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a party that stands a class apart


From the Oxford Times:

"A party that stands a class apart (Oxford Times, 9th July)

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 toestate 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 t! he 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 arenow 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 tolet 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 privatemeetings 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 worki! ng-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
youngster! s.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 belimited to tackling anti-social
behaviour.It will be hoping topick 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, difficulti! es 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."





 

July 2004

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