A well-known aphorism holds that in government, a politician wakes up each morning and decides what they are going to do; in opposition, they wake up each morning and decide what they are going to say. Normally, of course, pronouncements on this or that issue do not signify any deeply-held beliefs, but merely pander to the prejudices of an imagined “ordinary” majority. A campaign against job losses in steel, one of Britain’s “traditional” industries, coinciding with the ascent of the most leftwing Labour leader in several generations, is exactly the sort of talking point which could break this mould and shed some light on fundamental arguments about our economy.
2,200 jobs at SSI, a Thai-owned steelworks in Redcar, have been lost. This is a significant percentage of all workers employed in the steel industry in the UK – and many more are currently under threat, including around 1,200 workers employed by the Indian-owned Tata Steel, Redcar’s previous owners.
Without raking over the hackneyed narrative of “Britain’s industrial decline”, readers will be unsurprised to learn that this is not the first time the viability of Redcar has been in doubt – nor of course the first sign of trouble in the steel industry, which in its mid-20th century heyday employed perhaps a quarter of a million people. In 2009, during the premature necrosis of the Brown government, lack of a contract brought production to a standstill and resulted in the loss of 1,700 jobs. The plant laid dormant for almost three years. So while it may be convenient for local Labour politicians to bemoan the government “[allowing] 170 years of steelmaking to fade away with no fight, no determination”, the problems involved clearly transcend the predictably nonchalant attitude of the Tories towards working-class communities.
New leader, new times?
Of course, times have changed. Brown and his acolyte Ed Miliband, who were so confident that they had beaten boom and bust, have now finally been replaced at the helm of the Labour Party by Jeremy Corbyn, who draws significant strength from popular anger at the explosive “bust” which was supposedly impossible. Certainly the discourse aired on the green benches has shifted so far as to be unrecognisable; but will actions follow words?
Corbyn’s first major intervention into the dispute was to brief the Guardian that the government were “in thrall to the idea of a global market economy”. If we are to dissect this, we can shed some light on how Corbyn views the world. Firstly, the global market economy is not an idea, but an established fact: and as such it is more than simply a policy of the current Conservative government, or otherwise a result of their ineptitude. It is worth quoting Corbyn further:
“They have a philosophy which says basically that anybody can produce anything, anywhere and send it anywhere around the world.”
Precisely! This system which Corbyn describes is known as capitalism – specifically, capitalism in its highest, globalised and networked form. This system disregards national boundaries, sweeps away outdated or inefficient forms of production, and is highly resistant to any attempts at constraining it.
Now clearly the motive behind Corbyn’s criticism is quite laudable, and one that we agree with: namely he is fundamentally opposed to the depredations caused by industrialists who will produce wherever wages are lowest, and finance capital which will invest wherever profit margins are highest. Not only this, but he goes further, actively supporting workers in their resistance to this system in order to improve their daily lives.
But where does his opposition to the “global market economy” lead? Whatever Corbyn’s private beliefs, the programme with which he will contest the next general election is clearly not one of eliminating the market from the economy – and especially not that on a worldwide scale. It follows then that he is actually counterposing to the global market economy something which only superficially appears to be its opposite: the national market economy. In short, he advocates subsidies for the British steel industry and protectionist measures such as import tariffs, in the hope that these can sustain British steel production and thereby safeguard the livelihoods of fifteen to twenty thousand people currently employed by the industry – his main priority.
Because Corbyn is a product of the labour and socialist movements, he is also prepared to countenance nationalisation of British steel, which is just about the most direct intervention possible by the state. However, he has currently not proposed anything more extensive than part-nationalisation, which would leave the state as a significant shareholder but stop short of direct control. Unfortunately, the experience of recent “arm’s-length” nationalisation of certain banks has shown that state ownership is not necessarily the same thing as effective intervention into an industry’s management – let alone intervention which can result in serious improvements in the conditions of workers, beyond retaining their jobs.
The most direct form of intervention would be expropriation of SSI and other firms (and preferably the whole industry) by their workers. While this would of course need to be centrally co-ordinated in the interests of running a coherent and functioning economy, it differs from the “nationalisation” favoured by many, in that we do not propose that capitalists be compensated for their “loss”. After all, they have been compensated continually throughout their ownership in the form of profits secured at the expense of the workers they employ. If only this double-dipping were treated with the same scorn normally reserved for those who game the benefits system by secretly taking up paid work at the same time!
The workers respond
Outside the Westminster bubble, the workers and the trade unions have taken up the call to “Save our Steel”. The Daily Mirror has taken up their cause, publicising not only a petition or expression of dissatisfaction, but a four-point programme. It proposes:
- An immediate cut in business rates for the steel industry and a fairer system of valuation
- Give the steel industry a break from green taxes and high energy bills
- Block China from dumping cheap steel on the UK market
- Buy British. Major infrastructure and construction projects and all government-backed contracts should look to use British-made steel
Clearly, if the workers involved put forward such demands, it’s only right that they get a sympathetic hearing and are not dismissed out of hand. Defensive measures and protections are clearly an expression of the desire for reforms under capitalism – regardless of the fact that they are being voiced by an industrial working class declining in numbers, organisational strength, and influence.
However, it should be the task of the labour movement’s political wing – that is, the Labour Party – to provide leadership which can chart a course past immediate defensive measures, and be open and honest about the limitations of those measures. There are a number of reasons why the political response cannot currently attain this sort of level, but I would name two principal factors: first, the reliance of the “left” (inside and outside Labour) on the politics of the Trade Union bureaucracy; and second, Corbyn’s intellectual heritage in Bennism, whose Alternative Economic Strategy (AES) was stridently and unashamedly protectionist.
The wrong enemy
Of course, any protectionist measures are not only partial (i.e. limited in their scope, and failing to address the important question of who controls industry, and the resources of society), but also limited in terms of time. Subsidies granted under a Labour government can only last until the inauguration of the next Conservative government, when the taps will be swiftly turned off; even part or full ownership of the enterprise by the state can be cut away with a swift divestment, into the hands of asset-strippers and at below market rate if necessary. Only the mobilisation of a mass movement can guard against this – but if such a mobilisation were to take place, it is unlikely it would stop with such limited and inadequate measures.
Furthermore, import controls and other measures adopted to protect ‘national’ economies give the false impression that workers in Britain have any common interest with our ruling class in defending ‘our’ economy (which of course is not ours at all) against the Chinese working and ruling classes. We can tell that the ruling classes’ policy is bankrupt, because any spat of protectionist measures and retaliatory counter-measures inevitably leads to a race to the bottom, as capitalists demand that the workers accept wage cuts and longer hours in order to remain ‘competitive’ with their fellow workers in other countries. Ultimately our interests lie in uniting with workers elsewhere against our common enemy.
Much is made on the left (and especially the ‘radical’ left) of how much the working class has changed in recent decades, and how this may defy stereotypes, assumptions and formulas on which we previously relied. That being said, we must still be equally ready to point out how inadequate are the policies of the labour bureaucracy in preserving the livelihoods of the ‘old’ working class – or even in explaining to them how and why their industry is under threat, and whether anything can be done about it. We need to address some fundamental questions about democratic control, about common ownership, and about how a pro-working class government (let alone a workers’ government) can best protect living standards in a ruthless globalised economy.
Selling pipe dreams about constraining capitalist economies who refuse to “play fair” may grab headlines, but ultimately it will do little either to build support the movement, or to empower those whose jobs are threatened. We should be honest and say clearly that until our society and its resources are brought under democratic control and common ownership, all efforts to “tame” the capitalist lion will end badly. Jeremy Corbyn and the new leadership of the Labour Party should invite the steelworkers (and the rest of the working class) to begin exploring that alternative.