Process of poverty
Will there be a new Winter of Discontent in response to the cost of living crisis? Eddie Ford is hopeful, but it will only happen with organisation and challenging the grip of the trade union bureaucracy
Without doubt, the overwhelming consensus is that Rishi Sunak’s spring statement was a complete failure - if not a political embarrassment for the Tories. Ask any Conservative MP, whose inbox is filling up with outraged complaints and pleas for assistance. Sunak basically offered no help for those suddenly saddled with sky-high energy bills, with inflation spiralling to possibly near 10% by the end of the year.
Perhaps appropriately on April Fool’s Day, the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets raised the so-called ‘energy price cap’ by an average of 54%, with another increase of that level due in October. The fuel poverty charity, National Energy Action, has warned that the cost of heating an average home has doubled in 18 months, leaving 6.5 million households across the UK unable to live in a warm home. According to the Resolution Foundation, the number of English households in ‘fuel stress’ (those spending at least 10% of their total budgets on energy bills) was set to double overnight from 2.5 to five million. Citizens Advice has said around five million people would be unable to pay their energy bills from this month, whatever paltry ‘support’ the government has already announced - like the £200 “discount” that is actually a loan. Once the price cap rises again in October, CA estimates that this number would almost triple to one in four people in the UK - more than 14 million. Indeed, in the words of CA’s chief executive, the energy price cap rise will be “potentially ruinous” for many millions of people across the country.
If that was not enough, prices of just about everything else are spiralling too - particularly petrol. Middle Eastern producers are not going to turn the taps on despite the repeated requests from Joe Biden and his sidekick, Boris Johnson. Motorists are facing record high prices on the forecourt, despite Sunak’s pathetic cut of 5p on fuel duty. Obviously, this will impact upon everyone, regardless of whether they drive or not. All goods rely on either electricity or petrol to get to their destination, which means that food prices will continue to rise. The Bank of England has further warned that the effects of the Ukraine war on food prices would become visible on the supermarket shelves in the second half of this year, as food inflation pushes to 6.5%, and will continue into next year.
As we all know only too well, higher energy and petrol prices are not the only way households are being hammered. Council tax is increasing by about 3%, as are broadband and phone bills. There are also reductions in state pandemic support and national insurance rates are going up - as are rents for those in social housing.
The cost of living crisis is especially terrifying for those on fixed incomes like pensioners, disabled people or those on universal credit - whose incomes have been frozen year after year. Now, with inflation expected to go significantly beyond 5%, that quickly halves your income. These people were struggling before the astronomical rise in energy bills. Even though the last winter was incredibly mild, they were still faced with a choice between turning the heating on or feeding the kids - so they chose the latter, sitting in coats in one room. If that is the case now, then the fearful prediction can only be that the kids will start to go hungry this year. That is the reality for many people in 21st century Britain.
Perhaps John Harris of The Guardian was right when he wrote that, rather than a cost of living crisis, this is “a social emergency that will define who we are” (April 3). The scars could last for a very long time.
Putting it bluntly, all this crap will screw very many people - and the government knows it. They are promising to do something about it somewhere down the line, but exactly what and when remains a mystery. Will the government fulfil its promise? It is impossible to say, but I am not particularly optimistic. Then again, if the British government does not do something, it could possibly be facing mass discontent - if not some sort of social explosion.
At the weekend, thousands attended People’s Assembly demonstrations against the big squeeze on incomes. One of the key speakers at the London demonstration was Jeremy Corbyn, who said the crisis was “pushing millions into poverty” (he also lambasted “the disgusting treatment” of the summarily sacked P&O ferry workers). For Corbyn, the demonstrations represent “thousands of people coming together to demand redistribution of wealth and power and decent wages for all”.
As for the TUC, it is demanding an “emergency budget” to help working families who are at “breaking point”. Some are taking comfort from the fact that strikes in the UK are at their highest in five years (even if the most recent Office for National Statistics briefing suggests that days lost to strikes remain low in historic terms). But there appears to have been an upturn in disputes not captured by the official data, which only covers formal strikes and lags at least a year behind. For example, the GMB union has recorded disputes with 42 employers between October 2021 and March 2022 - seven times the number in the same period in 2019-20. Unite members are currently involved in 30 disputes in England - almost four times the reported number three years ago. Over the past 12 months, the TUC has recorded at least 300 disputes in different industries.
In this context, some are now talking about a new Winter of Discontent - though, in the case of Labour MPs, it is more in fear than excited expectation. But large sections of the left like the Socialist Party in England and Wales, and Socialist Appeal, are optimistic about their potential organisational growth. They are anticipating an explosion of anger from the trade union rank and file similar to what happened between November 1978 and February 1979.
Back then, as some readers will recall, there was a Labour government in cahoots with the union bureaucracy - at a time when there was a much smaller workforce compared to now, but the union movement had 12 million members, as opposed to the roughly six million today. There was a rank-and-file rebellion against the deal that the Labour government had struck with the union bosses: the ‘social contract’. This had four phases and basically limited pay demands, meaning that workers began to experience a real fall in their living standards - so much for the “fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of wealth and power in favour of working people and their families”, as promised in Labour’s election manifesto of October 1974.
Workers rose up against the final phase of the social contract with a wave of strikes on a scale that had not been seen since the General Strike of 1926. As the rightwing press will never let you forget, people were not being buried, bins were not emptied, and so on. What that finally ended up with, of course, was the Thatcher government lining up for a militant and ruthless battle with the trade union movement that was taken to a culmination in 1984-85 - leading to a strategic defeat not just for the National Union of Mineworkers following its year-long strike, but the entire working class.
Obviously, no-one on the left wants to see a repeat of that. Yet many are clearly hoping for another Winter of Discontent. However, unfortunately, this seems unlikely. The trade union movement in its present form has been massively bureaucratised and weakened - half the size it used to be despite a far larger workforce. Yes, for sure there will be trade union resistance in some shape or form. But whether or not the rank and file are in a position to stage a 1978-79-type explosion is an open question. The 1970s was after all a period when a picket line actually meant something and nearly everyone abided by the Eleventh Commandment - lorry drivers and other workers did not cross them and were unafraid to take secondary action themselves. All that started to break down during the 1984‑85 miners’ Great Strike and nowadays many workers do not know what a picket line is or should be - thou shalt not cross. This is a principle we are going to have to rewin.
Communists, like anyone else, do not know what is going to happen. However, you can imagine some sort of social rebellion - whether in the form of riots (which tend to be the work of young people) or political action, such as standing alternative candidates. Then again, the trade unions could be rebuilt into something like what they were at the end of the 19th century with the birth of general workers’ unions rather than for skilled workers alone. But to do that the working class will need to be organised in a way that enables them to successfully challenge the trade union bureaucracy, which is not interested in provoking a wave of strikes - quite the opposite. It has a material interest in settling disputes and negotiating deals that could easily see workers’ pay and conditions pushed downwards.
Regrettably, that was what happened at P&O Ferries. We had 800 workers brutally sacked without any notice via a pre-recorded video message. Yet there were RMT officials on the media implying they might have negotiated lower wages and longer terms out at sea - just like what happened on Irish Ferries. Instead of actually going to the P&O bosses to raise the conditions of all ferry workers, the main complaint from the RMT bureaucrats was in reality, why did not these Dubai owners agree to negotiations that could lead to worse pay and longer hours?
Naturally, there will be pressure on the trade union bureaucracy to fight. But this will not correspond to successful action or strikes without organisation and without defying the law. We need shop steward power again. We need secondary action again. We need mass picket lines again.