Unsurprisingly the spreading wildcat strikes have sparked off wide-ranging debate on the left. The flurry of commentary from left-wing party websites, blogs, forums and so on represents a serious attempt to come to grips with a spontaneous outbreak of militancy unseen in Britain for many years. Well, at least it does for some. Pathetically, on Socialist Unity, some have interpreted the SWP's statement through the sectarian prism of it distancing itself from George Galloway's and Jerry Hicks's positions. According to its monomaniacal critics, we are to believe a settling of scores with Respect is the primary concern of the SWP as it seeks to make sense of an important workers' mobilisation.
The flip-side position has been an ultra-left denunciation of the strikes as the actions of "racist morons". Galloway and Hicks, the Socialist Party, SSP, the Morning Star and everyone else who - correctly in my view - have realised the importance of the class dynamic behind the nationalist slogans, are denounced for "pandering to reaction". Safe to say we won't see any of their ilk going anywhere near the picket lines and protests, which is just as well seeing as they're more likely to do the socialist cause more harm than good.
If the debate is not to become a sectarian slugfest we need to bring out the points that are not under dispute.
* Everyone agrees the adopted slogan, 'British Jobs for British Workers', is chauvinist and divisive. No socialist can raise such a slogan and remain a socialist.
* The trade unions concerned (Unite-Amicus and the GMB) have not combated the nationalist sentiment. Indeed, footage and photos of mass meetings show that among the home made placards are union-branded boards and signs with BJ4BW slogans on them.
* That the BNP see it as an opportunity to spread their poison.
* When socialists visit the picket lines, regardless of affiliation, all will be united in arguing more or less the same thing. That is the Italian and Portuguese workers are not to blame for the situation; that Total are attempting to undermine the agreements it has with the recognised trade unions by contracting out the work to firms whose staff are not covered by these arrangements, that management's "right" to manage has to be challenged, that links should be forged with the IREM work force, and are will be agitating for unity among workers of different nationalities.
The main point of contention is whether the left can support these strikes.
The SWP and those close to it say no. The comrades argue, rightly, that a divided work force is a weakened work force. The only beneficiaries of division are the bosses, which is why 'BJ4BW' is wrong-headed and potentially dangerous. But they go on, "Those who urge on these strikes are playing with fire ... We all know what will happen if the idea spreads that it’s foreigners, or immigrants or black or Asian people who are to blame for the crisis. It will be a disaster for the whole working class, will encourage every racist and fascist and make it easier for the bosses to ram through pay and job cuts."
This is a principled position, but is also a mistaken position. The SWP statement, in my opinion, gives too much weight to the nationalist slogans being advanced and pays insufficient attention to the contradictions of the protests. As much as the left would wish it wasn't so, we should not be too surprised that the first significant spontaneous class mobilisation after the collapse of the "boom" years is of a nationalist character.
Since the titanic class battles of the 1980s capital has held the whip hand over the working class. Our organisations - the trade unions, the Labour party, the far left - still bear the scars of these defeats. The unions and the far left carry much less social weight, and Labour has capitulated almost completely to capital to the extent that there is little qualitative difference between it and the Tories and Lib Dems. Meanwhile successive governments and capital have restructured the British economy without any real significant opposition. The service industries that have grown as manufacturing has declined are much less secure, lower paid and atomising. The idea the working class has separate material and political interests to the bosses has little purchase any more.
Because our class has been unable to cast much of a shadow over mainstream politics, in its weakened state it has been more prey to reactionary ideas. Day after day the bulk of the press have churned out the most disgusting lies - that immigrants take the lion share of the jobs, that asylum seekers are living luxurious lifestyles on benefits, that Muslims conspire to make Britain an Islamic state, that British sovereignty has been usurped by the Germans and French, and that ZaNuLabore want to dismantle the nation. Even worse the main parties have fallen over themselves, to varying degrees, to accommodate these views. This has created a favourable climate for backward views in our class. A tiny minority have turned to support the BNP at election time (in fact, given the political climate, it's a sign of their incompetence that the fascists aren't doing better) but mostly it has fed back into the atomisation of the class, resulting in apathy, fatalism, and the further decomposition of working class organisation.
The BJ4BW slogan raised by the unions is dangerous, but it tapped into a commonplace sentiment among workers. The unions thought they could ride the nationalist tiger in pursuit of commonplace trade union objectives, but ended up sparking off wildcat actions they could not have foreseen. This is where the main contradiction in the mobilisation is located - the majority of workers are motivated by British chauvinism, but their protest has seen them take up the traditional weapons of working class militancy. The two, nationalism and independent working class activity, cannot coexist indefinitely. If the strikes resume and spread at the start of next week, it is the job of socialists to intervene with our arguments and bring the contradiction to a head to try and resolve it in a positive direction.
But because these are strikes, they can be won or lost. Socialists cannot be indifferent to the outcome. If we turn up on the picket line and at best appear equivocal, or at worst, opposed to the strike, we will have a hard time getting the ear of workers (in the SP's case, this is at least aided by having a member on the Lindsey refinery strike committee). We cannot fudge this. In my opinion socialists should favour the strikers' victory. Aside from defeating the union-busting issues underlying the dispute, it will demonstrate to millions that militancy works, that workers can take action and win. Yes, assuming hundreds of workers aren't converted to internationalism overnight, nationalist attitudes will persist and might be strengthened, but the impact on working class confidence will be an order of magnitude greater.