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March for the Alternative

March 30, 2011

I took part in Saturday’s March for the Alternative through central London. There is a general consensus that more than 250,000 people participated, but no one is sure if there were 300,000 or 500,000. There certainly were a lot of people – it’s the biggest demo I’ve ever been on. The only comparable event I have taken part in was the Cosatu general strike in May 2000:

 Cosatu strike

More importantly, a clear majority of the people of the UK, including 19% of Tory voters, supported the aims of the march. This was democracy in action: there was a clear mandate and the march represented the people of Britain in all their diversity. I loved seeing the range of people: many of them dressed in their work uniforms, I saw university professors, archaeologists, hotel porters, fire fighters, nurses and many more. There was a Ghurkha contingent, and people from every community in the country.

Before we go any further, have a look at this footage. It’s nothing spectacular as it was filmed on my mobile phone, but it captures what almost all the participants experienced on the day. I didn’t see any of the violence that the news reports focused on, and neither did most people.

Also worth watching is this video from Counterfire, which gives a sense of the sheer scale of the march:

The day was crucial for trade unions: we have been declining in numbers and influence since 1979, and Thatcher’s anti-union laws have made it difficult for us to organise. We are vilified in the press – even the Guardian thinks we’re dinosaurs – while the left thinks we’re sell outs for not starting the revolution. Do I thinking marching half a million people through the streets will change anything? Probably not. But it gets us a very good base to build on.

The march shows people that cuts can be resisted, and participation is easy. This is the first time in a generation that the majority of the country has united behind the unions. And unlike the march against the Iraq war – which failed to stop the conflict – half a million marching trade unionists represent something: we are organised, all the way down to shop floor level. This wasn’t half a million individuals marching, but an expression of an organised structure that has the potential to shake the foundations of the country if it acts together.

In addition to the peaceful union march, there were several other actions. There was the UK Uncut occupation of Fortnum and Masons, an attempt to occupy Trafalgar Square, as well as generalised black bloc vandalism in Piccadilly Circus. I think the UK Uncut action was inspired, and the police dishonesty disgusting. The attempt to occupy Trafalgar Square was an interesting idea, but not worth fighting the police over. If ten thousand trade unionists had shown up, it might have been worth a go, but 150 students is just sport for the Met.

But I think throwing bricks and paint is a phenomenally stupid thing to do. I sympathise – I am angry enough to want to lob a brick through a bank window too. But as a tactic, I think it’s disastrously stupid and arrogant. The media message changed from “half a million stage peaceful protest against cuts” to “rioters battle police”. Clearly the media is complicit in this, and a handful of arrogant elitists managed to dominate the coverage – I saw a tweet that said:

RT @CharlieLexton @ns_mehdihasan a break off group of 500 protesters, 5000
photographers and 25000 journalists are staging a photo opp in Piccadilly #

Rioting diverts attention from the real issues, and puts ordinary people off taking part in protest. It also associates anarchist politics with violence in most people’s minds. There were plenty of anarchists on the main march, but the red and black brigade that got stuck into the police held an entirely separate event. Clearly, ordinary trade unionists aren’t good enough for them.

The few score anarchists who think having a go at the police is the way to change society are anti-democratic. You’re ruining it for everyone. Stay at home. Your politics is driven by ressentiment rather than analysis.

The rioters counter that the unions are too passive and are looking for ways to sell people out. But if unions are not more radical, it’s because we don’t have a mandate to be more radical. Sorry, but most ordinary people are not revolutionaries. Unions are mass democracies representing ordinary working people, whose concerns are often mundane from a political perspective. The union’s role is to represent its members. Most active trade unionists are political, and we try to take our members with us an engage them in politics. It’s not easy, though. It’s already difficult to recruit in white collar workplaces because people see us as radical trouble makers.

I don’t like to make a big issue of my personal politics, but broadly I’m libertarian communist – an anarchist, in other words. However, I realise that most people aren’t, and I have to live in a world with other people. For me, this means working with and respecting majority opinions. I have no time for ultra-leftism. I am interested in bringing about actual social change, and I have no interest in politics that insists on ideological purity but represents no one. This is elitist and ineffective. To change society, we need to take the mainstream with us. Shifting the political centre ground even slightly to the left opens up tremendous organising opportunities further along the spectrum of progressive ideas.  A small victory is better than a glorious defeat.

This does not mean that I only support gradual change, or think that voting Labour will bring about a better world  – Egypt taught us that change can come quickly when people are ready for it. But you can’t force the revolution to come by throwing bricks or by shouting loudly into a megaphone.

The question, then, becomes one of tactics: will this action encourage and inspire other people to get involved, or put them off?

I am generally irritated with student calls for unions to hurry up and call a general strike. I first heard this at the trade union march in Edinburgh in October 2010: a group of students were marching with a loud hailer, and heckling speakers with the chant:

Tous ensemble, Grêve Générale!

My feeling at the time was:

  • Get a job before you call for a general strike
  •  Chanting in French at a Scottish demo is just pretentious

Workers have more to lose than students. Most of us have mortgages and household debt and families to support. If we strike, we lose pay – and we’ve already had a couple of years of wage restraint, so we’re feeling the pinch. Also, since a general strike would be illegal under UK labour law, we risk losing our jobs too, and our unions risk being fined for losses due to strike action. To put it simply, we can’t afford to take part in any action we might lose. By contrast, students usually have fewer responsibilities and family support to fall back on, and they can enjoy the visceral thrill of revolution with less personal cost.

(Here’s a side project for you, students: if you want to see more trade union militancy, campaign to get the UK’s regressive labour laws changed).

The unions are the most powerful political tool we have, and the most effective anti-poverty measure we have ever created. The crucial task is to build a mass movement opposed to the Tory decimation of the welfare state, by linking campaigns from civil society with the strength of organised labour – like the links betweenthe United Democratic Front and Cosatu in South Africa. If this worked to bring down apartheid, it can certainly end Cameron’s plans to carve up Britain and give it to the wealthy.

We need to build a movement. Elitist, violent side projects will distract us from this. In the end, the unions can mobilise half a million people. The anarchists can’t. They’d benefit from building links more carefully, and being part of mass democracy instead of taking the approach of trying to start the revolution on our behalf. Why not start by joining a union?

11 Comments leave one →
  1. Matt Moran permalink
    March 30, 2011 12:55 pm

    Reve generale means general dream. I suspect they were chanting greve generale, (pardon the lack of accented characters – crappy Windows machine) which means general strike.

  2. March 30, 2011 12:59 pm

    Okay but actually many of those “students” might well have been recent graduates who are now unemployed, and face unemployment or underemployment for several years. They are expected to work unpaid internships for months wracking up huge debts on top of those acquired at university. Snide comments about “get a job” ring pretty hollow, especially if they’re also at the forefront of risking themselves by breaking unjust laws in an effort to resist austerity.

    The trade unions need to stop seeing -themselves- as better or more ‘responsible’ than others simply because they refuse to take radical action. The unemployed cannot join a union. Real anti-government resistance cannot happen without the unions. The responsibility is yours, and no amount of scapegoating anarchists in black bloc will change that.

  3. March 30, 2011 1:17 pm

    Matt – thanks for the French advice, I’ll fix it.

    JM – I understand your point about unemployed graduates and interneships. This particular group were the SWP student group. They are asking people to commit to political action that won’t affect them.

    My point is not that we are more ‘responsible’ for not taking radical action, but that it takes time to build a mandate for this, and black bloc adventurists undermine the argument.

    I didn’t poll everyone there, but the impression I got was that most unionists aren’t bothered by a few bricks through the window. They are pissed off that despite the fact that many of them travelled hundreds of miles to have a say (I marched with a contingent from Thurso), all the media attention was on the black bloc. I think this is a deliberate tactic by the black bloc to hog the limelight. It’s not democratic, and it’s bad for building relationships.

    • Myshele permalink
      March 31, 2011 1:59 am

      Evidence is starting to emerge that the folks kicking off as “violent anarchists” were actually undercover cops. Anyone surprised?

  4. Helen permalink
    March 31, 2011 8:40 am

    Nice piece, Walton. This kind of long-term critical vision is welcome and I think crucial for real change. Must have been phenomenal to be there.

    • Helen permalink
      March 31, 2011 8:44 am

      and btw, what’s that German bit in in your header mean?

      • March 31, 2011 8:52 am

        “Every heart is a revolutionary cell”.

        In other words, our passion to engage with and try to change things comes from within us. We are driven to act for emotional and spiritual reasons rather than through dry analysis.

        It’s from the film The Edukators.

  5. Doug permalink
    March 31, 2011 5:53 pm

    Great article Walton and your argument mirrors one I was making with a bloke from the SWP all the way back to Glagow after the march. Why can’t people see that elitism and hierarchy are the problem, not part of the solution?

  6. Doug permalink
    March 31, 2011 5:55 pm

    Ps “Glasgow”, and isn’t the Edukators a great film?

  7. April 2, 2011 5:29 pm

    Great post here. I really enjoyed reading this. You have a very balanced and rational outlook that is easy to relate to. I have worked for an agency for a number of years here in North Wales. The employment situation here is dire. I only wish the Unions would do something about the awful predicament of agency workers, we are basically being exploited and have very few rights; often working without any formal contract at all, and working along side company employees who do less work but enjoy all the benefits of public sector pay and bonus schemes and very generous holiday and sickness arrangements I have made enquiries about joining a union but the level of representation for agency workers is nothing short of pathetic.

    But, I have to accept the facts, and the facts are that Labour is the only real choice for me when I look at the alternatives. Even if I won the lottery and became a multi-millionaire I could never vote for any of the other political parties. In the mean time, I have to work for a living and I will be looking out for permanent employment that comes with a secure contract. If this does eventually happen then I will be joining a union as soon as possible.

  8. April 5, 2011 2:13 pm

    Thanks JD. I worked for agencies, notably Blue Arrow, for a while, so I know what that’s like: I did catering for them, and sometimes they’d bus you across the country for a shift and you’d get paid 6 hours at minimum wage after spending 12 hours away from home.

    It is very difficult for unions to do anything about conditions for agency workers – that’s one of the main reasons they exist, to undermine the power of organised labour.

    You can, of course, join a trade union, and you’d be entitled to representation same as any other member, but it would be very difficult for a union to actually win recognition with an agency and bargain collectively over wages because the pool of employees is so transient.

    You best bet is to join a union, and try to organise it yourself while building links with the reps who are full time. Wouldn’t be easy though.

    Union need to negotiate better agreements at workplace level about integrating agency workers into direct employee T&Cs.

    I am not opposed to voting Labour; my point in the article is just that this isn’t enough to change things. We need to be active as well, wherever we are: unions, community groups, CLP etc.

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