Steve Bannon has been dismissed as the fallout from Charlottesville continues, Sarah Champion has resigned and recent strike success has shown what's possible
Let’s begin with a topic previously covered by Lindsey in last week’s briefing: the turmoil in US politics following far-right demonstrations in Charlottesville, Viriginia, and the killing of anti-racist protester Heather Heyer. There have been two major developments since then. One is the backlash against the neo-Nazis and white supremacists, which has taken the form of protests in many parts of the US. The other is the sacking of Steve Bannon – previously one of President Trump’s closest aides - which has focused attention on the growing chaos in the White House.
These two developments – one on the streets, one in the corridors of political power in Washington DC – may seem far removed, yet they are closely connected. Bannon symbolised the links between the Trump administration and the hard racist Right in American politics, coyly referred to as the ‘alt-right’. The timing of his dismissal is no accident. It follows directly on from the widespread revulsion at not only the protests by racists brandishing Confederate flags and sometimes swastikas, but also at Trump’s hugely controversial reaction to the protests. The tortuous wait for the president – normally so impulsive in his rapid-response tweeting – to respond to these events (especially the killing of Heyer) was compounded by his attempts to suggest a moral equivalence between the far right and those opposing them.
Trump therefore came under enormous pressure. This had its origins in the streets and found an echo in statements from politicians, including senior Republicans, and in media coverage. It adds to the sense of an administration going off the rails, with Bannon just the latest in a line of resignations and sackings. Trump’s national security adviser Michael Flynn resigned in February, then FBI director James Comey was sacked in May. A month ago the much-derided Sean Spicer quit as press secretary, swiftly followed by the departure of Reince Preibus as chief of staff then Anthony Scaramucci (after just 10 days in post) as director of communications.
All of this means Trump is weak, but that doesn’t stop him from being dangerous. A protest in London on Saturday expressed solidarity with those protesting against racism and fascism in the US, but also took a stand against Trump’s threats of military aggression against North Korea. Trump’s racism has been no great surprise, but his foreign policy was more unpredictable when he was elected last November. It is now abundantly clear that any ‘isolationist’ rhetoric counted for nothing.
The US witnessed some of its biggest demonstrations in decades around the Trump inauguration in January and, shortly afterwards, the racist travel ban (a policy which Bannon was believed to be instrumental in formulating). Women, black people and young people have been to the fore in these waves of protest and again in the fresh upsurge of revolt in the last couple of weeks. The huge Boston march at the weekend, which reportedly saw anti-racists outnumber the racists by ten to one, offers a template for rolling back the far right while also challenging the Trump administration: a big, broad, diverse and united demonstration. If protests are also directed at Trump’s dangerous foreign policies, the movements will become even more effective.
It’s good that Champion is gone
Elements of the far right are also trying to stir up trouble in this country – more specifically in Newcastle, where I am based. Groups like the English Defence League want to exploit the horrendous cases of sexual abuse and exploitation in the city that have recently been reported. Racists everywhere got a boost from an unlikely quarter: as Lindsey discussed last week, the shadow women and equalities minister Sarah Champion wrote an outrageous article in The Sun that unapologetically pinned sexual exploitation on British Pakistani men.
However, anti-racists took heart from her subsequent removal. Although she resigned, it is clear that Jeremy Corbyn gave her little choice – and it followed considerable pressure from anti-racists inside and outside the Labour Party. It was especially good to see over 100 MPs signing a statement which condemned a Sun article by Trevor Kavanagh, a veteran of the paper, which referred to ‘the Muslim Problem’. The whole episode was a reminder that dangerous rhetoric from politicians combined with scare stories in the right-wing press can legitimise racism. But the backlash – and Champion’s resignation – also pointed to the existence of anti-racist opposition .
I’ve spoken with many activists in Newcastle, where we are currently organising protests to stop the far right building out of the racist backlash, and there was a mixture of bafflement and anger towards Champion: bafflement at why she would write for The Sun, anger about what she wrote. There has been a welcome leftwards shift in the Labour Party in the last two years, but Champion’s remarks were a powerful reminder that there are still shamelessly opportunistic Labour MPs, willing to pander to the most backward sentiments.
The racism associated with some responses to the Newcastle trials is a political issue, but the sexual abuse exposed by the trials is also political. It directs attention to the appalling levels of sexual abuse and violence in our society, which feeds off wider social problems of poverty and sexism (accentuated by the impact of cuts on safeguarding, social care and services for vulnerable women and girls).
Champion’s focus on the ethnicity of perpetrators distracts attention from the real problems and makes it much harder to address them. The approach adopted by activists in Newcastle is very different. We are building a major demonstration on Saturday 9 September, which – as well as confronting the EDL – will link opposition to sexual abuse and the conditions that allow it to happen with a principled stand against racism.
Green shoots of workers’ resistance
Perhaps the best news of the week was the victory for the Birmingham bin workers. Their strike was in response to cuts of £5 million to the city’s refuse collection services. Workers took action against the threat of pay cuts, job losses and changes to shift patterns. The threat of extending the strike action seems to have triggered a climbdown by council leaders. There could yet to be a return to industrial action if the new deal that’s negotiated isn’t good enough, but the latest news nonetheless represents a leap forward.
When we think about the trade unions there is a paradox. Jeremy Corbyn is hugely popular, the left is surging and the Labour Party is rejuvenated. Socialism is back on the political agenda. Yet the trade unions - traditionally central to socialists' hopes for social change - recently recorded yet another fall in membership.
Yet again, the most recent annual figures for strike days were very low by historical standards. Since the early 1990s there hasn’t been a single year in which the official annual tally of strike days has exceeded two million. There is a contradiction between the political boom for the left and the continuing low levels of combativity in the workplaces. At some point this needs to change.
The bin workers’ dispute is a glimpse of what is possible. So is the recent victory for cleaners and other support staff at SOAS in London – a long-running campaign in which low-paid migrant workers were central. Another group of low-paid workers – in two branches (Crayford and Cambridge) of the fast food multinational McDonald’s – are currently set for strike action. The 95.7% yes vote will mean the first ever strike by McDonald’s workers in this country. Perhaps we are starting to see some tentative green shoots of a revival in workplace militancy.
Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union.
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