Never let anyone tell you that millions of people withdrawing their labour can’t change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.
That’s what Margaret Mead said, isn’t it? Well, perhaps it should have been. At NUS conference last week I was speaking on a panel alongside Iain Wright, the Shadow Schools and Families Minister. We were there to talk about cuts. One of the students in the audience asked about the prospect of a general strike. I answered with some historical context for the rest of the audience – that general strikes are a tactic that have been used both in this country, and abroad, and that they are often very successful.
My colleague on the panel, whilst acknowledging that withdrawing your labour is a legitimate tactic, told us that things today are not the same as they were in 1926 (the year of Britain’s only general strike thus far). He told us that today, we have organisations like 38 Degrees helping us to send huge numbers of emails to our MPs, that these emails about forests and about the NHS had terrified the government, and that they didn’t have email in 1926.
Now, I am the last person to do down the importance of online campaigning. The 38 Degrees campaigns on forests and on the NHS have been successful not just because lots of people have emailed their MPs, but also because many of these people didn’t even know what was happening until they got the standard email from a friend, forwarded from 38 Degrees, telling them about the auction of the woodlands, or the breaking up of the health service. Knowledge, after all, is a key component of power.
Indeed, as twitter evangelist Guy Aitchison has effectively argued, Twitter and Facebook in particular provide especially useful co-ordinating platforms. They help us to even out some of the advantages of the great units of co-ordinated power against which we are pitted – corporations and the state.
However, short of the fear of all out revolution, which seems unlikely in the UK, the average person has 2 main sources of power over those who steer the country: We vote for them, and we do the work that keeps the country moving – we, ultimately, run the country.
When we email our MPs, we do so with an implicit threat – if my MP consistently fails to listen to his (for he is male) constituents, he can expect that we will refuse to vote for him next time. This power relationship is fundamental to our democracy. We must use all of the leverage we can to exert it effectively.
And MPs are very aware of how each vote impacts on their prospects next time – a Tory MP friend (I know, amazing, eh?) told me in the week before the tuition fee vote that he reckoned he’d lose around 500 votes if he backed higher fees – 500 votes that he had fought hard for, that make up a significant chunk of his paper thin majority. But back them he did – he would just have to work harder at his canvassing to make up for it. Anything we can do to ensure that he calculates the next big bill will cost him 1000 votes, or 2000 votes, will be significant. He might, I imagine, even shift his stance. Possibly.
And, more to the point, some of the more progressive Liberal Democrat MPs might well begin to more frequently rebel. As it becomes clear that the cuts are ruining, rather than rescuing, the economy, it is even possible that some will walk out of their party, or run an anti-coalition candidate against Nick Clegg. We must do all we can to build the pressure to make this possible – to make it happen. But even in this circumstance, without other pressures, a minority Tory government could continue to rule, with legislative support from the right of the Lib Dems (and the right of Labour in some cases) helping to push through cuts, privatisation, and deregulation.
So, if we can’t build that pressure, it is 4 years until the next general election. When these concerned Tory MPs go to the government whips and say “I have huge numbers of emails from my constituents opposing this cut, or that privatisation, I am worried I will lose my seat if this goes ahead”, I think we can imagine how the whips, prompted by George Osborne, will respond. They will say “we need to go through some pain now, but don’t worry my boy (for nearly all of them are boys) for by the election, the economy will be soaring again, and you will be carried back into power on the shoulders of this success. But without these cuts/this privatisation, that success won’t come about”. In fact, this is what they have been saying to their MPs since the beginning of this government. They are expecting the short term pain. But they have bought the lie that this is a part of the medicine – that these same people will come flooding back to them when the British economy booms once more and they can once more sell the equity on their house and go on a Caribbean cruise.
And it is notable that the two examples that were given by the shadow schools and families minister were not really of cuts. Because while funding for forestries and for the NHS will be cut by this government, the core of both proposals is privatisation. And while privatisation is as much a key part of the government’s strategy as is cuts, it is certainly the part of the program with which they know they are most pushing their luck, and of which the fewest people have been persuaded. And, as has been widely noted, both are privitisations that hit relatively wealthier people (and older people) – they are two of the key radical policies which most impact on Conservative voters. Where we can save these services and stop these privitisations, we must. Those who won the U turn on forests should be congratulated. Those who won the won the brief reprieve for the NHS may, if they go on to win more than a reprieve, have done a great thing. But their strategies seem unlikely to work for the majority of, and the most damaging of, cuts.
4 years is a long time in politics. It is enough time to dismantle much of our welfare state. If you are a Tory or a Lib Dem MP, and you believe that the cuts are the best way out of the credit crunch and into prosperity for your core constituents – the richest 50% – 60% – then you will likely stand firm and take the short term rap for what you see as a long term gain. You may be afraid when people from your key demographics start to email you en mass denouncing what you have done to the services on which they rely, but you will happily assault services only used by the bottom 40% who were unlikely to have voted for you anyway.
So while the power that we have from our right to vote the bastards out must be used to its full potential, it isn’t enough. And that leaves us with the power that we have from the fact that it we are the people who run the country – whether we are public sector, private sector, charitable or social enterprise workers, or if we are carers, or if we do anything at all to contribute to our communities, we are the people who run Britain. The government merely steer. If, by collectively withdrawing our labour, we refuse to allow the government to steer the country into a ditch then, eventually, they can’t govern. And when the government is comprehensively breaking all of the promises on which they were elected, this seems the only rational response. No frontline cuts has become the biggest assault on frontline services in their history, no NHS re-organisation has become a re-organisation so significant that the Lancet describes it as ‘the end of the NHS’. If now isn’t the time for a general strike, when is?
Of course, the practicalities are more complex. It is true that unions are subject to laws – introduced by Tories, never repealed by Labour – that would mean their organisation of such strikes would risk courts disbanding them as organisations, possibly seizing their assets. Losing the organising capacity of our trades unions would be a huge risk to take, and it may well be the case that it would be unwise for them to arrange such a strike. So it may be up to the rest of us. We may need to find new ways to organise, and to break the laws together in ways that do not destroy the structure of the labour movement. This may or may not be possible, but it is one of the key tools in the box, and surely we need to start to work out if it is. And perhaps, just perhaps, the online organising tools fated by the shadow schools and families minister will come in handy in ways he never imagined.