Friday, 18 April 2014

Westminster's broken politics and the radical case for Scottish independence


Independence dominates, as you might expect, the Scottish political landscape. The referendum this September is potentially of huge consequence. It could break up the British state and establish an independent Scotland, opening up a new set of possibilities for Scottish politics but also impacting on politics south of the border.
Even if the 'Better Together' campaign (pro-Union alliance of Tories, Labour and Lib Dems) maintains its polling lead right up election day, the referendum has already framed just about all political debate in Scotland. This will continue to reverberate for years to come.

One consequence of the referendum campaign has been increased space for discussion of political directions and alternatives. While the official Yes Scotland campaign – with an agenda dictated by the Scottish National Party, led by Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond - has tended to be moderate, and the mainstream debate has been shaped by the No camp’s scaremongering, there has been an opening up of the possibilities. Unsurprisingly, there is a marked increase in political engagement by many ordinary Scots.
Radical Independence Campaign
The left-wing case for independence has been articulated by a number of forces, most notably the grassroots Radical Independence Campaign which has breathed new life into the Scottish left. It has forged new relationships among those dedicated to linking independence to a broader social and political vision. Radical independence is the politics of ‘Yes, and…’ – it regards the prospect of an independent Scotland as a starting point, a platform for articulating and campaigning for an alternative set of policies aiming towards social justice, sustainability and greater equality.
James Foley and Pete Ramand - activists in the Radical Independence Campaign - provide a detailed critique of Westminster's broken politics in their new book, 'Yes: the radical case for Scottish independence'. They also offer a thorough case for the alternative - not merely for independence, but for a far-reaching social and economic alternative.

I hope the book finds an audience in England, where there has been a remarkable indifference, at least until recently, to the Scottish independence question. There continues to be a widespread failure to grasp what is at stake or what is driving political developments.
No doubt this has been influenced by a widespread, and complacent, assumption that it can’t really happen, that it will all blow over and Scotland will reject independence and we will continue with business as usual. Yet recent polls indicate that, while retaining the Union remains the more likely outcome in September, independence is a real possibility.
The English left is far from being immune from this sluggishness, ignorance and conservatism. Elements of the left, especially those in the Labour Party, are pro-Union, while others view it as mere constitutional matter or think it should simply be left to the Scots (despite the potentially profound opportunities independence would open up for the rest of us).

Beyond Westminster
For the radical independence activists, what drives the movement for a Yes vote is not ‘nationalism’ but opposition to Westminster politics and the suffocating neoliberal orthodoxy that Westminster represents. The book’s authors note that the Yes campaign is at its strongest when it focuses on Westminster’s failings and articulates the need for breaking from its political consensus: cuts, privatisation, pro-US foreign policy, immigrant bashing and a relaxed attitude to growing inequality. What’s wrong with contemporary Britain – and the potential for alternatives to that – is the starting point.

They also highlight the class and generational dimensions of the independence debate, with the poor and the young being most likely to back independence. Surveys have found near-unanimous opposition to independence among business elites.
The UK has an electoral system that entrenches the neoliberal orthodoxy and marginalises more progressive voices. There is a Tory-led government despite Scotland and some English regions returning very few Tory MPs to Westminster. Labour is constantly pulled to the right in a bid for supposed ‘Middle England’ votes, a process reinforced by the first past the post system, while neglecting its core support. Ukip, despite not having any MPs, possess a media profile that enables it to exert right-wing pressure on the mainstream, while the left is completely marginal.

Westminster is – however you look at it, whatever angle you take – broken and very unlikely to be repaired.  There is a gaping democratic deficit and the enforcement of precisely the neoliberal policies which have enabled inequality to grow. The authors are clear that an independent Scotland does not guarantee a substantially different future, but that it does open up space for a different direction.
Under devolution, Scotland has seen a handful of positive reforms – like scrapping university fees and prescription charges – that compare favourably with England. The SNP is politically diverse and contains a conservative right wing, but on most policy issues it is to the left of the Labour leadership. Scottish political debate is – with the Tories marginal and Ukip virtually non-existent - framed  differently to the UK level. The social democratic mainstream of Scottish politics is a great improvement on Westminster politics and, with far greater powers than at present, an independent Scotland could bring positive change.

Nationalism and the British state

Independence would have repercussions for politics in the rump UK as well as in Scotland. The foreign policy establishment has lined up to warn of the terrible dangers of independence precisely because it will weaken the British state and its alliance with the US. The end of Trident is the most immediate likely effect, but the book outlines the wider challenge it will pose to the status quo.
Foley and Ramand recall how disgust at Tony Blair’s government over the Iraq war was a driving force behind increased support for the SNP in the 2003 and 2007 Scottish parliament elections; without that, the SNP may not have been able to reach the stage where it could call a referendum on an independent Scotland.
This aspect of independence is of course closely connected to the not insignificant matter of British nationalism – its history and its continuing ideological import – which, the authors note, is near-invisible in the whole referendum debate: Scottish nationalism is the object of vast amounts of commentary, but British nationalism is an ideological ‘common sense’ and thus rarely articulated openly. The book contains a very thoughtful discussion of different types of nationalism, their significance, and how they have evolved.

A central argument is that independence is not, contrary to media myth, the same as Scottish nationalism or identity – interestingly, polls reveal a very weak correlation between strength of Scottish identity and voting intentions in the referendum. Foley and Ramand also demolish the myth of ‘anti-English racism’ as a driving force for independence supporters, reminding us that more traditional and familiar forms of racist bigotry – like that directed to the Asian community – remain the real problem in terms of racism. Anti-racism and internationalism are at the heart of radical independence.
A radical needs agenda

For Foley and Ramand, however, the campaign for independence is about much more than choosing Holyrood over Westminster, opting for a social democratic mainstream over right-wing orthodoxy, or breaking from the worst elements of neoliberalism at home and imperialism abroad. The book, like the Radical Independence Campaign itself, is fuelled by a desire to move beyond those limits and champion a radically more progressive vision. This thread runs through the book, but is expressed most openly and forcefully towards the end, including an outline of a radical needs agenda for Scotland.

The radical needs agenda is a set of demands that, as the authors acknowledge, do not constitute a socialist society, but rather represent a radical alternative within the constraints of capitalism. All of them would need to be fought for, all would be resisted by powerful vested interests, and all would (in the process of fighting for them) raise fundamental questions about the society in which we live. It is a bold set of alternatives that has clearly been the subject of much research, thought and discussion; extremely well-informed and shaped by current conditions, rather than being a generic blueprint for a better society. 
Evidently one of the great advantages of the independence debate in Scottish society has been this opening up of space to discuss the future, allowing the Scottish left an opportunity to discuss and articulate alternatives instead of settling for opposition to the status quo. The authors are exceptionally good on the need for the campaign to link a critique of existing politics and an alternative vision. They explain and criticise the limits of the Yes Scotland campaign, and the SNP’s approach, which too often emphasises continuity over change, and is relentlessly ‘optimistic’ in a way  that lapses into the vague and vacuous. Voters need to be convinced that the present system is broken, but also that independence can lead to a genuine and far-reaching alternative.

This book – clearly written, coherently argued, wide-ranging in its concerns – is a must-read for anyone who supports independence for Scotland. It isn’t just for Scottish radicals, but of great relevance to those of us campaigning against Westminster’s bankrupt politics south of the border. It serves as a guide to the whole independence debate and a polemic for a radical alternative.

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Thursday, 17 April 2014

Democracy and capitalism - an unstable compound

Paul Foot’s ‘The Vote’ is rightly regarded as the summation of its author’s life and work. Foot was a journalist, writer and campaigner with an unwavering commitment to revolutionary socialist politics for over four decades, who wrote about ‘The Vote’s key themes – democracy, the Labour Party, socialism, capitalist power – recurrently throughout his adult life.

I first read the book when it was published in 2005 (posthumously, as Foot had died the previous year, aged 66), but recently re-read large chunks of it. I thought I’d share some observations on the book and its key ideas.
‘The Vote’ is divided, as the subtitle ‘How it was won and how it was undermined’ suggests, into two parts. The first half is an inspiring account of the mass struggles of (predominantly) lower classes to win democratic rights, from the Levellers in the English Revolution of the 1640s to the suffragettes.

The second half is the less glorious (though complex) history of the Labour Party in the 20th century, and how it has failed in office to deliver on socialist - or in the eras of Wilson, Callaghan and Blair, even mildly social democratic - aspirations.
Democracy and capitalism
For many writers the Chartists would have been the obvious place to start, but Foot was astute in seeing that the story stretches back further than that. In fact the Putney Debates in 1647 marked the commencement of the long, on-going debate about democracy and its relationship to wealth. The notion that everyone – or at least every man – should have a say in political decisions, through the power of the vote, was profoundly revolutionary.
In the seventeenth century power belonged to those with money and property. Politics was a matter of discussion among that layer of society, while everyone else was firmly shut out. The bourgeois revolution of the 1640s secured the power and privileges of a rising capitalist class, but this did not extend to the great mass of people.  
And so it would continue until the 19th century, when movements for reform – above all Chartism – would win the vote for growing layers of society. The vote was seen, on all sides of the debate, as inextricably linked to all sorts of possible social, economic and political changes. Obtaining the vote would empower the masses – a prospect that inspired revolt while terrifying the ruling elites, who used ferocious violence when challenged. But this meant there was a glaring lack of legitimacy in the power of those who ruled: the rulers had no mandate, the ruled had little stake in the system.
The vote was not an end in itself, but a means to social change; the struggle for it was not, in the peaks of struggle at least, a single-issue campaign but part of a broader effort to transform society. This is seen most powerfully in Chartism, with a clear list of democratic demands but animated by the hope that they could be used to redress inequality and alleviate poverty and suffering. It was a movement of an emerging working class, increasingly forged in factories and other workplaces, congregating in the growing industrial cities. 
The struggle between democracy and the power of those with money and property – or, from the mid-19th century onwards, the struggle between democracy and capitalism – is the great theme of Foot’s book. It connects everything and provides a thread running through the numerous disparate tales of resistance and reform and, later, the series of Labour’s disappointments and betrayals.

The book’s first half reminds us that people taking collective political action can - against tremendous obstacles – achieve real social reforms. The power to achieve change lies in the actions of ordinary people.
The book’s second half is full of illustrations of how the vote alone has not proved sufficient. Labour politicians so often proved to be in office but not in power, impotent against ‘market forces’ and capitalism’s subordination of everything to the pursuit of profit.

Parliamentary democracy and the Labour Party, as the vehicle for the working class to make use of suffrage, have failed to challenge the power of capital. Consequently the vote, while a great leap forward, has turned out not be a guarantee of any sort of democracy worthy of the name.
Distinctive features
There are, I think, a number of particularly significant things about Foot’s book when it is placed in the context of other socialist literature about these issues. Three things stand out for me.
Firstly, the history of the Labour Party is illuminated in a special way by following 250 pages about the struggle for democracy.  It provides a specific context for Labour Party history that elevates it above parliamentary intrigue and trivia, while simultaneously making it more interesting than a straightforward tale of decline and betrayal.
We are reminded of the aspirations that have prompted people to look to the Labour Party, or indeed to devote an enormous amount of time to it, as a vehicle for social change. Its history – rooted in working people’s desire for political representation, and for that to lead to social reform - is located as part of a long, historic struggle for democracy as a means to social transformation. Foot captures the tensions between aspiration and reality, between progressive policies and the ways they are undermined in office.  
Secondly, Foot’s history of the Labour Party is richer and more nunaced than might be expected from a dedicated revolutionary. He traces the ups and downs, the debates, and the genuinely meaningful reforms – notably in 1945-51 – with a sort of critical sympathy. It doesn’t feel remotely like he is out to damn the Labour Party. Instead he is scrupulously fair.
It is the accumulation of evidence, and the trajectory of the Party’s development (especially with Blair’s ascendancy), that makes it so abundantly clear that it is, ultimately, a hopeless enterprise for socialists. But, along the way, there are many Labour figures who Foot praises, many moments which illustrate why some socialists might keep faith with Labour, and a solid grasp of Labour’s role in creating the post-war settlement which has been systematically under attack since the late 1970s. Foot concluded that the rot was so deep that Labour could not return to being a genuine social democratic party – never mind a socialist party, which it never had been – and that socialists must look instead to extra-parliamentary and trade union struggles.  
Thirdly, Foot gives the suffragettes – especially the more radical and socialist elements – the credit they deserve. Ian Birchall, in his excellent biography of Tony Cliff, commented in a footnote that the whole chapter called ‘Women’ in Foot’s book was a sustained polemic against Cliff’s dismissive approach to the suffragettes. Cliff’s own book, 'Class Struggle and Women's Liberation', has many merits, but on this particular topic Foot was certainly right. Kate Connelly’s marvellous book on Sylvia Pankhurst, published last year, extends Foot’s interpretation and I recommend it for its account of the left-wing elements in the suffragette movement (and for so much else).
Foot, in this chapter, articulates the complexity of the suffragettes’ politics, alert to the differences within the movement, and also how elements of the movement articulated – as the Chartists had done – a political vision that envisaged suffrage as interconnected with economic and social demands. It is the longest chapter, affirming the hugely important place the suffragettes have, or certainly should have, in the history of struggles for democracy in this country.
Finally, a brief word of recommendation. If you haven’t read ‘The Vote’, search it out and read it. It is an unashamedly 'grand narrative' history with lots of fascinating detail, a broad-sweep history of British politics over 350 years that somehow manages to be subtle and nuanced. It is a great document of radical and inspiring ‘history from below’ that also has some hard-hitting truths about modern politics, all in an immensely readable style.


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Wednesday, 16 April 2014

10 points on building a new left


Recently I was discussing the state of the left with fellow activists. It occurred to me that it often happens that people complain about what’s done badly and focus on what is wrong in the existing Left. It is, however, somewhat rarer to find a positive case for how we can build a stronger and more effective left-wing pole in British society. This prompted me to come up with the fairly broad-brush outline below. Much of it is timeless; much of it is more specifically relevant to where we find ourselves now. 

1. Address the big issues. I’m thinking of war, racism, climate change and, above all, austerity. The left has to be active on the issues that matter most to the future of the planet because a) that is our duty and b) that is what makes us relevant to people. Simply commenting on these issues isn’t going to make much difference. Fetishising minor differences on them won’t impress anyone either. Developing united action on them might just make a difference.

A vital component of this is the battle of ideas. Tearing apart myths about immigrants goes together with building opposition to austerity. Understanding (and explaining) the forces driving instability and violence in today’s world is tied up with campaigning to stop the drive to war and further military interventions. Many people will engage with something bigger than their own personal experiences, and are capable of seeing how their own specific circumstances are linked to broader political phenomena. Ideas are crucial for mobilising people – an experience isn’t enough in itself, because it can be interpreted and understood in very different ways. Our job as socialists is to connect ideas and action.

2. Do stuff that makes the left relevant. The health of the left is determined largely by how relevant it, and its activity, is to millions of people. Making a difference, overwhelmingly through extra-parliamentary activity (campaigns, protests, direct action, rallies, strikes etc), is somewhat more consequential than winning an argument with other people on the left. The left has a track record of movement building that has, at times, made it highly relevant and influential.

Examples include the unemployed workers’ movements and hunger marches of the 1930s, the solidarity movement with the Spanish Civil War, anti-fascist mobilisations (especially in the 1930s and 1970s, but again more recently), the anti-Vietnam war protests, workers’ struggles in a number of periods, the movement against the poll tax, the great Stop the War mobilisations, and more.  All of these movements have had socialist organisations at the core of them; all have a made a difference to politics and society. This kind of mass politics is key.
3. Help build a bigger left. In the current political climate, we need a stronger and bigger left – regardless of what specific tradition or set of positions you might adhere to. The left as a whole has shrunk – it has been pushed to the margins, its ideas and arguments often unknown to people. This is not to deny a place for championing your own particular organisation, tradition or set of ideas, but it means acknowledging the urgent need for a broader reconstitution of a left-wing political culture.     

All strands of the left are at their best, and most effective, when they serve a larger purpose than themselves. Conversely, they are at their most irrelevant and impotent when they shrink their horizons and focus on building their own particular bit of the left as an end in itself. For those of us who are revolutionaries, the building of revolutionary organisation has to be part and parcel of a larger left-wing renewal. A revolutionary organisation is a tool for political action, not a self-justifying sect.
4. Remember it is possible to win. A lot more campaigns are winnable than people often realise. If the stakes are extremely high – like whether to invade Iraq or not – even the biggest protests in British history might not suffice. But most issues are not of this magnitude – and on these issues it is possible to at least win concessions, even to win outright. And even the 'failures' can have positive long-term consequences, rippling for many years to come.

By scoring smaller victories we go some way to re-shaping the terms of political debate and embolden others to do likewise. It is in fact these small victories that sustain individuals, groups and movements.  
5. Engage with reality! The starting point should not be some past argument, but the reality around us. History and tradition are there for us to learn from, to pilfer for relevant precedents, to be inspired by. They should not shape everything about how we respond to current challenges.

We need, above all, to wrestle with the changes wrought by neoliberalism: to capitalism, to the working class, to the ideas people hold, to the state of working class organisations, to the left, and so on. Then there is the climate emergency, developments in imperialism, and much more. Analysis of the state we are in is a precondition for effective political action.

6. Use all methods at your disposal. There is too much fretting about whether ‘clicktivism’ really makes any difference, or alternatively  there is hyping of social media. It is all useful, so use what you can when you can. An effective campaign will almost certainly combine a range of methods, from online petitions to street protests. Use them all and combine them skilfully, but the aim should be to involve the maximum number of people in collective action.

Furthermore, if people are going to use the internet politically I’d prefer it was for campaigning than for moralising or mud-slinging. The online world can often be a place of retreat for the left, with moralistic denunciation replacing any attempt to shape the direction of politics. Use the tools the internet provides and subordinate them to building a movement.
7. Create a climate for left renewal. In some circles there is talk of ‘revolutionary realignment’. Cobbling together the tiny fragments of the existing far left will make no great impact on anything. There is a world, thankfully, beyond the far-left ghetto.

Left renewal is a more ambitious and worthy aim. It is sometimes suggested that grouping together the existing fragments is a precondition for building a bigger left and attracting new people. Actually, historical experience suggests otherwise. It is in building broad movements of opposition that we create the conditions for new left-wing formations. The life is in the movement.
8. Follow the action. Socialists often have an idea of what should be happening and ignore or downplay what is actually happening. For example, some assume that strike action is what really matters, so they miss the other things that are happening. Yet a wide-ranging and attentive view of history reveals that struggles outside the workplace have almost always been enormously important. That is the rule, not the exception.

I’d like to see co-ordinated mass strike action by trade unions to oppose austerity. But if it isn’t happening (yet) then let’s focus on what can be done. The People’s Assembly, in which I am active, is a response to where we find ourselves, not where we would ideally like to be. Even when strikes do happen it doesn’t invalidate other forms of struggle: for example, the story of Red Clydeside in the First World War is, or should be, the story of thousands of Glasgow tenants withholding their rents and protesting at evictions as much as it is the story of striking engineers. Follow the action, relate to it, and build it.
9. Use language that people understand. Left-wing politics has never been more closely related to the academic world, something which is evident in the unfortunate academic prose style of some left-wing writing: articles you can only understand with a prior grasp of a set of obscure references, using language that is divorced from any kind of living movement or struggle. Another problem is the refusal to move on from various clichés and jargon phrases which may have once sounded fresh, but no longer do.

The dry language is linked to marginalisation for the left. Having an audience is always a useful prompt to communicate effectively, but the lack of an audience only encourages a self-referential and closed language that alienates more than it engages. It’s always been the case that we are most effective when we find ways of communicating ideas and demands in a popular style that connects with millions of people. 
10. Join an organisation. The phrase ‘independent socialist’ is as oxymoronic as 'compassionate Conservatism'. Effective political action depends upon combining together. This is especially so for socialists. The working class has only two things on its side: numbers and organisation. The latter is needed to bind the former together, to make our potential real.
We are many, they are few; but the many are dispersed, isolated and atomised unless we get organised. This is, above all, true at the level of broad movements of resistance, but the same principle applies at the level of specifically socialist organisation.

Tony Benn apparently had a stock reply to those who told him they had left the Labour Party because of Blair and Iraq: ‘What are you going to do now?’ He understood that leaving the Labour Party was just moralistic posturing unless you channelled your time into something else more constructive. The same applies to those who have left socialist organisations. It is easy to abandon a sinking ship. Building something new requires real work. 


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Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Sylvia Pankhurst: suffragette, socialist and scourge of empire


Kate Connelly’s book on Sylvia Pankhurst is a fascinating slice of (largely hidden) history that offers a somewhat different, and more radical, perspective on the suffragettes than the familiar narratives. It also asserts a more central place in the early-20th century British left for Sylvia Pankhurst than we might normally find.
An age of unrest

The first quarter of the 20th century has a unique place in the history of the British left. It was a time of turmoil and upheaval unlike any other. The great global events of the First World War and the wave of popular uprisings and revolutions which both ended and followed it naturally had a tremendous impact.
But even prior to those events there was the Great Unrest – a wave of workers’ unrest in the few years before the war – a mass campaign for women’s suffrage, and the struggle for Irish home rule. Trade unions grew on a larger scale than at any other time, with whole new sectors of the workforce being unionised, shop stewards movements becoming powerful and a change in the whole nature of trade unions away from the old model of craft unions for skilled workers.

The years immediately following the First World War witnessed strike action at an even higher level than during the Great Unrest. It was only with the defeat of the General Strike in 1926 that this era of militancy and upheaval was decisively ended. Socialist organisations like the Socialist Labour Party, British Socialist Party and later the Communist Party emerged, while the Labour Party made breakthroughs in working class political representation.

The movement for women’s right to vote ebbed and flowed, but at peaks was a mass movement with huge social reach. Although middle class women tended to dominate the leadership, there was a powerful current of working class women fighting for suffrage. The movement was subjected to ferocious state brutality and media-led moral panics. Suffragette activists displayed great personal courage, underpinned by the social solidarity and support of being part of a larger movement.
The question of the vote – for working class men and for women – was part of a larger set of struggles over economic, social and political struggles. Part of the significance of Sylvia Pankhurst is the way her life story and politics fused the struggle for suffrage with these other revolts and movements. Through her story we get a powerful sense of the whole world I outlined above, of the debates which took place, and of the dramatic changes which affected society.

A life in the movement
The Pankhurst family famously split in different directions, with Sylvia’s mother Emmeline and sister Christabel rejecting class politics, backing the British war effort, attacking the left and – after 1917 – becoming virulently anti-Bolshevik. This book shows how these differences were representative of substantial political differences in the movement, and traces the increasingly separate directions the different Pankhursts (all of whom had earlier played leading, and courageous, roles in the movement) travelled in.

I was amazed - and even rather awed - to discover quite how much Sylvia Pankhurst did, how many different campaigns and organisations she established. She was much, much more than a suffragette, though her contribution to that particular movement was immense. This reflected phenomenal personal energy and a deep political commitment, but also breadth of vision and the versatility to adapt to changing circumstances.  She was a formidable organiser, campaigner and public speaker, but also for substantial periods a prolific writer and editor.
During the First World War Sylvia Pankhurst promoted a consistent anti-war stance but was also active in struggles over a range of social and economic problems affecting working class people – in particular women – in east London. The issue of the vote was not so central during this time, but was still viewed as part of a larger struggle for emancipation which fused equality for women with the interests of the working class. The vote, for Sylvia Pankhurst, was a means to an end not an end in itself; and the movement for the vote was itself a democratic upsurge that, at its best, could serve a whole range of extra-parliamentary causes.

The book traces the radicalisation that happened in not only Pankhurst’s thinking and activity, but the broader trends this reflected. This was especially so between roughly 1914 and 1920, after the suffragette movement had peaked and Pankhurst’s energies were mostly directed elsewhere. The Russian Revolution was a huge inspiration and source of political lessons, in particular the radical working class democracy of the soviets and the (ultimately short-lived) emancipation of women. It also prompted new opportunities for socialist organisation in Britain, with the launch of the Third International and a widespread desire to generalise the Russian experience. The debates and difficulties in this experience are summarised succinctly in the book. 
The significance of Sylvia Pankhurst  

As someone with an interest in the history of this country’s revolutionary left, I am particularly pleased to see Sylvia Pankhurst getting due credit for the important role that her east London organisation played in the radical left of the time. This has often been underestimated. It is an experience that doesn’t neatly fit with the version of the Communist Party’s emergence preferred by historians in the Communist tradition, while socialist writers outside that tradition have perhaps viewed it as an interesting local case but not grasped the national significance of Pankhurst’s organisation (which went through a number of versions).

The account of the Workers' Dreadnought, a really remarkable socialist paper that seems to have captured the voices and experiences of working class people, enriches our understanding of the socialist press of the time, rightly giving it a more central role. The book doesn’t avoid criticisms of particular positions or decisions Pankhurst took, but the dominant impression is of ceaseless activism and an extraordinary contribution to a number of causes. On the biggest issues of all –the need for revolutionary change, the centrality of class, the emphasis on self-activity and mass movements, the significance of the Russian Revolution – Sylvia Pankhurst got it absolutely right.
The book also covers elements of Pankhurst’s life, from the 1920s onwards, of which I previously knew almost nothing. She was a formidable anti-fascist and anti-imperialist campaigner – in fact she was a pioneer in this country in taking the fascist threat seriously, in analysing fascism, and in actively opposing it. She wrote about Italian fascism and the rise of Mussolini, and became a hugely dedicated opponent of Italian intervention in Ethiopia and the way that Britain tacitly supported it because its own imperialist interests were not threatened. This dimension of Pankhurst’s life story ensures that the book is a rounded and thorough political biography.

I hope the book sparks off further interest in, and discussion about, the movements of the first few decades of the 20th century, especially the role of socialists and the attempts to link different issues and struggles together. Sylvia Pankhurst’s life is certainly fascinating in its own right, but it also captures many of the concerns, debates and developments in a uniquely important period in British working class history.


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Monday, 14 April 2014

Harry McShane: socialists, mass movements and the working class


I recently finished reading ‘No Mean Fighter’, an extraordinary memoir of an extraordinary socialist activist. Harry McShane was born in 1891 into a working class family in Glasgow of mixed Catholic and Protestant heritage. He became an active socialist in around 1908 as a teenager in Glasgow, and continued to be a committed revolutionary until his death, aged 96, in 1988.
The book, published by Pluto in 1978, was the product of a huge number of taped conversations between a young activist-writer, Joan Smith, and the octogenarian McShane. The project took around five years in total. It is, among other things, a powerful example of how oral testimony can be put to great use. But it helps that Harry McShane was the subject.

Turbulent times
Between McShane becoming a socialist in his teens and the age of 35, the following happened: the Great Unrest; the Irish independence struggle; the collapse of the old Second International; World War One; the Red Clydeside worker militancy; the Russian Revolution and the mutinies, uprisings and revolts it inspired in Europe; women winning the vote; the founding of the Third International and the birth of the British Communist Party; the upsurge of strikes following WW1; tremendous growth in trade unions; and the General Strike. There is no comparable period in British history.

Many of these events were not simply illustrative background for McShane’s life, but were woven into it; he was an activist, a protagonist, and his memoir is the story of someone who attempted to shape history in a time when the direction of history was very much up for grabs. 

I learnt an enormous amount from reading the book. Through the particular – McShane himself, the people he knew, his activities in Glasgow, and so on – there is a great deal to learn about important wider phenomena: the growth of socialist organisations and left-wing debates of the time; trade union struggles like Red Clydeside in World War One; popular social struggles over housing, unemployment and other issues; the nature of work in that period; and all sorts of aspects of society in the first half of the 20th century.

There are some interesting emphases in McShane’s account – partly a reflection of his own experience, but partly a corrective to faulty interpretations of the historical experience. During World War One he regarded the anti-war campaign – however unpopular it was at first – as the most important struggle of the era, not the militancy on the Clyde which has received vastly more attention. He conveys the militancy of Red Clydeside, but also offers a sharp view of its sectional limitations and political weaknesses.
Ireland was evidently a vitally important issue for McShane and for much of the socialist movement, yet this is often neglected in overviews of the period. He recovers the rent strikes and housing campaigns of that time, recalling how John Maclean was excited about the possibility of political mass strikes developing out of them (there were elements of this, but it never quite happened). The General Strike, surprisingly, is over in a couple of paragraphs: it was controlled from above by the TUC and, for a rank and file leader like McShane, there was not much of a role and so little to say about it.

National Unemployed Workers’ Movement 
McShane’s greatest contribution was his role in the unemployed workers’ movements of the 1920s and especially the 1930s. He was an activist through and through; it is, he is unabashed in saying, what gave his life meaning and purpose. He had little interest outside work and political activism; and for much of his adult life politics was his work (though at other times he worked as an engineer or, when necessary, in more menial roles).

He joined the Communist Party in 1922 and left it in the early 1950s; his most effective political work was in the CP’s ‘mass work’ rather than in the Party’s internal life. For McShane, this principally meant being the Glasgow secretary and Scottish organiser, for most of the 1930s, of the National Unemployed Workers Movement (NUWM), led by Wal Hannigton and politically dominated by the CP.
The NUWM was one of the great achievements of working class struggle in the 20th century in this country. Its scale of activity was enormously impressive , with the big ‘Hunger Marches’ being only the most visible and best-known expression of a mass grassroots movement.  The Communist Party initiated and drove it, but those active in the movement went way beyond its membership.

McShane comments at one point that there were 8 branches in Glasgow alone and each of them had around 200 members all paying a weekly sub. There were regular local protests at labour exchanges and street meetings, city-wide demonstrations of thousands, and the big national mobilisations. The history of the NUWM contained here is all the more revealing  because it comes from a rank and file leader, immersed in local agitation but with an eye on the bigger picture.
Insights into the Left

One of the book’s strengths is that it provides insight into the complexities of the British Communist Party from the 1920s to the 1950s, and how the changes in its politics and orientation were mediated by CP activists locally. McShane was a loyal activist and indeed he worked full time for the party’s paper the Daily Worker, reporting on Scottish events, during and after the war. He disliked what he saw as a growing cult of Stalin worship in the 1930s, and was often getting into internal arguments with those who uncritically handed down ‘the line from Moscow’, but he didn’t develop any alternative perspective during that period.
One reason was simple ignorance – he and his comrades didn’t know more than a fraction of what we now know about labour camps, forced collectivisation, starvation and show trials, although it is clear there was an element of choosing not to see things too. There was also the lack of any alternative. For McShane, the CP was essential to the mass movement activity that he was engaged in. It also – for a long time after ceasing to be genuinely revolutionary – could still appear to stand in the tradition of Lenin and the Bolsheviks. Russia was a beacon of hope during this time – McShane was clear that it inspired him and his comrades, and made them feel strong.

The book is also interesting for its insights into the socialist movement before the Communist Party’s formation. Glasgow was the main centre of organisation for the small but significant Socialist Labour Party, which can be regarded as Britain’s earliest revolutionary socialist group. There was also the Social Democratic Federation (and later British Socialist Party), the Independent Labour Party (ILP), the syndicalists, and so on. The strengths and weaknesses of the different groups, and the political arguments involved, emerge from McShane’s recollections.
There are many brief portraits of socialist orators and campaigners who McShane encountered – both those based in Glasgow and national figures. Some of them McShane got to know well. The most outstanding figure of all was one of those who McShane worked closely with: John Maclean, the most important British Marxist of the whole period. The insider’s account of Maclean during World War One and up to his death in 1923 provided by the book is one of its most important contributions to our understanding of the socialist movement of that era. McShane’s portrait of his ally is warts and all, but in the course of it the full stature of Maclean and his contribution becomes clear. Maclean was a talented populariser of Marxism and ran Marxist education classes for many years, led the anti-war campaign in Glasgow, and was a tireless agitator in the heat of the struggle.

Socialists and mass movements

Some passages in the book are genuinely thrilling and dramatic, like those depicting militant mass protests (often clashing with the police), but McShane was also keen to explain the dynamics of a struggle and reveal how he and his comrades operated. He was (like Maclean) a natural agitator and flourished in what he termed ‘mass work’, feeling at home in demonstrations and street meetings, finding his purpose in building the NUWM in the 1930s.

He would later feel discontented at the lack of opportunities for mass movement building comparable to the agitations of the 1920s and 1930s, but he was always keen to orient himself on the closest thing available to that experience. For example, he recalls his role in organising a major Scottish demonstration, involving CND, against nuclear weapons in the early 1960s. He had retired, aged 69, in 1960 but continued to be involved in Glasgow Trades Council activity.
Although he was part of a couple of small Marxist groups, holding political discussions, after leaving the CP in 1953, it seems to have been the larger-scale movement activity that mattered most to him. That is not to deny the immense importance of Marxist ideas in sustaining him: he comments, revealingly, that in the years immediately following his departure from the CP he read more Marxist theory than at any time since his teens. He was trying to make sense of what had gone so terribly wrong in the Communist tradition, trying to recover the authentic politics of Marx and Lenin.

Although the book is overwhelmingly a story of action, the account of his intellectual development in a couple of early chapters – the story of how he became a dedicated Marxist – is  fascinating, and it is a development that clearly underpins the rest of McShane’s life story. It is impossible to survive the many twists and turns between 1908 and 1978 – including some major personal setbacks and some potentially very demoralising political defeats – without a deep grounding in the Marxist tradition.
As the book was being written, in 1976, McShane spoke at the Royal Albert Hall for the first time. He was nearly 85. Unemployment was rising again, as capitalist crisis returned. Just as the Crash of 1929 had prompted the mass campaigns of the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement, the crisis of the 1970s led to the Right to Work Campaign being launched.

The new movement was initiated by the International Socialists, taking the role the CP had in the 1930s, and held a number of unemployed workers’ marches to London. McShane’s speech linked the mass movements of the interwar period with the new wave of mobilisations. His presence was a living link to the struggles of earlier generations. There are great differences between then and now, but in a period of systemic crisis yet again there is a wealth of historical experience from which we can learn.


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Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Stop trying to rehabilitate Tony Blair. We are right to condemn his record.

Tony Blair was prime minister for a decade, but is now widely reviled. The main reason, of course, is Iraq.
 
Blair's role in the US-led invasion of 2003 and the long military occupation which followed - relentlessly pushing for British participation in the war, followed by a disastrous and chaotic occupation - largely defines him and his legacy. It didn't immediately cost him his job, but it can be argued that he left Downing Street earlier than he would have wished - and since then his reputation has never recovered.

There are some among the commentariat and the political class, however, who have long itched to rehabilitate him. For some - for the most fervent of them - this is because they also backed the war in Iraq and they more generally want to revive the credibility of 'humanitarian intervention' after the disasters of Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.
 
But there are others, like the Guardian's Zoe Williams, who want to save Blair from the indignity of being defined by Iraq, which they see as one awful mistake in an otherwise largely successful political career. In the process they actually obscure the truth of Blair's wider record (besides Iraq), while belittling what a monstrous crime the war on Iraq really was.
 
Iraq: never forget

Firstly we should recall why the war in Iraq has so utterly trashed Blair's reputation. Even many people who supported it in 2003 now accept it was utterly destructive, with enormously damaging long-term consequences for the country and its people.
 
But it is more than that. It has since become apparent - if it wasn't clear at the time - that Blair was deeply committed to an invasion, and was willing to make all sorts of dubious pronouncements in a bid to win parliamentary and public approval. Blair is widely regarded as a liar. He and his supporters played a major role in the decline of trust in politicians. Several years before the expenses scandal broke, Iraq was a turning point.

For an increasing number of people, Iraq became part of an even larger failing: the so-called War on Terror. The occupation of Afghanistan became as unpopular as that of Iraq. When Obama and Cameron wanted to attack Syria last year, the legacy of Iraq - and wider opposition to western 'interventions' - guaranteed widespread public opposition. Many people understood that attacking Syria would escalate and widen the conflict, but the opposition and distrust was also fed by recent experience.

Since leaving Downing Street, Blair has made obscene amounts of money, helped enormously by the role he played as George W Bush's junior partner. This gave him a high status among American elites - willing to spend ridiculous amounts for 'keynote speakers' and 'leadership consultants' - and the money, it seems, keeps rolling in. He has 'advised' some dubious characters and shown enthusiasm for bombing countries that he and Bush never got round to bombing.
 
From euphoria to disillusionment

Zoe Williams' claim of a successful Blair era requires some imaginative re-writing of history. In 1997 Labour took 13,518,000 votes; in 2001 (pre-War on Terror) this fell to 10,725,000 votes. A decline of 2.8 million votes is peculiar after four years of reforming success, I'd have thought. In 1997 Labour Party membership was around 400,000; by the time Blair left office it had at least halved.
 
The decline in votes and members was not merely because of Iraq; especially in the case of the former, it pre-dated it. This was because of a whole series of failures which dashed the hopes of millions of natural Labour supporters.

The general election of May 1997 was an occasion for euphoria. By 2001 it was very different. Blair's domestic record was characterised by a number of features. He was lucky in getting continual economic growth - at low levels, and disguising some drastic underlying weaknesses, but growth nevertheless. This allowed some increased public sector funding. Yet this was accompanied by privatisation and deregulation.

Williams refers to the minimum wage, always maintained at a thoroughly measly level, but somehow forgets such 'reforms' as the introduction of tuition fees which demolished the principle of free education and paved the way for the obscene levels of fees we see today. The minimum wage - such a meek threat to big business - was accompanied by a whole raft of policies designed to reassure the already wealthy that they could continue to enrich themselves while offering low pay and insecurity to their workers. The anti-union laws were left firmly intact, nothing was done to regulate working hours (among the longest in Europe), and any restrictions on the pursuit of further wealth were 'deregulated'.

There was increased funding for the NHS, but it was accompanied by the beginnings of marketization which the Tories are now pushing much further. In schools there was the obsession with the three Ts of targets, testing and tables, and later the growth of the academies programme, which did so much damage: increasing stress, feeding competition, distorting learning and allowing the private sector into a public service (a trend replicated in almost every part of the public sector).
 
A funny kind of social democracy

Williams tells us that Blair 'left a blueprint for social democratic government'. I'm not sure Blair would make such a claim himself. He represented the collapse of any aspiration to social democratic government in the face of corporate power and the City of London. He bent over backwards to please the rich and powerful, allowing inequality to grow in the process. His policies encouraged precisely the tendencies which made Britain so vulnerable to the crisis of 2008.

Social democratic? Where is the democracy? The very first act of his first government was to surrender control over interest rates to the unelected Bank of England. The democratic advance of devolution for Scotland and Wales was welcome, but other constitutional and democratic changes never materialised.
 
Scotland and Wales aside, power continued to be highly centralised. The archaic systems of patronage largely remained the same. The links between corporate lobbyists and politicians became much stronger. Blair's love-in with Murdoch symbolised the way that so much of the political agenda was shaped by pleasing a few press barons. Above all, Iraq - going to war despite massive demonstrations and public opinion - prompted talk of a democratic deficit, with the political class failing to represent the views of the people.

Williams praises Blair because, apparently, 'it's better to care about poor children than it is to recast their situation as the result of their parents' fecklessness'. What does this have to do with the punitive Blair? The prison population rose as crime fell; teenagers were slapped with ASBOs. Increasingly, poverty was talked of as a moral failing by the poor themselves, not as a structural failure.

One of the great Blair myths was that of social mobility, which implied that anyone still poor clearly had something wrong with them. It couldn't be the system - the poor must be to blame.
 
Blair represented the desertion by Labour of the social democratic gains of the post-war period. New Labour placed far greater emphasis on the vacuous New than on the Labour.  He wasn't just a warmonger abroad but someone who pushed through private finance initiatives and deregulation at home, who allowed inequality to prosper, and who displaced blame for social ills onto the victims.
 
The state became not a support and provider for people from cradle to grave, but increasingly a facilitator of greater enrichment for private business, bankers and speculators. And it became increasingly coercive too, both at home and abroad. There was growth in state-sanctioned Islamophobia, the erosion of civil liberties, and an increase in the surveillance state; subservience to the White House in the 'war on terror' meant participation in rendition and complicity in torture.
 
No rehabilitation of Blairism
 
When Tories claim that their austerity is necessary because of profligate public spending by previous Labour governments, we should of course point out the various ways in which they are wrong. We should defend what we already have from attack: some, but really not much, of this is a legacy of the Blair and Brown years. Much more of it is a legacy of earlier generations. Much of it started to come undone under Blair, committed as he was to a neoliberal model that made a god of private profit.
 
There can be no rehabilitation of Tony Blair - not now, not ever. Above all, this is because of Iraq. The costs of invasions, wars and occupations have been enormous - in human lives and in money.
 
The money devoted to weapons and war could have been spent on public services. Public investment could have been coupled with greater democratic public control, but instead the opposite happened. There are many failures which explain why Blair was, to millions of people hoping for a change of priorities after 18 years of Tory rule, at first a bitter disappointment - and later something worse.
 
I am writing this on the 1st anniversary of Thatcher's death. It is a commonplace to say that Thatcher may have died, but Thatcherism sadly didn't. This is because the Blair years marked far greater continuity than change from the Thatcher/Major period.
 
Blairism turned out to be a version of neoliberalism with more progressive rhetoric and a 'Cool Britannia' image makeover. It is significant that Cameron modelled himself on Blair, and that Blair has endorsed the current government's austerity drive. In seeking to defeat Cameron's government, there is nothing to be gained from exhuming the corpse of Blairism.


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Tuesday, 18 March 2014

A modern-day Chartist: Paul Foot on Tony Benn

Paul Foot's magnificent book The Vote: How it was won and how it was undermined was published posthumously, by Penguin, in 2005. Paul Foot had died the previous year, aged 66. In the passage below, from the book's Conclusion, Foot the lifelong revolutionary socialist (who emphatically rejected Labourism) wrote about the transformation of Tony Benn from a moderate Labour politician to a radical campaigner.

Although Benn remained a Labour Party member until the end (something that was never really in doubt) the last decade of Benn's life, including his role as Stop the War Coalition president and his contributions to the Coalition of Resistance and later the People's Assembly, confirmed what Foot wrote about his radicalism and his active commitment to popular struggles.
 
Here is what Paul Foot wrote in The Vote:
 
Anthony Wedgewood Benn was born with a political golden spoon in his mouth. His father was a Liberal who joined the Labour Party and became a member of two Labour governments - and a Viscount. When he was only 25, young Tony 'inherited' Sir Stafford Cripps's safe seat at Bristol. After campaigning successfully to reject his inherited title, he became, on his own admission, a compliant and even right-wing secretary of state in the 1964-70 Labour government, and a senior figure in the 1974-79 government.

During the early 1970s, no one knows quite when, he moved sharply to the left, developed a rich, mocking sense of humour and started making overt socialist propaganda. None of this was strong enough to pull him out of the Wilson or Callaghan governments, but in the early 1980s he resumed his socialist pilgrimage, and in 1981 was only very narrowly defeated for the deputy leadership of the Labour Party.

During all this time he kept a daily diary- perhaps the most formidable document of a century of Labour Party history. His political development can be traced in the forewords to the seven volumes as they came out. The diaries for 1963-67, for instance, unquestionably the most right-wing period of his long parliamentary career, were published in 1987, the year he launched, in his Chesterfield constituency, a socialist conference to unite and inspire the rank and file outside Parliament.

The foreword to that volume set out his most explicit concerns about the value of parliamentary democracy. He emphasized four lessons he had learned from his long parliamentary experience. The first two were the 'feudal structure' of Crown and Lords and the power and patronage wielded by the leader of the Labour Party. He went on:

'Third, as a minister, I experienced the power of industrialists and bankers to get their way by the use of the crudest form of economic pressure, even blackmail, against a Labour government. Compared to this, the pressure brought to bear in industrial disputes is minuscule. This power was revealed even more clearly in 1976 when the IMF secured cuts in our public expenditure.' 

The fourth lesson related to the power of the media, which 'like the power of the medieval church ensures that the events of the day are always presented from the point of view of those who enjoy economic privilege'. Tony Benn's conclusion was as follows:

'These lessons led me on to the conclusion that Britain is only superficially governed by MPs and the voters who elect them. Parliamentary democracy is, in truth, little more than a means for securing a periodical change in the management team, which is then allowed to preside over a system that remains in essence intact. If the British people were ever to ask themselves what power they truly enjoyed under our present political system they would be amazed to discover how little it is, and some new Chartist agitation might be born and might quickly gather momentum.'

Tony Benn kept up his diary through the rest of the 1980s and for all the 1990s too. He watched in bemused dismay while a new leader of the Labour Party was elected from a quite different tradition to the one he grew up in. He observed how speedily New Labour ditched what was left of its social democratic heritage - Clause IV, public ownership, the welfare state, comprehensive education. He was naturally not even considered for office in Tony Blair's administration after 1997, and seethed on the back benches as his party in government stumbled from reaction to reaction until it became indistinguishable from the Tories.

In all this time he made himself available to any organization outside that was resisting this slide. Any workers fighting redundancy, any school standing up for the comprehensive system, any persecuted foreigner seeking asylum could rely on his active support. Again and again, he deliberately abandoned his base in Parliament and worked among those who, he hoped and believed, would one day trigger a new Chartist agitation, and a revolution from below.

In 1999, after two years of the Blair government, he made a historic announcement: he would not be standing for Parliament in the 2001 general election. He would be leaving Parliament 'in order to devote more time to politics'. His own enormous experience in the highest places in the land drove him to the conclusion that the place to fight was in the lowest: that any future for an egalitarian socialist society rested not on what happened in Parliament but on the resistance and determination of the workers and the poor.
 
Some pointed out rather churlishly that this decision came at a time when his parliamentary career might have been over anyway. He was 74, and in any case his constituency, Chesterfield, was lost in the 2001 election to the Liberals. But his resolve never wavered. Despite his age and the cruel death from cancer of his wife, he continued resolutely down the path he had set himself: to argue and agitate for change from below.

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Friday, 17 January 2014

Building a local Counterfire group

The report below is a contribution to Counterfire's pre-Conference discussion. It seeks to learn lessons from the Newcastle Counterfire group, in which I am active. It was originally published along with other documents, resolutions and reports - in advance of the annual conference on 1-2 February - in the Conference 2014 section of the Counterfire website.

Newcastle Counterfire had a busy 2013 and grew in the course of it. The group is centred in Newcastle, although members live in a wider area than this (most are in the Tyne and Wear metropolitan area, with 1 in Teesside and 1 in Northumberland). In total we currently have 13 members, including 7 who joined in 2013.

We started in February 2010 with a small group of 4 founder members, all of whom are still members today. Growth had been very slow and faltering: a number of people joined in our first 3 years, but most never became integrated into the organisation. This last year, however, has seen us take a definite leap forward - we now have a group that is quantitatively and qualitatively different to what we began with a few years ago.

Motors of growth

Two factors are responsible for the recent growth. One is the tremendous success of the People's Assembly in north-east England, which as well as being vitally important on its own terms has also provided a larger audience for Counterfire.

The second factor is the success of a number of Counterfire public meetings: new members, and indeed a layer of non-members close to us, have been attracted by our politics as well as our activism. Our ideas, our ability to explain the world around us, have been crucial.

Significantly, every single person who has joined in the last year - in fact almost everyone who has ever joined in this area - did so immediately after attending a Counterfire public meeting. In a couple of cases it was their first Counterfire meeting, but in most cases they had attended a number of such meetings before joining. This indicates the importance of nurturing political relationships.

All of these newer members, without exception, have encountered Counterfire through our movement activity. Most have met us specifically through local People's Assembly activity. It is clear that the People's Assembly provides the main context for the growth of Counterfire, but it is equally clear that being well-respected activists is not in itself enough. Ideas matter. Local Counterfire meetings, with a political focus, are the key.

A particular strength here is that several newer members have already been active in the broader movement. This means that our local group has not just seen a growth in members, but more importantly in active members. These are active members who already have some experience in the movement.

For sake of clarity, it should be stressed that we have not adopted a two-stages approach, i.e. building People's Assembly and then focusing on Counterfire. At no point have we chosen between temporarily focusing on the People's Assembly or Counterfire, however hard it may have been to successfully sustain both. A consistently twin-track approach has been essential.

North East People's Assembly

The People's Assembly, as indicated, has been (and continues to be) a considerable success in north-east England, especially in the Newcastle area. It is widely recognised that, while North East People's Assembly is a genuine coalition, it wouldn't have happened without the vital initiating role played by our members - and indeed we continue to be centrally involved.

The People's Assembly has constituted a decisive shifting of gears for the anti-cuts movement here. This is an on-going process, but the turning point was the big all-day regional event, backed by a range of campaigns and unions, attended by an astonishing 500 people, in Newcastle in September. A key lesson is surely the central importance of a major - and very ambitious - unifying event as a platform for building a local/regional People's Assembly in the long term.

The success of that landmark event - the most important event initiated by the left in Newcastle for many years - can be measured in various ways, and it will ripple outwards for a long time yet. One key measure is the establishing of several local groups, e.g. South Tyneside, Teesside, Sunderland, in the wake of it. This is getting the People's Assembly more rooted and involving wider layers of supporters. We have also played an especially influential role in strengthening trade union participation in North East People's Assembly, and developing good political relationships with a number of unions.

One reason for the People's Assembly's success here is that we built on the existing foundations of an effective local Coalition of Resistance group, which we established in August 2010 (although the People's Assembly has proved bigger and broader). Recent success has therefore been aided by the development of long-term political relationships. It is closely linked to having a strategic focus over a long period, not flitting between different campaigns and activities. It rests upon a commitment to united-front-as-strategy.

Getting political

It should also be noted that a number of Counterfire members have been centrally involved in Newcastle Stop the War. The group's successes include a local emergency protest over Syria in August, and more recently a public meeting attended by 60 people. Our commitment to Stop the War reflects a broader political perspective on imperialism and war in the current period.

Counterfire meetings have been organised, therefore, in the context of our members - including newer members - playing a major part in the building of broader movements, above all the People's Assembly. These meetings have included book launches by Lindsey German, Neil Faulkner and Kate Connelly. Those three events all had a historical focus, though with an eye for contemporary lessons, but we have also held public meetings on important current political topics. We also held a theoretical day school in Newcastle, which focused on key texts by Lenin and Luxemburg and their relevance for today.

There have also been meetings which have combined political discussion with more practical issues - not just planning future events, but discussing our experiences, strategy and tactics in the anti-cuts and anti-war movements. These meetings have been crucial for developing and sustaining a local group, involving newer members and ensuring we have a coherent approach to what we are doing in the movements and in some members' trade union work.

The way ahead

In 2014 we aim to continue building the People's Assembly, in relation both to priority national initiatives like the conference in March and national demo in June and to local developments in fighting the cuts. We will also help sustain Newcastle Stop the War and ensure it plays an active part in opposing imperialism this year.

Above all, we will focus consistently on organising and building attractive Counterfire meetings which can open up space for much-needed political discussion - and, in the process, hopefully recruit new members and build a bigger group while supporting the political development of all members.

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Wednesday, 1 January 2014

My predictions for 2014

David Cameron on the day of his Syria defeat. No more rebellions?
When I did this same exercise on New Year's Day 2013, I wrote: 'This is a soberly realistic view of what I think is most likely to happen. It is not always what I want to happen: in several instances I very much hope things will work out differently to my predictions.' The same is true again this year.

Note: You may be interested in reading my assessment of how last year's predictions actually turned out.

OK, here we go...

1. There will be growing tensions between US and Israel, with the latter increasingly asserting independent positions in relation to the wider Middle East. The same will apply to the US-Saudi relationship.

2. Egypt will witness the consolidation of the Army-led counter-revolution; there will be various isolated and sectional forms of opposition, but this won't cohere in a serious challenge to the current order.

3. In the wake of upheavals in Ukraine in recent weeks, there will be rumbling tensions in some former Soviet states; this will increasingly become a fissure point in global geopolitics, with rivalry between the US and Russia. The Winter Olympics in Russia in February will be a focal point for political grandstanding.

4. There will be repeated diplomatic clashes between China and Japan throughout the year, with a jittery US supporting Japan as a counterweight to rising Chinese influence.

5. Tensions between North Korea and the rest of the world, especially South Korea, will increase.

6. The football World Cup will be the most politicised for decades, with a revival of the kind of protests seen some months ago in Brazil providing a counterpoint to the official corporate pageant.

7. Turkey will see continuing large-scale social and political unrest, though the current government will remain in office.

8. The controversies around NSA, whistleblowers and the surveillance state will continue throughout the year, with fresh revelations and controversies, plaguing the Obama administration.

9. In the UK the shallow recovery (in reality a debt-based bubble) will continue, with modest growth throughout the year, and the Tories will make this the centrepiece of their propaganda, though it will not discernibly affect people's living standards.

10. People's inability to make mortgage repayments will be a major story of the year, with a growth in repossessions.

11. Scotland will vote No to independence, but around 40% of voters will opt for independence. The outcome will be greater pressure for devolved powers ('devo max'), especially over economic questions.

12. There will be no major parliamentary rebellions by backbench Tories, aided by the disciplining effect of a looming general election.

13. There will be more frequent clashes between Tories and Lib Dems than ever before, as Nick Clegg's party seeks to assert an independent profile ahead of 2015's general election. Immigration and Europe will be especially big areas of dispute. Vince Cable will be at the forefront in making criticisms of the senior coalition partners.

14. Labour will push the 'cost of living' agenda, therefore putting clear water between itself and the Tories. In a number of other areas, however, it will maintain its right-wing stance or move even further rightwards: immigration, welfare and education will all clearly illustrate this. It will, however, command a convincing opinion poll lead at the end of 2014, with predictions of a Labour majority in the 2015 general election (a situation driven by popular disquiet with the experience of austerity).

15. Ukip will do well in the European elections and continue to score well in opinion polls, but will fail to make any new breakthrough and will stutter after May's elections. Nick Griffin of the BNP will be booted out of the European Parliament by voters.

16. The Cameron's government's massive propaganda drive around the legacy of World War One will be widely contested and challenged: not in parliament, where Miliband and other Labour leaders will be supine for fear of being portrayed as 'unpatriotic', but in wider civil society and particularly on the cultural field.

17. There will some further public sector national strikes - including by teachers, firefighters, higher education workers and civil service workers - but no major co-ordinated strike action on anything like the scale seen on 30 November 2011. Pay will be the major battleground for trade unions.

18. The bedroom tax will be scrapped, thus bringing the anti-cuts movement its first major national victory.

19. The student movement's revival will continue in the spring term, though not nearly reaching levels comparable to autumn 2010. The privatisation of student loans will prove to be the central issue for the movement.

20. The People's Assembly will be the English left's great success story, the primary vehicle for co-ordinated opposition to cuts, with a national demonstration in June proving especially successful. However, any left-of-Labour electoral vehicles will be no further advanced at the end of 2014 than they are now.


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