Monday, September 13, 2010
On getting over the 1980s posted by Richard Seymour
Not that this guarantees that a fight will take place, much less that it will be successful. The majority of the trade union bureaucracy, at least in the larger unions, will want to constrain rank and file pressure for industrial action in preference for community campaigning. The disorganising, demobilising, demoralising effect that such organisational inertia and strategic conservatism can have should not be underestimated. Yesterday, Les Bayliss, the assistant general secretary of Unite, claimed that strikes would hurt the people whom the Tories were targeting (specious) and "repeat the mistakes of the 80s" (misleading). Bayliss is a candidate for general secretary of Unite, though he is about as likely to become Unite leader as Andy Burnham is to become Labour leader. But, as Seumas Milne points out, the fact that News of the World gushed all over Bayliss' remarks suggests that the right-wing media is about to redraw those old 'moderate vs militant' battle lines.
Sunny Hundal's sympathetic write-up of Bayliss' argument, though, suggests that there's an aching need for the Left to a) have a meaningful discussion about what really happened in the 1980s, and b) get over it. I don't think Sunny is the only one suffering from this syndrome. The whole recent era of Labour Party history, dominated by the monstrous Blair, would have been impossible without that wounding experience. But the British Left has spent far too long unhealthily labouring in the shadow of the Thatcher era, and has become pale and timid as a result. The constant invocation of the totemic defeat of the miners, dare I say its use as a shibboleth, both devalues the history and obscures the present. We are not living in that era, our dilemmas are not the same, and above all our opponents are not of the same calibre. We can take these Tory scum.
But in lieu of that more detailed and cathartic discussion, here's the question that Sunny and all those who want to fight the cuts with action short of strikes have to contend with: what makes you think anything but strikes will work? We could probably agree, I think, that the Stop the War Coalition circa 2002-3 is a very good example of a mass campaign with deep local roots, widespread support and an excellent media profile. It mobilised record numbers of people, and attracted support from across the political spectrum. Tabloids, celebs, clerics, even Charles Kennedy MP, all wanted a piece of that action. It was a highly successful campaign, and I will take nothing away from it. But I assume we can also agree that parliament demonstrated a remarkable capacity to insulate itself from such pressures. This suggests that even if we could repeat - not imitate, but repeat in an appropriate way - the successes of Stop the War, we could still be sidelined by a political class determined to see its policy through. Certainly, we might limit the scope of their attack, but we would still have permitted the vandalism to take place.
To put it another way: it would be irresponsible, delinquent not to actively disrupt the Tory government's cuts, by supporting a widespread, coordinated, and sustained withdrawal of labour. Actually, since strikes are inevitably going to be provoked by these cuts, since they will indeed be the last line of resistance, our job ought to be to build support for the strikes, not undermine them in advance. We ought to be preparing people to understand why the strikes are necessary, and why they will ultimately be to the benefit of the vast majority of people in this country if they win. It is long past time to stop frightening people with, to speak figuratively, the festering cadaver of Margaret Thatcher.