Monday 29 November 2010

Lewisham Town Hall Stormed

Like dozens of others up and down the country, it was going to be just another local anti-cuts protest. Lewisham Council, a Labour-controlled authority wants to cut £60m from its budget between now and 2014 (full story here). But no one going on the march to protest outside tonight's council meeting could have foreseen what was to happen. This is best left to Kate B's Twitter commentary, bits of which are reproduced below:

Lewisham council protest 2nite 6pm Catford town hall: fury @ Bullock's huge cuts list for a deprived borough ... Cops losing control at lewisham ... Ppl screaming let us in ... This is mad never seen protest like it ... Ppl have broken past cops into town hall ... Riot cops at a council meeting jesus ... Now ppl fighting riot cops ... Think yr going to need some bigger cops gideon ... Jesus ppl r going for the police theyre fighting back ... Whole street outside lewisham council is closed + full of coppers ... Everyone at this protest sayng theyre inspired by the students ... Gideon youve got a big fuckn problem here Ive never seen ppl take on riot cops ... Lewisham is a Labour council too. Jesus man that's anger ... Lewisham is a v poor borough. What does the govt expect?

When was the last time an attempt was made to storm a council meeting by a 400-strong protest? I don't know but there's a report
here and a video here.

Kate's final comment is right. In my experience over the last few years of doing stalls and speaking to hundreds of people on the streets and their doorsteps there has been an undercurrent of anger, but an anger tempered by isolation, impotence and hopelessness. You can strike and protest as much as you like, they'll never solve anything. Indeed when I was in the Socialist Party one comrade called this 'proxy consciousness': a disillusionment with, irreverence toward, and alienation from official party politics married to a fundamental lack of belief in one's ability to change things. Many a conversation took place where someone would agree with your points about class, inequality, New Labour, pensions, banks, NHS and whatever, but after they'd leave with a nod of the head and wish you good luck. They were issues people cared about, but they didn't see them as issues they should take charge of and fight for: that was what we, "the activists" did. And how could it be otherwise after the defeats of the 80s, the throwing back of working class consciousness, the collapse of a world-wide alternative to capitalism (despite its obvious problems and grotesqueries), the expunging of socialism from everyday politics and the successful sell of consumerism to millions of atomised people?

Nevertheless the combustible material was there and now it is being touched off. I can't remember who said students are the advance guard of the working class, but the support and solidarity the 10.11.10 protest and subsequent days of actions and occupations have inspired is bleeding into wider layers of the population. As Kate notes, "everyone on the protest saying they're inspired by students".

It does also mean the labour movement and the left have to up its game. I'm sure it's the same for many others reading this: up until this year really - and leaving aside the build up to the Iraq war - my experience of the period has been a series of small-scale set pieces. A strike here. A campaign against a closure there. Struggles have been isolated with little in the way of mass expressions of solidarity. But now all bets are off. Class struggle, previously subterranean has now exploded out into the open. Confidence is building rapidly, especially among younger people and no one has the ability to shut it down. A new carnival of protest has ridden into town seething with energy and vitality. For many people who've been knocking around the labour movement for years, the sudden explosions of activity are as strange and alien to us as it is to the raw demonstrators and occupiers who are tasting activism for the first time. And while this is an unfamiliar situation to us, it is doubly so for the powers that be. As tonight's scenes from Lewisham repeat themselves over the coming weeks and months ahead, the discomfiture of having a movement breathing down your neck will be felt by politicians from all parties who vote to cut, however reluctantly they may do so.

The left has to adapt and win this new movement to socialism by persuasion, passion and above all politics. That is the acid test the situation demands. It is how we will be judged by the movement before us and the generations who come after us. Are we up to it?


James Doleman said...

Great post, it does seem like a step change.

Phil said...

It does. However I feel there is a certain unevenness about things (how could it be otherwise?). The action so far seems concentrated in the large metropolitan centres, whereas out in the provinces, like here, the bug is yet to catch. But the raw material is there. My experiences with 'proxy consciousness' are based on dozens upon dozens of stalls done down the years, AND between them the two universities sent down 12 coaches and one minibus to the demo a few weeks back. Will it catch up with elsewhere?

Duncan said...

The action so far seems concentrated in the large metropolitan centres, whereas out in the provinces, like here, the bug is yet to catch.

I dunno Phil, school students were walking out last week in places I haven't even heard of.

Phil said...

Maybe I'm generalising too much from my experience with the two local universities. But then again just how many provincial schools had walkouts a few weeks ago?

Phil said...

Lewisham SP statement on the protest:

Tonight Lewisham council met to agree £20m worth of cuts, the first phase of £60m cuts in the next three years. Over 200 demonstrated outside the town hall, including 100 strong feeder march from Goldsmiths University. The demo heard speeches from local trade unionists and community campaigners. When it came to going into the public gallery to hold our local councillors to account, only 28 people were allowed into the gallery, despite requests from Lewisham Anti-Cuts Alliance that the meeting be streamed into an overflow video room. Protestors attempted to get into the town hall to get up to the gallery. Around 40 police officers with riot shields, police horses and dog teams were used to contain the demonstration and the centre of Catford was sealed off while the demonstration was going on. The Socialist Party condemns the heavy-handed police tactics. If local people were actually given the opportunity to hold their politicians to account then the situation would have been avoided. Former Socialist Party councillors Ian Page and Chris Flood have called on the council to make a stand and refuse to implement the cuts. Outrageously, the Labour council has not only decided to pass on Con-Dem cuts to working class and young people in Lewisham, they are relying on riot police to defend them from local people protesting at those cuts.

Boffy said...

I think its great to see a reaction like this, and as I said only last week or so, the students will undoubtedly act to stimulate such action, especially when its coupled with daily TV coverage of actions across Europe. But, we have to be careful. 300 people sounds a lot, but in reality its necessary to ask exactly what they represented. We've seen spontaneous demonstrations appear over paedophiles, and so on. Does this represent a much wider degree of support within the Borough?

If it does then the SP are right to demand that the Labour Council respond accordingly. If it doesn't then Labour Councillors should still try to build a movement to fight the Cuts, but simply demanding they vote against without that kind of wider movement would be suicide, and counter-productive.

We also have to be careful, and you've covered it partly. As the Twitter feed said, you can strike and demonstrate as much as you like, but it won't change things decisively under current conditions - Liberal MP's and Porter might adapt to it though as this week has seen - Greece where such action has been taking palce or nearly 6 months without effect shows that. Political soluitons are required, an adequate programme is required. By that I don't mean ridiculous calls for Soviets to be set up, or even as the AWL suggest a Workers Government (a demand Trotsky said was only relevant in a period of dual power, which no one in their right mind thinks we are in, and for which there is not even any suitable candidates to comprise it!), but a programme of practical measures and tactics such as building local anti-cuts committees to identify likely targets, buyilding links through local TUC's with Public Sector unions, developing strategies for occupying threatened facilities, discussions on how to keep facilities and services running where they are threatened etc. How that can be comined with selective action by Local Govt workers to stop collecting rents and Tax, but keep paying Benefits and bills to small traders etc.

I heard an interesting comment on the BBC News Business section today. It came from David Buick of BGC Partners, a City firm. Usually, he comes out with a load of right-wing propaganda. Today talking about the fact that irelands Bonds have continued to fall, he said, its no wonder, because they are being asked to pay this interest at the same time as being asked to introduce austerity measures that are tanking the economy and making it harder to earn the money to pay the interest. Similar sentiments are being heard in relation to other EU countries. In other words the idea is beginning to take hold that Cuts are counter-productive, and that what is needed is a strategy for growth.

Alex Dawson said...

The "proxy" consciousness ideology has totally infected trade unions.

Most members, in my experience, are happy to allow a few activists and officials do the legwork and the representation on their behalf rather than get involved themselves.

This cannot be explained away by the so-called "crisis of leadership" advocated by many left groups - often even the best union reps and activists have huge trouble convincing members to attend branch/workplace meetings unless there is a major issue on the table.

This has led to a general lack of participation in democracy, even in unions where that participation is actively encouraged and nurtured such as in mine.

There are so many reasons behind this - and cannot just be put down to some abstract idea that the leadership is poor...people are working longer hours around 24 hour shift patterns and cramming more into their lives, with the multitude of media and entertainment distractions around us now that actually isolate more than unite.

But movements such as Lewisham show that, in spite of everything the media is throwing at them, people are still prepared to have a go back when they are pushed around.

The most important task to hand is to unite all of these movements under one umbrella...

ModernityBlog said...

"But then again just how many provincial schools had walkouts a few weeks ago?"

But Phil, can't you see why teenagers might be so annoyed and pissed off?

Imagine you are a bright young kid, from a poor background and your only hope (as far as you see it) is to achieve something educationally, to get that nice piece of paper that puts you on the first rung of the middle-class ladder for success, then think how the Tory government has taken that away.

Cameron's government has effectively stopped a generation of bright working-class kids, often from ethnic backgrounds, from accessing University and then, as they perceive it, a brighter future in the capitalist world.

That's why they're annoyed, the politics is local, it hits people where they feel it and that's why they're reacting.

Boffy said...

Actually, the problem of participation is not new. I did a review of a new book on the Co-op recently in which the issue was being discussed back in the 1920's, 30's, and 40's. The German SPD, which was by far the biggest, and most effective Workers party of the last century even at its height had few people attending its Branch meetings other than a few activists. Partly, the reality of bouregois society is a root cause, partly the top down statist politics of the Left, encourage that approach. Single spontaneous actions pose no threat to the establishment or the entrenched leaders of the Workers Parties or left sects. We need to build workers involvement in their own organisations within workplaces and communities.

As for one umbrella organisation, ideally yes, but the question is on what basis? The reality is that at the moment the left sects most likely to provide a lead on that will do what they have always done, and use it for their own ends. The Programme of the SWP moreover is wholly inadequate. If it were possible to establish some single organisation with some kind of at least minimally adequate program, and more importantly, the democratic strcuture to enable ordinary workers to develop it, then I'd agree. In the meantime, I'd prefer local groups with adequate responses to larger groups with inadequate responses.

ModernityBlog said...

" Partly, the reality of bouregois society is a root cause, partly the top down statist politics of the Left, encourage that approach."

Yeah, and often people who are rebelling against capitalism don't like being told what to do...the top down approach, a favourite of Last Century's Left is fairly off putting to many, plus it doesn't really work..

Ken said...

Have a look at Ian Bone's blog, here and here. It'll bring a smile to your face!

Phil said...

Mod, I don't get your point. All I was pointing out was how the consciousness among students is uneven and tends to be concentrated in big institutions. There's no real reason why Staffs and Keele should be any different - both turned out very good numbers for the London demo. But we have to recognise the movement is where the movement is.

modernity said...


My original point was not concerning numbers or supposed global consciousness, but trying to understand why individual youngsters might see this issue so intensely.

They do so, in my opinion, because it is so directly related to their future, they understand (even on a subconscious level) the class nature of British society and the importance of having that little bit of paper from a University, without it they realise their futures are barren.

I think we need to get beyond these broad brushes, talks of the "masses", "the movement", etc and actually think why people act as they do, what impulses and motivations drive them, as it gives us a better sense of what is possible and what is not.