Category Archives: Britain

The labour movement must carry out its own inquiry into the Grenfell fire disaster


The decision of the Metropolitan police to pursue charges of “corporate manslaughter” in the Grenfell tower fire is a victory for the survivors and their supporters. The Scotland Yard investigation has said there are “reasonable grounds” to suspect Kensington council and its tenants management organization (TMO) of guilt. This is a direct consequence of the survivors’ continuous struggle for answers and justice for the victims, but it is only a first step in achieving accountability.

The council has lost all credibility, and what the police and government fear is that the state as a whole will permanently lose legitimacy. All its agencies are therefore striving to restore some kind of confidence in the ruling elite. But even prosecutions for corporate manslaughter will not satisfy the demand for justice – only fines are allowable under the law – and while residents are calling for individuals to be jailed, the problem is much wider than the council’s responsibilities to its tenants.

According to the Guardian, “Anger among residents of North Kensington over the causes and consequences of the fire has been mounting in the past six weeks. Public meetings at which officials and politicians have attempted to respond to complaints and questions from members of the community have been conducted in an atmosphere of volatile fury and distress. Police representatives have been heckled and shouted down. Residents have demanded charges be laid against the council, the TMO and the suppliers of the cladding believed to be the cause of the fire’s rapid spread. They have repeatedly complained that the police are being too cautious in their investigation.”

Around 70 survivors were able to force their way into the first full meeting of the council on July 19 by entering through a fire escape, and constantly heckled its new Tory leader, Elizabeth Campbell, with calls for her to stand down, while Labour councillors called for the authority to be taken over by independent commissioners.  The Independent reported: “Eve Wedderburn, who presented a petition with more than 1,500 signatures calling on the council to resign, said the new leader ‘is discredited before she even begins’ and said she had a record of ‘dismantling children’s services’ in her previous role. ‘This village no longer recognises the legitimacy of your estate’, Ms Wedderburn said, turning on its head a comment that councillor Rock Feilding Mellen allegedly made in the aftermath of the fire that: ‘The village cannot dictate to the estate’.” Feilding Mellen is the council’s former deputy leader, who resigned under intense public hostility to the council leadership.

Residents at an earlier consultation meeting attacked local and national officials, politicians, and the council’s “damage limitation” exercise. “We don’t sleep, we don’t eat, we want change, and we want you to engage with us,” said one woman. Another resident said: “Everyone in this room has probably attended 50 meetings in the past four weeks. Every time people say they’re listening to us. But what we want is for you to do your job, and do it properly.”

Successive governments in Britain systematically scaled back building safety regulations, letting cost concerns outweigh the risks and allowing builders to wrap residential apartment towers in highly flammable materials, a practice forbidden in the US and in Europe. The New York Times reported: “Business-friendly governments in Britain — first under Labor and then under the Conservatives — campaigned to pare back regulations. A 2005 law known as the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order ended a requirement for government inspectors to certify that buildings had met fire codes, and shifted instead to a system of self-policing. Governments adopted slogans calling for the elimination of at least one regulation for each new one that was imposed … ‘If you think more fire protection would be good for U.K. business, then you should be making the case to the business community, not the government,’ Brian Martin, the top civil servant in charge of drafting building-safety guidelines, told an industry conference in 2011, quoting the fire minister then, Bob Neill. (‘Should we be looking to regulate further? ‘No’ would be my answer,’ Mr. Neill added.)”

Even these pared-back regulations seem to have been ignored. A certificate issued by the building inspectors’ organization stating that on tall buildings the insulation used in the tower should only be used with fiber cement panels, which do not burn, was seen by The Guardian. Grenfell was fitted with cheaper combustible polyethylene-filled aluminium panels instead as part of a political drive to cut costs. “In June 2014, KCTMO [the tenants’ management organization] and Rydon [the contractor] reported: ‘We have been busy working with the council’s planning department on the type of cladding which will be used.’ The next month, samples of the cladding were erected ‘for the council’s planners to look at and approve’. But also in July, according to separate leaked internal emails, the council was looking for ‘good costs’ and cheaper cladding panels were substituted, saving almost £300,000.”

Council documents have revealed the contrast between the council’s wealth and its efforts to cut costs on the tower refurbishment. “The Conservative-controlled council raised £4.5m from the sale of two three-bedroom houses in affluent Chelsea. It spent just £3.5m on the whole of the cut-price cladding system for 120 homes, which burned with such ferocity last month … The two council houses on St Luke’s Street were close to the luxury shops of King’s Road in Chelsea and were originally priced at a combined £3.25m, but sold for £1.25m above that. One was bought by a multimillionaire property investor who has been granted permission to dig out a basement extension.”

The Kensington council is acting exclusively on behalf of its extremely affluent residents, which as well as billionaires include many government members and officials, and not on behalf of its poorer council tenants, who are treated as “subhuman”, in the words of one survivor. What was of more concern to the council officials was the aesthetic appearance of the cladding to the richer residents, not its fire-resistant properties.

The chair of the official government inquiry has not won any support from survivors and residents: he has made clear that his inquiry will be limited to the causes of the fire and why it spread so quickly, and will not investigate the wider issues. After an initial hearing, Jacqui Haynes, a resident, felt he was not responsive to the needs of the tenants. She said: “What a load of crap. We don’t want the [judge] who was handpicked by Theresa May.”

Jeremy Corbyn has called for a second inquiry into the national policy issues relating to the treatment of social housing residents. “It is vital that the voice of Grenfell residents and victims’ families are heard throughout the process and that they have full confidence,” he said. The survivors’ insistence on representation on the inquiry and exerting democratic pressure on its scope raises the issue of the state’s responsibility to all its citizens. But a wider inquiry means investigating not only the government’s successive cuts in social housing budgets, and its imperatives for privatization, but also the domination of all levels of the state by the interests of a narrow social elite.

This the government cannot do – it cannot investigate itself. The labour movement should therefore instigate its own inquiry, calling on tenants’ organizations, public sector unions, social activists, and all relevant experts on social policy and housing, to give a clear mandate for the next Labour government to tackle the housing problem on behalf of the many, not the few.

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Who’s to blame? Grenfell tower survivors clash with Theresa May


By insisting on new terms of reference and a new head of the inquiry into the tragic fire at Grenfell tower block in London, the residents and survivors are posing the question: is the state answerable to the people or to a small privileged elite?

Together with the election result, this marks a new stage in a growing revolt against economic hardship and the consequences of the parliamentary imposition of austerity.

The Tories are terrified that the wider implications of their ideology will be exposed, and so have limited the Grenfell inquiry to the technical reasons for the fire. But by fighting to widen the terms of the inquiry, the tenants are fighting for popular sovereignty and against the sovereignty of a parliamentary elite.

In a statement following a meeting in parliament last week, representatives of the residents said: “In order to have legitimacy, the Public Inquiry must undertake a full and proper consultation as to the terms of reference. The initial remarks by Sir Martin Moore-Bick on the first day of his appointment demonstrated an extremely narrow remit which may well have been imposed by him [sic] but which has been understood by many to demonstrate his approach. They also demonstrated a lack of awareness of the concerns of the Grenfell survivors, bereaved and the wider community. The Residents must be provided with a clear and unambiguous opportunity to contribute to setting the terms of references of the Public Inquiry and to remain involved in a meaningful manner.”

The Guardian reported that Ismet Rawat, the president of the Association of Muslim Lawyers, said it was clear to the entire community that the inquiry should address “the extremely important questions raised about our society as a whole and the manner in which those who hold power deal with discrimination and deprivation”.

The government is clearly concerned about the effect on state legitimacy of the Kensington and Chelsea council’s paralysis in the aftermath of the fire, and has forced out the leader and deputy leader of the council. But the issue goes beyond that. The Tories want a new leadership elected solely by the existing councillors – tenants are rightly furious that there will be no public vote on their representation.

The Kensington and Chelsea council is not just any local body. It encompasses the richest as well as the poorest part of London, and Tory council members are closely connected to the national Tory establishment. The details of what happened reflect directly on the elite. The deputy council leader and head of the housing department, who was in control of the refurbishment process, is Rock Feilding-Mellon, a property developer and a direct descendant of the Hapsburgs through the seventh Earl of Denbigh (he’s his great great great grandson) and his mother, the Countess of Wemyss and March, a scion of ancient Scottish aristocracy.

It’s not complicated. The refurbishment of the tower block was awarded to the lowest bidder, Rydon. Instead of conducting due diligence to establish why this company could do the same work for 22 percent less than Leadbitter, the original contractor, who said it could not do the work for less than £11.27 million – clearly, according to tenants, by skimping on the project – the council leadership put political pressure on Rydon to cut the cost even more. This changed the approved refurbishment design to use cheaper and more flammable materials.

According to the Guardian, an “urgent nudge email” was sent by the housing authority to Artelia, its cost consultant, about cladding prices. It said: “We need good costs for Cllr Feilding-Mellen and the planner tomorrow at 8.45am!” The cost cuts brought the refurbishment budget down from £9.25m to £8.65million.  It was the housing authority who requested prices for the cheaper cladding.

This is a transparent indication of the ideological nature of austerity. Kensington and Chelsea council had no reason to push the cost down yet further – it has £300 million socked away in its bank account – except for the political choice to drive the cost down to the lowest possible amount that could be spent on council tenants.

Theresa May has become a symbol of the arrogance of the entire political class which, since Thatcher, has pushed for the privatization of all public assets, especially public housing. Labour’s election programme, “For the many, not the few,” had particular resonance for voters in Kensington who faced the market push to oust poorer tenants and gentrify their homes – leading to the surprise election of a Labour MP in the richest borough in the country. May has avoided meeting with survivors and her vehicle was chased along the street by residents when she visited the scene of the tragedy.

Not counting the £1.5 billion bung to the DUP, nowhere is the magic money tree more obvious than the privatization of council housing management that has enriched various company CEOs and their directors at the cost to council tenants of staggering incompetence, arrogant disrespect, and now their lives.

As well as insisting on investigating the whole context of the fire, including the role of privatized housing management and cost-cutting, the Grenfell survivors’ demands also include:

  • Ensuring a properly diverse expert panel sits alongside the inquiry judge to advise on a variety of issues, including housing need, fire and safety construction.
  • Response team to be available to survivors 24 hours a day.
  • Withdraw Sir Martin Moore-Bick from heading up the inquiry.
  • Centralise all donations into one charity and produce a full record of monies collected.
  • The home secretary to confirm in writing within 28 days that undocumented survivors are given full UK citizenship forthwith.
  • Guarantee that the interim findings will be made public within four months.

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The “Many” Shake Off Their Chains to Defy Britain’s Parliamentary Elites


The stunning result of the British elections last week heralds a sea-change in the country’s politics. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn energized a new layer of younger voters to enter into the political process, pushing up Labour’s vote to 40 percent of a greatly increased participation rate and winning 30 seats away from the Tories. He was visibly transformed in the course of his 90 election rallies, becoming more and more assured in his delivery as the response to his message snowballed.

Conventional political wisdom, expounded by the Labour rightwing and the media, had expected May to win with a 100-seat majority. The result showed that this narrative was completely disconnected from the social changes that had propelled youth and students into the election – the damning impact of the Brexit referendum and 10 years of tightening austerity policies that particularly impacted youth.

May is now limping into Brexit negotiations in an unholy alliance with the Democratic Unionists of Northern Ireland. For American readers, this is like injecting a dose of fundamentalist Southern crazy into the staid corridors of Westminster: anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage, evolution-denying and global warming-denying. The DUP will demand more money to spend on schools and hospitals in Northern Ireland – something the Tories have denied to England and Wales – and the neoimperialist Tory hardliners will no doubt balk at that.

But the endemic corruption of the DUP and their past association with Protestant terror groups make them an untrustworthy partner. Their leader, Arlene Foster, is closely connected with the “cash for ash” scandal, a scheme to pay applicants for using renewable energy like wood pellets. The rate paid was more than the cost of heating, meaning that users made profits simply by heating their properties – one farmer is in line to receive £1m of public money over the next 20 years for heating an empty shed. Foster’s refusal to take responsibility for the lack of cost controls led to the collapse of power-sharing in Northern Ireland (there is no government at all in the devolved Stormont parliament at the moment).

Corbyn is right to declare victory. He has consolidated his leadership of the Labour party and shattered the remnants of Blairite neoliberal philosophy with a dynamic campaign for an anti-austerity manifesto. Understandably, rightwing Labour MPs are angry. They had hoped for a massive Labour defeat they could have blamed on Corbyn and had plans to launch a new centrist party, now of course abandoned. While begrudgingly acknowledging his electoral success, they immediately began to badmouth his leadership, accusing him of missing an “open goal” by not winning an overall majority – even though the loss of Scottish seats to the SNP in 2015 made an outright Labour victory nearly impossible.

The result has also strengthened the hand of Momentum activists within the Labour party. While the Labour establishment channeled resources into defending the safe majorities of centrist MPs, Momentum mobilized its supporters for the hard work of campaigning in marginal constituencies, contributing to Labour wins in places like Bedford and Croydon. According to Skwawkbox, “Up in Bolton West, the Tories won the seat in 2015 by 801 votes. Labour’s Julie Hilling had an excellent chance of ousting Tory Chris Green. Ms Hilling received so little support that she had no funding even for Labour garden stakes. She did not even receive a campaign manager from Labour central – her campaign had to be run by volunteers with no experience. Ms Hilling fought a brave campaign but, on a night where Labour was making even astonishing gains like Canterbury, she lost by the narrow margin of 936 votes.”

Corbyn and Momentum have been vindicated, giving Momentum an advantage over Labour MPs who confined their election material to local issues and refused to even mention Corbyn or national Labour policies. However, the election was decided by the support generated around Labour’s manifesto, contrasting with Tory missteps over May’s “dementia tax” and her awkward U-turn. Even two terror attacks did not distract voters from the way austerity cuts had made citizens more vulnerable – Boris Johnson, former London mayor and bookies’ choice to replace May as Tory leader, famously removed barriers from London and Westminster bridges seven years ago because he didn’t like their aesthetic, which is why the terrorists were able to drive unhindered on the pavement to kill pedestrians.

Guardian columnist Owen Jones honourably made an admission that his assessment of Corbyn was wrong: “Labour is now permanently transformed. Its policy programme is unchallengeable. It is now the party’s consensus. It cannot and will not be taken away. Those who claimed it could not win the support of millions were simply wrong. No, Labour didn’t win, but from where it started, that was never going to happen. That policy programme enabled the party to achieve one of the biggest shifts in support in British history – yes, eclipsing Tony Blair’s swing in 1997. Social democracy is in crisis across the western world. British Labour is now one of the most successful centre-left parties, many of which have been reduced to pitiful rumps under rightwing leaderships. And indeed, other parties in Europe and the United States should learn lessons from this experience.”

The French Socialist party is a prime example. Once the ruling party, its turn to austerity policies under former leader Francois Hollande cut its vote share down to just 9.5% in Sunday’s elections, setting it on course to lose 200 seats. The Labour party would have followed it into oblivion if the Blairites had succeeded in ousting Corbyn and running the party their way. However, under Corbyn it gained 150,000 new members after the election, raising party membership to around 800,000.

As well as calling for free tuition for university students, building thousands of new homes, and a stronger National Health Service, Labour’s manifesto revives the idea of the democratization of the economy: “In government, Labour would give more people a stake – and a say – in our economy by doubling the size of the co-operative sector and introducing a ‘right to own,’ making employees the buyer of first refusal when the company they work for is up for sale. We will act to ‘insource’ our public and local council services as preferred providers,” the manifesto says.

The most significant part of the manifesto is its plan to finance these measures by increased taxes on the top five percent and corporations. This highlights the inequality created by the Tories through the entire period of austerity by tax cuts for the rich and benefit cuts for the poorest. It showed that there was a “magic money tree” but only for the extremely wealthy; Labour called for this wealth to be used for the benefit of the rest of society.

Corbyn’s message of hope – “For the Many, Not the Few” – inspired popular comedian Steve Coogan at an election rally in Birmingham to support him with the words of  Romantic poet Percy Shelley, written after the Peterloo massacre in 1819:

“Rise, like lions from the slumber
“In unvanquishable number!
“Shake loose your chains like morning dew
“Which in sleep were placed on you:
“Ye are many – they are few!”

Like Bernie Sanders in the US, politics have been impacted by the rise of a social movement opposed to neoliberal austerity and fighting for jobs, healthcare and education. The lions are rising to challenge the plutocratic few.

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Fighting for Their Lives vs. Parliamentary Fictions: Members Reclaim the Labour Party for the People


Rank and file Labour party members in Britain, whether or not they support Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, are acutely aware of the implications of major Tory cuts in benefits that affect thousands of people. This awareness has spurred sections of the membership into a new democratic activism that sets them against the parliamentary wing of the party.

Much of the Tory legislation was smuggled in by stealth, with some Labour MPs voting in favour, and is only now being put into effect. As a result, many families don’t realize the extent of the assault on their living standards about to take place – not even counting the Brexit effect on food prices due to hit them in the new year.

Liverpool city councillor Jane Corbett writes in the Guardian that 840 households in her city alone could soon face eviction. “They will all be affected by the new, lower benefit cap of £20,000 being introduced from 7 November. This follows a tsunami of regressive changes to the benefits system since 2010, including the bedroom tax, the freezing of benefit rates and cuts to equivalent working tax credits for those on universal credit. … Aside from the devastating social consequences and stress, in financial terms all this policy is doing is shifting the cost from the government over to the council, housing associations and our other local partners. This at the same time as we’re facing huge cuts to our budgets: £90m alone in the case of Liverpool city council over the next three years.”

These issues are literally life and death for many people: after losing their homes or being refused benefits, there has been a rise in incidents of suicide. Even Conservative councils have protested the loss of £600 millions of educational services grants despite being given a new legal requirement to run support services for local schools.

Ex-front bencher Angela Eagle recently showed just how out of touch the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) is from the issues confronting poorer communities. She called on fellow MPs to develop Labour policy by answering “the questions that face people in their everyday lives” such as the abstractions of “growing automation and the loss of jobs,” rather than the immediate attacks on housing benefits or the withdrawal of support for the disabled. Her assumption that only MPs can determine policy is countered by party members’ beginning to assert their right to democracy within the party.

Likewise, at a time when the government plans to rapidly decimate social entitlements, Labour’s  soft left is obsessed with the electoral implications of Brexit and has decided to recover a lost political centre by restoring a native English collectivism. Jonathan Rutherford of “Labour Together” writes that Brexit “was a vote against globalisation and a reassertion of an English and British common national inheritance over the progressive cosmopolitan culture of the elites.” Jeremy Corbyn, he says, represents this elite, but the party needs instead “a new Labour political philosophy and political economy which draws on values that are widely shared amongst voters: family, work, decency, fairness and responsibility.”

Apart from the Tory assault on the social safety net, what Rutherford also omits to mention is the role of the Blairite years in fostering cynicism among working class communities about Labour politicians and the massive increase in inequality the Blair government helped to sustain. His celebration of “patriotic socialism” and traditional English values is essentially an ideological framing of the Brexit vote. Britain’s national inheritance, heavily fashioned by imperial privilege, also includes a mean-spirited and vindictive ruling elite that built its wealth on slavery and colonial exploitation, and is skilled in manipulating voters with propaganda masquerading as news.

It’s hard to disagree with Sam Tarry, Corbyn’s campaign director, when he told the Huffington Post: “there are a huge amount of people in the PLP who … have no skills in terms of community organising. No skills in terms of building a movement. No strategy for winning a general election and are kind of quite intellectually bankrupt.” “I think really this sort of new left that has been born in the Labour Party, that really is the only sort of strategy we’ve got at the moment, we’ve got to make it work,” he added. “That’s actually building a far bigger project than just Corbyn himself. He is a lightning rod, he’s a conductor, he’s that person who symbolises a more just, a more equal and more sustainable society.”

Corbyn’s supporters are determined to campaign against Tory cuts, and at the recent Labour Assembly Against Austerity in London made clear that they viewed it as their responsibility to decide Labour’s policies for the next election. That brings them into conflict with party’s MPs and right wing, which is mounting a rearguard action by suspending leading members of Momentum from the party.

Momentum’s next step is to fight for positions in the Labour party apparatus, not the issue of deselection of MPs. In London, the party’s regional board elections will take place in November, and Momentum’s candidates will face competition from the soft left as well as the right. The board is important not only because it will play an important role in councillor selections and dealing with the constituency boundary review, but also because it will hear appeals from people unfairly barred from voting in the leadership election.

Outside of London, Momentum activists have already won some victories in changing the leadership of some constituency parties. They have done so because of their readiness to fight on issues of inequality and social justice. Within Momentum itself there are frustrating issues of democratic structure, but it has enabled like-minded activists to find a network for political expression for the first time.

As Hilary Wainwright explains about her local Momentum group in Hackney, “we try to ensure that our meetings always include a discussion with local campaigns – like the occupation of empty council houses by Sisters Uncut, seeking to create and get council support for a centre for women facing domestic violence. We discuss with them how Momentum can support them, build their social base, their alliances and their political impact. We focus on this promotion of grassroots solutions alongside political education aimed at the young people enthused by the new politics and canvassing for the Labour Party and opening up local party structures to the creative initiatives around them. Our own institutions are being built to facilitate this dual strategy of reaching outside the Labour Party as well as working inside it.”

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Against the Party Machines: Momentum Boldly Asserts People Power in Britain, while US Progressives Fight for their Democratic Moment


Throughout Europe and the US today, the dominant political theme is how the public are shut out of meaningful decision-making at a time when globalization is having a devastating effect on people’s lives. This has led to protest voting that has unsettled the ruling elites: Brexit in Britain; in the US, support for the demagogic Trump.

The British political class, whether Labour or Conservative, believes that it is qualified to rule by virtue of family upbringing and attending Oxford or Cambridge, despite all historical experience to the contrary. What matters most is not its record of achievement – deindustrializing the economy, squeezing living standards with austerity policies, embroiling the country in a constitutional nosedive – but to be able to give the impression of administrative competence while presiding over one disaster after another.

In the US, on the other hand, the essential qualifications are money and support for the security state. That is why Trump continually talks up his mythical billions while never missing a chance to push his authoritarian vision for society. While Clinton “won” her first debate with him, the key question of the presidential election remained unacknowledged: the profound disenchantment of the public with the political system. Her message was directed at those who think the system is fundamentally sound and only needs modifying, while Trump appeals to those who think the whole thing should be blown up.

The left’s role is specific to the conditions in each particular country. In the UK, Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters in Momentum are taking political struggle outside of the party machine and into the communities. While the official Labour party conference last week resulted in the right keeping control of the party’s inner workings through overturning Corbyn’s majority on the National Executive Committee, Momentum held a vibrant alternate event, The World Transformed, at a nearby venue. It was able to maintain and expand its organization after Corbyn’s election as party leader, thanks to the master tacticians in the Parliamentary party who gifted Momentum a popular issue to mobilize around by renewing their challenge to Corbyn’s leadership.

Many of his supporters are from a new generation of “networked, horizontal, democratic, globalist and liberal young professionals,” writes Paul Mason, “who regard [the far left], largely, as oddities. When the man in charge of crowdfunding the Momentum fringe event approached me for help, I asked what had brought him into this. He’d studied social movements at university, he said, and spent five years in banking.”

The Independent’s Ashley Cowburn contrasted official Labour with Momentum’s activists: “One evening, back at the gloomy official conference, I am asked by a Labour MP: ‘How is it over there in cloud cuckoo land with the rainbows and unicorns?’ However, 28-year-old Emma Rees, a former primary school teacher and one of Momentum’s national organisers, dismisses the comment … ‘It discredits the very real experiences that lots of people are living through and I don’t think it’s rainbows and unicorns to actually want to discuss how we can do things better – how we can structure society so that it benefits more than just the privileged few. And I actually think that’s the founding principles of the Labour Party and movement, is to empower ordinary people and the decisions that affect their day-to-day lives’.”

It’s a straightforward message of empowerment and commitment to work towards a better society – no wonder Labour MPs think it a fantasy. Another Momentum supporter, Michael Segalov, explains: “Labour conference may have been consumed by party infighting, factional posturing, and endless debate of internal rules,” but at The World Transformed, “Sessions on phone banking, crowdfunding, community organising and planning were peppered throughout the long weekend, a clear sign that this new, invigorated membership is interested in more than rhetoric and backslapping.”

The situation is not so clear for Bernie Sanders’ supporters in the US. The presidential nomination process allowed a brief democratic moment around his campaign; now that Clinton has won the nomination and Sanders’ backing, the Democratic party establishment has shut down public participation in policy-making.

The dilemma of how to sustain the campaign organizationally has led to a conflict between Sanders’ professional political staff and his volunteers, who were responsible for the success of his fundraising.

Sanders introduced the promised independent organization designed to continue the fight for left policies, “Our Revolution,” through a national webcast. It sought to harness the campaign’s energy into support for candidates with a progressive platform in down-ballot elections. However, Our Revolution is to be structured as a 501(c)(4), in other words a legal entity geared to fundraising, not one able to interface directly with local political campaigns. This decision was taken apparently without consulting the volunteers who were the backbone of Sanders’ campaign.

According to the volunteer-run site Berniecrats.net, 210 downballot primary election candidates—a figure that includes local, state and congressional bids—were “Berniecrats,” meaning they endorsed Bernie Sanders and a similar progressive platform. Roughly half claimed victory. Since the primary season began on March 1, Berniecrats have won 238 of 379 races. Sanders told The Nation that “Our Revolution candidates have already won a lot of primaries. In Massachusetts, with the support of Our Revolution, a young attorney, a very progressive guy, beat a long-term incumbent. In Rhode Island, the majority leader in the House got knocked off.”

But Our Revolution is uncomfortably like MoveOn, a top-down organization sending out emails asking for donations. The difference is that potential donors are asked to contribute directly to the local candidates. While Our Revolution may develop other forms of political organization, the techniques that were successful in an electoral campaign are not the same as those needed to work with grassroots movements around the country that can change the political climate. Internet technology alone doesn’t build a movement – human interaction is the key to long-term change.

In fact, a number of leading Sanders’ volunteers resigned because of the decision to form a (c)(4) entity. Claire Sandberg, the former digital organizing director for the primary campaign, explained that this legal structure had already prevented them from doing effective organizing for candidates like Tim Canova, who stood in the primary against Debbie Wasserman Schulz; they were unable to coordinate phone campaigning with his campaign or mobilize Bernie supporters to participate in his field operation.

John Atcheson comments in Common Dreams, “Under its current framework, Our Revolution denies people that direct sense of agency, and is less transparent than it could be.  There is an explicit ‘trust me, we’ll do the right thing’ that is exercised by an intermediary. The appeal is based on the promise to support ‘progressives’ – an abstraction – rather than the specific list of policies Bernie offered.”

The challenge for the left in both countries is how to connect with the mass movement. In the US, millions of Latino and African Americans will be voting against Trump; in the UK, the left needs to reconnect with disaffected Brexit voters without compromising with racism. The ideological confusion on the left means that Sanders’ supporters are splintered, most probably voting for Clinton but some for third parties like the Greens.

November’s elections will show how the public responds to “Berniecrat” candidates at local and state level. The danger is that without a national caucus within the Democratic party they will be absorbed into the system without making headway on more progressive policies. For now, it looks like opportunities are greater for the left in the UK.

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The Collapse of the Centre: Is Brexit a Disaster or an Opportunity for Labour?


The British political class – a uniquely inbred Oxbridge clique – is in turmoil after the result of the Brexit vote, and is now engaging in a mutual backstabbing that makes Game of Thrones look tame by comparison. However, despite its disorientation, the entire establishment across party lines is clear on one thing, and only one thing: Jeremy Corbyn should not be leader of the Labour party. Its political reflex is to hold him responsible for this disruption of the status quo.

Apart from around 40 MPs, Labour’s parliamentarians are closely tied to former leader Blair’s embrace of neoliberalism that was at the root of the party’s abandonment of the working class in the former industrial and mining areas. There is now the possibility of a split between the parliamentary wing and Labour’s membership, which wants to restore its social democratic orientation. It has this in common with much of the public, even when distorted by a nationalist perspective – the Brexiters’ slogan of more money for the NHS (which they immediately reneged on) was one of the popular drivers of the vote.

Corbyn is a symbol of a social democratic alternative to neoliberal austerity, although his voice was drowned out by the shrill claims and counter-claims of the Cameron-Johnson campaigns. He is still capable of uniting Brexiters and Remainers who want to acknowledge the misery piled up in the abandoned areas of much of England and Wales that had been ignored by the political elite. The vote gave an opportunity to the people living in those areas who felt disenfranchised to show their hostility to the political apparatus; many assumed their vote would not count and that Remain would carry the day simply because it was supported by the establishment.

Gary Younge commented: “If remain had won, we would already have returned to pretending that everything was carrying on just fine. Those people who have been forgotten would have stayed forgotten; those communities that have been abandoned would have stayed invisible to all but those who live in them. To insist that they will now suffer most ignores the fact that unless something had changed, they were going to suffer anyway. … For the last 15 years, governments and the press have stoked fears about whether British culture could withstand the integration of Muslims – of whom 70% voted for remain – when they should have been worried about how to integrate the white working class into the British economy. Brexit didn’t create these problems. It exposed them and will certainly make them worse.”

The referendum itself was inherently divisive, as Patrick Cockburn points out. “This is always the way with referenda on important issues: they make irreversible decisions, but they do so at a high political cost by excluding compromise between contending parties with deeply held opinions that they are not going to abandon on the day after the poll, regardless of who wins or loses. … The Remain camp thought they could win the vote by relentlessly emphasising the economic risks of leaving the EU, though the real danger is political rather than economic as a populist right is empowered with little idea of what it should do with that power.”

The influx of immigrants from Eastern Europe escaping poverty in their own countries has been taken advantage of by unscrupulous labour agencies and landlords to force down wage rates and jack up rents in various parts of Britain. But this is not unique to the UK; it exacerbates a trend seen throughout Europe. Servaas Storm, an economics professor at Delft University, comments: “Almost everywhere in the E.U. — as in Britain — there is a polarization of the income distribution into a large number of low-income households and a much smaller number of very rich, while the middle classes have shrunk. There is a segmentation of employment into low-wage, unprotected and precarious jobs, mostly in low-tech services, and high-wage and protected jobs in high-tech manufacturing, finance, legal services and government. … The massive social protests in France against the modernization of labour laws — newspeak for a reduction in the strength of French job-protection laws and social security in general — by the ‘socialist’ Hollande government illustrate the point: The systemic dismantling of worker protection in the name of cutting wage costs and improving unit-labour cost competitiveness will certainly increase job insecurity, employment precariousness, and inequality without any further macroeconomic benefits.”

UMass professor Richard Wolff explains: “A government, voted in by the French working class, a socialist government … pushed through a labor reform law which basically does everything that the employers in France could have dreamed for a president to do. … the newspapers are filled with spectacles of helmeted police being sent by a socialist government to beat the very people that put that government into office. And if anything were more clearly a sign of the collapse of what the very word socialism meant, as well as the collapse of conventional politics, it’s being acted out on the streets of Paris. … You’re seeing everywhere that the traditional, old, capitalist-maintaining center-left, center-right, is dissolving. And the polarization is the new issue on the horizon. It is surprising the old elites, but that’s really only a sign of how out of touch those governing elites have become …”

The parliamentary Labour party’s attempted coup to unseat Corbyn is another sign of how out of touch it is with the membership. Constituency activists have renewed demands for MP reselection in the event of another general election. Labour party member Dan Iles pointed out: “I believe Corbyn persuaded 60% of Labour’s supporters to vote remain because he didn’t ignore people’s concerns with the EU. By admitting that the EU is not without its faults and then demanding that we should stay in to reform it (from the left) he was able to bypass the binary claims of the two main referendum campaigns. People voted leave because they felt abandoned by politics and scared about immigration. These structural issues haven’t just appeared in the last nine months of Corbyn’s leadership. But I think many felt his defence of immigration and his determination to turn the debate towards austerity was refreshing at a time when the leave campaign was openly whipping up racism and xenophobia.”

UPDATE: David Graeber makes a relevant comment in the Guardian: “If the opposition to Jeremy Corbyn for the past nine months has been so fierce, and so bitter, it is because his existence as head of a major political party is an assault on the very notion that politics should be primarily about the personal qualities of politicians. … the Corbyn project is first and foremost to make the party a voice for social movements once again, dedicated to popular democracy (as trades unions themselves once were). … While one side effectively accuses him of refusing to play the demagogue during the Brexit debate, for the other, his insistence on treating the public as responsible adults was the quintessence of the ‘new kind of politics’ they wished to see.”

The Brexit campaign was always a dispute between factions of the Tory elite, neither of which were serious about the possibility of a Leave victory, meaning that there is no plan for disengaging from Europe. With all the criticism of Farage’s open racism, it has been forgotten that Cameron and Theresa May stoked nativism by imposing English language and income tests on new immigrants, a policy targeted at Middle Eastern refugees. Britain has never had a positive approach to cultural assimilation like the US does. It puts responsibility onto immigrants to somehow integrate themselves into the system.

While the media is fixated on British parliamentary politics, the vote is having major international repercussions, not least within Europe itself, because of the fragility and interconnectedness of the global economy. The Economist notes that the London financial industry could be in big trouble: “It thrives on the EU’s ‘passport’ rules, under which banks, asset managers and other financial firms in one member state may serve customers in the other 27 without setting up local operations. … In the run-up to the vote TheCityUK, a trade body that opposed Brexit, boasted that London had around 70% of the market for euro-denominated interest-rate derivatives, 90% of European prime brokerage (assisting hedge funds with trading) and more besides.”

Will the inevitable diminution of the City of London’s financial clout also lead to a weakening of its political influence? This is Labour’s opportunity: the first task of a Labour government independent of EU regulations should be to take control of capital movements and pump money into kick-starting manufacturing in regionally depressed economies. Corbyn supporters have plenty of policies they could be campaigning on to unite workers whose jobs have been outsourced with immigrants who would fight for a living wage.

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Brexit and the Miners’ Strike, Part Two: Thatcher’s political war for neoliberalism


As the consequences of the Brexit vote begin to sink in, the British political class are reeling in shock. Most commentators and even some politicians have realized that the vote reflects a catastrophic failure of government over many years to satisfy basic social and economic needs in former industrial areas – housing, jobs, decent wages, hope for future improvement – that has been distorted through the campaign rhetoric of immigration control.

The Guardian’s John Harris writes: “Brexit is the consequence of the economic bargain struck in the early 1980s, whereby we waved goodbye to the security and certainties of the postwar settlement, and were given instead an economic model that has just about served the most populous parts of the country, while leaving too much of the rest to anxiously decline.” But Harris’s memory is faulty. There was no bargain struck with the public: it was imposed on the country by the Thatcher government acting as an agent for international corporate and financial elites. It is important therefore to reassess the historically defining moment of the establishment of a neoliberal economy in Britain – the defeat of the miners’ strike in 1984-85.

The miners’ victory in 1974 had won them the promise of an assured future for the industry, formalized in Labour’s “Plan for Coal.” It had also won them the enmity of the new Tory party leadership, Margaret Thatcher and Keith Joseph, who were determined to prevent the recurrence of a government defeat.

Their rise to power in the Tory party had come out of a revolt of the grassroots against patriarchal leaders like Heath and Macmillan who were identified with a Keynesian corporatist approach to government. Thatcher’s small-minded hatred of organized labour would have ended in political isolation if it had not aligned with the interests of US big business and the US Treasury. While it was relentless US pressure that forced Callaghan to embark on austerity measures, Thatcher was a willing accomplice, whose outlook merged the mentality of small business anti-union and anti-social democratic attitudes with monetarist ideologies geared to “liberating” national economies from restrictions on the circulation of international capital.

Although Thatcher cultivated her “iron lady” image, she hardly stood alone. Her determination to take on the unions was shored up not only by monetarist economists like Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek, but also by the entrenched resistance to social democratic policies from the financiers of the City of London. Like the banks, Thatcher accepted that “Keynesianism had to be abandoned and that monetarist ‘supply-side’ solutions were essential to cure the stagflation that had characterized the British economy during the 1970s. She recognized that this meant nothing short of a revolution in fiscal and social policies, and immediately signalled a fierce determination to have done with the institutions and political ways of the social democratic state that had been consolidated in Britain after 1945.” [Harvey, 22] Thatcher’s determination to defeat the miners didn’t just stem from her visceral hatred of unions but also from her ideological commitment to destroy obstacles to capital accumulation.

The international sources of Thatcher’s resolve

What monetarist economics meant in practice became clear when the US Federal Reserve under Paul Volcker raised interest rates sharply in June 1981. Over the next three years, unemployment soared, the construction and auto industries plunged into depression, and the American Midwest became known as the “rust belt” with much of the steel industry shut down; internationally, whole countries, like Mexico, that had borrowed from US banks to overcome the 1970s recession were bankrupted. The US government had abandoned Roosevelt’s New Deal promise of full employment and promoted the reduction of inflation to save confidence in the dollar. Soon after, newly-elected president Reagan faced off the PATCO air traffic controllers’ union in a long and bitter strike and fired them all when they refused to return to work. [Harvey, 23-5]

After winning power in 1979, Thatcher’s first actions were to remove constraints on capital circulation. The government’s 1981 budget, like the “Volcker shock,” focused on deflating the economy and had the effect of accelerating the decline of manufacturing. “For the nation as a whole, the visible effect was a huge rise in unemployment and a vast drop in the gross domestic product, with factories, mills, and pits closing down all over the country. In 1979-81, while other nations saw their GDP rise by 5.3 per cent, Britain’s fell by 2.5 per cent. Unemployment rose to 13.3 per cent, the highest in Western Europe.” [Morgan, 446]

Deindustrialization was a feature, not a bug. It was driven by the government’s need to enforce discipline on the working class; high interest rates attracted capital that the City diverted into low-wage economies in third world countries, shifting manufacturing offshore. “The Prime Minister, urged on by her newest economic adviser, Professor Alan Walters, forced through the most resolutely anti-Keynesian budget of modern times. It imposed Britain’s biggest-ever tax increases … A total of £3,500 million was taken out of the public sector borrowing requirement. Never before had there been so savage a fiscal squeeze; not since the thirties had there been a comparable increase in unemployment, now approaching 3 million.” [Morgan, 446-7]

But this was just the first step in imposing a neoliberal agenda on Britain. The other necessary condition was to defeat the most militant and organized section of the working class. As part of the fiscal squeeze, the external financial limits (EFLs) on the National Coal Board inherited from the Callaghan government were constricted, abandoning the production targets of the 1974 Plan for Coal. “The recession – and particularly the decline of large-scale energy users – reduced demand further, thereby increasing the stranglehold of the EFLs. … [The NCB] therefore decided in February 1981 that it would be necessary to accelerate the rate of colliery closures. The NUM responded by threatening to call a strike ballot, and the miners in South Wales jumped the gun and went on strike.”  [Helm, 74]

Thatcher had learned from the success of Reagan’s gamble with PATCO that governments could gain politically from a dramatic confrontation with unions. The Tories’ 1980 Employment Act virtually replicated US labour laws to prohibit secondary picketing and remove unions’ legal immunity. However, Thatcher was not politically ready for a confrontation with the miners at this stage; her cabinet was still dominated by Tory “wets”, and the government did not have the full support of its middle-class base. Above all, she wanted to avoid Heath’s fate. So she ordered the NCB to back down, while continuing to implement strategic preparations for a strike.

The monetarist economist Friedrich Hayek urged Thatcher to implement yet more drastic increases in interest rates, citing the example of Chile. Thatcher replied: “I was aware of the remarkable success of the Chilean economy in reducing the share of Government expenditure substantially over the decade of the 70s. The progression from Allende’s Socialism to the free enterprise capitalist economy of the 1980s is a striking example of economic reform from which we can learn many lessons. However, I am sure you will agree that, in Britain with our democratic institutions and the need for a high degree of consent, some of the measures adopted in Chile are quite unacceptable. Our reform must be in line with our traditions and our Constitution.”

The subtext of Thatcher’s reply bears analysis. She did not disagree with Hayek’s lionization of Pinochet’s “remarkable success” in achieving economic “reform,” despite her distaste for mass killings of trade unionists. But she was able to create within British institutions – Parliament, the police, the judiciary – the consent for shock tactics of a different kind in order to restructure the economy.

At the end of 1981 the government was at its lowest ebb. Riots in the inner cities broke out against unemployment. But in March 1982 Argentina occupied the Malvinas islands, known to the British as the Falklands, and Thatcher made a strategic gamble that her ideological kinship with Reagan would result in American assistance for a British military response, succeeding in getting the use of a US airbase on Ascension Island, advanced weapons technology, and intelligence help. Her sympathies for Pinochet were also returned: the Chileans installed a long-range military radar opposite Argentina’s main air base that supplied early warnings of Argentine air attacks to the British invasion fleet. When the radar had to be switched off for maintenance one day in June, the Argentinians were able to launch a surprise attack and sink two troopships.

Although demonstrating Britain’s political and economic dependence on the US, the war’s success changed the political climate to one of belligerent chauvinism, and within the government Thatcher was able to centralize cabinet decision-making in her own hands, bypassing the “wets” in the cabinet. She worked to dissolve the collectivist spirit of the country into the responsibilities of individuals, an ideological message aimed at the aspirational middle class and skilled working class, that lay behind the selloff of council housing to more prosperous tenants. In late 1984 the privatization of British Telecom “made privatization part of a wider cultural shift among the British people, including wide swathes of the working class. Many hundreds of thousands of trade unionists were among those who became shareholders for the first time. … There followed the privatization of British Aerospace and Britoil, and finally the huge sale of British Gas for £5.434 million in December 1986.” [Morgan, 469]

The real beneficiaries of the selloffs were the financiers in the City of London whose central role in mobilizing capital for the privatizations did not mean the strengthening of nationally-based capital, but enhanced its power as a key conduit for the circulation of global finance. The pressures for privatization did not originate within the nation-state but were imposed on it by international capital.

The Thatcher government won re-election in 1983 with renewed political confidence and the results of four years of preparations to take on the miners. The coal industry represented capital locked up in a nationally-circumscribed economy, tightly linked to the electricity industry, and as such was a barrier to the circulation of international capital. But the global economy had already undermined these national arrangements: “The real underpinning of the coal industry lay in the demand for electricity. The 1980-82 recession decimated heavy industry, and, thereafter, the structure of the economy changed to one in which economic growth no longer needed ever more electricity generated.” [Helm, 81]

While in opposition, the Tories had prepared a report on nationalized industries that called for: (a) the building up of maximum coal stocks, particularly at the power stations; (b) contingency plans for the import of coal; (c) the recruitment of non-union lorry drivers by haulage companies to help move coal where necessary; (d) introduction of dual coal/oil firing in all power stations as quickly as possible. There should also be “a large, mobile squad of police equipped and prepared to uphold the law against violent picketing. ‘Good nonunion drivers’ should be recruited to cross picket lines with police protection.” [Saville, 296]

The government’s tactical retreat in 1981 meant that surplus coal was being produced and coal stocks built up at the power stations. The closures of Cortonwood and Polmaise, two of the left’s traditional strongholds, made a strike inevitable, despite the tactical disadvantages of starting a strike in the spring. “[T]he stark choice [for the NUM leadership], faced with MacGregor’s closure programme, was either to capitulate and accept what the NUM had resolutely opposed since the late 1970s, or to fight as best they could … The EFLs were tightened, and hence the Treasury squeeze could only force closures. … Without the new labour laws, without the stocking policies, without the more gentle treatment of what became UDM areas… and without the generous redundancy packages, it would have been more close-run.” [Helm, 87]

During the strike the miners were consistently portrayed as violent, when large numbers of police escorted a very small number of “working miners” into pits. While the violence against pickets was unprecedented in British terms, by international standards it was mild: the police were armed with riot shields, helmets and batons, and nobody got shot, unlike miners in South Africa or South America. Public opinion about the rules of engagement still mattered, but the government were able to prejudice this opinion through its control of the media message. In the course of the strike paramilitary techniques developed in Northern Ireland were refined and the police were “in effect allowed by the courts to re-write the law.” [Saville, 326]

What a focus on the violence of the police against pickets obscures, however, is that Thatcher was carrying out a political war against the miners, that involved an all-round ideological campaign to manufacture consent for her government. The police, as well as being a physical force, were also a means to an ideological end. Her rhetoric of the “enemy within” framed the strike struggle as a conflict contained within national borders; the more she channeled the interests of international capital by harnessing the state to neutralize trade union militancy, the more she appealed to national chauvinism to bolster the legitimacy of the state’s violence against its own citizens.

Her hectoring bombast targeted the social democratic institutions of the postwar consensus; she invested the ideas of “democracy,” “liberty” and the “rule of law” with the content of “obeying orders from superiors,” framing the strike as one that challenged the rule of an elected government and democracy in general. When she said there was “no alternative,” she was able to do so unchallenged because the Labour party elite had already conceded the necessity for austerity in the course of the IMF crisis.

What Thatcher actually achieved through the defeat of the miners was to remove the most important political obstacle to a transition from an economy embodying barriers to global production and exchange in the form of the nationalized industries, to one open to international capital circulation. For this she won the applause of global corporations and their shareholders.

Next: the left fails to acknowledge the international dimension of the strike

Works cited

David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, Oxford, 2005

Dieter Helm, Energy, the State, and the Market: British Energy Policy since 1979, Oxford, 2003.

Kenneth O. Morgan, The People’s Peace: British History 1945-1990, Oxford, 1992 (rev. ed.)

John Saville, “An Open Conspiracy: Conservative Politics and the Miners’ Strike 1984-5,” The Socialist Register, 1985-86

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Filed under Arthur Scargill, Brexit, Britain, British Labour party, Miners Strike, Thatcher, Uncategorized