Britain: Anti-cuts movement challenges gov’t

Anti-cuts protest, Nottingham.

A rebellion is developing across Britain in the face of huge spending cuts by the Conservative Party-Liberal Democrat coalition government.

The scale of the cuts is huge. The government is seeking to privatise huge swathes of the economy and hundreds of thousands of public sector jobs are under threat.

They have also cut corporation tax, but sharply increased the goods and services VAT tax from 17.5% to 20%, which hits those on lower incomes hardest.

By changing the inflation measure used to determine benefits and pensions, the government is plunging more people into poverty.

There are real fears that the cuts will swing the British economy back into recession. Secretary of state for justice Ken Clarke has noted the “calamitous state of the economy”.

The cuts have been justified by reference to Britain’s rising government debt. However, left-wing Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn said: “It is not budget balancing we are experiencing, but an agenda of shifting power and money to the rich and selling off public assets ... [it is about the] asset stripping of our public resources.”

The right-wing coalition is aiming to complete what the government of former Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher began in the 1980s. This included smashing trade unions, rolling back the state’s provision of services and opening up more space for corporations.

The 2008 financial crisis was a product both of global imbalances created by neo-liberalism and decades of rolling back controls on the British banking sector.

The crisis created a recession and accelerated the growth of government debt with bank bailouts.

An economic crisis created by giving the market too much power is being used to justify measures to give the market even more power.

However, huge student protests against fee hikes and education spending cuts have taken the authorities by surprise. The National Union of Students has long been criticised as dominated by New Labour career politicians and incapable of real defence of education.

Indeed, former right-wing Labour home secretary Jack Straw and disgraced MP Phil Woolas, forced out of parliament for lying in racist election leaflets, were both ex-NUS presidents.
However, a wave of occupations across British universities and the election last year of Marxist activist Clare Solomon as president of the University of London Students Union gave the movement a big boost.

Solomon became a household name after she appeared on BBC Newsnight in defence of the thousands of students who occupied Conservative Party headquarters in London on November 10.

Other radicals are winning student union positions, even in traditionally apolitical universities. The most recent example is eco-socialist Dan Cooper being elected president of the Royal Holloway Student Union.

The student protest movement has involved a large number of high school students from the poorer parts of south London. Protests by this sector have erupted onto the streets to resist government plans to cut their weekly £30 allowance.

BBC correspondent Paul Mason labelled this as the “dubstep” revolution, after the genre of music — a variety of revolutionary hip hop — that was born in the south London borough of Croydon.

Trade unions also look ready to fight the cuts. A huge demonstration has been called for March 26.

The most prominent union leader in the campaign against cuts has been Mark Serwotka of the civil servants union PCS.

Len McLusky, recently elected as general secretary of Britain’s biggest union, Unite, has also talked of militant action.

In the Unite election, his main opponent was independent Marxist Jerry Hicks, who surprised most commentators by coming second. His impressive campaign has helped inject militancy into Unite.

A variety of different anti-cuts bodies has been created. These include the Right to Work campaign initiated by the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). Another group is the Coalition of Resistance (COR), which attracted more than 1000 people to its first public meeting.

At the core of COR is Counterfire, an interesting group of self-styled “21st century Leninists” that includes Solomon and former SWP leader John Rees.

Two eco-socialist networks, Green Left and Socialist Resistance, are also active in COR. Also involved is Camp for Climate Action, which says the need for serious climate action demands opposition to neoliberal policies.

In an encouraging sign of non-sectarianism, the SWP, Communist Party of Britain and a range of other left groups have also supported COR.

Some left-wing Labour MPs, including Corbyn and John McDonnell, have also shown leadership in the anti-cuts campaign. The election of Ed Miliband as Labour leader, defeating his more explicitly Blairite brother David, was seen as a sign the left was gaining strength within Labour. However, this has not been sustained.

Labour has challenged the government over the worst of the cuts, but there is little sign it is willing to break from its broadly market-based approach. Instead, Labour argues only for slower and shallower cuts.

Caroline Lucas, the single Green Party MP, has played a strong role in the anti-cuts movement, supporting COR and the student protests.

The Green Party contested the May 2010 general elections on a clear anti-cuts program. It argued the financial crisis demanded a Green New Deal to create jobs, save money by cancelling Trident nuclear missiles and reform the banking sector.

Despite Lucas’s victory, electoral politics in Britain remains restricted by an unfair “first-past-the-post” electoral system.

It is difficult for Greens to advance in the electoral sphere without electoral reform. Such reform is difficult for Labour’s left to push in within Labour’s undemocratic structures.

Thus, there appears a block in British electoral politics. However, left-leaning Labour figure Ken Livingstone will contest the position of London mayor and is likely, as in the past, to build a constructive relationship with the Greens.

In Wales and Ireland’s north, the nationalist parties Plaid Cymru and Sinn Fein respectively are to Labour’s left and enjoy significant support.

In the short term, extra parliamentary action is going to be crucial. As well as student protests and trade union activity, imaginative forms of direct action are growing.

The group UK Uncut has been organising direct action against companies that dodge their tax bills. Activists have closed down branches of the phone company Vodafone, whose avoidance of billions of pounds in tax could have helped keep vital public services open.

The TUC march is likely to be a focus for action, Romayne Phoenix from the Green Party National Executive argues. "We must make the 26th of March into a magnificent demonstration of the opposition to the government's austerity measures and to the dismantling of our welfare state.

“As public services are cut and redundancy notices hit the doormat the people of Britain will find a voice, and will come together in strength, in a coalition of resistance.”

The energy to take on the government is most obvious not in national campaigns, but at a local level. Local campaigns have mushroomed. Opposition to library closures and government plans to sell the country's forests have sparked real passion.

Recently, Conservative MP Mark Harper was egged by angry constituents at a meeting on woodland sales.

Aaron Peters from UK Uncut told me: “I have been to meetings across London and at each one (all very well attended) there are previously apolitical people who are livid.”

Peters said the real energy to fight the cuts comes from hundreds of local campaign groups involving thousands of activists — who often have no interest in formal political parties.

There is a sense that this campaign will be fought and won at the local level.

The Conservative Party gained the largest number of MPs in 2010, but did not win a majority. It was put in power by the Liberal Democrats.

Ironically, many left-wing voters, disgusted by the neoliberalism of New Labour and the invasion of Iraq, voted Liberal Democrat. In coalition government, the party has reneged on previous positions.

As a result, the government can claim no real mandate for the cuts. Anger is rising and the normally sedate British are taking to the streets.

A huge wave of protests and non-violent action helped remove Thatcher from office in 1991, and it could be that the British are learning to walk like Egyptians.

Sustained action could break the offensive by the neoliberal government and shift things leftwards. The alternative is a government bent on making Britain an even more unequal and chaotic society.

[Derek Wall is an eco-socialist activist and member of the Greens Party. He runs .]

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