After replacing David Cameron as British Prime Minister Theresa May said “Brexit means Brexit”. She repeated this mantra, with variations, for many subsequent months. This didn’t help any understanding of what direction British government policy would go. It mostly contributed to the multiplication of uncertainties.
The ruling class in Britain was not prepared for the Brexit result. That there was no plan in place has become evident in the subsequent months. The Cameron government had no measures prepared. Those who campaigned to Leave the EU have gone back on slogans such as ‘£350 million a week to be spent on the NHS’ but not suggested anything in their place. The British bourgeoisie had partly lost control of its political apparatus and was looking for strategies to limit the damage to the economy, to stabilise a situation in which, especially after the advent of President Trump in the USA, instability and uncertainty are rapidly spreading.
In response to the austerity demanded by the capitalist crisis, the proliferation of imperialist wars, terrorism on the streets, and the dismal prospects offered by the continuation of capitalism, there is much dissatisfaction. This discontent can be expressed in many ways, not embracing any solutions but expressing unhappiness with a reality that’s not understood. The rise of UKIP in the UK, Donald Trump in the US, as well as other examples of right-wing populism, can be seen as one form of expression of such discontent. But it’s not just right-wing populism that people have turned to. Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece, Bernie Sanders in the US have all offered a ‘new radicalism’ on the Left. It’s in this context that we can begin to appreciate the re-election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party.
Politicians of left and right have condemned the increased xenophobic abuse and physical attacks on immigrants since the referendum, and indeed do not want the tensions in society to explode in ways that disrupt the exploitation of the working class. They may also recognise the role of referendum propaganda in encouraging the increase in these attacks. But they will never acknowledge the extent to which their capitalist system and their state are responsible for the very attitudes which feed xenophobic and racist populism. It is the nation state that defines who is a citizen, or subject, and who is an outsider, an illegal, or to be accepted on sufferance provided their work is needed and sent away afterwards, which encourages immigration when labour is scare, and turns away refugees when it is not wanted.
The political instability created in Britain by the "Leave" vote in the Brexit referendum, and in the USA by the Donald Trump presidential candidacy, provide graphic illustrations of the ruling class' loss of control of its own political apparatus.
Over the last few years in Britain, and especially recently, there’s been a number of ‘independent’ inquiries, parliamentary investigations (often televised live), police, parliamentary and ‘independent’ reports into all sorts of scandals and injustices, some of which go back decades. With several major inquiries in progress or just starting up, those that have been pronounced upon or, like the report on the 2003 Iraq War just out, it appears that the state is ‘cleaning up its act’ and, at last, holding those responsible for unacceptable, immoral or criminal behaviour to account. Senior politicians and top police officers are bought to book and the media, from its right to left wing, as in the Hillsborough case for example, celebrate the ‘justice for victims’. But under capitalism there can be no justice for victims and the primary aim of all these inquiries, reports and investigations is to strengthen the ideology of democracy and its ‘rule of law’ behind which lies the strengthening of the totalitarian state. The bourgeoisie may make scapegoats out of one, two or even more individuals from within its ranks but this itself only serves to reinforce its overall democratic campaign against a presently disorientated and weakened working class. It is only at such times that the ruling class is able to unleash such campaigns because if the working class was struggling in any significant way even the bourgeoisie’s ‘rule of law’ would be lifted and, as with the miners’ strike of 84, the state would be confronting it with all the forces and methods available to it however heinous and brutal.
When 52% of those who voted in the UK Referendum on membership of the European Union chose the Brexit option it was not an isolated incident but another example of the growing international problem of populism. You can see it in the support for Donald Trump in the battle for the US Presidency; in Germany with the appearance of political forces to the right of the Christian Democrats (Pegida and Alternative für Deutschland); in the recent presidential elections in Austria where the Social Democrats and Christian Democrats were eclipsed, and the contest was between the Greens and the populist right; in France there is the continuing rise of the Front National; in Italy there is the Five Star movement; and there’s also the governments of Poland and Hungary.
Blame the elites, they scream: the greedy bankers, the corrupt politicians, the shadowy bureaucrats who run the EU and tie us all up in red tape and regulations. And all these figures are indeed part of the ruling class and play their part in ramping up exploitation and destroying jobs and futures. But “blaming the elites” is a distortion of class consciousness, not the real thing, and the trick can be exposed by asking the question: who is peddling this new anti-elitism? And you only have to look at Donald Trump or the leaders of the Brexit campaign, or the mass media who support them, to see that this kind of anti-elitism is being sold by another part of the elite.
The co-chairman of the Oxford University Labour club resigns after claiming “a large proportion of both OULC and the student left in Oxford more generally have some kind of problem with Jews."; two Labour councillors suspended for antisemitic posts on social media: one of them, Salim Mulla, the mayor of Blackburn, tweeted that Israel was behind recent Islamic State atrocities in Europe; further up in the party hierarchy, Labour MP Naz Shah has to apologise in the House of Commons for suggesting on Facebook that the solution to the Israel-Palestine problem is to transport the entire population of Israel to the USA; and to top it all, Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London, denies that Naz Shah has said anything antisemitic and refuses to apologise for claiming that “Hitler supported Zionism in 1932 before going mad and killing six million Jews”. Under pressure from the press and parts of his own party, Jeremy Corbyn announces the formation of a commission of inquiry into antisemitism in the party, headed by civil liberties campaigner Shami Chakrabarti.
So, do Labour and the left have a “Jewish problem”?
Leaving aside the way Labour’s scandals have been used to the hilt by the Tories, the right wing press, and parts of the Labour party itself, to discredit the Corbyn leadership; leaving aside the habitual refrain of the right wing Zionists that any criticism of the Israeli state is by definition antisemitic – the answer is still yes.
The arguments by both sides in the UK’s Referendum on membership of the European Unions are limited. They make outlandish claims on the benefits of Leaving or Remaining while warning of the dangers of their opponent’s policy in a perpetual pantomime of “Oh no it isn’t! Oh, yes it is!”
When Jeremy Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party in Britain he stepped down from being chair of the Stop the War Coalition (StWC), while continuing to support its activities. Opponents of Corbyn have used this continuing connection to attack Labour and its leader. The ensuing arguments have pursued familiar lines with Corbyn and friends accused of being ‘anti-West’ and ‘pro-jihadi’ and his detractors portrayed as ‘bombers’ and Blairites.
Despite it being anticipated in all the preceding polls, there were still many expressions of ‘surprise’ at the election of Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of the Labour Party. Previous leaders Kinnock, Blair and Brown had all warned that the election of Corbyn would mean that Labour would lose the 2020 general election and could be out of power for a generation. After Corbyn’s speech to the Labour Party Conference he was accused of only speaking to the ‘activists’ and it was widely claimed that, under his leadership, Labour would only be a party of protest.
Refugees and other migrants wanting to come to Britain congregate in the ‘Jungle’, a shanty town near Calais. For over a decade several thousand people have been living there, or prior to that in the official Sangatte camp that was destroyed in 2002 at the request of the UK. They are there in the hope of being able to get into the UK through the Channel Tunnel. This is where Britain, like so many other countries, has built a barbed wire fence to protect its borders and keep out refugees, except that it only needs to defend the entrance to the Eurotunnel and not a land border. The refugees around Calais returned to the news over the summer when striking French ferry workers blocked the entrance to the Eurotunnel, causing queues of cars and lorries that people desperate to get to the Britain tried to climb onto.
The British economy is growing. The latest GDP growth was 2.9% with a predicted growth of 2.4% for 2015 (The Economist, 4.7.15). At the same time average pay has increased faster than inflation in the year to March, in other words the fall in real wages has been halted. However, this does not tell the whole story and the economy in both the UK and the world, despite having emerged from the deep recession of 2008, remains fragile.
Tory Chancellor George Osborne is set in the July Budget to announce details of the new phase of the Spending Review which will undoubtedly continue the vicious attacks on benefits which have continued to hit the very poorest sectors of the working class under Labour and Coalition governments.
What is the significance, for the working class, of the first Tory majority government in 18 years? It is certainly going to mean even more draconian cuts in benefits, as we show elsewhere in this issue. On a wider scale the results of the election have reinforced the state’s offensive against the proletariat at the ideological level. This is as important as its actions at the economic level. The new political line up of the British state’s democratic facade has the aim of deepening the sense of disorientation within the working class in order to weaken its ability to develop its struggle, and above all its capacity to offer an alternative perspective to the hell of decaying capitalism. Thus the proletariat can expect a whole array of ideological attacks to be launched against it.
Changes to stamp duty, making it cheaper to buy an ordinary house but more expensive to buy one costing in excess of £2 million, provides a little cover for the cuts announced in George Osborne’s autumn statement. We should have no doubt that the proposed spending cuts are an attack first and foremost on working class living standards, and continue the policies carried out by governments of left or right since the credit crunch, and before.
In Iraq and Syria Britain condemns the advance of the Islamic State while insisting it will not take part in any military intervention; in Gaza it supports Israel’s right to self-defence while freezing export licences for military equipment in protest at the growing slaughter; while in the Ukraine it supports sanctions against Russia so long as the impact on its financial sector is not too great. Such apparent contradictions are often seen in the opaque and convoluted manoeuvres of participants in the ‘international community’. However, for the British state today they express not just the usual twists and turns of imperialist tactics but a growing incoherence at the level of imperialist strategy. This has its roots in the growing fragmentation and barbarism that has come to dominate the international situation since 1989 and in the long term decline of British power.
City and media commentators think that things are definitely looking up for the British economy. The statistics that they are basing themselves on certainly show a vigour in the economy that has not been present for six long years, since the crash of 2008. The housing market is moving forward at a great pace, and not just in London. So much so, there is definite anxiety about an unsustainable bubble. Unemployment has fallen sharply – much faster than predicted by the Bank of England. The UK car industry has seen a long period of growth with sales rising for 27 months in a row (although presumably some of the demand is met by German output, for example). Some see exports doing well, but the UK’s trade deficit with the rest of the world widened by more than expected in April, because of weaker manufacturing exports, which were offset by the usual surplus in the services sector.
We've just passed the 30th anniversary of the beginning of the miners' strike in Britain, a strike which began in March 1984, lasted nearly a year and involved some 120,000 workers; a strike moreover which had its roots in the whole period beforehand of international class struggle. Despite returning to this question over a couple of decades, and particularly on anniversaries, we make no apology for looking at this issue once again given that the lessons of this strike and its defeat, the role of the trade unions - particularly the National Union of Miners - are important not only for the working class in Britain but also for the proletariat internationally.
All the obituaries of Tony Benn and Bob Crow have tried to play up their credentials as socialists or, in the case of Bob Crow, with a bust of Lenin in his office, as a communist. The truth lies elsewhere.
The British bourgeoisie have recently become more confident about declaring that there is an economic recovery underway – at long last – in Great Britain. Nonetheless, where more serious commentary is concerned, the sense of relief amongst bourgeois economists and commentators is still tempered with some reserve, even if it mainly concerns the length of time the recovery is taking.
At the beginning of January, outlining the coalition government’s Spending Review of 2016-17 and 2017-18, George Osborne ‘alarmed’ Iain Duncan Smith and ‘angered’ Nick Clegg by proposing that the initial £25 billion in spending reductions would include £12 billion in welfare cuts.
Since the news broke of three women, a 57-year-old Irish woman, a 69-year-old Malaysian and a 30-year-old British women, being rescued, following a series of clandestine phone calls to the Freedom Charity from a flat in Brixton, there has been a catalogue of increasingly bizarre headlines and revelations that, rather than clarifying the events surrounding the case, serve to further confuse and obstruct our ability to understand the strange case of ‘comrade’ Bala.
It does not require a very radical starting point to expose the Daily Mail’s attack on Ed Miliband through the medium of a thoroughly nasty and very poorly argued hack-job on Ed’s father Ralph. The Daily Mail piece was so unpleasant that top Tories rushed to condemn it, and it emerged rather rapidly that the Mail had ‘shot itself in the foot’ with this one. If the paper had hoped to whip up a new panic about ‘Red Ed’ following Miliband Junior’s announcement, at the Labour conference, of a plan to freeze energy prices, it mainly succeeded in directing the fire on itself while simultaneously embarrassing the Conservative Party.
The price for keeping the Grangemouth petro-chemical section, indeed the whole refinery, from shutting down: a no-strike agreement, a 3-year pay freeze, cuts in shift-pay and bonuses, less favourable conditions for new workers, “limited redundancies” and an end to the Final Salary pension scheme (more contributions from the workers, less pay out), has been “embraced, warts and all” by Len McCluskey and his Unite trade union.
As austerity bites and capitalism shows its teeth in its relentless quest for profit and for ways to offset its crisis onto the working class, the recent revelations of the explosion in so-called zero hour contracts have filled the newspapers and our television screens. Signing up to a zero hours contract is a condition that can mean no wages or little wages at the end of the week. In the hope of gaining some employment many workers wait at the end of a phone for whatever an employer or an agency offers.
The rise in the use of food banks has reached huge proportions. The food banks, originally intended for the most destitute within society, are starting to be used across all sectors of the working class, often including those parts who might have previously seen themselves as belonging to the ‘middle class’.