Sunday, 17 February 2013

Taking stock in the fight against austerity- part 1

This is the first part of a long look at where our movement stands in britain now. The first part looks at the general situation, the Revolutionary Left and Anti Cuts activism. The second part is going to look at the Unions, Labour Party and the wider working class. 

Since the collapse of Lehman brother's in September 2008 we have seen a unprecedented economic crisis. In Britain this as manifested itself in a shallow but destructive recession in 2009 a brief dead cat bounce from Autumn 2009-Autumn 2010 and then since then we have had on average Zero growth and seem to be heading into our third technical recession.

For the vast majority wages have fallen in real terms as rents, bills and basic costs rise far above stagnant incomes. The Resolution Foundation predicts with the continuation of austerity policies the income of the poorest workers could fall up to a 5th or 4th in real terms by the early 2020s. Unlike in previous recessions inequality is actually increasing. The rich are doing very well out of this recession with incomes of the richest 1 percent rising at unprecedented rates.

Although the position in Britain is inextricably linked to and closely aligned with the economic situation in Europe there is also the major effect of the response of the coalition government to the crisis. The Coalition government has now been in power for over 2 and a half years. The left and the labour movement needs to take stock of its response to this government and austerity and the state of its own forces. 

The politics of Austerity.

The aim of the coalition is said to be the reduction of the deficit. At this they have been wholly unsuccessful and their austerity policies and the lack of growth make the situation even worse. However austerity actually has other aims that the government is less loathe to shout about.

1- An economic policy to restore profitability to British business and the capitalist class in the long term. This plan includes explicit direct measures by reducing taxes on businesses and the rich and by gutting health and safety and other regulations. However there is a less indirect attempt to suppress wages and increase productivity. The public sector pay squeeze and limit on benefit up-rating unofficially effects the pay settlements in the private sector depressing wages below the inflation rate. The work fare scheme, the benefit cuts and general harshness of the benefit regime also pushes people in to the labour market on the employers terms.

2- An ideological and political project to undermine the pillars of the labour movement, the post war social democratic settlement and in particular the public services. This has been the conservative project from the days of Edward Heath but the economic crisis, coalition and the rhetoric of austerity allows this to be pursued with vigour at a time when the support for such neo liberal agenda is very weak. This is the reasoning behind the dismemberment of the NHS, Michael Gove’s education policy, the attacks on benefits, social housing etc. The massive sackings in the public sector also weakens the unions in their areas of greatest organisational strength.

These policies are all political risks but only in so much as the Labour and the left effectively mobilises against them and wins over millions of people.  This is so far where on the whole we have failed and we need to analyse why this is and our possible prospects for success.

The Revolutionary Left.

The revolutionary left in Britain went into the crisis in a weak state. The fall of the Berlin wall nearly 20 years earlier had ushered in a period of capitalist expansion and self confidence. All of the left wing groups in Britain that called themselves revolutionary went into decline in terms of membership, energy and influence within the working class and labour movement. The anti Globalisation movement of the turn of the millennium and the anti war movement did provide an influx of younger recruits to some left groups and provided new areas to intervene into but these gains were limited. It is fair to state however that the Socialist Party, AWL and some other groups where in a better state to intervene in 2008 then they had been since the early 1990s but this again is a very limited achievement. 

In most of the western world there had been successful or semi successful unity initiatives and re-groupments in the revolutionary left during the decade preceding the crisis. This did not happen in Britain despite several attempts to achieve unity. The most substantial being the Socialist Alliance form 2000-2004 and the SSP in Scotland. Both of these projects ended in disarray and in the case of SSP and Tommy Sheridan the fall out has severely damaged the far left politically and organisationally.

As the crisis began there were expectations that revolutionary groups would be able to grow substantially. At first this seemed to be the case for certain groups. The SP grew in size and influence, the AWL grew by a third in 2010-2011. The largest group the SWP was politically and organisationally in a bad state following their expulsion from the Respect Party. Their former leadership left the SWP after a acrimonious and disorientating faction fight and founded another group Counter-fire.

Even before the Coalition Government came to power the revolutionary left had thrown itself into the emerging anti cuts committees and to this day often provide the bodies that allow anti cuts activities to be organised. However the failure of the anti cuts movement to take off so far into a mass movement such as the Anti poll tax movement or even the early days of the stop the war movement has dashed hopes and led to a certain level of demoralisation.

One notable area where the far left did help initiate a mass revolt against cuts was in the student movement where the walkouts and marches against the scraping of EMA and the tuition fees rise initiated by the far left were beyond the organisers expectations. Even after the government pushed through these policies it left a whole layers of activists who won positions on student unions and on individual campuses are continuing to carry on the fight against cuts sometimes successfully.

A chief area of failure was in relation to the public sector pension strikes. It should have been obvious from the beginning that the leadership of the unions strategy was to go for big one day strikes and settle with the government after winning minor concessions. The revolutionary left with some implantation within unions should have prioritised rank and file organising and tried to argue for control of the strike by membership at a local level via joint strike committees and local protests. However the two groups with much weight in the unions involved, the Socialist Party and the Socialist Workers Party directed their propaganda to supporting the leaderships strategy whilst making abstract demands for a general strike. A revolutionary left that had been used to organising demonstrations and meetings with little or no support from the union leadership seemed to lose the ability to do this and instead followed the sluggish timetable of strikes and demo’s coming out of the TUC and unions but trying to be the loadest cheerleaders on those demo’s and shouting for a General Strike they knew they would not get.

The self inflicted defeat of the unions led to a period of despondency and stagnation amongst revolutionary left and in the case of the SWP probably fed into the disarray they now are in. Some groups like Socialist Appeal have decided that in this period it is better just to build their own organisation and not intervene in the anti cuts movement.

However there is no need to fatalistically assume the lack of trade union fight back condemns the far left to stagnation. This can be most plainly seen by what happened in the 1980s. Throughout the decade, the Labour Party and the Trade Unions had been on the receiving end of decisive defeats yet the revolutionary left probably reach its post war zenith in terms of membership in the latter part of the 1980s after the defeats in the miners strike, Wapping and Labours defeats at the 1983 and 1987 elections.  The far left were then decisive in defeating poll tax.

Now we are facing massive attacks on the unemployed and working poor. So far the revolutionary left has not mobilised over the “bedroom tax”, the reduction in Council tax Benefit and the 1% benefit up-rating bill in the way it did over the Tuition fees rise and the public sector pension fight. This is a damning indictment of the revolutionary left and reflects its lack of implantation within the class that it cannot see this is by far the most fundamental and destructive attack on the working class so far this crisis.  

The prospects of advancement of the revolutionary left depends on five things.
1, We need to emd the arid sectarianism and duplication of effort caused by our disunity. Genuine left unity on the basis of democracy and built through struggle would draw a whole periphery of people in who refuse to join or have fallen out of left groups. The imminent break up of the SWP and the general sentiment for unity amongst much of the left makes this a viable option but it still remains difficult to achieve.
2,  Politically the domination of sloganeering rather then genuine analysis and debate is a key problem. When the mechanistic schema of this or that trotskyist group parts company with reality it leads to despondency and disorientation that could be avoided with honest accounting and clear eyed analysis.
3, The revolutionary left does have some implantation in the unions. We need to use this to do all we can to build the rank and file. Obviously we cannot substitute for militant workers but we can use our strength in unions to run bulletins, build rank and files where they exist and making the case for members having active control of disputes.
4, Fundamentally the chief problem with the revolutionary left is its lack of implantation within the working class. There is no easy way round this but involvement in local tenants campaigns, estate sales, trying to organise the unorganised all would help this. 
5, The far left is meant to be full of idealistic radicals who want to change the world. So why do we so often seem like dour train spotters. fly posting, political graffiti, gigs, mass trespassing, red hiking groups, film showings would be a start to build the kind of political scene that draws people in. 

The Activist Groups

There is a large activist milieu that involves people coming from all kinds of different political traditions and places.  It includes Trade unionists, Social democrats, unaligned socialists, Greens, Labour lefties, Anarchists, Libertarians etc. The one thing they share is that they are organising outside of (though often alongside) revolutionary groups, the trade unions and the Labour Party.

As this group is so diffuse its difficult to tell whether it is attracting people or not. I think its likely that most people on the green and anarchist side where attracted into this scene in the period 1998-2008 through the anti globalisation and climate camp movement and since then there seems to be few new people from that scene. However there also seems to be a influx of older social democrats, socialists, labour lefties who have got active again since the crisis hit.

I think we have seen two distinct type of organisations campaigning against the cuts develop. I call these the spectacular and the substantial.
Two spectacular organisations are UK Uncut and Occupy. They are both spectacular in the sense they want to create spectacles in the situationist sense. They are also spectacular because they are the rock stars of anti cuts movements. Receiving far more press attention then the other campaigns, groups or marches combined. However they are also less substantial then they appear.

UK uncut has done many actions against tax dodging  companies, got in the headlines for doing this and is one of the success stories of the anti cuts movement. Even Ed Miliband said he sympathised with UK Uncut.  However it sees it self and is best understood as a umbrella group and a type of protest carried out by militants who on the main spend most of their time involved in other more traditional campaigns.  Its great fun to get involved with, makes good points and draws people in. In that sense it has become a key part of the anti cuts movement whilst not claiming any kind of leadership or ownership of the movement.

The other major spectacular group Occupy may share some activists and press with UK Uncut but actually it is fundamentally different. Where as UK Uncut went out of its way to link up with other groups and is aware that its just one part of a wider movement, Occupy often sees itself as the movement against cuts/austerity/ capitalism itself. Whilst the press the original London camp gained initially did have some effect in the anti cuts fight on the whole Occupy has been self destructive and has damaged decent militants and taken some of them down dangerous paths. It needn’t always have been that way. In many countries Occupy type protests linked up with trade unionists and other activists, in Britain however it went wrong on day one. The failure to occupy the space outside the stock exchange led to it re-grouping on the Steps of St Paul’s Cathedral. If this was seen as a temporary stop before launching themselves against other capitalist or government institutions as a political protest this would have been fine. Instead the decision was made to stay and create this as a “space”. The meaning of the protest was subverted as it became about a tussle within the Church of England and the decision not to make demands of the government meant that the spokespeople for the camp wasted the exposure they got in the worlds media. From then on the situation degenerated. Cranks, Anti Semites and the apolitical started to descend on the camp and the leadership seemed to some believe their own self regarding propaganda and lost their message. The camp turned inwards and because obsessed with the importance of the “space” created which was after all just a pavement. Similar camps set up in different cities followed the same path. Soon all the best activists drifted away and  finally in the cold midwinter the camps died with a wimper, the entire movement lasted less then a year. Nothing remains but quite a lot of bitterness and a huge wasted opportunity.    

In most towns and cities there is a anti cuts group often formed initially by the trades council. These have always remained a key part of Anti Cuts activism and a central hub in each area this is why these groups are the substantial part of the movement. However in general they have not taken off in the way that would have been hoped. From the beginning they tended to be a sometimes uneasy alliance between the revolutionary left and local union leadership. Independent community activists often felt squeezed out. If the group survived the left wing groups tussling to get it aligned with Right To Work, Youth Fight for Jobs, People Charter or Coalition of Resistance etc (see below) another hurdle they often had to deal with was remaining relevant during the pension dispute. Often the groups just became auxiliaries during the strikes and run up to strikes, which meant there time table was set by the trade union leadership and few decisions were taken in the anti cuts group. Since the collapse of the pension dispute ant cuts groups often found themselves at a bit of a loss. However they remain centrally important and there is some signs of them sparking back in to life. Imagination and linking up with the NHS and tenant campaigns would seem to be the best way forward and the best way to get activists from and organic links with communities affected by cuts.

The most impressive and substantial activist group against the cuts is probably the various NHS groups often organised under the umbrella of Keep Our NHS public. Although the revolutionary left is involved its not dominant and it seems to have brought into activity a whole group of talented older people who may have dropped out of activity for several years. This is a developing arena of struggle but one possible pitfall is the labour party or union leadership trying to take control.

Finally a major obstacle for all the anti cuts groups of different stripes is the lack of a centralised united organisation that van help co-ordinate and call actions. Every city is seeming left to organise alone. The blame for this must surely lie with the Socialist Party, Socialist Worker Party and Counterfire. All three of them have there own undemocratic anti cuts front group that claims to speak for the movement. They all claim to be for unity of anti cuts groups but will not give up their own control. As a result It now looks like the Trade Union bureaucracy and the Communist Party in alliance with Counterfire have stepped in and are creating a Peoples Assembly Against Austerity. The problem with this is it supporters include people who have implemented and accepted cuts like the greens. The gravitational weight of an organisation with the support from the trade unions that the Peoples Assembly has makes it unlikely that a more radical genuine anti cuts national organisation can cohere.

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