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Lessons from British strikes

The trap of a failed reformism

14 July 2023

Health service workers on the picklet line.

On 13th July, in line with public sector pay review recommendations, British prime minister Rishi Sunak announced pay rises for public sector workers of around 5 or 6%. (Police and prison officers will receive a 7% pay rise); the offer was final.  "There will be no more talks on pay. We will not negotiate again on this year's settlements and no amount of strikes will change our decision."

A few days before, after a summer of industrial action, British Tory finance minister Jeremy Hunt said that public sector pay should be settled through the "independent" pay review bodies. There were no restrictions on these bodies but their recommendations would have to be met out of the budgets already allocated.

There was no mistaking the tone. The British government have lined up to enforce fiscal stability. Any payments will be funded by the workers themselves through job cuts and reduced services. At the moment some strikes are continuing with the exception of the education unions, who immediately called off action. However, in the run-up to Sunak's announcement, in at least three areas, nursing, University lecturers and the Post Office, the leaderships had betrayed their members.  In others the unions have waged individual and fragmented campaigns linked only to wages and conditions, despite broad public concern about collapsing services. But at the birth of the trade union movement workers found that strikes are not enough. A political party is needed and that is where the Labour party emerged as a mass party. That party advanced a programme of parliamentary reform that was successful in the boom years of the British economy.

But the old systems are now paralysed, as shown by a recent debate in UNITE about affiliation to the Labour party. UNITE is now led by Sharon Graham, who won the secretaryship on a trade union platform, as opposed to the platforms of a Starmer supporter and a Corbyn supporter. The union would ignore Labour party disputes in favour of action.

But last week's conference motion to disaffiliate from Labour was heavily defeated, with Sharon Graham speaking against. This means that UNITE will be a major contributor to the Starmer election fund. It also means that UNITE will not support Jeremy Corbyn standing as an independent.

The logic of the union leaders is clear. A majority in parliament will enable them to lobby for change. Launching a new party would split the Labour vote and the Conservatives would return. They can only close their eyes and ignore Sir Kier's assurances that he will purge socialists from the party, do nothing for the workers and fight to preserve capital. Yet the problem for the unions is that the era of reform that built the current Labour party is dead. The fate of Corbyn, the attacks by Starmer and the unremitting hostility from the Tories show this.

What comes before unions, before Labour, is a political programme for the working class.  With the death of reformism this means a programme for revolution. The first step is to link the specific demands of public sector workers to the needs of the workers as a whole. For example, worker's conditions on transport can be linked to a call for free public transport.  Health workers demands can link to a new heath service and the expulsion of private capital from the NHS. Nationalisation of water is required to stop endless profiteering and pollution.

Of course, the starting point has to be an anti-war movement. Socialists have to resist the slaughter in Ukraine, the diversion of resources to NATO and the increasingly aggressive, anti-democratic and militarised nature of the British state, aped by similar policies in the Irish state.  Progress in Britain is frozen by a failed reformism defended by union leaders and labourites. We need a new movement.

Finally; in Britain trade union leaderships revolve around the alliance with Labour party. There is a much greater need to build resistance in Ireland, where the union leaders focus on partnership with whatever capitalist coalition is in power.

The recent conference of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions went almost without comment.  There was little controversy because the main tasks were not discussed. The outline of the next budget has already been agreed with government and the role of ICTU will be to calm workers in the face of a massive failure to employ bulging government coffers to resolve the many crises facing their class. The was no need to discuss these issues in public, so there was nothing to report.

The British economy is struggling, Ireland claims to be a country of riches, but in both countries the standard of living steadily declines to fund a wealthy elite.

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