nothing will be like it was before: fighting to win

New Left Project is hosting a debate on the strategy we need to fight the coalition government’s cuts. Below is the contribution by Tom Denning, a member of The Commune.

In the past month, while the contributors to this debate have been writing their pieces, a real movement against cuts has shown its first signs of life. Around the country, anti-cuts committees have been set up, often on the auspices of the local trades Council or a Unison branch. These committees are just beginning to find their feet, to produce bulletins, to plan demonstrations, street stalls and public meetings.  At their best, they will be alliances of local worker and community activists, determined to work together to take effective action to force back cuts.

As is so often the case, the activity of the real movement has run ahead of its theorists.  But what does that movement consist of so far?  In what ways does the changing structure of the public-sector workforce determine the needs of that movement?  What does it need to grow, and win?

Richard’s introductory essay is an excellent contribution; particularly as an analysis of the ideological dimensions of the crisis.  But as I attempt to answer these questions, in the interests of productive debate, I’m going to focus on a few areas of disagreement and differing emphasis. First, though, we need to raise a few new issues.

The reorganisation of the working class

In the last three decades, just as capital sought new avenues for profit throughfinancialisation, and increasingly came to rely on mass debtprivate, corporate, state – and inflated asset prices, it also sought, urgently, to extract more labour from the working class, for less.  As Richard says, the changes that Thatcher – and her successors – wrought in the pursuit of this agenda “fundamentally changed the character of British society”.  If we examine just four areas in which such changes have taken place, it is possible to see how the tax on the working class of the past three decades define the present needs of our movement.

Public sector work overwhelmingly and increasingly performed by women.  The declining viability of the single paycheque family is one factor which has pulled increasing numbers of women into work.  65.2% of public-sector workers are women (compared to 41.2% of private-sector workers).  This probably understates the real picture, since higher grades and management are still overwhelmingly male.  Women typically perform low status, part time jobs, and for these reasons, will be hit especially hard by the proposed cuts.  Meanwhile, the left and the official leadership in unions are overwhelmingly male.  Why does this matter?  Because, to be effective, a movement must be organised by those whose interests it seeks to defend, and in a way that empowers that constituency.  The socialist wing of the women’s liberation movement produced a wealth of ideas on how activists should organise differently, relying less on “heroic” leaders and more on cooperative organisation—we need to reinvestigate, and consider applying those ideas.  One simple proposal as an example: because women still bear the greater burden of childcare, anti-cuts meetings ought to provide creches.

Outsourcing, casualisation, agency work, and “illegal” workers. In order to keep the costs of labour low and shore up profitability, capitalists have deployed a battery of techniques to divide workers, making them more vulnerable, dispensable, low skilled, and less likely to share common conditions – in the form of nationally negotiated agreements, for example.  In many areas of work, recent years have seen the accelerated introduction of lower paid auxiliary staff, as an alternative to increasing the number of those on existing grades: think of teaching assistants, or community support officers. These low paid agency workers often do the same job as those who are directly employed. There is a rapid acceleration in the number of part-time workers, as well as “zero hours” contracts and “sessional” work. Many of the current government’s plans for public sector, as well as those implemented by New Labour since 1997, have been at root about undermining national bargaining, whilst intensifying outsourcing and casualisation. Academy schools and recent proposals to turn the NHS into a network of private contractors are two examples. Why is all this important?  Because we need to develop a movement which can do what we failed to do in the past decades: effectively resist new casualisation, and roll back what there is already.

The new unemployment, and the abolition of welfare.  Unemployment now stands at 2.5 million, and will almost certainly pass 3 million given government projections; whilst the proportion of unemployed people claiming benefits is lower than ever. Meanwhile, the Welfare
Reform (Abolition) Act 2009, dreamt up before unemployment began to rise sharply, will make life poorer and harder for the jobless. Cuts of at least 5% to welfare spending are planned by 2015.  41,000 UK families relied on food banks to eat at some point in 2009-10. Yet the web of unemployed workers groups and claimants unions, many founded in the 70s and 80s, has all but evaporated. There are a few exceptions, and a few new initiatives, for example in Hackney,NewhamKilburnIpswich, and Edinburgh.  There is an initiative to build a national movement of such self organised groups, founded on the basis of practical, day-to-day solidarity. An unemployed workers movement is vital, not only because of the huge numbers of people who will be in the grip of a viciously inadequate social security system, but because we need to make sure that mass unemployment is as expensive, and hence is as undesirable, for the state as possible.

The bureaucracy and disorganisation of key unions. Trade unions are contradictory phenomenon: on the one hand, expressions of workers’ self organisation and activity; on the other, institutions which also tend to restrict that same self activity.  With the quiescence of the workers’ movement in recent years, the latter tendency has become particularly strong.  Let’s look at some of the problems. Teachers are divided into three unions, with little culture of supporting each other’s industrial action, and support staff are in two more.  PCS, the civil servants’ union, has a relatively leftward leadership, willing to take industrial action, but in recent years it seems as though either the organisation or will have been lacking for serious fights.  Unison, the most important public sector union by some way, is in a dire state. Outside local government, many branches are effectively organised through patronage from the centre, whilst density and organisation are very low. The union has a record of colluding with employers to victimise key militants and to suppress left branches. The relationship between the union and the state, through the Labour Party, is incestuous. For example, the Newham local government branch is run by an appointee, one Steve Terry, a Labour councillor in neighbouring Waltham Forest. Manifestly it is directly against his interests to permit militancy amongst local government workers. There are a plethora of less obvious connections. Richard rightly argues for “militancy beyond the traditional policies of the trade union leadership”. More than this, we need a culture of independent rank and file organisation, willing to defy union leaders and the law, and breaking the boundaries between unions, when necessary – which will be often. (This isn’t an abstract fantasy: in the 1960s and 1970s, perhaps 95% of strikes were unofficial; as late as 2003 26% of strike days were lost to unofficial action.)  It is the paradox of the unions that, nonetheless, activists will also find it necessary, in many areas, to build and strengthen Unison.  Ritual denunciations of union leaders are indeed useless, but rank-and-file organisers need to have a keen awareness of their position.

All these things considered, there’s a frightening distance between the movement we have and the movement we need; between our conventional tactical and organisational repertoire, and the demands of the coming years.

The movement we have, the movement we need

The standard repertoire of the left is more or less as follows. There will be demonstration after demonstration, speech after speech, leaflet after leaflet. There will be numerous “broad” campaigns, which will hold conference after conference. The left will organise within official union structures for official strikes and for somewhat more leftward leaders to replace the current ones. But to think that any number of marches, no matter how many millions strong, any way of framing or presenting the issue, no matter how clever, any number of one or two or three day strikes, no matter how many people visit the picket lines, is a recipe for rolling back the cuts is to be deluded. If we look to our history for the last time that an assault of this seriousness was challenged effectively, we must look to the movement against the poll tax: mass organisation, town by town, borough by borough, ward by ward, street by street.  Mass direct action: refusal to pay, refusal to allow bailiffs to raid the homes of nonpayers. Of course, the poll tax movement benefited from the relative simplicity of non-payment; which is not necessarily replicated by the industrial, and other direct, action we need.  But because it illustrates the scale of the challenge, and reminds us of our own potential, it is useful for comparison. Like the anti-poll tax movement, we must build from below, and make our agenda disruption, not just demands.

The alliances we need, the alliances we don’t

Richard argues for “a multi-party, multi-organisation, trade union-based united front, the sole criterion for unity within it being agreement on the objective of preventing the cuts and advancing alternatives”. In particular, he emphasises the importance of the Labour Party, which “remains rooted in the organised working class”.

Richard doesn’t say what sort of alliance with what sort of Labour Party figures he’s thinking of, or what such an alliance should do. To give this some concrete form: should we invite Labour councillors or MPs to speak at anti-cuts meetings?  In general, with a very few honourable exceptions, I would argue against this. Why?  Firstly, these figures are not only unwilling but, more importantly, unable to mobilise the sort of action that we need.  Think about the Labour MP near you.  Is it conceivable that they would back a call for unofficial strikes, and more importantly, even if they did, would anyone you know listen to them?  Would anyone you know apart from party members go to a meeting because your local Labour MP was speaking? The Labour Party has changed a lot—though even 20 years ago, it opposed the non-payment campaign which beat the poll tax, and even then they were not necessary to its success. It attracts votes, and some fairly passive membership, on the simple basis that it is not quite as bad as the Tories—this is why we have seen membership, and votes in many core constituencies, rise, even though the party is historically unpopular. There is little positive identification and less mobilising power left.  We do need to work with those grassroots Labour Party members who are serious about resisting cuts. But rather than providing credibility to Labour MPs who want to posture against the cuts, we ought to relentlessly focus on building our own, organic leadership from below. In the time it takes any Labour MP to speechify, five public sector workers could have stood up and shared their experiences of work, and their hopes and fears of the future.  And it is this direct contact between workers and community members that a movement can be built upon. This said, if any Labour MP is willing and able to start seriously building for industrial action locally, we should work with them to do that: but what we shouldn’t do is give them a platform which they can use for their own ends, while ignoring ours.

For me, it makes no sense to decide the boundaries of your alliances, without first specifying what you want them to do. Form ought to follow function. The problem with an alliance based on agreement on objectives is that objectives are not enough to organise action, they are only enough to organise official agreement, in the form of manifestoes, statements, leaflets, marches—and so on. In order to organise action, it is more important to agree upon methods; and the more specific, particular and definite those methods the better.  This movement will be built from below: the new anti-cuts committees are the embryonic form of the alliances we must construct; bringing together community and workplace mactivists and organisations.


The old ways were not enough when capital was feeling politically amiable: they will certainly not be enough now.  I’ve claimed that a positive vision for public services, and public jobs, needs to be developed; we need to evaluate seriously what a movement mostly composed of working-class women needs; and that the basis for our alliances ought not to be abstract agreement on opposition to cuts, but calls for definite, specific, and militant action.  We need to revitalise the unemployed workers movement.  To prepare for this, we need to develop forms of class communication, propaganda and education which constantly expose the real meaning of “cuts” (the latest form of assault on the employment relationship and welfare state established during the post-war boom) , and argue that we must not, do not have to, accept them.

If your town or area doesn’t already have an anti-cuts committee, consider setting one up, perhaps through a local trades council; if there is one, join, and try to make it open, practical, and militant.  Whether you choose to organise directly through the union, or with the assistance of a rank-and-file group of some kind, start to organise and agitate—now. Perhaps these things seem hopeless now, but at times like this they often do and yet often before militants and movements have made the unexpected real.