Sunday 3 February 2008

Why Are We The Way We Are?

On Friday evening, I attended a really warm, friendly meeting of the Jewish Socialist Group in a front room in Walthamstow and listened to Mike Marqusee talk about his new book If I Am Not For Myself: Journey of an Anti-Zionist Jew. Mike recounted stories about the lives of his grandfather and father, both activists on the American Left, who actively fought against fascism and racism, often at some risk to themselves, and yet whose uncritical support for Zionism and Israel seemed to contradict many of the principles they upheld. He described the impact this had on a young teenager growing up in the midst of the civil rights movement in America and the opposition to war in Vietnam, and how this guided Mike’s politics towards a rejection of Zionism’s claim on Jewish loyalty. And it started me thinking – what are the triggers that lead us towards the views that we eventually hold? Why are we each the way we are?

Clearly, the line along which Mike Marqusee’s politics developed started from a point well to the left of centre and that his father’s ideological values were important triggers that helped decide the direction that line would take. That makes sense, for generally the strongest influence on our political outlook, both positively and negatively, seem to come from families. It's certainly true of many of the friends and comrades I know. On numerous occasions, I have also heard people described as having grown up in poverty, or having experienced a tough upbringing, as explanations for the views that they come to hold in adulthood. And that seems to make sense too.

But it has often made me wonder about why I think the way that I do, for none of this applies to me. I had a great childhood really, with loving parents who weren't rich but were hardly poverty-stricken and whose politics amounted largely to buying the Daily Mirror and voting Labour. OK, so my Dad spent most of his life as an immigration officer at Gatwick airport, a job that eventually I would argue vehemently should be abolished, but that came much, much later. Mum meanwhile was a mother, like many in the 1970s, cleaning other people’s houses for extra cash when I was young but returning late to education and eventually qualifying as a teacher. My brother Mark trained as a mechanic and never showed the slightest interest in politics. So how on earth did I end up an Left-wing activist with broadly anarchist sympathies?

I suspect that greatest trigger for a whole generation of activists has been the experience of the political wilderness that was the 1980s and of waiting endlessly for the election of a Labour government. I don't remember politics in the 1970s - I was 12 in 1980 - and from becoming active as a teenager, chairing the local ward Labour Party at 16 (it was Sussex and they were desperate), all I can remember about the 80s is never, ever winning a damn thing. On top of that, the Tories and their business allies exuded an arrogance that seemed to say, 'we can do whatever we want and there's nothing you can do about it.' Always batting for the losing side is hard work, but at least we had the hope that things, to coin a phrase, could only get better. Which is why, when the Blair government was elected, it was such a early disappointment that things would clearly remain pretty much as they were.

There are plenty of people who have reluctantly accepted, after such a long postponement of ambition, that this is the best we can hope for. The lesson they have drawn is that anything is better than more lean years under the Tories, even as the government they had dreamt of acted so much like those whose power they had inherited, siding with big business, dismissing trade unions, enthusing about PFI, driving asylum seekers to destitution and launching an illegal war in Iraq. Even after 11 years of a Labour government we still hear this, that things would be worse under the Tories, even as their party makes it clear it can do whatever it wants 'and there's nothing you can do about it'.

But I think they have missed two important lessons from the bleak period up to 1997 and then the Labour decade that followed. The first is how fragile the victories and gains of radicalism can be and how easily they can be taken away. The second is that the means to an end are just as important as the end itself, and that forgetting this makes the end increasingly unreachable.

We've seen how Labour has refused to reverse the destruction inflicted by 18 years of Tory government on many hard-fought working class victories and in many instances has gone further than the Tories ever dared. We know that even Labour's own mildly progressive policies can be reversed - as I have noted before, the important gains from the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry in the first flush of the new government in 1997 have evaporated. And we can recognise how Labour, fused to the notion that the appearance of competence is its only measure of success, thinks only in the short-term, that the business of holding power is more important than any attempt to give people the power to exercise greater control over their own lives.

But these lessons can be applied more broadly. Will, for example, Ken Livingstone's time as Mayor of London be remembered as one when Londoners had greater control over the way that London is governed, even if every one of his populist policies were reversed? Will the Greens be more radical? Every four of five years, anyone interested in British politics spends an inordinate amount of time speculating on the significance of questions like these, often in another vain hope that getting the leaders right might finally bring about lasting change. It's as though the idea that change only ever works if it comes from below, the lesson embraced by anti-capitalist and anti-globalisation activists over the last ten years, applies everywhere but Britain.

Unless there is a radical shift in the ownership of power, the small gains that are made can so easily be overturned. Unless we accept that how we seek to bring about change is as important as the ends we strive for, politicians like Livingstone will continue to govern with a tight clique of personal advisors and attack (or sometimes abuse) those who disagree with him. It might seem like an argument for a certain morality in the way that the Left conducts itself, but the alternative is also the likes of the Socialist Workers Party, imploding campaigns it can't control and engineering division to keep what little power it has.

And unless elected officials are held accountable by popular movememts that simply do not exist yet, people like the Greens' Jenny Jones can get away with voting to support the Met Police's Sir Ian Blair over the shooting of Jean Charles Menezes, solely on the basis that Sir Ian is a nice guy who has allegedly been 'good in the past' (a defence I hope to try out in court one day). So what should consume our energies more - building political movements or voting for idiots like this?

On the way back from Mike Marqusee's talk, it was put to me that Livingstone's plan to provide 24-hour free travel to the over sixties was reason enough to vote for him. But crumbs like this from capitalism's table have been swept away before and they can be again, and bus passes hardly make amends for the way that Livingstone is as consumed with the business of holding power as his fellow Labour politicians. The only answer I could give, after years of defeat and unfulfilled ambition, was straightforward.

Extending the hours on a bus pass is just not enough.

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