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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What does ‘representation’ actually mean, anyway?

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One of the broader issues raised by Laura Pidcock’s comments about not befriending Tory MPs is that it’s clear that many people just don’t get representative democracy. This has also come up over Brexit. I don’t think it’s people’s own fault, but a symptom of the bland, centrist politics encouraged by our political establishment (including New Labour) for many years, which is now getting a big kick up the arse by a more combative politics represented by the 2015-17 intake of Labour MPs and a more polarised political culture.

Because of that polarisation currently happening, the idea of representation is now back on the agenda. How do our MPs actually represent us? But because of the almost depoliticised atmosphere generated by the middle in British politics, confusion reigns – about what party politics means and how our representatives do their jobs.

Three things feature.

Firstly, people see Parliament (or rather, the corridors of power at Westminster) as the arena where policy is “thrashed out”, or negotiated. They often compare it to a work place. So, of course, the story goes, you need to view your fellow MPs as “work colleagues”. What sort of person would seek constant argument and confrontation at work? This idea connects very strongly with liberal, British, middle class sensibilities: that the project, in life and in politics, is to seek compromise, and work towards the best outcome – which will always be the moderate outcome.

But Parliament isn’t a workplace, not in that sense. It’s is an arena, sure, but a place where competing ideologies, mandates and political manifestos are represented. The really clever move by the centrist politicians who have dominated over the last 20 years or so was to hide that fact and present it as common sense. The result was that private financial interests, the backbone of those centrist politics, were represented very well, thank you. Post-2008, and in the era of Bernie and Corbyn, that clearly does not wash any more.

Secondly, and related, there is this idea that politicians are there to represent the views, very directly, of their constituents. This is a bit more of a tricky one, because in some senses it’s true. MPs do represent every one of their constituents. They can’t, realistically, select only those who voted for them to represent. But it very much depends on what you mean by “represent”. If that means the MP taking on, uncritically, the majority view of their constituency on every matter, then no. That would be an entirely different model of democracy (and practically, would have to depend on referenda on each of those issues to ensure accuracy).

Representative party democracy works in a very different way. A candidate in an election, stands on a policy platform, ideally presented in a clear manifesto, but also by what they say during the campaign. A party candidate stands under that party name, associated with a set of policies. Their job is to explain those policies to the electorate during the election campaign. If enough people trust what they say and enough people put a cross a cross next to their name, that candidate becomes the MP – on that programme. That’s the deal.

The idea that MPs are there just to uncritically reflect every individual issue in the constituency is wrong. That’s not representative democracy. No MP in the history of Parliament has ever done that. A Labour MP, voted in on a clear Labour manifesto, needs combine that policy programme with the interests of their constituents the best they can. Ultimately, they will be judged on how well they do that at the next General Election, when everyone gets the chance to vote them in / out again.

Thirdly, and again linked, is a real misunderstanding of the function of parties. I remember sitting in a local pub a few months ago with a bunch of Labour socialists. We were talking about getting our message out through social media, when we noticed a guy listening in. He was clearly itching to say something. He told us that he was appalled by what we were saying, and that somehow we were ‘manipulating’ ordinary people, who should just be left alone to “make their own minds up”.

Apart from the very obvious point about the influence of the media, it struck me that this is symptomatic of the way many people see politics, that they are a little frightened of what they see as “confrontational” politics, based around ideology. Again, some if this has been fostered by the anti-politics of New Labour (at a national and local level), but also by a suspicion of political ideas generally. This hasn’t always been the case. Both the Winter of Discontent and the Thatcherism which followed brought to the fore a more combative, working class grassroots politics, but it was muffled by Kinnock and Blair. I think the rise of Corbyn and the movements around him is changing this, but we still have a long way to go.

So, when Laura Pidcock comes into Parliament and says that she is there to represent her community and her class, not play Parliamentary games; when she declares that she will not give the Tories a moment to breathe, she’s not only coming up against the sneering of the right-wing establishment, but a more general cynicism about politics: that somehow there’s something inherently suspicious about someone who has a clear ideological standpoint. The former is to be expected, and welcomed. It’s good that the Tories and their chums in the media are upset. The latter is our real challenge.

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#Torygate: ten things that Laura Pidcock didn’t say, and five that she did.

When Laura Pidcock said, quite casually, in an interview with Skwawkbox, that she had “no intention” of being friends with Tory MPs – the same MPs she’d witnessed cheering welfare cuts over the summer – she was castigated in the mainstream media, on social media accounts belonging to political commentators from the liberal left to the hard right. Not just once, but relentlessly, for weeks and months. The ferocity of the attacks, and the wild misrepresentation of her words, was a bit of a shock – especially when directed at an MP of just a couple of month’s standing. But it shouldn’t have been: because the political-media nexus which dominates Parliament cannot allow a challenge, not when they’re this insecure and frightened. The slippage from the specific point about the cosy Westminster club to an attack on all Tory voters, on women, on people’s family members, was all very deliberate – a brazen attempt to twist a perfectly natural reaction to entrenched power into something sinister, aggressive and threatening. It has been a brilliant case study of how the political establishment protects its own. Thank you for the lesson, friends and comrades, it’s been most educational. But to set the record straight, here are ten things that Laura Pidcock has never said, and five that she did. Just so we’re clear.

1. “I despise the 40% of the population who voted Conservative at the last General Election.”

The first thing to say, on a point of accuracy, is that 40% of the British population did not vote Conservative on June the 8th 2017. If you take those eligible to vote, only 29% voted Conservative. If you take the British population as a whole, it is 21%. However – and this is the important point – Laura never said she despised anyone, never mind the Conservative voting public. Not 40%, not 29% nor 21%. Never said it. It would take something to have been gone through a selection process, a hard election campaign, get down to Parliament and give a large slice of your potential electorate the middle finger. Sounds ridiculous? That’s because it is.

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2. “I hate Tories, viscerally”

Laura’s comments have been carefully and skilfully conflated with some moral outrage over the so-called “politics of hate”. It’s a model of media and political spin. Normally this “hatred” is deliberately confused with some fairly robust criticism of the Tory government from activists who are on the sharp end of Tory cuts, but occasionally it does stray into pure bile. No doubt this is not helpful, no matter how understandable it is. But let’s just be clear: none of those things have come from Laura, though the press (liberal and hard right) have had a pretty good go and making that one stick.

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3. “I think the Tories are evil.”

People have the right to employ quasi-religious labels to describe their political enemies, rather than discuss structural inequality, policy and the ideological trajectory of the Tory Party. But Laura never did. In his extraordinarily offensive article in the Times, where he tortuously tried to link Laura’s words to the Stasi, Daniel Finkelstein deliberately blurred those lines by complaining: “it’s never nice to be thought evil by someone.”. The problem being that Laura never did call Danny or anyone else “evil”. Again, this is another attempt to muddy the waters of what was said to nail a new MP. It’s totally transparent and pretty reprehensible.

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4. “I will not represent Tory voters in my constituency.

This is the most pernicious slippage that we’ve seen: because it calls into question Laura’s professionalism, not to mention political judgement. 16,000 people voted Conservative in North West Durham in June. No matter what we might think of that, an MP has a binding duty to represent those constituents. Not to agree with them, but to listen, to communicate with them and to take up case work on their behalf. As an MP, Laura has never even suggested that she would vet constituents before representing them. Categorically.

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5. “I won’t speak to a Tory MP.”

Not speaking to fellow MPs would not only be immature, but make Laura’s job very hard indeed. This includes sharing a joke, smiling, being polite to MPs on the other side of the House.  All of these things are separate from being “friends”, unless you have a very superficial view of friendship. So the next time she is pictured talking to a Tory, or asking a question of David Gauke, or taking part in an all-party group or select committee, this is not “hypocrisy”. Because she never said it.

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6. “It’s not ok to be friends with a Tory”

In the wake of Laura’s comments, the liberal press in particular was full of hand-wringing articles about whether it was ok to be friends with a Tory. It was good click-baity, media fodder, but pretty irrelevant to the context of saying that you wouldn’t spend your time in Parliament socialising with Tory MPs. I don’t know if anyone has realised, but Parliament is not a normal workplace, nor cultural space. Your Tory-voting mate, uncle or gran hasn’t been spending the last 7 years forcing through austerity, sanctions, the Bedroom Tax, Universal Credit & the Trade Union Bill. Surprisingly, Laura Pidcock, Labour MP for North West Durham, has no opinion on who you socialise with. In fact, during the interview with Emma Barnett on Radio 5, Laura revealed that she has a Tory-voting aunt whom she loves a lot. People who were surprised had completely missed the point.

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7. “It’s not ok to kiss a Tory”

In one of the most astonishing spinning exercises known to humankind, I spotted a well-shared tweet of a picture of two men kissing at Manchester Pride, with Laura tagged in. What made it worse, was that it seemed to be coming from a Labour account (albeit a prominent Progressite). On what level of liberal logic would someone not wanting to spend their social time with Tories in Parliament (the vast majority of whom have done everything they can to block equality legislation over decades), equate to stopping two gay men snog over the political divide? The inference was clear, but it was pure bullshit

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8. “Screw the kinder, gentler politics.”

Many political commentators tried to tie what Laura said to the disintegration of Jeremy Corbyn’s call for a “kinder, gentler politics”. Firstly, some of this has been subject to slippage in the first place: a deliberate misunderstanding of what he meant. It wasn’t about the continuation of the Blairite mush in the middle, of consensus politics made in Westminster, without much reference at all to the world outside that bubble. It was about respect, not making bitter, personal attacks and a focus on policy. What it categorically can’t be about is letting Tory MPs off the hook for those policies which have destroyed so many lives and communities. Unless Jeremy became a liberal while no one was looking. Anyone who has met Laura personally will know that she is one of the most courteous, friendly and respectful people around. She just doesn’t want to booze with Tory MPs. Deal with it.

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9. “Tory women are my enemy”

Again, it’s important firstly to establish where the conflation is happening here. A clear-cut context, talking about Tory women MPs specifically, and their culpability for the cuts they have voted through, promoted and cheered, is misreported, time and time again, as describing all Tory women. That enables the liberal and hard right press to portray Laura as an “anti-feminist” (with dollops of hard left / Corbynista ice cream from the likes of Guido Fawkes, of course). A further confusion is added by rolling in the personal angle, when Laura had clearly been describing these Tory MPs as her ideological enemy. But in fact, she was making a political point: that she wouldn’t be doing her representative job if she didn’t view them as ideological enemies. Turn it on it’s head: Tories who’ve inflicted such misery on North West Durham are my ideological friends. Really?

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10. “I won’t ever work with politicians from other parties”

Lots of things are going on here. Firstly, an MP will always seek to work collaboratively. In collecting signatures for the Universal Credit letter to Gauke, Laura sought the support of Tory MPs whose constituencies were affected by the rollout. None responded positively, and this was before #Torygate kicked off in earnest. But what this is really about is alternative theories of power. Many people within the Westminster bubble, across the political spectrum, still believe that the real business of politics is done at Parliament, by persuading MPs from opposing parties that your view is just and moral, thrashing out a deal. There is another view of power: that it lies in building and organising our movement, our unions, our communities and expressing that power through representation and government. It is the difference between enacting the manifesto, and Labour Party policy decided at conference, and the “middle way” designed in the private rooms of Westminster by New Labour. Laura Pidcock has firmly nailed her colours to the mast. And that’s why she is being hammered.

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Five things that Laura Pidcock did say:

1. [talking of her women Labour MP colleagues]: “We have a WhatsApp group! They’re all really supportive, answering questions about anything from procedure to women’s issues.” She wouldn’t, however, “hang out with Tory women” who she tells me are “no friends of mine” and “an enemy to lots of women”. Article: http://www.refinery29.uk/2017/08/167058/female-mps-2017

2. [again, talking about Tory MPs]: “Whatever type they are, I have absolutely no intention of being friends with any of them. I have friends I choose to spend time with. I go to parliament to be a mouthpiece for my constituents and class – I’m not interested in chatting on.” Article: http://skwawkbox.org/2017/08/11/one-of-labours-new-rising-stars-talks-class-westminster-and-the-enemy/

3. [talking about the Government] “I feel disgusted at the way they’re running this country, it’s visceral – I’m not interested in being cosy. I hate those Tory questions that start with ‘Does the PM agree with me..?’ – when one Tory MP stood up and asked one I told him I think those questions are disgraceful. His response was ‘you mustn’t be a very good MP‘!” (article above)

4. [talking about the Government]; “The idea that they’re not the enemy is simply delusional when you see the effect they have on people – a nation where lots of people live in a constant state of fear whether they even have enough to eat.” (article above)

5. [in response to initial outrage being generated by the comments above]; “Just to be clear, I represent everyone regardless of who they voted for. I don’t ask and don’t care who people voted for if they need help from us, they will get it. I have reached out to the Tory MPs several times already and also asked them to sign my letter asking for a pause to Universal Credit, no response. Of course I will work with a Tory if it is going to benefit the people in my constituency, my point was that I have no intention of being their friends. We are ideological opponents. It would be disingenuous to suggest I can happily sit there and have light hearted chats with people who are ambivalent to the suffering of my constituents, any relationship is purely functional.”

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And that’s the point. Laura Pidcock, just like Jeremy Corbyn, is more than happy to defend what she actually said. It would be pretty dishonest not to, wouldn’t it? If you check the interviews since #Torygate, you’ll see that she hasn’t once backed away from what she said or what she believes. But what we should never accept are the blatant lies, slippages and spin of Tory MPs, their chums in the media and their cheerleaders on social media – it’s a form of bullying. Not particularly sophisticated or clever, but an intolerance based on privilege. If we’re going to change British politics, we are going to have to confront that establishment power – to look it in the face and tell it to screw itself. To do otherwise is to take a step back towards New Labour and defeatism, and we’re better than that.

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85 year old Ray Thompson: I have not brought the Labour Party into disrepute

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Guest post by Ray Thompson, of North West Durham Constituency Labour Party. Ray has been informed that he is being investigated by the Labour Party for comments made on social media and in leaflets that he has distributed, specifically about the Teaching Assistant dispute. For details of Ray’s notice of investigation, see here. This is a letter Ray has written to the Unison County Durham Local Government branch, where he is an honorary life member, asking for assistance:

“Dear Branch Secretary,

Request for Legal Advice or Assistance

I am an Honorary Life Member of Unison and a member of the NW Durham Labour Party. I have received a letter from Labour Party head office notifying me that I am being investigated following allegations that I have brought the Labour Party into disrepute. The letter does not identify who made the allegations. I have had an email from a Mr Westerman, the LP investigating officer asking me to take part in a telephone interview with him to discuss the allegations. I have informed Mr Westerman that I am not prepared to take part in such an interview until I have obtained legal advice on the matter. I am also angry that I am apparently expected to co- operate in an investigation into allegations made against me by anonymous people, although I have not made that point to Mr Westerman. The letter from LP head office also contained a dossier of seventeen items written by me which had been compiled from social media and leaflets I have published.
As an Honorary member I am asking the Durham branch to arrange legal assistance for me on this matter.

I am now eighty five and have been an active and dedicated trade-unionist all my working life. For ten years I was Works Convenor at the Consett Iron Works. Following the closure of those works I worked at Derwentside College at Consett and was the NUPE branch secretary there for eight years. When NALGO and NUPE combined to become Unison I was elected to be the first Chairman of the current Unison County Durham branch. When I retired in 1996 your branch nominated me to be an Honorary Life Member of Unison and I treasure the framed Certificate of Membership signed by Rodney Bickerstaff.

Durham Unison branch also voted to nominate me for the TUC ‘Gold Medal’ for my services to the trade union movement. I declined the offer because at that time I felt a TUC ‘ Gold Medal’ meant very little from a TUC which had utterly failed to stand up for the miners in their struggle. I wrote and thanked the branch explaining my decision and sincerely stated that the branch’s nomination of me for the medal was of more honour and value to me than the medal.

I enclose a copy of the Labour Party ‘investigation’ letter and hope the branch will support me on this matter. I will also send the branch copies of all the ‘evidence’ in the dossier which has been compiled. I trust the branch will note that in every case I have put my name to my comments, unlike whoever has made the anonymous allegation against me. I am not afraid to speak the truth as I see it and I am always prepared to be accountable for it.

The working people of this country desperately need a Labour Party whose MPs and Councillors can be respected and trusted and can be voted for with confidence. Not those who are perceived to be there for their own benefit and expect Party members to be part of a ‘conspiracy of silence’ to cover up their wrongdoings. I will not do that.

I have not brought the Labour Party into disrepute – I have merely brought to public attention others who have done that.

Although whoever made the allegation is shamefully hidden, there is no doubt that many voters in County Durham will be convinced, rightly or wrongly, that Durham Labour Councillors are behind it. If the local or national Press take an interest in this story that would certainly damage their prospects in the forthcoming local elections.

Thank you all, yours fraternally,

Ray Thompson”

Letter of investigation:

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Ken Livingstone: the tangled web

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Do I think Ken Livingstone is an anti-Semite? No.

Is that important? Yes.

Do I think his unsolicited defence of Naz Shah was necessary or clever? Absolutely not.

Are elements of the Labour right exploiting those comments for cynical, factional gain? Yup.

Are those attacks also aimed at Corbyn’s leadership? Erm, yes – of course.

Was that predictable? Pretty much.

Do we need further conspiracy theories, involving racist or anti-Semitic tropes? No.

Is everyone who is defending Ken guilty of that? No.

Is Ken the only politician with an addiction to headlines? No.

Do I think that his comments about Hitler and Zionism were well judged, a valuable contribution to the debate? No.

Would that be the case whether they were historically accurate or not? Yes.

Have other politicians made similarly crass interventions? Yes.

Have they all been the subject of disciplinary investigations and a high-profile media hounding? No.

Does that make Ken beyond criticism? No.

Would it have been easier if Ken had apologised? I reckon so.

Was that ever likely? No.

Does that mean that he should be expelled? No.

Does the Livingstone scenario stop us from talking about Israel’s flouting of international law, treatment of the Palestinian people, illegal settlements and killing of civilians? No.

Does that discussion need to be wrapped up in the type of language that David Icke would be proud of? No.

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Daniel Kebede: solidarity to the Durham TAs (speech to the #TAsMarchOn Rally 25/3/17)

Guest post by Daniel Kebede of the NUT (speech to Durham Teaching Assistants Rally, 25th March 2017):

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My name is Daniel Kebede and I’m a teacher in North Tyneside. I teach within a school for children with social emotional and behavioural difficulties. It’s a challenging environment. We teach mainly white working class boys all of whom have been permanently removed from a mainstream setting. None of our children come from private schools or posh estates, none have had an easy start to their lives, I’m yet to come across a Tarquin or Wigbert…. but I love it.

I’d like to start by thanking the Lions of Durham for inviting me to speak here today. As a rank and file teacher and NUT activist it is a real honour. I am the assistant branch secretary of North Tyneside NUT and I am proud that we are here today. North Tyneside NUT supports your struggle unconditionally. Not only do you have the support of North Tyneside NUT and NUT activists in our region, but I am pleased to be joined on this platform by my General Secretary, Kevin Courtney. What is clear, is from the root to the fruit, the National Union of Teachers, stands in solidarity with the Durham TAs.

I’d like to tell you about someone called Pauline. She has 100 different tasks to do a day. She does the morning toast, she takes care of any tears, she deals with extreme behaviours and that is just the tip of the iceberg. She has a workload that can sometimes feels like it never ends, but she has one job. She is a teaching assistant. She is the teaching assistant in our classroom and my job would not be possible without her. The bond we have is special as we both know what we each us goes through everyday, trying to provide the best with for our children in a climate of continuing government cuts. Her job is far from easy, the financial rewards are not enough her salary is already too little. But I value her. And if she was to go on the strike, like the teaching assistants in this county, well I wouldn’t cross her picket….. for starters she’d kick my arse. I know the fire of our Pauline. And if there is one thing, that Durham County Council have underestimated, it is the fire of the Durham Lions.

Because let us be really clear, this dispute… as so many have been before, is underpinned by the devaluation of a woman’s work. This predominantly female workforce, who have already had their labour undersold are being SOLD OUT. Not because what they do is not highly skilled, nor without risk or responsibility but because there is a system which normalises their devaluation. And what we have seen throughout history is that where there is no resistance the gravest of injustices occur. I imagine for Durham County Council subservience and submissiveness was what was expected as a response to these changes, that they could have been nodded through with little or no noise. Well Simon Henig and Alan Napier you’ve bitten off more than you can chew.

The decision of Durham County Council to attack already low paid women workers, cuts of 23% and thousands of pounds a year, must be continued to be resisted. This dispute will go down in history, like dispute of Jayaben Desai and the striking Sari’s of Grunwick. It will go down in history like the striking sewing machinists of Ford Dagenham. It will go down in history, with only one outcome. Victory for the Durham TA’s.

So my message to Durham County Council is this. End the uncertainty. End the 18 months of worry and pain that is being forced upon these workers and return with a deal of fair pay. Because there is no excuse for these cuts, these cuts are a political choice.

The Durham Lions, you are the essence of resistance. You strike fear into the men in suits, the policy makers who don’t only want to attack you, but want to attack us all. Our schools are being privatised, not only because the rich don’t pay their taxes, not only because businesses see a way of making profits from education. But because privatisation means replacing comprehensive education with selection and elitism. With their grammar schools, they hope to teach us that we aren’t entitled to a decent education, we aren’t entitled to share in the same fruits or eat from the same plate. But they’ve got it wrong. Because there’s a fight back and it is being led by you. So, when you win we all win. But it’s important to remember, we can all be lions. Teaching Assistants, teachers, doctors, nurses, firefighters working people up and down this country, have a shared struggle. And it is when we stand our power multiplies.

I started this speech by saying thank you and I want to finish it by saying thank you. Thank you, the Lions of Durham for leading the fight back in education. Thank you for inspiring others to stand up and say no to employers who seek to extract the maximum productivity for the minimum cost. Thank you for fighting on behalf of our class, on behalf of all working people who are being brutalised by a government and economic system that benefits the few and not the many.

To the County Durham Teaching assistants thank you for your strength, for your power and for solidarity.”

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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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