The Crisis of the British Regime: Resolution and supporting document by Counterfire steering committee
The impact of five years of economic crisis and neoliberal policies, plus more than three years of the openly anti-working class Coalition government, is becoming ever clearer for the majority in Britain. Those now young and approaching middle age will be worse off than their parents, having to pay more for worse pensions, housing and education, and doing so out of wages which are falling in real terms. A recent survey showed that only 15% of people in Britain think their economic future is bright. While this is above the rock bottom scores of those asked the same question in Spain or Greece, it hardly suggests the economic prosperity and confidence of which George Osborne boasts.
For this recovery comes against a background of high unemployment, especially among young people, and of ‘lousy jobs’ for many, characterised by worsening conditions and pay, and high levels of precarity. There is a widespread perception of the lack of future for young people including graduates. The gender pay gap has widened for the first time in years. Real earnings for most are continuing to decline, after the longest sustained fall in living standards since the 1870s.
Economic recovery is for a minority. Osborne is helping to engineer a housing boom, which in any case is currently confined to London and the south east, and which is creating more misery even for those in work. For everyone who has a house worth increasingly astronomical sums, there are children, friends and work colleagues who have absolutely no prospect of secure and affordable housing. It is also helping to maintain the imbalance between different sectors of the economy and regions of the country.
The aim of the government is the re-engineering of society, to ensure a final break from the post-war welfare model. In the context of economic decline, the strategic focus of the British state on support for the financial system, as outlined by Bank of England governor Mark Carney, requires this kind of radical change. So Cameron uses the glittering Lord Mayor’s banquet to say that austerity is permanent; Boris Johnson argues that the poor aren’t clever enough. The severity of austerity policies and attacks on benefits reflect this: ministers argue that the state shouldn’t pay for more than two children, or that benefits should be withheld for those who don’t speak English. Against the background of a housing crisis, a pensions crisis, a cost of living crisis, we are also seeing the scapegoating of immigrants, asylum seekers and those on benefits.
In the face of this onslaught, Labour’s response has been to argue for less extreme policies, and to claim that it will repeal certain laws, for example NHS privatisation, if it takes office. But Labour accepts the general neoliberal, pro-austerity framework. This reflects both the legacy of Blairism, in which neoliberalism was accepted but some minor reforms that did not seriously intrude on capital were introduced, and social democracy’s inability to seriously confront a crisis of capitalism. There is widespread disaffection with the Labour leadership among sections of the organised left and trade union activists as well as the wider disenchantment with the mainstream parties. Nonetheless, the polls at present show Labour likely to win the next election in 2015, because even the small reforms offered by Miliband would be an improvement in working class life after five years of Coalition government. In particular, his campaigning round the cost of living crisis and energy prices boosted Labour’s popularity.
However, even an electoral victory is not certain and in any case will resolve none of the major issues facing working class people. There is the strong possibility of crisis within and around Labour whether it wins in 2015 or not: if it loses, the Blairites will go on the rampage, seeking to drive the left out and break all links with the trade unions; if it wins, Labour will be imposing austerity on its own supporters. Peter Mandelson has already demanded that Miliband further break with the unions.
Certainly Labour has done little to challenge some of the nastier discourses in current politics: the racism against Bulgarians and Romanians, the scapegoating of those on benefits, the increased attacks on Muslims. There is little doubt that the next election will be fought on these and other right wing issues as politicians try to deflect criticism of their handling of the crisis by blaming the poorest and most vulnerable. The scapegoating and racism can help UKIP and there is no viable left alternative. Socialists have to come out strongly against this witch-hunting and scapegoating, for example by supporting the demo against racism and fascism being held in the run up to the Euro elections.
The crisis of the British regime
The failings of the major parties are in themselves only symptomatic of a much wider social crisis. Class contradictions are sharpening. The situation in Britain has been elaborated in many aspects by Ady Cousins in his article on the British regime. It is worth going through some of its main current features.
Imperialism has entered an intractable crisis in the past 12 or more years with the failure of the war on terror. The British ‘special relationship’ with US imperialism, and the very high levels of ‘defence’ spending carried out by Britain, put a particular strain on a relatively weak economy. The growth of inter-imperialist and major power rivalry which is accompanying the relative decline of the US ‘hegemon’ is clearly a key question for the coming years, as we see this rivalry played out in Syria, parts of Africa and the far east. The government defeat over Syria in August was a turning point which reflected the failure of the 'war on terror', and alongside it the strengthening of anti-war opinion.
There has been a decline in the standing of British institutions, including politicians (a recent poll showed active ‘anger’ against them from around half those questioned), parliament, the police, the BBC, energy companies, bankers and financiers. The only major exception to this is the monarchy.
Partly as a result of this, there has a been a decline in support for all the major parties. Party memberships have fallen quite dramatically in some cases. At the same time there is a big increase in ‘do it yourself’ politics, with many people turning to a range of activities from petitioning to demonstrating as a means of effecting change.
There are sizeable minorities to the left on most major questions. This is shown in attitudes to voting and demonstrating. The Russell Brand interview with Jeremy Paxman articulated many of those attitudes – a contempt for politicians, the need for fundamental change, a dislike of the establishment and authority - in a way which clearly struck a chord with millions of people.
Although class struggle is low, there is a certain resilience of the movement. This has been demonstrated by the continuing strikes in the public sector, for example among fire-fighters, teachers and lecturers, the maintenance of TU membership, the campaign for the NHS, the anti-bedroom tax campaign, the resurgence of the student movement at the end of 2013, anti-war sentiment, and environmental campaigns, for example against fracking, anti-racist and anti-fascist campaigns and the Radical Independence Campaign in Scotland.
We should not over estimate this, but nor should we underestimate it. The above activities are often on a small scale, but they reflect a bitterness and determination which has not gone away.
That the People’s Assembly (PA) has broken through to an extent, with a hugely successful national rally and many good local groups and activities, is a reflection of this, and shows that large numbers of working people and the wider left see the need for one united campaign against austerity. The PA has held successful activities across the country, including Ramsgate, Ipswich and Kings Lynn as well as Manchester, Nottingham, Liverpool, Bristol, Newcastle, parts of London and so on. Activists and new people have responded enthusiastically to the PA's rallying call for unity around active and strategic resistance to the austerity onslaught.
Building a new left
The truth is, however, that many of the activities and campaigns mentioned above would have been much stronger if a united left were working to build them. The parlous state of the left in Britain means that despite much radical or left wing sentiment there is often only a fragmented and partial expression of it organisationally.
The Labour left is at a historic weak point, although there is some sense of it now recruiting more individuals. Its partial revival helps put the idea of socialism back on the map, but it is relatively isolated both geographically and politically. It marks a shift to the left in society rather than a leftward shift amongst activists as it did in the 1980s, when Bennism was a mass phenomenon. Given the nature of the Labour Party any upward development will have limited traction, and will be on nothing like the scale of Bennism.
Organisations to the left of Labour are fragmented and weaker in general than they were five years ago, before the crash. In particular the crisis of the SWP, the organisation to which many of us belonged and helped build, has made the situation worse. The ongoing series of splits since 2007 has had a profound effect on the coherence and organisation of this section of the left. The split involving CF members was around issues such as the centrality of the movements and the united front tactic. But the 2013 splits were over issues of rape and sexual violence, and the cover up of allegations involving a central committee member. While most of the left was strongly critical of the SWP leadership on these questions, they have the effect of tainting everyone on the left. The cases have left the SWP isolated in the wider movement and still in decline.
Counterfire’s prime focus on movement building is unusual on the organised left. Much of the far left seems more concerned with internal processes and debates than with engaging in real campaigns. This explains the marked absence of activists of many revolutionary groups from the People’s Assembly. Nonetheless, it is important that Counterfire has an open and non-sectarian stance to others on the left (even if it isn’t always reciprocated). Our questions over, for example, Left Unity, are mostly on the basis of timing rather than principle - we don’t see the space for an electoral party to the left of Labour this side of the election - but that situation may change fairly quickly afterwards.
The real test for the left in Britain today is to make ourselves relevant to those groups of workers wanting to fight austerity and to the wider movement. If we don't make a difference to the world then we will never be able to grow. The potential for individuals to make a difference has been shown in the last year where handfuls of socialists were instrumental in reshaping the movement. This has been true with the establishment of the PA in Manchester, Newcastle and Nottingham, Bristol and elsewhere, the anti-EDL campaigning in Luton and the student movement most recently in London. Over the next 12 months, local and regional People’s Assemblies can start to provide the base around which a left politics can be articulated. With the election due in 2015, an effective intervention through the PA can both help shift the terrain on which that election is fought, and begin to prepare the foundations for further organisation.
These successes couldn’t have happened without the discussion and co-ordination that comes from being in a socialist organisation. Much rhetoric on the far left has centred on the need for “networked” organisations. This has little to do with how real networks function, but has meant in practice a suspicion of democratic structures and an opposition to developing a political strategy. It has implied, in turn, a lack of systematic engagement with wider movements and society.
Taking the first steps toward uniting the various movements is one thing, sustaining and giving direction to a growing movement is another. To have a chance of doing this we will need to grow fairly quickly. We need to put the argument for joining Counterfire very openly to people we are working with. We do not treat our work in the movements as a closet recruitment campaign. However, experience shows where we have developed good working relationships with people who broadly share our politics, we should ask them to join us. And we should have an emphasis on asking people to join at our public events. Recruitment is not counterposed to building the movement. When people join us their impact in the movement should be enhanced.
Our achievements in the movements, including the student movement, have brought people around us. We consistently attract an audience beyond our own membership to our political events. Our job is to encourage supporters to become members. Without such a co-ordinated input in the movement other ideas, including voting Labour or some variant of autonomism (or indeed both at once) can dominate. We should be trying to recruit a layer of political and committed socialist activists to joining a democratic, principled and activist organisation. In the last six months particularly we have had some success in winning such people from a range of student, trade union and campaigning backgrounds.
Counterfire needs to continue its theoretical development. A considerable number of our members have published or are writing books. We are a small organisation and so are not always able to commit the resources required to develop fully important theoretical points and engage in debates on the left. However, we should attempt to do so on central issues. This can often be done through articles on the website. The website has expanded in the last few months, with a greater range of contributors, and we should develop on this.
Our understanding of the centrality of movements has enabled us to locate ourselves correctly and especially to have played a central role in the PA and in STW. This has also led to geographical expansion to more places than we existed a year ago. Crucial to this in every case has been the centrality of the movements and the recognition that we need effective socialist organisation within them. Where we have groups of members we need to tighten our organisation. In our strongest areas the experience is that weekly Counterfire activist meetings make a big difference to our ability to shape the movement locally. They are also crucial forums to discuss our approach to the key political developments of the moment. Weekly meetings also give us a way of involving new members. For the first time last year we have managed to hold regular public meetings in many places. By and large these meetings are where we recruit and they are crucial to people’s political development. Next year we should aim to have these kind of meetings every month or six weeks. It is essential that public events like this are built systematically and that they are attractive, open events. Some imagination will be required – it is not always necessary to have a standard introduction-plus-contributions political meeting, although obviously this will often fit. Debates and film screenings can have a wider appeal.
Finally to achieve all this we urgently need to strengthen our central infrastructure. We now have groups or embryonic groups in around 15 towns, cities and universities as well as active individuals in a host of other places. To improve communication and provide better support and direction when necessary to comrades we need more resources at our centre, more staff, more publications, and the ability to have comrades who can intervene and travel around the country. This is one of the reasons we need to have a stress on recruitment and to insist on members paying subs.
- The aim of government policy is the re-engineering of society, to ensure a final break from the post-war welfare model. In the context of economic decline, the strategic focus of the British state on support for the financial system requires this kind of radical change.
- Its austerity programme is aimed at forcing people off public provision and forcing them to pay privately for their basic needs.
- This has already been largely put in place in many areas, such as pension provision, housing, higher education through fees, and now increasingly through the privatisation of the NHS.
- Overall living standards have fallen in recent years, with average workers subject to wage freeze or stagnation whilst prices of essentials especially continue to rise.
- Despite claims of an economic recovery, there is little sign that this will benefit the majority of working people.
- Labour’s leadership accepts the main priorities of the government agenda, but wants to carry it out in a less extreme manner. This is a feature of reformism in the era of neoliberalism.
- Its partial rejection of the worst excesses of austerity means that Labour is still the party likely to be voted for by the majority of working class people in 2015. Its concerns about the cost of living and energy prices, however limited, have struck a chord and present polling suggests that Labour will win a majority in 2015.
- The election is, however, likely to be conducted on a right wing basis, with scapegoating of immigrants, those on benefits, and Muslims high on the agenda.
- At the same time, there is widespread disenchantment with Labour, since it fails to pose a real alternative, as there is with mainstream politics generally.
- In recent years, there has been a big increase in politics taking place outside the established structures: with people demonstrating, taking direct action, occupying, petitioning etc.
- There are also a number of ongoing disputes and campaigns, such as those of the teachers, university lecturers, firefighters, the bedroom tax, fracking, students and the war that show a level of determination to resist the neoliberal government agenda.
- The government is nervous of radicalised public sentiment. It has yet to mount any direct assault on the unions in the style of Margaret Thatcher. Its only signal victory at Grangemouth was delivered by the Labour leadership.
- That resistance to the government offensive is the main task for socialists in Britain today.
- The People’s Assembly, which Counterfire helped set up and which has achieved some serious success so far in establishing itself as the main vehicle for anti-austerity work, should be at the centre of this work.
- The weakness and fragmentation of the left has made it harder to mount an effective fight over austerity.
- Counterfire aims to help overcome that fragmentation by working alongside others on the left in united front campaigns, which seek to win their particular demands but also seek to build unity among different sections of the left, trade unions and the wider movement.
- We recognise at the same time the need for socialist organisation based on Marxist principles and therefore want to increase our size and influence within the wider movement and trade unions.
- The differences on the left will only be overcome in a serious way through a period of working together on issues about which we agree in order to build greater trust and cooperation.
- Debates about our differences on the left should not be the main priority for us, but where they occur we should do so in an open and non-sectarian manner.
- We should build our organisation both geographically and in terms of the political development of each member.
- We should have a high public profile as CF as well as within wider campaigns, with regular public meetings, broadsheets, and other publications.
- We should aim to recruit as widely as possible among all the people we work with and those who come to meetings, student activity etc.
- That our work within the united fronts, the trade unions and the wider movement is central to every member, and that everyone should play some part in this, to the best of her abilities.
- That the People’s Assembly is highly important and we work to build existing and new groups and to support its initiatives, which include the conference in March, national demo in June, the Women’s Assembly and Students’ Assembly.
- That we support the international call for a demo against racism on March 22nd.
- That we publish a revised ABC of Socialism as a means of extending our influence among those on our periphery. This will be in addition to a number of other books and articles which will be published on a variety of topics in the coming years. We will encourage our membership to contribute to the website with a variety of articles.
- That we organise regular public events in areas where we have members, and seek imaginative ways to build and format these.
- That we have a serious recruitment campaign in colleges, workplaces and localities, looking particularly to recruit those who have been working with us over the last few years.
- That we commit to raising the level of subs paid by each member (according to their ability to pay) in order to strengthen our infrastructure, and to additional fundraising over the year.
- That we try to develop the political level of each of us by a combination of engagement in the movement and struggle and of engaging with political and theoretical ideas.
Amendment on finance - submitted by Mark Smith and Elaine Graham-Leigh
To Conference notes, add:
13. that 2013 has seen an increase in the breadth and depth of Counterfire’s activity, and that this is reflected in its increased membership.
14. that Counterfire’s national operation has recently migrated from the rent-free Firebox Café to a new North London premises. This significantly raised its operational overheads.
15. that Counterfire’s income is derived overwhelmingly from comrade’s monthly subscriptions.
To Conference believes, add:
11. that is essential for Counterfire to substantially increase its monthly income to support and facilitate its development specifically in the area of free broadsheet production and distribution.
To Conference resolves, add:
9. to introduce a binding monthly subscription levy of:
- a MINIMUM of £5 for unwaged comrades,
- a MINIMUM of one sixtieth of net monthly income for comrades salaried at £20K gross or below,
- a MINIMUM of one thirtieth net monthly income for comrades salaried between £21K gross and £30K gross.
- And for comrades salaried at £30K gross or above to consult the National Treasurer regarding their contribution.
10. to undertake at least one national appeal in 2014.
11. to convene a finance group to broaden and enliven the Counterfire’s progress in this area.
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