SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 148 - May 2011


UK Uncut and the anti-cuts UK movement

Half-a-million participated in the TUC demonstration against the cutbacks on 26 March, a clear indication of the potential power of Britain’s organised working class. Numerous other protest movements have also emerged. UK Uncut, for example, mobilises a radicalised layer exposing big-business tax evasion. Some commentators, however, claim that this is a ‘new model’, in opposition to coordinated strike action and democratic mass campaigns. HANNAH SELL explains that this view poses a danger to the struggle to defeat the attacks of this right-wing government.

JUST TWELVE MONTHS ago, Britain was a completely different country than it is today. The political landscape has been transformed. For a few months it seemed, superficially at least, that there would be no serious resistance to the austerity assault of the Con-Dem government. But the surface calm could not last. First to break it were the students and school students. Over a month in the winter of 2010 young people took to often snowbound streets in their tens of thousands. This was the biggest student movement for a quarter of a century, characterised by audacity, inventiveness and raw class anger at the millionaire, privately-educated ministers who were tripling student fees and axing the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA).

If the student movement was the overture, the massive – half-a-million plus – trade union demonstration on 26 March was the thunderous opening of the main act. Drawn into activity by the winter movement many tens of thousands of students took part in that demonstration.

The October 2010 launch and subsequent growth of UK Uncut are directly related to the student movement. Most, but by no means all, UK Uncut activists are radical young people. UK Uncut says: "We start with some simple points of agreement. The brutal cuts to services about to be inflicted by the current government are unnecessary, unfair and ideologically motivated… A cabinet of millionaires have decided that libraries, healthcare, education funding, voluntary services, sports, the environment, the disabled, the poor and the elderly must pay the price for the recklessness of the rich".

"Austerity-economics is the policy of the powerful. It cannot be stopped by asking nicely. We cannot wait until the next election. If we want to win the fight against these cuts (and we can win) then we must make it impossible to ignore our arguments and impossible to resist our demands. This means building a powerful grassroots mass movement, able to resist the government cuts at every turn. UK Uncut hopes to play a small part in this movement".

UK Uncut initiates protests in banks and high street shops – Vodafone, Topshop, BHS and others – whose owners are tax evaders or avoiders. Particularly targeted are stores owned by Philip Green, boss of the Arcadia retail group and a government advisor on where to wield the axe, who enjoys a £4.1 billion fortune.

Protests organised by UK Uncut have received widespread publicity and have caught the imagination of many. Alongside others – in particular, the PCS civil servants’ union campaign pointing out that £120 billion goes uncollected in tax every year – UK Uncut has helped to counter the government’s propaganda that there is no alternative to cuts.

The most powerful weapon

THE SOCIALIST PARTY shares much of UK Uncut’s approach, in particular its understanding that a mass movement can defeat the cuts. We would not, however, agree with the view of some of its adherents who argue that UK Uncut and similar initiatives represent something completely new which, unlike ‘more traditional’ methods of organising, offer the means to defeat the cuts. Radical journalist, Laurie Penny, for example, wrote: "What we are seeing here is no less than a fundamental reimagining of the British left: an organic reworking which rejects the old deferential structures of union-led action and interminable infighting among indistinguishable splinter parties for something far more inclusive and fast-moving". (The Guardian, 24 December 2010)

Penny concluded: "For these young protesters, the strategic factionalism of the old left is irrelevant. Creative, courageous and inspired by situationism and guerrilla tactics, they have a principled understanding of solidarity. For example, assembling fancy-dress flash mobs in Topshop to protest against corporate tax avoidance may seem frivolous, but this movement is daring to do what no union or political party has yet contemplated – directly challenging the banks and business owners who caused this crisis".

Many of those involved in anti-cuts direct action would not agree. Nonetheless, the ideas she expresses represent a developing political trend within the student and anti-cuts movement. If these ideas were to become dominant among young anti-cuts activists they would disarm a generation, and isolate them from the mass anti-cuts movement that has begun.

The TUC demonstration, the biggest workers’ demonstration since the second world war, showed graphically the mobilising power of the ‘old structures of union-led action’. It was direct action on a far higher level than ‘fancy-dress flash mobs’. The demonstration should have taken place earlier – by 26 March many jobs and services had already been lost. The delay by the TUC leadership left a huge vacuum. This is one reason that UK Uncut captured the imagination of a layer of youth and workers desperate to see something done against the cuts. However, the authority of the trade union leaders among broad sections of the working class meant that, while UK Uncut has mobilised a few thousand, the TUC mobilised over half-a-million. If the TUC was to harness that power and determination into a call for a one-day general strike, there is no doubt it would receive a huge response.

The working class, and in particular the organised working class in the workplaces, is key to the movement to defeat the cuts. Big sections of the middle class will also join the anti-cuts movement. Community campaigns have an important role to play, too. But it is the potential collective power of the working class in the workplaces which is the anti-cuts movement’s most powerful weapon.

The power of the working class has been demonstrated in the revolutions unfolding in North Africa and the Middle East. In Egypt and Tunisia, the dictators were forced to flee when the working class came out on strike and threw its weight behind the movement. In Britain, a 24-hour general strike, even of the public sector in the first instance, would be mass direct action on the highest level Britain has seen in many decades. It would terrify the government and give enormous confidence to working-class people to step up the fight back.

Direct action

UNFORTUNATELY, IT WAS clear from the platform speakers on 26 March that the majority of national trade union leaders want to send the movement back to sleep, not step up the struggle. The verbal support that TUC general secretary, Brendan Barber, has given for ‘peaceful direct action’ – "the days of protests being solely about unions going on strike are over" – is also a warning that some union leaders may support organisations like UK Uncut to try appear more ‘radical’ while, in reality, hiding behind them to avoid organising effective strike action. They will not succeed.

Several trade unions, including PCS, the UCU lecturers’ union and the National Union of Teachers (NUT), are planning to co-ordinate strike action at the end of June. The PCS is demanding that the TUC calls regional midweek demonstrations on the first day of co-ordinated strike action. The National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) is campaigning throughout the trade union movement for other public-sector unions to join this action. What should be the role of UK Uncut activists in this situation?

The most effective approach would be to orient towards the union movement, and to campaign for the idea of co-ordinated strike action across the public sector. Where based in schools, colleges and universities, UK Uncut activists could work to make sure that school students and students strike together with public-sector workers. Alongside this, UK Uncut could orient towards communities facing the closure of their services and assist them in their campaigns, encouraging them to organise occupations of swimming pools and libraries, etc, threatened with closure.

This does not mean that direct action by small groups (like the Topshop flash mobs) has no role to play in publicising the rich’s failure to pay tax. Long before the term was coined, direct action was part of many struggles: from the suffragette movement for women’s rights to the battle against the poll tax. When deciding if direct action by small groups will be effective or not, however, we must always assess whether it will increase support among the mass of the working class and oppressed, or undermine it. A small minority attempting to stop the cuts by acting on behalf of the mass of the working class will never succeed, no matter how heroic its actions. Direct action is useful if it helps to build a mass movement. If it does not, it isn’t.

In the aftermath of the 26 March demonstration the capitalist media initially conflated UK Uncut’s peaceful occupation of Fortnum & Mason with the small minority of protestors (not related to UK Uncut) who smashed shop windows as a means of protesting against cuts. In contrast to the TUC leadership, which wrongly condemned all violence by protestors without a word about the violence of the police in manhandling peaceful demonstrators, UK Uncut spokespeople refused to condemn anyone, saying that it is up to individuals how they choose to protest against cuts. This was honourable, but it would have been far better to have also used the opportunity to positively explain an effective strategy to defeat the cuts. This would have meant explaining that UK Uncut understood the anger of a layer of desperate young people and that smashing windows is less serious than this government smashing young people’s futures.

Nonetheless, smashing windows, in particular intimidating low-paid shop workers, is not an effective method of protest. And it gave a weapon to the capitalist media and the government to try and undermine the impact of the demonstration. UK Uncut could also have explained that it is unlikely to be a coincidence that only eleven of the ‘window smashing’ protestors were arrested, whereas 138 peaceful UK Uncut protestors were held for 24 hours. Given how politically useful it was for the government to be able to point to ‘violent protestors’ it is highly probable that there were undercover police acting as agent provocateurs among the window smashers. One demand of the movement should be for the state to reveal where their undercover officers were deployed on the day.

Lack of democracy

UK UNCUT IS limited in the strategy it puts forward because of its lack of a democratic structure through which it can discuss and agree an approach. UK Uncut operates without structures on the basis that anyone who wants to can organise a UK Uncut protest and advertise it on their website. This has advantages, making it easy for people new to protest to organise such an event. However, it also has limits. It is not, as Penny and others suggest, a fundamentally new and non-hierarchical way of organising, which is better than ‘the old structures’. In fact, similar ideas have existed for as long as there has been a struggle against capitalism. The history of the last 30 years means that they have been particularly prominent in the last period.

A decade or so ago the same kinds of direct action and methods of organisation dominated the anti-capitalist movement which developed from the 1999 Seattle demonstrations against the World Trade Organisation. In some senses the anti-capitalist movement was more developed politically than UK Uncut. Today, the profound crisis of capitalism has led to a far wider questioning of the system than existed a decade ago. But UK Uncut’s demands are more limited than those of their predecessors. The May Day anti-capitalist protests in Britain, for example, the biggest of which was around 10,000 strong, were organised around the slogans, ‘break the banks, cancel all debt’, and ‘carnival against capitalism’, considerably broader in scope than UK Uncut’s demand that the rich pay their taxes.

While the anti-capitalist movement was an important step forward, after a period of time, it came up against its political and organisational limitations. It burst onto the scene after several years of extremely low levels of struggle by historical standards. Understandably, given the legacy of the Stalinist dictatorships and the record of right-wing trade union and labour movement leaders, scepticism towards organisation and fears it would lead to bureaucracy were very strong. ‘Spontaneity’ and lack of structures were therefore held up, as they are by Penny and others today, as superior to, and more democratic than, ‘traditional organisation’.

But the lack of a democratic organisation within which anti-capitalist activists could discuss and take decisions on strategy meant that the anti-capitalist movement remained inchoate and without any clear idea on the way forward. In Britain in 2001, the biggest anti-capitalist May Day demonstration was kettled by the police for nine hours. In response, the organisers simply declared that they would not be calling any more May Day demonstrations, unilaterally deciding that the state had defeated the protests.

Effective organisation, effective action

THIS ILLUSTRATES THE fact that organisation is a vital prerequisite for democracy. It is a myth that any demonstration takes place entirely spontaneously. Every event is organised to some degree. For UK Uncut protests, for example, people update websites, write and print leaflets, and so on. However, without organisation and democratic structures, there is no way to take part in collective decision making. ‘Self-organisation’, far from preventing the development of leaders, as its advocates claim, simply means that the people taking the decisions – regardless of whether those decisions are good or bad – are not accountable to the movement.

Today, some aspects of the scepticism towards political organisation are even deeper than they were a decade ago. The experience of thirteen years of New Labour in office, followed by the Lib Dems joining the Tories in coalition, has hardened the idea that all politicians act in the interests of the rich and powerful. Of course, this is true of all capitalist politicians. But the answer is not to turn away from political organisation but for the working class to organise its own party.

The failure of the massive anti-war demonstration in 2003 to stop the Iraq war has also been embedded in the consciousness of young people and has encouraged the idea that ‘new’ methods of organisation need to be found. Yet, that demo came within a hair’s breadth of forcing Tony Blair to pull back from supporting the war. He had even warned his children to pack their bags as the family might be leaving 10 Downing Street. If, as we demanded at the time, the trade union leaders had called for a day’s strike against the war, Blair would have been forced to retreat.

This could not have been done using ‘self-organisation’, which is very limited from a purely practical point of view. Collective decision-making – where a debate takes place, a vote is taken and a majority decision reached, which is abided to by all – is a basic prerequisite for effective action. It is clearly crucial, for example, if a strike is to be successful.

Some would argue that these criticisms are merely the ‘strategic factionalism of the old left’. But there is no dogmatism here. New ideas will be thrown up by the movement, and are welcome provided that they take the struggle forward. However, the battle to defeat the cuts is the most serious the working class has faced in decades. If we fail, living standards will be driven back to the level of the 1930s. Therefore, discussion to work out the right strategy, tactics and methods of organisation is not ‘interminable infighting’, but absolutely essential.

On one level, the demands of UK Uncut are very modest – that the rich should pay their taxes. If they were to do so, as PCS has worked out, it would virtually wipe out the budget deficit. But the rich are not about to cough up. Protests in shops have the power to publicise the issue but not to make the rich pay. UK Uncut supporter, Johann Hari, was naïve when he wrote in The Independent: "The more protests there are, the higher the price. If enough of us demand it, we can make the rich pay their share for the running of our country, rather than the poor and the middle class". (29 October 2010)

Demanding workers’ control

THE RICH SHOULD pay their taxes and the levels of tax they pay should be massively increased. However, capitalism is a system based on the exploitation of the majority in order to maximise the profits of a few. Capitalists will never meekly accept increased regulation and taxation. In the past, when minimal measures were taken against them, capitalists in Britain threatened a strike of capital. Labour Party governments, because they remained within the framework of capitalism, were forced to retreat.

To be effectively implemented, even the demand for the rich to pay the tax they owe would require state control, the complete nationalisation of the banking and finance industry. This would need to be combined with the control and checking of the import and export of capital. Even this would be ineffective unless it was accompanied by strict workers’ control and management of these nationalised industries. Left to themselves, the capitalists will find a thousand and one ways to escape measures to control them. Hence the need to link UK Uncut’s demands to a socialist programme of nationalisation of the banks and financial sector under workers’ control and management, with the participation of consumers and small businesspeople. To achieve these demands will require that the working class has its own democratic party which can draw together the different layers of the working class and fight for a programme in its interests.

The struggle against the cuts is also linked to the struggle for socialism. UK Uncut states that the cuts are "unnecessary, unfair and ideologically motivated". There is no doubt that an ideological desire to finish what Margaret Thatcher began is an element in the zeal with which the Tories are pursuing the cuts. However, across Europe there are governments of ex-social democratic parties (equivalent to New Labour) in Greece, Spain and Portugal, and right-wing capitalist parties in France, Germany and Italy, implementing cuts that are virtually identical in their brutality. The cuts flow from the drive by the capitalists to offload responsibility onto the working class for the profound crisis of capitalism which began in 2007/08. They are determined to drive the cuts through. This does not mean they cannot be stopped. Faced with a powerful mass movement that threatens the capitalists’ rule, they would have no choice but to retreat. However, in its relentless pursuit of profit, capitalism would then come back with other ways of making the working class pay, for example, through inflation.

A new generation has been thrust into activity over the last four months. Many are looking to the organised working class in the trade union movement for a lead in the struggle against cuts. A significant minority are drawing socialist conclusions. Others, understandably frustrated by the delaying tactics of right-wing union leaders, are looking for other methods of struggle. While many are a useful addition to the struggle, if they take the form of shortcuts, aiming to substitute a small minority for the building of a mass movement, they will represent a dead end.

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