Quakers for prison reform

Their belief in equality and justice, and a history of being jailed for their faith, have inspired Q

Quakers (members of the Religious Society of Friends) are usually more concerned with living out their faith in their lives than with defining their faith. Our simple style of worship, based in silence, often provides the spiritual grounding for our efforts to make the world a better place, which in turn enriches our worship.

We have what we call Testimonies – I think of them as signposts or touchstones – which provide us with guidance in the large and small decisions of life. They can be summarised as Peace, Simplicity, Integrity and Equality. Out of our testimony to equality and justice have sprung such varied activities as campaigning to abolish slavery, providing good conditions for employees, choosing Fairtrade products, addressing racism and sexism within and beyond our own community and helping to set up Oxfam and the Child Poverty Action Group.

We also have a long tradition of working to improve the criminal justice system, specifically prison conditions. This goes back to our origins during the turbulent times of the seventeenth century, when many Quakers were thrown into the appalling prisons of the time for holding illegal meetings for worship. If you look very closely at a five pound note featuring Elizabeth Fry, you will see not only the portrait of a determined woman, but also a picture of her sitting in Newgate prison in 1823, reading from the Bible, with the light streaming in symbolically. On the left are members of the Ladies Committee she created, on the right the imprisoned women and children.

More recently, Quakers have been working on policy regarding the children of imprisoned mothers – when is it best for the baby or child to be with its mother, even in prison, and when is it harmful? Should childcare responsibilities be taken into account when offenders are sentenced? Quaker reports have been welcomed and considered by UN agencies.

Meanwhile, Quakers go on visiting prisoners and supporting moves to adopt restorative processes. Restorative justice aims, as much as possible, to heal the harm done by crime and look towards a better future. It usually does this by practical processes which bring together and consider the needs of the offender, victim and community.

This fits closely with Quaker approaches to justice in the wider sense too - every individual is unique, precious, a child of God, and therefore should be valued and treated with respect in all situations.

Helen Drewery is the assistant general secretary for Quaker Peace and Social Witness.
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Labour's establishment suspects a Momentum conspiracy - they're right

Bernie Sanders-style organisers are determined to rewire the party's machine.  

If you wanted to understand the basic dynamics of this year’s Labour leadership contest, Brighton and Hove District Labour Party is a good microcosm. On Saturday 9 July, a day before Angela Eagle was to announce her leadership bid, hundreds of members flooded into its AGM. Despite the room having a capacity of over 250, the meeting had to be held in three batches, with members forming an orderly queue. The result of the massive turnout was clear in political terms – pro-Corbyn candidates won every position on the local executive committee. 

Many in the room hailed the turnout and the result. But others claimed that some in the crowd had engaged in abuse and harassment.The national party decided that, rather than first investigate individuals, it would suspend Brighton and Hove. Add this to the national ban on local meetings and events during the leadership election, and it is easy to see why Labour seems to have an uneasy relationship with mass politics. To put it a less neutral way, the party machine is in a state of open warfare against Corbyn and his supporters.

Brighton and Hove illustrates how local activists have continued to organise – in an even more innovative and effective way than before. On Thursday 21 July, the week following the CLP’s suspension, the local Momentum group organised a mass meeting. More than 200 people showed up, with the mood defiant and pumped up.  Rather than listen to speeches, the room then became a road test for a new "campaign meetup", a more modestly titled version of the "barnstorms" used by the Bernie Sanders campaign. Activists broke up into small groups to discuss the strategy of the campaign and then even smaller groups to organise action on a very local level. By the end of the night, 20 phonebanking sessions had been planned at a branch level over the following week. 

In the past, organising inside the Labour Party was seen as a slightly cloak and dagger affair. When the Labour Party bureaucracy expelled leftwing activists in past decades, many on went further underground, organising in semi-secrecy. Now, Momentum is doing the exact opposite. 

The emphasis of the Corbyn campaign is on making its strategy, volunteer hubs and events listings as open and accessible as possible. Interactive maps will allow local activists to advertise hundreds of events, and then contact people in their area. When they gather to phonebank in they will be using a custom-built web app which will enable tens of thousands of callers to ring hundreds of thousands of numbers, from wherever they are.

As Momentum has learned to its cost, there is a trade-off between a campaign’s openness and its ability to stage manage events. But in the new politics of the Labour party, in which both the numbers of interested people and the capacity to connect with them directly are increasing exponentially, there is simply no contest. In order to win the next general election, Labour will have to master these tactics on a much bigger scale. The leadership election is the road test. 

Even many moderates seem to accept that the days of simply triangulating towards the centre and getting cozy with the Murdoch press are over. Labour needs to reach people and communities directly with an ambitious digital strategy and an army of self-organising activists. It is this kind of mass politics that delivered a "no" vote in Greece’s referendum on the terms of the Eurozone bailout last summer – defying pretty much the whole of the media, business and political establishment. 

The problem for Corbyn's challenger, Owen Smith, is that many of his backers have an open problem with this type of mass politics. Rather than investigate allegations of abuse, they have supported the suspension of CLPs. Rather than seeing the heightened emotions that come with mass mobilisations as side-effects which needs to be controlled, they have sought to joins unconnected acts of harassment, in order to smear Jeremy Corbyn. The MP Ben Bradshaw has even seemed to accuse Momentum of organising a conspiracy to physically attack Labour MPs.

The real conspiracy is much bigger than that. Hundreds of thousands of people are arriving, enthusiastic and determined, into the Labour party. These people, and their ability to convince the communities of which they are a part, threaten Britain’s political equilibrium, both the Conservatives and the Labour establishment. When the greatest hope for Labour becomes your greatest nightmare, you have good call to feel alarmed.