Three years ago, everything changed: 12th September 2015

sept 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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No one gets to call me a racist.

Soweto-uprising-callout-Guardian

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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