There are three political strategies which have traditionally been deployed to achieve change in western societies: parliamentary democracy; the ballot box; and syndicalism, now more commonly known as industrial action and insurrection – what we now call direct action.
The motivation for change is usually anger and frustration about what people are experiencing and often arises from their sense of injustice at the unfairness with which they are being treated. Motivated by that sense of anger, people will try out one of those strategies for change. When one method fails, if their anger and sense of grievance are strong enough, they will move on to the next. That is what we have been witnessing since the General Election in 2010.
Before that General Election there was a growing sense of frustration and disillusionment with the Brown Government for its almost seamless continuation of the policies of New Labour. This unease began to merge with the start of a resistance to the first threats of large scale cuts in public services. Fear of what the Tories could do if they won resulted in a turnout of an unenthusiastic, residual Labour vote. Many voted Labour holding their nose to keep the Tories out, but with no real confidence that Brown would change his cuts agenda if re-elected.
Although this prevented a Tory majority, Clegg’s entry into coalition government didn’t just fail to hold back the cuts and austerity programme – the “Orange Book” Lib-Dems wholeheartedly embraced this neo-liberal agenda.
From November 2010, when students marched en masse on Millbank and the Lib-Dems refused to listen to them and broke their promise on tuition fees and EMA, the signs were clear that the parliamentary route to change was closed. Since then there has been a steady movement down the other traditional routes of change. The scale of anger became clear with the million that marched on the TUC’s demonstration in March 2011. The willingness of people to take direct action became apparent when UK Uncut’s occupations and creative forms of protest took the tax justice argument into the mainstream. After a decade of trade union passivity, the mass strikes on 30th June demonstrated that a willingness to strike to defend ourselves from government attack had returned.
The riots in August were incoherent and not politically directed as the uprisings were in Greece and elsewhere, but they were nevertheless an indication of the way in which our society has been grotesquely distorted by capitalism’s consumerism, alienation and inequality. They added to that general feeling that things were not right and change has to come.
The pace of direct action is increasing and now more frequently merging with industrial action. The occupation of Westminster Bridge by UK Uncut became a planning meeting for OccupyLSX. Members of the media commentariat have not been able to ignore the St Paul’s occupation. Andreas Whittam Smith headlined one article in the Independent “Europe is Ripe for Revolution”, and Polly Toynbee, who brought us Blair and Brown, has come out defending the occupiers. UCATT and Unite electricians have mobilised mass blockades of building sites across the country and three million workers are now being balloted for co-ordinated industrial action on 30th November.
Parliament stands by, virtually powerless in the face of this mounting resistance movement. The Labour front bench is frozen by fear of upsetting the media and Miliband will only take a stance if it is on a completely safe issue – a no-risk strategy which demobilises the Party. Party members and union affiliates need to press for the Labour leadership to back not just the 30th November strikes, but the emerging resistance movement too.
The Tories are biding their time, hoping the direct action and industrial action campaigns will eventually peter out. If they don’t, the Government is ready with a legislative backlash of measures to ban strikes in emergency services, introduce further restrictive trade union balloting procedures and criminalise occupations. They know they can no longer rely upon the TUC to quash militant trade union action for them and that there are forces engaged in direct action that have not been frightened off by state intimidation – despite police tactics such as kettling and exemplary harsh punishments in the law courts.
The coming together of trade union action and direct action has the potential to destabilise this Government and prepare the way for change. Real change though will only come about if protest, demonstrations and strikes can lead to the election of a government that has a programme for change. Already that programme is emerging. For examples, look at the anti-capitalist Initial Statement from OccupyLSX, forged in the democratic discussions of the assembly on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral or in the statements from trade union activists mobilising for the 30th.
The Labour leadership is pristinely isolated from these discussions and these ideas. The Labour left must make sure that the rest of the Labour and trade union movement is not. We all have a personal responsibility not just to mobilise for the greatest turnout on the 30th and in supporting future strikes and direct action, but also to drive the ideas and momentum of this struggle into the Labour Party.
John McDonnell is MP for Hayes & Harlington and Chair of the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs and the Labour Representation Committee.