Barry Biddulph found the Sheffield anti-cuts alliance heavier on top-table speakers than real politics or organisation
The second public meeting of the campaign against the cuts in Sheffield was was far smaller and less representative than the first founding meeting last year, despite the recent demos and strike votes. Less than one hundred people sat in a University lecture room with seats for five hundred, to listen to seven speakers. It was a trade union rally, not a meeting for activists to discuss the socialist alternative to the crisis of capitalism and how to organise to make the transition to a real movement.
The character of the speeches was very defensive. It was all about keeping what we had. Defending our welfare state against the Nasty Tories as if the Labour Party was not making cuts in Manchester and elsewhere. There was no criticism of the Labour Party or those union leaders reluctant to fight the cuts. The political implication of the speeches was the Labour Party could somehow represent the fight back or to register that there was a trade union fightback. There was no analysis of the economic crisis and no speaker including a Permanent Revolution supporter, mentioned the S word. John McDonnell MP came closest with his call for a new society.
The meeting was not so much about the campaign and its members, but about the two leaders of the campaign: Martin Mayer, a left-talking executive member of UNITE, and Ben Morris of the local Socialist Workers’ Party. They are chair and vice chair of the local trades council. This partnership between the SWP and Martin Mayer was recently jeopardised when a UNITE member wrote an article in Socialist Worker criticising the British Airways sell-out deal and UNITE leader Len McCluskey’s role in it. Martin Mayer considered such internal criticism of the left-talking leader of UNITE to be ‘ultra-left’ scabbing on the union.
The SWP, fearful of its alliance with union officialdom, rushed to apologise or claim a misunderstanding of the article. In Sheffield the alliance with Martin Mayer was consolidated when Ben Morris posted on the anti cuts campaign e-mail list a call for the campaign not interfere in the internal affairs of the local Unison council branch. This is an old bureaucratic Labourite and Stalinist argument. According
to Morris the anti-cuts campaign should not support those Unison members petitioning to claim back their branch from right-wing union leaders in partnership with the management. Regional officers have now put the branch in special measures following the dramatic loss of members.
But the Unison leaders have failed to fight the cuts. Rod Padley, Unison branch secretary, has been hostile to the anti-cuts campaign, but campaign members are expected to gag themselves and not criticise from the outside.
Ben Morris made the opening speech of the rally. He celebrated what he described as massive votes for strike action by various unions including the PCS and the NUT. He mocked the Government who wanted to say trade unionists could retain the right to strike as long as they did not exercise the right. There was tonnes for the campaign members to do. It was all about instilling confidence in the working class to move to a general strike. The aims of the general strike were left unspecified.
Andy Smith, a Permanent Revolution supporter, teacher at Sheffield College, and member of UCU, made a powerful trade union speech. Andy and UCU members battled for four months against the threat of 120 compulsory redundancies at the college. The teaching staff had voted 196-4 in favour of strike action. Six strike days had already taken place. Now a deal which would not involve compulsory redundancies was close. It was not about negotiating skills but industrial militancy. It was not the students or teachers that had caused the economic crisis. We were not all in this together, it was class war.
Liz Lawrence of the UCU also raised the banner of class war. It was not just about defending education from the cuts, but transforming education and the unions. The Hutton Report was absurd in seeing decent pensions as a problem. Pensions were simply a debt owed to workers. If the TUC wanted concessions we should reject this approach. The employers would only come back for more. The speaker was very much against any two tier system of pensions which would divide and rule trade unionists.
The keynote speech came from John McDonnell, the Labour MP. We must protect the welfare state created by the Labour Party, undermined by New Labour and now attacked by the Tories. The struggle against the Coalition government which Lib Dem voters had not voted for, was the biggest crisis we have faced since the Great Depression. Recession turned into depression in the 1930s due to cuts.
This lesson had not been learned. We should take the old slogan of ‘never again’ seriously. Employment, council housing, benefits and education were all under threat. Community care grants were to be abolished and food vouchers from local councils would replace them. Cuts in housing benefits would make people homeless. Brick by brick, week by week the Tories were destroying what Labour had
built. We could riot or be consumed by alcohol or drugs.We should fight for a new society. The chair of the campaign called not for socialism or something called a new society but to make the rich pay: a fairer capitalism.
The members of the left groups and well known trade union activists in the audience were presented with a description of the symptoms of the crisis rather than an analysis of what was taking place and what the alternative was. John Mcdonnell MP implied that the Labour Party could represent workers again and rebuild the welfare state, but did not put forward any intellectually coherent case for a new society. Capitalist welfare was built by Tories as much as Labour in the past. The fundamental differences between global capitalism today and the
welfare politics of the past were not examined. There was no coherent explanation of where we were and where we needed to get to.