Pennies and pointlessness – what does the anti-cuts movement want?

This is one of those posts that gets a prologue, unfortunately, because I wanted to put the positive stuff first, and declare my admiration for Laurie Penny.

Laurie, you are somebody with your heart in the right place, and an excellent writer, the most provocative comment writer of your generation, as far as I can see. You are also a principled and effective activist, a credit to what you do.

I agree that the SWP are crap and the other parties sell people short. Unfortunately though, with the greatest of respect, what you are writing is confused and perhaps symptomatic of a lot of the problem our generation of the left faces – a kind of laudably independent ‘left-populism’, but without aim or direction, which still manages, lord knows how, to be intolerant of other traditions which share at least some of its objectives.

Let me put it this way.

We are a fresh start. We have had years of defeat. Old tactics and organisations have manifestly failed to fight for our generation, its values, or its interests. I’m not sure why you think this is, and suspect like myself that you think there are a myriad of reasons. I would put the fact that we tend not to vote right up the top. If we are not prepared to support anyone or get off our arses even on polling day, there is no incentive for anyone to legislate in our interests, and there is also no incentive for ossified organisations, Labour to Lib Dems to SWP, to pay us any attention.

Your basic thrust is that you don’t want them anyway, which is fair enough. But then I am moved to ask why you ever expected anyone to listen to you in the first place?

It would be nice, but it’s a bit unrealistic, isn’t it? Although it does give us an excuse not to put a cross on a bit of paper, which, once again, is fair enough. But I am always wary of solutions to problems which involve you making fewer decisions and/or doing less work.

I think, once again with respect, that what you are writing is reflexive, rather than well fought out. You are dismissive of Ed Miliband’s wish to be seen as a ‘voice’ for younger voters. For a start, I would say it is a mistake to be dismissive of anything. What stops you occupying Topshop and expecting the leaders of political parties to actually listen you you? Or indeed to open up access to themselves by removing barriers? Secondly,you dismiss Miliband as trying to provide a fluid and grassroots movement with ‘leaders’.

I didn’t read this into his piece at all, and can’t understand where it came from? As someone who has spent significant time (with some successes) trying to make Labour more of a bottom up, grassrootsy party of the left, it seems funny to me that this is your conception of political party activism. Do the people you know who are members of the LRC or (genuinely) dissident Lib Dems really seem to you to be bound by their party leaderships?

They are taking a responsibility with greater stigma than those you are prepared to shoulder yourself, but you dismiss them rather easily.

Thinking for a moment about the anti-cuts movement (for that is what it has become), I basically want to agree with you. In many ways, the cuts are a positive thing for this generation, if only in the sense that they are character building, and like a battering ram to the locked doors of apathy. A tremendous spree of innovation has taken place, in terms of demonstration techniques, occupations, strikes and local campaigns. Lobbying of the existing democratic structures via local councillors and MPs has also exploded far beyond the narrow activist circles we both experienced before this government came into office, often run by the Trotskyist parties, or local Trades Councils.

I suppose the question I wanted to ask is where you think this is all going.

We see that the current upsurge in activism directly results from the cuts the Government is making.

But why do we protest, occupy, write letters and go on the radio? Write for the Guardian? What are we doing it for?

I believe that there are two plausible objectives shared by everyone in the movement, From Trade Unionists and students of various stripes, Anarchists, through Trots, Social Democrats, and the as yet unpoliticised/non-aligned.

We want:

1) To minimise the cuts, and if we can, stop all of them.


From the point of view of those trying to practically achieve the above, by closed implication this demands either:

2) A massive and radical change in Government policy


3) The radical recomposition or outright fall of the Government, founded on the altar of massive cuts before any other policy

As far as I can see, demonstrating has proven successful insofar as it has altered public opinion and drawn attention to the hardship caused by the political choice to cut jobs and services. It is absolutely essential that an ongoing extra-parliamentary campaign is kept going.

There will be various points of view between yours (that this should be as organic and spontaneous as possible) and others.

Such views will include those of Leninists of various stripes, who will argue that the movement should be politically directed towards various communisms and strategigised as such over the long term, through Len McCluskey who wants some central coordination and support alongside spontaneous leadership (my position), and those on the Trade Union right, who will call for officialism and back room labourism. All of those approaches require some level of centralisation and planning, and towards various different intermediate ends. Even though they all work to the same long-term objectives. This is a potential split and needs watching.

I think the movement should be spontaneously led, and in that sense am partly with you.

But with no strategy whatsoever for making our desires and our protests into real life as it unfolds, that leaves you and I on an island – an island with lots of people who have nobody holding them accountable or in place, or making sure that they are at their  most effective, or making sure that they are coordinated, or making sure that they are not all damaging each other’s public arguments.

Rather than trying to redress the problems (you must admit there are some problems?) with indiscipline and inefficiency in our movement, I personally think it is best to maintain overall efficacy by taking a ‘one foot in, one foot out’ approach to Parliamentary strategy, which is crucial to points 2 and 3 above ever happening.

Only making sure that someone listens and legislates appropriately can we bring an approach acceptable to anyone from the meekest social democrat to the outright insurrectionist.

Even Lenin depended on the weakness and collapse of a Government in Parliament. So did Clement Attlee and Margaret Thatcher. So will our generation. Dismissing the politics of parties outright leaves us marching about and achieving very little. If that goes on for long enough, the inevitable result is political depression and disillusion.

You have to ask yourself whether that is what you are fighting for.

Instead of taking lines on what sort of means you regard as acceptable in the movement, would it not make more sense to also think about what your ultimate ends are and whether you are really serious about achieving them?

I am, and as such, I am not willing to dismiss parliamentary politics, or, therefore, the party financially linked and constitutionally semi-dependent on the people who will suffer most from the cuts, the broad working class.

Parliament and political parties must be a weapon in the armoury of any movement that has an idea of what it wants and is serious about getting it; even if large chunks of said movement despise the institutions involved.

This doesn’t mean Ed Miliband will tell you how to protest.

Nor does it mean that you get a 100% win, and that he, Cameron and Clegg will all say ‘no cuts’ and send you a nice card and a bottle of fizz.

It means that at least some part of the movement has to be serious about winning battles and forming policy inside those parties that show the remotest interest.

Bearing this in mind, we should probably stop giving them such a bloody hard time about it, and instead welcome any indication that we might add at least some of their policies to our extra-parliamentary activities. Do we really have to choose between that and a broad movement outside of Parliament?

Bearing in mind that we are bottom up and plural, however much Young Labour charges people to join, as an anti-cuts activist, you don’t have to join the Labour Party if you’re worried it would mean making to many personal compromises. Whatever Ed says.

Over the years Labour membership has put me through several crises of conscience, and I took my choices, because I still thought it essential to a successful democratic left. Even for one penny, you don’t have to join, thrilled as I would be to have you fighting with me.

But please at least welcome a statement of intent on the part of Labour to compromise with you (let’s face it, who else will?). Maintain at  some respect for those comrades among us who are left to do the unfashionable dirty work? It doesn’t mean we’re against samba bands or flashmobs.

My own view as a socialist and anti-cutter is that it is important to remember we are going somewhere, we have objectives to achieve beyond anger, and that political parties, especially Labour, are important to this. I march in solidarity with those whose objectives are the same but do not share my view on this. We are all important, and all real people worthy of respect.

Apart from the bloke who threw a petrol bomb at some of his own co-marchers (oops) over my head a few weeks back, who I would have laid out myself if I was convinced he had run out. Instead I ran away. Side point.

The two basic things I am trying to say are that we need to have some sense of direction towards something, and that we need to accept that our various perspectives can all be applied and work alongside each other. E Pluribus, Unum, as they say.

If this movement is really serious about remaining bottom up, and welcoming diverse traditions alongside spontaneous randoms with chaotic political aspirations, we are going to have to march in mutual solidarity for a lot longer.

Unity is strength.

UPDATE: More here from HarpyMarx, The Great Unrest, Though Cowards Flinch, Lenin, and Latte Labour, all left of me with the exception of the latte. Sorry, latter. Which is where I am. On the posts themselves, I think I agree with the points raised by pretty much all of them, especially at TCF generally, and latterly at HarpyMarx, with special regard to the uselessness of the Lib Dems.

I would like to invite Laurie to knock on some doors with me in some sampled areas to see what we mean when we criticise them. Just because you voted for them as your last hope, it doesn’t mean they are of the left.