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Britain in Strike Fever after Queen’s State Funeral

After the state funeral of Elizabeth II in the United Kingdom, several sectors are preparing to strike on October 1. The coming workers’ struggles and the fight against the anti-union laws will be a key moment of class struggle in Britain.

Dan Kedem and Tim Jonat

September 27, 2022
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A postal workers' strike outside Mount Pleasant Royal Mail sorting office in London on August 26, 2022
Image: Leon Neal/Getty Images

After the state funeral of the Queen, class struggle has returned to the forefront in Britain. In a treacherous act by the union leaderships, class struggle had been effectively paused for almost two weeks during the period of “national mourning.” After several suspended strikes and the TUC postponing its annual congress, however, momentum is returning.

Those on the side of British capital are leaving nothing to chance: Liz Truss, the new prime minister and Boris Johnson’s successor, prepared a series of neoliberal measures which were presented in Parliament last Friday. On the same day the Queen died, Liz Truss had already announced the first measures to “ease the burden” of rising costs of living and soaring inflation. A so-called “energy price guarantee” will be introduced on October 1, which will cap the cost of energy at around 80 percent of current levels. For an average household, this would mean energy costs of around £2,500 per year — a doubling of costs compared to the previous year. Truss was more or less forced to take this measure in order not to directly feel the fighting spirit of the population.

How did this come about? After several meetings with the bosses of the energy companies, a unifying principle was agreed upon: the profits of the energy industry were to be protected at all costs. The price cap is to be financed primarily by taking on new government debt and not by taxing the enormous profits of the energy corporations. Truss is vehemently opposed to a windfall tax on these companies: Her argument is that it would prevent them from making investments in Britain. In the end, it is the working class of Britain who will be made to pay. 

Truss’s approach to this policy was highly indicative of the announcements to come. In the mini-budget presented last Friday, the new Chancellor of the Exchequer, Kwasi Kwarteng, announced the following measures: A reduction in stamp duty, a rollback of the corporate tax increase, and a further tax cut for the wealthy in the future. In addition, “low-tax zones” will be established throughout the country to attract corporations. Then the cat was truly let out of the bag: from April next year, the top rate of income tax is to be abolished. 

In contrast to her direct predecessors, Truss is quite open about her willingness to serve the bosses and British capital. Her government has relentlessly defended the massive transfer of wealth to the very richest, even going as far as calling it “fair” because the measures are intended to boost the British economy and will supposedly attract investment. Truss criticizes what she calls the “lens of redistribution” through which the media establishment supposedly criticizes her policies, saying that “only economic growth will get Britain out of the current crisis.” Or as the new Chancellor of the Exchequer Kwarteng noted: “We have been fighting for too long in this country about redistribution.” According to the Treasury’s own projections, only the 660,000 top earners in Britain will benefit from the announced “mini-budget.”

Attacks on the Working Class

At the same time, the government has declared war against the trade unions and the working class. The new anti-union laws that had been promised within the first 30 days may have been delayed for a very short while, but the government has now confirmed that they will come by November. 

Truss’s first few weeks show one thing above all: She will continue in the tradition of the British bourgeoisie to pursue a full-on confrontation with the working class. While cutting taxes for the rich and lifting bonus caps for bankers, the Conservative government is preparing for war on trade unions and workers’ protections. This neoliberal offensive is generating some controversy among the ruling class. This is demonstrated by disputes within the ruling Conversative Party and between the Government and the Bank of England around interest rates. 

Last week, supposedly to fight inflation, the Bank of England raised the key interest rate to 2.25 percent, the highest level in 27 years, and projected it to increase to around four percent. After the “mini-budget” and the collapse of the Pound, these projections have risen to an eye-watering 6 percent by this time next year. This is a deliberate attempt to provoke a recession in order to increase unemployment and lower wages in the process, thus “cooling off” the economy and making the working class pay . Truss is promising a short-term boost to economic growth through further deregulation. Her campaign for leadership was all about criticizing the “orthodoxy” at both the Treasury and the Bank of England. This is a clash between two wings of the ruling class, but also an illustration of the ongoing crisis in which British capitalism finds itself.

The neoliberal offensive of the Truss government is perceived by some of its opponents within the bourgeoisie as a high-risk gamble that could further destabilize British capitalism. No one really believes in the promised economic growth. All projections show a further decline in growth in the next quarter and thus a technical recession. Truss is trying to counteract this risk by promising war against the working classes and draconian legislation against trade unions. The reason for this is obvious: the current wave of industrial action and the reawakening of the British working class is scaring all wings of the ruling class. 

Britain Faces a New Wave of Strikes

After a summer of strike action in the docks, in the railways, and at the post offices, an autumn of even more strikes might be opening. Last Monday, dockers in Liverpool began a two-week strike, joined this Monday by the dockers of Felixstowe, the largest container port in the UK. It is to be applauded that the Liverpool workers began their strike during the period of “national mourning,” with the state funeral for the Queen taking place on the same day. This was in very stark contrast to the treacherous actions of the other union bureaucracies who called off their strikes.

The struggle of the dockers is a positive example for all workers in the UK, Europe, and the United States: in such a strategically important sector, the dockers of Felixstowe and Liverpool will have been on strike in unison for more than a week. They have not been intimidated by demands for “patriotic loyalty” and the losses for the British economy.

While none of the strikes so far ended with major victories, the pressure from the workers on the trade union apparatuses is increasing massively. As a result, left-wing sections of the bureaucracy are finally making attempts to coordinate strikes. Indeed, the TUC’s subordination of the class struggle to “national unity” has led to a missed opportunity to apply pressure on the more social-democratic unions, such as GMB or Unison, to coordinate their strike action in the interests of the class.

However, on October 1, postal workers, rail workers, and dockers in Liverpool and Felixstowe will be going on strike. There are also strikes at various bus companies, in addition to strike ballots in the health service, in education, and in refuse collection. The Aviva bus drivers in North London will also shortly be going on an indefinite strike and thus shutting down a large part of the traffic in the metropolitan area.

Workers in sectors that are not currently on strike or where unionization levels are lower have also been taking action. So far, the “Enough is Enough” campaign has brought more than 500,000 workers across the UK together to fight for a set of fairly minimal but welcome demands. The campaign, initiated by the left trade union bureaucracies of the CWU and RMT, as well as parts of the reformist Left within the Labour Party, claims to have local groups in almost every constituency. The campaign possesses a broad, working-class base with deep roots into the union rank and file. But the top-down control of the campaign by the union bureaucracies also represents the biggest drag on its potential. 

On October 1, Enough is Enough is holding its first nationwide day of action, holding numerous large protests across the UK as well as supporting pickets. One single day of action would be purely symbolic, however, if it were to remain the exception. While the campaign leadership has already announced further protests, it remains clear that the bureaucrats of the left-wing unions fear losing control of the movement in the current situation. The union bureaucracies are certainly not doing this voluntarily, but out of fear of their rank and file. They feel forced to give class struggle an outlet in the streets; they fear they cannot put the brakes on it, as they usually do. There has also been radio silence regarding the economic sanctions against Russia, although these are the biggest driving force behind inflation so far. Thus, the bureaucracies of the leftist unions are running a purely economic campaign, leaving out any of the political questions that need to be asked. 

Amid all the strike fever and the new neoliberal offensive, the Labour Party is quickly forgotten. At the party conference, which is taking place right now, the party’s public image has taken center stage. While the party’s left wing is hoping the Corbynistas some day take over the party again, the right wing wants to do everything in its power to win over parts of the British capitalist class. The leadership also wants to compensate for a possible lack of funding from the trade unions (such as Unite) by soliciting donations from capitalists. This year, for the first time, the national anthem “God save the king!” was sung — a mockery of international workers’ history and workers worldwide! The party leadership is going all out to show the capitalists that it is a “serious alternative” to the Conservative Party and no threat at all to corporate profits.

The Labour Party was originally founded by unions, and it is still firmly linked to them today. Parts of the left-wing union bureaucracies, however, have taken more than they can stomach of Keir Starmer’s cooing of the ruling class. They have repeatedly threatened to withhold funding if the party leadership goes too far (by their standards). The general secretary of Unite, Sharon Graham, once again announced that she would not come to the party conference because the union is dissatisfied with the Party’s stance on the current inflation crisis. But the Labour Party is a Party that has always had a desire to administer capitalism. The symbolic acts of the “left” bureaucrats are not enough — action must finally follow. The unions must break with the party instead of formalist arguments around policy in the backrooms of the Labour Party conference.

The coming workers’ struggles and the fight against the anti-union laws will be a key moment of class struggle in Britain. Pressure from sections of the fighting vanguard has forced sections of the left trade union bureaucracies to coordinate strikes across sectors for the first time. This is a success for the workers — more than that, it represents an important step towards a possible general strike to repel the coming attacks of the British capitalist class. 

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