Open Letter to the Durham TAs

RL

The other day, I wrote a blog post which took Durham Labour Councillors to task over the TA dispute. That was the easy part. Most people are agreed, across all parties, that they’ve made a catastrophic mistake. This is like a “part 2” in a sense – and it’s much harder to write, because I feel like I’m swimming against the stream on this one. Also, when we started this incredible journey, I promised that I would never ‘direct’ the campaign. As Trades Council secretary, as a Labour Party member and a socialist, I was there to support you, pure and simple, not tell you what to do, or lean on you to do things ‘my way’. That bargain still stands.

So, why am I interfering now? Why the need for a “part 2” at all? Well, firstly because the TA campaign has moved into the political arena – signalled by the rally last Saturday. This is hardly surprising: after all, it was the Labour councillors who made it political, when they decided to slash the pay of 2,700 women and men, many of whom would have been ‘natural’ Labour supporters in the past. Even with all the mitigating circumstances of Tory austerity, it was a disastrous decision for a party which was founded to represent working people. It’s completely understandable that TAs would question why any loyalty would be owed to a party that acted in such a way.

Secondly, though, I’ve had many TAs asking me to explain the situation in the Labour Party, where, for instance, it’s leader can come to the Durham Miners’ Gala and call for Durham County Council to “sort it” and be ignored, on one hand; and local Labour Party members can organise themselves to oppose the decisions made by their councillors in local Labour Party meetings, on the other. How Red Labour can plug your campaign relentlessly, but ‘Blue Labour’ remain quiet as a mouse? No wonder some people are confused.

You’ve just organised the most amazing campaign. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that it will go down in the history books alongside labour movement events such as The Ford Machinists Strike and Grunwick. Right now, everyone wants to be your friend. Mostly that is a good thing, but there are dangers in it too. So, there are two things I want to talk about: firstly, the complicated situation in the Labour Party and secondly, why you should be wary of ‘independents’ bearing gifts.

  1. The Labour Party isn’t one, big bloc of people who all think the same.

So, firstly, you have probably noticed: the Labour Party is going through a pretty tough time. It is split, right left and centre, between leadership and party in Parliament, between its members and the representatives locally (especially councillors). I’ll admit, it’s not a great situation to be in – and it means that the public are constantly getting mixed messages, including the Teaching Assistants. But in truth, the party has been split for a long time: those divisions were masked by successive general election wins in 1997, 2001 and 2005, but Blair’s leadership essentially side-lined thousands of members – and put power in the hands of the few: those who went along with his project to make Labour safe for the middle classes, the City of London and the media.

This was reflected in places like County Durham, where the party turned in on itself, becoming a preserve for councillors and “loyalists” who rejected the idea of struggle. They gradually became divorced from the communities they came from, but still collected enough votes to be elected again and again. No one really challenged them, but the anger was steadily growing.

Then came Corbyn – which in some ways was a complete surprise (though the signs were there for those who were taking notice). Suddenly we had a socialist and a trade unionist as leader – someone who had stood on picket lines all his career. This sent shockwaves through the party, including in County Durham. Only one Durham Labour councillor put his name to a letter supporting Corbyn’s campaign in 2015: ironically, Deputy Leader Alan Napier. The majority of Labour councillors in the County were actively opposed to Corbyn and everything he represented – or completely non-plussed.

So, it was completely predictable that we had a split between the national leadership and Durham County Council. They came from completely different traditions. When he first heard about the dispute, Corbyn’s gut instinct was to support the TAs fully and seek dialogue with Durham’s council leadership. I gather that wasn’t very welcome – and Simon Henig et al decided to plough ahead with their plan to sack TAs and impose new contracts on them.

When he spoke at the Durham Miners’ Gala, and asked DCC to ‘sort it’, that also went down like a lead balloon. It was unprecedented for a Labour leader to intervene in a ‘local dispute’ between a Labour council and its workers. But technically, Corbyn – as leader – had no power to ‘tell’ Labour councillors in Durham to do anything: they were responsible to their local parties, and their electorate, not the leader of the party. That might seem strange to some, but much as I disagree with the councillors on many issues, I personally wouldn’t have it any other way: local representatives should be democratically accountable to their local communities and local parties, not a leader based in London.

Then came another division. The local parties in County Durham, their numbers swelled by members who had joined since Jeremy Corbyn became leader, took quite a different attitude to the TA dispute than the councillors who voted to the pay cut. Yes, it took a little while to work its way through. A few, from Red Labour and Momentum, became involved early on – as did the local grassroots union movement. Unfortunately, not many members are very connected to the trade unions or the Trades Council, so it took Jeremy speaking up at the Gala for many grassroots members to understand fully what was going on.

But as those on the left and the unions did their work, more Labour members joined picket lines and started discussing how they could help the Teaching Assistants in their struggle. By a large majority, they were outraged by their local councillors. Eventually, that crystallised in a number of branches taking motions to the local party body (the Constituency Labour Party), criticising the attitude of the councillors. An attempt to stop the debate (orchestrated by senior councillors) was defeated. Motions at several CLPs were passed unanimously. This hugely increased pressure on the councillors and the cabinet. Suddenly, they were at war with their own members. Not a comfortable place to be.

This was the most effective use of the ‘power’ that local Labour members had. But many people involved in the TA dispute have understandably asked why we put up with this? Many councillors are clearly not representative of the ‘new’ membership, the hundreds of thousands who’ve joined the party. The simple answer is time. It takes time to get political movements organised, especially when the task at hand is changing long established structures. In some wards, new Labour council candidates have been selected – those who’ve had nothing to do with the TA vote at County Hall. Some have been regular visitors to the picket lines that you’ve set up and have been organising behind the scenes to support the TAs. But in other wards, the same old faces have been selected. That’s the way it goes – it’s a fact that things take time, that big changes don’t happen overnight. But we have made a start.

  1. So-called ‘independents’ rarely are.

So much for the Labour Party. There are other parties involved in the TA dispute. Some have been completely genuine, I’ll agree. There have been a few prominent Lib Dem councillors who’ve we’ve seen at demos from the start, who’ve offered logistical support. The loyalty displayed to those local politicians from the Teaching Assistants has been earned. It kind of sticks in my throat, at times, because I remember what that party did in coalition with the Tories between 2010 and 2015, rubber stamping cuts to local services, the devastating increase to tuition fees and the failure to put a brake on the chaos that the Tories brought to communities like ours. Many of the issues we are facing in terms of school budgets are a legacy of that coalition. So, I’m not going to be a hypocrite and say that’s been erased from my memory, but at least they stand on their record.

What worries me, in the development of an ‘anyone but Labour’ narrative, is that many so-called ‘independent’ candidates are taking a ride on the coat-tails of the dispute to get themselves into County Hall. Again, some of the independents are no doubt genuine, but a great deal of them are chancers who have seen the strikes and the enormous publicity that the campaign has received as their opportunity to get into power under the cloak of independence. In some cases, it’s even worse than that: they are hiding some pretty nasty politics.

Traditionally, the ‘independent’ ticket has been used by local Tories, fully aware that if they’d stood under that party, they would never have a chance of election in County Durham. More recently, a lot of candidates with UKIP-style politics are flying under the independent flag. Always worry if someone says they put people above politics, or claim that they have no politics, because every decision that people make as a councillor is political: what to fund, how to tax, what to prioritise – these are all political decisions.

I’m all for local people with fresh ideas becoming councillors. Maybe we are moving beyond the era when people voted tribally for the established parties local council elections, but the TAs need to understand the power that they have in their hands, and avoid endorsing candidates without checking them out first. It would be awful to replace Labour councillors with people who neither understood or cared for education, and had reactionary views on all sorts of other issues to boot. We should encourage community activists of any party, people who are open about their politics, so we can have a good debate locally and decide in a democratic way. No one is asking for a ‘free ride’ for any candidate, no matter what their party – just that people are allowed to state their case in an open, fair way.

So, the last thing I will say to you is simply a plea to be careful about the local candidates: check out their backgrounds, google them, question them. Make it your job to find out what they really think – on a range of issues. I would say the same about the Labour candidates. All candidates should be able to take a grilling. That’s the way you’ll find out whether they’re genuine in their support. It may well turn out that you have more in common with some of the Labour candidates than you think, and less with some of the indies. Or not. That’s democracy, and with the TA campaign now moving into the political arena, these are the questions you’ll have to wrangle with.

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Dear Labour Councillor…

DCC

Dear Labour Councillor,

Don’t blame me – it was your choice to stand as a representative of the people, for the Labour Party – also known as the People’s Party. If you are now being held to account for your decisions which you have made in the course of that duty, representing that party, that is very much par for the course.

Don’t blame me – I didn’t make you wave through a pay cut which would have amounted to a 23% pay cut or more than £5,000 a year for some of the most valued and worst rewarded public servants that we have in County Durham. I’m not the one who seemed to think Teaching Assistants washed paint pots for a living.

Don’t blame me – I’m not the one who unquestioningly took the officers’ word for it when they told you that you must vote for an imposed TA contract which was inevitably going to cause such grief and hardship. I wasn’t the one who failed to check out the validity of the legal advice, to research the talk of equal pay claims, and above all, whose conscience didn’t twig. We vote for you to represent us. We don’t vote for Chief Executives.

Don’t blame me – I’m not the Labour member who made my excuses, walked out or abstained over the crucial vote, when there was still the option of speaking out, of being a leader, a hero even. When there was still the chance to join with the trade union movement and presenting a solid bloc against Tory austerity, I wasn’t the one who ducked out.

Don’t blame me – I didn’t force you to pick a fight with the county’s equivalent of NHS nurses: incredibly strong women with the respect of teachers, parents, communities, even some Heads. You’re supposed to be a politician – aren’t you supposed to think ahead, have a strategic sense?

Don’t blame me – I’m not the one who has invested so much power in one or two ‘leaders’ – the leader of the Labour Group and his trusty lieutenants. I even warned you, when you were voting through care home closures, hiving off Leisure Centres to community groups with hardly a peep, because they were the “tough decisions” you were supposed to make, right?

Don’t blame me – I’m not the one who buried their head in the sand when the dislocation between DCC and local communities was becoming evident. I’m not the one who “objected” when being warned that Labour councillors were becoming divorced from the people they represented.

Don’t blame me – I’m not the one who refused to protest, to join us on the picket line when the frustration became obvious and the anger palpable. I’m not the one who read a prepared “statement” on the steps of County Hall. Neither am I the genius who thought it was a good idea to argue with the hundreds on Facebook, justifying the unjustifiable.

Don’t blame me – it wasn’t me who tried to stop a debate being held by the local Labour Party, who attempted to deny members the chance to rectify the mistakes of their representatives at County Hall. Neither was I the person who refused to put up a single argument in favour of the pay cut and imposition of the TA contract.

Don’t blame me – I’m not the councillor who had to go back on everything they had said, who had to backtrack on the legal argument, the equal pay claims which allegedly made compromise impossible or the ‘non-negotiable’ position of the Council Cabinet.

It wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t the TAs fault, it wasn’t Davy Hopper’s fault back in June or Tom’s, or Dick’s or Harry’s fault – indeed, all of the people you have viewed as ‘trouble makers’ for too long are completely blameless – and, by the way,  it won’t be Jeremy Corbyn’s fault if an electoral disaster happens in May. Jeremy Corbyn, who came to the Miners’ Gala, and felt the need to speak out about a local dispute, quite against all protocol. He asked you to ‘sort it’, but you were stubbornly deaf to his plea.

But look, it’s not personal. I’m more than prepared to see it in a bigger context: of a long history of deferential, meek Labour politics in County Durham – where individual councillors have, for too long, gone along with a small group of unrepresentative decision makers (some of them not even elected). You’ve given them too much respect, you trusted them too much – and now they have led you straight down a cul-de-sac.

You have one last chance for a ‘mea culpa’. It means no more sniping; no more whispering about those who exposed this sorry mess; no more conspiracies about the Teaching Assistants being led by this or that group. No more sourness in respect of a new group of prospective Labour councillors who have distanced themselves from these terrible decisions, and tried to revive the party’s name. It means taking responsibility, starting with a very public apology. Also, a long, hard look in the mirror will tell you one thing: that if you do survive the local elections, and emerge once again as a representative of the people, you should never again take decisions that hurt your own constituents, your own communities and potentially our party’s people, so carelessly. Because, apart from anything else, you know, it’s a real vote loser.

 

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The way we do our politics

corbyn crowd

The way we do our politics is as important as that politics itself. Within the Labour Party, there are people who simply don’t get this. It’s not just a left-right divide: On the right, Progress, of course, are past masters at creating political power centred around small, self-serving cliques, but unfortunately there is self-defeating, top down strain within the Corbyn project too, which had absolutely nothing to do with the flowering of activism, creativity and organisation-building that happened during the summer of 2015.

It is a politics that trusts no one, which seeks to concentrate political power and control in fewer and fewer (mostly male) hands. It’s a methodology which has been employed in our unions too, and is totally counter to a real, genuine grassroots organising approach. Mainly, it’s borne out of fear: fear that if we spread power, it will result in chaos, uncontrollable outcomes. Real organising, real movement building is always risky, because it opens up debate – and at times conflict – but control freakery and undemocratic, apolitical careerism is always, always more damaging in the long term, because it will inevitably kill the movement. If you give people no stake in their structures, no means of challenging power, no voice, eventually they will walk away.

Other people will react and have reacted to this power grab: they will kick against it, at times in ways that do them no service. On occasions, it will be they who are behaving in an uncomradely way. They will defend themselves against the people taking away their voice, and in so doing show anger and intolerance of their own. To the untrained eye, it might seem like they are the villains of the piece. But there is no moral equivalence between reacting to an injustice, to being excluded – and the act itself.

If we want to stop this opportunity from slipping through our hands, we’re going to have to understand the big advantage we have. It’s not Jeremy Corbyn in Portcullis House, leading the party. It’s not policy advisors, left MPs, union general secretaries, political fixers, their mates or commentators. It’s the 400,000 plus supporters of this project, only a handful of which have truly been allowed to have a real stake in it. That’s what we need to fix.

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Five things taught to me by Tony Benn

Benn 2

It’s been three years since Tony Benn left us. For many of the left, both inside and outside the Labour Party, his departure still leaves a huge hole, despite everything that has happened since his death in March 2014. I think about Tony a lot, imagining what his reactions would be – to Brexit; to Trump’s election; to the shifts on the British left, and the schisms that have opened up.

Benn’s formal political career stretched from 1950 to 2001, but he continued as a huge presence after that decision to ‘leave Parliament to spend more time on politics’, especially in the Anti-War movement. In that huge span of 50 plus years, he transformed from the ‘bright young thing of the party’ (with few socialist credentials) to the ‘kindly, harmless, grandfather’ figure that used to annoy him so much. In between, his politics and his career made somersaults and contradictory turns: there were certain themes that stayed with him throughout (like democracy, internationalism and peace) but there isn’t one, consistent, static Tony Benn, no matter how much the media and the right of our Party would like to fuel the myth.

On top of that, nearly all politicians have contested histories and politics – more so those whose careers span decades rather than years. Even Keir Hardie was appropriated as a Blairite hero, at one very bizarre point of our recent history. Bevan’s quote about the language of priorities being the religion of socialism is paraded around to justify all manner of political compromise. Once they are gone, their words and taken out of context so easily, that it’s hard to retrace the steps to find the real person and the real politics. Partly because of the great volumes of diaries he produced, I suspect this will happen less to Tony Benn himself, than with the political legacy he left: Bennism. Because the concept has become so elastic that it accounts for any practice; from the fight for democracy in the Labour Party, to ‘smoke and mirrors’ factionalising, from socialist internationalism to ‘pulling up the drawbridge’; from ‘a kinder, gentler politics’ to the ice pick. But for me, Bennism does have a core, and it has very little to do with politics itself, but instead the way we do politics. That’s what I learned from Tony.

That is not to say that Tony Benn’s politics in his heyday weren’t important, soundly socialist and expertly communicated. They were – but they weren’t especially different from much of the left around at the time, for instance Jeremy Corbyn or Audrey Wise. They were sound, but not spectacular. Unlike the Ken Livingstone of the 80s, who sought to create a new route out of the crisis faced by the left under Thatcherism, Benn instead tried to take us back, to the roots of the movement for our hope and our inspiration. So, perhaps not fundamentally a revolutionary political thinker. But there are important things other than policies, economic models and strategies – and they are about the process of politics: how we conduct ourselves, build our movements and interact with each other. Some no doubt consider this to be fluffy, new left nonsense, but if you listen carefully to Benn, its integral to his philosophy.

Also, as far as I’m concerned, it’s what Bennism is about, at it’s core. Not the alternative economic strategy, not the Euroscepticism, not even the workers’ control, important though all of those aspects were. No, to me, Tony taught us how to do our politics, which is the most valuable and inspirational legacy of all. For me there were five key aspects:

  1. Benn was a huge advocate of democracy, both within the Labour Party and wider society. He saw democracy as the real danger to entrenched, capitalist power, but importantly, he also advocated being a democrat in the way you practice your politics. Debate – and comradely disagreement – wasn’t a danger that needed to be silenced, it was to be encouraged and nurtured as the source of ideas which often sprang from the ‘boat-rockers’ rather than those with ostensible ‘power’.
  2. Alongside that belief in democracy, came a trust in people; a faith that people will come to the right conclusions of their own accord. The narrative of the “sheeple’ which has become so lazily commonplace in the age of social media would have been an anathema to Tony. People, no matter what their experience and what their background, should be treated with respect, not condescension.
  3. His practice also showed that he understood human psychology deeply. Tony Benn was possible the greatest story teller the party has ever known, not because of any rhetorical flourish, but mostly because he could tell the essence of a political situation in the simplest stories about human experience. I think the greatest example of this is his speech, on the occasion of Thatcher’s resignation, about the “socialist train”. What he was teaching us, before Bernie Sanders, was that to tell stories, to connect with people emotionally, is as important if not more, than the hard politics of policy.
  4. Tony Benn also taught us the vital importance of history – in particular, it is there that we find stories that inspire us and give us strength. His constant return to the Levellers, to Tolpuddle Martyrs and the Chartists wasn’t a coincidence: it was because they offered us simple, understandable emblems of solidarity. We have an enormous and catastrophic ability to overcomplicate what are very simple ideas on the left. Tony understood the currency and power of the simple narrative of “people power”, overcoming ‘David and Goliath’ odds and turning the world upside down.
  5. Finally, Tony Benn refused to be drawn into any sectarian battles. This isn’t to be confused with the ‘kinder, gentler’ politics we’ve heard so much of recently. Tony wasn’t above the odd faction fight, and he wasn’t naïve about the problems of the left. No doubt, like many of us, he became frustrated at the antics of smaller, factional groups – who often attacked him as vociferously as the likes of Kinnock and Blair. But he never allowed that battle to become a feature, he would always defend the right of people to organise freely and would defend them against witch hunts and purges. He didn’t do that out of a sense of charity, or goodwill, but because he recognised the existential damage that would be caused by going down this road.

For all these reasons, and many more, I miss Tony Benn hugely. To have a fully fit, sharp Tony Benn surveying the present political scene would be pretty bloody instructive. In my view, we have no one with that clear insight, that understanding of how the big picture works, how we relate to each other as socialist and activists – and that is desperately needed. But there’s little point in speculating about that for very long: he’s not here, that’s gone. But what we do have is a legacy, and a series of principles, left in YouTube clips of speeches, in his books, ‘Arguments for Socialism’ and ‘Arguments for Democracy’, and most of all, in the pages of his phenomenal diaries. If people could, on occasion, take a step back from the immediate chaos, intrigue and dirt of the political moment, and consider the legacy of Tony, of what Bennism at its best might look like, I reckon we’d be in a better place – and we might not miss him quite as much.

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Say what you mean and never wrestle with chimney sweep

I love this saying that Tony Benn used to dig out regularly:

Say what you mean

‘My dad said to me, say what you mean, mean what you say, do it if you have a chance and don’t attack people personally. I’ve found that a brilliant guide.’

It’s not just about saying whatever spills out of your brain, nor is it about being ‘nice as pie’ all the time. No, it’s about having the confidence to challenge people on their ideas, in the realm of politics, honestly, rather than passively aggressively attacking people in the shadows, behind their back. Come out, have a pride in your thoughts and ideas, state them clearly, be ready to be challenged – and admit when you’re wrong.

Mind you, Tony Benn’s dad also used to say:

Chimneysweep

“Never wrestle with a chimney sweep.”

What he meant was: if somebody plays dirty with you, don’t play dirty with them or you’ll get dirty too.

There’s a massive temptation to go to war against people who drag everything down to the personal and manoeuvre against you like some sort of modern Machiavelli. I’m always amazed at how people have the time for this, when there’s so much urgent campaigning and organising to do. Do they stay up 24 hours a day? Perhaps. Maybe they have problems sleeping at night…

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We are the union? 



It always worries me when I hear people talk about “the union” as if it was a separate entity from themselves as a union member. Sometimes this goes as far as an impression of the union as a brand almost, as if it was a company – or a service provider. I understand this feeling, because this is how
union hierarchies make us feel at the worst of times, but it’s entirely self-defeating in my view. Instead of empowering members to take control, it reinforces a dysfunctional relationship based on the servicing model of trade unionism. 

 
The servicing model is the idea that people only join a union for protection, be that legal or representative. The union provides services and “helps out” when paying members get into trouble. People only really have a relationship with “the union” (represented by full time staff, regional officials and local reps) when they have a problem. The real problem, however, is that it builds in a subservient relationship of members to officials: regionally, nationally and locally, the paid staff decide on campaigning priorities. And if they decide it’s too much of a problem, we don’t have any campaigning. 

 
Of course, every union member is going to want this individual support as part of their membership. But there is an alternative model, known as the “organising model”, which turns the subservient position of members under servicing on its head. In this model, workers and members declare “we are the union”. They take control, of branches, of campaigning, and crucially of organising branches, recruiting new members and getting the union out in the community. Thankfully, these ideas are getting stronger, month by month, and many unions – but not all – are twigging on that this is a much better relationship to have with your members. 

 
But if you are in a union, or a union region, which is still flogging the “servicing model”, nothing will change unless you take control over that relationship. That means getting involved, standing for positions and taking responsibility for your own union. Absenting yourself only benefits those who want to keep the status quo. The negativity of the top down view of unions is far more damaging for us than it is for them. It wasn’t so long ago that the vast majority of Labour Party socialists had that view of the party: as a brand, a faceless bureaucracy they could not change. It’s not true, and things can change – but they don’t change themselves.

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