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.
But 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.
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.
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, 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 Mandelson, 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”.
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 from 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.
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 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. It 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.
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.
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.
No 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.
At 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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
Wess 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”.
The 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.
Last night’s NHS rally at the Emmanuel Centre in Westminster had one incredibly powerful moment. It was when the chair, Tracy Brabin, the new MP for Batley and Spen, called the fifth out of six excellent platform speakers to the rostrum. She was an older woman called Aneira Thomas, and if her first name is an unfamiliar one, well, she was named after a man – Aneurin Bevan – the founder of Britain’s National Health Service in July 1948. And Aneira was the first baby welcomed into the world by that Health Service at 12.01am, on the day the NHS was born.
She exudes warmth and commitment to the causes she believes in, and her top priority is the NHS. She spent a lifetime working as a mental health nurse. When she spoke with such passion I melted, and I am sure others around me felt the same emotions. Many in the room gave her a standing ovation. I don’t know if the moment was captured on the News last night, but if the media posse, out in such force for Peter Tatchell’s stunt a few days ago, were there, they were pretty well hidden.
There were many very good aspects to the rally beyond Aneira’s exceptional contribution. Alongside Tracy Brabin, there were three MPs. The first to speak was Sarah Champion, Shadow Minister for Women’s Equality, who set out very clearly the negative impact that cuts to health and social care were having on women of different generations, forcing many to give up work to take on caring roles. Shadow Health Secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, who represents Leicester South, but comes from further north, had strong words for UKIP’s great white hope Paul Nuttall – proud to be a working class northerner, and proud also to be an NHS privatiser given half a chance. Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, gave a storming speech – which tore into the Conservatives’ agenda of selling off the health service, placed the life and death cuts being made to it alongside the huge handouts for the Tories’ mates through cuts to Corporation Tax, and argued forcefully that health care was not a privilege but a right. For everyone in Britain.
Alongside the national politicians, was the Labour leader of Greenwich Council, Denise Hyland who described how the cuts played out at local level, and Eleanor Smith a theatre nurse at Birmingham’s Women’s hospital, and the first black woman to be president of UNISON, reporting from the front line, where she has been for the last 39 years.
The event was slickly presented – music in the room before and after, a short powerful set of images on a screen before the speakers appeared representing Labour’s achievements in recent decades. The unity of purpose among the speakers was abundantly clear. The warmth and mutual appreciation between Jeremy Corbyn and his fellow MPs on the platform, despite the strained relationships in the PLP, constantly highlighted by the mainstream media, shone through. And yet there were also missed opportunities.
A wise fellow socialist , sadly no longer with us, always told me that when you look at government spending on education and health, don’t fix your gaze only on where the money goes in but check where it comes out too. One of the scandals of the health service inTory hands is the huge profits made by the pharmaceutical industry. One Big Pharma company , Pfizer (yes, the one Owen Smith used to work for), has just been caught out, and fined £84.2m for overcharging the NHS. They are the tip of the iceberg, but none of the speakers mentioned the pharmaceutical industry, or asked who they will pay the fine to (government or NHS?), or said how Labour might regulate these profiteers.
And while Jeremy Corbyn was absolutely right to highlight the obscenity of cuts to corporation tax, he and other speakers could have spelt out precisely what the government is choosing to spend money on. For example, the £369m project to refurbish Buckingham Palace. These are arguments that activists need to be armed with.
The biggest omission, though, was in relation to UKIP. Jonathan Ashworth presented half the argument here, exposing UKIP’s pretence at standing up for working people when they want to dismantle the NHS and sell it to private capitalists, yet it is the very service that working class people most need to be able to depend upon.
But UKIP’s key message to working class people at the moment has a different emphasis. it is to encourage them to blame immigrants and refugees for the difficulties they encounter. They are ramping up racism against a range of targets, thinking this will play out well among struggling working class people. While some in the Labour Party are buckling, Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbott, in particular, have made strong statements against racism, and in defence of free movment, and the contribution migrants make.
This could and should have been reiterated powerfully last night in the context of defending the NHS. The NHS is our strongest example of the benefits of immigration, as a service that so many migrants, from the Windrush generation on, have dedicated their working lives to for the benefit of all. When racists moan that migrants are affecting the health service, we can say with confidence “Yes they do, they make it work!”
Over all, the rally last night gave me hope that Labour can fight back against the Tories, after a gruelling year, because it has the basic arguments that the bulk of the people can identify with. We must strengthen these arguments, wherever and whenever we can, by joining the dots together, to undermine Tory hypocrisy and waste, and expose UKIP’s shallow opportunism.
“The great industries and the skilled workmen who should have been our national pride are today …. submerged in poverty and despair. It will be our job… to enlist them in fighting the battle of the whole British people. Real patriotism: care and respect for every fellow citizen…a nation of Britons fighting for Britain. This is the hope… ”
That was Paul Nuttall, the newly crowned leader of UKIP. Well, OK, it wasn’t actually Nuttall, but it may as well have been. In truth it was John Beckett, a senior figure in Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, writing on 13 March 1936. He was introducing a significant change in their party’s orientation.
From its inception in January 1933, the Fascists’ weekly newspaper, Blackshirt, had carried a motto underneath its masthead: “Britain First”, which emphasised its cross-class, aggressively nationalist appeal. The following week’s newspaper, Beckett announced, would be larger – and it would be “a paper for the masses.” He didn’t mention changing the motto but, from the next issue, the “Britain First” motto was ditched for one that illustrated much more clearly which section of the population they were particularly targeting and claiming to represent. The new motto was: “The Patriotic Workers’ Paper”. Over the next weeks and months the fascists were growing again – especially in depressed working class areas such as London’s East End and parts of Yorkshire and Lancashire.
UKIP never worried me too much under the leadership of Nigel Farage. He was an “ex-banker” who had made a fortune in the City, while hypocritically claiming to be “anti-establishment”, pretending to stand up for the “little man” against government bureaucracies and faceless corporate interests, dominating their lives. His anti-Europe nationalism could attract a certain kind of protest vote, – and UKIP amassed almost 4 million votes in the last General Election – but mostly in safe Tory seats. If they were a threat to anyone in it was mainly more wishy-washy Tories. And while they certainly attracted an element with former membership of fascist organisations, they also shared with Britain’s far right an unerring tendency towards internally destructive factional fights. UKIP’s economic policies under Farage were so ultra-Thatcherite that their capacity for intervening and gaining lasting support in working class communities seemed limited.
But now it is all change. Their new leader, Nuttall, grew up in the working class district of Bootle, in Liverpool, with none of Farage’s advantages. Nuttall went to a state school, and his accent is the very opposite of posh and privileged. As someone who has emerged from a family and community that has genuinely known poverty, he can speak to people in the same boat and can tap into a culture of scapegoating others for that poverty much more convincingly. That is dangerous for Labour and it is dangerous for minorities.
Nuttall made it crystal clear in his remarks on the day he was elected that UKIP under his leadership would be the party of “patriotic workers” and that Labour was in its sights as the enemy it plans to oust. On the day he was elected, Nuttall said: “…the Labour Party has ceased to speak the language or address the issues of working people. I want to replace the Labour Party. They have a leader who will not sing the national anthem, a shadow chancellor who seems to admire the IRA more than he does the British Army, a shadow foreign secretary who sneers at the English flag and a shadow home secretary who seems to advocate unlimited immigration.” The day before his election was confirmed, Nuttall told his acquaintances on Breitbart Radio that “Islamic fundamentalism” was a “greater threat than Nazi Germany ever was to the globe”.
If we can go by this and the tenor of his previously stated positions, we can expect Nuttall to ratchet up racism against Muslims, to cast migrant workers and refugees as a “threat” to “indigenous workers”, and to rail against “elites”, whether it be the “Metropolitan elite” in London, or the “global elites” that his Breitbart friends use as code for “rich Jews”. And we can expect him to strengthen demands to bring back capital punishment and oppose abortion, especially among working class voters.
With the BNP and other far right groups an electoral irrelevancy now, on that kind of programme we can expect UKIP to sweep up the 560,000 + votes that the BNP amassed in 2010 when it had been capable of a more serious political intervention.
Despite UKIP’s internal divisions and weaknesses, there are 44 Labour seats where UKIP stands in second place. And that leaves Labour and the anti-racist and anti-fascist movements with a serious challenge. Unfortunately the initial responses to the new situation were lacking. Labour spokesperson Jon Trickett homed in on Nuttall’s earlier statements expressing his desire to privatise the NHS. Trickett confirmed Labour’s total commitment to defend the NHS. “It is clear that we cannot trust UKIP and Paul Nuttall with the NHS. A vote for them is a vote against the health service as we know it.” Good as far as it went, but why did he not add “…a health service in which immigrants have always played a pivotal role and will continue to do so for the benefit of everyone in multicultural Britain.” Just as we need the anti-austerity movement to be shot through with explicit anti-racism, we also need anti-racist movements to bind their critique of racism with anti-austerity politics.
Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbott have both made several statements in recent weeks expressing their absolute commitment against racism and their concern to defend minority migrant communities. We need to hear that from many other Labour members beyond the circle of Left MPs. What we don’t need are Stephen Kinnock’s remarks: “In Labour, we are patriots.” The right and far right will always play the patriot game better.
This week the stakes got a little higher.