British Politics: Laying the Foundations

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As the left unity coalition forms nationally, Julie Bundy speaks to Harlow activists about how they are bringing together the local anti-war movement and ex Labour members to challenge New Labour

Harlow is a small town of around 70,000 in south Essex. Created as one of the postwar new towns, it was first populated as an east London overspill. Many of the manufacturing industries that were there when the new town was created have disappeared and many people now commute into London to work.

Officially declared an 'area of poverty', it has some of the lowest levels of literacy and numeracy in the country and high levels of unemployment. The town's main employers now are defence manufacturer Raytheon, a small pharmaceutical industry, Stansted airport and the local hospital. It is one of the areas identified by deputy prime minister John Prescott for new housing development.

Ideals

Harlow had been a traditional Labour seat for many years, with a strong socialist tradition, but that electoral base has broken down 'as a legacy of years of cuts', as one Labour Party member puts it. In 2001 the council was replaced by a Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition with a Labour minority. Local people are currently involved in a dispute with the council to save parkland and a museum from being sold off to private developers. They are winning. They have succeeded in breaking the Tory/Lib Dem coalition in the council and have pushed through a vote of no confidence over the way the Tories have been trying to sell off the Passmores Museum. The Lib Dems are now in control with Labour support. In many ways the town typifies the battles that working people all over Britain are fighting.

Leading activists in the campaign include Tom and Maureen Topley. Both recently resigned from the Labour Party after 38 years because of the war with Iraq and Blair's unconditional support for George Bush. Tom was 'quite upset' to take a major step like this after so long. He argues the local campaign is 'non-political' but has been successful in bringing local people together. Both he and Maureen had been members of the International Socialists and CND in the 1960s and have been lifelong trade union activists but, although they are happy to work with members of the Labour Party in single-issue campaigns such as this, feel that both New Labour and Blair have to go. 'The party has been hijacked,' Tom argues. Both have been impressed by the scale of the demonstrations against the war and the November weekday protest against Bush in London. What impressed Tom was 'the mix of people, old and young, coming together. I thought I can't have anything in common with these people,' he smiles, 'but I have. I want to live in peace and harmony.' He was impressed by the scale of the turnout from the Muslim community and argues against the charges that women from those communities are treated badly. 'Women are making their own minds up in different cultures across Britain. We can all be free thinkers and live together,' he said. 'We need to sort out the things we have in common. The left in Britain has traditionally fallen out and many people still feel that the Labour Party is the traditional party of the working class. The working class has changed but the ideals are still the same. We need to bring services back into public ownership and have pensions linked to average earnings so that pensioners, many of whom fought in the Second World War, can have a decent standard of living.

'We need free education. I'm against tuition fees and for a fully funded comprehensive system. Not everybody needs to go to university - there is a massive skills shortage in this country. There should be proper apprenticeships and skills developed useful to society as a whole. We are one of the richest countries in the world but there is no money to spend on anything. I'm against privatisation and think we should have renationalisation without compensation. I'm involved politically now because I want a socialist alternative to New Labour. I want to push the Labour Party into adopting a socialist programme, but we need a mass movement of people on the ground.'

Close to Harlow is the town of Broxbourne in Hertfordshire, where a BNP candidate was elected in local council elections. On the other side is Grays in Essex, where another BNP candidate was elected, both on anti-asylum platforms. There are very few asylum seekers in either area. Around 30 people went to Broxbourne from Harlow after the BNP election results and their experiences there serve as a reminder of what can happen if there is no socialist alternative. 'All the pubs were full of men tanked up and ready to have a go - to take their frustration out on someone,' one of the demonstrators commented. Paul Topley, who is a lecturer at Thurrock and Basildon College, described what had been done at his workplace and argued that despite the election results the vast majority of people in south Essex hate the BNP and will only suffer if their influence grows: 'Our response through our union, Natfhe, was to write an open letter signed by everyone at a branch meeting condemning the BNP victory, nailing them as a Nazi outfit and calling for a united campaign to defeat them. The letter was given a full page report in the Basildon Evening Echo. Our branch also affiliated to the Anti Nazi League. Since then the progress in building a united campaign has been a little slower but the model of the north east campaign is our inspiration. The fundamental lesson thus far is, I think, that socialist organisation on the ground is weaker than in Harlow - consequently it is more difficult to draw people together and drive the campaign forward. Nevertheless the social base for a fightback exists and one can be built.'

George Galloway spoke in the town recently to a packed audience and as a result of this success the local Socialist Alliance called a second meeting with the title 'The future for the movement - a united left against Blairism'. Twenty eight people attended, with seven sending formal apologies. The meeting was composed of a wide range of people - members of the local Muslim community, stop the war activists, Labour and ex Labour Party members and trade unionists. As a result of this a Unity Liaison Group has been set up whose role is to 'find out more information on the national unity picture and to organise local activities accordingly'.

Positive

All of those who spoke to Socialist Review were very positive and excited by the prospect of a new left coalition. Eighteen year old sixth form student Zak Cochrane was one of those elected to the Harlow Unity Liaison Group. He went to the anti-war demonstrations because he didn't believe there was any justification for the war with Iraq: 'It outraged me that Tony Blair was ignoring the masses of British people who had a similar view to mine. My views were strengthened after the war, when Iraq was left in ruins with no signs of any of the supposed weapons of mass destruction. I decided to get more involved with the Stop the War Coalition because the group was representative of the opinions I and many other young people I knew held. I felt the mainstream political parties in Britain were not listening to what people had to say. It is important that the movement carries on and offers an alternative to Blairism. The two massive anti-war demonstrations are a signal that people are unhappy with the way the country's being run. Although people may have different opinions, we are united under common goals that people should be put before profits, and we want peace, not war.'

Kamelia is a Palestinian doctor who has been living in Britain for 15 years: 'After all the time I have lived here I had no hope that there would be any media coverage of the situation in Palestine. Palestinians are portrayed as criminals and terrorists - dirty people who live among heaps of rubbish. This is not the truth - the US and Israel are carrying out a policy of ethnic cleansing. We are only ordinary people. We have no army. The dirt is there because there is no water, no infrastructure and no money to employ people to clean the streets. People talk about suicide bombers and how mad they are but many children are psychologically traumatised from the time they are born. If you've seen your father killed in front of you, your school friends killed and tortured in the streets as a child walking to primary school, what do you expect that child to do when he or she grows up?

'The US has to stop giving money to Israel. What has changed for me is that now there is light at the end of the tunnel. All Muslims in Britain look to the stop the war movement because Palestine is a wound in our hearts. Both Iraq and Palestine are being raped and this is not for the benefit of the Iraqis - this is an economic war. This is a really strong movement and will attract lots of people. Many people had a lot of hope in the Labour Party and we have been let down very badly. Tony Blair talks about peace in the Middle East but it's just words. His is an imperialistic vision and is about the privatisation of Iraq.

'A united left is our hope for the future and is for anyone who has an ethical background. Most people in Britain would be against robbing a country of its natural resources for cheap oil. Tony Blair is more right than the right. Even Michael Howard seems more concerned about the plight of asylum seekers. We need a united left based on social equality that does not work against the working class and against the trade unions but which is against privatisation and has a policy that is honest and fair towards other countries.'

Parvez Hamid has spent most of his life in Edinburgh and moved to Harlow three years ago. The war against Iraq motivated him to become involved in the stop the war movement. Before that he had not been involved in politics and had never been on a demonstration: 'I was shocked that Britain took unilateral action over Iraq with no UN sanction. I felt it was time to speak out. Across Britain the MPs we elected voted for war even though the majority of us were against it. This is no longer a democracy. The prime minister does whatever he wants without listening to the views of the majority. Therefore he no longer represents us and we need to create an alternative. Labour has continued to move away from the working class and the Lib Dems are just opportunistic. Charles Kennedy said he was against the war before it started and when it did start he was right behind it. We need to create an alternative which is to the left of all of this. There is no Muslim I know who has any respect left or believes in the UN any more. If peace is to exist we have to bring that confidence back, if we want peace around the world. Iraq has become a breeding ground for terrorists and the same will happen as it did in Afghanistan. The west co-opted extremist groups, armed and trained them. Bin Laden knows how to hide - he was trained by the very people who are trying to find him. The issue of Palestine has to be addressed - western governments have to stop supporting dictators and other cruel rulers. The situation in Iraq is a self created problem. We need to begin the process by creating an alternative in this country - I will pay £100 for it!'

Nora is a 15 year old school student currently studying for her GCSEs: 'We met with the local group in Harlow and travelled to the London demo in February on the coach from Harlow and from then on got involved in petitioning and local activities. The world is a very complicated and materialistic place - it's too easy to be blinded by money. We need to take human beings into account. That is more important than money. We need to change our priorities. The best thing that could happen is left unity - for all the small left parties to unite. If the government would listen to people like the post workers or the firefighters there would be no need to strike. The Labour Party doesn't care about pensioners or students. I would like to live in a world with peace and harmony where human rights are upheld and people are treated fairly. There is no need for wars. Nobody asked after 11 September [2001] why people do these things - there are reasons though for everything. We need to help everybody, not just countries that have oil.'

Jim Rogers has been in the Labour Party for over 30 years. He is a former lay official for the Fire Brigades Union (FBU). He was for many years a Labour councillor in Harlow and was one of the members of the local Labour Party instrumental in selecting the current MP, Bill Rammell, to stand for parliament. His disappointment in the MP's performance since entering parliament and in the Blair government as a whole is forcing him to challenge many of the political beliefs that he has held all his life. Now retired, he is active in the Passmores House campaign. He is currently considering his position within the Labour Party.

Left perspective

'There are a lot of things that people agree on, a lot of motivation and energy. We need to harness that energy and put it to good use to create a united broad left. Iraq has meant many people's eyes are wide open to other issues which are of equal importance - they may not be headline grabbing, but people are angry over things like foundation hospitals and student grants. As a former Labour Party membership secretary I know that there is enormous unrest over issues like this. Bill Rammell, who is now a junior minister, has made it clear that neither he nor anyone else in government, especially Tony Blair, has any idea of the damage they have done to the left in politics. All those now in government had a free education but they are all gaily pulling up the ladder - it was good enough for them but not for our kids or grandkids. Issues like this are causing major head-scratching, and most do not believe that things like Private Finance Initiatives are an alternative. I want to force a left perspective back in but the reality is that a left perspective has never been a part of Labour's history - we can't rewrite a history that doesn't exist. We can't reclaim it. We need to build a socialist programme. It is no good looking back through rose-tinted glasses to reclaim something that never was. There have been some good left wing initiatives from time to time but the Labour Party have not been the stewards of that.

'There is now more awareness around, despite the cynicism, and the media has been forced to take account of this groundswell. I do think it is possible to formalise this into a political movement. We could have a series of single-issue campaigns but we have more chance of success and of grabbing media attention as a major political force - they will have to take notice. In either the short or the long term we are looking at the demise of the Labour Party. It's a dead duck. We need an organisation with something like Clause Four which has substance - we need weight and substance. It's almost like alchemy - we need to turn lead into gold, and to do that we need to mould it. This is not a quick fix and needs time and lots of organisation if we are to persuade people. People will need time to be persuaded to break with Labour. Some have put in an investment of 20-odd years or a lifetime's political involvement, on the chance that it will pay off. But the chance of it paying off is receding day by day. If we do start grabbing people out of the Labour Party we need to devote that anger and energy into building something new rather than the old scenario of politicians knocking lumps out of each other.

'The view that George Galloway is presenting is that the stop the war movement will metamorphose itself into a wider political movement looking at jobs and other issues. This can be informed by the way the Stop the War Coalition has conducted itself so far, which is laudable, first class. We need to translate that to the ballot box. Some of us have said if no weapons of mass destruction are found then we will jump ship. We need to take courage. It is difficult to write off years of involvement in the Labour Party but we need something more purposeful, more principled.'