“Covert Human Intelligence” in Brixton, 20 October 1990.

Like thousands of socialists, I spent the 31st March 1990 marching through London in protest at the Poll Tax introduced by the Thatcher Government. It began with a carnival atmosphere and ended up with police horses charging through Trafalgar Square, seemingly oblivious to the bodies being trampled underneath. Me, I ran from the scene, with my then girlfriend, up towards the relative safety of Kings Cross, where I was staying at my sisters. But that’s not the story I want to tell.

That day, over three hundred activists and protesters were arrested on the day for their part in that so-called “riot”. Subsequent footage showed that in many cases, it was the police who attacked marchers, before any retaliatory violence from those gathered in Trafalgar Square. Many of those arrested were taken to Brixton Prison while awaiting trial.

In October of that year, over 20,000 protestors gathered in Brockwell Park and marched up Brixton Hill to the prison, loudly demanding the release of the Trafalgar Square prisoners, but with little hint of the trouble to come. I was part of the group that arrived first at HMP Brixton and I found myself right up against the police. What I saw then has stuck in my mind and informed my view of the policing of demonstrations and the role of covert operations. There’s something about seeing things for yourself, up close.

What I saw was a non-descript van pull up alongside the police and out of it poured 8-10 men, in normal clothes – denims and parka jackets, who then blended into the crowd. I saw with my own eyes that they were clearly carrying things – weapons, what looked like stones, bricks and bottles. The police seemingly did nothing to intercept this group and within seconds, they had started to throw these missiles into the crowd of 30 or so police who were gathered outside the prison. I was convinced at the time that these were provocateurs and nothing has convinced me otherwise since.

Scuffles broke out, the police charged and used their batons to hit protestors at random. After some push and pull, the existing police lines were joined by more police coming from vans stationed at the top of the hill. Once again, I found myself having to run. I sprinted down the hill, aiming for the tube. I was hit by a police baton – not hard, but enough to knock me off balance and into a street stall. I picked myself up and tried to apologise to the stall owner. I ran and ran until I was lost, but out of the area.

Later, I watched the news describing another Poll Tax demonstration ending in violence and another contextless series of images showing protestors fighting with the police. Even at that age – I was 18 – I knew this went on, that agent provocateurs peppered organisations, campaigns and demos, but it’s one thing knowing in theory, it’s another seeing it in practice. And of course, watching the final “product” for the news media is a salutary experience.

I was thinking of this incident while the debate was raging about the Covert Human Intelligence Sources (CHIS) Bill this week. I know this is small beer compared to the vast numbers of crimes, abuses and injustices that have been committed by the state, or with the collusion of state agencies, in the name of security over the last half decade, both on the British mainland and the island of Ireland, but the sheer mundanity of those men, piling out of that van to create a riot that may never have happened, is symbolic of something deeper, for me.

When you think of the murder of Pat Finucane and the many people waiting for justice in Norther Ireland, the carefully orchestrated attacks on miners at Orgreave, the cover-ups over Hillsborough and countless historical child abuses in detention centres such as Medomsley on my doorstep here in Durham, what is missing is two-fold: first, any morality. Nothing, and I mean nothing, is beyond bounds. Secondly, accountability – and by that I don’t mean self-policing, but genuine, open, democratic accountability, with human rights and justice at its heart. In my view, that should have been the subject of the debate this week, not optics.

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‘You can’t change anything unless you’re in Government’

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‘You can’t change anything unless you’re in Government’ they say, and mostly it goes without challenge, because none of us socialists want to be accused of the greatest sin of all: not wanting power – the power to change people’s lives and especially those suffering.

This was the same mantra used by Neil Kinnock and co, preparing the ground for the New Labour era. And while it’s an understandable reaction to multiple election defeats and particularly those as devastating as the ones we suffered in both 1983 and 2019, we need to drill down to get to the root of this. Because it’s based on a false idea of what power is.

The idea that you can only change things in government is demonstrated as false every day: for an example, trade unions change things every time they win a dispute; community activists when they stop something that would damage their communities; anti-racists change things when they stop fascists from marching unopposed; educators change lives when they open people’s eyes to their racist assumptions; lawyers win victories and set precedents, welfare rights workers too. I could go on.

If power was only about what happened in government, most of the significant change that has happened in this country over centuries would never have happened. The suffragettes, the Match Girls Strike, the anti-racist mobilisations of the 70s are examples of when extraordinary, lasting change has begun with a handful of activists, but gone on to shift the perceptions of society and power in our workplaces and communities.

Power is about leverage, and all those struggles created leverage, whether that was through direct action, capturing headlines or organising hundreds of thousands to pressurise the establishment and their privilege. But one thing is sure: immense, historic change has happened in this country without a Labour or progressive government being in Westminster. Only the most superficial analysis would deny that.

The Labour Party has, at various moments of it’s history, either been at the heart of those sorts of struggles, or stood apart. The history of the party has been the history of the relationship to those movements and campaigns and that positioning has often depended on which wing of the party, left or right, has been dominant. But, throughout it’s history, ordinary Labour activists have always been involved in extra-parliamentary campaigns and struggles (again, dependant on the forces in party, in small groups or mass movements).

This is where it gets tricky, of course. That relationship, that split between government and a broader concept of ‘power’ is deeply political. When Labour has had legislative power, it has often used it in a ‘top down’ way. Even the reforming 1945, which did such radical things for the country, had a pretty paternalistic bent. Labour’s job was to ‘do things’ for the voting public, who would reciprocate at the ballot box.

So, not only is ‘You can’t change anything unless you’re in Government’ a false dichotomy based on a superficial understanding of power, it also seems to be code for something else: for a politics that does things to people, for the voting public, rather than alongside them. Whilst this is always going to be a balancing act – and no one can deny the importance of what that 1945 Labour Government achieved (or even, to a lesser degree, the achievements of New Labour), it was based on a different idea of power, one that may not be suited to our situation in 2020, where deference to the state and to politicians is all but gone and where the crisis we’re in demands more community-based solutions.

Being generous, you could say that ‘You can’t change anything unless you’re in Government’ is a frustrated reaction to the inability of us, all of us, to translate those extra-parliamentary struggles and the values that go with it, into legislation. It’s undoubtedly a tragedy that many of our radical ideas and plans, that would have helped millions very practically, will now stay on the shelf, while the Tories wreck our economy, communities and people’s lives.

There may also be a frustration about our inability to communicate that radicalism into a language and a programme that connects with people, when they are assaulted by the propaganda of the press and media. Communication matters. This is a serious issue, but it is also something that we need to fix before we can get another chance at a socialist government. There isn’t a shortcut to government in ignoring the dominance of the media in shaping people’s politics, hoping that we’ll somehow slip into power unnoticed.

Being cynical however, you could say that ‘You can’t change anything unless you’re in Government’ is code for something else too: a pitch to water down our socialism and to chase public opinion, purely in order to get into ‘power’ – meaning Government. This was certainly Kinnock’s pitch, carried out by Blair. And to a certain extent it was successful: Sure Start, the minimum wage, investment in the NHS and schools, all changed people’s lives. But what it didn’t do is to harness the power of a whole movement to radically transform the country. It didn’t fundamentally win hearts and minds, or reverse much of the Thatcherite consensus, because that’s not what it was set up to do.

Post-2008, with a climate emergency on our doorstep; the far right on the march (both in government and in ‘power’ across the globe); with a crumbling NHS and education service, at threat from privatising vultures; with a welfare state that is broken, we don’t have the luxury of just ‘getting into Government’ on the basis of bending our socialist principles and following the crowd. To do so would be disastrous and it simply wouldn’t work in this political environment. We need to lead.

Leading means not being satisfied with glib phrases about ‘getting into Government’, with little substance. It’s not about rejecting the notion of legislative power, as we are often caricatured as doing on the left, but instead it means understanding how to build real power, away from the centre and the establishment, in communities, alongside our unions, in order to take it back in there. Thats a strategy more appropriate for our times, than harking back to an era which is gone.

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You wouldn’t let it lie! Workers’ Memorial Day and the Right to Protest, again

This post is partly a follow up a previous one posted on the People’s Bookshop blog just about a year ago, which was itself a reaction to some pretty cack-handed officialdom in the run up to last years Workers Memorial Day event in Stanley Crook, County Durham. For the background, see the article here.

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Once again, as Workers Memorial Day approaches, Durham Police and Durham County Council have managed to create a controversy where none existed. Veteran trade unionists in Durham will recall how the joint trades councils in the county have organised a Workers Memorial Day (WMD) march in Stanley Crook for several years without incident or problem – either from the authorities or from the village itself. The County Durham commemoration of WMD is held in Stanley Crook partly in recognition of St Thomas’ Church’s commitment to the event (the church also has a Workers Memorial window). The march and service has become a tradition which brings trade unionists and their banners to the quiet County Durham village to pay tribute to those men and women who have died in the course of their work, as well as highlight the dilution of health and safety legislation and the continued cuts to the Health and Safety inspections budget which sadly means that more deaths are likely to happen in 2013 and beyond. The message of the day is very firmly: ‘mourn the dead & fight for the living’. The event has recently involved Families Against Corporate Killers (F.A.C.K) who campaign to stop workers and others being killed in preventable incidents and direct bereaved families to sources of legal help and emotional support.

Suddenly, after years of untroubled and peaceful events, last year the police said that marchers would be arrested if they carried their banners through the village (even if they walked on the pavement). The council said that the organisers had to apply for the a road closure at a potential cost of £3500. Obviously, the trades council (County Durham Trades Union Council has recently been formed from several smaller trades councils in the county) simply doesn’t have that kind of money. Far more importantly, though, the process of road closures essentially entails being fleeced by a private company – and this for a road closure in a quiet village that welcomes the marchers and the memorial event.

This year, the police have not intervened directly, but the Safety Advisory Group (SAG), consisting of Durham County Council and Durham Police, have said that the organisers are “liable if anything goes wrong at the event”. Again, they have suggested road closures as the solution – at a princely sum, of course. Linda Whelan, spokesperson for F.A.C.K and  a brave campaigner whose son died in a tragic accident in 2002, has been told that she is liable. For the story, see this article in the Northern Echo:

Willington mother warned she will be liable if anything goes wrong on Stanley Crook memorial march

This is a new and worrying turn of events. However, it’s not just isolated to County Durham. In the North East, we are constantly hearing of new financial charges made on protestors and the organisers of labour movement events. All over the country, marchers are being asked to fund road closures (no matter how small the march or how cash poor the organisation). Mostly, these safety measures or “services” are not provided directly by the council, but by private companies – whose primary aim is profit.

wmd1xWhether it is deliberately designed to prevent protest is a moot point – the fact is that this “privatisation” of protest security has the effect of making peaceful protest (or in this case a memorial march and service) more difficult and potentially prohibitively expensive. The result is the same. If you want to have a say, it’s going to cost you. Are we to accept this? That is surely a very good question, not just for the trade union movement, but for our communities.

Some thoughts in conclusion: firstly, we have just spent an estimated £10 million on the funeral of a woman who decimated industry in the North East and who was reviled for her all out assault on the conditions of all but the most cherished workers in the country, including the health and safety regulations which save people’s lives.  Over the last few weeks, we have heard a lot of hectoring from those in power about the need to respect the dead. How does that square with washing your hands of the WMD event and telling the likes of Linda Whelan that she is responsible if anything “goes wrong”? More widely, we hear a lot of talk from both the police and the County Council about community engagement, listening to people, facilitating legitimate protest and community events. After all, they are the servants of the people and we pay their wages, right? Now, far be it from me to suggest that such talk is double-speak , but if they are going to convince trade unionists that this community engagement is more than a paper exercise, what better day to start than on Workers Memorial Day?

The County Durham event marking Workers Memorial Day will take place on Sunday, the 28th of April in Stanley Crook Village. For details see here. All community spirited residents of County Durham welcome.

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