Britain - after the 26th March, what next?

Apr/Jun 2011

The number of people who went on the 26th March demonstration against the cuts is estimated to have been between 250,000 and 500,000! That speaks for itself - maybe a quarter of a million, maybe half a million - it was so big that nobody seems to have been able to make an accurate count and even the government did not dare to question the figures!

From early in the morning, coaches were arriving from all parts of the country. Some travelled overnight, some came the night before. There were contingents from the north of Scotland and the south-west of Cornwall. Huge union banners, big balloons, homemade placards, inventive costumes, a surprising number of young people, pensioners, but of course, since this march was called by the TUC, it was union members, mainly from the public sector, who formed the core of it.

While the demonstrators were assembling for the start time of 12 midday along the Victoria Embankment, all the way up to Blackfriars, new arrivals had to form contingents south of the river, and then there were several (unofficial) feeder-marches from other parts of London which joined up once the march was going. This is probably why the demonstration as a whole turned out to be too large to manage and why marchers were still entering Hyde Park long after the speeches were over, up to 6pm. The day before, the official estimates for its expected size had been between 100-200,000.

But there it was, enormous, lively, loud (there were lots of bands and drummers) and very vocal. Because this was the first time since the beginning of the crisis, with the bank bail out, the first austerity measures under Labour, followed by the Con-Dem victory and their austerity, that workers had the chance to join ranks and express their opinion about these concerted attempts to make them pay for the bosses' crisis!

It was undoubtedly an impressive show of collective strength, exposing the claim that the working class is somehow a "spent force", ever since the defeat of the 1984-5 miners' strike. If proof was needed!

And yes, it was late in the day. But it was not too little! At the same time, this march definitely showed one thing: that when union leaders have the will to mobilise workers, they are perfectly capable of doing so, and workers respond to their calls.

What is that "alternative"?

Having mounted such a successful demonstration of strength and such a spectacular show of workers' discontent, what were the aims of the TUC leaders? They described the march as a protest against the "government's plans for fast, deep, public spending cuts" nd "for the alternative"

But what is their alternative? As they imply, that the cuts should not be so fast, and not be so deep. The literature and web documents provided on the site for the march and on the "False Economy" ebsite, which is sponsored by the TUC and various "left" Labour think tanks, is plentiful.

And in short, "the alternative" revolves mainly around alternative taxation scenarios, although "the aim of False Economy is not to put forward a detailed alternative, but to challenge the myth that there are no alternatives" Of course that can only really hand the initiative over to the Labour Party, whose host of economists are ready to step in with a "detailed" plan.

But what do our protagonists actually say? Instead of cutting £4 worth of expenditure for every £1 worth of tax raised, as the Coalition plans, the economy should be allowed to "grow", which would help "automatically", to close the deficit. Simply put, they assert that by getting the unemployed back to work, placing a "Robin Hood tax" on financial transactions, a "low-carbon" future with a "green" state bank to provide investment for "green jobs", enough tax will be raised to close the deficit, eventually!

The link to the document produced by the left-wing Labour grouping, Compass, "In Place of Cuts: Tax reform to build a fairer society" eads one to a slightly more explicit "alternative", of taxing the rich more, minimising tax avoidance, cutting Trident and other defence spending, cutting prison spending and so on, and they even show that by also re-nationalising PFI schemes around £3.3bn could be saved per annum, which with the other cuts would reduce the deficit almost completely.

It is true to say that many points which all these pressure groups make, about ways to plug the deficit, show how easy it would be to improve the situation - even within the limits imposed by today's capitalist system. But this only begs the question: why on earth has the Labour Party - which all of these groups are part of - never even tried to implement any of these changes, even if it did propose, vaguely, a "green jobs" agenda and "fund for jobs".

And there is the nub of the problem. Even when the Labour government had the possibility of creating jobs to "grow" the economy after the bank crash, while still in government, in particular in the public sector, it was cutting jobs furiously. In their last year in government tens of thousands were cut and most of the Con-Dem cuts were pencilled in already, over a slightly longer period. And that is not to mention the huge job cuts in Royal Mail, the Civil Service and local government even before 2008.

The truth of the matter is that the government, whether Labour or Tory, is in office to do what the City dictates. And if it runs out of steam and support, because its City-friendly policies are unpopular, there is always the other party - or Con-Dem mixture as we have today - to take its place.

This is why "mainstream Labour", that is, the shadow cabinet led, Ed Miliband, confines its rhetoric against the government to proposing different kinds of "fair cuts", while trying to distance itself from Labour's past. Because it knows that its real audience and the one it has to convince, is the City of London. How can Labour in government "tax the rich", get rid of tax avoidance and havens, when it has never, ever, done so while it had more than enough opportunities?

When even the slightest hint of it was made, the City's protests soon put paid to it, and indeed Labour's record in government was to reduce tax for the rich where it counted - cutting corporation tax and tax on profits - in fact more than the Con-Dem even dare to propose, so far.

So Labour just speaks about having different priorities - while in actual fact, making all the cuts at local level in councils where it is in control, in line with the Coalition's imposed budget restrictions - cuts to frontline services, the lot. In these councils, there is no question of resistance, no hint of an "alternative"! And when local campaigners dare to question their policy by staging noisy protests outside council meetings, the only response is to call the police, just like in any Tory-controlled council! Actions speak louder than words, after all. One can only wonder how Labour can conduct with credibility, any campaign at all, for the 5th May local elections!

Indeed, the only "alternative" to the Con-Dem cuts is Labour cuts - and always at the expense of the working class.

Talk out or walkout?

There was only one "platform" voice raised on the 26th which was more lucid than most. That was the leader of the PCS, Mark Serwotka - with the reputation for being on the "left": "We must oppose every single cut in public spending. No cuts. No Cuts whatsoever. And why do we oppose every cut? Because if we don't we will have to choose between young people and pensioners; between public sector and private sector; between those on welfare and those in work. We should defend every student, every pensioner and every worker wherever they are."He continued: "Now look around you in this park. Imagine what it would be if we didn't only march together, we took strike action together across all of our public services.[...] We are stronger when we march together, so let's ensure that we strike together to let the government know we won't accept it."Of course Serwotka is just saying what a lot of workers think and know. The problem is that his own record of "strike" proves that what he considers a strike is merely a protest - a bit like a version of the demonstration, where all participants say they are against the cuts on the day appointed by the union leaderships and then go back to work the next day. Most workers know that doesn't work. It has not worked in the case of his own civil service union members.

But then again, what has not been seen in this country is a wave of protests like those staged in other European countries, like France and Greece, among others, against exactly the same kind of austerity measures aimed at the working class - protests which have the advantage of allowing all sections of workers and youth to join in according to their possibilities, while building up a rising momentum and raising the threat of a more radical mobilisation which could threaten the capitalists' profits.

Going one step further, what has not been seen either - probably not since the 1926 general strike - is a co-ordinated fight back, which is actually organised to stop the economy, keep it stopped and control social circulation and necessary distribution for workers and poor via "councils of action"! For co-ordinated strikes to be really effective that is what is required and it can only be achieved if workers are controlling their own strike activities without the burden of leaders who only want to make a gesture and then get their Labour Party comrades, or should we say "colleagues", back into government.

For good measure, the TUC ensured that Ed Miliband was given a place on the platform, even though he did not dare to join the march for fear of being lampooned by the Con-Dems in the House.

The TUC's choice (and that is exemplified in the above quote by Serwotka) to confine this march to the "public sector" probably should set the red lights flashing anyway. Because there was little or no attempt to involve the very massive battalions of workers in the private sector - from the car workers and steel workers to the former public utility workers! Just think if they had been encouraged to come - there could have been over a million or even several million marching on the day! Yes, because there are 23 million workers in the private sector compared to only 6.2 million in public services!

It is true that there were some private sector workers on the march - of course there were. But they had come under their own steam, mostly, or due the strength of good local organisation, influenced by left political activists, or because their traditions of solidarity had been retained.

And yet, if there was ever a time and an opportunity to mobilise jointly in the private and public sectors, this was it. Because despite the media campaign to create divisions between public and private sector workers - over pensions for instance (dealt with in this issue of CS) - the present attacks, precisely on pensions, services, the NHS, increased NI contributions, and general price increases - all of these are the common interests of all workers and every worker feels under attack today in one way or another. Therefore it should be a question of seizing the time and getting all workers - private sector and public sector, together - against the cuts!

So. The momentum and the sense of collective strength displayed by the marchers of the 26th should not be wasted. However, if something is to come out of it, the impetus, and the initiative, will have to come from the rank and file workers who are in the frontline of the cuts - and in such a way that it leaves no option for union leaderships butto offer another such opportunity and very soon. Because the problem we face right now is that large sections of our ranks in the working class need to have a chance to regain confidence in their own ability to fight. It is opportunities such as these that provide some sense that this is possible, but that reality will have to be forced on the union leadership by workers acting in advance, on their own volition.