2013: the year Britain said "no more"

The Green Party's Natalie Bennet argues this year will be a turning point for the nation.

How will history look back on 2013? I think it might well be regarded as a turning point – “the year the British people said ‘no more’”.

Up and down the country, as I’ve travelled around as Green Party leader, I’ve founds groups and individuals saying “no more”.

They are saying “no more” to poverty wages – people working fulltime, yet unable to meet the cost of even the basic necessities.

They are saying “no more” to workfare - the unemployed being forced into such alleged "educational" roles as stacking for Poundland for not just low wages, but no wages at all.

They are saying “no more” to the 1 per cent collecting more and more of the wealth of our society, while the share for the rest, particularly the poorest, is squeezed more and more..

People are increasingly saying “no more” too to the demonisation of benefit recipients. They recognise that nearly all of us are only one medical incident, one traffic crash, away from disability, from depending on the support of the state. None of us can be sure that employment is certain, that we won’t find ourselves applying increasingly desperately for jobs where employers, faced with hundreds or thousands of applications, don't even reply to all applicants.

As I spoke to open Green Party conference in Nottingham on Friday, and as I attended its sessions yesterday, I’m was wearing on my jacket a small yellow rectangle of ribbon – a symbol of support for the Occupation of the University of Sussex, which I visited this week.

We’ve seen the comprehensive failure of the outsourcing model – the dreadful litany of A4E, G4S, and the awful Atos – yet somehow the university administration thought they could sneak through a privatisation of services on campus.

But the students have said “no more”. And looking around the university, at the rectangle of yellow in windows in offices and accommodation, it was great to see the resistance spreading.

Another group saying “no more” to great effect is UK Uncut. Like lots of Green Party members, I really enjoyed its action last year against Starbucks, the fast growing but mysteriously totally unprofitable coffee chain that infests our high streets like a particularly pernicious weed.

But sadly, mysteriously, one group that isn’t saying “no more” is the Labour Party.

Well, maybe it isn’t so mysterious… They’re only offering more of the same that we had for 13 years under Blair and Brown.

We know that it was Labour who championed the “light touch” regulation of the financial industries that the Tories have only continued, which abandoned all interest in supporting manufacturing and farming and was content to allow the jobs, the cash, the people of Britain to concentrate more and more in the south east corner of the country.

We know that it was Labour that started the privatisation of the NHS, it was Labour that championed the undemocratic academy schools that have morphed into Michael Gove’s free schools, it was Labour that dotted the country with immensely expensive, but immensely profitable, PFI schemes that today's babies will still be paying for when they are parents.

And we know that Labour is failing to challenge the government’s deeply divisive, deeply corrosive, deeply dishonest “strivers versus skivers” rhetoric.

We are living too in a Britain in which the mistakes, the great errors, of the past, have not been properly acknowledged, let alone dealt with, even though they are glaringly obvious.

We know the neoliberal model of a globalised economy in which we specialise in casino banking, arms sales to human-rights-abusing regimes and pharmaceuticals, while leaving it to the rest of the world to make our goods and grow our food, has hit the buffers: hit the buffers economically, and hit the buffers environmentally.

We know that we can’t keep living as though we’ve got three Planet Earths to exploit.

Yet the Labour Party is content to mutter empty platitudes about being “one nation”, keep its head down, not apologise for the mistakes of the past (including the Iraq War), and not offer any change in direction, just hope that the incompetence and economic failings of George Osborne’s clearly failing Plan A of austerity will deliver government back to them in 2015.

That’s not good enough, and it’s increasingly clear that the British people are saying “no more” to the shallow, sterile politics that sees Labour almost indistinguishable from Tory, each chasing a few tens of thousands of voters in a small percentage of marginal seats.

This article is adapted from the speech given by Natalie Bennett at the Green Party spring conference in Nottingham. The conference continues until Monday.

Natalie Bennett is the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales and a former editor of Guardian Weekly.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser