The November 27 Coalition of Resistance conference, despite obvious weaknesses, marked a good start in the struggle to stop the government’s cuts onslaught. Peter Manson reports
The event organised by the Coalition of Resistance Against Cuts and Privatisation was an outstanding success in terms of numbers attending, enthusiasm and fighting atmosphere. Chair An-drew Burgin announced that 1,300 had registered and indeed Camden Centre was full to capacity. Every seat was taken, with the platform speakers having to repeat their speeches to an overflow meeting of several hundred. When a collection was held, a giant vase was filled to the brim with £5 and £10 notes.
In reality, however, this was not a conference at all, but a rally – in the genuine sense of the word. I am sure that hundreds will have left believing that the cuts can be defeated and inspired with a determination to build and further develop local anti-cuts committees. Yet we did not “leave this conference with a plan of action”, as comrade Burgin hoped we would in his opening speech. How could we?
It is true that between the two plenaries there were a dozen “workshops”, but it goes without saying that no “work” – in the sense of planning and decision-making – took place in them. They were actually just smaller speechifying meetings, each with four top-table speakers and several dozen people trying to get in afterwards to make whatever point they could, whether or not it had any relevance to the supposed topic. But at least these somewhat chaotic sessions did allow a good number to have their say, and to exchange ideas on a very basic level.
Both the Socialist Workers Party and Socialist Party in England and Wales declined to mobilise for the event, although both sent some comrades to participate or (in the case of SPEW) observe. So, while members of most of the revolutionary groups were present, perhaps the biggest contingent was that of Counterfire, the grouping set up by former SWP leaders John Rees, Lindsey German and Chris Nineham, on whose initiative COR was established.
There were also a fair number of Socialist Resistance comrades, who clearly are regarding COR as a key aspect of their work following their withdrawal from Respect (SR comrades have been closely involved with the coalition’s organisation). Green Party supporters and anarchists were also present in some numbers, but the great majority of participants appeared to be unorganised leftwingers and radicals, including union activists.
The enthusiasm of the audience and the militancy of the speakers were mutually reinforcing, and almost all on the platform contributed to this. Paul Mackney, former joint general secretary of the University and College Union and one of COR’s founders, referred to the now famous Greek banner: “Europe, rise up in resistance” to the cuts. We need a “militant and audacious response, up to and including civil disobedience”, he said. We must make the government retreat and/or force it from office – “We did it with Heath and Thatcher,” he told us.
It is no use attempting to “bolster a discredited system”, continued comrade Mackney – we have to “create a better world”. Unfortunately, all those who directly condemned the current system spoke only in the most general of terms about an alternative – although, like comrade Mackney, many speakers raised the need for a coordinated European response.
The key, he continued, is the ability to “mobilise thousands of people”, not “programmatic eloquence” (he certainly did not show any of the latter). COR is already “in transition from a pressure group to a mass movement”, but we must now “get out of our separate silos” – he was referring to the multiplicity of anti-cuts campaigns, but he stopped short of calling for a merger, contenting himself with the uncontentious call for cooperation.
To demonstrate the point, he was followed by Rachel Newton of the People’s Charter, who made a largely forgettable contribution. As for Jean Lambert of the Green Party, I lost count of the number of platitudes she came out with – she ended with a vague call for “solidarity, vision, action”. The Greens were, by the way, the only party officially represented on the platform.
Labour left John McDonnell was also looking for a European day of action and strikes across the continent. In the meantime, the TUC should call “coordinated, generalised strike action” here. He looked forward to the resistance spreading to take in all kinds of new forms. For example, we could “all become tax collectors” by occupying the residences of the top 100 tax avoiders. We should also form pickets to stop any family being evicted.
Another common theme was admiration for the students’ struggle against increased fees. Students have “taught my generation we’ve been too long on our knees”, said comrade McDonnell. Direct action could bring down the government, he added, ending with a call to bring the whole force of working class culture into play – we must “sing, play and march resistance”.
Andrew Murray of the Morning Star‘s Communist Party of Britain and national chair of the Stop the War Coalition, thought the call in the conference declaration to make the TUC March 26 event “the biggest demonstration in Britain since the anti-war marches of 2003” was far too unambitious – March 26 should be much bigger. Unusually his speech was openly anti-capitalist, linking the cycle of wars with working class oppression and locating them within the “rotten circus of imperialism today”.
The demands of PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka were both militant and correct: “Not a single job lost, not a penny cut” – otherwise we would “end up choosing who should take the pain”. He warned against the inaction of sections of the union bureaucracy – the Wales TUC had a two-and-a-half-hour debate on the cuts, but there had been “no mention of strikes”: they “won’t happen on their own without a movement from the grassroots”.
Newly elected Unite general secretary Len McCluskey was less forceful and, despite being preferred by sections of the revolutionary left to the rank-and-file candidate, Jerry Hicks, is clearly a leftwinger of the Morning Star type. He said it was important to “project the alternative” to the current system of cuts – something along the lines of the People’s Charter, he thought. He also bemoaned the fact that overseas capitalists had “come in and taken our jobs elsewhere”.
After Christian Mahieux of the Solidaires union in France had called for “coordinated trade union action across the whole of Europe”, it was the turn of Lindsey German, who, like comrade Serwotka demanded, “No cuts – in that sense we are ‘all in it together'”.
Film-maker Ken Loach, after condemning the system of capital, looked back to the days when “we owned the railways, the water, the electricity” – and forward to a different society, “based on equal opportunities and social justice”. Jean Lambert could not have phrased it better.
RMT general secretary Bob Crow called on everyone to “stand together against the class system” and he too looked back positively – to the 1945 Labour government, which he declared, in his own inimitable rhetorical style, to have “played an absolutely revolutionary position”; and, by way of contrast, to the Chartists: it was “only when they started throwing bricks through windows that people started to take notice”.
Either side of the lunch break there was a choice of six ‘workshops’ to go to. Because of the excellent attendance there was insufficient room in the Camden Centre and several were held in the school opposite.
I attended the session entitled ‘What should political representatives do?’ Strangely the only actual political representative on the four-person panel was Samir Jeeraj, a Green Party councillor in Norwich, who thought that “we should hold elected representatives to their promises” and told how he and his colleagues saw it as their job to “challenge” the plans of the main parties. Not everyone was inspiring.
Liz Davies – who in 1997 was deselected as a Labour parliamentary candidate by Tony Blair for being too leftwing and subsequently rallied to the Socialist Alliance – said not a word about the subject she was supposed to be speaking on. Instead she bemoaned the failure of various left ‘unity projects’ and, although she declared herself to be a “Green Party supporter”, hoped to see the creation of another halfway-house alliance as an alternative to Labour.
Laurie Penny, anarcho-liberal writer for the New Statesman and The Guardian, was just as unoriginal as Jeeraj when it came to the role of elected representatives: “They should represent us!” In another plug for the Greens, she praised Caroline Lucas for her role in trying to end the kettling of students on November 24. She thought ‘normal’ politics was “boring”: the “answer is on the streets”.
Singer Billy Bragg was another strange choice for the topic and, like Liz Davies, talked about something entirely different: why the alternative vote system was a step forward. As for more general political questions, he confessed to being cynical of those who “learned their politics in an ideological age: the age of ideology is over”.
Speaking from the floor, former militant leader of Lambeth council Ted Knight was the first to focus on Labour councillors. He said we should call on all of them to vote against the cuts. Rather than implementing these attacks, it would be better to let council officers take over. Either Labour’s elected representatives should join with the unions in opposing cuts and delivering services or they should be treated as “part of the enemy”. There was wide agreement on this approach, but, as we will see, a minority adopt a different attitude.
As I say, people used these so-called workshops to raise whatever issue they thought was important and another former Socialist Alliance partisan, Nick Wrack, said that opposition to the cuts should be linked to “the struggle for a better world”. But even this was too prescriptive for a Counterfire comrade, who thought that the main thing was to “build the movement – the political alternative will follow”.
Another Counterfire comrade took up Ted Knight’s point – but with a difference: she proposed that this ‘workshop’ should suggest amending the founding declaration to commit COR to “support all councillors opposing the cuts”. What, all of them? Including BNP councillors? The chair, Joseph Healey of Green Left (yes, yet another Green Party member), asked for a show of hands and this proposal seemed to be carried overwhelmingly.
How broad is broad?
In the afternoon workshop entitled ‘COR: how and why?’, comrade Mackney described how the coalition had come into being (a handful of comrades, including himself, John Rees of Counterfire and Andrew Burgin, had met at Bookmarks bookshop in London in July, determined to “do something” about the threat of massive cuts). There was no doubting the anger shared by many, he said, but the question was how to bring it together in an effective movement.
For comrade Burgin, another panel member for this session, part of the answer lay in the unity of the various anti-cuts campaigns, which he described as “essential”. COR had met with representatives of Right to Work and the People’s Charter, and was about to meet with the National Shop Stewards Network: “Everyone has to overcome sectional feelings.”
This question was raised by several comrades from the floor. Luke Cooper of Workers Power called for “one big, united coalition”, within which there would be “open debate in order to smash the cuts”. But Chris Bambery of the SWP central committee and national secretary of RTW, put forward the cynical SWP line of division dressed up as “cooperation” and “coordination”. In fact he was specific: although no-one has the right to declare, “We are the movement”, we “have to keep our separate identities” while working together.
I was not one of the 20 or so comrades called by the chair, Fred LePlat of Socialist Resistance. But fortunately Stuart King of Permanent Revolution made much the same response to comrade Bambery as I would have. No, Chris, he said, “we don’t have to keep our separate identities”. It was true that the SWP, WP, PR, etc should be able to do that, but not the current campaigns, which are, after all, coalitions supposedly open to everyone.
Another SWP comrade claimed as his justification for non-unity that the anti-cuts coalition had to “develop organically from below”. Even if you accept this pathetic excuse for keeping the movement split, surely the existence of a single coalition now could only aid this imaginary spontaneous process?
This comrade also stretched the notion of unity to an absurd limit, stating that, in order to engage with the Labour rank and file, it was necessary to form an anti-cuts “united front” with local Labour leaders – even if they implement the cuts.
In other words, invite them onto RTW platforms to mouth their regret and reluctance. In case you think I am exaggerating, that is exactly what the SWP did in Lewisham, the first London borough to vote through an anti-cuts budget. On November 29, every one of the 36 Labour councillors in the chamber voted for it, while the Liberal Democrats abstained. The two Conservative councillors joined Darren Johnson (Green) in voting against (obviously COR should ‘support’ these Tories for “opposing the cuts”). The Labour cutters included Paul Bell, one of the candidates who defeated SPEW’s sitting councillors, Ian Page and Chris Flood, in Telegraph Hill ward last May, and who subsequently spoke at an SWP-organised anti-cuts meeting. And then, as everyone knew he would, he helped force through the Tory attacks locally. A triumph for the SWP ‘united front’ tactic!
Comrade Bambery made exactly the same speech from the platform of the afternoon plenary (although, second time around, he thought better of repeating the “separate identities” phrase). In the rally he gradually built up into a crescendo of noise and gestures until he was virtually screaming: “If there are two million on the TUC march, the next step will be a general strike!” Still, he caught the mood and, like all the other speakers, received enthusiastic applause.
John Rees was in excellent form and skilfully touched emotions by pointing to the erosion of our hard-won gains. He had been the first in his family to get a university education (his father had turned down a workers’ scholarship because it would have meant reading theology) and comrade Rees was damned if his children were now going to be denied. But the ruling class thinks we workers have no need for genuine education: “They say you can be a plumber, but don’t even think of being a philosopher or an artist.”
Recalling the high points of British working class history – the Levellers, the Chartists, the suffragettes, the general strike – he called for the movement to produce our own “big society”: a broad alliance made up of “Labour and Green members, revolutionary socialists and Marxists”. He concluded: “They want to turn the clock back to the 1930s – we won’t let them!” Again there was prolonged cheering and clapping.
The warmest reception of all, though, was given to Tony Benn, who received two deafening standing ovations and was declared by acclamation to be COR’s president. The “bankers’ crisis” was being used to dismantle the welfare state and now all those affected by the cuts should “tie your ropes together” – “by resisting we are acting as educators” and people should unite “across the political spectrum” to do so.
This final session also heard well received speeches from Dot Gibson of the National Pensioners Convention (another who called for an unspecified “new society”); Lee Jasper (“Place equality at the forefront of the movement against cuts”; and “Protect your local black community”); Kate Hudson of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the CPB (“The redistributive state has been a great liberator”); rapper Lowkey (“Power concedes nothing without demand”); and Jeremy Corbyn MP (sorry, Jeremy, there was nothing in your speech I found interesting enough to note).
The chaos of the ‘workshops’ also infected this last session, which was supposed to elect a steering committee and consider amendments to COR’s founding declaration. But it was clear that all this could not be done in the 90 minutes remaining, even if all the speeches were to be dropped. There were no fewer than 122 nominations for the committee, so we declared them all elected (although I hear that this large body is to be called the national council and will itself elect a steering committee to run day-to-day business). The two dozen amendments were remitted to the committee’s first meeting – both decisions were overwhelmingly agreed on a show of hands.
Comrade Burgin promised a genuine conference (as opposed to another rally-with-workshops) “within six months”. There is, however, a strong danger with COR’s current structure that we will let events pass us by. We should replace the current self-nominated monster of a “committee” with regular national delegate meetings – each local anti-cuts group and national political organisation should have the right to send a delegate, and this body should be empowered to take decisions pending a full conference.
November 27 was a good start, but now we need to act quickly to retain the momentum.