Socialist Alternative

Socialist Alternative Issue 15 Editorial: Mass struggle looms as lockdown comes to an end

Lockdown was partially lifted on Monday 12th April when non-essential shops, pubs and gyms reopened. However, the de facto lifting of lockdown began a few weeks earlier as far as social protest is concerned, forced so by thousands  of young people. After the brutal response by the police at the Sarah Everard vigil at Clapham Common, the government soon realised that wouldn’t be the end of the matter as people continued to protest, and were even forced to  exempt protests from covid restrictions from 29 March. 

Their fear of revolt hasn’t yet been translated into the umpteenth U-turn for Johnson’s government and the dropping of the Police and Crime Bill. However, if the movement can be stepped up in the coming weeks. it doesn’t take much of a stretch of the imagination to think that is where it will end up. Despite the need for the Tories to prepare for continuing and escalating protests in the coming weeks and months, it may be viewed that challenging a whole generation of people over the right to protest itself isn’t worth it at this stage. Weeks after the murder of Sarah Everard, ‘Kill the Bill’ protests are continuing in many towns and cities. What’s more, this is just one of many thorns in the side of the capitalist establishment right now, which could unleash further protests and struggles. 

It’s true that Johnson is benefitting from a so-called ‘vaccine bounce’ in the polls, charging points ahead of Labour leader Keir Starmer. It’s likely that the Tories will do well in the local elections in England on the back of this. However, not only does this say more about the lack of opposition from Starmer, it is also not a clear cut situation. Of course people want ‘the government to succeed’ when it comes to the roll-out of the vaccine, if they were to fail it would mean a disastrous situation for us all! However, this is not tantamount to support for the Tories, whatever they do. 

Crises on multiple fronts

Cronyism is a major problem for politicians, particularly when they remember the expenses scandal in 2009 which compounded a deep feeling of disillusionment amongst ordinary people in MPs who were seen as out of touch and in it for themselves. The recent revelations around Greensill, along with the contracts handed out to private firms to deal with various aspects of the covid pandemic, showed that, of course, capitalist politicians haven’t changed their behaviour. However, it does mean they are very touchy about it, scrambling to try and distance themselves or launch toothless investigations into what has gone on. The fact that former Prime Minister David Cameron’s involvement in Greensill was completely legal is not even being used as a defence. Capitalist spokespeople themselves bring in the question of ‘morality’ and raise potential changes to the rules because they are so fearful of stoking further anti-system feelings. 

It comes at the same time as the government is fighting on many other fronts. The explosion of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland is an indication of how the bodged Brexit deal will play out. The formation of a border down the Irish Sea has predictably caused problems for what was already a very ‘fragile peace’, but in reality it could have been any issue which broke the logjam. There has been a complete failure of all political parties from both sides of the divide to solve any of the problems faced by working class and young people in Northern Ireland, and it shows the need for a cross-community socialist alternative to be built. In the absence of such an alternative, there is always a risk of sectarian violence, because capitalism is not able to provide for people from all backgrounds and the existing political parties have a vested interest in the continuation of division. 

In a similar vein, the issue of Scottish independence is coming to the fore in the run up to the Scottish parliamentary elections on 6th May. The SNP is still expected to win and there is likely to be an expanded majority in favour of independence (including Salmond’s newly formed Alba and the Scottish Greens), in the context of the continued refusal by Westminster to grant a second independence referendum. This is even causing concern for some pro-Union Tories, such as the UK’s lead negotiator during the last referendum saying that denying the right to self-determination is changing the union from “one based on consent, to one based on the force of law”. This will not be lost on the working class of Scotland as they prepare for a mass pro-independence protest in Glasgow on 1st May.

The tendency towards greater fragmentation, threatening the existence of the “United Kingdom” itself, is set to be an increasingly central feature of British politics in the 2020s. It is an expression of how undermined the pillars of British capitalism have become, and the burning desire for change which decades of austerity have fostered. 

‘Back to normal’?

The Tories will attempt to use some of the recent figures about growth in the economy as a way of presenting a ‘return to normal’. Job vacancies are reportedly at pre-pandemic levels, but mainly this just reflects an increase in job adverts in the hospitality industry as it reopens, and average predictions of GDP growth this year are at 5.7% as of April (up from 4.7% in March). It’s hardly surprising that there is some rebound (or even a significant one) in the economy now that hospitality and retail are starting to reopen after months of being closed, and with a certain degree of pent up demand for goods and services. A ball dropped to the floor will bounce back, even if it’s just a little bit. 

What is beyond question, however, is that the economy will not continue to grow on any kind of stable basis. Even the most optimistic predictions put forward by the capitalist economists foresee a lasting damage to the economy from this crisis. The unprecedented levels of stimulus, money pumped into the economy as part of the furlough scheme and other bailouts, loans and subsidies, means that there can be a temporary rebound. Stimulus on this scale comes with its own risks for the capitalist class, including inflation and the stacking up of debt, leading to bubbles in the economy and the threat of a new financial crisis in both the public and private sector.

Even assuming that the ‘roadmap’ can be adhered to and there is no new wave, or new variant, of coronavirus, it can not be assumed that working class and young people will simply accept a return to normal. In fact, all things point to the opposite of that, to an increase in protest and struggle. Whilst the previously loud praise of our key workers by the government is now a mere mumble, as part of trying to avoid giving NHS workers a decent pay rise, figures are being released to show the reality for millions of front-line staff. The TUC found that shockingly workers on zero-hours contracts are twice as likely to have died of covid-19 than other workers. These include care workers and delivery drivers but isn’t just because they were on the frontline, but because they are likely to have no sick pay and therefore may still go into work even when they are ill, with little or no ability to self-isolate if they started to get covid symptoms. It is also the case that women, disabled people and people of colour are more likely to be part of this precarious layer of workers. And how does the TUC respond to this? They call for more research to “understand the links”. We understand why this is happening, what we need is a mass fight-back to stop it from happening again!

Strike action by workers demanding that they are not forced to pay is part of the new normal. Manchester bus drivers have been on strike for over 8 weeks against plans to fire and rehire the entire workforce on worse terms and conditions. Disgustingly, at the same time, British Gas has gone ahead with its threats to sack its workers despite their heroic strike to resist it. British Gas was quick to reclaim their vans from the workers they were sacking, workers who refused to sign new contracts which would amount to working more hours for no extra pay and other attacks on terms and conditions. Members of the GMB union took 43 days of strike action but faced bullying and blackmail from the employer. It highlights the need for coordinated strike action across the union movement to have a strong and united resistance to this brutal method being used by the bosses in many places. 

Further struggle on the horizon

As we come out of lockdown it might also be the case that workers begin to take offensive, rather than defensive, struggle to fight for what they are owed. This is part of the absolute refusal by NHS workers to accept a 1% pay rise and why many have left unions not willing to take strike action to fight for a 15% increase, instead choosing to join unions such as the Royal College of Nursing who have set up a multi-million pound strike fund in preparation for a lengthy battle against the government. In another example, Deliveroo handled transactions worth £1.65bn in the first three months of 2021 alone and the company is worth around £4.6bn. However, workers haven’t received their share of that and have been taking strike action to demand sick pay, holiday pay and a decent wage. There were protests in London, Sheffield and other towns and cities during the strike as workers demanded to be counted as workers, not ‘independent contractors’.

Struggle against oppression is also something which is likely to grow. School students at Pimlico led the way with their protest just before the Easter Holidays against a racist uniform policy. The chairman of the school, Lord Nash, has since written to parents threatening disciplinary action against students if they protest again! Not only is this letter provocative it also shows a complete lack of awareness of the deep seated issues young people are beginning to challenge. The government’s own investigation into institutional racism concludes that it doesn’t exist and those who experience racism should not act like victims! The Pimlico students also raised opposition to poverty and sexual assault as part of their demands. Along with the Everyone’s Invited initiative, which received 1035 testimonies about sexual harassment and assault in education institutions in just one week, it shows a willingness to fight racism and sexism. Socialist Alternative fully supports school students taking action and calls for a national school student strike to stamp out racism and sexism from schools. 

All of these problems that the Tories are facing indicate both the bankruptcy of capitalism to provide the basics we need in life and the growing militancy in workers and young people to fight against this system. All those mobilised now, from the strikes against fire and rehire, to the school students protesting racism, should join up into an almighty movement which can really begin to challenge the greed, corruption and inequality of class society. Such a united movement, if it develops an independent political voice, can and must place the goal of a socialist society in its sights. 

What we say:

  • Make resistance the ‘new normal’ as we come out of lockdown – step up the fight against the Tories’ police, crime, sentencing and courts bill. Defend the right to protest!
  • Workers’ must not be made to pay for capitalism’s crisis – for trade union action to defend all jobs and conditions under threat, and for safe working conditions during the pandemic. 
  • Build the fight against oppression – support school student protests against racism and sexism. Form organising groups in schools to take the struggle forward and link up between schools to prepare for a national school strike.
  • No faith in the capitalists to take us out of this crisis – take the top corporations into democratic public ownership, under workers control and management. Only socialist planning can ensure an end to economic turmoil.
  • For an independent, socialist Scotland as part of a voluntary socialist federation of the British Isles, a socialist Europe and a socialist world