Anti-austerity graffiti in central London. Photo: Getty Images
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Haven't I been on this march before?

The anti-austerity march left many people grappling with feelings of deja vu - but it doesn't have to be that way, says Michael Chessum.

Running through the message of last Saturday’s anti-austerity demonstration were two lower-level mantras, repeated from the stage, among the participants, and on the front pages of glossy broadsheets produced by the demonstration’s organisers: firstly, ‘this is massive’ and secondly ‘this is only the beginning’.  But regardless of the actual numbers on it, the protest would not have been the beginning of anything. If there really were only about 50,000 present, as some of the less charitable estimates have mooted, it would have been a similar demonstration to last year’s event; had there been a quarter of a million, it would have resembled the 2011 ‘March for the Alternative’ organised by the TUC.

Since that 2011 demo, the numbers have oscillated and the political climate rolled on, but – at least on the surface – the anti-austerity demonstrations have remained the same. Saturday defined itself, like every national demonstration organised by the TUC or the People’s Assembly Against Austerity,  entirely in relation to what it opposed – austerity, Tories, exploitation – in an attempt to keep its appeal, both to the public and to its trade union general secretaries, as broad as possible. Five years into a decade of Tory rule, with the left’s ability to formulate an alternative having failed at the ballot box, there is little sign of the official institutions of the labour movement moving beyond ‘anti-austerity’, or articulating anything like the radical alternatives that have sent shock-waves across Greece and Spain. Another phrase muttered under the breath of those attending Saturday’s march was ‘groundhog day’.

But this isn’t groundhog day, or it needn’t be, as long as grassroots campaigns and the organised left can work marches like last Saturday’s into a wider strategy. A to B marches are often slated as passive and ineffective, but they certainly have a role to play. If well organised, they can offer a barometer of public sentiment and a galvanising focal point for activists, and are a relatively easy way for new people to become involved. For all their faults, the sheer regularity of very similar A to B marches over the past five years has built up a kind of basic infrastructure around which other tactics can more effectively take root. In the student movement, where London marches are also an annual event, they form one date in a busy calendar of occupations, days of action and local demos.

But the task of linking marches like last Saturday’s to a programme of mass strike action and disruptive direct action is in many ways back to front. Large national marches are supposed to be the expression of a movement in struggle; in Britain, they have for many people preceded struggle, and for many labour movement institutions they have become an alternative to struggle.

For every step forward in a grassroots housing campaign or a workplace dispute over the past few years – the E15 Mums or Ritzy Cinema workers, for instance – we have taken two steps back in most trade unions. Having run large-scale industrial disputes (albeit still limited to one-day strikes) over pay and pensions in the first half of the coalition government, most major unions have retreated since. For their leaderships, organising members to attend an annual London march has become a means of avoiding a much more serious task – using the collective power of workers to force the government into retreat; they are Dave Prentis’s version of outsourcing.

The two key problems – the lack of a propositional politics and the over-reliance on the London march – are essentially a problem of political leadership. Here, there is no reason why the next five years needs to repeat the mistakes of the last five. Although the higher echelons of the union leaderships (and indeed the speakers on the platform at demonstrations) have remained constant, we are witnessing a change in the currents that swim beneath the left and the labour movement. A series of struggles since 2010, along with the (seeming) decline of the Labour left and the implosion of the Socialist Workers’ Party, have allowed the development of a new common sense among many new activists. Broadly speaking, direct action, liberation politics and bottom-up democracy are in vogue – waiting for trade union leaderships to give a lead and staging long political rallies are not.

A variety of political groups – some brand new, such as Plan C and Brick Lane Debates, some fifty years old – all slightly more radical and anti-capitalist than the leadership of the People’s Assembly – reflect this common sense. Much of the debate around the renewal of the left is now bound up with the outcome of the Labour leadership contest, but whatever its outcome, much will now depend on the willingness and ability of these groups to shift their focus from critiquing the rest of the left to taking initiative and leadership in the wider movement.

In 2010 and 2011, major trade unions declared their support for a student movement that had shocked the country with its vibrancy and scale, and then made good their promises of mobilisation with mass strikes and marches. That momentary cohesion between the official institutions of the left and the explosion in social struggle that took place represented, with hindsight, one of the most promising and pivotal moments in the development of this generation of the British left. It is this cohesion that needs to be regained and developed, but this may become impossible if the basic skeleton operation – the annual march – fails to become the basis for something either tactically or politically bigger, and becomes a defensive repetitious trudge.  In order to avoid that, we need newer political forces to take some responsibility.

Pexel
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This week, a top tip to save on washing powder (just don’t stand too near the window)

I write this, at 3.04pm on a sticky Thursday afternoon, in the state in which Adam, before his shame, strolled in the Garden of Eden.

Well, in the end I didn’t have to go to Ikea (see last week’s column). I got out of it on the grounds that I was obviously on the verge of a tantrum, always distressing to witness in a man in his early-to-mid-fifties, and because I am going to Switzerland.

“Why Switzerland?” I hear you ask. For the usual reason: because someone is paying for me. I don’t think I’m going to be earning any money there, but at least I’ll be getting a flight to Zurich and a scenic train ride to Bellinzona, which I learn is virtually in Italy, and has three castles that, according to one website, are considered to be “amongst the finest examples of medieval fortification in Switzerland”.

I’m not sure what I’m meant to be doing there. It’s all about a literary festival generally devoted to literature in translation, and specifically this year to London-based writers. The organiser, who rejoices in the first name of Nausikaa, says that all I have to do is “attend a short meeting . . . and be part of the festival”. Does this mean I can go off on a stroll around an Alp and when someone asks me what I’m doing, I can say “Oh, I’m part of the festival”? Or do I have to stay within the fortifications, wearing a lanyard or something?

It’s all rather worrying, if I think about it too hard, but then I can plausibly claim to be from London and, moreover, it’ll give me a couple of days in which to shake off my creditors, who are making the city a bit hot for me at the moment.

And gosh, as I write, the city is hot. When I worked at British Telecom in the late Eighties, there was a rudimentary interoffice communication system on which people could relay one-line messages from their own computer terminal to another’s, or everyone else’s at once. (This was cutting-edge tech at the time.) The snag with this – or the opportunity, if you will – was that if you were not at your desk and someone mischievous, such as Gideon from Accounts (he didn’t work in Accounts; I’m protecting his true identity), walked past he would pause briefly to type in the message “I’m naked” on your machine and fire it off to everyone in the building.

For some reason, the news that either Geoff, the senior team leader, or Helen, the unloved HR manager, was working in the nude – even if we knew, deep down, that they weren’t, and that this was another one of Gideon’s jeux d’esprit – never failed to break the monotony.

It always amused us, though we were once treated to a terrifying mise en abîme moment when a message, again pertaining to personal nudity, came from Gideon’s very own terminal, and, for one awful moment, for it was a very warm day, about 200 white-collar employees of BT’s Ebury Bridge Road direct marketing division suddenly entertained the appalling possibility, and the vision it summoned, that Gideon had indeed removed every stitch of his clothing, and fired off his status quo update while genuinely in the nip. He was, after all, entirely capable of it. (We still meet up from time to time, we BT stalwarts, and Gideon is largely unchanged, except that he’s now a history lecturer.)

I digress in this fashion in order to build up to the declaration – whose veracity you can judge for yourselves – that as I write this, at 3.04pm on a sticky Thursday afternoon, I, too, am in the state in which Adam, before his shame, strolled in the Garden of Eden.

There are practical reasons for this. For one thing, it is punishingly hot, and I am beginning, even after a morning shower, to smell like a tin of oxtail soup (to borrow an unforgettable phrase first coined by Julie Burchill). I am also anxious not to transfer any of this odour to any of my clothes, for I will be needing them in Switzerland, and I am running low on washing powder, as well as money to buy more washing powder.

For another thing, I am fairly sure that I am alone in the Hovel. I am not certain. To be certain, I would have to call out my housemate’s name, and that would only be the beginning of our problems. “Yes, I’m here,” she would reply from her room. “Why?” “Um . . .” You see?

So here I lie on my bed, laptop in lap, every window as wide open as can be, and looking for all the world like a hog roast with glasses.

If I step too near the window I could get arrested. At least they don’t mind that kind of thing in Switzerland: they strip off at the drop of a hat. Oh no, wait, that’s Germany.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times