Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Whither the anti-cuts movement?

Something of a spat is beginning to emerge between Youth Fight For Jobs (YFJ) and the National Campaign Against Fees And Cuts (NCAFC). It is, on the face of it, little more than a squabble between the front groups of various would-be revolutionary leaderships of the working class. But it also invites questions about how far we have to go to build a serious resistance to austerity in Britain.

The issue has arisen because NCAFC have called a national demonstration against the privatisation of education on November 9th. YFJ responded to this by accusing NCAFC and the Education Activist Network (EAN) of "try[ing] to divide the resistance." They are holding a demonstration four days earlier to mark the end of their re-enactment of the 1936 Jarrow Crusade, and feel that "one demonstration on 5 November that all activists can build for at the start of the new term" would be the preferable option. As far as I'm aware, there has been no response from NCAFC or EAN.

The sectarian nature of this dispute becomes clear when you realise that YFJ is a Socialist Party front, NCAFC an Alliance for Workers' Liberty one, and EAN the Socialist Workers Party. Clearly, with the latter two deciding to take the lead on a revived campaign of student protest, the SP is worried that its Jarrow March will be overshadowed and its claim to "leadership" of the movement undermined. Not least because NCAFC does have a genuine grassroots base and EAN is fronted by the leftist sect best at self-promotion, whilst YFJ is made up almost exclusively of SP members - along with some PCS Left Unity and Young Members Network activists dragged into its orbit for good measure due to the party's domination of the union through those elements.

Here, I would reiterate a point I have made previously about why left unity is a noose around the neck of class unity and class struggle.

However, it also shows how quickly the so-called revolutionary leadership adopts the conservatism of the official bureaucracy. Last year, the student movement ignited the movement against austerity with a series of demonstrations in quick succession - the two on November 25th and 30th mirroring the gap between the two coming demonstrations - with innumerable occupations serving as exclamation points in the struggle. This year, all of that momentum has collapsed under the stewardship of the TUC, to the point where having two demos in quick succession (and not even on the same specific issue) is seen as potentially divisive.

It seems that the left has learned nothing from experience. Last year, whilst the students binned their official leadership in order to take the struggle forward, trade unionists lobbied the TUC to ask them to call a demonstration. The result was March 26th. Though it attracted at least half-a-million people, it was still a passive protest march, called five months in advance. And the TUC still tried to demobilise it once they realised it had the potential to be far more radical than they anticipated, and refused to follow it up once it was over. They had nothing to do with the coordinated strike action on June 30th and have been all but invisible as the struggle has escalated. Yet, still, the National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) - another SP front - is going for a repeat in September by lobbying the TUC to "call a one-day strike of all public sector unions as the next step in this struggle."

If it acts with the same speed as it did last time, the TUC will see this "next step" taking place sometime around March 2012. Clearly, this is far too late. But the likelihood is that it won't even do that, since it is not about to break the law in order to appease leftists. Such a strike would have to come about by getting Unison and Unite to enter the fray by balloting their members. With Unison already trying to delay such action until next year, clearly energy would be better spent agitating within that union than on ineffectual lobbies of the TUC.

Then there is a question of where we want such agitation to go. Yes, rank-and-file pressure will force leaderships into action where they cannot contain or ignore the anger and will to fight, but there will always be a limit to what that pressure can get. That we know the TUC and individual union executives will never step outside the bounds of the law is one key example of this. By the same token, because the various would-be vanguards of the working class depend upon the illusion of leadership in order to keep rank-and-file workers open to the idea of their leadership, they adopt the same limitations as their own.

In contrast to this, what we need is to build a rank-and-file confident in its own strength and ability to organise. This is not an easy task by any means, and there is an awful lot to do just in laying the ground work for such a thing. But only in doing so can we ensure both that leaders are pressured into actions by class anger and, once we meet the limitations of such pressure, we can push beyond it and act of our own initiative.

Another key element of this is realising that we struggle as a class, rather than as employed workers within any one sector. The protests on January 29th showed the contradictions that exist between the trade union and student movements. At that point, the rank-and-file of the student movement had torn away from the official leadership whereas the TU movement was much more dominated by the bureaucrats. The TU movement also had an extremely condescending attitude to any section of the working class unable to take strike action, and since it took the reigns (so to speak) of anti-cuts protests has increased alienation and ground out most of the momentum. Returning to the supposedly conflicting protests in November, YFJ demanding that the students tag their issue onto the union-oriented protest only compounds this problem.

A bottom-up movement without any such employment bias would be better placed to embrace the kind of direct action tactics necessary to beat the cuts. With strikes, there is a need to go beyond one-day set pieces with wildcat actions, rolling strikes, and ultimately indefinite walk-outs. But we also need economic blockades and occupations in order to generalise the resistance across the working class and bring about the only thing that will make the government back down: making the country ungovernable.

But if we're still at the stage where even having more than one passive demonstration within a week provokes consternation, we're clearly a long way from that point. The case for building a rank-and-file movement and rejecting the reformist conservatism of the left has never been more urgent.