March for the Alternative . . . but what alternative?

It is vital that trade unions take a more active role in defining the anti-cuts movement.

The demonstration in London on 26 March was billed by the organisers, the TUC, as the "March for the Alternative". The march did, as the unions hoped, "give a voice" to those affected by the cuts and it showed that "people reject the argument that there is no alternative". What is still missing is a clear sense of what the alternative is, or might be.

The ambiguities created by the relationship between the labour movement and the Labour Party didn't help. The organisers decided not to give a platform to anyone from UK Uncut, for example, though that group has done more than anyone else to popularise an alternative to public-sector cuts. It has done this by using direct actions to focus attention on offshore finance and the large-scale tax avoidance and evasion it enables.

UK Uncut has recognised that an alternative to the cuts must be understood in terms of an alternative political economy, one in which the interests of large concentrations of capital do not trump considerations of the public good.

That this campaign group was absent from the schedule of speakers, while Ed Miliband was given a platform to present an "alternative" to the cuts that is itself a programme of cuts, highlights the problem organised labour now faces. In the past, the unions have sought to focus on issues of distribution within a capitalist economy and left the Labour Party to handle the politics – parliament was where the responsible and informed representatives of the working class would preside over a gradual, indeed sometimes imperceptible, move towards social transformation.

But once New Labour dropped even a rhetorical commitment to socialism, the trade unions' efforts to separate the political from the economic would come to seem increasingly irrational and self-destructive. One can only wonder what trade unionists thought when they heard a Labour prime minister boast in 2000 that Britain had "the most restrictive trade union laws in the western world". This is surely not what the unions had in mind when they set out on the long road to political power.

There is a choice

The Labour Party the unions created now believes that there is no alternative to a financialised economy run by privately owned, but publicly guaranteed, banks. Those who control credit must be given every encouragement and inducement and nothing can be proposed that might unnerve the financial markets.

That is the position of the leader of the opposition and his front bench. Union leaders can call on the support of the Parliamentary Labour Party as much as they like. They will not get it while the Labour Party, like the rest of the political class, remains overwhelmingly committed to the neoliberal settlement.

The vast majority of people in the country can see that there is something wrong with this settlement. They can see that Britain's industries have not flourished in the years since 1979. They can see that the public sector has not been improved by the introduction of market mechanisms.

The privatisations that were advertised as a way of introducing vigorous competition and innovation have instead created lazily piratical cartels in one sector after another. Above all, people can see that the financial sector has not used its control of credit to build viable businesses that deliver well-paid jobs to the working majority. Instead, it connived in a vast Ponzi scheme that combined the ethics of organised crime with some bewilderingly complicated mathematics, to devastating effect.

Those who belong to trade unions now have a choice. They can either remain committed to a defensive agenda, which leaves the question of political economy untouched. Or they can begin to ask what an alternative would actually look like.

The UK Uncut movement is a useful place to start. But as one begins to consider taxation, one soon becomes aware that the demand that large businesses pay more tax has profound political implications. Besides, as Ann Pettifor and others have pointed out, the debate must extend beyond taxation and expenditure to embrace the structure of the enterprise, the system of credit and the communications industry.

The British economy is in trouble. The cuts agenda will make things worse, certainly. But it isn't enough to resist them. The model of economic and social organisation adopted in 1979 has failed and will continue to fail.

Fiddling while Rome burns

As for the leaders of the trade unions, they too have a choice. They can remain committed to a narrowly wage-and-conditions agenda and pretend that they have no control over the political party that they bankroll. Or they can begin to re-create their institutions as venues for debate about the common good.

It is workers that create value – both marketable goods and the commonwealth of hospitals and schools and clean streets and safe drinking water. It is workers who must now meet and decide how best to reform matters. Parliament is not responding to the needs of the country. It is fiddling its expenses while putting on a serious expression and insisting that there is no alternative . . . and anyway, it is the other side's fault.

The trade unions have the infrastructure and the organisational ability to host this debate. It also offers them their best chance of survival. This will mean an intense period of discussion and conversation. The relationship with the Labour Party will have to be reconsidered. The role of the unions will need to be reconsidered, too.

The unions can grow and reassert themselves in the national life only if they are able to articulate an account of political economy that addresses both how we distribute private spoils and how we secure the common wealth. It must discover this account in the free conversations and deliberations of its members and it must create the institutional means to share it with the wider nation. The unions will have to go back into the publishing business and will have to stop leaving the politics to others.

If the unions accept, and attempt to negotiate with, the neoliberal settlement they will die. Because capital, aided and abetted by the Labour leadership, will kill them.

Dan Hind is the author of "The Return of the Public" (Verso, £14.99). He blogs here and is on Twitter here.

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What I learnt when my wife and I went to Brexit: the Musical

This week in the media, from laughing as the world order crumbles to what Tristram Hunt got wrong – and Leicester’s big fall.

As my wife and I watched Brexit: the Musical, performed in a tiny theatre above a pub in London’s Little Venice, I thought of the American novelist Lionel Shriver’s comment on Donald Trump’s inauguration: “A sense of humour is going to get us through better than indignation.” It is an entertaining, engaging and amusing show, which makes the point that none of the main actors in the Brexit drama – whether supporters of Leave or Remain – achieved quite what they had intended. The biggest laugh went to the actor playing Boris Johnson (James Sanderson), the wannabe Tory leader who blew his chance. The mere appearance of an overweight man of dishevelled appearance with a mop of blond hair is enough to have the audience rolling in the aisles.

The lesson we should take from Brexit and from Trump’s election is that politicians of all shades, including those who claim to be non-political insurgents, have zero control of events, whether we are talking about immigration, economic growth or the Middle East. We need to tweak Yeats’s lines: the best may lack all conviction but the worst are full not so much of passionate intensity – who knows what Trump or Johnson really believe? – as bumbling incompetence. The sun will still rise in the morning (as
Barack Obama observed when Trump’s win became evident), and multi­national capital will still rule the world. Meanwhile, we may as well enjoy the show.

 

Danger of Donald

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t deny the risks of having incompetents in charge. The biggest concerns Trump’s geopolitical strategy, or rather his lack of one. Great power relations since 1945 have been based on mutual understanding of what each country wants to achieve, of its red lines and national ambitions. The scariest moments come when one leader miscalculates how another will react. Of all figures in recent history, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, with his flamboyant manner and erratic temperament, was probably the most similar to Trump. In 1962, he thought President Kennedy, inexperienced and idealistic, would tolerate Soviet missiles in Cuba. He was wrong and the world only narrowly avoided nuclear war.

How would Trump respond to a Russian invasion of the Baltic states? Will he recognise Taiwan as an independent country? Will he scrap Obama’s deal with Iran and support a pre-emptive strike against its nuclear ambitions? Nobody knows, probably not even Trump. He seems to think that keeping your options open and your adversaries guessing leads to “great deals”. That may work in business, in which the worst that can happen is that one of your companies goes bankrupt – an outcome of which Americans take a relaxed view. In international relations, the stakes are higher.

 

Right job, wrong time

I rather like Tristram Hunt, who started contributing to the New Statesman during my editorship. He may be the son of a life peer and a protégé of Peter Mandelson, but he is an all-too-rare example of a politician with a hinterland, having written a biography of Engels and a study of the English Civil War and presented successful TV documentaries. In a parallel universe, he could have made an inspirational Labour leader,
a more thoughtful and trustworthy version of Tony Blair.

No doubt, having resigned his Stoke-on-Trent Central seat, he will make a success of his new job as director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. If nothing else, he will learn a little about the arts of management and leadership. But isn’t this the wrong way round? Wouldn’t it be better if people first ran museums or other cultural and public institutions and then carried such experience into parliament and government?

 

Pointless palace

When the Palace of Westminster was largely destroyed by fire in 1834, thousands gathered to enjoy the spectacle. Thomas Carlyle noted that the crowd “whew’d and whistled when the breeze came as if to encourage it” and that “a man sorry I did not anywhere see”.

Now, with MPs reportedly refusing to move out to allow vital renovation work from 2023, we can expect a repeat performance. Given the unpopularity of politicians, public enthusiasm may be even greater than it was two centuries ago. Yet what is going through MPs’ minds is anyone’s guess. Since Theresa May refuses them a vote on Brexit, prefers the Foreign Office’s Lancaster House as the location to deliver her most important speech to date and intends to amend or replace Brussels-originated laws with ministerial orders under “Henry VIII powers”, perhaps they have concluded that there’s no longer much point to the place.

 

As good as it gets

What a difference a year makes. In January 2016, supporters of Leicester City, my home-town team, were beginning to contemplate the unthinkable: that they could win football’s Premier League. Now, five places off the bottom, they contemplate the equally unthinkable idea of relegation.

With the exception of one player, N’Golo Kanté (now at Chelsea), the team is identical to last season’s. So how can this be? The sophisticated, mathematical answer is “regression to the mean”. In a league where money, wages and performance are usually linked rigidly, a team that does much better than you’d predict one season is likely to do much worse the next. I’d suggest something else, though. For those who won last season’s title against such overwhelming odds, life can never be as good again. Anything short of winning the Champions League (in which Leicester have so far flourished) would seem an anti­climax. In the same way, the England cricket team that won the Ashes in 2005 – after the Australians had dominated for 16 years – fell apart almost as soon as its Trafalgar Square parade was over. Beating other international teams wouldn’t have delivered the same adrenalin surge.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era