Earlier this month anti-corporate-tax-dodging activist group UK Uncut promoted an action celebrating “mutual” companies and co-operatives. Not small-scale, localist workers’ coops but corporate behemoths such as John Lewis.
The aim of the protest was to “raise awareness among the public” that “another financial world is possible” — i.e. that instead of straightforward selling off of Royal Mail and Northern Rock to the highest bidder, alternatives such as co-operatisation have legs. Radical legs, it would seem, if UK Uncut is on board.
The first thing that struck me as odd is the strange amalgamation of Royal Mail (a public service), Northern Rock (a bank majority-owned by the UK Government, but held at arms-length and paying no dividends) and John Lewis. Was John Lewis seriously being proposed as a model for either organisation? Something the government already suggested for Royal Mail. The Coalition government.
This is clearly nonsense, but it’s nonsense tied up in a set of confused radical-sounding politics that needs to be challenged. Talk of “mutualism” and the co-option of the anticapitalist slogan “another world is possible” sits side-by-side with pleas for “national conversation” among “the people”, and, worse, the statement that “all possibilities for our banks” (our?) should be “scrutinised and thought over”.
The logic goes something like: we at UK Uncut reckon the banking sector needs a change. We will educate “the people” about the different options. We have no opinion on these options. Equipped with knowledge “the people” will form a movement. We are the neutral facilitators of the movement, which just needs our spark of education to get going.
But there’s no such thing as neutral in politics. This method of “organising”, taking a supposedly un-ideological “educational” role comes across as at best naive and apolitical, and at worst, cynical and shadowy. Are we seriously supposed to believe the people organising this event don’t have their own ideas?
It’s disappointing, given the impressive tax protests UK Uncut has so far organised. They were straight-forwardly political — we’re protesting because we think rich people and businesses should pay their tax. They laid bare the hypocrisy of “we’re all in this together” and directly challenged the logic of the cuts. It played an old-school consciousness-raising role, sticking the bare facts of the class divide in people’s faces and equipping activists with new arguments.
Contrast that role to this new “protest” — what is it advocating? Who is it talking to? What is it saying?
The UK Uncut action also airbrushed out the role of the CWU and its anti-privatisation campaign. Royal Mail workers can bring the company to a standstill, not to mention the power they then wield over the economy as a whole. They can strike. The UK Uncut event had nothing to say about, or to, organised labour, particularly when it’s already active in this struggle.
Second, the focus for this education session is John Lewis. From the UK Uncut site:
“We will also distribute flowers and sweets to those who choose to shop… at John Lewis given, despite its numerous imperfections, that it represents a different way of doing business.”
There are a million problems with the idea you can change the world through your bank balance, and where you choose to spend it. But, particularly given it’s John Lewis, a corporation that prides itself on its upmarket image, the idea of congratulating consumers for their right-on ethical choice makes me uncomfortable.
Labour Behind the Label says John Lewis has “a disappointing approach to workers’ rights”, both of its direct employees and of those working for suppliers. It’s a co-operative, in the sense each employee gains a share of the profits, and has some (very) limited input into some decisions. But this doesn’t go very far — the “Partnership Council” appoints five directors (how they’re nominated isn’t clear) but the chairman gets to handpick five more.
Most in-store and support jobs pay a fraction over the minimum wage, just £6.60/hour in London. Add the largest ever worker dividend share, of 20% of gross earnings for each employee, and you’d take home around £2,500 extra, tops. It’s £15,500 p.a., before tax. That’s poverty pay.
Here’s what a real, political conversation looks like: take a group of activists, thrash out an agreement on what needs doing, and the political ideas that underpin that. Be clear, concrete and open about it. That’s your conversation. UK Uncut’s John Lewis action, on the other hand, was slippery and imprecise. The organiser of the protest called it off at the last minute, but UK Uncut, an organisation I (and many other revolutionary socialists) have a lot of time for, should reconsider the politics that led them to support it.