Monday, November 24, 2014

Bob's timely election coverage 4: the "Jewish vote" and the "Jewish lobby"

This is the fourth and final post in my mini-series on British (and especially London) electoral politics. The first looked at UKIP, the second at a bunch of other parties, and the third at some left alternatives. The first half of this post, like the previous three, was written in May, in the wake of the European and local elections, but I didn't get around to posting it. The second half, however, was written today. We left off the story with George Galloway's "Respect" and Lutfur Rahman's "Tower Hamlets First" parties, which have both been alleged to have deployed ethnic machine politics (specifically those of British Muslim communities) in their electoral strategy.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Bob's timely election coverage 3: the left

This is the third in a series of four posts I wrote in May after the European and local elections then, which I'm posting now as they seem to be still relevant after our spate of by-elections. The first looked at UKIP, the second at the rest of London's electoral landscape from the Lib Dems to the Greens. This post focuses on the left. I probably should have included the Greens in this post rather than the last one, as they are to the left of Labour on most issues even if not part of the historical tradition of the left; this was just the order in which I wrote the sections. Paragraphs in italics at the end of each section were written today, in November 2014. 

The results of the more explicitly left of Labour alternatives have been frankly embarrassing. Despite a couple of impressive exceptions (Southampton, Coventry), the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) and the Eurosceptic dinosaurs of No2EU barely left the starting blocks, beaten even by a dead-on-its-feet BNP. The endlessly triumphalist reality-blind idiots of the Leninist sects behind these electoral parties might claim otherwise, but the sad fact is that explicitly socialist politics has almost zero electoral appeal.

The slight exceptions are instructive. In Lewisham, for example, People Before Profit performed respectably in Telegraph Hill and New Cross and the TUSC candidate (Chris Flood) who had previously served as a councillor performed respectably in Telegraph Hill. As I noted in comments, these were candidates with a local track record standing in local elections on very bread-and-butter local issues. Similarly, Keith Morrell in Southampton and Dave Nellist in Coventry had track records as councillors.

My inference from this is that, in the short to medium term at least, the left-of-Labour left is far better off investing its energy in campaigns on very specific bread-and-butter issues – especially around cuts to public services, such as hospital closures – than in electoral activity. This might mean sacrificing ideological purity for coalitions and alliances, in particular with Labour Party supporters. (This might mean that the People’s Assembly approach to re-building left politics (joining up existing struggles against austerity) is a far better bet than the Left Unity approach (the creation of a new party).

Since I wrote the above, People Before Profit got 69 votes in the Rochester and Strood by election - behind the Monster Raving Loony Party but thankfully ahead of any of the fascist parties. My patience with them had diminished in the summer when one of their figureheads tweeted stuff about a Jewish lobby controlling the media and more recently when they had a friendly social media exchange with a Hitler fan on the Bilderberg conspiracy. The fact that the group had no local roots in the constituency was presumably a bigger factor in their low vote than their dabbling with antisemitic memes. 

As for Left Unity, they have made uneven progress. They had their conference a week or so back. I like the strong commitment to transparency and democracy that characterises Left Unity, but it also opens them up to the various Trotskyite and Stalinist sects using it as a playroom, which is pretty off-putting for anyone else who might potentially be engaged by the left. Among endless motions using the arcane jargon of the Third International, one stood out: praising the murderous scum of ISIS as "having progressive potential" from an allegedly "anti-imperialist" perspective. Mercifully, only four people seem to have voted for the motion (and it's not clear that all of them realised which motion they were voting for), but the fact it could even be discussed shows how badly the left needs saving from itself

The one exception to the English far left’s electoral failure in the last decade or so has been Respect. But Respect is an exception in too many ways to make a difference to the argument I’ve just made. For a start, Respect’s apparent political radicalism is barely skin-deep and its electoral advances have been built partly on the now-dwindling personal celebrity of the Nigel Farage of the left George Galloway.

But the much more important factor has been mobilising (often mosque-based) machine politics in relatively ethnically homogeneous South Asian communities. As there are very few local authorities or constituencies in the UK were this kind of vote can make a difference numerically, the Respect strategy is not one that can be scaled up.

It is also a fragile strategy, because it promotes a Boardwalk Empire style political culture that is so cannibalistic that it consumes its activist base faster than it can regenerate, and this cycle has already played itself out in Bradford, where Respect’s councillors had all deserted by election time and a swing back to Labour has seen its remaining candidates' fortunes collapse.

However, it is depressing to see that the Respect model has clung on in Tower Hamlets, the UK’s equivalent of Boss Tweed’s Tammany Hall, where the Muslim Brotherhood/Jamaat-e-Islam network around the East London Mosque and Islamic Forum Europe (not afraid to use polling station intimidation and other corrupt practices) was able to out-mobilise rival secular Awami League-linked  Bangladeshi networks loyal to Labour and keep Lutfur Rahman in power.

Since I wrote this, the mounting allegations against the ruling junta in Tower Hamlets led to the central government imposing commissioners to oversee the running of the council while a full investigation into various apparent malpractices unfold. The story is too complex for me to describe here,  and is best followed on Ted Jeory's excellent blog, starting here.

Depressingly, with the usual honourable exceptions, a lot of the left have been offering misplaced "solidarity" with Lutfur Rahman's rotten administration, claiming he is a victim of right-wing and possibly Islamophobic witch-hunting. Most notably, George Galloway, Ken Livingstone and Left Unity have been vocal in Lutfur's defence. When this sort of thing is the norm, I begin to think it's too late to save the left from itself. 

Or maybe it's time for a different approach....

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Bob's timely election coverage 2: all politics is local

This is the second in a series of blogposts I wrote back in May in the wake of the local and European elections, and failed to publish then. I posted the first last night, about UKIP. This looks at some of the other political parties: the Lib Dems, Greens, Labour and BNP. Tomorrow, finally, I will publish a post on the far left parties.

There is a part of me which takes some comfort from this outcome of the election: the Liberal Democrats have been more or less evacuated from the European parliament and lost control of several councils across the country. Their destruction in Lewisham is not surprising, but it is interesting to see that they were nearly wiped out in neighbouring Southwark, one of their London heartlands since Simon Hughes’ first (racist and homophobic) campaignagainst Peter Tatchell back in the 1980s.

Looking at who came second across London (see first map here, from the Newsshoper) in the council elections yields some interesting insights. Among other things, it shows that there is a swathe of what we could call “the outer inner city” where the Greens did fairly well. In the proportionately distributed Euro elections, the Green Party picked up one in ten votes. To use Lewisham as an example, the Greens received 16% of the vote in the local elections. This is despite almost no national or local media time (in contrast to the ubiquitous presence of UKIP).

This builds on fairly strong performances by Green politicians such as Darren Johnson and Jenny Jones in council chambers such as Lewisham, but more importantly the GLA and European Parliament. Interestingly, they have been less prominent on traditionally “green” issues than on social issues such as housing and immigration. This points to – in London at least – an important and welcome counterweight to UKIP, and one which confirms that Labour cannot be too complacent about some of its traditional voting fodder in thinking through its response to the Farage phenomenon

The surge to Labour in London’s “inner cross” (the capital’sless affluent areas stretching up to Enfield and down to Croydon as well aseast along the river and west towards Heathrow - see second map here, from All That's Left) has had a few dramatic effects.

Lewisham, where I live, now has just one single non-Labour councillor – a Green in Brockley ward. Lewisham also has a directly elected borough mayor from the same party, with very extensive executive powers. Unlike Labour's Michael Harris, I don’t think this is healthy for local democracy; it closes down opportunities for scrutiny and accountability and opens up opportunities for corruption and nepotism.

The most welcome news is the abysmal performance of the fascist British National Party. Its vote has been steadily plummeting since the mid-noughties: in 2006, it received a shocking 18% of the vote in the wards it contested; in 2007, its total vote peaked at 293,000 – but by 2013 it was already down to 5% of the vote share and 15,000 votes nationally.

However, anti-fascists should take little comfort from this. Typically, fascist electoral politics fades during right-wing Tory governments (while violent street movements, such as the English Defence League, tend to grow), and the BNP has been fairly hilariously tearing itself apart in the last couple of years.

But the real reason for its decimation is obviously the existence of UKIP, which matched the BNP vote for vote when it launched in 2007 and has been growing rapidly as the BNP declined since 2009. While it is ridiculous to call UKIP or its voters fascist, we have to accept that a very significant section of the English population feel the appeal of deeply xenophobic and anti-Muslim authoritarian populist politics if not tainted by the BNP’s toxic association with violence and Nazism.

[2014 has also been the year of the proliferation of oddball far right parties, such as Britain First, National Action, the South East Alliance and the Patriotic Socialists. These are unlikely to have the electoral impact the BNP achieved in its heyday, for the reasons already set out. But they do have the potential to intensify violence and division on our streets, and we need to keep up the fight against them.]

Next: the left

Friday, November 21, 2014

Bob's timely election coverage 1: On UKIP

In May, I wrote a series of blogposts in the aftermath of the European and local elections. I never actually posted them, because they needed some work and some added links. However, I noticed a lot of the issues circulating now in the wake of the Rochester and Strood by-election seem to resonate with the issues then, so I thought I'd just post them. First one today, then one a day for a couple of days. This one is the most "timely" in that it deals with UKIP, although events since May might show that I wasn't on the right lines on everything, though I think I was on many things. It makes three points, one about the significance of the UKIP results in May (about which I may have been overly optimistic), one about London, and one about the so-called "left behind". The third section is, I think, the most important and still most relevant, so if you don't have time for the whole post, skip to that bit.

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Half Decents and the Dead Bloggers

Some causes transcend political barriers. The plight of those trapped between the murderers of the Islamic State and the slaughter at the hands of Assad's forces is one of those issues.

On Saturday, 6 December, a band composed of bloggers, journalists and political activists from across the political spectrum will be playing a gig to support Medecins Sans Frontiers (Doctors Without Borders) and their vital work in the region.
Dubbed "The Half Decents", our ad-hoc band will perform a familiar blend of rock classics and blues standards, with a sprinkling of indie pop. The evening will be hosted at Theatre Delicatessen by 89Up, the public affairs agency (, and will include guest speakers and a support act.

We're asking anybody who wants to attend to donate at least £10 to Medecins Sans Frontiers, via this special JustGiving Fundraising Page. 
The Half Decents is made up of Davis Lewin (Henry Jackson Society), Paul Evans (Slugger O'Toole), David Osler (ex Tribune), David Toube (Harry's Place), Brett Lock (ex OutRage!) and Adam Barnett (East London Advertiser).
Meanwhile, the Dead Bloggers Society (of which Paul Evans is co-chair) lurches on. Here are some selections:
The key factors driving these changes have been economic and political. But many have come to see their marginalization primarily as a cultural loss. The same social and economic changes that have led to the marginalization of sections of the electorate have also made it far more difficult to view that marginalization in political terms. As the politics of ideology has given way to the politics of identity, as people have become disenchanted with politics, so culture has become more important as a lens through which to make sense of society and social relations.
Finally, a great game for the family, as invented by Jake Goretzki:

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

The Middle East and some stupidity and sanity on the UK left

This post started in September, or possibly even August, as one of those round-ups of stuff I've read. It got kind of big before I posted it, so I split it up with this post focusing on the Middle East, but after a while I realised it wasn't actually about the Middle East at all.

The enormity and complexity of what's going in Syria, in Iraq, in Israel/Palestine and in the wider region makes it hard for me to begin to take sides or recommend courses of action. Rather, I will say something about how all this is refracted here in the West: in the leftish scene I move among, in the South London neighbourhood I live in, in the newspapers I read. Peter Ryley put this well in a brilliant post on the Gaza conflict, which I urge you to read in full:
Israelis hiding in bomb shelters and Gazans under fire will each have a different perspective, but they aren't the people I am writing about. Their fear and heartbreak is beyond my understanding or ability to verbalise. Nor can I write with any authority about policies or the wisdom, justice or otherwise of what is happening now. No, it is those campaigners and commentators, those demonstrators on the streets of European cities that concern me. They are people who are only too keen to fight a cause rather than attempt to solve a problem.
I'll start with an article from 2009, by Howard Jacobson, about how the war in Gaza brought the toxin of hate to quiet Britain (an article brought back to my attention by Peter). Among other things, Jacobson takes on the Gaza/Warsaw Ghetto analogy I recently discussed:
Given the number of besieged and battered cities there have been in however many thousands of years of pitiless warfare there is only one explanation for this invocation of Warsaw before any of those – it is to wound Jews in their recent and most anguished history and to punish them with their own grief. Its aim is a sort of retrospective retribution, cancelling out all debts of guilt and sorrow. It is as though, by a reversal of the usual laws of cause and effect, Jewish actions of today prove that Jews had it coming to them yesterday...

And so it happens. Without one’s being aware of it, it happens. A gradual habituation to the language of loathing. Passed from the culpable to the unwary and back again. And soon, before you know it...
And so it happens. It's happening in the Green Party, as Jessica Goldfinch starts to show in her post on Green Party support for Hamas and then in a more thorough Greens Engage post documenting some of the recent madness among the Greens. And its happening across our social movements, as Flesh describes in a post on why we need to more than flinch when anti-Zionism deforms our struggles, such as the fight to save the NHS. (Related: Jessica Goldfinch at Greens Engage)

Veteran labour rights activist Eric Lee attacks "the anti-antisemitism of fools", singling out Owen Jones who, Lee says, sees antisemitism everywhere except in front of his nose. I think Lee's criticisms of Jones are right, but his using the phrase "...of fools" is excessive, given the baggage of those words. Lee also contrasts Jones to the recently launched Campaign Against Antisemitism, which made the utterly stupid decision to invite anti-Muslim racist Douglas Murray to speak at its first rally.

Talking of Owen Jones, he had a great article on how the UK's cozyness with Arab regimes which actively support terrorism, including Saudi Arabia. The Stop the War [sic] coalition republished his article, out of a kind of whataboutery: why fight ISIS when we don't fight Saudi Arabia. Coatesy has a very good response to that, suggesting Stop the War might want to rethink their boycott policy in light of it.

Coatesy also has a piece on the SWP's stupid policy on ISIS. The SWP published an article which praises the Lewisham mosque, whose statement in response to the beheading of James Foley was described in the SWP paper as "refusing to bow to the frenzy, a spark of resistance in a very dark week.” You can read the Lewisham Islamic Centre statement here, and decide for yourself if it expresses a spark of resistance or something rather different.


However, as the world's attention shifted from Israel/Palestine to the ISIS assault on the Yazadis on Mount Sinjar and then to the their assault on the Kurdish city of Kobanê, there was something of a shift in the narrative. Rhodri Evans rather optimistically suggested that the left might returning to sanity after decades of blindfolding itself behind the dogma of "anti-imperialism". I was doubtful about this, but there have been some signs lately of something of a shift: the trade unions Unite and FBU have both made strong statements of solidarity with the Kurds, and a powerful open letter to the labour movement, entitled We Say Never Again, has been signed by a number of Labour and trade union activists. (Gary Kent, who I presume wrote it, has written an excellent article, "Taking on the vilest fascism of our age", in Progress calling for support for the open letter.) Even the jaded Nick Cohen, conceding that in these dark days the faintest glimmer of light can pass for a dawn, has concluded that "left-wing politics is becoming a little less seedy". Indeed, even some Stop the War activists have been heard calling for the Kurds to be armed.

While the trad left has been slow in expressing this solidarity, anarchists and anti-fascists have actually been more forthcoming. Celebrity anarchist professor David Graeber (credited with coining the slogan "We are the 99%") asked, in a powerful op ed in early October, Why is the world ignoring the revolutionary Kurds in Syria? Although a few ultra-ist  anti-American anarchos have laughably condemned Graeber as some kind of neocon, his position is widespread on the anti-authoritarian left. A particularly bracing example comes from veteran anti-fascist (and former Class War activist) Martin Lux, in his videocast on ISIS "the gap year blood cult".

Part of this is because of long-term concrete links between the Kurdish movement (including in its diaspora) and anarchists and anti-fascists in Europe, and part of it is because of the inspiring social revolution in Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan),  which is partly inspired by the libertarian socialist thought of the late Murray Bookchin (taken up by left-nationalist PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan during his time in Turkish prisons). An excellent list of resources about this has been collected by Andrew Flood here.

(Personally, I do find the on-going traces of Öcalan's earlier Third Worldist authoritarian nationalism, as well as the cult of personality around him among PKK supporters, cause for some caution. I also feel that the attention given to the Kurdish spring seems to deplete the space for attention from anarchists and the trad left for the Syrian revolution, which continues to cling to its resistance to Assad's brutal Damascus regime, after three years of bombardment by his forces. On this, see for example Not George Sabra, Liberated Kafranbel, and some of these tweeters.)

However, sadly, considerably seediness remains on the left. One of the worst examples comes from the student movement. Scottish Kurdish activist Roza Salih (pictured right) wrote a motion in solidarity with the Kurds, passed by the Scottish National Union of Students (NUS), then brought to the UK NUS national executive by Daniel Cooper of the AWL.

Insanely, the motion was rejected by the Executive after Black Students Officer (BSO), Malia Bouattia, claimed that the motion was Islamophobic because of the way it spoke about ISIS - see this tweet by Socialist Action's Aaron Kiely:

 (For details, see report by Cooper, or the relevant bit extracted by Shiraz Socialist, as well as later summary by Beth Redmond.)

Finally, returning to where this post began, here's another disturbing incident in my local university, Goldsmiths, where a Student Union assembly appears to have voted down a motion to commemorate the Holocaust because to do so would be "Eurocentric" and possibly also because it is incompatible with the Union's "anti-Zionism". Unfortunately, the only report we have so far comes from the unreliable scurrilous right-wing rag The Tab, (I plan to write a fuller post about this at some point, so if you have anything to add please get in touch with me.)

So, if anarchists and part of the trad left shows signs of getting priorities in order, this is not true in the student left still gripped by idiot "anti-imperialism" and identity politics. There, pop-postcolonialism tells the hacks that condemning any bad stuff done by any Muslims is "Islamophobic", while the same body of thought suggests that condemning any bad stuff done to any "white" people is "Eurocentric", And so it happens.