Diary of a Corbyn foot soldier (No 2)
by Michael Murray
A dictionary definition of “foot soldier”: “…a dedicated low level follower..
In this month’s Diary:
- Canvassing: “Knock, knock, knocking on Heaven’s door”
- Labour Party suspensions: The foot soldier turns shit house lawyer
Canvassing: “Knock, knock, knocking on Heaven’s door”
By now, readers will know that the results of the North London Assembly Elections and London’s Mayoral election was a clear win for Labour’s Jeanette Arnold and Sadiq Khan, respectively.
I said in Diary (No 1) I felt I was participating in making history by my modest contribution to helping get these two candidates elected. In both cases that was true. The elections marked a consolidation of Labour’s position in the capital city (and the rest of the country) against all the dire predictions. In the particular case of Sadiq Khan it was demonstrably true: the first Muslim Mayor of London or any other European capital city – and that against a vile racist campaign by Goldsmith and the Conservative Party – or that increasingly out of touch Etonian Old Boy part of it. Not all Conservatives were comfortable with the tactics used.
Of course the first duty of the political party foot soldier is getting out election, and other local informational, leaflets, knocking on doors and engaging with local and constituency-wide voters. Since rejoining the Labour Party during the Corbyn summer of 2015 I’ve been lucky to have been in a position to make myself available for that. And there has been plenty of it, what with the London Mayoral/Assembly elections and now the EU Referendum campaign.
But my first experience in canvassing this corner of Hackney North and Stoke Newington was accompanying the ward councillors in their regular walkabouts to keep in touch with constituents about what in Ireland was called “parish pump” politics. In this part of North London, with a high level of local authority housing, a lot of the issues raised with the councillors deal with tenant grievances. education provisions, cleansing services, local policing, security cameras, “ASB,” (anti-social behaviour) local planning issues and environmental issues generally.(1)
Our two local Labour councillors are assiduous in their representation of people’s issues to the proper authorities. To me, as an Irish person, the clear “division of labour” between councillors and Members of Parliament is striking, though it will be taken for granted anywhere in Britain. The councillors look after local stuff and the MPs the national, except, of course where they overlap. Irish TDs (MPs) would seek to be involved as much as possible in local issues as the multi-party, proportional representational system is highly competitive and the Parliamentary representative must live in the public eye to hold his or her seat. This was labelled clientelism years ago by Ireland’s current President, Michael D. O’Higgins. (2)
Towards the end of the Mayoral/London Assembly electioneering campaign, and at a high-point of the “anti-Semitism” attacks on Labour a councillor and myself turned into a Hasidic Jewish street. We were approached from a distance by an animated group of Hasidic men and women, in their usual dark suits, dresses, hats, and male hairstyles that will never catch on – not even amongst the highest paid football players. Watching them accelerate towards us I thought the worst. That morning a mass circulation freebie carried the banner headline: ”Khan to Corbyn: Get A Grip on Anti-Semitism.”(3) It was typical of the orchestrated media onslaught against Corbyn’s Labour Party. But I needn’t have worried. As they got closer, they were all smiles. And full of profuse thanks to the councillor for her successful efforts to get a damaged pavement, which leads to our popular local Kurdish/Turkish general store, fixed, and, also. the councillor was thanked for sorting out access for their community to a garden allotment space.
Afterwards I asked the councillor if she thought their appreciation would express itself in support for the Labour candidate. (And this definitely would not happen in Ireland, except, perhaps, with a nod or a wink) she said she always stressed her role as their councillor over her party affiliation. And, of course, in Ireland, she would have been promised that the “client” would “remember” her, come polling day, with a vote. What the client would not necessarily spell out is whether “remembering” would entail a “Number One” vote, or a second – or a fifth – choice on a multi-choice Proportional Representation slate. But the client would “remember” the obliging councillor, wink, wink. And the client wasn’t going to admit they’d asked another party’s councillor for the very same service, playing one against the other.
I really enjoy my local ward canvassing: getting to talk to the neighbours, a mixture of ethnicities from all corners of the world. Locally, this mix is primarily Turkish, Kurdish and the afore-mentioned Hasidic Jews. There is a sprinkling of other ethnic groupings: Peninsular Spanish, Latinos and Portuguese. Older Irish and West Indian immigrants of the 1950s, though numerous in this area in the past are scarce on the ground: the biggest ethnic change since I lived, and canvassed, here last in the 1970s/early ‘80s. Working class Londoners are notably scarcer too, the result of social cleansing and gentrification linked to the wipe-out of inner city semi-industrial employment. Then there are corners of the ward called “high churns,” as in a big turnover of private, mostly bed-sit tenants, leaving us with lists of registered voters who have moved on. So, listing new occupants, reminding them to register to vote, telling them who their councillors are is part of the job too. And, of course, proselytism: sussing out their likely support level for Labour and if they might be interested in joining the Party.
Canvassing in the wider Hackney North and Stoke Newington is particularly interesting. I get to know corners of the city I might not otherwise have reason to visit. And this large North East London constituency is rich in historical and architectural points of interest.(4)
Since returning to London two and a bit years ago, I’ve voted in Local, General and European elections. I have to say, I miss PR, for all its downsides – including the type of paralyzing result thrown up in this year’s Irish General Election, though this could be attributed to an incipient national identity crisis and political deficit amongst the fragmented parties in Ireland these days rather than the PR system itself. In this constituency I felt constrained having to choose just one candidate for my Member of Parliament. I found, on first impressions, I respected the Green candidate. And a third candidate impressed me also. And, though I was clear about my order of political preference between my chosen top three I had to choose one candidate only in the British First Past the Post system. So, FPP, as it’s called, is not nuanced sufficiently to reflect the broad political choice that mostly presents itself these days, reflecting a radically changed class society in Britain, and one that clearly challenges party politics (5) Thus, I would argue, it is not fit for purpose in today’s political environment. Consider: in the 2015 General Election, between them, the Green Party and UKIP polled over 5 million votes for the gain of a combined total of just 2 Parliamentary seats.(6) That may change, of course, but not anytime soon.
That said, I remember with a little nostalgia, those we used to call the “plumpers” in Ireland: people who marked the ballot paper for their party only, and ignored the remainder of a long list of candidates and alternative parties. Of them it would be said: “Fianna Fail (or other party) to the arsehole.” In London, as I’m sure elsewhere in Britain, the Labour Party activists note on the canvassing sheets the constituent’s support for Labour, and its degree: often a qualitative assessment from 1 to 5. So, on the final days of the election campaigns, the local party knows who should be prioritized for a reminder coming up to the election, which, in Ireland and Britain is called “getting the vote out.” And central office, through aggregating the canvassing sheets can get some inkling of what way the political wind is blowing. By the same token, while we were canvassing for the Mayoral/Assembly elections we also carried out a simple “straw pole” on voting intentions in the forthcoming EU Referendum for central office.
The advice at this stage might be, enjoy the moment, be relieved that the nascent Corbyn-led Labour Party survived its first major hurdle, not just in London, but nationally – and “don’t talk about the war,” by which I mean the alleged “anti-semitism” incidents, and the way they were handled, including the suspensions. This often appeared as a knee jerk response to orchestrated outside pressure, which a robust political party would not be pushed into. And that worries me knowing all the potentially divisive issues coming down the track.
(ii) The foot soldier turns shit house lawyer.
In the closing stages of the Local Elections, just as the neo-liberal ideology of the Tories, and its resultant social and economic policies on Health, Housing, Education and Welfare were on the ropes – on top of the newly released Panama Papers – a grenade was thrown: the accusation of “anti-Semitism,” levelled first at named individuals, then in a monstrous generalization, at the Labour Party as a whole. A foot soldier on the front lines of the canvassing and cajoling, I saw over my shoulder the Party which should have been leading and supporting our efforts, in an election battle there for the taking, go to pieces. It was a well-timed grenade, granted. But one that should have been easily side-stepped. And who knows what the election results might have been had this been handled more adroitly.
Look at the response of the Jewish Socialist Association by comparison, ignored by the same media of course, whose banner was proudly and prominently displayed at the London May Day meeting, clearly demonstrating their support for Jeremy Corbyn, the main speaker on the day.
“Accusations of anti-Semitism are currently being weaponised to attack the Jeremy Corbyn-led LP with claims that Labour has a “problem” of anti-Semitism. This is despite Corbyn’s longstanding record of actively opposing fascism and all forms of racism, and being a firm supporter of the rights of refugees and of human rights globally.”
“A very small number of such cases seem to be real instances of anti-Semitism. Others represent genuine criticism of Israeli policy and support for Palestinian rights but expressed in clumsy and ambiguous language, which may unknowingly cross a line into anti-Semitism. Further cases are simply forthright expressions of support for Palestinian rights, which condemn Israeli government policy and aspects of Zionist ideology, and have nothing whatsoever to do with anti-Semitism.”
“The accusations…refer to comments, often made on social media, long before Jeremy Corbyn won the Labour leadership. Those making the charges now, did not see fit to bring them up at the time, under previous Labour leaders, but are using them now, just before the mayoral and local elections, when they believe they can inflict most damage on the Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn.” (7)
I enlisted in the Royal Navy at age 15, an economic conscript from the impoverished Ireland of the late 1950s. So, I know “shit house lawyer” is an army expression. In the Navy, it was “lower deck lawyer,” much classier. And in the Navy there was the wonderful title “The Accused’s Friend,” for someone who would feel competent enough to speak up for a shipmate on a charge. (8)
So, in the spirit of “The Accused Friend,” and not QR&AI’s, and as a returning Party member with only a few months served, I would like to comment on the suspensions.
In the course of my trade union life, I developed a great attachment to what are called “The Principles of Natural justice,” not least, because years ago I too was suspended – on full pay, pending dismissal. My employer was a trade union organization. Like the Labour Party, out to change the world. The suspension stretched out for six or seven months, after which, after due process, I was re-instated. Not with good grace, mind, but we won’t go there. Let’s just say “If you stand long enough by the banks of the Tiber, you’ll see the bodies of your enemies float by.” Time alone, sees to that. But I know the whole experience took its toll on my health – and taught me a lot about people, especially those who see themselves as changing the world. And it taught me the value of having a good sense of Natural Justice for pure survival.
So let me explain in general terms, what is meant by “Natural Justice” without making specific reference to cases, or naming names though I am bearing them in mind as I select the most relevant Principles. I know there is not one of the dozen or so Natural Justice Principles on the list below that does not have a bearing on some aspect of the cases we have heard and read about. I’ll leave it to you to make the connection.
(I) To have clearly understood and regularly updated rules/standards/procedures in place in compliance with the law.
(II) Rules/standards/procedures must be consistent, which means:
*Made known to all
*Applied equally to all
*Applied consistently over time
(III) Accord people the right to hear in full complaints made against them (and by whom)
*Given reasonable time to prepare a response
*(Access to information)
*Accord people the right to answer them (with appropriate representation, including legal)
(IV) Management must carry out a full investigation before taking any action
(as far as is “reasonably practicable”)
(V) Fair and proportionate penalty (what penalty would the “reasonable employer/comparable organisation” sanction?)
(VI) Appeal mechanism: internal to the organisation and external “third parties” and legal redress through Tribunals or Courts.
*Designated senior manager(s) as final internal appeal stage
*These must not be involved in earlier stages of investigation/hearing
This list of The Principles of Natural Justice were prepared for use in the context of a management-employee relationship.(9) I’ve selected those relevant to the Party-Member relationship where, of course, loss of earnings are not necessarily involved and where, instead, the potential damage to a member is reputational – and, supremely important to most active members – a denial of democratic rights to participate in the Party during a period of suspension.
Notes and References
(1) This is not a complete list of local authority responsibilities, which are under continuous review by the Conservative government, leading to more centralization, on the one hand and more privatization on the other. One example raised recently at our branch is the proposed privatization of the local public planning function – a contradiction in terms, you would think, but typical of the dogmatic neo-liberalism of this Conservative government. On the other hand, spontaneously, at local level throughout Britain, local authorities are becoming more pro-active in what is called “the social economy,” fighting to re-invigorate communities devastated by de-industrialisation over recent decades, through a variety of initiatives, mostly cooperatively based. This is part of Labour’s “New Economic” thinking being developed jointly with Labour-led local councils – and an exciting prospect.
(2) Clientelism is an “exchange system where voters trade political support for the outputs of the public decision-making process.” Wikipedia.
(3) Evening Standard, 2nd May, 2016. We vote seeking foot soldiers could have done without that headline, three days before polling. And wondered what motivated Sadiq Khan to issue such a statement, so joyfully picked up by a generally hostile media.
(4) “London, the Biography,” Peter Ackroyd, 2001; “Hackney, That Rose Red Empire,” 2010 for that enhanced sense of place which makes living in a big city a fuller experience.
(5) Books that examine changed class and society in Britain, and discuss some of the political implications, are: “Social Class in the 21st Century,” by Mike Savage, et al. This is based on the ground breaking, and largest ever “Great British Social Survey,” based on a survey of 161,000 respondents; “The Precariat,” Guy Standing, 2016 Paperback edition. LSE’s Richard Hyman describes it succinctly: “..an incisive account of how precariousness is becoming the new normality in globalized labour markets and offers guidelines for all concerned to build a more just society.” Essential reading for the foot soldiers if they are to play a full part, and not to become a pawn in, any party’s politics.
(6)The Guardian, 9th May, 2015.
(7) Full statement in Labour Affairs, May, 2016; also, www.jewishsocialist.org.uk.
(8) “The Accused’s Friend”: Years later I did some workplace rep’s training for the Fire Brigade Union in London and came across that term with the same meaning of a workplace rep who specialized in Disciplinary cases. The Fire Brigade service was founded by ex-RN Officers and so this term – and other operational ones – were carried over.
(9) M J Murray: “The Principles of Natural Justice applied to Disciplinary and Work Performance Issues,” ICTU.