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G20: At the scene…

April 6, 2009 2 comments

On Wednesday 1st April a friend and I attended the ‘Financial Fools Day’ demonstrations in the City of London. I haven’t had a chance to sit down and write about our experiences until today, but I feel it’s important – especially given how the event will be likely interpreted by the big media – to contribute to the swathe of first-hand documentation of the protests already developing online.

Beginning at London Bridge, we joined the ‘Silver Horse’ contingent protesting against the crimes, incompetence and greed of the moneyed classes which have symbolised the injustice of this ongoing crisis. Inevitably, the April 1st demo was going to be smaller and of a different milieu than the TUC- and NGO-sponsored march last Saturday. There were, from what I recall, no trade union banners for instance, and the ‘mainstream’ voices of the movement had evidently decided that the financial Powers That Be, having had a jolly good talking to on the weekend, deserved a bit of a rest during the actual G20 meetings.

The demonstration was, however, friendly, diverse and had (in that worn but accurate cliché) a carnival-like atmosphere. The Green Party was well represented, as were the usual hoodies-and-masks ‘Anarchists’, but otherwise it is impossible to pigeon-hole the politics of the march. Socialist Worker sellers and a group waving red flags emblazoned with ‘Revolution’ marched alongside people in fancy dress and face paint, families with young children, white boys with bad clothes, worse dreadlocks but a brilliant taste in reggae, and presumably a fair number who’d just come down to see what all the fuss was about.

I don’t know about the other three groups, protesting against war, climate change and land enclosures, but the silver march passed peacefully along its route between about 11am and midday, with brass bands, chanting and all your usual demo activities. The mood was upbeat and the display colourful and imaginative – skeletons in wheelchairs with tenners pinned to them, pall bearers with coffins marked ‘capitalism’ etc. God knows why the City even bothered telling its workers to come in, as they must have spent half the day looking down on this strange morass of people slowly rolling its way past their offices. A few peering financiers were invited to “jump” and even more received shouted invites to join us – but alas, the opportunity to form ‘Bankers against Banks’ was missed.

When we arrived outside the Bank of England, the street party atmosphere continued, with the other groups arriving around the same time. Sound systems were set up, people began to chalk slogans on any available space (my favourite – “People will stop robbing banks when banks stop robbing people”), and there was generally a good mood, although we, and I imagine many people, were left with a feeling of ‘now what?’ as the march came to an end. I was pleased the “organisers” had succeeded in getting the four marches to converge, and it had been worth it to see all the wonderful creative pageantry of the people set free, even if a few black cabbies would undoubtedly have loved to run us all down for shutting down the roads…

Deciding the demo was spent, my friend and I decided to head off to a Stop the War demonstration scheduled for later in the day. We then realised the police had surrounded the square from all sides and were refusing to let people leave, without explanation or exception.

Over the next several hours the mood of the crowd became increasingly frustrated. There were no toilet facilities (although a few people had begun to urinate on the railings of closed Bank tube station) and people only had the food or water they had brought. Verbal confrontations with the police slowly increased, with people pleading to leave being replaced by calls of “Let us go!”, “Shame!” and “You’re supposed to be protecting us, you twats!” The usual Forward Intelligent Teams were meanwhile busily photographing people from above the square, regardless of whether they were (peacefully) confronting the police or simply remaining in the body of the demonstration unconcerned by the lockdown. In hindsight, my friend and I considered why the police had evidently planned to contain the protest beforehand (just think of the red scare running for weeks in the ‘papers). It was obvious the crowd’s mood would degenerate – indeed the police seemed to understand the provocative nature of their actions, openly getting into their riot gear long before the submissive mood of the march was replaced by a desire force them back.

The first open confrontation occurred several hours after the police had detained the entire march. A small section of the protest, perhaps five hundred people, had been excluded from the man body of people and cordoned off to one side. There was absolutely no conceivable reason for this, as the group in question looked and behaved exactly the same as the rest of the march. As people’s bladders got fuller and their legs more tired, initial attempts to make light of the situation – waving across the police lines separating the two groups, kicking balls over for people to distract themselves with – were replaced by several attempts to link arms and push the police lines back and join up with those cut off. Each time the police responded badly, hitting out randomly, growing more violent.

Suddenly, we managed to create enough weight of numbers to push the police back, allowing the excluded section to rejoin the main demo. The police, evidently worried about the crowd escaping their ad hoc, open air jail, began lashing out wildly (I took several elbows to the face from a charming member of the Metropolitan Police, each time accidently I’m sure – incidentally thank you to the kind couple who kept me on my feet). The cops promptly legged it, fearing the worst and… then nothing. In the brief five minutes which followed the collapse of the police lines, what anarchy, what terrible disorder was unleashed? Nothing. People, so-called Anarchists included, simply began to walk down the one, suddenly opened street, to go – well, wherever they wanted.

Treated as human beings, we behaved like them too.

Minutes later of course, more vans, packed with fully geared-up riot police, screeched to the scene and blocked the crowd’s exit and from here the situation deteriorated into a series of running battles as the protestors, having their brief freedom of movement snatched back, quite simply snapped. Police charges followed as they attempted to break up the demonstration into smaller units, using the F.I.T. squads to pick people out for arrests. And the crowd responded. So yes, RBS was broken into. Empty cans and bottles were thrown. Cop’s helmets were stolen. A single teenager frustrated a police van’s attempts to drive through the crowd for a good five minutes – ha, the hellish chaos of it all! With a hard core growing more determined to resist the heavy-handed response, the police began to concentrate on the cluster of protestors trying to push the police back and reopen the streets – I imagine most people were eventually able to leave simply because the police were too busy trying to keep this section under control. Late in the evening we managed to slip out by a back street, not having eaten, drank or gone to the loo all day, during which time fires were being lit and the conflict escalating further – I am glad we did. It was not a pleasant experience: as the chalk along the tarmac of one of the blocked roads described it, leaving the demonstration and attempted to get past the police and off home felt like leaving freedom behind and walking into a police state.

I’m not sure what my point is, or even if I have one. I am left simply very bruised and pissed off. The police, as ever, prepared for a fight and made sure they provoked the crowd into giving them one. Thousands of people, including children and the elderly, were denied any dignity, forced to stand for hours on end without rest, detained without any explanation or justification, in the centre of London, while bankers looked down waving ten pound notes and young unarmed people were battered by truncheons. Not a pretty site, certainly, but proof enough that something is deeply wrong with this society, and that making some noise is a first step to fixing it; why else would the bastards have been so keen to break up this particular demonstration of popular anger.

Hopefully it will not be the last such display.

(Article by Dan Ashton, who tried to post it when the TCF server was playing silly buggers.)

Categories: General Politics

The Times In Which We Live

Today, like Withnail’s holiday, I read The Times by mistake.

While attempting to ignore the knot in my stomach which always accompanies exams, I popped into a local newsagent to buy a paper. Like all good corner shops on the Isle of Wight, it typically has a ratio of one Guardian or Independent for every hundred copies of The Sun. This time, it was even worse, and to save my eternal soul I moved on past the venom-spewing shelves of Daily Mails and stumped up the 70p donation to Rupert Murdoch in exchange for a copy of the Times.

I imagine it would have been a far cheerier experience to simply have sprung for a Mail and dipped my toe in the angry, murky waters of Middle England. I will admit to having done so during particularly boring periods while killing time in my GP’s waiting room. I could have written off their denunciations of Labour as par for the course. Instead, I wasted a good half hour today coming to the slow realisation just how confident the British establishment really is in the electoral death of the Labour Party.

The embarrassing attempts of Labour spin doctors to maintain the appearance of a class divide without any ideological grounding to give it substance, have quite obviously failed to leave the Conservatives shaking in their boots. The casual self-assurance and sense of direction which commentators expressed were in marked contrast to the Times’ previous timidity and its inability to bring itself to opposing the Labour Government in elections. The potency of Labour is, to them, spent, a busted flush, and it is easy to see why.

In an interview with Richard Lambert, Grand Cyclops of British capitalism, the Times argues

These are exciting days for accountants. Rarely have tax issues moved so quickly, been so controversial and won so many headlines. And rarely have business lobby groups, led by the CBI, scored so many direct hits in getting government policy reversed, and at speed, forcing the Treasury into making rapid changes on plans for capital gains tax and non-domicile taxation.

Rarely indeed.

Labour wouldn’t need to patronise us by dressing up its activists in top hats and tails to prove the Conservatives don’t have the interests of working people at heart, if it actually demonstrated that in its policies. You don’t have to rely on embarrassing stereotypes to recognise that Britain remains an class society, and moreover that egalitarianism is a sound concept both morally and politically: the “debt-ridden middle-class” which The Times mentions has more in common with the debt-ridden working-class than the capitalist system responsible for and dependent on our indebtedness and insecurity.

Unless the Labour leadership understands that and acts on it, the Conservative Party and its fellow travellers in the press will continue to have untroubled nights.

Should we stay or should we go?

May 12, 2008 2 comments

Since the disastrous May elections, there have been a number of responses from the Left. Shiraz Socialist asked for reasons to be involved in the Labour Party, and to be honest I couldn’t think of many – those that did come to mind were invariably negative e.g. the alternative is worse, but nevertheless too accurate (it really is worse) for me to consider leaving. David Osler’s response to the slow desiccation of the Labour base which Blairism has led to highlights the chief obstacle facing socialists: where do we go from here? Dave commented on some of the responses already.

Various bourgeois commentators have built a career since the early Nineties mocking the socialist and anti-capitalist Left for having a lot more to say about the injustices of the neoliberal economic order than practical steps to rebuilding the class conscious labour movement we need to advocate freedom and equality. Combined with the old Tony Benn refrain about “too many socialist parties, not enough socialists” and we have a curious situation where a tiny minority of progressive opinion in Britain, the radical left, comes across as a tumultuous and shrill din of competing theories, none of which seem to result in any solid steps forward.

It’s easy to knock the sects, but very uncomradely. Against my worst instincts I tried to show solidarity with the various Trotskyist initiatives during the last elections, even if, as I imagine was the case in many homes, my attention was fully focused on the flawed ex-reformist figure of Ken Livingstone. But it is necessary to remember the disastrous organisational position the Left finds itself in. I’ll just focus on a couple of the bigger groupuscules.

The Socialist Workers Party seems to have completely ignored the failure of the Respect coalition and their own Left List faction in the aftermath of the split with Galloway, putting the blame for the Left’s performance onto Gordon Brown and the Government. Fair enough, I agree that New Labour has decimated the activism and enthusiasm of many voters, but that is not an excuse for the U-turns and sectarianism which the Respect debacle exhibited, noted on a daily basis in soap opera fashion on the Socialist Unity blog. If the Right are benefitting from the contradictions of the social democrats, then we must accept our part in the failure to win over working people to a socialist alternative to Brown, whether inside Labour or not.

The Socialist Party remains in the Purgatory of socialist strategy – unable to quit its Campaign for a New Workers’ Party, now that dropping the word ‘socialism’ and reaching out to the Bob Crow and the RMT has proven not to be the sure-fire method of breaking into the mainstream they hoped after watching Galloway’s parliamentary success, and yet seemingly also unable to salvage anything from its current dead-in-the-water position.

The Labour Left, of which I count myself a part, despite having had our arguments about the ineffectiveness of a Blairism without Blair strategy proven time and again during our long decline in the opinion polls, is stuck in a quandary. The Tories are waltzing into office, unhurried and un-harassed by the tired ministers called on to defend the indefensible. More than the screw-ups over taxes or the “events dear boy, events” of lost data, the Government suffers from what it is not going. People feel the vulnerability of our “flexible”, “dynamic”, “open” economy every time they get a gas bill or buy their shopping, but Labour remains unable to give people an explanation of what needs to be done to counter these threats to our living standards. But what can the Left do? Opt for another, surely doomed John McDonnell leadership bid? It was useful the first time around – the LRC wing of Labour politics collected information on a significant network of activists, and gave people some hope in our Party’s future. A do-over would surely be less inspiring, less productive, less innovative.

As a result, I’ve been suffering the general malaise that I imagine most of the Left is feeling. Bankers, tax evaders and stockbrokers are “living it large” while even the Government’s modest targets on reducing child poverty have suffered from Labour’s unwillingness to be truly radical.

Amid all the wondering about whether the Labour Party actually wants to lose the next election, given the obvious lack of any instinct for self-preservation among the cabinet, let alone understanding of the desirability – the necessity – of rebuilding a solid Labour vote rather than spending the next two years failing to triangulate our way out of defeat, I read the discussion bulletin for the recent Alliance for Workers’ Liberty conference. I was surprised to find some interesting arguments among their proposed documents, including the following statement on the issue of workers’ representation:

6. The original Labour Representation Committee of 1900, the first form of the Labour Party, had union affiliations totalling only 353,070 members, less than 20% of the total trade union membership at the time of 1,908,000. Only bit by bit did the affiliated membership rise to 1.45 million in 1909. If the socialists, and the more politically-assertive unions, had waited until they had a majority, or near-majority, of the union movement, then the Labour Party would not have been founded at all in 1900. Likewise today: to wait for all the big unions to move would be to paralyse ourselves. We should fight for the socialists and the more politically-assertive unions to give a lead – and do so fully aware that, with recent industrial defeats, in the calculable future growth for a new working-class political venture is likely to be slower, not faster, than after 1900.

There is also a significant section (points 14 through 16) on the use that could be made of a revived Trades Council movement to the cause of socialism and working-class solidarity. It’s rather too long to quote here, but is particularly interesting given the vacillation and cowardice which marks the trade union bureaucracy’s relationship with the Labour Party leadership, and I recommend you take a look.

Like the socialist stereotype I mentioned earlier in this post, I’m really not arrogant enough to claim I have a solution to the crisis of socialist representation and organisation. I don’t. In some respects this is simply an attempt to excise the frustrations which have been brewing since the Government utterly failed to learn the lessons after 1st May which it needed to in order move on and rebuild the movement. But the AWL seems to be a lot more focused on forward-thinking than most – I am not a member, nor consider myself a supporter of their group, but a fraternal appreciation that socialists are trying to think through the problems we face is not dependent on outright political support.

Given our failure in Britain to build even the kind of Broad Left parties which exist in many other European countries, I was intrigued by the AWL’s comparisons with the old LRC. Obviously no one (in their right mind) is looking for a simple return to Labourism and all its faults, but as someone who has consistently dismissed left of Labour experiments for their failure to attract formal trade-union support, and been unwilling to consider a break with Labour until the “union link” has been cut, finalising the permanent transformation of the Party, it was provocative to say the least to consider that an unwillingness to move before “big unions” do is actually holding back what may be the inevitable step forward for the workers’ movement. Is it logical to lambast the unions as conservative and bureaucratic, and then expect them to lead the way to a socialist future? Should the Labour Representation Committee, as I believe the AWL proposed at its last conference, be actively considering a break with the Party?

The question is, where they remain members of the Labour Party, are socialists contributing more to the problem than the solution?

Categories: Labour Party News

Your Organs or Your Life

September 23, 2007 3 comments

While reading the always-excellent Kevin Maguire on the Daily Mirror site, I noticed an online poll asking whether organ donation should be made compulsory. I gather the poll was a distorted response to the recent news that the Health Secretary asked his advisers to look into a system whereby everyone is presumed to have given consent to their organs being used after death, unless they opt-out of the register. The idea being that enough will stay on the register so as to make up for the organ shortage. A shortfall which, a quick search tells me, leaves 1 in 10 people on the transplant list dying before they receive an organ (which amounted to 400 people last year alone).

The thing that caught my attention was that 64% of respondents disagreed which a compulsory system (which no one is considering anyway, though never mind – I imagine the issues are conflated in the public’s mind). Perhaps for religious reasons, I could understand people objecting to compulsory organ donation, but for the rest of us, I do not believe that squeamishness – which I also feel, especially towards “personal” organs like eyes etc. – is justification enough for disregarding the pressing health needs of our fellow human beings. That medical science is advanced enough to recycle our bodies after death is amazing – that most of us in Britain choose not to support its application is equally amazing. According to the BBC, transplant surgeons, patient groups, the British Medical Association and even the Lib Dems all support presumed consent, and it’s easy to see why:

“While nearly 90 per cent of the UK population say they’d be willing to donate their organs after death, only about 20 per cent of people have actually put their names on the NHS Organ Donor Register.”

Thus, presumed consent would presumably have all of the benefits, and none of the charges of authoritarianism, that would mark an actually compulsory system.

We should test this supposed willingness of the British population; after all, there would be nothing to stop people removing their names from the register if they felt that concerned. This is especially needed, given that the oft-mentioned alternative (allowing people to sell their organs) would be obviously grossly distasteful, not to mention exploitative towards the poor, compared to some gentle prodding of people’s consciences. It should surely be the basic civic duty of all of us, in fact our duty as human beings, to assist another in need – especially when such help would not adversely affect our own lives. The only obstacle would be charges of a Dr. Frankenstein-like state robbing the deceased of their body parts, which could undoubtedly be countered with a public information campaign and the reminder that any one of us could find ourselves ending up as the “1 in 10″.

To end on a blatant appeal to the bleeding hearts of this alleged 90% of potential volunteers: how many more people need to die because we are willing to tackle an admittedly uncomfortable but nevertheless crucial issue?

If you are interested in joining the organ donor register, follow the link here. I’m on it. You get a wonderful sense of moral superiority, so go ahead.

Categories: Miscellaneous

The Evils of Socialization

September 21, 2007 3 comments

During his recent visit to London, Rudy Giuliani took the opportunity to attack “socialized medicine”, criticising the National Health Service as “not only very expensive” but also “increasingly less effective”. He went on to compare the survival rates for prostate cancer patients in the United States and Britain. As 82% and 50% respectively, it would seem a damning remark about the NHS – if one were to stick one’s head up one’s arse, that is.

A few quick points. As a undeniably wealthy individual, I am sure Giuliani enjoyed the very best of medical care available to American citizens when he suffered from cancer. But then, I would expect healthcare to be pretty bloody decent when you concentrate your resources on those who can afford to pay for it. The top of a pyramid undoubtedly offers a very pleasant view. The minor problem of 40 million Americans without health insurance coverage was an apparently unimportant statistic quickly disregarded by the Republican primary candidate. The fact the United States actually spends more on its wreck of a health service than Britain with its universal coverage was similarly dismissed.

But then, good healthcare costs money. In a brief flirtation with the truth, the PR guru, Max Clifford, once remarked that “if the British people want a first class health service, they need to learn they’ll have to pay for it”. Truer words than most politicians dare to use. The difference between the two countries is that, while American money (including public money in the form of federal subsidies etc.) is spent on unnecessary duplication, bureaucracy and the needs of the privileged few, “socialized medicine” serves the public interest: medical care on the sole basis of clinical need; equal access; a professional, as opposed to commercial relationship between patients and doctors; and an end to needless fear of health expenses.

And let’s not forget what all this “expense” i.e. the trebling of the NHS budget under Gordon Brown’s period as Chancellor, has brought us. Tens of thousands more doctors and nurses have been trained. Dozens of new hospitals have been built. Waiting times for operations and Accident & Emergency treatment are down. More operations are performed each year and more are successful, resulting in fewer deaths. Let’s just repeat that: resulting in fewer deaths. But no, the expense is what’s important. It takes only a rudimentary understanding of the English language to conclude from this that “expense” is, in fact, increasingly more effective. Perhaps Giuliani’s concerns have more to do with his devotion to the interests of insurance companies and the ideal of free market competition than the needs of his would-be electors? Say it ain’t so, Rudy.

Categories: US Politics

An Overview of British Labour

September 20, 2007 7 comments

In the run-up to the 1979 General Election, the Financial Times asked why anyone would vote for the Tories when the Labour Prime Minister, James Callaghan, was leading “as good a conservative government as we are likely to get”. A critic from the Left might say much the same about Gordon Brown. Callaghan had abandoned Labour’s traditional economic strategy and adopted the very monetarist doctrine which the Tory Party would later unleash to devastating effect. Brown, meanwhile, alongside maintaining the Government’s commitment to deregulation and privatization, has also emphatically pushed the line of maintaining economic stability – that is, keeping public sector wages down and the minimum wage to below even the European Decency Threshold (supported by the Government’s own Low Pay Unit) of two-thirds of median earnings while doing nothing to, say, stop corporate executives and the City of London from dishing out billions of pounds in annual bonuses or wealthy corporations from exploiting tax loopholes and our laissez-faire approach to financial regulation.

Gordon Brown

Since 1997, Labour has always come under criticism for its modest achievements and, more damagingly, its modest goals. Traditionally the Labour Party has been led by similarly cautious men, unwilling to make the case for greater social change. Indeed, the charge has been levelled against the leaders of New Labour that they are only ever really bold when confronting their own supporters in the Labour Party and the trade unions, rolling back the achievements of previous Labour Govenrments, or bending this country to the will of the Bush administration in the US. And while Brown has been confident in welcoming Tory MPs to the Parliamentary Party or reducing union influence at the Labour Party Conference, he has not taken the opportunity to seize control of the policy agenda for the wider democratic Left. Mainstream debate has degenerated even further into a managerial tiff over the details, rather than the broad sweep, of public policy.

Meanwhile, levels of trade union membership, union density in the workplace, strike action etc. remain at historically low levels. Those industrial disputes which do survive the hurdles which British employment legislation presents (below even the rudimentary standards of the International Labour Organisation), remain isolated from the wider labour movement and have been unsuccessful in halting the effective disenfranchisement of the working class. Trade union membership has halved since 1979 to barely 6.5 million members, disproportionately found in the public sector. The current Labour leadership, arguably as a direct consequence of this decline in the industrial and political strength of the unions, has demonstrated that it is unwilling to intervene in the economy beyond the narrow confines of fiscal policy, holding back public expenditure (whether in the Health Service or public sector wages) in order to stave off further interest rate rises.

The current Prime Minister has no personal mandate, either from his Party or the country. Undoubtedly the struggle to win a fourth term in office for Labour will consume, rightly, the leaders of the Government and the trade unions over the next year. But a reshuffle in the names and faces of the powerful will do nothing, in itself, to reverse the obscene inequalities in wealth and power which exist inside Britain, and furthermore between the few rich nations and the destitute majority. The task of the Left must be to make the case for a dramatic assault on the injustices and inequities of this world. In the 1940s, a war-devastated and poverty-stricken country built a Welfare State to tackle the five Giant Evils of want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness, uniting progressive opinion behind an affirmation by the State of the primacy of the public need. The Britain of today is a different country in its culture, wealth, economy. But the socialist case for a transformation in the way we live remains as strong as ever, and more possible than before. It can be done.

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