I was going to write about why a general strike would be a terrible idea for the left.
I bet you’re amazed, eh? Me, a moderate social democrat, saying I think that the Trade Union movement embracing a tactic of ‘explicitly political’ strike action (Which has worked so well, every time it has been tried before) would be a mistake.
But then I realised that precisely because such an analysis would surprise no-one, it was pretty boring. Centrists gotta centrist.
Instead, here’s the definitely not at all centrist Andy Newman, author of the Socialist Unity blog, someone who in principle would welcome a General Strike against austerity if he thought it would have a reasonable prospect of success:
“Let us be clear that an ill prepared or poorly supported general strike could be an enormous self-inflicted defeat for the Labour movement.”
Andy’s point is about the tactics and practicalities of such action, while I think explicitly political industrial action is anti-democratic and mistaken in principle, so would be against it even if it were practical.
We may differ on that point, but I think his practical analysis is sound:
“I am far from convinced that any of those trade union leaders calling for such action could actually deliver it. Any such industrial action called without a ballot would be highly problematic and prone to failure; and there is a real danger of any industrial action call demonstrating weakness not strength. What is more, many unions, including some who took action on November 30th 2011, would likely decline to participate, endangering the unity of the movement.”
I’m not trying to tie Andy to a past analysis of the practicalities if circumstances have changed, I’ve changed my mind on many things over the course of a season, and if circumstances change Andy and others on the left are free to do the same.
However, I don’t think his analysis is at all out of date.
The practical dangers remain as big as they were in January. Trade Union density is still low, the number of industrial actions is low, and any strike would be largely confined to the public sector, thus revealing weakness not strength. Andy’s comparison of a proposed General strike with that proposed back in 1980 is useful: The 1980 General Strike was such a disaster that until reading Andy’s article I was unaware it had even taken place.
So more usefully than explaining why I think a General Strike would be a disaster. (It’s not as if it’d even be popular) instead we should consider why calls for such an obviously impractical mode of opposition have begun to develop their own momentum. Why is the bus trundling gently towards the bridge?
I’d argue that it comes from a fundamental weakness in the Union movement, and a concomitant unwillingness to confront that weakness directly.
The weakness is clear. Union density has declined even as the law has become slightly more favourable for union recruitment, there’s an almost complete absence from key business sectors and population demographics, and union membership is becoming ever more educated, white-collar and public sector, which suggests that there is likely to be less enthusiasm for long-term industrial action. (Public sector white-collar strike action tends to be symbolic – a one day strike, rather than an attempt to bring down the ‘firm’ if demands are not met) (See here for a longer post on these issues)
Yet read the public utterance of key trade union leaders, and these trends appear irrelevant. Even the fact that industrial action is at a very low-level seems to be ignored in trade union rhetoric. Instead, there is an ever-expanding coalition of resistance, an inevitable march towards a radical future, and the only people who fail to recognise this are Tories and their fellow travellers, whether in the LibDems or worse, inside the Labour party itself. Since each of these are contemptible and immoral, they need not be taken seriously.
At the same time, the realities of the difficulties of organising this resistance impinges on the opposition itself.
So talk of a General strike permeates Unite’s strategy, but a recognition of how difficult such will be means that the General Secretary instead proposes only that “some unions, including Unite, might go away and talk among themselves about whether there is anything else they might wish to do, over and above the collective decision of the TUC.”
You don’t have to be Jerry Hicks to see how that will end up as a demo, a day of action and some tour of the Quaker meeting rooms of Britain, Owen Jones and Mark Steel in tow, rather than anything of any true impact.
So why do it?
I’m working towards the view that the position of the Trade Union leadership is in fact that it wishes to leave the impression that it could, if it chose, deliver a mighty blow to the Government, and use that potential for disruption as a social and political lever even though there is in fact no such potential.
Like a rake thin weakling posing behind the cardboard cut out of a weightlifter, the Trade Union leadership wishes to leave the impression of power, and use that impression to generate its own momentum.
This isn’t a stupid strategy, in the short-term. It can win tactical victories: the fact that Ed Miliband has been forced to condemn planning for a General strike that will never happen is the victory in itself, lending credibility to an empty threat. Indeed, some on the right will have their own reasons for talking up the dangerous power of the Trade Unions. Boris Johnson will love red-scare-mongering, even as he does a deal with the RMT.
Yet no-one fears paper tigers for long. In the end, this strategy is doomed by its own weakness. At some point the bluff will be called, either from the left or the right.
Unfortunately, this strategy can do significant damage to Labour until the fact it is a bluff becomes apparent. The red scare will have to be denied, again, and again.
Much more importantly, this strategy will do little or nothing to improve the prospects of Union members, as it requires the sacrifice of their real interests on practical issues on order to serve a doomed political tactic.
On this basis alone, it deserves to be utterly rejected.