Friday, 19 August 2011

Some notes on Party Conference season

Party Conference season will soon be upon us. Each political party, particularly the "big three," will be jostling for headlines as they make policy pronouncements and set out their visions for Britain. At the same time, huge numbers of people will be taking to the streets - in opposition to the reality these pronouncements create for working class people.

The big one, of course, is the Tory Party Conference. Starting on Sunday 2nd October in Manchester, it will be met by a march and rally called by the Trades Union Conference - with others such as the SWP's Right to Work Campaign and PCS also throwing their weight behind it. At yesterday's meeting of Liverpool Against The Cuts, those present decided on two weekends of leafleting and a public meeting as a way of building towards it through September. No doubt, similar arrangements are being made across the country.

Before that, the Liberal Democrats are opening their conference in Birmingham on 17th September. There, threats of a similar demonstration have prompted the announcement that the event would be protected by a "ring of steel." The same thing happened at last year's Tory Conference in the city, and no doubt this will provide a handy benchmark for police responses to potential disorder.

In the wake of March 26th and previous demonstrations at the beginning of the year, and particularly following the recent rioting, we will no doubt be seeing David Cameron's "fight back" in action. Indeed, as a comrade put it yesterday, "water cannons are useless against the small groups we see in riot situations - they are designed for use against mass movements." There should be no illusions that there will be far more potential for the use of water cannons, plastic bullets, and indiscriminate force against an ongoing protest movement than against the kind of civil unrest which flares up much more spontaneously and much less predictably.

As such, my opinion is that anyone going on these demonstrations would be to take heed of those tactics which have worked in evading repression - from the shields offered by the "book bloc" to the innovative use of Google maps to evade kettling. Of course, having no desire to share the fate of the two lads jailed for four years for nothing more than chatting shit on Facebook, I will point out that I am concerned with people avoiding injury at the hands of the police and do not advocate starting riots.

Beyond the practical concern of how such events will be policed and staying safe, there is a question of what we will get out of them. I am, of course, sceptical of the idea that we might give those attending the conferences much pause for thought. Even if "lobbying" the Lib Dems were able to "split the coalition," this would be at best a temporary reprieve. The machinery of capitalism doesn't rest on any single political party and simply shifting around the faces in parliament will not stop the cuts. Likewise, with heavy policing likely to cut the demonstrations off from the mythical creature known as the "general public," any propaganda effort will largely just see leaflets and newspapers changing hands amongst the left.

But, equally, it would not do for there to simply be no response to the conferences taking place. Despite the limitations - and the boredom factor when we get down to the matter of bureaucrats on a platform - what it does do is provide a visible point of dissent against the government. The propaganda effort will not be entirely wasted, especially if in building for the demo people who have never been to such events are persuaded to come along.

There is also the point that, away from the proclamations and piss-poor politics of the official leadership, there is a real opportunity to build links with both the youth discontent and community organisation that has come to the fore of late. Whilst most of the left has taken the typical, "we must play a leading role" line, there has been more constructive engagement at a grassroots level by many others. On that basis, making an explicit link to the movement against austerity would not only be a potent way of building the movement but also of re-empowering the rank-and-file against the officialdom which has re-asserted itself since street protests and momentum have slowed.

At these protests, we are neither going to see the government pause for thought on the strength of our arguments nor a revolution break out on the back of a mass of people deviating from the official route. But what we do have is a clear landmark as we continue to build and organise from the ground up. The importance of that landmark hangs on how well we take advantage of it.