The TUC anti-austerity demonstration is a waste of time, money and effort

23 07 2012

The national anti-austerity demonstration in London this October is a waste of time, money, effort, and anything else that is spent on it.

I am anti-austerity and anti-cuts. In the past I’d probably have complained that the TUC doesn’t hold national demonstrations often enough. My point is not that the unions are wrong in principle. My point is that there is no point.

What is this latest demonstration supposed to achieve? What’s the plan? Is there one?

26/03/2011. Didn’t change anything. Hey, let’s do it again!

There isn’t, of course, just as there so evidently wasn’t after the demo on March 26th last year. And the point of holding a demonstration is far more opaque now than it was in spring 2011. What is this for? Is it to show opposition to the government? The government already knows the unions are against it. It doesn’t care. Unless a couple of million show up – not likely – ministers will see it as just another protest.

And since when did we need a demonstration to show opposition to austerity? Look at the government’s poll ratings. Look at its local election results. Look at the contemptuous shrug with which the public greets its every utterance. This is now a government of the undead. It knows it is unpopular. It knows it’s on borrowed time. Its only remaining objective is to implement the policies it has already voted through before it is booted from office. A national demonstration won’t stop this.

But while there isn’t really a point to this protest, there most certainly is a price tag. Word has it that organising and holding this demonstration will cost the TUC fully £250,000. A cool quarter of a million. And it’s that price tag that’s the real problem.

Crying all the way from the bank

The real war against the government’s cuts is not being fought in the plush offices of union leaders. Aside from the pensions dispute, it is being fought by user-led organisations (ULOs) representing disabled people, adult care users, unemployed people forced onto workfare, and the like. It is being fought through the courts when government departments, NHS trusts and local councils try and cut corners to cut costs. And it is being fought by people who have very little money.

This walking tour of London costs *how much*?

Imagine what £250,000 could do in their hands? The Spartacus report was produced for a few thousand pounds. Disabled people’s organisations have had their funding pulled for daring to challenge vicious cuts on behalf of their members. If ULOs had access to free legal advice and support, they could cause huge problems for the implementation of the government’s policies whilst defending their members.

And maybe that might put this in terms union leaders understand. Most of the main union bosses either explicitly or privately want to ‘bring down the government’.

Well, the key planks of the government’s austerity agenda are local government and welfare cuts. With the majority of local government job cuts having already gone through (let’s not get onto the unions’ performance on that front), what is left are attacks on adult care service users, children and young people, and those in receipt of state financial support.

If union bosses want to ‘bring down the government’, funding moves to obstruct the implementation of cuts to social care and welfare would seem a good way to go about it. Without these particular cuts, the government’s austerity agenda collapses pretty quickly.

That £250,000 – plus other money from the union movement – would be better spent providing funding for the ULOs fighting these cuts, and helping set up ULOs where none exist. It shouldn’t be that quantum a leap – Unison has previously offered small grants to parents fighting Sure Start cuts. It’s just a short hop from that to supporting those who are fighting more severe attacks.

For god’s sake, change the station

I don’t actually blame the TUC for this. I suspect they don’t especially want to spend £250,000 on something with so little demonstrable purpose. But the leaders of the TUC’s member unions have forced their hand.

My guess is it went something like this. The more militant union leaders – Serwotka, McCluskey et al – have wanted a national demonstration for a while, that being the stock response of the Left to most situations. The moderate leaders didn’t fancy such bolshiness, and held off until the Budget omnishambles and the Tories’ local elections rout saw Labour rack up a solid double-digit lead in the polls – thereby making said bolshiness suddenly acceptable to Dave Prentis.

With the militants and the moderates all demanding action – sorry, ‘action’ – the TUC’s hand was most likely forced. I don’t know that for a fact – but it’s how these things usually work.

Like so much else on the Left, this is all horribly redolent of student politics. Every year during the noughties, the socialist wing of the National Union of Students would demand a national demonstration against student fees as an article of faith. Every year the moderates would try and resist, preferring polite lobbying of the Labour ministers whose career paths they hoped to follow, unless and until a national demo served their own needs. At no stage did anyone think to look for an overarching strategy that might work – nor, heaven forfend, find out what students actually wanted. Needless to say, nothing was achieved.

There’s nothing wrong in holding a national demonstration if it is part of a broader, thought-out strategy – if there is something before it, something after it, something around it, something aside from it. But to just have a long march through London for its own sake is little better than a mass collective walking tour. With a union boss as the tour guide.

Any right-wing trolls loitering here are wasting their time. Your ideology is bankrupt and your policies discredited. I am solidly anti-austerity, anti-privatisation and anti-cuts. And to those many, many people who will work to organise and attend this demonstration over the coming months, I give my best wishes. There’s not going to be any turning back on this, the march will go ahead, so I hope it goes well for you. If you have worked out a benchmark by which to measure its success, I hope it meets it.

But the six-figure socialists who lead the union movement simply have to move on from seeing demonstrations (and their cheaper cousin, rallies) as the main tool to defend people from this government.

Assuming it is this, and not macho posturing, that they’re aiming for.

P.S – Perhaps the most enjoyment to be had from this demonstration will be seeing whether Ed Miliband gets an invite to speak from the platform, given his cold shoulder to striking public sector workers. Labour would see an outright snub from the TUC as rather uncouth, but the unions may not want to risk the sight of MiliE being roundly heckled by protesters. My guess is the unions will fudge it by inviting a left-wing Labour frontbencher like Jon Trickett or Diane Abbott. Such are the farcical neuroses of left-wing politics….

P.P.S – I’m writing this is in a personal capacity. Obviously.


The Guardian’s inadvertent slur on workfare protesters

9 07 2012

Glorified high street herb-growers Holland & Barrett announced they were ending their involvement in the government’s unpaid work scheme late last week.

In a statement released on Thursday night, the firm stated: “…the 60 people currently undertaking the work experience scheme will be the last to complete the eight week placement. After this time Holland & Barrett will not participate further in that scheme.”

This, of course, is the Work Programme, the government’s much maligned attempt to abolish the national minimum wage by forcing unemployed people to work without pay. Anticipating a week of targeted protests by anti-workfare campaigners, Holland & Barrett ditched the government scheme in favour of their own ‘apprenticeship’ scheme, which itself will pay peanuts.

Shiv Malik, the Guardian reporter who has jumped on the bandwagon reported fearlessly and tirelessly on the workfare saga, filed a report the following evening. In it, he wrote:

“The health and nutrition specialists, owned by NBTY Europe, said the decision was due to pressure from activists, which it alleged included assaults on staff and the prospect of further disruption at its stores this weekend.”

Assaults on staff? Really? It’s true that the protests would have included peaceful occupations of shops, and it’s also true that by its legal definition, ‘assault’ doesn’t require the actual application of physical force (merely the fear of it) – but what evidence is there that activists had assaulted staff?

Imagine if it had been the other way round – if a workfare protester had accused Holland & Barrett staff of assaulting them. Neither the Guardian nor any other newspaper would have published a breath of it without documentary evidence, video recording, or at least corroborating eye-witness testimony.

But because the company was accusing unnamed protesters, the accusation ran with the meaningless word “allegedly” – a get-out clause to avoid having to ascertain its veracity.

I don’t believe for a moment that Shiv Malik intended to slur the protesters – not when Boycott Workfare are the source of half his stories. Partly this comes down to libel laws – a big, named high street chain can sue; unidentified generic protesters cannot.

But more than that, it is an example of one of the flaws of media coverage on a raft of matters – the favouring of ‘official’ testimony over that of protesters, the public, or anyone whose role in life does not start with capital letters.

This has happened before amid the workfare row. When a rash of employers pulled out (or pretended to pull out) of the Work Programme in February, employment minister Chris Grayling claimed that the protests were a front for the Socialist Workers Party. Right on cue, that night’s Newsnight had Emily Maitlis asking someone from the Socialist Party about workfare protesters being an SWP front (and if you know your hard left, you’ll know what a tangent that’s going down…). Grayling’s mere utterance of the allegation had the media scuttling around in his wake.

This can have a very damaging effect over an extended period. In the run-up to the Iraq War, official testimony as to Iraqi weapons of mass destruction went infamously unquestioned by many journalists and politicians.

Or there was the run-up to the credit crunch. The hard left warned for years about the growing debt bubble and over-reliance on the financial sector. It was all completely ignored, because all the ‘serious people’ were absolutely certain that debt-fuelled growth and an unregulated Square Mile were the tickets to eternal prosperity.

Listen to officialdom. Ignore the plebs. Apparently, the media has learned nothing since.

The only banking inquiry worth having

3 07 2012

I don’t much care if Bob Diamond’s gone. I mean, I’m glad he’s gone, but it’s all a bit of a distraction.

I don’t much care about the government’s inquiry to find out exactly who did what when in the Libor-rigging scandal. I mean, it needs to happen, but we know enough already to make our minds up.

And I don’t much care for an inquiry into the culture of banking – we’ve all known for ages that this is a thinly-veiled criminal operation, even if the politicians have only just found out.

Nor even do I hugely care for an inquiry into the relationship between bankers and politicians – again, we all know the former had the latter wrapped round their fingers, via donations, lobbying, cronyism and the politicians’ own ideological delusions. For most of us outside Westminster, the only thing we want from our politicians is to sod off and let some grown-ups take charge.

What I want is an inquiry into banking. Banking as an industry, as a service, as a concept. I want an inquiry that, yes, sifts through the details of the Libor scandal, and the details of how bankers behaved and misbehaved, and pins responsibility where it needs to be pinned.

But all that will be sepia one day. No inquiry into the Libor scandal will have a worthwhile legacy unless it addresses and answers the following:

– why were the investment banks bailed out?

– where did the bailout money – our bailout money – go?

– what roles are and have been played, both negatively and positively, by investment banks in Britain’s economy and politics?

– what is the proper role and purpose of investment banking and retail banking for Britain’s public interest?

– what is the best structure of ownership and regulation to deliver that proper role and purpose?

– what is the best means of providing credit to the economy, and internationally, what would be a better way of providing credit to governments?

I want to know why we bailed out the criminal enterprise that brought down our economy to the tune of £1.2 trillion. I want to know what has been done with that money, and if and how we can get it back. I want to know what bits of investment banking, if any, are of use to the rest of us – because the rest needs to go, now. And I want to know why banking is assumed to be best under the control of spivs and shareholders.

Anything less – anything less – is just noise.