Wednesday 25 April 2012

Powney, Prague and Democracy

Cllr James Powney
I have crossed swords with Labour Councillor James Powney often but I gladly acknowledge that my comments on his blog  have alway been published. This is democracy in action and welcome but there are concerns about the Labour Council's broader attitude to democracy.

In a recent post LINK he said:

'Recently, as part of the entirely artificial concern over regulating leaflet distribution, Brent Council has been accused of being Stalinist.  I thought this was a term of abuse, but given that the accusation came from someone on the extreme left perhaps it was intended as a compliment.'

In fact I think the most recent comment came from an ordinary 'non-political' member of the public but I believe in the broad political sense of top down, controlling, intolerant of dissent, knowing better than the 'people' what is good for them, that it has some justification when applied to Brent Council. I am not suggesting that Ann John will be sending dissidents to the salt mines of South Kilburn.

Rather than comment on James' blog about this I thought that a posting here, at greater length would help explain where I am coming from. His remark ignores the long battle between Stalinism and other leftwing currents, culminating of course in Trotsky's death by icepick but continuing into the late twentieth century with echoes still.

I started work at 16 and after a spell as a messenger in an advertising agency moved to Reuters News Agency and joined the print union Natsopa (now defunct). Union membership helped politicise me and I did a TUC postal course in economics.  As a union activist I soon found myself in conflict with the Communist Party dominated National Executive and the General Secretary, Richard Briginshaw (known as 'the Brig').

When we sought to make the union structure more democratic Briginshaw called us 'anarchist outriders' but we continued to struggle despite having the rule book hurled at us on numerous occasions.One of the main protagonists in this battle was a man called John Lawrence who had made the journey from Communist to Trotskyist and by the time I met him to socialist libertarianism/anarchism. He worked for the Press Association which shared the same building, 85 Fleet Street, as Reuters. 

Lawrence was one of the few truly charismatic people I have met and was a great influence. His political and activist history is incredibly rich and you can find out more HERE As a child back in 1956 I had taken an interest in news reports about the Hungarian Revolution as a consequence of seeing the arrival of refugees from Hungary and my interest in Eastern Europe continued.

At Reuters I had a good and politically stimulating friendship with Kurt Weisskopf,  a Czechoslovakian journalist who had lost family and friends in the German invasion and the Holocaust as well as under later communist purges.  Despite, or perhaps because of all this, he was passionately committed to social revolution and democracy and as the Stalinist regime began to crumble he dared to hope for liberalisation in Czechoslovakia and had many contacts in Prague.

I made an overland trip to the Soviet Union in  1968 days after Warsaw Pact tanks rolled into Prague. I took some western newspapers into East Berlin having passed through Checkpoint Charlie after delays caused by troop movements. I was soon surrounded by youth hungry for news of what was happening in the West and events in Prague. Their eagerness had a dark edge and as they talked they kept looking around fearfully to see if our conversation was being observed. Suddenly, as police were spotted they scattered. 

The ending of the Prague Spring
Returning to London I found a devastated Kurt who despite everything was still continuing to debate in the Old Codgers (the pub that formed part of 85 Fleet Street) with a journalist from Tass, the official Soviet news agency, as well as members of the British Communist Party who sought to justify the Soviet intervention.

For us, 1968 was much more about Eastern Europe than the events in Paris or even those at the LSE, just down the road from Fleet Street.
The battle against the 'Tankies' in Natsopa intensified.

In 1969 I travelled to Prague, now under Russian occupation, with a list of names and addresses provided by Kurt. These were members of the Czech Communist Party and others who had supported liberalisation. In  January 1969 Jan Palach had set fire to himself in Wencelas Square in protest against the suppression of free speech and the atmosphere in Prague was very tense.

My attempts to trace Kurt's friends gave me a small taste of living under an authoritarian regime. It made a profound and disturbing impact on me, which helped shape my attitude to human and civil rights and championing of democracy. I was young and rather naive at the time and seeing the terror on a journalist's face when I called at his office shook me. 

"There are informers here," he hissed as he roughly grabbed my arm and marched me out the street to a cafe, looking behind him anxiously all the time to see if we were being followed. It became clear in an accidental way that the authorities were aware of me when a hotel reception called me 'Mr Reuter' when I had not given any information about my job.  Visiting one contact 20 miles outside of Prague I got up early to take a 5.30am bus so as to shake off anyone trailing me.  When I left the contact asked me to take a bulky parcel of manuscripts with me to post in the UK. When he told me that this was the script of a children's book by his daughter, destined for a publisher, I accepted that was what I was to tell the police or the Russian military if I was intercepted.

Back in London Kurt was keen to hear the news and long after the events, I still feel guilty that I was so disturbed by  the experience, as well as not always fully understanding some of the conversations because of the 'code' in which they necessarily had to take place because of the fear of eavesdroppers, that I could not satisfy his desperate need for both news and analysis.

I was reporting the London Stock Exchange at the time, but was also a union representative and the contradictions of the two roles led me to an interest in ideology and consciousness, which it turn stimulated an interest in teaching . I left Reuters and became a mature entrant to teacher training . I entered the profession in 1975 where once again I found myself in battle with a CP dominated union leadership that wanted to maintain control and squash any alternative voices.

So what, you may well be asking if you have stayed with me this far, has this got to do with Brent Labour Council?  I am committed to transparent and open democracy, from the bottom up rather than the top down. I reject the concept of democratic centralism. I want to work with others on campaigns because of shared aims, not because I want to recruit them to a political organisation. I challenge ideas such as 'leaders know best what is in the objective interests of the people' and attributions of 'false consciousness' or 'bourgeois individualism' to opponents.

I honestly believe that in a low key sort of way that is how Brent Labour works. Ann John's control is rigid.  Despite a comfortable majority and  the controversial decisions that have had to be made, there has not been a single, even minor rebellion. We can expect the Executive to maintain silence because of 'cabinet collective responsibility' but not one councillor backbencher has stood up publicly against a single policy except perhaps Claudia Hector on the Old Willesden Library. Privately Labour councillors have told me that pressure is put on them with the message that if they step out of line they cannot expect preferment. A similar message is given to Labour Party members seeking candidate nomination for by-elections.

So we get messages that some councillors and occasionally members of the Executive disagree with particular policies but there is no open debate. This contrasts, and I know it is only a small example, with the way  opposing views of two Liberal Democrat councillors were put forward, in front of the public, at the recent Executive discussion on the Willesden Green Regeneration project.

In addition we have cuts presented in guises such as 'transformation', consultations that tick boxes rather than change anything,  partial information and a general approach of 'we know best' with opponents stereotyped as middle class, nimbys or special interest groups. Cllr Powney's recent attack on the local press has added a further and dangerous dimension as also the 'innocent' leaflet licensing proposals which we are told is nothing to do with control but just about litter.

In my formative years there were still fascist regimes in Europe in Spain and Portugal, a racist one in South Africa, military dictatorships on several continents as well as Stalinist regimes. In the UK there was even a shadowy plot in 1968, ridiculed at the time,when Cecil King owner of Mirror Group Newspapers met Lord Mountbatten and others to discuss the overthrow of Harold Wilson's government to be replaced by one headed by Mountbatten.

We must be vigilant and if this means being a 'pain in the arse' as apparently I am seen by some in the Council, so be it. Democracy is too precious to be surrendered, even at the local level.

At the Executive on Monday  I did not have time to read out the quote I had prepared  from the Czech human rights activist, playwright and President,  Vaclav Havel.  I wanted to remind them about the role of politics:
Genuine politics-even politics worthy of the name-the only politics I am willing to devote myself to- is simply a matter of serving those around us: serving the community and serving those who come after us. Its deepest roots are moral because it is a responsibility through action, to and for the whole.


Sarah cox said...

How interesting and, I think, extremely relevant. I thought James Powney's 'Stalinist' jibe was directed at me. Equally misdirected. Perhaps he does not know that I am a member of the Socialist Workers Party which is a Trotskyist organisation. Stalin liquidated hundreds, if not thousands of people with views like mine. It's true that at the age of thirteen I wanted to join the Young Communist League - some of my fellow students at school were members - but I lived through 1956 and 1968, my mother worked for George Orwell and through reading Homage to Catalonia and Animal Farm I learned about the realities of Stalinism. That knowledge has been expanded over the years. Trading insults instead of listening to people's views is a childish way of responding to criticisms, but at least Cllr Powney should attempt to include a pinch of accuracy in his insults.

Pete Firmin said...

Thanks for the potted biography, Martin, it gives a pretty clear idea of where you are coming from. As for Cllr Powney and his comments re Stalinism, I think he was just exhibiting his political ignorance. Nothing new there.
Please note my objection to the reference to the salt mines of South Kilburn. No doubt put there to wind up the likes of yours truly.

Sarah cox said...

Having commented on the 'Stalinist' jibe, we shouldn't neglect the inaccuracy of Cllr Powney's remark about the misgivings many people feel about the proposed policy of regulating leaflet distribution. Well meaning legislation and regulation can have unintended consequences and measures intended to limit litter could also limit free speech and harm community or voluntary groups and small businesses. The initial fear that it could be used to stifle political protest arose from a press release from the Council's own press office - the local paper used the exact wording of the email sent to her - which said that political leafleting could only be by political parties at election times, while the legislation exempts leaflets from registered charities or those given out for political purposes or purposes of religion or belief. However, this still leaves questions which I hope Cllr Powney or Sue Harper will have the courtesy to respond to. I believe that ALL voluntary literature should be exempted from the requirement to buy a licence and then pay every day,otherwise groups like the Women's Institute, Brent Campaign Against Climate Change, Friends of the Earth etc could find themselves unable to advertise their events or subject to prosecution shoud they do so.

RedHoodRising said...

Very interesting. Thankyou, Martin, for this and all your informative and crucial blogs.

Martin Francis said...

Sorry for any offence Pete. Given the number of tunnels under South Kilburn, with the HS2 ones coming soon, it seemed the obvious place for a salt mine or two.

I forgot to mention the Gulags of Gladstone Park.

Anonymous said...

He has to put your comments up Martin because he knows they are from you.
I have posted many comments - none rude or libelous or anything like that - just telling the truth about some of the things he has said in the posts about the things he done as part of the Labour executive.
They never see the light of day.
Perhaps, because the truth hurts.
Keep on posting Martin and keep on reporting Kilburn Times.

The Insider said...

Cllr. Powney was for a long time actively kept out of running for office by pushing him into marginal seats at Labour selection meetings for councillors as it was felt he was more of talker than a walker and as for charisma, well he never quite found the queue where that was being handed out did he.

If proof were in the pudding then it is now a constant grumble of Harlesden councillors that Kensal Green residents turn to them after getting no or a belated response from Cllr. Powney when taking issues to him.