Tuesday, 8 February 2011

A view on the anti-cuts movement

I have attended several of the anti-cuts marches, demonstrations and events, from the protests against tuition fee increases to the march through London on January 29th.  At these events I have seen people from a variety of social groups, ages, races, but all united in their passion to defend themselves and their friends from the swinging axe of Tory ideology. However, the march at the end of last month was nowhere near as large as those in November and December. I do not think that there is a loss of opposition to what the government are doing, but I do fear that there might be a lack of direction, which is damaging the effectiveness of the movement

My approach to what is happening to this country is well served by this statement, attributed to either Harry S. Truman or Woody Allen: “Decisions are made by those who show up”. That is what we must now do. Show up. Show up by pressuring those in power, those who are cutting vital services with no consideration for the damage, pain and suffering that the loss of those services will cause, for example cutting benefits so that benefit cheats can no longer choose it as a “lifestyle”. Never mind all those who need those benefits because they cannot find a job, and have families to feed. Never mind hacking into public services, citing inefficiency, then setting unrealistic targets of expenditure reduction, when those most likely to be made redundant are not high-paid managers, but their subordinates. These ideological attacks on the public sector, on education, healthcare and the welfare state must be opposed. Here I will try to explain my personal opinion on how best we can go about doing so.

Every protest, march and event needs to have a clearly articulated message. Make sure that, as much as possible, everyone who is at the event is able to explain to passers by and observers what it is that they are fighting for. The tax avoidance protests by UKUncut is an example of how well this can work. People who see a protest are not always aware what it is about, and a number of them are shocked by what they find out, after we tell them about it. This needs to be spread to every event that is targeted at a government cut, or tax avoiders, or at a policy that will threaten the futures of a generation.

If people think that we are just there because we are young and want to make noise or cause them problems, we are failing to articulate our message – that these cuts affect more than just us. We need to get everyday people on the street to feel like they can get involved. Wanting to stand up against these cuts is not a feeling restricted only to those under 25. There are people of all ages who agree with what we are saying, and should not be ostracised because of their age. If they do not want to march with us, urge them to contact their MP, or to talk to their friends. We need to be seen to be standing up for everyone. The student protests against tuition fee rises was dismissed by far too many people as just being students annoyed at having to pay more. We need to spread the message that we are not just looking out for ourselves but looking out for others.

In terms of how to do this, when I went to the rally points for the marches I was handed several leaflets by various groups, SWP, Militant Student, Socialist Resistance among others. Often this is latched onto by the media as a reason to ignore us, or to say that it is just the radical left who are opposing what is happening. I think that we need to be able to produce leaflets that we can hand out to people who are watching us. This may require more expenditure, which I know will be tough, but it must be more than just different groups within the movement, looking inwards to those already on the streets. If we can get more information out to people, then they can form their own opinions. They may not agree with the action we take, but they might agree with why we are doing it. This is not a bad thing. There is not one way of protesting, and the variety of types of protests will keep up interest, and allow people to express themselves in a way that they are comfortable with. Not everyone wants to stand outside in the cold shouting for seven hours – and if they have an alternative way to get their opinion heard, then that is no bad thing.

Specificity must also come into play. At these events it must be clear what we are there for. It must not just be “we are anti-cuts”, it must be “we are anti THESE cuts, and here is why it affects YOU”. This will help us to demonstrate that we are not just looking for ourselves, and also mean that one of the politicians’ arguments will not be effective. During the protests against tuition fee increase, Nick Clegg said repeatedly that the protesters ‘did not understand’ what the government is doing. If we can demonstrate to people on the street, as well as whatever media we can talk to, that we do understand what the government is doing, and why we are opposing it, then that will be a good step towards gaining some level of respect.

We can also put pressure on the police to stop their violent attempts at suppressing our opinions. We have already had some highly negative experiences at their hands, from kettling people on Westminster Bridge to using CS spray on a peaceful protest. These are problems that we must address and make noise about in their own right. Where we must take a step forward is in engagement with the rank and file police. They will be losing over 10,000 front line officers when the cuts hit them. If they strike, march or protest we ought to be there with them. This may be hard to stomach, especially if you have been through the experience of being kettled before, but it is part of the message that we are looking out for more than just ourselves, and the police spend the majority of their time doing good work. Many of the rank and file police, including one British Transport Police officer I talked with at London Bridge station after the march on the 29th, support us, and what we are doing. They have more in common with us than with the likes of Sir Hugh Orde. If we can get them as onside as possible I believe it will help us.

That being said, we need to keep up pressure on the upper levels of police command to stop kettling at the larger events, as we all know that it will make the situation worse – it derives from the German word ‘kessel’, meaning ‘cauldron’. With the potential of ‘more extreme’ tactics being used against us, it is vital that we keep the pressure on the police to avoid brutality. It is also hugely important that as many people as possible at every event are able to record, film or photograph what is going on, especially police actions. They have their F.I.T. groups, so why can’t we have our own? They are much less confident of being able to push us around when they are on camera. Maintain, or even better, increase the level of evidence we have against what they are doing, and we will be able to show that we are not the aggressors, as it is often suggested in the media. We also have the support of some excellent legal people, and if they are involved in helping one of us, the more evidence the better. We can make it too hard for the police to bully us into submission, and too hard for the ‘small group intent on violence’ narrative from being trotted out by the government yet again. Yes there are small groups whose intention is to cause problems, but we need to make it clear that they are not part of our movement, and we do not support their actions.

It is also important that there are not only large-scale marches through London, but also small, targeted events focussed on local issues, local cuts and local problems. An example of this was the sit-ins in libraries all over the country to show how valuable they are to their communities. While the loss of libraries will affect people all over the country, the protest was at a local level, showing not just a general opposition to library cuts, but giving a human face to those who will be affected by the cut in their own community. The big society is meant to be about local communities taking responsibility, and this is where I think the movement needs to look next, at local community related actions, which will not only show how widespread the problems are, but also show that opposition does not just come from those holding banners and shouting their way through Parliament Square, but also those in towns and city councils across the country who will lose out on vital services, all in the name of budgeting.

If there are more local actions then it will also be possible to put more pressure on local councillors and local MPs, as they will have to see the faces of the people they are affecting, and not just watch a mass crowd outside Parliament via their televisions. They will have to justify to real people why they are hacking into the communities that they themselves are a part of, and why they are cutting services that people they know might use. Give a face to those affected by local cuts, give a voice to the opposition to local cuts and make councillors and MPs have to respond to real people who are really affected, and not just comfort themselves by thinking in abstracts and financial figures – and it is much tougher to vilify someone who wants to read a book than it is a student spray-painting a statue.

The final reason that we must embrace local protest is that they make it much more possible for the disabled to make their voice heard. The DLA cuts did not receive anywhere near as much press and publicity as other government actions, and part of this, I believe, is down to it being harder for those affected to make as much noise as those who are able to stand, sing and shout for hours on end. Many of the disabled, and those who provide them with care and assistance, will be hit hard by this government’s plans, and yet there is nowhere near the appropriate level of representation from that group. We must ensure that our actions are as accessible as possible for everyone, and local, closer to home events can help, since it will cut down on the effort and expense of travelling into a city centre, which can be exhausting before you even get there.

It is vital to ensure the government are made aware how wide-ranging the opposition their cuts are. Therefore it is important that we make sure our actions are as varied, informative and inclusive as possible. We can make our voices heard, and the voices of everyone who will be punished by this governments attack on the public sector, charities, communities, and everyone who is not as wealthy and privileged as them.

We can build this anti-cuts movement. The feelings are there, we must make sure that people do not become disillusioned with what is happening. It is vital to encourage people to get involved, and build momentum towards March 26th.

“It is not the function of our government to keep the citizen from falling into error; it is the function of the citizen to keep the government from falling into error.” – Robert H. Jackson

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