Thursday, 13 January 2011

Looking forward to the 26th March

No matter what happens on the day, the 26th March is going to be a watershed in the current struggle against austerity. The day has great potential, and a myriad of pitfalls. But if it is to mark the crystallisation of a movement, a mass rebellion, it will be despite its organisers, not because of them.

The Trades Union Congress (TUC) finally called a national demonstration in October. This was not of its own initiative, but after much agitation and lobbying by trade union activists and groups such as the National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN). And even then, all it could bring itself to do was declare that in five months they would march from one part of London to another - a considerable time after the cuts had started to bite, and with absolutely no promise of follow-up whatsoever.

However, despite rather than because of the TUC, March 26th is now the focal point of upcoming struggles. With anger over the cuts still bubbling following on from the student riots and the UK Uncut actions, and trade unions mobilising members for the event across the country, the numbers in London look set to far eclipse the 50,000 at Demo 2010.

As I said in a previous post, "this could go a number of ways depending on the militancy of the crowd and the willingness of the TUC stewards to do the police's job for them."

That latter point, however, has now been confirmed by a PCS comrade who attended a regional TUC meeting yesterday. She tells me that they are planning to have three types of steward for the event. Full-time officials will be running the show on the day, in itself a sign that they don't want things scuppered by anybody loyal to the rank-and-file over the bureaucracy, and there will be dedicated transport stewards.

But the ones doing the dirty work will be the "route stewards," whose job is to ensure people stick to the set route and - in the words of my comrade, who is not an anarcho-syndicalist or a member of any other "hard-left" tendency - to "prevent any sit-down protests or direct action." In other words, the TUC organisers are absolutely determined that this will be a passive and uncontroversial march from A to B, and at the end we will hear some people spout rhetoric about exactly the kind of civil disobedience they are actively curtailing.

If this goes ahead then, just as here in Liverpool, it will demonstrate just how out of touch the TUC and union leaders are with their own membership. But it could also completely demobilise the thousands of people looking to challenge the government's agenda. They will go home utterly deflated, and believing that there is nothing they can do in the face of the attacks on our class.

This is nothing to do with individual leaders, but with the very notion of leadership within a top-down bureaucracy. When the only "leading" you do is through example, then you can be as radical as you like. Indeed, that is what makes your reputation and gets people following you. But if you are in a formal position, then there are a myriad of pressures upon you which have the effect of moderating and pacifying even the most radical of people. Aside from the fact that the perks that come with it give you interests oppositional to those of your members, there is the responsibility to maintaining the organisation even to the detriment of the class of people it supposedly represents.

Thus, those who want to see the March 26th event emulate and eclipse the militancy of Demo 2010, which gave birth to the present spirit of rebellion, face a battle on two fronts. If such militancy occurs, the task will be to overcome attempts by the police to contain it within a kettle, and channel it into effective direct action.

But there is also the need to break down the barriers presented by the "route stewards," ordinary trade union activists who will - believing they are acting for the good of the movement - containing and limiting the protest for the police. Not by battering through them (though in the end this may become neccessary) but by making them realise what is happening and persuading them to do what stewards should be doing - facing the police, and acting as both a barrier against and a forewarning of attack from the forces of the state.

I will be in London on 26th March, and I sincerely hope that it proves to be the catalyst for an untold  and unstoppable wave of working class militancy. But I am under no illusions that there are many barriers to that, including the immovable bureaucracy of the labour movement itself.