Monday 30 April 2012

Protest in Brighton - a long tradition we should treasure

An atmosphere close to hysteria has developed around the issue of protest marches in Brighton.  According to the Argus and the local establishment, protest is a bad thing to be discouraged.  They claim that protest is somehow unique to Brighton and happens nowhere else, except perhaps in London.  This is patent nonsense.  Protests against cuts, in support of industrial disputes and a host of issues are taking place all the time all over the country.

Things reached a new low this week with a Green Party Councillor being pilloried for daring to argue for support for a demonstration against the EDO arms factory, as his democratic right (last time I checked).  That some of the pillorying is being done by local New Labour only indicates how far they have fallen over the years.

Another myth being propagated is that this is a recent phenomenon.  So, on the eve of May Day, it is perhaps worth reflecting on the tradition of protest, demonstration and dissent in Brighton.

In 1926 for example we had the Battle of Lewes Road, during the General Strike, which according to reports, was a far more brutal event than anything recent.  We have had regular anti-fascist demonstrations dating back to the 1940's (against Mosley's BUF), in the 70's and 80's against the National Front, and most recently against the EDL and their fellow travellers.

Immediately after WWII we saw the movement led by Harry Cowley, (below) which took over houses for working class people, long before the squatters' movement of the 1970's.

We have had anti-war demonstrations and marches by the trade union movement in support of their campaigns, most notably last November during the mass strike against attacks on pensions.

Vested interests in this city would rather that people did not know about this history.  The idea that rights for working people have been won by this tradition of protest is a lesson they don't want you to learn.

It is a tradition we should treasure and build upon at every opportunity.

Saturday 28 April 2012

We didn't vote to die at work!

Today is International Workers' Memorial Day, when the labour movement commemorates the workers who have died or been injured at work.  Decent health and safety at work is like everything else - we only got what we were prepared to fight for. And in the UK health and safety is under threat.

The government believes that health and safety is a "burden" on business. It wants to: remove as many health and safety regulations as it can, cut inspections and enforcement of the law, and make it more difficult to win compensation.
Numerous reviews undertaken by or for the government, on the whole find that the health and safety system: is not a burden, is actually doing a good and much needed job, and where there is a problem, it tends to be one of perception only. However, the government ignores the reviews and continues to peddle the myths and nonsense.
Those who are injured, made ill, disabled, or even killed by poor health and safety at work deserve more respect. As do the families left behind.
The trade union movement needs to take health and safety seriously, fight government plans that will put lives at risk.

Remember the Dead, Fight for the Living is the slogan for International Workers Memorial Day (IWMD). The purpose of the day is to not forget those who have been needlessly killed, injured, or made ill by their work. But perhaps more importantly, it is also about using this human tragedy to strengthen the campaign for safe and healthy work.
No one should be put at unnecessary risk at work. Work related deaths ill-health, and "accidents" are not acceptable. Your employer has a responsibility to ensure that your work does not cause you harm. Not only is it the right thing to do - it's the law!
The demand for safe and healthy work is all the more important as employers continue to implement spending cuts, and the true cost of these become clearer over time.
Staff who remain in post are being expected to do more work increasing the risk of various hazards including: workplace bullying, lone working, manual handling, repetitive strain injuries (RSI), and stress. Other work is not being done, which at first may not be missed, but will lead to greater risks including: worse and increasingly dangerous or unhealthy workplaces, including increased exposure risks to asbestos as building maintenance is neglected.
And at a time when health and safety is set to get worse, the spending cuts are also reducing the ability of the enforcement authorities to inspect and enforce on health and safety. The Health and Safety Executives (HSE's) budget has been cut, as has the money from central to local government (who employ environmental health officers, many of whom are UNISON members). On average, a workplace will, even as things stand, only be subject to a proactive HSE inspection once every 38 years.
The government campaign to undermine health and safety is part of the general deregulation drive, of which attacks on employment tribunal rights and trade union facility are other aspects.  They are being helped by the tabloids, who peddle myths and made-up stories to create a perception that we are "overregulated" and being "wrapped in cotton wool".  As the graphic shows, overregulation is the real myth.

Remember the Dead, Fight for the Living

Wednesday 25 April 2012

Social cleansing - government uses incorrect figures to justify itself

The news that Newham Council in London was considering sending some of its poorest residents to another part of the country broke on Tuesday morning. They justified this by saying that caps on housing benefit made it impossible to find affordable housing in Newham.
The housing minister, Grant Shapps, speaking on Radio 4's Today, poured scorn on this notion, claiming that a cursory search of property websites showed "thousands" of properties in a 5-mile radius. He claimed that "up to £21,000 a year" in housing benefit was available to Newham families. He based this on the HB rate of £400pw for a family needing a 4-bedroom home.
But it turns out these figures are wrong. The figure for Newham is actually £300pw - the higher figure is for central London, which does not include Newham. If you match the correct figure to advertised properties, there are virtually none available at the Newham housing benefit level.
Worse, the media largely faithfully reported Shapps' figure without checking for much of the day. On Tuesday evening the BBC 10.00 News repeated the error yet again.
It was also clear from looking at public comments on the story on websites that many people were misled into believing that central London rates are the rates everywhere. Someone commenting on the Guardian site was angry that "someone on benefit could get a 2-bedroom flat for £1150 per month whereas he could only afford £775". In fact in his area (Edinburgh) the HB rate for 2 bedrooms is only £620. Yes, you've guessed was the central London rate he was quoting.
I don't know whether Shapps was trying to mislead or whether he was just badly informed himself. But in any case he was able to get away with creating a wholly false impression by a media too lazy to check.
Needless to say, James Naughtie on Today never even raised the idea of capping rents rather than housing benefit.
None of this means that I think it is right for Newham to effectively exile hundreds of its poorest residents. But neither is it credible for Shapps to claim that this is some conspiracy to gain political advantage for Labour on Newham. Firstly the people being moved are rather unlikely to include many Tory voters. Secondly, they are far more likely to blame the Council rather than the government - people invariably do blame the local power base in the first instance.
Rather than make the poor pay, Labour councils should be commandeering empty properties and building homes. If Labour actually came out and said that, they would clean up in Newham and in working class areas everywhere.
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Monday 23 April 2012

Lies, damn lies and Sussex Police press releases.......

In its report of yesterday's events in Brighton, where a rabble of fascists was run out of town by the people of Brighton, the Argus largely reprinted without question the version of events put across by Sussex Police.
(Editor's note - having seen the later Argus coverage, I now think this is unduly harsh.  See comments!)

The narrative was largely that the anti-fascist protestors were the aggressors.  There were claims of "hand to hand fighting" with police, that anti-fascists had thrown bottles, that police horses were attacked, that the police were forced to deploy horses, batons, shields and pepper spray because of the violence they faced, that bins were set on fire.  The videos below suggest a very different sequence of events very early on in the march, which set the tone for the rest of it.

Both videos show the police attacking anti-fascists.  I had a perfect view of this from the raised part of the western side of Queens Road.  After much prevarication the police decided to bring the march down Queens Road.  It was perfectly obvious that it would meet resistance.  I make no bones about this.  We were determined to use our numbers to prevent an unwanted, unwelcome parade of bigotry and hate.  But the violence came from the police, and as one of the videos shows, from the fascists, who were the ones who first threw missiles.

The police have since admitted that the level of opposition forced them to reroute the march.  At this point the sensible thing to do would have been to reroute it straight back up to the station and onto the next trains out!  But even we had not reckoned on the degree of violence which the police were prepared to use to "accomplish their mission".

One can speculate on what motivated the police - my theory is that they were frustrated that they couldn't kettle the anti-fascists because we didn't fall into the trap of having a fixed demonstration.  To that extent, kettling as a tactic has reaped what it sowed - demonstrators who keep scattered and mobile, and who are not about to share their intentions with the police.  Congratulations boys!

As the march limped down Church Street, anti-fascists were able to erect barricades which delayed the march again.  The "hand to hand" fighting here largely consisted of the the police shoving people with shields, hitting them with batons and blinding them with pepper spray.  As for "torching litter bins" (as the Argus would have it), I saw one smouldering.  Whether it had been deliberately set on fire or whether someone had just dropped a lit cigarette in it (not uncommon), who can say?

At the end of the march I did see one fascist get curry thrown at him.  I don't defend that - I hate seeing good food go to waste!

No-one - and I mean no-one - who I have spoken to saw anyone harming any police horses.  This despite the threatening and dangerous way they were being deployed.  One has to wonder how much concern the police have for these animals given the situations in which they use them.

Given the propaganda to which we are already being subjected, we need a full independent enquiry into what happened on Sunday and particularly into how it was policed.

MfE/EDL were the missile throwers

This video clearly shows the fascists throwing missles at the protestors right at the start of the march. This is about 2 minutes in.  Prior to that there is further evidence of the police recklessly riding horses at demonstrators offering no violence

Police attack anti fascists opposing EDL march Brighton April 2012

We are Brighton....fascists humiliated on the streets of the city

The so-called "March for England", in reality a cover for the EDL was totally humiliated today by a protest by hundreds of local people.  The pathetic contingent of no more than 70 was blocked and harried for the whole of its short route, only to be effectively kettled by the anti-fascists at the end of their march in Victoria Gardens.
Anti-fascists adopted the strategy of lining the route of the march and keeping ahead of any police attempt at kettling. Although the EDL had started assembling at 11.00, it was gone 12.30 before they finally moved off.
They were confronted with a wall of noise and abuse and several people blocked their way in Queens Road.  The police responded with horse and baton charges - they were clearly quite committed to using whatever degree of violence it needed to force the march through.

Nonetheless they were forced to give up taking the EDL down Queens Road and detoured into Church Street.  Hundreds of anti-fascists swiftly regrouped and physically blocked Church Street with some handy plastic crash barriers and wheelie bins.  This was met with more police thuggery and gradually the march did get to Victoria Gardens, having been drastically curtailed.  The small, increasingly shellshocked bunch of fascists were then effectively kettled by anti-fascists for the best part of two hours before the police finally let them get back to the station.

This was a major setback and embarrassment for the far-right and it was really positive that such a large and broad contingent of local people was prepared to turn out and oppose them.
As for Sussex Police, it was hard to determine whether their tactics were just very inept, or part of a grand plan to put the MfE off ever coming back!  They claim that "extreme violence" was used by the anti-fascists.
From where I was standing, all the violence came from them.  They are going to be consulting their video footage - so will we!

YouTube Video

Saturday 21 April 2012

Saturday 26 May – National Conference: How do we break Workfare?

Under the guise of ‘helping the unemployed back into work’ the government is rolling out various workfare schemes that will provide free labour for their rich corporate friends. Many charities and even trade unions – who should know better – have been hoodwinked into supporting these schemes.
However, in March we saw the government forced on the back foot following revelations of widespread fraud at one of the main Work Programme providers and actions against high street companies involved in the Work Experience Programme. The fact that many companies quickly responded by either withdrawing from the scheme or announcing that they were reviewing their participation shows how vulnerable the government’s workfare programme is at the moment.
Brighton Benefits Campaign has been fighting workfare since our first campaign against the Flexible New Deal in 2010. We have proved that acting against workfare gets results.
We believe that it is necessary to build on this success and break workfare before it becomes established. We have therefore organised a Conferenceto bring together campaigners, voluntary groups, trade unions & others opposed to workfare, to share experiences and information and to co-ordinate a sustained national campaign.
All workfare, whether ‘voluntary’ or mandatory:
is part of a concerted assault on welfare & public services
is an attack on the right to proper paid work and an attack on real volunteering
destroys paid jobs, & undermines the pay and conditions of those already in work
is yet another generous government hand out for big business

Details of how to register for Conference in link above.

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Monday 2 April 2012

Campaign against Workfare continues

News from Brighton Benefits Campaign.....

Although media attention has recently quietened down, the campaign against workfare continues. Following on from the hugely successful actions on March 3rd, today marked another National Day of Action Against Workfare, with protests up and down the country.
The target of the largest number of these protests was Holland & Barrett. Anti-workfare campaigners have consistently pointed out that unpaid labour schemes allow bosses to engage in job substitution. What company would want to hire people they have to pay wages and provide benefits like sick pay and holidays, when they can get the unemployed to do the same thing for free?
Holland & Barrett have provided the most flagrant example of this job substitution, by announcing their plans to exploit 1000 young people in the next year through workfare schemes. To put this into context, Holland & Barrett’s entire paid workforce is around 3600. This brazen use of the unemployed to bolster their workforce by over 25% clearly shows as nonsense any claim that workfare is a way to help people get work, and reveals it for what it is – a massive handout to bosses and a massive transfer of public money into private profits.
The impetus for today’s demonstrations came from the Solidarity Federation, who first called for another National Day of Action. Brighton Benefits Campaign has always worked very closely with Brighton SolFed, so we were only too happy to support them in the same way they have always supported us. As previous actions have shown the strength of the anti-workfare movement in Brighton, it was decided that we would hold two pickets, one outside the Holland & Barrett store in North Street, and the other at their smaller shop in London Road.
The North Street picket took up position with banners and leaflets shortly after 11am, and almost immediately we were confronted by the manager, who demanded to know what we were doing and insisted that the store was not involved in taking unemployed people on work experience (showing how successfully media reporting has confused people into thinking that work experience is the only workfare scheme, without mentioning that this is only one of five schemes).
It may be the case that this specific store did not use workfare – although we subsequently learned that they had previously taken one person on work experience and interviewed others, so they clearly have no objections to workfare nor commitment to the idea that people should be paid for their work. But Holland & Barrett is a national chain, and local branches cannot simply wash their hands of what the company is doing at a national level. All Holland & Barrett branches, for example, benefit from advertising – which will, if the company’s plans go ahead, be funded with profits made through large-scale exploitation of the unemployed. We urged the manager to write to their head office to express opposition to what the company is doing nationally, but he was having none of this and stomped back inside.
Shortly afterwards security guards employed by local retailers – now known by the ludicrous misnomer of “City Centre Ambassadors” – arrived and began to harass us as we handed out leaflets to shoppers and passersby. Claiming that we were blocking the entrance and that our standing in front of the store’s window was somehow a violation of private property despite the fact that we were on the public pavement, those of us holding the BBC banner were told we would need to move forward, away from the shop.
When we stood our ground and challenged them to point out exactly where the private property began, one of these heavies reached into his handbook of threatening clich├ęs and informed us that we could do things “the easy way or the hard way”. A potentially interesting incident was then cut tragically short by the arrival of two police officers, who had apparently been informed we were harassing customers. They quickly established we were not doing this, however, so they pulled the “Ambassadors” aside for a discussion, then confirmed to us that there was nothing wrong with where we were standing before departing. Deprived of an opportunity to assault people, the Ambassadors went to sulk on the street corner and watched us in silence for the rest of the demonstration.
We distributed leaflets with great speed, with some pedestrians stopping to ask for leaflets even before we could offer them one. Many were clearly aware of what workfare was and why it should be opposed, but were unaware of the scale of the exploitation that Holland & Barrett proposed.
During lulls when not many people were going into the store, the manager came out to entertain us. The company’s liberal, hippy image notwithstanding, the manager was keen to inform us of his deeply reactionary opinions. These included such considered insights as that the unemployed are simply lazy and that, if they don’t want to be exploited as unpaid labour, they should go and get jobs (of which there is apparently a plentiful supply), and that he was not going to criticise the company for using workfare as he simply felt lucky to have a job in a time when many businesses are going under. A more perceptive person might have realised that these views are totally contradictory, one suggesting a booming labour market and another, more accurately, reflecting the ongoing job insecurity brought about by the economic crisis, however this did not occur to him.
As we began to run low on leaflets, some SolFed members brought out instruments and livened things up with old labour and protest songs like Solidarity Forever and the Diggers Song. The spirit of the songs, expressing the determination of working class people to stick up for each other, was a welcome relief from the purely self-centred viewpoint of the manager, who then made a last play for attention by making himself a sign suggesting that no one is made to work for free, coming out to argue with us again and ironically blocking the entrance to his own store with his placard.
Giving up on this he decided to put it in the window instead. If the sign had acknowledged this was only applicable to this one branch and that the company the branch was a part of was actually planning an enormous use of unpaid labour, we might have let that pass, but as it didn’t we simply held up our banner to block the sign.
Altogether the day was a great success. BBC supporters at the picket in London Road reported a similarly good response from the public, though less in the way of levity. We went away determined to continue the campaign against workfare and to keep bringing the fight to those who exploit unpaid labour with further actions to come.
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The meaning of Bradford West

George Galloway and Respect scored one of the most spectacular election victories ever last Thursday night. They won 56% of the vote and gained a majority of 10,000.
The political establishment has been quick to try to isolate the result as a Muslim anti-war vote, even though it is clear that Respect took votes from all communities and all parties, and the ConDem austerity drive was a bigger factor than the British government's wars of the last 10 years.
It is nonetheless true that Respect was able to mobilise young Muslims and could capitalise on the clear public hostility to the war in Afghanistan in a way that the mainstream parties could not - since they all support it.
It was a particular disaster for Labour, hoping to capitalise on a very bad week for the government. But they had taken a working class community for granted once to often. While Miliband tried to bolster his man-of-the-people image by munching pasties in London, a political earthquake was happening in Bradford.
Respect now has its sights set on Bradford Council and who would bet against them?
But the question is where is all this is leading. A huge opportunity has been opened up but there is no telling where it will end up.
It would be naive in the extreme to assume (as some are already) that this result can be easily replicated by any left-wing grouping that wants to stand anywhere. Respect has been in the doldrums for some time but at its height it was the most electorally successful left of Labour force since the days when the CP had MPs. It did this through putting down real roots in the communities where it was strongest.
But we have been here before. Respect was brought to the brink of extinction by its failure to build from a small number of localities and by its failure to develop as a democratic party of the left run by its rank and file, and with a credible political programme. George often seemed more concerned with his own interests than those of the people he had been elected to represent.
Thursday's result opens up another opportunity to start to build the broad left-wing alternative to New Labour that is desperately needed.
It remains to be seen whether this opportunity will be seized or yet again squandered.
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