Resisting the cuts (3): localism, legalities, loopholes, labour
‘Sites of resistance’
Before I got waylaid by other pressing matters, I had started on a series of posts trying to set out some ideas on how the left might move past the rhetoric of how important it is to resist the coalition’s cuts, and start preparing actually to resist the cuts.
The first post concerned itself with advising against the kind of action that can be comforting for the left, but which isn’t actually very effective. This includes the careful organisation of mass demonstrations, often in London, where everyone turns up on coaches, is carefully controlled by the police, waves some banners, listens to Tony Benn or some other venerable notable, and goes home again.
All this takes a lot of time, energy and money, and acts as a useful ‘safety valve’ for the government, allowing activists to let off stem/run out of energy, while the tame media either simply ignores the size of the demo, or portrays it as peopled by crazed lefties who are ‘out of touch with economic reality’, or some such.
Quite rightly, I was taken to task by Tim F and Richard B, who argued that the demonstration does have its place in the repertoire of anti-cuts activity, and I accept that I didn’t make myself as clear as I might have done.
I’m not against demonstrations themselves, as long as they are a) have an identifiable target; b) focus on a specific demand made to that target; and c) don’t take too many resources away from other activities.
As both Tim and Richard suggest, demos focused on specific towns/facilities can be effective. This is especially so if they can gain local media attention (or be part of a self-generated media effort) in a way that casts activists with a legitimate grievance rather than the ‘usual suspects’ that the national media will portray.
And as with demonstrations, so it is with all other anti-cuts action, which I’ll categorise broadly below. To be effective they have to locally appropriate.
This isn’t to say that nationally orchestrated action cannot also be developed over time, but I believe this will only come because of a groundswell of support for widening the action which is based on success, as measured by the agitants themselves, at more levels. Look at the oil refinery disputes of 2009 as a case in point.
The action spread across the country because East Lindsey workers took specifically targeted action, and appeared to be on the road to success. Success breeds success.
So while I know where Bob Crow is coming from is in his call for a general strike, I think we have to be realistic about our resources and current strength, and fight battles on a realistic scale. If they spread, they spread. If they don’t, the battles can stay local.
But what, in the end, does ‘battle’ or ‘struggle’ mean. What will we do, other than write to the papers and organise demonstrations?
It might be helpful to categorise them, in rough ascending order of ‘militancy’ a) legal and civic challenge b) civil disobedience c) strike action. Here’s the kind of thing they might then be.
a) Legal and civic challenge
There has long been a discussion on the left about the validity of recourse to law; there is a feeling amongst some that because the legal system is part of the problem of capitalism in the first place, it is wrong to engage with it on its own terms. This feeling is likely to be even stronger in the light of recent judgments by the courts on the BA Strike.
My view, however, is that legal challenge on cuts is not just both valid enough in itself – sometimes we win and victories are important, however garnered – but because they can create other ‘sites of resistance’ through which to raise public anger.
There are plenty of examples of this in recent history, including the legal challenge brought by Southall Black Sisters, and the more recent challenges brought in Portsmouth and Barnet over wardens in sheltered accommodation. Current possibilities include the invocation through the courts of The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in defence of services combatting violence against women, a first ‘cut area’ for the Tories.
Here is not the place to go into what services/funding we might be seeking to defend in this way. The point is that for the most part the challenge itself will be brought by service user groups and voluntary sector groupings focused on delivering specific services, not leftwing organisations and trade unions. The job of the latter is not to bring the actions, but to work with the sectoral/service organisations to help make them into these ‘site of resistance’ – usually through specific demo, but through sit-ins and other actions as necessary.
This in turn needs early co-ordination through the kind of overarching ‘cuts coalition’ that is being advocated and organised in London boroughs (see also below on the Labour party’s role in all this).
Other possible areas of action might lie, for example, around legal challenge to reduce public sector terms and conditions and, in time, to private pension funds (proposed rule changes to lower benefits), with the added input of pickets/demos at implicated pension fund offices etc., where trustees/directors will be taking the relevant decisions.
But of course the law is against us for the most part, and it’s also important to look at the way in which legal challenge coming in the other direction – against those resisting cuts/standing up for their jobs – might also be used as a ‘site of resistance’.
There are two main areas where the law might be used against us. First and foremost, of course, is the already draconian anti-union legislation, which it would appear the government is seeking, behind closed doors for the time being, to tighten further.
There can be little doubt that there will be a good deal of use of the legislation around balloting, as used recently by BA, to disrupt strike action.
While this may in time backfire on government as workers turn to more radical wildcat actions – a more spontaneous development that I won’t cover here – we need also to plan the kind of specific targeted response that we might undertake in response to such tactics.
This might include, for example, picketing (sit ins?) of legal offices used to bring these legal measures before the courts, as well as demonstrations about the specific injustices brought by biased courts using biased legislation (with concomitant pressure on a new Labour leadership to commit to repeal of anti-union legislation).
More obscurely at the moment, but perhaps as important as time goes on, is the plethora of legal issues around resisting cuts in local government, and again the need to use whatever is happening to create ‘sites of resistance’ in public spaces. These are the opportunities that arise from what I refer to as ‘civic challenge’.
While the complications of civic challenge and associated public resistance merit a blogpost in their own right, they include:
a) support for measures taken by Labour/left councillors in control of councillors who are prepared (perhaps at the instigation of local parties/labour movements in the first place) to move towards ‘transcation-ceasing’ Section 114 notices from their Chief Finance Officers, in their determination not to cut services and jobs. Differing levels of reserves within councils will mean this will happen in different years (and in general not in 2011-12), but the popular connections with the local government struggles of the 1980s (especially Liverpool) will mean that these are high-profile issues, for which elected bodies and their supporters must prepare well in advance, seeking to avoid the ‘isolation’ mistakes of Militant, and create broader phalanxes of support for what are, ultimately, personal decision about whether to risk surcharge and, ultimately, prison.
b) the threats and opportunities offered by the Coalition’s planned Powers of General Competence, about which I have written a great deal on this blog. While I have focused on the threat to (often statutory) services and their jobs brought by this proposed legal change, it also brings with it opportunities for resistance focused on the legal bias inherent in the legislation in addition to the services themselves, and specific targets for action (as above) in this regard. In addition, thought needs to be given early on how the legislation, which effectively allows councils to override other primary legislation, might be ‘hi-jacked’ for our own purposes, for example by local Labour councils allowing themselves to take on debt in order to keep jobs/services, in a way which lies outwith current powers of local government, but would arguably – and the argument becomes a site of public resistance – would then lie within it.
b) Civil disobedience
Perhaps an example or two of what I mean by civil disobedience (as ‘site of resistance’) might help.
One specific step to resist the draconian cut to welfare services might, for example, might be to identify specifically at what point the computer is ‘asked’ to deduct 10% from housing benefit from people who have been on JobSeekers Allowance for a year, and to ensure that ‘the computer’ does not act in this way, via union instruction that this will simply not be happening.
Similarly, we might want to identify precisely where the examinations for people on Disability Allowance that the government is intent on forcing into jobs that don’t exist, and making our feelings known that these examinations shouldn’t be taking place.
While the rules of civil engagement with workers who may not realise the extent to which they are in cahoots with the coalition’s plans, I personally have no problem with getting very specific and targeted in what might be described as the guerilla tactics of the resistance, but which also need to be brought to public attention (and may be more newsworthy for the fact that they are quite ‘strange’ targets for militancy).
These are just two examples, both focused on welfare cuts. Other sites of resistance may lie around refusal to sign of the end of ‘outsourced’ contracts where this leads to job loss, for example, and will depend on union understanding of the specific of the sector, as well as a willingness to support the workers involved in actions through whatever measures become necessary.
The key point though is the development of links between civic disobedience and other types of resistance action.
c) Strike Action
I’m not going to pretend to know what it takes to organise strike action. The last one I led was in 1988, when the world was much simpler for unions, and while it’s obviously THE key to successful resistance in the end, I won’t cover it in detail here.
Unions will need to develop their own strategies for ratcheting up strike action while retaining a sense of possible victory, and for maximising links with support organisations.
The important thing in general, though, is that we should try to use strike action as part of a whole ‘menu’ of resistance actions, as I have sought to set out above, and that we resist the temptation to go too early for ‘all or nothing’ strikes. As I’ve said above, this is not the 1980s in terms of union capabilities, and we have to be realisitc about resources, while seeking to create an enviornment in which local actions can spread spontaneously and with innovation.
The Labour party in all this?
(Edit: Kate’s comments at #2 below make clear that this section is undercooked and doesn’t do justice to the importance of appropriately humble Labour party involvement. This is my fault for trying to finish the piece too quickly rather than devote a full follow on post to the matter. Please see Kate’s comment and my response at #3.)
I’m a loyal Labour party member, so it’s appropriate to ask: ‘Where does the Labour party fit into all this, given its failure to fit with any of it for the last thirty years, and its leadership’s betrayal of the labour movement in the early 1980s, the last time we were in this kind of situation.
Well, I think the simple answer is that the Labour party shouldn’t be seeking to lead the resistance against the cuts, whatever our leadership candidates tell us about how important it is that we should do. For most of them, I suspect, resistance means signing a petition against the cuts (though credit enought to Ed Balls on the BSF parliament demo on the 19th July, at least).
I think Justin Baidoo is absolutely right when he says local Labour parties shoudn’t get above themselves when it comes to being part of a resistance movement. They should be offering support to more experienced campaigners (recognising of course that there will be many experienced campaigners who also happen to be (frustrated) members of the Labour party).
Many local Labour parties could do worse than start by agreeing the following kind of motion at their next CLP meeting:
That this CLP invite the [local] ‘Coalition Against Cuts’ convenor organiser, or relevant trade union branch officers, to the next meeting to hear what plans are emerging to resists cuts at a grassroots level, and to offer whatever support the CLP is able to provide.
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