Sunday, June 23, 2013

Danny Burns' 'Poll Tax Rebellion' and Community Organising Today

Danny Burns

I first read this account of the movement against the Poll Tax several years ago, and found it thrilling. But I found myself reaching for it again this spring, as I threw myself into the struggle against the bedroom tax on Merseyside. The events described are now nearly twenty-five years in the past, but they remain the last major victory achieved by the working class in Britain. So there is much to learn here, especially in terms of the kind of community activism taking place around the bedroom tax.

Burns describes the anti-Poll Tax movement as being the largest in British history, which at its peak drew in 17 million people. These got involved in a huge range of activities, from the most passive (simple non-payment), to the most aggressive (burning of wealth symbols following the battle of Trafalgar Square). Others attended meetings, attended court, confronted bailiffs and raised solidarity funds. It was a struggle in which literally everyone was directly affected, so huge numbers found their own level in the fightback.

The author was the secretary of the Avon Federation of anti-Poll Tax Unions and was involved in almost all the resistance that took place in the south west of England; he was also a non-aligned member of the All-Britain Federation. Much of the material is therefore drawn from his own personal experience, and there are many extracts from his diary. Correspondence with other activists around the country is also included, as well as photographs, newspaper cuttings, and some of the movement's own grassroots-produced literature.

Burns comes from a broadly anarchist perspective. He is full of praise for grassroots local groups "where it was ordinary people that were there. It was nobody that was going to sit at a top table with a dicky bow." He also condemns every political grouping which sought to gain power or influence via their participation in anti-Poll Tax activity. But this is no mere tribal rant; he demonstrates how a certain kind of non-hierarchical, grassroots-led action had a detrimental effect on authorities' ability to collect and enforce the tax, while the campaigns initiated by the Scottish Nationalist Party, the Kinnock Labour Party mainstream, and especially the Militant Tendency were at best an irrelevance to people organising in their communities, and at worst harmful to their efforts.

According to Burns, Militant:
"[...] would call public meetings (which were often well attended) and then, often at the same meetings, call for elections to determine who would make up the executive committee and who would be delegated to the federation. [...] Most ordinary people at those meetings didn't know each other and had little political experience, so they voted for the people who had set up the meeting. As a result, large numbers of delegates to regional and city federations were Militant supporters - often the only ones in their group, and as such extremely unrepresentative."
Eventually, the All-Britain Federation became almost entirely a creature of Militant, and:
"As a 'federation' it had no direct control over its member groups. It could pass policies and take initiatives, but it was up to the local groups whether they wanted to take part in them or not. Local groups had the power to do and say what they wanted, and the majority of groups who didn't like the way the All-Britain Federation was organised simply ignored it. Given this, the problems of the All-Britain Federation were never seen as important enough to warrant splitting the movement."
In this way, the opportunist left formed a barrier to the creation of a genuine, and representative federation. As I recently described in an article on Merseyside, similar things are happening in regards to the bedroom tax locally, and indeed in Scotland too. Still, there was a significant uniformity in the types of activity local groups undertook, and this was born out of the similar struggles faced by poorer people in each area. And what's more, the lack of a proper federation did not prevent the movement achieving its stunning success. Information and idea sharing should be even easier today, when so many have access to the internet. In practice, the Merseyside Anti-Bedroom Tax Federation is not proving to be much of organising hub over the past few weeks.

The book is long out of print, but a PDF version can be found on the libcom website.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Merseyside Anti-Bedroom Tax Federation Go Animal Farm on "The Anarchists"

A campaign of lies, in aid of fascism
In a sickening act of deceit, the Merseyside Anti-Bedroom Tax Federation Twitter account has begun attacking "the anarchists" with misinformation designed to cover for the undemocratic actions of the committee in the run-up to affiliating with the fascist-linked Knowsley group. In doing so, it is attacking some of those who first came up with the idea for an anti-bedroom tax campaign, who put in much of the early spadework, and continue to work hard in their communities. It is also labeling all those who oppose the committee as "anarchists", merely because they are consistently standing up for democratic norms and against fascism.

This flurry of tweets came a week ago, in response to a woman from down south who had come across my article 'Affiliating With Fascists and The Poison of 'Left' Opportunism'. She was understandably alarmed and wanted to spread the information. The MABTF account responded with "Don't be drawn in Michelle, anarchists trying to destroy fed and the enormous amount of work gone on", and "@MABTF is vehemently anti-fascist".

The first part of this is just silly. Anarchists and others are angry about the Knowsley affiliation precisely because they are worried that allowing the allies of fascists into the Federation will destroy it, by effectively excluding those particularly targeted by fascists. The second part is true only to the extent that an anti-oppression motion was originally passed by the Federation, with those labelled as "anarchists" to the fore in promoting it. However, this unanimously approved motion was then dismissed as "something to work towards" by the committee's chair, as she pushed for a vote on affiliating Knowsley. So while "the anarchists" are "vehemently anti-fascist", and the anti-oppression motion they drafted certainly was, the Federation cannot be said to be. For the Federation chair, we work towards abolishing oppression by allowing some of the most oppressive scum to be found anywhere a potential seat at the table.

When the woman who posted my article asked why anyone would try to break the Federation, @MABTF declared that "the anarchists" had "been destructive from the beginning and think screaming in peoples faces is debate".

Anarchists tend not to be backward in coming forward about their beliefs, and frustration at opportunism has created a lot of anger, but no screaming in anyone's face has taken place at Federation meetings. This is more fiction.

But even more ridiculous is the claim that "the anarchists" have been destructive of the bedroom tax movement "from the beginning". The truth is that it was an anarchist who came up with the idea of a mass meeting on the bedroom tax last autumn. Those dismissed as "the anarchists" did much of the work building for, organising, and facilitating that meeting, which took place at the Black-E in January. As many local groups sprang out of that central meeting, it was an anarchist who went to each group's initial meeting, giving a Powerpoint presentation on the bedroom tax and his ideas about how it could be fought.

Since then, "the anarchists" have been extremely active in their respective local groups, helping to arrange meetings, going leafleting, taking part in actions/lobbying of local politicians and housing associations, and assisting those who have been filling in appeal forms. This certainly shouldn't get them any special treatment, but it should entitle them to some basic respect.

Though many of "the anarchists" do indeed describe themselves as anarchists, by no means all of them do. Some prefer to call themselves communists, others socialists, and others are quite new to political activism, and do not want to label themselves at the moment, as is their absolute right. But to the committee of Merseyside Anti-Bedroom Tax Federation, anyone who opposes their Machiavellian maneuverings is one of "the anarchists". Anyone who wants open democracy within the Federation is apparently an anarchist. Anyone who consistently opposes fascism is supposedly an anarchist.

The reasons for this are not clear, but there are two main possibilities. For those on the committee who identify as Trotskyists, it is a convenient catch-all political label which they will have used for many years. But perhaps more importantly, in the public consciousness it is normally associated with 'chaos', 'trouble-makers' and even 'bomb-throwers'. This is an idea popularised by the rich and their servants down the years, precisely with the intention of scaring the working class away from militant action in their own interests.

It is a shameful state of affairs for the Merseyside Anti-Bedroom Tax Federation committee to stoop so low.

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Affiliating With Fascists and The Poison of 'Left' Opportunism

Last Saturday's affiliation of the fascist-linked Knowsley group to the Merseyside Anti-Bedroom Tax Federation bears more looking at. After all, it took place in a building which has a monument to the International Brigades who fought fascism in Spain, and which the same two fascists in question attacked just a few months back, after they had been rebuffed at a demo in nearby Bootle. What can possibly account for this? My answer is necessarily a long and complicated one.

Firstly, the Merseyside Anti-Bedroom Tax Federation is no longer operating as a federation in any meaningful sense. A steering committee 'elected' a few weeks back has taken it upon itself to stage manage federation meetings. It has held unannounced caucuses, without a mandate from the federation. And during the last federation meeting, the chair manouevred in such a way as to get Knowsley affiliated without a full and democratic discussion.

For a start, the affiliation of Knowsley was not on the agenda which was circulated via email last week. So local groups had no time to discuss it at their local meetings. The first that many delegates knew about the Knowsley group was when they were told there had been unspecified "disagreements" between them and another group. When an antifascist comrade complained that "people have a right to know what the disagreements were about", the chair then dismissed it as "Facebook gossip". A vote was moved quickly, and known anti-fascists were not recognised by the chair, leaving them with no option but to break with procedure and speak out of turn. But the original offence was the political bias shown against a group she has labelled as "anarchists" and "troublemakers". It should be added that the local bedroom tax movement was initiated by some of these anarchist troublemakers. But even if it hadn't been, there can be no excuse for the committee's anti-democratic behaviour.

To understand how this has happened, I think we need to take a step back. Though local bedroom tax groups have been organising since January, the idea of a federation took a couple of months to develop. When it did, it was pushed by long term activists of all 'left' persuasions, including "the anarchists". It seemed a simple step forward - we would be stronger organised in greater numbers. But it was not particularly a demand 'from below'.

At a local level, the majority of people attending bedroom tax meetings had been 'non-activists' - i.e. people not from a particularly political background who were either affected by the bedroom tax themselves, knew people who were, or were simply disgusted by yet another sickening government attack on vulnerable people. They enthusiastically took part in local organising, yet for the most part did not put themselves forward as delegates to federal meetings. I've personally been told "You know those people" and "you're good at that sort of thing" by folk I'd only met a couple of weeks before. Knowing your way around political meetings is a type of privilege, and I quickly realised it contained the potential for abuse.

So at the meeting where the federation was officially established, a show of hands revealed that only one third were directly affected by the bedroom tax, whereas the proportion has always been much higher at local meetings. To put it another way - two thirds were long term political activists, each with a long list of friends and enemies. The current chair is fond of using her three decades plus of political struggle as a stick with which to beat newbies. In that sense, whereas some in the room might have known her since before I was born, I have only been involved for ten years, so what does that count for? Even more so, how much does coming into it last week because you're scared of losing the roof over your head weigh, if you don't know the 'proper' language and etiquette? And more importantly, what if your newcomer status prevents you from seeing political games for what they are?

I have no particular reason to suspect that any of these experienced people are insincere in their desire to defeat the government over the bedroom tax. But each has their own political philosophy shaped by their lifelong struggle, and each has friends and allies who want to take the anti-bedroom tax in a different direction. If these individuals want to build up a particular political party, or say the Unite Community Branch as well as the bedroom tax resistance, then they start to have interests separate to the people they are supposed to be representing. If you are a delegate who is elected to the committee it seems you have more scope to carry out those separate interests.

I can't say specifically why the committee so desperately wanted the Knowsley fascist enablers to affiliate, but it does extend their influence further, while inflicting a painful defeat on "the anarchists". This comes at the cost of alienating anyone with good reason to beware of being in a room with fascists, or those who associated with them.

Once the committee's wishes had been made clear, they could be sure their friends and co-thinkers on the floor would back them. Remember, this accounted for a large proportion of the delegates. Others actually facing the bedroom tax have placed such high hopes in the federation, that they might have feared the repercussions of a row. And likely everyone who spoke in favour of affiliating Knowsley believes they have no particular reason to fear the fascists - they would all normally be considered 'white', and none are on the radar of the fascists concerned. That is reserved for those who are known to actively oppose them.

I'm afraid the federation is now a dead letter. It is acting more like a political party, with those at the top setting the agenda and dictating to those below. By giving fascists at least an indirect seat at the table, it has also alienated many who could have got involved with the organisation.

But people still need to struggle against the bedroom tax - it is a life and death struggle for many with nothing to lose but their chains. The struggle will go in in local groups, based on the solidarity of shared material interests - from which genuine political principles spring - and not shared political ideology. This is a decent precedent for this. As Danny Burns wrote in his book on the Poll Tax Rebellion, Militant (forerunner to Socialist Party) performed a bureaucratic takeover of the national federation, but:
"As a 'federation' it had no direct control over its member groups. It could pass policies and take initiatives, but it was up to the local groups whether they wanted to take part in them or not. Local groups had the power to do and say what they wanted, and the majority of groups who didn't like the way the All-Britain Federation was organised simply ignored it. Given this, the problems of the All-Britain Federation were never seen as important enough to warrant splitting the movement."
Full solidarity with those directly affected by the bedroom tax. I will see you in the struggle.

Monday, June 03, 2013

Why I Won't Be Giving In To Enablers Of Fascism

Fascist Kurtis Cawley (hands in trouser pockets) at a Knowsley demo
Last Saturday, I was sitting on the bed at home, when my mobile went off. It was a text informing me that the Merseyside Anti-Bedroom Tax Federation had just voted to let the Knowsley group I'd written about a couple of weeks back affiliate. This was a shock, because I believed our anti-oppression statement would be enough to effectively exclude them so long as they continued refusing to exclude and distance themselves from actual living, breathing fascists - fascists who have attacked the very building they were sitting in. Sadly I was wrong in that belief, and Rhiannon Lowton has explained in some detail how that happened.

'That's it then', I thought to myself, 'no-one other than white, straight, cisgendered, able-bodied, right-wing men can consider themselves safe at Federation meetings.' After all, surely I don't need to state that fascists have killed already oppressed and marginalised people again and again and again. This was absolutely not, as I heard the chair had described it, just "Facebook gossip".

So that was a bit shit. Then just one minute later I got a tweet from the victorious and fully approved Knowsley Fight The Bedroom Tax. "U have until midnight Sunday to remove the comments about us on ALL blogs, or legal action commences". Now this wasn't a total surprise, as the Knowsley admin had threatened such activity on the comments section of my post outing the group. In that exchange, he had completely misrepresented my arguments, and then called allegations I had never made 'lies'. But it was galling that there was such an obvious timing link between the Federation's backing and his reinforced threat to pursue me for libel.

He's welcome to waste his time, energy and money doing that, if he has any spare. Personally I don't, and I'd much rather he spent his on something for the people of Knowsley he claims to care so much about. Oh, and unfriend this man on Facebook.

Disqus for Infantile Disorder