March for the Alternative

The 26th March demonstration in London was billed by its organizers, the TUC, as a ‘march for the alternative’. The march did, as the unions hoped, ‘give a voice’ to those affected by the cuts and it showed that ‘people reject the argument that there is no alternative’. Perhaps 500,000 people showed that, in time-honoured fashion, by turning up. What is still missing is a clear sense of what the alternative is, or might be.

The ambiguities created by the relationship between the labour movement and the Labour party didn’t help. The organizers decided not to give a platform to anyone from UK Uncut, for example, though that group has done far more than anyone else to popularise an alternative to public sector cuts. They have done this by using direct actions to focus attention on offshore finance and the large-scale tax avoidance and evasion it enables. They have recognised that an alternative to the cuts must be understood in terms of an alternative political economy, one in which the interests of large concentrations of capital do not trump considerations of the public good.

That UK Uncut were absent from the schedule of speakers while Ed Miliband was given a platform to present an ‘alternative’ to the cuts that was a program of cuts highlights the problem organized labour now has. In the past the unions have sought to focus on issues of distribution within a capitalist economy and left the Labour party to handle the politics – Parliament was where the responsible and informed representatives of the working class would preside over a gradual, indeed sometimes imperceptible, move towards social transformation.

But once New Labour dropped even a rhetorical commitment to socialism the trade unions’ efforts to separate the political from the economic would come to seem increasingly irrational and self-destructive. One can only wonder what trade unionists thought when they heard a Labour Prime Minister boast in 2000 that Britain had ‘the most restrictive trade unions laws in the Western world’. This is surely not what the unions had in mind when they set out on the long road to political power.

The Labour party the unions created now believes that there is no alternative to a financialised economy run by privately owned, but publicly guaranteed, banks. Those who control credit must be given every encouragement and inducement and nothing can be proposed that might unnerve the financial markets. That is the position of the leader of the opposition and his front bench. Union leaders can call on the support of the Parliamentary Labour Party as much as they like. They will not get it while the Labour party, like the rest of the political class, remains overwhelmingly committed to the neoliberal settlement.

The vast majority of the country can see that there is something wrong with this settlement. They can see that Britain’s industries have not flourished in the years since 1979. They can see that the public sector has not been improved by the introduction of market mechanisms. The privatizations that were advertised as a way of introducing vigorous competition and innovation have instead created lazily piratical cartels in one sector after another. Above all, people can see that the financial sector has not used its control of credit to build viable businesses that deliver well-paid jobs to the working majority. Instead it connived in a vast ponzi scheme that combined the ethics of organized crime with some bewilderingly complicated mathematics to devastating effect.

Those who belong to trade unions now have a choice. They can either remain committed to a defensive agenda, which leaves the question of political economy untouched. Or they can begin to ask what an alternative would actually look like.

The UK Uncut movement is a useful place to start. But as one begins to consider taxation one soon becomes aware that the demand that large businesses pay more tax has profound political implications. Besides, as Ann Pettifor and others have pointed out, the debate must extend beyond taxation and expenditure, to embrace the structure of the enterprise, the system of credit, and the communications industry. The British economy is in trouble. The cuts agenda will make things worse, certainly. But it isn’t enough to resist them. The model of economic and social organization adopted in 1979 has failed and will continue to fail.

As for the leaders of the trade unions, they too have a choice. They can remain committed to a narrowly wage-and-conditions agenda and pretend that they have no control over the political party that they bankroll. Or they can begin to recreate their institutions as venues for debate about the common good. It is workers that create value – both marketable goods and the commonwealth of hospitals and schools and clean streets and safe drinking water. It is workers who must now meet and decide how best to reform matters. The Parliament is not responding to the needs of the country. It is fiddling its expenses while putting on a serious expression and insisting that there is no alternative. And, anyway, it is the other side’s fault.

The trade unions have the infrastructure and the organizational ability to host this debate. It also offers them their best chance of survival. This will mean an intense period of discussion and conversation. The relationship with the Labour party will have to be reconsidered. The role of the unions will need to be reconsidered, too.

The unions can grow and reassert themselves in the national life only if they are able to articulate an account of political economy that addresses both how we distribute private spoils and how we secure the common wealth. It must discover this account in the free conversations and deliberations of its members and it must create the institutional means to share it with the wider nation. The unions will have to go back into the publishing business and will have to stop leaving the politics to others.

If the unions accept, and attempt to negotiate with, the neoliberal settlement they will die. Because capital, aided and abetted by the Labour leadership, will kill them.

(By the way, I recommend that you watch Hilary Wainwright’s talk about trade unionism in the UK, in Latin America and South Africa. The clip is here. Hilary begins talking a few minutes in.)

The New Statesman cross posted this article on Wednesday 30th March.


15 thoughts on “March for the Alternative”

  1. Excellent piece Dan. I think you’ve accurately summarized actually existing capitalism and where the TU movement is in the scheme of things.

    The big problem that I see is the problemmatic role of trade unions in the political process and the inevitable divided loyalties. Just look at COSATU and the ANC government (I used to work for them in another life). Or for that matter the SACP. Trade unions are caught between supporting government policy and defending the rights of their members (and only 10% of SA workers are unionized, so they’re very much a labour aristocracy of the old industrial order).

    And it’s the vast majority here in the UK who are not in trade unions, they may not even see themselves as ‘working class’ and much of what passes for a left doesn’t think they’re working class either! The so-called middle classes.

    I’ve used this before in stuff I’ve written, it’s quote from the MoD’s forecast for the future, who surely have a better handle on this than the left does, or at least the guy who wrote this:

    “The Middle Class Proletariat — The middle classes could become a revolutionary class, taking the role envisaged for the proletariat by Marx. The globalization of labour markets and reducing levels of national welfare provision and employment could reduce peoples’ attachment to particular states. The growing gap between themselves and a small number of highly visible super-rich individuals might fuel disillusion with meritocracy, while the growing urban under-classes are likely to pose an increasing threat to social order and stability, as the burden of acquired debt and the failure of pension provision begins to bite. Faced by these twin challenges, the world’s middle-classes might unite, using access to knowledge, resources and skills to shape transnational processes in their own class interest.” — ‘UK Ministry of Defence report, The DCDC Global Strategic Trends Programme 2007-2036’ (Third Edition) p.96, March 2007

    Thus TUs have to be a part of the mix but given that most TU members are state employees (the biggest employer, or it was anyway), ties them directly into the system (another reason the state wants to destroy/dismantle/sell-off the common wealth).

    But I also see a bunch of other even more intractable problems besetting the Anglo-American economies. You say,

    “They can see that Britain’s industries have not flourished in the years since 1979.”

    But it’s worse than this, they’ve not only de-industrialized the economy (70% of the ‘gdp’ is consumption) , they’ve exported all the skills and not trained any replacements, as well as tearing down the infrastructure, something that started with Beeching in 1960s. We end up stuck in a shit auto economy, while the capitalist class and its minions lives off interest from a totally ficticious financial ponzi scheme. It’s back to Victorian times for the rest of us, unless we do something about it.

    But will it be trade unionists, in hock to the banks for the rest of their lives because greed got the better of them when Thatcher bribed them with the idea of becoming property-owning democrats. Surely things will have to get really bad before people feel they’ve got less to lose by revolting than by going bankrupt?

    Clearly, as with the US, it is the intention of this government to reduce in real terms the number of employed, permanently. A financialized economy doesn’t need all these workers or a state that’s based on mass employment, mass production and mass consumption.

    The terms of the struggle that we all have been raised in on the left, no longer exists. We have a coopted trade union movement, which seems bent on committing suicide rather than do what you sensibly suggest it does.

    Your right of course, the trade unions have to change, as you say it has the resources. Maybe we need a new Daily Herald?

    The point is though, so far the TUC took months just to get one demo going and thanks to the BBC and no doubt police involvement, what we saw instead was a handful of young uns having fun.

    So what are chances of the trade unions getting their act together? Their leaders, when they do have someone on the ‘left’ are still stuck in the past just like the rest of the left is. You make the point yourself.

    In a way, what you seem to be calling for is some kind of National Debate…


    1. Well, I am calling for debates in workplaces throughout Britain, to discuss the real choices facing us, and the reforms that are necessary to avoid the Coalition’s plans for us all. A ‘national debate’, complete with a Royal Commission, took place within the Establishment and its deliberations and decisions were then passed down to the rest of us via the serious media. I am more inclined to favour a debate that takes place among informal publics and is then communicated to the country’s managers – a group that have hardly covered themselves in glory this generation past.

      I’ll try to say more about this tomorrow.

  2. The unions seem to me, to be already half dead and are unable to recognise it. Other than tradition, I can see no reason for any union in the UK to support this Labour party.

    It’s as if they have been jilted by their boyfriend, but they keep calling, keep pleading, keep clinging to what once was and keep hoping it will return, refusing to grasp or understand their relationship is over and has been for a very long time.

    Face it, your partner has dumped you! Deal with it and move on rather than let life pass you by. If you don’t, you’ll wake up one day to realise you are old, wrinkled, sad full of regrets and lonely as you die all alone.

    It’s time for a new political party to be borne of a refreshed, energetic union movement.

    Regnerate or wilt – make a choice now before it is too late.

    1. It’s worse than that, Ellie. The unions are still giving their lost love huge sums of money.

      Labour spends this money on fashionable policies and tasteful logos that help it catch the eye of its new romantic interest, Capital.

  3. But surely the unions and the labour party are out of the same mould, the same tradition, a tradition that no longer exists. A century ago organized labour and the left opted for the path of ‘reforming’ capitalism and this is the end product. dead in the water.


  4. Depends what you mean by tradition and mould doesn’t it. The masses are still very much there, struggling for work, stuggling to keep a roof over their heads – isn’t that the mould? Just watch as those workers have even more rights taken from them, more are hurt at work, more are out on the streets and more get further abused as the rogue employers rear their ugy heads. All those ‘traditions of ensuring the workers are impovirished’ have never left us – and they will grow. It will only go on for so long. Then that bubble will burst.

    1. I agree with you, Ellie. The people who work for a living know that something is up.

      As they start to mobilise their leaders will soon follow them.

      1. They leaders will be torn in two, I think. Will they follow the voters, or will they follow corporate money? If they are as intelligent, as politically and economically educated as their university degrees suggest then they know full well what they are doing will be disasterous for this country and the population yet they have not renounced these neoliberal policies. Labour failed to take the opportunity to do so when the admitted defeat.

        I don’t have twenty years of life to waste while they argue over the obvious trying to not hurt further any wounded egos. We all get just one shot at life. Who in their right mind would waste it re-inventing the wheel or Newton’s Laws? They wouldn’t fund me to rediscover DNA on behalf of my ego!

        I’m not sure how it has been achieved exactly, but this lot are as bougth off as Obama is with his campaign financing. They want what Blair has – great wealth – they don’t, in my view, give two hoots about the people of this country.

        My hope is for new leaders and new parties not some guy in a suit who will say whatever it takes to reach power and ultimately on to great wealth.

    1. 5%? That’s not bad at all. When do you next meet? I am in South East London at the moment, would be good to come along and chat.

      1. @Dan

        The next monthly meeting will be on April 4th at 7.15pm at The Broca.
        4 Coulgate Street, Brockley, London SE4 2RW

        The Broca is a café just opposite the ticket office of Brockley staion (the East side).

        Please come along, we will be happy to talk with you.


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