We publish here a document written by the British Marxists of Socialist Appeal. The document analyses the explosive economic and political situation developing in Britain. In this first part, we look at the decline of British capitalism and the radicalisation taking place in society due to years of austerity.
"The contradictions undermining British society will inevitably intensify. We do not intend to predict the exact tempo of this process, but it will be measurable in terms of years, or in terms of five years at the most, certainly not in decades. This general prospect requires us to ask above all the question: will a Communist Party be built in Britain in time with the strength and the links with the masses to be able to draw out at the right moment all the necessary practical conclusions from the sharpening crisis? It is in this question that Great Britain's fate is today contained."
- Trotsky, Where is Britain Going?
The crisis which began in 2008 represents a turning point. With the profound break in the situation, internationally and in Britain, the pace of events has greatly accelerated. A thorough grasp of perspectives is therefore essential for all comrades, without which, in the words of Trotsky, “we would be doomed to wander in the dark”. Of course, Marxist perspectives are not a blueprint, but an analysis of the underlying processes unfolding in society. They represent an important guide to action, and serve to orientate the tendency in the stormy period that opens up. They must be sharpened and reworked as events unfold. They should be read in conjunction with our documents on world perspectives, without which it is not possible to understand developments in Britain or elsewhere.
Marx explained that the key to the development of history and of society generally is the development of the productive forces: industry, technique and science. When a society is no longer able to develop the productive forces, it enters into crisis and opens up an epoch of social revolution. That is the current situation facing us on a world scale. It is a confirmation of historical materialism.
We have entered the most disturbed period in history. Crises – political, economic, social, diplomatic, moral, etc. - are endemic at all levels. This is a reflection of the exhaustion of the capitalist system, which can no longer develop the productive forces in any meaningful way. The capitalist system has reached its limits, as in the 1930s, when world growth was temporarily reinvigorated only following a catastrophic world war. Now as then, important sectors of the economy simply stagnate and decay. Even the bourgeois economists describe it as “zombie capitalism”, half alive and half dead, kept alive by historically low interest rates. The route of escape used by capitalism in the 1930s is closed because a new world war (which would presumably be nuclear) is inconceivable. In 2008, the implosion of the world economy was averted by an enormous programme of Keynesian spending (led by China), but today growth in the Chinese economy is slowing and the level of global debt is astronomical. The system has entered a protracted period of terminal decline, which has far reaching consequences.
As Trotsky explained in The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International, “The bourgeoisie itself sees no way out… Conjunctural crises under the conditions of the social crises of the whole capitalist system inflict ever heavier deprivations and suffering upon the masses. Growing unemployment, in its turn, deepens the financial crisis of the state and undermines the unstable monetary systems.” This describes accurately the main features of the capitalist system at the present time.
“The objective prerequisites for proletarian revolution have not only ‘ripened’,” explained Trotsky, “they have begun to get somewhat rotten.” It is the subjective factor that is lagging behind.
There is no real recovery anywhere, over seven years since the slump. Where there has been growth, it has been anaemic and fragile. The system has simply staggered from one crisis to another. The world economy is mired in “secular stagnation”, as the bourgeois economists like to call it. The epoch of reforms has ended. The epoch of counter-reforms and savage austerity has begun. No country is immune from this process. It determines the fate of all governments that operate on a capitalist basis, openly bourgeois or reformist.
In the coming year or so, capitalism is likely to experience a new world slump that could lead to a new world Depression as in the 1930s. This will exacerbate everything, plunging countries into deeper crisis and provoking revolutionary upheavals everywhere. Over the next decade, with the deepening crisis of capitalism, there will be a whole series of decisive showdowns, including in Britain. This is the very nature of the epoch.
If we are going to fully appreciate the epoch that lies before us, we should arm ourselves by reading Trotsky’s Where is Britain Going? and his extensive writings on Britain in the 1930s, which are very relevant today and remain a treasure-trove for Marxists. They are vital weapons in the preparation of the cadres.
THE DECLINE OF BRITAIN
On top of the worsening crisis of world capitalism, which has become a permanent crisis, is the special crisis of British capitalism. This special crisis reflects the complete bankruptcy of the British ruling class in failing to invest and develop industry, preferring instead to engage in speculation and other such ventures. They were seeking to make money from money, without the trouble of producing things, as Marx had explained long ago. The British bourgeoisie have presided over an ignominious decline in British capitalism, again reflected in a steep decline in its industrial base. For decades, this process of decline has gone on, but it greatly intensified under Thatcher. As a result, the former workshop of the world has become a second-rate power, a shadow of its former self.
Hand in hand with the decline in industry went the rise of finance capital. As manufacturing shrank, the service sector swelled to colossal proportions. Banking and insurance became increasingly powerful, especially following the deregulation of the finance sector in 1986. Financial and banking regulations were put on the bonfire. The financial services went from strength to strength, until it became the dominant force behind British capitalism as well as its Achilles’ heel.
The British economy has taken on the characteristics very much of a rentier economy, as the French had been for most of the 19th century and early 20th century, but such a system was imposed not upon a peasantry, as in France, but on a strong industrial working class. The crisis of British capitalism meant that one industry after another went to the wall. This deindustrialisation would have serious consequences for British workers in terms of employment and living standards.
In 1979, manufacturing industry accounted for almost 30% of national income and employed nearly 7 million workers. Today, it has been reduced to 10% of national income and employs around 2.5 million workers. Over the last 30 years, it has shrunk by two-thirds in size, the greatest deindustrialisation of any major capitalist power. The brunt of this decline has occurred in Scotland, Wales and the north of England, where much of this manufacturing took place, creating a stark divide between northern and southern England. At the same time services, banking and finance have mushroomed. Since the 2008 slump, the service sector has grown by 11%, but manufacturing has declined by 6,5%. Today, financial services account for 15% of GDP, which has doubled in the last 15 years. The City of London has been transformed to a world casino in finance and insurance, a magnet for “hot money”, international money laundering and speculation.
British banks have grown to become the biggest in the world. Their loans and investments are equal to more than 5 times Britain’s annual GDP. Proportionally, British banks are 6 times bigger than US banks. London is the centre now of world finance and world usury. 41% of all financial transactions are carried out through London. It has 70% share of trade in global bonds and 47% share in trade in derivatives. This amounts to a daily turnover of $1.4tn.
London too has become the home of the super-rich, buying up property and forcing up house prices. It has become a billionaires’ playground. They build luxury swimming pools in the basements and dig down to construct several floors below street level. Many of these properties are simply held as unoccupied investments for bourgeois landlords, compounding an already-drastic housing crisis. At present, there are an estimated 218,000 empty properties in Britain, nearly all of them privately-owned. They stand as testament to the irrationality of a system that builds for no purpose other than profit. This, along with galling developments such as ‘poor doors’ in London tower blocks have provoked widespread outrage from large sections of the masses, providing us with fertile ground for propaganda and agitation.
Rather than stability, such a financial and banking edifice dominating the economy has dynamite built into its foundations, creating shocks and profound instability. British banks are dependent not on British customers, but on raising their money from the international bond market and foreign banks. Financial wizardry has mushroomed internationally, feeding on historically low interest rates. In 2008, derivatives, namely fictitious capital, had grown to $500 trillion, 10 times the size of the world economy. Crisis prone financial markets, in the form of unregulated shadow banking, will spill over into Britain, creating financial havoc. Such crises will strike London hard, given its global position. With global financial power comes global financial crisis.
This has been one of the reasons why British capitalism was the hardest hit of the G7 powers in the last world slump. The British economy has suffered a decline of more than 7% in GDP since 2008, which is worse than in the years of the Great Depression. In the autumn of 2008, British banks were facing total collapse, threatening to drag the whole economy down with them, only to be bailed out by the New Labour government using taxpayers’ money.
Financial services are parasitic by their nature. They do not produce surplus value, but simply siphon sit from the productive economy. An economy based simply on services is dependent on others and is extremely vulnerable as a result.
The strategists of capital had given up on the idea that Britain could compete industrially. They were incapable of restoring the power of British industry on the world stage. With the defeats inflicted on the working class in the 1980s, the ruling class turned decisively towards developing the service sector and financial services. Today’s talk by Osborne, the Tory chancellor, of the “march of the makers” is so much hot air at a time when the steel industry is on the point of collapse. The parlous position of the steel industry, the bedrock of any industrial economy, is a real reflection of the state of British capitalism. In fact, the whole of the manufacturing sector is smaller than it was before the 2008 slump by about 7%. Construction also continues to contract. The result of this demise for the working class has been the creation of a low wage, low skill economy, based upon sweated labour, and largely reliant upon services for employment.
As a consequence of this drastic shift, the current account deficit has reached £100bn a year, considered crisis levels in normal times. This deficit is the difference between all of Britain’s income and all she spends in terms of international trade. The British government has only managed to disguise this deficit by the flow of international finance into Britain, regarded as a safe haven for financial speculation. As long as these flows can be maintained, they serve to paper over the gaping cracks that exist.
British manufacturing, although reduced in size, is not "leaner and fitter" as the Tories claim. Its competitiveness lags far behind that of its international competitors. Labour productivity in the US was 31% higher than in the UK in 2013, measured in output per hour worked. In Germany it was 28% higher, in France it was 27% higher and even in Italy it was 9% higher. This is due to much lower investment or lower capital stock per worker in Britain, as well as lower skills levels, and lower expenditure on research and development. In 2010 for instance, total R&D expenditure grew (in real terms) in Germany (3.7%), Japan (1.4%), Italy (1.3%) and France (1.2%), but in the United Kingdom it declined by around 3%.
The consequence of this decline of British capitalism has meant a serious decline in the position of British workers, who have become the subject of brutal exploitation, both in the private and public sector. British workers work longer hours than their counter parts in any of the EU-15 countries, have the worst employment protection, get the lowest number of holidays, and get the lowest benefits for the first year of unemployment. Workers in Britain are regarded as the most “flexible” labour force in Europe, a fact trumpeted by the employers. There are more agency workers in Britain than the rest of the EU combined, reflecting the savage attacks on the British working class.
British capitalists are relying increasingly on cheap labour, which is not able to effectively compete with advanced technology and productive industry, like the German economy. This is where the short-sightedness of the British ruling class has brought us. They abandoned their past role of developing the productive economy and have become get-rich-quick merchants. The sucking in of international finance into the City of London has served to push up the value of the pound, thereby pushing up export prices and undermining dearer British exports. This means the British economy is being built on a financial faultline and is vulnerable to all kinds of shocks. The next world slump will shatter this feeble foundation and plunge the working class into a further nightmare.
ASSAULT ON THE WORKING CLASS
The working class has been under the hammer for more than 30 years, following the defeats of the 1980s and more recently. However, this brutal assault has intensified since the slump of 2008. Working life has become harder, more difficult and stressful. The regime in the workplaces has become increasingly repressive, as the squeeze on the working class intensifies. The capitalists have used their whip hand to tear up terms and conditions across the board. There is growing resentment in the workplaces, but there are also growing fears of what the future holds. Insecurity has rocketed as workers are threatened with redundancies and job cuts. Work in Britain has become increasingly casualised. Before the war, dock workers were lined up every morning while the gaffer chose those who could work that day. Now people on zero-hour contracts simply receive text messages to tell them when they can work. Many workers, especially the youth, are reliant on several jobs to make ends meet. Minimum wages have become the maximum in most work places.
“The 40-hour week is long gone,” says Karyn Twaronite at Ernst & Young. The number of people working more than 48 hours per week had risen by 15% since 2010 to nearly 3.5 million. In London, some 100,000 are said to be on zero-hour contracts, and three-quarters of a million nationally, soaring by a fifth in the last year.
This relentless attack has resulted in a two-tier workforce, where there is a margin of security amongst older established workers, but for the young workers there is nothing but insecurity, not knowing from one day to the next how much they will get.
“Jobs for life” are a thing of the past. Stable work has been replaced with short-term contracts and self-employment, with all the insecurity that goes with it. Since 2008, only 1 in 40 jobs created were full-time jobs, a startling figure. This means no sick pay, no holiday pay, no maternity pay, nothing. The Tories say this shows an increase in “entrepreneurship”, but in fact it shows how desperate things have become.
“The poorest fifth of British households are among the most economically deprived in Western Europe and suffer levels of poverty on a par with those in the former eastern bloc, according to researchers”, states the Financial Times.
“The High Pay Centre, an independent UK think-tank, has published analysis of OECD data showing “life is much worse here than it is for the poorest fifth in virtually every other north-west European country…
“According to Eurostat, the EU’s statistical agency, gross domestic product per person is lower in west Wales than in Poland. Similarly, GDP per head in Tees Valley and Durham is lower than in the Czech Republic.” (17/6/14)
For many, the slog of work has become an enduring nightmare. In the public sector, workers have been on the defensive for years. In the private sector, 14.4 million people work for SMEs (workplaces of less than 250 employees) which are predominately non-unionised and where bosses rule dictatorially with little regard to legal workers rights. The vast majority of such workers have no union and no immediate prospect of joining a union. The extent to which these workers have been hit in terms of pay, stress, instability, bullying, harassment and unsafe conditions is very high. This is also the case for other non-unionised workers, agency workers and those on casual contracts. Even the public sector, which has much stronger unions and where workers are generally in better off positions, has been on the defensive for years. There has never been so much resentment in work. Pent-up anger, frustration and bitterness are at record levels. Such is the fear that millions of workers go to work when they are sick and unfit for work. Stress has resulted in a 40% rise in mental health problems in the past 12 months. This is a brutal time and workers are drawing their own conclusions from this state of affairs.
“If only I could get a steady job that paid decent wages”, has become a dream for many. “If only I could get a decent place to live on reasonable rent”, is an ambition that now seems impossible.
The housing crisis has reached levels not seen since the 1930s. In London, a majority of people pay over 60% of their income on rent. Obtaining a secure council tenancy has become nearly impossible. Millions are on the waiting list, whilst no new homes are built. Skyrocketing house prices, a symptom of the decay of British industry, mean that access to home ownership is now the preserve of the wealthy and their children. As such, millions of young people are forced to live longer with their parents, or to rent overcrowded and poor quality homes in the private sector. Many, especially the youth, look to the future with dread.
This overall pressure is not simply bearing down on manual workers, but is widespread amongst the so-called white collar professions. The recent example of the strike ballots of 40,000 junior doctors, who voted by 98% to go on strike, on a 75% turnout, the first time in over 40 years, is a clear symptom of the growing ferment.
The deeper you go down into the working class the more explosive is the mood. This is especially the case amongst the most oppressed layers, which no longer see any prospects of change in front of them. Already this generation has a lower standard of living than their parents and the situation is quickly deteriorating.
As a consequence, Britain has never been so polarised. A massive gulf exists been the super-rich and the mass of society, which is struggling to make ends meet. The super-rich are bringing in foreign workers as domestics. According to Kevin Hyland, the new anti-slavery commissioner, about 17,000 domestic servants are being brought into the country each year, and some are suffering a “shockingly terrible” existence. According to Human Rights Watch, some employers called them abusive names such as “animal” or “dog”, or threatened to harm them. They work from 7am until 10pm or midnight and generally live in box cupboards and annexes.
The employers are continuing to turn the screw. As the Tory minister Hunt explained, the British workers now need to work as hard as their Chinese counterparts. This is simply a race to the bottom, which is preparing an almighty explosion. There are limits to everything and in Britain they are being reached.
This mood of discontent is however being held back by the trade union leaders, who are terrified of unleashing a real struggle or making any real effort to recruit and organise the mass of non-unionised workers. They have become increasingly divorced from the real mood in society and are acting as a massive brake at the present time. Rather than organise a fight-back, they sow despondency.
Under pressure they organised the mass demonstration against the government in 2011 of up to a million workers, followed by the big strike over the threat to pensions in November of that year. This showed the potential for a struggle. But since then they have called sporadic protests, without any real intent, but in order to blow off steam. The public sector pay freeze was imposed without serious opposition, despite enormous potential. When UNITE was faced with a serious challenge in the Grangemouth petro-chemical plant and refinery, they capitulated. They threw away a golden opportunity to launch a struggle against the employers’ offensive. Of course, weakness invites aggression. In a vindictive fashion, the government started to get rid of the Check Off system, beginning with the civil service. The union leaders were divided over the issue, which only served to isolate the PCS union that faced the brunt of the attack. Now the government feels confident enough to extend their attacks.
However, the threat of industrial action by junior doctors, who have become radicalised in the face of government attacks forced the government to backtrack temporarily. Rather than turning public opinion against the junior doctors, opinion has rallied behind them. The possibility of picket lines outside hospitals, after their retreat on tax credits, has forced the Tories onto the back foot. A determined stand could force the government into a wholesale retreat. As with tax credits, they can make tactical retreats, but will step up their attacks in other areas.
This dispute of junior doctors is very symptomatic. This layer has not seen industrial action since 1972. They are a young, fresh workforce who, under attack, were quick to respond. The fact that we have a former comrade in the leadership has played an important role in the dispute, which again underlines the importance of the subjective factor. The action or threat of action is a sign of things to come as the scale of the cuts become evident.
The seething anger that exists will eventually find its expression in the trade unions, as more workers turn to them in defence of their terms and conditions. This can bring about a renewal in the unions with a new more radical leadership emerging at a local and national level. Explosions are inevitable in the next period as the employers tighten the screws. Local authority workers can be a flashpoint given the severity of the cuts. So could the growing layers of extremely casualised workers, often not organised by the trade unions. These workers do not see the unions as a credible force because the trade union leadership has taken no interest in organising them, or cannot even conceive of defending workers who do not have rights enshrined in bourgeois law. To a large extent the trade union leadership have succeeded since the crisis in dampening interest in the trade unions as a point of reference for discontent. However, a movement of such casualised layers would not be fighting to defend their terms and conditions, but to improve them. Given the atomised conditions of casualised work, any offensive movement would very soon have to acquire a political character against casualised labour in general. This too could give an impulse to the radicalisation of the traditional trade union movement. While a layer of older workers attempt to keep their heads down, looking towards retirement, there is no such escape for the majority of workers. In the coming period, the severity of the cuts will provoke a massive reaction. There can be a social explosion if they push things too far. The trade union leaders will be forced to put themselves at the head of a movement in order to keep it under control. However, they are sitting on a live tiger that is becoming increasingly restless. If they do not express this mood, they will be replaced by those who will.
The Tory government is trying to prepare for this eventuality by rushing onto the statute books new anti-trade union legislation. The new barriers imposed on the right to strike, by increasing the legal threshold in strike ballots, will not stop what is coming. Such laws will be brushed aside when the workers move. Already amongst the junior doctors, the steelworkers, tube workers and others, the turnouts and votes for action have been extremely high, far in excess of the government thresholds. Rather than hold things back, they can radicalise the situation even further as resentment reaches boiling point.
We are told that the fall in living standards, the worst for more than 100 years, has now ended. According to the government, living standards are going up with the fall in prices. This is government propaganda and a complete sham for the vast majority of workers, who are faced with increased rents, council tax and transport costs. Many workers and their families are shelling out up to half their income on rent. In the south east of England, up to 13% of income goes on transport costs. This situation affects the youth especially hard. Research has shown that one in five Britons fall below the poverty line once housing costs are taken into account. In London, it is one in four.
There has been no let-up in the squeeze, with one million people reliant on food banks. Up to a third of food bank users had their benefit payments sanctioned (reduced or stopped), pushing families into crisis and debt.
In this explosive situation, the industrial front can be radically transformed. Any revival in the economy, however brief, can also give an impetus to the industrial struggle, as workers fight to recover lost ground. Whatever happens, the working class will go through a profound political radicalisation in the face of increasing attacks from employers and government.
THE TORY GOVERNMENT
The Tory government came to power with only 24% support of the electorate. It has a very small majority and is prone to parliamentary upsets, as we saw in the case of the tax credits. This makes it a very weak government for the bourgeois, especially with the huge challenges ahead.
Despite the government’s propaganda, British capitalism is still in a parlous state. Growth in the past period has come not from investment or exports, but from consumer spending. This means the economy is resting on a very weak foundation. Consumer spending is not backed up by rising wages but from increased borrowing. Credit card spending has reached a ten-year high, as debt on credit cards rises to £62.7bn. Total UK debt has risen to £1.5tn, or 80.5% of GDP, compared to 69% of GDP in 2010/11, the first year of Osborne’s chancellorship.
Osborne has plans to cut £20bn in public spending over the parliament to achieve a budget surplus by 2019/20. Already his plans are off course, as October and November 2015 showed the worse public finances for six years. This means even more cuts will be necessary. Now with increased spending on defence and security, more money will need to be found elsewhere. Osborne’s recent Winter Statement was a complete farce. The subservient Office of Budgetary Responsibility, a puppet of the Treasury, produced for him a “rabbit out of a hat”, when it miraculously forecast increasing growth and rising tax revenues, none of which will be realised in the coming world slump. The public finances will be devastated and they will be forced to extend austerity indefinitely.
This allowed Osborne to soft-peddle on cuts to tax credits, but the same people will be hit when Universal Credit is introduced. Despite all the fudges, the reality is that austerity is here to stay, as the Institute of Fiscal Studies explained.
Local government will face the brunt as local services are butchered and libraries, youth clubs, and social facilities are all closed down. According to IFS figures, local government, after these announced cuts, would see a reduction of 79% of its income! Transport cut by 70%.
The recent flooding has become particularly extreme and yet routine largely due to national and local government cuts - national flood prevention spending has been cut by 1/5 since 2010 and at the local level it is even more extreme. This has not gone unnoticed by workers; more crises like these will swamp the government each year.
Other areas face brutal cuts. As the deluge of cuts emerges, they will make this government the most unpopular government in history, undermining the Tories and shattering their electoral prospects. This will have decisive repercussions.
The crisis of British capitalism inevitably finds its expression most graphically within the Tory party. In the distant past the British ruling class used to plan their future in terms of continents and centuries, such was their confidence and power, but now they are unable to see further than tomorrow. They have become extremely empirical. Their political representatives have suffered the same degeneration, becoming short-term political opportunists rather than advancing the long-term interests of the bourgeoisie. The Conservative Party was considered the most successful bourgeois party in Europe, but they have caught the “European disease” and become prone to splits and squabbles. Their outlook was epitomised in the views of Margaret Thatcher, the shopkeeper’s daughter, to whom they all look with glowing admiration.
As the crisis deepens, long gone are the days of One Nation Toryism. The leadership is more reflective of the increasingly rightward moving Tory rank and file. They are English nationalists, reactionary elements, who look down on “the lesser breeds”. They detest Europe and dream of the return of the Empire, but that is long gone. They are irritated by immigrants and foreigners who have bought up much of British industry. They are worshipers of Margaret Thatcher, the epitome of reaction. But as a consequence of Thatcherism, the Conservative party lost its support in the north, especially in cities like Liverpool, Manchester and Sheffield. These are now, together with most of the north, no go areas for the Tories. In Liverpool, which in the past had returned a number of Tories, the party has only 100 members in a city of 466,000. In Scotland, they have been reduced to a sect. Over the years, they have become in the main a southern English party, primarily of the shires and Home Counties. Osborne’s attempts to remedy this with talk of a “northern powerhouse” are just that, talk. With no money to invest into the north, this weak attempt to pander to northern voters is sure to prove to be nothing more than hot air, and will fail to win the Tories any support.
Cameron attempted to reinvent the party, but the situation has forced him to retreat from this and pander to its rank and file. This led him to the dangerous position of “English votes for English laws”, which simply whipped up English nationalism and further antagonised the Scots and Welsh, potentially undermining the union further. The Financial Times, the mouthpiece of the more astute sections of the ruling class, came out firmly in opposition to this move, fearing the consequences.
Europe, once again, threatens to split the party. The creation of UKIP was a forewarning of this, a precursor of how things are likely to develop.
The issue of Europe has polarised the Tory party for more than 30 years. In fact, Tory splits over Europe contributed to bringing down the last two Conservative prime ministers – Thatcher and John Major. Cameron could easily meet the same fate. “The wounds run deep”, stated the Financial Times, recalling Major’s denunciation of his cabinet colleagues as “bastards”.
Cameron, who once urged his party to stop “banging on about Europe” in an attempt to introduce some sanity, is now faced with a seething revolt within its ranks. From a minority on the far right of the party, the eurosceptics have become a big majority, not only in the backward ignorant middle class ranks, but in the parliamentary party. The pro-Europeans, once dominant, have become a dwindling force, constantly on the retreat, and feeling increasingly isolated.
Cameron thought he could defuse the situation, especially with the rise of UKIP, by promising an “in-out” referendum on EU membership. He was prepared to gamble with Britain’s future for the sake of short-term political gain. But this has opened up a Pandora’s Box, raising all kinds of contradictions and dangers. The issue has now come back to haunt him, preparing the way for a bloody civil war within the party. “Now some senior Tories see it as a noose”, commented the Financial Times. While Cameron supports continued EU membership, he is being continually attacked and pressurised from the right. They will never be satisfied, whatever the result of the negotiations, unless Britain decides to leave Europe. Such opposition came close to undermining the last coalition.
In the last parliament, nearly 100 Tory MPs, a third of the party, signed a letter calling on Cameron to secure a national parliamentary veto over current and future EU laws. Even Hague, a Eurosceptic, was attacked as a “turncoat”, for not being eurosceptic enough. The Eurozone crisis has simply added to the fury of the eurosceptics, who regard the issue as a test of true loyalty. “The more time that goes on, the more sceptical the party gets about Europe,” stated David Davis, a senior Tory MP.
Rather than cooling things down, as Cameron thought, the referendum has served to heat things up further. Bankers attending last year’s Tory conference were startled by the pervasive mood of “rabid” Euroscepticism prevalent in the party.
Cameron has outlined the issues on which he wants change in Europe. Despite most of these being generally innocuous, European leaders have baulked on refusing state benefits at workers from other European states for 4 years. They see this as contrary to one of the fundamental principles of the Union: the free movement of labour. However, Cameron cannot concede on this. He has therefore threatened that if he does not get concessions he will campaign for Brexit. But he is playing with fire with these threats, which will come back to haunt him if things unravel.
“The prospect of Mr Cameron leading Britain into a referendum campaign at the head of a warring party, halfway through his second term, and in the face of a blizzard of hostile coverage from the UK’s eurosceptic media, has focused minds in the business community and most notably in the powerful financial services sector”, states the Financial Times.
However, the financiers are divided. The big banks are in favour of Europe, while the hedge fund managers are more eurosceptic. The big monopolies are also in favour, especially industry, as over 40% of its exports go to Europe. If Britain should leave the EU, British exports would face high tariffs. The benefits of a free-trade zone would be lost. British capitalism would it be out in the cold, not only economically, but would drastically weaken its political prestige and its value to the United States, as Obama mentioned. Ironically, while British capitalism’s interests and fate are now tied to Europe, the Tory party is utterly split over the issue.
How the referendum, possibly set for the summer or autumn of 2016, will turn out is uncertain. At the time of writing, polls suggest a majority are against staying in the EU. This could change as the campaign heats up. The likelihood of a vote to leave the EU is greatly increased by the immense instability and crisis of the EU itself, which is in terminal decline. Another breakout of the debt crisis, a terrorist attack, a further influx of refugees, or the success of the far right in another EU country would make a vote to leave much more likely. Whatever happens, it looks like being a narrow outcome. The narrower the result the more this will fuel resentment.
Given the volatility, it is possible that there will be a majority to leave the EU. This will be a shattering blow to Cameron, whose authority would be in tatters; he could be forced to resign. This, in turn, could force the SNP to come out forcibly for a new referendum on independence for Scotland. The way the mood is developing there, the most likely result would be Scottish independence. On a capitalist basis that would not solve anything but would open up a new stage in Scotland and in the rest of Britain, which would be further isolated on the world stage, diminished in stature and power It would be shattering blow to the interests and prestige of British capitalism, opening up a stormy perspective.
If Cameron attempts to campaign for Britain to vote to stay in EU, which is his plan, there will be much talk of betrayal in the Tory Party. Europe may be Cameron’s biggest and final political fight. “I can’t see how he can get through a referendum campaign without the party splitting and without a leadership challenge,” said a confidant of the prime minister. Mats Persson, of the right-wing think tank Open Europe, says: “The party is going to split, there’s no doubt about it.”
The splitting of the Tory Party, which is entirely on the cards, will have far-reaching consequences for developments in Britain. A vote to stay in, especially if it is narrow, will enrage the Tory eurosceptics and could provoke a split. A vote to leave would push out the pro-European wing. Whatever happens is likely to produce similar outcomes.
In other words, the Conservative Party, in its present form, is unlikely to last. The prospect that this Tory government could remain intact until 2020 and then go on to win a second victory is highly unlikely given the economic crisis.
There is a bitter mood developing even now. The government could well collapse before then given the situation. Even now we saw the anguish of a young woman on Question Time recently who broke down with emotion when challenging the government’s threat to cut tax credits. Amazingly she had voted Tory, but saw very quickly how they betrayed her. “Shame on you! Shame on you!” she shouted. This experience will be multiplied a million fold across the country in the years to come.
THE CORBYN REVOLUTION
The election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader with 60% of the vote has transformed the political landscape in Britain. The fact that some 400,000 registered to vote shows that there are certain revolutionary features to the situation. The left-reformist Michael Meacher described the Corbyn phenomenon as “the biggest non-revolutionary uprising of the social order.” This situation is clearly far from ’normal’.
The dynamic in Britain has completely changed. There has been a seismic shift in the consciousness over the past period. “Corbyn supporters represent a longing for an alternative that has an appeal far beyond the Left of the Labour Party”, was a significant conclusion of a YouGov poll. Even the vote over the bombing of Syria, which in military terms would normally be considered a minor incident, became another catalyst for millions. It reflects a qualitative change in the situation, which is serving to expose the whole capitalist edifice. Each attack on Corbyn brings into question the state, the monarchy, the general staff, nuclear weapons, and the media. Not surprisingly, the whole process has sent shockwaves through the right wing, as well as the British establishment. The ruling class has become very alarmed at developments. The previous slow pace of events that characterised the last thirty years has been shattered. A new turbulent period has opened up in Britain, more characteristic of the inter-war period.
As Marx once explained, there are times in which 20 years passes as though it were only days, but there are other times where 20 years of events seem to be incorporated into one day. For us, the slow days are over. Events are moving very quickly. These last months have been a roller coaster of events, one following quickly upon another.
This transformation in Britain resulted from the build-up of anger and frustration in society, which had been accumulating over the previous decades. The problem was this mood never found an expression, especially in the mass organisations, which were lagging lamentably behind. The Labour Party certainly did not reflect this mood. It was largely moribund.
The mood of discontent and anger did nevertheless find expression in the historic movement in Scotland over the Referendum. This provided a lightning rod for all the pent-up frustration and anger north of the border. Not only was there an unprecedented turnout of 85%, the biggest turnout of any vote in British history, but the vote for independence was only defeated by 55% to 45%. The referendum had turned into a referendum on austerity, the Tory Coalition government, the Establishment, and the gulf between rich and poor. The Labour Party had jumped into bed with the hated Tories and Liberals in defending the status quo. This produced a massive reaction and a transformation of the situation. As we said, it was pregnant with revolutionary implications. Huge layers were becoming politicised. In the May general election, the SNP swept the board by winning 56 seats out of 59. The once dominant Labour Party, under the leadership of the Blairites, lost all its seats bar one. It was a humiliating defeat. It was a sign of what is to come, where sharp and sudden changes are on the order of the day. All that was needed in the rest of Britain was a point of reference.
In our 2015 perspectives document, given the grip of the right wing in the Labour Party at all levels we raised the theoretical possibility of a PODEMOS or Five Star type situation. However, we did not claim this to be an inevitability. We also said, “Given the depth of the crisis all kinds of peculiar developments are possible, about which it is pointless to speculate. But there are important differences between Spain and Italy and Britain. We must not draw mechanical and premature analogies but follow the situation concretely as it unfolds, preparing ourselves for any eventuality.” (British Perspectives 2015, paragraph 50)
We also underlined the point that, “Despite all the cowardice and stupidity of the Labour leaders, it would be a mistake to think that the Labour Party is finished as the sects imagine. Labour has big reserves of support in society. Moreover, there is no alternative. All the attempts of the sects to create a political alternative to Labour have failed miserably.” (British Perspectives 2015, paragraph 134)
This assessment was absolutely correct. In a short space of time necessity revealed itself through accident. Had Corybn not appeared on the ballot paper due to the Blairites’ disastrous miscalculation, the LP would have carried on drifting to the right and a PODEMOS or Five Star type movement would have very much been on the cards. The necessity was that eventually a mass political movement would happen, but it was by accident that it occurred through the LP. The accidental appearance of Corbyn on the ballot for Labour leader, which nobody could predict, provided the spark that ignited this “Corbyn Revolution”, as it has been described. Overnight, taking advantage of a massive blunder by the right wing to allow “supporters” to join the ballot, tens of thousands and then hundreds of thousands signed up to take part. They transformed the situation and breathed new life into the Labour Party. The whole situation became electric, as Corbyn’s anti-austerity message hit home. The Blairite candidates were left with their mouths open as support for Corbyn, supposedly the “joke candidate”, escalated. Thousands were drawn to Corbyn’s meetings all over the country.
Supporters streamed into the Labour Party. At one point, more than 610,000 had registered to vote, tripling the pre-May level of membership. 50,000 were soon stripped of their vote or blocked by the Labour bureaucracy, in a desperate attempt to stem Corbyn’s growing support. Finally, when the result was announced, the right wing was shattered. Liz Kendal, the Blairite darling, had scraped only 4.5% of the vote. The other challengers picked up 19% and 17% respectively. When the officials informed Corbyn he had won, they looked as if they were attending a funeral.
Then events began to move quickly. Chuka Umunna and Tristram Hunt immediately set up a new anti-Corbyn grouping, ironically called “Labour for the Common Good”. Right wing MPs, like Simon Danczuk, announced plans to stage a coup “on day one.” Others called for an assassin to come forward. But they were forced to ditch these plans temporarily. Very quickly the Blairites realised, given Corbyn’s huge mandate, they had to bide their time. This was easier said than done. They were chafing at the bit, overcome by rage and indignation. How dare the membership! War was soon declared. At every opportunity the Right struck out at Corbyn. While the membership voted for Corbyn, the Parliamentary Labour Party had overwhelmingly rejected him. Out of more than 230 Labour MPs, only 15 or so genuinely support Corbyn. He is completely isolated in this den of thieves.
Many refused to stand for the new shadow cabinet. In order to keep the peace, Corbyn invited right-wingers to join his team. A layer did so, acting as a Fifth Column within the cabinet. Others joined the newly found “shadow, shadow cabinet”, which was dominated by the Blairites and acts as their real leadership. Corbyn was forced to fight back or be driven out. It was going to be a life or death struggle. He appointed John McDonnell as shadow chancellor, dubbed alarmingly (but incorrectly) as a “borderline Trotskyite” by the Financial Times, and regarded by far as the most provocative appointment by Corbyn. The existence of a left reformist leader of the Labour Party and a Left Labour shadow chancellor is something not seen since the early 1930s. For the right wing this fact was completely intolerable, an affront to everything they stand for. However, McDonnell is now regarded by sections of the right wing as a restraining force on Corbyn, as demonstrated by his insistence on a free vote over the question of the bombing of Syria.
There is developing pressure from the ranks against the Blairite saboteurs. Reflecting this pressure, Paul Kenny of the GMB made the barbed comment: “If they are going to be constantly sniping then the best thing they can do is leave the party.”
At every meeting of the PLP the knives are out for Corbyn. After one particularly horrid meeting, described as “fractious” by one attendee, feelings were running so high that another said: “I felt physically sick after the meeting. I don’t know how much of this I can take.”
A senior figure described the atmosphere as “horrible” as Corbyn was continually heckled and barracked. The Financial Times described it as a “bitter meeting”. This has become a regular feature.
The ruling class are truly alarmed. They were aghast at how quickly their agents lost control of the Labour Party:
“Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece are scrappy young parties that define themselves against the mainstream”, states a worried editorial in the Financial Times. “Labour, by contrast, is more than a century old. It has provided five prime ministers since the Second World War. The sudden transformation of an established party is more shocking than the eruption of a new one…
“Folly upon folly has brought a grand political party to this predicament, from which it is not certain to recover.” (Financial Times, 15/8/15)
Every effort is being made to retrieve the situation. The establishment’s spleen is evident in the avalanche of hostility day-in, day-out in the mass media against Corbyn, pictured as a threat to national security and the British way of life.
Since Corbyn was elected, the right wing has been waging an all-out war to remove him. The hint that such right wing MPs were out of touch and should face reselection was met by a storm, especially within the PLP. Frank Field, the Labour MP from Birkenhead, openly advocated rebellion. He advocated that any Labour MP deselected should immediately call a by-election and stand against the party, of course with the full backing of the Tory press. This is nothing more than blackmail and open sabotage. Of course, despite this betrayal, he faced no discipline, while Corbyn supporters, like Andrew Fisher, were suspended and attacked for so-called misdemeanours.
Of course, this is no surprise. The Labour apparatus are firmly in the camp of the right wing. The machine was constructed and built under Kinnock and Blair as part of the New Labour project. “Many Labour organisers have spent a lifetime in fighting the front organisations of the hard left, as well as the Greens”, commented the Financial Times. Such officials will need to be thoroughly purged to bring the apparatus into line.
The right wing is engaged in a civil war, with no holds barred. They cause the maximum damage at every opportunity. Behind them stands the ruling class, who are determined to restore the Labour Party into safe hands, i.e. the camp of capitalism.
This is no secondary matter. Ever since the ruling class decided to incorporate the Labour Party, starting with its leaders, it has been a useful tool in holding the working class in check and played a vital role in maintaining the capitalist system. The Labour leaders would play the role of the 2nd XI, to use a cricketing analogy. When the 1st XI, namely the Tories, were experiencing a sticky wicket in government, the ruling class would call on the 2nd XI to come in to clear up the mess, alienating their working class supporters in the process, and then be cast aside and replaced by the Tories. Such a political arrangement provided British capitalism with certain stability.
As Lenin explained, without the support of the Labour and trade union leaders, capitalism would not last six weeks. The bourgeoisie rested on these leaders to do their bidding.
Behind the right wing stand the forces of big business and the state. While they have powerful means at their disposal, the ground has been pulled away from beneath them as hundreds of thousands of new members have poured into the Labour Party. This has transformed the situation entirely.
Seeing the danger from the right wing, Corbyn and his supporters have begun to organise in the rank and file with the establishment of Momentum. This is an act of self-defence. Only by mobilising these new layers in and around the party can Corbyn survive the right wing onslaught.
Humiliation is heaped on humiliation as Corbyn faces the weekly hostile meetings of the Parliamentary Labour Party. It is like being thrown into the lion’s den. The right wing has shown no mercy. Every time Corbyn tries to appease them with this or that concession, they simply see it as a sign of weakness and continue their vicious attacks. They will never give up until he is removed. Their careers depend upon it. If it means destroying the Labour Party in the process, then so be it. Their motto is rule or ruin.
When Cameron made his statement to Parliament about the Paris bombings and Syria, Corbyn replied for the Opposition. However, the Financial Times reported that “MPs from both sides of the Commons were talking over the Labour leader by the end of his speech.”
“What happened next was even worse. A series of Labour MPs pointedly spoke in support of the prime minister’s approach to national security, undermining Mr Corbyn.”
“The content and tone of the prime minister’s statement spoke not just for the government but for the country”, stated Labour MP, Mike Gapes.
“Labour’s front bench gradually emptied as he [Corbyn] made his statement, leaving Corbyn almost alone. One Labour MP said, ‘He looked like a broken man’.”
The sharp divide over the bombing of Syria increased the bitterness. The three right wing MPs who openly called for Corbyn’s resignation over the issue were only expressing what the others think. The Blairites made it abundantly clear that they would rebel against Corbyn and vote for the government’s military action in Syria. Corbyn, who was put under intense pressure and threatened with a mass resignation of the shadow cabinet, mistakenly relented on a free vote in parliament. This gave them the chance they were looking for, hoping to humiliate Corbyn in the process.
Cameron in turn was desperate for a quick vote. Public opinion was divided over the bombing and could swing against. A campaign was waged to win over as many Labour MPs as possible. However, such was the disgust in the ranks of the Labour Party of what was going on that huge pressure was exerted on the Labour MPs. In a shrewd move, Corbyn appealed to the membership via email. Out of 110,000 email replies from party members about their opinion, 70% to 80% were against bombing. Momentum and Stop the War joined in to exert pressure on the Blairites and those in the middle ground, the “Marsh”, fearful of de-selection.
The Blairites showed their true colours, with 11 of the shadow cabinet and 66 Labour MPs in total joining with the Tories to vote for the bombing of Syria. They represent the hardliners, those who will lead the future split in the Labour Party.
This stirred up massive opposition within the party. Corbyn had warned that there was “no hiding place” for those Tory-suppoting MPs, while Clive Lewis said Labour MPs voting with the Tories “would face consequences”. Even Len McCluskey, who had been dithering, came out strongly against the traitors. However, Hilary Benn, the shadow foreign secretary, played the role of Judas, betraying Corbyn and the Labour Party. No wonder he received applause and a standing ovation from the Blairites and the Tory benches. Benn was then touted by the right wing as a replacement in the wings for Corbyn as Labour leader. Frank Field, another renegade, suggested there be two leaders, one for the country and one for MPs. In reality, this revealed the truth that there are two Labour Parties, which will inevitably split at a certain stage.
The pressure on MPs did the trick in forcing 150 Labour MPs and a majority of the shadow cabinet to back Corbyn, many of whom were prepared to back military action. But this success led to a massive stink in the press about intimidation and violence against Labour MPs. The filth poured out continually by the media has no recent parallels except possibly for the media in Venezuela and Spain, which daily slandered Chavez and PODEMOS respectively. Clearly the ruling class was trying to isolate and undermine Corbyn, but to their misfortune, Corbyn’s position was further strengthened by the by-election result in Oldham, where Labour’s share of the vote went up, despite sabotage from the right wing. Scandalously, right wing Labour MPs were spreading rumours about hostility to Corbyn on the doorsteps and predicting disaster on polling day, which they were desperately hoping for. But the result in the end was a triumph for Corbyn.
Clearly, given this situation, the demand for accountability and de-selection is very popular amongst the new party members. Of course, the Blairites have complained bitterly they are being targeted and bullied, which has been highlighted in the capitalist media. This has served to increase the temperature in the party’s bitter internal civil war. Tom Watson threatened those protesting against Stella Creasy in Walthamstow with expulsion from the party, but was then forced to retract this threat.
These events graphically show the gulf between the Blairites and the membership. They reveal the hatred and contempt the majority of Labour MPs have for Corbyn and McDonnell. These creatures have more in common with the class enemy – the Tory benches. They are completely divorced from the new rank and file. The fawning reference of Mike Gapes, right wing Labour MP, towards Cameron’s speech that he was speaking on behalf of “the Country”, reveals how these right wing creatures will put Country before Party when the chips are down. Of course, by Country they mean big business and the establishment, to which they bend the knee. It would not take much for a large bulk of the Labour benches to cross the floor to the other side.
It should be noted that the trade union leaders are playing a dirty role, as always, behind the scenes. After all, they were not originally in favour of a Corbyn leadership, but were instead backing Andy Burnham. In the June anti-austerity demonstration, when Serwotka was urging people to sign up to vote for Corbyn, McCluskey refused to endorse him. It was only under pressure from the UNITE executive, which in turn was under pressure from below, that McCluskey came out for Corbyn. The same was true of Prentis in UNISON. Both, while offering support, are making snide comments in the press about Corbyn and are intriguing with Tom Watson, the deputy leader, as their real mouthpiece and stalking-horse.
McCluskey didn’t want Corbyn to appoint McDonnell as shadow chancellor, but wanted Burnham instead. He then said Corbyn needed to raise his game and stop making “inappropriate” comments after the events in Paris. He could no longer just say “the first thing that comes into his head”, said McCluskey. At the same time, McCluskey was shamefully prepared to do a deal with the Tories over the anti-trade union laws. Now under pressure he has come to Corbyn’s defence.
The trade union leaders swing all over the place under pressure, and constantly seek to do deals. 18 months ago, in July 2014, McCluskey was calling for a reshuffle in Labour’s front bench where the right-winger Alan Johnson should be brought back! “He [Miliband] should have a reshuffle”, said McCluskey. “I’d bring Alan Johnson back into the cabinet… in a role where he could play a big part.” (FT, 21/7/14) As Trotsky correctly said, the trade union leaders are the most conservative force in society. Even the most “left” have little confidence in the working class and end up normally supporting the right, as they did in 1926.
The right wing does not only dominate the Parliamentary Labour Party. It has reserves in the host of right-wing Labour councillors and the right-wing cliques that control party structures at a local level. These local careerists have become willing agents of the central government, doing its dirty work at local level. They impose savage cuts, despite the disaster this means for the working class.
These creatures were responsible for the rise in the past of the Liberal Democrats in Liverpool, Bermondsey, Leeds and elsewhere. From reforms they passed to counter-reforms but these cliques will be challenged in this period. The only real alternative is a coordinated militant stand against the Tory government, which would mean breaking the law on the lines of Poplar, East London in 1921. This would mean a mass campaign involving the trade unions, but the trade union leaders would be terrified of such a prospect.
Where is this struggle between Corbyn and the right wing likely to end up? Even the Blairites, despite their initial plans, realise that it will take a considerable time to get rid of Corbyn, at least several years by their own estimates. Some hope that poor results in the elections next May will discredit him. But this is wishful thinking. The Oldham result, instead of undermining him, gave Corbyn a boost. But whatever the results, Corbyn has big support in the rank and file, which will not be whittled away. In fact, a recent poll of party members gave him 66% support, 6% more than when he was first elected. Even if he were forced out, which is extremely unlikely, either he or another left would win a new election, given the balance of forces in the party. There are moves to ensure that rather than be forced to get 35 nominations to get on a leadership ballot, the sitting leader, namely Corbyn, would automatically be on the ballot. This would mean he would win a new election, if the right wing managed to force a contest. On the other side, the right wing are taking legal advice on how to exclude him from the ballot. However, nothing will be decided by legal niceties, only the class balance of forces within the party, which are overwhelmingly in favour of Corbyn.
“It can’t go on”, said one senior MP. “But how’s it going to end?”The Financial Times comments: “Mr Corbyn is sustained by the knowledge that 250,000 ordinary Party members and supporters backed him, creating a dangerous gap between the Parliamentary Labour Party and Labour’s grass roots.
“If MPs mount a coup the Party membership could still re-elect Mr Corbyn and his allies are seeking to clarify the rules to ensure that he would automatically end up back on the ballot sheet.
“Even Mr Corbyn’s critics admit it could take several years.”
As another Blairite explained: “the party has been taken over. It’s going to take two years of electoral defeats and a lot of hard thinking and organisation before this can start to be reversed.” (The Guardian, 31 August 2015)
”We’re going to have to let this whole thing play out. That could take a couple of years – and in that time there could be a serious reputational change. But most of us are prepared to wait”, said one senior shadow cabinet member.
The right wing need to bide their time, hoping the tide will turn. They hope the right wing grip in many local parties will help them. ‘These young idealists – ‘wet behind the ears’ – when they come into the CLP, they will feel a bucket of cold water in the atmosphere that awaits them’,” said one right-winger.
“There can’t be a coup now”, said another right-winger. “We would have blood on our hands.” But they can’t wait too long. They only have four years before the next general election if they intend to replace him. This is their dilemma. But on the present basis, Corbyn will still be Labour leader by the general election. They cannot reconcile themselves to this. As right-winger Graham Stringer, MP for Blackley and Broughton, put it, “Although, as someone who would like to see another Labour government, it is horrifying at the same time.” This is not unique. There are many Blairite MPs who view a Corbyn Labour government as “horrifying”. A split is inevitable.
THE CIVIL WAR IN THE LABOUR PARTY
Within the Labour Party, relations between the right and left will get increasingly bitter as right wing MPs are threatened locally with reselection. Already many MPs are fearful of the Momentum organisation, which they see as a machine for de-selection, no matter what Corbyn or Momentum says. It is ironic that Momentum and its leaders have come out strongly against de-selection, which should be a democratic right of party members. But this cuts no ice. It would take only one de-selection to set off a chain reaction.
The capitalist press will become even more hysterical in its attacks on the Left. It would be similar to the ferocious campaign around the attempt to de-select Reg Prentice, Labour MP for Newham NE in the mid-1970s. This became a cause celebre and opened up the witch-hunt against the Left. Eventually, Prentice resigned and joined the Tory Party, ending up in the Thatcher government. The whole episode polarised the situation. It will do so again as the civil war in the party reaches fever pitch.
History is repeating itself but on a higher level. The ruling class has again lost overall control of the Labour Party, as in the 1970s. But this time it is even more serious. At a certain point, they will come to the conclusion that Corbyn cannot be removed, despite all their efforts. The tide is flowing against them. The right wing is increasingly isolated. The ruling class will therefore be left with a stark choice: either allow Corbyn to lead the Left-moving Labour Party to victory in the next general election, with all the dangers that poses, or move to split the Labour Party as they did in 1931 and 1982. It is not a new tactic for them, but it comes with certain dangers.
Ian Gilmore, who was a leading Tory politician and strategist, wrote a book in 1977, which assessed the threat posed for the bourgeoisie.
“It is only since 1970 that the Labour Party has become a threat to the constitution”, writes Gilmore. “Extremists have penetrated it at every level, and swung it violently to the Left… And of course the situation became far worse soon afterwards… From 1974 onwards Mr Prentice and other MPs were under threat from their constituencies from various local Soviets and Commissars… It had adopted in 1973 an unprecedentedly extremist programme, which threatened the mixed [capitalist] economy and the rule of law… The next Labour Government, led perhaps by Mr Wedgwood Benn, would very likely complete the process. British freedoms would be obliterated; they could not survive in a fully Socialist economy. The constitution would become an irrelevance, to be disregarded at will before being formally buried and the British people would enjoy an Eastern-European standard of life.
“The most important inference to be drawn from this is that the two-party system in this country is crumbling and will continue to crumble unless or until Labour reverts to being a moderate democratic party operating within the British political tradition.”
The bourgeoisie took this sound advice to heart. To block the “extremist” Labour Party, it decided to rest on the right wing within the Parliamentary Labour Party to carry through a split. This it did in 1982 with the “Gang of Four” and the formation of the Social Democratic Party (SDP). This succeeded in splitting the Labour vote and handed victory to Thatcher. They then rested on the soft left in the Labour Party, starting with Neil Kinnock, to push the party to the right. This process was completed under Tony Blair, which got rid of Clause 4 and purged the Left within the party. The Labour Party had once again become a “moderate” party under New Labour, firmly back under the control of the ruling class and its agents. Everything went well for them …until the election of Jeremy Corbyn turned everything upside down.
This development, which they never anticipated, upset the political apple cart. Once again, the ruling class lost control of the Labour Party. Their agents – the Blairites – had made a terrible blunder and opened up the party to supporters, on the assumption they would loyally support the right wing. But they completely miscalculated and fell victim to their own hubris and propaganda, as they were completely detached from the real mood in society. Those right-wingers who had nominated Corbyn to “widen the debate” now saw themselves as “morons”. The masses were far to the left of the existing ranks of the party. For them, this influx of new members – the “Corbynistas” –meant that the party has been taken over by “extremists” as in the 1970s. What frightens them is not simply Jeremy Corbyn himself but above all the radicalised layers standing behind him, which are anti-austerity and anti-capitalist.
The right wing is waging a losing battle as “moderate” members desert the party and left wingers continue to join. It was said, in one week alone, at the time of the vote on Syria, that some 15,000 people had left the party, while the supporters of Corbyn still continued to pour in. Let us recall that on a single day when Corbyn’s victory was announced 15,000 new members joined the party.
If a Labour government were to come to power led by Corbyn, it would, under crisis conditions, be subject to enormous pressure from below. While there is much talk of the unelectability of Corbyn, the serious bourgeois understand that such an outcome cannot be discounted at all. The result in Oldham, despite all the right wing briefings by MPs that Corbyn had lost the white working class vote, confirmed the fact that Corbyn is electable. As the Tory government proceeds with its vicious austerity, support for the anti-austerity Labour Party will surely develop.
The bourgeoisie would not want to risk a Left Labour government at this time. With a deep crisis, they want a “strong” government that would represent their class interests. A Labour government coming to power on an anti-austerity programme would be too much to swallow. It would be anathema to them.
Of course, they could blackmail Corbyn, as the capitalists blackmailed Tsipras into capitulation. After all, inherent in reformism is compromise and betrayal, as Trotsky explained. By why take the risk when there could be a safer route?
Once again, the idea of splitting the Labour Party would become part of their calculations. That could serve to keep Labour out of power as in 1983, when the SDP split the Labour vote. But, unlike in 1983, the ruling class could go further and champion the idea of a National Government as in 1931. That would be a way of creating a more stable government composed of elements from all the main parties.
How likely would a repeat of the 1931 betrayal be? Clearly, it would be a very simple matter for the ruling class to split the Labour Party. The Parliamentary Labour Party is completely dominated by the right wing. Rather than a handful of right wingers leaving, as in 1931 or 1983, the majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party could cross the floor to form a National Government as easily as switching carriages on a train.
By this time, the Tory Party could also be in the process of splitting, poisoned by the referendum over Europe. A Tory split would see the creation of a new extremely right wing party, anti-Europe, anti-immigrant, and pro-monarchy. This would absorb the remnants of UKIP, to become a royalist-Bonapartist party, on the extreme right of British politics. Such a development would not be a fascist party as in the past, but would be more like Le Pen’s party in France. There is no social basis for a fascist party. The paraphernalia of “classical” 1930s fascism has been discredited and reaction and fascism would need to take on a different form in order to gain any significant resonance. British reaction will be based on Tory/Royalist Bonapartism, which will have links to the state. It would be well financed from big business. Its aim, of course, would be some form of totalitarianism.
Clearly, any attempt to use such a reactionary movement against the working class, given the present class balance of forces, would mean civil war. That is why the bourgeois would not be keen to go down this road. They would only do so if there was absolutely no other way out. The working class is a hundred times stronger than before the war. The professional layers have been drawn towards the proletariat. The students, who before the war were used to break strikes and were a basis for reaction, have overwhelmingly swung over to the left. The social base for reaction in Britain is very slim. Therefore, the ruling class would repeatedly hesitate as they could not be certain that they would win. However, if things became completely intolerable they would out of sheer desperation move to crush the working class. But that is the music of the future. There is no question of Bonapartist reaction today or in the near future, despite the hysteria of the sects at every real or imaginary turn to the right.
The moderate, pro-European Tories would likely fuse with a Blairite split from the Labour Party, which would also absorb what was left of the Liberal Democrats, crushed by the class polarisation. Some elements of the Liberal Democrats may end up joining the Labour Party.
The Tory government will have exhausted itself, wracked by splits and divisions. It would be too weak to stagger on in face of deepening crisis. That would be another sound reason to go for a National Government.
Under these circumstances, the Labour Party, with the right wing being spewed out, would move dramatically to the left. Corbyn would preside over a radicalised left-reformist or even centrist party, with the support of the unions. It would have similar consequences as in 1931-32, where the ILP shifted to centrism following the MacDonald betrayal. But rather than the ILP, it would be the Labour Party.
This move to split the Labour Party would need to come before the planned general election in 2020, possibly within the next 2 or 3 years, if the ruling class is to derail a Corbyn victory. There is a threat that the government will not last that long.
In Britain, the fracturing of the political parties is not a new phenomenon and tends to take place in times of crisis. We have already seen support for the two main parties dwindle from 98% in 1950 to around 65% today. This was the case in the 1920s in the run up to 1931. Sharp divisions had opened up in the Labour Party as the right wing, led by MacDonald, Thomas and Snowden, battled with the Left wing. Mosley had split away to form his New Party, a precursor to the British Union of Fascists. The Liberals were fragmenting into Simonites, Samuelites, and the Lloyd George family. The Tories had been fighting over the Baldwin leadership and the Free Trade Crusaders.
“These splits and disagreements reinforced the opinion that some new political arrangement was needed”, writes Colin Bell, author of National Government 1931. “There was a crisis, all three parties were divided among themselves, and all authoritative observers held that it was essential that the country rallied round and accept a swingeing bout of public parsimony.”
A similar process will take place now. Splits and fissures are on the order of the day in all parties.
In 1931, this fracturing led to a ferocious campaign in the press, headed by the Times, to bring about a National Government. For them, patriotism demanded the coming together of “the best minds” of Britain, which would entail some temporary suspension of certain customs, rights, liberties, in the interests of Strong Leadership, which all “decent” people would crave.
This campaign by the bourgeois press ended in a split in the Labour Government, and the betrayal by MacDonald, who went over to form the National Government in August 1931. In the October general election, the parties that made up the National Government won a landslide victory by denouncing the Labour policy as “Bolshevism run riot”. The Labour Party held on to only 46 seats, while Lloyd George (who kept out of the National Coalition) managed to hold a mere 4 seats.
The bourgeoisie got their “strong government”, made up of “National” Tories, Labour and Liberals, which proceeded to “balance the books” by a programme of savage cuts and austerity. This austerity was to produce riots in Birkenhead and a naval mutiny in Invergordon.
This acute situation produced a further split in the Labour Party with the break away of the ILP in 1932, with its tens of thousands of members, reflecting a further radicalisation of the situation. The ILP became a centrist party, meaning revolutionary in words, but reformist in deeds, a product of the pre-revolutionary crisis in society.
“The situation in Britain”, explained Trotsky, “can likewise be termed, with a certain degree of justification, pre-revolutionary, provided it is strictly agreed that a period covering several years of partial ebbs and flows can elapse between the pre-revolutionary and immediately revolutionary situation.” The process was cut across by the centrism of the ILP leaders and the treacherous role of the Stalinists.
History does not repeat itself in the exact same way, but tends to do so on a higher level. There are of course differences, but there are also definite parallels. As we have already seen on the Continent, especially in Greece and Italy, as the crisis deepened, the bourgeois reverted to technocratic and “national” governments. To prevent a Left Labour Party on an anti-austerity programme assuming power, the British ruling class also is likely to resort to extraordinary measures. Splitting the Labour Party, with the right wing walking out, would be an easy option, despite the dangers, and serve its purposes very well.
The establishment of some kind of Grand Coalition or National Government would, as in 1931, gain a big majority. It also would have the “mandate” to resolve the crisis. The National Government would carry through draconian attacks on the working class, as the crisis continued. But more and more, it would lose ground and prepare the way for a Left Labour Government, in 2025 or even earlier. There will be no stable governments, which will tend to follow one upon another in a quick succession. This Left government would be, to use Trotsky’s phrase, a British Kerenskiade, a government of deep crisis, where a serious struggle for influence would open up between the forces of reformism and those of revolution. However, this would not be as short-lived as the Kerensky government in Russia, which was due to the existence of the Bolshevik Party. It would be a far more protracted affair.
The Left government would meet the open resistance of the ruling class, the fierce resistance of the House of Lords, the monarchy, City of London and the entire mass media. Without a perspective of socialist revolution, it would be put to the test and tend to buckle under the pressure of the ruling class. Attempted half measures would not satisfy the masses. Such a Left government would experience the worst of all worlds.
However events work out in practice, there will be an enormous polarisation to the right and to the left in British society. There will be colossal instability. We cannot even rule out a Left wing split in the party, as with the ILP in 1932. Certainly, in such a scenario, this radicalised situation would provide the forces of Marxism with enormous possibilities, which, if they worked properly, could be on the verge of becoming a mass force.
As Ted Grant explained: “Under such conditions a strong Left Reformist or even Centrist current, with a mass base, would be formed within the LP; a current similar to that which developed in the LP during the second Labour Government [1929-31], when they moved away from reformism. Had there been a Marxist wing, or even a strong fraction working within this milieu, the basis could have been laid for the development of the revolutionary party.”
Trotsky worked out the classical conditions for entrism:
Pre-revolutionary or revolutionary situation.
Ferment in Social Democracy.
Development of a Left Wing
The possibility of the rapid crystallisation of the revolutionary tendency.
These will come into existence in such a period. In addition, the ruling class will be seriously preparing for civil war under these conditions. However, given the enormous strength of the working class, they would hesitate a thousand times before taking to this road. Behind the scenes, nevertheless, they would be preparing to put an end to democracy, democratic rights, and suppress the Labour movement. This is not only a perspective, but a warning to the working class.
Ian Gilmore, who certainly was no crank, but an important member of the British establishment, justified a military coup in certain circumstances:
“Conservatives do not worship democracy. For them, majority rule is a device… individuals do not always act in their own interest, as Halifax and many others have pointed out; still less do groups… Similarly, majorities do not always see where their best interests lie and then act upon their understanding. For Conservatives, therefore, democracy is a means to an end not an end in itself… And if it is leading to an end that is undesirable or inconsistent with itself, then there is a theoretical case for ending it.” (Gilmore, Inside Right, p.211)
He continues, “If our free institutions are overthrown or totally perverted, the Left not the Right, will be responsible… There is no danger of a right wing coup. Only if the constitution had already been destroyed by the Left, might the Right react and the Left find itself overthrown in its turn by a counter-coup from the Right.” (ibid, p.212)
In other words, if capitalism were under threat, even in an election, a coup would be completely justified. The general staff has a long history of political interference, especially in times of crisis. According to custom, they are supposed to be above politics, but this is a sham. This is demonstrated by the recent military threat, featured in the press, to a Corbyn government.
Leading figures were involved in the plot, promoted by Cecil King, the newspaper baron, in 1968 to overthrow Wilson as PM and bring in Lord Earl Mountbatten to head a government of National Unity. In 1974, there was open talk of a coup involving the military. Brigadier General Kitson was promoting the idea of the army being used not externally but internally. Army manoeuvres took place at Heathrow Airport against “terrorism” without the knowledge of the government. These activities, given the strength of the working class, were curtailed and considered too premature and too risky by the strategists of capital.
The fact that even now an unnamed general was extensively reported to have threatened a military coup if Corbyn attempted to abolish Trident and undermine Britain’s defence reflects the real thinking of sections of the high command. In addition, the head of the British armed forces questioned Corbyn’s suitability of being a prime minister given his unilateralist views, and was backed by Maria Eagle, the right-wing shadow defence secretary.
It is no accident that Prince Charles has also been intervening politically, writing to ministers on all sorts of questions. The government has been forced to release some of his selected correspondence, which is only a glimpse at what he has been up to. This interference will grow as the polarisation increases. The monarchy will play a reactionary role and act as a rallying point for Bonapartist forces, as was the case before the war, where they openly admired the fascist dictatorships.
Plots and conspiracies will multiply in this polarised atmosphere. The security agencies, MI5 and MI6 will also be involved. The gentlemen’s Clubs in Chelsea and Kensington, frequented by members of the ruling class, the top judges, military chiefs, high ranking civil servants and Tory politicians, will be full of intrigues and plans to “Save the Country” from the extremists and “Trotskyites”.
WHERE IS SCOTLAND HEADING?
Scotland has been on a different trajectory to the rest of Britain. The political earthquake of the September Referendum in 2014 represented a fundamental turning-point in Scotland. This had been prepared by years of Tory governments and right wing betrayals. The fact that the SNP could win an outright majority at Holyrood in 2011 under a system of proportional representation, which was introduced to usher in an era of coalition/minority administrations, was symptomatic of the changes taking place. In Westminster elections, Labour was still completely dominant in Scotland. The Tories had long ago been confined to the margins, especially after the experience of Thatcher and the hated Poll Tax.
After years of Blairism, which meant a continuation of Toryism for many, Labour’s support in Scotland was being systematically undermined. The Referendum, where Labour jumped into bed with the Tories in opposing independence, was the last straw.
As the SNP shifted to the left, Labour was shifting to the right, ending up with the Blairite Jim Murphy as leader in December 2014. This was the crossing of the Rubicon. In the 2015 general election, Labour got its comeuppance and lost 40 of its 41 seats. The SNP won an unprecedented landslide, scooping up 56 out of 59 seats in Scotland.
The Referendum had transformed the political situation. It was not simply about independence, but about austerity, the British establishment and the Tory Party. The result reflected an anti-establishment and even anti-capitalist mood in society.
The working class heartlands of Glasgow and Dundee voted for independence. Many people who had not voted before, especially the most oppressed layers, chose independence. The youth voted for independence in large numbers. Those who rejected the status quo voted for independence. In the vote, independence was rejected 45% to 55%, much closer than previous predictions.
Since the general election, support for independence has hovered around the 50% mark, increasing on the September 2014 figure. Given a Tory government at Westminster and the SNP pushing an anti-austerity line, the support for independence will increase. The fundamental reason for this is the betrayals of the Labour leaders.
It is likely there will be a second referendum in the next period. Pressure will build for it, especially if the SNP achieve another landslide in the Holyrood election in May 2016 and the Tory government becomes increasingly unpopular, as will be the case. In addition, if Britain votes to leave the EU and Scotland votes against, a new Referendum will be unstoppable. Under these circumstances, the Scots are very likely to vote for independence. This might be delayed if the EU referendum is won, but is nevertheless on the cards.
Will the Corbyn victory be able to reverse Labour’s decline? This is certainly not a short-term perspective, but will take a number of years depending on the fate of the Labour Party and the right wing. The Scottish delegation’s negative reaction to the FBU’s reaffiliation to the Labour Party is symptomatic. In Scotland, there is a deep distrust of Labour, even under a Corbyn leadership. While the Labour Party is split over austerity, Trident, and the bombing of Syria, the SNP is united in its opposition.
The Labour Party in Scotland has shown some signs of partially moving to the left in its policy, given the events of the recent period. For example, at its conference there was a 70% support to scrap Trident. But the problem for Labour is that people are so disillusioned with the party that this change is too little and too late. It has not increased support for Labour in Scotland to any real degree.
Such moves at the top have not resulted in any increase in membership as we have seen in England and Wales. An article in the Financial Times showed that whilst the LP membership in London increased by 40,000 since the General Election, but the party in Scotland only increased only 4,000. It is also important to recognize that a significant layer of these new recruits in Scotland will have come from the more conservative layers who opposed the YES Campaign. Labour is currently polled to get 19% in the Holyrood election, same as the Tories, whilst the SNP is on around 60%.
Again, Corbyn, it must be said, has a wrong position on the national question. Rather than understanding the pro-independence sentiments of the working class, he follows the line of the Scottish Labour Left who tend to express a crude anti-nationalism. They make no distinction between the nationalism of the bourgeois and the nationalism of the oppressed, which has a different class content. Corbyn does not even offer Home Rule for Scotland, which would at least be a step forward on the past position.
In the future, a split and radicalisation in the British Labour Party may open up possibilities also in Scotland; but for the moment, the most radicalised layers of society are not looking to Labour in Scotland, which is indelibly tainted by past betrayals, but towards the camp of left nationalism. It is from this environment that the cadres of Marxism will be built in Scotland in the coming period.
The YES movement on the left of the SNP has seen an ebb. The big waves of support RIC and SSP saw after the referendum have dissipated partly due to the natural ebb in the movement in general and partly due to the leadership’s inability to hold together a healthy organisation which can absorb class conscious YES voters, many whom have been lost to the SNP, the Green Party or to political inactivity for now. While the SNP can ride high for quite a while, the party itself is based on a class contradiction. The working class base of the party, which now constitutes the big majority, will increasingly collide with the bourgeois elements in the leadership. The SNP will begin to be pulled in different directions as the slump hits Scotland hard. The party would tend to split on class lines. Signs of this have already been seen. At the SNP 2015 conference a motion was carried that argued for a more radical policy on land reform, despite opposition from the leadership. There was also a lot of debate with motions being passed at branch level against NATO and for an increased living wage.
These small signs are the embryo of future splits which would almost certainly come to the surface in and independent Scotland and possibly before. A layer of the rank and file would become very open to Marxist ideas, the ideas of John MacLean and James Connolly, namely a Scottish Workers’ Republic in a Socialist Federation of these islands, as a stepping-stone to a Socialist Europe and a World Federation of Socialist States. On this basis, a sizable revolutionary party in Scotland could be constructed, linking up with the Marxists throughout Britain and internationally. However, the precondition for this development is the building of a strong Marxist tendency in Scotland.