This weekend I attended both the demonstration against cuts and privatisation in the National Health Service and a meeting in defence of the democratic structures of the National Union of Students. Both displayed the basically reactionary politics of the bureaucratic "left".
Saturday's NHS demo displayed Unison's ability to waste money on trinkets while avoiding serious campaigning. A plethora of flags with the slogan "I ♥ NHS" left me wondering whether working for shit wages for the National Health Service is all it's cracked up to be, or indeed whether the union's slogan was aimed to appeal to NHS management consultants who grow filthy rich as parasites in the state bureaucracy.
Many branches had turned out hardly anyone - the London organisers thinking the protest pointless - while others, such as Leeds, attempted to entice activists with leaflets offering a bargain "Shopping trip to London and Defend the NHS demo". Attendance was in the low thousands, which is very poor indeed, but unsurprising given the do-nothing strategy of the Unison leadership. As one Unison member heckled at the tiny 3rd March NHS rally at Friends' Meeting House, "ballot for a strike!"
The campaign to defend universal, free healthcare is doomed unless workers actually do something to defend it, action which will make the government sit up and listen. Furthermore, such a campaign needs to decry the very real faults of the health service, its mismanagement and the lack of public control over it, and make the case to extend public services. Instead, Unison seem to think that "reforms" are going ahead too quickly, but really everything's fine and we can all "♥" the NHS as it is.
The Socialist Workers' Party made a similar point at the NUS democracy meeting, where they argued that although the National Union of Students is undemocratic at the moment, our response to a further wave of attacks on democracy in the union should be to run a purely defensive campaign where we make no positive demands. It would be impossible to run a "broad campaign" if we linked the fight to defend democracy to demands in favour of extending rank-and-file involvement and reversing previous attacks - that would alienate potential supporters.
My first reaction to this was to wonder precisely why having no positive proposals and shutting ourselves up about what's wrong with the status quo would inspire people to support us, particularly given that many activists don't see any point in involving themselves in the bureaucratic union - and, indeed, why anyone would be opposed to the current attempts to bureaucratise the union further, but not care about democracy in general or oppose previous attacks. But then I understood - the "broad" campaign, it seems, is meant to include self-serving student bureaucrats who feel under threat from the review, even if their reasons for opposing it are completely contrary to our own. We are in favour of democracy in principle, but they are opposed to a coup within the bureaucracy.
Engaging rank-and-file students is fine in principle, but mobilising them is more difficult than rousing student union sabbatical officers, so we should put them on the backburner for the moment...