Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Differing philosophies on the left

The platform debate at the recent Left Unity conference addressed, in a way, a philosophical division which has been evident within the Left over many decades. It's not a specifically Left phenomenon; exactly the same split can be seen in churches, where it's been studied by the sociologists. I originally came across this when I studied theology way back. It seems to be something to do with human psychology, and the way we organise ourselves into groups. Unfortunately, it's affected the British Left in a particularly damaging way. It's a subject I approach with trepidation, as some  may take offence, but I think it's one that we need to take seriously.

Several of the platforms on offer - the Republican Socialist Platform,. Communist Platform, and Socialist Platform - are close to the old Hard Left, and resemble the ideas of smaller churches which are known to the sociologists as 'sects'. I have to be careful here as people don't like being told they're a sect! A consistent characteristic they're not good at coping with differences of opinion. So boundaries are clearly drawn. In a church context, everyone's expected to sign up to a list of 'essential' or 'fundamental' doctrines; in a political context, membership is only open to socialists, sometimes socialists of a particular ilk. The harder the boundaries are drawn, the smaller the group usually becomes. In an extreme case, we have something like the Westboro Baptist Church, which seems to hate everyone except itself, and consists of little more than a single family, or the Maoist slave cult which was discovered recently.

These, of course, are aberrations, and I'm not making a judgement on this style of organisation. One of its weaknesses, which is only too obvious on the British Left, is its fissiparity. Hard left parties, like sectarian churches, split easily, and often squabble over petty things. I remember someone I knew dismissing a left-wing bookshop with a shrug. 'They're old-fashioned Stalinists'. I wasn't interested in the owner's theology, rather in the fact that he sold a very useful range of books. It was on a level with the church where I was once told that Methodists 'don't worship God properly' because we don't insist that the ladies wear hats in church. They're not very adaptable either. This, of course, is a function of their difficulty coping with difference, and possibly of their weakness. I doubt whether a thriving movement would have such petty difficulties. The result has been the proliferation of Left parties, which has made its own contribution to the Left's weakness.

Then there were the Left Party Platform and the aims moved by the Internal Democracy Commission, which are designed to create a wider movement, and which received far more support on the day. These are closer to what the sociologists call a 'church'. This is better at handling differences, and, in a political context, attracts people who want to work within a wider movement. So we have something like the Labour Left, or the Anglican Church, which includes people with a very wide range of theologies and ways of being church. It has its own problems. This is where the Labour Party poses a difficulty; it has attracted people with this approach, and effectively ensured that the Left would remain divided and weak. It's where I'm coming from myself.

I remember being surprised by the resemblances I found way back between the hard left parties and 'sects', but it explained the way I reacted to the choices on offer. I had bad experiences of sectarian churches, and hard left parties weren't for me either. I can't live with being lectured about my theological 'errors'! At the same time, the Labour left had obvious problems. The move rightward was in its early stages, but it was already evident that we weren't going to change society from within an organisation where we had no power. I left shortly after Blair took over.

Sects - I'm using the term in its sociological sense - are characteristic of groups of people who feel threatened or marginalised. So sectarian churches often flourish in poor communities, while the broader 'churches' are more middle-class. Sometimes the threat is a psychological one, even an imagined one. So US fundamentalism, which is extremely sectarian, has roots in the reaction against the abolition of slavery, and in a reaction against the urbanisation and industrialisation of the 19th Century US. It flourishes on largely imagined threats; evolution, the 'war on Christmas', abortion, Obamacare, and so on. It's something of a cultural aberration, but, from several thousand miles away, it's an interesting one.

It's easy to see how this style of organisation can flourish in working class communities which are often marginalised and threatened. Groups of people draw hard boundaries around themselves out of a need to define themselves against the bosses, or against a more powerful class which is excluding them. Back in Victorian times, it wasn't unknown for wealthy Wesleyan Methodist businessmen to build churches, and then insist that their workforce attend them if they wanted to keep their jobs. There were cases where people got together and built a Primitive Methodist church; this was the working class form of Methodism. If all the potential workers were in their own church, the boss had to employ them, and see his own building remain empty. They were under the boss's eye all week, why should it be the same on a Sunday? In a political context, people organised in unions. It worked well until the 1970's.

 Nowadays, the threats people face are different, and so is the political scene. Labour has moved decisively right, and has undermined its democratic structures to the point where it probably can't be moved left from within. Whether an external threat form a Left party can force it to move remains to be seen. The Tories, whose vote has been declining steadily for half a century, have been unable to win an election outright for over twenty years. Threatened from the right by UKIP, they're looking more and more like a spent force. Meanwhile, there's a vacuum on the left.

Meanwhile, people are more marginalised than ever, but in different ways. Rather than depending on a wage packet alone, many people have their incomes topped up by benefits. This weakens the relationship with the employer, and creates one with the state which traditional modes of organisation are powerless to address. Power structures within workplaces may be more diffuse, and workers far less secure. Bosses may be too remote for workplace structures to influence; the recent Grangemouth debacle is an example of this. Meanwhile, people are threatened by privatised utilities, rack-renting landlords, rapacious banks, and all the panoply of neoliberalism. Many of them are only too well aware of the language of the 1% and the 99%, and stand well to the left of Labour on issues like nationalisation. the scene should be set for a Left revival, but we're failing to communicate.

We need new structures, new tactics, new strategies, and the field is open to the first party to develop them. My instinct is that we need to be a broad party, but not too broad. Labour is a reformist, social democratic party which found space for socialists; we need to be the other way round. If someone's walking down the same road as we are, they should be welcome to walk with us for as far as they want to go. They shouldn't, however, be able to take us down a different road altogether.

There some good ideas about how we might organise here. I have my own thoughts about community organising, but that's a subject for another post.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Birmingham City Council budget 2014 workshop

Yesterday I went to an invitation-only workshop on the 2014 BCC budget at the new library. It was run by BMG Research (they even privatise consultations to some extent), but at least that meant we didn't have to listen to Albert Bore pontificating. I wasn't involved in last year's consultations, but I've heard dire tales of his taking up an hour and a quarter out of a two-hour session. Thirty-one people were invited, and i believe they expected about twenty to turn up. In the event, all thirty-one were there. This may indicate the strength of feeling about the cuts.

We had to discuss a series of pretty general questions like '[Should the Council] target services for those most in need, but reduce them for others?' We then voted on a menu of options, usually support/support to some extent/do not support. We did this on the basis of inadequate information; the budget had only been published shortly before the meeting, and fact sheets weren't given out until after it finished. Part of the three hours was spent in smaller groups which could discuss issues in more detail.

I don't know what the Council hopes to gain from the exercise, but as a consultation it was of limited value, ans given the local Labour Group's record, I imagine decisions have already been made. Last year's consultation was completely ignored, and I anticipate that this one will be as well. In many ways we were at loggerheads with what the council is trying to do to the city.

Results will apparently be posted in a couple of weeks, but people consistently voted against cuts. A real conflict was apparent over the idea of volunteers stepping in to replace Council services. Several participants were already involved in volunteering. The unfortunate woman running that part of the meeting tried very hard to get us to talk about how volunteers could cope, but eventually had to give up after being told repeatedly that it was unworkable. Working together across services got a better reception, and there were mixed feelings about district committees.

As the meeting progressed, participants became steadily more vocal, especially in the smaller groups. I think we had a consensus that further cuts aren't wanted, that volunteers cannot replace services, and that the situation isn't the Council's fault. If the government addressed the problem of tax evasion, and then cuts might not be necessary.  If the government hopes they can unload cuts onto councils, and watch them take the blame, or BCC thinks it can do the same with district committees, they may be disappointed.

Part of the problem, of course, is that way BCC has given in without a fight. It could have done great things to marshal opposition to the government, but it hasn't the courage of a mouse. Albert Bore's complaints about Pickles in the Guardian are too little and too late. Councillors seem to see themselves as managers rather than people elected to represent the people, and ensure the best possible deal for them. The likes of the Clay Cross councillors who fought a lengthy battle against the Housing Finance Act 1972, which was repealed in 1975, are nowhere to be seen. In the face of a government like this one, a managerial approach will go nowhere.

I suppose the workshop had value in indicating the mood music, if anyone was listening. The main lesson I've picked up from it all is the importance of standing people against the current Councillors. If you take the fight to the enemy, then you never know. You might even win.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Left Unity Founding Conference

It was a very long day. Up at five, after getting next to no sleep, to go up to London for the Founding Conference. I was determined not to miss it, but I wasn't well to start with, and CFS reduces me to something like a wet blancmange quite easily.  I was exhausted before we even began. As you see, the room was crowded with several hundred people. I'm not sure of the total, but it must have been over four hundred. Richard Seymour has written a good report here.

I hate taking photos showing the backs of people's heads, but when I tried propping up the wall to take them, my head was spinning, and I gave that up. Never mind; the more important thing is that I lost track at times. I wasn't the only one.

I hadn't managed to find a way of paying the subscription. I don't have a bank card which works, and I may not be the only interested person who's been rendered destitute by the government's behaviour towards sick and disabled people, so this is something which needs sorting.  However, I'm sure it's no more than a teething problem. I went as an observer, which was a lot better than nothing. The lack of a creche was a difficulty for some, but that again is something which can be sorted for future events. More serious was the lack of breaks, as having to climb over people to go to the toilet is downright embarrassing. We were bound to overrun, and it would have been better to add an hour on the end of the meeting, and ensure there was ample time for breaks.

One of the first things we considered was the 'Safer Spaces' policy, which deals with abuse. This is important, as allegations of abuse are as likely to occur in Left circles as anywhere else. At the same time, I always felt the policy was a potential nightmare, and was glad it was sent back for reconsideration by a large majority. It hadn't been subjected to democratic scrutiny before, so this established an important precedent.

I've been abused myself, so I'm well aware of the importance of addressing this. At the same time, I've also been on the receiving end of a false allegation. A girl pushed past me at a classroom door, and then claimed I'd touched her inappropriately. The class all backed me, and insisted that nothing happened, but I was suspended until Social Services looked at it. The situation was resolved quite quickly, but these things can drag on for months and even years, and it was a complete nightmare while it lasted.

Safer Spaces as it originally stood started with a long lecture about abuse, which struck me as unnecessary. Most of us know about it already, and teaching your granny to suck eggs isn't generally a good idea. The result was that it was far longer then it needed to be, and made very heavy weather of the subject. It ended with a boilerplate safeguarding policy, which was bureaucratic and cumbersome, like most of them. What we need is something much more streamlined, which takes allegations seriously, but at the same time safeguarda anyone who's accused innocently - this is where a lot of existing policies break down - and puts the emphasis on resolving matters as swiftly as possible.

We spent some time on a series of 'platforms', or political positions.  Some of these were in the same mould as the statements of the traditional Left parties; the Socialist Platform, Communist platform, and so on. I wasn't sorry these were rejected. Any voluntary group, whether it's a church, political party, or whatever, will work in roughly the same way. It'll draw people into the periphery, perhaps because they're looking for company, or because they identify with a particular project or campaign, all sorts of reasons. It'll then seek to draw them further in, and turn them into activists. The harder the boundaries are drawn, the more difficult it becomes for people on the margins, and the smaller the resulting group is likely to be.

We accepted two platforms; the Left Party Platform, with amendments, and the Hackney/Tower Hamlets statement, along with a statement in the body of the Constitution. This leaves us with three political positions, which are a little contradictory in places, but all are broad enough to be workable. No doubt things will be smoothed out in time. The various platforms can be found at the end of this post.

Most of the day was spent working through the Constitution, in detail. This was extremely hard going, but I was impressed with the effort put in, especially by the local groups which put in amendments. Some points were controversial. I'm not sure why some were so determined to oppose the idea of 50% female representation in leadership, but it was passed overwhelmingly, which is what matters. Another point concerned a lower age limit for membership. An amendment to remove a lower limit of 13 was passed, but not before someone had sung a song about childhood. She was a talented singer, but I don't know who she thought she was going to convince. An amendment to ensure that the Conference rotated round major cities, with the leadership based in Birmingham, was narrowly defeated. There's  a clear desire to avoid London-centricity, which made it into the Constitution, and it would be worth bringing this back at a later date.

Caucuses and sections were accepted. Like-minded people within a party are going to meet together whatever happens, and this has to be accepted. The final decline of Labour began with a witch-hunt against Militant during the Thatcher era, and we need to avoid the possibility of anything like this by recognising the legitimacy of such groups within  any broad party.

Things can go wrong in any organisation, of course. We need to guard against the rise of any faction which seeks to follow the path Labour and the union bureaucracies took, of trying to improve conditions within capitalist society, rather than working to replace it. Evils aren't removed, only mitigated, and, as we see from the history of the last thirty years, it's always possible for the elite to reassert themselves and undo the good work of earlier generations. We have to welcome reformists into our midst, as allies and potential coverts to Socialism, while remaining Socialist in our aims. Future generations may find that difficult, but that's a problem for them to solve. It's likely that any party can only have a limited lifespan before it becomes as moribund as those it replaced.

A motion to  raise the majority required to alter the Constitution from 50% to 70% was defeated, though I think we may have to return to this at some point. Labour's Clause Four debate showed how a party's fundamental documents can be eviscerated, and it's unwise to allow this to happen too easily. For the moment, however, things are still in a state of flux. No doubt we made mistakes yesterday, and for the moment, it remains possible to put these right without too much trouble.

Once we'd finished with the Constitution, we used the remaining half-hour for short speeches on a couple of issues. A lot of work had to be left for future Conferences, but that's probably no bad thing. I went feeling that we were tackling too much too fast. By the end of the day, I was much reassured, but the fact remains that a new type of political party can't be created overnight. By this time everyone was exhausted, and the chair appeared to be a complete wreck.

For the moment, the mould of British politics has been broken. For the first time, we have party making a genuine attempt to be democratic as every level. At last, people have the chance to join something which will allow them real participation, rather than using them as election fodder for the benefit of an elite, while at the same time failing to represent their interests.

We still need to make it work, and build it up to the point where we can challenge the buggers at the polls.  It's going to take years before we can make real progress; my guess is about a decade, though I may be wildly wrong in either direction. Meanwhile, there's no reason why we can't manage a few Council seats. Given the low turnout for local elections, many incumbents will be vulnerable once we build up healthy constituency parties. There's no reason why we can't get there!

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Lobby of John Hemming's Surgery

John Hemming is the LibDem MP for Birmingham Yardley; like most of his tribe, he voted in favour of keeping the Bedroom Tax in place. Two of the LibDems voted against, and I feel it's worth perusing the rest a bit to see if we can peel any more off. Many of them seem to be political prostitutes whoo'll throw their every principle and promise overboard for the chance of a ministerial salary, but you never know. So a bunch of us turned out this morning to picket his regular surgery, in a converted shop used by the Yardley LibDems.

Before long, a man who turned out to be Councillor Neil Eustace, of Yardley North Ward. He was quite aggressive, threatened to have us all arrested, called us 'rentamob',and told us to 'grow up' and 'get a job'. He's got a conviction for thumping his girlfriend, but he didn't have the guts to go too far with several of us there. He photographed us - you can see from the above how many of us there were at the time, but according to him we were causing an obstruction. He went back inside, and before long the police showed up.

Here he is, aggressive body language and all, after they arrived. They were very supportive, and said straight out that they could see it was a peaceful protest, and we were exercising our democratic rights. They went in and recovered a poster we'd put on the door. Eustace had removed it and taken it inside, and we wanted our property back. Eustace didn't look too pleased that I presumed to photograph him!

Today's Rob Punton's fiftieth birthday. 

My policy with police is to be nice, try to keep them on our side, but never tell them anything. They're police, after all.

Eventually Hemming himself came out, after the surgery finished. He was quite happy to pontificate at us, but didn't like us answering back at all, and very soon disappeared without being able to answer a single one of our points. He tihnks people can pay the Bedroom Tax by letting their spare rooms, for instance. He's let property, but then he's a millionaire with spare houses. I told him that I tried letting a room once, and it was a disaster; it's a bit different when you're sharing a flat with someone. He changed the subject at once.

I had another argument with Eustace before we left; he doesn't seem ti understand that other people besides himself have democratic rights. By that time we were all well cold, and went off to the MacDonalds opposite for coffee before we went home.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Bedroom Tax meeting in Parliament

I feel a bit guilty about not writing this before - it's been two days - but I've had a persistent attack of migraine which makes it hard to keep going, It hasn't gone away yet, but I'll try.

It was a 6am start and a very long day. When we got there, security was over the top. My coat was searched repeatedly by a very puzzled woman who couldn't make out the picture on the scanner. Eventually I realised that it was the contents of an old envelope which was worrying her; it contained a couple of keys which I've just had cut for the church. They didn't fit too well - the place I normally use wasn't open - and so I'd stuck a needle file in the envelope as well, intending to have a go at them next time I pass the church. They took the file off me, and I forgot to go back for it. No matter; I meant to get anothe set from Poundland anyway. Inside, police were wandering about with sub-machine guns, which is hardly calculated to make anyone feel safe. Obviously, they do need security, but I think we're far too accepting about the security state. It's long gone time to roll some of it back!

Inside, it's a rather intimidating maze. A guide took us through to a dark-panelled committee room, with paintings glowering down at us from the walls. It reminded me of the library at school, whch gave me the creeps last time I was in the place. Inside were about seventy campaigners, some of whom i knew already. Most of the people organising the campaign were there, plus several MP's. There was Rachel Reeves, the shadow DWP Minister, Stephen Timms, the shadow Employment minister, Jack Dromey from Erdington, Ian Lavery, from Wansbeck, Kate Green, Shadow Minister for disabled people, and Wayne Davd, PPS to David Milliband.

They started out telling us all about what they'd promised to do, not just about the bedroom tax, which they say they'll repeal straight after the election, but other hot issues as well. I think they expected a bunch of polite people who were just going to listen repspectfully, and they didn't seem to know how to handle what happened next. People exploded. They were shouted at and howled down repeatedly, and lectured about how we'll vote for them - as most of us would love to do - if they keep their promises this time. By the end of it they were almost pleading with us; they really will keep their promises, they said. After 'New Labour', I'll believe it when I see it.

They've been promising to repeal the Bedroom Tax for some time, and I don't doubt they'll do it. It's unworkable, can't save money, and people are left with nowhere to move to. When specific questions are asked, people don't support it. The Tories have misrepresented a  recent poll as indicating support, but if you go right through and look at every question, a different picture appears. Opinions are split, and if people have nowhere to move to, the common situation, support disappears. There's a good summary here, with a link to the survey at the bottom. Opinions seem to be shifting on benefits, with the percentage thinking they're 'too high' shrinking steadily. We'll win on the Bedroom Tax, and we need to keep going on the rest of it.

The PLP could do better, though, by putting some pressure on Labour councils to commit themselves to no eviction policies, It's a difficult mess, but there are far too many of them which, like Birmingham, seem to see themselves as managers rather than representatives. When governments bring in policies like this, they don't look for ways to fight back and support the people who elect them.

Apart from repealing the Bedroom Tax again, they promised to build social housing. That was one of the points that concerned me; they've promised 200 000 houses a year, but if it's for private sale, it'll leave a much of the problem untouched. We need council housing, in huge quantities, to replace what's been sold off, and we need to ensure that people have decent quality accommodation with security of tenure. They're going to bring the benefits bill down by raising wages to the living wage - I doubt whether the proposed voluntary scheme will really solve that one - and by bringing down rents, not by hammering claimants. They're going to bring in controls on private lets, and get rid of the Work Capability Assessment which is causing so much trouble for sick and disabled people. We didn't pin them down on some details; they were asked about sanctions, but didn't answer.

Rachel Reeves was very keen to have us believe that the Observer misrepresented her recently with its headline that she was going to be tougher than the Tories on benefits, but she stood by what she actually said there. I read it again when I got home, and some of what she says is equivocal, to say the least. The article's here, if you want to have a look.  If they really do what they've said, it'll go some way to solving the problems, but there's work to be done still.

After the meeting, I spoke at a lobby going on outside. Shortly after I did so, a policeman rushed up and told us all to move, without offering any explanation. We didn't do so till we'd checked that there really was a bomb scare, and saw MP's evacuating the building. Apparently they thought they'd spotted a grenade in someone's bag in security. As if! I don't know why it sometimes fails to occur to policemen that they'd get a lot more willing cooperation by being a bit less arrogant, and offering a little explanation on these occasions.

There were numerous speakers; I got a word in myself, and I was very impressed with Melvin Bragg, who took the trouble to come over, and spoke well in our support.

Overall, it was well worth going, even at the cost of a two-day headache. I don't get those very often, and it's a clear warning sign that I pushed myself too far. They're talking to us now; we;ve come some distance from the day when they bolted Birmingham  Council House door against us. I've long felt there was potential to push Labour to the left, and if we keep having meetings like this, I think it'll happen. To some extent anyway. They must be aware that on some issues, like nationalisation the electorate is already to the left of them.

Right now, we have a political vacuum on the left. Either Labour can fill it - or some of it, anyway - or whatever Left Unity develops into can do so, or we're leaving ourselves wide open to some sort of updated national socialism. The gap won't be there for long, so we have to keep pushing. In its attempt to turn some of Thatcher's craziest dreams into reality, the government has over-reached itself so badly that there's every chance of a backlash changing the entire political consensus. Their attitude is so crass it would be laughable if it wasn't affecting real people. This article gives a good insight into the effect they're having on so many of us.

How far Labour can be pushed is open to question, but we have to try. It's likely to take a decade at least before we can mount a real electoral challenge, if we get that far at all. Anything could happen in the meantime. Of course, we still have the old structural problem. The Labour Party was always, at least until Blair took over, able to attract a section of the Left. I used to be in it myself. This left us divided and powerless. Labour's move to the right might have created an opportunity for the Left, but the old Left parties were unable to take advantage of it, and if Labour's capable of moving, a moot point in itself, we may have left it too late. However, there's no way to know.Let's keep on talking to the MP's, assuming they're willing, and see where we end up.

EDIT: UNITE have now put up this short video of the day. I can't get it to appear on the page properly, so a link is the best I can manage. 

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Birmingham Peoples' Assembly

I wasn't well when I attended the inaugural meeting of Birmingham Peoples' Assembly on Thurday night, and can't really do justice to it. With great daring and a small revolver, I feloniously kidnapped one of Adam Yosef's pics to illustrate the meeting; I'm sitting in the front row, in the green coat, and the Birmingham Clarion Singers are playing.

I went with nightmare visions of nobody turning up, but when I arrived an hour before it was due to start, I found there was already a buzz, and I was soon sitting at the door registering people. In the event, we got around 250, which isn't bad for Birmingham, as it lacks a radical Left tradition.

We had a notable array of speakers, including Paul Nowak, TUC Assistant General Secretary, Salma Yaqoob, Doug Morgan of the NUT, and Lee Baron, CWU Regional Secretary. If I heard right, there are now nineteen Peoples' Assemblies round the country, some in Tory constituencies. It seems we've started something, and there's no knowing where we're going to end up. That's no bad thing; if we set out with a fixed agenda, we'd be in danger of becoming nothing more than another Left splinter group. As it is, we've got space to grow organically, and develop new ideas for the new situations which have developed over the last generation.

I think we've started something vital, but we can't stop there. We need regular gatherings where we can talk about issues in detail, in a democratic, inclusive way where everyone can bring constructive points. We can't afford to fall into the old Left model of having shouting matches over each others' visions of some  imaginary socialist paradise, or different strategies to bring it about. From now on the only witches we hunt need to be on the political right. We have to reach a new, much wider audience or we're going nowhere.

One of the root problems which have led to our current democratic deficit, and the apathy it breeds, has been the lack of grassroots discussion forums for political issues. The media have been virtually taken over by the Right, the parties have abolished whatever democratic structures they once possessed, and the elite, whatever label they wear, effectively rule by fiat, with nothing between them but nuance. Andy Burnham promises to repeal the Health and Social Care Act, but says nothing about undoing the damage the Tories will already have done by then, or reversing that which 'New Labour' did before them. Nothing to say that the stealth privatisation of the NHS won't continue by a thousand cuts. Nothing changes but the style; gentle euthanasia rather than Cameron's bull in a china shop, and it's not good enough. A witches' bonfire would be too good for the lying bastards.

The Peoples' Assembly needs to become the forum we lack, and it has the potential for this. The idea has a grand pedigree, all the way back to the First Secession of the Plebs in 495 BC. The plebeians, or working people, of Rome left the city, and met together outside it. Effectively, it was a general strike - something we badly need if the unions ever have the bottle to call one - and changes resulted. Of course, the patricians remained in charge, like Old Etonians today, and those changes were only incremental. We need something more fundamental. We need to sweep away the rotten institutions of the old order before they bring the planet down about our ears. To do that, we need to replace them with better, and that's where we need these open conversations, lots of them. We have to pick up every last issue, pick it over thoroughly, and find a solution which is going to work, not just for a few wealthy individuals for the little time they have on this earth, but for everyone, and for the planet, for many lifetimes to come.

The centre which used to seem so secure has come apart; the falcon is wintering in Africa. Slow-thighed beasts, their hour come round at last, are slouching towards Bethlehem to be born.  We'd better make sure we're the midwives, and it's our beast that gets born, or the future could be  unspeakable. All the dystopian SF I used to read is waiting to return as reality.

Monday, 14 October 2013

The Times they are a-Changing

We always knew that, eventually, we were going to win the battle over the Bedroom Tax. It's so badly thought out that it's unworkable, especially given the drastic shortage of one-bedroom flats in social housing. But there have been times when it's felt hopeless. We've never managed to build up the sort of mass campaign that brought down Thatcher and her Poll Tax. It could probably have been done locally, in Ladywood, and still could be. But that would mean holding meetings at least once a month, and putting a lot of time into supporting people. The support hasn't been there to enable this to happen. Other cities have been more successful, but even there it hasn't been on the scale it might have been.

However, we're making our mark. Back in May, we lobbied the surgery of Albert Bore, the Council Leader and one of my local councillors. Ladywood has more people affected by the Bedroom Tax, so we couldn't have found anyone more appropriate to discuss it with. The surgery was held at the Council House - an odd, intimidating venue to choose - and they really didn't want us there. They locked the door against us, and only reluctantly let a couple of people in.

Last Tuesday, we lobbied the full Council meeting, and couldn't have had a more different reaction. Cllr John Cotton, Cabinet Member for Social Cohesion and Equalities (seen above talking to campaigners), came out, all smiles, with an official, collected 1500 signatures on a petition calling for no evictions - the latest batch, since we've handed a lot in previously - and we had a good talk. They were furious about the way the government has effectively set them up to fail, leaving them to administer something unworkable, with inadequate funding. They wouldn't promise no evictions, but they did emphasise that there are a lot of legal steps to go through before reaching that point, and that the don't want to evict. I'm sure that's true, but Housing Association tenants are less secure, due to the different conditions of tenancy. A stronger lead from the Council would make it easier to help them.

The change is partly due to the pressure on the Council, which must be unbearable for those working in housing. They're not bad people, even if they don't have the bottle to fight until they're really pushed. A large part of it, though, is due to campaigning. We've kept the Bedroom Tax in the public eye, made people aware of its stupidity, and scored a real coup when we got Raquel Rolnik, the UN invesitgator, on our side. It made the news in a way other aspects of the campaign haven't. We've made the politicians feel our presence as well, and however threatened the Council may have been a few months ago, they now seem, hopefully, to be viewing us as allies. 

We may not have had a mass campaign on the streets, but we've had a major internet presence, and that's made a vast amount of difference. Without it, nothing might have happened anywhere else. We mustn't underestimate the importance of traditional campaigning; protests, stalls, leafletting, etc, all reach out to people in a way the internet doesn't, especially when we're talking about the poorest, who often lack internet skills and access. Sometimes they get us coverage in the media, though most of them are suppressing news about protest. The miserable reporting of the NHS march in Manchester said it all. The BBC was challenged over it's pathetic effort, and all we got from them was a complacent piece of self-congratulatory media-speak. When 50 000 people hit the streets, they all know something's going on in the grassroots, and the only thought in their heads is to suppress it and hope it goes away.

They probably remember the Stop the War protests. They went away; a lot of people dropped it once the war reached its premature official end, and eventually the numbers turning out faded. But public opinion changed just at that time, and that wasn't coincidence. Until then, there had been widespread support for Blair's neocolonial adventures; since, wars have been unpopular, and that has to have fed into the government's unprecedented failure to win a vote on Syria. The NHS is different, however. Most people hold it in deep respect, and as the Tories try to kill it off via the death of a thousand cuts, so the protests will no doubt rumble on, and probably grow. I don't think their successors will dare privatise any further, but they need to be pushed into renationalising the bits that will already have been sold off. The likely result is deep damage, and the final demise of the Tory Party as an electoral force. We don't have to change public opinion on that one, just channel it.

The Bedroom Tax campaign may be quieter, but we're making steady progress. The last poll I saw showed 60% wanting it abolished. There are still a few people out there who claim it's 'fair', but most people understand fairness our way. It'll take time, and people are still suffering, but we're well on the way to winning this one. What we can't do is allow it to become a single issue campaign. We need to support the victims of the tax, while at the same time using it to raise awareness of the wider situation. If the Bedroom Tax is unfair, so is expecting people on inadequate benefits to contribute to their Council Tax; so are arbitary benefit sanctions; so is the treatment being meted out to disabled people; so are zero hours contracts. And so on.

With Labour threatening to be tougher on benefits than the Tories - the mind boggles - we need to use this as a wedge issue to raise awareness of other abuses. Let's be in no doubt about it; things like the Bedroom Tax, constant benefit sanctions, and ATOS assessments are abuses, and serious ones. They leave people without money to live on, in the seventh richest country in the world. What kind of nation are we, to wilfully leave people without the means to but food or heat their homes? Mainstream politics gives us a choice between the Tories, Tory lite (the remnants of the once great Labour Party), the Lib Dems, who'll pimp themselves to anyone to get a seat in government, and UKIP if you consider it a mainstream party. I don't. Here's Conservative Home crowing because Labour is stealing their clothes.

This is why we need a new party of the Left. Right now, the electorate is visibly to the left of Labour, supporting, for instance, renationalisation of rail, of utilities, of the Royal Mail. There's a political vacuum in Westminster, and we need to fill it, fast. Not only to build a party, but to avoid the awful alternative of some sort of zenophobic national socialism borrowing garments from both us and the traditional Right. The would-be emperors are fighting over invisible clothes, their willies waggling in the breeze, and sooner or later something will replace them. We don't need a Mussolini.