Building an opposition
Efforts to build an effective campaign against the water charges are aided by the fact that they are very unpopular. We don’t need to convince people that water charges are a bad thing. The overwhelming majority of people already view them as unfair and are rightly opposed to them. However, it is also the case that this public sentiment has not diverted the Government from pressing ahead with its plans to reform the Water Service. This poses a key question to activists. How can we translate the broad public sentiment against water charges into a campaign that can actually stop them?
This chapter will address this question by examining some of the existing anti-water charges campaigns and the strategies they advocate. It will also put forward what we believe is needed to build an anti-water charges campaign that will be successful.
While there is a broad anti-water charges campaign, there are a number of distinct groups and positions that can be identified within it.
The first of these are the community-based groups such as the Won’t Pay Campaign, and Communities Against the Water Tax. Both these groups identify the community as the basis on which to organise, and non-payment as the best tactic to pursue. Most of their activity is based on signing up residents in a particular locality to non-payment pledges. It is these groups that have been the most publicly active in opposing water charges.
On the face of it the non-payment campaign is the most militant, openly calling for defiance of the law. The campaign also has a logical formula – if people won’t pay water charges, then they will be defeated. Put in this simple way such a campaign can appear attractive. However, it does have a number of weaknesses. The primary one is that non-payment is a tactical formula. Tactics require a prior understanding of the political situation and a broad perspective on what is happening. They also require a strategy which determines how a flexible opposition is to be organised and how a whole range of tactics are to be developed. Outside of this any particular tactic is abstract and arbitrary and is removed from the realities of the society we live in. This can be seen in the many references that non-payment activists make to the Poll Tax revolt in Britain, and the anti-water charges campaign in Dublin, both from the early nineteen nineties. Sometimes this takes on a totally mechanical form when the number of people not paying the Poll Tax in Britain is extrapolated to how many non-paying households it would take to defeat the water charges here. To believe that a tactic can simply be transplanted from another time and place to the north of Ireland begs too many questions. It ignores both the history of this society, and the political consciousness of those who live within it.
There has been no history of a cross-community non-payment campaign in the north. The most recent example of a non-payment campaign was a rate and rent strike by nationalists in the early 1970’s in protest at internment. This left a legacy of bitterness when the same politicians who had initially supported the strike actually introduced repressive legislation to break it when they joined the Sunningdale power-sharing Government. Those same laws, Enforcement of Judgement orders and Attachment to Wages orders, remain on the statute book to this day.(1) We can assume that the British Government, or a Stormont Executive for that matter, would be prepared to use these laws against anyone who didn’t pay their water charge. Under the pressure that the state can bring to bear there is the danger that non-payers could become isolated. The danger is increased by the campaigns being based in localities. In such a decentralised structure it is difficult to get an overall view of how the campaign is progressing. While it may appear strong in one area, it could be weak in another. Also a pledge of non-payment does not necessarily translate into non-payment. While a disgusted householder may sign a pledge it does not represent a commitment to non-payment. People will only be prepared to defy the law when they have the sense that they are part of a campaign that has the support of tens of thousands of people, and has the capacity to give them political and material (including legal and financial) support. None of the current non-payment campaigns come near that level of organisation.
Another weakness of the non-payment campaigns is that they tend to follow public opinion rather than try to lead it. The problem with this approach is that public opinion is contradictory, with opposition to water charges existing alongside individualistic “beggar thy neighbour” impulses. This can be seen from the various opinion polls that show that while the overwhelming majority of people oppose water charges, a majority of them also support meters. Of course support for metering is totally misguided. Firstly, its understanding of the cost of water usage is factually wrong. The cost of water lies in maintaining the network; the amount of water used by each household being only a marginal cost. Secondly, it is politically reactionary. Water metering is an even more regressive form of payment than property based charges, increasing the burden on poorest households, larger families, and people with certain disabilities. This shows that many people still have to be won over if the foundation of a campaign based on the concept of solidarity is to be established. The problem with the non-payment campaigns is that they assume that public opinion is with them, and that the tactic of non-payment is the only one that can win. Once these two assumptions are made there is really nothing else to talk about. All that remains is the practical task of collecting non-payment pledges.
This is consequence of elevating the tactic of non-payment to the point of principle on which a whole campaign is organised. It narrows the range of tactics that can be pursued and ignores the broader agenda of which water charges are just one part. Public opinion is important. But it can be volatile and contradictory. Above all its determination and strength can difficult to gauge. To create the basis for a serious anti water charges campaign, large numbers of people will have to be won over to a principled position of opposition not just to a tactic. This requires not only an instinctual or emotional response but resolution born from a well thought through confidence and commitment.
This does not mean that we reject non-payment out of hand. It is a legitimate tactic, but it is not the first and only thing a campaign should launch itself on. The first task of any campaign is to establish the principles on which it is based. From there the campaign can develop a range of tactics that bring that principle to the fore. In the case of water charges the key principle is opposition to privatisation, and the tactics pursed should relate directly to it. The non-payment tactic on its own does not emphasise this key principle, nor articulate the arguments required to win people over to it.
The second main tactic in the broad anti-water charges campaign is lobbying. This is mainly associated with the community sector, charities and also trade unions. The idea behind this is that if you can win over enough MLA’s or make a convincing case to Government then water charges will be withdrawn. However, we have seen already that the main local parties agreed to the water service being self-financing, have no principled opposition to privatisation and were already considering the introduction of water charges. The arguments between the parties have not been about how to defeat privatisation and water charges but rather about attempts to shift blame onto each other. On this score they have all been equally convincing. The government is all too aware of the opportunist nature of their complaints now and it knows that none of them will allow the issue of privatisation to stand in the way of their attempts to forge a new deal.
During the last attempt to set up an Assembly in December both the DUP and Sinn Fein boosted of demands for £1 billion in funding as a peace dividend for a settlement. Their much trumpeted peace dividend of £1 billion quickly became £100m, not all public money, and spread over a number of years, but neither party protested the financial elements of the deal that would have left their new government squeezing the poor.
The government itself is well aware of the lack of any principled opposition from the political parties and is pressing ahead with its reforms confident that public opposition will not be reflected by anthything more than rhetoric from the parties. The mainstream politicians and the Government won’t change their positions through persuasion. They will only shift when forced to do so by a powerful opposition movement.
A weakness lobbying shares with non-payment is that it focuses solely on the water charges themselves rather than the agenda behind them. The arguments put forward by lobbyists usually take the form of pleas on behalf of the poorest and most vulnerable people in society. They don’t raise the issue of privatisation. Indeed, the lobbyists implicitly accept that water charges and privatisation are inevitable. Their only argument is over what level the charges should be set and who might be excluded or have to make a reduced payment. Opposition from lobbyists is therefore likely to dissipate if offered a few concessions. The Government would be quite prepared to make a short-term gesture towards the poor, such as increasing the discount, in order to achieve its long term and broader privatisation agenda. Such concessions can be taken back later.
The trade union opposition to water charges has been coordinated by a Water Service Group, an umbrella group for the unions organised in the Water Service. It represents 1,800 workers and is made up of members from the unions - NIPSA, TGWU, GMB and Amicus.
The trade union opposition to water charges has mostly been taken up with lobbying of local politicians. This has been based on making an economic case against the charges. They have used the David Hall report to demonstrate the bogus nature of the Government’s claims on water charges. While this is useful in raising public awareness, it does not challenge the wider privatisation agenda. Indeed, there is a danger that such an approach could reduce the anti-water charges struggle to a technical argument over the level at which water charges are set.
To a lesser extent the unions have raised the issue of privatisation. This has focused on the impact the restructuring of the Water Service will have on their members. Trade union leaders argue that opposing privatisation would be “political”, therefore any campaign they are involved in has to based on “industrial” issues such as working conditions and pensions. This distinction greatly limits the scope of any trade union campaign. It confines itself to the workers within the Water Service, rather than cutting across the whole of the public sector where workers are facing similar attacks, and also isolates itself from the broader anti-water charges campaign.
In terms of action, the trade union leadership have talked tough but delivered very little. Since the proposed water reforms were announced in March 2003 the trade unions have threatened industrial action on a number of occasions. In May 2003, a TGWU delegation went to Downing Street to lobby Tony Blair to withdraw his Government’s water reform proposals. National organiser Jack Dromey said afterwards: “If not, TGWU members will take action to defend Northern Ireland's water. The TGWU will ballot its members in June for an initial one-day strike, with a mass demonstration on the day, uniting the community and water workers."(2) None of this action materialised. In August 2004, Bumper Graham of Nipsa, said that his union would take action to defend jobs. "If that means having to close the Water Service down for a week or two . . . we will," he said.(3) Again no action followed. The Water Service Group of unions only moved towards industrial action in January 2005, with the ballot for a one-day strike and public rally on the 9th February.(4) While this clearly won’t be enough to stop the privatisation of the Water Service, it does establish a precedent for strike action. The workers need to ensure that it will be the start of a campaign of action to stop privatisation rather than a gesture by trade union leaders, or a negotiating ploy to win some minor concessions from the new Government owned company.
This means not leaving the business of leading the campaign to full time trade union leaders. It means ordinary workers becoming more active in their own union branches and using these as campaigning bodies within their workplace, their union and outside. It means decisively rejecting the idea that a political attack on workers rights can be successfully resisted by pretending resistance can be effective by limited industrial means. It first of all means open recognition of the blindingly obvious – that privatisation is the enemy and a broad campaign with other workers, especially in the rest of the public sector, will be necessary.
Although all these various campaigns are affiliated to the Coalition Against the Water Tax, which meets regularly in the Belfast Unemployed Resource Centre, there is little co-ordination between them. There is no agreement on what should be the basis of an anti-water charges campaign or what tactics it should pursue. In many ways this suits the various groups involved as it means they won’t have their ideas or local control challenged or be bound by collective decisions. This is particularly true of the trade union leaders who want to distance themselves from anything that would involve militancy or defiance of the law. The consequence of this is a campaign that is uncertain, undemocratic, and fragmented.
A socialist campaign
Socialist Democracy does not have a magic formula to create a successful anti-water charges campaign, but we can identify the issues that need to be addressed if one is to be created. For us the most fundamental issue for a campaign is democracy. If it does not have a democratic structure and culture it will not be able to deal with the questions that are thrown up in the course of the struggle, or win the confidence of supporters. A campaign in which everything has been decided in advance would not be democratic.
In terms of structure, there needs be a single campaign that would be organised right across the north. While there would still be local groups, they would be affiliated to the broad campaign and their activities co-ordinated. The campaign would convene regular conferences of delegates nominated by the local groups to decide policies and elect a central steering committee. This committee would be the leadership of the campaign and be responsible for its day to day running. Decisions would be made democratically and they would bind the whole campaign.
Of course such a structure could only exist if there is a basic agreement between its various affiliates. Such an agreement would be the principle on which the campaign is based. For us this principle is opposition to privatisation. It is the privatisation agenda that has produced water charges, and must be the focus of the campaign against them. We know from leaked correspondence that ministers are trying to conceal their plans for privatisation of the Water Service and want avoid a battle on this issue.(5) This is the ground on which the Government is vulnerable and where an opposition campaign can be most effective. The principle of opposing privatisation would broaden the campaign and allow for a range of tactics to be pursued. These could include petitions, demonstrations, legal challenges, highlighting case studies of people particularly hard hit by water charges; non-payment or industrial action.
This raises a question of which tactic would be most effective? Those most immediately affected and those already organised should obviously be the focus of the campaign - the workers within the Water Service. They are the best placed to stop it as they are organised in trade unions and can take industrial action, which is the most powerful weapon workers currently have. Such action cannot take place in a vacuum and it is more likely to take place and be sufficiently powerful to be successful if it is part of a wider mass campaign. For this reason we do not counterpose action in the workplace to organisation outside. In current circumstances it is unlikely that either, if on their own, would be successful.
These three elements – democracy, opposition to privatisation, and the leading role of the organised workers and a focus on building a mass campaign, constitute a broadly socialist campaign. While having the right principles and tactics does not in itself guarantee success, we believe the type of campaign outlined above would have the potential to attract the mass support needed to challenge the Government’s water reforms.
Widespread opposition to the government’s plans already exists and it fears fighting on the issue of privatisation, which is why it has tried to cover up its plans.
The main political parties claim to oppose privatisation and water charging is largely a sham. It would therefore be a serious mistake to hope or rely on the return of a Stormont Assembly to stop either.
Winning the water workers to effective
industrial action must be a priority but this will most likely only be
possible as part of a mass campaign of opposition. An open, unified
and democratic campaign is required to create the conditions that can make
this a reality. Such a campaign will resort to a range of tactics
and no single tactic can be considered a ‘silver bullet’ that will guarantee
1 Mark Langhammer, Speech delivered at public meeting against water privatisation, 04/11/04
2 “Blair pressed over water reforms” BBC News Online 23/05/03
3 “Job fears over water reform” BBC News Online, 110804
4 “Unions in strike vote over tap tax sell-off” Belfast Telegraph, 070105
5 “Fury over tap tax rates hike proposal” Belfast Telegraph, 20/08/04