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.

Standard

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.

 

Standard

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.

Standard

We can work it out, if we reject the comfort blanket

Image result for corbyn sanctuary pub

Forgetting the branding war for a minute, there are a number of serious discussions we need to have on the Labour (and broader) left. It starts with an acknowledgement of where Corbyn’s victory came from: it didn’t come as the result of years of patient building on the Labour left in the lead up to 2015. If it had, we may have had more of a foothold in the Labour Party as a whole. It came about as a result of a ‘perfect storm’: a disillusion with establishment politics, both within and without the party; the ineptitude of alternatives on the right of the party; a union movement battered by austerity and looking for a fightback and a fantastic campaign which had learnt the lessons of the activism of the post-2008 era, including social media, digital campaigning, phone banking and volunteer activism on the ground.

Simply put, we overreached in that summer of 2015. We had ourselves a leader, a shadow chancellor and a handful of Parliamentary supporters, but little else structurally. This was a massive failure of the Labour left: for years, a tiny minority within organisations like the LRC and CLPD had been urging them to look outwards, beyond Parliament, to build regionally and locally, online as well as in communities. It mostly fell on deaf ears. There were reasons for that, of course, but nevertheless it was a fact that the Labour left was not in a good place at the beginning of 2015.

But in politics, you don’t get to choose the cards that you are dealt: through a frantic summer, we built on these circumstances, turning the disadvantages into advantages – and quickly adapting to that ‘perfect storm’. The biggest advantage of all was the huge numbers of previously unaligned supporters and activists who came into the campaign through the social media route. At the end of that summer, the incredible success of the campaign fooled some into thinking that the job had been done. Others saw it as a time of consolidation, a time to end the ‘guerrilla war’, as one prominent member of Corbyn’s team said to me. I disagreed. If anything, outside of that office, we needed to ramp things up, because this was a huge game of catch up.

On that day in September 2015, as Corbyn was cheered in the Sanctuary pub by a small band who had been at the very heart of the operation, two tasks lay ahead of us; two things we needed to do with the leverage we’d built via the Corbyn campaign.

Firstly, we needed to change the Labour Party, nationally, regionally and locally. This wasn’t just about a changing of the guard: it was about changing the whole culture of the party: in terms of it’s attitude to campaigning; its groundedness in local communities; its structures and its openness to new members. The Labour Party (nationally, regionally and locally) needed to become democratic and grassroots – a huge task seeing as the whole trajectory of the party in the last two decades has been in exactly the opposite direction, with only a slight move forwards under Ed Miliband.

Secondly, if we were going to enable a situation where an explicitly socialist Labour Party could command a majority, we needed to shift the political debate in this country by a huge extent – not just in the media, or using alternative, social media platforms, but in practical ways that would transform the debate right from the national stage down to the micro level of local communities. This was the big one: it was going to be like turning around a tanker. You don’t go from the margins of the political debate on Labour’s backbenches to dictating the “common sense” in the country at large without an enormous, ambitious and radical political project. In effect, we needed to create a movement capable of changing our society, step by step, year on year. There was no guarantee that this would produce electoral rewards in the short term, but if we were serious about this project, there was little alternative in the long run.

Both these aspects were boosted by Corbyn’s victory, but the transformation of the Labour Party already had a base (LRC, Red Labour, CLPD) which needed to be expanded and improved. The expertise was there, in the most part, but with the help of a new activist base (developed by the Red Labour project and expanded during the leadership campaign), it was possible to create a more dynamic version post-September 2015. That needed less fanfare, and more patient work behind the scenes, as our friends in Progress had demonstrated over the Blair years. The second, more ambitious task of building a movement, based loosely on Corbyn’s politics and the radical potential that had been released by his victory, had been given a jump start by the huge numbers that had surged towards the Labour Party during the campaign, but also a secondary group who might not interested in joining the Labour Party, but who were listening to Jeremy and prepared to pull in the same direction. The key was to harness this support, which was coalescing around social media, in community campaigns and in the unions, and to give it coherence as a movement.

These two strands should have been the central organising focus for the Corbyn movement in the immediate aftermath of the leadership win. Instead we had this confusion, this muddle. It was unnecessary and strategically inept to think that both parts of the project needed to be branded under one name. That wasn’t recognising the complexity of the Corbyn movement or the drivers behind his election win. The chaos that we are now faced with is a natural consequence of that poor decision: now the horizons are considerably narrowed again – at precisely the time when the clock is ticking on both halves of the project. The battle for control over the Corbyn movement was entirely predictable, but ultimately, it’s self-defeating. But the answer isn’t to go into a shell, to run for our bunkers. It’s that clutching for the comfort blanket that we need to fight, because actually, that’s a total failure of ambition. Somehow, we’re going to have to work it out.

Standard

Don’t sweat the small stuff: Militant, Trotskyism and my advice from Tony Benn

Back in 1992, I wrote to Tony Benn. I was living in Leeds at the time and had just left the Militant Tendency. For me, at that age and in those circumstances, it was a big deal. The split between those who’d argued for staying in the Labour Party and those who thought the future lay outside had just taken place, but the rancour remained. I’d had enough of the whole thing. My experience of Trotskyist organisation had exhausted and disillusioned me, but still it was difficult. I was leaving many friends behind and all the things that I had thought were important.

tb1

I wrote to Tony to vent my spleen, essentially. I was bitter. I couldn’t work out what place Militant’s philosophy had in the party, and I was left with the feeling that Trotskyist groups could only be wreckers, living off the good work that the Labour Left (represented by the Campaign Group at the time) did. I wrote him a lengthy, somewhat pretentious letter. To my surprise, he responded straight away, not once but twice. I had met him only briefly, we had no relationship as such, but despite this, he took the time to give me some advice that it took me a little while to process, but keeps coming back to me.

In his first letter, he said:

“I think we’ll have to argue it out and if, as you believe – probably quite rightly – that the long term aims of Militant are not realistic, then we don’t really have to worry about what they are saying.”

tb2

In his follow up, handwritten letter, he said:

“…rank and file people sometimes join Militant out of despair with the party – and I am always in favour of contact across the whole spectrum of opinion in the party.”

tb3

Actually, the detail of what he said is less important than the general thrust, which was: stop worrying about what they are up to and focus on what you can do, what your contribution is and can be. Don’t sweat the small stuff.

It took me a long time to understand this. For years after leaving Militant, the minutiae of what they said seemed significant. Because the important thing about obsessing about Trotskyism or any other philosophy within the party or the left, and prioritising the defeat, organisationally or otherwise, of smaller groups within the Labour Party, isn’t what it does to them, it what it does to you and your politics. Once that becomes a focus, it’s both a poison (it paralyses positive organising approaches) and a repellant (to those not in the know, or those not interested).

There is a reason why people like Tony Benn, John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn have not devoted their lives to ‘clearing out’ Trotskyism or any other sectional group within the Labour left. It is because they recognise the corrosive effect on our own politics of that particular cul-de-sac.

Standard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Standard

Our representatives or managers of decline?

simon henig

Simon Henig is the leader of the Labour group on Durham County Council. He’s a pretty slick operator. After yesterday’s People’s Assembly protest at County Hall, where campaigners asked councillors to think again before voting through cuts that would further devastate communities and local services, he was quick with a prepared statement:

“The Government sets the general direction on spending and has been very clear since 2010 that they would make large public sector funding cuts. They set the level of funding that we receive and we have to operate within our budget. If we didn’t, it would not be a legal budget and decision-making would be taken away from local people and their elected representatives. The majority of savings we are making this year are coming from back office functions and we continue to try to safeguard frontline services as much as possible.”

Henig is fairly typical of a new breed of council leader, adept at deflecting blame. In a similar way to Nick Forbes at Newcastle, he comes across as a national politician playing a local game. You can imagine that if, for some inexplicable reason, he hadn’t made it to the top of the local tree, he would have given up a long time ago and become a very good business man or manager in a large corporation.

This is the post-Blair generation of local leader. It’s hard to fathom what their politics are. They say an awful lot about the Coalition Government. They seem to despise the Lib Dems for their “treachery”, but it’s not immediately apparent that this enmity has a political basis; rather it is the almost apolitical, akin to the tribal dislike of upstarts Manchester City by a “long standing” Manchester United fan. When you look at the modus operandi of Forbes, Henig and the like, they are actually very close to the Liberal Democrats, dutifully carrying out Tory cuts, telling everyone, whether they’re interested or not, that there is no alternative and engaging in the kind of doublespeak that says that you are safeguarding communities by cutting services.

Maybe we shouldn’t blame them. They are products of their society. They were brought up in the bosom of New Labour. Between 1997 and 2010, this was the way you behaved to get on in the party. Critics within the party were virtually non-existent and those on the outside could be dismissed easily as Trots or anarchists – certainly nothing to do with respectable, moderate Labour Party politics.  Nobody ever got on in New Labour by making a spectacle of themselves at a demonstration or hovering too close to a trade union banner. Activism was a probably always a bit of dirty word at this level of local politics. Apart from a few trade union activists, most councillors probably chose to stand, not as an extension of their political activism, but as responsible and respected members of their community.

At some point in this period, however, there emerged what you might call a more “aspirational councillor”. The aspiration was often transparently personal. Perhaps it was about laying a foundation for a political career, as an MP or a Special Advisor (SpAd). Maybe it was a strategically astute move for anyone who wanted to build a career for themselves in the myriad of quangos and organisations launched by the New Labour establishment. What it absolutely wasn’t about, however, was political conviction. That much is clear. These aspirational councillors were perfectly suited to the managerialism that dominated the local state from the early 1990s onwards. Politics would only intrude. Once they’d elevated themselves to a certain position within the council (via committee work, informal contacts and generally keeping their noses clean) the job then became about working closely with the paid and unelected officers – in particular the chief executives, who could offer advice and guidance on what would not be possible and what would be financially prudent.

However, the final piece of the jigsaw only came with the willing acceptance of their minor role by ordinary councillors, who deferred to the high flyers such as Forbes and Henig. It reminds me of that bit in ‘In the Loop’ where Simon realises that he was just “Meat in the Room”. So, essentially, the whole operation of the council (and our local democracy) becomes about what three or four powerful people think it should be. And as those people (to arrive in positions of power) have long given up an idea of political principles, what it becomes about is managing a corporation. In a time of austerity, it becomes about managing decline. If money is tight, you look at your margins, your labour costs, what is profitable and what is not (or “value for money” to use the public sector management jargon) and trim accordingly. These are what are commonly known as “tough choices”. Like some sort of sadomasochistic adrenalin junky, aspirational councillors feed off “tough choices”. It is how they earned their spurs in the corridors of power in the Civic Centre, County Hall or the Town Hall. More importantly, it is how they earned the respect of the chief executive.

To maintain power, the manager of decline must continue to persuade the ordinary councillor that these are the only choices. There aren’t any other “tough choices”, like setting an illegal budget, like increasing council tax above the threshold set by the government, like building community support for an alternative budget – all of these choices have to be kept beyond the remit of discussion, because they are not seen as real choices. They are helped in this by the fact that other councillors, though not aspirational in the same way, have still learnt their trade in an era marked by defeats – for the labour movement and for local democracy, helped by the dominance of New Labour. There are certainly a minority that have kept their links to local community groups, campaigns and trade unions, but they are overwhelmed by those councillors who see their roles in local, almost anti-political ways. In either case, almost all defer to the Cabinet and the leader.

Is the kind of local democracy we want? Can it, in fact, be called any kind of democracy at all? We vote, as local residents, for candidates who we expect to represent our communities first and foremost. Surely, to vote for cuts that take away a council-run leisure centre, a library or a public service for the vulnerable in that very community is a betrayal of that bargain – or at least merits an explanation better than the bland prescriptions given by Henig. They tell us that we are targeting the wrong people. Well, yes, as the People’s Assembly points out continuously, the ultimate blame lies fairly and squarely with the Coalition Government. We not only know this, but we are the ones out on the streets campaigning against that government almost every weekend – against the Bedroom Tax, tax avoidance by multinationals, workfare, zero hours contracts, the decimation of the NHS and the targeting of disabled people via ATOS. Rarely do we have a local councillor standing by our sides.

It is my view that the aspirational councillor – those “New Labour” councillors who have created a whole political class at a local level – all powerful, yet absolutely divorced from communities, have outlived their usefulness. They seemed all modern, in their shiny suits in the nineties and early noughties, but since the 2008 crash and the subsequent recession, they’re neither use nor ornament. They seem strangely antiquated in the changed circumstances we now live in, framed by austerity and the continuous fight to save our welfare state, our jobs and our communities. We need to reinvent what being a councillor means. Maybe we can reinvent an “activist councillor” to take the place of the aspirational councillor. Like the previous incarnation, perhaps the new breed of activist councillors could drag a few of the old guard (the swing voters if you like) along with them and turn them into half decent representatives of their community too. An activist councillor would be in amongst their community every day. They would fight tooth and nail for it. They would be on the side of the protestors rather than sneering at them as they passed them. They would organise protests, maybe even occupy stuff, but certainly be at the heart of community alliances and radical activity – in between the boring council business of course.  The activist councillor would be independent minded, would take their representative role seriously and be held accountable for every single decision they made. Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? But is it? If we want to save local democracy, to make people believe in it again, shouldn’t we be trying to change the culture which has created the Nick Forbes’ and Simon Henig’s of this world?

The alternative? Actually, it’s even more ridiculous – but it’s becoming a reality as we speak, right in front of our eyes. It’s effectively to give over the running of our local state to unelected officials – managers who will outsource its functions to private companies giving “value for money” until, well…there’s nothing left.

Standard