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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.

  1. Robert
    July 11, 2010 at 3:02 pm

    Look new labour slammed the disabled the sick the poorest with 10p tax bands/welfare reforms, now the Tories are in people are talking about Unions marches, why because it’s the Tories, I see nobody said a bloody word to help the sick or the disabled in Labour, I can assure you nobody is going to bother now.

    Whats the difference between new labour and the Tories nothing at all.

  2. July 11, 2010 at 4:22 pm

    I really liked this until you got to the part about Labour not getting too involved, Paul… I think Labour has to get involved. It can’t have a buck each way. I don’t think some of the resistance suggestions you have can come to pass unless Labour is fully committed.

    Did you read this interview I did with Steve Bullock at Lewisham: http://liberalconspiracy.org/2010/06/10/the-labour-people-need/ – he made specific reference to the Ted Knight 1980s resistance, in order to make very, very clear that he had no intention of a resistance that bore any resemblance to Knights’ or Liverpool’s. He was absolutely of the belief that the cuts had to happen, and that he would be looking to negotiate with the coalition. Your notion of a sort of ‘work to rule’ refusal to deduct housing benefit by ten percent, etc, is a very fine one, but I can’t see the likes of Sir Steve sending down that instruction to his CFO. I discussed it specifically with him, and he made clear that the time for that kind of resistance was in the past.

    Ditto for co-ordinated strike action. Labour affiliated unions have spent the last 13 years shutting down all leftwing voices in their unions (Unison in particular, and Unison will/should play a major role in resistance) and Blair/Brown did nothing to improve the anti-trade union legislation that you so rightly describe as draconian. Labour needs to move on from its leadership issues fast and commit itself in very specific ways to preserving public services. It is precisely the fact that Labour has not done enough to commit to that which is making life difficult.

  3. paulinlancs
    July 11, 2010 at 5:55 pm

    Robert @1: Which is why I say: ‘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?’

    Kate @2:Is that how the final part of my piece came across? Bollox! I nearly stopped before I got to that section as I was runnning out of time this morning – perhaps I should have waited and done the fuller post as a follow-up, because it is important.

    I don’t mean to suggest in any way that the LP should not be fully committed to supporting resistance action in all its forms. I was simply trying to get over the fact, as set out by Justin in the piece i link to, that the LP needs to have a due sense of humility about its past in many areas, and join efforts as equal partners. This isn’t the same as not committing; it’s about being realistic about the need for the LP as an organisation (something different from indiv members) to regain trust before it starts asserting its authority as leaders of action. Such a move will of course lead pretty immediately to internal discussion about how and if the party should and can engage with other parties (both political and civic on anything other than its own terms, but this is a vital debate to have, and one to have soon if the LP is to regain a place at the heart of the labour movement.

    Yes, I did read the Lambeth piece. When I was writing my piece I had in mind the very many areas where Labour is not in control (remember I don’t live in a big city, and lots don’t) and where we are not in control of the council different strategies must apply. In places like Lambeth i am all for the LP rising up against its councillors if that is what’s needed – and you suggest pretty strongly that it is needed – but even here it needs to be done with a mind to and in proper coalition a wider coalaition of actors (incl users groups) than the LP is currently used to dealing with after 15 years of being solely an electoral campaign party.

    I’ll add a note to my piece to point towards this and your comment.

  4. July 11, 2010 at 7:40 pm

    Hey there,

    Yes – fair point about London’s Labour control. I think that I was expecting more from Bullock because Labour has found itself in a strong position in London after the May elections. I suppose that to be fair, I talked to Bullock not long after the elections, and he was still rather taken aback by the strength of support for Labour at the local level after May 6. I didn’t expect him by any means to say that he was planning to launch a Ted Knight-scale rates-resistance fight, but I didn’t expect quite the roll over and die rhetoric that I got, either. It’ll be a matter of seeing how that plays out now. There’s a lobby at the council this week as locals start to organise their opposition to the cuts, so I guess we’ll start seeing the first real tests soon.

    The thing is – perhaps Labour councillors in areas like London – where a lot of them now have healthy majorities (Lewisham was a Labour minority before May 6 this year) – could start actively organising united action to form a coherent narrative against cuts? As quite a few commentators have pointed out, it’s not enough to simply say ‘cuts are bad and we don’t agree with them’ – a coherent economic justification (Keynesian, probably) needs to be made to justify the support of the sector. Labour is very caught up in its leadership contest at the moment, and while that’s understandable, it is letting Rome burn.

  5. July 12, 2010 at 4:01 pm

    The word “humility” was the one that came to mind for me, too. It would be incredibly arrogant for Labour, after 13 years of government in which perhaps the PLP didn’t always do exactly what trade unionists & community campaigns wanted, to tell everyone to get in line behind us.

    We can only build up credibility again through action, but that will be a combination between doing our own stuff with the knowledge & consent of others, and supporting others’ actions.

    So locally for us, so far that has meant:
    – sending a speaker & attending a local Trades Council demo against cuts
    – doing our own initiative outside the central library at times when it is shut due to local cut-backs, leafletting, talking with staff & users who’d expected to be able to use the library & asking them to give us details so we can contact them about wider campaigns against cuts
    – upon hearing about the BSF cuts: issuing strong statements to press; submitting a motion to council calling on them to insist on reinstatement of schools in the BSF programme, invite Gove to do a site visit at schools no longer being rebuilt and request financial compensation for monies already sunk into the project for schools not reinstated; contacting local unions about their plans & to let them know what we were already planning; producing our own leaflets to hand to staff, students & parents outside affected schools (which we’ve done at two schools so far) & then when local trade unions had agreed on a date for a demonstration, agreeing to support it & using their leaflet to promote it.

    all at the same time as tieing up odds and ends after the election (and spending some time recovering!), organising our own discussions around the leadership issue, etc.

    We are still doing actions (eg the library stuff) which doesn’t originate from trade unions, but if we had called the demonstration on BSF ourselves rather than waiting for trade unions to make a decision on it, everything would probably have received much less support & involvement from a wider body than seems likely now. We have to recognise that we are at a low position in terms of trust with many activists – even when we are doing the right things – and be realistic about how the biggest actions are likely to come about.

    It’s worth saying that none of this is particularly militant, which given local conditions is perhaps hardly surprising, but is really basic preparation work which anyone can do.

  6. July 12, 2010 at 4:09 pm

    Also wanted to say some stuff on the legal aspect which Paul identifies in the original article.

    I have my concerns about legal action too – it can take up a lot of time in pursuit of limited goals and the goalposts can always be moved by government through changes in legislation.

    However, having been involved in the sheltered housing stuff in Portsmouth, I thought it had wider benefits than just the successful result of getting the council to reinstate on-site night wardens (not underestimating the importance of that victory). The process gone through genuinely empowered a lot of vulnerable residents in sheltered housing most of whom had never taken political action in their entire lives. They learned they could speak up for themselves. It joined together residents in different sheltered blocks across the city where previously most had been isolated from each other. The council were surprised and had clearly not expected a fightback from these residents.

  7. paulinlancs
    July 12, 2010 at 4:53 pm

    Kate @4: I don’t disagree that Labour councils need a coherent Keynesian narrative, and indeed that was the whole point of my second post in this series of three (https://thoughcowardsflinch.com/2010/06/27/resisting-the-cuts-what-it-actually-means-pt-2-of-5/)

    But that doesn’t alter the fact that when the money is not there from central government, the money is not there. The only options are for councils to a) spend all their reserves/sell assets to keep services going at all costs, before moving into Section 114 territory of setting ‘illegal’ budgets’ b) opting out of this and saying services/jobs have to be cut, while supporting demos about it.

    That’s where the wider Labour party comes in, because its job, through the Local Govt Committee technically, but through wider collaboration with service users/groups and employees, should be to strengthen both the hand and spine of councillors by telling them that anything other than option a) is unacceptable’ it’s about working to a point where local activist/pary authority is stronger over councillors than central government authority.

    Councillors did’nt generally go ontp council for this kind of thing, and they need the ‘cruel to be kind’ support/discipline. I know. I am one.

    Tim @5 and 6: This is absolutely spot on. Recognising where we are at, and being both realistic but innovative, is vital. You should write the textbook on this.

  8. July 12, 2010 at 7:30 pm

    “But that doesn’t alter the fact that when the money is not there from central government, the money is not there. The only options are for councils to a) spend all their reserves/sell assets to keep services going at all costs, before moving into Section 114 territory of setting ‘illegal’ budgets’ b) opting out of this and saying services/jobs have to be cut, while supporting demos about it.”

    Fair points, except I’m not sure that those are the only options.

    A couple of things – when I was talking to/about Bullock, I was in part making a point about his rhetoric. Fighting talk is indeed only talk in desperate economic times, but it is the sort of rhetoric that grassroots Labour might offer more of a salute to. I didn’t expect a career politician/ex Capita man like Bullock to come off like Ted Knight, but thought there was room there for rhetoric about,for instance, prioritising frontline services, or looking for fat to trim in management and consultancy, etc. There was none of that. A brave local politician could make a case for middle-rung trim.

    Regarding the options to protect public services from the deficit drain – I believe there is plenty of room for Labour to make a better argument for tax increases, a slower deficit payback (which of course some Labour politicians have indeed argued for) and a postponing of payment of council debts, etc, to protect services. I also think that Labour should be (although is probably not in a position to, given its own recent history) making strong statements against privatisation, which is the other major threat to jobs and decent service provision while the Tories are in. The likes of Bupa, etc, are doubtless already lining up to promise Osborne that they can deliver twice the service at a third of the price – which, as many of us know all too well, is very unlikely to be the case in reality – but the deficit has given legitimacy to this aspect of Tory ideology, and the left needs to have a coherent rhetoric to fight it.

  9. July 12, 2010 at 8:37 pm

    On the subject of Lewisham, I wouldn’t count on any ‘red’ centre being based there judging by the quality of the people elected in place of the Socialist Party councillors that were ousted at the last election – one of them I know personally, and he’s as Blairite as they come. Additionally, the Labour council that the SP members were elected didn’t exactly set a rebellious line when we weren’t in difficult economic straits; I can’t see any resistance coming from them now.

  10. July 12, 2010 at 10:59 pm

    You’re right there. The thing is, radicalism (and you don’t have to be too radical these days to be considered a flagwaving trot) is hardly going to come from the rest of them, either – can’t really see the day when Robin Wales waves the red flag. That brings me back to my main point – that Labour needs to redefine itself to connect with the class it is supposed to represent (think that’s the point you’ve made in your most recent post here). Cruddas had the right idea when he spoke of the tacit covenant that should exist between Labour and its natural constituencies. That covenant seems a long way off, though,

  1. August 5, 2010 at 11:27 pm
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  3. August 27, 2010 at 9:47 pm
  4. November 5, 2010 at 1:47 pm
  5. November 16, 2010 at 11:54 am
  6. November 16, 2010 at 6:44 pm
  7. April 28, 2011 at 12:20 am
  8. February 11, 2013 at 12:31 am

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