Why Direct Action Works

In the past week, incredible work from Glasgow activists has forced a global multi-national into an embarrassing defeat as they postponed their eviction of up to 300 people who needed asylum in the city. Alasdair Clark, who has spent many weeks reporting on the issue, and says the abiding lesson is this: direct action as a tactic works...

It's been a turbulent week in Glasgow, but one in which activists have been nothing short of inspirational. After global outsourcing giant Serco threatened to make over 300 of the most disadvantaged people homeless, the city honoured its radical roots and launched an uncompromising fightback against the company who came to the city to massage its profits. The result? They've been forced into an embarrassing retreat by a community who know the true power of the organised working class.

The last decade has seen precious few victories for the left despite a re-birth of grassroots political activism across the UK, with entrenched power seemingly unstirred by the numb routine of sporadic protests and isolated activism. It's no coincidence the temporary reprieve offered by Serco's embarrassing retreat follows a campaign steeped in the tactics of real direct action rather than public displays of superficial power.

In an age when it has become normal to demonise those who seek refuge in our country, it would have been convenient for Glasgow to stand by as over 300 "failed" asylum seekers faced injustice – indeed it's possible Serco bargained on exactly this attitude. Announcing its programme of evictions, they fed the media tested lines which have been used to whip up anti-refugee sentiment, telling Glasgow that only "failed" asylum seekers were at threat.

But a company headed by the grandson of Winston Churchill, which makes profits in the millions, was unlikely to find a welcoming home in Glasgow. Its people proved unconvinced by attempts from the powerful to look the others way as their neighbours faced oppression. The late, great Jimmy Reid's famous words, spoken when he was installed as rector at Glasgow University, couldn't have better foretold the response which met Serco: "From the very depth of my being, I challenge the right of any man or any group of men, in business or in government, to tell a fellow human being that he or she is expendable."

Glasgow's political past shows it has rarely taken the easy option. In 1915, as Mary Barbour's army led its famous rent strike and used direct action to see off eviction agents, male workers of the Clyde faced pressure from their bosses to "bring their wives into line" and end the rent strike. Despite that pressure in a society which subjugated them, women resisted the easy option of accepting bribes to work to end the strike and instead hardened their resolve.

As it's re-told in 2018, the official history of Mary Barbour's rent strikes often forgets the tactics used to defend homes from a legal and political system which was against them. Their response was not placid; they often used physical force to prevent sheriff officers from accessing the tenements. The real truth is that the law was often not on the side of rent strikers, and by the standards of 1915, their actions were illegal, despite now being widely accepted as correct.

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It's in the wake of these traditions that a distinctly radical and grassroots opposition has become deeply embedded within the community affected by the announcement made little over a week ago, and this response will contain important lessons to how similar victories can be replicated. Living Rent, the country's first tenants' union, helped to coordinate initial efforts to identify asylum seekers at threat of eviction and act as a rallying point for Glasgow's diverse political groups. One week after the first six eviction orders were issued, Living Rent had amassed a database of over 500 people pledging to undertake direct action to defend the doors of those at risk, allowing organisers to plan a round-the-clock defence against eviction agents.

The union set a precedent for how political activists should respond to threats – "by any means necessary" – and this mantle was quickly taken up by even senior political party figures who rarely move beyond well-placed phrases and warm words. Indeed, just 10 years ago, it would have been unimaginable for a shadow Scotland minister from Labour and an MP from Scotland's governing party the SNP to inform protesters in Glasgow City Centre they would help to organise direct action and themselves use civil disobedience to resist evictions.

Veteran left-wingers will rightly say we shouldn't reserve our heavy praise for these politicians – this is the response the left should expect from politicians who claim to serve the working class – but it would be wrong to deny the significance of their words and apparent conviction in following this through. Their speeches will have reverberated through the local community, normalising direct action and re-assuring people who might otherwise be hesitant that it's a legitimate tactic. In one interview, the SNP MP Chris Stephens said exactly this, explaining that civil disobedience was a legitimate act of protest in any functioning democracy.

The crisis in Glasgow has also shown that the use of blunt direct action doesn't have to come at the expense of smart political campaigning. High profile legal bids have been launched in court and look likely to prove successful, and Living Rent has pressured local housing associations who Serco rely on for housing stock to send a message that they will not support the evictions. At time of writing, some leading associations have already responded to the call.

Although challenges in court will undoubtedly have influenced the decision by Serco to postpone its evictions, it's equally clear that the agents tasked with removing the tenants would have been met with a force of organised people in the event they proceeded. The message today from those activists in the community is that whilst that work goes on in court, they will prepare for any eventuality and not allow Serco to quietly restart its evictions in the face of a negative decision by the court.

The response in Glasgow this week has reminded us of the value of direct action and resistance. It's a demonstration to the powerful that an organised working class is still a force to be reckoned with. In the long term, activists will be keen to ensure that a sustained campaign will open a legitimate debate about the place for private companies to provide such vital services for some of the world's most vulnerable people.

@alasdair_clark