Read here the full political reprot presented for discussion at the first meeting of the party executive in 2016.
The turn of the year is an appropriate time for taking stock of successes and failures over the past 12 months, for weighing up political developments and for working out strategies to meet the challenges likely to face us. I hope we can also encourage our own branches to do the same in AGMs to be held in the near future. Later in this meeting, we shall be considering where we are with our Strategic Priorities and Tasks 2015-16, and I want to situate this report within the context of the overall strategic perspective of that document.
Major challenges – economic, social, political and ideological – face our working class and the labour and progressive movement. The different elements are closely intertwined; and part of the challenge for us as a Communist Party is explaining those connections. Our labour movement has traditionally been pragmatic, antagonistic to theory and ignorant of its own history. It does not have a clear understanding of monopoly, imperialism and the state, let alone dialectics.
On the economic front, the steel industry remains in crisis, with Port Talbot now at serious risk of closure. Kellingley, our last deep coal-mine, has closed, completing the deliberate government butchery of a proud industry. Manufacturing as a whole continues to suffer, with exports slumping at the end of last year, and overall sales falling to below the pre-recession level. Meanwhile, on December 31 the Financial Conduct Authority announced that its review of culture change programmes in banks – relating to pay and whistle-blowing – will not be made public. The City of London remains effectively an unregulated tax haven in the heart of Britain.
From November’s Comprehensive Spending Review, local authorities face complete abolition of central support grants over the next few years, in return for allowing them to retain all the local business rate raised – but in many cases that will leave an enormous hole in the budget. The formula for funding schools is to be altered by 2017, with a negative impact on those in inner-city areas. The Department of Health’s own budget is being cut by 25%, hitting Health Education – which pays for educating health professionals – and Public Health England.
This week George Osborne warned of a “cocktail of risks” facing the economy – China, conflict in the Middle East, collapsing commodity prices and, at home, opponents of austerity policies. Anyone but himself and the Tories! As John McDonnell commented, Osborne is getting his excuses in early! In fact, nothing has changed since his Autumn statement except that the latest figures show that the economy only grew 2.1% up to the third quarter of 2015, making 2016 growth projections lower, so that tax revenues will be less. The public spending deficit is still running at £70 bn a year. We are now facing £1.5 tn of public debt, and consumer credit is rising dramatically. What we needed after the financial crisis was massive public investment in the real economy and a complete overhaul of the financial sector. What Osborne delivered was the complete opposite.
Socially, average wages in Britain have fallen 13.6% in real terms since the 2008 financial crash. The bottom 50% of households own 9% of overall wealth while the top 10% own 45%. A recent IPPR report shows that house prices in London are now 10 times the average salary, with an average deposit for a home of £70,000. In the last 5 years rents in London have grown by 16%. The Housing Bill rushed through Parliament means the end of secured tenancies in social housing. The free childcare plan for 3- and 4-year olds has been cut back. Daily, we read of seriously ill and dying people being denied benefit through Work Capability Assessments. And despite the roll-back in the cuts to Child Tax and Working Tax Credits, the net effect will be the same once Universal Credit is rolled out.
The starkest example of the human cost of government policies is demonstrated in the floods which have hit the West Country, Wales, Northern England and Scotland over the past few weeks. The government cannot be directly blamed for the global warming responsible for the storms and extraordinarily heavy rainfall; but the scale of the floods is a direct result of government policy decisions. Quite apart from the cuts to the emergency services, who were stretched to the limit to protect people and rescue flood victims, spending on flood defence measures has been culled since 2010 to a shortfall estimated to reach £1 bn by 2021. Currently, the economic costs of such flooding are working out at about £1 bn per annum, but the human misery is immeasurable.
A drastic change of water management is necessary to adapt to the consequences of global warming. Modern farming methods, with larger machinery and higher stock densities, and the preservation of grouse moors, mean the deposit of millions of tonnes of soil and billions of gallons of water into rivers each year. Furthermore, following the EU Water Framework Directive of 2000, there has been almost a complete end to river dredging, with the obligation shifted onto individual landowners; and in fact now DEFRA is proposing to protect an additional 1 million acres of farmland by 2021, and allow farmers to dredge ditches without even seeking permission from the Environment Agency – which would further increase the risk of flooding in towns and cities. The Ecologist and the Angling Trust are calling on secretary of state Liz Truss to move beyond flood defence towards protecting rivers from unsustainable farming, bringing back trees, hedges and even beavers to upland areas.
Of course austerity measures are highly political, as are the Trade Union Bill, which has completed its passage through the Commons, the Investigatory Powers Bill and the government’s review of the Freedom of Information Act. All of these, like austerity, are policies on behalf of the parasitic, monopoly finance capitalist class, which needs the state to represent its interests. The Trade Union Bill and the redrawing of Westminster constituency boundaries are also part of a political attack on the ability of working class organisations to resist and indeed on Labour’s ability to raise funds for and to win the 2020 election.
That political attack is being assisted by the ideological war being waged in the media against Jeremy Corbyn and his team, seeking to portray him first as weak, and then as dictatorial, and Labour as divided, when in fact the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs have respected the outcome of the leadership election and are concentrating on battling the Tories. What has been largely ignored in Jeremy’s Shadow Cabinet reshuffle is that women now occupy 17 of the 31 posts, the most equal top team ever in Labour’s history. Scandalously, the BBC manipulated the news to stage the resignation of Steven Doughty on live TV. Those ministers who have recently resigned and have gone to the media are playing the Tories’ game.
Momentum offers the possibility of building up grassroots support for the new line in the Labour Party but it seems to lack clear direction at the moment, and mistakes have been made because of the absence of a coherent democratic structure. This needs to be urgently addressed, if the millions of trade unionists who did not take part in the leadership election are to be won to make a personal commitment to Labour.
The breaking of ranks by a number of Labour MPs over the government’s plan to bomb Syria was shameful, allowing the media to pour scorn on Corbyn’s principled position, and Cameron to accuse all opponents of the bombing as terrorist sympathisers. Attacks on the Stop the War Coalition were essentially attacks on Corbyn himself. But all the bluster by Labour supporters of the bombing, about the need to confront Islamic State/Daesh, concealed a failure to understand the real nature of imperialism, which is connected to the monopoly capitalist character of the economy. Britain engages in the Middle East not to protect its citizens at home but to protect and advance the interests of its monopoly capitalist class abroad, through arms sales, control of oil resources and attracting money to the City of London. And Britain’s recent military record in the Middle East and North Africa has meant disaster for one country after another – Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, … now Syria?
Is Russia’s intervention in Syria imperialist, and should Assad go? There is confusion in left circles on these issues, while the role of Western imperialism, along with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States in stoking the Syrian conflict for their own interests is ignored or underplayed. The Turkish CP has said that the Russian working class is its only ally; but Russia’s involvement in Syria is certainly to the benefit of peace and security in the region, and is strengthening the anti-NATO, anti-US forces. The Assad government, despite all the criticism that can be levelled against it, is secular. The Syrian Arab Army has made significant gains and was welcomed as liberators into Homs. Even the US is now starting to concede that Assad’s departure cannot be a precondition for peace. Risks of a wider conflict involving Iran and Saudi Arabia remain, however, in the wake of the sacking of the Saudi embassy by Iranian protestors. The Tudeh Party of Iran, in a recent statement, has drawn attention to these dangers, which would certainly be manipulated by Western imperialism.
A referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU is looking increasingly likely this year, although Cameron is having difficulty getting concessions from other EU states, so that September now seems the more probable month for the vote than June. Communists understand that Britain’s membership of the EU is an integral part of ruling class strategy, to increase the exploitation of the working class by restricting the options for democratic advance at the level of the nation state. It is an extension of state monopoly capitalism by the pooling of resources of the monopoly capitalist state machines, and its character is imperialist in terms of its relation to the rest of the world. However, the major problems for the Left are that: the predominant case for a ‘No’ vote is being made by right-wing Tories, Business for Britain and xenophobes such as UKIP; there is no ‘exit left’ on the agenda, simply an exit, which could end up with a more right-wing anti-working class government in Britain; and there is a strong trend within the trade union movement which sees the EU as a source of jobs and workplace rights, of protection of peace and stability in Europe.
Those last pro-EU arguments are largely spurious, as I indicated in my contribution to the political discussion last time. The EU is already wrecking our industries, like steel; austerity is institutionalised in its structures; the EU is denying workers collective bargaining rights; it is encouraging ‘flexible’ employment where the much-touted protections do not apply; the policies of its imperialist partners are certainly responsible for instability and the breakdown of peace outside the borders of the EU, such as in Syria and Ukraine; we import more from the EU than we export to it; and TTIP will destroy any change of deprivatising our privatised public services.
It is welcome that Jeremy Corbyn has said he would be prepared to defy EU rules over our steel industry, but it is clear that he would have to defy the EU on a whole number of other issues as well if a Labour government were to break away from the austerity consensus. We may not be able to win the argument in the labour movement before the referendum, but we have to put the case across as effectively as possible, because the movement needs to understand just what would be needed to implement an alternative programme. It is short-sighted to wait until a Labour government is elected and then say, “OK, now we need to challenge or leave the EU.” Meanwhile the position of our ruling class and EU institutions would be strengthened. But if Labour were to take a principled position now of withdrawal from the EU, it would be able to capitalise on Tory divisions and take full advantage of the situation, should the outcome actually be ‘No’. It would be a platform for arguing a coherent alternative to Tory austerity policies. It is unfortunate that the People’s Assembly conference in December failed to grasp this point.
“Broadening the character of organised campaigning on the EU in the labour movement” is one of the key points from our 2015/16 campaign strategy, as is “exposing the true nature of Britain’s foreign policy”. We also committed ourselves to stepping up the campaign against Trident renewal or replacement, which means giving full support to the February 27 ‘Stop Trident’ demonstration. The review of this issue in the Labour Party demands massively building such activities. We also committed ourselves generally to “strengthen the labour movement in terms of its political understanding, combativity and policy demands”, which must mean, as Rob Griffiths argued in the Morning Star on January 2, marching, demonstrating, lobbying and striking against Tory government policies – including the Trade Union Bill, on which the TUC has called a week of action, February 8-14. We need to mobilise full support for the junior doctors’ strikes – they are in fact fighting for the future of the NHS.
Our strategy document also committed us to develop the People’s Assembly Against Austerity and the National Assembly of Women, and to promote the People’s Charter and People’s Manifesto. In his article Rob likewise drew attention to the need to develop such a popular left-wing alternative programme, but he also stressed the need to win the battle of ideas in the labour movement, arguing “Who should govern Britain?” The Morning Star has an essential role to play here, and we should congratulate it for its editions of December 24 and January 2. Communist Review, if used more effectively, could also contribute to deeper understanding on Marxist theory in the labour and progressive movement. But we also need to win the major trade unions to see that they need to conduct real political education among their members, developing a generation of new cadres who understand how society works and what the real history of the movement is, and who can thereby become real mass leaders. Momentum needs to address the question of political education too.
A strong intervention by the Party in the Scottish Parliamentary, Wales Assembly and English local government elections is also essential in the battle of ideas. Sheffield, Birmingham, Manchester, Coventry, Leeds, Newcastle, Liverpool, Wolverhampton, Bristol, Derby, Plymouth and Cambridge are all places where elections are taking place this year and where we have established branches which the EC should call upon to contest. Elsewhere, we need to encourage our branches to support good left-wing Labour candidates, while raising the case for a unified campaign of resistance to Tory cuts by Labour-led councils. The People’s Assembly conference adopted an emotional, rejectionist position on this issue which risks narrowing the base of anti-austerity campaigning. But there is still a chance to retrieve the situation via the planned national meeting of local authorities “with the aim of creating joint platforms from which councils can stand together to defend public services.”