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British Perspectives 2015

Socialist Party documents

British Perspectives 2015

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Potential flashpoints for class struggle

50. There are multiple issues over which struggle could develop in the next period. When there is a seemingly immovable blockage at the top, workers search for a way round it. Explosions can take place on all kinds of issues, sometimes of a seemingly secondary character, as workers search for an effective means of fighting back. And given the scale of attacks on the working class there are a huge number of major issues where there is a need for a fightback. In the second half of 2014, we saw the development of a number of important community based struggles in London in defence of social housing and opposing social cleansing. These struggles were led, in the main, by women. The New Era campaign ended with an important victory before Christmas, with their campaign forcing the millionaire property tycoons Westbrook to sell the estate to a charity that has pledged not to increase rents for at least a year. Of course, this does not preclude the charity trying to raise rents in the future but is still a huge improvement on the doubling of their rents the tenants previously faced. This success will fuel the already growing number of similar campaigns. We have also seen the beginning of attempts to prevent evictions by private landlords, which has the potential to develop into the kind of movement that has taken place in Spain in recent years.

51. There is potential for a mass movement on the NHS. After the election, as - whoever wins the election - more hospitals are threatened with closure and waiting times continue to increase, we are likely to see a new round of huge local demonstrations like the 50,000 who marched in Stafford in 2013. This will have the potential to come together in a national campaign. We are also likely to see clashes around the latest devastating round of cuts to local authorities, possibly even before the general election. Where the unions continue to block action, community campaigns in defence of local services can spring up.

52. We should also be prepared for uprisings of the poorest in society. These could take the form of riots but more akin to the food riots of the 1930s than to riots in more recent times. They could also take a more organised form with mass seizing of food and goods from supermarkets. When benefits are being slashed out of existence, almost 850,000 have had their measly benefits sanctioned since 2012 and some people are even dying of hunger while the supermarkets are filled with every foodstuff imaginable, it is inevitable we will see people prepared to take action into their own hands.

53. It is already clear that for the trade union movement there are two central issues: workers' pay and the right to organise. On the latter, if the Tories were to be the largest party they would attempt to step up their current assault on the trade unions right to organise, which have already included increasing attacks on union facility time. In the case of PCS in particular, this along with the removal of check-off and the establishing of a rival scab union, constitutes the single biggest attack on a trade union since Thatcher targeted the NUM 30 years ago. The union has to be defended by the wider union movement. A new Cameron government could go further, for example, move to try and ban strike action in 'essential services', an anti-union law that they have already mooted and exists in a number of other countries. This would be extremely short-sighted of them, as we have previously explained. A threat to significantly increase Britain's already draconian anti-union laws could immediately put the question of a 24-hour general strike on the agenda. Under this government, the TUC has been forced - for the first time since the 1980s - to talk about calling a 24-hour general strike but have taken no steps whatsoever to do so, terrified of the scale of the movement they might unleash. Nonetheless, particularly if the right-wing trade union leaders feel their own existence is threatened by attacks on union rights, they could be forced to call action. There is a comparison with the mighty general strike that recently took place in Belgium. Given the likely extreme weakness of a Tory-led coalition, even the threat of such a strike could potentially force the Tories out of office. It is less likely that a Labour-led government would launch a further assault on trade union rights in the short term, although they will certainly not repeal the vast bulk of the existing anti-trade union laws. However, under pressure from the capitalist press and the Tories to 'stand up to the union barons', it is possible Miliband will attempt measures in this direction at a certain stage, which would also provoke mass opposition.

54. On the question of pay, the union leaders have already been forced to call co-ordinated action in the public sector and - after seven years of pay cuts - this will be a growing issue for all workers beyond the general election. Pay is an issue, above all, for the growing army of predominantly young workers who face a future of endless low-paid, insecure employment. The vast majority of these workers are not members of trade unions, nor do they automatically see them as a means to fight back. The trade unions are potentially the most powerful force in society and when they give a lead they are seen very positively by the majority - over 80% of people supported the left union leaders call for a general strike against austerity in 2012, for example. However, given majority of the union leaders' repeated failure to lead a serious struggle against austerity they can also be seen - particularly by young workers - as one more part of a discredited and corrupt establishment.

55. This will not prevent the new generation of super-oppressed workers, who currently mainly see their misery as an individual rather a collective problem, beginning to get organised and taking action for better pay and conditions. The ground is being prepared for a modern version of 'new unionism' which erupted at the end of the nineteenth century and gave birth to the general trade unions. In some cases, young workers might take semi-organised action without initially joining a trade union. Once they have taken action, however, getting organised will be immediately posed and the majority will turn to the existing trade unions for help, only moving to found new unions if they are consistently blocked from taking effective action within the old. It is an urgent task for the union movement to begin to fight to organise the mass of low-paid, super-exploited workers. The unions are a powerful force, with over six million members, but until they reach out to this layer they will be increasingly concentrated among a shrinking number of older, predominantly public sector workers. Notwithstanding its modest size, the Bakers Union (BFAWU) is playing a vital role, first in taking on and defeating zero hour contracts in Wigan, then by working together with Youth Fight for Jobs and others to energetically build the Fast Food Rights Campaign. The fact that the TUC adopted the campaign's demand for a 10 an hour minimum wage now is a vital tool in the campaign against low pay. We need to campaign across the trade union movement for this demand to be not just adopted in words but actively fought for.

56. There will be a whole number of other issues around which struggle can develop in the next period. The student demonstration this autumn, while modest in size, still demonstrated that - after the defeat in 2010 - there is a new generation of students beginning to fight back on the issues of fees and cuts to education. If Labour do not move to reduce fees - and there is no indication that they will - we could see a sizeable movement on this issue.

57. While economic issues are to the fore in most workers and young people's minds, this does not mean that there aren't other issues around which protests can develop. While protests on environmental issues have been small in Britain in recent years, this year the demonstration attracted a layer of young people who were searching for a socialist alternative. The movement sweeping the US in the wake of a series of police killings of young black people has also had an echo here. While police brutality and racism is not on the same scale in Britain as in the US, there were 34 deaths of Black and Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) people by the Metropolitan Police between 2004 and 2012. In the last month of 2014, there were a number of protests of more than a thousand, predominantly black young people, in solidarity with the movement in the US. If there are new prominent cases of police violence and racism in Britain, a much bigger movement could erupt. We could also see further demonstrations demanding the right to protest which have begun to develop on some university campuses.

58. There are also a number of issues which could lead to movements against women's oppression. Among a layer of women there has been a growing identification with feminism over the last few years, although this has not cohered into a movement. Ten years ago many young women believed - until their life experience taught them otherwise - that they lived in a post-feminist world, in which women had won equality. However, today - partly in reaction to an increased acceptance of blatant sexism in the capitalist media and to some degree society - that mood has changed. The various abuse scandals involving high-profile figures have increased both anger and also the confidence to speak out against sexual abuse. Another vital factor in the change of mood is related to the economic situation. When the economy was growing, many young people, not least young women, were able to believe they had a fulfilling and well-paid career ahead of them. Even if this did not prove to be true it fitted with the dream of a 'post-feminist' equal world. Now, however, millions of people can see that the best society has to offer them is a zero hour, minimum wage job. Of course, the primary result of this is a growth in class anger, but particularly before there is a united movement to fight for better wages and conditions, it can also be seen by some people that their miserable fate is caused by their specific oppression. And of course it is true both that many of the jobs on offer (retail, catering, cleaning) have traditionally been sectors with a high proportion of women workers, and also that it is a disproportionate number of both women and black and Asian workers who, for example, are on zero-hour contracts.

59. In the workplace, the only way to fight back is so clearly a united movement of all workers - men and women, black and white - that this will undoubtedly be the overwhelming trend in the battle for decent well-paid, permanent jobs. Equally, women who have been, and are likely to continue to be, at the centre of struggles in defence of public services, both as workers and service users, see this as a united struggle rather than one for women alone. However, other issues can arise which could lead to the cohering of a certain feminist movement which looks more in the direction of 'identity politics'. For example, given the dysfunctional character of the parliamentary Tory Party, it is not excluded that a Tory minority government could move a certain curtailing of abortion rights, backed up by UKIP and the Unionists. This does not seem on the agenda at the moment but, if it were to happen, it would provoke a major movement. It is also possible that further revelations of the child abuse scandals in the upper echelons of British society could act as a mobilising issue. Identity politics does not offer a route to successfully combating the oppression of women. However, in capitalist society reactionary ideas and practices are deeply ingrained, not least because they serve to divide the working class. To win women attracted to feminism to the struggle for socialism, it is vital that we fight for the workers' movement to take a clear stance against oppression and on all other issues relating to sexual abuse and the oppression of women.

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