Debate: The way forward for the anti-cuts movement in Britain

One issue dominates all others for the workers’ movement now and for the foreseeable future – how to defeat the avalanche of cuts and tax rises that is engulfing us. On 22 January 2011 the National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) has called a national anti-cuts conference. This conference has the potential to make a crucial difference to the success of the anti-cuts movement. It will bring together workplace representatives with local anti-cuts campaigns to debate a very simple motion, based on the following proposals which were agreed by the NSSN steering committee.

The motion will simply state that the NSSN should launch a national anti-cuts campaign to bring ‘unions and communities together to save all jobs and services’. The motion will emphasise the importance of struggling against all cuts in jobs and services which is essential to prevent the movement being divided between different sections of workers and thereby defeated; the key role of the trade union movement in struggling against the cuts; and the importance of the trade union movement linking up with community anti-cuts campaigns. It will propose the election of a national steering committee for the NSSN initiated anti-cuts campaign.

The NSSN already has an excellent record in the anti-cuts struggle. The NSSN was the first national organisation of the labour movement to organise a national conference in the wake of Osborne’s first ‘bloody emergency budget’. It then organised the lobby of the TUC conference which received a tremendous response from the growing anti-cuts movement. All activity – demos, meetings etc – to raise awareness against the cuts is to be welcomed. But the NSSN correctly foresaw that exerting pressure on the leadership of our movement, the trade unions, was the first priority.

This paid off when the TUC was forced to respond to the demand for a national demonstration – albeit belatedly for 26 March, 2011. We now need to build to make sure the demonstration is massive, and to use it to build for a one-day public sector general strike.

The NSSN has continued the campaign of pressure on the trade unions to act, not least by building the anti-cuts movement on the ground. It has played a key role in founding many of the local anti-cuts unions and in instigating the regional trade union demonstrations against the cuts that took place on 23 October in London, Bristol, Cardiff, Manchester and elsewhere. The NSSN sees its role as acting as a lever on the trade unions, combined with organising struggle from below.

To launch a national anti-cuts campaign is an obvious, and it might be expected, uncontroversial next step for the NSSN. However, it has not proved to be so. On the steering committee of the NSSN a large minority were opposed to launching a national anti-cuts campaign. This means that the conference will take the form of a debate on the way forward for the anti-cuts movement.

Unity

At this early stage in the movement there is inevitably a strong urge to unity of the anti-cuts movement. Some who attend the conference may initially feel that it would be better to brush over the issues being debated in order to have a seemingly more united conference. We agree that the maximum possible unity should be fought for. But this cannot be achieved by ignoring our differences on anti-cuts strategy. Our strategy and tactics could make the difference between the success or failure of the movement. It is not an exaggeration to say that they could make a difference to millions of people lives.

So the Socialist party supports unity, but around a programme, strategy and tactics that are capable of defeating the government. It is not ‘sectarian’ to suggest that programme matters. For example, if we were all to unite around the very limited programme of action put forward by Brendan Barber and the leadership of the TUC we would obviously be dooming our movement to defeat.

The NSSN majority is fighting for a clear working class anti-cuts movement based in the trade unions and workplaces, but also linking up with community anti-cuts campaigns. Behind the disparate arguments put by those who oppose the launching of an NSSN anti-cuts campaign lies a clear difference on programme, strategy and tactics for the anti-cuts movement.

Labour councils

The cutting edge of the differences between the two positions is the attitude to Labour councils. The NSSN majority believes that, to be successful, the anti-cuts movement must oppose all cuts in jobs, pensions and services; whether they are carried out by central government or by local authorities.

Over the coming weeks local councils are setting their budgets. In the face of drastically reduced funding from central government, every single council is proposing to set a budget which dramatically cuts jobs and services. The Tory chair of the Local Government Association has estimated that 100,000 local authority jobs will go in 2011.

We argue that Labour councils should set a budget which does not cut jobs and services, and then launch a campaign to demand extra funding from central government to plug the gap. If necessary, councils could temporarily plug the gap from council reserves in order to give time to build up a campaign against the government. If a number of councils were to adopt this strategy it would be possible not only to force the government to retreat but to bring it down.

Underlying their opposition to launching an NSSN anti-cuts campaign is, in reality, opposition to an anti-cuts campaign organised around such a clear programme. However, this is being hidden behind the cloak of ‘unity’. The argument being used is that setting up another anti-cuts campaign, in addition to the Coalition of Resistance (CoR) and Right to Work (RtW), would further fragment the anti-cuts movement and that instead a “single united campaigning group” is needed to oppose the cuts.

The argument against setting up another anti-cuts campaign is disingenuous. Both the CoR and RtW were established considerably after the NSSN. Members of the NSSN steering committee who are now opposing the NSSN launching an anti-cuts campaign played a key role in launching both CoR and RtW. We would have much preferred them, as we argued, to adopt the NSSN as the best placed organisation to fight the cuts. Nonetheless we did not deny their right to set up their own campaigns, which is what they are now trying to impose on the NSSN. On the contrary, we have argued for co-operation with both the Coalition of Resistance and Right to Work.

At local level we recognise that, at this stage, many local anti-cuts bodies are likely to send representatives to meetings of all three national anti-cuts conferences. However, whether “one single united campaigning group” would be a step forward depends on whether it was organised a fighting programme.

Unfortunately, for the NSSN to try and bring one united campaign about by coming behind either the Coalition of Resistance or Right to Work would also weaken, rather than strengthen, the movement against cuts.

Coalition of Resistance

Unlike the NSSN, the Coalition of Resistance has effectively declared that it is the leadership of the anti-cuts movement. However, it has no basis for doing so. It has the support of some high profile individuals and union leaders, but is not representative of the majority of anti-cuts bodies and trade union campaigns at local level. Even more importantly, it does not have a programme that takes the movement forward.

Formally, the Coalition of Resistance declares that it will: “Oppose all cuts and privatisation.” However, it remains silent on whether this includes cuts carried out by New Labour local authorities. It was clear at the Coalition of Resistance conference that many of those involved in its leadership accept that local councils have no choice but to unwillingly wield the axe handed to them by the government. This includes Labour councillors, but also Green Party members.

For example, Samir Jeeraj of the Green Party who was a platform speaker in the workshop on ‘what should political representatives do?’ argued that “many of the tools used by radical councils in the 1980s are no longer available to councillors” and therefore that it is no longer possible to take the ‘Liverpool and Lambeth road’. This is simply not accurate. Successive governments have undermined the power of local government; but councils still control budgets of many millions which have a huge impact on people’s lives. In addition the government is putting the responsibility for administering many other cuts, from housing benefit to EMA, on the shoulders of local councils.

Some at the CoR conference argued a different point of view, notably Ted Knight, leader of Lambeth council when it defied the Tory government in the 1980s, but they were given no opportunity to put their point of view to the full conference. In the NSSN we are anxious to have a democratic discussion on this crucial question. In the CoR, by contrast, the approach has been to avoid discussion on this issue in order to try and keep councillors on board.

Right to Work

RtW, that is in reality run by the Socialist Workers Party, has taken an even worse position on this issue. This is a reflection of the SWP’s growing opportunism, although this is still combined with ultra-left mistakes particularly in the industrial field – recently both condemning the London FBU for suspending its strike action, and alienating many BA strikers by occupying their talks.

It is no accident that in the protocol that RtW and CofR agreed on working together there was only one point that related in anyway to their programme and strategy to defeat cuts – that both campaigns would “work with Labour Party members who supported the aims of the campaigns”. We agree with involving Labour Party members who want to oppose cuts; but we do not agree with involving Labour councillors who claim to oppose cuts whilst simultaneously voting for them in the council chamber.

For this ‘crime’ the SWP have consistently attacked us for being ‘sectarian’. They put the essence of their argument with us in a Central Committee statement in their pre-conference bulletin when they state: “We reject the sectarian argument that Labour councillors should be excluded because the last Labour government pushed through cuts, and planned its own if it had won the 2010 election. We do not agree that such councillors should be presented with an ultimatum that they can only be part of the anti-cuts movement if they sign up never to make any cuts in any circumstances.”

The Socialist Party is clear. We will enthusiastically support any councillors that are prepared to vote against cuts today, even if they have supported cuts in the past. However, the record of New Labour at national and local level of consistently supporting cuts, privatisation and other pro-big business measures, means that it is correct to warn anti-cuts activists that it is unlikely that more than a handful of Labour councillors will be prepared to vote against cuts.

To date we do not know of a single Labour councillor that has defied the cuts. This contrasts sharply with the situation in the 1980s, when the trade unions and working class were still able to exert some pressure on the leadership of the Labour Party via its democratic structures. When it came to the crunch only Militant-led (now the Socialist Party) Liverpool City Council, alongside Lambeth, was prepared to defy the government. Another eighteen Labour councils, however, at least pledged to do so, before betraying the struggle at a later stage. Today, New Labour is a capitalist party and as a result there is not one Labour council that is prepared to even consider defying the government.

To build up New Labour councillors as leaders of the movement, without a word of criticism of them for failing to actually oppose the cuts, is to prepare the movement for betrayals and defeats.

Stop the War Coalition

There is a clear comparison here with the movement against the Iraq war. The leadership of both CoR and RtW led the Stop the War Coalition. The Stop the War Coalition steering committee – dominated by the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) – was top-down, did not have democratic structures, and did not allow the full expression of oppositional views to the SWP.

Against the objections of the Socialist Party representatives on the committee, the SWP and their allies bulldozed the decision through the committee to allow a platform to the Liberal Democrats – without any public criticisms of them – before hundreds of thousands at the massive anti-war demonstration in London in February 2003.

They also refused to allow any speaker on behalf of a socialist organisation. This burnished the ‘anti-war’ credentials of Charles Kennedy and the Lib Dems. This undoubtedly helped to build up their ‘radical’ image particularly amongst young people. Today Nick Clegg boasts of his anti-war stance then, while at the same time enthusiastically embracing Osborne’s axe today as well as the continued occupation of Afghanistan! To repeat the same mistake in the anti-cuts movement today would have even more serious consequences.

The Socialist is instead arguing that anti-cuts campaigns should demand that, if they are not willing to fight, councillors should stand aside for those that will. We are encouraging local anti-cuts campaigns to stand candidates in next May’s council elections on a clear platform of opposition to all cuts. It is an indication of how far we have been prepared to go to maintain the unity of the NSSN that we withdrew any reference to this from the resolution to the steering committee, thereby leaving it open for supporters of the resolution to hold different views on this crucial aspect of the anti-cuts movement. However, even this major concession was not enough to win over our opponents on the steering committee. Only agreeing to complete inaction by the NSSN would have been sufficient.

Our opponents are made up of supporters of RtW, the CoR and also a few syndicalists who want the NSSN to be limited to a discussion group for workplace representatives. They will have every opportunity to argue their point of view at the conference. In its democracy the NSSN conference will be markedly different to other national anti-cuts bodies. In that sense it could be argued that this will be the only national anti-cuts conference, as opposed to an anti-cuts rally.

At the CoR founding conference there were 21 platform speakers but no opportunity for speakers from the floor in the plenary sessions. Even in the workshops Socialist Party members were systematically not called into the discussions.

Right to Work has no real democratic structures. A steering committee is elected at the RtW conference, but it appears to have never met. Instead decisions are made by the SWP. This is recognised by SWP members themselves, as one member states in their pre-conference bulletin: “As far as I am aware, (and I am writing in October 2010) there has not been a single meeting of the full steering committee since that conference…and there is no mechanism for affiliated organisations to have any input into the campaign.”

Democratic debate

By contrast the NSSN steering committee had a thorough and democratic debate on the proposals for three hours, with all those who wanted to speak doing so. The conference will, if the Socialist Party’s proposals are agreed, give equal time to speakers for and against the steering committee’s proposal, both from the platform and the floor of the conference. If the motion is passed it will go on to democratically elect an accountable campaigns committee.

Our opponents have attacked the Socialist Party for pushing ahead with our proposal without support from other forces in the NSSN. This is not true, as the conference will demonstrate; many of those involved in building the NSSN support our point of view. However, it is true that in the leadership of the NSSN it is Socialist Party members that support the majority resolution. This is a reflection of the early stage of development of the NSSN, where its steering committee has until now involved all those who volunteer for it, and is mainly made up of activists from different left currents. The NSSN will need to work to draw in a wider layer of working class militants to its leadership bodies in the next period.

The Socialist Party is also accused of wanting to split the NSSN. This is completely untrue. Whatever happens at the conference on 22 January we want to continue to develop the NSSN. Unfortunately, we are not sure the same can be said of our opponents. In their most recent statement they say that the conference “is likely to be decisive in determining the [NSSN’s] future.” What does this mean? Does it mean they will leave the NSSN if the motion to set up an anti-cuts campaign is passed?

We appeal to all supporters of the NSSN to attend the conference and to judge the issues for yourselves. We are still in the early stages of the anti-cuts movement. In every struggle, at this point, there are many different strategies vying for adoption. This was the case in the poll tax, for example. The strategy of mass non-payment which eventually defeated the government and brought down Thatcher was supported by the Socialist Party (then the Militant) but was opposed, initially at least, by the SWP and the majority of the forces today in the CoR. Even today, many of them continue to miseducate a new generation by suggesting it was the riot, and not the eighteen million non-payers, that was central to the victory.

The struggle today is different to the poll tax in many ways, not least because it is far more multi-faceted. Which organisation has the best strategy for victory will be tested in the struggle itself, just as it was in the poll tax and other battles. However, it is essential that there is a national anti-cuts body which is putting forward a clear independent working class programme and strategy. If the NSSN anti-cuts conference adopts the resolution put by the majority of the steering committee it will mark an important step in this direction.

NB: A slighter shorter version of this article is being carried in The Socialist, issue 653.

The NSSN conference takes place on Saturday 22nd January 2011, 11.30am to 3.30pm, at South Camden Community School, Charrington Street, London NW1 1RG. All anti-cuts campaigns, trade union branches, trades councils and workplace organisations can send delegates and visitors.

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