Left Luggage

The socialist strategy site

Archive for the ‘Community’ Category

Community engagement II: ultra-local political work

Posted by Left Luggage on July 29, 2009

We’ve previously mentioned the work of Pleasley Hill People’s Network, a group set up near Mansfield, in Nottinghamshire, which aims to build organisation and political involvement in a small area of this former mining community.

There’s now a podcast of an interview with Mark Jones, who initiated the group, online here and it is interesting to hear of the challenges this group has faced setting up, the issues it is attempting to tackle, and how it plans to go about this.

Mark mentions the lack of any form of self-organisation in the area previously, a situation replicated in many areas of the country and one that the Left could be focusing on addressing. We wish Mark and the group much success. The long-term political dividends of this kind of work – if initiated on a wide scale – should be obvious.


Posted in Community, Strategy | 5 Comments »

Community engagement I: playing the long game

Posted by Left Luggage on July 29, 2009

As our post yesterday examining the most recent and prospective developments with the No2EU initiative argued, the bulk of the Left seems intent on forever chasing electoral cycles in hastily-formed platforms rather than engagning in the hard-work of building self-organisation in working class communities.

It’s a curious strategy considering how ineffective it has shown itself to be in lifting the Left from the margins politically or bridging the gulf with the vast majority of working class people. Yet it is still pursued. The reasons for this failure to take questions of strategy seriously are not immediately obvious, but there seems to be a fundamental distinction between those who view political work as a matter of “intervening” and those who view “building” as the key task. This is something we hope to explore in another post soon.

One thing that’s clear is that “building” takes as it starting point what has been described as “the politics of everyday life”: political work that does not necessarily take on an explicitly political form, but is interested in winning trust, building political culture, community, and organisation. In other words, tasks that are totally appropriate for a defensive posture that recognises the current state of play. This is long, hard work. But we on Left Luggage have argued consistently that it is the only way forward. A comment on yesterday’s post summed this up well, arguing that to build working class politics it is really only “the long game or nothing”:

the left might accept that you cannot parachute into working class areas and expect instant credibility, particularly if the comrades you are sending in are people who have actually don’t have a clue about life in these areas.

Perfectly timed for this discussion is news of the Independent Working Class Association’s under-12s football tournament held in Oxford. The event sounds like a fantastic day, with about 250 people turning up including coaches from Swansea and London. It is just one of many forms of community engagement the IWCA has initiated in the city:

The IWCA in Oxford has, in its short history, managed to organise events such as a Saturday morning Children’s Cinema Club, a SATs booster course for school children and numerous community away-days — on top of it’s many political activities.

The article also points out that even until quite recently the Labour Party itself had established social and cultural links in working class communities:

But even as recently as the mid-1990’s, Labour still had social and cultural links with working class communities in places such as Oxford through it’s Labour social clubs and their affiliated sporting associations.

Such forms of organisation once formed part of the bedrock of the labour movement but they have withered and died in most places. There are important lessons for the Left, which for far too long has eschewed such everyday activity in favour of “interventions” that do nothing to establish deep roots or organisation in working class communities.

Posted in Community, Strategy | 1 Comment »

Lessons learned from anti-war organising

Posted by Left Luggage on July 19, 2009

An interesting post at the Socialist Unity blog last week asked what happened to the anti-war movement that developed to oppose the war in Iraq and brought up to a couple of million people on to the streets. The post has been produced as the death toll of British soldiers in Afghanistan mounts and dominates the agendas of the media and politicians.

A first point to note is that the post’s author Andy Newman doesn’t quite fix on what precisely he is discussing, shifting from assessing the “anti-war movement” to an “appraisal of the Stop the War Coalition”, to “the Stop the War movement”. These are not synonymous; almost anyone involved in activism around the Iraq war will recognise these mean different things; many people I know from local groups truly resented the STWC for its centralism, its lack of democracy, and its London-centric nature.

Nevertheless, the thrust of Newman’s argument is precisely the structural problems of the STWC, largely its non-demoncratic nature and the dominance of the SWP, meant that local groups split into either those that operated as “SWP fronts” and followed the line decided by STWC centrally, or they became less political local coalitions that – because of the non-democratic nature of the STWC, largely ignored its edicts:

The result was that the Stop the War Coalition became a relatively ossified national organisation, that often viewed the local groups as being suspiciously off message (the local groups tended to be more politically conservative, but imaginative in practice than the national leadership). This also meant that the debate that needed to be held about strategy never happened.

This is a pretty fair outline and serves to highlight how non-democratic organisations like the STWC (whose annual “conference” is almost entirely a parade of Left celebrity speeches and the election of the national officers by a single-slate system) are hindered operationally by their very structure. Rather than centralisation making decision-making more effective, it actually hinders it, especially in a context without the disciplinary mechanisms to ensure “centralism”.
-Keep reading>

Posted in Anti-war movement, Community, Strategy | 3 Comments »

Leftovers #7

Posted by Left Luggage on May 20, 2009

There’s been a lot of discussion recently of the role of unions in any potential rebuilding of a leftwing political culture in the UK. The RMT’s entry into the political arena through the No2EU platform for the European elections has stimulated some heated debate, and a number of trade unionists are involved in the promotion of the People’s Charter campaign. The latter initiative was the subject of a piece by former Morning Star editor John Haylett on Socialist Unity last week. Haylett was at pains to stress that the Charter is designed to gain the support of the trade union movement:

The entire charter can be read on the website http://www.thepeoplescharter.com and it reads a little like the roll call of motions carried at any trade union conference, which is certainly no coincidence.

Those who drew up the charter wanted to base the call for action not on a collection of left policies worked out among a small group of like-minded comrades, which could then be presented to the labour movement like biblical tablets of stone as the one true path to salvation, but on decisions that have already been taken by trade unionists themselves.

As with the many other Charter campaigns in the last two decades, the demands are broad, social-democratic and calculated to appeal to disillusioned former Labour voters. Many of the Left will have doubts about the campaign’s strategy, revealed in the concluding passage of Haylett’s article:

There is no political difference between Brown and Milburn, Clarke, Blunkett or the rest of yesterday’s windbags.

There is, however, a political choice to be made between Brown’s steady-as-she-sinks approach, which guarantees a trouncing in next month’s Euro election and next year’s general election, and a unifying, campaigning document that could enthuse the mass of alienated previous Labour voters by attracting a million signatures and serving notice on the government that an alternative way exists and must be tried.

The task is to build a tidal wave of public opinion that will either force Labour to change direction and save its electoral bacon or lay the basis for a united labour movement fightback to frustrate the Tories and work to deliver a government that would put principles and people before private profit.

The aim – at least for Haylett – appears to be to use the Charter to lobby the Labour leadership in the hope that this will push the Party leftwards and save it from itself. Judging from the article, it appears that the campaign is concentrating at present on getting union leaders to sign the Charter, rather than -Keep reading>

Posted in Anti-fascism, Community, Labour Party, Leftovers, Unions, Workers' struggles | Leave a Comment »

Thatcher’s children

Posted by Left Luggage on May 12, 2009

News of students occupying universities across the UK in protest at Israeli atrocities prompted some on the Left to proclaim young people as a new revolutionary force in Britain. This assessment is in part wishful thinking, since if it was accurate, the disproportionate amount of time the Left spends on recruiting and organising students would have some justification.

It is undoubtedly true that there has been an upsurge in student activism around international issues. Many of the school students who walked out of classes in opposition to the 2003 Iraq War are now at university, and their radicalism has not diminished. Any conclusions about a general left-wards shift on the part of the young should be resisted, however. There are no signs that the Gaza campaign will develop into a broader progressive movement. Indeed, research from 2008 shows that students are more likely to express support for the Conservatives than for Labour. Perhaps this isn’t surprising, since due to Britain’s inegalitarian education system, university students are disproportionately middle class.

Therein lies the rub. All the talk on the Left about the radicalism of the young is really about the limited radicalism of young, middle class students. What of the working class young people who do not end up going to university, or who are among the 22% of students who fail to complete their university courses? Almost all the articles on working class young people from the Socialist Worker newspaper focus on media demonisation of youth, and the failure of government to meet young people’s needs on education and crime. The following passage, from an article about youth crime, is typical:

Poor education, poverty, inequality, poor life prospects and decimation of local services – these are the conditions in which many of our young people are living and which create the conditions for some to turn to crime and violence.

Working class young people are cast as passive victims without agency. The political views of working class youth, and the way they see themselves and their society, are neglected. If the Left is to have any hope of building support for its politics in the future, it needs to get to grips with the worldview of young people growing up in communities devastated by Thatcherism.

-Keep reading>

Posted in Class, Community, Strategy, Youth | 12 Comments »

Simple, easy steps

Posted by Left Luggage on May 4, 2009

A number of people have been in touch with Left Luggage since we launched to say they agree with our basic analysis that the left needs to orientate itself to address the immediate needs of working class people, but they don’t know where to start.

Of course, it really is not for us to tell people in any detail what issues to take up, what tactics to use, or what forms of organisation to adopt. Clearly such things can only be addressed by those people who are “in the thick of it”. We aim to provide some general strategic insights, to bring to attention good work done by others, and to highlight both the experiences of other groups as well as, in time, reporting on our own efforts.

For the moment we would like to respond in a general way to a couple of responses. The first comes from a reader in a Midlands market town where “political activism is rare at best”. He says:

I now earn a modest wage, and feel as though I am cheating if I refer to myself as working class. But I do agree with equality, and all the rights workers should have.

I also live in an area described as amongst the top 10% most deprived in the country

It is with this back ground, in a work place hostile to my politics, a family to feed, and in a fractured community that I wonder what I can do. How I can “organise”. Some friends are receptive to my ideas, and the points I make to them, but to say they agree fully, or in some cases, grasp it fully would be wrong.

I do my best, but I am so ingrained in to the system that I have very little free time. When I am not at work in the day, and my partner is not at work in the evening, we work on our allotment. I have limited travel, and importantly no experience, no one to learn from.

I try to encourage gardening, cycle use, I advocate a health diet. I talk to people about injustices. But my message falls on deaf ears. My colleges at work for example simply display indifference and apathy.

This reader highlights a number of important points. First is the question of social class. We argue that the left in Britain is dominated by middle class activists, with a large contingent of students. This is partly for reasons of history, but is also an outcome of the priorities of the left: what issues it chooses to address, how it does so, and who it reaches. Its orientation, we have argued, is not towards the needs of working class people. -Keep reading>

Posted in Community, Strategy | Leave a Comment »

May Day and the state of play

Posted by Left Luggage on May 1, 2009

May Day 2009 provides an opportunity to compare the state of working class organisation in Britain with that of other developed nations. In France, unions and the Left plan to stage almost 300 demonstrations across the country. Up to 3 million are expected to march in the third national demonstration over the Govermnent’s handling of the economic crisis. Polls show 70% of the population support the demonstrations, and a clear majority support more militant tactics such as “bossnapping“. By contrast, German unions have been relatively passive (although an upsurge is predicted by some as unemployment figures climb).

So how does the British response to the recession compare? The Left’s focus so far has been on the factory occupations in Dundee, Derry, Belfast, Basildon and Enfield. Some commentators, like Gregor Gall, suggest that occupations as a tactic do not generate as much publicity as bossnappings and are therefore deficient. Such analyses miss the central point: that the isolated protests in the UK show no signs of broadening into the kind of mass campaigns seen in France and elsewhere. The Government’s budget, unveiled last week, cut public spending to a level lower than under Thatcher, further restricted the right to claim benefits and failed to close tax loopholes that cost the treasury billions of pounds each year. The most significant response from the Left was a protest organised by the Labour Representation Committee. The lunchtime demo was banned by police, although a small protest was held in the early evening. The Unite union has belatedly called a “March for Jobs” in Birmingham on May 16, but clearly any union action on the scale of what is taking place in France is unforseeable.

Any mass industrial or political response to the recession would have to be built on elements that are currently absent in Britain. As even the Socialist Workers’ Party now admits, the network of militant shop stewards, the culture of resistance in workplaces and the community and political organisations capable of sustaining such a campaign no longer exist.

It is easy to see why some believe the best course of action for the Left in the immediate future is to engage in campaigns that build solidarity in communities rather than workplaces. A recent post from the Thurrock branch of the Independent Working Class Association links the recession with the Budget and local spending cuts and attempts to launch a campaign to fight for working class people  in the area. Meanwhile Left Luggage has become aware of a new group called Action Eastend, who seek to bring together community campaigns in East London. There are dozens of local campaign groups in operation now, from Wigan to Lewes in Sussex, and a huge number have been set up in the last few years. Though many of these groups are formally apolitical, most are active in fighting for the interests of working class people. At the moment, they’re also operating in isolation, but some kind of federation of community campaign groups would surely be possible as a way to make contacts, share experiences, discuss strategies, and also develop a more overtly political approach. We are planning to publish features on some of these groups in the near future, and in doing so we hope to assist in establishing such links.

Posted in Community, Strategy, Workers' struggles | Leave a Comment »

Taking crime seriously

Posted by Left Luggage on April 8, 2009

Last year, two teenage boys in the East London college where I work were stabbed to death. The killings happened on separate occasions and in different parts of East London, but there were many similarities between the two cases. Both were killed after refusing to hand over mobile phones. Neither had a history of involvement in violence. Both were murdered a year before they planned to go to university. I didn’t know either student personally, but it is likely they would have been among the first in their families to reach higher education, had their lives not been ended prematurely.

At least half a dozen teenagers have been killed in the immediate vicinity of the college in the three years I have worked there. Communities in the area are extremely tight-knit, and many of my students have been personally affected by the killings. In my first term, I remember reading the account one girl wrote of the night her friend was stabbed through the heart in front of her at a party. A male student of mine took time off college after seeing his female friend murdered. Staff have also been attacked. A security guard was stabbed in the back in broad daylight outside the college gates after he allegedly offended a friend of the attacker. He survived.

One of the most pernicious affects of crime is the way it alters the social and political views of those whose lives it blights. Most of the young people I work with have a pessimistic view of human nature, refusing to believe that people have altruistic motivations. Far from having pride in their communities, they can’t wait to leave what they see as dangerous and neglected neighbourhoods. Whenever we discuss crime they voice support for the most authoritarian policies, -Keep reading>

Posted in Community, Crime, Strategy | 11 Comments »

Parents occupy under-threat schools

Posted by Left Luggage on April 4, 2009

About 30 parents in Glasgow yesterday occupied two primary schools that are under the threat of closure.

The actions at Wyndford Primary and St Gregory’s Primary in Maryhillare are over plans by the local council to close both schools by merging them with other primaries. Glasgow City Council is proposing a series of cuts that would result in 13 primaries and 12 nurseries either closing or merging.

The protestors denounced a “sham” consultation process undertaken by the council and said the closure of the schools tear the heart out of the community. One of the mothers occupying St Gregory’s said: “They are the heart of our community. If they take the schools away it will just kill it. I’m a former pupil and this school means a lot to us.”

As of last night, reports from Wyndford Primary said the occupation was going well and the parents had “barricaded themselves in” for the night. A demonstration is planned outside the school for midday today (Saturday, April 4).

Posted in Community, Education | 3 Comments »

Housing activists in occupation

Posted by Left Luggage on April 4, 2009

Activists from Defend Council Housing occupied a flat in south London yesterday in protest at the council selling off its housing stock.

The group has occupied the two-bedroom council flat in the Sackville Estate, in Streatham, (SW16 2TG) to demand the council withdraw it and other properties from the market. The flat was due to be auctioned on Monday, April 6, along with others as part of Lambeth council’s policy of selling off its housing stock. Apparently, in February the council revealed it had hundreds of empty homes on its books, and this week tenants voted against the sale of any “void” properties and asked the authority to explain its policy.

Figures quoted by DCH that there are 17,000 people on the housing list in the borough and 2,000 at present in temporary accomodation (often B&Bs and such like that are highly expensive to the council) show just how absurd it is that the council is intent on selling homes.

Posted in Community, Housing | Leave a Comment »

Time to take centre stage

Posted by Left Luggage on March 27, 2009

This should be a great time to be a socialist. The inherent instability of capitalism lies exposed more than at any time since the Great Depression. Levels of economic inequality in Britain are unmatched in any industrial nation other than the US. Unemployment figures creep inexorably upwards, threatening to dwarf those from the dark days of the 1980s. Comment pages in the respectable, middle class press worriedly ask whether we are witnessing the end of capitalism or merely its radical transformation.

Yet the response from Britain’s working class has so far been muted at best. French and Italian workers stage general strikes and Greece is rocked by massive protests, but the best Britain’s workers can muster is a small – if impressive – campaign of unofficial action against the use of non-unionised foreign labour to undercut local workers. Leftwing groups organise demonstrations declaring that Britain’s working class won’t pay the price for a crisis caused by the bosses, but by and large these attract only the usual crowd of seasoned protestors. Predictions by the police of – Keep reading>

Posted in Community, Socialism, Strategy | 3 Comments »