Wednesday 16 April 2008

Not just Boris, but the BNP too!

Apologies, this is a rather long post, but I guess what follows was inevitable. First, an increasingly desperate Labour Left, apparently unable to comprehend why Ken Livingstone isn’t more popular, has unconvincingly tried to rally support from those who plan to boycott May’s mayoral elections in London by claiming that a defeat for their man would ”represent a wider defeat for progressive politics, in Britain and beyond". Forget about Livingstone, they say, and be frightened by Johnstone. Now they are arguing that a failure to vote risks handing seats to the British National Party.

Former New Statesman editor Steve Platt has taken the Livingstone campaign’s declaration that the BNP threaten “London's future as a united diverse city, where all communities and individuals feel they belong” and argued on his blog that there is no excuse for his “anarchist friends” not to vote because their abstention will be “considered a vote for the BNP”.

It is of course deeply insulting to put those who actively decide not to vote alongside BNP supporters and call them a threat to London’s diversity, but I suppose is to be expected. Nevertheless, it is an argument that needs thinking through. After all, unlike Zimbabwe, popping down to the local school on 1st May and voting, just to increase the turnout, is hardly a difficult thing to do. On the face of it, it’s not even a very political act.

But there are two parts of the Platt / Livingstone position that need closer examination. The first is the claim that “there’s only one way to stop the BNP, which is by actually going out to vote against them” because “a low voter turnout will help the BNP get elected.” This is an argument that I, along with other activists in Newham Monitoring Project (NMP), used to forcefully present back in the early 1990s, when we spent endless hours trying to mobilise black voters in Canning Town and the Isle of Dogs, back when the BNP was much stronger in these areas. In one election in 1994, the BNP came within 66 votes of taking a Newham council seat – whilst we had encouraged hundreds to vote, even transporting dozens to polling stations. We patted ourselves on the back and said that “we” had defeated the BNP.

But only for one Thursday. Support for the BNP was still there on the Friday and at the next council by-election, we were back using the same campaigning tactic. But in between elections, east London’s Labour councils continued to disregard the causes of working class disenfranchisement from the political process. Turnout at elections remained low but the faceless bureaucracy, the meaningless consultations on policies that had been decided in advance, the racist attacks that were ignored by council staff, the unpopular decisions taken in the teeth of opposition from local people - all continued unabated. It soon became clear that local anti-racist campaigners had become little more than a useful substitute for moribund Labour branches who had no-one to canvass. Many of us had the unpleasant realisation that we were no longer sure whose side we were on.

And it wasn’t as if they were even grateful for our efforts. Mobilising the vote didn’t once open up local councils to new ideas or progressive politics and in 1997, the now thoroughly Blairite Newham council cut its funding for Newham Monitoring Project, for doing what we had always done and providing support to the family of a local Gambian, Ibrahima Sey, who died under brutal restraint by officers from Forest Gate police station. In clumsily attempting to silence a critic, the council was helped in part by a former NMP activist turned councillor who was unable to carry the support of other anti-racists in continuing to act as little more than Labour’s election foot soldiers.

In all honesty, the BNP eventually ceased to be a threat in Newham and Tower Hamlets not as a result of our efforts but because of its incessant internal rivalries and because of changing demographics. The substandard housing in Canning Town, the ‘great white south’ of Newham, became a place to dump refugees, transforming the ethnic mix. One section of the disenchanted working class, those who blamed the new arrivals for how little their vote seemed to count, moved out to ‘whiter’ areas like Barking and Dagenham and it simply became too difficult – and often too dangerous – for the BNP to campaign. The same was true in the Isle of Dogs as the Bengali community in particular became stronger and more confident. In Newham’s southern wards, the most unified organisations amongst new communities were the black churches, with little of the tribal loyalty to Labour of earlier arrivals, which may explain why Canning Town has become the national base for the Christian People’s Alliance.

What years of focusing on elections had achieved, however, was to squander the opportunity to build coalitions in support of a more radical perspective than that offered by religious-based parties, leaving Labour to continue to monopolise local politics on a low voter turnout. What we are left with instead are opposition political parties who are wedded to the idea that democracy begins and ends on election day.

Even before it split, the Respect party as an alternative to Labour in east London was locally ineffectual between elections, which became the eventual trigger for the battles within its ranks. Its councillors in Newham are nice enough people but it has been unclear what all the effort was for. Now the two halves of the party are little more than a populist vanity project for George Galloway and an attempt by the Socialist Workers Party to try and salvage some much-needed dignity. London’s Greens, for all their apparently progressive rhetoric, have so little esteem for their prospective voters that, to try and attain some post-election influence, they have cut a sordid second-preference deal with Livingstone, a man who at the recent Reuters Mayoral hustings posed as a champion of globalisation and free trade. If that wasn’t bad enough, their GLA member Jenny Jones, in an e-mail exchange on the eve of the hugely contentious vote by the Metropolitan Police Authority on Sir Ian Blair’s conduct following the death of Jean Charles de Menezes, seemed offended that I might dare to question whether her decision to support the Met Commissioner was hers alone to make. So much for 'new politics'.

But enough of the minor parties. Let’s turn to the main event. The campaign between the three main rivals has been presented as little more than a personality contest between the individual candidates. In this clash of personalities and rhetoric, all three are competing mainly for sympathetic media attention. Voting in the Mayoral election has become no more empowering than choosing between performers on Pop Idol, with whoever puts on the best show winning.

Yet after years of economic growth, we still have a chronic housing shortage, underfunded transport and a widening gap between the rich and poor. Shouldn’t there be a real choice between the candidates?

This brings me to the second problem with the Livingstone / Platt position. London simply isn’t “a united diverse city, where all communities and individuals feel they belong” but one painfully divided by economic inequality that is closely tied to race. Yet Livingstone’s brand of anti-racism, as I have argued before, offers nothing to address the economic inequality that disproportionately affects working class black people. Instead the ‘candidate of the Left’ is at pains to present himself as business-friendly, backed by a political party that done so much to hand power to major corporations. Is it any wonder, then, that an entirely logical conclusion to reach would be that no matter who we vote for, we will have no greater say in any of the major decisions that affect our lives? Isn’t the reality that, no matter whether Livingstone wins or loses, we will have no say in how our workplaces are run or any control over the distribution of our society's wealth?

Elections are supposed to be how we influence the running of society and yet it seems that somebody else has already made all of the important decisions - without asking us. However, there are ways that people are able to exercise real power. If I had to pick an example, it would naturally be a local one. My compatriots in the campaign to stop the local council from handing over Queens Market in Upton Park to private developers have organised hundreds of local people, prevented the council from steamrollering through their plans and frightened off the mighty Asda supermarket chain – all without ever standing a candidate in an election. And they have brought together white working class market traders from Essex with shoppers from communities that have arrived in Newham from all over the world.

There has always been a political alternative to the lack of choice of the mainstream political parties, the opportunism of the minority parties and the racism of tiny fascist outfits like the BNP. It involves organising in such a way that everybody has a say over the decisions that affect them. It means refusing to accept what politicians tell you to do and taking the power into your own hands, not waiting for somebody else to do it for you.

And that is why I’m not voting in May’s elections - no matter how lurid the claims that the Labour Left might try and make.

Monday 7 April 2008

The Race Debate 2008 - In Memory of Gilly Mundy

Newham Monitoring Project presents

The Race Debate 2008
Racism and the State of Britain

Wednesday April 23rd
from 7pm to 9pm

The Brunei Gallery
School for Oriental & African Studies
Thornhaugh St,
Russell Square
London WC1N 0XG

£5 (free for SOAS students and staff)

A panel discussion with panellists including:
Independent columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, poet and writer Benjamin Zephaniah, chair of the Independent Police Complaints Commission Nick Hardwick, civil liberties lawyer Gareth Peirce, former Guantanamo Bay detainee Moazzam Begg

Chaired by Asad Rehman, Newham Monitoring Project

Institutional racism, community cohesion, culture, segregation, terrorism, Britishness... the debate over the state of Britain in 2008 is increasingly focused on race.

One of the country's leading community anti-racist organisations, Newham Monitoring Project (NMP), has therefore brought together a distinguished panel to debate the issue of racism in Britain in the first Gilly Mundy Memorial Debate. The event is named in honour of Gilly Mundy, the anti-racist and custody-deaths campaigner who was a management committee member and former worker for NMP and who supported bereaved families as senior caseworker for the campaigning charity INQUEST. Gilly died suddenly in March 2007 aged only 36.

To reserve tickets, call NEWHAM BOOKSHOP on 020 8552 9993

Supported by INQUEST and hosted by SOAS UNISON

Download the flyer from and please circulate as widely as possible.

McMafia: Crime Without Frontiers

Newham Bookshop presents
Misha Glenny discussing

McMafia: Crime Without Frontiers
Friday 11 April
Wanstead Library at 7 pm.

For the final event in its March/April season, Newham Bookshop is pleased to welcome Misha Glenny, former BBC central Europe correspondent, talking about his latest book McMafia: Crime Without Frontiers.

In this powerful and groundbreaking book, Misha Glenny takes us on a journey through the new world of international organised crime. For three years, he has been recording the stories of gun runners in Ukraine, money launderers in Dubai, drug syndicates in Canada, cyber criminals in Brazil, racketeers in Japan and many more.

During his investigation of the dark side, he has spoken to countless gangsters, policemen and victims of organised crime while also exploring the ferocious consumer demand for drugs, trafficked women, illegal labour and arms across five continents. The journey begins with an appalling and inexplicable murder in England's stockbroker belt and continues with stories that are often horrifying, sometimes inspiring, usually bizarre and occasionally funny. But together they build a breathtaking picture of the shadow economy that may now account for up to 20% of the world's GDP.

Usually the preserve of sensationalist reporting in the tabloid press, organised crime has seeped into our lives in so many ways and often without our knowledge. This consistently riveting account unveils the nature of crime in today's world but it also offers profound insights into the pitfalls of a globalisation where the rules dividing the legal from the illegal are often far from clear. It also argues that conventional policing methods are no longer appropriate to deal with a problem whose roots lie in global poverty and the ever widening divisions between rich and poor.

Buy a ticket for £5, get one free.

020 8552 9993
to reserve a ticket. Free drinks and nibbles as usual.

Sunday 6 April 2008

Anti-War Movement - Five Years On

Five Years On: what has the anti-war movement achieved?

A recent programme on 18 March on the Iranian news channel Press TV involving two comrades - Cilius from NMP and Nick from RAN - was an interesting start to a debate that needs to be reclaimed by activists before it falls into the hands of the academics and journalists. What has 'Britain's Biggest Mass Movement' (the title of the Stop the War Coalition's 2007 book) managed to achieve? Could it have done more and what lessons can we learn from what it did wrong?

The chair of the television debate, Andrew Gilligan, is a journalist and therefore likes to simplify and personalise everything. This may explain why arguments focused on the Stop the War Coalition (StWC) and the make up of its executive committee. StWC on its own is not the anti-war movement but it has been, of course, the leading organisation for the movement's public protests since the invasion of Iraq and the demonstration on 15 February 2003 remains Britain's largest by a long way. However, whilst the size of the march in London undoubtedly worried the government at the time, it did not stop the invasion. This, claim the movement's critics, is the sign of its failure. However, it would be naive to think that simply turning out on one freezing cold Saturday in February would make the government suddenly change its mind, especially when Blair had staked everything on staying close to the US presidency and its neo-conservative agenda.

Still, if street protests are a tactic rather than an end in itself, it is unfortunate that StWC's strategy since 2003 seems to amount to little more than 'keeping on marching', one that has seen increasingly diminishing returns. The fifth anniversary demonstration was the smallest yet, although the rhetoric from StWC's key speakers continues to emphasise that marches will be the way forward in the future. It is important to remember that at the numerical peak of street protest in 2003, the majority of public opinion was in favour of the invasion, but unfortunately, there seems to be little analysis from StWC about why these protests have grown smaller and smaller at a time when the public has become more and more against the war.

Apart from questioning the apparently dubious value of doing the same thing over and over again, it might therefore be worth asking about a number of other issues that could help to guide the way the anti-war movement decides to act in the future. Covering these in any detail would require a blog posting the length of a book (a book that I hope someone will write one day). But the most obvious question is why Muslim Asian communities no longer mobilize for anti-war protests?

In many ways, the mass involvement of Muslim Asian communities in the demonstrations against war in Afghanistan and Iraq are just as significant as the multitude that formed the largest street protest in Britain’s history. After all, it would have been entirely understandable if, as rising levels of Islamophobia before September 2001 spiralled after the attacks on the United States, communities that felt under siege turned inwards. Writing in the International Socialism Journal in autumn 2003, Salma Yaqoob, the chair of the Stop the War Coalition in Birmingham, said that young Muslim Asians made a decision after September 11 that “isolation and withdrawal from wider political institutions is a dead end”. She argues that the anti-war movement “showed how unity and solidarity offers a more positive avenue for Muslims to engage with these wider institutions.”

Whilst this may be true, it does not fully explain why young Muslim Asians in particular decided to engage with the anti-war movement and become politically active alongside peace campaigners and the traditional Left when they had not done so before. It may be that the pace of events and the chaotic nature of the Stop the War Coalition in its early stages meant that the emerging anti-war movement was particularly open to the involvement of a very broad spectrum of opinion. More importantly, the anti-war movement seemed to provide more than just a focus for opposition to military action, but rather against the ‘injustice’ in a broader sense of the ‘War on Terror’ both at home and abroad. This enabled a range of issues, from racism, anti-terror legislation and the hypocrisy of enforcing UN resolutions on Iraq but not on Israel, to bring together a range of otherwise very different opinions, not just amongst Muslim Asians but amongst everyone who marched.

In turn, this meant that unlike the Rushdie Affair in 1989 or the first Gulf War in 1991, Muslim Asians were not only part of a very wide-ranging ‘moral community’, one that distrusted Blair, doubted the motives for war in Iraq and feared the effects of US imperialism. They were also part of an alliance engaging in the most fundamental expression of citizenship – the right of public dissent – that was a sharp rebuke to the government’s narrow definition of what ‘Britishness’ represents.

A Mass Movement with Few Roots

Since the movement’s peak, however, it has been Asian Muslims who have been markedly absent from each successive demonstration, leaving the latest march a sad return to the 57 varieties of left-wing fringe group that was normal before February 2003. Could this be because the Stop the War Coalition became less broad in its spectrum of opinion with the tightening of central control by its leadership? It does seem that the increasing hold over StWC by its dominant organisation, the Socialist Workers Party, has had a number of consequences. The most notable has been the abandonment of efforts to develop local Stop the War groups. Currently, StWC's website lists 110 local groups, the majority of whom are little more than an e-mail address, controlled by a local SWP member, for a 'group' that is reactivated only when there is a demo to promote. As a result, we now have a 'mass movement' that has few local roots.

The Choice of Conservative Allies

It also seems that the narrowing of opinion within StWC has led to its gradual withdrawal from broader ‘injustice’ issues and the breaking up of the ‘moral community’ against the war. Certainly there seems that, lacking a broad-based local network, StWC has seemed content to simply add the name of a Muslim organisation to the list of sponsors of a demonstration and feel that this is sufficient – even if some of these temporary alliances involve groups such as the Muslim Association of Britain, who are effectively the UK branch of the Muslim Brotherhood and therefore part of the Islamic Right.

With little effort to maintain a broad-based coalition and faced with often hysterical criticism of its choice of partners from the pro-war Left, the StWC leadership have responded by simply reaffirming its commitment to ‘standing with Muslim communities’ but has been unable to translate this into anything practical. Others, for example, have taken up opposition to anti-terror legislation and even when new issues emerged that have attracted genuine public disquiet, such as the bombing of Lebanon by Israel in 2006 that only 22% of Britons believed was proportionate, StWC showed considerable nervousness about providing a political critique of some of the actions of its allies. It said nothing about the prominence of the “We Are All Hizbollah” banners on the demonstration it sponsored in London in August 2006 and its most prominent spokesperson, George Galloway, went further in naively (and stupidly, in my view) proclaiming, “I glorify the Hizbollah national resistance movement, and I glorify the leader of Hizbollah, Sheikh Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah.”

The Problem with George

One of the fundamental questions that must be asked is whether it was wise to hand the most public face of the anti-war movement to George Galloway. 'Gorgeous George' has always chosen to be a divisive figure, as his pro-Hizbollah and, more recently, pro-Iranian government statements have shown. However, the main consequence of making him the de facto 'leader' of the movement against war was the siphoning off of considerable focus and energy into the establishment of the Respect party, whose principle task (if we are honest) was the re-election of George Galloway.

There are long arguments to be had about Respect as a political project, but if it was really the best way of providing, in Salma Yaqoob's words, "a more positive avenue for Muslims to engage", then it also involved handing the mantle of leadership back to an older, more conservative generation. In Newham, for example, younger activists who had organised a massive march in protest against the local MP and government minister Stephen Timms when he broke his promise and voted for war without a second UN resolution, were conspicuously absent from the party's election platforms, which were dominated by religious leaders. This conveyed the unfortunate impression that Muslim Asians, probably the most diverse minority population in Britain, were expected to obediently vote for Respect because of their faith and the instruction of their community ‘leadership’, rather than because of the politics of the party, at a time when the anti-war movement had if anything increased the diversity of opinion within Muslim Asian communities.

Can the Anti-War Movement Do More?

So anyway, these are a few observations. As I said earlier, there is a book that could be written about the lessons that should be learnt from the development of the anti-war movement in Britain.

I am sure of one thing, though. February 2003 seems like a long way away, but the war rumbles on. Can pounding the streets of London, in demonstrations that are ignored by even committed activists, be the only reaction we have left?

Thursday 3 April 2008

Newham's Mayor Buys Himself A Group of Charities

Newham's executive Mayor, Sir Robin Wales, today completed a process that we first described back in November 2006. At a meeting at the Town Hall, he addressed a select group of local charities who have been awarded contracts to deliver public services on behalf of the council. Wales told them that they represented the 'best of the voluntary sector', the opposite of those he described as 'corrupt and venal', and that they alone would have access to his office and the opportunity to bring him their ideas- ones that the Mayor said he would fund if he liked them. But, warned the Mayor, if the contracts they are undertaking appear to be failing, they can expect to have their money taken away.

All this was presented as some kind of partnership with the borough's voluntary sector. The reality, however, is that it represents its division, for the lifetime of the council's new contracts, into the favoured few and the excluded majority, most of whom are neither 'corrupt' or 'venal' but quietly making an enormous impact on the local community through their underfunded work with local people. The very idea of a new 'inner circle' of charities with special access makes a mockery of the idea of openness and accountability, of Newham council's pledges to ensure equal access to funding and consultation.

And even for the inner circle, it's hardly a genuine partnership when they have so little power and will have to spend the next three years trying to second-guess the whims of Newham's increasingly messianic Mayor. Once part of the inner circle, how many will risk banishment by speaking their minds, even if it means falling from the favours of the Mayor and his courtiers? Furthermore, it's not even as if most of the most-favoured are getting a particularly fair deal. They had originally been promised that they would be able to recover their full costs on becoming Newham council's subcontractors, but that promise has been quietly dropped. There is no way that private sector businesses would ever agree to the demands that the charities have been asked to meet. No wonder they have been given the promise of 'jam tomorrow' - its a very effective way of buying privatisation on the cheap.

And that is where the Mayor's use of the word 'venal' is so troubling. The dictionary defines it as "capable of being obtained for a price", or "acting for reward", or "capable of betraying honour, duty or scruples."

The excluded majority of Newham's voluntary and community organisations might ask, with some justification, why they are the ones who have been painted as mercenary?

Random Blowe | Original articles licensed under a Creative Commons License.