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Leeds Against the Cuts: lessons in united action

On 16 February Leeds had its second Anti-Cuts Convention, a successful event that serves as a modest demonstration of the need and possibility for uniting the anti-cuts movement. The meeting decided on action and campaigns, involved trade unions, political groups and campaigns ranging from Keep Our NHS Public to Hands Off Our Homes.

The struggle to get this event off the ground was a microcosm of the problems we face nationally in trying to unite the anti-cuts movement and unleash the lour real potential to really take on the Tories’ cuts agenda.

This whole process underlined that the left – the SWP, the SP, Alliance for Workers Liberty, Alliance for Green Socialism – have no real strategy to develop the anti-cuts struggle. Workers Power members experienced resistance right from the start of fighting for an anti-cuts assembly (or convention as it came to be called) as a way to re-launch the local anti-cuts movement on the basis of support for national unity and a general strike against the cuts.

Three unions passed motions in the second half of 2012 calling for such an assembly, and we raised it in Leeds Against the Cuts. SWP activists provided the chief and consistent opposition, cynically arguing we needed to build up the struggle from its present low level first before we could hold such an event much less unite the movement – meanwhile they were diligently building from scratch a local branch of Unite the Resistance!

Unfortunately the SWP has led the way in obstructing LAtC from taking any initiatives other than supporting what other struggles or campaigns are already doing.  In February 2012, the SWP were against a proposal for an open letter to local and national anti-cuts groups calling for a national conference to launch a national coalition– despite a vote in favour of this by seventy people at a  meeting after the recent protest against the  Tory Party Local Government Conference in Leeds. The SWP were against an Anti-Cuts Convention in the autumn and, once they failed to block it taking place in spring, tried to ensure it was only a reflection of local struggles, which were weak at the time.

At the January 2013 Leeds TUC they were against a motion from the local CWU to campaign for the TUC to say yes to a general strike – because “there’s not much we can do in Leeds to promote a general strike”! After speaking against the motion they voted in favour, but only because almost every other delegate did. In reality the SWP has done nothing to promote its own slogan of the general strike.

The SWP’s behaviour is undemocratic.  It doesn’t argue its case in front of the big, diverse meeting, but tries to use smaller organising meetings stuffed full of other left activists and union officials to block any initiatives that get in the way of its attempts to “unite the resistance” under its own hegemony.  So a meeting of nine tries to block a meeting of ninety from having a vote on the TUC’s general strike, and the SWP says that’s democracy!

Its a shame, because Leeds SWP can and usually does do exemplary work rooted in local communites. But the national party provides no strategy to build the movement, and obstructs those fighting for the political goals that are necessary to advance the class struggle in Britain today – the general strike, the rank and file movement, a national anti-cuts coalition, etc.

The lack of strategy – or “confidence” leads them to behave in a sectarian manner – attempting to sink initiatives which sideline their party fronts.  The Socialist Party’s yardstick for setting policy is even simpler: look over to the union officials to see what they will accept and fall into line, then keep building its own fronts, the Shop Stewards Network and Youth Fight for Jobs.

“Let’s not put people off”

The SWP argued at the last decent-sized LAtC meeting in mid December against any resolutions at the Convention being taken because it would “put people off”. Some left TUC officials did the same, so the Socialist Party duly fell into line behind them.

The SWP went further:

Leeds Against the Cuts should have asked the Convention to reaffirm the excellent statement from the 2011 assembly, which says immigrants are not to blame for cuts, rejects all cuts and calls on Labour to do the same. The SWP led the charge arguing against this, despite the fact that Unite the Resistance had just passed a statement at its conference.  We argued against this with some support, and the meeting never took a vote, agreeing to return to the question at another properly representative organising meeting which never came.

Another set of independent, ex-SWP activists took the anti-politics line so far that they argued the Convention should be nothing more than a series of workshops to advertise the existing, tiny campaigns to people who came along, and all we could hope for was a meeting of activists to “network”. But in the final analysis, when the vote came at the Convention, the people who were supposed to be “put off” actually were the ones who voted to take the motions, and then backed them!

Lessons

Let’s take that as a lesson for planning future events. Let’s not as activists think that we know what the “people” out there want, or assume that they are just driven by a single issue like housing benefit without any interest in bigger questions.

Let’s have more politics and debate at events, with speakers and workshops on women and the cuts, Greece and Europe, the G8, the general strike, Labour or a new workers’ party, not just economic issues.  Let’s use gatherings not just to plan action – which is essential – but to give those who turn up the chance to make their opinion known on the big issues of the day and debate the movement’s strategy to win, instead of assuming we activists know it all and the “people” don’t or don’t care.

Someone who puts their Saturday time aside to come to a whole day’s meeting is obviously someone who does care enough to engage with the issues and debates.  If the small pool of leftist organisers can’t agree on a policy – fine; let the much larger assembly debate and decide. That’s democracy.

 The lessons of the Convention show on a local scale, what could be replicated at a national level too. The UK’s biggest but still tiny socialist organisations have consistently bungled every attempt at unifying either the anti-cuts struggle, or revolutionary forces. The collapse of the ULA in Ireland is but the latest example.

The Socialist Party and the SWP, who already work together during elections under the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) banner, should do what is clearly necessary, and form a campaign for a new party which can provide leadership and strength in the anti-cuts movement.

If the response is “we don’t agree on a whole series of questions” – well the Leeds Convention shows how to do it – build something that brings in unorganised activists and new layers, and after a democratic debate let them decide the question.

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