Monday, January 21, 2013

The mystery of the movement which did not bark (yet)

Owen Jones once more makes constructive use of the platform he has as a columnist”to call for “a movement uniting all those desperate for a coherent alternative to the tragedy of austerity”
and, in so doing, throws down a challenge to all those of us who believe that we are trying to build such a movement. Owen poses the “mystery” of why there is not already an effective network of opponents of austerity.

It's the mystery of the movement which did not bark (yet).

I can’t claim to be able to solve this “mystery” completely but I think I can see some part of the answer. Let’s start with an honest assessment of where we are. The history of the first half of this Parliament is a sad history of the failure of the opponents of a weak Government with no mandate. We have failed to prevent tuition fees or to defend our National Health Service. We have failed to mobilise the potential strength of organised labour, other than for momentary demonstrations of that strength. We have even failed to win the Parliamentary opposition to anything more than the slightest leftward shift from the poisonous legacy of New Labour to the meaningless “One Nation Labour”.

What we are witnessing as trade unionists is the consequence of a generation of social and political change since the defeat of the miners. Our trade unions, objectively weaker than in the 1980s, are subjectively weaker still because of an ingrained acquiescence on the part of the union bureaucracy to the legal shackles imposed by Thatcher and Major and retained by Blair and Brown – and a self-denying ordinance from on high which prevents us from using our potential influence over “our” Party. We have, for example, hundreds of Councillors who are members of the “big three” trade unions, not all of whom merely for show, yet we have miserably failed to influence these Councillors to resist vicious cuts. Our trade unions have been bereft of a political strategy for all of the decade that I have served on UNISON’s National Executive.

At the same time very many of the committed socialists who could be mobilised to try to transform our movement are enmeshed in organisations which are plainly incapable of effective political action in the twenty first century. If forced to choose between those who consider themselves revolutionaries and those who lead our movement I would always choose those who want to change the world rather than live comfortably within it, but comrades seeking to change our world from within political parties or groups which aspire to be Bolsheviks a century ago are walled off from achieving their own objectives. Whether this self-imposed irrelevance derives from purposeless “party building” or futile electoral adventures, it serves to insulate some of our best trade union activists from the influence our class needs them to have within our ranks.

Beyond the ranks of the organised labour movement there are millions who are angry and can be mobilised (or, which is more to the point, will mobilise themselves) from time to time. Away from the timidity of our movement’s leadership and the rigidity of their critics within our movement, groups such as UK Uncut, Disabled People Against Cuts and the student movement have all shown the militancy and radicalism for which socialists hope from the workers’ movement. However, without a means of focusing organised political pressure on the Government (by posing an alternative) their exemplary resistance is inevitably reactive and therefore limited.

For all that pessimism of the intellect is called for, our optimism of the will should be sustained not only by these spontaneous struggles which are emerging around us, but also by the success with which trade unionists are resisting and limiting the damage being done to our members where we organise effectively and show courage and determination. The challenge before us is somehow to focus struggle through the labour movement in order to articulate a viable political alternative to austerity.

This is, in many ways, the task for which the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) was refounded some years ago. However, as utterly unconvincing as the mission to create a “new workers party” so obviously is, the persuasiveness of those of us who believe that we can “reclaim” the Labour Party is plainly equally in question.

The movement we have to build must be much bigger and broader than those around the LRC at present – and it may find new answers to the challenges it faces which we cannot anticipate. I cannot, however, see that there is a better place to start building the movement for which Owen rightly calls than by putting the challenge of doing so plainly before the LRC.

The LRC Members of Parliament, and those trade union leaders associated with the LRC, could become the focus for drawing together the opponents of austerity, within and without the Labour Party, within and without other political organisations and within and without the organised labour movement. As difficult as this may seem, I can’t see who else is better placed (or perhaps “less worse placed”) to do this.

We won’t build a movement overnight, but we could begin to organise some activity which tries to build upon the grassroots resistance to austerity and give it some meaningful political direction. Please let's not ever call it a "UKIP of the left" though!

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