Tag Archives: TUC

General strike: Rebuild the movement

The call for a general strike to bring down the government is out of place, writes Mike Macnair

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The bulk of the far left sees the TUC October 20 demonstration against austerity as an opportunity to carry on an agitation for a general strike to bring down the government.

Socialist Worker headlines this week: “Out! Out! Out!” The accompanying text argues for a general strike and further escalation. “The magnificent strike on November 30 last year gave a glimpse of the power workers have, when taking mass action together. Strikes like this can drive the Tories into submission.”1

Last week’s headline in The Socialist read: “Kick out the ‘nasty party’!” The accompanying text claims (as the Socialist Workers Party has also claimed on other occasions) that “This is a weak government that we can kick out … The call for a general strike received huge support at the recent demonstration outside Tory conference.”2 (The Socialist says that the size of this demonstration was “thousands”; Indymedia reports 5,000, a lot smaller than the 30,000 or more who demonstrated in Manchester in 2011.3)

Socialist Resistance has published online its leaflet for October 20. “Step up the struggle! Strike against austerity!” are the opening headlines. But at least the leaflet flags up the party question in some way: “Demonstrations and strikes are absolutely necessary to stop austerity, as well as a massive and united movement of resistance. But we also need a political solution to our struggle so that we can have in government a party, like Syriza, which will reverse austerity …”4

Articles in the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty’s Solidarity do not display a consistent view. Martin Thomas’s introduction to the AWL’s coming conference is appropriately sober on perspectives:

 

On one level, unresolved capitalist crisis, which means continued depression at a global level and a high possibility of further economic dramas: for example, in the euro zone. In Britain working class conditions are being squeezed deeper and longer than in the 1930s or under Thatcher.

All that makes upheavals likely before long. Maybe not mass strike waves, which are more likely to come with some economic recovery than in the depths of the slump; but explosive local industrial struggles, street protests, and ‘molecular’ radicalisation of individuals.

On another level, Britain now has a period of working class lull following the setback on pensions on December 19 2011, which with each passing month becomes more like an outright defeat.

We cannot end the lull at will …5

 

On the other hand, Daniel Randall and Sacha Ismail offer ‘A workers’ plan to beat cuts’, which is in substance a general ‘action programme’ (a shortened and immediatised version of a party programme). After the introduction, it begins with:

 

No cuts to jobs and services: we need a massive campaign of industrial and political action against the cuts, starting now, not at some point in the future after the TUC demo.

Struggles must be fought around clear demands, and fought to win – not simply to express displeasure at some already-taken action of the bosses or government.

 

This is a slightly less explicit version of the ‘general strike now’ line of the SWP and Socialist Party in England and Wales.

It ends, as such programmes usually do, with “Fight for a workers’ government”. The formulations are muddled, but I am not concerned to criticise them here. The point is that the whole structure of the action programme, the ‘plan to beat the cuts’, supposes that the struggle is likely in the near future to escalate to the point of putting on the agenda the question of government – not in the sense of an early general election and handover of office to the Labour right, but in the sense of a left government, one which “could only take power on the back of struggles so wide-ranging that they would shake up (and, in all likelihood, break up) the current Labour Party to such a degree as to render it unrecognisable”.6

The Anti-Capitalist Initiative website has two articles by the same author, on the same day – John Bowman, October 14 – which are similarly schizoid. ‘After the march – will the TUC step up the action?’ is conventional general-strikism: “A one-day strike is ultimately a protest. It would need to be turned into sustained mass strike action to stop the cuts, and defeat a government that is determined to destroy the welfare state …”7 The piece headed ‘What should the TUC do?’ recommends a much more low-level set of policies to rebuild the trade union movement, but ends with “time to start matching fighting talk with real action that can win”.8

An awful lot of these far-left lines are written as if we were in the year 1974 – after the second miners’ strike had brought down Heath, and before the labour law ‘reforms’ of Wilson and Callaghan had succeeded in undermining the shop stewards’ movement – let alone, before Thatcher’s decimation of British manufacturing industry, the extensive robotisation of much that remains, the defeat of the 1984-85 miners’ strike and all that has followed it.

Where we are now is not on the verge of a revolutionary crisis. The task we face is not the immediate struggle to bring down the government, but to rebuild the workers’ movement. Strikes, including one-day protest general strikes, have a real place in that task. Slogans or strategies of a ‘general strike to bring down the government’ are right now simply unrealistic.

Where are we now?

To begin with the positive: ‘Marx is back’. The crash of 2008 and its long-drawn-out consequences have meant that the tendency of capitalism periodically to threaten the foundations of its own existence is back on the political agenda. This is one of the distinctive predictions of Marx’s critique of political economy, and it has meant that even the rigid control of the academic economics profession and of economic journalism by ‘neoclassical’ marginalists has not prevented a ‘Marx revival’.

I do not definitely say, as Martin Thomas does, that the capitalist crisis is ‘unresolved’. This may be true, but it may also turn out that enough of the losses have been externalised away from the ‘core countries’ through money-market mechanisms for there to be a new limited upturn or even a new bubble, on the basis of the extraordinary levels of money-printing that have gone on in the last period.

Secondly, the politics of class is back with a vengeance. Occupy Wall Street’s slogan against the 1% – the ruling class – resonated widely, even if the movement itself has largely withered, as all such spontaneist direct-action ‘spectacular’ projects do. Owen Jones’Chavs becomes an Amazon bestseller. Government chief whip Andrew Mitchell calling cops ‘plebs’ becomes, for a while, a political running sore. David Cameron finds it necessary to claim that he stands for “privilege for all” – a nonsensical slogan.

The Eurocommunist idea argued by the late Eric Hobsbawm and others, that issues of class are gradually being superseded by identity issues – gender, race, sexuality – as motivators of radical critique of the present order, has spectacularly proved itself false. Capital has shown in the last 20 years that it can be anti-racist, anti-sexist, etc, in its own way; what it cannot do is avoid waging war on labour.

The crisis and austerity accentuate the issue, since the Con-Dem government is determined not to waste the opportunity to push through attacks on welfare and privatisation of the health and education systems. The effect is an obviously corrupt government acting in the interests of its ‘1%’ paymasters at everyone else’s expense.

This context has necessarily produced a real, if as yet small, revival of militant collective action. Days lost through strikes rose in 2011 to the highest level for eight years. A large chunk of this was the one-day public sector action on November 30, but if this element of the 2011 figure is subtracted, there would still have been a rise in strikes.

Downside

On the other hand, if days lost through strikes have risen, they remain at historically low levels relative not only to the 1970s, but to any time since World War II. Union membership is around half where it stood in the 1970s. The level of organisation remains extremely weak: paradoxically, it is this weakness which has allowed the far left and militants linked to it to make gains in elections and conference resolutions in the official structures of the trade unions.

Since the 1980s, robotisation and so on have produced an extremely productive industrial sector, but one with a far smaller workforce (the natural result of increased productivity) dispersed in relatively small (in terms of numbers employed) workplaces. Large workforces and workplaces have become a feature mainly of the service sector and in particular of the public sector.

There has been a long-term trend away from full-time into part-time employment, which has been accelerated by the effects of the 2008 crash. In itself, this would be a good thing: communists favour shorter hours for each worker and on that basis work made available for all. But under capitalism, part-time working leads to impoverishment and welfare dependency. This is because the combination share of rent and mortgage interest in the social surplus product, the multiplication of competing financial ‘utility providers’ for gas, electricity and so on, and agricultural subsidy in the form of price maintenance and set-aside (the EU Common Agricultural Policy) elevates the cost of living relative to full-time wages; and it is considerably harder for part-time workers to organise collective action in the workplace than for full-time workers. Iain Duncan Smith’s massive attack on part-time workers’ benefit rights is about to kick in, with incalculable effects.

This is only one of a number of cuts and austerity measures which are either not yet introduced in practice or have yet to take their full effect. The result is that, though the Con-Dems have been talking down the economy and emphasising how bad everything is, the need for cuts, the ‘unsustainability’ of pensions, the welfare state and so on, Britain remains in economic stagnation. It is not – yet – in a real deflationary death spiral like Greece or, to a lesser extent, Spain.

Going along with this, although there is considerable hostility to the government’s cuts/austerity policy, this does not yet in any sense amount to a crisis of the political order. Polls show Labour under a rightwing leadership around 10% ahead of the Tories – normal in mid-term. The Tory vote at around 30% is holding up quite well. The Liberal Democrat showing at 9% is dramatically down on the party’s 2010 general election result, but not in complete collapse territory, given its regional distribution.9

As far as far-left electoral support is concerned, the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (run by SPEW with the support of the RMT union leadership and the episodic participation of the SWP) has been able outside London to achieve results comparable with the middle to stronger end of far-left candidacies under the names of the Socialist Alliance in 2000-05 and by the SWP under its own name and the rival Socialist Unity in 1976-78. It has not got beyond this level and shows no sign of mobilising activists on the ground sufficiently to do so.

Beyond this is the absence of the vision of an alternative to the system of capital. Marx’s diagnosis of the ills of capitalism may be ‘back’, but the alternative – socialism – is still in the shadow of Stalinism. The organised far left constantly reminds the broad layer of activists of Stalinism through its own bureaucratic-centralist internal practice, which generates both unprincipled splits and the duplication of bureaucratically controlled front organisations, which fraudulently pretend to be broad ‘united fronts’: Counterfire’s Coalition of Resistance, the SWP’s Unite the Resistance, SPEW’s National Shop Stewards Network, and so on. The unorganised far-left ‘independents’ and the anarchists are if anything worse: quot homines tot sententiae– as many opinions as there are individuals – forming thousands of sects of one member.

This Stalinist shadow also results in the unwillingness of the far left to actually propose anything more than immediate minimum demands, plus utopian fantasies of Keynesian management of national capitalism, which are disproved by the ability of financial sanctions to destroy the domestic economies of – in recent decades – Iraq, Zimbabwe and Iran. That unwillingness is reflected not only in the policies proposed by the Labour left, by the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain, by the SWP, SPEW and AWL, but also in the electoral platforms of strong left parties like Syriza in Greece and the Socialist Party in the Netherlands. This shows that it is not only a matter of electoral weakness, but of an underlying failure of imagination – the inability to conceptualise an alternative other than Stalinism.

Given these weaknesses, how on earth could we imagine that the question of the working class taking political power is immediately posed, in a way which would make the idea of a general strike to bring down the government an appropriate agitational idea? The problem is to rebuild the workers’ movement into one capable of posing the question of power: which, at the moment, it is not – even in Greece.

Rebuilding

Rebuilding the workers’ movement is a long and not straightforward task.

At the core of any workers’ movement are the trade unions. However, militants think in ways which are obstacles to rebuilding. Those above the age of 50 grew up in a world very different from today’s – a world of large, concentrated workplaces of full-time workers, under full-employment conditions, in which shop-steward workplace militancy could build the union. They transmit their ideas to the younger generations.

But high unemployment has become endemic; and the trend to part-time working and smaller workplaces has made union organisation problematic except for limited groups like railworkers and prison officers. Trade unions must therefore look to organise the part-timers, the casuals, even the unemployed. To do so they need to shift away from their focus on workplace organisation to district organisation. They also need to increase their emphasis on the welfare and educational roles of trade unions, as the state withdraws from this field.

However, trade unions alone are not enough. The importance of cooperatives and mutuals in redeveloping the institutions and traditions of working class solidarity is increasing and will continue to increase in the modern conditions of retreat from full employment and welfarism.

These activities sound banal and unexciting by comparison with agitating for the general strike. But it is the steady, long-term, banal and unexciting activities which create the conditions for broad layers to imagine themselves, rather than the ruling class, running society; and hence for mass actions which do begin to pose the question of an alternative to capitalism.

Alongside these activities is the necessity of working class politicalaction. This is grasped in a one-sided way by Socialist Resistance with its call for “a party like Syriza”; and in another one-sided way byThe Socialist, for whom it just means ‘Build Tusc into a new Labour Party’; and in yet another and equally one-sided way by the AWL – comrades Randall and Ismail characterise Labour as “woefully inadequate” (not pro-capitalist, comrades?) and argue for “fighting to restore Labour Party democracy”.

Randall’s and Ismail’s action programme has the merit of containing some democratic demands: annual parliaments, a worker’s wage and an end to “the assault on basic democratic freedoms” in relation to kettling, policing and free speech. But if they have done better here than the pure advocates of the general strike, they fail to grasp that rebuilding the workers’ movement demands a parallel political offensive against the active intervention of the capitalists in and against this movement through the legitimacy of parliament, the capitalist monopoly control of the mass media, and the corrupt ‘free market in legal services’ judiciary.

It is this fight against capitalist political control which demands a workers’ political party and workers’ independent media as part of the process of rebuilding the movement. A party is not just an instrument for elections and seeking office in government. Rather, intervention in elections, especially round democratic issues, are means to delegitimate the electoral system – and hence the government’s claim to a ‘majority’ – the media and the judicial system.

This question, however, is interlocked with the problem of democracy in the workers’ movement. A trade union controlled by bureaucrats, a cooperative by managerial tops, a Labour Party or SWP controlled by its full-time staff demobilises the membership and tends to weaken its own organisation.

But political loyalty to the British nation-state and the parliamentary constitution is the core of Labourist politics, both among Labour leaders and trade union bureaucrats, left as well as right. This loyalism inherently implies a party reliant on the capitalist mass media and subservient to its bidding. And this in turn implies the regime of bureaucratic-centralist control, and a consequent demobilisation and weakening of the movement itself.

By making unity with the trade union tops or with ‘broad forces beyond Marxists’ the precondition for unity with the rest of the left, the SWP, SPEW and other advocates of this approach in fact commit themselves to not doing in an organised way the work of ‘scandalising’ the political institutions, which is essential if we are to rebuild the workers’ movement.

The underlying need is to rewin our movement to the idea of solidarity and cooperation of the working class as a class, and recreate the institutions and practices which express this idea. This is why actions like the October 20 demonstration, why coordinated walkouts and one-day protest general strikes are useful steps towards rebuilding: they assert the common class interests of the working class.

They would be more useful still if they were organised on a continental scale, to reassert the common interests of the working class as a class across Europe; and, for example, to rebuild the May Day festival worldwide, in order to reassert our common globalinterests.

But the best should not be the enemy of the good. We should undertake the task of rebuilding the movement both in its banal and local aspects and also in whatever inspiring demonstrations of solidarity we can manage. By doing so we will create the conditions in which the working class in future will be able to take its destiny into its own hands.

mike.macnair@weeklyworker.org.uk

Notes

1. Socialist Worker October 20.

2. The Socialist October 11-17.

3. www.indymedia.org.uk/en/2012/10/501166.html.

4. http://socialistresistance.org/4047/strike-against-austerity-leaflet-for-download.

5. www.workersliberty.org/story/2012/10/17/getting-ready-upheavals.

6. www.workersliberty.org/story/2012/10/17/workers-plan-beat-cuts.

7. http://anticapitalists.org/2012/10/14/after-october-20-tuc.

8. http://anticapitalists.org/2012/10/14/what-should-the-tuc-do.

9. http://ukpollingreport.co.uk.

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Striking together

Ben Lewis looks forward to a bold show of mass opposition to austerity on June 30

On Tuesday May 24 the consultancy firm, MM&K, and the electronic voting agency, Manifest, published a report which exposed the harsh reality and twisted logic of capitalism in crisis. At a time when the majority of the population is bracing itself for a round of almost unprecedented austerity, the report reveals that the chief executives of the top FTSE 100 groups ‘earned’ on average 32% more in 2011 than in 2010.

This ‘crisis’ of popping champagne corks and Peruvian marching powder is, of course, a world away from the grim reality of daily life in modern Britain. Many workers employed by cash-starved local councils have either received their ‘letter in the post’ or are awaiting it with trepidation. Some have lost their jobs, others are told to accept ‘downgrading’ to cling desperately onto them. After all, the spectre of unemployment looms large, and its deleterious effects on people’s lives border on the Kafkaesque: one shocking article in The Guardian reports that some Jobcentre staff are currently receiving guidance on how to deal with benefit claimants so fraught and distressed that they are contemplating suicide.[1]

Little wonder that we are starting to see some green shoots of resistance. On the back of the March 26 trade union anti-cuts demonstration, one of the biggest manifestations of working class anger in recent history, sections of the organised workers’ movement are moving towards strike action.

The date already pencilled into many activists’ diaries is June 30. If all goes to plan, that Thursday could witness over 650,000 public sector workers taking coordinated strike action against the government. Such a move can only be welcomed, as can the militant mood on display at recent union conferences. All have been characterised by anger and radical rhetoric, with the University and College Union and the Communication Workers Union voting unanimously for motions backing mass strikes – in the case of the UCU for a TUC-organised general strike. The Public and Commercial Services union, National Union of Teachers and National Union of Journalists had already passed similar motions.

Depending on the outcomes of several ballots, the PCS, NUT, UCU, the traditionally unadventurous Association of Teachers and Lecturers, and Unison council workers in Doncaster and Birmingham could all come out on June 30.

Given this prevailing mood, it is more than a shame that unions like the Fire Brigades Union and Unite will not be on board. The FBU national executive managed to win its congress to an online survey of the membership rather than balloting for immediate action, whilst Unite general secretary Len McCluskey contented himself with assuring PCS conference that his members will “do what they can on the day to express … solidarity and stand united against the cuts”.[2]

Nonetheless, such synchronised action across the public sector, which will close schools, colleges and local government buildings, will surely be a taste of things to come.

Coordination makes all the more sense, given that many of the problems experienced by the different sectors revolve around the same issue: pensions. Already ground down by increasingly overbearing bosses and bureaucratic loopholes, teachers now face drastic cuts to theirs. It is estimated that the changes proposed by the government would require a teacher to work for 48 years in order to take home a pension of £8,000. Like the PCS, the NUT is confident that its ballot will see a formidable ‘yes’ vote. The UCU has already returned a 65% vote for action.

What is clear is that this shift in mood is finding reflection right across the workers’ movement. Hardly any union has been unaffected by the impulse towards coordinated action. The Rail, Maritime and Transport union, for example, had been discussing the possibility of linking up its proposed action against the victimisation of a London Underground union rep with the other strikes.

A bold show of mass opposition to austerity on June 30, along with well organised demonstrations and solidarity actions, would serve to increase the self-confidence of our class, leading to further coordination between different sectors and the possibility of organising the working class as a whole. We need to mobilise both the public and the private sector. And we also need to bring on board students, pensioners, the unemployed and so on. Strikes are indispensable weapons in our class’s arsenal. Yet they are not the only one, and should certainly not be seen as some sort of sure-fire means of defeating the government.

Opposing austerity through working class militancy cannot be separated from the political representation of our class and our unions. As such it was a shame that the FBU voted down a motion to re-affiliate to the Labour Party at its recent congress. Indeed, if unions like the UCU, NUT, RMT and PCS were also affiliated to Labour, then this could have a real impact on the party of ‘official opposition’. The presence of new layers of militants, from Mark Serwotka, Matt Wrack and Bob Crow down, would undoubtedly greatly add to the influence of the left within Labour.

The only way in which we can really challenge any government’s authority is by rebuilding our class movement at the base. June 30 is an encouraging sign that this can be done.

ben.lewis@weeklyworker.org.uk

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Notes

  1. ‘Jobcentre staff “sent guidelines on how to deal with claimants’ suicide threats”’ The Guardian May 9.
  2. Speech to PCS conference: http://www.unitetheunion.org/pdf/001-2011-05-20-PCS-speech-v3.pdf

March 26 video (featuring Northampton protesters)

Here is a video from Philosophy Football of the March 26 TUC demonstration which features part of the Northampton contingent that went down to the protest.

Arm the movement with Marxist politics

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 police

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.

Where next?

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.

james.turley@weeklyworker.org.uk

Northampton demo report: ‘Just the start’

Dave Isaacson witnessed an overwhelmingly positive public response in Northampton


Over 200 people took to the streets of Northampton to demonstrate their opposition to the Con-Dem cuts on Saturday March 12. This followed other mobilisations in recent weeks outside the local council chamber and a successful ‘Shake yer butts against the cuts!’ benefit gig on March 11, which raised over £150 for campaign funds.

While many of us had hoped for a larger turnout for Saturday’s demonstration, there was nothing to be too disappointed about here. The march itself was lively and diverse. A significant proportion of marchers had been mobilised by local trade unions, most noticeably the CWU, PCS and Unison.

Also present were students, families, disability activists, pensioners and two bangra, drummers who led the march from Beckett’s Park, around the town centre, to the piazza outside All Saints church, where the finishing rally was held.

The response from the general public as the march made its way through the town was overwhelmingly positive with numerous people taking a break from their Saturday shopping to applaud and thank those on the march. I am pretty sure that others decided, upon seeing the march, to join in, and later on other people were drawn in to listen to the speeches at the rally. I even saw a community police officer applauding one of the speakers. Leaflets advertising the upcoming TUC march in London were also distributed to onlookers and passing drivers (many of whom hooted their support). This positive response shows that there is certainly the potential for us to build larger mobilisations in the future.

As for the left groups, the Socialist Party were by far the best represented on the demonstration and there were a few comrades from the SWP and CPGB. While some Northampton Labour Party activists were on the march and have been supporting the anti-cuts campaign, the absence of their CLP banner was made all the more obvious by the presence of that from nearby Kettering. Labour Party lefts recently convinced one of their Northampton branches to call for the local party to campaign on an anti-cuts manifesto in upcoming local elections. Whether the whole CLP can be won to adopt this position we will see.

A handful of Green Party activists were also present and Del Pickup, one of their former candidates (in Kingsley ward in 2007; whether he is still a member I do not know), has now been selected to stand as a Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition candidate in the local elections.

The final rally was chaired by Ron Mendell (Northampton Trade Union Council and Northampton Alliance to Defend Services) and featured militant speeches from a number of trade union representatives, including Matt Wrack (FBU), Roger McKenzie (Unison), Cheryl Pidgeon (TUC Midlands regional secretary) and comrades from the Education Activists Network and Unite Against Fascism.

All speakers were clear that the national TUC demonstration on March 26, while hugely important, was just the start of an ongoing campaign against cuts and privatisation. Speaking about the industrial action that we can expect to see in the upcoming period, the CWU regional official (standing in for CWU deputy general secretary Dave Ward) on the platform said that he and his members would rather break the law than cross other workers’ picket lines.

dave.isaacson@weeklyworker.org.uk

Other coverage

Gallery of Dave Isaacson’s pictures from the march and rally: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=644883&id=625205187&l=a75eec2fef

Youtube video of the protest:

ITV Anglia news report: http://www.itv.com/anglia/a-march-against-cuts36306/

Northampton Chronicle and Echo report: http://www.northamptonchron.co.uk/community/marchers_protest_against_cut_backs_1_2499003

Militants condemn sell-out

selloutAbandoning postal strikes in the run-up to Christmas is at best mistaken, writes Jim Moody

Did they jump or were they pushed? No doubt various factors exercised the leaders of the Communication Workers Union in deciding to abandon last week’s scheduled strike action.

As the CWU’s postal executive committee discussions and negotiations with Royal Mail were in closed sessions, we may never know the full facts. Nor is the CWU’s national executive committee forthcoming. But despite the pious promises made in return for the CWU calling off the strike action, postal workers have been placed in an impossible position, and their struggle to secure their long-term future has basically been abandoned by their so-called leaders.

Concessions by Royal Mail are minimal. Its promise to negotiate on job security is by no means a guarantee that there will be no redundancies or even no compulsory redundancies. It was certainly far from sufficient reason to call off a strike when the employer was at its most vulnerable, as Royal Mail was when faced with being unable to deliver a sizeable chunk of the Christmas post.

Worse, many unagreed changes locally imposed by management ‘executive action’ – enforced switches in shifts and delivery rounds, for example, not to mention the ‘temporary’ transfer of mail centre work to ‘out houses’ staffed by casual labour – remain in place. In response branch officers are talking about requesting authorisation for fresh local strikes.

When it comes down to it, general secretary Billy Hayes and deputy general secretary Dave Ward have achieved what they have been suggesting to management in speeches for months: we can call off the strikes if you give us something we can sell. One member of the NEC told me that there was a distinct lack of clarity within the union at all levels on the aims of the strike anyway.

Management has therefore not had to give very much away: Hayes and Ward declared themselves amenable to compromise if management would only show itself in similar colours. That is why some of the reasons put forward for the sell-out are more likely erroneous than not. For example, some have suggested that management might have threatened to press on immediately with derecognition of the union, something that a secret Royal Mail plan did envisage.

Or perhaps the Broad Left minority (eight out of 28 voting members on the NEC), the more rightwing Effective Left (dubbed ‘Defective Left’ by opponents), plus unorganised members – erstwhile militants almost to a man and woman – on leading CWU committees wanted to abase themselves before New Labour to bolster its fading electoral fortunes rather than do the job they were put in place to do: represent the interests of CWU members. As it happens, most of the Broad Left members of the NEC are on the telecoms side.

But neither of these two scenarios appears likely to union militants. They consider it much more probable that union leaders felt they risked losing control of the strikes if they continued with them. To get more than paper concessions from Royal Mail it would have been necessary to escalate the action, without doubt. This would have involved ceding control over the day-to-day running of the strikes to the mass of the members, who would have needed to organise picket rotas, solidarity appeals, etc. without the involvement of national bureaucrats.

Nonetheless, abandoning strikes in the run-up to Christmas, Royal Mail’s busiest time of the year, is at best mistaken and at worst a treacherous turn by CWU leaders. Both sides are well aware that comparatively few items of post are delivered in January, which is the earliest that the union’s leadership expects to contemplate further action, should it deem necessary. And why would it not be necessary, since management promises to negotiate can simply come down to reiterating previous positions on job losses and speed-ups? Having lost its purchase by abandoning strikes now, the union faces an uphill battle against a bellicose foe in the new year. Is it more likely that postal workers would rather fight now or after the Christmas break? No-one can in all seriousness suggest the second, if they want the workers to win.

One militant postal worker to whom I spoke told me that the mood in the workplace is roughly, “What the fuck are we going back to work for?” As days go by, this is settling into a ‘making the best of a bad job’ attitude. He said: “It’s a sell-out masquerading as something else” – an assessment that is still to be disproved. Nonetheless, postal workers do intend pushing the promises about local arrangements in the interim agreement as far as they can – and even further.

Of course, the biggest worry about the November 5 interim agreement among the membership is whether it represents a truce or a surrender. Many militants thought that involving the TUC would mean an immediate cave-in by the union; in the event, it took the CWU leaders a week to come up with the interim agreement with management.

Local industrial action by postal workers was the engine that propelled the union bureaucracy into calling national strikes: first one-day affairs, then a planned, but now aborted, couple of days as we started into November. The evident militancy fuelled by the mass of members’ anger over Royal Mail’s destruction of jobs and speed-ups (euphemistically labelled ‘pace’ in the recent agreement) now has nowhere to go, given the demoralising effect that the leadership’s action will inevitably have had.

Despite calls from some far-left groups for the union membership in the localities to restart the strike under its own control, the absence of rank and file organisation within the CWU means that such calls cannot be fleshed out in any meaningful way. There is no network and no organised debates at any level about the rights and wrongs of the action being taken. No-one, apart from those making the calls, sees this happening. This is a national issue.

The same goes for officially sanctioned local actions (which in any case will clearly not be approved by the NEC). At present, most lower-level union officials at the regional level fully support the interim agreement, so they form a barrier that extends down from national level to any attempt by local union organisations to take back the strike as their own on a large geographical base. Even cooperation across London, which led the way in militancy during the local strike wave earlier this year, is hampered by this regional lethargy.

While the sole Socialist Workers Party member of the national executive, vice-president Jane Loftus, has pitched up at meetings and in articles to promote the strike, there has been hardly a squeak out of the two national executive members who are members of the Socialist Party in England and Wales, Gary Jones and Bernard Roome. But maybe their silence is because of the extreme compartmentalisation within the union that favours bureaucratic manoeuvring by full-time officials. Telecoms members of the NEC are, after all, not expected to interest themselves (or ‘interfere’) in disputes involving the postal side. On the face of it, this obstacle to internal solidarity is in massive contradiction to the solidarity in the rest of the working class movement that postal workers ought to expect as their right in their current struggle.

What the interim agreement does do is pass things back to the localities on a bad basis. They will be left to their own devices, rather than being part of a nationally organised dispute. Local negotiations may have been reinstated, which is all well and good, but how long will they continue and what can they achieve in terms of binding agreements? The interim agreement calls for fortnightly reviews of progress over the next five weeks. Of course, five weeks takes us close to the end of December, which is pretty convenient for management. If anything goes awry by the end of this period of the cessation of hostilities, then we shall be into a stage when Royal Mail is already breathing easier, having finagled a solution to its Christmas delivery problem.

As for the most important questions concerning job losses and speed-ups, the interim agreement has only platitudes to offer. One paragraph reads: “This agreement between Royal Mail and the CWU, reached under the auspices of the TUC, provides the basis for a ‘period of calm’ free of industrial action, during which the parties are firmly committed to work together intensively, to reach agreements that will enable further change and modernisation to be implemented from the beginning of 2010 onward.”

So “modernisation”, though given a different content by management and the CWU, is accepted by both sides. The words “change and modernisation” have a deadly ring about them for the mass of postal workers, however, for they have seen where they have already led: the loss of many thousands of jobs.

It is pretty clear that Royal Mail has sewn up what for it is a great deal in order to buy time – a most valued asset. Management must be cock-a-hoop. At the end of the local review discussions that the agreement document lays down management can quite easily revert to its former positions and again bully, victimise and call for ‘pace’.

By settling for a period of no strikes on the basis of mere promises the union leadership has forfeited any real leverage. None of the CWU leaders who have spoken to meetings of union reps since the interim agreement was announced have dared to suggest that it has been accepted because of the union membership’s weakness or lack of resolve: this has clearly not been the case. There has been no trace of any drift back to work in the course of the strike.

It may not be exactly a perfidious leadership that has brought this dispute to the pretty pass it has, but the inability of rank and file members to bring leaders to heel by organising themselves independently has taken its toll in allowing the bureaucrats free rein. Unless postal workers organise themselves independently of their officials, they will be unable to change this state of affairs – or inspire other workers who, make no mistake, will also be in the firing line.



Peter Manson spoke to Labour left MP John McDonnell about the Labour Party conference, the general election and beyond

john mcdonnell mpHow do you see the main issues at the Labour conference?

The New Labour leadership will be trying to use the conference for yet another relaunch of Gordon Brown. If it’s anything like the public relations exercise of his TUC speech, it will be extremely dispiriting and disillusioning – it will hardly be successful in terms of launching the general election campaign.

What they will be trying to set out is some form of difference between themselves and the Tories and the Liberal Democrats, but they have all now reached a consensus on the key political issue – they expect working class people to pay for this crisis, not the bankers themselves, and they’re not looking for any transformation of the system. They are now looking for a massive onslaught in terms of cuts in public services, attacks on trade unions and undermining any reaction against neoliberal policies and the restoration of market dominance. I don’t think there’s any discernible difference between New Labour’s position and that of the other main parties.

It could be argued that the Tories are playing into Brown’s hands by declaring their intention to make deeper and further cuts with relish, whereas Brown will make the same cuts with tender, loving care.

That might have been the case a week ago, but the scene has changed so dramatically. We’ve just had Ed Balls announcing education cuts on a scale we haven’t seen for years – there seems to be a Dutch auction going on about who can be more brutal in their attacks on the working class in terms of cutbacks in public expenditure and, inevitably, assaults on people’s pensions and welfare benefits.

It is possibly the most disillusioning exercise we’ve seen in politics in recent generations. Not only will people say, ‘There’s no difference between you’: there is no difference between them in the content of their attacks on working people.

It reminds me of Tony Blair’s first election victory in 1997, when he promised to keep in place the Tory cuts for two years. People voted Labour on the grounds that they couldn’t be any worse than the Tories and that seems to be the basis on which trade union leaders are recommending a Labour vote.

Some trade union leaders. They are working on the basis that you might as well have the devil you know rather than risk the Tories.

Remember, in 97 what happened was that people marched to get rid of the Tories. It wasn’t that they had any confidence in Blair – the electorate didn’t really have a clue as to what the ramifications of his victory would be.

When you are in the situation where all the parties are virtually presenting the same programme, people react according to what they are actually experiencing at the time – they will march again to get rid of the incumbent government. New Labour is seen as pursuing the same policies of attacking working people as the Tories and, despite the savage cuts proposed by the Liberal Democrats last week, I think people will want to take it out on the government.

What happened to Keynes? I thought we had to spend our way out of the crisis, but all of a sudden, with a general election looming, that seems to have gone by the board.

There are three examples of Labour being in power when a crisis like this has hit – two were under Ramsay MacDonald and Jim Callaghan. You could argue that Keynes was a competing economic theory in the 30s, but you couldn’t argue that about Callaghan’s time. Both MacDonald and Callaghan rejected Keynesianism, let alone any form of socialist practice. What happened to them? They turned on their own class, cut welfare benefits, increased unemployment and slashed public expenditure. The reaction was absolute opposition from working people and the removal of Labour from power for a decade.

The third example was Attlee, who came to power in a crisis, when the country was bankrupt, and successfully used taxation and public ownership to redistribute wealth and establish the welfare state. What is interesting is the ignoring of the Attlee experience and New Labour’s seizing upon Ramsay MacDonald and Jim Callaghan, with Keynesianism going out of the window. Not that I think Keynesianism is the solution, but even in their own terms New Labour has rejected an alternative. It’s panic, absolute panic, that is setting in. Every policy is aimed above all at trying to secure a continuation of power.

Just as the media and many commentators were urging Ramsay MacDonald and Jim Callaghan to be ‘responsible’ and look after the ‘national interest’, exactly the same has been pouring out of the pages of The Guardian, The Times, the FT and the rest. They are all urging ‘responsibility’, which means cuts.

It is almost as though the world has lost its senses, even on Keynesian terms. They are introducing massive cuts during a recession, which will produce more unemployment and keep the economy on a downward spiral.

You are convenor of the Trade Union Coordinating Group. What is the TUGC’s role?

We established the TUCG at the TUC congress in 2008. Initially there were four unions which had worked together in a few individual campaigns such as Public Services Not Private Profit, and they felt a more consistent alliance was needed. They were advocating similar policies and looking for further coordination and campaigning, whether that be public meetings, organising demonstrations or even coordinating action in the future. The TUCG has now doubled in size to eight unions.

It was quite clear what divisions there were within the TUC this year. TUCG trade unions are calling for a much more aggressive approach in terms of industrial relations, so that people don’t have to pay for this crisis in terms of cuts in wages or conditions or their jobs. They have a much more independent line – it is just not acceptable to expect people to support a government which has turned on its own class.

What unions are involved?

The original four were the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, Public and Commercial Services Union, Fire Brigades Union and National Union of Journalists. Now there are also the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union, National Association of Probation Officers, Prison Officers Association and United Road Transport Union. Only the Bakers Union is affiliated to Labour.

How do you see the TUCG in relation to, for example, the Labour Representation Committee?

Well, to be honest, the TUCG is a trade union grouping, which addresses a whole range of issues from a trade union perspective and will prove increasingly effective, I think, as we go into this next period, whoever is in government. Whoever it is, they are clearly going to come for people’s jobs, working conditions and pensions, and the trade unions are the only organisations that can play a leading role in protecting them.

There is also a role for the TUCG in the discussion about future representation as well as future action. It will be convening a conference aiming for February, looking at a strategy for the unions in the run-up to the general election and beyond it.

There is no formal link between that and the LRC, which is a separate political organisation. But the TUCG is one of many initiatives being undertaken at the moment, whereby people are feeling their way forward on how they can make alliances across industrial, economic and political struggles, and what structures best suit those struggles at any one point in time.

Just as the LRC is an attempt to form alliances of the left both within and outside the Labour Party, here you have a group of trade unions that are allying to make themselves stronger and more effective, but that are also looking to work with others in the promotion of political objectives as well. So the TUCG unions came behind the People’s Charter, and will want to work with groups like the LRC in campaigning on issues they agree upon.

In the general election you will be a Labour candidate, but the message you are putting over is that there is no difference between the three main parties. So on what basis will you be campaigning for a Labour vote?

It’s interesting how many individual Labour candidates in the general election will be standing on policies that they’ll be advocating locally and will have no reflection on what’s happening nationally. They will be pursuing policies that a number of us have been advocating for a period of time.

Those candidates will be opposed to working people having to pay for this crisis and, calling for the redistribution of wealth and power, advocating public ownership, arguing for peace, opposing the war in Iraq and calling for troops out of Afghanistan. That will be a fairly common platform for which a number of Labour candidates will be campaigning, because it’s the only way in which they’ll be able to save their seats. I expect that there will be quite a large number of Labour candidates who will be distancing themselves from the policies they’ve even voted for over recent years.

Unfortunately, however, a tiny percentage of the electorate vote on the basis of what the local candidate, as opposed to their party, is saying.

That’s why if there isn’t any change in Labour policy nationally there’s a good chance of a wipe-out. The only thing that will save Labour – not as a government, but from being wiped out – will be the incompetence of the Tories and the Liberal Democrats.

Some of the TUCG unions may well give at least tacit support to non-Labour candidates. How do you view their position?

Well, I’m a Labour MP, so I’ll be standing on a Labour platform. I’ll be putting forward policies I’ve been advocating for a number of years.

Individual unions will make their own decisions, but I think the recommendation of TUCG unions to their members on how to vote will be based on a critique of the record of the particular candidates and the policies they’re pursuing. I think you’ll see a number of unions supporting candidates based on a realistic assessment of their track record.

Even some of the most New Labour-loyal union leaders – Dave Prentis, general secretary of Unison, for example – are arguing that members should only vote for candidates who support union policies. We’ll see whether that translates into reality, but I think TUCG unions will take such a position.

Do you think any substantial left-of-Labour groups will stand?

Various discussions are going on, I’m sure, as reported in your own newspaper. I’m sure there will be non-Labour left candidates, but there seems to be an increasing awareness that they shouldn’t be running against Labour left candidates.

At the same time I’m hoping that, in the general election campaign, from somewhere there will be a political debate. If that comes from left candidates in the Labour Party, and from left candidates outside, at least working people will be able to see that some people are arguing for an alternative.

We’ll see what happens in the general election. However, the main debate about the future of the left will come afterwards.