The greatest weapon the left has in a time of crisis is its imagination. During the TUC conference in Brighton this week, union leaders called for a general strike. They did not call for one unanimously, but delegates voted with one voice to pursue “coordinated” action across trade unions. The legality and feasibility of a British general strike, the first since 1926, is now being discussed in meeting rooms on the pebbly seafront and in police strategy rooms up and down the country, but on the left, resounding support for mass direct action is still teetering on the tip of our collective tongues.
Since the great union battles of the 1980s – fought valiantly and lost before many of today’s workers were born – the narrative of collective, militant action on the British left has been permitted to disintegrate into one of noble but inevitable failure. The mass demonstrations planned for the 20th of October are likely to be large, but they have not yet built the same momentum as those of last March.
This sort of hesitancy is unfortunate. It’s also understandable. One of the few effective weapons that defenders of neoliberal austerity projects have left is to make the possibility of effective resistance seem ridiculous and unfeasible, to insist that “there is no alternative”, usually backing that up with violence or the threat of violence against anyone who suggests one.
More specifically, for decades now, the right-wing press has spun and twisted the story of the 1970s and 1980s into a simple moral fable wherein uppity unions held the country to ransom and were defeated by the stern handbaggery of Margaret Thatcher.
If the left isn’t taking the possibility of a general strike seriously, though, the Government certainly is. Plans have been revealed to draft in the Army to fill in the gaps left by a possible 6.5 million public sector and service workers, as well as unguessable numbers of wildcat and solidarity strikers in other industries.
The moral case for a general strike is beyond reproach. With the economic and social future of Britain in jeopardy, anybody with a voice to speak for social justice must use it to argue for an ethical duty to resist this Government’s austerity programme. This week, in Chicago, one of the most significant strikes in recent American history is under way as teachers demand fair working contracts, and the predictable smears have already been plastered over those sections of the mainstream press which have forgotten that their purpose is to hold authority to account, not prop it up when it’s flailing. Teachers are selfish, they say. Teachers are overpaid – look, some are brazenly wearing shoes! Teachers are letting down their students by striking. These are the same arguments we’ll be hearing in two weeks’ time, if British teachers go ahead with their own industrial action. In fact, in times like these, teachers would be letting their pupils down far more comprehensively if they did not strike.
First, the sight of Sir or Miss on the picket line is one of the most important lessons about the nature of the adult world of work young people are likely to get, and well worth missing double history for. Second, what is hurting young people today and what will hurt young people for years to come is not a few days away from the classroom, but a future of poorer prospects, lower wages, dwindling pensions and busted public services.
The Conservative Party has responded to the spectre of a general strike in its usual manner, with both of its faces, dismissing the plans as weak and ineffectual, while simultaneously demanding that unions “withdraw their threats” and threatening to call in the army. Nothing sends today’s Tories into a whirling, childish tantrum like a strike threat. This is just another reason to go to your next picket with sandwiches and flasks of shock tea, which is like ordinary tea but with extra milk and sugar, ideal for messy break-ups, broken bones and ill-advised state austerity projects that leave millions unemployed.
This is no time to be timid about our convictions or hesitant about strategy. For the first time in well over a generation, the radical left has both objective circumstance and the momentum of history inarguably on its side. Wages are stagnating, unemployment is rising, public sector pensions are under threat, the sick and disabled are being pauperised, young people across the class spectrum are being denied any hope of a secure future and essential services are being slashed, and all the while the economy continues to shrink.
The current Government refuses even to contemplate a Plan B to drag us out of double-dip recession. In such circumstances, the choice to do nothing, the choice to avoid short-term risk at the expense of medium-term despair and long-term ruin, is a choice just as active and infinitely more destructive than the choice to strike, to protest, to resist.
As Chris Gillan, of the Prison Officers’ Union, told his fellow delegates this week: “We are at a crossroads. We need to make up our minds which direction we are going to take.” The choice ahead of all of us, whether or not we are public sector workers, is stark. We can choose apathy, or we can choose action, and those of us who cannot withdraw our labour can add our voices to the chorus saying the only ridiculous idea is the idea that the current economic model is sustainable.
“Strike”, as one of the most important contemporary protest slogans holds, is a verb. It is an active, urgent concept, and its only real enemy is fear, not just of failure, but of the total shift in cultural narrative that success would require. The British left must learn not to fear its own strength. Leave that to the Tories.