Workers Hammer No. 213
Miliband's Labour: no alternative to Cameron-Clegg
For a class-struggle fight against fees and cuts!
Defend student protesters!
In the final months of 2010 the country was rocked by furious student protests against the Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition government’s attacks on university education. Tuition fees for students at England’s universities will be allowed to rise to £9000, three times the existing level, while university budgets have been slashed by 40 per cent. The education maintenance allowance, a miserable payment of up to £30 per week on which seven out of ten college students depend, is being scrapped. The anger among students in universities and colleges exploded on the streets on 10 November 2010, when some 50,000 students marched in London against the new legislation. A section of the demonstration broke away and briefly occupied Tory headquarters, chanting “Tory scum” and vowing: “This is only the beginning”. In the weeks to follow, students occupied campuses in several cities and mobilised in their thousands in London on 9 December, the day of the vote on university fees in the House of Commons.
Tory prime minister David Cameron and his Liberal Democrat coalition partners narrowly won the vote, despite a rebellion among Liberal MPs. Having pledged before the election to oppose any rise in tuition fees, the Liberal Democrats are now hated and the party leader is derided on demonstrations with the chant “Nick Clegg, we know you — you’re a f---ing Tory too!” Despite the fact that it was a Labour government that introduced student fees in 1998, Labour MPs on this occasion voted against the Con-Dem fee increase.
The 9 December demonstration saw thousands of students, from universities, schools and colleges, marching to London’s Parliament Square. Despite a gargantuan police operation on the city streets that evening, students in Regent Street chanced upon the Rolls-Royce carrying Prince Charles and his wife Camilla sitting in traffic. Demonstrating more apparent sense of British history than the schools might be expected to provide, protesters recalled the fate of Charles I and chanted “Off with their heads!” Students spattered the royal car with paint and seemingly gave the Duchess a poke in the ribs while they were at it.
The police, who came under heavy criticism for not protecting the heir to the throne, and previously for the fact that students got into the Tory Party headquarters, are now carrying out a witch hunt against protesters. Hundreds of students have been arrested and the numbers continue to rise. Outrageously, on 12 January an 18-year-old protester, Edward Woollard, was jailed for 32 months for throwing a fire extinguisher from the roof of the Tory building, hitting nobody. Criminal charges remain against many of the other demonstrators. Free Edward Woollard! Drop all charges against student protesters!
Sentencing Woollard, judge Geoffrey Rivlin said those who “indulge in serious violence must expect a lengthy sentence”. For students who are new to political protest, lesson number one is that the good judge’s words do not apply to the police, the actual source of serious violence on the demonstrations. The police “kettled” protesters for hours in freezing conditions, terrorised protesters by lunging at them on horseback and knocked student Alfie Meadows unconscious on 9 December, causing life-threatening brain injuries. That same evening Jody McIntyre, a young protester, was yanked from his wheelchair by four riot cops and dragged across the street.
Terror and violence is routine for the police, who killed Ian Tomlinson during the April 2009 protests against the G20 summit; who executed Brazilian electrician Jean Charles de Menezes on the Tube in 2005 in the name of the racist “war on terror” and who daily harass black and Asian youth using “stop and search” powers. The police are at the core of the capitalist state — which also includes the courts, prisons and military — the purpose of which is to maintain through violence the system of exploitation of the working class by the bourgeoisie.
Student organisations are building for demonstrations against student fees called for 29 January in London and Manchester, which are backed by some of the country’s largest unions, including the civil service Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union, Unite and the GMB. As revolutionary Marxists, we fight for free, good quality education for all! For open admissions and a cost-of-living allowance for students! The question is how to get this. The money and resources exist for funding of schools, university education, hospitals and other infrastructure that is being gutted, but to seize that wealth requires breaking the power of the bourgeoisie. The Spartacist League/Britain intervenes into these protests with the understanding that the attacks on education, as well as attacks on working people, racism and exploitation, are endemic to the capitalist system. We seek to win students to our programme for the overturn of that system through socialist revolution.
What programme to fight budget cuts?
The coalition government’s budget cuts amount to a breathtaking attack on the living standards of working people, the poor and elderly, as well as youth. Across Europe and in the US, the capitalist ruling classes are seizing on the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression to slash jobs and to demand massive concessions on working hours, wages and pensions. Any capitalist government in Britain — whether Labour, Tory and/or Liberal Democrat — will try to restore the “health” of the system by bleeding working people; while of course cuts in company profits and the stratospheric bonuses paid to bank executives are off limits. At the mere suggestion that a “mansion tax” be imposed, Blairite Peter Mandelson cried, “surely the rich have suffered enough!” Indeed, some of Britain’s richest have been reduced to asking for handouts from the state: it recently came to light that in 2004 the Queen turned to a public fund earmarked for “schools, hospitals and low-income families” to help her in the onerous task of heating Buckingham Palace! In these hard times, Her Majesty cut corners by eliminating Christmas luncheon for the palace staff.
What’s needed is a class-struggle fight to defend the working class and poor against these attacks. Winning decent healthcare and quality education for the working class, including its black and Asian minority components, requires hard struggle against the capitalist class, a handful of people whose obscene wealth is gained from exploiting the working class and whose rule is reinforced by racial and other forms of social oppression. Students themselves have no social power and therefore must mobilise behind the organised working class, particularly the public sector unions, which have the social power and a vital interest in fighting against all the attacks on social services, including on state education.
But to engage the strength of the unions in an effective battle against the government’s cuts requires a struggle against the pro-Labour politics of the trade union bureaucracy who are committed to defending the interests of the British capitalist rulers. What’s needed is a new class-struggle leadership that will fight — in the face of capitalist austerity — for the basic needs of the working class. Forging such a leadership is key to building a revolutionary workers party.
Refurbishing Labour’s image
The student protests have sparked a debate about the role of the trade unions in fighting the budget cuts. Len McCluskey, newly elected head of Unite, said that the students had “put the trade union movement on the spot” and that the unions “have to be preparing for battle”. The aim of this “battle” is to channel discontent among students and workers into support for a Labour government. McCluskey hopes that “Ed Miliband is going to continue his welcome course of drawing a line under Labour’s Blairite past” and warns that: “These are Con-Dem cuts, and this is a capitalist crisis. An attempt to blame Labour local authorities for the problem is a shortcut to splitting our movement and letting the government off the hook” (guardian.co.uk, 19 December 2010).
Reformist organisations such as the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) tail the trade union bureaucracy and share the same goal: to pressure the Labour Party — which before the general election promised cuts “deeper and tougher” than Margaret Thatcher’s in the 1980s; which during 13 years in office carried out imperialist butchery in Afghanistan and Iraq and racist immigrant-bashing at home.
The SWP backed Labour in the 2010 general election and now runs the National Right to Work coalition, whose prominent slogan is “Break the Con-Dem Coalition!” a barely disguised appeal for a Labour government (backed by the Liberal Democrats). Last June the SWP provided the Cameron government with a helpful way out of Britain’s economic crisis, issuing a glossy “anti-cuts” poster titled “Why There’s No Need to Slash Spending”. With a series of colourful graphs and pie charts, the SWP demonstrated in regard to the deficit that “we could raise the whole of that every year”, merely by taxing the rich, clamping down on tax evaders, and cutting defence spending by scrapping Trident and ending the war in Afghanistan. The SWP calculates that these simple measures would bring £310 billion to Britain’s coffers. Quick — someone alert David Cameron! He should be informed that he needn’t throw people out of council housing, raise student fees or threaten workers’ livelihoods.
In fact — as Marx and Engels explained over a century and a half ago — the capitalists and their government behave the way they do not because they are ignorant, irrational or simply mean people, but because they must pursue their class interests: maximising profits and all that this entails, which includes securing access to markets and resources through imperialist butchery abroad and war on working people and minorities at home.
Counterfire, an offshoot of the SWP, together with Workers Power and others are building several “anti-cuts” lash-ups. Despite much grief among themselves about the failure to unite into a single “anti-cuts opposition” the differences are over tactical and organisational questions, not over politics and programme. None of the competing groups has a programme for the overthrow of capitalism. Workers Power, parent of the youth group Revolution, expressed the hopes and dreams of all the Labourite left when they headlined last October: “Ed Miliband elected Labour leader by workers’ votes: Now make him fight!” (Workers Power website, 2 October 2010). Ed Miliband is already fighting: he has told the compliant union leaders that he is opposed to strikes against the cuts and is appalled at the very idea of a strike in London Underground on the day of Prince William’s wedding in April.
Counterfire is heavily involved in the so-called “Coalition of Resistance”, supported by retired Labour MP Tony Benn, darling of the reformists, plus Labour MPs John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn. Also included are Green Party MP Caroline Lucas, filmmaker Ken Loach and author Iain Banks and numerous trade union leaders including Mark Serwotka, leader of the PCS and Bob Crow, general secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union as well as Len McCluskey. The Coalition of Resistance aims not for the overthrow of capitalism but for “a radical alternative, with the level of determination shown by trade unionists and social movements in Greece and other European countries”.
The mass strike waves in Greece and France last year showed the tremendous social power of the organised working class: both countries were brought to a grinding halt by mass strikes in protest against government austerity. However, these struggles were undermined by the political bankruptcy of their reformist misleaders, who accept the need for capitalist austerity, while seeking to have a say in how and where cuts should be implemented. Like their counterparts in France and Greece, the British reformists are tailing the wretched trade union bureaucracy.
Counterfire invokes the spectre of France in May 1968, “the totemic student struggle, the mark against which all others become judged” (“Where Next for the Student Revolt?”, 23 December 2010). May ’68 was indeed an immense social struggle ignited by student protests that resulted in mass strikes, factory occupations and demonstrations and led to a pre-revolutionary situation in France. The Counterfire article can’t bring itself to utter the words “socialist” or “revolution”, saying instead that “the change of a whole society” was posed in France, and that this “didn’t quite happen, for reasons that still provoke debate”. They don’t explain the reasons this “didn’t quite happen”. In fact, the workers and students were sold out by the reformist Communist Party leaders, who called off the strikes for a few crumbs from the capitalists’ table (see Workers Vanguard no 972, 21 January).
The Socialist Party-dominated National Shop Stewards Network has launched an “All-Britain anti-cuts campaign”. The politics of the Socialist Party amount to craven reformism, notably on the state. Their position is that the police and prison guards are “workers in uniform”, a flat denial of the Leninist position that the police are a core part of the armed fist of the capitalist state whose purpose is to maintain capitalist rule through repression of the working class. The Socialist Party is known on the left for pandering to chauvinism and backward consciousness. Grotesquely, these “socialists” played a leading role in the chauvinist strikes against foreign workers at the Lindsey oil refinery in Lincolnshire in 2009 in which the slogan “British jobs for British workers” was prominent. (See “Labourites whitewash chauvinist strikes”, Workers Hammer no 206, Spring 2009.)
Reformist politics cannot address any of the fundamental problems facing students today. These were summed up by one of a group of minority youth interviewed by the BBC’s Paul Mason on the 9 December protest, who said: “We’re from the slums of east London. How do they expect us to pay £9,000 for uni fees, and EMA [education maintenance allowance] was the only thing keeping us in college. What’s stopping us from doing drug deals on the streets any more? Nothing.” The willful neglect of education under capitalism hits hardest at the poorest in society, especially ethnic minorities, who are more likely to attend resource-starved and decrepit schools in run-down areas. An authoritative recent study into inequality in Britain showed that:
“children from the poorest families are half as likely to achieve good GCSEs; black pupils of Caribbean descent are three times more likely to be excluded; four out of five young people with special needs are being bullied; between a quarter and a third of Muslim women have no qualifications.”
— Guardian, 10 October 2010
Labour’s much talked about “reforms” in education amounted to a “free-market” bonanza for private companies and an insidious attack on the unions in education. Education services — from teaching to catering to building maintenance and cleaning — were outsourced to private companies. This meant many different employers operating in schools and colleges, many of whom are hostile to the existence of unions. Blair saw the teaching unions as a potential obstacle to his education “reform”, and thus teachers were blamed for schools that were designated as “failing”. Performance-related pay is increasingly used, supposedly to reward good results, but in fact it undermines the national pay scales and national terms and conditions negotiated by the teachers’ unions. Blair’s legacy also includes more “faith schools”, which boost the promotion of anti-scientific religious obscurantism and creationism, and city academies which are all but exempt from local authority control and are decidedly unfriendly to the teachers’ unions.
Labour’s introduction of university fees in 1998 was a massive attack on students from working-class backgrounds. (Two years later the Scottish parliament reversed this in Scottish universities.) However an unprecedented number of students now attend university, in Britain and other advanced capitalist countries. University students in Britain incur huge levels of debt — estimated to average £25,000 but may be as high as £50,000 in London. And despite a vast expansion in the number of working-class students attending higher education, the class divide in education remains as wide as it was decades ago when the eleven-plus examination determined that 80 per cent of the population was unfit for university.
To this day, social class is the single most important factor in determining educational achievement. The class divide persists because under capitalism the education system is tailored to favour the wealthy few. Research shows that students who live in socially deprived areas are less likely to take A-levels in subjects such as maths and science, while “children from the higher social classes were more likely to opt for subjects such as biology, further maths, English literature and languages” (independent.co.uk, 19 August 2009). In affluent areas such as London’s Kensington and Chelsea, upwards of 80 per cent of children will go to university, a rate which is five times higher than children from poorer regions. Although only seven per cent of all pupils are educated in the elite “public” (private) school system, this sector produces 75 per cent of judges, 70 per cent of finance directors and 55 per cent of solicitors (independent.co.uk, 22 July 2009).
The British ruling class sees little need to educate and train working-class people beyond what is needed for the City, which in the words of Guardian columnist Stewart Lansley “has sucked in the pick of Britain’s brightest graduates with some of the best young PhD mathematicians and physicists behind the fiendishly complex mathematical formula used to run arcane financial instruments” (guardian.co.uk, 27 August 2009).
As working people and students face the hammer blows of the capitalists, the trade union misleaders and their “socialist” lackeys look to Labour to merely mitigate the worst of the assault. This perspective has proven bankrupt over many years, including under old Labour governments in the 1960s and 70s. To begin to address the fundamental problems faced by the multiethnic working class of this country requires a party armed with a programme for socialist revolution to destroy the capitalist state root and branch and replace it with a workers state that will lay the basis for building a socialist society. For that we need a revolutionary workers party — a party like Lenin and Trotsky’s Bolsheviks — which will fight for a workers government. The Spartacist League/Britain seeks to build such a party. Join us!