Author Archives: EddM

Quick thoughts on the student-worker problem

“Why don’t you bloody well get a real job?” ask Workers’ Liberty in their new pamphlet.

Well, not exactly. “Change the world – organise at work!” is aimed at left-wing students about to graduate, and it’s a welcome, and rare, piece of propaganda from the left that tries to tackle the problematic student-to-worker transition.

What should politicised students, not least those radicalised during the 2010-11 movement, do with their lives once they’ve left university? It’s a big question for a lot of us. Workers’ Liberty want us to become rank-and-file union activists, an emphasis I agree with (should we become Labour Party activists too though? That question, where I disagree with the AWL, is left lying in the pamphlet).

Certainly it’s struck me for a long time that more and more good student activists I’ve known have started Masters courses, then PhDs, and will, presumably, stay in academia. Because universities have been the left’s biggest recruiting ground for ages, this is having a long-term impact. Sometimes it seems like the industrial base of the SWP, for example, is shrinking to just the UCU (this is just an impression so correct me if I’m wrong).

Some good things have come of this. There’s more post-grads joining the UCU, for example. And the GMB’s student-worker conference at Goldsmiths was a good initiative. But generally speaking, the funnelling of left-wing activists into academia will be a bad thing in the long run.

For those of us too thick or too sick of it to want to stay in the bubble, the pamphlet suggests we take jobs in strategic workplaces; health, communications, rail, local government, rather than, for example, working at a “worthy” job in the charity sector.

The criticisms of charity are well and good. I found myself thinking, though, about the Shelter strike in 2008. Those workers were workers like any other. Surely it’s not working for a charity that is a problem in itself. It’s being a boss in a charity, which is, I imagine, much the same as being a boss anywhere else.

So should we urge people to turn away from “graduate-level” jobs and go into workplaces on the bottom rung? There’s a more complicated problem here. Some graduates have found they can’t get those jobs anyway, and have to work minimum wage jobs in cafes and the like because nothing else comes up. On the other hand, I think there can also be a problem for graduates applying for “low level” jobs: employers see your degree, assume you’ll sod off when something better comes along, and don’t hire you.

How has it worked out in the past when groups have urged their university-educated young members to take jobs in factories and the like? I know it’s happened, but my history of the movement isn’t good enough to comment. Some more information and testimony about that would be useful. Did the bosses get wise to it and do the 1970s equivalent of a Google search on prospective employees? It’s difficult to parachute yourself into a workplace and fit in. “Engels was a mill owner.” Sure. But he wasn’t a union rep. He was, in fact, a boss. Not the best example.

Urging people to get jobs in strategic industries is fine, but let’s recognise that it’s far from always possible. In the post, there’s no jobs. In local government, very few. On the railways, even fewer. We’re not really in a position to pick and choose. Obviously AWL comrades know this, so they’re sort of urging us to get whatever jobs we can, and apply for this other stuff in the meantime. But for a lot of people, it’ll never happen, we just won’t get jobs on the tube or wherever. The unions need transforming in other areas too. Bar work, retail work, other areas where grads and non-grads work side by side (I can’t talk with great authority about this, having made no headway in my current job).

For me, the most interesting point in the pamphlet is this:

Today’s older union reps who started activity in the 1980s are, in many ways, the best of their generation. They stuck with the movement while others fell away. Yet many of them – on the evidence of the pensions dispute, a majority of them – have suffered an erosion of spirit, even if they are still nominally left-wing or revolutionary minded. For twenty or thirty years they have been trained in union activity as damage limitation.

I think this is more or less bang on. The spirit of the student movement was that a token protest is not enough, and that the point of fighting is winning. This is something the unions need to rediscover; strikes not just as protests or bargaining chips, but strikes as a form of industrial warfare. It was difficult, probably impossible, for the student movement to teach this to the workers’ movement “from without.” Student activists have a better chance of doing it by becoming union activists themselves.

Take everything I’ve written here with the caveat that I’ve not been very active myself for a while, but I broadly agree with the thrust of the pamphlet. All I’d say to the comrades who wrote it is, recognise that at the moment a lot of people will just take whatever employment opportunity comes along, rather than dropping in to one of your favoured industries. Those of us who work casual, part-time, short-term hours need some political and industrial help too. Maybe that’s a discussion for another day.

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Reinstate Owen Holland

Check out this Cambridge UCU poster:

A4 Poster – Reinstate Owen

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The Daily Herald is one hundred years old

This article was published in this week’s Solidarity which you can read here.

 

“‘Let the landlord go hang for his rent, I am sending it to you.’

Would this be done for a Liberal newspaper? Would it be done for a Tory newspaper? Not likely.”

    • Daily Herald, 26th October 1912

       

“The marvel is that the paper was ever produced at all.”

- George Lansbury, The Miracle of Fleet Street

 

 

April 15th was the centenary of the founding of the Daily Herald. The Herald was first founded as an ad hoc news sheet by striking print workers in 1911. After it folded, discussions began in labour movement circles about the possibility of bringing it back as a daily.

 

The idea of a daily labour movement paper had been around for some time. The existing left-wing press was deemed inadequate by many. The Social Democratic Federation’s national organ, Justice, was at the centre of a long-running dispute within the organisation. Although a “party paper”, it was actually owned privately by party leader Henry Hyndman. Similarly, the most popular paper associated with the Independent Labour Party, the Clarion, was privately owned and run by maverick socialist Robert Blatchford.

 

The first decade of the century saw the emergence of the modern tabloid press, popular newspapers with a mass circulation. Some of the papers set up in the decade before the Herald appeared, like the Mail and Express, are unfortunately still with us. These are the dailies the Herald would be directly competing with, rather than political weeklies or monthly magazines like the New Statesman, launched in 1913.

 

Early years

 

The Herald‘s first big story concerned the sinking of the Titanic, which happened the same day as the first issue went to press. Under the headline “Women and Children last”, the paper covered the disproportionate death rate among third class passengers and slammed the White Star Line. Soon afterwards, the paper’s questions around the Marconi corruption scandal would prompt Lloyd George to describe it as “the limit.”

 

After a quick succession of early editors, popular socialist George Lansbury was convinced by dockers’ leader Ben Tillett to take charge, naming the publishing company after Lloyd George’s remark.

 

In these years, the Herald‘s organisation and finances were chaotic. Sometimes last minute appeals resulted in one-off donations which kept the paper going for a few more days. Lansbury once left London to speak at a meeting in Crewe, having agreed with the committee to wind the paper up. The next day he was sold a copy of the Herald outside his hotel:

 

“Some of the workmen knowing we were likely to stop looked round the paper store and found some part-reels of paper and some old out-size reels… The paper for this particular day was all sorts of shapes and sizes, but we did not care.”

 

On another occasion Lansbury, Tillett, and Robert Williams blocked the door of the office to keep out bailiffs while some money was found. There were rich sympathisers who donated, including soap magnate Joseph Fels, but the paper’s policy was to not let money dictate content. Most individual donations came from working-class people, responding to Lansbury’s constant call-outs for money.

 

An organisation, the Herald League, was founded to popularise the paper and raise funds. It developed into a political network which many syndicalists and trade unionists joined during the Great Unrest. During the Dublin Lockout, the League helped organise large public meetings across England at which James Connolly and James Larkin spoke. Lansbury successfully resisted demands from some in the League that it should assume control of the paper’s editorial policy.

 

One of the points of the early Herald was to provide a national forum where the key issues in the Labour movement could be debated. Syndicalists, Guild Socialists, Christian Socialists like Lansbury, industrial unionists as well as moderates all found space in its pages. Lansbury spoke of the paper’s “anti-official” policy, but still wanted the Herald to be a paper for the whole movement.

 

Will Dyson’s cartoons brought the Herald‘s free, rebellious spirit to life. “A Fantasy (Labour Leaders at their Devotions)” shows Labour Party leaders bowing down to a huge top hat. “Peace and Future Cannon Fodder” from 1919 shows the allies celebrating their Versailles Treaty while a child labeled “Class of 1940″ weeps in the corner.

 

All this made the paper a more interesting read than the TUC’s official Daily Citizen which was set up later in the same year. Although the Herald‘s circulation rarely topped the Citizen‘s, it outlasted it’s moderate brother. The Citizen folded in 1915, suffering from a lack of political will to keep it going on the part of the trade union leaders.

 

The First World War and after

 

During the First World War, the Herald went weekly, and managed to survive a time when left-wing papers like the Glasgow Forward and the SLP’s Socialist were being shut down under the Defence of the Realm Act. It’s attitude followed that of most radical socialists; although anti-war, it did not speak out with the same forceful voice that had supported the strikes of the Great Unrest. Instead, it concentrated its efforts on exposing how class divisions in society were deepened by the war. One Herald journalist was dispatched to the Ritz just before food rationing was introduced, to expose the continuing decadent lifestyle of the rich in the face of Germany’s submarine blockade.

 

During the Russian Revolution of 1917, which gave a huge new impetus to anti-war and socialist activity, the Herald resumed its role as the movement’s debate chamber. All sorts of views on the pro- and anti-Bolshevik spectrum were given column inches. The paper also resumed its activism, sponsoring public meetings on the Revolution and co-organising the Leeds Conference at which the labour movement re-emerged as a political force. The paper’s lengthy report of the conference covered all the speeches in detail, including Ramsay MacDonald’s somewhat uncharacteristic call for workers’ councils.

 

Circulation reached new heights in 1919, as another strike wave rocked the country, and the pull of huge international events sent Herald journalists like H.N. Brailsford across Europe in search of stories. In 1920, a year when Lansbury visited revolutionary Russia, the paper threw itself into supporting the anti-invention Hands Off Russia movement.

 

Back home, the paper’s anger at union officialdom remained. The paper’s leader after Black Friday, when the Triple Alliance of powerful unions fell apart, described the fiasco as “the heaviest defeat that has befallen the Movement within the memory of man.” Predictably, lots of coverage was given to the Poplar rates struggle, during which not only Lansbury but also Herald journalist John Scurr went to prison.

 

TUC years

 

As class struggle receded, financial problems worsened. An open debate about whether to accept Russian money (which was eventually brought into the country in the form of pearls hidden in a box of chocolates) drew predictable derision from the Right. Lansbury was fiercely resistent to the idea of selling the paper to a new private owner, prefering the idea of a labour movement buy-out which was achieved, after much wrangling, with the help of Arthur Henderson.

 

From 1922 the paper was the property of the movement, but of its leadership, the TUC General Council and the Labour Party NEC. Henry Hamilton Fyfe was appointed editor. He was left-wing, but more journalist than activist. Fyfe told his journalists to keep comment out of news pieces. The paper was rebranded from May Day 1923, attempting to broaden its content from politics in order to get a larger readership.

 

During the 1923 dock strike, which was a result of dockers rejecting an agreement that their union had signed, Herald coverage was at best ambivalent. One leader compared unofficial strikers to scabs, because they were breaking union discipline. In 1925, Lansbury left the paper to start his own, Lansbury’s Labour Weekly, but this folded by 1927.

 

While the paper had lost its radical edge, it still supported the movement’s left-wing, giving favourable coverage to the ILP and Communist-led National Unemployed Workers’ Movement and Minority Movement.

 

Herald staff joined the general strike in 1926, but many regular writers contributed to the TUC’s strike sheet, the British Worker. After the strike, despite the editorship of left-winger William Mellor, the paper’s praise of official Labour leaders and criticism of Communists became more overt. It became loyally supportive of Ramsay MacDonald’s 1929 government. Huw Richards agrues this late-1920s period marked a key shift in the Herald‘s politics.

 

And later

 

In 1930 the TUC sold 51% of the paper to Odhams Press, publisher of, among others, the nationalist magazine John Bull. The Herald remained a Labour paper, but the importance of political news was once again downgraded. It was starting to look more like a normal mass-circulation paper. The Odhams Herald broke the one million circulation mark and Lansbury’s dream of a Northern edition was finally realised. Victory in a fierce circulation war with the Express made the Herald the world’s biggest-selling daily for a time in the mid-1930s. But it was a somewhat pyrrhic victory, pushing up the costs of publication to unsustainable amounts.

 

Post-war, the Herald began to lose readers to the more plain-spoken Labour-supporting Daily Mirror. Circulation dropped below two million in 1951, the year Labour was voted out of office. Loyalty was still the watchword; the paper supported Gaitskell against Bevan, and rallied back to the leadership after a brief flirtation with the anti-bomb movement.

 

Without strong politics, neither a tabloid nor a broadsheet, the Herald struggled to carve out a purpose for itself in the post-war market and entered into terminal decline. It did not last to see Labour returned to power. The final issue appeared just a month before Wilson won the 1964 election. Its successor, the Sun, also struggled until it was bought by Rupert Murdoch in 1969.

 

What was the Daily Herald?

 

If the Herald ended its life as an ordinary newspaper, it certainly did not begin as one. With just £300 of capital, it seemed unlikely to ever get off the ground. Even in its more successful periods, the paper had problems getting advertising income because of its political stance. It was only ever sustained by the loyalty of its readership and their own sacrifices. Lansbury called the paper “one of the finest achievements of the rank and file of our Movement,” although he would always complain that people never gave enough.

 

Political newspapers are always in precarious positions. In the early years, circulation always rose and fell with class struggle. Strike waves and elections saw spikes in readership. At other times, cuts were made. The Herald was not a co-operative, still less a venture run by workers’ control. It did not by any means pay equal salaries to its employees, and it did sack staff. It wavered between financial stability and political independence, arguably achieving the former by sacrificing the latter.

 

But although the politics got dampened down by official TUC control, were Lansbury and co. wrong to want a paper owned by the movement? This is a question worth considering. It is difficult to think of the Herald‘s modern-day successor or equivalent.

 

Which party papers or union websites provide the socialist movement with, as Lansbury put it, “the stimulus which independent thought and expression alone can give”? Where can activists engage in genuine debate about political tactics and ideas? Indymedia? UnionNews? Socialist Worker? Solidarity?

 

None have anywhere near the mass appeal that the Herald managed. “No paper,” Herald historian Huw Richards argued, “was more consistent in offering a voice to those who are excluded, derided or both by the bulk of the mass-circulation press.”

 

On the Herald‘s birthday, it might be worth asking ourselves whether the socialist movement is capable of launching a successful multi-platform media outlet. Are we too hampered by sectarianism and a lack of resources? Would the politics of the project descend into a Counterfire-esque mesh of incoherent ideas? Would it be doomed to eventual transformation into something like Murdoch’s Sun, or the ignominious end suffered by the News on Sunday in the 1980s?

 

With the Herald‘s history in mind, perhaps these are questions we can revisit.

 

 

 

Further reading

 

“The miracle of Fleet Street,” George Lansbury

“The rise and fall of the Daily Herald,” Rajani Palme Dutt

“The Bloody Circus: The Daily Herald and the Left,” Huw Richards

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The ban is not a defeat for the EDL

by Edd Mustill

Those who have called for the state to ban the EDL’s march through Tower Hamlets on 3rd September must take a serious look at their anti-fascist strategy.

It seems likely that the Home Secretary will ban all marches in five London boroughs for a month. This sort of blanket ban is what governments have issued in the past, targeting EDL or National Front marches but also any counter-mobilisations, for the sake of maintaining public order. To believe we can petition a bourgeois Home Secretary – a Tory Home Secretary! – saying “Please ban them but not us” is ludicrously naïve.

Public order, public order, public order. The same reason given for the kettling of every student protest in the last twelve months. The same reason given for the pre-emptive arrests around the Royal Wedding. The same reason given for the mass arrests after the riots, including the wrongful arrests and their ramifications.

Saying that the EDL march shouldn’t be banned is not a question of a gliberal defence of “free speech.” It is a political question because we can’t afford to give in to public order politics. Should the police be allowed to set the parameters of what constitutes “acceptable” political behaviour? We have already seen them do this, pontificating on what is a necessary protest and how people should go through existing structures.

Independent mayor of Tower Hamlets, Lutfur Rahman, has said: “You have helped us achieve our aim and we no longer need a mass show of support.” Go home, ladies and gents. Job’s done. The East End is demobilised. And if the EDL come back? Ban them again. And again. And again…

Perversely, one of the events affected by the blanket ban could be the celebration of the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street, which took place in what is now Tower Hamlets. Historically, the Communist Party and people following its tradition have managed to place Cable Street among the Party’s finest hours. But initially the CP argued for people to attend a rally for Spain in Trafalgar Square on the day, miles away from where the fascists were marching:

Although the CP did give its backing to a demonstration by the Ex-Servicemen’s Committee Against Fascism, which was to assemble in Stepney on the Sunday morning, the party’s main emphasis was to rally support for the JPC [Jewish People’s Council] petition calling on the state to defend workers against fascism. As one study of CP history observes: “It was not that the Party’s leaders were lacking in either courage or anti-fascist feeling, but the Popular Front line predisposed them to respectable protest rather than direct militant action, which could only antagonise those they were so anxious to influence among the Tories, Liberals and ‘Progressives’.”

Many CP and Labour leaders were busy telling people to stay at home then, as Rahman and co. are now. There would have been no political defeat for the Blackshirts if East-Enders had followed their advice.

Likewise, getting the march banned does not represent a political defeat for the EDL. This is an important point; don’t we want to defeat them politically? They will posture about how much effect they’ve had just by threatening a march, how they’ve got the Marxist Establishment running scared and so on. And if they hold a static demonstration and it’s tiny, they can blame poor attendance on the ban. They can’t lose.

Anti-fascist politics is in a rut if we are reduced to calling on the state to sort everything out. Apart from anything, this helps the EDL peddle their favourite propaganda piece; that UAF is a front for the liberal political establishment (well, isn’t it?). Socialists in UAF must be slightly embarrassed that their organisation’s joint secretary was among those signing the pro-ban letter to the Home Secretary. But then, in a Popular Front we must acknowledge and respect political differences, as the 1930s Communist Party would have well understood.

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It’s not crazy

It’s difficult to know how to add to the discussion about the riots in a constructive way, but here’s a few thoughts.

First, let’s stop saying “it’s mad,” “it’s crazy,” and “they’re mental” because what that actually means is “I know there are obviously reasons behind this but they’re too complicated for me to bother trying to come to terms with.” This goes for people on the left as well as the right.

Most of the discussion has involved people saying, “This isn’t X, it’s Y.” It’s not political, it’s just looting. It’s not criminality, it’s an oppressed group rising up. It’s not about Mark Duggan, it’s about people wanting new trainers. It’s not about consumerism, it’s about poverty. And so on.

Everyone could be right to an extent. The ideas in everyone’s head are complicated at the best of times. Any explanation will be a simplification, but we can broadly say that last night saw a shift away from more “political” anti-police action to fairly indiscriminate looting.

Now the IPCC are reporting that there is no evidence that Mark Duggan fired on police officers before they shot and killed him last week (This was finally just mentioned – fourteen minutes into the Six O’clock news). Will this turn the focus back on the repressive role of the police in the capital’s working class areas? How much of the political content of the rioting will remain once the looting subsides? Will they lead, in the short or long term, to greater political self-organisation in these areas? We can’t possibly tell.

Lot’s of people talk about rioting being self-defeating because it is a community destroying itself. Again, this is true to an extent, but these kids don’t own any businesses. See this video. Is there less of a sense of a whole community fighting the police or state than there was in, say, Brixton in 1981? Has a sense of community solidarity disintegrated in parallel to the disintegration of the labour movement? Or is asking this just romanticising the past?

It’s a huge weakness of the left that we don’t know the answers to these questions; it shows how little implantation or influence we have in these communities.

Worryingly, BBC News 24 seems more and more to be a mouthpiece for reactionary opinion. Some of our viewers are saying we should be deploying the army, minister, what do you have to say to that? Some of you are saying the police are being too soft. Some of our viewers say things would be better if we brought back slavery, why not tell us what you think?

Here’s Darcus Howe trying to give an alternative opinion:

Notice how the reporter interrupts him and talks over him. He must unequivocally condemn the riots before he is even allowed into the conversation. “You say you’re not shocked. Does this mean you condone what happened?” What an idiotic question.

Just before this interview, militaristic high Tory Patrick Mercer was interviewed. He said police might need to look at using water cannon and maybe plastic bullets. He said police officers should start to think more like infantry officers. The reporter didn’t interrupt him by saying “Hang on, about a thousand people have taken to the streets and suddenly you’re talking about militarising the police. Isn’t that a bit stupid?”

I sense a shift to the right. But there have also been videos of people accosting Nick Clegg and confronting him about the government’s cuts programme. Complicated and contradictory ideas in people’s heads again?

As I wrote this it turned into what just seems to be a string of questions. Anyone got any more ideas?

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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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Weekly Smirker Issue 3

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