The present winter is worth an age if rightly employed, but if lost or neglected, the whole continent will partake of the misfortune.
Tom Paine, Common Sense
This has been an interesting couple of months. Starting with the impromptu occupation of a Vodafone store on Oxford Street on October 27th, the British have shown an appetite for direct action that has surprised most commentators and, perhaps, many of those involved.
The achievements are already profoundly impressive in their own terms. The student demonstrations have far outstripped the events of 1968 in this country in scale and significance. Instead of focusing narrowly on their own interests, the students have shown a consistent concern for the impact of public sector cuts on the wider society. Unfortunately for the population managers in politics and the media, they have experienced firsthand the difference between the procedures of a focus group and the deliberations of a free public. Students are not only challenging fees; they are challenging the future set out for them, a future of chicanery and shopping. Their rejection of politics as usual, and their willingness to reach out to others, have emboldened the trade unions and provided a model for action in the months ahead.
UK Uncut‘s campaign against tax evasion and avoidance has brought noisy debate to the stillness at the heart of the British political and economic settlement. The media and the political class have largely managed not to discuss Britain’s offshore networks for a generation. In making the connections between our over-mighty financial sector and the Coalition’s plans to impose cuts the demonstrators at Vodafone and Top Shop have changed that. Because of the willingness of people to take action the unspeakable is at last being said. Capital accumulation in the offshore circuits had become accessible to thought, the first step to reform. The Tax Justice Network will have a constituency with which to work in the months ahead. The great game of our time – to remake the Britain’s institutions in the general interest – has begun.
There is no doubt that the Coalition has been shaken by recent events. It has conceded more and more ground on tax collection – more money than expected will be clawed back from secrecy jurisdictions, we are told. The Liberal Democrats have been transformed from partners in government to helpless baggage in Cameron’s increasingly snow-bound and fractious expedition. We now hear that one member of the Cabinet thinks that there is ‘a kind of Maoist revolution‘ in local government and the health service. The British are not, for the most part, experts on Chinese communism, but they like the NHS and they aren’t that keen on Chairman Mao.
So two overlapping movements have emerged – the students and the protestors against tax avoidance and evasion. They should not trouble themselves too much with calls for moderation. Some commentators are saying that the Coalition will last five years and that we must husband our strength. This is a call to leave things to an unreformed Labour Party – to let Ed Miliband run in 2015 on an Obama-style hope-and-change ticket without disturbing too much the political establishment’s commitment to neoliberalism and the triumph of the propertied class. I can already hear the chorus of pretended necessity that will strike up if and when Labour wins an election four and a half years from now. The party workers will wave union flags, the TUC will once again be welcome at Downing Street. But the financial interest will be more secure, the industrial sector further weakened, and public services reduced to a Balkans of private, piecemeal provision.
Similarly, some say that the students are wrong to seek the ouster of their leader, that this will undermine unity and distract from the task in hand. But if students ignore the calls for moderation (which is to say timidity) and unity (which is to say docility) their actions will concentrate the minds of MPs and others. A leadership election will serve us all very well if it helps those in Parliament to appreciate that the careers that mean so much to them will be in danger if they continue on their present course.
Let’s not have a would-be MP or pundit running the NUS. Let’s have someone who doesn’t much want the job but believes that education is a public good. The occupations have provided a forum where many idealistic and well-intentioned people have found a voice and a cause. If the students pick a candidate from their number and make her or him their president that will show that, perhaps, those who hold power in this country a generation from now will have a different character from the assorted chancers, megalomaniacs and occultists who currently pad about in Westminster and Whitehall.
The head of Unite, Len McCluskey, has said that the unions need to join forces with the students to resist the Coalition’s wider plans for privatization in the public sector. It would be a mistake for the emerging student movement to focus too narrowly on education at this time. Meetings in January should be seen as a chance for students to meet public sector workers. The unions, too, should make every effort to promote social contacts between their members and those who have been involved in the occupations. It is in public, face-to-face meetings that solidarity becomes a lived experience. Reduce the social distance between students and workers, young and old, the middle class and the working class, and we begin to build a national movement that the few will be unable to divide and conquer.
Together we will be able to discuss future action, and to develop a clear common program. The government is planning to break up and privatize the NHS. Publicise and criticise their plans, certainly. But respond, too, with proposals to introduce a range of ‘public options’ in banking and to reform the enterprise. Never forget that the financial sector’s control of the commanding heights of economic debate lost all credibiilty in 2007-8. There is an alternative, after all, and it is up to us to elaborate it.
The program we develop now will determine the range of political options open to the government that replaces the Coalition. In 1968 the students used to say ‘be reasonable, demand the impossible’. Let us take as our watchword ‘be irresistible, demand what is entirely possible’. The more that the general public start to think that substantive reform is possible and sensible, the sooner we will win. Resistance is all very well, but it is reactive and can become exhausting. The crisis is not ours, it is theirs. The governing powers have been revealed as intellectual bankrupts. They can do nothing now but try to change the subject with talk of austerity. We, on the other hand, we have it in our power to begin the world over again. (h/t Tom Paine) If in the face of economic crisis Britain chooses social democracy over financial oligarchy, the world will take note.
The trade unions will, I hope, begin publishing more effectively to a general audience – students are only one group who are eager to work with them. But the unions have relied too much on the Labour party to give them a stake in national power. This has caused them to forget the lessons of the 1930s and 1940s. The trade union movement that secured a national transformation in 1945 was also a major shareholder in the largest newspaper in Britain – the Daily Herald. It is more than a bitter irony that that paper now survives as The Sun. Perhaps the unions might consider launching a New Herald? It could be done online, with occasional print specials in pamphlet form, with minimal financial risk. Develop a program of social democratic renewal, make it available to your members, and to the wider population, and you will build support for what may be a fractious few months.
At the moment the major media have been able to muffle the student protests and occupations. Or else they have highlighted the elements that suited their narratives – the occasional outbreaks of violence, say. Influential commentators have told national audiences that the students were being manipulated by sinister anarchists, or that they were selfishly concerned with their own privileges. Attempts to challenge these caricatures have been only partially successful. Most people are not following the UCL Occupation on Twitter, after all. As for the UK Uncut protests, though they were perhaps the most significant instance of civil disobedience in recent British history they barely made a ripple in the BBC’s coverage. Fair and balanced debate about the issues facing the country still struggles to find its way into most people’s living rooms. We shouldn’t underestimate the task ahead. Perhaps the unions can make the distortions and misreadings of the BBC and private media increasingly untenable, if they get back into the publishing business in earnest.
So there is a program to describe, a movement to build. There is, too, perhaps, a point at which we can apply pressure. On May 5th the government is planning a referendum on voting reform. Voting reform is all very well. But, given we will be voting anyway, perhaps we should campaign for another question on the ballot – Do you want a general election in two months’ time?
Most Liberal Democrat voters weren’t expecting their party to join the Conservatives in Coalition. Perhaps they are broadly happy with this turn of events. If they aren’t – and if much of the rest of the country agrees with them – then two months from May 5th will give us a chance to have the national debate that was missing in the last general election. One party or another coalition will emerge with both a Parliamentary majority and a clear mandate and the public will accept their authority to take the steps necessary to secure recovery. July 4th has a pleasing ring to it, too. If we start campaigning in the New Year for an additional question on the ballot then those MPs who want to continue enjoying a career in politics will have time to rethink their support for the Coalition. It also gives us a little more than 6 months to establish an electoral program that recognises the folly of both Thatcherite and Blairite neoliberalism.
If, for some reason, the Coalition refuses to add the question, then there will doubtless be a very lively debate in the summer months about their decision and about the wisdom of their approach to managing the country. As I write I cannot see how they can refuse. They have admitted that they are pursuing policies that they never presented to the electorate. The economic situation is more serious than they realised, they say. So let us have a chance to decide on the course we take in these changed conditions.
Some of the seamier elements on the extreme right and left will perhaps try to involve themselves in the debates ahead – perhaps in partnership with their friends in the state bureaucracy. The police and the intelligence agencies have a long history of interference in, and manipulation of, civil society. Police tactics at last student demonstration seemed to be about trying to provoke a violent response from what was an overwhelmingly peaceful crowd. Perhaps they also wanted to discourage further participation by that non-violent majority by making things uncomfortable, frightening and occasionally dangerous.
At any event if you wanted to spot the police informant at a political meeting in the recent past, chances were that he or she was the one advocating the most radical action. I hope that in future the self-styled forces of law and order will leave matters to their fellow citizens. This is an argument about political economy, about the distribution of risk and reward in society. It is not subversive to support social democracy and socialism and to reject neoliberalism – at this point it is little more than evidence of a capacity for rational thought. For ourselves, we must remain focused on developing a response to the Coalition that will win the support of most people. It is the Heath Minister Andrew Lansley who is pursuiing a Maoist revolution, after all, not us.
So let’s describe a different future from the one mapped out by the Coalition. And let’s take that description to a national test as soon as we can. To husband strength is to let it fall away, into inaction, or the marshaled futility of filing to Trafalgar Square to hear the familiar voices. We are running now; let the advocates of responsible and long-term resistance to the Coalition keep up if they wish. Neoliberalism is dead and doesn’t know it. We are after more than resistance, we are after a response to the crisis that is economically literate and informed by principles of social justice. We are after victory.
(If you want the outline of such a program of reform, you can find it here, by the way. Oh, and happy Christmas.)