Some notes on the current state of the working class in Britain

Posted: January 19, 2016 by Admin in British politics, Class Matters

imagesThe piece below is the main part of a very interesting letter that appeared in the current issue of the Weekly Worker newspaper in Britain.  The author is a former member of the Socialist Workers Party in that country and was a member of one of the several significant groups of activists that left following the central leadership’s serious mishandling of rape accusations against one of that leadership’s members.  

For a layer of SWPers the core problem was the wider, unhealthy, anti-democratic internal culture of a party which, while claiming to stand for ‘socialism from below’, has a long record of autocratic control from on high.  The British SWP also has a long record of misjudging the dominant political mood, usually exaggerating the level of struggle and whipping up ‘the troops’ to simply get out there and do more, sell more newspapers and so on, rather than engage in clinical Marxist analysis of reality.

The writer of the letter touches, however, on several things that are widespread on the British left, far beyond the SWP.  A couple of particularly interesting points are the way he establishes how little involved workers are in unions and union decision-making and how the affiliation to the British Labour Party of a layer of trade unions with substantial memberships does not reflect any enthusiasm for that dreadful party on the part of workers.  Indeed, hardly any workers in these unions even voted in the LP leadership election, let alone for Jeremy Corbyn – the new LP leader who has been ridiculously ‘talked up’ by a lot of the left around the English-speaking world.

We’re running it because it has direct relevance to the current state of working class struggle in NZ – although British workers are almost fiery compared to the prevailing despondency in the working class here.

by Jara Handala

According to The Guardian, the Labour Party has estimated how devastating will be the cut in income if the anti-trade union bill becomes law this summer. Instead of detailing this, I just want to look to the future by examining the recent past and the present, to indicate that a mood for action is not to be expected if the participation rate in two important recent elections are anything to go by: perhaps 1.4% in the Corbyn election, 10.6% in the re-election of Dave Prentis as head of Unison – ie, abstention rates of 98.6% and 89.4%.

In the LP election 422,871 voted, 71,546 being affiliated supporters (the Weekly Worker reported this on September 17). These were members of affiliated organisations – mostly trade unions, but also the Cooperative Party (7,936 members – last annual report) and sectional groups. To vote all you had to do was request a ballot, and you could even vote online. So how many were eligible? Only 14 trade unions are affiliated to the LP, but the website doesn’t say how many people give money through their union. However, the 2014-15 annual report of the state certification officer says 4,954,606 members contribute to their union’s political fund (this as of December 31 2013). So (only) 1.44% voted in August-September. Inexplicably – and this is not trivial – of the perhaps 148,162 unionists who bothered to request a ballot less than half, 48.3%, actually voted.

As of December 31 2014, Unison, market-leader in the public sector, was the affiliate paying most to the LP: 1,184,458 payers (17,920 more than the nominally bigger Unite, biggest in the private sector). So each of these unions pays just under a quarter of the LP’s affiliation income. Unison’s general secretary serves a five-year term, and Prentis’s reign covers the elections of 2000, 2005, 2010 and the one last month. The participation rate has trended downwards: 17.6%, 18.7%, 15.7%, 10.6%.

It took a while to get this data because participation rates are never mentioned on the Unison website and hardly ever by the ‘far left’. What is also striking is the recent decline in the number of (valid) votes over these 15 years, with the membership only varying a few tens of thousands either side of 1.3 million: 224,390; 244,481; 216,116; 134,014. So, compared with February 2000, almost three years into Blairism, the start of Corbynism has been presented with a 40.3% fall in the number of Unison voters.

Necessity is the mother of invention, they say. Well, sometimes humans are too disorganised, they set wrong goals, develop non-efficacious ideas, strategies and policies, lack adequate means for implementation, and then aren’t that skilful in the act. It’s much easier to mess up than do a good job. There’s no guarantee of success; failure is our sword of Damocles. Satisfying practical imperatives is a contingent matter.

As often happens in history, humans are forced by circumstances not of their choosing to address their situation. The working class in Britain is in a right pickle, the onslaught of more than 35 years continues unabated, but it’s when the cash gets tight that even the indolent are stirred into action. The check-off system, having to opt-out – both are procedures loved by rulers of offices; until, that is, superior powers change the rules. That’s what now faces both the LP and the unions with political funds. The primary fact is that bureaucratic convenience is always at the expense of argument, of having to make one’s case, of having to be political. The consequences when adjusting to new social rules are time-dependent: can these lazy organisations change quickly enough? For the first time since whenever, union members will have to be systematically approached – and convinced.

The Tories may be doing us a favour. Without them what was the incentive to change? Witness the Public and Commercial Services Union. Mark Serwotka has been in post as long as Unison’s Prentis. Year after year, supporters of ‘far left’ groups seemed quite content. And the participation rates? There were no elections for Serwotka’s job in 2005 and 2014, even though it pays very nicely: the union’s 2014 annual report is too polite to tell the members, who are suffering real wage and pension cuts, but the state has to be told (form AR21) … £92,198 gross plus £29,573 employers’ (ie, the members) pension contribution, a total of more than £2,300 a week. So why no elections? No-one could jump over the branch nominations threshold – something straight out of Erdoğan’s playbook. Indeed, after the 2005 experience, in 2014 not even one branch nominated anyone other than Mr Serwotka. For the incumbent, no contest.

There were two candidates in each of the 2000 and 2009 elections – fewer than run for US president. The PCS website report, December 17 2009, doesn’t even give the number of votes for the candidates, just their shares of the vote. Neither the number of eligible voters (c 231,323) nor the turnout were disclosed. Although the abstention rate was 78.9%, a vote of 21.1% puts Unison to shame. However, compared with the almost 30% who voted in 2000, it dropped, coincidently, by almost 30%.

PCS illustrates an unfortunate complacency amongst those who should know better. It also indicates how difficult it must have been when attempts were made to enthuse the membership. But the question remains: to do what? To achieve what? And how? The three cases examined indicate the obduracy of the dominant attitude that participation is to be observed if at all, and certainly not practised: the treatment of democracy, a kind of government, as a spectator sport, as spectacle. Political participation is not a popular organised enthusiasm of the British working class. Fishing is, politics isn’t.

Jara’s full letter can be viewed here.




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