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Saturday, 31 March 2012

BRADFORD SPRING OR FALSE DAWN?

The winning by George Galloway of the Bradford West seat is sending shockwaves through the political establishment, and will hopefully signal the acceleration of a process whereby the decay of traditional neoliberal politics is met by the rise of radical, sometimes local alternatives.

Sections of the media, especially Labour-supporting, are eager to downplay Bradford West, to call it a one-off vote for a maverick politician, or to see it as something to do with narrow, ethnic, Pakistani politics, with no wider relevance or resonance. It was a by-election anyway, and they can always be a bit freakish

It is true that some of the appeal of what even the media are referring to as the ‘Galloway bandwagon’ is connected with his undeniable charisma, rhetorical skills and high profile media-savvy approach. It’s worth remembering, though, that those weren’t enough to get him elected in Poplar and Limehouse in 2010.

Had he won Bradford West by a slim margin, to be honest, I, too, would be inclined to regard it as a one-off. But winning by a landslide 10,000 majority is extraordinary and shows that forces greater than Galloway’s ego (yes, they do exist!) are coming to bear here.

Some things need to be said, however, about the argument that Respect’s is a narrowly ethnic politics.

Firstly, what unites supporters of Respect was, and is, in most cases opposition to the disastrous wars of occupation waged by successive British governments, together with the long-standing occupation of Palestine. As these are in Muslim countries, it would be surprising if Muslims in Britain did not constitute a large presence in its ranks.

But the initial perspective of Respect – and I speak as one who stood as a Respect candidate for a Portsmouth council seat – was always to reach out more widely than a narrow self-defining ethnic ‘identity politics’ to the increasing number of working-class people who opposed the wars and were alienated by the main parties, the ‘three cheeks of the same arse’, as Galloway liked to call them.

One of the most positive experiences of my political life – on a par with attending the second Rock Against Racism carnival in Brockwell Park in 1978 and stopping the English Defence League marching in Tower Hamlets in 2011 - was campaigning for Galloway in Tower Hamlets in 2005, where on the street an euphoric, carnival atmosphere reigned as people of all ages, from many different ethnic backgrounds, declared their intention to vote for the party. It was a humbling experience to be immersed in a hugely multi-racial community in which so many ordinary people, sometimes very poor people, saw the hope of a changed politics becoming a reality. A project which could unite people of many different ethnicities was doubly important given the Islamophobia and racism which is so often the consequence of wars of occupation.

The Respect project was, more than anything else, about connecting with the dispossessed – economically dispossessed, politically dispossessed. In this sense, class was always more important for Respect than ethnic identity. What was always most important was that we stood for the powerless against the powerful. If that is ‘populism’ there are many who saw it as preferable to the slippery Orwellian careerism that characterised so much of the Blair project and of the corrupt, self-serving wealth-worshipping political culture that ‘New’ Labour (same old same old) produced.

That is not to say that Respect found it easy to deal with the pressures and tensions of defining and resolving its class identity. Petit bourgeois shopkeepers do not necessarily share the same class interests as catering workers or cleaners. This is what eventually led to the arguments and splits which saw the Socialist Workers Party and Galloway’s supporters going separate ways. Galloway made mistakes but then so did we.

To be honest, all those things seem a lifetime ago: the great wave of resistance which greeted Blair’s war drive; the massive national demonstrations, the civil disobedience, the road blockades and walkouts by school students; the disgust and anger from millions of people that this slaughter should be enthusiastically pursued by a Labour prime minister and a Labour cabinet. The first attempt to launch Respect was in this political context, and was always a conscious attempt to translate the widespread revulsion against the wars into votes, and into electoral gains for a party opposed to war and neoliberalism.

Much has happened since then: a lot of blood has flowed under the bridge. We are now in a different era. What we said would come to pass, came to pass. We always argued that a government that could wage war on working people in a different part of the world would at the last go to war on its own workers and its own people. This is what we are witnessing today. The massively destructive economic crisis that the far left had been expecting for years, even as Brown blustered about ‘no return to boom and bust’ eventually began to hit in 2007, and has been going through its various phases since then.

The banking crisis resulted in the most massive nationalisations in history as national governments moved in to protect their banking sectors from the consequences of their own greed, hubris and criminality. Lenin noted that there was no crisis so deep that capitalism could not survive, provided a way was found to make the working classes pay. This is exactly what is happening at the moment. Millions of people are being forced to pay for a crisis they took no part in creating.

But the point is: they are finding ways to fight back. The process went all the way to revolution in the middle East, crucially the remarkable Egyptian revolution, which continues . In Greece there is street fighting and general strikes, in Spain we saw the young ‘indignatos’ which inspired the global ‘Occupy’ movement, bringing general strikes and mass protest to the US, the belly of the beast. In the UK we have seen student uprisings, the first stirrings of a mass public sector campaign of strikes and demonstrations, and multi-ethnic urban rioting after police killed yet another black man.

It is in this change of political and social context that the significance of the Bradford West result lies. The left has increasingly argued that with the decay of the old social democratic parties whose traditional role was to offer some amelioration of working people’s lives and some protection from the worst excesses of capitalism, a space was going to be opening up for new, more radical political parties. Under the repeated shocks of the economic crisis, it is particularly important that those parties should be of the left, not the right. Remember, something like 88 percent of public sector cuts in the UK have yet to come: the Con-Dems have committed themselves to a programme of economic and therefore necessarily social restructuring which is not only the deepest on record but which will go on for years. And expect increasing numbers of young people - the shock troops of any revolution – to find themselves with plenty of time on their hands…

I don’t want to over-egg the pudding, to overemphasise the importance of just one parliamentary result. There have been too many false dawns. National electoral politics is difficult terrain for the left, as well as being expensive, and it’s only one narrow aspect of a struggle that has essentially to be fought out in workplaces, on picket lines and on the streets.

Yes, Galloway is a bit of a maverick, but come on! A 10,000 majority for a tiny political party with no MPs? That doesn’t just come from hard, professional campaigning. It tells us all something important about the times we’re living in.

It also shows the rest of the left what might be possible, with a bit of imagination, quite a lot of nerve, and a resolutely non-sectarian approach. Let us put together some good results for the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) in the local and regional elections on May 3, and then see where we go from there. But remember, we don’t have much time.

And oh yes, one last thing. If TUSC is serious about getting elected, it needs to do something about the acronym. How can we expect to harvest votes if the first image our name evokes is that of a walrus? Galloway had the right idea. One. Inspirational. Word. Any suggestions?

Saturday, 24 March 2012

The Headlong Stream -1911


The headlong stream is termed violent

But the river bed hemming it in is

Termed violent by no one. – Brecht

1

Out of nowhere it comes

A storm of resistance blowing

Hard through the night

Of imperial fantasies, Edwardian hubris,

As the wretched of the earth rise up out of the splintered rubble

And fight back.

Miners from the pits

Of the Cambrian Combine.

Anarchist militants from Liverpool

Railmen from the iron tracks, the sinews of empire.

Seafarers and dockers, calling the workers out with bugles

Blowing high across the jetties and wharves of Newport,

The quaysides of Cardiff.

And the seashore tinplate town, washed out along the Loughor estuary.

A world of forges, fiery furnaces,

Where metals burn like the fires of drink and the devil,

And the hellfire of the preachers in the 1904 revival,

And the fire in the belly of the syndicalist strikers

Fighting for one big union and a better world to come.

And New Dock and Seaside a teeming workers’ district,

Channelling coal and steel to feed an empire.

And still dire poverty, still dank damp housing,

Still plague spots, slums, unwholesome dens.

Still a hundred and thirteen babies dying

In the year of 1911.

And the rich get richer

2

And a hundred years later,

Looking down upon Llanelli,

From the slopes of Box Cemetery

I see a long unravelling,

Debt and desolation,

And the blood of so many washed away down the river

In numb idleness and heavily cut heroin.

Shooting up commodities

In negative equity

Or servicing the retail trade on minimum wage.

Strictly low budget, my friend.

Because if you don’t stand for something you’ll put up with anything.

And I cry out for the spirit of 1911

When they got angry and did the right thing

And an injury to one is an injury to all

And to hell with the consequences.

And the poor getting poorer

3

A sea of people surge at the level crossing,

Rebecca seizes the gates,

Railmen, tinplaters, wives, lovers and children,

Cold-roll boys smoking their Woodbines,

Sitting on the wall of the Station Hotel,

Carnival and an August moon.

Speeches ring out:

And it’s workers’ power,

And the international working class.

And the strikers singing ‘Sosban Fach’.

Even the police settle down to watch

The mock election and the tap dancing contest

And the crowds sing “For he’s a jolly good fellow”

As Sergeant Britten walks past.

And all through the night

Of the 17th August

The picket stays in place

And nothing moves without the nod

Of the strike committee.

Any kind of dual power

Is anathema to a ruling class.

4

The photos show us a young man:

Expressive features, dark hair

Parted in the middle, a trace of brilliantine,

A polka dot bow tie. Captain of the rugby team, a local hero:

Dodging, tackling - a centre with The Oriental Stars.

He earned his bread as a tinplateman,

A mill-worker at Morewoods.

And took to the streets to support his brothers on the rail.

Is he the one the major said jumped up and bared his chest

And dared them to fire?

John ‘Jac’ John,

21 years old, of Railway Terrace

Shot through the lung.

And the other one, the Londoner,

The boy from Penge. Although younger than Jac,

In this photograph he looks older. Hair curls

Over his forehead in a quiff.

Square-jawed, more wary,

More deeply impacted

By life

More unlucky maybe.

Although today

His level of bad luck was exactly the same as Jac’s.

He leaves school at 12,

By 19 has left London –

Looking for labouring work,

In an inversion strange to us,

In tinplate boomtown Llanelli.

Hit by tuberculosis, the scourge of the urban poor,

He is on weekend leave from Alltymynydd Sanatorium,

And has just finishing shaving

When he is shot.

Stripped to the waist,

No socks or shoes upon his feet,

He has gone into his back garden to see what all the noise is about.

Rarely were the words ‘innocent bystander’

More justly deserved.

Guilty, your honour, of living in a working-class street.

Leonard Worsell the labourer

19 years old, lodging at No.6

Shot in the heart.

5

It was Major Stuart who gave

The order to fire.

After his cut glass accent

Failed to dislodge

The rude youths from the garden wall.

Wilkins the magistrate

Mumbled his way

Through the Riot Act –

“God save the King!”

Sixty seconds counted out

On the major’s pocket watch.

Then

Five bullets.

Nickel topped.

One hits John Francis

In the throat

Driving him off the wall

And into the garden.

Another strikes John Hanbury’s thumb,

Glances off at an angle -

Smacks into Jac’s chest.

A third fells the lad from London.

Blood splashes the grass.

Three men down.

One hit but still walking.

The two in worst shape -

Jac and Leonard -

Laid out on the table

In the middle room of No 6

Where they die.

The landlady of the house

Is crying.

6

Down on the track below

Major Stuart orders his soldiers

To withdraw.

What thoughts are in his head?

One soldier refused to fire on the crowd.

Did this little mutiny take away Stuart’s trust in his men?

Or is it the realisation that he has played his last card.

If two deaths have not done the trick, will twenty?

So many questions,

So few answers.

7

The riot is the voice of the unheard.

The uprising is the same voice speaking

A full sentence.

The question is:

What does the voice say?

As news of the killings spreads

Groups of young men roam the streets

Around the station, seeking ways to strike back.

They say: “Men are born to live out their lives, not to be shot at like dogs. This was murder.”

A crowd chases the soldiers of the Lancashire Regiment

Into the railway station, then stones the building,

Smashing every window.

They say: “Where the interests of the rich are concerned, our lives are cheap. The soldiers are not here to defend us.”

The crowds loot the shop of Thomas Jones J.P. –

Shareholder of the Great Western Railway Company

- The man who called in the troops.

They say: “You brought in these soldiers to protect your investment. To see the job done you were prepared to kill. You don’t need all these hams, these cheeses, these cakes. We will take this out of what you owe us.”

The trucks of the Great Western Railway Company

Are looted and torched.

A truck explodes, killing four.

The voices of the dead say: “Blood of the poor is on the hands of the powerful. We live working or die fighting. The riverbed of steel that hems us in is called violent by no-one. ”

Strikers fight soldiers

Who, bayonets fixed, try to drive them

From the streets.

The strikers say: ”These were our streets. Our town. Now we find that not even the things we own belong to us.”

8

The strikes were called off

And although the people fought

There was no world revolution.

What happened instead was world war

But that’s another story.

And in the tinplate town the murders

Were drowned in guilt and shame,

As chapels and press

And the local crachach,

Terrified at the bolshevism that had blown up

In their faces, spoke of “slavering mobs”

And disgraceful disorder

And the cwmwl cywilydd brought upon the town.

And people forgot the worse injustice.

And the graves of Jac and Leonard

Still moulder and crumble up at Box.

9

When a dam bursts who can control

The water and the way it flows?

Some got drunk.

Well what of it?

Some stole.

So what?

What has been stolen from them all their lives

Makes the cakes

And the sides of ham

Seem small change.

Who blames them

For their nights of riot

As they struck back

Against the murderers

Who had come to their town?

No, don’t blame them

Salute them

For their pig-headedness

Their nerve under fire, their humour

Their hwyl.

We will need that too

For today and tomorrow,

For who will defend the poor

When the rich come to steal

From them again?

10

The town stretches out

Along the coast today. The sunlight glances off the sea.

From here I can see Whiteford Point lighthouse

Shimmer in the distance.

The forges and fiery furnaces are

All gone. So are the dockers and miners.

But there are still plague spots.

Still people dying.

And the rich getting richer. ..