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A class act in Oxford

A small left party, pro-working class and anti-multiculturalism, has been winning council seats on Britain's largest council estate. Zoe Jewell reports

October 28, 2007
12 min read

A giant cheque for £15,000 is proudly propped up against the wall of the Independent Working Class Association (IWCA) councillors’ office at the Oxford City Council town hall. It is a prized libel payment from the Oxford East Labour Party after Labour posted defamatory leaflets to residents in last year’s election campaign. Under the headline ‘Watch out for extremist group’, Bill Baker – Labour’s deputy city council leader – claimed that the IWCA had links to Irish Republicans and violent extremists.

In the otherwise bare office, Stuart Craft and Clare Kent, two of the four IWCA councillors on Oxford City Council, still talk about it now with disbelief. ‘We’ve been called vigilantes, racists, fascists, communist boot boys, everything you could think of,’ says Craft.

The IWCA is a political party that mixes community campaigning with traditional class politics – an interesting combination of far-left ideology and Liberal Focus Team pavement pounding. The white working class, ridiculed as ‘chavs’ by a self-satisfied, middle-class media and whose voice has been largely lost from mainstream politics, need representation – and on a council estate in Oxford, they are getting it.

The IWCA work on the issues that concern local people most -particularly drugs, anti-social behaviour, housing and youth provision. Their innovative answer to anti-social behaviour is community restorative justice, a programme that uses local volunteers to resolve conflict and prevent low-level crime, particularly in areas where the police have lost trust. They believe youth provision is key to preventing anti-social behaviour. In Oxford, the IWCA councillors have campaigned especially hard against budget cuts to children’s play areas and had motions passed to ensure that money saved from cuts in youth provision is still channelled into the most socially deprived areas.

Breakthrough

Stuart Craft describes the IWCA as ‘a national party with just four local councillors’. But these four Oxford councillors have had considerable impact and illustrate the potential for a leftist version of community politics with an electoral expression. Craft, the leader of the IWCA councillors, was the first to be elected in 2002, was joined two years later by Clare Kent and Lee Cole, and in 2006 by Jane Lacey. They all represent wards in Blackbird Leys, one of the largest and most socially depressed council estates in Europe, and the neighbouring estate, Churchill. It is an impressive breakthrough for a party that had no candidates in Oxford before the 2002 election.

According to Craft, what changed in 2002 was merely that ‘a genuine pro-working class party stood. People had the choice. There was nobody representing the working class anymore. If you’re in an area like Blackbird Leys and you see the whole place going to rack and ruin and it’s a result of the action of the political parties, then either you can sit back and be an armchair critic or you can try to do something about it.’ And that’s just what Craft did. He insists that he is merely the leader of a collective party, but his undiluted class politics clearly bolstered the IWCA when he won his seat in 2002.

Craft came to the IWCA from Anti- Fascist Action, but the other three councillors have no organised political background – left or right – whatsoever. The softly spoken Clare Kent explains what inspired her to get involved.

‘I was always a Labour voter up until my children started haranguing me in 2000 about them having nothing to do. So we did a petition. I was invited by the local MP, Andrew Smith, to join the tenants’ association and the area committees. I could not believe how our local Labour councillor would say one thing to the committee and then go and say another thing in the council. Anyway, I phoned up the MP, Andrew Smith, and said, “You’ve got to get rid of this councillor,” and he said, “Oh no, he’s a wonderful councillor.” That finished me with the Labour Party. At the time, I didn’t know anything about the IWCA, but a friend of mine in Blackbird Leys said I should get in touch with Stuart Craft.’ After a short period of involvement, Kent stood as an IWCA council candidate and was elected.

Highly localised and practical politics is what makes the IWCA so effective. ‘We do a lot more ward time on our estates than the other parties, because that’s our reason for existing. Attending council meetings is just the necessary evil really,’ explains Craft.

Success in the wards is vital because, in the end, that is what will get them re-elected. Yet the IWCA are highly principled. Their aim is securing a decent future for the people of their wards and it matters more than anything else to them. Clare Kent describes what she has achieved since 2004. ‘We’ve got play schemes running, the return of the youth club to the estate, and a sports centre is being built.’ But she is also well aware that there is still plenty to do.

Tackling drugs

Stuart Craft talks earnestly about the continuing need to tackle drug dealing on Blackbird Leys. ‘We’ve done everything from community patrols to picketing drug dealers’ doors alongside the residents. The local community centre bar was run by a couple who were harbouring drug dealers. Within months of us campaigning, we forced the closure of the bar and the crack house closed down. Today, of course, there’s still drug dealing. We haven’t the power to affect national policies, and the drugs are going to be there until the government change their drugs strategy. All we can do is manage the problem.’

‘Recently, the police put out a press release stating that people in Blackbird Leys have said that the quality of life has gone up and they don’t perceive crime as a big problem anymore,’ Craft continues. ‘We attribute that to being directly linked to our efforts.’ The isolation of drug dealers by the community is one of the IWCA policy objectives on drugs. The IWCA supports the decriminalisation of cannabis, but says that managing the problems of drug use is also of paramount importance. Its manifesto lists among its policy objectives ‘the proper provision oflocally based detox centres, the establishment of a social contract with users for the proper disposal of needles, and GPs to be allowed to prescribe heroin in order to administer dosages safely’.

But the IWCA has no real national profile. They aren’t seen on London demos carrying banners and placards – something that most left parties regard as important. Instead they concentrate on their successes in Oxford, seeking to turn them into successes elsewhere.

There have been the signs of a breakthrough in other areas. In Bunhill, a socially deprived ward in Islington, the IWCA claimed 22 per cent of the vote. In May, they contested an election in Thurrock, where the BNP is also looking to win protest votes. Dave Amis, who stood in Thurrock, is upbeat about the vote they achieved, although they only contested one out of the 16 wards and gained 7 per cent. ‘It was the first time round, so quite hard work, but we got a very good base.’ Stuart Craft believes that ‘with a standing start, the IWCA could beat the BNP in working-class areas every time.’ If they could, this would be a significant reversal for the BNP, but as yet neither the IWCA nor the other larger parties to the left of Labour are seriously competing against the BNP at the ballot box.

Against multiculturalism

In defeating the BNP in council elections, Craft identifies the issue of multiculturalism as central. In diverse communities like Thurrock and Blackbird Leys, this would appear the obvious alternative and positive policy. But the IWCA controversially does not take the traditional left position. Instead it argues that any initiatives that privilege one religious or ethnic group over another are unfair and divide the working class.

In Oxford, Labour has branded the IWCA as racist. Craft vehemently denies this and instead claims, ‘I think we’re the only anti-racist organisation on this council.’ This notion is evident in the IWCA manifesto too, which argues that ‘the state funding of social projects purely on the grounds of race can only foster an ‘us and them’ scenario, with the result that instead of being united by anti-racism, the working class can just as easily be divided by it.’

When Craft first became a councillor, he proposed a motion against multicultural youth facility programmes, which he claimed benefited one group above another. ‘The limited resources we’ve got should be spent on facilities that are open to all and nobody should be barred for the colour of their skin. The council didn’t even debate the motion. It’s amazing. Everybody was against it, but nobody could actually explain why.’

Clare Kent adds, ‘On my estate all the young people are talking about this issue and people wonder why we’ve got a British National Party! Nobody’s willing to address this issue.’ Craft is equally incredulous. ‘It’s hardly rocket science, but in the council chamber when we raise this it’s like we’ve come from another planet.

The IWCA and the left

Craft is convinced that the ICWA’s approach will win it votes over the BNP. And he is scathing about other left parties. ‘We see the white working class as our constituency, though not just the white working class. The rest of the left see the white working class as the BNP’s constituency. I think the left drive working-class people into the arms of the fascists, whereas we’re there to coax people the other way.’

For a party that has recorded such a success in Oxford, with the same number of councillors as the far larger Socialist Party and not so many less than George Galloway’s Respect, the rest of the left does seem to wilfully ignore the IWCA.

Pete McClaren, of the Campaign for a New Workers’ Party, admits he knows very little about the IWCA. ‘We have worked with them a bit, but they’re not forthcoming and don’t tend to advertise themselves. They are a bit of a mystery to me.’ Sue Tibbles, a member of the Oxford trades council, is similarly dismissive. ‘They are not very visible. They don’t come to any trades council meetings. They have a crappy newsletter and haven’t stood up for normal socialist things.’

The Oxford IWCA and the local Green Party have had a prickly relationship during their five years on the council together, with the Greens holding eight seats in wards very different demographically to the council estates of Blackbird Leys and Churchill. Matt Sellwood, Oxford Green councillor, admits their tensions were ‘mostly around class. The IWCA assumed that all Greens were middle class and therefore untrustworthy, but now they have come to understand that when we take a progressive stand, we tend to mean it.’

Stuart Craft agrees. ‘The Greens are the only party that are motivated for the right reasons. I’d say, whether we agree withthem or not on a policy, they are genuine people and they’re in itbecause they want to change things.’ The two parties worked together recently on a council motion supporting striking postal workers, but they have nothing like a coalition.

It’s not so much that the IWCA are localists. What really marks them out is that they have given up on the rest of the left. The IWCA was originally founded in 1995 by Red Action, a splinter group from the SWP, but after ten years they have founded their own political positions and style of organisation largely divorced from this background. Craft describes the journey:

‘The Left might turn up on a demonstration, go home and then do nothing for six months. We don’t dance to that leftist tune anymore. We set our own agenda and if we decide that a demonstration we’re holding that day against a prolific drug dealer on the estate is more important than turning up on some march organised in London then that’s our business, isn’t it? I’ve never apologised for that.

‘We don’t really recognise the term left anymore, because looking around I don’t see any of the people that profess to be left or socialist as actually pro-working class. I think it wouldn’t be very clever to hitch up in the short term with a load of groups that don’t actually stand for the working class just to boost our numbers. We’d rather grow slowly, picking up decent members, genuine people.’

It’s a politics of the long haul, which will only work if they can turn small successes into bigger ones. There’s a fierce pride among IWCA members in what they’ve achieved so far on Blackbird Leys, with meagre resources and absolute commitment.

The terrain of British politics isn’t about to be shaken by an IWCA earthquake, but the IWCA’s success in Oxford at least deserves serious comparison with the relative lack of success by much bigger left challenges to Labour from Respect and the Socialist Party. As the Westminster parties cluster ever closer together, there’s a rumble in the margins from left and right, which has all the signs of getting louder and more troublesome. Take note of the IWCA – it is as good a place as any to start thinking about possible outcomes.

More information www.icwa.info

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