Saturday, 16 January 2021

Don’t sit around waiting for the politicians. Our history shows us that we can be the agents of change.

Guest piece by Andy Searson 

The neoliberal element of the Labour Party have declared war on their own membership and those who identify as socialists within parliament - an unnecessary monumental act of self-harm. Hundreds of thousands of activists drawn to the party by the authenticity and hopefulness surrounding the Corbyn leadership have been given a two-fingered salute.

They’re turning Labour into a set of poor middle-managers who seem hell bent on being mere proxies for Tory vandalism of our local services and communities. They see their role as managing decline, rather than opposing and fighting it on our behalf.

The feeling among dedicated, grassroots activists is that Starmer’s party is walking away from them, particularly the hundreds of thousands who flocked to the party under Corbyn. They feel that they are not wanted. They’re to be replaced with millionaire donors. Sadly, the interests of millionaire donors reflect the interests of the millionaire class. The interests of everyday members reflect the interests of the millions of everyday citizens.

It’s clear which direction Starmer’s Labour is heading in. It’s business as usual, yes to austerity, anti-trade unions, backing the status quo, and to hell with the millions who've had to carry the burden of ten years of Tory mismanagement.

This is a struggle for an economy that works for the tens of millions of citizens and not just the millionaires! It’s a struggle for social justice, morally right choices and fairness. It’s a struggle for humane values of decency, equality and egalitarianism. It’s socialism or barbarism.

It’s a moment of crisis and I feel a moment of existentialism for the Labour Party. Are Starmer’s Labour the representatives of the many or the few?

I’ll admit, I didn’t vote for Starmer as I looked closely at his recent history and actions as Director of Public Prosecutions. I also looked at those who are close to him. As my mother would say, judge a man by the company he keeps. You only have to look at his campaign team, financial backers and his shadow cabinet to see what he’s about.

Although I view the recent Starmer-made crisis as the possible end for Labour, I don’t share the pessimism of many Labour activists. I see this not as the end of the Corbyn project, but the next step in reinvigorating the movement that gave birth to the Labour Party in the first place. Reigniting the beliefs, values and moral crusade for social justice and egalitarianism.

We have thousands upon thousands of dedicated, trained activists, millions of trade union members and people who are yearning for change. We have witnessed a huge surge in people willing to help their neighbours, within communities and beyond. 

Throughout this pandemic, ordinary people have done extraordinary things in extraordinary circumstances. People who are concerned with the common good and willing to be active in pursuit of it.

Let me be clear here, I am not endorsing shifting government responsibility for our citizens' welfare or replacing the welfare system, as the coalition and subsequent Tory governments have. I am firmly of the belief that foodbanks are a sign of the failures of government. 

As Mhairi Black put it so eloquently: ‘Foodbanks are not part of the welfare state, they are a symbol that the welfare state is failing.’

So, what is to be done?

Those trade unions affiliated to the Labour Party should redirect funds from Starmer’s Labour and invest in community organising. Why fund a leadership and political machine that is willing to work against the interests of millions of workers and everyday folk? (If you doubt this is the case, just check out the voting record of those who make up Starmer’s shadow cabinet and close team.)

We need the focus of the trade unions to be on representing workers, our class, our communities and our people.

In Spain, you find centres in every village and town called La Casa Del Pueblo - The People’s or Village House. In Spain, my village equates to my people. They are centres of culture, heritage, political education and support for local people, e.g. citizens advice - advocacy and legal help.

They can be found at the heart of a community - a central point of focus to gather and formulate actions of mutual support. If we developed this idea in Britain, we could forge a new relationship with the people within our communities, use this to grow cooperatives and mutual societies to serve our own community needs.

In the UK, the trade union movement started to develop similar hubs via the Unemployed Workers’ Centres. The TUC Unemployed Workers' Centres have been in existence for 30 years. They were a response by the trade union movement to the growing level of unemployment in the late 1970s. There are many still surviving in major cities such as Sheffield, Birmingham and Manchester to name a few. There are also centres offering worker’s education via the WEA (Workers Education Association). 

These ‘People’s Houses’ or workers centres could become the social hubs that replace the diminishing welfare clubs, institutions and associations that grew from organised labour in the communal workplaces. We could grow micro co-operative shops and cafes to reenergise high streets in villages and outlying towns.

We could use embedded union organisers and trade union legal expertise to help create local building societies and credit unions. The trade unions could become a platform for regeneration and engagement at local grassroots level. True parliamentary representation for the working class will never happen via this party leadership and the shadow cabinet.

The history of working class organising in our communities all over Britain can be reinvented for a modern age. A coalition of the willing, acting collectively in their community on mutual local interests. A type of municipal socialism working towards the common good. It would mirror the emancipatory ideals of those pioneering early trade unionists and develop a ‘can do it for ourselves’ mindset.

That’s how our great grandparents built our towns and villages from mere shanty towns built around mines, steelworks and factories to what we see today. They created communities wherein people felt they were active stakeholders. This brought empowerment and promoted self-agency which was built via the ideals of self-help and collective endeavour of the trade union movement. This was prior to our class having real parliamentary representation. Our people had to think creatively and realised collectivisation was the key. They became the change they needed to improve the lives of their class. Not small ‘c conservatism’ but everyday socialism rooted in finding solutions to people’s everyday challenges. 

For those doubters who think these ideals are mere pie in the sky, look no further than Spain’s Mondragon Corporation. It is a prime example of self-help. Its aims were, and still are, about workers and community. Their aims are stated clearly.

‘We are a dedicated group of people with a cooperative identity forming a business group that is profitable, competitive and enterprising, capable of successfully operating in global markets. Our organisation uses democratic methods in its corporate organisation, and its aims are employment, the personal and professional advancement of its workers, and the development of its community.’

It goes on:

‘Furthermore, based on the Cooperative Principles and its own experience, MONDRAGON nurtures the values of self-motivation and shared responsibility, inter-cooperation, social transformation.’

You can read more about Mondragon here.

History has proven the power of building societies and the strength and diversity that a healthy mutual sector and cooperatives bring to local communities. Building societies and co-operatives also give people a proper stake in the places they work, spread wealth through society, and bring innovative and imaginative business ideas to bear on meeting local needs.

Imagine the transformative impact of trade union-funded ‘People’s Houses’ or ‘Workers Centres’ in each town or large village all over Britain, organising local people for the common good. Helping establish self-help co-operatives run by local workers with profits serving the community, rather than distant corporations.

Imagine our high streets reinvigorated with local mutual building societies and credit unions filling the spaces where large banks have closed, leaving nothing but a few cashpoints and ATMs; cooperative shops, cafes and small niche supermarkets revitalising and reinventing the empty premises; credit unions which are member-owned financial cooperatives operated for the purpose of providing credit and other financial services to their members. 

They are a way to empower people and collectivise local finances and were first established in the UK in the sixties.

Significantly, the first recorded British credit union was the Hornsey Co-operative Credit Union, established 1964 in North London by Caribbean families. It is the foundation of what is now London Capital Credit Union. Formed and set up by members of Ferme Park Baptist Church unable to get credit from banks, it was an organised, collective response to racism towards Caribbean workers and their families who were denied mortgages and loans. 

(Credit unions, known as pardner or susu, were widespread in the Caribbean and members paid weekly contributions.) 

Similar discriminatory prejudice and the needs of local people gave rise to the Derry Credit Union and the Ballymurphy People’s Cooperatives - the legacy of which is the belief that people can effect change themselves, that they are the agents of change, that we just don’t sit wondering what the elected representatives are going to decide or do on our behalf. 

The idea of mutual self-help has meant that since October 1960, the members of Derry Credit Union have contributed more than £550m to the local economy simply by saving and borrowing with the union. Much of this money has been spent locally, supporting local businesses and jobs. The members help themselves, and one another, to improve the quality of their lives.

This is how our movement grew via self-empowerment and collectivism. We can rebuild again from community grassroots up and outside parliament if necessary.

Our aims should be unlimited access to all forms of well-being for the whole population of our communities. There are no freedoms without equality. Also, there is no real democracy without tangible, everyday benefits for our people. Otherwise democracy is an empty word. It is a distraction or a way to deceive people into believing they are part of a project, when in fact they are only pawns, not benefactors, if real change does not flow through every household from parliament.

We must begin a program of emancipatory activism and work alongside our people in working class communities. A revolution in collectivisation and community action. It would be the antidote to the extreme individualism and extreme laissez-faire policies of neoliberalism that neglect the stability and overall ideals of community.

Again, in Spain, there is a town that works for its people via communitarianism. Marinaleda is a town in Andalusia run by the people, on behalf of the people, which organised itself so it serves its citizens. Here there is no housing crisis, crime, mass unemployment or food poverty. What has been achieved via collectivism is a remarkable example of unity, mutual aid and collective human endeavour. Socialism in action. They have proven self-help, dynamic citizens and community can bring about great change to the lives of citizens.

The Cleveland Model in the USA also uses cooperatives to regenerate communities. They are built around servicing local anchor institutions or the economic powerhouses within the communities. They use the millions of pounds spent by these anchor institutions to regenerate the immediate community. This helps keep wealth local, rather than flowing out into huge corporations.

If we succeed in bringing change and regeneration outside parliament, then maybe, if we cannot reclaim our Labour Party, we need a new party of the people. A party representative of our communities, with representatives drawn from those communities. We can build a representative party as our ancestors built the Labour Party.

Utilise those extraordinary people, the real life super-heroes of community activism who are driven not by self-profiteering or careers but by authentic altruism. These are the people who would and will produce the real social and systemic change our people require and demand.

We can no longer put our faith in those who cosy up to the establishment few at the expense of the many. We need our own representatives chosen from our own people, who will act in the interests of our communities and people! A new political offer for the working class.

Former ANC MP Andrew Feinstein recently tweeted: “Politicians are the representatives of the people. It shows humility & respect for the people you serve, & who pay your salary, when you use their money to serve rather than to create a life of privilege & luxury for yourself. As Nelson Mandela told us, If you think you are more important than the people you serve, you are of no use to them or to the movement.”

The votes are there to be won as Corbyn demonstrated in 2017. The mobilisation of those who are disaffected non-voters. They’re waiting for a spark, a sign that someone who they can relate to is going to speak up and act in their interests.

We stand on the shoulders of giants who showed the way. The systemic change required to radically redress the years of decline in living standards of the working class will only come about by a democratic revolution built from within our communities and from the ground up - a return to our ancestral class consciousness. Politics is far more than the Houses of Parliament. Let us build a future based within the politics of everyday living and the lives of our communities. Let us be the change we all crave!

In the words of that great working class activist and leader, James Connolly: “A revolution will only be achieved when the ordinary people of the world, us the working class, get up off our knees and take back what is rightfully ours.”