Picket lines and ballot box

Mass strikes, soaring food and energy prices, Tory sleaze scandals - all speak of the return of the ‘British disease’. Eddie Ford says that is why sections of the mainstream media could well back Sir Keir in 2024, and why we need our own political alternative

The last two weeks have seen a massive wave of strikes - with hospitals affected, thousands of schools shut, rail stations closed and significant border disruption, as unions said negotiations were “going backwards”. True, there was not a million taking part at any one time, as some on the left had hoped - more like half a million.

But this is still hugely positive by any judgement and, with many more strikes to come, we could well be seeing a spring of discontent. The industrial action by the Royal College of Nursing, with its 300,000 members (roughly two-thirds of all NHS nurses), was its biggest ever strike, affecting more than a third of the 73 national health service trusts in England. It has a mandate for strike action well into April, so more will come.

Meanwhile, postal workers had planned to go on strike for 24 hours starting on February 16, but the strike was called off by the Communication Workers Union after another legal challenge from Royal Mail. In a statement, the CWU described the challenge as “the latest in a long list of deliberate, sustained and coordinated attacks” on its members. But the CWU’s legal team advised that, “given the laws in this country are heavily weighted against working people”, there was a real risk that losing in court could impact upon a new strike ballot. The CWU intends to re-enter negotiations with Royal Mail later this week, but “the focus of the whole union must remain on winning” the ballot to give it a fresh mandate. The dispute is not just about pay, of course. The union also objects to Royal Mail’s proposed changes in working conditions, including the introduction of compulsory Sunday working.

Then there is the National Education Union - it boasts that no fewer than 32,000 joined it within a week just before its national strike on February 8. The NEU said this growth “should worry the government”, as “our argument is cutting through”. In a move towards unity, both the NEU and the National Association of Head Teachers have told their members that staff should not be put under pressure to work on strike days or to cross picket lines - teachers are under “no obligation” to provide advance notice that they plan to strike. However, the joint guidance “also recognised that school leaders have a duty to carry out a risk assessment in advance to assess whether a school can be kept open or partially open”.


Also on the positive side, various opinion polls show huge public sympathy for the strikes - why wouldn’t there be? With so many workers staying home, they account for a large slice of the population. And, if you happen to work in the public sector, you know that these people are being asked to take a savage pay cut in real terms, given high inflation and the cost of living crisis. BBC interviewers outside schools and hospitals seem to be having difficulty finding anyone who is actually against the strikes. Meanwhile, NHS bosses are urging the government to make a serious pay offer. But the fact that government ministers are going into ‘negotiations’ saying they will talk about anything except this year’s pay is an absurd stance and clearly provocative. Maybe they think that taking on the unions will be a vote winner. If so, they really are deluded - perhaps heading for an electoral disaster, the way things stand at the moment.

While there are big opportunities for the unions in the current round of strikes, as demonstrated by the NEU membership boost, there are also dangers. Wales gives us a hint of what the government could possibly do a few weeks or months down the line: resort to divide and rule tactics straight from the 1970s copybook - playing off the different sectors and unions against each other.

So class-wide demands are vital. If inflation is 10% then we should be demanding wages rises which at the very least keep in line with that rate. Government and employers must be forced to accept that demand. We should also be calling for measures of workers’ control. Which strike exemptions in hospitals and other such vital services are needed must be decided by strike committees, not negotiated by union officials and agreed with management behind the backs of their members. Ambulances should be run with ‘By union permission’ stickers on prominent display. If troops are mobilised, every opportunity should be used to explain to the rank and file soldiers why workers are on strike and why they should refuse to be used as scabs.

There has been talk of TUC coordination. But so far that has just been talk. What is needed is simultaneous action and solidarity strikes by other workers, not least those in the private sector. True, that would be illegal under existing laws. We need to challenge and defy not only the new anti-union legislation going through parliament, but all the anti-union laws.

It is certainly vital to win the battle for public opinion. Relying on the BBC, ITV and Sky is a fool’s game. The same goes for the mainstream press. No, we need our own media.

As an aside, Socialist Worker has been denouncing the idea of reaching a negotiated pay settlement. Frankly, this is stupid. We are not on the cusp of a revolution and calling for an insurrectionary general strike. What is needed is a concrete analysis of the current situation, not childish posturing. The idea that the Tories are just about to be swept away in a month or two is also totally unconvincing. That is why politics is so important. We need to challenge the ruling class in the ballot box, not just on the picket line. Clearly we cannot count on Sir Keir’s Labour Party. To suggest otherwise is also stupid, as is the idea still being promoted by the Socialist Party in England and Wales of a Labour Party mark two. Nor do we need another broad front party of the Respect, Left Unity or Labour Socialist Network kind. All hopeless projects. No, we need a mass Communist Party that is equipped with a Marxist minimum-maximum programme and operating according to the principles of democratic centralism, not the bureaucratic centralism of the countless confessional sects.

Stepping back a bit, there has been a deluge of articles about Rishi Sunak’s first 100 days as prime minister. This has always been a standard journalistic practice, albeit a slightly tedious ritual. But after the extraordinarily brief reign of Liz Truss, 100 days almost seems like a long time - and has accrued more significance, given the strikes, the sacking of the dodgy Nadhim Zahawi as party chair and the black cloud hanging over deputy prime minister, Dominic Raab.

Liz Truss

On top of all that, we have Truss foolishly throwing her hat into the ring again, saying she was brought down - wait for it - by “the leftwing economic establishment”! Yes, Liz, if you say so. But there was also a thing called the markets, which you are meant to revere, with the capitalists behind it deciding that you were not a good bet - hence the ‘moron premium’ on mortgages.

There is also renewed talk of Boris Johnson making a comeback - something not to be totally discounted, depending in particular on what happens at the next general election, now less than two years away. If the Tories do very badly, then you can imagine the calls to ‘bring back Boris’ from the party rank and file and the rightwing press. As for a Liz Truss comeback, not a chance - nobody is ever that desperate.

Interestingly, a recent Financial Times editorial talks about “the return of the British disease” (February 1). Just as Britain was known as the “sick man of Europe” in the 1970s, the FT gloomily notes that Britain today “seems to be the sick man of the developed world”. The editorial goes on to remind us that the International Monetary Fund forecast that Britain would be the only leading economy to shrink this year, remarking that the UK “is undoubtedly lagging behind its peers, as it suffers the worst of two economic worlds”. A shrunken post-pandemic workforce has left it with a labour market squeeze and, as in the US, and like the rest of Europe, Britain is exposed to sky-high energy prices (not to mention Liz Truss’s disastrous ‘mini-budget’ that led to a steep rise in borrowing costs).

For the FT, another undeniable factor for the UK’s economic underperformance is Brexit - which means that “finding ways to soften its impact needs to be part of a broader strategy to rekindle growth”. The editorial also believes that Britain’s exit from the European Union has “eroded the quality of governance”, with successive Conservative administrations wrestling with “the contradiction between Brexit purists’ belief that it would free Britain to create a low-tax, small-state economy, and many ‘leave’ voters’ for greater government intervention”. Get out of that bind if you can.

As a result, it seems likely that the FT will go with Sir Keir’s Labour Party at the next election. But the more interesting question, or speculation, is whether there will there be another moment like The Sun’s sudden endorsement of Tony Blair in 1997. It is more than possible. Not without significance, even at the level of symbolism, Rishi Sunak was not at Davos, but Sir Keir was - enjoying not only the photo shoots, but the opportunity to schmooze with the great and the good. It is not hard to imagine the likes of Rupert Murdoch courting the man, as he seems to be a winner and totally committed to the interests of the bourgeoisie.