UK Uncut

Unions get behind alternative resistance

After appearing to settle down after March 26th’s half a million strong ‘march for the alternative’, the anti-cuts movement has been boosted in Britain in recent weeks by some hugely encouraging developments within the unions, flying in the face of those who wish to marginalise organised workers in the campaign.

Unions have found new ways to tackle attacks on the public sector in the past few months – and now PCS civil servants union and the TSSA transport union have agreed to join in ‘non-violent resistance’ to the sweeping austerity being imposed on the UK and Europe as a whole.

The TSSA at its conference on Friday passed a resolution to encourage ‘participation in non-violent resistance activities in conjunction with others such as trade unions, trades councils, the People’s Charter, the Coalition of Resistance and local community organisations’.

This follows the PCS union just a month or so ago voting to ‘fully support the protests and peaceful civil disobedience tactics used by the grassroots campaigners UK Uncut’. Members are being encouraged to join the demonstrations – Cornwall has its own action in Camelford on the 10th June and it is hoped that members in the area will attend.

These developments are not purely symbolic or ‘muscle flexing’. The PCS represents over 300,000 workers. Such a mandate of support can go a long way at countering the emerging stigma against anti-cuts action following demonstrations over the past year.

Even the NUS is getting in on the conference season’s radical policy changes, declaring (albeit quietly) on the 17th of May its opposition to ‘Israel’s siege on Gaza and actively campaign for it to be lifted in accordance with international law’. This is a big shift from the NUS policy of 2008 which refused to condemn Israel’s siege on Gaza which killed 1400 Palestinian civilians.

Yes, motions like these are passed and some perhaps ignored every year. But they highlight real moves towards unity and solidarity which have been missing for a long time. And the PCS decision led to one of UK Uncut’s strongest Days of Action of the year.


Back in ’68…Building an anti-cuts NUS and an international movement

[This piece was written for Militant Student]

The president of the London School of Economics student union, David Adelstein, and Marshall Bloom, president of the Graduate Students’ Association, have been suspended for taking part in demonstrations and direct action against their leadership. Millions of people are taking to the streets in France, and there are massive protests in the US after the government ignores its people’s demands. The year? 1967.

But there are some crucial differences. In the ‘60s university education was free – indeed they actually paid students to go to university. Britain was under a relatively left-wing Labour government. Today we are facing the most brutal cuts for generations – and university fees are being tripled, alongside unprecedented cuts to teaching budgets and the humanities. These are disturbing, and simultaneously exciting, times. As nearly 100,000 workers join forces with students every day in Wisconsin, revolutions break out in the Middle East and Northern Africa and Britain prepares for it’s largest demonstration in years on March 26th – times seem to be changing. In a very big way.

And yet the head of the Bank of England, Mervyn King said recently he’s ‘surprised people aren’t angrier’. When a representative of the bourgeoisie says makes this kind of comment, students and workers know it is time to take the action to another level.

This action is becoming international. Spurred on by the student protests of last year, UK Uncut formed to challenge tax dodging. Just a few months later it has spawned off-shoots in the US, France, Canada and Sudan. In a globalised economy, direct action is too becoming globalised.

At home, however, over 100,000 UCU members look likely to strike this month, and like the radical students of the 1960s we should be joining these lecturers in solidarity – a concept summarised in the book ‘Student Power’ over 40 years ago – ‘the first students to revolt…may not be those who suffer most acutely’. For school and college students to see people already in university protesting against the rise in fees is immensely inspiring, and has strengthened the movement. In this ‘renewal of revolutionary politics’ we are seeing 17 year olds radicalising people in their 50s who were active during the miners strikes of the ‘80s. This is a unity the left hasn’t seen for a long time, and the recent election result in Ireland (five United Left Alliance candidates were elected) only adds to the evidence that unity can have a fortifying impact upon the cause for democratic change.

Figures alone mean little, but the left groups of the UK have seen their numbers grow over the past year, a fact that all socialists and students should welcome. These developments add to the call for a fighting NUS, and after Aaron Porter’s standing down, Mark Bergfeld (for president) and Michael Chessman’s (for vice-president of FE) election campaigns have shown there is a real chance for the National Union of Students to be transformed, as in the late ‘60s, to a body that truly defends its members.

But after the exam period, it is imperative that the movement is revitalised. Hundreds of thousands of public sector workers are set to lose their jobs this year. Two thirds of public sector workers are women, who are being hit disproportionately. Pandering to the national press, however, is the ‘freedom of the lemming’, as one commentator put it. November’s student protest last year put young people on the map, and sparked a national revolt. Both the March 26 demonstration and the march from Jarrow to London on the 1st of October will bring together many groups, but it is in the student unions and local communities that we must develop the fight – the anti-poll tax campaign had groups in nearly every part of the country when it was introduced.

So as youth unemployment reaches a million, like the LSE student union president of 1967, SU’s must put all they can into building diverse and progressive campaigns against the cuts, and ensuring that this year is the year for a left NUS. Adelstein, it’s worth knowing, was reinstated as president after a militant 10-day occupation at the university. Just something to take note of…

The pretext of consensus: Why the anti-cuts movement needs structure

One of the most profound questions that the anti-cuts movement currently faces is one not necessarily of leadership, but one of structure. Most groups begin as forums for discussion. But as decisive action needs to be taken, structure begins to develop. Indeed it needs to develop. The point here is this – since these groups eventually assume roles, leaders, hierarchies and as they increase in size – it is better for these to develop democratically, for elected roles to be assumed, than personalities assuming roles without mandate under the pretext of consensus  or that everyone’s voice is theoretically equal.

The critique I express here isn’t one against ‘consensus decision making’, used frequently in anarchist, green and other political circles. Because there isn’t anything inherently wrong in that. But frankly, it is not what we have in the anti-cuts movement, especially in Cornwall. What we have is certain voices becoming dominant and decisions being made without even reference to consensus, and certainly without democratic voting. The fear of minutes, agendas, and chair/secretary/treasurer roles is mostly irrational. These tools are democratic, they get decisions made and they ensure that the voice of an individual person does not exert undue influence upon the will of the majority – again under the pretext of consensus.

The Green party were notoriously sceptical of leaders for a long time. Shortly after the party elected a leader, they also got elected their first MP. Caroline Lucas has given a huge boost to the Green party and a clear direction.

Of course, there is the question of UK Uncut, a loose-knit coalition of groups across the country. And it works. But it works because the idea is simple, and because it is mostly just a protest-brand that groups can attach themselves to and work around – democratically. Those at the ‘top’ of UK Uncut do not necessarily need to be elected because they merely facilitate the functioning of autonomous groups across the country. Nonetheless, how much longer can we go on trying to bring down a government through Facebook and Twitter? Sooner or later, people will want those at the top to be accountable to them.

On a smaller scale, this is equally essential. We are facing the most vicious cuts in living memory. Communities around the country are organising, but the pace is slow, and more so if three quarters of discussion regards the 1980s and not what we are facing now.

This debate will not end soon, and it is a healthy one to have. But the essential thing that the left must bear in mind is that if we become mere debating societies and cannot make firm and democratic decisions, Cameron and Osbourne will have the easiest four years of their lives, while the demonstrations get smaller and less focused. This is not 1968. There is no time to reminisce.


The People Speak: the banks caused the recession

A new poll asking what people think caused the recession in 2008 has shown most now believe it was banks which caused the crisis. The result is a blow to the Tories who have been trying to hammer in the (false) idea that Labour caused the recession through investing too much in public services.

The poll (shown here) shows that over half of Lib Dems (55%), half of other party voters and over 40% of those who didn’t vote accept it was speculative actions in the City and lack of banking regulation which led to the crisis. Before the recession, the deficit stood at around 2% – an incredibly low figure. The £1.4trn bailout made this grow significantly, but prevented full-scale economic collapse.

Another recent poll has shown a marginal shift to the left among Brits, with a significant jump to the left from women. Those defining themselves as left of centre now outweight those defining themselves as right of centre. Still, there’s a long way to go. As the government launches full-scale class war, perhaps we’ll see a more marked shift.

These two findings mean Osbourne is stepping into dangerous waters when refusing to condemn the egregious bank bonuses being dished out over the next few months. Moreover, with profits of £1bn a day, the levy on the banks of a mere £.1.15bn in 2011 is an insult to people losing their jobs and being made to pay for a financial crisis they didn’t cause.

Suggestion: bring on the next phase of UK Uncut action against the banks. We own 84% of RBS. ‘Their’ profits belong to the British taxpayer. Let’s get it back.

Urgent UK Uncut Meeting: Truro – 22nd January

UK Uncut activists will be meeting up this Saturday to talk about where to take the anti-tax dodging movement in Truro, and to prepare for more grass-roots campaigning. Local workers, anti-cuts activists and students are urged to come and discuss how best to organise for another Day of Action against tax avoidance.

The meeting will take place at Archie Browns (vegetarian cafe) on Kenwyn Street in Truro at 1pm, this Saturday the 22nd.

2011: The Year of Resistance

Some spectators of the student and anti-cuts movement in 2010 point out that there hasn’t been a major demonstration since the 9th of December. But the phrase ‘this is just the beginning’ highlights what the campaign is really heading towards. The fact that the last big demonstration was only three weeks ago says a lot about how the scale of discontent towards the rise in tuition fees and the cuts to the public sector. The cuts haven’t even begun to bite yet – it is in 2011 that we will see a veritable explosion in activity against the government’s economic plans.

The TUC’s warnings that the year will be ‘horrible’ for public sector workers and the public in general coincides with the Local Government Authority’s prediction that during 2011 around 140,000 public sector jobs will go. We haven’t had such an onslaught against ordinary people in Britain since the 1930s – and the reaction in opposition to the cuts will be similarly unprecedented. When an organisation like the IMF is arguing for more investment in job creation, you know that times have changed: these cuts will damage the economy.

UK Uncut will be resuming its actions in the New Year, and with the snow gone turnouts will be considerably higher. The storm of media coverage surrounding the events gives a massive boost to the campaign, and indeed the Radio 4’s coverage today went into detail about the background of UK Uncut – a dozen or so people meeting up in a pub and setting up the website that has spawned a mass movement. When you compare the truly grass-roots nature of the ‘group’ with seedy organisations like The Tax-Payers Alliance (Tax Dodgers’ Defence League might be more apt), it is clear who is representing the interests of the poor, and who is representing the interests of big business.

As it becomes clear that students’ interests are no longer represented by the Liberal Democrats, representation will be taken to the streets. January 29th’s protest in London against education cuts and the abolition of the Education Maintenance Allowance will draw even more union support than before as the campaign widens against all cuts to the vulnerable, the jobless, students and workers.

Action is happening on both a national and regional level. Plymouth has had over 20 actions in the past few months. Truro, one of the smallest cities in the country, has also had its fair share of marches and demonstrations, varying from 150 students blocking the main road to a small group of activists putting up a sign outside the Council building saying: ‘Dear Cornwall Council, thanks for slashing public services. Love, the bankers xx’

It is this diversity of dissent that will provide the strongest defence against the cuts. It will be university occupiers writing letters to the Arch Bishop of Canterbury, it will be people blockading Topshop in Brighton, it will be union activists leafleting in Manchester, students lobbying their MPs in Scotland. It will be a coalition of every demographic, in every area.

There is also likely to be a lot of action on the 11th of January, which is rumoured to be when MPs vote on EMAs. Though Parliament’s website gives little information, coinciding the day of action with the day of the vote would be an effective way of challenging MPs to think again about whether to scrap the scheme which helps over 600,000 young people go on to further education.

When the campaigns for keeping the EMA, abolishing tuition fees, fighting tax avoidance and the cuts come together on March the 26th (the TUC-organised march), something exciting will happen. Whether it will be half a million people uniting peacefully, or genuine unrest and civil disobedience, one cannot predict.

Few are anticipating a wide-scale socialist revolt, or a new era of class consciousness. But the important thing to remember after this is over (and that will not be any time soon), is that while Cameron is indicating that he’s ‘trying to avoid’ restoring public services once/if the economy recovers, we must elect a government in 2015 that will rebuild what’s left of the public sector so that people will be put before profit. Until then, we exercise our right to protest with as much might as we can.

This is our generation’s 1980s

For a lot of people under 30,  the ’80s seem not much different to any other decade before then – a dark, bygone age, which though still despised, is viewed as somehow irrelevant nonetheless. That may be starting to change. Though the Thatcher era shifted the main stage of politics to the right, the very opposite may now be happening. Just as the neoliberal doctrines of Thatcher’s time were challenged by socialists – Scargill’s NUM being the Conservatives’ staunch and powerful opponent for several years – now we are seeing a new generation of increasingly outspoken students and activists willing to take on the Tory-led government. Whether this movement’s fate will be the same as the miners’ remains to be seen.

Take one comparison. The NUPE (a large public sector union) in the 1980s was drawn sharply to the left because of the sheer scale of the attack on workers’ rights and conditions coming from the Tory government. Last month, Unite (the largest British union) elected Len McCluskey to general secretary on a socialist slate. It seems the force of right may be increasingly counterbalanced by a growing left – and one that is younger and more vibrant than the left of the 1980s. Unions will have a huge role to play in the fight against the cuts, but the student movement looks set to become more prominent in the fight than was expected – especially after aeons of the old ‘lazy/apathetic student’ stereotype.

Crises polarise politics. But politics becomes even more polarised when those in power betray the electorate – and I’m not just talking about the Lib Dems. Cameron was calling any VAT rise ‘regressive’ during the election campaign, and the Lib Dems essentially campaigned against a VAT rise altogether. In just a week it will go up to 20% – the highest it has ever been. Similarly, in ’79, Thatcher had promised not to double VAT, a promise only narrowly kept after she raised it from 8% to 15%.

In No Such Thing As Society, Andy McSmith points out that the Thatcher years merely resulted in a redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich. Indeed, the UK’s richest boosted their wealth by 55% last year, and executive pay at the top is literally thousands of times the average wage.

There are countless more examples showing the parallels between today and 30 years ago. Thatcher’s attempts at cutting public spending actually increased public spending as a proportion of GDP, because as simple economics dictates, putting people out of work does not solve our financial problems. What is does do is increase the benefit burden and lower tax revenue.

The astonishing emergence of the UK Uncut anti-tax dodging movement finds little company in the 1980s, but that is not to say tax dodging was not an issue. While over 3 million were unemployed, the company Vestey was raking in £4m profits. How much tax did the business pay on it? £10. Ten. Pounds. Sounds a little like Sir Green, does it not?

And as our financial woes were exacerbated at home, our international relations were becoming increasingly fraught, with the threat of nuclear war at the back of everyone’s minds. The narrative of the Cold War does not need to be retold here, but the West/USSR tensions are not unlike the tensions today between the ‘West’ and Iran, North Korea, China etc, viz ‘Eastern’ nations. Indeed our plan to upgrade the Trident nuclear missile system is a mirror image of Thatcher’s upgrading of the Polaris system to Trident, at an immense cost to the tax-payer.

The police, as an arm of the state, seem determined to destroy legitimate political dissent. As their tactics become more violent, so the reaction of demonstrations will become more volatile. Images like mounted police batoning strike pickets in the 1980s may become more frequent in the age of austerity.

We cannot predict what will happen over the next four years. But with the resistance to the cuts getting more support by the day, with more outspoken union leadership and with campaigns such as the Coalition of Resistance and Education Activists’ Network working alongside each other for a common cause it is looking like this decade may become the our generation’s Thatcher years, only this time, we’re seeing former miners linking arms with their sons and daughters to move the goal-posts back to the left.