Monday, February 27, 2012

Watching Workfare Unravel

Curiously, given my politics, I spent much of last week out of the country ‘away on business’. I arrived home to find that it had been an odd week in the news. Adele had her acceptance speech cut short at the Brits, Liverpool won the League cup, Murdoch launched a Sunday-only toilet paper – and apparently the Socialist Workers Party (a group of which I am a member) was dictating employment policy to the coalition government. I don’t know, you go away for a few days…


The right wing press and the Conservatives were in a state of apoplexy over the fact that protests had erupted over the workfare scheme that sees unemployed people forced to work for hugely profitable multinationals or lose their benefits. Papers and politicians simply couldn’t fathom why public opinion had reached such a level of anger and fell over themselves to denounce the demonstrators. Despite the fact that the actions that shut Tesco, McDonalds and HMV were called by Right to Work, a broad coalition of groups and trade unions, it was the revolutionaries who came in for stick. The Sun made the SWP their Villain of the Week (a badge of honour if ever there was one) before the Hate Mail and the Torygraph also waded in.

The press going to town on the red-scare angle is nothing new. I seem to remember similar stories around at the time of the Iraq war. The Stop the War Coalition was, we were told, nothing more than a cover for the subversive activity of dangerous Marxists. As more and more celebrities came out against the war it seemed only a matter of time before one of the tabloids claimed that George Michael was a front for the SWP. Yet it’s clear that the latest incarnation is more than simply an attack on any one party or organisation. Rather it is an assault, by proxy, on anyone who dares oppose the vicious cuts of the coalition.

The right are shaken by the fact there has been a large-scale public backlash against one of their flagship policies and are aware that more protests can bring it crashing down. Tesco, Waterstones, Maplin, Greggs, Poundland, Argos and TK Maxx have all said that they are reviewing their participation in the workfare fiasco. If they pull out then the remaining companies look even more like exploitative scumbags obscenely milking unemplyed people in the middle of a recession. Which of course they are. But I guess that’s not really the brand image they’re going for. The idea that the unemployed should work for free for some of the largest, most profitable corporations in the country is so obviously unjust, so obviously unfair, that people all over the country are outraged. Even those people that would only go so far as saying “A fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay” – hardly a revolutionary slogan – think that the government are taking the piss. To put it simply, the Tories have lost the argument.

But it’s more than this. The Right to Work protests are the latest in a series of successful direct actions. They follow hot on the heels of the brilliant demonstrations by the sparks who smashed the BESNA agreement, the demonstrations that greet every appearance by Andrew Lansley, and the continued presence of the Occupy movement. They come in the context of the November 30 strikes and the promise of more to come from the PCS, NUT and UCU unions. They are part of an increasingly militant working class fight back, and for the first time the right are obviously rattled. Good.

UPDATE: Only an hour after posting the police moved in and started to demolish the Occupy camp outside St Paul's Cathedral. As opposition to the Coalition grows, so argument is dispensed with and the forces of the state are instead deployed. But, as Occupier George Barda says, "It's not the beginning of the end, it's the end of the beginning."