Taking the Rise out of London
"I TOLD YOU SO". Not quite. I didn't anticipate how far the RCP would go, but even so many comrades felt my warnings against them in 1986 were unfair.
IT was the Rise festival in Finsbury Park on Sunday, and with a friend's partner leading one highly-rated group on the programme, I might have volunteered to help on a stall. But I did not go, there was no stall for me to help on, because unions and left-wing groups that have supported the event in previous years decided to pull out.
Rise was no ordinary music festival. As Megan Dobney, Trade Union Congress(TUC) regional secretary for London, the South East and East, reminds us in the latest SERTUC news bulletin, "The Rise festival, established by the TUC in the late 90s following the MacPherson enquiry after the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence by racists, carried a strongly anti-racist message to participants with the strapline 'London United Against Racism'."
Taken over by Ken Livingstone as Mayor of London, the festival was called "Respect" until George Galloway started a political party with that name. It was supposed to celebrate London's diversity and bring people together, young people especially, to reject racism and fascism while enjoying the fun of the fair, the food, drink and music.
With London's political hue changing, in the shape of new Tory mayor Boris Johnson, the south-east region TUC (SERTUC) approached the Greater London Authority to ask if Rise would still go ahead. They were assured that Boris intended to honour his predecessor's commitment to what seemed like a tradition. Subject to some budgetary restrictions, Rise would go ahead, with its anti-racist theme. Plans included the big trade union stalls section Union City, the Latin American stage sponsored by my union Unite with the Cuba Solidarity Campaign, and an African Village sponsored by Unison.
So what happened?
As Megan tells us, Boris Johnson's newly appointed adviser, Munira Mirza, "Director of Policy, Arts, Culture and the Creative Industries', to give her full title, contacted the Cuba Solidarity Campaign to say its participation was not welcome. Next, she said the National Assembly Against Racism (NAAR), which worked with SERTUC, would no longer be a partner in the event, and its volunteers were not required. And there we were thinking the campaign against the previous mayor's adviser, Lee Jasper, was just about him and his job, and nothing to do with his background! Jasper was secretary of NAAR when Livingstone enlisted him. NAAR ws supportive of Livingstone. But it also strongly supported the Lawrence family campaign.
Munira Mirza said the Rise festival's anti-racist message was being dropped.
The news was welcomed as a victory by Richard Barnbrook, the British National Party's man on the Greater London Assembly.
Unison at its annual conference carried an emergency motion to withdraw from the festival, and other unions, including Unite, the Communication Workers Union, the Fire Brigades Union and the University and Colleges Union followed suit. The Jewish Socialists' group wrote to the festival organisers to say it would not be requiring a stall this year, but looked forward to participating in future when the anti-racist character was restored.
Munira Mirza herself has a curious background. She was in the Manifesto club, one of the current manifestations of the late Revolutionary Communist Party(RCP), publishers of the glossy magazine 'Living Marxism', or 'LM' as it became known. Back in the 1980s this then trendy outfit, originating in a split from the Socialist Workers Party(SWP), and nicknamed "the SWP with hair gel", recruited young students to its front "East London Workers Against Racism" in the belief they were assisting people to defend themselves against racist attacks. Later it formed South London Workers Against Racism, and a spokesperson appeared on television claiming they were encouraging young black people in Brixton to riot. (The Metropolitan Police had been claiming left-wing groups were behind the trouble, but produced no evidence, and did not follow up the RCP boasting). But Munira Mirza says minorities in London don't need special help, and racism is not a big issue.
The RCP drew antagonism and suspicion on itself from the Left when it called on the NUM to ballot members when their strike was already raging. It also campaigned against Lambeth's left-wing Labour council. Over the years it kept coming up with "radical" arguments for right-wing policies - saying workers should not resist privatisation or defend their union's right to maintain political funds. In November 1986, when I challenged the RCP's 'left-wing' credentials as it stood a candidate in the Knowsley by-election, some of my friends and comrades thought I was being unfair and engaging in "slanders" (though none of the factual points I made was disputed).
(see Workers Press, issues November 15, 22, 29, 1986 for this controversy).
By 1997, Living Marxism had infamously denied Serb nationalist war crimes in Bosnia (its Balkan 'expert' Joan Hoey went on to join the Economist Intelligence Unit), and the RCP supported disgraced Tory Neil Hamilton in his vain effort to hold his Tatton seat against war correspondent Martin Bell who took it as an independent.
Having moved ever more openly to right-wing 'libertarian' policies, the RCP no longer exists, except in the minds of some contrbutors to 'Harry's Place' and other websites, either behind the times or anxious to keep it as a "left-wing" bogy. But it has given rise to a number of offshoots such as the Institute of Ideas, and the Manifesto club, which says "Our aim is to bring together individuals whose ideas don’t necessarily fit into the politics of left and right, but who believe in developing people’s creativity and knowledge".
Well one of these individuals, Munira Mirza has had no trouble fitting her ideas with the politics of the right, not just those of Boris Johnson, but of Richard Barnbrook.
Whenever we came into contact with the RCP in the past, we got the feeling that maybe they were indulging in some kind of joke, albeit sometimes a bit sick. Maybe this time Munira Mirza is taking the Rise out of London and its anti-racist Left.
But perhaps what happened to Rise isn't altogether a bad thing. Finsbury Park, besides being a venue for festivals, is the home of the RMT branch organising low-paid cleaners, many of them immigrants, fighting for a living wage and better conditions on the London Underground. Now we are learning that fighting racism is about class struggle, not cosying up to the mayor for an annual music fest, we can go fight City Hall knowing the gloves are off.