Who are you calling a Red Tory?

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There’s a glorious and comforting myth doing the rounds on the left. It’s like warm milk and honey to those who like their politics black and white, with little or no space for any grey. It goes a bit like this: the Labour left offered no opposition to Blairism North and South of the Border. In fact, those laughable people who dare call themselves socialists in the Labour Party have simply been apologists for the anti-working class politics of New Labour and its continuation as “austerity lite” under Ed Miliband. It’s only by the widespread spreading of this muck that is been possible to lump Labour members and supporters under the headline grabber ‘Red Tories’, with no distinction between socialists in the party and New Labour. It’s a comforting thought for many of those making the break with Labour, because it draws a clear party line between those on the right side of the fence and those on the wrong side. Evil must be punished and good will prevail. But it’s simplistic bullshit, actually.

Not only has there always been a vocal minority in the party which attempted to fight New Labourism from its very origins, but many of that group (who coalesced around Tribune, the Socialist Campaign Group initially, and later, the Campaign for Socialism in Scotland, the LRC and Welsh Labour Grassroots) were there at the coal face well before the broader left – and tried to warn against the Blair revolution while others in the party were being seduced by the charmer himself and the idea that after a succession of electoral disasters, there really was no alternative. The ‘Campaign Group’ left begged to differ – but it faced an uphill struggle to convince those around them. This group has been depleted by the fall out and demoralisation in the wake of Benn’s defeat in the deputy leadership election of 1981; the 1983 General Election defeat; the defeat and betrayal of the Miners during the strike of 1984-85; the abolition of the GLC; the near constant attacks on the left during the Kinnock era and had witnessed at close quarters the accession of Blair – who announced himself as the gravedigger of the left by stripping the party of Clause IV in 1995. At this point, many simply had had enough. Some socialists – mainly from the activist left of the party – departed to start a new venture, the Socialist Alliance, while others stayed in to fight another day.

What’s clear from this little potted history, though, is that the left in the party had taken a battering. It felt like a defeat, if not a final one. How did it happen? What were the root causes of the succession of wounds inflicted from the mid-80’s onwards? It certainly wasn’t about waving the white flag. There was no surrender, but the left voice was getting submerged, quieter year by year. What really inflicted the damage on the left wasn’t “losing the argument” but bureaucratic manoeuvre. The Blairites learnt very quickly that it wasn’t about winning the ideological battle, but about capturing the party machine – as a precursor to winning the Parliamentary party.

Strategically those early New Labourites were very astute – and they understood that if you were genuinely going to remove the party from its roots, you needed to take away the voice of the ordinary party member. That was the real Blair revolution, right there. In a series of anti-democratic changes to the way the party debates and reached decisions, including turning the party conference into a showcase for the leadership, the apparatchiks of New Labour seized control of the party machine. Well funded and organised, it wasn’t long before they started the task of winning the Parliamentary party. Like dominos, selection after selection went to bright young Blairites. CLP’s became, in many cases, mere vehicles for New Labour branded careers – and old Labourites fled from local parties as they became increasingly alienated. This didn’t always manifest itself in tearing up the party card, but the effect was the same as former “troublemakers” went to ground.

Blair’s was a classic ‘top down’ revolution, one which was premised on silencing and marginalising dissent. On those terms, it couldn’t have been more successful. The fact that it didn’t trigger a ‘bottom up’ revolution in return is hardly surprising, considering the history outlined above. Grassroots resistance isn’t something that can be conjured out of thin air – and the demoralisation left by those defeats was hardly confined to the Labour left. Many a left project withered in the vine at this time, including the Socialist Alliance. However, it would be wrong to say that the Labour left simply gave in. It’s a forgotten footnote in history that 139 Labour MPs voted against the War in Iraq. Not long afterwards, the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) was set up specifically to address the crisis of representation of the left in the party. What was missing, though, were the much larger numbers of unaffiliated socialists in the party and the unions, beyond that activist core. They were the ones most affected by the disillusion which set in with the onslaught of Blairism. So there was always a vociferous and committed leftwing, it just didn’t have the wider base in the party that it needed to really be heard. That’s where we’ve been stuck for nearly two decades.

Now, we can debate the finer details of strategy, of what went wrong and the Labour left ended up in such a precarious position, but I don’t think that is what the “Red Tories” trope is all about. It too wants to silence debate, to dispel complexity and bury the Labour left once and for all. The idea that there might be several thousand socialists in the Labour Party still is dismissed quickly and ruthlessly, because to admit that would be to acknowledge an alternative strategy. At the extreme, the ‘Red Tory’ brigade berate those socialists on the left of the Labour Party as “left cover” for the leadership’s neoliberalism. It’s not too far off the old, discredited British Communist line during the ‘Class Against Class’ period , which castigated the left of Labour as “social fascists”. That had to be abandoned as the threat of real fascism in the shape of the Nazis focused the left’s minds. And this is the point.

People will no doubt say, “What’s the big deal about a few lefties slinging insults about? Surely you can understand the anger?”. In some senses that is right. Not only do we, as socialists in the Party, understand the anger, we share it. It’s been an everyday reality for us for over two decades – and often we’ve been there, on our own, fighting the New Labour spin, and triangulation over privatisation, foreign wars, anti-trade union legislation, financial  deregulation and austerity. But there are deeper implications of this unthinking and at times sectarian line of attack from our comrades on the left, and not all of them come from a sense of personal grievance, they’re also about the future of the left.

Firstly, the use of the term “Red Tories” to describe lifelong socialists is deeply insulting. Amongst some within the Labour Party, it quite understandably provokes a reaction – and we end up in a downward spiral of name calling and bile. That can’t be good for any of us.

Secondly, the vitriol may serve an immediate purpose – to draw a massive, fat line between the parties and therefore boost both morale and sense of mission within the activist base of those parties, but over the long term, it burns bridges that we may regret in the future – for instance in a political realignment on the left caused by economic crisis, a shift by the major trade unions, or in the event of an upsurge in the racist right.  Even on a practical level, it may stop us from working on joint platforms against austerity (whichever party forms a government) or through anti-racism campaigns in the here and now. That too, can only be healthy in the eyes of the most extreme sectarians.

Thirdly – and this is something that is not generally being considered at present – those socialists and radicals who have left the Labour Party for pastures greener, or have found a new hostility for Labour leftwingers, will almost inevitably come to a point where their politics come under challenge by a strong right or centre faction. It’s possible; likely even, that they will have to deal with disappointments, and defeat.  When that day comes, it might require different tactics from the uber confident trashing of everyone else on the left. It might even be that there are lessons to be learnt from the history of the Labour left.

It would be a travesty to claim that we on the left of the Labour Party have got it all right. Far from it, but the really important thing about the experience of socialists in the Labour Party is that we have had to deal with reality, with all its disappointments, failures and challenges. That means that we have lost our innocence. Of course, that can work both ways – it can make us cynical and prone to inertia, but it can also give us the chance to “do it better” next time. As an optimist, I tend towards the latter. I think, if we got our act together, the Labour left could be a massive force for change, not just within the party, but in wider society to. Yes, we’ve been beaten, but not decisively – and we’re not the only ones. In a truly hostile climate, no group should be castigated for their defeats. You don’t have to be a fan of what we do. You don’t have to agree with us ideologically or strategically. You don’t even have to show us #solidarity. Just don’t call us “Red Tories”.

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Repeat after me: “I didn’t leave the Labour Party, the Labour Party left me”

dunningI write this, not as a response to Jack Monroe, who announced that she’d left the Labour Party to join the Greens this week, but as a response to the many hundreds of good, socialists activists who have left the Labour Party over the years. It’s not meant as a rebuke, but merely to ask some important questions about their reasoning and our strategy as socialists. Whilst it’s understandable that people who consider themselves socialists have constant battles with their conscience about leaving the Labour Party, we must be careful of the mantra:

“I didn’t leave the Labour Party, the Labour Party left me”

In the social media age, where most people know little about each other or their histories, it sounds good. It’s a nice soundbite that will no doubt have lots of other Facebookers nodding at their screens. But what does it say about us as actors, as activists in the Party which we chose to join? Nothing says “look what they did to us” more than that statement. It’s a victim mentality – one which has been the comfort blanket for the (dis)organised left in the party for too long. We’ve gone along with the myth, created by Blair, Mandelson, Campbell and co, that the Labour Party is a brand which we have no control over, but to which we pay a monthly fee as an act of weak solidarity. So that’s our allotted role, as socialists – to complain from the margins and when it gets too tough, to bail out. That’s boxed off then.

Let’s think about this for a second, though. What a gift that is for the right-wing of the party and their enforcers in the party machine. It implies a spectator’s view of the Party. Coincidentally, that’s exactly the relationship that the Blairites want and expect the membership to have with the party. Get out, leaflet, cheer, hold up placards, wave flags in a uniform fashion, but don’t expect to play a democratic part in the party of Labour.

Now, we’re socialists. We have a deeper sense of what history tells us and what the Labour Party means, so why do so many of us simply accept what the party apparatchiks tell us? In every aspect of our lives, we challenge the powerful and organise, so why is the Labour Party an exception? Did we think they’d roll over and give us power? Or, just like in wider society, does our activism and understanding mean that, for every knockback, we have to organise better, make new alliances and work together to build our alternative?

So to those who have left, those who are leaving, or those who are thinking of leaving, we just need you to answer this question very truthfully. Have you done everything you can to join with other socialists in the party, to seek them out and to plan together, to get organised within CLPs and as a counterweight to all the Blairite rubbish that comes from on high? If you’ve done all that and still feel the same, fair enough. If, being honest, you haven’t, then come join us. Use Red Labour as a base and a starting point for the building of a party which we can all be proud of and where no one can legitimately say that it “left” them.

This is not so much about the Labour Party. I’m no tribalist – and I’ve been in and out of the Labour Party myself over nearly 30 years of activism. But I do think it’s about our relationship as activists to the parties we join. If we’re interested in achieving real power (which can change society at a practical level) at some point we will all need to mobilise, build and organise. If we stand still, and expect power to be given to us, just because we selected that party (or that brand) over the other, we will continue to end up in the same, frustrating place. If it’s too hard to challenge elites in the Labour Party, the chances are that it will be in any other party too – and it’s a certainty that it will be too hard to challenge the power of organised money and capitalist structures in wider society. So, although it’s easy enough to repeat the myths, we should also look at ourselves and learn the lessons from three decades of wasted chances for the left. If we want to change anything, we’re going to have to do a lot more than raise our banners and wait for the flocking masses. Don’t mourn, organise.

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Remembering Tony Benn – a year on

10007410_10203287173237568_1625975512_nIt was a year ago today that we heard the news that Tony Benn had died. I don’t do heroes as a rule. I’m of the opinion that movements change the world, not individuals. But Tony was obviously very special. A great communicator of simple, socialist common sense. Some people wanted more than that, and I can understand that – but to me, that is the thing that is most needed at our end of the political spectrum.

He was also a deep-down kind and generous human being. A few years ago, when this photo was taken, I had written to Ruth Winstone, asking if Tony wanted to visit the People’s Bookshop. She explained that Tony was too frail to get up the stairs, but would love to meet me before his gig at the Gala Theatre in Durham. When I got there, my heart sank. He was surrounded by dignitaries and Labour councillors (quite a few of them nasty, austerity-happy old rightwingers). Someone was wearing a silly chain around their neck.

Ruth spotted me, and had a word with Tony. Like a flash, he extricated himself and found a spot for me and him to have a lovely chat. I know I wasn’t special in this kind of treatment, it’s just that he had an enormous respect and understanding for activists, people who campaigned and got things done. And he had no time for those people who wrapped themselves in the Red Flag, but fundamentally sought the trappings of power and fought for no one but themselves.

That evening, I gave him a People’s Bookshop mug, knowing that it would be too small for him to use – he used to drink his tea out of pint mugs. However, a year or so later, a friend of mine went to see Tony at his house and was brought his cuppa in a People’s Bookshop mug. I got a little buzz out of that.

But more than the personal stories, Tony Benn leaves us with a moral. And that is partly to do with the fact that, despite all his oratory, all his wisdom and foresight, Bennism was a cry in the wilderness. Why? Because we thought Tony Benn could do it all for us – we were his audience – and we forgot to keep building a vibrant, political movement on the ground. Tony realised this himself, and he was keen to quote Lao Tzu whenever he could on leadership:

“A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”

Leaders may have their role in encouraging others, but at the end, it’s down to us to get together (in whichever ways and in whichever forums we choose). We have to get ourselves organised and build from the grassroots. Everything else is just for show.

Tony Benn, 3rd April 1925 – 14th March 2014.

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The insidious chaos of the ‘Free Schools’ experiment and how to stop it.

o-MICHAEL-GOVE-VOODOO-PINCUSHION-570 (1)Under the Tories, the Free School experiment will go on unabated. 400 have been created since 2010, another 49 were announced yesterday, and Cameron is promising another 500 should, God forbid, the Tories be elected in May.

It’s pretty damn obvious what their agenda is. The Tories aim is to break up comprehensive, publicly funded education and make it safe for private interests. Softly, softly at first, but nonetheless determined to achieve their goal. Just as the privatisation of the NHS started with the introduction of the internal market (a Tory initiative which New Labour enthusiastically promoted), Free Schools are just the thin end of a bigger wedge.

It could be argued, of course, that the dam had already been breached. The Academy Schools programme, New Labour’s showpiece, introduced many of the ideas (of self management, of independent financial structures and outsourced education provision) which Free Schools are merely the extension of. Yes, that is absolutely true (whoops, they did it again) – and it is also the reason why the vast majority of ordinary Labour Party members were adamantly opposed to the introduction of Academies. But the party hierarchy didn’t listen and ploughed on regardless – dazzled by the idea of shiny new, PFI schools. Now the Tories are able to use the idea of “forced academisation” to complete the job. See here for the NUT’s explanation of how this process works. In addition, Tristram Hunt’s talk of “parent-led Academies” is worrying and, again, has no support amongst party members. In the long term, it’s vital that Labour reassess the Academy Programme and revisit the comprehensive ideal which was at the heart of their educational policy pre-Blair. That will only happen if they’re forced to by genuine, grassroots pressure.

But the really insidious thing about Free Schools – and this is why Labour should be clear that they have no part to play in our education system – is how the idea preys on the hopes of parents. Free Schools offer the illusion of choice, of parents taking control. It’s understandable that the number one priority for the vast majority of parents is providing the best for the children who take precedence over all others – their own. It sounds great. Not happy with your school? Well, here you are, here’s the right to set up your own one – with a big fat, cheque to boot. But it’s an individualistic mind-set, one which often ignores the rights of the child down the road, or in the next village – out of sight and out of mind. Neither does it take into account the long term future of our children’s education. For that reason, parents aren’t always the best people to make the decisions about our education system, no matter how attractive that idea might sound in theory. That’s why we need democratic control over our education.

That is not to say that the old LEA system was perfect. It had become heavily bureaucratised and impenetrable for parents who wanted a say in their child’s education. Of course it’s right that any return to across-the-board Local Authority control should be based on a reform of that system, with a greater say for parents, children and communities. But that doesn’t mean that the idea of local, democratic control of education is a bad thing in itself. In fact, without it, we can kiss goodbye to ever making decisions on education for the collective good again. Every decision on education will be premised on a competitive, dog-eat-dog philosophy. And we all know who will be the long term losers – working class families, whose voices will not be heard in the same way. So if we genuinely aim for a more equal education system, one that gives every kid the best chance no matter what the accident of their birth, we must have democratic accountability, not a free-for-all.

As we’ve seen, many Free Schools have been chaotic, and some down right scary. That hope of a better education is often illusory, as parents have learnt in practice. Right here in Durham, the Free School opened by disgruntled parents has been given a closure notice by Ofsted after it was found to be failing in “all areas”, and after inspectors found the presence of “discriminatory views” towards people of other beliefs, but it’s hardly the only one. There have been a catalogue of horror stories. But, for the Tories that doesn’t really matter. They’re prepared to take the hit of a few failures, because this is about a long term political game, not about raising standards or providing better educational environments for children. The Free Schools, merely by their very existence, are a propaganda tool which can and will chip away at the foundations of comprehensive education. That’s their real purpose and that is the name of the game.

Labour should recognise the game and oppose Free Schools in their entirety. That means taking the politically brave decision to close them all. That will entail a commitment to find alternative provision for those suckered in by the Free School promise. After all, it’s not their fault – they were sold the opportunity to improve their children’s educational lot. However, to avoid that decision will risk making them same mistake that New Labour made with the NHS. Do we want to be sitting here in 10 years time wishing we’d had the balls to stand up to the Tories privatising agenda in education, when the opportunity was there?
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The Day Newcastle United

Last Saturday, I had the privilege of being part of a beautiful, living, breathing manifestation of solidarity. ‘Pegida’ (along with the remnants of the National Front, the BNP and the EDL) were in Toon and were met by around 3,000 people from across the North East, who had gathered in the largest anti-fascist demonstration our region has seen since the 1930s.

From the platform, more than 20 speakers, all from different backgrounds affirmed their opposition to the politics of hate and division and expressed their determination to stand with Newcastle’s Muslims, who were the target of this particular fascist march.

Although I’ve only got room for a few of my personal highlights, it must be said that each speaker made an excellent contribution. Opening the rally was local MP Chi Onwurah, who spoke movingly of her experiences growing up at at time when the National Front peddled its hatred and lies. She recalled how much it had meant to her to receive the support and solidarity of those Tynesiders who opposed the politics of racism. German SPD MEP Arne Lietz quoted the immortal words of Pastor Niemöller, reminding all of us that although today it is Muslims who are the fascists’ favoured scapegoat, tomorrow it will be us. Davey Hopper of the Durham Miners’ Association, recalled the North East’s proud tradition of fighting fascism and described the occasion as the most uplifting demonstration he had ever attended, as the Durham Area miners banner depicting the late Tony Benn and Davey Guy, was proudly held aloft. A representative of the local Jewish community spoke of his outrage that Pegida would dare to infringe upon the rights of his fellow believers in the God of Abraham. Laura Pidcock from Show Racism the Red Card implored us not just to challenge prejudice where we encounter it but to challenge our own prejudices too. Bill from Newcastle United supporters trust spoke passionately, expressing his outrage that anyone could try and say that Papiss Cisse and Moussa Sissoko were not true Geordies. And in a climate where Islam is misrepresented and vilified, it was brilliant that a young Muslim man had the opportunity to reaffirm the universalist and anti-racist values at the heart of his faith, quoting from the Prophet Muhammad that: ‘An Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over a black nor a black has any superiority over white – except by piety and good deeds.’

The theme that was returned to time and again was that the social problems which blight the North East are real enough, but the responsibility lies not with migrants, but with those at the top of society. It is they who laid waste to our industries and who have created a society scarred by mass unemployment, food banks and poverty pay. The display of unity showed beyond all doubt that the disingenuous notion peddled by racists, that LGBT people, women and all those who define themselves as ‘progressives’ should join in the chorus of hate and fear towards Muslims – because ‘they hate and fear you’ – hadn’t fooled anyone.

The rally ended with Newcastle city councillor Dipu Ahad thanking Pegida for bringing Newcastle together to the chant of ‘Newcastle, united, will never be defeated!’ And it surely can’t have been coincidence that just hours later, Cisse got the winner against Villa.

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