Bayonet Bayonet. Photo: Cassowary Colorizations / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Lindsey German on war, the labour movement and Tory corruption

War is the continuation of politics by other means, as the Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz famously said. We can see this very clearly over the war in Ukraine. War doesn’t result in a suspension of normal politics, but an acceleration of certain trends and tendencies, while at the same time certain other political strands face setbacks or defeats. In particular, war – at least in its early stages – tends to favour those on the right, the supporters of militarism and empire, who see in the war the possibility of strengthening their political clout and who act accordingly.  

It is also a time when the protagonists can move to strengthen their own domestic positions and weaken democratic opposition. We have seen this with the rulers of both Russia and Ukraine, where Putin has openly repressed the anti-war movement and oppositionists, while Zelensky has banned many trade unions and attacked the left.   

Here in Britain, there is a huge state and media backed effort to support more military spending, the strengthening of Nato, and a government which has led the way in belligerence and in scuppering any possibility of peace. It has also tried to use the war in the most scurrilous way – blaming the cost-of-living crisis on Putin, whereas it is clear that food and energy prices were rising before the war, saying that striking nurses are playing into Putin’s hands, and using the conflict to try to increase military spending which is already the highest in Europe.

The government is now faced with its biggest working-class fightback for more than three decades. On 1 February around half a million trade unionists will go on strike across Britain to demand a pay rise and in defence of working conditions. It will do everything it can to lie, distort, and deceive over the real issues and will use the war to try to justify its failure to fund health and education. The questions of war and peace, imperialism and military adventure cannot be separated from issues of austerity and wage restraint.

This was a recurring point made at the Stop the War trade union conference ‘The World at War: a trade union issue’ which took place in London on Saturday. In Britain, one of the world’s biggest arms spenders, the oldest imperial power, and possessor of nuclear weapons, international issues are domestic issues and not something separate. The trade unions have a long history of campaigning for peace and against war. When Stop the War Coalition was formed in 2001, it quickly gained the support of several key unions in its opposition to the ‘war on terror’. With the present war, trade union opinion is much more divided, with sections of the left arguing for governments to send more arms to Ukraine and totally opposed to peace talks.

This has allowed the right of the labour movement to push their reactionary politics. It is hard to imagine the motion passed at last year’s TUC, which actually calls for an increase in ‘defence’ spending, being supported without the background of the Ukraine war. Likewise, Keir Starmer’s diktat that Labour MPs could not support Stop the War, which means shamefully that no Labour MP will join a Stop the War platform or criticise Nato, could not have happened without the background of war. Since then, Starmer has pressed home his advantage, witch-hunting those on the left and demanding loyalty to every aspect of the British imperialist project.

Backing for the war and for the big increase in arms, including battle tanks and other heavy weaponry, is now causing political ructions across Europe. Right wing governments are pressing their advantage to weaken the left, and the left itself is divided. In Germany, the Greens are some of the most belligerent and putting pressure on the Social Democrats, with whom they are in government, to send Leopard tanks to Ukraine, and to allow others, like Poland, to send the German-made tanks as well. But many Germans, aware of their own history, are extremely reluctant to do so. In Denmark, the government is proposing scrapping a public holiday in order to raise defence spending – and facing mass opposition from trade unions and churches alike.

Shamefully, the left and liberals are some of the most pro-war in demanding more. Simon Tisdall in the Observer, in the latest of his gung ho column, can even state that ‘Fears of an escalating, even nuclear conflict, most often expressed by Germany’s government, are daily trumped by the horror of Putin’s relentless butchery.’ No, nuclear conflict would trump anything we have seen in this war.

Supporting our own ruling class over war weakens the working-class movement at home. That’s why we committed to doing everything to overturn the TUC motion, which in effect endorses cuts in other much more vital areas of public spending such as health and local government. It’s also why the many trade unionists who spoke will all be striking or supporting the strikers on 1 February but will also be raising issues of war and peace on the picket lines and demos.

Several speakers at the conference referred to the Scottish socialist John Maclean’s quote that a bayonet is a weapon with a worker on both ends. Working class people have nothing to gain from imperialist war, and we should not support either Russia’s invasion or Nato’s proxy war in Ukraine.

Tory corruption looks like a lot more than carelessness

There is an overwhelming stench emanating from the Tory government and its friends as it proves to be the most corrupt in living memory. Nadhim Zahawi was investigated when Chancellor over tax amounting to millions of pounds and had to pay a penalty – the oversight of which he has put down to ‘carelessness’. The BBC chair, Richard Sharp, apparently helped arrange a loan of £800,000 for Boris Johnson just before he was recommended for the job by – guess who? This is on top of all the scandals during Covid lockdowns, all the Tory mates given contracts for PPE. The ‘levelling up’ fund has been revealed as benefiting constituencies including that of the prime minister Rishi Sunak in well-heeled north Yorkshire, as well as many held by Tories in better-off areas.

This is a vile and entitled government which has no shame. While it lines its pockets, it is continuing to attack workers. The anti-trade union laws, which will demand minimum service guarantees, are going through parliament and will amount to forcing workers to continue working when they do not want to do so. This will amount to the biggest state interference in the free movement of labour since the Second World War. It is in direct response to the present strike wave and is a completely undemocratic attempt to prevent those exercising their fundamental right to withdraw their labour.

It must be opposed in parliament, but it is unlikely to be defeated there. The present strike wave is growing, with groups as diverse as junior doctors and firefighters balloting to join those already taking action. 1 February needs to be a huge show of strength on picket lines and protests across the country. 15 March, Budget Day, needs to be even bigger. But above all we need a fighting political trade unionism, which campaigns against our government on domestic and international issues, and which coordinates action not just to defend our rights but to bring the Tories down.

This week: I will be campaigning to make next week’s strike day a success, speaking at the Latin America conference on Saturday, celebrating Burns night on Wednesday in honour of the Scottish poet who has inspired many socialists:

‘For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
It’s comin yet for a’ that,
That Man to Man the warld o’er
Shall brithers be for a’ that.’

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Lindsey German

As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.

Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.