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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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