Tuesday, 18 August 2009

the dog shit politics panacea

Nazis do it. Greens do it. Even socialists do it sometimes. Every day graft, listening to people, asking them what they want, and putting in the work to try and get it for them.

The dog shit politics of making sure the little things are dealt with, and that groups set achievable targets, winning things that non-activist people are actually interested in. It helps build a rapport between people and political groups, and keeps people grounded in everyday life.

Left-wing or pro-working class groups should be at a natural advantage in this arena. In the first place they´re supposed to have a deeper understanding of the forces that are behind attacks on working class communities, so should have a better understanding of how to fight back. They don´t have the big disadvantage that far right groups do, in that they aren´t trying to peddle racism and they don´t have quite the pariah status that Nazis do.

Groups that have tried taking this approach have had varying degrees of success.

The group that made it the center of its political outlook, the IWCA, had a few early victories. It established bases in two London boroughs, Glasgow and Oxford, producing creditable results in the first three places, and steadily increasing their councillors to a high of four on Oxford city council.

Over time though the number of outposts shrank, as Glasgow withered away, Hackney left the organisation and Islington went quieter (is it still functioning?) and short-lived flurries of activity in Harold Hill and Thurrock seemed to disappear over time.

The IWCA´s trajectory seemed to prove that outposts could be built and people engaged, with good day-to-day community work, but that it was difficult to expand from that kind of base and that small-numbers of activists could become bogged down in electoral work and community campaigning.

The Socialist Party, a bigger, national organisation, has usually orientated itself in its day-to-day work towards the ´dog shit´ end of politics, whether that be in the trade unions or in community work. On the other hand it does have to wear its other hat as part of the Committee for a Workers´ International, being the historical consciousness of the entire international working class and all.

Over the past two decades they built significant local bases in Coventry and Lewisham, as well as picking up the odd councillor as opponents of NHS privatisation. The SP´s approach differs substantially from the IWCA, in that rather than seeing themselves as a sort of political wing of their communities, they have their own very tightly defined ideas on policy and theory, whilst still trying to attract adherents through practical everyday work.

Although the SP have had a degree of success where they´ve applied themselves in this way, the last year or so has seen them increasingly drawn into high-level trade union work in pursuit of the real long-term project - The Campaign for a New Workers Party.

Straight old-fashioned British Trots, the SP want a bigger sea of reformist workers to swim in, in order to win them over to socialism. Yet, as their rubbish attempt to stand in the last election shows, people won´t vote for you just because a workers´ organisation is involved. Their years of community activism, just like their trade union work has been unable to propel their wider ambition, and they remain restricted to historical footholds.

Which probably goes to show that whilst community activism can build a modest platform, it doesn´t expand your organisation dramatically unless you´re actually selling an idea that people want to buy into.

Meanwhile, a handful of anarchistically-inspired groups have also been doing similar sorts of activism, trying to engage people in everyday politics in a way that attracts them to the idea of a radically democratic society. Groups like Haringey Solidarity Group argue that they can make a real difference to people´s lives through campaign work and engage people in a different kind of political action.

I heard that the people behind HSG have maintained some sort of consistent organisation since the old Poll Tax Unions, which in itself is an achivement for a community group. The question is expansion. Community work is an end in itself, and on some level you´d certainly be happy to devoting your time to improving what you can for yourself and your neighbours. But there is still the question of putting yourself in a position to challenge things.

Groups that focus on elections often get sucked into to the constant, exhausting cycle of winning and maintaining representation, to the detriment of other work. However, groups without that focus often seem to spend much of their existence looking for things to get their teeth into. Without something to campaign on, activity can often dwindle and leave the same small group of people keeping the thing ticking over until the next significant issue.

Much of the energy that was going into groups like HSG has re-directed itself into the London Coalition Against Poverty, which with a broader focus and direct action case work to get stuck into, seems to be better at keeping people involved and occupied.

In terms of sustaining a permanent large-scale organisation capable of advancing the big aims though, the municipal anarchism model still seems to have a missing ingredient that prevents it from pushing on to the next level.

Another category of ´dog shit´ activists has emerged out of the disintegration of the Labour Party in the last few years. In Barrow-in-Furness, a 1997 splinter group led by the former constituency party chair stood in a by-election and lost their deposit. Subsequently they´ve taken a number of borough council seats and currently hold four, it might be more if they hadn´t had their own falling out and lost a load of seats to another independent splinter from the group. The all-women shortlists debacle that led most of the Blaenau Gwent CLP to leave, resulted in one MP and a bundle of councillors for People´s Voice candidates in the last elections (though many of them seem to have left for independent status subsequently) and school protesters took Gwynedd council off Plaid Cymru.

In the leftie news reccently were the Community Action Party, a mash-up of various political backgrounds, which until recently held 18 seats on Wigan borough council. They´ve split (obviously) and recently formed a People´s Alliance with the local SP and the Respect Party. George Galloway even came up to shake everyone´s hand.

The trouble these organisations seem to have is that being formed over local issues, they tend to subsequently split over them. They´ve also got very limited horizons, as well as an M.O. and a structure (in most cases semi-clientalist) that limits them in that way. The lack of resources is exposed in the homely, 1997 style websites.

They´ve got a lot of advantages though. Clearly they show up out of a need, and are identified with something that resonates with their electorate. There´s a meaningful and organic connection with the communities that throw them up, rather than trying to manufacture something out of nothing (and the ¨Save our XXX¨ campaign style doesn´t work if you haven´t got the links or the issue spot on - Colchester Save Our Bus Station did abysmally in local elections a few years back for precisely that reason).

But without broadening their appeal nationally, these groups will eventually outlive either their campaign or the particular local political figure that gave them life. Longer-term, only by broadening their appeal and linking with other groups can they sustain themselves.

The groups that are currently profiting out of community campaigning (the BNP and The Green Party) have a few things in common (aside from a shared love of rural idylls :P), firstly they have a significant national organisation that can sustain local groups all year round, stimulate new groups with resources, produce professional campaign material and maintain attractive, well-used and well-updated websites. This gives the outward impression of being permanent and modern organisations. They combine an organisational focus on the ´dog shit´ stuff, with the ability to intervene on national issues and throw out ´dog whistle´ sound-bites and policies to get new people involved and build up new groups. The two things necessarily compliment one another.

No group can have a national impact without both these elements in play, and that is the key to building something meaningful and permanent.

this was cross-posted from the awesome new meanwhile at the bar blog.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

What Alan Duncan says about our political class

Listening to the radio the other day, I heard Tory blogger Iain Dale being interviewed about Alan Duncan's latest gaff. Obviously he agreed that the comments were ill-advised and that perhaps Duncan might have to apologise. But he didn't get to what I thought was the heart of the matter.
Look at these two statements, the first of which was not the headline quotes that the papers ran with the next day. The second of which is Duncan's apology.

"No one who has done anything in the outside world will ever come into this
place ever again, the way we are going."

"The last thing people want to hear is an MP whingeing about his pay and
conditions. My remarks, although meant in jest, were completely uncalled

The papers all lead with 'MP whinges about pay', and quite right too, it's the money shot in terms of bang for your buck outrage. That's what Duncan responded to as well, noting that nobody wants to hear MPs complain about what are comparatively generous pay packages. The phrase 'they don't know they're born' comes to mind.
But I think there's something deeper to this, somewhere buried further inside people like Duncan that contains the real reason why they make comments like this. Look at that first comment again: For people like him the salary he gets wouldn't motivate anyone whose 'done anything' to go to parliament.
What he's saying, and I think this runs fairly deep among the majority of mainstream politicians is essentially anyone who doesn't earn considerably more than an MP (or isn't at least capable of it) isn't really much cop. Basically they can written off as having any skills worthy of bringing to public life.
The problem with that is that he's basically writing off 95% of the population. All the people who actually do all the work round here are basically little worker ants who need governing by clever chaps who can make lots of money. And they only way you bring them in is by greasing the wheels. People of quality are those that are attracted by and can make lots and lots of money. Basically we're all offensively useless because we can't muster the kind of success that they can.
And that was the question that should've been asked about these remarks. How many of our political class essentially regard working people in this country as idiots because they 'can't get on in life' and wish we could have a parliament made up of 'the right stuff?

Saturday, 8 August 2009

a lot can happen in forty years

"The Army's role might evolve, but the whole process might take as long as 30 to 40 years. There is absolutely no chance of NATO pulling out." General Sir David Richards, Head of the British Army, on the occupation of Afghanistan.

Interesting statement that, more for the attitude than the policy. One of the problems with saying that staying they´re for that period of time is that it sees ¨nation-building¨ as being like a treadmill. Put in enough resources and stick it for long enough and you can change the place into what you want it to be.

The trouble with these plans is that it doesn´t cede any say on things to the people that live there. It gives, for instance, 30-40 years of guerrilla warfare to the insurgents. You´d think that over time they might start getting better at it, particularly given that they´ve moved away from the suicide bomber model (which results in your terrorist dying along with your victims, rather than learning from mistakes and passing on experience to others). It doesn´t ask the Afghanis if they want that long an occupation, and whether some of them might be inclined to rebel against a long-term foreign presence.

In fact the whole idea ignores any problematic developments in the political and social life of Afghanistan. Peace is always political. For example, a lot of analysts say that in Iraq the decision to work with Sunni militia against international Islamist extremists was a far bigger part of turning around that quagmire than the surge was.

Beyond the complete disregard for what the population there might actually do or want. I´m always intrigued by the apparent need that international forces have to set up law enforcement agency and armed forces to defend their new little states. It´s weird because usually countries are able to do that sort of thing for themselves. For instance, the Taliban were able to establish an army and a police force that was completely totalitarian, all without a blue-hat in sight. And, obviously they could only possibly be overthrown by being bombed by the Americans, so it must have been pretty robust, right?

New democracies are supposed to have a broader base of support than brutal dictatorships, so why do nations set up by international diktat seem to have so much trouble?

Thursday, 6 August 2009

ahhhh elections...

Now, I'm not out to criticise people trying to do stuff in solidarity with Iranian activists. But daftness is a pet hate of mine, so here goes.

Right so, today I read someone at the beginning of a very moving piece about what people have suffered after the Iranian elections reference Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as the loser of the election. I've no problem with saying that per se, but is it not a little ridiculous from the perspective of your average anti-Islamic Republic type? Before the elections we were informed that Iran is a theocracy, a clerical tyranny and in general a totalitarian dictatorship.

People who pointed out that the real situation was more nuanced, with a greater degree of civil society, dissent and disagreement internal to the system were generally derided as being the useful idiots of the Ayatollahs. Now, I've no problem dealing in broad brush-strokes like. But doesn't saying that Ahmadinejad is the loser of this election actually rather endorse the electoral system out there?

On some level it means that the election was a meaningful contest between real alternatives, which was outrageously tampered with to the benefit of certain people within the power structure. Like there had been a coup d'etat to overthrow a relatively well-functioning democracy, that spent the previous 30 years electing rightful presidents. Surely if it follows that the protests are about a rigged election, then the last one Ahmadinejad went off fairly?

That's horse-shit though. Iran's is a managed democracy, where the Ayatollahs pick the acceptable candidates and pretend it's a real contest. There's no more legitimacy in all the old-school reformists lining up behind the green movement, than there is in the Ahmadinejads of this world. In fact, the Islamic Republic is probably going through one of its least brutal phases.

Why give the Islamic Republic the redoubt that they're evidently looking for - that they can just retreat to the old reformism and then we'll start saying it's a real democracy. Even if they'd decided they wanted Moussavi instead of the incumbent, it wouldn't have made any real difference. If people on the streets is a meaningful opportunity to enact real change out there, then more has to be done than insisting that they stick to the logic of legitimacy within their own system.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

rubbish bloody football

Year on year I like football as an industry a little less. Every year it just gets more ridiculous as a sport and seems to be further away from the things I actually like about the game.

To explain why, I´ll have to make a bit of a confession. My football supporting life started in a way that I now find reprehensible. From the safety of the Suffolk countryside I was a miniature Manchester United fan. Now in my defence this was 1992 and I´m sucker for a redemption story. The first football I watched was the last season of the old First Division. A Manchester United side with the likes of Mark Hughes, Bryan Robson and a teenage Ryan Giggs was busy choking its best chance of the title for a quarter of a decade. I have an idea the first football match I ever watched was a 0-0 draw on ITV with West Ham United. I was 8 years old.

By the time the Premier League came around I was throwing my pocket money at United scarves, shirts and mugs. They won the league that year, redemption for 26 years of being rubbish, or sometimes just good and gutless. I remained a red for a while. Even after I watched my first live football match, a 0-0 draw between my local team Ipswich and Coventry City. Weirdly enough it was from the Director´s Box and I remember being bored shitless. The next one was a 3-2 win for Ipswich over Manchester United. It was the year Town went down, so I guess it was 1995. I was 12.

I was changed a bit by that game. Obviously in a season in which they were terrible, beating the current league champions saw them go absolutely nuts. The next time I saw Town, a scrappy 2-1 win over Charlton in a then Division One match and they became us. I´ve subsequently had the misfortune to support them for the past 12-13 years, from season ticket holder to ex-pat. I still miss it.

Not to get too poor man´s Nick Hornby on you, but what really attracted me to watching football live, as opposed to on the telly, was the feeling of standing in the old Portman Road North Stand. Partially it was the feeling of adulthood (mostly derived from standing round a load of adults who were acting as childishly as I was), but probably most of all it was the most exciting thing that happened in a town like Ipswich. You went down, and you stood together with a load of people who cared about the same thing you did. They got outraged when you did, they felt off their heads with joy when you did, they swore when you did, they sang when you did. The genuine feeling of being in a crowd is unsurpassable.

And in truth I liked the glamour of my team being little underdogs, underachieving a little bit and living off a glorious past. I swear it meant more to us when we got promoted or when we did well, because there was just us in Ipswich, a little town that people put in shitty books about shitty towns.

And now that´s completely ruined. We´re owned by a multi-millionaire or billionaire or something, and we spend his money so we can hire Roy Keane and buy big Irish centre forwards off Sunderland or Manchester United reserve teamers. We make out like this really makes us happy, but when it works it has a hollow feeling - like Chelsea fans must be familiar with - that it actually has sod all to do with us. That buying the season tickets, making noise at the appropriate moments, throwing money in the coffers by buying the 2nd away kit or the tracksuit top, paled into comparison with a guy who runs promotion events having the cash to bring Celtic rejects back from the Irish League. If we fail we get bitter, and chase club legends out of the place, forgetting that the bloke gave us the most magical night of my footballing life(play-off semi-final 2nd legal 2000 - Ipswich Town 5 Bolton Wanderers 3).

This is the reality for a wild array of different clubs. Portsmouth fans wait with baited breath for a takeover to solve all their financial problems. Notts County got enough money to pay for Sven Goran Eriksson. Who the fuck even bought Notts County for fuck´s sake. QPR have Briatore, Sunderland are throwing money at bigger clubs' reserve team strikers like water. Manchester City ain´t half of it, most of the football league seems to be somebody's plan to get themselves on telly overlooking a Abramovichesque kingdom.

So, Now I sit, watching my mediocre team, with mediocre players bought from other clubs (with all our own kids shipped out), progressing (or not) toward the premier league nirvana. The shed I used to have a season ticket in made five times the noise, and was five times the fun as the massive 25m GBP monstrosity that they moved us up the other end to build one season. A ticket for one and a half hours ¨entertainment¨ costs me 27 GBP minimum, in an occasion where any natural atmosphere is drowned out in a dreary combination of goal music, pre-game music and a preponderance of supporters who never came to contribute anyway.

Live football is not as fun as it used to be. ¨Used to be¨ being the mid-90s, so we´re not even talking about nostalgia for terraces or hooliganism here. In fact, I´d go as far as to say that it´s not even as fun as watching it on the telly.

In a few years, the people that run football are going to understand that this circus cannot sustain itself. Let's be realistic, football is not intrinsically that interesting a game. If I actually want to watch a fascinating contest of epic proportions then it ain't a patch on Cricket or the Tour de France. People watch football to watch people. To see mental geordies outside St.James' Park when some loser/idiot comes to coach them, to watch people cry when they get relegated and to watch them be unhingedly happy when Burnley win a play-off final. The people watching on the telly are really there to watch us, not the game.

And when we've all gone, everyone will wonder what the fuss is all about.