It does socialists good to exit their comfort zones. Intervention in a variety of different arenas is not only important, it can teach you a lot and remind you of many things you have tucked away in the back of your mind and forgotten. Like, why I never did much like the idea of lobbying my Member of Parliament...
On one level the reason for this is obvious: I subscribe to a set of ideas which not only does not fetishise parliament, but views parliamentary democracy as a convenient sham, a mask for a much harsher, more violent and self-interested class society lurking beneath, which most of the time manages to keep its true face hidden. Parliament is very important to our ruling class because it serves an escape-valve function for ‘the masses’, disguising the fact that every last ‘democratic’ right – votes for working-class men, votes for women, regular elections – was only achieved through working class struggle. From 1688 to 1832, less than 10% of the adult male population had the right to vote: it was the Chartists, the suffragettes and others who managed to drag our rulers even to a position of formal ‘equality’.
But as the old slogan goes: “If voting really changed anything, they’d make it illegal.” Real power does not lie in parliament. Least of all does it lie with the wretched back-bench MPs, lobby-fodder, whose main loyalty is to their careers and expense accounts, who are cajoled and bribed into doing the will of the establishment by the party whips. The journalist and revolutionary socialist Paul Foot, whose passion and mercurial eloquence I miss every day, was wonderfully scathing about the total powerlessness of these people, and how even those who enter parliament determined to change the place (few indeed these days!) are in fact changed themselves, condemned to impotence or bought up and corrupted, in the cases where they were not corrupt to start with.
Having worked with MPs in joint campaigns, I do not entertain any illusions about the special skills and talents of these individuals. Yes, there are intelligent and skilful MPs, but there are at least as many ignorant and stupid ones. Clowns who have no discernible talents nor original ideas, who seem to have achieved these dizzy heights solely through being egregious yes-men with a vulpine aptitude for looking after themselves. Or simply, many of them, because they happen to have enough money to ‘buy’ a safe seat...
Least of all, I imagine, would anyone believe that real power lies in parliament from the evidence of the televised proceedings. The official state opening – men in tights walking backwards and rapping on doors with rods, rows of bewigged ancients, half-asleep or paralytic with port like something out of a Gillray cartoon – is a bizarre rogues’ gallery that reminds one of nothing so much as a scene from Alice Through the Looking Glass. This place started off as a royal palace, and that is still its ethos and culture.
And then the debates. There seem to be two scenarios. Either the chamber is deserted, while some unfortunate hack stumbles over a speech some adviser has written for him/her which is in fact an endless paean of praise to one of his/her party bosses. Or it is like a public school debating society on methamphetamine, an hallucinatory swirl of smirking well-fed mouths uttering a perpetual ghastly braying, while forlorn cries of what Private Eye paraphrases as “Ordure, ordure...” fill the air.
Real power in society does not lie with this freak show, but elsewhere, with the bankers and big businessmen, the CEOs of those corporations and multinational companies whose yearly turnover is the same as the GDP of a medium-sized country. It lies with those directors of FTSE 100 companies whose pay rose 49 percent last year, and 55 percent the year before that, whose salaries rose in 2010 to average £2.7 million. It is only our meek acceptance of the notion of the supposed and artificial separation of politics from economics that enables the illusion of democracy to be maintained. In reality, the class that controls the economy controls the state.
It does this through its control of the state apparatus, none of whose members are elected: the senior civil servants, the High Court judges, the police chiefs and army chiefs of staff all of whom come from the same backgrounds. For example, more than 80 percent of UK judges and generals went to public school. And, put together with the media bosses, they monopolise the exercise in society of both force and fraud.
This is the British ruling class, charged with defending to the death the status quo, making sure that order reigns so that capitalist exploitation can occur with the minimum of effort. We were recently allowed a glimpse into this world - the unholy Cameron/Brooks/Murdoch ménage-a-trois, partying and horse-riding while they discuss...what? Not phone-hacking, apparently. Nor, I would imagine, the declining purchasing power of their pensions. It is in these circles where true power lies, not with the wretched Members of Parliament, who provide a mere figleaf for real class interests.
So, why, then, last Wednesday, was I queuing in the shadow of Big Ben, among the swirling leaves and sporadic rain of Westminster, waiting to see one of these creatures? Well, it was the fault of the pensions campaign, actually...
As I’m sure you are aware, the 30 November will, provided there are no slip-ups or nasty surprises, see one of the biggest public sector strikes since 1926, with the possibility for 3 million to be out together in defence of pensions. This is hugely significant in the context of the growing international fightback against capitalism. Wednesday of last week saw a lobby of parliament organised by the education unions, the NUT, NAS/UWT, UCU etc in pursuit of the campaign.
For the reasons I have given above, I have always shunned such lobbies. As well as being ineffective, they are often chosen by union leaders in lieu of effective action like strikes. Even though as a socialist I have not the slightest hope that telling my MP my concerns will have any impact on the Con-Dem government’s decision to wreck teachers’ pensions (which has more to do with making education more attractive to privatise than anything else), I still felt I should go. Earlier this year I had successfully persuaded Swansea NUT that we should send a delegate to Swansea trades council, to try to link up the resistance to the cuts, so I felt that to be credible I should put my money where my mouth is and go even if I didn’t personally believe it would be an effective exercise.
Getting on the NUT/NASUWT coach from Swansea meant a 4.30 alarm call (ouch!) for a 6am pickup. Union funds had paid for the coach so it was more comfortable than the rickety old bangers the far left can afford, with at least a bit of leg room, even if the telly didn’t work. However, the union leaderships had chosen half-term for the rally, to avoid any unpleasantness like getting heads to cover for absent teachers or even (God forbid!) taking strike action. What they had failed to factor in to their calculations is the fact that huge numbers of teachers go on holiday with (or without) their kids over half-term. Consequently, we crossed the Severn Bridge with only 11 people on board, and that includes the dutiful (non-teaching) husband and child of one of the teachers. How is it that the far left, usually with a fraction of the funds and resources of a trade union, usually manages to a) pick a day which will maximise turnout, and b) at the very least half-fill a 52-seater? Answers on a postcard, please...
London bright but cold, with gusty splashes of rain. The coach drops us off at a massive statue of Abraham Lincoln. Union lobbyists mingle with tourists swirling around Parliament Square. Various teacher comrades and union members that I know are busy getting registered. Big Ben towers above us. I normally visit this part of London in the company of a few thousand others, chanting and making a general nuisance of ourselves. Good to see the peace camp still here...the ghost of Brian Haw still walks, a guilty stain on the consciences of the warmongers...But when I see the huge queue of lobbyists snaking painfully slowly down into the bowels of the House of Commons in sporadic rain, I flinch. Sod that. I turn back to the Socialist Worker stall – I’d rather sell the paper for an hour or so, go for a coffee or a pint, return to the pickup point at five – but comrades have already packed up. Damn!
I fight off the suddenly very attractive notion of going for a pint anyway. But I have no choice but to go through with this. Slowly I return to the now even longer queue, and am instantly reminded of why I have never ‘done’ a parliamentary lobby before: you are entirely on the territory of (and therefore at the mercy of) the ruling class. More to the point, you are at the mercy of the armed bodies of men (and women) that it controls.
Bulky quasi-military police in helmets and body armour are patrolling the crowd, toting around huge sub-machine guns. Isn’t it interesting that back in the 1970s, when the Provisional IRA were a much more serious challenge to the British state than al-Qaida ever were, there was deemed to be no necessity for this conspicuous display of firepower? As I tag on at the back of the queue a large PC approaches. He tells me I must “put away” the various pieces of NUT campaign material, stickers, the ‘Fair Pensions’ armband etc that I am carrying/wearing. A WPC tells a woman next to me that she can’t “wave around” her placards. There is something of the quietening down of naughty and over-excited children about all this, combined with an irritatingly patronising tone. I realise later what I should have said: “I’ll put my stickers and leaflets away if you tell the guy over there to put away his sub-machine gun.”
There seems to be a ban on taking campaign material into the House of Commons – no doubt some law hidden in the mists of time. What are they afraid of? That I’m going to beat my MP to death with leaflets? I know the pen is supposed to be mightier than the sword, but this is plain stupid. My first thought is that it puts me at a distinct disadvantage as a lobbyist, given the short attention span of MPs, thus making aide-memoires, e.g., leaflets, very necessary. However, as I don’t think the exercise is going to be effective in the first place I resist the temptation to argue.
Seeing in the distance my fellow union members from the coach, I duck under the crowd-controlling chain and set off at a brisk pace down the side of the queue. Ignoring the hoarse cries from behind me, I am just drawing level with them when another large PC comes puffing up. Apparently I did another no-no. Not only do I have to remove my stickers, I’m not allowed to jump the queue either. The copper satisfies himself that I am a teacher not a terrorist, and makes some feeble joke about giving me lines. I choke back the equally merry quip which is rising rapidly to my lips. At least he isn’t armed.
But things get worse. The reception area into the House has been turned into some sort of ‘sterile zone’ full of police and security personnel, some of whom are quite heavily armed. As the public enters, each person attracts the attention of a small gang of police who cluster around them, searching and frisking, putting all their possessions in a plastic tray a la a customs checkpoint and then manoeuvring each individual through a body scanner. A WPC decides she wants to look through the leaflets and papers in my bag. The bottom of my bag is not a pretty sight at the best of times, but she stoically sifts though the copies of Socialist Worker, together with a morass of flyers and leaflets, some of which probably date back to Thatcher and the poll tax. I decide against attempting a joke along the lines of “My RPG is in the other bag.” She confiscates the NUT campaign material and SWP leaflets, and dumps them in another plastic tray, but, strangely, leaves me with my bundle of Socialist Workers intact. Neither does she ask me to hand over my i-Phone. Police intelligence: a dialectical contradiction?
So I enter the Mother of Parliaments completely stripped of any campaign material on the issue about which I wish to lobby my MP, feeling well and truly atomised and objectified. Having been told off, frisked, put through a body scanner and my literature confiscated, I now find myself standing in an immense hall – the Central Lobby - the place that gave the verb ‘lobby’ to the English language. We are surrounded by gigantic marble statues of famous eminences and soaring Gothic columns expressing the overpowering arrogance and sense of entitlement of the British ruling class. Real architectural ‘shock and awe.’
I had twice E-mailed the Labour MP for Swansea West, Geraint Davies, requesting a meeting, but had received no reply (I still haven’t), so I tag along with some of the others who are lobbying the MP for Aberavon, Hywel Francis. From a socialist perspective, Hywel is more acceptable than most. Son of an NUM militant, ex-Communist Party, his book, ‘The Fed’ is a monumental study of the Welsh miners’ union. I heard him speak in the Miners’ Museum on the anniversary of the Spanish Civil War. He is fuzzily ‘old Labour’ and proceeds to take us on a conducted tour of the House of Commons, his talk perfectly attuned to the concerns of trade unionists.
As we mingle with the crowds of tourists and professional lobbyists and other paid bribers, Hywel indicates items of interest. He points out a place where suffragettes had held a protest, he shows us the stained glass windows commemorating the Reform Bill, he takes us to where Nelson Mandela addressed the House...This is where working men and women found parliamentary representation, he seems to be saying. A seductive illusion for more than a hundred years. And all around us the awe-inspiring architecture and the colossal marble statues of Pitt and Canning, monuments to the British ruling class and its centuries of tradition. I can almost hear the sighs of ‘ooooh’ and ‘aaaahh’ from my fellows as we are led around. The whole lobbying process is calculated to inspire awe, fear and wonderment, and actually to disempower ordinary folk...to put us firmly in our place. This is the Palace of Westminster. This is ruling class territory.
We emerge, clutching cups of coffee, onto the terrace overlooking the Thames, with Big Ben towering majestically above us. Several of us take it in turns to put the case about pensions to Hywel. What comes out is the sheer breadth of people’s concerns, not just narrowly financial, but ideological, about not just pensions but about the problems created by the sort of education we are forced to offer our young people.
The whole national debate about education has been dragged so far to the right that not only are pupils alienated from the whole meaningless process, but so are most teachers too. In the absence of any involvement in deciding the shape and content of education, the excitement and spontaneity of teaching disappear. Instead of being a dialectical process of discovery it becomes a Gradgrindian nightmare of form-filling and box-ticking, with no time for real engagement or real pleasure. In less than forty years, both Tory and, to their shame, Labour administrations have made one of the most exciting jobs in the world into one of the most soul-destroying.
When it’s my turn to pitch I suddenly realise that one thing we haven’t done is to ask for Hywel’s support for the strike. This is odd, when you consider that the industrial action is the climax of this autumn’s campaign. Had a combination of the awe-inspiring architecture and Hywel’s erudition sedated people into feeling it was somehow indelicate to broach the subject? Who knows? Hywel assures us of his support for the campaign etc., although I can’t remember whether he uses the word ‘strike’. So I get on to the subject of Ed Milliband, whose blank insistence that he will not support the strikes has caused such irritation among teachers and other public sector workers. Cue nods and general assent. Hywel says he will be writing Ed a letter, saying exactly what, he doesn’t elaborate. And then we are ushered out, in the general direction of the cafeteria, a sort of ‘Exit Through Shop’ scenario.
As I go, I find myself contemplating, although individual MPs have no real power, how essential MPs like Francis are to the continued survival of the parliamentary system. They are an indispensable element in the continuance of the illusion of equality and the myth of democratic accountability, especially in places like South Wales, where Welsh Labour has successfully managed to outmanoeuvre Plaid Cymru’s nationalists to present itself as shield against the coming cuts.
On the way through the crowd I catch a glimpse of that ghost of socialists past, Dennis Skinner. Looking a bit frailer, and supporting himself with a crutch, Skinner is living proof of the myth of ‘parliamentary socialism’ and of the powerlessness of the left Labour MP. Known as ‘the Beast of Bolsover’ for his left-wing rhetoric, over the 1970s and 80s he became a sort of licensed court jester to the Palace of Westminster, by official appointment. The House tolerated his jokes and his anti-Tory sniping because it implicitly grasped that at the end of the day he was not a threat. In the last analysis he was, like Tony Benn, part of the parliamentary club and so was useful in maintaining the illusion of the democratic process. Although he originally said he’d retire at 65, the same age as an average miner would, he’s still in there at 79. A big friend of Tony Blair’s, apparently.
As I return to the sterile zone and fish out my leaflets from the huge pile that the police had dumped, willy-nilly , on several trays, I think about the process of lobbying. The subliminal message to the lobbyist is this: “We have graciously allowed you to enter this Mother of Parliaments, steeped in grandeur, and we have listened to your legitimate concerns. Now you may return to your hovels, bathed in the afterglow of the awesome, majestic democracy you have witnessed. Oh, and by the way, pick up your grubby political leaflets on the way out."
Then it hits me. What is the real meaning of this refusal to allow political leaflets to be brought in to the Palace of Westminster? Parliament’s aura consists precisely in this illusion of its eternally non-political essence. Not so much depoliticisation as the illusion of never having been political, in a more powerful version of the way our police and courts are deemed never to have been political. In the Palace of Westminster politics and power are implicit in the very walls. In here everything is political, so nothing is political. It is this very invisibility that actualises parliamentary power. Our crassly and rudely ‘political’ leaflets introduce an uncomfortable note into this rarified atmosphere, like a bad smell...
British capitalism has managed to survive long past its sell-by date by pretending it transcends the political. This is why we now see three main parties whose politics are interchangeable. The royal family, too, pretends it hovers above politics, which is why a hereditary monarch, draped in non-political tradition and non-political history, is still in place in a supposed modern democracy, in the 21st century, still defying the laws of political gravity. “Of course, it’s all symbolic?” Really?
This week we discover that Prince Charles wields a power of veto over a whole range of parliamentary bills. As the Duke of Cornwall he has ultimate control over bills that ‘impact on his private interests.’ He has secretly influenced a whole range of issues from housing and energy to economic development. In this same week the coalition government is shown, at a time when it is cutting jobs everywhere else, to be maintaining pointless ministerial jobs to retain control over parliamentary votes. David Cameron's government is said to be patronage-driven, spending public money to buy loyalty. Is this legal?
The truth is that ordinary people’s faith in the self-serving careerists and yes-men who inhabit the Palace of Westminster has never been at a lower ebb. The expenses scandals, the phone-hacking scandals, the lobbying scandals, the ‘cash-for-access’ scandals etc etc, all have increased the disgust and disillusionment of ordinary people at those who inhabit the massive building I am about to leave. This – and the fact that the main parties are politically indistinguishable - is what makes returns for elections so low. Is this a ‘crisis of representation’? A voters’ strike, more like.
And what happens when, despairing of any change coming from inside the Houses of Parliament, people turn to extra-parliamentary methods? What happens when students, angry at the way their futures are being destroyed, march on parliament to confront those doing the destroying, as they did in November 2010? Is this seen as ‘democracy in action?’ No. They are met with baton-swinging riot police and charged down by police horses, and hundreds of school children are illegally detained against their will behind police lines for hours in freezing weather. Young people that go before the courts for ridiculous ‘crimes’ like throwing placard sticks or swinging on flags or banging on the side of Prince Charles’ limo get harsh, ‘exemplary’ sentences.
Or what happens when a small and completely peaceful group gather in Parliament Square for a Halloween picnic to protest the cruelty of a law making squatting illegal as homelessness is rising? They are violently assaulted by police and arrested or driven away, it being an offence to stage ‘spontaneous protests’ at Westminster.
We have to play to our strengths. Our strength is not in parliament, not in this neo-Gothic building in which I have spent my Wednesday afternoon. The Palace of Westminster was the eleventh century site of the first royal palace: Westminster was the primary London residence of the kings of England until 1512, and still retains its status as a royal residence for ceremonial purposes. Its so-called democratic functions are tolerated only. In there we are weak, surrounded by the icons and fetishes of the British ruling class. Our strength is not in its rarified atmosphere but out here in the open air, on the picket lines and on the streets. The mass struggles against the cuts, against the bankers and against capitalism itself will be won out here, as was the struggle for the working-class vote in the first place.
As I write this the world is in turmoil, with Greece the current catalyst, but economic crisis spreading the social unrest across Europe and beyond . Marx’s analysis of the inherent tendency of capitalism to break down under the impact of its own internal contradictions – specifically the tendency of the rate of profit to decline - has been proved correct, as has so much of the rest of his assessment. However, as I think Lenin pointed out, there is no limit to the level of crisis that capitalism can sustain if the working class can be made to pay for it. This is where we stand today.
In the previous post I said revolutionaries were sustained by their understanding of three things: a) the system breaks down ; b) people are ultimately forced to resist; and c) at a certain point, resistance goes global. All these three things are happening. The Occupy Wall St movement has gone global, provoking in some cases serious clashes with the state. Last week in Oakland, California, in protest at police violence there was a city-wide general strike with over 10,000 on the streets and the busy port shut down. In London the popularity of the anti-corporate, anti-capitalist message, and the resonance it has with so many people, has forced the authorities to back down from repressing the Occupy London Stock Exchange protestors. As I write, a march on parliament is being planned for 5 November, assembling at 2pm at St Paul’s cathedral.
The public sector strike for 30 November continues to go forward, with an excellent result – 78 %- in the UNISON strike ballot. But I shuddered when talk of ‘concessions’ led Brendan Barber to say that unions should go away and consider whether this was enough to call off what should be the biggest strike since 1926. The mood to strike is such that it would be hard to stop: but it is clear that some union leaders want to call it off. The TUC want to hold a recall meeting on the 22 November after all the ballot results are out. Don’t underestimate the capacity for sectionalism of the British trade union movement. It’s clear the Tory strategy is to break up inter-union solidarity and negotiate union by union, thereby splitting the resistance. However, whether they can offer enough to do this is doubtful right now. So I would say the strike is on.
We need to build 30 November into a militant day of action and protest – a real ‘Day of Rage’ against the government, tapping in to the spirit of the Occupy movement and the mood of resistance that is getting more powerful on a global level day by day. And we need to get organised. This is why the Unite the Resistance National Convention in London on Saturday 19 November is so important. Networks of trade union activists must begin to get plans for local demonstrations, marches and mass rallies in place, and ensure there is proper picketing. The mass strike of 30 November must be a militant protest not just against pension-wrecking but against this insane system, which is threatening to destroy so much. The scale of the crisis is such that the fight against austerity quickly confronts us with the need to overthrow capitalism.
Strikes, protests, mass action. These are the methods which millions are learning to use in order to resist. We are the 99%. We have the power to win. This is a truth we shall discover on the picket lines and in the streets, not in the plush corridors of the Palace of Westminster.