General strike graphic by Pixabay General strike graphic by Pixabay

Lindsey German on the summer of struggle and its next steps

The labour movement in Britain is at a crossroads and which path we take is going to have huge consequences. The major battalions of the trade union movement have launched a series of challenges to government and employers and the big question is now which side are you on? For millions of workers – and not just those in unions – the answer is simple: workers deserve a pay rise and decent conditions. The money is there because they can see the huge profits made by the rail companies, BT, the Post Office, the ports. On the other side, the employers claim they can’t afford to give decent pay rises, or at least not without drastic attacks on working conditions and jobs.

The Tories back up the employers to the hilt, spreading lies and disinformation about the strikes. The vile bidding war between the two Tory leadership candidates is promising us further restrictions on trade unions and the right to strike. In particular the rail unions are in the Tories’ sights, since they want to make strikes like we saw last week impossible as ‘minimum service’ would have to be maintained. This, along with appeals to Tory membership racism and bigotry, is ensuring that a new prime minister with an inbuilt majority in parliament will launch serious attacks on working-class people.

Unlike its previous leader, who has been seen on picket lines across London this week, Labour’s Keir Starmer has repeatedly failed to support the strikers, challenge the government, or say anything remotely useful about what Labour should do. Instead he has peddled the idiotic line that strikes have to be settled between employers and unions without any recourse to political action or debate. This would be news to the Tories, who are highly political in their approach to strikes and in the instructions they give to the so called ‘independent’ train operators.

With a week of strike action among the biggest we’ve seen for decades, it was surely inevitable that Starmer would be found wanting. Labour leaders are usually embarrassed or at best lukewarm about industrial action, fearing attacks from the right-wing press and not daring to rock the boat with big business. No one probably expected him to have had such a grim week, however, as he struggled on every front. Abandoning nationalisation in favour of ‘regulation’ of industry, being totally winded by the Merseyside Pensioners’ Association, and then being publicly humiliated as he sacked shadow transport minister Sam Tarry (in reality for going on a picket line) and then saw dozens of Labour MPs doing the same thing.

This is a big crisis for Labour and, in the immediate term, one largely of Starmer’s making. But it also highlights the contradictions in Labour itself. The systematic attempts to destroy Jeremy Corbyn from within the PLP stemmed from fears that his policies would raise expectations – of higher living standards, well-paid decent jobs, nationalisation of utilities and rail, free broadband – which capital would not want to concede. Starmer had to promise to keep many of these policies to get elected as leader, but has since moved very far away from them, and now argues that the 2019 manifesto no longer exists.

Labour has never been about challenging capital but about making very small improvements in workers’ lives. That was possible in the 1940s and again in the 1960s and early 70s but it has become increasingly less the case. Thatcher set out to smash the unions in the 1980s, most spectacularly around the miners’ strike of 1984-85. She destroyed the closed shop and passed numerous anti-union laws which made organising much harder. Well unionised jobs were destroyed across the manufacturing industry. The Blair and Brown governments did not challenge the Thatcherite consensus, refusing to repeal most of the trade union laws, and accepting privatisation and worsening work conditions. The backlash against Blair/Brown led to the search for more left leaders – first Ed Miliband in 2010, then much more radically Jeremy Corbyn in 2015. Corbyn broke the consensus dramatically, and so was opposed from day one by much of the PLP. His remarkably good result in 2017 was obliterated by the onslaught on him over antisemitism and Brexit, leading to Johnson’s victory in 2019.

Starmer helped engineer the second referendum position which cost Labour dear, but he was also the beneficiary of it. His mission was to destroy any vestiges of Corbynism inside the party, hence the present position. Meanwhile the Johnson-engineered coup against his own party has led to the Tory right dominating the MPs and the likelihood of Liz Truss becoming prime minister as their standard bearer.

The impasse in British politics cannot be broken in parliament. Thus the importance of the strikes and of the narrative behind them which focuses on the injustices faced by workers, the profits of the bosses, but also on a sense that workers have the power to change things. Strikes on this scale immediately change the narrative from ‘there is no alternative’ to ‘there has to be an alternative’.

It is hard to see politics shifting on a sufficient scale unless there is even more action – certainly Labour will do nothing to promote that. But for the first time in decades there is serious talk of a general strike across all the unions. This is in large part because it is not easy to see how the Tories will be stopped in their tracks by anything else. It will need the full organised strength of the working class to achieve that. Starmer will just prove himself ever more irrelevant in such a contest.

So if the union leaders are talking like this, then socialists and those on the left have a major responsibility to make sure that it is successful. We have history here: the 1926 general strike was a defensive one in support of the miners (then a 1 million strong part of the workforce). The government took a very hard line, encouraging strike breaking and spreading propaganda (abetted by the BBC which abandoned any pretence at ‘impartiality’). After 9 days, and even as the strike was growing, the TUC agreed to end it. The miners were left to fight alone, and the employers went on an offensive, sacking and victimising militants, from which the movement did not recover until the Second World War.

A general strike is a very powerful weapon because it demonstrates who has power in society, and it also stops those who have a monopoly of power in this society in their tracks. That’s why the state fears the strikes on this scale. But it also presents a problem for many Labour and trade union leaders, whose instinct is to negotiate rather than challenge the system. If a strike threatens the whole capitalist system, then they would rather end it than see the alternative.

If such a strike is to be successful, then its central power comes from being organised from below as part of a very strong rank-and-file movement. That was what happened in France in May ’68, and what came close to happening – in London at least – when the Pentonville dockers were imprisoned in July 1972.

The fact that we are even talking about this is a tribute to the power of the strikes we have seen so far, and to the widespread support they are receiving. Already events – the treatment of workers during the pandemic, the cost-of-living crisis, the attacks on working conditions, the widespread labour shortages – are changing the ideas of very large numbers of workers. We have the chance to change British politics for the better, but it requires shifting our focus away from parliament and all it represents, and towards working class and socialist organisation as the core of our ability to bring that change about.

Any strike action on this scale raises the question of state power and who controls it. Thus, therefore requires a political answer from the left. We know what the answer of Keir Starmer to this question would be – the same as his answer on any question: abject surrender. The only political force which will sustain an argument in favour of continued action will be the one which says that workers not only have the right to a better deal in this society but ultimately have the right to run society as a whole. That is the tradition of revolutionary socialism. 

This week: I am planning a holiday on the canal, so won’t be writing next weekend. But I am looking forward to attending and speaking at the commemoration of the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester on 14 August. In the meantime, I welcome any feedback on the ideas I have discussed here.

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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’.