TUC Demo: Union lefts rely on general strike strategy

Saturday’s TUC demonstration showed that there is a burning desire to fight, writes Peter Manson. But ending the age of austerity requires a governmental alternative not on offer from Ed Miliband

The October 20 Trades Union Congress demonstration in London showed that there is mass opposition to cuts and austerity. The mood for a fight was symbolised both by the booing of Labour leader Ed Miliband in Hyde Park and the huge cheers in response to union leaders’ talk of further strike action.

Miliband, of course, will not be at all disappointed by the reception he got when he referred to the “hard choices” a Labour government would have to face on spending priorities. It goes without saying that there have to be some cuts, after all. This led to some quite widespread booing - up to then his speech had been interspersed with applause that was sometimes polite, sometimes enthusiastic. His statement that those “choices” would be “different but fairer” did little to subdue the opposition. But Miliband was well aware that his speech would be widely reported and he sees his job, first and foremost, as proving to the bourgeois media that Labour is a responsible party that will not shirk from doing what is necessary in the interests of capital. Which means ‘standing up to the unions’, of course.

But there were loud cheers when Miliband ended his speech with a promise to “end the privatisation of the NHS”. Earlier he had tried to fit this into his new ‘one nation’ template. We must “stand with people who want to defend the NHS,” he said - and added rather incongruously: “… and people right across British business”. We are, you see, “one nation - young and old, trade unions and British business”. Only Labour can promote this classless unity based on “fairness and values” - the Tories even have “a chancellor who tries to travel first class on a standard ticket”. Disgraceful.

While the hostile attitude from ‘militant trade unionists’ might have been useful for Miliband’s standing in the media, it was also useful from our point of view - in reinforcing the notion that a good section of the union membership is adamant that the leaders must fight. And several general secretaries referred from the platform to the need for some kind of united strike action - and not just those on the left. Early on Len McCluskey of Unite held an impromptu vote, asking: “Are you prepared to take strike action to save our communities? Are you prepared for a general strike?” When thousands of hands shot up, he announced: “Well, that’s carried.” In fact it seemed to be unanimous - not that you would expect many people to ‘vote against’ in such circumstances. McCluskey concluded: “Sisters and brothers, have the courage, so we can rise like lions and fight, fight, fight for a better world.”

Dave Prentis of Unison made a point of reminding the audience that his union had voted for the motion calling on the TUC to consider a general strike, as did Ucatt’s Steve Murphy - neither man is associated with the left. For his part, Bob Crow of the RMT not only called for a 24-hour general strike to be urgently considered, but pointedly criticised Miliband. It was all very well the Labour leader saying he is “with us”, but he “should say he’s on the side of working men and women and won’t have any more cuts”.

Mark Serwotka of PCS warned that despite the huge demonstration of March 2011, “We are in a worse place today than 18 months ago.” That was because many cuts have been implemented and hundreds have already lost their jobs. So “If winning the argument doesn’t stop them, if marching doesn’t stop them”, there will have to be “strike action right across the economy”. Comrade Serwotka was right to point to the inadequacy of demonstrations and marches alone, however large. But he did not mention the fact that October 20 2012 was probably around half the size of March 26 2011: 100,000-200,000 is certainly impressive, but estimates last time began at 250,000.

But other union tops were if anything complacent. “If we’re here again in a year - fine,” said Sally Hunt of the University and College Union. Like others, she referred ironically to former Tory chief whip Andrew Mitchell in welcoming the “100,000 plebs” at the rally.

Matt Wrack of the Fire Brigades Union was the most militant of all. Dressed in his firefighter’s uniform, he said to loud cheers: “Not one cut is necessary.” He too called for more industrial action and “greater and greater coordination”. And this should be led “not just from the top” - workers must take “direct action” themselves. We should say, when faced with cuts in schools and hospitals: “You’re not closing them down - we’ll occupy them.” Once again there was prolonged applause.

As TUC general secretary Brendan Barber was speaking, a lone activist started moving towards the stage, yelling “Call a general strike” through a megaphone. Although one man angrily remonstrated with him to let Barber speak, the general reaction was by no means hostile, with many in the crowd applauding and joining in the calls.

Two policemen approached the heckler and had a word in his ear, but by now a dozen or so people had gathered round him, clapping and shouting support and he just continued yelling. The two cops seemed at a loss as to what to do - arrest him for a ‘public order offence’ or just walk away? Instead they did nothing and just stood there embarrassed. But Barber came to their rescue by ending his speech, and that put an end to the heckling too, of course.

Frances O’Grady, who is to take over from Barber as TUC general secretary at the end of the year, pledged to “fight as hard for our people as that lot fight for theirs”. Keen to make a good impression, she bellowed: “Stuff your austerity!”

Look in the mirror

Although the BBC gave prominence in its news bulletins to the demonstration - not least the jeering of Miliband, of course - the printed media gave it minuscule coverage: some Sunday newspapers failed to even mention the event.

But one exception, obviously, was the Daily Mirror and its Sunday stablemate. The Mirror had given the demo great publicity beforehand - exactly the way it had behaved before the huge anti-war demonstration that preceded the March 2003 invasion of Iraq. The TUC’s A Future That Works website even featured a link to the paper. (Although there was no link to any other supporting publication - like Socialist Worker, The Socialist or the Weekly Worker. Strange, that.)

And, sure enough, when it came to the Hyde Park rally, one of the three chairs was that staunch fighter for workers’ rights, Kevin Maguire, associate editor of the Daily Mirror. It was Maguire who had the ‘honour’ of introducing Miliband and after the Labour leader’s speech his comment was: “Bring on the general election!”

When Maguire later introduced Bob Crow, he reminded us that the “heroic guard” who challenged George Osborne over his train ticket was a member of Crow’s union. Obviously that fact alone demonstrates that the RMT is a worthy, patriotic public body. Commenting on one of the short TUC PR films that were screened between speeches - this one on the role of public service jobs and trade union members during the Olympics and Paralympics - Maguire declared that the games had shown “a future that works”. What better example of “public and private sectors working together”?

And after comrade Serwotka’s speech Maguire commented: “The left in the labour movement have certainly got the best speakers.” However regretfully he uttered the remark, it was true enough on this occasion. In contrast to comrades Serwotka, Crow and Wrack, who all gave passionate performances without notes, the likes of Chris Keates of the NASUWT and John Hannett of Usdaw woodenly read out their speeches.

But, for all their passion and militancy, the left was not much better than the right when it came to a political strategy. Comrade Wrack said: “We’re only ever going to make progress when we’ve stood up and fought for our own alternative”, but he did not say what that alternative should be (it has long since become unfashionable to utter the word ‘socialism’ on trade union platforms, even rhetorically). But comrade Wrack did state (to cheers) that we should “take over the banks and run them as a democratic public service”.

Len McCluskey was certainly effective in building up morale and generating enthusiasm, but his “alternative” was nothing but warmed-over Keynesianism: “Let’s go for growth”. Comrade Serwotka’s speech too, for all its militancy, looked no further than Keynesian policies. We should “tax the rich and put money into the economy”.

Unfortunately the absence of anything approaching clear working class politics is a reflection of the general level of class-consciousness. Undoubtedly the tens of thousands who came to London last Saturday represented the most committed, most militant trade unionists, and it is certainly the case that a significant minority are searching for political answers. The leaflets on offer from the various groups (or free newspapers in the case of the Morning Star) were eagerly snapped up and CPGB comrades report that sales of the Weekly Worker were strong and steady. No doubt that was also the case with the other left papers.

To say this is not to overstate the success of the action. There is a big problem with the left strategy in opposition to the cuts: mobilise for a general strike in order to defeat austerity and bring down the government. And then what? Who do we vote for in the subsequent general election (assuming no-one seriously believes that a workers’ revolution would immediately ensue)?

It is excellent that 150,000 got a glimpse of our collective strength (there were also sizable TUC marches and rallies in Glasgow and Belfast). But that potential will not be fully realised in the absence of a political force capable of harnessing and directing it.