Freedom of movement in the EU – what have the suffragettes got to do with it?

Quite a lot really. The demand for freedom of movement seems axiomatic not just for socialists, but also for a wide range of liberals who share concern for human rights, and know of the injustices that occur when that freedom is restricted, when some are considered undesirable and discriminated against purely through an accident of birth that prevents them accessing equal rights. How could that demand for free movement not be seen as progressive?

Here’s another progressive demand: “Votes for Women” – popularised by the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) formed by Emmeline Pankhurst in Manchester in 1903. The WSPU were known from 1905 as Suffragettes – a term intended originally as an insult hurled at the movement by Charles Hands, a Daily Mail journalist. He was comparing activists from this new movement, which was prepared to engage in civil disobedience, unfavourably with its law-abiding suffragist predecessors. But the WSPU embraced the term, pleased to have found a name to distinguish them from the more longstanding section of the movement which restricted its activities purely to constitutional methods .

Votes_for_WomenThe WSPU originally called its own newspaper Votes for Women, but soon changed it to Suffragette. (It had one more name change during World War One. Emmeline’s eldest daughter, Christabel, insisted on changing it to Britannia to underline the movement’s patriotic credentials.) The Women’s Freedom League, which had splintered off from the movement in 1907, and the East London Federation of Suffragettes, expelled from the WSPU in early 1914,  certainly wouldn’t have supported that change as leading lights in both these organisations opposed  the War,

But let’s return to “Votes for Women” as a slogan. There was an Anti-Suffrage League that opposed it, claiming that men make political decisions based on robust intellectual arguments, while women do so on the basis of emotion. It is depressing to acknowledge that Mary Ward, who made her name as a late 19th century campaigner fighting to expand women’s education and employment opportunities accepted this argument and promoted the Anti-Suffrage League. But the WSPU also faced more principled opposition to its approach, from the left,  especially from socialists rooted in working class communities.

Why would they oppose “Votes for Women”? It was because “Votes for Women” was only half the sentence. The rest was: “on the same basis as men”. At that time barely 60% of men had the vote,  strictly on a property basis – property owned or rented at a high enough value. The poorest 40% of men, with the least access to the property that counted, remained disenfranchised after three 19th-century Reform Acts. If that was equalised, which women exactly would be enfranchised?

Rose Witkop, an immigrant Jewish anarchist among the precariat living in sub-let accommodation in London’s East End asked: “How shall we benefit if instead of electing our master – as we do today –  we elect his wife to govern us?” Dora Montefiore, active in the Marxist SDF (Social Democratic Federation) joined the WSPU, but did most of her women’s suffrage campaigning through other groups committed to enfranchising the working class. Dissident activists such as those within the East London Federation of Suffragettes characterised the WSPU’s demand as “Votes for Ladies”. They believed instead that women’s political rights would be advanced best through the introduction of universal suffrage, which would enfranchise the whole working class: women and men.

Female trade union activists, such as Mary MacArthur of the National Federation of Women Workers, were equally underwhelmed by the WSPU’s demands, and stayed aloof from it. Alongside other prominent female trade unionists, she argued that a partial, middle and upper-middle class-based franchise for women would merely strengthen Conservative forces in society, and potentially act as a barrier to the wider goals of women’s equality.

This may seem a harsh assessment of the WSPU, which was undoubtedly a courageous, rebellious movement. No doubt many of its own members saw through the limitations it imposed on its demands, but nevertheless chose this vehicle because it had a chance of at least partial success, and held out the prospect of additional gains later. Women, after all were working from the baseline of zero votes.

In the last two weeks I’ve been encouraged by several people to sign a statement prepared by the “Labour Campaign for Free Movement”. I probably will, very critically, but then try to apply political pressure from within and without for something bolder and more progressive. The ghosts of Mary MacArthur, Dora Montefiore, and East London suffragettes are stirring my discontent.

Let me be completely clear. I believe totally in free movement of people, and asylum and real support for those forced to flee the lands of their birth. I grew up in an immigrant family . One of my parents and all of my grandparents and their brothers and sisters were immigrants. My attitude of disrespect for national frontiers, but seeing the world as my border, is hard-wired into me and represents my earliest strong political opinion. I feel very comfortable with the “No Borders” position in the spirit of the No One is Illegal manifesto published in the early 2000s. When people scapegoat immigrants for social problems or tell me that immigrants undercut wages of indigenous workers, I give them examples like the dockers in 1889 supporting immigrant Jewish tailors in strike to create a win-win situation for East End workers, and I remind them that bosses cut wages and undermine conditions, not migrants.

I have been active for decades in anti-deportation, and pro-refugee campaigns and, at a professional level in the 1980s, as Publications officer at the Runnymede Trust,  I oversaw the publication of many reports,  pamphlets and books such as Divided Families; Undocumented, Lives, Fortress Europe… that exposed and countered the racist and narrow nationalist philosophy behind the  panoply of anti-migrant, anti-refugee legislation. At Runnymede we also argued that in addition to treating large numbers of migrants as undesirables, and humiliating them and oppressing them, this approach also strengthened racist attitudes to all minorities within our society.

So what exactly is wrong with the Labour campaign for Free Movement statement? It is certainly good to have a strong group in Labour arguing for migrant and refugee rights and challenging any accommodation to anti-immigrant arguments. But I searched the statement in vain for a crucial two-word phrase: “Fortress Europe”.  Free movement for EU nationals is undoubtedly a good thing in its own terms, allowing people to come here to work and enabling British citizens to work in other European countries, plus all the benefits of enriching each others’ cultures and breaking down stereotypes. But it takes place within a wider discriminatory system that makes it increasingly hard for non-EU workers to come to work in Britain.

FORTRESSS-e1459782581752The Tories slipped through legislation in recent years raising the amount very considerably that non-EU migrants need to be assured of earning if they are going to obtain the right to work here. Those who want to come, but are most affected by this happen to be Asians, Africans, and Latin Americans. I have  heard British-born black people describe the experience of travelling to central and eastern Europe for work under EU free movement. They met such a level of racism in their countries of destination that they felt compelled to return to Britain.

A recent Morning Star editorial  put it quite sharply: “…we effectively have a ‘whites-only’ free movement policy… For anyone living in Asia or Africa it is almost impossible to join family members settled within EU boundaries unless you have significant wealth or high qualifications. As in Britain, police across the EU are required to search for ‘illegals.’ Almost all will be from Africa and Asia… the EU Border and Coastguard Agency will now take increasing responsibility for ensuring uniform enforcement Last year it forcibly deported 10,000. This year the figure is likely to reach 20,000. This is the other side of the EU ‘free movement’ coin.”

My friend Sue Lukes, who has dedicated her adult life to anti-racist, pro-migrant and pro-refugee causes is also skeptical of this new campaign. In a recent discussion on social media she wrote: “Free movement as offered by the EU is very conditional and that is what is being defended here. Roma have been deported from France within those rules, Dutch citizens of Somali origin denied benefits and EU citizens deported from Britain for being homeless. I don’t want to defend any of that.” I agree.

I also searched in vain in the Campaign document for a critique of the freedoms for people-trafficking – or more precisely workforce trafficking – that are extended to capitalists to move workforces, deprived of rights, from low wage economies to higher wage economies, engage in super-exploitation while helping to undermine conditions won by workers in those higher wage economies. A true defence of freedom of movement must also be a defence of the rights of all workers.

These issues are bringing divisions within the Labour Party and the labour movement. I have a nagging doubt – and I hope I am wrong – that this issue is being exploited in a particular way by some people using it as a proxy for replaying the Brexit Referendum and taking a pot shot at the Labour leadership who have navigated a difficult path under pressure from many sides and from the right wing media who are still attempting to destroy that leadership.

By all means let’s have a Labour Campaign for Free Movement but let it target Fortress Europe and let us make sure that it will seek to equalise access for would be migrants workers wherever they currently reside.

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Entering the House with honest intentions?

It’s an important political anniversary today. Exactly 125 years ago, on 4 July, 1892, voting began in the General Election that saw the first two socialist MPs elected to Parliament. They were James Keir Hardie in West Ham and John Burns in Battersea. Both came from backgrounds vastly different to most of the puffed up toffs they would be sitting among. The moment they both entered parliament was captured in a beautiful observation by the extraordinary socialist and feminist activist Charlotte Despard. I will come back to that later as it has a bearing on current political arguments.

IMG_4832So who were these two new kids on the Westminster block? John Burns was one of 16 children born in Lambeth to a Scottish father and English mother. After his father disappeared from the scene, John Burns’ mother moved the family into a basement in  Battersea. Burns left school at 10 to be apprenticed as an engineer.  One of his fellow workers was Victor Delahaye – an exiled Paris Communard who became Burns’ early political mentor.  In the early 1880s Burns helped form the Battersea branch of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF). The SDF was Britain’s first Marxist organisation.

Henry Snell described Burns as “one of the SDF’s best speakers…(whose) power as a popular street-corner orator was probably unequalled in that generation. He had a voice of unusual range… and he possessed great physical and nervous vitality. His method of attracting a crowd was, immediately he rose to speak, and for one or two minutes only, to open all the stops of his organ-like voice. The crowd once secured, his vocal energy was modified, but his vitality and masterful diction held his audience against all competitors.” The trade unionist Tom Mann said Burns’ voice “could fill every part of the largest hall or theatre, and, if the wind were favourable, could reach a 20,000 audience in the parks”.

Burns took up many causes and was especially committed to demonstrations about unemployment. In 1887 he began leading processions of unemployed workers to Sunday services at fashionable London churches. In my book Rebel Footprints I highlighted an  occasion in St. Paul’s Cathedral where Reverend Gifford began preaching against socialism at a service when John Burns was present. According to reports, “Burns promptly rose to his feet and sang a socialist parody of a well-known hymn. A ‘disturbance’ inevitably followed.”

When Burns stood for parliament in 1892 he had the backing of local socialists and trade unionists but also the local Liberal association: what some might call a “progressive alliance”.

Unlike Burns, Keir Hardie had no formal schooling at all, bHardie_electut his mother taught him to read and write. His working life also began at the age of 10 – down the mines. Just like  Burns, though, he became a well-respected orator at a relatively young age, highlighting the grievances of miners in Lanarkshire and Ayrshire. As he began exploring political parties and groups he initially hoped that the Liberals would be able to enact social change that would benefit workers, but came to the stark conclusion that “we need a Labour Party to replace the historic Liberal Party”.

So what did Charlotte Despard actually say on that day in July 1892? She had been less impressed than many others by Burns’ claims that he stood above all for the needs of the “common people” and his declaration that “I am not ashamed to say I am the son of a washerwoman”. He had also stated “The better the dress and position, the bigger the snob and the greater the rogue.” And yet, as Despard observed, while they were filing into the newly elected Parliament in that summer of 1892, Keir Hardie wore plain simple clothes and a cloth cap, whereas “Burns wore an exclusive suit paid for by his supporters”. This surely told us something. In the years that followed Keir Hardie consolidated the Independent Labour Party with its principled ethical socialism, but Burns edged closer and closer to the Liberal Party hierarchy, finally accepting a Liberal Party Cabinet post in 1906. Despard was neither shocked nor surprised by this “development”.

by Mrs Albert Broom, cream-toned velox print, 1900-1925That 1892 election did hold one surprise though. In Finsbury Central the liberals beat the Tories by a whopping majority of three votes and returned the first Asian MP to Westminster – a Parsee named Dadabhai Naoroji who had been one of the founders of the Indian National Congress. When Naoroji chased a seat in a neighbouring constituency at the previous election, Lord Salisbury had said, “I doubt whether we have yet got to that point of view where a British constituency will take a black man to represent them.”  This time around, in a letter to The Times, Sir Lepel Griffin, a former colonial administrator in the Punjab, described Naoroji as “an alien in race, in custom, in religion, destitute of local sympathy or local knowledge,” and claimed that “no more unsuitable representative could be imagined or suggested.” Griffin described Parsees as “the Jews of India”. That was not intended as a compliment.
dadabhai-naoroji

Naoroji stood for the Liberals when Parliamentary elections were principally a two-horse race of Tories and Liberals. Burns and Keir Hardie broke the mould with openly socialist programmes. Naoroji had close associates well to the left of the Liberals, but was unlikely to get anywhere near succeeding without the endorsement of a more mainstream party.

What to make of the Liberals or as they are now – Lib Dems. In the last two months some of my friends have been urging me to see them as potential partners in a “progressive alliance”. Unlike John Burns I have recoiled from that, basically not trusting them as far as I could spit (not very far these days). Just after the election I told these friends to expect the Tories to stitch up a new grubby deal with the Lib-Dems. Instead we had an even grubbier deal with the DUP, but just this morning it has emerged that the Tories have indeed also been having behind the scenes talks with the Lib-Dems. I am about as surprised as Charlotte Despard was about Burns throwing in his lot with that band of opportunists.

Tale of two cities

When Jeremy Corbyn visited the community around Grenfell Tower and comforted  survivors of what his fellow Labour MP David Lammy has called “corporate manslaughter”, he said, “Kensington is a tale of two cities – it is among the wealthiest parts of this country but the ward where this took place is one of the poorest… residents must be rehoused, using requisition of empty properties if necessary in the community they love.”
0yntjsyje6ufcgtpabudkactnrnxbhld-smallThere is a history of demands to requisition empty properties in this locality and use them to address housing injustice and housing needs that goes back to 1946.

At the end of July that year, a squatting campaign by homeless and inadequately housed people began in several locations. At first they took over disused army camps but soon empty flats and houses were entered.

In London, hundreds of homeless people, organised through the Communist Party (CP), temporarily took occupation of empty residential flats owned by the wealthy, and this took place particularly in Kensington and Marylebone in estates such as that owned by the Duchess of Bedford.

A year after the war ended, 3.5 million soldiers had been demobbed and absorbed into industry but wages were declining, there were 300,000 unemployed, and a housing crisis. in 1946, the number of families needing homes exceeded the number of suitable dwellings by 9 per cent nationally. In London, a city that had endured the Blitz, that figure was up to 21 per cent.

The Labour government set about a crash programme of temporary housing such as prefabs. They concentrated new-build in local authority hands by increasing subsidies for local authority housing. They also extended the  powers to requisition properties for war purposes, to peacetime purposes, so there would be more properties available for those who were inadequately housed.

But some local authorities reacted slowly to this urgent need. In the Westminster district of Marylebone there were 3,360 people on the housing waiting list but they had rehoused only a handful of families. In Kensington, the local council returned properties requisitioned in wartime to their wealthy private owners, who would attempt to re-let them at steep rents.

The Communist Party in London held an internal meeting on 6th September, a Friday night. The next day CP members got in touch with people they knew living in bad conditions, who were mainly non-Party members, and told them to meet at agreed spots on Sunday afternoon and bring whatever bedding they had with them.

bedford

Moving on to the Dutchess of Bedford estate

On the Sunday night the CP held a meeting at the Palace Theatre, central London where  their London District secretary, Ted Bramley, read out a BBC report:

“Between 2 and 3 o’clock, about 100 London people occupied three blocks of luxury flats and a number of houses in Kensington and adjacent areas”

Over a period of 24 hours they contacted families from several boroughs, and got around 400 families involved. Communist Party spokespersons described it as a “shock for the government, landlords, private exploiters and their profits”, and a shock too “for their dear, objective, impartial friends in press.”

It was a powerful piece of direct action, though they knew they would not be able to hold out long. Within a few days writs and possession orders were issued and police arrested the party ringleaders, such as Ted Bramley, who had organised the actions. The state disinterred the Common Law offence of Conspiracy. There was discussion within the Party and among the squatters about how to respond. Some wanted a forcible stand against ejection; many others felt that given the number of young children among the squatters that would be a very risky course of action for the families involved. They had made their point very effectively and this would affect the national debate and public policy.

IMG_1240In contrast to Corbyn today, Labour ministers then did not display much human sympathy for those involved, but nevertheless promised there would be no further action against squatters who left peacefully, and reassured them that none of them would lose their existing place in the housing queue.

The squatters left with their dignity intact. They marched out holding banners aloft and with bands playing music. They issued a public statement that said:

“We came in here not for ourselves alone but for the hundreds and thousands of others in a similar plight… Our residents include a large proportion of ex-servicemen who, after years of service for their country, are homeless… We came in together and we have decided to go out together, confident that we have achieved our purpose. Those who were ignorant of our plight now know, and those who knew and ignored, are now shamed into a sense of urgency that London’s homeless shall be housed. When we march out … we expect the authorities to show us that human consideration that should be shown to all the homeless and ill-housed. We ask that a rest centre be put at the disposal of the vast majority who have nowhere to go; that our cases be investigated and that we take our place with the other Londoners fighting for a decent home. We will continue to fight… for all local authorities to bring a fresh urgency to the problem, never resting until property interests and the black market have been completely prevented from standing in the way of decent homes for London’s people.”

squattersMany of the squatters went to halfway houses and all were eventually rehoused. In the aftermath, there was much more movement by local authorities to house homeless families in requisitioned properties.

Those who were prosecuted for leading the action gave a very good account of themselves in court. They were convicted but merely bound over  to keep the peace for two years to a sum of £5 – a token gesture. Hopefully those deemed responsible by the Public Inquiry for the appalling outcome at Grenfell Tower will have the law falling upon them much, much more heavily.

Reasons to be Cheerful: part 3

Back in 1997 when Labour swept to power in a tidal wave of sentiment against Thatcher, its theme song was D: Ream’s “Things can only get better”. Of course they did, temporarily, and then Blair and his New Labour cronies took us steadily rightward, took the country into unjust and unnecessary wars, ignored the desire in the country for real and radical change, and, over time, threw away the several millions of votes Labour had gained.

THE-VERY-BEST-OF-IAN-DURY-AND-THE-BLOCKHEADS-REASONS-TO-BE-CHEERFULAfter last Thursday’s election, the song in my head is classic Ian Dury: “Reasons to be Cheerful: Part 3.” May said Corbyn would take us back to the 1970s. The song was released in 1979.  Parts 1 and 2 were clearly the two leadership elections Corbyn had to fight to establish himself as leader, and Part 3 was this incredible General Election we have just experienced. While the most ostrich-like commentators will try to pretend that Labour lost the election, they know the truth only too well.

This election was called opportunistically by a Tory PM who believed the lazy propaganda of the media commentariat (with the honorable exceptions of the Daily Mirror and the Morning Star) that there was a strong likelihood of a Tory-landslide that would humiliate Jeremy Corbyn and destroy the Labour Party; that May was a “credible leader” and Corbyn wasn’t; that the Conservatives were poised take seats where they hadn’t before in traditional Labour strongholds such as Wales.

The result was a net loss of 13 Tory seats, which meant they had completely squandered their parliamentary majority, and net gains by Labour of 30 seats, gaining in seats in Wales and also including several that would have simply been described as “impossible” never mind unlikely (think Kensington or Warwick Leamington). Labour gained 3 million more votes than its last effort just two years ago, and Jeremy Corbyn’s personal ratings have been shooting up. He calmly brushed aside every ridiculous smear that the Tories, the Blairite remnants, and the compliant media tried to throw at him, and they will have none left to offer next time around. Far from being humiliated, Corbyn is now secure and admired by a much wider spectrum of people. It is May who looks isolated, friendless and demoralised.

In the weeks leading up to Polling Day, I had the occasional wobble, including on election2605c6e63a3c06e3e7ea39f1dcd1c846 day itself, when I woke up and asked myself, “What if they are right? What if I am living in a left bubble?”. But despite everything I had read in mainstream media outlets, from Jonathan Freedland, Andrew Rawnsley, to Paul Dacre, during the campaign, a couple of weeks ago  I was confident enough that they had so seriously misjudged the real picture, that I put my money where my mouth is and placed a bet at 11/1 odds on a hung parliament. Labour under Corbyn and McDonnell are driven by a redistributive principle, and even before they have taken office it seems they have already helped me to redistribute some of William Hill’s excessive profiits.

The Tories are in crisis, with Theresa May just about clinging on. Back in 2010, Cameron could be a bit more choosy and take in Lib-Dems as his dupes to prop up his coalition. May has been forced to be less choosy. Her only option left was to call on the swivel-eyed loons (climate change-deniers, homophobes, creationists, fellow-travellers of Loyalist terrorism) of the DUP, for Christ’s sake, for a “confidence and supply” deal. The DUP will surely try to extract a price that will be unpalatable for significant numbers of Tories. Then what?

Boris Johnson claims he is 100% behind Theresa May. I’m sure he is (with a 6-inch steel bladed knife). Another  possible replacement, Amber Rudd, is effectively out of the contest after her own majority in her constituency was reduced from several thousands to a few hundred. Rudd only just survived this election – she knows she won’t survive the next. And while they are tearing bits out of each other, the clock is ticking for their EU negotiations. It’s not pretty. There are no strong and stable leaders in sight among the Tory ranks.

Labour, meanwhile, is bouyant. It has instantly gone up five points in polls taken since the election, while the Tories have dropped five, and the leaderless UKIP have enjoyed a slight recovery. The feelgood factor across the Labour Party is palpable. Labour has already recruited an astonishing 150,000 new members since the polls closed, and if it was people-power and the ability to mobilise armies of activists for canvassing in marginal areas that was so crucial to the result, Labour will have already enhanced its capacity to do that next time with even greater impact. All those young people who registered before the deadline, are now registered for the next election, which surely will not be more than six months to one year away. The party has an exciting new, popular, coherent and costed manifesto, which fundamentally breaks with the failed Blair agenda. It will not need much tweaking before the next election. And finally the simple figures in the results themselves reveal where the Tories’ most marginal constituencies are and where canvassing, public meetings and events should continue now. Just a very small swing will bring another 20 seats and Labour would have high hopes of  gaining in several others.
PROD-Labour-Leader-Jeremy-Corbyn-is-greeted-with-supporters-at-Colwyn-Bay-election-rally-last-day-of-ca
Make no mistake. This is a crisis, and a nightmare, not just for the Tories, but also for the Labour Right. More right-wing Labour MPs may have been elected, but they owe their majorities to Corbyn’s campaign, and the centre of gravity among the Party membership has shifted leftwards. Any actions of sabotage and serial disloyalty to the leadership this time round will surely merit re-selection procedures. They will have no desire to risk that when the Party is poised for power. Meanwhile Several centre-Left Labour MPs who had opposed Corbyn in the last two years are now openly and honestly acknowledging his achievements in this election, which further isolates the right. The old Chinese curse of living in interesting times is surely upon us. Theresa May and Tony Blair are running into the obscure wheat field of history, and we really do have many reasons to be cheerful.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Democracy must answer back to terror and Theresa May

A woman holds a placard as they take part in a vigil for the victims of an attack on concert goers at Manchester Arena, in central ManchesterIt was surely right to pause national election campaigning in the immediate aftermath of the horrific attack in Manchester. It gave us time to absorb and respect the incredible responses by ordinary people in Manchester as the tragedy unfolded, and to acknowledge the vital role of emergency services cut to the bone by Tory austerity policies. We have witnessed outstanding examples of solidarity and support. Full credit too to Jeremy Corbyn for his deeply humane public statements, which got a short-lived full airing by the media before they reduced them drastically to a single sentence.
Theresa May, who had looked so weak and distraught in the face of the press posse on the day of her u-turn on social care, did not miss a trick in hogging the limelight with confident, belligerent and unchallenged pronouncements in front of Downing Street about security and the national interest, while the Tory-supporting press had a campaign-free day to continue spreading their smears attempting to link Corbyn and McDonnell to terrorism.
As May unleashes a narrow and transparently militaristic response, with soldiers on the streets, she is simultaneously trying to suspend national campaigning until Sunday – in the middle of the Bank Holiday weekend (even though her canvassers were already back on the streets in some areas yesterday evening, including within Manchester itself).
The last thing she wants is Corbyn and his team continuing to address mass outdoor meetings reviving the themes that were biting so hard into the Tory polling lead last week. Nor would she want Labour to be able to amplify its critique, expressed early in the campaign, of the Tories’ hypocritical approach to national security, centred on an aggressive foreign policy, arms sales to murderous dictatorships and intimate friendship with Donald Trump. While she was talking about security, her new best friend was completing more arms sales and strengthening reactionary political alliances in Saudi Arabia and Israel.
If the Manchester outrage was an attack on democracy then democracy has to answer back, and Labour must revive its national campaign no later than tomorrow. If May is forced back on to the campaign trail, rather than being able to hold forth in front of Downing Street as a stateswoman, she will try to make the debate in the next few days all about terrorism. Labour has the arguments to deal with that, and then park it, as it returns to the themes the election is really all about – poverty, the NHS, education, housing, zero hours contracts, foodbank Britain, etc.
She had already tried earlier in the campaign to make the election solely about Brexit (aided and abetted by some sectarian sections of the left/anti-racist movement), but Corbyn’s team exposed and destroyed that cynical manoeuvre when they unleashed their brilliant and exciting manifesto, which took on the full range of failures of the Tory administrations since 2010, well before Brexit was even dreamed of.
Yesterday I was feeling sickened and numbed by the horrifying details of what occurred in Manchester, and also by the crashing halt to the momentum Labour built up last week. I felt despair about their prospects of reviving that campaign in the post-terror attack atmosphere, with a little over two weeks to polling day. I will leave it to the conspiracy theorists to speculate about this attack happening in the immediate aftermath of a full-blooded media assault alleging that Labour’s leaders were friendly to the IRA, in a city where a major IRA attack occurred back in the day, and to ask how much the security forces knew about the person identified by them as the perpetrator. We won’t know the truth of that for many years to come, if ever. But we cannot afford to dwell on that today. Our response has to be to seize the initiative once more and be out on the streets canvassing and campaigning on the real issues of this election. We know what they are.
people-power.jpg
And this morning I feel a little more positive having read that some 622,000 people registered to vote on the deadline day, 22 May. They included 246,000 in the 18-24 age bracket and 207,000 who were 25-34 year olds. A luta continua!

When the unjustly poor take on the unjustly rich

Just over a week into the General Election Campaign it has been the party leaders who have been grabbing most of the headlines: Theresa May with her defiant refusals to debate on television or take questions from the press or public, and her studied mantras about “strong and stable” government; Tim Farron, struggling with his own conscience as much as with his PR strategies as he tries to deal  with the question of whether a Liberal Democrat leader needs to be liberal enough to consider gay sex as something other than a sin; and Jeremy Corbyn, appearing remarkably upbeat and combative, despite 20 months of insults, smears and put-downs from political opponents, the media, and the disgruntled within his own party. Corbyn is clearly relishing the opportunity to take the campaign to the terrain of the streets and public spaces, where he feels at home, and was so successful during his Labour leadership battles.

_85510468_8a41d8d1-f479-4eda-a6f7-41552fbc136bBut there is another figure looming in the background who clearly resents the attention the leaders have been getting. He thinks he deserves to be in the headlines instead, and is trying to muscle in, with a little help from the media friends he cultivated so assiduously when he was in power. Tony Blair. He may, in name, be Labour still, and he assures us he will be voting Labour, but his message to Labour voters is to think carefully about the country and who they should vote for in order to strengthen opposition to the Tories’ hard Brexit. Yes, it might be their Labour candidate but it might just be a Tory or a Lib Dem Remainer instead.

To say his interventions have riled Labour campaigners going all out to reverse the torrent of negative opinion polls and anti-Labour headlines, is of course a great understatement. People are outraged as they recall how casually thousands of Labour members were suspended and denied the opportunity  of even voting in Labour leadership elections for as little as praising a statement or policy of a Green politician for example. Yet here, a prominent Labour figure who encourages Labour supporters to consider putting their vote elsewhere, remains untouched. He is feted by the sycophantic media who thrown open their columns for his “statesmanlike” words of “wisdom”.

This man whose achievements can actually be enumerated, grotesquely, in the mass corpses of Iraqi civilians, the size of his property empire,  the 4 million-plus Labour votes that he lost between 1997 and when he stood down, in the hundreds of thousands of pounds he demanded for giving a talk to an international hunger forum, is utterly, utterly, desperate for attention. And sadly our own side are providing some of that attention.

On social media, Labour members and supporters are being urged to sign petitions to expel Tony Blair. But that kind of response is exactly what he craves. He wants to distract you from Jeremy Corbyn’s and Labour’s popular, bold, well-targeted policies that are challenging people like him, challenging the rule of the establishment, the rich and powerful.

Back in the mid-1880s, the radical journalist Annie Besant lambasted the “present state of society, with its unjustly rich and its unjustly poor, with its palaces and its slums, with its millionaires and its paupers”. Look at the streets of our major cities in 2017, the foodbanks, the rough sleepers, the desperate individuals wandering around. It seems that we are returning closer and closer to the situation that Annie Besant described . But now, we finally have a party (albeit divided), with a combative leader who is serious about taking on that rigged system that diverts more and more wealth to those who already have too much.  Jeremy Corbyn, and those rallying around him, are deadly serious about radically transforming that reality if they get the chance to do so. No wonder the likes of Blair are worried, let alone May.

So my advice to fellow Labour members and supporters is simple: Ignore Tony Blair. Don’t bother with petitions asking Labour’s discredited Compliance Unit to expel him.
He may want to be the story. But this story needs to end. Don’t feed Blair’s ego. Starve it instead. Remember that when Maggie Thatcher was asked what her finest achievement was, she quipped: “Tony Blair”. Remember too that “Tony Blair PM” was always an anagram of “I’m Tory Plan B”. And it remains so. Concentrate your vital energy instead on fighting for every vote you can win for Labour, especially in the marginal seats.

This battle has only just begun.

 

 

Hero or villain? The Livingstone question

My favourite political image among the protests and street activism that has marked the first three months of 2017 is a banner held on the St Patrick’s Day parade. It proclaimed:”More Blacks! More dogs! More Irish!” – mocking the daily racism of the 1960s when people looking for homes were confronted by openly discriminatory window signs rejecting applicants from these categories. The first Race Relations Act of 1968 finally knocked that appalling behaviour on the head, but not the sentiments behind it. It took another 20 years of grassroots campaigns led by victims of racism, finally aided by another layer of government, to normalise anti-racism and explicitly promote multiculturalism.

58e42cc61500002000c7dfa7

GLC leader Ken Livingstone addressing  GLC London Against Racism rally 1984.

That layer of government was the Greater London Council (GLC). Under a visionary Left Labour leadership from 1981 it railed against continuing inequalities and discriminatory practices and the mindset supporting them – whether it was racist, sexist, homophobic or disablist. Through a generous grants programme it gave grassroots  campaigners including Caribbean, African, South Asian, Irish and Jewish groups, the resources to make their voices count. The GLC also brought those groups and campaigns together through its Ethnic Minorities Unit, whose activities dovetailed with those of the GLC’s Women’s Committee. These policies were denounced at the time as “loony left” by the right-wing press. Maggie Thatcher felt so threatened by this equalities agenda that she dictatorially closed down the GLC.

The imagination and determination to push this agenda through was rightly identified very strongly with the GLC’s leader – one Ken Livingstone. In place of the old paternalistic grants policy which mainly favoured rather conservative existing groups, the GLC under Livingstone developed a grassroots strategy whereby innovative groups without resources were encouraged to identify a need in London, make a plan for addressing it and ask the GLC to fund it.

I  was a beneficiary, appointed as sole worker for the Jewish Cultural and Anti-Racist Project, a Jewish Socialists’ Group initiative funded by the GLC.  Our two years of funding came to an end through Maggie’s act of destruction. But I remember a delicious moment one year in, when our project grant came up for renewal. Alongside other groups we were invited to the public gallery. Labour had a solid majority on the council, so at the meeting confirming renewal Ken Livingstone read through a list of groups that the grants committee had approved. The Tories could express their objection but they had no power to stop any of the approved grants going through. Most did so without objection but every so often – a lesbian project, or an Irish project –  the Tory would say “We object!”. Livingstone read out “Jewish Socialists’ Group” in a manner which suggested he enjoyed the particular combination of those words as much as we did. The Tory rose: “We object”. Livingstone retorted, smiling, “You don’t like the name!”

How can it be that three decades on, the person who played such a pivotal role in the fight for equality came within a hairsbreadth of expulsion by the Labour Party for bringing the party in to disrepute over the issue of anti-Jewish racism, having made dubious comments about Hitler and Zionism; and for defending another MP’s comments, which she herself apologised for, after she recognised they had crossed a line into antisemitism?

The knee-jerk reaction of many left wingers, tired of cynical, manufactured and distorted accusations of antisemitism was to leap to his defence,  Others who harboured doubts about the veracity of Livingstone’s comments and his tact were more reticent. He claimed that the real reasons he was threatened with expulsion were his support for Palestine and for Jeremy Corbyn.  As someone who admired his earlier work, I’m not convinced. I believe that his controversial and completely unnecessary intervention – based on a very poor quality source – undermined Jeremy Corbyn and was detrimental to the Palestinian cause. It was also a free gift to right wingers in both the Labour and Conservative parties, and to pro-Zionist and pro-Conservative elements in the Jewish community determined to do Labour and Corbyn down.

They have been having a field day denouncing Labour for not expelling him, claiming that it proves that the Labour Party is not serious about tackling antisemitism, that the Jewish community has been let down by Labour’s disciplinary process and so on. Why pro-Conservative elements such as Jewish Board of Deputies president Jonathan Arkush, who rushed to congratulate Trump on winning the US election, or Chief Rabbi Mirvis who penned a vicious attack on Labour on the front page of the Daily Telegraph the day before London’s mayoral election while saying nothing about the Tories openly Islamopbhobic campaign against Sadiq Khan, feel they have the right to comment on Labour’s internal disciplinary processes is beyond me.

The bad blood between Livingstone  and self-proclaimed Jewish leaders, however, goes back a long way. It is nothing to do with Israel/Palestine or Nazis, and it shows those “leaders” in a poor light. I will say more on that further down.

But those of us in the left and centre left of the Labour Party, who certainly do have the right to comment on those procedures, have every reason to be cynical about those individuals put in place under Tony Blair who still dominate the bodies enacting these disciplinary  procedures. While they act against loose cannons such as Livingstone, who unfortunately has form when it comes to speaking first and engaging his brain second, they completely ignore the daily acts of Labour right-wingers, which bring the party into disrepute and harm its electoral chances. I am talking here of the likes of tblair_mandelson_36092bMandelson, Blair, Wes Streeting, Michael Dugher and Ruth Smeeth, who deliberately and repeatedly insult, demean and seek to undermine a Labour leader overwhelmingly elected twice to lead the party by its members. And they often take to the columns of the anti-Labour right-wing press to do so. They are surely the people who deserve to be at the front of any queue of those who might be legitimately charged with bringing the party into disrepute. In that context I am glad Livingstone was not expelled. And, indeed, rather than suspend him for a further year, maybe, as other Jewish left-wingers have suggested, he should be challenged to go for a year without mentioning Hitler.

But what is the real story with Livingstone and the Jewish community? What are the merits of what he has said, and the “academic” source he based them on? Did the timing of his intervention help or undermine Jeremy Corbyn at a time when Labour was being assailed with charges of antisemitism? Has it helped or hindered the Palestinian cause?

Livingstone took power in the GLC in 1981 at the same time as the Jewish Board of Deputies (BoD) was increasingly falling in with Thatcher’s government and its reactionary norms. Thatcher  was extremely hostile to the GLC’s anti-racist agenda. Nevertheless the BoD initially co-operated with the GLC’s Ethnic Minorities Unit.

As Livingstone democratised and revolutionised the GLC’s grants procedures, a range of  politically independent groups among both secular and religious Jews, including dissident and marginalised groups, applied for funding for their projects. The BoD, which saw itself as the sole legitimate political representative of Jews in Britain, wrote to Livingstone insisting on its right to vet any applications to the GLC for funding by Jewish groups. Livingstone quite rightly refused, on democratic grounds, and was never forgiven. As well as being involved with the Jewish Socialists’ Group’s (JSG) application, I was also part of a small group of four people called the Jewish Employment Action Group, which was taking up cases of antisemitism in the workplace. One of the four was a maverick member of the Board of Deputies. We asked for and received a grant of £220 (that’s all!). That maverick BoD member was hauled over the coals by the BoD’s paranoid leaders. Whenever the BoD got a hint that a particular Jewish group was applying for funds, it sent in unsolicited “references” to try to dissuade Livingstone’s GLC from funding them. I was shown the unsolicited “reference ” on the JSG, by the Grants Officer dealing with our application. It was a filthy document, full of lies and unfounded smears and allegations linking us to organisations described as “terrorist”. Fortunately the GLC disregarded it, but it revealed the BoD’s methods.

In 1983 the Board suspended its participation in the work of the GLC’s Ethnic Minorities Unit, an entity  that was developing an imaginative, inclusive agenda for tackling all forms of racism in London and actively promoting multiculturalism. I have a leaked copy of the internal minutes from the BoD’s Defence Committee which agreed this action. It sets out five charges against the GLC, listed a to e, including: “The use of County Hall by pro-PLO factions and by terrorist representative groups”.

10

Avnery and Sartawi at GLC County Hall

In 1983 the GLC’s County Hall had indeed hosted the first public meeting in Britain in which an Israeli peace activist, Uri Avnery, shared a platform with a leading PLO representative, Issam Sartawi. I was among the organisers of the meeting. Also in the early 1980s the GLC hosted Sinn Fein members accused of direct links withe IRA.

However the leaked minutes explained that the BoD’s decision to break off relations  with the GLC Ethnic Minorities Unit was taken because of (e), “a grant to the Jewish Socialists’ Group, against the advice of the Board”.

Following the initial skirmishes which were about the GLC being able to function democratically without unwanted and unwarranted interference for the BoD, there were further clashes which related also to pro-Palestinian comments that Livingstone made in the aftermath of the Lebanon war of 1982.

In that period, Livingstone was guilty of a misdemeanour which does link directly to much more recent controversies. He was one of the editors of a left-wing newspaper called Labour Herald which published very crude denunciations of Israel and cartoons of its very right-wing Prime Minister Menachem Begin dressed in Nazi uniform, which drew accusations of antisemitism.  It also carried a review by one Harry Mullin of three publications alleging Zionist-Nazi collaboration. This review crossed a line from anti-Zionism to antisemitism. I was co-writer of a letter from the JSG, showing how this line had been crossed, and how it also served to diminish Nazi responsiblity for the Holocaust. Our letter demanded an apology from Labour Herald for publishing this review. The letter was published but no apology was made. In a private letter Livingstone remarked that Harry Mullin was a respected labour movement writer. It was no great surprise to me to learn that a few years down the line Harry Mullin had found his more natural home in the fascist British National Party, through which he increasingly peddled Holocaust denial. Perhaps this was an early hint of – at best – Livingstone’s lack of sophisticated judgement in this area.

tuesda366

Lenni Brenner

During the recent controversy, when Livingstone was pressed for the source of his claims that Hitler “was supporting Zionism… before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews”, he told the Evening Standard, “Everything I said… was true and I will be presenting the academic book about that to the Labour Party inquiry.”. That “academic” source was Zionism in the Age of the Dictators, written in the early 1980s by Lenni Brenner, an American freelance journalist.  Brenner’s book reads much more like tabloid journalism than any serious academic study. It makes crude allegations of Zionist-Nazi collaboration, treats the actions of some Zionists as representing all Zionists, and utterly distorts the power relations between Zionists and Nazis.

In truth, there were attempts by some Jews in Germany to make deals with the Nazi dictatorship that was hostile and repressive towards all Jews. In Germany’s case these were Zionists (an ideological minority among German Jews), who were criticised by other Zionists and other Jews for doing so. Further attempts to make deals with Nazi rulers were made by some Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe, but these attempts do not break down on simple Zionist/anti-Zionist lines. Some bourgeois Jews who were not Zionists also attempted to extract concessions from their oppressors, to save some lives through such deals. On the other hand, many left-wing Zionists participated in the anti-Nazi resistance, especially in the ghettoes. But, whatever deals were attempted in Germany after Hitler came to power, Hitler had already made crystal clear his absolutely poisonous hatred towards all Jews when he published Mein Kampf in 1925, and a second edition in 1926.

When Lenni Brenner came to London in 1983/84 to promote his book the Jewish Socialists’ Group was unimpressed with the publicity but nevertheless invited him to speak to one of our meetings about it. He was terrible. He gave an extremely crude analysis which tried to make facts fit very thin pre-ordained theories. When he was challenged on his “analysis” he reacted with aggression. When audience members argued that his comments were antisemitic he flew into a further rage and told us that he could not be racist or antisemitic because his wife was Black. That, I’m afraid, is the calibre of Livingstone’s prime source.

Of course, if you do serious research you can find many examples that would show that in terms of combating antisemitism and fascism, whether in Germany or, for example, in Poland Europe’s largest Jewish community pre-war, the 1930s and ’40s were not Zionism’s finest hour. And the willingness of Zionists to seek cooperation with the most reactionary regimes towards its goals has a long pedigree that stretches as far back as Theodor Herzl’s meeting with Plehve, a minister in Tsarist Russia, a representative of the murderous oppressors of Jews, radicals and revolutionaries.  Herzl promised  Plehve, on no authority at all, that Jewish radicals and revolutionaries would cease their struggles against Tsarism for 15 years if he would give a charter for Palestine. Nothing came of it, but not for want of trying.

However, this whole effort to try to find evidence of Zionists behaving badly in the 1930s in order to expose the way Zionism behaves today, is such a poor way of supporting the Palestinians and their just demands. It rests on too many crude generalisations. You do not have to go back to Hitler and the 1930s in order to expose and challenge the oppression of Palestinians by Zionist ideology and practice today. As Shami Chakrabarti rightly pointed out in her report, from the Inquiry that followed in the weeks after Livingstone’s remarks, critics of Israeli policy could “use the modern universal language of human rights, be it of dispossession, discrimination, segregation, occupation, persecution and … leave Hitler, the Nazis and the Holocaust out of it”. I agree with her wholeheartedly. The case against Israel’s occupation and ill-treatment of the Palestinians is unanswerable. Trying to base that case on what some Zionists did in Germany in the 1930s will always end up diverting the argument towards accusations of antisemitism, and ultimately lets both the Israeli government and the Zionist movement in 2017 off the hook.

nazshah

Bradford MP Naz Shah

Livingstone was also apprehended for his defence of tweets made by Bradford Labour MP Naz Shah, which were considered by Jewish “leaders” such as  the BoD as offensive. The BoD  apparently believes it has the sole right to define, on behalf of the community, what is offensive to all Jews. It does not have that right. One of Shah’s tweets recycled an innocuous old joke suggesting that Israel should solve its problems by relocating to America. It pokes fun at the mutually sycophantic relationship between Israeli and American governments over the last few decades in which Israel has served the interests of that superpower very well.  My friend, the Jewish comedian Ivor Dembina, pokes fun similarly when he says in his shows, “I think Israel should give back the Occupied territories… but keep New York!” That is edgy but not antisemitic.

The only actually offensive, indeed antisemitic, tweet by Shah was in relation to an online poll regarding Israel’s war on Gaza in 2014, when she tweeted that “the Jews are rallying”. Not “Zionists”, not “supporters of Israel”, but “Jews”. That is antisemitic, and she rightly apologised.

The day after she did so, Ken Livingstone appeared on Vanessa Feltz’s  radio show, of his own volition, to discuss this matter. The timing is crucial and tells us much again about Livingstone’s lack of judgment and his apparent desire for notoriety, whatever the cost to those whose causes he claims to be promoting. The London mayoral elections were approaching and the Tories were running an Islamophobic campaign against Sadiq Khan. If  Livingstone had had the nous, he would have simply noted Shah’s acknowledgement that she had crossed a line into antisemitism, welcomed her apology and then used all the weight of his background in anti-racism in London to utterly condemn the Tories for their thoroughly racist campaign against Khan. That could,  and should, have been the story. Instead he tried to excuse Shah’s tweets as “completely over the top but … not antisemitic”. Immediately after this came his infamous remarks about Hitler and Zionism.

Livingstone’s claims that he is being targeted partly because he supports Jeremy Corbyn don’t stack up well. Corbyn was under massive pressure on this issue from an unholy alliance of Blairites, the mainstream media, Jewish community “leaders” and Tories. A spokesperson for Corbyn had already welcomed Shah’s apology. Livingstone’s intervention further undermined Corbyn. And some who know him well have suggested that this was deliberate – whether for reasons of jealousy or some petty sectarianism.

I do not believe Livingstone is antisemitic. Nor do I believe that right-wing Jews whom the media treats as spokespersons have any right to define what is offensive to all Jews. I respect the integrity of the longstanding socialist and Labour Jewish activists who gave supportive testimony at Livingstone’s hearing, several of whom I know personally. However  I do believe that Livingstone deliberately invites controversy and notoriety, that his judgement on these issues is very poor, that he has set back the Palestinian cause by his utterances, and made life more difficult for the embattled left-wing Labour leadership.

I hope that those of us fighting for justice for the Palestinians, fighting racism in all its forms, including antisemitism, and fighting to strengthen Labour’s progressive leadership will reflect on this episode and ensure that we are directing our fire on our enemies in ways that are both principled and effective.

A warrior who brought solidarity and hope

Mary Wollstonecraft, Annie Besant, Emily Wilding Davison, the Pankhursts – these are the names  that spring to mind when you think about those who put women’s rights to equality on the map in Britain. Alongside them it was collective movements of striking workers, whether matchwomen at Bryant and May’s factory in the 1880s, or sewing machinists at Ford’s in  Dagenham in the 1960s, or South Asian immigrant workers picketing Grunwick’s  in the  1970s, who were surely in the front line of women’s fight for equality  in Britain.

IMG_1468.jpgNo doubt there are many other names to add, but, as we celebrate International Women’s Day this year, we should be glad that one unsung heroine is finally getting recognised. Her name is Mary Macarthur. She features in Chapter 9 of my book Rebel Footprints, and turns up every so often in adult education classes I teach on London’s radical history.  To most people, including  social justice activists today, she remains an unknown or obscure figure. This afternoon I was privileged to be present as an English Heritage blue plaque was unveiled on her home in Woodstock Road, Golders Green, where she lived at the height of her involvement in struggles for equality and justice.

She was born in 1880 to a middle class Glaswegian family, running a successful drapery business.  Her parents were Conservatives. And so was she. In her late teens, after the family moved to Ayr, she joined the party’s  Primrose League. Working as a bookkeeper in the family business she became keen on journalism too.  It was when she went to cover a meeting of shop assistants in Ayr, addressed by socialists and trade unionists, that she came face to face with stories of  misery and  exploitation of workers, especially  women, in the workplace. She rebelled against the family’s political tradition and within months  she was the secretary of the Ayr branch of that self-same union.  By her mid 20s she was living in London and forming an organisation – the National Federation of Women Workers (NFWW) –  that was to change the lives of so many women over a relatively short period.

_94950567_mediaitem94950564At the turn of the 20th century, many men were suspicious and fearful of women workers. They saw them as rivals who would undercut men’s wages, and then, having done so, go off and have babies. In many mixed workplaces men refused to let women join the unions. which is where Mary Macarthur’s organisation came in. There was already a Women’s Trade Union League through which Mary was starting to organise all-women workplaces, but the NFWW went further. It was a general union that all working women could join, but it specifically targeted workplaces in which men were keeping women out of the union. Mary  began to pressurise employers to recognise women’s demands through the NFWW. Around the same time she helped found the Anti-Sweating League which exposed the scandalous situation of many women, suffering appalling working conditions characterised by casualisation, piece-work, long hours, low pay and a hazardous working environment.

She involved herself in the  national political scene too through another body –  the Independent Labour Party (ILP). You might have anticipated I would  to say “suffragettes” there, but like other pioneering women trade unionist activists, she was suspicious of the likes of Emmeline Pankhurst, who contradicted the suffragettes own slogan “Votes for Women” by adding the small print, “on the same basis as men”. At this stage only 60% of men had the vote – on a property basis. A similar enfranchisement of women would  add many middle and upper-class  women, and just a proportion of working class women, to the voting register. The majority of new voters  were more likely to vote Conservative. And Mary and close colleagues feared that enfanchising more Conservatives would act as a permanent barrier to a wider enfranchisement of working class women – and men. Mary’s own involvement with the suffrage campaigns was with those sections that stood for universal suffrage from the start. It was all or nothing.

It was her crucial organising role in a strike by chain-makers in Cradley Heath, Staffordshire, that brought Mary Macarthur to prominence at the time. In a bitter 10-week strike, in which she showed her tenacity, her determination, and her ability to communicate the strikers’ message to the wider public, she won a fair and guaranteed minimum wage for employees previously on piece-work. The wider community support she and colleagues had built meant that at the end of the strike there was a considerable surplus in the strike fund.  This was used to create a local Workers’ Institute.

In my book I focus especially on Mary’s outstanding role a year later among thousands of super-exploited women workers in Bermondsey’s  food processing factories. Over the course of two days in the summer of 1911, some 14,000 women in 21 factories rose up against their employers and joined a spontaneous strike. Their demands were clear but short on detail, as one striker famously told a reporter who enquired: “We are striking for pay Mister, and we won’t go in till we get it.”

pinksstrike

Strikers outside Pink’s jam factory

On the second day of the strike Mary Macarthur, descended on Bermondsey to support the striking women. She commandeered the  Labour Institute recently acquired by the local ILP branch and converted it into an organising and distribution centre for the strike. Donations of food came in and went out again together with strike pay to the women defying their employers. Together with the women’s representatives she planned the next steps to publicise their demands more widely and win.

Over the space of two weeks, striking women won better conditions in 18 of the 21 factories. In the three where they failed, the workers lost their nerve, worried that if they stayed out on strike they might find there was no job to  return to. Mary felt that had they stayed out a little longer they could have won there as well. But overall it was a remarkable success, and meant that several thousands of pounds of company profits would be redistributed to the women in the coming year. This meant that they could look after their families a little more comfortably and even buy the occasional piece of new clothing. Over that two weeks, around half of the women who were striking joined the NFWW. They were putting in place more permanent structures should they need to negotiate over their conditions at a future date.

For Mary Macarthur the victory was about something even more valuable than the material gain. The women she said had acquired “… a new sense of self-reliance, solidarity and comradeship… making it certain that whatever the dangers and difficulties of the future they will never again be… without hope.”

For Mary personally, the next few years were years of hope, happiness, hardship and tragedy. She married a highly respected fellow member of the Independent Labour Party , William Anderson, who stood for and won a parliamentary seat in Sheffield. But their first child was stillborn. Through the First World War, Mary organised women into the NFWW, as women eventually claimed many roles vacated by male factory workers conscripted for war. She fought with employers for equal, or at least more pay and won some battles, but as ILP members and pacifists, she and William felt the pain of a war that saw workers across Europe murdering each other in a scramble for empire and markets by those who were not workers and did not have workers’ interests at heart. Mary and William  had another child called Nancy in 1915. This child survived.

In the General Election shortly after the war, Mary also stood as a Labour candidate but all known pacifists fared badly in the immediate and temporarily euphoric post-war phase. Then in peacetime, shortly afterwards, her husband William died, struck down by the wave of influenza sweeping across Britain and other parts of Europe. In 1920 Mary herself, just 40 years old, was told that she was suffering from an aggressive cancer. She died in 1921 having achieved much  but undoubtedly she had so much more to offer to the causes of women, trade unionism and socialism.

IMG_1484.jpg

Family members of Mary Macarthur and William Anderson

At the unveiling this afternoon there were moving tributes from James, a grandson she never knew, and members of the TUC Women’s Committee, one of whom described Mary as “a warrior of the class struggle”.

Nancy was orphaned but well looked after by friends, an extended family, and a new legal guardian, staying in the home where she was born, where the plaque was unveiled today. Nancy’s son, James – Mary’s grandson – recalled Mary Macarthur as a courageous and determined trade union fighter and also told us much about Nancy, his mother. Several members of James’ family and William Anderson’s family had travelled there for the unveiling. A leading sister of the movement was at last recognised for her great achievements. Let’s follow her example and take the fight for women’s rights and for socialism to the enemies of both.NFWW_eastend

Mythbusting in Copeland: what the “Quality Press” will not tell you

The narrative around Labour’s defeat in the democratic process at Copeland was written well before the day of the vote by those who have a determination to undo the democratic election and re-election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party. It was scripted by editors across much of the mainstream media, with a supporting role being played by Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson and not least by Jamie Reed, the former Labour member for Copeland.  Having overseen a very significant drop in support for himself as the Labour incumbent in Copeland from the 2005 election to the one in 2015, he no doubt added to the cynicism of frustrated long-term supporters of Labour by abandoning his commitment to the constituency in difficult times and swanning off to a lucrative job within the Sellafield plant. Of course he also had an eye for the main chance as he knew – and this gets remarkably few mentions in the media – that the Copeland constituency is due to disappear in the proposed boundary changes before 2020.

But perhaps the main piece of mythbusting that needs to be brought into the open, and please don’t hold your breath waiting for the media to tell you this, is that the combined right wing anti-Labour vote went DOWN in the 2017 by-election that we have just witnessed. Yes, that by-election being hailed as such an historic, extraordinary victory for the Tories.

How so? The statistics are not difficult to find.

In 2010, the Labour vote, with Jamie Reed as the victorious MP dropped to 46%. The combined Tory/UKIP/BNP vote was 42.7%. So in simple Left versus Right terms this seat was already marginal seven years ago. The Lib-Dems, who did not fit so simply and easily into the Left/Right line, scored 10.2% and then took even many of their own supporters by surprise when they decided at a national level to go into coalition with the Tories. That is not what many Lib-Dems were voting for.

In 2015, Jamie Reed’s Labour vote dropped to 42.3%. Although he won the seat, his vote was easily outstripped by the combined right wing vote of 51.3% (Tories 35.8%; UKIP 15.5%). Meanwhile the Lib-Dem vote collapsed. Never mind marginal, the right wing already had the upper hand here by 2015.

In the by-election we have just endured, the Labour vote went down further, to 37.3 %, a process assisted by the intervention of Blair and Mandelson, but also by the selection of an uninspiring, media-averse candidate from the right of the party  who could not convincingly argue a radical alternative to the Tories. A more dynamic and inspiring local activist, who has worked particularly hard against homelessness, failed to win the local candidacy decided by the old guard, I suspect with encouragement from the national Labour hierarchy that has been working so hard to undermine Corbyn.

But what happened to the right wing vote? It DROPPED to 50.8%. But the re-alignment of votes within the right, with a fair degree of tactical voting I’m sure, saw the UKIP vote drop by 9% and the Tory vote rise by 8.5%. The relative revival of the Lib-Dems made it harder for Labour as well.

The statistics are troublesome aren’t they? They actually don’t support the theory of an anti-Labour avalanche because of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, but why let mere statistics get in the way of such a narrative? Oh, and decent result for Labour in Stoke by the way.
fact-vs-crap

Solidarity is not just for Christmas

Who would choose to trek to a public meeting  on a Saturday afternoon between Christmas and New Year? A few hardened militants perhaps. Or maybe a few meeting junkies who turn up to everything and have no social life. On this day, 28th December, in 1889, the Eastern Post reported that “Some 2,800 were present” at a meeting held at the Great Assembly Hall on the Mile End Road in London’s East End. They were there to try to cement the dramatic workplace victories that occurred in the summer and autumn of that year, by creating a “Federation of East London Unions”.

The poster advertising the event is a fascinating document in itself, and touches on very current arguments about labour issues that have embroiled figures such as Andy Burnham, Diane Abbott and Len McCluskey among others.

massmeeting
The three rows of speaker names beneath the Chair – Charles V Adams – include the legendary union leaders and activists, Ben Tillett and Tom Mann, who had led the successful strike that year for the “dockers’ tanner”, and popularised the “new unionism”. Also listed is the anarchist-communist Charles Mowbray – who railed against slum landlords as well as factory bosses, – and other trade unionists sporting English, Scottish and Welsh names. The four rows of speakers advertised immediately below them sound more “foreign”: Weinberg, Feigenbaum, Goldstone, Goldstein, Sebersky, Rosenberg… (as a Rosenberg myself, I’m pleased to see one among them.)

These were Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigrant activists, part of the wave of migration by pauperised Jews leaving the Tsarist Russian Empire, mainly after 1881, fleeing from persecution and discrimination but also seeking better economic opportunities. Today’s right wing press draws a simple line separating refugees from economic migrants (though it rails against both), but in the face of pogroms as well as economic discrimination, no such simple line could be drawn then. The Eastern Post report of the meeting added that “speeches were made in different languages and translated.”

The well-known phrase, “Workers of the World Unite” that regularly adorned leaflets and banners of this period, appears below the list of speakers. In this case though it expressed the very essence of the venture being undertaken. Workers – migrants, children of migrants and those who could trace their families several generations back to the local area, (“indigenous”) – were uniting across barriers of ethnicity, language, culture and country of origin, for mutual benefit.

The bottom section of the poster reiterated the main details of when and where the meeting would take place in Yiddish, the mame loshn (mother tongue) of many who were invited to atttend. This initiative was driven by a militantYiddish-speaking immigrant  called William (Woolf) Wess. A shoemaker at twelve, he worked as a machinist in Dvinsk (Latvia) before arriving in London aged 20 in 1881. He came with  some already formed socialist ideas, which matured through involvement with the likes of William Morris and Eleanor Marx in the Socialist League, and Freedom, “a journal of anarchist-socialism”.

img_2700Wess and his comrades laid the foundations for activism among sweated immigrant workers by forming unions and establishing an International Workers’ Education Club in Berner Street (later renamed Henriques Street), committed to the “social and political enlightenment of its members”. It provided a venue for shnayders (tailors), shusters (shoemakers) and stolyers (cabinet makers) – the main jobs the immigrant workers did – to eat, drink, read newspapers, play chess and share workplace experiences after long days in the sweatshops and factories.

The club also had a printing press, churning out leaflets, manifestos and a 12-page weekly newspaper, the Arbayter Fraynd (Workers’ friend), which reduced to four pages and came out daily as a bulletin during significant strikes. It was the wave of strikes and militancy in East London from the summer of 1888 through 1889 that this meeting was building on. Karl Marx’s collaborator and sponsor, Friedrich Engels, had been much more pessimistic in a letter of April 1888 to the writer Margaret Harkness, in which he stated: “Nowhere else in the civilized world are the people less actively resistant, more passively submitting to their fate than in the East End of London.” But by the time this meeting took place, women of the Bryant and May match factory had defiantly stood up for their rights winning better conditions and an end to a petty system of fines that regularly stole money from already thin wage packets; gasworkers at Beckton, near West Ham had become the first workers in and around London to achieve the 8-hour day; The dockers had won their tanner and the longer call-on shifts they were demanding and, with the help of a very timely donation from the strike committee of the very same dockers, when their strike fund almost reached rock bottom, more than 7,000 immigrant Jewish tailors had won a 12-hour day instead of a 14-18 hour day.

If Engels was wrong in his forecast, it was George Lansbury who later wrote about the key role that migrant labour, especially from Jewish and Irish communities, had played in awakening inspiring and mobilising successful workers struggles in the East End. The federation formed in the East End that night helped institutionalise the solidarity that improved conditions for all. These strikes and campaigns were also marked by community support beyond the workplace, public meetings in indoor and outdoor venues, petitions and marches, donations of food for striking workers and their families, and rent strikes, in the dockers’ case mainly led by women, who hung notices around their estates saying “As we are on strike landlords need not call”. But the key feature was a sentiment expressed by Charles Adams, the chair of the meeting on 28 December 1889, who had been tasked by his union, the Alliance Cabinet Makers’ Association, with organising Jewish immigrant carpenters. He told the meeting that,  “…if ever labour is to rise successfully… it must rise as a whole… This new organisation must be composed of people of all creeds and of all nations”, and never let employers “exploit one against the other”.

apostle-ben-tillettThe dockers leader, Ben Tillett, had a well-documented reputation as a xenophobe, and once told a gathering of Jewish migrant workers: “You are our brothers and we will do our duty by you, but we wish you had not come.” He and some of his colleagues expressed concerns that a constant flow of new migrants willing to work long hours for low pay would undermine the conditions won through struggle by trade unions. In the 1890s the TUC called for immigration control. But in practice Tillett saw the solutions in unionising  migrant workers and forming joint struggles. Many of the dockers were in fact of Irish heritage, as was Tillett himself.

In 2009, under economic pressures Gordon Brown mouthed the longstanding call of narrow nationalists, usually associated with the Far Right when he advocated “British jobs for British workers”. While Diane Abbott and Jeremy Corbyn have continued to defend freedom of movement for all workers, in the wake of the EU referendum, Andy Burnham signalled his retreat from this, saying: “There is a feeling the political class hasn’t taken concerns about… immigration seriously and acted on them”, adding more recently, “We need a system that affords greater control. That allows us to bring people to work here and contribute to our economy and society, but also deals with the negative effects of full free movement.”

Unite’s General Secretary Len McCluskey, who has long been active in the fight against racism and fascism, and has spoken up for refugee rights, was criticised by some on the left recently when he appeared at first to be conceding on the freedom of movement argument. But he later revealed his more nuanced position when pressed, that was about trade unions, not border officers, exercising control, or as he prefers to put it, placing “safeguards”. While reiterating his full commitment to refugee rights, he proposes that “any employer wishing to recruit labour abroad can only do so if they are either covered by a proper trade union agreement, or by sectoral collective bargaining.” He argues that this would provide “every worker, wherever they are from, with a decent job and every family with a decent home.” He added that “unions here need to unite with trade unions in other countries to put an end to the playing off of workers in one part of the world against each other, to oppose the power of global capital with the power of a renewed international labour movement… The problem is not cheap labour in Britain – it’s cheap labour anywhere.”

As we move closer to Brexit, and the struggles by the Labour Party and labour movement intensify to defend all workers rights in whatever settlement is achieved, it is important that we recognise the gains made recently through struggle by impoverished migrant workers, such as cleaning workers, and that we remember the gains that were made in the late 19th century for all, when workers already here and migrant workers who had recently arrived  were part of one common struggle. We need to draw on the internationalist spirit that typified that public meeting on this day in 1889 if we are to successfully combine workers’ struggles and anti-racist struggles in 2017.