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It’s time for the anti-cuts movement to turn anger into action

 

Rebecca Anderson, a rep in the PCS civil servants’ union, looks at the political situation in Britain and asks why growing poverty, and mass anger and disgust with the Tories has not translated into a tidal wave of protests and strikes

 

The reality of what austerity means for working class people is really beginning to hit home.

The average family debt is £10,000, excluding mortgages, a figure that has risen by 51 per cent since the Coalition got in. Over 129,000 people were forced to turn to food banks last year, as the cost of food and soft drinks rose by 4.6 per cent while wages and benefits were held down. A new food bank – the ultimate symbol of great depressions – opens in Britain every four days.

Growing poverty, cuts and unemployment, along with mounting media stories of Tory corruption, saw the Coalition get a kicking in May’s local elections, losing 741 seats and 13 councils, while Labour gained 823 and control of 32 more councils.

Yet, according to the TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber, only 6 per cent of the planned cuts have been implemented so far. Meanwhile NHS privatisation is accelerating, we face further pay freezes or cuts, and the double-dip recession means more jobs lost, more youth on the dole, more homelessness.

It is not necessarily the case, however, that the more working people are attacked the more they fight back. Spontaneous struggles do kick off and the union tops are under pressure to organise protests, like the 26 March 2011 monster demo or 2.5 million strong 30 November public sector pension strike.

Yet for these to be more than one-offs designed to let workers blow off steam, they need to be developed into a sustained mass movement, like the anti-poll tax or anti-war movements were. Ultimately, we will need a general strike to bring down the Tories and their austerity.

To make this leap, the question of leadership proves decisive: will it remain in the hands of the ‘official’ leaders, such as Brendan Barber, who orchestrated the pensions sell-out and wants to limit action to what is acceptable to Labour? Or will the left take the lead itself, and develop new organisations and a new leadership – ultimately a new party – to organise the kind of action workers need to defend our standards of living and welfare state? The fate of the different struggles – the NHS, pensions, jobs, etc – and of the resistance to austerity as a whole hinges on this single question.

So what is the potential for an alternative to Labour, a united anti-cuts movement and what other developments are possible in the trade union movement?

 

Unite the anti-cuts movement

The anti-cuts movement has remained divided and ineffective, with a number of competing front organisations. This has left the initiative to the TUC, meaning a wait of 18 months before another mass national demonstration on 20 October.

Contrast this to the Workfare snap demos up and down the country mounted by the left in February. This was a rare victory and showed what can happen; even without coordination, the fact that several different groups, including ourselves, took up this campaign together meant that we won some concessions and gained national media coverage.

Just imagine what a united, mass campaign could achieve. We would not have to wait 18 months for the TUC to act; we could call a national demo ourselves!

Occupy has left little in its wake in terms of organisation, but it did spread a radical idea. Instead of just leafleting and maybe organising a small demo, people created a spectacle and a space, getting on the news and forcing the powers-that-be to respond.

Without permanent structures and national links it will remain fragmented so we need to go beyond Occupy as an idea to forging a national anti-cuts movement as a reality, using occupations, demonstrations and strikes to fight the cuts.

We need a national conference of all anti-cuts groups and campaigns. But Right to Work, Unite the Resistance (both fronts for the Socialist Workers Party), the National Shop Stewards Network (Socialist Party) and Coalition of Resistance (Counterfire) all oppose such a conference, manoeuvring behind the scenes and refusing to cooperate. Local groups, union branches, and independent campaigns need to demand these pseudo-united fronts call a democratic conference – or take matters into their own hands.

The 20 October TUC demo is an important opening to revive the movement, as it will no doubt bring a huge number of workers out on the streets to voice their anger –but how can we stop it being a one day wonder?

 

Organise the rank and file

The pension battle is on its last legs, thanks to the sabotage of right wing union leaders (Unison’s Dave Prentis) and the missed chances by the lefts (PCS, led by Mark Serwotka and the Socialist Party). Socialists are last to leave the battlefield and we will continue to argue for the strikes can be revived and escalated, by organising rank and file militants into a movement to force the leaders to fight or push forward without them.

The N30 movement was the best chance to launch a general strike against the government so far, and its collapse will be a blow to the trade union movement. We can expect different workers in the private and public sector to fight against job and pay cuts, privatisation and attacks to union rights: most recently Jobcentre staff on Merseyside, NHS workers in Birmingham and Kirklees council employees, soon to be joined by London’s bus drivers.

Where they face obstruction from union officials or a hard fight by bosses emboldened by the Tories, the result may be militant action, like the recent MMP occupation in Liverpool or the sparks’ blockades of building sites. Coordinating strikes and solidarity committees could be steps towards rebuilding a mass, coordinated strike movement and directing it against the government.

This makes initiatives to develop a rank and file movement all the more essential in every struggle and across the unions. Yet so far the SWP’s Unite the Resistance conferences and SP’s NSSN have refused to do so, instead promoting and providing a platform for left officials like Serwotka and cheerleading rather than seeking to organise without them, if need be.

On the other hand, the inspirational victory of the Sparks, and the revolt of teachers at the NUT conference, shows what is possible.

 

Political alternative

There are enormous opportunities for the development of a political alternative to Labour. The May elections were more a vote of anger against the Tories than profession of faith in the Labour Party’s willingness to fight austerity. Ed Balls says Labour in power will not repeal the Tory cuts and Ed Miliband urged public sector workers to scab on N30.

But the election of parties in France and Greece that reject austerity and put forward alternative policies for growth shows that millions could be mobilised by taking on the Coalition head on.

Likewise George Galloway’s landslide victory on 29 March shows the huge constituency for an alternative to Labour. The “Bradford Spring” was based on a bold campaign of hundreds of young activists, and a vote against austerity and war – and Labour’s rotten record on both.

Respect’s supporters should demand it breaks from its past populist strategy aimed principally at Muslim religious leaders, and turns its anti-austerity words into protest and action. Respect’s – and Galloway’s – part in May’s “Wastegate” occupation in Bradford is an encouraging step in this direction.

The reformist Trade Union and Socialist Coalition of the SWP, SP and left trade union leaders like the RMT’s Bob Crow and FBU’s Matt Wrack did badly, netting just two seats and losing one. Because it is rolled out from scratch every election rather than campaigning as a party, it is ineffective and invisible for 99 per cent of the time. We call for a critical vote for TUSC candidates, but without a mass anti-cuts movement or strike wave, anti-cuts candidates lack profile and credibility and workers will continue to vote Labour to keep the Tories and Lib Dems out.

For this reason, Workers Power helped set up the Anticapitalist Initiative in April to try to rally the forces that could launch a new party and develop a revolutionary programme. These are turbulent and exciting times, so more and more socialists will feel the need both to unite in action and to debate the way forward. There is no reason why the ACI cannot grow by the hundreds in the coming months.

At the same time, we think the unions should fight inside Labour to challenge Miliband’s austerity, and those to the left of Labour, like RMT, FBU and PCS, could call a convention to found a new party, which could bring in TUSC, Respect, anti-cuts campaigns, and rank and file groups like the Sparks and Unite Grassroots Left.

The terrible crisis of leadership in the working class movement means that popular anti-cuts anger has not turned into a sustained revolt. The existing main left organisations are part of this and have so far failed the test of our radical times: building rank and file movements in the unions, uniting the anti-cuts movement, and creating a new working class party.

Workers Power will continue to campaign for these demands and call on those who agree to join us or work with us in the ACI, unions and anti-cuts groups to go forward.

 

To find out more about the Anticapitalist Initiative go to: www.anticapitalists.org

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