What Does The Poppy Represent?

Today is Remembrance Sunday and you know what that means, you had better be wearing a British Legion red poppy or you’re a loony lefty traitor worse than Jeremy Corbyn meeting with the IRA and Hezbollah. The poppy has become so ingrained in the culture in the UK that it makes the news if anyone in the public eye, especially politicians, are seen in public without one on the run up to Remembrance Day and opens them to criticisms of hating either the UK or the soldiers that died in muddy fields to defend the country. Historically the poppy was a symbol of remembrance for the soldiers that died in the First World War and was quickly adopted by the Royal British Legion in 1921 but what this symbol represents has skewed slightly in the years since then, and now that this meaning has been overtaken this has influenced a desire to show respect and remembrance in other ways.

The inspiration for using the poppy as a symbol of remembrance can be traced back to the poem “In Flanders Fields”  that was written by Canadian physician John McCrae on the 3rd of May 1915, the day after he witnessed the death of his friend. The poem refers to the poppy’s growing amongst the graves of war victims in Belgium and is from the point of view of the fallen soldiers. Moina Michael, a volunteer working with the American YMCA Overseas War Secretaries Organization, was so inspired by the poem that she published her own entitled “We Shall Keep the Faith” in 1918. Afterwards she vowed to always wear a poppy in respect of those that fought in and assisted with the war effort and she would go on to campaign to have the poppy adopted as a national symbol in America, this was successful and by 1920 the National American Legion adopted the flower as their official symbol of remembrance. 

A key figure in bringing the poppy to the other allied nations was Madame Guerin. Noted at the time as one of the greatest of all war speakers she would raise funds for the ‘Food for France’ organisation as well as separately for French widows and orphans, veterans and the American Red Cross. The poppy was first linked to her when she was tasked by the French government with travelling to the US to found the American branch of the ‘American-Franco Children’s League’  in an effort to raise funds to help orphans in the war torn regions of France. This organisation used the poppy as its emblem, and she would start holding poppy days in which she would distribute paper poppies in exchange for donations. Her work would take her to Canada, Newfoundland and eventually to the UK in 1921. Here she approached the British Legion and explained her plans to have an ‘Inter-Allied Poppy Day’. They were sceptical at first but came around to the idea after Madame Guerin paid for the British Legions poppies herself, vastly helping the extremely poor organisation at the time. The rest is history, the poppies were incredibly popular in 1921 and so from 1922 onwards British veterans made Remembrance Poppies at The Poppy Factory to be sold every year to fund the British Legion. Madame Guerin was very rarely mentioned in the British press and when they did nod to the original makers of the poppy, they usually referred to them as French “peasants”, further obscuring her incredibly important contributions to the poppy movement.

As well as for remembrance of military personnel, the yearly poppy appeal is to raise funds for charity that supports both previous and current personnel of the armed forces. As stated on the British Legion website – 

‘We are the country’s largest Armed Forces charity, with 235,000 members, 110,000 volunteers and a network of partners and charities; helping us give support wherever and whenever it’s needed.’

This has caused some to feel uncomfortable with what the poppy has come to represent. The poppy appeal is directly sponsored by companies that profit from war such as BAE Systems and it has built a highly charged nationalist aura around the wearing of the poppy. It’s not only for remembrance of those lost due to wars it is to show how much you support the troops. An appeal to protect those who were victims of their own state’s militarism into a jingoist competition to show who loves their country most. For those critical of the way the army has been deployed over the last few decades this can make the symbol of the poppy a bit of a mixed legacy, and difficult to weld with your own political views. . 

In 2010 a group of Army Veterans sent an open letter in which they complained that the Poppy Appeal had become ‘excessive’ and ‘garish’. They said it was being used to gather support for military campaigns and to pressure people into wearing them. A few years later the same group held a separate remembrance service by walking to The Cenotaph with a banner that read “Never Again” and laid a wreath of white poppies to acknowledge not only the military cost of war but the civilian cost. They wore t-shirts brandished with the phrase “War is Organised Murder” on them, in an action far closer to the true, original meaning of the poppy. This is a quote from Harry Patch, the last survivor of the First World War. 

The white poppy has been used since the 30’s as an alternative symbol of remembrance for all victims of war and to reject the glorification of militarism and its consequences. Nowadays in the UK the Peace Pledge Union distributes white poppies and holds an alternative remembrance service called the ‘National Alternative Remembrance Ceremony’. As they state on their website – 

‘White poppies commemorate all victims of all wars, including wars that are still being fought. This includes people of all nationalities. It includes both civilians and members of armed forces. Today over 90% of people killed in warfare are civilians.’

With the red poppy becoming a symbol for support for the harmful military industrial complex, having alternative ways to show respect to those that have lost their lives due to conflict are especially important. The last justifiable war that the UK has taken part in was the fight against fascism in the Second World War, most subsequent involvement in wars have been about power or money. As a society we should reject the endless wars that serve the interests of the rich.

To support the peace pledge union and find out how to get involved check out their website here.

Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

Lessons in Radical Education: The Legacy of R.F. Mackenzie

It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that universal access to education has been revolutionary. Only since the late 19th century have people of increasingly diverse backgrounds been able to have some kind of access to formal education, and, thankfully, that access has only improved alongside our understanding of the necessity of education to the development of a flourishing and just society. Yet, as for every hard-won progression, there is an ever-present danger of becoming comfortable and complacent in our attitudes towards these social provisions, of losing forward momentum and, eventually, backsliding. We come to view them as broadly static objects within our cultural landscape, unchanging and indeed without the need to change. They exist as monolithic pillars of our society and of our minds: work is work, school is school, democracy is ticking a box every four years. Our lives exist on an assembly line of citizenship, with school primarily serving to prepare us for later subservience and capitulation to data-driven corporate management and inept local and national governance. Only the university is culturally understood to be the site of liberating self-discovery, of intellectual development and action, and even the integrity of that space is increasingly under threat from the pressures of consumerism and neoliberal orthodoxy. When we think back to our own experiences in primary and secondary school, it’s likely that little, if anything, stands out in memory as radical, revolutionary, or even slightly against the grain. Thanks to rigorous- and often overbearing- systems of standardisation, we can pretty much assume our experiences of education were broadly similar to other students up and down the country: a utilitarian emphasis on conformity, acceptance of authority and a diet of passively received knowledge.

As the foundations of society grow increasingly entrenched, it can be difficult for us to conceive of what a radically different system might look like. In the face of the tedious persistence of modern inertia, it’s useful- revitalising even- to remember the reformist, radical thinkers within our own tradition. In the history of Scottish education, Robert F Mackenzie was one such thinker.

R.F. Mackenzie was born in Garioch, Aberdeenshire in 1910. After graduating from the University of Aberdeen in 1931, Mackenzie travelled extensively around Europe, earning a living as a tutor and journalist. During his time in Europe he witnessed the rise of the Nazi party in Germany and joined the RAF as a navigator during the Second World War. After the war ended, he trained as an English teacher and in 1957 took a position as Headteacher of Braehead Junior Secondary School in Buckhaven. ‘Junior’ secondary schools were designed for pupils who had failed entrance exams in primary school and offered a narrower curriculum than other schools.

It was during this time that Mackenzie was at his most prolific in pursuing his vision of a radically different education system, developing his ideas in a series of three books: A Question of Living (1963), Escape from the Classroom (1965) and The Sins of the Children (1968). With these, Mackenzie advanced a philosophy of education which was child-centred, humane and compassionate to children living in difficult circumstances, children who were often marginalised by educators and society more broadly. He placed emphasis on allowing students to engage with their learning on a more democratic basis, on developing an interest in the natural world through excursions outside the classroom, and on teaching children to work cooperatively with one another. in the first of his books he outlined his thoughts, saying, ‘I believe that human nature is generally good, that human beings react generously to conditions of freedom and that therefore teachers doing experimental work in education would be wise not to try and “mould” children into some shape but to help them to grow in freedom’. In contrast, Mackenzie took serious issue with the dominance of exams and metrics as the increasing focus of education, as well as with the prevalence of corporal punishment in classrooms, at the time dished out for even the most minor of ‘rebellions’. ‘The tradition of sin and punishment,’ he observed, ‘is deep in Scottish Education.’

With a dedicated staff and the support of an engaged parent council, Mackenzie was able to put a lot of his theories to the test, developing a curriculum which was focused on the well-being of the students first and foremost, and which provided ample opportunity for growth as cooperative individuals beyond the classroom. Mackenzie had a love of Scottish history and the Scottish countryside and, together with mountaineer Hamish Brown, led students on various expeditions to the highlands, observing and commenting positively on the youngster’s response to being allowed a modicum of freedom and the responsibility which comes along with it. He even acquired a country house for the school to carry out regular weekend activities.

Robert was deeply critical of the examination system, believing ‘it inspires boredom; it impedes experiment and progress; it enslaves the curriculum; it ignores real values; it measures useless information; it ignores character.’ He had no qualms in vigorously advancing his position and preference for the abolishment of contemporary examination systems in favour of continuous modes of assessment. 

He was equally critical of corporal punishment- especially for girls- believing it a barbaric relic of the Calvinist tradition. At both Braehead and later Summerhill, Mackenzie made attempts to abolish corporal punishment. On this point, however, he was met with the most resistance from both teachers and parents, and was ultimately unsuccessful.

On the advent of sweeping and prescriptive educational reform, in April of 1968, Mackenzie left his position at Braehead Junior Secondary School for a position at a new Comprehensive- Summerhill Academy in Aberdeenshire. The introduction of the Comprehensive system saw the closure of many smaller schools, which were then integrated into these new campuses which served much larger areas and populations. Alongside this, the reform began to introduce more stringent and centralised standardisation measures. Mackenzie was deeply sceptical of this development, believing this new system simply ‘made the traditional Tory curriculum and view of society available to a larger number of working-class children.’  The limited success of Mackenzie’s programme at Braehead had been aided by the relatively small number of students and an open-minded staff; at Summerhill, he would find neither. He had pleaded with the Education Council to be afforded a staff with at least some similar qualities as those he had worked with in Braehead. No such concession was made, and Mackenzie soon found himself assailed on all sides by disagreeable staff, confused parents and critical inspectors.

For the next six years, Mackenzie fought tooth and nail against a system designed to curtail dissent and prescribe thought, and in 1972 he was formally accused by more than half of his staff of having an ‘unusual and particularly permissive philosophy.’ Without support from staff and parents in his attempted ban of corporal punishment, and occupied with daily battles against draconian education authorities, his methods were increasingly called into question, having never been given much of a fair chance in the first place. The school was perceived to be increasingly ‘lawless’ and in 1974 Mackenzie was called to a meeting with the Aberdeen Education Committee. At the meeting- more accurately a ceremonial sacking- a characteristically impassioned Mackenzie proclaimed “It is not me who is on trial today, it is comprehensive education that is on trial …you have given us children with wounds in their souls. We could have cured them, we should have cured them, but we couldn’t because you gave us a divided staff.” His protestations and admonitions fell on deaf ears, and his initial suspension led to dismissal the following year.

Following his exile from education, Robert wrote his own account of events at Summerhill leading up to his suspension and eventual dismissal, entitled The Unbowed Head (1976). In it he continued to rail against the prevailing culture of standardised testing, corporal punishment and submission to uncaring authority which had begun to fully permeate Scottish education with the introduction of the comprehensive system.

In 1980, he wrote the Manifesto for the Educational Revolution; this work was at once an elegy for wayward ideals in Scottish education and a furious, radical call to arms. The Manifesto failed to find a publisher during his lifetime, but the manuscript was recovered and published posthumously in 2004. Ruminating once more on his disillusion with modern educational practice, Robert said, 

‘This journey into the interior of education showed me how it is powered. I had been aware of its faults and strove to make improvements because I believed that at heart it was sound. I know now that I was mistaken.  At its heart it is not sound. The commodity it is merchandising is Authority, and the teachers, like the commercial advertisers, are the hidden persuaders using subliminal, quasi-religious concepts to assure pupils and parents that their salvation lies in the worship of Authority, in accepting the Law, in preferring Judgements of this ‘revealed’ religion above their own unlettered thoughts.’

Mackenzie had been derided by a backwards establishment as an unruly blight on Scottish education. In our modern context, we can recognise that the only thing Mackenzie was guilty of was being ahead of his time; the intervening years since his dismissal saw the eventual banning of corporal punishment, and, through the recent implementation of Curriculum for Excellence, Scotland has been making attempts to allow more space for learners to grow as individuals, for educators to account for agency and difference between pupils, and for assessment to more accurately support and account for the development of students at various levels.

There is, however, an ever-present tension between the ideal of learning for personal and social development and the utilitarian view of learning which reductively and deterministically stratifies youngsters in service of maintaining neoliberal cultural norms. We still conceive of education as being primarily a means to prepare the young for work, an attitude which reproduces on a national level the classroom habit of ‘teaching to the test’, wherein students are rushed through schools with little opportunity to really consider, or even ‘play with’ ideas being presented to them; instead we learn what employers want from us, how we are to conduct ourselves, what level of questioning is acceptable and appropriate. How then, can we expect to develop an informed and engaged citizenry, if from 0-18- despite what toothless philosophising might go on within the safe confines of a Modern Studies classroom- we are instructed to accept the world around us as adequate, fair, or inevitable?

As Scots we are often told- and surely would like to believe- that our education system is the ‘envy of the world.’ If that was ever a certainty, it appears progressively dubious. While our education system is different from Englands, the same cultural forces are at play here as down south, who view education as  little more than a tool to reproduce an authorised image of society, which runs deeper than Labour or Tories or the SNP. `one need only look at reforms pushed through down south as recently as last month to understand what’s at stake; in a new ‘guidance’ brief for teaching, the UK government advised,

 ‘Schools should not, under any circumstances, use resources produced by organisations that take extreme political stances on matters. This is the case even if the material itself is not extreme, as it could imply an endorsement or support of the organisation. Examples of extreme political stances include, but are not limited to: 

  • a publicly stated desire to abolish or overthrow democracy, capitalism, or to end free and fair elections.
  • opposition to the right of freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of assembly or freedom of religion and conscience
  • the use or endorsement of racist, including antisemitic, language or communications
  • the encouragement or endorsement of illegal activity
  • a failure to condemn illegal activities done in their name or in support of their cause, particularly violent actions against people or property

Elsewhere, the ‘guidance’ advises against working with those deemed to be peddling ‘victim narratives’. While these measures don’t have any bearing on Scottish education, it would be foolish to imagine ourselves as above such restrictions on free and reasonable enquiry, which this suspiciously timed manoeuvre undoubtedly represents; while for some it can be comforting to conceive of primary and secondary schools as idealised spaces free of politicisation- and this latest revision in England comes under the guise of such agnostic principles- in reality, education is always a politicised space, and the powers that be know this only too well. In a cultural moment characterised by civil unrest across the world- in BLM marches, the struggle for advances in LGBTQI+ rights, and a broad interrogation of social inequality in the wake of covid- they have been shrewd to target schooling in their efforts to stem the tide.

It might be said that RF Mackenzie was a romantic idealist at heart, and surely his philosophy of teaching could often come across as woolly in his various books, light as they were on developing robust educational theory. It might also be said that he placed too much hope in the ability of schooling alone to remake the cultural landscape. While we should recognise that sweeping, radical change rarely springs forth from one area of life in isolation of others, education, as Mackenzie recognised, will nevertheless play a crucial role in any social transformation. ‘A revolution in child rearing is essential to a widespread cultural change,’ he said. ‘ Without it there will be no rule of the majority, that is to say no democracy. With it there will be a new perception of the nature of intelligence and a fusion of thinking and feeling into a deeper understanding; a new perception of how to live our lives; and the healing (the making whole) of our sorely riven society.’ 

Does Shetland Want Independence?

If you read many of the mainstream media’s reporting on the council vote that was held recently on the Shetland Isles, you might’ve been led to believe that the people of Shetland want full independence from Scotland. As is the case with most stories sensationalised by the modern media, the actual story is a bit more nuanced than a gotcha to be thrown in the face of the SNP government and the wider movement for Scottish Independence.

On September 9th, the Shetland Council voted 18 to 2 in favour of supporting a motion to explore options for gaining “financial and political self-determination”; the most likely form this would take would be for Shetland to take on a self-governing Crown Dependency status- much like the Isle of Man or the Channel Islands- or, less likely, to be a British Overseas Territory. These were part of the demands made by the Wir Shetland movement that launched in October of 2015. The group has been greatly opposed to Scottish Independence, as well as the European Union and so has found a lot of support from the Tories in their bid for island autonomy. The Highlands and Islands Conservative MSP Jamie Johnston is quoted as saying –

‘Over 13 years of SNP Government in Edinburgh, countless promises have been made to our island communities, but few are ever delivered. It’s no wonder islanders have run out of patience.’

In spite of the hypocrisy of a Tory sympathising with a community that wants to take its future into its own hands, the frustration felt by islanders is not unfounded; being a part of one of the smaller communities in Scotland can be isolating and many residents feel that their needs are not adequately addressed in Holyrood. A large part of the frustration also comes from the severe budget tightening across all local authorities in Scotland since the 2008 financial crash. These cuts have hit hard in Shetland, particularly in regard to its ferry service. The Shetland Council is responsible for running its inter-island ferry service, which the Scottish Government partly subsidises. The Shetland council has felt that the government has not funded the service well enough and it claims this is the main reason they have had to dip into their reserves to the sum of £8.5 million.

On the other side of the issue the Scottish Government has regularly shown sympathy for the desire for more autonomy on the islands. In 2013 they made the Lerwick Declaration, claiming an intention to further decentralise power to the three island council areas (Shetland, Orkney and the Western Isles) and stating that in the case of Independence for Scotland they would allow the islands even more autonomy if that’s what they desired. More recently in 2018 the Scottish Government passed the Islands Bill. This legislation meant that ministers had a legal duty to prepare a “national islands plan” to address the long-term improvement of the island communities and to extend powers for the island councils over areas such as marine licensing. Whether the government will hold itself to these promises is yet to be seen and this is likely contributing to the islander’s frustrations.

They find themselves in an awkward position. The Northern Island communities seem to be against Scottish Independence in the majority but want greater autonomy for themselves, in spite of the fact that Scottish Independence would mean achieving greater autonomy over all. The Scottish Government could definitely be doing more to support the island communities, but we should be wary of any UKIP style pushes for independence. Wir Shetland has no desire for a radical change in politics to better deal with large problems like wealth disparity and failures in democracy; they simply want more financial autonomy and stricter control of the borders around Shetland. While I’m personally a fan of dismantling large power structures, the Shetland Islands are running the risk of becoming a Little Britain.

Photo by ella peebles on Unsplash

Manufacturing Indifference: Fast Fashion and Consumerism

This past week, fashion industry giant Boohoo made headlines as news of poor working conditions and underpayment came to light from its supply chains in Leicester’s garment district; workers are being paid as little as £3 per hour, well below the national minimum wage, as well as being required to work in unsafe conditions throughout the pandemic, with no social distancing or safety measures put in place. With Leicester being one of the first cities forced to implement a localised lockdown in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, it is believed that these conditions in garment factories contributed to the rapid spread of the virus among the community. Developments in this wave of fashion industry controversy are ongoing- two days ago The Times announced the findings of an investigation which similarly implicates the Quiz brand in sourcing products from garment factories with a flagrant disregard for workers’ rights. As “shocked and appalled” as Boohoo- and us along with them- may claim to be at finding what amounts to slavery on our own doorstep, this is nothing new. While some may be genuinely surprised workers are treated this way in our own country, we, like the bosses at Boohoo, know the suffering that goes into producing the shirts on our backs and the shoes on our feet; “Made in Bangladesh” labels on £4 Primark dresses don’t exactly conjure images of workplace utopia’s. 

While we are hazily aware of oppression in the Global South, this level of awareness very seldom translates into the kind of moral outrage garnered by analogous oppressions in our immediate environment. Geographical as well as cultural distance help us to otherise workers suffering in far off places. Yet this is not a problem solely for foreign governments and traders to deal with. As this latest affair shows, the oppressive and callous conditions of capitalist production persist everywhere; even in ostensibly ‘developed’ countries like our own, huge retailers and restaurant chains will routinely underpay and overwork staff. Last year, the Low Pay Commission found a record number of workers in the UK, most of them women, were being paid less than the national minimum wage. If companies with huge public profiles like Wagamama and Marriott can get away with underpaying employees and violating their rights, is it any wonder that for migrant workers locked away in sweatshops the situation is significantly worse?

‘Fast fashion’ has developed exponentially in the last decade, as high street shopping has been overtaken by the online sphere and the demand for personalised convenience. As highlighted by clothing magnate Eileen Fisher (while accepting an industry award for environmentalism), “The clothing industry is the second largest polluter in the world… second only to oil… it’s a really nasty business… it’s a mess.” At every level, from the harvesting of raw materials, to production, to transit, to distribution, to consumption and finally to disposal, the environmental impact of fast fashion is gargantuan. Behind endless sales and new seasons in perpetuity, inland seas are drained, landfills pile high with poor quality, instantly dated clothes and rivers are poisoned with dye. Cultural awareness of the environmental impact of our consumption habits has arguably never been higher, as we hurtle on towards climate catastrophe. In recent years, the high-profile protestations of Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg have dominated much of this conversation, and around the world, leaders are being put under increased pressure to develop a ‘Green New Deal’. As this snappy business-backed euphemism suggests, the more radical (often non-white) voices of the environmental movement are subsumed by a mainstream which proposes investment in emergent technologies, streamlining production and developing a carbon-neutral ‘eco-capitalism’. Quick to dismiss the utopian visions of far- out socialists or even social democrats, liberal policymakers the world over have seemingly found their own fairy tale to inhabit.

Understanding our consumption habits in terms of environmental impact is hugely important if we are to have any chance of preventing- or, at this stage, mitigating- climate change, and no doubt there are emergent or developing technologies which will help us accomplish a reduction in the footprint of industries like fashion. Yet conversations around the proposed ‘Green New Deal’ typically fails to provide any consideration for the workers, whose already precarious existence will face the most upheaval at the hands of automation or efficiency technologies. Some continue to argue that innovations on the production line benefit workers by increasing output while minimizing their required labour input; as workers in the fashion industry have known since the invention of the sewing machine, any perceived reduction in exertion leads inevitably to an increase in hours and a deflation of wages. Whatever the case may be, these people won’t simply cease to exist once we fully automate production lines and will need to be accounted for.

The coronavirus lockdown has created the space and conditions in which this conversation could reasonably be expected to come to a head; earlier in the pandemic, online retailers reported huge surges in profits as more and more people turned to online outlets for their grocery, entertainment and consumption needs. This uptick in revenue and usage has led to increased scrutiny. Or, at least, more conscious scrutiny. After all, environmental groups have been warning of the devastating impact of over-consumption for decades, and similar reports to those shaming Boohoo and Quiz have come and gone in years past. While it might typically be easy for us to think of these as issues solely for private business and government, the true impact and danger of our consumption demands- not only for the environment but for workers- has been thrown into sharp relief by the threat the coronavirus poses. 

Yet it’s almost easier to imagine the end of the world as a result of a deadly pandemic than the end of rampant consumerism, a mould we have been collectively shaped and moulded into since at least the 1920s. Industrial capital has manufactured our indifference to the suffering of workers for decades. When one story breaks through, as has happened with Boohoo and the Leicester factories, they follow a standardised playbook: plead ignorance, pledge funding to weed out the bad actors and wait for everything to blow over. We can’t rely on the self-regulation of huge companies to improve working conditions or avert climate disaster. While they may offer empty gestures and platitudes (the £10mil pledged by Boohoo to address this controversy is less than 7% of the £150 millon bonus scheme already planned for bosses), these organisations will forever be the propagators of unchecked and exponential consumption. It will take unlearning and challenging our roles as consumers to exert the kind of pressure needed to win big for the environment and workers.

The NHS Needs Real Solidarity

Today marks the 72nd Birthday of the National Health Service. It officially came into operation at midnight on the 4th of July 1948 and was the first completely free healthcare that was made available anywhere in the world on the basis of citizenship instead of through fees or insurances. It came at a time when the infant mortality rate for children less than 1 year old in Britain was around 1 in 20. Every year saw thousands die of infectious diseases like tuberculosis, diphtheria, meningitis, polio, and pneumonia. There is a common perception that the NHS was gifted to working people by the altruistic tendencies of the ruling political elites. This is simply not true. The creation of state medical services was a hot topic for debate within the Trade Union Council since the early 1890’s. With the incredible popularity of the Labour Party- which became an official party in 1906- and the massive rise in trade union activity around the same time, the two big-business parties now had to seriously address the concerns of the working class.

In an attempt to stop workers from flocking to the newly formed Labour party the Liberal Chancellor of the Exchequer of the time, Lloyd George, introduced the National Health Insurance Act in 1911. This act meant that lower paid workers had medical insurance as long as they paid fourpence a week. They had free access to a GP, medicine, and sickness benefit but it did not include dentistry, opticians, artificial limbs, x-rays, or any other kind of hospital treatment. Crucially, it also did not extend to unwaged workers or women and children. Understandably many workers were not pleased with the bill as it did not go far enough. The Leader of the Labour Party, Keir Hardie, had this to say on its introduction:

‘What was the answer received when a minimum wage of thirty shillings for all and eight shillings per day was demanded for those who worked underground in unhealthy conditions? No, say the Liberals, but we will give you an Insurance Bill. We shall not uproot the cause of poverty, but we will give you a porous plaster to cover the disease that poverty causes.’

From the passing of this Act to the introduction of the NHS as we know it today, there was a period of great tension between the working class and the ruling class; a back and forth of pressure from the working class and the political parties trying to placate them just enough that they would stop striking and pushing for social change. Around 1944 Tory health ministers started to put forward various plans for a National Health Service in response to the Beveridge Report and the worry of a demoralised workforce during the Second World War. There was no detail included as to when anything would be done and so the Labour Party came to power in 1945 in a wave of support. There was dancing in the streets and the Labour Party sang the Red Flag in the House of Commons.

Aneurin Bevan was appointed as minister of health and set out to organise the new NHS. Private practice was never fully disbanded, but healthcare was now available to anyone that needed it.

The NHS has faced difficulty since its inception. The Tory party has always tried to starve it and bring back more privatisation; in the early 70’s the only way the Tory government was willing to spend money on new facilities was by lowering the pay of the already low paid health workers; in the 80’s Margaret Thatcher would oversee massive cuts in public spending, a privatisation of many nationalised industries and a significant drop in funding for the NHS; hospitals were taken out of the control of district health authorities and run by trusts; an internal market was established, meaning that some parts of the NHS purchased services while other parts provided them. This effectively ended co-operation between districts. Between 1989 and 1992, an extra 30,000 administrators were hired for the NHS and the number of nurses fell by 26,000.

All of these decisions contributed greatly to the defeat of the Tory party in 1997. Tony Blair famously proclaimed in his campaign that he would save the NHS, but instead would only continue the process started by Thatcher as soon as he got into power. This new Labour stopped defending a publicly run welfare state and continued Tory spending plans for 2 years. Bit by bit, parts of the NHS have been given away to private companies. Starting in the early 2000’s, any new hospital that was constructed was owned privately and then hired out to the NHS with guaranteed profits for 30 years or more. Interest payments increased to as high as 16% and according to the trade union Unite private companies were estimated to have made £23 billion in profit over the length of their contracts.

This creeping privatisation has never ended. Back-door deals are constantly made to try and privatise more of the industry. Hospitals are even attempting to set up separate private companies to then hire cleaning staff and porters so that they can pay them lower wages and give them more unsociable hours.

All of this has meant a drop in the quality of outcomes, which the major parties use to sour public opinion on the NHS so that they can claim that people deserve “options”- which just means that they get redirected to private practices.

The current pandemic has been a clear indicator of the attitudes the modern political elites have towards the NHS. Supplying PPE has been an utter shambles, with frontline NHS workers only having surgical masks when dealing with seriously sick Covid-19 patients. The health secretary Matt Hancock simply urged NHS staff to stop overusing PPE and refused to discuss the potential of increasing the wages for the NHS staff that fully deserve it. Instead he claimed that nurses have already had a pay rise and so do not need one, a claim for which he has been roundly criticised. In reality, the findings of the independent fact-checking charity Full Fact make clear that nurses in 2020 are worse off than they were in 2010, as their wages have not kept up with inflation.

Around 200 NHS and social care staff have died due to coronavirus. As a people we seem to be perfectly happy to shower these workers in empty gestures and praise but do not push for any real change or recompense for the risks they take to care for us. If you really want to support the amazing staff of the NHS stop voting for the Tory Party and, just as the workers of the past did, show your solidarity by putting pressure on the government and refusing to back down. If the past teaches anything, it’s that progress can come when we speak out as one against injustice.

A Post Police World

You might remember my last article where I went through the history of policing. Today, I’m going to do something a little different than usual for ourselves at the ACU and discuss something hypothetical- what a post-police world could look like. 

Before this however I think it’s only fair that I put my biases on the table and admit- at the risk of losing my leftie credentials- I don’t hate polis. 

At least not individual ones. I do believe that the police service is something that has outlived its usefulness to communities across the world some time ago, that better systems already exist and that- sometimes by design and sometimes by accident- policing has upheld systems of abuse and oppression. I do not, however, as a rule hate polis. I am sure there are individuals that join the police service looking to exercise some authoritarian power fantasy because of an antisocial tendency that they never grew out of; but I also know polis that are good people, that want to help their community and for these people, for better or worse, if you really want to help your community police work can be, if not the only, certainly the most obvious game in town. I can’t bring myself to hate individual people who want to make the world better but don’t have the radicalisation or the education to imagine other, more effective ways of going about it. 

I do, however, firmly believe that for a better world to exist, police need to not. 

If we’re going to imagine a world without police, we need to first understand their job, and then look at what bits we would want to keep and what parts are better left to the dustbin of history. Police Scotland define their role as “improving the safety and wellbeing of people, places and communities in Scotland” which sounds rather nice. Those are, after all, principles I do like and that I think are important. However, police do serve specific roles, like upholding the law and serving the community interest, which are two purposes that can be at odds with each other. 

Before lockdown went into place I had a nice chat with a police officer. We were talking about body cameras, a practice that some reformers are calling for the expansion of, where an officer will be required to have a camera that’s on 24/7, recording everything they say and do. Naturally, I was very much in favour of this proposal and said as much to the officer, that accountability in any role is important, doubly so in a role where you exercise a lot of power. This officer, however, said something that stuck with me: “How many people in the west of Scotland would still have a license if instead of letting people off with a warning, I had to write them up when they did something a bit daft on the road? How many kids would be spending time in juvy if instead of giving them a telling off when I caught them stealing something or vandalising something, I had to make sure that they were persecuted to the full extent of the law? If the camera is on 24/7, I don’t get to decide what’s worth taking seriously, and I don’t want to take every daftie to prison ‘cause then streets would be empty”. I still think police accountability is a good and a vitally necessary thing, although what she had said really hammered home the (perhaps unintentional) point that the community interest and the exact letter of the law is not always one and the same. 

Until the introduction in 2011 of the Double Jeopardy (Scotland) Act there were a number of so-called “cold cases” like the famous incident involving Angus Sinclair; historic cases that had new evidence emerge as a result of modern DNA analysis techniques, that were nevertheless not able to be taken to court as the law at the time stated you could not be tried again for a crime you were already found innocent off, even if new evidence emerged. Angus was arrested in 2004 for the World’s End murders in 1977 and then acquitted; it wasn’t until 2014 and the passing of this new law that he was finally able to be taken to trial and found guilty of the crime he long ago been proven to have committed. Stepping aside the complex issue of the use and morality of prison as a punishment and instead focusing on the issue of upholding the law, we can see here that keeping to the law does not always mean keeping the community safe, it sometimes means letting a known murderer walk free for years. 

Another, less savoury role police serve in modern society is using violence in order to maintain the state’s internal monopoly on violence. Essentially, the only way a modern state can exist is if it is the only organisation that is legally allowed to use force to maintain itself and its property, and it does this via the use of police. 

That’s a word salad, so what do I mean by this? Basically, if you do something the Government doesn’t like they can send the folk in blue to batter you and take you away, you however, canny rock up to a polis station and arrest the polis. This makes sense, it would be bedlam otherwise and most people would agree that if you are a murderer or a violent criminal it’s good when the polis stop your rampage. The Government, however, has a longer list of do’s and don’t’s than just “don’t murder people” and in the past police have been happy to oblige Government directives to cracks down on union strikes, and have turned up in full riot gear to peaceful protests, often leaving protestors bruised, and sometimes dead. The same police force that keeps our communities safe also turned up to gay bars to do mass arrests, fed information to employers about trade unionists for industry black lists  and conducted spying on minority groups that amounted to targetted harassment

What’s the alternative though? If the Government doesn’t have a monopoly on violence, does that mean anyone could be violent? Surely that chaos is worse than any oppressive order imposed on us? We tried might makes right in the past and collectively agreed it was not a very nice time for most people. What if instead of there being a select group of people permitted to dish out violence on the Government’s behalf and to uphold the Government’s laws, police were instead directly accountable to the people they serve and protect? 

I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume, dear reader, that you, like myself are a fan of democracy. If we agree that democracy is good, we can employ it as a solution here. Instead of being representatives of the Government we could introduce a model where every police officer is elected by the community. This sounds strange, until you consider that the people that decide our laws are already elected- why not, then, the people that actually carry out those laws? This would mean that the police aren’t just faceless men and women that act as agents of the state but instead people with names, faces, promises and accountability. The police are not apolitical, each and everyone will have some political inclination even if it’s not shown during work hours and they remain completely professional throughout their career. Would you not rather know if the person walking about your town, upholding the law in your community is ideologically opposed to you? The Police and Crime Commissioner is already an elected role in England and Wales, so why not officers on the ground?

Now that’s a pretty radical idea, and not jumping at joy at the idea of bringing political division into police work is an understandable response. What if you don’t like the government, and think the MPs people vote for are all idiots already, that Westminster and Holyrood are without a single honest person. You agree we need some form of police, but you don’t like the mercenary idea of just hiring people to do it, and don’t trust the type of people that would stand for election just to put on a uniform. There already exists in our legal system a method of selection that avoids the issues that both methods raise: Jury duty. What if the police officer walking through the town was from the town and picked out by lot. No favouritism, no politics, just a lottery, and two weeks out of their life a year, everyone gets a shot and no one gets the be polis for too long. The idea isn’t as far-fetched as you might first think, it’s an old idea. Lenin discussed something similar to this that he thought could have been brought about in Petrograd while he was still in Germany, and Ancient Athens put a lot of democratic trust into the idea of selection by lot. After all, we already have jury duty as part of our justice system, if twelve strangers chosen by chance are a fair way to send someone to the jail, maybe it’s a fair way of bringing them to court in the first place.

What we have discussed so far still falls under the umbrella of reformism, even as dramatic as my proposals so far have been. Let’s say you aren’t satisfied with what I’ve offered up so far. When you say you want police abolition, you don’t want to just fix recruitment and have a better police force. You’re saying exactly what you mean: you want the abolishment of the police. What would we be left with? 

More than you might first think, actually. Detectives, the people that investigate serious crimes are already separate to the day to day officers and CID. They don’t carry out many of the roles that could fall under the term population control and support the court system by providing evidence. What about community policing? Well, we have experimented in Scotland in the past with community wardens; without a police budget to support we would have more money to invest in the warden scheme that suffered more from a lack of resources than anything else. Police, as part of their role, don’t just respond to crimes but also mental health crises- without police who would turn up to prevent suicides? What about social workers or medical staff properly trained and focused on providing the care and support needed in such extreme situations? 

A post police world is possible, and it wouldn’t even take a radical change in society to make it a reality. All we would have to do is expand what already exists to make sure the parts of policing that we need in place still gets carried out.

These are just my own ideas, there are better educated and smarter people you should listen to first but I hope this has maybe opened you up to the idea of what a post-police world could look like, and that it doesn’t necessarily look that different from the world we already live in. The ideas I have presented today have been hamstrung in this discussion because the scope of this article was to discuss the post-police world, but any suggestions that do not confront the prison industry, the mental health system, poverty, legalism, capitalism and statism are ultimately limited to be reforms rather than revolutionary changes in human history. If I got into all of that, this would have turned into a very long and very boring book. Instead, what I wanted to do was write about ideas that are not just possible within today’s system, but could be put into action tomorrow. We already have the tools necessary to build a better tomorrow. We just need to be willing to imagine a better world and make it real.

The Scottish Utopia Myth

As protests start to be organised across the UK in support of the Black Lives Matter movement it has been troubling to see the criticism that has been used against them. A lot of people in the UK like to look to America and criticise the failings of its systems but put the blinders on when it comes to being a bit more introspective and taking a look at the country we live in. This phenomenon is even more prevalent in Scotland. There is a tendency to think of Scotland as the “best wee country in the world”; a place where the majority of us reject Tory rule and are proud of an international reputation for friendliness and good humour. Many only think of the wars of independence and our countries involvement in the world wars when they think of the history of Scotland. While being important parts of the history of the Scottish people they are not the only parts. Ignoring Scotland’s role in the British Empire and involvement and benefit from the Atlantic slave trade, as well as ongoing issues with racism and tribalism invalidates the experiences of people of other ethnicities and makes it less likely that these issues will be meaningfully dealt with.

To be clear, this article is not here to proclaim that Scotland is a racist nation and all Scottish people should be ashamed of themselves (although some definitely should be!) It is simply a candid look at the issues, both historically and currently, that contribute to inequality. There absolutely is reason to take racism seriously in this country and the people marching for Black Lives Matter have every right.

THE PAST

As part of the British Empire, Scotland had an incredibly involved role in all its aspects. From military to plantation ownership and even as settlers the people of Scotland were involved all over the world. North America, the Caribbean, Australasia, South Africa, India as well as colonies in South-East Asia and Africa all saw involvement from the Scots.

One mainstay of Scottish history is the wealthy elites of Scotland jumping on any opportunity to make more money and grab more power. It was true in the 1707 Act of Union between Scotland and England which, after the failure of the Darien venture, gave the wealthy in Scotland access to all of England’s colonies as well as to the East India Trading Company. This meant that Scotland became heavily involved in the colonies in India and the Caribbean very quickly with many plantations in both areas. And with plantations came involvement in the slave trade.

Glasgow is most notorious for its involvement in the trade, especially with the so called “tobacco lords”. Men that made so much money through dodgy dealings and the slave trade that they were said to live as well as aristocrats, these men were well respected in their times. Glasgow was seen as the second city in the Empire and reaped a lot of benefit due to the slave trade. Many streets in the city are still named in honour of these men, something that has recently come into the conversation again. Over 16,000 people have signed a petition to have the names changed and one activist has attached alternative street signs such as ‘Fred Hampton Street’ and ‘Rosa Parks Street’.

Moving on from the 18th and 19th centuries, let us look at the 20th century. You may have heard of the “Battle of George Square” in 1919, the day that between 30,000 to 60,000 peaceful protestors in Glasgow were violently put down by the police for asking for the 40-hour work week, amongst other basic workers’ rights. This was the famous event in which Winston Churchill was so afraid that it would turn in to a revolution that he had Scottish soldiers contained in the Maryhill barracks and ordered tanks into the city. A moment of pride to many in the struggle for workers rights, however the labour movement at the time was also implicit in racism. Just a few days before the Battle of George Square one of the ugliest events in Glasgow’s history took place. Known as the ‘Broomielaw Race Riot” it was the result of speeches delivered by local delegates of the National Seamen’s Union in which they scapegoated, mainly black British colonial and Chinese sailors as the reason that the white Glaswegian sailors were finding it hard to get work. It was all an attempt to gain support from the local seafaring workforce in the general strike that was planned for that Sunday. Such inflammatory speeches simply stoked fires that had already been lit. The shipping trade already enacted racist policies with many shipowners instigating a ‘colour ban’ in response to trade unions opposing the hiring of non-white British subjects.

The events unfolded later in the day as sailors were waiting at the port offices to try and get work. A group of around 30 African sailors were harassed by a much larger group of white sailors, it got so bad that the African sailors ran away to seek shelter where they were staying in Broomielaw. The mob of white sailors followed them and attacked the building causing the African sailors to run again to a nearby lodging house. Again, the crowd followed them, now numbering in the hundreds, and attacked the building with bricks and bottles. The police eventually arrived and took the African sailors away in ‘protective custody’ but subsequently charged them with riot and weapons offenses. None of the white rioters were arrested or charged.

Scotland has always struggled with poverty and is a place in which the scapegoating of immigrants has always had purchase. Whether it’s African and Chinese sailors in 1919 or South Asian migrants in the 50s and 60s or more recently the Syrian refugees; there has always been a narrative pushed that the poor people of this country have the poor people from other countries to blame for their woes.

THE PRESENT

If you read all of that and scoffed, thinking them the actions of a past nation no longer linked to the Scotland of today, think again. The systemic racism of that time has reverberated through the generations and is still evident today.

In response to a Glasgow Times article discussing the Black Lives Matter protest, this is what the comments section looked like –

Comments section of a Glasgow Times article about BLM protests

Interestingly in 2018, Glasgow University academic Neil Davidson, a lecturer in Sociology, co-authored a book with findings that between 2000 and 2013 there were 1.8 race-related murders per million people, compared to 1.3 per million in the rest of the UK.

We also have similar issues with policing. Although nowhere near the extent that the policing in America is a problem, a remarkably similar incident to the murder of George Floyd happened here in Scotland. In May 2015 in Fife, police were called out to reports of a man acting erratically with a knife. The mans name was Sheku Bayoh and by the time the officers arrived he was in no possession of a knife. The officers used CS spray, leg restraints and batons to subdue him resulting in 23 separate injuries. Much like George Floyd he shouted that he could not breath, he died in hospital after the incident. The officers denied all wrongdoing and were never charged for his death, luckily the incident is being investigated in a public enquiry.

Other than these examples there are always reports of racist abuse at football games, of attacks on people of other ethnicities and a normalisation of the use of racist language.

Racism is not something that can be ignored until it goes away. It is a parasite that must be confronted head on. The collective ignorance or wilful dismissal of the issues of racism in Scotland, whether in the past or the present, simply entrench the problems further. As a people we need to be educated and mindful of this country’s historical place in the implementation and complicity in scientific racism and can only claim to be the friendly wee country we seem to think we are if we start acting like it.

Photo by Donald Edgar on Unsplash

Palliative Protests: How Liberals Undermine Social Movements

The murder of George Floyd has galvanised a desire for change extending far beyond the borders of the United States. The most recent in a long line of racially motivated police killings, George’s death and the resultant police response to protests, have revealed the callousness with which a great many law enforcement officials wield their power. Amidst a backdrop of coronavirus, social disenfranchisement, and police brutality, peaceful protests have erupted into riots and looting across America, invariably with police inciting or exacerbating through excessive force. As video after video surfaces online of police engaging in violent suppression of largely peaceful protesters, many are recognising the need for a serious and widespread interrogation of our relationship to the mechanisms of power and social control.

With that said, hand wringing over the validity of rioting and looting as a form of political protest threaten to overtake the issues; predictably, conservatives- who portray themselves as gun-toting freedom fighters ready to go toe-to-toe against government tyranny- are positively salivating at the prospect of government violence being meted out against their enemies- these violent thugs with no respect for property rights or law enforcement. This gleeful inconsistency on their part is par for the course; what is more insidious, however, is the tendency of supposedly well-meaning liberals to hijack social movements and placate them while performing their support. The anger and desire for change which liberal protestors feel is often proportionally less than that of others involved in rioting and looting, no matter their radical rhetoric (adopted as it comes in and out of vogue).

This article will consider the role liberals play in de-fanging and disowning protest movements, often demeaning or erasing the very people they purport to care about, all whilst demanding little in the way of change.

One of the recurring criticisms levelled at protests by conservatives and liberals alike is that rioting- and especially looting, the wanton infringement of property rights- in some sense diminishes the seriousness of the demonstration, detracts from “the message” and robs them of their political legitimacy. This claim is nothing new; as far back as the 1960s conservatives and liberal elites have attempted to police the boundaries of acceptable protest by casting aspersions on the working classes engaged in acts of social disorder, like property damage and looting. For conservatives, this means characterising riotous protesters as violent degenerate thugs, often with racialised overtones. Liberals- who typically place themselves ostensibly on the side of change and progress- weaponize Martin Luther King Jr in decrying rioting and looting; here, they say, is evidence of the evergreen effectiveness of peaceful protest. Offering up a palliative and reductive distortion of the civil rights movement, liberals effectively erase not only Malcolm X, but almost the entire revolutionary character of the civil rights movement; Martin Luther King Jr existed against a tumultuous and violent backdrop of rioting in which marginalised communities strove to assert themselves against an oppressive system which routinely and openly denigrated them. While MLK had his own perspective on the righteousness of rioting, this was not shared by all who were fighting for emancipation. Had there been no civil unrest as a threatening backdrop, MLKs tactics would likely have proved less effective in bringing lawmakers to the negotiating table.

Additionally, this liberal invocation of Martin Luther King Jr, with various sombre references to the world he envisioned in his famous “I Have A Dream” speech, betrays its insincerity in its depthlessness. Opinions are, of course, not static and towards the end of his life MLK had begun to show a greater understanding for rioting and its legitimacy as a means of political dissent. “Riots do not develop out of thin air… a riot is the language of the unheard.” While still critical of the effectiveness of riots in achieving political goals, MLK did not, in doing so, undermine the legitimate grievances of the working class, or fail to recognise the conditions from which riots emerge. That MLK’s actions and previous positioning allows disengaged liberals to pay lip-service to social progress- while simultaneously preserving their own economic interest- was perfectly encapsulated by such individuals accusing MLKs son of misappropriating his own father’s words. Perennially, these predominantly middle-class, predominantly white people stand atop the moral high ground, tutting paternalistically at the huddled masses who don’t know what’s good for them.

While this moralistic dismissal of rioters is most readily observable in the white middle-classes, themselves removed from the protests and brutality of police oppression, it does in fact cut across racial boundaries, revealing the class interests at the heart of these criticisms. In the face of civil disobedience and protests in Atlanta, Run The Jewels MC and landlord Killer Mike took to a podium with Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms. While wearing a T-shirt reading “Kill Your Masters”, a visibly upset Mike cautioned protestors against “burning down our own homes”, despite black people in Atlanta making up the bulk of the city’s workforce while being disproportionately less likely to own a home. As Mike took the opportunity to encourage people to vote their way out of oppression with a mishmash of buzzwords,  absent from Mike’s T-shirt, the twin directive “Kill Your Idols” was a silent scream. 

Both white and black middle class self-styled leaders attempt to hijack the rhetoric and trajectory of social movements, bringing them into the orbit of their own class interests, namely the aspirational preservation of their wealth, status and property. Another key way in which this manifests itself is in the scapegoating of the “outside agitator”. While conservatives use rioting as an excuse to legitimise violent and oppressive policing- the mobilising of state-sanctioned tyranny against their political opponents- liberals make reference to the presence of “outside agitators” souring the character and spirit of the protest movement. This spectral opponent allows Democrat senators and mayors to use the presence of subversive elements as a welcome excuse to distance themselves from uncomfortable social truths, to pretend there is no civil unrest bubbling over in their own citizenry, that white nationalists and/or antifascist organisers are using their once idyllic towns and cities as battlegrounds for a shadowy proxy-war. In Cleveland, a city with a Democrat mayor, Police Chief Calvin Williams preemptively claimed that the majority of detainees during protests had been from out of state. Jail records later showed that not only were those arrested mostly from Cleveland, most were also black. Frequently this attitude and rhetoric extends also to social leaders both black and white aiming to demobilize the more radical elements within the social movement. This is not to deny the presence of such actors within a widespread and diverse movement with no centrally planned directives; but the characterisation and insistent blame of the bulk of property damage and looting on white fringe elements effectively erases the black working class involved in more radical action. Fearful of playing into stereotypes, and of acknowledging the destruction of property as a legitimate expression of outrage at a culture which values and protects property over people, liberals instead marginalise radical black activists and the working class in favour of an anaemic version of social justice which seeks only to improve their standing within the status quo.

Perhaps most egregious in liberal insistence that rioting sets back social progress by entrenching prejudicial beliefs is that this claim is patently false. As recently as 2014, the Ferguson riots following the murder of Michael Brown present a microcosm of events which are now playing out on the national (and international) level. Despite an onslaught of negative press coverage, recent research has shown that the attention commanded by the Ferguson riots led to a significant increase in those who feel equality is still an issue which needs to be addressed, even among republican voters. To bring this closer to home for a moment, the 1990 riots in the UK against the poll tax lead to the bill being repealed and Margaret Thatcher’s resignation.

The duplicity of liberal involvement with and commentary on social movements should be of concern to any who desire fundamental change. By allowing them to take the reigns, we set ourselves up for more of the same with regards to policing and government. Already emergent in the wake of discussions around police brutality following George Floyd’s murder is a schism between liberal “reformists” and the radical desire for the abolition of policing in its current form. Liberals, keen to preserve the state’s monopoly on violence, seem to think institutional racism can be overcome with a diet of increased funding, sensitivity training and increased accountability, completely disregarding that all such methods have been tried and tested time and again and the results are plain to see. Yet with their aspirational and actual class interest in the preservation of the sanctity of private property, liberals cannot envisage a world without the need for police as agents of property enforcement, and so will continue to be ineffectual conduits for manifest social change.

Keir Starmer: King of The Ashes

As of April, the Labour party now has a new leader in Sir Keir Starmer and a new Shadow Cabinet appointed by him. Starmer won the leadership contest with 56% of the vote on a wave of sentiments such as “electability”, “moderate” and “sensible” and has been a staunch Remainer in the Brexit debate. Starmer was instrumental in his role as Shadow Brexit secretary in tempering Labour’s position on Brexit and forcing Corbyn to support a second referendum going into the 2019 general election. This, for many, was the death knell for Labour as they alienated millions of working-class voters that voted for Brexit and pushed them towards the Conservatives, leaving the UK in a strange place with the Conservative party now having a larger working class base of support, at least in England.

The appointment of Sir Keir Starmer, a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath, has also alienated the members of the Labour party that still believed in Labour as a left-wing party that would push for meaningful, socialist changes to society. He has been compared to Tony Blair and many believe he will steer the party back towards a “New Labour” way of working that operates more in the mythical centre of the political spectrum and tries to strike a balance between the left and right wings of the party. Something that has been applauded by members of the Conservative party such as the architect of austerity himself, George Osborne, who tweeted –

“Keir Starmer’s reshuffle is impressive – the Marxist nutters are out; moderate left are in. When this crisis is eventually over, and politics is resumed, the Tories are going to find that the 5 years when there was no opposition and no alternative has come to an abrupt end”

A bold statement but one that has very little meaning coming from someone that should be a political enemy of the Labour movement, especially when you look at the people that Starmer has appointed to his Shadow Cabinet. At a time where the Conservative government have clearly, seriously mishandled the Covid-19 crisis amid false scientific claims of the validity of “herd immunity”, a failure to provide clarity and protections for the people most at risk and a wilful dismissal of a report in 2016 that predicted what would happen in a pandemic situation; new Shadow Foreign Secretary Lisa Nandy claimed in an interview that “this wasn’t a foreseeable crisis” despite the fact that the Government had foresaw a crisis like this happening four years ago. A statement that Starmer would be proud of as he himself stated that now is “not the time” to ask if the Government has been too slow in responding to this crisis. A strong opposition indeed.

To anyone who denounces criticism of the government in a time like this as trying to politicise a tragedy I would like to say this to you specifically – Whether you like it or not, everything is political. It was a political choice to suppress the 2016 report on pandemic response from the public. It was a political choice to not heed the warning of countries like China and Italy when it came to the lax response to the pandemic. These political choices have caused a lot of unnecessary strain, suffering, deaths and the government must be held accountable for that.

As to the rest of the Shadow Cabinet, we have Ian Murray who failed in his bid for the Deputy Leader position but is being kept on as Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland. He claimed to have been “honoured” by an endorsement from Tony Blair and Gordon Brown and has been a vocal critic of Corbyn and his policies.

Appointed as Shadow Minister for Domestic Violence and Safeguarding is Jess Phillips; a person that has been caught out bragging about telling MP Diane Abbot to “fuck off” during a parliamentary meeting, a claim that turned out to be a complete lie, and has a worrying track record of supporting transphobic groups and diminishing the rights of sex workers. Oh and Jess was also was one of Corbyn’s loudest critics and was quoted in an interview with the Guardian as saying to Corbyn “The day that… you are hurting us more than you are helping us, I won’t knife you in the back, I’ll knife you in the front”.

In at the position of Shadow Exchequer Secretary is Wes Streeting, a man that doxxed a person on twitter over a doctored picture and has taken every opportunity to attack Jeremy Corbyn over the claims of anti-Semitism in the Labour party but who also told a campaigner against anti-Semitism to “fuck off” when he pointed out he was defending proven anti-Semite Ali Milani. He also seems very comfortable working with his colleague Rachel Reeves who has also been awarded a place in the Shadow Cabinet; a woman that has admitted her admiration for the first ever sitting woman MP Nancy Astor, a known anti-Semite and avid supporter of Adolf Hitler. Another example of a worrying trend in British politics where people like to pretend the first female MP was a Nazi sympathiser and brush over the Irish Socialist Constance Markievicz. British politics is grim, but maybe Labour shouldn’t be the party working to erase Socialism from British politics and fawning over fash?  

You may be wondering why I have made an effort to point out that Starmers new Shadow Cabinet seems to be propped up by the people in the party that were the most critical of Jeremy Corbyn as leader. It has recently been announced that the internal report entitled “The work of the Labour Party’s Governance and Legal Unit in relation to antisemitism, 2014 – 2019” will not be submitted to the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) on the advice of the Party’s lawyers as they fear it could harm the Party. This story was broken by Sky News who claimed to have seen the 860 – page report and stated that it “concluded factional hostility towards Jeremy Corbyn amongst former senior officials contributed to a ‘litany of mistakes’ that hindered the effective handling of the issue”. A polite way of describing many of Keir’s supporters and shadow cabinet as fifth columnists.

The report has since been leaked online and is very damning for those involved.Through thorough examination of more than 10,000 emails and thousands of WhatsApp messages it was discovered that a faction inside the Labour party that were doing everything they could to make sure Corbyn lost the election in 2017. This included deliberately mishandling work, sabotaging anyone they believed to be a ‘trot’ (a Trot being anyone to the left of Brown) and lying to manipulate outcomes that they wanted. There is a lot in the report but some of the worst revelations from the WhatsApp messages include –

  • Conversations which show senior staff hid information from the leader’s office about digital spending and contact details for MPs and candidates during the election
  • A discussion about how to prevent Corbyn ally Rebecca Long-Bailey gaining a seat on the party’s governing body in 2017
  • Constant references to Corbyn – supporting staff as “trots”
  • Conversations in which the same group refers to Corbyn’s former chief of staff Karie Murphy as “medusa”, a “crazy woman” and a “bitch face cow” that would “make a good dartboard”
  • A discussion in which a member of the group said they “hope” that a young pro-Corbyn Labour activist, who they acknowledge had mental health problems, “dies in a fire”

One of the more damning paragraphs that show the level to which members of this group were trying to sabotage Corbyn is the following about Emilie Oldknow who is now the COO of the Unison trade union. It states –

‘WhatsApp discussions among senior Labour HQ staff show that LOTO (Leader of The Opposition) was unhappy with the NCC panel’s decision to suspend Ken Livingston for another year rather than expel him. Emilie Oldknow wrote that “Karie has been telling Shadow Cabinet members that I’ve orchestrated the Ken situation so… Tom got his people on the panel to make a soft decision, all in order to embarrass JC and create a crisis.”

Sir Keir Starmer claims that he wants a more moderate party that bridges the left-wing/right-wing divide so as to win back the trust of voters. This reconciliation is as convincing as Keir pishing into my ear and telling me it’s raining. What we really see is a group of moderates that never liked how popular the policies of Jeremy Corbyn were and did everything in their power to purge the party of the further left leaning people involved. Forcing Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit, purposely sabotaging the Party and colluding to bully members they believed to be too far left and then accusing Corbyn of losing two elections all by himself because he was so unpopular and had bad ideas. It is the same type of Neo-Liberal machinations that were set on Bernie Sanders over in America and it makes it clear that whether here in the UK or over in the US there will never really be an opportunity to have any real choice in government. Neither in the UK or the US is there a party structure that can make a home for the Left. They all wear different colours but campaign for slight variations of the same formula. Keir Starmer is being hailed as the electable saviour for the Labour Party, but I would argue the Labour Party is now so far removed from where it was supposed to be that he now has nothing worth saving.

I’d like to leave you with a quote from the legend of the Labour Party Tony Benn. “We are not just here to manage capitalism but to change society and to define its finer values.”

He said this in response to the push for Labour to adopt more right-wing ideas in the 80s. A task completed by Tony Blair and now furthered by the ghoulish machinations of the right leaning members of the Labour Party. Sir Keir Starmer has been propelled to leadership of a Party that his supporters have eroded from the inside. Keir is not the saviour of the Labour party, but it’s undertaker.

What to do if You’re Being Discriminated Against at Work

When it comes to earning a wage to put food on the table, many people are willing to put up with behaviour they normally wouldn’t. With the cost of living increasing more and more and the minimum wage consistently being below the accepted living wage, a lot of people struggle to make their payslip last the month never mind putting some away for a rainy day. This means that a lot of workers are willing to put up with bullying and discrimination at work in fear that speaking out might lead to them losing their job.

It is important that every worker knows their rights and the laws surrounding wage labour. You do not belong to someone because they pay you a wage to do a job. Below is a list of some of the routes to take if you believe you are being discriminated against

Be Firm

Legally employers have a duty of care to their employees. If you make it clear that someone’s behaviour (either colleague or manager) is making you uncomfortable or angry, firstly, they may not realise how their behaviour is affecting you and could stop when asked. Secondly, it is the legal obligation of your employer to deal with bullying issues. When it comes to any type of harassment there is a list of “Protected Characteristics” that are legally guarded. These are –

  • Age
  • Disability
  • Gender Reassignment
  • Pregnancy and Maternity
  • Race
  • Religion or Belief
  • Sex
  • Sexual Orientation

Don’t Suffer in Silence

If a colleague is harassing you tell a senior member of staff, every workplace should have a policy on harassment and the issue should be resolved. If it is a manager or your employer that is bullying you discuss it with your colleagues. Find out if they are being mistreated as well. It is infinitely more difficult for an employer to get away with treating their employees poorly if they are a united front that can threaten legal action.

REMEMBER – You do not need to be the one being mistreated for you to raise the issue or raise a formal grievance. If you see a colleague being discriminated against, support them and report the bully. Most workplaces have a grievance procedure but if yours doesn’t you can still raise one. Submit a grievance letter to your line manager or HR and keep a copy for yourself. Always include what the grievance is, any evidence you might have and what you would like done about it.

If unsure, citizens advice is a good resource for helping you with the process.

Join a Union!

Too many people these days don’t know their rights when it comes to joining a union. It is illegal for your employer to fire you or treat you unfavourably over union membership. It is also illegal for an employer to refuse to employ you for being a member of a union (Although some still try and get away with this through blacklists. A topic for an entirely different article.) Not only this but under section 145A of the Trade Union and Labour Relations Consolidation Act 1992 it is illegal for an employer to offer a worker an inducement not to join a union or not take part in union activities. Being a part of a union is the best way to ensure you are treated with respect at work. If you face any of the issues raised above, speaking to a union rep, even if you are not a member, is a good place to start in getting things sorted out.

Please don’t ever suffer through poor treatment. I’ve worked in toxic, bullying environments. In places where you would be told from management that you are replaceable and if you joined a union you would be replaced, and I wish I had known these things then. You deserve dignity and respect in your workplace and there is plenty of people out there willing to fight in your corner to ensure that is what you get.

Never underestimate your worth.

Photo by 🇨🇭 Claudio Schwarz | @purzlbaum on Unsplash