In 2011, trade unionists demonstrated in their hundreds of thousands on 26 March and then took strike action against the Tory-led government in defence of their pensions and against public service cuts. Paula Mitchell, Socialist Party executive committee member, looks at the dispute ten years on and its lessons for today
A human tide, all chanting, cheering, blowing whistles, waving trade union flags and holding placards. A great teeming mass of people flooded the streets of London on 26 March 2011 for perhaps the biggest trade union-led demonstration in British history, the ‘march for an alternative’ to austerity.
It took contingents two hours to get over Waterloo Bridge to the start of the demo, a walk which would normally take ten minutes. It took just one union contingent an hour to walk past an individual Socialist Party stall, it was so huge.
Three-quarters of a million people: from seasoned fighters in unions such as the transport union RMT and civil service union PCS, to middle-aged women health workers on their first ever demonstration; from students to pensioners.
Overwhelmingly they were trade unionists, every one of them representing tens and hundreds of others in their workplaces, families and communities, all united in a fight for their jobs and services.
The coming to power of the Tory-Liberal Democrat ‘Con-Dem’ coalition government in 2010 ushered in a period of savage cuts as the political representatives of capitalism set out to make the working class pay for the economic crisis of 2007-08.
In a clear warning of what the Tories intend to follow their emergency Covid spending, in 2010, after an initial period of spending to rescue the banking system and big business, capitalist governments turned to austerity to pass the bill onto working-class and young people.
All the capitalist establishment leaders and their wise commentators that had written off the trade unions were shocked by the March demonstration. The potential power of the trade unions to defeat the Con-Dems and stop austerity in its tracks was writ large.
But appallingly, in the subsequent ten years the Tories got their way. The 700,000 job losses of the Covid crisis, and millions of furloughed workers struggling on 20% less pay, come on top of a decade of devastating austerity.
The Tories took a massive axe to the public sector, and all over the country Labour councillors wielded it for them. A million jobs were hacked from public services. Public sector workers endured a pay freeze. Benefits were slashed and tens of disabled people died every week as a result, as well as many other benefit claimants subjected to cruel sanctions.
Towns and cities were ‘socially cleansed’ as public land was handed to private developers to build tiny expensive flats. Libraries, Sure Start centres, leisure centres and other public amenities were closed. Schools lost staff and resources; colleges lost whole courses. The NHS entered the Covid crisis with a 100,000 shortage of nurses and 80,000 fewer beds than in 2010.
But it didn’t have to be like this. The March 2011 demo could and should have been the beginning of a mass fight that could have changed history.
In the Socialist newspaper on 19 May 2010, following the formation of the ConDem government, the Socialist Party explained there would inevitably be struggles of working-class people and an explosive situation among young people:
“The first step needs to be a campaign for a massive national trade union-led demonstration against all cuts in public services. This needs to be linked to the development of local anti-cuts committees to bring together the different campaigns in preparation for the mass movement that will be necessary. In Britain, as in other countries, the need for general strike action, probably initially across the public sector, will be posed at a certain stage. This needs to be linked to arguing the case for a socialist alternative to capitalism.”
Trade Union Congress
Struggles, including massive demonstrations and general strikes, erupted around Europe. The National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN), in which the Socialist Party plays a leading role, lobbied the Trades Union Congress (TUC) to call a national demo. As the TUC dragged its feet, the NSSN and left-led unions called regional demonstrations in October 2010.
In November, a National Union of Students demonstration brought 50,000 young people out onto the streets against a rise in tuition fees, ending in an occupation of the Tories’ HQ in Millbank Tower. Youth Fight for Jobs and Education, supported by the Socialist Party, leafleted the protest calling for walk-outs. In the weeks after, further education college students walked out and university students occupied.
In local areas, campaigns sprang up to defend libraries, nurseries and homes. The Socialist Party drew on the lessons of Liverpool in the 1980s, and called on Labour councils not to pass on cuts. Hundreds of people protested and invaded council chambers calling on councillors to stand up to the Tories.
Inspired by the Arab Spring that swept dictators from power in Tunisia and Egypt, occupations of squares spread across the world, including in London outside St Paul’s Cathedral. This movement raised the idea of the 99% against the 1%.
Power of the unions
It is understandable that many people, especially young people, did not understand about the latent power in unions, following decades of ‘partnership’ with the bosses and the low level of strikes. The Socialist Party had to patiently explain the potential power of the organised working class throughout these developments, and put demands and exerted pressure wherever we could inside the trade unions for the leaders to act.
Eventually, the TUC called the demo on 26 March. The scale of it shocked the organisers almost as much as it shocked the Tories. The pressure was on them now – what needed to be done next?
On that demo, the Socialist Party and NSSN called for the next step to be a public sector general strike. At the rally in Hyde Park, the loudest cheers came for those speakers, such as Len McCluskey, Unite general secretary, who called for coordinated strike action.
At the NSSN stage hundreds of workers stopped to hear speeches about how a one-day public sector general strike could attract millions towards the trade union movement, as the force in society with the power to stop the cuts.
However, Brendan Barber, then general secretary of the TUC, in a foretaste of the role he was to play, did not make any proposals from the platform on what the next steps should be.
The right-wing leaders of the TUC and big trade unions acceded to the mantra from big business and the Tories that there was no alternative to austerity. They had no confidence in union members to fight, and in fact wanted to hold back a struggle believing it could harm the chances of a Labour government being elected.
In reality, the reason why Labour wasn’t elected in the 2015 general election was because of its total failure to put forward any alternative to austerity. At that stage, led by Ed Miliband, Labour’s craven position was a continuation of the cuts and privatisation programme of Tony Blair. The only whisper of opposition was that the cuts were “too far, too fast.”
What none of them reckoned on was the willingness of workers to struggle. The March demo was followed by pressure from below in the unions and by steps taken by the leaders of some of the more left-leaning trade unions. In June, the PCS civil service union went on strike alongside the teaching unions – including the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, on its first strike in its 127-year history.
Pensions became the unifying factor. The government planned to steal £2.8 billion from mainly low-paid workers, and expected them to work until the age of 68.
On 30 November 2011 two million struck in an historic public sector pensions strike. Marches and rallies around the country were huge – 4,000 marched in Taunton in Somerset! On thousands of picket lines and hundreds of demos, workers were stepping forward to be counted, in a display of their potential power. And everywhere the same discussion – what next, how can we win?
The Socialist Party got a great reception for our clear strategy, arguing that the next step should be a general strike, public and private sector together. But instead of harnessing this potential, right-wing union leaders, together with the Blairite Labour Party, set out to betray the movement, breaking it up through sectional negotiations about tiny concessions instead of a common struggle.
The TUC general council in December was lobbied by the NSSN. But over Christmas leaders of big unions like Unison said they were up for the deal.
PCS Left Unity – which at that stage was the socialist group in the union in which Socialist Party members played a leading role – organised a special fightback conference in January 2012 to try to build a ‘coalition of the willing’. Further action was taken by PCS, University and College Union, Unite, the RMT and also the prison officers’ union POA despite its no-strike ban.
But the betrayal of the leaders of the big unions opened the doors to the government to drive though the rest of their austerity plans. Two of the three leaders who signed the heads of agreement were given knighthoods.
Many people learned about the potential power of the unions through 2011. But the capitulation at the end of that year led to demoralisation and confusion.
Further confusion was expressed by campaigners involved in many of the anti-cuts alliances when Labour councils did the Tories’ bidding year after year.
At the behest of other forces such as the Socialist Workers’ Party, who argued for a so-called ‘broad’ campaign, Labour councillors spoke from platforms without facing demands or criticism, and sat in anti-cuts meetings alongside workers they were sacking or local people whose services they were closing!
We too wanted a broad campaign – of all people who were against cuts, not just in words but in deeds.
This is why the Socialist Party was a founding part of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) in 2010, alongside the late RMT general secretary Bob Crow. It was formed to offer an electoral banner to all those who wanted to stand against the cutters and privatisers, and who pledged to vote against cuts in the council chamber.
The immense anger against austerity didn’t go away of course, especially as its implementation intensified. Battles took place at a local level. Following a fragmentation of working-class votes as people sought out how to punish cutting Labour politicians – voting for the Green Party and even Ukip – the anger found political expression in the election of Jeremy Corbyn to the Labour leadership in 2015.
These are the main lessons from the mighty movement of 2011. The organised working class flexed its muscles and stood up ready to fight, but was let down by its leaders both industrially and politically.
In 2021, with Corbynism defeated and Keir Starmer at the helm of the Labour Party, the need for a new working-class party is posed once again. A step in this direction is the raft of workers and campaigners again standing in the local authority elections this May under the banner of TUSC.
And with trade union leaders again having capitulated to the demands of big business and the Tories, this time for national unity in the Covid pandemic, it is clear that a serious strategy to fight to prevent the working class paying for crisis once again has to include fighting to transform the trade unions.
This is why Socialist Party members are standing, alongside others willing to fight on this clear platform, in union elections currently taking place in the PCS, National Education Union and Unison.