Make unity a reality

Differences over tactics are no reason to keep the anti-cuts movement divided, argues Peter Manson

The February 12 People’s Convention to Build Resistance to Cuts and Austerity, despite the pretentiousness of its title, marked another small step forward for the anti-cuts movement.

Organised by the Socialist Workers Party’s front, Right to Work, and supported by the Labour Representation Committee, Disabled People Against the Cuts, Black Activists Rising Against Cuts and the Unite union, the convention mobilised around half the numbers seen at November’s conference of the Coalition of Resistance. RTW claims that 800 activists attended, but the main hall at Friends Meeting House holds less than 600 people and it was not quite full. That capacity can be doubled when the balcony is used, but only a couple of dozen people were upstairs during the plenary sessions.

I had been expecting the attendance to be made up overwhelmingly of SWP comrades, but I would estimate that only around half were members of that organisation. In other words, the turnout from the SWP membership must have been a disappointment to the leadership. Nevertheless, the prominence of disabled activists in particular gave the event a different dimension from similar rallying events and, more importantly, the convention featured that rarity for occasions such as these - a genuine debate, primarily between comrades from the SWP and Socialist Party in England and Wales, over the relationship of the movement against the government’s cuts to Labour councillors who decide to implement them.

The differences over this question are used as one of the justifications for the existence of separate anti-cuts campaigns, so it was pleasing that a comparatively large amount of time was set aside to discuss it (in fact the chair of this session, John McDonnell of the LRC, extended it by half an hour or so). Of course, all three rivals - RTW, COR and SPEW’s baby, the National Shop Stewards Network Anti-Cuts Campaign - were set up on a sectarian basis, their main aim being to boost the respective parent organisations (in the case of COR it is the John Rees breakaway from the SWP, Counterfire).

By the way, the SPEW leadership of the newly formed NSSN grouping appears to have thought better of the originally proposed grandiose name, where ‘Anti-Cuts Campaign’ was preceded by ‘All-Britain’ (see www.stopcuts.net). All three rivals are very much aware of the general sentiment for unity in the anti-cuts fight and all three attempt to blame the division on the others.

Unity featured strongly in the opening remarks of RTW chair Paul Brandon - “We have to find a way to work together.” But his “how we got here” introduction was misleading, to say the least. He reminded us that RTW was the first of the current anti-cuts campaigns to be formed and recalled the 7,000-strong march it organised last October. And then “We held a unity forum in December - that’s why we’re here today.” This gave the strong impression that the convention was somehow the product of a coming together of the rivals, not RTW’s own, separate initiative.

Council of despair

The debate between the SWP and SPEW was entitled ‘How can our councils resist the cuts?’ As well as SPEW’s long-time Coventry councillor, Dave Nellist, and the SWP’s Michael Lavalette (Preston), it featured two Labour lefts, Charlynne Pullen (Islington) and Barry Buitekant (Hackney).

Comrade Pullen - a Labour Representation Committee member who disagrees with the LRC line that Labour councillors should refuse to implement the cuts - tried to explain the futility of doing so. After all, government grants accounted for 85% of the council’s funding and Islington, for example, had no alternative but to slash spending by £52 million in the next financial year alone. But “we are protecting free school meals” and introducing a citizens’ advice bureau (residents will need it), not to mention a “Fairness Commission”. And did you know that Islington had been the first Labour group to sign up to the TUC demonstration on March 26?

While she admitted that the coalition cuts will still “have an impact”, comrade Pullen felt the Labour council “has done as much as we can”. The voters “didn’t elect us to hand over the budget to Eric Pickles”, the Tory communities and local government secretary. She summed up by stating that the council’s position was to “build a fight against the cuts, but protect people as best as we can”. The Labour council could “make a difference”. Of course, this was “not perfect” and “I wish we didn’t have to do it”.

Both Michael Lavalette and Dave Nellist answered this effectively. Comrade Lavalette wondered, “In what sense are Labour cuts less unpleasant?” We “don’t get elected to become experts in finance, but to represent the people”. For his part, comrade Nellist stated that if just one council refused to set a cuts budget that would “electrify the movement”. Ironically comrade Nellist reminded us of Neil Kinnock’s famous remark in relation to the Militant Tendency-run Liverpool council in 1984 - “a Labour council issuing redundancy notices?” - and added: “Where’s Neil Kinnock now when we need him?”

Comrade Nellist asked: “What if Pickles comes in? Not a council worker would cooperate with him!” It was at this point that I noticed comrade Pullen’s expression - a combination of scepticism and incredulity. That is the problem: she and hundreds like her just do not believe the workers are up for a fight. So why should they stick their neck out?

Comrade Buitekant, also LRC, said next to nothing, except to confirm that “a small number” of Hackney councillors will not vote for the cuts. But at this point he could not say whether they would vote against or abstain. Clearly he has decided to accept the discipline of this rebel group and would only say that, the more pressure there is, the greater the chance of a vote against.

The SPEW comrades, as well as forever holding up the example of Liverpool and Lambeth in the 80s, stressed the ‘principle’ of refusing to allow councillors not committed to opposing all cuts onto anti-cuts platforms. It did not seem to occur to them that here they were sharing a platform at a very large anti-cuts meeting with one such councillor. Hannah Sell, who spoke from the floor, as did Clive Heemskerk, referred to the “mistake” of Right to Work in doing so - and then went on to “welcome today’s debate”.

In response Candy Udwin of the SWP said that, on the contrary, it was a good idea to put on meetings with vacillating or even pro-cuts councillors - “then they feel the pressure”. Comrade Lavalette had previously stressed the importance of “working with people to our right”.

Principle or tactic?

Pete Firmin of the LRC repeated the strong point he had made on previous occasions - it is no use just bemoaning the lack of fight in the Labour Party: what about the bodies that finance Labour, the unions? Not one has so far urged Labour councillors to vote against the cuts. Unite, for instance, is doing precisely the opposite (he made no comment on the fact that Unite had been invited to organise one of the afternoon workshops on the threat to legal aid), and neither did any SPEW speakers. Yet Unite is actually urging its sponsored councillors to vote for locally decided Labour cuts packages, so should we say that a union whose members will be on the receiving end of the cuts cannot be part of the anti-cuts movement?

Paul Brandon left the chair to address the convention as the final speaker from the floor in this debate. He assured SPEW that the RTW wanted to “work with you” and it is “not soft on Labour” - the steering committee was now recommending that a lobby of the March 5 Labour local government conference be added to the list of forthcoming events in the convention resolution (SPEW/NSSN had called the lobby unilaterally).

Replying to the debate, once more comrade Buitekant said very little, while Nellist and Lavalette concentrated on the main division. Comrade Nellist complained that the SWP’s insistence on keeping Labour councillors who refuse to vote against the cuts on board was like having “a strategy that works at the speed of the slowest wagon”. Instead we need the unity of the opposition to cuts. Comrade Lavalette said he would keep on telling Charlynne she is wrong, but would still have her in the anti-cuts movement after she votes for the cuts package.

Comrade Pullen herself stated that she had found the debate “interesting and helpful”, but announced: “I won’t be changing my mind.”

The SWP and SPEW may have thought that this debate would help justify the existence of their two rival campaigns, but to my mind it did the opposite. On the main question - opposition to all cuts - there is unanimity (later Andrew Burgin, speaking on behalf of COR, said that his organisation was also opposed to all cuts, but, like RTW, “believed in working with people who don’t hold that view”). On the difference in question, they were not so far apart either - as shown by the way SPEW had engaged in practice with comrade Pullen.

In any case, the truth is that our precise attitude to individual Labour councillors ought to be a matter of tactics, not principle. I agree with the assertion made by both comrades Nellist and Sell that it had been a serious mistake to give then Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy a platform on the huge demonstration against the invasion of Iraq in February 2003. But it was a tactical mistake, in that it allowed the Lib Dems to pose as anti-war, and win votes on that basis in subsequent elections.

It is not a mistake to host debates with councillors such as comrade Pullen - far from it. What is unacceptable is to give a platform to Labour councillors prepared to implement the cuts and refuse to criticise them as they wield the axe. Comrade Pullen is no Charles Kennedy - she is a working class politician who can be persuaded and hopefully will be, as resistance to the Con-Lib Dem assault builds up over 2011 and subsequent years.

Learn from Egypt

A recurring theme of the convention was admiration for the Egyptian protest movement and their success in having got rid of Hosni Mubarak. In his opening speech comrade Brandon had said of the TUC demonstration: “Perhaps we can turn Hyde Park or Trafalgar Square into our own Tahrir Square.” And John McDonnell got the biggest roar of all when he concluded his speech, the final of the day, with the remark: “When we turn up on March 26, we have to decide whether or not we go home that day.”

According to the SWP’s main man in RTW, Chris Bambery, the principal aim of the anti-cuts movement must be to break the government - “just like Egypt”. A Scottish-Egyptian student - clearly an SWP member - reported from his recent visit to Cairo, where he had been arrested and tortured. His judgement was: “The workers pushed the movement to economic demands - that’s when Mubarak knew he had to go.” For him, everything is simple: “The people in Tahrir Square have won!” From which he concluded: “Soon we will bring others down too - the ruling class of the world is very weak.”

Of course, it is correct to salute the heroism of the Egyptian movement, but we should certainly not view their partial victory through unrealistically optimistic, red-tinted spectacles. The Egyptian regime is still in place and only one speaker (not from the SWP) made that point amid all the similar remarks. Far from the ruling class being weak, it is the forces of the working class whose organisations are in a dismal state - in Egypt, as elsewhere.

I cannot end this report without commenting on those useless talking shops known as ‘workshops’, into which the left insists on splitting up those attending its conferences. In this case the idea was that one ‘rapporteur’ from each of the 12 workshops would report to the final plenary session on the ‘recommendations’ emerging from them.

In the workshop I attended, entitled ‘Alternatives to austerity’, every suggestion coming from either the platform or speakers from the floor was noted and read out at the end for the workshop to be endorsed as a totality - take it or leave it. While Andrew Fisher of the LRC proposed, amongst other things, a wealth tax and measures to end tax evasion, a speaker from the floor stated that the main source of state revenue ought to come in the shape of a land value tax. Leaving aside the fact that all these measures amounted, as comrade Fisher put it, to “radical social democracy”, there was no thought as to whether they were all compatible with each other.

When it came to the plenary, the rapporteurs were called three at a time to present their list of recommendations - they had one minute each - and this time the chair put them to the whole convention in a single bloc. Everything was agreed with no votes against, as far as I could see - how united we were! Around 50 ‘policies’ were adopted without having been written down, moved or debated. Obviously the steering committee will be free to do exactly as it pleases with these ‘decisions’, but this whole fiasco allowed it to pretend to be paying copious attention to bottom-up democracy.

In fact, this was not a Right to Work policy-making conference in any case, since it was officially called jointly with other bodies. The idea was for the SWP’s anti-cuts front to claim its slice of the action as at least an equal alongside its two rivals. All very well, comrades, but why not put your fine words about “unity” into practice - and take urgent steps to unite your three separate organisations into one single campaign?