Tag Archives: Coalition of Resistance

COR conference: Voting down unity while talking unity

Dave Isaacson, delegate from Milton Keynes, reports on the July 9 conference of COR and the limits of the anti-cuts campaigns

John McDonnell MP: most militant

Following on just after a week from the impressive strikes by the PCS, NUT, ATL and UCU unions on June 30, you would have thought that the Coalition of Resistance’s second national conference was well positioned to build upon that fighting spirit and lay out plans for taking the anti-cuts movement onto the next level. Unfortunately these aims can only very partially be considered to have been achieved on July 9. Indeed there were a number of missed opportunities and worrying signs that much of the left is unprepared, and in some cases unwilling, to do what is necessary to meet the challenges ahead.

In many ways the conference provided a snapshot of the general position of the left at this moment vis-à-vis the broader working class fightback against the cuts. We have just seen around 750,000 workers take coordinated strike action for a day, backed up by militant and upbeat rallies and demonstrations across the country, and joined by workers involved in local disputes such as Unison council workers in Birmingham, Southampton and Doncaster. There is clearly a growing mood amongst workers that if the Con-Dem cuts are going to be defeated then sustained and militant action is a must. Hanging around until the next election and voting Labour back in is fast being exposed as a non-option to those who previously favoured that route. Both because the damage done by then will clearly be massive, but more fundamentally it is evident to ever more people that the Labour leadership does not offer a credible alternative. Miliband and Balls attack the strikers because they too offer a programme of cuts, which if they got into office would provoke further industrial action.

Opinion polls show higher support for strikes than for a long time, with roughly even splits between those supporting and opposing the pension strikes. For example the Ipso Mori poll of June 19 had 48% of people answering each way.1 Support over the last period has tended to be much lower, at around 20% – 30%. We have also seen five union conferences vote in favour of the idea of a one-day general strike (including PCS, NUT and CWU) and the left-sounding rhetoric threatening action from the big players – Dave Prentis of Unison and Len McCluskey of Unite.

All in all, it is clear that the government can expect significant opposition from workers and the trade union movement to its attacks. While some union leaders clearly hope that they can win concessions for their members through threats and limited action, a significant number of rank-and-file workers are increasingly aware of the need for sustained militant action by millions.

Yet the left, through the anti-cuts movement, is actually having very little impact at present. It is the trade union leaders, with their own agenda, who are calling all the shots right now. On June 30 and March 26 the left groups, through their various anti-cuts campaigns, played minor bit-parts. Politically these campaigns have been content, on the whole, to take a supporting role, echoing the line of the union bureaucracy, giving it a left or socialist gloss.

Last Saturday’s COR conference reflected this and showed that there is much to do before we are ready to give effective leadership to the masses of people who want to see the cuts stopped. The organisers claimed an attendance of 300 people, with four-fifths of these classed as “delegates”. This is well down on the figure of 1,300 who attended the first COR conference last autumn. It was hoped that after the inspiring strikes of June 30 we would have seen something of an influx from those involved in action and others wanting to follow suit. Unfortunately this was not the case. Indeed the conference was overwhelmingly composed of activists who have been on the left for some time. There were a fair few ‘independents’ alongside members of groups such as Counterfire, Green Left, Socialist Resistance, the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain, Workers Power and the Socialist Workers Party.

Unity

The SWP has its own anti-cuts front, of course, in the form of Right to Work. As well as COR and RTW, there is the National Shop Stewards Network anti-cuts campaign, dominated by the Socialist Party in England and Wales, plus the CPB’s People’s Charter. The existence of so many competing campaigns is very obviously a huge weakness. The needless replication of basic work and senseless confusion caused is something that must be overcome.

This question of unity was one that came up a number of times throughout the conference. When moving motion A from the COR steering committee on ‘The way forward’, COR secretary Andrew Burgin commented that there were five national anti-cuts campaigns – “There should be one!” he correctly insisted. He said that “we need to find a way of meshing these together”. Yet the motion itself committed COR to no concrete action in this regard. The most it had to say was that COR “will continue to seek the broadest possible unity in coordinating the campaign against the austerity measures, to provide a national framework for the campaign” and “to organise in the communities and workplaces with others against all cuts”.

Only one motion sought to set out the beginnings of a tangible process through which unity could be achieved. This motion came from Communist Students and was the last motion to be heard on the day (though it nearly wasn’t heard at all – see below). The motion read as follows: “Conference believes that the existence of several competing anti-cuts campaigns – all of them with essentially the same message – weakens our movement’s ability to resist the coalition’s austerity programme. Conference resolves to mandate the Coalition of Resistance steering committee to contact Right to Work, the National Shop Stewards Network, the People’s Charter, local anti-cuts groups, trades councils, etc with a view to organising a united anti-cuts conference before the end of 2011.”

Entirely straightforward and supportable for anyone who wants unity in the fight against cuts, you might have thought. Well, it is not that simple. As he returned to his seat after introducing the motion, Ben Lewis of Communist Students and the Communist Party of Great Britain was told by Right to Work chair Paul Brandon that he had spoken well, but the motion had “no chance”. He was right, and it certainly was not just RTW that had no interest in seeing it passed. It was overwhelmingly voted down. While all the groups are happy to say that they would like unity in the abstract, in actual fact they are in favour of maintaining the division of the movement into separate campaigns. The leading figures within COR do not want to share a campaign with the SWP or SPEW, and for both of these groups the feeling is mutual. The disunity of the left groups imposes itself on the anti-cuts movement.

The anti-cuts campaigns can and will negotiate and form limited agreements with each other. We were informed of some of these by comrade Burgin, when he spoke against the CS motion that would have taken us a step closer to the unity he claims to want. Apparently COR meets on an almost weekly basis with the People’s Charter and cooperates closely. It also meets with the NSSN and RTW (with which it has a negotiated accord). Whilst this is certainly better than a situation in which the campaigns refuse to talk to each other and routinely organise competing events, etc, it is clearly insufficient. The disunity persists. It is also profoundly undemocratic that all of these negotiations take place behind the backs of the members of the campaigns involved in them and are not as a matter of course reported on – we only heard about them from COR’s secretary in a speech against a unity conference. Such a conference would place the question in the hands of the anti-cuts activists themselves and take it away from the leadership cliques who benefit from disunity.

By maintaining their own distinct anti-cuts fronts the left groups behind them avoid a serious discussion over their political differences and get a relatively competition-free pool from which to fish for recruits. To date the main reason that COR has been different is that the key motivating group behind it (Counterfire) is simply not big enough to dominate in the way the SWP and SPEW are able to control their fronts.

What we did see at this conference, though, was an emerging alliance of ‘moderation’ around Counterfire, Socialist Resistance, the Green Party and the People’s Charter. In political terms this is an alliance of the right within COR and these comrades converge around the belief that they must not do anything that will irk the trade union bureaucracy.

General strike

This insistence on moderation was evident throughout, but most prominent in the discussion of two motions which made calls for the promotion of a general strike. The first of these was from the SWP, which had a token presence, and its motion ended: “… as a step towards the scale of action needed to stop the Con Dems we call on the TUC to coordinate a 24-hour general strike against the cuts and attacks on wages and pensions.” For us in the CPGB this is a perfectly supportable call for the necessary mobilisation of masses of workers in a one-day protest strike in order to bring the maximum number of people into active opposition to the cuts.

The second general strike motion, from Workers Power, was rather more simple. It read: “This conference raises the call for a general strike to stop the cuts package and bring down the coalition government.” That is clearly different both in its scope and aims from what the SWP’s motion was calling for. Obviously to “bring down the coalition government” it would have to be an indefinite strike, and would inevitably pose before the movement the question of state power. What Workers Power did not mention, either in the motion, its motivation, or the leaflet it gave out on the day, is what alternative government such a general strike would usher in to replace the coalition. The pro-cuts Labour leadership? Surely not. But what else is there? COR? Or perhaps Workers Power itself? To ask these questions is to answer them. None of them are serious alternatives. “We are not saying all we need is a general strike,” said WP’s Rebecca Allen, but the motion really did say nothing else. To challenge for state power the working class needs a hegemonic, mass revolutionary party, not a tiny sect. Without even considering the need for such a party a call for an indefinite general strike is merely utopian – and symptomatic of a general strikism not uncommon on the left, which fetishises a useful tactic and turns it into an incoherent strategy.

Both opponents and supporters of the two motions ignored this distinction and treated them as though they were the same. NUT national executive member Alex Kenny spoke against the SWP motion and started by saying that he thought that a general strike would be good, but to call for one now lacked perspective. Yet his own union has only just voted in favour of one – a call backed by the entire national executive he sits on. Similarly, Liam Mac Uaid of Socialist Resistance claimed, in his speech against the WP motion, that a call for a general strike would not get through a normal functioning union branch – only to be reminded by a heckler from the floor that his own union branch had just passed one! “There’s a story behind that,” he mumbled, abacked.

Comrade Kenny and others argued that the 300 or so people in the room could have no impact on what the trade union movement does. Leaving aside the fact that most were supposed to be “delegates” representing wider forces, if we are so insignificant then what is the point? Well, the argument is that we are here to support the action the unions organise, but not make unasked for demands of our own. Comrade Kenny then confused the SWP motion he was arguing against with a call for an indefinite general strike, saying that he was “not sure our movement was yet ready for state power.”

The rightist confusion in seeing these two motions as essentially the same was mirrored by their leftist backers. Workers Power wanted to composite them and glossed over the differences between them. The SWP (whose recent flip-flopping between calls for a one-day general strike and the slogan, “All out, stay out”, were examined by Peter Manson last week2) was happy to vote for both motions and excitedly murmur, “All out, stay out”, when John McDonnell MP said, “We want to bring people out and keep them out until our demands are met” in his closing plenary speech. However, the model motion SWP members are now pushing in their union branches limits itself, like that at the COR conference, to the sensible call for a one-day general strike. One of the first plenary speakers, Zita Holbourne of Black Activists Rising Against Cuts, and a member of the PCS national executive, had also said that we needed a general strike. Yet these sentiments were not reflected in the votes, when only 20-25 ‘delegates’ voted for these two motions. Perhaps if the conference had attracted some of the newly radicalised workers in the PCS and NUT, then the votes would have been different.

As far as their own strategy is concerned, it does not seem like the leaders of COR have much to say beyond supporting any action the trade unions call and pushing for another national demonstration. A number of Counterfire supporters have made the argument that what was remarkable about June 30 was not so much the industrial action (which, of course, was great), but the street demonstrations and rallies on the day, which were able to draw in people from beyond the unions who wanted to show their opposition to cuts.

The most important next step, then, is organising another national demonstration. There is a clear difference between this and, say, the position of the SWP, which place much more import on strikes.

Of course, the Counterfire line dovetails well with the position upheld by Lindsey German, John Rees, Chris Bambery and Chris Nineham throughout the anti-war movement. Then the strategic vision was never lifted above building the next national demonstration or conference. While the anti-war upsurge clearly caused massive problems for Tony Blair that dogged him for the rest of his time in office, it did not stop the war in Iraq or Afghanistan. And the focus on national demonstration after national demonstration simply led to demoralisation and diminishing returns. On top of this, the genuine anti-imperialist politics that were needed were frequently dumbed down or brushed under the carpet within the Stop the War Coalition in order to keep the movement ‘broad’ and not put off potential allies. Principled campaigns such as Hands Off the People of Iran were refused affiliation so that supporters of the Tehran regime would not be put off. The aim was limited to ‘Blair must go’, not regime change in the UK and beyond. Broad to the right, narrow to the left.

But the comrades have much less chance of winning mass support for a campaign of that nature against the cuts than they had in the anti-war movement. STWC was able to become the organisational focal point for the mass mobilisations against the Iraq war, but in the anti-cuts struggle it is the trade unions – not COR or any other anti-cuts campaign – that will be the organisational backbone. The only way that can change is if a politically distinct force, which is not afraid to challenge the trade union bureaucracy (including its lefts) when it misleads the struggle, is able to win layers of rank-and-file workers to a perspective of its own. Such a force would have to have a formidable revolutionary organisation, such as a united Communist Party, at its heart in order to make headway.

It now looks like those who ran STWC, who now make up much of COR’s leadership, are set to map this strategy onto their section of the anti-cuts movement. It was only the off-message plenary speakers, Ted Knight and John McDonnell, who said that what we needed was to overthrow capitalism and replace it with socialism. “I don’t just want to bring down the government – I want to bring down the system,” declared comrade McDonnell in the most militant speech of the day.

Internationalism and democracy

One positive feature of the conference was a recognition that resistance to the cuts needs to be coordinated across international borders. This took concrete form in the call to build the October 1 European Conference Against Austerity in London. This conference had already been initiated by COR and is backed by various left groups across Europe.

This recognition of the international nature of the battle against capitalist austerity is an important step towards the coordinated action across frontiers that could be so powerful in defending our class. Indeed a working class alternative to capitalist rule will also have to be at least continental in scale, if it is to survive for any length of time – there are no national roads to socialism. It is vital that the October 1 conference provides plenty of space for debating strategy thoroughly, rather than simply presenting us with a seamless procession of the big names of the left from across Europe.

There was an emergency motion proposed by the CPB opposing the job losses at Bombardier in Derby which caused some consternation. Typically, considering its Stalinist authors and the strategy of a British road to socialism, it was laden with nationalist sentiments with no reference to the need for international coordination. However, after Dot Gibson of the National Pensioners Convention called for the removal of one reference to “a callous disregard for workers in Britain” the bulk of conference was prepared to accept the rest. Amongst others, comrades from Workers Power, the SWP and CPGB voted against. Clearly there is a fight to be had to defend the workers at Bombardier, but passing motions which pander to the ‘British jobs for British workers’ sentiment is certainly not the way to do so.

After the lunch break, but before the bulk of the motions were discussed, the conference was broken up into small groups for workshops. I attended the workshop on the crisis in the euro zone, where an interesting discussion was had and a comrade from the Radical Left youth in Greece made some particularly pertinent points about the importance of coordinating action across Europe. However, due to the amount of time given over to workshops and a ridiculously long list of plenary speakers there was very little time for conference to actually discuss motions – the main business of the day. Also it is not possible, of course, to attend more than one workshop. The discussion is only heard by a fraction of the conference.

It would have been far more democratic to forego the separate workshops and some of the plenary speakers and extend the time allowed for debate on the conference floor. Many of the workshops covered issues that were related to motions being discussed anyway (internationalism; unions; privatisation; anti-racism; the environment) and the points made could have usefully been shared with everybody. Such an approach would have allowed more speakers to be involved in the discussion of motions (most had no more than one speaker for and one against) and for speakers to be given time to develop more complex arguments.

There were other organisational problems which impinged on the democratic process too. The absence of any working microphones at the beginning meant that the conference was nearly an hour late in starting. As alluded to earlier, the motion from Communist Students was nearly not heard at all. When we got to conference it was not included in the motions document, although it had been submitted by a paid-up, affiliated body before the deadline. Only after some persuading did the organisers allow it to be discussed. Even then the chair repeatedly, but inaccurately, referred to it as a “late motion”.

All of this fuss could easily have been sorted out prior to conference if the motions, which had to be submitted by June 24, had been made available to delegates via the COR website. Only seeing the motions for the first time on the day itself might have meant having to read them while listening to the proceedings (perhaps the hour’s delay was intended as ‘preparation time’). I am sure that comrades will have been very busy in the run-up to June 30, but democratic norms are vital. In future we can, and must, do better.

One motion from Lambeth Save Our Services, and proposed by Stuart King of Permanent Revolution, sought to shift the way COR is organised and, as comrade King argued, “put it in the hands of the local groups”. There were some valid suggestions put forward in this motion, such as ensuring that the national committee meets every two months (it has met twice in the last eight months) and that the steering committee which currently meets during weekday working hours should change this arrangement to make it more accessible. However, the motion made no provision for the affiliated national political bodies and campaign groups which play a key role in COR to directly send representatives to the national committee. This provision was included in a steering committee motion, so when this was passed the Lambeth SOS motion fell.

Its general thrust of seeking to rely on the local anti-cuts groups to overcome democratic concerns and the issue of unity is also misguided. These problems originate at the top of the anti-cuts movement, in the way the national left groups operate. While local groups must certainly be part of the fight for unity and democracy in the movement, the problem is a national one and the left must look to its own practice if it is to be overcome.

Notes

1. http://ukpollingreport.co.uk/blog/archives/3679.

2. ‘From Tony Cliff to Alex CallinicosWeekly Worker July 7.

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A good start

While we have a long way to go from here, Dave Isaacson argues that the anti-cuts movement in Milton Keynes has made an impressive start

The past week has been an important one for the anti-cuts movement in Milton Keynes. Here the left and anti-cuts activists seem to have united to build a single campaign around the local Coalition of Resistance group (MK COR) to oppose the cuts. Those involved in the group’s activities, as well as individuals, include members of Counterfire, the Socialist Workers Party, Communist Party of Great Britain, the Greens and Labour lefts. The group is also supported by a range of trade unionists and the Milton Keynes Trades Council. None of the left groups is dominant and all seem to be cooperating well so far.

Tony Benn speaking in Milton Keynes. © David Isaacson.

On February 18 MK COR hosted a public meeting attended by a fantastic 400 people. The headline speaker was the veteran Labour movement campaigner Tony Benn, who made a nonsense of the coalition government’s claim that “We are all in this together”. The cuts will hit the poorest and most vulnerable the hardest. He also explained how the mass movements which fought for trade union rights and universal suffrage had at times found it necessary to go against the laws of their day. However, his economic solutions were Keynesian, not revolutionary.

Speakers from the rail union Aslef and the Communication Workers Union joined student activist Feyzi Ismail, Dot Gibson of the National Pensioners Convention, Paul Brandon (chair of Right to Work), and Neil Faulkner (Coalition of Resistance steering committee) on the platform. The latter three spoke most militantly and most clearly about the fact that this was a class conflict. While Paul Brandon insisted that we must do more than simply get rid of this government, his vision only extended as far as a movement militant enough to force a Labour government to act in our interests.

Around 400 people attended the meeting at Jury's Inn, CMK. © David Isaacson.

Neil Faulkner was the clearest in outlining a way forward for the movement. He was not afraid to speak openly about the difficulty of the task ahead of us: “Don’t be under any illusions … we are going to have to fight very hard.” The TUC protest on March 26 is just a start. We must build a wave of strikes, occupations and further protests on the back of that movement. He was also clear that a challenge to the whole system of class rule was needed.

Many speakers referred to the inspiring examples of the the mass uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and across the Arab world. Paul Brandon, amongst others, spoke of creating our own Tahrir Square in London on March 26. It is absolutely right that we draw inspiration from these and other struggles across the world. But we need to do more than that. As well as organising locally and nationally to oppose capitalist austerity we must link up and coordinate joint actions globally.

Protesting outside MK council offices. © David Isaacson.

Four days after this public meeting, on Tuesday February 22, around 60 people attended a vocal protest organised by MK COR when Milton Keynes voted through its cuts budget. We marched and chanted outside before taking our arguments into the council chamber itself. From the public gallery both official questions and militant heckles were thrown at the councillors. As we fully expected the councillors refused to challenge central government and voted through a cuts budget. However, the decision not to close the libraries in Stony Stratford and Woburn Sands immediately should be considered a small and temporary concession brought about by the energetic and popular campaigns to save them. They remain under threat and we must continue to make the case for keeping them open and opposing all of the cuts.

Both the protest and public meeting forced the attention of the local media onto opposition to these devastating cuts. There is an opposition to these cuts and it is getting organised. This is clearly only the beginning. As services are wrecked and workers are made redundant, we can expect the anti-cuts movement to deepen its roots. Already 299 job losses have already been announced by the council, with another 400 likely to follow soon.

We need to build a united mass campaign which includes all those who want to oppose these cuts. Within that campaign the revolutionaries need to ensure that a clear alternative to the whole capitalist system is articulated. So far, particularly for a town like Milton Keynes, which has little by way of a tradition of protest, we have made a good start.

Video coverage of the MK COR public meeting can be seen on the Milton Keynes Citizen website, here: http://www.miltonkeynes.co.uk/news/videos/tony_benn_cuts_are_meant_to_hurt_ordinary_people_1_2438209

Milton Keynes protests against budget cuts

Over 60 people joined last night’s (Tuesday February 22) protest organised by Milton Keynes Coalition of Resistance against Milton Keynes council’s swingeing budget cuts.

These photographs were taken by David Isaacson and are all copyright © David Isaacson. If you would like permission to reproduce any of the photographs then please get in touch with him via milton.keynes@cpgb.org.uk

Copyright © David Isaacson

Copyright © David Isaacson

Copyright © David Isaacson

Copyright © David Isaacson

Copyright © David Isaacson

Copyright © David Isaacson

Copyright © David Isaacson

TV footage of the protest can be seen on the BBC website, here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-beds-bucks-herts-12546560

Milton Keynes Coalition of Resistance public meeting, February 18

Milton Keynes Coalition of Resistance Conference, February 2011

Friday, February 18 · 7:00pm – 9:00pm @ Jury’s Inn, Midsummer Blvd, Milton Keynes
*NO CUTS, NO FEES, NO SACKINGS*

*MAKE THE BANKERS PAY*

Speakers Include:
Tony Benn (President of the Coalition of Resistance)
Paul Moffat (CWU Eastern Regional Secretary)
Mick Whalen (ASLEF District Organiser)
Dot Gibson (National Pensioner’s Forum)
Neil Faulkner (National Steering Committee Member Coalition of Resistance)
Feyzi Ismail (Student from the SOAS occupation in London)
Anita de Klerk (MK Coalition of Resistance)

www.mkcor.blogspot.com

Coalition of Resistance national council report

Lee Rock, CPGB representative on the Coalition of Resistance’s national council, reports on its first meeting

Readers of the Weekly Worker will recall that the COR conference on November 27 2010 ‘elected’ 122 people to the national council. In reality, everybody who put their name forward was accepted onto the NC. Although this makes for a rather unwieldy committee, this was clearly done in a spirit of inclusiveness and is therefore to be welcomed.

It is also a good sign that more than 70 actually turned up to the first meeting of the NC on January 15 in London. This emphasises the fact that COR is currently the main show in town when it comes to the myriad of anti-cuts campaigns that have sprung up since the election of the coalition government.

Another positive feature was the fact that – in stark opposition to plenty of other meetings I have been attending – representatives were honest and forthright about their political affiliation: There were nine or 10 members of John Rees’s group, Counterfire, seven representatives of Socialist Resistance and the same number from the Green Left. The Socialist Workers Party and Workers Power sent four comrades each, the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty a couple. All in all, representatives of political organisations made up more than half of those present. Apart from an official representative from the Unite union, the rest of the committee appeared to be made up of non-aligned, local anti-cuts campaigners.

Interestingly, the only serious left group that did not send a representative was the Socialist Party in England and Wales. Or if it did, the comrade(s) concerned did not identify themselves as such and I did not recognise them. SPEW seems to have decided to continue on its sectarian trajectory and go it alone through its various front campaigns – be it Youth Fight for Jobs/for Education, the National Shop Stewards Network or the Campaign for a New Workers’ Party.

The meeting was opened by Andrew Burgin, who spoke about the need for militant action by users and providers of services under threat – and raised the possibility of taking over such services. It was said later, for example, that when libraries are earmarked fore closure, they should be occupied (Counterfire comrades in Doncaster reported that 14 libraries in the town were set to close). This is often easier done by the people who use the service, as opposed to those delivering it, comrades remarked.

Andrew also made reference to the ‘protocols’ agreed with other anti-cuts campaigns, making particular reference to the SWP’s oddly-named Right to Work campaign. An agreement has been negotiated to have a representative on the other’s steering committee and to avoid organising national activities on the same dates. Clearly, this is not enough. The various national campaigns must urgently merge in order to allow for effective national action against the attacks that are coming.

Chris Bambery, national secretary of RTW and a leading SWP member, then spoke of the good working relationship with COR. Chris went on to talk of the next national student action on January 29, adding that workers should walk out in support of the students. This seems highly improbable and it is unlikely to be a position that SWP members will be putting in their own workplaces. After all, the SWP comrades have been arguing not to go further than the demands of the union bureaucracy. But it certainly sounded militant in the confines of a meeting room.

Ex-SWP and now Counterfire member Clare Solomon, who has played a leading role in the militant wing of the student movement as president of the University of London Union, reported to the council about the weekly meetings of the London Student Assembly (see Weekly Worker January 13). Between 150 and 200 students attended the first meeting after the Christmas break on January 9, which hopefully indicates that students have not given up the fight. The demonstration on January 29 in London, despite the attempts by the National Union of Students leadership to undermine it by calling a demonstration in Manchester for the same day, will be an important test for our forces. It is, of course, cause for concern that a couple of hundred arrests have already taken place and that the police are still after many more.

After hearing these reports, the meeting dealt with the large number of amendments to the final ‘declaration’ that were referred to the national council at the COR conference in November. Most of them were fully supportable and caused no real disagreement (these can be read on the COR website).

The first real debate, which the chair unfortunately cut very short, was about support for a general strike. Moved by Jeremy Drinkall (Workers Power), it was not wanting COR to call a general strike, but simply calling for support for one. To revolutionaries, inspired by recent events in Europe and Tunisia, one might think such support non-controversial. Unfortunately not. Both the SWP and Counterfire argued against it. The line being that no trade union has (yet) called for it, so we should not be seen to pressurise them, presumably.

The amendment was lost by about two to one. The same result went for another amendment from Workers Power that simply stated: “We will fight with the official leaderships wherever possible and without them where necessary.” The only logic of opposing this is either the belief it just cannot be done – or the fear of upsetting the leadership of the so-called fighting unions.

A brief but interesting discussion took place around an amendment that stated: “Where they [local councillors] vote for cuts we will oppose them and encourage anti-cuts groups to stand against them.” This was overwhelmingly defeated, with Chris Bambery of the SWP stating it was not possible, as we cannot even get unity amongst the left. Chris unfortunately did not go on to speak on whether the SWP wanted unity amongst the left (Marxist or otherwise), and if so, what it was doing about it. Clearly, the need for Marxist unity in a single Communist Party remains an essential task for all Marxists today.

Whilst not happy with the wording of the amendment, I spoke in favour of it. I put forward the need for a political alternative in any election where all other candidates of the major parties were supporting cuts. Also, there would be no serious opposition to the likes of the British National Party, who are quite capable of picking up a lot of disgruntled protest votes. ‘Don’t vote BNP – vote for cuts’ is hardly a winning slogan.

Another unfortunate vote came with the defeat of an amendment moved by the AWL’s Daniel Randall: “COR also calls for a united left slate at NUS conference 2011, involving the National Campaign Against Cuts and Fees (NCAC), the Education Activists Network (EAN) and others to challenge NUS leaders who refuse to back the student protests.”

The SWP argued against the amendment, saying it was “not the role of COR” to encourage such unity. This could have been a purely sectarian manoeuvre – ie, the SWP is trying to make sure that COR does not become too successful. Or it might have been bowing to the NUS bureaucracy once more – after all, SWP comrades have been arguing against the abolition of student fees (because the NUS bureaucracy will not do so). In any case, the SWP certainly helped to prevent COR adopting a more militant outlook, along with their former comrades in Counterfire. They might have parted ways organisationally, but politically they are still conjoined twins.

One of the more humorous moments of the day came when some local anti-cuts activists complained that the morning had been spent talking politics. Even the old charge of “this is just a talking shop” was wheeled out. The idea that we can have a real coalition of resistance to the cuts and not talk politics is very naive. The cuts are a political attack and we must have a political response. It was worrying to see Dan Randall and other AWL members clapping enthusiastically for this nonsensical ‘no politics, please’ stance.

The afternoon concluded with the national council agreeing to increase its number to about 135, while the steering committee, which has been meeting on a weekly basis since May 2010, was augmented by the addition of around 10 new members. These include: Chris Bambery (RTW), Amy Leather (SWP), Brian Heron (People’s Charter), Bill Greenshields (Communist Party of Britain) and a representative of the CPGB.

Arming the resistance

What lies behind the ruling class cuts offensive and what strategy do we need to defeat it? This is an edited version of the speech given by Mike Macnair to the November 28 CPGB aggregate


There are two ways in which the question of fighting the cuts has to be approached. The first is to look forwards from where we are, starting from the immediate tasks facing the movement. The second is to look backwards, starting from just what it would take to actually defeat the cuts, as opposed to having large protests against them.

Looking forwards from where we are now, our aim is a mass campaign. It is not about small campaigns or about ‘thinking global and acting local’, and it is not about focusing on one particular campaign for a particular hospital or school which is being closed down and so on. In this cuts process, partial victories on single services which do not break the framework of the budget cuts would be like workers in a car factory winning no redundancies in the paint shop – on the basis that the same number of people would be made redundant on the assembly line. Our immediate aim is therefore to have united campaigns at local level. There are all sorts of anti-cuts campaigns springing up, and there needs to be coordination in the localities, and not just a multitude of ‘my own backyard’ bodies.

In addition to this, there needs to be a united national campaign. Judging from comrades’ reports from the November 27 Coalition of Resistance event, it looks as if this campaign is going to leap substantially ahead of the Socialist Workers Party’s Right to Work campaign. It also looks as if it will marginalise the Socialist Party in England and Wales, which seems unable to decide between national initiatives through Youth Fight for Jobs (merely a SPEW front) or through the National Shop Stewards Network, which is only slightly more than a SPEW front. But it looks as though these two campaigns have been very much pushed into the shade by COR.

But at the same time, COR runs the risk of not being the sort of campaign which can function at the level of the masses, but of a repeat of the Stop the War Coalition. That is, a central apparatus controlled by a particular coalition, which organises a series of national events of a grand old duke of York character (march them up to the top of the hill and march them down again). The political character of the project and an emphasis on ‘breadth, breadth breadth’ would mean that you cannot propose anything which the centre-left of the Labour Party would disagree with, or even (part of) the Liberal Democrats, given that the Labour leadership seems to be looking to break the Lib Dems from the coalition.

It is not that the alternative to this is a ‘hard left’ campaign. What we want to see is a democratic campaign, which means that the national organisation and leadership has to be based on delegates from the united campaigns in the localities and be answerable to them. To put it in a rather crude way, imagine that the local cuts campaigns are soviets and the central campaign is a congress of soviets. Obviously, this is a rather misleading way of putting it, because we are not talking about a situation where the working class is in short order going to take over towns and cities through its elected representatives. But in terms of the basic principles of organisation, we are talking about a mass campaign both in relation to the localities and in the character of the organisation at the centre, making the leadership answerable to the base.

Alternative politics

The second question which is immediately posed is not a task for a mass anti-cuts campaign as such. What is posed is the need for an alternative general policy. Of course, the COR statement talks about the necessity of an alternative vision, but in essence the leadership’s vision is British nationalist, with Britain following a Keynesian policy, printing more money and letting the deficit rise on the basis that the country’s economy will improve as a result. They might tack onto this a policy of fair trade with the third world; cuts in arms expenditure; ending the wars and so forth. But at the end of the day, the policy remains a British nationalist policy.

What is missing is a communist alternative policy, a Marxist alternative policy, which tackles head on the fact that these cuts are the product of an international crisis of capitalism and that they are a product of the choices which capital has made.

I stress capital because the cuts are not merely the choices of David Cameron and George Osborne. They are not about ideological blindness, nor are they simply about contributors to the Conservative Party wanting to do well. There have been enormous losses in the global financial sector and now the question which is posed after the numerous governments have carried out large-scale nationalisations, printed and borrowed huge quantities of money and bailed the banks out is: who is going to pay?

This question is not one which is simply posed within individual countries. It is also posed between individual countries. The fact that this is the character of the cuts decisions is reflected in the fact that the Conservatives are constantly able to say two things to dismiss Labour’s criticisms over this or that cut.

The first, which is a total lie, is that the deficit level is largely attributable to Labour’s ‘reckless spending’ in the period before the crash. The reason why it is a lie is that the turn which Labour took in spending more money was in response to international agreements to stimulate the economy in the wake of the east Asian crisis of 1997 and the dot-com crash of 2001. So the bubble and the structural deficit of the last period is not the result of the errors of the Labour Party in spending more money. It is a consequence of the recessions and house price crashes which should have followed either the first or the second of these financial crises (a serious recession after 1997 would probably have meant that 2001 would not have occurred), but which were averted by Keynesian deficit spending after 1998-99 and again after 2001-02.

The second thing which the Tories can say in relation to Labour opposition to the cuts is true. It is to point out that Labour was also going to carry out serious cuts. In the last months of the Brown government, Alistair Darling et al were talking about a serious reduction in public expenditure. So these cuts are not solely an ideological commitment of the Tories. There are features of some Tory donors benefiting from the proposed cuts, but the overwhelming bulk of what is going on is that something which a Labour government would have been doing too, had it won the last election.

There is a consequence of this. Because where the cuts are coming from is not a combination of stupidity on behalf of the Tory leadership and the Orange Book Liberals, because the cuts are not simply about a series of corrupt payments to the Conservative Party, addressing them on the level of a Keynesian alternative is not a realistic proposal. Because the actual overthrow of the existing regime of capital is not on the agenda, the Keynesian solution is presented as a realistic one – Britain can adopt an ‘alternative economic strategy’ and adjust its position in terms of the global world order.

But it is actually not a realistic proposal. The reason is that underlying the decision to go for cuts is a sense of a non-hegemon power having reached its limits – the limits of the Keynesian interventions of 1998-2001. Now the losses have to fall on somebody, and any government which pursues British ‘national interests’ and seeks to maintain Britain’s standing in the world, or to maintain the enormous role of financial services in the British economy (one of the biggest sources of income to Britain from foreign economies) is going to have to implement something like these cuts.

We need broad mass unity to fight them. But if this broad mass unity is to require the far left, which in theory does advocate the overthrow of the existing capitalist system, shutting up about this for the sake of unity, and serving as bag carriers for those who advocate national solutions, it is actually a waste of time. It is true that people may be mobilised and so forth. But at the end of the day it will not prevent the cuts or result in the political defeat of the cuts project. It will be mere protest, ultimately ineffective: what columnists in The Times and The Daily Telegraph are calling ‘nostalgia for the 1970s’.

The consequence of that is that, although we want a unified, democratic anti-cuts campaign which is not in and of itself committed to the overthrow of capitalism, it remains the case – and becomes more the case than under Labour – that we need a Communist Party as an alternative to Labourite politics. The question of party unity is not posed to the cuts campaign as a whole in the sense of an ‘anti-cuts party’. After all, people can be quite genuinely and sincerely opposed to these cuts and be Labour rightwingers who would defend Labour cuts. So can nationalists and advocates of Keynesian demand stimulus. But those people who are already theoretically and in principle in favour of the actual overthrow of capitalism and its replacement need to organise on a party basis and not on the basis that we currently have – ie, the various competing sects, and their competing fronts which attempt to unite one sect with a section of the social democratic bureaucracy to gain leverage at the expense of other sects.

Winning strategy

The second approach is to work backwards from the question of what could defeat the cuts. This question is posed in a sense by the (in my opinion largely futile) debates about direct action amongst our own ranks. I say futile debates because it seems to me that there are not any substantial differences. The line which the CPGB Provisional Central Committee took after the occupation of Millbank Tower was to say, ‘Great, we celebrate the fact that people were militant, but we cannot count on making two, three, many Millbank occupations.’ We celebrate militancy – though, of course, we criticise somebody throwing a fire extinguisher off the building, which amounted to ‘friendly fire’ on demonstrators below. We also celebrate that, by sheer luck if nothing else, the occupation came off and that it made the media.

After Millbank, education secretary Michael Gove has argued the need to deny the students the “oxygen of publicity”. By and large, the press and the BBC have concurred, particularly in relation to the student occupations which are springing up all around the country. In Millbank we saw the tactical advantage of the ‘spectacular’. But this will not be repeated.

We have seen this before with the first anti-capitalist demonstrations on May Day in the 1990s. They also hit the media, also were a trigger and also caused a very big deal. But, as the event was repeated every May Day, the police were not only ready to deal with it: it ceased to be real news any more. So, yes, it is great to be militant and to be creative, but it is not a strategic way forward. I think differences in our ranks have been largely centred around nuance in how to assess the event.

However, there is an important issue which lies behind this discussion: namely that protest in the simple sense of grand old duke of York marches through the streets of London is not going to stop these cuts. Witness the big demos against the Iraq war. But equally attempts to repeat Millbank are not going to stop these cuts. Nor are student occupations. So what is going to stop them?

The struggle against cuts is like struggles against redundancies and unlike disputes over wages and conditions of employment. In disputes over wages and conditions, the employers do actually want the work done; they just want to pay less for the same amount of work – whether directly, by speed-up or by dumping accident costs on employees. Strikes therefore hit the employers where it hurts: in their pockets. Nor is it like the poll tax. There the government’s aims included reducing taxes on business and the rich, cutting local expenditure and trying to get working class voters to blame Labour councils. But its immediate means was to try extract more tax from the poor, and direct resistance to paying could therefore defeat the project.

The cuts, on the other hand, amount simply to the government refusing to provide money for various purposes for which it has provided it in the past. That means that the government is not desperately concerned if things do not get done. Protest strikes are useful, but all-out strike action in the public services will have no coercive effect. Moreover, the coalition partners have deliberately ‘front-loaded’ the cuts. They expect to be massively unpopular and to face a certain degree of public disorder for the first three years of the five-year parliament they plan. They hope that after this they will be able to give out enough tax bribes, etc, to win the next election. If that fails there is always the possibility that some third-world nationalist will invade UK overseas territory in a repeat of the Falklands war or that the Blairites will wreck Labour as an electoral alternative by ‘doing an SDP’.

Capitalist crisis

Think about what lies behind the cuts. There has been an international capitalist crisis with massive sums of money lost in the financial markets. The question follows: who is going to pay for these losses? In the first instance, it is the masses in Iceland, Greece, Ireland and elsewhere who are going to pay. We are seeing a process by which the central imperialist powers use their control of the financial system (plus, lying behind that, US power and the implied threat of military action in the case of a default) to offload the crisis onto the masses of these peripheral countries.

So in essence what we see is the US and other top-dog powers using their position in the global order to dump these losses – onto the broad masses of their own countries to some extent, but also to a much larger extent onto weaker countries, which can be made to carry the can: loan capital is withdrawn back into the central core, which leads to a global debt crisis, and this then transmutes – as it has in Greece and Ireland – into a state debt crisis. This now looks likely to hit Portugal and Spain too.

The US would also very much like to externalise losses onto China by forcing Beijing to float its currency. If the Chinese currency is allowed to float freely and Chinese capital controls are removed, then there will be a very large asset bubble leading to a rapid crash à la Japan. After all, in the 1987 crisis floating currencies allowed the US to externalise the losses made in the financial system onto Japan, creating a slump in that country which has persisted to the present day.

In this situation, states are manoeuvring in complex ways against each other. My impression of the recent crisis over North Korea and the north-south borders is that it is really part of the same process. It seems that the hand of the US may lie behind this, rather than pure adventurism by the North Korean leadership: the US has found a reason to bring its fleet right up to Chinese territorial waters, which is what is involved in the current military exercises, and thereby remind the Chinese that they are not (yet) ready to embark on armed confrontation with the US in defence of their own freedom of action.

So states can externalise losses to the extent that they and their currencies remain high up in the pecking order. In this situation the UK government is making cuts, and shifting costs onto the poor, women and onto the north on a large scale. It is doing so not because it is absolutely out of money, but in order to stabilise its ranking in the global pecking order.

The point is to keep money flowing through London, because at the end of the day the material productive element of the British economy is not that strong. Money in global transactions flows through London, and this is skimmed off in the form of salaries and bonuses paid to workers in the city, and then these salaries are in turn skimmed through income tax. This is one of the most taxable parts of the economy, as opposed to corporate profits, which to a considerable extent have been made de facto tax-free by various scams, schemes and offshoring operations. So funds which derive from international flows of money actually make up a very substantial part of the state budget. The resulting income is then redistributed in the form of public sector expenditure, contracts for private finance initiatives and so forth, which keeps the rest of the economy going.

This is not a previously unknown situation. In a sense it rather resembles the 17th century Venetian economy or that of the Dutch the 18th century. That is to say, it reflects a former world hegemon which is no longer dominant militarily and has lost a large part of its material productive base and primarily become an offshore financial operation, skimming off the financial transaction flows in the world economy. (Like the 17th-18th century Venetians, but unlike the 18th century Dutch, Britain also gains significant income from tourism …)

But in order for that to continue it is necessary, from the point of view of capitalism, for the British government to be seen as a strong government vis-à-vis its own debts, and to some extent internationally (hence the fuss about cuts in military expenditure within the elite, in a way that cuts in welfare simply are not of any substantial controversy in this milieu). It is also necessary to maintain the alliance with the US: just as the 18th century Amsterdam financial market existed thanks to British toleration and was rapidly crushed when the Netherlands acted against British interests, so today Britain’s ability to live off financial services exists thanks to US toleration and support.

Let us go down a level in the explanation. The global crisis reflects the problem that – by retaining capitalism – society opts for coordination of labour and resource allocation on a global level – and on a national level through the money mechanism. At the end of the day, it is this mechanism of resource allocation which produces the cycle of boom-bubble-crash-slump and then gradual recovery leading to boom.[1]

To escape the imperatives of that situation it is necessary to carry out resource allocation in a different way: ie, to move very substantially towards direct planning in use-values and very substantial demonetisation of economic decision-making. That is the highest level at which the cuts could be defeated: we could defeat the cuts by overthrowing capitalism.

Obviously the problem with this, as we have seen in the Soviet Union, is that it cannot be done in a single country – not even one as enormous as the USSR in terms of population, resources and expansiveness. But it certainly cannot be done by unilateral action in the UK, which is not able to feed itself and is dependent on food imports just to keep its population alive – leave aside everything else in terms of the productive economy and the dependence on the financial services sector. So the overthrow of capitalism needs to taker place at an international level.

We could begin the overthrow of capitalism at a European level. We should certainly aim to prepare for such a project. That is why we have on our masthead “Towards a Communist Party of the European Union”. But, even short of this aim, we can aim for and fight for coordinated Europe-wide demonstrations, strikes, etc, against cuts and ‘austerity’.

Aims and outcomes

Level two: we could defeat the immediate cuts by overthrowing the present government without overthrowing the state and capitalism. This would be a tough job in itself, but it could perhaps be done if enough Liberal Democrat MPs lost their nerve. But then what do we put in its place?

Inevitably at present it means we put in its place a Labour government committed to cuts! Indeed, suppose we put a left Labour government in its place (who knows where the Labour lefts are going to come from, given they are so thin on the ground). But suppose we have a government – say, headed by Tony Benn dragged out of retirement, along with some Communist Party of Britain types, etc. We then introduce a policy which is based on the Labour left and CPB ‘alternative economic strategy’. What happens? Simply and obviously we will see capital flight on a very large scale, which in France the first government of François Mitterand was subjected to after making some ‘unwise concessions’ to the working class. The result will be that a left Labour government would be forced to more severe cuts than those now being imposed by the Con-Dems.

Level three: we persuade the state elite and the capitalist class that there are worse alternatives than concessions. Now, it may be that we can do this, as happened in 1945. The response of an important section of the elite in Britain to 1940 was to head to Kenya or the Caribbean. But across Europe in 1945, in France post-1968, and to some extent in Britain in the 1970s, the capitalist class was persuaded by working class political action which amounted to less than overthrowing the government and less than overthrowing capitalism, that the actual overthrow of capitalism was in prospect. Because they were persuaded that this was in prospect, they were also persuaded that it was a better option to make big concessions in order to head it off.

The problem we are in at the moment is that the state elite and the capitalist class is not persuaded of anything of the sort. The phenomenon of generational replacement means that the people who lived through the 1930s and the 1940s are now out of politics and deep into retirement. It also means that those who lived through the 1960s and 70s are also getting on. Those who remember the rise of the shop stewards’ movement and militant action from the 1960s are also getting towards retirement age. The people who are forming this government remember Thatcherism from their youth. At the moment they cannot imagine being confronted with really serious resistance.

It might be possible that with sufficiently serious resistance and a political alternative – even a very imperfect political alternative, like the Left Party in Germany – that the capitalist class will back off from these cuts and make concessions, even if it is not really the case that we are about to take power. (After all, it was not really the case that the working class was about to take power in France in 1968 or in Britain in 1974.) We might scare them sufficiently to force concessions.

But in order to do that we need mass action on a European scale. The reason is that, as long as the austerity consensus holds across Europe, any individual country which makes concessions to the working class will face a flight of capital. Mass action on a European scale could break the consensus. This idea is not at all unrealistic: we have already seen widespread mass action in individual countries across Europe. The obstacle is the nationalist character of the social democratic and ‘official communist’ leaderships.

But we also need people to be positively arguing for the overthrow of capitalism. Why the capitalist class perceived the overthrow of capitalism to be on the agenda in 1945 is obvious: Soviet troops reached the Elbe. The reason they perceived it to be on the agenda in the 1960s and 1970s is also due to international considerations – while the USSR was militarily very much weaker than America, the US had not attained the capability it sought of a first strike without effective Soviet response; the US was being defeated in Vietnam, the UK had been defeated in Yemen, and the insurgencies in Mozambique and Angola brought down the Portuguese regime. Also the mass actions of the late 60s and early 70s, though nationally limited, were global in range. And they took place in the context of there being large-scale ‘official communist’ parties, large Maoist splinters to their left, and beyond that substantial Trotskyist organisations, all arguing at least formally for the overthrow of capitalism.

As far as this is concerned, the problem we have at the moment goes back to the absence of a party in relation to the anti-cuts movement. Because they are all trying to get an inch ahead of their left competitors by making a bloc with the social democrats, Martin Smith, John Rees, Hannah Sell and co are not arguing for the overthrow of capitalism. They are arguing for a nationalist and Keynesian policy. Thus working backwards from what is needed to defeat the cuts, we arrive at one of the points we reached from the point of view of what the anti-cuts campaign immediately needs: a united Communist Party.

Of course, we in CPGB consistently argue for this, but the party is objectively the real link between a mass anti-cuts protest campaign and the actual defeat of the cuts. Without a real party arguing for the overthrow of capitalism, we are unlikely to get beyond the phenomenon of marching up and down the hill.

As for direct action, it is entirely morally justified. After all, the Con-Dems have come to power through fraud and corruption, and using occupations and even employing force against them is totally acceptable.

But the moral justification is not the issue. The issue is, what can inflict a defeat on this cuts project? This problem is one of politics, not of direct action tactics

mike.macnair@weeklyworker.org.uk

Notes

1. More in my articles ‘From boom to war?‘, Weekly Worker October 2 2008, and ‘Responding to the crisis‘, October 16 2008.

Coalition of Resistance reportback

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.

Militant

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”.

Green plugs

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!

Emotions

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.

peter.manson@weeklyworker.org.uk