Rishi Sunak and Nadhim Zahawi at Westminster, May 2022. Photo: Number 10/ Tim Hammond Rishi Sunak and Nadhim Zahawi at Westminster, May 2022. Photo: Number 10/ Tim Hammond

Lindsey German on an intensifying class war and what that means for our side

The response of the Tory government, faced with a wave of industrial action unprecedented in Britain for a generation, is to veto any attempts at settlement, introduce new anti-union legislation, and ramp up attacks on those taking action. The last week has seen this go into overdrive, starting with Nadhim Zahawi’s considered view that nurses going on strike would play into the hands of Vladimir Putin, through accusations that the RMT was cancelling Xmas, and then outrage that the civil servants in the border force were using the busiest time of year to make their strike action more effective. Rishi Sunak thinks he will appease his backbenchers and gain political stature by taking a hard line.

Sunak deliberately chose a visit to RAF Coningsby to opine against a background of fighter jets that settling public sector pay demands would cost every household £1,000 a year in taxes. This is a lie – most estimates put the figure far lower, and that’s before you take into account that public sector workers pay tax and national insurance on any pay rise. But even if you did accept Sunak’s dodgy figures (£28 billion) this is almost equal to the planned spending on new fighter jets (£25 billion) announced by him on the same day.

If we had any doubts about government priorities, the largesse attached to military spending is matched by a desire to make life as easy as possible for the rich. On the same day chancellor Jeremy Hunt (estimated worth £14 million) has declared a bonfire of regulations put in place during the financial crash of 2008 which aimed to put some restrictions on how banks could behave. They include lifting of the cap on bankers’ bonuses, ending the ring-fencing of banks’ investment and retail arms, plus no longer making senior managers responsible for infractions of banking rules. This is a green light for those in the City of London to accumulate even more obscene wealth.

At the same time the Tories clearly think that now is the time to get tough with the unions. They have picked their time very badly, because nearly every group of public sector workers is taking or considering taking industrial action over pay and conditions at a time of deep cost of living crisis with rising energy and food bills and falling living standards. They also don’t seem to realise that there is much public support for the strikes, not least because the attack on working-class people’s incomes is so universal that it generalises a sense that everyone needs a pay rise and wider solidarity with those on strike.

Most importantly though is that they imagine they are imitating the policies of Margaret Thatcher, who took on the miners and won in 1984-5, without understanding the differences between then and now. Thatcher was a class warrior and bitterly anti-union but she wasn’t stupid. Nicholas Ridley, a key government minister, devised the Ridley Plan whose strategy was to take on individual unions in turn and defeat them before taking on the miners. Anti-union legislation was also introduced step by step. She spent a long time preparing for the miners’ strike: stockpiling coal, appointing a union-busting head of the National Coal Board, provoking a strike at the end of winter, using the police to harass and intimidate pickets, cutting social security payments to miners’ families and so starving them back to work.

The present Tory leadership has no serious strategy and precious little idea of what it is doing. Its aim is to try to blame the unions and strikes for the chaos which now besets public services almost as a matter of course. So we are told that RMT strikes starting late on Xmas Eve will wreck the whole holiday, even though no trains are scheduled on 25 and 26 December. The nurses’ strikes over two days are being blamed for cancelled appointments and delayed operations, even though everyone knows this is the current state of the NHS because of persistent underfunding and understaffing. The ambulance drivers’ strikes, we are told, will lead to vulnerable patients dying, when already there are hundreds of stories of ambulances failing to turn up to emergencies.

While, shamefully, the BBC and other news outlets repeat these government propaganda points, they have far less traction than the Tories hope. Similarly, the government is trying to weaken the unions through introducing the army as strike breakers in the ambulance services and border force. It remains to be seen how effective and how much they will be used but there is a real danger for the Tories of creating a backlash among strikers and working-class people more widely. If the money is there to pay soldiers to do this work, why not recruit more ambulance drivers and give them a decent pay rise? The same is true of the anti-union laws. Already among the most restrictive in Europe, the aim is to make it even harder to strike, with longer notice periods, a demand to put even paltry offers to the vote, and the imposition of minimum service rules on the railways.

When the government is effectively outlawing the right to strike in some industries and making it ever more complicated to do so elsewhere, they should fear the response at a time when militancy is rising and ever more groups of workers are joining action. This is class war and it is seen as such. This month we have seen two very impressive demonstrations by workers in dispute – the Royal Mail posties and the firefighters. On November 30th thousands of university staff demonstrated. The fact that the RMT has put on extra strike days and that nurses, ambulance drivers and civil servants are striking so close to Xmas should underline the seriousness of the disputes and the determination of the strikers.

The Tories also don’t have the political capital of Thatcher. They are very weak, unpopular, internally bitterly divided and reeking of corruption. The fact that Sunak had to cut loose Michelle Mone, who has gone on ‘leave of absence’ from the House of Lords after revelations about a £29million deal for PPE awarded to a company connected to her family, is one indication of that.

The unions are in a position to win. However, in a class war it’s also important to look at the weaknesses on our own side. One is the black hole that is the Labour Party, founded by the unions but seemingly incapable of giving the full solidarity needed to strikers – at least from its leadership. Another is the nature of the strikes which are growing arithmetically but not qualitatively in terms of the nature of the action. We need all out action across the working class to win and although there is talk of a one-day general strike on 1 February that will be the very minimum needed to defeat this government.

When there is a generalised attack we need a generalised response, beyond a series of mutually supportive but sectional battles. That means also building a political movement against austerity which can link up the unions, different campaigns, and working-class people who are just coming into action for the first time as a result of the crisis. Climate change, war, racism are not separate from these trade union struggles, but part of a wider fight against the system. We need to bring all the strands together.

This week: I will be at the Counterfire meeting and social in London to hear from strikers themselves about how we can win. And it’s a busy week for picket lines, especially in support of the nurses on Thursday. Plus my own UCU branch members’ meeting to discuss what we should do next in our dispute which needs to step up, not wait till end of January as national leadership are suggesting.

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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’.