Notes From the Margins…

The Return of the ‘Loony Left’

  • February 27, 2012
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You know a government is in trouble when it starts playing the reds under the bed card to distract attention from its own failings.   But there is a real element of absurdity as well as desperation in last week’s accusation by Chris Grayling that corporations were pulling out of the Coalition’s work experience schemes as a result of a defamatory campaign launched by the Socialist Workers Party.

There is no doubt that this is a government in dire need of a smokescreen.  Within the last week a number of major companies have withdrawn from the government’s work experience programme, following revelations that suggest the benefits system is being used as coercive instrument to provide companies with a source of cheap subsidised labour.

Grayling has accused the SWP of hacking his emails and claimed that ‘anti-capitalist extremists’ have frightened off the government’s corporate partners by misrepresenting its welfare-to-work programme.   Such accusations are laughable and contemptible.  Firstly, the campaign against the work experience scheme is a wide umbrella, of which the SWP is only one component.

The Right to Work campaign has trade union affiliates and support from across the country that includes the National Union of Teachers, the National Union of Journalists, the GMB, Unite and Unison.  One of the key stories that have brought the work experience programs to public attention is the court case against Poundland from Cait Reilly, an unemployed graduate, with no known political affiliations to any party.

Labour is also criticizing these programs, even though it started many of them itself.   Criticisms of the scheme have also come from within the government itself, in the shape of Lib Dem defence minister Nick Harvey’s leaked emails.

Secondly,   the idea that powerful corporations like Tescos, Sainsburys, Burger King and Poundland have been frightened away from doing the right thing by the SWP is laughable nonsense.  The reason these corporations have pulled out is because they do not want to be associated with a scheme that is so blatantly unfair and exploitative that they fear their customers might not be able to stomach it.

None of this prevented the Tory party’s media outlets from presenting a dire picture of the spectre that is now haunting the UK and destroying the dreams of the nation’s youth through their attempts to give them a decent wage.

On Saturday former-leftist-turned-rightwing-zealot Janet Daley reached into her own prehistoric militant past to pen one of those clumsily ironic Citizen Smith-style smears  that the British right never tires of,    in an article accusing an SWP ‘rent-a’mob’ of ‘browbeating retailers terrified of bad publicity.’  In yesterday’s Telegraph  Matthew d’Ancona  could be found condemning the “so-called ‘Right to Work’ campaigners” for opposing what he called “a ladder of hope for the unemployed from despair and worklessness to dignity and autonomy”.

In the Daily Mail  Melanie Phillips  entered the fray like the malignant ghost in The Woman in Black to denounce the SWP as “a marginal, far-Left revolutionary grouping of placard-toting obsessives and droning Marxist bores which until very recently had zero public impact except in the context of raucous and occasionally violent demonstrations”.

Never one to allow logic or common sense to obstruct her line of argument, Phillips,  blamed the new influence of the SWP on her bete noir – and employer – the BBC, which ” Day after day… gave them a platform, sanitising their true nature and unashamedly endorsing their message that the Government scheme was somehow immoral and unacceptable.”

The BBC also interviewed government ministers, including Chris Grayling and others who supported the programme, but never mind, it’s all another good day’s work for a writer who increasingly seems to inhabit some parallel dimension.

And today the Daily Mail  is back at the chalk face with some tough talk from Sir Stuart Rose, former head of Marks & Spencers, who claims that businesses have ‘shown a little less than backbone’ and not allow themselves to be intimidated by what the Mail calls

the scheme has been thrown into turmoil by protests led by a campaign group called Right to Work, which ministers say is nothing more than a front organisation for the hard-Left Socialist Workers Party. The SWP advocates the overthrow of capitalism via a Marxist revolution.

Well I’m truly shocked.   And now today’s Telegraph has  an article by Boris Johnson  entitled “the Loony Left, out to destroy youngsters hopes of a job”,  which excoriates these “so-called socialists” and goes on to argue

….the worst of it is that the companies themselves are taking fright. They don’t want to be thought of as silk top-hatted slave-drivers. They know that a spirit of anti-capitalism stalks the land, a fire-breathing beast that has shrivelled Stephen Hester’s bonus in its nostril-blast, and scorched Fred Goodwin’s knighthood, and now seeks whomever else it may devour.

If these denunciations of the ‘loony left’ are dishonest, the faux-concern for the nation’s ‘youngsters’ is also quite sickeningly hypocritical.   Because whether campaigners against the government’s welfare-to-work schemes want to bring down capitalism or whether they don’t, their criticisms focus on a very simple principle; namely,  that if someone works they should be paid a fair wage for the work they do and they should not be pressured into doing jobs that they don’t want to do.

This principle is not limited to the SWP.   Even Tescos agrees with this (now at least), and has proposed to the Government that it pay trainees for job placements,  with a “guaranteed job placement at the end of it, provided they complete the placement satisfactorily”.

But Johnson’s anxieties about “the spirit of anti-capitalism” get to the heart of the government’s phony Red Scare.   Ever since it came to power the Coalition has been shamelessly using the deficit crisis as a lever to wedge open the public sector, whether it’s the NHS, the education system or workfare programs.

Once the ‘Big Society’ acted as a smokescreen; now it looks merely like an obsolete marketing exercise.

On almost every level, the Coalition’s real intentions are becoming visible,  from its discredited NHS bill and the resignation of its tarnished ‘family champion’ Emma Harrison the head of A4e, to the revelations of the  love affair  between education secretary Michael Gove and Rupert Murdoch, who is looking to take advantage of the Coalition’s academies programme.

In these circumstances,  it is really no surprise at all  that the government has decided to take refuge in the smear and the lie, and bring back the old clichés from the 1980s, and they were stale enough even then.

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  1. James O'Nions

    27th Feb 2012 - 1:46 pm

    While I basically agree with your argument Matt, I would say that its certainly true that the Right to Work campaign is dominated by the SWP, in that its day-to-day operations are largely run by them, and its mobilisations are made up of their members, even if they’ve also got national unions signed up as well. Its also a shame that the Boycott Workfare campaign, which was working on the issue before the Right to Work campaign and which has done some excellent work, has recieved less attention in the last few days – I guess for one thing its easy for the right to bash a campaign with a more obvious ‘loony left’ bogey man.

    • Matt

      27th Feb 2012 - 2:34 pm

      It certainly is easy James. And the ‘reds under the bed’ narratives aren’t only directed at the SWP of course. The Boycott Workfare campaigners would undoubtedly also fit the Coalition’s generic category of ‘anti-capitalist extremists’.

      The SWP are merely a convenient peg to hang this particular coat on.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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