Liz Truss in Westminster, 2021. Photo: Flickr/Simon Dawson Liz Truss in Westminster, 2021. Photo: Flickr/Simon Dawson

Lindsey German presents a checklist for activists 

1A perfect storm is gathering over Britain. It will lead to the greatest social crisis seen here for decades, and greater levels of immiseration than anything since the 1930s. Already the outlines of class war are much clearer than even a few months ago, as successive groups of workers enter into industrial struggle, and government and its supporters make it clear that nothing fundamental will be done to alleviate the suffering facing millions.

2This is an international multifaceted crisis, combining rising energy prices, food shortages, inflation, disruption in supply chains following covid, tight labour markets, the impact of war in Ukraine. But Britain faces particular problems to do both with the long term weaknesses of British capitalism but also the staggering incompetence and corruption of its government. The impact of the energy crisis is likely to be the worst in western Europe, despite very low reliance on Russian gas compared with Germany or Italy. The economy is already entering a recession, as predicted by a range of bodies, which will see higher unemployment. The attacks on workers’ living standards through inflation and particularly the huge hikes in energy prices will mean a slump in discretionary spending, as we struggle to pay for basic food and heating. That in turn will mean the closure of many small businesses, contributing to further unemployment.

3These are some of the immediate issues, but there are major structural and longer term problems which are also exacerbating them. Some of these are the result of long decades of privatisation, outsourcing, and systematic destruction of public services. The NHS crisis is one of underfunding, sell offs, and acute staff shortages. Its situation in August has been compared with the usual strains put on it in the depths of winter, and fears that the flu epidemic will hit earlier this year raises the prospect of effective collapse of the service in many areas. Already healthcare rationing is now a matter of routine. Every other area of public service, from libraries to care homes to schools, is suffering acute funding problems and relatedly shortages of staff. Their heating costs are also shooting up, putting further strains on the system.

4Meanwhile the privatised industries are still cash cows for their directors and shareholders, most obviously in the energy industry but also across the board. Levels of inequality are still growing, with millions predicted to go into fuel poverty this year, and 14 million already officially in poverty. We can expect people to die in greater numbers this winter, through cold and hunger, in one of the richest countries in the world. Future generations will be permanently damaged by privations of poverty. There is little sense of urgency over climate change as we face water pollution and drought at home and flooding and forest fires abroad. On top of this, there are the long term problems of British capitalism especially its lack of productivity compared with competitors and its low wage, low skill economy. 

5The lack of solutions to any of these problems – indeed the refusal to acknowledge that many of them are problems – has been the hallmark of successive Tory governments. None so obviously as that of Boris Johnson who is leaving office in disgrace. But this week we have a new prime minister who appears even less capable than the unlamented Johnson.  Liz Truss seems incapable of considering priorities outside the favourites of the narrow upper and middle class Tory membership electorate. She talks up tax cuts, has proposed no serious plan to deal with the fuel crisis, backs the government’s hard line on public spending, and is now promising a huge increase in military spending just at a time when millions are facing misery from fuel and food poverty. This increase to 3% of GDP would mean the equivalent of 5p in the pound on income tax and would be the highest level of ‘defence’ spending since the Cold War arms race of the early 1950s.

6Truss’s Tory fantasies are unlikely to survive contact with even her own immediate reality, as she is no doubt already being told by civil servants and advisers. The scale of the crisis is such that there will be have to be far higher levels of government spending in all sorts of areas, but the Tories will do everything they can to continue squeezing working class living standards rather than profits. They are not getting it their own way. The strike wave over the summer looks like building even wider in the autumn and has given a huge boost to the left and the wider movement. The arguments about strikes are finding a resonance well beyond the ranks of the workers involved. There are many signs of protest across the movement from the launch of the Enough is Enough campaign with big rallies, the People’s Assembly autumn offensive, the Don’t Pay campaign and many more.

7But we are at the beginning of a fight back and we are up against a powerful enemy. So far, employers and government have taken a hard line over the disputes in the former publicly owned companies. This is about exchanging pay rises for increases in productivity and for cutting back on jobs in order to maintain profits. The industrial action is hitting them hard, but they will hope to sit it out without making major concessions. Truss is threatening even more restrictions on the right to strike, which would force rail workers and others to maintain some sort of service while on strike – in other words denying the right of all workers to withdraw their labour.

8The government and employers can only be confronted by growing and escalating action across the unions, so that strikes are coordinated and extended. One of Thatcher’s successes was to end the era of indefinite all out strikes, but these will be necessary again to win the disputes. Most strikes start off in some way as defensive, but that doesn’t mean they need defensive, war of attrition, tactics. They need solidarity, donations to strike funds, support for picket lines, campaigning action which can back them up.

9They also need political support. Keir Starmer seems incapable of giving this – although interestingly his edict against MPs attending picket lines has broken down as the summer wore on. More importantly, Labour’s alternative policies are about managing the system in a slightly more efficient and humane way, not about challenging it. So we can expect a Starmer government, like its predecessors, to line up against strikes, not in their favour.

10There’s therefore a major task of solidarity which lies with the left and the working class movement as a whole. We can’t be complacent – the strikes are a really welcome development but they are not won yet. We can’t be sectarian – there really has to be the maximum unity across the campaigns otherwise we are letting down those working class people moving into action for the first time. We must stress what unites us – views on Brexit from 6 years ago really aren’t the main question. We also have to stress the need for a democratic revolutionary alternative to the system from below. When class war is on the horizon, we need to be prepared for battle.

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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’.