When a government is creating mass unemployment and cutting public services on a scale not experienced for generations, it is perfectly logical for the administration to take into account in its policy planning the possible backlash that it should expect from members of the community. This is not a conspiracy theory. It is the natural process of rational governance. Ministers, civil servants and security advisers (from both the police and the security services) will examine and assess various scenarios exploring the level and type of reaction to the Government’s economic policies which can be expected.
Like every other government before it, this Government will have undertaken the same exercise in risk assessing its policy programme on security grounds. All the evidence suggests that the Government anticipated a reaction from the trade unions involving industrial action from individual unions in the public sector, particularly from PCS, and from unions in some former nationalised industries, such as RMT on the railways or London Underground.
The Government was confident that the TUC would resist all attempts to push it into mobilising any co-ordinated action and though Brendan Barber would make a few noises about the injustice of the Government’s cuts and perhaps be forced to organise the odd demonstration, all this would be fairly ritualistic and ineffective.
The Government believed that it would become unpopular as a result of cuts in specific public services, especially those associated with the health service and education, but that any reaction would be localised and containable. The objective was to get the cuts over early in the expectation that any campaigns against them would be a spent force by the next election.
I don’t believe that either Cameron or Clegg expected the protests to start so soon or to be so strident. It must have come as a shock to them when the students and UCU turned out 50,000 demonstrators last November and it all kicked off at Millbank. The security planning had underestimated the initial scale and vehemence of the reaction to the new policies. Similarly, the popularity and effectiveness of UK Uncut completely threw them.
Within days of the Millbank events, the Government’s security planning had changed radically. Clearly the message from Cameron to the police and security services was “do whatever is necessary to ensure that this Government is protected.” Demonstrations had to be tolerated but were to be policed harshly and violently with kettling, baton and mounted horse charges becoming the norm. Preventative arrests and detention for “pre-crimes” were introduced as a form of short term internment for known key activists – best exemplified by the raids on squats and arrests of people like Chris Knight prior to the royal wedding.
The media was also used effectively to create a climate of opinion against protest so that courts were able to impose exemplary sentences on protesters more readily. Attempts had to be made both to discredit UK Uncut and to stop it in its successful tracks with police violence and arrests of its activists.
The Government’s assessment of the TUC’s role was borne out, but it failed to appreciate that like-minded unions were also co-ordinating their campaigns bilaterally and via the TUCG. Now that PCS, NUT, UCU and ATL are looking to co-ordinate their industrial action, the Government is beginning to wake up to its worst nightmare: co-ordinated action from the unions combining with direct action campaigns from the wider community to create a destabilising climate of resistance.
The Government’s security planning has responded to this nightmare scenario by increasing the severity of its policing and its use of the courts to deter growing participation in demonstrations and direct action. New legislation is also planned to criminalise squatting and occupations. In addition, a raft of new anti-trade union laws is now coming off the Government’s shelf to prevent industrial action either by making it unlawful in certain sectors, like the emergency services and transport, or by fixing an unrealistically high threshold in strike ballots. In effect the Government is systematically eradicating the right to resist its policies.
There can only be one response to this suppression of resistance. It is resistance. Wherever we can, it’s our responsibility to support and participate in demonstrating or direct action and to back and join in strike action. Solidarity!
lJohn McDonnell is MP for Hayes & Harlington and Chair of the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs and the Labour Representation Committee.