Tate that

A festive protest at a key London art gallery raises the profile of poor pay in one of the richest c

What do you need to earn per hour to support yourself in London? You won’t be surprised to hear that the national minimum wage of £5.52 per hour is nowhere near enough. In fact, research by the GLA’s Living Wage Unit shows that a wage of at least £7.20 per hour is what it takes to provide enough for the basics of life here in the capital.

Yet far too few of London’s workers receive this amount: around 400,000 Londoners fall into a ‘working poverty gap’, with their families receiving less than they need to get by. These families will be running up debts all year round, and as a result will be finding Christmas virtually impossible to manage.

So, that’s why I was more than happy to join the London Citizens’ living wage campaigners on Friday to sing myself hoarse as part of an audacious protest at the Tate Modern art gallery.

More about the protest itself in a second, but first I’ll explain why the living wage campaign is interested in the Tate gallery. South London Citizens (one of four major coalitions across London that make up the London Citizens organisation) has been trying to persuade the Tate to become a living wage employer for nearly a year, but still the board are refusing to ensure their 50 or so cleaners and catering staff are paid the London living wage of £7.20. Most of the cleaners are in fact on the national minimum wage and many have never received a pay rise above the minimum.

For a hugely successful gallery group, and one which is endowed with millions of pounds that came originally from the profits of a sugar industry that boomed thanks to slave labour, this is not good enough, so along we went on Friday to escalate the campaign.

A Christmas time protest at the Tate Modern is almost obliged to be both festive and arty, and the organisers had come up with something brilliant. It so happens that the gallery’s massive Turbine Hall is currently hosting artist Doris Salcedo’s installation of a 167 metre giant crack along the length of the hall’s floor, which appears to show the building literally coming apart. The piece is, among other things, a representation of the gap between the rich and the underclass in modern society, so it provided a perfect foil for our action.

Posing as a diverse range of ordinary art fans, around 100 of us waited for our signal (a lone singer and then lined up each side of the crack to link hands and solemnly sing together a range of Christmas Carols. After these songs, we filed out of the huge entrance doors – still singing – to join the more traditional union picket and brass band outside to continue performing seasonal songs with slightly doctored lyrics , including ‘we wish you a merry workforce’ (my favourite).

The effect of all this was so moving that we drew a large audience of spectators inside the gallery and the action inside was described on air as ‘incredibly impressive’ by the BBC reporter sent to cover it.

For me, the most impressive thing about the event was that a high proportion of the demonstrators were actual, in the flesh, vicars. This is because this highly radical campaign is being organised largely by faith groups and churches across London, alongside unions and student groups. Convinced by the rightness of their demands on behalf of the workers of London, these organisers are prepared to be more militant than most NGOs and are not afraid to be confrontational in their actions or scared to name and shame offending companies.

This radicalism means that they are really getting results, and hopes of eventual success with the Tate are therefore high. London Citizens’ work has already led to £10 million a year being paid in higher wages across London, with universities, hospitals and the Olympic Delivery Authority already committed to paying a living wage to their lowest paid employees. The Tate is clearly able to afford to pay all its staff decently, and the board cannot be happy at being shamed in such an eyecatching way at Christmas time by a group that includes so many Christians.

A similar protest at Citigroup in Canary Wharf at Halloween got a very quick response that means all their cleaners have the chance to support their families decently on their wages. In a city as rich as ours, there’s no reason why all big companies can’t do the same. I just hope we don’t have to send the vicars round to every one.

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
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We need to destroy Isil, yes. But the Prime Minister has no plan

And so, until there is a better plan on the table, I will vote against bombing Syria, says Owen Smith.

There are no decisions we make as MPs more important than whether we commit our country to combat, with its inevitable loss of military and civilian lives. That is a view shared by MPs of all parties in the House of Commons, who treat their responsibility on this question with the utmost seriousness. I have no doubt, therefore, that the Prime Minister and all those who have concluded that we should enter more fully into combat in Syria, starting with bombing the Isil/Daesh stronghold Raqqua, have done so after careful consideration, believing that this action is necessary to protect the security of the UK, through defeating Isil and bringing stability to Syria.

However, I respectfully disagree with them, and I will not be supporting a motion to bomb, based on the arguments brought forward by the Prime Minister last week.

My opposition is not rooted in pacifism, it is a hard headed and finely balanced judgment based on what I think the likely strategic, security and military effects of our involvement are.

The Prime Minister is right to set out objectives to defeat Isil and the formation of a stable, inclusive government in Syria.  These are aims that we all should share and at some point the use of British military force may well be required to achieve that outcome.  I might well support military action if a comprehensive and serious plan were put to parliament by the Prime Minister.  However, the case that Cameron currently proposes singularly fails to explain to the country how bombing will achieve his twin objectives. In fact, he is equally hazy on both the end state he desires and the end game to deliver it, and even on the question of military action, it is the Opposition's job to point to holes in the government’s argument.

Though I, like most MPs, am no military expert, I have studied these issues with great care and, along with many military and diplomatic experts, I cannot see that that Britain adding around an extra 10 per cent per cent bombing capacity (we will contribute six to 10 planes) to the US, French and other forces’ capabilities is likely to make a truly telling contribution to what we can all agree should be an agreed military objective: degrading and defeating Isil.  Especially given that there have already been around 3,000 air strikes against Isil in Syria.

I am sceptical that our weaponry is significantly more effective than that of the US, however excellent our personnel. I am also sceptical that bombing can avoid civilian casualties. And am wholly unconvinced that bombing, without significant, committed, united and effective ground troops to hold and build on the territory cleared by the bombs, will deliver the objective. It may not even be enough to chase Isil out of their stronghold in Raqqa. If the Prime Minister had been able to build a coalition of support from neighbouring countries of Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and others, willing to commit troops on the ground to take and hold ground cleared by air strikes then the equation would be very different. However, the current coalition is incomplete, and the ground troops insufficient.

Cameron has talked of there being perhaps 70,000 men under arms in opposition to Isil and ready to engage on the ground, but this does seem to me, as to many others, to be an optimistic assessment. Evidently, some of the anti-Isil and anti-Assad forces can be effective, as the Kurdish militias (the YPG) showed in driving back Isil forces from the northern town of Kobani last year, under cover of US planes. But these successful moments of defence have been few and far between and have mostly either involved these Northern (Rojava) Kurdish fighters or their ethnic countrymen from Iraq, the US-trained Peshmerga. Neither group is in close proximity to Raqqa and both see their primary objective as securing a Kurdish homeland from Syria, Iraq and Turkey. Other groups, some suggest as many as a hundred, are fighting across the region, but have a wide variety of allegiances and aims, tribal and religious, including two powerful groups that are off-shoots of Al-Quaida.  So it seems clear that the Prime Minister’s current proposals offer no realistic prospect of ground forces securing territory in and around Raqqa, which will ultimately be necessary to effectively neutralise the Isil threat, both regionally and internationally.

Nor is it clear to me what Cameron hopes Bashar al Assad will do in the event of increased bombing of Isil.  Assad is currently fighting on several fronts, against Isil, against the Kurds and against other groupings, some of them the ‘moderates’ the PM hopes will help. It remains uncertain as to whether Assad will view the bombing as an opportunity to intensify his fight with Isil, or to crush the moderates whose main goal is to depose him.

Perhaps more important a reason to oppose this action than the apparent holes in the military strategy, is the lack of a plan for what comes after. The current situation on the ground, provides scant hope for a peaceful and inclusive government to emerge, even in the event of Isil being eradicated. Far more likely is the continuation of pre-existing conflicts and the emergence of new crises from the rubble of Raqqa. British bombs might hasten the end of this phase of the conflict, if supported by a real and reliable land army, but it is only diplomatic, financial and, crucially, regional political pressure that stands a chance of any form of stability.

Maybe these questions would shrink in size if I truly felt our security at home would be increased by our bombing Isil in Syria.  But I do not.  Isil is a terrorist organisation, but it is also an insurgent army, an idea and a brand. It’s monstrous reach out of Syria, to Paris most tragically, but potentially to any of our towns and cities, may well be in planning, arming and instigating. And I am sure that the Security Services could draw evil, concrete connections between Raqqa and the Bata’clan. But Isil’s reach, and its strength, is intangible too: in its propaganda and cultural call to arms.

The only way we can be sure of defeating the Isil threat to our streets and in the region, is to find a long term political solution in Syria.  Unfortunately in my judgement, the proposals put in front of us to vote on this week do not offer that potential.  The prime route to ensuring that Isil’s capacity to threaten Western Europe is destroyed is to build on the recent peace talks in Vienna, with the aim of constructing a concerted international strategy on defeating Isil.  For this to be successful, global and regional partners must play a central part in the strategy, showing that the world is united in opposition to the poisonous ideology of Isil. And Arab nations, with Sunni majorities, must be in the vanguard of both peace talks and any military action.  

Finally, I repeat that these are judgements, not facts, and I may well be proved wrong. But I reach my conclusion as an internationalist, a European and someone who loves France and the French people. Their call for us to join with them is, for this MP, by far the most compelling to step up our engagement to actual combat at their side. But it is neither unpatriotic nor cowardly for us not to do so. The UN Resolution and NATO Treaty invoked by France, call on us to engage in ‘such action as it (the individual member states or NATO as a whole) deems necessary, including the use of armed force’. That tells me that any action our Government undertakes, including bombing, will be legal. But is does not tell me whether it will be strategic and wise, politically or militarily. And just as we cannot outsource our defence to our allies in the US or France, nor too can we outsource our judgement.

And so, until there is a better plan on the table, I will vote against. 


Owen Smith is Labour MP for Pontypridd and Shadow Secretary of State for Work & Pensions.