Three years ago, everything changed: 12th September 2015

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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…

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No one gets to call me a racist.

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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.

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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:

https://labourlist.org/2018/08/the-dangerous-language-of-crankery-on-the-labour-left/

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Why the Durham Miners’ Gala Matters

133rd Durham Miners’ Gala – July 2017

In Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell famously described a “startling and overwhelming” realisation upon arriving in Barcelona. As a result of the revolution, the city had been transformed into something he had never experienced before: “It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle”, he wrote.

On the second Saturday of each July, this is what you’ll find in Durham.

Durham City, an island of economic prosperity in a sea of deprivation will be completely transformed by a colourful, joyful procession of some 200,000 people marching with their miners’ and trades union banners. These ornate miners’ banners, which celebrate working-class history, achievements, heroes and values – as well as expressing future aspirations – are accompanied by some of the finest brass bands in the country, playing a mix of traditional and contemporary music.

When the second Durham Miners’ Gala or “Big Meeting” was held in 1872 – the first to march through the city – it sparked fears from the city’s well-to-do inhabitants, who were so troubled about this “invasion” of “their” city that the authorities moved to line the streets with militia men and police. Of course, these fears – borne out of class prejudice – were completely unfounded. Some 60,000 miners and their families marched through the city centre before gathering to hear speeches which emphasised the importance of trade unionism. Within a few years the Gala had grown exponentially, and a Miners’ Service in the Norman Cathedral was incorporated into the ritual of the Gala day. It quickly became the pre-eminent annual event in the labour movement’s calendar, a role which was sustained for almost the entirety of the 20th century.

In the 1980s and 1990s, attendance declined and there was talk in certain quarters that the Gala might not continue. Perhaps, as a result of the of the brutal 1984/5 strike and the devastating pit closure programme, the trauma and pain had left many in the local mining communities unable to celebrate “Durham day”. Politically, it was shunned by the ascendant “New Labour”, which treated working-class traditions with contempt and the Gala became a bastion of an increasingly marginalised “Old Labour.”

But it continued because ultimately, despite the destruction of their industry, the mining communities were not broken. In many of the pit villages, banner groups sprung up which raised funds to restore or replace their community’s miners’ banner. And the Gala evolved, as the procession was opened up to allow various trade unions and community and campaign groups to take part. Now, we are witnessing the unlikely fact that more than 20 years after the closure of the last pit in the County Durham, the Gala attracts crowds not seen since the 1960s – and there is the distinct possibility in the near future the Gala will be addressed by a Labour Prime Minister.

There is no definitive interpretation of what the Gala means to those who attend. Some go to meet up with friends and family. Some to honour the memory of loved ones. Others express their pride in their own community by marching with their colliery banner. Many socialists and trade unionists travel from all over the country to get fired up or feel rejuvenated. No doubt for some, it will be a combination of all these things.

Inevitably, because of what it represents, there have been attempts to dismiss this extraordinary festival as merely an excuse for a booze-up or a futile exercise in nostalgia. But no-one who has attended could come away with such a misguided impression.

So, if you’ve never been before, put the Durham Miners’ Gala on your bucket list. Soak it up for just a few hours. Listen to the brass bands, whether they are playing “Walking on Sunshine” or “Gresford”. Go to the Miners’ Festival Service and witness the banners being blessed in the Cathedral. Watch working-class communities collectively and individually express total pride in who and what they are – and get a little glimpse of what our society could one day become.

In the words of the hymn “These Things Shall Be”, which inspired previous generations in the mining communities: “Every life shall be a song/ When all the earth is paradise.”

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Pelton Fell Lodge Miners’ Banner

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Friend! Loneliness and friendship in the Palace of Westminster

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I think I’ve got it. Finally, after months of scratching my head over what the hell the Westminster bubble was on about, I’ve realised. It’s not Laura Pidcock they don’t understand, but the entire meaning of friendship. This epiphany has made me understand why Laura’s seemingly innocuous, ‘of course I’m not going to go for a pint with a Tory MP after a hard day’s work’ words were met with such outrage, confusion and even apoplectic rage in certain, high octane circles.

Because I’m telling you, those of us on the outside of those walls were genuinely shocked by the volcanic reaction to that simple concept: that I’m not going to sup with the people who are actively hurting my community, my friends, my family. To us, that seemed pure common sense, but what I’ve realised since, having viewed Westminster from an anthropological perspective (I still see myself as an outsider even though I’m now inside the walls), is that it is a case of two distinct, common senses colliding, and as such it needs unpicking. At first I thought it was faux outrage, now I realise that it is part of a deep dysfunction.

So, let’s start from the beginning. We know that, until recently, the route into politics, on both sides, was fairly standard, a well-trodden path: a hugely disproportionate number of MPs came from public schools, or elite universities, especially Oxbridge. Not all, of course – there were other routes, (e.g. through trade unions or as a ‘self-made’ business people). But, certainly amongst those who ‘made it’ to higher office, there was a very specific culture. Anyone who has spent any time amongst those who have been incubated in those ‘elite’ schools and universities, know that alongside a very prominent sense of entitlement, there is also a culture of competition, a slightly dysfunctional concept of friendship and a deep sense of loneliness.

Parliament, in many senses, is a mirror of that bizarre culture, with all those facets of competition, unstable alliances, and loneliness. Spend a week in Parliament and you will feel the alienation – it’s tangible. Imagine then, that you’re a young, northern, working class woman, who went to a comp and Manchester Metropolitan Uni, with very a different culture and values. To anyone from the culture and history that most of us inhabit, the atmosphere of Parliament – not just the tradition, rules or the building, but the transient human relationships, the proximity of gossiping journalists in almost all parts of Westminster and the enclosed, privileged spaces – is absolutely alienating, if not hostile. As Laura said, it’s the strangest workplace anyone of us has ever inhabited. To find it normal in any sense, you must have emerged from a very different reality. That different reality is the privileged bubble of the elite, as educated inside the cloisters of Oxbridge and comfortingly expensive private schools.

Of course, people say: ‘but Tony Benn was great friends with Enoch Powell’ and it’s true that he did spend time in the House with the old racist, as he did with Ian Paisley. Reading the diaries, there is no evidence that their friendship extended much beyond Westminster. I doubt Caroline would have allowed it. Benn did, however, attend Powell’s funeral and allegedly told worried New Labour spin doctors that he would be going because Powell was “his friend”. I didn’t know Tony well enough to quiz him on that concept of friendship and what it meant to him, but I do remember him talking about Powell in similar terms to Thatcher: that he hated his ideology, but respected the fact that he was, in his terms, a signpost rather than a weathervane and he admired that. Is that friendship? Is that as deep as the friendship he had with Dennis Skinner, Joan Maynard or Eric Heffer. I suppose we can only guess, but my own view is that, because he was from a privileged and politically pluralist background, Benn had learnt the Parliamentary game. That doesn’t mean that he and Powell were the greatest of friends, only that in the lonely rooms of the Palace of Westminster, they shared some common personal ground, just as Attlee and Churchill did.

Obviously, Laura Pidcock’s case is different as are her ideas about friendship, which is her right. In amongst the feather spitting, one small sentence uttered by Laura has been completely missed, but it offers a clue to the real issue here. She said: “I have friends I choose to spend time with”. That isn’t a deliberate, provocative dismissal of the people she is now surrounded by in Parliament, but a genuine sentiment, and those of us who aren’t career politicians will recognise it as such. Friends aren’t people who we share chit-chat with on the Terrace or in Strangers Bar. It’s not a journalist who we ‘hit it off’ with over a coffee in Portcullis House, someone we exchange jokes about how bad Arsenal were at the weekend – and definitely not someone we say ‘hi’ to as we pass them in the corridor between votes. It isn’t even someone we find common cause with, or chat over an issue with (whatever party). None of that is friendship, at least not the way we conceive it.

Close friends are people who you share your home with, your darkest secrets and most fanciful ideas. They are people who’ve seen you through weddings, break ups, who’ve seen you be sick, who’ve laughed at your disasters and frailties. People you’ve cried with, who understand your very soul, despite the jokes that might permeate that bond. To many of us, friendships are permanent, binding contracts. If we want to talk about unconditional friendships, that’s where politics don’t matter. Values do, but not formal politics.

I have friends who don’t share my politics, but I love them dearly. For people to confuse that and the kinds of relationships we are offered in Parliament is absolutely bizarre. They aren’t the same thing. So, back to the Pidcock furore: what are you going to answer, when a journalist asks you, in this place, in this context, whether you’d be friends with a Tory MP? The same Tory MPs who you’ve just faced across the Commons floor, and watched them cackle and whoop at benefit cuts. Are you being serious?

It won’t just be Laura, or her staff who will feel like this: it’s a natural expression of the changing Labour Party. New Labour MPs, whether new or not, whether young or old, would slot into the expected culture a lot easier than those who come from the outside in, as it were. If the 2015 Labour intake included many people from outside the political bubble, then the 2017 intake took it one stage further. One of the most incredible consequences of the unexpectedly good result in June 2017 was the entry of a new generation of MPs, which almost accidently ended up being exactly what the Labour Party needed: MPs like Marsha de Cordova, Laura Smith and Ruth George are a huge breath of fresh air, blowing like a wind through the Westminster corridors.

Obviously, we should all expect political capital to be made out of any sense that the mould is being broken. There are many people in that place with a real interest in preserving the status quo. So, the zealous right-wing press, licking their lips, helped by a strengthened hard right on the Tory benches, have attempted to portray this quiet revolution, this slow gathering of MPs who are truly representative of the population at large rather than a political establishment, as something sinister.

Irony died when the Express bemoaned the “politics of hate” seeping into Westminster. You’ve got to admire the chutzpah, if nothing else. Those purveyors of hate, the Daily Mail, the Sun and the Telegraph joined in, whipping up a real storm, almost betraying their fear in the process. The media are central in this, because they are as much of this dysfunctional culture as the politicians themselves. They hang around the cafes and bars like a set of charming, ingratiating hyenas. And they have a deep interest in perpetuating these paper thin, fake friendships of convenience. The truth is, though, that they wouldn’t know the true meaning of friendship if it smacked them in the face.

So, in some ways, the whole Pidcock #Torygate furore is nothing more than a terrible miscommunication. What they meant to ask Laura, and other working class MPs elected over the last three years, wasn’t “are you going to be friends with Tories?” Literally, who cares about that? No, what they meant to ask was, “are you going to conform?”, “are you going to bow down to the status quo” to the power of the media and the mush of centrism? And the answer to that (the real question that the journalists wanted to ask) I’m pleased to say, is a firm ‘no’. And what a refreshing, nourishing and inspiring thought that is.

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“Nowhere Else to Go”: The Truth About New Labour, Corbyn and Labour’s Heartlands

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Jeremy Corbyn at the Durham Miners’ Gala in July 2016 {Photograph ©Tom Eden}

In recent times, various claims have been put forward in defence of the New Labour project. However, the latest by Phil Wilson MP is so fantastical that only a true believer could have the audacity to make such remarks with a straight face. Wilson’s claim is that New Labour was somehow the product of and informed by, working-class demands. According to an account of a recent seminar in The Independent, Wilson told the audience that New Labour was “rooted in making a difference for the working-class communities of the former coalfields of the North-East.”

In reality, the exact opposite was true. New Labour consciously and deliberately shunned working-class communities. One of its fundamental articles of faith was that working-class voters did not matter because as Peter Mandelson put it, they had ‘nowhere else to go’. Instead, it was ‘middle England’ that had to be courted. As for the organised working class – the trade union movement – Blair boasted of having ‘the most restrictive labour laws in the Western world’ and became the first Labour leader to refuse to address the Durham Miners’ Gala – Britain’s most important and historic working-class festival. The New Labour machine repeatedly parachuted in middle-class MPs into working-class constituencies. Think Blair in Sedgefield, David Miliband in South Shields, Peter Mandelson in Hartlepool, Tristram Hunt in Stoke or Douglas Alexander in Renfrewshire. Unsurprisingly, New Labour’s tenure in office saw working-class support collapse, something which Ed Miliband proved incapable of addressing during his time as Labour leader.

Wilson’s prescription for Labour’s dismal election result of 2015 was to revert to Blairism – a view shared by only 4.5% of the party membership. Since Corbyn’s election as Labour leader, Wilson has relentlessly been on the attack, showing total disdain for the views of the membership in the process. He was an active player in the ‘coup’, accusing Corbyn of ‘sabotage’ and demanded his immediate resignation after the EU referendum result, as well as backing the ‘no confidence’ motion in the PLP. Still unable to come to terms with the democratic verdict of the party membership, during last year’s general election, he issued an incredibly reckless and self-indulgent leaflet which stated, “I put local people first. If this means standing up to May, I do. If this means opposing Corbyn, I do.” Such was its design and content that, at first glance, you would be forgiven for thinking it was not the literature of a Labour candidate. For good measure, he then told the press: “People don’t like Corbyn; I don’t like Corbyn”.

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Wilson’s election leaflet which included an endorsement from an Independent Councillor.

Despite being proven decisively wrong by the general election result, Wilson has not relented. Immediately after the election, he criticised Labour’s immensely popular policy platform, branding our tuition fees policy as “middle class”. Quite how New Labour’s abolition of universal education through the introduction and subsequent trebling of tuition fees helped working-class students is never explained. In fact, evidence points the other way. As Professor Claire Callender recently concluded: ‘Working-class young people are far more likely than students from other social classes to avoid applying to university because of debt fears.’

Last year’s general election result vindicated the much-derided supporters of Corbyn. Despite all the warnings of impending doom and despite the unhelpful antics of the mischief-makers within our own ranks, Labour’s vote increased, including amongst working-class voters.

Wilson has made much of an apparent working-class ‘swing’ towards the Tories, yet the story was not one of working-class Labour voters abandoning Corbyn’s Labour for May’s Tories. It was simply inevitable that with the collapse of UKIP, the working-class Tory vote would increase. The idea that UKIP posed the greater threat to Labour was, to a large extent, a media-driven exaggeration. Its Thatcherite, anti-Europe agenda always appealed most to Tory working-class (as well as middle-class) voters, which in many cases rendered Labour the beneficiary of a split right-wing vote. Last summer, the majority of these voters simply returned to the Tory fold.

At long last, after years of neglect and complacency, the long process of winning back the trust of working-class communities is underway. As the election showed, we are reconnecting with people in our traditional heartlands such as Wales and Scotland. And here in the North East, Labour’s vote went up in every single constituency, including those in the former coalfields. Even in Bishop Auckland, which Wilson points to in support of his thesis, Labour’s vote saw a substantial increase compared with 2015 and 2010. The notion that vote increases in Blaydon, Blyth, Wansbeck and Easington can be attributed to “students and middle class voters” should be treated with the derision it deserves. We are re-connecting in other important ways too. Labour’s association with the trade union movement is now a source of pride and our leadership backs workers in industrial disputes.

As all Wilson appears capable of offering in support of his claims are anecdotes, I have one of my own. When canvassing in Bishop Auckland during the general election, I spoke to a man who had never voted before but was voting Labour because of our commitment to a £10 an hour minimum wage.

If you want to see where unchecked Blairism leads to, look at Labour’s electoral disaster in Scotland in 2015, where New Labour devotees such as Jim Murphy, Douglas Alexander and John McTernan led the charge into oblivion. Or look around at the recent dismal electoral performances of the SPD and many of our other European sister parties which have failed to break decisively with the so-called “Third Way”.

The saving grace is of course that thanks to a democratic revolution in the Labour Party, the leading lights in the New Labour clique no longer hold sway. Instead, they now appear reduced merely to unconvincing attempts to rehabilitate their own record and indulging in increasingly incoherent and self-serving criticisms of Labour’s modern mainstream.

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What is the Centre Ground? Lessons from 1945

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In the aftermath of Labour’s phenomenal performance in the 2017 General Election, Tony Blair called on Jeremy Corbyn to return Labour to the centre ground or face political wilderness, warning of the ills of “unreconstructed hard-left economics.” However Corbyn used his 2017 New Years’ message to proclaim that Labour was “stalking out a new centre ground.” What is this lucrative centre ground and who has the key to capturing it? Is it Tony Blair, whose quest to capture the centre led New Labour into a triangulation of twenty years of Thatcherite politics; or is it Jeremy Corbyn, whose manifesto of nationalisation and redistribution, and commitment to peace, has transformed the nature of political debate in Britain? Does the centre ground even exist?

A very important comparison can be drawn between 2017 and the 1945 general election, in which Labour won its first ever majority. Long the orthodoxy among historians, Paul Addison’s contention that “consensus fell, like a branch of ripe plums, into Mr. Attlee’s lap” has seen the post-war period treated as a time of agreement between political parties in which debate was constrained within parameters that were set by the wartime coalition: a mixed economy, the priority of controlling unemployment and a welfare state were the main areas of convergence. Is this the fabled centre ground?

Not according to Winston Churchill. During the 1945 election campaign, Churchill made an explicit comparison between Labour and the Nazi Party by stating that a Labour government would require “some form of Gestapo” in order to implement its programme, only weeks after Belsen had been liberated. Similar smear tactics against Corbyn clearly affected Labour’s performance before the general election, but in June 2017 over 40% of the public voted for Labour- people who obviously did not take completely seriously the claims that Corbyn is a threat to national security. That the public largely rejected the claims that Corbyn and Clement Attlee were hard-left extremists suggests that their politics were far closer to the views of the average person than those of their right-wing detractors.

The assertion by many historians that all politics was conducted from the centre in 1945 is not evident in Labour’s domestic policies. While the Labour governments set about nationalising vast swathes of industry, the Conservative manifesto summed up emphatically in favour of the free-market, arguing that “Nationalisation involves a state monopoly, with no proper protection for anyone against monopoly power. Neither that nor any other form of unfettered monopoly should be allowed to exist in Britain.” While maintaining nationalised industries such as coal and rail, the 1951 Conservative government privatised the steel industry. Evidently, the Conservatives had been forced into accepting a settlement that they were ideologically opposed to since it aligned with the majority of public opinion.

The “unreconstructed hard-left economics” that Tony Blair has warned of bear a lot of resemblance to the policies that won Labour a landslide in 1945. Despite attempts to portray Corbyn and John McDonnell as unpatriotic Marxist extremists, these economics are firmly within the boundaries of Keynesian management theory. And they’re popular- 53% of people in a recent YouGov poll said the they supported the nationalisation of energy companies. Nationalisation is back on the agenda and like in 1945, Labour is winning the argument.

Aneurin Bevan led the Labour government towards creating the NHS in the face of opposition from the British Medical Association, who were backed by the Tories. Although concessions were made to allow private patients, Labour’s NHS was a dramatic step towards universality of provision. Labour’s own wartime policy, outlined in the 1943 publication ‘A National Service for Health’, did not advocate nationalisation of the hospitals. Instead wartime Labour and then the Tories and some members of the 1945 Labour government supported a tripartite system, which preserved voluntary and charitable hospitals. However, Bevan referred to these voluntary and charitable hospitals as an important source of ‘political and social patronage’ for the Tories and pressed ahead with nationalisation. The principle of charity, where welfare is voluntary and totally dependent on the kindness of individuals, is alien to a socialist system and if it were not for Bevan’s efforts, it might have been the basis of our health service today. The NHS is phenomenally popular and perhaps the most enduring achievement of Labour; so popular that these days the Conservatives have had to resort to privatising the system under flowery language such as ‘Accountable Care Organisations’, all while proclaiming their love for nationalised health care.

It would be a positive step towards defending public health care if Labour were to lend their full support towards the NHS reinstatement bill, as Corbyn, McDonnell, Abbott and others have done in the past. Since the public are overwhelmingly in favour of public healthcare (83% favoured nationalised healthcare in the recent YouGov poll), it falls upon Labour to make the connection between the public’s desire for nationalised health care and the reversal of decades of privatisation.

Where the left is most disappointed by the 1945-51 Labour governments is in foreign policy. Many prominent left-wingers were placed in domestic departments- Bevan had both housing and health- whereas those on the right of the party were given foreign policy roles. As a result, Labour’s foreign policy accepted the pro-American orientation of the post-war world. Opposition to American dominance came from the Labour left, with Michael Foot, Barbara Castle, Jennie Lee, Seymour Cocks, Raymond Blackburn and a dozen other Labour members voting against America’s multi-billion dollar loan to the UK, which entailed commitments to NATO. Although there were some differences between Labour and Conservative foreign policy, most notably on Indian independence, the efforts of some Labour MP’s to create a socialist foreign policy failed. Jingoism prevailed and Britain developed its first nuclear weapon. Ernest Bevin summed up the mood among the Labour leadership: “we’ve got to have a bloody Union Jack on top of it!”

Jeremy Corbyn’s lifelong commitment to peace sets him apart from the majority of the PLP like no other issue.  Although Labour’s 2017 manifesto remained committed to Trident and the 2% of GDP military spending target, there was a moment during the 2017 election campaign that turned the whole debate around foreign policy on its head and in many ways summed up the Corbyn project. Straight after the Manchester terror attack, Corbyn delivered a speech that highlighted the role that British foreign policy in the Middle East plays in fostering terrorism. It totally unconventional for an opposition leader to deliver a political statement on such an issue. If the press and right-wing politicians were to pick a moment to deliver their fell blow and brandish him as a terrorist sympathiser forever, this would be it. Yet Labour’s poll ratings continued to rise. Jeremy Corbyn must continue to demonstrate the merits of an anti-war foreign policy and dispel the myth that wars win elections.

So whose model of the centre ground works best? Is it Tony Blair’s assertion that elections are won by agreeing with your opponents on most major political questions, or is it Jeremy Corbyn’s appeal to the many by putting out a distinctly redistributive platform? Labour won a landslide in 1945 by disagreeing with the Tories. If we are confident in our left-wing beliefs, then we should be promoting them without hesitation. What Labour proved in 1945 and are proving again in the aftermath of the 2017 general election is that the centre ground of public opinion is malleable and responds to political arguments. Tony Blair’s impression that centrists are above left/right politics- that they don’t stand for anything- is disingenuous. A centre ground of politicians who go a third way on essentially binary issues such as public or private does not exist- all must take sides. And ever more increasingly of late, these so-called centrists are being proved out of touch with a newly febrile public opinion. Socialists in the Labour Party must resist all efforts to return the party to Blair’s centre ground.

 

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