The TUC protests last Saturday showed the widespread rage that exists against the Tories. But with less than a year to go until the general election there’s a big debate over how best to take them on.
Most workers said they’d back more strikes if the Tories kept up their attacks. Sue, a Unison union member and health worker in Lancashire, said union leaders should “definitely” call more action.
“But I think we need a general strike,” she added.
The Labour Party loomed large over the protests. For many marchers, voting Labour was the logical next step in taking on the Tories. But it was also clear that Labour is failing to inspire people.
Sue said, “I’m a Labour supporter, but they’ll still keep on with austerity. Even when Labour was in charge there was privatisation in the NHS.”
Steve is a Unite union member in Doncaster, South Yorkshire. He told Socialist Worker, “The general election is the only solution to changing Tory policies.
“Without a Labour-controlled government, we’ll just have more cuts.”
Yet Steve wanted some changes from Labour, too. “Labour has got to promise the Living Wage for working people, not just the minimum wage,” he said. “For working people to be on benefits is criminal.”
Steve came to the protest with a group of Unite members from Doncaster. John was one of them.
“I was in the Labour Party for 49 years,” he said. “I left because I’m disillusioned with it.
“When the firefighters’ FBU union was on strike a while ago, the vile language the Labour Party used about strikers was unforgivable.
“Then there was the illegal war in Iraq. A lot of people now say it’s difficult to tell the difference between the main parties.”
Trevor Edwards is a Unison member and Care UK striker (see page 18). He was frustrated at Labour’s lack of support for the strike and its pledges to carry on Tory attacks if it wins the election.
Trevor was one of a delegation of strikers who met Labour leader Ed Miliband last week. “We said, ‘where have you been? We need public support for our fight.’
“Bollocks to what the Tories are doing—the Labour Party needs to make a stand.”
Some of those marching were looking outside the mainstream parties for alternatives.
Maddie Pawlowiez, a Unison school worker in north London, said, “I went to an interesting Podemos meeting in London last week. I think it would be good to have a new party in Britain. I’m interested in the People’s Assembly and Left Unity.
“The main parties are all the same. And they are full of public school boys. You seem to get more women being prominent at things like this. It’s a breath of fresh air.”
One midwife from Liverpool told Socialist Worker, “I would support more strikes. We have to strike. And if we don’t win now, we’ll see them at the election next year.”
But again it seemed that the support for Labour came from an absence of a credible alternative rather than any real enthusiasm for the party.
“Labour isn’t the best,” she said. “It hasn’t made a good stand on NHS pay. But it has said it will protect the NHS. And of all the parties, it is the one that represents workers.
“I am disappointed in Labour, though.
“Shadow health secretary Andy Burnham has said a lot about the NHS and Hillsborough, which makes him popular in Liverpool. But when we struck there was a significant silence.”
How do we stop the rise of the right?
Many of those protesting were concerned about the growth of the hard right racist party Ukip.
TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady told the rally in London, “I’m fed up of politicians telling us this is all the fault of migrant workers.
“I know there’s a big debate about the likes of Ukip and if they are racist, but I tell you one thing for sure—I don’t want that Nigel Farage ever moving next door to me.”
John Collins, a health worker and Unite union member from Grimsby, echoed the sentiment. “We have to expose Ukip for what it is,” he said.
“They’re part of the political consensus—they’re just different players playing the same game.”
Others were less clear. Usdaw union member Joan works at Sainsburys. She told Socialist Worker, “Labour needs to change its leader and some of its policies.
“I think it needs to align with Nigel Farage a bit, but not too much.
“Immigration is perceived to be a bigger problem than it really is. It’s a scare tactic they use to try and get votes.”
Others were angry that Labour was aping Ukip and whipping up more anti-immigrant sentiment.
Paul Stoodey is a Unison branch secretary at Birmingham Children’s Hospital. He told Socialist Worker, “We’re disenchanted with Labour and see Ukip becoming more popular.
“Ukip leader Nigel Farage talks to people on their level—but I don’t agree with him. Ukip has racist, anti-immigrant policies.
“Labour is becoming more anti-immigrant—you can’t believe it. Labour’s popular support is from the working class, including immigrants. We are all workers.”
Some of those on the London march are from Clacton, where Ukip won its first MP last month. They explained how the party has managed to attract people who are angry at how the system has failed them.
Student Jack told Socialist Worker, “Clacton is a deprived area. There’s not much immigration, but people need someone to blame.
“Now the Tories and Labour are all attacking immigrants. It doesn’t make sense. And it’s scary.”
For all Ukip’s growth it’s clear that the party hasn’t convinced everyone in Clacton. Tracey, a student midwife from Clacton, was clear that the rich are the enemy, not migrants. “I joined the picket lines during the health strike even though I’m still a student,” she told Socialist Worker.
“They say that if you don’t give bankers a bonus, they’ll leave the country. But we’re expected to stay no matter what they do.”
Many marchers were clear that the real divide is between workers and bosses—not between British-born workers and migrants.
Martin Field is an NUT union member in Cambridgeshire and a Labour Party member.
He told Socialist Worker, “We have to stand up and tell the government we don’t agree with them taking out the global recession on working people.
“They’re trying to pass the blame onto people such as benefit claimants, the disabled and immigrants.
“Labour has to show that immigration isn’t a problem—poverty is. There aren’t enough hospitals because not enough money has been put into the NHS. There aren’t enough homes because they haven’t been built.
“We have to say that Polish workers, Lithuanian workers and Latvian workers are all workers.”
Unite the Resistance against the Tories
An important debate among marchers was how best to organise to stop Tory austerity and defend the working class.
A number of activists are mobilising for the Unite the Resistance national conference in central London later this month.
Billie Loebner, a UCU union rep at Tower Hamlets College in east London, explained why she was going. “People can feel powerless when union leaders don’t offer a lead. But they are not willing to roll over and accept the shit. They’re asking why the leadership have no strategy but to look to the general election.”
Unite the Resistance aims to build up networks of activists across unions that can help make strikes stronger and build solidarity. Chrissie Gardner, assistant branch secretary of the Unite union for Bristol health services, explained why solidarity matters.
“We had a great strike earlier this month,” she said. “We’re quite a small hospital in Bristol NHS trust but we had 40 people on the picket lines from different unions. Members of the public and the Protect Our NHS group brought food to the pickets.
“Unite the Resistance gives us all the perfect opportunity to share our experiences.”
Dave Gibson is the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition general election candidate in Barnsley, South Yorkshire. He has been heavily involved in the Freedom Ride campaign there, which is demanding the reinstatement of free travel passes.
Dave told Socialist Worker how campaigners have built links during their struggle—and how Unite the Resistance has helped.
Dave said, “We’ve always pushed to have trade union involvement. That’s why it’s so important we already have freedom riders coming to the conference.”
The conference will also be a chance to deal with some of the difficulties in building the fightback.
Mark O’Brien is membership secretary of the UCU at the University of Liverpool. He said, “With the debacle of unions calling off national strikes in the last week we need to make sure we fight hard to stop that having too negative an effect. It’s about how we get the action back on.
“Our union branch is funding a delegation to the conference.”
Other workers hope that the conference can be a tool to strengthen their action. Ollie Jones is a Unite union shop steward at DSG in Donnington, where workers struck last week (see page 20).
Ollie said, “There are multiple unions at DSG. And what’s become excruciatingly clear is there’s a problem with a strategy of one-day strikes.
“We have to talk about how to move beyond token gestures. Strikes aren’t just about protest. We need to discuss how they can win.”