Carrot and stick

Francis Maude's idiotic '15-minute strike' suggestion reveals a disquiet at the heart of the government, argues James Turley

The latest cabinet minister to make himself look extremely stupid - following the Liam Fox affair, Theresa May’s cat gaffe and many others - is cabinet office minister Francis Maude, for his no doubt fraternally spirited and sincere advice to the trade union movement.

The context is, obviously, the upcoming November 30 strike, which will surely see more people walk out of work than during 1926, over the central issue of public sector pensions. Francis Maude does not want this to happen on his watch, as it were - he is probably right to guess that most of the union tops involved do not want it either. There is a problem, however: the letter of Thatcher’s anti-union legislation means that, now several unions have successfully balloted for strike action, it would be unlawful to postpone the action without another costly and time-consuming ballot.

To get around that, Maude came up with an apparently ingenious solution - why don’t the brothers and sisters walk out for a mere 15 minutes at some point on what has now become known as N30? Discontent could thereby be registered; the utterly convoluted law on trade union action could be upheld; and the government would even be so good as to not dock any pay. It is the perfect solution.

Except, that is, for the fact that it is an obvious stupidity. No matter how craven are the likes of brothers Prentis and McCluskey, it cannot be denied that there is real momentum behind this action - it is a symbolic protest, but symbols have their own power. Cutting the action down to a government-agreed bare minimum would not do much for its significance. If the union bureaucracy just wants a quiet life, it still has to organise millions of people for whom, in the near future, a quiet life simply will not be an option. Brian Strutton of the GMB surely summed up the mood: “We are asking members to vote for a strike, not a tea break.”

Stupid it may be, but it is an idiocy born as much from the logic of the situation as the lack of basic brain-power in the cabinet. As a head of steam builds up around November 30, the government shows all the signs of discomfort. It veers from declaring that there is no money for more concessions to making them anyway.

A particularly tortuous attempt to square the circle was reported in The Guardian on November 11 - while there is, indeed, no more money on the table, unnamed Whitehall sources say, “We can look at extending things like the Fair Deal.” The Fair Deal is (notionally) supposed to protect the pension rights of those forcibly transferred to the private sector (a pretty ominous-sounding ‘concession’ in itself); how, then, is this to be toughened up if somebody is not prepared to underwrite the existing pension schemes? Anybody with even a passing knowledge of how these things work must surely conclude that the taxpayer is going to foot the bill in some capacity or other.

Fear of chaos

The government’s concessions are quite pathetic, given the scale of devastation planned. They genuinely are concessions, nonetheless; and the haphazard manner in which they have been advanced is quite telling. In the 1980s, the Tory government made a conscious and concerted effort to break the power of the trade unions and the workers’ movement in carefully selected, often brutal confrontations.

In the context of mass upheavals in Greece and elsewhere, along with the very distinct likelihood of a further lurch into economic chaos, David Cameron and his cronies seem rather to be worried about the social forces a direct confrontation would unleash, and are clearly attempting to smother resistance rather than crush it.

Not that they are above attempts at intimidation and repression. The carrot is ever accompanied by the stick; there are the threats of even more draconian anti-union laws, and indeed the ostentatious over-policing of student demonstrations (the November 9 outing in London saw 8,000 protestors flanked by 4,000 riot police, and arrests for ‘offences’ as mundane as possession of marker pens). At the moment, it remains intimidation.

So, what is the government so afraid of? It was certainly never in doubt that, given the scale of attacks on living standards, the masses would resist with whatever means available to them. If you kick a dog, it bites back; if you launch a full-frontal assault on the jobs, wages, benefits and anything else you like on millions of people, then a good portion of them will turn out on protests and participate in strikes. We are not strong enough, at present, to impose a full-scale victory (hopefully this will change), but nor are we so weak that there will not be a battle at all.

The government has every interest in the battle being fought according to rules it sets. Above all, it is afraid of things getting out of control. Indeed, we must ask whether the dark mutterings about new anti-union laws are more than hot air. There is a saying on the American right: if you outlaw guns, only outlaws will have guns. Likewise, if effective trade unionism is rendered legally impossible (it should be noted that this is not the same thing as ‘illegal’: technically, all trade unionism is illegal on a strict interpretation of British law), then the strike weapon and others like it will be placed outside of legal control, not to say the control of the labour bureaucracy.

This is, in fact, quite as undesirable from the point of view of capital as it is from the point of view of the official workers’ movement. A few crumbs are thrown to the November 30 strikers, and a few thousand cops are aimed at a small student protest, because the government fears things getting out of control. It fears the eruption of an unpredictable situation on the home front, and the effect that might have if it overlaps with the slow-motion train wreck taking place over the Channel. It is not difficult to imagine how that anthropomorphised abstraction known as ‘the markets’ would react to such a situation. Cameron can only afford so much chaos if he hopes to survive the next election.

Class organisation

Such is the volatility of the situation. Yet the major tendency on the left is for individuals and groups to equate discomfort among the enemy ranks with an advantage for our side. This very often smacks more of wishful thinking than serious analysis, and ultimately leads only to demoralisation, demobilisation and defeat.

Certainly, it is wishful thinking in the present context. It should be stressed that the obvious and acute discomfort of the government is not a diagnosis of weakness. November 30 is not in and of itself a more serious challenge to its authority than the Murdoch scandal earlier this year; the St Pauls occupation is simply too dominated by the usual suspects to provide much of an additional threat, and has not had much success in spreading to the rest of the country (in contrast to the better-rooted American protests).

Conversely, the Con-Dem alliance is a sturdier thing than coalition governments are frequently made out to be. Cameron has Nick Clegg and co over a barrel; he is all that stands between them and political oblivion. Some threat exists from the Tory right, but not to the extent that it can beach a sitting government. The safest assumption is that the Tories and their lapdogs will serve a full term.

Secondly, in contrast to the fetishisation of ‘wildcat’ strikes and so forth common among anarchist-leaning comrades (including, alas, not a few Trotskyists), the fact is that the working class has no interest in chaos either. The working class derives its power in society from organisation - from disciplined collective action on as large a basis as possible. The most successful and positive illegal strikes have in fact been conducted on the basis of serious, if clandestine, organisation.

But the organisations of the workers’ movement are still in historical retreat. We have not in any sense recovered from the disaster of Stalinism, and the Labourite constitutional cretinism of the bureaucracy has accelerated the pace of decay. It is necessary to build up the basic organs of defence of the working class.

More generally, it is necessary to have a longer-term view than simply turning the next strike or demonstration into ‘the big one’. The left needs to articulate a coherent alternative to an utterly incoherent capitalism, and also a plausible way to get there. Right now, we have neither.