What the anti-cuts movement could learn from anti-war protests


by Guest    
9:26 am - October 3rd 2010

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contribution by Tim Gee

Across the country, something remarkable is happening. Spontaneously, and independently, new community alliances are emerging, to oppose the government’s cuts programme. In my own locality of Hackney, ordinary planning meetings regularly attract 50 attendees.

And the numbers involved are growing rapidly. Discussions are already showing similar differences in strategy that emerged in the anti-war movement. By far the most often questioned is the usefulness of demonstrations.

Mass demonstrations are necessary but not enough

Some believe that demonstrators automatically sideline their issue by taking to the streets rather than engaging with the corridors of power. Others believe the A to B demonstration is disempowering and counterproductive – a method of allowing people to let off steam without getting in the way of the system that oppresses them.

In response to those who see demonstrators as sidelining issues, we can see that the Iraq war marches did quite the opposite. Opinion polls showed a majority in favour of the war until 18 February 2003 – 3 days after the mass march.

It was the mass demonstrations that brought attention to the idea that the Iraq war might not be a good idea, and which changed the definition of balanced reporting for the media. It is also likely that the demonstrations gave people the powerful experience of standing with others for a cause, and the confidence to speak out when they may previously have felt isolated.

In response to those who see demonstrations as a way of diluting more effective actions, history shows us that every successful movement for progressive social change has utilised the public demonstration as one of the tools in its box.

We must defeat the government’s arguments and delegitimize the people making them

Historians will judge that the anti-war movement won the argument, but did not stop the war. As shown above, thanks to the movement building with the demonstration as a ‘hook’, the majority of people came round to the view of campaigners. What is more Tony Blair will carry the label ‘war criminal’ to his grave – most recently reflected by the furore around his book release.

Just as the anti-war movement one by one disproved each of the government’s reasons for the war, the anti cuts movement must do so for the austerity programme.

Furthermore, Cameron and Clegg must be known forever as politicians committed to an ideology that would have ruined the economy of the United Kingdom, just as the ideology of New Labour created the financial crisis by failing to regulate the city. As the government becomes more unpopular however, there must be a viable alternative to it waiting in the wings.

Civil disobedience may be necessary

An alternative ‘what if’ is civil disobedience and direct action. The anti-war movement saw an increase in the prevalence of direct action, leading to a year-long rolling blockade at Faslane Nuclear Weapons Base and break-ins to airports with planes headed for Iraq. Only civil disobedience on the scale of the mass demonstrations however could have represented a serious threat to government and stopped the war from happening.

This may be a viable option for the anti-cuts movement. Many of the old-hands within the ranks participated in the successful anti-poll tax movement, with its wide range of tactics, while many younger campaigners have come in to contact with the vibrant direct action of the climate camp.

We need to be an organising movement, not a service movement

Trade unionists sometimes speak of ‘organising unions’, where people are involved with others, and ‘service unions’ which act more like insurance policies. This is transferable to other movements.

The oft repeated statement that “I marched against the Iraq war and they did it anyway” is symptomatic of a service approach to campaigning. During the anti-war campaign, movement communicators too often played to the service notion that “if you give X amount of investment, you are entitled to Y policy change in return”. Campaigns don’t work like that. To stop people from being disappointed we should not give the impression that they do.

Bottom up not top down

Finally, we must be bottom up, not top down. The Stop the War campaign began to recede when small factions began to feud for control of decision making positions. But an effective mass movement cannot be controlled.

The beauty of a mass movement that it opens space for connections that hierarchical planning and organising cannot predict. It is decentralised, playful and creative. Who, for example, would have predicted that the global anti-war movement would give impetus to the election of the US’ most progressive president for a generation?

The lesson the anti-cuts movement can learn from Stop the War is that we can’t wait for someone to make decisions for us about how we campaign. We need to make our own campaigns, in our own neighbourhoods, using the most powerful tactics we are comfortable with. And most importantly, we need a back up plan for what we do if our representatives ignore us.


Tim Gee blogs on campaigning strategy at www.politicaldynamite.com

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Reader comments


1. Lee Chalmers

One thing that the Obama campaign knew very well was that you need to stand ‘for something’ not against something, otherwise you will not really win the argument. If we are anti-cuts, what are we for? What is the alternative? This needs to be spelled out very, very carefully and in a way that pulls people together. Otherwise it really is just a large ‘down with this sort of thing’ campaign. Ultimately uninspiring and pointless. And people know that.

2. John Whitley

Lee Chalmers is right. An ‘anti-cuts’ movement will be a complete waste of time unless it can formulate a positive alternative that can capture the imagination of the majority of people in the country. And by majority I mean those that don’t really care anyway or have just simply accepted the idea that there is no alternative to massive cuts in state spending.

Remember also there is a sizeable chunk of the population who strongly support the cuts program especially if it gives the unemployed, ‘scroungers’ and foreigners ‘a good hiding’. That is a very strong sentiment if the opinions in my own works canteen are anything to go by.

So the question really is, is there a positive alternative to the cuts program? Is it one that can capture the imagination of the majority in a way that will inspire them to get up do something about it? If there is one I’ve certainly not heard about it.

“Across the country, something remarkable is happening. Spontaneously, and independently, new community alliances are emerging,”

See!

This Big Society thing, it’s working already!

Civil disobedience? Great idea. Violence as seen during the miners strike and the poll tax riots will help as well. And don’t forget a Marxist revolution while we’re at it.

Are you working for the Coalition or are you simply a fool?

I’m not sure the Anti-Cuts Movement (ACM) has much in common with the Anti War Movement (AWM) ?

In some peoples view the AWM was based on a lack of credible evidence for Weapons of Mas Destruction (intelligence), Britain’s reputation abroad and strong moral issues.

In my view the ACM does not possess any of these component parts.

* There is evidence that savage cuts must be made or we WILL go down the drain.

* Without these essential and savage cuts, Britain’s reputation abroad will evaporate if our credit rating is downgraded.

* It would be morally wrong to leave Britain’s present day financial position to the next generation.

Conclusion, good article but difficult to align with past historical events – apart from the 80′s when similar financial conditions applied.

Good post Tim, but if we’re talking about lessons an anti-cuts campaign can learn from the anti-war campaign, then here’s a few more.

Avoid diluting the message

The Stop the War Coalition did this by tacking “Freedom for Palestine” onto their “Stop the War” message. I’m not saying Palestine isn’t a worthy cause, but it muddied the waters. People were turning up to marches thinking they were there to protest again the invasion of Iraq, and then were confused by being handed a placard about Palestine.

Don’t let the far-left set the agenda

The STWC briefly attracted a broad cross-section of support from across society, but they quickly lost it again. Partly this was inevitable when the tanks started rolling, as the campaign had lost its main goal. Even so, they really didn’t help themselves by retreating to a core of the SWP, Galloway et al. During the war, I heard STWC organisers confidently asserting, “We don’t need the Lib Dems.” What, and you need the SWP?

Fight in the corridors of power, not just in the streets

It’s not just about how many people come on a march. It’s also about doing the geeky bread-and-butter policy work – researching the arguments, compiling data, writing reports and distributing them to the people who make decisions. This isn’t as sexy as wrapping yourself in a keffiyeh and waving a placard, and isn’t likely to get you laid, but it’s necessary in order to win over policymakers. As far as I’m aware, the STWC didn’t do this, and probably wouldn’t know how to.

Reach out to waverers in the ruling party rather than attacking them

There were a lot of Labour MPs who were genuinely torn over whether to vote for or against war, but who weren’t interested in talking to people shouting, “Bliar”. An anti-cuts campaign needs to identify who are the “floating voters” in the Tory and Lib Dem parties – people who aren’t traditionally disloyal, but are starting to waver in their support. Campaigners need to be dropping in on their surgeries, and rather than yelling “ConDem” in their faces, start working on winning them over.

Don’t let the far-left set the agenda

I know I already said that one but, y’know, just for emphasis.

How is the Anti-cuts campaign to be distinguished from “deficit deniers” – or isn’t it?

Don’t let the SWP or even Old Labour anywhere near your campaign if you want it to work.

Also: reducing public expenditure to their 2006 levels cannot, in any fucking way ever, be morally or politically comparable to murdering almost a million innocent Iraqis.

Remember also there is a sizeable chunk of the population who strongly support the cuts program especially if it gives the unemployed, ‘scroungers’ and foreigners ‘a good hiding’. That is a very strong sentiment if the opinions in my own works canteen are anything to go by.

Yeah, that’s because they have been brainwashed by the Murdoch media empire and the Daily Mail.

(Sally was out late last night and is still in bed this morning so I’m filling in for the moment if that’s OK with everyone).

Bob B @ Posting 7 asks the real question.

To distinguish between “Deficit-Deniers (DDs)” and Anti Cuts Movement (ACM) we must look at underpinning moral issues.

DDs can be written off as cranks as they clearly don’t live in the real world.

It’s at least 3 years too early to predict tangible outcomes for major cuts. ACM supporters will be the judges of that in the future.

Unfortunately everything else just becomes academic guesswork.

Lee, John, Bob and Ted, I highly recommend “Cuts: the callous con trick” by Richard Murphy (Tax Research UK), Caroline Lucas MP (Green Party) and Colin Hines (Finance for the Future) showing that the cuts will make the economy worse while fairer taxes can plug the deficit. It is online here: http://www.taxresearch.org.uk/Blog/2010/08/27/cuts-the-callous-con-trick/

Tim Worstall: Very witty. Though you may be on to something in that community struggle and alternative solutions are likely in the current economic context. The real big society….

Dave: Look up the definition of civil disobedience. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Civil_disobedience . It is a tactic with a proud history. The violence, if it is involved, tends to come from the state. As if the cuts are not violent enough…

Ted – you repeat the government line. Now think back to 2002. Remember what a small number of people spoke out against the Iraq war. How isolated we were. How the evidence against us seemed overwhelming. I believe over the next year or two we WILL win the argument.

Spirit of 1976. A considered response.

On messaging, policy and research we do indeed need to keep it tight. However we cannot avoid talking about the issues that created the crisis either. So we need to argue for a Green New Deal: which means a green stimulus and fair regulation of the banking system.

(http://www.greennewdealgroup.org/)

As we saw from the Iraq campaign though, arguments alone do not win campaigns.

On your second and fouth points I both agree and disagree. The cuts are sympomatic of an economic system that allows the very rich to create crises at the expense of the very poor. This is what the socialist left has always argued. Therefore the socialist left in the movement must be involved. Meanwhile those in the corridors of power have presided over the very economic system that is hurting the poor. How do we engage with the corridors of power without diluting our message? Will the Conservatives pull back on the cuts programme because we ask them nicely? I doubt it. But if you can think of a way I genuinely want to hear it.

Quoting two reports prepared by Richard Murphy really isn’t going to do your credibility on matters economic much good.

No, really.

13. John Whitley

@pagar Have they? It’s possible. It’s also possible they haven’t been brain-washed by the Murdoch empire.

You see there’s a problem with this kind of sentiment. If you believe that so many people have been duped by the right wing press and Rupe’s evil empire then you may as well go the whole hog and say the majority in this country are thick saps, imbeciles and knuckle draggers who wouldn’t know a good thing if it bit them in the arse. Down that road lies nothing but abject failure and a well deserved irrelevance for any ‘anti-cuts movement’.

Just as a thought experiment, try and toy with the idea that most people haven’t been brainwashed and support a program of spending cuts because they genuinely believe that is the right way to go. The question then is how you would convince them otherwise, preferably without telling them they’ve been been brainwashed by the right wing tosspapers?

what have you got against Richard Murphy?

“what have you got against Richard Murphy?”

I’ve read his reports?

Tim @ 11

Apologies, same reply as my posting @ No 5. Linking ACM and AWM together is incomprehensible to me.

You appear to be identifying with one or more of my categories @ posting 10 ?

Your link to “cuts the callous con trick” is clever but already widely discredited as nothing more than ‘diversionary’.

@ John

If you believe that so many people have been duped by the right wing press and Rupe’s evil empire

I don’t. I was just writing what Sally would have written had she been awake.

then you may as well go the whole hog and say the majority in this country are thick saps, imbeciles and knuckle draggers who wouldn’t know a good thing if it bit them in the arse.

That bit I can agree with in my own persona.

[deleted]

This is what the socialist left has always argued. Therefore the socialist left in the movement must be involved.

I don’t think their point is the socialist left must be excluded. But the anti-war movement also dissipated very quickly – it’s worth asking why that was.

From what I can see the anti-cuts agenda could easily fall into a save public sector workers jobs agenda. Unions are quite rightly primarily interested in their members. The public are quite rightly primarily interested in public services. 80% of workers work in the private sector. You need to convince the public that the numbers working in the public sector are at an optimum level otherwise you will not win popular support for a campaign that emphasises saving public sector jobs.

Although the public and private sector are not directly comparable. The huge productivity gains in recent years in the private sector from the computer, telecommunications and just-in-time revolution stand in stark contrast to sluggish public sector productivity. Does that not suggest the public sector has too many employees?

Good article. Also agree with those saying it’s a bad idea to let the anti-cuts movement be co-opted by other issues – it’s quite off-putting to the majority of people (like lumping Palestine & Iraq in the same box was).
I’d add one more thing though – humour. One of the best posters on the 2003 demo was “Make tea, not war” – sure, it’s a silly point but the political left in this country has a reputation for being po-faced and sometimes “cold”. Reclaim the Streets (remember them?) had a good line in civil disobedience + humour to get peoples attention and get them to listen to the arguments. The point @1 is a good one too, the anti-cuts movement needs to have a seperate plan in place to say what we would do rather than say No to everything. We need to be credible on the economics, and also put more emphasis on taxing the very wealthy (for instance, private schools are subsidised to the tune of £100 million per year due to charitable status – that’s half a billion over the course of the parliament that could be used to keep playgrounds open, etc).

@20

Don’t forget all those private sector jobs that are reliant on the public sector (constuction being the obvious one, smaller cleaning businesses also, etc) especially in this age of outsourcing.

Good article. What we need is more of the kind of solid, practical advice in the piece. Unfortunately this comment has none, but still!

Can someone explain what the anti-war movement achieved? There’s a lot good you can say about them. They were completely right – particularly in retrospect – it was a massive momement which organised huge protests, and was particularly sucessful in getting ordinarily non-political people on the street. But it achieved absolutely nothing. It was a complete political failure, they didn’t influence anything.

spiritof1976 @ 6 and blanco @ 8; spot on.

Every single protest movement that has allowed itself to be infiltrated by the entryists of the SWP has rapidly turned to ratshit in due course. Every last one. Notice how the Anti Poll-Tax campaign were quick to keep them at arm’s length, as were No2ID; and notice too how those battles turned out to be won in the end.

Observe, too, how “Unite Against Fascism” were marginalised in the anti-EDL protests in Bradford during the August Bank Holiday weekend by dint of being corralled well away, and let’s not forget how the EDL were successfully run out of town by the people of Bradford that weekend. Keep the Swuppies and their placards in the guard’s van, not the vanguard.

26. Mungo Bellistre

I completely agree, I support this movement but it would be in the best interests to not be anti but pro. This could easily (for want of a better phrase) rebrand the movement to still stay in line with being against the ideological cuts but appeal to more people by standing up for shared values.

I suspect a lot of those who tell you to keep old Labour out are this morning agreeing with the cuts to the child benefits, some will say we in Newer labour should have done that.

Those old farts who gave us the Universal benefits they have no right here in our New generation Newer labour.

Thank god I’ve left.


Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Liberal Conspiracy

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  2. Lee Chalmers

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  3. Aonaichte

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  4. Melissa Nicole Harry

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  5. Paul Hufton

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  8. Political Dynamite

    To those involved in #nocuts movement: are these the principles for campaign success? What has been missed out? http://bit.ly/cloguD

  9. andrew

    What the anti-cuts movement could learn from anti-war protests …: Daily Mail's most absurd Ed Miliband headline … http://bit.ly/91tZ01

  10. Greener London

    With #timetogo march today what can the #anticuts movement learn from the #antiwar movement? http://bit.ly/d1aSA2 #stopthewar #ukuncut

  11. Political Dynamite

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  12. thesocialistway

    RT @PolDyn: Learning from the anti war movement: Why demonstrations are important but they aren't enough http://bit.ly/d1aSA2 #26March # …

  13. Jack Mcglen

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  14. Liam Barrington-Bush

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  15. Lucy Pearce

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  16. Greener London

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  17. roundclapton

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  18. Joe Taylor

    The Indian perspective http://t.co/JL6n1IQJ





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