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.

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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.

Michael Chessum is a socialist writer and campaigner.