January 12, 2021

Hello comrades,

We hope you are all keeping well. This issue we bring you news of mass teacher strikes, the rebirth of Norfolk Momentum and a Class Enemy of the Week that will make your blood boil. Enjoy, comrades.

Thanking NEU. In the face of clear evidence of high transmissibility of the virus within schools, alongside rapidly surging coronavirus numbers across the country, the government insisted schools were safe and stubbornly refused to close them. NEU members knew differently. Thousands of teachers up and down the country invoked Section 44 – their right not to attend an unsafe workplace – showing the government up for its recklessness. Johnson finally caved on Monday evening when he eventually announced another full lockdown. Read our special report below to find out how the NEU has been forcing government u-turns and building up its organising strength.

Our Alan. After allowing a motion in support of Jeremy Corbyn, Alan Gibbons, Chair of Liverpool Walton CLP and Momentum NCG member, was suspended from the Labour Party. He has still been given an official reason for his suspension from the Party. Of course, Alan isn’t the only one. The leadership’s authoritarian crackdown has affected hundreds of Labour members. If you’ve been unjustly suspended, you can apply for our free legal advice, here. Read our interview with Alan below on his political history and why he joined the Labour Party in 2015.

Free to choose. Great news from Argentina, as abortion has finally been made legal up to the 14th week of pregnancy. Until the legislation passed, abortions were only allowed in cases of rape or when the mother’s health was at risk. The grassroots feminist movement, known as the ‘green wave’ due to the green handkerchiefs they hold aloft at protests, mobilised tens of thousands of women onto the streets to pressure politicians into ratifying the change. In 2018 they fell marginally short of passing the legislation, but continuous pressure and civil society activity led to a magnificent victory two years later.

Strike Map. Using similar methods to Momentum’s own My Campaign Map – currently being used for our Eviction Resistance campaign – comrades in the trade union movement have set up a map plotting all industrial action happening across the UK at any one time. If you are involved in any industrial action, submit it to be included in the map, here. And to see the strike action going on across the country right now, check out the map here.

• As part of our Eviction Resistance campaign, Harriet Soltani-Protheroe (housing activist and NCG member), Owen Hatherley (writer) and Tyler Rougeau (US housing activist) discussed socialist solutions to the housing crisis. Watch it here.
• In December we created a legal service for Momentum members suspended from Labour for exercising their democratic rights. We won’t stand by whilst grassroots members are targeted with unjust suspensions. If you’ve been unjustly suspended, get in touch here.
• We have continued to hold re-foundation meetings across the country with local groups. Check out our report from last month’s issue for more information on how the process is going, and read this issue’s ‘Meet the Group’ interview for an insight into Momentum Norfolk’s re-founding.
• In collaboration with The World Transformed (TWT), we hosted another brilliant trans political education event: ‘What even is transphobia?’. Featuring brilliant guests Shon Faye, Lola Olufemi, Juliet Jacques and Chay Brown, you can watch it back here.
• The newly elected Young Labour Student Reps have launched Socialist Student Bulletin. Sign up here for student organising resources, updates on their work and student news, campaigns and events from a socialist perspective.
• TWT Arts alongside North London Transformed and Momentum groups will spend January fundraising for, and spreading the word about the care workers and cleaners on strike at Sage care home in Golders Green, North London. Fundraising events will include Zoom bingo, story telling for kids and a poster workshop. Click here to donate.

If you want your local group activity to be included in The Organiser then please email us at [email protected] We’d love to hear from you.

This section has changed slightly. Each issue we will have an interview with a Momentum member, focusing on their political history. This month we talked to Alan Gibbons, Momentum NCG member and recently suspended Liverpool Walton CLP chair.

When were you first politicised?

It all came together in my mid-teens. I grew up in a working-class area of Crewe, but domestic politics wasn’t decisive. Muhammad Ali was stripped of his title because of the Vietnam War. African Americans were in revolt against racism very much like today with Black Lives Matters uprising. There were similar protests in Northern Ireland because of anti-Catholic discrimination.

By the time I went to university, I was firmly on the Left, reading Regis Debray, Frantz Fanon, Salvador Allende. At university I was involved in one of the longest student occupations in British history and got involved with left wing politics, the International Socialists.
From then on it was union activity, Grunwick, the miners and dock strikes, anti-fascism and anti-war campaigns. I lost faith in the IS/SWP in the mid-90s and was active as an independent socialist until Corbyn’s 2015 leadership campaign.

What made you want to become a teacher and a children’s author?

My wife and I were teaching our kids to read and I fell in love with the picture books we were buying and borrowing from the library. I started to explore what made kids readers and enthusiastic learners and trained as a teacher in the mid-1980s.

Teaching young children in Merseyside schools, I spent so much time telling stories and realised I was holding the kids’ attention. A friend said: “Did you make that stuff up?” When I said yes, she suggested I send them off to a publisher. To my surprise, at the 23rd try I was successful.

Seventy-odd books later, I have had a good career that has taken me all over the world telling tales and teaching creative writing. It suited my rebel temperament to be my own boss.

What made you join Labour in 2015?

I briefly joined the Labour Club at university, but the ‘outside left’ were organising solidarity with the 1972 miners’ strike and seemed more exciting. In 2015, Corbyn was offering a vision of the Labour Party that was about solidarity with working people, internationalism and a transformative social agenda.

My kids joined first then recruited my wife. I had been so alienated by the experience of the Blair government and the Iraq War it took me a bit longer. Once I had finally made my mind up, I threw myself into activity, involved in every strike and community campaign, becoming CLP Secretary and speaking at party conference and many other events.

Back in 2016, Momentum Norfolk began as a county-wide group – but quickly made the decision to split off into smaller local groups spread out across Norfolk. Five years down the line, the refoundation process has provoked a reset. In early December, Momentum Norfolk had its first AGM of a new era. We speak to one of the organisers Jane Worsdale to ask about how it’s all going.

What happened in 2016?

We had a Momentum Norfolk right at the beginning but we quite quickly split up into lots of local groups, for all sorts of reasons, some good and some bad. Momentum Norwich was a very active group but the local groups didn’t really take off. There were a few reasons for that. One of them being the data issue. When we split off into local groups, the data system never really caught up with it, and so local groups couldn’t really communicate amongst themselves very easily. And also it was just that there weren’t enough activists in each local area to make it work very well and because Momentum didn’t want Momentum to be seen as competing with the Labour Party, they didn’t want us to divide up into CLP groups.

Are you beginning to see the benefits of joining together under one umbrella?

I think we will do. It’s a bit early to stay. What we decided to do was call two open meetings that we advertised on Facebook, asking people who had left Momentum – of which there were quite a few – to attend. We had two meetings where we tried to get people to join or re-join. And then we had an all members’ meeting AGM with 22 people in attendance, which I think was quite good actually for a place like Norfolk. There’s quite a bit of enthusiasm.

What did you talk about in the meeting?

In the second open meeting we had Mish Rahman (NCG member, Midlands and the East) and Jess Barnard (Young Labour chair) attend which was really good as it got people going a bit. In the AGM, we did the formal bit and then we did the strategy exercise. It was good actually we managed to get everybody into four breakout groups (laughs). I’m finding it funny because I was the tech person and it’s not my strong point normally but I managed it!

We looked at four particular targets to do with trying to be more inclusive as at the moment as our group is white, middle class and quite old. We haven’t got many young people at the moment. There’s a very good Labour group at the university which is very left wing but we’ve never managed to have a close relationship with them before. We work with them in the Labour Party so I’m sure Momentum can also join forces with them. It’s all about building links now.

Similarly there’s a Black Lives Matter group that we’d like to make links with, and we’re very keen to work with Acorn who we are going to hold our next meeting with. Norwich Acorn isn’t a huge group, but they’re doing really well. They just don’t have the resources to go into the rural areas at the moment. As in most rural areas there’s a huge amount of rural poverty in North Norfolk and a lot of people in terrible problems with rent, so one of the things we can offer them is for our local members in these places to offer resources to help them where they might not be able to. So I think that’s really positive. People are very keen about that.

What is your relationship to local Labour Parties in Norfolk?

In the meeting we also talked about targets for increasing our councillors. We have a chance in Norwich because it’s currently a very right-wing Labour council but things are a little more tricky as the rest of the councils in the county are Tory. We have one member who is a town councillor in a rural area but that’s about it.

In Norwich we can work more in the CLPs but in the rural areas there will be more of a focus on community organising. Previously everyone was focused on getting Jeremy Corbyn elected, but now I think there is tremendous scope for Momentum members to get involved in very good, local campaigns. For example in North Norfolk, there is a really good mental health campaign, and there’s a great deal of scope for local members to get involved in that sort of thing and to pull in members from all across Norfolk if there is a big day of action.

Do you have any tips for other Momentum groups looking to refound?

Having the open meetings first worked well. We could advertise that widely across social media – im sure we also got some people attending who probably shouldn’t have been there and were probably being a bit nosey but that’s fine. We had good speakers such as local girl Jess Barnard, it’s great to have her with us because she pulls in the crowd. To do that first with good speakers and get people excited – open to anyone.

It’s actually very positive that we have had people coming from across the left. Immediately after Corbyn people sort of went away and went to all sorts of different factional groups – but what was encouraging was that we had lots of people from those different factional groups coming to our initial Momentum meetings and thinking “oh yes this can actually bring us all together”. So I think that is very positive.

‘There is a collective consciousness now’: How the NEU is shaping 21st century trade unionism

In the last week, the National Education Union (NEU) has held the biggest trade union meeting in British history and helped to force a reluctant government to close down schools. But what explains this dramatic uptick in union activity amongst education staff?

There are the obvious objective reasons. Teachers are on the Covid frontline. While most other white collar workers have been able to work from home – teachers have been asked to go back into school in conditions that are often unsafe. It’s been stressful for both staff and pupils. Large class sizes has meant little social distancing and consistent absences due to the virus have led to a broken-up, chaotic term.

On top of that, more evidence is emerging that coronavirus transmission has been far more prevalent in schools than was previously thought. According to data collected by teachers’ union NASUWT, in some local authority areas Covid rates among secondary school teachers are as much as four times the local average. This is despite the government repeatedly telling teachers that they were at no greater risk.

All of this is a perfect cocktail for a pissed off workforce, hung out to dry by a government indifferent to their health and slow to act. This ultimately led to many teachers – encouraged by the NEU leadership – to send letters to their headteachers invoking Section 44 (their right not to attend an unsafe workplace).

It was an evidently sensible move that heaped pressure on the government to enforce school closures – which they eventually did on Monday evening.

But how has the NEU got to this position? How has the union built itself up over the last nine months to the point where the action of tens of thousands of its members prompted a government u-turn?

Back when the first wave of the pandemic hit in March-May of last year was when things really started to get going. Teachers were being asked to start back in schools on 1 June, yet many were understandably reticent. Was it safe yet? Their union rep was the obvious place to turn – but many schools were without one.

“In May I went through all the members lists for schools that didn’t have a union rep,” says Vik Chechi-Ribeiro, vice-president of NEU Manchester and Momentum member. “I said to them, look, you could be in school in two weeks. The only way that’s not gonna happen is if you have a rep in your school. Do you want to do it? And so our rep density went from 50 to 90%.”

Alongside greater rep density, says Henry Fowler, a NEU national organiser, there has also been an “increased consciousness” amongst the rank and file of what it means to be in a union. “During coronavirus, our activist base has become significantly more organised,” says Fowler. “Which has meant that now 70 to 80% of our branches have a regular Whatsapp group. You should look at our Twitter and Facebook accounts – people are proud to be in the NEU. They understand they’re in a union – there is a collective consciousness now.”

According to Phil Clarke, Momentum NCG member and NEU district secretary for Lewes Eastbourne and Wealden, building a stronger network of reps has been a priority for the union for a while. But it’s a move that was ultimately forced on them by the academisation program and the complete underfunding of local authorities. “Even a decade ago we would have had something resembling the traditional model of teacher trade unionism,” says Clarke. “We’d have national negotiations, and then each branch secretary would negotiate with the local authority.”

“But the breakdown of the old model has meant the role of school rep is absolutely vital now because it is them that has to take on the huge amounts of negotiations with head teachers over pay and working conditions. Thankfully, the last 8/9 months has given us the space to expand our network of reps.”

Rep numbers have improved dramatically. But membership numbers are even more staggering. According to the NEU’s latest figures there are 50,000 new members across the country since the start of the pandemic – and that will soon need to be updated. Phil Clarke tells me that since the weekend a neighbouring district of his has seen an influx of around 150 new members. “We’ve mobilised tens of thousands of people through our mass Zoom calls and on a local branch level. But the question is now: what will happen with that renewed sense of collective identity in the workplace?” asks Henry Fowler. Can this enthusiasm be turned into a powerful education workers’ movement that can win victories on a range of issues?

“There is a concern that the reason people have joined or are getting engaged was because of the pandemic,” says Chechi-Ribeiro. “So the key has been to solidify their involvement and really sort of develop these new reps and train them up.”

The focus in Manchester has been on what Chechi Ribeiro calls “whole worker organising” – which involves linking up with other community groups and making members realise they are part of a wider struggle. “We’re the first NEU district to pass a solidarity motion with tenants unions and we’ve even held joint political education meetings with Acorn,” says Chechi-Riberio. “And we’ve been doing joint organising work with anti-racist groups to resist the presence of police in schools in our area.”

Chechi-Ribeiro has already seen the benefits. “We’ve had reps who first became active in March ringing up members over the weekend speaking to them and encouraging those members to hand in those Section 44 letters,” he says. “Which is a real radical step in terms of their own politicisation.”

Phil Clarke also sees the sending of section 44 letters – a move taken by potentially tens of thousands of teachers across the country – as a moment that could instil a sense of collective consciousness that could propel the NEU onto greater things. “Teachers have always had this strength,” says Clarke. “But the confidence people will get from standing together with their workmates and winning a significant change will be huge.”

“It puts us in a better position to take on the fights that we really want to be fighting,” he says. “Getting rid of SATs – because they offer nothing to six children except stress – fighting for adequate school funding, fighting the privatisation of the system. We are in a far better place to deliver all the things that are needed to make school a far more rewarding environment for children and staff.”

Ayanda Capital Ltd (CEO Tim Horlick)
A ‘PPE provider’ pocketing millions in public money – while providing precisely zero PPE

Unlike previous winners of this prestigious award, Ayanda Capital aren’t a company with a big public profile. That’s not surprising, given that they’re an exclusive capital fund with interests ranging from managing investments in natural resources (read: probably fossil fuels), to currency trading and managing offshore property assets for their super-rich clients.

What is surprising is that when the pandemic kicked off, Ayanada was awarded a £150m government contract to supply the NHS with 50 million masks.

CEO Tim Horlick must have been thrilled at the massive wad of cash that had just landed in his lap. After all, the Good Law project has revealed that companies were making profits of between 35% and 45% on these contracts – which, if accurate, would mean that Ayanda made a cool £50m off the deal.

How on earth could a capital fund with zero experience in healthcare, manufacturing, or any relevant field have won that big a contract? Maybe Andrew Mills – who acted as both a senior board advisor to Ayanda and adviser to the Board of Trade, chaired by the international trade secretary and Tory MP Liz Truss – has some insight.

In the end, though, Ayanda Capital came good. They delivered the masks and doctors and nurses got the PPE they so desperately needed.

Just kidding. In fact, the masks weren’t ever used by the NHS because of “concerns” about their fixing mechanism.

So congrats Tim and the Ayanda Capital gang. In a crowded field of pandemic profiteers and Tory cronies, you have taken the biscuit.

That’s all for this month, comrades. We hope you enjoyed this month’s issue. Any feedback you have and ideas for how to make the newsletter better are much appreciated. Don’t hesitate to send us an email at [email protected] with your thoughts.

In solidarity,

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