‘You can’t change anything unless you’re in Government’

Image result for suffragettes sylvia pankhurst

‘You can’t change anything unless you’re in Government’ they say, and mostly it goes without challenge, because none of us socialists want to be accused of the greatest sin of all: not wanting power – the power to change people’s lives and especially those suffering.

This was the same mantra used by Neil Kinnock and co, preparing the ground for the New Labour era. And while it’s an understandable reaction to multiple election defeats and particularly those as devastating as the ones we suffered in both 1983 and 2019, we need to drill down to get to the root of this. Because it’s based on a false idea of what power is.

The idea that you can only change things in government is demonstrated as false every day: for an example, trade unions change things every time they win a dispute; community activists when they stop something that would damage their communities; anti-racists change things when they stop fascists from marching unopposed; educators change lives when they open people’s eyes to their racist assumptions; lawyers win victories and set precedents, welfare rights workers too. I could go on.

If power was only about what happened in government, most of the significant change that has happened in this country over centuries would never have happened. The suffragettes, the Match Girls Strike, the anti-racist mobilisations of the 70s are examples of when extraordinary, lasting change has begun with a handful of activists, but gone on to shift the perceptions of society and power in our workplaces and communities.

Power is about leverage, and all those struggles created leverage, whether that was through direct action, capturing headlines or organising hundreds of thousands to pressurise the establishment and their privilege. But one thing is sure: immense, historic change has happened in this country without a Labour or progressive government being in Westminster. Only the most superficial analysis would deny that.

The Labour Party has, at various moments of it’s history, either been at the heart of those sorts of struggles, or stood apart. The history of the party has been the history of the relationship to those movements and campaigns and that positioning has often depended on which wing of the party, left or right, has been dominant. But, throughout it’s history, ordinary Labour activists have always been involved in extra-parliamentary campaigns and struggles (again, dependant on the forces in party, in small groups or mass movements).

This is where it gets tricky, of course. That relationship, that split between government and a broader concept of ‘power’ is deeply political. When Labour has had legislative power, it has often used it in a ‘top down’ way. Even the reforming 1945, which did such radical things for the country, had a pretty paternalistic bent. Labour’s job was to ‘do things’ for the voting public, who would reciprocate at the ballot box.

So, not only is ‘You can’t change anything unless you’re in Government’ a false dichotomy based on a superficial understanding of power, it also seems to be code for something else: for a politics that does things to people, for the voting public, rather than alongside them. Whilst this is always going to be a balancing act – and no one can deny the importance of what that 1945 Labour Government achieved (or even, to a lesser degree, the achievements of New Labour), it was based on a different idea of power, one that may not be suited to our situation in 2020, where deference to the state and to politicians is all but gone and where the crisis we’re in demands more community-based solutions.

Being generous, you could say that ‘You can’t change anything unless you’re in Government’ is a frustrated reaction to the inability of us, all of us, to translate those extra-parliamentary struggles and the values that go with it, into legislation. It’s undoubtedly a tragedy that many of our radical ideas and plans, that would have helped millions very practically, will now stay on the shelf, while the Tories wreck our economy, communities and people’s lives.

There may also be a frustration about our inability to communicate that radicalism into a language and a programme that connects with people, when they are assaulted by the propaganda of the press and media. Communication matters. This is a serious issue, but it is also something that we need to fix before we can get another chance at a socialist government. There isn’t a shortcut to government in ignoring the dominance of the media in shaping people’s politics, hoping that we’ll somehow slip into power unnoticed.

Being cynical however, you could say that ‘You can’t change anything unless you’re in Government’ is code for something else too: a pitch to water down our socialism and to chase public opinion, purely in order to get into ‘power’ – meaning Government. This was certainly Kinnock’s pitch, carried out by Blair. And to a certain extent it was successful: Sure Start, the minimum wage, investment in the NHS and schools, all changed people’s lives. But what it didn’t do is to harness the power of a whole movement to radically transform the country. It didn’t fundamentally win hearts and minds, or reverse much of the Thatcherite consensus, because that’s not what it was set up to do.

Post-2008, with a climate emergency on our doorstep; the far right on the march (both in government and in ‘power’ across the globe); with a crumbling NHS and education service, at threat from privatising vultures; with a welfare state that is broken, we don’t have the luxury of just ‘getting into Government’ on the basis of bending our socialist principles and following the crowd. To do so would be disastrous and it simply wouldn’t work in this political environment. We need to lead.

Leading means not being satisfied with glib phrases about ‘getting into Government’, with little substance. It’s not about rejecting the notion of legislative power, as we are often caricatured as doing on the left, but instead it means understanding how to build real power, away from the centre and the establishment, in communities, alongside our unions, in order to take it back in there. Thats a strategy more appropriate for our times, than harking back to an era which is gone.


Laura Pidcock’s Big Meeting speech – in full.

Thank you so much Alan Mardghum – what a fine President of Durham Miners Association you will make and, of course, I want to say thank you for everything that you did during the Miners’ Strike.

What an unbelievable honour it is to be on the platform at this historic event. And I am completely humbled by the invitation. I think, however, I’m going to have to go into retirement now, because there is nothing that beats speaking to you at this meeting.

Everything about this celebration is perfect, except one thing: I wish that my dad Bernard Pidcock was here. He died 5 months ago, and this was his favourite day. He was my best comrade and he would have been beaming with the warmth and the comradeship and the opportunity I have been given by the DMA. So, I dedicate what I am about to say to him.

This is the best of working-class culture: the incredibly moving brass bands, the beautiful banners painted in loving detail. Today we hold those banners high, because we are one movement; we are connected through our shared struggle, our principled beliefs and our unwavering optimism. We are one people standing up against the brutality of this system.

Today, in Durham, we remember those brave miners who stood up against the violence of Margaret Thatcher’s government. They resisted her determination to smash organised workers. And those who came after your work was done, we will never, ever forget what you did and the sacrifices that you made.

To the women of that struggle, of this region and throughout the coalfields, who raised funds, who raised awareness, who fed the communities through those hungry & bitter 18 months, who organised relentlessly. You were an equal and valiant partner in that struggle and so to Myrtle McPherson, Heather Wood, Ann Scargill, Florence Anderson, Betty Cook, Juliana Heron, Joan Guy, Brenda Hopper and so many other women in the struggle, we salute you.

We are living with the scars of that period, are we not? Thatcher’s neo-liberal, free-market dogma reveals fresh wounds every single day. Within the blink of an eye, through clever legislation, the propaganda of the papers and through the greed of the powerful, they have sucked the colour out of our communities.

So many of our schools, sold off from under our noses: huge chunks of our NHS, gifted to the vultures, who could not care less about the health of our mothers, or fathers or children; people being paid less and less to work more and more; exploitation is so commonplace it is invisible. Disillusion, disappointment and fear haunt our communities. So scared are people of the DWP, of their employer, scared of the bank, scared of their future.

But I want to make one thing clear. We cannot hope for our lives to improve, we can’t even talk about the survival of this planet without facing up to one fundamental truth: that it is the capitalist system which is at the root of this destruction, and it is the capitalist system which must be looked at squarely in the eyes and taken on.

Because comrades, there is another way. In government, I will oversee a Ministry of Labour, that Ministry will be proudly and powerfully on the side of the worker, it will free the trade union movement from their shackles, so they can organise and represent their members again. Zero-hour contracts will be banned, workers will have the confidence that their rights will be enforced and of course we will repeal the anti-trade union laws.  A Labour government will see the biggest shift in power from employer to employee this country has ever seen. So, this is a message to the exploitative bosses, you are on borrowed time!

To realise this dream, you need to remember a fundamental thing: being working class is not about how you feel, it is fundamentally about your position in society. It is about the power you have. It is about what you own. It is about whether or not, by hand or by brain, you need to work to live. The fact is, that is the majority of us and working-class people know that is the root of our power.

Of course, of course, let’s not be naive: our determination to change the balance of power will be met with resistance, and there will be conflict in that ideological battle. And, so to the activists, I know this struggle is hard. I know it’s tiring arguing for a different system; it is exhausting battling the press; it’s energy sapping being that person to stand up, only to be met with outrage or apathy; it is painful being called an extremist when you have fought your whole life for peace; when you are called a racist when you define yourself by your anti-racism activism.

But, friends, in years to come, when we look back, people will be in awe that you did not shrink back from the fire. So, take your anger, take your pain, take your frustration, take your deep dissatisfaction with this system and occupy every single space with your politics without embarrassment, without hesitation and without fear. Because there is nothing, nothing more important than this political project.

Of course, we must stay disciplined, we must not underestimate the forces that we are up against. We must use our energy, however, not on those who are fickle and flighty, but on defeating the evils of exploitation, greed and the unfettered power of the ruling class.

And when we feel like that mountain is too high, remember each other here today. Get your head down, take one step at a time, we will defeat it. They say, comrades, that the darkest hour is just before dawn. Well, sisters and brothers, dawn is on its way. We have everything to win!

Laura’s speech on YouTube


Toon Army: get up off your knees

We’ve been here before haven’t we? Rafa has gone – and as a result, there will be another bout of handwringing and agonising about NUFC, all laid out in public. The press will have their say, there’ll be phone-ins to Five Live, and most of it will miss the point.

As plenty of supporters have said, it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that Benitez has gone. He deserved better. Anyone with any sense would walk away from an association with the rotten ownership of this club. The incompetence, the greed, the PR disasters and the lack of vision is too much to bear for most of us, never mind one of the top managers in the game. It’s clear that the one thing that has kept Rafa in Toon is us – the fans, but it’s equally clear that it can’t be sustained.

From day one, Rafa’s been treated without any respect by Mike Ashley, someone who doesn’t understand the first thing about football, our fans, the region or Newcastle United. In fact, Ashley acts like someone who doesn’t even seem to know why he bought the club: it might as well have been Slazenger or Dunlop. He’s a gambler, someone who buys Adidas shares one week and sells them the next for millions of profit. That doesn’t take intelligence, just a large pot to gamble with. He’s an asset stripper and a chancer. I’m pretty sure he wants to move the club on, but equally, he has such wealth that he doesn’t have to. He’s in no kind of hurry, and he doesn’t give a damn about the damage he causes on his way out.

This is all very well – and people should be angry. But here’s the really important thing. It’s not about him, it’s about us. We already know what an utter bastard Ashley is. This is the owner of Sports Direct, a company which has one of the worst reputations in the country for how it treats its staff. A woman gave birth in his Shirebrook warehouse, because she was so scared to miss her shift, for God’s sake. He has no morals, and will never make a moral decision about Newcastle, so we’re going to have to do what any good trade union would do with an appalling, exploitative boss, and force him.

Yes, we’re going to have to do it ourselves. Not relying on a lucky billionaire buyout, or some local hero to rescue the club. Newcastle fans are going to have to stop expecting someone else to do the hard work for them and start being serious about how we really boot Ashley and his crew out. Let’s be honest: up until now, we haven’t been serious, with the exception of a small group of determined activists (I salute you). Occasionally breaking into “get out of our club!” isn’t going to do it, and neither is sulking on the sidelines.

Now it’s time for three things to happen: firstly, for the rest of the 50,000 in the ground to grow a conscience and take some responsibility, instead of sitting there in a comfortable seat watching this disaster unfold. Secondly, for people who are staying away (which is a principled stance) to join up the dots and organise alongside those who still go to games – we need to end that divide, by having visible protests at the ground. Thirdly, we need to realise that a real campaign doesn’t have one strategy, it offers a load of ways for people to protest and campaign, and builds it into one.

For Newcastle fans as a whole, we need to fight for our club. We’ve have had ample opportunity to protest and campaign against Ashley’s shambolic regime and been scuppered by something quite simple: a lack of solidarity. People acting as individuals, instead of a collective (the Toon Army). The result is clear to see. Ignorance is no longer an excuse, neither is laziness. It’s time for people to get off their knees. Because you get nothing in this life without a struggle. Trade unionism and politics has taught me that, granted. but it’s true of football as well.

Those in the ground need to stand up and show some solidarity with those who’ve boycotted and stayed away. I must admit, I find it astonishing and depressing that people can watch what is going on at the club, and yet not be prepared to miss the first 11 minutes as the smallest of protests. Those who are not prepared to do anything, are absolutely complicit in standing by while the club we love gets dragged through the mud. It’s no longer controversial to say that, and we can do without the faux outrage from those who sit on their hands.

That doesn’t mean that we don’t have to think about the way we campaign and organise against Ashley. Again, this is about being serious and strategic: you don’t carry on with a tactic that doesn’t work, and you alway listen to those who, for instance, don’t want to boycott – and look at other ways of putting pressure on the club hierarchy: But the fact is that many fans haven’t been prepared to entertain any form of protest, and that needs to be challenged if we’re ever going to get change at this club. Refusing to get involved isn’t “supporting” the club, it’s supporting the status quo.

A bit of perspective might be useful, and I think people would do well to look back at what fans at this club were prepared to do the last time we had regime change at NUFC: sit down protests, mass rallies after the game, noisy protests inside the ground, leaflets, posters, ‘Sack the Board’ t-shirts all over the North East, an activist group around the Mag who directed it all. In the 1990s, we were rightly angry at McKeag and what that awful, conservative old guard was doing to our club. We realised that the power was with us, and that it wasn’t just about boycotting, it was about an active, organised campaign, including direct action.

Some Newcastle supporters understand that, and are trying to resurrect that spirit, but the real issue is that the vast majority are either silent in the stands, or silently boycotting. And silence is the last thing we need. What we need is loud, in-your-face protest, at every game, in the town, in our fanzines – combined with a campaign targeting Ashley’s reputation & his business interests. It needs to be structured like a serious political campaign, with an aim to build, week by week, until he goes. I know there are people already doing this. The problem isn’t them: it’s the hundreds of thousands who are on their knees at the altar of the club’s hierarchy. It’s time to get up off those knees and understand the meaning of the phrase: ‘it’s our club’.


The mainstream media: conspiracy or culture?


I don’t think it’s useful for us, as socialists, to see the mainstream media as some kind of conspiracy (e.g in league with the Government or directly “doing their bidding”). Ironically, if anything, that might underestimate the problem, while also allowing people who work in those institutions to avoid responsibility – because they will not recognise this labelling. This seems to me strategically wrong. I want to explain why.

In fact, the situation with our major media sources (the surviving press, our public broadcasters and our private media corporations) is both more serious and more entrenched than this. It’s partly about class and partly about a centrist, unquestioning culture that has developed within national institutions like the BBC (but also other big media institutions) over decades and under successive Governments.

The class dimension has been well documented, but bears restating: the mainstream media overwhelmingly recruits from privileged group – whether they be middle or upper class – mainly, but not exclusively Oxbridge. Naturally, their politics will be right of centre / centrist. Of course there are exceptions, sometimes quite visible, but these are the norms.

What that well trodden recruitment route (and the cultures it reproduces) excludes are radical, dissenting and working class voices. Certainly very few left wing socialists will be in a position to take jobs within those media hierarchies, even if they wanted to, because the structures are deeply entrenched. They have evolved over decades. That exclusion of different, questioning voices, then dictates a culture and ideology within these media institutions. Naturally, those who share the ideology are rewarded, those who don’t are not. We don’t need to be conspiracy theorists to understand this: it’s the way most big institutions work. Media is no different.

What this has done, over decades now, is to entrench a centrist ideology (either of the centre right or centre left) at the heart of our media institutions. Apart from the odd token exception, this has become the entitled and intolerant modus operandi, seemingly unshakeable. Undoubtedly, within the BBC, some of the changes David Cameron made to BBC governance around 2016 will also have had an impact at a senior level – I don’t deny that – but I think the deeper, cultural forces at play are even more instrumental.

What Corbyn’s election and the rise of socialism has done however, is to (a) introduce a lot of ideas which this centrism doesn’t understand or recognise as legitimate and (b) project individuals into the political “mainstream” that the media establishment thought they’d long since dispatched and isolated. These people and ideas, though mainstream to us on the left, seem weirdly anachronistic to the media class.

Having to deal with these interlopers and what they think as ‘outdated’ ideas, clearly annoys them. You can see the overt manifestations of this annoyance in the way presenters talk to the likes of Owen Jones, Diane Abbott or even Jeremy Corbyn. This is not necessarily a conscious thing, but works at deeper level, running through the organisation. A big clue is when the language used to question or interrogate Corbyn’s team, supportive MPs or socialist members is designed to marginalise: that, despite overwhelming leadership election wins, and the best election result since 1997, this is still an isolated, freakish occurrence.

So, in many ways the BBC (and Sky, Channel 4 etc) can be said to be institutionally centrist. In my view, this isn’t a conspiracy, in the sense of an overt, deliberate strategy, but an evolving culture. This is important distinction because it dictates the way we, as leftists, understand and deal with it. To change this is generational thing more important than exposing a “conspiracy”. It’s about democratising media, challenging entrenched values, empowering working class voices and changing the cultures which exclude them. And building alternatives where this can’t be achieved.


Three years ago, everything changed: 12th September 2015

sept 2015

This time, three years ago, on September 12th, 2015, I was preparing to walk into the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Hall just down the road from Westminster, for the announcement of the Labour Party’s next leader, after the most extraordinary summer. I had been part of a team which had taken Jeremy Corbyn from 200-1 no-hoper to odds-on favourite in the space of three months. We had worked so hard, with hardly a break, and now it had all come to this. The day itself was surreal. Of course, we knew we had won, but we didn’t know by how much, or what the reaction would be. And it still felt a little unreal, as we watched the likes of Tristram Hunt slope past and into the building, knowing there was nothing they could do to stop the juggernaut.

Labour Party leadership announcements tend to be very structured, formal events. There is normally a clamour to be seated near the front, amongst the great and good, and of course, in front of the cameras. This time was a little different. Those who had passes to get in to the conference hall, the party staff, the MPs and assorted apparatchiks seemed a little less interested than normal, and were milling around in the lobby, gossiping and looking a little subdued. They knew the reality as much as we did. And although they’d spent much of the campaign hoping that we’d break, and ‘normal service’ would resume, by now they had accepted the inevitable. As the doors opened, there was no rush to get in the room, with just a trickle of people heading for the seats.

We took our chance: as regional organisers, campaigners and social media co-ordinators, we marched up to the front and sat in the first two rows without reserved signs on, and just in front of John Prescott, who’d already been seated for some time, and who gave us a smile and joked about being placed in amongst the troublemakers. There we sat, excitedly chattering, in two big rows, as the important people came trundling in. The look on the faces of the MPs was a picture, as they muttered under their breath. A few of them started to object, and there was much pointing and gesticulating, but you could see them weigh up the risks of asking us to leave and making a fuss.

What it meant was that, when the announcement was made, there was an explosion of noise and joy from the third row back: people shouting, jumping up and beaming as the reality of the margin of victory dawned on our organisers and supporters. Beforehand, we’d actually discussed as a group how we should react – and all agreed that we would be calm and collected, applauding politely. Well, that went out of the window as soon as the words “And, therefore, Jeremy Corbyn is duly elected leader of the Labour Party”. And it didn’t stop. We were staring at each other, hugging and cheering. It was a massive release of emotion after the sheer grind of the last three months, now rewarded with a proud socialist at the head of the Labour Party. Everything had changed in that moment.

Meanwhile, the two rows in front sat quietly stunned, as they too took in the scale of the defeat. It was a big symbolic moment, which the press cameras picked up, but what it symbolised was not just about the people in that room, but the whole of the wider movement which had grafted so hard during that summer, making this victory possible: the volunteers at the TSSA offices on Euston Road, the thousands who’d phone-banked up and down the country, the huge numbers who’d organised online, under the organising direction of the ‘Jeremy Corbyn for Leader’ campaign, Red Labour and the many hundreds of DIY Corbynite groups who mobilised tens of thousands. It had come down to this moment.

I was just about the only one still seated: I had a job to do. As I tweeted the good news through our Jeremy for Leader campaign account, I thought of all those people who shared equally in this stunning victory – how people had just dropped everything, without any thought about reward or benefit, just because they were deep down good people, who wanted a different sort of politics and a new kind of society. I knew that, all around the country, there were people screaming, hugging and whooping as they took a share in this victory. We had done it. We had changed the Labour Party for ever, and while I sat there, my emotions took hold of me and I struggled to hold it together.

As we look back at that day, it’s important to remember that sense of positivity and togetherness, not because of some sense of nostalgia, but because we’re going to need a lot more of it in the weeks, months and years to come. Changing a party, never mind our society, is never easy. It rarely happens quickly, or smoothly. It is hard, hard work and it feels like there is little reward at times. As Tony Benn famously said:

“There is no final victory, as there is no final defeat. There is just the same battle. To be fought, over and over again. So toughen up, bloody toughen up.”

But when we work together, in solidarity, we are learning all the time. We’re educating ourselves how to work collectively. When the victories come, we know how hard they will have been won, and that it’s due to the whole, not individuals. This has to be biggest lesson of the 12th of September 2015. The biggest reward we can ever ask for is that unity and sense of comradeship that comes from fighting together and winning together. Here’s to the next three years! And then the three after…


No one gets to call me a racist.


My first best friend was a Jewish kid with Egyptian heritage. He lived next door to me and, being a year older than me, was my absolute hero. I used to follow him around and although not really understanding it, I was aware of his Jewishness. Later, after we had moved away, we came back to go to his bar mitzvah and I can always remember finding the five pound note (hidden behind the piano music) and being very proud. Not long afterwards, I went on a school trip to Lightwater Valley, and there were some Hasidic Jewish children in the queue. I heard one of our class call them ‘yids’. It instantly sent a shiver down my spine and I was upset and angry when I got home, though again not understanding fully.

Growing up, our house was full of people from all over the world. My mum was a TEFL teacher and we had a constant stream of people from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, Zimbabwe, Iran and China. It seemed almost every weekend, there would be some party with incredible food from different parts of the globe, and chatter about politics. Many of them were asylum seekers and refugees, and I would strike up conversations with them, and learn about their world. I remember clearly one time when two guys from Southern Africa (I think it may have been Mozambique) found out that I was a Bob Marley fan, and the next week one of them had gone out to buy an LP – ‘Survival’ – for me, incredible for someone who would have had very little money at the time. Even at that age, I knew what that meant, though. It was an act of solidarity and anti-racism. I learnt so much from those early experiences.

As a teenager, and as someone who’d been surrounded by people from so many nationalities, I was immensely affected by images I saw on the news, in films and in the papers from Apartheid South Africa. Even learning about Sharpeville, the Soweto Uprising and the Rivonia trials felt like living history, because I knew it was still happening, I was reading about it and absorbing that anger at racism and injustice into my very soul. I’d become an anti-racist, long before I was ever a socialist.

Around the age of 13/14, I decided that I needed to do something. I became involved in the anti-apartheid movement, going to meetings in Northumberland and Durham and joining marches as they wound their way through the North East on the way to London. One weekend, I cajoled my little sister to make a big banner out of a bedsheet. It’s said: ‘Hey, Botha. Don’t mess with my Tutu!’. We took it down, on a coach by ourselves, to a big demonstration in Hyde Park where Desmond Tutu was speaking, and to this day I’m convinced that he acknowledged it as we struggled to raise it between ourselves, in amongst the crowds.

In the following years I read Biko, Malcolm X and even tried some Frantz Fanon. This stuff really interested me and excited me, but it lead me to socialism and Marxism, not the other way round. By the time I got to University, I knew I was a socialist, and started hanging around with the paper sellers, eventually joining Militant (they seemed more interested in life beyond the student union). One of the things that disturbed me, though, was that (maybe subconsciously), issues of race were often subsumed under a catch-all call to  ‘unite the working class’. That seemed to me to be ignoring the needs of black and ethnic minority communities to address their own specific oppression. I felt uncomfortable with all that, and partly as a result, I didn’t stick around too long.

At Leeds University, and after, I threw myself into anti-racist campaigning. Confronting the far right, en masse, seemed an important and powerful expression of solidarity. In these years, I found it difficult to find a political home. I joined, and left the Labour Party, joined and left the Socialist Alliance, even had a spell in Arthur Scargill’s SLP and ended up back in Labour again, only to leave over the Iraq War and rejoin after Blair. Throughout that time, however, my anti-racism was a constant. I organised, small and big, I discussed how we could build anti-racism in the Labour Party, in unions and communities, so it wasn’t an add on, but something integral to what we are.

At times over that period , within the Labour movement, it was a bit of a lonely place to be. As New Labour took hold, fewer and fewer Labour MPs wanted to do the demos, develop the broad left alliances and the active work in communities. Only the Socialist Campaign Group Of Labour MPs would regularly come out to support us, and out of that group, Jeremy Corbyn would almost always be the first and most constant supporter. Amongst the party (and union) hierarchy, on the other hand, there became a stigma attached to big anti-racist mobilisations and I recall hearing Labour councillors say that a physical presence should be avoided, as it was just “picking at a wound”.

I became a trade union organiser myself, and specialised in supporting migrant workers to achieve their rights by joining trade unions. As Gordon Brown was talking about ‘British Jobs for British Workers’, I was organising with Polish immigrants and refugees. At the same time, I made myself unpopular with some in the union hierarchy by arguing that sectarianism and factionalism should be left at the door when campaigning against the ever-increasing threat of the BNP. In truth, though it was probably for the best, my union career was ended by the stance that I took.

While I started a PhD on trade unions and migrant workers, which covered the Imperial Typewriters strike in Leicester by Ugandan Asian women in the 70s, I also threw myself back into grassroots anti-racist organising. I helped set up the County Durham Anti-Racist Coalition with a couple of friends. The group later went on to organise one of the biggest demonstrations ever seen in Durham against the visit of the far right under the banner ‘Bishop Auckland Against Islam’. 300 filled Millenium Square. Set against the safe, and inconsequential ‘box ticking’ anti-racism which has become commonplace in our movement – e.g a pop up stand in the corner of County Hall – this was where I felt at home.

Racism made me angry as a kid, long before I understood socialism and the economic chains that bind all of us. This is a story common to many of us on the left, and especially those who have come into the Labour Party since 2015 – and who frankly will have seen the party’s efforts as inadequate pre-Corbyn and perhaps understandably so (David Blunkett’s punitive and uncaring approach to immigration, Phil Woolas’ behaviour, and those bloody immigration mugs being a handful of recent examples).

I make mistakes. Like everyone in this movement, I get things wrong. When I do, I kind of expect to be called out on it. If it’s justified, I will try to reflect on it. That is fair and right. This is politics – debate is part of the lifeblood of the party and the movement, and if you can’t take criticism, it may not be for you. However, that is a very different thing from throwing around the word ‘racist’ or ‘antisemite’ as a way of scoring political points, when even the accuser knows in their heart of hearts it’s unfair and wrong. So, call me what you like, criticise my decisions and pull me up for my mistakes. Rip into my politics and question my outlook. But don’t ever call me a racist.


The Dangerous Language Of ‘Crankery’ On The Labour Left

Jade Azim’s LabourList article ‘The real battle for Labour’s soul? Lansmanites vs cranks’ certainly caused a stir. Reactions ranged from cheering to weariness, but also from the perplexed to the very personalised. I want to start by making a defence of Jade, though I disagree with much of her piece. Much of it took a sledgehammer to the debate, but there were elements of truth to what she said. There is a battle to define the Corbynite left. It’s hardly a new phenomenon: that struggle has been raging, below the surface, ever since the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader in September 2015.

This is absolutely normal. In any big political upheaval, any ‘revolution’, there is always a battle for the spoils – a competition for who will take the driving seat. We’d be naïve if we thought Corbynism would be any different. What Jade has done is to bring that to the surface, and if we concentrate on the politics of this, rather than her personal political history, it could be a very interesting and important debate.

The first thing to say is that language matters. Various people have claimed that the use of term ‘cranks’ within the Labour left is just a way to isolate genuine antisemites and conspiracy theorists. Some have even described it as ‘banter’. But language is power, and slippage in language is even more powerful. Crankery is associated with racism, but then – almost within the same breath – also with people who aren’t prepared to go along with centralised decisions, or are dissenters in one way or another, or who have a particular campaign interest or political tradition that doesn’t fit the mould.

That slippage is important because, consciously or not, it isolates a far wider group. It becomes a way of creating a clique in opposition to the “cranks”. We’ve seen this build and become more generalised, first through jokes, then through a more general ‘groupthink’ and, latterly, the isolating language that accompanied the Pete Willsman being dropped from the Momentum slate and the almost sneering attitude to grassroots Twitter campaigns. This is a continuum, part of an ideological struggle, not a series of isolated events.

I realise that precision in language is tedious, but that’s what is needed – along with empathy. Tarring people can have huge effects, both on an individual’s mental health and, collectively, on the engagement of people in the political process. Macho politics doesn’t want to hear this: it’s a battle, there are losers, it says. But, if we’re interested in building a movement, very likely in defence of an embattled Corbyn government, we are going to start thinking in this way, rather than in terms of winning the spoils.

The reason for which this is so problematic and important for the Corbyn movement is that we’ve done things in an upside-down way. If you’d asked me five years ago what the plan was, I would have said: build locally in CLPs, win policy arguments, organise at conference; get more representative MPs; win the leadership – in that order. I would have talked in terms of a 10-year plan at a minimum. Instead, we did it back to front, winning the leadership in an extraordinary summer. None of that gave us time to educate, organise and agitate in the rest of the party and movement.

Naturally, in a party of 600,000, we have people who are inexperienced, some who are naïve, some who make mistakes and a small number of people who do and say unacceptable things. The latter group need to be confronted and dealt with through the disciplinary process – hardly anyone I know disputes this. The problem is the ‘bleed’ from that to the vast majority of activists and members who are brilliant, who have enormous potential, who have saved our party by being part of this ‘revolution’. Yet many of them are starting to feel they are not wanted in our party. That’s what language does.

There are two groups in particular that I feel concerned about because I think they are being slowly excluded. One is the group we might call the ‘old left’, shorthand for the active socialists in the party pre-2015, who have less access to social media and therefore a different experience of the changes that have taken place. However, their experience is vital, and they have wisdom to pass on to younger activists.

The second is a group, made up of all ages, who have discovered (or rediscovered) their activism via social media and been empowered in the process. This group is huge in number, not always familiar with the processes of the party, but it was fundamental to our victories in the two leadership elections. Both groups will have felt excluded by the dismissal of them implied in the talk of ‘crankery’, and both deserve more respect.

None of this is to deny the challenges we face. Undoubtedly, education is needed. Not lecturing, not a top-down approach that says: ‘we are the experts, now this is what you’ve done wrong’. It needs to be a genuine conversation, where we collectively work on positions, approaches and ways to deal with difficult issues which treats people like adults. That is part of a more general cultural shift that I don’t believe we’ve quite got to grips with yet. Our talk about the ‘grassroots’ hasn’t been matched by actions.

The real question isn’t who’s going to win in the battle between Lansmanites and so-called ‘cranks’, but what kind of movement we want. Is it a left-wing version of what went before, with a small, empowered elite deciding the ‘line’? Or a genuinely bottom-up, democratic, empowering politics? If it’s the latter, we’re going to have to open ourselves up, take risks and recognise the ‘gold dust’ symbolised by the wider membership. That means embracing all its messy variety: online, offline, of all ages and differing experiences. Cliques will never achieve that kind of power.

This article was published on LabourList first, here: