Posts Tagged ‘Working Class’

Labour and its leadership, part 1

May 18, 2010 13 comments

Both Ed and David Miliband have begun their rhetorical repositioning for the leadership campaign. The by-line of the Guardian article on Brother David reads, “Former foreign secretary woos the party’s left…” but the reality is probably more accurately exposed by Paul Waugh’s summary over at the Evening Standard. David Miliband has set himself up as the ‘clean hands’ candidate – nodding to the past, nodding to the thousands of activists who had to watch dumbfounded as Labour waddled from mistake to disaster and so on.

Meanwhile, brother Ed has turned to rather naive-sounding guff about New Labour not having a sense of mission, but falling into the mindset of ‘technocratic caretakers’. His pitch is that Labour needs to hook up once more with the core vote, but that New Labour ‘asked the hard questions’ – that something can be saved. Some people seem to think that Brother Ed is appealing to the working class, and he picks out ‘real world’ examples, saying that we should prefer the realities visited upon people instead of abstract economics.

The harsh reality, of course, is both were cabinet ministers (one under Blair and both under Brown). They aren’t reformers, and a latter-day conversion towards Labour members having a greater say is opportunistic in the extreme. When we see concrete proposals on this ‘having a say’ bit, I’ll be sure to return to it, but the ‘feel’ of their speech is that there may be institutional adjustments and gasping policy announcements and lots of talk about ‘renewal’ but that very little will change. This is virtually inevitable if Brothers Ed and David don’t move beyond Blair – and I don’t think they will or can even imagine how to.

Just as interesting as those who have thrown their hat into the ring is who has not.

Jon Cruddas has ruled himself out of the leadership race, which probably removes the only chance the soft Left ever had at influencing the thing, beyond gushing pronouncements in favour of Ed Miliband, who is viewed as the more Left of the two brothers. Wannabe softie, James Purnell, is pushing the same line as Cruddas at the moment; re-connect with the vote (among C2 voters), move slowly, re-energise the Party. This seems to be standard for the so-called centre Left; thus too pressure group Compass’ post-election statement. Evidently Neal Lawson and the rest of that self-admiring cohort don’t think they’ve done enough damage with their urgings to vote ‘tactically’ for the Lib-Dems, to keep out the Tories.

All of this talk about renewal and reconnecting etc, from the centre-Left, is meant to fill the bloody great hole where actually doing something fits in. Around the world, indefinite strikes have been pronounced – here at home, workers (often against the wishes of their trades unions) are gearing up to fight the incoming cuts, whether from private business or the public sector…and meanwhile the lions of centre-left socialism are doing little but mewl in the press. Which is exactly what I and others expect, so that at least is gratifying.

A centre-Left candidate may yet emerge, of course. In the meantime, those who have been casting rather silly aspersions at John McDonnell’s potential candidacy find themselves in the unenviable position of wanting ‘a clean break from the policies and practices of the New Labour era’ while opposing the only leadership candidate likely to achieve it. Former MP Bob Clay’s article on the subject departs from reality entirely, with a mention of Michael Meacher as a more likely candidate (Meacher got three endorsements and crumbled at the 2007 debate).

McDonnell ran in 2007 and though he failed to get enough endorsements, his campaign was like a fresh wind through the often sterile internal debates of the Labour Party. Even a Cruddas candidacy, though more likely to gain enough nominations, would not necessarily provoke this – Cruddas is, after all, basically a Blairite, and support for him would still place the  soft Left in contradiction to themselves – wanting a change from New Labour, a return to an older form of social democracy, while supporting a candidate who wants nothing of the sort. We’re spared making this argument because Cruddas isn’t running. His own reasoning (if such banalities deserve the title) can be read here.

This makes the attacks against John McDonnell seem all the more surreal. Without an alternative candidate of even basic Left credentials, McDonnell is the natural choice for any socialist remaining in Labour. What all the arguments against McDonnell clearly miss, of course, is the chance that a McDonnell candidacy gives the LRC – a group based around members, union branches and CLPs – to get a foothold in Labour around the country, to kick off real debate and to set up mini-groups of supporters who can deepen and broaden LRC support by campaign activities. Only this long game offers a glimmer of hope for the Left; otherwise they should get out of Labour and stay out.

Key among campaign priorities before the election demanded the full attention of every activist was the People’s Charter, which is solid Left stuff that appeals far beyond the narrow confines of the Labour Representation Committee. This is the sort of thing which could get off the ground, certainly in time for conference in the autumn. What plenty of the nay-sayers also neglect to note is that there are several McDonnell supporters running as the Left candidates for leadership of different unions. Paul Holmes, interviewed here, is a key one, over at UNISON.

This is a chance to energise and mobilise the whole Left – both its union and party elements. Meanwhile those people saying that John McDonnell is hostile to or likely to alienate the unions because of his opposition to union bureaucratisation need to catch themselves on. McDonnell is the only candidate who, as leader, would have any intention of mobilising parliamentary and extra-parliamentary elements of the movement to slam dunk the Trade Union Freedom Bill.

Whatever platitudes we get from the soft-Left, that fear of extra-parliamentary action will always keep them bottled up – that is why we need a candidate like McDonnell. The other regular rebels – like Jeremy Corbyn – will likely fall into line behind McDonnell, especially with the unanimous backing from the LRC’s National Committee put firmly on record, in the aftermath of Saturday’s conference, sponsored by the LRC, whatever remains of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy and various unions.

If McDonnell doesn’t win, then Labourites face years of a Tory government whose best friends are the Labour leadership, as under Thatcher and Kinnock, when everything possible was done by the Labour heirarchy to smother mass activism and militancy, in fear that it could damage the credentials of the Party to lead ‘the nation’. Then, I guarantee you, that space outside of Labour for a Left party, which people are saying has closed or is closing, will be blasted wide open in no time at all. Tomorrow’s article concerns just that.

Vote Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition

April 6, 2010 10 comments

Below is a five hundred word article, originally written for Claude Carpentieri’s Hagley Road to Ladywood blog, as part of his really excellent 2010 Election special series.

The Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition isn’t going to win the next General Election. It probably won’t even get someone elected. Only forty-two constituencies will have TUSC candidates, all well-known local campaigners.

To put this into perspective, this is far smaller than the ninety candidates plus that the BNP are going to run at the election. Yet if you live in one of those constituencies, you should vote TUSC. Here are some of my reasons for supporting them, on the streets and at the ballot box.

First, no other party intends seriously to fight for workers’ rights. At every turn, Labour’s leadership have bowed and scraped before the Press and the Tories when they demanded a disavowal of workers’ decisions to strike. In fact, based on the consensus at Labour List, workers’ rights won’t even be on the agenda for this election.

Meanwhile, the Labour government has provoked PCS into a strike by trying to cut down on pensions and redundancy remuneration, to make it cheaper to fire people.

Whoever wins the election, workers will fight – for jobs, for wages and against the straightjacket of anti-union laws – and workers will be right. TUSC offers a platform that will tie together demands from different sections of the working class and develop them into a comprehensive political programme.

Second, after the election we’re facing cuts in public services. Perhaps 25,000 council job losses and many more central government jobs besides threaten to stretch service provision to breaking point.

Both Tories and Labour are trying to be as vague as possible – but in education, for example, our final wave of academy-funding was signed off Friday fortnight ago and headteachers are already whispering ‘the R-word.’

That’s redundancies, for the uninitiated. That’s larger class sizes and poorer lessons for your kids.

TUSC won’t have the chance to pass laws preventing this, but we will be out on the picket lines with your kid’s teachers, when they inevitably strike to protect their jobs and the quality of education.

Third, a lot of the cuts are likely to be trumpeted as ‘local democracy’. Concrete Tory proposals for local authorities will free them from the spending ringfences imposed by central government, and allow them to gut funding of the voluntary sector and public services. Unfavourable ‘public consultations’ will simply be ignored.

‘Local democracy’ is the catchphrase being used by Tories to annihilate the universality of public services. Through ‘top-up fees’, Barnet Tories plan to allow rich people to bunk queues and get additional services, while the general public can lump it, and, oh, have staffing levels in public services cut.

Only a socialist alliance, advocating working class solidarity and action from the ground up, can stand up to a class-based attack on what little wealth redistribution and equality remains. This won’t be Labour, still living in the shadow of its capitulation to Thatcherite economics.

It certainly won’t be the racist BNP, to which a lot of working class Labour voters have fled.

It can be TUSC.

New Labour and the ‘Good Society’

January 23, 2010 18 comments

Harriet Harman in a speech to Compass ironically titled “the Good Society” dwelt on the subject of how equality needs to be examined and addressed through the State. As she is the Minister for Equality, this won’t come as a galloping shock to most people, but what was particularly surprising was how little meat she managed to get away with attaching to the New Labour rhetoric and its usual attempt to be both self-congratulatory and critical of the Conservatives.

“Equality,” declared Harman, “must, of course, mean the absence of discrimination on grounds of race, gender, faith, sexual orientation, disability and age”. Yet, she continued, “we also know that overarching and interwoven with these strands is the persistent inequality of social class.” All the usual prostituted buzzwords follow; aspiration, opportunity, values, commitment, fairness and so on.

There’s nothing radical about this idea, and certainly nothing radical about the basis on which Harman’s National Equality Panel was set up “to document the relationship between inequalities in people’s economic outcomes – such as earnings, income and wealth – and their characteristics and circumstances such as gender, age, ethnicity or class.”

Quite the opposite of radical, Harman seems to conflate the issue of equality with the issue of identity. This looks at the question the wrong way around, as straightforward income inequality is ultimately caused by low pay. Low pay, in its turn, is not caused by the poor education that might result from growing up in a poor family. It exists independently, and even a nation of rocket scientists will still pay Tesco GAs poorly.

Why certain individuals are ‘unequal’ can be mapped using gender, age, race, social class and so on, but this does not challenge the fact the inequality is a prerequisite of capitalism. It does not change that at all points in time, some people must occupy the worst-paid rung of the economy, some people the best, whatever their respective backgrounds and circumstances. Even if the races were equal in their share of poverty,this still doesn’t mean it’s okay for someone to be earning the minimum wage.

For Harman, it’s mostly a matter of equal opportunities, of state intervention at specific points to improve equal economic outcomes. This matters less to me when at some level it’s dealing with equally bad economic outcomes.

This type of policy may end up with people on all levels of income making up a roughly representative sample of the workforce, rather than lesser incomes having higher proportions of immigrants, non-white races, older people and disabled people than the general workforce, but I doubt it.

Such an acceleration of minorities will provoke an ideological backlash that will elect a hostile Tory government. For Harman’s conception of inequality doesn’t acknowledge the idea of class power, the concept that the people at the top have a vested interest in continuing to accumulate the wealth and structural power that helps to sustain and extend the imbalance that exists. These interests have never been reticent at exploiting prejudices and the view that some parts of the whole, e.g. ethnic minorities, are doing better at the expense of other parts.

Harman’s ideas simply press for helping certain parts of the lower rungs. I support this, as race, gender etc shouldn’t be determinants of one’s future position in society – but this is not all that needs doing, if we’re to combat the class agenda laid out above.

Unless this agenda is supplemented with a full-fledged attempt to redress actual inequality also, rather than just relative inequalities, to unite the working class regardless of gender, race, age, disability, creed or ‘social class’, it will be stymied.

Addressing actual inequality, also known as redistributive politics, would see funds flow into the poorest parts of the country, massive schemes for socialized housing and community facilities. It would see power flow from the State, whatever its agenda, to people – e.g. through taking the chains off the organised labour movement, and allowing people to come to an understanding with one another. This is itself a class project, the opposite class project to the gathering of all the reins of power into the hands of a few already-powerful and wealthy people.

The class power bestowed on the working class could then be used to overwhelm the opposition and challenge all forms of inequality. This is not what Harman has in mind, of course. The best Harman could cite as a New Labour policy aim was Clause 1 of the Equality Bill:

“[I]n every important action these public authorities take, and in every important decision they make, they will have to ask themselves – “will this help tackle the inequalities in our society which are rooted in income and wealth?”  This will apply to Government departments.  It will apply to the decisions of Ministers, as well as to local government and to Regional Development Agencies.”

Which is all very noble, I’m sure, but it rather escapes the harmful effect many of New Labour’s more direct policies have; the employer-friendly Work Trial scheme, the continuing attempt to squeeze even valid claimants off ESA, the effects of privatising council housing stock on rent costs, housing standards and numbers of Houses in Multiple Occupancy, bailing out the banks (plus bonuses) and landing the cost on the working class and so on. The proof in the pudding is that inequality under New Labour is the worst since records began in 1961 (h/t).

But this is not just a case of New Labour talking Left and acting Right.

Through the idea of equality, as defined by Harriet Harman and her New Labour colleagues, the Labour leadership are trying to find a pressure valve, through which to vent and re-direct the ambitions and passions of Labour members away from “outdated” issues like trades union rights, that could directly achieve, and encourage workers themselves to achieve, better terms and conditions from employers and ultimately a better deal from the State. Unfortunately far too many, including the Guardian, get taken in.

Instead the issue of equality is to be addressed in bureaucratic fashion through the arms of the managerialist state. I do not believe this to be sufficient.

Owen Jones’ Five Point Plan and our Left New Media project

October 30, 2009 14 comments

Owen Jones emailed me last week to ask if I’d look at his article, “Left out of the picture”, which is over at Socialist Unity. Owen describes a basic plan for left-wing reorientation, another Future of the Left-type article, and I figured that the least I could do was to examine what Owen’s suggesting and see how I think it measures up.

Let me begin with this, though. Since the mid-1980s, the Left has been having a debate about why we were beaten. That should emphasize just how traumatic our defeat was, how utterly routed we all were in the face of aggressive neo-liberal reforms, backed by state sanctioned stong arming.

Twenty five years later, the Left is still pretty disorganised but both over- and under-estimating the extent to which this is the case have real dangers. The only way to correct such over- and under-estimation is a hard, historical look at the state of class struggle in the 20th Century UK.

Whilst I understand the dangers of seeming like the pub bore, earnestly wittering on about the same few topics, I cannot overstate how important a sense of proportion is. For example, we might speak of the death of the Labour Party from the grassroots upwards – but we can’t know that this is the case without looking back to see how many people were meeting in constituencies ten, thirty or fifty years ago.

How many workers are on strike, year on year? How have patterns of unionisation and union density shifted and why? What are the dominant types of work and how might this affect our organisational plans? What do full time union staff spend their days doing, while on the union payroll and what might they otherwise be doing, or what are they doing wrong, to leave trades unionism numerically stagnant?

What goes on at Socialist Party, Socialist Workers’ Party and Labour Party branches? What are the dominant forms of activity and how might these be better orientated so as to improve organisation? What do the ‘leaders’ of the Labour Left, like John McDonnell, or the union Left, like Bob Crow, do with the time and resources they have by virtue of their positions?

There is an empirical element of all of our pontifications, on the Left, that is often lacking. I am as guilty of this as anyone – but it can be rectified. It must be rectified if the endless debate on the ‘future of the left’ is ever to bear fruit. So here is my first proposal, which I think runs concurrently with some of the things Owen has suggested. We must have this empirical information and it must be accessible to everyone.

That was the space, as I conceived it, for our attempt at the Left New Media idea under the auspices of John McDonnell MP. Coupled to that, the impressive number of academics tied to socialist political parties, from Professor Callinicos right down the line, must help by directing their time, skill and energy to creating a picture intelligible to the evidence and the theory of socialism, of where we stand and where we might go. All too often it does not feel that this is what is going on.

For it is all very well to say “We need more trades unionists” or “We need more party members” or “Recruit to support X against the Labour bureaucracy!” but we’ve been doing the same thing for years and it evidently hasn’t got us anywhere. Why? Is it because our attempts to organise are isolated and uneven? Are they unsystematic? Basically, what is the problem?

Any Leftist could come up with these questions, which are important. And a facility should exist to help us draw together evidence from all around the UK and synthesize it. This facility does not exist. The knowledge and institutional memory of the organisations of the Left is partial only. This is not step one, a prerequisite. It must be done continually alongside everything else we do, conditioned by our experience of class struggle, or it is useless.

Now, on to Owen’s points, of which there are five.

[1]…All too often the left is preoccupied with issues that appeal to middle class and student activists. Generally speaking, these are things happening thousands of miles away or abstract theoretical questions. We shall never win mass support if these continue to be our obsessions at the expense of issues that actually concern our base. We need to establish a presence in working class communities.

This is something I say all the time. Most recently I said it with regard to the Kent Socialist Students’ meeting on Afghanistan. The working class are concerned about Afghanistan and Iraq. That is pretty clear. Here in the south east, no few people are parents or relatives of soldiers who have been sent to fight. So it’s wrong to proscribe all anti-war work, for example, as something which is happening thousands of miles away and about which only students and the middle class are concerned. There is a clear class element to the war.

However, equally, since we only have a limited number of activists in a given area and a limited amount of time to spend on given campaigns, we must choose carefully what to organise on. Plenty of shops – even those employing several dozen people – are completely un-unionized in Canterbury, for example. Jobs are being threatened by the council, not to mention our posties are out on strike but our student group is not making the argument that, if workers don’t oppose cuts, their jobs are likely next. This demonstrates a disconnect.

This is the trade-off which Owen describes, though again I would emphasize that it’s not so stark as that. A strong anti-war movement has provided support to workers and influenced consciousness – as during the FBU strike, where soldiers had to man the Green Goddesses. I would simply contend, as Owen does, that we need to push both issues of national import, like the war, and issues of local import, like unionization – because these apparent opposites are actually the same thing and will feed off each other if we work them both.

Coming back to my earlier point, however, are we not doing this? We only have sporadic reports from individuals who choose to publish their activities online and our own experience to use as evidence on which to judge. Insufficient data.

Second, we have to start talking about issues of concern to working people that we have not traditionally been comfortable with. Take immigration: it regularly tops opinion polls as one of people’s main worries. We can’t just dismiss this as primitive racism that simply needs to be fought. […]

Third, the left has ceased trying to appeal to the working class as a whole. All too often we focus almost exclusively on small minorities instead. Part of this is the legacy of the New Left of the 1960s, a movement which essentially felt that the working class had lost its revolutionary potential. They replaced it with oppressed minority groups like ethnic minorities, gays, or even students

Owen is right in that we need to talk about immigration. Yet I don’t really think that we ignore it. The problem is that the proposals of the Left are not simple, and are based off a radical critique of the State and capitalism that is not self-evident. Indeed terms such as “capitalism” have fallen off the radar of Joe Public to the point where leaflets handed out by Socialist groups, which may have been easily intelligible in the 1970s, are not quite so intelligible now.

Here is another issue over which understanding the practice of groups across the UK would be useful. Do we have sites sharing a selection of socialist leaflets, details of what type of activities produce our desired ends? Not really. We simply print stuff off, guillotine it into A5 and hope for the best. Which is fine and dandy, but we need to know that if we put out a message blaming the bosses for trying to import cheap labour, and damage the lives of ALL workers, immigrant or indigenous, that it hits home.

Additionally, an issue like immigration is hard to organise over. We’re not calling for it to be banned, we’re calling for workers to be paid decent wages – all workers. So maybe the problem isn’t at all that our explanations go over the heads of a lot of people, but that standing on the street handing out leaflets is a shitty way to organise. Instead, perhaps, we should be going into workplaces and handing out leaflets to workers directly, with the goal of organising for local negotiations and potentially strikes to improve wages etc.

That way, when somebody says “I want to get those fucking nogs out of here”, we can say “Actually they’re treated shit too, and if they work while you’re on strike, you’re fucked, so why not bring them on board and we’ll all help each other?” We may not convince the most outspoken of anti-immigrationists or win every battle every time, but we’ll make sense to some people – and having some people in each workplace is vital. These are the questions we need to address when talking about how we approach immigration as an issue.

It is my belief that the soft Left shows its true colours over issues like this, where it prefers a touchy-feely approach to simply pointing a metaphorical gun at the head of bosses and demanding money and concessions with menaces, which in turn is likely to bind together all ‘races’ better than all the multicultural guff in the world. Which links to Owen’s third point; we explode the question of focussing on minorities by focussing on issues that confront the whole working class – dissolving identity politics into broader struggle, whilst still recognizing the importance of anti-homophobia battles and so forth.

Fourth, when the left does talk about working class issues, our target audience is generally unionised public sector workers.

Owen is bang on here too. The problem, of course, is that a vast number of private sector workers are not unionised. And they need to be. One of the greatest tricks by General Motors in the US was to declare bankruptcy and then sue to void all the collective bargaining agreements made with unions about things like pensions, wages and so forth. So essentially the company escaped its obligations to the workers who were the lifeblood of the company, both then and for generations past. This is what private companies do to workers.

So why aren’t we pushing for unionisation? Buggered if I know. I don’t understand the inertia. Is it because workers don’t want to listen? Is it because the existing union bureaucracies aren’t actually trying? A lack of information kills this debate dead – and whilst we have a lot of promising trades union sites growing up on the web, and while we have our own experience, and while we can try ourselves to see what works, we’re overstretched as it is trying to fight fifteen other campaigns. So we need to find out what works and target our efforts.

Finally (and perhaps at the root of the problem), the people who make up the left are simply not representative of today’s working class. Most British workers are employed in the service sector. To say these workers are under-represented among the left’s ranks is an understatement to say the least. Put simply: the left has too many people like me.

I feel this problem keenly. Whilst I am technically working class in that I sell my labour for wages, I’ve been to Oxford and it’s like a disfiguring disease – you can really tell. Not to say I’m not personable and good at recruiting, because actually I am. And I don’t talk about Habermasian public spheres and dialectical negations of the negation when I’m knocking on people’s doors. But I’m hardly representative of the concerns of the broader working class – essentially I have to guess what might work.

Owen is right that we need to correct that. Sometimes, actually, I think that the SWP had the correct approach when it ordered some of its cadres to enter certain occupations in order to organise them all the better. This requires a supreme dedication, to give up whatever job you really want to do, in favour of a revolutionary activity in a job you may not be all that bothered about. But maybe this is the sort of thing we need, because full time union organisers and lecturing people on the high street evidently aren’t getting the job done.

Yet to conclude on a key note, I do not know nor can I guess whether these five points make up the primary problems with socialist organisation in the UK. I can see ways to address each of them, and I can see how doing so would improve socialist activism across the country. I can see how doing so would improve our chances of actually emerging victorious from a few fights, or at least being defeated but through each defeat laying the organisational basis for future success. No doubt there are other things beyond Owen’s five point plan.

Personally I feel a bit let down by the Labour Representation Committee, of which Owen is a member, that an organisation with such radical potential to appeal to a large chunk of the socialist Left, not to mention to engage a lot of unionised workers, has been such a dismal failure hitherto. Besides having the only decent parliamentarians in the country, and doing some really good work when it comes to immigrant workers and youth wages and so forth, the LRC is no further on now than it was when I first joined back in 2006/7.

It is entirely possible that this feeling is as a result of not living in London, where the LRC, like most socialist groups, tends to have its strongest base – but the isolation of the regions in British politics is something else that the Left will simply have to overcome – and while people likeVice Chair Susan Press do good works, it’s not nearly enough. Truthfully Owen’s five points should have been in operation years ago, and someone like John McDonnell and his sterling team of assistants should have been holding people’s feet to the fire to get every available individual involved in organising.

I’ll be happy if that is what comes of Owen’s proposals, made as they are a few weeks in advance of the LRC national conference.


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