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Laurie Penny: A response to Alex Callinicos

Deregulating resistance will mean deregulating the organisations that control resistance.

Let me say right from the start that I know I shouldn't do this. Arguing strategy with revolutionary leftist parties in a public forum is a little like discussing venereal disease at a children's birthday party: half the people there won't know or care what you're on about and the other half will start trying frantically to shush you in case you inadvertently reveal some oozing detail that relegates you to pariah status. Last week, however, I wrote an article for the Guardian that appears to have got me into trouble with the Socialist Workers Party and I'd like to respond to the ensuing brouhaha.

In the article, I wrote that the old organisational structures of revolution -- far-left parties, unions and splinter groups -- are increasingly irelevant to the movement that is building across Europe. The organisational structures, not the organisations themselves. The fact that there remains, in most communities in Britain, a small but dedicated group of left-wing activists with gloriously unreconstructed socialist sentiments and an inexhaustible energy for leafleting is just one more thing that makes me proud to live on this bitter little island. Some of their ideas, like the notion that one can truly change the world by standing on the corner of every demonstration selling copies of the party newspaper, are a little antique but the essential idea of revolution and resistance is never going out of style. When students and young people say that the unions and far-left parties will have to follow our energy rather than seeking to lead and control it, we're not saying that the notion of a people's revolution isn't trendy anymore because it's somehow not 2.0 enough for us.

Alex Callinicos is right: students can't do it alone. Of course they can't. Nor can schoolkids or workers or people who are unemployed. That's what class solidarity is all about and solidarity has been the watchword of these protests. The structures of labour and power and information distribution have changed irrevocably since the 1980s, however, which is why the structures of solidarity and revolution have to change, too. The power of organised labour was undercut across the world by building in higher structural unemployment and holding down wages, by atomising workers, outsourcing and globalising production while keeping working people tied to increasingly divided and suspicious communities. Thatcher, Reagan and Blair deregulated oppression. In order to be properly effective, rebels have to deregulate resistance.

Deregulating resistance will mean deregulating the organisations that control resistance, making them more anarchic, more inclusive and more creative. The function of the SWP over the course of these protests is an important example of how this can work. SWP activists are the street-fighting men and women of the far left and their energy and skill sets are vitally useful -- they have, accordingly, been involved in many of the high-profile actions that have taken place this winter, but they have not been leading from the front. SWP members have been most effective in conjunction with school pupils, anarchists, students and unaffiliated members who adapt their organic techniques to the changing nature of the whole. They have been least useful when trying to sell copies of the Socialist Worker to children running away from horses.

The question of the paper is fantastically indicative. The notion of a communistic worker's revolution developed smack in the middle of the golden age of newspapers, which is why Lenin's ideas about the function of a party paper -- that it ought to be a key organising tool produced for the edification of the masses by an influential vanguard of radicals -- were and remain so important to many radicals who see themselves as the inheritors of Marx and Lenin. At the time, Lenin was advocating revolution that utilised the structures of the most cutting-edge technology anyone had available to them. This new wave of unrest is happening at a similar turning point in the history of communications technology. New groups can exchange information and change plans via Twitter and text message in the middle of demonstrations. It's no longer about edicts delivered by an elite cadre and distributed to the masses, or policy voted on at national meetings and handed down by delegates. It's not the technology itself so much as the mentality fostered by that technology that is opening up new possibilities for resistance.

The Socialist Workers Party and other far-left organisations do not have a monopoly on class consciousness. Many organisers of this year's student revolutions have a background in far-left agitation and many more do not -- but nearly all of us know precisely what's at stake. If any one group tries to claim ownership or exert control over this new movement, they will have missed the point entirely. Nobody can own this revolution: not the unions, not the far left, not the Labour Party and not the students. It's far bigger than that.

As the sun went down over the Whitehall kettle and the icy winter wind began to bite, an extraordinary thing happened somewhere behind the police lines. I was huddled with a group of school kids and stiff, bewildered protesters around a dying fire made from exercise books and ripped-up bits of placard. We had hours yet before the police would let us free and nothing left to burn and, as we watched the embers fade away with mounting panic, a young man approached and asked if any of us would like to buy a copy of the Socialist Worker.

We rounded on him in desperation. None of us had any money but we were all freezing and we needed paper -- not to read but to burn. We begged him to give us even one paper and join us at the fire. A slew of emotions chased across the SWP seller's face as he considered this dilemma. Finally, he agreed to give us two copies, if, and only if, any of us could sing at least two verses of the Internationale. So we did -- me, some Neets and schoolkids from the slums of London -- our voices shaking a little from the chill. He handed over the papers with a smile and shuffled into the circle to warm up.

Ultimately, I'm not interested in whether you're a Leninist or a liberal or a Blairite or a Brownite or an anarchist or a concerned member of the public with no time for ideological flim-flammery. I'm interested in whether or not you're going to join me at the fire. I want to know if you're up for a fight. I want to know if you are prepared to put your body on the line to battle social oppression and fight the machinations of a dissembling government working to protect profit at the expense of the people. Because this is the future, not some cultish Petrograd-enactment society where we all dress up as revolutionaries and shout at each other for hours and then go home before anyone gets hurt. This is the future, it's happening now, and innocent people have already been hurt. The question is, are you prepared to stand with the tens of thousands on the street and stop injustice in its tracks?

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.