Stirrings

Dave – the editor

Preamble

Over the years, I’ve heard a fair few anarchist comrades bemoan the lack of anything significant happening here in the UK. I’ve seen them (and joined with them) in offering solidarity to struggles elsewhere in the world. We’re anarchists so international solidarity is something that’s second nature to us. However, with my roots in the Independent Working Class Association, I’ve also always been interested in what’s going on at the level of the neighbourhood, particularly if it’s the one I live in.

If any anarchists still think there’s ‘nothing going on’ here in the UK in the latter part of 2020, I would like to suggest they take a closer look because once they do, they will find there’s plenty going on. The intention of this piece is to examine a few aspects of a rising tide of discontent and anger. I’ve been an activist for more decades than I care to remember and can say that the combination of circumstances we’re operating in is pretty unique with a lot at stake. We’re living through and enduring, really weird and increasingly dystopian times.

People are fed up and that’s finding its outlet in a number of ways, many of which defy conventional expectations of what resistance should look like. More interestingly, they increasingly sit outside of the traditional left/right divide. At the level we operate at, people are fed up with local councils who have lost touch with the residents they’re supposed to serve. You only have to read through the Thurrock and Basildon Heckler and the now archived South Essex Heckler (both linked to in the side bar to the right) and you’ll find numerous examples of this that we’ve covered. Discontent with arrogant local authorities seems to be pretty universal. This piece will deal with how that’s manifesting itself across London in opposition to the imposition of Low Traffic Neighbourhoods. On top of this, there’s a growing level of discontent with the way the COVID-19 crisis, lockdown and the new normal are being dealt with.

So, read on and hopefully by the time you get to the end, you’ll see there is actually a lot going on. There’s growing discontent but not as we’ve previously known it…

Arrogant local authorities

Let’s start with what I’ve seen at a local level in the area now covered by the Heckler, the two neighbouring local authorities of Thurrock and Basildon. I live in Thurrock and experience the direct consequences of their arrogance, screw ups and cover ups. A couple of my comrades live in Basildon and they have an equally long list of tense and difficult dealings with the council there. It’s difficult to decide who is the worst – to be honest, they’re as bad as each other but in different ways.

Thurrock

Where the heck can I start? Well, a clear demonstration of the sheer arrogance of Thurrock Council has to be their pig headedness in forcing through plans to extend the civic offices in New Road, Grays. This is just one of many posts I’ve written about this extension: The supreme arrogance of Thurrock Council. https://thehecklersewca.wordpress.com/2020/06/19/the-supreme-arrogance-of-thurrock-council/ This scheme, which resulted in a number of businesses run by people of migrant origin having their premises demolished because they were in the footprint of the extension, has been pushed through in the face of considerable opposition from residents of all political persuasions and none who think it’s an unnecessary vanity project.

Then there’s the council’s utterly dismal record in overseeing infrastructure projects. There’s the currently stalled re-development of the railway station at Stanford-le-Hope where the main building was demolished at the start of 2019 and pretty much nothing has happened since: Thurrock Council – you cannot rewrite history or bullshit your residents! https://thehecklersewca.wordpress.com/2020/07/01/thurrock-council-you-cannot-rewrite-history-or-bullshit-your-residents/ I’ve had it on good authority that the station buildings were demolished before detailed work on plans and the necessary land acquisition had even got underway! Also in the east of the borough, there’s the over-budget and overdue widening of the A13 between the Orsett Cock roundabout and the junction with the Manorway which leads down to the London Gateway port: Thurrock Council and delayed infrastructure projects – there’s a pattern emerging and it ain’t good! https://thehecklersewca.wordpress.com/2020/01/14/thurrock-council-and-delayed-infrastructure-projects-theres-a-pattern-emerging-and-it-aint-good/

Then, last but by no means least, there’s the slowly emerging story about Thurrock Council borrowing over one billion pounds to speculatively invest in ‘green’ bonds secured on a number of solar farms. The hope is that the revenue from this will help the council to balance the books. One of the emerging issues with this is the lack of due diligence undertaken by the council on a) the entrepreneur who set up the deal to buy the bonds and b) the actual investment, the solar farms, which are experiencing ongoing issues that could affect the worth of the ‘green’ bonds. This is how we covered it on the Thurrock and Basildon Heckler: Murkier and murkier… https://thurrockbasildonheckler.org/2020/10/17/murkier-and-murkier/

I’ve spoken to a fair few residents whose views range across the political spectrum. The one thing we can all agree on is that we’ve had enough of the way Thurrock Council are treating us. We’ve had enough of a council that insists on forcing through expensive and unwanted vanity projects such as the expansion of their civic offices in Grays. We’ve had enough of being fobbed off with pathetic excuses by a council that refuses to take any meaningful responsibility for their screw ups on the infrastructure projects they’re supposed to be in charge of. We’ve had enough of a council that thinks it can keep quiet about what are now turning out to be some very questionable financial investments. We’ve had enough of our concerns about the way the council is run being summarily dismissed.

Basildon

As I’ve been working with Basildon & Southend Housing Action over the last few years, I’ve got to know a lot about the issues there are with the way Basildon Council treat their tenants. However, for the purpose of this piece, I want to focus on the town centre ‘masterplan’ which has been enthusiastically promoted by the council leader, Cllr. Gavin Callaghan (Lab). The masterplan involves levelling a fair chunk of the town centre to facilitate the construction of a large number of medium to high rise apartment blocks with retail outlets, cafes, bars and restaurants on the ground floor. This is what I had to say about the rush to build high rises: ‘Regeneration’ – the only way is up. https://essexstirrer.wordpress.com/2020/10/06/regeneration-the-only-way-is-up/

The ‘masterplan’ is basically a way of giving developers the green light to pretty much do what they want. The plan makes no reference to how the rebuilt town centre will relate to the rest of Basildon. It certainly doesn’t address the housing needs of Basildon as they currently stand. That alone confirms the suspicions of many residents that these apartments are aimed at more affluent commuters working in London. Although with the shifts in working patterns as a consequence of the lockdown, that will be travelling into London for a couple of days a week to ‘touch base’ and spending the rest of the time working from their high rise apartment. Hence the cafe society that Callaghan wants to see as part of the new look town centre – cafes to provide digitally savvy workers with somewhere different to set up the laptop or tablet while sipping a latte or two.

Basically, a town centre that owes a lot to Sim City but leaves the majority of Basildon residents feeling distinctly unimpressed. Callaghan being the type of leader he is has dismissed the concerns of residents, claiming that the majority of them support the proposed re-development. This is how I dealt with those claims over on the Thurrock and Basildon Heckler: Buls**t! https://thurrockbasildonheckler.org/2020/10/08/bulst/

Callaghan has links with the property development industry which may well influence his judgement when the developers come calling with their schemes to obliterate the skyline of Basildon with their apartment blocks. This was written over two years ago but still holds water: What a tangled web they weave. https://thehecklersewca.wordpress.com/2018/09/01/what-a-tangled-web-they-weave/ Suffice to say that when it was first published it went a bit viral with fed up Basildon residents playing a major role in spreading it around.

Where we are and our response

So there we have it, Basildon residents as fed up with their council as those over the border in Thurrock. There is a determined campaign against what’s planned for Basildon town centre. In Thurrock, there have been small scale actions against various aspects of what the council has done in screwing its residents. Despite this, as things currently stand, there is no co-ordinated movement calling out either of these councils for their arrogance, hubris and also, incompetence. However, residents are more fed up than ever and are getting increasingly angry with the way councils who are supposed to be our servants are treating them. When you put that in the context of what’s happening across the country with lockdown and the new ‘normal’ – and probably yet another lockdown – a growing number of people are reaching the end of their tethers. As mentioned previously, this sense of disillusion and anger cuts across and often stands outside of the traditional left/right political divide.

It was this that informed our decision to archive the South Essex Heckler blog which had lost clarity and focus because it was trying to be all things to all people and wasn’t reaching the audience we wanted to reach here in Essex. Hence we have this blog which is aimed more at an activist audience and the Thurrock and Basildon Heckler which is specifically aimed at a local audience of people who are fed up and angry at the way things are going. There is an urgency in reaching out to the growing number of fed up and disaffected people in our area who are looking for not just analysis and answers, but also some inspiration as well.

Not on our streets!

For all the people across Thurrock and Basildon looking for inspiration on how to get together, organise and fight back against arrogant and incompetent councils, they only have to look at what’s going on across London. Transport for London (TfL) with the support of the Mayor of London, are encouraging local authorities across London to implement ‘Low Traffic Neighbourhoods’ (LTNs). Essentially, these are about trying to encourage people to use their cars less and instead, walk more, cycle more or use public transport. When a LTN is introduced, it involves infrastructure changes such as the installation of cycle lanes, widening pavements and closing off side roads to all traffic except local access. On the face of it, this all sounds lovely and green – something that anyone of a radical/progressive persuasion should welcome. The reality on the ground is a heck of a lot different and a long way from the ‘vision’ being promoted by supporters of these LTNs.

Even though London is well served by public transport in comparison to Thurrock and Basildon, people still need to drive around the capital. Shift workers, carers, delivery workers, trades people, maintenance workers, emergency personnel, taxi drivers, bus drivers – the list goes on – all have no choice but to drive. When local authorities started imposing Low Traffic Neighbourhoods, these are the people they should have been talking to. It’s these drivers with their knowledge of how the capital functions who could have told the local authorities what could have worked and what would be an absolute disaster. One thing they would have told the local authorities was that whatever they implemented, it would do very little to reduce the actual volume of traffic on the roads. All it has done instead is shove the same amount of traffic onto a smaller network of available roads with the result being traffic jams and gridlock.

Emergency service vehicles are taking a lot longer to respond to emergencies. Bus schedules are being thrown into chaos as buses get stuck in gridlocked traffic. Trades people and traders are seeing their businesses suffer badly as their vehicles and drivers are getting stuck in endless delays. Carers are finding it impossible to keep to any kind of schedule when tending to vulnerable people in their care – this is causing real suffering and distress. Ordinary working class Londoners are getting increasingly fed up and angry with their local authorities, TfL and the Mayor of London for not listening to or consulting them before the implementation of these LTNs.

Working class Londoners aren’t taking this lying down – a grassroots movement against the arrogant and botched imposition of Low Traffic Neighbourhoods has emerged: A revolt against road closures. https://www.spiked-online.com/2020/08/24/a-revolt-against-road-closures/ There have been a number of local protests across the capital. What is also happening is small groups of residents going out to stand by the roads, leafleting drivers to inform them about the imposition of LTNs and advising them of the routes they need to take to avoid getting fined by the local council. Essentially, these are direct actions which are hitting local authorities in the pocket as they’re being deprived of the revenue from arbitrary fining. This grassroots pressure is starting to pay off as a few local authorities in London have been persuaded of the error of their ways in how the LTNs were imposed and are either withdrawing or seriously re-thinking them.

I’ve spoken to someone who has been on a few of these protests and what they have said about them is interesting. At both the Islington and Hackney protests, there was not a single left wing paper seller in sight – that may be down to what remains of the organised left a) still having a bit of a foothold in the town halls and b) broadly supporting the idea of LTNs. The protests are genuine manifestations of grassroots working class discontent and anger. There are a few old timers with experience of the struggle against the Poll Tax turning up but for a lot of people, this is their first time out on the streets. Some middle class commentators have tried to dismiss these protests and the direct actions springing from them as nothing more than an alliance of ‘black cab drivers and football casuals’. I would like to suggest that anyone falling for this crude dismissal takes a look at the image above of the Hackney protest which was attended by a pretty diverse range of people. This is actually one of the most heartening sights I’ve seen for a good few years and one that in these weird and increasingly dystopian times has filled me with a degree of optimism.

The LTN protests and actions cut across the traditional left/right divide while at the same time, bringing together communities that in the past, have had some tensions between them. That in and of itself makes them a very interesting and welcome development. The one parallel I can think of is with the Gilets Jaunes protests in France a few years ago which were a manifestation of discontent and anger at the arrogance and heavy handedness of Macron’s presidency. I can see why the left isn’t going anywhere near these protests as they fall well outside of their binary left/right view of the world – the truth is that the left most likely wouldn’t be at all welcome. As for the anarchists, without giving too much away, there are a number of them across London who are supportive of these protests and actions, and very interested in the possibilities they offer.

A common theme

So far, this has been about local authorities acting in a high handed, arrogant way and pretty much ignoring what their residents have to say. To a certain extent, it has also been about the incompetence of some councils and the way they cover this up rather than being open and honest with the people they’re supposed to be serving. Overall, what it’s about is a growing number of residents getting angrier and angrier about their voices and wisdom constantly being ignored, dismissed, mocked and belittled. A point has been reached where people have had enough and are starting to fight back. Given the complete and welcome absence of the left from engaging with this rising tide of discontent, there are opportunities for the more far sighted anarchists to roll up their sleeves and start to get stuck in.

Lockdown, the new ‘normal’ and techno-totalitarianism

A look at rising tides of discontent and anger standing outside of the traditional left/right schism would not be complete without consideration of the growing rejection of the cycle of lockdown, new ‘normal’ then more lockdowns. This has proved to be a very divisive issue and I personally have lost a few political allies because of my scepticism about the lockdown and the new ‘normal’. I’ve written more posts than I care to remember about this – here are two of the most recent: Gaslighting. https://essexstirrer.wordpress.com/2020/09/26/gaslighting/ and: It’s not a ‘plandemic’ but…we’re getting screwed over and unity is needed. https://essexstirrer.wordpress.com/2020/09/26/its-not-a-plandemic-butwere-getting-screwed/

Once you get away from the wilder conspiracy theories that have emerged during the COVID-19 crisis, there are plenty of legitimate concerns about the impact of lockdown and the new ‘normal’. Briefly at an individual level they are – loneliness; not being able to visit elderly relatives; not being able to comfort dying relatives; not being able to give the deceased a decent send off; being deprived of the interaction and physical contact that helps us to be social human beings…the list goes on… At a societal level, they are – concerns about the loss of venues to socialise in as pubs, cafes and restaurants start to go bust after months of lockdown; the loss of live music venues; invasive tracking and tracing software; the threats that if we don’t comply to increasing and arbitrary restrictions, we’ll never get back to ‘normal’…again, the list goes on… At a health level, they are – the impact on mental health of loneliness and long term separation from friends, lovers and family; concerns about the adverse impact of wearing face masks for a long period; fears about rushed through ‘vaccines’ where the manufacturers refuse to pay any compensation should there be serious side effects or complications…again, I’m only scratching the surface and the list does go on… Many of the concerns about lockdown and the new ‘normal’ listed above are about the threats to what makes us truly human.

A growing number of people are sharing those concerns – the problem is that to all intents and purposes, they’re politically homeless. As anarchists, by and large to date, we’ve failed to reach out to these people. Granted, a few of us have been trying but find that being open minded and reaching out to the growing number of people disaffected by lockdown has pushed us even further to the fringes of the anarchist movement, possibly even beyond it. All I and a few other people in the movement seeing things the same way have been guilty of is thinking outside the box and recognising that we have moved beyond the old political categories and divisions. The political divide between those who value collective and individual freedom on the one hand versus those who favour statist, top down solutions to our problems, even if those ‘solutions’ veer towards a 21st century form of tech facilitated totalitarianism is starting to become more dominant.

Conclusion

Pretty much everything I’ve dealt with in this piece indicates there’s a growing level of discontent turning into anger. Much of it is about issues that affect each and every one of us in some way, regardless of who we are or what our political beliefs are. Responses to these issues have manifested themselves in ways that stand outside the traditional left/right divide. This is why the left, and sadly, too many anarchists have stood aside from these manifestations because being so new, they defy easy political categorisation. As far as I’m concerned, if this discontent defies easy categorisation and the left has stayed away from it, that is something to be grateful for!

One thing I was taught very early on in my political activism is that a movement for social change, possibly even revolution, may well not come from the expected players and forces. The world now is very different to the one I started out as an activist in way back in the early 1980s. As the world changes, the forces likely to create social unrest and eventually, hopefully, force through radical change will also change. They will not meet rigorous ideological purity tests although to be honest, it’s doubtful whether any movement for change would ever have fully satisfied those tests. Insisting on ideological purity is a cop out that allows ‘activists’ to happily carry on in their protected bubbles while the real world is raging outside. We can’t afford the questionable luxury of retreating into a bubble and hiding away from the messy reality of the world with all of its complexities and contradictions.

Far from there being ‘nothing much happening’ in this country, there’s actually a heck of a lot that’s happening. We are living in a period that can be described as truly historical. There’s a lot of discontent and anger bubbling away. There are no certainties as we move into uncharted waters. All I’m saying is that we need to be open minded, creative and flexible. Once we’ve opened ourselves up, we need to offer our solidarity to those fighting against arrogant local authorities and the arbitrary authoritarianism coming from the corporations and the governments and the agencies who are doing their bidding. There’s everything to play for but, if we don’t respond and get stuck in, there’s literally everything to lose. It’s time to step up to the plate…

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