WIR Extra on Britain

 Uncategorized  Comments Off on WIR Extra on Britain
Jul 252017
 

  by Bill Onasch

Where Is Britain Going?

An Edited Version Of a Presentation at a Minneapolis Socialist Action Forum July 20, 2017. (A new normal sized Week In Review will follow in a few days.)

I want to express gratitude to Twin Cities Socialist Action for inviting me, and to my old friends here at MayDay Books for providing the venue for this Forum. MayDay is a rare asset, an institution that the Twin Cities movements rightly cherish. And my appreciation for those of you in attendance should not go without saying—thank you.

My remarks about Where Is Britain Going? center on powerful social, economic and political forces in motion in the second biggest English speaking country.

My only qualification as an expert is that I’m from out of town. I have visited Britain a few times but my last trip was in 1988. I rely mainly on British mainstream media like the BBC and the Guardian, widely read left sources in the UK such as Socialist Worker and the Morning Star, and especially the analysis provided by Socialist Action’s Fourth International cothinkers in Britain who publish Socialist Resistance. And I highly recommend a very useful article by my friend and comrade Ann Montague in the current issue of Socialist Action.

The Road Already Traveled

To project where Britain may be headed it’s useful to know something about the road already traveled. Because Britain was the cradle of the Industrial Revolution, where the modern working class was first assembled, there is an abundance of works by Marxist scholars tracing that history over more than two centuries—much of this work available in this bookstore or online at the Marxist Internet Archive.

While injecting some historical background, I’ll mainly focus on the last two tumultuous years that include two pivotal parliamentary elections; the Brexit referendum that mandated Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union; the horrible Grenfell Tower fire killing at least ninety residents and destroying the homes and possessions of hundreds more; an upsurge in strikes and demonstrations; and a rejuvenated Labor Party under new leadership reclaiming its working class heritage and registering phenomenal growth.

The Unique Labor Party Dynamic

The British Labor Party, built on a foundation of trade unions, developed around a far different dynamic than the social-democratic parties in the rest of Europe. Though Marxists played an important role in the 1900 founding of the party, the BLP never identified itself as Marxist or revolutionary. But, in 1918, undoubtedly influenced by the Russian Revolution led by Lenin and Trotsky, the Labor Party adopted the famous Clause 4 of their constitution calling for “common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange,” and “the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.”

Clement Attlee, LP Prime Minister 1945-51

The first majority Labor government, led by Clement Attlee, that came to power in the summer of 1945 implemented both major domestic reforms–and atrocities abroad as they presided over the breakup of the British Empire as well as recovery from the enormous human and material losses of World War II. Their biggest lasting achievement was the socialized medicine of the National Health Service—today being undermined by austerity. They also carried out extensive nationalizations of basic industries–though nearly all of those were later reversed by the Conservatives aka Tories.

The 1918 Clause 4 language stood even through the Cold War until Tony Blair’s “New Labor” makeover in 1995. New Labor diluted the power of the trade union base of the party and strengthened the rule of the party’s Leader and MPs. Blair also once tried to reach out to young people by saying instead of singing Rule Britannia we’ll show the world we’re Cool Britannia.

Tony Blair: Labour Prime Minister, 1997–2007

All this was designed to imitate the class-denying American Democrats—though Blair, a junior partner in the Iraq war, was actually closest to the Republican Bush II. Blair was also tight with Rupert Murdoch, a godfather to one of the media mogul’s children. After serving three terms as Prime Minister this self-proclaimed “democratic socialist” became a well compensated adviser to JP Morgan, and collected many lucrative speaker fees.

There were various efforts by a disgusted Left to launch a new working class party but none got off the ground. Most workers wanting to fight the Tories and Liberals remained loyal to their traditional party—and still do.

The Peoples Assembly

In the run-up to the 2015 election the Guardian published a Call for a Peoples Assembly Against Austerity that promised to initiate, support, and coordinate actions with trade unions against growing cuts and privatization. They aimed to develop a resistance strategy to mobilize millions of people in Britain–and across Europe.

At the top of the list of dozens of signers was the legendary Tony Benn, an aristocrat by birth and a champion of social justice by choice, who unfortunately died not long after. Other prominent signers included Ken Loach, John Pilger, Tariq Ali, trade union officials and Labor MPs–including one Jeremy Corbyn. Also on board was the Secretary of the National Association of Women, and leaders of the Communist, Socialist Resistance, and Green parties. It continues to be an impressive, nonsectarian united front whose walk matches their talk. And they were the political First Responders to the deadliest example of Tory austerity yet—the Grenfell Tower fire.

Ed Miliband, a soft-left alternative to the Blairites, was expected to lead Labor to a victory in 2015. Instead, Labor got wiped out in their Scotland strongholds by nationalists, and lost many votes in England to UKIP–the xenophobic United Kingdom Independence Party. That led to a sufficient swing in seats to Conservatives to allow the Tories to end their coalition with the Liberals and form a majority government. Miliband fell on his sword and resigned as Labor’s Leader.

Normally, such a defeat would have led to demoralization—but it turned out these are not normal times in the United Kingdom. The Blairite conventional wisdom that Labor could survive only as a slightly left-of-center moderate party, like Bill Clinton and Barrack Obama’s New Democrats, was called in to question.

Momentum

Jeremy Corbyn, a well known figure in the long suppressed socialist left wing, and a leader of the Stop the War coalition that has organized many mass antiwar demonstrations going back to Blair’s criminal war in Iraq, not only threw his flat cloth cap in to the ring to replace Miliband as Leader; he also launched a recruitment drive known as Momentum to bring more workers, students, and movement activists in to the party to fight against austerity and privatization, for human rights and solidarity, and to offer a sustainable alternative to climate change.

It was a bit like the “build it and they will come” in the movie Field of Dreams—only it was a strictly corporeal response–no ghosts allowed. They came in droves ready to fight—and are still coming. Along with the trade unions, there were more than enough to twice elect Corbyn Leader and to defend him against Blairite maneuvers to get rid of him.

So far more than 200,000 new members have been recruited over the past two years and membership today stands at over 550,000. Taking in to account the population difference that would be the equivalent of a party with more than 2.5 million members in this country—a feat not yet achieved on this side of the Atlantic.

European Unity

Now I want to say a few words about Brexit. The founding congress of the Fourth International initiated by Trotsky called for a Socialist United States of Europe. We still think that is a good idea—but a capitalist United States of Europe not so much.

Britain was slow to embrace the treaties that eventually established what is today known as the European Union. It took years of maneuvering to overcome suspicions by sections of British capital and British unions—as well as at one time a veto by France. Eventually, after negotiating some concessions favorable to Britain the Labor government of Harold Wilson agreed to abide by a non-binding referendum that voted 2-1 to join.

Last year, the issue of Britain’s membership in the European Union erupted again, more divisive than ever within both major classes and their parties. The far-right UKIP added an element of anti-immigrant racism in their Trump-like appeal to disaffected English workers. The country was shocked when a psychopath influenced by American neo-fascists murdered Jo Cox, a Labor MP campaigning against Brexit in her northern England district.

Jo Cox

Tory prime minister David Cameron had hoped to defuse a potential Brexit crisis the same way he successfully—from his point of view–dealt with the growing movement for Scottish independence—through a referendum. But Cameron’s luck had run out. 52 percent voted to “leave.” There was some immediate buyer’s remorse, even an online petition that claimed four million signatures calling for reconsideration—but the deal was done. Cameron resigned and was replaced by the present pro-Brexit Theresa May.

Post-Brexit Uncertainties

In effect, Brexit was a filing for divorce before any consideration of custody or property issues. It’s even more challenging than Trump’s efforts to eradicate what he calls ObamaCare. The decades of EU membership had brought many new laws—including important ones that were beneficial to protecting workers and fighting discrimination. Unless they are reaffirmed by the British parliament they will go away. Also uncertain is the future of more than 3 million citizens of other EU countries working and residing in Britain and the more than a million British subjects living elsewhere in the EU. Nor is it clear how Britain will deal with the EU’s commitments to the Paris Climate Accords.

Even though her party had a majority to govern another three years, May decided to call a snap election last month to put her personal stamp on post-Brexit Britain. Despite the fact early polls showed her beating Labor by double digit margins it was not one of her brightest ideas. The same polls that had predicted a Labor win in 2015 got it wrong this time as well.

The Tories lost 13 seats leaving them seven short of a majority and UKIP failed to hold even one.

Labor gained 30 seats—and remarkable advances in diversity. 45 percent of Labor MPs are now women; 52 are ethnic minorities and 45 identify themselves as LGBT.

Tories Turn to the DUP

To remain in power May had to cut a deal with the unsavory Democratic Unionist Party in occupied Ireland. They are among the Loyalists who organize provocative parades every year through Catholic neighborhoods celebrating Protestant military victories 400 years ago. The Loyalist paramilitary forces that used to battle the IRA have become gangsters. DUP’s founder, the late Ian Paisley, once heckled a Pope giving greetings to the European Parliament. They oppose birth control and same sex marriages, believe Darwin’s evolution is evil, and are climate change deniers. Tory MPs have found this coalition a bitter pill to swallow. Most pundits viewed the out come as a moral victory for Labor and a vote of confidence for the Corbyn leadership.

Socialists and Elections

I want to interject here some comments about the value of elections. Revolutionary socialists don’t believe needed fundamental change will come through elections. At best, wins at the polls can only register and codify victories already won through battles in other arenas. Sometimes they can also be a useful, though often blurry snapshot of the current stage of class struggle.

We favor new forms of more truly democratic government like the early soviets of the Russian Revolution—and the fairly stated aim of the old Clause 4 calling for “the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.”

As long as the majority of the working class accepts the electoral process established by and for the capitalists, we run candidates where we can to popularize our views and win new recruits. But we also recognize the value of independent mass working class parties that are not, or at least not yet revolutionary. This is part of our heritage passed down by Engels, the great Eugene V Debs, and James P Cannon.

Some of us in this room were quite active in a once promising, now defunct effort to create a labor party in this country. The only time I saw Jeremy Corbyn in person was when he was an observer at one of the conventions of that project. But I digress and better get back on our British topic.

The Crime of Grenfell Tower

The 24-floor Grenfell Tower was not one of the luxury high-rise condos that started sprouting up in London during the days of Lady Thatcher. It was one of the ubiquitous local council public housing units for the low income. While publicly owned in most cases their management and maintenance have been privatized—as was the case at Grenfell in the London Royal Burrough of Kensington and Chelsea.

One of the problems with subsidized privatization is that the pursuit of profits within an austerity budget encourages doing everything on the cheap. That was the case when Grenfell went through a renovation emphasizing a cosmetic face-lift that made an already dangerous situation a literal fire-trap.

Grenfell Tower—and it turns out many others among the hundreds of similar housing structures across Britain—could not have complied with standard fire codes in this country. Conventional ladders and hoses used by firefighters are ineffective above six floors. That’s why for decades high-rise buildings in the USA are required to have extra features such as smoke detectors, automatic sprinkler systems, dedicated water stand pipes to accommodate hoses on upper floors, and frequent metal fire break walls and flooring. Such measures can confine and douse fires such as the electrical one believed to be the origin of the Grenfell blaze. Many American cities also require periodic fire-drills in high-rise buildings so that occupants are familiar with safe evacuation plans. All these life-saving precautions were considered too costly for British public housing.

The decorative aluminum-clad polyethylene panels added to the facade during renovation were produced by an American company, Arconic, a spin-off from Alcoa that mostly makes aviation and automotive parts. They would be illegal for high rise use in most North American cities. Not only are the panels themselves highly combustible; narrow gaps between them and the main structure created a powerful up-draft that quickly spread inferno to the very top of the building. Arconic, facing multiple lawsuits, posted a statement on their website a few days after the fire saying they were no longer offering the panels for high rise application.

Most of the fatalities were those who followed the ill-advised protocol of remaining in their apartments until given an all-clear. There would have been many more victims if not for courageous firefighters helping to lead residents through the dark and smoke down the single narrow stairway designated as a fire escape.

The government was slow to respond. Initial emergency relief efforts for the now homeless survivors who had to leave all their worldly possessions behind was organized by local churches, mosques and synagogues. Until the government could find them proper new homes, Corbyn suggested they occupy vacant properties being warehoused by real estate speculators.

Firefighters wary of possible structure collapse were still trying to douse the last embers when David Lammy, a Labor MP from Tottenham London, wrote in the Guardian that arrests and prosecutions should follow the blaze. “Don’t let them tell you it’s a tragedy. It’s not a tragedy – it’s a monstrous crime. Corporate manslaughter. They were warned by the residents that there was an obvious risk of catastrophe. They looked the other way,” he said.

Those negligent bottom-feeders are an integral part of a system that believes death and ruin of poor working class folk, however regrettable, is an acceptable risk while pursuing enhanced profits. If like Deep Throat advised during Watergate, were we to follow the money I’m confident we would find much of the profit from these management contractors winds up in the coffers of the top echelons of the ruling class. And this murderous neoliberal swindle is enabled by the currently governing party of that class.

Multi-Front Upsurge

Post-Grenfell has seen not only mass demonstrations of alarm and outrage about housing—there have also been more strikes by British unions. Porters and security guards at London NHS hospitals, maintenance and security workers at the Bank of England, cabin crews at British Airways, have joined frequent transit and rail walkouts, all demanding raises. Though most of the media coverage went to the antics of self-described “anarchists” many British workers also joined others from around Europe in the massive protests at the recent G20 summit in Hamburg.

It’s likely that May’s government will not long survive and a new election may be held within a year. Labor is targeting seventy Tory seats they think they can win to give them a solid majority.

A Road to Revolution?

Does all this motion over the past couple of years mean the British working class is on the road to revolution? I think any such prediction would be premature to say the least.

But neither can I confidently exclude the possibility that this emerging radicalization could lead to a revolutionary situation.

When Leon Trotsky, who knew something about revolutions, was deported from war time exile in Europe to New York on Christmas Day, 1916, he believed it would be some time before revolution would again be on the agenda in his native Russia. He welcomed the opportunity to use this lull to learn more about the American movement. But less than three months after his arrival in this country an International Women’s Day march in Petrograd ignited the February Revolution that overthrew the Czar and once again led to the formation of Soviets. Trotsky had to make hasty efforts to get back to where the action was.

Even if soviets in London are not imminent, I think at the very least we can expect continuing revival of class consciousness and class combativeness that can lead to union and electoral victories against austerity and privatization. That will improve the conditions of British workers. That’s a good thing—part of the mission proclaimed in the seminal document of Marxism, the Communist Manifesto. And such transitional victories can inspire more decisive ones.

In this country, we should, of course, promote solidarity with our class sisters and brothers in Britain. At the same time we can learn some valuable lessons from them for helping American workers recover from class identity theft, in mobilizing our shrinking, battered unions for a counter-offensive, and for breaking the capitalist two-party political monopoly with a fighting labor party in the USA.

I’ll close by thanking you for your polite, patient attention. I now look forward to hearing from you.


If you’re not already signed up you can get the Week In Review free of charge in one of the following ways.

http://www.workdayminnesota.org/sites/workdayminnesota.org/themes/workdayminnesota/images/social/large/rss.png Really Simple Syndication (RSS)

Simply send your name and e-mail address to billonasch[at]kclabor.org

Follow Bill Onasch on Google +

Powered By Blogger Our companion Labor Advocate news blog posts articles of interest to working people by 9AM Central, Monday-Friday.

Our sole source of operating income is reader contributions. If you can help please visit the KC Labor Donate page.

Privacy Policy. We don’t share any information about our readers with anyone else—period.

The original content we provide is copyrighted and may not be reproduced by commercial media without our consent. However, labor movement and other nonprofit media may reproduce with attribution.

Week In Review July 9

 Week In Review  Comments Off on Week In Review July 9
Jul 092017
 

  by Bill Onasch

Induced Coma for Single-Payer

A recent article in the Guardian begins, “The US spends more money on healthcare than any other wealthy nation. But it hasn’t resulted in better health.” It includes an OECD chart comparing private and public health care spending, and average life expectancy in 30 industrialized countries.

In the USA last year the average person spent 4,571 dollars in out of pocket health care expenses—a figure five times higher than the OECD average. When you add in public spending for programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, and the VA, the per capita health spending was 8,995 dollars—unrivaled world leader.

But in the measure of life expectancy the U.S. 78.8 years was number 25 in these rankings. Japan topped out at 83.9. Our neighbors in single-payer Canada have an expectancy of 81.5. In Britain where most health care is still socialized in the National Health Service, and there is outrage that under Tory austerity and privatization measures annual out of pocket costs have risen to 804 dollars, Her Majesty’s subjects can expect to live to 81.

As the Republican majority in Congress struggled to repeal and/or replace the hydra-headed Affordable Care Act, actions by unions and other health care advocates appeared to be on the brink of winning single-payer legislation in the most populous of the United States. This would not only have been a big victory for the nearly 40 million residents of the Golden State; it would have established a viable alternative to both terrible ObamaCare and even more horrible TrumpCare, on state levels and nation wide.

But after the Healthy California Act passed the California Senate 23-14, it was bureaucratically consigned to purgatory–not by evil Republicans but the liberal Democrat leadership. Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon announced, “SB 562 will remain in the Assembly Rules Committee until further notice.” His move was backed by Governor Jerry Brown.

Rendon dismissed SB 562 as a lofty statement of principles, not serious legislation. He hammered away that the bill purportedly costing 400 billion dollars included no dedicated funding sources and would require unacceptable tax hikes.

It would have undoubtedly been better if the authors of SB 562 had more fully spelled out the cost benefit of single-payer with an explanation of where the money would come from. Economist Dean Baker once did such a detailed budget Briefing Paper for the even much more comprehensive national Labor Party Just Health Care campaign. Still, Emma Wilde Botta writes in Socialist Worker,

Researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst looked at the fiscal impact of single-payer in California and proposed a way to fund the program. Their study estimated that the legislation would reduce overall health care spending by about 8 percent compared to the existing system–with massive cost savings for individuals and small businesses–even as it expanded coverage for the estimated 3 million uninsured.

“About 70 percent of California’s health care spending is currently paid through public programs. The researchers found that two new taxes–a 2.3 percent gross receipts tax and a 2.3 percent increase in state sales tax–would be able to replace private insurance funds.


“So while SB 562 may not include specific funding, there is no doubt that single-payer can be funded in California–and save state residents money to boot.”

An additional rationale cited by Rendon was the need to concentrate on defeating TrumpCare. Instead of counterposing popular single-payer to Trump’s paying for tax-cuts for the the rich by expropriating health care spending for the poor, elderly and disabled, the Dems across the country will continue to defend the discredited Affordable Care Act—maybe even agreeing to some “fixes” acceptable to “moderate” Republicans. Like the insurance and drug robber barons they have so faithfully served, the Democrat Establishment is not in business for our health.

Socialized medicine in Britain, and single-payer in Canada, were won by labor parties. That’s the missing prescription for curing sick U.S. health care. There are no acceptable generic equivalents.

Like Dickens Said

The widely used truncated quote from the opening of a Tale of Two Cities—“It was the best of times and the worst of times”–aptly describes the present conjuncture of jobs and wages in the world’s biggest economy.

An early Breaking News headline on the New York Times website Friday morning about the June jobs report gushed “U.S. Labor Market Roars Back.” Later editions mellowed a bit to “U.S. Job Growth Picks Up the Pace, but Wages Lag Behind.” The Wall Street Journal was even more reserved from the beginning–“U.S. employers are churning out jobs unabated, but the inability to generate more robust wage growth represents a missing piece in a largely complete labor recovery.”

Some job growth is palpable. There are localized shortages of skilled trades in construction. This is due not only to an up-tick in building but also retirement of “baby boomers.” But the middle-aged boomers still too young to retire, who have had little or no work since losing good manufacturing jobs over the past decade–said to be Trump’s base–are not likely candidates for years-long apprenticeships. Neither are many Millenials who spent a fortune getting the college degree they were told would lead to a good career. The trades are paying a price for a lost generation.

After a record boom in auto sales in recent years reductions in that industry have begun and many more are expected. There are big layoffs in retail, Microsoft is eliminating 4,000 jobs, and many in the public sector and on college campuses are also taking a hit. And the Wall Street Journal reports that the Keystone XL pipeline—ruthlessly driven through by Trump who promised many jobs—may not be activated after completion. With the glut in today’s oil market few are interested in the additional expense needed to convert Tar Sands bitumen in to synthetic petroleum.

Trump’s effort to keep good jobs in America has had little substantive success. Nabisco is still moving jobs to Mexico. The maker of the iconic American motorcycle Harley-Davidson, who once arranged a photo op with Trump admiring a HOG on the White House lawn, is also offshoring work—not to Mexico where they might still be pestered by troublesome unions–but to Thailand.

Inadequate stagnant wages accompanying a near record length recovery from the Great Recession ls no mystery either. Most job growth is still in health care, financial services, and food/hospitality—a mix of some highly paid professionals with mostly working poor. While some employers are offering more for skilled workers who unfortunately don’t exist, most are still seeking concessions in union contracts and rely heavily on part-time and temp workers who get no health or retirement benefits. The recent membership rejection of a tentative CWA agreement for 17,000 California and Nevada AT&T Wireless workers was sparked by the company demand that workers pay 29 percent more for health coverage.

When unorganized low wage workers seek improvement through a higher minimum wage the bosses warn they are pricing themselves out of work. You may have encountered a widely-publicized study by economists at the University of Washington that argues that the pioneering municipal minimum wage in Seattle has eliminated many jobs. If you have the patience to follow the language of the “dismal science,” the Economic Policy Institute has done a thorough job in demolishing this flawed study.

The impressive state and municipal minimum wage victories won by the Fight for 15 and their allies have been almost the sole area of wage gains for the working poor. Some cities, including just this month Minneapolis and St Paul, have also established minimum sick and “safe time”days for all workers.

Trumpite controlled state legislatures have taken to enacting “preemption laws” forbidding such local efforts beneficial to workers, some like Missouri being challenged in court. Still other legislatures have begun to repeal state Prevailing Wage laws that in effect require union rates on construction projects that receive government subsidies.

Clearly low, stagnant wages that seem to defy the “natural” tendency of wage growth during relative labor shortage are the result of conscious, tenacious ruling class bargaining and political policies.

We Are Not Alone

The policies of American bosses and bankers are not unique. They have been part of a restructuring of world capital over the past several decades that some call neoliberalism, others Globalization. While there are still some tense rivalries between the various capitalist powers they have attempted to maintain their class solidarity against the toilers of the world. They have established some hierarchical formats such as the just concluded G20, and the still more elite G7.

Trump has become the rogue elephant in the room at these gatherings—and in more informal ones in Trump’s absence among the top echelons of the American ruling class. They believe his America First alt-right agenda is at best premature and likely counterproductive. His reckless statements and easily refuted lies call in to question his ability to govern.

But we can’t count on his class siblings to protect us from this dangerous bigoted, egotist bully. We have to rely on the great inherent power of our class. We can learn some valuable lessons from the working class upsurge in the second biggest English speaking country. The resurgence of the trade unions and Labor Party in Britain will be regularly covered in news stories posted on our companion Labor Advocate news blog as well as in the WIR.

***

I often remind Twin Cities readers about their unique resource—the East Side Freedom Library in St Paul. I’m happy to report that I will soon be able to visit this treasure I’ve admired from afar in person.

As part of the same brief, working vacation, I have gratefully accepted an invitation from Twin Cities Socialist Action to speak at a Forum on Where Is Britain Going? It takes place Thursday, July 20, 7PM, at another Minnesota jewel—MayDay Books.

Unless there’s some truly momentous development, this will be my final WIR before beginning my vacation break. You can expect the next near the end of July.

That’s all for this week.


If you’re not already signed up you can get the Week In Review free of charge in one of the following ways.

http://www.workdayminnesota.org/sites/workdayminnesota.org/themes/workdayminnesota/images/social/large/rss.png Really Simple Syndication (RSS)

Simply send your name and e-mail address to billonasch[at]kclabor.org

Follow Bill Onasch on Google +

Powered By Blogger Our companion Labor Advocate news blog posts articles of interest to working people by 9AM Central, Monday-Friday.

Our sole source of operating income is reader contributions. If you can help please visit the KC Labor Donate page.

Privacy Policy. We don’t share any information about our readers with anyone else—period.

The original content we provide is copyrighted and may not be reproduced by commercial media without our consent. However, labor movement and other nonprofit media may reproduce with attribution.