La Lotta Continua (or, Plus ça change…)

It seems I need to write about Brighton Pride every couple of years. If you missed the previous instalments, here’s what I wrote two years ago, and here’s the (rather tetchy) piece I posted in 2012.

noone is illegalYesterday, I was proud to march in the parade with the contingent from Lesbians & Gays Support the Migrants (Brighton), alongside the Hummingbird Project, Brighton Migrant Solidarity and the English Disco Lovers. We gave out leaflets to the crowd lining the streets, about how the aggressive maintenance of European and British borders results in the brutal detention and deportation of queer people, and how LGBTQ rights are being weaponised as a tool of racism. If you are interested in getting involved in LGSMBrighton, please go along to their next meeting on August 17th, 7.30pm, at Knoyle Hall, Brighton.

I felt at home playing this slightly disruptive role on the parade, reclaiming the march as a political space, complete with placards and chants (“Refugees are here to stay, let’s deport Theresa May!”).

The first Pride was a riot

Afterwards, relaxing on the Level, we were discussing how Brighton Pride has changed over the decades since I was involved in getting it started. There’s been a massive transformation, not just of that event, of course, but of the whole attitude of society towards queer people. I picked up Brighton Solfed’s leaflet on the subject during the afternoon, and found it uncharacteristically clunky in its analysis, jumping straight from rioting New York drag queens in 1969 to Brighton Pride as commercial orgy, with nothing about the struggles in between.

Surely, that’s the most interesting bit – how did we travel from there to here, and what can we learn about how society gets transformed?

As if by magic

My first observation is that it seems to have happened when I wasn’t looking. That may be literally true – I was quite preoccupied with parenting for at least a decade from 1997, by which time Section 28 was long gone from the statute books and civil partnerships were well established in law. However, I think that even if I had been paying close attention, I wouldn’t have been able to spot this change happening, because that is part of the nature of societal change.

Things as they are now (at any given moment) present the illusion of having always been so. But (paradoxically) the way things are when we first become aware of them is fixed in our minds as somehow more real, or true, than any previous or subsequent reality. The fact of Pride as a moneyspinner for the whole city is undeniable, but for those of us who met with town hall officials to challenge the stubbornly heterosexual presentation of Brighton as a family resort in the late 1980s, it still seems somehow unlikely.

Pushing back against the backlash

My (obviously partial) understanding of what happened is that there were a series of struggles. The one in which I was most directly involved was provoked by Section 28 – a really shocking piece of legislation designed to appease bigots within the Conservative Party by threatening teachers and local government workers who dared to voice views unacceptable to the Christian right. It was a law which truly created “thoughtcrime” and which was, of course, never tested in court. There was no need to prosecute anyone, as the law was designed to operate directly on the minds of local government managers, to prevent new initiatives, to stop people discussing homosexuality, to create an atmosphere of fear.

section 28

The enactment of this law was itself a backlash against the initial implementation of equality policies within a few left-wing Labour councils, mainly in London. The hysterical reaction to this from sections of the media was part of a terrifying atmosphere of hatred, focused particularly on gay men, who were blamed for the AIDS tragedy even as they watched their friends and lovers die.

Many of the equality officers who put forward anti-discrimination measures in London boroughs in the 1980s had been trained in the Greater London Council (GLC), where Ken Livingstone’s popular, left-wing administration was such a threat to the Thatcher government that the whole organisation found itself abolished in 1986.

In 1988, it seemed that the Labour left’s tactic of introducing anti-discrimination policies from above had backfired badly, with the GLC abolished and a pernicious law in place to stifle any further imaginative ideas. But it was this backlash which finally produced the grassroots rebellion that had been missing until then.

The campaign against Section 28 was chaotic, passionate, angry. It was driven by outrage, fear, and a feeling that we may as well be hanged for a sheep as for a lamb. If we were so hated as to be specifically legislated against, if we were blamed even for the disease that was killing us, why not fight back?

We had no real strategy to prevent the law coming into effect. The Tories had a large majority in Parliament and the campaign had hardly begun before it was ostensibly defeated. But we didn’t accept defeat. We carried on organising, demanding change, rebuilding a community. We made plenty of mistakes and had lots of rows.

The Section 28 campaign in Brighton was the crucible of Brighton Pride. It was also pioneering in terms of rebalancing relationships between the lesbian & gay community and the police, and initiated the shift towards promoting Brighton as a destination for LGBT tourism. By the time Section 28 was repealed in 2003 (2000 in Scotland), it had already been dead for a long time.

Many of the things we asked for at that time – in a spirit of demanding the impossible – have come about. So why do I feel so ambivalent about Brighton Pride?

Why does winning feel like losing?

Power struggles are rarely straightforwardly won or lost. I am certain that our campaigning changed attitudes, in a more thorough and lasting way than the policy prescriptions of Haringey council could have done alone. Just being visible, supporting each other and having the courage to demand reasonable treatment was revolutionary. We took the campaign into our lives as we grew older, not by continually protesting, but by refusing to be closeted and claiming our rightful place as equal citizens. Pride was, and is, part of that process.

But the structures of capitalism and patriarchy were more flexible than the Christian fundamentalists had hoped, less brittle than we perhaps expected. I think the decision of professional campaigners to focus on marriage as a key goal meant that the direction of organised lesbian & gay campaigning became explicitly towards becoming incorporated into existing structures and systems, rather than changing them. The development of donor insemination techniques and the opening up of adoption to lesbian & gay couples also meant that ‘traditional family life’ became a real option for many of us, opening up new life choices but removing our former ability to view these institutions from the outside with a critical eye.

Meanwhile, capitalism did what it does best, and seized every new opportunity to make a profit. From gay wedding fairs to rainbow-decked Tesco floats on yesterday’s parade, we have finally made it as a highly valued market segment – not really the outcome I was hoping for.

We changed the world, but we have to keep changing it

The process of change is more complicated than writing a policy, passing a law or organising a campaign. The interaction between all those things – and many others – is what has brought us from there to here.

Nobody in this story had a winning strategy, and nobody has definitively won. The forces of capitalism are powerful, but there isn’t a central conspiracy and things can be fundamentally shifted by ordinary people taking action.

One key lesson for me is about the danger of assuming you have won because you have become part of the establishment. Employing good people to implement equal opportunities policies in London was not enough to change the situation of lesbians and gay men in the 1980s. Electing a socialist as Leader of the Labour Party is not enough to change people’s views about the kind of society we need.

We need a grassroots movement to do that. People who can support each other to speak out and argue the case for solidarity, collectively owned public services, fair wages for those who do vital caring work, justice and equality for migrants and refugees, and a genuinely sustainable relationship between the economy and the planet.

We need to keep demanding the impossible, and never forget that everything we have was won by the struggles of those who came before us.


Labour pains

As I think I mentioned before, I’m not hugely persuaded that anyone knows what’s really going on. Everybody is getting only a partial view of things, from within their own particular bubble.

I’m very aware that the bubble I live in (lefty Brighton, pretty much) is perhaps especially peculiar. I’m trying not to generalise too much from that very particular experience.

I have rejoined the Labour Party because I think a defeat for Corbyn now would be demoralising for thousands of people who see Corbyn as the only politician with the integrity to represent their interests. A return to the slick, content-free, Westminster-focused, sharp-suited Labour Party we had become used to would send many of those thousands back to a place of disengaged despair, while others would likely turn to UKIP, or worse.

I think it’s important to defend Corbyn, but for several reasons, I think it’s unfortunate that the Labour Party is the location of this important debate.

The Labour Party is run by people who try to solve political problems by organisational methods

The NEC’s hysterical reaction to the election of pro-Corbyn officers at Brighton & Hove Labour Party’s entirely calm AGM last week is a pretty extreme example of this, but there are countless others.

Tragically, this description applies to plenty of people on the left as well as the right. It was pretty much unavoidable as a way of surviving in Labour’s culture over the last few decades. But it has led to an unhealthy focus on winning internal elections and votes of confidence among those who took it upon themselves to organise Corbyn supporters after the last leadership contest.

The eagerness of people on both sides of the party to take each other to court over the interpretation and application of the party’s own rules is deeply unedifying.

In the end, the political disagreement is still there. Neither side is about to give up and go home if some higher authority rules against them. So all this fixation on the letter of the law is a waste of everyone’s time. As the author of this interesting piece concludes:

“The complaint of socialists in the Labour Party for the last ten years has always been that the party is too geared towards parliamentarism and too tied up in constitutional coils. The desire of members to become politicians, the desire of Unite to have its own group of MPs, led to the PLP becoming unduly powerful. But now the socialists have seized power the cloak they have inherited from the old controllers has become an iron cage. … We all know the members have constitutional advantage. They need to turn that advantage into power and control, and to do that they need to stop talking about the constitutional legitimacy of Corbyn. They need to give other reasons as to why they should commandeer the party, why Corbyn should be the leader of the opposition, why they have any place in history at all.”

The new members are not just recruits in an existing faction fight

Because of the inward looking nature of the Labour Party, the influx of new members brought about by Corbyn’s election has been mistaken by the left for an army of reinforcements for the faction fight in which they were already engaged.

But this is not what happened at all. Instead, the Corbyn wave was an attempt by disenfranchised, disenchanted people to knock the party off course, to shake it out of its well-worn groove. There was no coherent plan or strategy, just a seizing of a one-off opportunity to bring socialist ideas back into the mainstream of British politics.

I think the Corbyn vote is part of a series of shocks delivered by an excluded public to an establishment they view as detached and out of touch. From the expenses scandal through to the shock of all shocks that was the vote to leave the EU, there have been a series of eruptions of a subterranean sense of outrage against the political and media consensus. Each one has been presented to us (by that same media) as an inexplicable and isolated surprise, but I think they are linked, not by organisation or even intention, but in the way described so beautifully in this piece by Rebecca Solnit:

“After a rain mushrooms appear on the surface of the earth as if from nowhere. Many come from a sometimes vast underground fungus that remains invisible and largely unknown. What we call mushrooms, mycologists call the fruiting body of the larger, less visible fungus. Uprisings and revolutions are often considered to be spontaneous, but it is the less visible long-term organising and groundwork – or underground work – that often laid the foundation. Changes in ideas and values also result from work done by writers, scholars, public intellectuals, social activists and participants in social media. To many, it seems insignificant or peripheral until very different outcomes emerge from transformed assumptions about who and what matters, who should be heard and believed, who has rights.”

I went to the Momentum rally in Brighton last Saturday. It was probably the biggest political meeting I’ve ever been to in the city. But I felt that there was an opportunity missed – Corbyn’s ideas had motivated 500 people to come together on a Saturday afternoon, but the ideas and issues themselves were hardly mentioned. More to the point, there was no discussion of the dire situations faced by thousands of our fellow citizens here in Brighton & Hove – insecure housing, precarious and exploitative work, food poverty, benefit sanctions and cuts, collapsing public services – nor the many local campaigns already being waged by exhausted activists.

There’s a reason why there’s no alternative left candidate

The ascension of Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of the Labour Party is not the culmination of a strong, self-confident left, building up mass support and winning the leadership of the democratic party of the working class. It’s a fluke, an accident, a slip-up by an out-of-touch political elite, which has resulted in this vertiginous catapulting of Corbyn from the party’s fringes to its very top.

As some old bloke with a beard once said, we make our own history, but we do not make it as we please (or something like that). When a chance presents itself, you need to take it. But we should be honest and realistic about our strengths and weaknesses.

This is not about one man, but currently, Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party is all we have. There is no alternative left candidate, because the left in the Labour Party was a small, isolated minority until five minutes ago. The structures of the party were designed specifically to keep power and control in the hands of those who already have it. If we want Corbyn’s leadership to mean something in the long term, then being a member of the Labour Party needs to mean something more than turning up to vote the right way at occasional meetings, or turning up to deliver leaflets when an election comes round.

Rather than the illusory democracy of a £3 supporters’ vote and an opaque National Policy Forum process – both of which have been snatched away at the first sniff of them being used by undesirables – the Labour Party needs to become a place for real democratic debate, about issues that matter to real people. It needs to be transformed into a party that represents working class people, by enabling them to speak for themselves.

The Labour Party is not yet a democratic party

Whether or not Corbyn retains the leadership, the profound political differences within the Labour Party are not going away and can’t be short-circuited. They need to be addressed in a political way, through democratic debate. Our anti-democratic electoral system (and its consequence of large, internally divided parties) is perhaps the biggest obstacle to that. I agree with Matt Bolton that fighting to change the electoral system is a top priority now, though I am not convinced by his conclusions overall.

People who have been under sustained attack for decades need space and support to develop a self-confident voice.

Brexit does change everything. It has finally shattered the illusion of consensus that was created under Blair, Brown, Clegg and Cameron. I was astonished to witness Tessa Jowell on Newsnight a few days ago, arguing that the Labour Party needs to return to the consensus, seemingly having failed to notice that there is no such thing.

The connecting thread between the expenses and phone hacking scandals, the Scottish referendum, the election of Jeremy Corbyn and even Brexit (with a much more frightening overtone of racism) is the call for democracy. Not the sterile democracy of a vote every five years but something deeper and stronger. The Labour Party could become the midwife of a more democratic politics, but only if it is willing to transform itself.

That means open community meetings, accessible language, acceptance of criticism, willingness to listen and engage with people, even if you don’t agree with them on everything. It means turning outwards to invite people to share their experiences and views, and offering them practical help with the difficult things they are facing. It means a complete change of culture. Can the Labour Party do this?

 


Pulling myself together

I have been out of active politics since January. I was overcommitted and exhausted. I needed some time to get my life back into balance and to figure out how to make a contribution without sacrificing my whole identity to a never-ending round of “crucial” but painfully unproductive meetings and actions.

It’s been a useful and educational process, and I’m glad I took a break. I’m sorry to anyone who felt let down by my abrupt departure from the campaigns I was involved in, but I was simply unable to carry on at that pitch.

After two and a half years of campaigning against austerity through the People’s Assembly, I also felt frustrated by our failure to reach beyond the usual suspects of left wing activism – people like me – and make real connections with people whose security and safety was most profoundly threatened by the onslaught of benefit cuts, rent rises, precarious employment and racist sentiment.

There was – is – something seriously wrong with our whole mode and model of activism. I think, looking back on it, that the election of Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of the Labour Party was the thing that demonstrated this most clearly to me. Last September, I wrote:

“If anyone thinks that “we” – whether that means Corbyn’s team, the activist left, the left within the Labour Party, or any defined group of people that can agree on a course of action and carry it out – can control what happens next, they are sadly mistaken.”

Unfortunately, what happened next was (possibly) the absorption of Corbyn’s supporters into an internal faction fight in the Labour party, while the Tories mistook a battered and angry population for pawns in their own faction fight and delivered us all into the chaotic disaster we face today.

Like everyone else, I’ve spent the last few days obsessively reading about the unfolding crisis caused by the UK’s vote to leave the EU. I was on holiday in Barcelona when the result was announced – we spent Friday in a daze – looking at beautiful art works in the Catalan National Art Museum and wondering what on earth would become of our country and our continent.

This referendum result feels like a gigantic act of self-harm, akin to burning down your own community centre or smashing all the windows in your own and your neighbours’ houses. I understand the urge to turn things upside down, to dig ones heels in and say no, you can’t take us for granted any more.

But the strongly anti-immigrant and racist nature of the Brexit campaign (and, for that matter, the Remain campaign and all mainstream political discourse for the last decade) is undeniable. I am very scared for the safety of everyone perceived as “foreign” in the coming months and years.

I am not in any position to say what “we” should do next. I think the proliferation of “what next for the left” articles is less than helpful, to be honest. I’m afraid I think that Paul Mason’s excellent proposal for Labour’s strategy is wishful thinking, given the current media feeding frenzy which seems likely to see Corbyn deposed in the next few days.

What I plan to do next is to get involved in grassroots volunteer support for people who are being done over by disaster capitalism. To listen to what they need, offer my skills and challenge racism when I can. To love my family and friends and try to find laughter and joy despite our fears. These are dark times. We need to stay strong for each other.


Riding the wave – let’s not lose our nerve

Labour Party conference is in town, and it’s fascinating in a way it hasn’t been for decades. Here are a few more words on how I see things developing. As I said before, now that we live in a world where six impossible things can happen before breakfast, I think it’s foolish to be too certain about anything – all my conclusions are tentative.

Let’s not mistake debate for division

I went to the Red Pepper fringe meeting last night, which was a really interesting discussion about the future of social movements, with Corbyn in the leadership of the Labour Party. There were excellent contributions from a range of thinkers and activists on the platform – most impressively, in my view, Neal Lawson of Compass and Ewa Jasiewicz, whose track record as an activist and organiser is phenomenal. She is involved in Fuel Poverty Action, Reclaim the Power and is now a Unite union organiser, working with hotel workers.

Ewa talked about the way Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell had been stalwart supporters of all the campaigns she’s worked on – they would turn up at the demos, put down Early Day Motions in Parliament, listen to and represent campaigners. To have people like that on the opposition front bench is a scenario none of us predicted, only a few months ago. Ewa clearly wants to offer them support in return, to defend them against the onslaught from the media and the right wing within Labour – but she is still undecided about whether joining the party is the best way to do that.

Neal Lawson told an oft-repeated story about Roosevelt, lobbied by union leaders soon after he became president, who concluded the meeting by saying “I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.” Neal’s point was that progressive political change always happens because of popular pressure. Corbyn’s leadership relies on the massive wave of popular support he has attracted, and we have to keep that pressure up to keep him afloat.

Neal also spoke about the old ideas about vanguard leadership having been swept away. He said Facebook has replaced the factory as a location for communication and organising. Far from the masses needing to be mobilised and led by tactical thinkers, the wave now carries everyone and everything before it. A good social media campaign, such as the one that supported Corbyn’s leadership bid, is about making space for discussion, sharing resources and tools, and empowering people to take action, not about broadcasting the line.

If anyone thinks that “we” – whether that means Corbyn’s team, the activist left, the left within the Labour Party, or any defined group of people that can agree on a course of action and carry it out – can control what happens next, they are sadly mistaken.

It seems to me that there might be more than one right thing to do now. If Corbyn’s leadership has brought the Labour Party back to its rightful position as part of the wider labour and social justice movement, then that movement needs to remain vibrant, diverse, autonomous and challenging.

If the debate turns inwards, all is lost

Over 60,000 people have joined the Labour Party since Corbyn was elected leader. Together with the thousands who joined during the leadership election campaign, these new members have a unique opportunity to give the party’s culture a much needed overhaul.

But cultures are resilient things, and there is a grave danger that instead, the new members will be “ground down with endless canvassing and procedures”, as Anthony Barnett warns in this excellent piece today.

Worse, they may find themselves sucked in and spat out, exhausted, by a vicious internal debate, as the new leadership’s policies bump up against the habits and preferences of unaltered local leaderships around the country.

I think the recent experience of socialists in the Green Party in Brighton is a timely warning. The party’s surprise success in the 2011 local elections turned its internal debates into damaging divisions. As I said in 2013, the ensuing focus of the Green left on winning arguments within the party left campaigners outside feeling abandoned and ignored. At a time when we hoped for real resistance to the assault on local government, with some of our people on the inside, our allies in the party switched their focus to an internal battle which they were unable to win.

As an alternative to this unappealing prospect, I was pleased to see this initative by Red Pepper, to build a network of anti-austerity activists committed to working together within and outside the Labour Party.

Can Brighton show the way?

In many ways, the success of Corbyn’s campaign was prefigured in Brighton. In 2010 we elected – against all odds – the first Green MP ever elected under First Past the Post. In 2011, Brighton & Hove voters surprised everyone by electing more Green councillors than representatives of any other party. In 2015, we bucked the trend again, returning one Labour and one Green MP to Parliament, amidst a sea of blue in the rest of the South East.

Caroline Lucas’s increased majority was built on her reputation for straight talking, honest politics, her commitment to clear principles and her untiring hard work as a constituency MP. She, like Jeremy Corbyn, has not forgotten her roots in the activist movement, and has been prepared to stand – and sit – with us on the streets as well as in Parliament.

The wave that swept Corbyn to the leadership of the Labour Party began to swell in 2009 with the expenses scandal. It gained momentum in Brighton, with those unprecedented Green victories, and elsewhere took a more frightening form, with the growth of UKIP. It brought down the News of the World and is painfully unravelling the dark web of abuse at the heart of the political establishment. It forced the BBC to include the Green Party, SNP and Plaid Cymru in the 2015 general election televised debates – bringing anti-austerity arguments to more people than ever before.

Corbyn’s extraordinary success is built on all these extraordinary happenings, driven by the hunger of British people for justice.

The result of the 2015 general election was a blow to that sense of justice and the reaction has been powerful. In Brighton, hundreds more people have begun to take action on a whole range of issues, raising money for refugees, organising events on climate change, thinking about new forms of democracy, calling for an end to the housing crisis and challenging political parties to work together for the common good.

Brighton People’s Assembly against Austerity is one strand in this fast-developing movement. Everyone is invited to the next People’s Assembly meeting on October 7th, to talk about how we can work together to have maximum impact locally. I hope members of all progressive parties – and none – will join the discussion.


World turned upside down

Jeremy Corbyn is the leader of the Labour Party.

I’m still having to repeat it to myself occasionally to remind myself that it’s true. And I think none of us yet knows what it really means.

For the whole of my adult life, I’ve been wishing for a Labour Party leadership that really stood up for the interests of working class people. I’ve been part of lots of campaigns and movements that have been hampered by the fact that we didn’t have that kind of representation and support in Parliament.

Over the last five years, its absence has been acutely galling – as disabled people, women, benefit claimants, immigrants, tenants, the NHS and public services have faced attacks that left thousands despairing, while the Labour Party meekly acquiesced.

So the overwhelming election of Jeremy Corbyn is an incredible boost for everyone that has been campaigning against austerity. It gives us a much louder voice in Parliament and shatters the Westminster consensus, giving courage to many within the Labour Party whose natural inclination to speak out against the unjust austerity regime has been stifled by their wish to remain loyal to their party.

Of course, Corbyn has a fight on his hands in the Parliamentary Labour Party. He’s going to need the backing of the massive wave of supporters that swept him to the front bench.

I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t believe anybody does – we are in uncharted territory. Although it’s tempting to come up with a bunch of predictions and prescriptions, I think it’s too soon to say what’s likely or possible, or to advise anyone about what they ought to be doing now.

So my observations are tentative and incomplete, and possibly contradictory.

The Labour Party needs to be redesigned from the bottom up

It needs to turn away from a narrow focus on electoral campaigning and develop an open, outward-looking and democratic culture. Policies must be determined by members, not handed down from above.

If this doesn’t happen quickly, many of those new members will drift away. Here’s some good advice for Jeremy Corbyn, from Compass.

The Labour Party should be the political wing of the wider anti-austerity movement

That means we need to keep campaigning on the issues that are affecting people now, and welcome Labour Party members, old and new, to work alongside us.

Jeremy Corbyn has always believed in the power of protest to force political change. He was right.

Corbyn’s base is in the activist movements whose members have had to get used to working round the Labour Party, not through it. But the Labour Party and the activists can no longer afford to ignore each other. The adjustment will be tricky on both sides.

Rather than angrily standing outside the Town Hall while Labour councillors vote to make people on benefits pay 67% more council tax, for example, can we shift their position from within the Labour Party? I truly don’t know – we never succeeded in doing this in the 1980s and 90s, when the party’s structures were nominally much more democratic than they are now. On the other hand, Jeremy Corbyn was never leader of the Labour Party then, so who knows?

Climate change remains a global emergency

In the leadership election campaign, Corbyn said that as leader he “would establish an Energy Commission to draft a fundamental shift in UK energy thinking.” He should appoint Caroline Lucas to chair it.

In Brighton, Labour and Greens need to start working together

There have been some excellent steps towards this, initiated by Brighton & Hove Compass. I hope that Corbyn’s election, and Caroline Lucas’s positive response to it will give a boost to these initial ideas. For local party politics, this is the key problem that needs to be resolved.

As the cuts bite deeper, progressive voters (many of whom were part of the Corbyn wave) have less and less patience for turf wars and point scoring between Labour and Green councillors.

Labour will benefit from a big influx of members in Brighton, as elsewhere, in the wake of Corbyn’s election. But they will have to accept that many of these members will continue to vote, and even campaign, for Caroline Lucas in Brighton Pavilion. That is the nature of the new style of politics, and I think we all have a lot to gain by embracing it.


Calais

So I went to Calais as part of the Critical Mass to Calais bike ride last weekend.

A week later, I am no closer to having anything coherent to say about it, but I thought I would put down some of the disjointed ideas it sparked anyway.

Travel/pilgrimage/migration

As David Charles pointed out in his excellent piece about the bike ride, cycling is not the most efficient way to get bikes from London to Calais. But the process of travelling there under (to some extent) our own steam gave me plenty of time to think about what such journeys mean for people in different circumstances.

I spent some days thinking about what to take with me, trying to imagine what I would need and what would be unnecessary weight on my bike. Everyone planning a long journey must make decisions like this, especially if their journey is on foot or by bike.

It is quite a satisfying experience, to pack your bags well and efficiently, to know where to find the things you need along the way, to be pleased with what you have brought and what you have left behind. But I was haunted by the thought of people packing for a journey they could not imagine and could not prepare for. I thought about what that process would feel like if every decision brought with it a pang of sorrow.

Before I left, lots of people told me I was doing a great thing. My journey was admirable. I realised that for people like me, travel is always to be admired. Even if I had been heading off on a holiday, people would have been pleased with me, congratulated me on my spirit of adventure. Our culture celebrates exploration, exertion and discovery.

In Kent, our route incorporated paths and roads now marked as the Pilgrim’s Way, a reminder of an older tradition of journeys made for the sake of journeying, and in the hope of hospitality along the way.

But for the people we met in Calais, and those trapped in Greece and Hungary, hospitality and admiration have been much harder to find.

Refugees and migrants

Nearly all the people we saw at the camp in Calais were young men. 90% of those stuck there are men, though I did see a young child in the brief time I spent there.

When I say young men, I mean very young. I spoke with one young man who was probably no older than my daughter, about to set off on her own big adventure to university in a couple of weeks’ time. He told me he wanted to reach the UK, so that he could work and send money back to support his family in Sudan.

I think Paul Mason is right in this piece, when he says that the distinctions between people fleeing war and poverty are increasingly meaningless.

Why is getting on your bike to find work the right thing to do if you are unemployed in the north of England, but the wrong thing if you are in Sudan? (clue: racism)

Charity and solidarity

The spontaneous mass movement of people all across Europe wanting to welcome refugees and share their belongings, and even homes, with them has been astonishing.

Just as the political institutions of Europe are being swept away by the sheer numbers of people arriving, so the power of the media to determine public opinion is being undermined by the swifter and deeper communication of Facebook.

As this excellent piece by Plan C describes, there is not a clear distinction between charity on one hand and political pressure on the other. David Cameron has been forced to shift his position in just a couple of days. All four Labour leadership candidates declared themselves in support of offering sanctuary to more refugees in the Sky News debate on Thursday, in terms that would have been unutterable by most Labour candidates before the election.

Human structures

The camp at Calais is hardly built at all. All the buildings are made of wood and tarpaulin, those that are not simply tents. There is a tap, but no sanitation to speak of. When it rained on Sunday night (after I had left), many structures were simply washed away.

And yet, there are systems. There are roads. There is a shop and a cafe. There is a church, a mosque, a library and a school. There are neighbourhoods, marked with signs showing the countries where people have come from – Sudan, Afghanistan, Ethiopia. People make society, whatever their circumstances.

I didn’t take any photos on my trip. Here is a photo album taken on the same day by Natasha Quarmby, who was careful not to compromise anyone’s immigration claim or exploit their plight for sentimental or campaigning purposes.

I’m glad I went. I wish I had stayed longer in the camp (as it turned out, my ferry didn’t leave for another six hours, so I could have done). I hope we can keep up the pressure on the governments of Europe long enough to make a real change for everyone who needs a safe haven here.


New Labour left us defenceless against this ideological attack

There have been a series of leaks and announcements in the past few days, as the government prepares to unleash its emergency budget on us on Wednesday. Amidst the rumoured horrors of cuts to tax credits, lowering of the benefit cap, abolition of the work related activity group and a new system of housing benefit that will never cover your rent, I spotted two – seemingly minor – announcements, which give us a clue as to why the Tories are confident enough to be pushing through with this smash & grab on the welfare state.

Printing the cost of medicines on the packaging

Jeremy Hunt has announced that from next year, all prescription medicines will be marked with ‘funded by the taxpayer’ and medicines costing over £20 will also show this price on the label.

The official reason for this move is apparently to encourage people to take their medicine. I’m not sure I understand how this is supposed to work – I guess on the basis that people only value things if they know the price of them – but it doesn’t really matter, as this is of course not the real reason.

Some people have (not surprisingly) interpreted this as a personal attack on them – not only do they have to put up with being chronically sick and dependent on medicines, but now they are expected to feel guilty about it too! The originators of this petition, for example, point out this and several other drawbacks to the plan, and come up with a few better suggestions for dealing with the purported problem of wasted drugs. But that’s not the real reason either.

No, Jeremy Hunt himself told us the reason on Question Time last week. In answer to a question about whether patients should be charged for missing GP appointments, he said:

“I think in practical terms it could be difficult to do, but I’ve taken a step towards that this week by announcing that when people do miss an appointment they will be told how much that’s cost the NHS.”

There you have it, from the horse’s mouth. Telling people the cost of something is a step towards charging them that cost.

This is not the first step towards charging people for their prescription medicines. Prescription charges, introduced by the Tories in 1952, were the first step. Until the late 1970s, these were very low (they were increased to 20p in 1971), but they were increased rapidly under the Thatcher government. Even an administrative charge undermines the whole concept of a free service, as Aneurin Bevan understood very well, when he resigned from the Labour government (in part over this issue) in 1951.

Next, it was important to make sure everything was allocated a price and to put in place all the mechanisms for ‘buying’ and ‘selling’ services between different parts of the same organisation. The Tories introduced an internal market into the NHS in 1991 and New Labour left it there. They even chipped in themselves with a series of reforms in the early 2000s, to promote the idea of patient choice. There’s no evidence that any of this has improved health outcomes, and plenty of reason to believe it is draining the NHS of billions of pounds each year.

As soon as the internal market was in place, a key cultural shift happened. According to a 2010 review of the academic literature by thinktank Civitas,

“Several changes in the organisational culture of the NHS were noted. … There was an increase in cost – consciousness throughout the NHS, and physicians saw their historically unquestioned authority at times equalled by, at times surpassed by, NHS managers. For the first time, it seemed, the concepts of consumerism, value for money, and accountability for output permeated the NHS. While Kirkup and Donaldson (1994) observed early on that many of the reforms failed to realise their full potential to achieve beneficial change … Rudolf Klein considered these changes to be so significant that ‘No future government could return to the pre – 1991 situation’. This cultural shift remains the most unquestioned outcome of the first NHS quasi market.”

Once the idea of a market in healthcare is established – right in the very heart of our NHS – the foundations are laid for expanding the market to new providers and new purchasers.

This is the reason for printing the cost of medicines on the packaging. Jeremy Hunt even said it out loud, and nobody seemed to notice.

Charging higher rents to council tenants on higher incomes

The deliberate dismantling of the system of council housing is one of the most complete achievements of the Thatcher government. The method used – Right to Buy – was a quintessential divide-and-rule move, designed to wipe out in one stroke the idea of council housing as a collectively owned resource, available to anyone.

This mob – perhaps wishing to emulate their heroine, or just to finish off her work – are now planning to put the boot into council housing’s almost lifeless corpse with two further moves, along the same lines. One is the almost laughable (if it weren’t so tragic) idea of extending the Right to Buy to Housing Association tenants.

In order to compensate the Housing Associations, the government plans to force local councils to sell off the most valuable of their remaining stock as it becomes vacant. So the policy will grab housing out of the social sector with both hands, undoubtedly worsening the housing crisis that is already causing so much suffering.

The second move, which I want to discuss here, is the idea of charging higher rents for council tenants whose household income is over £30,000 or £40,000. Here’s another story on it. That one calls it a ‘crackdown’.

Both those pieces – presumably echoing the language used by the government in announcing this plan – talk about council rents as “subsidised” and contrast them with “the full market rent”. But council rents are not subsidised. There is no flow of money from general taxation towards council housing. In fact, for many years money flowed exactly in the opposite direction – there was a ‘negative subsidy’ from council rents into the treasury. That system has since been changed, following the successful and tenacious Daylight Robbery campaign by tenants. But the fact remains that council rents more than cover the cost of maintaining the stock of council housing.

If council rents are not subsidised, why are they so much lower than rents in the private sector? How come people can live in council houses, get their rent paid by housing benefit and be left with more disposable income than people who have worked hard, saved up for a deposit and got a mortgage?

The answer is that house prices (in the south east) are still hugely inflated by a bubble of unsustainable private debt. And private rents are even more out of control. Rather than let slip that it is council rents which relate more closely to the ‘true’ or ‘real’ cost of providing a decent home, the government is desperate to have us believe that these ridiculously puffed up private sector costs are in some way natural (“the full market cost”).

This is a genius policy for the government. Not only does it wipe out the threat of a good example from the public sector. It also throws in a big helping of divide and rule between council tenants and everyone else, and between council tenants who are working and those who are not.

And – most importantly of all – it reinforces the idea that council housing, and all public services, are some form of charity, only to be made available to the most needy and most deserving of the poor. If you can redefine those ‘needy’ and ‘deserving’ categories to be mutually exclusive, all the better!

We have been disarmed

These are Tory ideas, building on Tory foundations. But Labour kept those foundations in place when in government. They never challenged them and they still don’t.

Labour don’t support the NHS Reinstatement Bill. They say it requires too radical a reorganisation of the NHS.

Labour support the Right to Buy in the council housing sector. It is not even certain that they will oppose its extension to Housing Association tenants.

Labour welcomed lowering the benefits cap and introduced the Work Capability Assessment.

Their silence and collusion with these ideas has weakened those of us who want to oppose these (and all the other) attacks on working class people.

Markets are not the right solution for healthcare, or housing. But in an atmosphere of political consensus, it is hard for voters to see collective solutions based on solidarity as a meaningful alternative. Voting for Jeremy Corbyn is a small part of challenging that consensus.

But much more important is providing practical solidarity for people who are at the sharp end, and creating spaces in which people can start to develop a different way of organising things.

Balls to the Budget! Let’s build something better.


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