Building a Movement against the Cuts: Taking Stock

By Ramsay, Adam | Renewal : a Journal of Labour Politics, July 1, 2011 | Go to article overview

Building a Movement against the Cuts: Taking Stock


Ramsay, Adam, Renewal : a Journal of Labour Politics


There is a famous passage from Captain Corelli's Mandolin often read aloud at weddings. In it, Louis de Bernières describes love. He tells us that what matters is not the blooming of the flower - that is simply being in love. Love, he tells us, is what you are left with when the flowers have blown away, but the roots have so grown together that they are impossible to separate.

Perhaps the same can be said of political movements. As they launch, they are exciting. People come together for the first time, a new energy emerges. The revelation that there are so many others who share the concern is overwhelming, it is moving, it makes us all more passionate. It fills us with excitement and joy. But change rarely comes in a day. And slowly, the flower wilts. People tire of going on marches or of sitting in shops. Some find themselves with court cases to battle, others with jobs to catch up on, or exams to sit. And as with de Bernières' love, what matters is whether the movement has by that point established such roots that it will continue to grow - to recruit new people, and to find new ways of building pressure.

Over the last year, the flowers of protest certainly bloomed. The question now is whether they planted deep roots - and what can we do to support and cultivate those roots which do exist? At least one significant factor in this cultivation is infrastructure: what capacity have we gained to learn from one another in order to develop our strategies and build a shared vision? What skills do we have to win people over? What tools do we have to lever power? And, in order to make this happen, what are the organisations through which we can do these things? With that in mind, let's have a look at the state of the infrastructure of the movement against the government's austerity programme since it was launched around a year ago.

Unions and NGOs: the old guard

Some of the organisations have of course have been around for a long time. Trade unions in particular have started to move centre stage to a greater extent than in recent years - organising the first major TUC demonstration in a generation and beginning to pull together multi-union strikes - possibly building for a general strike? We shall see. Some individual unions - notably the PCS - have worked particularly hard to engage with other corners of the anti-austerity movement. However, while such an increase in activity may produce a short-term rise in union membership, the overall trend is very much downwards - with around 5 per cent fewer people paying their dues than did in 1995, and membership sitting at almost half of the 1979 level (Achur, 2010). Trade unions are still the biggest and most democratic organisations campaigning for economic justice in the UK. But anti-union laws and changing employment habits have seriously hampered them, many have a reputation for lumbering bureaucracy, and they are not on their own enough: if they couldn't beat the government at the height of their power, how can they do so now?

As well as unions, the UK has a plethora of campaigning charities. Particularly in recent decades, many organisations who started out with service delivery have added professional activists to their staff. For many groups of people - particularly people from vulnerable groups - such charities are the main organisations who speak for them. Barnardos, for example, claim to 'always speak up fearlessly for children and young people', and are arguably the main organisation in the country campaigning on behalf of children.

Whereas unions have been willing to publicly criticise the government over its austerity programme, many of these charities seem to have shrunk from the challenge. As the former Children's Commissioner Sir Al Aynsley-Green wrote in March:

Who is speaking out for children, young people and families? Has the children's sector and its famous organisations forgotten the outrage of their founders? Why so low key over the circumstances of children now?

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