June­–July 2015        

No substitute for a confident and assertive working class

Tommy McKearney

A motley collection of well-heeled individuals is at present advising the British Labour Party of the need to distance itself still further from the trade union movement and to become ever more accommodating to the needs of capital—all of which is to be carried out under the disarming label of “modernisation” and is about as well intended as if the local fox was asking farmers to leave the door to their hen-houses open.
     Among those calling loudest on the Labour Party to “modernise” is Jim Murphy, the soon-to-be-ex-leader of the Labour Party in Scotland. His cry for change came along with a bitter verbal attack on Len McCluskey, general secretary of Unite, who he accused of bullying. McCluskey’s offence, on the surface, would appear to be to have drawn attention to the rather obvious conclusion that after losing forty seats in Scotland at the recent general election the party north of the Tweed required a fundamental overhaul, including replacing its leader, the said Jim Murphy.
     In reality, their differences go deeper.
     Not that the truculent Scot was alone in demanding that the party move still further to the right. A contender for the party leadership, Yvette Cooper, said in her first major policy intervention that the Labour Party needs to “reset” its relationship with business, promising to back a plan by the Tory government to cut corporation tax and saying that if chosen as party leader she would set up a prominent business advisory group.
     Other Labour bigwigs demanding an even more right-wing programme to restore the party’s fortunes included the Blair era spin-doctor Peter Mandelson. After accusing the former leader Ed Miliband of preaching class struggle, Mandelson went on to advocate a “one-nation” agenda, something that has been at the heart of high-church Tory policy since the time of Disraeli.
     There is little new in this debate. Advocates of free-market capitalism and right-wing social democracy have long contrived to influence working-class politics; moulding Parliament towards adopting a position favourable to capital is hardly a recently discovered tactic. Britain’s ruling class long ago perfected a subtle stratagem of emasculating opponents by absorbing them into the establishment. Central to this strategy has been an emphasis on concentrating all decision-making and power-brokering within the arena of Parliament, and keeping influence well away from grass-roots organisations.
     As this debate about the shape of the Labour Party continues, the condition of Britain’s working class is deteriorating. A few bare facts illustrate the point. For a start, record numbers of people are now at risk of going hungry. The Trussell Trust, a Christian charity, said in April that its food banks (which are not the only ones in Britain) gave more than a million people three days’ food during 2014. A second fact comes from the Office for National Statistics, which reported in February that there were 1.8 million zero-hour contracts.
     Meanwhile the number of those on or near the minimum wage has doubled over the past decade, with 1.2 million employees now earning the minimum rate, while a further 1.3 million workers earn within 50p of the miserable £6.50 per hour—meaning that approximately one-tenth of British workers are poorly paid.
     A third fact is contained in a report produced by an EU research agency that has found that, measured by the Gini index for pay, wage inequality in Britain is the highest in the EU. If this isn’t enough, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, is now committed to cutting a further £12 billion off the social welfare budget.
     Even a cursory glance at these statistics reveals that a significant portion of the British working class is experiencing hardship, and will continue to do so, while at the same time inequality is rampant. There is the additional factor that, in the absence of strong protection for workers’ rights and entitlements, those living in hardship act as a brake on the militancy and self-assertiveness of the rest.
     Taken together, the outcome is a divided and often demoralised working class, stripped of the protections necessary for asserting its demands.
     The answer to this situation is clearly not to make the Labour Party more “business-friendly”; in fact concentrating exclusively on parliamentary politics is in itself a distraction at this time. There is no substitute for creating the conditions that will allow a confident and assertive working class to emerge. This won’t and can’t occur spontaneously or accidentally. Nor will it develop through the choreographed and restricted discussions and debates staged in the media between Oxbridge-educated members of Parliament.
     The obvious vehicle for promoting and nurturing a confident working class is organised labour, acting consciously and with deliberation, both at the local and the regional level, and moreover a labour movement determined to stand up for the class and not confine itself to one section.
     To all appearances, this would seem to be something that Len McCluskey and Unite are attempting to do with their introduction of community branches, aimed at involving sections of society beyond the organised work-place (a policy that, if truth were known, may lie at the heart of the intemperate outburst from Jim Murphy).
     It is still too early to pronounce definitively on the Unite initiative. Huge pressure will be brought to bear on the union from both the advocates of neo-liberalism and its apologists. As Polly Toynbee wrote in the Guardian recently, Britain has some of the toughest anti-union laws in the EU. It would be unrealistic, therefore, to expect too much from one union, and certainly unfair to ask a single union leader to carry all responsibility for an undertaking as massive as restoring working-class confidence. Nevertheless McCluskey and his members are at least asking many of the right questions and offering a valuable option. If it does nothing else, this is opening space for discussion while offering some ground for optimism.
     All of which might be of passing interest to those of us living in Ireland if we weren’t facing many of the same problems being experienced by working people in England. Almost one child in eight in the Republic is living in consistent poverty; there is also an apparently unaccountable wealthy elite; we have a crippling debt burden and see diminishing protection for labour. These are ominous indicators of working-class difficulties.
     There has been a positive development, however, in the broadly based campaign to prevent water taxation and the very welcome support given it by the Right2Water unions. While it is still early days, this is a welcome event and, as with happenings in Britain, gives cause for modest optimism.
     It will be important nevertheless to ensure that what progress has been achieved is not lost in a rush to prop up or accommodate discredited right-of-centre social democracy.

Home page  >  Socialist Voice  >  June­–July 2015  >  No substitute for a confident and assertive working class
Baile  >  Socialist Voice  >  Meitheamh–Iúil 2015  >  No substitute for a confident and assertive working class