Monthly Archives: July 2011

Ban the EDL?

By Chris Page

Recent events have thrust the ugly face of the European far right back into the mainstream view. Since it emerged that that Anders Breivik had links to the UK far right, particularly the English Defence League, mainstream debate has erupted on how we should now view and deal with the EDL and similar groups. For socialists, who have steadfastly taken to the streets against the EDL and BNP time and time again while the rest of the world obsessed over the spectre of radical Islam, such a debate is long overdue. However, my fear is that such a debate is inclined towards reactionary measures.

Take, for example, the suggestion that has recently been tabled, that we should consider banning the EDL or classing it as a terrorist organisation. On the one hand, there is something to be said for this approach. Banning this repulsive group would instantly prevent them from marching in our streets and attempting to spread their racist poison. It would supposedly mean that no more Muslims and activists would suffer violence at the hands of bigoted thugs (let us not forget the violent assaults carried out by EDL members); and it would, apparently, mean that the far right has lost another one of its teeth.

Having said all that, banning the EDL or classing it as a terrorist organisation is a very reactionary move akin to trying to put a sticking plaster over a gaping wound. Consider the implications – politicians, in a rush to be seen to have tough measures on the far right after Norway, instantly crack down on the movement: it is a ‘progressive’ move, but from the top down, rather than from the bottom up. The EDL might be banned, but this will NOT prevent its members and sympathisers for continuing in their actions – “Yes, we have been banned”, the EDL would react, “but if anything that proves our point. It proves that the mainstream is sympathetic to the radical Islam we have worked hard to fight; it proves that the left-wingers and the Marxists are the ones who pull the strings; it proves, in the end, that we are right.”

If not ban the EDL, then what? This brings up the wider question of how we kill a movement. The answer, I think, is very simple, and it most certainly does not come from the reactionary measures of Parliament. What is needed is to tackle the Islamaphobic, anti-immigrant cultural hegemony that seems to dominate much of life in the UK. The EDL and other far-right organisations leech off the fact that it is quasi-legitimate to view the idea of multiculturalism with a deep suspicion, and to easily characterise Muslims as the threatening Other figure, much in the same way as Jews were characterised by the Nazis.  What is needed is a fundamental shift in the way in which people on the streets perceive these issues, and this is best accomplished through educating people. For example, around the time of the EDL demonstration in Cambridge, the Mosque held a fascinating and enlightening open day, which drew in many of the townsfolk and showed that Muslims are not the threatening Other, but a simply a different aspect of the Self, the Self we call “British”. Community education, organised autonomously against the anti-immigrant rhetoric of our government and right-wing press, will accomplish in the battle against fascism because it takes away the reason that they give us to fear.

​How will this kill the EDL? The best analogy I can think of is the short-lived pro-austerity movement, focusing around Rally Against Debt, earlier this year. The event was hyped up in the media as the start of Britain’s own Tea Party movement. Its organiser, Toby Young (a man who, despite being against public spending, wants government money to set up his own school. Tosser) portrayed it as a reasonable and sober alternative to the ‘anarchy’ of the student demos and TUC march of 26th March. My initial thoughts were of the irony of a group called the TaxPayers Alliance – 90% of whose members probably don’t pay much tax – but my more pessimistic side speculated that this could be quite terrible for the anti-cuts movement. What if thousands turned out? What if it seemed to the world that the people of this country were not unified against savage cuts? What if it did start a UK Tea Party?

The result? Around 200 people turned up to listen to Nigel Farage waffle about bailouts and the EU. It was so pathetic that instead of celebrating the start of a UK Tea Party, it celebrated its abortion.  A good summary of the events can be found here.

The “pro cuts” movement died because the people of this country didn’t want to join it. Granted, some of this would be to do with apathy, but also to do with scorn. People have seen through the rhetoric of “We’re all in this together” and have shouted back “No ifs, no buts, no public sector cuts!” and, most importantly, they voted with their feet. This brings me back to the EDL – imagine what it would be like if the EDL called a demo, and five balding overweight football hooligans turned up, slurped Strongbow dejectedly in the rain for a bit and then slunk away. Now imagine if this were the case on every EDL demo. The EDL would wither away and quickly as a sprung up, not because it was banned, but because the people, the great masses of this country, voted with their feet and said “We don’t want you here.” That, if anything, is a much more powerful symbol of a multicultural and united UK.

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Enough of this bullshit

by Edd Mustill

There is currently a “debate” going on in the anti-cuts movement which runs like this: The national committee of the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC) has called a national student demo for November 9th. This call has come under criticism from different quarters. Some complaining that not enough people have been consulted and the call was made in a top-down manner. Some activists from Youth Fight for Jobs (YFJ) are decrying the demo on the 9th because their re-run of the Jarrow March ends with a demo in London on the 5th, the Saturday beforehand.

I think the Jarrow March idea is a good one, it was right that NCAFC members voted to back it, and no doubt NCAFC activists will be involved in it as it makes its way down to London.

Crying foul because another group calls a demo without letting you know might be legitimate, but “uniting the resistance” or “linking the struggles” doesn’t just mean everyone going on the same demo. There is a sea of local and national campaigns for all sorts of things, against cuts in all sorts of areas, employing all sorts of tactics.

NCAFC and YFJ are campaigns that have different, albeit linked, emphases. NCAFC is fighting the government’s plans in higher education, and YFJ is fighting against the existence and effects of youth unemployment. NCAFC is more representative of radical student opinion nationally than YFJ is. YFJ has a bigger base in trade unions (but let’s be honest, repeatedly saying “X number of unions back us” doesn’t make you a grassroots or mass campaign. Is UAF? Is Cuba Solidarity?) YFJ recognise this. Presumably that’s why they set up Youth Fight for Education during the student protests last year? What happened to that?

Don’t we want a lot of stuff happening in the Autumn? Don’t we want local, regional, and national actions for people to involve themselves in? Don’t we want industrial action, marches, direct actions? Was it wrong to have demos last year during a time when people were occupying university buildings, on the grounds that they couldn’t go to both? No. Was it wrong to have demos in quick succession? No. We don’t know what this Autumn will look like, but it’s fairly likely to be another “hot” period where the more stuff that goes on, the better. If there’s two demos, go to one or both of them. Tell your mates about both of them. Promote actions undertaken by other groups whose politics you substantively agree with.

In any case, we need to avoid falling into “big date” politics where everyone thinks “let’s build for March 26th, then June 30th, then [insert date of pension strike here]…”

The “top-down” criticism doesn’t hold water either. Too often this sort of criticism reads like: “But no-one talked to me and my friends about it.”

If you’re against committees altogether then I can respect that as a principled position, but good luck trying to organise a campaign on a national scale. The committee was elected at a conference that, while not particularly large, was genuinely “national.” It is also, as I understand it, interim until another conference next term. If you don’t like its decisions then unseat them at conference if, if you prefer, ignore them.

By the way, some people lament the demise of the London Student Assembly (LSA), but the NCAFC committee has at least as many democratic strong points as the LSA ever did. How could the latter claim to set the pace of the national movement when it was a purely London-based organisation. Where can the dates for national demos come from, if not from national organisations?

Really anyone who has spent any time as an activist anywhere in any group will know that no method of decision-making is democratically watertight. There are holes that can be picked in committee and consensus models, in assembly and campaign structures, and so on. But I think the NCAFC committee is probably one of the most meaningfully representative bodies in the anti-cuts movement (and would have been more so if, for example, Workers’ Power had decided to stand for election to it).

So I guess this is a defence of the NCAFC committee’s position. The 9th is a weekday, a year since Millbank, and allows more Scottish participation, and, importantly, a protest with a separate character and different demands to those of the Jarrow March.

But more than that, this is a plea for some calmer heads. Dates aren’t set in stone, discussions and negotiations can happen. Obviously if there turns out to be a pensions strike that week for example, things will be different. Campaigns need to seriously discuss, internally and externally, how they relate to one another. This is something that the “grown-up” anti-cuts movement (CoR, RtW, NSSN…) has almost totally failed to do. Will the student and youth organisations behave any better?

The exaggerated outrage, and the suspicion that everything any other group does is motivated primarily by a desire to get one over on your own group or network, is a ball-and-chain round the ankles of the movement. Everyone, stop it. Enough of this bullshit.

Remember the fuss about the “two demos” on January 29th? Remember the fatal blow that having more than one demo dealt the movement? No, me neither. The date of one or two particular demos will have very little bearing on the success or failure of the movement. Can we get over ourselves, and start to recognise that?

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Return of the 50ft Grammar School

by Anne Archist

What’s up?

I imagine by now that many of our readers will have already seen the news about Crown Woods college. For those of you that were too disgusted by the Guardian headline ‘School colour-codes pupils by ability’ to read the actual article, or who have been on holiday somewhere nice or at a festival or something, here are the key points:

  • The college is split into three ‘mini-schools’, to which students are allocated based on streaming, so they will be in roughly the same ability-group for all classes and will socialise with people of the same ability group and so on. (There are actually 4 mini-schools, but one of those is essentially the sixth-form, so I’ll ignore that one)
  • Each mini-school also has a slightly different uniform, such as different coloured ties, so pupils’ ability-level can be determined at a glance. Each has about 450 pupils, its own staff, a different lunch time and fences around their separate play areas to prevent mingling of different ability groups in recreational time.
  • Streaming also happens within the schools, so that some students will be unambiguously at the ‘bottom’ of the more mixed-ability groups, while others will be told they are at the ‘top’ of the gifted+talented group, etc.

The college is as vomit-inducing as one might expect in a myriad of other ways; they concern themselves with following the trends of ‘youth culture clothing’ so as to better ban woolly hats and coats with hoods, and demand that the school tie be worn “as prince Charles wears it”. No, I didn’t make that up, they actually wrote it in a letter to parents. They also wrote ‘prince’ in lower case.

To what end?

The figures floating around in the mainstream press are actually those achieved last year, before the college reorganised itself into the mini-school system, so we have no data on which to judge the changes – even this year’s data will be inadequate since the school only reopened two months ago, so any improvement shown would be due mostly to the old system. The school has also seen increased investment over the last 6 years, including both a huge grant to rebuild, facilitating the segregation, and specialist status in ‘English and the Humanities’ (which is a single specialist status, from the looks of things, not a double-specialist covering two distinct areas, as some schools are).

Disentangling the effect of this investment and redevelopment from the effect of reorganisation and so on would be practically impossible. On that basis I don’t think that getting into arguments about whether exam results have improved or not is the way to go, as so often happens with debates over academy status and similar educational reforms on a broader scale. For once we can all but ignore the statistics, and deal more directly with issues like the student response. This has been mixed, with the general tone of quoted comments suggesting that they like the smaller mini-school environments but not the enforced segregation between them or the streaming element to that segregation.

Arguing and fighting appears to be as common among the mini-schools as it would often be between entirely unrelated local schools in other areas. Perhaps most worryingly, the different mini-schools seem to be offering different curricula tailored to the perceived ability of the people allocated to them. One pupil was disappointed and frustrated to be told that she couldn’t study ‘triple’ science despite her desire to pursue a career in science (neuropsychology, to be precise). Apparently this particular issue will be rectified next year but there doesn’t seem to be a wider realignment of curricula instigated as a result of this timetabling clash.

The college are apparently open to moving people between sets to some extent, but nobody has yet done this and the different timetables, uniforms, etc will no doubt make it difficult. Crucially, the college seems to be relying on children or parents to formally object to their allocation rather than introducing any ongoing systems of assessment or monitoring to pro-actively intervene and move students between the ability streams as appropriate; the fixity of these arrangements only adds to the feeling that different groups are being kept apart as effectively as possible and given very different messages about their potential and ambitions.

What do I think?

This is one of very few occasions on this blog that the facts speak entirely for themselves and I have very little to say about how people should read them. I think we can all agree, regardless of our feeling about specific educational policy, that this amalgam of  inflexibility, differential provision, physical and social segregation, visible ‘marking’ of difference, and so on is appalling and sinister. Streaming is an old-fashioned system rejected by the NUT and other progressive educational institutions and researchers in favour of the much more logical system of setting (where ability group varies by subject rather than being the same for all subjects so that people who are good at maths are assumed to be good at English) or even (shock horror) mixed-ability groups.

As someone who performed very well at school, I know the frustrations of students whose abilities are stagnating, but I also know that this can be avoided perfectly well even by inexperienced teachers without social segregation and stigmatisation. Perhaps the millions of pounds spent on colour-coded buildings, fences between playgrounds and different coloured ties could have been invested in smaller class sizes, more training for teachers, and so on. Instead, the school played the game of catchment – trying to attract ‘better’ students with a highly-visible gifted+talented arrangement and modern buildings, rather than dealing with the business of actually teaching - that is, improving the skills and knowledge of the students it was already charged with.

The justification given by the headmaster for these plans was that he had to ‘respond to the market’ – that is, work out how to ensnare more students who could be relied on to do well in exams without too much help. As long as the education system is built around attracting the ‘best’ people and weeding out the ‘worst’, there will always be very highly-performing and poorly-performing schools, and it won’t necessarily have anything to do with how or what they teach, but rather who they teach.

Hold on… what?

In a perverse pseudo-socialist twist, all of this is justified by naming the design centre (among many other things) after William Morris. One wonders whether perhaps it shouldn’t have been the Aldous Huxley Centre instead.

But one of the students was fool enough to ask where the advantage lay.

“My good boy!” The Director wheeled sharply round on him. “Can’t you see? Can’t you see?” He raised a hand; his expression was solemn. “Bokanovsky’s Process is one of the major instruments of social stability!”

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Some thoughts on the Norwegian Tragedy

by Liam McNulty

I thought I would break the relative silence which has prevailed on this blog since tragedy afflicted us and exam schedules interfered with the normal running of things by jotting down some thoughts on what happened in Norway.

What happened in Norway was not the work of a lone individual, or even a narrow group of individuals.  Breivik may have pulled the trigger but a much wider array of people bear a level of responsibility for what happened. The far-right ideas espoused by this man are extreme and repulsive, but they are only the acute expression of a more widespread discourse of division and intolerance which is sweeping Europe. The epochal construction known as the ‘War on Terror’ has established a discourse based on a binary opposition between Islam and the ‘West’ which has been the legitimation for wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. An auxiliary product has been the demonization of Muslim people in Europe as a community and a narrative of Islamic ‘colonisation’ of the continent.  In Norwegian circumstances, with a long-ruling Labour Party and a traditionally small far-right, these ideas have been unable to gain popular traction so it was not unforeseeable that someone expressing them would turn to one of few alternatives- individual terrorism.

Some elements of the media have been keen to pathologise Breveik but this serves to confine the explanations for what happened to the realm of an individual psychosis. It ignores the deep reservoir of noxious far-right ideas circulating in particular networks and on the more right-wing fringes of the mainstream media. If one has any doubt about this, merely witness the reaction of the right-wing press and political establishment who rushed to pin this attack on Islamic extremism without a shred of evidence. Moreover, Breivik cited Melanie Philips of the Daily Mail in the 1,500-word rant that served as ideological justification for the attacks. Breivik did not exist in a vacuum and, in a twisted way, his actions were grounded in a certain political rationality, drawing from existing discourses which overlap worryingly with some quite widely-propagated ideas.

That Breivik attacked the youth camp of the Norwegian Labour Party, a gathering of young socialists and social democrats, should come as no surprise to any with the most basic knowledge of the history of fascism.  In Italy, Germany and Spain it was the working-class movment that was first to suffer after the institutionalisation of fascist violence. Breveik, however, was contemptuous of the traditional neo-Nazi strain of fascism and appears to be a part of a new far-right mutation oriented around an essentialist view of national ‘culture’ which decries multiculturalism and ‘cultural Marxism’- a right-wing inversion of bastardized Gramacianism.  In this country, the EDL best articulate this strain and the phenomenon as a whole is arguably a strategic repositioning of the far-right to capitalise on growing Islamophobia as well as a more spontaneous movement of declassé and alienated groups.

It is also a reaction against the failure of the traditional right, as yet, to seriously unsettle the political consensus. As such, it may be the case that it is confined to countries without large and electorally successful existing far-right formations (the UK, Norway) rather than states such as France where parties such as the Front Nationale have a degree of social weight and can act as a pole of attraction. The Progress Party in Norway was unable to accommodate Breivik and the EDL has little truck with the crisis-struck BNP. On the flipside, the eschewal of electoral tactics will inevitably lead to an increasing stress on provocative street marches and, predictably, violence.

  Of note, too, is the manner in which Norwegians have reacted to the recent tragedy, with an outpouring of national mourning and revulsion against this most heinous of acts.  It is an unthinking commonplace on the Left that all ‘nationalisms’ are bad.  In most cases this is true, but the ‘nation’, stripped of its ‘national’ (ethnic, linguistic etc) connotations, and reduced to the level of a collectivity of people is a potentially progressive force; much more so than the isolation and dispersal characteristic of the neoliberal vision, in any case, and especially when united in opposition to fascism. Therein could lie the roots of a progressive political project, based on a defense of a secular, democratic and multi-cultural Norway and fastened strongly to the labour movement.

  The far-right has now exploded into the public spotlight and more people are aware of the threat it poses. We on the Left, of course, have always been aware of this. The challenge now is to confront that threat.

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Weekly Smirker Issue 3

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