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.

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The Women's March against Trump matters – but only if we keep fighting

We won’t win the battle for progressive ideas if we don’t battle in the first place.

Arron Banks, UKIP-funder, Brexit cheerleader and Gibraltar-based insurance salesman, took time out from Trump's inauguration to tweet me about my role in tomorrow's Women’s March Conservative values are in the ascendancy worldwide. Thankfully your values are finished. . . good”.

Just what about the idea of women and men marching for human rights causes such ill will? The sense it is somehow cheeky to say we will champion equality whoever is in office in America or around the world. After all, if progressives like me have lost the battle of ideas, what difference does it make whether we are marching, holding meetings or just moaning on the internet?

The only anti-democratic perspective is to argue that when someone has lost the argument they have to stop making one. When political parties lose elections they reflect, they listen, they learn but if they stand for something, they don’t disband. The same is true, now, for the broader context. We should not dismiss the necessity to learn, to listen, to reflect on the rise of Trump – or indeed reflect on the rise of the right in the UK  but reject the idea that we have to take a vow of silence if we want to win power again.

To march is not to ignore the challenges progressives face. It is to start to ask what are we prepared to do about it.

Historically, conservatives have had no such qualms about regrouping and remaining steadfast in the confidence they have something worth saying. In contrast, the left has always been good at absolving itself of the need to renew.

We spend our time seeking the perfect candidates, the perfect policy, the perfect campaign, as a precondition for action. It justifies doing nothing except sitting on the sidelines bemoaning the state of society.

We also seem to think that changing the world should be easier than reality suggests. The backlash we are now seeing against progressive policies was inevitable once we appeared to take these gains for granted and became arrogant and exclusive about the inevitability of our worldview. Our values demand the rebalancing of power, whether economic, social or cultural, and that means challenging those who currently have it. We may believe that a more equal world is one in which more will thrive, but that doesn’t mean those with entrenched privilege will give up their favoured status without a fight or that the public should express perpetual gratitude for our efforts via the ballot box either.  

Amongst the conferences, tweets and general rumblings there seem three schools of thought about what to do next. The first is Marxist  as in Groucho revisionism: to rise again we must water down our principles to accommodate where we believe the centre ground of politics to now be. Tone down our ideals in the hope that by such acquiescence we can eventually win back public support for our brand – if not our purpose. The very essence of a hollow victory.

The second is to stick to our guns and stick our heads in the sand, believing that eventually, when World War Three breaks out, the public will come grovelling back to us. To luxuriate in an unwillingness to see we are losing not just elected offices but the fight for our shared future.

But what if there really was a third way? It's not going to be easy, and it requires more than a hashtag or funny t-shirt. It’s about picking ourselves up, dusting ourselves down and starting to renew our call to arms in a way that makes sense for the modern world.

For the avoidance of doubt, if we march tomorrow and then go home satisfied we have made our point then we may as well not have marched at all. But if we march and continue to organise out of the networks we make, well, then that’s worth a Saturday in the cold. After all, we won’t win the battle of ideas, if we don’t battle.

We do have to change the way we work. We do have to have the courage not to live in our echo chambers alone. To go with respect and humility to debate and discuss the future of our communities and of our country.

And we have to come together to show there is a willingness not to ask a few brave souls to do that on their own. Not just at election times, but every day and in every corner of Britain, no matter how difficult it may feel.

Saturday is one part of that process of finding others willing not just to walk a mile with a placard, but to put in the hard yards to win the argument again for progressive values and vision. Maybe no one will show up. Maybe not many will keep going. But whilst there are folk with faith in each other, and in that alternative future, they’ll find a friend in me ready to work with them and will them on  and then Mr Banks really should be worried.