Playing the race card: Smith and working class identity politics

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Women workers’ banner at the black country museum workers institute

It wasn’t too many decades ago that it was the tories who attacked the Labour party with the race card – if you want X for a neighbour vote Labour and all of that. A lot of those battles were fought on black country soil: Smethwick, Wolverhampton, rivers of blood.

In the 21st century where UKIP have transformed themselves from the besuited posh mahogany people who hate Brussels to a nationalist party for the “respectable working class”, hoovering up votes where the less savvy more brutish form of the BNP were crumbling, it is much less clear where anyone stands in anything. UKIP may lack any reason to officially exist now that we have taken our country back, but the genie is most definitely out of the bottle.

In the last election Blue Labour pulled the strings on how the party addressed immigration. Too many years of Purple Blairite neo-liberalism has left working class people feeling patronized and ignored on immigration, the Blue Labour lot argued, and we ignore them at their peril. Following on from the resounding success of this, which saw yet another election lost bringing on yet more austerity followed by a referendum fought on poisonous turf leaving hate crime soaring (including a fire-bombed butchers in Walsall and a toddler and grandmother assaulted in nearby Worcester), Owen Smith yesterday decided the time was ripe to go for the us and them in class politics, stating:

“There are too many immigrants in parts of Britain.”

His stance on the need to connect with and listen to working class people on immigration will certainly please my neighbouring MP, Dudley North’s Ian Austin. There is a long argument in the Labour party that the left stick their fingers in their ears when it comes to immigration and write off huge numbers of working class voters when they do.

There is lots of data to show migration has a positive contribution to the economy – but if you are not benefiting from those contributions then arguably that data could look dismissive and like part of an establishment con to deny your lived experiences of falling wages. It is also pretty problematic to get heavily involved in arguments which suggest migration is good because migrants contribute to the economy because it equates human value with wealth production. Women (and yes some men too) put in hours of unpaid domestic labour which adds to the social value of communities but are wealth receivers in that they receive child benefits, carers allowances etc. And then we come to disabled and elderly people. And women migrants who are carers, disabled migrants, elderly migrants. Working class people include but are very much not limited to white men, something which is so often missed.

There is no solution to the problems of impoverished and divided communities to be had in a blue Labour approach of listening to and repeating the view that we must get migration under control. It is not the job of the labour movement or any party which is meant to represent the interests of workers to do the bosses work for them by scapegoating other sections of the working class for decreasing wages, poorer living conditions, poorer working conditions… All of these things are imposed on the working class by those who profit from them, and the only thing which has ever beaten them back on it is solidarity: collective action.

So what is the solution then? Solidarity doesn’t come out of nowhere and if we had an organised working class with a strong spirit of collective identity which could not be broken down into workers and claimants, native and foreign, then we wouldn’t have austerity. Instead we have a society which has been battered by the dismantling of the manufacturing industry, defeats in key trades union battles, right-to-buy, the Thatcher wipe-out of traditional class divisions of party politics, post 9/11 terror narratives: ripe ground for UKIP and the soft libertarian nationalism they offer, in which the establishment is opposed as an authoritarian entity which imposes rules, but “British values” as opposed to establishment orders are perceived as collectively owned/negotiated and threatened by outsiders who brazenly maintain their own values through in particular religious activity or in a more atomized way a perceived failure to contribute to the collective good. It is perhaps the Labour party and not the working class which has lost its sense of identity after all.

The black country was the home of the Cradley chainmakers, as well as returning Enoch Powell. It delivered a big out vote and I think it would be a huge mistake to reduce that to ignorance and racism or to something which can be resolved by controlling immigration. I think the following are key to building Labour:

 

  1. ACCESS TO RESOURCES: Listening to working class people needs more than a repetition process on immigration if it is going to build the communities on the knife edge of austerity. Social housing in particular but access to services more generally need to be key to a winning back of the white working class. People are frustrated most when they feel others are queue jumping, which is inevitable when there is a shortage of housing and other resources.
  2. ACCESS TO SOCIAL PARTICIPATION: Strategic community enrichment is also key, and I think at the heart of this we need funding to not just replenish but build on Further Education to put colleges at the heart of every community with free access to courses for all – not just to meet business need as in the current ethos but to emancipate and democratize.
  3. ACCESS TO DEMOCRACY: The hardest but biggest fight to win is for increasing democracy in people’s lives. For many people elections are seen as meaningless: just about changing the colour tie of who represents them. With the academisation program shutting parents out of school decision making and the TU bill shutting down democracy in workplaces it looks set to get worse, and it seems unlikely that May’s proposal of what looks like staff association stooges on company boards will do much to halt the shut down. We need to look out how to bring democracy to communities that need it most. Trades unions certainly need to work on building community connections, and beyond that we need a program that empowers. The race card may be ethically dubious, but even beyond that in an era when “purer” versions of the same values are trotted out by two other parties, electorally it hasn’t and won’t cut it. We need radical politics which put social building, social participation, solidarity and democracy at the heart of Labour party identity.

 

 

 

 

#KeepCorbyn : An open letter to the Labour right in the PLP

I’m writing to you as a Labour party member to beg you to respect the mandate of Jeremy Corbyn as leader.

I have always been a Labour voter. I was the generation who first had tuition fees following Blair’s election – that and Iraq meant I did not join the party until the election of Ed Miliband. I believe Ed is a genuine and nice man and I finally felt able to join something which was pushing values I believed in. I met him with my kids just before the last election and they thought he was great. Sadly, earlier that day, he had unveiled a headstone you may know something about.

I grew up in a Labour house – my dad who had been a solid campaigner under Kinnock and John Smith left in the late 1990s due to dismay with what was happening. I believe there were some good things which came out of the Blair era which we often forget – SureStart centres in particular. There was also a lot which troubled me. My dad rejoined the Labour party last year. He finally felt he could. My sister joined too for the first time at the age of 37.

Leading up to the last election I really struggled with what happened to our campaign. Terror over the rise of UKIP meant we fell for the oldest trick in the book and started to use the tactics of the right – appealing to fear and offloading people’s experiences of lack of democratic power and austerity onto vulnerable groups. The mugs made me want to vomit. I may have mentioned the headstone. I fought internally over delivering leaflets when everything I was given had this immigration stuff on. I know exactly why you pushed for this – you were frightened that we would lose voters to UKIP, resulting in a tory victory which made things even worse for migrants and white working class people. Working class people are not all white, as I am sure you are aware.

You did it with the best of intentions but what you did reinforced the values which led to the racism-focused referendum we just went through. I live in Dudley. Ian Austin is our only Labour MP. I heard him talk a lot about getting tough on immigration. In Dudley we get regular outings from the far right. Just in the space of last year we had the EDL, Britain First, and a group called something like “Casuals against Islam” (forget the exact name, but you get the sentiment). Today on Midlands today I watched a young woman explain she had proudly voted out because “immigrations” were stopping her from getting the council house she desperately needed. This referendum has told us we need to listen to working class people (which we already know). But what is your strategy in “listening”? By listening, do you mean, listen to work out what people want to hear, and then say it? Listen to her say she voted because of migrants then show you have listened by promising to “get tough on immigration”? Because I’m not sure that is really listening. How is getting tough on immigration going to get her her council house? Shouldn’t we morally be listening and then explaining how we will stop the social housing crisis by a big scale build? That way we are listening but coming up with a solution based on lifting people at the bottom up – not by setting them against one another. I am frightened of what a newly emboldened far right will do to people’s lives in Dudley, and the blame cannot just sit with Farage – we all have to be accountable.

I work in further education. We saw a 24% cut to adult learning last year, and now we are going through nationwide mergers which will shrink provision further. If we want to engage a disenfranchised working class into positive rather than negative policies then we have to make the crisis in further education a top priority. Democracy just doesn’t work without access to education. It can’t.

I’ve noticed something with my class of last year and this year. They like Jeremy. One of my students came in with a Corbyn badge to his first lesson. They like that he is nothing like the politicians they are used to – they like that he is kind, that he is clever, and that he is not prepared to play the politics sleaze game they associate with Westminster. From left to right they recognise him as a man of principle, and many have told me they are voting for him. Corbyn has overseen a huge surge of young people into politics – and guess what, it wasn’t the young people who dominated the out vote. Are we interested in creating a politics of the future, or are we fixated on a politics of the past?

Since Corbyn got in I have had some hope that we may actually move forward as a society. Last night was a big step backwards, not because of the result but because of the turf it was fought on and the immediate reactions of our politicians. Boris may have been chased by booing spectators the first time they tried to film him but he certainly got it together to deliver a unifying speech which portrayed a vision of a tory party split only by principled democratic stances, otherwise respectful and working together. What vision of the Labour party have you delivered to the public today?

We don’t get another shot at this. If we lose our young activists, and our old returners, and go back to mimicking the stance on immigration provided with more conviction by other parties, the game is up.

I know you want the best for Britain and the Labour party. Please think very carefully about what you are doing.

 

Rhiannon Lockley

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#SayHerName: Justice For Sarah Reed

Wednesday 22nd June would have been Sarah Reed’s 33rd birthday.

Sarah Reed was a young, black, mentally ill woman. She died in prison earlier this year.

Sarah Reed was a mother. After the death of her child in 2003 Sarah was left by a hospice to carry her baby’s body across town in a taxi, wrapped in a sheet, to the undertaker. She never really recovered from this and from then on struggled with severe mental health issues.

In 2012 a police officer James Kiddie was caught on CCTV carrying out a violent assault assault on Sarah. He was filmed yanking her by the hair, dragging her across the floor, pressing on her neck and punching her several times in the head. He received 150 hours community service.

Following this brutal attack by a police officer Sarah’s mental health deteriorated further. While under section she was arrested for what she stated was self-defense against a sexual assault. The decision was taken for her to be incarcerated, in spite of her severe mental health issues, in Holloway prison.

It was not the right place for a very poorly young woman who in her 30s would climb in her mother’s bed for comfort at night.

Earlier this year she was found dead in her cell. Her family were initially told that she was found hanging, then that she had strangled herself.

Please join the day of action to mark Sarah’s birthday. You can do this by finding and sharing information about Sarah’s case, and by posting solidarity photographs and or videos. The hashtags to use are ‪#‎SayHerName ‪#‎JusticeForSarahReed and ‪#‎BlackLivesMatter. You can read Sarah’s mother’s story of what happened to her daughter here: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/feb/17/sarah-reeds-mother-deaths-in-custody-holloway-prison-mental-health?CMP=share_btn_fb

 

Jo Cox, motherhood and antifascism

Just had a cry in the pouring rain and thought I would quickly express some thoughts about what happened today.

 

I’m not too familiar with Jo. I know her name mainly from tweeting her off a list when campaigning. I’ve seen her speech about child refugees. I’ve seen the picture of her chasing Farage with her kids in the In Flotilla yesterday.

I’m thinking about all the times I have stood with my kids at anti-fascist demonstrations. They’ve never been close to any violence but they’ve been there, partly because I’m a mum and if they were not there I couldn’t be, and partly because I’m a mum in a world that teaches children the colour of your skin should dictate your access to resources and your freedom to move and there is no neutral position on that, only sides.

I’ve seen the grief from my mum friends who are antifascists and I am crying with you.

I’m thinking of the mum who pushed me to get active and works so hard for the Labour party. I’m thinking of the mum whose kids are at more demos than mine in Birmingham and who first tried selling me a paper in 96. I’m thinking of the brilliant queer mum who fights every day for her trans child. I’m thinking of the mum I’ve only recently met who has spoken so quietly and with such conviction to halls full of trades unionists though her voice is shaking about the things which really matter.

We have every right to shout out and we are not going away. Love to you all.

 

UCU and Unison strike together for fair pay in FE!

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Halesowen UCU on the picket

Today UCU are out together for the first time in 10 years in an historic pay strike. Pay freezes and insignificant raises have meant a big real terms cut in college pay over the last 6 years. This year, while principal pay continues to be eye-watering three figure sums with ongoing rises, bosses have imposed a pay freeze again. We are calling for a progressive pay rise of one pound an hour which will see those who are paid the least benefit the most.

There are 3.5 million students in FE – 61 percent are women and 15 percent are from ethnic minorities. Further Education is often referred to as second chance education, but for many students it is often the first chance when you look at the barriers that are there for them. For my students this includes domestic violence, mental illness, eviction and more.

44 percent of students that enter HE come from FE, but the it is the cinderella sector of our cash strapped education system. Last year alone saw a 24 percent cut to the adult education budget followed by a further attack on ESOL funds. Vince Cable claims the tories planned to get rid of FE while the coalition were in power. At the moment we are undergoing area reviews with the aim of snatching back even more funding from working class education by merging colleges.

College bosses think the only way to ride out the assault on FE is to continue to expect staff to do more for less. But it isn’t
sustainable. FE does amazing things in society, but so much of that now is powered by good will and college staff are at breaking point. I am used to dealing with young branch members in tears. Principals choose not to see this side of life in FE, but our reps have to try to deal with it every day.

We want college leaders to come back to negotiations. We need to move on from the culture of huge salaries at the top while pay falls and falls at the bottom. Principals who believe in Further Education and all that we achieve in society need to start valuing staff – and to work with us for a fairly funded, sustainable sector.

What a nursing bursary meant for me & my students #HuntMustGo #BursaryOrBust

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In December 2008, when my son was 17 months old, a few days before Christmas, my partner Ian was sacked from his job as a recruitment consultant.

Except he wasn’t, because the company he worked for (and had for years) claimed in the letter they sent that it was not a dismissal or a redundancy, it was a termination of contract, which turned out to be them breaking employment law.

Working in recruitment was not fun. In the space of a couple of years his wages dropped from about 18K to not much above minimum wage as various small firms he worked for made cuts or went bust. The duties didn’t decrease though – he was on call at all times with company phones that rang through the night whenever a company needed a replacement driver or an agency driver failed to turn up. On two different holidays he was told at the last minute he couldn’t come because someone else was off sick. The same happened for my 20 week scan.

I remember sitting on the bottom step looking at the P45 in disbelief while Ben tried to clamber into my lap dressed in his santa suit. I didn’t know what we were going to do. I was working a day a week and looking after my little boy and we needed his wages to keep going.

It turned out to be something that took our family in a new and completely different direction. A few months later, looking through a local newspaper I saw an advert for nursing courses at a local university and started writing down the date of the open day for my Access students when something clicked.

It took Ian three years to qualify as a mental health nurse. He studied at Uni for a few weeks at a time, and inbetween was out on block placements in a variety of settings. I remember hearing about his grimmer experiences, from the stomach churning to the deeply sad, and thinking what a specific skillset nursing needs – compassion, a thick skin, a strong stomach and a sense of humour. Not something I could do. Luckily, he could – and the family kept going financially due to his bursary. He’s since received an award from his trust after being nominated by his patients.

It’s a set of skills I’ve seen in bucketloads in the many many nursing students who have passed through my access psychology classes over the years too. My students have life experiences that would make your jaw drop, and what that gives them is something money can’t buy: empathy.

So it is devastating to know that, without a fight, this government will take away the bursary these students need to justify their time in education to themselves. How can we possibly be at a point where it is acceptable to tell people they are not only not going to be paid for changing bed pans and draining ulcers, and that instead they need to pay for the privilege?

I know already what will happen to these brilliant working class students and their skills. They will go for the cheaper option and take the route of the new nursing associate apprenticeship – and end up doing the same work for less pay, worse conditions, and reduced professional status.

I’m very glad to have got the backing of West Mids UCU to take this fight to congress. The attack on nursing qualifications is an attack on the working class and an attack on women in the workplace. For this along with the outrageous attempt to force through junior doctor contract changes, we need to get rid of Hunt. Let’s stand with the people who give up so much of their lives to be with our loved ones in their worst moments – and take out the tories who dare to devalue the work they do.

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Why I am standing for FE women’s rep, UCU nec

I first joined my branch committee when my daughter was 9 months old, with a huge amount of encouragement from my friend Lou, who was branch secretary at the time and a couple of years younger than me. I was worried I wouldn’t have the time to do anything useful, and if she hadn’t been there showing me trades unionists weren’t all older men I’m not sure I would have done it. As soon as I got involved, our branch chair Dave also started (nicely) pushing me to do things I would not have ever volunteered for and I found myself standing for regional women’s officer and speaking to thousands of people about why tne pensions attack was gendered in the dispute of 2011

My daughter is 6 now and I’ve been encouraged every step of the way to becoming more involved, and found I can make a difference. After becoming regional women’s officer I suddenly found myself thrown into the role of branch secretary and co-organising a national campaign after Dave was sacked alongside three other activists. The genuine love we were shown by a united trades union movement stays with me and still gets me through tough times.

Like the two reps who started me on my journey, I believe our union needs to be accessible to everyone and that equality is what we stand for and must be at the heart of what we do. As West Mids women’s officer, I have twice brought motions to congress to strengthen our equality structures. The first time, we got the backing of congress in challenging the  decision to run all of the equalities conferences at the same time. Noone should have to decide whether it matters more that they are female, black, lgbt or disabled – in fact, the more of these things that affect a member, the more they are underrepresented and the more we need them in our equality structures! The second time, I argued that we need soecific equality officers for each strand regionally, and again got the backing of congress. We’ve since spotted that regional equality officers have disappeared from model standing orders, so we’re coming back with a rule change this Summer.

Looking around me, I don’t see any other mums of young children involved in national activism or sitting on the NEC. I know plenty of members who are, but a combination of management attack on meetings, overloading with care and housework, and a lack of “people like them” being visible in the union stops them getting involved, and that has to change.

Please vote for me for FE women’s rep. I will be able to do even more to strengthen our union by strengthening our equality structures. I will always check union decisions to see how they affect people’s ability to get involved, I will engage with mums like me to see how we can build our ranks, and I will keep up the reminder that our union is about equality.

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