We couldn’t trust the Lib Dems before. Tim Farron has shown we still can’t

01.06.17 Originally published by the Guardian

“Hair-shirt, muesli-eating Guardian readers”. That’s what Tim Farron called us. Big words from a man whose party languishes at 8% in the polls. He accused Theresa May of taking her supporters for granted – well sure, but what do you call this? I’m not one to judge a political figure on a one-off television performance. It is, after all, not Britain’s Got Talent. But Farron’s behaviour on the BBC debate is symptomatic of an underlying and quite incurable condition: he’s a career politician. He will say whatever it takes to rescue his party from oblivion.

The Liberal Democrats betrayed a generation in coalition with the Tories. We couldn’t trust them under Nick Clegg and nor can we trust them under Farron, who came off in the debate like a – compelling, admittedly – used car salesman.

I was in my first year of university in London when the unthinkable move was made towards tripling university tuition fees and scrapping the education maintenance allowance (EMA). Clegg promised to vote against it, but we should have known what was coming.

Even with EMA, my mum had struggled to finance my sixth-form education. As the eldest in my family, I was haunted by the prospect that these reforms would elbow all my younger cousins out of higher education. On 24 November 2010, tens of thousands of young people took to the streets to hold the Lib Dems to their promise, to give them the confidence to keep it. I was among them. And they betrayed us.

Clegg talked the talk, but when it came to walking the walk he never managed to get so much as one foot in front of the other. Tuition fees were only the beginning. They slashed pensions. The leadership – criticised for links to private healthcare interests – lay down for the Health and Social Care Act that began the dismantling of our NHS. They couldn’t even decide where they stood on GCHQ mass surveillance of all our phone calls and emails, and sharing them with the US. So much for the pure-of-heart liberals.

By 2015 they were still making excuses for that first betrayal, even though Cameron’s policy director James O’Shaughnessy said Clegg was actually “keen” to raise fees and his apologies were “crap”. “I was absolutely between a rock and a hard place,” Clegg claimed. But even if that were true, it’s all relative. I’ll tell you who was actually between a rock and a hard place: the teenagers who knew enough about what this meant for them and the future of our country that they went marching toe-to-toe with riot police; the 15-year-old kids I saw crushed between panicked crowds and Whitehall railings as police horses charged unprovoked into the crowd. It was frightening, coming back after that. But we held the line anyway because we knew it was right. And we deserve a leader who will do the same.

There are many indicators that Farron is not that leader any more than Clegg was. His slippery flip-flopping on LGBT rights has been a recurrent red flag. After much interrogation, of course he’s now saying what a viable politician is expected to say in 2017. But as an LGBT woman I am insulted by his sudden vote-fishing around our community. His impassioned speeches on the refugee crisis may have also endeared him to a dwindling support base, but rhetorical commitment to human rights and civil liberties is no good unless you’ve got the courage to challenge their root causes here at home. The Lib Dems still show no signs of confronting the politics of austerity in any meaningful way, after breaking a sweat to justify it seven days a week for five long years in power. And we know now that it’s the damage that austerity has inflicted on our living standards and public services that has created such fertile ground for the politics of division and hatred.

Meanwhile, they talk the talk on privacy and civil liberties. But Farron’s administration would never have the courage to challenge the “war on terror”, which has justified total government surveillance and bullied our doctors and teachers into playing border security for the Home Office, frightening pregnant migrant women out of seeking prenatal care and making children of colour feel unwelcome in our schools. What’s the point of saying you value diversity when you can’t summon some outrage over that?

Of course, a politician who actually means what they say, well, that would be an entirely new kind of politics. That would ruffle tabloid feathers and cause a real fuss. Honesty is supposed to be unelectable these days. It’s not about policy but personality and fashion choices – about credibility in the eyes of a corrupt system. And Farron is a creature of that culture. He did well in the BBC debate because he knows how to perform. But when the votes are in and the cameras are off, we deserve more than a performer. We deserve conviction, consistency and respect, not someone who’ll turn on us “hair-shirt, muesli-eating Guardian readers” at a moment’s notice to score a cheap point.

I’m voting in a general election for the first time in my life next week. I’m voting for the guy who was out there with us in the cold autumn of 2010, speaking to the students when it was unpopular to do so and telling us we had the power to change things while the rest were preparing to turn their backs. Farron says the NHS is “personal” for him, and I believe him because it’s personal for all of us. But where was he when Jeremy Corbyn was turning out time and again on the picket lines in the wet and cold for our nurses and teachers – and for the lives of people around the world – back when there were no cameras to pose for and no votes to win? That’s the only kind of politician I’m prepared to trust.

 

Advertisements

Labour must keep marching left to appeal to the youth vote

21.06.17 Originally published by the Guardian

My earliest political memory was watching my grandmother with narrow eyes and a heavy sigh tear Tony Blair’s first Labour manifesto into pieces while on the phone to party head office to cancel her membership, breaking generations of family tradition. I sensed her grief but was too young to understand. I asked why she was leaving Labour and she said it was because they were scrapping clause IV on nationalisation, which she explained as “a promise to put working people in charge of their own lives”.

My family is from Dorset, a blue county since the dawn of time, not that this stopped my mum and my auntie dropping Jeremy Corbyn flyers on doorsteps, or my teenage cousins blasting Liar Liar out of the car stereo down the high street. My grandmother would have been so proud, not just of us but of all the young people in this country who are standing up now for all the things that matter. And I don’t need this week’s Ipsos Mori poll to tell me that: I see it every day.

That Labour just won its biggest share of the popular vote since 2001 is certainly thanks to Corbyn’s courageous manifesto, which moved beyond the language of anti-austerity to connect people with a genuinely inspiring alternative vision for the country.

But policies aren’t enough. What built the confidence to vote for them was tens of thousands of people knocking on millions of doors: 1.2 million in key marginals. Marginal seats like Battersea and Sheffield Hallam, branded “unwinnable” by many in the party, were won this way. And they were won, despite all the obstacles, by students, impoverished, black and brown communities, demonised and young people left behind by the Tories.

Crowded around a single laptop in the kitchen on election night, it took us a while to process what we were looking at. As the minutes passed, cynicism gave way to awe. Not so much at the prospect of more Labour MPs in parliament – let’s face it, they’re a mixed bunch – but because after years of Tory austerity fear politics no one really dared believe so many millions would find the strength to vote for hope. Remembering my grandmother, I know this “new kind of politics” isn’t really so new at all; it has a long, strong history that a whole new generation is just starting to remember. So, the question is: what next?

Those people out knocking on your door aren’t foot soldiers acting out of automatic party loyalty. It’s a new generation, with expectations and opinions, and if the party wants to keep us, it’s going to have to listen to us. Simply put, it’s time for Labour to live its values and keep marching left because we know now these policies are far from unelectable.

Corbyn should also take this opportunity to challenge the direction of debates around free movement, immigration and inequality. We’ve not won yet, and the scapegoating of migrants for the broken wreckage of our welfare state is the Trojan horse that just brought the Tories back to power, and it must be stopped. Labour must put itself on the right side of history and make clear that it holds those with wealth and power responsible for poverty and powerlessness – no one else.

MPs still missing this point might consider instead that a strong stance on migrant-bashing will be a precondition for Labour’s alliance with the community organisers and young activists who have just proven themselves powerful enough to propel a marginalised backbencher to party leader.

Another precondition will be that they deliver on Corbyn’s most ambitious pledge: a new kind of politics. In practice, that means democratising the party, empowering members and making MPs more accountable. Momentum must also commit to this process if it’s to retain its activists and cultivate strong community and political leaders. It means creating a party culture that values more than votes and won’t spin like a weather vane with each electoral cycle. Instead, Labour must make itself an ally in building a movement for social justice that is deeply rooted in communities.

This will not be easy. While his staggering electoral success prompted lip service from Corbyn’s former critics, Labour remains deeply divided. Corbyn’s natural inclination will be to build bridges, but party unity is not more precious than the principles that define that party. I wouldn’t presume to know what most Labour MP’s principles are – it’s often difficult to tell – but it’s time for them to show us. A sincere commitment not just to Corbyn as leader but to the politics he represents should be a non-negotiable precondition for sitting on the Labour front bench.

The bulk of the party first laughed at Corbyn and then fell over themselves to boot him from the leadership and his supporters from the membership. Labour has been dragged – often kicking and screaming – back to its roots by a groundswell of ordinary people taking action. They stormed the stage with Corbyn not only because he has an unbroken record of representing us, both in protest and in parliament, but because he makes people feel heard.

When Corbyn calls for a “new kind of politics”, it speaks of a profoundly refreshing humility: a recognition that yes, democracy means our voices matter, be it in the country, in the community, in the party; that doors should be knocked, not just to win votes but because we actually value what the people on the other side of them have to say. It remains to be seen whether that’s a call the rest of Labour is ready to respond to. But whatever happens, the new kind of politics is already here.

 

In Defence of Generation Snowflake

2 March 2017

Trigger warning: genuine emotion, political correctness and marginalised views.

Remember the good old days, when you could slap a receptionist on the bum or hand your suitcase to the first black person you saw in a hotel without anyone having a go at you? I don’t, because I’m 25 and I was raised to believe that sort of thing is really not ok. It’s not like my generation has reached consensus on such matters but they have at least entered the realm of ‘controversial’, which is progress.

Not everyone agrees. Sometimes it feels like we can’t do anything right in the eyes of our parents’ generation.

When we’re not being accused of becoming desensitised ourselves to violence, it’s the opposite: we’re branded the hypersensitive, excessively emotional and politically correct ‘Snowflake Generation’.

I first met this new stereotype with confusion. I’d always thought of us as Thatcher’s children, conditioned to be more competitive, individualistic and apathetic than our parents. At least that’s the reality that confronted me as a student activist, working to mobilise for democracy, civil liberties: the old school values baby boomers are meant to cherish so highly.

On 30th January I found myself amidst a young, diverse and vibrant sea of anti-Trump protesters on Downing Street, heartfelt chants erupting around carefully hand-written placards. On this particular demonstration the depth of the rage and solidarity seemed particularly profound. If I had to guess I’d say the reason is that Trump, like Brexit, represents an existential threat to who we are; what past generation’s civil rights movements gave us the space to start becoming: ourselves. And I found myself thinking hey, maybe there’s something in this snowflake generation thing after all. And if so, it’s about fucking time. What the snowflakes’ critics hear as a kitten mewing for its mummy because it can’t face the real world, I hear as a lion waking from slumber and articulating its will to change the world.

Arguably one of the most messed up things about our present system is that while we are constantly told we can and should be ourselves, unless you’re a relatively wealthy, white, heterosexual man, being yourself can be a pretty painful experience.

In certain, perhaps less visible ways that’s more true for us than it was for the baby boomers. When they were growing up, consumerism was just scratching through front doors and into people’s homes. But belittling, brainwashing and undermining us from infancy is now a multi-million pound industry. And the consequence for Thatcher’s children has been a very real mental health epidemic.

Depression, anxiety, stress, eating disorders and self-harm have reached astronomical levels in the world’s wealthiest nations. In the UK a quarter of a million children are receiving treatment. Many more are not. Self-harm amongst our youth has shot up 15% in three years, with 20,000 cases requiring hospitalisation.

It should go without saying that when tens of thousands of children are hurting themselves, that’s not hyper-sensitivity; it’s real suffering. And responsibility for it rests on the society, not the child.

Tell that to the string of self-aggrandising (usually white male) writers branding us a genertion of censorious cry babies. Much of this moaning is directed at university campuses, mainly because they’re the only public spaces where we’ve had any influence. Their favourite targets are trigger warnings, which alert viewers of potentially distressing content in film or literature (not so excessive when you consider 1 on 5 women are survivors of sexual assault, for instance); and ‘safe spaces’, which explicitly prohibit discrimination normalised in wider society, for example against women, LGBTQ or people of colour. Next to climate change, war, historic inequality, domestic violence and racism, for example, pockets of social life trying to protect people from prejudice hardly seem like the most pressing of social ills. But the argument goes that this ‘snowflake culture’ insulates us from ideas we don’t like, promoting censorship and poorly preparing us for life in ‘the real world’.

My main issue with this thinking is that it’s based on a complete mis-remembering of some golden age of the university when all arguments were had and won on their own merit. What they’re actually remembering is a time before their social privilege was broadly challenged. Ask any student from the sixties who was poor, gay, black or a woman, even, and you’ll find things remembered a little differently: as a long, collective struggle against violent discrimination. They’ll remember the ‘brown paper bag test’ to make sure you were pale enough to join civil society organisations; students excluded for their sexuality; mini skirts widely considered an invitation to rape. I mean what the hell is there to be nostalgic about there, unless none of those things affected you?

Don’t get me wrong, the sixties were awesome. But they were awesome precisely because they marked a battle for deep cultural change. They brought a youth revolution that protested, occupied and marched in the face of police brutality and social exclusion to spearhead a social revolution. Let me put it another way:

It was the ‘snowflakes’ of the baby boomer generation that made the sixties what they were.

Ideas have never battled on a level playing field. The arguments made by or empowering marginalised groups have always come up against unique obstacles (police batons, powerful institutions, all the money invested in the status quo). And if a safe space does anything to protect against, or a trigger warning anything to validate, the trauma of that experience, what right does anyone with no lived experience of oppression have to deny us that?

The Snowflake Generation critique is absolutely manufactured by the most privileged in our society, protected by the lottery of their birth from the brutal realities of exploitation and racial, gendered and anti-LGBTQ violence. These are not the people who were flooding onto Downing Street last week to stand up and be counted. They are the people for whom most spaces are safe; whose self image and self-confidence is bolstered everytime they see their own reflection in political and popular culture; people who disparage the notion of a trigger warning because they have no idea what it takes to survive trauma.

If anyone’s being infantalised by the system we live in, it’s them; it’s the guys who can’t even be confronted with their own privilege without erupting into bigotry or hurt feelings.

That they’re well placed to succeed in ‘the real world’ is hardly a revelation; for centuries, the rules have been written with them in mind. But this system isn’t working out for the any of us. Looked out your window at the world lately? It’s a mess. So shouldn’t we be more concerned with fixing it, than being like it?

As a species, we now inherit the power to destroy ourselves, whether through climate catastrophe or nuclear holocaust. (Nice one, baby boomers.) Bearing that in mind, perhaps Generation Snowflake is a necessary antidote; that we, born into a violent and divided world, cradle the embryo of a new culture that can find it in itself to respond to trauma with kindness; that can respect individuality and will defend diversity.

If, as both science and history teach us, people have always been snowflakes – completely unique and acutely fragile – then recognising that will get us further than denying it.

And a generation willing to protect and cherish those timeless human qualities will be infinitely more capable of creating peace, sustainability and democracy than its critics ever dared think possible.

snowflakesystem

Published by Speakers Corner, Hunger TV

Artwork by Eskay Lama

Blurring the line between slavery & migration: Operation Magnify goes public with 97 workers arrested

5th January 2017

nail-bars1-1024x538

Image: The Asian Post

Trigger warning: rape

Trafficked to the UK as a slave, you live an invisible life. Not only are you subjected to slavery by the traffickers, as an undocumented migrant you have very limited rights to healthcare, housing or any social support. If you are being exploited, beaten or abused and you go to the police, you face being arrested, imprisoned and deported back to a home country you risked all this just to escape. And what happens to the perpetrators, who traffic human beings as slaves? They will be “warned that they could face fines.” So, not much.

Just after Christmas, the government revealed 97 arrests had been made at 280 nail bars in London, Cardiff and Edinburgh as part of ‘Operation Magnify’. Most of those arrested were Vietnamese nationals, along with people of Pakistani, Indian, Nigerian, Mongolian, Chinese and Ghanaian origin. The operation is a government initiative to crack down on illegal and slave labour in what the Home Office identifies as ‘risk sectors’ including construction, cleaning, agriculture, car washing and domestic work. It led to 65 companies being threatened with fines of up to £20,000 per worker: that’s less than the maximum fine for fly-tipping.

In 2015 there was a 40 percent increase in the number of people referred to British authorities as potential victims of slavery: over 3,200 people, almost a third of whom are children. But even those referred and recognised as victims are usually just detained and deported in debt and crushing poverty, vulnerable to being enslaved all over again. Globally, nearly 46 million people remain are subjected to slavery and the government estimates there are over 13,000 people enslaved in Britain.

As Tansy Hoskins writes for Vice: “People trafficked to the UK could typically have been promised a job or a new life abroad, but once they arrive they are told they cannot stop working until the debts they have incurred have been paid off. The International Labour Organization estimates that the total illegal profits obtained from the use of forced labour worldwide amount to over $150 billion per year.”

Many expert commentators have complained that the prevailing attitude of one of denial, with immigration officers incentivised to ‘find any possible excuse’ not to identify victims of trafficking. “The problem is it gives traffickers yet another tool of control over their victims,” Jakub Sobik, spokesperson for Anti Slavery told VICE News. “They can tell them ‘if you don’t do what I say I’ll report you, and not only will you be deported but you’ll be prosecuted too’.”

This attitude will be familiar to anyone familiar with the UK asylum process, where the Home Office finds any excuse possible not to identify someone as a refugee. This is due to a shared conflict of interest: the job of immigration officials is to send people home, not find the truth and uphold human rights.

Yet, in service to this anti-immigration agenda, the lines between migration and human trafficking or modern-day slavery are increasingly blurred. Fiona Mactaggart, co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on human trafficking and modern-day slavery, says the Modern Slavery Act passed in 2015 is not being enforced. “The Home Office still sees trafficking as an issue of immigration … these are people who are being sold, they are slaves, but we just look the other way. The state is completely failing in basic human responsibility to these victims.”

The legal merging of slavery and immigration forces some of the most vulnerable into an unforgiving system. Ahmed Aydeed, from law firm Duncan Lewis, describes the repetitive cycle of deportation and enslavement trapping many of his clients. One such client, a young Vietnamese woman, was deported after being found working in a nail bar in 2012 “despite clear indicators that she had been trafficked, which were not explored.”

Just 11% of Vietnamese workers referred to the government as at risk of slavery were offered any kind of support or protection, according to the National Crime Agency, even though they are identified as one of the most vulnerable groups. Mr. Ayeed told the Guardian his client was re-trafficked to the UK the following year, raped and forced into a British brothel. She escaped following a miscarriage and was detained for 16 months without being assessed as a trafficking victim, despite scarring on her body consistent with torture and the fact she told authorities she had been forced to work in a nail bar and brothel where she was repeatedly raped.

“I have seen a lot of women being raped and sold as sex slaves,” she said. “We left Vietnam with the promise that we could find work and make a lot of money. We didn’t know we would have to have sex with anyone … If I was ever sent back to Vietnam [again] … I’d rather die here.”

General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress Frances O’Grady said: “Victims of trafficking should be freed, not arrested… We want bad bosses arrested and fines raised so they are a genuine deterrent. Unions and victims of modern slavery should be helped and encouraged to blow the whistle on exploitation.”

As long as the criminalisation of undocumented workers takes precedence over punishing the people who exploit them, modern-day slavery will continue. Simply condemning it as “the greatest human rights issue of our time” is not enough to clean the hands of a conservative party that, let’s not forget, opposed the abolition of the slave trade back in the 1800s. Its arguments haven’t changed much over the past two centuries, either. The owners of the West Indies slave plantations once held as much sway over parliament as today’s international corporations and high street banks; then, it was the plantation owners considered ‘too big to fail’ or for that matter, to jail.

The global financial crash of 2008 – billions of pound worth of fraud, millions of jobs lost, whole economies ruined – shows where corporate immunity gets us. Undoubtedly, it’s time for governments to stop protecting those with wealth and power at the expense of vulnerable workers, be they British or foreign, documented or not. And what better place to start than providing a sanctuary for those enslaved right here in Britain – something it’s hard to even comprehend the need to ask for in the year 2017?

No Sanctuary in Swanage: elderly residents live in fear of losing their warden

Opposite Swanage Town Hall is the Burr Stone Mead sheltered housing bloc. It is home to 26 elderly residents. Many have lived there as part of our community for more than twenty years. But this year is off to a rocky start for them. They fear for their health and safety as, like many pensioners across the country, they face the loss of their live-in warden, Linda.

At the end of January, Sanctuary Housing announced that due to government funding cuts, each resident would have to pay an extra £16.72 per week or live without Linda. Sanctuary states the £16.72 figure is ‘a national average’ but according to local councillor Robert Gould, the actual shortfall is as little as £4.58 and could be covered by local housing benefit, making it possible for Sanctuary “to mitigate any reduction in funding imposed by the council at no cost” to residents. However, Sanctuary has rejected their proposal.

Many Burr Stone Mead residents are also visited by community carers, but they and their relatives fear the prospect of losing round the clock support. Linda also plays a crucial role liaising on their behalf with doctors and social workers and provides daily support for those with impaired vision and other disabilities.

“We all came here because that is what we need,” one resident explained. “We need that help. And what if one of us fell? There are no neighbours to help us in an emergency.” Back in June, Ann Clwyd MP demanded an investigation into sheltered housing safety standards after a 92-year-old resident was trapped for hours on the ground floor of his flat having fallen down the stairs. The accident occurred after warden cover was cut in his building.

Now, pensioners across the country are being faced with this fear, although emergency assistance from a familiar warden is the main reason most pensioners enter sheltered housing in the first place. For this reason Anne Ludlow, secretary of Sheltered Housing UK, has found changes to be unlawful, adding that “the warden was the lynchpin in the community life that gave the elderly residents a sense of security and belonging. With that lynchpin removed, this vital national commodity has lost its identity and its purpose.”

Richard Drax MP is “extremely sympathetic” to the residents’ cause. He states that maintaining the warden, “if not a legal obligation, is certainly a moral one.” Drax has promised to visit Sanctuary in person to advocate for them and expressed concern about the psychological impact of Sanctuary’s conduct.

The vast majority of tenants at Burr Stone Mead say would be willing to pay the extra to keep Linda on. Some are even willing to cover the shortfall left by those unable or unwilling to pay. But there is a twist: to keep her, Sanctuary demanded 100 percent consensus from tenants. That’s a stronger mandate than a government needs to declare war. Unsurprisingly, it proved unachievable.

The ‘consultation period’ for Burr Stone Mead lasted just three weeks, and residents complain no real consultation has taken place. They spoke on condition of anonymity. “It’s wicked,” said one. “A disgraceful lack of care. What sort of democracy is this?”

“Most of us are strongly opposed, and there’s nothing they can do?” continued another. “That’s not consultation. And for all their talk of ‘customer choice’, it’s not that either!” The others shook their heads in agreement. “It’s a PR stunt, the voting, the illusion of choice. It’s ‘choice’ for those who can afford it. We feel blackmailed.”

Sanctuary committed to providing Tenancy Support Officers to assess individual needs, but nobody has yet seen or heard from them. One resident reports being told “there are only 15 of them for the whole country! So it would probably just be phone support… most of us can’t even hear the phone!” She forced a smile.

“We felt like people before Sanctuary took over. Now we’re just numbers,” said another. This is a common complaint against Britain’s biggest housing associations, of which Sanctuary is the largest. There are entire support groups on social media, made up of hundreds of complainants taking action against Sanctuary, for everything from failure to make repairs to toxic mould.

In a standard written statement, Sanctuary expressed regret that funding cuts have created the need “to make some difficult choices,” but points out that because Burr Stone Mead residents are classified as ‘independent’, “the support our staff provide would not, and has never included any element of care.”

Of course, government cuts are hitting services hard across the board. But while residents tighten their belts, landlords – including housing associations – have been posting record profits in Austerity Britain. In 2013, a costly merger made Sanctuary the largest ‘social landlord’ in the UK. Although it qualifies as a non-profit group, Sanctuary turned over a cool £72 million in 2013, tripling profits from previous years. Its chief executive, David Bennett, takes home over £300,000 per year. Two-thirds of that comes from taxpayers.

These mega-associations control more than a quarter of all rented housing in the UK and retain billions in public funding, having acquired much of their stock from local councils in the 1980s and 1990s in what has been described as “the most successful stealth privatisation ever.” Back in 2011, now Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell condemned their lack of accountability and recalled how since the 1980s these specialist social co-operatives had mutated into large corporations in all but name, “indistinguishable from private landlords.”

Tim Burness, a housing campaigner who has spent years scrutinising Sanctuary’s practices, adds that Cameron’s government “has done away with what little regulation there was. Cutting back on wardens is a classic example of what results.” And in a letter addressed to him and seen by the Purbeck Gazette, Margaret Hodge, then Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, confessed that there is no independent monitoring “of social housing performance against, or in compliance with, the consumer standards.”

Back at Burr Stone Mead, Linda’s wages have already been cut from full to part time in recent years. “But she still goes above and beyond for us,” say tenants. “That’s the sort of person she is. And we don’t want to lose her.”

This hasn’t stopped them speaking out, and so are sheltered housing residents across the country. In Angus, pensioners have been protesting on the steps of the town hall, forcing the local council to reiterate that no decisions have been finalised and their views will be taken into account. In Leek, residents are also raising their voices against Sanctuary’s ‘determined’ attempts to get rid of their wardens.  According to 85 year old John Broun, quoted in Leek Post and Times, Sanctuary kept the proposals secret for two full years and, “knowing that this would be an unpopular decision, tried to make it look as though it was the decision of the residents.”

When asked if they would move out of Burr Stone Mead because of the changes, the ladies shook their heads. “We have nowhere else to go.” But rather than resigning themselves to the loss, the residents are resolved to defend their warden. They have started a petition, are seeking legal advice and are far from alone in what is in fact a national fight of grave concern to us all.

Click here to add your name to the petition

Originally published by the Purbeck Gazette

#JezWeCan : A Personal Account of the Death & Potential Resurrection of the Labour Party

“I am not interested in power for power’s sake, but I’m interested in power that is moral, that is right and that is good.” – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

When I was five years old I watched my grandmother, with narrow eyes and a heavy sigh, tear Labour’s 1995 manifesto into pieces. She left them on the kitchen table and went straight to call head office and cancel her party membership, breaking generations of family tradition. At the venerable age of five all I knew about politics was that we had two choices – Labour and Tory – and Labour were ‘the good guys.’ So I asked her why she’d left.

She told me that Tony Blair had scrapped something called Clause 4: a promise to put the public in charge of the services they needed and the places where they worked. “It’s about the right of ordinary people to control their own destinies,” she explained. It was a bit poetic, perhaps an echo from a more optimistic generation, but she was absolutely right. That’s what it’s always been about and precisely what’s at stake now.

15383196425_954591f9ea_o

I didn’t think much about Clause 4 growing up. But I did think a lot about was the war in Iraq. I was 12 when it started. We watched the historic anti-war march in London – the biggest march in British history – and then watched the government go to war regardless. That was when I learned that democracy in Britain was not working the way it was supposed to. It was our first truly televised war, and I was transfixed by the coverage: dispassionate reporters parroting official sources while women wept over their kids in ruined buildings, endless parades of tanks, Iraqis fighting and dying in the streets while our artillery boomed like the voice of an angry god. I watched as the party that said it couldn’t afford to educate me managed to finance all those long years of occupation, during which time the truth about the WMDs, the civilian casualties, the military incompetence, the oil interests all spilled out into the light of day.

In their desperation for an ‘electable’ leader too many have been willing to sweep these crimes, which once horrified and enraged us, under the carpet. Some are even tapping an argument or two from the man himself, whose considered position is “even if you hate me don’t vote for Jeremy Corbyn.” I put it to anyone willing to swallow that line that they have forgotten the fundamentals of what the Labour Party is for and how it became a political force to begin with.

labourThe People’s Party? 

Things had been going wrong for a while by the time Blair came into power, of course. In 1976 the flows and fluctuations of our free market system cast Britain adrift in an economic crisis and forced Wilson’s Labour government into a £4 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Of course there’s no such thing as a free lunch with the IMF – in exchange they forced Labour into deep spending cuts and wage controls. By 1979 the unions were going on strike just to be heard by their own party. Conceding to the IMF’s terms had put Labour on the opposite side of the fight from its core supporters.

That dividing line has been in place ever since. Opposition to the Conservatives through the Thatcher years was a unifying force, but the 1990s dawned on a new era of personalistic, poll-based electioneering. To maintain profits in the post-war economy, corporate interests had painstakingly cultivated a new culture of individualism. Brands developed personalities and so did their products. Buying those shoes or that car became an expression of who we were, or aspired to be. You no longer had to be American to buy into the American Dream.

Psychoanalysts and focus groups were becoming an intrinsic part of doing business, and the rise of Thatcherism brought this ethos into the political establishment as well. Inspired by Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign strategy, which was guided by focus groups of swing voters, the Blairites wanted to ‘modernise’ the Labour Party. Their argument wasn’t about policy or even politics. It was a marketing strategy. After eighteen years of Tory rule they were determined to win power. It was no good banging on about exploitation, social justice and the working class, they insisted. No one was listening anymore. No one wanted to self-identify as working class, since the rise of cultural consumerism and political individualism made it a source not only of struggle, but of shame. We could all be aspirational consumers now – and if you weren’t one, you had only yourself to blame. No one could sell a socialist manifesto in a climate like that.

Of course, politicians aren’t supposed to work like that. They’re not car salesmen. They’re supposed to have real values and convictions; to put the public interest first; to respect us enough to win votes through actual debate, votes that are supposed to be more than a commodity you bid for; they represent a mandate of trust from the people. But New Labour had just won a leadership election, led by a bright eyed young Blair promising to bring down taxes, benefit scroungers and young offenders. It was a manifesto pulled straight from the focus groups of suburban swing voters. Clause 4 didn’t stand a chance.

Diagnosis of a Dying Party

Over the past twenty years we’ve seen where this ‘New Way’ leads. Today the party’s active base is a fraction of its former self, its relationship with the unions in tatters and its relationship with my generation non-existent. There is no question about it. Whatever was achieved by his government can never mitigate the damage done to our public services, not to mention to our international standing after an illegal invasion that destabilised the Middle East and a fifteen-year long War on Terror that has divided our communities and eroded our civil rights. Under Blair, the Labour Party lost its vision: the vision that gave us the post-war welfare state and gave the party its sense of self.

Nothing showed this up so well as the general election. Miliband, most agree, was a thoroughly uninspiring leader and he ran on a thoroughly uninspiring platform of ‘austerity-lite’. The right is quick to claim it was the ‘lite’ and not the austerity part that cost him victory. But as has been repeatedly pointed out and ignored, his tokenistic leans to the left, like trading the bedroom tax for a mansion tax and freezing energy prices, were usually the only thing boosting popularity at all. Labour used to win elections on slogans like this: ‘The rich man’s power is in his purse, the poor man’s power is in his politics. Don’t surrender your power to the rich man, he already has too much. Vote Labour.’ But as others have argued, by adopting the Conservative line on austerity (‘cupboard is bare, credit card maxed out, fiscal responsibility for the poor’,) Labour was just kicking the ball towards its own goal.

15383153675_d51dc2fbec_oThe Labour Party has been chasing power by any means necessary. It was the wrong choice in 1994, and it’s the wrong choice now. As a strategy it reflects an existential crisis for a party whose leaders have forgotten it wasn’t built to seek power for its own sake; that being in government was only as good as it empowered them to empower labour (that’s us – the public.) So we lost faith. Call it social democracy, loony leftism, call it a cat with a hat on, it’s about social justice. We’re about social justice. And when it became clear that the Labour Party was no longer fit for that purpose, we left.

Lifelong advocates like my grandmother left. People like me never joined. Ken Loach helped set up Left Unity. Mark Steel spent his time with the People’s Assembly, since it was representing labour values better than the party. (Both of them have been banned from voting in the leadership election.) The whole of Scotland broke a century of tradition and jumped ship to the Scottish National Party. We flooded into the Green Party, into new radical organisations and humanitarian NGOs, founding and joining whatever might help fill the hole left by the quiet moral death of the party. Disenfranchised and disillusioned, many just stopped doing anything at all, and in a self-fulfilling prophecy became what the Blairites always wanted: 15286607298_4a9b8c9d6a_opassive consumers.

What all of us (particularly Labour’s leadership candidates) need to understand is this: even if you want to, you can’t realise labour values with nothing more than passive consumer votes and a Labour Government in Power. Why? Because a Labour Government actually acting on Labour Values will necessarily go head to head with powerful vested interests: the energy companies, the landlords, the corporate media, the banks. And to stand up and win that government needs more than passive consumers at its back. It needs a politically engaged, self-educated and empowered electorate; strong trade unions and a mass movement ready not just to go out and vote, but to organise, demonstrate, even strike for our rights. It needs the things Corbyn’s been building outside Westminster all this time; that only he has the credibility to bring back to the party.

Open the Flood Gates

Blair’s way was never going to win us a better world. Today it can’t even win a general election. In 2015 Labour tried to play Blair’s game again but this time they lost, because Britain is not the same country it was twenty years ago. Twenty years ago the middle class was learning to aspire, wrapping itself in the mythology of the Self Made Man and preparing finally to put its eternal faith in the free market system. Today we are living in the smoking wreckage of that system. We had to bail out the bankers who lied for profit, and got paid our money by MPs who lied about their expenses. We’re drowning in debt and lining up at food banks. We’ve seen the BBC harbour paedophiles and the police harass black kids in our cities. Things are so bad, the top half of the country wants to leave. This does not inspire confidence. Public trust in these key institutions has never been so low, and with our faith so clearly misplaced we are becoming interested, again, in what my grandmother said *it* was all about: people controlling our own destinies.

The labour movement built the Labour Party to make that possible for everyone at a time it was the privilege of wealthy white man. My whole life I was convinced that the best of the Labour Party was confined to history books and sepia photographs. But last week I joined over 100,000 others and signed up as a supporter. This huge influx has the party leadership quaking in their suits. The Blairite group Progress, described by one of its own members as “an unaccountable faction dominated by a secretive billionaire” which has in turn dominated the party for years, now stands in the shadow of a tsunami. From this vantage point it’s clear that the leadership race is about much more than the next leader. Clearly they will stop at nothing to wreck the vote. One thing Yvette Cooper has right: it’s a battle for the soul of the Labour Party. And it’s a chance for us to correct that historic mistake I witnessed at my grandma’s kitchen table, when the party chose power over principle.

That makes him our best defence against the rise of the already bloated far-right, because he represents a break with the establishment driven by politics of hope, not hate. His straight talking sincerity, sorely lacking elsewhere, is raising the confidence of a betrayed nation. Despite his staunch anti-racism it’s even proving as popular with UKIP voters as with the Left. It would be a mistake to underestimate the array of forces he could unite behind him.

Whatever their differences, a vote for anyone else is a vote for austerity. The anti-austerity Syriza party in Greece and the SNP in Scotland swept the board because they promised real change; the same reason there’s a black man in the White House. The right said it would never happen. His supporters said ‘yes, we can,’ and they did. And if Labour could find the courage to be what it once was – anti-war, anti-austerity mass party – it could take the country by storm.

They said Syriza and the SNP weren’t credible. They said a black man in the White House wasn’t credible. But people can overcome a lot when they believe real change is imminent. If Labour could find the courage to be what it once was – anti-war, anti-austerity mass party – it could take the country by storm.

2015-08-26 15.58.23But here’s the point: even if he lost, at least we’d have the chance to build something we believed in again. So if you’re lucky enough to have a vote – and if the party let you cast it – ignore Tony Blair and vote Corbyn for all the reasons he says you shouldn’t. Do that, and rather than accepting it, we could fight back against whatever’s gone so wrong in our country, that one of Parliament’s only consistent voices for peace, democracy and social justice gets less of a hearing than the one former leader who should definitely be in prison. That’s the fight that really matters. There Is An Alternative. All this vote determines is whether the British Labour Party can be part of it again.

Originally published by The Critique