Strike Day: Work longer, pay more, get less? No thanks.

My first significant contribution to the class struggle today was early this morning at the swimming pool. I had one of my frequent Curb Your Enthusiasm style rows with the local citizenry, and had to put a bloke who wasn’t looking where he was going firmly in his place. He should learn to swim properly, the jackass. I don’t need to wait for him to deign to let me through. The world doesn’t work like that, pal.

There could have been 30 million people out today and Cameron would have described it as a damp squib, so he can fuck off for a start. Clearly it was a serious day of action and a couple of million were out on strike up and down the country. More than half of schools were closed and there were thousands of non-essential NHS operations cancelled. So it was clearly a big day for the labour movement, and the biggest in my admittedly short memory. That said, the nation hasn’t ground to a halt. Going to and coming back from the city centre it seemed that life was going along as normal. Always a slightly weird thing when you think something really big is happening in the world.   

The rally in Birmingham was held at the NIA, and the first thing I noticed outside was that everyone was smoking. Come on comrades. Don’t do the bourgeoisie’s work for them. I was also searched as I went in. I dropped my bag insolently on the floor and instructed the rather aggressive jobsworth to open it herself if she wanted to search it. Being searched at a political rally was frankly insulting. I was in my cycling kit, so unless my plan was to launch a bomb attack and make good my escape on a pushbike I’m not exactly sure what she was looking for. She wasn’t very happy with me for sticking it so thoroughly to the man. Righteous.

The NIA is a big venue but well over half of the seats were taken when proceedings began. We were informed by the Master of Ceremonies, or whatever the labour movement is (I forget) that there were 15,000 on the march round the city centre (I passed on that to be honest, I was still fuming from my early morning Tête à Tête and I’ve been on enough marches to know that unless things get violent they aren’t liable to achieve much.) Cue much applause and also much incredulous scoffing from the cynics. I watched some of it on the BBC before I cycled down and to be honest 15,000 looked like a serious over-estimation, especially from such a politically backward city as Birmingham. I never really understand this need to exaggerate turnout at these things. It achieves nothing.

The thing about rallies is that that they are just a series of speakers. No debate, no discussion, no space for dissent. Playing to the gallery aplenty, and several spoonfuls of back-slapping thrown in for good measure. In and of itself it served to ‘rally’ the troops I suppose, but I’m not sure it accomplished a great deal. And the large number of empty seats at the back of the NIA will be something of an embarrassment.

Anyway, onto on the highlights from the speakers:

  • Brendan Barber made a fairly standard tubthumping speech to get us going, and it went down a storm. He promised that this wasn’t the end of the action, there would inevitably have to be further strikes as the government wasn’t interested in negotiation. This was a theme running through many of the contributions. He didn’t really offer any radical insights though, and if his reign as TUC gen sec is anything to go by, I don’t think he is the new Spartacus. He did make a couple of interesting observations that seemed to have been conveniently forgotten by the government and media though. Firstly half of the ‘gold-plated’ state pensions will amount to less than £5,600 a year, and according to the government’s own figures and the Hutton Report the burden of pensions as a proportion of GDP is falling even without these ‘reforms’.
  • Dave Prentis started off very grandly, telling us that today we are making history. Hmmm. Not so sure about that, but we’ll let it go. He made the central point that the money is available to fund the kind of pension system that the labour movement is demanding, and failing to do so is a political choice not an objective necessity. Something I have been banging on about on this blog since I set it up. Dave Prentis clearly has been reading the Mambo.
  • Tony Woodley used the C word. No, not cunt. He said that ‘the government were attacking the victims of global capitalism’ the poor, the voiceless, the disabled, the weak. Attempts were being made to divide workers in the public and private sectors and we should reject the race to the bottom in pension provision. He also said that we need a political alternative, and proceeded to reel off the most boring bits of Ed Balls’ economic policy as that alternative.

I repeat all this to you not purely for the sake of it. The speeches were all very meaning and were rapturously received, but my concern was that there was no politics. Lots of criticisms were made of the Conservatives and the Liberals, and various government figures were booed when their names were mentioned. It was all jolly good fun, but it missed the point. Spectacularly, in the case of one of the speakers that followed.

I think he was from the GMB, and he cracked a few jokes, for the first time that afternoon used the terms ‘working class’ and ‘comrades,’ and then said something that had the whole audience cheering and some of them were even on their feet. Well apart from me and the bloke sitting next to me, who appeared to be a bit of a co-cynic.

“The Con-Dem coalition running Birmingham City council will be swept away by Labour next year”

 And by implication then everything will be ok. So the saviour of the working class, the party that will protect us from the government’s cuts agenda, is Labour.

I just need to be clear at this point. This was a grown man saying these things. The Labour Party is in many local councils the party administering the cuts. Their deficit reduction proposals nationally amount to a marginally less savage version of George Osborne’s. They have run Birmingham City Council for most of the last thirty years. In that time they were fucking shit and were kicked out because they were fucking shit. The likely leader of the council if Labour win back their majority next year is Albert Bore, who led the council from 1999-2004 and didn’t exactly cover himself in glory during that time. He is in fact an ex-Bennite, with the emphasis on ex.

Is there a single Labour council anywhere in Britain resisting the cuts? No. How many Labour MPs have openly supported the strikes? Seven. The fact that so many otherwise sane, rational, and sensible trade unionists see a Labour government as the answer to the working class’s prayers is startling. One would hope that the endless disappointments and betrayals of the last couple of generations would have given them a more realistic perspective. Evidently not though. I’ll be kind and attribute it to years of demoralisation.

A few other things came out:

  • One speaker pointed to the disgraceful behaviour of the (Conservative/Lib Dem coalition running the) council in trying to put as many obstacles in the way of the march as possible. They attempted to charge to TUC nearly £10,000 to hold the march. The EDL organised on a few weeks earlier. The charge to them? Nothing. At one point the march looked like being called off, but thankfully went ahead. So up yours, Birmingham City Council.
  • The first use of the word ‘comrades’ was at 2.45pm exactly. Up until then it was ‘colleagues’.  
  • There was a depressing absence of profanity from the podium. Apparently it is bad form to curse your opponents. This is something I was not aware of.
  • £600 million extra is being provided to get the free schools project off the ground. Not that the government has a vested interest in making them work and will throw money at them to ensure they do, leaving other schools with less money, or anything like that of course.
  • 12,000 tax collectors are being sacked. Which is ironic as a serious attempt to deal with tax evasion would result in huge increases in revenue, thus removing the need for austerity……..

I know I may have sounded a little pessimistic but it was honestly a really nice experience sitting in the NIA with many hundreds of people who think broadly the way I do. It is quite dispiriting being a leftie in the current climate and for that alone I am thankful I went. It was also nice to see that the bulk of the people there were under 50.

If this is the beginning of a season of strikes it is going to be a hard winter. Let’s hope that our ‘leaders’ have a strategy to win and won’t sell us down the river like they normally do. Today’s rally was very nice and I’m sure that many people came away feeling very pleased with themselves, but from my point of view it was nothing to get too lathered up about. The absence of a political alternative, beyond dutifully voting Labour at the next election and hoping for the best, was worrying. Either a concerted effort needs to be made by the trade union bureaucracy to push the Labour leadership in a more radical direction or they should withhold their money and support. Until they have that showdown I’m not sure what the strategy is.

And all the talking about ‘getting rid of the government’ is meaningless unless there is something better to replace them with. They got rid of the government in Greece and Italy. What has replaced their at least democratically elected governments is quite frankly worse.


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