The development of anti-cuts campaigns and committees has been one of the most immediate political consequences of the government’s cuts programme. The formation of such groups is of great significance.
Local, fighting campaigns of action and solidarity could become a key element in reviving and re-making parts of the working class movement.
The exact origin and composition of these committees varies from place to place so no tidy ‘general picture’ assessment of these initiatives can be made. In some places, sectarian projects like the SWP’s Right to Work are substituted for or counterposed to representative committees. In other areas the SWP and other left groups are totally absent.
Even within campaigns that can be genuinely described as “broad”, “representative”, “democratic” and working class orientated there is variation. The movement is heterogeneous and uneven; the result of continued political disorientation on the left, the absence of a finely tuned and grass-roots organised “reformist” pole of attraction and the political ‘freshness’ of newly mobilised activists.
It is likely that time will resolve the last two factors; the first is a bigger problem.
The question of how the left intervenes in anti-cuts campaigns and the tactics and politics we propose is of some consequence.
Within most anti-cuts campaigns and within the national “initiatives” attempting to coordinate the various campaigns, the left carries far greater political weight than in the labour and workers’ movement more generally.
This situation creates advantages but also dangers. Advantages because a coherent, united and class orientated left could generate a decisive shift within the movement with such leverage. Danger, because such opportunities expose the crass sectarianism, opportunism and political limitations of much of the left.
These problems are most clear in relation to questions on the Labour Party, “campaign building” and future tactics. For example, the early stages of any campaign are generally focussed on building a base of support and forging this support into a viable mobilising network. Campaigns call organising meetings, rallies and demonstrations to establish the “fact” of their existence and promote the key message — in this case “no cuts”. The merit or otherwise of any campaign is often assessed on an ability to reach and sustain a “critical mass” of support.
Such activity is necessary but not sufficient: political questions cannot be ignored or brushed aside. Such an attitude was a problem in the early stages of the campaign against the invasion of Iraq and it is something of a problem again.
The Socialist Workers Party — and their offspring Counterfire — suffer most from the blind “build, build, build…” perspective. The SWP are past experts at “movement building” but it would be a mistake to imagine that this is the alpha and omega of their politics. Whereas non-sectarian, working-class socialists orientate to the labour movement, the SWP’s focal orientation in on themselves: on building a substitute “party” of the working class.
By catching the mood and generating layers of activists around them — by whatever means, including crossing clear class lines — they hope to “catch the sparks” generated by mass activity.
Where the SWP operates on these terms with some élan, the Socialist Party has a very similar orientation but without the ‘bells and whistles’.
If anti-cuts campaigns are to fulfil their possible political significance, they must become more than recruiting grounds for the sects or unfocussed activity organising centres.
First and foremost, this will be done by securing the active involvement of wider layers of trade unionists and labour movement activists on the basis that “these committees can regenerate the movement”.
Secondly, relations with local Labour Party branches and members must be made. The lack of seriousness with which the left treats the Labour Party — either uncritical phrase-mongering as with the SWP or dunder-headed mortal hostility as with the SP — is dangerous. What Labour does or does not do against the cuts will be decisive not just in terms of policy outcomes but in terms of the confidence of workers. This does not simply mean inviting Labour politicians to speak at meetings or rallies, it means putting demands and holding to account. This cannot be done in the absence of politics or with a crass political outlook.
Finally, if anything is to be achieved at all it will be done on the basis of independent working class politics. This means actively proposing socialist politics and allowing for debate and discussion. It means creating a political culture where serious questions are addressed and where disagreements are argued out. Such a culture will not — as some will suggest — be to the detriment of “movement building” but is a necessary component of a real working class movement.