This government must be broken in two by concerted, massive and uncompromising strike action. Anyone who says differently is a do-nothing, who wants to stand around bloviating instead of actually getting behind the one tactic which can stop the cuts. Even those people who are electoralists – i.e. Labour Party types – can’t argue with this. We’re not likely to see an election until 2015, according to Cameron and Clegg, so it’s up to the activists.
Even those who argue that we can’t oppose the cuts wholesale and can only separate out individual cuts can’t argue with the pension campaigns. The teachers and civil servants pension funds were both many millions in the black. The government decided to rob these funds, and to force teachers and other public servants to work longer, get less and pay more for what they got, when there was absolutely zero justification to do so, however the Tories spin it. More than that though, the working class doesn’t operate on legalistic principles – there’s no argument that since we’re striking about pensions, that’s all we care about. The battle lines are legion; the slicing up of the NHS, privatisation elsewhere, lowering taxes on the rich while screwing the poor, rising class sizes and falling child care facilities, not to mention massive unemployment spurred on by the Tory budgets.
Unions like Unite and Unison opted to stand aside from the dispute, after the N30 strikes, leaving PCS at the core of a group of unions the best activists of which not only want to organise their own unions but want to throw down the gauntlet to Len McCluskey, Dave Prentis, Brendan Barber and the other backsliders. Our activists and the activists in those unions which have not opted for more coordinated strikes will work together, under the banner of the National Shop Stewards Network, to force those unions to act in the interests of their members – which in the immediate dispute are not served by the Heads of Agreement to which Prentis and Barber and co wanted to sign up, and which in the medium term will never be served by a Tory government, whatever their window dressing.
That group of fighting unions just got bigger, with the National Union of Teachers and the NASUWT both voting for more concerted strikes. This will be a massive boost to the morale and resolve of the NSSN ahead of their national conference on 9th June. There will be deep debates as to how best to ensure first that we get good turnout on the days, and second that we park deep in the massive unions like Unite and Unison our iron determination to continue to fight, a determination we believe many of the members there either share already or would share if they had a trustworthy leadership and were presented with an alternative to simply accepting the cuts as fait accompli.
As a member of my PCS branch, I’ll be looking to get delegated to the NSSN conference and so should you. The more union branches represented there, the more thorough any discussion is likely to be. I’m also fighting to get cooperation from other unions in the place where I work, with joint meetings and real discussions about how best they can support us when we’re on strike and what they can expect from us in return, in their own disputes which management, which are many. I’ll be trumpeting the NUT and NASUWT vote to buoy up morale amongst PCS members.
As a member of the Socialist Party, I’ll be on the streets of Canterbury fighting to get the wider working class involved. I’ll be lobbying the Canterbury and Dover & Folkestone Trades Councils to organise joint public demonstrations and to build for them, rather than simply announcing the strikes and activities and expecting members to turn up as so many of the most bureaucratic union leaders do – a tactic which leaves the unions looking weak and which often confirms those union leaders’ own insecurities about what support they have behind them.
That is something that needs addressed on every level; email lists are far from enough engagement with members – and the reliance on those email lists or one-off face to face activities to instill in our colleagues and comrades the political education to match their instincts is simply not acceptable.
Thursday and Friday’s Days of Action in Canterbury and Gravesend, which Kent Socialist Party organised with Youth Fight for Jobs, suggested to me that though things looked a little wobbly just recently, fightback 2o12 is far from dispensed with, such are the levels of anger with this government. The NUT and NASUWT votes confirm it. All socialists must now play their role as leaders of their communities, of their workplaces and unions and of their class, and push for joint action, exerting maximum pressure to get our allies in Unison and Unite back into the fight. Hopefully the few comrades still in Labour know that and are ready for it.
I tend not to take much interest in paid lobbyists, regarding them as verminous scum. Still, when people I talk to on stalls mention something, I take an interest and it just so happened yesterday that one ex-Lib Dem (left because of leadership treason) brought up the subject of Lord Bell’s “attack” on lobbyists.
Apparently the ex-owner of Bell Pottinger made a speech the other day in which he admitted that they were “a lightning rod for mistrust”. It says something about the type of wet drips who join the Lib-Dems that this guy thought Lord Bell was making an attack on his own profession; far from it. He was in full throated defence.
“The fact remains that, taking on a client good or bad, it is our reputation at stake,” says Bell, and “everybody has the right to representation”. Defending Bell Pottinger’s PR work for the repressive dictatorship of Belarus, Bell says that “Good PR needs substance”, intimating that his firm only held up real good things that were happening there.
Let’s deconstruct this a bit. Not everybody has the right to representation; only those who can pay have the right to representation. Hence it’s the dictatorship of Belarus and not its starved, oppressed people who hired Bell Pottinger. Likewise, it’s capitalist firms and not their workers who hire PR firms, political “leaders” and not activists and so on.
The essence of paid political lobbying is the elevation of those who exist at points where money is concentrated – i.e. the already institutionally powerful and wealthy. So the whole edifice is biased from the beginning. More than that, whilst lobbyists don’t have to lie, the nature of their job is to distort the truth, holding up the good things and explaining away the bad things. Amusingly, Lord Bell actually gets indignant over Belarus, “No attempt was made to understand what we were doing”. Quite the opposite; surely the problem was that everyone knew precisely what Bell Pottinger were doing?
Asked why he thought he was being attacked, Lord Bell’s giant ego moved to obscure the sunlight;
I have absolutely no idea. I think I’m absolutely lovely. But some people don’t think I am, so they attack me. The answer is because I’m at the top of the tree. I say that immodestly, I’m somewhere near the top of the tree and I have been for some time. Tall poppy syndrome applies to our industry the same as everything else. What’s the point of attacking somebody nobody’s ever heard of? It’s much more fun to attack me, or the Saatchi brothers, or Matthew Freud, or Max Clifford. Attack somebody who’s visible.
Attacking somebody who’s visible…and supports murderous dictatorships, oppressive Thatcherite governments and the like, perhaps?
There’s a nugget in all of this which shows that paid lobbying is not to blame for the ills of our political system. There are parallels which exist between people like Lord Bell (i.e. smug rich arseholes) and, say, David Cameron. They occupy a similar ideological universe.
Bell seems to suggest a democracy of the marketplace with his “everyone has the right to representation” spiel. This is hardly different to the Tory equation of corporate donations to their party with union donations to the Labour Party.
Both stories are about attempts to buy power by interest groups. Both treat potential funders as individuals, the better to make all potential funders look like equals and obscure the very real differences in wealth, power and numbers.
The Bell/Cameron model favours small cliques who can more easily use wealth and power over mass organisations of millions (e.g. the people of Belarus or the 7 million workers in unions). Implying any equivalence is ridiculous. Numerous figures in the Labour heirarchy are no strangers to this model, nor are the Lib-Dems. And this is my point. It is natural for them to think this way, to favour the wealthy and still see some balance in their views.
It doesn’t require lobbying. It simply requires that we workers lie down and take it, over and over and over again.
I note with grim bemusement some of the opinions coming out of this blog in recent weeks as regards potential operations in Syria, and the rather shocking attitude of Carl to people he believes hold principles that forbid military intervention in another nation. A deeply disturbing thesis, he calls these principles. Well, I for one disagree. I’m against any attack on Syria by any government.
Western governments cannot be trusted with a gun in their hand, period. It has nothing to do with the possible creation of safe zones, the potential for the Syrian people to rise up if they get Western help or their fate if they don’t. If you put guns in the hands of a movement which is not led by the independent organisations of the working class then, as in Libya, you invite disaster.
This disaster comes in the re-emergence of whatever social roots the criminal dictatorship can rely on, and it comes in the rise of racial, ethnic and tribal tensions. Separatism, as might be emerging some Libyan regions (not forgetting that this country was created by the West), becomes the focus of politics, as it attempts to bury the class struggle that must be waged against the privatisation which Gaddafi had come around to, and which the TNC will support.
If you think this is all abstract Marxist theorising, rather than being based on real events, look at the demands emanating from the local elites in Benghazi regarding Libya’s oil. Look at the details Amnesty International have of the looting of Black Libyan areas by the rebels. And I need not even mention how ethnic, racial and religious tensions became real with a vengeance in Iraq.
When socialists reproach pro-interventionists for listening to propaganda regarding the brutality of Bashar al-Assad, they’re not challenging the veracity of the stories. They’re challenging Western media emphasis on them, and the selection of these particular evils out of a whole world full of torture, oppression and misrule. Pro-interventionists aren’t being sufficiently critical in their approach to such evils. And they plainly haven’t learned the lessons of Western intervention elsewhere.
That lesson is an abject one in total hypocrisy. Concern for the victims of Assad now becomes indifference towards the victims of the Western militaries (and their less politically correct allies) and outright enmity towards those of divergent political aims. To foist such “help” upon the brave civilians who are standing up to Assad is absolute lunacy.
In the end, intervention is not an abstract instrumental question, it is a political one. The reckoning between the people of Syria and the dictatorship will not remain within those narrow parameters because of this. Eleven months into the uprising, the rebels have not been subdued. In fact, if reports are to be believed, Assad is using foreign hired guns to do what he dare not ask the army rank and file to do. Meanwhile the rebels must bring the rest of Damascus over to them – the stirrings of revolution.
Western intervention would almost certainly halt that – and may even result in some accommodation with the regime, after the removal of Assad. How is that justice for the thousands who have died?
These rebellions across the Middle East are not accidental or spontaneous. Dictators who have paid for their rule with oil wealth and relatively good living conditions are being hit by the global economic crisis. People are coming out into the streets not just to demand political freedom but to demand more from regimes that one by one succumbed to the depredations of market capitalism. The other capitalist nations will be more than happy to grant the former if they can forestall demands regarding the latter.
The sort of people the foreign powers are willing to deploy, to shut up the Syrian populace and prevent any further spread of the Arab Spring, is deeply telling however. Up until just this month, head of the Arab League observer mission was Mustafa al-Dabi, the Sudanese military official in post in Darfur whilst the genocide was going on. When the Western nations intervene, or the Arab League intervenes, the purpose will not be to limit civilian deaths, it will be to achieve an outcome satisfactory to those governments.
Moreover, looking at the sort of people likely to attempt to take control of Syria. Another unelected unaccountable trigger-happy transitional authority will simply release the same pressures as it released in Libya – and will thereafter pursue the same policies as Assad, perhaps resulting in worse casualties should any region or ethnic group dare to assert its separatist demands. By the time that happens, we’ll be lucky if there’s a Western media presence never mind a military presence.
Unlike Egypt, but like Libya, the Syrian people have started this with a handicap. They don’t have independent organisations of the working class. But they must develop them. The most we can do is hope on their behalf, and pressure our own governments to both stay aloof and to oppose Arab League intervention. That is not as satisfying perhaps as demanding the immediate bombing of every Syrian military installation in range of the 5th fleet, but that demand is not a solution to the problem – it complicates it. Meanwhile trust the Syrians to feel their way towards the right path. Assad’s continuing trickle of concessions are the surest sign that they will get there.
Meanwhile I wonder if the anti-war movement should be gearing up to oppose military intervention in a conflict closer to home, as it were, as the tension ratchets up over the Falklands again. I’m sure we’ll be hearing all the pro-interventionist piffle about democracy and self-determination on behalf of the islanders, should Argentina invade. As with Belgium in World War I, it is so much hypocritical twaddle in the mouths of capitalist leaders.
Which neatly brings me back to the deeply disturbing thesis. The capitalist state cannot be trusted to wield the military. Capitalist leaders, in their comfortable London drawing rooms, cannot be trusted to put the welfare of people in front of business when there are no lives at stake – why should they be trusted to put the welfare of people in front of what they consider to be the national interest when there are? Hands off Iran, Hands off Syria, Hands off the Falklands and while you’re at it, Hands off the NHS.
This is not a far left rant intimating that, in the aftermath of some successful industrial action, we’re ready to seize control of the country. We’ve achieved a little. Paul is right when he suggests that a lot of people will come away feeling buzzed by the mood of the marches, demonstrations and conversations on that day. I certainly went back to work the next day feeling like we had made our point.
Paul is also right when he suggests that there’s plenty more to do. There are concerns even more pressing than his particular objections to protesting and marching ad infinitum, or at least til the momentum has worn away as in the anti-war and anti-top up fees campaigns. Succinctly; we need to wrest control of the movement before we’re all bored to death by mid-level union bureaucrats.
Tory Canterbury answered the call to strike with fair aplomb. Somewhere around two hundred and fifty people met at a local hotel to hear union representatives from NUT, ATL, PCS and GMB speak. UCU and UNISON were also in marked attendance. As the pickets from around the city began to come in, this number swelled until there were some five hundred people either marching or milling at the Dane Jon.
Without intending to give offence to the speakers from the above-mentioned unions, however, having a captive audience for a full hour, they managed to lecture us all in hesitant style about why we were on strike. As I said afterwards, and several random people within earshot agreed, we don’t need to talk about why we’re there. We need to be talking about next steps – and a hall filled to bursting with the people who turned up to picket and protest strikes me as exactly where we should be talking about this.
The lack of questions from the floor, and the extended contributions from people who have no more authority than the rest of us, meant that when important matters were mentioned – e.g. the potential for a Canterbury-wide Trades Council, pulling in public AND private sector unions – there was no follow up. This comes back to something Paul was saying the other day, about how these meetings should be structured, if we’re not to be put off by continued pontification from above.
It’s all very well the unions stamping their feet like some latter-day Pompey Magnus. and expecting the foot soldiers to spring into action. But having answered grassroots anger with a coordinated strike, most will be content to going back to sleep, for now. We can’t let the momentum fade. The best way to do that is to establish, by locality, lists of people interested in continuing work as organisers not just within their own unions but in other venues too.
Whilst I have my own ideas about what exactly we need to organise, I’m more interested in the establishment of a local centre of gravity than in dictating the future, one which invites contributions from all workers of whatever political level, whatever role they hold or don’t hold in a union. Through these contributions, union reps can only improve their own performance, better representing their members and their class. And people are more than willing to share, with a little help from a ruthless, watch-wielding chair. This environment – of rigorous scrutiny and vigorous democracy – should be the backdrop to deciding where we go next.
And there are complicated questions to be answered about what comes next. Are we activists only, or is there a cross-over into electoral politics? What’s the fastest way to get rid of the Tory government? Is that the ultimate objective? Are we prepared to accept the Labour doctrine of continued cuts, albeit slower and shallower? Is our role limited to industrial questions? Are there practical ways one union can render support to others, even if we aren’t all on strike?
I suspect that last question should be the first answered; there are immediate, practical ways to begin rebuilding the political consciousness of the working class – a goal which should be common to socialists in Labour, in the Greens, in the smaller parties and those who don’t like the current gamut of party politics. For example, one goal should be the re-institution of the refusal by one worker to cross another’s picket lines. This sort of thing is vital to prepare the next national strike – and there must be more.
Rather than engaging in the sort of sectarian banter that gives Weekly Worker readers a hard-on, communists can use their skills and their knowledge of history, of other places and situations and tactics, to throw down deep roots in their class and establish a natural leadership. Merely by pushing for an aggressive line with the government and for the full accountability of those who claim to be our leaders we alienate nine-tenths of Labour Party hacks. Most Greens for that matter. This approach would be the making of any socialist, in my eyes.
One of the things which struck me so forcefully was how absolutely anathema the people brought out on Wednesday last would consider the usual sort of stilted, bureaucratic meetings that any local Labour Party basically runs on. Similarly, how ruinously dull would be judged the “political discussion” meetings so beloved of the smaller socialist parties? Millions of people are up for the challenge of beating the government and answering their ideologically-driven cuts agenda; to do them justice, we have to escape from the old paradigms. And the first step is making every meeting count.