Last Saturday the Socialist Party in the West Midlands held its first regional conference for very many years, reflecting our success in rebuilding the party. Members from right across the region gathered to discuss our position in the labour movement, our areas of work, strategic priorities, and elect our first properly constituted regional committee since the days of Militant. But the first part of the day was given over to a discussion of the new political period and was led off by our visiting speaker, SP general secretary Peter Taaffe.
He began with the observation that no one in the party has seen a crisis like the one we're living through and so in many ways we are in uncharted waters. But two things we can be sure of are there will be no quick fix to end it, and that it doesn't sound the death knell of capitalism - that will only come when the working class takes power and begins building a socialist society. For Taaffe the crisis also confirmed the arguments and perspectives of the party in the recent pass. But this brings us no joy because it is our class who are already bearing the brunt of the crisis, and especially so in the West Midlands. Here one in five are employed by the car industry, directly and indirectly. The price exacted by the downturn here is the loss of approximately 1,000 jobs a day and a 60 per cent drop in car production in the last month.
What is unique about the crisis is the speed of its spread. In the great depression it took a couple of years for the Wall Street crash to work its way properly through to Western Europe. But deregulated capital plus instantaneous communication has brought home the changed circumstances almost overnight to every corner of the globe. The contagion that began in the finance sector infected the real economy without pausing, effectively leaving economies awash with commodities without purchasers. But more problematic is not the obscenity of general surplus at the time of general want, but rather the "overproduction" of workers and the middle class. Just as the system no longer requires the services of masses of skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled labour, so it will not spare the lawyers, surveyors, architects, consultants, and so on. Therefore even at this stage, which is still the early days of the crisis, the recession is impacting on vast numbers drawn from a variety of layers.
Among the ruling class there is a palpable sense of unease. In Britain it looks increasingly like the government are running out of options to the point that printing money, now euphemistically termed "quantitative easing" is being considered as a means of jump starting inflation to avoid a deflationary spiral. Amazingly this measure, which will cut into the ability to buy back the goods, is likely to worsen the underconsumptionist tendencies responsible for the credit crunch in the first place.
Regards the working class in Britain it is unfortunate that our class has never entered a generalised crisis like this so politically disarmed. The gap between what is happening and consciousness has never been wider, and it falls to socialists to close that gap. There is pent up rage and anger out among our class but the traditional means of expressing it positively have shriveled up. Some still have illusions in the market to fix things, some are in denial, others have battened down the hatches and hope to ride the crisis out, but a minority are aware of what it means. This is the context our party must intervene in and seek to address all these layers.
Coming to a conclusion, the comrade remarked that capitalism is in a new era. Whatever happens the system will be more regulated. There will be more planning and state intervention in the economy, and will likely to continue to be the case when the crisis is passed and a new phase of growth begins. But this era is also a new one for socialist politics and offers us new opportunities for getting our message across. For example, demands around opening the books, increasing wages to stimulate demand, socialisation (i.e. nationalisation + democratisation) will resonate more now than has previously been the case. But the SP must build urgently - the actions in Iceland, Ireland, Greece, Eastern Europe and Guadeloupe, and the wildcat strikes here are harbingers of what is to come.
Opening to the floor, one Birmingham comrade told us about the job centre she works in. Numbers claiming Job Seekers' Allowance at her office have jumped 11,500 since last January. 500 more people are coming onto the benefit than leaving it and only a handful every week are contacting the office to say they have secured a job. There's also a clear bias in new jobs toward part time work. For example, her local Woolworths has reopened as a Poundland - but every single vacancy is part time. Despite that, there were 40 applicants for each job. Likewise when a Tesco Express opened nearby creating 12 part time posts, there were 300 applications. There are also stories of firms charging prospective employees to follow up their references. If there is one positive from all this misery, it is that Daily Mail readers coming into the job centre for the first are shocked to see the office is not the profligate paradise the paper paints it.
A Coventry comrade pointed to the bourgeois press and their "rediscovery" of Marx, which for him was evidence of how rattled they are. In his workplace he too is coming across more people verging on home repossession. Cases of workers who were formerly on £1,500-£2,000/month dropping down to just £400 are increasingly common. For organised workers their first port of call for guidance might be their union, but generally speaking there's very little leadership from this quarter. Unison for example have launched a 'stand up for local government' campaign - but this is not about defending members jobs now, but fending off the further attacks we can expect from the Tories!
Discussing the much vaunted apprenticeship scheme, another Brum branch stalwart mocked BT's declared intent to take on 300 apprentices by pointing out that when he started at the firm 31 years previous, they took on that many in London alone. A further difference between the 30s depression and today is that then there were real left political alternatives available. But now, with the burial of reformist ideas by New Labour, we're in a position where we can counter pose our socialist ideas directly to those of our masters. A Stoke comrade noted the stunning effect the recession has had on layers of workers but also how quickly consciousness can change. The protests against Israel's war on Gaza, for example, acted as a lightning rod of discontent. Also the wildcat strikes demonstrate how quickly class anger can erupt. Another Cov comrade highlighted the cheek of the Tories criticising Labour for giving bankers a free hand - this coming from the party that deregulated the City!
A former ward CLP chair said we should not underestimate the impact on mental health and the pressure it will put on GP services and health care institutions. Even before the downturn provisions were woefully inadequate. Rob Windsor, Coventry SP councillor said there had been a 30 per cent rise in people seeking help from the city's social services department. There are now 18 people sleeping rough in the town centre, up from three or four this time last year. The queue for council housing - now standing at 20,000 - is aggravated by a chronic shortage, thanks mainly to the council previously demolishing a lot of its public housing stock. Another comrade, who works for a housing association, said the numbers of people turning up and breaking down has become all too common. But also the association is being approached by developers desperate to get rid of their unsold stock - it turns out that not only are many of them unsuitable (because they were slung up quick to make fast money at the height of the boom) but also some are having to pay security firms to guard the properties to prevent fittings from being stolen!
Replying to these and other points made in the discussion he said that housing is a crucial issue right now and will become even more explosive as the recession persists. With an estimated half a million homes standing idle occupations similar to the actions of the pre and post-war squatters' movement are increasingly likely. He also noted that despite the capitalists and their governments being worried about spiralling state spending, plenty of real money remains in tax havens. Here the rich and super rich have salted away an estimated $11.5 trillion. And lastly, he called for all members to build on the work of key Marxist thinkers and leaders to prepare ourselves for the challenge confronting us.
In all the discussion demonstrated an appreciation of the changed political circumstances (see British Perspectives 2009 for more) of our work as well as our determination to do our best to steer the course of class struggle in a positive direction. The particular nuts and bolts of this were dealt in the organisational session of the conference and will be discussed in the next post.