This article appeared in the Morning Star on 24 August. It also appears on its website.
Robert Griffiths is general secretary of the Communist Party of Britain.
The British ruling class is preparing a massive, wide-scale and co-ordinated offensive against public services, democratic rights and working-class living standards for the period after the general election, as British capitalism steadies and reorientates itself after the recession.
Indeed, the offensive has already begun on some fronts, albeit quietly and haltingly in places.
How should the labour movement and the left respond?
There have always been two main trends in the British labour movement.
The first derives from the history of craft unionism among the better-paid and more stably employed sections of the working class. With some exceptions, usually in the most dangerous industries, it is a trend which prefers using its bargaining power with employers rather than fighting them.
This trend believes firmly in the benefits of class collaboration or – expressed in today’s terms – “social partnership.”
At root, it believes that workers share predominant and fundamental interests with the bosses.
At the same time, it also seeks the best deal for workers within the confines of collaboration, while recognising that such collaboration can break down in abnormal circumstances, resulting in industrial action.
Politically, this trend is reflected in the approach and policies of social democracy, expressed primarily through the Labour Party with its gradualist policies of improvements and reforms.
Lenin referred to the comparatively privileged upper layers of the working class as the “labour aristocracy.”
He reserved special scorn for its leaders who are flattered and bribed by the ruling class, whom he described as the “real agents of the bourgeoisie in the working-class movement.”
These “labour lieutenants of the capitalist class” preached social peace, practised surrender and reinforced backward and divisive ideas among workers.
New Labour abandoned any notion of consciously representing the working class, seeking a better deal for workers and their families within capitalism.
Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Peter Mandelson and crew openly boasted about representing the interests of big business, although in doing so abroad they dressed this up as “humanitarian intervention” to defend Western “civilised values.”
This new Labourite faction has mired the Labour government in a cesspit of political, moral and financial corruption, mirroring the degeneration of state-monopoly capitalism itself.
The second trend in the British labour movement is the one which resists capitalist exploitation. Its militant activists understand that class struggle is unavoidable, providing not only the alternative to surrender but also the basis for reforms and advances of every kind.
The most politically advanced elements within this trend, notably the Communists and other Marxist socialists, further understand that the class struggle needs to be politicised into a revolutionary fight for state power to lay the basis for replacing capitalism with a socialist society.
Many trade union leaders and MPs in the first “social partnership” social-democratic trend are urging unity around the new Labour government in the hope of victory – or at least a hung Parliament – at the general election.
It is a message that millions of working-class voters, as well as thousands of militant trade unionists and campaigners, will ignore. Moreover, it is an approach which, at best, offers only the prospect of blunting the ruling-class offensive rather than rebuffing and defeating it.
The most profound problem within the British labour movement is that the second, class struggle trend is not strong, united or political enough for the enormous challenges which lie ahead. It needs to transform itself in the process of transforming the working class and progressive movements.
Unless we are clear about why this is the case, our responses to the ruling- class offensive will be inadequate.
First, on the most basic level, opposition to the immediate policies of state-monopoly capitalism is not being promoted and supported vigorously enough. Neither are the alternative policies from the labour movement and the left.
The Lindsey strike movement and the Visteon and Vestas occupations deserved far more public and widespread solidarity, especially from the trade union movement.
United action in the public sector, too, is the only basis on which widespread job losses and real pay and pension cuts can be successfully resisted.
Policies in the People’s Charter, the Left-Wing Programme and the Charter for Women need to be projected on a mass scale, especially those advocating public ownership of essential industries, higher wages, pensions and benefits, higher taxation of the rich and big business and the closure of tax havens, a drive to build public-sector housing, extensive investment in non-nuclear renewable energy, opposition to the anti-trade union and other anti-democratic laws and an end to British imperialist militarism and war.
The trade union movement should take the lead in organising a major initiative, such as a Youth March for Jobs, as part of the case for extra public investment in education, training and employment, in particular for young people.
The role of the European Union in promoting monopoly capitalism and restricting the scope for exercising popular sovereignty over big business has to be fully exposed.
The renewed drive to an imperialist, militarist, undemocratic United States of Europe is intended to block all national paths to social progress and socialism.
Second, greater agreement around alternative policies and initiatives needs to be reached within a strategic perspective of how best to defeat new Labour and the ruling class politically.
The Communist Party of Britain is clear that a Tory victory will ensure that the ruling-class offensive will be released with full force.
In many constituencies, the labour movement and the left will therefore have to campaign for Labour candidates, keenly so for social-democratic and socialist rather than new Labour ones.
But the left and non-Labour-affiliated unions should also seek to unite around socialist and progressive candidates in other seats, where there is no danger of a Tory victory and where Labour is being misrepresented by a warmongering, police-state privatiser.
The Communist Party of Britain calls for a united front of left and labour movement organisations to lift the level of popular and industrial struggle in Britain and to hammer out, if possible, a common approach to the forthcoming general election.
Such a united front must also be at the core of a new drive against the BNP fascists, who hope to capitalise on the social tensions produced by capitalist crisis and an anti-working-class offensive.
We can learn from the role played by the huge TUC and trade union mobilisation which helped turn back the fascist tide in Tower Hamlets in the early 1990s.
History also shows that wider sections of the population can and must be mobilised against fascism and racism, beyond the ranks of socialists and the trade unions.
Such a “people’s front” is the same democratic, anti-monopoly basis on which the People’s Charter movement can be built as the positive alternative to the BNP, with the labour movement and left playing the leading role.
Out of unity in action will emerge the solution to the crisis of political representation in the working class in Britain, most likely through either reclaiming the Labour Party or re-establishing a mass party of the labour movement.
Third, the left must take responsibility for rectifying the lack of revolutionary political consciousness in the labour movement and working class generally.
This will not be done by Marxist organisations endlessly attacking or talking only to each other.
The necessary battle of ideas of ideas within the left should be kept in proportion to the wider ideological struggle against fundamentally reactionary ones.
The bulk of the population rarely if ever see a left-wing leaflet or hear a left-wing speaker, especially in a society where the mass media rigorously exclude all viewpoints to the left of new Labour or the Liberal Democrats.
Hence the need, among other initiatives, for more support for the Morning Star as a daily informer, educator and mobiliser.
The trade unions should also be encouraged to educate activists in political economy – ie economics with the politics left in – political ideas and the history of the labour movement in Britain and overseas.
Training for representative functions is vital, but nowhere near enough when workers experience a daily bombardment by racist, chauvinist, class collaborationist and imperialist ideas.
All of these inadequacies in the labour movement have contributed to a culture of sectarianism, dogmatism and impossibilism – or what Lenin called “imperialist economism” – on the left in Britain.
But in the face of the biggest ruling-class offensive since the early 1980s, we need to bury the scapegoating and name-calling – “trade union bureaucrats,” “Stalinists,” “Trotskyists” etc – which obscures analysis and inhibits unity.
Unless the labour movement and the left change course, we will not only have failed to advance during capitalism’s deepest crisis for 75 years. We will have abandoned the working class to the ruling-class vultures rescued and fattened at its expense.