Thursday, 14 July 2011

The founding meeting of Liverpool Against The Cuts

Last night, very belatedly, the meeting to establish Liverpool Against The Cuts took place. 85 people attended this initial meeting, in the Unite offices in Liverpool City Centre. There are still a number of questions and concerns, not least the role of the Trades Council within the group. But overall the meeting closed with the potential for positive and productive action.

Image by Graeme Lamb, from last month's Liverpool People's Assembly Against Cuts
The establishment of a group such as Liverpool Against The Cuts is long overdue. It was almost straight away after the new government took office that most cities established umbrella groups to coordinate between different campaigns, and Liverpool has lagged behind significantly. The recent Liverpool People's Assembly Against Cuts offered the best opportunity to set up such a campaign thus far, but it was a massive missed opportunity.

Part of the reason for this was that Liverpool Trades Council appeared to view itself as being the coordinating body that Liverpool Against The Cuts has been established as. The only concrete proposal voted on at the meeting, after a day-long talking shop, was that people affiliate to the Trades Council. Even when the proposal was moved at their subsequent meeting that a campaign be set up, it referred to the Trades Council as "acting as an umbrella group" for anti-cuts action. Others have repeatedly stated its "central role" in fighting the cuts, which those of us who took part in the student demonstrations and UK Uncut direct actions which ignited the anti-cuts movement may contest.

But then, this is reflective of the struggle against the cuts more broadly. The student movement was characterised by a rejection of bureaucracy, culminating in Aaron Porter being chased away from the march in Manchester. By contrast, when the NUS gratefully handed the reigns of official leadership to the trade union hierarchies, the goal was to re-assert that top-down control.

We can see how the trade union leaders and the left view the world - UK Uncut are welcomed as an inventive form of protest and the students deserve thanks for taking the first steps. But these people are reduced to the role of "supporter." Now it's time for the trade unions to do the real work of blustering rhetoric and limited, set-piece strikes. See John McInaly in the Socialist, juxtaposing "demonstrations, peaceful direct action, building the anti-cuts movements in our communities and all other forms of campaigning" with "widespread, coordinated industrial action" which is "the key to defeating the coalition." Not entirely true, especially given that the working class can still exercise economic power outside the workplace, and that a significant majority of workers remain unorganised.

But what has been learned is difficult to unlearn and those pesky libertarian ideas continue to flourish and to appeal to new activists and militants. Thus we see unions like PCS supporting the actions of UK Uncut and Leninist parties engaging in debate with anarchists.

In keeping with this, it was positive to see that some of the points about open, democratic organising that I and others had long been banging on about were in practice. In particular, that the two key documents at the heart of Liverpool Against The Cuts - the policy statement and the structure - were presented as initial drafts, open to amendments from the floor. Even more heartening was that there was very little in there that needed to be revised.

The discussion was, by and large, comradely and constructive. With notable exceptions, the meeting didn't consist of long and largely pointless speeches but of concrete proposals and keen discussion on how we link up different campaigns and disputes. It could be argued that those present tried to cover far too much ground in one go, but this is understandable given how new the organisation is. Nonetheless, with a number of organisations already affiliated and the potential for considerable growth, Liverpool Against The Cuts is definitely off to a good start.

The only real bone of contention in the meeting came when structure was debated. On the whole, it was agreeable: monthly mass meetings would serve as the sovereign decision-making body of the group, whilst a steering committee comprised of delegates from each community organisation, political organisation, and trade union branch would be responsible for the administration.

However, as part of the proposed structure, the steering committee also contained the entire Liverpool Trades Council executive. I moved to amend this, arguing that the Trades Council should have one delegate as every other organisation. Although they had set the meeting in motion, the whole point of the group was that it was an independent organisation established to coordinate anti-cuts activity, of which the Trades Council was just one element. By having their full executive at the centre, and thus leaving them with the chair and secretarial role, Liverpool Against The Cuts becomes simply Liverpool Trades Council with bits tacked on. That should not be the case.

This provoked a number of people - including a disproportionate number of Socialist Party members - to speak out in opposition. Their reasoning, the "central role" argument mentioned above, was disingenuous. Tony Mulhearn suggested that if the Trades Council acted in a way that people weren't happy with (which was apparently no risk on the sole basis that they had a "no cuts" policy), there were enough comrades who would take them to task. An ironic statement to say the least from a prominent member of the party which seized control of the National Shop Stewards Network and hijacked its agenda. There were also comments about the group "needing structure," as though without the Trades Council at its core a committee of delegates would just be an uncoordinated rabble who would soon resort to flinging their own shit at one another. But then, you can never underestimate how little credit Leninists give the working class to act of our own accord.

There were some dissenting voices, including the members of UK Uncut present and a younger member of the Socialist Workers Party who spoke out against the idea that the people in the room were the leadership rather than just a coordinating body. A comrade from the Anarchist Federation also spoke against the paternalistic presumptions that came with the argument for the Trades Council executive providing "focus" at the centre of the organisation.

Ultimately, the amendment fell at the vote, and I was disappointed by that. However, as hurdles go it is not one that cannot be overcome. There is still plenty of scope for positive activity and barring that one disagreement Liverpool Against The Cuts' structure is open, democratic and broad-based. If the attendance yesterday is anything to go by, it is also one that is beginning to pull in those beyond the professional left. The next meeting will be on Thursday 18th August, and there is plenty of activity in the interim, so we shall soon know the direction that the campaign is heading.