With the deaths in quick succession of Bob Crow and Tony Benn, the trade union and labour movement has lost two principled socialists and militant fighters.
Their presence at meetings and demos will be sorely missed. While we mourn their loss, however, the best way to mark their passing is to renew the struggle against austerity, poverty and war – and to fight for the socialist transformation of society.
A spectre is haunting capitalist commentators, right-wing new Labour and their hangers-on, following the deaths of Bob Crow and Tony Benn. It is Militant (now the Socialist Party) – seemingly dead and buried decades ago, according to these very same sources – which now seems to haunt them. First came Polly Toynbee, who attacked Tony Benn for giving succour to Militant, who she described as a “virus” and an “evil” influence on the Labour Party. Her authority on this issue? She was “a member of Brixton and Lambeth Labour Party”, and witnessed our alleged “evil” approach. Yet no leading member in the Labour Party in that area at the time seems to remember her ‘contribution’, other than joining the ‘exit tendency’, the ex-Labour traitors who left in 1981 to form the Social Democratic Party (SDP). The SDP split the Labour vote in the 1983 general election and opened the door to Margaret Thatcher.
If anybody is guilty of facilitating the coming to power of Thatcher, it is those like Toynbee who preferred Thatcher’s victory to the triumph of left and socialist ideas within the Labour Party and society at large. It was a peculiar caricature of Lenin’s alleged idea of ‘revolutionary defeatism’ – in her case, counter-revolutionary defeatism – preferring the victory of the enemy, rather than your own side.
Then came the House of Lords denizen, Liberal Democrat Shirley Williams. She was also an SDP deserter from the Labour Party. In a spat with Labour MP Diane Abbott on Newsnight, Williams attacked Tony Benn with the same charge sheet of association with Militant. Then, to cap it all, Andrew Rawnsley complained in the Observer: “[Benn] never disowned, and stood in the way of dealing with, the Militant Tendency and other far-left entryists who were poisoning Labour from within. He does not bear sole responsibility for the split that led to the formation of the SDP, but he was one of the most crucial triggers for it”.
Tony Benn supported Militant when the right wing attacked and expelled us because he recognised, as the Labour Party rank and file did, that we were being hounded because we fought successfully against capitalism. Under our influence, the working class scored big victories: in Liverpool (1983-87), and in the anti-poll tax battle, which eliminated the tax and, in the process, overthrew Thatcher, as she recognised in her memoirs. Tony Benn also attacked the Observer and refused to buy it when, in complete contrast to its opposition to the Suez invasion in 1956, it supported the war criminal Tony Blair’s invasion of Iraq.
The Observer, when estimating Tony Benn’s contribution, is Hydra-headed. It’s editorial, in marked contrast to the spiteful and shallow ‘analysis’ of Rawnsley, was more measured. It said: “[Benn] was in favour of nationalisation of the major utilities and against fat cats growing fatter”. It pointed out that, unlike others (including New Labour MPs, invisible to voters), in a poll in 1984 in Chesterfield, Tony Benn was known by an incredible 90% of the electorate!
In the above comments, and the equally nauseating, unctuous, hypocritical articles praising Bob Crow and Tony Benn, is a theme: that hopefully these two big figures were one-offs, ‘the likes of which we are unlikely to see again’. Some have even suggested that the trade unions, already half the size in membership – though not in potential power compared to the heyday of 1980 – will completely disappear in a few decades. As if the class struggle can be conjured away by a few bourgeois scribblers! The reaction of working people to the relentless offensive prosecuted by the capitalists and their governments will see the emergence of a militant and political trade union movement that can exceed even the past considerable efforts of Tony Benn and Bob Crow.
The economic recovery mirage
Serious capitalist commentators fear this. William Keegan, who also writes for the Observer and is far more discerning in examining the dire economic situation in Britain in particular, reported that a Marxist academic titled a seminar for bankers and industrialists, ‘Has Capitalism Seen Its Day?’
This is because they see the scale of the crisis confronting British and world capitalism, and correctly fear and anticipate the reaction of the working class. Despite the claims of chancellor George Osborne that the economy is on the road to recovery, at the end of last year it was almost a fifth smaller than if the growth trend before 2007 had been maintained. Martin Wolf of the Financial Times baldly states: “The future is, alas, not what it used to be. Forecasters believe that most of the lost output is gone forever”. The output gap, a measure of excess capacity, is estimated officially as 1.8% of gross domestic product, but “even the most optimistic, Capital Economics, believes it is 6%”.
The only possible ‘justification’ made by its defenders for the continuation of capitalism with its monstrous inequalities is that it can still develop the productive forces – science, technique and the organisation of labour – and so generate more jobs, increased wages, etc. This requires the capitalists to invest part of the surplus extracted from the labour of the working class back into production. Yet throughout the world investment has flat-lined or even fallen – particularly in Britain, with a 20% fall in investment since 2008. According to a study by financial advisory firm, Deloitte, “about a third of the world’s biggest non-financial companies are sitting on most of a $2.8 trillion gross cash pile”. Nonetheless, investment has dropped dramatically, despite the fact that ‘the cost of capital’ is so cheap; interest rates in Britain are at a 300-year low.
UK productivity compared to its rivals is now at its widest for 20 years, with output per worker 21% lower than the average for the other members of the G7: the US, Japan, Germany, France, Italy and Canada. The much vaunted ‘recovery’ of Osborne and Cameron is a mirage. The capitalists, described by Karl Marx as the ‘trustees’ of society so long as they develop production, now betray this ‘mission’. They show all the parasitic tendencies of a system in decay, with $80 billion handed back to shareholders in the US, rather than ploughed back into production.
Ever deeper in debt
It is possible that some groups – the so-called squeezed middle class and better-paid workers – will benefit from concessions in the Budget and other measures which could alleviate, for some, the costliest childcare in Europe. However, those who have been dubbed the ‘cling-ons’ – because they have, up to now, desperately clung on to their previous economic position and status – are now threatened. They have piled up debt, as have those benefiting from the ‘Help to Buy’ scheme. This is stoking a new housing bubble which could, in time, become a British version of the US subprime scandal with a new round of home repossessions. If a pint of milk had risen in price at the same rate as house prices over the last 40 years, it would cost over £10!
Any growth is debt fuelled. To some extent credit, as Marx pointed out, plays a necessary role in extending the market beyond its limits, acting as a stimulus to growth. And we would welcome any growth in the economy which, like the US fast-food worker strikes last year, could encourage workers to fight and try to take back what they have lost in the recession.
But Adair Turner, one of the few farsighted capitalist economists, warned: “Over several decades before the crisis, private sector credit grew faster than gross domestic product in most high-income countries”. He added that capitalists “need credit growth faster than GDP growth to achieve an optimally growing economy, but that leads inevitably to crisis and post-crisis recession”. In other words, like a drug addict, capitalism now depends on debt-fuelled growth – and the financial bubbles which accompany this – just to maintain any momentum for the capitalist system.
This does not guarantee growth in Britain or elsewhere. Capitalist economists fear what Larry Summers, US treasury secretary to Bill Clinton, has called “secular stagnation”: the ‘Japanisation’ (decades of stagnation) of world capitalism. The alternative is unsustainable financial bubbles resulting, down the line, in further economic crashes even worse than the one we are going through today.
A symptom of the dire situation facing the working class is the proliferation of payday lenders, who target the most impoverished workers with scandalously high interest rates for loans. There is already one payday lender for every seven banks in the shopping centres of Britain. At the same time, Barclays Bank is closing down 400 of its branches, throwing hundreds of workers onto the dole.
Government planned misery
This goes together with the scandalous fact that 5,000 people have been treated for malnutrition in the past year while food banks mushroom, compelling doctors to send one in six of their patients to these outlets. Presumably in the interests of a healthy body, Osborne and Cameron are reported to be on a diet that allows just 600 calories two days a week. They have put millions on an enforced diet, forcing working people to choose between heating and eating.
The Church of England, once described as the Tory party at prayer, has lacerated the government over the scandal of food banks and the inexorable rise of poverty and inequality. Even the government admits that there are half-a-million workers on zero-hour contracts. Unite the union claims that the real figure is one million, most of them short-term workers on inadequate hours and poor conditions.
What of the economic future? It is one of unremitting gloom for working people if the capitalists and their government get away with even part of their programme of cuts. A million public-sector workers’ jobs will have been cut by the Con-Dem government by the time of the next general election. Public-sector wages are now below those in the private sector. Any drop in unemployment – paltry in real terms- has been accompanied by underemployment and a vicious squeeze on wages. The jobless rate remains at over 7%. But, if the underemployment rate (9.4%) is taken into account, there are, in effect, a hidden half-a-million who need to be added to the official total of 2.3 million unemployed.
Such are the vagaries and contradictions of capitalism that, in general, young people want more hours while the over-60s want fewer! David Blanchflower, economist and former member of the Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee, said that anyone who believed the forecasts of the Bank and the Office for Budget Responsibility, that real wage growth would turn positive in the second half of this year, is living in “gaga land”.
We are only part of the way through the planned misery enshrined in the government’s deficit reduction programme. According to Nick Clegg, deputy prime minister, we can expect another 25 years of austerity! Osborne’s cuts programme is only a quarter of the way through its target. More cuts will take place before next year’s general election. Afterwards, the axe will be wielded even more, no matter who wins.
The overall circumstances working people face, which compelled the TUC to officially sanction a 24-hour general strike – while refusing to organise for it in practice – have only worsened. The situation is unlikely to improve with the advent of a Labour government led by Ed Miliband. He has already been called ‘François Miliband’ by The Economist, comparing his alleged “growing contempt for capitalism” to that of the disastrous French president Hollande. Hollande, who raised taxes initially, has now become more ‘business-friendly’, promising big business a £30 billion programme of cuts. This has not stopped his popularity rating falling below 20%!
Moreover, even before coming to power, Miliband has got his ‘betrayal in first’, to use Neil Kinnock’s infamous expression. He has promised, through shadow cabinet ministers like Rachel Reeves and Ed Balls, to implement most of the cuts already sanctioned by Osborne. Therefore, nothing can be expected for working people from a New Labour government. Leo Panitch, writing in the Guardian, alluded to the dilemma that confronts any government remaining within the framework of capitalism and wishing to carry through reforms: “Perhaps the greatest illusion of 20th-century social democrats was their belief that once reforms were won they would be won for good. In fact, we can now see how far the old reforms were subject to erosion by expanding capitalist competition on a global scale”.
This confirms what Socialism Today and the Socialist Party have always argued. We do not rule out the fight for and the achievement of reforms, increases in living standards and partial nationalisation – which Bob Crow and others achieved for their members. We have also argued, however, that to become lasting, these reforms have to be linked to a struggle to change society in a socialist direction. Panitch was connected with Ed Miliband’s father, Ralph, and made a telling point: “And there can be little doubt that to sustain reforms in the old progressive meaning of the word, today a government would need to implement extensive controls to prevent an outflow of capital, and probably have to socialise financial institutions in order to get the necessary room for manoeuvre”.
He hit the nail on the head, but we need to go a bit further. The measures he proposes form part of the programme that we have put forward for Britain. At the same time, we raise the need to take over the monopolies, begin to implement a democratic socialist plan of production, and then appeal to other workers internationally to follow suit.
Not only is there no chance of Miliband implementing this kind of programme. He will not even attempt serious and sustained reforms, as Lenny McCluskey and other trade union leaders still hope. Indeed, Miliband is so conscious of the dire economic circumstances after the 2015 election that he is now afraid of Labour solely taking power.
This is the explanation for Balls reversing a previous position by promising that Labour would now serve in a coalition with the hated Liberal Democrats. This would involve seeking to unload onto their ‘partners’ the odium for any unpopular measures, much as the present coalition parties’ farcical manoeuvres to present themselves in the best light before the 2015 election by rubbishing their ‘partners’. The only problem with this scenario is that, after the election, the Lib Dem could be toast!
Clegg, in a desperate attempt to rescue some semblance of support from the wreck of the Con-Dem coalition, has indicated his preparedness to join a Miliband government. However, Lib Dem president, Tim Farron, sees what is in store when he said that ‘none of the above’ on ballot papers now means that the Lib Dems are ‘one of the above’. Their only hope of avoiding electoral obliteration is to be rescued by Miliband. The fact that the latter can consider sharing power with the Liberal Democrats means that no hope can be placed in a Miliband government.
New Labour is now so far to the right that Grant Shapps, Conservative Party chairperson, claimed farcically that the Tories have become the ‘Workers Party’! Therefore, the decision of Lenny McCluskey and Unite to remain within the Labour Party, while the organised presence of the unions within the party has been completely eclipsed, offers no salvation to Unite’s 1.5 million members, or to the wider working class. He has also called for tax breaks for firms who claim to have ‘good industrial relations’ with the unions.
Len McCluskey should oppose any concessions to big business, given their present bloated profits, invariably accompanied by low wages. Figures have shown that even car workers – in a booming industry, it is claimed – in real terms, receive less than they did before the crisis. Millions of low-paid workers are struggling to keep their heads above water. If any tax concessions are made, they should be to working people as a whole. The ultimate solution is the socialist transformation of society, however, the only way of ensuring improved and lasting concessions.
Look to the future
Militancy and socialism will reappear in Britain and elsewhere. The ground for this to develop is to be found in the catastrophic economic conditions – despite Osborne’s blandishments – the searing inequality built into the foundations of capitalism, and the consequent horrific attacks on all the past gains made by the working class.
“Slander becomes a force only when it meets some historical demand”, wrote Leon Trotsky. It does not work when the working class is on the move, as it will be in the next historical period. The capitalists and their media frontmen like Rawnsley have a half-formed picture that a mass revolt is brewing, and which will take many forms, not least the beginning of a real political alternative in the form of a new mass workers’ party. One of Bob Crow’s lasting contributions, which he will be remembered for, is his participation in the formation of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), a forerunner of a mass working-class party.
No amount of slander – against leaders and individuals prominent in the workers’ movement – is capable of preventing the ultimate march of history. At most, together with other unfavourable factors for the struggle, it can only slow down the process. Bob Crow was described by those who are now praising him as “the most dangerous man in Britain”. Tony Benn was described as “clinically insane”, and compared to Hitler by the Sun. Militant, in Liverpool and elsewhere, was vilified in a ‘great slander’ campaign, including by the Liberals who threatened that the pope would “excommunicate” its supporters. This did not prevent Liverpool Labour Party (when it was under the influence of Militant), scoring its highest ever vote, when it was a real workers’ party at bottom.
Nor did it prevent the recent victory of Socialist Alternative candidate, Kshama Sawant, in Seattle. In this case, the strategists of US capitalism were unprepared and did not believe that Kshama would storm to victory – initiating a surge in interest in socialism in the citadel of world capitalism as well as a mass campaign for a $15 an hour minimum wage. They will now attempt a counter-campaign, in vain. Nor was Owen Jones, the left-wing celebrity, who maintains a deafening silence over the reasons for Kshama’s victory while he rubbishes any idea that something similar is possible in Britain.
The sceptics will be confounded as the British labour movement rouses itself to confront a diseased and rotten system, and all those parties which are associated with it. It will create not only a mass movement of struggle but also replenish from its ranks new fighters and leaders to replace those who have gone before. We salute the memory of these two powerful labour movement figures, Bob Crow and Tony Benn, and honour their memory in the struggle for a socialist future.