After a decade of attacks and resistance, system change is urgently needed
A decade ago last week, London’s streets were ablaze. Desperation and fury – at police racism, the lack of jobs, training and education, as well as decimated youth services – were being expressed in a disorganised, inchoate and often violent and counter-productive way.
But the year of 2011 was not only marked by riots. It was also a year of mass protest. Internationally, revolution swept across much of the Middle East and North Africa. Inspired by this, streets and squares were filled by the enraged of Southern Europe. The Occupy movement began in New York.
In Britain too, 2011 was also a year of mass struggle, in which the organised workers’ movement demonstrated its mighty potential strength. The month of November brought what was, in all but name, a public sector general strike. This tremendous action saw millions on the streets, caused major disruption to the capitalist economy, and showed just a glimpse of the mighty power the trade unions are capable of unleashing. But cowardice and capitulation on the part of the right-wing union leaderships squandered this huge potential, preparing the way for the movement’s defeat.
This set the stage for much of what has followed in the last decade: ten years of Tory austerity that would not be challenged in the generalised way that was necessary. This is not to say, of course, that struggle did not emerge from below, or that working-class people lacked determination to resist. The election of Corbyn as Labour leader showed huge hunger for an alternative. Bitterly fought industrial battles took place in a range of different workplaces and sectors. But the ‘block at the top’ meant such struggles failed to be drawn together. In the absence of the coordinated and escalating action needed, all-too often they were defeated.
A decade on, the Tories remain in power. The earth is another 0.2°C warmer. And the questions that were asked of the labour movement in 2011 are being asked again, posed even more sharply. What will the 2020s look like for working-class people? What future is offered to youth? How can a viable socialist movement to challenge the capitalist system be built? The anger and frustration that exploded in riots ten years ago has built – not dissipated – broadened in scope, and widened its spread.
Pandemic crisis still lurks
On the surface, Johnson’s government has a rather different approach to that of the chief austerity mongers Cameron and Osborne. The global pandemic and associated economic crisis has forced the Tory party into territory that would have seemed unthinkable a year earlier. Since March 2020, the state has intervened on a huge scale to underwrite the economy and stabilise demand. Every previously ‘sacred’ fiscal rule has been thrown out of the window.
All this has been done, of course, not in the interests of working people, but to protect the profits of the billionaires and stave off the threat of mass revolt. Meanwhile the burden of navigating this enormous public health crisis has fallen overwhelmingly on workers – especially marginalised, low-paid, female, and BAME ones.
Now the government has embarked on its latest and potentially biggest Covid gamble. True, Johnson’s posture on the much-trumpeted 19 July ‘freedom day’ was altogether more modest than he originally planned. Churchillian bombast was replaced with muted exhortations asking that the public ‘remain cautious’ – again attempting to shift responsibility for controlling the virus away from his government to ordinary people. But nonetheless, despite warnings from scientists about the possibility of a new vaccine-resistant variant, the vast majority of restrictions were indeed lifted.
Alongside the removal of restrictions, the government is also preparing the removal of the life support systems that have kept people in work and staved off hunger during the course of the crisis. The Universal Credit Uplift is currently set to be withdrawn at the end of September, plunging millions of families into extreme hardship. Furlough is being phased out to supposedly come to an end at the same time, threatening to unmask the true scale of Britain’s actually massive unemployment.
Freedom day does not mark the end of the crisis, however. Just over a quarter of the world’s population has so far been ‘fully vaccinated’, meaning 75% of people remain vulnerable to its worst effects. Globally, the third wave will be the deadliest. With it will come new variants, every one that emerges posing the potential for vaccine escape. This reality is understood all too well, particularly by those workers most on the front line in health and social care who have borne the brunt of the Tories’ shambolic response to the virus. Yet also understood increasingly clearly, is that struggle on central issues like pay, conditions, climate change and education cannot be postponed to the post-pandemic future.
Movement of resistance needed
Labour’s polling has improved marginally in the last months, primarily a sign that the so-called vaccine bounce was indeed ephemeral. But Starmer’s new New Labour still trails the Tories by as much as 7 points. The medicine he and the Blairites prescribe for this problem is a further turn to the right and a stepping up of the vicious witch-hunts that have already driven out much of Corbyn’s support base, with many more leaving in disgust. Formally banning a number of socialist and left-wing groups from the party underlines the totally undemocratic, bullying approach of the Labour right to driving out their opponents. But the response of the supposed ‘leadership’ of the Corbyn movement to this has been utterly craven – in most cases failing even to condemn the purge. The parliamentary Labour left is now seemingly banking its hopes on a soft right, Miliband-esque candidate like Angela Rayner to challenge Starmer’s leadership. This only underlines further that earnestly hoping for salvation in the form of a Labour government is futile. A fierce movement of resistance must be built to this government now.
‘Build back better’ is the slogan Johnson’s Tories have most recently adopted alongside the so-called levelling up agenda. Both are vacuous. But both are also (inadequate) attempts to respond to a mood that exists in society for serious and transformational change. While the defeat of 2011’s struggles was part of paving the way for ten more years of cuts, in 2021, mass protest has the potential to set a new agenda.
The first major showdown with the government looks set to be over the question of NHS pay. The government’s revised 3% pay offer, while still insultingly low and below the currently rising rate of inflation, was itself a response to the powerful mood of defiance among NHS workers and strong public support for them. The demonstration being discussed by Health Campaigns Together to take place in the autumn has the potential, especially if the key health unions like Unison put their full weight behind it, to be massive. It will be crucial to build for this demonstration to use it as part of building pressure on the leadership of Unison and other health unions to support and mobilise a coordinated and escalating campaign of industrial action – even the threat of which would send shivers down the spines of Johnson and Javid.
The weakness of the parliamentary opposition the Tories currently face has meant Johnson appears like a man who has got away with murder. Revelations of callousness, chaos and incompetence seem to bounce off him. The scandal of the Covid contracts cash bonanza for the rich has tended to drop below headlines detailing team GB’s medal successes during the last month, despite fresh reports of seriously dodgy dealings and mysteriously disappeared ministerial mobiles. Cummings’s latest set of scandalous reveals look like it has failed to seriously shake Johnson’s grip. But all this assumes that opposition to the government must come first from Westminster. It will not. A mighty movement to oppose the Tories, demand justice for Covid’s victims and fight for a better future must be prepared. It must be built on the streets, on campuses and in workplaces. Workers and young people must prepare an autumn of resistance.
Capitalism is killing the planet – fight for a socialist alternative!
Among the central tasks such a movement will face is rekindling and developing further the hugely significant climate strikes which were placed on hold due to the onset of the pandemic. Dire warnings from the IPCC fall on the deaf ears of capitalist politicians, whose loyalty to big business ultimately trumps all other considerations. That’s why the COP26 summit must be used as an opportunity to instead give them a glimpse of the revolutionary potential that the movement for climate justice poses – assembling the beginnings of the real forces in society which are capable of offering a solution to climate catastrophe.
Socialist Alternative – along with our international organization ISA – is mobilising to build for a mass turn-out of working-class and especially young people to protest the COP26 in Glasgow. We will be fighting to place socialist demands centre stage. This includes demanding nationalisation of the big monopolies which dominate our economy and wreck our environment. It means fighting for socialist planning to put a rapid end to the burning of fossil fuels, create millions of green jobs, and put an end to poverty and hunger once and for all.
The demand of the climate movement for ‘system change’ is one which has resonance beyond the question of the environment. We need system change because black lives matter. We need system change because no child should face holiday hunger, because no person should work 60 hours a week and still struggle to pay rent, because no woman should fear for her life just for walking alone at night. So this must not only be an autumn of resistance to Tory attacks, but an autumn in which we boldly and determinedly fight to build-up the forces of socialism – pointing to the real alternative to capitalist chaos.