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IWCA stand a class apart

Article from the Oxford Times

The emergence on Blackbird Leys of the little known Independent Working Class Association with three elected councillors has created ripples that go far beyond the estate. Silence often follows Stuart Craft's contributions to Oxford City Council meetings. It is as if his fellow councillors are still struggling to come to terms with the arrival of the Independent Working Class Association into the very heart of local politics.

Some find the harsh messages he brings from Oxford estates about drug dealing and anti-social behaviour deeply disturbing, while others are just as unsettled by the remedies he proposes, which they see as tantamount to working-class rebellion.

For make no mistake, the IWCA, which secured three seats on the council in last month's local elections, offers a very different brand of politics than Oxford has seen before.

It is a political force that draws on the disillusionment and despair of estate residents, who believe they have been left as islands of neglect and deprivation in a region that rejoices in decades of unprecedented prosperity.

For the IWCA unashamedly exists to represent the working class, delivering the unambiguous message that it is up to estate residents `to take matters into their own hands if they want to see anything done'.

Nor are these empty words.Over a period of time, the association has organised pickets outside the homes of alleged drug dealers and against gangs responsible for muggings and violence.

Such demonstrations of community strength are working, insists Mr Craft, who rejects claims that the IWCA is pursuing its own vigilante approach to crime. But then Mr Craft, who last month held on to the Northfield Brook ward that he won two years ago, will tell you he has long had to put up with being labelled as a fascist and racist by
frightened political opponents, taken aback by the level of support the IWCA is attracting.

It is now clear that, with 1,425 votes under its belt in estates known for voter apathy, the IWCA has taken hold on Oxford's estates in a way that it has not in any other part of the country.Only in Hackney and estates in Glasgow and Manchester have residents shown the same level of enthusiasm for the slogan `Working class rule in working class areas'.

After a bitterly-fought election campaign, some senior local Labour figures will not even speak on the record about the IWCA, believing that publicity will only serve to embolden the group. But Liz Brighouse, the Labour Group leader at County Hall, says serious questions remain about the national structure of the organisation. `Nobody knows where they are coming from or where they are going,` she told me.

As the first IWCA candidate in Britain to win a council seat, Mr Craft, an Oxford bus driver, sees little reason, however, to concern himself with satisfying the curiosity of the mainstream parties.

Pursuing the interests of the working class is the mission, and the stated method is to pursue it `with no consideration for, and regardless of, the consequences to the existing and political structures'.

The contempt he feels for the mainstream parties, he says, is now widespread on Blackbird Leys, the estate where he grew up and now lives with his wife and son.

A former builder, Cowley car worker and postman, he served as a shop steward for the Communication Workers Union and is presently a steward with the Transport and General Workers' Union.

On the wall of his living room hangs a picture of his political hero, not Leon Trotsky, as some of his enemies might suppose, but James Larkin, the Liverpool-born trade unionist who founded the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union in 1909 and led resistance to the infamous Dublin Lock-Out, when more than 100,000 workers were sacked.

While some have portrayed the IWCA as coming from the far right or part of some national extremist conspiracy, Mr Craft maintains its roots lay in the militant approach of the 1970s trade unions, transferring the spirit of collectivism from the factory to local communities 'Unions are now a shadow of themselves,' he complains.

`Anti-social youths are the bastard children of Thatcherism. Her policies allowed small groups of violent gangs and drug dealers to run estates.' As for Labour, he says, the party simply withdrew from working-class areas, leaving a political vacuum that the IWCA is now filling, offering a new creed that working-class communities must
fight their own corners.

`It is a question of the more confident elements in the community helping the more vulnerable elements,` he tells me. `Sticking together and trying to sort our problems out, that's what's at the heart of our policy.' And on the ground "sticking together" means reclaiming parks and community facilities, while `denying these spaces to the dealers
and anti-social elements'.

Last October, the IWCA organised a picket at Gillians Park to stop a teenage gang operating there. Recently, a picket was put outside the door of a resident said to have been selling pills to children.

`We decided on this course because residents can take up to two years to get any kind of result through the official channels and we believe the sale of drugs to youngsters must be stopped immediately.' In his diary, Mr Craft described the outcome:

`We put the picket in the front garden, took photographs and knocked on the door to let the tenant know why we are here. He immediately comes clean and tells us that the dealing stopped a few days ago when a neighbour complained to his landlord. We tell him that if he has stopped, he has nothing to worry about, but if his activities
continue, we will publish the photographs and his details in the Leys Independent which goes to 5,000 homes across Blackbird Leys 'which is a lot of angry parents'.

`After a brief show of bravado in which the youth threatens to sue us if he appears in the newsletter, he comes to his senses and reiterates his intention to comply and we go home, but not without knocking on every door in the vicinity of the house to let those residents, who are not already aware of why we carried out this action today, know the score.' He accepts that this approach is hardly risk-free, but argues: `There is always a potential risk. But the misery some people go through as a result of intimidation means it is worth taking that risk.

`The community is right to isolate these people. It has a right to ask them to leave the estate if they are making people's lives hell. We will continue to press for evictions if it is for the greater good.'

The group's relations with the police are hardly warm. Not only has the Blackbird Leys IWCA repeatedly criticised Thames Valley Police's anti-drug strategy, it steadfastly refuses to hold private meetings with them.

`We won't have meetings with police behind closed doors,` explained Mr Craft.' It does not make us anti-police. We will work with anyone when it is to the benefit of the working class.' He certainly does not see multi-culturalist strategies to be in the working class interest either, and told councillors that `middle-class, muddle-headed, multi-
culturalist thinking' had proved a waste of public money. His position on multi-culturalism, he says, has seen him repeatedly smeared as a racist by political opponents, who ignore the fact he was a long-term member of the Anti-Fascist Action group.

He argues that multi-culturalism promotes segregation, while believing in the integration of working-class communities so that all ethnic backgrounds can work together equally.

The origins of the IWCA go back to October 1995 when `a variety of groups' came together agreeing that Labour had ditched the working class tobecome aparty of the middle classes.

The decision was made to create an organisation that was community- based to fight for immediate working-class interests. Pilot schemes were set up in selected parts of the country and, in 1997, leafleting began on Blackbird Leys.

It was registered as a political party in 2001, with Stuart Craft becoming its first elected representative the following year.

Senior Labour councillors privately question the true extent of IWCA independence, suspecting links with the far-left group Red Action, itself a breakaway group from the Socialist Workers Party. The suggestion that the IWCA acts as a front for Red Action or any other political organisation is, however rejected in typically forthright style by Mr Craft.

`We have had people trying to link us with left and right groups. We are an entirely separate entity, a new group.' The main parties have been quietly impressed by such local IWCA initiatives as setting up a travel club, running trips to France and Belgium, and a cinema club for Blackbird Leys youngsters.But, when it comes to election time, no quarter has been given.

The defeated Labour candidate for Northfield Brook in his election literature accused the IWCA candidate of being a confused and angry man who lost control in the streets and screamed abuse at Labour Party volunteers.

The IWCA, in turn, angrily demand an end to being smeared as Neo-Nazis and angrily rounded on Andrew Smith, Oxford East MP, about Labour's campaign tactics.

And now, after capturing three council seats, it is ready to take the next big step, announcing that it is to to field a candidate against Mr Smith, the Cabinet Minister who lives on Blackbird Leys, in the forthcoming General Election. Blackbird Leys will also be a target in next May's county council elections.

The message to voters will not be limited to tackling anti-social behaviour. It will be hoping to pick up votes beyond Blackbird Leys by focusing on lack of youth facilities and condition of housing.

John Lister, who stood as the Socialist Alliance candidate at the last General Election, expressed surprise at the decision to put forward a parliamentary candidate.

`It seems to me that the very factors that have formed the basis of the IWCA's success so far - their heavy focus on very local issues in parts of the Blackbird Leys and Wood Farm estates - would suggest that they would have little interest in contesting a parliamentary seat,` he said.

`It would, inevitably, involve them seeking votes from very large parts of the city which, by their measure, are 'middle class'.

`What we have is a popularist organisation that relates to people's day-to-day living pressures rather than offering a political programme. In fact, it does not appear to have one. If you look at the newsletter, it is virtually all about drug dealers, drug users, difficulties with problem families and council delays and inadequacies in tackling street lighting and repairs.

`The IWCA's definition of politics appropriate to the "working class" seems to leave no room for even relatively basic issues which interest and involve many working-class people, such as education and the improvement of the NHS.' Blackbird Leys city councillor Val Smith said: `The way the IWCA does things is not my way of operating. I
believe in partnership, working with the police, council officers and the public at large.' It is imperative, she believes, to win back voters' trust at a time when huge changes are beginning to improve Oxford's estates.

The political landscape on Blackbird Leys is already changing. Perhaps the silence in the city council chamber says everything.


May 2005


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