UK Uncut, John Lewis and the pretence of neutrality

2 January 2011


UK Uncut is promoting an action celebrating ‘mutual’ companies and co-operatives. Not small-scale, localist workers’ coops, like the food shops that pop up every now and then, but corporate behemoths like John Lewis. The aim of the protest is 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, reading this, 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 (a retail corporation that’s loosely ‘mutual’, on which more below). The privatisation of Royal Mail is an entirely different kettle of fish, representing different political problems to the re-transfer of Northern Rock into private hands. What John Lewis has to do with any of this isn’t clear, unless it is seriously, with a straight-face, 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’ amongst ‘the people’, and worse, the statement that ‘all possibilities for our banks’ (our?) should be ‘scrutinized and thought over’. Something doesn’t fit – on one hand the protest seems to be about restructuring economics, in sense that verges on anticapitalism, but then its role is defined as that of neutral debate-starter, educator of the masses that there are options, without picking a side. It makes no demands of government (‘political elites’ – nevermind that they have power, and what we really need is strategies for taking it back), instead falling back on fuzzy language about education and public debate. For example:

This debate must be done on our terms and our streets. The people must define the debate about where we go with banking both retail and investment, this can no longer simply be left to media and political elites. In order to facilitate this we must educate and inform people of the alternatives. Banking reform and restructuring needs a movement, movements need people to participate, powerful participants need knowledge.

Resisting the temptation to just say ‘eh?’ here, 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 coming authentic and organic mass movement, which just needs our spark of education to get going.

Of course, there’s no such thing as neutral in politics, and that’s the problem. This method of ‘organising’, taking a pure, supposedly unideological ‘educative’ 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 about which of the multiple, conflicting, complex possibilities for public ownership (or worse, private business with a smiley public face like John Lewis)? Is this some odd stagist concept of campaigning, where they educate the masses, then come out for their preferred option when everyone’s working on the same level of knowledge?

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. That’s a political opinion, and one which was spread in a creative and dynamic fashion. It laid bare the vast 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? As far as I’m concerned, none of these questions can be answered adequately, and where they are addressed, huge political problems arise.

The most pressing of these is perhaps the complete airbrushing of the trade union movement. The CWU, which organises Royal Mail workers, is already campaigning against privatisation. There are problems for anticapitalists with the campaign – the business-led rhetoric they’ve co-opted, for example – and trade union leaderships aren’t exactly at the forefront of militant, active organising. But the first point of departure for any truly left-wing movement against privatisation of industry has to be the workers in that industry. This isn’t a question of authenticity (a difficult question for the left, somewhat related post here) – it’s a question of agency, and of power. 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. It’s enormously problematic that the UK Uncut event has 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 whom choose to shop and more importantly work 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, and I’m not going to rehash those arguments here. But particularly given it’s John Lewis, a corporation that prides itself on its upmarket, exclusive and expensive image, the idea of congratulating consumers for their right-on ethical choice makes me incredibly 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. Hardly the epitome of ethical shopping, even if you believe in such a thing. Equally, the language here suggests working at John Lewis is a positive moral choice, a bizarre way of relating to labour. Are you a better person if you work in low-paid, non-unionised John Lewis than if you work in low-paid, non-unionised Morrisons?

The John Lewis model bears more scrutiny than it’s getting here. 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. A quick scan of the very complimentary Wikipedia page will show this doesn’t go very far – the ‘Partnership Council’ might appoint 5 directors (how they’re nominated isn’t clear) but the chairman gets to handpick 5 more. Democratic.

The dividend, so well covered in the press each year, is hardly much better. Checking in-store and support roles on their corporate site shows most jobs pay a fraction over the minimum wage, just £6.60/hour in London. For a full-time post, that’s roughly £13k a year, before tax. Add the largest ever dividend share, of 20% of gross earnings for each employee, and you’d take home around £2,500 extra, tops. So £15,500 p.a., before tax. That’s poverty pay, particularly in London and the South East. And UK Uncut proposes to parade in front of these workers, handing out flowers and sweets to all in celebration of their right-on company. I’d propose the only ‘educating’ that’s going to do is to show John Lewis staff just how little they’ve done their research. Or worse, how little they care.

Here’s what a real, political conversation looks like: take a group of activists, thrash out some common points of agreement on what’s wrong with x, and the strategy for changing x, and the larger political ideas that underpin that. Organise based on that. Be clear, concrete and open about it, and allow it to be put to public scrutiny, by other leftists, the media, even the right. That’s your conversation, right there. This, on the other hand, is hard to get hold of, slippery and imprecise, and packing a whole lot of assumed, underlying political standpoints under the guise of impartial facilitation. UK Uncut, an organisation I (and many other revolutionary socialists) have a lot of time for, should reconsider.

Update – the UK Uncut event page (linked to above) and the Facebook event page have been removed. Looks like the event is cancelled, more soon