I’m really pleased to post this response to my piece, ‘Seizing the Moment’ from a dear friend and comrade of thirty years, Dave Backwith, author of ‘Social Work, Poverty And Social Exclusion‘. I do so late on a Wednesday evening, full of dread about tomorrow, but hanging on to hope.
As Ken Loach’s video says the UK general election on 12th December does indeed promise to be a Fork in the Road (https://twitter.com/kenloachsixteen/status/1204365910947061760) a game changer, one way or the other. It the Tories get a clear win we’re likely to have the most right-wing, anti-working class and racist government in living memory. And given the polls and the bile the mainstream media are pumping out, uncertainty about the result and what to do to try to influence it, is hardly surprising
But Tony urges us to seize the moment and vote to oust the Tories. Well, I would if I could.
I share much of Tony’s ambivalence towards Labour. But, like it or not Labour or, more likely, a Labour-led coalition are the only viable alternative to another Tory government – and we’ve had more than enough of them: ten long years!!!). That said, I’ve doubts about Tony’s conclusion that “We have a fleeting opportunity to close the era of social selfishness and launch a renewed era of social solidarity”.
One doubt is about the some of the limits of the ‘our’ much-trumpeted democracy and whether the election is likely to bring a government that can lead a shift from ‘social selfishness to social solidarity’. Like Tony I was pleased to see Akala and co’s letter and support the gist of it. But the fact is for a lot of people, whether they’ve registered and, if so, whether they vote, and who they vote for will make no difference at all to the overall result. Where I live the Tories had majorities of around 19-20,000 in both 2015 and 2017 – taking about 60% of the vote. In other words, if the ‘left’ parties formed an anti-Tory pact and they all backed the same candidate, the Tories would still win – comfortably. According to Wikipedia there were 172 safe Tory seats in 2010. Much of the south of England is so-called ‘electoral deserts’ where effectively the Tories face no contest. Of course, the electoral landscape is shifting and what were once taken for granted votes are no longer guaranteed. And, apparently, it is people on low incomes who are most likely to change their vote.
But as Clare Ainsley also argues (http://www.transformingsociety.co.uk/2019/11/27/class-still-matters-in-elections-but-its-changing-nature-needs-to-be-understood/) these working class votes have to be won and what matters most to them are incomes, welfare reform, housing and the NHS. In a country with 14 million people living in poverty, rising homelessness and ever starker inequalities that’s not surprising. Where these things come together is that for Labour to form a coalition government in which “which politicians listen acutely to the people and to each other” needs a social movement which addresses the issues which impact on people’s lives, mobilizes them and thereby offers a convincing prospect of radical change. I think Tony is right to emphasize that, ‘People-led change’ goes beyond voting and is built on, “ongoing involvement in politics, in the grass-roots struggles to transform our collective existence”.
Historically, it’s not hard to show that the Labour Party has never been about people led change and even at its reforming best (the 1945 government) has made top-down changes for people rather than leading a movement, or movements, of the people. Today, however radical Labour’s manifesto might be, there’s little sign of them leading a popular movement against neo-liberalism. I think Tony’s right to say that ‘Corbynism’ has rattled the establishment, hence the landslide of vitriol intended to discredit Corbyn. But that would flood of poison will be as nothing compared to what would be unleashed if he did become prime minister. To withstand such an onslaught the parliamentary Labour Party, and any coalition partners, would need to be rock solidly defiant and would need the popular, active support of poor, oppressed and exploited people. I don’t think that’s likely to happen but if it would be a start in making democracy real: by people struggling for control over their lives. That would definitely be a nail in the coffin of the selfish bullshit of neo-liberalism..
Back in 2015 Gus John took a breath at the age of 70, reflecting on fifty years of struggle. On the In Defence of Youth Work web site we observed, ‘Prof. Gus John arrived in the UK in August 1964, aged 19, to study for the priesthood. But almost from the moment he arrived he became involved in what was to become his life’s calling – education, youth work and the struggle for social justice and human rights for embattled communities as an activist and an academic.’
Thankfully Gus is still struggling and following his motto, ‘Do Right! Fear No One!’, he has resigned from his position on the Committee for Minority Ethnic Anglican Concerns in protest at Archbishop Welby’s endorsement of the Chief Rabbi’s condemnation of Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party. I hope you will find time to engage with his coruscating rebuke to what might be called ‘the establishment at prayer’ and its damaging intervention into the most significant election for decades – see my ‘From Social Selfishness to Social Solidarity’.
Corbyn and Anti-Semitism Prof Gus John answers Archbishop Welby
Of Stained-Glass Houses and Stones
On 26 November 2019, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, backed the Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis in his condemnation of Jeremy Corbyn’s handling of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, stating that Mirvis’ criticism of Corbyn and the Labour Party should ‘alert us to the deep sense of insecurity and fear felt by many British Jews’. In response, Professor Gus John, independent consultant and a lay member of the Archbishops’ Council’s Committee on Minority Ethnic Anglican Concerns (CMEAC)*wrote:
So, the jury has returned its verdict.
Jeremy Corbyn has failed the fitness to practice test. His fitness to lead the nation has been tested in his handling of complaints of anti-Semitism within the Labour Party and he has failed that test. What is more, under his watch the Labour Party is suffering the ‘shame’ of being investigated by the government’s anti-discrimination watchdog, the Equality and Human Rights Commission.
This is all most intriguing. Let’s take a moment to dissect it. Corbyn is considered unfit to lead a government because with him at the helm his party has failed to deal swiftly and decisively with the anti-Semitic conduct of a minute proportion of its members. This has cause hurt among the Jewish population and alienated Jewish supporters of Labour. So, Corbyn is presumed to be guilty of ‘joint enterprise’, because although he himself is a committed anti-racist and against anti-Jewish racism, by implication he has colluded with those who are not by failing to act decisively against them. As such, his is taken to be a failure of leadership in that he did not ensure that appropriate mechanisms existed within the Labour Party to deal with complaints of anti-Semitism in a timely fashion. But, the absence of such mechanisms and processes is an organisational and institutional issue. The matters being complained against and being investigated by the Equality and Human Rights Commission are ones which are to do mainly with the conduct of individuals, whether they are rank and file members of the Labour Party or people holding official positions in the party.
Why this distinction? It seems to me that what is missing in this whole hysterical discourse which sounds increasingly like populism on speed, is that discrimination against any group or population in society who are rendered outsiders and not quite considered integral to the body politic typically manifests in at least four observable ways: structural, cultural, institutional and personal. In this case, the actions of individuals in the Labour Party and what those actions indicate about their attitudes to the Jewish community are considered to be indicative of an embedded culture of anti-Semitism within Labour, a culture presumably endorsed and sustained by Jeremy Corbyn, if only by his failure to deal with the people responsible for perpetuating it in a timely fashion.
So, the Chief Rabbi proclaims with all the authority that goes with his position that Jeremy Corbyn is not fit to lead a government of a country in which Jews that have been so let down by him have to continue not only to live but to be full citizens. The actions of people within the Labour Party whom he has failed to deal with have caused the entire Jewish community to have cause to look over their shoulders as they go about their daily business and the responsibility for that must be laid at Corbyn’s feet. The sense I make of that is that combating racism and anti-Semitism will not be safe in Corbyn’s hands, so on 12 December, people should think carefully about what they do in the ballot box and let their conscience lead them, because if he has failed to do his duty by the Jewish community and to get that right, he surely cannot be trusted to get anything else right. The media on the other hand reacts to the Chief Rabbi as if he were the Pope, speaking for all British Jews as the Pope would for all Roman Catholics. Secular Jews and those who do not hold with the views of Jews for Labour are considered not to matter.
It seems to me that the Chief Rabbi and those powerful figures like the Archbishop of Canterbury who have weighed in behind him are being more than a little sectarian and establishing a hierarchy of oppression if they seriously expect the entire nation to judge Corbyn and his capacity to run the country for the good of all its citizens on the basis of their assessment of his performance in dealing with anti-Semitism.
This is all happening at a time when, despite the government and the media focusing on Brexit as the only show in town, people’s lives are being lost and their fundamental rights being trampled upon as a direct consequence of the government’s hostile environment. At a time when citizens of the African and Asian diaspora have to be constantly ‘looking over their shoulder’ for fear of being ambushed by border force apparatchiks, or by right wing vigilantes who appoint themselves as defenders of our country and its borders. At a time when employers, landlords, schools/colleges/universities, doctors surgeries, A & E departments and other health providers are being appointed without their say so as immigration officers and extensions of the UK’s border force under the Immigration Act 2016; when people who as young black men were harassed and criminalised by the police 40 years ago under the ‘Sus’ law are being told now that they are undocumented and they must leave the UK because they have a criminal record and have therefore forfeited their right to remain; when undocumented workers who having been denied benefits are having whatever earnings they derive from casual work confiscated as ‘proceeds of crime’; children being excluded from school for not having the proper uniform because they are being fed from food banks and their parents/carers cannot afford to buy the clothes and shoes that would make them compliant with the school’s uniform policy. One could go on.
I am not aware of the Chief Rabbi or/and the Archbishop of Canterbury alerting the nation to the quality of leadership that perpetrates and sustains such human rights violations. I have been an external examiner for colleges and universities for the last forty years. I have lived in the UK since 1964. I am to attend an examining board next week where a student will be defending her PhD thesis and I have been given strict instructions to make sure and bring my passport to prove I have the right to work, or else I won’t be able to present my external examiner’s report.
This is the state at structural level doing to sections of the population what the Chief Rabbi is accusing the leader of the Labour Party of being nonchalant about with respect to his party’s treatment of Jews. If the number of deaths in custody that the African community has suffered for half a century without a single police officer being found guilty of murder or manslaughter had occurred within the Jewish community, by now the entire nation would have been brought to a standstill. Given our interlocking histories on the axis of race, ethnicity and class in post-colonial Britain, no one group in the society has a monopoly on oppression, or on hurt.
And what gives the Archbishop of Canterbury the right to endorse the Chief Rabbi’s scaremongering about Corbyn and adopt such a lofty moral position in defence of the Jewish population? I have often had cause to wonder how it is that Justin Welby was made Archbishop of Canterbury, rather than John Sentamu. Sentamu consecrated Welby as Bishop of Durham in York Minster in October 2011. By November 2012, just one year after becoming a Bishop, it was announced that Justin Welby was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, though it was widely expected – in some circles at least – that Sentamu would get that post. Sentamu was a highly respected black senior cleric and had been a Bishop since 1996 and Archbishop of York since 2005, six years before he consecrated Welby a Bishop. It may well be that the appointments committee prayed and fasted and sought divine revelation before making their choice, so let me not gainsay the workings of the Holy Spirit! Be that as it may, if Anglicans in the UK from the African and Asian diaspora were to judge Justin Welby as the leader of the established church by the same criteria he appears to be employing in his assessment of Jeremy Corbyn, he too would fail the fitness to lead test. There are numerous reasons why Anglican clergy, laity and employees within the Anglican Church who are so-called black and ethnic minority don’t call out the Archbishop of Canterbury on racism in the church and its leadership, in the same way that he sees fit to join the orchestrated condemnation of Jeremy Corbyn. Maybe, just maybe, he has now given them permission to do so. Those who occupy houses clad with stained glass should perhaps be a trifle more careful when they join others in throwing stones.