News from the jobcentres, assessment centres, and prisons: late February round-up

Another quick round-up of news across a few different areas:

In repression news, five water charge protesters are still in jail in Ireland for protesting against water meter installations. I’ve not been able to find any addresses to write to the five in jail, but I’ll keep looking. In the mean time, the movement’s not taken this attack lying down, with a fresh wave of angry protests in response, as well as ongoing resistance preventing water meters from being installed. It’s difficult keeping up with the myriad of facebook pages reporting on what seems to be a genuinely decentralised movement, but Release the Water Warriors NOW seems to be the main campaign for the release of the five, and the Workers’ Solidarity Movement continue to provide ongoing reporting from an anarchist perspective. Meanwhile, closer to home, the ongoing police crackdown on anarchists in Bristol has resulted in its first jailing, with Emma Sheppard being given two years for damaging the tyres of police cars.

You can write to Emma at:

Emma Sheppard
HMP Eastwood Park
Church Avenue
GL12 8DB

Also in repression news, Edinburgh SolFed are continuing with their regular protests against the Operation Pandora campaign against anarchists in Spain, with the next one planned for Friday 6th March.

In workplace news, London IWW are still continuing with their campaigns for sacked Friends House Hospitality workers and the staff of the Leicester Square School of English. As part of the latter campaign, there’s going to be a picket of a bridge tournament held by the Drapers’ Guild in order to hold wage-stealing boss and Drapers’ Guild member Craig Tallents to account, which will be happening in the afternoon of Monday 2nd March. Meanwhile, blacklisting campaigners have a piece in the Guardian highlighting their struggle and the extent of state collusion in corporate spying, and the Independent’s also been reporting on how British Airways spied on its own staff. Also, I’ve previously reported on how Crossrail promised to reinstate a sacked worker less than an hour into a protest against the dismissal – they’ve now gone back on their word, and so further action is needed to pressure them into seeing sense. The next protest against the sacking will be meeting outside Bond Street tube station at 7am on Monday 2nd. The national construction rank-and-file and the Blacklist Support Group will both be meeting next Saturday in Glasgow, and have said that all supporters are welcome to attend.


In welfare news, we’re in the middle of a string of national days of action: this week saw action at jobcentres across the UK in solidarity with Tony Cox, the Scottish Unemployed Workers Network activist arrested for accompanying a claimant to a jobcentre interview, and next week sees the day of action against Maximus, with actions planned at an impressive list of locations across the UK, as well as in Toronto. Following on from that, there’s also the national day of action against benefit sanctions on the 19th. Some claimant activists have criticised this as not offering genuine opposition to sanctions, and it’s certainly true that there’s a contradiction between Unite Community’s opposition to sanctions and the Unite leadership’s support for Labour, and so for benefit sanctions, but I don’t think this is a reason not to take part: instead, rank-and-file claimants should make sure that the message on the ground is one of total opposition to all sanctions from whatever quarter, not support for Labour electioneering.

Dorset IWW at Bournemouth jobcentre

In antifascist news, it’s good to see that the opposition massively outnumbered Pegida’s attempt at a rally in Newcastle today, since antifascist turnout in the North-East hasn’t always been consistently strong, and while it doesn’t seem that anymore confrontational opposition took place, the North-East Antifascists leaflet for the march at least put across a good class position. Meanwhile, the national Anti-Fascist Network have listed a number of events coming up in March.

The ongoing housing movement continues to develop, especially in London: most notably at the Aylesbury estate occupation, which is still ongoing. They’re next in court on March 4th, and are asking for supporters to turn up at Lambeth court then.

Finally, a few early libertarian responses to the election: Angry Not Apathetic is the Anarchist Federation’s anti-electoral campaign, while Plan C Manchester have set out their campaign statement.

So, just to sum up: this Monday sees a rank-and-file construction worker protest against unfair sackings at Crossrail from 7.30 in the morning, claimant-led action against Maximus and the Work Capacity Assessment at around 30 sites across the country (and Canada), and then a picket of a bridge tournament at the Drapers’ Guild in the evening targeting wage-stealing boss Craig Tallents. And that’s just the Monday. Busy days.

Posted in Anarchists, Disability, Housing, Occupations, Protests, Racism, Repression, The right, Unemployment, claimants and welfare, Unions, Work | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Dangerous talk: things I’ve learned from the media in the last few weeks

Things I’ve learnt from the media recently:

If a specialist professional commentator – a journalist, academic, or someone like that – wants to say something, then that’s free speech and debate, and everyone should pay attention to their opinion.

If people who aren’t specialist professional commentators want to say what they think about those professional commentators, or voice their opinion about whether or not they want to hear from them, or have a conversation about which venues might be suitable for certain speakers, that’s not free speech or engaging in debate, that’s dangerous censorship and a threat to our freedoms.

If working-class people who aren’t specialist professional commentators get arrested for saying the wrong thing in the wrong place, or if they get jailed for protesting and then launch a hunger strike… well, that’s not a free speech issue, that’s not even really a news story worth reporting on much. Free speech is about a few specialist professionals having the freedom to say what they want wherever they want, if ordinary working-class people get jailed for protesting in the wrong place that’s just the way things are.

Posted in Repression, The media, Unemployment, claimants and welfare | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

…as long as you’re not dumb enough to actually try it: once more on free speech and censorship

Free speech and censorship are subjects that’ve attracted a lot of attention recently, and look likely to carry on causing controversy for a while to come. The most heated and high-profile debates have been around Islam and blasphemy, but that’s certainly not the only subject that’s getting self-styled defenders of free speech in an uproar: at the moment, an odd line-up of critics ranging from the attention-seeking contrarian wankers at Spiked to a long list of trans-exclusionary feminist academics are getting themselves worked up about a supposed culture of censorship in universities – and, crucially, are getting a fair bit of space in the media for their anxieties. Sara Ahmed has already provided a very thought-provoking demolition of the “academic feminists against censorship” position here, and I definitely can’t add anything to her argument from a feminist perspective; instead, I just want to think  bit more about free speech, what it is, and who’s threatening it.

I think freedom of speech is important, but I also think it’s a concept that’s often misused. The basic definition I normally tend to use is being free to say what you want without being arrested for it, although in the light of recent events it’s probably appropriate to adjust that to being free to say what you want without being arrested or murdered for it. That’s quite a neat, simple concept, but it’s one that wouldn’t cover a lot of recent debates: for instance, in the case of Germaine Greer – and indeed Marine Le Pen – the issue being discussed is whether these speakers should be free to say what they want, and automatically given a platform at Oxford or Cambridge unions to broadcast it. This is clearly very different territory – if it is indeed a basic human right to be invited to speak at Oxford or Cambridge Union, then you and I are having our rights violated at this very moment. Of course, this idea is unsustainably daft, so it would appear that what we’re talking about is not the right to freedom of speech, but the fairly rare privilege of being offered a particularly prestigious platform for one’s views. Somehow, that doesn’t work quite so well as a snappy slogan.

But just because some of those raising a fuss about freedom of speech are either very disingenuous or very daft – or both – is no reason to dismiss the issue altogether. Censorship is still an important menace that should be resisted, whether it comes in the form of state legislation or murderous violence, so many of those speaking up in defence of freedom of speech at the moment are doing so with the best of intentions. With that in mind, here are some facts that should concern anyone who’s truly worried about protecting free speech:

In Ireland, over the last few weeks, the police have been arresting more and more people who’ve been using their freedom to protest against water charges – at least 20 at the last count, including several teenagers, and at least one as young as 14. Perhaps TD Paul Murphy, who genuinely is a prominent figure of a kind, might get a platform in the media to talk about his experiences of censorship, but the rest of the defendants are likely to carry on being quietly shut out of the press, the way most of us are most of the time.

In France, since the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris, the state’s been tackling this threat to free speech by arresting over 70 people for voicing their opinions, with probably the most memorable case being the teenager who was arrested for making “ironic comments” on social media.

In Spain, last year the government passed a gagging law bringing in a range of incredibly harsh fines for saying the wrong things. Since then, the Operation Pandora crackdown on anarchists led to a number of people being jailed without charge, and there are still two anarchist comrades who’ve been held in pretrial detention since November 2013 without being convicted of anything. On a smaller scale, police harassment against anarchists is still ongoing in Bristol.

In Scotland, the police recently arrested a member of the Scottish Unemployed Workers Network for accompanying a claimant to a jobcentre to give them advice and support during a jobcentre appointment. In Dudley, the police pre-emptively arrested 27 antifascists the other week, and on the Crossrail site in London – a site where a worker recently lost his life, and the inquest into his death still has not reported yeta worker was sacked for raising health and safety concerns last week, although he’s now been reinstated thanks to speedy and effective rank-and-file action*.

If you’re concerned about freedom of speech, and you want to protect it, there are some practical things you can do about most of these cases: I’d definitely recommend joining in the national day of action at jobcentres against the attack on claimants’ rights, while spreading information about these cases is worthwhile in its own right, and you can also join or organise protests in solidarity with the victims of repression in Spain and Ireland. These are all things that people who want to defend freedom of speech can and should do. On the other hand, if you’re in favour of freedom of speech, but your idea of freedom of speech covers the freedom for journalists and cartoonists to say things that offend Muslims, but not the freedom for claimants to give each other advice and support at the jobcentre, or if you’re tremendously concerned about the rights of academics you like to be given whatever platform they want, but can’t get quite as worked up about the rights of workers to raise health and safety issues in the workplace – maybe you should give it a rest, eh?


*observant readers will note here that this case also doesn’t quite fit into my minimal definition of freedom of speech as being able to say what you want without being arrested or murdered. But I think being able to speak out without being arrested, murdered or sacked is still a limited enough definition to be worth defending, and a long way from the kind of “freedom to say what you want, using whatever platform you want to amplify your voice, with no consequences of any kind whatsoever” idiocy being peddled in some corners.

Posted in Anarchists, Protests, Repression, Unemployment, claimants and welfare | Tagged , | 1 Comment

The fast and the furious: rank-and-file action wins reinstatement for sacked worker in under an hour

Construction is one of the last industries left in the UK with a strong, well-organised rank-and-file presence, and construction workers have been responsible for some of the most impressive workplace victories in this country in recent years. Today saw another lesson of the power of rank-and-file direct action: last Friday, a worker on the Crossrail project was sacked after raising health and safety concerns on the site – a site where another worker, Rene Tkacik, lost their life recently. This morning, construction workers brought Oxford Street to a standstill, and within an hour of their protest starting, the sacked worker had been reinstated.

Oxford Street

From a report on Union Solidarity International:

Anti-blacklist protestors are this morning celebrating after a worker sacked on Friday for raising safety concerns on the Crossrail project has been reinstated.

Members of the Blacklist Support Group were demonstrating in Oxford Street when they heard the Unite rep is to get his job back.

A spokesperson told USi News: “The reputation of the rank and file is getting better and better. Rather than face another year-long dispute, the company has settled within minutes of our protest starting.”

When he started work last Monday, the Unite member was told he had work for three years if he wanted it. But on Friday he was told there was no more work for him.

He said: “On Wednesday, I registered my concerns about some trestle boards we had to carry materials over. They weren’t fixed down and were over a gap a meter high. If you fell off or put your foot into a gap in the board, you’d break your ankle, fall on your face, whatever.

“I suggested they build a temporary bridge over them, but that would cost them time and money which is why, I guess, they didn’t bother.

“I’m ecstatic now I’ve got my job back. Hopefully it’ll set a precedent to let Crossrail know everyone deserves to work in a safe place. At the moment there’s a climate of fear there. Most people are employed by an agency and be moved at any time. Hopefully this will stop that.”

The Unite member, who does not want to be named, has been informed he is on full pay while the union sorts out the details of his employment. He was sub-contracted to work for VGC.

The Reel News collective have also produced this video about the case:

Posted in Protests, Stuff that I think is pretty awesome, Unions, Work | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

More news about water, work, welfare and wage theft: Mid-February round-up

It’s been a few weeks since I did a proper news round-up. While there’s not been that much in the way of big, attention-grabbing stories, there’s still a multitude of local struggles going on up and down the country, so I’d like to try and highlight a few of those.

But first, a brief bit of international news. The South African farmworkers’ union, CSAAWU, was recently hit with an incredibly punitive court order forcing them to pay R600,000 (that’s $54,800 or £3,3400), which could well bankrupt them, so it’s good to report that, thanks to international solidarity, they’ve hit their first target of raising $10,000. There’s a long way still to go, but it’s clear that they’re not beaten yet. Meanwhile in Spain, the seven anarchists being held without trial as part of Operation Pandora have been released on bail, although there are still charges against them, and two others are still in prison having been held for more than a year. There’s a new poster out with information about the case here. Edinburgh Solidarity Federation are continuing to hold protests outside the Spanish consulate to highlight the case, with the next planned for March 6.

While the Spanish state has been reluctantly releasing some of its dissidents, the Irish one has been cracking down hard with a wave of arrests against anti-water charge campaigners. I’ve been getting most of my information on this via the Workers’ Solidarity Movement, who put most of their coverage on facebook – see here and here for examples, which can make it a little hard to get more indepth information, but they do have a couple of articles on their main site about the current repression. The Rebel City Writers blog also has an article about the events, along with another looking at how the movement as a whole should react.

In legal news closer to home, charges have been dropped against anti-militarists who took action against an arms fair in Cardiff, and Swansea IWW member Brandon is currently fighting deportation, essentially for being poor.

The movement for affordable housing continues to develop in London, as the March for Homes was followed by a brief invasion of a site where even more luxury housing is being built, as well as a longer-lived occupation of some empty buildings on the Aylesbury Estate. The Aylesbury occupiers are holding a big activity day today, and on Monday they’ll be in court fighting the council’s attempt to evict them. There’s also a pretty extensive week of action being organised by the Radical Housing Network coming up, involving everything from filmshowings and discussions to direct action against an eviction. Meanwhile, the Focus E15 Mothers organised a mock eviction outside the British Credit Awards, the bailiff industry gala. Hopefully, some of this energy will spread beyond the capital – there’s a meeting being held to set up a tenants’ union in Hastings, which is an encouraging sign.

A top debt collection businessman looking uncomfortable.

Beyond housing, welfare and public services in general are still under attack, and resistance is still continuing. Haringey Solidarity Group’s campaign to pressure the North London Hospice into pulling out of workfare appears to be making progress, and they’ve called off protests against the hospice for now, although they’re ready to restart the campaign if the hospice try to weasel out of their commitments. Folk in Haringey are also fighting against council cuts more broadly, with big protests at the council meetings where cuts to their services are being voted through.

Elsewhere, Scottish Unemployed Network member Tony Cox was arrested for accompanying a claimant to the jobcentre, and so various claimants’ groups are calling for a day of action at jobcentres on the 25th to highlight this attack on claimants and let people know about their rights at the jobcentre. Beyond that, Leeds Welfare Fightback will be rallying against sanctions, welfare cuts and miserable work on Saturday 28th, and then there’s two national welfare events coming up in March: Disabled People Against Cuts will be taking action on March 2nd against the Work Capacity Assessment and poverty profiteers Maximus (who, in case you’ve not heard of them, took over the WCA contract when Atos were driven out of it), with an impressive 25 events planned across the country, plus another outside Maximus’ offices in Toronto, and Unite Community will be holding a national day of demonstrations against benefit sanctions on March 19th.

While housing and welfare are both important sites of struggle, things haven’t been totally quiet on the workplace front either – Brighton Hospitality Workers are still fighting against wage theft, most recently at Caffe Bar Italia, and London IWW are supporting a campaign run by three dismissed zero-hours hospitality workers at the Friends House, as well as the ongoing struggle of staff who’ve had their wages stolen by Craig Tallents at the Leicester Square School of English. The RMT are demanding the reinstatement of sacked train driver Alex McGuigan, and this article rebuts some of the lies being put around by London Underground management about the case. Safety at the Crossrail project in London continues to be a major issue – on Monday 23rd, there’s going to be an inquest into the death of Rene Tkacik, a worker who was killed on the job, with a silent vigil going on ouside, and there’s also reports that an electrician working on the project has just been sacked for raising health and safety concerns – hopefully we should learn more about that soon.

Finally, antifascists are also keeping busy at the moment – recently we’ve seen the pre-emptive arrest of 27 antifascists before an EDL demo in Dudley, opposition to the leader of the French National Front being invited to Oxford Union, and Polish neo-nazis were forced to cancel a planned gig in Luton. Coming up soon, there’s benefit gigs happening in both Brighton and London, as well as action against a worrying number of far-right events, including Pegida UK and National Action in Newcastle and a planned anti-Semitic demo in Stamford Hill, among others.

Posted in Anarchists, Disability, Housing, Protests, Repression, The right, Unemployment, claimants and welfare, Unions, Work | 1 Comment

Redacted: some critical notes on the ideas of Red Action

Last year, Manchester University Press published a book called “Against the Grain: The British Far Left from 1956”, which looks as though it might be of interest for anyone who wants to learn from the successes and failures of previous attempts at revolutionary organisation in this country. Sadly, the price tag is £75, which puts it well out of the price range of most casual readers. However, the chapter on Red Action, which looked to be one of the more interesting sections anyway, has now been made available for free on the Red Action archive website, so I was keen to read it, and having read it I thought it was worth typing up a few notes on the subject.

What follows are is not a full review of Red Action as an organisation, based on either personal experience or an in-depth reading of their publications: I wasn’t born when they were set up, and I don’t think I ever really came into contact with them before they folded. Instead, I only really know them through the reputation of projects they were involved in, particularly Anti-Fascist Action (AFA) and the Independent Working-Class Association (IWCA), both of which seem to have been quite successful for a while. So, this piece of writing will be solely about Red Action, not as I experienced them, but as they’re presented in Mark Hayes’ essay: any areas not covered in the Hayes essay (for instance, RA’s relationship with other activists within AFA) will have to be passed over.

Hayes’ central argument is that “Red Action… managed, in some ways, to make a unique contribution to the politics of the far left in late twentieth-century Britain… There were elements of both theory and practice which warrant more sustained critical analysis.” This seems fair, as long as it’s understood that “critical analysis” is not taken to mean “uncritical agreement”: RA’s ideas were interesting, but they were also often wrong.

Hayes first traces RA’s development from a group of militant anti-fascists who were expelled from the SWP into a distinct organisation with their own ideas, including, crucially, a critique of Leninism and Trotskyism. Of course, RA weren’t the first group to develop a critique of Leninism, and they won’t be the last, but that doesn’t make their ideas any less valid: as long as people continue to push the Bolshevik party form as a model, there’s going to be a need for arguments in favour of directly democratic, bottom-up methods.

Hayes then sets out their criticisms of anarchism, which, predictably, I find a bit less impressive: for a group so keen to differentiate themselves from Trotskyism, it seems a bit odd that their arguments against anarchism seem to be copied almost word-for-word from the old American Trot Hal Draper. Given the context Red Action operated in, I think it would’ve been more interesting to see observations on the actual experience of working alongside anarchists like the Direct Action Movement, Class War and others inside AFA, rather than a recycling of what an American Trot decided were the eternal principles of anarchism in the 60s or so; still, it’s not my article.

The next section is one of the most interesting of the whole article, as Hayes sets out RA’s criticisms of trade unionism, and their belief that “due to the changing nature of capitalism, trade unionism as the centrepiece of a working-class strategy for total social change has to be dismissed. It is not that trade unionism is finished entirely, or that workplace activity is counter-productive, but that its political relevance to the working class will continue to diminish.” I’d always found it curious that RA never seemed to have any distinct workplace strategy, so it was good to read something that explained this lack. Having said that, I don’t find their arguments on the subject wholly convincing, and I think there’s a contradiction here that’s yet to be explained: if their central analysis was that there was a crisis of both working-class political organisation and workplace organisation, why did they end up concluding that the answer to the Labour Party’s lack of relevance was to set up a new political organisation (the IWCA), but their answer to the decline of the trade union movement was to accept that workplace activity was essentially finished?

It is to RA’s credit that they were able to acknowledge and analyse the declining power of the trade unions, since their perspective was vastly more realistic than the “CALL ON THE TUC TO CALL A GENERAL STRIKE!” rhetoric flogged by most of the Trot groups to this day; but the conclusion they drew about the diminishing relevance of workplace activity seems questionable, both on theoretical grounds – considering how keen Hayes is to establish RA’s credentials as Marxologists, it seems odd that they would neglect a subject as central to Marx’s thought as wage-labour – and in terms of everyday experience – I don’t like the government, or the local council, but I can’t really say that I really, properly feel gut hatred for them as such; for the real, personal, visceral hatred that comes with having to talk to someone every day, while know they’re doing things that actively, directly make your life worse in measurable ways, you can’t beat a manager.

The next sections of the essay discuss RA’s criticisms of the various “workers’ states”, their orientation towards working-class self-organisation, and their anti-fascist strategy, all of which can be counted among their strengths. In particular, while other groups before and since have criticised the state capitalist regimes and stressed the importance of self-activity, few have made as much of a significant practical contribution to keeping the far-right weak and marginalised.

Having set out what RA’s anti-fascism looked like in practice, Hayes then turns his attention to the theory behind it, and particularly their critique of liberal multiculturalism. This is one of the more distinctive points of the RA ideology, and so it’s unfortunate that it only gets a paragraph here, as it comes off rather simplistic and one-sided. Gender, for instance, receives only the most cursory of lip service, in statements like “Red Action steadfastly refused to endorse the liberal agenda which prioritised gender, ethnicity and sexuality over class”. Combined with references to “minority rights”, the argument Hayes makes stops just short of explicitly treating women as a minority group. The conclusion, as Hayes presents it, is that by foregrounding issues other than class, “Politics … becomes an exercise in special pleading with the working class divided, which inevitably undermined the possibility of effective, unified action” – a view that implicitly sees the working class as united (as well as straight, white and male) until identity politicians come along to divide it, rather than recognising that the class is already fragmented, and that struggles against racial, sexual, gendered and other forms of oppression are a necessary precondition for the possibility of class unity.

This is important not just because it’s bad politics – although it certainly is, it’s hard to see how anyone could defend a statement as flat and simplistic as “Gains made by minorities were, it was argued, made at the expense of working-class unity and advancement” – but because it’s bad politics tangled up with the germ of an important and necessary critique. Liberal multiculturalism, as a strategy of state patronage based around dividing people up into “communities” that are treated as fixed, homogenous, and static categories, and then cultivating a relationship between the state and individuals at the top of the internal hierarchies of these communities, does deserve to be attacked, but the critique of multiculturalism is only helpful or worthwhile if it’s part of a larger and better grassroots strategy for fighting oppression. To just criticise multiculturalism, while offering no positive programme for opposing oppression, just a finger-wagging reminder that “support for minority rights is… not the way forward” is to come off as distinctly uninterested in these struggles. (It is also extremely difficult to see what this analysis means in practice – is the #BlackLivesMatter movement against racist police killings an example of working-class people fighting back against state violence, and therefore good, or a demand for minority rights, and therefore divisive and bad?)

Identity politics becomes most dangerous and reactionary when it treats professional representatives of oppressed groups as automatically having the legitimacy to genuinely speak for everyone in the groups they claim to represent. The danger of this politics is that it doesn’t distinguish between stonewall the riot and Stonewall the charity, between explosions of rage like Brixton ‘81 or Feguson ‘14 and the charlatans trying to channel that energy back into support for the Labour or Democratic parties, between the feminism of the Mujeres Libres and the feminism of Hillary Clinton. But, at least as presented by Hayes, the RA critique also doesn’t seem to adequately distinguish between radical bottom-up and liberal state-focused approaches to these problems, lumping them all together as “not the way forward”. Far from weakening liberal cross-class multicultural ideology, these kind of arguments actually play into the hands of the professional representatives and “community leaders” associated with state multiculturalism: to argue against their anti-racist strategies without simultaneously putting across an alternative programme for advancing “gains made by minorities” is to reinforce their claim that to criticise them is to attack, or at least to be indifferent to the problems of, the communities they represent.

Having set out, or at least briefly touched on, the RA critique of multiculturalism, Hayes then moves on to another distinctive and controversial feature of the RA ideology: their uniquely high level of commitment to the cause of Irish Republicanism, and particularly for IRA bombing campaigns. This seems like a curious contradiction in their ideology: having detailed why RA opposed prioritising any issue other than class, Hayes then explains why they focused much of their activity on a national, rather than class, question. Personally, I can’t see that much of a difference between treating the Sinn Fein leadership as genuinely representative of most working-class Northern Irish Catholics and treating whatever Imam you can find who most agrees with you as being genuinely representative of most working-class Muslims. For RA, refusing to criticise Republican tactics seems to have been a point of pride. At the risk of being called a squeamish middle-class liberal, I support the right of British working-class people to get on trains or go to the pub without being bombed, but RA don’t appear to have made any distinction between these kind of targets and the attack on the Tory Party conference: it seems particularly ironic that a group who were so keen to stress the centrality of class to their analysis would also be unable to tell the difference between Margaret Thatcher and some ordinary London commuters.

Earlier in the essay, Hayes stresses that “Red Action adopted the view that the working class must be given the opportunity to determine its own destiny – they certainly did not require ‘commissioned officers’ from the middle classes to tell those in the ranks what do and how to behave”, but this supposed commitment to a directly democratic, insubordinate, bottom-up approach doesn’t seem to have caused any problems when taking orders from the IRA leadership.

Before moving on to the conclusion, it’s worth noting a conspicuous absence in Hayes’ article: any consideration of the circumstances that led to the group’s winding up. I don’t want to rely on an argument from success or numbers – after all, if long-term stability and size of membership are treated as indicators of a healthy political approach, the Labour Party is far superior to any socialist or anarchist group that’s ever existed  – but it does feel like anyone constructing a case for the merits of a defunct group should at least make some attempt to deal with why, instead of attracting new people and growing, it ended up stagnating and disbanding. Similarly, an indepth treatment of the Independent Working-Class Association project, especially an honest balance sheet that examined both failures and successes, would doubtless have a lot of lessons for anyone engaged in community organising projects today; such a study would definitely be worth a whole separate article at least, and I can only hope that one appears soon.

Hayes concludes that “distinctive elements of [the RA ideology] deserve much closer scrutiny”, and I would tend to agree, but only as long as close critical scrutiny does not imply straightforward acceptance. When scrutinised, RA, like me, you, and everyone else, turn out to be deeply contradictory: proclaiming their total rejection of Trotskyism out of one side of their mouths while reciting arguments memorised from old Trot pamphlets from the other; preaching working-class independence and rejection of top-down authority one moment and repeating the instructions of the Irish Republican leadership the next; and equally happy to brand people as liberals for putting too much stress on the interests of “minority groups” within the working class or for not putting enough emphasis on the struggle of Northern Irish Catholics. It’s true to say that some aspects of their ideas and practices – for instance, their commitment to working-class self-emancipation, their willingness to look honestly at the declining industrial muscle of the union movement, or their formidable contribution to the anti-fascist struggle – should be remembered “as examples of ‘best practice’”, but it’s equally true to say that other aspects – such as their willingness to bomb working-class civilians on the orders of aspiring generals and politicians – deserve to be written off as historical anomalies, hopefully never to be repeated, and that other key questions – such as pretty much anything to do with gender, or the challenges of workplace organising in a post-industrial economy – barely seem to have registered on their radar. In the end, as always with those that came before us, the point is not to praise or to bury them, but to retrieve what’s worth retrieving and let the rest be forgotten.

Posted in Bit more thinky, Debate, The left | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Have you heard the one about the politician and the tea lady?

As a general rule, for a “political” blogger, I don’t really write that much about what politicians say or do. I usually find it’s simplest to just start off assuming that whoever’s in power is going to try and screw us over, and then move on to the more interesting question of what we’re going to do about it without worrying too much about the details.

But every now and again, one of them says something that sticks in my head, and seems to demand further comment and exploration. Nick Clegg’s “why not invite the tea lady?” jab at David Cameron about the number of parties invited to electoral debates might seem like a fairly harmless joke about a pretty boring, irrelevant question, and it’s certainly a very long way down the list of bad things Clegg has said and done in his life, but I think it’s worth examining the joke to see how it works, and the assumptions that lie behind it.

“Having expressed this truly moving and touching dewy-eyed compassion for the fate of the Greens, David Cameron has said he is now equally worried about the fate of the DUP [Democratic Unionist party]. I suspect next week he will be worried about the fate of the Monster Raving Loony party and after that, when they are in, possibly the tea lady – why is she not in the debate as well?” What’s he really saying here, when you think about it, can be rephrased as “AHAHAHAHA IMAGINE A TEA LADY BEING INVITED TO A DEBATE WOULDN’T THAT BE FUNNY AHAHAHAHA IMAGINE AN ORDINARY PERSON HAVING OPINIONS ABOUT IMPORTANT STUFF HAHAHAHAHAHA THINK ABOUT IT, IMAGINE A WOMAN WHO WORKS FOR A LIVING, SOMEONE NOT LIKE US, HAVING VIEWS AND IDEAS AND BEING ABLE TO VOICE THEM IN PUBLIC AND HAVING HER IDEAS LISTENED TO AND TAKEN SERIOUSLY AHAHAHAHAAHAHAHA ISN’T THAT HILARIOUS?”

In the same way that, when you call someone a poof or a fag, you might be insulting the person you’re talking to, but it only works as an insult because of the underlying assumption that being gay is shameful, Clegg here is ridiculing Cameron by raising the image of him inviting a tea lady to a debate, but the ridicule only works if you share the assumption that it’s inherently funny for working-class people to talk about serious things. If you start off from the perspective that ordinary people are perfectly capable of discussing the issues that affect us and coming to sensible decisions about those issues, then Clegg’s punchline starts to become unimaginable. But then, if you start off from the perspective that ordinary people are perfectly capable of discussing the issues that affect us and coming to sensible decisions about those issues, then Clegg’s entire career and social position starts to become unimaginable.
By the way, it’s less revealing than his tea lady joke, but it’s still notable that, on the same occasion, he accused Cameron of “avoiding something which I think is a simple old-fashioned principle – if you have been in power, if you have run things you should be held to account”. Think about that for a second. Think about being the Deputy Prime Minister of this country for nearly five years. Then think about saying “if you have been in power, if you have run things you should be held to account” as a criticism of someone else. Think about how hard it would be to be the Deputy Prime Minister for almost five years, and then say “if you have been in power you should be held to account” as a criticism of someone else without dropping dead on the spot from the sheer hypocrisy of your statement, the staggering levels of self-delusion it must take to be Nick Clegg and to say something like that. Of course we all lie to ourselves at times, that’s unavoidable, but I think it’s far healthier to avoid ever getting yourself into a position where you need that level of total dishonesty in your relationship with reality in order to function. You could almost feel sorry for these people sometimes. Almost.

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