A hot autumn too

Things are clearly heading towards a monumental explosion of strikes and protests, writes Eddie Ford

You did not have to be a genius to predict early in the year that there would be some sort of strike wave. There had been Brexit and then lockdown, creating the conditions for an explosion of pay demands - with workers not only defending their interests, but making advances.

However, not many people predicted that there would be a huge increase in inflation and a near catastrophic cost of living crisis. This is partly to do with the Ukraine war (bringing up the role of accident in history), but other factors are clearly involved as well. However, whatever the exact causes, we are obviously standing on the threshold of a significant upturn in the class struggle and all the signs are that this will continue throughout this year and maybe beyond. Rail workers, postal workers, dockers, airport staff, BT workers, Amazon workers, doctors, teachers, nurses, civil servants - even barristers. If they have not yet voted to strike, they are likely to do so.

The latest projected figure for inflation is 13%, yet workers - mainly in the public sector, but not exclusively - are generally getting pay offers of between two and five percent. In other words, a real pay cut. Indeed, average pay in Britain has been falling behind inflation for more than a decade - long before the cost of living crisis was properly recognised for what it was. Boris Johnson during the 2019 general election campaign said the Tory government was committed to a “high wage” economy and “levelling up”. A lie then, and now a lie which everyone knows was a lie.

On top of that, we have a situation where inflation is going to be fought by raising interest rates - last week the Bank of England announced the biggest hike since 1995, going to 1.75% from 1.25% - a rise of well over a third. True, we have had record low interest rates. This has allowed lots of people to get cheap mortgages just above the rate of inflation that was, also enabling large numbers of zombie companies to stagger on through borrowing. Under these circumstances, we would expect that people will find it extraordinarily difficult to pay their mortgages if they have not got a fixed rate - and a lot of those companies that became addicted to super-low interest rates will find it impossible, and therefore go bust.

In reality, the agenda of the Bank of England is to up the level of unemployment - transition from a ‘tight’ labour market to a loose one, where you have large numbers of unemployed, basically with workers forced to accept below-inflation settlements.

Already there has been a whirling mass of strikes - the majority will not be reported or even make it onto the official statistics, as they will be over very quickly. Some workers are going on strike for a day or several hours before securing some sort of deal. Then there are the big set-piece battles like with the rail unions, the RMT and Aslef, but there are plenty of other significant ones. For example, the Arriva bus workers on strike in the north-west and - importantly - dockers in Felixstowe, the country’s largest port. Their eight-day strike will have a big impact on imports and exports.

Anyway, the hot summer of industrial action will be followed by an even hotter autumn. But how has the Labour Party reacted to all this? With horror, because the last thing the shadow front bench wants is a whole series of workers’ strikes and protests. Hence Sir Keir Starmer, being a responsible politician, has issued orders not to go on picket lines. An edict that at least two shadow ministers have defied already, with one getting sacked - Sam Tarry, a shadow junior transport minister.

No-one would blame you for chuckling over a recent article in the rightwing press reminding readers of Starmer’s posturing during the 2020 leadership campaign. Only a couple of years ago he was saying that he would continue to uphold the economic programme of Jeremy Corbyn’s 2019 manifesto. Amusingly, he also made a video about his “long history” of standing up for striking workers, going back to the miners’ dispute in 1991.1 Now he does not want to be seen within a mile of a picket line, because he was never committed to Corbyn’s election manifesto and was always going to dump it at the first chance.

Regarding the trade unions, what is Starmer going to do? Just ask them who they would prefer as prime minister - one who would not introduce more anti-union laws, but is interested in coming to a ‘reasonable’ settlement with the trade unions and workers hit by the cost of living crisis. At the end of the day, most union leaders will want a Labour government. Not least when we have two Conservative leadership contenders not only competing over the timing and scale of tax cuts, but also sparring as to who is going to be toughest against the unions in the tradition of Margaret Thatcher. Liz Truss, following Grant Shapps, has said she we will increase the threshold required for going on strike and impose some sort of minimum service requirement.

It still looks like Truss will win and become the next prime minister - Mick Lynch, general secretary of the RMT, has said he will fight for the TUC to call a general strike in response. Well, everyone knows that it is very unlikely the TUC will do any such thing - though it does depend on what you mean by a general strike. After all, they are illegal - thanks to the vengeful Trade Disputes and Trade Unions Act 1927. However, it is quite conceivable that the TUC will call a ‘day of action’, where you stay away from work and instead go somewhere like Hyde Park to listen to a lot of angry speeches by various general secretaries - with everything returning to normal straight after. The difference between a 24-hour symbolic protest strike (absolutely nothing wrong with that in itself) and an indefinite general strike is that the latter directly poses the question of state power. Who are the rulers and who are the ruled.

General strikes

Suffice to say, on the question of general strikes there are some interesting comments in recent issues of Socialist Worker and, firstly, The Socialist. What was positive about the last issue (August 5-17) was the fact that the comrades were not only interested in repeating workers’ demands today, but also in looking back at history.

This includes the Pentonville Five of 1972 and the Winter of Discontent between November 1978 and February 1979. The author of the piece, Alastair Tice of the Socialist Party in England and Wales national committee, describes 1972 as “semi-spontaneous” - which is complete rubbish. In 1972 five dockers were locked up under Edward Heath’s Industrial Relations Act - the five deliberately got themselves arrested in a public show of defiance: ‘We are the leaders of this strike, so what are you going to do about it?’

In reality it was called by a now widely forgotten organisation called the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions - behind which stood the old CPGB and its industrial department headed by Bert Ramelson (Baruch Rahmilevich Mendelson). The LCDTU urged other workers to come out on strike in solidarity with the five imprisoned dockers’ leaders. And that is what hundreds of thousands did. CPGB, Labour and other left militants went from workplace to workplace and ensured that the Heath government faced a highly political strike wave. That was not “semi-spontaneous”.

The TUC itself threatened to call a 24-hour strike in solidarity with the five. Suddenly, the government’s ‘official solicitor’ - most people had never heard of him before - announced that they were going to be released. It was not that the government had caved in, you must understand, but rather ‘some legal official had intervened’. A few years later in 1974, Ted Heath went to the country and asked who rules - the trade unions or a legitimate Tory government? The reply was swift and brutal - not you, Heath - and a Labour government was ushered in. We should remind ourselves that in this period the International Socialists, forerunners of the Socialist Workers Party, opposed calls for a general strike. The same went for the 1984-85 miners’ Great Strike. Chris Harman was wheeled out to explain that if you call for a general strike, then you must also call for defence corps - you don’t say! That was precisely what the miners had been doing with the hit squads, and what we in the Leninist faction of the CPGB had been calling for and celebrating.

Anyway, what does the SWP say today? Comrade Judy Cox writes about the 1842 general strike (Socialist Worker July 312). For her, 1842 proves the following: “Riots and street barricades were no longer enough to challenge the emerging capitalist system. The power to resist the bosses lay in the workplaces” - a piece of sheer stupidity. The workers were out of the workplace and on strike. Her conclusion seems to be the exact opposite of Friedrich Engels’, who said that the employers and the governing class are not going to collapse because you are going out on strike. But Cox seems to be saying that, if enough of you go on strike for long enough, both the employers and the government collapses - then you step into power.

Precisely because of the lessons of 1842, Engels was a champion of the Chartist mass party and political action - standing candidates in elections and making the demand for a popular militia. He argued that such a militia would be best suited for rank-and-file rebellion and mutiny. Look at 1917: there were many general strikes, with the Bolsheviks organising more or less the entire working class vanguard in its ranks and becoming hegemonic, not least through the successful use of the election tactic, standing in both the bourgeois electoral field and the soviets, where they gained an overwhelming majority in Moscow and Petrograd. Yet it was the army and the Red Guard that delivered the final blow to the Provisional Government - not workers going out on strike.

We are not Maoist: we do not believe that political power grows out of the barrel of a gun - but guns matter. The central lesson of 1917 - or 1842, for that matter - is that you have to have a mass party that is able to split the armed forces, crucially the army. Alas, too much of today’s left - mostly confessional sects - combine anarchistic general strikism with Fabian socialism and call the result ‘Marxism’.

Surely we can do much better. Surely the situation cries out for something much better.


  1. dailymail.co.uk/news/article-11086329/Keir-Starmer-tells-strikers-Ill-stand-unearthed-video-banning-MPs-it.html.↩︎

  2. socialistworker.co.uk/features/the-general-strike-of-1842-charter-or-no-return-to-labour.↩︎