Members of the Anarchist Federation in Nottingham, the “Autonomous Nottingham” group and some individuals staged a protest at the Nottingham May Day rally which ended up disrupting the whole rally.
The anarchists opposed the inclusion of Mansfield Labour MP Alan Meale on the platform of speakers.
Meale is undoubtedly a self-serving, middle-of-the-road Labour MP. He was once a supporter of the miners in their battle against the Thatcher government, but any vestiges of explicit working-class politics have long since vanished from sight. Meale has been knighted by the Queen. He was embroiled in the expenses scandal and he was loyal voting fodder under Blair and Brown.
So how did he come to be invited to a May Day rally organised by Nottinghamshire Trades Council? The official explanation is that by extending an invitation to Meale, people would be encouraged to attend the march and rally from the north of the county.
AWL and other delegates to the trades council didn't like the idea and spoke against the invitation at Trades Council meetings. Others weren't too keen but were willing to accept the invitation. The majority saw no problem with inviting Meale — or indeed any other Labour politician — to a May Day event, either because they saw it as a good opportunity to draw him into the active labour movement, the better to put on some political pressure, or because they are active supporters of, and trade union affiliates to, the Labour Party. Some delegates to the Trades Council are even Labour councillors.
Should Meale have been invited? No. But the ins-and-outs of his invitation are secondary to the technicolour display of crass, ultra-left and sectarian “militancy” put on by some anarchists. Their actions disrupted the meeting and prevented Meale from speaking.
AWL members and others in Nottingham — including a number of other anarchists — thought behaviour to be anti-democratic and counter-productive: a childish and disproportionate stunt that alienated and irritated a good many trade union activists.
Unfortunately, the stunt was not an isolated incident and seems to have been part of a national strategy. Anarchists carried out similar “actions” against less starkly offensive Labour representatives in Manchester and Newcastle. The latter action (whether by accident or design) was carried out in conjunction with the ultra-Stalinist Revolutionary Communist Group.
A full report on the day, further analysis of AFed and a response from Nottingham AFed members can be found at the links below.
• Report from Pete Radcliff on events at Nottingham May Day here
• Analysis by Tom Unterrainer of AFed in Nottingham here
See, this is the bit I have problems with: "Should Meale have been invited? No. But the ins-and-outs of his invitation are secondary to the technicolour display of crass, ultra-left and sectarian “militancy” put on by some anarchists." To me, the ins-and-outs of the behaviour of some anarchists, whether you agree with them or not, is always going to be secondary to the fact that Sir Meale is a class enemy. That's not hyperbole, he is genuinely, actually a member of the ruling class helping to impose neoliberal policies on us. Take a "third campist" position of neither Meale nor the anarchists if you like, but you pretty much seem to be suggesting that Meale's reactionary politics are a lesser evil than some anarchists not being very polite.
Ironically, one of the things I actually quite respect the AWL for is your stance on anti-fascism, which is genuinely quite principled, and which explicitly rejects UAF's Popular Front position of building alliances with neoliberal politicians as the "lesser evil" to fascism (for instance, I think this statement of yours is pretty much correct). How you can be principled enough to reject the idea of allying with our class enemies against the fascists, and then enthusiastically side with ruling-class politicians against anarchists, is completely beyond me.
Anyway, just on another factual note: why do you assume the events in Newcastle were anything to do with the AF? I might well be wrong on this, but I was under the impression that none of the national federations had much of a presence in Newcastle, and the main groups there were Tyneside Solidarity Group and North-East Anarchists, both of whom are local groups not affiliated to any national organisation. The only anarchist write-up I've seen of Newcastle May Day is on the NE Anarchists site, and considering they're nothing to do with the AF, it looks like you might have got it wrong again, as you did when you left Autonomous Nottingham out of the initial write-up of what went wrong in Nottingham. This isn't just nitpicking - I'm sure you'd object quite strongly to an article that assumed all Trots were SWP members, so it seems only fair to do some basic factchecking before making sweeping assumptions about anarchists.
Fair enough on AFed not being involved; I've amended the report above. This was actually my fault; I'd read about the similar actions in Manchester and Newcastle (not mentioned in Tom's original piece) and inserted a reference to them while subbing Tom's article for the paper. It was late in the afternoon and I semi-consciously wrote "AFed" rather than something more general (e.g. "anarchists"). A lazy generalisation indeed (I actually knew the Newcastle action hadn't been organised by AFed members; as I say, it was only semi-conscious). Apologies.
On the issues - a question for CP; would you advocate taking similar action against John McDonnell? How about Ian Lavery? How about Ed Miliband? What are the criteria by which a Labour MP qualifies for this kind of direct action?
Saying that Alan Meale is "the class enemy" is all well and good, but how has this particular action done anything to lessen his power? In what way has it advanced the cause of workers' struggle? In what sense has it weakened any of the neoliberal policies you mention?
Meale might be the class enemy but unfortunately he is also part of the labour movement. To get rid of him and his ilk, you have to have a consistent strategy for transforming that movement and breaking the political power currently held within it by capitalist/pro-capitalist politicians. The labour movement can't be transformed by chasing out the Blairites one at a time by shouting them off May Day platforms. And if you want to do that work of transforming the labour (which is often arduous and boring and not as fun as theatrical direct actions like this), it doesn't make sense to engage in shrill actions which will do little to advance your politics but lots to earn you the hostility of the vast majority of organised workers who haven't yet reached your revolutionary direct-action conclusions.
"On the issues - a question for CP; would you advocate taking similar action against John McDonnell? How about Ian Lavery? How about Ed Miliband? What are the criteria by which a Labour MP qualifies for this kind of direct action?" Ed Miliband certainly, can't say I've put much thought into the exact point at which a politician becomes an acceptable target. I don't think this kind of thing helps clarify matters that much - we could equally well debate what kind of response would be appropriate to use against UKIP, or a BNP stall made up entirely of pensioners, but the fact that gray areas exist there in no way invalidates no platform as a tactic. To turn your question around - would you be equally offended by action taken against a Lib Dem MP with Sir Meale's voting record? What about a Tory? If not, then what meaningful difference exists between those cases? Did the Right Honourable Lord Quentin Davies of Stamford suddenly become a legitimate part of the workers' movement when he defected from the Tories to Labour? Was it acceptable to heckle Lord Davies one day, but childish ultra-leftism the next?
I don't think this action will have done a tremendous amount to weaken Sir Meale's power (btw, you say it's "all well and good" to define neoliberal politicians as the class enemy, but you don't say whether it's correct or not - do you accept he has class interests opposed to ours? Or do you think he's still secretly a proletarian in some confused fashion?) but then most of the time protests don't have that much effect. If the recent wave of SPUC vigils had gone unopposed, it wouldn't have changed much, but I still think the people who bothered opposing them did the right thing, because reactionaries should be confronted wherever they raise their head. That principle holds true whether they're standing outside an abortion clinic or addressing a "labour movement" meeting. Anyway, I think we can agree that Sir Meale thought he would get some benefit from addressing this meeting, and he was denied a chance to put his politics across, and the more opposition and humiliation he faces when he attempts to speak in public, the less he's likely to want to do it. That, to me, is a contribution, however small, to weakening his power.
As for this stuff about the "labour movement", I deeply distrust the way the AWL uses that term, because it seems to be a sleight-of-hand whereby the working class as a whole is equated with the institutions of the Labour Party and the unions. Talk of "transforming the labour movement" smacks of alchemy to me, turning the TUC into the CNT or IWW seems about as likely as turning lead into gold. The key task right now is to find ways of relating to the vast majority of unorganised workers - the AWL like to dismiss attempts at alternative workers' organisation as being utopian and unrealistic, but the strategy of transforming the TUC and Labour Party seems equally unlikely. I don't think that heckling Labour politicians is the most worthwhile thing that anarchists are doing right now, that would be the anti-workfare campaign, but you seem a lot less interested in discussing that. And I don't believe that shouting at some politicians actually makes it any harder to try and organise claimants.
Finally (and I know this comment is already almost as over-long as it is belated), you talk about "shrill actions which will do... lots to earn you the hostility of the vast majority of organised workers". Let's break this down a moment: 1) as discussed above, most workers aren't organised. Let's stop talking about organised workers as if they were the same thing as the class, or even necessarily the most conscious elements of the class, please. 2) Assuming that by "organised workers" you mean "union members", I don't think that most union members were on the Nottingham May Day march. I dunno how many people were there, but this report estimates 200-500. Even if we assume 500 people were there, and every single one of them were angry at the anarchists, that's still a tiny proportion of organised workers, let alone the working class as whole. Unless you genuinely believe that those 500 people who turned up to Nottingham May Day are the vanguard of the class, I can't really see how mildly annoying 500 people sets back anarchist organising in any meaningful way whatsoever.
If you think this action has genuinely "done a tremendous amount" to "weaken" Alan Meale's power we will just have to agree to disagree on this point. I find this frankly delusional.
Is it your view that "no platform" (i.e. attempting, wherever possible, to prevent the public expression, in any form, of their politics) is the correct default tactic that should be applied to all "politicians", and that the consideration about whether you would actually attempt to apply the tactic is entirely strategic (i.e. "the grey areas")?
Can I ask why you don't think it's appropriate to "no platform" trade union leaders? (Or do you?) Do you see any distinction between Len McCluskey and a Tory MP? (I know some anarchists wouldn't).
I'm not saying Labour MPs are never legitimate targets for this kind of action (although I think the term "no platform" is not quite the right one here). In circumstances in which, for example, a May Day rally organised entirely undemocratically through TUC officialdom (i.e. by unelected, unaccountable union officials) which had been bureaucratically imposed on a local labour movement and whose platform featured Blairite types like Meale, you might decide to stage an action like this (although it would depend on a lot of other factors).
But I don't think this was the dynamic in Nottingham. For all its many faults, the Trades Council in Notts is one of the better ones in the country. Meale's invitation was primarily a problem of politics, not of a lack of democratic procedures. The implication (intended or otherwise) of the anarchist action was that the prosecution of that political debate within the actual labour movement itself is beneath them, a waste of time. It suggests (again, I'm sure this was unintentional) a certain patronising disdain for the ability of trade unionists to reach better political conclusions.
If I'd been in the meeting that voted on whether to invite Meale I'd have voted against it. But I wouldn't then have said "because I've lost this vote, I'm going to sabotage the carrying out of the decision". I'd have leafleted against Meale, made critical comments, probably heckled. But I take responsibility for my actions as part of the labour movement, as the organised movement of our class (which it is, whether we like it or not), not as someone who might "tactically" decide to intervene in trade unions when it suits my political purposes.
Which brings me onto the issue about "the labour movement" versus "the working class". The trade unions - the existing ones, the shit, undemocratic, sell-out ones - are the organisations of our class. They are not alien bodies imposed on us by capital. They are, by their nature, locked into class struggle. Workers organised in them (6 or 7 million is not a small number) are organised as workers, at the point of production - i.e. the point at which capitalism happens. That makes them "special" types of organisation from the point of view of people who think workers can change the world and necessarily a key focus (the key focus in my view).
No-one is suggesting that the class is limited to workers currently organised through established trade unions. But I think you're guilty of the opposite error you accuse us of; the unorganised elements of the class are not somehow more likely to take militant class-struggle direct action because they're free from the fetters of bureaucratic trade unions.
It's simply not the case that AWL is unserious about unorganised workers, and in fact we've had rather more to say about the need to "find ways of relating to [them]" than most left groups. But to say, as you do, that "the key task [my emphasis]" is to "find ways of relating to [...] unorganised workers", implicitly relegating the task of relating to organised workers to an order of lesser importance.
The AWL - nor SolFed, nor AFed, nor anyone else - cannot substitute for a mass movement capable of mobilising millions of unorganised workers into permanent, democratic workplaces collectives (i.e. unions) and common struggles. We can, however, act as a lever within the mass movement of workers who are already - however imperfectly - organised, and attempt to catalyse transformations there.
You denounce this perspective as "alchemical". (I should say, tangentially, that "turning the TUC into the CNT" is not our perspective.) If you conceive of the transformation of the labour movement as a crude process - whereby things gradually build up until some mystical tipping point at which there's a decisive qualitiative shift - then yes, it is alchemical. But that's not our perspective. The transformation of the existing labour movement will more closely resemble the New Unionism of the 1880s - huge, often unstable, struggles that will radically shake-up, transform, break apart, recreate old organisations and create new ones. Our best contribution towards making that happen can currently be made by agitating, educating, and organising for it amongst currently-organised workers.
Have you read "Can we build a revolutionary workers' movement?", and if so - what do you think? I'm not trying to elide the discussion around this specific incident into a more general one but it seems like the arguments we were trying to respond to in that article are basically the ones under discussion here, so it might provide some focus.
"If you think this action has genuinely "done a tremendous amount" to "weaken" Alan Meale's power we will just have to agree to disagree on this point. I find this frankly delusional." I was really confused by this bit, until I realised you must have read "don't think" as "do think". Anyway, the point I was making was that I don't think it's a massively important action, but it seems like a small step in the right direction. You might still disagree, but rest assured that I wasn't making it out to be a major deal.
As for "no platform" - that's not the term I'd use. I think there's some confusion that arose here - you seemed to be suggesting that disrupting politicians isn't a good idea because sometimes it's hard to say whether it's appropriate or not, and I was making the point that similar gray areas exist around no platforming the far-right, but those gray areas don't invalidate militant anti-fascism as a whole. I do think that the ruling class are our enemies, and the managers of the state are part of the ruling class, and our attitude towards them should always be one of hostility, but how this hostility should be expressed (if it should be open at all - I'm not saying we should constantly tell our managers to piss off at every opportunity or anything) depends entirely on circumstances.
I also think trade union leaders have interests that are fundamentally opposed to ours, and so I would certainly think it appropriate to disrupt them in some circumstances, but again, it's all down to the individual situation.
As for sabotaging democratic decisions, I think it's a tiny bit disingenuous to say "I wouldn't have done something like this, I would probably have gone along and heckled". To me, the difference between the Nottingham action and heckling is purely one of degree, and had you gone along and spoken out of turn, I'm sure Stalinist or Labourist bureaucrats would have denounced you in exactly the same terms, as an undemocratic wrecker sabotaging the trades council's decision. I can't say much about the specifics of Nottingham Trades Council, but as a gut instinct I still don't have that much of an issue with disobeying its decisions - unless unemployed people, unorganised temp and private sector workers, pensioners, disabled people and the rest actually have decent representation on it, it seems a bit harsh to tell them they have to abide by decisions they have no say in, or to call them patronising elitists when they disagree.
I don't think that unorganised workers are any more important than unionised workers, or that they're more militant or anything - I would suggest that if they do take action, it might potentially be more disruptive as a result of them being less tied to the traditions of Labourism, social partnership and so on, but that's certainly offset by the fact that they're less likely to take action in general. If I think unorganised workers are important, that's simply because they're the majority of the class. And that's before we get into the question of how many "organised" workers are paper members only, since it's not as if most union members are rushing to pack out union meetings on a regular basis. When you say "6 or 7 million is not a small number", fair enough, but to try and fudge the distinction between that 6 or 7 million, or even that proportion of the 6 or 7 million that works in Nottinghamshire, and the few hundred activists who turned up at the May Day rally, or might potentially hear about events at the rally, seems unhelpful.
If you think my point about the key task being to relate to unorganised workers was too dismissive of the minority of organised workers, how about this formulation: The key task for revolutionaries is to relate to the workers who are closest to us and we interact with most regularly. If the make-up of revolutionaries is vaguely similar to the make-up of the class as a whole, that means that for many of us our first priority will be talking to unorganised workers. Even for those of us who do work in unionised workplaces, a) trying to get united action, or even just some kind of common discussion, across the workforce often means talking across union boundaries and often to unorganised sectors within the same workplace, b) even when we're union members, talking to other members of our union within our workplace, I think it is very, very, very unlikely that any of our colleagues will reply with "yeah, what you're saying makes some sense, but I don't want to talk to you because you/other members of your political faction disrupted a speech by a Labour MP". That sounds absurd, but that does sound like what you were implying when you mention how the action would do "lots to earn you the hostility of the vast majority of organised workers".
Not read "Can we build a revolutionary workers' movement?" yet, will try and get around to it. I think your perspective is flawed, but at least we've clarified some of where the differences lie. To me, while I don't think that "agitating, educating, and organising... amongst currently-organised workers" is a complete waste of time, I think that stuff like the activity of the IWW Cleaners' branch in London, and to a lesser extent their attempts to organise Pizza Hut workers (admittedly, not an anarchist organisation, but one that many anarchists are involved in and support), seems like more of a priority. As a general principle, as I've said our immediate situation should always be the starting point.
Yes, I misread your comment about "weakening Meale's power". Apologies.
You're right that the call on whether to disrupt a ruling-class politician speaking at a labour movement event needs to be judged on a case-by-case basis. For two years running, my union (GMB) has invited senior Lib Dem ministers to address our Congress (Vince Cable last year, Danny Alexander this year). Both times, I've been involved in banner-drop protests during their speeches. This was a tactical call; if the atmosphere at Congress was more militant, more "political", etc., we might have done more. As it was, our feeling was that any attempt to do more (i.e. to heckle disruptively, stage a walkout, etc.) wouldn't have much of a positive impact. It seems to me that in the Nottingham case, the abstract starting point (Alan Meale is a bad guy and shouldn't be speaking at a May Day rally; fine) has not been adequately weighed up against any serious consideration of the impact of the action. Of course, we want to get to a point where ruling-class politicians are not invited to address labour movement events, but in my view the Nottingham action does more to set back the struggle to get there than it does to advance it.
The idea that unorganised workers taking action is "potentially more disruptive" than organised workers seems to me to very much miss the point about how capitalism is disrupted. A train drivers' strike will be massively more "disruptive" to capitalist functioning than, say, a wildcat walkout by some unorganised cleaners in a hospital. That's not a value judgement, it's just a fact about the mechanics of capitalism.
That unorganised workers make up the majority of the working class is obviously just an objective fact. The debate really, then, comes down to how we think revolutionaries - people with a perspective and a programme for working-class power - should focus their time and energy. I think we can do more to relate to and engage with unorganised workers by acting as a lever within the existing labour movement and turning bits of it out towards the kinds of workplaces you're talking about. We (AWL) are already involved in this work on a small scale, for example through our activity in the GMB Southern Region or cleaners' organising projects on London Underground and in the civil service. I think we're the only Trotskyist group to have consistently made the case for radical organising models - see, for example, our promotion of the 'Supersize My Pay' campaign from New Zealand (we were the only UK group to do any serious work around this) and our emphasis on the continuing relevance of 'New Unionism' models. We're also the only Trot group which has actively and consistently supported the IWW's various campaigns (Starbucks and the recent cleaners' struggles), even though we think the IWW is at best limited as an outlet/focus for organising.
So it's really not the case that I'm "less serious" or "less concerned" than you with the struggles of unorganised workers or the need to organise them (/help their self-organisation). It's more that, in terms of the power our class has now, it is derived from the key industrial sectors (e.g. healthcare, transport, education) where organisation is by-and-large stronger. So an orientation to and focus on those sectors and workers' organisation there seems pretty clearly implied.
Please read "Can we build a revolutionary workers' movement?" when you get a chance because I am very interested to know what you make of it. You might also be interested in this pamphlet (it's mainly addressed to activists in the student movement thinking about what to do when they leave college/uni but contains some wider arguments about where revolutionaries should focus their activity): "Change the world - organise at work!".