Sunday 23 May 2010

The Return Of Parachute Politics

Rather later than others, including Harpymarx and AVPS, I have only just seen the footage of the 'direct action' yesterday by members of the Socialist Workers Party at the offices of ACAS, where negotiations between Unite and British Airways were disrupted. The following clip is from the BBC and there is more from inside the building here (hat-tip: AVPS):


Usually I'm all in favour of direct action and there is nothing necessarily wrong with directing it at attempts by union leaders to short-change their members. It's not as thought either Derek Simpson or Tony Woodley (who has started looking more and more like an over tanned Tony Bennett every day) don't have form in this regard - consider Woodley's support for the disastrous Phoenix Consortium takeover of Rover, for instance, as an example of how to completely misunderstand the interest of your members.

However, let's not forget the context here. The ACAS talks were not the result of efforts to cobble together a cosy deal, but the direct result of industrial militancy that has refused to cave in to either condemnation of the strikers' cause by the media or an employer bent on breaking their union. Willie Walsh, the CEO of BA, is desperate to win without making concessions (hence the shameful use of legal technicalities to try and prevent a strike) and today has tried to imply that Simpson "undermines discussions and raises questions about how this union operates" by sending updates on the negotiations on Twitter. Walsh doesn't want to be anywhere near ACAS - which means that supporters of BA cabin crew staff should know that keeping him there must be important.

So what possessed the SWP to invade the talks? I suspect it wasn't planned, the coincidental proximity of the party's Right To Work Conference was a factor and so was the evident absence of security at ACAS' headquarters. But that explains how the demo happened, not why.

In the context of an airline dispute, using the description "parachute politics" may seem a little overworked. However, for many of us (especially those of us who have been anti-racist campaigners for some time), the SWP's tactics will seem very familiar. Time and again we've seen them parachuting their members and resources into an area, with little or no interest in the nuances or context of an issue and certainly no thought for those already engaged in campaigning. Having made a noise, claimed leadership of the opposition to whatever latest injustice working-class people face, recruited a few members and then moved on, others are left to pick up the pieces. It's chaotic and short-term - and they have the cheek to accuse anarchists of being disorganised.

This is a point that shouldn't be overlooked - yesterday's event, although perhaps more blatant and ill-considered than usual, is par for the course for the SWP. I would argue that so too is the response of the party's front organisation 'Unite Against Racism' to the English Defence League, one that often (although not always) leaves Asian communities to deal with the aftermath of UAF protests and the local racist sentiment that one-off protests stir up, just as often happened with the early 1990s version of the Anti-Nazi League.

For many of us, this tactic has been a defining feature of our deep mistrust of the Trotskyist left. There's no point religiously repeating the instruction of SWP guru Tony Cliff that "the revolutionary party must conduct a dialogue with the workers outside it... not invent tactics out of thin air", if this is seldom if ever translated into practice.

I strongly believe we need an organised opposition to the imminent escalation of attacks on public services and on the pay of millions of people whose taxes bailed out the banks. But as yesterday showed, inventing tactics out of thin air is the last thing we need.

UPDATE - 25 May

The Guardian's industral editor Tim Webb continues the paper's legendary regard for accuracy by blaming 'anarchists' for the invasion of the ACAS offices...

1 Comment:

HarpyMarx said...

Totally agree Kevin. Thanks for link..

I know I sound cynical but it's about building the trot group as opposed to building the mass movement. Just seems like they had some vague plan, hyped up the members with fighting words (seen this done and it's surreal) and the SWP organisers lead the charge. It also smacks of cynical opportunism and demoralism.. the politics of disorganisation.. i.e. 'we have to do something, anything' without thinking through the consequences. I am worried what impact this will have on the talks and also the various Gen Sec elections going on.

Or possibly the protesters mistook Acas HQ for the Winter Palace.. who knows...

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