Posted by: VM | 6 May 2010


Robin Sivapalan reflects on the choice in today’s general election. Please feel free to join the debate.

As Lenin’s famous book once asked – just over 100 years ago – “What is to be Done?”.

That book has rightfully served as something of a text book, up to today, for us communists trying to understand quite how it was that the Russian Revolution came to pass; how it was that the most democratic series of events in history happened there (and why not elsewhere?). And how we can help make a revolutionary today. The main authors of that revolution tell their own story and answer those questions – well worth reading, or beginning reading in a week like this. Might even treat it as something urgent, what with the great workers’ protests in Greece. Might even redeem this depressing day of indifferent voting for three bosses‘ parties, in this sham of a democracy.

In the run up to May Day, International Workers’ Day, I avoided writing a planned newsletter as if I was approaching a school deadline. Difficult to know what to say out of everything to be said, how to pitch it – and to pluck up the courage and luck to feel in the mood to write it. In the end it has gone down quite well, all 200 copies. It’s named, after my response to a startling dawn chorus that ended a night of mephedrone, the “Assembly of Birds“…

The opening article is from a month ago, then aimed at a group of fellow Vestas campaigners: “Why would I vote? They’re all the same and they’re all shit”. It ends up saying a Vote for Mark Chiverton is “a vote for ourselves, and our readiness to organise and fight – not a vote for New Labour”. Doesn’t read so strangely by the end of that article, I’m sure.


When I was doing my GCSEs, Tony Blair ousted the rather dull John Major. I don’t remember it as a big event, and then everyone seemed to vote Labour. I didn’t personally know any Tory voters I’m pretty sure. After A-levels, including an A-level in history covering Britain and Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries, I assumed I would be a Lib Dem voter, because if Labour were left-wing, and Tories right-wing, then I must be centre… I’m pretty sure my first vote in 2001 was for a Lib Dem; they seemed pretty reasonable, straightforward and honest.

From moment go at university I got involved in the movement opposing tuition fees and up to this day, obviously, every social battle I’ve got involved in (a few of which you can see my facebook groups for) has been in opposition to a vile New Labour government that I have hated with a passion for years. I credit them for nothing.


Well, actually today I credit them for betrayal, and working-class disillusionment with labour, and spent all day yesterday outside the Somerfield in Ryde, most of it working with Tony Kelly the secretary of the Ryde Trade Union Council, handing out leaflets and posters for Mark Chiverton…. And Tony hates the Labour Party more than I do; it’s a favourite catchphrase from his father: “the workers wanted socialism and the rich gave us the Labour Party”.

I basically explained it to people like this: “Mark is the secretary of Unison, the only union that seems to be growing on the island, its biggest union, and the one that fights the best. Where we’re promised more public service cuts from all the parties, the best thing you could do with a vote now, here on the island, is to show support for a union secretary who represents council workers and health workers. He is respected by the people he represents and the people who know him. We need unions desperately on the island, where most people seem to be on zero-hour contracts, minimum-wage seasonal work, irregular shift-work, treated like shit; a vote for mark is a sign that people want and support our unions.

The alternative is people having to live off meagre benefits. It’s simple to see that it is much more of a guarantee of a roof over your head, week in week out, to stay on benefits, where the work is so unreliable and the childcare so expensive. (And worth saying that while they all seem the same, none of the other parties would have introduced child tax credits and working tax credits, that actually have made people’s lives easier, or Sure Start, and the Lib Dems even opposed the National Minimum Wage!)

We need unions in the Hotel and Catering sector, in construction, and stronger unions everywhere on this island. Mark came daily during the Vestas occupation and gave his full support to the demands the un-unionised workers decided themselves. That’s what I like about Mark, he may work too hard as though it’s all his responsibility, but he does get out and support workers fighting on their own terms, on their own steam. And he has the best record standing by the people fighting for skilled, well-paid jobs across the island – the ones we‘ve got and the thousands more we need.

For me the elections aren’t the most important thing. A system of voting every five years for some party that you don’t have any accountability over is not democracy, not how things should be run. The most democratic institutions on a day to day basis are the trade unions, and most of them, some 5 million workers, even now after Thatcher, are affiliated to the Labour Party. If we wanted to get rid of New Labour and its policies, we could do it through our unions, but we don’t. We let our trade union leaders get away with supporting anti-worker policies in the Labour Party. Even if there needs to be a new workers party, then that will entail booting out the union leaders that have helped gut the Labour Party, as well as the Blairites and Brownites.

But the Lib Dems and the Tory Party don’t even have those structures, and certainly don’t have that history. Over a hundred years ago working-class people realised they couldn’t beg favours from the two existing parties – the Liberals who represented the factory owners and the merchants, or the Tories that represented to the land-owners. Workers needed their own party and could actually elect workers to represent their fellow workers. Labour still has those ties to a working-class base, however much Tony Blair has tried to sever that link. The unions and local labour parties could decide what their party in government does, but we’ve allowed them to do the bidding of the bosses.

I think Unison is pretty much the main opposition on the island to the Tories, not the Lib Dems actually. I like Jill Wareham, I think she believes in what she’s doing, I don’t think she’s cynical, she’s a member of Unison and has been on the right side of things. But the point isn’t to vote for who you like most, or even (perhaps a surprising thing to say) the party with the “best policies“. The point about voting for Mark is that he is part of the organised workers’ movement and works on behalf of all workers, he supports the labour policies that our unions have as their policy – public services, socially useful employment for all, council housing, taxing the rich… so-called old Labour politics” ….


A few other topics kept on recurring, especially immigration, which I’ve covered in that newsletter.

It is bizarre in a place where there are so few non-white people, that people have a collective delusion that immigration is a big issue. I can only put it down to a deep-rooted racism and xenophobia fostered by all the parties, and a Labour government that has been the architect of a violent border and immigration machinery worthy of fascists. It’s ironic in a place that allowed Vestas to shut down (and which fought for only about a month to save one of the biggest employment sources on the island), that people have immigration on the tips of their tongues, especially where they’re talking to me whose parents are clearly not from this country.

As it happens, I’ve spent the best part of a couple of years setting up the Campaign Against Immigration Controls, now called “No One is Illegal”, so I know a bit about the subject. Put simply, we defend the right of all people to live and work and move around the world… and say it‘s a racist system that criminalises people on the basis of their nationality, criminalises migration. That partly informed the ‘Assembly of Birds’ idea: no one stops birds from migrating. If people are concerned about undercutting of wages, they might get beyond their bigotry and stand together with migrant workers so everyone can work on a decent wage, a realisation that trade unions have reluctantly and belatedly come to with each wave of migrants over the centuries, Irish, Jewish, Commonwealth and EU. If we want to deal with the real causes of shortages in housing and inadequate services, we might fight for public ownership of these services being run for private profit (like Southern Vectis, run by the former island Lib Dem Council Leader, John Morgan-Hughes).

The EU:

On a related note, the EU is apparently another big cause of discontent. Why exactly? People don’t want to be ‘dictated to by Brussels’. My feeling is that the workers of Europe might well cheer Britain getting out Europe, because it is the British members who are the driving force of privatisation of European public services and the bosses agenda in Europe. Where the EU have passed better legislation for workers, like maximum working hours and rights for temporary and agency workers, Britain has exempted British workers from benefiting! The ’EU’ is not the problem, our right wing government is. We’d do better to forging links of solidarity with European workers, for a workers’ Europe, which would be a massive step forward. The idea of retreating to glorious isolation is wishful, dead-end thinking. Demanding accountability, and forging our own grass-roots links with working-class organisations around Europe, is the way to deal with the bosses’ European Union machine. Migration, travel, forming international perspectives and identity is a good thing. Better than resurrecting national myths with all their vileness. Nationslism is the main tool that the national governments use to keep ‘their’ people in line. If we took a leaf out of the French and Greek and Italian book, workers would be much better off. If we were united in struggle across Europe, the world would be a different place. Instead the right-wing media fuel ignorance and small-mindedness, and all the parties do the fascists’ work and talk of British Jobs for British workers.

On tactical voting to keep the Tories out. Why would the Lib Dems be any better? No-one even knows what the Lib Dems stand for, with their chameleon policy. Who cares what a group of self-appointed would-be middle-class rulers say they think. When it comes to defending our public services, we will need our unions and working-class direct action, not finely produced words. In this once in five year pantomime, one good ting we could do is register a class vote, a vote for fellow working-class people who are going to need to rally together on the island, across the country, and across the world, to ensure that we will not pay for the bosses’ and bankers’ crisis. We’ve got to assert our own agenda for job creation and public services and organise workers’ self-government to replace the rule of the rich. Any better system will have at its core common ownership, cooperative work, human equality, universal rights and freedoms and solidarity in struggle. A vote for the Lib Dems is a million miles removed from achieving this reality. A vote for the representative of the public service union, is a small step towards it.


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