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London calls the street rebels

The global justice movement is back in town – and planning the biggest rally since the Iraq War marc

As the heads of government of the G20 nations prepare to convene for the crisis summit in London’s Docklands on Thursday 2 April, a political movement which ten years ago seemed to be sweeping all before it, yet hit a brick wall a few years later, may once again make the political running. The global justice movement is back in town.

“This isn’t going to be another Stop the War moment, where a huge march is held, the government ignores it and everyone goes home depressed,” says Nick Dearden of the Jubilee Debt Campaign, one of those responsible for what the organisers hope will be the biggest public rally since the anti-war march of 2003 (the event takes place on Saturday 28 March). “And it’s not going to be another Make Poverty History, where the rock stars meet the world leaders and everyone makes promises and nothing happens. This is a serious coalition with a serious agenda, and we’re in it for the long term.”

The coalition to which Dearden refers is a new alliance of unions, non-governmental organisations and religious groups, armed with a manifesto that aims to rewrite the rules of the global economy. Put People First has already created a significant alliance – more than a hundred groups, ranging from Greenpeace to the Dalit Solidarity Network via the NUJ and the Muslim Council of Britain, have so far signed up.

“Put People First only began life back in November,” Dearden says. “A group of NGOs involved in what you might call the ‘economic justice movement’ – groups like Jubilee Debt, the Bretton Woods Project and the Trade Justice Movement – saw a real opportunity to be seized as the financial crisis unfolded. For decades, we’ve been campaigning to make the global financial architecture fair and sustainable. Now that it’s collapsed, that message is more relevant than ever – but there’s a danger that the G20 governments will not make real changes. We wanted to bring a coalition together to make clear what needed to be done.

“The interest has been quite amazing. What’s really significant about this is the marrying up of unions, environmental groups, trade justice groups, religious groups – all of them uniting for the first time around a common manifesto which we are demanding the G20 adopts.”

It is this impressive size and breadth that makes the coalition’s organisers hopeful of a large turnout. And Put People First is already making an impact. Its manifesto and accompanying policy paper call for a “historic break with the policies of the past”, and include demands for an end to tax havens, radical reform of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, new rules stipulating transparency for multinational corporations and financial institutions, a “Green New Deal” recovery package based on huge investment in renewable techno­logies, and the control of cross-border capital flows. It seems the British government is listening – but only up to a point.

“We have held a series of meetings with the government at various levels,” says Julian Oram, head of policy at the World Development Movement and another key player in the coalition. “To be fair, they have been good at meeting us and listening to what we have to say. And we agree on some things, like ending tax havens. My impression is that they want to be seen to be in agreement with us – to adopt our language and look like they’re working with us – but on most of our demands, they either don’t get it or blame China or India for their inability to change things. We need to be very clear with them and the public what we want. We are not going to be co-opted.”

After the G20, Put People First will turn its attention to the UN’s crisis summit on the global economy, planned for June, and then the Copenhagen conference on climate change in December. But whatever the coalition’s long-term impact, it is not the only voice that will be raised in the week ahead.

One of the loudest will be the fourth gathering of Camp for Climate Action on 1 April. After the movement’s previous protests at the Drax and Kingsnorth power stations and Heathrow Airport, the intention is for this year’s camp to take place in the belly of the beast: the City. Twenty-four hours of direct action, workshops and debates will climax in the attempted occupation of the European Climate Exchange, the pan-

European centre for the trading of carbon emissions permits. “Carbon markets don’t work,” says Mel Evans of the Camp for Climate Action. “On the contrary – this is the government handing power over the climate to the corporations and the traders who got us into this mess. We want to block that. Carbon trading will be the next sub-prime. What we want people to understand is that the climate crisis and the economic crisis are intimately connected. It’s the same unsustainable growth economy that causes both.” Exactly what will happen on the day is a closely guarded secret, but the camp is likely to be a big affair, and the G20 will find it hard to ignore.

A wave of street protests, direct action and other activities is also planned by a loose alliance of political groups, activists, anarchists, artists, students and others for 1 April, or “Financial Fools Day”. The Daily Mail is already sounding gleeful about the potential confron­tation (“Anarchists plan City riot!” ran a recent headline). At mid-morning on 1 April, marchers representing the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse will begin moving from four London railway stations, heading for the Bank of England. Each group will be commanding its forces against 1) climate chaos, 2) war, 3) job, pension and savings losses and 4) home repossessions.

So, London might be a bad place to try to move around in the coming week. But all the colour and the chaos, marches and manifestos should not obscure the bigger picture, which puts the week’s events in proper historical context. Ten years ago, in the US city of Seattle, governments gathered for a ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organisation. They had come to set the rules by which the global economy would operate. In retrospect, it was probably the high-water mark of globalisation: after the fall of communism and before 11 September 2001.

As the meeting began, the delegates were unexpectedly confronted by a mass of people who saw things very differently. More than 50,000 people took to the streets to rebel against the WTO’s version of history. Environmentalists highlighted the global economy’s disastrous impact on the natural world; campaigners for justice railed against the exploitation of the poor; unions, religious groups, anarchists and thousands of unaligned individuals took to the streets to shut down the WTO. The police responded violently with tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets. A movement was born, and during the next three years it stormed every global summit. The inequality and unsustainability of the global economy were exposed to public view. But the 11 September 2001 attacks and Iraq War caused the movement to dissipate, and its surface energy disappeared.

Yet, a decade on, the wheel has come full circle. Many of the claims that the protesters made back in Seattle have been proved right, and what is happening now can be seen as the next phase of the same movement. But this time those who claimed that markets should not be left to their own devices, that global inequality was something to be ashamed of, find their arguments echoed, however insincerely, by prime ministers, presidents and CEOs.

The movement seems to have learned from its mistakes. It knows it can never repeat the vast street protests that culminated in widespread police brutality, most shamefully the death of an activist in Genoa in 2001: a newly empowered and determined state apparatus would not allow it, for one thing. But it knows also that getting too close to power, as the Make Poverty History coalition did, can be fatal. The trick is to create a space in which everyone from artists and anarchists to NGO policy wonks can play a part, while making hard, detailed demands of power. And not stopping until those demands are met.

It remains to be seen where this movement goes next, or the scale and the effectiveness of the week’s events. But the world leaders inside the summit venue would be well advised to listen to what it has to say. After all, it’s not as if they have any better ideas of their own.

Paul Kingsnorth’s latest book is “Real England” (Portobello Books, £14.99). For details log on to: www.paulkingsnorth.net

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The end of American power

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The Brexit odd squad

The Brexiters are resilient and have the support of some unlikely foreign allies. Can they really topple the political establishment and lead Britain out of the European Union?

Look at the troops arrayed on the Leave and the Remain sides in the June referendum and you might think that our continued membership of the European Union is assured. On the side of staying in the EU are Britain’s four living prime ministers, the International Monetary Fund, the Treasury, most members of the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties, the Trades Union Congress, the Confederation of British Industry, the governor of the Bank of England, the head of the NHS, Britain’s three largest trade unions and the US president. Leave has Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and the contested ghost of Margaret Thatcher.

Yet few expect the final result of Britain’s In/Out referendum to be as asymmetric as that roll-call would suggest. At the top of the pro-EU campaign Britain Stronger in Europe, there is no doubt: it could lose.

So what – and who – is responsible for the unlikely appeal of Brexit’s “odd squad”? And how do they work together when their side is so fractious and its big personalities seem so uninterested in teamwork?

The story begins on the morning of 20 February, when David Cameron summoned his cabinet to announce the results of his EU renegotiation and ask his ministers to support Britain’s continued membership of the Union. Those who did left by the front door; the six dissidents were asked to leave by the tradesman’s entrance.

Nipping out the back were the full cabinet members Iain Duncan Smith, Michael Gove, Chris Grayling, Theresa Villiers and John Whittingdale, plus the employment minister, Priti Patel, who has the right to attend cabinet meetings. They soon reconvened at Vote Leave’s headquarters, a nondescript tower block in Westminster, where they posed with a giant sign bearing the campaign’s slogan “Vote Leave, take control” – a sight more reminiscent of a group of local councillors vowing to protect a bus lane than the upper reaches of the British political class.

Then again, the cabinet Leavers are not, on the whole, an impressive bunch. Villiers and Grayling were among the casualties of the formation of the coalition government in 2010, moving from their briefs to make way for Lib Dems, and both had to be content with junior posts until the 2012 reshuffle. Since then, Villiers has been a competent if uninspiring operator in Northern Ireland. Grayling was widely held to be a failure at the Ministry of Justice and now serves as Leader of the House of Commons, historically the antechamber between full cabinet rank and the wilderness.

As for Whittingdale, he is that rare creature in Whitehall: a secretary of state for culture, media and sport who does not regard the post as a stepping stone to bigger things. As the recent white paper on the future of the BBC showed, the golden thread of his thinking is scepticism: towards the EU, the BBC and regulation of the press. He was Margaret Thatcher’s last political secretary in Downing Street and, after becoming an MP in the 1992 election, he set up meetings between the former prime minister and his fellow new boys from the 1992 intake – meetings that John Major blamed for fanning the flames of Eurosceptic rebellion in the dog days of his premiership.

Priti Patel also has impeccable Eurosceptic credentials. She cut her teeth as a press officer to the Referendum Party, set up in a doomed attempt to secure an In/Out referendum in 1997. Following William Hague’s election as Tory leader and the adoption of complete hostility towards the single currency, she joined the Conservative Party, becoming an MP in 2010.

She is best known for contributing to Britannia Unchained, a series of essays by Patel and four of her fellow 2010-ers (including Dominic Raab, widely expected to run for the Tory leadership next time). The book was intended to provide the intellectual ballast for a revivified Thatcherism, though the only part that attracted headlines was the claim that British workers were “among the worst idlers in the world”.

This dubious crew of ministerial heavyweights has grown marginally more likeable since Duncan Smith’s resignation as work and pensions secretary. Yet it is not his six-year tenure as a minister but his two-year stint as Tory leader that has left the biggest mark on the Brexit debate, with his former hires among the loudest advocates for a Leave vote – including the founding editor of ConservativeHome, Tim Montgomerie, now at Gove’s old newspaper the Times. (In the unhappiest periods of Cameron’s first term, when the Prime Minister was frequently criticised by Montgomerie in that newspaper, Cameroons would mutter about the irony that one of their sharpest critics had served as chief of staff to the least successful leader of the Conservative Party in its history.)

As for Michael Gove, though he is loved by lobby journalists, he remains a hate figure in the country at large and particularly among teachers, as a result of his belligerent tactics during his time as secretary of state for education.

***

The last of the senior Brexit-supporting Tories didn’t leave through the back door that morning because he hadn’t yet declared his position. That came the next day, in a media scrum outside his home in Islington, north London.

The former mayor of London Boris Johnson is still Britain’s most popular politician, surviving crises and scandals that would have left others dead in the water. He is also the only politician whom the Remain campaign truly fears. But Johnson is not a wholly congenial presence among Britain’s Brexiters. Although he is a far more adept planner than his dishevelled appearance – or his paper-thin record at City Hall – would suggest, he can be difficult to manage. His  weekly Telegraph column has largely been turned to cheerleading for Brexit but Vote Leave’s biggest gun doesn’t always point in the direction its chief strategists would like.

During Barack Obama’s visit to the UK in April, Johnson became embroiled in a war of words in which he suggested that the president had an ancestral dislike of Britain because of his “part-Kenyan” heritage. Having made this racially charged argument in the Sun, he extended the story needlessly by giving a similarly robust interview to the Daily Mail, much to the frustration of staffers at Vote Leave.

So there you have it. An unpopular firebrand, an unsuccessful former Tory leader, four relative nonentities and a blond bombshell who is considered clever but uncontrollable. It is less a huddle of Big Beasts than a grotesque menagerie – and these are among the sensible, mainstream voices on the Leave side. The other politicians who can get on to the Sunday shows to talk Brexit include Nigel Farage, who is adored by the four million people in Britain who voted Ukip in last year’s general election – and hated by the remaining 42 million. Yet he is a national treasure compared to George Galloway, formerly of Labour, who secured just 37,000 votes in the mayoral election. An unkind observer might say that none of the Brexit-backing politicians can stop traffic: half of them because they are unknown and the other half because most people would quite like to run them over.

There are also few compelling figures from business, sport, entertainment and science backing Brexit. Ian Botham is a rare celebrity Outer. “Cricket is a game where you achieve the greatest success when you are confident in your own ability to go out and stand proud,” he wrote in the Sunday Times. “Britain has that spirit.” In April, a slew of acts withdrew from a gig in Birmingham after finding out that it was organised by Leave.EU. Only Phats & Small, whose last hit was in 1999, refused to pull out.

Then there’s the infighting. To give just one example of the ongoing civil war, Vote Leave – the officially recognised campaign group for Brexit – believes Farage is so toxic to its cause that it regards his invitation to appear in a TV discussion alongside Cameron as an establishment stitch-up. “ITV has effectively joined the official In campaign,” said a Vote Leave statement to journalists on 11 May, written by Dominic Cummings, the campaign’s director. “There will be consequences for its future – the people in No 10 won’t be there for long.”

***

In the light of all this, why are the pro-Europeans so worried? Many feel that the current campaign is beginning to remind them of a nightmare year: 2011, when Britain voted decisively to reject electoral reform by moving from first-past-the-post to the Alternative Vote (AV). Around the time of the 2010 general election, polls had shown that Britain was in favour of the change by a 27-point margin. But on 5 May 2011, more than two-thirds of voters said No to AV, which ended up more than 35 points ahead.

What undid the Alternative Vote was a ruthlessly effective campaign against it – one that was almost completely fact-free. No2AV focused relentlessly on the cost of a new voting system; poster after poster made reference to its illusory price tag of £250m. “He needs bulletproof vests,” intoned one illustrated with a picture of a soldier, “NOT an alternative voting system.” Another came with a picture of a baby: “She needs a new cardiac facility, NOT an alternative voting system.”

As one veteran of the pro-AV campaign recalled recently: “It was impossible to fight. How do you repudiate it without repeating it? We never found a way.”

That appeal to economic interests was so powerful that Vote Leave has come up with a similarly memorable figure: the £350m weekly cost of Britain’s EU membership. This has been debunked by fact-checkers such as Full Fact, which estimates that the UK pays roughly £9.8bn a year once money back is taken into account. Regardless, Vote Leave keeps quoting the figure – and no wonder, because the chief executive of Vote Leave is also the architect of No2AV’s crushing victory: a 38-year-old LSE graduate called Matthew Elliott.

Despite Vote Leave’s anti-politics flavour, Elliott is a Westminster insider and well connected in the wonk world. He is the founder of the Taxpayers’ Alliance, the most high-profile of a close network of think tanks that are a proving ground for a rising generation of right-wingers. The Taxpayers’ Alliance, the Institute of Economic Affairs and the Adam Smith Institute together form what one alumnus jokingly calls a “Sorbonne for neoliberals”.

Much of Vote Leave’s staff is drawn from another Elliott creation: Business for Britain. The group was set up ostensibly to lobby for David Cameron to renegotiate Britain’s membership of the EU but was in reality designed as a Leave campaign in utero. Accordingly, many of its early recruits have ended up moving across.

Elliott is regarded as having a keen eye for talent and for being generous with his time. At each organisation where he has worked, he has taken care to bring on promising protégés. Alumni of the Elliott school include Susie Squire, who spent two years at the heart of Cameron’s administration as press secretary; Nick Pickles, head of UK public policy at Twitter; and Dylan Sharpe, the combative head of public relations at the Sun. Most of his favourite employees have three things in common: libertarian politics, a cut-throat instinct and loyalty to him personally. Those who have worked for Elliott largely speak highly of him.

The same cannot be said for the second leading player in Vote Leave who has the Remain side worried: Gove’s former henchman Dominic Cummings. David Laws – who, as a junior minister, worked closely with Cummings when he was at Gove’s Department for Education – describes him as a “grade-A political Rottweiler”. “As well as being bright,” Laws writes in his memoirs, “Dom Cummings was also blunt, rude, impatient and tactless.” According to friends of both, without Cummings’s encouragement, Gove would have been a mostly silent presence in the Leave campaign because of his close friendship with Cameron.

The former special adviser’s commitment to anti-Europeanism is a long-held one – his first job in politics was at Britain for Sterling, which lobbied against Britain joining the European single currency in the 1990s. Thereafter, he worked for Iain Duncan Smith during his brief and unhappy leadership. A former staffer from that time remembers him as an “abrasive presence”.

After Duncan Smith’s removal as Tory leader, Cummings retreated to his native Durham, where he helped to engineer victory for the No side in the referendum on whether to give the north-east its own devolved assembly. It was the tactics used in that referendum – an endless focus on costs, coupled with personal attacks on the credentials of the Yes side – which were taken on and extended by Elliott during the AV contest. Those tactics are once again on display in this referendum.

That partly explains why, on the Remain side, Cummings is respected and feared in equal measure. Yet his confrontational approach often proves his undoing: for instance, he understood the importance of giving a cross-party sheen to Vote Leave (not least to secure the official campaign designation), yet his conduct led to the departure of the Eurosceptic Labour MP Kate Hoey. “We live in a world where people get things by being nice to each other,” reflects a former colleague of Cummings, “and Dom doesn’t really work like that.”

Hoey’s walkout set the ball rolling on another, less dramatic exit: John Mills, Labour’s largest private individual donor and a Brexiter of many years’ standing. He feared the Vote Leave brand had become irrevocably Conservative. (Unlike Hoey, Mills remains on speaking terms with Vote Leave.)

Friends say that, for Elliott, who has been “planning this [campaign] for some time”, Cummings’s disposition is a price worth paying for his tactical nous. It was Cummings who was the architect of Vote Leave’s two-pronged strategy: claiming that the money we now pay to the EU could go towards the NHS, and suggesting that Brexit will allow us to cut immigration by “regaining control of our borders”.

The perceived cut-through of the latter message with older Labour voters was behind Vote Leave’s big tactical gamble. On 8 May, an official statement by the campaign declared that leaving the EU would also entail leaving the single market.

That decision is unlikely to find favour with big businesses that rely on international trade but it does allow Vote Leave to make strong and unambiguous claims about cutting immigration. If we are outside the European Union but inside the single market (as Norway is), we would have to accept free movement of labour. If we leave the single market, however, we could introduce a points-based entry system, or even finally achieve Cameron’s otherwise impossible cap on net migration.

Upset business but win over small-C conservative voters: it’s a big risk for the Brexiters to take. It represents a throw of the dice by Cummings, who sidelined Nigel Farage precisely in order to minimise the campaign’s focus on immigration. But with the vote scheduled to take place on 23 June and a repeat of last year’s refugee crisis in the Mediterranean looming, security and borders are likely to be at the forefront of voters’ minds. For all that those on the Brexit side have denounced Cameron for running a repeat of “Project Fear”, they know that they have to make change less terrifying than maintaining the status quo.

***

In their quest to take Britain out of the EU, the Brexiters have a simple, if high-stakes, strategy. They want to appear to be the underdogs (hence their repeated complaints about the government’s £9m pro-EU leaflet) and as a scrappier, grass-roots campaign taking on the might of the establishment. Naturally, this image doesn’t reflect an unvarnished truth: the press has been largely onside and senior editors and columnists are very willing to take Vote Leave’s calls.

There is also no concern about keeping the lights on. Arron Banks, the insurance magnate who bankrolled Ukip at the 2015 general election, might have refused to fund Vote Leave after it triumphed over his favoured vehicle, Leave.EU – he has called Matthew Elliott “Lord Elliott of Loserville” and threatened to sue the Electoral Commission for naming Vote Leave the official voice of Brexit – but insiders say that the campaign’s financial position is nothing to worry about.

If Vote Leave wins, it will have scored an extraordinary victory – and, it should be noted, defied the hopes of most of our allies in the rest of the world. The politicians backing Britain’s continued membership of the EU include not just Barack Obama but his likely successor, Hillary Clinton, as well as the prime ministers of Canada, New Zealand and Australia.

There is a vanishingly small number of international politicians who back Brexit. Like the inner core of Vote Leave, they are overwhelmingly drawn from the right-wing fringe – US Republicans such as Ted Cruz and Donald Trump and the French National Front leader, Marine Le Pen, who, unhappily for the Brexiters, is expected to visit Britain to support their case.

The only foreign leader who seriously supports a British Leave vote in June is a man praised by Nigel Farage and whose country Dominic Cummings spent several years working in: Vladimir Putin, who, as far as British voters are concerned, is even more toxic than Farage, Galloway or Gove.

When Britain’s odd squad looks abroad for allies, its options are few – but this ragtag collective is far from beaten. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics. 

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad