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.

Photo: Getty
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Unite stewards urge members to back Owen Smith

In a letter to Unite members, the officials have called for a vote for the longshot candidate.

29 Unite officials have broken ranks and thrown their weight behind Owen Smith’s longshot bid for the Labour leadership in an open letter to their members.

The officials serve as stewards, conveners and negotiators in Britain’s aerospace and shipbuilding industries, and are believed in part to be driven by Jeremy Corbyn’s longstanding opposition to the nuclear deterrent and defence spending more generally.

In the letter to Unite members, who are believed to have been signed up in large numbers to vote in the Labour leadership race, the stewards highlight Smith’s support for extra funding in the NHS and his vision for an industrial strategy.

Corbyn was endorsed by Unite, Labour's largest affliated union and the largest trades union in the country, following votes by Unite's ruling executive committee and policy conference. 

Although few expect the intervention to have a decisive role in the Labour leadership, regarded as a formality for Corbyn, the opposition of Unite workers in these industries may prove significant in Len McCluskey’s bid to be re-elected as general secretary of Unite.

 

The full letter is below:

Britain needs a Labour Government to defend jobs, industry and skills and to promote strong trade unions. As convenors and shop stewards in the manufacturing, defence, aerospace and energy sectors we believe that Owen Smith is the best candidate to lead the Labour Party in opposition and in government.

Owen has made clear his support for the industries we work in. He has spelt out his vision for an industrial strategy which supports great British businesses: investing in infrastructure, research and development, skills and training. He has set out ways to back British industry with new procurement rules to protect jobs and contracts from being outsourced to the lowest bidder. He has demanded a seat at the table during the Brexit negotiations to defend trade union and workers’ rights. Defending manufacturing jobs threatened by Brexit must be at the forefront of the negotiations. He has called for the final deal to be put to the British people via a second referendum or at a general election.

But Owen has also talked about the issues which affect our families and our communities. Investing £60 billion extra over 5 years in the NHS funded through new taxes on the wealthiest. Building 300,000 new homes a year over 5 years, half of which should be social housing. Investing in Sure Start schemes by scrapping the charitable status of private schools. That’s why we are backing Owen.

The Labour Party is at a crossroads. We cannot ignore reality – we need to be radical but we also need to be credible – capable of winning the support of the British people. We need an effective Opposition and we need a Labour Government to put policies into practice that will defend our members’ and their families’ interests. That’s why we are backing Owen.

Steve Hibbert, Convenor Rolls Royce, Derby
Howard Turner, Senior Steward, Walter Frank & Sons Limited
Danny Coleman, Branch Secretary, GE Aviation, Wales
Karl Daly, Deputy Convenor, Rolls Royce, Derby
Nigel Stott, Convenor, BASSA, British Airways
John Brough, Works Convenor, Rolls Royce, Barnoldswick
John Bennett, Site Convenor, Babcock Marine, Devonport, Plymouth
Kevin Langford, Mechanical Convenor, Babcock, Devonport, Plymouth
John McAllister, Convenor, Vector Aerospace Helicopter Services
Garry Andrews, Works Convenor, Rolls Royce, Sunderland
Steve Froggatt, Deputy Convenor, Rolls Royce, Derby
Jim McGivern, Convenor, Rolls Royce, Derby
Alan Bird, Chairman & Senior Rep, Rolls Royce, Derby
Raymond Duguid, Convenor, Babcock, Rosyth
Steve Duke, Senior Staff Rep, Rolls Royce, Barnoldswick
Paul Welsh, Works Convenor, Brush Electrical Machines, Loughborough
Bob Holmes, Manual Convenor, BAE Systems, Warton, Lancs
Simon Hemmings, Staff Convenor, Rolls Royce, Derby
Mick Forbes, Works Convenor, GKN, Birmingham
Ian Bestwick, Chief Negotiator, Rolls Royce Submarines, Derby
Mark Barron, Senior Staff Rep, Pallion, Sunderland
Ian Hodgkison, Chief Negotiator, PCO, Rolls Royce
Joe O’Gorman, Convenor, BAE Systems, Maritime Services, Portsmouth
Azza Samms, Manual Workers Convenor, BAE Systems Submarines, Barrow
Dave Thompson, Staff Convenor, BAE Systems Submarines, Barrow
Tim Griffiths, Convenor, BAE Systems Submarines, Barrow
Paul Blake, Convenor, Princess Yachts, Plymouth
Steve Jones, Convenor, Rolls Royce, Bristol
Colin Gosling, Senior Rep, Siemens Traffic Solutions, Poole

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.