Time to dig in, not opt out.

Time to dig in not opt out

With wearisome regularity, the weekend brought more despondency from people who feel Labour has lost its way.  I don’t share that view or the pessimism that accompanies it.

Last week it was Barbara Ellen (http://bit.ly/1LIcaBB)  and Robert Webb (http://huff.to/1Q7ZaeY)  Will Hutton weighed in too, in an otherwise superb article (http://bit.ly/1ScKla5 ).  This week, my good friend Roger Darlington wrote of the” despair of a Labour loyalist” (http://bit.ly/1XCAewK )

Well let’s just hang on a moment.  Let’s look at the facts, the background, and the context.  Is the argument that Labour would be doing better under a different leader?  Few people are explicitly saying that but is it not an inevitable consequence of the concerns being expressed?

But to be blunt here; the other three candidates probably wouldn’t be doing any better.  No disrespect intended, but we have just lost two general elections.  Going into a third with a message of “more of the same” seems to have poor portents.  In any event, it is all somewhat academic.  We have a leader and he won by a huge margin.  Indeed, he won under rules drawn up explicitly to increase the franchise, partly following   a row over how Ed   became leader.

And  although   the Syrian  crisis  seems to  have precipitated the current and  in my view most  serious  of internal  debates,  isn’t Jeremy  Corbyn  actually asking the right  questions?  Is his caution not also backed by The Observer (http://bit.ly/1l1Mnj8, possibly no surprise) but also the Mail (http://dailym.ai/1QOWODb) and the Telegraph (http://bit.ly/1lpt8PW)

Let’s not pretend everything is rosy.  The recent comments of Ken Livingstone and Diane Abbot (on 7/7 and Mao Tse Tung respectively) were at best naive.  But no politician is gaffe-free and no party consists entirely of the virtuous.  Part of the human condition is that we are all – all- capable of improvement.  So I’m sure lessons are being learned on a continual basis. Maybe we won’t see the Little Red Book used as a parliamentary prop again.

But what Corbyn’s Labour is trying to do is to mobilise the previously disengaged.  If  this approach is right,  we can and will harness the support of  literally millions of people  who have never-voted,  or  have  leant  a  “protest vote”  to  a party  other than  our own.  And if we do that, then we will win in 2020. Well Oldham on Thursday will be an early test, but it would be a very brave pundit who set too much store by a winter by-election.

That is of course a very different approach to those who believe that it is the Labour voters who have defected to the Tories who we need to win back.  And it means a different sort of politics.

So here is the dilemma for Labour loyalists: What to do?

It isn’t enough, as I have heard some say, not to oppose but not to support either.  Observing from the sidelines really isn’t an option.

A young councillor in the North West described to me  recently   how  his constituents were devastated by a Tory victory last May  and needed a Labour  Party  that  would stand up for them and win power for them.

Waiting for the perceived storm to pass over before resuming some sort of “business as usual” does not help those we describe as “our people”.  As Will Hutton described, this storm is a hurricane ripping through society. Changing forever what is “usual”.

So this then turns into a debate about how we can be the most effective opposition possible. We have the talent. We have the ideas.  We have the people.  Joining up these three elements has to be an absolutely key criterion for success.  In a world with too many “Sodom and Gomorrah” values, it is never going to be easy – which is why we must try all the harder.   Intemperance and disrespect – from any quarter – have no place in a united effective opposition. Standing back and letting Labour fail means we all fail.

Privacy and “The Snooper’s Charter” – unions take good note

The dreadful events in Paris last week have heightened attention on the already controversial areas of surveillance and data collection, retention and processing – part of the so-called Snoopers’ charter. The new Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill grabbed headlines when it was introduced by the Home Secretary at the beginning of this month.

The proposals overhaul the original Act, introduced in 2000 in something of a rush and widely agreed as being no longer fit-for-purpose. But the revelations of Edward Snowden[1] that the US and UK governments have been harvesting billions of bits of data about us, apparently irrespective of what the law says, has set both law makers and citizens a real challenge: In reality where is the balance between privacy and security?
The proposals for bulk data retention – for example all emails, phone calls, web activity to be retained for a year – makes you wonder if there really is any realistic expectation of privacy any more. The surveillance that features in films like “Spectre” could readily be a reality. Newspapers work to a code that says if something takes place behind your front door, not visible from the street, then you have that reasonable expectation. But the smartphone in your pocket, on your kitchen table or sideboard invites the world into your home – and as our heating, fridges and food are linked to the web the concept of privacy is surely diluted and degraded.
So if privacy is impossible, then all the proposed new law does is give a legal and accountable basis for how it is collected and ordered. And in this post-Snowden world, is that not a necessary thing?
Well, sort of. For progressives I still think this is uncomfortable. Its one thing to allow Tesco to hold shed-loads of data on you, because you chose where you shop, and you choose whether or not to have a Clubcard But the data we are looking at here is not that which has been so freely given – or given at all.
However, there is no doubt the data is there and almost every interaction creates more. So is not a greater question “How is the data used”?
I do think that this is the most challenging question in the current debate. There is so much data that programmes, spiders or algorithms of sorts have to be used to search through it. So that means profiles of us are being built automatically on the basis of how we match up against particular criteria.
But who sets these criteria? What is deemed relevant or important? How can we challenge conclusions that are false? Will we even know that profiling has been used?
Of course, sometimes that activity is important – vital even – in dealing with serious crime. But can we be sure that the arrangements proposed will be adequate?
Because on the left we have frequently suffered – and still do suffer – from the misuse of surveillance and data. Look at the Blacklistingscandal, still to reach a final resolution. We know now, many years after the event, of probably unlawful abuse of information during the 1984-5 Miner’s Strike[2]. With bulk data collection and processing, how will a tick in the “trade unionist” box (or any number of others) affect what profile is created for you, and what monitoring does that profile then justify? Undercover cops having children with those they were keeping tabs on was no doubt thought justified by some at the time.
This issue is of crucial importance to the labour movement today. The Trade Union Bill , also before Parliament reveals the ideological framework within which the current government operates. Who decides if trade unionists are, as previous Conservative Prime Ministers have declared, “the enemy within” and thus need to be the focus of intrusive surveillance and negative profiling?
So the whole issue of when and how is surveillance is authorised and data accessed becomes very important. Surely the thresh-hold needs to be set high. Although the Home Secretary seemed to offer a concession of judicial oversight, this had been exposed as simply not meaningful. Proper sign off – not just a review – is needed by a judge. You may feel that doesn’t give any accountability – but the alternative of Theresa May (or for that matter any Home Secretary) gives just as little!
Collection, retention, processing – all big issues in themselves. And that is without debating the impact of bulk collection on counter-extremism work, when and how interception and directed surveillance is justified, and the use of covert human sources. Liberty’s “safe and sound” campaign gives an excellent all-round view.
This is truly a minefield with no easy answers. I think the Shadow Home Secretary’s letter last week to his counter-part is the right political approach. But, as others have said, the devil will be in the detail. A key task is to make sure consideration of this is not rushed so the devil can be cast out! Great novels from Brave New World[3] to The Handmaid’s Tale [4] show what is waiting for us if we turn the wrong way down the many-forked road that lies in front of us.

[1] The Snowden Files, L Harding, 2014, [2] Detailed in The Enemy Within, S Milne, 2014, [3]Brave New World, A Huxley, 1932, [4] The Handmaid’s Tale, M Attwood, 1985

Staying Alive – Unions, Youth and Activism

So just why the hell did more than 60 of us – mostly under 30 years old –  come to Birmingham (nice as it is) on a wet weekend at the end of October?  What ‘s the point, what  did  we think we would achieve?

The event in question was the CWU’s 14th National Youth Education event (or NYEE)1, and so the fourteenth time these questions have been asked. Each year we go somewhere different. But each year many things remain the same.  Things like getting loads of new activists coming to their first ever CWU event. Getting great support from all of the senior officers of the union,  attracting  some amazing  external speakers, running a programme that  educates, enthuses, informs and entertains.

Most importantly of all,  it is seeing  people  almost grow before your eyes as they realise what  their union can and does do, and what they  can and will do  as part of it.  To get that unforgettable feeling  of suddenly realising that you are not alone. It isn’t just you  fighting for your members  rights in a corner somewhere- there are dozens, hundreds of young activists doing and  thinking the same as you.

So what’s the story? How do we do this? Believe me,  all the feedback  is freely given and published unfiltered – “A great weekend” “Can’t wait for next one.” A life-changing experience” Never knew my union could do all this.” Fantastic to talk directly to  the senior people – really inspirational” And so on. Reviews, frankly,  to die for.

The answer is a combination of factors that we (that is the National Youth Committee of the day) try and blend together in a perfect cocktail.

The recipe includes;

  • Strong support and dedicated support from CWU hq
  • Personal support from the senior officers
  • Commitment from a significant number of branches
  • Demand from potential participants – partly fuelled by energetic and positive  ambassadors who have attended in the past
  • An arresting agenda with the right mix of industrial, political and social issues, internal and external speakers
  • A well-worked plan

Of course nothing encourages success like success, so each year’s “good experience” fuels support, demand and expectations for the year after.  But I believe that whilst all of the above points are crucial, it is the “well worked plan” that  holds everything together.

We take people on a journey, as it were – the ice-breaker exercise  is what gets people moving and talking to each other.  The plenary and workshop sessions exposes them to key political issues of the day (this year the EU referendum2, blacklisting3, the British bill of rights4, housing5and the campaign for a fair deal for football fans6). The output for these sessions is in the form of motions. We then bring people back together for a session with the General Secretary – and then split then by occupational grouping  for  sessions with the lead national negotiators for their sectors.  Whilst the young activists are doing that, on the admin side we compile the motions  into  an agenda – complete with  consequential rulings and standing orders –  for a Mock Conference.

The last sessions of the day are a brief explanation of How Conference Works and then people go back into their morning  groups –  to  consider the  agenda we have produced exactly  as a branch would.

The following day,   we hold that Mock Conference .  Many “delegates” are making their first ever  speech in front of the people  – at the lectern ,  with a microphone and “traffic lights” –  there is  no kinder audience , but the debate can be impassioned, vigorous – and hilarious.

However, often motions from the mock conference  crop up  at “real”  policy making  fora in the union so increasingly it is recognised s as something of a test  bed for new policies.

There’s no denying things are tough. Employers often under-value the importance of good, well-trained IR reps and are suspicious of facilitating   the next generation.  Government attitudes  to  trade unions are at bets  hostile and at worse pathologically  negative. Most of the media follow suit and trade union membership  covers   little more than 1 in 4 workers. Amongst the very young (16-24 year olds), it is less than 1 in 10.

But it varies. Our key industrial sectors benefit from relatively high levels of union density and a sound workplace and branch structure. And that  provides a platform  for  campaigning  on  key issues that  affect  us at work and in our communities – such  as  our “Homes 4All”7 housing  campaign. And it also gives us an appetite and understanding of wider political issue that shape our world.

There are of course some slight potholes in the road. We have some structural issues that I think will require a structural solution. Not everyone will like everything on every agenda-  or every colleague they come across. Nothing is perfect or forever and  we  are in no way complacent.

But the ideals we hold and express are, without organisation, just dreams. The fantastic thing about this weekend is that it inspires more dreams, but grounds in them in practicality – in how to make the dreams real.

That is the light shining out from the autumnal gloom this weekend in 2015. That is what we stay strong and positive – and well organised.

Thanks to everyone who makes it happen.

This post was first published at http://www.cwuyouth.org/view-blog.html?blog_id=433