Sunday, 27 March 2011

From Tahrir to Trafalgar

The "Battle of Trafalgar Square" screams the lead story in the Mail on Sunday today, complete with dramatic pictures of allegedly violent anti-capitalist protesters silhouetted against flames. And on some leftwing internet forums and liberal papers, parallels are drawn between yesterday's anti-cuts demonstration and the Egyptian protests that toppled the Mubarak regime from their centre in Cairo's Tahrir Square.

There is more than a little hyperbole on both sides here - anyone watching the live broadcast on late night BBC TV last night could see that there was no violence and only a handful of people "kettled" by a much larger contingent of police (by then on super-overtime rates I should think). There was a fire - of placards stacked against a wall where people denied the right to leave were trying to keep warm in the chilly night. In spite of the best efforts of the BBC anchorwoman to make out that bloody violence had come to London's streets, both the rather calm footage and a phone interview with a Guardian journalist with the protesters in the Square itself belied the attempted drama.

Needless to say, the BBC and the rightwing press have seized on a handful of incidents, such as smashing the windows of a branch of corporate-tax-dodging Topshop, as typifying the demonstration and calling into question Labour leader Ed Miliband's judgement in addressing the quarter of a million people who attended, nearly all of them peacefully. With fewer than 200 arrests, it was in fact one of the most peaceful mass events ever in London, not that you'd know from a lot of the coverage.

Yet of course, Trafalgar is no Tahrir - to suggest so is to deny both the bravery and success of the Egyptians. It is true the Cameron Government is determined not to listen to the protests of those at the sharp end of their cuts programme - Vince Cable was adamant on the TV this morning that there would be no change, while Michael Gove yesterday derided the protest as meaningless. But at least we will have an opportunity to show our feelings about their policies at the local elections on 5 May, a right previously denied to the Egyptians.

The question for 5 May of course is who to vote for to make the anti-cuts voice come over as loudly as possible. On the face of it yesterday, the trade union movement continues to view Labour as the best vehicle for this, but you might question why.

Labour went into the last General Election pledged to cut even deeper - about 25 %  of public spending than the 21% target of the current Con Dem Government. The only difference was that they would have taken a bit longer to do it, so year on year the impact may have been not just quite as harsh as it is going to be. And throughout their 13 years in power, New Labour did nothing to address the fundamental issues in our society of inequality and poverty - indeed, they eased tax regulations to the benefit of the rich and their lax approach to the excesses of the City and the financial sector led directly to the banking crisis which the Tories now want the public to pay for. As yet at any rate, new leader Ed Miliband has not signalled any significant change to this approach.

So is voting Labour a real option for those opposed to the massive cuts in public spending, most of them targeted at support for the most vulnerable in our country - the elderly, the disabled, the young and the sick? It seems not and the trade unions are fools to themselves for continuing to see Labour as offering new wine in their old and chipped bottle.

There are genuine options - the Greens for example oppose the whole cuts package. Greens argued at the election for tackling the deficit by a combination of sustainable economic initiatives such as a national energy efficiency programme that would have created jobs and skills; a fundamental shift to better public transport and a massive attack on tax avoidance which costs tens of billions to the Treasury each year. They also called for a maximum wage of £150,000 p.a. and a progressive tax regime to redistribute the skewed wealth in British society.

And yet yesterday, in spite of repeated requests, the Green Party leader, Caroline Lucas MP, was denied the right to speak by the trade union organisers of the anti-cuts demonstration. The only national leader actually opposed to cuts in public spending was not allowed to put her views across to crowds opposed to the cuts: instead, the pro-cuts Labour leadership were given the platform.

Labour have a lot to answer for still: Miliband does seem mildly refreshing as being genuinely to the left-of-centre after years of essentially rightwing Blairite pragmatism, but he has given no clarion call for real reform. And rather than a root-and-branch purge of the decidedly non-socialist platform of New Labour in favour of genuinely social democratic views, he has blandly called for a rewrite of policy starting with a blank sheet - how inspiring! Indeed, how Blairite.

The opinion polls look good for Labour, mediocre for the Tories and deservedly frightening for the craven Liberal Democrats. But for genuine change, people need to be able to hear the real alternatives offered by groups like the Greens and what is left of the Respect Party and others on the socialist left. The media might be expected to be hostile to these groups, but the trade unions are making a strategic mistake by denying them a voice and continuing to hitch their wagon to the tired old nag that Labour now is, shorn of its soul and in dire need of new direction.

1 comment:

  1. Recently I wrote a blog entry offering a leftist critique of the ideology of “Green” environmentalism, deep ecology, eco-feminism, and lifestyle politics in general (veganism, “dumpster diving,” “buying organic,” "locavorism," etc.). I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the matter and any responses you might have to its criticisms.