Political response needed

James Turley expects a sudden rise in the pitch of industrial struggle after the general election

The electoral machines of bourgeois politics are grinding into motion, as the time remaining for Gordon Brown to name the date inexorably runs out.

And, as it has been for some time, the word on every politician's lips is 'cuts' - cuts in public expenditure in order to bring public debt 'under control'. Some use fancy euphemisms - 'efficiency savings' is a favourite of New Labour - but all promise the same menu come the next government.

David Cameron has announced that a new Tory government would rush through an 'emergency budget' within 50 days of taking power - although he has attempted to disguise his Thatcherite zeal for attacking the public sector with promises that the budget would 'go for growth'. The Financial Times speculates that this is a response to similar comments by Gordon Brown following the queen's speech (November 23).

Perhaps more significant are the latest poll returns - an Ipsos-Mori survey commissioned by The Observer saw the gap between the Tories and Labour drop to 6%, in line with a recent trend for Labour to slowly claw its way back.

It seems that, almost in spite of himself, Brown has managed to shift the terms of debate in his favour, with Cameron toning down the slash-and-burn, 'age of austerity' rhetoric. A hung parliament or a narrow Labour victory are - barring yet another cosmic blunder from the Brown camp - as likely outcomes at this point as an outright Tory victory.

Yet if the battle has turned slightly in Labour's favour, it is still a battle over a singularly unattractive bit of political territory - who will administer more or less the same cuts the most 'fairly', or with the most respect for 'frontline services', or with the best package for 'growth'. This is not the stuff that a stable political advantage is made of - for either party, or the Liberal Democrats for that matter.

So what can we expect? Firstly, those who believe that things are likely to improve over the next year should perhaps think twice. The global financial system remains fragile; many banks remain nationalised, or unusually dependent in other ways on direct state aid. Crucially, unemployment is high and still rising. If a new government attempts seriously to attack the public deficit through cutting public services, it will throw thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, of people onto the dole queues. The more successful a new government is in this work, the more counterproductive it will be - the result would be almost certainly another sharp downturn of the British economy.

Without the rescue of the financial sector and the willingness to incur massive public debt there would have been a crash of 1929 proportions. This, it should be emphasised, could not be allowed to happen (if it could be avoided). Bourgeois society has no appetite for a new epoch of crisis, fascism and cataclysmic war. But, while the rescue of the financial sector is now causing fears that a sovereign meltdown might follow, with bonds being the new subprime mortgages, the size of government debt can be used as an opportunity. The welfare state can be dramatically pared down and the main burden of the crisis shifted from capital to the working class. The likely result is a sustained and wide-ranging attack on pensions, benefits and the public sector that will last 10 or perhaps even 20 years, but the attacks will have their limits.

These limits are partly internal to capital - the lingering historical memory of 1929-45 provoked George Bush to change his spots last autumn, and' David Cameron would be swept along just as helplessly if another collapse was on the cards. Reaganomics and Thatcherism are dead as strategies. Financialisation ran into its limits and threatened disaster. Yet the simple fact of the matter is that with or without another financial crisis capital and its law of value are in decline and therefore increasingly dependent on the state. Though the present return to Keynesianism is likely to prove exceedingly fleeting, and will certainly not produce another boom,' capital needs government expenditure if it is to maintain itself.

The more important limit, however, is provided by the action of the working class. We have already seen the first shots fired. Lindsey and other such strikes gave the workers a clear victory. The long-running Leeds rubbish collectors' strike has now ended, broadly in the workers' favour. Though it was aborted early by a sell-out deal, the Royal Mail dispute brought us to the brink of a major confrontation between an important public-sector union and an avowedly union-smashing employer - not to say a Labour government.

These developments are not likely to have been welcomed at Tory Party HQ. Yet more ominous for Cameron - and all others promising attacks - is the Irish experience of the financial crisis. Ireland had, since the late 1980s, built its economic policies around attracting foreign finance capital. With the republic's entry into the euro came another wave of investment. When the credit crunch began in earnest, however, foreign capitalists found themselves in full retreat, trimming operations where they could (and it was always going to be more politically expedient to cut overseas operations first). Concurrently, a housing bubble similar in form to that in Britain had inflated through the 2000s and - no surprises - burst asunder with the financial crisis.

Membership in good standing of the EU has afforded Ireland at least a better fate than Iceland, which was driven to the point of bankruptcy after its banking system collapsed last year. That is about the extent of the good news. Now, the influential Irish Economic and Social Research Institute think-tank has published a report predicting that unemployment will rise to 17% during 2010, and that economic contraction over the three years from 2008-10 will amount to a staggering 14%. Ireland, too, has a substantial public debt - the legacy of George W Bush-style deficit financing of tax cuts.

When serious attacks on living conditions began in earnest, so did resistance to them - workers at the Waterford Crystal glass factory mounted an occupation when its foreign owners pulled out; other disputes sprang up, and ultimately culminated in a trade union march in Dublin that attracted over 100,000 people (a serious fraction of a population of around three million). Tens of thousands of public sector works supported a protest strike on November 24. This is, we should note, against a background of shameful political quiescence of the labour bureaucracy over decades - but there is no working class movement so utterly neutralised that it cannot be jolted into responding to direct ruling class assaults.

This is what the winning party (or coalition) at the British general election will face, as it attempts to move on the offensive - a sudden rise in the pitch of industrial struggle. It is, of course, impossible to see what struggles will break out when, and which ones will be strategically significant. What is clear is that a government will have to be ready for a fight.

The question is: how ready are we, the workers' movement? Our unions may not have been quite so abject before capital in the last decade as in Ireland, but there is not much in it - the sell-out CWU deal is a depressing reminder of this, and one kindly provided by one of the more militant unions in this country. The far left, meanwhile, does not seriously confront issues of political strategy, particularly where the trade unions are involved. This failure is writ large, again, in the CWU deal - the Socialist Workers Party opposed it, but somewhat farcically its highest ranking CWU member voted it through (she is now, after a quiet chat with the SWP leadership, an ex-member - and rightly so). The Socialist Party in England and Wales, meanwhile, downplays the negative aspects of the deal, inflating the (extremely) modest concessions made to the union, as part of its general attitude of quiescence to union tops.

Something is obviously wrong here with the whole approach of the far left to trade union work. It remains guided by the fetishisation of 'action' - what is needed, the argument goes, is to move the masses. The revolutionary socialists will be the most determined fighters for industrial action, and will demand it be increased in scale. The political fight against the union bureaucracy can also be won on this terrain, as leaders will be exposed as class collaborators through their lukewarm attitude.

However, this necessarily pushes the key question of serious organisation around a political programme - as opposed to this or that strike demand - into the background, if not over the horizon altogether. The whole operation inexorably ceases to have any serious grounding in the objective strategic needs of the workers' movement - it becomes basically moralistic, offering up a series of 'best fighters' to union elections. When these virtuous champions of the downtrodden come under exactly the same pressure as their rightwing counterparts, without binding political pressure from a mass party, it is to be expected that they behave like Labourites, and ultimately flake out of the far left altogether. The road to Victoria Street is paved with good intentions.

The cuts agenda, on one level, has put the mainstream parties on the political terrain the far left finds most comfortable - for many years, the thrust of the SWP and SPEW press has been about championing the bread-and-butter struggles as the first steps along the road to revolution. Now these bread-and-butter issues really are the focal point of domestic politics. Yet the two organisations - and the legions of squabbling pretenders further down the food-chain - are unlikely to find the new conditions qualitatively more propitious than the old, because the political and economic basis for labour bureaucratic treachery is far from being liquidated - not least its ability to deliver concessions, no matter how meagre, and advertise itself as having coaxed them out of recalcitrant bosses.

The defeat of Labourism and the labour bureaucracy is in the last instance a political, not a narrowly economic, struggle. Capitalism must be replaced by socialism and that will not happen through trade unionism, no matter how militant. Socialism is the victory in the battle for democracy and in short that means the rule of the working class. This demands the organisation of a class party, a Communist Party, which alone can coordinate our actions internationally and map out a strategic plan for general human freedom.