Support for 24-hour General Strike Growing, UK
200,000 March Against Austerity in London October 20
In a clear sign of the damage being inflicted on the working-class in Britain, four national trade union leaders—Matt Wrack of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), Bob Crow of the Rail, Maritime and Transport Union (RMT), Len McCluskie of UNITE, the biggest trade union in Britain, and Mark Serwotka of the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS)—called on October 20, 2012 for the preparation of a 24-hour general strike in Britain to stop the austerity program of the Tory/Liberal Democratic Coalition government. Such a strike would need to be a head-on challenge to the restrictive trade union laws introduced by Margaret Thatcher and never repealed by the bosses’ friend, Tony Blair.
This follows a motion passed at the national trade union gathering, the Trades Union Congress, in September, for such a strike to be planned. The outgoing TUC General Secretary, Brendan Barber, immediately poured cold water on the suggestion, but support from four of the most militant union leaders means that the issue will not go away. The new TUC General Secretary, Frances O’Grady—the first ever woman leader of the TUC—will face increased rank and file pressure to lead strike action to halt the savage attacks on all parts of the working-class.
The huge turnout for the national marches in London, Glasgow and Belfast surprised most trade union and Labor Party leaders. Ed Miliband, Labor leader and reformist son and poor shadow of the late Marxist academic and activist Professor Ralph Miliband, was forced to attend the October 20 rally. He was loudly booed when he warned that any future Labor government would need to make cuts in the welfare state also but these would be slower. Miliband had spelt out these plans to the Labor party conference in September when he sought to rebrand Labor as the party of One Nation. This attempt to hark back to the 19th Century Tory phrase of Disraeli—rampant capitalism and imperialist wars linked to tiny concessions to the emerging organized working-class—showed that Miliband was continuing the right-wing policies of Tony Blair’s New Labor government of 1997-2010.
Talking with delegations from across the country on the October 20 march in London, it quickly became clear that every section of the organized working-class was under severe attack. Fireworkers facing station closures and redundancies, local government workers facing privatization, health workers facing hospital closures and privatization (see Socialist Viewpoint Vol. 12, No. 3), there was an endless list which, of course, reflects the same process occurring throughout the so-called advanced capitalist world in the USA and Europe. Disabled activists, women’s groups and campaigners for social housing and local services such as libraries all joined the march. Even the TUC affiliated Prison Officer’s Association and the high-paid top government-servants, the First Division Association, were present to voice their concerns over market penetration and pension reductions. In short British workers and the most vulnerable in society are facing exactly the same challenges as the working-class in Greece, Spain, Portugal and across the world from the United States to the capitalist slave labor factories of the east.
The left in Britain is in general active in support of a general strike demand. Some of the sectarianism of the past is reducing as revolutionary socialists work together in local and national campaigns. The largest two groupings identifying themselves as Trotskyist—the Socialist party (led by Peter Taaffe) and the Socialist Workers Party (from the tradition of the late Tony Cliff) both operate in classic party building style pouring scorn on those who work within the Labor Party. The Socialist Party, in particular, has gained significant strength in some trade unions, particularly the PCS, which organizes amongst the lower paid and ranked central government civil servants. The Tories are, of course, targeting the PCS for restrictive legislation and seeking to reduce trade unions’ ability to organize through new legislation.
The main left force operating inside the Labor Party—itself a unique party, social-democratic and a loyal servant to capitalism, but based on a funding and founding base of the main trade unions—is the Labor Representation Committee (LRC). Founded in 2004, it is grouped around the most class-conscious Member of Parliament, John McDonnell. Given the exodus of many socialists from the Labor Party as a result of the expulsion of small numbers of Militant tendency supporters during the Kinnock and Blair years (and the subsequent decision of Peter Taaffe and a majority of the Militant, now the Socialist Party, to leave Labor) and the revulsion at Tony Bliar’s support for the invasion of Iraq, the left is a much smaller force than in the heyday of Tony Benn in the 1980’s. The LRC is an alliance of left and left center social democrats and revolutionary socialists with the predictable tensions this provides—currently around the issue of what local Labor Party elected councilors should do faced with cuts imposed on local government by the Tory Coalition government. A clear class line of refusing to vote for cuts and organizing the resistance is a key battleground at the LRC national conference on November 10—without a clear class position of total opposition to making cuts, the LRC would be in danger of being reduced to one of the many small magazines such as Tribune which campaign, in a half-hearted way, for a kinder capitalism.
The working-class needs a strong united left—seen to work together to battle for trade union rights, fight austerity and organize political opposition inside and outside the Labor Party. The demand for a 24-hour general strike, and its successful implementation, is the key to rebuilding class confidence and the most urgent task facing militants in Britain.
Graham Durham is an activist in UNITE and currently London Organizer of the Labor Representation Committee.
—October 28, 2012