Osborne the butcher
Cuts campaigns should move towards unity, says James Turley
George Osborne’s much hyped spending review turned out to be every bit as draconian as we all expected. Under the absurd pretext of the vital necessity to tackle the budget deficit as a matter of the utmost urgency, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition is seizing the opportunity to launch a full-scale assault on workers’ jobs and conditions, on public services and on benefits in order to claw back the working class gains of the last half-century, weaken trade union organisation and significantly shift the balance of power in favour of capital.
The Tories say they expect to slash public sector jobs by almost 490,000, but the figure could be as high as 700,000, according to some estimates. And readers will know the details of the vicious attacks on sickness and other welfare benefits, council rents, higher education, transport subsidies and leisure, to name but a few. And the state pension age is to go up sooner than expected, on the recommendation of Labour turncoat John Hutton. All this follows hot on the heels of the review of defence spending (cut by 8%), which contains some priceless nuggets of fiscal stupidity - £5 billion is to be spent on new aircraft carriers ... but there is no money to fit them out with planes. If the pet projects of the military-industrial complex can be axed, no-one should be surprised at what is in store for workers’ jobs, benefits and services.
The next few years, then, are likely to be a brutal experience. It is to be expected that people will act, however ineffectively, to defend public services on which they rely - after all, as bureaucratised as, say, the benefits system is, it is the difference between life (generously defined) and death for a great many people. The same is true of the NHS (day-to-day spending has been more or less maintained, but much needed capital projects have been junked) and so on.
What sort of resistance can we expect? Unfortunately, as I have reported for this paper previously, the number of pretenders to leadership of ‘the fightback’ is growing. Rather than honestly attempting to hammer out a common strategy, the various fragments of the left - true to form - prefer to conjure ‘broad’ front organisations out of thin air. The three top dogs at the present time are Right to Work, the Coalition of Resistance against Cuts and Privatisation and the National Shop Stewards Network. They are dominated by the Socialist Workers Party, Counterfire and the Socialist Party in England and Wales respectively.
Right to Work and the NSSN are likely to clash regularly - after all, they are principally fighting for the same constituency of trade union officialdom. The NSSN, in fact, is quite misleadingly named, as its policies and practices are generally targeted at keeping things safe for the Socialist Party’s approved functionaries, though full-timers can participate only as observers.
The CRCP, meanwhile, has something of late Eurocommunism about it - a grand umbrella group, supported by numerous leftie personalities (the perennial Tony Benn is the main figurehead), with a ‘bishops to brickies’ model of building broad support. In this capacity, it has something of a pull on some SWP comrades even now. Several members have resigned in Norwich, citing the failure of RTW to “tap into the huge levels of anger against the class nature of the austerity measures (around bankers’ bonuses, etc)”. Rather absurdly, they believe that the CRCP has. (So, presumably, has George Osborne, whose spending review includes a number of swipes at banks - and at the last government for dealing with them rather too timidly.) It is a pretty childish resignation, as these things go, but it does demonstrate that the SWP has lost much of its movement-building sheen, even in the minds of many of its own members.
Of the three left organisations, SPEW does at least sometimes acknowledge the existence of its rivals, a change from the systematic blanking of ‘the sects’ it employed during its days as the Militant Tendency. A statement on its website makes an extended argument for its strategy (and its front, the NSSN), as against that of Counterfire and the CRCP, which - though disingenuous in places - is in fact relatively illuminating.
The SWP comes in for much criticism regarding the methods by which it builds its ‘united fronts’, the key example being the Stop the War Coalition. SPEW criticises the manner in which the SWP (when, before John Rees and Lindsey German defected to Counterfire, it more clearly ran the roost) tended to foist policy on STWC - an example given is the SWP decision to allow the Liberal Democrat leader to speak at the February 15 2003 mass demonstration in London. Against objections from many affiliated left organisations, “the SWP and their allies bulldozed the decision through the committee to allow a platform to the Liberal Democrats - without any public criticisms of them - before hundreds of thousands” (in fact, millions). “This burnished the ‘anti-war’ credentials of Charles Kennedy and the Lib Dems ... [and] undoubtedly helped to build up their ‘radical’ image”.
“Such mistakes,” the author correctly concludes, “can only be avoided in this battle if hard questions are asked about the character of the coming struggle, the best programme to defeat all the cuts, and the kind of organisations that are needed.”
Counterfire is criticised for effectively taking over this method - and indeed, such is to be expected, since its members broke off from the SWP precisely in defence of the STWC method of front-building. This time around, naturally, it is not Lib Dems playing the role of Greeks bearing gifts, but Labour grandees, with whose names the CRCP’s support base is liberally peppered. Such people, suggests SPEW, are compromised by their support for the last Labour government’s own programme of cuts. Serious united work with Labour figures should be conditional on their rejection of “smaller cuts over a longer period, as advocated by Labour-in-opposition against the big axe and swingeing cuts of the Con-Dem government”.
Apart from its mere existence as the only halfway serious critical document to be produced by one anti-cuts front about the others, there are two important points raised by SPEW’s statement. The first is that the programmatic basis for anti-cuts work in the coming period is of cardinal importance. It is something that should not need to be said - but this is the SWP and its offspring we are talking about here, for whom programme is purely and simply a dead weight and a distraction from provoking people into action - any action.
The other is the looming matter of the Labour Party - that organisation will be looking to encourage public dissatisfaction with government policy, but also to coopt it to its own ends. We know well enough that those ends are not exactly socialism - or even consistent opposition to cuts. The manner in which the far left deals with this problem is a matter of great significance.
Unfortunately, SPEW does not have the answers to the problems it raises. The NSSN does not even really have a programme at this point; just a vapid founding statement pledging “to offer support to TUC-affiliated trade unions in their campaigns and industrial disputes” and to “existing workplace committees and trades councils” - as well as non-interference in “established organisation and recruitment activity [and] in the internal affairs and elections of TUC-affiliated trade unions”. (Shop stewards, it seems, are all very well until they try to replace SPEW’s favourite bureaucrats.) If the NSSN did have a programme, we can very well predict what would be in it - apart from a denunciation of any and all cuts, a shopping list of left-Keynesian demands, without so much as a hint of an alternative society.
On the Labour Party, SPEW has a chequered history which is likely, at this point in the political cycle, to plunge it into confusion. Having been the largest, most successful and most dogmatic Labour entry group from the 1950s onwards, ongoing witch-hunts on the part of the Labour machine provoked the majority of Militant members to turn to work outside the party in the early 90s.
Unfortunately, they insisted on over-theorising this turn. Having made an orientation to Labour into the defining difference between authentic revolutionaries and petty bourgeois charlatans, they could only sell open work to the membership on the basis that Labour had qualitatively transformed itself into a common-or-garden bourgeois party.
Thirteen years of Labour government papered over the cracks in this theory, as it always does. Now that Labour is in opposition, however, there is a good chance it will shift to the left - in some ways, it already has. There will certainly not be any votes to be picked up by defending spending cuts when their impact really begins to be felt. The likes of the Socialist Party, meanwhile, will have to accept that there will be more than a few rogue Labour councillors prepared to talk a good talk on cuts.
As a matter of some urgency, the different cuts campaigns should move towards unity. They should do this not in the manner of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, with influential individuals cooking up a deal behind closed doors and presenting it to the befuddled masses, but democratically, with decisions taken transparently on the key matters of controversy.
Paramount here is the Labour Party. The far left has to walk a tightrope on this point - we must face up to the reality of work with opportunist, left-talking Labourites (unlike the Socialist Party), but without suspending criticism (like Counterfire and the CRCP).
Beyond that, we have to ask what our aims are in this period. Yes, we want to defend the basic living standards of millions from the Tory hatchet-men - but for this project to meet with any kind of lasting success, the left has to get out of the rut it is in - we must make a serious case to the wider vanguard for leaving capitalism behind for good, and building something better. That, in the end, is the best way to prevent this discontent from being squandered by the Labour Party on interminable and infantile ranting about ‘bankers’ bonuses’.
- Financial Times October 19.
- ‘Divided we stand’ Weekly Worker October 7.