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Laurie Penny: A response to Alex Callinicos

Deregulating resistance will mean deregulating the organisations that control resistance.

Let me say right from the start that I know I shouldn't do this. Arguing strategy with revolutionary leftist parties in a public forum is a little like discussing venereal disease at a children's birthday party: half the people there won't know or care what you're on about and the other half will start trying frantically to shush you in case you inadvertently reveal some oozing detail that relegates you to pariah status. Last week, however, I wrote an article for the Guardian that appears to have got me into trouble with the Socialist Workers Party and I'd like to respond to the ensuing brouhaha.

In the article, I wrote that the old organisational structures of revolution -- far-left parties, unions and splinter groups -- are increasingly irelevant to the movement that is building across Europe. The organisational structures, not the organisations themselves. The fact that there remains, in most communities in Britain, a small but dedicated group of left-wing activists with gloriously unreconstructed socialist sentiments and an inexhaustible energy for leafleting is just one more thing that makes me proud to live on this bitter little island. Some of their ideas, like the notion that one can truly change the world by standing on the corner of every demonstration selling copies of the party newspaper, are a little antique but the essential idea of revolution and resistance is never going out of style. When students and young people say that the unions and far-left parties will have to follow our energy rather than seeking to lead and control it, we're not saying that the notion of a people's revolution isn't trendy anymore because it's somehow not 2.0 enough for us.

Alex Callinicos is right: students can't do it alone. Of course they can't. Nor can schoolkids or workers or people who are unemployed. That's what class solidarity is all about and solidarity has been the watchword of these protests. The structures of labour and power and information distribution have changed irrevocably since the 1980s, however, which is why the structures of solidarity and revolution have to change, too. The power of organised labour was undercut across the world by building in higher structural unemployment and holding down wages, by atomising workers, outsourcing and globalising production while keeping working people tied to increasingly divided and suspicious communities. Thatcher, Reagan and Blair deregulated oppression. In order to be properly effective, rebels have to deregulate resistance.

Deregulating resistance will mean deregulating the organisations that control resistance, making them more anarchic, more inclusive and more creative. The function of the SWP over the course of these protests is an important example of how this can work. SWP activists are the street-fighting men and women of the far left and their energy and skill sets are vitally useful -- they have, accordingly, been involved in many of the high-profile actions that have taken place this winter, but they have not been leading from the front. SWP members have been most effective in conjunction with school pupils, anarchists, students and unaffiliated members who adapt their organic techniques to the changing nature of the whole. They have been least useful when trying to sell copies of the Socialist Worker to children running away from horses.

The question of the paper is fantastically indicative. The notion of a communistic worker's revolution developed smack in the middle of the golden age of newspapers, which is why Lenin's ideas about the function of a party paper -- that it ought to be a key organising tool produced for the edification of the masses by an influential vanguard of radicals -- were and remain so important to many radicals who see themselves as the inheritors of Marx and Lenin. At the time, Lenin was advocating revolution that utilised the structures of the most cutting-edge technology anyone had available to them. This new wave of unrest is happening at a similar turning point in the history of communications technology. New groups can exchange information and change plans via Twitter and text message in the middle of demonstrations. It's no longer about edicts delivered by an elite cadre and distributed to the masses, or policy voted on at national meetings and handed down by delegates. It's not the technology itself so much as the mentality fostered by that technology that is opening up new possibilities for resistance.

The Socialist Workers Party and other far-left organisations do not have a monopoly on class consciousness. Many organisers of this year's student revolutions have a background in far-left agitation and many more do not -- but nearly all of us know precisely what's at stake. If any one group tries to claim ownership or exert control over this new movement, they will have missed the point entirely. Nobody can own this revolution: not the unions, not the far left, not the Labour Party and not the students. It's far bigger than that.

As the sun went down over the Whitehall kettle and the icy winter wind began to bite, an extraordinary thing happened somewhere behind the police lines. I was huddled with a group of school kids and stiff, bewildered protesters around a dying fire made from exercise books and ripped-up bits of placard. We had hours yet before the police would let us free and nothing left to burn and, as we watched the embers fade away with mounting panic, a young man approached and asked if any of us would like to buy a copy of the Socialist Worker.

We rounded on him in desperation. None of us had any money but we were all freezing and we needed paper -- not to read but to burn. We begged him to give us even one paper and join us at the fire. A slew of emotions chased across the SWP seller's face as he considered this dilemma. Finally, he agreed to give us two copies, if, and only if, any of us could sing at least two verses of the Internationale. So we did -- me, some Neets and schoolkids from the slums of London -- our voices shaking a little from the chill. He handed over the papers with a smile and shuffled into the circle to warm up.

Ultimately, I'm not interested in whether you're a Leninist or a liberal or a Blairite or a Brownite or an anarchist or a concerned member of the public with no time for ideological flim-flammery. I'm interested in whether or not you're going to join me at the fire. I want to know if you're up for a fight. I want to know if you are prepared to put your body on the line to battle social oppression and fight the machinations of a dissembling government working to protect profit at the expense of the people. Because this is the future, not some cultish Petrograd-enactment society where we all dress up as revolutionaries and shout at each other for hours and then go home before anyone gets hurt. This is the future, it's happening now, and innocent people have already been hurt. The question is, are you prepared to stand with the tens of thousands on the street and stop injustice in its tracks?

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.