This wonderful book was written by News Night’s Industrial correspondent Paul Mason back in 2008, just before the Banking Disaster (which he predicted) unleashed the latest in a long list of capitalist crises on the working class.
It opens with Peterloo, then looks at the loom-workers of Lyon, the Paris Commune, the American Knights of Labour, London dockers, Limoges ceramicists, Argentine conventillos, Wobblies, the pre-1914 German SPD, Shanghai communists, the Jewish Bund in Poland and ends with Turin and Flint car-markers of the 1920s and 1930s. Mason then draws parallels from this century such as struggles in Central America and across India. My only minor complaint is that Paul fails to mention even once the Spanish Civil War and how the class united to fight Fascism even electing officers before going into battle.
Let’s have a shifty at where we are in February 2016 and then have a look at what Mason has to say.
Local Government will be the frontline for the fight back in the UK.
On 8th May 2015 and with just 24% of the vote, David Cameron was able to walk back through the famous black door of Number Ten Downing Street as prime minister. Against the odds, and defying the polls the Tories won a clear majority of Commons seats. If we thought the 2010-15 coalition government was anti worker then, as Ronald Reagan famously quipped, “We ain’t seen nothing yet!”
Chancellor George Osborne wasted little time. On Wednesday 8th July he unveiled an “Emergency Budget” which included unprecedented attacks on working people. £12 billion was to be squeezed from a Social Security budget which already could not prevent 1 million people being in such dire straits that they required referral to a food bank. In an echo of Chairman Mao Osborne adopted what was in effect a “two child” policy by withdrawing all state help for larger families. Cheered on by work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith, the chancellor announced further cuts to the welfare cap and a limit on public sector pay increases to 1%.
The Tory Boot Goes In Aided by Labour
The Labour Party’s response under interim leader Harriet Harman was on July 21st to file through the “Aye” lobby and vote in favour of the Tories attack on welfare. Only 48 Labour MPs had the courage to defy the whips office and do the decent and honourable thing by saying no to an even lower benefit cap of which, to Alison Garnham of the Child Poverty Action Group said, “The upshot will be more families with too little money for absolute basics for children, like food and warmth. (1)
Housing charity Shelter was damning in its assessment of Osborne’s social security cuts, “large parts of the south-east and south-west, and some northern cities, would be unaffordable for many more families…. The benefit cap isn’t just impacting on very expensive postcodes anymore; we’re talking about places like Portsmouth and Basingstoke being off-limits to small, struggling families who need some support.” (2)
These newly announced cuts were in addition to the butchering of local government finance in the previous Parliament which had seen the money available per resident in Hull fall by a whopping £228.36 in 2014/15. (3) The average per head cut was £61 and South Cambridge, a Tory controlled area actually saw a slight increase in local government spending. The cuts were blatant and unrelenting in their focus on non Tory controlled authorities.
McDonnell Slams the Door on Local Government
In September and following Jeremy Corbyn’s triumph in the Labour leadership election, local authority campaigners and trade unions were not unnaturally expecting support in their fight. Local government, many though would be the front line of resistance as it had been in the 1980’s via Liverpool and the Greater London Council. But self styled People’s Chancellor John McDonnell laid waste to any hopes that Labour would come to the rescue by telling the Guardian, ““The situation the councils are now in is if they don’t set a budget, a council officer will do it for them. There is no choice for them anymore.” (4)
Same old, same old. Variations on a theme. The Tories are in government and working people are under the cosh. Again. It felt like we were trapped in a version of the film “Back to the Future” 1980’s style.
Winter 2015/16 saw an escalation of UK involvement in a futile war in the Middle East, the prospect of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) opening up the NHS and other public services to irreversible privatisation, a raft of even more local government cuts (so much so that the MP for Witney, a certain David Cameron wrote a letter bemoaning the situation to his local Oxfordshire Council) and the NHS continue to deteriorate at a rate which was so alarming that Bob Alexander, Chief Executive of the NHS Trust Development Authority told the Healthcare Financial Management Association’s annual conference in December that the Health Service was “in a desperate place” a sentiment echoed by Jim Mackey from NHS Improvement who said, “we cannot let the situation get away from us…..(the NHS deficit of £1.6 billion) is a really serious deterioration” (5)
Back to the Future?
The difference with the 1980’s seemed to be the lack of ability for organised labour to get its act together and actually fight back. “What is it going to take?” was an oft heard sentiment. Even when the People’s Assembly Against Austerity put 250,000 onto the streets of London that June one had to wonder at the point of it all. What was the end game? Otherwise it was all just futile gesture politics. As with the Iraq War protests it proved yet again that governments refuse to listen, and once they are set on a course nothing will halt them.
Mason describes the explosion of Trade Unionism across the world in the first decade of the 20th Century and just what a massive impact this had, which was ultimately wasted as nationalism trumped cross border working class solidarity. Unbelievably the leaders of the workers movement in Germany which had become very powerful were flattered to be brought into the Kaiser’s government, and their Deputies voted unanimously to accept the military budget which allowed the war to begin in earnest. Despite mass anti war demonstrations across the nation the German working class were taken to war with the connivance of their own leaders.
The thing that struck me was just how important the Unions were as a means of social change. From sewing clubs to libraries, from choirs to football teams the Unions were in there organising things and by doing so they were creating a highly educated a politically aware generation. They socialised so many different aspects of life that it freed men, women and young people to become aided auto didactics. And as any educator will tell you, these are the best and most expressive types of learners. Across Europe and the USA the more people became educated, the more they understood Marxism and it’s application and the more they pushed back against the ruling classes.
By 1914 every developed nations workers had experienced struggle and from Dublin to Turin and from Paris to Moscow mass Unionised workplaces and communities were a reality. A reality that scared the ruling classes rotten. But nationalism with it’s quick fixes and easy, exciting solutions gutted the possibilities of the working classes taking power and in Ireland a truly catastrophic mistake saw Socialist activist James Connolly involved in the blood soaked futility of Padraig Pearse’s Easter Rising. This error was compounded by the Irish Labour Party standing down in favour of Sinn Fein in the 1918 election thus denying workers any say in what happened next. The Party is still paying the price.
Perhaps the saddest story of this era was the so called War of the Brothers in post great war Germany. This saw the Left and even Marxists split which allowed the Nazi’s to triumph. The prize was there for the German workers, and within their grasp but petty bickering about who was purest in an ideological sense saw disaster unfold with millions across the world paying the ultimate price.
The biggest difference between then and now is the fragmentation of post industrial society. The larger workplaces are gone and the Tories attempt to wreck local government (abetted even by the Left leaders in the Labour Party) will see even more damage inflicted as the ties that bind us are becoming ever more broken. People point to the internet and especially Social Media as being a new way to foster solidarity. But just what do these interactions mean? It’s easy to “like” a page or post a comment on Osborne’s latest brutal act. But what are the consequences? It’s just letting the air out of the balloon as there’s no real debate or action and people can go back to their day and feel they’ve done something. (I’m basically trashing myself here).
Another difference is the time deficit. These days workers are under the cosh in a way not seen since the early factory era. Call centre staff are timed for comfort breaks and have to perform humiliating rituals around targets (one includes lobbing a small ball into a basket and reciting a ditty to “celebrate” a sale) and bullying including sexual harassment is back with a vengeance. And this may be only one of three jobs for some workers. The unemployed have no time for anything other than proving they’ve been looking for work, and the sweat of fear for zero hours workers is a weekly phenomenon as they wait for rotas to be published. Sports Direct workers were subjected to searches after every shift and were not paid for this time.
Ultimately the Labour Party has failed workers as it continues to implement Austerity on behalf of the Tories. And this is with a Left leader and chancellor! This puts workers in a real bind as despite being elected with a massive mandate for socialism the Left is utterly incapable of overturning the vested interests in the Labour Party. Instead they have decided on a policy of detente with the pro market majority that form the Parliamentary Labour Party, the National Executive Committee and the farce that is the National Policy Forum. The Left has trimmed, as we have seen on Local Government, Syria (by having a free vote), Trident where they advocate buying a massively expensive weapons system and not arming it (brilliant!) and most disingenuously on Europe. They constantly advocated leaving the EU and as Labour MP Kate Hoey explained to the Guardian, ““We were joined on many occasions over the last 20-odd years in the lobby when we were doing our bit to oppose the various treaties and issues which were furthering EU domination of our country. Jeremy was always with us and John McDonnell was always with us”. (6)
A New Workers Party?
Where does this abrogation of their mandate by the Left in Labour leave workers now as any possible chance of the Party ever becoming the conduit for socialism has surely gone up in smoke? Individual campaign issues are a useful way of networking with fellow travellers but as the People’s Assembly has shown unless you have an overarching narrative and a programme for transforming society, it becomes all a bit futile and demoralizing.
That’s why the time is absolutely right for a new Party which can articulate the needs of the working class. And let’s face it with the most grotesque inequality in living memory here and across the globe it’s only the 1% who are not workers now in the true sense of the word.
These opportunities do not come along very often. If the Left has the courage to follow what the 400k £3 voters envisage for us then there is a very deep well of public support to be drawn on and if the Unions could find their voice again as in Paul’s book the sky’s the limit. You can YouTube if you want to but unless the Left grasps the nettle now and get’s out there in the community by organising a mass socialist party with a programme for a planned economy this is going to be at least a ten year Tory Government, and we all know what that means.
- Roger Harding, Shelter’s director of communications, policy and campaign July 2015.
- Darren Hale
- 25th September http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/sep/25/john-mcdonnell-labour-will-match-osborne-and-live-within-our-means
- 10th December 2015 http://www.publicfinance.co.uk/news/2015/12/nhs-finances-must-be-restored-next-year-says-mackey
- Guardian 20th Jan 2016 http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/jan/20/labour-eurosceptics-accuse-corbyn-reversing-position-eu-referendum