A new kind of angry brigade

The coalition could be making a massive mistake if it believes that resistance will be confined to an isolated rump of beleaguered union activists and 'usual suspect' protesters, writes Michael Calderbank

August 5, 2010
5 min read


Michael Calderbank is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective. He is also a parliamentary researcher for a group of trade unions.

‘Turn away from the mob. Ignore the angry brigade. Let their spittle run down the walls. This is the moment for the coalition to rise above the yells of the left.’ This advice, dripping with contempt for ordinary people, was dispensed not by some populist reactionary like Richard Littlejohn or Jon Gaunt, but by Julian Glover in the Guardian.

Such has been the political elite’s goodwill towards the agenda of the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition government that we are now told that popular resistance to their plans is tantamount to collective insanity. Clearly, the ‘rational’ thing to do is to lose your job, see your pension slashed, give up benefit entitlements, pay VAT at 20 per cent, get into more debt and stand idly by as all your local services are stripped to the core. After all, aren’t we ‘all in this together’, and isn’t everyone going to have to make sacrifices if the country isn’t to be brought to its knees? Presumably this is the ‘non-ideological’ approach that Tony Blair claims is necessary in government.

Yet even from the point of view of capitalist interests the ferocity of the proposed cuts to public spending is utterly illogical. The idea that in the midst of a very tentative and fragile recovery the best way to secure growth is to engineer a substantial contraction in the economy is manifestly absurd. Economists have spelt out with alarming clarity the dangers of a double-dip recession increasing the costs of unemployment benefit and lowering the tax take.

As our ‘cuts mythbuster’ shows (page 22), the received wisdom is a tissue of mystifications designed to legitimise a quintessentially political project. It is clear that the motivation for the cuts has little to do with prudent management of the economy and everything to do with an ideological attack on the public sector and welfare state, which are to be both scaled back and cracked open to let the private sector take over.

While in terms of civil liberties and democratic reform the coalition has taken some steps forward, on economic policy the Lib Dems are playing the role of useful idiots for Cameron, giving a ‘moderate’ gloss to proposals that are clearly inspired by the free-market right. As Robert Taylor (page 14) and Anthony Arblaster (page 16) outline, the historical tradition of social liberalism played an important role in laying the foundations of the British welfare state now under attack from the modern-day Liberal Democrat ministers – a situation that at least a section of the party is already beginning to find acutely uncomfortable.

Meanwhile, the Labour party is clearly breathing a sigh of relief at not being responsible for implementing cuts. But as it debates which of the Milibands it wants as its leader, there is as yet precious little evidence that it will be able to comprehend the reasons for the collapse in its vote between 1997 and 2010.

Yet while Labour lacks the credibility to lead opposition to the government’s cuts, the coalition could be making a massive mistake if it believes that resistance will be confined to an isolated rump of beleaguered union activists and ‘usual suspect’ protesters. Millions of British people who have hitherto had little interest in party politics will find themselves at the sharp end of attacks on jobs, pay, pensions and services. We can’t hang on the word of the next Labour leader or wait for the slow cogs of the trade union bureaucracy to turn; nor can we allow sectarian divisions to fracture the building of a broad alliance against the cuts.

We need to be open, outward-looking and imaginative in the ways we organise. Where class struggle might once have suggested the big (male) battalions of industrial militancy, today it has to mean something different: united community action with (mostly female) public sector workers standing in solidarity with all those who rely on local services.

As Tim Hunt and Siobhan McGuirk show (page 28), the budget hits women particularly hard, since they are disproportionately represented in the public sector workforce and among the low paid. Moreover, they will be expected to shoulder the burden – without pay – of essential caring duties, and are more dependent upon benefits and services as a result.

Too often today the mainstream coverage of feminist politics is dominated by a narrow range of ‘women’s issues’ (such as reproductive rights, the rise of lap-dancing clubs and sexual commodification more generally). Though important in their own right, these do not necessarily open out towards a global vision of systemic change in the way that, for example, the anti-nuclear struggles of the women at Greenham Common or the women organising in defence of mining communities did for a previous generation.

So the special focus on the revival of grass-roots feminist organisation in this issue is intended as part of our continuing support for a new generation of activists in contesting their marginalisation, and in demonstrating that feminist perspectives remain central to the future of emancipatory politics.


Michael Calderbank is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective. He is also a parliamentary researcher for a group of trade unions.


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