Saturday, 28 May 2011

An afternoon with UK Uncut

Today marked a national day of action called by UK Uncut. Across the country, activists took part in occupations - or "bail-ins" - of bank branches. An unusually fair-minded and balanced report of the day can be read in the Daily Mail. In the early afternoon, I attended the Liverpool action.

The day had been called as an "Emergency Operation," seeking to draw attention to the multi-billion pound subsidies still being paid to the banks as the NHS faces cuts. A £20bn "efficiency drive" will see 50,000 NHS jobs go over the next five years - largely on the front line. But as this happens the banks, previously on the receiving end of a trillion-pound bailout, are being subsidised by the taxpayer to the tune of £100bn. Which, in one UK Uncut supporter's words, "shows the government's true colours."

Those true colours are capitalist ones. I've said before that UK Uncut's actions are far more radical than their politics, and this remains true. Whilst their press releases talk of how they can make the government listen or shift politicians' priorities, on the ground they have proved extremely capable of using direct action - the aim of which is not to appeal to leaders' sensibilities but take what is wanted directly or to force concessions by causing disruption and inflicting economic damage. The same distinction, in fact, between a trade union march and strike action.

For the Liverpool action, supporters convened in Next to Nowhere - the radical social centre underneath the News from Nowhere bookshop. I recognised a few of those involved from previous UK Uncut actions, as well as the support they had offered Liverpool Solidarity Federation in our pickets of Atos Origin. However, it remained a pleasant surprise to note that those taking part were all largely "new." That is, not the people you see at every demonstration, recognisable by the newspaper on their arm. Though some would paint it as UK Uncut's weakness, I would see it as their greatest strength - the opening they offer for young people and others with little practical political experience into radical movements.

As people gathered in the social centre, two police community support officers appeared outside the bookshop. However, they appeared largely unaware of the day's planned actions and were rather standing watch due to the EDL's appearance a couple of weeks back. The police were actually late to the party today, which was unusual given the high profile the action was given.

After a brief assembly, where the organiser of the event passed around the Green and Black Cross legal support number and went through how the action would proceed, we were off. People made their way down to two separate rallying points in Liverpool One shopping centre before heading over to NatWest bank. Inside, a short burst of a megaphone's siren was the signal to begin. A number of people took over floorspace to engage in street theatre, dressed as doctors, nurses, and patients. Others stood up and held flags and signs, or gave out leaflets, as it was announced over the megaphone who we were and why we were there.

For my part, the first thing that I did was approach staff. There were only a few people working in there, but I made a point of telling them that this protest was not against them and that, as bank workers were amongst those facing lay-offs whilst those at the top revelled in bonuses and pay rises, this was their fight too. To which end I also handed out copies of Solidarity Federation's "Stuff Your Boss" leaflet (PDF).

Almost immediately as the action began, a man came up and asked us to leave. Despite being in plain (and rather scruffy) clothes, he claimed to be the bank manager. His request was obviously refused and he quickly got on the phone to try and get security and the police down to the bank. Liverpool One security responded more quickly than the police, but being unable to do anything other than stand outside they received thanks over the megaphone for "supporting our cause by standing outside even though they're supposed to be working." At this point, customers still came and went freely.

It was at about the hour mark when the decision was taken to close the doors and ask customers to leave. The police had still not arrived and staff looked on whilst the manager and one security guard blocked the door, allowing people to go out but not to go in.

Whilst doing so, the manager asked a couple of those protesting whether they worked. When one replied that they were unemployed because the shop he had worked at had gone under, you could see the spark of smug glee in the manager's eyes. Another said they were a student, to which he sneered that "my taxes are paying for you to learn." I interrupted that I had a job and I was a trade union rep and asked if he had anything to say to that. When he said "I used to be treasurer for my regional trade union," I inquired whether he was on the right wing of the union, given the ease with which he could sneer at those losing their jobs and at the attacks on the working class. He quickly fell silent.

When the police did arrive and took the opportunity to talk to staff behind a shutter in the middle of the shop, a few of us took the opportunity to step outside. It would be wise to have a number of people on the outside as well as the inside, to ensure that nothing similar to the travesty at Fortnum and Masons took place.

By now, quite a crowd had gathered - along with a number of freelance press photographers. There was a lot of support in the crowd, much of it drummed up by students and UK Uncut members who started chants and involved people outside the bank in the action. However, there were also a lot of young kids who gathered, fascinated by what was going on, and passers-by of all ages gave thumbs up, cheers, and other brief shows of support. This only grew as people learned that the focus of the protests was the NHS.

Unfortunately, not everyone felt the same way. One man took it upon himself to storm over to the police and demand everyone's arrest. He needed to get money out at his branch, and as a result democratic rights, due process, etc, could get stuffed. It quickly became apparent that reasoning with him wasn't an option as he had a chip on his shoulder and was looking for a barney.

After getting nowhere with me, he stood outside the bank shouting at those inside, getting more irate as they laughed at him. But, to be fair, if you put on massive shades and then wear them as a chin strap when you get "serious," you're asking to be mocked. Repeatedly. Having "quiet arse" as your heckle of choice is also a guarantee of having the piss taking out of you as a complete moron. Nevertheless, he did find one person amongst the crowd of inconvenienced bank customers (most of whom were good natured about it) to sympathise with his moan that "they've made their point, so why not move on now." I quickly realised the folly of trying to explain how disruptive direct action works to them.

After two hours occupying the store, and with the branch successfully shut down, UK Uncut left the bank and briefly rallied and chanted outside before "dispersing" and hanging around the area in more informal gatherings. During this time, our heckler took it upon himself to get in the face of a young woman and have a go at her. When a couple of us intervened and got in his way, he stormed off in a sulk. Unfortunately, he didn't go that far and stood just beyond the bank with his arms crossed and a face on him like a bulldog licking piss off a thistle.

That wasn't the end of it, and a short while later an attempt was made to occupy Vodafone next door. It wasn't successful, but it did result in the police and security blocking the doors to stop people entering, thus having the same effect of shutting the shop down. After rallying here for about twenty minutes, the group made the decision to move on. NatWest was shut down, as was Vodafone. The impact had been made, and there were more targets to be found.

This prompted our heckler friend, who had returned because his need to withdraw cash had been replaced by a need to buy a phone, to start shouting "go on, get lost." But, of course, trying to make out like a huge gang of people are leaving on your say so is going to make that group stop out of principle. Unfortunately, when confronted, the anger got far too much for him and he gave the window of the shop a swift kick. Had it broken on him, I think I would have quite literally pissed myself laughing. He made a swift exit before any police came over to investigate, and advice to take anger management and calm down followed him on his hasty retreat.

I parted ways with UK Uncut soon after. However, I have since learned that as they tried to take their actions further into the City Centre they were met with heavier security. There were no arrests, but the security from Liverpool One manhandled activists and tried to provoke them into a fight whilst the police looked on. No doubt they were only ready to act if it was the protesters stepping out of line.

This only demonstrates the extent to which the actions of groups like UK Uncut pose a threat. As noted earlier, their politics are not especially radical. Their message is largely drawn from that offered by the PCS union, who have now come out in full support of the group. But their actions utilise the power of ordinary people to disrupt businesses, upset the flow of capital, and make a dent in profits simply by standing together and taking action for themselves. That, both as an idea and in action, is a dangerous concept.

It is easy to scoff at a group of largely unseasoned activists, turning the streets into a pantomime and causing a ruckus. But the fact is that they have taken off where the traditional movement hasn't. They appeal to the young and the disaffected because they take direct action and because they organise without hierarchy or formalised leadership. Moreover, they show that such an approach works.

I would certainly argue that UK Uncut has its limitations and contradictions. It would be great to see such mass direct action coupled with a clear revolutionary perspective, and a greater willingness to break the law in many instances. But these debates can be had and are being had. What's important is that those who involve themselves in actions such as today's are recognised as valuable to an escalating class struggle. Let's not marginalise or exclude them as we approach a one day strike action which has at least as many limitations and contradictions.