London: Grounds for optimism

Hopefully it will be a rather hot autumn, writes Ben Lewis

The June 30 London demonstration, which made its way from Lincoln’s Inn Fields, through Parliament Square and down to Westminster Abbey, was a lot bigger than I expected. An estimated 30,000 striking workers hit the streets. In terms of the energy and class composition, it felt rather like a smaller re-run of March 26, the TUC-organised demonstration, albeit this time in glorious sunshine.

While the strikers formed the overwhelming majority, there were many familiar faces from the student movement, Unison members who had taken the day off, pensioners, anti-cuts activists and even some school kids. Unsurprisingly, the official union placards featured rather bland slogans like ‘Fair pensions for all’.

My sales of the Weekly Worker were nothing to shout about: I sold about 10 in total and handed out around another 25 - not very many at all. I know from speaking to paper sellers from other left groups that they had similar experience. This probably reflects something about where the movement is at the moment: while the militancy and energy of the strikers cannot be questioned, this energy has not - yet - manifested itself in a discernible thirst for political ideas. Although one or two people buying the paper told me it was their first time, the majority were already familiar with the Weekly Worker and its approach. Given the far left’s current divisions and general isolation (something once again evident), it is perhaps no surprise that many currently seem content to follow the lead of their unions. Yet this is only the beginnings of something with a lot of potential.

Unable to get into the packed official rally, I listened to the speakers at the overflow further down the road. Several speakers - many from in and around the far left - climbed onto the trailer stationed in front of a nearby pub and struggled to make themselves heard over a rather unpredictable PA, powered by a spluttering generator. This might have made the atmosphere rather raw, but the same could not be said of some of the speeches.

Julie Waterson of the Socialist Workers Party delivered a speech which was rather more inspiring than the SWP’s ‘Cameron must go’ placards. She rightly emphasised that this unfolding struggle was essentially one to defend gains won by our class in struggle. This earned the scorn of one NUT official in my earshot. He told those around him that they should get some “decent” speakers who would not come out with “such nonsense”. But the crowd, some of whom were soaking up the speeches in the beer garden along with a well-deserved pint, liked what she had to say. Her call for further coordinated strike action in the autumn were met with cheers.

The Socialist Party’s James Kerr highlighted the marked absence of his union. He demanded that Unison top dog Dave Prentis “put his money where his mouth is”, urging a one-day public sector general strike in October (cue more cheers). While such a protest strike would, of course, be welcome (and is much more grounded in the real world than the likes of SWP/Workers Power’s demands for indefinite, “all out, stay out” action), it is surely more than within our capabilities to draw in the private sector too. Not only could this tackle head-on the government’s attempts to drive a wedge between the public and private sector over pensions: it could also be a further step towards rallying our class as a whole.

While less politically experienced, some of the newly qualified teachers who spoke made some very good points about the enormous work burden - coupled with the astronomical debt looming over them like the sword of Damocles. One of them pointed out the urgency of organising: “If the government is not stopped now, they will come for us again”.

Both Austin Harney (Labour Representation Committee and PCS) and Steve Hedley (Rail, Maritime and Transport union) took Ed Miliband to task for his supine ramblings about the strikes being ‘wrong’. Perhaps missing the point somewhat, comrade Harney said that even Neil Kinnock had supported the miners until violence broke out on the picket lines. But where was the violence here, he asked - the unions had “jumped through hoops” to meet the requirements of the law on balloting, etc.

As the crowd began to disperse, the ‘strikers’ assembly’ was in full session on the lawn, the UK Uncut football match between Bankers City FC and Public Sector United kicked off in the park around the corner, and some even made their way to the Greek embassy to ‘kick off’ in a rather different fashion.

As I made my way home on a bus much delayed by the protests in the city centre, the well-oiled wheels of the gutter press had already been set into motion. The Evening Standard decried “unanswered 999 calls”, poor abandoned children and all the rest of it. Their side is certainly prepared.

In the run-up to what will hopefully be a rather hot autumn, we must ensure that our side is too. That means not hiding behind seemingly radical, short-termist quick fixes and phrasemongering, but giving this militant sentiment expression in the unions, organising strike and solidarity committees, turning up the heat on the Labour Party misleadership and pressing the Trades Union Congress for all unions to strike together come the autumn. This and other similar actions can and must be used as a springboard to rebuild, reinvigorate and re-inspire our movement from top to bottom.