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Wave of Strikes Ahead as British Workers Fight Back

By Roger Silverman - Facts for Working People, June 28, 2022

A new mood is sweeping Britain. The magnificent TUC march last week marked the re-entry of the working class back to the forefront of British history. A wave of protest has begun, with strikes of railways, airport ground staff, communications workers, nurses, GPs, even barristers…

Britain is ruled by a regime which drunkenly staggers from one hollow theatrical gesture to the next – “getting Brexit done” (at punitive cost), tearing up the Northern Ireland protocol, blocking all legal routes to asylum, deporting migrants to Rwanda, scrapping the Human Rights Act … and now hoping to smash a resurgent trade union resistance and tame the work force.

An all-out class war is on the cards. Legislation is in the pipeline allowing the wholesale use of agency workers – scabs – to break strikes – something that even Thatcher had never dared. Johnson and his faction of the ruling class are consciously plotting an all-out confrontation. A general strike is in the air – a deliberate provocation, just as in 1926.

It’s a fatal miscalculation. Then the ruling class could mobilise a mass strikebreaking force of jolly jingoistic volunteers to wave the flag and keep Britannia moving. Where will they find such an army now? Then they could recruit from a pool of professionals, middle class and youth. Today the “middle class” – previously privileged strata, but now squeezed by the monopolies or driven into opposition – are now among the most militant strikers. And the youth are overwhelmingly in rebellion.

While Johnson & Co. are desperately gambling on whipping up commuter resentment, a clear 58% today – almost two-thirds – support the RMT strike.

The working class is regathering its forces. It may be diminished in industrial concentration, but it is regaining cohesion. Society is becoming not less but MORE proletarianised.

After all, which were the two biggest and longest national strikes in Britain in recent years? Those of the university lecturers and the hospital doctors. Both these workforces were previously quintessentially “middle-class”; now they’re highly organised and highly combative. Teachers are among the best organised workers, and now GPs are threatening to strike.

And at the other end of the spectrum too, new unions are springing up among what was previously a near-enslaved “underclass”: the millions of casualised fast-food workers, couriers, and office cleaners who now make up a majority of Britain’s work force.

Yes, trade union membership has halved since the 1970s; but over the last four years it has steadily grown – by 400,000, to a total of 6.6 million. Even before this new upsurge, trade union membership had risen by 120,000 in the last year. Where Thatcher thought she had exorcised the spectre of trade unionism, now it’s beginning to haunt her successors. Such is the deeply ingrained class consciousness of the population over the generations.

And what about the youth? In 1926 college kids were queuing up for the fun of rallying round the flag and driving buses and trucks. Can we imagine students today flocking to volunteer as scabs? Take the opinion polls. Almost incredibly, among young people 70% explicitly favour socialism.

There was a surge in youth votes for Labour in 2017. And even in 2019, among 18-24 year-olds Labour had a massive lead over the Tories of 43%. The Institute of Economic Affairs, a right-wing institution, spells out what this means: “Younger people really do quite consistently express hostility to capitalism, and positive views of socialist alternatives… These attitudes may be a preview of mainstream opinion in Britain tomorrow.”

But isn’t the working class weaker now, with the decay of heavy industry? Let’s see… A survey in 1983 found that 60% of the population classified themselves as working-class. That was before Thatcher’s shutdown of the mines and the collapse of most of heavy industry – car plants, steel works, shipyards. At that time 60% of the population said: we are working-class.

And today, forty years later? The figure is exactly the same! A majority of people – again, 60% - still identify as working class. Just under half of those people in jobs classified as managerial and professional consider themselves working-class. In other words, the proportion who consider themselves working class has not changed since 1983.

But what about the collapse of the Labour vote in 2019, under Corbyn? Another myth! True, it was a setback compared to 2017 – Labour’s best ever surge in votes, apart from Scotland. But how do you measure a party’s popularity? By the number of people who vote for it! And by that measure, 2019 was Labour’s second best result since 2001 (second only to 2017): better than under Miliband, Brown, or even Blair in 2005 when Labour won. 

There has been a setback for the organized left, due to the pusillanimity and confusion of its more prominent leaders; but this is just a temporary pause for regroupment. The attacks of the ruling class are focusing resistance. That is because average real wages are falling at their fastest rate for over 20 years: equivalent to a loss of £26 a week for the average worker.

Even before the new crisis of “stagflation” and the cost-of-living crisis, it had been calculated that average household disposable incomes will have suffered a catastrophic drop of 42% over the two decades following the 2008 crash. The decline of Britain’s production per person has meant a per capita loss of £6,700. Brexit has already cost the loss of a projected annual average increase of £870 in the average family’s cost of living, plus another £472 per annum loss of income due to damaged competitiveness. Exports to the EU will have been cut by 38% by 2030, plus a further 16% decline due to forgoing further integration. Since the referendum, GDP per capita has fallen by 4%, while that of the EU has risen by 15%.

Record numbers of employed workers are claiming Universal Credit and using food banks. In London, the drop in pay equals £750 per year. Average public sector pay is rising by 1.5%, while inflation is due to reach 11% soon. 

Johnson was until recently boasting of a predicted “high-wage high-productivity economy”; now he warns against a “wage-price spiral”. The pound is rapidly depreciating against the dollar and the euro, by 12% so far. Britain has the lowest predicted growth – zero per cent – of all the world’s major economies except Russia.

BUT… there are record job vacancies (1.3 million). In 2020, there were four applicants per job vacancy; now, at best one. And the combination of soaring inflation and labour shortages means just one thing: strikes! That’s why we’re entering a new era of class struggle in Britain.

True, Britain is now one of the most deindustrialised countries in Europe. Its industrial production is now lower per capita than not only Germany and France, but the Czech Republic and Slovenia. Once the “workshop of the world”, enjoying rule over “an empire on which the sun never sets”, Britain is rapidly losing even its last remaining status as a global financial centre. It’s a byword now for laundered cash shovelled into property speculation, asset stripping, black money, parasitical and outright criminal activity. The symbol of British capitalism is no longer the shipyards and the steel foundries, nor even the stock exchange and the City of London, but the tower blocks of empty luxury flats, built solely as depositories of the world’s black money, mocking the homeless sleeping in their shadow on the streets.

Along with Britain’s decay, a new faction has displaced the old establishment. Over the centuries since the end of the English civil war, behind a permanent royal façade, political power had shifted from the aristocracy to industry to finance. Johnson has ruthlessly squashed the remnants of the old patrician establishment, the captains of industry and the banks. The party which ruled England for 350 years has fallen into the clutches of a bunch of property speculators and hedge fund managers. This explains the spasms currently convulsing the Tory Party.

Following the collapse of the British Empire has come the disintegration of the United Kingdom itself. It is just one referendum away from losing Scotland. And with Sinn Fein likely soon to prevail in Ireland both North and South, before long Northern Ireland can be expected over time to conclude some kind of accommodation, if not a straight reunification deal, with the Irish Republic.

“Great Britain” could soon no longer exist, let alone constitute a “United Kingdom”: instead, just England and (perhaps) Wales would remain, leaving it an offshore island off the European mainland, a tourist spot for sightseers visiting such quaint ancient relics as the Tower of London and Shakespeare’s birthplace, perhaps also taking in the whisky stills of its neighbouring country Scotland in a double bill.

The story is symbolized in the scandals of the monarchy. These are not a trivial diversionary soap-opera. They foreshadow the demise of the dynasty itself. Where the current sovereign is still held in some last lingering reverence, once her reign comes to an end its surviving members – the unforgiven Charles and Camilla, the disgraced Andrew, the already abdicated Harry – will hold no such charisma.

There is a brilliant history of the years preceding the First World War called The Strange Death of Liberal England. The ruling party today is the new face of UKIP and the Brexit Party. They have split the oldest and most stable political party in Europe to bring about what we might call “the strange death of Conservative England”. 

But today we are witnessing the strange death of both the two main parties, which are each facing existential crises. The Labour Party is in the throes of a historic and long-overdue split, inflicted with ruthless determination by one side and throwing the other temporarily into a state of confusion and disarray, with unremitting pressure building up for a delayed explosion. It is up to now a one-sided split, but none the less systematic and deadly for all that. The left is being ruthlessly and systematically driven out.

Starmer has already concluded a secret pact with the Lib Dems – something exposed by the two recent by-elections. In Tiverton, Labour had come second in 2019… but nevertheless stood aside in the by-election to allow the Lib Dems to take the seat. The next election will almost certainly bring to power a Lib/Lab coalition, leading very probably later to a full-scale merger. And that will give a gigantic impetus towards the creation of a new mass socialist party based on a revived trade union movement.

Inevitably, irrevocably, a new explosion of resistance and revolution is coming. Still nothing moves without the consent of the working class. And today the workers are about to teach the Tories that lesson!

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