Partly off one knee
The Trade Union Congress decision to consider the option of a general strike represents a small step forward, writes Mike Macnair
On Tuesday September 11 the Trades Union Congress voted by a large majority to pass a resolution from the Prison Officers Association titled ‘Resisting austerity measures’. The newsworthy part of the POA resolution is its final paragraph: “Congress accepts that the trade union movement must continue leading from the front against this uncaring government with a coalition of resistance, taking coordinated action where possible with far-reaching campaigns, including the consideration and practicalities of a general strike.”1
The BBC headlined this as “TUC backs ‘general strike’ motion over spending cuts”, though the story disappeared quite quickly from the front page of its news website.2 Cameron responded, in effect, by briefing The Times for a front-page story (September 12) that he plans to use the army to break any public sector strikes in the near future.
Socialist Worker’s front-page headline reads: “Strikes now can crack coalition”; while Socialist Workers Party industrial organiser Martin Smith urges: “Turn our rage into a hot autumn”.3
The Socialist Party in England and Wales organised through its National Shop Stewards’ Network front a lobby of the TUC on September 10 to call for a one-day general strike, and last week (September 5) the front-page headline of The Socialist was “March together - strike together.” Their website gives enthusiastic reports of both the lobby attended by “up to 1,000 trade unionists and anti-cuts activists” and of the TUC vote and debate.
However, the Morning Star (September 12) led with a negative report of Labour shadow chancellor Ed Balls’ speech to congress, which attracted some barracking. It is not clear whether this is for technical reasons (that the front-page headline story was settled before the vote) or it was a political choice. The ‘general strike’ story is headlined cautiously: “TUC backs call to look into general strike”.
If it is a political choice, the Morning Star’s choice is broadly correct: trade union leaders have adopted a policy which has the potential of leading to a one-day protest strike against the cuts; but another face of those same leaders is shown by Balls’ speech and responses to criticisms. Labour is the political expression of the trade union leaderships. Unison, Unite, etc, which in their majority voted for a general strike resolution, backed this Labour leadership and continue to back it. And Balls’ speech and subsequent responses to questions showed the Labour Party leadership still committed to the general framework of the capitalist consensus. This continued commitment means that the Labour leadership will undermine working class solidarity, and with it both any protest strike and strikes more generally.
Nevertheless, the general strike resolution, together with a successful motion from Unison calling for “coordinated strike action against cuts in pensions, pay and jobs this autumn”, is a real step forward.
The point is simple. The situation we are in is not, as the government tries to present it, that of a ‘reforming’ government fighting against ‘special interest’ obstacles. Nor does it consist of a series of separate attacks on different groups of workers. Rather, the Tories are applying the tag attributed to Rahm Emanuel, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste ... This crisis provides the opportunity for us to do things that you could not do before.”4 The exaggerated ‘deficit problem’ provides an excuse for the Tories, aided and abetted by the Liberal Democrats, to launch a series of systematic attacks on the working class, steer public work to cost-plus contracts for their donors, and so on.
This coordinated attack demands an equally coordinated response from the workers’ movement. It demands taking seriously the old Industrial Workers of the World slogan that “an injury to one is an injury to all”. That does not mean that the immediate task is an all-out, indefinite general strike to force the government to give in. As the British workers’ movement learned in 1926 - at high cost in terms of massively weakened unions and mass-scale victimisations - an all-out, indefinite general strike immediately poses the question of political power: that is, the overthrow of the constitutional order as a whole. If you are not ready for these tasks - and the British workers’ movement certainly is not ready for them now - you should not call such an action.
In reality, as Rosa Luxemburg pointed out in 1906 in The mass strike, broad mass strike waves which really pose the question of power are rarely, if ever, called by formal leaderships. They arise because the broad masses themselves decide they have had enough of the existing regime; some spark sets off the prairie fire, and workers in one workplace go out and picket out many of the other workplaces in the city; the action spreads from city to city, and so on.5
But this does not mean that more limited protest general strikes - one-day, two-day, and so on - should be off the agenda. Such strikes address the broad masses, union members and non-members alike, with the idea that we have common interests extending beyond immediate workplace conditions; and that we can assert our collective interests by solidarity. They can form part of a campaign, together with partial strikes for more immediate ends, other forms of demonstration, and political action of one sort and another.
It is in this sense that the POA resolution is positive. The Unison policy of coordinating strike action may be more likely to lead to large numbers out in the immediate term. But this still implicitly asserts that the strikes in question are only sectional, not common action of the working class as a class. A one-day protest general strike would precisely assert that basic class unity and solidarity.
The SWP has been using “TUC, get off your knees - call a general strike!” as a slogan. From this point of view the POA resolution for “the consideration and practicalities of a general strike” might be considered as the TUC getting partly off one knee: it is certainly neither a call for a general strike, nor even a clear call to prepare for one.
From this point of view the coverage in Socialist Worker and on SPEW’s website is excessively gung-ho and characterised by ‘official optimism’. Leon Trotsky said on several occasions that “the first principle of the Left Opposition is to tell the workers the truth” (in some places he added something along the lines of ‘however unpleasant it is’). The SWP and SPEW, both organisations of Trotskyist origin, have plainly forgotten that maxim.
The TUC resolution can only be a small step. There is mass discontent and widespread hostility to the government: witness George Osborne getting booed at the Paralympics.6 But, contrary to the line of Socialist Worker and The Socialist, there is not - yet - an enormous upwelling of anger and willingness to fight. For example, the “up to 1,000 trade unionists and anti-cuts activists” at the NSSN lobby of congress is about the size of SPEW’s own membership. Days lost through strike action were higher in 2011 than for 20 years - but still very much lower than in the 1970s and 80s.7 The National Union of Teachers ballot for strike action achieved a turnout of only 27%.8 Union membership has continued to fall this year (partly because of job losses in the public sector).9
In this respect, it is important to recognise that the TUC “represents 5.98 million members” only rather indirectly. It represents immediately the full-time officials, and indirectly the trade union activists who participate in their branches, vote in elections and so on. The activists’ links to the broad membership are more problematic. The level of practical organisation at rank-and-file level remains extremely variable and in many unions very weak; the POA and RMT, which seconded the general strike motion, represent relatively strongly organised sectors.
The small step forward consists therefore of beginning to spread the idea of general strikes as expressing general working class solidarity and attacking the political legitimacy of the anti-union laws. This idea in itself can be a part of the process of rebuilding the workers’ movement, which remains - for the moment - our primary task.
But this task faces a contradiction. Even if the TUC and the unions decide on action with the potential to rebuild general working class solidarity, the Labour Party leadership continues to set its face against such idea - as Balls’ speech demonstrated.
His speech10 was very much ‘future chancellor’ stuff. First we get an ‘our great movement’ story of congratulations to TUC leaders. Next comes the tale of the Tories messing up the economy. On this issue he begins by associating himself with the TUC: Brendan Barber “called it right”, and “I am proud to say that with Ed Miliband and my shadow cabinet colleagues we have stood side by side with you and argued and campaigned and marched to make the case for the economic alternative.”
The Tories “help out a privileged few”, while the government is “using the cover of deficit reduction to mount a full-scale assault on our public services and those who work in them”. This policy has damaged the economy, and its effect is that - first hint of what is to come - “I very much fear that the result will be an economy more prone to inflationary pressures when the recovery finally comes”: code, for anyone who remembers the 1970s, for the proposition that a Labour government would attempt to hold wages down.
He says to the general secretaries: “We understand that you need action now - a change of course and a plan for jobs and growth. The fact is, you and your members cannot just sit back and wait for a Labour government.” But the answer he gives is Labour’s five immediate demands on government: a bank bonus tax; bringing forward construction projects; a reversal of the VAT rise; a temporary cut in VAT on home improvements; a one-year national insurance tax break for small firms. It is not strikes:
“I am sure that the last thing the vast majority of trade union members want, at a time of such uncertainty, is strikes over the coming months. It is not what we want. It is not what the public wants either. But when coalition ministers warn that they will have to act and legislate if we see a return to the unrest of the 1980s, what we are really seeing is Tories itching to provoke a row about strikes so they can blame the stalling recovery on trade union members and working people.”
Dampening expectations continues when he moves to the tasks of the next Labour government:
“Congress, we know now that it will fall to the next Labour government to clear up George Osborne’s economic mess. And it’s going to be hard ... Which is why - however difficult this is for me, for some of my colleagues and for our wider supporters - when we don’t know what we will inherit, we cannot make any commitments now that the next Labour government will be able to reverse particular tax rises or spending cuts ... there will be disappointments and difficult decisions from which we will not flinch.
“Because the question the public will ask is: who can I trust? Who will have the discipline and the strength to take tough decisions which will be needed? ... But a radical plan to kick-start our recovery, put jobs first and transform our economy will only be possible if we can win the trust of the British people that our plan is credible.”
“Credible” is code for ‘acceptable to capital’. And the positive policy proposals which follow are all about British nationalism and strengthening British capital.
It is, then, unsurprising that Balls faced sharply hostile questioning. The ‘We’re with you’ material is almost completely a token gesture. This is mostly a speech addressed to capital and the media, to reassure them that Labour will be a safe pair of hands. In fact Balls’ speech was accompanied by private lobbying of TUC leaders against strikes from Ed Miliband, immediately ‘briefed’ to the press (The Independent September 11).
Right now, Labour is riding high in the polls, with around a 10% lead over the Tories.11 Miliband and Balls presumably draw the conclusion that they are correct to maintain the policy of holding to the right in the hope that the government will mess things up badly enough for sufficient sections of capital, and hence of the capitalist media, to back Labour in 2014.12
Whether this is a correct judgment or not is open to serious question. Assuming a general election in 2014, we are now at the mid-term and the government should be at a low point in the polls. The Lib Dems are trapped: their best hope is to hang on. In this situation, Balls offers ... vague promises of tinkering at the edges with current Tory policies, and British nationalism - which the Tories can pretty much always do better than Labour. At most he is offering a return to the Brown government. It is not clear that this will be enough to propel Labour to victory in 2014.
The policy of the Con-Dem government is one of class war against the working class. It is more gradual in its operation than it might have been: we are not immediately facing the sort of descent into the abyss that is threatening Greece.
Nonetheless, in this situation the central task facing the workers’ movement is the need to rebuild itself on the basis of class solidarity. Strikes can play a valuable role in that process, but they can also be demoralising when they do not immediately achieve results. The SWP’s suggestion that “Strikes now can crack coalition” is very close to its similar suggestions in winter 2010 that the student movement could defeat the rise in fees and trigger the fall of the government: hype of a sort which will naturally produce demoralisation.
Rebuilding the movement on the basis of class solidarity will not be simple. It requires not only strikes and demonstrations, and patient work at the base, but also systematic political work to delegitimise the government’s claims to represent “the public” and the judges’ claim to stand above politics, routinely deployed against strikers.
This political work is work not for trade unions, or even for the TUC, but for a political party. It is plain that it will not be done by, or with, the Labour leadership, but against it (whether inside or outside the Labour Party). It is also plain that it will not be done by the sort of ‘party’ which merely idolises strikes and demonstrations, like the SWP and SPEW on their present political course. The TUC’s small step forward, and Balls’ speech, should thus remind us yet again that what we need is to get beyond a Labour left which clings to its right, and a splintered and ineffective far left, to a real, if initially minority, Communist Party.
1. The TUC motions are available at www.tuc.org.uk/the_tuc/tuc-21349-f0.pdf.
3. Socialist Worker September 15.
6. The Guardian September 3.
8. The Guardian September 7.
11. http://ukpollingreport.co.uk/ - 13% as at September 12, though figures in other polls have been significantly lower.
12. Clearly argued, for example, in Ben Jackson’s and Gregg McClymont’s 2011 pamphlet, Cameron’s trap (www.policy-network.net/publications/4113/Camerons-Trap).