Saturday, June 25, 2011

Alf Filer: loss of a stalwart comrade

SAD news to start this weekend. Alf Filer, a comrade whom I had known since the 1980s, has been killed in a road traffic incident. His car broke down on the A27 and another vehicle drove into it.

I first met Alf in 1982, in the wake of the Israeli bombing and invasion of Lebanon, and the Sabra and Chatila massacres, when I went to a crowded meeting in Brixton Town Hall, to launch the Labour Committee on Palestine. Despite the strong feelings of outrage over Israeli action and solidarity with the Palestinian people, which had brought people there, it became clear there were differences over the PLO, and the Israeli peace movement, and how to tackle Zionism. Worse, these issues were entangled with the interminable divisions in the British Left, and some complicated background intrigue.

Alf made a passionate appeal for unity, reminding us why we were there, and asking what the Palestinians left in the camps would say if they could see us bickering He was heckled and jeered. He proposed a fellow member of Brent Labour Party, Mike Heiser, for the steering committee, and myself, like Mike a member of the Jewish Socialists' Group. He also proposed Tony Greenstein and Andrew Hornung, who had been among the LCP's founders. But they rejected this conciliatory gesture, and took part in a walk-out.

Within a week the LCP was under attack in the capitalist press, which focused on Lambeth council leader Ted Knight and supposed irregularities, and in Socialist Organiser, then being taken over by Sean Matgamna (now elder thinker of the Alliance for Workers Liberty). Alf had explained to me that the odd upheaval in the LCP was related to a manouvre by Matgamna, evolving a pro-Zionist position, against his erstwhile allies who were fiercely "anti-Zionist". It was all a bit complicated, as myself and Mike Heiser found when denounced by Zionists brandishing Socialist Organiser and demanding we answer allegations it made.

The Labour Committee on Palestine survived, although the Palestinian cause within the Labour movement was weakened by the persistent in-fighting and rivalries to which genuine differences and discussion on the Middle East often seemed subordinate. Our leading figure Ken Livingstone, seldom able to attend meetings because he was busy running the Greater London Council, went on to become Labour MP for Brent East, and Alf Filer was a stalwart of the campaign that put him there.

I met Alf again when, with other JSG members, I was asked to help him steward a Labour Party public meeting in Brondesbury with both Livingstone and his predecessor Reg Freeson speaking. When Alf had stood as a council candidate in Cricklewood, the Zionists ran a campaign against him. During this Brondesbury by-election the Tories produced an eve-of-poll leaflet aimed at Jewish voters, saying "A Vote for Labour is a Vote for the PLO!", attacking Alf by name even though he was not the Labour candidate. The election was actually fought on issues like nursery places and Kilburn baths, and Labour increased its majority by eleven per cent. The Palestinian general delegation in London did not take up my suggestion of a press release saying "11% Swing to PLO in Brondesbury!"

At that meeting, Alf had suggested I join the Brent East Labour Party. I found this piquantly amusing, as I'd been expelled in that very constituency, and ward, in 1964, Reg Freeson having been among my antagonists. But as I pointed out to Alf I was no longer living in the area. When I did return to Brent, some years later, I joined the new Socialist Alliance, and found myself working with former Labour Party secretary Alf Filer, and some of his former fellow officers, for the Alliance's candidate in the 2003 Brent East by-election. Alas though there was a lot of feeling against the Blair government because of the Iraq war, a lot of working class Labour voters simply did not vote, and the anti-war vote chiefly went to the Liberal Democrat Sarah Teather, who managed to keep the constituency and is now in the Con Dem government.

It was during that by-ection that Labour's hard man John Reid misguidedly turned up in Alf's road with two of his minders. We were supping tea at the time, but Alf flew out of the house and gave then Health Secretary Reid a mouthful about things happening in local hospitals. After a short exchange, during which Reid evidently mistook us for supporters of Arthur Scargill's party and blamed Scargill for the death of mining communities ("That was Thatcher," I replied. "But I forgot - you've joined her!), the minister and minders climbed back into the ministerial limo and sped off).

Alas, the Socialist Alliance which had seen such promising starts and recruited such serious people as Alf, was not to last. But he did not just drift off. Alf had his family to cope with. He had teenage offspring starting work. He was in hospital for a bit. But it was a brief interruption. As a college lecturer at Harrow he was among the first people to start campaigning against cuts and closures in the area, spurring us on the Brent Trades Union Council to get involved.

When the EDL said they were coming to Harrow to march against a new mosque, Alf played a leading part in mobilising opposition, encouraging his students and fellow teachers to turn out for the big counter-demonstration, at which he spoke, and making sure the fascists were seen off, having got nowhere near the mosque.

After the Israeli assault on the Gaza freedom flotilla and killings on the Mave Marmara, Alf came down to Whitehall with us to join the angry demonstration, and lost no time in joining those speaking from an improvised platform on top of a London bus. "Who is that speaking?" asked a friend. I could not see, but I recognised the voice. "It's Alf". "For what organisation?" "Just Alf". Never mind, it was no time for ceremony.

I was surprised when I heard recently that Alf had moved to the south coast, and sedate Worthing at that, but sure enough he was not going into quiet retirement. Last week I was at a conference in the TUC's Congress House and a man spoke about reviving the Worthing Trades Union Council. I went over to tell him about my friend Alf Filer, and sure enough, the union activist had already been contacted by Alf who was getting active locally about cuts and the NHS.

We have been deprived of a stalwart comrade.

Alf Filer Socialist Resistance - Coalition of the Resistance - Activists Meeting - 02.09.10

Alf Filer for Jews Against Zionism at Gaza Flotilla massacre rally

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