Britain: May Day reflects Change in Situation

Thousands of protesters participated in May Day (International Workers’ Day) in London yesterday. The banners and slogans raised were extremely militant, calling for the end of austerity throughout Europe by overthrowing capitalism.

Unfortunately the celebration of trade unionism and working class consciousness is of reduced significance in Britain in comparison with many continental European countries, because the government has deliberately denied British workers the day off. They have done this in an attempt to divest it of any political significance and to dampen class consciousness and militant traditions. A Labour government with a socialist programme would make May 1st a national holiday and actively encourage workers to participate in demonstrations around the country.

The tradition has been kept alive in London largely by Turkish and Kurdish groups, who always put on a very impressive display of militant anti-imperialism. Several speakers in the rally at Trafalgar Square rightfully thanked these comrades for almost single-handedly keeping the tradition alive.

However, there were trade union banners from all over London, showing that the organised working class continues to recognise the importance of the day. Indeed the highlight of the day was the speeches given by trade union leaders at the finishing rally in Trafalgar Square.

Paul Novak, Assistant General Secretary of the TUC, gave a speech significantly to the left of what trade unionists have come to expect from the TUC leadership. He said that we should have no illusions that austerity can be successfully fought with pleas and arguments to the government, who are clearly mandated by the capitalist crisis to carry out their vicious cuts. Instead, he said we must be prepared to use ‘the argument of force’ (i.e. strikes - even a general strike) to end austerity.

But he added, quite correctly, that any strike campaign against austerity needs a clear and positive alternative. This, according to Novak, is an economy based not on profit, but on public services. We agree with Paul, but this needs to be made more concrete and clearer still - we need a Labour government (after all, the main unions in the TUC finance the Labour Party) committed to a socialist programme, that is the transformation of society through nationalising the economy’s commanding heights under workers’ control. The TUC must launch a campaign in the Party to win it to such a programme. Getting it to publicly back a general strike against austerity would be a very good starting point, but to do so the TUC itself needs to come out in favour of organising a general strike.

Although Paul’s speech was positive, the TUC must not restrict such policies to ‘holiday speechifying’. It must enthusiastically take up the banner of the general strike and a transformed Labour Party in its day-to-day activity.

Len McCluskey from Unite followed. He correctly pointed out that the austerity programme is not merely ideological but a consequence of the crisis of capitalism. The implied conclusion, then, which he stopped short of making, is that the trade union movement needs to respond with a clear socialist programme to replace capitalism.

John McDonnell also took the platform, and emphasised May Day’s proud tradition of demonstrating the working class’ unique and most powerful weapon - international solidarity. The very existence of May Day, an international celebration of the historic struggles of our class against exploitation, war, racism and capitalism, and for a worldwide system of socialism and workers’ democracy, is something no other class in history has ever been capable of organising. In this it demonstrates the potentially unstoppable power of the working class.