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The anti-cuts movement needs direction

It is easy to take for granted that we have a movement against this Government at all. We’re only 9 months into Cameron’s Britain, and already thousands of people are willing to march again and again in freezing temperatures. On Saturday’s anti-cuts demo in London, I felt the same pride I have felt at each protest. It is an inspiring thing to march with thousands of equally angry and determined protesters. Significant numbers of young people – until recently, mocked for being more interested in X-Factor than something as uncool as politics – have become radicalised in a very short period of time. That has never happened to quite this extent in my (relatively short) lifetime.

You were waiting for a ‘but’, so here it is. A familiar comment I heard at the protest was: ‘Where are we going?’ They were actually talking about where the actual demonstration was heading, but that wasn’t the only thing that felt directionless. Unless the emergent anti-cuts movement develops a coherent political strategy, I do not believe that it will maintain momentum.

If you’ve endured my ramblings on this blog before, you will know that I have previously argued against the ‘leaderless movement’ strategy that still retains its popularity. I have never been in favour of it, but at least before the critical tuition fees vote there was an obvious goal to keep a coherent movement together. It was the most obvious example of a Government implementing policies for which it had no mandate. We occupied our universities and built protests in the run-up to the vote. But when that Parliamentary vote was (predictably) lost, that one unifying, immediate cause was lost.

Saturday was the first big demo since tuition fees passed the big Parliamentary hurdle, and the tone was very different. It felt aimless: both in terms of where we were physically marching to (which was unclear) and what we were actually marching about. There was no clear message: just general opposition to the Government and its cuts offensive. There was nothing obvious we were building towards; no overall strategy for stopping Cameron’s policies in their tracks, or even bringing the Tories down.

I spoke to a few protesters, and I was struck by their confusion. A couple of young men, probably no older than 19 or 20, wondered if I knew where we were marching to. I asked them what they felt about the demonstrations as a whole. “I just don’t know what the plan is – I don’t know what our message is.”

After a protracted – but scenic march – around central London, some of us ended up at the Egyptian Embassy. I’m all for showing our solidarity with the Egyptian people, but it felt as though we were there because, in the absence of any other obvious destination, it was as good a place as any.

I don’t believe in writing posts that just whinge about a state of affairs without suggesting any positive alternatives. I’m just a rank-and-file activist, and my ideas should be just be taken as input into the democratic, wide-ranging debate that we should be engaging in.

Firstly, I strongly believe that the anti-cuts movement needs a democratically elected leadership. They would be our spokespeople, who would articulate our alternatives to this Government’s policies to a wider audience. Of course, they would need to be subject to accountable, democratic structures – with the ability to recall them.

Secondly, we need clear goals that we can unite around. This would include an end to cuts, with progressive economic policies based on growth (drawing from, for example, False Economy and the Left Economics Advisory Panel); a clampdown on tax evasion and avoidance (an issue put on the agenda by UKUncut); the imposition of higher taxes on the wealthy, financial institutions and big business; and free education. We should present clear alternatives in a language that resonates with working people across the country.

Thirdly, the labour movement needs to take the lead. Trade unions are, by far, the biggest democratically-run civil society organisations in the country. They represent seven million workers. They have the potential to mobilise huge numbers of people – and the people we need to get out on the streets if we are going to have a shot at bringing this Government down. With coordinated strike action on the agenda, and the TUC’sbig march on 26th March, there is good grounds to believe the baton of opposition will now pass to the labour movement.

Fourthly, the movement needs to go in hard against the Government’s lack of a democratic mandate. The last time the Tories won a general election was 1992. They lost the 2010 general election, gaining only 36% of the vote – despite the most favourable political conditions possible. And yet they are imposing some of the most radical and divisive policies ever imposed by a government in post-war Britain: the economics clearly hail from the hardcore Tory Right, and are beyond what Thatcher dreamed of getting away with. The Tories are only in power because of an alliance with a party that campaigned against those policies. And take the attempted privatisation of the NHS: a policy never even put to the electorate.

‘This Government has no mandate’ should be one of the key slogans of the movement (or something catchier – slogans aren’t really my thing). It is what gives us a moral right – some would say duty – to organise against those quatting in Number 10.

Fifthly, the movement needs to work out its relationship to the Labour Party. I have an interest to declare here: I’m a long-standing member of the Labour left, and an active member of my local Party. I am not calling for the anti-cuts movement to be subsumed into the Party. The anger at New Labour – whether over Iraq, or for laying the basis of many current Tory policies (from marketising the NHS to top-up fees) – remains  understandably very real throughout the movement. What has struck me about the newly radicalised young activists is how politically astute they are. One EMA kid from a sixth-form saw my Labour Party sticker, and took me up on it.

But the movement needs to realise that, if the Government falls, its replacement will be Labour. That means at least part of its strategy should be about imposing its demands on the Party. Labour’s internal political situation remains in the balance, but the appointment of Ed Balls as Shadow Chancellor has undoubtedly strengthened the hand of the anti-cuts movement. Most of the trade unions who will soon be mobilising are affiliated to the Party. I’m not asking activists to snap up Party cards and take on the beleaguered Blairites, as much as I would like that to happen: I’m asking them to put maximum pressure on the Labour leadership to force them to take up many of our demands. If Labour then returns to power, the movement can mobilise to force the new government to stick to its word.

That means Labour activists need to change their attitude, too. LabourList’s Mark Ferguson shared some of my frustration at the lack of political direction, but wrongly argues for Labour to disengage. That would exacerbate the problem that he identifies, and leave a vacuum that would be filled by the very elements he strongly opposes. I want to see local parties mobilising for each demonstration (as Hackney Labour, for example, is now doing for the 26th March TUC demonstration), and Party banners at each and every protest and strike picket line, showing that we stand with all those fighting this Government.

Some in the Labour Party are arguing the day of reckoning will not be until the next election, expected at some point in 2015. I believe it would be a disaster if the Tories are allowed to remain in power until then, dismantling the welfare state with their ‘shock-and-awe’ programme, and devastating working-class communities for the third time in as many decades. If that is allowed to happen, I predict Labour will come to power and argue that it would be politically impossible to reverse much of what the Tories did.

Peaceful movements have toppled governments in Western democracies before – like Britain’s Ted Heath in 1974; and the anti-poll tax movement had a critical role in taking Thatcher down in 1990. In France, the policies of Alan Juppé’s right-wing government were defeated by strikes and protests in 1995, fatally wounding him. And there’s a key difference: our Government has no mandate for the policies it is pursuing. The anti-cuts movement has the ability to take it down. But, unless it has an effective leadership and clear political direction, it will – I believe – fizzle out. That’s what happened to the amorphous anti-globalisation movement at the turn of the century. There is no reason to believe it will be any different this time around.


  1. Steve Kelly says:

    Why isn’t Ed Miliband taking up the cudgels? His current style of leadership is weak and limp. As someone who rejoined the Labour Party in the hope they will move away from New Labour and put fire in the belly of the party like the old days, I am highly disappointed.

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