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Socialist Review, April 1994

Notes of the Month

Working class movement

Temperature rising

From Socialist Review, No. 174, April 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

The two issues dominating left wing politics in Britain are how do we get rid of the Tories and what can be done to stop the rise of fascism? On both counts, the next month may well prove decisive. The local elections in early May – for London and parts of the rest of the country – have assumed a disproportionate importance as they will be used to judge whether John Major and his weak, corrupt government can survive. They will also help to indicate whether the fascist BNP’s election victory in the Isle of Dogs last September was a flash in the pan or something more enduring.

There are signs that the political temperature is rising in the run up to the elections. There is growing opposition to the fascists in the unions and the localities. That fight was given a great boost by the TUC march against racism in Tower Hamlets last month with many local people turning out to join the demonstration.

This was the largest mobilisation against racism in the area since the Anti Nazi League Carnival in 1978. The 50,000 to 60,000 who turned out could easily have been two or three times the numbers if cheap transport (or indeed any transport) was laid on from many areas outside London, and if the TUC leaders had been actively campaigning for the march in factories and offices up and down the country.

Where rank and file activists mobilised, the results were very encouraging. But too many unions, especially some of the manual workers’ unions, backed the march in name only. So many union members – or people who were not even in a union – turned up as individuals, not as part of organised delegations.

Even so, the result was a very impressive show of opposition to racism and fascism from within the trade union movement, success which can feed other campaigns involving trade union members.

Meanwhile hatred of the Tories shows no sign of abating. They are set to do disastrously in May and in the European elections in June. The tax increases which take effect this month are likely to create even more of a political storm. Increases in mortgages (through the reduction of tax relief), national insurance contributions (which go up by 1 percent) and VAT on fuel will mean worse living standards for the vast majority of workers.

It is often hard for the anger felt at Tory policy, and at the attacks coming from the bosses, to develop into any tangible form. Few of the protests are reported in national newspapers or on television. But despite the national union leaders doing nothing to build campaigns there are signs of a heightened level of class struggle. The workers at Girobank won their pay rise after a series of one day strikes. The mainly women workers also won improved maternity leave. At Rover’s Longbridge car plant in Birmingham there were a series of protests and walkouts over bonus payments. A strike in London’s Tower Hamlets over funding for Section 11 teachers led to a demonstration of 1,200. Threats of redundancies at Pilkington and Beecham’s in St Helens led to a march of 1,500 through the town. Thousands of Sheffield council workers struck against wage cuts and British Telecom workers in London balloted over attacks on work conditions.

These were just some of the industrial disputes in March. The problem is that there is no national focus and the TUC does its best to make sure it stays that way.

However, there are signs that this can change. The engineers’ right wing union leader Gavin Laird responded bitterly to a speech by David Hunt, Tory employment secretary, last month with these words:

‘Your government is about the destruction of the British trade union movement. You’re going to fail, but you’re going to destroy people like me. The kind of person who will take over from me will be the kind you deserve.’

Similarly, the row over Liberal leader Paddy Ashdown not being invited to speak at the TUC demo over racism gives a sense of the pressure TUC leaders are under. They were pressured by local activists disgusted at the behaviour of local Tower Hamlets Liberals, who refused to even allow the demonstration a park to disperse in.

The fact that the TUC stood up to media and Liberal pressure in however limited a way gave trade union activists a boost. But one demonstration cannot on its own turn the tide against the Nazis. Building groups against the Nazis in workplaces – among teachers, civil servants, postal workers and the rest – can weaken the fascists and also help to strengthen working class organisation.

But we also have to look at wider issues to undercut them. The fascists attract people because they seem to have plausible answers to the social and economic problems people face: unemployment, housing shortage, cuts in services. Labour has little to say to these people but instead pursues policies aimed at attracting middle class voters – and so leaves some of its traditional voters increasingly in despair.

More than anything else, a rise in the level of class struggle, and a growth in the influence of the unions and the working class movement can provide a bulwark against fascism. Socialists have to put every effort into helping this come about.

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