Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Gordon Brown triangulates.


Brown and Harman are talking about class. Harriet Harman has conceded that social class is by far the biggest determinant of one's life prospects, and has been allowed to put together a committee to investigate the matter. Kindly contain your excitement. And this is what Gordon Brown has written: "We need to be honest with ourselves: while poverty has been reduced [false] and the rise in inequality halted [false], social mobility has not improved in Britain as we would have wanted [half-truth - it has remained stagnant and, in some areas, has got worse]". This feckless drivel is intended, presumably, to placate the trade union bureaucracy in advance of a difficult speech to the TUC conference. If it signals a substantial change in rhetoric, it does not signal a serious change in policy.

Alistair Darling yesterday told the TUC that workers would just have to lump it, while assuring delegates - in contrast to his recent claim that the crisis would be the worst for sixty years - that Britain was 'well-placed' to ride out the credit crunch (the precise opposite of the truth). Though he accepted that inflation was not being driven by workers wages, he insisted that workers would nevertheless have to bear the burden. He and Gordon Brown have, meanwhile, utterly refused to apply any restrictions to the consumption of the rich - no profit tax, no income tax, no windfall tax. The TUC conference has voted to support a windfall tax, but it's not going to happen unless someone places a metaphorical pistol to Gordon Brown's temple (a real pistol would just get you arrested). As Alex Callinicos writes, not only is Brown's ideological commitment to the market preventing him from taking even this modest step, his weakness is such that the ruling class is just not going to help him out of this bind with some half-way measures. Darling's speech took a swipe at the excessive pay awards of City executives, but it is as meaningless and hypocritical as the government's admission that there remains a huge class divide - an admission that, as Polly Toynbee pointed out yesterday, sits uneasily alongside its record (although she will undoubtedly be calling for a Labour vote come 2010).

But there is a chance to make something meaningful of this rhetoric. The TUC has voted unanimously for coordinated strike action and protests, to defend our living standards. There isn't a person in the country who isn't affected by the surging cost of fuel and food, by the credit crunch, and by the government's timid obeisance to the business class in responding to the crisis. Not all of us can join in the strikes when they happen, but we can certainly support them. And when the national demonstration takes place in central London this Autumn, we need it to be massive. We have yet to see what this co-ordinated action will mean in practise, but it certainly constitutes an escalation beyond the disjointed one day strikes we have been seeing. These have highly successful in terms of achieving maximum solidarity and demonstrating the ability of the workers to shut down key infrastructure, but it has not been enough to force the government to back down. So let's be realistic: if the organised working class of this country takes on the government in a serious way, the government will lose. This is a pathetically weak and uninspired administration, weaker than ever before. As ideologically rigid as it is, it does not have the horses for a big fight with the trade union movement, especially as it depends increasingly on the union bureaucracy for funding. If trade unionists are wise to this, they will throw out any half-hearted shambolic face-saving deal for Brown and reject any attempt to turn this coordinated action into a symbolic, demonstrative affair designed to 'send a message'.