Britain - The Tories on their way out - and then what?

Jan/Feb 1997

Since Major's government lost its absolute majority in the Commons, following the east Barnsley by-election in December, commentators have been watching their crystal balls, speculating on the possible date for an early election. Not that this matters in any way. Whether in February, March or May, this election will make no difference whatsoever for working people.

However, this speculation can only reinforce the end-of-an-era atmosphere already created by the Tories' on-going rift over European integration and their numerous factional wrangles. So Major's leading rivals are now preparing his succession almost openly. Meanwhile, the party's smaller "loony" factions are having a field day bringing up their favourite hobby-horses, in the knowledge that, for once, Major's precarious parliamentary situation might allow them to gain minor concessions.

Three Tory MPs have already changed sides in the Commons since last September. Several others have resisted or defied the party whip over various issues - including the European single currency, the non-disclosure by ministers of official documents, the lack of funding for a local hospital, etc. - apparently more to distance themselves from Major's policies in front of their electorate than to make a political point in front of their party. Finally, last but not least, a dozen or so pro-European Tory MPs have now approached the Liberal Democrats, seeking some kind of alliance in advance of the general election. In short, it looks as if the rats are beginning to leave Major's sinking ship.

But probably the most striking feature of this transition period before the general election, is the low-key profile of the Labour party. Far from trying to assert itself by taking advantage of Major's many weak points, Blair seems to be opting as often as he can either for a bi-partisan approach or, in any case, for the tamest possible opposition.

Thus Labour had hardly anything to say about last November's budget, except a vague protest over the crass electoral preoccupations illustrated by Clarke's tax cuts. Blair's only response was to promise yet more tax cuts - worth £1.6bn - for his first budget once in office. But no-one heard Labour's frontbench take up the government over the scrapping of single-parent benefit for new claimants, over the cuts imposed on 380,000 claimants living in rented accommodation, let alone over the new gifts granted to the rich - such as the reduction of employers' NIC and inheritance tax.

True, on most issues Labour's policies are not different from that of the Tories anyway. But agreement on the political content does not usually prevent Labour from marking its opposition to the government, at least over the packaging. Not any more these days, though. By the same token, Labour is providing Major's ailing government with a much-needed crutch and the parliamentary institutions with the ounce of respectability needed to compensate for the present hysteria among Tory backbenchers. Presumably, this attitude is aimed at demonstrating to the floating electorate how much more united and consistent Labour is, compared to the chaos in the Tory party. But more importantly, it is Labour's way of showing to the bourgeoisie that, even while still in opposition, it is willing to act as a governmental party in waiting, whose primary concern is the interests of the state - that is that of the bourgeoisie - rather than its own narrow party interests.

The no-stake election

Labour's attitude today in the face of the Tory's collapsing majority is yet another indication, after many others in the past few years, of the kind of government Labour will deliver after the next election - if it is indeed elected as its large lead in the opinion polls would indicate. It will be a government exclusively accountable to the capitalist class and primarily concerned with preserving the vested interests of the rich.

Moreover this government will be responsive to the slightest pressure from its masters, always desperate to prove its loyalty by giving in to their demands and, whenever possible, by anticipating them. The new series of about-turns made recently by Blair - whether over the future of state pensions, the abolition of the House of Lords or the referendum on the European single currency - show how volatile even the most innocuous of Labour's commitments can be.

Stating that no gains will be made by the working class through electing a Labour government is almost a cliche by now. The Labour leadership, and its partners in the union bureaucracy, have gone out of their way to lecture workers on the fact that there will be no "free ride" or "easy bonus" to expect. The measures which they have announced or hinted at so far, concerning benefits, unemployment, the Health Service, public services and in general every aspect of the social role of the state, all have a common feature: they start from the present state inherited from the past 17 years of austerity and carry on in the same direction, or go much further with even more restrictions.

The Labour leaders have also stressed again and again that even the few promises concerning workers' conditions that have not yet disappeared from their election manifesto - namely that of a minimum wage and the implementation of the European Social Chapter - will be entirely subject to a voluntary agreement with the employers, and to "conditions being right in the economy". Even their present watered down version of the "new union rights" which they have been promising for a long time, to compensate for their refusal to repeal the Tories' anti-strike laws, could prove more restrictive than the rights enjoyed today by millions of workers. By imposing as a prerequisite for union recognition - a procedure which is comparable to that used in the USA - requiring 50% of the workforce to vote in favour of one union, they could allow many employers to use these so-called "rights" to scrap long-standing agreements and withdraw union recognition!

Governments are only instruments of the capitalist class

As a result of all this, most workers have very few hopes left, if any at all, that short term changes under a Labour government are likely. But what has probably not dawned on the vast majority of workers yet, is the fact that the coming period, once the dust of the election has settled down, will see the same rot carrying on, without any breathing space for the working class; and that, in fact, it could actually prove even worse than what they have experienced so far - and this, regardless of which government is in office.

This is because the government is one thing and the capitalist class is another. Governments are instruments of the capitalist class, but they act on a different level. Thus, the damage inflicted on the working class over the past two decades were inflicted much more by the bosses themselves than by the various Tory governments.

Initially Thatcher did show the way to the employers, by creating legal weapons that they could use - to break strikes or to reduce wages - and by using the entire resources of the state to inflict spectacular defeats on selected sections of workers, like the steel workers and the miners. In doing so, she was merely implementing policies that leading capitalists had been demanding for a long time. But these policies were certainly decisive in preparing the ground for what came afterwards, by creating a balance of forces which was dangerously tilted against the working class.

In the period from the defeat of the miners' strike, in 1985, to the last recession, i.e. roughly to the 1992 election, the austerity policies of the Tory governments, whether in terms of a wage freeze and job cuts in the public sector, or in terms of cutting social expenditure, were only consistent with, and parallel to what was being done at the same time by the employers across the economy. But they did not alter the social balance of forces by themselves. The only additional bonus they involved for the bourgeoisie was to increase the amount of public funds made available to them through tax cuts and all kinds of subsidies and handouts. During that period, those who really imposed a drastic squeeze on working conditions, reduced wages, launched the massive waves of job cuts of the 80s and the 90s, etc., were not ministers or MPs, but company directors and shareholders.

Since 1992, the Major government has gone back on to the offensive against the working class in one respect - by increasing the pressure on the unemployed and claimants in general, thereby facilitating the drastic drop in the wages earned by a whole section of the working class and the parallel development of casual and part-time jobs. This process is still going on, being accelerated by the introduction of the new Job Seeker's Allowance, pilot Workfare schemes, etc.. And it could tilt the balance of forces further against workers if these schemes proved effective in depriving an increasing number of unemployed of any income - which is what their aim is.

But in what way can this process of casualisation be altered, let alone reversed by the coming election itself? If the Tories win, they will carry on as planned. If Labour wins, it intends to keep the JSA as it is and to introduce a much larger Workfare scheme. In other words, in this process of casualisation, a Labour government will at best weigh as much against the working class as Major's government. The only thing which could slow down this process, the enforcement of a decent national minimum wage, is already in doubt. First, because of the delay before it is introduced, according to Labour's own stated intentions. Second, because, again according to Labour's statements, it will be subject to all sorts of exemptions which are likely to affect precisely those who are most in need of such a measure. Third, because there will be no legal means to enforce it, except the usual endless industrial tribunal procedures. In other words, even if a decent minimum wage was indeed introduced, it will take a significant shift in the balance of forces for the bosses, small or big, to feel that they have no other choice but to implement it.

And this is true of every aspect of the conditions imposed today on the working class. The wave of large-scale mergers, takeovers and restructuring which is taking place today, is threatening to add many more hundreds of thousands to the dole queues. If yet more jobs are being cut, today, in most cases by vastly profitable companies, it is primarily because they are confident that they can get away with it. And it is not the Labour party, which declares its willingness to do nothing that could be an obstacle to capitalist profit, that will weaken the confidence of these companies. The same is true of the crazy working conditions - in terms of safety and working hours - which are being increasingly imposed in certain industries,

At the end of the day, no change in government can be decisive, because the only decisive factor is the relationship of forces in society, in other words the confidence or lack of confidence of the employers in their ability to tighten the screw on the working class, or to put it another way, their fear of the possible reactions of the working class. And in today's context, when the capitalist class so arrogantly displays its profit while attacking constantly, and just as ostentatiously, workers' conditions, thereby showing that it simply dismisses the possibility of a backlash, then there are reasons to believe that the treatment they have in store for the working class could turn out to be even worse than what we have seen in the past - even more so if they have, at their service, a government which feels it has to prove its effectiveness to the capitalists and will do just about anything to that end.

The need to reverse the balance of forces

There can be no shortcut for the working class. The balance of forces in society needs to be reversed, if the rot of the past two decades is to be stopped and even more so if lost ground is to be regained. And this is something that can only be achieved in one way - through the class struggle.

Over the past decade, there have been many instances of the traditional one-day strikes stage-managed by the union bureaucracy, in which workers lose little but stand to gain even less. Other than that, with the exception of a few particular cases of large-scale unofficial disputes in engineering or the post office, the scene of the class struggle has been overwhelmingly dominated by a long series of isolated and protracted disputes in which small groups of strikers, sometimes as large as one or two hundred, sometimes as small as a dozen, fought courageously for months on end.

All these strikes have been defensive, imposed on workers by brutal attacks from their employers. To their credit, these small groups of workers chose to fight rather than keep their heads down. However, due to their isolation and the small numbers involved, these disputes did not, and could not even have begun to change the social balance of forces. Even in periods when there were half-a-dozen or more such strikes taking place simultaneously in the country, they could not remotely have been seen as a threat, nor even a potential one, by other employers.

Despite the courage of the workers involved, these disputes could only have a demoralising effect on the working class as a whole. The fact that they remained isolated for so many months; the endless picket lines, day in and day out, often submitted to the harassment of the police, and yet, invariably failing to affect the employers seriously; the fact that over all these months, there was generally not one real point scored against the bosses; all this played a role in convincing many workers, at least outside the small ranks of the trade-union and political left, that strike action and the class struggle were not viable options for them.

With the possible exception of one or two among these disputes, there was probably little more that the strikers themselves could have done, given their small numbers, the economic context, particularly the pressure of unemployment, and above all the systematic opposition of the union leaderships to organise any kind of real fightback over the whole period. And the "support groups" which were often set up around these strikes by the left did, and could have done no more than to organise, more or less effectively, the small milieu of the left to collect money for the strikers. What these strikes would have needed was something that the "support groups" could not deliver - the militant support of other groups of workers, joining ranks with the strikers in a fight for common demands. Only the strikers themselves might have been able to achieve this, assuming they had the minimum numerical force required and that they had the policy needed and the determination to implement it.

Today, the scene of the class struggle is still more or less the same as in the past years. It is still dominated by a few similar protracted strikes, such as that of the Liverpool Dockers, which is already over a year old, or more recent ones, such as the Magnet strike in Darlington or the Glacier occupation in Glasgow. And, of course, the courage and determination of the workers involved in these disputes deserves the respect and support of revolutionary activists. But revolutionary activists should not be so complacent as to allow themselves, and others, to be lured into thinking that such strikes, with or without the backing of "support groups", may herald a return to the level of class struggle which would be needed today to turn the tide and reverse the balance of forces in the class struggle.

The capitalists are waging a class war against the working class, and this is what the class struggle, seen from the side of the working class, should be too. The capitalists stand as one more or less consistent and organised block, in their attacks against workers, and this is what the working class needs to have as its objective too.

And what revolutionaries should be saying clearly, above all else, including during this election period, is that, yes, the working class, and only the working class, has the capacity to reverse the social balance of forces to its advantage and stop the rot; but only by using its own weapons, those of the class struggle. That to achieve this, it will have to emerge as a force which could really threaten the profits of the capitalists; it will have to refuse to allow itself to be isolated in one factory, or one industry; on the contrary, it will have to bring together in the struggle as many forces as it can, first and foremost from within its ranks, across factories, industries and regions, but also from among the youth and the unemployed; and it will have to weld these forces into an army which can, at last, be effective in the class war against capital.