It could have been me

Parliament Square protester Brian Haw on Jenni Williams and the <a href="">W

When Amnesty International interviewed Jenni Williams about the attempts of the authorities in Harare to silence Women of Zimbabwe Arise (Woza), the peaceful protest group she heads, Jenni told them: "They will not be able to criminalise freedoms of expression and assembly, unless they take away our mouths and our ears and our eyes."

How uncanny. We had a portrait of the "three wise monkeys" - "speak, hear, see no truth" - in our Westminster United Nations Heart Gallery, our 45-metre manifestation right in the face of the British parliament. Politicians couldn't bear it and sent 78 police to pinch it. Now, thanks to God, Mark Wallinger and the Turner Prize, its expression is even more awesome.

So we're with you, Jenni and your sisters in Zimbabwe. You've been forced to put your lives on the line. But don't give up, not even when the government sends police to attack you. And then you win, as dear Gandhi said so well.

Since 2003, Woza has been mobilising women in Zimbabwe to demonstrate for political, economic and social rights. Even though Woza is dedicated to peaceful protest, motivated, as Jenni puts it, by "love for our country", its members have been arrested, beaten and threatened. In March, two of them were taken from their homes at gunpoint by the police. They were interrogated, assaulted and left in the bush. In June, Jenni and others were detained following a protest where several were beaten. Jenni was held for three days and forced to sleep on the floor of a concrete cell. A bucket of water was thrown in each day to increase the women's discomfort.

Jenni says the reaction of the authorities to their protests was initially a shock: "We started off thinking that as mothers, as women in Zimbabwe, we would be allowed to go out in the street and say, 'Come on, leaders, it's time for us to love again, it's time for us to end this hatred.'" Sadly, in Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe, even peaceful protest is not tolerated.

Likewise in Bush's America and Blair/Brown's Britain: here too, we are attacked by police and government agents, yet here too, thankfully, we have our loving lionesses defending the cubs, our kids and our future. Grandmother Ann Clancy and mother Maria Gallestegui on 1 August 2005 to mention but two.

Aussie mum Babs Tucker on Easter Sunday 2006 was dragged away by ten figures in yellow jackets. They called her a "Serious Organised Criminal" (a new law in 2005) for wearing her pretty pink "Peace, Love and Justice for All" banner. It's real, it's happening, and it's really bollocks. We won't accept it, just like Jenni and our sisters around the world.

The fact that Jenni and others in Woza are women has led to further abuse. Zimbabwean human rights defenders are often women, in part because they are often worst hit by the economic crisis as they try to find food and pay for schooling for their families. The police response has been brutal: women with babies are arrested, beatings are common. One pregnant woman was kicked in the stomach by a police officer.

I started our Peace Campaign for the whole world. It began outside parliament on 2 June 2001 (, yet its roots go further back. After the havoc wreaked by the US and UK in Afghanistan, Iraq was the last straw. I'm a Christian, dad, human being, responsible British citizen: we're all responsible to different degrees. Thankfully, so many joined me. We number billions - we are not alone!

Like us, Jenni and Woza refuse to cower despite being intimidated and assaulted at every turn. Bravo! Keep going; we will win. It takes courageous individuals like Jenni Williams and the others to defend liberties by protesting and teaching others that these rights cannot be taken away from them.

When she last visited London, Jenni brought with her a Woza banner. It read: "Beaten, jailed, but still determined to be free."

Brian Haw has been demonstrating outside the Houses of Parliament since 2001. Amnesty is asking people to send a message of solidarity to Jenni and Woza as part of its Greetings Card Campaign

This article first appeared in the 17 December 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2007

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Jeremy Corbyn has transformed Labour from resisting social movements to supporting them

The opposition's new leadership has brought about a historic shift in its relationship with social movements.

“Another world is possible,” declared John McDonnell last month in his first major speech as Labour’s new shadow chancellor. These four words show how Labour’s leadership views its relationship with activists and campaigners outside the Westminster system. The slogan is the motto of the World Social Forum, an annual alternative to the ultra-elite World Economic Forum, formed by social movements across the world to struggle against, and build alternatives to, neoliberalism.

How times change. In a speech given at the George Bush Senior Presidential Library in Texas, United States, in April 2002, Labour leader and British Prime Minister Tony Blair offered his support to the administrators of the global economy, not those demonstrating against them.

He said: “It's time we took on the anti-globalisation protestors who seek to disrupt the meetings international leaders have on these issues. What the poor world needs is not less globalisation but more. Their injustice is not globalisation but being excluded from it. Free enterprise is not their enemy; but their friend.”

In 2002, Labour’s leadership wanted to take on social movements. Now, it intends to engage with and support them. “The new kind of politics” of Labour’s new leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is about more than focusing on issues over personalities and (anti-) presentational changes.

It is also “a new politics which is based on returning the Labour party to its roots. And the roots of the Labour party was as a social movement, representing the vast majority of working people in this country,” as McDonnell, Corbyn’s closest political ally, explains to the New Statesman.

Campaigners outside of the Labour party are excited. John Hilary, executive director of War on Want, a campaigning anti-poverty NGO, tells the New Statesman, “there’s a really positive impulse to the Corbyn/McDonnell leadership reaching out” to social movements. For Hilary, the immediate policy changes on TTIP – the EU-US investor rights, regulation harmonisation and non-tariff barriers deal negotiated behind closed doors – and a Financial Transaction Tax have already sent “a message to a disenfranchised part of the electorate that Labour is back”.

But, for the campaigners outside of the Labour party, this moment is not without risks. Political parties have a long record of crushing the autonomy of social movements.

“It’s important they aren’t incorporated or have to work on the terms of the political system. It’s a matter of a respectful relationship,” explains Hilary Wainwright, a political activist and founder and co-editor of Red Pepper magazine. Wainwright argues for “close engagement [between Labour and outside campaigners] that isn’t a bossy dominating one. One that seeks to collaborate, not govern”.

McDonnell agrees. “The most important thing,” he says, “is that all of the campaigns and social movements that are campaigning at the moment and those that will campaign in the future, need to maintain their autonomy from government and political parties. We respect that . . . Otherwise, we’ll undermine their vitality and their independence.”

To remain “strong, independent and radical” is “the most helpful” campaigners can be to Labour’s leadership, according to Hilary. Labour’s leadership “don’t look to us to make the sort of political compromises that they might have to do in order to hold a much broader spectrum of people together. What we can do best is hold that line as we believe it be right and support the Labour leadership in taking a line as close as possible to that”, he says.

The task for social movements and campaigners outside of the party is “to show how there will be popular support for radical and principled positions”, according to Hilary.

To win in 2020, Labour will “bring together a coalition of social movements that have changed the political climate in this country and, as a result of that, changed the electoral potential of the Labour Party as well”, says McDonnell. For Labour’s shadow chancellor, the people's views on issues are complex and fluid rather than static, making the job of politicians to bump up as close to them as possible.

Movements can help shift political common sense in Labour’s direction. Just as UK Uncut placed the issue of tax avoidance and tax justice firmly on the political map, so too can other campaigners shift the political terrain.

This movement-focused perspective may, in part, explain why the Corbyn campaign chose to transform itself last week into the Momentum movement, a grassroots network open to those without Labour membership cards. This approach stands in contrast to Blair’s leadership campaign that evolved into Progress, a New Labour pressure group and think tank made up of party members.

In order to allow movements the space to change the terms of the debate and for Labour to develop policy in conjunction with them, the party needs “to engage with movements on their own terms”, according to Wainwright. This means “the party leadership need to find out where people are struggling and where people are campaigning and specifically work with them”, she continues.

McDonnell says it will. He says Labour “want to work alongside them, give them a parliamentary voice, give them a voice in government but, more importantly, assist them in the work that they do within the wide community, both in meetings, demonstrations and on picket lines”.

This position is not one you would expect from McDonnell’s five more recent predecessors: Chris Leslie, Ed Balls, Alan Johnson, Alistair Darling, Gordon Brown. So, “this may seem like a unique moment if you’re looking just within the British context. But, if you look outside Britain it’s actually much more in touch with movements in many places in the world”, says Hilary.

He adds: “Political parties are going to have to have much more honest engagements between parliamentary politics and the social movement hinterland. For us, it just means that in a wonderful way, Britain is catching up with the rest of the world.”

McDonnell too sees this shift in how Labour engages with movements as “a historic change that modernises the Labour party”.

But, perhaps for Labour, this is a recurrence rather than a transformation. The party grew out of Britain’s biggest social movement: the unions. Labour’s new leadership’s openness to campaigners “modernises it by taking it back to being a social movement again”, says McDonnell.