Deadly generation game

3 Sep

A marketing device that uses crass assumptions to slice society into “generations” has leached into general conversation, transforming those assumptions into self-evident truths. Building on a long tradition of belittling and ridiculing old people, the right-wing press is full of insulting stereotypes based on age, scapegoating those born in the decade and a half following World War II for ruining life for those who came after them.

We can see why neoliberals who advocated the breakup, privatisation and commodification of public services might want to offload responsibility for the destruction of the economy and people’s lives, but tragically this one-dimensional analysis has gained a following among sections of the left.

Jeremy Corbyn canvassing, talking to young people, December 2019 
© Julia Bard
Challenging generational divisions,
November 2019. Photo: © Julia Bard

Allowing ourselves to be divided along spurious lines is dangerous – and in this pandemic it has proved deadly.

To encourage people to think again, and to challenge ageist hostility, I proposed a motion that my Labour Party branch has passed overwhelmingly and which I hope will be supported by the Constituency Party as a whole.

Here is the motion, followed by the speech I made in proposing it.


Time to Fight Discrimination

Despite the experience, creativity and activism of many older Labour Party members, the Party has not been prominent in challenging discrimination and oppression based on age. Coronavirus has exposed and exacerbated inequalities but the Party has been slow to respond to a particularly deadly form of discrimination.

UK care homes have recorded 19,394 coronavirus deaths – 47% of the official total of  41,486 (both almost certainly underestimates). During the spring peak, old people were triaged out of hospital and into care homes without being tested. Many of them and their carers, disproportionately Black, ethnic minority and migrant workers, lost their lives.

We have known from early on that older people are particularly susceptible to Covid-19. But instead of that triggering extra protection, they were knowingly exposed to the virus. This, together with the straitened situation of care homes before the pandemic, should have been high on the left’s agenda.

However, while campaigning effectively on PPE, furlough payments and tenant protection, the Labour Party seemed paralysed about defending the rights of old people. This enabled the government to pursue a eugenicist policy, downplaying these deaths as “only” affecting “older people with underlying health conditions”.

As schools and workplaces reopen, older people, particularly from poorer and/or minority backgrounds are again disproportionately vulnerable. Many live in multigenerational households, caring for grandchildren, and where working family members will encounter the virus on public transport and workplaces.

Nevertheless, we increasingly hear socialists expressing a simplistic, almost conspiratorial, explanation of inequality, environmental destruction and economic decline as caused by “the older generation” rather than by capitalist structures and interests based on class, which affect all ages in different ways. Routine ridiculing, degradation and blaming of old people in the cultural mainstream and on social media has allowed the government to treat them as collateral damage as they prioritise the economy over lives.

St George’s Ward urges the Labour Party to challenge this ageist hostility. Instead, drawing on its fundamental aims of ending discrimination and oppression, it must actively challenge the pervading culture and ideology of ageism, within as well as beyond the Party.

Proposal speech

One of the things I treasure most about being in this Labour Party branch is the mixture of generations – young adults through to people in their 90s who work collaboratively and in solidarity. This was so striking when we were out canvassing in the last two general elections, but that fruitful way of working is predicated on the fact that we don’t make assumptions about each other based on age or anything else.

Last weekend I heard David Willetts (not my favourite Tory, if we can grade Tories) on Radio 4 giving a generational analysis of the decline in the economy – admitting he has done well at the expense of the young. There are some key ingredients missing from this so-called analysis, most notably class, and I look forward to the day when rich, upper middle class people accept responsibility for impoverishing the working class.

This myth has permeated certain sections of the left, who divide up the world into so-called generations – something that’s usually done for marketing purposes – and stereotyping and blaming one particular age group for having grabbed everything and run off with it at the expense of the young. Like all myths, there’s a strand of truth in this one. My generation who grew up in the three decades after the Second World War did benefit from hard-won but functioning public services and an economy that wasn’t as completely skewed and distorted as it is now.

But you couldn’t grow up in those post-war decades and ignore the devastating impact of class on people’s lives, life chances and life expectancy. This is all being laid bare in this public health crisis but it’s not new. The miners of my generation whose industry, communities and lives were destroyed, the former chemical workers in the North East who are suffering an epidemic of depression, the shipbuilders, textile workers and car workers – they were the majority of baby boomers. They took nothing from anyone, and their children have inherited the devastation that was wreaked by Margaret Thatcher and the governments that followed her, whose politics was not a product of their ages.

There have been failures. Most older people failed to support the students in their struggle against student fees. It is equally true that young people have been pretty absent from the struggle against the privatisation of social care. The point is that neoliberalism – which turns services into commodities and us into customers – affects all of us. What has been striking, amongst other things, about the media in this pandemic, is the absence of the voices of both old people in care home and of children in schools. What we urgently need to understand is that our needs are not in competition but are linked, and the struggles to meet those needs are also linked.

We can see what happens if we don’t link those struggles: it’s deadly. The scandal of deaths of people being cared for in their own homes might turn out to overshadow even the devastation in in care homes. This could only happen in a society that treats human beings as commodities and where the media collude with the government by devaluing, ridiculing and silencing old people, leaving the government free to treat them as collateral damage in the battle to save the economy. And they haven’t even managed to do that!

One thing we can do in the Labour Party is to challenge the ideological devaluation of old people that allows governments of all ages but generally of one class to triage them out of having their needs met and abandoning them to a deadly virus.

Please support this motion.

There is only one way out of the pandemic: to suppress the coronavirus

6 Aug

We can still avert further catastrophic damage to people’s lives, futures and the economy but to do so we need to make an effective challenge to the government’s frighteningly chaotic approach and replace it with an open, evidence-based strategy that the population understands and supports.

The Labour Party needs to fight for the UK to take the approach that has protected the populations of other countries, outlined in this motion that Islington North Constituency Labour Party passed overwhelmingly on 19th August.

You are welcome to use this motion as a model. There’s also a short background document below it with more information for people proposing or supporting the motion.

Model motion

Governments with a policy of eliminating the virus have saved tens of thousands of lives and rescued their economies. A similar policy in the UK is both possible and necessary. New Zealand, South Korea, Iceland, China and Scotland have done everything possible to eliminate the virus. In contrast, the UK, USA, Brazil, India and Russia, whose governments have allowed the virus to circulate, are heading towards economic devastation and continuing high levels of illness and mortality.

We call on the Labour Party to oppose the government’s approach and to adopt a policy of total suppression and elimination of COVID-19.

Instead of attempting to eliminate the virus, the government has tried to keep it within NHS capacity. It has refused to share the claimed scientific evidence for this strategy; hidden or distorted infection and death rates; downplayed the dangers; and ignored public health principles which would have protected the population.

Its failed policy magnifies inequality, endangering people who are older, Black or members of ethnic minorities, disabled, poor, in crowded and shared accommodation, care home residents, or have other medical conditions or suppressed immune systems.

Lifting restrictions while the virus is still circulating widely, imposes increasing limitations, poverty and isolation on these groups while others pick up the pieces of their pre-lockdown lives.

The virus not only kills, it causes long-term disability and after-effects. High numbers of deaths next winter resulting from current government policy are predictable, avoidable and unacceptable.

Instead of speculating on the discovery of a safe, effective vaccine, we need a strategy which aims to eliminate the virus. Suppression of the virus would allow the reopening of the country without fear or danger, and vulnerable groups would no longer face indefinite imprisonment in their homes.

XXX Ward urgently calls on the Labour Party: to adopt the Zero COVID strategy outlined by Independent SAGE, a group of scientists and experts who, unlike the government, share their evidence and deliberations in public; and to work with them to develop a long-term response to the crisis.

Background notes

Governments with a policy of eliminating the virus have saved tens of thousands of lives and rescued their economies. Adopting a similar policy in the UK is not only possible but necessary.

Countries such as New Zealand, South Korea, Iceland, China and Scotland have made every effort to eliminate the virus. In stark and tragic contrast, the UK, USA, Brazil, India and Russia, whose governments have allowed the virus to circulate, are heading towards economic devastation and continuing high levels of illness and mortality.

We urge the Labour Party to oppose the government’s approach, and to adopt and campaign for a policy of total suppression and elimination of COVID-19.

Refusing discussion, debate or evaluation of its approach, the government’s strategy has been to keep the virus at levels that do not overwhelm the capacity of the NHS, but not to attempt to eliminate it.

It has refused to share the claimed scientific evidence for this policy; it has hidden or distorted the infection and death rates; it has silenced discussion or dissent; and it has downplayed the dangers and consequences of its policy. The government ignored proven public health principles which would have protected the population from this deadly and disabling new virus.

This failed policy of attempting to manage low levels of infection without attempting to eliminate it, magnifies inequality. It directly endangers the lives of people who are older, Black or members of ethnic minorities, disabled, poor, living in crowded and shared accommodation, care home residents, or those who have other medical conditions or suppressed immune systems.

Lifting restrictions while the virus is still circulating widely puts all these people in greater danger. They face an impossible choice of going out and risking their lives or suffering increasing restrictions, poverty and isolation, while others – predominantly young, white, healthy and affluent – are able to pick up the pieces of their pre-lockdown lives. Under these conditions, the more freedom some people have, the more restrictions others face.

This is why the Tory strategy of maintaining low levels of infection must be robustly opposed.

The virus causes not only large numbers of deaths but also longterm disability and after-effects in a large (and rising) number of people. A huge number of deaths next winter resulting from current government policy is predictable, avoidable and unacceptable.

No one knows when – or even if – a safe and effective vaccine will be discovered. Instead of speculating and living in hope, we need a strategy which, like those of other countries, aims to eliminate the virus. Suppression of the virus would allow the immediate reopening of the country and workplaces without fear or danger, and would mean that vulnerable groups no longer face indefinite imprisonment in their homes.

We believe that the Labour Party urgently needs to adopt the Zero COVID strategy outlined by Independent SAGE, a group of scientists and experts who, unlike the government, share their evidence and deliberations in public. The Party should work with Independent SAGE to develop a longterm response to the continuing crisis.


Lockdown Challah 

3 Aug

This recipe makes two large loaves. For one large loaf or two small ones, halve the quantities.

Ingredients

Six-stranded challah

400ml (16fl oz) water
960g (2lb) strong white flour
6 level tsp caster sugar
14g dried yeast or 28g fresh yeast
4 level tsp salt
4 tbsp olive oil
3 large eggs
Poppy seeds or sesame seeds

Method

Heat the water until it is tepid but not hot, and pour into a bowl.

Add one third of the flour, the sugar and the yeast. Mix until smooth, cover with a teatowel and leave for 20 minutes until it looks frothy.

Add the salt and olive oil. Beat two of the eggs and add them with the remaining flour.

Mix with a spoon and then, if it’s easier, with your hands until it forms a dough. Knead for 10-15 mins until it is smooth.

Form the dough into a ball and place it either in an oiled bowl and cover with oiled clingfilm, or in an oiled polythene bag, loosely fastened, leaving enough room for it to double in size.

You can now either leave it in the fridge overnight to rise slowly, or keep it at room temperature until it has doubled in size – usually 1-2 hours.

If it has been in the fridge, leave it at room temperature for about 30 min after you have taken it out before shaping it.

Knock back the dough (knead it for 2-3 minutes), then divide it into two equal pieces.

Divide each of these into three pieces, form each piece into a ball, then roll them into sausage-shaped strands about 30cm long.

Press the strands firmly together at one end, then plait without leaving gaps,. but without stretching the dough.

Repeat with the second piece of dough.

Alternatively, you can make a six-strand plait, which looks beautiful and makes a taller loaf. Braiding six strands is very counterintuitive and the best way to learn is to watch a video of it in practice, like this one: How to Braid a Six Strand Loaf.

Place the loaves on baking sheets lined with non-stick baking parchment. Cover them with oiled clingfilm and leave to prove (rise) until the dough springs back when touched with a finger – usually around 30-50 min.

While you are waiting, turn on the oven to 220C (425F, Gas Mark 7).

Beat the remaining egg and brush the loaves with it. Scatter poppy seeds or sesame seeds over the top.

Bake for around 45 min until dark golden brown. Test to see if they are ready by tapping on the base of the loaf. When they are cooked they will sound hollow.

Free thinking

12 Apr

Under lockdown in London, protecting ourselves and each other from our own generation’s virulent plague, four groups co-sponsored a virtual Seder on 9th April 2020, the second night of Passover. The tremendous efforts of three people, Naomi Wayne, Danny Rich and Mike Cushman, with added input from a number of us to the Haggadah and on the night itself, brought about the miracle of more than 200 people from across the world joining each other to share the Jewish tradition of telling the story of the exodus from Egypt of the Hebrew slaves.

I chose to read an excerpt from the the Black American sociologist and civil rights activist, W E B du Bois, who made three visits to Poland including one in 1949 which transformed his understanding of racism and oppression. He wrote:

I have seen something of human upheaval in the world: the scream and shots of a race riot in Atlanta; the marching of the Ku Klux Klan; the threat of the courts and police; the neglect and destruction of human habitation; but nothing in my wildest imagination was equal to what I saw in Warsaw in 1949. … There had been complete, planned and utter destruction. Some streets had been so obliterated that only by using photographs of the past could they tell where the street was. And no one mentioned the total of the dead, the sum of destruction, the story of crippled and insane, the widows and orphans.

… Then, one afternoon, I was taken out to the former ghetto. Here there was not much to see. There was complete and total waste, and a monument. And the monument brought back again the problem of race and religion, which so long had been my own particular and separate problem. Gradually … I rebuilt the story of this extraordinary resistance to oppression and wrong …, with enemies on every side: a resistance which involved death and destruction for hundreds and hundreds of human beings; a deliberate sacrifice in life for a great ideal in the face of the fact that the sacrifice might be completely in vain.

The result of [my] three visits … was not so much clearer understanding of the Jewish problem in the world as … a … more complete understanding of the Negro problem. … [T]he problem of slavery, emancipation, and caste in the United States was no longer … a separate and unique thing as I had so long conceived it. It was not even merely a matter of color and physical and racial characteristics, which was particularly a hard thing for me to learn, since for a lifetime the color line had been a real and efficient cause of misery. It was not merely a matter of religion. I had seen religions of many kinds – I had sat in the Shinto temples of Japan, in the Baptist churches of Georgia, in the Catholic cathedral of Cologne and in Westminster Abbey. No, the race problem in which I was interested cut across lines of color and physique and belief and status and was a matter of cultural patterns, perverted teaching and human hate and prejudice, which … caused endless evil to all men. … [T]he ghetto of Warsaw helped me to emerge … into a broader conception of what the fight against race segregation, religious discrimination and the oppression by wealth had to become if civilization was going to triumph … in the world.

Portobello, Friday the 13th

18 Dec

This poem and the photo are by my sister, Sue Bard, who lives in Portobello, Edinburgh

At 10pm I hear the exit poll

and everything’s in free fall.

All night

the news drifts in and out:

chickens chlorinating in the pool,

untreated 19th Century diseases,

a gated promenade,

the planet melting and burning.

In the still-dark dawn

I walk along the prom

watching the darting dog will o’ the wisps

down where the waves break.

I do my forty lengths

sluicing away the night’s jabber.

Coming back, it is light;

six swans single-file,

children on their way to school

on scooters

and the café is putting its tables out.

Sue Bard 13.12.19.

Love in a cold climate

12 Dec

Two of us from the Jewish Socialists’ Group were part of a convoy of 120 from across the country, going to Calais to deliver supplies to refugees who are trapped there, trying to get to Britain. Their camps have been destroyed, so they are hiding in woods and sleeping rough. Every few days the French police take their few belongings – clothes, sleeping bags, food, tents, tarpaulins – which they need to survive. Today it is freezing but at least it’s dry.

calais 1

Members of our group heading towards the woods where refugees are sleeping rough.

On the coach on the way there, a few of the participants, who ranged from school students to older activists like me, made short, off-the-cuff speeches. This is (approximately) what I said.

People often refer to the Kindertransport as an example of British generosity in welcoming refugees. In fact it epitomises the meanness of the government of the day, which allowed a few thousand children to escape from Nazi persecution on the Continent. The whole operation – from identifying the children, arranging and paying for their journeys, finding families to care for them or other safe places to stay – was organised by voluntary groups like this one going to Calais today. It didn’t cost the British state a penny. And the government only allowed children to come to Britain. Their parents were left to the mercy of the Nazis. And throughout that period, in 1938-39, the mainstream press were running scare stories about being swamped with foreigners.

This attitude to refugees was not a one-off. It is part of a consistent tradition of government hostility to immigrants. The very first anti-immigration legislation was the 1905 Aliens Act. That law was enacted against Jews who were escaping persecution in the Russian Empire. Those people included our grandparents. The Aliens Act established all the principles of British immigration law that are familiar to us today, including the powers to deport people. In the first four years of the Act, hundreds of people were rounded up off the streets and deported back to the Russian Empire, simply for having no visible means of support.

calais 2

The “kitchen” rigged up by a family with two children, aged 7 and 10, who are living in this makeshift shelter with no facilities of any kind except what is provided by organisations like Care 4 Calais and Médecins Sans Frontières

Like everyone here who got up in the dark this morning in freezing temperatures, we’re all wondering how on earth people survive physically and psychologically living in these conditions 24 hours a day. David and I from the JSG have just come back from a trip to Auschwitz organised by Unite Against Fascism. I wouldn’t make crass analogies between that death camp and what’s happening today. But Auschwitz didn’t happen overnight. It was the culmination of creeping authoritarianism that ended with the terrorisation of entire populations who were unable to stop murder on an industrial scale.

Resistance takes lots of forms, and people resisted in many different ways. Sometimes, just surviving the day was an act of resistance. Taking supplies to Calais today, refusing to accept the violence of our government and all the governments of Europe against these people, is also an act of resistance, and I’m very pleased to be part of it.

Care4Calais are doing the most amazing thing there, saving lives and giving support and hope to people who have nothing and no choices. If you want to know more about what they’re doing and how to support them, visit their website at http://care4calais.org/

This trip was jointly organised by Care4Calais and Stand Up to Racism. Thanks to both for everything you’re doing.

Jeremy Corbyn’s speech on terrorism

27 May

This is what Jeremy Corbyn said on 26th May 2017 as the election campaign resumed after the appalling attack on concertgoers in Manchester at the beginning of the week. This speech has been lied about by the malign Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, and others who have neither the integrity nor the intellectual capacity to address what it actually says. Thanks to Another Angry Voice for publishing the whole speech, which is a resource for all of us who, like Jeremy, care about truth and about human beings. I’m making it available on my blog to help it on its way. 

Jeremy Corbyn at the vigil following the Manchester atrocity.

Jeremy Corbyn at the vigil following the Manchester atrocity. Theresa May did not attend and did not send a representative.

“Our whole nation has been united in shock and grief this week as a night out at a concert ended in horrific terror and the brutal slaughter of innocent people enjoying themselves.

When I stood on Albert Square at the vigil in Manchester, there was a mood of unwavering defiance.

The very act of thousands of people coming together sent a powerful message of solidarity and love. It was a profound human impulse to stand together, caring and strong. It was inspiring.

In the past few days, we have all perhaps thought a bit more about our country, our communities and our people.

The people we have lost to atrocious violence or who have suffered grievous injury, so many of them heart-breakingly young.

The people who we ask to protect us and care for us in the emergency services, who yet again did our country proud: the police; firefighters and paramedics; the nurses and doctors; people who never let us down and deserve all the support we can give them.

And the people who did their best to help on that dreadful Monday night – the homeless man who rushed towards the carnage to comfort the dying, the taxi drivers who took the stranded home for free, the local people who offered comfort, and even their homes, to the teenagers who couldn’t find their parents.

They are the people of Manchester. But we know that attacks, such as the one at the Manchester Arena, could have happened anywhere, and that the people in any city, town or village in Britain would have responded in the same way.

It is these people who are the strength and the heart of our society. They are the country we love and the country we seek to serve.

That is the solidarity that defines our United Kingdom. That is the country I meet on the streets every day; the human warmth, the basic decency and kindness.

It is our compassion that defines the Britain I love. And it is compassion that the bereaved families need most of all at this time. To them I say: the whole country reaches out its arms to you and will be here for you not just this week, but in the weeks and years to come.

Terrorists and their atrocious acts of cruelty and depravity will never divide us and will never prevail.

They didn’t in Westminster two months ago. They didn’t when Jo Cox was murdered a year ago. They didn’t in London on 7/7. The awe-inspiring response of the people of Manchester, and their inspirational acts of heroism and kindness, are a living demonstration that they will fail again.

But these vicious and contemptible acts do cause profound pain and suffering, and, among a tiny minority, they are used as an opportunity to try to turn communities against each other.

So let us all be clear, the man who unleashed carnage on Manchester, targeting the young and many young girls in particular, is no more representative of Muslims, than the murderer of Jo Cox spoke for anyone else.

Young people and especially young women must and will be free to enjoy themselves in our society.

I have spent my political life working for peace and human rights, and to bring an end to conflict and devastating wars. That will almost always mean talking to people you profoundly disagree with. That’s what conflict resolution is all about.

But do not doubt my determination to take whatever action is necessary to keep our country safe and to protect our people on our streets, in our towns and cities, at our borders.

There is no question about the seriousness of what we face. Over recent years, the threat of terrorism has continued to grow.

You deserve to know what a Labour Government will do to keep you and your family safe.

Our approach will involve change at home and change abroad.

At home, we will reverse the cuts to our emergency services and police. Once again in Manchester, they have proved to be the best of us.

Austerity has to stop at the A&E ward and at the police station door. We cannot be protected and cared for on the cheap.

There will be more police on the streets under a Labour Government. And if the security services need more resources to keep track of those who wish to murder and maim, then they should get them.

We will also change what we do abroad. Many experts, including professionals in our intelligence and security services have pointed to the connections between wars our government has supported or fought in other countries, such as Libya, and terrorism here at home.

That assessment in no way reduces the guilt of those who attack our children. Those terrorists will forever be reviled and implacably held to account for their actions.

But an informed understanding of the causes of terrorism is an essential part of an effective response that will protect the security of our people, that fights rather than fuels terrorism.

Protecting this country requires us to be both strong against terrorism and strong against the causes of terrorism. The blame is with the terrorists, but if we are to protect our people we must be honest about what threatens our security.

Those causes certainly cannot be reduced to foreign policy decisions alone. Over the past fifteen years or so, a sub-culture of often suicidal violence has developed amongst a tiny minority of, mainly young, men, falsely drawing authority from Islamic beliefs and often nurtured in a prison system in urgent need of resources and reform.

And no rationale based on the actions of any government can remotely excuse, or even adequately explain, outrages like this week’s massacre.

But we must be brave enough to admit the war on terror is simply not working. We need a smarter way to reduce the threat from countries that nurture terrorists and generate terrorism.

That’s why I set out Labour’s approach to foreign policy earlier this month. It is focused on strengthening our national security in an increasingly dangerous world.

We must support our Armed Services, Foreign Office and International Development professionals, engaging with the world in a way that reduces conflict and builds peace and security.

Seeing the army on our own streets today is a stark reminder that the current approach has failed.

So, I would like to take a moment to speak to our soldiers on the streets of Britain – You are doing your duty as you have done so many times before.

I want to assure you that, under my leadership, you will only be deployed abroad when there is a clear need and only when there is a plan and you have the resources to do your job to secure an outcome that delivers lasting peace.

That is my commitment to our armed services.

This is my commitment to our country. I want the solidarity, humanity and compassion that we have seen on the streets of Manchester this week to be the values that guide our government. There can be no love of country if there is neglect or disregard for its people.

No government can prevent every terrorist attack. If an individual is determined enough and callous enough, sometimes they will get through.

But the responsibility of government is to minimise that chance, to ensure the police have the resources they need, that our foreign policy reduces rather than increases the threat to this country, and that at home we never surrender the freedoms we have won, and that terrorists are so determined to take away.

Too often government has got it wrong on all three counts and insecurity is growing as a result. Whoever you decide should lead the next government must do better.

Today, we must stand united. United in our communities, united in our values and united in our determination to not let triumph those who would seek to divide us.

So for the rest of this election campaign, we must be out there demonstrating what they would take away: our freedom; our democracy; our support for one another.

Democracy will prevail. We must defend our democratic process, win our arguments by discussion and debate, and stand united against those who would seek to take our rights away, or who would divide us.

Last week, I said that the Labour Party was about bringing our country together.

Today I do not want to make a narrow party political point. Because all of us now need to stand together.

Stand together in memory of those who have lost their lives.

Stand together in solidarity with the city of Manchester.

And – stand together for democracy.

Because when we talk about British values, including tolerance and mutual support, democracy is at the very heart of them.

And our General Election campaigns are the centrepieces of our democracy – the moment all our people get to exercise their sovereign authority over their representatives.

Rallies, debates, campaigning in the marketplaces, knocking on doors, listening to people on the streets, at their workplaces and in their homes – all the arts of peaceful persuasion and discussion – are the stuff of our campaigns.

They all remind us that our government is not chosen at an autocrats’ whim or by religious decree and never cowed by a terrorist’s bomb.

Indeed, carrying on as normal is an act of defiance – democratic defiance – of those who do reject our commitment to democratic freedoms.

But we cannot carry on as though nothing happened in Manchester this week.

So, let the quality of our debate, over the next fortnight, be worthy of the country we are proud to defend. Let’s have our arguments without impugning anyone’s patriotism and without diluting the unity with which we stand against terror.

Together, we will be stronger. Together we can build a Britain worthy of those who died and those who have inspired us all in Manchester this week.”

Auschwitz selfies

18 Mar

Image: Still from a short film, Selfies at Auschwitz (the Yolocaust problem)

The phenomenon of the Auschwitz Selfie became a cause célèbre in 2014 when a teenager’s picture of herself against a backdrop of the death camp triggered widespread condemnation. The debate re-emerged this week, in the run up to the UN International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination on 21st March. As well as calling “on all world states and organizations to participate in a program of action to combat racism and racial discrimination”, the day is observed across the world “to remind people of racial discrimination’s negative consequences. It also encourages people to remember their obligation and determination to combat racial discrimination”.

On Holocaust Memorial Day in January, artist Shahak Shapira, produced a website challenging the fashion for Holocaust selfies. And in a thoughtful and angry New Statesman article earlier this week (“Smile for the Auschwitz Selfie”, 13th March 2017), Tanya Gold argued that, if the rise in racism and fascism and the fate of refugees are any yardstick of success, “attempts to memorialise the Holocaust have failed and may even be counterproductive”. She cited the cynicism of Home Secretary Amber Rudd in tweeting a picture of herself writing “We must never forget” in a Holocaust remembrance book just two weeks before announcing that the Dubs Amendment, to allow in 3,000 refugee children, was to be discontinued.

That a racist Home Secretary of a racist government behaves cynically, dishonestly and cold-heartedly is hardly worth saying. There’s also a bigger discussion to be had about the burden of responsibility Gold places on memorial sites – or memorialisation in general – to undermine the racism that is woven through our political system.

What interests me, though, is how difficult it seems for ordinary individuals to resist the pull of the commodification of Auschwitz, which David Rosenberg explored in his blog. However compelling the marketing, I’m sure that most people who visit Auschwitz, do so with at least a degree of anti-racist and anti-fascist intent and there are many, too, who go on group educational visits, who are already anti-fascist activists. I’m sure that, however little or much they know of the history, visitors approach that site aiming to respect the people who suffered and died there. So I can understand that they might want to take photos to convey or bring home a visual reminder of the camp that has come to represent such incomprehensible inhumanity. What intrigues me, though, is what motivates people to take selfies there.

This is not the beach at Sorrento or the Duomo in Florence (a wonderful city which, incidentally, has been made utterly unbearable by the forest of selfie sticks). This is not even “just” a graveyard. It is not an artefact. Although there is a museum within it, it is not a museum. And it’s not very old. It is a real place where more than a million real people were eliminated like rats, and whose real relatives are still mourning and trying to come to terms with the enormity and cruelty of their fate. So, aside from horror junkies, and teenagers, who are caught up in selfie culture and may not get the subtle difference between a Nazi death camp and a tourist destination like the London Dungeon, what are people trying to show their friends when they post a picture of themselves there? What responses do they expect when they upload images of “me at Auschwitz” on social media? Likes? Sad emojis? Angry emojis? Is it to demonstrate how brave they are to face the demons of this place? Is it a misplaced attempt to personalise the story of what happened here? Or is it just an electronic version of “Kilroy woz here”?

I genuinely don’t know any better than anyone else what the correct manners are for visitors to the sites of former concentration and death camps. Auschwitz is not an accessible place that a tourist could casually wander into without a grain of understanding, so the fact that so many people do want to visit it is a good thing. But behaving as they would at any other tourist destination once they’ve passed through its the iconic gates seems not only to trivialise whatever meaning we can derive from such a visit, but to be at best disrespectful of the people who suffered and died there, and, at worst, to add to the objectification, and even further dehumanisation, of the victims.

I’ve written this in the hope that it will add something to and encourage debate about memorialisation, what impact it can (and can’t) have and how we derive from our history the strength and confidence to be effective antiracists and antifascists.

 

 

You wait ages for an anti-Trump coalition, then two come along at once

12 Feb

Do you know the one about the two Jewish men stranded on a desert island? Twenty years go by, then one day a ship comes towards the island. The captain comes ashore and is amazed to find that they have built three beautiful synagogues – one on the south of the island, one on the north of the island, and a third on the east of the island. “Tell me,” says the captain, “why do you need three synagogues?” They look perplexed that he should even ask such a question, and patiently explain: “There’s one for each of us and one that neither of us would be seen dead in.”

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On Thursday I went, on behalf of the Jewish Socialists’ Group, to an organising meeting of an incipient coalition called Stop Trump, which was to be publicly launched the same evening (though I didn’t get to the launch itself). This is an immediate and ongoing task, which will need every bit of energy, intelligence, creativity and persistence we can muster.

I was impressed with the way the meeting was organised – based on a broad range of activist groups, with people genuinely encouraged to voice their views, listen to others and widen their vision. The discussion included the first few careful steps in a delicate process of negotiation to find common ground between groups and individuals from a wide variety of backgrounds, cultures and views. One of the participants was a representative from a group that was organising another meeting the following day to launch a separate Stand Up to Trump initiative, and a number of other participants were also going to be involved in that. So we were all hopeful that the commitment to embark on the difficult process of finding a way to collaborate would be echoed at that discussion.

There were points of agreement and disagreement at the Stop Trump organising meeting, but people were, for the most part, listening to each other and considering the issues thoughtfully. Some of the discussion was uncomfortable, and heralded more complex and difficult negotiations to come in order to create a coherent movement – or perhaps a looser, less definable set-up that encourages outside-the-box initiatives by people none of us have heard of – from a range of disparate groups and what may appear to be competing initiatives.

Those of us who have been around the left for a long time need to look, listen and learn – and particularly to reflect on what works and what doesn’t, and what we even mean by success. Is a march of 20,000 a success simply by virtue of the numbers? What is the impact of three people replacing adverts in the tube with anti-deportation posters? How can we maximise the effect of a vigil? And if a tactic works once, does that mean we should keep repeating it? Is a flashmob worth all the organisation and training?

The protests so far, here and across the USA, are having an effect. We have something to build on – and that something is the inspiring and often spontaneous variety of actions that people are taking. They are opposing Trump in the streets, at the airports, in their workplaces and on social media. It’s happening at every level of American society. School children are sending his representatives packing. Factory workers have forced him to cancel visits. Foreign-born delicatessen workers have closed their shops and come out on the streets. Senior journalists in respectable publications are attacking him. CEOs of global corporations are challenging his actions. The opposition is at every level and in defence of all the people and institutions under attack. All of that is making a difference. No one is dictating its form and the people protesting have a good understanding of how the different issues are linked to each other.

The Women’s March was interesting from this perspective. Why did all those people come out of their houses without receiving daily exhortations from an established organisation to “make this demo massive”? In fact, there was a great deal of ambivalence to start with, but they came out despite – and to give the lie to – some rather dodgy utterances from organisers they’d never heard of, because they were angry, they knew what they were angry about and it was a chance for women and men to protest across the world in their own voices, and make it their protest. We all surprised ourselves, as well as the police, the organisers and Trump and May.

It is this mosaic of responses – and the sense of power that people have over their own actions – that makes it so effective.

Of course we need to be united in the sense of not competing with or undermining each other – but unity is a difficult business. We all say we want unity, but simply declaring that over and over again in rising decibels, is both dangerous and useless. We should be able to unite in action if we recognise that this can only come from a grown-up conception of the complex, empathetic and imaginative process that is required to develop fruitful working relationships. We need to start by acknowledging that there may be deep differences of opinion and of approach that either need to be resolved or put on one side for a while. A thin veneer of unity will not withstand the attacks that Trump is mounting against us and our world.

We need to resist the temptation to impose a spurious unity on this incipient movement, based on either lowest common denominator politics or by focusing on one single issue and relegating others. Instead we need to nurture and encourage the energy and understanding that so many people have of the connections between all the attacks Trump is making, and the determination to fight back in defence of all the targets simultaneously.

The people who have been on the protests and who are arguing this out on social media get the link between Trump’s hatred of women, his racism and his attacks on the judiciary; they know why he is going for Muslims first, and why he has gathered neo-Nazis around him; they understand how his destruction of the environment relates to the struggles of indigenous people and the poorest populations; they can see all too clearly why he is sabre-rattling and threatening war – and they understand the voracious corporate greed underlying all this.

This understanding is precious and it comes from below. So I was surprised that Stand Up to Trump has defined its first public meeting as a “summit”. I may be wrong, but this seems to imply a top-down approach, which prioritises leaders and experts. If so, I hope instead that I and other people will be able to put the case there for grasping the great opportunity we have here to draw on the varied, imaginative and creative, intergenerational grassroots activism we have seen over recent years, and assessing how we can amplify the energy that’s bubbling up from below. Slogans and speeches are the end of the process, not the beginning.

There are deep cultural and political differences between us. None of us can predict whether these differences can be resolved or respected – but if we have the maturity and sensitivity to face up to them, they could be a source of strength and inclusivity. One of the points of disagreement is about the significance given to famous individuals in any political movement. Some people argue that celebrities are needed to get people – and particularly young people – in through the door. Others point to a danger that these “names” become confused with the movement itself and both they and the participants have an inflated idea of their role in it and try to colour it and control it. To a degree, both of these are right. In an online discussion about all this, one friend argued for celebrities, recalling the influence of Tony Benn on her and other young people when they were in their teens, encouraging them to become activists and change the world. I take her point about young people being attracted and reassured by names they know, and Tony Benn changed many people’s lives and perspectives. But although he was very famous, and his name was an attraction, he influenced his audiences because he didn’t see himself as a star or picture himself leading the masses to glory.

The reason why everyone who heard him speak remembers what he said is because he was brilliant and enlightening; although he had his own characteristic turns of phrase, he was never predictable, vain or self-congratulatory. If anyone disagreed with him, he didn’t override them, publicly attack them or get insulted. He didn’t think he was beyond criticism but listened to, respected and learnt from other people, however old or young and whatever their background.

Famous people do have a role but they need to be there because they have something real and specific to contribute – not just as a marketing device. And if experienced activists have a role, it is to prioritise and facilitate the difficult, messy and painful process of finding common ground, to create contexts in which we can all open our minds to new ideas and develop the strength and motivation to act.

Leading from the front without leaving anyone behind

3 Sep

A  friendJulia+JeremyCorbyn_Highbury_150816_AZI_5607 I haven’t seen for a long time contacted me out of the blue to ask who I was voting for in the Labour Party leadership elections. She was torn, she said, because, although she basically agrees with Jeremy Corbyn, she thinks he’s “a lousy leader”. This is the line being put by his opponents, including the charismatic Owen Smith himself. To paraphrase what seems to be the entire campaign: “Jeremy’s a nice chap, principled and all that, but not a leader.”

I’m so fed up with this claim that, with apologies to my poor friend who wrote me a quick three-line note and got this long reply, I decided to revive my old blog and publish my response to her.

Photo: Aziz Rahman

Yes, I’m not only voting for Jeremy Corbyn, I’m campaigning for him. I left the Labour Party in the 1980s because I couldn’t stand the unprincipled machinations of the leadership then (nor of my branch at that time, which was full of racists, baying for the blood of the travellers who lived in our ward). In the intervening years, huge numbers of people have left the Party for similar reasons and particularly over the Iraq war.

I’ve known Jeremy for a long time. I have continued to vote Labour all these years, despite the careerism, corruption, and indifference to ordinary people’s lives of so many of the Parliamentary Labour Party, because he is my constituency MP. I’ve seen him turn up to campaigns large and small, local, national and international, not for the photo-opportunity but because he understands the issues, knows about ordinary people’s lives and, as an MP, is able to help. I rejoined the Party after he won the leadership contest last summer because he is a principled socialist, anti-racist and defender of human beings and human rights – not just here but across the world.

His opponents say on the one hand that he hasn’t got “leadership qualities”, whatever they are (I assume they mean something like David Cameron or Tony Blair  or Margaret Thatcher – “leaders” who are detached from the people who did all the work to get them where they are); and on the other hand, he is like a cult leader and his followers are just mindless fans who can’t think for themselves. Well my experience is that his supporters are thinking, enthusiastic, hopeful people, young and old, and from many different income brackets and backgrounds who, for the first time since we were conned into the Iraq War, feel there is a possibility of retrieving what the Labour Party is meant to be.

I don’t know how he has managed to keep going given the relentless attacks there have been against him – his opponents were briefing against him as he was giving his victory speech after last summer’s leadership contest. They have displayed complete inhumanity to him and his family on a personal level, and an utterly cynical attitude to the membership of the party who have worked to win them their seats in parliament. And despite all this, over the last year, Labour has won every Mayoral election and every single by-election it stood in, some with increased majorities. And, above all, the party has recruited hundreds of thousands of new members.

Under Jeremy’s leadership the Labour Party has also won some crucial victories in the House of Commons such as the Tory U-turns on tax credit cuts and on Personal Independence Payments. And he has changed the Labour Party from a party that supported austerity a year ago, to one where every single member of the PLP, whether they are friends or enemies of Jeremy, now says they oppose austerity.

In my opinion, the coup is not just against Jeremy Corbyn or even his leadership team, but against all of us who dared to elect a socialist to lead the Labour Party. He is just saying what many people think but haven’t dared say during all these years of cuts and rising inequality: that we need to take back our money from the people who are siphoning it out of our public services and into offshore tax havens, depleting our housing stock, selling off our health service, running down our transport system, dismantling the education system and undermining controls on environmental degradation.

As for Smith, someone said to me that “voting for him would be like voting for a cardboard box”.  He just seems to be the only person they could find who didn’t vote for the Iraq war. Unfortunately he doesn’t seem to have much else to recommend him.

I meant this to be a short note but I was at a meeting last night with John McDonnell and a panel of others, some of them very young, in a packed hall in Walthamstow, an area I know quite well. It was standing room only, and many of those people were standing for two and a half hours listening to speeches which described ordinary people’s real experiences, struggling to house themselves, resorting to food banks, and all the rest of it. For the first time they can see a prospect of reversing the cuts that are undermining their lives, and they are being encouraged to participate and collaborate in making that happen.