Britain  •  Debate

The anti-cuts movement and the united front

06 March 2016

By Jeremy Dewar

TORY CHANCELLOR George Osborne has told the BBC that, “storm clouds are clearly gathering in the world economy and that has a consequence for lots of countries including Britain”. At the same time, the Office of National Statistics revealed that the UK economy is 1 per cent smaller than previously calculated: a shortfall of £18 billion.

Labour’s shadow chancellor John McDonnell was quick to point out that this means the “recovery is built on sand”. He could have added that it also means that the Tory budget on 16 March will announce more austerity cuts.

The respected Institute of Fiscal Studies has calculated (before this announcement) that government spending was slashed by 2 per cent a year over 2010-15, while the new Tory plans would be steeper: 2.2 per cent a year.

Now Osborne is threatening to add a further £18 billion to the £26 billion of cuts over this period. And these will be made to services that are already in meltdown: in the NHS, local government, education etc.

Why has the response from the labour movement been so weak?

These cuts represent a historic attack on the gains of the working class since 1945. The welfare state is being dismantled before our eyes.

The few big demonstrations and one-day coordinated strikes were never intended to be springboards for wider or more sustained action; they were merely there to show the unions were “doing something” (though not a lot).

In fact strike figures, once you strip out these one-day wonders, are at an historic low, while the threat we face is at a historic high.

This is a direct result of there not being a united, fighting anti-cuts movement, one with sufficient roots in the workplaces and the communities to rally the forces to make effective demands of our union and Labour leaders and to mount action in defiance of them if necessary.

The Coalition of Resistance, Unite the Resistance (UtR), the National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) and the People’s Assembly have all at various times proclaimed themselves to be the umbrella group to unite national unions and local campaigns against the cuts. In truth, none of them have cut the mustard.

UtR and the NSSN have never escaped the clutches of the small far left groups that initiated them, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and Socialist Party (SP) respectively. Their sectarianism means that they put control of “their” anti-cuts movement over and above the need for unity in the face of the enemy.

Their uncritical support of various “left” leaders precisely at the point where they are found wanting shows this: the SWP failing to criticise Billy Hayes and Dave Ward for letting Royal Mail be privatised without a fight; the SP for backing Len McCluskey’s surrender at Grangemouth petrochemical plant.

While the People’s Assembly has more union leaders signed up to it and includes the Labour left and Communist Party, it is even more craven towards them, not daring even to criticise the TUC. Like the others, the People’s Assembly has no vibrant local assemblies and acts more like an events and news mailing list.

To add to this woeful scene, Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell’s letter to councillors ordering them to pass on the Tory cuts was effectively an instruction not to fight back. While they have personally supported the BMA doctors’ strikes, they have not secured support from the Shadow Cabinet or the Parliamentary Labour Party.

We need a movement that combines unity in action and freedom of criticism

It is plain that if the leaders are paralyzed by inaction then grassroots militants need to take the initiative. What we need instead is a united, democratic federation of local anti-cuts groups, which can draw in delegates from Labour branches and CLPs, from local campaigns and community organisations, from trade union branches and workplaces.

Within this, socialists propose two essential things: unity in action against the Tory cuts and the freedom to criticise our allies whenever they prevaricate or sell out the struggle. No one is too important to condemn for his or her failings.

This policy, known as the united front, is not new. It was first set out in the third and fourth congresses of the Communist international in 1921-22. Based on the fact that no Communist Parties outside Russia had united all the fighting forces of the working class, and acknowledging the need for the Communists to strengthen their influence, there followed the need for tactics to win over these workers. This, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and Leon Trotsky argued, could only be achieved on a mass scale through action, not words alone:

“The united front tactic is simply an initiative whereby the communists propose to join with all workers belonging to other parties and groups and all unaligned workers in a common struggle to defend the immediate, basic interests of the working class against the bourgeoisie.” (Comintern Theses 1922)

Writing nine years later with regard to the fight against fascism, Trotsky argued the “action must be strictly practical, strictly objective, to the point, without any of those artificial ‘claims’, without any reservations”, so the proposal could not be misconstrued as a trick with the sole intention of outing the more right wing leaders.

On the other hand, Trotsky was clear that the official leaders would “inevitably” betray the struggle because of their commitment to capitalism and the bosses’ strategic line of march. So he insisted that there should be no confusion of banners, and sharp warnings and criticism had to be maintained.

Or as he succinctly explained it to a group of French comrades a few years later, “March separately, strike together – please do both!”

Workers’ government

Momentum groups should take a lead in calling local anti-cuts assemblies in every town and Metropolitan borough, drawing in Labour branches and constituencies, union branches and campaign groups. There they can organise practical solidarity and hammer out a strategy to unite the struggles. As soon as sufficient forces have been brought together, we can organise a conference to bring them together in a united federation.

This could not only halt the Tories in their tracks and save vital services and jobs, but also create the conditions for the election of an anti-austerity Labour government. More than that, it could provide a network of councils of action that could defend that government against reaction and raise the prospect of a real workers’ government, resting not on parliament but on the workers’ fighting organisations themselves.

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