The twilight of anti-coalition opposition

After the raging days of resistance, the left has become quiet, resigned and accepting.

The heady, raging days of resistance to the coalition government are over. In its place, a sense of weary resignation has begun to pervade the British left. The protests of 2010 now look to be a distant memory, whilst the crowds drawn by the March for the Alternative and the student movement have returned to the business of getting on with their lives.

Overcome by the unrelenting nationalist marketing surrounding the triple-whammy Wedding-Jubi-Lympics, we have shrugged, accepted it. If the whipping up of patriotic spirit has finished, for now, it is a tribute to conservatism that the rebirth of British pride can be heralded whilst the things to be proud of are systematically cut. The best that can be said of more cynical quarters is that our jaded eyes are turned to the new series of Downton. Resistance is dead, long live resignation.

So it should be lucky that there is a designated, official party in opposition. But Labour under Ed Miliband feels like a resounding disappointment. Locked in political stasis, the party lacks the bravery and the unity needed for an honest return to the left. Ostensible disagreement with the worst excesses of austerity masks an underlying agreement with the essence ofcCoalition ideology: cuts, economic deregulation, the maintenance of the status quo. Labour should be a rallying point for organised anti-coalition resistance. This current opposition appears to have lost the will for it.

At the same time, well-meaning unions and other leftist groups are straitjacketed, not just by sectarianism, but by the sheer volume of coalition attacks against the causes they stand for. With social justice, basic welfare and other naive ideas relegated to the box in the political attic labeled “Modern Compassionate Conservatism (contains Big Society)”, there is simply too much work to be done. We all know that TUC muttering about a general strike is likely remain just that: muttering. Any implementation of the lazy, occasional threat to outlaw strikes without a 50% union member turnout - ironic coming from a Conservative party without an electoral mandate - would simply formalise the existing situation.

This is frightening. David Cameron no longer needs to hide the return of the nasty party. The recent cabinet reshuffle was confirmation, if more were needed, that this government will continue to implement the most regressive, destructive set of “reforms” to much-needed British institutions since Thatcher. For sure, Liberal Democrat-flavoured policies do occasionally make it. Just as any reversal of the in-party marginalisation of leftist liberals by the Orange Bookers looks unlikely, however, so too has the party lost its leftist following. Despite Nick Clegg’s reference to a “turbo-charged right wing agenda” at his party conference this week, this concession to the social democratic end of the party is far too little, far too late.

The government’s targets are widely recognised: the poor, the young, women and the disabled, society’s most disenfranchised groups. Less noticed is the strategy behind it; for these attacks to provoke public resistance on any effective scale depends upon the ongoing empathy of more powerful groups. Amongst other factors, a lack of jobs across the board maintains the massive protests in Greece and in Spain. In contrast, our coalition’s toxic stew of cuts and privatization is cleverly directed towards the already disadvantaged. With widespread rhetoric stigmatizing these groups as blameworthy anyway, and in the context of a largely ineffective political opposition, there is only so long that the average person will be motivated to protest for others.

A twilight has descended upon anti-coalition opposition. For now it is mostly quiet, resigned and accepting. What protests it musters rarely make headlines, and in all this talk of politics there are still (for those lucky enough to have one) jobs to go to, children to raise, social engagements to be kept. For those who can afford it, there are lives to be led. In any case, resistance appears not to make much difference. Radicalism isn’t cool anymore. But whilst the left may have put its gloves on and gone home, we can be sure that the government is just getting started.

The crowds drawn by the student movement have "returned to the business of getting on with their lives". Photograph: Getty Images.

Ray Filar is a freelance journalist and an editor at openDemocracy. Her website is here.

Photo: Getty Images
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.