James Turley reports on March 26 – a good day in the fight to build resistance to the coalition’s austerity
There can be nobody attending last Saturday’s mass demonstration against the cuts who left feeling despondent or pessimistic.
The official attendance estimate is in the region of 250,000, with Socialist Worker claiming “well over half a million” (April 2). My own impression is that Socialist Worker is closer to the mark – the streets were packed out from the Embankment to Hyde Park, and punctuality was necessarily uneven on a day when coaches were ludicrously required to park up miles away from the route. Many people were still arriving at the destination as late as 5pm and thousands did not even get to Hyde Park, having to make their way back to coaches out in Wembley. Nobody can deny that it was a genuinely mass demonstration, of a scale unseen since the heady days of the anti-war movement.
The mood was militant and loud, with many chants already road-tested on the student demonstrations (“Build a bonfire …”), along with some new ones, including an unashamedly foul-mouthed rap about health minister Andrew Lansley. Large trade union contingents were unsurprisingly in evidence, though mobilisation was uneven, and the ‘usual suspects’ of the organised left turned out in force. But above all, this was a protest that captured the public imagination, with great social diversity in evidence in its ranks. However hollowed-out the TUC is these days, it nevertheless managed for one day what Marxists hope will be a common phenomenon in the future – the mass being won to the cause of the organised working class.
This success, for the TUC and the class-collaborationist labour bureaucracy, is double-edged, and it showed in the run-up to the march. There was the idiotic decision to park coaches in Wembley and other peripheral locations – the police, it should be noted, have no right to unilaterally change parking arrangements in this manner (beyond closing streets entirely). Planned feeder marches were officially denied and opposed until the absolute last minute – organisers of an education feeder from the University of London Union, and others from south London and elsewhere, effectively called the TUC’s bluff on this.
The TUC wanted things absolutely under control, and seems only at the 11th hour to have realised that this was impossible on a demo of this size. The desire for control is understandable – significant portions of the bureaucracy were very much won to the perspective that a major demonstration was necessary; at the same time, the last thing almost any union leader wants is to upset the applecart too dramatically less than two months before Labour has the chance to score major victories in local elections.
It does not take an awful lot of political radicalisation to put people to the left of this utterly tame perspective; and the likes of Brendan Barber will be deeply unsettled by the rapturous reception for PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka, on fine rabble-rousing form at the Hyde Park rally; and the correspondingly lukewarm response to speakers who advocated the official Labour perspective of less cuts, later. The latter, of course, included Labour leader Ed Miliband, who treads his own fine line: between trying to take ownership of this movement, on the one hand; and seeming too indebted to the unions and thereby scaring the little Englander horses, on the other.
For the usual array of far-left forces, this was fertile soil indeed. As ever, it is a pity that the hundreds of thousands encountered not a single, substantial left organisation with a clear message, but a wide range of competing sects; yet there are clearly opportunities for our side to make an impact in the coming period.
The behaviour of the police has been something of a bone of contention since the demonstration. I stress ‘contention’ – along the main march, the police presence was polite and perhaps passively supportive. We did not see any of the interference with no plausible justification, provocations and violence that has occurred on many student demonstrations recently. Partly, of course, this is a matter of the sheer turnout – it is a difficult matter for 4,000-odd police to kettle hundreds of thousands of demonstrators; but there are other factors at work too. The police have been grumbling over the likely effect of cuts on their own ranks, and the TUC worked in close cooperation with them from the beginning.
The relatively benign police presence on the main march is the positive side of the latter fact; but it also reinforced the division between the main protest march and the minority of ‘direct action’-oriented activists who were semi-detached from it. Readers will no doubt be aware that over 200 people were arrested on the day, with around 150 facing charges.
The largest part of both numbers comes from UK Uncut’s occupation of Fortnum and Mason, the haut-bourgeois department store on Piccadilly, purveyors of foie gras and bottles of wine with four-figure price tags. Unlike many of the other aggravations of capitalist concerns, the F&M occupation was located squarely on the march route, and was thus an interesting snapshot of the relationship between the main demonstration and the other actions – thousands of people marching past with a revolving cast of excited youngsters crowded outside the store to soak up the atmosphere and hurl abuse at the cops.
The latter were swift and cunning in their response, arresting hundreds – after assuring protestors that they would be led to safety (police cells were probably not the safety the UK Uncut comrades had in mind). Even in this case, however, it does not seem we are looking at a particularly brutal police action. One of those arrested, writing in The Guardian, describes police officers almost apologetic about the arrests, expressing guarded sympathy with the aims of the march and even advising those held on how they might defend themselves against subsequent legal action (March 29).
If that piece is to be believed, then there is an interesting dynamic at work, because such responses from the police rank and file have to be placed in the context of various statements from people higher up the police hierarchy to the effect that the minority were thugs, troublemakers and so forth (the same people who would also have hatched the plan to trick the largely non-violent UK Uncut people into mass arrest).
Unfortunately, in the future, it is the latter perspective that is likely to carry more weight; one relatively lightly policed demo certainly does not absolve us from the need to be highly vigilant around ranks of police officers. The forward intelligence teams, provocateurs and mounted thugs in uniform have not gone anywhere, even if they were relatively quiet on March 26.
Like the February 15 2003 demonstration against the Iraq war, it is clear that the next period – however horrible it is likely to be for a great many people – also opens up opportunities. It was never seriously in doubt that the working class would move to defend its interests, as they came under increasingly vicious attacks.
There were three main perspectives in evidence – the rightist response of the TUC, which primarily focuses on getting Labour back into power, is transparently inadequate, given Labour’s intention to carry out what in practice amounts to the vast bulk of the coalition’s cuts, should it be propelled back into government any time soon. Equal and opposite is the (ultra-) leftist response – that the problem is fundamentally with these tame, A-to-B demonstrations, whereas what is really needed is ‘real’ direct action to spark the docile masses into genuine revolt. This is a strategy that has failed repeatedly back since the days of Bakunin.
The bulk of the left on Saturday was pushing a third option – build for a general strike to bring down the government. Such demands adorned the propaganda of the Socialist Workers Party, Socialist Party in England and Wales, and many others. It is fine, as far as it goes – a one-day strike across the entire organised working class is, at the end of the day, another form of mass demonstration. The problem is – what do we do when the government falls? The ‘natural’ result is the TUC-friendly one: a Labour government, one of whose main aims will be to defuse all the anger raised by these struggles.
To avoid that outcome, we need a political alternative, not just a potentially useful, but necessarily limited tactic; and political answers to pose against the offerings of Ed Miliband no less than those of David Cameron. Unity of the existing Marxist groups would present the opportunity to vastly step up our influence in society, and put the fear of god into the bourgeoisie. Then, perhaps, we could look forward to defeating these cuts. March 26 was a good start – but there is much to be done.