Left Luggage

The socialist strategy site

Leftovers #1

Posted by Left Luggage on April 6, 2009

The first of our series of weekly round-ups reviews the strategic discussions on the Left that accompanied the G20 protests, different union interventions into the political arena, an ill-advised statement from a teachers’ union and several militant actions around the UK.

Last week was one of those rare occasions when discussion about the best strategy for the Left entered the mainstream. The Guardian’s Comment is Free featured articles by a number of “critical voices”, who mostly agreed that the G20 demonstrations heralded the beginning of the end for neoliberalism. Authors differed, however, on exactly how the beast would be slain.

Will Hutton argued that the breaking of Fred Goodwin’s windows (which he was at pains to point out was “wrong”) was “part of a worldwide reaction that is generating change”. Other symptoms of this “reaction” apparently include AIG executives in America handing back their bonuses and RBS suspending its tax avoidance scheme.

Such transformation of attitudes and behaviour is good news. The even better news is that, partly in response to public opinion and partly because the risks of doing nothing are so obvious, the G20 countries increasingly look as if they have got their act together. There will be a deal that will create a new regulatory architecture for global finance.

In other words, a combination of public pressure and self interest will persuade the financial elite to re-regulate themselves in order to avoid total oblivion. Hutton’s vision appears to be of a reformed free-market with renewed legitimacy and stability.

Jeremy Seabrook advocates and envisages much more far-reaching change. In an almost celebratory piece, Seabrook predicts that the recession will bring about a wholesale change in the values of the industrialised West. Consumerism, militarism and sexual oppression will all be cast off, he proclaims.

Seamus Milne put forward a slightly less utopian view, pointing out that sustained popular struggle will be required if “we are to avoid the return to business as usual that politicians and corporate powerbrokers evidently still envisage across the western world.” While pointing to some encouraging signs, including the occupation of Visteon factories as well as the G20 protests themselves, Milne sounds a cautionary note. He stresses that “trade union movement, NGOs, political parties and thinktanks” currently proposing alternatives to neoliberalism lack the “political muscle” to impose their will.

Gregor Gall has little doubt about which forces possess the necessary power. In a piece entitled “Unions must show their muscle”, Gall dismisses G20 protests as “pretty much here today and gone tomorrow” and advocates the general strike as the weapon with the most potential to force concessions from big business. Referring to mass union action organised in other European countries, Gall asks: “Isn’t it about time unions in Britain took a leaf from their French, Italian or Greek counterparts’ book?”

The prospect of the conservative British union leadership calling for a programme of widespread industrial action seems far fetched at the moment, given that the kind of rank and file militancy which might force the hand of the union bureaucrats has been absent in most sectors of the workforce for two decades.

There are signs, however, of a renewed willingness to take action. First February’s unofficial action by energy workers shocked the Government and forced real concessions. The latest flashpoint came at car part factories in Belfast, Basildon and Enfield, where Ford subsidiary Visteon sacked 560 of its 610 strong workforce on Tuesday. The case seemed like a repeat of BMW’s dismissal of 850 workers six weeks ago in Oxford, but this time workers refused to accept defeat and occupied the three factories. They are demanding proper redundancy payments, and one statement by workers suggested that the Government should intervene to redeploy the workers in other industries. Unite rep at the Enfield factory, Kevin Nolan, faced jail this morning for defying a court order to vacate the factory. The United Left in Unite held a demonstration outside the court in London’s Strand from 9.45am this morning.

Unions have also entered the political arena in recent weeks. The RMT has lead efforts to establish No2EU – Yes to Democracy, a left wing anti-EU electoral platform. Bob Crow heads up the alliance, which makes the case that the EU is undemocratic, undermines workers’ rights and promotes privatisation. We’ll be running a feature of the group soon. Elsewhere, the GMB appears to be heading in a very different direction. The union, which is still affiliated to Labour, has launched an effort to “to restore the social democratic soul back into the party” by encouraging activists to engage in politics through their local Labour branches. Along with the attempts of John McDonnell and the LRC, this might represent a significant development on the Labour left.

One union that probably hasn’t endeared itself to the working class this week is the teaching union ATL. General Secretary Mary Bousted writes in the Observer that parents do not put enough effort into rearing polite and hard working children, making things difficult for her members. The comments and the attitudes behind them risk dividing teachers from the communities they serve. A far better model of parent-teacher cooperation is the NUT’s involvement in the community campaign to prevent the creation of a privately-run city academy to replace Royal Docks school in Newham. In Glasgow, parents have shown they do care about their children’s education by occupying two schools at risk of closure.

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