The People’s Assembly – A political compass

There are many ways in which I should like to be compared to the flaming gonzo genius that was Hunter Stockton Thompson. There are also some with which I would rather not.

If the wit of my writing, such as it may be, were mentioned in the same breath as The Doc’s I could merrily, at least from a professional point of view, take out my desk revolver and end it now. But of course I do not do this thing because I do not have the drug related psychosis that inhabited that man or the constant need for a generous measure of Chivas Regal. I tried it once just for the shits and giggles. I have gone back to real ale. It is safer and cheaper.

And then there is a sort of hinterland which only those who can truly dance The Rite Of Spring upon the page may share with a writer of such extreme wit and courage if they dare to. It is often said that Hunter’s unique style developed as a response to the question of what to put down when you didn’t get the story. See Fear And Loathing… on that score.

This may have to be one of those occasions. I apologise in advance should I not make it out the other side. Another piece of behaviour rare in Mr HST I believe.

I had agreed to write a piece about the proceedings at The People’s Assembly at The Sunlight Centre in Gillingham which took place on 14 September . I had also agreed to take a tour of some underground tunnels in Rochester on the same day which would be integral to a book I am trying to write. The next chance would not be until March 2014. Let us consider my hand forced.

The tour took longer than I had thought it would. The underground factory built for Short Brothers in 1939 is something of an underground city. As many as 5000 workers strived down here, pencilling their interpretations of old Adolf on the cold dusty brick.

Scratching their names, names of loved ones, names of people they’d like to love etc. etc. They drew detailed plans of aircraft by their benches (those bricks are probably still classified). They built the planes that won the war.

And when they emerged blinking into the finally safe light in the summer of 1945 it is statistically fair to say that a good number of them voted socialist if the gains that year by Messrs  Bottomley and Maxton in Chatham and Gillingham respectively are anything to go by.

Make no mistake, we live and work in government towns along this river. Even now. Back then though, these people knew which side the butter went on, should they know someone with the legs to obtain any. The towns of the Medway now, of course, vote as blue as blue can be.

Left Unity and The People’s Assembly flourished organically from the call by the film maker Ken Loach to take inspiration from that mass leftward shift after the second world war as outlined in his film The Spirit of 45 and do what needs to be done once more. In the face of the rightward lurch of British society he gave a call to arms, and thousands have heeded it.

Which does not change that fact that I am not where I ought to be, neither for the purposes of political interest nor journalistic integrity. So, pausing only to rip a UKIP sticker off a lamppost, I put my best boot forward for Gillingham.

Striding purposefully past all those indicators of a thriving big society, the boarded up properties, the charity shops, the recently attacked Islamic Centre, the street beggars, I finally arrived at my stated destination just in time for the final rally.

Not much point you may think? Well stick with it comrades, for there remained an exercise in remembering. It was one of those important things that you know you know but cannot recall for the life of you. Something very important.

The final rally consisted of a Q & A session between the floor, which numbered a respectable 40 or so people at least, and a pair of invited speakers. One being CWU Kent Invicta Branch Secretary Dave Banbury, and Cllr Tristan Osborne, who hopes to secure our vote in 2015 when standing for Labour in Chatham & Aylesford. It was chaired by a wry and smiling gentleman from the Kent Communist Party.

Two things quickly occurred to me. Firstly, that these two must have come from central casting. Mr Banbury was crop headed, estuary tongued, and dour in the face of the coming privatisation of The Royal Mail. Cllr Osborne was a bouncing meld of two fictional vicars, The Rev A.L.P. Blair himself and Tom Hollander out of Rev.

The second, and most important thing, was that there are two kinds of left orientation. There is ‘true’ left, and there is ‘magnetic’ left. The ‘true’ left is a movement that is grounded in the day to day experience of its practitioners. They believe that there are parts of society from which commerce should be kept. That the weakest in society should be cared for by the rest. That we are all at base equal and should be treated as such. The Spirit of 45…..

The ‘magnetic’ left is the preserve of those who mistily rally to the Labour cause and raise a glass to Ken’s film in a fog of beery nostalgia, wishing it could be like that now, but voting for Labour anyway…..I understand. I did it in 1997. Briefly.

It has been a long time since The Labour Party could stare their history in the face and not quickly look at their feet in shame, those ministers that are capable of such a feeling, that is. Mr Osborne made some nice noises about building more houses if they get back in a couple of years, being careful not to say on what basis this will happen.

He voiced opposition to the ‘bedroom tax’ while carefully sidestepping the spineless response to the illegalities of Universal Credit. He behaved, in short, like a prospective Labour candidate in a left leaning meeting. We clapped politely.

Mr Banbury though, despite acknowledging the long and difficult marriage that he has had to live through with the Labour Party, all the privations and privatisations, the unexplained absences, and the downright abuse, will crawl back and make nice on polling day. Once a magnetised particle, always a magnetised particle.

The point that was made, and made well, repeatedly, from the floor, was that there is an alternative. A ‘true’ left which is not fatally attracted to power to the point that its compass becomes compromised and useless. Such navigational instruments do not work well underground, though perhaps all those years ago the workers at Short’s did not require one to know what path they needed to take when it was all over.

It is clear though, that we need such a device now, to achieve a true left. The People’s Assembly may yet provide the map, and Left Unity the compass. That remains to be seen. But for now let’s raise a glass to the toilers beneath and others like them, who, whether they knew it or not clocked off in 1945 and created a better society.

Now let’s raise another to the true left of this century, whoever they turn out to be, and hope that they can make a similar difference. And one last feverish toast, to Hunter Stockton Thompson, the patron sinner of all scribes who missed the party and had to write about it anyway.

Todd Sileen


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