A damp squib

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21 October 2012

The little dog barked, but the caravan continued on regardless.


Yesterday was a fairly wet day in London but that is not why the trade union march against austerity turned out be, predictably, a damp squib.

The protest was doomed before it started.

The aspirations of the organisers – the trade union umbrella body, the Trades Union Congress – were so low that it is a miracle the march got going at all.

The TUC had clearly called the protest demonstrate to trade union members that their generally moribund unions were “doing something” to counter-act the current attack by the state on the living standards of the middle-classes and the poor ( or “the 99 per cent”, to use the terminology of the “Occupy” movement).

Britain’s trade unions have largely sat on their hands for at least the past fifteen years as Tory and so-called Labour governments, nominally opponents but allies in reality, have competed with one another to slash workers’ wages and pensions, jack up the minimum retirement age – the “work till you drop” programme – and, worst of all, strip the sick and disabled of social benefits, forcing chemotherapy patients with terminal cancer out into the streets to search for non-existent jobs.

The current UK government, headed by Dave “Flashman” Cameron, has out-Thatchered Thatchered in its determination to go down in history as the most brutal administration since the vicious anti-worker Tory governments of the 1920s.

What has been the reaction of the British trade unions? Sweet fanny adams. Trade union bosses have mostly continued to collect their own substantial pay packets while turning to look the other way as British workers are frog-marched into unprecedented austerity by the corporate fat cats whose interests alone the current government represents.

According to the organisers, the London march attracted more than 150 000 participants. However, this is a big declination compared with the turn-out of more than 250 000 at a similar anti-austerity rally in March last year.

There were no reports of any violence or any arrests.

The meekness and good behaviour of the London demonstrators  – in contrast to the more robust protests that have taken place recently in Greece, Spain and Portugal – have proved conclusively to the UK authorities that they have nothing to fear from the British working-class, which is not going to do anything significant to resist the government’s austerity drive, the object of which is nominally to reduce the government’s budget deficit but in reality to sell off public assets and services to government supporters in the private sector.

The march in London followed the time-hallowed pattern: a long walk followed by a rally at which assorted bigwigs preached predictable sermons to the faithful. You could see it as a sort of church service for unbelievers. After such rallies, the marchers invariably go home and brew a pot of tea. That is the English way of protest. The effect on the government is nil – necessarily so, moreover, since if the protests looked likely to be in any way effective, the authorities would ban them. The main object of the day of action has nothing to do with putting pressure on the authorities. It is to encourage solidarity and stimulate a vague feel-good sensation among participants. Seeing the long lines of fellow marchers with their banners, balloons and brass bands, participants could be forgiven for thinking that the whole country was behind them. It is. Far behind.

It is impossible not to be struck by the contrast between the limp-wristedness of protest in Britain and the definition of revolution set out by Mao Zedong in his lapidary Little Red Book: “A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another.”

One thing at least is clear:  Britain is not on the cusp of revolution.

Mind you, protesters in Britain have good reason to be cautious these days when exercising their common law right to protest. The English judiciary has, in recent times, shown especial viciousness, we would argue, towards those who have sought to question the status quo. Young people, many from poor backgrounds, who got caught up in the riots in London last autumn, received harsh jail sentences meted out with exceptional alacrity. People who have voiced non-conventional opinions on social media have also been imprisoned. Fines have been imposed on British Muslims who have demonstrated peacefully against the invasion of Muslim countries in the Middle East and Central Asia by America, Britain and a ragbag of other US satellites.Only this week an east London resident, Trenton Oldfield, was sent to gaol for six months for disrupting the prestigious Oxford and Cambridge boat race on the Thames in April last year on the grounds that this was an elitist event inappropriate at a time of increasing inequalities.

One sign that yesterday’s march was not serious was the decision by the organisers to invite Edward Miliband to address it. Miliband, a former minister in the Thatcherite government of Anthony Blair, Labour Prime Minister from 1997 to 2007, is now himself the leader of the so-called Labour Party. Just like Flashman’s Tories, Miliband is actually in favour of the austerity programme. Only we shall cut back more slowly, he claims. It is like having to choose between two executioners: Flashman will polish you off lickety-split, Miliband will throttle you in a more leisurely fashion. In the England of King Henry VIII and “Good” Queen Bess a swift beheading was generally held to be preferable to being hanged, drawn and quartered.

Yet this is what the rally – desperate for a gesture of hope in the current trough of despond – heard yesterday from the Leader of the Labour Party:

“I have said whoever was in government now there would be some cuts, but this government has shown that cutting too far and too fast, self-defeating austerity, is not the answer. It is not the answer to Britain’s problems.”

To give the crowd its due,  this remark was greeted with a round of well-merited boos.

The question must be posed: why was Miliband, a proponent of austerity, invited by the TUC to speak at an anti-austerity rally?

The answer is simple: since at least the time of the rightist Hugh Gaitskell, who was Labour Party leader 1955-1963,  with a few notable exceptions the trade unions in Britain have unfailingly fallen into line with the decisions of the leadership of the pro-capitalist Labour Party. They have religiously backed the Labour Party, financially as well as electorally, whatever anti-worker policies that party has adopted as it moved steadily to the right.

One encouraging chink of light on a generally grim day was the reception given by the crowd to Bob Crow, a rail union leader, and Mark Serwotka, of the Public and Commercial Services union, who called for a General Strike.

Last month the TUC’s annual conference – one suspects much against the wishes of the TUC leadership – backed a motion calling for “consideration” of a General Strike. Note that they did not actually call for a strike. The motion was supported by Britain’s three largest unions: Unite, Unison and the GMB. The TUC is now taking soundings among its member unions on the practicalities of staging such a strike and to find out whether they have the appetite for such a radical step.

The TUC brings together a total of 54 trade unions covering six million trade unionists. However, this is only half the number of members that were affiliated to it in the 1970s (when, as it happens, Antigone1984 was actively involved in labour relations).  Membership has haemorrhaged as a result of globalisation, unemployment, and the casualisation of labour (or what capitalist apologists call “flexibility” or “structural reforms” in the labour market).

Unsurprisingly, TUC general secretary Brendan Barber  has been quick to pour cold water on the prospect of a general strike. You see, a general strike is not something that you will find Edward Miliband coming out in favour of any day soon. And main raison d’être of any TUC general secretary, in our view, is to snuff out any hint of trade union rebellion against the wishes of the Labour Party top brass.

Speaking to the BBC in a report published yesterday, Barber said he did not think a general strike was likely. “Some of my colleagues may talk about that,” he said. “I don’t hear too many people calling for a general strike.”

Barber is to retire shortly but don’t expect much change from his successor. The TUC has form when it comes to backing away from radical action. The last General Strike in Britain took place in 1926. It was called to support a strike by coal miners opposing pay cuts. After initially agreeing to a General Strike in support of the miners, the TUC unilaterally called off the action after eight days against the wishes of the miners and without obtaining any concessions from the government. The miners continued their action single-handed but eventually caved in under pressure. Many strikers were sacked and some never worked again.

The march in London yesterday was coordinated with other equally pointless demonstrations organized by trade unions in Glasgow, Scotland, and Belfast, Northern Ireland.


 You might perhaps care to view some of our earlier posts.  For instance:

1. Why? or How? That is the question (3 Jan 2012)

2. Partitocracy v. Democracy (20 July 2012)

3. The shoddiest possible goods at the highest possible prices (2 Feb 2012)

4. Capitalism in practice  (4 July 2012) 

5.Ladder  (21 June 2012)

 6. A tale of two cities (1)  (6 June 2012)

 7. A tale of two cities (2)  (7 June 2012)

 8. Where’s the beef? Ontology and tinned meat (31 Jan 2012)

Every so often we shall change this sample of previously published posts.


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