Barry Biddulph was at the first steering committee meeting of the Sheffield anti-cuts group.
Fifty members of the Sheffield anti cuts campaign gathered in the Sheffield Trades and Labour Club to discuss the way forward for the campaign with their steering committee. One member raised the question of whether the anti cuts organisation was called a campaign or an alliance. A question which illustrated two tendencies in the organisation: Those members who want a grass roots socialist/communism from below approach for an independent militant campaign and the platform of temporary officials – Marion Lloyd of PCS and the Socialist Party, Ben Morris of SWP and NUT and chair Martin Mayer of Unite who were for a top down, large trade union-led alliance of delegates accountable to trade union officials. Essentially, despite differences in their individual positions, they all stand for a radical trades council structure.
Martin Meyer in one of his many speeches from the chair, warned the meeting that the local trade union leaders should not be alienated from the campaign. It seems the anti cuts alliance, or coalition, should only be active on terms acceptable to the trade union bureaucracy. He gave an example of the caution we should exercise by saying the trades council is still divided over the anti cuts organisation. Although, the district Labour party is interested so if we behave ourselves these labour movement bodies might give us their support. Marion Lloyd’s view is that the best approach is to put pressure on the local trade union leaders to lead the fight. To be fair to Ben Morris, his view is not so much a radical trades council structure, but a council of action led by the large trade union delegates. In his syndicalist imagination the trade unions with the largest industrial clout would lead the way.
The speakers from the floor were slow to assert themselves due to the complete lack of structure to the meeting, the lack of an agenda in advance of the meeting and the blatant attempted manipulation of the meeting by the chair. Martin Mayer has problems with democratic procedure. His response to motions tabled by members of The Commune was to state that he had difficulty with them. That is to say he disagreed with them, so he did not want to put them to the meeting. However, the points made by a speaker from The Commune arguing that the campaign should be opened up from below with group and small workplace representation, students, unemployed, tenants and so on was well received and represented the majority view of the meeting. In the debate that followed, the majority were for opening up the campaign in that way, including the regional organiser of the Socialist Party who had a different emphasis to his comrade Marion Lloyd. Members of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty involved in the campaign were also in favour of more democracy.
Unfortunately the chair did not take a formal vote to confirm more flexible representation, but the mood of the meeting was clear. Many said that their trade union branch meetings were poorly attended and that it was not just about huge passive trade union membership but active trade union campaigners. Others, including a member of The Commune, pointed to the student spirit of resistance that had not come through formal NUS delegations and the poll tax campaign which won on the streets and in the community. Some said they were members of small trade unions but wanted representation. Other complained about the leaders of their trade union branches who often did not hold regular meetings or were not motivated by a desire to fight the bosses. A number of examples of the effects of the cuts were given including the cashiers from Howden House. Speakers from the floor recommended militant tactics for the campaign such as occupations and sit-ins as well as militant street protests.
One Commune motion which the chair was not happy about was the request for a meeting to discuss an alternative to the coalition’s cuts. Without any kind of debate or discussion, a Keynesian reformist ‘make Britain fairer’ perspective had been put forward as if it was the agreed policy of the campaign. This was not voted on and became forgotten about in the chair’s filibustering and angry anti theory comments such as “talk of Keynesian economics is intellectual masterbation”. And “we do not want rules and votes, we want action”. The third motion from The Commune again failed to win approval from the chair. Although the majority in the meeting were clearly and loudly in favour of observers at steering committee meetings having speaking rights. The chair acknowledged this but drew the line at voting rights for everyone in the campaign meetings. The chair put forward his own motion against voting rights and only a minority held up their hands but in the confusion of his convoluted chairing the majority abstained, so only speaking rights were agreed. Nevertheless, this is still is a positive step forward.