The Socialist Unity Network
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Swindon's fertile soil

Andy Newman


    On 1st May, several hundred protesters (police estimate 1500) marched and blocked a main road in Swindon to protest against the proposed relocation of Swindon Town's football stadium onto the site of a Community Forest. The motivation for the move is that a housing developer wants to build on the site of the current town centre stadium. On 10th May 450 people attended a public meeting on the same issue.

    On 11th May around 65 people attended a public meeting against the building of housing and a new university campus on another valuable green field site around Coate Water. Again the motivation for the plan is being driven by a property developer.

    Hundreds have also been involved in a campaign to defend the midwife led maternity in the small neighbouring town of Malmesbury. The financial crisis following reorganisation of Wiltshire Area Heath Authority into four, profit-driven Primary Care Trusts means that, according to the GMB, every community hospital in Wiltshire is under threat of closure.

    A few weeks ago several pensioners campaigning to defend their local post office picketed TESCO in Swindon who are threatening to close it. The leader of the campaign rang me for advice before hand, because he knew the Socialist Alliance would have experience of that sort of protest, and he is on our mailing list after attending a film show.

    The nature and scale of these campaigns is surely not unique to Swindon. The full scale acceptance of neo-liberalism by all the main political parties whereby the market decides such issues as housing policy and healthcare provision is in stark contradiction to the wants and needs of the population.

     

    Explicitly Swindon Borough Council has abandoned a strategic commitment that opposed further growth and desired consolidation. The council now poses no objection to a strategic plan to build 1500 new houses a year in Swindon, only 50 of which will be designated "affordable", despite 6000 on the council house waiting list. The political parties on the council have capitulated to the idea that the market will decide, and the planning officers of the council are silent at regional planning meetings where Swindon's fate is decided.

    The challenge for the left is overcoming NIMBYism (Not in My Back Yard), while at the same time harnessing the well-founded opposition of those residents or service users most directly affected. It is notable that in all of these campaigns members of the Tory party have been involved in a constructive and helpful way - indeed Michael Ancram MP, deputy leader of the Conservative Party, has been involved with the maternity hospital campaign. In many cases their involvement is sincere, even if it is in contradiction to their ideological positions. At the Coate Water public meeting Tory and Lib Dem councillors were present, but no elected representatives from the Labour Party.

    This reflects the dramatic decline in both numbers and experience in the Labour Party, and also the lack of any strategic direction, let alone socialist principles. Nevertheless, the Labour party is not the whole of the Labour movement. Swindon TUC, and Swindon and Wiltshire GMB branch, are both committed to a wider vision of trade unionism that defends working class communities, and have backed various campaigns. Members of Swindon Socialist Alliance play leading roles in the Malmesbury hospital and Coate Water campaign.

    Back in November, Swindon TUC hosted a meeting with a wide range of trade union and environmental organisation to discuss the council's "Swindon Local Plan". It was agreed to initiate the development of an "alternative plan", that reflected the needs of Swindon's residents and not of big business. A first draft has been prepared for discussion by the chair of the TUC, Martin Wicks, and the representative of Swindon Friends of the Earth, Jean Saunders. We see this as a developing document that can be debated and adopted through community, environmental and labour movement bodies, with the aim of changing the mainstream political agenda. It was clear from Public Meeting about the Coate development, that there is sufficient support to pursue this, as it both addresses the specific manifestations of how neo-liberalism is affecting working class communities; and at the same time is realistic about the general lack of participation and indeed cynicism about organised political parties.

     

    This type of initiative is necessary because we are in a paradoxical position. On the one hand, common sense opposition to the neo-liberal agenda is widespread - anyone in these community campaigns arguing against the free market and in favour of democratically controlled planning receives a welcome response. Very significant numbers of people are prepared to be involved in community protests. (It is interesting that the activists, and most of the participants in these campaigns are usually in their 30s, 40s or older. It is surprising how often the poll-tax movement comes up in conversation as a formative influence.)

    Nevertheless, the socialist current is very thin indeed. The Labour party is in most places an empty shell and one that is structurally resistant to influence by radical politics - factors usually ignored by the advocates of the Reclaim Labour position. Active participation in trade unions, at either a work-place or branch level is minimal. The organised left outside the Labour Party is often located in a propagandist tradition of paper sales and public meetings. This is an uneven picture as individual activists may organise in an exemplary way in campaigns like Defend Council Housing, the Stop the war Coalition, or the various anti-deportation and refugee campaigns, but overwhelmingly the organised far left groups are still imbued with propagandism - to a certain extent this is evidenced by the nature of RESPECT's euro-election campaign.

    The left faces a significant challenge in overcoming this propagandism. There are two strategic tasks facing us. Firstly, we need to participate in all these community campaigns. Winning the activists to socialism cannot be done by argument alone, we must also link the campaigns together. Any one individual campaign can be accommodated by the neo-liberal agenda, but when combined together they represent a democratic challenge to the priorities of the system. Because these priorities are those of the market, then any alternative plan based upon human need and not profit is explicitly socialist. This is also the only constructive way to work alongside the Tory and Lib Dem activists, who we can co-operate with in each individual campaign, but break with them if necessary over the issue of generalising and linking the campaigns. Of course we also need to harness their abilities and influence without allowing them to dictate the terms of their involvement - so we must not surrender our independence or accept any veto on militant protest. Of course, if we can also create a broad and inclusive socialist party, then that will be a pole of attraction for activists radicalised by these campaigns.

    Secondly, and there is not time to develop this argument fully in this article, we need to break the unions from the agenda of social partnership and rebuild workplace organisation. Recognising the historically low level of participation means we require more than a campaign of linking the grassroots activists. It is also necessary wherever appropriate to capture the unions at every level, and harness those parts of the unions we can influence to campaign in the interests of their members and our working class communities in opposing neo-liberalism. If we do this right we can encourage more participation in the unions, as they are seen as both workplace and community organisations. Specifically, using the political funds to develop detailed alternative policies that activists can campaign around grows organically out of the strained relationship between the unions and the Labour Party. This is a much more constructive approach than regarding the political funds as a cash-cow to fund electoral projects. It also does not rule out active engagement with the Labour party, remaining affiliated where possible in order to influence policy around key socialist demands, for example, reform of the trade union laws, an improved minimum wage and renationalisation of the rail industry.

     

    Underlying my argument is the need to look reality in the face. The neo-liberal agenda of the government, big-business and the political establishment is in long term structural opposition with working class communities, and with workplace organisation. Levels of political activity opposing the specific manifestations of neo-liberalism are encouragingly high.

    But we need to be honest that the left is incredibly weak, and its influence is less than the numbers of paper sellers and placard carriers would indicate. What is more the actual organised opposition is not from the young - it is often from older more established people. This is not a new phenomenon, writing back in 1975 Peter Sedgwick a leading intellectual in the International Socialists (IS) observed that throughout the protests of the 1960s there was significant involvement of young people, but there was no continuity. The youth demonstrating in 1968 were different youngsters from the ones demonstrating in 1969, and often a brief period of protest had no lasting impact on their political development. Peter argued that the only people who consistently protested from one campaign to another were organised trade unionists and the Marxist left, and at that time the IS oriented on long-term relations with the established militants.

    Today we won't meet our audience by standing on the street clutching bundles of newspapers, but only by being active in the campaigns, communities and unions. Each of these existing community campaigns challenges one symptom of neo-liberalism, we need to involve ourselves in these campaigns and seek to develop them towards a more generalised opposition. In the same way sectional trade union strength can be legitimised within a general acceptance of capitalism, but widespread solidarity contains within it the seeds of a generalised class challenge to the whole system. Our job will be over the long haul, and we must allow ourselves the long term view. Time and time again the British far-left has ignored or thrown away the real gains that could be made by patient, long-term work in favour of one get-rich-quick scheme after another.

    The left is numerically weak, and all we can do is start where we are and do what we can. Precisely because our resources are limited it is important that we don't squander them in the wrong types of activity, in abstract propagandism or by in-fighting between ourselves. It will be hard work, and there will be victories and defeats along the way, but the victories will be real ones that improve the living standards of working people. Out of this we can build a new left.


     

 

May 2004

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Some links
 

Mayday Demonstration in Swindon
 

GMB members join maternity protesters in lobby:
 

Swindon Forest Protection Group
 

Save Coate Campaign
 

Save Malmesbury Hospital Campaign
 

 

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