Harness the anger: the anti-cuts movement we need
James Turley looks ahead to the Coalition of Resistance conference and warns against the lack of democracy and a clear programme
Of the baker’s dozen anti-cuts campaigns to have sprung up over the last period, the Coalition of Resistance against Cuts and Privatisation makes for the most impressive so far. While the Socialist Workers Party’s Right to Work campaign and other initiatives seem more insular than ever, and the Socialist Party in England and Wales’s self-serving sectarianism towards the Labour Party imposes its own limits on its fronts, the Coalition of Resistance (COR) has reaped the benefits of media prominence and the confident activism of its own principal backers, Counterfire.
Counterfire, it will be remembered, split from the SWP, and followed its leader John Rees into the wilderness beyond ‘the party’. Rees’s leadership of the SWP was characterised by a wholesale orientation towards ‘movement-building’ - creating diffuse ‘united fronts’ (in reality, popular fronts) on a more or less issue-by-issue basis. The gamble was that this would translate in the long term into recruitment to the SWP, which would stand revealed as the ‘best fighters’. It did not pay off - and Rees was required to carry the can for the SWP’s failures, in particular the calamitous end to the SWP’s involvement in the aborted Respect electoral “united front of a special kind”.
The SWP’s response to parting with Rees has been, in effect, to retreat further from initiatives of which it is not in complete control. Rees and Counterfire, however, have continued down the same old path. They cling onto influence in the Stop the War Coalition, which was their ‘red base’ in the factional tussles that led to the split. Now, the COR is to be properly launched this weekend at the Camden Centre in London. Attendance is likely to be high and the mood militant.
While the SWP acknowledges in its Party Notes that November 27 is “likely to be a big conference”, it is not exactly going all out to mobilise its members to attend. It is giving much more coverage to Right to Work. However, the steering committees of RTW and COR have at least agreed a “protocol”, whereby they will coordinate and publicise each other’s events and invite each other’s speakers. They are also calling for a “non-aggression pact” with other groups, such as SPEW’s National Shop Stewards Network and the Communist Party of Britain-backed People’s Charter.
Yet, despite the SWP’s and RTW’s noises about unity, there are no real attempts to bring together the various campaigns into the necessary single fighting body. According to RTW chair Paul Brandon, “Like other groups, we will keep our identity and continue to build and grow.”
The COR conference comes a week after a particularly poorly attended STWC march, which saw 2,000-3,000 old hands troop dutifully through central London, as tradition dictates. It comes two weeks after a Respect annual conference which saw the only remaining organised left force within it - Socialist Resistance - walk out; there cannot be many conferences left in this desiccated organisation. It is a coincidence which deserves to be highlighted - Respect and Stop the War are at the end of the road upon which the COR, if its prime motor forces get their way, is about to embark.
The organisers clearly intend it to start down that road in good time. No motions will be taken at this conference. Instead, “there will a vote on a campaigning plan for the forthcoming period. The plan of action will be amendable at the conference and will include suggestions from the sessions. This is a founding conference and we are proposing that the incoming steering committee prepare a resolution-based conference to take place within nine months.” In the intervening time, presumably, the steering committee will run everything in a manner unaccountable to the membership.
In a sane world, we would be taking motions on Saturday. If they have any use, it is to guide activity. Those nine months until a “resolution-based conference” will cover a situation likely to develop in unpredictable ways on a week-by-week basis. By the time we get to vote on anything of our own choosing, thousands of redundancy notices will be served out around the country, George Osborne will deliver another butcher’s budget, and the British state will squander millions on a royal wedding.
The mass of supporters of the COR will simply have to trust in the wisdom of their betters through these critically important months. Approved candidates will be muscled in through a vote; some marginal haggling over the campaigning plan will not prevent it being basically a fait accompli.
It ought not to be that way. To be effective any COR steering committee or equivalent should be subject to the movement, not above it. Conference should, in future, receive delegates from affiliated organisations, trade unions, campaigns and local anti-cuts committees (whose creation is also a matter of urgency). But instead of having a steering committee elected and re-elected every year (or nine months) by conference, it needs to be far more democratic, flexible and accountable. From top to bottom COR needs to be based on a system of delegates who are elected but recallable at any time. Worries about the resultant lack of continuity reveal a bureaucratic mindset - changes in delegates and the consequent changes in politics will reflect the growth, ambitions and militancy of the movement. We face a determined and organised enemy, and it is key that, as the fight develops, the movement gets the leadership it needs and deserves.
When Rees and co began to advance political criticisms of the SWP leaders who ousted him, foremost among them was the leadership’s collective failure to launch a ‘united front’ on the model of Stop the War around economic issues. Comrade Rees appears to have taken his own advice a little too literally. Stop the War conference regulars will not be able to repress a certain sense of déjà vu upon perusing the list of advertised speakers on Saturday. John Rees (of course), Kate Hudson (of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the Morning Star’s CPB), Labour left MP Jeremy Corbyn, politically conscious MC Lowkey and others are all regular fixtures at official anti-war events. They are the backbone of the panel this weekend as well.
So perhaps that gives us a good idea of what to expect after that - organising mass demonstrations, which will be (by preference) peaceful A-to-B marches, and whose massiveness or otherwise will be left to objective circumstances to decide. Indeed, with this organisational model - and for that matter, the experience of Stop the War behind us - it is difficult to imagine what else would be possible. The axiomatic position of Rees and co, and his ‘official communist’ allies in the CPB, is that any coalition should be as broad as possible - a redundant statement, since nobody is in favour of narrow coalitions, but for the implied caveat that everything should be subordinated to maximum breadth.
Nothing is permissible, then, that would alienate the left union leaders, Labour loyalists and others - I have heard Counterfire figure James Meadway talk about overtures to NGOs - that will make up this motley crew. One also has to factor in the imagined audience ‘out there’. The Respect debacle saw the SWP, under comrade Rees’s tutelage, vote down no end of basic progressive positions - secularism, the right to abortion, gay rights and so forth - in the name of keeping Muslim groups ‘on board’. The Muslim groups in fact never really got on board (barring certain local businessmen and their networks in Tower Hamlets and Birmingham), but the possibility they might was reason enough to lower the political level.
Doubtless COR will call for mass demonstrations and industrial action against cuts. But the limits will be set by the ‘left’ union leaders who will exercise real control from behind the scenes. Many will be banking not on direct confrontation with the Con-Lib coalition but on the election of an Ed Miliband government in three or four years time. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of workers will lose their jobs and find themselves on the dole.
Then there is the question of putting pressure on Labour councillors in order for them to discover the backbone needed to resist imposing the cuts. It is easy for Labour councillors to make militant speeches against the Con-Lib coalition. It is quite another to refuse to vote through cuts. Labour-controlled councils and other local authorities should certainly increase their borrowing levels in order to cover shortfalls and demand a pledge from Ed Miliband that a future Labour government will bail them out. Will COR be demanding that Labour councillors who implement the cuts be removed and expelled from the party? Or will soft ‘left’ Labour grandees succeed in urging caution and non-interference on such ‘internal’ matters. We must accept that breadth is not the alpha and omega of mass resistance. It is a matter of strategy and tactics - we must be prepared to forego alliances with particular forces where they limit or damage our fighting capacity.
The other issue not being addressed is a more profound one - if not cuts and privatisation, then what? Most of the left calls for the development of an anti-cuts momentum leading to a general strike. While a one-day protest strike is quite correct, not least coordinated across the European Union, there is a worrying tendency to call for the general strike and a rerun of the May 1968 events in France. Comrades seem to forget that we lost. So an honest debate about strategy is desperately needed.
COR, on its website, says it “encourages a wide debate on how to protect the welfare state and develop an alternative programme for economic and social recovery”. No doubt one will indeed be formulated - no doubt, also, it will be a superfluous reinvention of the left-Keynesian wheel, which we may file away with the CPB’s People’s Charter, or the PCS union’s pamphlet There is an alternative. Inevitable references to the creation of ‘green jobs’ aside, such programmes cannot escape the 1970s.
Back then, such programmes - though they turned out to be a dead end - had some kind of objective basis. On the one hand, large and powerful workers’ movements existed as a counterweight to the direct assaults of capital; on the other, the existence of the Stalinist bloc created a real incentive to offer concessions to the working class. The decay of the former and demise of the latter in the 1980s and 90s mean that attempts to revive old Labourism appeal to not much more than nostalgia.
In order not to be forced to retreat, it is necessary to advance. The Marxist left should unite on the basis of Marxism - at the same time a powerful critique of existing conditions and a serious alternative to them. That will provide a platform to push the anti-cuts movement towards what needs to be done, to build genuine, fighting united fronts in defence of the working class, and indeed to begin to pose the kind of threat that forces concessions from our rulers.
There has to be an unambiguous recognition that the capitalist system itself is the problem. Not greedy bankers, self-serving politicians, the EU bureaucracy or foreign workers. Demands for a return of Keynesianism, a green economy or an alternative economic strategy that leave capitalism intact are completely illusory. Socialism has become a matter of urgency and by definition has to be democratic and internationalist in terms of both ends and means. So will COR link the battle against the cuts to the battle for democracy and demand a republic and an end to the parasitic monarchy, the abolition of the House of Lords, the disestablishment of the Church of England, annual parliaments, the right to bear arms, working class rule, etc? Will COR set out an internationalist perspective, as against the little Britain nationalism often associated with the old Labour left and ‘official communism’?
If COR cannot do that it will be left behind by events. Though there is every reason to fight, at the moment things do not look good. The need to keep ‘important’ allies sweet almost certainly determined the structural set-up of the COR conference. A bad omen for the future. Alternating between top-table speeches and ‘workshops’, with the only votes to be taken on the steering committee and ‘campaign plan’, the de facto leaders can marginalise troublesome politics. Workshops have a veneer of the grassroots about them - but in reality represent a flight from the somewhat more ornery business of thrashing out political lines by carving up the body of participants. The parameters can quietly be set whereby nobody will come under any serious challenge. Conference serves as a talking shop, simply to drill the core cadre in the run-up to the next action.
So what should a broad, united anti-cuts front actually look like? Fundamentally the question is one of programme. With determination and clear perspectives it should be quite possible to defeat the government and set the stage for significant advance. Whether or not there will be a fightback was never in question. It is already happening - the large students’ and lecturers’ demonstration in London on November 10 and then the wave of local marches and occupations by students and school students on November 24 are simply the most prominent examples of struggles that are springing up around particular issues up and down the country. The function of a national campaign should be to turn this spirited but still fragmented phenomenon into a single, coherent movement.
- Party Notes November 22
- See https://sites.google.com/site/righttoworkconference/home/reports/etweenrighttoworkcoalitionofresistance
- Socialist Worker November 27.