Building in our communities
As part of its efforts to dig itself out of irrelevance as a political force in British politics, the Left must re-examine the efficacy of its interactions with oppressed peoples. The various activities that have sprung up in reaction to the ‘Bedroom Tax’ provide a suitable context for such an examination to be made, demonstrating how meetings and demonstrations can be exclusionary to all but those already engaged in frequent activism even when they are held with the best of intention, and campaigns can have overly narrow demands.
Much of the campaign against the Bedroom tax has had a narrow focus of attempting to enforce demands of reversing the policy. Naturally for the residents currently affected by the welfare cut, this is of the highest priority and is a necessary goal of those fighting against it. However, this alone does not tackle the other issues that have sprung up around it, such as the lack of appropriate social housing, of affordable private housing, the feeding right-wing beliefs regarding immigration and benefits, and the demonisation of those receiving welfare.
This issue is not helped by the tried and tested reactionary methods of the Left, such as calling demonstrations and lobbying, which only go so far as to remedy one issue and engagement wanes once a narrow victory has been achieved. Universal Credit for example, is also going to cause numerous problems and is yet another attack on the poor, yet because the problems are several fold, i.e. budgeting difficulty, transformation into digital, forcing people to take any or as many jobs that they can etc., this has not become the focus of a main campaign. If it were to be, what would the campaign’s demands be? No Universal Credit at all? Repeal only certain aspects? Suggest a better way to support claimants? There cannot be a single-pointed campaign with multiple issues; work around it would require more thought, more planning, more people. With the Bedroom Tax the chants of ‘Axe the Bedroom Tax!’ ring clear that people want the policy to be scrapped, but what happens afterwards assuming this goal is achieved?
Another problem is that the campaign’s energy is channeled into grabbing the attention of those with power, yet we should be turning towards the powerless to ascertain their needs and how we can best support them alongside general manifestations of opposition. Simply put, exerting all of your effort into catchy slogans and media-seeking stunts for the umpteenth demonstration against government policy seems like a waste of energy, especially when it could be used more productively to interact directly with those in need of help.
With some of the biggest protests in past 10 years not having the impact on governmental and capitalist activity as it had hoped (see anti-Iraq war protests 2003, the student protests of 2010 and even half a million marching against austerity in 2011) it is clear that we need to move beyond the knee-jerk need to stage a protest/lobby a group/sign a petition and find more long-lasting ways to not just show our resistance but live that resistance. That is not to say that these methods don’t have any success or even that they don’t have a place, but they also need to be part of a wider campaign of solidarity with our communities which seeks to have prolonged engagement with them on a personal level as well as a political. If activists have the resources and time to support others, and through this support others learn how to take control of their lives outside of the ‘norm’, then their personal becomes political.
The problem with most demonstrations or other usual lefty activities is just that; they are lefty activities for lefty people to engage with other lefties. Occasionally you may find political newcomers joining the fight as seen with the Bedroom Tax in Manchester where those affected took to the mic at a recent demo to air their anger and fighting spirit despite not being well rehearsed in political speech making. Similarly, though, the opposite has also become apparent as a part of the Manchester campaign against the Bedroom Tax, more specifically with the South Manchester campaign in Moss Side in which a good number of ACI activists are involved. Those outside of the Left and activist circles, i.e. those out there in the wider communities, are experiencing a disconnection between the situation in which they find themselves and the fight for welfare that is going on unrelated to their daily lives. No amount of A to B marches in the city centre are going to rouse them into action or even seem like a worthwhile endeavour for them when there appears to be a great deal of hopelessness among those who have had to bear the brunt of cutbacks and overall attack on the poorest in society.
The Bedroom Tax campaign in Moss Side has held 3 public meetings alongside the wider Manchester campaign which has equally held public meetings and 3 city-centre marches, in addition to other location-specific campaigns. It has become fast apparent that there is no one set model for success and even those methods which have been somewhat successful are not enough on their own.
In order to make a real difference with a campaign that is community-focused and engaged with people outside of the Left political bubble there has to be varied and prolonged community involvement and engagement. While face-to-face leafleting has been very promising in terms of being able to listen to individual stories and hear the desperation for change, these many people with whom we have spoken we rarely see again. This is most likely due to the fact they go back to their lives in which they have children, money worries, caring duties and reduced social provisions. They can therefore not be blamed for forgetting the public meeting event or even prioritising their own needs over going out on a wet and windy Manchester evening to attend a meeting arranged by strangers from elsewhere in the city. Who are we to go into their community and tell them they have to act? We may come across as alienating because these communities have been alienated from any political process even though they are unknowingly players in the political game. They have experienced so many setbacks due to government policy and media misrepresentation of those on benefits that there is a degree of disillusionment that anything we do as activists can enact real change. But of course they are thinking in terms of change within the government, change within the already unequal structures that we have, and similarly many of the Left also think in these terms. Trying to perfect an imperfect system will not get us anywhere, we need to go beyond initial quick-fix solutions to promote our visions for a different way of organising and living. If, however, we involve ourselves in our communities with a fresh political aesthetic, one which is connecting on personal levels and one which is inclusive of those with no particular political background or stance, we may find that a gradual engagement is more of a resistance than waving a placard and shouting buzzwords at occasional demonstrations.
I do not claim to have all the answers, which is why we are trying to create a varied campaign to see what works as well as making links with other campaigns from across the North to share experiences. We have recognised that public meetings must cater to people’s needs: some may not feel confident coming to a meeting hosted by an unknown group with no established foundation in the community, therefore we must put ourselves out there to break down any anonymity. Some may have child-care duties, therefore we must make events child-friendly. Others may not see themselves as political or that politics is something beyond their comprehension, and so we must ensure that discussions use plain language and not forget our own positions of privilege or power when talking to others. The ability to be self-critical and reflective is key to creating new ways of political opposition and solidarity.
We must also accept that public meetings are not always a suitable way to speak to those people affected by issues such as the Bedroom Tax, as some people feel overwhelmed in the presence of others or may just need someone to talk to rather in front of a group. With this in mind, we are hoping to start running drop-in sessions where local people can come for one-to-one interaction. This will be a more personal space where residents are offered a sympathetic ear to listen to their concerns and signpost them to local services which may be able to alleviate their specific concerns.
Most importantly, we must seek to cooperate with other groups and organisers already established in the community so that the opposition to the Bedroom Tax is based upon a stronger network of individuals who have a shared experience of living in a single locality. We wish to work with local community and cultural groups to see how we can work together to spread information and support to everyone.
If the Bedroom Tax is turned-over tomorrow, we cannot pat ourselves on the back for a victory against the Tory government and move onto the next campaign; we must seek continued links with the community. Just because one policy has been defeated does not mean that the very same community will not be faced with another attack in the future, continued work with these localities can allow them to be more prepared for resistance should that time come around. If the Left, or more specifically the radical Left, really believes another reality is possible then it’s time to start enacting it in our daily lives and across our commonalities. If we continue to separate ourselves from the oppressed communities then we will continue to be weak in the face of ongoing struggles. It is also dangerous time with the current economy and the ever increasing threat of poverty that far-right groups such as UKIP will exploit the disillusioned, hopeless public for their own political gains.
Campaigns around the Bedroom Tax (and eventually Universal Credit) are good opportunities to establish long-lasting, proactive anti-capitalist action which support and empower communities in the hope that they will take up the fight themselves and become self-sufficient in organising their own resistance for their own local issues.