TUC march: Mixed day shows need for actions from below
We are many, they are few. Yesterday over 150,000 demonstrators took over Central London in protest against austerity politics, cuts to vital services, and forced poverty. Although smaller than last year’s ‘March for the Alternative’, where over half a million hit the streets and radical actions spread across the city, there were still a number of positives to be taken away.
Truth be told, the demonstration itself seemed a little lacklustre. Few seemed willing to join in the chants of those with megaphones, giving the impression of a general feeling of “we’ve done this all before” among the marchers. Mobilising for the demo in the weeks before, activists confronted head-on the ‘march-up-the-hill-march-down-again’ syndrome. With the pensions strike called off, and with cuts and privatisation ripping through the public sector with little trade union opposition, the demonstration did not have the confident feeling of moving forward that characterised the “March for Alternative” demonstration back in 2011, but it was also perhaps less politically naive, with support for a general strike having visibly grown.
This sense of lethargy among the activist left, plodding to another demo, was also reflected by the fact that in the North West there was not a great uptake for transport to the event. Although Anticapitalist Initiative supporters helped to organise two coaches for non-union members, and transport from Manchester was full, over £30,000 earmarked for transport by the North West TUC went unspent. People have longer memories than we sometimes give them credit for, so organising the anti-cuts movement along the same lines as the anti-war movement (one big march once or twice a year) is not really going to inspire confidence in the idea that the trade union movement has a strategy which can win.
The mass rally at Hyde Park had some more interesting moments. In his downtime between making statements which state nothing and borrowing the rhetoric of 19th-century Tories, Ed Miliband decided to grace us with his presence. Despite jeers and boos from large parts of the crowd when he said that some cuts would be necessary, there was still an overwhelmingly positive response to the compère’s call to support Labour in the next election.
The left-wing trade union leaders (McCluskey, Bob Crow, Serwotka) all called for coordinated and general strikes, receiving cheers and applause from the crowd. Len McCluskey even got the crowd to ‘vote’ in favour of one with a show of hands!
Clearly, the mood for meaningful action amongst sections of the trade union movement is growing, but there is a lack of belief in actually attaining it within much wider layers of the working class, where the tendency is still to see a vote for Labour as the only option to lessen the impact of austerity.
In terms of direct action, there were a few options on the day.
Starting on Oxford Street and then moving on to Covent Garden and Charing Cross, anti-workfare activists (including a number of Solidarity Federation members) blockaded a number of chain shops which had used Jobseeker’s Allowance claimants as unpaid workers. Around 80 activists formed the core of this action, their numbers swelled from time to time by local people who were often angrier than the activists themselves, insisting that the shops be occupied rather than blockaded. McDonald’s, Marks & Spencer, Primark and an Apple Store all received visits from the group. Police were dotted outside various Starbucks locations well into the afternoon, a reminder of one of the favourite targets of the anticapitalist movement of yesteryear, which has been thrown back under the spotlight by a recent Reuters exposé of the chain’s tax avoidance tactics.
Just outside the Hyde Park rally, Disabled People Against Cuts and their supporters managed to block one of London’s busiest (and wealthiest) roads, Park Lane, for over an hour with a sit-down protest. The action was initiated by a few activists with D-locks chaining their wheelchairs and scooters together, and soon dozens of supporters had sat down alongside them or else stood around helping to prevent the police from clearing them away.
Speakers, chants, and placards attacked Atos’ record of throwing marginalised disabled people into misery and poverty.
Although both direct action groups faced some shoving and pushing from the police, there was little in the way of batons or arrests. Maybe the police are growing soft. Maybe they’re worried about sparking another riot. Maybe they’re wary of being seen to attack the trade union movement, rather than easily-vilified ‘anarchist’ students. Although the actions were smaller this time around (perhaps reflective of the withering of some of the radical networks established through the student revolt of 2010), the uptake of a number of issues (Atos, benefit cuts, workfare, tax avoidance) shows the growth and solidification of new networks for action, and that they can receive wide support over these issues, if not always for the tactics used.
Overall it was a mixed day.
Although it was permeated with a militant spirit, the feeling of a ritualistic parade couldn’t be shaken off. Calls for a general strike and radical direct action were counterbalanced by louder calls to vote Labour and a lingering awareness that this demo was much smaller than the last.
A lesson we should take away from the day is not to rely on mobilising for these big “set-piece” demonstrations to build an anti-austerity movement.
Although they are important to attend, as a chance to discuss action with people, raise ideas, and to organise further, we need to start capitalising on them as a chance to build actions from below. We need to stop relying on one-day, one-off affairs and instead organise an ambitious campaign of escalating action, both at a local and national level.
The TUC and trade union leaders’ strategy of a few ritual marches, or weekday walkouts once in a blue moon, are not inspiring the confidence of the average worker, whether they’re organised or not.
It’s time to show that there’s an alternative to austerity, to capitalism, and to the strategy of defeat.