There seems little point my writing up North Staffs TUC's successful public meeting against the cuts, which took place last Wednesday evening, simply because everyone else has already done it. Different reports are available on Boffy's Blog, PitsnPots, and Stoke Socialist Party. There are some big issues the anti-cuts movement need to address, such as alternative cuts, other means of tackling government debt, and contesting the hegemonic mystification of the deficit. But what I'm interested in are the strategic issues the Stoke meeting raised, which are likely to find themselves replicated elsewhere - and especially in those places where SP and SWP branches have a significant input into local campaigning bodies.
Firstly there is a difference in emphasis, which was brought out by Chris Bambery with his Right to Work hat on and Andy Bentley of Stoke SP (speaking under the fig leaf of Stoke UCU). Going first, Chris's speech broke no new ground and I suspect it will be one I'll hear many times again - the coalition has "no mandate" (actually, it does), this is a government of millionaires, they say cut back, etc. etc. But he was right on this: the government has Thatcherite ambitions, but the nature of the coalition means the Tories do not have the strength to prosecute the class warfare Thatcher oversaw in the 80s. Of course, what Chris didn't say was that while they are a weaker, so is the labour movement. This probably explains why he skirted over the issue and plugged instead a big demo outside the Tory party conference on October 3rd, attacked the TUC for "doing nothing" for 30 years (didn't he realise who organised the meeting he was speaking at?), and called for a general strike. In other words, leftist verbiage without any appreciation of the work that goes into activity.
The SP's approach is different. Andy's focus (apart from denouncing the cuts) was on building the campaign against them. While a couple of Chris's acolytes made vague pleas for unity from the floor, Andy talked about the need to set up an anti-cuts alliance as an immediate outcome of the meeting. His emphasis was on involving North Staffs TUC and other local union branches in such an organisation and, in contrast to the SWP, plugged the September 12th National Shop Stewards' Network-backed lobby of the TUC General Council to get them to call a national anti-cuts demo in London.
Here we have two approaches favoured by the principal far left organisations in Britain. The SWP's approach sets themselves up as the hard left of the movement. Witness the very leftist-sounding language, bypassing of existing structures, and eagerness to repeat scenes from Greece on the streets of Britain. Theirs is all very "movementy" and radical. The SP's approach is much more sober and links the building of an effective anti-cuts campaign with rebuilding labour movement organisations - it is the kind of level headedness that attracted me to the SP in the first place. In reality, there shouldn't be any hard opposition between the two - building the labour movement's strength goes hand in hand with imaginative and well publicised actions and protests. But I fear that because one organisation is set on one perspective and the other another, there is a danger at this early stage the beginning movement could be pulled in different directions.
The second problem is related to the SP's strategy and, if it persists, could store up trouble in Stoke and elsewhere. It may not have the same prominence in its propaganda as it once had, but the SP remains committed to its new workers' party perspective (despite the fact the political space for a sizable formation to the left of Labour has snapped shut, but I digress). The comrades are perfectly entitled to argue for this but it could prove problematic for the anti-cuts movement.
At the meeting Andy argued that Labour representatives should be excluded from participating in the movement if they decide to vote through cuts in the council chamber. I would imagine their non-participation would be self-enforced anyway - councillors have a tendency to avoid meetings where they're likely to get a lot of stick. Nevertheless I can understand where the SP are coming from - it's a principled position. But it's pursuing this line of argument that will cause severe difficulty. As Stoke has all-out council elections next year (with 40 seats up for grabs) and with a Labour-led coalition council implementing cuts, Andy argued the anti-cuts organisation in The Potteries should support anti-cuts candidates and stand its own. In other words, the campaign is a means of trying to realise the SP's new workers' party perspective - and taking the campaign down this road is music to the ears of the former Labourites and ex-fascists in Stoke's Community Voice. But at what price? Labour folk will find it very hard to remain involved - many of whom are the very trade unionists the campaign must attract. And potentially more damaging, Labour-affiliated unions would not be able to participate. Even if some separate anti-cuts entity is set up to pursue an electoralist course a split movement is still a split movement.
This is not a Stoke-specific issue - wherever the SP has an influence in the campaign and it is a Labour council making the cuts, if the comrades are successful in arguing for this line there will be a damaging split. So the SP needs to ask themselves a question: should unity among the labour movement be sacrificed for the sake of local electoral adventures? What matters the most?