The tectonic plates of politics shift again

Tories are in a continued crisis but still the attacks continue … but before we get to that, there is the small matter of the monarchy and a republic to deal with and which the cover for this issue flags up.

So, we have a once in a lifetime opportunity – a historical moment, if you will – to debate and deepen the case for a republic in these sceptred (sic) isles. We shan’t dwell on the issues in this editorial because they are more than well covered in the subsequent pages – with articles by Tommy Sheppard SNP MP and Bill Bonnar amongst others – other than to note the incredible obsequiousness of Starmer and Sturgeon to the Queen in both life and death. They certainly tugged their forelock to her – and now do so to her son too. So, let’s turn to the other great issue of the day.

Who would have thought that Truss would have made such an absolute mess of her new premiership in such a short space of time? She turned out to be a quitter and not a fighter. It might have been even quicker but for the ten days of official mourning for the dead monarch that created something of an interregnum (sic). There was relatively little wider enthusiasm for Truss outside of her 81,326voters in the Tory party. Then it turned out to be even less and no doubt also lower amongst those that elected her. Quite apart from the democratic outrage of such a tiny number of people (141,665) being the electorate for the post of a new PM with new policies but without a general election, we also saw screeching U-turns aplenty. Even with Sunak now Tory leader and Prime Minister, it’s hard to see the Tories and Truss coming back from this prolonged, slow-motion car-crash. Initially, insiders thought that the ‘slash and burn’ approach was because the Truss Tories thought they had a small window of opportunity to reconfigure the government and economy before the next election (which they expected to lose). Then, it’s become a case of SOS – save ourselves and save our skins (but not souls) – as Truss sacked key allies, reversed the policies that she said were critical and essential, and was prepared to be unpopular for.

All that was followed by the election that never was as Sunak – who was beaten by Truss in early September – was appointed by an even smaller constituency. Neither Boris Johnson nor Penny Mordaunt making it passed the support of 100 Tory MPs meant we had a coronation in 2022 to add to the one we will have in 2023. Sunak has ripped up the Truss rule book and again with no popular mandate to do so. You do not have to be a Labour on SNP supporter to see the righteousness of the case for an immediate general election.

All this has put Labour in the driving seat without having to do much other than not commit any unforced errors or commit hari-kari. After having had his ‘growth, growth, growth’ mantra stolen by Truss, one of Starmer’s few policy innovations was to wrap himself up in the Union Jack with the proposed creation of the Great British Energy company. If Labour wins the next general election, it will be with limited room to manoeuvre given what Truss’s Tories have done and a now faltering economy. The Tories have received a slight bounce back in the polls after Sunak’s arrival but this is unlikely to grow or even be sustained given the austerity in public expenditure and services that is about to hit most people.

What the Sunak bounce does indicate is that support for Labour is often somewhat soft and ephemeral. Even many inside Labour are warning Starmer’s Achille’s Heel is that he has no narrative of a few big, overarching ideas. There are, for example, no big plans to radically reset our public services with the aim of achieving progressive political change. Only the railways will come back into public ownership. And, Starmer has frequently told us he is not just pro-business but want to ‘partner’ with business. Consequently, he will not support striking workers and has launched a ‘prawn cocktail offensive 2.0’ with business leaders. Just as worryingly, he started saying there will be limits on what Labour in office because of the economic mess the Tories have created. His only narrative is to talk of the ’nation’ and the ‘country’, never once talking of workers and the working class. Despite or because of this, some 30,000 new members have joined Labour in the last couple of months, taking its membership from some 420,000 to 450,000 but this is still not back to Corbyn era level of 500,000 members. Meanwhile, left-wingers continue to be expelled and prevented from becoming prospective parliamentary candidates.

What does this mean for politics in Scotland? Scottish Labour believes it will benefit from a Tory wipe-out at the next Westminster general election which can be held no later than late 2024 unless the provisions of the Fixed Term Parliament Act are overturned. Labour probably has more to gain than the SNP who already dominate the Westminster delegation of MPs from Scotland. This may be as much about Starmer being seen as a proverbial safe pair of hands – due to straining every sinew not to rock any boats (unless they are of the republican and left-wing type) – as it is about Labour also steadfastly refusing to grant a Section 30 Order for another referendum on independence. 

For the SNP, to some extent the meltdown of the Tories lessens the value of its ‘a big boy did it and ran away’ strategy of disingenuously blaming all the problems to be found in Scotland on Westminster.

Of course, Sturgeon did still repeat this at the recent SNP winter conference in Aberdeen in October. The SNP will have to face up to the reality of a prospective Labour government which will be less easy to attack, especially as the SNP is no more radical than Labour. Even though the polls are still very promising for Labour, only the outliers of those putting Labour 33% and 36% ahead of the Tories – prior to Sunak – provide any hope that Labour could form a majority government without SNP support. Given that it’s hard to see that the SNP would engage in a ‘supply and confidence’ agreement with Labour without a pledge to grant a Section 30 Order. We’ll have to wait to see the outcome of the Supreme Court decision as to whether this strengthens or weakens the hand of the SNP or Labour in this matter.

Whatever happens, there is a palpable sense that radical politics are side-lined because there are far too few significant radical voices around to make a difference – and certainly no credible and sizeable radical parties in existence. If political parties are not the way forward at the moment, then are the likes of ‘Enough is Enough!’ enough? Launched back in the summer primarily by the CWU communications union with support from Tribune, two left Labour MPs, the ACORN organisation and the RMT, ‘Enough is Enough!’ has five key demands on prices, pay and tax. This is a welcome development on the cost-of-living crisis given Labour’s ineffectual stance under Starmer. 

‘Enough is Enough!’ claims to have 700,000 supporters signed up and has staged a number of well-attended launch rallies throughout Britain. However, on what was called ‘Struggle Saturday’ and ‘Solidarity Saturday’ – that is, Saturday 1 October when various unions struck at the same time on the railways and in communications – ‘Enough is Enough!’ did not manage to even mobilise 10% of these supporters on the streets. This may indicate the overwhelmingly soft support ‘Enough is Enough!’ has garnered. But even if it did put 70,000, 140,000, 210,000 or 280,000 on the streets on that Saturday it would not have made a critical difference. Why? Because the dominant tradition in Britain – unlike France, Italy and Spain, for example – is to not use mass public gatherings to exert a disruptive influence upon society, economy or polity. Saturday is not a good day for trying to disrupt our political system. It is not particularly good for disrupting our economic system either.   

In other words, demonstrations on their own – and unless accompanied by the likes of rioting or occupations – seldom achieve their aims because they do not apply pressure on key strategic points.  They do not create leverage. They are expressions of discontent where demonstrating often seems to be just about the only thing that can be done even though it is ineffective, bringing about a forlorn sense which Billy Bragg captured in his 1985 song, ‘Days like these’ with the lines ‘And another demonstration/Passes on to history’. Indeed, he added ‘And wearing badges is not enough/In days like these’.

We have seen the same outcomes with TUC marches as recent editorials have charted. The TUC lobbying of Parliament on 2 November has been yet another instance of this even though it has again been preceded by a large array of local mobilising meetings under the banner of the likes of ‘Ipswich Demands Better’. The same was true of the People’s Assembly demonstration on 5 November in London.

So, what can demonstrations do that is positive and uplifting? Depending on their size, they can give heart to those seeking change by allowing a mass expression of a mood or feeling which is excluded from the political mainstream. They can help keep the issues alive and in the news. They can be building blocks to other effective actions like strikes. But only if they are part and parcel of a rising mass movement is based upon mass strikes and mass street mobilisations that end up being general strikes. Here we need to take French lessons – looking at the examples of rising strike waves in 1995, 2006, 2010, 2019, 2021 along with the ‘Gilet Jaunes (‘Yellow Vests’). With less than 10% union density, unions in France mobilise many, many more outside their ranks.

One of the components of taking French lessons is that the union movement must wean itself off its addiction to one-day strikes. Neither the rail nor post strikes, largely based upon one-day strikes, have resulted in any concessions from the employers and/or government so far. Indeed, the employers there have dug in and gone on the offensive instead. By contrast, the sustained action of refuse workers in Edinburgh and Glasgow (and elsewhere in Scotland) did. They were kept out on strike by a levy paid for by fellow members elsewhere. Consequently, for example, the RMT’s members in the train operating companies could pay for the RMT’s Network Rail signallers to stay out on strike indefinitely given that the signallers are a relatively small group of members with much more strategic power than conductors and other train operating staff.

In Scotland, what also tipped the balance in the local government negotiations between CoSLA (the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities) and the UNISON, UNITE and GMB unions was the intervention of the Scottish Government which itself was stimulated by the prospect of these three unions taking their schools staff members out on a similarly extended of strike action. The one rub is that the Scottish Government now says it will have to make cuts to fund the increased pay offer. It’s now said the same over the increased offer to NHS staff in terms of making cuts in health and social provision. And, it says any further pressure put on it to fund other decent pay rises like for firefighters and teachers will result in more cuts elsewhere. Political pressure needs to be applied in order to force the Scottish Government to find other ways to fund the pay offers – like increasing taxation on the better off and various business interests as the STUC and others have called for.

But unions can also learn from the environmental movement and its various groups like Extinction Rebellion, Just Stop Oil, and Insulate Britain. WithCOP27 underway in Sharm El Sheikh in Egypt from 6 November to 18 November, we should remind ourselves of the coordinated global mobilisations – like that on the 12 November 2022 – and which involve a broad range of organisations, have been an essential part of movement building, linking the activists and organisations in the Global South with those in the advanced capitalist countries, and deploy direct actions targeted at strategic operations and infrastructure.

Lastly, as it’s approaching the end of year, we have a bumper review of books to see you over the festive season.