Defend UK Uncut, even if you don’t agree with their tactics

The anti-cuts movement should not be divided by the right’s narrative on violence at Saturday’s prot

On Saturday, about half a million people took action in response to the coalition government's public-sector spending cuts. This is how I witnessed it.

The largest group disrupted traffic across a large section of central London as they marched from Embankment to Hyde Park, chanting slogans, banging pots and pans and blowing whistles and vuvuzelas. The cost of the damage caused by people littering and tramping across the grass in one of the country's best-loved public parks is yet to be assessed.

A much smaller group, perhaps of around a thousand, staged sit-ins at a number of West End shops in the early afternoon. This was followed by a rally in Soho Square, where campaigners were entertained by stand-up comedians and a well-known newspaper columnist. They then staged a final, peaceful sit-in, en masse, in the upmarket grocery store Fortnum & Mason. These people were arrested on leaving the shop, kept in the cells overnight and charged with aggravated trespass. (This illiberal law was introduced in 1994 as part of the widely opposed Criminal Justice Bill, and can be applied to anyone who "trespasses on land with the intention of disrupting, or intimidating those taking part in, lawful activity taking place on that or adjacent land".)

A smaller group still (the BBC's Paul Mason estimates 600) smashed the windows of and threw paint at shops and banks in the West End. From what I saw, there was no serious attempt to arrest those causing the damage.

There are two lessons that I think the anti-cuts movement (by which I mean anyone who turned out on Saturday) should take from this. First, there has been a great deal of sneering among advocates of "direct action" in the past few months at "A to B marches". I hope Saturday's march, which left me feeling exhilarated and hopeful for the prospect of building sustained opposition to the cuts, proves that bringing together a huge cross-section of society is valid and necessary action. Of course it doesn't change anything in isolation, but just think about how many people returned to their workplaces today, sharing their experiences with colleagues, realising that they're not alone in their fight and, with any luck, thinking about what to do next.

Second, there is a narrative developing among some sections of the left that UK Uncut wrecked Saturday's protest by diverting attention from the rally in Hyde Park and is somehow responsible for the "anarchist violence" focused on by most of the media. This plays into the hands of the right and needs to be stopped.

Had UK Uncut not been present, the property damage would have happened anyway, and the media still would have focused on it. Moreover, it's wrong to assume that anyone who took part in direct action is also a committed anti-capitalist. Some may be (as are some Labour Party members, and plenty of others who attended the official demonstration), but UK Uncut's central message – that corporations should pay their fair share of tax – is entirely compatible with a social-democratic movement. Nor is it one that alienates large numbers of voters.

Labour should be asking itself why the thousands of people who have taken part in UK Uncut actions since the autumn don't see the Parliamentary Labour Party as the best route through which to enforce a fair tax system. (Is it, perhaps, because Labour while in government proved unable to stop banks and corporations ripping off the state?)

There may be an argument about tactics, which all sides of the movement should consider. Was Fortnum & Mason the right target? Should the sit-in have taken place at the same time as the main march? But the outright hostility and disdain directed at UK Uncut from elsewhere within the left is damaging to the movement. As one Labour councillor I know (who is from the centre left of the party) said to me today: "I can't understand why some Labour people are so proprietorial about peaceful protest – perhaps it speaks to a wider insecurity about our role in opposition."

This morning, David Cameron issued a statement saying that those responsible for the damage on Saturday "need to be dealt with and to feel the full force of the law". It is imperative that those with the power to do so speak out in support of the UK Uncut protesters and make sure they are not collectively punished for the actions of others.

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

Labour trying to outdo Ukip on border control is the sure path to defeat

Only Diane Abbott has come out fighting for free movement. 

There is no point trying to deny it. Paul Nuttall’s election as Ukip leader is dangerous for Labour. Yes, Nuttall may not be a credible voice for working-class people – he ran as a Tory councillor in 2002 and has said that “the very existence of the NHS stifles competition”. Yes, he may be leader of a party which has (for now) haemorrhaged donors and supporters. But what Nuttall’s election represents is the coming of age for a form of right-wing populism which is pointed directly at Labour’s base. Along with the likes of Ukip's major donor Arron Banks, Nuttall will open up a second front against Labour – focused on blaming migrants for falling wages and crumbling services.

In the face of this danger, and the burning need to create a narrative of its own about the neglect of the communities it represents, Labour’s main response has been confusion. Barely a week has gone by without a major Labour figure repeating the touchstone myths on which Ukip has built its working class roots. Speaking on the Andrew Marr Show, Emily Thornberry openly backed the idea that migration has dragged down wages. “Do I think that at the moment too many people come into this country? Yes I do”, she said.

Another response has been to look for policies that transcend the debate altogether, while giving a nod to the perceived “concerns” that voters harbour about immigration. When Clive Lewis spoke to the Guardian some weeks ago, he also repeated the idea that free movement “hasn’t worked for many of the people in this country, where they’ve been undercut” and coupled this with compulsory trade union membership for those coming to Britain to work – a closed shop for migrant workers.

It is unsurprising that MPs on the right of the party – many of whom had much to say about the benefits of migration during the EU referendum – have retreated into support for immigration controls. This kind of triangulation and retreat – the opposite of the insurgent leftwing populism that Labour needs to win elections – is the hallmark of Labour’s establishment politics. Those who want to stand and fight on the issue should be concerned that, for now, only Diane Abbott has come out fighting for continued free movement.

At the moment, Labour is chasing the narrative on immigration – and that has to stop. The process that is shifting the debate on migration is Brexit, the British franchise of a global nationalist resurgence that is sweeping the far right to power across the western world. Attempt to negotiate a compromise on migration in the face of that wave, or try to claim it as an “opportunity”, and there is simply no limit to how far Labour will be pushed. What is needed is an ideological counter-attack, which tells a different story about why living standards have deteriorated and offers real solutions.

The reason why wages have stagnated and in recent decades is not immigration. Among the very few studies which find that migration has caused a fall in wages, most conclude that the fall is marginal. The Bank of England’s study, cited by Boris Johnson in the heat of the EU referendum campaign, put the average figure at 0.3 per cent for every ten percentage point rise in migrants in a given sector of work. That rises to 1.8 per cent in some areas.

Median earnings fell by 10.4 per cent between 2007 and 2015, and by 2021 are forecast to be lower in real terms than they were in 2008. For many communities, that fall in wages comes on top of the destruction of industry; the defeat of the trade union movement; the fire sale of Britain’s social housing stock; and years of gruelling Tory austerity. Nuttall’s Ukip will argue that economic and social insecurity are the result of uncontrolled immigration. To give an inch to that claim is to abandon reality.

Labour cannot win against Ukip by playing around with new and innovative border controls – it has to put forward a vision for a radically different kind of society. Under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is closer than it ever has been to the kind of radical social and economic platform that it will need to regain power - £500bn of investment, building a million new homes a year, raising minimum wage and reinstating proper collective bargaining and trade union rights. What it needs now is clarity – a message about who to blame and what to do, which can cut through the dust kicked up by the Brexit vote.