Tax and the ‘R’word. Why aren’t we talking about redistribution?

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There’s undoubtedly a queasiness about talking about redistributive taxation in this country, even amongst the left. We are all comfortable talking about ending tax avoidance. Clawing back tax from avoidance schemes and loopholes is like motherhood and apple pie, though, isn’t it? Who could disagree with that? Even the Tories give it airspace. But it’s incredibly complex and difficult to close tax loopholes. Whole financial industries are based on it. Which is not to say it can’t be done – but it’s very, very long term. If we are going to shift the conversation about how we tackle inequality, poverty and economic injustice in this country, we’re going to have to bite the bullet and talk about redistributive taxation. It isn’t a technical question alone – it’s about changing the narrative, explaining to people how tax works and that a progressive, redistributive system works in the interests of the vast majority of the population. Have we got the guts? 

Tony Benn was fond of saying that, in a civilised society, no-one should earn more than ten times more than anyone else. It might seem like a rather abstract idea, posed (as was Tony’s habit) in moral terms. But what if we genuinely took that as a principle for the economic organisation of our society? It would imply, and give justification for a much, much more aggressive tax take from the rich in our society and possibly some form of maximum income. We’re a long away from any of this, but the fact that it seems such an oddity to even discuss a maximum income or a genuine redistributive taxation system shows how far the debate has hurtled towards the right in the last three decades.

So let’s just take a moment to reflect on where that rightward shift has got us. In 2000, the average pay (including share options and bonuses) of the FTSE 100 directors was 47 times the average salary. In 2014, it was 120 times. In 2015, it rose to £5.98m, the equivalent of 144 times the average salary. Obscene levels of pay are commonplace (for instance, in the media, marketing and telecoms sector, average remuneration for FTSE 100 directors was £6.98m in 2014 – this in a sector where many workers don’t even receive the living wage).

Because of the way the super rich are “rewarded”, the recouping of this money is complicated, for sure – as is the restructuring of our economy along more social democratic lines, but we can make a start by talking about limits on high pay as well as safety nets for the poorest in our society. In fact, the two things go hand in hand. We’re an awful long way from a 10:1 ratio, but by extending the welcome debate about tax avoidance into one about inequality, high pay and general taxation policy, we can take a few steps down that road.

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The Labour Party and our movement has a duty of care for it’s members

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I don’t think it’s an outrageous suggestion that the Labour Party and other institutions of the Labour movement have some kind of a ‘duty of care’ for it’s members. I’m also going to suggest that, as a movement, we have a moral duty to protect, defend and support those who are picked off, bullied and witch-hunted, irrespective of the finer details of any disagreements we might have with them. Recently, one of the members of our Red Labour group has had their suspension rescinded, without an apology or explanation. We’ve seen the Labour members in Wallasey exonerated and countless examples of members who have had no information on their exclusions and suspensions, who have spent months in limbo. Some have even become notorious by their suspensions. I’m thinking of friends who have been abused in the street, shouted and spat at, have had lies told about them in the local and national press. But if they are ‘pardoned’, if things are swept under the carpet, is that all ok? Is it ‘natural justice’ to be defamed, to have been caused mental and even physical distress? Is that a situation we can tolerate and a party we can be proud of? I think not.

You see, much of this vile treatment has a political root: huge parts of it are caused by nasty, vindictive and bitter people within the party machine and local officials and “representatives” with a sense of entitlement which means that they think it’s ok to screw anyone over to preserve their power. All this is done with impunity in “our” Labour Party, yet it has done untold damage to people’s reputation and people’s mental health. And while the blame lies firmly with these bitterites, whose goal it is to punish those responsible for taking their ball away, there’s something else going on: for what has “our side” of the party done about it? Mostly kept quiet, with some going even further – actively helping the people who are doing this to our comrades. Is this, in turn, acceptable? No, of course it isn’t – but some people, supposedly socialists, have made a Faustian pact to rid them of a temporary problem. Sod the long-term damage, there’s a scrap to win. I can’t think of a more disastrous strategy. That ‘duty of care’ extends to everyone who has taken part in this ‘revolution’. It’s not “owned” by one, privileged group. It’s all of ours – and it’s not anyone’s to throw away.

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Square pegs and round holes, organisers and factionalists; why the Corbyn left has two projects on its hands

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Ten things you need to be a good organiser:

Organising is an entirely different concept to factionalising: it’s a much more risk-based enterprise. Organising is outward facing, ambitious and democratic by nature. With organising, you don’t necessarily know the outcome – and you may have to adapt your strategy as you go along. True organising welcomes that uncertainty as the building block of creativity.

  1. You have to like people

The starting point for any good organiser is that you like people. You want to be amongst people. You enjoy conversation, debate and challenge. This is the lifeblood of the movement and shouldn’t be seen as a threat.

  1. In turn, you have to be liked by other people

It’s important that you are liked and trusted by your fellow activists. That relationship must be developed over time by a consistent approach and a constant engagement with people, whether you agree with them or not. Simple likeability is a key strength in organising.

  1. You need to give power away

A good organiser will not suck up power, but seek to give it away. That means looking for succession plans, delegating properly and setting up structures that will eventually ‘do you out of a job’. That is a sad fact of life for an effective organiser: the better you do your job, the more likely you are to be redundant.

  1. You need to work inclusively

It sounds a bit woolly, but in order to build organisation, you need to work inclusively. This means being open about your decision-making process, bringing more people into that process and making sure that barriers are broken down for easy participation  across the board – even if that makes the job of organising temporarily more difficult.

  1. Your need to be able to listen

Trade union organisers are taught that in conversations with potential activists or members, they should be talking 30% of the time, and listening 70% of the time. It might make you feel important to be dominating a conversation, but it’s ultimately self-defeating, because those doing the ‘listening’ are slowly switching off.

  1. You must believe in collectives

‘There’s no I in team’ is a bit of a cliché, but in terms of movement building, it’s absolutely bang on. The work should be collectively organised, but the rewards doled out collectively too. It’s important to keep an eye on this constantly, and safeguard against empire building, because there will be the temptation for one organiser or more to think ‘I deserve more than this’ and break the collective ethos. Once this has happened, it’s hard to go back.

  1. You need to trust people

One of the key principles of democratic organising is a deep trust in people. Without being naïve, it’s crucial for good movement building that organisers trust their fellow activists and seek to bring them into positions of real power. This is how we build.

  1. You need to have good people skills

It’s an absolute rule that a good organiser must have good people skills. This can be at the micro level – i.e being able to support people personally in difficult circumstances; but also at a macro level – in being able to command the support of collectives because you have proved yourself to be trustworthy and supportive.

  1. You should be able to identify good leaders

Movement building and organising is all about developing structures, but importantly this is about people, not bureaucracy. A decent organiser will have a good instinct, be a good judge of character and be able to identify people they can rely on. Once they’ve identified them, a good organiser will also hand over power and responsibility, safe in the knowledge that they’ve spotted a good leader.

  1. You must see the big picture

An organiser will not become too bogged down in the detail of personal antagonisms or sectarian conflicts. They will keep their eye on the big prize – which is building the coalition that will deliver victories. Anything that gets in the way of that isn’t worth sweating the small stuff on.

 

Ten things you need to be a good factionalist:

Factionalism isn’t necessarily organising’s poor relation, though it’s inevitably seen as the ‘dark arts’ in comparison. It’s just a very different thing. It tends to be hidden, taking place below the surface, and by definition, not so focused on ‘democracy’. Its results may be “grassroots” but it’s not primarily concerned with big movements, but small wins, incrementally winning the war.

  1. You must have authority

A factionalist must have ultimate authority over the group. This can be won by charisma or by instilling a system of favours and fear. Either way, people must respect your authority.

  1. People should be willing to do as you say

You don’t want to get bogged down in debate as a rule. The group that you’ve constructed should accept the tasks that you’ve decided as priorities and get on with them. Anything else is wasted time.

  1. You need to keep power close, and confined to a small group

Because of your mode of operation, it’s necessary to keep your group small and close. You can’t afford to be ‘done over’ so it’s best to confine the power you dole out to a small group. The larger the unit, the more danger there is of betrayal.

  1. You need to work exclusively

Operating a faction is all about developing a close group, keeping them loyal and close. Conversely, this involves identifying your enemies and excluding them through several methods – whatever it takes. In most cases, the ends can used to justify the means.

  1. You need to be able to give orders to a team

As a faction leader, you need a team, that is without doubt. But there should be a strict hierarchy to the team. A factionalist can’t be doing with a ‘flatarchy’. Ultimately, the leader must be able to hand out orders, without too much dissent. That’s how factions get things done.

  1. You must develop a loyal band

Ideally, the power that a factionalist wields shouldn’t be imposed, but should be generated by the loyalty that they inspire. Conflict within the group should be minimised and loyalty can and should be generated by favours and patronage. Get the followers to do your work.

  1. You should never trust people beyond a small circle

Trust is a major issue for a proper factionalist. It’s given out very sparingly and with an awful lot of caution. Once someone has proven themselves to be trusted, then they are part of the ‘inner circle’ and we are rolling, but until then, keep a watching brief – with everyone.

  1. You must be single-minded

The organisation is everything. Created in a tight, disciplined way, it can be used to gain influence in ways unimaginable in a more democratic operation. A good factionalist needs to keep their eye on the prize, which isn’t a principled politics, but influence. Sometimes, that equates to manoeuvres which people will wail about, but the focus is always on power.

  1. You need to know your friends

To run a faction, you can forget about ‘mass politics’. That’s a fantasy: this is about a select band of friends, people who would go over the top for you. It’s important to know your friends and keep them close, even if that means forgoing a bigger, more chaotic movement.

  1. You must keep an eye on the detail

With factionalising, the devil is in the detail. It’s about close, small level organising – punching above your weight by understanding the micro politics. If you don’t understand this, there is a chance you will lose your focus and become an organiser.

So, what is the purpose of pointing out these distinctions? Well, it’s a matter of square pegs in round holes. If you have a factionalist in the position of an organiser, you have a problem. They simply can’t do that job. So much so, that they are likely to ruin the organising project through their factionalist practice. Similarly, if you place an organiser in a factionalist’s place, you are likely to get a fudge – because they won’t understand the necessity to build closely. But there are two definite projects here. If we, as a left, mistake the two things, if we fail to see the distinction, we are in big trouble – and unlikely to be able to move beyond the present confusion and chaos. We must be strategic and clever: stop trying to force square pegs into round holes.

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We can work it out, if we reject the comfort blanket

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Forgetting the branding war for a minute, there are a number of serious discussions we need to have on the Labour (and broader) left. It starts with an acknowledgement of where Corbyn’s victory came from: it didn’t come as the result of years of patient building on the Labour left in the lead up to 2015. If it had, we may have had more of a foothold in the Labour Party as a whole. It came about as a result of a ‘perfect storm’: a disillusion with establishment politics, both within and without the party; the ineptitude of alternatives on the right of the party; a union movement battered by austerity and looking for a fightback and a fantastic campaign which had learnt the lessons of the activism of the post-2008 era, including social media, digital campaigning, phone banking and volunteer activism on the ground.

Simply put, we overreached in that summer of 2015. We had ourselves a leader, a shadow chancellor and a handful of Parliamentary supporters, but little else structurally. This was a massive failure of the Labour left: for years, a tiny minority within organisations like the LRC and CLPD had been urging them to look outwards, beyond Parliament, to build regionally and locally, online as well as in communities. It mostly fell on deaf ears. There were reasons for that, of course, but nevertheless it was a fact that the Labour left was not in a good place at the beginning of 2015.

But in politics, you don’t get to choose the cards that you are dealt: through a frantic summer, we built on these circumstances, turning the disadvantages into advantages – and quickly adapting to that ‘perfect storm’. The biggest advantage of all was the huge numbers of previously unaligned supporters and activists who came into the campaign through the social media route. At the end of that summer, the incredible success of the campaign fooled some into thinking that the job had been done. Others saw it as a time of consolidation, a time to end the ‘guerrilla war’, as one prominent member of Corbyn’s team said to me. I disagreed. If anything, outside of that office, we needed to ramp things up, because this was a huge game of catch up.

On that day in September 2015, as Corbyn was cheered in the Sanctuary pub by a small band who had been at the very heart of the operation, two tasks lay ahead of us; two things we needed to do with the leverage we’d built via the Corbyn campaign.

Firstly, we needed to change the Labour Party, nationally, regionally and locally. This wasn’t just about a changing of the guard: it was about changing the whole culture of the party: in terms of it’s attitude to campaigning; its groundedness in local communities; its structures and its openness to new members. The Labour Party (nationally, regionally and locally) needed to become democratic and grassroots – a huge task seeing as the whole trajectory of the party in the last two decades has been in exactly the opposite direction, with only a slight move forwards under Ed Miliband.

Secondly, if we were going to enable a situation where an explicitly socialist Labour Party could command a majority, we needed to shift the political debate in this country by a huge extent – not just in the media, or using alternative, social media platforms, but in practical ways that would transform the debate right from the national stage down to the micro level of local communities. This was the big one: it was going to be like turning around a tanker. You don’t go from the margins of the political debate on Labour’s backbenches to dictating the “common sense” in the country at large without an enormous, ambitious and radical political project. In effect, we needed to create a movement capable of changing our society, step by step, year on year. There was no guarantee that this would produce electoral rewards in the short term, but if we were serious about this project, there was little alternative in the long run.

Both these aspects were boosted by Corbyn’s victory, but the transformation of the Labour Party already had a base (LRC, Red Labour, CLPD) which needed to be expanded and improved. The expertise was there, in the most part, but with the help of a new activist base (developed by the Red Labour project and expanded during the leadership campaign), it was possible to create a more dynamic version post-September 2015. That needed less fanfare, and more patient work behind the scenes, as our friends in Progress had demonstrated over the Blair years. The second, more ambitious task of building a movement, based loosely on Corbyn’s politics and the radical potential that had been released by his victory, had been given a jump start by the huge numbers that had surged towards the Labour Party during the campaign, but also a secondary group who might not interested in joining the Labour Party, but who were listening to Jeremy and prepared to pull in the same direction. The key was to harness this support, which was coalescing around social media, in community campaigns and in the unions, and to give it coherence as a movement.

These two strands should have been the central organising focus for the Corbyn movement in the immediate aftermath of the leadership win. Instead we had this confusion, this muddle. It was unnecessary and strategically inept to think that both parts of the project needed to be branded under one name. That wasn’t recognising the complexity of the Corbyn movement or the drivers behind his election win. The chaos that we are now faced with is a natural consequence of that poor decision: now the horizons are considerably narrowed again – at precisely the time when the clock is ticking on both halves of the project. The battle for control over the Corbyn movement was entirely predictable, but ultimately, it’s self-defeating. But the answer isn’t to go into a shell, to run for our bunkers. It’s that clutching for the comfort blanket that we need to fight, because actually, that’s a total failure of ambition. Somehow, we’re going to have to work it out.

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Getting in a stew over Freedom of Movement 


Two thoughts about freedom of movement, not directly related to Jeremy Corbyn’s speech in Peterborough today. Maybe more related to the ‘framing’ that preceded it (via the press release), but most of all in relation to the general stew the Labour left is getting itself in over immigration. 

Firstly, if we’re going to talk about low wages and “social dumping” (which is both a function of capitalism, and the fundamental inequality within the expanded EU), then we should make sure that we also talk about the main labour movement response, which isn’t purely about regulation, but organisation. Sadly, many unions have offered lip service only to organising migrant workers and levelling up on wages since the EU enlargement in 2004. Falling back on Little Englandism post-Brexit is at best a masking of those failures. That important part of the jigsaw – union organisation with migrants and others on the periphery of the labour market – went missing in that press release today. It wasn’t much present in Corbyn’s speech, which mentioned workers rights, but not organising and campaigning. This was also missing in the referendum campaign – for example, the posted workers directive was only mentioned in the last week. We can’t afford to miss this stuff out, because it forms the basis of our opposition to UKIP.
Secondly, let’s not forget about the big picture. This issue, like Brexit, was always going to be tough – and to lay the blame purely on Corbyn’s head is ahistorical nonsense, which does none of us any good. For the last two decades at least, we’ve taken for granted huge swathes of the working class (and my that I mean the working class in all it’s diversity, not a “white” working class) and a simple consequence is that they’ve stopped listening to us as a party. This is a much deeper crisis than anyone seems to realise. At the same time, the right wing media has still had their ear, and that, combined with a folklore that has gone about in many working class communities (that it is the migrants to blame) has really taken root. It’s toxic because there are real job losses going on in those communities, leading to real poverty – and the left (broadly speaking) hasn’t been there to explain the real reasons for those changes – neither have the unions to a large extent.

None of this is especially surprising, but it is a huge mountain to climb. It will take a long time, as there are no easy fixes: only by using our remaining links – what’s left of the unions especially – to get back into those communities and start to build trust again can we do it. That involves (a) creating a more dynamic union movement and (b) a community-based organising approach. I’ve seen it happening on a small scale with the Durham TAs over the last year. It can be done. As well as getting into those communities, we need to have a positive alternative which directs people’s anger upwards, instead of at the people next door, or from the agency. That won’t happen by magic, as if we can shift the dead weight of “common sense” over night, with a press release or a speech. It’s down to all of us. But we’d best crack on.

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Don’t sweat the small stuff: Militant, Trotskyism and my advice from Tony Benn

Back in 1992, I wrote to Tony Benn. I was living in Leeds at the time and had just left the Militant Tendency. For me, at that age and in those circumstances, it was a big deal. The split between those who’d argued for staying in the Labour Party and those who thought the future lay outside had just taken place, but the rancour remained. I’d had enough of the whole thing. My experience of Trotskyist organisation had exhausted and disillusioned me, but still it was difficult. I was leaving many friends behind and all the things that I had thought were important.

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I wrote to Tony to vent my spleen, essentially. I was bitter. I couldn’t work out what place Militant’s philosophy had in the party, and I was left with the feeling that Trotskyist groups could only be wreckers, living off the good work that the Labour Left (represented by the Campaign Group at the time) did. I wrote him a lengthy, somewhat pretentious letter. To my surprise, he responded straight away, not once but twice. I had met him only briefly, we had no relationship as such, but despite this, he took the time to give me some advice that it took me a little while to process, but keeps coming back to me.

In his first letter, he said:

“I think we’ll have to argue it out and if, as you believe – probably quite rightly – that the long term aims of Militant are not realistic, then we don’t really have to worry about what they are saying.”

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In his follow up, handwritten letter, he said:

“…rank and file people sometimes join Militant out of despair with the party – and I am always in favour of contact across the whole spectrum of opinion in the party.”

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Actually, the detail of what he said is less important than the general thrust, which was: stop worrying about what they are up to and focus on what you can do, what your contribution is and can be. Don’t sweat the small stuff.

It took me a long time to understand this. For years after leaving Militant, the minutiae of what they said seemed significant. Because the important thing about obsessing about Trotskyism or any other philosophy within the party or the left, and prioritising the defeat, organisationally or otherwise, of smaller groups within the Labour Party, isn’t what it does to them, it what it does to you and your politics. Once that becomes a focus, it’s both a poison (it paralyses positive organising approaches) and a repellant (to those not in the know, or those not interested).

There is a reason why people like Tony Benn, John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn have not devoted their lives to ‘clearing out’ Trotskyism or any other sectional group within the Labour left. It is because they recognise the corrosive effect on our own politics of that particular cul-de-sac.

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More than a strike: Durham TAs should celebrate their wins

While I understand the focus on strike action (and that some people are disappointed that one strike day been called off and others are likely to be called off next week to make way for negotiation), I think this is slightly missing the point about the Durham Teaching Assistants dispute on two scores:

Firstly, the point of any industrial action and the campaigning that goes with it is to get your employer to the negotiating table. It’s almost unheard of for that action to bring a complete surrender, but Durham County Council, who said that they couldn’t regrade one group of staff, who said that they were bound by equality legislation and who said that they had made their last offer, were dragged kicking and screaming to the negotiating table this week, making significant concessions on dismissal notices and timescales along the way. There’s still vigilance needed, because Durham County Council have hardly shown themselves to be a trustworthy employer over the last year, especially in terms of this dispute. And, of course, they have attempted to couch it in legalistic language which makes their climbdown look less drastic, but compared to where we were just a couple of months ago, these are major steps forward, achieved almost entirely by the campaign run by a grassroots TA committee.

 
Secondly, though, the focus on strike action is misunderstanding the significance of the Durham Teaching Assistants campaign – what is different about it and why it has achieved so much in such a short timescale, and with only four days industrial action so far. That’s because their real leverage was never about the actual withdrawal of labour. Ultimately, schools can deal with a certain amount of disruption, albeit damaging to the children’s welfare and education. But what is really significant about the Teaching Assistants isn’t the fact that they were prepared to strike, but that they built an enormous, visible and hugely engaging public campaign, which backed the council into a corner on a number of levels.

 
That’s been about high profile and well organised public demos; it’s been about a constant online presence through social media; about people meeting together at the Miners’ Hall, Redhills and in cluster groups all over the county; it’s been about getting the message out to the country and getting solidarity back in spades; it’s been about getting the TAs story in the national and local media; it’s been about pressurising the councillors, publicly and internally via the Labour Party.

 
Unlike many other union campaigns, the strikes are not the decisive factor. It’s the collective efforts of all the TAs in building this almighty, in-your-face, campaign which has made the difference: and that’s why, I believe, it has been such a success (where many other similar disputes have failed to get a result). None of that campaigning needs to stop, nor should it. And if people keep united and in touch with each other, keep organising together and maintain this incredible united front, the TA campaign will be ready to whip up a storm again, including strike action, when needed. That also includes putting pressure on Unison and their regional officials if needed.

 
A big, underestimated factor in industrial disputes and wider campaigning is confidence. When people see the results of their actions, their confidence increases and they feel they can take on the world. Quite often, we forget to celebrate our wins, whether they are big or small ones. Forgetting to do that can lead to despondency or negativity, which is the opposite of what the #ValueUs campaign has been about. This is no substitute for bring realistic. We can’t go around calling defeats victories, but we do need to understand the big picture. To do that, we need to be confident and strong – about what we’ve achieved and what we can do again. That’s why, in my opinion, it was important to celebrate what the campaign had won in dragging DCC back to the negotiating table over the last week, all the time warning that this isn’t the end, only one battle in the war. 

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