Well first the good stuff.
A reasonably large May Day about 300 attending. This was followed by a hastily arranged indoor meeting, because of expected rain, with speakers from most unions involved in strike campaigns, and one or two trade union worthies as well as from campaigns such as Notts Uncut.
Many speeches were indeed excellent.
Unfortunately though, the demonstration and meeting may be more remembered because of the action of 8 or so anarchists of the Anarchist Federation, who on 2 occasions tried to stop the meeting as they disagreed with the Trades Council having invited Alan Meale, the Labour MP once considered on the left of the Party but not recently noted for any position or statement delineating himself from the appalling Labour Party front bench record on trade union disputes.
With placards denouncing the Labour Party and Meale, they stood in front of the speakers’ platform making it impossible for the meeting to continue. They defied requests from the Chair and the clear wishes of the meeting for them to resume their seats. On the first occasion they delayed the meeting by 5 mins whilst the Chair changed the speaking order, on the second occasion for 10 minutes whilst angry exchanges took place between them and union activists and stewards and the meeting was effectively ended.
Placards that the anarchists held up drew attention to Meale’s alleged expenses abuse and others attacked the Labour Party as being no different than the Tories. Whilst many trade unionists in attendance, with greater knowledge of the working class movement, might have found it strange that no distinction was made between voters and members of the Labour Party and its leaders, these placards wouldn’t have drawn any particular opposition from anyone present had the anarchists made a protest and then sat down. Most workers, repelled by the frequent hypocrisy of politicians who speak left and act right, would have thought ‘fair point’.
But the AFED action went further than that: they believed they had the right to overturn the Trades Council decision to invite Meale and in spite of the wishes of others at the meeting, that they were entitled to stop Meale speaking. Their action was almost universally seen by attendees at the meeting as patronising and undemocratic.
Many, if not most, of the trade union speakers including the chair of the meeting and of the Trades Council Liam Conway, spoke quite openly and loudly of the anti-union politics of much of the Labour Party. Particular reference to this was made by NUT speaker, Tom Unterrainer, whose union is in direct dispute with a union-bashing Labour City council that is attempting to outflank the Tories and introduce a 5-term school year against the overwhelming desires of teachers.
No-one listening to virtually any of the trade union speakers could possibly believe that any of them, or anyone in the meeting cheering the speeches, did not have ‘big issues’ with the current policies and leaders of the Labour Party. And then it came to Meale’s second attempt to speak.
Now the anarchists of AFED could have demanded that it be put to the meeting whether Meale speak or not. No, they didn’t do that. They could have put it to the meeting that Meale answer some crucial questions about why he had reneged on some policy pledges in the past. No, they didn’t do that either.
They could have demanded, as many speakers had implicitly done, that Meale back unions like the NUT in their strike against an anti-union Labour Council or the strikes on May 10th and that he pledge himself to fight to reverse all cuts when Labour return to government. Any or all of that would have been useful.
An MP’s promise clearly should never be taken lightly or naively. We know many lie if they can get away with it. But while socialists try and build a movement that can hold Labour politicians like Meale accountable to any pledges they may make, anarchists of AFED simply don’t want a Labour government, they don’t want be involved in any arguments on what such a government should do. They, a small minority, therefore decide that despite what anyone else may think Meale should not be heard. Up they get and the meeting is stopped by 8 people who think their views are more important than the hundred or so still in the room.
In a sense the anarchists let Meale off any hook.
What is sad about the anarchists’ actions is that a number of them involved had put in considerable work over the last 18 months building the Notts Save Our Services campaign. They had seemed to have learnt, although they would have been idiots if they had not have learnt, that the trade unions are hugely powerful instruments to organise struggles against capitalism. They had justifiably gained some respect from trade union activists.
Even in their little action on May 5th they were probably genuinely motivated by a desire to stop political hypocrisy. They don’t understand that the arrogance revealed by their tactic is so repellent.
But any trust of AFED by active trade unionists in the town has now gone. The instinctive reaction, particularly of trade unions activists who didn’t know them, was that they were little different from fascists with their contempt for any norms of democratic conduct.
Absolutely they are not fascists! But they are politically stupid, deluded by their ideology which too easily blurs the class enemy with the mass instruments within capitalism of class struggle, the trade unions.
It appears that the education they gained in the period from Nov 2010 to Nov 2011 has stopped and is in reverse. In Nov 2010, thousands mobilised by the trade unions marched in Nottingham at the Trades Council/ Notts SOS anti-cuts demo. Nov 2011 saw the massive joint-union strike against pension cuts. It is unlikely that AFED would have attempted anything then.
But since last November, some appalling compromises have been made by trade union leaders and a strike movement has been significantly shunted into the sidelines, if only for a while. The anarchists, not understanding the dynamics of class struggle, have clearly been looking for people to blame – and have decided it is in the ‘Labour illusions’ of the trade union movement.
So the anarchists of AFED have retreated into their prejudices – the trade union movement, the Trades Council should be treated with contempt, its decisions defied, its meetings disrupted. They treated the May Day meeting, most of whom had been involved in the last year of organising strikes, no different from how they might be expected to treat a meeting of the Conservative Party or UKIP.
AFED made no friends on May 5th. Many might over-react to them. But it should be repeated: some anarchists had done good work over the last 18 months; some were simply young and drawn by the exhilaration of direct action; some whilst educated were clearly ignorant of the labour and trade union movement. We should resist calls to bar them from meetings.
With their current prejudices there is little hope of much constructive work with them. It is quite likely, given their recoiling from any co-operation with trade unions, that they will not be interested in any dialogue with trade unions, never mind joint work. But hopefully when the strike movement starts up again, some of them at least will start learning again.
Whilst some people may have been demoralised by a seeming division amongst anti-cuts activists, the AFED disruption was by a small minority and the meeting was not stopped by their actions. In the meantime let’s draw encouragement that May Day in Nottingham is again taken seriously by trade unions. Let’s hope that the major struggles, that trade unions face, will help us build our trade union organisations and make the next May Day much bigger.
For a fuller account of the political evolution of Nottingham Afed, there is a longer article found here