Thursday, 8 September 2011

The NHS and a vigil for the trade union movement

Last night, at its third reading, MPs passed the Health and Social Care Bill. We now face the prospect, after the bill goes through the House of Lords, of the NHS's destruction. This in itself is a worrying prospect - but the news becomes all the more dire when you consider the kind of opposition that it was met with. If the NHS dies, it may well take the trade union movement with it.

Over a thousand people came together to take pictures of themselves with candles. Several hundred people lit candles for a demonstration as the vote went ahead. In the aftermath, voters are being urged to "adopt a peer" in the hope of swaying the Lords debate. But where the student protests at the end of last year shook everyone from their slumber and injected new life into a movement that was dead on its feet, it seems as though the TUC has already succeeded in laying the spectre of militancy to rest once more and we can return to the ritual dance of mourning attacks on the working class rather than standing against them.

Across the country, local campaigners are working tirelessly to bring the issue of the NHS to public attention and pull the fear and anger that it evokes together to make a movement. But that is not happening, as evidenced not only by the minimal attention and numbers that yesterday's (woefully inadequate) actions drew, but also because the large set-piece demonstration against the Tory Party Conference on 2nd October has received far more promotion than the TUC's candelabra offensive.*

It is hard to know how to remedy this problem. At the end of last month, I made the point very explicitly that only direct action can win this fight. The working class needs to flex its muscles in the form of strikes, occupations, and economic blockades in order to hurt those who are attacking us and force them to back off. As the argument has been made in a more general context, "our society is not a debating chamber, but a power struggle between different groups with competing interests." To assert our interests, we have to shift the balance of power in our favour.

Which is all well and good, in the abstract. But as liberals and leftists are fond of pointing out, it is the mainstream organs of protest and "the left" such as the TUC, the unions, and the innumerable Trotskyist front-groups who wield enough influence to draw the numbers. This is by no means a credible argument for simply ditching radical politics and sullenly trudging along with the social-democratic flow, but it does show us how far we have to push. In Spain, the anarcho-syndicalist CNT can rally huge demonstrations populated only by those willing to stand under red-and-black flags. In Britain, anarchists in most cities number in the tens and we would need a national mobilisation in order to render an all-anarcho protest march over a thousand strong.

Against such steep odds, how do we combat the long and painful decline of the workers' movement? More importantly, in doing so, how do we bring the libertarian, militant, direct action tendencies to prominence over the authoritarian, parliamentary, and legalistic ones?

The long answer is that we build the rank-and-file. Only by organising on the ground so that workers gain the confidence to act for themselves rather than looking to representatives to act for them can we hope to see any significant breakthrough. But whilst playing the long game, we also need to be very mindful of the present. Private power is rubbing its hands with glee at the "huge opportunities" that this bill affords it, and the fact that the TUC is content with candles whilst the radical left is incredibly small doesn't change the fact that we have a fight on our hands.

Whilst chipping away in the longer term, we need to make sure we stay very visible in the present struggles. As a movement, anarchists already are - in defiance of press stereotypes, we can be found on picket lines, in anti-cuts meetings, and organising in communities and workplaces far more often than we can be found smashing windows. But the ideas we promote are starting to permeate to, from the more obvious examples such as The Sparks to more subtle things like union officials looking over their shoulders to insist that such-and-such an action is not "top down" more often than they were in the past. This isn't a conscious thing, with ranks of people openly declaring themselves anarchists (though both the Anarchist Federation and Solidarity Federation are reporting an upswing in membership enquiries) but it is a sign that more people recognise the struggle we're in and how ill-equipped the TUC and its like are for naked class warfare.

State and capital have won the fight over the NHS. It's sobering to think that they did so without even the ferocious resistance that they saw over the fees issue. The trade union movement may have been standing vigil for itself alongside universal healthcare. The question now is whether we can raise up something more militant and radical in its stead, or whether we will be buried alive under its corpse by The Left.

As an aside, DSG has an interesting article on the phenomenon of "fixture demonstrations," looking at the recent anti-EDL demo in Tower Hamlets.