Tough but exhilarating

THE JOHN MCDONNELL COLUMN

NewJMcDIt’s a bit over a month since Jeremy was elected Labour leader and it’s been tough – but exhilarating.  This is a chronicle of the first month’s events.

It started with the special Labour Conference. The result was overwhelming but actually coincided with our own last week’s telephone canvass returns. Jeremy’s speech was well received and then, after joining our supporters in the nearby pub to thank them, we joined the refugee demonstration.

That Saturday Jeremy joined Chief Whip, Rosie Winterton, at Labour headquarters to appoint a new Shadow Cabinet. Even those existing Shadow Cabinet members who had stated they would not serve with Jeremy were approached to see if they were willing to contribute. Eventually after two days of discussions with Labour MPs, Jeremy appointed a Shadow Cabinet in time for the first of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) meetings on the Monday. Despite inaccurate reports to the contrary, Jeremy was well received at the PLP. He spoke and then replied in his usual gentle manner to a number of questions from Labour MPs, at the end of which he received an enthusiastic round of applause.

We were then into our first week of setting up an office, appointing the first staff, taking over the office space in the Commons and meeting the Labour HQ team. I couldn’t move into my office for a week, had one member of staff and then, when we moved in, we found all the computer equipment had been taken out. Within a week we had to prepare for Labour Party Conference. The media attention was intensive. Jeremy’s family bore the brunt of it and it was a disgrace the way they were treated. It was less so in my case but they still door-stepped every relative, past partner, friends and immediate family, offering money for articles and upsetting many of them by just harassing people. A journalist from the Daily Mail has been in my constituency for a month trying to dig up any dirt. My past speeches and activities were the subject of various distorted stories on the media. We expect all the usual abuse and bias from the Mail and Sun but the Guardian and BBC are just as biased but in a more subtle way.

The Labour Party Conference was energising for us all. With an extra 2,500 members turning up, the friendly and exciting atmosphere reflected the transformation that is taking place in the Party as a result of Jeremy’s campaign. Jeremy’s speech was extremely well received. At the Tory Party Conference the Tories were gloating at their election result and were in denial that they had only received less than 25% of the votes of the electorate. They wallowed in self congratulation and contempt for Jeremy’s election. Jeremy was back out on the road campaigning in Scotland and I visited Redcar to meet the steel workers and their families, while the unions and local MPs were meeting the receiver and government ministers in the hope of saving the plant. It was a deeply moving experience.

Returning that weekend, Jeremy and I discussed with our team the vote on the government’s Budget Responsibility Charter. The Charter is a political stunt by Osborne trying to trap us into being denounced as deficit deniers if we oppose it or supporters of cuts if we support it. Osborne has treated his charters with contempt so I had publicly said we would treat it with the same contempt and vote for it to avoid his trap. I also judged that we were at risk of large numbers of Labour MPs who had not supported Jeremy voting against us if we tried to vote against the order. We needed to avoid a large split on our first finance vote.

There were a number of factors that made us think again. Our success at the Labour Party Conference meant that many now spoke openly as Labour as an anti-austerity party. I then went to Redcar, where the government had refused to invest even to mothball the plant. The Charter would be used to justify limiting investment like this. Plus the reports on the global economic slowdown and the advice from our economic advisers highlighted just how irresponsibly out of touch the Charter was with the changed economic conditions. We took the tough decision to reverse my earlier public position – to urge Labour MPs to vote against. This would confirm us as an anti-austerity party.

We took this to the PLP meeting where some used this issue to attack the new leadership but we worked hard to speak to as many members of the PLP as possible to secure their support. The media went into a frenzy to attack and humiliate me for what they seized upon as a U- turn. The Tories revelled in my change of heart. Nevertheless with only a small minority abstaining we won the PLP to voting against the Charter and against austerity.

The result is that despite the turbulence of the first month we now have the political foundation for mobilising the Labour Party as a campaigning anti-austerity movement. Over the coming months, as the Tories force through the next round of austerity cuts, Labour has the authority to lead the fightback.

Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell is MP for Hayes and Harlington and Chair of the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs and of the Labour Representation Committee.

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When in doubt, bomb

Western policy in Syria is bankrupt. But that doesn’t stop the aerial attacks, reports Mike Phipps

The US has been bombing Syria for over a year. Russia began this September, as did France. Turkey has strafed targeted ISIS positions in the country and Israel has also conducted air strikes on Syrian military installations. Canada has been bombing Syria since April and Australia since September. Jordan began a year ago as did Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. That’s eleven countries in total.

Britain’s Parliament voted two years ago not to bomb Syria, but a recent Freedom of Information request by Reprieve revealed that UK forces had in fact been bombing the country for some time, as well as carrying out Drone-based assassinations there. Parliament is likely to be given another opportunity to debate aerial bombardment sometime in the autumn although, given the way the last vote was subverted, a No vote is unlikely to constrain the government entirely.

DroneWhy do so many countries feel the need to bomb Syria? Western interventionists claim this is all part of the war on the unspeakable ISIS, yet this is evidently not the full story given the US’s stated commitment to regime change in the country.

Aerial bombardment is a form of warfare that enshrines global inequalities. The lives of western armed forces are too valuable to risk on the ground. Casualties could generate popular opposition at home, forcing withdrawal. Bombing from the air, by contrast, entails less risk for the aggressors but significantly increases the danger to local civilians – ’collateral damage,’ in military jargon.

The recent US bombardment of a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan, causing 22 deaths, underlines this. Despite the fact that the organisation had notified the US, NATO and Afghan forces of their geographical co-ordinates – before and again during the attack – to clarify that their compound, the size of a football field, was a hospital, it suffered a sustained bombardment. In a contemptible attempt to obfuscate the circumstances leading to this war crime, the US changed its explanation four times.

US double standards are all too apparent in the Middle East. While highlighting the crimes of the Assad regime in Syria in dropping barrel bombs on its own civilians, it turns a blind eye to the thousands of civilian casualties its ally Saudi Arabia has inflicted through its bombing of Yemen. In one atrocity in September 2015, 130 people attending a wedding were massacred. Over 500 children have been killed since the air strikes began. The Saudis are also using US-supplied cluster bombs which are banned in most countries.

US attacks on ISIS have also killed many innocent civilians – 20 in one incident alone in September in Raqqa, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The idea that the US bombing campaign will act as a deterrent to ISIS recruitment is risible. In the first month of US bombing last year, ISIS recruited 6,000 new fighters. Over 4,000 coalition air strikes later, ISIS continues to advance in Syria.

Syria2On October 9, the US finally killed off its $500 million programme to train Syrian rebels. Last year, the Pentagon asked Congress to fund a programme that would train 2,300 rebels to fight the Assad government. In the end, it managed to train only 60. It’s hard to see where US strategy goes next. But one constant is continued bombing. And Britain may soon be officially joining in.

Syrians have endured four years of civil war, resulting in four million refugees.  To live in peace – is that too much to ask? Three years ago, according to a recent Guardian report, Russia proposed a peace settlement between the Syrian government and its opponents that would have included President Assad stepping down. But, according to the former Finnish President and Nobel peace prize laureate Martti Ahtisaari, who was involved in the discussions at the time, the US was so confident that Assad would soon be violently overthrown that it rejected the proposal. theguardian.com…west-ignored-russian-offer…

Progressive journalist Asa Winstanley observed recently: “Western powers seem to have a deliberate policy of not decisively backing one side or the other. The longer the Syrian civil war goes on, the less of a threat that Syria, Hezbollah and Iran are to the Israeli occupation. Embarking on a new or renewed bombing campaign in Syria will not help the situation, and will almost certainly make things worse. It will definitely create more refugees.” middleeastmonitor.com…western-bombing-is-only-helping-isis

The Stop the War Coalition is calling on people to lobby their MP to oppose the bombing of Syria. It takes two minutes – and might save countless lives. See stopwar.org.uk…stop-the-bombing-of-syria-now-lobby-your-mp-now

 

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The chance of a lifetime

Matt Wrack, General Secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, describes Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader as a political earthquake. It gives us enormous opportunities, which won’t last forever, he warns

MattWrackIf you are on the left, you would have to be a miserable old so-and-so (or an incorrigible sectarian) not to have been inspired by the resounding Corbyn victory on 12 September. It has been correctly described as a political earthquake. It has sent shockwaves through the political establishment.

The Corbyn revolt blew apart the narrative that there can be no alternative to the status quo, no alternative to austerity and growing inequality. A mass movement emerged based on the anger and frustration at establishment politics. It found huge support among the young and among many traditional Labour supporters, among trade union activists and among climate campaigners alike. It has presented us with the chance of a lifetime.

The entire political establishment is now out to destroy the Corbyn leadership. We have seen a sustained and very nasty press campaign which will continue and get worse. We hear the Prime Minister describe the Leader of the Opposition as a threat to national security. We have seen an anonymous general threatening direct action against a future Corbyn government.

Of more immediate concern are the attacks from within the Labour Party and the trade unions. The open criticism of the new Labour leader from within the Parliamentary Labour Party and from within his own Shadow Cabinet is unprecedented. Senior Labour figures, past and present, openly talk about the timing of a move against the leadership. Among some of the unions there have been rumblings, albeit more restrained due to the support Corbyn has among the rank and file. These are ominous warnings. We have the chance of a lifetime – but it won’t last forever.

Corbyn’s victory, and the appointment of John McDonnell as Shadow Chancellor, offer huge opportunities for our movement. We have a Labour leader who is unapologetic about being a trade unionist and supporting trade unions. The Blair/Brown government did nothing substantial to roll back the anti-union laws. That is just one of the many indictments of the New Labour years.

The Corbyn revolution provides a unique opportunity for the current generation of labour movement activists to shift politics in favour of our class. There is a huge amount to do but I would suggest three areas.

Firstly, we need a united left movement to defend Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell and their leading roles in the Labour Party, although such a movement needs to go beyond those currently involved in the Labour Party. The announcement of Momentum is potentially a very important step along this route. In the meantime campaigners are coming together across the country without any direction from above to build on the support for Jeremy’s campaign and to get organised at local level. Any structures which emerge have to be genuinely democratic and inclusive. One motivating feature of the Corbyn campaign was a rejection of the control-freakery of New Labour. Any new politics needs genuinely open debate and control by the rank and file.

Secondly, we need to renew and rebuild the rank and file leadership in our unions. It is fantastic that we have a Labour leader who will unapologetically speak up for our unions. This will give union members the confidence that there is real opposition in Parliament. But the battle is likely to take place largely outside of Westminster – in our workplaces and communities. There needs to be a genuine discussion about how a mass movement can be built which can challenge the anti-union legislation if the current Bill becomes law. That has been done before, but on the basis of a powerful shop stewards movement. Currently the attempts to organise such initiatives are fragmented and not up to the challenges we face. The Corbyn campaign can breathe new life into our unions – but only if people are prepared to break with sectarianism and build a genTUCuine network at rank and file level. At the same time we have to call on the TUC to give a lead. Such calls will be hugely strengthened by the building of our unions at local level and the strengthening of our workplace organisation.

Thirdly, we need to develop the debate about political ideas. The Corbyn campaign cannot simply be about cheerleading for Jeremy. It also has to develop a genuine democratic debate about the political way forward for our movement. Some of these issues, such as Trident replacement or fiscal policy, are already at the centre of debate. We should welcome this opportunity and take advantage to argue for socialist policies. What sort of society do we want to live in? How can we develop and build democracy?

For example, the campaigns around tax justice have powerfully exposed the industrial scale abuse of the system by the rich and big business. But are we building a movement that simply asks people to pay their taxes? Or should our movement set out goals that aim to change things on a more fundamental level. Hundreds of thousands of people have been drawn into discussion about left wing politics. We should take the opportunity to make the case for socialism.

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November 2015 Issue

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British Politics changed on 12th September 2015

THE JOHN MCDONNELL COLUMN

JMD1AT SPECIAL LABOUR PARTY CONFERENCE TO ELECT THE LEADER OF THE LABOUR PARTY, as Jeremy’s agent I went with him to an upstairs room in the QE2 Conference Centre in London to await the results of the ballot. We joined the other candidates for the leadership and their agents and engaged in friendly chat while we waited for Iain McNicol, Labour’s General Secretary to arrive. It was tense but we were reasonably confident of a good result. As every candidate will tell you, nothing is certain until the result is declared. Iain came in and announced the results of both the leadership and deputy leadership elections. Jeremy’s result was overwhelming. Although the scale of the victory was in line with our canvassing returns, nevertheless it was startling to see the actual size of Jeremy’s majorities in each section of the electorate, both members and supporters.

It was a political earthquake. There will be much comment and analysis in the weeks and months ahead on why this has happened. Put simply, it was obvious throughout the campaign that people wanted someone and, more importantly, something they could believe in once again. After years of the politics of spin and triangulation, people wanted what Jeremy’s campaign strapline offered “Honest Politics. Straight Talking.”

The tens of thousands who attended Jeremy’s rallies around the country and the thousands of volunteers in the campaign embraced a new kind of politics. It is the politics of inclusion, of principle, of stand up for what you believe in, and respect for the other’s point of view. Jeremy’s speech to the Conference, his talk to the TUC Congress and his first Prime Minister’s Questions, all reflected this new politics.

Since then a Shadow Cabinet has been appointed. It was regrettable that a small number of members of the Parliamentary Labour Party refused to serve in the Shadow Cabinet but they have all been offered the opportunity to serve the Party in some role if they wish to. The approach to the appointment of both the Shadow Cabinet and the overall administration has been inclusive, to erect a big tent politics.

RosieWWorking with Rosie Winterton, Labour’s Chief Whip, Jeremy was successful in creating the first Shadow Cabinet with a majority of women, 16 women to 15 men. When some criticised the fact that there were no women in the so called “big jobs” it was clear that they had failed to understand that we rejected the notion of these supposedly senior posts. This is a 19th century throw back to when the state consisted of departments to fight wars, control the streets and collect the taxes. Responsibility for educating our children, treating our sick, protecting our environment and all the other government departmental services are equally, if not more, important in some people’s eyes than the traditional departments.

Throughout the first week the media have thrown everything they can at us and there will be more. Every crevice of family or personal life is being scoured to make a story for the right wing gutter press, whether true or not. I pay tribute to the way Jeremy and his family have stood up to this invasion of their personal privacy. Expect much more of the media distortions and attacks.

Nevertheless we are getting on with forming an effective opposition to the Tories. It is vitally important now that we transform the mass support we mobilised in the leadership campaign into a major movement against austerity and in support of the Corbyn Labour administration. People are buzzing with ideas on campaigns that need to be launched and how we can mobilise.

A new politics of hope has leapt onto the scene. It is crucial that we seize the moment to use this great surge of hope to lay the foundations of a Labour government being elected in 2020 to transform our society.

Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell is MP for Hayes and Harlington and Chair of the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs and of the Labour Representation Committee.

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Only the Beginning

Linda Clarke, Strathkelvin & Bearsden CLP,  urges us to organise, educate and democratise

We are “collectively depressed” because we lost the 2015 General Election. That is the explanation given by many politicians and their media pundits as to why hundreds of thousands of Labour members and supporters elected Jeremy Corbyn. Nothing could be further from the truth.

scottish_labourThe election of a socialist, Jeremy Corbyn, under the most unlikely and democratic of circumstances, reflects a change of thinking by a wider section of society. Corbyn’s vision and explanation that austerity and poverty are not inevitable or necessary has given hope and motivation to hundreds of thousands of Labour members and supporters.

Long before the election defeat, bubbling away under the surface, more and more people have been sickened by the effects of austerity and inequality. These have been made worse by the behaviour and policies of many of our politicians who claim to represent us. People, especially young people, are looking for an alternative and the socialist policies and ideals of Jeremy Corbyn have hit a chord.

However, a socialist alternative will not be welcomed by all sections of society. Even a very modest redistribution of power and wealth means less for the rich, and they will fight tooth and nail to prevent that. They will use everything at their disposal to discredit Corbyn and our policies.

How can we fight back?  We need to organise, educate and democratise! This election has uncovered a wealth of support that we must nurture and build into a democratic socialist movement for change that is unstoppable. This is only the beginning…. there is much work to be done.   The future is in our hands!

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Unprecedented Opportunity

Mike Cowley, editor The Citizen, and member of Edinburgh North and Leith CLP, celebrates

When Jeremy Corbyn announced his candidacy for Labour Party leader, few dared hope for much beyond the familiar task of coaxing the best out of circumstances not of our choosing. Even as his nominations were confirmed, previous experience was already preparing us for a noble sortie from which, though ultimately unsuccessful, the left might at best replenish its numbers and momentum.

In retrospect, perhaps we did ourselves a disservice. All those years sustaining our organisations through the lean times – from Briefing to the LRC to the Campaign for Socialism, all that endeavour! – had in fact tended the ground upon which the catalysing effects of austerity, escalating inequality and the collapse of establishment authority might nourish the roots of a new hegemony – one founded on justice, peace, equality and the challenging of neoliberal mythology.

Now with Jeremy’s victory, a Labour left which has historically demurred from sectarian folly, adventurism or self-aggrandisement has secured an opportunity unprecedented in our lifetimes. A composed, pluralist and trade union based left, in coalition with the extra- parliamentary forces who are our natural allies, can begin in earnest the task of rendering the politically impossible the politically inevitable. Jeremy’s mandate is unparalleled, and though the obstacles to our programme are formidable, history appears, not before time, to be vindicating our efforts. Let’s make hope the basic currency of a new politics.

TheCitizen

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SNP Worried

Lauren Gilmour reports

On a wet September afternoon, socialists of all ages gathered in a Glasgow pub to watch the leadership election announcement. After riding high in opinion polls for weeks, being the only candidate to vote against the Tories’ draconian Welfare Bill and being bookies’ favourite to win, with one even paying out early, it seemed inevitable that Jeremy Corbyn would win.  But nobody imagined he would do quite so well.

The impact Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership will have on Scotland will be interesting. Firstly, it will deepen the ideological battle between class and nation based politics in Scotland. Labour supporters and members will now have a strengthened class based argument. The nationalists will see their nation based argument – of independence being the only way Scotland can achieve change – start to unravel as we face the 2020 General Election with a Labour Party whose leader is far to the left of Nicola Sturgeon.

The SNP will be worried. Their positioning to the left of Labour will be challenged as shown by Nicola Sturgeon’s reaction on Twitter after the result. This shows that the SNP is not a genuine party of the left –  consisting of nationalist opportunists who will put independence above everything.

TheCitizen

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There may be trouble ahead

We must liberate Corbyn from his PLP prison, argues Michael Calderbank, Brent Central CLP

Tens of thousands of new affiliated and registered supporters have flocked to the Party to elect Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader. They were joined, significantly, by overwhelming numbers of party members to give him a colossal democratic mandate. This puts his opponents in the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) – and they are legion – on the back foot, at least for the time being. Even vocal critics like John Mann accept there is no mood for an immediate coup, and are biding their time in the belief that a radical left leadership will soon prove its un-electability.

JC&TBOutright Corbynites form only a small fraction of the PLP, perhaps just 20 or so from 232.   These are outweighed by his open critics made up of maverick malcontents like Simon Danczuk, ideologically committed Blairites and traditional right wing fixers. But a majority of the PLP belong to neither camp, with an attitude that is pragmatic, cautious and sceptical but prepared to give a fair wind to the wider Party’s clear choice – at least for the time being. The fact that Jeremy’s first Shadow Cabinet includes the likes of Andy Burnham, Hilary Benn, Angela Eagle and Chris Bryant – even opening out to Lord Falconer, Gloria Del Peiro and Luciana Berger – shows that Corbyn has managed to reach out to a surprising range of forces in the immediate wake of his victory.

But it doesn’t take a soothsayer to see serious challenges looming. The media assault has been sustained. Deputy Leader Tom Watson gave early indications that he would not fall into line with Corbyn’s position on NATO or non-renewal of Trident while new Shadow Defence Secretary Maria Eagle has also previously backed Trident replacement. Hilary Benn is pushing for an unequivocal Yes position on the EU referendum, irrespective of what Cameron negotiates. It is rumoured that Cameron believes a significant Labour rebellion could allow him to force through a vote on attacking Syria and undermine Corbyn in the process. And despite promoting a record number of women to his Shadow Cabinet, critics still pointed out that the five ‘top’ posts were occupied by white men, while others picked on trivial issues like the wearing of a white poppy to the Cenotaph.

There is a danger that even some of those close to Jeremy’s office will suggest taking the line of least resistance, advising he should informally let it be known that he sees himself as a transitional figure, demonstrate an inclusive and emollient approach, strive for maximum unity and limit the extent to which he expects colleagues to accept his most radical positions.  This is on the basis he can make some structural changes to democratise policy making over two or three years, and at least establish a basis for members to have an active say over policy making going forward. This would give him enough cover within the PLP to operate with a degree of comfort, but would necessarily limit what could be achieved under his leadership, and would do little to fulfil the expectations of his supporters.

One very positive sign that Jeremy might have something bolder in mind is his preparedness to face down those voices – including from within the union movement – insisting that he gave the position of Shadow Chancellor to someone other than John McDonnell. Economy policy is absolutely crucial to the whole political direction of the Corbyn leadership, since any retreat on the clear anti-austerity commitments on which he was elected would be fatal in weakening and demoralising his supporters. However, McDonnell is likely to face resistance from a large section of the PLP for whom ‘economic credibility’ as defined by the markets is critical to electability.

Blanchflower

David (Danny) Blanchflower

Even many mainstream economists like Paul Krugman and David Blanchflower argue that, even from within the perspective of capitalism itself, austerity is self-defeating.  McDonnell can utilise these arguments to contest Osborne’s claims but the left can and must go further. As New Economics Foundation economist James Meadway has argued, “Keynesianism is not enough…. Any programme seeking to end austerity in the UK has to push beyond the point of demand management or some macroeconomic tinkering, and seek to transform the finance-led economy we all now inhabit. It will not be enough just pull the levers in a different way. The machine needs to be rebuilt”. Such a thoroughgoing transformation would be far more threatening to the institutional interests of the City of London and meet with a ferocious resistance which would require a political response of an altogether more radical nature than the safety-first “inclusive” approach would allow.

JMCD4McDonnell’s position will be vulnerable unless there is a significant counterweight to all the establishment opposition in the shape of a mass movement against austerity – a grassroots mobilisation of all those forces in society with a stake in fighting back. Local Labour Parties must immediately reach out, both in terms of a drive to recruit new party members, and also to connect and work alongside local trade union branches, community groups and social movements – like DPAC, housing groups, and climate activists.   A network should be established – drawing together members, affiliated/registered supporters and these wider supportive groups.. This would have the effect of immediately turning the Party’s structures outwards to involve a much wider spectrum of people, and encourage links being developed way beyond the existing ways of working.

It could be objected that attempts to create such structures already exist, such as under the People’s Assembly (PA) umbrella? Given the existing links between the Corbyn campaign and the PA it would be superficially attractive just to base it under their auspices. Nevertheless, it would be fundamentally important for the new structures to be democratic, grassroots-led bodies based on practical organising and genuine deliberation on practical policy making, rather than “stage armies” manipulated by remote top-down bureaucracies specialising in mobilising for set-piece rallies/demos but offering little in between. Any new organisation of Corbyn supporters would need to embody the desire for a new kind of politics, not one dominated and controlled from the centre by people who assume they know best.

Alongside this, Corbyn needs to move quickly on democratic reform of party structures.  One important signal could be given if the new leadership team were to quickly to work with General Secretary Ian McNichol and the NEC to shake up the Annual Conference agenda – in order to allow more time for democratic debates of contemporary/emergency resolutions, more real voices (personal experience of benefit sanctions, Bedroom Tax, disability cuts, zero-hours contracts etc) and fewer tedious set-piece speeches from politicians.   People voted for a political revolution in the way Labour ‘does politics’. We now have to turn this promise into a reality.

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October 2015 Issue

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