Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2107

Crisis and revolt

This article is over 13 years, 7 months old
The growing economic and political panic has created a shift in society, argues Chris Bambery
Issue 2107

One year on from Gordon Brown becoming prime minister, we have passed a tipping point. At some time in recent weeks a number of events have added up to create a shift in the political situation in this country.

Since late last year Gordon Brown’s government has been in a tailspin that it cannot pull out of.

But what was a crisis for New Labour has become a much wider one, with growing numbers of people questioning what were once regarded as economic and political certainties.

The central issues are very basic ones – the cornerstones of life, such as food and fuel. People know that prices for these necessities are surging way ahead of the official inflation figure of 3.3 percent.

There is a growing realisation that these hikes hit working class people hardest, including pensioners, those out of work and the very low paid.

They all spend proportionally more of their income on fuel and food than the rich.

Chancellor Alistair Darling, the governor of the Bank of England Mervyn King and newspaper editorials are all telling us to tighten our belts and accept below-inflation pay “increases”.

But despite the growing global recession there is no sign of anyone accepting below-inflation pay increases in the City of London’s boardrooms.

Instead, the rich continue to flaunt the wealth they’ve accrued under New Labour and the Tories at summer social events, such as last week’s Royal Ascot race meeting.

When asked about the impact of a global recession on Britain, Darling dismissed the question saying the country had weathered such things in the 1980s and 1990s.

What he failed to mention was that these were times of historically low levels of working class resistance as strike figures fell.

Today if you read the financial pages there is a sense of panic about the economic downturn, reminiscent of fear accompanying the 1973 crash, which followed a surge in the oil price and collapse in profits.

Then the global ruling class faced an insurgent working class and a wave of national liberation struggles that peaked with the Vietnamese victory over the US in 1975. Rulers were terrified that a recession would pour petrol on the flames.

Today newspapers such as the Financial Times are charting the growing number of food riots spreading across Asia, Africa and Latin America.

They are nervous about an economic downturn combining with the failure of George Bush’s “war on terror” to achieve victory in Iraq and Afghanistan. This threatens to destabilise key Western allies, such as Pakistan and Egypt.

Finally, they see “strong” right wing governments, whose recent elections they acclaimed, crumbling in the face of working class resistance.

Such has been the case with the government of Kostas Karamanlis in Greece and that of the South Korean president Lee Myung-bak.


But the world’s rulers’ biggest disappointment is with Nicolas Sarkozy, who was hailed by some as the new Margaret Thatcher on his election last year as France’s president. Sarkozy has backed away from some major showdowns in the face of strikes and mass demonstrations.

Thirty five years ago the international ruling class decided they had to be seen to make concessions to workers in order to be able to return to the attack at a later date.

In Britain and elsewhere they turned to centre left governments, like that of Labour’s Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan, to broker a deal with the trade unions. These governments promised the unions would be consulted over economic matters and that they might even be allowed a say in political decision making.

In return union leaders agreed to limit pay increases, dissuade workers from striking, accept cuts in welfare spending and the rationalisation of “uneconomic” industries.

In the 1970s mass struggles followed a long post-war boom which had brought increased living standards, better housing, and free education and healthcare.

The recession seemed a blip, so the proposition that short term sacrifices would be followed by a return to better days had some credibility – especially when it was sold by the Labour left and trade union leaders.

Once the Labour government in Britain and the Democratic president Jimmy Carter in the US had contained and defused working class insurgency, they were replaced by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.

Since the end of the 1970s the boot has been firmly on the foot of the employers.

Yet that has left a legacy of class bitterness which has grown in recent years as working class, and even some middle class people, find themselves priced out of their cities and towns.

Few think life is going to get better, let alone return to the days of council housing available for those in need and free education for all.

The government has imposed public sector pay limits at levels way below inflation rates and is urging private sector employers to follow suit. This is an enormous gamble which can easily go badly wrong.

The victory of the Shell tanker drivers, the show of strength by Grangemouth refinery workers and the 24 April strike by 450,000 teachers, lecturers and civil service workers means that the idea that working class people have no power has taken a huge knock.

Even if people don’t feel confident enough to walk out of the door, they like the idea of striking.


On a lesser scale the decision of the police to baton anti-war protesters banned from marching against George Bush’s visit to Britain showed what their real role is – to protect the state and private property.

This brings us back to the tipping point. The first half of this decade saw massive protests against neoliberalism and then war.

The millions of people who took part in these protests virtually all worked, were training to work, or were retired from work. But the idea that they constituted a working class that had the power to collectively change society seemed remote.

Many people who would never previously have considered joining a union or who believed themselves middle class are facing a new reality.

This is accompanied by a popular rejection of the political, social and economic template championed by our rulers.

The Irish referendum on the European Union’s Lisbon treaty brought that home. Working class people formed the bulk of the successful no vote, rejecting what the Irish establishment told them to do.

When New Labour’s Jacqui Smith urged us to back 42-day detention without charge she said, “Trust me, as a minister and as a home secretary.” But she seemed blissfully unaware that the response would come back, just as in a pantomime, “Oh no we won’t.”

A similar sense of rejection must greet the continued claims by politicians and journalists that the occupation forces are winning in Afghanistan, even as British and US casualties mount.

Following the mass prison breakout in Kandahar last week, defence secretary Des Browne delivered this gem:

“The Taliban are losing in Afghanistan. I know it may not appear like that at the moment, but we are enjoying a degree of success.”


Socialists, anti-capitalists and those in the anti-war movement have to face a fundamental change in the political situation. But the enormity of what’s going on can seem to dwarf us, leading to a danger of passivity.

Economic crises lead people to question the capitalist system we live under. It can lead people to resist. Yet there are other forces looking to prosper from the situation.

For weeks the Daily Mail and Daily Express have carried front pages on price increases that could have been printed by Socialist Worker. But they were accompanied by a campaign blaming immigrants for our woes.

Further right the fascists of the BNP seize on false stories that expectant Polish mothers are blocking British mums from maternity beds. It is more likely that British babies are being delivered by Polish doctors or Nigerian midwives.

It is vital we follow last Saturday’s demonstration with a sustained drive to push the Nazis back into their sewer.

The lesson of the Stop the War Coalition is that the left can play a central role in initiating mass movements that pull in broad layers of society. The global “war on terror” continues to be a cancer at the heart of the system.

Yet while we continue to build opposition to the war, we must also look for other opportunities to spread resistance.

The 24 April strike is a harbinger of what might lie ahead on the pay front. Bus workers, London Underground workers and others must be looking at the Shell drivers’ success with relish.

Others, like health workers in the Unison union who accepted a below-inflation three-year pay deal, will become aware that they are going to suffer badly unless something is done.

Other issues can also lead to resistance suddenly surging up. We are seeing the return of bread riots around the world. Even in Britain the potential is there for anger over prices to reach breaking point.

Housing is the great issue rarely addressed in British politics. There has been a successful campaign to defend council housing, but now we are seeing evictions and flats built by speculators lying empty.

Young people are forced to stay with their parents and overcrowding blights the lives of young families. And this year will see the lowest numbers of houses built in Britain since 1945.

The job facing socialists is to act as detonators for mass resistance against the plans of our rulers.

We need to create a network of activists across Britain who can do that and explain to smaller numbers, in more in-depth discussion, what the alternative is to capitalism – socialism.

Those who have struck and marched represent a huge force that is capable of galvanising the majority of the British population for radical and ultimately revolutionary change.

That’s the possibility. But failure to address what is possible can lead to a high price being paid by us all.

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