Working people are facing challenges from all sides but for the first time in years, they have real leverage and therefore an opportunity to push back and make serious gains.
The pandemic has forced many changes on our lives but one area where the changes may outlast COVID 19 is the world of work. In response to the virus, many of us have changed where we work, how we work, when we work; for some it’s meant furlough, unemployment or a change of job because of business failure.
On the other hand, those designated as ‘essential workers’ have worked through the pandemic, often risking their lives to provide a service. Many people have a new appreciation of who is or who isn’t an ‘essential worker’ – would anyone now argue that a hedge fund manager was ‘essential’ compared with a nurse, HGV driver, a postie or a worker in a care home or supermarket? Many of us have also learned how low sick pay is in the UK (£96.35 per week, one of the lowest rates in Europe).
Brexit has also had an impact on growing labour shortages in sectors which have been heavily reliant on EU workers, such as transport, care homes, hospitality, agriculture and others.
It’s worth noting, however, that not all of these issues are mainly about Brexit. With HGV drivers, for example, the long effects of neoliberalism – driving down terms and conditions, low pay, poor facilities and high cost of entry – have played a bigger role in the shortage.
In addition, at a time when inflation is going up and pay rises low or non-existent, the UK government has decided to make workers pay for the cost of economic recovery by raising National Insurance Contributions (a tax which disproportionately affects low paid workers and leaves untouched those who make their income from rents, dividends or profits).
The UK Government is also cutting Universal Credit (40% of the recipients of which are low paid workers) by £20 a week and planning big cuts in public services. Finally, the pre-COVID housing crisis is likely to get worse, particularly for those renting, as both the Welsh and UK governments have lifted the ban on ‘no-fault’ evictions.
This all adds up to pretty grim news for millions of people, but there is the beginning of a fight back. Workers are joining trade unions in greater numbers than for many years, and acting through strikes, demonstrations, lobbying and bargaining to defend jobs, win pay rises, ensure work is safe and push back against the imposition of insecure work. In short, unions are back.
Despite 40 years of anti-union legislation, hostility from Conservative governments and indifference from New Labour governments, in 2020 union membership grew for the fourth consecutive year to a total of 6.56 million people. The proportion of UK employees who are trade union members (union density) is now just under a quarter at 23.7%.
The last time four consecutive annual union membership rises occurred was in the 1970s. This is not quite a return to those days (in 1979 union membership hit a high point of 13.2 million with over half of all employees union members) but it is still very significant and confirms the trade union movement as the largest social movement in the UK.
And in a crisis situation sometimes there are opportunities as well as challenges. The pandemic itself showed the importance of unions. Without union pressure on the government, there would have been no furlough scheme which was a life raft for many workers, despite its limitations. It was the unions who led the push on safety at work in relation to COVID, particularly for health workers – fighting for decent PPE and work adjustments.
This is not just in the NHS or care homes: PCS the civil service union led strikes at Swansea’s DVLA to force management to make their workplace safe (after an outbreak of COVID involved 700 cases and one death). In Cardiff, Unite boosted its membership among taxi drivers as they joined together to successfully pressurise the Welsh Government to extend hardship funding to the drivers.
Some employers used the pandemic as an excuse to try to introduce so-called ‘fire and rehire’. This is where an employer lays off staff and then offers to take them back on far inferior contracts (with cuts in pay and worse conditions). In workplaces without unions, fire and rehire was rammed through. Elsewhere it was different. Some gung-ho employers, like British Gas, were forced to compromise, while in other cases like Go North West Buses, drivers’ fought back through their union Unite and, after lengthy strike action, the company agreed never to use fire and rehire.
The areas with the highest levels of labour shortages at the moment are where pay is traditionally low, job security non-existent (with zero hours contracts) and conditions are poor. The Office of National Statistics reported in September that ‘vacancies rose to a record 1,034,000 in June to August 2021’ – employers are desperate for staff.
Yet, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation ‘more than half (56%) of people in poverty are now in a working family’ and their pay is often so low that they are entitled to Universal Credit.
British employers have relied on cheap labour for so long that now they are in trouble and workers and their unions argue that it’s time for them to pay up. And the employers are beginning to recognise this, for example, Tesco is offering HGV recruits a £1000 signing on bonus. Unite – the Tesco drivers’ union – points out that this is just a temporary fix, and are pushing for a permanent better deal for drivers.
Labour shortages represent an opportunity for workers to push wages up and improve conditions. The best way to do that is for workers to get organised by joining a union and pushing for industrial action. Many are doing so.
A number of small dynamic new unions like the Independent Workers of Great Britain (IWGB) and the United Voices of the World (UVW) focus on precarious workers who are often young, migrants and people of colour. They organise a huge range of people previously regarded by the traditional unions as difficult to reach, from care workers to couriers, baristas to security guards and many more. In a new and encouraging move, one of the newer unions (UVW) is working closely with a more established union (PCS) in the Royal Parks in London. As a result, outsourced cleaners and attendants have taken joint strike action over pay and conditions.
Disputes related directly to the pandemic have also seen unions report big increases in membership, as workers band together for safety, security and to improve their lives at work. The teachers’ union, NEU, reported 50,000 new members in the first six months of the pandemic (6,000 joined in one weekend) and went on to organise probably the largest union meeting in history with 400,000 on a Zoom call in January this year. UNISON, the GMB and Unite all also reported tens of thousands of new members.
After spending the first few months of the pandemic urging the public to stand on their doorsteps and clap essential workers, ministers are now trying to impose a pay freeze on large parts of the public sector and a below inflation pay rise on NHS staff. After the sacrifices of the last 19 months (including the deaths of over 1500 care and health staff as a result of COVID) essential workers feel that they’re entitled to more than a pay cut.
Health and care workers are exhausted but angry. And they have popular support with opinion polls consistently showing that the public thinks they are not paid enough and should get more than the 3% pay offered. All of the main health unions now have the opportunity to move towards strike action, after consultative ballots showed members’ anger over the pay offer. Even in Wales, with a government that sees itself as more sympathetic to health unions, workers’ response was to angrily reject the pay offer.
With labour shortages in other key areas in the private sector (which may last up to two years), that amounts to a large group of workers with the motivation and in some cases the obvious leverage to win improvements in pay and working conditions. With the added ingredient of increased membership and stronger organisation at the workplace, this is a potentially powerful cocktail.
And strong organisation at the workplace is now a big focus for many unions. In the last year or two, thousands of shop stewards and local union representatives from all over the country have been involved in training to build worker confidence and union capacity through training methods and skills led by the American union organiser Jane McAlevey. Unions like the teachers (NEU), nurses (Royal College of Nursing), university staff (UCU) and civil servants (PCS) have been prominent in this.
Sharon Graham, the new leader of Britain and Ireland’s most important union Unite, has also highlighted the importance of the workplace for her union. So much so, that she’s not attending next week’s Labour conference because she intends to be standing with her members in dispute with employers: ‘I’m focusing as a priority on Jobs, Pay and Conditions by standing on picket lines with members rather than sitting at a conference’. She has already warned ‘bad bosses’ to take note of her election and told Amazon to improve the way it treats its staff and allow them to join unions or ‘reckon with us’. The union is confident that this will be an attractive message for workers fighting for better pay and conditions all over the country.
Working people are facing challenges from all sides but for the first time in years, they have some leverage and therefore opportunities to push back and make serious gains. For workers, whether public or private sector, permanent or zero hours, full time or part time,, there has never been a better time to join a union and fight back.
Steve Davies is a writer and researcher on work and trade unions.
Twenty years ago, in the chaos and confusion of the aftermath of the attacks on the twin towers in New York, we saw a very public demonstration of the critical importance of workers to the functioning of society – particularly in an emergency and, in this instance, the central place of unionised workers in a world city. At certain unusual moments (the pandemic is another) the huge reliance that society places on workers, often unionised workers, becomes highly visible.
In the early stages at least, the union organisations of New York had a key role in the rescue operation. The role of the unionised workforce in the rescue work in New York is rarely acknowledged. The article below does so.
Apart from the firefighters and ambulance crews, there were also construction workers of all sorts who knew how best to remove and disentangle rubble and girders with the best chance of finding people alive underneath, electrical workers to make the area safe, counselling teams and so on. All unionised and mobilised by their unions.
At the time, New York’s union density was around 30% – higher than London. It still is higher than London and remains a union town.
This article was written in September 2001 and originally published in January 2002 in Unions Today a (shortlived) bi-monthly magazine funded by the UK unions.
Picture this. Police at barriers allow workers through only on production of a union card; state authorities work closely with the local union council to allocate workers to jobs; and the orations at funerals refer to the many brothers, sisters and comrades killed.
This is not Petrograd in 1917 or Barcelona in 1937 but New York 2001.
When the terrorists targeted the city, the symbolism was obvious. They wanted to immolate the hub of US capitalism, a world financial centre.
But New York is also the heart of the American labour movement. The city’s Central Labor Council represents one million workers from 375 union locals. In New York State, 2.5 million workers are organised so about one-fifth of all American union members live within the state. Union density in New York City is 30 per cent.
New York is different. Dr Elaine Bernard of the Harvard Trade Union Program says: “It’s a city of immigrants. I think the attack has touched so many people because it truly is a world city.”
The World Trade Centre was not populated only by financiers and bankers. The list of unions with members killed is like an alphabet soup of US working life – the AFGE (government staff), AFSCME (municipal workers), APWU (postal workers), CSEA (NY state civil servants), CWA (telecom engineers), HERE (restaurant employees), IBPAT (painters), IBEW (electrical workers), ILA (longshoremen), IUOE (operating engineers), LIUNA (labourers), OPEIU (office workers), PEF (public employees), SEIU (porters, elevator operators and maintenance workers, security, cleaners and tour guides) and the UBCJA (carpenters).
Nor did the WTC house only private employers. Within its walls were the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, the Federal Trade Commission, the US Postal Service, the Departments of Transportation, Tax and Finance and Housing and Development and the Port Authority.
Some unions even had premises there. The ILA, the east coast longshoremen’s union, had space on the 19th and 20th floors of one of the towers. The Public Employees Federation had three offices.
The American labour movement was hard hit, not least by what the AFL-CIO (America’s TUC) described as the “unprecedented losses” in the emergency services.
The firefighters heroism has been well documented but it’s not widely known that most of the more than 300 firefighters killed came from two union locals – International Association of Firefighters locals 854 and 94. Father Mychal Judge, the chaplain killed giving the last rites to a firefighter, was himself a member of AFSCME District Council 37, Local 299.
Hundreds of construction workers offered their help. The ironworkers union set up teams of volunteers from all over New England. The Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York co-ordinated the deployment of construction workers.
Volunteer healthcare workers from the Service Employees International Union and members of the NY State Nurses Association soon arrived too. Another AFL-CIO affiliate, the NY State Psychological Association, sent in teams to help with counselling. The city’s Central Labor Council opened a Labor Support Center to help working families. Many unions set up relief funds, as did the AFL-CIO nationally.
Unions have launched an emergency job placement scheme with sympathetic employers to help the tens of thousands who lost their jobs. As Kate Ferranti of the Central Labor Council says: “New York is a union town – that makes a big difference in terms of rebuilding.”
The 1984-85 miners’ strike has once again hit the headlines, despite ending 36 years ago. This time what has grabbed the media’s attention is a claim by Prime Minister Boris Johnson that Margaret Thatcher’s closure of the pits after the strike was part of a green, eco-strategy of the Conservative government.
On a visit to Scotland, Johnson was asked about the government’s preparations for the global environmental conference, COP26 to be held in Glasgow in November. He said that in his lifetime the UK had transitioned away from coal and that this was a process begun by Margaret Thatcher:
He is reported as then laughing and saying to reporters: “I thought that would get you going.”
His comments caused a major political row with widespread condemnation of both the tone and a rejection of the content of what he said. For example, Welsh First Minister, Mark Drakeford told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme:
“I’m afraid that those remarks are both crass and offensive.
The truth is that there is no evidence that environmental concerns played any part in Thatcher’s determination to run down the coal industry in the 1980s. By contrast there is a great deal of evidence that her real motives were to deal a mortal blow to the industrial power of the National Union of Mineworkers as part of a broader attack on the trade union movement.
Before the 1979 general election, the Tories commissioned the Stepping Stones report from Thatcher’s adviser John Hoskyns and Norman Strauss from Lever Brothers and an action plan drawn up by Nicholas Ridley (both in 1977). The Stepping Stones report identified ‘the negative role of the trades unions’ as one of the major obstacles to ‘national recovery’. The ‘Ridley Report ’was leaked to the Economist in May 1978 setting out detailed plans for the next Tory government on how to approach the nationalised industries. A special annex on ‘Countering the political threat’ was essentially a strategic manual for confronting and defeating the unions, chief among them being the miners.
We carried out research into the motivations behind today’s trade union membership and activism in South Wales (with Helen Blakely, Rhys Davies and Huw Beynon). The 1984-85 strike plays a big part in the collective memory, even among those who were too young to have taken any part in it. Our data fits with the observation of Beynon and Hudson that there exists within the coalfield communities an intergenerational ‘tribal memory’ and that:
“…through kin, proximity and a remembered past, coal mining had played a significant role in the national culture.” (Beynon H and Hudson R (2021) The Shadow of the Mine, London: Verso, pp. 4, 151)
The participants in our research had no doubts about the reasons for the pit closure programme – and it had nothing to do with a green energy strategy. One union activist from the Ebbw Fach Valley who worked in local government in 1984 saw the actions of the state as straightforwardly ‘an attack on trade unionism’.
The Thatcher government’s motives were described in some detail by another trade unionist at the other, western edge of the coalfield. He took on the environmental argument and accepted that coal mining was making a loss but felt that:
“if it had been phased out gradually and replaced with other industries … people would have accepted that coal is … a fossil fuel. We need to look after the Earth. Not BANG! Because … there was an ulterior motive that was just to destroy the unions and … Wales paid a particularly heavy price.”
Yet another union activist, from the head of the Sirhowy Valley in the east of the coal field remembered how his brother had been a miner and reflected: “Well I think they were closing pits for their own political ends really.”
Lest there be any doubt that the Conservatives had few objections to coal as a fuel so long as it didn’t come with a strong union attached, we only have to look at the UK output of coal from the mid-1980s onwards together with the figures for imports of coal. Within an economy that had an overall declining use of coal in its energy mix, it is notable that although domestic production steeply fell, imports of coal rose and remained significant right up until 2014-15.
Mrs Thatcher’s programme of pit closures was not motivated by any far-sighted recognition of the dangers of fossil fuel to the environment. The objective was to weaken the trade unions – that she described as the ‘enemy within’ – and which she regarded as a barrier to ‘national recovery’. Her view was that the economic crises of the 1970s could only be overcome and profits revived by reducing the ability of unions to prevent pay cuts and defend the public sector.
The real legacy of the pit closure programme in Wales is not so much the greener valleys (an accidental by product) but the decades long combination of unemployment, under-employment, ill health, increased crime and drug use and lack of hope. Many parts of the valleys have still to recover from this.
As one union activist from the west of the coalfield reflected:
“Thatcher killed, killed this town… we were always tainted with that brush of, of what Thatcher did to us to be quite honest.”
(The following is based on notes for a talk at a meeting of Welsh Labour Grassroots/Momentum, 19 May 2021. I was the first of two speakers, the second being Darren Williams who dealt in more detail on the manifesto promises and the specific tasks for the Left with the Welsh Labour party)
The elections took place against a background of political volatility and crisis – both in the UK and internationally
And this has been the case now since the 2008 crash.
We had a decade of austerity during which there was an all too brief turn to the Left in the Labour party.
We saw a growth in support for right wing nationalism, not just in Britain but also with Trump, Modi, Bolsonaro and others ranging from Hungary to the Philippines.
During that time there was a growing recognition that we are approaching a tipping point in the climate crisis.
We then had Brexit.
And this was followed by COVID.
So we are now in the grip of the triple and related crises of health, economy and climate.
The Right haven’t had it all their own way – the international and often spontaneous responses of the MeToo movement, Black Lives Matter and most recently solidarity with Palestine – show the support for progressive positions among the populations of the world.
In Britain, the fantastic responses to the Kill the Bill campaign and the community power on show in Pollokshields last week were inspirational.
So this period is one of instability and, in some respects for the Left, paradoxically, a period of possibility.
So what happened at the beginning of May?
It’s not often that I agree with Luke Akehurst – who as you know is a leading right winger on the NEC, who lost his council seat recently (sad), and who seems to have spent much of the last week or so retweeting Israeli Defence Force press releases.
But still I think he was right when he described the Hartlepool result as ‘catastrophic’ and the English council results overall as ‘appalling’.
So let’s remind ourselves of those results, but before we look at England and Wales, it’s worth saying that Scotland represented the worst ever results for Labour, losing a further 2 seats – despite the new pro-Starmer leader and much talk of the corner being turned.
But what about England?
In Hartlepool – a seat won twice under Corbyn’s leadership – there was a swing of 16% to the Tories. Labour’s vote fell by 9 percentage points.
Labour lost Durham Council – which had been Labour since 1925.
Overall, the Tory vote was estimated at 36% and Labour’s at 29%.
In London Sadiq Khan won, but with a lacklustre campaign and a pathetic effort to revive his fortunes with another bid to host the Olympics, he did worse than expected against one of the worst Tory candidates they’ve ever had.
There were mixed results in the mayoral elections, Paul Dennett in Salford, Andy Burnham in Manchester and Steve Rotherham in Liverpool City Region were re-elected and Labour won 2 from the Tories, but Tees Valley (where Hartlepool is) and the West Midlands (with the uberBlairite, Liam Byrne standing) were overwhelmingly Tory.
Labour bled votes to both the Tories and, in places like Bristol and Sheffield, to the Greens.
Amidst the gloom, there were some good results – left councils like Preston held all seats up for election and Salford gained seats. But overall as Akehurst said, the results in England and Scotland were disastrous and Labour is probably at a worse point than it was after the December 2019 election defeat and even further from forming a UK government.
By contrast the news in Wales was a lot better.
Labour equalled the best ever number of seats with 30, so no coalition.
Neither the Tories nor Plaid made the breakthroughs that their supporters were expecting.
The Lib Dems remain stuck on one seat.
And the far right parties were wiped out.
Understanding the results
So what does it all mean?
Are we seeing the end of a Britain-wide politics and the opening up of three separate political entities in Scotland, England and Wales?
Let’s look at the easy one first – Scotland
The Labour Right scuttled the ship in Scotland
Labour’s position is completely down to the Labour Right’s failure over a long period to fight for working class people in Scotland, thereby providing a social democratic space for the SNP and then compounding the error by denying and defying Scotland’s right to self determination. This is political self harm on an intensive care level and they are now reaping the whirlwind.
A different whirlwind has hit Labour in England and it’s about time we nailed a few myths here with the help of these results.
Myth 1: ‘Starmer is an election winner’
By basing a year of the party’s work in ‘critically’ supporting the govt, Starmer hamstrung the party rather than showing it as the patriotic, loyal Opposition as the deluded PLP imagined.
He failed to land a glove on Johnson over his handling of the pandemic, on PPE, on lockdowns, on furlough, support for jobs, on the self employed or on corruption.
By staking everything on questioning govt ‘competence’ and forensic examination at PMQs, Starmer has produced… nothing
It turns out that only the lobby hacks give a monkey’s about PMQs and as soon as the efficient deployment of the vaccine roll out took place, Johnson was able to swat away any accusations of incompetence.
There’s a very famous quotation from the Welsh Marxist Raymond Williams about radicals making hope possible rather than despair convincing. Starmer seems to have reversed that.
Myth 2: The centre ground
The centre ground is an article of faith of the Blairite Right and their fellow travellers. Even after Hartlepool, Margaret Hodge continued to argue that political parties win elections from the centre ground.
Their problem is that they project their prejudices on to the electorate and substitute blind faith for analysis. They imagine that the Third Way is some form of eternal truth.
The biggest mistake here is that politics, like life, is not a snapshot, it’s a movie. People change, circumstances change, ideas and consciousness change and voting behaviour follows.
What was the centre ground once is no longer the centre ground today.
The Tories are the most successful electoral machine in world history and they understand this. Labour meanwhile failed to see that the Tories have pivoted. They are positioning themselves as the party that opposes austerity.
Now we know that a lot of this is completely disingenuous and may quickly disappear when they think the pandemic is under control but they’ve moved on tax, on public spending, on infrastructure investment, on subsidies including furlough, even on nationalisation (the Tory mayor in Tees Valley nationalised the airport).
They are likely to continue at least with targeted public spending in newly won seats and to make gestures like moving parts of the Treasury and other departments to the North.
Where has this left Labour?
Sitting by the side of the road like an abandoned child sadly waving a union flag.
Embarrassingly outflanked to the left by Sunak on corporation tax.
The Right are clueless about what to do. At the recent relaunch of the Right caucus Progressive Britain, one of the few thinking right wingers admitted as much. Patrick Diamond told the conference:
For the last decade the party’s modernising wing has been frozen in time, bereft of new thinking. Too often party moderates defined themselves by what they are against, the ‘hard’ left, rather than what they are for…
Myth 3: Wales the socialist heartland with a socialist government
But I think another myth is that Wales is a socialist stronghold and that Welsh Labour won because of its socialist achievements and left manifesto.
Some of the arguments for indyWales for example rest on the idea that Wales is fundamentally left wing and England is irretrievably right wing. I think both are wrong.
There were some good radical policies within the manifesto and Darren will talk a bit more about those but even Drakeford admitted that it was a cautious document.
I think that the main reason Wales did so well in the elections is because of the widespread approval of the performance of Mark Drakeford during the pandemic.
Now the Welsh Government made lots of mistakes – particularly in the earlier stages (on PPE, care homes, lockdowns, blindly following London) – but the presence of Drakeford as a calm, reassuring, suitably cautious figure at the top played well in Wales.
He was on the TV almost every day. I doubt any Welsh politician has had such a media platform ever.
The pandemic heightened people’s understanding of devolution. Perhaps for the first time, most people in Wales really saw that devolution had an impact on their daily lives and it made a difference to have a Welsh government.
Finally, the successful vaccine delivery – the Welsh NHS even quicker than the NHS in other parts of the UK – also played a hand.
So what next?
Drakeford has a real window of opportunity now. He will never be as powerful within the party as he is at the moment. He proved to be an essential asset and he needs to use that fact now.
In a way, the modesty of the manifesto leaves plenty of room for more innovative action. The UBI experiment may be one of them. I’m not sold on the idea myself but I’m not opposed to an experiment. I would rather see experiments with participatory budgeting but that’s something we could push for too.
The appointment of a Climate Minister is an important development, Mick Antoniw in the Cabinet is a very welcome change as is Jane Hutt’s role in Social Justice.
But Welsh Labour and Drakeford in particular need to move away from a technocratic top down approach and we need to apply the pressure for that to happen.
Everything they do should be calibrated against whether the result increases the power of ordinary people in their communities and workers in their workplaces or benefits capital.
Welsh Government needs to use its buying power much more proactively to the advantage of workers and communities. That means union rights and the living wage for every contract that the Welsh Government signs. It means having the means to monitor, enforce and sanction breaches of such terms.
Welsh Government needs to use its legal powers, its own influence over local government and its land asset base to start to develop a coherent socialist housing policy with a huge expansion in council housing, rent controls and a shift away from an urban development approach based on retail and property development.
The jobs promised in the manifesto should be linked to environmental aims by retrofitting insulation in Welsh homes and the encouragement of non-fossil fuel energy sources in every local community, run by the local community.
Local government should be encouraged and rewarded for, and harangued into, developing their local services – transport, parks and public spaces, libraries, arts and entertainment.
We can work with and learn from other areas of the UK who have developed some of these ideas of community wealth building – like Salford and Preston
But to do these things effectively the Welsh Government needs to see itself as a political leadership in the country not as managers of a perpetually declining block grant. That way lies Pasokification as we’re beginning to see in England.
It needs to realise that it has to attempt to control the narrative about policy in Wales. It needs to win the propaganda war, explain and campaign for its policies among the people. It also needs to help people understand who is responsible for what in their lives – council, Welsh Government, UK government.
It needs to expose the attacks made on the block grant and the powers of the Senedd by the Tories not in terms of the Barnett formula or borrowing restrictions but in ways that resonate with the electorate – to explain how many schools could have been built, hospitals modernised, doctors employed, trains built and run.
They need to resist and build the fight against the Tories as a popular movement or the Tories will step by step undermine devolution and discredit any Welsh government.
But this can only be done with a credible, radical vision. That means using the limited state power that exists in Wales to enable people to make gains for themselves outside the Senedd and outside the electoral cycle
The Welsh Government needs to be an enabling government, encouraging and helping with seed funding where possible, the development of Welsh civic society and community organisations – helping to build capacity, to increase confidence. As Bevan said the purpose of taking power is to give it away.
We need to be a part of that.
In 1979 the Tories saw the public sector, council housing and the trade unions as essential props of ‘socialism’, by which they meant a collective as opposed to an individualistic approach to society. That is why they have waged relentless war on all three ever since.
… one of the central means of reversing the corrosive and corrupting effects of socialism… Just as nationalisation was at the heart of the collectivist programme by which Labour governments sought to remodel British society, so privatisation is at the centre of any programme of reclaiming territory for freedom.
She said: ‘Economics are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul’.
EP Thompson wrote about the making of the working class and how it made itself within the material conditions of its time. For 40 years, the Tories have resolutely worked on an unmaking of the working class in Britain.
They did this by targeting all areas of society that were de-commodified, that were taken out of the market in the post war period of Labour governments. The Tory aim was to atomise and individualise.
And they have been very successful.
We can begin to reverse that by attempting to lay the basis for a recalibration of Welsh society.
The working class hasn’t disappeared but today compared with the post war years
It is more fragmented
More precariously employed
Has a higher proportion of ethnic minorities
Has a higher proportion of migrant workers
But just as the Tories used the state to help to unmake the working class, we can use the Welsh state to help to recompose the working class in Wales as a collective entity.
We can lay the basis of
a move away from atomised lives dominated by competitiveness, towards one of collaboration,
‘…when I see an actual flesh-and-blood worker in conflict with his natural enemy, the policeman, I do not have to ask myself which side I am on.’
(George Orwell – Homage to Catalonia)
Bristol is a short drive over the Severn Bridge from South Wales. Just 45 miles along the M4 from the Welsh capital, Cardiff, so you might imagine that Labour’s 21 MPs in South Wales might have something to say about recent events there. We’ve seen a week of protests against the authoritarian Policing Bill and in solidarity with the (mostly women) protesters assaulted by police while taking part in the vigil for Sarah Everard, allegedly murdered by a serving police officer.
A quick survey of MPs’ twitter accounts reveals that 8 of the 21 MPs had nothing at all to say on either the initial protest on March 21 or the latest one on March 26. Eight MPs tweeted about the March 21 protest (of whom 6 also tweeted on the March 26 events) and 11 on March 26. Five MPs tweeted only in response to March 26.
On the evening of March 21, Nick Thomas-Symonds, Shadow Home Secretary and MP for Torfaen, leapt to the defence of the police, retweeting the false BBC story (fed to them by the police) about officers with broken bones and wished them a ‘swift recovery’, while declaring that there ‘there is no excuse for this violence’, by which he obviously didn’t mean the violence of the police. Meanwhile these false claims were picked up by the media and amplified across the country, and eagerly seized on by Labour politicians to condemn the protesters.
Thomas-Symonds then retweeted a similar statement from Marvin Rees, the Labour mayor of Bristol, and the next day retweeted a Sky News report which quoted himself saying that the violence that broke out during a protest in Bristol against the govt’s policing bill was ‘unacceptable and inexcusable’, yet again without comment on the police attacks on protesters.
Other South Wales Labour MPs contented themselves with retweeting various versions of this same line, effectively praising the dedicated police under siege from violent extremists. Jessica Morden (Newport East) on March 21 retweeted the Labour Press Office which quoted Thomas-Symonds:
The scenes in Bristol are completely unacceptable and inexcusable. My thoughts are with any officers injured, who have faced this awful violence whilst at work keeping us safe.
Gerald Jones MP for Merthyr retweeted Thomas-Symonds on March 21, then a similar tweet from Thangam Debbonaire (MP for Bristol West) and then the next day, a Sky News tweet quoting Bristol mayor Marvin Rees in which he attacked the protesters for their ‘selfish, self-indulgent, self-centred violence’ and railed against the ‘thugs’ who turned the demonstration violent. Again, no mention of the violence of the police.
Carolyn Harris (Swansea East and PPS to Keir Starmer) loyally retweeted Thomas-Symonds March 21 tweet without further comment. Chris Elmore (Ogmore) was very busy, retweeting Thangham Debbonaire on March 21 and then the next day retweeting similar sentiments from Liz Kendall and Wes Streeting. Chris Bryant (Rhondda) retweeted Debbonaire on March 21 and then tweeted himself the next day.
Not only was Bryant not critical of the actions of the police, he declared that the ‘police deserve our protection’. It’s unclear whether he bothered to look at any of the footage from Bristol on March 21 but one thing the police did not appear to need was any protection.
Tonia Antoniazzi (Gower) retweeted Bridget Philipson’s comments about how unacceptable and inexcusable the scenes in Bristol were and that her thoughts were ‘with officers injured while doing their job of keeping people safe.’ Finally, Jo Stevens (Cardiff Central) retweeted Marvin Rees’s statement on March 21 and the next day retweeted Thomas-Symonds’ comments to Sky News.
Over the course of the week and particularly after the events of the night of March 26, there is now plenty of evidence online (and there was much being put online in real time) of the behaviour of the police and the impact on protesters. Daily Mirror journalist, Adam Aspinall had this to say:
That he felt the police response was not ‘proportionate’ is hardly surprising given the wealth of evidence to be found online and several reports by journalists of them being assaulted by police (including another Mirror journalist)
Many protesters were beaten with batons and shields, charged by mounted police and had police dogs set on them. The pictures below of injuries sustained by a protester are not a one-off as even a cursory glance of Twitter will reveal.
The sheer scale of the video clips and photos of police thuggery and random assaults of protesters and journalists alike were impossible to ignore and so even the Avon and Somerset Police felt obliged to respond in some way.
Put aside for the moment the description of a journalist being assaulted by police in full riot gear as ‘a journalist being confronted’ and the ludicrous pretence that a Mirror journalist is difficult to contact, it indicates that even the police felt the need to manage the public perception of their behaviour.
Many South Wales Labour MPs were also driven to comment on Twitter on the March 26 protest. They were led by the Shadow Home Secretary and MP for Torfaen, Nick Thomas-Symonds. Interestingly, he waited until Saturday afternoon before saying anything and when he did, it was dutifully retweeted by 7 of his colleagues.
His tweets were as follows:
To describe this pathetic response as weasel words would be an insult to weasels everywhere. The statement heavily implies that ‘the violence’ is solely the responsibility of the protesters – contrary to all of the evidence showing the heavy handed, brutal and disproportionate actions of the police. It doesn’t seem to occur to Thomas-Symonds that the police may have their own agenda at work here and are quite likely to be free and easy with the facts. Witness the police’s managing of the media after the first disturbances on March 21. They released a statement which claimed that two officers had sustained broken bones and one a punctured lung. The claims of broken bones were subsequently retracted and then later so was the claim about a punctured lung.
A tweet from the chair of the Gloucestershire Police Federation also swiftly dealt with those naïve enough to believe that they had a right to protest and with those Labour MPs who argued that ‘Police are public sector workers too… and they deserve protecting.’ Letting the cat out of the bag with this tweet, its author swiftly moved it out of public access:
Policing by consent is a general principle not duty. Peaceful protest is a qualified not absolute right, has limits when it infringes on rights of others. the law includes the current prohibition on public gatherings. And technically we’re crown servants not public servants
— GlosPolFedChair (@FedGlos) March 27, 2021
But the content is very revealing and could have come from almost any autocrat’s police force over the last two centuries. Particularly important is the qualification of the right to protest and the denial that the police are public servants. As legal commentator David Allen Green points out, this is not semantics but about accountability. The author of the tweet is trying to clarify that the police are not there to serve the public and instead are accountable to ‘the crown’, in other words the state (very Tsarist). This lesson on the role of the state is one of those rare, inadvertent revelations from lower level state actors and explains why the tweet was so quickly removed from public access.
Nevertheless, even a Labour leadership desperate to avoid criticism of the police couldn’t entirely avoid this latest example of police violence, hence Thomas-Symonds’ mealy mouthed concerns about police maintaining ‘the highest standards’.
It also explains why Jo Stevens (Cardiff Central), having previously loyally retweeted statements from Thomas-Symonds and Marvin Rees blaming the protesters, felt obliged to change tack slightly after the shocking events of March 26. She retweeted Mirror journalist Mathew Dresch’s video clip of him being assaulted by police despite identifying himself as press. Stevens commented: ‘This looks extremely concerning’. It not only looks extremely concerning, it is extremely concerning, but apparently the attacks on protesters was not so concerning to merit a mention.
On the other hand, Geraint Davies (Swansea West) who had not commented at all on the March 21 protest, retweeted several clips of police violence, pointed to the lies of the police about injured officers and called for an inquiry into the events.
And finally, Beth Winter (Cynon Valley), the only Welsh MP who is a member of the Socialist Campaign Group, tweeted on March 27, describing the policing as heavy-handed and noting that ‘the police already wield unnecessary and excessive power against protesters’. She called for an independent investigation into the use of force by police in Bristol.
The call for an independent investigation, for the dropping of all charges and for the end of this militaristic style of policing is the minimum that Labour should be calling for. So why has the response from South Wales Labour MPs been either silence, criticism of the protesters or vague concerns about the freedom of the press (with the exception of Geraint Davies and Beth Winter)?
The line is clearly set by Starmer and Thomas-Symonds as the Shadow Home Secretary. Their focus groups have presumably identified law and order as one of Labour’s weak spots with the group of voters they are aiming at – which they characterise (or caricature) as socially conservative, older residents of so-called ‘Red Wall’ type seats. Starmer, the former human rights lawyer, doesn’t see any votes in standing up for civil liberties. He also hopes to avoid negative coverage from an overwhelming right wing media and finally, it sends a message to the powerful that Labour have purged any notion of challenging the status quo.
The response to the policing of the Bristol protests is a microcosm of the general approach of Labour under Starmer’s leadership and reveals the weaknesses of that general approach even from his own pragmatic and limited aims. First, it assumes that working class people’s experiences, and therefore views, of the police are entirely positive. This is unlikely to be true (many Red Wall voters remember all too well the police during the miners’ strike for example), but even if it was, would the best way to win over these people be to parrot the Tories? When will Labour learn that you will never out law and order the Tories? Every step Labour makes to the right on this issue, the Tories take two steps further. The only way to beat them is to change the game.
Secondly, having reluctantly been forced into opposing the Policing Bill (originally intending to abstain), every time Labour refuse to defend civil liberties and the right to protest, they look indecisive and weak or engaged in a cynical calculation that to defend civil liberties has no payoff with target voters.
Thirdly, the Shadow Cabinet silence on the latest police thuggery is just a variant of Mandelson’s ‘they’ve got nowhere else to go’. In other words the Labour leadership does not have to worry about angering left wing voters as there is no alternative political home for them. By refusing to condemn police violence or to defend civil liberties and the right to protest, they imagine this to be a risk-free move with current Labour voters, because they have no option but to vote Labour. Not only is this wrong – as we are likely to see in the May elections – but it is guaranteed to fail to energise young and working-class voters who currently do not vote. In 2017, some progress was made on this but instead Starmer’s approach will likely increase the numbers of non-voters.
Fourth, the idea that the media will give Labour a clear run in the next general election is completely delusional. As soon as the mildest of mild social democratic or even liberal policies appears in any manifesto, they will be savaged by Murdoch’s attack dogs and the rest. The only way to avoid that is to do what Blair did and give them what they want as an alternative to an exhausted Tory party. But times have changed, the economic room for manoeuvre has gone and the Tories have been rejuvenated on a diet of iron fist and cultural warfare. There is no need for a Second XI at the moment and so the ruling class will not be inclined to support Labour either.
South Wales Labour MPs are probably fairly representative of Labour MPs in heartland seats and the Starmer policy of continuing to tail-end the Tories, failing to oppose the extension of an authoritarian state and refusing to offer any challenge or radical alternative to the inequities and injustices of Tory Britain will have a price tag attached to it. Starmer may pay the electoral price in May, but unless we defend the right to protest and campaign for radical change, we will all pay the price of Labour’s continuing failure to fight the shift to the right and the move towards authoritarianism by Johnson’s government.
Robert Jenrick is the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government. Most people have probably never heard of him.
If you are aware of his existence, it might be to do with the fact that in 2020 he was involved in a controversial decision which helped out Richard Desmond, the Conservative Party donor and owner of Northern and Shell (former owner of the Daily Express and various porn magazines and porn TV channels). Jenrick overruled a Planning Inspectorate’s decision that Desmond’s £1 billion luxury housing development should provide more affordable housing units. The timing of the decision (the day before a new council community levy was introduced) saved Desmond’s company around £40 million in tax, and Tower Hamlets council calculated that Jenrick helped Desmond save a further £106 million through relaxing his obligations on affordable housing provision. Shortly after this, Desmond made a personal donation to the Conservatives.
Jenrick’s other claim to fame is a controversial 150 mile trip during the lockdown, despite urging the population to stay at home. Other than that he should be well known for being the latest Housing Minister to fail to sort out the problem of flammable cladding on blocks of flats following Grenfell, or to make any headway in helping to provide affordable homes – to buy or to rent – for the millions in need.
But now Jenrick has struck out on to new territory. In what the Tories clearly regard as red meat for their support base, he has announced new legislation as part of their culture war to defend ‘our history’ and specifically ‘our statues’. The enemy at the gates is a terrifying coalition of ‘woke militants’, the ‘baying mob’, the ‘flash mob’ (does he even know what that is?), and the ‘cultural committee of town hall militants and woke worthies’.
When he stops frothing at the mouth, he manages to equate defending statues of slavers like Colston in Bristol with defending ‘our’ history and – even worse – ‘conservation’. He tells us that he’s very keen on conservation because ‘it’s at the heart of conservatism’ (geddit?). Has it occurred to him that tearing ‘down great buildings’ is not the same as removing a statue of a slaver? This is especially so when it is not even a product of the time (a common defence) as, in the Colston case, it was erected in 1895 – 174 years after his death. While the statue didn’t go up until almost two centuries after Colston died, it was no coincidence that this was at the height of the Scramble for Africa when all the imperialist powers of the world, including the British Empire, the most powerful at the time, were invading and seizing as much of Africa as they could. So, celebrating a key participant in the transatlantic slave trade probably made a lot of sense to the cheerleaders of Empire.
Jenrick recycles many of the same tired old excuses as everybody else with a statue fetish, but essentially they fall into two categories: first, by removing the statues we censor history and secondly, more generally that there is such a thing as ‘our’ history in which we all share, that is encapsulated by these ‘public statues and monuments… erected to celebrate individuals and great moments in British history.’ Both are wrong.
To tear them [statues] down, is, as the Prime Minister has said, “to lie about our history”. It is also to needlessly denigrate and distort our past, rather than to educate, inform and unite people. It is a path we see our American cousins are well travelled upon. And we can, I hope, agree that we don’t want to follow.
The path the ‘American cousins are well travelled upon’ is of course the removal of statues and memorials that celebrate the Confederate rebellion against the US Congress in order to defend slavery in the southern states. Many of the same arguments are used by the apologists for the slaveholders’ rebellion as used by Jenrick. It’s history, you can’t ignore it, you have to place it in context, the statues were a product of their time. Except they weren’t. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the vast majority of the 1500 Confederate statues and memorials that existed in 2017, often standing outside State Capitols and Courthouses, were erected during two periods: the first at the beginning of the 20th century and the second in the 1950s and early 1960s at the peak of the Civil Rights Movement. The first spike coincided with the southern racists regaining control of the South through the ‘Jim Crow’ laws and the second spike was a backlash in response to the advances of the Civil Rights Movement.
Timeline of Confederate Monuments in USA
So the path that some of the ‘American cousins’ are travelling is to remove the overt symbols of white supremacy, racism and the glorification of a slave state from public spaces. To do what Jenrick wants – that is, not to follow the ‘American cousins’ – would be to accept that it’s OK to have these statues and memorials in public places. Yeah, suck it up pinkos and black people!
But what would Jenrick or other members of the British ruling elite think if Germany had this attitude? Would they be OK with statues of Hitler, Goebbels, Himmler and the rest, side by side with celebration memorials of the martial prowess of the Waffen SS and the contribution of the Nazi regime to the building of the autobahns? After all it is part of Germany’s history. And as Jenrick says:
We cannot – and should not – try to edit or censor our past. At the heart of liberal democracies is a belief that history should be studied, not censored.
So, the Germans should surely not ‘seek to erase’ part of their history. No doubt the Allied military governors in 1945 had the same approach as Jenrick and believed that ‘…such monuments are almost always best explained and contextualised, not taken and hidden away’ and that
We won’t allow people to censor our past or pretend we have a different history to the one we have.
If only we could know what the British and other Allied Military Governors of Germany did when judging whether removing statues was ‘censoring history’. Oh, wait a minute, we do know.
Directive No. 30 Liquidation of German Military and Nazi Memorials and Museums was issued in May 1946 and signed on behalf of the Allied Control Council by the Military Governors of the four occupying powers: Lieutenant General B.H. Robertson for the British forces, L. Koeltz, General de Corps d’Armee, for the French forces, Lieutenant General M.I. Dratvin for the Soviet forces and Lieutenant General Lucius D. Clay for the US forces. It states:
On and after the date of this directive, the planning, designing, erection, installation, posting or other display of any monument, memorial, poster, statue, edifice, street or highway name marker, emblem, tablet, or insignia which tends to preserve and keep alive the German military tradition, to revive militarism or to commemorate the Nazi Party, or which is of such a nature as to glorify incidents of war, and the functioning of military museums and exhibitions, and the erection, installation, or posting or other display on a building or other structure of any of the same, will be prohibited and declared illegal; also the reopening of military museums and exhibitions.
Every existing monument, poster, statue, edifice, street, or highway name marker, emblem, tablet or insignia, of a type the planning, designing, erection, installation, posting or other display of what is prohibited by Paragraph I of this Directive must be completely destroyed and liquidated by 1 January 1947; also all military museums and exhibitions must be closed and liquidated by 1 January 1947 throughout the entire German territory.
So the reason we don’t see statues of Hitler or Nazi memorials in Germany is that the Allied powers including Britain, did not see it as a censorship of history, rewriting history, erasing the past, destroying heritage, or any of the other nonsense churned out by Jenrick and others to defend statues of slavers. In fact, the Allies saw the tearing down of these symbols as an important part – not enough on its own – of destroying any legacy of the Nazis that remained.
There is also the more recent example of the pulling down of the statue of Sadaam Hussein in Baghdad and, as far as I know, not a single Tory MP uttered a word regretting the deed as depriving the Iraqi people of the opportunity of understanding their history (with the appropriate contextualised explanation of course).
The truth is that these statues and memorials are literally symbols. That is their entire purpose. They are not there to provide history lessons in sculptured form. They are usually an exercise in the projection of power, symbols of what the ruling elite wish to memorialise.
It is not surprising that they become targets in periods of popular upsurge. The pulling down of the Vendome Column (commemorating Napoleon and his imperialist wars) during the Paris Commune in 1871 was described by William Morris and E Belfort Bax as follows:
And though in itself the destruction of the Vendome Column may seem but a small matter, yet considering the importance attached generally, and in France particularly, to such symbols, the dismounting of that base piece of Napoleonic upholstery was another mark of the determination to hold no parley with the old jingo legends.
Similarly, the destruction of the statue of Stalin in Budapest during the Hungarian Workers’ Revolution of 1956, leaving just his boots, was another iconic moment.
Jenrick assumes that there is just one interpretation of history, that it is possible to speak of ‘our’ history as a shared experience, one that is a value free collection of facts. But the choice to omit or include or emphasise certain facts happens all the time and structures what we know of as history. If this were not true, we would see a very different range of monuments and statues around the country marking ‘our’ history.
Look around where you live and you will quickly see what is valued by those in power, and it is primarily a celebration and commemoration of Imperial Britain. Of course, there are the odd exceptions to that, but if we were to mark important events or people that improved the lives of working people, the urban landscape would look very different.
Jenrick would no doubt consider that to be a ‘negative narrative’, a better description would be a broader and therefore more honest examination of history, which includes the lives of ordinary people. Without that, no wonder that there is such ignorance of, and dewy-eyed sentimental nostalgia for, a distorted vision of what the Empire was and did. It’s shadow hangs over modern Britain today as shown by polling and this feeds through to attitudes to current issues. A Yougov poll in March 2020 found that 32% thought the Empire was more something to be proud of rather than ashamed of (37% were indifferent and 19% thought it a matter of shame). Broken down by party affiliation, 53% of Conservatives and 21% of Labour supporters felt the empire to be a source of pride.
33% thought that the former colonies were better off for being colonised and 27% say they wish Britain still had an empire. 54% of Conservatives and 21% of Labour supporters thought those countries colonised were better off for the experience and 38% of Conservatives and 20% of Labour supporters would like Britain to still have an empire.
Yet the Empire on which ‘the sun never set’, was based on brutal invasion, conquest, sometimes settlement, subjugation and sometimes enslavement, often mass imprisonment and torture of the population and theft of land and natural resources all over the world from Ireland to Iraq.
It was a leading force in the slave trade and slavery (belatedly bringing it to an end in the wake of slave rebellions throughout the colonies), invented concentration camps in South Africa, acted as an international drugs dealer in enforcing and controlling the import of opium into China and deliberately boosted mass addiction.
Having invaded and conquered other people’s land in every continent except Antarctica, it used its economic and military superiority to impose its will and enrich Britain’s ruling elite while throwing a few crumbs to the British working class. It engaged in high technology killing of anyone resisting conquest, deploying air power and gas against people armed with nothing much more than rifles in many cases.
It massacred unarmed indigenous people in Ireland at Croke Park, in Amritsar in India and in Tasmania in Australia. Its military and local auxiliaries used repression and assassinations in the Caribbean islands, Cyprus, Greece, Ireland, Kenya, Malaya and may other places. It became expert in the use of the politics of divide and rule which left a poisonous legacy leading to mass deaths and refugees even when the imperial forces withdrew – in India, Cyprus and Palestine for example. And it presided over avoidable famines in Ireland and Bengal costing millions of lives. There are not too many statues to that part of ‘our’ history.
Despite the colonialist myth that the colonised benefited, even supported their own colonisation, each and every part of the Empire saw resistance, revolutionary upsurges, insurrections, civil disobedience, general strikes, demonstrations and guerrilla war in the fight for independence. There is not much commemoration of this part of ‘our heritage’ in Britain.
But the British ruling class did not reserve their brutality for foreigners. They applied it at home too. The violence of the enclosures forced people off the land and laid the basis for a mass factory working class in the industrial revolution where the daily violence of the workplace created a country of malnourished children, disease-ridden hovels and short miserable lives for working people.
When anyone was foolish enough to believe that another world was possible they were met by the full force of the state in support of the employers in the shape of the police, troops and the judiciary. British military massacred civilians overseas but they did it at home too – Peterloo and Newport for example. Troops, militia and police have been used against strikers since there have been strikes – as in Merthyr, Tonypandy, Llanelli, Liverpool, Glasgow, the General Strike and at Orgreave. They were almost invariably described as ‘a mob’ at the time. There are not too many memorials to this aspect of ‘our’ history either.
The ‘weft and weave of our uniquely rich history’ that Jenrick eulogises is mostly exactly that – a history of the rich, with the ordinary people airbrushed out more effectively than any photoshop application. Far from attempting ‘to impose a single narrative, often negative’ as he accuses, the real task is to recognise that the version of ‘our history’ that the Tories defend is a one-sided look at the past in order to defend the privileges of the present. Britain is a deeply flawed democracy – even by the limited standards of liberal democracy. It has only had universal suffrage since 1929, it has an unelected second chamber and a hereditary monarchy as head of state, we have an unbalanced electoral system and political contests in which private wealth and influence play an ever greater part.
Recognising the history of popular struggles for democracy is at the heart of our history. Whether it be for workers’ rights, for universal suffrage, against racism and fascism, for equality for women, for LGBTQ rights, everyone of these movements has been stigmatised as a threat to stability and order by those in authority and power. Jenrick describes those who want to remove statues of slavers as ‘a baying mob’ and in this he is at one with every reactionary in British history. Every time, a movement for democratic reform has emerged in Britain the wealthy and powerful have decried it as the work of the mob. Wellington was typical in his response to the (very limited) proposed Reform Act, when he said in 1831:
I don’t believe that there is a man in England who does not think that this Reform must lead to the total extinction of the power and property of this country… the mob, the Radicals, the dissenters from the Church of all religious persuasion hail the Bill as the commencement of a new era of destruction and plunder.
Macaulay spoke for the ruling class when he railed against the People’s Charter in 1842:
My firm conviction is that, in our country, universal suffrage is incompatible not with this or that form of government, but with all forms of government, and with everything for the sake of which forms of government exist; that it is incompatible with property, and that it is consequently incompatible with civilization.
As Paul Foot explained in The Vote, what Macaulay believed was that democracy was a threat to wealth held by the few: ‘any government elected by the mass of the people who had no wealth was certain to start by expropriating the wealth of the rich’. Tories and Whigs considered democracy to be synonymous with mob-rule and they haven’t changed their view much since then.
Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.
The past is chaos. We in the present make sense of that past by manufacturing a history out of it. We do that by putting questions to it and the kind of questions you put depends on who you are, what you are, when you are… To my mind, the kind of questions we need to put are the ones that serve the majority…
It is this history, this heritage and tradition of the fight for democracy and its widest extension to every aspect of life that socialists support, and it’s why people like Jenrick regard us as ‘the mob’.
The pandemic has revealed many of the stress points in British society, it has laid bare the damage that 40 years of neoliberalism have done to the functioning and capacity of the state, and it has shown that the incompetence and arrogance of the British ruling elite is matched only by their complete lack of interest in the wellbeing of ordinary people.
Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the revelation of the miserable, starvation-level rations being doled out to children instead of the free school meals they would have had if their school was not closed. These ‘poverty picnics‘ as the food campaigner and chef Jack Monroe described them, produced by Chartwell (a subsidiary of transnational Compass) have been roundly condemned as completely inadequate and wildly over-priced.
The resulting public uproar included condemnation from the Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, who tweeted:
Whoever thinks it is ok to send out bits of vegetables and fruit like this AND scraps of other food in what seems to be money bags is very wrong. Imagine thinking that the saving to be made on half a carrot was worth it or that it might be hygienic enough to send out fish in bags
Even Keir Starmer was moved to describe these ‘woefully inadequate free school meal parcels’ as ‘a disgrace.’ He went on to ask ‘Where is the money going?’ But it seems pretty clear that the money is going into the profits of Chartwell and its parent company.
A more alert Leader of the Opposition would have used the opportunity to demand of the Tories that meals packs are replaced by cash or if meals packs are used at all, they should be of high quality and standards monitored by committees of local authorities, parents, schools and pupils. He should also have demanded that companies responsible for this are immediately removed from any tender list and blacklisted for all future public sector contracts and that all free school meals provision is urgently moved in-house as the first stage of bringing all school meals provision in-house (both during and post-pandemic) with all children being provided with free school meals.
Naturally, the Tories will claim that this is unaffordable. They are, of course, wrong but after the last nine months of billion pound crony contracting, the Tories are in a completely indefensible position. Even before they showed that the state is easily able to afford huge amounts of public spending when the will is there, it was always affordable as Finland has shown that free, high quality, municipally provided school meals are not only affordable but feasible and effective, and has done so since 1948.
The state has always had to be pushed into taking action to benefit working class communities, especially over issues like children’s school meals – the latest case before this one being the campaign headed by Marcus Rashford, who shamed the government into action last year.
Like many public services, school meals exist partly because of the campaigns of the labour movement and partly because there are advantages to the state in ensuring that a minimum level of support exists for working class families. Few realise that the origin of school meals in the UK goes back to the discovery by the British military that the average working class recruit for their colonial wars were so malnourished and unhealthy that the height requirement had to be reduced for recruitment of troops for the Boer War of 1899-1902. Only one in nine prospective recruits were healthy enough to sign up. In response to this the government of the day set up the Interdepartmental Committee on Physical Deterioration, which led directly to the Education (Provision of Meals) Act in 1906.
Healthy children were seen as an investment for tomorrow’s workers and soldiers and school meals were a way of ameliorating malnutrition. The legislation was minimalist in that it did not compel local authorities to do anything; it simply allowed them to provide school meals. But if they did so, there were limits. An expenditure limit was set by central government, the money had to be raised locally from the rates. Free or reduced charge school meals could only be provided for those children identified by medical experts as malnourished, all other children had to pay at least the costs of the meal.
Some elements of the ruling class already knew about the dire impact of poverty and malnutrition on the nation’s children and some reformers – often led by socialists – pushed for change. But a slow realisation of the impact of food poverty and a grudging acceptance that something had to be done, only gained support among the Boris Johnsons of the day when they realised that it was jeopardising British capitalism’s efficient working and recruitment for the imperial army.
Compulsory education was introduced throughout Britain in 1880 with the Elementary Education Act (it was already law in Scotland) and this revealed the extent of malnutrition in children. If compulsory education was part of the need to create the disciplined, literate and numerate workforce required for industrial production, then the fact that (as the 1906 Act explained) many children were ‘unable by reason of lack of food to take advantage of the education provided for them’ demanded action.
In Scotland, the provision of hot meals at school was in part a deliberate inducement for school attendance and compliance with the Education (Scotland) Act of 1872. In his study of poverty in York, the Quaker philanthropist, Rowntree commented in 1902: ‘The relation of food to industrial efficiency is so obvious and so direct as to be a commonplace among students of political economy’.
So there was an instrumentality about the highlighting of food poverty, even among the liberal social reformers of the time. This was a major feature of school meals provision in this first phase. The instrumentality of the ruling class went side by side with the campaigning of the labour movement. Like many public services and reforms, the school meals service was a contested area with different objectives for the representatives of the different classes. The 1906 Bill to introduce school meals was proposed by a Labour MP. It became the 1906 Education (Provision of Meals) Act and was part of a range of social legislation (including reforms relating to occupational health, housing and national insurance) brought in by the Liberal government. Fred Jowett, elected Labour MP for Bradford in 1906, made his maiden speech on school meals saying: ‘Education on an empty stomach is a waste of time’. The Liberals overcame their fear that provision of school meals could undermine family responsibilities (an early example of the ‘nanny state’ argument) because they were more nervous about the developing labour movement. To a certain extent these reforms were a response to trade union pressure from outside Parliament.
The second phase began with the 1944 Education Act and compared with what preceded it, was a revolutionary change, embodying the new welfare state approach which was to define the 1945 Labour government and the political consensus for the next 35 years.
All Local Education Authorities (LEAs) were obliged to provide school meals and milk in primary and secondary schools. The authors of the legislation intended that school meals should be an integral part of the school day. In the spirit of the times, this was a universalist, national system. It was a move away from a system designed to feed the very poorest – a safety net against malnutrition – into a national scheme for all children. Nutritional standards were based on those established in 1941 by a team of nutritionists (incidentally the first ever national minimum nutritional standards in Britain), a standard price was stipulated across the whole country and school meals had to be suitable as the main meal of the day, providing children with one third of their daily requirements of nutrients and energy. LEAs’ new powers were not limited just to the provision of school lunches. They were allowed to provide other meals and to continue the service on weekends and holidays. The act was based on the experience of the inter-war and wartime years.
Even before 1939, it was clear that the school feeding model was inadequate, but during the war, several issues brought the need for change into sharp focus: rationing failed to meet the special needs of children; civic catering facilities were set up in response to bombing and consequent population movement, including children’s evacuations; meals provided at school became a necessity for many families as women filled the gaps in the labour market caused by men’s conscription; and the new family allowance included free school meals and free school milk.
This welfare state approach based on collective and universal provision, rested on a view of citizenship with rights and entitlements. Like much of the rest of the welfare state, at its best it was revolutionary, where it fell down was in an excess of paternalism and an absence of direct democracy. Nevertheless, children were seen as citizens in post war reconstruction – perhaps more accurately future citizens or children of citizens. It was a long way from the reluctant abandonment of laissez faire that characterised the 1906 act, and this welfarist approach survived until 1980.
The Conservative election victory in 1979 was a turning point for school meals provision like every other public service in the UK. But this change did not come without warning. After the 1973 oil crisis and the resulting end of the long post war boom, there was an increasing questioning of the welfare state in Britain. Pressure on public spending increased, especially after the then Labour government called on International Monetary Fund (IMF) loans and was obliged to accept IMF economic direction.
The election of the Thatcher government saw an overt rejection by government of the ideas behind the welfare state, of which the school meals service was a small but important component. It was part of the highly unionised local government sector. Not only that, but it was a very clear example of the post war Labour government’s welfarist approach which – at its best – saw a service like school meals as having a multi-functional role against poverty, disease and malnutrition and as a contribution to health, education and social welfare provision. And most irritiating of all for the Tories, it was a non-market area of service provision that potentially could be remodelled, contracted out and the service commodified.
Thatcher saw public ownership or public services and strong unions as the twin props of ‘socialism’. In her 1993 autobiography, she described privatisation as:
… one of the central means of reversing the corrosive effects of socialism… Just as nationalisation was at the heart of the collectivist programme by which Labour governments sought to remodel British society, so privatisation is at the centre of any programme of reclaiming territory for freedom.
The 1980 Education Act was a part of this drive to begin to remove the state from various aspects of life in Britain. It relegated school meals to a non-essential service, removed the obligation on LEAs to provide school meals (except for those pupils entitled to free meals). It obliged schools to provide somewhere for pupils to eat a packed lunch. Before this, heads had the power to prevent pupils bringing packed lunches to school. Nutritional standards were abolished and fixed pricing was ended.
The 1986 Social Security Act introduced restrictions on eligibility for free school meals. Rules were tightened again in 1992. In each case thousands of school children lost the right to a free meal. The 1986 act limited entitlement to free school meals to children whose families received income support and was removed from those receiving family credit. This resulted in 400,000 children losing entitlement to free school meals.
The 1988 Local Government Act saw the introduction of compulsory competitive tendering (CCT) that forced LEAs to put school meals services out to tender. This drove down prices and quality, regardless of whether the service was contracted out or not, as local authorities were obliged to let the contract to the tender offering the cheapest price. Local authorities were also prohibited from ‘anti-competitive behaviour’ through the use of contract compliance or any reference to ‘non-commercial matters’. In other words, local authorities could not require bidders to meet certain standards seen as not directly related to the service, such as the pay and conditions of the workforce.
At around this period, secondary schools turned to cash cafeterias and away from traditional school canteens serving a standard lunch. Rising prices (following the abolition of national pricing) was combined with a significant drop in the proportions of pupils taking school meals – from 64% in 1979 to 47% in 1988. With no obligatory nutritional standards, schools increasingly used their meals service as a revenue generator. In order to maximise sales, much of the same poor quality food as available in high street fast food outlets appeared in school cafeterias. Under the banner of ‘choice’, schools moved from a system in which the school children had access to a regulated, standard provision to individual consumers selecting from a range of alternatives, although the focus on the consumer was much less important than the focus on reducing public expenditure.
Things did improve with the election of a Labour government in 1997. Eventually more money was made available to local authorities, nutritional standards were brought back, devolved administrations also improved the service in a number of ways. But there was considerable unease about the limitations of the reforms. The Labour government largely retained contracting out of local government services (under the rubric of ‘Best Value’) and with its evangelical attitude to PFI, usually welded into the new schools’ service, the contracting out of services like school cleaning and catering. With the latter, one of the major problems was that many, if not most, PFI schools were built without a ‘prime’ kitchen where food could be cooked from scratch and so relied on ‘regeneration’ kitchens that simply reheated cook-chill dishes made on a different day in a different place.
The damage by the Tories under Thatcher and Major was not reversed under Blair and Brown. Since then school meals have predictably suffered further under the Tories. Contracting out and cuts in funding have seen a combination of unsatisfactory standards and mediocre food for school students and precarious work, low pay, deskilling, and a lack of training for school meals staff.
The current scandal around the laughably described ‘food hampers’ should be used by Labour and the main unions representing what’s left of the unionised workforce (UNISON and GMB) to revitalise the school meals service. It is a small example of how a de-commodified service could and should operate. It is part of the long tradition of collective responses to individual problems. As the late Wales First Minister Rhodri Morgan pointed out in 2002, the school meals movement was not simply a battle against malnutrition:
… the Fabian Society launched its pamphlet And They Shall Have Flowers on the Table in Cardiff at the turn of the last century. The title of that pamphlet made it clear that school dinners were to be a social and educational experience, as well as one which provided food for families where that was badly needed.
Services like school meals should be examples of the sort of combined national and local campaign focus that Labour needs to adopt in the four years between now and the next election. Where necessary, local authorities need to be pressurised to provide the sort of high quality service that is required. Labour in Parliament needs to use the public attention to press for the necessary funding. Local parties and unions should link up with parents groups, school students representatives, environmentalists, public health and child welfare campaigners to push the many sided benefits of taking school meals out of the market and using the service as part of a publicly provided, locally produced and sourced, sustainable, democratic, healthy public service.
Britain is in a crisis like no other in its history. It’s not alone of course, the whole world is caught up in a multi-faceted and interlinked crisis of health, economy and climate. Arguably Britain is in a worse position even than many other countries because of the failures and priorities of the UK government with its focus on short term profit rather than long term health (of both the population and the economy), its apparent inability to even carry out its own programme with a modicum of efficiency and the looming problems of Brexit. With the relief of the possibility of a vaccine being available soon, some attention is shifting to the economy and the likelihood of 2.5 million people being unemployed in the very near future as a result of the biggest economic downturn in 300 years.
At just such a moment Keir Starmer and his appointed General Secretary David Evans have chosen to plunge the Labour party into renewed internal battles. Meanwhile the Conservative government has a clear run in framing the key debates about the future of the country both during and after the pandemic.
When Corbyn was leader, Labour’s attempts to deal with antisemitism within its ranks were dogged by internal sabotage from the party bureaucracy, insensitivity and failures of leadership, and bad faith, disingenuousness, half-truths and lies from critics of the leadership – both inside and outside the party. As the EHRC report acknowledges, from 2018 when Jennie Formby replaced the anti-Corbyn Iain McNicol as Labour general secretary, disciplinary procedures were improved, the process was speeded up and complaints were being dealt with more efficiently.
For most of the period that Corbyn was leader, both the current leader, Keir Starmer and the current deputy leader, Angela Rayner, were in his Shadow Cabinet. Rayner even supported Corbyn in his second leadership election that he won against Owen Smith. So both of them were happy to remain as Shadow Cabinet members for virtually the entire period covered by the EHRC report on antisemitism within the Labour party. A year ago, they both campaigned for Corbyn to become the Prime Minister. While a Shadow Cabinet member, Rayner defended Corbyn saying:
If I felt that Jeremy Corbyn accepted that abuse in our party, I wouldn’t be in it. I wouldn’t be in his Shadow Cabinet. I don’t believe that’s the case, Jeremy Corbyn has fought antisemitism, he’s fought racism all his life and he’s proud of that record and we will continue as a party to fight against that.
As late as the leadership hustings in 2019, Keir Starmer was defending Corbyn against the attacks made against him during the election. If they believed that Corbyn was responsible for widespread antisemitism within the Labour party, why did they remain in the Shadow Cabinet, why did they defend Corbyn in public, why did they campaign for him to become Prime Minister?
In December 2019, Jeremy Corbyn led the main Opposition party in Britain. Less than a year later, he was suspended by that party, readmitted, then thrown out of the Parliamentary Labour Party despite being a member of the Labour Party and a Member of Parliament. Such is the swing to the right and both the ruthlessness and incoherence of the Starmer leadership.
Now both Starmer and Rayner cite their determination to ‘root out antisemitism’ as justification for their attacks on Corbyn and threats of suspension of anyone within the party who defends Corbyn, or questions the justice of his exclusion from the PLP, or demands the right to discuss these questions at local party meetings or queries the role of the general secretary. Starmer has succeeded in turning a debate on how to eradicate antisemitism within the party into an attack on internal party democracy.
So instead of discussing the fight against antisemitism within the democratic structures of the party, the former leader remains outside the PLP, local parties are instructed not to discuss certain motions which are deemed to be antisemitic and local party voluntary officers are suspended.
As if to emphasise that John McDonnell’s call for ‘common sense and compromise’ has little chance in Starmer’s new model army, on 23 November, Nick Brown, the Labour chief whip, wrote to Corbyn, ostensibly about his response to the EHRC report into antisemitism in the Labour party (the letter was released to the press ‘in the interests of transparency’, see below). At every stage the party leadership has deepened the divisions within the party rather than worked to resolve them.
In his letter, Chief Whip Brown summarises what he sees as the key points of the EHRC report and then draws attention to Corbyn’s statement in response to it on 29 October, in particular this section:
One antisemite is one too many, but the scale of the problem was also dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents inside and outside the party, as well as by much of the media. That combination hurt Jewish people and must never be repeated.
He interprets this as Corbyn believing ‘…that the implications of this form of racism are ‘exaggerated’ and that it is media reporting of that racism, rather than the actual impact on its victims, that hurt Jewish people…’ Even on its own terms, this interpretation is flawed. Corbyn clearly does not say that ‘this form of racism’ is ‘exaggerated’. He says that the ‘scale of the problem’ was ‘dramatically overstated’ by political opponents and much of the media. If the media were simply ‘reporting’ racism, that would not represent any kind of overstatement at all. But more than this, Brown does not place the extract from Corbyn’s statement in its context, as you can see from the full statement below.
The EHRC’s report shows that when I became Labour leader in 2015, the Party’s processes for handling complaints were not fit for purpose. Reform was then stalled by an obstructive party bureaucracy. But from 2018, Jennie Formby and a new NEC that supported my leadership made substantial improvements, making it much easier and swifter to remove antisemites. My team acted to speed up, not hinder the process.
Anyone claiming that there is no antisemitism in the Labour Party is wrong. Of course there is, as there is throughout society, and sometimes it is voiced by people who think of themselves as on the left.
Jewish members of our party and the wider community were right to expect us to deal with it, and I regret that it took longer to deliver that change than it should.
One antisemite is one too many, but the scale of the problem was also dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents inside and outside the party, as well as by much of the media. That combination hurt Jewish people and must never be repeated.
In context, the paragraph quoted by Brown assumes a different character. The ‘combination’ that Corbyn refers to and recognises as hurting Jewish people is not simply the overstatement of the scale of the problem by political opponents and the media, but rather the party’s own failure to deal with a very real problem of antisemitism within the party (exacerbated by a hostile party bureaucracy in whose hands lay the responsibility for running the complaints procedure); the failure of Corbyn’s leadership to overcome the internal problems and deal with it quickly and thoroughly enough; and the overstatement by opponents of the scale of the problem. That is the ‘combination’ to which Corbyn refers and which he recognises ‘hurt Jewish people’ and for which he expresses regret.
We must never tolerate antisemitism or belittle concerns about it. And that was not my intention in anything I said this week. I regret the pain this issue has caused the Jewish community and would wish to do nothing that would exacerbate or prolong it. To be clear, concerns about antisemitism are neither “exaggerated” nor “overstated”.
This statement was issued shortly before Corbyn was readmitted to the Labour party, the suspension lifted and the disciplinary action dropped by the sub-committee of the NEC (presumably after Labour’s legal advice revealed that the case was based on sand). However, after protests led by Margaret Hodge, Starmer appeared to go back on what looked to be the result of a negotiated settlement of the issue and refused to restore Corbyn’s membership of the Parliamentary Labour Party. Having failed in a disciplinary approach, he opted for a political one, and the letter from Nick Brown was sent to Corbyn.
So the focus returned to Corbyn’s statement in response to the publication of the EHRC report on 29 October. Brown demanded from Corbyn the following:
Will you unequivocally, unambiguously and without reservation apologise for your comments made on the morning of 29 October 2020, in particular for saying ‘One antisemite is one too many, but the scale of the problem was also dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents inside and outside the party, as well as by much of the media’, which caused such distress and pain to Jewish members of the Labour Party and the wider Jewish community?
Can you confirm that you will be complying immediately with the request of the sub-panel of the Labour Party NEC’s Disputes Panel by either removing the Facebook post or editing it to remove the sentence indicated?
Can you give me an assurance that you will cooperate fully with the Labour Party as it seeks to implement the recommendations set out in the EHRC report.
The last demand is just thrown in for ballast as Corbyn stated on the day of the publication of the EHRC report: ‘I trust its recommendations will be swiftly implemented…’ The second demand tries to force Corbyn to remove or edit his statement – despite this evidently not being necessary for his suspension to be lifted.
And finally, the first demand does three things. First, it once again takes a section of the statement out of context in order to make it appear more stark and careless in relation to the Jewish community. Second, it highlights Corbyn’s claim that ‘the scale of the problem was also dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents inside and outside the party, as well as by much of the media’ as though this is self-evidently offensive nonsense and special pleading from Corbyn. Third, it demands that Corbyn ‘unequivocally, unambiguously and without reservation apologise’. This ignores that in his original statement on 29 October, Corbyn did apologise. He said: ‘I regret that it took longer to deliver that change [dealing with antisemitism within the party] than it should’. In his second statement on 17 November he apologised again: ‘I regret the pain this issue has caused the Jewish community and would wish to do nothing that would exacerbate or prolong it. To be clear, concerns about antisemitism are neither “exaggerated” nor “overstated”’.
But Brown (obviously acting for Starmer) wants Corbyn to apologise for the statement that ‘the problem was also dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents inside and outside the party, as well as by much of the media’. They clearly feel that this is a strong argument, and yet the weakness of it is exposed by the extraordinary lengths they are prepared to go to shut down debate on it within the party.
It also explains why Starmer and others repeatedly misquote Corbyn to make it appear that he (and by implication the Left more widely) does not accept that there is a problem with antisemitism within the party. In response to the publication of the EHRC report on 29 October, Starmer said:
And if – after all the pain, all the grief, and all the evidence in this report, there are still those who think there’s no problem with anti-semitism in the Labour Party. That it’s all exaggerated, or a factional attack. Then, frankly, you are part of the problem too. And you should be nowhere near the Labour Party either.
At the Jewish Labour Movement conference on 29 November, Starmer went even further. From a possible problem a month earlier, he now identified it as widespread within the party:
Denialism is a real problem. We have people who say and do antisemitic things and we obviously have to take action against them but we also have a group of people who deny there’s a problem, say it’s exaggerated or it’s factional. And that is just as bad. Denying there’s a problem is part of the problem and that’s been a big feature of the last five years and it’s always concerned me that you’ve got a group of people who are antisemitic and then you’ve got a bigger group of people who deny there’s a problem, say it’s exaggerated.
Disregarding the fact that both Starmer and Rayner managed to play leadership roles in Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet, despite ‘denialism’ being ‘a big feature of the last five years’, Angela Rayner, at the same conference, said ‘If I have to suspend thousands and thousands of members, we will do that’. Not only is this a bizarre threat to make on the basis of no evidence whatsoever, but it does exactly what the EHRC report warns Labour against: ‘it is not legitimate for the leadership to influence, make recommendations, or make decisions on complaints outside of the formal complaints process’ (p.49).
It is one thing to take moves to eradicate a problem of antisemitism within the party by responding to a fairly measured report, the recommendations of which have been generally welcomed, but this is now a general offensive against the Left with the focus on Corbyn as the symbol of the politics of the party between 2015 and 2019.
There has been so much dishonesty and bad faith in the antisemitism furore with many on the right of the party wilfully and cynically taking the genuine problem of antisemitism and collapsing that into the Israel/Palestine debate and a general assault on left policies. Sometimes that has taken ludicrous forms, such as the outburst of Labour MP for Mitcham and Morden, Siobhain McDonagh on the Today programme on 4 March 2019. John Humphrys asked her whether she believed that the Labour party was taking antisemitism ‘properly seriously’. She replied:
I’m not sure that some people in the Labour Party can. Because it’s very much part of their politics, of hard left politics, to be against capitalists and to see Jewish people as the financiers of capital. Ergo you are anti-Jewish people.
Humphrys pushed on this and asked ‘In other words, to be anti-capitalist you have to be antisemitic?’, to which she replied ‘Yes’. She tried to row back a little from this by saying ‘not everybody’ but if ever there was a factional use of antisemitism to smear a large section of the membership (and thereby overstate the problem), then here it is.
More common was the frequent and widespread overstatement of the extent of antisemitism within the party from opponents of Corbyn both inside and outside the party and enthusiastically taken up (and often initiated) by a hostile media. This is irrefutable and therefore should be uncontroversial. Rayner agreed that the extent was overstated (but she argues that it isn’t the point, about which more later):
to suggest that it’s a small number in the Labour party, while that might be true, it’s completely unacceptable to not understand the hurt and the distress
She seems unable to accept that it is perfectly possible to recognise the poisonous nature of antisemitism within the party (particularly in its impact on Jewish members and supporters) and how essential it is to deal with it and also at the same time to have a sense of perspective about the extent of it. Senior party figures often appear as though they haven’t actually read the EHRC report and that reveals quite a lot. Had they done so, they would have seen the very clear statement that
Article 10 [of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) protecting freedom of expression] will protect Labour Party members who, for example… express their opinions on internal Party matters, such as the scale of antisemitism within the Party, based on their own experience and within the law.
Statements made by elected politicians have enhanced protection under Article 10 (p. 27)
Meanwhile the media have shown a complete lack of interest in even raising the question of whether what Corbyn said was correct. It is accepted as self-evident that it is false (presumably because to investigate further would reveal their culpability). In fact it is an easy task to find numerous examples that confirm Corbyn’s claim that the extent of antisemitism was overstated for political purposes.
When I went to Auschwitz I rather complacently said to myself, “thank goodness we don’t have to worry about that kind of thing happening in the UK” and now I find myself faced with the leader of the Labour Party who has opened the door to antisemitism in a way that is truly frightening.
The media coverage of Labour’s antisemitism problem was widespread, prolonged and relentless. Antisemitism in a major political party deserves nothing less, but almost all of the mainstream media ran major articles, often front page headlines repeatedly highlighting bogus claims that the Labour party was over-run with antisemitism (and incidentally almost all ignored the actual racist leading the Conservative party). As a few examples, The Mail on Sunday carried a claim that Corbyn is the ‘biggest global threat to Jews’, The Express that Corbyn was the ‘world’s worst antisemitism enabler’. The Sun urged the electorate not to vote Labour and see ‘Corbyn’s antisemitic thugs taking power’. Three Jewish publications led by the Jewish Chronicle carried a joint editorial warning of ‘the existential threat to Jewish life in this country that would be posed by a Jeremy Corbyn-led government’.
Corbyn’s opponents within the party echoed these claims – however far-fetched they knew them to be. Instead of concentrating on helping to deal with the very real instances of antisemitism in the party, they seemed more animated in exaggerating the extent of the problem by pointing to cases of antisemitic behaviour by people outside of the Labour party or by claiming that certain actions were antisemitic when they clearly were not. The Jewish Labour Movement described the Labour Party as ‘institutionally antisemitic’, something the EHRC signally did not do.
… regarding a dossier submitted with 200 examples. The 200 examples do not relate to 200 separate individuals. They relate to 111 individuals reported of whom only 20 were members.
Her dossier was meant to be an example of the huge scale of the problem and the failure of the party but Hodge unwittingly provided a small example of the truth of Corbyn’s observation that the extent of antisemitism within the party was overstated. This should not be a surprise as several pieces of data have suggested that antisemitism in the Labour party is less widespread than in society as a whole – which is what those of us on the Left would expect. As the EHRC report points out, among the many failings of the McNicol regime in tackling antisemitism was its apparent compete inability (or unwillingness) to record data on cases and progress. When Formby was appointed, she sought to change this and made many improvements, as the EHRC report recognises (pp 6, 7, 10, 33, 36, 41, 71, 73, 76, 82, 100, 119). When she was able to publish statistics, she did so, and these also suggested that the numbers of actual members guilty of antisemitism were relatively small – with all the provisos about the lack of data before she took office and the obvious point that any instance of antisemitism is unacceptable.
Contrary to Starmer’s repeated claims, Corbyn did not say that there is no problem of antisemitism within the party. Neither did he say that it is ‘all an exaggeration’ nor that it is ‘just’ about factionalism. It is perfectly possible to agree that here is a serious problem which needs to be dealt with and to also argue that the incidence of it overstated and has been used for factional purposes. This is surely undeniable as the preceding paragraphs set out.
So, given that Corbyn’s statement that the ‘scale of the problem was also dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents inside and outside the party, as well as by much of the media’ is irrefutably true (with even Angela Rayner conceding this), why do they wish him to delete it from his Facebook account? And why should the party leadership expect Corbyn to agree to an untruth in order to secure readmittance to the PLP? And for what exactly do they want him to apologise?
Corbyn has repeatedly apologised as John McDonnell has said (although he seems to want him to continue apologising ad infinitum). Just to recap, in his initial response to the EHRC report’s publication he said:
Jewish members of our party and the wider community were right to expect us to deal with it, and I regret that it took longer to deliver that change than it should.
In his response to his suspension he said:
We must never tolerate antisemitism or belittle concerns about it. And that is not my intention in anything I said this week. I regret the pain this issue has caused the Jewish community and would wish to do nothing that would exacerbate or prolong it. To be clear, concerns about antisemitism are neither “exaggerated” nor “overstated”.
If the attacks on Corbyn were ever really about antisemitism, they certainly don’t look like it now. Those urging ‘compromise’ and further apologies are ignoring the fact that the party leadership are using the EHRC report and subsequent events to extinguish debate within the party, to deprive party members of the right to express a view on important issues and to strangle democracy within the party.
Various voluntary party officers have been suspended, local parties have been prohibited from discussing anything that the party bureaucracy deems as related to the report or to its handling or to anything subsequent related to it. This is producing the most contorted justifications for shutting down debate.
An inkling of this was given back in August when Evans tried to prevent any discussion of the Panorama payout with ominous warnings to local parties of liability if allegations were repeated, as though it was impossible to discuss the question without breaching legal guidelines. With the publication of the EHRC report, at first the reasons provided were that it carried a legal status and that the party was obliged by law to implement its recommendations and therefore none of it was open for discussion and neither was the EHRC’s competence. This ignored the fact that even an obligation to implement recommendations does not of course mean that it is illegal to discuss the contents of the report, methodology, findings etc.
Then when Corbyn was suspended, again discussion was banned. This time prohibition was on the basis of the necessity to avoid discussion of an ongoing disciplinary case. When local parties then debated simple motions of solidarity with Corbyn (without any mention of the disciplinary case), the bureaucracy attempted to bully them into silence then too under threat of suspension.
It must have been a bad day at the office for Evans when the NEC sub-committee (appointed by him) ruled that there was no disciplinary case for Corbyn to answer and the suspension was lifted and he was readmitted to the Labour party. This was presumably after legal advice that the case against Corbyn was indefensible. Outraged at this, Margaret Hodge and others on the right of the party demanded further action against Corbyn, threatening resignations from the party. In response, Starmer immediately breached the EHRC’s directive to avoid political interference in any form of disciplinary process and withdrew the whip from Corbyn, excluding him again from the PLP.
With the suspension dropped, it was impossible to use the ongoing disciplinary argument to prohibit discussion of Corbyn’s treatment. Consequently, all over the country units of the party debated this very issue, passing motions of support for Corbyn. Evans quickly wrote to CLPs that discussions of the withdrawal of the whip would be ruled ‘out of order’. Evans’ reasoning merits some examination. He wrote:
I am aware that other motions (including expressions of solidarity, and matters relating to the internal processes of the Parliamentary Labour Party) are providing a flashpoint for the expression of views that undermine the Labour Party’s ability to provide a safe and welcoming space for all members, in particular our Jewish members. Therefore, all motions which touch on these issues will also be ruled out of order.
He further explained that the justification he was using for this was the party’s Code of Conduct which states that
the Labour Party will ensure the party is a welcoming home to members of all communities, with no place for any prejudice or discrimination based on race, ethnicity or religion.
He emphasised that the party is committed to implementing the EHRC report in full and adopting a ‘genuinely zero-tolerance approach which will ensure all members, and in particular our Jewish members, feel safe and welcome within the Labour Party.’
So, discussion of the withdrawal of the whip from Corbyn, expressions of solidarity, ‘matters relating to the internal processes of the Parliamentary Labour Party’ undermine the party’s ‘ability to provide a safe and welcoming place for all members, in particular our Jewish members.’ By implicitly equating these discussions with antisemitism, we are truly through the Looking Glass.
Next the bureaucracy revealed their real intentions. Young Labour National Committee voted to publish a statement in opposition to the removal of the whip from Corbyn. Labour headquarters responded by telling the chair the statement must be removed ‘immediately’ and that Young Labour had ‘misused’ Labour ‘branding’ to ‘provide commentary on factional disputes’. So the bureaucracy at least is very clear on this – the removal of the whip by Starmer is part of a factional dispute.
Speaking at the Jewish Labour Movement conference on 29 November, Angela Rayner dug herself in even deeper. She said party members needed to ‘get real’ over antisemitism or ‘thousands and thousands’ could be suspended. So in a short contribution she managed to insult the party membership as not taking antisemitism seriously and also to breach the EHRC’s directive to avoid political interference (p. 13) which they define as follows:
In our investigation we use the term ‘political interference’ to mean people influencing decision-making or taking decisions in complaints outside of established processes.
This sort of interference may happen because of political concerns, such as the reaction of the media or the reputational risk to the Labour Party, or for reasons relating to support for internal factions within the Party. It can lead to decisions being made for political reasons, rather than based on the facts of the case (p.42).
Instead Rayner said:
If I have to suspend thousands and thousands of members, we will do that. Because we cannot and we will not accept an injury to one, because an injury to one is an injury to all. That’s what we say in our movement.
Rayner is misusing the idea of an ‘injury to one’ to defend the shutting down of debate on the spurious grounds of ‘safe and welcoming spaces’ for Jewish members. Obviously local party meetings should be safe and welcoming for all party members and debates should be conducted with courtesy, especially on an issue like antisemitism which has been a long running controversy within the party. But this is now being interpreted as prohibiting any debate on anything related to antisemitism or the way that the party has dealt with it or currently is dealing with it, or even about the way the party is preventing debate or the conduct of the general secretary.
It has become an attack on the internal democracy of the party and this defining of a ‘safe and welcoming place’ as one that prevents parties debating issues is extremely dangerous. Rayner defends the party’s position by saying there should be no debate about whether antisemitism exists in the party or about what the EHRC said, but has there even been one CLP that has tried to debate either of these questions? There have been plenty who have tried – and some that have succeeded – in debating the justice of Corbyn’s suspension and later withdrawal of the whip or the conduct of the general secretary.
Starmer and Rayner’s argument is that Jewish members must feel safe and welcomed within the party. No one would disagree with that. Obviously, an antisemitic motion should not be taken and if such is proposed a complaint to Labour HQ should be made about the person proposing it. But with her ‘an injury to one’ formulation, is she really saying that if one person (presumably Jewish in this case) feels uncomfortable about a proposed debate or motion then that motion or debate should be prohibited? What if there are several Jewish party members present and they disagree? Does the one expressing discomfort get a veto over discussion?
And how would that principle work more generally? Would debates about abortion be prevented if a member who was a Catholic said it made them feel unwelcome? What about a critical motion on the role of the police for a member with a partner in the police? How about a motion supporting the Indian general strike which attacked the record of the Modi government? What if an Indian member said that such a motion made them uncomfortable? Suppressing discussion within the party on the spurious grounds of creating a ‘safe and welcoming space’ will not root out antisemitism but will damage both internal democracy and the fight against antisemitism.
The current actions of the party leadership are intended to humiliate Corbyn because he is a figurehead and symbol of the advances the Left made between 2015 and 2019 and to salt the earth so that nothing like that is allowed to happen again. For those on the right of the party, the call for an apology from Corbyn is irrelevant. If he apologised again it would not be enough. Some of those who initiated the complaints to the EHRC will not be satisfied until he is expelled (they have also submitted a complaint against Rayner among others).
The Left should not make the mistake of imagining that there is a happy compromise to be made if Corbyn apologises and deletes his (factual) reference to the extent of antisemitism being overstated. The Right will use and abuse the rules and constitution of the party to ensure that they crush the Left and remove any possibility of transformative socialist politics in the Labour party if we allow them. Mandelson let the cat out of the bag at the weekend when he called for a key part of the EHRC’s recommendations to be ignored – that of an independent disciplinary process. He said: ‘I’m worried about one thing. That is, this recommended approach by the EHRC of an independent process.’ He went on to urge the NEC to ‘take ownership’ of process and ‘an independent process can’t do that’. Ordinarily the Left is rightly suspicious of outsourcing the party’s internal procedures but Mandelson’s belated conversion to the benefits of in-house provision is everything to do with the fact that the Right now controls the NEC. With an internal process the NEC would be better placed to suspend and expel internal opponents without the tedious task of providing evidence of rule breaches. Mandelson was very candid about this, arguing that the Left cannot be allowed to ‘legalise’ party management as it did in the 1980s. In other words, rules, binding recommendations are there to be adopted or accepted only insofar as they are useful tools against the Left. Similarly, Starmer promised a questioner at the JLM conference to ‘look again’ at the rule which prohibits people from rejoining the party for five years if they stood for another party against Labour.
The job for the Left now is to stand firm against any manifestation of antisemitism within the party and to fight it resolutely in the wider society, but also to defend the internal democracy of the party – part of which means fighting for the restoration of the whip to Corbyn and for the right of local parties to determine their agendas for discussion within the obvious constraints of the law. The Right have control of the party machine but their policy agenda is completely inadequate for the challenges that we now face in terms of health, economy and climate, which is partly why their war against the Left is so desperate. We still have a world to win and the clock is ticking.
We learned this week that there is more serious opposition to the Tories in Manchester than there is in the House of Commons. Most of us (although not the politically illiterate Robert Peston) also learned that the Tories COVID-inspired enthusiasm for state intervention has very clear limits.
After Rashford successfully embarrassed the government into providing free school meals during the summer, the Tories have refused point blank to extend the scheme any further. Tory minister Paul Sculley justified this willingness to see children go hungry by commenting that ‘children have been hungry for years’ as though this was a perfectly reasonable explanation.
For the Tories, it obviously is, but Rashford is not so easily dismissed. He urged MPs not to “turn a blind eye” and to support his call for the millions of children in need to receive school meals in the holidays. This prompted Tory MP and right wing loose cannon, Steve Baker, to splutter that ‘not destroying the currency with excessive QE is also one of our duties’ which only shows that he is as ignorant of economics as he is of basic humanity. He seems to think that the economy and currency will collapse if the government of the 6th richest country in the world feeds its poorest children. The question is, if it can’t even do that, what is the point of it?
Many of the Tories nailed their colours to the mast in the earlier summer debate on the provision of holiday free school meals. The odious Sally Ann-Hart said: ‘We cannot let the state take over a parent’s job – a parent’s most basic responsibility to feed and keep their children safe.’ This was a theme returned to this week with enthusiasm by the not very bright Tory Ben Bradley, pointing the finger at parents because ‘some parents are not good parents and prioritise other things ahead of their kids.’ Free school meals, according to Bradley just ‘increases dependency’. The Tories cling to this idea that poverty is essentially self-inflicted and hard work would solve everything. That was never true and in recent years the big increase in child poverty has been in working families (see graph below). In a pandemic it is a positively idiotic explanation for poverty. And, even if it was true that all child poverty was simply the result of feckless parents neglecting their children because they spent all their benefits on flat screen TVs, booze, fags and online gambling, is that a justification for allowing children to go hungry? Just staggering levels of callousness and inhumanity here.
Nevertheless, on Wednesday 21 October, Tory MPs voted against any extension of free school meals. They think that this will be the end of it, but I doubt it. Rashford has tapped into a popular stream of anti-Toryism and has shown how to push the government, harassing and embarrassing it. As he says, this won’t go away and neither will he.
If Rashford showed a little of what is possible with some principled opposition to the government, Andy Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester showed some more. Burnham is an unlikely standard bearer for the Left. In the past he has taken up decent political positions (such as opposing contracting out of services like cleaning in the NHS while a Health Minister) but always caved or tacked to the right whenever any pressure was placed on him.
However, by taking a stand and demanding that central government cough up the money to support those suffering under the impact of a COVID lockdown, he has forced the government to listen and then make concessions. He didn’t get all that he wanted but even without a serious political campaign, just by behaving as a traditional social democratic politician facing a Tory government, he achieved more in 6 days than Starmer has achieved in 6 months.
The impact of Rashford and Starmer raises questions about what an Opposition is for, what it should be trying to do and how. Starmer’s strategy of low profile, steady as she goes, supportive of government in a crisis, while trying to project an image of quiet competence is, contrary to what his supporters believe, a high-risk strategy.
Abstaining to avoid accusations of being soft on security or defence won’t work (see previous blogs) as the Tories will still shout that ‘Labour doesn’t support our boys’. On the other hand, it doesn’t tell the electorate what Labour stands for, what it believes in, what it would do if in government. The incoherent attempt to show that Labour stands for the interests of the whole country is as hopeless as the fiction that the Tories stand for the ‘national interest’. Sooner or later Labour will have to make a choice and take a stand for the majority of the people in this country. Until they do that their improved position in the polls is very fragile. What will happen when Johnson goes, as is quite possible in the next 6 months? The ‘Starmer as a model of competence’ approach by contrast with Johnson will look a whole lot weaker against a different Tory leader.
Far better for Starmer and the rest of the Shadow Cabinet to take a leaf out of Rashford and Burnham’s book and realise that the first duty of an Opposition is to oppose – not ‘for the sake of opposition’ – but to raise people’s expectations, to set out possibilities beyond the miserable limits of a Tory government based on systematic looting of the public sphere, and to build a platform inside and outside Parliament to win the next election.
If the Labour leadership is unwilling or incapable of doing that, then the Left needs to get back on track after the defeat and demoralisation of December and reorient the party membership into a social movement role as a crucial base in local communities, not just a mass force of envelope stuffers; we need to rebuild and recalibrate relations with the trade unions, open up to the social movements around BLM, renters, climate and LGBTQ and put both far more pressure on, and engagement with, the Labour administrations in Wales and in local government to set an example of what is possible.
Just what is Keir Starmer playing at? For the second time in a couple of weeks, the former human rights lawyer instructed his MPs to abstain on a piece of legislation which protects state agents from prosecution for crimes committed against its own and other citizens.
Last night the vast majority of Labour MPs abstained on the Covert Human Intelligence Sources Bill on its second reading. The Bill will prevent state informants/agents from being prosecuted for serious crimes – up to and including murder, torture and sexual violence. As legal expert Joshua Rozenberg notes: ‘there is nothing on the face of the bill to limit its scope’ and he comments that:
the most striking thing about the bill is the range of public bodies whose senior staff will be able to grant authorisations. It is not just the security and intelligence services, the police, the armed forces, the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice. It currently includes the Department of Health and Social Care, the Environment Agency, the Food Standards Agency and the Gambling Commission.
Just 19 Labour MPs opposed the Bill last night: Diane Abbott, Paula Barker, Apsana Begum, Olivia Blake, Richard Burgon, Dawn Butler, Ian Byrne, Jeremy Corbyn, Ian Lavery, John McDonnell, Grahame Morris, Kate Osamor, Kate Osborne, Bell Ribeiro-Addy, Lloyd Russell-Moyle, Zarah Sultana, Mick Whitley, Nadia Whittome and Beth Winter (Hywel Williams and Liz Saville-Roberts of Plaid Cymru and Claire Hanna of the SDLP also voted against)
LabourList reported some unease among other MPs but they fell into line. Labour’s largest trade union funder, Unite, produced a briefing highlighting its concern and pointing out that the bill ‘poses a grave threat to freedom and justice in the UK, and allows infiltration of trade unions and protest organisations to ‘prevent disorder’’. Unite’s call for opposition was ignored. Amnesty International said: “There is a grave danger that this Bill could end up providing informers and agents with a licence to kill.’ They were ignored as well.
As Dave Smith, a blacklisted construction worker and trade unionist explained:
If passed into law, the Spy Cops Bill would allow the police and the security services to commit crimes against anyone in the UK without fear of facing prosecution.
He pointed to the work of police and police-paid agents and agents provocateurs in infiltrating campaigns like Anti-Apartheid and CND, unions representing firefighters, miners and construction workers, environmentalist groups and anti-racism organisations (never mind their murderous record in Northern Ireland).
Nick Thomas-Symonds, the Shadow Home Secretary, leads Labour’s strategy of allowing the bill to go to committee stage (by abstaining) and then to press the government for ‘robust safeguards’ in the form of ‘very clear limits and oversight’, which he agrees it does not contain at the moment.
He seems to accept the government’s claim that the Human Rights Act provides some protection, but as Tory David Davis pointed out in the Commons debate on the Bill, in reference to a recent legal case brought against the government, their defence was that the state was ‘not the instigator’ of such activity and ‘cannot be treated as somehow responsible for it’. As Davis says: ‘How is that using the Human Rights Act to underpin the rights of our citizens?’
It took new MPs like Zarah Sultana to make the principled case for opposition in a hard hitting speech that touched on the murder of Irish solicitor Pat Finucane by state backed Loyalist terrorists, the spy cops who tricked environmentalists into long term intimate relationships, the surveillance of Stephen Lawrence’s parents and the collaboration of police spies with construction industry blacklisters against trade union members. All of these are examples of state agents’ involvement in illegal activities.
So what exactly is Starmer’s game here? Why is the great human rights advocate meekly going along with a huge increase in the powers of the state at the expense of the human rights of its citizens? What is the objective? What are the advantages? Why not just oppose the bill on principle as a shabby excuse to allow free rein for criminal activity by the state and its hired agents and informers?
Starmer supports the government argument that in order to defeat terrorists, violent criminal gangs and such like, it is necessary to infiltrate them and, in order to avoid exposure, agents may be obliged to commit criminal acts. Put aside for a moment the fact that much undercover police work in the past has not been directed against terrorists or criminal gangs but against non-violent and legal protest campaigns and trade unionists. Even so, the government are asking for a blank cheque for their agents’ activity. Other countries do not do this –Canada for example; even the FBI has rules that state that they ‘may never authorise an informant to “participate in any act of violence except in self-defense’. The argument goes that Labour supports the principle behind the government’s bill but not the detail, so abstained on the second reading vote and will then propose a series of amendments during the committee stages to remove all of the problem areas of the bill.
Owen Jones has pointed out that there is a more cynical explanation which runs like this:
Labour cannot hope to overcome an 80-seat majority by ordering its MPs to vote against the bill, and some senior Labour figures brief that this posture is necessary to win back the former red wall heartlands, where voters, they believe, need to be convinced of the party’s commitment to national security.
This has the ring of truth to it, Thomas-Symonds began a piece defending Labour’s stance in the Independent online by declaring: ‘Keir Starmer couldn’t have been clearer: security is the top priority for Labour under his leadership.’ This abstention draws a line between the ‘new leadership’ and Corbyn, and also seems to match up with the positioning set out by Starmer, based on the idea that the ex-Labour voters who must be won back to Labour are conservative on crime, defence and security matters (however defined).
So this move allows Starmer to distance himself from the left, appeal to the lost voters, avoid the trap set by the Tories of ‘opposition for the sake of it’ and still move enough amendments to change the bill at committee stage to salve his human rights conscience.
Not just double bubble for Keir, but quadruple bubble. Or is it?
First, if he continues to define himself by what he’s not (ie Corbyn) the electorate will never know anything else. It may play well with the right wing PLP zealots and temporarily with the editorial writers of the Conservative press but not with many others.
Second does he really think that a Tory government with an 80 seat majority is going to allow amendments which fundamentally alter what they believe to be a piece of vote winning legislation? Just who are the utopians here?
And thirdly, if they fail to get the ‘robust safeguards’ and ‘very clear limits and oversight that Thomas-Symonds has called for, presumably they will then vote against the bill. If that’s the case, they will have lost any ‘clever’ positioning they thought they had with the parliamentary manoeuvring and end up vulnerable to the Tory attack lines they thought they had avoided. What makes their position even more vulnerable is that, by abstaining on the second reading, they squandered the opportunity to take a principled position of why this bill is an attack on our civil liberties and freedoms. Of course, they could just vote for it, warts and all, but then there is no hiding place for the human rights lawyer.
Marx was not very patient with those parliamentarians who believed that everything of importance is decided in Parliament. He accused them of suffering from ‘parliamentary cretinism’ which ‘robs them of all sense, all memory, all understanding of the rude external world’. What would he have said about those parliamentarians who not only hold to this view but are not even very good at parliamentary politics?
The starting point for Starmer in this episode is obviously that he wants to avoid appearing soft on crime and defence. The same approach was taken when Labour abstained on the Overseas Operations bill a few weeks ago. Did it help Labour avoid a Tory trap? You be the judge.