On the eve of Britain’s annual major anti-austerity protest, social media had projected attendance of the London march at 67,000. The leadership in the People’s Assembly Against Austerity were hopeful that those numbers would pan out, telling media that they expected about 70,000 to take part. Such a march would have been a huge increase in participation over the last few years and would undoubtedly have driven home a feeling of accomplishment for the organizers. However, even the most outlandish of predictions could not have imagined that roughly a quarter of a million people would end up descending on Parliament to voice their frustration and anger over continued cuts public services and welfare.
The first contingents began to gather before noon at the Bank of England in the City of London, the capital’s financial district. Hundreds of buses soon flowed in from all over the country, bringing many to what was their first ever political demonstration. Trade unions were present in a display of the potential power that working people have when organized, as well as various groups representing the socialist movement in Britain. The planned hour and a half long march to Parliament saw the streets so congested that the two-hour speaking program at Parliament that was supposed to begin at the end of the march was nearly finished by the time the last marchers arrived.
Conservatives push cuts after election win
The march on June 20 was the first major mobilization to take place after the May 7 general election victory of David Cameron’s Conservative Party. That election saw the Conservatives, often popularly referred to as the Tories, take home a surprising majority of the vote in what had in previous weeks been seen as a neck-and-neck contest with the Labour Party. The shocking victory gave Prime Minister David Cameron the ability to form a government of his own design to replace the Conservative-Liberal Democrat (Con Dem) coalition that had ruled since 2010 in the aftermath of a “hung parliament” in which no single party had emerged with an outright majority.
During the five years of the Con Dem alliance, major cuts to public services were enacted under the premise that the money quite simply wasn’t there—despite the continuing ability of London’s major bankers to fill their pockets with generous “bonuses.” This while free school milk for children under five was eliminated, teaching positions were axed so that 13,000 young people now sit in classes with over 40 students, and a previous plan to construct 700 new schools across Britain was scrapped. The supposedly more progressive Liberal Democrats showed their true colors by going back on their pledge to oppose the hiking of university fees. With rents having increased by 13 percent, and water bills by 12.5 percent over the five years of Con Dem administration, many were left scratching their heads at why wages hadn’t increased.
The possibility for Britain’s three-quarters of a million unemployed young people to find work has remained slim, with numbers still rising. Perhaps the single piece of legislation most hated by the working people of Britain in recent memory has been the dreaded “bedroom tax.” The 2013 law has meant that many people living in housing associations now receive less in housing benefits, as a tax is levied on those who have a spare bedroom. The plans to privatize parts of Britain’s National Health Service, which had been established as a universal health system in the aftermath of the Second World War and the creation of a socialist camp in eastern Europe, gained traction in half a decade of Con Dem rule.
Such blatant attacks on the living standards of working people were a hallmark of the David Cameron-Nick Clegg government, with all signs after the election immediately pointing to a Conservative majority government using its victory to deepen the cuts. Chancellor George Osbourne used the election win to trudge ahead with plans to roll out a new budget consisting of 12 billion GBP in welfare cuts to be passed in July.
Labour’s complicity and new political actors
There was no shortage of Labour Party members at the mass rally and march through the streets of London. One of the major points that was continuously made by speakers addressing the massive crowd was that people should sign up as Labour supporters in the run-up to next month’s vote that will select a new party leader so that they can vote for self-declared socialist Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn, who himself addressed the rally, has been a consistent force against not only cuts but also the war drive of British imperialism, whether with Conservative leadership or under the Tony Blair-associated “New Labour” faction of his party that aimed to move the party further to the right in the late 1990s. Many attribute the Labour Party’s electoral debacle to this shift to the right that left many of the policies of previous leader Ed Miliband looking increasingly similar to those of the Conservatives, and the claim that Labour is the party of the working-class seeming highly dubious. Those who champion Corbyn raise the point that the Labour Party can still be “rescued” as a vehicle to achieve social change for Britain’s workers, or that at the very least with Corbyn at the head it can become a bulwark against the most regressive forces in Britain’s political elite.
However, many have already moved out of the ranks of Labour, fed up with a party they see as increasingly led by “Red Tories.” The trade union movement, which has historically been tied to Labour, saw a major defection in February when Peter Pinckney, president of the RMT union, announced he was switching his allegiance to the Green Party and running as a candidate on its ticket. Pickney explained his decision, saying: “Obviously the Greens’ commitment to bring railways back into public hands struck a chord, but also policies to invest in the NHS, build social housing, institute higher taxes for those who can afford it, and put forward progressive policies on immigration informed my decision to stand. As a life-long socialist, I could see that most of the policies were what the Labour Party once had, but those days are long gone with Labour.”
Nor was Pinckney alone. The Green Party is the fastest growing political force in the country, utilizing the discontent of many Labour voters, as well as a broadly left-wing populist platform to attract those who wish to see progressive change. Party membership has increased from roughly 13,000 two years ago to more than 67,000 as of June 2015. The Green-Left grouping within the party was set up with the explicit purpose of bringing socialists and anti-capitalists into the organization.
Perhaps the most glaring example of Labour’s inability to maintain its historical role as party of the working-class was the election results in Scotland. Just months after the Scottish referendum narrowly saw the country remain in the United Kingdom, the Scotland National Party scored its largest ever electoral success, trouncing Labour on a program opposed to austerity, war and privatizations.
Political limitations of the movement
Despite the ability of the People’s Assembly to gather impressive numbers at the anti-austerity march, forcing the mainstream media to cover the story thoroughly for the first time in many years, the liberal and social-democratic shortcomings of the anti-cuts leadership to offer any viable solutions for Britain’s working people became clear during the speaking program.
For one, the issue of budget cuts and the economy was presented throughout as an issue unto itself. There was no linking up of the struggle of the British working-class against cuts with a struggle to supersede capitalism itself through revolutionary struggle. Nor was there an understanding of the British state’s role as a dominant imperialist power in the world that put its status as the fourth biggest economy in the world in the historical context of colonial plunder and exploitation. Such an orientation is necessary if workers are to see their struggle as not isolated from the rest of the globe but as part of an international working-class movement that should base itself on fraternal relations with all the progressive and socialist states around the world that are fighting British imperialism.
It would have seemed natural that just days after a major hate crime and terrorist attack on the Black people of the United States that one of the speakers would at the very least make an internationalist connection to that oppressed sector of the U.S population. Not only was there no mention of the Charleston massacre or of the burgeoning civil rights struggle in the U.S known as Black Lives Matter, but there was a silence when it came to the struggle of oppressed nationalities in Britain fighting against racist policing or the growing threat of Islamophobia and anti-immigrant bigotry.
Perhaps it was the orientation from the outset of the organizers to not want to “rock the boat” too much, to simply keep things as broadly acceptable and non-controversial as possible. In fact, easily the most head-turning moment occurred when it was announced that former IRA commander and Sinn Fein leader Martin McGuinness would be speaking. McGuinness received a lukewarm greeting from the seemingly confused crowd. The presence of a former Irish Republican Army leader at a rally in front of Parliament was indeed historic and a welcome addition to the list of speakers, which showed the real potential of solidarity across borders. Yet, the feeling that the march missed a greater historic opportunity to give the anti-austerity movement a more deeply revolutionary political character could not be left unsaid.
Simmering revolutionary potential
Nonetheless, the showing of a quarter of a million people to a demonstration in the heart of London against the policies of a newly elected government is no small feat. Whether one is quick to brush off the march’s lack of supposed militancy as evidence that it was more of a “parade” than a march, or one left feeling much more optimistic about the prospects for militant working-class action, the fact is that people are in motion. Whether the spontaneous anger and frustration that millions of people across Britain feel will be given more radical political expression will depend on the ability of revolutionaries and socialists to step up to the task of orienting the ranks of workers towards what should be the real goal: the socialist transformation of society so that workers can become the true masters of their destiny and democratically control the profits they produce and society as a whole.
Progressive as the program and outlook of individuals like Jeremy Corbyn and groups like the Green Party may be, it seems apt to say that without the overthrow of the capitalist state itself, the dream of a fairer and better world will remain in the realm of fantasy. The fight for reforms is an important one, but can only really be of any long-term significance if these reforms are fought for and achieved with a long-term orientation towards socialism and the demise of the still very real British empire. Revolutionaries in England, Scotland and Wales must determine what strategies and tactics best serve pushing this movement forward. An independent, disciplined and militant revolutionary force will undoubtedly need to exist, however, as history has shown that the full-scale absorption of revolutionary tendencies into social-democratic or reformist parties has not been a successful approach. Even the green economy and environment cannot be achieved in all earnest without red political power!