November 30, and after

Four thoughts on the central London N30 march.

1. No damp squib. Unsurprising but incredibly irritating how devious David Cameron and his henchmen are. On Monday the news headlines were that the government said that agreement was near in negotiations and so the unions were being irresponsible in disrupting the process by striking, but then it emerged (but not in the headlines) that the government has not sat at a negotiating table for weeks. And on the day of the strike, they span the story that the strike was a damp squib, even though the numbers out seem to have been exactly as the unions anticipated: some two or three million off work, including half a million health workers, half of London ambulance workers, and just 16% of England’s state schools open. There were literally hundreds of actions and events across the UK, involving tens of thousands of people. The UCU reported thousands of new members on the day, and other unions have reported record numbers joining. So: no damp squib.

And the mood at the main central London demonstration had a quality I’ve not felt for some time, I can’t quite put into words. I had a sense, from a few conversations I had or overheard, that lots of people were striking for the first time or marching for the first time. People were angry.

Not surprising that people are motivated to get active. Daily reality for public sector workers in Britain in 2011 is grim. It’s your department manager being told to find 20% cuts in the next budget; it’s weighing up whether voluntary redundancy now might be the better option than compulsory next year; it’s a significant proportion of your friends being made redundant; it’s wondering if your own job will be there in a year. It’s being that bit more tired when you do your ward rounds because everyone has to work harder; it’s knowing that there are not enough text books this year to go around the whole class; it’s having to tell woman who survived a cancer scare that she has to wait six weeks to find out if her mammogram results are good news or bad news.

But the feeling on the march yesterday was not bitter at all. It was almost exultant, as marchers experienced their own workplace tribulations as something bigger. Knowing that there are two million of you taking action, refusing a day’s work, is a powerful feeling, an empowering feeling. There’s a simple joy in pushing back a bit, and having the collective strength to do so.

2. We are the 99%. Spending too much time on the internet, as I do, you come across a lots of kooks and cranks on the left. If you are used to the images of demonstrations on ZombieTime and PJMedia and even Harry’s Place, you come to expect a lot of moonbattery on marches. These folks have had a field day with Occupy, particularly its New York and California incarnations, which have attracted flocks of damaged souls and cultic weirdos. So it was something of a comfort to be marching yesterday surrounded by the most ordinary of people, people who seemed like a statistical cross-section of a standard High Street crowd. There were off course the parasites touting Trotskyist papers around the edges, and a smattering of V for Vendetta masks, but the dominant feel was, well, very ordinary. (Look at Louise's photos from Bristol, for example.)

In some radical circles, there is thought to be a virtue in standing out from the crowd, in proving your independence of mind by looking unusual. But the result of this, of course, is that these self-proclaimed radicals end up in their own alternative conformist uniforms. (In my youth it was donkey jackets, stripey pullovers and woolly hats; later it was black hoodies and big boots.) I was always faintly embarrassed, when I became an ultra-leftist, that we must have looked like a bunch of freaks to the public we were ostensibly trying to appeal to. Now that I am a something of a normal person again, it is reassuring to march with other normal people.

3. The tedium of protest. On the other hand, one thing I didn’t like about the demo was the series of speeches at the end from trade union hacks, parroting identical phrases, and all talking in one of around three identikit ostentatiously “working class” accents. It was the tedium of this kind of labour movement politics that drove me out and into the anarchist camp half my life time ago. At big marches, where the collective effervescence, as Durkheim put it, is particularly intense, it’s fun. There are a couple of OK songs (Blake’s “Jerusalem” of course, but lots of the songs are ruined from being co-opted by the totalitarian regimes, or by New Labour) and some nice hand-made union banners. But otherwise labour movement politics can be quite boring. It would be nice if there were more of the sense of mischief that you get from anarchists (or, for that matter, from the tea party crowd). But I guess that would put off the normal people.

4. Agitationalist flim-flam. To compensate for the tedium and keep the collective effervescence on the boil, union hacks and their Trotskyist commissars have to constantly inflate the self-importance. I take the wonderful phrase “agitationalist flim-flam” from a pretty good AWL article (reproduced at Shiraz Socialist) on the hollow rhetoric of the Socialist and Socialist Workers Party papers: reading those papers, after this strike it will just take one more push, comrades, to overthrow Cameron and his cronies.... The reality is that no better alternative is just around the corner. The Labour Party is possibly at its weakest and most toothless since its formation, and I don't trust any of the national anti-cuts coalitions or left parties further than I could throw them.

This seems a terrible way to end this post, but I don't see much around the corner apart from a prolonged and increasingly bitter social conflict. We will need to fight over every school, every hospital, every housing estate, every college, every children’s centre, every youth club. And the other side, in this conflict, understands it is engaged in class war and has no qualms about fighting dirty. On our side, we have a left that has frittered away decades in self-indulgent flim-flam of one kind and another. We urgently need to re-assemble the value of solidarity, to re-boot our politics, and to start crafting an alternative. Still, we can be proud of what we did on November 30.

ADDED 2 Dec: Transpontine's report and round-up from across South London, linking to a nice Lewisham report from Ionnek. There's another good South London report here, with some audio; more central London pics here; lots of local reports from the AWL. I was struck by two reports on international solidarity, with hundreds of Bangladeshi garment workers rallying in our support in Dhaka, and a statement of support from Iraqi unions.


Jim Jepps said…
Yes. I was very happy that the masks and paper sellers were in short supply.

The feeder march I was on collected unison picket lines and was very inspiring, we swung by malet street and education people and suddenly their were chants about capitalism and all sorts. It genuinely felt like a step backwards.

Mind you I'm an old man and oppose all things young which may explain things
jams o donnell said…
ONe thing that amused me was a plea to Home Office finance staff to volunteer to man passport controls yesterday.

I hope my erstwhile colleagues in crime and policing finance treated that request with the contempt it deserved. I know what my response would have been (clue: the second word of my repl would have been off!)
Anonymous said…
Great to read about this from here in the US. One thing to emphasize though, is that the nutty fringes of the Occupy Wall Street movement have been highly amplified by the establishment media. If you actually look at who's participating in these activities over here, it's also pretty ordinary people, though skewed towards a younger demographic. And because it's the US, there isn't much of a union presence at all, because there aren't many people in unions anymore.
Sarah AB said…
I agree about the ordinariness of the strikers - there were huge numbers of people demonstrating in Cambridge and moonbattery was conspicuous by its (near) absence. As new groups of demonstrators - the large contingent from Addenbrookes Hospital for example - joined the people already assemebled, I was reminded of the bit in The Lord of the Rings when the different cohorts come to the rescue of Helm's Deep!