Can the 'J30' strike move beyond the failures of March 26?

Trade unions and the anti-cuts movement are gearing up for a UK-wide strike over pension reforms. Yet the left still haven't worked through the failures of their last mass action against the Coalition. A central issue is the need for the unions to ally themselves with network politics
Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
28 June 2011

I’m joining Thursday’s strike even though I don’t have an employer to strike against — in solidarity with public sector workers.

These are dangerous times, however, and we need to think as well as act: about the politics involved, about how to make action creative, influential and effective. There is a mistaken nostalgia on the left for the days of industrial action when unions were stronger — and a mistaken longing amongst conservatives for a similar re-run to take them forward to the past.

In this spirit of solidarity, tempered but not daunted by experience, I want to talk about defeat. In particular what happened on 26 March this year when the TUC mobilised. The left, in all its varieties, hates talking honestly about failures and why they happen. Factions rile against ‘betrayal’. This is another way of displacing honest discussion. Yet it also has the effect of making any attempt at criticism seem like a matter of finger-pointing and accusations of bad faith. That’s not what I’m interested in.

There were four forces on the left that day: 

 - The TUC, and the mass of marchers it brought to London

 - Ed Miliband, and his leadership of Labour

 - The Black Bloc, with their display of violent direct action

 - UKUncut, who occupied Fortnums and were arrested en masse

As opposition to the Coalition took to the streets on a mass scale, all four suffered self-inflicted wounds and these now cast their gloom over Thursday’s planned actions.

What the TUC achieved was extraordinary. At least half-a-million came to central London. Ed Miliband finished his speech at Hyde Park around 2.30pm. At 4pm the march was passing through Piccadilly at full strength still on its way to the Park! We will never know what the actual numbers were, something that calls for a different approach to big demos (but that’s another discussion).

There have been TUC mobilisations before, especially in the seventies, on as great a scale, or even larger. But they had a different character. They were overwhelmingly male, made up of miners, car-workers, and steelworkers. They were clearly defending their interests and were sectional. It was the industrial labour movement showing its strength.

On the 26 March this year, while just as northern, the demonstration was as much female as male, if not more. It was public sector workers: nurses, teachers, council workers, doctors. The atmosphere and appeal was different. There was a concern to protect their jobs, but the appeal was far more social than sectional, about the interests of the whole country and how we all live. 

They work for us, from kindergartens to old age homes and care in the community, none of us should want them cut. This message has potent appeal but you would not have known it. The TUC called the gathering on behalf of all of us, but what did it want all of us to do? On this there was silence. The gigantic mobilisation led to a vacuum. As a test of strength, it proved there is will and an energy and an extraordinary depth of opposition to Coalition policies. But as a test of direction and purpose it was pointless. Afterwards, people poured into the tube stations or onto coaches in tens of thousands, happy to have been on a “good demonstration” and dispersed back to their lives, unchanged. Far from feeling like the start of something it felt like an ending. 

One reason for this, though not the only one, was that Labour did not know how to connect with what the TUC was doing. Ed Miliband agreed to speak to the demonstration but declined to join the march itself with his family. Yet he began by speaking, as if he had marched:

"We come in the tradition of movements that have marched in peaceful but powerful protest for justice, fairness and political change."

What he then said was even less appropriate:

"The suffragettes who fought for votes for women and won. The civil rights movement in America that fought against racism and won. The anti-apartheid movement that fought the horror of that system and won."

It is not just a technical point that the anti-apartheid movement was in fact an armed struggle, even if it gained a peaceful victory. Such a glaring error illustrates the desperate way Miliband was trying to turn 26 March into something it wasn’t, so that he didn’t have to address what it was: a movement against the cuts.

As he projected his sanitised, ‘historic’ version of us winning the suffrage and demanding civil rights in America and South Africa, more than a thousand took advantage of the streets of central London being closed to traffic to treat them to a display of antagonistic freedom. It was hardly “mindless” as Jonathan Moses set out: those “involved in black bloc are also those most likely to have encountered state violence in its purest form” and they included some of the best post-graduates in England. In part, it was a revenge against the police for kettling them, a proof they could break free and not be caught. 

Moses scorns the TUC leaders for complaining that the next day’s headlines had been ‘stolen’ from the march, overshadowing its achievement. The real problem was that the TUC didn’t have a clear message of its own. However there was something parasitic about Black Bloc using the day of the TUC march. If its message was so much better, why not declare their own day of action instead of piggybacking on another’s?  

At the same time UKUncut also fed off the energy of the TUC to stage a spectacular version of its brilliantly conceived peaceful actions. I have participated in these and was sorry not to have been there at Fortnum’s. Even though, as UKUncut put it, they “together committed to a creative act of civil disobedience, without violence or vandalism” the bloc’s vandalism on the streets gave the police the opportunity to arrest 140 participants, hold them overnight and take their mobile phones to build a picture of their network and doubtless start to penetrate it. The result was they were dragged into a debate about ‘violence’

One expression of the general loss of impetus was the faltering in support for Labour. When the building housing the Tory HQ at Milbank was attacked on 10 November last year by the student demonstrators, and its plate glass entrance hall kicked in, support for Labour rose. Not, as you can read in Fight Back! A Reader on the Winter of Protest, because Labour leaders supported its form of direct action! But because finally there was opposition and passion and a truth about the Coalition had been shouted from the rooftops. By contrast, after one of the greatest mobilisations of opposition in recent times, one with attractive family qualities, support for Labour faltered after 26 March. The momentum behind popular opposition to the Coalition was reversed.

The reverse was accelerated by the lamentable fate of the referendum over AV. Who can blame the Scots for thinking that it is better to leave the English to fight it out amongst themselves…

The media play a part. When Michael Gove called on parents to strike-break this Thursday he got loads of coverage. But despite the favourable pre-election coverage of Mumsnet when politicians were courting it, their apparent “savaging” of Gove, reported in Left Foot Forward, got very little air-time. While the messenger may have been 'approved', it was the message that was the problem. 

It is critical for strike actions to appeal to the public not just about the justice of the striker’s case but about the implications for everyone. This is not part of the classic, defensive Labour tradition. Both UKUncut and the Black Bloc took action on 26 March because they wanted to refuse old-style fatalism and didn’t want to be part of a Grand Old Duke of York exercise. 

The problem Ed Miliband has – or one of them – is that an influential section of his parliamentary party agree with Tony Blair, whose cunning and treacherous interview with the Sun is essential reading. They support Cameron and the Coalition’s strategy towards the public sector. But this is all the more reason why credible alternative strategies are needed outside the Labour Party and need to be linked to actions of resistance.  

On Thursday, UKUncut will be staging actions across the UK, including a ‘public spectacle’ in central London. Provided they can avoid the conflation of their actions with those outside the network, as occurred with the Black Bloc on March 26, this could help rebuild public support for the anti-cuts movement, and strengthen relationships between the network and the unions - including with Unite and the TUC who have already shown support. These are early days for creating a political force that can replace market fundamentalism. An alliance of the unions with the high-energy and openness of network politics could be a start.

PS: There is a good, clear argument about the principles behind the strike by Nigel Stanley from the TUC, here at False Economy

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