Wednesday, February 29, 2012

In Defence of Len McCluskey

Now there’s a post title I never thought I’d write. Len McCluskey, general secretary of the Unite union, has dared to say the unthinkable – that public sector workers are justified in striking during the Olympic Games. Speaking to the Guardian he said:
"The attacks that are being launched on public sector workers at the moment are so deep and ideological that the idea the world should arrive in London and have these wonderful Olympic Games as though everything is nice and rosy in the garden is unthinkable.”
And he’s right. Why should working people, under vicious attack, stop fighting their corner? If the government were that concerned then perhaps they’d like to spend some of the ever-increasing Olympics budget on the public sector pension pot. Rather predictably politicians went to town on poor old Len. David Cameron called the idea “unacceptable and unpatriotic” and Baroness Warsi used it as a stick with which to beat Ed Miliband. In response, Miliband retreated behind his now familiar cloak of anodyne anonymity and said, er, something, presumably. The great and the good all agreed that the Olympics were not a political football. Oh dear.

The Olympics have always been a site of political struggle, most obviously (though not exclusively) acting as a proxy for the rivalries between nation states. Those people who object most strongly to McCluskey’s statement and denounce the intrusion of the class struggle into the sporting arena are demonstrating a shocking lack of historical knowledge.

The political nature of Olympic sport can be traced all the way back to Baron Pierre de Coubertin who ‘renovated’ the games at the end of the nineteenth century. Coubertin ended his life an inveterate idealist, blissfully ignorant in his belief that sport would play the major role in transcending national barriers. But the early part of his aristocratic French upbringing - and his nationalism - came in the shadow of two historic events: France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian war and, of course, the Paris Commune. For Coubertin, a keen sportsman and admirer of the Tom Brown’s School Days style English ‘public’ school system, physical competitive games could help raise a generation of French children who would never again suffer military defeat.

But sports would also play another crucial role for Coubertin. They would help paper over the cracks of class society. The Commune may have ended in defeat but it had left its mark on the upper classes. The Baron described how Paris at that time was "then in the hands of a contemptible insurrection, formulated by cosmopolitan adventurers", which I think (I think) he meant as a criticism. Whereas others, such as the right wing sociologist Le Play, had argued that the role of religion and the family had to be strengthened if France were to avoid class confrontation, Coubertin stressed the importance of sports.

Still the mantra that politics should not interfere with sports is trotted out at every available opportunity. In reality this means governments clamping down on any dissent. In the 1968 Mexico games teargas clouds rolled across the stadium as the government sent in the troops to brutally crush student demonstrations. At the same Olympics organisers were powerless to stop the clenched fist salutes of Tommy Smith and John Carlos as they collected their medals. The image remains to this day one of the most powerful and recognisable acts of defiance. Demonstrations against the Olympics, or in conjunction with the event, have been part and parcel ever since. Whether it is the protests around the treatment of aboriginal people or the homeless in Sydney, the NO GAMES movement in Vancouver, or striking construction workers in Athens, each act of dissent is met with the same old refrain: sport and politics don’t mix.

Perhaps the greatest piece of hypocrisy came in 2004. Echoing the ancient tradition of halting hostilities between warring city-states for the duration of the games, the International Olympic Committee called for an Olympic Truce. As bombs rained down on Iraq and Afghanistan, Tony Blair showed no compunction in adding his name to the list of people calling for peace. Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad was another signatory.

In effect what the Coalition is doing today is appealing for its own Olympic Truce – but it is a ceasefire that applies only to our side. Nothing as trivial as the pensions of public sector workers should be allowed to interfere with the Olympic corporate machine. Yet their own programme of austerity will continue unabated and you can guarantee that they’ll use the two weeks of sporting hype as cover for yet more draconian policy proposals. If only the ruling class extended us the same courtesy and we could ask them not to cut jobs and services during the football season to give us more time to organise the resistance.
Unless there is a groundswell of pressure from below I doubt that Len McCluskey will follow through on his promise. On the evidence so far we’ll be lucky to see him lead any serious fightback over pensions, let alone one that can bring the 2012 games to a halt. But there should be no Olympic Truce in the class war from our side - otherwise all we are left with is bread and a five-ring circus.