Last Saturday’s affiliation of the fascist-linked Knowsley group to the Merseyside Anti-Bedroom Tax Federation bears more looking at. After all, it took place in a building which has a monument to the International Brigades who fought fascism in Spain, and which the same two fascists in question attacked just a few months back, after they had been rebuffed at a demo in nearby Bootle. What can possibly account for this? My answer is necessarily a long and complicated one.
Firstly, the Merseyside Anti-Bedroom Tax Federation is no longer operating as a federation in any meaningful sense. A steering committee ‘elected’ a few weeks back has taken it upon itself to stage manage federation meetings. It has held unannounced caucuses, without a mandate from the federation. And during the last federation meeting, the chair manouevred in such a way as to get Knowsley affiliated without a full and democratic discussion.
For a start, the affiliation of Knowsley was not on the agenda which was circulated via email last week. So local groups had no time to discuss it at their local meetings. The first that many delegates knew about the Knowsley group was when they were told there had been unspecified “disagreements” between them and another group. When an antifascist comrade complained that “people have a right to know what the disagreements were about”, the chair then dismissed it as “Facebook gossip”. A vote was moved quickly, and known anti-fascists were not recognised by the chair, leaving them with no option but to break with procedure and speak out of turn. But the original offence was the political bias shown against a group she has labelled as “anarchists” and “troublemakers”. It should be added that the local bedroom tax movement was initiated by some of these anarchist troublemakers. But even if it hadn’t been, there can be no excuse for the committee’s anti-democratic behaviour.
To understand how this has happened, I think we need to take a step back. Though local bedroom tax groups have been organising since January, the idea of a federation took a couple of months to develop. When it did, it was pushed by long term activists of all ‘left’ persuasions, including “the anarchists”. It seemed a simple step forward – we would be stronger organised in greater numbers. But it was not particularly a demand ‘from below’.
At a local level, the majority of people attending bedroom tax meetings had been ‘non-activists’ – i.e. people not from a particularly political background who were either affected by the bedroom tax themselves, knew people who were, or were simply disgusted by yet another sickening government attack on vulnerable people. They enthusiastically took part in local organising, yet for the most part did not put themselves forward as delegates to federal meetings. I’ve personally been told “You know those people” and “you’re good at that sort of thing” by folk I’d only met a couple of weeks before. Knowing your way around political meetings is a type of privilege, and I quickly realised it contained the potential for abuse.
So at the meeting where the federation was officially established, a show of hands revealed that only one third were directly affected by the bedroom tax, whereas the proportion has always been much higher at local meetings. To put it another way – two thirds were long term political activists, each with a long list of friends and enemies. The current chair is fond of using her three decades plus of political struggle as a stick with which to beat newbies. In that sense, whereas some in the room might have known her since before I was born, I have only been involved for ten years, so what does that count for? Even more so, how much does coming into it last week because you’re scared of losing the roof over your head weigh, if you don’t know the ‘proper’ language and etiquette? And more importantly, what if your newcomer status prevents you from seeing political games for what they are?
I have no particular reason to suspect that any of these experienced people are insincere in their desire to defeat the government over the bedroom tax. But each has their own political philosophy shaped by their lifelong struggle, and each has friends and allies who want to take the anti-bedroom tax in a different direction. If these individuals want to build up a particular political party, or say the Unite Community Branch as well as the bedroom tax resistance, then they start to have interests separate to the people they are supposed to be representing. If you are a delegate who is elected to the committee it seems you have more scope to carry out those separate interests.
I can’t say specifically why the committee so desperately wanted the Knowsley fascist enablers to affiliate, but it does extend their influence further, while inflicting a painful defeat on “the anarchists”. This comes at the cost of alienating anyone with good reason to beware of being in a room with fascists, or those who associated with them.
Once the committee’s wishes had been made clear, they could be sure their friends and co-thinkers on the floor would back them. Remember, this accounted for a large proportion of the delegates. Others actually facing the bedroom tax have placed such high hopes in the federation, that they might have feared the repercussions of a row. And likely everyone who spoke in favour of affiliating Knowsley believes they have no particular reason to fear the fascists – they would all normally be considered ‘white’, and none are on the radar of the fascists concerned. That is reserved for those who are known to actively oppose them.
I’m afraid the federation is now a dead letter. It is acting more like a political party, with those at the top setting the agenda and dictating to those below. By giving fascists at least an indirect seat at the table, it has also alienated many who could have got involved with the organisation.
But people still need to struggle against the bedroom tax – it is a life and death struggle for many with nothing to lose but their chains. The struggle will go in in local groups, based on the solidarity of shared material interests – from which genuine political principles spring – and not shared political ideology. This is a decent precedent for this. As Danny Burns wrote in his book on the Poll Tax Rebellion, Militant (forerunner to Socialist Party) performed a bureaucratic takeover of the national federation, but:
“As a ‘federation’ it had no direct control over its member groups. It could pass policies and take initiatives, but it was up to the local groups whether they wanted to take part in them or not. Local groups had the power to do and say what they wanted, and the majority of groups who didn’t like the way the All-Britain Federation was organised simply ignored it. Given this, the problems of the All-Britain Federation were never seen as important enough to warrant splitting the movement.”
Full solidarity with those directly affected by the bedroom tax. I will see you in the struggle.