The British General Election of 6th May 2010 has produced a Tory and Liberal Democratic coalition government, the first such coalition since the Tory led coalitions of 1931 to 1945.
The media hype over the election campaign did not match the lack of enthusiasm felt by the majority of workers. Therefore there was an attempt to engender interest at an American Presidential campaign level with TV debates between the 3 party leaders and then further attempts to liven things up by predicting that the ruling Labour party would be pushed into third place by the ‘Obama’ like Nick Clegg and his Lib Dem party. According to the ‘polls’ his party were likely to double the number of parliamentary seats they could win.
However despite a deeply unpopular Labour government the Lib Dems actually ended up with less seats than in the last parliament and the Tories failed to win overall control. There was a real fear felt by workers of a return to Tory rule which led to an increase in the Labour vote.
Then election was followed a week or so of deliberating and back room deals which resulted in the Lib Dems signing a deal with the Tories and in doing so jettisoning some of their long held ‘principles’ to form a Tory Lib Dem coalition government.
The future of this government is unknown and they are likely to experience rough rides in the two parties as principles are bought and sold, but the one thing that is certain is that the working class will see further attempts to undermine their rights and standard of living which will sharpen clashes inside the two parties. As the Labour leadership campaign got immediately underway the candidates are talking about ‘Next’ Labour and are ‘confessing’ that the previous mistakes made were in not being strong enough on immigration, anti-social behaviour and welfare benefits. With no change in direction, there is a continuity in moving further to the right in order to heighten and deepen control over the working class.
This election clearly revealed the level of consensus between the 3 parties on most policies and with regards to the financial crisis and level of debt and leaves no room for doubt that the intention is to hammer the working class and make them pay.
The main left alternatives in the election were almost invisible that included the Socialist and Trade Union Coalition controlled by the Socialist Party and the Socialist Workers Party and the radical Respect led by George Galloway. With a few exceptions every seat that had been contested by a far-left candidate in 2005 saw a marked decline in vote share on May 6.
Respect has a base in the Asian working class and they achieved the best results with Abjol Miah in London 16.8% (Third), Salma Yaqoob in Birmingham 25.1% (Second) and George Galloway in London who lost his parliamentary seat with 8,160 votes (17.5%). As Britain does not have proportional representation no seats were gained by these results. In general their roots in the working class communities are limited.
Both the British National Party (fascist party) and United Kingdom Independence Party (extremely anti-immigrant) won significant votes but they did not win a parliamentary seat. The main stand taken by the two far right parties is anti-Muslim and anti-immigration. However all main parties support the strengthening of anti-immigration laws, and the Lib Dems will follow down this path. These are key questions that have to be addressed in the building of any movement to fight capitalist attacks on the whole class.
The Crisis of Debt
The world and British financial and economic crash of 2008 was referred throughout the election as something in the past with a slow recovery currently underway. There was no suggestion that we are at the beginning a new period of slump. The 3 main parties proclaim publicly that we are out of the worst of the crisis and in a stage of recovery, as the banks have been bailed out and that now it is just a question of paying off the public debt. There was also total agreement that the public sector and the working class will have to pay off a debt that was incurred by the banks and financial speculators, the parties only differed over the question of when and at what rate.
The UK debt by the end of the 2010 is predicted to be over £180 billion which will make Britain the biggest debtor in Europe. Britain’s total national debt has built up over many years, rising from below 40% of GDP to 60% and it is growing rapidly. Since 2008 further crashes were prevented by the massive bond-buying program undertaken by the Bank of England, proportionally this was the largest in the world. This has so far kept mortgage rates and gilt yields at unusually low levels.
The British government was able to finance a budget deficit of 12.5% of GDP, equal to Greece, at an interest rate more than two full percentage points lower, and only because the Bank of England bought the majority of the bonds it issued last year. But it is unable to sustain buying at such a level.
Successive governments have concealed the extent of the debt, for example all debt owed to private companies through the PFI’s (Private Finance Initiative) is defined as not being part of the public debt; also it excludes from the calculation the pension bill that the government will have to pay.
The precariousness of the British economy became visible in 2007 as the international financial markets began to raise interest rates. This sent the Northern Rock Bank into bankruptcy and threatened a run on many other banks and building societies.
After World War II almost half the workers in Britain were employed in the manufacturing industry and today manufacturing accounts for just 13% of the economy. Manufacturing , which once accounted for almost 40% of the UK’s output, now accounts for less than 20%. Even throughout the so-called Blair boom years, manufacturing was in decline and has been declining steadily over the past 30 years, in part due to competition from abroad. It is the financial and service sectors that have grown with an extraordinarily increased level of speculative capital.
The world economic crisis continues and capitalist competition from the US, Europe, China and other countries is undermining the British economy. The continuing crisis is giving Germany and France a strengthened control of Europe, at the same time seeking to drive British capital out from their strongholds in Europe.
The Financial Times and bourgeois commentators have suggested that the only way out of the current crisis is by increasing British exports, however a fundamental cause of the crisis is the massive overproduction of commodities. So reviving British manufacturing is out of the question.
The Labour Party received a lower share of the vote than during the 1930s depression. In 1931 a National Government of Conservatives, Liberals and Labour ‘traitors’ took power. That coalition began by making massive attacks against the working class. They drastically cut unemployment pay by 20%, introduced the brutal “means test” which separated families, sent many workers into the inhuman and degrading work-houses and drove millions into deep and lasting poverty. The economy only began to recover in the drive to world war and never fully recovered until after the war, with the ‘post-war boom’ only beginning in the 1950s.
The new coalition government spoke softly as they took office but almost immediately began to wield the axe. They announced £6 billion in cuts on top of those already underway such as the £1 billion cut from further and higher education which began this year under the Labour Government. Then on 18th May, the employers organisation (CBI) demanded a two-year pay freeze for the public sector and the privatisation of the remaining public services.
The government is aware that in carrying out austerity measures against the working class they risk a ‘Greek’ situation and as the saying goes are trying “to catch a tiger by the tail” because they fear getting eaten!
Today the government, with the help of the union bureaucracies, will seek to tie workers down. But workers are not defeated as they were in the 1930s and they live on a continent where workers are strong and already strongly resisting the attacks and austerity measures being imposed on them as in Greece.
Treading carefully the coalition government did not announce a full privatisation of the Post Office, something the Blair and Thatcher governments failed to carry out, due to the militancy of the post office workers and public support. A plan was announced for the “partial privatisation of Royal Mail … an injection of private capital into Royal Mail, but will retain the state-run Post Office in overall public ownership,” as fear of workers’ reactions remains strong.
Labour became deeply unpopular with workers who felt betrayed and disenfranchised because of the privatisations, increasing inequality, the running down of the National Health Service (NHS), trade union laws, rising unemployment and precarious working, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the parliamentary expenses scandal etc.
Workers’ right to strike was attacked by more and more Labour legislation in an attempt to control growing discontent. Over the last year the transport union (RMT) had 7 strike ballots which were declared illegal by the courts, and this year Unison, the public sector union, were forced to call off a strike which for the same reason.
In Britain unemployment has continued to rise since the financial crisis of 2008, yet during the election campaign the 3 parties did not talk about unemployment when it is of central concern to the majority of workers. According to the Office for National Statistic “the unemployment rate for the three months to March 2010 was 8.0 %, up 0.2 % on the quarter”, which is the highest figure since the three months to December 1994.
However that is just a snapshot because “the number of employees and self-employed people working part-time because they could not find a full-time job increased by 25,000 on the quarter to reach 1.07 million, the highest figure since comparable records began in 1992.” The number of full time jobs fell by 103,000 and the number of part-time jobs increased by 27,000.
Those claiming unemployment benefit (Job Seeker’s Allowance) decreased in the same period to 1.52 million, but the employment rate was 72%. That is due to the huge obstacles created by the Labour government that workers face when claiming benefit, measures that begin to reflect the draconian measures of the 1930s.
Anti-trade union legislation is a central challenge for the trade union movement. So far the main union leaderships have accepted more than 30 years of anti-union legislation without really trying to fight it, while some sectors of workers such as Post Office workers, prison officers and oil construction workers have all ignored the laws many times and the state has been unable to break their movements.
Left currents in the unions must make a national call to force their unions to prepare for the attacks that are coming. There will be deep and continuous austerity measures which will amount to the biggest attacks since the 1930s. Wages and conditions, the welfare state and public services were won through workers long and hard struggles but they will disappear or be drastically cut if a fight to keep them is not prepared. The union leaders are only afraid of losing their finances and apparatuses so they will conduct a fight in the courts but are unwilling to fight in the streets. However when workers vent their anger as unemployment rises and the attacks begin to bite, the union membership will become alert to the necessity of a genuine labour leadership.
Criminalisation of Workers and Islamaphobia
There are three laws that pose the greatest dangers to the working class and they are related: the anti-trade union laws, immigration controls and the so called ‘anti-terror’ laws. The main aim of this legislation is to divide the working class, increase a climate of ‘fear’ and suspicion and seek to blame ‘others’ for the economic crisis, unemployment and destruction of services.
Last year 12 Pakistani students were seized in Liverpool and Manchester using the anti-terror laws. Gordon Brown announced then that a major terror plot had been averted. However the police, who could have held them for 28 days released them all after 14 days without charge as there was no evidence. However they were retained in prison under immigration law because their student visas were revoked, it was also was alleged that they posed a ‘threat to national security’. The immigration judge ‘offered’ the students the choice of returning to Pakistan or remaining in prison for at least a further 18 months. Most returned home but two remained in England to fight and clear their names.
However whilst they won their case against forced deportation they face “the worst of all worlds” and will be subject to the notoriously brutal and cruel control orders. The new coalition, infected by the hysterical atmosphere that has been established by the new Labour government, and the supine and vicious media have failed to even question any possibility of their innocence, labelling them terrorists linked to an al-Qaidaplot. The verdict of the Kafkaesque secret court, SIAC, condemned these young men without having to reveal to them or anyone else any charge or any evidence that was used to condemn them.
The anti-terror laws have been used against a picketing building worker, campaigners travelling to the Copenhagen climate change protest and many other peaceful protestors. The problem is that the majority of union leaderships are ignoring these attacks as do the main revolutionary groups in Britain such as the Socialist Workers Party and the Socialist Party who have no programme to fight these laws as a whole. But these laws are ready to be applied to each and every person in Britain and they will be used to criminalise the whole of the working class when necessary.
Working Class Struggles
As this article was being written an unofficial strike began near Liverpool of shipyard who are opposing the threat of sackings due to declining orders. A number of strikes against attacks on education have been successful, and they received huge support from the local communities. British Airways cabin staff are imminently about to carry out a five day strike. This follows a successful appeal on a previous judgement that the strike was ‘illegal’ – the basis of which was that 11 spoilt ballot papers were not revealed to all of the union membership. These and other currently unconnected struggles are an expression of the growing discontent that already exists beneath an apparently ‘tranquil’ surface.
The austerity attacks against workers in Greece are looming before the workers in Britain. Union left currents must be prepared to support the forthcoming strike movements including ‘unofficial’ strikes and fights against the racist and Islamaphobic immigration and ‘anti- terror’ laws. Those who want to give leadership to the class can only do so by building principled internationalist movements in the working class, they have to build the unemployed movement in the communities and unions and defend all workers.
The austerity plans are parallel to the Poll Tax (Thatcher’s levy of a community tax on all workers) as they will attack every sector of workers at the same time. Like the anti-poll tax fight in 1990, the miners in 1985, the dockworkers in 1997 there is no doubt that there will be a tremendous fight back in a new situation where the international convulsions will be amplified in an increasingly decadent British capitalism.
In May the Financial Times reported that the debt will have to be re-paid at £50 billion a year, for many years to come and that the government will have to face up to the political challenge. Unmistakably they are looking at Greece. We are entering volatile and interesting times as all the post-war promises are about to be broken, such as the welfare state, which was fought for by mass workers’ movements which forced British capitalism to concede.
The period of slump with its ebbs and flows, driven by international developments and Britain’s place in the world opens up a revolutionary period. On the surface Britain appears a huge distance from that, but to base a prognosis on surface events would be to fall for the old enemy of Marxism, British empiricism. The message to the working class hangs defiantly from the walls of the Acropolis “Peoples of Europe – Rise Up“.