Monday, 2 May 2011

May Day and fighting alienation within the labour movement

Yesterday, in celebration of International Workers' Day, working class people across the globe marched and demonstrated. 10,000 people gathered in Trafalgar Square, and people marched through the streets everywhere from Germany to Iraq. In Liverpool, we saw a hint of the tensions within the labour movement that will only continue growing as the present struggles escalate.

The march itself was fairly well attended - if you consider that it hadn't been built for in the slightest. I knew about it because I had received an email. There may have been a flyer stuck up in News From Nowhere. Other people I spoke to via Twitter told me that they hadn't even heard about the march, or that they never knew enough about what was going on. There was also a rough consensus amongst activists who turned up that what attendance there was (beyond the professional left) was an accident of fate rather than down to any proficiency at organising.

That said, with the Liverpool Irish Patriots Republican Flute Band at the head and the Liverpool Socialist Singers at the back, it was a lively event. Lots of singing and chanting throughout the march as a good 400 people made their way from the Metropolitan Cathedral to Derby Square, outside the Crown Court.

However, I would say that this was about the sum of what was positive about the event. Ultimately, it was just yet another march from A to B, with a procession of speakers at the end making roughly the same noises. The year before, a collective of local activists had organised the Merseyside May Day Festival in response to exactly such a lacklustre event in 2008. It had been extremely successful, offering a carnival atmosphere and a broad variety of entertainment as well as a solidly libertarian, grassroots political content.

The trades council built for the "official" march and rally (and refused to direct people on it to attend the festival afterwards) slightly better in response, but with a year elapsed it seems that any lessons from 2010 have been quickly forgotten. The only difference is that, now, it is no longer just the anarchists and libertarian communists who are cynical and fed up to the back teeth of the bureaucracy.

With the coalition government sharply accelerating the attacks on the working class that have been ongoing for thirty years, a new resistance movement has emerged. UK Uncut, their actions far more radical than their politics, are just one aspect of this. But the point is that working class people - youth in particular - are organising for themselves and through largely non-hierarchical self-organisation injecting fresh life into the labour movement. This, of course, reignited the age-old tensions between the established bureaucracies and hierarchies and the libertarians.

When we were looking at a primarily student-based movement, this was hardly an issue. Officialdom being dominated by right-wingers detatched from class issues, and Aaron Porter being particularly inept at addressing such a dramatic shift in political climate, it was easy for the rank-and-file to chase off the bureaucrats and take the lead in their own struggles.

It wasn't so easy when the students ceased to be the primary focus, and the tired machinery of the TUC finally squeaked into pallid, listless life. The trade union bureaucracy is far more adept - and indeed has had far more practice - at putting on a "left" demeanour in order to maintain control from the top-down and as part of the "Broad Lefts" that dominate the most superficially militant unions the Trotskyist sects have their own interest in maintaining this status quo where not being in a position of power gave them the freedom to be more radial in relation to the NUS.

This is why, on May Day, the loudest voices railing against bureaucracy weren't those of overly-cynical naysayers and anarchists such as myself, but of those extremely new to activism in any sense. A lot of them being involved with UK Uncut.

It is true, as some older comrades argued on the day, that the way this was done rubbed a lot of people the wrong way.

During the march, I intervened when one older woman started shouting at a UK Uncut comrade that he should "organise your own march" if he didn't like this one. When I interjected that "he does have a point," this led to a prolonged discussion in which I was able to go someway to convincing her of the case for sidelining officialdom in favour of rank-and-file self-organisation.

At the rally, an attempt to form a breakaway (in order to occupy a Tesco, I think) almost caused a fight. Heated words were exchanged between those in favour of the action and a grouping of trade unionist/Socialist Party people, with one even trying to get a police officer to arrest the UK Uncut member with the megaphone before denying point blank that he was a grass. In the midst of which, the Socialist Workers' Party intervened by saying such a breakaway was "factionalist."

Most other people from the march were just milling about at this point. Even close up, you couldn't hear the speakers whose only amplification was from a megaphone.

What I pointed out to various comrades, however, was that a lack of skill in making critical arguments wasn't the point. Or, if it was, then not in the way being implied. The fact is that, whilst there is a significant debate over tactics and forms of organisation amongst activists at a grassroots level - particularly inspired by the strength and popularity of libertarian methods - the response of bureaucracies and leaderships to such a debate is to ignore it or marginalise it. You would expect nothing else from those whose interest lies in maintaining their own power and influence. But the point is that this also has the effect of marginalising the people making the argument.

As a demographic, anarchists are largely used to this. We've had 150 years to learn how to argue and appeal directly to the rank-and-file and put the bureaucrats in their place when they try to shout us down. You learn, after a short time, how to deal with the repercussions of being actively involved in the workers' movement at a root-and-branch level whilst outspokenly critical of top-down structures.

But as with every part of being active, this is a learned skill. So to complain that brand new activists, particularly teenagers, the unemployed, and other demographics largely ignored by the trade union movement, aren't being critical with the appropriate tact is a bit absurd. More importantly, it in no way negates the actual criticisms being made which are on the whole bang on. As someone on the establishment side of the row kindly pointed out, we weren't "around for the Poll Tax riots." This is perfectly true, but so what? Has the movement adopted a tribal "village elder" approach to leadership whilst I wasn't looking? I somehow doubt it.

The fact is that the labour movement, based upon top-down structures with a monopolisation of power at the centre leaves a lot of people with no way to get their voice heard. I've seen it in the difference between being a shop steward for Unite in a largely unorganised supermarket and a rep with PCS in a workplace with 75% union density. The workers entirely untouched by unionisation, the unemployed, and the burgeoning youth movement must feel that alienation a thousand fold. Place on top of that the fact that open debate on these issues is all but suppressed within the movement, and it is little wonder that people are reduced to impotently shouting from the sidelines.

But, in pointing their fingers at the alienated, the bureaucrats are playing the capitalist's game. The fact is that the official leadership have nobody to blame for this but themselves.

I'm not going to argue here that trade union and leftist leaders should "act differently." The issue is not with individuals but with the structures within which they operate and I have no interest in alchemy. Instead, what I will say is that this only strengthens the case for building up democratic, rank-and-file controlled networks and for shedding ourselves of the traditional hierarchies. Leadership cannot be made good - it is a lead weight upon our backs and it is long past due that we shrugged it off.

In Liverpool, a significant opportunity to step in this direction will be on offer on June 4th. Liverpool Trades Council have called a People's Assembly Against the Cuts. This will be an all-day event, from 11am-4.30pm, in the Black-E, the ostensible aim of which is to establish a proper Liverpool anti-cuts campaign, involving all of the local community campaigns that have emerged over the past year.

This will be a definite positive step, but only if it is organised on the basis of genuine democracy and mass participation. If it becomes dominated by the same old faces, like the Trades Council itself, then it will be on a hiding to nothing and quickly stagnate. I would (and will) argue in particular against any kind of central or steering committee which dictates actions from above, and for a focus on direct action and campaigning. It absolutely should not become a front for any one political organisation or a pool of activists and finances to be dipped into for dead-end electoral ventures like TUSC.

Whether whatever emerges from this conference will reflect any of this is extremely doubtful. Not least because, after a full day of "networking" and panel-led discussions, there are exactly fifteen minutes alloted for the trades council's proposal on "where next." This doesn't exactly scream democracy or mass participation.

But that needn't matter too much. If the arguments are had, and enough people turn out to add their voices in favour of a genuinely democratic campaign, then we can initiate exactly such a thing regardless of what is formally christened on the day by our dear leaders. It is long past time the alienated stopped shouting from the sidelines and the rank-and-file seized control of our struggles back from the bureaucracy.