Friday, 12 August 2011


IN the 1970s, students of industrial sociology were told that the union boss and the shop steward were 'organisers of discontent' in the workplace. At that time with full employment and active trade unions who seemed to have some kind of political mission this title 'organiser of discontent' appeared to be fair comment on the situation in the workplace and to a lesser extent British society: trade unions and their leaders then, in the 1960s and 70s, being central to the political life and culture, and with the FT doing a full page on labour disputes. Then, the union leaders were more charismatic, more substantial public figures such as Frank Cousins, Jack Jones, Hugh Scanlon and later Arthur Scargill. Today, the trade unions are seen more like insurance companies and the union leaders are indistinguishable from the managerial and political class that they confront. Even Arthur Scargill himself, at 73, is a much diminished figure looking like some latter day Fagan, who is today taking his own union, the NUM, to Court in order to recover his NUM union perks and grace and favour fancy flat in the Barbican.

During the disruption of the last few days neither the trade union bosses nor the leadership of what passes for the political left have had anything perceptive to say about the situation on the streets beyond mouthing the typical moral platitudes and proposing the usual half-baked law and order solutions. On Tuesday night, a Northern Voices reporter noted the absence of the extreme left parties on the streets of Manchester. Ken Livingstone, almost alone among politicians, raised the possibility of more sociological causes for the riots.

The left of centre National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) in a statement has said: 'TUC general secretary Brendan Barber predicted that the government's cuts would lead to riots.' As, of course, did the Liberal Democrat Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, during the election campaign last year. The NSSN then rightly points out: 'Whilst Brendan Barber had predicted these riots, he and the TUC have not offered an alternative by demonstrating they are capable of leading a movement to defend living conditions.' But the the NSSN go off into their own little wonderland proposing yet more inconclusive demonstrations be held and arguing for a token 'general strike', claiming that a one-day public sector strike 'was a big step forward in the battle against the cuts'.

There is a need for an alternative strategy, an alternative agenda, but there is no sign of it from the TUC or any part of the British left: 'Fight the cuts' or 'Resist the Coalition' but nothing of serious substance. That is because the British left, from the NSSN to Miliband and Brendan Barber, is deeply conservative and reactionary. Forever merely reacting to the agenda set by the Government of the day. This is rooted in the culture, politics and history of this country and is played out like some kind of ritual as events play themselves out. What is different today is that because there is no real 'organiser of discontent' to channel disquiet among the young, like Scargill, or the militant trade unions as there was in the 1970s and early 80s, there is no way to divert or, as the NSSN has said, 'counter frustration and social breakdown'. Hence, we have no mass strikes controlled by the unions ending with some negotiated settlement, but riots controlled by no one in particular. Thus, the powers that be can chorus to a man and woman about structural controls: water cannons, plastic bullets, exemplary sentences in the Magistrates' Courts, and ultimately, the call to bring in the army.

Perhaps we should consider the traditional way of channeling all these misspent energies and reintroduce the Carnival to England and the old Lord of Misrule from Medieval times? It might be cheaper than bringing in the army.

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