The Anarchist Federation and May Day in Nottingham
Below is our interpretation of what happened on May 5th this year and the political context in which it took place. By ‘our’ we mean that this is the agreed statement of the Nottingham group of the Anarchist Federation. We don’t claim to speak for all anarchists in Nottingham, although we stand together with them in much of our analysis below and took action alongside them, as well as non-anarchists, on Saturday. Alongside this we have produced another document, on the Anarchist Federation in Nottingham more generally.
We won’t spell out what Sir Alan Meale MP has done in detail because that has been set out elsewhere (for example: https://nottsblackarrow.wordpress.com ) However we will note that where one AWL-member’s blog states that Sir Alan only ‘allegedly’ over-claimed expenses when it’s a matter of public record (he had to repay £11,859.47 ), this exemplifies the blind-spot that some labour movement activists have towards meaningfully challenging the corruption and class treachery within the Labour Party. The apparent overlap between serious hard-working labour movement activists, on the one hand, and loyalists to what they know (and will admit) is a Labour Party run by warmongers and pro-cuts policy-makers on the other, provides part of the context for May Day. The drive of some socialists to take over a party that has betrayed and punished them, and would do again if they gained influence, as opposed to starting from scratch where they know that the real struggle is taking place, is at best bemusing and at worse unaccountably cynical.
The subtext behind the criticism we have received is tension over the apparent ownership of May Day as an event by the Nottinghamshire Trades Council on the basis that they organised and paid for it this year. The Trades Council has every right to organise its own events as it wishes in private, if members of its constituent trades unions agree. But this was a public event and not a private party – unless they invited all and sundry by mistake – and certainly not the property of the Nottingham Trades Council just because it organised it for once. In short, any other group of people can organise May Day, as they have done before and likely will again, with just as much legitimacy as the Trades Council can. And just because the Trades Council organises a May Day for once, doesn’t mean that they own it, or can have their banner dominating the front of the march for the entire march, and can have Labour MPs carrying it, without expecting this to be challenged. How can this not be seen as sucking up to the Labour leadership?
In reality, many of the people on the march on May 5th don’t even know what a trades council is. In spite of being registered under the TUC, they are often fairly ad-hoc and fragile structures left to their own devices. They are not the local face of the TUC in a structural sense, with negotiating powers, for example, or the power to legally compel or constrain union branches or individuals. The best ones include community campaigners and operate in a non-sectarian way. They aren’t as important or as representative as the Notts Trades Council would have us assume. Many unions are not represented on them. Many towns have none at all. The Notts. one folded completely for years. It is now peopled in the main by hard-working grass-roots activists who many of us have often worked side-by-side with on issues such as anti-fascism to anti-cuts. But it they have no constitutional hold over trade unions locally. The Trades Council is not at the top of some pyramid that contains all trades unions and all trades unionists below it in a hierarchical structure. It has no hold over trade unionists individually, in workplaces or other groups. It is rightly proud to be a place where radical workers can be greater than the sum of their parts. But when the Notts Trades Council claims that it ‘represents’ trade unionists in Notts, it has to be careful. It is far from standard practice that individual members of unions choose their delegates to Trades Council. Often delegates are simply selected on an ad-hoc and informal basis by other activists in their union (maybe always, but at least in the examples we know about). We don’t have a problem with that as such, but cannot therefore claim to represent their membership in quite the same way that union reps selected by the whole membership can. Even where delegates to trades council are the same people as directly elected branch officers, unless there is a structure in place that also had them elected to Trades Council, they cannot necessarily claim to carry to Trades Council the mandate of members, only of their members’ representatives and other branch activists. So it is not quite the example of accountable representative democracy that some people claimed on Saturday (and we critique ‘representative democracy’ itself anyway – see our other document). This may seem a perfectly good way to operate to people on the Trades Council, but it makes it seem less straightforwardly the case to the people that they claim to represent (which includes some of us) that they have the ‘democratic right’ to tell other people what they can and cannot do, just because they are running an event, or that they have the ‘democratic right’ to encourage the Labour Party to dominate by having class traitor MPs march at the front – carrying the Trades Council banner in fact – and speak at the rally.
But the Notts Trades Council considers itself far more important and powerful than that. As a summary of what it can be like working with them, we quote one of the previous May Day organisers (not an anarchist but nonetheless a long-standing trade unionists, with past experience on Trades Council) on the early stages of planning this year’s event:
“It is correct that the previous (May Day) organisers were asked if we wanted to help with this year’s event but turned it down. It wasn’t due to having to work with Nottingham Shitty Council, it wasn’t even having to work with the cops (both of these organisations were fairly easy to work with). It was working with Trades Council that was the final nail in the coffin. They had the attitude, and expressed it, that as they were paying for the event they had the final say. Or in other words, ‘We own it so we say what goes on’. As an aside, this attitude continued with Notts SOS where a certain local CWU rep in particular, but not just him, lost no time in threatening SOS that Trades Council demanded this, that and the other and would withdraw support/funding if they didn’t get their way. On another occasion, when the posties were organising a demo in Beeston early 2011, he issued constant threats to those having the audacity to say they might not attend. Shock, horror that active, committed trade unionists should contemplate making their own mind up on what they do in their own time”. (source: Indymedia, with permission of the author).
So, there is tension over on what basis one element of the labour movement – the element with money – can dictate to the others what they do. If they dictate to us, we will object and do so as effectively as we can. And if we invite someone that the Trades Council considers to be a class traitor to a public event that we organise, we invite the Trades Council to come and do as we did in making a forceful and effective intervention of that meeting.
But what exactly did happen on May 5th? Suddenly, we find ourselves having punched above our own weight, having apparently denied Alan Meale the power of speech, and all with a few whistles and bits of card.
Some people tried to stop Sir Alan from speaking?
At no stage was it decided or even discussed, let alone attempted, that we should try to prevent Alan Meale speaking. If we’d planned that we’d have planned and attempted to take control of the microphone (carefully, as we have great liking and respect for the guy doing the PA).
Freedom of speech on one level is straight-forward for anarchists. As a general principle we would say that – in contemporary Britain anyway – everyone except fascists should be allowed free speech. This is because unless words are backed up by the ability and desire to stop other people from having their own voices heard – which is one thing fascists want – words are only words and people should make up their own minds what words to agree with and take action on.
Having said that, we make no apology if our actions evidently caused him not to speak. The world is not so black and white to us that we think someone who has denied Iraqis and Afghanis and thousands of asylum seekers both the right and the means to speak freely – by voting for war against them and for stricter immigration controls as he has done, which means sending dissidents back to murderous regimes – should be reassured that we want nothing more than to uphold his right and means to speak.
What was pre-planned, by us and others, was lots of noise and heckling which, we imagined, he would do his best to push on through, having a microphone. It occurred to a couple of us that if there were people other than the usual suspects at the rally, they might not know what the noise was all about. So we thought about various ways of making it clear and decided on big placards to hold in front of the stage so that passers-by would see them. When the rally was moved inside, that seemed like overkill. But the point still remained that hardly anyone knows who Alan Meale is and why he should or shouldn’t have been invited to speak. So two of us – in the AF but acting as individuals in this context – decided to make placards to display at the front of the arena indicating specifically two aspects of why: he’s got a knighthood and he ripped off tax-payers.
What we were not doing, however, was either acting symbolically or denying him the opportunity or ability to speak. Specifically, we were exercising non-violent direct action that does not compel anyone to do something they want, or not do something they do want. It makes it humiliating and unpleasant for them, and as such makes a point that their action/inaction is problematic in a way that can’t be avoided. Sometimes they might decide to act differently as a result, even feeling intimidated or bullied, although we didn’t think that likely to happen in this case.
Alan Meale was prevented from speaking?
So we went to the front as he got up to speak, and stood in front of the lectern and held the placards next to our faces (we didn’t want to be ‘faceless’). This was really effective because, as there was no stage, he would have to stand on a chair to talk over us, or carry the microphone somewhere. But it seems he couldn’t be bothered. Alternatively, is he too a fragile a flower to be able to assert himself against cardboard and scorn? More likely he was 1/ furious that the Trades Council had let him be thrown to the lions, and 2/ probably most significantly of all, he had to avoid being photographed with people protesting against him, as politicians are trained to do. Just look at how quickly he stepped down rather than fight his corner.
Come on! Who thinks that a few placards can stop someone with that political experience? We didn’t even heckle, although we probably would have had he bothered to try to speak. He’d still have had the microphone though!
We assumed we’d eventually have to back down as he berated us from wherever he would end up standing, and that we’d have to slink off at some point. But more people joined us and the chair gave up and moved to put the next speaker on. Actually we’d have moved away immediately he tried to do that if we’d heard him announce the next speaker, but there were so many people shouting in our faces that it took us a while. But we moved to the side and listened to the other speakers as soon as knew the chair had moved on.
It was only as the fourth speaker spoke that we realised that Meale wasn’t actually going to speak and that our protest had stopped him. That was great, if unexpected and a bit disrespectful of him to the people who had invited him. But at the end the chair announced that Meale was going to give a ‘solidarity address’ of some sort, as though that would be a neutral and uneventful thing to happen. We realised that our protest had been mistaken for something symbolic, as in “You’ve made your point, now go and behave”. Clearly we hadn’t made our point, and so it would be necessary to get up to embarrass him every time he tried to speak. So we stood up again.
Some people – whilst not sympathetic to anarchism or our intervention, and many of them thinking that we went too far by getting up a second time – have contacted us to say that they were angry at the way we were then pushed and shoved, including at the gendered nature of this. Thankfully none of us actually got punched, just threatened with it, both in front of everyone and also behind the scenes, including an invitation to ‘take it outside’. But we weren’t entirely surprised, because we’ve experienced that in Trades Council officers before (more below).
We let Sir Alan off the hook. Some people say that he’d have had to defend himself if he spoke, because of all the criticism he was receiving. If so, why did the Trades Council put him on near the start, before criticism could be made? The organisers know well that he could have got in a taxi and gone home after he spoke and not even heard the criticism. Then it would have been left to the very few brave people who did address the sort of issues concerning us to make their point in his absence, to tumultuous but pointless applause. So, good on the speakers for having a go at him, even if they didn’t actually mention his name. We are sure that in most cases, except for that of the Uncut speaker, the criticism would have been far more muted and general had we not already set a confrontational tone. He has proven himself a class traitor.
So, why was he invited? Was he invited so that he could be denounced by other speakers and boo-ed meekly from the floor? Is that why the TC invited him? If that’s the case, then they must have tricked him into coming. Exactly how much polite boo-ing was his polite host going to allow? Was the chair going to join in the boo-ing perhaps? Was the idea for the whole hall to boo and make him cry? It could have worked perhaps, given that a few bits of waved cardboard seem to have stopped his mouth.
Alternatively, we are told that we have to let politicians speak because they can be induced to say that they will support workers, and as such can be held to account when they don’t. That makes no sense to us and certainly not to workers being sacked and to service users facing cuts. If you oppose someone’s politics, you don’t allow them to lord it (or knight it) over your own rally! Whatever he was planning to say, even if he has suddenly found himself re-radicalised by the faith the Trades Council had put in him – the grounds for our protest stand.
In fact Sir Alan was probably invited for one or both of two reasons.
1/ He needs to re-build his credentials – much easier now that Labour are in opposition – and pretend he’s the same MP who stood up for the miners decades ago. And to choose an MP from the county, where he’s the underdog fighting a majority Tory council, is much safer than having one from the City, where Labour are more obviously complicit.
2/ There are people on the Trades Council eager to gain influence in the Labour Party and also readmission to the party they have been expelled from. Did they think they could tame Sir Alan perhaps? Might he finally stand up for workers? Or did they promise him a supportive audience, giving him one more chance to redeem himself? Either way, it’s now clear to him that they are not in fact capable of delivering the labour movement to him.
The “best organised May Day in years”, we are told. This relates to what is really at stake in this debate: who ‘owns’ May Day. It is a deliberate slur against the small group of people who organised the past few May Days, a couple of who are anarchists, but who have in common their volunteer labour at the Nottingham and Nottinghamshire Refugee Forum. May Day in Nottingham was dead until they resurrected it and established it as an internationalist celebration of the interests of a diverse and empowered international working class in a way that was inclusive, energetic and creative. But these recent May Days were not ‘traditional’ May Day (to quote a Trades Council officer recently).
In fact, Nottingham May Day, before its decline and resurrection, was ‘traditionally’ a relatively open affair. Trade unionists, anarchists and socialists amongst them, shared the slight embarrassment of a march of only a couple of hundred people and lack-lustre speeches in the Square, some made by world-weary anarchists in fact. At best, Alan Simpson or some other genuine socialist would try to give us some hope. At its worst, there would be only a couple of dozen marchers! But at least the NUM used to turn out with its banners and give Nottingham’s Left something to be proud of. Aside from that, we were all somewhat united in friendly despondency. The Trades Council controlling May Day as it tried to this year, and in the antiquated style it has imaged as ‘traditional’, is in fact a novelty.
Actually, the Trades Council is not exactly an example of “well organised”, even with all its combined resources. In fact, this was the second recent TC-organised event to fail to book the Market Square properly, and not the first to fail to establish and publicise properly whether a venue is wheelchair accessible, thereby unwittingly but thoughtlessly restricting who can attend, continuing the casual marginalisation of some struggles (or are wheelchair-users supposed to just turn up and see if they can in fact get in?).
If some of the Trades Council officers say that they only had 48 hours to organise an indoor venue, then 1/ they weren’t properly and responsibly prepared (unlike previous May Days when gazebos were organised against potential rain for stalls, musicians, dancers and everyone else), and 2/ we knew that the TC were looking for another venue before they did (because we heard about it the previous Tuesday).
And was Mark Serwotka actually expected to turn up? Quite possibly not, just like all the other times a big name speaker is advertised for a labour movement rally and doesn’t show. This time the chair almost forgot to give the missing guest of honour’s apologies – long after everyone had realised he’d gone somewhere more exciting and after some people had left in disappointment. There were people there expecting to hear him, and left feeling rather cheated and foolish.
So, what is ‘traditional’ about a Nottingham May Day that is controlled by the Trades Council just because – and this was actually suggested – “they paid for it”? Well they paid for it out of my union dues and yours. So we should get some say in what happens and who gets to speak. Which brings us to…
Why don’t Anarchists get involved with the Trades Council? That’s just a cheap shot. It’s not as though our branches would elect a load of self-declared anarchists to represent them, even if that was what we wanted (on which, see our other document). However, some Anarchists are officers in unions, and were so in the heyday of the Nottingham Trades Council. They just got disillusioned with the endless bureaucracy and power struggles. The Trades Council was revived in recent years as a prize to be fought over between the SWP and Socialist Party. We’re not too sure what the balance of power is now.
So, who does get elected? Essentially, anyone who can be bothered to become, initially, a workplace rep (sadly, too many workplaces lack even someone willing to do that) and then have the commitment or ambition to go on into higher positions. No one else wants to do it! We don’t mean that everyone who takes positions in a union is a ruthless self-server. That is far from true and we have great respect for the several tireless and genuine activists who rightly deserve a high profile in terms of their commitment to the class. But there is plenty of room for those who are in it just for themselves or their party and, more important, precious little mechanism for stopping the corrosion they might introduce because they have been ‘democratically elected’ (see our other document again). The best way to operate is with accountable, directly elected and instantly recallable delegates operating within structures that are agreed by all the people affected by them. ‘Democracy’ of the sort championed by some ‘democrats’ on Saturday, does not preclude informal hierarchies and cliques.
Having said that, the AF’s experience of working with other trade unionists in Nottingham has been very mixed but certainly not all bad. (We are talking here about where people are officially representing their unions, such as in Notts SOS or in the Trades Council groups that organised recent strike days). In the case of SOS, it was a generally positive experience when we worked on anti-Cuts based issues. The problems have arisen when what SOS is doing conflicts with what the Trades Council wants SOS to do. When that happens, SOS meetings are visited by people from Trades Council to knock us back into line. We are threatened with – horror of horrors – the withdrawal of Trades Council financial support on occasion, such as topping up what we collect in room donations. Also, vaguely but sinisterly, with visits by ‘thirty hairy-arsed postmen’. Supposedly, this reprimand was the unanimous decision of everyone on Trades Council, although we know that this wasn’t actually true according to everyone who was there. Even so, members of the AF involved in SOS at the time this first bullying took place and tried to persuade other SOS activists not to abandon SOS entirely. Ultimately we were unsuccessful and the Trades Council bullies drove everyone non-aligned with them to do more productive work elsewhere. Goodbye Notts SOS, which will now whither and die after abandoning the vital task of creating a broad campaign.
Three AF-ers were also present at various meetings in the run-up to the March 26th 2011 strike day. We witnessed some of the worst political posturing and manipulation we’ve seen (but see our paper Organise! # 77 on that), and we’ve seen a lot. It was like a sitcom from the 1970s, a caricature of what trades unionists are supposedly like. We saw grown men square up to each other and threaten each other with violence. Some more people were threatened with the ‘postmen’! Lies were told about other people’s actions. Students from Nottingham Students against Fees and Cuts were patronised and completely sidelined (it was suggested that they might contribute face painting!). None of it was aimed at us, mainly because we just sat there speechless at our latest encounter with ‘real’ trade unionism in struggle. We reported back to our branch, washed our hands of it, and concentrated on building the strike at a more local level.
But the main point is, that the TC’s style of political engagement is, emphatically, not reflective of struggle that is happening, nor of the reality of struggle as it is experienced by many, even most people. It is only reflective of the vision of struggle that self-styled ‘traditional’ trade unionists have. If you are able to understand its rituals and language (which some anarchists in fact do) and know the significance of what speakers are saying and the shared cultural assumptions about concepts such as picket lines, the specific usage of the term ‘solidarity’, how the different unions relate to each other and relate to industrial sectors, and have background knowledge such as about the role the Miners’ Strike has played in the shaping of our labour tradition, and so on, then something like the May Day rally this year has some meaning and significance for you. But this clearly isn’t the case for most workers, or most anarchists, and certainly not for working class groupings such as students and the unwaged.
These latter groups not only stayed away in their droves, they would have had no understanding of what was going on – or of who Alan Meale is and why he’s a ‘Sir’, or who Mark Serwotka would have been. Most of us do not operate in the fictional today born of a mythical past dream of what class-struggle is like. Class struggle is messy and things go wrong. In our direct personal experience in the past year or so – in examples we can cite – bin men in the GMB and postmen of the CWU have crossed strike picket lines we have been on; whereas non-union members have refused to cross our lines, risking serious sanctions; and picket lines we’ve been on would have collapsed had it not been for the support of students and unemployed people; and unions almost never offer strike pay, least of all to precariously employed workers who simply cannot afford to lose even one day’s pay. We condemn any worker crossing another’s picket line, obviously. But those scab and potentially-scab workers probably don’t care what we, or their union, or the Trades Council, or the Labour Party think about them. We don’t live in a world where fear of other workers’ hostility is one of the factors creating class solidarity.
So, why do anarchists even care who speaks at May Day? Because, through the hard work done by labour activists, including ourselves, or more likely in spite of that work, things could turn around. If they do, we need a labour movement fit for purpose. Nothing symbolises its decay and disconnect with the working class more than 1/ inviting someone as repugnant as Alan Meale as a speaker at May Day and 2/ the incoherence of thinking that this served some useful purpose or would make sense to most workers.
So, there you have it. The Trades Council don’t own May Day. Alan Meale does not have the right to speak unopposed at a public event, because he is a class traitor.