Cracks in state apparatus

We have to face the full social role of the police squarely, writes James Turley

The mass student protests mobilised a wide variety of young people (and their teachers, parents and lecturers) from different backgrounds - geographical, social and political.

Yet, in the past week or so, most will have been thinking the same thing - ‘I told you so!’ As every face-off with police lines in every kettle ended with chants of “Your job’s next!” being directed at the boys (and girls) in blue, so it has come to pass - the government has finally announced its wide-ranging cuts to the police force, and the Police Federation, the force’s pseudo-union, is up in arms.

The Winsor report into police pay stops short of calling for cuts in police numbers - recommending instead wide-ranging attacks on wages and bonus payments (when we talk bonuses, needless to say, we are not in Fred the Shred territory here). Yet many local police forces have already translated departmental cuts into redundancies; and in any case that unlucky 40% of officers facing a pay cut of between £3,000 and £4,000 will not be happy.[1]

The government, to be sure, is playing a pretty dangerous game here. On the narrow level of British electoral politics, all three main parties have been playing the ‘law and order’ card - the Lib Dems more reluctantly - in order to woo enraged petty bourgeois philistines. Given its particular role in this game, the Tory Party is particularly vulnerable to fallout from attacks on the police force.

More worryingly from the perspective of the ruling class, there is the possibility - though remote - of serious police rebellion, up to and including a strike. Fresh in the minds of all government ministers will be the 2009 Prison Officers Association walkout. Neither the police nor the prison officers have the legal right to strike; but the POA, perhaps the most unlikely left-led union in the country, did it unofficially anyway. The government caved in with quite extraordinary rapidity. After all, what could they do - lock the strikers up?

Further back in the annals of history, there are the police strikes that let to their illegalisation in 1918-19. The first - on August 29 1918 - led Lloyd George to remark, years later, that “the country was nearer to Bolshevism that day than at any time since”.

His worry was not without justification. At the end of the day, police repression is a key tool in the armoury of the ruling class against proletarian resistance. Imagine the impact a large-scale police strike would have had on the outcome of the 1984-85 miners’ Great Strike. Thatcher and her goons were certainly not unaware of that potential disaster - police squads were routinely deployed to pickets far from their regular beats, to minimise the possibility of desertion in that near-paramilitary situation.

The Tories have not been blind to such alarming potential consequences this time either. While 40% of officers face very substantial pay cuts, other sections of the force will be rewarded. Numerous pay incentives are offered, including a 10% rise in wages for those working between 8pm and 6am. Thus they hope to neutralise the potential electoral consequences with a face-value commitment to ‘front-line’ policing; and minimise dissent in the ranks through the time-honoured divide-and-rule strategy.

What are we to make of all this? There is a worrying tendency among some groups on the left simply to dismiss discontent among the ‘armed bodies of men’ of the bourgeois state as an internal ruling class matter, in which the forces of the workers’ movement should revel, but not intervene. Despite the sometimes Trotskyist phraseology in which this position is couched, we should not be deluded - at the end of the day, it is bread-and-butter ultra-left moralism.

Sometimes, a great theoretical barrier is erected between soldiers, who are more ‘authentically’ plebeian and not normally directly involved in repressing workers’ political activity, and the police. This has a certain validity where conscript rather than volunteer armies are concerned, and even now - where most volunteers are ‘economic conscripts’. Yet, as the experience of the police strikes of 1918-19 and the POA dispute should make abundantly clear, this is merely a tendency rather than an iron law.

The class position of the police is contradictory. On the one hand, they are salaried employees, with bosses and bureaucrats breathing down their necks like the rest of us. While the pay is, by public sector standards, relatively good, hours are long and unpredictable - and the work sometimes difficult and dangerous.

On the other hand, there is no getting away from what that work actually consists of - imposing the will of the state on an often recalcitrant population. Even when they are not kettling children, the police are generally used as a rough instrument to maintain order in a decaying social formation. The conditions are just right for reactionary ideology to flower, and to keep even the most put upon rank-and-file copper from organising in unity with the workers’ movement, apart from in exceptional circumstances.

Are we in such exceptional circumstances now? The answer appears, regrettably, to be no. While most public-sector unions are happy at least to talk of united action, of a government offensive against all workers (whether or not they actually plan to do anything about it), the Police Federation - however indignant it may be - couches its anger in the language of exceptionalism, and hides behind the reactionary ‘public opinion’ that perpetually demands more and more police officers, if we are to believe the Daily Mail.

It was not always thus. In the tumult of 1918 and 1919, the National Union of Police and Prison Officers (Nuppo) outdid many of its fellow unions in revolutionary rhetoric. It affiliated to the TUC and Labour Party, and trades councils across the country, and, most ominously for the British state, it pledged to refuse to put down strikes and repress labour struggles. They were, of course, heady times - in the wake both of the Russian Revolution and World War I. Yet it has to be said that the state brought it on itself to a large degree - police wages at the time compared unfavourably to that of unskilled labourers.[2]

We are not in a generalised revolutionary situation just now, obviously enough. Yet we are in a conjuncture of rapidly sharpening class struggle. That was what led to the emergence of Nuppo as a mass-membership union in the wake of the war - and what led to its belligerent rhetoric and combativeness with regard to its employers, and admirably sharp class-consciousness. The moment is perhaps upon us where cracks in the state apparatus can be prised further apart - if not to the point of open and generalised mutiny, at least to the point where the police are not so keen to view the workers’ movement as enemies.

A good start would be to demand full union rights for the police, as well as the army. The Police Federation is not a union; it is the union substitute with which almost a century of successive governments have fobbed off the police. The TUC is not exactly a hotbed of resistance just now - though the March 26 jamboree looks, much to the consternation of Brendan Barber and his cronies, like being a landmark protest - but the working class has nothing to lose and everything to gain from integrating the police into its struggles. Again, we do not have to achieve full-scale rebellion to reap the rewards; wavering in the ranks of a police kettle, or questioning of politically motivated orders, would be benefit enough for our activities.

In the long run, of course, we have to face the full social role of the police squarely. Even a Guardian correspondent notes that, despite the jeremiads of the capitalist class, the post-World War I police strikes did not result in generalised anarchy on the streets.[3] Policing, though it will no doubt remain a sad necessity after the revolution, can be perfectly well carried on by the organised masses. That it is not at present gives the ruling class a monopoly on armed force inimical to democracy, which will inevitably be wielded against us. We must revive the long-dormant, elementary democratic demand for a popular militia to replace the standing army and police force. We learn this lesson anew every time we get stuck in a kettle.


  1. The Guardian March 8.
  2. www.whatnextjournal.co.uk/Pages/latest/Police.html
  3. www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/mar/10/police-crime-disorder-cuts