First step taken

Tens of thousands who marched in Birmingham need answers

The mass demonstration in Birmingham on April 1 against the offloading of Rover cars to the vulture capitalists Alchemy illustrated some of the strengths and - crucially - many of the weaknesses of the organised workers' movement in Britain today.

The sheer size of the event - estimates vary between 80,000 and 130,000 - underlines that our trade unions remain intact and potentially very powerful. In particular the numbers on the march testify to the strength of local outrage at the looming jobs massacre and the ability of the unions to mobilise wide layers of society. In truth, national unions did not stretch themselves to build the demonstration. The local press and city council did as much. Overwhelmingly the demonstration was the result of spontaneity. It was composed of, first, Rover workers themselves; secondly, local working class people; thirdly, middle class sympathisers; and fourthly, the left. What could have been built if the national leaderships of the unions had the politics and the energy to respond to this attack and go on the offensive? Surely not just a demonstration, but a springboard for occupations and nationwide solidarity strikes.

Yet the blunt fact is that the leaders of the trade union movement do not have fighting politics, and the rank and file they lead currently have no independent class alternative. This means that the threat to workers' jobs and living standards is all the greater. The bureaucrats will, given the chance, trade them away to what the Morning Star cretinously calls a "bona fide manufacturer". Nevertheless, this demonstration was one of the biggest working class manifestations post-World War II - perhaps for Birmingham the biggest. It is certainly the largest working class demonstration in Britain since Blair came to power in May 1997.

At the Cannon Hill Park rally, the usual line-up of union general secretaries mouthed the usual empty platitudes - the need for government "intervention", the "betrayal" of a "loyal workforce", the call for BMW to recognise its "obligations" and so on. There were BMW workers there from Germany - brilliant - but they were not allowed to speak. TGWU negotiator Tony Woodley made the most significant speech. He explicitly told the assembled marchers to brace themselves for "thousands" of job losses. It was telling that his words were not drowned out by a chorus of angry protest and catcalls. In effect, he seemed to be articulating the perception of many of the Rover workers themselves - that without something dramatic happening, their jobs are already lost.

Communist Party comrades on the march reported that many they spoke to saw the sense of the occupation tactic being argued for by much of the left, our own organisation included. Yet there seemed little enthusiasm for actually doing it. The time has passed, some told us. Most would not support it, as they see it jeopardising redundancy agreements, others said.

The vast majority of Rover workers do not as yet have political horizons that go beyond the dictates of the market, even implicitly. Huge defeats of the working class over the past 20 years - domestically and internationally - appear to have 'proved' that capitalism can only be pleaded with, ameliorated perhaps, but its iron laws cannot be bucked. Instructively, one experienced militant told us that there was a "missing element". After the sacking of Derek Robinson, the defeat of the shop stewards' committees, the mass redundancies, the speed-up deals and the collapse of community organisation, the tradition of militant trade unionism has simply "ceased to exist". On that we will wait and see. The fact is that an occupation of this shop or that vital point by a militant minority - 50 or 100 workers - would instantly galvanise the majority.

Ideologically the problem is obvious. Once the needs of profit-making are recognised as paramount, how can the decision of the BMW board of directors be effectively fought? After all, it is a pretty safe bet that they know rather more about money-making than your average trade union official. Clearly, we need a type of politics that fights for what our class needs, not what the current profit margins of any capitalist enterprise tell us can be afforded.

Without such a programme, other politics gain hegemony over the movement. The April 1 demo had been supported and built for by a section of the local business class and Birmingham city council. In a double page spread under the headline, 'Why I support Longbridge', the city's Evening Mail featured such 'friends' of the workers as Dave Daily Sport Sullivan and the shadow trade secretary, Angela Browning.

Sullivan in particular had some particularly noxious words of advice: "People in London couldn't care less what's happening in the Midlands," he told readers. "The government were spivved by the Germans and they should do something about it. They should have bought Rover back for the country, put it to right and then re-privatised it again . One thing I will never do now is buy a BMW. Anyone who does in the next five years is a traitor."

The 'Battle of Britain' theme is pushed elsewhere in the same paper with the Dad's Army headline, 'Who do you think you are kidding, BMW?'

Despite this reactionary barrage, there was only a smattering of union jacks (the Labour Party's placards were left in gratifyingly huge piles by the side of the road and had to be removed by stewards to avoid accidents). SWP placards were more in evidence, while official union placards easily dominated. There certainly was, however, a fair degree of nationalism and - more noticeably - parochialism. Comrades from outside the Midlands experienced some hostility when they approached local workers selling badges for the London Socialist Alliance. Because it was London.

However, this sort of response is unsurprising when a mass of previously non-militant workers moves into action for the first time. If the struggle goes forward, such backward ideas will quickly be neutralised and then left behind.

Much of the left appears on the surface to have a common line on the threat to Rover workers - centrally, occupation of Longbridge and nationalisation under workers' control. However, if the struggle develops, many latent differences will surface.

For example, a Kevin Ovenden article in Socialist Worker - 'Nationalisation: how it could work' - illustrates precisely how we should not call for state intervention (April 1).

Comrade Ovenden's scenario goes something like this. Nationalisation can only be won through mass workers' action and strikes. A nationalised car firm would face the same problems as a private company - a glutted world market. Therefore, the government would need to transfer the workers skills and the available technology to "buses and trams" to provide a "decent public transport system". It would quickly dawn on such a government that "nationalising one firm alone will not put a stop to the insanities of the system". Thus, other industries - "such as steel and ship-building" - would need to be nationalised. "The state would have to seize more and more of the bosses' wealth and develop a plan for the economy that put the needs of workers at its centre." The resultant "bitter opposition" from the capitalists - usually Labour governments buckle at this point - would need to be met by workers struggles and then revolution, he implies.

This 'national' approach is strangely reminiscent of the programmatic method of 'official communism' for much of the post-war period. Today it is embodied in Peter Taaffe's Socialist Party. It is disaster politics for our class. Capital exists internationally and therefore must be superseded internationally too.

Mark Fischer