Thursday, September 26, 2019
This is a guest post from my partner, Hassina Malik;
I've been up all night thinking about all the things that make me who and what I am, and how those things are shifting.
I am a woman, I am Black, I am West Indian, I am a mother, I am a sister, I am a socialist, I am a feminist, I am a Labour Party member. I am a Local Government Worker, I am a trade unionist...and so much more.
I am part of many different groups that are combinations of these. For instance, I meet with socialists who are trade unionists, or Local Government Workers in the Labour Party, or West Indian women. It's not at all strange that each of these groups are so different and yet I fit comfortably into each. This is because each reflects different aspects of myself as demonstrated in each of these associations.
In each setting I can express various facets of who I am. In my capacity as a West Indian woman I am able to discuss and even joke about things that women from other parts of the world will not relate to. As a Black Labour Party Member I am able to meet and share thoughts on issues that other LP members will not be able to relate to. The ability to freely engage with others with whom I share common characteristics fulfils me. I feel whole because I am able to express all of who I am and what I think in each setting.
Sometimes these groups are less broken down and a gathering of Black women (from all cultures and nations) is the place where I feel comfortable and safe to express my thoughts and feelings. Or a in a group of all West Indians irrespective of sex and gender. Or a group of trade unionists.
I consider the ability to gather in groups of my choice a right that I value. As part of each I feel less isolated and more connected. I am a better human being because of these interactions. I am able to develop my thinking and contribute to the growth of each group. Indeed the essence of my humanity is defined by the shared experiences of these associations.
In the recent past I feel that my ability to choose a group or gathering that fits me, is much less my choice, but the choice of others. As a result, I believe that my ability to express my thoughts has been curtailed and I am less fulfilled as a human being.
At work Black staff who are far more likely to face discrimination meet to share views, to comfort and console each other when distressed. These meetings of Black staff now have white staff in attendance. To make it worse it is often Black staff who insist that white staff remain. When I and others object to the presence of white staff we are branded trouble makers, radicals and even racist. Yes, racists. It would seem that I can no longer be who I am in my choice as a Black worker to meet and support those with whom I identify. I cannot be a Black worker, together with other Black workers, talking together about our unique experience, and helping each other. Some Black staff will become afraid of consequences and not return. That is the purpose - to shut down debate, to diminish our voices.
In another part of my life I am a supporter of the rights of Palestinians to live in peace, free from persecution, hunger and brutality. I know that their plight is at the hands of the zionists in the State of Israel. As a young woman I once heard Desmond Tutu say the fight against apartheid is in Palestine as much as it was in South Africa. Nelson Mandela said much the same. Like them I feel the injustice of what is happening to Palestinians as deeply as I felt about the brutality of apartheid in South Africa. I try to do all I can, as I did as a girl against the South African state - I boycott Israeli goods and I support sanctions.
Unlike the approval I received as a girl for standing against apartheid South Africa, I am now likely to be called anti-semitic for the statements in the previous paragraph, for attending meetings that call for sanctions against Israel and supporting the rights of Palestinians. Many committed anti-racists and anti-fascists have been branded in this way because they have called Israel what we called South Africa - a nation responsible for a brutal apartheid system. This is also being done by people on the Left to others on the Left.
And here again, where I should have the right to peacefully meet and share views, I and others are met with hostility in a bid to shut down discussion. It would seem I can no longer be who I am in my choice as a Black person to support those with whom I identify as oppressed. Branded anti-semitic, venues will not permit entry and those attending any meetings will face loud, angry accusations and protests. Some activists will become afraid and not return. That is the purpose - to shut down debate, to diminish our voices.
In yet another part of my life, as a political woman I choose to gather with other natal women to discuss shared views and experiences. In such a forum I am able to be open and to discuss issues unique to that group. And if as part of a group of women, a sub-group of Black women chose to meet to the exclusion of the white women I would not expect the white women to challenge this and would expect them to understand.
But attending gatherings of natal women to the exclusion of trans women has become hazardous, as some trans women feel that it is their right to be included in all gatherings of natal women. I do not disagree that it is appropriate that all women (natal and trans) have the right to meet and share similar experiences - in particular the shared experience of oppression, and I note that trans women will have shared, unique experiences that natal women will not share. This issue has become divisive and fails to recognise much of the considerations I have expressed earlier.
Yet another area of my life where I should have the right to self expression and the freedom to choose is being closed to me. I and others are met with hostility and accusations, in a bid to shut down discussion and silence our voices.
So much of what has been fought for and achieved by our predecessors has been eroded. Eroded by a lack of education and the failure of movements to inform each new generation of what was fought for and achieved. Eroded by identity politics removed from class politics (‘more that unites us than divides us’). Eroded by wealth (‘when you’ve got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose’).
So I ask, who am I when all around my voice is being silenced? How can we as human beings have progress and unity through understanding of ourselves if we are silenced? Silenced by others and by each other.
As working class people and as oppressed groups we will have to seek the answers to these questions. We can only do this together. Our strength is in our numbers. If we continue to attack each other and permit others to attack and divide us ultimately we will all be silenced. And that is the goal of our REAL enemy.
Wednesday, September 25, 2019
Between the decision of the Supreme Court, and Labour Conference adopting radical policies such as the Green New Deal and support for freedom of movement, this has been a pretty momentous week.
As I continue to recuperate following my hospitalisation a few weeks ago I have mostly been reduced to observing events – and admiring the exceptional contribution of the Brighton Pavilion delegation at Labour Party Conference – as a television viewer.
I was, however, pleased to be able to honour a commitment to draw the fundraising raffle at Monday night’s excellent “Stand Up For Labour” event, organised by the marvellous Crispin Flintoff (who receives barely a fraction of the recognition he deserves for his service to our Party).
This meant that I came to share the stage, along with Crispin and Tosh McDonald, with Chris Williamson MP (who is currently suspended from the Labour Party). Chris had originally been due to speak at the event, but his name had been removed after the venue came under pressure from people who don’t feel that he should be permitted to appear and speak in public.
I am very disappointed that some of those who have been applying pressure on local venues are Labour Party members. I don’t know Chris, and hold no particular brief for him, but I do know that – whilst he has been suspended by the Party – he has not been found guilty of any breach of Party Rules.
Even if he had been found guilty, the idea that he should be “no platformed” seems to me to be absurd. In his speech on Monday evening, Tosh spoke about how his trade union, ASLEF (of which he is, of course, a former President) had taken up the fight against bigotry in the rail industry. (He wasn’t making any comparison with the case of his friend and comrade Chris Williamson, his respect and admiration for whom he made very clear).
In seeking to win workers to oppose racism, sexism and homophobia, he pointed out that the trade unions had certainly not sought the immediate dismissal of an individual because they had exhibited (for example) racist opinions or behaviours. Instead they had sought to change opinions – and behaviours – through argument and persuasion.
“No Platform” is a tactic (with a particular history in the student movement) which represents an exceptional departure from the principle of free speech. This tactic can justifiably be employed against, for example, the fascist British National Party or the likes of Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, because they use their speech not simply to express hate, but to incite violence and to attack the working-class movement.
Used against the organised far-right, the application of the tactic of “No Platform” follows in the footsteps of the workers who gathered in Cable Street in 1936. However, extended inappropriately to silence debate within our movement (even when used against those expressing opinions which may be considered wrong-headed, or even reactionary or offensive) then this misuse of “No Platform” owes more to the historical tradition represented by those the workers prevented from marching.
Those who think it legitimate to try (and fail) to prevent Chris Williamson from speaking in public are simply wrong, as are those who reportedly bullied Waterstones in Brighton in order to cancel a book launch for a scholarly work on media coverage of allegations of antisemitism in the Labour Party. This is an illegitimate misuse of the tactic of “No Platform”.
Free speech is a vitally important principle for the labour movement, because the founding ideas of our movement had to be expressed in an environment in which the ruling class sought always to silence the voice of our class. The history of our movement is a history of those who were demonised and imprisoned for their dangerous and seditious opinions.
A contest of ideas, through dialogue and debate, is also essential within our movement if we are to move forward. Labour Party Conference this week adopted radical policies following – and as a result of – debate within the movement between different points of view.
It is only through respect for free speech, including respect for the expression of minority points of view, that such debate can enable our movement to develop policies and strategies which meet the needs of changing circumstances. The inappropriate use of the tactic of “No Platform” to stifle debate and silence opponents is therefore damaging not only to the rights of those who are (or may be) silenced but to our movement as a whole.
Given that these are my beliefs, I was entirely comfortable, on Monday evening, to listen to Chris Williamson speak, to applaud him when he said things I thought worthy of applause, to solicit his assistance in drawing the fundraising raffle and – in particular – to have his assistance, with other comrades, in drowning out my tuneless rendition of the Red Flag.
Elsewhere in Brighton that evening, my sister was attending a meeting addressed by her partner, my sister outlaw, Dani Ahrens. This was an unofficial fringe meeting with the title “A Woman’s Place is at Conference” organised by a group called “A Woman’s Place” which had originally been founded to coordinate contributions to a government consultation on gender recognition legislation.
Some activists fighting for the rights of trans people (in line with the agreed policy of our local Labour Party and with the motion submitted by Brighton Pavilion to Conference) feel very strongly that the arguments advanced by some feminists concerning the protection of the rights of natal women to safe women only spaces are transphobic.
Some of those who took that view organised a protest outside the meeting (which was an expression of their right to free speech) – but, in so doing, sought to silence and intimidate those attending the meeting. That was wrong. It is a misapplication of the tactic of “No Platform” to seek to apply it to gender critical feminists every bit as much as it is to apply it to Chris Williamson MP.
In the world of Trump, Johnson, Bolsanaro and Modi it is clear that the real – existential – threat to our movement (if not our species) is posed by the climate crisis and the rampant nationalist far-right. Legitimate targets for the tactic of “No Platform” are growing in strength here and abroad, just at the time when the scale and complexity of the challenges facing us make it essential that we should listen to and learn from all those who have something positive to offer (regardless of whether we may disagree with them on important issues).
I am proud to have been a Labour Party member for forty years, and to hold office in the local Party. I want our Party, and our wider movement, to be a place where we listen respectfully to those with whom we disagree. No Party member should seek to censor the expression, within our movement, of opinions of which they disapprove, whether by cajoling venues into cancelling bookings or by trying to shout down a meeting.
Labour Party members – and labour movement activists – who take different views (whether about the scale of the problem of antisemitism in the Party, about gender recognition legislation, or about any other issue) are not fascists, and no other Labour Party member should treat them as if they are.
Saturday, September 21, 2019
The clumsy and hasty attempt to abolish the role of Deputy Leader of the Labour Party has predictably failed. It exemplifies the weakness of the “top down” approach to Left politics, which is merely a “socialist” reflection of the bag-carrying, Leader-following, insider politics of the Westminster bubble.
There is a good case to be made that there ought not to be a Deputy Leader elected with the same mandate as the Leader, because if the two are of like mind then the Deputy adds nothing of substance, whereas if they disagree that is a gift to our opponents (and there are also valid arguments to retain the position).
There is also a good case to be made that Tom Watson has been a persistent negative feature of the Party for some time – and that his continuing presence is an unwelcome reminder that a large part of the Parliamentary Labour Party is not reconciled to the popularity of socialist policies in the wider party.
However, if the Left wants to achieve lasting change in the Party then we need to campaign for it among the membership of the Party, not seek to use an NEC majority to bounce Conference – that is precisely the tactic which we would expect from the right-wing in our movement over the years.
Such campaigning can be laborious, tiring and brings with it no guarantee of success (not least because the opponents of socialism within the Party will use any and all levers of power still in their hands to frustrate Party democracy). Also, in seeking to mobilise a majority for change it is an unavoidable necessity to work alongside people with whom one doesn’t agree on many issues.
The sudden and unexpected accession to the Leadership of a socialist candidate in 2015 has created previously unanticipated opportunities for socialists in the Labour Party – but it may also have generated the illusion in some quarters that change can be achieved simply by attaining positions in the Party and using those exalted positions to direct a stage army of the Left.
The left on the NEC have handed an undeserved “victory” to the current Deputy Leader and, in so doing, have humiliated themselves and the wider left in the Party. Perhaps comrades can draw the right lessons from this fiasco, and can rediscover the principles of rank and file democracy as a guide to their political activity.