Raids, ‘riots’ and rail strikes

Predicting a 'summer of discontent', Amardeep Singh Dhillon joins the dots between the recent anti-raids protests in Peckham and current strike actions across the UK

June 29, 2022 · 6 min read
A rally preventing an immigration raid in Peckham, London, June 2022 (Photo by Shelley Asquith)

For those of us praying for the long-awaited so-called Summer of Discontent, June has got us off to an optimistic start, albeit in political conditions that grow more ominous by the day. 

Early this month, I was among those in Peckham who rallied to prevent an immigration van from completing a house raid, facing down police violence (we were punched, shoved, throttled, kicked and forced to the ground) in an empowering show of community solidarity. Two days later, hundreds protested outside the Home Office against the government’s planned deportation flight to Rwanda, as lawyers worked through the night to get their clients’ appeals against deportation heard. The same week, Stop Deportations activists put their bodies on the line to stop coaches carrying migrants from Colnsbrook Detention Centre to the intended flight. By the end of the day, the flight was called off.

A week later, news arrived that arms company Elbit Systems had been forced to close its London headquarters following six actions in as many weeks by Palestine Action (profiled in our latest issue). Throughout, disruptive actions by groups like Just Stop Oil and Green New Deal Rising continued to make waves.

Most recently dominating headlines have been the nationwide RMT strikes, which have brought so much of the nation to a standstill and overnight christened Mick Lynch as a much-memed Internet favourite. As Ewan Gibbs notes, while many praise his ‘authenticity’ and ‘straight-talking’, it is Lynch’s accountability to his members rather than a flair for public speaking that is the basis of his (by all accounts successful) no-nonsense engagement with the media. If polls are to be believed, public opinion – particularly among young people, many of whom will have had no engagement with trade unions in their own working lives – is swinging in favour of the striking workers. This bodes well for the rising tide of strike action on the cards in the next few months.

With an 81 per cent turnout, 95 per cent of British Airways workers at Heathrow have voted in favour of strike action this summer, as have criminal barristers. At the end of June, the CWU will ballot its members at Royal Mail for strike action. The Royal College of Nursing and the British Medical Association, teaching unions NEU and NASUWT, have threatened to ballot their members for strike action in late summer. The Public and Commercial Services Union will do so this September if pay negotiations aren’t successfully concluded.

Public outrage over the worsening Cost of Living Crisis (a flawed framing, but certainly one with political utility for the left) is proving far less susceptible than might be expected to the circuit of government ministers, an aging commentariat and a supine Labour front-bench battling valiantly over the minutiae of how many meals a true patriot should forego in defense of the economy. Perhaps the time really is ripe for Don’t Pay UK’s plan to gather a million pledges for a mass non-payment action should the government go ahead with another energy bill hike on October 1st.

It is tempting, certainly, to look at these instances of organised militancy and hold out hope for a General Strike or similarly centralised coalition to deliver for the class where electoralism has indisputably failed. However, it’s impossible to underestimate the work needed on the shop floor in new and old sites of unionisation to make this possible and politically potent in the near future. The legacies of mutual aid and Kill The Bill have laid the groundwork for current action, but similarly caution against relying on centralising national structures for sustained mass insurrection. 

Our political imaginaries are understandably being swept up in the rush of renewed worker militancy – but the shop floor is not the only site of struggle. Immigration raids and deportations are likely to increase in the near future, as is direct confrontation between those resisting the hostile environment and the state. Alongside the expanding violence of the border regime, police violence against minors – in schools, yes, but also on the streets – and its role in the school-to-prison pipeline forced upon so many young black (and brown) children, has continued to radicalise the racialised communities upon which it is enacted most frequently and most discernibly. 

As precarity and poverty continue to draw an ever wider pool of the erstwhile middle class into their orbit; as shoplifting, fare-dodging and other criminalised mechanisms of survival elicit an ever more draconian response from the inaptly-named criminal justice system, we should be under no illusions about the fact that the summer of discontent for bosses and consumers will erupt into a winter of discontent for the working class. These are the economic, social and political conditions in which mass uprisings – or ‘riots’ – arise. 

The political terrain has shifted conclusively against liberal electoral democracy as a trusted avenue of struggle, and while there are wins to be made in and against the Labour Party, the left should be alert and responsive to the actions that the class is already taking as a class for itself. These will be framed as aggressive, as undemocratic, as mindless violence or dinosaur politics, but we have learnt, surely, the price of playing the respectability game by now. There is no room for equivocation. We are with the strikers and with the shoplifters, with vandals and with ‘activist lawyers’, with socialist MPs and ‘rioters’ alike. Peaceful protest and legal industrial action will remain vital tools to us in the days ahead; let us not mistake them for the only expressions of class power available to us.

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