The following was written in March 2015, and first published in Organise #84. We are re-posting it now during a time when actions against austerity are once again taking place across the country. We hope that we can all learn from the successes and failures of the past five years. They say cut back…
Poking a Future Monarch with a Stick: A Critical Look at the UK Anti-Cuts Movement
The fight against austerity driven cuts (or ‘savings’ as the state refers to them) mobilised hundreds of thousands of people across the UK, saw the wide spread adoption of direct action, and an unprecedented level of student militancy. It saw the largest strike in a generation, the largest protest since the outbreak of the Iraq war, the most widespread rioting in decades, and attacks on key government buildings on a scale not seen since the poll tax riots.
It also failed.
It didn’t meet any of its key goals, and whilst we should celebrate those small victories that were achieved, we also have to recognise that we failed to harness or sustain the level of anger and activity that marked the peak of the anti-cuts movements in 2010 and 2011. Here we take a look at those intertwined movements, the student revolt, UK Uncut, the Trades Union Congress (TUC), local anti-cuts groups, and single issue campaigns. Why weren’t they more effective? How could they have been? Most importantly, what can we do now?
The Student Movement
Some of the earliest blows against austerity were landed by the student movement. The foundations for this movement were laid in 2009, with the wave of university occupations in support of the struggle of Palestinians against the Israeli state. This experience taught many students important tactical lessons, and the victories it achieved boosted the confidence of those that took part and those who would follow them.
Following the announcement of the tripling of tuition fees, the cutting of education funding and the scrapping of the Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA), the response from college, school, and university students was explosive. Demonstrations, marches, and occupations spread across the country, and with Labour in opposition the National Union of Students (NUS) was free to capitalise on this anger.
The NUS called for both local actions and large national marches, however on the 10th of November 2010 it became clear they weren’t able to control the monster they’d helped to unleash. While students were still on the streets of London battling the police and trashing the Tory party HQ at Milbank their union’s leader, Aaron Porter, was on TV condemning their actions. The NUS continued its trajectory into irrelevance, culminating in Porters successor being chased from the stage by hecklers in 2012. The NUS confirmed this beyond doubt when they pulled out of the 2014 student demonstration completely.
Perhaps the NUS should have seen this uncontrollable level of militancy coming. The local demonstrations had become steadily more confrontational, as police repression and government indifference radicalised students far faster than any number of ‘anarchist infiltrators’ could (despite the incessant warnings about us in the press). The student rebellion would peak on the 9th of December 2010, the night that parliament voted through the cuts and fees.
The anger on the street led to running battles with the police, the trashing of the treasury and west end shops, an attempt to burn Trafalgar’s Christmas tree, and almost beyond belief, the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall driving through an angry mob that began chanting “off with their heads”. The Duchess was famously poked with a placard stick, and the secret service escort car had its rear window shattered by a bin.
So much focus had been on the vote in parliament that by the start of 2011 the movement felt drained and demoralised. Much of the energy left got diverted into attempting to win elected NUS positions in the hope of making it a more radical organisation. Many anarchists argued this strategy was counter-productive from the start. Even in locations where radical candidates did end up in positions of power, activists often found they were too bound by the structure of the NUS to be much help. In fact, at one Westcountry uni the most receptive officer to activist requests was the right leaning president. Never underestimate how many concessions a scared right wing representative will give you – even compared to supposedly leftist reps.
Elsewhere some anarchists tried to push for a more horizontal and federated structure within the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC). However despite being much smaller than the organisation they’d instigated, the centrist Alliance for Workers Liberty (AWL) was able to sideline these plans due to their control of key NCAFC structures.
Many of the other connections between students in different cities were fragile and informal. Despite the widespread influence of anarchist methods, attempts to create anarchist student organising structures never gained sufficient traction. The flames of resistance continued to burn over the next few years, most noticeably in Birmingham and the South East, where great strides were made in student/worker solidarity. Attempts by the state and university management to crush the remaining student movement backfired massively in 2013, with the cops off campus demonstrations proving students still had plenty of fight left in them.
However at the start of 2015 we are left without a cohesive movement; a union not fit for purpose, the occupations not giving way to sustained contact between universities, NCAFC not growing substantially enough beyond its London-centric cell, and other leftists being caught up in the dead end of electoral politics.
TUC Unions & Anti Cuts Alliances
Whilst university organising always suffers from the transitory nature of university itself, the long established public sector unions that make up the majority of the TUC do not have that draw back. Many looked to them to lead the fight against cuts, some going as far as prioritising the active lobbying of the TUC leadership.
The first union initiatives were the anti-cuts groups formed in many towns and cities, primarily by local union branches and the socialist activists working within them. However the sources of the strength of these groups were also the sources of their major weaknesses. The involvement of the traditional ’entryist’ left often led to energy being wasted on petty power struggles.
In the early days of the Bristol Anti Cuts Alliance both the Socialist Party (SP) and Socialist Workers Party (SWP) approached the large anarchist contingent – within minutes of each other – and asked us if we wanted to band together to pick who would get into elected positions. We politely declined. When the SP did gain the upper hand, the SWP members left to form an ironically named ‘Unite the Resistance’ group in Bristol. Similar occurrences took place across the country.
The traditional leftist/union nature of these groups and their initial membership led to traditional leftist/union style meetings. These were incredibly off putting to those who hadn’t previously experienced them. Few new people stuck around beyond a couple of meetings, which left anti-cuts groups unable to be a forum for the individuals and grass roots groups they aimed to unite.
Like the student movement, these groups engaged in a flurry of activity in late 2010, mostly in the form of marches and rallies in their locality. They were often initially reluctant to support more diverse actions, such as occupations, for the fear of legal ramifications directed at their constituent trade unions. In our experience it was often left to the anarchists within the group to actually follow up the talk (oh so much talk) with some genuine action.
AFed had some successes introducing more anarchists (and our ideas and tactics) to the struggle via our Anarchists Against the Cuts initiative. This was later replicated on a larger scale by the short lived Network X. Ultimately however we still ended up bound by the structures already in place.
The local action was sustained throughout much of 2011 but the reliance on a core of Trade Union activists meant that much of their available energy was taken up with plans for the national marches, strike action, and ever increasing union case-loads as cuts hit individual union members.
The first of these national marches on the 26th March 2011 was certainly a great show of strength for the union movement in the UK, with a reported half a million people in the streets. There was also a strong showing from the anarchist organisations with the large Anarchist Federation & Solidarity Federation backed radical workers bloc, and a 1500 strong black bloc that trashed The Ritz along with other high profile targets.
Predictably the union leaders were quick to condemn these actions, even if many of their members were cheering the smashed windows earlier in the day (or even joining in!). A little more surprising perhaps was the eight month wait for the TUC to launch coordinated strike action, in the form of a 24 hour public sector general strike. Luckily union activists further down the hierarchy had been able to keep the momentum going since March, and November 30th saw up to two million workers on strike and over a thousand vibrant and well attended demonstrations.
This could’ve been an excellent launch pad for sustained action, but the TUC leadership was apparently hell bent on breaking the momentum that had been built up. They entered into drawn out negotiations with the government over pay and pensions, and their next day of strike action the following May involved only a fraction of the unions. Their own estimates declaring it as only one fifth the size of the November 30th strike. The rhetoric changed as well, with focus switching from a general resistance to austerity to the specifics of pay and pensions. This made it all the easier for the right wing press to play on the divide between private and public sector workers.
Strikes by education workers, NHS staff, fire fighters and others continued, but their relative isolation meant they could only aim for minor re-negotiations of austerity rather than resistance to it.
The movement that taught us that if you got the owners scared enough, you can shut down a mobile phone shop for the day with just two people!
It burst into being in the autumn of 2010 (you may be noticing a pattern here), its decentralised nature allowed it to spread quickly, and the media spotlight on tax avoidance fuelled its rapid growth. It played an important role in countering the idea that austerity was ‘necessary’ by providing a simple alternative: get rich corporations to pay the tax that existing rules dictate they should be paying already). It also helped popularise direct action in the form of pickets, blockades, occupations, and creative forms of disruption to dent the profits of major retailers.
UK Uncut was arguably too narrow in its scope and too vague in its politics, not even taking an explicitly anti-capitalist stance. This despite the majority of core participants having anarchist or socialist political outlooks and their demonstrations targeting large corporations and banks. After a number of massive nationwide days of action against tax-dodging retailers, its high point was arguably on March 26th 2011. Using the cover of the TUC march, UK Uncut activists shut down Oxford Street before occupying Fortnum and Mason. The ensuing legal action against the occupiers and their own legislation against HMRC would take up much of the core group’s energy over the following months.
Not wanting to get stuck in a rut, UK Uncut switched it’s focus to supporting NHS workers in the fight against the Health and Social Care bill. Despite some energetic protests, this fight had the same fatal flaw as the previous year’s fight against tuition fees – no plan B when the initial vote was lost in Parliament.
UK Uncut actions continued, albeit much smaller in number. The group also had a major influence on the growth of Boycott Workfare, who have a clearer political stance and continue to win victories to this day. Additionally UK Uncut were one of the first organisations to put their weight into supporting Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC).
Like UK Uncut, DPAC used a creative array of direct action tactics and captured a swell of public anger, this time in the form of disgust at the governments attacks on disabled people. The most infamous of these attacks were the work capability assessments, carried out by private firm ATOS on behalf of the state. DPAC’s tactics were arguably even more confrontational than those of UK Uncut, and their impact could not be ignored. Whilst ATOS have been booted, their replacements (Maximus) aren’t much better, and the fight continues.
How could we have won?
There are several key moments that could’ve driven the coalition government to the brink, and perhaps led to the ruling class rethinking the level of their attacks.
The first of these was when the student movement had sprung into action. Whilst many lecturers were sympathetic, and there were words of support from their unions, there was precious little action. Many students and rank & file trade unionists put considerable effort into working with each other. Had the unions (or a majority of staff wild catting) taken the risk of coming out on strike in coordination with the student days of action the gains for both could’ve been considerable.
During this time anger amongst younger sections of the working class was steadily increasing. Austerity and economic hardship escalated existing social tensions such as feelings of alienation, demonisation in the media, restricted access to education, high unemployment, lack of support, and incessant police harassment. All of this was compounded by a society that promotes happiness via material possessions whilst denying the younger generation any hope of acquiring them.
This anger found a focal point in August 2011 with the police murder of Mark Duggan, and their subsequent repression of demonstrators. Waves of riots spread across the country, with many of the rioters far more organised and politically aware than the media will ever give them credit for. In Nottingham no less than five police stations were attacked and fire bombed in a single night!
At this point much of the left and trade union movement was either staying quiet or following the party political line of condemning the rioters in order to appear respectable. Anarchists were rumoured to have taken part in much of the rioting and were certainly hard at work in the weeks and months that followed, offering advice and support to those fearing arrest or jail.
Despite this, as a movement we lacked a swift and organised response to the situation. During that time the state was loosing its image of control, but it was always going to take more to really hit back at it. This would’ve been the moment for the unionised working class to strike, and for the anti austerity movement to make links with the rebellious inner city. Messages of support for the grievances suffered, and solidarity with those on the streets (regardless of any personal opinions some on the left may have had on their methods) should have been swiftly followed by angry demonstrations and direct actions. The days between the nights of rioting should have seen the streets filled with just as many people, perhaps more. Stretching the state beyond breaking point.
This is all wishful thinking of course, and it is all too easy to dwell on things we could’ve done better. There wasn’t, and isn’t, a UK-wide working class movement that is militant, organised, and strong enough to have taken these actions. So what can we do to build such a movement, and to achieve lasting victories in the battle against austerity?
Out of the Ashes
There was a marked decrease in the levels of participation and activity in anti austerity (and related) struggles in 2012, activity since has been on the rise since, but much more slowly. There have still been many inspiring demonstrations, campaigns, and victories. From Pop Up Unions to Solidarity Networks, Focus E15 to Poor Doors, energy and creativity has sparked a resistance able to evolve to suit the participants and the situations they find themselves in.
A keen sense of where the state and capital is most vulnerable has been key. From the chambers of the local council to the sites of developers and the offices of bailiffs there are many places we can hit back. Collective struggles among people who are all being affected by a specific issue are particularly powerful, as has been shown by the fights for social housing in London. One of the reasons some of these campaigns have been so resilient is the effort taken by those involved and their supporters to create links with similar groups. This has allowed for mutual aid and the sharing of skills. this has meant that even if a campaign goes through a period of inactivity or ends (due to victory or defeat) momentum can be sustained.
Where these struggles appear, or where there is potential for them to appear, they should be offered as much support, solidarity and skills to as possible. They should also be assisted in resisting attempts to take them over, force them in particular directions, or use them to serve other projects at their own expense. Aided by their reputation for support comrades in London AFed have set an impressive example; getting stuck in with numerous local groups, linking struggles together, and building alliances organically from the ground up (rather than the attempted top down alliances of the past). Spreading news and making others aware of the battles taking place is another key task. Especially when the people learning about these battles may be facing similar challenges.
Achieving a campaign’s stated aims should always be its priority; whether that campaign is industrial action, a housing struggle, or a fight to keep a service open. These aims are more achievable and the campaigns themselves strengthened when they join together in a general anti capitalist resistance. This is a view we should share widely if we are to secure gains for the working class, and help create the structures and strategies needed for victory.
Internationalism and Escalation
Austerity, like capitalism, doesn’t stop at borders, and the resistance to it shouldn’t either. This article has stuck to covering the movements of the UK but looking further afield can provide not just inspiration but solidarity. Student action in Chile and Quebec has demonstrated what is possible when fights are not given up at their first defeat in parliament. Joint European strikes, and international days of action have shown there are still vibrant international links in our movements, which can benefit us and our comrades over seas.
This international struggle against austerity is primarily a demand for capitalism to provide us with a much larger cut of the wealth we create as workers. However, it could and should go far beyond a desire to return to the pre-crisis days of 2007 (remember, things were pretty shit back then too). We must demand the things our communities need and desire, and take or create them directly wherever we have the means to. These demands will come at the expense of capitalism’s masters and their profits, indeed there will come a point where capitalism is incapable of giving us everything we demand.
So be it, a movement with the power to overturn austerity will be one capable of overturning the entire capitalist system. It turns out no more cuts may be a far more revolutionary demand than many of us realised.