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Saturday's anti-cuts protest is a turning point for the left

category ireland / britain | the left | non-anarchist press author Friday March 25, 2011 05:56author by Ian Dunt Report this post to the editors

Can the left unite or will it always fight among itself? Come Saturday, we'll have a better idea.

The left is, and has always been, an old bickering couple. There's a relationship there that holds it together, but it's mostly made up of mutual suspicion and constant arguments over even the most trivial of issues.

For centuries, this has weakened the left. It's biggest gains usually come after major crisis, like the Second World War, which provide anomalous circumstances (in that case, an organised, armed working class with dizzying aspirations).

On Saturday, the biggest demonstration this country has seen since the Iraq war protest will wind its way through central London. Single-issue groups, anarchists, student protestors, UK Uncut and others will join trade unions for a mass demonstration against spending cuts. But they will do so in their own way, a way the union leadership currently doesn't recognise. On Saturday, we find out if the left can work together or if it is doomed to spend this pivotal point in British political history as divided and fractured as it's ever been.

The early signs aren't good. At a briefing this week, TUC general secretary Brendan Barber sat beside a Metropolitan police representative to issue his advice to participants. Barber went out of his way to discourage protestors from joining the 'feeder' marches, which will start from their own pre-arranged area and join the main demo. Feeder marches make it harder to provide disabled access, he argued.

That doesn't really stand up. It's not about disabled access. It's about the TUC working with the police to create an organised event. It's easy to see why organisers feel that way. But feeder marches represent something important: the diversity and heritage of protests movements. They attract people who don't want to fall under a trade union banner, or, worse, a Socialist Workers party banner. Students, libertarians, greens - they are part of the tribes of the left and they want to celebrate their own heritage while taking part in a mass demo.

This split goes all the way back through the left's history. Sometimes it reflects deep ideological divisions, such as those between socialism and anarchism. Usually that historical aspect is just a fuel added to what are ultimately practical differences over tactics. Trade unions have always tried to work through the traditional methods of securing political change - donating to Labour to increase behind-the-scenes influence, lobbying MPs, and, at worst, strike action. Street movements favour occupation, direct action and wildcat disruption.

In a generalisation that reveals a certain truth, they prefer chaos as a tool. They lack command structures, they make excellent use of social media to organise crowds, they prefer informal networks to paid up membership structures.

Twitter and Facebook have brought this distinction into sharp relief, by highlighting the role of social media. Sympathetic groups could be created remotely and with none of the costs entailed by mailing lists and flyers, as the remarkable UK Uncut movement has demonstrated. But social media also helped demonstrators coordinate on the street, avoiding police kettles and organising on the go. By contrast, the TUC are trailing a Twitter trial at the demo to warn people of delays and deliver messages from the police.

For a real example of how social media can change the political landscape, we need only look south. The left in Britain has much to learn from the Arab awakening, but the core lesson is as much about the enduring need for mass support as it is about Facebook. Web-savvy young progressives created a protest movement in countries like Egypt. Even the posters for the various 'days of rage' bore more than a passing resemblance to those used by the anti-globalisation movement a few years ago. Yet the potency of this movement came not through Twitter, but through mass support.

In the UK, mass support still comes through the unions. Of course, membership is falling. Of course, they represent primarily public sector workers, whose priorities are increasingly at odds with those in the private sector. Of course there is a view - in young protest movements and the mainstream - that the unions are ultimately stuffy dinosaurs.

If the left is to present a united front, it must get past those prejudices, regardless of their veracity. At the same time, the unions must get over their suspicion of street movements. The leadership of the TUC hopes that this Saturday will reveal the extent of public animosity to spending cuts. Even the police, we're told, are sympathetic, mostly because the coalition ignored Thatcher's important lesson: increase police pay, you'll need them to control things when you cut everyone else's. Barber is eyeing a genuine mass movement. The TUC's main concern, therefore, is that rioting and violence could hijack the news headlines, alienate mainstream supporters and reflect badly on its members.

You can see why. After the student protest attack on Tory HQ, right-wing commentators clamoured over each other to get Aaron Porter, National Union of Students (NUS) leader, to resign. But when Porter did eventually agree to step down - several protests later - it was because his authority had been fatally diminished in precisely the opposite direction. He had ignored too many occupations, too many protests, in a bid to keep his feet in the mainstream debate. By the time of the tuition fee vote, a sad little protest of a few hundred people sat on one side of parliament, while tens of thousands campaigned in Parliament Square. The unofficial event had dwarfed the official one.

Many union leaders were impressed, not concerned, by the student demos. Violence or no violence, they recognised that the outpouring of anger, the sheer youthful vigour of the protests, shamed unions' stale, boring demos, where long-time members do their bit, chant for an hour, eat some sandwiches and then retreat to the pub.

For the left to be the robust, coherent force it needs to be to challenge the government's programme, it has to be united. But its unity must be based on recognising diversity, not enforcing conformity. If there is violence on Saturday, the union leadership should condemn it while always maintaining solidarity with all the groups who attend the protest, whether they're anarchists or librarians. It most certainly should not be discouraging people from joining feeder marches. Meanwhile, those whose political education came in the form of direct action should pursue their chosen methods, but remember that no movement survives unless it can attract mass support. In Britain, riot and violence will never attract that mass support.

Saturday will show what the left can do when it comes together. Either that, or it'll just be another boring tiff between a couple who should think better of each other.

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