Democracy and direction – lessons from the unions

There are now probably more than a dozen significant anti-fees and cuts organisations involved in the fight against the government’s right-wing agenda. There’s been varying amounts of co-operation between these campaigns since November, with activists from the vast array of networks coming together in the national Days of Action. The media are not incorrect when they say that a large number of these protests are organised via Facebook and Twitter. Certainly much of the action conducted in Cornwall has been done this way, with students, Labour party members and the emerging Cornwall Anti-Cuts Alliance in the foreground.  But will this movement fizzle out without a leader? Or will it merely lead to a more grassroots-led campaign?

Laurie Penny has been arguing extensively in the New Statesman for a more ‘democratic’ approach, that is, a campaign run by students which has no fixed leadership. But the worry is that the movement loses momentum and coherence if it continues in the form of unaccountable groups, setting up events through Facebook in the hope that everyone else follows suit. But another frightening aspect of the criticisms of leadership concerns the casual dismissal of trade unions. Coordinated strike action will have a bigger impact on the government than a few thousand getting kettled in Parliament Square.

Part of the fear of leadership stems from the NUS’s timidity, nay, aversion, when it comes to supporting the student movement. Aaron Porter has truly failed young people in his attacks on the Millbank occupiers, his support for cuts (as leaked to the Telegraph) and his failure to back other protests after the fantastic first demonstration in London in November. But, as Owen Jones argues in a recent Left Futures article, the failure of the NUS leadership is not a failure of the idea of leadership in general. Len McCluskey of Unite has been immensely vocal in his opposition to the cuts, calling for a programme of strikes. Similarly, Matt Wrack of the FBU, figures in the CWU, and most clearly, Mark Serwotka of the PCS (which leads the ‘There is an Alternative’ campaign), are all indispensable presences in the anti-cuts movement.

There is no way around it. Unions are democratic. They are organised. And they have 7 million members. Student support for the unions should not merely be tactical though. It is a moral issue. The working class will lose out more because of the cuts than middle-class students. 1.3m jobs are at risk because of the government’s economic plans. The higher rate of VAT will punish families. Cuts to housing benefit will force 300,000 out of their homes – in London alone. The assault on welfare – £18bn in cuts – is going to be detrimental to both workers and the unemployed. Students have to stand alongside workers as a matter of principle – the principle of solidarity.

This sense of solidarity is in danger of being broken. The Socialist Workers’ Party, famous for their unsteady reputation on the left and the right, have organised demonstrations about education in Manchester and London on the same day that protesters from Youth Fight for Jobs are having theirs in Manchester. The SWP are good at mobilising activists, making it likely that the marches are well attended. But on the Facebook January 29th protest event page, Youth Fight for Jobs say ‘its unfortunate that some of the education campaigns are organising separate events’ – as if having action on a national scale is a bad thing. Having protests in two cities is not divisive – it will probably boost the turnout by widening the ability of people to actually get there. Having an elected leadership that could organise without this kind of jealousy would clear up some of these disputes.

When it comes to the fight-back, we have to accept there will be differing opinions on how to organise and what our message is. This is inevitable: but with no clear leadership, our message may become obscure. Are we fighting against education cuts or all public sector cuts? And if there are hundreds of bickering organisations are we not weakened? The solution could be a consolidation of the networks into a major democratic force with an unambiguous direction, which can then function on the same platform as the unions – not in competition with the unions.

Merging the different campaigns may not be the most popular suggestion, but it’s one that needs to be seriously considered before we decline into a disparate sprawl of disconnected individuals. The last thing we should be thinking of doing is eradicating the notion of leadership.



  1. Let the sleeping giant speak in 2011
    The leaders of the Trades Union Congress are not noted for dramatic statements or exaggerated, let alone rapid, reactions to political change. The TUC’s current general secretary, Brendan Barber, has spent his time in office promoting harmony between social classes and compromise not confrontation.
    Therefore alarm bells should ring when Barber warns that 2011 is going to be a “horrible” year, with cuts in benefits and public services, and an increase in unemployment. The GMB union yesterday forecast that 200,000 jobs would be culled between now and April as a result of cuts in local authority spending. And that it “could well be the year when the country starts to say no to government”.

    Barber is sitting on a ticking time-bomb consisting of more than six million trade unionists, mostly in the public sector, who are about to bear the brunt of the Coalition government’s massive assault on spending. These workers are waiting for some leadership to resist the cuts – and none is, as yet, forthcoming. When their anger explodes, it will threaten men like Barber as well as the government.

    The level of suffering will be enormous. A report by the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development, predicts that unemployment will reach 2.7 million in the year to come, the highest level in 17 years. The draconian cuts in public spending will push unemployment up rapidly, as the private sector fails to absorb the 330,000 public sector jobs due to disappear by 2015.

    Job losses will coincide with rapidly rising prices of everything from basic foodstuffs to fuel and utility bills. THE increase of VAT from 17.5 per cent to 20 per cent today will mean destitution for millions of unemployed and low paid workers and their families.The cost of this increase for an average family is estimated to be an extra £7.50 a week which equals £390 a year – more than enough to tip hundreds of thousands of families already living on the edge into acute poverty. Petrol prices are already set to rise by 3.5 pence a litre with the VAT rise on top. Such a massive price hike can only drive up the cost of every single commodity that needs to be transported. The cost of food, which is zero rated for VAT, will inevitably be driven up by increased transport costs.
    There is no question that last month’s unprecedented and militant action by school and university students and their families against soaring tuition fees foreshadows what is to come. Those cuts affected a relatively small section of the population – the middle classes and aspiring working class people. The next wave will touch almost everyone.
    The most courageous amongst the union leaders, rail and tube workers’ leader Bob Crow has called for strikes:”We can expect to see workers in both public and private sectors out on the picket lines fighting for jobs and against savage attacks on pensions and standards of living. There is no reason for working people to pay the price for a crisis we didn’t create and which is wholly down to the banks, speculators and politicians.”
    Too right.
    Barber and Labour leader Ed Miliband are fond of dismissing the government’s deficit reduction plans as purely “ideological” or “politically motivated” and in so doing deliberately exempt the system known as capitalism. The Coalition’s cuts are,a desperate gamble to keep capitalism in Britain going under conditions of financial and economic crisis which threatens the break-up of the European Union itself.
    No country, not even the much vaunted BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China) is exempt from the crisis. After the 2008 crash, China’s economic growth was artificially stimulated by what one globalisation analyst describes as a “violent domestic stimulus” of 4 trillion yuan ($580 billion)… about 13 per cent of gross domestic product in 2008 and constituted ‘probably the largest such programme in history, even including wars’.” (Charles Dumas, author of Globalization Fractures).
    Those who have been studying the big global picture and the historic changes which are re-shaping our world are not mincing their words. Just listen to Jeffrey Garten, former US undersecretary of commerce under Bill Clinton. He warns of “exceptional turbulence as the waning days of the global economic order we have known plays out chaotically, possibly destructively.”
    The fact is that the kind of corporate-driven, credit-fuelled capitalism we have known for the past three decades has come to a shuddering halt. The prospects for 2011 are a deepening recession and further financial collapse.
    We should seek a rebirth of human culture – and a decent life for ordinary people on the planet – arising out of the ashes of global capitalism’s “bonfire of the vanities”.
    But it will certainly not be achieved through the TUC’s call for everyone to huddle together on a demonstration at the end of March, by which time tens of thousands of council workers will have lost their jobs as local authorities – many of them Labour controlled – implement the Coalition’s spending cuts. Nor will plans for protest strike action aimed at forcing the government to change course and stop the cuts be adequate to the task. That is a key lesson from the general strikes in Greece, Spain and Portugal during 2010 where “socialist” governments have smashed public services and pensions.
    There is a sleeping giant at the base of our society who has yet to speak. That is the vast majority of people who have everything to gain by throwing off not only the bankers, speculators and politicians who serve them, but the system of private ownership for profit over which they preside. Let’s make 2011 the year to begin the struggle for power against the ruling political, financial and economic elites, building a network of People’s Assemblies to complete this absolutely necessary transformation.

    1. Hi Philip. The campaigns are quite different in their aims, though it is clear that both groups are in resistance to ConDem policy. We are discussing at the next meeting whether to make Cornwall Anti-Cuts Alliance affiliate based, so Keep Cornwall Whole and CACA could certainly affiliate to each other and work together. Are you coming to the meeting on the 22nd?

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