last year, of an inspirational revolt of young people — university students, school students, and others — who rose up against the tuition fee increases and the cutbacks and radical commodification of higher education which have taken place against a background of 20% unemployment amongst young people. This movement, with its militant demonstrations and occupations, has rapidly transformed the political situation, lifted those fighting the cuts, and exposed the weakness and divisions of the coalition government itself.
In Britain the whole of the left, and its component parts, will be defined by its response to this new political period.
2) Coalition of cuts and privatisation
To call this a coalition government is a misnomer. It is a right-wing Tory government with the Lib Dems acting as human shields for its massive cuts and privatisation agenda. They are cover for an arrogant millionaire cabinet which is attacking the poor beyond anything Thatcher was able to achieve — and with no conceivable mandate or democratic legitimacy to do so given that their manifestos were replaced by the coalition agreement. It would have been hard for the Tories to have adopted such a radical cuts agenda (a 25% cut over four years) without the Lib Dems — as either a minority or majority Tory administration.
These cuts and privatisations are an attempt to reverse the gains of the welfare state and complete the Thatcher neo-liberal revolution. They are an ideological attack on the values of social solidarity contained in the notion of the welfare state and are part of a strategy to bring in the private sector to provide as many public services as possible. They can be briefly summarised as follows:
In what is the biggest single broken election promise of all — to maintain spending in the NHS and halt top-down reorganisations — the NHS is not only facing unprecedented cuts every year to at least 2015, but is being destructively reorganised and marketised, with much of health care provision handed over to private capital under a White Paper cynically headed “Liberating the NHS”, now a new Health and Social Care Bill. If Lansley’s proposals are passed, it will unleash the biggest privatisation of health provision in the world, pushing best part of 1 million NHS workers into the private (for-profit and non-profit) sector, reducing the NHS to little more than a fund of taxpayer’s money to purchase care from a variety of private providers.
Local government, which faces a massive 27% budget cut, with many councils slashing 1,000 or more jobs at a time in front-loaded cuts in 2011-12, is being given the fraudulent ‘Localism Bill’ under which centralised diktat is dressed up as localism and designed to ensure that local Councils take the blame for government cuts. All services, statutory and non-statutory are under enormous pressure.
Higher education is being radically marketised and its budget trashed. Debt is transferred from the state to individual students and the EMA abolished ensuring that working class access to higher education is even more difficult. Funding will cease for humanities courses – making clear that the purpose of higher education is to provide productive workers to make profits for capitalism.
The right to a decent home is under huge attack. The caps on housing benefit will socially cleanse the more wealthy areas of the inner cities of working class people. At the same time housing associations will only be able to build new homes if they do so at market rents while local authorities will not only have no money to build homes but no resources to repair those they still manage.
Arts and leisure facilities are under massive attack. Libraries, swimming pools and youth facilities are set to bear a large burden of local authority cuts, while arts facilities and programmes are seeing cuts in their funding from national government.
Public sector workers who still have a job are seeing wages above £21,000 a year being frozen for two years with inflation going up, and are at the same time being urged to work harder.
Benefits are being slashed while benefits claimants, including millions with disabilities, are pilloried in the media as work-shy scroungers whilst tax avoiders and evaders are protected and rewarded.
All these cuts and other attacks on working class people increase the pressure on the existing disadvantaged. As well as making more use than men of many public services including health care, women are 65% of the public sector workforce, and therefore more women will lose their jobs if we don’t succeed in stopping these cuts. Women, Black people, disabled people and LGBT people are at the sharp end of these attacks – and in some cases are throwing up new organisations to resist them.
Whilst claimants are pilloried and scapegoated tax avoidance and evasion is tolerated and even rewarded. Yet tax evasion considerably reduces public resources and deprives the community of employment possibilities. Adequate public resources must be allocated for the effective repression of this fraud. Mark Serwotka and the PCS argue that the government loses £120b a year in evaded and avoided and unpaid taxes. Whilst the particular figure is disputed there is clearly a very large sum involved and this issue is now rightly being taken up through direct action by the Tax Justice Campaign/UK Uncut who are targeting Top Shop and other prominent evaders.
At the same time state planning in various forms, already under attack from new Labour, is being replaced by what is being openly described as the “chaos” theory of government. Widespread deregulation is taking place often with chaotic consequences. All this represents a comprehensive rolling back of the welfare gains established since the end of the second world war and a structural liberalisation of the British economy, in which ‘contracting out’ of services systematically opens up public sector budgets to private profit.
3) Radicalisation expose coalition divisions
These cuts and privatisations are also being introduced at breakneck speed, with almost daily announcements by ministers. This is seen by the coalition as the best way to overwhelm and wrong foot opposition to the cuts and get its full agenda through, though at the parliamentary level the ‘opposition’ has done a very good job at wrong footing itself.
The ‘phony war’, however — with cuts announced but yet to be implemented — has come to an end with a cascade of job losses opening up as the decisions of the spending review are forced in. Even more will be triggered after April 1st. The wider public, however, remain largely ignorant of the scale and impact of many of the coalition attacks not least because of a total lack of any high profile challenge from Labour and the trade union leaders who have done nothing even to alert their own members to the threats they face. In this situation, despite the inactivity of the national unions, which have done nothing but call a demonstration for March 26, the student revolt has radicalised the political situation and created the possibility of strengthened opposition to the cuts.
This radicalisation has already exposed the weakness of the coalition. After only six months of a planned 5-year term of office it is in no position to hold out against a strong and united anti-cuts movement if one can be built. Its cuts agenda is predicated on an improvement in the economic situation by the end of this year, which is patently not going to happen. Osborne, of course, refuses to contemplate any kind of ‘plan B’. This partly reflects their determination to see their agenda through but it is also a recognition that a U-turn would not be politically viable.
The Tory high command also have to keep the Lib Dems on board, with their MPs in Parliament becoming more divided and their shrinking membership more demoralised. Whilst, of course, there are no depths to which Lib Dem ministers and MPs will not sink, how long they can hold their party together under these conditions is an open question. They have taken the breaking of election promises to new heights — from the economy to tuition fees to nuclear power, immigration and constitutional reform. They have consequently collapsed in the polls, with elections looming. They face a referendum on AV in the spring, which they are likely to lose, and they face probable oblivion at the next general election.
Whilst this situation creates an imperative for the LibDems to stick with the Tories for mutual survival it is also extremely divisive and demoralising for their supporters, who are not receiving any of the perks and privileges of ministerial office – particularly when the Tories are uncompromising in their own party interests and clearly regard the Lib Dems, including Clegg who with Laws and Alexander was always a Tory in Lib Dem clothing, as expendable battle fodder.
There are also divisions in the Tory Party, of course, and not only over the EU where Cameron is seen by the Tory right as soft. The Tory right are also angry over Clarke’s approach to civil rights, prison, and criminal justice. The Tory high command, however, sees this as a price worth paying for the Lib Dems to prostrate themselves on everything else — though how much of this will survive into the longer term is very much another matter. These issues do not, in any case, determine the character of the coalition. That is determined by its hard line neoliberal economic policy with Cameron and Osborne as the most ideologically driven Tory leaders of modern times.
The coalition mantra has been that massive cuts are ‘inevitable’, due to the debt left by Labour, and that there is therefore no alternative. This is disingenuous nonsense. The crisis is real but these cuts are the preferred choice of the coalition in dealing with it — particularly with the Tories and the Lib Dem right. It is what they are ideologically committed to. It is what they have been waiting for an opportunity to do for a long time. The cheering from the government benches every time a cuts decision goes through Parliament demonstrates this clearly enough. They have chosen to take this opportunity to use the debt as an ideological wrecking ball to attack the public sector.
And as an ideological device it worked, at least for the first six months. Opinion polls suggest the coalition may so far, have managed to convince a majority of the population that the cuts are a necessary sacrifice in the face of the crisis. This was massively facilitated, of course, by wall-to-wall support from the media, which lost its critical faculties and collapsed into the politics of the coalition immediately after the election. It was facilitated most crucially, however, by the dearth of voices to the contrary from either the major unions or the Labour front bench, though this is beginning to be challenged by the anti-cuts campaigns and radical protest groups.
The election of Ed Miliband as Labour leader – bizarrely branded by the media as a tool of the unions, despite his complete rejection of any policies of class struggle — has been an unmitigated disaster. Having been elected by positioning himself to the left of his brother on the economy he promptly became a fully signed up member of the Brown/Darling/David Miliband school of thinking. Having campaigned on the basis that New Labour was over he has refused to separate himself from any significant part of New Labour policy. Labour has ended up with the least able Miliband as a Commons performer but with identical New Labour politics. A leader who is incapable of hitting a sitting duck at 10 paces. It has also ended up endorsing the Brown/Darling cuts agenda which the Tories cheerfully ram down their throats whenever they oppose as aspect of the coalition cuts.
4) Brown/Darling v Cameron/Osborne
When the crisis broke in 2008 the Brown/Darling response was preferable to Cameron/Osborne slash and burn, however. Brown, from the outset went for Keynesian type stimulus. Various packages were introduced, scrappage schemes, a cut in VAT, plus £200b of quantitative easing and bank bailouts. In fact Brown led an international consensus on this approach by the end of 2008. Governments around the world bailed out the banks and the sums were huge: $700b in the USA; £500b in Britain; and 1.7b Euros in the Euro zone. They had salvaged the banks, however, without imposing any change to the practices that led to the crisis in the first place.
This approach continued as a consensus until the first half of last year when governments across Europe (including the new coalition in Britain) switched from various forms and degrees of stimulus to wholesale austerity.
Brown had also opted for the nationalisation (on the worst possible terms of course) of those banks about to go bust. He nationalised Northern Rock in February 2008, on the basis that it was too big to be allowed to fail, when it experienced a catastrophic run on its resources (in a for-taste of what was to come) with a £100b package. The Tories opposed it in Parliament with George Osborne saying “we will not back nationalisation. We will not help Gordon brown take this country back to the 1970s.”
Soon after the collapse of Lehmans, in September 2008 (the seminal moment of the crisis) which plunged the whole financial system into melt down, Brown (after some hesitation) nationalised three more banks: RBS, HBOS-Lloyds TSB and the Bradford Bingley and with a further £500b package. After mayhem in the markets, which threatened the entire US financial system, the Bush administration nationalised the US mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. In Iceland the three biggest banks (which were 12 times bigger than the national economy) collapsed owing billions of pound to British investors.
Cameron and Osborne were the most vocal opposition to this approach internationally, arguing in favour of letting the market rip. By the general election last year the Brown/Darling approach was expressed in terms of fiscal stimulus plus a rise in national Insurance contributions and £40 billion of cuts over the next 4 years. It would have put less people out of work less quickly than Tory slash and burn, which would have created the worst possible conditions for a potential fight back, though it was totally inadequate as a solution to the crisis or the debt.
There is an ideological difference behind these responses, of course. Cameron and Osborne are Tories ideologically committed to the dominance of private capital in the tradition of the Republican neo-cons whilst Brown/Darling were (and are) right wing social democrats who capitulate to capitalism and are committed to working within its logic.
The Brown/Darling approach, however, also involved unacceptable cuts and would also, in the end, make the working class pay for the crisis. Therefore, whilst it was right to support their approach as an alternative to Tory slash and burn such support had to be linked to demands that they go much further and drop their reactionary pro-market, pro-privatisation policies and other attacks on the working class. This would have meant no cuts, more stimulus, extensive public works, green environmental public works to tackle the fuel crisis, and a serious commitment to make the rich, and the bankers, pay for the crisis that they, and their system, created in the first place. Without such changes their project ends up as no more than an alternative, initially less brutal, capitalist solution.
5) The nature of the crisis
On the character of the crisis — on which there was an international debate in 2008 — we were right to insist that it was not a ‘normal’ cyclical crisis but a systemic crisis of capitalism itself. The fact that it is wildly uneven at the international level (with stagnation in the rich countries and strong growth in some big emerging countries) does not make it any less of a crisis since the structural problems at its root are entirely unresolved. This is demonstrated most dramatically by the revolutions in the Arab region which are clearly not motivated only by the thirst for liberation from brutal and corrupt authoritarian regimes but by the crushing and increasing poverty generated by the crisis. This was shown clearly in the mass strikes which went alongside the popular revolts in Egypt.
The systemic nature of the crisis was spelled out in the text on the crisis which was adopted at the re-launch conference of SR in 2009:
“Unstable economic conditions brought about by the end of the post-war boom in the mid 1970s created the context of the present crisis. They produced a number of regional breakdowns over the last 15 years including the Mexican crisis of 1994, the Asian crisis of 1997, the Russian crisis of 1998 and the Argentine crisis of 2002. The current crisis, however, is qualitatively different and far more globally significant than any of these. This time it started in the capitalist heartlands of the USA and in Europe.”
From the start we were in for a major long recession. This reality increasingly asserted itself throughout last year, and has been exacerbated by the coalition’s deflationary agenda. The modest recovery in services and manufacturing from the stimulus packages has slowed down, and with a slowdown also taking place in the USA and in Europe, the recovery hoped for by the coalition is not happening. Last summer Britain ran its highest trade deficit since the 17th century. Under these conditions capital will not invest. Working people, who are already losing jobs and income, and are in debt, will not be able to spend. The IMF and the ILO recognise this and are warning against premature cuts and austerity programmes. Martin Wolf of the Financial Times calls the coalition cuts agenda a gamble. If they lose this gamble it could well be disastrous for both coalition partners at the next election — whenever it might come.
Until then the working class are paying the price. Real wages have fallen since 2008. Unemployment, which has been held down thanks to “voluntary” short-time working with loss of income, or wage freezes and cuts, is increasing and will go up further as the job losses in the public sector and local government are implemented. Meanwhile, bonuses are back, the super rich have recovered, the gap between the highest paid 10% and the lowest paid has increased and the gender wage gap has widened.
There is an important European dimension to the crisis as well, including an existential crisis of the Euro zone which will impact on the situation in Britain. This is driven by the collapse of the regulatory mechanism (the Stability and Growth Pact) and the diversity of the constituent economies. A single currency with competing national capitals and a diverse range of economies was always ultimately unsustainable without a powerful central discipline. This is now exacerbated by the weakness of the European banking system.
Meanwhile the most vulnerable economies such as Greece, Portugal, Ireland and Spain are forced into massive cuts, more in order to stabilise the Euro than their domestic economies. Portugal is unlikely to survive beyond the first half of 2011 without a bailout but Spain is the key economy (the fourth biggest in the Euro zone) that could create an even greater pressure on the Euro. Faced with a sharp escalation of the crisis this year the EU Executive is discussing a new regulatory system with much harsher penalties for default, through how much effect this will have on the course of events is another matter.
In Ireland, last November, the Fianna Fail coalition faced its ‘Lehman Brothers’ moment when a collapse in the markets turned into a full-scale run on Irish banks with money being withdrawn Northern Rock style. The root cause was the same as well. The Irish economy had been massively inflated by a property market based on toxic loans which were destined to go belly up once the world economy went into down turn.
Although Ireland is a small country it could not be allowed to fail because of the effects on the Euro zone itself. EU ministers feared what they termed ‘contagion’ across the Euro zone via the most vulnerable economies — in particular to Portugal, Spain and Italy. There were potentially serious consequences for the British banks as well.
The UK’s loan exposure to Irish banks, through two of the UK’s nationalised banks, RBS and Lloyds TSB, was bigger than any other country. Between them they were exposed to the tune of £80b. This was behind Osborne’s sudden conversion to bank bailouts, last December, and his offer of £7b as a part of an EU/IMF 85b Euro rescue package. This was conditional on a massive austerity programme, administered by the EU and the IMF, which was the biggest in the Republic’s history, which will perpetuate Ireland’s crisis for many years to come. It includes a cut in welfare benefits by 14% and a 1 Euro cut in the minimum wage but retains Irelands low (12%) corporation tax.
6) Mobilising the movement
The demands we advocate in the anti-cuts movement and in the labour movement more broadly should be no to all cuts: ‘investment not cuts’ — green sustainable investment not cuts. The cornerstone of this should the demand for a million green jobs now — in particular climate jobs, jobs which directly contribute to slowing down global warming. The priority in this should be renewable energy, refitting buildings and constructing a sustainable (and free) public transport system. If trillions of pounds can be given to the banks the same can be done for programmes of public works. As is often said, if the planet was a bank they would have saved it a long time ago.
These jobs should be carried out by workers directly (and properly) employed by the government itself in the framework of fully nationalised projects. Jobs created in this way and for this purpose would not only be tackling unemployment but would be constructing a new sustainable low carbon energy infrastructure.
A socialist answer to the crisis implies a planned and coordinated approach which can only be met by the nationalisation of the banks and of bankrupt industries with the participation of, and control by, workers and consumers. This should apply to other critical sectors such as housing, energy, infrastructure, pension system, education, and health.
Nationalisation does not equal socialism, of course, but it does provide a practical way to defend jobs and opens up a space in which socialist ideas can develop. The nationalisations of 2008 were carried out in order to socialise risk and bail out the creditors, and with the intention of handing them back at a later date. Some were simply government majority shareholdings, which can be sold off at any time, and meanwhile managed ‘at arms length’ from government.
It would have been a mistake, however, to dismiss such nationalisations as irrelevant or unsupportable. We were right to welcome them as better than the alternative — which was to leave it to market forces. We were also right to demand that the initial takeovers were replaced by full nationalisation under workers control. In fact the perception of nationalisation, which was discredited by Labour in the 1970s and 1980s and demonised by the Tories, was transformed in the course of this crisis. There was an important opening not only to demand that governments intervene into the crisis but that they do so in the framework of nationalisation.
And where even capitalist governments were forced to inject huge sums of money and to take control of bankrupt companies, the obvious next step was to demand that this was done under democratic control of the workers and users.
7) The debt: which is set to rise
Many on the left believe that the current level of public debt is not a major problem for British banks and that Britain has had similar levels of debt before; that the coalition is exaggerating the seriousness of the debt in order to impose their policies and attack the working class. This text rejects that view.
Of course the debt is being used, ruthlessly so, by the coalition to justify cuts and privatisation and attack the working class and the welfare state, but that does not mean the debt is not real or serious or could not become unsustainable within a few years. It is certainly set to get a lot worse since the measures being taken by the coalition — viciously anti-working class as they are — will no more reduce the debt than resolve the crisis itself. In fact the cuts themselves will a factor in increasing the debt, which rose last month (December) and is set to rise month on month.
In fact Britain has never had these levels of debt before in peacetime. The first time Britain accumulated these levels of debt (as a percentage of GDP) was in the build and during the Napoleonic wars. Britain, however, was the preeminent industrial capitalist power and was able to reduce the debt over a period of several decades of rapid expansion of the economy.
The UK debt has risen dramatically twice under modern capitalism — to fund the two world wars and to rebuild the economy after the wars. The debt built up during the Second World War and in its aftermath was finally paid off 60 years later with most of it repaid by the 70s as the UK and world economy experienced a period of unparalleled expansion with no major recession for 30 years as capitalism was rebuilt from the ashes of world war two and the innovation of new technologies.
The debt which incurred during and in the lead up to the First World War was borrowed from the US banks. It declined in the early 1930s because Britain and other governments in Europe defaulted on it after the Wall Street crash and the onset of recession. This played a major part in freezing up world credit that led to the great depression. This situation is more similar to today’s where defaults by major economies would likely lead to a complete freezing of the global financial system and a prolonged depression.
Britain’s current debt stands at 77% of (GDP) or 180% of annual national income and the signs are that it is set to get a lot worse. In fact by the end of the coalition’s term (if it gets that far) it could well be110% of GDP and 267% of national income. This is based on 2% growth in the economy per year for four years, which is way above the estimates of all independent economic think tanks. Flat growth over the next four years — a more likely scenario given the effects of the cuts — would see a further £100 billion added to the debt total at the end of their term. The debt to GDP ratio would then be at 125% and the debt to national income ratio 307%. Britain is therefore likely to face its own debt crisis at some time during the life of this coalition.
£305 billion of Britain’s existing debt has to be renewed or repaid over the next five years — 64% of its pre-credit crunch debt. Another £540bn — based on government estimates — has to be taken out over the same period to cover the annual deficits. Britain will pay £282.5bn of interest over this period rising to £68.5bn per year or13% of national income. A large slice of Britain’s debt is linked to inflation — the higher inflation goes (and it is increasing at the moment) the more of the loan must be repaid and the higher annual interest will go. This has seen the deficit rise by £12bn more than estimated over the last four months wiping out the “savings” from the June emergency budget cuts.
The UK government bond markets have also started to reflect the widening deficit and the potential for public debt to be much higher than government forecasts. The yield on UK ten year government bonds climbed by nearly 1% from August 2010 to the end of 2010 adding £23bn to the interest rate bill we will have to pay over the next five years.
Who will take up these high levels of debt? At best £845bn of new loans will have to be taken out by the UK government over the next five years. Despite what some on the left say, overseas investors hold a significant chunk of UK debt (about 33%) and the Bank of England (BoE) through its quantatitive easing programme holds about 20% of the debt. This leaves a much smaller reservoir of investors to absorb at least £845bn of debt over the next five years particularly if sterling were to weaken and UK government bonds became unattractive to overseas investors.
It is interesting to see where the debt — which has doubled in last three years from $480bn to over a trillion (whilst the previous doubling took ten years) — has come from bailing out the financial system:
Directly to banks and financial institutions — £175bn
Mortgage subsidies, car scrappage, cuts in VAT — £45bn
Recession induced: due to reduced income tax, reduced corporation tax (banks accounted for 30% of corporation tax), increased welfare payments due to rising unemployment — £145bn
Labour structural deficit to support weak economy — £135b
At some point in the future the BoE will have to unwind its holdings by selling £200bn of UK government debt on the financial markets. This will depress UK government bond prices, pushing yields and the cost of borrowing up and saturating the supply of the UK government bonds making it more difficult for the UK government to issue fresh bonds.
8) An action programme for the crisis
We reject, as a first principle, any responsibility for the crisis or the debt. It is a crisis of pro-capital redistribution and financial deregulation. State intervention saved capitalism in the first phase of this crisis. Now the banks, business lobbies and government are repackaging their crisis as a public debt crisis. We totally reject this. The debt has been increased by policies which have reduced the tax burden on the wealthy and big business, while cuts in public services have left growing numbers of vulnerable people without the support they need.
Much of the debt in any case will be owed to the same people who caused the crisis in the first place. We should reflect this by challenging the debt and by calling for a debt audit. As the crisis deepens debt default may well become an appropriate and understandable demand.
A debt audit should uncover the sources of the debt, establish exactly who it is owed to, and make public the terms under which such loans were made. It should conduct a review of loans to identify illegitimate debts, the different responsibilities in the debt process and demand that those responsible be held publicly accountable. Citizen participation will be an essential requirement to ensure the objectivity and the transparency of the audit.
We have to present a clear explanation of the crisis and the shape of the socialist response. This is essential in order to politicise the emerging movement of resistance. We should therefore promote, inside the anti-cuts movement, a debate around what kind of anti-capitalist programme is necessary to meet the needs of the working class under these conditions. This means explaining that these cuts will only worsen the crisis because it is a crisis of the system itself. It means putting forward a radical anti-capitalist programme of wealth redistribution and social ownership.
The aim of such a programme should be to share the wealth of society out differently. The share of produced wealth going to employees/wage-earners has decreased significantly, while bankers and businesses have increased their profits and levels of speculation, and top management wages have skyrocketed. Yet higher wages not only increases people’s purchasing power, it also provides resources for social protection and pension schemes. Reducing working time without wage reduction and creating jobs through public investment will also enhance the quality of life of the population.
The reconciliation of full employment with sustainable development and a low carbon economy involves creating more labour-intensive jobs, and large scale ecological investments. Public spending should generate public employment in socially necessary services such as education, childcare, nursing homes, health, community and social services. Women are the most intensive users of the public sector, and their place in the labour market is often dependent on the existence of such services.
Today for the first time in decades the rate of unemployment amongst women has risen faster than that amongst men as cuts in the public sector kick in, even when growing unemployment in traditionally male dominated industries begins to bite.
The demands we argue for in the united front against the cuts:
No to all cuts in public services — which is the basis of CoR.
Halt all further privatisations by central government or local authorities.
Investment in education – free university education for all.
Investment in a free and publicly owned and provided health service. Cut out the private profiteers!
Halt the attack on wages, working conditions and pension rights
Close tax loopholes and cut tax avoidance and evasion that could raise £25bn.
For a million green jobs.
A crash programme to construct a sustainable, publicly owned, energy infrastructure based on wind, wave, and solar power, which could create a million new jobs in manufacture, construction and engineering.
Build a free, sustainable and integrated public transport infrastructure.
A crash programme of house building and conversion. The renovation and insulation of housing to conserve energy — which could also create hundreds of thousands of new jobs and avoid a new housing bubble.
Stop the war, cut military spending.
Axe Trident, cut military spending.
Our action programme, with priority given today to the first three demands
A debt audit.
Nationalisation of the banks under democratic and popular control.
Tax the rich and wealthy including a one off 10% wealth tax on Britain’s richest people would raise £35 billion. Britain has one of the lowest top rates of income tax among rich countries. In Germany, France, and Japan, the highest rate of income tax is between 47.5 and 50%. In Britain it is just 40% for income above £37,000. There is a temporary rate of 50% only for incomes over £150,000. A 50% tax on income above £100,000 could on its own raise £4.7bn. Between 1974 and 1979, under Thatcher, the top income tax rate was 83% on incomes above £90,500 at today’s prices (£24,000 at 1979 prices)! Indeed, with additional taxes of 15% on unearned income the top rate in 1979 could have been as high as 98%.
Introduce a progressive tax with a high top rate on wealth with a progressively heavier levy on the ownership of property, cash deposits, equities, securities, bonds, etc.
Raise corporation tax. Currently the coalition is planning to cut this already low corporation tax to 24%.
Nationalise the banks under full social ownership and control – they have £560b in liquid cash and £5trillion of assets. This would allow us to recoup the £375 billion (£175bn indirect investment and £200bn through quantitative easing) that has been ploughed into them, reduce the debt, and fund socially useful projects.
Nationalise bankrupt industries under full social ownership and control to preserve jobs and reorganise production. Take North Sea Oil under full public ownership and control.
Open the books of both the financial and industrial companies to public scrutiny in order to prevent the use of the crisis to force through cost cutting and redundancies.
Control international financial speculation both through controls on capital movements and through the taxation of such movements – a Tobin Tax. Worldwide speculation represents several times the wealth produced on the planet.
Increase inheritance tax for bequests above £325,000.
Halt all house re-possessions for mortgage arrears. Transfer houses to local authorities.
A major programme of job conversion to socially useful production for industries such as car manufacture.
The introduction of rent controls in the private housing market to break the power of the landlords and deter the ‘buy to let’ market.
In the fluid political situation we are in today we may need to give priority to different demands as the struggle advances – and indeed issues that we raise as propaganda today may tomorrow become demands we argue for in the united front against the cuts.
Setting out such a programme to meet the crisis reinforces the reality that such a programme requires a broad unity of the left if it is going the fought for effectively. This means that despite the setbacks and defeats of recent years in building such a party we have to redouble our efforts in this direction and seek out any viable opportunity to initiate such a development. Only a radical left party of this type which will advance socialist solutions will be adequate to advance an alternative to this crisis.
9) Our ecosocialist orientation
When SR was re-launched in 2009 we reaffirmed our orientation as an ecosocialist organisation. The document adopted included the following:
“An ecosocialist approach to the economy radically challenges the capitalist assertion that we always need more commodities by saying that we need enough to live comfortably… Putting these issues at the heart of our politics helps us establish a Marxism that is both humane and ecological and which frees it from the anti-humanist, Stalinist, ecocidal distortions that the Soviet bureaucracy introduced.”
Capital accumulation is on a daily basis undermining climate stability, poisoning the atmosphere, acidifying the oceans, poisoning the soil and depleting it of nutrients, and seriously reducing bio-diversity (which is particularly worrying; species are interconnected in myriads of ways. Breaking those chains of interconnections weakens the whole natural system and renders it more susceptible to shocks and disruptions.)
Up to a certain point, ecosystems are stable and self-regulating, with built in negative feedbacks that reinforce stable equilibria. However, the massive ecological damage being inflicted every day by capitalist productivism is so great that that there is a very serious danger of irreversible tipping points being transgressed. Many scientists believe that we are now on the cusp of the planet’s sixth mass extinction event. The consequences of such an event are difficult to predict exactly but are almost certain to be devastating for human civilisation, and indeed for human survival.
It is not just methods of production that need urgently to change. The levels of consumption currently ‘enjoyed’ not only by the bourgeoisie, but also by the higher paid workers and petty bourgeois within the imperial centres, are not sustainable. Air and car travel for example – both of which squander huge quantities of oil, as well as contributing massively to carbon emissions – will need to be substantially reduced, as will air freighting of luxury foodstuffs, fashion items and unnecessary gadgets.
Our first priority for resolving the housing crisis should be to renovate (and in particular to insulate) to the highest possible standards the existing building stock, and to take over for social housing those buildings (e.g. the offices of the financial and marketing sectors, the palaces and second homes of the wealthy) which are currently being wasted.
The primary aim of an ecosocialist government should be for growth in quality of life rather than in quantity of output, for abundance of free time rather than abundance of unnecessary commodities. Growth in output would probably be zero or even in the short term negative, although when combined with redistribution, a massively enhanced social wage and a raised minimum wage, this would still allow for a major improvement in living standards for most workers.
The most effective way of instigating and extending these pro-ecology changes would be for workers to progressively take the decisions on production and distribution out of the hands of the ‘free market’ and submit them to rational democratic planning.
Our decision to become an ecosocialist organisation has given us a strong political identity and has had a positive effect on our development. We were also able to take these conceptions into the world congress of the FI and play a significant role, along with others such as Daniel Tanuro in the decision of the congress to declare the FI ecosocialist. This is very important given that internationalist and the explicitly revolutionary implications of ecosocialist politics are attractive to radicalising new generations of activists.
Ecosocialism is a symbolic declaration that the designation ‘socialist’ is no longer adequate. that the ecological issues cannot for us be an add-on but are central to everything we do, a fundamental component of our programmatic identity. It is a signal that we reject the capitalist logic of insatiable growth, which is built into the nature of the system and fuels the requirements of capitalist production. It means striving for a society based on ecological rationality, democratic control, social equality, and the predominance of use-value over exchange-value.
It has also had an impact on our alliances, in particular our very fruitful relationship with the Green left. This is particularly important since it gives us a relationship with the Green Party itself which has not only shifted to the left under Caroline Lucas but has increasingly taken up the economic and social issues giving it more the shape of a left social democratic party than a party in the green tradition. The Green Left is able to conduct important debates inside the Green Party from a socialist perspective, rejecting, for example, concepts of green capitalism. We need to relate to such debates from the outside through our web site and publications.
Our relationship with the Green Left has also allowed us to conduct joint projects which has been very productive for both sides in particular with the highly successful Hugo Blanco tour in the autumn. More recently we have also had close collaboration with the Green Left inside COR.
As ecosocialists we also have an obligation to work as closely as we can with the various initiatives around climate change, despite the setback from the reactionary attack of the science. This includes the CC trade union committee where Liam plays a central role.
It means that our response to the attack on climate science and its impact on the movement must be to redouble our efforts on this front continuing to intervene in the various campaigns around the issue and putting an analysis of ecological issues central to our publications.
10) The student revolt
The student revolt has transformed the emerging anti-cuts movement in a way few would have anticipated a couple of months ago. The trebling of tuition fees, cutting university budgets and the abolition of Labour’s Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) had a huge impact on students and school students. The revolt shook the coalition to its roots. Concessions were forced while maintaining the massive rise in fees, and the government’s majority in parliament was slashed. It also shook the leadership of the NUS which was effectively bypassed by a demonstration it had called. 50,000 students and school students turned up and the police were taken by surprise when the Tory HQ was targeted.
A second demonstration called by the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts saw 130,000 protesting nationwide. There were demonstrations in London, Cardiff, Oxford, Colchester, Newcastle, Bath, Leeds, Sheffield, Edinburgh, Liverpool, Belfast, Brighton, Manchester, Scunthorpe, and Bristol. The London Student Assembly called a national demonstration for 9 December, the day of the tuition fees vote in Parliament. Backed by the University of London Union and the London Region of the lecturers’ union UCU, this mobilised well over 30,000 and successfully forced its entry into Parliament Square, against police lines. The abolition of the EMA brought tens of thousands of angry sixth formers into the fight who walked out of their classes to join protests. There was even at least one sixth form occupation, at Camden School for Girls in north London.
The occupations, which followed the demos, were run on a participatory basis. Many occupations established informal communications between themselves, especially across central London. Student assemblies sprung up to provide a representative function. The largest of these was the London Student Assembly.
The revolt was marked from the start by an independence which made it difficult for any of the left organisations to take it over. It was also marked by a rapid politicisation of its participants. From early on students demonstrated a strong grasp of the issues involved, and not just the education cuts but they way this intersected with the coalition cuts as a whole. They also had a strong grasp of tactic. They not only targeted the Lib Dems (and Clegg) as the weak link of the government but out maneuvered the police on several of the demonstrations.
The explosion of this movement, along with sudden direct-action of Ukuncut against corporations avoiding taxes follows, reflects general lack of confidence in the political system and established parties. The Labour Party is bureaucratic, neo-liberal and has nothing to offer to youth and students. It brought in tuition fees in the first place, and set up the inquiry under Browne (former BP chief exec!) into university fees and funding in the last days of it being in government.
The size of the recent student demonstrations is a reflection not just of the fact that the future of youth has been snatched away with the prospect of unemployment and high university fees, but that students are a much larger body of society that in the past. Recent investments by New Labour and previous governments have seen an increase the number of students. Now, nearly 45% of young people go to higher education, four times what it was 40 years ago. Instead of apprenticeships, working class youth go into higher education.
The current youth and student movement is trying to keep their mobilisation as broad and united as possible but by keeping politics at arms-length as much possible. But this new movement needs to go beyond the moral stance of “unfair” tax avoidance and high fees, attack directly the political system, and see itself as the lever which would see even broader layers in society taking actions against the cuts. Without a politicisation (not in the party political sense), this movement runs the risk of dissipating as rapidly as it coalesced.
Students have been politicising fast since the 10 November demo. At the moment, the far left forms an important part of the activist leadership, particularly Counterfire, Workers’ Power/Revolution and perhaps AWL (through NCAFC) and to a certain extent the SWP/EAN, though in this last case not as much as they would have hoped. But autonomists and anarchists also have had some influence, particularly since the partial successes with Italian-style tactics on the 30 Nov demo, and with the new profile of UK Uncut.
The student movement will carry on being able to mobilise tens of thousands if it develops a structure which can involve all the activists which have arisen, which is independent of the left political organisations and their fronts (e.g. EAN and Youth Fight back), and maintains an autonomy both of the NUS and the trade-unions while focusing its fire on the Coalition Government. Such a co-ordination or network should have its own representatives which would provide a fighting alternative leadership to that of the NUS NEC and its President. Providing a united democratic campaign with a radical orientation is a necessity like it is for the anti-cuts movement. The London Student Assemblies, for example, have shown that building such a democratic rank-and-file movement is possible. The LSA on 9 Jan was twice as big as the one before Xmas, and full of energy and ideas, for example, on making links with FE and school students. Occupations are also still very much on the activist agenda.
It will be important to find ways of linking up the student movement with the layers of school students who came into activity at the end of 2010 and who in many ways have even more to lose if the coalition get away with their attacks.
There will be many battles with the government and it is necessary to be able to sustain the movement in the long term through partial defeats that will occur. In France, despite 6 days of general strike, Sarkosy got his law on pension reforms through. In Britain, despite the massive mobilisation of students, the coalition won the vote in parliament. It should be noted that in France, the breadth of the unity and the level of politicisation means that the movement while recognising the defeat does not yet feel demoralised. In Britain, the massive and angry character of the student demonstrations forced minor concessions from the government right up until the last day and has made the coalition pay a heavy price. In Britain, just like in the rest of Europe, a strategy is necessary to carry on beyond these partial defeats.
11) The trade unions
The leaders of the major unions, however, have shown as little interest in opposing these cuts as they did those imposed by Labour. The TUC Congress last September adopted a resolution which pledged to coordinate trade union campaigns and industrial action against the cuts, yet four months on the only thing the TUC, and its near invisible General Secretary Brendan Barber, has done is call a demonstration for the end of March.
The defeat in the 1980s of the steelworkers, dockers, miners and printers are still with us of course. The rate of strike action over the 20 years has been at its lowest levels ever. Trade-union membership is half what it was in the early 1980s, and many union stewards and branch leaders now do not have the same class consciousness as then. The occasional national strikes are limited and ground down by the legal challenges and re-balloting. Longer strikes in a particular workplace are the exception. Although industrial action by the working class is key to achieving a major defeat on the government, it would be complacent to ignore, as the three main parties do, the political shifts that have occurred outside of the traditional labour movement and the “old left” during the last decade at least.
The coalition cuts have now thrown down the biggest challenge to the trade union movement in Britain since the defeats of the 1980s. Moreover, the public sector, where the trade unions have their principle base, is the main target of the coalition, with a pay freeze in place and half a million sackings lined up. Public sector workers are falsely pilloried as over-paid, under worked and with gold plated pensions. The cuts agenda, however, will go far beyond the public sector and will impact on employment across the board with hundreds of thousands of job losses in the private sector with major attacks on employment conditions and pension rights across both sectors.
The TUC has been bypassed by the student revolt and shows little sign of being influenced by it, although it is positive to see that both the GMB and UNITE are giving some support to the January 29 demonstration called by the National Campaign against Fees and Cuts and the Education Activists alliance.
The problem is that the unions also appear to offer little to young workers. They have a membership with an average age well over 40 as few young people are in jobs in areas with a significant union presence. The deals negotiated by unions in the recent past have been aimed at protecting the gains of their existing and older members, such as over pensions, at the expense of younger non-unionised workers.
The current radicalisation is, therefore, occurring outside of the traditional left and union framework. Most of the young people have little political education, are unfettered by political baggage and do not see the need to organise in the traditional manner. Except for the first demonstration, the others were organised independently of the NUS. The NUS President, Aaron Porter, is under tremendous pressure, having been totally marginalised.
Of course some, particularly amongst the smaller unions have ploughed a more radical course, but even there the results have been uneven and in the end disappointing. The RMT has remained strong industrially and continues to have a high membership density but has not played as large or positive a role on the political stage as seemed possible a decade ago. The FBU has remained intact industrially despite recent attacks but has almost disappeared from the political stage. The NUJ remains a left union, but the industrial hammering it has suffered limits what broader initiatives it can take.
The postal side of the CWU probably had the highest level of industrial action of any union over recent years, but the leadership was not prepared to lead the sort of campaign of industrial action necessary to actually defend jobs and conditions and effectively, while formal privatisation of Royal Mail has yet to be carried though, it is unlikely that it can now be stopped
The PCS is in a contradictory place. As we noted earlier, they have taken excellent ideological and indeed industrial initiatives in opposition to the cuts, but at the same time have failed to defend key conditions for the bulk of their members which undermines their strength in doing so.
The UCU has made many of the right noises especially in working jointly with the student movement, but it is not clear that they have a strategy for defending their members jobs and conditions in practice. Similarly the left leadership of the NUT seem very slow in implementing good conference policies on industrial action and resistance to the marketisation of education.
The key to a national trade union response to the cuts, however, are the major public sector unions — the GMB, Unison, and Unite — who are directly in the firing line. The leaderships of these unions have been virtually silent on the issue for the past six months, or worse in the case of UNISON have still been spending more time attacking the left in their own ranks than mobilising their membership.
A possible change in this bleak situation has been signalled by Len McCluskey, newly-elected leader of Unite, the biggest private sector union. He has called for coordinated strikes against the government programme and has given explicit support to the student movement. He also spoke at the CoR conference in November and has signed Unite up to the campaign. This is important because an effective anti-cuts movement needs to be based firmly on trade union support whilst reaching out to much broader forces from diverse campaigns which are opposing the cuts to the student movement itself.
If McCluskey is to make a difference, however, he has to go beyond fine words and do it quickly. It is not enough to praise the students, it is necessary to mobilise to join them in militant action
12) Working in CoR
The Coalition of Resistance conference on the 26 November demonstrated the desire for many activists not in a party to have a tool at a national level which will organise the resistance against the cuts in the most united manner possible without being in a “front” organisation. The next four months, up to the TUC demo on the 26 March will be crucial in determining the shape of the battles ahead.
There was a sudden rise in activity and new local anti-cuts groups being formed in the summer and when the Comprehensive Spending Review was announced in parliament. Since then there has been a relative decline which must rapidly be turned around in the New Year. Broad-based local anti-cuts groups should be established wherever possible involving unions and trades councils, students, community organisations, councillors and MPs from Labour and the Greens. Where none exists, these groups could call themselves Coalition of Resistance. Where anti-cuts groups exist, we should argue that they affiliate to CoR while not objecting to affiliation to the other national campaigns. Local anti-cuts groups should be monitoring and mobilising against every single cut in councils, education and health. Local anti-cuts groups should take to every street to win the “this is not our crisis and we will not pay for it”. This was done during the miners strike, the campaign against the poll tax, and again during war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Mass action against cuts in services and closures of facilities could be combined with direct action such as occupations.
Anti-cuts groups should appeal to local councillors from New Labour, the Greens and other parties to denounce the cuts that are being imposed on them and join in the movement of resistance by organising meetings in their wards and linking up with other anti-cuts councillors around the country. A clear call should be made to councillors that they should at the end of the day vote against cuts in order to be on the side of the working class and all those resisting the coalition attacks. With cuts so big being forced through by central government, there is no scope for any form of “dented shield” strategy trading off one set of cuts for limited protection of other services. Instead, with the current devolution of local government by the government, councillors are also being given even more responsibility for the cuts. In the run-up to the forthcoming local elections in May, CoR itself should not be putting up candidates, but should simply focus on building the strongest possible broad-based resistance to cuts as they are proposed, including trade union action where possible, putting local councillors on the spot to declare their position, linked to a call to “Vote against Cuts!”.
In the unions, national co-ordinated action between the public sector unions needs to be organised urgently and start to take place as soon as possible. Given the delays for lawful industrial action, it can be at least two months before a notice of balloting is given and strike action actually taking place. At a branch level, unions should be giving notice that balloting would start immediately compulsory redundancy notices are issued. Without the British trade unions having even got together to stage one national demonstration of – let alone a one day national strike like in France and elsewhere, the call for a general strike (from the SWP) is total abstract propagandism. The only and most urgent task for the anti-cuts movement is to build for a massive turn-out on the TUC demo of the 26 March, using the week of action called by CoR starting on the 14 February as a step towards this goal.
With regards to relations with other existing campaigns, CoR should maintain its co-operation and collaboration with these (Right to Work, NSSN and People’s Charter), and argue for maximum possible unity in mobilisations and in forming a single anti-cuts campaign at a local level.
CoR should advertise and a provide a speaker for the “People’s convention” on 12th February organised by the Right to work campaign, the Labour Representation Committee and Disabled People against the cuts, but should prioritise building for the week of action starting Feb 14th. Socialist Resistance recognises that the People’s Convention may be a focus of interest for many anti-cuts activists and will urge comrades to attend, especially where other activists from their anti-cuts groups or unions plan to do so. The decision of the SP/NSSN to set up another national campaign at the NSSN conference on the 22 January in the present situation is a sectarian move and one we vigorously oppose.
Socialist Resistance should argue that CoR needs to:
Build the widest possible unity by directly approaching all trade-unions, campaigns and Labour, Green and other parties, councillors and MPs for joint and united mobilisations.
Recognising that it is a unifying campaign and not a substitute for more focused and localised campaigns on particular issues, to support and work alongside specific campaigns to challenge specific cuts and privatisation, whether at local level or national government policies – such as the NHS Bill and benefit cuts, which COR itself cannot follow in detail
At the same time maintain a clear radical class-struggle stance by opposing all cuts and privatisations in public services, and mobilising around themes such as “this debt is not ours and we should not pay for it”, “make the rich and the banks pay for the crisis”, “nationalise under democratic control to defend jobs and services”.
Continue to establish itself as the main national umbrella under which to organise, while maintaining and respecting the diversity of the movement at a local level.
Maintain the democratic, open and pluralistic character of the organisation and its leading bodies, with a strategy of mass action to force the government to retreat from its plans.
Inject a European-wide dimension in the struggle (as the crisis is not limited to Britain) including by mobilising for the G8 and G20 demonstrations, organising a European-wide conference and a possible common day of action.
13) Broad parties and electoral intervention
The need for broad left parties, which can unite both those with revolutionary politics and other left wing militants from a social democratic background, has existed in Britain now for nearly 20 years. It was a product of the unremitting march to the right of new Labour, and the resulting crisis of working class representation. This opened a space to the left of Labour which could not be filled effectively by the revolutionary organisations themselves but required a broader unity. Today the need for such parties remains in full force, yet the left in Britain — in contrast to the wider European experience — is weaker than it has been for many years, and the prospects for such parties is in deep crisis.
The failure of Respect is a significant set-back for the left in Britain. Its long-term future had always in doubt as neither the SWP nor George Galloway wanted the organisation to go beyond an electoral coalition. In order to develop and exist in the long-term, an electoral coalition must be present every day in every struggle under its own name, and with all the component forces fully committed to the project. This could only mean evolving towards a political party which is capable of carrying out its own initiatives. The SWP never wanted to abandon its party as a separate organisation, while George Galloway and his supporters never really wanted to develop the democratic structures of such a party.
However, the need for a new workers party to the left of New Labour is more urgent than ever because of the scale of the crisis, the resistance that is required, and the need to argue for a programme to defend the working class. We should therefore continue to argue for a new party of the left not just as an urgent task but also as duty in the present situation. This should be an important part of our propaganda for the foreseeable future.
In such a period that we are living today, the need for unity and a radical alternative is obvious to most serious militants. Although they do not embrace the idea of a revolutionary party, they do accept that of a party that is loyal to their class in its actions and in its programme and which can be a home for all the “class-struggle” and socialist forces including revolutionary Marxists. Of course, we would want such a party to be broad and democratic, and not the property of a single political organisation.
Although it would be best if it were able to come out of a new mass movement, hopefully that against austerity and the cuts, we should nevertheless try to convince systematically those forces on the Marxist left with which we are working closely in the movement of the need for such a party. We should point to the examples in other countries of Europe that such a party, albeit in its different forms from left social-democratic to anti-capitalist, does help in changing the balance of forces. Small forces, such as the PSR and the UDP compared to the PCP in Portugal, have been able to build such a new broader party.
In Scotland we support the SSP which we have rightly understood as being the most developed response to that need in Britain. Clearly for the last six years the SSP has been seriously weakened by the irresponsible decision of its former leader Tommy Sheridan to put the needs of his own ego before that of the party he had been instrumental in building. The detailed statements we have developed at various points during this crisis have well stood the test of time and we stand by them today. We hope that we can now go forward to see a resurgent SSP on the streets and in the communities now that the trial has come to an end.
In England the basis for a substantial left party, reflecting the rise of the SSP in Scotland, has existed for over 10 years. Not a mass party, but an organisation of fifteen or twenty thousand uniting the left and the trade union left was entirely possible. The failure to establish such a party has been the responsibility both the endemic sectarianism in the British left as well as the enduring pull of Labourism — even as it moved to the right.
Today Respect, or more precisely the remnants of Respect, remains the only left party with much electoral substance. It has a small but significant base amongst oppressed migrant working class communities in East London and South Birmingham, where it made an historic breakthrough in the wake of the invasion of Iraq. It is, however, in deep crisis. The decision of its conference in November last year to begin organising in Scotland against the SSP was a measure of it. It created a situation where we were unable to stay in the organisation, though subsequent developments around the Sheridan trial and the dreadful statements made by George Galloway about it might also have made it difficult for us to stay in.
Obviously the collapse of Respect is a huge disappointment for us as we have spent six years attempting to build. It is also a set-back for the left as there is no electoral initiative on the left which could have a national impact even if it were not present in every constituency or city.
Other recent initiatives such as No2EU and TUSC are top down projects with little electoral weight and even less democracy. They both emerged as electoral fronts from secretive and exclusive processes. Others attempting to get involved including ourselves, the CPGB, the AWL, and Workers Power were excluded on sectarian grounds.
With No2EU we were told that the lack of democracy was the result of its late emergence, just before the European elections, which did not allow for democratic structures to be put in place. After the election there would be a conference in which everyone could participate and the project democratically discussed — including whether No2EU would develop into a party.
It never happened, of course. The RMT organised a conference on labour representation at which the SP floated the initiative which eventually became TUSC. TUSC then emerged fully formed in the same way as No2EU. This was now undeniably a consciously chosen method and not an unfortunate necessity. With TUSC we were again told that after the election there would be a conference and the whole thing would be opened up. Again it did not happen.
We have to reject this bankrupt method. It contributes nothing to building the kind of party we need. It is a part of the problem not the solution. We do not defend democracy as an abstract concept. We defend it because it is the only effective way on which to build a political alternative to right wing social democracy and tackle the crisis of political representation.
All this, however, creates problems for us when it comes elections, effective leaving us to decide on voting policy constituency by constituency. In some constituencies it will be straightforward enough, at least in England. Where there are credible candidates for Respect or left wing Green Party candidates who are anti-all cuts we should vote for them.
We can also vote for TUSC if there is not a better alternative, though we should combine this with a public polemic aimed at engaging with them on the issue of the democracy of the organisation. TUSC has nothing to offer the working class as it is currently constituted, it is a part of the problem and not the solution. When we were in Respect we conducted a sharp debate publically on issues with which we disagreed, particularly on democracy. We cannot continue with a position where we barely (if at all) mention the chronic structural problems of TUSC other than within our own ranks. TUSC is no longer a grouping in formation. It has hardened out into its current form and will not change via a few informal suggestions to SP members.
In Scotland we should vote for and support the SSP where they are standing and urge TUSC not to stand against them.
14) Women and the crisis
Internationally Neoliberal globalization had seen a massive expansion of insecure jobs, massive growth in enforced part time work (directly and indirectly through lack of social facilities such as affordable childcare or support for disabled people) and the a huge expansion of the informal sector – which is a dominated by women and children.
Poverty and inequality is the lot of the majority of women in the south of the globe, and they are the first to be hit by the climate crisis, caused by emissions produced mainly in the countries of the north. Eighty percent of the 1.3 billion people in the world living under the poverty line are women.
In Britain today, Women are 65% of those who work in the public sector and therefore more women will lose their jobs if we don’t succeed in stopping these cuts.
The gender pay gap is still 17% for women in full time work and 38% for women in part time work (in comparison with men in full time employment) – all these years after the Equal Pay Act. And many more women than men are forced to work part time because of caring responsibilities in the family. Part time jobs in the public sector tend to offer better conditions in part time jobs than in the private sector – so this is another reason why cuts in jobs in the public sector will affect women especially badly.
There are other issues in workplaces under attack – including in the public sector – increased workload for those who remain in work, increased bullying, more restrictive policies over sick pay, carers leave and increased discrimination against people with disabilities which are more difficult to take up in a context where everyone is focused on job losses.
Unbelievably 30,000 women in Britain lost their jobs in 2009 as a result of being pregnant. Pregnant women are unfairly selected for redundancies despite legal protection. A small number of women have won unfair dismissal cases but the majority have had no redress.
Women use public services more intensively than men. For many our ability to do paid work, or at least to do the jobs we currently do are dependent not only on keeping those jobs but on keeping services like after school clubs which are appearing at the top of local authorities lists of things to be scrapped.
Services, including those targeted specifically at women are amongst the first to be cut (those targeted at black women, immigrant women, lesbians, disabled women are even more vulnerable) – e.g. rape crisis centres and other resources for those suffering from domestic violence or abortion day care facilities.
Women are already part of the resistance against the cuts and will continue to be so both at the level of the workplace and in community campaigns. The magnificent movement of students and school students has in many instances been led by young women who don’t seem to be lacking in confidence – which is great to see.
But are our distinctive issues, our distinctive needs being discussed and fought for by the movement as a whole? Women have often found that unless we organise as women those issues get pushed to the back of a dusty cupboard to be fought for some other day.
Women may well need to create our own groups or our own spaces within the broader movement to make sure this doesn’t happen – we won’t win the struggle against cuts with one hand tied behind us – and women are 52 per cent of the population.
But these very obvious lessons from the women’s liberation movement and the lessons of collective organising have not been taken on board by large sections of the revolutionary left: and in the absence of a large and strong women’s movement many young women coming into activity today are unaware of them.
However there have been some important developments amongst young women in particular with the development of groups like the London Feminist Network and we should try and follow the debates they raise more consistently than we have done of late
15) The far right and immigration
There are dangerous developments on the far right not just in Britain but across Europe. With the development of the economic crisis and a growth of youth unemployment, the easy answers that the fascists give have found something of an audience. The BNP opportunistically championed not only the “British jobs for British workers strikes – this could and should easily have been predicted – but also opposition to the war in Afghanistan.
All three big parties pledged themselves to cuts and austerity as they geared up for the General Election. With only a weak voice from the left the BNP were seen by some as the only party standing up for the (white) working class. The election of two BNP MEPs in the 2009 European Elections sent shockwaves through the political establishment. The BNP gained nearly a million votes, massive publicity and, crucially, a degree of respectability. The UKIP vote also reflects a hardening racist current.
The BNP and now the EDL have been able to capitalise on the drip-fed racism of both the Tories and New Labour’s anti-asylum racism over decades. Recent polls which show that only a minority support even legal refugees having access to the NHS show the anti-racist work that needs to be taken up by the whole of the anti-cuts movement.
More recently, the far right has been able to benefit from anti-Arab racism, anti-Muslim racism and Islamophobia. Both the ‘war against terror’ and the growing offensive against migrants prepare a strong state that is increasingly used against working people in struggle.
The emergence over the past year of Black Activists Rising Against the Cuts (BARAC), and their active involvement in the Coalition of Resistance is a positive development in the struggle against racism and the cuts, based on the im portant principles of autonomy and self organisation. It is not sufficient to simply sloganise: “black and white unite and fight”. The example of BARAC shows how the victims of racism can unite with the anti-cuts movement and so strengthen the struggle. We are seeing similar movements emerging amongst women, LGBT people and people with disabilities. Quite rightly they are not prepared to be patronised but want to be accepted and welcomed as equals, who have the right to maintain their autonomy.
The challenge facing the anti-cuts campaigns at a local and national level is to develop a unifying strategy that can reach out to all sections of the working class communities, developing a clear anti-racist and anti-sexist perspective. The labour movement must totally reject any formula that is based on protecting “British jobs for British workers”. The only winners from such a campaign will be the racists and fascists. Internationalism must be at the forefront of our struggle against austerity measures at all times.
16) Imperialism the war and Palestine
The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt constitute a historic turning point in the international situation. These revolutions change the rules of the game. There will be a before and after the revolutions of Tunisia and Egypt. It is too early to appreciate the depth and all the implications of this change, but we are confronted with historical upheavals. They are the first revolutions of this 21st century, more exactly – because there were also revolutions in Bolivia in 2003 and 2005 – the first revolutions in the Arab world but also the first revolutions resulting from the crisis of the world capitalist system.
They have exploded in the weak links of capitalist globalisation. They concern a double process, a political process of rejection of the dictatorships but also a social process, where millions of people can no longer stand the consequences of the food crises with the explosion of prices of basic food products or more generally a system which gives only unemployment and misery as a prospect to millions of young people. These revolutions – because they are revolutions in the sense that there has been an eruption of the mass movement on the social and political scene and an open crisis of the regime – combine democratic questions, national questions – of national sovereignty against imperialism – and social questions.
It is a major turning point in the Arab world with a shock wave, in Libya, in Bahrain, in Algeria, in Yemen, in Jordan, in Palestine, but it is also revealing of the social instability and upheavals to come. These are the first stages of a gigantic battle between dictatorships and popular mobilisations, a confrontation between forces, which under all forms, seeks to ensure the continuity of the power of the dominant classes and that of the rupture which aspires to democracy and the satisfaction of the basic social needs of the popular classes
The momentous struggle for democracy across the Arab world will not go unnoticed by the Chinese working class, for whom lack of democracy is a crucial factor in holding back the struggle for a decent life. During Gaddafi’s bizarre and crazed speech on 22nd February, he attempted to justify his extreme and violent repression of the uprising in Libya with reference to Tiannamen Square. The leadership of the Chinese CP will not have thanked him for that reference; because Gaddafi’s logic works both ways: yes it is possible for extreme violence to suppress an uprising, but such suppression is very rarely permanent. The Chinese working class and youth will, sooner or later, rise again.
The remarkable growth of the Chinese economy has a further implication, which is of particular relevance to any discussion about the debt crisis in the West (much of which, of course, has in any case been fuelled and amplified by the trade imbalance with China and the East). As output shifts to the East, so too does the centre of gravity of finance, a situation which the Chinese leadership intends to exploit to its best advantage. And as is to be expected, since the July 2010 currency liberalisation in China, the Renminbi has slowly begun its ascent as a viable alternative to the dollar as international reserve currency. And as the dollar weakens, so too will the stranglehold of US dominated institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF.
In Iraq, although Britain has withdrawn its troops, imperialist occupation continues. A “Quisling” government was formed more than six months after dubious elections, and democratic rights are still curtailed. Demonstrations and trade-unions are repressed.
In Afghanistan, the occupation now entering its tenth year, also continues with military operations and deaths (military and civilians) as high as ever. The Karzai government is corrupt and lacks credibility. It is not sufficiently reliable or strong for the NATO troops to withdraw, thereby denying the occupation forces the ability to implement its exit strategy.
The need to maintain direct or indirect occupation by imperialism of these countries for strategic reasons will remain, and the need for the ideological cover of a “war against terror” will also be maintained. The alleged need to combat the “war on terror” continues to be used as a smokescreen for attacks on civil liberties and for islamophobia.
Israel continues its ethnic cleansing of Palestinians with impunity as Israel performs a useful strategic role for imperialism in the Middle East, although this may change with the democracy movements in the Arab countries. Support in Britain and elsewhere for the Zionist project and Israeli state is disappearing as its actions and real intentions are understood.
17) The situation of the far left today
The far left today is at its weakest for over 10 years — both in terms of left unity and (consequently) of its role in the wider movement
It has been a dramatic degeneration. In September 2000, when the Socialist Alliance was formed (for the general election in 2001) it embraced the SWP, the SP, the ISG, the AWL, workers Power, the CPGB, and some important groups and individuals from the Labour tradition. Only the CP tradition stayed outside. It fielded a100 candidates, and along with the even more successful SSP in Scotland, was the high point in far left/left unity in the post-war period.
The SA led to Respect, out of the anti-war movement, which at one point had 18 councillors and the first left of Labour Westminster MP for 60 years. It also led to greater left unity in the unions, since it made no sense to be in the same political formation for elections but in different left formations in the unions. By 2009, however, after several damaging splits, the wheel had turned the full circle and the left was as divided as it had been in the 1980s — including in the unions. It was a massive missed opportunity and a political defeat but it was entirely self-inflicted, since the political conditions, which had raised the need for unity in the first place, remained in full force.
All this had an effect on the far left organisations themselves, particularly the SP and the SWP who reverted (the SP most sharply) to sectarian self-interest. And as by far the largest of the far left organisations, the political positions, priorities and behaviour of these two organisations has a much bigger impact than those of the smaller groups.
Thus when No2EU ‘emerged’ for the European elections in 2009 all pretence of being ‘broad’ or being a ‘party’ was abandoned. It was an SP project, under SP control, from the start. It had the SP conception of federalist organisation and top down structure hard-wired into it. Anyone likely to actively oppose that conception was kept out. TUSC soon followed and it functioned in an identical undemocratic top-down exclusionist way. TUSC’s programme was largely uncontroversial, unlike No2EU which tended towards nationalism and had a politically problematic title. In the end, however, an acceptable programme of demands, in absence of democratic structures, does not make an organisation a healthy alternative to right-wing social democracy.
The SP, of course, had defended this federalist conception since they walked out of the SA in 2001 in opposition to one member one vote and insisting on a federalist structure against everyone else in the organisation. Since then they have been ploughing an isolationist furrow with the CFNWP and have now emerged with TUSC constructed around these lines.
With the SWP the retreat has been much more recent. The SWP made a major break (historic really) in 2000 when they joined the SA, and then Respect, after years of only supporting their own events and initiatives. They failed, of course, over the issues of party democracy and the united front in the context of broad parties — which we debated with them at length in public. The way the SWP exited from Respect following the criticism made by George Galloway and others of the way it was operating in an undemocratic manner was another blow to building a political alternative to New Labour which could attract newly-radicalising workers and youth.
Consequently from playing a central role in the SA and Respect (as well as the StWC) the SWP has now turned inwards and has less impact on the external politics than for many years.
The sectarian turn of the SWP not only impacted on their attitude to Respect but to their behaviour in single issue campaigns like Unite against Fascism where they fail to genuinely involve other activists whether from other political currents, or independents especially those who have a different emphasis from them about priorities or ways of organising.
Unsurprisingly (and destructively) these retreats into sectarianism have had a major impact on the response of the far left to the current cuts onslaught where an opportunity for the left to give a united lead to the movement has ended up with three anti-cuts campaigns: one as an SWP initiative, one representing a broad range of forces (CoR) and now one launched by the NSSN conference on January 22nd which is under the total control of the SP. Subsequently there has been more co-operation between the Right to Work Campaign launched by the SWP and COR.
The SP campaign was launched at the National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) conference on Saturday January 22nd where the Socialist Party drove out every member of its steering committee who was not a member of the Socialist Party in a display of sectarianism which must rank as the most divisive move on the far left for some years both in terms of the proposal itself and the way it was rammed through the NSSN.
Equally sectarian is the justification the SP advanced, before and at the conference, for setting up a third campaign. This was the spurious assertion that neither of the other campaigns were prepared to oppose all cuts therefore a real anti-cuts campaign was needed! It was a big lie which was then vigorously repeated throughout the conference by members of the SP no matter how many times supporters of CoR, or the RtWC, or members of the steering committee minority explained that it was not the case.
This is a very bad situation on the far left and it is having an impact on the wider movement not least because it lets the trade union leaderships off the hook. Unfortunately, in the current political situation of class polarisation the need for left unity both in united front action and politically with the construction of a new left party that basis itself on the mass movement, is greater than ever before. There are no short cuts short of a continuing struggle for principled and democratic functioning.
However we are living in a new period of deep capitalist crisis and new forces and new leaders will and are coming to the fore, which will either force the sectarian far left organisations into common action and more democratic functioning, or these organisations will be increasingly by-passed by the new movements. Our task is to link up with the new forces, the beginnings of which we can see in the student movement, fighting for the united front method and workers democracy, both of which are principled questions for Marxists.
Although the two main forces on the far left, that is the SP and the SWP, are sectarian, there are other revolutionary Marxists forces with which we are working closely due to their positive evolution during the recent period, in particular since the split in Respect and the launching of the Coalition of Resistance.
We have been collaborating with the Green Left current of the Green party as they like us consider themselves “ecosocialist” and many of its members are revolutionary Marxists. We are working with them in CoR, we have organised joint day-schools on Palestine and Ecosocosialism, organised the tour with Hugo Blanco, and some of their members are on the advisory EB of SR.
The exact character of the Green Party should be the subject of a separate discussion, but we should note that it is seen to be to the left of New Labour and has been a home both electorally and for recruits of those disillusioned with the neo-liberal drift of New Labour. Recently, the new MP Caroline Lucas has planted her flag clearly on the side of mass resistance to the Tories’ attacks on the welfare state.
Although the Green Party has over 10,000 members, less than 10% are active. There is an big debate brewing with some of its members, in particular those who are councillors, arguing to vote for balanced and therefore cuts budgets, presumably for opportunist and electoralist reasons.
It would be wrong to argue that the Green Left leave now the Green Party to become part of a new political framework as there is an ongoing political process in the party which this current must be part of. However we should continue the process of organisational and political collaboration in the movement and in the political field in order to strengthen the ecosocialist current on the left as a whole. In particular this means continuing to invite them to speak at our meetings, organise joint events such as day-schools, writing for SR and our books, and initiating an occasional meetings between representatives of both organisations.
We should also note the formation of Counterfire created by former members of the SWP whose members are playing a much more positive role in the movement, in particular in CoR, than does the SWP. Counterfire is currently somewhere between a network and a political organisation, but it is clear that they are taking the steps to forming a new organisation as it produces a regular paper and has meetings in its own name. However, Counterfire still maintains the tradition of the SWP of simple activism with “politics” relegated to lectures on theory, a method of building itself into a new larger revolutionary organisation by recruiting ones and twos like the IS/SWP, and does not have view of working towards a broad party of the left in Britain, even an anti-capitalist one. The strengths of Counterfire are that it has attracted youth and students with the high profile of Clare Solomon, one of its leading members, that with Lindsey German and John Rees it has a high public profile and that it has an “activist” approach.
We should also note the continued existence of Permanent Revolution with whose members we have good relations as they share a similar approach to us in the movement
The desire for unity in the resistance to the attacks on the welfare state also reflects itself at the political level. As explained above, the idea for a new workers party strikes a chord with many serious militants although they do not think it is a possibility today. It is also clear that many on the revolutionary left despair at its the fragmentation given the tasks that face the movement in general and the left in particular.
We should therefore adopt a clear position of being in favour of overcoming the dispersion of the revolutionary left and therefore approaching systematically those revolutionary currents we are closest to for the closest possible collaboration. The FI tradition, which SR subscribes to, is that we are only one component of a future mass revolutionary party and that we therefore we should continuously seek ways of going beyond our present stage not only by individual recruitment but also – and more importantly – through political re-compositions.
We should therefore develop close collaboration with PR, GL and C/F with a view to regroupement at some stage. Obviously these three currents come from different traditions, and their political evolution is happening at a different pace from each other. The collaboration will therefore take different forms with each of these organisations, but the proposals in general could include where appropriate:
Meetings between representatives of each organisation,
Joint public meetings and dayschools,
Inviting speakers at SR events, e.g. meetings on our new pamphlet,
Invitation to write articles for the SR mag,
Joint statements and/or leaflets,
Invitation to send a delegation to the FI youth summer camp.
To investigate the possibility of collaboration on a new and common publication.
The outcome of such close collaboration is uncertain, however we should do everything possible to encourage political and organisational convergence between Marxist organisations with whom we are closest. It may be that discussion on programmatic issues or new political events that arise reveal an unbridgeable gulf. Agreement on programme may well be very easy, but we then discover that there is no convergence on method of work and political culture. However the benefits at a minimum are a common political framework of organisations given a common political leadership in the movement, and at best a new revolutionary Marxist and ecosocialist organisation of several hundred which could provide a positive alternative to the sectarianism of the SP and SWP.