Monthly Archives: April 2011

“Committing a protest”: The Charing Cross arrests

The following is an anonymous personal account of the arrests of  ten activists yesterday morning in London.

Yesterday morning I was arrested with nine others outside Charing Cross station, apparently to “prevent a breach of the peace.”

I was intending to go to the “Not the Royal Wedding” street party organised by campaign group Republic.

A British Transport Police officer spotted some republican placards one of us had in a bag and decided to search everyone, under the Section 60 that had been invoked around the royal wedding area. The placards weren’t out, we weren’t having a demonstration. We were standing on a concourse outside a station, doing nothing much.

Incidentally, one BTP officer, when explaining the context of the decision to search us, said that the Metropolitan Police had been “rounding people up” in advance of the royal wedding, despite the Met themselves denying that any arrests in previous days had been “specifically related” to the event.

After having been searched by the BTP, we were told we could not leave because an officer from the Met “wanted to talk to us.” Within a few minutes, about twenty Territorial Support Group (TSG) officers had arrived and surrounded us in possibly the world’s smallest kettle. After another few minutes, I was grabbed by a TSG officer who informed me that because we were in possession of “climbing gear” we were to be arrested to prevent a breach of the peace.

The BBC and the Guardian have both faithfully repeated the climbing gear claim as fact. There was none. There was nothing that anyone could reasonable have mistaken for climbing gear. There seems to have been no attempt by these media outlets to ascertain the accuracy of that police claim.

We were cuffed and held until a hired coach arrived. Tourists stopped to pose for photos with London bobbies while we stood handcuffed in the background. A cameraman for a film crew making a documentary about protest took some footage.

“Ah,” said my arresting officer. “We’ll be taking you to the Tower.”
“That’s a good one.”
“Yeah, not bad for the TSG, eh?”

On the coach, we were transferred to a non-TSG unit and driven to Sutton police station, about a dozen miles out of central London.

Four of us were led of the coach to be processed in the police station. We were searched again and had our personals confiscated and details taken. We were not at any point charged with any offence, nor was any indication given that we would be charged with any offence. A senior officer, giving some background to one of the desk officers who were doing the paperwork, explained that we were “anti-royaltists” who had been planning to “commit a protest” near the wedding.

This is language similar to that used by Metropolitan Police Commander Jones when she said this week: “Any criminals attempting to disrupt [the royal wedding], be that in the guise of protest or otherwise, will be met by a robust, decisive, flexible and proportionate policing response.”

At this point I was banged up in a cell for a little under an hour, before being released into the wilds of Sutton.

Apparently a number of activist-linked Facebook pages were also taken down on the day. We also saw the pre-emptive arrests of Charlie Veitch, Chris Knight, and others, raids on squats, and so on. Fighting occurred when the police moved to close down an unofficial royal wedding party, mostly comprising young people, in Glasgow.

In our case, in retrospect, it seems like there was never any intention to charge us. It was a tactical arrest using the ill-defined potential “breach of the peace” that may or may not have been going to happen as an excuse to remove us undesirables from the area. I was going to a street party in Holborn and ended up in a police cell in Sutton.

It’s one way to miss the royal wedding I suppose.

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Filed under Current Affairs, Student Issues

Law and Order?

by Anne Archist

David Cameron once said “We are the party of law and order”. Similarly, the tory general election manifesto proclaimed that “We will rebuild confidence in the criminal justice system so that people know it is on the side of … law-abiding people”.

Let’s ignore the ridiculous implications that there’s a party of illegality and chaos or that society can be neatly divided into law-abiding people and law-breaking people (I wonder how many people have never driven over the speed limit and never ignored copyright regulations and never stolen a single thing in their lives, etc). The conclusion we might reasonably reach from such claims is that the tories, and David Cameron personally, are strongly opposed to people bending or breaking the law to serve their own interests, and that they’d safe-guard legally-guaranteed rights against official abuses and corruption. You’d be entirely justified to conclude this, but apparently you’d be wrong.

There have been some interesting and worrying reports flying around which allege that the Met are going to be firmly curtailing freedom of speech on the day of the Royal Wedding. This comes from Republic:

“Campaign group Republic has sought urgent clarification from the Metropolitan Police after Commander Christine Jones suggested that republican placards seen in the vicinity of the royal wedding would be removed under the Public Order Act (POA).
Asked by journalist Martha Kearney whether police would use the POA to confiscate “down with the royal family” placards, Jones replied “There are 364 other days of the year when people can come to London and demonstrate and frankly it’s not appropriate on the day of the royal wedding for people to come to London with that intent.””

It’s worth noting that this is clearly a misuse of the POA, which includes provisions making it an offence to “[display] any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting, within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby.” I’d say people would be pushing their luck to claim that republican placards were likely to cause ‘distress’ at the best of times (and note that the law makes no mention of context other than the presence of people likely to feel a certain way about it – so any other day of the year it would be equally illegal, provided that pro-monarchists are around, unless there’s something magic about a royal wedding that makes people more likely to be harassed, alarmed, or distressed by republicanism).

Even if the placard was distressing, the POA clearly states that it is a statutory defence to show that the conduct was “reasonable”. You merely have to show that what you were doing was reasonable in order to be exhonerated in court. If we can’t get a court of law to accept that republican protest at a royal event is reasonable, we’ve got some serious problems. And why the Met would be arresting people that they knew full well probably wouldn’t get prosecuted by CPS, and wouldn’t get found guilty if they were, is beyond me unless it’s a case of politically-motivated policing. The only sensible way of interpreting the statements made by the Met, then, is that they’re going to purposefully misinterpret the law in order to prevent people from protesting. I hear no tory dissent.

In a similar vein, this article suggests that anyone seen burning the flag would be arrested under the POA (not just have their flag confiscated, but be arrested). OK, so burning the national flag might be more reasonably described as something that could cause “distress” worthy of the name (perhaps to a weak-hearted and over-emotional veteran or something). To suggest that flag-burning will be treated as an arrestable offence, however, is an utter indictment of the Met’s usual line that they “support” the right to protest and seek to “facilitate” protest. I hear no tory dissent.

There’s also reason to pause and think about the fact that Muslims Against Crusades have been denied authorisation to protest at the Abbey. Now, MAC are no friends of this blog, but the law is pretty black-and-white on this issue. The Serious Organised Crime and Police Act (SOCPA) clearly states that if a “notice” is received that complies with the regulations laid out in the act, which state what information it must contain and when it must be received, “The Commissioner must give authorisation for [a] demonstration [in the vicinity of Parliament]“.

Note the word must (I know, I’m really going slowly through these things, but I want it to be plain as day what the law actually says) – not ‘may’ or ‘might’ or ‘should’ or ‘can’, but “must“. So there are two explanations here – either MAC didn’t conform to the regulations when giving notice, or the Met have broken the law and denied them their explicitly-protected right to protest in the vicinity of Parliament. Obviously I don’t know which is the case, but nobody seems very bothered to find out. I hear no tory dissent.

Finally (as far as I can remember – you lose count of these things), in an interesting outburst of lawlessness, Cameron recently seemed to urge people to ignore local government regulations:

“To those councils that are asking small groups of neighbours for licences, insurance and other bureaucracy my message is clear:
Don’t interfere, don’t get in the way and don’t make problems where there are none. Let people get on and have fun.
And my message to everyone who wants to have a street party is: I’m having one and I want you to go ahead and have one too.”

Hilariously, Cameron seems to have unwittingly made a general principle out of a specific case – the quoted paragraph makes no mention of the royal wedding, so presumably applies to any street parties at any time under Cameron’s government. The whole tone of the article implies that if “red tape” or “bureaucracy” gets in the way, people should flout the rules. I wonder whether he’d apply the same principle to republican street parties faced with public order arrests… Once again, I hear no tory dissent.

So there you have it; far from the “party of law and order”, it seems that the tories under Cameron’s leadership are turning a blind eye to politically-motivated policing that bends and breaks the law, encouraging disobedience in the face of local government regulations, and generally approving of law-breaking when it suits their own purposes.

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What does this photo tell us about the nature of protest in Cameron’s Britain?

by Edd Mustill

Last night, police raided a squat in the Stokes Croft area of Bristol, provoking a protest by local residents. The incident came shortly after a much-despised Tesco Express store opened in the area, following a two year campaign against it.

Jonathan Taphouse has taken a great set of photos of the night – which is already being called a riot – which you can see here. But I want to talk about this one in particular.


Click to enlarge

This is a sort of scene that’s becoming more and more familiar to political activists in Britain.

It might sound dramatic to describe a scene of a man fronting off with with a policeman as an example of a direct confrontation with the state. But think about the context of the photo. State power is being used here to allow big capital (Tesco) a free hand in a community which obviously opposes it.

The protesters are trapped between the police dog-handler in front of them and the line of kitted-up riot police in the background. It may not be a kettle, but we can assume that the police are treating everyone in their containment area indiscriminately as a threat to public order. You find yourself being treated as a suspect at a crime scene just for turning out for a demonstration.

What happens in the area? Some people, tired, bored, or nervous, just sit down and chill out. Once again we can see the bizarre nature of a riot; a potentially violent confrontation happening a few feet away from people having a chat with their mates, cracking jokes, or whatever. A riot isn’t just violence, as the photo shows clearly. And of course, behind the police officer, we can see an act of humanity, a man offering his hand to help someone up from the floor.

Nevertheless, there is some evidence of everyday objects having their uses transformed (Bins into barricades? Bottles into weapons?). This shows up a bit of a media fallacy; very few people ever “come prepared” for a riot. The riot kicks off, then they do their best with what’s to hand.

Around the main scene stand the inevitable photographers, some with professional equipment, others just holding up their phones. Remember the photo from Millbank of the press corps surrounding a broken window? Sometimes it seems like there’s more photographers than protesters… or maybe the boundary between observer and participant is just being broken down more often?

We can safely say that more people are going to find themselves in similarly bizarre situations. The criminalisation of protest is happening to people seemingly far removed from the student movement that flared in November. Last week, for instance, two locked-out Redhall workers were arrested on the Humber for blocking a road.

The widespread militarisation of the police which occurred in the early- and mid-80s could certainly happen again as resistance to the government and to capital grows. More people will experience the defiance, confrontation, apprehension, and solidarity that this image captures so well.

Thanks to Jonathan for letting us reproduce the photo. Hat tip to Richard from the Third Estate for some of the links that led me to the photo.

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New Weekly Smirker out today!

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Why I wouldn’t vote in the AV referendum even if I could be bothered

by Edd Mustill

OK, so I didn’t register to vote. There’s no local elections in my area this year and, when it comes to the AV referendum, I don’t care. I just don’t care at all. This article is a short and passionate defence of not giving a shit.

Inasmuch as I’ve kept up with the debate (because, like I said, I don’t really care), there’s been some poor “Yes” arguments coming from the left. Bad people oppose AV so we should be on the right side, and back it. Workers’ Power call for a “critical yes vote.” I’m not sure the already weird concept of a critical vote (look, you either vote for something or you don’t) can be applied to a referendum.

I have more sympathy for those on the left saying No, but the problem with a referendum is that saying no effectively means saying yes to things as they are.

The major point to be made is that, once again, our “democratic” system has failed us. By abandoning their policy of supporting STV, which is a proportional system, the LibDems have presented us with a choice between two systems that are both as bad as each other.

The terms of the debate have been framed in such a way that any of us who support genuine proportional representation can only lose. If it’s a “Yes,” they’ll tell us that they can’t change the political system again so soon until we’ve given AV a try. They’ll tell us this for two centuries. If it’s a “No,” they’ll tell us that everyone’s happy with things as they are. Yep, those sneaky politicians have fucked us again.

That’s why, politically, the best outcome from this referendum is for the turnout to be so low that, whatever the result is, it doesn’t have any democratic legitimacy. This is the only way a fresh debate, including real PR (and who knows, abolishing the Lords, the Monarchy, and so on) can be had any time before the next century.

The voice of real PR has been drowned out in the sort of anti-democratic British fudge that the political mainstream thinks makes this county’s constitution so quaint and charming. It doesn’t; it makes it shit.

So, I say, fight for democracy on May 5th (or whenever it is – I don’t care) by staying at home and not voting.

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The General Strike debate

There has been lots of talk recently (on the left at least) of a general strike in the UK – the NUJ has voted in favour of a 24 hour general strike, and most left groups have been pushing the slogan strongly on March 26th and since.

However, there seems to be little understanding of how we can move from sloganeering towards helping to create a situation that could be called a ‘general strike.’

The writers here at the Great Unrest have tried to put down some of their thoughts and ideas.

This kind of reflection is crucial, otherwise we’re just ‘calling’ for something without understanding what ‘calling for it’ means, and without understanding what the thing we’re calling for actually is. And that’s not a good situation for a revolutionary to be in.

We encourage all readers to share their own thoughts on the general strike debate in the comments.


Patrick:
The TUC does not call strikes – trade unions organise ballots and workers vote to call strikes. Even if the TUC did have the power to call a general strike, it almost certainly would not call one.

A general strike can only develop in an asymmetrical way – with more organised sectors striking, and moving into more militant tactics – real picket lines, indefinite strikes, and perhaps most importantly, use of social movement unionism – service users materially supporting strikes against cuts, communal provision of services (food etc) on picket lines, even (at the most militant end) work-ins at public service buildings. The latter could take the form of schools continuing to run but teachers refuse to fill out forms, adhere to tests or the curriculum, for example.

The less organised may begin with work-to-rule, and build support within the membership from there. Temporal coordination of strike action will surely come at a relatively late stage in this process.

Would a general strike be effective? Not if it was a one-day affair, like Greece, Spain, and Portugal have all seen recently. A one-day general strike may be an important confidence boost (like March26th could have been), but an effective general strike would have to be longer (or at least very regular), with strikers using their days to raise support, organise mutual aid services, and hold public events to pull convince the undecided that disruption is a necessary price to save public services.

Liam McNulty:
One thing which worries me about the ‘General strike now‘ slogan is that it conceivably represents for the organised far left what the March 26th demonstration represented for the TUC: a one-off event involving months of planning with little consideration given to what happens afterwards. As with the ‘March for the Alternative’, in which the ‘alternative’ was left purposefully vague, the content behind the slogan is by no means clear. There is a danger that, if it were to happen, it would at best be a spectacular gesture; at worst could lead to demoralisation if it failed to have any palpable impact on the government’s political agenda. Indeed, by what measure should we, and the workers’ who take part, judge the ‘success’ of a general strike?

I have some sympathy with the view that if socialists do not raise the slogan of a general strike then no one will. However, I fear this is a mistaken attitude to take towards the labour movement. Unless accompanied with rank-and-file work within trade unions in various sectors to prepare the way for such an action, there is a sense in which the slogan of a general strike is being ‘handed down’ by exogeneous organisations from on high. It seems to me that this is indicative of a bureaucratic and formalist conception of politics, as opposed to one which is rooted more organically in the class.

It would surely be better if the slogan was raised in a manner more in keeping with the flow of struggle. Rather than being a corollary of the tactical vacuum post-March 26th (well, we have to propose ‘something’!), the call for a general strike might make more sense if proposed, say, as the extention and escalation of a current ongoing wave of industrial action. In this sense, its emergence would be tactically more concrete and less akin to a generic formula. The role of the organised left is not just to shout slogans from the sidelines in the hope that they fall on fertile ground but to judge the best opportunities for intervention, guiding the flow of struggle and providing leadership when it is most needed.

Anne Archist: Workers’ Power have formulated one of the more reasonable takes on the ‘general strike’ formula, telling us to “raise the call now for a general strike, call for the TUC to do it but don’t rely on them, and crucially build the anticuts committees … to coordinate action from below.” They’ve also made the case for indefinite action and private sector inclusion, contrary to the Socialist Party for instance.
Even when formulated like this is strikes me as a tactic that involves playing with fire. The only serious general strike Britain has ever seen was in 1926, and it teaches us some harsh historical lessons. Socialist Worker and other Trotskyist papers are willing to learn from the positive lessons like Churchill’s comment that the strike was “a conflict which … can only end in the overthrow of parliamentary government or its decisive victory”.

As usual, the same groups are largely unwilling to learn from the negative lessons o the experience: the general strike came out of coordinated action in a few industries that threatened to spread; the TUC sent a negotiator (both in order to avert the strike and during ongoing negotiations once workers had come out) who was notorious for refusing to take solidarity action and who was clearly on the government’s side, saying “God help us unless the government won”; the army, special constables and scab volunteers were called upon to run services and police pickets, leading to violent confrontations; the councils of action were unable to sustain industrial action for a significant length of time in the face of the TUC’s aggressive withdrawal; the failure of the strike led to a significant fall in TUC-affiliated union membership and to legislation that first made general strikes illegal (which was on the books for nearly 20 years before Labour removed it – it’s now illegal again, incidentally).

The questions we should be asking are: how we can build the kind of confidence that would lead workers to take non-tokenistic action in defiance of the law and the TUC leadership; how can we build the kind of organisation that would make such action successful (ideally through forms of action that are disruptive to employers and build class strength and consciousness while being sustainable and conducive to solidarity, as Patrick touches on in this article); how do we circumvent the official leadership of the unions and provide political leadership to the anti-cuts movement through this action; how do we minimise the possibility of a backlash that could do serious harm to the organised workers’ movement in the face of an unsuccessful general strike? Another vital question that is neglected by every discussion I’ve come across is quite what we expect to come out of a general strike at a time when social revolution doesn’t seem to be a short-term option like it might have been in 1926 – do we stop short at bringing down the government, do we expect to beat the cuts entirely if we bring a Labour majority to office, do we push further and go on the offensive (e.g. for full employment), do we struggle for political revolution to replace even Labour with a workers’ government within broadly capitalist relations…?

Edd Mustill: The Tower Hamlets strike rally a couple of weeks ago was interesting because it showed both some of the contradictions in the public sector unions, and some of the left’s current approach. Made up of teachers and local government workers, the majority of the room were women of various ages and backgrounds. All the main speakers, except one, were middle-aged men. A crude observation perhaps, but one which maybe underlines the disconnection between leaderships and membership, especially in the public sector. The chair, a young NUT member, did a good job of telling people that members make the unions, and that leaders need to be held to account. She urged people to get involved in their branches.

There was no floor discussion, no discussion of tactics and strategy, at the rally, so perhaps chanting was the only way to get an idea across. The danger is that, like some chanting on demonstrations, it comes across as pleading for someone else to act rather than self-organising. This is perhaps reflected in the behaviour of the left within union leaderships. This report from a Unison NEC (take it or leave it) says:

“…one after another on the ultra left accepted that we are neither administratively industrially ready to launch successful industrial action with the NUT and PCS in June and recognised the importance of planning for this properly. Only the Socialist Party representative from Yorkshire believed in the need for immediate action, if not a general strike…”

In fact the Socialist Party’s leaflet for the Unison NEC election mentions co-ordinated strike action, but not the ‘general strike’ at all. So how seriously are the left really taking it?

The groups pushing most strongly for a general strike, the SWP and Workers’ Power, wrote in their reports of Tower Hamlets that their general strike chant was taken up by most or all workers in the room. Apart from not being true, this doesn’t bring the general strike any closer. The idea that a group of workers “throwing their weight behind the call for a general strike” will push union leaders into calling one is tenuous. That’s not how union leaderships are forced into taking decisions like that. There needs to be an alternative pole built up in the unions, a rank-and-file pole. To be fair to Workers’ Power, they seem to be involved in a new “Grassroots Left” movement in Unite.

Rather than a question of what calls we make or what headlines we put on reports, bringing about a general strike is really a question of what forms of organisation we need.

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Review: Fight Back! A reader on the winter of protest

by Edd Mustill

This is the first of two lengthy reviews of books about the student movement that have recent appeared. This review looks at Fight Back! A reader on the winter of protest. The second will look at Springtime: The new student rebellions.

Fight Back! Has been put together largely from blog posts and other articles written contemporaneously to the most heated period of student protest, just before Christmas. Much of the content has been taken from the OpenDemocracy website.

The breadth of the articles is impressive. They include many posts dealing with tactics, some of the more well-known articles of those few weeks such as Laurie Penny’s Out with the Old Politics, and a contribution from a rebel Liberal Democrat peer.

The book is, on its own terms, an important one. The editors have done a decent job collating contributions from what could be called the various “decentralising” trends in the movement (you won’t find anything from the Trotskyist press, but then if you want to read that… go read the Trotskyist press I guess). Perhaps some harsher editing could have cut out repetitive sections in many of the articles wouldn’t have gone amiss, because they are personal accounts from different blogs and tend to repeat the facts of the protests a lot. I’m also not sure why we need to be reminded so many times that all the book’s editors have been caught up in a real police kettle.

The material is very London-centric, dealing with the national protests there and the occupation of the Jeremy Bentham room in UCL in some detail, with few contributions from outside the capital. Nevertheless it covers issues of national relevance.

Protest tactics

Some of the most original articles deal with the variety of tactics used on the pre-Christmas protests. They all favour decentralised, horizontal forms of organisation which, according to Jon Moses, bind activists together through shared experiences rather than ideology (although I’d say the same is probably true for the SWP’s Central Committee…).

In his contribution Markus Malarkey argues: “the strength of the student movement lies in its capacity for dispersal and for spontaneous, creative and autonomous actions that catch the police unprepared and avoid containment.” (p. 311)

This is certainly a tactical strength of the movement, but not really anything to do with its social strength. A failure to get to grips with the latter is perhaps the biggest weakness of the entire volume.

Rory Rowan is similarly a fan of “civic swarming,” the sort of cat-and-mouse protest that occurred on 30th November. Worried that the kettle is being used to defuse and demonise all protests, he argues that, “A step outside the kettle will be a welcome step outside the law.” (p. 235)

Mediaspeak

An admirable emphasis on the importance of radical action runs through the volume, as well as criticism of the media’s coverage of the protests. But some contributions unfortunately lapse back into the language of that same media.

Guy Aitchison’s criticism of the NUS’s famous “glowstick vigil” on the day of the Parliament Square demo is a case in point. He describes “the farcical spectacle of the NUS’ glowstick vigil (candles were deemed against health and safety) of 200 people at Victoria Embankment, whilst 30,000 students marched to Parliament Square to make their voices heard.” (p.55)

Isn’t “marching to make our voice heard” the very same sterile non-protest that other contributions criticise, and indeed that the whole book laudably seeks to downplay in favour of more creative, militant action?

Aitchison again lapses into mediaspeak when he calls the throwing of a fire extinguisher from Millbank roof a “mindless act of aggression.” (p. 69) But how can it be understood as anything other than a part of the Millbank action, however uncomfortable that makes us? Similarly, Paul Sagar condemns a group in Parliament Square “Waving red and black flags, dressed in plain black, with faces covered and snooker balls in hand, these were anarchists in the technical sense… clearly prepared for violence.” (p. 77)

This seems to capitulate to the police narrative of a minority ruining it for the innocents, especially in a protest situation where we know – and the series of eye-witness reports included in Fight Back! Testify – that the police have effectively criminalised us all and will use violence more-or-less indiscriminately.

Politics and space

I’ll admit that when it comes to talking about the spatial element of radical politics, a lot of that stuff goes over my head. I get bored with Debord. I’m at a loss with Deleuze. Nevertheless, even I found some interesting nuggets on the topic which I could understand.

Adam Harper argues strongly that students have used the protests to assert that, far from being the “dreamers” Clegg dismissed them as, they are actually very much rooted in the real world. Slogans about LibDem betrayal and the “This is actually happening” banner that appeared on the marches testify to this, as does the Book Bloc (making ideas literally into instruments of protest).

Talking about the use of music on the protests, Dan Hancox draws an interesting comparison between London grime and punk in the 1970s: “At its best, it’s the most explosive, exhilarating form of music Britain has produced since punk rock: and the repeated playing of two songs at several of the student protests – Tempa T’s ‘Next Hype’ and Lethal Bizzle’s ‘Pow! (Forward)’ – encapsulate that energy” (p. 267)

Punk is always thought about in the context of the “political” 70s. I relish the prospect of Next Hype being the soundtrack to countless future nostalgic documentaries about the political struggles of this decade.

Class and the unions

Class is in some ways the elephant in the room. There’s plenty of talk of the damaging effects of the government’s austerity measures, some very interesting exchanges on the changing nature of the university and the social implications of this,

Despite calling Unite general secretary Len McCluskey’s article praising the student protests a call “without parallel in the history of social activism in this country,” (p. 314) most articles don;t go further than talking about making solidarity with others affected by cuts.

Through this there is a danger that everyone’s struggle is seen as auxiliary to everyone else’s, that, rather than the holistic movement that Laurie Penny rightly calls for in her opening piece, we remain a series of sectional struggles united more-or-less through marriages of convenience. We support our lecturers in “their” struggle and hope for their support in “ours.”

Similarly, there is an implication that militant tactics are “our” – that is, students’ – tactics. The unions can have their boring marches and we’ll go off and do our exciting things. Perhaps what needs to now be talked about is how we go about applying militant tactics in the industrial field.

Guy Aitchison is absolutely right to argue that the most pressing question is how to turn solidarity into a fact on the ground. Surely the best way to do that is to start talking about the class struggle that we are all engaged in?

A lot of useful legal and practical information is included in the back, and thanks to the editors for plugging the Unrest alongside other websites in the book’s appendix.

Fight Back! is worth a read, or even just a dip into, to get a flavour of some of the ideas coming from a particular amorphous “wing” of the anti-cuts movement. Everything is readable and clearly written. Taken together, the articles reveal a useful engagement with the tactics of protest and the practical questions of “resistance,” but leave you wondering whether the contributors are thinking much beyond short-term protest and resistance. Nevertheless, as an introduction to last year’s protests; as I suppose what could already be regarded as a historical document, it serves its purpose well.

For details of how to get hold of
Fight Back! click here.

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Di Great Insohreckshan

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Why Social Mobility is Shit (II)

by Anne Archist

The second lesson from our analysis of the concept of social mobility, which is much less significant but worth pointing out in the absence of its acknowledgement by the political mainstream, is that people can move down as well as up the social hierarchy. Not only this, but (in relative terms at least) every movement up is accompanied by (a) movement(s) down, and vice versa. Marx talked about one-sided ways of understanding a concept, and this is certainly something that most commentators are guilty of – social mobility is a good thing, right? After all, it allows people to end up better off than they started in life. But, of course, it also means that people might end up worse off than they started too. For everyone who wins the lottery, someone’s business collapses. For every child of a mining family that became a professor, a child of the bourgeoisie was forced to seek wages by an inheritance squandered by their parents.

Basically, social mobility is generally conceived as a matter of relations – the generally increasing wealth of society as a whole, even when distributed around the population to some extent, is not termed social mobility. People’s position improving relative to their barest physical needs is not, therefore, social mobility (on this normal interpretation of the term, at least). Rather, it is improvement relative to other people in our society that counts as mobility. I leapfrog you, leaving you no better off. Someone else takes my place, sending me crashing back to where I was before. None of this makes any overall improvement – social mobility, conceptually speaking, is a zero-sum game.

If we all move together, we are not moving within the hierarchy but shifting the whole hierarchy onto different ground, still intact. John MacLean said “Rise with your class, not out of it” – the working class can improve their position as a class, and can eventually abolish the very social relations that make them the working class. This should be their focus, rather than the language of social mobility that implores workers to leave their class behind them and enter the ranks of small capital or the self-employed.

It’s interesting also to reflect on the way that social mobility is measured and conceptualised by the right. This is a methodological issue that threatens to slip into the analysis of those on the left, as methodologies and underlying analytical assumptions have been known to do in the past. Here’s an example: David Willetts is concerned about the effect feminism has had on social mobility. His reasoning is that many women have been able to take opportunities that would otherwise gone to men and improved their social positions. Of course, the reason that Willetts sees this as a threat to social mobility is that he conceives of the family unit as a single, indivisible economic entity, represented largely by the ‘male breadwinner’.

If Willetts conceived of social mobility on an individual level, the improvements in women’s social mobility would neutralise the damage done to men’s social mobility, as we’ve already seen. The reason that women pose a problem in this way of looking at things is that they themselves aren’t seen as worthy of assessing individually for their own social standing. Their social standing is, largely, that of their husband. Families are becoming less socially mobile due to the fact that generally families now consist of either two people who are well off and well educated or two people who are not particularly economically prosperous and averagely educated at best.

This means that there is increasing polarisation between family units in terms of, say, education, when you average out between the husband and wife. Before you could have relied upon well-educated men marrying poorly-educated women in order to create a tendency towards the mean. It also means that families are less likely to change dramatically in terms of income and so on – if the family’s income depends almost entirely on the man’s income, then the loss of his job will affect them much more than if his income only makes up half or a third of the income.

None of this has anything to do with individual people’s chances in life, their incomes or levels of education, their class membership, or whatever. It has to do with the way that these people come together into family units, and that is what Willetts is blind to; by taking the basic economic unit to be the male-headed family, he obscures inequalities within families and the social mobility of women (other than single women, perhaps, who may appear in his metrics as a kind of abberation). Willetts also seems to confuse inequality in household income with lack of social mobility, though it’s unclear as to what exactly his reasoning is from the way he’s been quoted in the press.

Why, then, do some on the left promote this apparently right-wing goal? Arguments over what will best promote social mobility abound, claims that the cuts to education will harm social mobility come even from hardline SWPers and so forth. It makes perfect sense that David Willetts should be concerned with social mobility – presumably he thinks there’s some link between meritocracy and social mobility (which, of course, isn’t logically the case since people’s position could change due to luck, as when workers win lottery jackpots), and that meritocracy is good.

But surely the left should be making the more politically explosive points against this agenda? When tories talk about social mobility they’re talking merely about: shuffling around who’s rich and who’s poor, not eliminating poverty; increasing competition for good educational opportunities, not improving educational opportunities for all; pitting ordinary working people against each other, not building cooperation and solidarity among them.

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Some thoughts on effective unionism (I)

Why going on strike is as effective as it ever was

by Edd Mustill

This article takes up some of the post-March 26th discussions on this blog. It is the first of a series of posts about trade unionism, what it is and what it should be. This post is written by way of an introduction.

The idea that “these days” people are less powerful as workers than they are as consumers, service users, students, citizens, or actors in “civil society” (whatever that is) is, I think, common among people who are generally left-wing.

This is reflected in the idea that unions are just a constituent part of a broad anti-cuts or anti-government alliance, and that industrial activism is just another form of protest or “resistance.”

I think there are a number of assumptions underlying this attitude:

The unions are intrinsically weak because they haven’t done anything for a long time

I’m not going to go into economics here. Workers’ Liberty have recently attempted to briefly deal with this attitude here.

I’ll just add that, historically speaking, there have been long stretches when the unions have been relatively dormant in Britain. The 1860s-1880s, 1940s-1950s, 1990s-now, and so on.

The TUC is the same thing as “the unions”

Because the March 26th demo was called by the TUC, articles that appeared since then (my own included) have sometimes used “TUC” as shorthand for the trade union movement. This isn’t the case. In fact, far from the TUC being more than the sum of its parts, at the moment, arguably, the opposite is true.

The nature and historical role of the TUC is a topic for another post, but what I will say here is that it is an umbrella (or shell!) organisation. Local trades councils are not like branches of the TUC. Member unions conduct their own affairs and have their own policies.

Incidentally, the slogan “TUC call a general strike” is not helpful in this regard because it assumes the TUC is something more than it is. Whether the General Council could even “call” a general strike is debatable. Certainly it’d be breaking some laws. Should we be making a central plank of our strategy the idea that the most moderate sections of the movement should break the law en masse, when even the most militant have so far not shown much appetite to do so? But as we know, the general strike debate is a whole kettle of fish by itself.

So, when people say things like the TUC is too slow, too moderate, and so on, they are right. But just saying that risks glossing over the fact that there are ongoing battles within the TUC’s member unions over tactics and strategy. Even at leadership level, there is a notable gap between those pushing openly for united industrial action, like Mark Serwotka of the PCS, and those who can’t even pronounce the words “industrial action,” like Dave Prentis of Unison.

People don’t work in large workplaces that make class consciousness come naturally

There’s a bit of a myth that, when Britain had a big industrial workforce, everyone worked in huge factories employing thousands of people, where a strike could easily paralyse production to a colossal degree.

Most industrial workers worked in small workshops rather than huge complexes. Today, we have our own huge workplaces everywhere. Town halls each employ hundreds of people. How many thousands of staff are on the books at every big hospital and university? What about airports? And big call centres on “industrial estates”?

The problem is that workers in all these places are divided by profession and grade, which means that, more often than not, they are divided into different unions. Lecturers will be in the UCU, other staff could be in Unison, Unite, or the GMB.

But even where workers are in the same union, the law enforces division. Perhaps the current British Airways dispute could have been won at a much earlier stage through extending the strike to other sections of the workforce, like Heathrow baggage handlers who have something of a tradition of sympathy action. This would probably have been illegal, but it could have been successful.

So there are big workplaces where class solidarity could be fostered, but organisation within them is often uneven and fragmented. More on these problems in the next post in this series.

Service workers are more easily replaceable than industrial workers, so it’s much harder for them to strike effectively

There is another myth here, albeit one that has more truth to it. There were and are, of course, many skilled workers in heavy industry. But such industries have always relied on semi-skilled workers and labourers just as much in order to function. Organising people like this has usually been the source of the most radical forms of unionism.

The most famous of the general unions which changed the face of unionism a century ago was the Dockers’ Union. Their success was based on organising workers who actually faced some of the same conditions that most young workers face now. Irregular hours, not knowing what shifts you’re going to work until the day you have to work them, little or nothing in the way of pensions or sick pay, sacking at a moments’ notice… all these are familiar to people working in the service industry today.

Any workers we think of as having had stable work patterns, strong organisations, good pay and benefits, began as precarious, super-exploited workers. The miners are the most obvious example.

So it’s not impossible to organise service workers, it’s just difficult. But the fact that they are untouched by the rather sterilising experience of bureaucratic unionism can open up opportunities for radical unionists. Again, more on these problems will come in a future post.

Strikes are just another form of protest

For many years, the vast majority of strikes have been 24-hour, perhaps 48-hour affairs. Strikes of this nature are essentially protests. They will have a minimal economic impact even if they are solid, because bosses can plan around them, get people to work overtime in the weeks before and after, and so on.

One of the first strikes I ever raised money for was a strike of bus drivers in South Yorkshire. The strike was all-out, and won after about three weeks. Public support by no means fell away during that time.

It was effective because the company in question, First, ran the vast majority of the bus routes in the area, so they stood to lose a lot of profit and alternative transport was more or less non-existent.

Too often strikes are just seen as a way of keeping a dispute rumbling until the inevitable defeat, or compromise in favour of the bosses. What needs to be rediscovered and rebuilt is a culture of actually striking to win.

Everything gets made in other countries, all we do is buy it

Well, we do still “make things,” goods and services, commodities, in Britain. But it helps anyway to think of production lines as international.

Say, for example, there is a textile workers’ strike in Bangladesh. The clothes being made are bound for high street stores in dozens of countries, including here. Perhaps, for whatever reasons, the strike does not succeed in totally shutting down production. While the employers can get some goods out to sell anywhere in the world, the strike is undermined.

Workers in the retail industry in Britain find themselves at the end of chains of production that could have passed through several countries. Any broken link in this chain can potentially stop it completely, including at the point of sale.

A strike in the shops selling the clothes would be a thousand times more effective than an appeal for a consumer boycott, if only because a relatively small number of people need to be up for it. A picket line can keep a shop closed day after day in a way that a UK Uncut-style bail-in can do for an afternoon.

So that’s just a sketch of some of the reasons why I think we should be seriously engaging in discussions about how to mount effective industrial action.

The main problem is not that striking doesn’t work. The main problem is that strikes rarely seem to be conducted as a fight to win. Everything I’ve touched on here will be elaborated in future articles, so if you’re interested, keep checking the site in between all the hilarious comedy gold we’ve been churning out recently.

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