This is the text of the speech I gave at the Woman’s Place UK fringe meeting at Labour Party conference in Brighton on 23rd September 2019. I have added links and images, but not altered the words.
I’m 50 years old. I’ve been a left wing political activist since I was 12. When I was 15 I spoke in Trafalgar Square for Youth CND, alongside a young MP called Jeremy Corbyn. I campaigned against Section 28 and helped set up Brighton Pride. I made the front pages by invading the stage at the Brighton Centre when Princess Di was welcoming a homophobic conference. I’ve had eggs thrown at me in Churchill Square and glass bottles thrown at me in London for being an out lesbian.
But I’ve never been as worried about the consequences of speaking in public about my beliefs as I am here today.
I want to talk about the division that has opened up between many feminist activists of my generation and the current queer activist movement. We should be each other’s allies, but the atmosphere is so toxic that we are hardly able to speak to each other at all.
I am worried that trans people I know and like will feel hurt and will think I am their enemy. I am not. I am worried that I will lose the friendship of people I respect in Brighton & Hove. I am worried that I will be treated as an outcast in some political circles, and that this will make it difficult for me to continue my voluntary activity in solidarity with migrants and with benefit claimants in the city.
I hope people will be prepared to hear what I have to say in good faith. I think it is possible to disagree politically while remaining courteous and respectful. I think learning from each other is more important than winning.
I am worried, but I am doing this anyway, because something has gone very wrong, and I want to be part of helping to put it right.
I’m doing this because I can’t accept that women like Helen Steel deserve to be vilified and ostracised.
Helen Steel is a woman who has spent her life standing up against the destructive power of capitalism and the state. When McDonalds tried to shut her up by suing her for libel, she took them on in an epic court case – and won – earning the lifelong admiration of many in my generation. The state tried to shut her up by sending undercover police officers into her small activist group. Helen has survived being deceived into a relationship by one of these spy cops and is still fighting for justice for herself and other women affected.
But earlier this year, because Helen has spoken out about her feminist views, she was told that her presence made people feel unsafe, and asked to leave a climate protest camp, organised by a group she helped to found. Many other excellent feminist activists have been cast out in the same way.
If you are on the left and you think women like Helen Steel are suddenly the enemy, then something has gone very wrong.
My mum was a feminist of the second wave. She went to women’s liberation movement meetings in London in the early 70s and was part of the campaign to get the law changed to make sex discrimination illegal. Her generation of feminists, along with the organised labour movement, won some hugely important victories. As well as the Sex Discrimination and Equal Pay Acts, they won the right for women in most of the UK to access safe abortions, they established women’s refuges and rape crisis centres, and they paved the way for better representation of women in parliament, the media and the workforce.
When I came out at 18, it was into an activist movement that took feminist ideas seriously, and incorporated them into our practice. Brighton Area Action Against Section 28 listened to the experiences of lesbians who had broken away from the Gay Liberation Movement a decade earlier and we recognised that the way men and women are socialised means that men tend to dominate the space in mixed organisations. Therefore we made sure that our meetings were chaired by women and our campaign was represented by women in the media and on public platforms.
We rejected the Stonewall model of a paid CEO and professional lobbying, because we knew that real change comes only from below. We were one of the most active and longest-lasting local campaign groups in the movement against Section 28, and Brighton Pride emerged directly from our very political, grassroots, volunteer-run and female-led campaign.
My overwhelming memory of that time is of a feeling of freedom. Being involved in the campaign was an intensely creative and empowering experience of working collectively with other people to make new things happen and demand change. As well as discovering and establishing myself, I learned a lot about how grassroots activism can weave together the diverse experiences and skills of a community to create a sense of solidarity that is more powerful than repressive laws.
I am worried that the experience of being involved in queer activism now is not a liberating one, particularly for young women, female non-binary people and trans men. I hope I am mistaken about this.
But I have been listening to young women who have detransitioned, desisted or reidentified as women in the last few years, and one of the repeated themes of their stories is that within the trans community they felt that only only one path was available to them as they sought to understand themselves. Here are a few examples of statements I have seen from young detransitioned women, in the UK, in the last year:
“I knew I was a boy because I meet the diagnostic criteria for gender dysphoria – a strong rejection of typically feminine toys and typically feminine clothes, mostly male friends, a sense that my feelings and reactions were typical of boys, the desire to be treated as a boy. When I spoke about these experiences to older friends, or in online chat rooms, the message was affirming. Nobody encouraged the idea that it’s okay to be gender non conforming, Instead, friends and healthcare practitioners alike ‘affirmed’ my gender. Yes, you are a boy” (https://firstname.lastname@example.org/the-medicalization-of-gender-non-conforming-children-and-the-vulnerability-of-lesbian-youth-10d4ac517e8e)
“Internalised homophobia and misogyny can play havoc on your mental state. I was a vulnerable person and I saw this one option that fit, no one talked about how dysphoria can have other causes.” (https://twitter.com/tjdetrans/status/1139505371972886530)
“I wanted to find ways of dealing with my gender issues that aren’t medically transitioning, and those ways weren’t presented to me. The only solution that was presented was chopping your breasts off, injecting yourself with hormones and becoming a man.” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7CjeGgSRBcI&t=7s)
“It’s like my entire life for seven years has been dominated by my gender dysphoria and wanting to avoid it as much as possible by Passing, so much that I stopped being myself. Now I’m realising that my life doesn’t have to be constrained by having to pass. It’s so liberating.” (https://twitter.com/detransing/status/1127265875382419456)
If you are a movement for liberation, and your female activists feel that their involvement is constraining their possibilities, then something has gone very wrong.
During the New Labour years, while I was busy with young children, Brighton Pride became more and more commercialised and less and less political. When we organised a weekend of activities around a protest march in 1991, none of us could have predicted that it would become the massive corporate spectacle it is today.
Under Stonewall’s leadership, the LGBT movement has abandoned the feminist analysis of marriage as a key site of women’s oppression, and embraced large corporations and celebrity endorsements, until our community, with its radical, creative, subversive culture has become nothing more challenging than a market segment.
Slowly, I picked up a habit of holding my tongue. Nobody wanted to hear about how marriage is bad for women when there was a gay wedding fair to go to. What was the point of reminiscing about grassroots alternatives when we seemed to have achieved mainstream acceptance?
But it seems clear to me now that because we let that silence fall, young lesbians coming out into today’s queer activist movement are cut off from the experiences of lesbian feminists who came before them. In fact, older lesbian feminists are explicitly positioned as their enemies, while massive corporations are presented as their friends.
If you are a liberation movement and you think that Barclays, Aviva, Tesco, and Proctor & Gamble are on your side, then something has gone very wrong.
When my youngest child was 11, I started writing and thinking about politics again, as the impact of the Coalition government’s austerity programme began to hit.
I was inspired by the working class women leading campaigns against the Bedroom Tax in the north of England and the young single mums of Focus E15 in London. Since 2010, at every level, austerity has hit women harder, and women have been – as usual – expected to patch up the gaps in our shredded safety net.
Some of the most important gains made by feminists of my mother’s generation are under threat. Funding cuts are leaving refuges vulnerable, while at the same time women’s options are being severely restricted by benefit cuts and caps. Women are terrified that their children will be taken into care if they stay in an abusive relationship, but denied the financial means to leave. So far in 2019, at least 72 women in the UK have been killed by men.
We still need places of safety for women. But Stonewall, in 2015, recommended to the Women and Equalities Select Committee “A review of the Equality Act 2010 to include ‘gender identity’ rather than ‘gender reassignment’ as a protected characteristic and to remove exemptions, such as access to single-sex spaces”.
Just to be crystal clear, the exemptions they are referring to are the ones which allow service providers to exclude male people from some facilities and services, even if those male people have changed their legal sex by acquiring a Gender Recognition Certificate. The example given in the Act’s explanatory notes is this:
“A group counselling session is provided for female victims of sexual assault. The organisers do not allow transsexual people to attend as they judge that the clients who attend the group session are unlikely to do so if a male-to-female transsexual person was also there. This would be lawful.”
Feminists of my mum’s generation created safe spaces for female people to escape male violence. Spaces where women could have some respite, could share their trauma with other women who would understand, could begin to heal and make their way back into the world stronger. From nothing, women built up these services and kept them going over decades.
But Stonewall would like the law changed, so that these small, safe spaces, made by women for women, are no longer permitted to exist.
Here in Brighton, even without a change in the law, our local Rape Crisis service offers no female only support groups. All their services are open to trans women, on the basis of self-identification.
I am not in any way suggesting that trans women should be denied access to support if they have been assaulted, nor that it is unreasonable for rape crisis services and women’s refuges to provide services for trans women. But I do think it is unreasonable to campaign for the removal of female only spaces, which enable traumatised women to recover from male violence.
If you are a liberation movement and you want to make it illegal for members of an oppressed group to organise independently, then something has gone very wrong.
I am not an enemy of trans people. Nothing I have said this evening is an attack on trans people or a call for rights to be denied to any trans person.
All of us, in fact, have a much more dangerous enemy than each other and that is the growing threat of fascism, fuelled by catastrophic climate change.
At a moment when the human race is finally realising that we are not separate from the earth’s ecosystem, and our poisoning of the air, land and oceans is destroying our own habitat, we are already seeing how that plays out: more wars over resources, more movements of refugees across the world, and – as always in situations of conflict – more rape and trafficking of women, and intensified attempts to control our fertility.
Whatever is in store for us, as we head into the next stage of this national and global crisis, I think solidarity in diversity is going to be worth much more to all of us than the support of multinational corporations. We don’t need to flatten all distinctions between us, we don’t need to deny material reality, and we don’t need to set our minds against our bodies. Instead, we need to learn how to listen to each other and learn from each other.
That means, first of all, that everyone must acknowledge that there is a discussion to be had. We are well past the point where women will accept that our concerns are unspeakable.
The Labour Party should be facilitating this discussion. Let’s identify the common problems we are dealing with, and respectfully discuss how to tackle them. There will be areas where we disagree. It’s OK – in fact it is necessary – for people to disagree with each other. That is how we learn.
Let’s talk together about male violence. Three quarters of violent crimes and 94% of homicides are committed by male people. Feminism has many theories about why that is. I want to hear what young people think about it. I stand in solidarity with everyone who is victimised by the longstanding connection between masculinity and violence.
Let’s talk together about stereotypes and socialisation. How do children learn what it means to be a boy or a girl? What would society look like if we let go of gendered rules, roles and expectations? Does individual self-identification on a spectrum actually make a difference to the way society works?
Let’s talk together about self-organisation. I hope everyone would agree that groups of people who face oppression sometimes need exclusive spaces in which to relax, recover from, and collectively resist their oppression. I think it’s pretty clear that female people are an oppressed group, and need to be able to organise autonomously. If you disagree, let’s talk about it. Bring your argument and make your case. That’s what we do in the labour movement and in the feminist movement.
I regret that I held my tongue for such a long time. I am angry that I was intimidated into hiding my name for a year, when engaging with these issues. Women like me – like Helen Steel, like Linda Bellos, like Bea Campbell, like Julie Bindel – have every right to participate in discussion in the movements we have helped to create. We are not the enemy. Let’s talk.
Ken Loach’s new film, I, Daniel Blake, is a hard-hitting illustration of the cruel chaos our social security system has been reduced to. If you’ve had to deal with this system in the last few years, or if you’ve simply been paying attention to the voices of disabled activists over that time, you won’t be surprised by the events of the film. But Loach’s presentation of them through the fresh eyes of Daniel, a skilled carpenter rendered unable to work by a heart attack, deliberately highlights the shocking fact that our safety net is truly in tatters.
I’ve been volunteering in the computer room at Brighton Unemployed Centre Families Project for a couple of months now. I’ve met several real-life Daniels. One thing the film doesn’t show is the soul-destroying effect of the grotesque merry-go-round of ESA rejection/JSA application/appeal tribunal when it is followed almost immediately by another assessment and another rejection, starting the whole ridiculous business again. I met a man recently who reckoned he could easily end up living on the streets because of this kind of instability. He didn’t think he’d survive it again.
It also didn’t show the knock-on effect of sanctions on people’s housing. Both Daniel and his friend Katie were sanctioned in the film, leaving them without income for four weeks. We weren’t shown whether they contacted the local council to ensure their housing benefit was not automatically stopped – despite belated DWP guidance to the contrary, many people in real life have gone into rent arrears because of this delightful bureaucratic hiccup.
Some of the most upsetting sequences in the film showed single parent Katie struggling to keep her head above water, alone in an unfamiliar town, dependent on the kindness of strangers and the charity of the foodbank. The latest survey of foodbanks in Brighton & Hove was published just this month by Brighton & Hove Food Partnership. As you might expect, the city’s 15 foodbanks are dealing with increasing demand, due to benefit changes and delays, and high housing and transport costs. In 2016, local foodbanks are supplying 298 food parcels in an average week.
But real-life Katie is unlikely to be able to stay in Brighton for much longer, even with the help of her local foodbank. Right now, the weekly benefit entitlement for a single parent with two children of opposite sexes is a total of £455.18. That’s £73.10 in JSA, £117.40 in Child Tax Credits, £34.40 in Child Benefit and £230.28 in local housing allowance.
Brighton & Hove Council reports that there are currently no 3-bedroom properties available in the city that are affordable for a family on this level of housing benefit. If Katie were living in Brighton & Hove, she would already be paying at least £100 of her weekly rent out of her remaining income, as well as around £4 a week in council tax, leaving her and her children with less than £120 a week to live on. No wonder she needs the foodbank.
But next month – from 7th November 2016 – the new benefit cap will come into force. That will reduce Katie’s housing benefit to £159 a week, and her remaining income – after rent and council tax – to £50 a week.
£50 a week to feed and clothe a family, and pay the bills? It’s clearly impossible.
Some of my fellow students at the welfare benefits training course I attended earlier this month were council staff from the Housing Options team. Their job is to advise people about what to do if they are in danger of homelessness. Based on these facts, they are making it clear to people now that if you have children, your only options are to get a job or leave town.
To put it another way, there is no longer a safety net in our city for people with children.
I’m not telling you anything you haven’t been told before. Groups like Boycott Workfare, Disabled People against Cuts and Black Triangle have been campaigning about this stuff for years. Bloggers like Joe Halewood, Johnny Void, and Kate Belgrave have been valiantly trying to get the word out.
They’ve had to fight a battle to be heard, because benefit claimants were being relentlessly demonised by the press and broadcast media. Even the Labour Party’s former shadow secretary of state for work & pensions ended up joining in.
Jeremy Corbyn is one of the few politicians who was listening all along. Debbie Abrahams’ announcement at this year’s party conference that Labour would abolish the Work Capability Assessment has already made a difference, with the government immediately announcing that people with chronic disabilities and terminal illnesses would not have to be endlessly reassessed for ESA. Why they are still insisting on the same people being regularly reassessed for Personal Independence Payment remains a mystery.
If you haven’t yet raised your voice to support those who are campaigning on these issues, please take some action, however small. Write to your MP, pledge a ticket on this Facebook group to enable someone else to see I, Daniel Blake – or find someone who has pledged one so you can afford to see it, organise a community screening in January, when the DVD comes out, start a discussion in your own social network about the film, or how the benefit cap is forcing families out of our local communities, volunteer at a food bank or join a political party. I don’t think there’s one right thing to do – we need to build a diverse and broad social movement that changes the public mood, not just swap one lot of managerial politicians for another.
After all, if there’s no safety net for some of us, there’ll soon be no safety net for any of us.
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.
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?
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.
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.
So I’ve been thinking some more about power. How to handle it. How to keep it in check.
When I was a young Trotskyist, we used to talk a lot about leadership. How there was a crisis of leadership and that was why the Labour Party and Trade Unions never actually stood up for the working class.
In some ways, I think that line was just a way we justified seeking elected office in the unions and Labour Party – we would be in a better position to offer principled leadership because we had a better analysis and a democratic centralist party behind us. In practice, we had little effect on the way things turned out, by and large, and we seemed to have to spend an inordinate amount of time going to dull Labour Party meetings.
We said things like “it’s important not to substitute ourselves for the movement” and “punching above our weight”, while doing things like taking the minutes at the ward meeting, campaigning for the election of right wing Labour councillors and MPs, agonising over the precise wording of conference motions that were defeated or ignored and occasionally getting expelled or – worse – elected as councillors.
Being a local councillor is a bizarre experience. I haven’t done it myself, but both my parents did while I was a child and I’ve always been interested in how local government works. As Emma Daniel noted today on Twitter, councillors are not generally highly rated by the people who work in local government.
In my brief experience as a local government officer, councillors were mostly irrelevant to the work we were doing day to day. When they did turn up, everyone had to quickly run around and get them the information or answers they wanted. Sometimes they would get cold feet and pull the plug on a project people had been working on for months. They were neither popular nor central to the task at hand.
As with many structures in our complex society, the precise location of power is hard to pin down. For the residents who called my parents most evenings during dinner, their councillor was a powerful person. They could cut through the endless layers of bureaucratic fog and come back within a week with an answer to the question and a promise of action. As I discovered later, a journalist can have a similarly miraculous effect.
But for the officers on the ground, getting things done for people every day, councillors are remote and generally meaningless. The procedures and management hierarchies are much more powerful in determining what happens in each particular case.
Councillors themselves often feel frustrated at their lack of power to change things on a bigger scale than the outcome for an individual constituent. Spend any time around them and you start to hear phrases like “wading through treacle”, “turning round a juggernaut” and “Yes, Minister”. Yet the media (often egged on by councillors and activists from opposing parties) write about them as though they are autocrats who can fix everything immediately with a snap of their fingers.
Anyone with a position of responsibility in an organisation feels pressure to act in the interest of the organisation itself, even if those interests are opposed to those of the members or people the official has power over. This is true of the secretary of a residents association and it’s true of the managing director of a big company.
It’s true of local councillors too. They have a range of conflicting pressures on them – they are expected to speak on behalf of their electors, both individually in personal cases and collectively on matters of policy; they are supposed to be loyal to the other councillors in their party’s group, and to the members of their party generally (these sets of people don’t always see eye to eye); they are also required not to bring the council into disrepute and they feel pressure to explain (and this can easily slip into justifying) the often arcane and opaque way things are done by the council. It’s very easy for them to get swallowed up by the council as an institution and to lose touch with what’s important outside.
At Caroline Lucas’s general election campaign launch this week, she spoke about some of the bizarre customs that prevail in the House of Commons, how damaging these are to democracy, and how important it is not to “get used to it”, but to carry on challenging and speaking out against it.
How can MPs and councillors keep themselves honest, in the face of all these pressures?
I think transparency and accountability are our only weapons against the pull of institutional power.
Emma, who is Brighton & Hove’s newest councillor and represents the ward where I live, is doing a good job – I think – of reporting back to her constituents on what’s happening in the council, what she’s doing and why. I don’t agree with some of her conclusions and decisions, but I appreciate having the opportunity to say so and debate with her.
Jason Kitcat has also done a commendable job of opening up some of the key decisions of the council administration to greater public scrutiny. He answers questions on Twitter, maintains his own blog, has championed the publication of all Freedom of Information requests on a dedicated council website, and regularly holds webcasts where he answers questions from the public.
Jason’s biggest mistakes as leader of the council have been those occasions when he failed to be transparent and accountable. His sudden silence during the bin strike last year was noticeable and it cost him dearly. His attempt in last month’s webcast to spin deep cuts to services as innocent reorganisation was shabby and unconvincing.
We can’t be expected to vote for people if they don’t tell us honestly who they are and what they think.
That’s why I find the Labour group’s motion of no confidence so disappointing as a response to the Green group’s decision to propose a 4.75% council tax increase.
Labour disagree with the proposal – that’s absolutely fine. They should put their own position forward so that people can see what it is and judge whether they agree with it. They should honestly debate the politics of the issue. Since they agree with the Tories on this question, they can be confident that their view will prevail in the council chamber when it is put to the vote.
But instead of doing that, they are huffing and puffing with a procedural motion that has no official meaning in the council’s constitution. I imagine that is the case because of the danger that it could be abused in precisely this way. An opposing party making a proposal you disagree with is not a reason to turf them out of office, when they have the largest number of council seats.
I hope the Greens do not resign in response to this grandstanding by Labour. They should continue to make the political case for a council tax increase and put it to the vote in February.
If, after that, Labour and the Tories find themselves having to collaborate to run the council, let’s hope they will finally share with us how they propose to keep services going in the face of an unprecedented attack on local government.
I had been mulling over a blog about power – how it affects people and how to defend ourselves against those effects.
The thought was kicked off by watching (again) these two fascinating videos about a series of experiments to learn about how people behave when they have an unfair advantage. Do watch them if you haven’t come across this story before – it’s an eye-opener.
Here’s John Green of the vlogbrothers talking about the study and drawing some conclusions:
And the scientists themselves talked about their work on PBS:
Anyway, while thinking about that, I was also (as you do) wondering about Brighton & Hove council’s budget decision, looming up on us at the end of next month.
I think it can’t be said often enough that the people with power in the matter of Brighton & Hove’s budget are not the Green group of councillors. The Green group is a minority administration – they cannot get any proposal through the council unless it is supported by at least seven councillors from outside their group.
More fundamentally, no council administration has much power over their own budget in 2014-15. Councils are being asked to do more with less. As the needs of our population continue to grow – fuelled by demographic changes and the effects of national government policies on benefits and housing – the resources available to meet those needs are shrinking rapidly:
This is not a situation created or chosen by the Green group, or by any local council administration. To describe any local council administration as being “in power” under these circumstances is a misnomer.
There are people with power in this story, but they are not in Brighton. George Osborne and Eric Pickles could be giving local councils the money they need to provide decent public services. They are choosing not to. That choice has nothing to do with the national deficit and everything to do with the government’s ideological commitment to lining the pockets of their mates in the private sector.
So, what’s the responsible thing to do, when you’ve been unexpectedly elected to manage a local authority in these dreadful circumstances?
According to Labour convert Neil Schofield, the answer is to man up and do the ‘heavy lifting’ of voting through a cuts budget. It’s a theme echoed by some local Labour activists this evening, on hearing the news that the Green group is proposing a council tax increase of 4.75% (for which, under new Coalition rules, they would need to win a local referendum) in order to avoid the kind of damaging cuts included in December’s draft budget.
Following the intemperately swift response of their leader, Warren Morgan, to this new proposal from the Greens, some Labour supporters have taken to Twitter to accuse the administration of copping out by suggesting a referendum.
By setting a 4.75% council tax Brighton Greens have washed their hands of the responsibility of power & will cost us £230k for a referendum.
— Caroline Penn (@ThePennyDrops) January 16, 2014
I find this line of attack, and the Labour group’s decision to reject the proposal out of hand, puzzling and disappointing. It is of course entirely in keeping with the aggressive attitude of the Labour party in the city ever since the surprise success of the Greens in the 2011 election. It seems to have been a vote-winning tactic, if the polls are to be believed, but voters (a shrinking minority in the city) seesawing between Labour and Green really shouldn’t be the main show in town.
Both parties have (until now) shamefully avoided addressing the real abuses of power that are affecting the everyday lives of thousands of local people, preferring to squabble over the meaningless bauble that nominal control of the council now represents.
Finally, with the proposal to increase council tax, the Greens have done something that challenges the narrative that is undermining and damaging local services all over the country. At last, our council leader, elected on a manifesto promise to resist cuts, is saying things like:
“The Coalition’s cuts mean we cannot deliver the services we were elected to provide and which our consciences say we should provide.”
This is a welcome step forward from his mealy-mouthed justification of the damaging cuts included in the December draft budget.
People with learning disabilities, trade unions and other local campaigners have spoken out against the proposals to pass on the Tory budget cuts to the most powerless people in our community. I am pleased that the Green group have listened to those voices and taken seriously their responsibility to represent the city and its people.
Council tax is not a progressive tax. The property based banding is crude and out of date. An increase of 4.75% would put additional pressure on those low income households who have already been hit by the changes to Council Tax benefit. It’s by no means a perfect solution and the council’s revised budget must include proposals for minimising or eliminating the impact on people who are already struggling to make ends meet.
But I think Labour have missed an opportunity to make a strong case for the phenomenal efficiency of public services funded by taxation. For under £6 a month, I can take part in an act of collective responsibility and solidarity with my fellow citizens. Together, we can choose to pool a small amount more of our income in order to support families with disabled children, adults with learning disabilities, people who need the support of mental health services and elderly citizens who need residential care or day centres.
I wish I could have the chance to vote to chip in something out of my wages to lend a hand to these fellow citizens – the ones who are really doing the heavy lifting of keeping body and soul together in the face of relentless cuts to in-work and out of work benefits, rising costs and falling wages.
I’m a bit stunned that I won’t get that opportunity because of the snap decision of a few members of the Labour Party – a party that has long since forgotten its roots as a collective voice of working people.