Over 150,000 people demonstrated in London on 20 October and tens of thousands more in Glasgow and Belfast.
There were many flashes and flurries of militancy on the London demo – from direct action against companies involved in ‘Workfare’ to disability activists blocking Park Lane and stopping traffic at the end of the demo. Hundreds of marchers carried home-made signs identifying themselves as “Plebs”. Demonstrators heckled Ed Miliband for saying there would have to be some cuts.
Despite discouragement from the TUC, there were a number of lively feeder marches. These included several thousand from South London anti-cuts groups (with a large anarchist presence), and more than a thousand on a student bloc organised by the student left through University of London.
And of course, 150,000 is still very big – a clear indication that, despite setbacks, vast numbers of workers want a fight. There were very large numbers of Unite and Unison members marching together in enormous contingents. But as well as the decline in size, the mood generally seemed positive, but less militant than in March 2011. Although comrades report that many from their workplaces and unions marched who had not marched before - and some found it very inspiring - demonstrators seemed on average a bit older.
This is not a surprise. The 26 March demo came at a time of ‘ascent’, a few months after huge student protests and just before the first strikes to defend public sector pensions. Despite the obvious inadequacies of the union’s campaign, it felt like things were moving, like the struggle was going somewhere. This protest came after the union leaders have squashed the pensions campaign, and left things to decay for almost a year.
Yesterday there was some militant rhetoric from the union leaders. Unite’s Len McCluskey used the closing rally to “start the consultation” on a general strike agreed at TUC conference. “Are you prepared to strike?”, he asked the crowd and was met with a huge din of cheering and vuvuzela horns. Thousands of people then put their hands up to “vote” for strike action.
Such dramatic flair would be welcome – if it was linked to something concrete. Bob Crow, Mark Serwotka, Christine Blower and others made similar noises. But this was not matched by a commitment to much of anything. There was no real attempt even to highlight victories won or to champion the workers’ battles which are in progress, despite the lull.
The SWP and the Socialist Party report that their calls for a “general strike” (in the latter case a “24 hour general strike”) got a good response. This does not make such calls a serious strategy. As Trotsky put it in the early 30s (in ‘What next?’), for many workers “‘the general strike’ signifies the prospect of struggle”. But neither the SP nor the SWP had much to say about how to get from where we are now to a general strike, or about what demands the movement should be campaigning for.
The importance of clear demands was shown by the fact that not even “No cuts” was featured in the official union campaign. Labour leader Ed Miliband was invited to speak at the rally, and he told marchers “There will still be hard choices — it’s right that we level with people.”
There were hundreds if not thousands of heckles from the crowd – quite right too, though no doubt Miliband was pleased, so he can show how ‘tough’ he is – but the unions are not suggesting any real alternative to the Labour leadership’s programme. (To be fair to Bob Crow, he did use his speech to criticise Miliband.)
The fact that, so far, ‘left wing’ Unite has pressured Labour councillors not to vote against and defy the cuts but to vote for them shows how far there is to go. So does its tame performance at this year's Labour Party conference, despite its formal new commitment to a fight in the party.
Unsurprisingly, it was harder than on 26 March to sell socialist literature. We think we sold about 400 copies of Solidarity, but a lot of comrades said sales seemed slower. We did have many interesting and useful conversations.
The NHS Liaison Network statement calling for a union campaign to push Labour into implementing its new policy on the NHS got a good response on the NHS bloc and on the Unison and Unite contingents, with many marchers refusing a leaflet and then reconsidering when they read the headline (“Fight for Labour to carry outs its policy: rebuild the NHS!”) Liaison Network activists made some useful contacts for the campaign.
No matter how gloomy things look, serious socialists should not respond to the SWP’s “general strike” demagogy by rubbishing the prospect of any mass struggles. It will take generalised industrial action to defeat the cuts - but that poses, rather than answers the question. Trotsky again: “Does this mean that the strike struggle should be renounced? No, not renounced but sustained, by creating for it necessary political and organisational premises.” What that means now is:
• Championing, publicising and encouraging every dispute, every struggle, every spark of resistance – and demanding the unions do the same, rather than ignoring or stifling them.
• Advocating and organising resistance, in workplaces, locally, nationally, to cuts and attacks now – not waiting for hypothetical coordinated action in the future.
• Arguing for a serious assessment of how the pensions dispute was sunk, and a different strategy for future national struggles, including properly coordinated and mounting action.
• Seeking opportunities to build rank-and-file networks in the unions, like the Local Associations grouping among teachers, which can challenge the union leaders, including ‘left’ ones.
• Developing clear demands about what policies we want to see (restore the NHS, scrap the anti-union laws, expropriate the banks, etc...), developing a campaign around them and bringing real pressure to bear for them in and on the Labour Party.
If you agree with these ideas, or want to discuss them, get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org