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Time for Britain’s Indignados: the pension strike, Labour and strategic optimism

The UK-wide strikes over pension reform failed to release the energy many hoped for on the left. Coupled by the Labour leader's condemnation of 30 June, it is easy to be pessimistic. Yet the way to beat the Coalition is through a strategic optimism that is prepared to think big and look beyond Westminster
Dan Hancox
5 July 2011

Last Thursday’s strike against the Coalition’s pension reform plans saw hundreds of thousands take to the streets across the UK – not only members of the four Trade Unions taking action, which cover 750,000 workers between them, but also crowds of their supporters. Most of the banners on the London streets read “Fair Pensions For All”, but this was just a single-issue cipher for a much wider response to the Conservative programme of austerity, cuts, and privatisation. It was an inspiring day in many ways, seeing committed public sector workers get out onto the streets and picket lines, many accompanied by children and students (even while the policing took an egregious new turn, incorporating what looks like racial profiling and the stop-and-search of many young people wearing black t-shirts, hooded tops, and keffiyahs). On its own terms it was a successful, peaceful day, but it was not the Trade Unions’ equivalent of the storming of Millbank, a psychic transformation spiralling instantly onwards and outwards into sustained action and political energy against the government. Big ships take a long time to turn around.

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Response to Labour’s condemnation of J30

This lack of efficacy on Thursday, coupled with the Labour leadership’s instruction to MPs to cross picket lines (from this BBC interview, reading between the lines, it seems Ed Miliband felt the strikes were wrong, while negotiations were still going on) has depressed many on the left. Furthermore, it’s become common to regard the protests in London on 26 March as a failure, because they saw the unpredictable energy of the unions, UK Uncut, and the Black Bloc ossify and then face their own, very separate defeats: mass impotence, debilitating arrests, and nihilistic futility, respectively. Foreshadowing Ed Miliband’s treachery towards his trade union supporters, without whom he'd not be leader, on the 30 June strike, Anthony Barnett wrote last week about his speech in Hyde Park, and the “desperate way [he tried] 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.”

There followed, Laurie Penny rightly observes, “a period of retreat, as political policing and crackdowns on protest dominated the attention of already overstretched activists”. The royal wedding and the egregious abuses of police power around it – at a time when the vast majority of anti-cuts activists were taking a tactically prudent holiday – did not help matters. And since #J30, over the weekend, I’ve heard many of those who were full of fire and excitement in December lament that the left are out of ideas, inspiration, and momentum. These suggestions may be true in fact, especially in comparison to the intense breakthrough in November, but how you look at facts matters just as much. And the pessimists are looking at the facts upside down.

There’s nothing to be gained from denying truthful self-criticism on the left, nor from airbrushing over failures. But the only response to 26 March, and 30 June, is strategic optimism. The only way to stop Cameron’s government, is strategic optimism. For what it’s worth, I don’t feel the fact that an estimated 500,000 people took to the streets on 26 March, to protest against cuts they cannot yet see or feel, is cause for pessimism. Nor do I feel that general opinion poll-verified public sympathy and support for the nominally issue-specific #J30 public sector strike is a cause for pessimism. But that’s not the kind of optimism I want to preach here: it’s bigger, and broader than that, and it requires us to think about our relationship with Westminster as a whole, not just the blue and yellow parts of it.

The key, in fact, is Ed Miliband’s utter failure to support his regular party members, voters, and trade unionists. Since Thursday, we have entered a new phase – we’re no longer merely fighting a battle over political economy here; the Labour leadership’s de facto withdrawal from the fight against the cuts confirms what some on the left have said all along: labour is going to have to win this battle without the political party that once represented it.

I should probably stop short of saying, as some have joked since Thursday, that Ed Miliband is an accelerationist. But his cowardly stance in condemning the strike was so shocking, so alienating to those affected, that it at last removed any doubt about how forthright the Labour leadership is willing to be in fighting the cuts. My response on Ed Miliband for these last nine months, when so many friends – especially the kind who have not been on ‘the front line’ of every protest, rally and action, but would like to vote for a left-wing party, if one existed – were crying “but what does he stand for?”, “where’s his anger, and his gusto?”, “why does he keep missing these open goals to attack Cameron?”, was always the same: if it matters at all, his silence benefits us; the longer this goes on, the longer we have to make him realise he needs us, to push him to the left from below, to make this rudderless Labour Party take the course we want it to. Like the optimists who joined Labour last year, and are now cutting up their membership cards, I’m taking my optimism elsewhere now.

I suppose there’s an outside chance Milibot could be rewired at a later date, but we have to regard the Parliamentary Labour Party as a lost cause (despite the minority of good MPs fighting the good fight within it). If he’s going to robotically repeat the same soundbite over and over in TV interviews, it should be this: 

“There is no mandate or need for these cuts.

There is no mandate or need for these cuts.

There is no mandate or need for these cuts. 

There is no mandate or need for these cuts.”

Never mind public support for Thursday’s strike (which exceeds, according to opinion polls, those who oppose them), where is the public support for the Conservatives’ swingeing cuts? Cameron’s is arguably the least legitimate government in post-war British history – and it remains truly remarkable that he failed to win a parliamentary majority last May, given the current electoral system’s pendulum of death, the recession, and the state of Labour and Gordon Brown’s reputations at the start of 2010.

Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats are finished, and their erstwhile young voters, a generation reared on and dismayed with the centrism of New Labour, those who bled from red to yellow at the last general election, because they wanted “change” (remember that?!), will not vote for either party at the next one. The young man who responded to Ed Miliband’s condemnation of the strike by posting a picture on Twitter of his Labour membership card cut in two, with the comment “Dear Labour, I quit – didn’t even make it a year”, is unlikely to be alone.

A pox, then, on all their houses – and on their shared house, in Westminster. Really, what hope is there left for Westminster as it is constructed now? Will the Labour leadership condemn the increasingly likely four-million strong strike(s) that may take place in the autumn? Should we care a jot if they do anymore? With his softly-spoken but profound denunciation of the strikes, Ed Miliband the accelerationist (there, I’ve said it) has taken us one big step closer to an extra-parliamentary indignados movement of our own.

An afterthought, from 1842

In the talk about the history of industrial action prior to Thursday, occasional mentions were made of the 1926 General Strike, its failure, and the portents this held for any idealistic activists calling for a General Strike now, as the most effective way of bringing down the Tory government. Not a single commentator I noticed pointed out that 1926’s was not the only General Strike in late modern British history. The General Strike of 1842 was also known as the Plug Plot Riots, because striking worker-saboteurs removed plugs from factories which stopped their steam power functioning. It was not only twice as long as the 1926 General Strike, it is also a much more intriguing example for today’s struggle. 

Quite simply, it occurred at a time when intense economic hardship for working people, and in particular specific wage grievances, were gradually but assiduously linked up with the Chartists’ demands for the extension of the suffrage and the wholesale reform of parliament. This fascinating account by F.C. Mather, written in 1974, details the hardening of the bonds between the industrial-economic demands of the striking workers and the wider political programme. It’s worth reading in full, but this gives a flavour: 

“At the regional level, in places like Manchester, London and Glasgow, there was a marked coalescence of Chartism and the trade societies, and this exerted a profound influence upon the character of the General Strike. Success in converting the unions to the Six Points was partly the result of a deliberate Chartist effort to achieve it. Numerous initiatives were taken in the two or three months before the Plug Plot, some of them local and uncoordinated, like that of the Preston Chartists in June for the establishment of a standing joint conference of Chartists and trade unionists, which would refuse to separate until it had achieved the protection of trade and the constitutional liberties of the people...

...in the dialogue conducted at the lodge meetings, the argument for becoming Chartist which carried the greatest weight was the economic one. Political power was necessary to secure the object for which the unions had themselves been founded--the protection of the labour of working men.”

It is because the scale of the challenge is so great, and the scale of the assault by the Conservatives and their friends in the city so great, that the response, too, must be a great one. This is not a time to sadly shake our heads, but to look out beyond neoliberalism, and beyond Westminster – and, as many of those who fought inequality and injustice did in 1842 – to do so with the same pair of eyes.

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