Five years of capitulation

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Five years of austerity since the 2010 general election have been met with little resistance. The devastating cuts to housing, benefits and services have for the most part gone unanswered. Where resistance has emerged, it has been outside the established trade unions and those sections of the left that are allied to the Labour Party. Calls by Len McCluskey, the General Secretary of the Unite union, in September 2011 for a ‘campaign of resistance’ including ‘civil disobedience’ to protect jobs and pensions have proved to be hot air. There has been no real resistance to job losses in local authorities or elsewhere. Tom Vincent reports.

Early on, after a series of symbolic one-day strikes, the major public sector unions capitulated over pensions, with Unison and GMB accepting the government’s terms for the NHS pension scheme in December 2012, to be followed within a few months by all unions bar Unite agreeing to the revised local government scheme. In the lead-up to the general election McCluskey has been openly campaigning for the Labour Party vote, donating £2.5 million from the union toward party funds and writing in Tribune in February that Labour offers ‘hope that the government people elect will put their needs ahead of the established interests of the moneyed elite.’ This is complete fiction. Important lessons can be learned from the past five years as the working class faces the even greater depths of austerity promised by all the major parties at the 2015 general election.

2010: Millbank

The first clarion call for resistance was the occupation of the Tory Party headquarters at Millbank on 10 November 2010 by students protesting against the tripling of university fees and the removal of the Education Maintenance Allowance. There followed a wave of protests, school and college walk-outs, university occupations, and protests inside and outside banks and shops that were implicated in the cuts.

Students were forced to find new ways to organise and to confront not only the police and university management, but also the National Union of Students, whose President Aaron Porter expressed his ‘disgust’ at the occupation at Millbank, which he said was carried out by ‘a minority of idiots’. Sally Hunt, President of the UCU lecturers’ union, described those involved in the occupation as a ‘mindless and totally unrepresentative minority’.

These shameful attacks, and collusion with the police by student unions in places like Swansea and Leicester helped to isolate the student movement as it was viciously attacked by the state. Mugshots of students wanted for arrest were published, hundreds arrested, riot police deployed and intelligence operations launched that involved the National Extremism Tactical Co-ordination Unit. Protests were repeatedly kettled and attacked by police, and on 9 December Alfie Meadows, a 20-year-old student, was struck on the head by a police baton during a protest in London and suffered bleeding to the brain, coming within minutes of death as police delayed emergency treatment for him.

2011: Riots and Occupy

The shooting of Mark Duggan by police in Tottenham on 4 August 2011 provided the spark for confrontations with the police that were fuelled by anger in working class communities at years of police harassment, racism and poverty, now compounded by the cuts. Over seven days, riots spread to many cities across England, and in some places police lost control of the streets for hours at a time. Parliament was recalled from its summer break and politicians talked of deploying rubber bullets and water cannon for the first time on the streets of Britain. The state retaliated with a massive campaign of repression, placing parts of London under a virtual state of police siege, arresting 4,000 people and setting up overnight kangaroo courts. 3,103 were tried in court over the following year and 2,138 of these were found guilty. 1,292 were given an immediate custodial sentence, with an average sentence of 17.1 months, compared to an average of 3.7 months for similar offences in England and Wales in 2010. The absence of an organised movement to defend those arrested left people vulnerable, and many served prison sentences for offences as trivial as taking a bottle of water during the riots, or simply for posting about the riots on Facebook.

In October, the Occupy protests that had begun in the United States found resonance within Britain, with protest camps springing up in London, at the Stock Exchange outside St Paul’s Cathedral on land owned by the City of London Corporation, and in many other cities. At the core of these protests was a deep mistrust of the financial system that had failed so spectacularly in 2007/08, and the governments that had used public funds to bail out the banks. For several months the Occupy camps served as a base for political discussion, education and organisation, including the production of their own newspaper. Importantly, the camps also raised the question of how to develop an autonomous political space – at times they demonstrated highly democratic ways of organising, with open assemblies where anybody could speak. The camp at St Paul’s was evicted just after midnight on 28 February 2012, with protesters given just five minutes to collect their belongings. Some refused to comply and used a barricade to hold off police and bailiffs for a time before it was broken down and 20 were arrested.

2013: Fighting the bedroom tax

April 2013 saw the introduction of the Bedroom Tax, a cut to housing benefit for those in social housing assessed as having one or more ‘spare’ bedrooms. Local action groups were set up in many communities, with affected tenants playing a leading role in organising to support one another and to oppose the tax. They had to challenge local councils, which in the vast majority of cases aggressively implemented the cut, refused to consider any way of ameliorating the impact of the cut other than through the limited Discretionary Housing Payment fund, and threatened tenants with eviction if they did not make up the difference in rent from their own pockets. Social landlords refused to reclassify properties as having fewer rooms because they did not want to lose out from reduced rents.

The bedroom tax could not possibly achieve its stated aim of forcing people to relocate to smaller properties, because the number of smaller properties is totally insufficient. The effect in practice has been to push a section of the working class into further misery, as many are forced to make up the difference in rent or face eviction, and are consequently choosing whether to spend the little money they have left on heating or food. In the absence of a wider movement in most cases the local action groups could not be sustained.

2014: Fighting the housing crisis

2014 saw a rising movement in London against the astronomical rents, destruction of council housing, and cap on benefits that were making families homeless and allowing local, mostly Labour, councils to force many working class people out of the capital. The Focus E15 campaign was started in autumn 2013 by a group of young working class mothers in Newham who were threatened with eviction from their hostel because of council cuts and came together with the RCG to fight back. Since then they have been joined by an array of campaigns springing up in other parts of the city. They are combining consistent organisation in working class communities with dynamic direct action. These new campaigns are not being diverted by the Labour Party or the trade unions into dead-ends: their dynamism is posing a serious challenge both to local Labour councils and to private landlords. They are showing the right way forward for working class struggle.

Forces left behind

Yet for the majority of the British left, these movements are seen as near irrelevant compared to the trade unions. The SWP’s Alex Callinicos offered a prime example when he responded to the student movement in 2010 by writing in The Guardian under the heading ‘Student demonstrators can’t do it on their own’:

‘So how to bring together the fighting spirit and imagination of the students and the collective power of organised workers? This is the challenge that faces anyone who has been involved in the protests of the past few weeks.’

What is the character of the trade union movement to which Callinicos and others on the left want to tie the emerging movements against austerity? The peak in the number of days lost to strikes was 1.4 million days in 2011, and most of these were accounted for by a symbolic one day strike over public sector pensions. While there has since been a relative increase in the level of industrial action from an extreme low of 233,500 in 2012, to 802,300 in 2014, half of these were down to a token one-day public sector strike on 10 July. These figures are tiny compared to the 12.9 million days lost per year on average during the 1970s. When the TUC said in 2012 that they would investigate the ‘practicalities’ of a general strike, we wrote:

‘we know that this will be no more than talk since it will involve a real challenge to the anti-trade union laws and the consequent risk to union assets.’

And so it proved to be. When it comes to cuts to vital services and benefits for working class people, the trade unions have been supine at best, and in many cases complicit. In many Labour-run councils trade unions have done deals, exchanging voluntary redundancy payments for their members with acceptance of long-term losses to jobs and services. With the exception of occasional set-piece marches, service users have been left to fight the cuts alone.

When it comes to benefit sanctions and cuts to disability benefits, again it has been service users who have led the fight, organised through groups such as Disabled People Against Cuts and Black Triangle, and in some cases trade unions have actively encouraged their members to co-operate with the delivery of these punitive anti-working class measures. Examples include Unison’s distribution of a circular in June 2013 advising members:

‘If they are employed to administer part of the arrears recovery process, that they should follow the instructions of their employer…This applies whether that is the sending of reminder letters, issuing possession proceedings, applying to the Magistrate’s Court for a possession order, attending Court, instructing bailiffs or attending with bailiffs in order to secure possession’.

Meanwhile the Public and Commercial Services union (PCS) has insisted that it should be consulted over proposed direct actions by disabled campaigners against the DWP and Atos, claiming that its members who work there feel intimidated. In one case PCS went as far as to make a complaint against prominent campaigner Liza van Zyl to her union UCU and to the police, which led to a police visit to her home on 26 October 2012, accusing her of ‘criminal acts against the Department of Work and Pensions’.

The lessons of the last five years are that real resistance requires leadership from those directly affected by austerity. This requires open, democratic organisation that is prepared to confront all those forces that are complicit with austerity – whether they be Labour-run councils or trade unions. Political organisation is needed to ensure that the limited gains and lessons of the past five years are preserved for the struggles which will necessarily arise in the next period of austerity.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 244 April/May 2015