Early autumn saw two significant demonstrations in response to the impending public sector cuts looming over the heads of workers. The first was in Manchester, the second in Birmingham. The Manchester march was called by the National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) and took place on the eve of the TUC Congress held in that city. The Birmingham march was called by the Right to Work Campaign and heralded the start of the Tory Party conference.
At the first of these occasions, some 500 trades’ unionists were bussed in from all over the country. They mustered in St Peters Square in the centre of Manchester to demand that the TUC get off its knees and give proper leadership to the anti-cuts resistance. The RMT’s Bob Crow eloquently denounced the failure of the Labour party in all its 13 years of government to get rid of the union-bashing laws established by Thatcher. On the march which ensued the general sentiment shared by many was one of anger and contempt towards Labour, and at the packed NSSN meeting which concluded the event this mood intensified.
The meeting was held in the Mechanics’ Institute, historic birthplace of the TUC. The symbolism of that was not lost on the participants, some of whom suggested that, in the absence of leadership coming from Barber and company, the leadership would have to come from the people crammed into that room. Contempt was expressed for the view of Labour apologists who wanted to discourage coordinated national industrial action against the cuts. Contrary to this gentry’s view that workers should instead concentrate on rebuilding the fortunes of the ailing Labour party, militants pointed out that the likely outcome of such a demoralising approach would be to “demobilise active resistance”. A speaker from the CPGB-ML won warm applause when she called on unions to break the link with Labour, and Steve Hedley of the RMT spoke for many when urged the replacement of the failing capitalist system by “our own socialist system”.
The TUC congress lived down to expectations, despite some militant interventions from the Crows and Serwotkas. A composite was nodded through pledging lip service to coordinating a fight back but lacking concrete commitments. The motion denouncing the Zionist stooges of Histadrut was a rare gleam of sunshine. The sorry performance of this jamboree of the labour aristocrats amply justified the angry mistrust expressed at the Mechanics’ Institute.
The demonstration on the eve of the Conservative party conference in Birmingham had a somewhat different character. There were more coaches and more marchers at this event, partly reflecting the fact that the Manchester lobby was primarily mobilising union reps. Getting large numbers on the street to protest the cuts is obviously welcome, although the relative usefulness of threading through a succession of back streets and winding up outside a car park may be doubted. Yet in some measure the political character of this post-TUC event also differed from the Manchester march. Whilst the focus in Manchester had been the challenge to the paralysing grip of Labour opportunism upon the workers’ movement, the political focus in Birmingham was narrower: a protest confined to “Tory” or “ConDem” cuts. Yes, it was an eve of Tory conference demo, and Labour has now vacated number 10, but that was no excuse for dressing up the capitalist assault against the working class as an exclusively Tory affair. Labour in power would be obliged to push on with essentially the same cuts, to a timetable dictated by imperialism, not by its standard bearers from any particular party. And it is Labour’s long-serving role in diverting the working class from revolution which has preserved capitalist rule and left British workers so gravely vulnerable to the coming attacks.
Of all the parties represented at Birmingham, the CPGB-ML alone made these essential points. One marcher, after yelling a spirited “Tories, Tories, Tories! Out, out, out!” was heard to turn to his companion and confide, “You know, I’ve been waiting 13 years to do that!” And indeed many ‘left’ activists find it a deal more congenial to score into an open Tory goal than to ‘break ranks’ and put the boot into Labour, the supposed “mass party of the working class”. Yet it is alone through exposing this labour aristocratic imposture and breaking with Labour – “New” and “Old”, “Right” and “Left” – that the foundations can be laid for united class resistance against the massive attack now faced by the proletariat.