Thursday, 28 April 2011

You can't fight the cuts by voting

One of the key anarchist arguments against the electoral system is that it is a significant drain on energy and resources in pursuit of an illusion. This is not just in reference to the mainstream parties. In fact, nowhere is it truer than in the Socialist Party's "anti-cuts" electoral agenda.

The Socialist Party is the driving force behind the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC). This electoral front "stands in opposition to public spending cuts and privatisation," and amounts in essence to the latest leftist initiative in pursuit of a new workers' party. Their paper's latest editorial tells us that we should "fight the cuts" by "vot[ing] for a socialist alternative." In their eyes, there is a "need to develop a serious political alternative," and electing socialist candidates "drawn from the best working class fighters" will allow them to "coordinate the fightback."

The example set for this, in the mind of the SP, is their predecessor organisation - Militant Tendency - and its tenure on Liverpool and Lewisham councils in the 1980s. If electoralism is the biggest diversion from genuinely militant class politics, as anarchists argue, then Militant is the totem which keeps it alive.

But, as with all myths, the reality of Militant is by contrast somewhat disappointing. Beyond the line that they built 5,000 houses, created 1,000 new jobs, and built sport centres, parks, and nurseries, the reality is that the significant victories came from direct action at a grassroots level, whilst the glorious failures were most definitely engineered from the top down. It is important to separate the two elements in order to understand what works as a strategy and what is a dead-end road.

The bulwark of the Militant strategy was the "illegal" budget. That is, passing a budget in line with local needs and inflation, and presenting the shortfall that arises as a concrete demand to government.

We already know that this wouldn't work today. Were a City Council to set such a "needs budget," they would simply be shoved aside by bureaucrats from central government who would implement the cuts for them. But even in the 1980s when it was theoretically possible, this strategy didn't work. As it ran out of cash, Liverpool's Militant council made cuts through a partial run-down of services, whilst their last-gasp tactic - delivering redundancy notices to 30,000 council workers - backfired spectacularly.

The sight of a fleet of taxis delivering redundancy notices is for many Liverpudlians the summation of the era. Allegedly a tactic to buy time, on the basis that the government couldn't let an entire council go redundant, it came months after Liverpool had already secured a £30 million Swiss bank loan. Not to mention that the council, in their vanguard role, were offering others up as sacrifices - and unwillingly, given that the unions didn't accept it. As Derek Hatton himself put it, "we were their employers, and they fought us bitterly every inch of the way." As any genuine socialist might expect in the relationship between workers and bosses.

But whilst the council capitulated on their slogan of "better to break the law than break the poor," the working class didn't. The people of Toxteth won £20 million of extra money in 1981 by rioting against the poverty and deprivation in their area, as one example, whilst the success of the mass non-payment campaign in beating the poll tax is widely known.

It will be argued that Militant Tendency members were involved, even instrumental, in the poll tax rebellion. There are contrasting views on this, but ultimately it is irrelevant. The point is that we are talking about direct actions that were successful in forcing concessions versus an electoral strategy which was flawed from the outset and ultimately crashed and burned. To try exactly the same thing again and expect a different outcome is nothing short of madness.

If we are to defeat austerity, the working class must adopt a direct action strategy. Make the country ungovernable, and the cuts impossible to implement. To do that, we must exorcise the ghost of Militant Tendency as it leads us once more down the dead-end road of electoral politics.