Analysis by a Sheffield activist of the upcoming "J30" mobilisations and what we can hope to expect as well as general observations of the state of the anti-cuts movement.
June 30th has been widely promoted as the next “date” in the escalation of resistance to the government’s continuing austerity measures. As cuts are beginning to bite across the country June 30th will see first efforts at joint-trade union action (NUT, UCU, PCS and ATL) meaning potentially thousands of workers out on strike over this day. Of course, the restrictive trade union legislation in this country means that unions cannot strike against the government’s policies per se (most of the disputes revolve around attacks on pensions), but there is nonetheless a desire amongst some of the Left and the anarchist movement to generalise this struggle beyond these unions into a more widespread fightback against the cuts. There have been some admirable initiatives in London recently, for example calling for open assemblies, to do just this. A number of Facebook groups have been set up to try and get other workers to throw a sickie on the day, the Solidarity Federation has also made materials available that publicise the actions independent of the unions as well as encouraging students to join their teachers in the walkout and the Anarchist federation is producing similar publicity (see statement here).
All good stuff. The question that is on all of our minds, however, is if June 30th is going to be a repeat, or more optimistically a step-up, from the actions taken on March 26th? On a local level, a march has been called by the Sheffield Anti-Cuts Alliance which is intended to bring together anti-cuts campaigners and trade unionists from across the region. However, unfortunately rather than call an action-orientated, planning meeting leading up to the event, the alliance has decided to host a “public” meeting with keynote speaker John Mcdonnell - not only a member of a parliamentary party that both supports and has been implementing cuts but as someone on an MPs wage hardly the most representative individual when talking about our experiences of austerity. Sheffield UK Uncut are also planning actions (although rather bizarrely have called for themed “fancy dress” as “workers”, whatever that means). For our part we hosted our own modest, assembly that will hopefully see both practical help and a bit more creative actions on the day. However, in spite of all this, one can’t help but feel we are starting to be a bit thin on the ground. Many students are currently on study leave or, in the case of University students, have left the city. The radicalism and dynamism of the recent student movement that served as such an inspiration is barely present in the city anymore. If the recent NHS demo is in anyway indicative of continuing opposition over the Summer we can expect a return to the bog-standard Sheffield protest repertoire of the same core group of assorted Trotskyists, Lefties and Greens marching from A-B. The rather unpleasant aggressive recruitment tactics of certain local Trotskyists aside, these events are desperately lacking any real engagement with the general public who typically look on with bemusement (or perhaps just boredom) at the barely audible speeches and hodge-podge of leftist banners outside town hall. There was a UK Uncut action at the end of the march which did successfully shut down an HSBC bank, and rather unsuccessfully shut down a Vodafone. These were positive actions, but the message is still overwhelmingly liberal. In the face of such a forceful attack on working class living standards cries for corporate responsibility seem abstract and disengaged from more pressing day-to-day problems of shrinking welfare, rent-hikes, pay cuts and job losses.
Of course, one could be forgiven for not feeling that inspired by J3o, especially given the wider, international backdrop (thousands of people are currently occupying public squares in Greece and Spain in opposition to cuts). Strike action is clearly symbolic and designed to cause as little disruption as possible, at least where the education sector is concerned. Universities will have stopped teaching by this time and the majority of A-level teachers have most of their students on study-leave (which also makes mobilising them even harder). Of course services will still be stopping and there is obviously a need to attend and support pickets, the point is that, considering the times when this strike could have been staged, it is a rather weak gesture. Perhaps the trade union leadership have heeded the recent warning of Vince Cable that strikes could mean further anti-union legislation? Many have already outright bowed down to the government’s reforms (GMB, for example, has started championing proposed workfare programmes). Either way it is clear that any generalisation of workplace action is going to have to come from outside the unions (not least because the majority of workers in this country are non-unionised). And this is really where the big problems lie.
On March 26th there was undeniably a gap – in tactics, mindset and political consciousness – between the highly radicalised, mostly young minority (albeit a pretty significant minority but a minority nonetheless) rampaging through Oxford Street and the very traditional procession leading to Hyde Park. Of course it’s not quite THAT clear-cut, many workers on the march expressed sympathy with what was going on in Oxford Street for example, but I think broadly we can say that this was the case. This gap concerned me then and it concerns me even more now. Bridging this gap has to be the first priority of any existing anti-cuts movement. We are very much on a short time-scale when it comes to austerity measures and there is a real possibility that many of the changes will be normalised before they really start to bite. The Left, in the face of dwindling momentum in the wake of the student movement, will happily return to it’s orthodox practices. In light of this, putting forward our message- that in order to fight the cuts we need to make this country ungovernable by mass, direct action -is more important than ever.
Before it was clear what shape the anti-austerity movement would take many anarchists had voiced their concerns about the possibility of Labour party members and other groups from the Left high-jacking anti-cuts groups, that we needed to fight for the independence and autonomy of these initiatives as they gained momentum. The expectation also being, of course, that as cuts began to bite movements would grow. Speaking from the experience of Sheffield I can definitively say that this has not been the case. Rather more worryingly what we have seen is an outright scrap from the get-go on the shape and form these anti-cuts initiatives will take between grassroots orientated activists, on the one hand, and leftists determined to maintain an iron grip on their last, dwindling hopes of maintaining working class representation, on the other. Quite frankly, the public don’t figure into it. That would imply some kind of inclusive movement to start with, a level of community engagement, dialogue etc. The reality is the same old cabal of trade unionists and leftists organising the same shrinking pool of local radicals. It’s a repeat, essentially, of the air-tight organising of the anti-Iraq war days (and we all know how well that turned out!). By-and-large the anti-cuts message isn’t even getting out of the leftist ghetto, or when communities have taken their own initiatives they are patronised or simply not listened to. In short, when it comes to actually building (let alone influencing) an anti-cuts movement, the Left is a problem.
It seems an obvious things to say, but what we are really lacking is a grassroots movement which could actually be mobilised on days like J30. Re-building the divides that years of Thatcherite/Blairite policy have reaped on working class communities may be a daunting task, but it is also an essential one. It is little surprise, in this respect, that it is in institutions that have managed to maintain reasonably stable communities, as well as a degree of radical influence, in spite of these policies, i.e. students, that we see one of the first attempts to step up against the cuts. It was not long ago, after all, that students were occupying their departments in solidarity with the pople of Gaza. In this sense the early radicalism of the student protests may have been a very false indication of the social and political terrain we are actually operating in. J30 could be a step towards rekindling the flame of Millbank (and I really hope it is!), perhaps an effort in bringing that spirit to more people, one can’t help but feel though, that the tasks ahead of us now are so much greater, and more difficult, than gearing up for another “day of action”.