It says much about the current feverish mood of the Labour Party that one of its MPs – a little over-excited, maybe – wants a general strike to get rid of the Conservative government. At the The World Transformed rally, Laura Smith, La Pasionaria of Crewe and Nantwich, declared: “Comrades, we must topple this cruel and callous Tory government as soon as we can. And if we can’t get a general election, we should organise with our brothers and sisters in the trade unions to bring an end to this government with a general strike.”
All she needed was an AK-47 and a beret and Liverpool would have spawned its very own Marginal Che (Majority in 2017: 48 votes over the Tory).
General strike. What a quaint idea. We last had one in 1926, and it flopped. In fact, it prompted the then Conservative government to introduce new “master and servant” laws to restrict union power and make it harder for them to give money to Labour. It took 20 years and a world war to repeal that legislation.
General strike 2018 would be illegal, for a start, and would, in due course, lead to the unions paying fines under court order for talking part in the action. The banks would have to comply, or face further legal sanction. Len McCluskey wouldn’t even get the chance to be a martyr with a jail term; it would just be a question of sequestering funds.
Nor would it be very solid. Lots of companies don’t recognise unions. There are fewer union members these days: some 6 million or so, about a quarter of the total workforce. There were about 13 million members at the peak of unionism in 1979. Today, the union members that remain are found are overwhelmingly in the public sector. They are unknown in the gig economy.
Who wants to go on strike – and lose pay? Not even every union member votes Labour, believe it or not, nor wishes to sacrifice a day or week’s pay on some ridiculous futile gesture. At the end of it May, Hunt, Hammond, Javid, Gove and the rest of the panto villains would be in their ministerial cars walking into Downing Street with their recyclable coffee cups, ready to sign off on some emergency new anti-strike laws. At the end of a week-long national industrial revolt, they may well say that nothing (to borrow a phrase) has changed.
A general strike is undemocratic. It pitches unions against people, and the people will always prevail because we are, in the end, a parliamentary democracy.
The most unworldly of Labour’s current fantasies, however, is the dream of a snap early general election.
It is perfectly true that Theresa May faces a series of chaotic, humiliating defeats in the Commons on Brexit – but she will survive. She or Labour can table a vote of no confidence in the government, and every single Tory from Ken Clarke to Jacob Rees-Mogg will support her for fear of Corbyn taking over. Labour tried it under John Major’s beleaguered minority government during the similar Maastricht Treaty impasse; it didn’t work then either. Even when Margaret Thatcher was toppled by her own party in 1990, she had won a vote of confidence in the Commons tabled by an over-optimistic Labour opposition. It united the bitterly divided Tories, and gave Maggie some of her best lines and finest moments: “I’m enjoying this.”
Only two governments have lost votes of confidence in the past century. Today the Fixed Terms Parliament Act means that getting rid of a government is even more difficult.
Only last year we had a general election. Unlike the 2016 referendum, there are few complaints about its democratic legitimacy. The Labour Party, though no one seems to realise this in Liverpool, lost. It did far better than expected, of course: May lost her overall majority; Corbyn secured the best swing since 1945; and his party tapped into a widespread mood of political disenchantment with some facile populist policies. But Labour lost. Lost. Again. For the third time, that is (2010, 2015, 2017). The Tories got more seats and more votes. Tony Blair was the last Labour leader to win a general election. (I said that just to annoy them.)
Of course, direct action and even violence can be justified in a fascistic sate where there are no democratic outlets or opportunities for people to vote in free and fair elections. But I don’t think even the most deranged member of Momentum could label May’s Britain in such terms. Callous, incompetent cruel, misguided, corrupt, at head of an establishment bent on crushing the working class, aided by its cronies in the City and mainstream media – yes, all that stuff if you like. May’s Britain is not yet, however, a totalitarian state.
It’s true that industrial action can destabilise a government. It happened, most effectively, when the miners took on the Heath government in 1973, though Heath’s fall was more due to his confused decision to call a “Who governs Britain?” election in February 1974 (in which he actually won more votes than Labour, but ended up with fewer seats in the Commons). But then Arthur Scargill lost badly in the re-run in 1984-85, when, as the wisecrack goes, he went into the strike with a small house and a big union and came out with a bigger house and a much smaller union. The only actual general strike, in 1926, was a nasty little affair, a nine-day exercise in virtue signalling that left the miners and their families standing for another few months before they returned to work, on lower wages and longer hours.
The irony, if such it is, is that the unions have more often been instrumental in destroying Labour governments than Conservative ones. They did for Jim Callaghan back in 1979, after the “winter of discontent” exposed the reality of the naked use of selfish and, yes, greedy industrial power. The unions had already helped finish off the Wilson government in 1970 by rejecting plans to tame unofficial or “wildcat” industrial action, then doing widespread damage to production and exports in key industries, notably car making. Fear and loathing of the unions’ excessive power, even among trade union members, was a major reason for the Tories’ revival in 1979, and their retaining their grip on power for the next 18 years. Should I remind the brothers and sisters who it was who ended all that and led Labour to victory in 1997, with a pledge to keep Thatcherite trade union laws and make the most modest improvements in workers’ rights?
Under Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, the unions would be handed more industrial muscle than ever before. Sectoral collective bargaining would mean that, for example, a row over pay on the Southern Railway would trigger a legal national strike on every line. Repeal of all anti-union laws, as the unions desire, would mean the return of secondary action, which would make strikes legal in unrelated companies and industries in sympathy. There would be unlimited flying pickets to blockade factories, offices, power stations and depots. So Amazon – big cheer from Liverpool already – would be simply stopped from operating by a vast army of strikers preventing deliveries going in and stuff coming out of their Dickensian warehouses. Then Amazon would wind down its UK business and get the hell out to Ireland or somewhere friendlier.
I wonder what prime minister Corbyn, chancellor McDonnell and his business secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey would make of that? Or what might they do if the likes of Amazon started to disinvest from the UK, because it has become such an impossible place to do business? How to extract revenge? Capital controls? Import controls? Nationalise it? Give it to the Co-Op, that paragon of retail success? Give it to the new publicly owned Royal Mail as a monopoly supplier?
Or what might Angela Rayner or Jon Ashworth decide if there was a well supported general strike action in support of fairer conditions for teachers, lecturers, nurses and doctors, social workers and caretakers? Strikes against Labour governments have happened before, when the money finally ran out.
Do we wish to go back to the “closed shop”? That historic relic would mean that if you didn’t want to join a union you lost your job – the local shop steward (trade union official) could legally sack you, in effect. And they did, too. So much for the great Labour tradition of dissent.
After Brexit, after McDonnell has launched his war on business, after the big “greedy” multinationals have moved their operations and HQs out of the UK, after the unions have extorted unsustainable pay rises from employers, after the Bank of England has been neutered and inflation has been allowed to let rip, there will be little money around for Labour to keep all its promises. They will run out of credit to fund the substantial pay rises for everyone in the public sector they are currently shouting about. Inflation will erode whatever they get anyhow.
There will unrest, “betrayal”, bewilderment that Jeremy is not the messiah. Maybe it will need a general strike, against the Corbyn government, to prove the point that no nation can pay itself more than it earns.
Maybe we could have it as a centenary event, in 2026? Talk about a greed-is-good economy.
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