In the last council by-election in my ward, in Islington, north London, I voted for the Independent Working-Class Association.
I had my doubts, but the IWCA seemed to be making some effort to offer a working-class political perspective to the voters here — a corner of Islington which until recently was almost all big blocks of council and housing-association flats, and is still very heavily working-class, yet belongs electorally to the Liberal Democrats. The IWCA did well, coming third only 14 votes behind a competent New Labour candidate.
That was in January 2003. The IWCA’s literature for the current council elections makes me think I made a mistake then.
The big item in the IWCA’s latest election leaflet denounces New Labour for allegedly, on the doorsteps, calling the IWCA “racist”, and doorstep Lib-Dems for calling it “extreme right-wing”.
I know one of the IWCA candidates for the neighbouring ward, and she is a fine socialist, certainly not right-wing or racist. It’s unlikely her colleagues are.
But the way the IWCA responds to this alleged slur is to threaten legal action and to boast that they forced the Labour Party in Oxford to pay £30,000 to settle out of court because it had called the IWCA “extreme left-wing”.
So it’s a libel, likely to get you sued, to call the IWCA extreme-left or extreme-right? Equally a libel to call it either? What is it, then?
The IWCA leaflet says nothing about whether it is really left or right. It does say it is not racist, but only by way of quoting one of their people as saying (truly) that she was once an active campaigner against apartheid in South Africa. It says nothing about the IWCA’s stance on anything since apartheid ended in 1994. Nothing on asylum rights, a hot issue here.
The IWCA literature is mostly concerned with exposing the Liberal Democrats as double-dealers. You can see from it that the IWCA is against privatisation, but not what it is for — not whether it is socialist or anti-socialist.
It is “working-class” only in the sense of upholding “ordinary people” or “local people” against “the middle classes”.
To use “local people” as a synonym for “working class” is not innocent. This area used to be very much “old white working class”, with an astonishing number of people having relatives living close by. It is right next door to Hoxton, which in the late 1970s was the National Front’s stronghold. In the 1970s a Labour councillor for the ward went over directly to the NF.
The area has changed for the better. It is now much more cosmopolitan and much less racist. But it would be bold to say that the old racism has gone completely.
Close to the City, the area has had a lot of new private flats built in it, and there are plans for a lot more. The IWCA trades very heavily on hostility to that process.
Some of the hostility is reasonable. One of the sites now occupied by a block of private flats, for example, used to be our local library. I don’t think the hostility is racist. Some of it, however, is parochialist, conservative, narrow-minded.
You can oppose the destruction of libraries and other facilities without opposing new housing in this area. You can complain about much of the new housing being very expensive, and urge new council housing, without opposing new housing as such. It is positively desirable that more housing should be built in inner cities, instead of as commuter sprawl.
And “middle-class”? Most of the people in the private flats are workers, only a bit better off than us in the council blocks. To see them as the class enemy is to lock ourselves in a glum “us poor workers” self-pity, and let the real enemy off the hook.
Will an IWCA vote be a working-class political vote? Or a new version of the basis o which the Lib Dems won the ward in the 1980s, presenting themselves as rough-and-ready “local people” against the smarmy gits in the town hall?
I’ve ended up deciding to vote Labour. The Labour literature is no better (point one: more ASBOs and CCTV). But at least there’s something I can do in Labour Party channels, through my union, and with Labour people who are fighting Blair from the left, like the Labour Representation Committee.