To Fight the Coming Storm, the Left Needs to Learn From the Anti-Austerity Movement

by Michael Chessum

2 June 2020

Andy Thornley/Flickr

The next few years are likely to see the biggest crisis of capitalism, and the biggest assault on our rights and living standards, in any of our lifetimes. The Bank of England has warned the UK economy could shrink by as much as 14% this year, and unemployment more than double by next spring. After more than a decade of pay cuts, crumbling public services and increasing precarity, we can now expect things to spiral. 

The nationalist right are in power across the globe. Here in the UK, they will have the advantage of being able to use the Brexit process to massively deregulate the economy while using the atmosphere that surrounds it to blame the fallout on foreigners of various kinds. In the coming years, we can expect an unprecedented attack on migrants, basic human rights and the right to strike and organise. The backdrop is, as ever, catastrophic runaway climate change if we fail to completely overhaul the global economy in the next decade.

Still stinging from the defeat of the general election, and with little hope of a sympathetic ear in government for at least four more years, the British left is about to have thrust upon it one of its greatest ever responsibilities – to organise a movement of resistance against the onslaught that is to come. 

To say we are ill-prepared is an understatement. We’ve spent five years cheering on the Labour leadership, rather than building anything on the ground. The trade union movement is, in terms of the number of strikes it calls, at its lowest ebb in its entire history. We’ve taken a whole generation of bright young activists and thrown them at committee elections rather than into unions or social movements. They have been taught, like everyone else, that the basic measure of how left wing you are is how much you are willing to toe the line.

And yet this left, much more than the left we had at the beginning of Conservative rule in 2010, ought to be capable of pulling off a mass movement against the government. The politically active left has grown exponentially over the past few years, even if its energies have been misdirected, and even if it is now undergoing a moment of introspection and fragmentation. 

Equally as important, today’s activists can learn from recent history. Having won an election on a promise of £100bn in infrastructure spending, Boris Johnson’s Conservatives are not the same as the austerity Tories of the immediate post-crash period (though god knows what the coronavirus will do to their priorities). But the anti-austerity movement that peaked in 2011, and in many ways laid the ground for the rise of Corbynism, provides some invaluable lessons. 

1. Resistance, not protest.

One of the central themes of the anti-austerity period was the essential role of disruption and direct action to any movement of protest. In this, we were heavily influenced by the fate of the movement against the Iraq War, which brought millions onto the streets and was safely ignored. 

A to B marches are an essential part of building a mass movement. They give you a rhythm, and they allow the movement to mobilise institutions and a wide layer of support. Rallies at the end of them can be useful for providing some political content. But on their own, rallies and A to B marches are a demoralising, suffocating way to organise. The next wave of the movement must be creative, exciting and, above all, disruptive.

2. Make the unions fight.

Throughout the height of the anti-austerity movement, there were large coordinated strikes, most of them over public sector pensions. 30 November 2011 witnessed, in terms of workers participating, the biggest strike since the general strike of 1926. 

But the problem was that this action lasted just one day at a time. Rather than escalate and elongate the disputes, the unions – including left-led ones like Unite and PCS – focused on what were effectively big one-day protests across the country. By early 2012, some big unions had sold out, morale had collapsed, and the dispute was dead. 

A decade later, we need a coordinated and widely understood plan for militancy in the labour movement. Crucially, and this will be a big culture shift for some Corbynites, this is a process that cannot be entrusted to left leaderships in the unions. There will have to be a rank and file push, rubbing up against the conservatism deep within the unions, for a strategy aimed at winning, rather than making a show of it.

3. Broad alliances, democratic coordination.

In 2011, hundreds of broad anti-cuts groups were set up across the country to coordinate protests, strike solidarity and local anti-cuts campaigns. There will now be a need to recreate these alliances. Resurrected local Momentum groups, if they turn outwards, could have a key role to play here – but so could left-controlled CLPs, the Greens, motivated union branches and any other infrastructure the left has lying around. 

Unlike in 2011, these groups will have to demand something more than just ‘stop the cuts’. And there must be a concerted attempt for these groups to coordinate democratically on a national level, rather than letting the movement be coordinated by a handful of professionals.

4. Bring back the student movement.

In 2010, as in many moments in history before it, students were pivotal in accelerating the development of the wider movement. Mobilising over a hundred thousand students in a single day and occupying an unprecedented number of campuses, the protests swarmed across cities, marched on parliament and were, in tactical terms, one of the most radical movements in recent history.

Here, as the climate strikers head to university, we can have hope in an even younger generation than the Corbynites. They face an uphill battle: there is currently no organised left in the student movement; the National Union of Students has shrunk to a fraction of its former size because of a funding crisis; no major student protests have taken place in years; and a mindset of consumerism and marketisation has gripped the sector.

5. Seek political expression.

In the heady days of 2010 and 2011, Ed Miliband’s most famous contribution to the moment was an interview in which he robotically repeated a line about the strikes being “wrong at a time when negotiations are ongoing”. The tone the movement took was very often one of contempt for the political class as a whole, and the lack of interaction between the movement on the streets and the parliamentary Labour Party (except for fringe mavericks like John McDonnell) felt neither surprising nor particularly significant. 

But in the end it fatally undermined us. Seeing your actions and demands taken seriously by the political mainstream is an essential part of any movement’s strategy and morale. The movement against austerity in 2011 was a truly mass movement, but it remained on the political fringes, and was weaker for it. 

It is a tragedy that, just as we need it most, we will not have a left Labour leadership to rely on for support; and it is an irony that Keir Starmer, much to the annoyance of some of his backers, may yet be asked to support more strikes and protests than any Labour leader before him.

Michael Chessum is a socialist activist and writer based in London.

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