Innes MacLeod is a socialist and social justice campaigner in Edinburgh. He tweets @theInnesMacLeod.
In the hours following Mandela’s death many eulogies were written. Representatives of every shade of mainstream, western political organisations ranging from the centre-right to the slightly less centre right paid their respects. Many terms were common to these pronouncements; they described Mandela as a man of grace, resilience and most of all reconciliation. These are undoubtedly features the sadly departed man embodied but it is notable that it is these features that the media and politicians have chosen to focus on.
It makes for a very different image from how he was portrayed by the right wing, British political elite only a few decades ago. A more common description for Mandela at that time would be as a terrorist, a violent troublemaker. Margaret Thatcher famously described the ANC as a ‘terrorist organisation’ and no doubt felt the same about the organisation’s most recognisable member, Mandela. It was under Thatcher that Britain continually refused to boycott trade with South Africa leading it to be tacitly one of the most notable supporters of the apartheid regime. It was also under Thatcher that the generation of Tories who have been singing Mandela’s praises cut their political teeth.
The transformation in opinion is remarkable. Only a few members of the Conservatives, such as former MP Terry Dicks would still openly describe Mandela as a terrorist. Some, including Boris Johnson, have even spoke of how the Tories ‘got it wrong’ on Mandela. Most however have decided to conveniently forget the past including our prime minister who whilst praising Mandela as a ‘Global hero’ decided it best not to mention his involvement in a fact finding mission to apartheid South Africa funded by pro-apartheid organisations.
Though these images, the violent terrorist and man of peace and reconciliation, seem starkly different they both serve the same purpose. They serve to portray a man in the manner that best serves the neo-liberal agenda.
Thatcher’s economic ideology put her firmly at odds with the idea of sanctions. This provided her with an increasingly difficult problem. How could she and her cohorts morally justify continuing free trade with South Africa as public opinion throughout the world and in her own country was increasingly turning against apartheid? If it was difficult to portray the apartheid regime in a positive light then the obvious tactic was to cast the ANC, the main opposition to apartheid, in a negative light. By focussing on the ANC’s militant actions and aided by stories of violence in the media Thatcher could create the idea that the apartheid government was a preferable option to the violent ANC.
The violent Mandela is an image that, today, holds very little weight. His actions and that of the ANC showed that those believing them capable of governing a country (as well as any other political party at least) were not ‘living in cloud cuckoo land.’ Whatever your opinion of the post-apartheid Mandela government or the effectiveness of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in providing justice for what happened during apartheid it certainly could not be seen as the violent retribution expected by those who viewed the ANC as terrorists.
The position is therefore reversed, instead of promoting his militancy now they promote his peacefulness. They have created an image of a man with Christ-like powers of forgiveness, a promoter of peace and reconciliation and the personification of charitable giving. The fact that he was once the head of the militant wing of an organisation that desired to overthrow a government does not seem to play into this vision of Nelson Mandela. He undoubtedly contributed to this image himself, before retiring he spent a great deal of time mixing with the wealthy and powerful and promoting charity. Yet in spite of his militancy softening in his later years still within his speeches he rallied against poverty and he never distanced himself from the sabotage and terrorism that he and the ANC were responsible for instead accepting it as necessary in the face of the incredible violence of apartheid.
This is ignored as it would send a powerful, and in the eyes of the political elites, dangerous message. That if you want to achieve change then you must be willing to consider the use of force. If you are met with violent oppression sometimes it is not enough to turn the other cheek. It is likely that neo-liberals would prefer the history of how apartheid was defeated to be taught as Mandela bravely sat in prison waiting for everyone to realise he was right all along. So little do we now hear of the political violence and direct action that, for many who were not alive to see it, this may very well be how the struggle is seen. The image they are trying to create in the wake of his death must be understood as an attempt to promote passive protest above forceful resistance and charity as opposed to political action.
How should we then view Mandela’s legacy? Importantly we must not deify him for our cause as liberals are attempting for theirs. He was human, his achievements were remarkable and his endurance, tolerance and humanity are beyond impressive, but he was not incapable of mistakes. His time in government did not fulfil all of its revolutionary promise and to hold him as infallible would be an insult to one of the principles he fought so hard for, that of human equality. Further it would be an insult to the millions of others who fought so hard against apartheid. It was not his victory alone.
We should instead remember Mandiba firstly for what he represented. His struggle, particularly in prison, was a microcosm of the anti-racist fight in South Africa and beyond. A capable and intelligent human locked away, unable to contribute to this world due to the colour of his skin like so many others denied by structural racism past and present. His liberation showed the potential of political struggle and gave hope for the future.
Secondly we should remember his message, that we collectively have the power to make change in our society. That our desire is for peaceful resolution but we must not shy away from forceful action in the face of violent oppression. That real democracy and real equality are the bedrock of a truly fair society. That injustice of all kinds, whether based in racism, poverty or any form of oppression is something that we cannot tolerate and must oppose. To paraphrase Mandela these are ideals we should hope to live for but be willing to die for.
We will never achieve real change by abiding by the rules of the status quo. Mandela’s birth name was Rolihlahla, meaning troublemaker. Perhaps it is more troublemakers that this world needs to see the change that we would like. It is a shame to have lost such a fine example of one. RIP.
There’s not much that anyone can add to the massive outpouring of grief and admiration for Nelson Mandela. His status as the greatest secular saint of our era becomes clearer as everyone from the Pope to those who campaigned to have Madiba hanged in the 1980s come out to talk of his great life and his great legacy.
The peaceful transition to democracy, the quelling of tribal tensions and the re-incorporation of South Africa into the world economy were all massive achievements that should not be underestimated. But the failure to secure economic freedom and democracy for South Africans remains Mandela’s greatest oversight.
There has been plenty of comment on the attempts to de-politicise Mandela, to brush over his past as a soldier, freedom fighter and friend of Fidel Castro. It’s important that we resist this form of de-politicisation of the greatest figure of our age.
But there is something we must understand about the life and politics of Nelson Mandela. While Nelson Mandela personified the struggle against apartheid the struggle was much, much more than that of one man.
Some will try to claim that through one man’s personal sacrifice, personal magnetism and great ability to forgive those who wronged him apartheid was brought crashing. This is a dangerous story and one Mandela himself rejected.
Not only was the ANC more than one man, it was itself part of a wider liberation movement (the United Democratic Front), which brought together all the significant elements opposed to apartheid. But much more importantly it was a mass movement that toppled apartheid. The UDF comprised over 400 groups from churches, youth movement, political parties and workers’ organisations committed to ending apartheid.
From the Soweto uprising in 1976 that made Steve Biko famous to the mass action campaigns of the 1980s, it was mass civil action that drove the apartheid regime to the negotiating table. This movement, comprising huge numbers of ordinary people was the movement that Mandela came to personify.
But as time has passed, and the economic settlement accepted by Mandela’s Finance Minster and successor as President, Thabo Mbeki has failed to deliver economic freedom, the legacy of the mass movement is barely remembered. And the lessons of its failure are ones we should learn.
The mass movement worked because it had both massive popular support, with the ability to put tens of thousands on the street and a political expression through the ANC. When buttressed to the tripartite alliance of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), South African Communist Party and ANC the liberation movement was lively and diverse.
The failure of the mass movement was to come after the first democratic elections, where having achieved political freedom, too much trust was placed in the formal structures of COSATU and the ANC. This allowed too much power to rest with government. What was needed was for the popular front and mass movement to continue the struggle for economic freedom.
While Mandela and Mbeki were being talked into continuing elite control of the economy, the need for a popular movement was as important as ever. As South Africa continues to struggle with the challenge of creating an economy for all, the failures of the government under Mandela become clearer.
Of course, this comment is most easily made with hindsight. At the time when the ANC took power, the left was in disarray following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the case for socialising the economy was at its weakest in the twentieth century. To understand why the Mandela government failed to democratise the economy is, though, not to condone it.
One of the quite correct criticisms of the drive to depoliticise Nelson Mandela is that it underestimates the role of others in the struggle. Oliver Tambo, who led the ANC in exile, Walter Sisulu, who had recruited Mandela to the ANC and Chris Hani, who was second only to Mandela in popularity, having been commander of the ANC’s armed wing Umkhonto we Sizwe in exile.
Had Chris Hani not been murdered on the orders of a Conservative MP in 1993, we may have had a continuing mass movement that could demand universal, free health, land ownership and full economic democracy. Hani said before his death:
“The perks of a new government are not really appealing to me. Everybody, of course, would like to have a good job, a good salary, and that sort of thing. But for me, that is not the be-all of a struggle. What is important is the continuation of the struggle – and we must accept that the struggle is always continuing – under different conditions, whether within parliament or outside parliament, we shall begin to tackle the real problems of the country. And the real problems of the country are not whether one is in cabinet, or a key minister, but what we do for social upliftment of the working masses of our people.”
If Hani had lived many believe he would have been President, and a statesman to compare with Mandela. But he may not have taken that path, he may have created a movement to oppose the moneyed interests who still control much of South Africa’s wealth.
Mandela was a great man, he led a great movement for political freedom. He was a radical, who stood with the oppressed in his own country and around the world. But his achievements were in no small part due to the mass movement that drove the apartheid regime to the negotiating table. What we need is not more leaders like Mandela, but more mass movements which create social, economic and political change. Those movements may create people like Nelson Mandela, but more importantly they can create the world that we want and the world that we need.
The struggle continues!
Clifford Fleming is the co-convenor of the Young Greens of England and Wales, and Campaigns and Citizenship Officer at the University of Manchester Students’ Union. He tweets @cliffordfleming.
Universities are places of knowledge, of research, of teaching; they are of huge public benefit and good. It is alarming to see the speed at which Higher Education under this government is developing into a marketplace, with more and more emphasis on marketing the “student experience” and less focus on quality teaching, knowledge generation and critical thinking. University staff have been on strike twice in the past weeks after taking the brunt of these changes, with a 13% real terms pay cut slapped on top of their increased workloads over the past 5 years. And that’s on top of the widespread use of zero-hours contracts revealed by the UCU in September. The Young Greens have for the past year been calling for a pay ratio of 10:1 between the highest and lowest paid staff at our universities, publishing research on the issue in October and organising action on campuses across the country.
For the past few weeks protests and occupations in UK Universities have been growing. Students all over the country have been calling on their institutions to pay staff a fair wage and protesting against decisions to privatise services and close courses. It is disheartening and infuriating to hear from so many of my colleagues in the student movement that when they voice their concerns they are ignored; “now isn’t the time” is a phrase used all too often by senior leaders. In a fight back students have held a series of protests and occupations across different Universities. Unfortunately, the reaction from both the police and several University management teams has been disgraceful.
Wednesday night saw the occupation of Senate House at the University of London over planned closures of the Students’ Union, where violence from the police saw students punched and dragged to the ground by their hair. Shelly Asquith, President of the University of Arts London, said that once coming outside of the occupation she saw some students “repeatedly hit, one plucked out and shoved in a van”. She continues: “as police tried to drive away with a student inside we stood in the road. This is when they started to drag us, push us out of the way very aggressively, picking a couple out and putting them in vans.”
Those that were arrested were given needlessly restrictive bail conditions which banned them from being within 50 meters of the School of Oriental and African Studies (which for those who study at one of several universities in Bloomsbury means their campuses are off-limits), and more worryingly bans them from being in public with more than 3 other people, a clear violation of their freedom of assembly. The Young Greens utterly condemn police violence, and Green Party London Assembly member Jenny Jones will be challenging the Metropolitan police commissioner on these issues.
Wednesday also saw the University of Sussex Vice Chancellor, Professor Michael Farthing, suspend five students over their involvement in activism as part of the Occupy Sussex group. The following day Sussex saw huge protests where hundreds gathered to call for the immediate retraction of the suspensions. Meanwhile in Liverpool an occupation started on Tuesday in solidarity with the strike over fair pay, but anger has been growing over the wider issues surrounding the privatisation of British Universities. “Occupy Liverpool Uni values education as a whole, as a right” says Megan de Meo who took part in the protests. She explains how the occupation brought a group together and has increased political activism on campus: “the occupation has helped create a hotbed of discussion”. The reaction from Liverpool University was to attempt to kettle the occupiers using metal fences. After a tip-off from University security, the occupiers decided to leave. Megan explains that it is far from over: “we’re planning on targeting open days and to tell students about these issues.”
In Birmingham the Defend Education group also went into occupation. Hattie Craig, the Vice President (Education) of Birmingham Guild of Students, explained how in her role as a sabbatical officer she became tired of “the complete lack of democracy” in the University: “going to meetings where they always led to dead-ends wasn’t making any difference”. When Hattie joined the occupation she was ordered to court, alongside another student, where they were asked to pay for £25,000 of legal costs. The University of Liverpool followed this by ordering an injunction which the group bravely defied, ending with the arrival of bailiffs and police. Hattie explained how since the tuition fee increase “frustrations have been growing” and Birmingham Defend Education would continue to oppose injustice within the University.
As Co-Chair of the Young Greens, but also as a sabbatical officer in Manchester, I stand in solidarity with student activists campaigning for transparent, public Universities that pay a fair wage to staff and treat students as partners. The Young Greens will continue to fight for a free, public education and not education as a private enterprise. We will continue to support occupations and demonstrations and we actively encourage students to stand up for their rights and their education.
With the publication of the Scottish Government’s white paper last week came the much anticipated “facts” of independence and the negotiating terms for a post-Yes vote in September, plus of course a few manifesto promises from the SNP thrown in for good measure. Equally anticipated were the counter-allegations from the No camp of empty promises, certainty where there was none and uncertainty where they would rather there was some. In fact the counter claims were so eagerly anticipated that National Collective produced a white paper bingo sheet so we could all play along at home every time one of the Alistairs called it a ‘wish list’.
The amount of column inches and airtime given to the publication of Scotland’s Future, as the white paper is uncompromisingly called, has been enormous. But I worry that for all the media analysis of a Spanish Prime Minister’s posturing over EU membership or the Bank of England’s negotiating stance on Sterling, the ideas and debates that are really important for many people are being left behind.
There’s much made of the fact that somewhere between 10 and 20 per cent of voters are undecided and that it’s therefore all still to play for. I don’t doubt that, but the current focus on such issues as currency risks pushing those people further from the debate and driving them away from politics in general. The problem, I think, is that “politics” is just as alien a concept for many people as particle physics. So to use the argument that the independence debate and the politics surrounding it ought to be of interest may be just as ineffective as suggesting that people ought to take a more active interest in the mechanics of the Large Hadron Collider. Ask a disinterested voter with a quizzical look on your face why they wouldn’t want to hold the levers of political power and you may end up with the same reaction as if you’d asked them why they wouldn’t want to run CERN.
Such power has little relevance and is frankly rather frightening. Surely that kind of power should be wielded by someone who knows what they’re doing?
This fear, this nervous reluctance to take up the reins of power is symptomatic of a wide scale failure of our democracy. When power is so distant from most people and when it is used by a far off elite for their own benefit, it becomes alien and therefore alienating. One of the most interesting and depressing articles I’ve read this last week was by Derek Bateman, contemplating why it is that so many Scots don’t see why independence should be of interest to them, never mind something they might want to vote for.
In it he says:
“They see Scotland as not a country at all but the way it is seen from London, as a region with history and some differences but, like all subsidiary units, not an equal for the founding nation. It leads to disbelieving outbursts accompanied by furrowed foreheads about “Scotland… a nation. Don’t be ridiculous” sometimes followed with “I’ll emigrate if that happens”… They are not listening to the argument, as is their right, and they probably don’t listen at election time either preferring to believe nothing will change so why bother.”
So should we give up on people who hold these views and accept that large swathes of the don’t knows are in fact don’t cares? I think not. To return to particle physics and politics, I think there are two important things to keep in mind. Firstly, I’d argue there are more ways to communicate the many and varied ways in which politics touches all our lives than the methods at hand to communicate particle physics (though anyone trying would do well to look at what Brian Cox has achieved in making physics accessible). I’ve always had a fondness for the kind of approach that the Electoral Commission took in the 2004 European election, saying “politics affects almost everything, so if you don’t do politics, there’s not much you do do.”
But the second point is that it’s not enough to simply work out new ways of communicating the importance of politics. We have to change how politics works for most people. If you have a chance of affecting the outcome of something to your liking, you’re more likely to take part, simple as. For me, a Yes vote means the chance to bring power closer to the people and to take it from the hands of the self serving elite and trust the people to use it for the common weal. And whilst independence would give us the power to make that change, we don’t have to wait for independence to make some smaller changes in the existing balance of power.
We can all promote better democracy in our own lives to a small extent. Call for trade union or workers’ representatives on your board at work. Join a food coop and take a hand in what’s grown, sold and eaten by you and the people around you rather than letting the supermarket giants dictate your diet. Use your elected representatives to fight for the issues you care about and shout about it when you win together. These steps may be small, but the more we all take a hand in transferring power to the people, the more those don’t cares will start to care.
By Phin Harper and Adam Ramsay
Flick Monk was a youth delegate to the UN climate change summit in Warsaw this November.
The corporate sponsorship of the 19th United Nations climate conference, or COP19, was so blatant that it made me thoroughly rethink who rules the world. There were representatives from every government on the planet, packed into the somewhat bizarre football-stadium-come-conference-venue, as well as thousands from Civil Society – businesses, environmental NGOs, gender groups, indigenous leaders, youth delegates and researchers. It became very clear, however, that large, greenhouse gas emitting corporations had been allowed in to the conference well before it had even started. The corridors were filled to the brim with branded products, from shiny red beanbags courtesy of Fly Emirates, to free shoulder bags full of swag paid for by LOTOS Group. And, proudly parked outside the conference venue gates in a large, sparkling glass box sat BMW’s newest gas-guzzling specimen.
The corporate sponsorship was one thing – but it was the corporations present that was most distressing. I was shocked, as a youth delegate attending the talks in order to lobby the UK government to be more ambitious in cutting emissions, at the blatant presence of these fossil fuel companies. Their business models go against solving climate change, or even getting a legally binding Global Treaty that countries are currently working towards. Why should companies that have an agenda in stopping progress be allowed to decorate the venue with their brands?
The role of Civil Society
If corporate influence was present in the conference, the voice of environmental NGOs and youth was not. After nearly two weeks of lobbying governments, planning and staging actions, holding press conferences and sharing expertise on mitigation, technologies, adaptation and campaigning, powerful countries were not listening. Japan backtracked on its previously agreed pledges, while Canada and Australia reached an all-time low in terms of ambition. Few rich countries came forward with the necessary financial pledges to help developing countries adapt to catastrophic climate change.
In fact, the situation became so depressing that on the day before the talks were scheduled to end, environmental NGOs staged a mass walk-out of the conference. We had had enough. After nearly twenty years of failure, we wanted to send a strong signal that inaction on climate change was unacceptable.
And yet the talks still ended with little progress made. As usual, the issue of ‘historical responsibility’ (which countries are historically responsible for most emissions?) became the battle-field, with developed countries refusing to offer the necessary concessions when, historically, they have done the most damage. It’s a battle that has raged for decades and has created deadlock – and meanwhile, the earth has kept warming.
The Lines are Drawn
Where, then, to put our energy – into lobbying the state? Perhaps the corporate sponsorship was good for one thing – it made it plain to see who was behind much of the failure of the talks. The UN is an interesting phenomenon, in that it really is a sort of ritualistic façade of great power, a grand show of puppets and dummies being pulled by corporate lobbyists from behind. We do not live in the era for which the UN was created. Neoliberal capitalism has destroyed the primacy of the state in international relations.
Our focus, then, must shift away from governments and directly towards those actors that are actively destroying the planet and will go on destroying the planet if they are not stopped. I think this is where the fast-growing divestment movement has real potential; we must bankrupt fossil fuel companies morally by shifting investment elsewhere. Research that found 90 companies responsible for nearly two-thirds of emissions puts this in perspective even further – and helps to shift the developing-developed country deadlock that has held up the talks for decades.
University of Edinburgh Rector Peter McColl stated at the official launch of the Fossil Free campaign in the UK: this is our call to arms – to fight the corporations that are responsible for designing a world that makes us dependent on fossil fuels. We must of course go to the UN and lobby our governments – but our main efforts should be on the bigger, more important struggle of stopping large-scale destruction by interests that currently rule the world.
Saturday saw the launch of a new left-wing political party in Britain – Left Unity. I won’t attempt to report on it, as I wasn’t there (nor did I want especially want to be). I just want to lay down a few thoughts on its implications for the wider left, particularly the Greens – speaking as someone who was initially positive (I signed up to the launch appeal) but who is growing increasingly sceptical.
Just under 500 officially attended* the inaugural conference of Left Unity, the project set up by socialist film maker Ken Loach and backed by leading left figures such as Kate Hudson, Richard Seymour and others.
Here’s 9 points from a loyal-but-concerned Green Party activist on the founding gathering of the initiative.
- There is clearly demand for Left Unity – more than 10,000 people have registered as supporters, and over 1200 people have formally joined since membership launched just a few months ago. A third of those attended last weekend’s conference. Explaining the demand for a new project is partly down to disillusionment with Labour, and the many sects to its left (not to mention their behaviour – the SWP’s Comrade Delta scandal e.g.). But it also has to be put down to something the Greens are doing, or not doing. The party’s actions in Brighton – i.e. passing austerity budgets – is obviously a major factor. We only have to look to the stream of Greens who have joined Left Unity in recent months – most/all of whom put their defection down to Brighton Council.
- At the same time however, there are arguably already more than enough left-wing parties in the UK (of which Labour is clearly not one). Of them, the Greens are the largest and have the most representation at all elected levels (and unelected levels, if our first peer for some years, Jenny Jones, is included). TUSC, Respect, the Greens and now Left Unity reflect the electoral mish-mash of British leftist politics now – not to mention the vast array of tiny groups which don’t generally contest elections.
- The party already seems to have overcome some of the stereotypes of the far-left. Far from resembling the misogyny of the SWP, it adopted a 50%+ female-leadership quota. It also saw its dogmatic communist arm routed in a conference vote on which platform to back – the more mainstream Left Party Platform easily winning over the Socialist and Communist Platforms. This comes with caveats, however. The conference provided no crèche, was mostly white male-dominated and refused to allow extra time for safe spaces policy to be discussed. A mixed start, then.
- If Left Unity is to mean anything, it has to mean genuine unity. Partly that means there has to be a serious reduction in the number of random socialist parties – something that is only marginally currently happening (with the mooted merger of the ex-SWP International Socialist Network, the ex-Workers’ Power Anti-Capitalist Network and the [eco-]Socialist Resistance).
- The whole project puts Greens in a dilemma. For a start, the party is almost certain to contest the next bunch of elections – definitely in 2015, at any rate. This means they will in many cases be standing against Greens. Do the Greens simply try to shrug them off, or do we attempt to engage? Clearly we can no longer do that from within Left Unity, as it is now a separate membership organisation and an electoral party. Instead, there have to be serious talks at local and national levels about pacts – lest the Greens be wiped out under our already-hostile electoral system as another group joins the fray. It doesn’t look like Left Unity is planning to start such a debate – a large number of its members are actively hostile to the Green Party (Loach himself is sympathetic to the Greens but argues we can never become a mass party of the un/organised working-class). We thus need to make the first move.
- If Caroline Lucas loses her seat in 2015, many Greens are, sadly, likely to leave the party – possibly towards Left Unity. Already, a number of left-wing Green councillors in Brighton are thinking of defecting. If Caroline loses, this number will undoubtedly rise – both in Brighton and across the country. I’ve spoken to a large number of Greens – many of them young and active – for whom this is the case. Such an outpouring of elected councillors and members will be a huge boost to Left Unity after its first electoral showing – potentially pitching it as the second ‘major’ left-wing party of England (if not Britain).
- At this time, many on the independent left are adopting a ‘wait and see’ policy about Left Unity – if it doesn’t quickly descend into factional bickering (as I’ve heard it has in some branches already), they will jump aboard.
- However, for the Greens there are few genuinely good potential outcomes of Left Unity – if it succeeds, the Greens may be decimated and replaced by a less ecologically-focused old-school left project. If it fails, a massive swathe of the left will likely drift (again, in many cases) into inaction and despair – as in the past with the Socialist Alliance.
- The best outcome is for a decent working relationship with the Green Party – some form of electoral pact, as I’ve argued elsewhere. This will require hard work and mutual engagement. At the moment, such a prospect seems unlikely. But if Left Unity isn’t to become a slightly-bigger version of TUSC, it’s essential. What’s more, it’s also important for the survival of the Greens: without cooperation, Greens will face a choice. With an insurgent socialist force emerging as a serious left-challenge to our party and the political system, many will be asking themselves – ‘should I stay or should I go?’ Some have already made their mind up. After the next elections, which offer uncertain chances for the Greens in Brighton and nationally, many more may follow.
This is a guest post by Jean Lambert, Green MEP for London, who is hosting an event today on ‘Building our Green economic future’, more details of which can be found here. Jean tweets at @GreenJeanMEP.
It has long been argued that the Greens and the trade union movement have little in common: but I think the opposite is the case. Both movements are about creating a fairer society, more decent jobs where workers are treated with respect, making life easier for all of us – and solving global crises as we do so.
We face multiple crises in the world today: climate change, spiraling personal debt, rising unemployment and falling wages, mass cuts to public budgets – especially those for health and social care and benefits, growing inequality and poverty, to name just a few.
Of course, these are crises for everyone – and the solutions are, often, the same: a move towards a Green economy.
Take climate change, for example: the scientists are clear – we simply must reduce global greenhouse gas emissions if we are to reduce the risks and impact of runaway climate chaos.
But, crucially: that doesn’t mean doing less – it means doing different.
We’ll need a massive efforts to insulate all our homes, for example, in order to reduce the amount of energy we spend heating them in winter and cooling them in summer.
We’ll need to build and maintain all the necessary renewable infrastructure for renewable energy generation.
We’ll need to redeploy all the engineers currently working in the fossil fuel industries to make this happen.
We’ll need to create jobs for teachers and lecturers to give our workers the skills they’ll need – and all these will have to be decent jobs, with decent pay and conditions to ensure our newly-trained workforce feels secure enough to continue working in the green energy industry when alternatives present themselves.
Already the low carbon sector provides about 165,000 jobs – and is worth just short of £30bn a year – in London alone: it could be much bigger, with the right combination of investment and political will. And that’s just the domestic energy sector. There are, of course, many more sectors of the economy, where similar arguments work: agriculture, for example, or transport: where a shift to a more ‘green’ way of doing things could create thousands of decent jobs – and tackle global, political, crises. Providing a win-win, in other words.
But this argument is all-too infrequently made by some trade unionists. Of course, that’s changing, thanks to the work of the Climate Change Trade Union Network, and the Green Party Trade Union Group and others. The Trade Union Congress itself has excellent policies and positions on climate change, and the opportunities tackling it presents its members.
It’s to try and change this narrative that I’m hosting an event – ‘Building Our Green Economic Future’ – to bring together greens, trade unionists, policy-makers and employers.
TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady, EU Commissioner Laszlo Andor – and Andrew Raingold, Executive Director of the Aldersgate Group (which describes itself as ‘an alliance of leaders from business, politics and society that drives action for a sustainable economy’) will be outlining some of the shared challenges we face, and their will be sessions of how best to work together to meet them, and the skills workers in various relevant economic sectors will need.
All the details – including how to book a free place – are available here:
A truly sustainable economic recovery will only be possible with investment in key industries, new skills and new jobs – and that will only happen with the support and active engagement of trade unionists, employers and policy-makers. I hope today’s event can play a significant role in making that happen.
Edinburgh city councillor, European Parliament candidate and Bright Green editor Maggie Chapman has been elected unopposed as the new female co-convenor of the Scottish Green Party. She succeeds Glasgow councillor Martha Wardrop, who stood instead as vice-convenor, and joins male co-convenor Patrick Harvie MSP.
Originally from Harare, Zimbabwe, Maggie Chapman is a university lecturer and has been a councillor since 2007. In Edinburgh, she has has successfully fought against the privatisation of social care services and the Westminster government’s Workfare schemes, and has given residents the right to decide directly on a portion of council spending in the city’s first participatory budgeting project.
Maggie will contest next year’s European Parliament election, with a strong chance of becoming the Greens’ first Scottish MEP. With the sixth and final seat in the Scotland constituency likely to come down to a straight fight between the Greens and UKIP’s London chairman David Coburn, victory for Maggie would also likely make Scotland the only British constituency to shut out the far-right party.
“With the independence referendum less than a year away, we need to raise our voices for a different kind of Scotland. We need to stand up to Westminster politicians who are trying to shift blame for our economic woes off bankers and onto immigrants; off the rich and onto the unemployed. I’ll be campaigning for a Scotland that’s run for people, not for profit; that hands power to communities, not to corporations.
“To win the referendum, it’s going to be crucial that Greens inspire people with a vision of a different kind of Scotland – where we build an economy which pays work properly and respects carers; where we see public services as the bedrock of our civilisation; where we put equality ahead of greed.”
Paying tribute to outgoing co-convenor Martha Wardrop, Patrick Harvie said:
“Maggie Chapman will build on the good job Martha Wardrop has done in the role and we’d all like to thank Martha for her work. Our eyes are firmly on getting Scotland its first Green MEP and securing a Yes vote in the independence referendum.”
Maggie was endorsed and Patrick re-elected in a postal ballot of Scottish Green Party members. Other officers elected were:
Vice-convenor: Cllr Martha Wardrop
Co-convenor: John Palmer
Treasurer: Ian Baxter
Campaigns officer: Dave Owen
Communicationsns co-ordinator: Gary Dunion
Membership secretary: John Nichol
Ordinary member: John McCallum
Elections and Campaigns Committee
Convenor: Ross Greer
Vice-convenor: Gavin Corbett
Ordinary member: Sarah Beattie-Smith
Ordinary member: Moira Crawford
Ordinary member: Fabio Villani
Ordinary member: Anni Pues
Ordinary member: David Braunholtz
Ordinary member: Janet Moxley
Ordinary member: Peter Mountford-Smith
Vice-convenor: Elliott Russell
Ordinary member: Chas Booth
Ordinary member: Anne Thomas
Standing Orders Committee
Convenor: Moira Dunworth
Vice-convenor: Chris Ballance
Returning officer: Chris Horton
Ordinary member: Anne Bannatyne
Ordinary member: Sally Curtis
Ordinary member: Donald Fraser
Ordinary member: Joe Patrizio
Ordinary member: Mike Williamson
I have a generalist attitude to political campaigning. To use the traditional metaphor, I think that left wing social movements should use all of the tools in the box. These include civil disobedience, and mass public mobilisations, and education, and publicity stunts. And electioneering is one such gadget. Specifically, I’m a member of the Green Party, but why it’s best is not what I want to chat about today.
I’ve been involved in different ways over the years in applying various of the sorts of gizmos that left wing activists tend to use in the UK. I’ve found most of them amazingly helpful for some things and all to be utterly useless for others. Using a feather duster to crack a nut doesn’t work. You might, however, want to present it as a comedy trophy to a corporate boss who’s soiled with corruption. Blockading a street is a useless way to convince its residents to support you, but a wonderful way to stop a military convoy from going along it.
And as well as being useful or not in particular contexts, I’ve found that different kinds of tactic don’t just have short term impacts, but longer ones too. They teach us lessons about the world. They push us in a particular direction. They shape us, and they shape our movements. In that context, I often find it frustrating when people dismiss party politics and standing in elections as tactics. I think they can be really useful. Here are six reasons why.
1) Regular elections help keep you active
Without clear some kind of structure, I find work hard. With no to-do lists or deadlines, it’s only the headache from a dearth of caffeine which gets me out of bed before midday. Without a required output, I am liable to waste my afternoons away on Facebook.
The same often seems true of social movements. Electoral politics are helpful because they provide a clear timetable. There are regular (usually roughly annual) elections of some sort or another to get excited about and to build momentum up to. There are cycles of conferences to persuade of your policy passions. There are doors to knock on or to push leaflets through.
Mass street movements flash every now and then. Once they’ve passed, people become despondent, and drift back into their lives, nothing new to excite them. Regular elections, on the other hand, like regular board game nights or Sunday brunches for an old group of friends, keep people active and involved in the slow times as well as the fast. They give you something to get out of bed for.
2) Regular elections keep you recruiting
It’s way too easy for activist groups to end up as cliques: people meet through some kind of political activity – on a protest, perhaps. They drift into a friendship group. Gradually they spend more and more of their time going for drinks together and less and less of their time recruiting new people. Soon, you find radical activism full of affinity groups of chums, with too few entry points and no new recruits.
Now, political parties are certainly susceptible to this problem too. But if this happens, they quickly lose. And so there is an ongoing pressure to break the walls of the clique, to find new people and to maintain contact with that guy who’s a bit annoying but excellent at website maintenance. Or whatever. And this is a good thing.
More importantly, there is an endless practical pressure to reflect the diversity of your community. If you want to win, you have to know the major issues angering every street you seek to represent: the things which are pissing off each ethnic group; the gripes of the young and the dreams of the old; the injustices faced by your local LGBT community and the barriers erected in front of their disabled neighbours, the concerns of those who work and the worries of those who care for their children or parents. You need votes from women and trans people, from long term residents and transient people. If your work isn’t at the very least guided by, and ideally led by, those embedded in all these communities, living these lives, then you erode your collective chances of success. Every activist group I’ve ever been in has talked about how diversity matters, but only in political parties is the imperative so overwhelmingly obvious.
3) Canvassing helps you see outside your bubble
I know loads of awesome activists, who spend nearly all of their waking lives organising against the powerful, and yet who have never once knocked on a door and spoken to the stranger behind it about what matters in their life. Of course, it’s entirely possible to canvass without a party rosette (though you can’t get the full electoral register, which makes it harder). But there is much more of an immediate drive to do so if your aim is to win a vote. And door-knocking is vital, I think, for three reasons.
First, if you believe that radicals are never going to win through the pages of the corporate media, then we need to be able to communicate in other ways. There are various of these. But best of all is face to face chats – they are to us what Fox News is to right wing America: it is how we pass on our messages, unfiltered. They have the airwaves. We must have the streets.
Second, it changes the canvasser. We are, too often, taught to believe that politics is an abstract geeky hobby. We are told it’s like Star Trek or stamp collecting, but without the popular support. In fact, it’s about people, communities – what they yearn for when they enthuse in the pub and what they fear when they can’t sleep at night. There are few better ways to be reminded of this than knocking on strangers’ doors, and asking them what matters most to them.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, canvassing is how I charge up my belief in human goodness. We live in a world where adverts and newspapers attempt to divide us. Capitalist realism – the doctrine that there is no alternative – depends on the trope of the lonely left winger. We are forever persuaded to believe that people are the tabloids they read: selfish and cruel and, most of all, right wing.
You only need to knock on the doors down any street in the country I have ever visited to discover that this is a lie. People are awesome. And kind. And funny. And on many issues – many of the most important issues – they are significantly more left wing than the mainstream would ever let on. On other issues – such as immigration – people have been persuaded by reactionaries. But they are remarkably easy to sway: they wish, most of all, to be kind. Humans are instinctively solidaristic. Nudge them onto an explanatory track along which they can be, and they will be. Or that’s my experience.
4) Elections let you see what works
In an election, your success is mathematically measurable. If you make a mistake, you find out pretty quickly: polling day is an inescapable deadline. If you get something right, it’s easy to tell. All too often when I’ve been involved in other kinds of campaigns, it’s been incredibly hard to know if what we were doing was working. It is entirely possible I’ve spent years following plans that were never going to work. Of course, that doesn’t mean I was wrong to do that thing – some of the most important contributions are almost impossible to measure. But it’s sometimes nice to get speedy feedback. Even if you believe the aim of electing someone is futile, learning how to mobilise your local community around the issues you care about is helpful, surely?
5) If you win, you get a paid organiser
Local councillors go to a formal meeting a couple of times a month or so. But the rest of the time, they are basically paid to organise their community. They usually aren’t paid well enough to be full time, but having someone in your activist group with any salary to organise in your area is pretty damned useful. Without it, energy soon saps as people are dragged into busy lives and monthly rent requirements.
6) Parties encourage you to think systemically
Too much of modern activism involves talking about one issue as though it is the only and the most important one. Political parties, by their nature, end up discussing and engaging in policy on the whole range of issues. They bring together activists who are passionate and knowledgable about different things. The result is that it’s hard not to begin to think about the systems behind what you’re all campaigning on and the potential strategies for overcoming them.
None of these are reasons not to do other things – I may one day write six reasons that civil disobedience is awesome, or seven reasons to join a trade union, or a treatise on why NGOs aren’t always terrible. Etc. And of course, I haven’t touched on the fact that engaging in party politics is a direct confrontation to one important form of power exercised by our rulers – that secured through elections. Nor have I mentioned that it allows us to secure the soft (shaping the debate) and hard (voting on motions) powers of elected politicians – because they are obvious. But they are, obviously, true, and crucial, too.
I should also probably say that, for some people, party politics probably isnt the right thing. We can’t all do everything. But I think it probably would be useful for many more radicals than are currently in a party. So, go on. Think about joining one. And if you are wondering which one, well, you know where I stand.