Solidarity and concrete action
Last weekend’s demonstration was dominated by the politics of Corbynism, writes Peter Manson
Organised by the People’s Assembly, the April 16 anti-austerity demonstration was undoubtedly a success in terms of the numbers mobilised - it always boosts the confidence of those engaged in a struggle when they are able to come together with tens of thousands of like-minded others.
As we have pointed out on several occasions, it is important not to overstate things, and maintain a sense of proportion as to exactly where we are in the long-term struggle to transform society. Certainly the 50,000 or so who turned up, in a period when the organisations of the Marxist left are in an appallingly weak state, is no mean achievement - but that does not equate to a politically organised mass movement that knows what must be done and how to do it.
However, a sense of proportion is not something PA leaders - mainly the ex-Socialist Workers Party comrades who are now organised in the Counterfire group - are renowned for. Thus, in its post-demonstration circular issued on April 19, the PA stated:
On Saturday April 16 at least 150,000 people descended on the capital to make our key demands of this Tory government. The anti-austerity movement mounted a huge display of strength on the streets, is growing in strength and will keep coming back until this government is gone.
As if demonstrations and their size determines who is in government. But that is what counts as strategy in the PA. But at least its claimed figure is not so absurdly exaggerated as was the “quarter million” who allegedly rallied to the PA’s previous national demonstration in June 2015.
And lack of strategic thinking is not confined to Counterfire alone. At the Trafalgar Square rally, following the march through central London, when the chair declared that “150,000” were in attendance, this prompted the following speaker - Communication Workers Union general secretary Dave Ward - to remark: “If you can get 150,000 out on the streets, we’re well on the way to kicking the Tories out of office.”
The truth is that the Conservatives - and the establishment as a whole - are hardly quaking in their boots at the thought of being driven out of office by a mass movement from below. True, the BBC gave the demonstration prominent coverage and a number of Sunday newspapers (although not all) mentioned it, but it did not quite manage to relegate pictures of the royal couple in front of the Taj Mahal off the front pages.
But comrade Ward did usefully summarise the kind of immediate tasks that must be undertaken in order to build a fightback, when he ended his speech by identifying three basic requirements: first, the unorganised must be won to “join a union”; secondly, everyone should “join the People’s Assembly” (it does not actually have an individual membership structure, but you know what he means); and, finally, we must “back Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell”.
The final point encapsulates the kind of politics that now dominates such events. Thousands have been, quite rightly, encouraged and invigorated by comrade Corbyn’s election as Labour Party leader, but that is about as far as it goes: there is no clear idea of where this takes us - apart from waiting for 2020 (or hoping that some catastrophe befalls the Tories before then, causing an early general election).
But at least this (admittedly uncritical) support for the new Labour leadership is an improvement on the politics (or rather lack of it) that Counterfire comrades like John Rees and Lindsey German used to foster in the PA, and before that in the Stop the War Coalition, prior to Corbyn’s victory. Of course, in the heyday of the STWC they were leaders of the SWP, and they saw organisations like Stop the War as conduits into the revolutionary group they headed.
Not that they ever let revolutionary politics - or any kind of coherent politics - pass their lips from STWC platforms. The aim seemed to be to ‘build the movement’ almost for its own sake, not to take the working class forward in a political sense. And today, now that they have long parted company with the SWP, they are in no position to offer a substitute - unlike the SWP, Counterfire at least has the honesty not to call itself a “party”.
However, as I have stated, mass demonstrations are today typically imbued with the politics of Corbynism - and comrades Rees and German are quite happy to go along with this. Sure, Green Party leader Natalie Bennett featured on the platform, but her support for the four priorities identified by the PA - health, homes, jobs and education - was not at all different from those of the union general secretaries and Labour’s shadow chancellor, John McDonnell. The difference was, it was comrade McDonnell - and Corbyn himself, whose message was conveyed by video - who generated the huge cheers.
McDonnell - introduced by chair Steve Turner, the assistant general secretary of Unite, as the “next chancellor of the exchequer” - started by conveying “solidarity greetings from Jeremy Corbyn”. He went on to say: “This Labour leadership will be with you” in every struggle. “We salute the junior doctors and we will be on the picket line on every occasion.” And “If the teachers take industrial action, we’ll be with them in solidarity.” As for steelworkers, comrade McDonnell promised: “If we have to nationalise in the short term”, then that is what Labour would do.
(Note, by the way, the rider, “in the short term” - McDonnell does not want to alarm capital by giving the impression that widespread, permanent nationalisation is on the cards under Labour. Mind you, I am not sure how a later speaker, south Wales steelworker Mark Turner, would have taken that. He thought that the priority was not just to save his fellow workers’ jobs, but to “save manufacturing”.)
Comrade McDonnell also promised: “As a Labour government, we will end austerity, halt the privatisation of the NHS, build hundreds of thousands of homes and restore disability benefits.” Exactly what the thousands listening wanted to hear - although, of course, it remains to be seen how a Corbyn-led Labour government would cope with the realities of office if elected. His commitment to “work to bring this government down at the first opportunity” also went down well, of course. But, responding to the Panama scandal, he promised rather vaguely to “make the rich and the corporations pay their way in our society”. But it was enough to earn another round of prolonged applause and cheers.
Similar sentiments - and frequently a similar degree of vagueness - were echoed by other speakers. For example, Christine Blower, National Union of Teachers general secretary, was for “a fair and just society, where refugees are welcome and we can protect our planet”. And she stated the need to “march together, demonstrate together, strike together” in the meantime. Owen Jones too wanted to “build a different society” - one that was “based on the real wealth-creators, in the interests of the majority”.
When it came to the current anti-Cameron mood following Panama, comrade Turner led the way from the chair, when he said in his opening, “Cameron, you must go!” And added: “Take the rest of the Tory thieves with you.” He thought that “Today represents everyone working together in the interests of the majority” and promised: “We will continue the struggle until the Tories are kicked out of No10” - before adding: “And we’ll make sure they never get there again!”
Unite general secretary Len McCluskey, like other union leaders, expressed his solidarity with the junior doctors. But, also like other union leaders on the platform, did not commit to anything concrete. Nevertheless, his statement that “The only thing I’ve got from Panama is a hat” went down well, as did his advice to Cameron: “Slope off to one of your tax havens!”
Yannis Gourtsoyannis of the British Medical Association’s junior doctors committee reminded us that medics were about to escalate industrial action - next week will see two consecutive 8am-5pm strikes with no emergency cover - and described the Tories as a “government of tax evaders, for tax evaders”. He then added the rather better and more accurate description: “a government of capital, for capital”.
The one speaker who was not received in a totally positive fashion was actor, writer and director Jolyon Rubinstein. He included the police - “who are also suffering from thousands of cuts” - amongst those we must defend: “The police are not your enemy,” he declared. “Make them your friend.” This prompted an immediate response from Roger McKenzie, the black assistant general secretary of Unison, who remarked: “This is the first demonstration I’ve ever been on where I’ve been asked to love the police!”
As for John Rees himself, he spoke out in favour of the June 18 pro-migrant Convoy to Calais, jointly organised by the PA, STWC, the SWP’s Stand Up to Racism and Momentum, and supported by “major trade unions, including Unite, CWU, NUT and many others”. Comrade Rees perhaps summed up the politics of the occasion when he said: “It’s time for the Tories to go and refugees to come!”
Possibly the most powerful speaker was Danielle Tiplady of Bursary or Bust, which campaigns against the proposed introduction of tuition fees for trainee nurses. She said: “I came into nursing because I care for every one of you, but now someone like me will be blocked” - many will not be able to afford the fees. She reported: “I see nurses crying on their own in the staff room” because of inadequate staffing levels and the resultant burden of work. And she ended with the militant call to “Reject the one percent! Fight for our patients! Ballot for industrial action!”
There was no doubting the sincerity of what she said, and the same applied to several other speakers. But afterwards the question still remained: how exactly will we “kick out the Tories”? And if we succeed, what then? How precisely and to what extent should we offer support to Corbyn and McDonnell?