John McDonnell May 2012


John McDonnell is MP for Hayes & Harlington

In 2009 a symposium was held at Birkbeck College which surprised its organisers by bringing together a large gathering of political philosophers to discuss “The Idea of Communism.” Verso subsequently published a book of papers from the event under the same title.

Over the previous decade or two, convening an event under this title would have been left either to political historians or to the very small group of activists likely to attend. The reason for the large attendance of some of our most significant and many young political philosophers drawn from across Europe and further afield was set out in the introduction to the papers for the symposium:
“The long night of the left is drawing to a close. The defeat, denunciations and despair of the 1980s and 1990s, the triumphalist ‘end of history’, the unipolar world of American hegemony – all are fast becoming old news.”

The philosophers were engaging in their own way in the same regeneration of the left which was energising a mass of activists, the trade union rank and file and the new social movements.

The first wave of the regeneration of left activism came with the students and lecturers’ Milbank demonstration in November 2010, through to the ground breaking Hardest Hit marches for people with disabilities, the student occupations, the TUC’s March for the Alternative and UK Uncut direct action, on to the St Paul’s Occupation and up to the national pensions strike in November 2011.

Many came out of that first wave period reassured that not only was it possible to mobilise large numbers in concerted action, in strikes and direct action, but also that a new generation had entered the field.

The first wave ended with the all too typical betrayal of the national pensions campaign by the same old trade union bureaucracies, with the TUC and Unison leaderships putting on a display of grovelling, abject self-interested cowardice not witnessed on this scale since the TUC sold out the miners in the 1926 General Strike.

The TUC and union bureaucracies were hoping for a “peace in our time” type settlement with the Government that would enable them to hold back grassroots resistance. They just wanted a quiet life and to continue to enjoy the lifestyle the fruits of their general secretary salaries afforded them. They hoped that in killing off the co-ordinated national industrial action, life could return to normal with the acquiescent acceptance of their members and the wider community of the Coalition’s pay and pension cuts, job and service cuts and privatisations. Unfortunately for them, two elements have conspired to disrupt this.

The first is that, in the Government’s own estimation, only 15% of the first tranche of its cuts have been implemented so far. Another 300,000 to 400,000 of the first round of job cuts have yet to be driven through.

George Osborne gave a taste of the further scale of cuts to come in his budget speech. The economy is scraping along the bottom of economic activity. Aggregated demand continues to be reduced by job, pay, pensions and social security cuts. As a result tax income is declining and the deficit is increasing, not falling. The Government’s only response is to demand more public expenditure cuts.

In his budget speech Osborne announced a further £10 billion of cuts from the welfare budget. This is an early taste of the next round of public expenditure cuts to be expected in the November budget statement – unless the worsening economic climate forces the Government into an earlier announcement.

The second element is that the willingness and determination of people and communities to resist government policies, and the underlying and growing sense of injustice and anger have not gone away. Far from it!

Wherever a free ballot has been conducted in trade unions without the interference of the suited bureaucrats, there have been increased majorities for strike action. The next co-ordinated industrial action will be on 10th May, across a number of unions still campaigning on pensions. The NUT has a rolling regional programme of industrial action, with national action possible in late June.

Unite’s fuel drivers are refusing to roll over and the rail unions are resorting to strike action to protect jobs and working conditions across the industry, especially in the run up to the Olympics. Even the Police Federation is organising a national demonstration in London to coincide with action on 10th May and is balloting its members on the right to strike.

Despite the draconian use of the courts to deter protesters, wave after wave of lobbies, demonstrations and direct action are taking place, largely unreported, on almost a daily basis. These include DPAC blocking Trafalgar Square, pensioners picketing government offices, Right to Work campaigners destroying Tesco’s use of workfare, squatters sleeping outside ministers’ houses and RMT taxi drivers in convoy causing the whole of central London to seize up.

This anger and willingness to resist is also being evidenced electorally across Europe from the Bradford West by-election and the dramatic increase in support for Mélenchon in France, to the likely election of Hollande and the lift of Labour to a 13 point lead in the polls. All are signs of the potential for radical resistance. The message is clear for the left: seize the moment!

John McDonnell is MP for Hayes & Harlington and Chair of the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs and the Labour Representation Committee.

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