Last week, Hilary Benn MP, Labour’s Shadow Local Government Secretary, made an attack on the imposition of the Bedroom Tax in which he said ‘It’s hard to imagine that Conservative and Liberal Democrat councillors would want to stand silently by as hundreds of thousands of their own constituents, two thirds of them disabled, are hit by the bedroom tax imposed by their leaders in Westminster. It’s time for them to speak out and join Labour’s opposition to this tax on the most vulnerable – at a time when millionaires are getting a whopping tax cut. They can stand up for the people they represent by standing up to David Cameron. The public will judge politicians who choose to remain silent in the face of this injustice.’
One could carp and point out that it is, in fact, very easy to imagine Tory councillors and their Lib Dem bag carriers standing by while thousands of their constituents are hit by the tax and face the choice between homelessness and starvation. However, Benn’s statement is welcome, as is Labour’s decision to get Labour Groups on councils across Britain to table motions opposing the tax.
But of course, it’s obvious Labour controlled councils need to do more than pass resolutions opposing the bedroom tax, the benefits cap and the imposition of council tax on hundreds of thousands of poor people. They have to decide – or be persuaded to decide – that they will not act as local agents of the Government by launching these attacks on it’s behalf. The first tentative signs of some practical opposition to the tax have already started to show. All nine SNP controlled local councils in Scotland have already pledged not to evict people driven into arrears by the change, as has Green led Brighton and Hove. However, the Labour/SNP coalition that runs Edinburgh Council has just made the same commitment. Bristol’s mayor has said council tenants will not be evicted for building up bedroom tax based arrears until “a sustainable way forward” is found and the Deputy Leader of Islington Council, speaking at a public meeting organised by the local anti cuts group and Unite Community a few days ago, indicated that the council would not be evicting tenants as it would cost more than the relevant arrears. Nottingham Council has announced that it is reclassifying all its high rise flats as one bedroom, including those with two bedrooms, and it is reclassifying all bedrooms under 50 sq ft as studies.
Everyone should now be putting pressure on their councillors, particularly if they are part of local Labour administrations, to take a public stand against bedroom tax evictions. The weakest link in the Tories’ chain of command are the relatively small numbers of councillors that make up Labour administrations, in the case of my borough just thirty people. We must attack this weakest link by constant lobbying at the regular local surgeries all councillors hold, not just one person turning up to one surgery, but several people attending every surgery every time one is held. Labour councillors must be made to realise that they will be constantly held to account for the role they play, personally and as part of their group, in deciding whether or not people will lose their homes and, in the case of Londoners, face deportation to towns and cities in the Midlands and the North, through no fault of their own.
Labour councillors must be made aware that this is a government edict that they can legally ignore and that there are good financial reasons for them to do so. Many will already be very uncomfortable with the idea of doing the Tories’ dirty work for them on this issue and we must make it clear that choosing to find their backbones on this issue will be a much easier option than being seen to be bailiffs for the Tories.
The Tories may have over-reached themselves with this spiteful and pointless attack on the poor – this is a battle that we can win.
A quick look in the Telegraph today shows the direction of travel that the Tories want to go in. In an editorial entitled ‘We have only reached the foothills of reform’ the Telegraph says that ‘Although today is a good day for the Government’s reform agenda, it should have been better. The changes to the NHS and welfare cuts that come into effect are a significant but very cautious step towards revamping Britain’s public services. As has often been the case, the achievements of the Coalition fall short of Conservative ambitions’ and ends by saying that the Government’s attacks on benefits and the NHS ‘though admirable, are tame. The NHS and welfare remain hugely expensive monoliths, prone to excesses that are unaffordable in an age of austerity. Today’s reforms are a step in the right direction, but only the beginning of what must be a very long journey.’
The Telegraph also includes a report that the Government has told the Low Pay Commission, which sets the minimum wage, that it must formally consider its impact on ‘employment and the economy’, before agreeing future increases. The change, which will be written into the Commission’s new terms of reference, raises the prospect of the first ever across-the-board freeze or cut in the minimum wage for everyone if the economic uncertainty continues.
If the Tories feel that they have gotten away with the latest round of attacks on us, they will be back – and their ambitions are becoming ever more nakedly expressed. So the need for organised opposition, here and now, is absolutely vital. That means putting pressure on Labour councils and councillors to stand up to the Government, getting our unions to work hard to let their members know what is really happening and building real alliances in our local communities to physically defend the poor, the disabled and the vulnerable who are the current targets for the Tories.
Because if the Tories get away with these attacks on our neighbours, they’ll be coming back before to long – for us.
And so it begins.
From today (1 April) the Government will begin do to things; it will give a tax cut averaging £100,000 to each of the 13,000 people in Britain earning over £1m a year and it will launch the most concerted an ferocious attack on the incomes and dignity of poor people ever seen in this country. As Polly Toynbee recently wrote ‘An avalanche of benefit cuts will hit the same households over and over, with no official assessment of how far this £18bn reduction will send those who are already poor into beggary.’
First, the link between benefit levels and the cost of living has been abandoned and the increase in benefit levels has been limited to 1%, despite the fact that inflation is running at 2.8%.
Second, ‘benefits cap’ which will limit the total benefit payable to families to £500 a week will start to roll in. By the end of the year at least 80,000 adults and 190,000 children will be affected and the average family hit by the cap will lose £93 a week, with 20% losing more than £120 a week.
Third, around 3.2m people who are unemployed or on very low wages will have to pay council tax for the first time. A typical single parent with children in childcare who works part time for the minimum wage faces increases ranging from £96 a year to £577. A typical couple with children, with one parent working full-time work for the minimum wage, will see a rise of between £96 and £304 a year.
Fourth, 660,000 households will be hit by the bedroom tax, with each losing an estimated average of £14 a week.
On top of all that, Disability Living Allowance is, from today, being progressively converted to Personal Income Payment and new Atos medical tests on all applicants have a target of ‘discovering’ that 500,000 people aren’t disabled after all.
And from today, legal aid has been removed for advice on benefits, housing, divorce, debt, education and employment. Oh, and the budget of Citizens Advice for such cases has been cut from £22m to £3m.
However, perhaps the Tories, blinded by hubris and self deceiving belief in the spiteful lies they tell about the poor in the golf club bar, have gone one vicious step too far. They may have thought that by targeting not just the poor but the most vulnerable of the poor they would avoid the organised dumb insolence of the Poll Tax revolt that led millions to refuse to pay and the eventual downfall of Thatcher.
Local authorities have conceded that up to 84% of people on low incomes will refuse to pay council tax – or will simply be unable to do so – and that there is little they can do about it, since the costs of recovering such relatively small sums (on average a little under £5 a week) from very large numbers of people will be too high. Similarly, for many poor families, finding an additional £14 a week (and much more for some) is going to be just out of the question. Thus, over the next few months tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of the poorest families will be forced into utter destitution and will be forced to tell their local councils that it is genuinely a case of ‘can’t pay, won’t pay’ and thus be at risk of eviction. It is at that point that organised resistance by the rest of us has to begin.
In order for such resistance to have an effect it has to concentrate on the weakest points in our enemy’s lines. There are two. The first one is that the Tories are going to have to rely on Labour councils up and down the country to collaborate with them. The second is that they have to rely on the continuing ignorance of most working class people about the human effects of these policies on their neighbours in order for their PR strategy to work.
So first we need to put pressure on Labour Councils to publicly refuse to evict tenants. That won’t help tenants of Tory or Lib Dem councils of course, nor housing association tenants, but a rash of refusals to act as agents of government policy by a significant number of Labour councils would both undermine the confidence of the Government and boost the confidence of it’s opponents. While a frontal attack on Milliband and Byrne to come out in favour of a policy of defiance – even though such a policy would be perfectly legal and could save councils money – is unlikely to produce results, more targeted pressure could. At an anti bedroom tax meeting two weeks ago, the Deputy Leader of Islington Council was forced to make a public statement saying that evicting tenants ‘would make no sense’ and that he ‘didn’t believe’ that the Council would carry out evictions of victims of the bedroom tax.
Every Labour councillor on every council holds regular surgeries. Over the next three months we must ensure that people attend every surgery to insist that the councillor actively opposes evictions or court action for rent or council tax arrears. We must ensure that every Management Committee of every local Labour Party is flooded with resolutions from affiliated unions demanding non-cooperation with the Tories. Those of us who are members of affiliated unions must try to get them to refuse future funding to any local Labour Party that does not oppose evictions and to threaten to withhold any future donations to the national party if it does not call for defiance.
But some people are still going to be taken to court and possession orders will be granted. We have perhaps three months to organise a fast reaction network capable of getting mass pickets both inside and outside the homes of those under threat on the day that the bailiffs are due. National and local newspapers and TV news must carry pictures of mass civil disobedience day after day all over the country. This evil work of the Tories has to be done away from the public view for them to be able to get away with it. We must ensure that they have to try to do it in the full glare of public daylight.
Over the past couple of weeks, three things have served to lift the gloom of an apparently endless winter in Tory Britain. First has been the first stirrings of what may well become a real wave of popular revulsion at and opposition to the Government’s vicious Bedroom Tax. Three local councils have already publicly announced that they will not evict tenants forced into arrears by the odious measure – Dundee (SNP), Burnley (Labour) and Brighton (Green) – and there are signs that more may well follow their lead. At the same time, the first demonstrations against the tax have taken place in a number of cities across Britain.
The second event has been the flood of resignations from the SWP as a result of the bureaucratic and bullying attempted cover-up of the the ‘Comrade Delta’ affair by the party’s inept and dishonest leadership. While sadly, many of those resigning are likely to drift out of political activity all together, a number of them, along with a few of the many thousands of other ex SWP members, have established the International Socialist Network, whose web based forum is already showing fresh and independent thinking and a determination not to reproduce an SWP Mark II (i.e. much the same politics only much smaller).
The third event has been the appeal by Ken Loach for socialists to get together to discuss the formation of a new political party of the Left which could bring together those who wish to defend the welfare state and present an economic alternative to austerity. Within a few days, over two and a half thousand people had signed up and now I gather it’s over three thousand. It’s early days, but there is clearly some enthusiasm on the left for a fresh start.
However, the capacity of socialists not to listen to each other, to make assumptions about each other and to be knowingly or unthinkingly sectarian, appears to be almost limitless.
In response to Ken’s appeal on the Left Unity website, Will Duckworth, Deputy Leader of the Green Party, member of Green Left, the party’s ecosocialist tendency and, it should be stressed, a fine comrade and a really admirable bloke, wrote the following sectarian nonsense ‘Coalition of Resistance is the movement and the Green Party is the political party. There is no need to reinvent the wheel; just get behind it and push.’ Will’s post was followed by similar contributions by perhaps a dozen other Green Party members from the left of the party in much the sam vein.
I responded to Will by posting the following: ‘This is a classically sectarian response. Just change a couple of names and see what Will’s statement sounds like – “Unite the Resistance is the movement and the SWP is the political party. There is no need to reinvent the wheel; just get behind and push.” Catch my drift?’ (To be fair to Will, he responded by saying that I had made a good point).
However, the excellent Andrew Burgin, who runs the Left Unity site, asked Tom Walker, who has recently very honourably resigned from both the SWP and his job as a journalist on Socialist Worker, to ‘write in response to the concerted effort by the Green Party to suggest that we should all join them.’ (Although, to anyone who knows the way the Green Party operates, the idea of it mounting a ‘concerted effort’ on anything is laughable). Tom responded to the invitation with a article entitled ‘How left is the Green Party?’ .
Now, cards on the table, I am (currently at least) a member of both the Green Party and Green Left – but I am also fully behind Ken’s appeal and the project to renew the left and move towards the establishment of a new mass party. So I have to admit that I was slightly depressed by both the naive sectarianism of the Greens and Tom’s rather shallow analysis which did nothing to aid an understanding of the nature of the Green Party.
I’ll deal with the reaction of many of my comrades in the Green Party/Green Left first. As Tom says of some of his Green friends, they ‘seem not so much angry as bemused as to why there is even a discussion on this subject at all’. After all, as Tom himself points out ‘the Green Party’s most prominent spokespeople are all left wingers’. Will himself of course is, as is the party’s leader, Natalie Bennett and the party’s only MP, Caroline Lucas, who is one of the left’s few representatives in parliament, is widely admired across the left and has frequently explicitly described herself and the Green Party as anti-capitalist.
The responses from Green Party members seem to me to have been, on the whole, needlessly defensive and prone to a naive sectarianism. For example; ‘The Green Party is the only Party who’d renationalise railways, reverse Health and Social Care Act, provide a fair welfare system, etc. It is the Party of the Left’… ‘The Green Party is already in the forefront of the fight for social justice’… ‘The Left does not need another party to split the vote and allow Tories in. The left needs to unite behind the Green Party and make a massive change for all our good at the next election… ‘The Green Party is the party of equality – the party’. And so on.
First, all of this nonsense seems to me to betray an obsession with programmatic purity, which, as Hal Draper pointed out many years ago, is a defining mark of sectarianism. Second, it reveals an extraordinary degree of self deception about the influence and reach of the organisation – another fatal sign of the sect mentality.
‘Sect’ is a term usually used as as term of abuse to mean a group one doesn’t like, as in the People’s Front of Judea vs the Judean People’s Front, but I see it as a group that claims for itself exclusive rights on the Full and Correct Programme. The sect mentality typically sees the road ahead as one in which one’s group will grow and grow, because it has the Full and Correct Programme, until it becomes a small mass party, then larger and larger until it becomes large enough to impose itself as the party of the working class (or in the Green Party’s terms, to win a general election).
The Green Party may be an unusual sect (and, unusually, a pretty civilized and tolerant one), but a sect it is nonetheless. Like other sects it is obsessed with the Full and Correct Programme (in this case it’s Policies for a Sustainable Society rather than the Transitional Programme of 1938 or the British Road to Socialism) which, if presented to the unenlightened masses assiduously enough will eventually lead them to recognise their previous shortsightedness. Like other sects it tends to view actual concrete struggles through the distorting prism of its own programmatic priorities. Of course, it doesn’t share with most far left sects an obsession with a ‘Leninist’ conception of the party (although, arguably, neither did Lenin) and it doesn’t have a class analysis (or much of any kind of analysis) of society and the state. It doesn’t have any of the various laughable programmatic tics and obsessions of what some have called ‘the 20th century left’ – but then it doesn’t need to as it has plenty of its own.
It is largely the hollowing out of the Labour Party and the continuing failure of attempts to regroup the far left sects and reshape them into something that has even a nodding acquaintance to reality, that has led the Green Party to become, largely by default, a pole of attraction for an increasing number of homeless socialists. For many of them, the party is a sort of Sargasso Sea where isolated (and often disillusioned) lefties can drift, substituting attendance on demonstrations and the drafting of radical motions for party conferences for real political activity – rather like student politics for the middle aged.
For many lefties in the Green Party, the experience of being in an organisation that is, for the most part, clearly to the left of Labour, is extremely congenial. Thus Howard Thorp, the party’s Campaigns Co-ordinator (and member of Green Left) responded to Tom’s article by asking whether he had ‘ever bothered to read the GPEW’s policies? Yes, there are many of them, pro-trade union, pro-economic democracy, pro-NHS and public services, and dealing with the realities of climate change rather than just talking about as the other parties do’. Of course the problem is that ‘dealing with the realities of climate change’ (what hubris!) is interpreted as simply putting up candidates in elections at every opportunity – who rarely win – and going on the annual climate change demo.
As far as the party’s size and importance is concerned, comrades in the Green Party need to stop deceiving themselves and making puffed up claims for the organisation. Officially, the party has around twelve and a half thousand members but in reality barely 10% of the paper membership is active in any meaningful sense .
The claim that the Greens are the fourth largest party in terms of elected officials and paper members is meaningless. Leaving aside the fact that the rest of the left, whether aligned or non-aligned, have thousands more elected members in the trade union movement, which remains the most important democratic institution in Britain, being fourth is nowhere. Having 155 councillors and 1 MP when there are over 14,000 councillors and 650 odd MPs makes the Green Party a midget – and it has taken it 40 years to become that midget.
There is no chance at all the the GP can, on its own and with it’s current eclectic blend of economic and environmental crankery, sentimental reformism and socialist demands for justice and change, become the mass movement that is capable of mounting an electoral challenge – or any other sort of challenge – to the two and a half parties of the ruling class.
But disappointingly, Tom’s article really doesn’t really attempt to understand the peculiar nature of the Green Party or the socialist left within it. Instead, it approaches the question in a rather shallow journalistic fashion and merely attempts to dismiss the party as not really on the left and therefore more or less irrelevant.
Having conceded in his introduction that the party’s main spokespeople are clearly to the left of Labour he then goes on to resurrect the old ‘ah, but what about the Greens in Germany and Ireland’ chestnut. So it doesn’t matter if most British Greens think that they are to the left of Labour and act as if they are to the left of Labour – what really matters is what other Greens elsewhere have been up to. And Tom is selective in his choice of Greens when playing the guilt by association card – he doesn’t mention the Catalan or Portuguese Greens, who work in alliance with communist and trotskyist parties, for example, nor the Greek Greens, who are part of Syriza.
And then there is the clincher – Brighton. Of course, the capitulation of the the Green Group on the council without even putting up a show of resistance has been disgraceful, but this has been attacked just as forcefully from within the Greens’ ranks as from outside and even Caroline Lucas has distanced herself from the decisions of the discredited leadership of Jason Kitkat. But for Tom, this wholly predictable collapse of an inexperienced bunch of left reformists when unexpectedly handed a local council to run as a minority administration is ‘the canary in the coal mine’ that reveals the true nature of the party as being essentially the same as Labour.
Tom misunderstands the development of the Green Party towards an idiosyncratic left social democratic politics over the last few years; a politics more or less in the tradition of the ‘sandal wearers and fruit juice drinkers’ of the ILP that so maddened Orwell. While he acknowledges that the party has ‘many good socialist members’ (thank you very much) ‘and some radical policies’ he insists that nonetheless it is not only not a party of the left, but it is deliberately not. He doesn’t mention which secret cabal has made this decision, but goes on to say that quite a large section of the party ‘are devoted to an agenda of ‘cycling and recycling’, with a narrow focus simply on environmental issues’ . While this is unfortunately true, although less so than Tom might think, he then goes on to say that the left in the party are ‘happy to work alongside those who use the phrase “neither left nor right” with a straight face’. This is simply not true, not only because the organised left in the party has relentlessly opposed this sort of politics, but because the numbers clinging to such a daft and reactionary position are small and growing smaller by the day.
Of course, when Tom concludes that ‘the Green Party offers no solution to the problem of working class representation, or a left alternative to the mainstream consensus’ he is right – we need an entirely new sort of mass party of the left that can mobilise millions. The Green Party is not that party, nor can it be. It is merely the largest sect on the left and like all the others cannot provide the basis of such a party. At some point we must make a fresh start.
However, it has played a valuable role in bringing green issues, once derided or ignored by most far left groups, into the mainstream of socialist politics and it certainly contains as many socialists as the SWP or the Socialist Party. It, or at least a large section of it’s membership, could and should be a valuable asset in our common endeavor of working towards that new party of the left that Ken has so eloquently called for.
I first came across Christopher Logue when, in 1963, a friend played me Red Bird, an EP (an extended play 7 inch record – a format now known only to pensioners and vinyl geeks) of Logue reading some of his very free translations of Pablo Neruda love poems to the accompaniment of jazz from the Tony Kinsey Quintet. Being a rather pretentious youth, I was immediately hooked. But I still am, and it’s still really good.
I met him, just once or twice, five years later when he was on the Editorial Board of the Black Dwarf and I was the production editor. I can’t remember whether his poem Know Thy Enemy was written for Black Dwarf and then produced as one of his poetry posters or the other way round, but we did print it in the second or third edition of the paper. I only wish that I still had the poster – and my old copies of Black Dwarf for that matter.
Know Thy Enemy
Know thy enemy:
he does not care what colour you are
provided you work for him
and yet you do!
he does not care how much you earn
provided you earn more for him
and yet you do!
he does not care who lives in the room at the top
provided he owns the building
and yet you strive!
he will let you write against him
provided you do not act against him
and yet you write!
he sings the praises of humanity
but knows machines cost more than men.
Bargain with him, he laughs, and beats you at it;
challenge him, and he kills.
Sooner than loose the things he owns
he will destroy the world.
SMASH CAPITAL NOW!
But as you hasten to be free
And build your commonwealth
Do not forget the enemy
Who lies within yourself.