“It’s the same, the whole world over, it’s the poor what gets the blame.” So starts the chorus of a well-known British music hall song. Today it could be a two-line anthem for the international labour movement as the economic crisis continues to bite and disillusionment with the existing political order grows.
It’s not just the poor getting hammered everywhere; it is also the sameness of the responses to this crisis, especially by the labour movement in relation to traditional political allies. Everywhere there is fragmentation or the threat of it, with once marginal forces of the political Left and Right either moving to centre stage or, in most cases, hoping to do so.
Greece provides the most dramatic example on almost all counts. Golden Dawn, a fascist organisation whose thugs target immigrants, dominates many neighbourhoods while the Radical Left Coalition (Syriza) is the second largest party in parliament.
Significantly, the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (Pasok), like the ANC a member of that polyglot of political ideology, the Socialist International, has tumbled from favour. Pasok once dominated the Greek political scene and now scores just 6 per cent of the popular vote, while still mired in allegations of corruption, nepotism and tender fraud.
Greece may be an extreme example, but, despite regional and national differences, everywhere there are parallels. From the viewpoint of London as the local Trade Union Congress (TUC) conference got underway on Monday, September 9,, similarities with South Africa seem especially clear. In particular, there are the angry rumblings and threats by unions to review relationships with their political ally.
Take the call for the labour movement to “challenge head-on the pro-business, anti-worker agenda”, of both the government and the opposition. It could have been National Union of Metalworkers (Numsa) general secretary, Irvin Jim speaking.
However, the comments were made by Bob Crow, general secretary of Britain’s major transport union, RMT. And, in a line that might not be out of place in a Numsa press release, Crow noted that the RMT wants the trade union movement to support “a new party of labour”.
This call for a Left alternative to the Labour Party has been made for several years by the RMT whose links with the Labour Party were acrimoniously severed nearly a decade ago. Until this year, it attracted little serious attention, despite the fact that RMT is the fastest growing union in Britain. However, with little more than 80 000 members, it is still relatively small.
But during the TUC conference week rumblings of discontent and implied threats emerged from some of the local union giants. However, like Numsa, the 1.4 million-strong Unite and the 610 000-member GMB seem unlikely to sever their political links despite growing disillusionment.
These feelings of discontent with parties in parliament are also a reflection of feelings in broader society. And this has raised the hopes among the often tiny radical groups that have wandered in the electoral desert, sometimes for decades.
It has also brought close to centre stage in Britain the UK Independence Party whose anti-immigrant stance is apparently eroding rightwing support for the governing Conservative Party. So far, there is no comparable pole of attraction to the left of the Labour Party although there have been several failed attempts to do so.
The latest began in 2010 when the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) was formed. It brought together a group of trade unionists, with members of the Socialist Party and the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). Crow serves on its executive.
Last year, in the wake of a split in the SWP, Left Unity made its appearance on the British scene, promising to become the real challenge to Labour. Several high profile members of the non-Labour Party Left, including educationalist and author, Michael Rosen and film director Ken Loach, promptly signed up.
In a recent interview Rosen seemed to echo the frequent calls in South Africa for a return to the ideals of the 1955 Freedom Charter. He noted: “[We] have waited 50 years or more for Labour to rediscover some of the spirit of 1945, and it’s never happened.”
He has also made a similar plea to “break the mould” of traditional parliamentary politics; to ensure more grassroots control of society. This is the same demand made in South Africa by the Democratic Left Front and the Workers and Socialist Party that comprises mainly members of the small Democratic Socialist Movement. However, like the movements to Left unity in Britain, the South African twain also do not meet.
At the same time, and despite regular assurances from governments that economic recovery is underway, the employment situation does not seem to be improving. The TUC has released a report that reveals that the official figure for joblessness is a gross underestimate.
Officially, there are 2.51 million men and women in Britain — 8.5 per cent of the workforce — who are out of work. But, on the extended definition of unemployment — including people who want to work, but have not looked for any for the past four weeks — the figure rises to 4.78 million or 16.25 per cent of the 29.41 million-strong workforce.
Then, as the TUC, in line with other union movements, points out, there are the ranks of the “hidden unemployed”, those workers who often barely survive on casual and temporary work. In Britain, this includes workers on “zero hour” contracts that give no guarantee of the number of hours or days a worker on standby may be paid for.
When such workers are added to what most trade unionists see as the “real unemployment” statistics, the figure is 6.62 million unemployed workers or 22.5 per cent of the British workforce. This is probably less than half the level in South Africa, but is deeply worrying in the local context.
So far, answers everywhere seem in short supply and the situation seems increasingly chaotic. However, perhaps Rosen is correct when he notes: “It’s early days. But there are possibilities there.”