No common ground with Cummings

Just a couple of months ago, Dominic Cummings was pushing herd immunity. He’s Boris Johnson’s most powerful advisor. At the same time, the Prime Minister was dithering over lockdown and delaying action, when it was clear that radical measures were needed. That certainly cost lives. Let’s not forget that.

Also, let’s not forget what we discovered a few weeks ago: that Cummings and some of his closest political allies – people who developed strategy alongside him over years – were part of Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) meetings – at the very least, taking part in discussions about how advice would be relayed, but no doubt forming that advice too.

Let’s remember, too, who Cummings is and what he does: he’s someone who has been emboldened by quietly racking up the political victories; by skilfully creating opportunities out of chaos; by manipulating public opinion; by tapping into deep seated anxieties, emotions and prejudices and turning them into slogans and ideas.

And right now, what Cummings is doing (alongside Boris Johnson and the hard right friends he’s gathered around him in the Cabinet) is desperately trying to work out how they can benefit from this crisis. How, despite that catastrophically lethargic response, despite the fact that they’ve had to be dragged kicking and screaming to do anything approaching the right thing, they can turn this crisis round to the benefit of the Tory Party, and their political faction within it.

Let’s just take an example over the last few days. So, on Thursday, we had right-wing tabloid press carrying headlines like “Hurrah! Lockdown Freedom Beckons!” and “First Steps to Freedom From Monday!”, almost in unison. On Friday, VE Day, thousands of people had street parties, formed congas, many clearly in breach of social distancing rules. A coincidence? Not likely, but flag waving, national pride dressed up as rebellion – I couldn’t think of anything more Dominic Cummings if I tried.

That campaign to win the ideological battle will have many facets: they will work with, then manipulate the press; they will send mixed messages about the lockdown and play with people’s desperate desire to return to normality; they will orchestrate fears, stoke myths and displace blame. But their focus will be clear, because they are utter ideologues, convinced of their natural authority and destiny.

That group, with their big data, endless resources and their bear traps, are already planning ahead. They are about winning hearts and minds in this coronavirus crisis, just as they were with Brexit and the General Election. They know which buttons to press, how to individualise this crisis, so no light can be shone on the Government’s structural and deliberate failure to represent and safeguard its own people.

We can’t treat this group around Cummings as if we were dealing with an Edward Heath, or mainstream Conservatism. We can’t trust them, or expect them to listen to the science or do what is right for the majority of the population. They may play at being One Nation Tories for a press conference or two, but they are far from it.

The idea that there is common ground here is naive. When they talk about the trade unions, opposition politicians and local government administrations as being a “blob” holding them back, we better believe them. We are in their way and we better decide how we are going to stand our ground, rather than being steamrollered.

Caution is not the watchword, not when it comes to workers being sent into dangerous workplaces or life threatening scenarios. There’s so much simmering discontent, amongst those who have the most to lose from a premature “unlockdown” and from those who will go, unprotected, into an expanded frontline. On one level, our task, right now, is really quite simple. We must stick up for our people, with as much determination as they do theirs. Which is a hell of a lot.

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Actors in our own movement

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I’m not the biggest fan of the ‘confessional’ approach to politics. Collective experience is what really matters. Occasionally, however, there are political situations where you get this over-riding sense of history repeating itself, that we’ve been here before. Many of us will have that feeling at the moment, so – just for a few minutes – I’d like to share my experience, not as some sort of prescription, but as the kicking off point for an updated, revamped discussion of where we are.

30 years ago, I joined the Labour Party as an 18-year-old, but without any real enthusiasm. My activism at the time was channelled through the Anti-Poll Tax Federation. It gave young people like me, with energy to burn, the outlet to campaign, organise and – importantly – to win. At last, we’d found real leverage against the Thatcher Government and, boy, did it feel good.

Obviously, many of us involved in the poll tax campaign, ended up being organised and trained by the Militant (‘caderised’ is the official term, I believe). Although I soon realised that these strictures were not for me, I don’t regret that experience or what it taught me. People love to label anyone who was ever a member of that organisation, but the truth is that it was the Labour Party’s failure to enthuse at the time, it’s awful, stifling political culture, that led people to find other routes for their activist energies.

At its root, that internal culture was an attempt to sanitise the Labour Party. The idea was, that, after a succession of defeats, the thing that would break the spell was to turn the party into a more respectable, managerial party – top down, besuited and efficient. It quickly felt like there wasn’t a place for people like me. I left the Labour Party with a parting shot, delivered via letter, to party leader Tony Blair, who had just scrapped Clause IV in a big gesture of symbolic intent aimed at the party’s left.

For the next few years, I went from party to party, looking for a political home and a way to express my socialism. This was a time when all the discussion on the left was about a ‘new workers party’. I ended up in the Socialist Alliance for a time, and then in the ill-fated Socialist Labour Party. It was a frustrating time, filled with disappointment – as I watched political projects come and go, flare up in great excitement as “the next big thing”, then crash and burn with people becoming increasingly sectarian. I felt again like a bystander, like politics was something that was being done to me.

At that time, I read a lot about the trade unions and organising. I found a home of sorts in the labour movement, where, suddenly, the things I did made an impact. And it made me realise that you could spend the rest of your life looking for that perfect organisation, but it wouldn’t mean anything if you failed to become an actor within it. It was that realisation that eventually brought me back to the Labour Party, even when I my disagreements with the leadership were strong and even though little had changed with that internal, top down, political culture.

But something had changed, far away from the party hierarchy. In my time as a trade union organiser, I constantly came across people who expressed socialist values, many of whom had held their tongues during the high point of New Labour, but as that project was disintegrating, were questioning it’s fundamental principles and finding their voices, collectively. I discovered a whole load of other activists who had kept their membership cards in their back pockets, but who were finally starting to talk to each other.

Via social media, some of us came together. A group of us began developing a project called Red Labour, aimed at challenging the dominance of Blairite thinking, now becoming stale even on its own terms. We also came together to rebut the lazy and insidious ideas behind an emerging current in the party – Blue Labour – which fancied itself as a successor to New Labour, based on a traditionalist reading of Labour history and values, many of them with racist underpinnings.

Suddenly, it took off. Facebook proved to be an ideal forum to organise ourselves. People’s confidence soared from discovering that there were thousands of other members of the Labour Party who not only thought like them, with socialist principles, but who wanted to campaign and organise – whether that was over the bedroom tax, public sector strikes or challenging the rise of the BNP. Managerialism was going out of fashion. There were still people arguing for a new party, as there have been throughout the history of the movement, but this time, I was sure where my strategic loyalty was at.

This was, of course, the seeds of the Corbyn project taking root, and the next few years saw an unprecedented organising effort on the left of the party, augmented by a mass influx of left-wing activists into the Labour ranks, enthused and inspired by the Labour leadership campaign. But one of the most important aspects of that summer of 2015 was the collective organising approach of the Corbyn campaign. It was as if we turned all the years of tightly controlled, micro-managed politics of the New Labour years and turned it on its head.

The Corbyn campaign, as brilliantly captured by Alex Nunns’ book, ‘The Candidate’, was grassroots, creative and inclusive. For a summer, we put aside our differences and organised, truly organised, as a movement. I have discussed the social media campaign here (more detailed and slightly more academic version here), and what I tried to convey was that it was not a centralised, highly managed operation, but one that sourced it’s ideas and creativity from a wider movement, and fed back to that movement in turn. In the true sense, it gave masses of people ownership over the political project.

I think, somewhere along the line, we lost some of that. This isn’t the place to discuss when, where or why that happened, but I think my own, personal history tells me that it isn’t lost forever – and what really counts in politics is people’s engagement, their decision to become participants rather than bystanders.

An old comrade of mine used to come in the People’s Bookshop towards the end of the bad, old days and say: “You know, Ben, the problem is that too many people have become consumers in politics, happy to be entertained or angered, rather than grab it by the scruff of the neck and change it.” I have never forgotten that. We must never go back, but even more important, we must work together, as actors in our own movement.

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No one gets to call me a racist.

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My first best friend was a Jewish kid with Egyptian heritage. He lived next door to me and, being a year older than me, was my absolute hero. I used to follow him around and although not really understanding it, I was aware of his Jewishness. Later, after we had moved away, we came back to go to his bar mitzvah and I can always remember finding the five pound note (hidden behind the piano music) and being very proud. Not long afterwards, I went on a school trip to Lightwater Valley, and there were some Hasidic Jewish children in the queue. I heard one of our class call them ‘yids’. It instantly sent a shiver down my spine and I was upset and angry when I got home, though again not understanding fully.

Growing up, our house was full of people from all over the world. My mum was a TEFL teacher and we had a constant stream of people from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, Zimbabwe, Iran and China. It seemed almost every weekend, there would be some party with incredible food from different parts of the globe, and chatter about politics. Many of them were asylum seekers and refugees, and I would strike up conversations with them, and learn about their world. I remember clearly one time when two guys from Southern Africa (I think it may have been Mozambique) found out that I was a Bob Marley fan, and the next week one of them had gone out to buy an LP – ‘Survival’ – for me, incredible for someone who would have had very little money at the time. Even at that age, I knew what that meant, though. It was an act of solidarity and anti-racism. I learnt so much from those early experiences.

As a teenager, and as someone who’d been surrounded by people from so many nationalities, I was immensely affected by images I saw on the news, in films and in the papers from Apartheid South Africa. Even learning about Sharpeville, the Soweto Uprising and the Rivonia trials felt like living history, because I knew it was still happening, I was reading about it and absorbing that anger at racism and injustice into my very soul. I’d become an anti-racist, long before I was ever a socialist.

Around the age of 13/14, I decided that I needed to do something. I became involved in the anti-apartheid movement, going to meetings in Northumberland and Durham and joining marches as they wound their way through the North East on the way to London. One weekend, I cajoled my little sister to make a big banner out of a bedsheet. It’s said: ‘Hey, Botha. Don’t mess with my Tutu!’. We took it down, on a coach by ourselves, to a big demonstration in Hyde Park where Desmond Tutu was speaking, and to this day I’m convinced that he acknowledged it as we struggled to raise it between ourselves, in amongst the crowds.

In the following years I read Biko, Malcolm X and even tried some Frantz Fanon. This stuff really interested me and excited me, but it lead me to socialism and Marxism, not the other way round. By the time I got to University, I knew I was a socialist, and started hanging around with the paper sellers, eventually joining Militant (they seemed more interested in life beyond the student union). One of the things that disturbed me, though, was that (maybe subconsciously), issues of race were often subsumed under a catch-all call to  ‘unite the working class’. That seemed to me to be ignoring the needs of black and ethnic minority communities to address their own specific oppression. I felt uncomfortable with all that, and partly as a result, I didn’t stick around too long.

At Leeds University, and after, I threw myself into anti-racist campaigning. Confronting the far right, en masse, seemed an important and powerful expression of solidarity. In these years, I found it difficult to find a political home. I joined, and left the Labour Party, joined and left the Socialist Alliance, even had a spell in Arthur Scargill’s SLP and ended up back in Labour again, only to leave over the Iraq War and rejoin after Blair. Throughout that time, however, my anti-racism was a constant. I organised, small and big, I discussed how we could build anti-racism in the Labour Party, in unions and communities, so it wasn’t an add on, but something integral to what we are.

At times over that period , within the Labour movement, it was a bit of a lonely place to be. As New Labour took hold, fewer and fewer Labour MPs wanted to do the demos, develop the broad left alliances and the active work in communities. Only the Socialist Campaign Group Of Labour MPs would regularly come out to support us, and out of that group, Jeremy Corbyn would almost always be the first and most constant supporter. Amongst the party (and union) hierarchy, on the other hand, there became a stigma attached to big anti-racist mobilisations and I recall hearing Labour councillors say that a physical presence should be avoided, as it was just “picking at a wound”.

I became a trade union organiser myself, and specialised in supporting migrant workers to achieve their rights by joining trade unions. As Gordon Brown was talking about ‘British Jobs for British Workers’, I was organising with Polish immigrants and refugees. At the same time, I made myself unpopular with some in the union hierarchy by arguing that sectarianism and factionalism should be left at the door when campaigning against the ever-increasing threat of the BNP. In truth, though it was probably for the best, my union career was ended by the stance that I took.

While I started a PhD on trade unions and migrant workers, which covered the Imperial Typewriters strike in Leicester by Ugandan Asian women in the 70s, I also threw myself back into grassroots anti-racist organising. I helped set up the County Durham Anti-Racist Coalition with a couple of friends. The group later went on to organise one of the biggest demonstrations ever seen in Durham against the visit of the far right under the banner ‘Bishop Auckland Against Islam’. 300 filled Millenium Square. Set against the safe, and inconsequential ‘box ticking’ anti-racism which has become commonplace in our movement – e.g a pop up stand in the corner of County Hall – this was where I felt at home.

Racism made me angry as a kid, long before I understood socialism and the economic chains that bind all of us. This is a story common to many of us on the left, and especially those who have come into the Labour Party since 2015 – and who frankly will have seen the party’s efforts as inadequate pre-Corbyn and perhaps understandably so (David Blunkett’s punitive and uncaring approach to immigration, Phil Woolas’ behaviour, and those bloody immigration mugs being a handful of recent examples).

I make mistakes. Like everyone in this movement, I get things wrong. When I do, I kind of expect to be called out on it. If it’s justified, I will try to reflect on it. That is fair and right. This is politics – debate is part of the lifeblood of the party and the movement, and if you can’t take criticism, it may not be for you. However, that is a very different thing from throwing around the word ‘racist’ or ‘antisemite’ as a way of scoring political points, when even the accuser knows in their heart of hearts it’s unfair and wrong. So, call me what you like, criticise my decisions and pull me up for my mistakes. Rip into my politics and question my outlook. But don’t ever call me a racist.

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How to really bury Thatcher…

It has to be said that it’s quite appropriate to be starting this blog, a joint enterprise between North East activists whose politics have been framed in opposition to both the Thatcherite project and it’s Blairite shadow, on the 1st day of the post-Thatcher era.

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The death of Margaret Hilda Thatcher leaves me cold, to be honest. Not that there isn’t a deep burning hatred of everything that she stood for, but in the sense that, deep down, she was merely the talking head of a much deeper evil, cooked up by the likes of Keith Joseph in the 1970s. It has infected every part of our society & virtually destroyed our communities in the North East. I can understand, and would never condemn people, for celebrating the end, but while we live with that legacy, I see no particular reason to celebrate. There is too much Thatcherite ideology ingrained in our political culture to celebrate, even for one night.

It’s not even, in my view, about Thatcher herself. It is about the legacy of Thatcherism, the foundation for which was laid in the development of what Stuart Hall called “authoritarian populism” – in the shadowy think tanks like the Centre for Policy Studies during the 1970′s – and in reaction to Heath’s defeat by the Miners. This is what we still live with, especially so in County Durham and the North East: de-industrialisation, the erosion of the manufacturing base, the attack on workers’ rights and the casualisation of employment. Let’s not let Maggie off the hook, though. She may not have been the only architect of this ideology, but she was certainly its willing figure head in the UK. Thatcher brought a personal vindictiveness to a much broader movement for neo-liberal, laissez faire economics. Tony Benn, of course, has put it as well as anyone:

“Her whole philosophy was that you measured the price of everything and the value of nothing – and we have to replace that…there is good and bad in everyone and for 10 years it is the bad that has been…promoted and the good that has been denounced as lunatic, out-of-touch, cloud cuckoo land and extremist”.

It is worth watching his full speech at Thatcher’s departure – a fantastic dissection of Thatcherism

Thatcher, of course,  had a particular hatred for union militancy and came to power with the aim to ‘smash’ the trade unions. She made it a personal mission to destroy the NUM. To me, this hits at the heart of why she is so hated in the North East. I was recently reading Peter Crookston’s ‘The Pitmen’s Requiem’ – a book about Gresford (the miner’s hymn, which commemorates the 265 miners killed in an explosion there in 1934) which beautifully explains the sense of solidarity which developed between miners who literally depended on each other for their lives in incredibly dangerous conditions. This sense of solidarity extended to the pit villages themselves and when people say ‘everything revolved around the pit’ they really did mean it. What Thatcher and her hard right ideologues and spooks set out to do was to smash that solidarity and to do that they also had to destroy those communities. Not only did people lose their jobs and futures, many of them lost their friends, their marriages and some their lives (suicides in pit villages during and in the aftermath of the strike were far too commonplace). So, the heart of these Durham communities has been ripped out. Nobody connected with mining will ever forgive Maggie for branding the miners ‘The Enemy Within’.

Of course, Margaret Thatcher was also the political leader who supported Apartheid South Africa while describing Nelson Mandela as a terrorist; who was a close ally of General Pinochet and invited him to Downing Street; who privatised our national assets; who introduced the Poll Tax; who led us into the Falklands War principally for electoral gain and who said there is no such thing as society and meant it. However, up here it is for her destruction of the coal industry that she will be remembered – and hated. Tonight, I’ll get a ‘carry out’ rather than party in the streets, but the best memorial for Thatcher would be to rebuild a strong and vibrant trade union movement from the bottom up – both in the former Durham coalfield and beyond. She would hate that.

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