How did you get involved in the anti-cuts campaign?
I spoke at a meeting on solidarity with Greece where I said we needed a coalition of resistance in this country. A number of us, including many campaigners from the Stop the War Coalition, then formed the Coalition of Resistance Steering Committee.
It was apparent that we needed a broad-based active campaigning coalition, not linked or closely associated with any political party, well-connected with the unions, which could develop a network for the multitude of local or sectional campaigns, working with all other anti-austerity campaigns and liaising with similar movements internationally.
In early August, we issued a statement calling for a Coalition of Resistance against cuts and privatisation. It was headed up by Tony Benn and we had 74 signatories.
What is your assessment of popular reaction to cuts in Greece and Ireland?
Greece has been inspirational because it has shown that hundreds of thousands of people can organise and fight back. It was a picture of a big banner with ‘Resistance’ in five languages, draped in front of the Acropolis in December 2008, that spurred me to action. In Ireland, despite what seemed initially like a surrender to austerity measures, there is growing evidence that people there are starting to fight back. The protest movement in Greece has enabled others to gain in confidence.
What can we learn from previous campaigns, like Stop the War and the anti-poll tax protests?
We will need to be as colourful as those campaigns, involving all generations and all walks of life. There is a danger of being overtaken by gloom when faced with such policies as the imposition of academies and the privatisation of the Post Office. But, provided we are non-sectarian, facilitating and encouraging rather than commanding, resistance can be fun, with well-developed warm relationships based on solidarity. We need to nurture maximum local activity either through existing campaigns or, where they don’t exist, as ‘badged’ CoR events.
Whilst local focus is of critical importance, it is not enough. A Haringey councillor was asked recently what would persuade him to do more to fight the cuts and he said “200,000 people outside Downing Street”. That doesn’t justify his inertia, but he is right. We saw off the Poll Tax by many acts of resistance and organising on the streets.
And, as Stop the War showed in planning for its biggest demonstrations, the internet and social media provide us with far greater organisational opportunities than were open to the poll tax protestors.
Is there any debate about what kind of organisational model CoR should follow? And how will its November conference itself be organised?
The launch statement had an instant appeal with thousands of people. Where there are local cuts campaigns they are beginning to connect, through CoR, to a network of similar bodies. This approach is reflected on the website – www.coalitionofresistance.com, which is rapidly becoming the first port of call for anti-cuts campaigners with some 500 hits a day.
Currently the work is organised by a Steering Committee which has emerged from the solidarity with Greece meeting and two large meetings of London activists. It meets once a week at Houseman’s bookshop in Kings Cross. Clearly the conference will have to determine a more democratic, but hopefully not sclerotic, structure with an elected national committee and so on.
It is planned, within the limitations of the Camden Centre venue, to organise breakout groups at the 27 November conference to enable people to connect with others from their area or sector and to join up existing or spawn new campaigns of resistance.
Many activists became disillusioned with the role of the SWP in the anti-war movement, feeling they were too intent on controlling it. Do you think there is scope for the anti-cuts movement to become more genuinely pluralistic?
I’m not happy singling anyone out. Many retreated into their organisational shell or inactivity after the forming of the ConDem government. But we should not forget the essential role the SWP played early on in building a genuine united front in Stop the War which organised the UK’s largest ever demonstration in April 2003. Their anti-fascist campaigning remains excellent. The SWP came out fighting with an emphasis on the Right to Work Campaign which has an overlapping but far from identical footprint to CoR.
I don’t think we can predict exactly what a vibrant anti-cuts movement will look like. The Steering Committee neither had, nor has, a blueprint. The task is huge. Already we are bringing together pensioners, students, community campaigns and trade unionists. A new campaign, BARAC (Black Activists Rising Against Cuts) has affiliated to CoR because it sees the danger of obliteration for poor Black urban communities.
It is a marathon rather than a sprint but I am sure that, at the right time, together we will bring hundreds of thousands on to the streets. CoR will work with every national campaign with similar objectives, including the People’s Charter, the National Shop Stewards’ Movement, the Right to Work, TUC and union-sponsored and other campaigns – whilst retaining a distinct identity as the network in embryo of anti-austerity campaigns.
What’s your assessment of the state and role of the unions in the campaign?
Many left union leaders such as Jeremy Dear, Mark Serwotka, Bob Crow, Matt Wrack and Kevin Courtney signed up immediately. Others have been focused in the summer on elections in the Labour Party which is seeing a membership revival. A number of active engagements, demonstrations etc are contained in the TUC motions, though no doubt much proposed action will disappear with the ‘compositing’ of motions.
The TUC’s cuts website monitoring is very useful but appears as a list of what is being done to people rather than stressing what people can do back. Those Trades Councils which derive strength from both the workplace and the community will have a vital role to play and, if they have an active involvement are likely to undergo something of a revival. One can see a potential role for local Councils of Resistance based on Trades Councils.
How can the campaign reach out beyond the “usual suspects” of committed left and union activists? And how can we challenge the widely-held view that cuts are inevitable because of the deficit?
Firstly the usual suspects include six million public sector workers, the majority of them women, who will be questioning the neo-liberal agenda of the ConDem government. People are much less deferential to a political elite which is seen as self-serving, close to the bankers and tinged with corruption. The polls also suggest a serious falling away of support for LibDems’ involvement in the ConDem government of those who believe they are born to rule with those who are pathetically grateful to hang on to their coattails.
The CoR statement argues for the need to “develop and support an alternative programme for economic and social recovery” and stresses that “an alternative budget would place the banks under democratic control, and raise revenue by increasing tax for the rich, plugging tax loopholes, withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, abolishing the nuclear ‘deterrent’, cancelling the Trident replacement.”
There is a hunger for these arguments as evidenced by those who have taken the Statement to street stalls and tube stations and enjoyed the spectacle of queues to sign ‘Tony Benn’s statement against cuts and privatisation’.
Fact sheets, of the sort prepared by Red Pepper demolishing the myths about the spurious ‘necessity’ for cuts will encourage the grass roots, persuading those fighting for their own local services that they are part of a bigger movement for a caring civil society, in the same way as people in 1945 (when the country was far ‘broker’ than now) had the political will to demand a better society, the NHS and full employment.
We will also need to be vigilant in arguing against racist ‘solutions’ to the crisis. The BNP opposes the cuts; they want black people, immigrants and asylum seekers to pay. We argue that a modern welfare society is of necessity a multi-cultural society and fight particularly hard against cuts such as the slashing of provision of ESOL (English for Speakers of Other languages).
There is strong support amongst artists, poets, musicians and comics with a pool of talent in what has been called the Culture of Resistance. The CoR website has displayed poems from its inception. I’m anticipating a lot of Resistance music to liven up CoR events – one event recently ended with a revival of ‘We Shall Overcome’!
What kind of relationship do you think the campaign will have with the Labour Party?
There has been strong support from the Labour Representation Committee and Campaign Group MPs. One of the leadership contenders, Diane Abbott, signed the CoR statement.
But there is a problem because the argument that cuts are essential was developed under a Labour Government. The last Government saddled us with a load of management twaddle and nonsense about the need for public sector reform and burdened practitioners with budgeting responsibilities which have often made it harder for people to deliver a good service. The transfer of £70 billion commissioning budget from PCTs to GPs (or consortia of GPs) is merely an extension of a New Labour philosophy which we have to oppose.
CoR’s relationship to the Labour Party, and, more importantly, its members, will be to seek to involve them in campaigning against the cuts and, where there are elections, working alongside the fighting candidates such as Livingstone. I think the intellectually barren centre of the party will swing to whichever wing wins the argument.
And what of the Lib-Dems and other parties?
Some Lib-Dems, and certainly most tactical voters, are already joining the anti-cuts movement, for example where the odious Michael Gove has shelved their school building renewal. Once they see what the result of Clegg’s obsequious desire for office has led to, more will consider either ditching him or ditching the Lib-Dems. This will lead to tensions in the ConDem coalition itself, proving it to be more unstable than the Tory Party was with the Heseltine-Thatcher splits just before the demise of the Poll Tax.
A major beneficiary of these tensions could also be the Green Party who, with their million sustainable jobs campaign, have a vision for a better world. If AV is carried, there could also be some success for Left alternative parties based on community and workplace campaigns if only unity in action can overcome the habitual tendency to bicker. Birmingham Respect Councillor Salma Yaqoob has demonstrated what can be achieved.
On the CoR Steering Committee there has been a degree of humility about grand design and a lot of ‘learning by doing’. Nobody can be sure where this struggle will end up but we know that there is nothing to be lost by developing the resistance.
William Morris, in ‘Dream of John Ball’, summed up how serendipity can reward what seems to be failure with success for campaigners, pointing out that people “fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out to be not what they meant and other people have to fight for what they meant under another name.”
Clifford Singer is director of the ‘Other TaxPayers’ Alliance’, www.taxpayersalliance.org
Paul Mackney is a former general secretary of NATFHE (later the UCU)