Nervous passengers beware

The challenges of travelling in the Caribean

My regular holiday sojourns in the Caribbean make modern travel seem so easy, almost effortless. Even in the depths of emotional despair, following my sister's death, Mrs Howe and I were able to change tickets from one company to the next without fuss or fanfare.

I had to write off my Virgin airline ticket to get me to Trinidad instead of Barbados, as we had planned. We booked a ticket with British Airways to Trinidad, and from Trinidad to Barbados we were placed on Liat, the Caribbean airline. I would meet up with Mrs Howe in Barbados for our two-week holiday.

A telephone call from London warned me that there would be all manner of shenanigans getting from Trinidad to Barbados. Departure time from Trinidad was 6am. Knowledgeable Trinidadians warned me to get to the airport at 4am, if not I would be bounced off the flight. The verb (to bounce) involves every shady activity imaginable.

I arrived on time, made my way to the ticket counter, only to be told that my British Airways ticket, bought and paid for, was not appearing on Liat's computer system. No one could say why this was so, only the statement delivered hesitatingly that my ticket had somehow disappeared into thin air.

I was furious. I huffed and puffed and confrontation seemed inevitable. Failing to meet Mrs Howe in Barbados was not an option. I tried to purchase another ticket, and such was my determination to get out of Trinidad that the Liat staff finally caved in - not before charging me for a single piece of hand luggage, a suit in a holdall.

I called my friend in London on my way to the departure lounge, and he suggested that all I had needed to do was slip the Liat staff a couple of blue notes (TT$200) and the problem would have been solved.

I had no intention of ever doing any such thing; I told him that I would prefer to develop wings and fly.

I met Mrs Howe at Grantley Adams airport in Barbados on time. We hugged and kissed. She was as warm as a Caribbean afternoon. We travelled to our destination in the parish of St Philip. On arrival, as she unpacked, she suddenly screamed that her suitcases had been tampered with.

Tags on the handles indicated that her luggage had been searched after check-in and without her presence. One tag gave the reason: the passenger was nervous. And the suitcases were not simply searched - they were ransacked as she relaxed in the departure lounge. The staff of the security company who went through her luggage had re-packed the suitcases, moving around her belongings from one bag to another.

We have travelled through the Caribbean for more than 30 years, to almost every island state. We have been to Africa and to Turkey. Nothing like this has ever happened before.

I questioned Mrs Howe closely and all she can remember saying was that she wanted to travel at the front of the plane because she feels uncomfortable at the back. This simple request made her a terrorist suspected of carrying a bomb in her suitcase.

She had brought with her a copy of the New Statesman, which carried a flier advertising a book about "fascist Britain". I do not agree with this bold claim, but a creeping authoritarianism is certainly upon us. A ticket-counter clerk, with no training in psychology, made the decision to violate my wife's possessions without any reasonable cause whatsoever.

Whatever happened to the slogan, Power to the People? It has been supplanted by another, Power to the Counter Clerk.

Darcus Howe is an outspoken writer, broadcaster and social commentator. His TV work includes ‘White Tribe’ in which he put Anglo-Saxon Britain under the spotlight. He also fronted a series called Devil’s Advocate.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Election fever

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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.