Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Cutting to the chase

Where on earth are anti-cuts campaigns leading to?

The left of British politics seems to be stuck between the old, bureaucratic model of rigid union-based organising, and the 'flashmob' style of campaigning which organisations such as UK Uncut and False Economy are encouraging.
UK Uncut have swooped on unsuspecting Saturday shoppers with the likes of tax-dodging Vodafone and Topshop in their sights, building a movement through Twitter and Facebook. The TUC, on the other hand, promises a big demonstration on 26 March ‘All Together for Public Services’ – organising through all its constituent member unions in the workplace. Both marshal support from very different ranks.

Neither campaigns are based on anything insincere, or are fundamentally incompatible with each other. The people who attend the demonstrations, sign the petition or even just ‘retweet’ a powerful statement mean what they do, I’m sure. But I wonder how long ‘just being angry’ about the state of the world, and expressing a generally anti-politics view in reaction to the cuts will achieve.

So what are we campaigning for? Is it a new world order, or just the reinstatement of Joan the lollipop lady? Are we against the flogging off of our forests, and the savaging of our libraries as well as the cuts in rural bus services? And if we are against all these things, what binds this movement together?

If you’ll bear with me, I’m going to indulge in the romance of my Trotskyite days as a student anti-war campaigner and part-time revolutionary socialist.

To me, the different approaches that have been adopted in reaction to the cuts mean that in many ways, I struggle to find a parallel with the enormous anti-war movement which developed after the September 11 attacks on the US. It all meant there was a considerably limited use of the internet as an organising and campaigning tool compared with 2011.

The hierarchical structure of the
Stop the War Coalition encouraged a united opposition to a single issue, and it was good at organising. The build-up consisted of rallies in every major town and city, even then encouraging school-age students to protest, and a flotilla of coaches culminating in a million-strong march in London on 15 February 2003. In 2003, there was no social media, and Facebook was just fictional dollar signs in Mark Zuckerberg’s head. Communications technology, in every sense, has exploded since then and it’s not inconceivable that we could witness such a huge scale protest now, if not bigger. But although this movement achieved success in mobilising opposition in quite a substantial way, it did not ultimately achieve its goal – of preventing war in Iraq. The movement which built up towards that demo drifted away, graduated from university, and found new political enemies. Fundamentally, the politics of the anti-war movement was always too fragmented, and too fragile to become anything substantial in the long-term.

Maybe the anti-war movement set an example which has yet to be beaten in terms of sheer support and the steady, long-term building of a core base of support.

Yet the current wave of protests – and they are just that at the moment – means that there is nothing on the scale of the anti-war movement, let alone something on the scale of the Chartists or the suffragists.

In response to latest surge of protests, some on the Labour supporting-blogosphere, including
Owen Jones, Aaron Peters and the TUC's Nigel Stanley have begun to comment both in support of and against the two campaigning models. They also argue for a mixture of the two approaches.

But to me, the answers to these conflicts are clear:
  1. Don’t 'expect' leadership – become the leaders!
  2. If you need a democratic structure to do that, with an elected ‘committee’ – make it happen.
  3. Define what you're for, not necessarily what you're against and be absolutely concise about it.
  4. Have a clear set of goals in order to get you there, and a coherent view about how we want things to be.
  5. Be unambiguous about your politics, even if you’re not aligned to a particular party.
Without any of the above in place, the means is irrelevant. Neither the traditional model nor the flashmob method will endure, because neither can achieve anything on their own.

If there is no consensus on the right approach, I’m wondering if it's as simple as lots of localised anti-cuts campaigns around the country - in which Labour candidates in marginal seats fight the 2015 election in order to ensure Labour becomes the next government. It might be the best hope of the progressive left that the deficit can be tackled in a fairer way. After all, anger may win the emotional argument, but it only gets you part of the way.

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