Sunday, 5 December 2010

Strategy and tactics in the anti-cuts movement

Some ideas about building a movement to stop cuts, and my view of key arguments on the Left:

1. Build it big and broad

A striking feature of last weekend's Coalition of Resistance conference was the widespread desire for unity. "Leave your sectarian baggage at the door" and similar pleas were common. It is symptomatic of the huge assault we face - when we face a particularly formidable enemy there is a widely felt need for us to pull together.

It also reflects the involvement of so many people who don't have a history on the organised far left. They are intolerant of sectarian sniping and really couldn't care less about past disputes that mean nothing to most sane, sensible people. The participation of many people new to the left or to campaigning has a welcome disciplining effect on some of the established left-wing activists.

One of the arguments to have emerged on the left concerns Labour councillors and their role in implementing cuts. Some people suggest that members of Labour-run councils can't be part of the anti-cuts movement, unless they are willing to set an illegal budget or resign. This is effectively insisting that Labour councillors can't be part of the movement, which in turn is an obstacle to involving Labour Party members in general.

The austerity programme is a national political policy, not a choice to be made by local councils. Our fire should be concentrated principally on those who are responsible for these cuts. Make demands on Labour councils by all means, but don't create unnecessary divisions. We will pressure them by building a mass movement, not by moralising.

It's also regrettable that the Socialist Party's leadership is attempting to make this position the policy of National Shop Stewards Network, in which it plays a central role. That would guarantee NSSN becoming marginal to the movement. It isn't a serious approach to building a united coalition.

2. Argument and action go together

Opinion polls concerning public attitudes to cuts have been highly variable. But they have tended to show that significant sections of the population agree with the cuts. This might seem remarkably masochistic, or it may appear to reflect ignorance - people simply don't realise what's in store for them.

There's some truth in the 'ignorance' claim - more people will turn against the cuts when they really bite, we can safely assume - but this is also to do with ideology. The government had a fair degree of success in persuading people that cuts were 'necessary' and 'there is no alternative'.

I won't recycle the reasons for why such arguments are wrong here. I'll just note that countering the cuts myth is a vital part of our opposition. It isn't simply about drawing attention to the impact of cuts, or getting the facts out (important as those tasks are).

That doesn't mean a retreat from demonstrations into simply propagandising and educating. Building a protest movement is a way of creating a space for discussing and articulating alternative ideas. Action and argument rise or fall together.

3. No to pessimism (and hyper-optimism) 

There's still a problem with many on the Left being overly pessimistic about the movement's prospects. The student protests are inspiring but, it is argued, the unions are so slow and conservative there is no chance of workers following the path opened up by the students - or it is too early for that to happen.

There's a grain of truth here, but it misses the fact that outbursts of resistance can be unpredictable. Who, just one month ago, would have predicted the scale of the walkouts, demonstrations and occupations by school and university students?

I also think it is simply wrong to assert - as many do - that there'll only be resistance when cuts really impact on people's lives. Students have revolted despite the fees rises and the cuts not actually being implemented yet.

But if pessimism is wrong, so is hyper-optimism. These appear opposites but they have two things in common: neither accurately reflects reality, and neither of them requires you to do anything.

Pessimism leads to passivity because you feel there's no point in doing anything. Hyper-optimism leads to passivity because you think everything will go gloriously well without you having to do anything (and by calling for fantastical things that aren't currently on the agenda, you evade doing anything in the here and now).

The obvious example is the call for a general strike, e.g. from Right to Work's Chris Bambery speaking at the Coalition of Resistance conference. It is appealing rhetoric but it doesn't currently fit the popular mood. That might change (hopefully it will), but for now it makes more sense to call for co-ordinated public sector strikes, to build student-worker unity in concrete and practical ways, to strengthen local and national coalitions, and to mobilise massively for the TUC national demo next March.

4. A national movement is needed

A national movement is required for a simple reason: the attacks we face are national. There will be some variation in the implementation of cuts, but the cuts are dictated by national policy. Central government, not local councils, is responsible for these cuts.

A national movement is only possible if there are local campaigns. Any national mobilisation, for example, only works if there are local groups building it throughout the country. So arguing for, and striving to build, a national movement is not (contrary to claims by some) an affront to local groups.

Increasingly, there are efforts to improve national co-ordination. This is influenced partly by recognition of the importance of such co-ordination already, notably the NUS/UCU national demo on 10 Nov and the co-ordinated national days of action on 24 Nov and 30 Nov.

These have been immensely more successful than if schools, colleges and universities had simply been left to choose their own dates. It is the national co-ordination that has really glavanised people, made a big media and public impact, and given momentum to what has emerged as a disparate but neverthless increasingly cohesive national movement.

Another example is the co-ordination of protests targeting Voadafone, Topshop and others over the issues of tax evasion and avoidance. The co-ordination has been almost entirely online, but that doesn't detract from the point that it's better to 'strike together'.

There are also many historical precedents for this. Stop the War's sometimes huge national demonstrations have been crucial to the anti-war movement, which has been immeasurably stregthened by national organisation instead of settling for myriad local groups each operating independently of each other.

The anti-poll tax movement reached its peak with the large-scale demonstrations and riots in central London, building on a mass of local activity and giving it greater impact. There are numerous other examples.

5. Trade unions are vital as part of a bigger movement

Trade unions have a vital role to play. It's worth stating that clearly because there are some - admittedly a small minority in the movement - who downplay the unions' role. For some newer, especially younger, activists this is entirely understandable: after all, why would they instinctively grasp the importance of trade union action after many years of very low strike levels?

But I also recently encountered this view - in a Coalition of Resistance conference workshop - from an experienced socialist activist who should know better. They argued that it is local community groups that really matter - far more people belong to them than to unions. Most people are not in unions, so it is exclusive and limiting to focus on them as a major site of resistance.

This is wrong partly because it relies on a strange, and false, juxtaposition of 'trade unions' and 'community groups', as if people can't be members of both - and as if the unions aren't themselves mass organisations with members in every local community.

But it also ignores the fact that unions are strategically well placed to resist cuts - they are mass, national organisations with tremendous collective power. That power may not have been wielded fully for many years, but it remains.

Also, there's nothing 'exclusive' or 'limiting' about the unions, providing we recognise a mass movement requires linking union organisation with other groups and forms of organising. It's the co-operation between unions and other sectors that will really drive the movement forward.

The converse of writing off the unions is a sort of soft syndicalism - this is, in my experience, far more common on the organised Left. This involves foregrunding strikes as being of overwhelming importance at all times, regardless of where the movement is at (and which tactics have greatest resonance at any given time).

The fact is that the unions haven't led the way in resisting cuts - broadly speaking, it's the schoolkids and students who have been, and remain, in the vanguard. If we're going to build and expand the power of our movement we'll need to find ways for bringing the students' dynamism, militancy and radicalism into the trade unions and indeed throughout society.



  1. You're joking right? Labour Party councillors busy slashing budgets are to be part of the "anti-cuts movement"? Tell that to the protesters outside Lewisham Town Hall last week.

  2. It's like the flea saying to the elephant, "Get off my turf". Small far left organisations are in no position to tell the Labour Party whether its councillors can be part of the anti-cuts movement. A little humility needed, I think.