The TUC has had leadership of the anti-cuts movement thrust upon it, writes Peter Manson. But the left must look to the long term
There is no doubt that, following the magnificent London demonstration on March 26, the leadership of the movement against the coalition government’s vicious austerity drive has been placed firmly in the hands of the Trade Union Congress.
TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said in his Hyde Park speech: “… this is just the beginning of our campaign – and we will fight the government’s brutal cuts in our workplaces and our communities.” Unfortunately, however, that is as far as it went. There was no indication of what the next steps ought to be, of what action we ought to envisage to “fight the government’s brutal cuts”.
Nor has Barber enlightened us since. In fact the TUC has grown strangely silent since the demo. It failed to issue any kind of statement following the event – not even to congratulate itself for having brought hundreds of thousands of working class people onto the streets of London. True, Barber spelt out his soft-Keynesian ‘alternative’ to cuts in a speech to Bristol Business School on April 6, but neither he nor the TUC has hinted at any possible course of action trade unionists could undertake to make the government change course.
What about the TUC’s main affiliates? Take Unison, which undoubtedly played a much more dynamic and enthusiastic mobilising role than Congress House. The union’s general secretary, Dave Prentis, did indicate what his members ought to do next when he said: “The march for jobs, justice and growth will be a warning shot to the Con-Dem government of what’s in store for them after the May elections – a wipe-out.”
The implication was pretty strong – workers ought to cast their votes for someone else (although Prentis seems a bit reluctant to specify who the recipient ought to be). Speaking at Unison’s health conference on April 5, he repeated this message at the end of his highly rhetorical speech:
“… And, yes, conference, we will build an alliance of all public service unions to break the pay freeze, protect our pensions, stop the cuts. We will rise to the challenge. Show our resolve. Defend our health and community services – our welfare state. Fight for that vision of a fairer society. Build a powerful coalition of our own … And that’s why we’ll keep marching. And organising, and agitating and mobilising. And we won’t stop until we’ve sent this coalition packing. And next time we’ll only put politicians in power who will stand up for us, our values, and our National Health Service.”
As I say, it was highly rhetorical, but, once again, short on substance. In fact, it was as though Prentis felt he had to constrain members’ expectations, for he warned: “And we know we don’t always win everything we want. And we know we will lose some battles …” So don’t expect too much then.
The GMB union also referred to the May elections in its post-demonstration statement, issued on March 28. General secretary Paul Kenny said: “May 5 should be a referendum on the coalition government’s economic and social policies … The next step is for the alternative voice to be counted in the ballot box in May. GMB will urge voters to reject unemployment, poverty and cuts in public services …”
OK, so GMB members should vote against the coalition, but who should they vote for exactly? The “next step” (if you can call it that), as outlined by Paul Kenny, is less than explicit – although we all know that he hopes Labour will be the beneficiary.
What about Britain’s largest union, Unite? Unlike Unison in particular, it did not trumpet the success of March 26. In fact, whereas Unison’s website was full of information beforehand and updates on the day, Unite did not even think it was worth a mention afterwards (no doubt, judging from the Unite turnout on the day, most areas and branches took a rather different attitude). Like the TUC, Unite clearly has no plans to coordinate action against the cuts.
One of the two unions that is openly agitating for common action – specifically strike action – to defend the assault on jobs, pay and pensions is the Public and Commercial Services union with its majority left leadership. Its general secretary, Mark Serwotka, has done the opposite to most of the other union tops, in that he has openly stated the need to step up the action, as epitomised by his rallying cry on March 26:
“Now look around you in this park. Imagine what it would be if we didn’t only march together: we took strike action together across all of our public services … We are stronger when we march together, so let’s ensure that we strike together to let the government know we won’t accept it. So, just in case they are listening. If you want to take action together, make some noise.”
And noise there was – in fact a cacophony. As is only to be expected, the PCS website was full of comrade Serwotka’s opinions. In fact it was so obvious that he was the main union general secretary who was not just calling for opposition to the cuts, but meaning it, that BBC1’s Question time dropped its invitation to Bob Crow of the RMT to debate with London mayor Boris Johnson at the last moment last week (much to the anger of comrade Crow and his union, who called the decision “outrageous political bias”). The BBC said that comrade Crow had just appeared on Radio Four’s Any questions? and called in comrade Serwotka for the March 31 edition of the show instead.
The RMT also had good coverage of the big day on its website, where it prominently displayed comrade Crow’s statement: “Today’s demonstration against the cuts was the biggest labour movement protest in a generation and lays the foundation for coordinated strike action.”
Apart from the PCS and RMT, the other left-led unions are not quite so up for it, it seems. Matt Wrack of the Fire Brigades Union is full of praise for March 26, but fails to outline what should happen next. The FBU’s pre-demo statement (March 25) declared: “They expect us to suffer tax increases, pay cuts, unemployment and devastation of our pensions to pay for the crisis their friends in the City caused. They should expect the fight of their lives.” But so far the union has not given its view on how that fight should be developed.
Tony Kearns, Communications Workers Union senior deputy general secretary, was equally vague: “We will continue to stand in solidarity against the damaging cuts proposed by the Con-Dem government and against the privatisation of Royal Mail. Let’s use this momentum to apply maximum pressure to the government to put an end to their dramatic agenda of cuts.”
Kearns is right about the momentum, but it is essential that this is not lost through inaction. What we are seeing at the moment are dozens of comparatively small-scale acts of resistance, such as the March 30 one-day strike by Tower Hamlets and Camden council workers. The National Union of Teachers is organising a national strike ballot from April 22 and teachers in Camden have already voted for action locally. The University and College Union dispute over pensions, which saw two one-day strikes just before the TUC demonstration, is far from settled and 1,500 tube drivers are being balloted for action by the RMT over management attempts to impose cost-cutting changes to their pay structure.
It could well be that the “coordinated strike action” demanded by comrades Crow and Serwotka actually happens within the next two or three months. The Socialist Workers Party is correctly urging more, and its main campaigning is now around the slogan for a “general strike”. According to a Socialist Worker article entitled ‘NHS jitters show that Tories fear a battle’, “The government looks weak and divided”, so surely generalised strike action would see it off in no time?
We should not count on that. The ruling class shares a common consensus on the overriding need for cuts – the differences being over their extent, duration and severity. Even if it were true that the coalition government is “weak and divided” and that the Tories “fear a battle”, the only alternative government on offer is that of Ed Miliband, with his apparently less unpleasant austerity.
A one-day general strike against the cuts would provide an even more powerful demonstration than March 26, but it would be just that: a demonstration. Nevertheless, we should be pushing for the greatest possible coordinated resistance, and not just within Britain – we should aim for such coordination across Europe.
While the unions have had the leadership of the anti-cuts movement thrust onto them, the left has a big responsibility. It must do all in its power to ensure the union bureaucracy does not demobilise its members – a good start would be to bring together the three separate, left-led anti-cuts campaigns in order to provide a single, authoritative voice.
But most of all we need a political alternative – something the SWP, Socialist Party in England and Wales et al fail to work for – except by trying to recruit to themselves, of course. But even if you think that, say, a larger SWP could provide such an alternative, its 2011 target is for a mere 2,000 new members. Given its ‘revolving door’ turnover, that would probably leave it with around 6,000 on paper …
The left needs a viable political strategy, which it must start to implement now. We need to unite our own forces into a single, Marxist party capable of winning leadership over the resistance. Instead of calling on the unions to quit the Labour Party mark one in order to create a Labour Party mark two (or at best ignore the whole Labour Party question), we must launch a coordinated fight both within Labour and within the unions. The current union leaderships have the Labour Party they deserve: they must demand a Labour leadership opposed to cuts.