Sunday, 22 January 2012

Reclaiming our movement

by: John McDonnell

Morning Star Readers & Supporters

Over the last 18 months we have seen the best and the worst of our movement.

The best has been the tsunami of activism that started in November 2010 with the students and lecturers march on Millbank and which flowed on to half a million at least turning out for the TUC's March for the Alternative in March 2011.

Despite the dead hand of bureaucratic resistance to industrial action within the TUC, the strike by teachers, lecturers and civil servants in June undoubtedly forced the hand of other unions and the TUC to back co-ordinated action in November.

Again, despite all those doom merchants moaning that their members would not come out and that the strike would be unpopular, people poured out in their hundreds of thousands and we saw demonstrations in towns and cities on a scale not seen for decades, popularly supported by local communities.

In some areas in the north of England and Northern Ireland the reports were of a virtual general strike.

Nationally opinion poll ratings supporting the strike were also reached as in no other dispute we have engaged in.

Throughout this period, the generation that many had given up on as obsessed with celebrity culture and materialism emerged with a vibrant creativity to challenge the very foundations of capitalism with their occupations and direct action.

The Occupy movement with its use of new media also demonstrated an internationalism that many traditional organisations had long forgotten.

But we have also seen the worst of our movement as well.

The dogged opposition by the TUC and some trade union leaders to a co-ordinated campaign of industrial action showed just how incorporated into the system some organisations and individuals had become.

Just as the leaked memos from Wikileaks showed the TUC reassuring governments that the trade union protest against the Iraq war would be comfortably contained, it is clear that the mindset of the TUC and some trade union leaders was that though they may have to concede to the November 30 strike, they could reassure that they would rapidly kill off any prospect of further co-ordinated action.

These bureaucrats were willing not only to accept any offer from the coalition no matter how pathetic the deal, but worse still they were also willing in front of government ministers to attack those union representatives who refused to sell out their members.

It became clear that what some trade union leaders wanted was a return to the acquiescent quiet life of the last 14 years to enable them to continue to enjoy their lifestyles that are closer to those of the class they are supposed to oppose than the class they are supposed to represent.

When it came to political representation we also witnessed the downside of our movement.

The Labour Party's political leadership has failed to recognise the scale of the suffering that our people are experiencing and the anger that they are feeling.

This has produced a lack of confidence in the Labour leadership over the desire for change among our own people and in their willingness to act. This resulted initially in a succession of losses of nerve.

The refusal to back the strikes and the direct action movements comes from that deep-seated fear by those at the helm of the Labour Party of supporting anything that doesn't secure overwhelming majority focus group support.

Only when an issue is completely safe will the Labour leadership show leadership.

Arguing now that standing up to Rupert Murdoch was an example of courage when it came after 12 months of calls for such a stand, weeks after attending a Murdoch party and only when Murdoch was on his knees, really just doesn't wash.

This depressing lack of courage has led on to support for reactionary welfare reform, privatisation of public services, including healthcare and staggeringly even prisons, acceptance of the coalition's academies and now the complete capitulation to neoliberalism in the recent statements of support for cuts and pay freezes.

The economic crisis creating mass unemployment and intense poverty is hurting our people terribly.

In my own constituency we are distributing food parcels to help people get by.

This is the opportunity to explain starkly how capitalism works and the crisis-ridden nature of this system.

For Labour leaders to react to it by supporting the same old failed economic orthodoxies that mean ordinary people will pay for the crisis is rapidly making them appear irrelevant.

Competing with David Cameron in calling for responsible capitalism is laughable when the extremes of wealth and poverty and inequality caused by the capitalist system are being evidenced every day and the bankers' bonuses are returning with a vengeance.

There is now a vital opportunity to challenge our corrupt and incompetent economic system and to give people the possibility of opening up a new era in how we organise our society.

That means resisting the cuts, pay freezes and every attack on our class. It means offering an alternative based upon a radical redistribution of wealth, insisting on democratic control of our economy at every level from the firm to the City, pressing to eradicate inequality in all its forms and recognising that if environmental sustainability is not at the core of our world view, everything we plan will become irrelevant anyway.

The last period has shown that there is the potential of creating an exciting new movement for change.

We need to reclaim our movement from the bureaucrats that are undermining from within the TUC and some trade unions the solidarity upon which the labour and trade union movement was founded.

Union by union we need to organise to challenge and clear out the defeatists.

We need to base our movement once again on action. That means mobilising to support industrial action, direct action, occupations and demonstrations wherever there is an injustice to fight, a cut to resist or a strike to wage.

If the UK Parliament fails us our political leadership must instead come from the picket line and the streets.

John McDonnell is Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington.

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