Monthly Archives: October 2014

Remembering the function of fascism



A review of Mark Hayes, The Ideology of Fascism and the Far-Right (Red Quill Books, £14.50)

This is an important book which has not yet had the attention it deserves. Mark Hayes’ purpose is to write against an academic consensus which increasingly tends to separate the actions of fascism (i.e. what fascist parties did in history) from the analysis of fascism by political scientists. Amongst the former, there is (at least in Britain and the US) as much of an anti-fascist consensus as there has ever been. Within political science by contrast, there is a tendency to treat fascism as a set of ideas isolated from their consequences.

The first part of Hayes’ book explores the ideological components of fascism; the first chapter insists on fascism’s essential irrationality. Deeply rooted in the collective psyche of post-1918 Europe were desires to escape from a world of rationality, to return to what were said to be deeper instincts of lust, wilfulness and discipline. Thus when talking about fascism’s ideas (nationalism, authoritarian leadership, anti-communism, racism, etc), a writer cannot simply repeated fascist commonplaces (such as the common slogan: “fascism equals nationalism plus socialism” or “fascism is neither right nor left”) but understand that the terms within the equation have taken on a charged and different content. Fascists did not share the same political vocabulary opponents, or, to the limited extent that they did, they took the terms and gave them a new meaning.

The remainder of this part of Hayes’ book is in effect a thematic history of fascism showing how that ideology’s themes worked themselves out in practice. So, Hayes’ detailed account of fascist racism includes a description of Italian war crimes in Eritrea and Somaliland as well as the growing anti-Semitism (after an initial ambivalence) of Mussolini’s regime. The section on the racism of the Nazis concludes, of course, with the Holocaust. Hayes sets out the virtues of Kershaw’s synthesis of functional and intentional explanations for the Final Solution, before seeming to come down marginally in favour of the intentionalists: “Nazi ideology and the notion of socio-biological racism was (is), quite simply, lethal … There was an inexorable, sequential logic at work here, from abstract theoretical disquisition to death camp.”

The second part of Hayes’ book is devoted to British fascism, and while much of the material on pre-1979 fascism is familiar, Hayes account of the factional intrigues within the post-1979 National Front, and from there through “Rights for Whites” to Nick Griffin’s decisions first to join the BNP and then stand for its leadership, is more specific and compelling than anything else I have read on this period.

A third section returns to the mistakes of much contemporary writing about generic fascism. Hayes’ message, stated in its simplest form, is that fascism has a social function: it was and is “a right-wing counter-revolutionary ideology”, which served in a term of revolutionary upheavals to reestablish the rule of the dominant social elites. If this approach risks being labelled Marxist, Hayes accepts the tag: “The Marxist analysis certainly retains considerable heuristic value. Using an undogmatic and critical application of Marxist principles it is possible to arrive at a theory which is rooted in the analysis of social forces, acknowledges the reality of economic power and evaluates the nature of the historical process in the material world – yet is flexible enough to accommodate all that is of value in other interpretations.”

Some minor criticisms could be made. Hayes himself is a former supporter of Red Action and Anti-Fascist Action (AFA), and argues very briefly in the final pages of his book that in an era of neo-liberal hegemony and declining trade union membership AFA was an important instance not just of successful anti-fascism but also of the engagement and mobilisation of working class people. I have argued elsewhere that a positive balance sheet could be drawn up with regards to several previous waves of anti-fascist activism: by the Anti-Nazi League in the late 1970s, by the 43 Group in 1945-1951, and by the Communists in the 1930s. It is a shame that the parts of Hayes’ book which are devoted to British fascism before 1979 do not also show how fascist tactics have been repeatedly  changed out of all recognition in response to anti-fascist campaigns.

At the level of the greatest abstraction, I think Hayes takes a wrong turn in formally emphasising fascist “function” without giving equal weight to fascist methods of organisation. David Cameron, Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and their many predecessors have wanted to bolster the rule of existing social elites. The point at which fascists diverged from them was in the leadership principle, their use of security teams (or in the case of the British Union of Fascists, a private army in embryo), and their willingness to use extra Parliamentary methods including a presence in the streets as the means to achieve their end. The context in which anti-fascism has historically operated has been set by the contradictions between fascist goals and fascist methods. That is why, for example, Communist tactics at Olympia in 1934 were effective, because they brought out – before Mosley’s Conservative audience – the reality that behind the high-seeming appeals to civic patriotism the fascists practised the method of the iron fist.

I am not sure whether Hayes sees the present period as one in which fascists could grow – there are a number of passages where he talks about what fascism “was/is”. If, as I suspect, he thinks we are still, to an extent, in an age pregnant with fascism, then I would have like to have seen that argued directly.

That said, I found myself agreeing with more of this book than anything similar to it published in the last decade. I enjoyed it and I hope it receives the widest possible readership.

On having two enemies



Richard is right, and not for the first time: if the British left was serious about the message of “Arm the Kurds”, then it would be the wrong slogan. It would concede to our rulers or to the Turkish state a right to intervene, when there have been too many interventions already. ISIS is the child of the broken promises made by the US to the Anbar Awakening Council at the time of AQI’s defeat in 2006-7. The best sign that a US presence will not help is the evident glee with which Isis is begging for troops to be sent. Their films make this clear; made for a Western audience, they promise an infinite succession of high profile casualties, each one making our leaders look worse, with only one solution – the killings will stop, if only the troops are sent. Isis well understands that nothing would do more to bolster its status in the Arab world than if it were to find itself toe-to-toe with American forces in Iraq and Syria.

And yet, if the alternative to “Arm the Kurds” is “Don’t Bomb Iraq”, then this slogan is actually worse. It plays to a story about the left in which we never directly promote workers’ struggles, women’s rights, but always proceed sideways, crab-like, thinking to ourselves, “Who are the Americans supporting? We must, by definition, be against them.” The Kurdish militia fighting in Kobane are not hardened PKK veterans drawing on a 20-year history of struggle with the Turkish state. They are hastily assembled militia, comprising women in equal numbers and authority to men, brought together by a loose identification with a Kurdish nationalist politics that is infused with elements of secularism and socialism. They have not chosen to take up arms and do not glorify violence. Save for the choice that has been forced upon them – resist or be killed – they are in no essential way different from the local committees that we saw in Egypt during the Arab spring defending towns from Mubarak’s attempted counter-revolution.

Ranged against them is a campaign which makes a glorification of death. There have of course been people before who used violence, including killing, as a form of propaganda. But the anarchists of pre-1914 France blew up politicians or bosses, not aid workers. It was the same – in all essentials – in Ireland, in Vietnam, and Sri Lanka. The left has no obligation to indulge or prettify ISIS. We know that among those volunteering to fight in Iraq and Syria are hundreds of people from Britain and the US. Sometimes, a mere fluke of happenstance distinguishes the people who decided to join the left on anti-war demos from those who have taken a different, worse path.  And so we have a responsibility, while opposing our own rulers and the US, also to repeat certain basic messages – that a society which glorifies in the subjugation of women is a society in which far more than half of the people are going to be unfree. Richard is right, we cannot say “arm the Kurds”, but we can say that – politically, morally, with all the limited solidarity we can legitimately give – we are with the people of Kobane now.

UKIP: a party of the dispossessed taking votes from Labour?



Three years ago, to coincide with the aftermath of the 2010 general election, Matthew Goodwin published a book setting out to explain what he predicted would be (in the book’s subtitle), the “Rise of the British National Party”. The book combined a narrow, institutional history of the internal clashes which had produced the BNP’s then leadership, with an televisual style of interviewing in which Nick Griffin et al were asked a series of open questions and given every opportunity to present their view of the world. Finally, a series of opinion polls were used to test the social base of BNP voting and bolster the book’s analysis of that party’s rosy electoral future.

In 2014, Matthew Gooodwin (with the assistance of Rob Ford) has published a strikingly similar book. It follows the same method as its predecessor and reaches similar conclusions. This book is rather more compelling (2010 was after all a rout for the BNP) for the fortunate reason that at some stage in the project’s genesis, the interest in the BNP has been scored through and replaced with UKIP.

A large portion of the book is devoted to an institutional history of UKIP. This material is made valuable by the relative absence of previous studies to which it can be compared. In acknowledging the existence of Nick Griffin, Goodwin’s last book was treading very well-trod ground, by contrast there have been fewer previous studies of UKIP. That does not mean there have been none – Amazon supplies at least three previous institutional biographies of UKIP, by Mark Daniel, Bill Etheridge, Peter Gardener, none of which are acknowledged in Goodwin and Ford’s book. Yet none of these earlier accounts are well known. This time, at last, the authors have successfully identified a relative gap in the market.

Being the first there does not mean that the account is authoritative. Every dozen pages or so, there is an error or a significant omission which sticks in the memory and causes you to doubt the judgment of the writers. When UKIP was launched in 1993 Alan Sked, UKIP’s founder, had a more interesting political past than just having stood as a Liberal candidate (page 21). He had indeed stood for the Liberals, but that was once, 23 years previously. In 1993, he was a Thatcherite of several years standing. The pre-UKIP Sked was an economic liberal (i.e. a neoliberal) and a social libertarian, and the early UKIP well reflected its founder’s enthusiasm for the interests of business. Nick Griffin was not a young member of the BNP in 1993 (page 54). He was neither in the BNP nor especially young, having already spent over a decade in the leadership of the NF and its splinters. The Race Relations Amendment Act, passed in response to the Stephen Lawrence campaign, required public authorities to take steps to prevent race discrimination. It did not make “religious prejudice a crime” (page 132). Equally annoying is the passage on the same page where Goodwin actually auto plagiarises from page 56 of his last book the fantasy that the Labour government of the early 2000s “liberalised” immigration policy. In thirteen years of government, Labour passed six major immigration statutes, innumerable statutory instruments and several hundred changes to the immigration rules; almost every single one of which made the law more restrictive. As with his book on the BNP, Goodwin suffers from a serial absence of scepticism in repeating when he should be questioning the stories that the right likes to tell about itself and the world.

The biggest problem with this part of the book is that UKIP is never placed in any meaningful context, whether in terms of the interests of the various funders who have switched from the Tories to UKIP, or in terms of the press that sensed an opening to the Tories’ right and have actively promoted UKIP since 2010, whether out of a dislike of the Coalition or revenge for Leveson. UKIP is an anti-European party which has until recently polled much better in European rather than domestic elections, there is no engagement with why millions of voters might have disengaged with the European project and be willing to vote for the most anti-European option available to them. The Tories, the war on terror, the dismantling of the welfare state and the refocussing of the state on the interest of business – are all placed somewhere in the background, none in any compelling relationship to UKIP. Rotherham, which should provide a vivid example of UKIP’s ability to exploit racialised fantasies about male sexual violence, gets just a single paragraph.

The second major component of the book is an attempt to characterise UKIP’s voting base, which Ford and Goodwin, again drawing on Goodwin’s past in fascism studies, compares to that of the French FN or the BNP. UKIP is portrayed as a party of the dispossessed which prospers principally from New Labour’s strategic decision to put more effort into recruiting young, socially liberal, urban voters and its relative lack of interest in working-class voters who had no option but to stick with Labour.

This narrative is buttressed by an impressive array of statistical charts. It is however flawed. One wrong assumption is that working-class voters historically had a party with which the vast majority of them identified – ie the Labour Party – until, at some recent point in the past, Labour stopped representing them. The mistake here is to assume that Labour has always had a clear majority of working class supporters, and that it has lost touch with its base only as a result of Blairism. The more complex truth is that at every election in British history there have been large minorities and usually absolute majorities of working class voters who have voted against Labour.

Liverpool is often held up as the most anti-Tory city in Britain; its Wavertree constituency had Conservative MPs until 1983. South Sunderland had a Tory MP until 1964. A plethora of older analyses tried to explain the resilience of working-class Tory voting in terms of attachment to Unionism (important in Liverpool, Birmingham and Western Scotland), white-collar Toryism, deferential voting, etc.

Maybe at some point in the future, writers will grasp that what brought millions of voters to Labour was not class position (as if people’s class was something static, which their politics would simply reflect) but class experience so that for example Labour voting has always been dramatically higher among trade union representatives than it has been among trade union members.

The data the authors use as a proxy for class derives from the Goldthorpe-Heath class schema, which divides up members of the public according to the skills associated with the job they do: so nurses, as professionals, are near the top, while someone who owned their own business is plumb in the middle of the ladder. To try to write a sociology of how people vote which takes into account their education but not their income or capital leads to a wholly distorted picture.

Even if we accept Goodwin and Ford’s sociological analysis that UKIP voters left education at a younger age than non-UKIP voters, and are more likely to have worked in manual jobs, voters are not switching to UKIP in equal numbers from Labour and the Conservatives. At page 166 of their book, the authors suggest that among people who switched to UKIP between 2010 and 2013, former Conservative voters outnumbered former Labour voters by a staggering seven to one. This fact alone drives a cart and several horses through Ford and Goodwin’s portrayal of UKIP as an equal threat to the Tories and Labour.

A further weakness is the lack of any serious attempt to map the intersection of class and age. If UKIP’s recruits are mainly of retirement age then the voters who have switched to UKIP since 2010 overlap with the generation who benefited from right to buy in the mid-1980s and who delivered the Tories their election victories in 1987 and 1992. Their formal education may have finished early, but home ownership provided several hundreds of thousands of people with a sum of capital which has been equivalent to decades in the workplace. To present such people as “disadvantaged” is to assume that a person born in 1950 who left school at 16 will have less income and a worse life than their younger counterpart who left education at 18 or 21 in 1990. But the older group will have – over their lifetime – more disposable income, a larger home, greater security in their house and their job and a better pension.

Goodwin and Ford illustrate their view of the UKIP demographic with the example of John, a hypothetical construct, who worked in a factory all his life, and always voted Tory (really; why – surely someone with that work history be much more likely to be a non-voter?), but switched to Labour in around 2000 on being made redundant at 50. He is now 64, has not worked in years, and has no prospects; voting UKIP enables him to kick against everyone.

No doubt there are some Johns out there. But they are not the whole or the largest part of that political generation.

Two further biographies might get you closer to the sociology of UKIP switchers. Imagine John has two cousins, Paul and Maureen. Paul worked in the Post Office in outer London till the mid-1980s, always voting Labour. He was made redundant as were many of the people he worked with but rather than just feel sorry for himself, he used his redundancy money to buy his council house. By the end of the decade he had three houses, two of them paying enough rent to cover the mortgages. Later, he took different office jobs without ever settling down. He tells friends they are his “hobbies”; it is his income as a landlord which keeps him afloat. The third house he sold ten years ago just before the recession hit. Successive moves have taken him away from London; his jobs will earn him almost no pension at all, and he is relying on selling the second house to tide him through retirement. The tax bill alone will be in six figures but his profit on the sale will be larger still; and between the state pension and his savings he will be on the same absolute income as twenty years ago – even if with inflation it will feel like a small, and shrinking, allowance. Paul voted Tory between 1992 and 2010 but dislikes Cameron and promises to never vote Tory again.

Maureen also grew up in a city, in her case Manchester. She left school, as all three did, at 16, and then worked in nursing. If she made it in the public sector, then her headline salary would now be double Paul’s, but this is misleading since she has had to cut her hours to care for her two elderly parents. If she is in the private sector then she will be on a zero hours contract and the minimum wage and working every shift she can – her salary will be half Paul’s – and someone else will have to cover her family’s emotional and physical needs. She has mainly voted Labour but never really identified with the party, and switched at times to the Liberal Democrats and even once or twice (although she does not like to admit it) to the Tories.  She lives in a council flat. Unlike Paul, she has a pension. But on retirement her disposable income will fall by three-quarters. She has no savings, and is not looking forward to the future.

An implied message of Ford and Goodwin’s book – although this is never adequately explained – is that immigration has supplanted anti-European sentiment as UKIP’s key policy and that this shift has accompanied UKIP’s break from tradition after this year’s European elections (it had secured high votes in the 2009 and 2004 elections but then subsided in the polls, this time it has held its ground). My sense is that there are hundreds of thousands of voters who have switched to UKIP principally because of its anti-immigrant message, and for whom race acts as an organising belief: it structures their nostalgia for their childhood, and their resentment at a world which offers declining opportunities to them.

But among this group, a number of years spent campaigning against the BNP – in London, Sunderland, and elsewhere – makes me that think there are many more Pauls switching to UKIP than there are Maureens or Johns (the Maureens of the world are noticeably a core demographic of many anti-racist campaigns). Ukip identifiers are people who grew up in working class families but who found that the politics of the 1980s offered them certain opportunities to accumulate savings and advance socially compared to the people around them. Rather than being grateful to the politicians who tried to split the working class (and even to some extent succeeded) this generation attributes its relative success to its members personal attributes (hard work, intelligence) which it finds missing in the younger generation. From a position of relative (but not absolute) security, this layer feels intense feelings of resentment at those who are “milking the system” – the single mothers you can read about in the Express with their football team-sized families, the asylum seekers living in their imaginary mansions – and somehow catching up with them. The fear of immigration shown by Farage’s newer admirers it follows is not a revolt of the most dispossessed but the resentment of people who believe they have something to lose, and are determined to keep ahead.

I may be wrong. This is the reason why people do research, in order to challenge their own assumptions (and, in this case, the stories that parties put out about themselves). But little in Ford or Goodwin’s sociology would enable you to predict which of Paul, John or Maureen would be the more likely future UKIP voter. In terms of the figures on which they focus, Paul, John and Maureen are near identical – white, fast approaching retirement, after having left formal education early.

If Ford and Goodwin were asking better questions, we would all have a clearer sense of which groups in Britain have been moving UKIP’s way.

All the People, So many People



Saturday, for those of you who have run it (if not, why not?) was the tenth anniversary of the founding of Parkrun. Not so much an athletics event, as a social movement, Parkun is an idea and a website. At about 290 locations in the UK it is possible to run a timed 5k in company, without charge, each Saturday, starting at 9am. Volunteers collect the runners’ times and enter them on a huge database. When I say “huge”, I do mean it: the last time I looked it the number of runners whose times had been logged was a staggering 549,859.

Between us the UK parkrunners have run 5.2 million times, at a total running time of 267 years, and 211 days. We have covered, give or take, 26 million kilometres.

Parkrun has also spread to about 200 locations outside the UK.

The 5k format turns out to be surprisingly fluid: whether that is the London parkrun which cuts through a marsh and is rumoured to be 50 metres under distance (making it ideal for personal bests) or the ones around it, on roads or parks, offering a variable mix of hills and flat. I have run at events in rural southern England where there were more people parkrunning on Saturday at 9 than could be found in the town centre 2 hours later.

There are events in London where barely one in fifteen participants is a child, and events in Manchester where adults running with children are a clear majority and parkrun has become essentially a family affair.

Parkrun is not advertised but spread by word of mouth. Extensive volunteering keeps the costs low. Being free to enter, it has something of the feel of the internet where, in general, the provider of free content “wins”.

Occasionally, the local sports shop owner may come down and bid the runners welcome, but apart from that there is zero business involvement, no marketing, no message from the sponsors; in fact, it is hard to discern any sponsors at all.

It is a superbly contemporary phenomenon – the Syriza or Podemos of participation sport.


In defence of the Human Rights Act



My immediate response to the news of Conservative plans to abolish the Human Rights Act was “if they get away with that, I’m emigrating”. A day later I found myself thinking, “but they can’t abolish the right to life, the rule against slavery, the right to a free trial, surely all these principles will survive, won’t they?” Thinking the issue through; it would undoubtedly be a collective defeat, but not quite in a way that anyone in the press has ever properly explained.

For the institutions of “Europe” (I will be more precise shortly about which bits of Europe shortly), the repeal of the HRA on the terms the Conservatives propose – without withdrawal of the EU, but with the repatriation of decision-making to the domestic courts – would be an existential challenge. The Conservatives are saying that the Council of Europe will voluntarily consent to give up its present arrangement where the European Courts of Human Rights oversees the work of the national courts in ensuring that human rights are implemented. And the ECHR will accept in future some shadow existence where domestic governments are empowered to simply ignore any decisions the Court makes.

The ECHR system was not manufactured around the needs of the Conservative Party, it has grown in recent years in response to different needs. In 2013, 1600 complaints were made about decisions of the UK state; twice as many cases concerned Serbia, three times as many emanated from Poland and Romania, six times as many came from Turkey and Ukraine, and fifteen times as many came from citizens of Russia. The Conservative policy amounts to saying (for example), if the European Court of Human Rights is faced with a state like Hungary, which has practised open discrimination against Roma people, eg excluding their children from public education, and the ECHR finds that Hungary conduct has breached the basic human rights of its citizens, it would be better if Hungary could override the ECHR and continue with its discriminatory policies.

Such a change would make the ECHR, and the Council of Europe around which it is based, toothless and meaningless organisations. (It would hardly do anything for the legitimacy of the European Court of Justice, either).

There are bodies in the world which have paper “courts”, which make purely advisory declarations, which have no enforcement mechanism and which risk being subsequently ignored. There are also bodies which operate meaningful courts, with proper sanctions and widespread international respect. I struggle to think of any comparable situation in recent history where one of the latter has agreed – after 50 years of steady institutional growth – to give up its powers and become one of the former instead.

This context helps to explain why Conservative critics of the proposal to abolish the HRA have termed the plan “puerile” – if the policy is taken at face value, it is laughably silly to think that the Council of Europe would voluntarily consent to so diminishing the European Court of Human Rights. On the other hand, if you see the plan as a step in an internal Tory civil war, then it makes much more sense. After the next election, a majority government led by David Cameron is supposed to march on the European Union and demand a renegotiation of the European Treaty. If this fails, the government is supposed to call an in/out referendum on Britain’s continuing membership of the EU. How is anyone supposed to know whether Cameron’s negotiations have achieved enough so that the need for a referendum has been averted? The negotiated abolition (or not) of the European Court of Human Rights becomes a practical test of whether Cameron (distrusted by his fellow Tories as supposedly a closest Euro enthusiast) and his negotiators have actually delivered on their promises. “You failed to persuade Europe to give up the ECHR; therefore we have no choice but to leave.” The process is not intended to be a negotiation – any discussion is being scotched in advance – but the announcement of a series of ultimatums which no one could grant.

Activists on the left used to call this kind of impossibilist demand-making “transitional” – now we find the method being reversed by a Tory right which is almost incandescent in its anger with the world’s ongoing unease at the pace of neo-liberal encroachment.

I have written at length about the European aspect to HRA abolition, but how much would people living in Britain lose if the rights in the ECHR ceased to become “justiciable” ie things which a person can enforce?

One common approach of the commentators has been to point out how the rights in the ECHR were themselves drawn up by British jurists in the aftermath of the second world war to codify principles that were already in the British common law.  This may or may not make good politics – by pointing to the domestic origins of the ECHR, you make the Convention seems less threatening. But in so far as it gives the impression that the arrival of the HRA did nothing of significance, it hardly justifies many lawyers’ feeling that we could be at the start of a sustained attack on people’s rights, deeper than anything we have seen in over a century.

A second approach has been to focus on the detail of the policies, to point out that the Conservatives plan appears to be to give Parliament a permanent veto over rights analysis by the courts, to note that any rights now in the HRA (even to the extent that they are retained at all in a “British bill of rights”) are only going to be watered down, and to refer to a particularly worrying proposal that rights – in general – are to depend in future only on complying with certain (as yet unspecified) responsibilities. This, after all, is exactly where rights discourse became a cause capable of shaping the lives of millions: in rejection of the discourses of very many of European states in the 1930s and 1940s which said that every citizen has absolute rights except the Jews or the Communists who by their conduct have forfeited them. A right is a human right because it is a right to which everyone has access. If a right is not a right in defence of a despised group, then in what sense is it a right at all?

Deep within the proposed post-HRA landscape is the idea that UK judges, armed with the common law, can come to rights-compliant decisions without foreign interference so that most people are just as well protected as they ever were before. One thing which has been missing is the explanation that the HRA was much more of a change to the UK’s legal landscape than New Labour was ever willing to admit. Before the HRA, many but not all of the rights in the Convention had established deep roots in the UK common law. For example, fair trial rights: for centuries, the UK had jury trial, rules against hearsay evidence, the double jeopardy rule, etc. But because these originated in common law (ie decisions made by judges in individual cases), there was always something piecemeal about them. They were vulnerable to legislative attack – and two of the three protections I have mentioned barely exist any more.

The simple facts that the HRA is a single document, codified, and attached to an extensive Strasbourg case law, have made it a vastly preferable starting point – from the perspective of restraining bad decisions taken by government – than the incoherent, buried patchwork of domestic cases (the “common law”) that were all lawyers had before.

If it is true that the Convention had originally been drafted by lawyers who included many from the UK and even many Tories; it is also true that once the Convention had been analysed by a postwar cadre of Christian Democratic European judges who took its language seriously, it took on a number of aspects which protected rights with more care than the UK had ever done. There is no common law right of privacy; there is something akin to a right of privacy in article 8.

The blacklisted construction workers are fighting their battles on the ground of articles 8 (privacy) and 11 (freedom of association); the companies and the state which protected them respond that UK’s domestic law do not protect agency workers. The outlines of this conflict, with rights on the hand, and domestic legislation on the other, have been repeated continuously in recent years – in employment, housing, asylum and inquest law. Article 8 and article 6 combined have been interpreted as meaning that no tenant of the state can be evicted without at least an opportunity of explaining to the court why their personal circumstances are such that an eviction would be disproportionate. That understanding was won through the repeated overruling of the old House of Lords and is miles ahead of anything that domestic law reached.

It may even be under the Conservatives’ plans that every one of articles 2 to 14 has a counterpart in a new domestic statute, but each of these rights will be diminished, and the courts will have been given the strongest possible steer to protect decisions by government even where they are so bad that they are – at present – unlawful.

Commemorating Cable Street


Cable Street Mural 1983

The battle of Cable Street, which took placed this day in 1936, has been commemorated in songs, plays, murals and children’s fiction. Not as well known, but no less compelling, is the modernist novel written around the events of Cable Street – Frank Griffin’s October Day, originally published in 1939 and republished three years ago by Five Leaves Books.

The protagonist Joe Slesser begins the book as an unemployed worker who is in constant tension with his wife. Going to Cable Street more for excitement than out of any political understanding at all, he meets Communist protesters and returns home having been won to voting Labour, which enables him by the novel’s end to find work (previously his anti-union views caused him to refused to work for the council) and rebuild his marriage. In between, the novel contains a range of characters including a woman ground down by poverty and contemplating suicide and a bus conductor who takes pity on her.

The book is written in short vivid scenes reminiscent of the cinema of its time, when single reels of film could last only around ten minutes. It is a mark of the different literary culture of those times that it was published and proactively marketed by the relatively mainstream house of Secker and Warburg (previously the publishers of Kafka and Lawrence).

One point Griffin well understood was that socialist fiction is at its most interesting when it is at its most grotesque and unreal, and its dullest when it is merely a narrative of demonstrations. In art as in life, socialism is capable of degeneration into a kind of identity politics where the form (conferences, marches, pre-printed placards) overwhelms the content. The majority of readers of fiction, encountering a story of a protest do not intuitively respond by thinking to themselves “how exciting”; if they did, they would go on more marches themselves. And therefore a realism which revolves around repeated descriptions of uplifting demonstrations will not be read by its audience in the way that an activist author intends: a story of personal and public liberation.

Griffin solves this by making his marchers accidental demonstrators, and giving them an antagonist worthy of great art. Helen Stroud is a friend of politicians and financiers and moves in a charmed circle where Mosley’s name is seen as wholly legitimate.

She is desperately aware of the passing of her youth, which she attempts to preserve by a relationship with a young and ambitious police officer from a thwarted middle-class background. Contemptuous of the demonstrators and despised by her own lover, she is maintained only by her general malevolence to the world.

Eighty years later, of course, the Strouds are still in charge and the left still in need of further Cable Streets.

Overcoming distrust



We left; and we were right to leave. We left behind the fiction of a party, the members nostalgic, the leaders held together by their part in covering up a crime. On leaving; we went different ways. We had a large majority of the young, the writers, the activists. We did not cohere. We split into two main groups, several hundred of us joined neither, and each group has shaved fractions since. We intended to remake the whole left. A year later, we have barely begun. Within all our parts, we are weakened by distrust.

This lack of solidarity, this isolation, this fog of inactivity – is not our natural state. When we became socialists, each of us did so optimistic that the rich and the rulers could all be swept away. But it was debilitating to be for years in a group where politics was slowly hollowed out, where tasks were chosen instrumentally and cynically. We were made less also by having to argue – within the group and unsuccessfully – for a return to the ideas which the group had claimed were its mission. We have not been healed by any upturn in the struggle – by new generations turning against war or austerity. There has been no spike in the lull of the struggle. Yet we cannot split down again and again until there are just two people left hoping that they will not disagree with each other. We have to learn to bind people together.

We can begin again by sinking roots in the working-class areas for which the left is intended to exist. We can praise other people where another group’s organising, not ours, has produced victories. We can learn another lesson of the last year, that the left is a whole – every pettiness is a collective defeat, each small victory, rare as they now feel, grows the totality. We can break from the habit of the British left to speak of socialism and yet to postpone to the indefinite future anything which might make it real. And we can try – the ambition is easy, but it counts for nothing unless we actually do what we have promised – to organise with integrity.

Why I wrote ‘Who killed Blair Peach?’



The pamphlet was written with the intention of drawing readers’ attention to the inquest into Blair Peach’s death.

Inquests are the first legal investigation which takes place when a person has died violently, suddenly or in prison. They are on oath. They take place in a courtroom. They are controlled by a coroner who is, in this setting, effectively a Judge. Blair’s inquest began properly on 28 April 1980, almost exactly a year after his death. It had been delayed because of a series of decisions of the Coroner, John Burton, which had been challenged and partially overturned by the Higher Courts

One decision of Burton’s was to sit without a jury. This was a surprising decision. Juries are not mandatory in inquests but they are common, and they have to be sworn where a death occurs in circumstances whose repetition would be prejudicial to health or safety

For Blair’s family and friends, the issue was straightforward; Southall was a police riot, should it be repeated, then other people would be injured or killed.

Burton’s rationale for excluding the jury was that the family were wrong and he would not allow their argument to be heard in court. He would blame the demonstrators instead. In excluding the jury, he would exclude any possibility of blaming the police.

The Court of Appeal reluctantly overruled Burton on the principle that if justice is going to be seen to be done, then you must at least allow people the legal system to explore the remote chance that the police were at fault, before in the end finding some way to say that another factor was to blame

Burton’s second decision was to hold back from the Inquest –from the jurors, and from Blair’s family – the most important evidence into Blair’s death

Burton excluded the report of Commander Cass, head of the Met’s Complaints Investigation Bureau. But after an investigation involving 30 officers, and around 30,000 hours of police time, Cass believed that he had identified Blair’s killer

This is how Cass put it, “There is some evidence that the fatal blow was struck by a member of the first carrier at the scene, U11, and indeed an indication that it was the first officer out of the vehicle. This … was Officer E.”

Cass’s reasoning was as follows: when Blair was killed, only very few police officers were at the scene: six officers driving in a vehicle, U11

Officer E was in command. He, and at least one of his junior officers, had given an untrue account of what happened on the day, falsely suggesting that they had left their vehicles relatively early during the day’s event – and not, as they later admitted, at exactly the spot where Blair had died

Officer E – Inspector Alan Murray – had behaved violently on other occasions during the day. Afterwards, he had refused to co-operate with the police investigation.

Murray – and this is something which Cass did not notice –possessed his unit’s radio. The radio matters because the two pathologists investigating the cause of death had found that a police radio was the most likely cause of death

His police radio was the only one on Orchard Avenue when Blair was struck. Much later Murray was asked, “Where was your radio?” His answer was “I was using it a lot.” It was in his hands, in other words.

But the Cass report was never disclosed to the Inquest, and almost the information I’ve told you was kept back from the jury

The notes of the Inquest, when you read them, are troubling. When a barrister examines a witness in court, and the witness lies to you, the most powerful thing you can do is quote back at them a document which proves that they are dissembling. If you have to ask questions without those documents – it is almost impossible to control a witness.

The jury were not told that Cass has shown that the officers of vehicle U11 was the only police present at the scene

Murray insisted that many other officers were present – without the Cass report, the barristers acting for Blair’s family had no means to hand to show that he was lying

The jury were not told that Cass has shown that Murray had left the vehicle at exactly the spot where Blair was struck

All the jury were not told, although the police, the barristers for the police and the Coroner all knew Cass that had established that the demonstrators were doing nothing when the officers of U11 charged into them

Murray made it sound like a battlefield – had the barristers been given the Cass report – they could have shown he was lying

Coroner Burton told the jury that the scene was so violent that no demonstrator left there was “innocent”; he could say this only because he had suppressed the best account of the events

Where an inquest has been held and evidence has been rejected, or new evidence has been found, which makes it necessary that there should be a new inquest, the Attorney General has the power to apply to the High Court to order a second inquest.

It has happened this year with Hillsborough.

There should be a second inquest now for Blair.

The pamphlet can be order for £2 plus p+p from Defend The Right To Protest here

Rest in Power Bassem Chit


My love goes out to everyone who knew Bassem Chit, who has died suddenly and prematurely of a heart attack. He was a socialist, an opponent of sectarianism, and a key ally of the comrades who founded Lebanon’s Helem, an LGBT campaign which fought against imperialism for justice and against dictatorship – making a space for LGBT rights among anti-imperialists and on the left just as once in Britain LGSM made gay rights part of the miners’ struggle.

“Social identities are not fixed”, Chit argued, “It is precisely the ruling classes and the order of the market that wish to restrict them in this way. The dissolution of social identities can occur only when society is truly free from oppression and exploitation”.

Running in autumn



This week’s Guardian running blog reports from the Ealing half marathon. At least two friends were running in the same race; both ran personal bests (1 hr 24 and 1:41 respectively); they didn’t complain about the hills, but did say that it was hot. Indeed, it was hot again on Tuesday evening when I ran my running club’s standard long (7.5 mile) run. A friend J- likes to make us run hard durin the penultimate mile which we usually run at or just below 7 minutes. By the end, you could see our group sweating just as much as you’d expect if we were running in June or July.

The Guardian’s Kate Carter asks for advice on calming down twitching muscles after a race; in the last few weeks, I’ve begun to swear by compression socks, which are backed – unlike most running fads – by research showing that they improve recovery after long runs. Before I ran in them, I used to finish each long run feeling as if my legs were wobbling, so shot to pieces were all the muscles in them. Your legs are not just calves, glutes and quads; there are tiny small muscles that hold your leg and balance it and your foot in the right position (“prioperception”). For me, there is a definite link between running in compression socks, better recovery, and the faster times I’ve recently been running

Carter speculates that the Ealing Eagles, hosts of the Ealing half, have an unduly competitive logo (“Don’t let the club down”). She should try watching them in the Summer League (above), a 6 match championship involving a mixture of 5 and 6 mile races and 400m relays run between the main London running clubs. The Eagles may not have the fastest 10k runners, but they certainly have the most, and the fastest, track athletes – by the fourth sets of summer league relays (no athlete is allowed to run in more than one relay), most of the teams are down to primary-school age children. The Eagles by contrast have a seemingly inexhaustible source of male runners in their 20s, looking to run 60 seconds or thereabouts for the 400 metres.

One big differences I’ve noticed this autumn, compared to previous years, is that my local council no longer sends a warden to open and close park gates at sunset but leaves them open overnight. On occasion, I run for an hour around our local park in utter darkness, hoping (especially on the first lap) that no-one has left a glass bottle on the path for me to land on. Meanwhile, the police appear to have cleared the rough sleepers from my other, canal, route. By late August, there were often be as many as eight or ten people – some in tents, some with nothing but their clothes – sleeping rough along a narrow route of about three miles. There has of course been no increase in the amount of social housing, it’s just that political pressure has been exercised on the police to move people on, and move the problem from the centre of London (where the businesses are) to its outskirts.