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Household charge: Mobilising against austerity

The Household charge rally of March 24th in Dublin's boxing stadium was a truly impressive demonstration of defiance against the government, the troika and the unending austerity. Thousands gathered to pack the stadium and hundreds, with no room left, gathered in the car park. The level of militancy was further demonstrated by a national demonstration to the Fine Gael conference in Dublin the following Saturday.

However the rally ended where it began - as a mass show of defiance. Issues of bringing the resistance forward, of dealing with the vicious struggle with the state that lies ahead, were either bombastically dismissed or only lightly touched on. A reactionary culture of denouncing political representation in the campaign stifled discussion and obscured differences. 

The fact is that organizations that claim to be apolitical and without political leadership are fooling themselves. The political currents that exist everywhere else exist in the campaign also. If they hide it is to stifle debate and to deny their responsibility for the direction of the campaign. 

This was self-evident at the rally. The "non-political" rally was firmly under the control of the Socialist Party, to such an extent that three TDs publicly protested their highjack. Joe Higgins made the keynote speech. Clare Daly summed up and a member of the British SP presented the template of the poll tax campaign as the model to follow. So crass was the SP that one spokesman rejected the TD's complaint by saying that the size of the rally was their answer.

If that were the case, if the Socialist party had a strategy for victory and the unquestioning support of campaign members, then it would be difficult for dissenters to make their voice heard. But is this the case?

Their position was put forward by Joe Higgins. There is an alternative economic policy of investment in jobs. The single issue of the household charge will spark an uprising of people power. Answering critics of a lack of democracy in the campaign, Joe said he believed in true workers democracy. This appeared to mean democratic discussion in local committees, while lack of national structure leaves control of the campaign to whoever comes out on top of the horse trading and wrangling which dominates much of the discussion at the steering committee meetings.

The political complexities avoided in this approach became clear when the issue of trade union support arose. Given that key workers in the administration could sabotage the household charge in a moment by refusing to co-operate in its collection it would seem obvious that the campaign should be appealing directly to workers and organising at rank and file level. Instead a small layer of the bureaucracy were involved.

Although a straw poll showed that a majority at the rally were trade unionists, when Mick O'Reilly spoke for Dublin Trades council he met sustained hostility. It was quite evident that a majority of the campaign identified him with the collaboration of the trade union bureaucracy in the austerity through the Croke Park agreement. On the other hand, Jimmy Kelly of UNITE received a warm welcome when he declared that his union had instructed members not to pay the charge.

Operating at the level of the bureaucracy obscures a basic reality. Kelly, as a member of the trade union leadership, is actively required by the Croke Park agreement not only to support the austerity targets of the government and Troika, but to actively propose and implement the cuts. They can oppose specific cuts, but only if they support others that meet the targets.

So it is only within the context of a campaign limited only to the household charge that Kelly can offer his support. In essence trade union leaders supporting the campaign from inside the partnership deal are calling for the money to be taken from us in some other way. A campaign aimed at repudiating the debt would either leave him silent or struggle to force UNITE out of Croke Park. By accepting this limitation on trade union support, "People Power" is the only option the Socialist Party can advance.

The weakness of this approach was demonstrated by the dramatic unveiling of giant placards showing the number 1,343,217 as the number of people who hadn't paid the household charge. 

There are a series of problems with the numbers approach. It was a number that could only get smaller. As a number, it is only significant if so large as to make collection impossible. The number of non-payers includes the 20% of the population unable to meet their bills in any case. For the campaign the significant number is the number of people involved in the campaign.

An alternative strategy would involve mobilizing the organized working class. The fact is that as the registration period ended workers in every city and county council were working overtime in an attempt by the government to boost its registration numbers. Elements of the campaign leadership stated that calling for council workers to refuse instructions to break the household charges boycott is a ‘delicate’ issue, this reflects the continued unwillingness to oppose the union bureaucracy

The government has clearly decided that they can settle the issue through a process of attrition. Their contempt for the opposition is evidenced by their unveiling of the next offensive - the first step in the privatisation of water that involves raiding workers pension funds, then charging us for the installation of meters which will then be used to charge us for the water itself!

The movement needs a new strategy. That strategy should be based on real numbers, not fantasy. We should face four-square the reality that, although austerity is extremely unpopular, in elections and polls the majority indicate that they see no alternative. Even to win the unpopular Fiscal Stability Treaty will require a massive effort to overcome confusion and demoralisation.

What does face us is class struggle. Water is just the first stage in the privatisation of all public services. Workers jobs, wages and conditions will all go down the tubes while at the same time workers will be asked to install, maintain and administer the privatised system. It will be impossible to ignore the role of the bureaucracy, who have already agreed the privatisation.

Ten thousand people have signed up to the household charge campaign. Four thousand attended the national rally. Ten thousand demonstrated in Dublin. In terms of the population of Ireland these numbers are small. As an organized force of activists the numbers are significant and are the biggest force that socialists have been able to mobilize in decades. 

It is essential that we advance to address the working class as a whole rather than wait passively, gathered around a single issue and being picked off one by one.


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