On Saturday 23rd May a rally against austerity called by two individuals in Manchester, and backed by the People’s Assembly, took place. About 1000 people gathered in the city centre to hear talks from campaigners and those effected by cuts. Here are a few reflections from the day which also stand as some thoughts about the current state of the movement against austerity. These should be read as comradely comments not aimed at the organisers of the event alone. For more factual reports check out the Manchester Mule and RS21.
1) People are Angry
The electoral victory of the Conservatives came as a surprise to many. But from the moment the first exit poll results were released people quickly cycled through a whole range of emotions – shock, disbelief, fear and despair – before resolving to fight back against the next round of austerity. Like elsewhere in the country, the people that came out on Saturday ranged from experienced organisers and/or hacks, to those that had been on some demonstrations in 2010 or 2011, and also to people on their first demonstration ever. As the RS21 interviews showed, people are angry but (unsurprisingly) aren’t clear about the strategy we need to be working on.
Whilst the rally remained in Piccadilly Gardens it is worth mentioning the spontaneous demonstration that left it, as well as the brief occupation of a McDonalds in solidarity with the homeless campers nearby who had been banned from its toilet. The 30 strong free education bloc which occupied Oxford Road on its march from the University Campus should also be noted both for its anger and passion as well as its strategic lesson – 30 determined people can, at the moment it seems, cause major disruption in the city centre (to much applause from passers-by) quite easily.
2) But we can’t Fritter this Energy Away (Again!)
However, the left has been in this position before: namely facing off against a pro-austerity government alongside angry people with little idea of the strategic way forward. Last time the large numbers of people set in motion by the threat of austerity weren’t, in general, able to co-ordinate through effective strategies and the resilience wasn’t there when the first austerity measures started to hit home. Our power and anger was, students aside, put into several fairly ineffectual strikes and some large (and passive) demonstrations as well as a fair bit of inter-left squabbling. Two years after austerity began most local anti-cuts groups were dead, or manned by skeleton crews of committed leftists. It is indicative of the state of the left here that this rally was originally called by two individuals, rather than a well established political structure with large amounts of resources, and this is a pattern seen across the UK. We need to learn from the last cycle of struggles and prepare to fight, not only harder but also smarter.
3) We need to Join the Dots…
Much of Saturday was very familiar. Loose talk of “people power” and “building community”, damning (and often heartbreakingly real) critiques of austerity and an emphasis on the need for people to come to the next events: in this case the NHS rally in Manchester on the 30th of May and the big national People’s Assembly demonstration on June 20th. As I left the rally to enjoy an unusually sunny afternoon in Manchester I wondered how many of those present that are not already in groups will go on to participate in further protests or become active organisers. I couldn’t help but feel we might have missed an opportunity to actually empower people. Rather than the familiar mix of talks and protest songs from the podium we could have spent some time (even just 30 minutes) dividing the rally into different areas, based on geography or topic area, and getting people to discuss the situation they find themselves in and how they might go about building their capacity to change it. This small change to the day might have ended up with lots of people going home with new contacts and concrete ideas for activity. Whilst the organisers should feel chuffed at getting about 1000 people into the city centre and providing a range of speakers and entertainment for them we need to think carefully about what we achieved and break out of the “smugosphere” those of us on the left, including myself, can regularly slip into in the asbence of critical reflection on what we are doing and why. Perhaps this is something we could try at the next large rally that is bound to take place in Manchester?
At the level of groups we need to be networking and co-ordinating more. Manchester is not a particularly sectarian city and thankfully most groups in the city are able to co-ordinate with each other. We need to find the spaces where this co-ordination (not unity) can take place. The People’s Assembly planning meeting I attended last week suggested to me that this could be just the right space for effective strategies to be co-ordinated, without needing to create something entirely new.
4) Follow the money…
But co-ordination needs a purpose and the left needs more robust and resilient strategies than we currently have to offer. The Tories are not going to listen to the symbolic opposition of anti-austerity protestors, especially in safe Labour seats, just after winning an electoral majority. As satisfying as hating on the Tories is we need to be thinking strategically, developing and sharing strategies, building our capacity to fight back and looking for the weak points in the austerity regime – in particular those we can exploit for quick and easy “wins”. At this moment in time this would seem to be the whole host of private contractors benefiting from the carve up of the NHS, changes to provision for the disabled, workfare schemes, which is set to expand to all unemployed 18 – 21 years olds (check out Boycott Workfare in Manchester for ways to challenge those benefiting from workfare). We need to follow the money, and mix up the symbolic and hopefully motivational set-pieces like the march on June 20th with concrete campaigns to physically stop austerity programmes being implemented. We need to be learning from successful, inspiring or emergent campaigns including; the E15 mothers and self-organised migrant cleaners in London; the organising of precarious workers in Brighton (now also starting in Manchester through the IWW) or ACORN in Bristol; large Europe wide coalitions such as Blockupy (which includes leftist parties, trade unions and social movements); and those working on the idea of the social strike.
5) and Fight for the Future (not just an image of the past)
We need a political narrative more robust than just “no cuts” or “we hate the Tories”. The last 5 years have shown these two ideas aren’t strong enough on their own to keep people fighting as cuts are implemented and the state fights back. We need to develop and share the political understanding and narratives which will allow us to deal with the defeats we are almost certain to suffer, without them demobilising us, and to be able to place our victories in context. These narratives need to be easy to digest (the Tories mantra of the “necessity” of the cuts is an example we need to learn from) whilst also not patronising. As well as being honest in discussing strategy we need to be honest about the society we want. The welfare system that the Tories are dismantling was not perfect and we don’t want to simply return to it. We need to be making the case for a society beyond both austerity or a return to some utopian vision of the 1950’s. In the build up to the election we collected 50 of these demands and they offer a radically different perspective to those peddling austerity or “austerity-lite”.
In summary, we need to be developing long term strategies which we can co-ordinate on and combining this with some quick wins to build our capacity and self-belief.Of course there is much more we need to be doing: building our own logistical and care infrastructures, skilling up, networking across these islands of ours and beyond, but these will have to be left to another day!
BL is a member of Plan C Manchester. Many of the ideas in this text have been unashamedly plundered from others.