The demonstration against the ConDem budget cuts was huge. More than 250000 people took part in the protest against the public sector cuts on Saturday, 26 March in London. Some even speak of more than half a million people being in the streets. The demonstration was called by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) and many affiliated unions such as Unison, the University and College Union (UCU), the National Union of Teachers (NUT), the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), but also social movements organising user groups had mobilised widely. The question is, however, what next in order to stop the cuts?
The demonstration was impressive in that it had demonstrated the widespread disenchantment with ConDem cutbacks. In itself, however, it is unlikely to change the course of policy. In February 2003, one million people had marched through London in opposition to a war on Iraq. The Labour government at the time did not pay any attention. It is highly likely that the government will not listen this time either. In a way, it could be even argued that demonstrations of this type are some kind of safety valve, through which people can express their anger without being able to impact on policy-making in concrete terms.
In short, the focus is on what next? Which strategy will not only help to maintain the momentum, but will also ultimately be successful at stopping the cuts? Public sector unions talk about co-ordinated strike action. Considering the general onslaught on public sector pension systems, this would clearly be possible even within the rather narrow British strike regulations. It is less clear, however, whether such a focused strike campaign can generate more widespread support beyond those on strike. Another initiative is the European conference against Austerity, Cuts and Privatisation, and in defence of the Welfare State on Saturday 1st October in London, called for by the Coalition of Resistance. This too, however, while being a venue for contesting the discourse that drastic cuts are necessary, will not stop the cuts.
During the demonstration on 26 March, on numerous placards there was the demand that the TUC should call a general strike. Clearly, this would be illegal within current British legislation. But then, the right of strike was never won through parliaments or courts. The right to strike was secured through strike action. A general strike, precisely because it goes against the current industrial relations system, would be a direct challenge to the government and, as a result of this, a possibility not only to revive the British labour movement and to secure the general right to strike, increasingly infringed in the UK, but also to stop public sector cuts. Will the trade union leadership have the courage to call a general strike?
Prof. Andreas Bieler
Professor of Political Economy
University of Nottingham/UK
Personal website: http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/~ldzab
8 April 2011