What opportunities are there for alliance building within the anti cuts movement?
Pragna Patel: I think one of the concerns that I have is there are so many disparate groups set up everywhere, whether its Arts against Cuts, Women against Cuts, or local anti-cuts alliances. Maybe we need a thousand flowers to bloom, which is great, because it’s about localism at its best. But how do you bring all this together under some kind of progressive agenda which then has a momentum which perhaps is slightly lacking? Is that a challenge for us?
Harry McGill: I totally agree with you. There are many groups and organisations around and many issues they are challenging. How do we bring all that together and do it justice? I think our group has concentrated on workfare and the Single Work Programme. We see this as a full on assault on unemployed people which has to be stopped. There is no fairness or even logic behind it except if we think in terms of making profits and driving poor people into poverty. We have to stand against this, so we have developed our own way of working and a pledge to boycott workfare which we are beginning to circulate widely up and down the country.
Maybe, from people targeting their limited resources into particular areas we will have more informed people that will in the near future be able to unite with groups who are focusing on other areas, for instance the cuts to legal aid which mean that soon many people won’t be able to have legal representation. It’s early in the day to be thinking about coming together. But I think it will happen and it will be as a result of what we are all doing, which is to our particular leanings and interests and the areas we have been drawn into. I see our group doing more and focusing on our particular area. I think at some time in the future we will back up and be part of a larger movement that will have the force or the power to move things on in the future.
Jim Cranshaw: We find that the breadth of the anti-cuts movement is really amazing and different. To go back to the issue of libraries, some of the groups who were protecting various libraries were initially very keen on Big Society solutions and in fact they came from rich areas and they could afford to get rich donors to fund a voluntary-run library and their politics came anywhere from Lib Dem to Conservative, UKIP was one, another one was SWP and Labour. I think it is going to be really broad politically and it’s going to be really broad in the types of organising that people think are appropriate. I don’t particularly want to be controlled in a Stalinist, top down way but at the same time people that are more hierarchical probably don’t want to organise in the way I want to either. I think we have to be understanding of each other and try to respect people who organise in different ways which may be more or less liberatory. I am very keen on trying to keep this a broad movement where we compromise with each other. If you look at the forests there were a lot of people who cooperated with us who have really different politics, so I don’t think we want to cut off our nose to spite our face.
Is it possible for broad alliances to exclude some groups? Are there some alliances we don’t want to make?
Pragna Patel: Talking about alliances in the abstract does not make sense, it’s got to be thought of in terms of what are you doing, what are the objectives, you’ve come in the alliance to fight what? An anti cuts alliance is easier in a way. Even if you think about the TUC march, there were all sorts, everyone was on that march. That is a different kind of alliance to one where you are challenging something and the very people you are in alliance with are undermining that very thing. I think we are talking about very different situations, which is why it will be difficult to come to general conclusions.
The situation regarding the politics of protests in Tower Hamlets was particularly challenging because what you had in effect were two right wing movements opposing each other and the question was: “Which one do you support?” You had the English Defence League (EDL), which was the external white fascist right wing, and the East London Mosque which is the internal Muslim right wing. The East London Mosque has people involved who are fundamentalist and who have been challenged for crimes against humanity during the Bangladeshi War of Independence and there has been a campaign over a long time to try and bring these people to account. What happened was that when the EDL decided to march through Tower Hamlets most of the Left wanted to defend the East London Mosque. In effect it was the East London Mosque defining anti racist politics, which was very difficult for secular women and other secularists because their brand of anti racism was very reactionary. Their aim was to defend our ‘Muslim’ community but these were the same people who are defining what it is to be ‘Muslim’. In this community women have faced death threats, they have been harassed and policed because they don’t conform to certain standards. By lining up with the East London Mosque you are lining up with a particular kind of right-wing politics which undermines what you stand for. This is what I am saying, it is very difficult to talk about alliances in the abstract, but of course at another level, whether it is the campaign against the Iraq invasion or whether it’s the anti-cuts movement, inevitably there are going to be times when all the groups coincide. That’s alright because it is very short lived, and is not monopolising the whole of that agenda.
Helen Lowe: I think it is a very interesting situation because to those of us with political experience or background the EDL is clearly a fascist organisation. Yet its public face is that it supports gay rights, women’s rights, its has a Sikh section and a Jewish section so it seems to fly in the face of traditional images of the BNP and the National Front and indeed it is attracting a lot of gay people because they are being offered an organisation which supports gay rights in the face of fundamentalist Islam. So I think it’s really important in these situations to assert that everybody is welcome and for instance if gay people want to join a coalition, if any community groups or religious groups want to join a coalition then they are welcome to do so but there are ground rules about mutual respect. This is so you don’t have a situation where people feel threatened by people when they are supposed to be working together in an alliance with them.
What about David Cameron’s “community organisers” could they be allies?
David Milner: I suspect a political agenda behind this idea of trained community organisers. Is it the social version of community police? Is it merely a sticking plaster or scapegoat, or is it to ensure that communities actually remain dis-organised and present no threat to government plans? The worst we-know-best aspects of the old welfare state, but with far less of the benefits?
They will organise compliance not resistance. They will do this by diverting any enthusiasm into “good works”; eg. conservation, helping the infirm. Their message will be “we can help you, you cannot help yourselves”, and they will probably be given funding. (This is reminiscent of Victorian charity where those with time to spare had control of funds and decided who was or was not “the deserving poor”. Is it any surprise that the Salvation Army is acting as paid intermediary of workfare schemes?)