Thursday, 27 November 2014

What's wrong with the Guardian article about Nick Forbes and Newcastle's council cuts

16 February 2013: over 1000 march in Newcastle
The Guardian's article by John Harris about cuts in Newcastle contained much valuable material about the devastating impact of cuts on the city's public services. It grasped the scale and severity of what is happening. Harris went some way to conveying the human toll by interviewing a number of people on the ground affected by austerity policies, unemployment and lack of investment.

The article also correctly located this in a national context, with cuts driven by the policies of Tory-led central government. It highlights the injustice of cuts to local government falling especially heavily on Labour-run northern cities like Newcastle. This is extremely welcome.

However, the article was much weaker on the local political situation. We need to think seriously about how councils can constructively oppose the cuts imposed by central government.

One option is for councils to become centres of active opposition and resistance. The other option is for council leaders to moan while implementing the cuts. Those of us active in Newcastle's anti-cuts campaigns have repeatedly advocated the former approach. Newcastle Council's Labour Leader Nick Forbes, by contrast, has done the latter.

Nick Forbes and Newcastle's anti-cuts movement

It is wrongly claimed that local anti-cuts campaigners have personally targeted Nick Forbes. In the major campaigns and protests in Newcastle - such as the Save Newcastle Libraries campaign, which I co-founded - it was agreed that focusing on Forbes personally would distract from the fact that central government was the source of the cuts. A few isolated cases of people having placards that criticised Forbes doesn't make a pattern - and they are, in any case, hardly surprising when he became the public figurehead for the council's cuts programme.

Our approach was a political decision that reflected our recognition that to stop cuts to local services we naturally needed to focus pressure and lobbying on the local council, but that we also had to connect local cuts to the bigger picture of national austerity. The article's focus on allegedly personal attacks on Forbes also feeds what one local campaigner has described to me as the myth of Forbes as a 'lone embattled figure'. This is the image of him as someone simultaneously attacked by the government and local campaigners, the only person who is genuinely sticking up for Newcastle (the title - 'Is saving Newcastle a mission impossible?' - feeds this delusion). This is a gross disservice to all those in Newcastle who have actively opposed austerity.

Forbes is presented as a 'progressive', left-leaning figure who earns high praise from political 'heavyweights' like Jon Cruddas. There are glowing claims that he is such a talented individual he could be a big name in national politics, but has such deep civic commitment that he remains a humble council leader.

Yet Forbes' reputation locally is different. He is universally regarded as being firmly on the right wing of the Labour Party and anti-cuts campaigners have always found him unsympathetic. He is even believed to be a member of the controversial Blairite ginger group Progress. Newcastle's Labour Party has different political tendencies including many councillors and activists who are principled opponents of austerity. Forbes emphatically isn't one of them.

The article fails to acknowledge the simple fact that Forbes has had nothing to do with our city's opposition to cuts. The city has had a vibrant and diverse anti-cuts movement for the last few years, but its council leader has not been part of it.

Forbes could have co-operated with local campaign groups in developing opposition to the impact of austerity on Newcastle - as many local Labour Party members have done - but instead he dismisses anti-cuts protests in Newcastle as 'the far left' and implies they are an equivalent problem to the far right whipping up racist hatred. That says a lot about what is wrong with Forbes' political stance.

Missing the real arguments

The failure to interview local anti-cuts campaigners leads to serious imbalances in the article. Newcastle-born writer Lee Hall, who was a prominent supporter of Save Newcastle Libraries, is quoted only in order to caricature and dismiss what he said. It's also interesting that opponents of cuts are characterised as indulging in personal attacks on Forbes, without mentioning that Forbes resorted to personalised criticism of Lee Hall instead of engaging with local people's concerns about the threatened closures.

Similarly, it is very unfortunate that the cuts to Sure Start are discussed with no input from the very impressive local campaign to save it. The lack of space given to genuine anti-cuts campaigners misrepresents the real situation and gives undue weight to Forbes' own perspectives.

A further weakness is that Harris fails to offer any criticism of Forbes' divisive strategy of claiming that campaigners were only interested in saving 'middle class' funding - libraries, culture - and not interested in those services that most affected people living in poverty. This was always a grossly offensive stance and was designed to both justify many of the cuts while attempting (unsuccessfully) to divide campaigners against each other.

We instead took the position that central government's cuts programme should be opposed in its totality, and that we shouldn't be played off against each other. This was a major political difference between the grassroots campaigns (aiming for united and serious opposition to cuts) and, on the other hand, Forbes and his allies (who trotted out conservative arguments to justify the cuts).

We also challenged the caricature that certain things - arts, reading - are middle class pursuits. We pointed out that public funding enables better access to such vital aspects of what it means to live in a decent, humane and civilised society.

The myth of the heroic civic leader

The political arguments are evaded in the article, replaced by a highly personal focus on the allegedly embattled council leader. For example, Forbes refers to an incident in which he encountered an individual who had taken part in an anti-cuts demonstration and says that he didn't even know a protest was taking place. This is extraordinary because the incident he refers to was on the day of the biggest demonstration opposing Newcastle Council's cuts that we ever had (it attracted over 1000 people).

If Forbes really didn't know the protest was even happening it doesn't suggest a civic leader paying attention to the concerns of local people about the cuts to their services. It is also of concern that Harris, in his article, gives more attention to an isolated incident involving one person who had attended the protest than the demonstration itself.

To summarise. Many of the article's problems originate from John Harris relying heavily on the perspective of Nick Forbes and not seeking corroboration from others. Harris uncritically accepts a whole set of political assumptions about cuts in local government - and how to oppose them - so that Forbes emerges as a heroic figure, while anti-cuts campaigners appear to be either irrelevant, wrong or dangerous.

Consequently the whole picture of Newcastle's politics is grossly distorted. It is essential that readers have access to alternative perspectives on Newcastle, the politics of local government and the opposition to cuts.


Saturday, 22 November 2014

Radical Independence: how #RIC2014 took the Scottish left to the next level

The sheer scale of the 3rd Radical Independence Conference in Glasgow was extraordinary. Around 3000 people attended. Considering Scotland's population, this puts it on a different level to anything else organised by the left in Britain.
The atmosphere was electric, but there was also a serious sense of purpose about building a stronger movement, mapping a strategy and articulating alternatives to both Westminster and the limits of Holyrood.
Westminster politics and Scottish Labour were the main targets for criticism (the disgust with the latter was understandably visceral), but there were also warnings that Holyrood must consistently champion an alternative political vision and approach to the discredited British mainstream parties. For example, the recent SNP conference was somewhat half-hearted and equivocal in opposing fracking, but at RIC 2014 any calls for total opposition to this environmentally damaging practice were greeted with rapturous applause.
A nation in political turmoil

The great success of the conference was made possible by the political ferment which developed in the run up to September's independence referendum and which, unexpectedly, has continued without faltering since polling day. Prior to referendum day, RIC organisers assumed that in the event of a 'No' victory the conference would be at best the same size as the previous two conferences. Yet all 3000 tickets sold in a few weeks.
Suki Sangha - RIC activist and a member of the Scottish TUC Council - made the opening speech of the conference, in which she recalled how the referendum campaign had galvanised participation in politics and public debate by many thousands of people for the first time. That political ferment and mass campaigning, she said, provided a baseline for the conference and for future action.
Instead of the widely predicted demoralisation, the 'Yes' movement has been, and continues to be, buoyant after a defeat that increasingly seems to have been anything but. One thing that appeared to unite conference speakers was a conviction that independence is a matter of when not if - that on 18 September independence was deferred not defeated.

But the success also rested upon serious coalition-building stretching back to the preparations for RIC's first conference two years ago. The 2012 and 2013 conferences each drew up to 1000 people. Together with the growth of local groups  nationwide and on-going campaigning, those conferences laid the basis for such an unprecedented success. Organisation matters: these things don't happen by accident.
Bernadette McAliskey, who became a socialist and civil rights activist in Northern Ireland in the 1960s (she was then Bernadette Devlin), paid tribute to the role RIC has already played, saying "The Radical Independence Campaign has organised from the bottom up and engaged people in the political conversations we need to have... You have reminded us old veterans how this job is done". The wider engagement of RIC activists and groups with local communities - often the poorest, those neglected for generations by politicians - through mass canvasses, street stalls and other activities marked a step forward for the Scottish left in connecting radical ideas with wider society.
Re-shaping the political debate
In general the independence debate shifted Scottish politics to the left. Increasingly the arguments for independence became centred on big social and economic issues, not dry constitutional matters or national identity. Radical Independence and other organisations with an alternative social, political vision to 'politics as usual' played a vital role in that process. The more the radical potential of independence was highlighted, the more enthused and engaged people became in the run up to independence.
On top of the long-term trajectory of devolved Scottish politics - with Holyrood more hospitable to 'social democratic' politics than Westminster - this makes the Scottish political landscape very different to the UK-wide level. Scapegoating of immigrants, for example, barely figures in political discourse. 17-year-old Saffron Dickson, a 'Generation Yes' campaigner speaking in the morning plenary, pointed out that she's never known a time when 'immigration' wasn't a dirty word across mainstream British politics. The Scottish political scene is proving this isn't inevitable - and opposition to the racist scapegoating sadly endemic in Westminster politics remains a key driver of support for independence.
This political landscape is not as it is because social and political attitudes are substantially more left-wing in Scotland, but a matter of how organised (especially electoral) politics has given expression to people's attitudes, and the whole direction of travel during the referendum campaign.

This enlarged political space for left-wing ideas - and political demands that dissent from a narrow and sterile 'orthodoxy' - was part of the context for today's conference. There was a powerful sense that the terms of political debate have shifted recently, and this offers openings to RIC and the left. The conference was explicitly left-wing, yet also tangibly part of a larger mainstream political discussion in Scottish society: as RIC's national co-ordinator Jonathon Shafi noted, it is a crucial step in creating a mass left that is taken seriously and capable of influencing the national debate. 
Another Scotland, another world
There was a tremendous 'mass forum' in the afternoon with speakers from left-wing parties Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece, and socialist activists from Quebec and Catalonia, highlighting the internationalism of the movement and the lessons to be learnt from experiences elsewhere.
A theme of the speeches from the Catalonia and Quebec campaigners was the need to go beyond the limits of nationalist campaigns for independence and consistently campaign around specific social and economic demands. The speakers from Podemos and Syriza highlighted the potential for mass discontent with austerity and the establishment to find electoral expression - providing that is linked closely with movement struggles - though the exact implications for Scotland will be a source of on-going dialogue for some time.
The same session also included speakers from two important campaigns in England, indicating that RIC has nothing to do with 'separatism' but instead seeks authentic solidarity and common working class interests. A Bectu union organiser talked insightfully about low-paid Ritzy cinema workers organising and striking for a living wage and against threatened job cuts, followed by one of the Focus E15 women talking about their militant and creative housing campaign in east London (while two other members of the campaign held up a banner declaring 'London, Glasgow - one struggle, one fight - decent homes for all').
The conference concluded with practical commitments to take the movement forward. This was centred on the new 'People's Vow' - an antidote to the empty politicians' vow pledged, in desperation, by Westminster leaders on the eve of the referendum. The challenge now is to use it, and the whole conference, as a launchpad for concerted campaigning that can win victories, shift the political debate further to the left, and move Scotland closer to not only independence but a version of it that involves decisively rejecting the injustices and inequalities that have driven the movement this far.


Saturday, 15 November 2014

No, Jackie Slesenger, it is not anti-Semitic to protest against the killing of over 2000 Palestinians

Assembling for a 1000-strong march in Newcastle, July 2014
Jackie Slesenger, a Newcastle city councillor, has written an article for The Journal newspaper with the headline 'Harmonious race relations are being damaged and may take years to repair'.

Her target is not any racist organisation or policy, but rather our city's vibrant and diverse movement for peace and justice in Palestine.  

It indicates the remarkable impact of our city's protests and campaigning against Israeli violence in Gaza that an uncritical supporter of Israel like Jackie Slesenger has written this. It is a sign of acute weakness on the part of Slesenger and other defenders of Israel's sustained onslaught on Gaza's civilian population. Let's remember that Israeli forces killed over 2000 people including 500 children, destroyed basic infrastructure and made many more Palestinians homeless.

All this has nothing to do with anti-Semitism, contrary to her utterly unfounded claims. Sadly she appears to be cynically using that baseless smear to cover for - and justify - her support for Israel's obscene violence against Gaza. This regrettably obscures the real issues in Palestine and makes it harder for all of us to confront genuine cases of anti-Semitism.

There is absolutely no need for anyone to resign from the Newcastle Holocaust Memorial Day committee, as she has done. It is meant to be a commemoration independent of any other political disagreements.

Slesenger is the one who has dragged the issue of commemorating the Holocaust into debates about Palestine. This does a massive disservice to both the Holocaust's victims and the contemporary politics of Palestine.

I am proud to have helped organise Newcastle's protests, marches and vigils for Gaza during the summer, and to be working with people of all backgrounds to build an on-going movement for peace and justice in the Middle East. This is a movement with opposition to all forms of racism, including anti-Semitism, at its core.


Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Why build revolutionary organisation today?

Image by Ady Cousins
I’ve recently read Paul Le Blanc’s very stimulating collection of essays, ‘Unfinished Leninism’, which re-states the validity and value of Lenin’s life, ideas and legacy for our times. My review for Counterfire will appear soon. But there is a specific issue raised by the selection of essays that I want to address here.
One big issue covered in the book is the much-debated topic of organisation, and whether the project of building explicitly revolutionary socialist organisation remains a worthwhile one. Paul Le Blanc thinks it is. I think so too. But in current circumstances the reasons for this are far from self-evident.

A sense of the possible

There is a big, general answer to the question ‘Why build revolutionary organisation?’ It is do with challenging the capitalist state for power, grouping together the most militant and class-conscious elements in a party, and the vital role of a party in the dynamics of revolution. The arguments are familiar to anyone who has spent time as part of the revolutionary left – whether here in the UK or elsewhere – and to many other socialist activists too. 

But that’s not what interests me here and I’m not going to recycle the arguments in this post. The focus here is more immediate. It is reflected in the addition of the word ‘today’ to the question above.

In current circumstances - which are distinctly non-revolutionary and characterised by the absence of a sizeable revolutionary left - what is the rationale for devoting time and energies to building revolutionary organisation? Why do this despite the many failed efforts of the past, the chronic problems of sectarianism and decline, and the fact that such a project is perhaps (even) more unfashionable than for decades?

Le Blanc makes the unarguable point that much of the historical record of building Leninist organisations in Western countries since World War Two does not exactly leave us with great grounds for optimism. In the context of a revolutionary left that is small, fragmented, frequently sectarian and too often intellectually and practically conservative, some serious and clear thinking is needed.

What is also needed is humility and a realistic sense of what’s possible in the immediate future. Le Blanc sees delusions of grandeur as one of the big problems. He distinguishes between a credible, rooted revolutionary party – which doesn’t exist anywhere today – and more modest revolutionary organisations that can do useful work in the here and now, while contributing to a future re-composition of the revolutionary left. This might one day take the form of a serious and sizeable party with a tight connection with broader working class struggles.
Le Blanc writes:
'A number of us have concluded that it is a fatal mistake for a small group to see itself as the nucleus or the embryo of a mass revolutionary party. Such a party will, in fact, be made up though the coming together of elements from a number of groups, as well as a number of people not presently in any group, and even more who do not presently think of themselves as socialists at all. It will crystallise through innumerable experiences and struggles, blending together with a broad labour-radical subculture of ideas, discussions, and creative activities.'

Three good reasons

So, in the absence of such a party and with more modest means at our disposal, what kind of organisation can realistically be created, and what should such an organisation be doing to justify its existence and the expending of time and energy by its activists? I think there are three central reasons for building such organisation in current conditions, which are applicable in many different contexts, but which certainly provide some sort of compass for those of us engaged in such a project in England (in my case through Counterfire).

Firstly, there is the role a revolutionary organisation can play in broader movements over such issues as war, austerity, climate change and racism. Whether specific revolutionary groups actually play such a role is of course a separate matter. They may operate in an at best semi-detached way, at worst entirely parasitic manner, to such movements. But it is also possible to play a constructive and even central role in broad campaigns.

This is what Counterfire strives to do in the People’s Assembly Against Austerity and Stop the War Coalition, for example, and what Scotland’s International Socialist Group does in the Radical Independence Campaign. It isn’t simply a matter of an organisation throwing its weight (relatively slight as it is) behind a coalition, but is also about strategizing for the movement: planning and arguing for certain strategy and tactics, etc.
In the absence of such coherent input from organised revolutionaries, it is easy for a protest movement – subjected to all sorts of pressures – to be pulled in different directions and for the agenda to be shaped by more conservative elements inside the broad labour movement.

Secondly, a revolutionary organisation enables the sustaining of the Marxist tradition. It is a place where new generations of activists can develop a wide-ranging political understanding of the world, underpinned by the Marxist tradition.
There are two interconnected elements: the sustaining of an existing body of ideas and writings, and fresh analysis of contemporary reality. The latter naturally depends on a strong grasp of the former, but it is also aided by a close connection with political activity and struggle. An organisation helps enormously with that.

Having an organisation helps with both the education of newer activists in the Marxist tradition – in all its richness – because a more systematic approach can be taken than is otherwise possible. But it is also enormously beneficial to theoretical innovation, which is more likely as part of a collective enterprise. Crucially, an organisation provides an environment in which ideas and action can be connected: the development of ideas is informed by political experience and changing reality, while the organisation’s ideas are applied to campaigning, mobilising and organising.

Thirdly, there is the task of laying the groundwork for future realignments on the left. We may not have a revolutionary party now – and there may not be the prospect of one, even, in the foreseeable future – but building revolutionary organisation now is a step in that direction.
It is impossible to imagine any serious party of thousands emerging without any pre-existing organisations. To take a historical example: the British Communist Party, flawed as it was, didn't simply spring into being in 1920 because people were inspired by the Russian Revolution, but was a fusion of a number of existing socialist organisations and strands.

The vanguard

One of Le Blanc’s arguments is that the development of an authentic revolutionary party is intertwined with the growth of a wider working class ‘vanguard’. This doesn’t refer to any organisation, but a looser layer of people who have a fair degree of class consciousness and experience of collective struggle, linked to the development a broad left-wing/radical political culture and sizeable, vibrant labour movement of some description. Le Blanc points to a passage in Lenin’s ‘Left Wing Communism, an infantile disorder’ that insists on this broader vanguard as a precondition for a genuine revolutionary party.
A similar argument can be found in an excellent Duncan Hallas essay from the early 1970s, 'Towards a revolutionary socialist party', subsequently included in the slim volume ‘Party and Class’. He was writing at a time when Britain had a strong shop stewards movement and a much bigger organised left and more powerful trade union movement than today.

Yet, perhaps disconcertingly for us, even then Hallas didn’t think there was already a strong vanguard layer of class-conscious workers and left-wing culture. He envisaged a future revolutionary party developing in tandem with the growth of such a layer, yet the latter process didn’t happen as he hoped. In the 1971 essay Hallas wrote:
'A new generation of capable and energetic workers exists but they are no longer part of a cohesive movement and they no longer work in a milieu where basic Marxist ideas are widespread. We are back at our starting point. Not only has the vanguard, in the real sense of a considerable layer of organised revolutionary workers and intellectuals, been destroyed. So too has the environment, the tradition, that gave it influence. In Britain that tradition was never so extensive and influential as in Germany or France but it was real enough in the early years of the Communist Party.'

It is clear that Hallas, who was a member of the International Socialists (an organisation of 1000-2000 members at the time), didn’t think there was already a revolutionary party. Such a thing was very much a hypothesis. It is clear that he viewed such a prospect as something other – and more - than a simple numerical growth of the existing IS group. It is implied that such a party would almost certainly combine a number of traditions or existing groups, but just as importantly would involve layers of workers not yet won to revolutionary politics or organisation.

Both elements of that hypothesis proved to be much harder than anticipated. Organisational unity between different elements of the existing left never happened. Hallas and others perhaps underestimated the differences between groups (not necessarily major formal theoretical differences, but differences of perspective, orientation and approach) and the extent to which particular groups had become defined by their own specific traditions.

But, perhaps more importantly in the final analysis, the wider vanguard layer declined rather than growing as Hallas had anticipated. The crucial change was the erosion of the independent rank and file strength of the shop stewards that followed the end of the long post-war economic boom and the end of the upturn in working class struggle in the mid-1970s. These developments were conditioned, though not entirely determined, by wider changes in the composition of the working class itself.

Le Blanc and Hallas both wrote – one primarily focused on the US, the other on Britain – of how such a vanguard layer had once existed. It is easy to see, and quite indisputable, that such a layer doesn’t exist today in anything remotely resembling the same form. There is a danger, however, in becoming too fixed on particular criteria for the strength or weakness of such a layer – in thinking that what Le Blanc dubs a ‘radical-labor subculture’ in the American context must take certain forms.

The elements of the re-composition of such a vanguard, in a new form, are clearly present, if only partially developed. They are not primarily coalescing in the unions, though elements of the union movement – despite its activist base being much smaller than in its heyday – are part of it. This is especially the case where unions adopt a more political, ‘social movement unionism’ approach that self-consciously utilises the strengths of protest movements to enhance union organising, such as the NUT’s ‘Stand up for Education’ campaign. 

There are also the more-or-less organised elements found in such things as the People’s Assembly, Occupy protests, and various campaigns, but also – more loosely – a hard-to-define radicalisation that only sporadically finds organised expression.

The hollowing-out of the organised left means that such phenomena are often less stable, more volatile, and harder to pin down into something coherent and durable, than was once the case, although we shouldn’t exaggerate the differences as this is not entirely novel (think of the turmoil of 1968). The old organised left has declined partly for reasons outside its control – the larger defeat of the working class movement from the 1980s onwards, the sharp decline in strike levels, the shift to the right in social democracy, the ideological impact of the end of ‘Communism’ – but also partly because it failed to adapt properly to changed circumstances. The constant expectation that a return to 1970s-style class struggle, in much the same form as 40 years ago, is just around the corner has certainly not helped. 

Revolutionary organisation can be built in a new context, with some continuities but also some changes in relation to our heritage. It has to be rooted in the debates, movements and struggles of our time. And it is a project that requires a healthy does of humility and perspective, as well as seriousness and commitment.

Duncan Hallas: Towards a revolutionary socialist party
Paul Le Blanc: Organising for 21st century socialism
Lenin: An essential condition of the Bolsheviks' success


3 reflections prompted by 'Tony Benn: Will and Testament'

I recently watched, and very much enjoyed, the film ‘Tony Benn: Will and Testament’. I found it personally affecting as well as politically insightful but, rather than review it, I thought I’d share three particular political reflections which the film prompted for me.

1. The spirit of ’45. A pivotal point in the film, and in Benn’s life, is the historic moment of 1945: the end of war and the hopeful election of a Labour government which would go on to create the NHS, build large numbers of council houses, nationalise industries and provide the opening chapter in the story of a post-war boom, characterised above all by full employment, that would last until the 1970s.

The importance of the post-war settlement is illustrated in the film by the context of what preceded it: mass unemployment and squalor in the 1930s, the rise of fascism in much of Europe, and the contradictory experiences of wartime. It powerfully illustrates why, for example, the birth of the NHS was such a momentous advance for anyone who had been poor.

1945 was one of the turning points in British history and the 1945-51 government was in fact the only Labour government that delivered meaningful and serious reforms for working class people. The Wilson governments of 1964-70 – in which Benn served – benefited from being during the boom years, but their achievements were of smaller scale, and their contradictions more pronounced, than Attlee’s government. To a large extent the Labour Party has relied on the advances of those years to maintain credibility ever since, but with diminishing success.

After watching the film it occurred to me that three particular aspects of those years really made a material difference to working class people’s lives: the NHS, housing and full employment. Labour can take a lot of credit for the first two, though the needs of post-war society were such that there were few other options. Full employment was both a legacy of the war years – when people were put to work for the war effort – and a feature of the conditions of healthy economic growth that survived long beyond the Attlee years. This is what underpinned much of what characterised British society until the crisis of the 1970s, including the confidence of workers to strike for better pay and other improvements.

But there was also a darker side to the 1945 government, which is particularly highlighted in the film by Benn’s criticism of Attlee for secretively pursuing programmes for the creation of nuclear weapons, in close association with the newly dominant imperialist power across the Atlantic. Benn had a keen interest in many foreign policy matters and desire for peace even in his younger, more moderate days. The film relates how he was, for example, an enthusiastic supporter of the Movement for Colonial Freedom and the whole process of decolonisation, and an unwavering opponent of nuclear weapons.

2. Moving to the left. It is often said of Benn that he moved progressively to the left as he grew older, something that is seen as rare and exceptional. This is largely true, though he was never especially right-wing Labour to begin with but rather a career politician with a mix of ideas. What’s often missed, though, is something that comes across in the film: the leftwards shift happened mostly in one particular decade. At the start of the 1970s Benn had moved little politically since 20 years earlier when he had entered the Commons. By the end of that decade he was essentially the implacable left-winger we are all familiar with.

Such a political shift cannot be reduced mechanically to objective circumstances. Different individuals can react to the same events in quite different ways. Nonetheless, there are two major contexts which frame Benn’s political shift.

The first of these is the upsurge in popular rebellions and especially workers’ struggles between the late 1960s and the mid-1970s, including the miners’ strikes of 1972 and 1974 - the latter triggered the fall of Heath’s Tory government - and the occupation by the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders (there’s footage of Benn addressing a Clydeside rally of the time in ‘Will and Testament’). These clearly influenced Benn’s move to the left, together with an increasing focus on what happened outside parliament as significant for the left.

The second influential factor was Benn’s own highly frustrating experience of being in office. As a Cabinet Minister in the Labour governments of 1974-79 under Harold Wilson and then Jim Callaghan, he had insider knowledge of how Labour politicians were subservient to the dictates of the IMF and big business. He was incapable of making even mild reforms. Such an experience normally shifts a Labour politician further to the right – as they rationalise their own situation as a means of coping with it – but the film reveals how it had the opposite effect on Benn (something that is also conveyed by his Diaries from that era).

On leaving office in 1979, with the election of Thatcher’s first government, Benn had moved to a firmly left-wing political stance and became the leading figure in the Labour Left. From the 1980s onwards he devoted a lot of time to extra-parliamentary struggles, speaking on campaign and labour movement platforms. A final shift would take place after leaving parliament in 2001, when he really did ‘spend more time on politics’ and dedicated himself overwhelmingly to championing struggles outside Westminster’s confines.

3. Democracy beyond Westminster. Perhaps the most compelling thing of all about Benn is the paradox that he spent half a century in the House of Commons, yet he increasingly gave priority to struggles and movements outside Parliament and used his profile to promote and champion them. This process began in the early 1970s, when he was in opposition and there was a wave of workers’ militancy, but it became more pronounced in the 1980s.

The Miners’ Strike was a whole year in which Benn dedicated himself to the cause of supporting the miners, their families and communities. He spoke in public around 200 times during the course of the Strike, and his devotion to the miners’ heroic struggle is of course a big part of why in later years he always got a great reception at the annual Durham Miners’ Gala, one of the places where he seemingly felt most at home and one of the locations for filming in ‘Will and Testament’.

The mid-1980s must have also been the time when Benn reluctantly realised that the Labour Party was not going to be won for the Left, and an excessive focus on internal battles would be unproductive (though he remained loyal to the Party to the end, and never entirely abandoned hope in it). He had been the figurehead in the early 1980s for the Labour left, the great hope for many socialists who did indeed get swallowed up inside the Labour Party and in fruitless battles over resolutions and democratic procedures. He stood firm against the Party’s drift to the right, beginning under the hapless and hopeless Neil Kinnock (seeing him on the big screen reminded me what a pitiful character he was), becoming over time an inspiration to many people beyond the Labour Party as well as the diminishing numbers of principled socialists within it.

His outspoken opposition to the Gulf War in the early 1990s prefigured his later energetic commitment to anti-war campaigning from 2001 onwards. His role in the Stop the War movement, following the commencement of the ‘war on terror’ in 2001, put his talents, especially as an orator, to magnificent use – the film includes some of his famous passionate attack on the BBC’s refusal to broadcast the emergency appeal for Gaza, which gives a flavour of his political eloquence. His anti-war role was surely his most important practical contribution in later years. He spoke on many other campaigning platforms, too, and devoted much time to touring the country and talking about socialist ideas at packed public events.

One thing Benn expressed powerfully when interviewed for the film was his conclusion that democracy is much bigger and broader than what happens in Westminster, and that real change comes from mass action and determined campaigning. Commitment to democratic principles and reform was in fact a thread running through his life, but in the end he had more radical sense of democracy and how it conflicts with the wealth and power of those who will preserve capitalism at any cost.

Benn said he would be content if his epitaph was, simply, ‘he encouraged us’. This seems to have reflected recognition that change will be won people’s own actions, not principally by the politicians in Westminster.  


Friday, 24 October 2014

Final schedule for North East People's Assembly 2014: No More Austerity, Save our NHS, Stand up for Education

I am one of the organisers of North East People's Assembly 2014, which takes place on Saturday 1 November in Newcastle. The programme is now finalised and can be read below.

Tickets are on sale from the Northern Stage box office:
£10 all-in-one ticket (£5 concessions) - £6 daytime only (£3 concessions) - £6 evening only (£3 concessions)

11am-midday Stage 1 (Northern Stage) - Plenary: Breaking the cuts consensus

Beth Farhat is Secretary of Northern TUC - the first woman to hold the region's leading trade union position - and a prominent voice against austerity in the north east.
Kevin McHugh is PCS national deputy president and a leading union activist locally.
Linda Hobson is an experienced nurse, branch secretary of Newcastle Hospitals Unison branch and a Labour councillor in Newcastle.
James Meadway is a senior economist at new economics foundation and has recently completed his PhD research in the economics department of SOAS university in London.
Fazia Hussain-Brown is a regional organiser for Unite the Union who is active in Teesside People's Assembly.
Amelia Womack is deputy leader of the Green Party.

12.15-1.30pm Workshops:

Stage 3 (Northern Stage) - Alternatives to Austerity
Andrew Fisher is an economist at Left Economics Advisory Panel and author of 'The Failed Experiment: how to build an economy that works'. James Meadway is a senior economist at new economics foundation and has recently completed his PhD research in the economics department of SOAS university in London.

Mezzanine (Northern Stage) - Organising against cuts locally 

Mollie Stevenson is a leading activist in North Tyneside People's Assembly. Mark Tyers is convenor of Sunderland People's Assembly and an activist in Sunderland Unison health branch. Steve Cooke is secretary of Teesside People's Assembly, a Unison local government activist and musician. Matthew Giles is convenor of South Tyneside People's Assembly and a co-organiser of the North East People's Assembly 2014.

Collingwood Room (Civic Centre) - Cuts, climate change and the environment 

Amelia Womack is deputy leader of the Green Party. Judith Kirton-Darling is a Labour MEP for the North East and member of the European Parliament's Committee for International Trade, who has previously been Confederal Secretary of the European Trades Union Congress. Debbie Reed is an experienced environmental and peace campaigner who is active in the Transition Tynedale project. Richard Hopkins co-organised the recent Climate March in Newcastle and is co-founder of Climate Change North East.

Armstrong Stevenson Room (Civic Centre) - Racism, immigration and Ukip
Laura Pidcock runs the education team at Show Racism the Red Card and is a Labour councillor in Cramlington. Dipu Ahad is a Labour councillor in the west end of Newcastle, one of the organisers of the Newcastle Unites anti-racist coalition, and a leading anti-racist, anti-war and pro-Palestine campaigner locally. Mick Bowman is a Unite Against Fascism activist, Unison international officer in Northumberland, and human rights campaigner.

Hatton Gallery - Creative resistance: art, austerity and protest 

Phil Kitchen is a musician, singer, songwriter and former adult education tutor. Amina Marix Evans runs Borderline Books, which sources books from publishers, libraries, shops and individuals and gives them away free of charge to organizations working with homeless people, former prisoners, refugees and asylum applicants, women and children in refuges and shelters. Dawn Furness is a professional opera and cabaret singer and vocal coach who has campaigned against cuts to cultural funding. Kate Fox is a stand-up poet, journalist, comedian and broadcaster.

2.30-3.45pm Workshops:

Stage 3 (Northern Stage) - Women, austerity and resistance
Umme Imam is director of the Angelou Centre in Newcastle's west end, which works with women in local BME communities, a former lecturer in Youth and Community Work at Durham University, and an expert on issues around domestic violence. Lizi Gray is women's officer of Northumberland University Students' Union and a socialist and feminist activist. Kate Fox is a stand-up poet, journalist, comedian and broadcaster.

Mezzanine (Northern Stage) - The changing role of trade unions 

Tony Dowling is Chair of North East People's Assembly and membership officer of Gateshead NUT. Fazia Hussain-Brown is a regional organiser for Unite the Union and is active in Teesside People's Assembly. Mark Robertson is one of the victorious strikers at Tyneside Safety Glass in Gateshead, where workers recently took concerted strike action to win a pay rise and improve conditions.

Collingwood Room (Civic Centre) – Save our NHS
Dr David Wrigley is a GP, blogger and campaigner in Keep Our NHS Public. Linda Hobson is an experienced nurse, branch secretary of Newcastle Hospitals Unison branch and a Labour councillor in Newcastle. Jo Adams was co-organiser of the Jarrow-to-London People's March for the NHS and is a co-founder of the 999 Call for the NHS campaign.

Armstrong Stevenson Room (Civic Centre) - Stand up for Education
Kevin Courtney has been National Union of Teachers deputy general secretary since 2010 and previously worked as a teacher for many years. Gail Edwards is a lecturer in education at Newcastle University, running the MA in Education Research, and has previously been a school teacher and LEA advisory teacher. William Pinkney-Baird is a student and anti-cuts activist at Durham University, and an active member of the Green Party.

BSTC.B.32 (Barbara Strang Teaching Centre, Newcastle Uni) - Cut War not Welfare
Alex Snowdon is Secretary of Newcastle Stop the War Coalition, Chair of Newcastle Palestine Solidarity Campaign and a co-organiser of North East People's Assembly 2014. Val Anthony is former North East co-ordinator for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) and continues to be involved in both CAAT and Newcastle Stop the War Coalition.

4-5pm Stage 1 (Northern Stage) - Rally: No More Austerity

Mark Robertson is one of the victorious strikers at Tyneside Safety Glass in Gateshead, where workers recently took concerted strike action to win a pay rise and improve conditions.
Rehana Azam was a co-organiser of this summer's historic People's March for the NHS and works as the GMB union's National Officer for the NHS.
Tony Dowling is Chair of North East People's Assembly and membership officer of Gateshead NUT.
Judith Kirton-Darling is a Labour MEP for the North East and member of the European Parliament's Committee for International Trade, who has previously been Confederal Secretary of the European Trades Union Congress.
Kevin Courtney has been National Union of Teachers deputy general secretary since 2010 and previously worked as a teacher for many years.

6.30-9.30pm Stage 1 (Northern Stage) - The People’s Assembly Show

Steffen Peddie is a comedian from Newcastle, who regularly performs at The Stand chain of clubs amongst others, has made regular appearances at comedy festivals across the UK and starred in the BBC2 sitcom Hebburn.

Mike Milligan has many years’ experience on the national and international comedy circuit; he has written and performed for TV and radio, and also writes a popular weekly column in the Evening Chronicle.

Peculiar Disco Moves are a north-band combining addictive pop music with off-the-wall lyrical tirades, whose latest single 'Lost for Words (Please Don't Tell Me, Please Don't Say)' was issued in May 2014.

Pete Scott, Newcastle-born singer-songwriter, started out singing in folk clubs in the 1970s, has performed both nationally and internationally, and combines writing and performing with freelance music teaching.

Dawn Furness is a professional opera and cabaret singer and vocal coach who has campaigned against cuts to cultural funding.

Kate Fox is a stand-up poet, journalist, comedian and broadcaster.

Backscratch is a newly formed theatre company based in County Durham; drawing inspiration from the North East, the group mixes theatre with music and media, and is made up of writers, performers and musicians Jack Burton, Michael Daynes, Tom Burton and Laura Emerson.

Fertile Ground nurtures a new generation of dance artists; the graduate dance company is led by Artistic Director Dora Frankel and is made up of dancers Holly Bellamy, Kayleigh Fisk, Alicia Meehan, Alys North and intern Joel Pearson.

The Mayday Band is Ron Brown and Mike Hirst, both of them musicians with political bite.

Joan Hewitt, who comperes the show, is an award-winning poet, anti-cuts campaigner and a co-organiser of North East People’s Assembly 2014, whose poetry has been published in numerous anthologies as well as her own collection ‘Missing the Eclipse’.


Monday, 22 September 2014

Full programme for North East People's Assembly - Newcastle, Saturday 1 November 2014

The 1st North East People's Assembly, in September 2013, attracted 500 people from a wide range of backgrounds to discuss austerity and plan the resistance. On Saturday 1 November 2014 we will meet again to discuss why austerity is failing, what the alternatives are, and how we can end it.

There will be speeches, discussions and performances. We will host workshops involving a range of groups and covering such topics as the NHS, education and the scapegoating of immigrants.

Tickets are now on sale from the Northern Stage box office.

11am-midday Morning Plenary:
Natalie Bennett (Leader, Green Party), Beth Farhat (Northern TUC Secretary), Linda Hobson (Newcastle Unison health branch secretary), Fazia Hussain-Brown (Unite regional organiser), Kevin McHugh (PCS deputy president), James Meadway (senior economist, new economics foundation)

12.15-1.30pm Workshops
Alternatives to Austerity: Andrew Fisher (economist and author of 'The Failed Experiment'), James Meadway (senior economist, new economics foundation)

Racism, immigration and UKIP: Cllr Dipu Ahad, Laura Pidcock (Show Racism the Red Card), Mick Bowman (Unite Against Fascism)

Cuts, climate change and the environment: Natalie Bennett (Leader, Green Party), Judith Kirton-Darling (Labour MEP for North East), Debbie Reed (Transition Tynedale)

Organising against cuts locally: Matthew Giles (South Tyneside People's Assembly), Mollie Stevenson (North Tyneside People's Assembly), Mark Tyers (Sunderland People's Assembly), Steve Cooke (Teesside People's Assembly)

Creative Resistance: art, austerity and protest - panel to be announced

2.30-3.45pm Workshops
Save our NHS: Joanna Adams (co-organiser, People's March for the NHS), Helen Groom (Keep Our NHS Public), David Wrigley (GP and health campaigner)

Stand up for Education: Kevin Courtney (NUT deputy general secretary), Gail Edwards (lecturer in education, Newcastle University), William Pinkney-Baird (Durham University student activist)

Women, austerity and resistance: Kate Fox (poet, comedian, journalist and broadcaster), Lizi Gray (women's officer, Northumbria University Students Union), Umme Imam (director, Angelou Centre)

Cut War not Welfare: Val Anthony (Campaign Against Arms Trade), Rev. Andii Bowsher (Martin Luther King Peace Committee), Alex Snowdon (Newcastle Stop the War Coalition)

The changing role of trade unions: Tony Dowling (Gateshead NUT), Fazia Hussain-Brown (Unite regional organiser), a Tyneside Safety Glass striker

4-5pm Afternoon Plenary:
Rehana Azam (co-organiser of People's March for the NHS and GMB organiser), Kevin Courtney (NUT deputy general secretary), Tony Dowling (Chair, North East People's Assembly), Judith Kirton-Darling (Labour MEP for North East), 1 more speaker to be announced

Our event also includes a great people's variety show in the evening, 6.30-9.30pm.
The People's Assembly Show will showcase a range of comedy, music, spoken word, dance and theatre. Performers include Kate Fox, Steffen Peddie, Mike Milligan, Pete Scott, Peculiar Disco Moves, Fertile Ground Dance, The Mayday Band & Backscratch Theatre, all of whom are generously offering their time for free in service of a good cause.

Tickets are now on sale from the Northern Stage box office.

£10 all-in-one ticket (£5 concessions)
£6 daytime only (£3 concessions)
£6 evening only (£3 concessions)
Information via the Facebook Event


Friday, 19 September 2014

The Scottish referendum and the English Left

This was first published on Counterfire.

Mark Perryman’s 2 recent articles, published as opinion pieces by Counterfire, offer an interesting perspective on some of the issues arising from the Scottish independence debate.

I have some disagreements, but I certainly welcome the focus he puts on rediscovering some key left-wing thinkers and writers on issues of nationalism, democracy and the British state, and more importantly the recognition that such issues are integral to contemporary left-wing politics and require some fresh analysis.

The break-up of Britain is something that both Mark and I advocate and see as a progressive blow against British nationalism and a highly centralised, conservative and unaccountable British state. There are some on the left who see this question as simply irrelevant – underestimating the importance of the British state both ideologically and as a facilitator of capital – or who broadly defend the British state on spurious grounds of ‘class solidarity’. In truth, solidarity is not defined by national boundaries and the ‘socialist internationalism’ which many left-ish advocates of a ‘No’ vote advocated is a weak cover for making concessions to British nationalism.

Mark also grasps, as some on the left sadly do not, that democracy is a major battleground in contemporary politics. This is bound up with a set of social and economic grievances. The struggles over democracy do not necessarily take a straightforward ‘class’ form, which has confused elements of the left. In Scotland what’s happened is that struggles over austerity, inequality, etc, have increasingly become refracted through ‘the national question’.

This is not, as some suggest, a betrayal of class politics, but a version of it. The movement for independence became an expression of working class hostility to the neoliberal consensus and a means of fighting for an alternative to it. And that won’t go away: the aspiration to independence will continue to figure in Scottish struggles over a range of issues.

The ‘break up of Britain’ is therefore about democracy as something inextricably tied up with a cluster of issues affecting people’s lives. It is shaped by the experience of neoliberalism and by disaffection with its effects. The struggle for Scottish independence is a particular, distinctive, version of something broader – the campaign became a chance to break free from a neoliberal model that affects all of us. It is not primarily, or indeed to any real extent, about ‘national identity’ or ‘nationalism’.

The growth of working class support for independence, especially among traditional Labour supporters and most striking in places like Glasgow and Dundee, reveals something about the severe weakening of Labour hegemony over working class politics in Scotland. The same process is at work in England and Wales, but at a slower pace and in not quite such an acute form. This process is shaped by Labour’s ‘social neoliberalism’, its embrace of a set of orthodoxies pioneered by Thatcher but with some modifications which make it more palatable to working class voters.

The increasingly distinctive nature of Scottish politics post-devolution, with Holyrood as a significant dimension of Scottish politics and the SNP positioning itself as a social democratic party, has affected Labour’s place in the political landscape. Its alliance with Tories and Lib Dems in Better Together has further eroded it. It is now likely that the SNP will play a dominant role in Holyrood for some years to come, with potential for any new left-wing formation (emerging from radical independence campaigning) to eat into Labour’s vote.

Mark acknowledges that the ‘national question’ cannot be the same in English politics as in Scottish politics, but he underestimates just how different it is – and how significant this difference is. We have, frankly, no experience of a distinctively English politics that is progressive and beneficial to the left. Billy Bragg has, like Mark, often championed a ‘progressive Englishness’, yet Bragg recently acknowledged that while Scottish nationalism is ‘civic’, the English variety is ‘ethnic’; where the former (in its contemporary form) is welcoming to migrants and is multi-cultural, the latter defines itself according to xenophobia, parochialism and anti-European paranoia.

And, of course, many supporters of independence in Scotland don’t identify with any kind of nationalism – the two things are far from synonymous, and the big story of the referendum results is how ‘Yes’ won majorities in important traditionally Labour, working class territory, while failing to do so in ‘SNP strongholds’. It was in many ways a class vote, motivated by a set of class-based issues.

I use the term ‘English left’ because I have for some time recognised that a distinctive dynamic to Scottish politics – with a major focus on fighting for an independent Scotland – means there is no longer a ‘British left’ in the traditional sense. I think Mark is right to say that such a view has been rather unfashionable on the left: Labour (including its left wing) remains staunchly Unionist, while much of the radical left has been slow to register these developments, shaped as it is by an earlier era.

But – and this is important – such a designation does not mean advocating a focus on English identity or emphasising any sort of distinctively English politics. This simply isn’t feasible in anything like the way it’s been possible for the Scottish radical left, through things like Radical Independence Campaign, to locate itself in a distinctively Scottish context, as a result of there being a referendum campaign to fight.

English nationalism, like the British nationalism to which it is closely related, is generally a reactionary force. In the current climate there is a strong trend on the right – among Tories and Ukip – to exploit people’s grievances in a way that encourages anti-Scottish hostility and deploys a degree of English nationalism. Calls for an English parliament will of course do nothing for the left – we already have a largely English parliament at Westminster and it would be no kind of democratic advance. It is an issue beloved of a parochial, xenophobic section of the Right which feels nostalgic, socially conservative and embittered.

We need to be putting forward a series of demands for regional devolution (with real teeth), the strengthening and better funding of local government, an end to the cult-of-personality directly elected mayors, an elected second chamber, and so on. The new wave of discussion and debate about the future of democracy and the political geography of the UK can potentially be shaped by various different political forces. It will take considerable effort, and striving for co-operation across a fairly broad spectrum, to move the debate emphatically in a positive direction for the left.

We want to weaken the power of a highly centralised state and make advances for democracy. Celebrating any version (however seemingly progressive) of Englishness won’t help us here. What does need further investigation and debate is a whole cluster of issues around the economic and political geography of the UK: regional imbalances economically, the distinctive place of London in our economy, and so on.

In current circumstances, we are right to take constitutional politics seriously to an extent the left has rarely done so before. It isn’t some distraction from ‘the class struggle’, but rather a site of contestation. The big issues around democracy, devolution and the constitution are a mediating of deeper conflicts to do with wealth and power in our society. They are, bluntly, class issues.

Finally, it should be stressed that we do indeed have things to learn from the Radical Independence Campaign – a remarkable success story for the best elements of the left – but we need to clear they’re not lessons to do with distinctive national identity. In England we should strive to emulate their ambition, commitment to broad unity and dedication to reaching layers of society not normally involved in politics. We also need to grasp, as they have done, the centrality of democracy to contemporary struggles for social change, the importance of advocating alternatives as well as fiercely critiquing the status quo, and their tactical inventiveness.

Just as a new Scottish left has developed in the last two or three years, so there are indications of what is possible in England. We need to take the process much further in the months and years ahead.


Sunday, 14 September 2014

Scotland's vote, Britain's crisis - lessons from the independence referendum

Buchanan Street, Glasgow, 13 September. Photo: Suki Sangha
Here are 10 important things to consider, regardless of the outcome of this Thursday's referendum.

1. There is a democratic upsurge in Scotland. 97% of potential voters are registered for the referendum, with a very high turnout predicted. 'Yes' campaigners relish the prospect of a high turnout; 'No' campaigners are nervous of it. There has been large-scale electoral registration in recent weeks, much of it thanks to  registration drives by Radical Independence and other 'Yes' campaigners, especially among the young and the poor.

Just as importantly, mass meetings have taken place in every corner of Scotland attracting people who don't normally regard themselves as 'political'. There have been mass canvasses, flash mobs and astonishing scenes in Glasgow on Saturday. Thousands have become political activists for the first time, with a thriving grassroots movement for 'Yes'. This will have a permanent effect - the new activists and the newly politicised won't be 'put back in their box'.

2. The greatest hope comes from the radical grassroots. The official Yes campaign has had its strengths and weaknesses, but there has also been a vibrant unofficial campaign of activist groups, Green campaigners, socialists, websites and cultural networks which has frequently moved beyond the limits and moderation of the official campaign. It has expressed the politics of 'Yes, and...', seeing a Yes vote as merely the beginning in moving towards a more socially just future, a way of opening up greater space for contesting neoliberalism, renewing radical working class politics and articulating alternatives to a status quo of inequality, austerity and war.

It has been dynamic, creative and frequently young; both diverse and inclusive. The 'No' camp, by contrast, is tightly controlled and looks, sounds and feels rather stale. The Radical Independence Campaign (key slogan: Britain is for the rich - Scotland can be ours) especially has linked independence to a bigger vision of social, political and economic transformation, treating independence as a starting point for more far-reaching change.

3. Apathy is a myth. The widespread illusion that people - particularly young people - are uninterested in politics has been exposed as hollow. When offered real alternatives, and when engaged on matters of real substance, there is an appetite for political engagement. Normally marginal topics - from Trident to the constitution- can become matters of serious scrutiny and intense debate. There is no reason to believe this can only happen in Scotland.

Lowering the voting age to 16 made a contribution to engaging the young, though it has been about much more than that. And the independence debate has reached into deprived communities normally alienated by politics, in large part due to the efforts of left-wing and radical currents.

4. Westminster is broken. One recent poll asked Yes voters what motivates them. 'Westminster's style of politics' was the most popular from a list of options, chosen by 51% of Yes voters surveyed. It isn't simply about hating the Tories, though that is visceral, but about a (justified) lack of faith in a post-May 2015 Labour government reversing Tory attacks and making real reforms.

The deep popular disaffection with Westminster's hollowed-out democracy and its political orthodoxies can go in different directions. It can boost UKIP. But the referendum also indicates it can be channelled in a positive direction. Again: this is not something that must be an exclusively Scottish phenomenon.

5. The British ruling class is more scared than at any time in 30 years. The Miners' Strike of 1984-85 is the last time that establishment panic and hysteria reached the fever pitch levels we are currently witnessing, as politicians, banks and big business fear the threat posed by a victory for independence.

The British state remains firmly linked to British capital, and the bulk of the ruling class is strongly opposed to an independent Scotland. The markets are very jittery and will be much more than that on Friday if the vote goes the way they fear. The lack of preparation for a Yes victory - by government, civil service and the foreign policy and military establishment - speaks eloquently of the state of denial these institutions have been in. It reveals how unthinkable and appalling the prospect of independence is to them.

6. The British ruling class will do all it can to crush opposition when it is threatened. It may just be facing its gravest defeat since 1974, when the trade union movement brought down a Tory government. The hysteria of much of the British and Scottish press has been something to behold. We've even had front pages telling us that Deutsche Bank predicts a Second Great Depression as a result of independence, despite us having already had a Second Great Depression, for which banks like Deutsche Bank were largely responsible.

The BBC - a publicly funded broadcaster tied into the ideology of the British state - has generated a fierce backlash because of its shameless bias. No wonder thousands of people protested about bias and slander outside BBC Scotland. We have also seen banks, major corporations and supermarket chains threatening to leave Scotland and issuing dire warnings of rising prices or economic meltdown. The nastiness of the British state and elite institutions has been revealed for all to see. We could still see much more of this if there is indeed a 'Yes' victory, as the political, financial and business leaders of the defeated 'No' camp struggle to minimise the damage and obstruct the process of moving towards an independent Scotland in 2016.

7. British nationalism is both toxic and fragile. This is exemplified by the Sunday Telegraph's grotesque front page suggesting that independence will be a betrayal of Scottish soldiers have been killed as part of the British armed forces. This is a repellent piece of nationalist emotional blackmail - originating with former armed forces chief Lord Dannatt - but it also has a rather pathetic quality of nostalgia and decay.

British nationalism doesn't have quite the hold it once did, the institutions which once gave it some material substance are now discredited (like the BBC) or being dismantled (like the NHS), and its modern character is very post-empire, fragile rather than swaggering. This is not to deny its still considerable ideological power - nor is it to overlook the serious problems of racism and scapegoating in our society - but to note that it lacks the depth of social base it one possessed (and if there is a 'Yes' victory on Thursday its force will be eroded significantly).

8. Democracy is now a major battleground in British politics. Much of the left really doesn't get this: advocating an abstract ideal of future socialist democracy while blind to areas of current contention, from the House of Lords to the lack of regional devolution, from the slashing of funding for local government to the growth of corporate influence at Westminster. The more perceptive elements of the left grasp that democracy is important in the here and now, that people care about it, and that it is bound up with all sorts of social and economic issues. We should also be aware that if Scots vote for independence, there will be an almighty battle - south of the border as much as north of it - over the negotiation process, with Westminster and the British state putting numerous obstacles in the way. This means we could very soon face a prolonged struggle over a big democratic question.

35 years of neoliberalism have hollowed out democracy. The gaps between the mainstream parties have narrowed, politics has become technocratic and managerial, and our elected representatives are less likely than ever to come from working class backgrounds. Local government has been gutted, due to a combination of cuts, reorganisation and the preposterous craze for 'executive mayors', and anti-union laws have eroded workers' rights and weakened their resistance. This referendum campaign has offered a glimpse of something better - for Scots, yes, but also for the rest of us if we fight for it.

9. Independence is a ticking time bomb. 'No' has a substantial lead among those aged 65 or over. If it is a very narrow defeat for independence on Thursday, the long-term prospect - 10 or 15 years from now - is likely to be a victory in any fresh referendum.

The 25-34 age group - the Iraq war generation, we might say, as that was such a politically formative event for many of them - is notably more pro-independence than most. This generation, too, has provided many of the 'Yes' activists and the backbone of the Radical Independence Campaign. They learnt from Iraq how destructive the British nation state can be. They also learnt what a democratic deficit looks like.

10. The left can be rebuilt. The Scottish left, which had been so fractious and stagnant a few years ago, has emerged strengthened, with a new generation of socialist activists developing and new alliances formed (of course some have been left behind, but the more active, astute and outward-looking have seized the opportunities). This new left still has some way to go, but the direction of travel is the right one. It has proven how it is possible for socialists to make their politics relevant and to connect with wider layers of working class people, including on housing schemes (neglected by politicians) where poverty is rife.

The English left, too, can be relevant and effective - if the lessons are learnt and the fatalistic miserabilism is ignored. A left that shapes struggles against austerity, war and racism, builds broad coalitions and communicates alternatives clearly can make an impact and grow. Alternative political directions are possible.


Friday, 12 September 2014

The Guardian's 7 reasons why Scotland should vote NO in the independence referendum

Radical Independence Campaign activists
Key points from the Guardian's editorial opposing Scottish independence:
1. Scottish nationalism is a bad thing. What's that you say? Did someone mention British nationalism? Sorry - we only recognise one kind of nationalism.
2. Alex Salmond is anti-English, but don't ask us for any evidence because then things might get awkward.
3. Yes, there are elements other than the SNP campaigning for independence, but they don't matter.
4. The Bank of England's governor says independence is a bad idea. So there.
5. Westminster can deliver social and economic justice... no, really... stop laughing!
6. It's bad that the SNP want to cut corporation tax, but let's not talk about how Westminster governments since 1979 have cut taxes on the rich and allowed inequality to grow.
7. We think independence should be rejected in favour of an elected second chamber and greater devolution, even though these things are not actually on offer (and, in any case, British democracy and political institutions are weak and deeply conservative).