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20 October 2014

Recent strikes are a make or break moment for the British left, but they’re not enough

Simply marching, having trade union general secretaries endorse you, and having essentially symbolic strikes cannot defeat austerity politics.

By Michael Chessum

Last week marked the beginning of a make or break moment for the British left. It began with Monday’s NHS strike, including the first walk-out by the Royal College of Midwives in its 133 year history – and the strikes continued later in the week where they were not blocked by court injunction. Saturday’s TUC demonstration should have been the culmination of four years of fight against austerity where, ahead of the general election, the extra-parliamentary opposition stood tall and set the agenda. And yet, there was something about last week that seemed like a tired action replay, as if the movements and lessons of the past four years of struggle had never happened.

With wages continuing to stagnate, there is still a large degree of scope for building a mass and active movement among the working class, the young and the unemployed – and there is no doubt that the left has to some extent renewed itself since 2010, beginning with the student movement and continuing in the community anti-cuts campaigns, pensions strikes and occupy movement of 2011. The last couple of years have witnessed a number of militant and effective strikes and campaigns, often fought by precarious and migrant workers on a local level. Take the Ritzy Cinema strike, where workers went on a protracted strike for the Living Wage and won significant increases; or the 3 Cosas Campaign at the University of London which fought over sick pay, holiday pay and pensions, and had victories.

Far from being a barrier to participation or a turn-off, radical political alternatives and tactics are in fact the key to building a mass movement. Many of the flagship successes of the past few years have been characterised by positive rather than just defensive demands, and a transformative politics. When the E15 Mothers, a group of single mums in east London made homeless by the Borough of Newham (which is incidentally an all-Labour council), they occupied a local empty housing estate to demand better social housing for all – and they appear to be winning.

If there is to be any hope of preventing an entrenched Thatcherite consensus from defining politics for a generation, the lessons of these disputes must learned. Since 2011, the trade union movement has focussed on building A to B marches and ‘co-ordinated strike action’, bringing together multiple sectors of the economy for a set of largely symbolic and defensive one-day strikes. This strategy has since witnessed a slow death by repetition. Many workers, already on low pay, are reluctant to lose another day’s wages for strike action which simply does not have a chance of forcing the government’s hand.

Last week we were supposed to witness another wave of co-ordinated action, but it fell apart. Unison pulled out of a local government strike and the Rail and Maritime Workers Union (RMT) cancelled its 48 hour London Underground strike. The National Union of Teachers indicated its unwillingness to participate in advance.

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The student movement of 2010, which in many ways accelerated the development of the anti-austerity movement in Britain, contained an invaluable lesson in how to escape the politics of impotence. When Millbank Tower was smashed and occupied, it provided a catalyst for layer of involvement that could not have come from a dry A to B demonstration. Four years ago saw the biggest wave of campus occupations in British history, and there were over a hundred thousand students in the streets on a single day. This movement was run from the bottom-up and its strategy was to directly confront the political establishment in the most disruptive manner possible.

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In early 2011, the leader of Britain’s biggest union said that this student movement had put the trade union movement on the spot. For all McCluskey’s efforts, the headline strategy of the trade unions and the policies of the Labour leadership remains stuck in a previous era – scared of proposing an alternative, and lacking in imagination. At a time when the vast majority of the population would support the nationalisation of energy and rail, and with disillusioned voters turning to Ukip in desperation, there is no reason why this timidity needs to be inevitable.