What October 20 tells us about the state of the movement

Saturday October 20 saw the TUC's "Future That Works" march and rally. It was the second biggest demonstration so far against austerity, the belated follow-up to the "March for the Alternative" last year. But what was the point? And where do we go from here?

Submitted by Phil on October 21, 2012

Estimates place the number of marchers in the region of 100,000-250,000. Clearly an awful lot of people but also down on the number who attended last year, as even the TUC itself attests.

The TUC's official line is tried and tested. "We are sending a very strong message that austerity is simply failing," according to outgoing General Secretary Brendan Barber. Unison's Dave Prentis adds that "we are here for the millions of people who don't have a voice." Thus re-affirming that the march amounts to what James Butler calls "three-dimensional lobbying."

For the left of the left, it is this but also a launchpad to the kind of strike action that can add weight to this message. The Socialist Party, as ever the best example of this position, tells us that marchers "came determined to make sure that it was more than a 'parade'."

This demonstration "opened a new phase in the war against austerity, giving a glimpse of a more hardened and militant working class." Mainly because people cheered the trade union movement's "awkward squad" as they called for strike action, including the great totem of the 24 hour general strike, which I've looked at in more depth before.

However, it is telling that they neglect to mention all of those who actually did make the day "more than a parade." Namely, the hundreds who took direct action with Boycott Workfare, shutting down shops and using the increased numbers to cause disruption to profits and the economy. Plus the militant protest by Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), blockading Park Lane by chaining their wheelchairs together. Read Solidarity Federation's account here and Johnny Void's here.

The omission is telling because the whole point of the "left of left" position is to play on discontent with the lack of action by the unions, whilst still fulfilling the role of channeling and policing class struggle. Thus "capitulation" can be put down to the right of the movement rather than the structural interests of trade union leaderships, and we can demand something more as long as we will wait for it to come from above and take care to listen to the speeches first.

This tells us a lot about where the workers' movement is in the UK compared to elsewhere. Because there is enough discontent for the TUC to pass a motion considering the "practicalities" of a general strike - and reminding us of same to generate headlines ahead of the march - but not enough for them to leave Ed Miliband and his slower, not as deep cuts off the speakers list. Enough for Len McCluskey of Unite to hold a mock "vote" for a general strike in Hyde Park, but not enough for him to be the least bit embarrassed about praising the Labour leader's appalling Labour Conference speech as a "tour de force."

In other words, the unions and the left that props them up can see the potential for the working class to take matters into our own hands. But the threat is a dark cloud on the horizon rather than a storm at their door at present.

But what of the militants?

Well, the radical workers bloc on the south London feeder march was visible and lively. Lively enough for a Labour Party contingent to drop back and be left behind rather than have to march alongside them. Once it hit the main march, it seemed to grow in size and the atmosphere was charged.

The Boycott Workfare action was also large of its own accord, and once they came together the two blocs of militants were greater than the sum of their parts. By all accounts, half of Oxford Street was shut down by the actions of these groups whilst only hot air came from Hyde Park.

Of course, the economic disruption inflicted on the day won't force an end to austerity or bring down the government. But it wasn't intended to. Rather, it was the continuation of a long running campaign of disruptive action that has been doggedly eroding the government's workfare project. Whilst the TUC has consistently transformed walkouts by millions of workers into passive protest and snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in the key public sector disputes, action against workfare is yielding win after win.

The October 20 action offered a microcosm of that contradiction. An enormous mobilisation of workers, however lively, trudging towards nothing - and a minority amongst them actually making an impact. That people are recognising this can be seen in the shrinking size of the demonstration itself and the growing proportion who took part in direct action.

Far from being a new phase or making our voices heard, October 20 has merely highlighted the mire that we're in. The appetite for militancy and direct action is growing in many quarters, but by no means fast enough. Meanwhile, the official leadership of the movement may bother its arse to give us a general strike, but it will only do so when it can draw all potency out of the action beforehand.

Militants need to redouble their efforts. Not only in campaigns like that against workfare but industrially, organising amongst rank-and-file workers willing to take action for themselves. Strikes, occupations, blockades and pickets must become the new norm - and inevitably officials must be confronted in the process.

If we do this, then we have a hope of calling the kind of action we need - open ended and building in an uncontrollable wave. If we don't, then even the Labour Party's "slower, fairer" austerity will evaporate into thin air.