Some critical comments on Unite the Resistance
Dan Jeffrey discusses his experience of the Unite the Resistance steering committee in 2012
Since the crisis hit in 2008 I have been involved with various anti-cuts initiatives and trade union campaigns, from the National Shop Stewards Network, to the Coalition of the Resistance, to local initiatives such as Lambeth Save our Services.
Unfortunately, other than Lambeth Save our Services, which has been a fantastic local campaigning group, my experiences have generally not been good ones. The national campaigns have all tended to be used as fronts for the groups that initiated them, have done little to involve broader forces and have done very little in terms of practical initiatives.
Disunity has really plagued the movement. There seems to be barely a rizla paper of political difference between each of the different campaigns, and it has meant that our already small forces have been even more divided and weakened for no good reason. Things have gone from the comical, such as an SWP activist throwing Coalition of the Resistance leaflets in the bin at a Lambeth SOS meeting when he thought no-one was looking, to the more serious problem of campaigns being hindered by sectarianism. Nationally any possibility of a genuine federation of local anti-cuts groups has been scuppered by petty manoeuvring and political short-sightedness. Time is really ticking to put this right and unite all the campaigns.
Of all the campaigns I’ve been involved with, I have to say that Unite the Resistance (UTR) was probably the worst experience of them all. For a start, the steering committee barely met at all. I only remember two meetings being organised, neither of which I was able to attend, and the first one had only two people at it and most of the conferences were called without any consultation at all.
A UTR manifesto just appeared without any discussion on the steering committee. In my view, it had little practical merit because it was just a list of demands with no strategy for how we develop the movement. A trade union pamphlet was also produced, again with no consultation, which is currently being used as the focus of UTR rallies up and down the country. It seems amazing to me that a campaign which says it emphasises the grassroots and democracy could carry out these things with no consultation at the steering committee or conferences.
The conferences, which varied in number from a few hundred up to about 8-900, were just uninspiring rallies, with empty calls for general strikes, and almost nothing in practical terms coming out of them at all. I used find it particularly bizarre that calls for a general strike were shouted out at the UTR conferences, yet at a local level I’ve known SWP members vote against sharing out facility time in my union branch and vote against the right of our union branch being able to refuse invites to regional officials if it wishes to do so. In other words, for the SWP there seems to be a gulf of difference between the conservative positions taken in the branch, and the radical positions in UTR that don’t translate into concrete policies in the unions.
I’m actually supportive of the call for a general strike. After all, with the level of austerity hitting the unions, we should all be going out on strike together to defend our jobs and pay. But we have to face facts. The union leaders are opposed to it and the grassroots network aren’t strong enough to deliver it, but basically needs to be rebuilt from scratch in a lot of the unions. This means a serious plan is needed to rebuild our fighting strength. Radical rhetoric might sound good in the conference hall, but it has almost no practical significance whatsoever.
I would rather take small but real steps forward, like we have in Lambeth Save our Services, and real steps in building a grassroots network in the unions, than just repeat radical but empty calls for a general strike endlessly, in the hope that somehow things will just change out of thin air. If we have a more practical approach to building in the unions, then we could build a movement that could actually make a general strike possible.
While the majority of those at the conferences were in the SWP, there were still enough people there to start to building a genuine grassroots campaign of action. Instead the only strategy seems to be an endless stream of passive conferences and poorly attended local meetings and rallies.
This was a real shame given the situation we’re in. Massive cuts should be a time when you can begin to build a genuine fightback. Workshops could have been organised for each trade union which built up email groups and bulletins and informal networks could have been initiated.
Other workshops could have been dedicated to building campaigns such as Keep Our NHS Public and local anti-cuts groups. The SWP will reply that there were workshops at the conferences but in reality they were just mini rallies after the main rally.
Broad left strategy
For a so called grassroots initiative there seems to be almost an obsession of getting trade union bureaucrats to speak to the platform, even if like Alex Kenny and Kevin Courtney from the NUT they have just sold the pensions dispute down the river.Far worse is that most of the time they were allowed to speak with an almost uncritical response. It’s a classic ‘broad left’ strategy, of uniting with a section of the bureaucracy, rather than developing independent organisations based on the rank and file. When I suggested on the steering committee e-group that we invited someone from the NUT in the recently formed grassroots network called LANAC I was met with a barrage of objections from both NUT bureaucrats and SWP leaders, despite this being one of the few grassroots formations to be formed in any trade union in recent times. At other times I repeatedly asked who had made the decisions to call a conference, or where the manifestos had come from, only to be met with total silence.
Sadly this history of building fronts, with an in-built lack of democracy or genuine participation of those outside the group that has built the front has a long history among revolutionary socialist groups in the UK (and probably elsewhere as well).
My view is that this has more in common with a Stalinist approach to building the movement with tightly controlled fronts that focus on broad leftism and incorporating the trade union bureaucrat leaders, rather than attempting to start genuinely building a grassroots network of members.
Whether this comes from an ingrained method of operating or just a lack of faith in the membership to be able to do this, or a combination of both, I’m not entirely sure. But the result is that rallies take the form of endless lists of speakers with little or no involvement from those on the floor of the conference, and seemingly no practical strategy of how to move forwards.
Since stepping down from the steering committee I have attended a local Unite the Resistance meeting for South London. Sadly, my experience was much the same. Some of us suggested that the next meeting be organised with an attempt to get the National Shop Stewards Network, TUSC, Coalition of the Resistance and local trade’s councils to co-sponsor the next event. What would appear to be a reasonable suggestion for “uniting the resistance” was met with 45 minutes of argument as SWP members (who made up 11 of the 18 people there) gave various reasons about why this couldn’t and shouldn’t be done. Eventually one of the SWP members suggested a compromise that the next meeting be sponsored by no-one at all. When the meeting was reported back to the national committee by an SWP member no mention of this was made at all.
The latest crisis in the SWP underlines the problem of bureaucratic control. This is being felt by SWP members inside their own party, but it’s also projected outside the party as they are simply not prepared to work in national campaigns that they do not dominate. There is an obvious lack of democratic principles which should be at the core of any revolutionary socialist organisation.
Now, it goes without saying that I think that there are some excellent activists in the SWP, but if the work is shaped and led by a leadership that uses these methods, then it becomes extremely hard for them to really campaign in a way that truly benefits the anti-austerity fightback.
I have heard the argument that the divisions in the anti-cuts movement don’t matter because when the working class moves in to action such things will become an irrelevance. While there might be some truth in this (I certainly hope that mass struggles erupt that force the campaigns to unite), I also think it shows dangerous complacency. It also ignores how our actions and campaigning should be able to build and develop struggles, taking small steps, yes, at first, but overtime mobilising a growing, critical mass. There seems little doubt to me that had the anti-cuts groups been united in a national federation, with resources and energy combined into a single national organisation, then the government would have been under far more pressure than it is now, and far more services and jobs could potentially have been saved up and down the country.
The same goes for building a grass roots network in the trade unions. At the moment the bureaucracy has an almost iron hand over most of the unions, and even the better trade unions are far from being led and controlled by a grass roots network. It is no good putting bureaucrats on platforms hoping that some day they will be prepared to take action that will result in genuine campaigns against the attacks on pay, pensions, jobs and services. They will only do this if forced to do so by a grass roots network of strength, otherwise what incentive is there for a well paid bureaucratic leadership to do this? Very little. This is routinely illustrated by the way they are happy to sell out disputes with huge potential, such as the pensions dispute, and to do this relatively easily, because of an almost total absence of grass roots structures and involvement.
We need to build a movement against the cuts and to build grass roots strength in our unions which breaks entirely with this front building. We should be pro-active, have genuine involvement from unions members, be totally democratic about decision making and forming policies, and have a strategy of actually building practical resistance at a local and national level, while doing all they can to unite with other campaigns. If trade union bureaucrats are put on platforms it should be to hold them to account, not to just clap their speeches as they live the high life on our subs.
I have now lost all faith that Unite the Resistance can provide any useful strategy for fighting the cuts or starting the process of reclaiming our trade unions and rebuilding working class solidarity in our local communities. A movement needs to be built that is radically different from this, and I hope that the opposition in the SWP manages, one way or the other, to shift the SWP away from this method of bureaucratic control.
The radical left has become ever more isolated from the class it is meant to stand for, be part of and learn from. For me, it comes down to an ultimately Stalinist method of top-down building. We need grassroots, direct democracy, and that has to be a corner stone of revolutionary organisations too.
Dan Jeffery is a supporter of the Anti-Capitalist Initiative and Lambeth UNISON Assistant Branch Secretary (personal capacity)