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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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.