As Britain keeps sinking deeper into crisis, growing numbers of workers have engaged in strike actions at a level unseen in decades. Since the summer, every passing month has witnessed new layers of workers, fed up with unbearable conditions, joining the strike wave, notably with NHS strikes starting in December and the recent announcement of upcoming strikes by hundreds of thousands of teachers. As the crisis deepens, the need to fight is dire. However, no one on the left and in the trade unions seems keen to confront the inconvenient, 10,000-pound elephant in the room. That is, that despite tremendous potential and months of hard struggle, not a single union has achieved significant gains. The Tories are on life support and while the strikes might annoy them, they have not forced them to concede anything. Something is off in the British workers movement, and anyone wishing to advance its cause better get to the bottom of this.
What has happened since September is that the strike wave might still be growing in sheer numbers, but it has stopped growing in force and impetus — like a wave that keeps extending horizontally but whose strength and reach remains the same. It washes the shore right up to the government’s feet but leaves them dry.
Yet not that long ago, the Tory government was up to its neck in the water, engulfed by crisis after crisis. With the downfall of Boris Johnson followed by the debacle of Liz Truss, the government was in a catastrophe of its own making. But since then, Sunak has had the space to bring back a semblance of stability. For sure his position is precarious. He sits atop a party riddled with factions, all wishing to cut each other’s throats, and he is at the helm of a country in complete shambles. But so far, he remains standing, despite the multiplicity of strikes. In fact, Sunak seems more worried about his own party than the trade unions.
Meanwhile, the pressure on working people keeps increasing. The cost-of-living crisis is destroying the standard of living of the working and middle classes at an extremely rapid pace. The NHS is collapsing before everyone’s eyes, together with other public services. Worries about the future are compounded by a growing sentiment that the fabric of the country is disintegrating. These are the powerful forces that have compelled the trade unions into motion after decades of drowsiness and pushed the union leaders into action. But what action? The trade union tops, from the RMT to the CWU to the RCN, have organised their strikes isolated from one another and limited to a few single days at a time. The strikes are organised in such a way as to cause minimal disruption, not to provoke a major crisis for the government and force it to capitulate. Every new union entering the wave does it on this impotent model.
As a result, the government and the trade unions are in a bind, a “phoney war” in which neither side is moving decisively against the other. One can picture a leaky raft, heading towards a storm brewing on the horizon. The government and the trade union tops sit on opposing ends, with no one steering. But neither is going for the paddle, both worried that any sudden movement would capsize the whole thing.
The government is under pressure to do something, but it is too weak to make a real move to crush the unions. It is mainly seeking to gain time and hoping that, somehow, their situation will get better. Sunak is trying to pass a new draconian anti-union law, and as sinister and dangerous as this is, he is mainly testing the waters to see what the reaction from his own party and from the trade unions will be.
As for the trade union leaders, they are pursuing the same endless strategy of single-day strikes, doing just enough not to be accused of inaction by their members while fully aware that this will not put the bosses and their government up against the wall. The TUC has announced a day of action on 1 February in protest against the proposed anti-union law, and while some unions like the NEU will strike, this promises to be another parade that will not fundamentally alter the situation. Instead of mounting a real fightback to smash the law, the trade union tops have placed their hopes in the courts and waiting for a Labour government to repeal it.
Meanwhile, the Labour Party is waiting on the sidelines. They are opposing both sides, hoping that no one makes a sudden move, that the cruise to the next election will not be too rocky and that when they get thrown the hot potato of government, things will be less bleak. Sir Keir Starmer might claim to be an atheist, but he is living on a prayer.
So, what needs to be done? For anyone who can think, it is obvious that this “phoney war” cannot last forever. The international instability and the worsening situation of the country constantly raise the stakes and the pressure on both the union leaders and the government. Something, somewhere, must break. The question is: who will rock the boat first?
If one thing is certain, it is that sooner or later the ruling class must try to take back the initiative and shatter the status quo. British capitalism is falling behind and needs some drastic measures to stay afloat. The international situation is also extremely unstable, and Britain’s position in it is very weak. Another major economic shock will be devastating.
To a certain degree, it is obvious what the workers movement must do. To start to resolve the crisis in the interests of the whole working class, it must move first. The number of strikes shows that workers are ready to fight. The government is weak, divided and discredited. A little kick is all this anti-working-class cartel needs to fall. A bold offensive against the government would be the best way to ensure the maximum concessions now. It would shift the whole balance in favour of the working class and bring it to the fore as the decisive factor in society. That would open a whole new realm of possibilities, including to expose how the Labour Party tops — both right and left — are enemies of the working class.
What is preventing this is precisely the current leadership of the trade unions, which is terrified of doing anything that could further destabilise the already shaky situation. In a nutshell, the union tops’ impotent methods flow from their refusal to challenge British capitalism, whose decomposition has been accelerated by the current world crisis.
British capitalism: a sinking ship
To have a correct orientation in this crisis, workers must understand its root cause. All the liberals, Labourites and even “socialists” are pointing in the same direction: “twelve years of Tory rule”. It is obvious that the Tories have done everything they could to bleed the country dry. But to point to them as the source of the problem is in fact a deception which disarms the workers movement. Its immediate purpose is to help bring back a Labour government. It conveniently disappears that it was 13 years of Labour rule, with austerity, privatisations and attacks against the working class that paved the way for “twelve years of Tory rule”.
More fundamentally, that notion conceals the real source of the crisis and the fundamental problem: British capitalism’s continuous decline on the world scene for some 150 years. This is the central problem which any government, Tory or Labour, is always confronted with. It is impossible to make any sense of the current situation and of the recent political, economic and social crises unless one sees them from the standpoint of the world situation and Britain’s continuously declining position in it. It is only from this viewpoint that one can get a clear picture of the situation and foresee its development.
Increasingly unable to compete with the US and with other European powers, Britain was elbowed out of its position as the dominant world power at the turn of the last century and went on to lose its empire after the Second World War. The liquidation of Britain’s industrial base, the massive privatisations and the crushing of the trade unions, for which Thatcher is famous, were all aimed at slowing Britain’s decline. The result has been the devastation of whole regions, from the Midlands to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, for the good of London speculators, rentiers and bankers. This is now what most of the British capitalist class consists of.
The parasitic finance-based, “coupon-clipper” character of the British bourgeoisie makes it particularly vulnerable to international economic shocks. The 2008 crisis hit Britain exceptionally hard, which in turn led Labour and the Tories to undertake savage austerity and massive bailouts to barely keep the economy afloat. With an economy based on finance, a hollowed-out industrial base and dependent on imports, the result has been years of low growth, low investment, extremely low productivity and an explosion of the public debt, causing Britain to steadily fall back behind its European competitors.
Brexit was yet another failed attempt by a wing of the ruling class to strengthen Britain’s position in the world. From the standpoint of working people, it was entirely correct to vote “leave” and stick it to the EU bosses and the liberal establishment. Corbyn’s campaign for “remain” was a total betrayal from which he never recovered. But in the absence of a working-class pole which could have used the governmental crises to struggle against the EU, against British imperialism and against all wings of the ruling class — both pro- and anti-EU — any Brexit deal was bound to worsen working people’s conditions.
With all these underlying issues, the combined shocks of the pandemic followed by the Ukraine war came as devastating blows. Among the G7, Britain is the only country whose economy is still smaller than in early 2020, and it also faces the worst economic forecast, with double-digit inflation and a dramatic squeeze in living standards. This all threatens to pull the country down to the level of Spain or Poland.
As a result, Britain has entered a period of protracted crisis and struggle. The current state of British capitalism is not tenable. The capitalists know it and won’t let the country slip to a third-rate status without doing something. They need to find ways to stimulate growth, productivity and investment, which can be done only in two ways. The first is to increase Britain’s share of the pillage of Asia, Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe. Since Britain ceased to play an independent role on the world scene long ago, its ability to do this depends entirely on its good relations with the real master of the world: the US. This explains in large part why, since the start of the Ukraine war, the British ruling class has been the most rabidly pro-Ukraine, pro-NATO and warmongering of all. By being more Catholic than the Pope, Britain’s rulers hope that the US might throw them a bone.
The second way is to further drive down the standard of living of the British working class and of the lower sections of the middle class, who might not be able to enjoy a “first world lifestyle” for very long. Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng’s September mini-budget was a first, stillborn attempt to do this. They sought to do two things at the same time: massive tax cuts and a massive increase in spending, partly in the hope of satisfying all wings of the Tories. The effect was akin to slamming down the accelerator and the brake at the same time, infuriating everyone and spurring the financial markets to throw them out of the driver’s seat.
Thus, fewer options are open to the ruling class. Their preferred tool is always a strong Tory government, but this is unlikely for now. The alternative is a Labour government which could co-opt the trade union bureaucracy and undertake the task of attacking the working class, doing what the Tories are unable to do now. Starmer has positioned himself to be this candidate by crushing any whiff of Corbynism in his party and making clear his government will be staunchly anti-worker and pro-business. With this picture in mind, it becomes clearer that blaming “twelve years of Tory rule” and pushing the notion that Labour would be a “lesser evil” simply amounts to leading workers to the slaughter through the gate the capitalist enemy is showing them.
When “Britannia ruled the waves”, it could easily prop up its system with the gigantic resources plundered from its worldwide empire. Fast-forward to the end of the Second World War, and Britain had declined to such a level that it had to liquidate its empire and borrow huge sums from the US to bail out its economy through massive state intervention. This was the real content of the “socialism” of the Attlee government, so dear to all left Labourites. Since then, British imperialism has mortgaged the whole house for the benefit of the City and US-dominated finance capital. Each new convulsion of British imperialism in decline only makes more dire the need to rid the earth of the British capitalist class. This is the historical task of the British working class that it must carry out for its own sake, for the sake of all the oppressed peoples and for the sake of humanity itself.
Only the expropriation of the parasitic capitalist class of rentiers and speculators and their replacement with the rule of the working class can solve the crisis of this country in a progressive direction. To boost productivity and growth and to provide decent jobs to millions requires wielding the resources of the country in a planned, collectivised economy. To raise the standard of living requires eliminating all speculation, price-gouging and sky-rocketing rents and seizing the properties of all big landowners. To provide good health and social services requires seizing huge amounts of wealth. To strike a blow at the whole international system of imperialist oppression, which breeds only plunder and wars, the financial parasites of the City must be expropriated. It is obviously not a matter of a few bills to be voted in the ruling class’s Parliament that we are speaking of, but of workers running the country.
To advance in this direction, the decisive element is leadership. The capitalist enemy is already at work. The ridiculous and sinister carnival that is the Tory Party internal struggles represents the ruling class trying to find a way out. As the situation worsens, their solutions will only become more reactionary. The working class must engage now in its own process of selecting a determined and capable leadership which can break the status quo in its favour and carry its interests forward. As the bourgeoisie dreams of another “Iron Lady”, there is only one tool strong enough to match this, tested and proven in the land of Russia, 1917: a Bolshevik party.
Trade unions and the bureaucracy
If the Tories are on life support, and a little kick is all they need to make them go, why then are the current union leaders refusing to deliver the blow? This is a valid question that all workers should pose to their union leaders, but they can only expect lame excuses in response. The reason lies in the nature of the trade union bureaucracy.
The eruption of any major crisis always brings to the fore leaders forged by the preceding period. The last three decades have been marked by the extreme weakness and continuing decline of the trade unions, over which the shadow of the crushing of the miners strike loomed. It is in this school that people like Mick Lynch (RMT), Sharon Graham (Unite), Dave Ward (CWU), Pat Cullen (RCN) and others currently leading the unions were trained. Anyone who thinks they are the ones pushing the current strike wave is looking at things upside down. It is the powerful forces coming from the working-class base of the unions which are lifting these utterly inadequate people to the top of the wave and forcing them into action.
At the opening of a new period of shocks and crisis which calls for bold and decisive actions, they are leading the strikes with all the conservative baggage and losing methods of the past period. They are acting not as a motor force but as a brake on the class struggle.
Generally, their political worldview is a mix of traditional Labourite politics and Blairite social liberalism. Parliament reigns supreme in political matters. Strikes are not weapons in the class struggle but are simply one element in the slow and gradual process of “good policy-making” guided by “common sense”. They are no fans of Starmer, but they will still vote for him because what else can they do? The idea of a decisive showdown between the trade unions and the government is something they hate like the plague. Such a confrontation would mean defying the anti-union laws, confronting the full force of the state and losing all respectability in Labour Party circles. Any move in this direction would threaten to unleash forces that would soon overwhelm them, and their entire careers have been built on refusing to engage in anything of the sort. The recent months have amply demonstrated this.
Back in August, the strike wave was rising together with political turmoil, exemplified by both the downfall of Boris Johnson and the widely popular but impotent Enough is Enough campaign. Then, suddenly, the Queen died and Lynch, Ward & Co immediately cancelled all strike actions. Apart from breaking the whole momentum of the summer, this signalled clearly to the ruling class that their loyalties were first and foremost to King and Country, not to the working class.
Then came the downfall of Liz Truss, which showed the depth of crisis in the ruling class. That this bunch of lunatics were overthrown by the financial markets and Truss’s own backbenchers and not by a mass upsurge of working-class struggle is a total condemnation of the leadership of the working class. The enemy was at its weakest and the union tops did nothing. As Starmer rose in the polls and looked certain to form the next government, they pulled the plug on the Enough is Enough campaign, which now exists only as an empty shell on social media. All these events are key to understanding the current stage of the struggle. The union tops sent clear signals to the ruling class that they would carry the strikes in a framework totally compatible with the stability of British capitalism.
So, what is holding back British society is not the conservatism of its ruling class — they ceased to play a progressive role long ago — but the conservatism of the leaders of the workers movement. It is this straitjacket which is holding back a real struggle by the working class for its immediate interests and thus holding back the only force which can solve the crisis of British society in a progressive direction. The task of socialists is to forge militant caucuses in the unions to wage the struggle against these bureaucrats and replace them, not with a more leftist version of the same thing but with a leadership that will win the class struggle. That is, a leadership which will organise the coming battles with the understanding that the oppressed class must topple the oppressor. Only in this way can the workers movement be victorious.
“Socialist” lawyers for the bureaucracy
As ironic as it might be, the most immediate obstacle to organising a struggle inside the trade unions and building a socialist leadership of the workers movement is in fact…all the other socialist groups. The Communist Party, the Socialist Party (SP), the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), Socialist Appeal etc either openly hail the current treacherous, anti-socialist bureaucrats or hope to pressure them through appeals while basing their entire strategy on leaving their leadership intact.
Socialist Appeal and the Socialist Party are craven in their support to a wing of the bureaucracy. They are both openly campaigning for Sharon Graham in Unite, uncritically hailing her “fighting stance” (SP’s The Socialist, 11 January) and “vision for Unite” Socialist Appeal, 11 January), and their press contains nothing but praise for Mick Lynch. For them, the strike wave has been an uninterrupted, incremental line of success and the differences they might have with the union leaders are over tactical considerations — when to strike, what to do on 1 February etc. Their newspapers might call on a weekly basis to “kick out the Tories” but they are propping up union bureaucrats who are opposed to doing precisely that! Mick Lynch has been crystal clear multiple times on this matter, saying: “We’re not trying to bring down the government” (leftfootforward.org, 6 January).
The SWP appears to be the most critical of the union tops. They too talk about “socialism” and even “revolution” but their policy in the trade unions is based on explicitly rejecting a fight for the unions to be led by socialists! They write: “There is also a battle inside the strikes about what strategy to adopt. We are seeing inspiring strikes under wholly inadequate leadership” (Socialist Worker, 13 December 2022). So far, this is a good diagnosis of the problem. What does the SWP propose to do? The same article gives their standard answer: “Rank and file workers need to organise their own initiatives, and to push their leaders into more action.” So, the SWP knows that the leadership is “wholly inadequate” but wilfully refuses to fight to replace it! If a tool is “wholly inadequate” to perform a task, any good worker knows that they need a different tool, and that applying “more pressure” is often how one gets injured. Same goes in politics. The SWP’s strategy is a capitulation to the trade union bureaucracy and a bankrupt programme ensuring that the unions will never be led by socialist workers!
The losing strategy of the union tops is becoming more and more obvious to militant workers, and the next period will see left-wing motion developing inside the trade unions, pushing against the old bureaucratic apparatus. The open bloc of all “socialist” groups with the current union bureaucracy is thus criminal, providing a useful left cover for these very bureaucrats and obstructing the necessary process of renewing the unions’ leadership on a fundamentally different basis.
Any serious revolutionary who is a member of one of the current various “socialist” groups must struggle in their own ranks, starting by asking the simple question: How can we call ourselves socialists if we support people who are hell bent on propping up the stability of the British ruling class? That very question touches the nub of the problem.
The great Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky, almost 100 years ago, posed this very problem in a different situation, but his insight reads like it was written yesterday. The year before the TUC leaders sold out the 1926 General Strike, Trotsky wrote: