Category Archives: US domestic politics

“It is worse, much worse, than you think”: David Wallace-Wells interview

“It is worse, much worse, than you think”: David Wallace-Wells interview
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
5 March 2019

“It is worse, much worse, than you think.” So begins The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future, David Wallace-Wells’s brilliant new book on the existential threat of climate change which, judging by its frightening contents, should be placed next to Stephen King in the horror section of every bookshop.

“I don’t come to it with a life of attachment to environmental causes”, Wallace-Wells, 36, tells me when I ask him about his initial interest in the subject when we met in a central London hotel last month. “Five years ago I would have said climate change was an important issue and we should be addressing it but I didn’t understand it was a totalising challenge that actually governed all of the other political goals that we might have in this world.”

He says he has been “completely transformed” by his research and writing on climate, which received national and international attention with his 2017 article in New York Magazine, where he is Deputy Editor. Quoting climate scientists, the article – which has the same title as the book – looked at some of the likely effects of the worst-case scenarios in terms of global temperature rise. It became the most read article in the history of the publication. “There was a vocal minority of scientists who took issue with it”, Wallace-Wells concedes. “So I wanted to really rigorously focus the book on a smaller range possible outcomes. In the article I was talking about warming up to 5, 6 and even 8°C. In the book I mention those levels a couple of times but it’s very much focused on 2°C to 4°C, which is inarguably the boundaries of reasonable contemplation.”

For the uninitiated, these figures refer to the increase in global temperature on pre-industrial levels. The world has already experienced a 1°C increase. At the 2015 UN climate conference in Paris the 195 signatory nations pledged to keep global warming to “well below” 2°C and “endeavour to limit” them to 1.5°C. However, speaking to the Morning Star in 2016, the respected climate scientist Professor Kevin Anderson explained the commitments made at the summit would likely lead to 3-4°C of global warming by 2100.

Despite the book’s narrower focus, its conclusions – based on hundreds of references to the latest scientific research – are still horrifying. “Warming of 3 or 3.5 degrees would unleash suffering beyond anything that humans have ever experienced”, Wallace-Wells writes. And just to scare you further, it’s important to understand that the larger the temperature increase, the more likely feedback mechanisms and the sheer complexity of the world’s climate system will lead to runaway climate change that humanity will be unable to control.

“At 4°C of warming we will have made inevitable the total collapse of all the ice sheets on the planet, which will mean, over time, at least 50 and probably 80 metres of sea level rise”, he tells me. “That will take centuries to unfold but it will mean millions of square miles of coastline underwater, many of the world’s biggest cities completely drowned” and “will literally redraw the map of the world and make the planet unrecognisable in many, many ways.”

Turning to the dire effects of heat, he notes “it’s possible as soon as 2050, when we will be at about 2°C of warming or a little bit warmer than that, that many of the major cities in India and the Middle East will be lethally hot in summer. You won’t be able to reliably go outside, work outside during the summer months without incurring some lethal risk.”

He believes this will contribute to an unprecedented global refugee crisis, and notes in 2017 the UN estimated climate change might create as many as a billion climate refugees by 2050 – “which is as many people as today live in North and South America combined.” He is careful to qualify this, explaining the UN’s estimate is very much at the high-end of projections: “Even if we only get to 75 million 100 million that’s a refugee crisis many times bigger than anything with ever seen before”.

The evidence points to “dramatic” economic impacts too, he argues. “The best research suggests at about 4°C of warming we will be dealing with the global economy… that was 30 per cent smaller than it would be without climate change. That is an impact twice as big as the Great Depression. And it would be permanent.”

With the effects of climate change so serious and all-encompassing, the environmental movement has long debated how best to present the facts and dangers to the general public in a way that will engender engagement and action. The consensus, in the UK at least, has been for messaging fixed around notions of hope and positive visions of the future. For example, speaking at a World Development Movement public event in 2008 Green MP Caroline Lucas argued “the rhetoric of fear and disaster and tipping points is deeply scary, and it’s deeply unhelpful.”

“It doesn’t work to try to terrify people in to action”, she continued.

Wallace-Wells, as readers of his book will attest, takes a very different position: “As I look out at the world it just strikes me that although there are some people who are at risk of being pushed into despair and fatalism, the number of people who are living complacently in the modern world about climate is just so much bigger.”

Careful not to dismiss hopefulness and optimism – “anything that sticks” is good – he points to the history of environmental activism and political mobilisation to back up his argument. The influential role Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring had in banning DDT pesticide, drunk driving and anti-smoking campaigns – all of these successes were not accomplished “by messaging optimistically and talking about hope” but were based on fear and alarm, he argues.

He also points to the historic recommendation of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change last year – that to stay below a 1.5°C temperature increase the world must immediately embark on a World War II-level mobilisation to shift away from fossil fuels. “There were threads of hope and optimism that was part of that [the mobilisation in World War Two] but there was also, obviously, a lot of fear and panic and alarm about what would happen if we didn’t mobilise”, he says.

While The Uninhabitable Earth is certainly alarming, Wallace-Wells himself is hopeful about the future in many ways, highlighting new activism such as Extinction Rebellion and 16-year old Swede Greta Thunberg and the global school strikes she has inspired.

He also points to significant shifts in US public opinion, with a recent Yale University/George Mason  University survey finding six in ten Americans were either “alarmed” or “concerned” about climate change, with the proportion of people “alarmed” having doubled since 2013.

Turning to US politics, he is excited that the Democratic Party is “effectively and totally” signed on to the Green New Deal, the proposed economic stimulus programme that reiterates the goals of the UN to hold global warming to 1.5°C. Mirroring what happened with Heathrow expansion and UK politics in the mid-2000s, he notes the Green New Deal has become “a kind of litmus test for any Democratic candidate” for president, with climate change likely to be a first order priority alongside healthcare and education in the Democratic primaries.

”I even think that will impact the Republican Party over time”, he predicts.

Looking at the big picture, in the book Wallace-Wells maintains the climate chaos which is now upon us “has been the work of a single generation.” The generation coming of age today faces a very different and essential task, he believes: “the work of preserving our collective future, forestalling… devastation and engineering an alternate path.”

“We are living in incredibly consequential times. What we do now politically, culturally, economically will determine the – not to put it too bluntly – that habitability of the planet going forward”, he tells me. “Humans have never been in that position before, never held that kind of power in our hands before.”

The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future is published by Allen Lane, priced £20.

Book review. The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future by David Wallace-Wells

Book review. The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future by David Wallace-Wells
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
28 February 2019

Clearly intended to shock, last month the Guardian published a report titled Climate Risks ‘Similar To 2008 Financial Crash’.

The problem with this formulation, to partially quote the soon to be iconic first sentence of The Uninhabitable Earth, is that “it is worse, much worse” than this.

“What climate change has in store is not… a Great Recession or a Great Depression but, in economic terms, a Great Dying”, David Wallace-Wells, Deputy Editor of New York Magazine, argues.

The 2016 United Nations Paris Agreement, which aims to limit warming to an increase of 2°C on pre-industrial levels, gave hope to many. Wallace-Wells injects a dose of frightening realism into the debate, noting all the commitments made at the summit by the 195 signatories would still mean 3.2°C of warming by 2100. And most terrifyingly of all, as of 2018 “not a single major industrial nation was on track to fulfil the commitments it made in the Paris treaty”, he explains.

What does all this mean? “Warming of 3 or 3.5°C degrees would unleash suffering beyond anything that humans have ever experienced”.

The twelve chapters which make up the core of the book flesh out this alarming reality, looking at how climate change is raising sea-levels, increasing wildfires and disease, reducing crop yields, killing the oceans and making conflicts more likely. An expansion of his 2017 magazine article that went viral, he is right when he says this section contains “enough horror to induce a panic attack in even the most optimistic”.

For example, he notes the planet has experienced a fiftyfold increase in the number of dangerous heatwaves since 1980.” Even if warming is limited to an increase of 2°C, big cities in the Global South like Karachi and Kolkata “will become close to uninhabitable”, contributing to a massive increase in refugees. A 4°C increase will mean the European heat wave of 2003, which killed 35,000 people, “will be a normal summer.”

Frustratingly, when the mainstream media reports on climate change it invariably uses 2100 as the end point for projections. In contrast, Wallace-Wells inconveniently highlights that the death and destruction will not end there. Infact, some observers call the 100 years after 2100 “the century of hell.”

A necessary and urgent wake-up call, The Inhabitable Earth is the most important book about climate change since Naomi Klein’s 2014 This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. But while Klein focused on the ideology of economic growth as the central driver of climate change, the topic is largely – and strangely – absent from Wallace-Wells’ work. And though he emphasises how climate change is “the biggest threat human life on the planet has ever faced”, highlighting the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s push for an immediate global mobilisation on the scale of World War Two, exactly how people should organise to stop climate change is also not something he dwells on.

“I think there just has to be an energetic mass popular movement”, was US academic Noam Chomsky’s recent take on the necessity of large-scale activism on climate change. Likewise, Klein recently tweeted three central questions for assessing the candidates in the upcoming 2020 US Presidential election: “1. Who best understands that anything short of transformative action on climate is tantamount to genocide? 2. Who, if elected, will be most porous to social movements/ least likely to seal themselves off with elite consultants? 3. Who has a solid chance of beating Trump if we all work like hell?”

Similar questions need to be asked at the next UK general election and across the globe if humanity is to stand any chance of arresting the ongoing and escalating existential threat of climate chaos.

The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future is published by Allen Lane, priced £20.

Russian Interference in Western Politics? What about Israel, Saudi Arabia and UAE?

Russian Interference in Western Politics? What about Israel, Saudi Arabia and UAE?
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
3 October 2018

With almost the entire Western media in a constant state of mass hysteria about Russian interference in Western political systems, it’s worth considering some pertinent information largely missing from the debate.

First, it is likely the scale and effectiveness of Russian interventions has been greatly exaggerated. “The simplistic narrative that basically imagines that a bunch of subliterate-in-English trolls posting mostly static and sort of absurd advertising could have influenced American public opinion to such an extent that it fundamentally changed American politics is ridiculous on the face of it”, argued Masha Gessen, a US-Russian journalist and outspoken critic of Vladimir Putin, when asked about Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election by National Public Radio.

“I feel a lot of pressure… from interviewers and from people to kind of blow up the threat”, said New Yorker’s Adrian Chen – one of the first to write about Russian internet trolls – agreeing with Gessen. “People want to talk about how scary this is, how sophisticated it is. There’s not a lot of room for, you know, just kind of dampening down the issue.”

Turning to the Brexit vote, research by the Oxford Internet Institute looked at 22.6 million tweets sent between March and July 2016, finding just 416 tweets from the Russian Internet Research Agency – the organisation the US Senate says is involved in interfering in Western elections. A second report from the University of Edinburgh discovered 419 accounts operated by the Agency attempting to influence UK politics. However, the study’s lead researcher told the Guardian these 419 accounts tweeted about Brexit a total of just 3,468 times – mostly after the referendum had taken place.

Second, when asked about US claims of Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential race, US academic Noam Chomsky replied “My guess is that most of the world is just collapsing in laughter.” Why? Because when it comes to undermining democratic systems Russia is an absolute beginner compared to the United States.

Here is the New York Times in February 2018: “Loch K. Johnson, the dean of American intelligence scholars, who began his career in the 1970s investigating the C.I.A. as a staff member of the Senate’s Church Committee, says Russia’s 2016 operation was simply the cyber-age version of standard United States practice for decades.”

According to a database compiled by political scientist Don Levin from Carnegie Mellon University, the US attempted to influence elections in other countries 81 times between 1946 and 2000. In contrast, he found the Soviet Union/Russia had attempted to sway 36 elections in the same period. Reporting on the database in December 2016, the Los Angeles Times notes the US figure “doesn’t include military coups and regime change efforts following the election of candidates the US didn’t like, notably those in Iran, Guatemala and Chile.”

On top of all this, the evidence clearly shows other nations have exerted a level of influence on Western governments and political systems that Russia could only dream of.

Chomsky again, this time speaking to Democracy Now! in August 2018: “If you’re interested in foreign interference in our elections, whatever the Russians may have done barely counts or weighs in the balance as compared with what another state does, openly, brazenly and with enormous support.”

Chomsky is referring to Israel, whose “intervention in US elections vastly overwhelms anything the Russians may have done”, he says. “I mean, even to the point where the Prime Minister of Israel, [Benjamin] Netanyahu, goes directly to Congress, without even informing the president, and speaks to Congress, with overwhelming applause, to try to undermine the president’s policies” —a reference to Netanyahu’s attempt, in 2015, to destroy the US-led deal to stop Iran acquiring nuclear weapons.

Back in the UK, in January 2017 the Middle East Eye reported on “undercover recordings” that “revealed how an Israeli diplomat sought to establish organisations and youth groups to promote Israeli influence inside the opposition Labour party, in an effort to undermine Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.” Shai Masot, the Israeli diplomat, said he had helped set up other groups in the UK which, although they presented themselves as independent, received support from the Israeli Embassy.

Israel is not the only Middle East nation who works to undercut Western democracies. In 2006 the Guardian reported that the British government – citing ‘national security’ concerns – had halted a Serious Fraud Office investigation into alleged corruption by the arms company BAE Systems, connected to their dealings with Saudi Arabia. According to the article “In recent weeks, BAE and the Saudi embassy had frantically lobbied the government for the long-running investigation to be discontinued.”

Like its regional ally in Riyadh, the United Arab Emirates has also been busy, carrying out an “intense lobbying campaign… over the last few years” in the UK, according to a new Spinwatch report. This campaign has “helped shape UK government policy towards Muslims at home, and UK and US foreign policy in the Middle East”.

This “massive” PR effort by the corporate-friendly Gulf dictatorship appears to have “had the desired effect”, Spinwatch notes. “With pressure building on Downing Street… the Emiratis pulled off” a “spectacular lobbying success… in March 2014, [British Prime Minister David] Cameron, out of almost nowhere, announced a review into the Muslim Brotherhood” – a useful folk devil for the UAE government.

The UAE and Saudi Arabia have also been trying to influence the heart of global power in Washington. For example, the Associated Press noted the diplomatic crisis between Qatar and the UAE that started in June 2017 “ignited a multimillion-dollar battle for influence” with the two rivals spending “heavily over the last year on lawyers, lobbyists, public relations and advertising to seek better trade and security relationships with the United States”.

In a March 2018 article the New York Times reported on “an active effort to cultivate President Trump on behalf of the two oil-rich Arab monarchies” UAE and Saudi Arabia. The aim? “Pushing the White House to remove Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson” and “backing confrontational approaches to Iran and Qatar” – something Tillerson was seen as a block on.

This lobbying seems to have achieved one of its goals, with the New York Times’s Roger Cohen revealing that a European ambassador had told him about a December 2017 dinner party in Washington he attended along with Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner and UAE Ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba. After the ambassador had complained to Kushner that his nation’s foreign minister was having difficulty organising a meeting with Tillerson, apparently Otaiba said “Things will be much better when Mike’s installed.” Tillerson was sacked four months later, replaced by CIA Director Mike Pompeo.

What all this confirms is that media reporting and commentary is largely framed by the concerns of the governing elite. Which explains the difference in the size and tone of coverage – Russia has been designated an Official Enemy of the West, while Israel, Saudi Arabia and UAE are close allies. However, it is important to separate the interests of Western elites and those of the general population. So while it is obvious why the British elite would want a close ties with the authoritarian monarchies in the Gulf, it is difficult to see what the British public get out of these unholy associations.

The obsessive focus on Russian interference serves a couple of important functions. First, as highlighted above, it hides inconvenient but important truths – that many of our so-called allies are carrying out sophisticated and long-running campaigns to undermine the will of Western publics. And second, it acts as a displacement activity – instead of looking at the deep-seated domestic reasons behind Trump’s victory and why the UK voted for Brexit we continue to be fixated on the all-powerful evil Disney villain Putin.

As always, to see through the fog of propaganda and gain an accurate understanding of the world citizens need to be careful and critical consumers of the mainstream corporate news, making sure to combine their intake with a healthy dose of alternative and independent media.

Ian Sinclair tweets at @IanJSinclair

Inside Corbyn’s game changing election campaign: Steve Howell interview

Inside Corbyn’s game changing election campaign: Steve Howell interview
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
18 June 2018

Appointed the Deputy Director of Strategy and Communications in the Labour leadership team in February 2017, Steve Howell had an insider’s view of the most extraordinary general election of recent times.

The Cardiff-based Howell was the Chief Executive of Freshwater, a communications consultancy he founded in 1997, when he got the call from his old friend Seumas Milne, Jeremy Corbyn’s Director for Communications and Strategy.

“Politics is not a spectator sport”, he recounts Milne telling him in his new book Game Changer: Eight Weeks That Transformed British Politics.

“People have said ‘Why did you call it Game Changer?’”, Howell, 64, tells me over breakfast in a central London hotel. “It’s a fair question but I think it’s valid to call it Game Changer for several reasons. One is we denied them [the Tories] a majority, and that meant they couldn’t do most of the things that was in their manifesto”, he argues. “We have still got austerity but some of the nasty stuff like getting rid of winter fuel allowances, dementia tax, scrapping the triple lock [on state pensions] they haven’t been able to do because they haven’t got a majority.”

“I think it was a game changer in the sense it was a campaign like no other”, he continues. “We were told by people who are experienced in these things manifestos don’t change people’s minds. Well, this manifesto did – in a positive way. We were told that you don’t move opinion during election campaigns by more than two or 3%. Well, we did. Massively.”

He is right. When Theresa May called the election Labour was polling around 24 percent (YouGov) and 29 percent (Survation). On election day less than two months later Labour won 40 percent of the vote – 10 percent more than Labour’s vote share in 2015 under Ed Miliband.

Most importantly, Howell maintains the election result “marked the end of the stranglehold of neoliberalism on British politics, which has dominated politics since the Thatcher era.”

At the end of the book he lists several reasons for the Labour Party’s extraordinary performance, including Corbyn being “a great message carrier”, the size of the Labour Party, the voter registration drive and the manifesto itself.

As a dual American-British citizen, Howell saw Bernie Sanders’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination first-hand in California. With the parallels between the insurgent Sanders and Corbyn obvious, Howell says he and others were influenced by the dynamism and energy of the Vermont Senator’s campaign, such as its “hard-hitting” political messaging. “Communications is all about building a story, building a narrative”, he explains. “That was very much on my mind – how could we talk and communicate our political arguments in that very clear, direct way.”

Indeed, arguably the influence of Sanders can be seen in the broad strategy the Labour leadership team settled on for the election – the creation of a “majoritarian coalition” around a positive and “transformational” offer to the public, as Howell explains in the book.

Howell was also impressed by Sanders’s use of social media to work around the mainstream media, and the massive rallies that propelled the campaign forward.

“Rallies are much more important in US politics than they are in British politics”, he says, pointing out that though “the Blairites openly say they fell in love with Bill Clinton” they dismiss “the idea that rallies are a good thing.”

“If you listen to the Blairites they will always say rallies are just preaching to the converted – and they will say social media is an echo chamber.”

Talking of Blair, readers of Game Changer may be surprised at the sophisticated communications and public relations tools and tactics used by Corbyn’s Labour Party. Focus groups were used to road-test slogans, polling companies and communications agencies employed, and there was even a “narrative consultant” on their books.

“Communications theory is a methodology. You shouldn’t assume it has a political bias. These are tools of analysis”, he says, explaining many have erroneously and nonsensically mixed them up with their first serious advocates in the Labour Party – New Labour.

“If you are trying to mount an effective political campaign you need to understand your audience, you need to understand what they are worried about, what they are thinking, what they will be persuaded by.”

“We are talking about persuading millions of people here”, he emphasises about the enormity of the challenge – and the success Corbyn’s campaign achieved. “We’re not talking about what goes down well with the hardcore of activists. We are talking about how you move people in a short space of time to get them to see your point of view.”

He highlights how Labour used a polling agency to talk to people about how they perceived Corbyn. “There was a fair amount of negativity towards Jeremy that was simply repeating what people had read about him in the media”, he says.

“But within all of that that the polling company did, one thing interesting came through it, which was that what people particularly liked about Jeremy was that he was a politician who went against the grain.” Also, Corbyn scored well on sticking up for working people, whereas Theresa May did not.

“We were being told by people in the Labour Party ‘Don’t make this election about leadership or about Jeremy versus Theresa because you’ll lose.’ But what that [the polling] was telling us was actually it’s not as simple as that. There are lots of things people like about Jeremy and therefore it’s not whether we make leadership an issue or not it’s how we make leadership an issue that’s important.”

In the book Howell highlights one particularly difficult leadership moment on the campaign trail – Corbyn’s response to questions from the audience and presenter David Dimbleby about whether he would press the ‘nuclear button’ during BBC Question Time’s Leader’s Special.

“Jeremy had begun to look uncomfortable”, he writes, noting Milne was also worried about how the Trident issue would play out in the media.

Surely, I ask Howell, nothing has changed? The lifelong anti-nuclear campaigner Corbyn will never say he will use nuclear weapons, while maintaining Trident will continue to be Labour Party policy. And, like Howell, the Tories will have watched Corbyn’s discomfort carefully and be ready to hit him hard on this come the next election?

He suggests two lines of argument to move the debate on. First, if one believes in nuclear disarmament, unilateral or multilateral, then “ultimately Britain’s nuclear weapons have to go into that process.” Long ignored by the mainstream media, Howell, like Corbyn himself, highlights the importance of the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty: “What the nuclear powers were saying to the non-nuclear countries is ‘You sign up to this Non-Proliferation Treaty and in return we’ll disarm nuclear weapons.’ The second part of the deal has never happened. So it’s time the second part of the deal did happen.”

Second, Howell points to Corbyn’s Chatham House speech in May 2017, which he – Howell – was heavily involved in writing, and which deals with the question of using nuclear weapons. “That situation represents failure”, he argues. “Think about all the things that would have had to have happened for you to get yourself into that position, or for you to be forced into that position… you have failed as a prime minister in that situation… you haven’t done what you are there to do, which is to safeguard the security of the British people. So you’ve got to then roll the question back and say ‘What is it we need to do to make sure that no British prime minister ever gets into that situation where that is even a question?’”

Though he is no longer formally connected to Corbyn’s team, I ask Howell what Labour’s broad strategy should be for the next election. “An election can’t just be a rerun of the previous election”, he explains. “There will be some new things that have to be taken into consideration which are borne out of the political situation but I don’t think the core argument that we have been putting against neoliberalism and against austerity will be any different because those basic problems in society are the same.”

“And our answer to those problems is a Socialist answer and the Tory answer is a neoliberal answer”, he says. “There is a very clear political choice there.”

Game Changer: Eight Weeks That Transformed British Politics is published by Accent Press.

Book review: Game Changer: Eight Weeks That Transformed British Politics by Steve Howell

Book review: Game Changer: Eight Weeks That Transformed British Politics by Steve Howell
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
August-September 2018

Achieving 40 percent of the vote – a record breaking 10 percent increase on its 2015 performanceJeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party carried off one of the biggest political upsets ever at the 2017 general election, dealing a serious blow to the Tory government and broader neoliberal ideology.

Steve Howell, the Deputy Director of Strategy and Communications in the Labour leadership team, gives a detailed and engaging insider account of this game changing campaign. Diplomatically written, there are no big reveals. However, there are many interesting nuggets of information that will be of interest to activists.

Though Corbyn’s team defines itself in opposition to New Labour, much of the political methodology of the Blair era continued to play a vital role: focus groups were used to road-test soundbites, media contacts carefully cultivated and communications agencies employed.

Social media strategy was central to Corbyn’s success, Howell argues, allowing Labour to bypass the mainstream media. They advertised on Snapchat, invested significant energy in Twitter and Facebook and purchased Google Adwords, meaning a Labour advert would appear next to Google searches of terms such as “Dementia Tax” and “Shoot-to-Kill”.

Howell also emphasises the influence of Bernie Sanders’ popular campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, which he witnessed first-hand in California. Though Corbyn’s large ‘Feel the Bern’-style rallies were derided by many commentators for preaching to the converted, an LSE study found the Labour vote share rose by almost 19 percentage points in constituencies visited by the Labour leader. Imitating Sanders’s strategy, Labour even employed a “narrative consultant”, with Howell seeing the effective deployment of emotive “narrative arcs” highlighting Labour’s positive and “transformational” offer to the nation as the key to victory.

One note of caution appears during the BBC Question Time Leader’s Special, when Howell notes Corbyn looked uncomfortable answering questions about whether he would ever use the UK’s nuclear weapons (retaining Trident is Labour Party policy, even though Corbyn himself is a lifelong anti-nuclear campaigner).

With the Tories bound to focus on this potential weakness at the next election, this is an critical issue where peace activists have the knowledge and organising skills to make a positive intervention. Because while Howell’s book naturally focuses on the role of the leadership team, it is important to understand it is the mass movement/s behind Corbyn that played the decisive role in getting him elected Labour leader, protected him from attempted coups, underpinned the extraordinary 2017 election result – and will likely be the deciding factor at the next election too.

Game Changer: Eight Weeks That Transformed British Politics is published by Accent Press, priced £15.99.

Class Matters: Betsy Leondar-Wright interview

Class Matters: Betsy Leondar-Wright interview
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
17 July 2018

Visiting Britain last month to co-facilitate a workshop organised by Peace News, US activist Betsy Leondar-Wright read two books to prepare: Owen Jones’s Chavs and Estates: An Intimate History by Lynsey Hanley.

Important books in their own right, they were especially pertinent as the workshop explored a topic that is rarely discussed: class and classism in activist groups and organisations.

An assistant professor of sociology at Lasell College, Leondar-Wright, 62, has spent her adult life exploring this contentious issue, publishing Missing Class: Strengthening Social Movement Groups by Seeing Class Cultures with Cornell University Press in 2014.

“Class-culture differences often hamper movement-building,” she explains in the book’s introduction. These differences often play a role in common organisational problems, she argues, such as low turnout, inactive members, offensive behaviour and certain members dominating discussion.

She tells me about her own elite class background when we meet in a central London hotel. “During my childhood my Dad rose through the ranks on Wall Street… he started out selling bonds and ended up the vice-president of an investment firm,” she explains.

“And my mum was a nurse and stopped working when I was born. So we kind of rose from middle middle-class to quite upper middle-class during my childhood.”

After attending a private school, in 1977 she dropped out of Princeton and joined the radical, nonviolent activist network Movement for a New Society (MNS) and became active in the anti-nuclear movement.

Hugely influential in its time, MNS ran workshops on racism, sexism and homophobia. After some members became angry at the classism that existed in the organisation, Leondar-Wright says there was an “internal class revolution” which led to workshops being introduced to deal with classism too.

Having co-facilitated many of those workshops, today Leondar-Wright sits on the board of Boston-based Class Action, an organisation that works to end classism and extreme inequality.

Why have activist groups that have a relatively high degree of awareness of racism and sexism ignored class for so long?

“The US is worse than Britain in how few people have class identities,” she says. “The majority of people if they are asked an open-ended question: ‘What is your class?’ people will say ‘middle class’ who have blue-collar working-class jobs and [so will those] who are very wealthy.

“It’s an absurdity of our culture,” she says about the aversion to using the term “working class.”

Even politicians on the left such as US Senator Bernie Sanders will not say “working class,” she says. “It sounds vaguely Marxist, and they are always on alert to not sound condescending and demeaning towards their voters.”

However, she also believes the left shares some of the blame, with what she calls “voluntary downward mobile” people — progressives who choose not to maximise their income — often obscuring and ignoring their own class privilege.

“So in the mainstream it is something to avoid — to identify as working-class. On the left something to avoid is to identify as class privileged. So between those two we are just a pit of confusion.”

Conducting extensive research on activist groups across the US for her book, Leondar-Wright found “a surprisingly large number of attitudes and behaviours” influenced by class.

“Two that really stick in my mind are language and leadership,” she says. “So language… vocabulary differences, how long or short you speak, humour differences, ways of speaking.”

For example, she found professional middle-class groups used more words but spoke less often, while members of working-class groups talked more briefly but more often.

Fascinatingly, she discovered working-class majority groups laughed on average once every 8.75 minutes, while professional middle-class majority groups only laughed on average once every 15.71 minutes.

She also highlights how university-educated activists are often attached to potentially alienating abstract terms: “They just have to say them. So among my radical friends there are people who have to say ‘white supremacy’ every time race is mentioned… there are people who have to say ‘patriarchy,’ people who have to say ‘capitalism’ and have to say ‘socialism’. Their radical politics are wound up in some word that compacts a whole analysis.”

This is fine as it goes, she says, “but one of the things that I want to persuade people to do is do not use your meaningful abstract word when you don’t have time to unpack it. Use it but don’t start with it. Start with something that connects to the listener.”

On leadership, she found “anti-leadership attitudes strongly correlated with professional middle-class and upper middle-class backgrounds.”

Meanwhile, in “the movement traditions that were majority working-class, there was just an acceptance that, as long as leaders are accountable, as long as they are acting on the community’s behalf, then it is a good thing. The strength of your leader is a good thing. It gives you more power.”

Though it’s a popular tactic among many progressives today, Leondar-Wright is highly critical of the concept of “calling out” — the “practice of if someone says something in which you detect some sexism or racism or classism you just immediately and loudly denounce them in front of others.

“It’s based on a misunderstanding of what causes change,” she argues. “It leads to people quitting groups and falling into factions and all these things that are not moving towards social justice.”

She paraphrases her MNS colleague George Lakey: “A university education trains you to sit in judgement of others. Professional middle-class dominated movements or elite dominated movements often get this harshness towards each other,” she adds. Calling out, then, often has a nasty element of classism to it.

Instead, Leondar-Wright favours the idea of “calling in,” a concept coined by African-American activists. This involves “moving toward” the oppressive person and empathically engaging with the person and their views, rather than shunning them.

“I think that is really smart. It’s building the strength and the closeness and the solidarity of groups. To me that is a better practice.”

As she was researching her book, the Occupy movement sprang up in the US. Leondar-Wright was a keen supporter, though found it embodied many of the class-based problems she was researching.

“Some Occupy groups had gotten bogged down in group process quarrels and ideological quicksand,” she writes in the book’s conclusion.

Several of her initially enthusiastic friends dropped out of Occupy Boston, she explains, complaining of “long meetings, jargon, eccentric hand signals and a shortage of specific winnable demands.”

Observing a three-hour general assembly meeting, she observed many people of colour and with working-class accents were not fully participating.

“The much-touted horizontal participatory democracy of Occupy… seemed to make space for some process-savvy people’s voices but to shut out others, including some of those personally affected by the financial crisis that triggered the movement.”

Turning to the political upheavals in her own country, Leondar-Wright has been dismayed by the response of many liberals to the rise of Donald Trump and his supporters.

“We have these plutocrats and would-be fascists in power,” she says. “We’re panicked about what has happened in Washington, but also panicked and infuriated by the super, super classism among liberals and even some leftists.”

In an article published on the Class Action website earlier this year, she criticises the liberal elite’s focus on the “white working class” and use of classist language such as “stupid,” “crazy,” “deplorables” to describe those who voted for Trump.

Not only is it inaccurate — the white working class itself is politically diverse and, moreover, 54 per cent of college-educated white men voted for Trump — it’s also deeply unhelpful.

“Respectful engagement with someone offering a different worldview is the context in which people shift their frames,” she writes. “Ideologies morph over time. People change their minds. The people who horrify us, whose votes brought this catastrophe upon our land, they’re regular human beings. We demonise them at our peril.”

With liberal contempt for democracy and the general public seemingly rising after the election of Trump in the US and the Brexit vote in Britain, her fascinating analysis of class and classism is more important than ever.

As she argues in her book: “In a country with a working-class majority, a mass movement must be built with working-class cultural strengths in its bones,” something which if successfully implemented “could be transformative for future social movements.”

For more on Class Action, visit: classism.org. If you are interested in holding a workshop exploring class and classism in a similar way to Class Action, please contact Milan Rai of Peace News editorial@peacenews.info.

The strategic and tactical genius of the US Civil Rights Movement

The strategic and tactical genius of the US Civil Rights Movement
by Ian Sinclair

Morning Star
25 April 2018

The recent death of American nonviolence guru Gene Sharp and the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King provide a good opportunity to reflect on the key role nonviolent action has played in winning progressive change.

Sharp, whose extensive writings have influenced many of the campaigns that have overthrown governments across the world, repeatedly emphasised the importance of planning and strategy in carrying out effective nonviolent action. Indeed, strategy is “probably more important in non-violent struggle than it is in military conflict”, he told me when I interviewed him in 2012 for Peace News newspaper. For Sharp, those wishing to understand nonviolent struggle needed to research the topic in depth – reading, at a minimum, his lengthy studies on the subject – rather than basing their opinion on “superficial impressions”.

Even though his birth is marked by a national holiday in the US many people – including myself have a very superficial understanding of the US Civil Rights Movement King led in the 1950s and 1960s. This ignorance is frustrating because the movement is one of the best known and most successful nonviolent campaigns in recent history.

Like Sharp, King and the wider leadership of the Civil Rights Movement were incredibly smart strategists and tacticians, with a good knowledge of the theory behind nonviolent struggle, especially the movement Mahatma Gandhi led in India which forced out the British imperialists.

Two fascinating documentaries highlight the detailed understanding and use of strategy and planning by the movement that rocked the Deep South in the post-war period. Though they have largely been forgotten they are both available on Youtube.

Released in 1999, A Force More Powerful tells the story of the movement to desegregate the city of Nashville, Tennessee in 1959-60. Having spent three years in India studying the work of Gandhi, Methodist minister James Lawson was invited down to Nashville by King to train local Black students and citizens to fight for their civil rights.

Lawson set up and led a series of evening workshops in a small church near Fisk University where, he explains, he “took the whole group through a holistic view of nonviolence – its history, its roots in the bible, its roots in Christian thought, the methods of nonviolence.”

After considering the situation, Lawson remembers the group decided to target the lunch counters and restaurants in downtown Nashville and start to research the issue. To prepare for the struggle the workshops included role play with activists ‘sitting’ at lunch counter while being racially abused and physically attacked, and low-key, small scale ‘test’ sit-ins were conducted.

For Lawson, successful nonviolent action necessitated “fierce discipline and training, and strategizing and planning” which “can’t happen spontaneously, it has to be done systematically.”

The sit-ins began in February 1960, and following mass arrests, violence against the activists and a series of escalations by the movement including a consumer boycott by the Black community, the city has agreed to desegregate lunch counters by May 1960.

“We were warriors. We had been prepared”, notes one activist in the documentary. “This was like a nonviolent academy, equivalent to West Point [military academy].”

Despite many successes, the Civil Rights Movement did not simply steamroll over the racist establishment in the Deep South but suffered many difficulties and defeats during the period, all of which had to be recognised and learned from.

The late-1980s 14-part US documentary series Eyes On The Prize tells of one such setback. Like Nashville, Black people in Albany, Georgia had been campaigning to end segregation. In late 1961 the local leadership of the Albany Movement invited King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to the city to energise the campaign.

Keen students of Gandhi, the SCLC understood a central strategy in the successful campaign in India had been the staging confrontational nonviolent protests with the understanding the oppressor would react violently, creating media-friendly drama and sympathy for the nonviolent protestors. Movement organisers “expected the same reaction” in Albany that they “encountered in most southern communities: police brutality”, the documentary’s narrator explains. However, they didn’t reckon with Chief of Police Laurie Pritchett, who had researched SCLC’s ideas about nonviolent struggle. “Pritchett was a thoroughly professional law enforcement officer who had the acumen to realise police brutality or violence from white mobs, would draw newspaper reporters to Albany and create sympathy for the movement”, Professor Adam Fairclough notes in his 2001 book Better Day Coming: Blacks and Equality, 1890-2000. “Pritchett trained his men to employ a ‘nonviolent approach’ toward demonstrators.”

With the internally divided movement fighting for the broad goal of ending segregation in the city, King began serving a 45-day sentence in July 1962, determined to stay in jail, as this would draw attention to, and increase support for, the cause. Conversely, Pritchett “understood that it was better to have King outside than inside jail” and secretly arranged for King’s bail to be paid, according to Fairclough. Having been forced out of prison, a depressed King left the still segregated city in August 1962.

Writing in his autobiography, King admits “The mistake I made there [Albany] was to protest against segregation generally rather than against a single and distinct facet of it. Our protest was so vague that we got nothing, and the people were left very depressed and in despair.”

Having learned some heard lessons in Albany, King and the SCLC decided their next target would be Birmingham, Alabama, a Klu Klux Klan stronghold and powder keg of racist oppression. Though there are, of course, many factors behind the success or failure of any campaign, one central factor in Birmingham was likely the presence of Commissioner ‘Bull’ Connor – “the antithesis of the calm, professional Laurie Pritchett… a vain, short-tempered, publicity-seeking bully, with a notorious reputation for racial extremism”, writes Fairclough.

“We knew that when we came to Birmingham that if Bull Connor was still in control, he would do something to benefit our movement”, Wyatt Tee Walker, the first executive director of the SCLC, is quoted as saying in US historian David Garrow’s 1986 book about the SCLC, Bearing The Cross.

Beginning in early 1963, the initial protests made little impact, receiving criticism from some Black businesses and a number of local (white) clergymen. In response the leadership of the movement escalated the campaign. King was jailed for several days, and – controversially – Black school children were mobilised, with marches organised. With tensions mounting, events came to a head, with Connor turning water canon and police dogs on the protesters. The violence gained national attention, the news coverage shocking the American public and wider world. “It was a masterpiece of the use of media to explain a cause to the general public of a nation”, local attorney David Vann explains. The campaign continued, with thousands more arrested, and desegregation was eventually won in May 1963.

The movement employed similar strategies in Selma, Alabama, focusing on one goal – winning a strong voting rights law. The 1965 campaign was dramatised in the award-winning 2014 film Selma, directed by Ava DuVernay.

In one gripping scene showing the movement’s leadership discusses the campaign, King (played by David Oyelowo) explains the problems in Albany – that the SCLC made many mistakes, while Pritchett didn’t: “There was no drama”, and therefore no media coverage, he says.

One of the central aims of the Selma campaign is to the attention of an inattentive President Lyndon Johnson, King continues. The only way of doing this “is by being on the front page of the national press every morning and by being on the TV news every night”, he argues. “And that requires drama.”

Turning to the young activists who have been coordinating the campaign in Selma so far, King asks about local sheriff Jim Clark: “Is he Laurie Pritchett, or is he Bull Connor?”

Told Clark is like Connor, one of King’s SCLC colleagues shouts “Bingo!”