Britain - The working class, the general election and the crisis

Apr/Jun 2010

As this issue of our journal goes to press, the campaign for the May 6th general election is coming to a close. With less than 2 weeks to go before polling day, everything has been said and done, all the tricks of the politicians' worn out election circus have been used and nothing significant is likely to happen any more - except the announcement of the election result itself, of course.

On this account, the ups and downs of opinion polls, according to which from day to day, the three parties seem to be playing musical chairs, may point to a very close vote. But then, since these polls are based on samples of a few hundred individuals each, who may or may not be representative of the electorate, no-one can be sure as to what they really mean. Especially given the extremely erratic way in which the first-past-the-post system reflects the choices made by voters with their ballot papers: after all, in theory, the same proportion of the popular vote could give any one party an absolute majority in the Commons or fewer MPs than both its rivals, depending on how its votes are distributed nationally.

Of course, one could take some comfort from the sight of politicians frantically trying to overcome the discredit caused both by their political records and by scandals such as the expenses saga. And yes, they had every reason to worry that, despite the unprecedented media profile given to the election campaign, the turnout would end up being disparagingly low, thereby depriving the future government of any political or moral legitimacy. Just as Labour and the Tories had every reason to worry about the possibility of a "hung" Parliament. Not because this would make it necessarily more difficult for them to govern, though. After all, hasn't Brown steered his boat through the storm of the crisis on the basis of a cross-party pro-business consensus on all the issues that really mattered? No, their only problem with a "hung" Parliament is that they would have to share the perks of power with the third gang on the block, Clegg's Lib Dems - which is a no-no for such seasoned spongers!

But how can any of this really matter for the working class? If this election campaign has achieved anything, it is certainly that it has highlighted how little difference there is between the three main rivals regarding the real issues which have been thrown up by the past two years of economic crisis. The heads may or may not change in the Commons and in Downing Street, but whatever happens, one can be sure that the government and its state machinery will remain, as much as it has been over the past 13 years of Labour rule, instruments of the bosses in their offensive against the jobs and standard of living of the working class majority of this country.

This is why there is no stake whatsoever for the working class in this election. Not only is its outcome a foregone conclusion in terms of the actual policies which will be followed from May 7th, regardless of which party or parties get into office, but there is no way in which working class voters can even use their ballot papers to express their anger and condemnation of the pro-business policies implemented by Labour, because all the other main parties champion exactly the same policies, regardless of the packaging they put around them.

No, if anything decisive for the working class happens in the coming weeks and months, it will not be as a result of this election, but as a result of its own activity, its own struggles to stop the offensive of the bosses and break the back of the austerity policy that their auxiliaries in government, whoever they may be, will try to force down workers' throats, and to start regaining the ground lost over the past years.

Every reason to be angry

Indeed, the working class has already lost plenty of ground due to the bosses' offensive, ground that will have to be regained, one way or another. Significantly the consequences of the crisis for working people hardly featured in the politicians' speeches during this election campaign. And for good reason, since it is their policies and their profit system which are the cause of the damage.

The politicians' so-called "recovery" is proving elusive, even in their own terms, judging from the latest 0.2% growth figure for the 1st quarter of the year. Only the wealthy seem to be "recovering", as was shown by the Sunday Times' annual Rich List released in April. Britain's 1000 richest individuals have seen their collective wealth increase by 30% in 2009 - that is, during the very same year which saw the largest number of job cuts of the crisis so far. Of course, unlike the hundreds of thousands who were pushed onto the dole during that year, the wealthy have benefited from the resurgence of speculation on the stock market, stoked by the state's massive bailout of the financial system.

But no "recovery" is on the cards for working class jobs. The balance sheet of the crisis - so far - is a total of over 1.8 million redundancies between mid-2007 and the end of 2009. And the bosses' axe is still claiming its toll.

In fact, the government's official "experts" admit that, even on the basis of their so-called "recovery", unemployment is unlikely to stop increasing before 2012. Indeed, the latest official jobless figures show that, for the first time since December 1994, the Labour Force Survey count has broken through the 2.5 million barrier. Over the 3 months to February 2010, the number of workers unemployed for over 6 months increased to 1.22m and for over 12 months to 726,000 - the highest figure since August 1997!

Even these rising figures underestimate the true situation. Possibly a more accurate reflection of the problem, however, is provided by the measure of "economic inactivity" - people of working age without a job, which is at a record high of 8.16 million, or 21.5%! Official commentators explain away this increase by claiming that this is partly due to a rising number of students, which may be partly true. But they also acknowledge that if more youth continue their studies, it is also because they cannot find a job - after all 25% of the 18-25 year olds are already unemployed! What these commentators do not say, however, is that the rest of the rise in "economic inactivity" is simply due to more unemployed giving up any hope of finding a job and deciding to stop signing on, because they have nothing to gain from it, except on-going hassle under the pretext of "helping them back into work" - when there is no decent job to go back into.

For workers in work, the situation has been deteriorating as well. The TUC research department has been publishing a monthly "Recession Report" since the beginning of the crisis, which gives some indication of this - although in March it discontinued this report, no doubt out of loyalty to Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling's assertions that the "recovery" has begun!

The most recent issue of this report, dated 16 March, points out that the number of people in temporary jobs (the total is 497,000) was 120,000 higher than 12 months ago, in March 2009. What is more, there are 1,041,000 part-time workers who could not find a full-time job, which is 269,000 higher than last year! According to the TUC, the category of "involuntary" temporary and part-time workers - those who want and need a permanent, full-time, job - now includes 34.6% of all temps and 25% of all male part-timers. But the fact is that new permanent full-time jobs are not being created in the economy.

To this balance sheet of the crisis should be added the numerous cases of wage cuts, in various shapes and forms, which have been imposed on workers over the past two years, the deterioration in working conditions whereby the intensity of work has been increased to make "savings" - thereby allowing more jobs to be cut - among many other attacks against workers.

So, yes, there is every reason for the working class to be angry against a capitalist class whose profiteering has caused the crisis in the first place; angry against politicians who have used their position of power to plunder public funds for the benefit of the wealthy; and angry against a system which has nothing to offer the working population but hardship, while the capitalists line their pockets on the back of workers' labour, using them as long as they can squeeze profits out of them and throwing them onto the junk pile when they no longer need them.

What they have in store

Whether before or during the election campaign, the main parties have made no mystery of the nature of their plans. Austerity is the name of their game and the working class will have to pay for it, by massive cuts in public sector jobs and, as a result, massive cuts in the public services which are especially vital for the poorest. Whatever the pretext may be, this means yet another wave of attacks against the working class majority.

Of course, the politicians all make use of the same excuse. The state's ballooning public debt and budget deficit are "unsustainable". Sure they are. Having squandered hundreds of billions of public funds, first in the first of handouts to the capitalist class over the past decades and, since the beginning of the crisis, in the form of several bailouts, public finances have turned into a black hole. And in this capitalist world, where speculators rule the roost, such a black hole may spell disaster, as was illustrated by the threat of bankruptcy faced recently by Greece, Iceland and, to a lesser extent, Ireland.

The three main parties worked hard at trying to convince voters that there were differences between them in terms of how they planned to deal with these austerity measures. They threw figures at each other's faces, made out that the issue was not so much the size of the cuts than their timing and that, in that respect, there were deep differences between them. Weren't the Tories championing £6bn worth of cuts to be implemented this year, whereas Labour's budget had only pencilled its £26bn worth of cuts to start in 2011? This alleged difference was, of course, pure nonsense, given that Labour has already cut public expenditure for this year (as part of last year's budget), meaning that the cuts are already there, with or without the Tories!

In any case, there was no disagreement among them as to the nature of the cuts that needed to be made. Of course, the Lib Dems made a point of championing the scrapping of the incredible waste represented by the £80bn Trident nuclear missiles renewal programme. But then they were not taking much risk since they will never be in a position to implement such a pledge. On the other hand, all three parties, including the Lib Dems, agreed on the need to "cut waste" in the public sector. Of course, they did not all use such language, which was directly borrowed by the Tories from the propaganda of the bosses' organisation CBI. But this is exactly what Labour's "cutting the back office" has always meant, namely reducing the public sector wage bill to the bare bone, regardless of the consequences for public services.

None of the parties actually bothered to spell out what the consequences of their austerity programmes were likely to be, whether in terms of jobs or in terms of services - assuming this is something they had actually worked out, which is doubtful. Even if they had, this would have been far too much of a turn off for voters and they just could not take that kind of risk.

However, some commentators have investigated what the impact of these austerity drives might be. One of these studies, for instance, published by an accounting think tank, used as its starting point the expenditure cuts announced in Darling's last budget for the coming years and its public debt reduction objective. On the basis of this data, it came up with an estimated 500,000 job cuts across the public sector - just under 10% of the total! If accurate, this would mean that, not even counting the private sector which is still shedding jobs left right and centre, the working class is still staring in the face of 1/3 as many job cuts as during the past two years of recession! This study did not go any further, to measure, for instance, the impact on consumption - and therefore the economy as a whole - of this huge increase in the army of the jobless. Nor, of course, did it measure the human cost of such ruthless measures, which cannot be quantified, but is nonetheless unacceptable!

For its part, the bosses' paper Financial Times which is even less concerned by the human cost of policies, published on April 26 the result of a study aimed at measuring the qualitative impact of these austerity measures on public services. And these were some of its conclusions, still based on the assumptions made in Darling's budget: "A 5% cut in public sector pay; freezing benefits for a year; means-testing child benefit; abolishing winter fuel payments and free television licences; reducing prison numbers by a quarter; axing the two planned aircraft carriers; withdrawing free bus passes for pensioners; delaying Crossrail for three years; halving roads maintenance; stopping school building; halving the spending on teaching assistants and NHS dentistry; and cutting funding to Scotland and Wales by 10 per cent. And this is without even taking into account of the consequences of having fewer teachers in school, fewer nurses or porters in hospitals, fewer clerical workers to deal with benefits and pensions, etc..

But this is not necessarily even the end of the story, because the extent of these austerity measures is based on the premise that the economy (and therefore the tax receipts of the state) will increase continuously in the coming months and years - meaning, in particular, that there will be no second "double-dip" recession to derail these predictions. It is also based on the premise that Britain will not be targeted by a speculative wave large enough to threaten its public finances with bankruptcy - as was the case for Greece - which cannot be entirely ruled out, since the size of Britain's budget deficit and public debt compared to the size of its economy is not all that different from that of Greece. And there are still other risks which could make the crisis even worse and the austerity drive even more drastic: for instance, if more losses, hidden away so far in the banking system, suddenly resurfaced prompting a new banking bailout, as has just happened in Ireland.

The future will be decided in the class struggle

No-one can claim to be able to say reliably how serious these risks are, least of all the politicians and their economic "experts", if only because these risks are built into the workings of a profit system in which they have a vested interest.

The point is that, as experience shows, the profit system just cannot be trusted. And the same applies to these austerity measures: the working class knows where and how they start, but it cannot be sure how long they will go on, nor how much damage they will cause. So the best bet is to resist the whole lot of them right from the word go. Any other policy would amount to signing a blank cheque for the profiteers and job slashers.

From this point of view, the working class will be in exactly the same position after May 6th, as it was before. It will remain confronted by a ruthless bosses' offensive aimed at making the working population pay for the crisis. Only, by then, the politicians will no longer be constrained by their rivalries to win votes. And the bosses' offensive will resume, more brutal than ever, and this time, with the unrestrained support of the politicians in power, whoever they may be.

This is what the working class needs to prepare for. It has the means to face up to this offensive. Whatever the finance whizz kids may claim, wealth is not produced in the electronic wires of the City: every single penny of it is produced by workers' labour in this society. What the working class has to build is the capacity to use its collective strength, without allowing itself to be weakened by the artificial divisions created within its ranks by the bosses.

In particular, the media rant aimed at setting private sector workers against public sector workers, using spurious lies about the "privileges" supposedly enjoyed by low-paid public workers, is a typical example of the artificial divisions that will have to be broken down once and for all.

The day the government in office starts cutting jobs in one or another section of the public sector - this will be the day when the working class will need to find the energy and the determination to stand up behind the old motto of the working class movement, "an injury to one is an injury to all", and to join ranks to defend the jobs and services under attack.

And the issue is not whether the right to strike is constrained or not by the law, as workers are so often told by their union leaders. If the working class had always abided by the anti-strike laws of the bosses, there would be no working class movement today, anywhere, and certainly no trade unions in Britain. It was, on the contrary, because they were prepared to defy the bosses, their laws and their courts, that workers were able to build a large militant union, like the Transport and General Workers' Union used to be in the early part of the 20th century.

Today, faced with the bosses' most wide-ranging offensive in memory and the deepest economic crisis for many decades, there is no option for the working class other than to fight back. And no option other than to re-learn again how to use all its collective strength, in order to make the bosses pay for the crisis of their own system.

The future of the working class majority of the population could not be decided in the ballot box. But it can be decided in the streets, in the workplaces, using the weapons of the class struggle - the only weapons which allow workers to defend their collective interests, as a class, in the class war that the bosses are waging against them.