In the third and final panel session from the Left Lockdown Sceptics London Feb 2022 meeting, Alan D Miller and Charlotte Gracias from the Together declaration, Andrew Barr from Jews for Justice and Silkie Carlo from Big Brother Watch recount their experiences in campaigning during the COVID era. They also discuss different ways to campaign effectively. Prior to the Q+A session, activists Naomi Bridges and Colleen McDonnell talk about their own campaigning approaches.
Eli: I’ll introduce the panels and Chris will be chairing the Q&A. We have to keep things on a really tight time, but we have a lot of exciting speakers. We’re going to have Colleen speaking about being the famous PCR Swab Lady who’s been on every single Freedom Protest. Naomi is going to come back to speak for a few minutes on direct action. We’ve got Andrew Barr from a newly-formed group called Jews for Justice on the importance of being able to invoke history if authoritarianism is happening again and not being censored in that regard. We have Alan Miller and Charlotte Gracias from Together. And finally, we have Silkie Carlo from Big Brother Watch. We are going to start by hearing from Together.
Charlotte Gracias and Alan Miller, Together declaration
Charlotte Gracias: Hi, my name is Charlotte Gracias, one of the members of the Together steering group. Thanks for letting me speak today. I’m going to talk to you about effective campaigning and what we’ve done.
Together was launched in August 2021 after a meeting in late July where Alan Miller, our founder, had brought together members of other key groups, such as the Great Reopening, Save Our Rights, A Stand in the Park and many others, and lots of key individuals who had been speaking out about the restrictions.
We didn’t want to be in an echo chamber. We didn’t want to do something that was in a silo or likely to get side-lined. We were determined to have an umbrella organisation that would have a big, strong impact and a voice that people would listen to.
We were building relationships, as we often don’t realise how many allies we have. The key was to identify the common ground that we shared with other people and other organisations and work out what we could campaign together on.
We set out to focus on seven pillars based on what people were saying about lockdown and restrictions, what was affecting them, and then identifying the key areas that we could focus on.
We chose to start by identifying one small, achievable change that would make a real difference to the public and businesses. The fifteenth of July 2021 was supposed to be Freedom Day but we were facing the implementation of vaccine passports.
Vaccine passports are discriminatory, unethical, and would destroy the hospitality industry and disproportionately affect young people in certain demographics in society.
We aimed that campaign at the whole public, vaccinated or unvaccinated. We framed our ideas constructively and positively. This helped build people’s confidence so that they felt empowered to change things themselves.
We weren’t saying, don’t get vaccinated – we wanted to unite everyone against vaccine passports. We built alliances by reaching out to all the other groups fighting restrictions, as well as business leaders, media, celebrities, and politicians who are on our side. Different people and different organisations will have different interests and concerns. It was crucial for us to focus on the common ground, not on what divided us.
That was always the aim of Together. Those who wanted to stop us achieving our goal would have used those differences to divide us. It was therefore important that we were realistic about what we could achieve and what we couldn’t. We didn’t have all the answers, but we made sure we had all the facts so that we could never be undermined. We face criticism and accusations from other groups and we’ve dealt with that by keeping the dialogue open. It’s really important to keep things impersonal. Personal attacks usually backfire.
We planned the campaign so that each ally played to their strengths. We let others excel where we couldn’t. We didn’t have to lead every campaign as groups Safer to Wait, for example, had been tackling mask mandates and child vaccination with great success. One of the key tactics was to engage directly with the public whose voices were seldom heard or listened to. We adopted the 360 degree approach where we targeted the interests of those who had the power to give us what we wanted for the campaigns and worked out what we needed to do to get them on side.
For example, we engaged with the Covid Recovery Group, the backbenchers, politicians, business leaders, NHS staff, care workers, students, young people, and many other ordinary people who faced an impact from the restrictions.
Within our team, we have varied skillsets. We’re from different backgrounds with skills in media, communications, statistics, and writing. We are all united by a strong sense of justice. We are compassionate, driven, determined and between us have extensive experience in campaigning and lobbying.
I’ve got over 20 years’ experience working in the NHS, which really helped with the vaccine mandate campaign. Between us, we have huge numbers of contacts in the wider campaign groups amongst business leaders, media and politics.
Our branding was strong and very recognisable, and I can see that someone has one of our placards over there. The name Together invokes a feeling of positivity and solidarity. This was the polar opposite to what the government had tried to do for two years by separating us physically and trying to divide us based on our beliefs.
The graphics and the hashtags have been a key to our success. Our brand has been powerful in uniting people. However, we also recognize our limitations. We couldn’t do everything or challenge every restriction, bill, or policy, so we focused on what we can achieve together.
Keeping our signatories in the wider groups informed is important in order to maintain their interest and engagement. One of our strengths is messaging, the language, the tone and the frequency. We have an excellent social media team and we use multiple platforms to make sure that we engage with as many people as possible. That’s using leaflets, email, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, and we have links with all the grassroots campaigns.
We have over 200,000 signatories and we gather information so that we can keep them all up to date with our campaigns and the calls to action. We’ve always been transparent with people about how we use their information. We keep our communication short and to the point, regular but not too often.
We now have a network of local leaders and ambassadors. They perform a number of actions including setting up stalls in public places, holding local public meetings, organising local marches and demonstrations, media stance, handing out leaflets and stickers, getting people to sign petitions and lobbying local politicians.
The Together No Vaccine Passport and No Vaccine Mandate campaigns have been a huge success. We’ve campaigned at the right time with the right people on side and aimed our campaigns at the key people and organisations who would shift both political and public opinion. Our drive to get people to contact their MPs had a massive impact as well as our attendance on marches with distinctive black and white placards. We’ve got the mainstream media’s attention, and that in turn, influenced the public. We as an organisation will continue to build on those successes where we tackle things like the Online Harms Bill, the Human Rights Bill and all remaining restrictions. Thank you very much.
Alan Miller: Well, Charlotte said everything. You’ve been brilliant. I thought what might be quite useful to do is just to talk about a couple of examples of why we’re doing things in a certain way. Leading on from what Sunetra, Jay and Martin were saying earlier, we all know that by now that any attempt to say something that doesn’t fit with things can be smeared, whether it’s about history, religion, public health or a range of other issues.
What it often boils down to is that the public and people are stupid and dirty and untrustworthy and nasty and dangerous and all the ideas of the mob that were there for a long time. The early eugenicist and racist ideas of the mob, i.e. the new emerging working class, those dirty people who can’t be trusted, then get superimposed and revisited whenever it’s convenient. I think those ideas percolate everywhere across the left and the right and the centre.
Early on in the first lockdown, there was a huge voluntarist kind of sentiment amongst the public. They wanted to help. That was shut down very quickly and it became a kind of series of commands to children, very patronising, disdainful and not about engaging in a democratic way and winning hearts and minds. The message was, if you don’t do this, you’re going to kill people.
In fact, the responsible thing to do is to be able to engage with the public and win them over to something and not treat them with contempt. So, the goal all along for Together was to win over the public. And Charlotte’s given a really good rendition of how we went about doing it.
But it’s important to say that I think within the anti-lockdown and anti-restrictions fraternity there’s an element that puts forward some of these ideas that we actually need to argue against. Whereas the government and others don’t engage or debate, don’t talk about costs and benefits etc but just say, this is what you need to do and if you don’t you are irresponsible, anti-vax etc, we have an element of that in our own fraternity where we call people ‘sheeple’, for example. In a way, that’s a reflection of the idea that you can’t trust the people. We live in a time when instead of being a force, the people, what used to be called the working class, is not on the public stage, it’s been isolated and atomised.
That’s why lockdown was just so egregious. It was almost kind of an entrenching of that idea. We really wanted to engage and try and win and resuscitate the idea of a public with a voice. As Charlotte said, there are lots of different campaign groups and people that are doing really important good work, and we want to amplify and work together.
The goal was not to be in an echo chamber anymore but to get leaders and people to step up from the public and to organise locally and to impose themselves peacefully but forcefully with MPs, with councillors, with NHS Trusts, at universities, and to ask awkward questions and to be annoying and to say things that are uncomfortable, so that we create effectively a new public.
That’s important with respect to the very good questions we finished up on this morning: what’s the future for science and trust, and what’s the future for public policy? Well, the future we don’t know. But we can be certain if the public is not engaging and imposing itself in a decent way, in a progressive way, in a sensible, rational, calm way, then it will only be a one-way street.
That’s why now I think there’s a moment – and they’ve used the term war all the time, so I’m going to use it – there’s an important moment for winning the peace. Winning the peace means getting rid of division and finger pointing about what people’s choices are.
But it is also about asking what policy decisions were made separate to science and what were the consequences of those decisions? How could it have been done differently? What’s the risk and benefit analysis that is going to be used in the future in terms of parliamentary scrutiny, in terms of engaging with us? I think there’s a really good opportunity to encourage as much as possible the idea of the public having an ongoing voice and to create a space where the public is not isolated and atomised and running scared from a fear campaign, but where it’s active.
At first, people said, why are you going to MPs? They’re all part of this plan and you’re never going to do anything. We have lived through an eclipse for the last 30 years where the public hasn’t really had a voice at all. Many people think that if you try and change things, it only makes them worse. And so, it’s an opportunity to force through the idea that the public is an essential part of a free society and that you don’t negate that in any attempt to do a public health measure or anything else. But you need to properly engage.
Now, obviously, the criticism of that would be that the majority of people agreed with the government’s policies. But I think that the point about the public is that it’s an active political thing. It’s not just a collection of individuals. It’s a force that used to be, throughout the 20th century, on the stage where there weren’t just legislative actions happening, it wasn’t just smart lawyers, it was people bravely standing for things and changing them. And in a similar way, the public should have an active voice in determining where we go from here.
In terms of how we organise and work with people, people say to us that you can’t work with these politicians, or you shouldn’t work with those individuals, or this person has said that on this issue before. And we’re quite clear. Lots of people have lots of ideas, ideas I don’t always agree with. A lot of people think that I’ve got very strange ideas about a whole range of things. But the important thing is the ability to have open debate, and freedom of speech is one of our seven pillars, because without that you can’t convince anyone of the efficacy of your ideas. You can’t win hearts and minds, and we’ve seen these terrible takedowns and shadow banning and slurring of people.
As the previous speakers have shown, we’ve seen what happens when you don’t have open, honest debate. We try to encourage as much open discussion and debate as possible, but not to get too caught up on people name calling and what people have said about people. There are going to be smearers anyway, that’s part of the culture that we’re living in. But you can challenge the whole cancel culture.
As we’re at a Left Lockdown Sceptics meeting, I would argue that anyone who thinks of themselves as being of the left has a moral duty to resuscitate and win back the idea that people from the left champion free speech. It is a travesty that people that are on the whatever you want to call the right are the champions of free speech. That should be the thing that everyone would want to do.
We’ve got a long way to go. We’ve had some successes. The most exciting thing has been working with a whole new set of people, all those demonstrations, both here and internationally. The thing that really has shocked me is how many ordinary people that have never been involved in anything, in any demonstration or event, have come out and are up for a conversation. Whilst the media tried to present it as a few hundred mad cranks, actually lots of people are very concerned with these issues.
They said to us in Canada and Australia, if you win this with the mandates, that will be exceptional, but we don’t think you’re going to. All eyes are on you. And I think there’s an opportunity. We shine a light for everyone because what we do here has an effect here and internationally. Thank you.
Eli: We’ll take questions and answers at the end. I just wanted to repeat what we said earlier, we decided against filming and recording of the event because we’ll be recording and uploading it onto the website. So, we’d ask you not to film or record. Thank you. We are going to move on to Andrew Barr from Jews for Justice.
Andrew Barr, Jews for Justice
Andrew Barr: Thank you, Eli. We’re the new kids on the block. This is our first public outing, so I’d be very grateful for any feedback from the audience about our ideas and our direction.
My own personal background, I’m not from the left, I’m not from the right, my background is as a social historian. I’ve written books on the history of drink and food, essentially taking the perspective that if you focus on a small, narrow subject, you can then bring it out to reflect on a much bigger picture. I’ve written the history of food and drink in Britain and America. Essentially these are histories of Britain and America but seen through a particular prism.
The idea of Jews for Justice is quite similar in a way. We’re being very narrow in our perspective, but the idea is to reflect on all the issues that are happening at the moment.
Where does our group come from? When they announced the coronavirus pandemic in the spring of 2020, my first thinking as a historian was, my God, this is the Reichstag Fire replicated. Nobody really knows who started Reichstag fire. Was it a mad communist? Was he put up to it by the Nazis? Was it the Nazis who did it and then blamed it on the communists?
We don’t know, just as with the coronavirus, we don’t really know how it all started. But it doesn’t matter. It was an excuse for an authoritarian power grab. It’s exactly the same excuse.
Like a lot of us these last couple of years, I’ve been totally radicalised by the events of the spring of 2020. I’ve been thinking, what can I do personally? How can I use my knowledge, my skillsets, my own history, my position, to fight back?
Jews for Justice was only set up at the end of last year, when, of course, we were faced with the prospect of lockdown here and vaccine passports. We thought it would be a good idea to gather together as a group, and the reason for being Jews was very specific because many of us have experience of having lost family members in the Holocaust or family members having just escaped the Holocaust. We will all inevitably have distant relatives who died in the Holocaust.
Therefore, we can make the forbidden comparison. A lot of people have been making the comparison between what was occurring here and what is certainly occurring now in much of Europe, with what happened in Germany in the 1930s.
We are in a stronger position to make that comparison because no one can tell us we’re not allowed to make it. They will try. We have skin in the game, though. Our idea is to push this line of comparison.
Now, we do not go too far. We have to be very specific and very precise. People who make the comparison to 1930s Germany often get accused by the corporate media of comparing what is happening now with the Holocaust.
Obviously, there are some people who think there is a comparison with the Holocaust and some people who say the vaccines are the Holocaust. We’re not going there because that’s not definite. But we can make a very precise and specific comparison with the authoritarian regime of Nazi Germany and the authoritarian regimes and the suppression of human rights in Britain and what is happening in much of Europe, and in particular, the othering of the unvaccinated, the attempt to stigmatise the unvaccinated, the attempt to make the public in general hate the unvaccinated, which, for us, immediately reflects the way that Jews were treated and way the public was taught to turn against Jews in 1930s Germany.
That is our line of argument. But as I’ve said, because things are changing here, the political attack is pivoting in this country. They seem to be using different means of depriving us of our human rights, principally at the moment through a number of bills that are going through Parliament.
We are trying to make our project more international to appeal particularly to Israel itself and to much of Europe. We’re currently involved in a project where we will do something inspired by the Great Barrington Declaration and the Together Declaration. We are going to put out an international declaration, a warning from history if you want, which people will be able to sign, anyone will be able to sign, saying that we as Jews are really concerned about where the events that are happening now might lead.
Because you know all these lines that if you fail to learn from history, you are condemned to repeat it, the only thing we learn from history is we do not learn from history, that’s what we’re pushing. At the moment, it is a very small focus campaign. Jews for Justice is a small private group that meets in person, partly a support group, but also a campaign group.
I’ve just put up a public group on Telegram so anyone can join and look at it, the Jews for Justice public channel. Even if you’re not on Telegram, you can get onto that from the internet. There will be a website on the international declaration, but we are having a humongous argument over names.
Names can be an absolute killer. And obviously you want to get your name right at the beginning. We had a few arguments over Jews for Justice as a name, but we said no, we’ve just got to go for it and try and run things from there. I would be very grateful for any feedback from anyone as to what they think about the idea and where they feel we can have our strongest argument. Thank you very much.
Colleen McDonnell and Naomi Bridges on Direct action
Eli: It’s so interesting to see where our different strands of activism are taking us. We are going to hear briefly from two people about direct action. First from Colleen and then again from Naomi Bridges on having been direct activists from the start and the importance of direct action. First, we’ll hear from Colleen, aka PCR Lady.
Colleen: Okay, I carry a large nasal swab at some protests. I came into this movement seven years ago when my youngest child had a severe reaction to the MMR so that’s how I am involved now.
I was awake from the beginning because I knew about the pharmaceutical industry and how it worked. Then in the summer of 2020, I think it was Matt Hancock said that children were going to have to be tested to go to school. I have primary-aged children, and I just wasn’t having it.
On the Arnica Parenting Natural Immunity group, I said, who wants to deliver an enormous nasal swab to Matt Hancock’s house? And I had quite a lot of interest, but then it disappeared. Then I just went ahead and made this enormous nasal swab out of a carpet roll that I had used in a previous project for a Santa’s grotto.
It’s a tube with a swab head on it, and then I just put messages on it. My son came with me to the first demo. I actually brought it in on the tube from West London. I did that for one protest, and then they caught me and they wouldn’t allow me on the tube with it anymore. I had to drive it in.
It takes a lot of energy and organisation to do it. But it’s fine, I can do it. I just put different messages on it, whatever is particularly bothering me at that time. I think the first one I had was, “Swab this Handcock!” I’ll usually have something on the back, some fact or piece of data.
Around the time that I made it, I started looking into PCR and I found a blog post about Kary Mullis by the journalist Celia Farber. I got deeper and deeper into it. I always try to attach a bit of science or something to the swab.
Then Operation Moonshot started, it was £100 billion or something for all the tests that they were going to do. Then I changed it to “Moonshot this BoJo.” I’ve had, I don’t know, eight different swabs, which is crazy. But one got taken by the Met Police. One I kind of half left in Berlin. I went to a protest in Berlin, and I brought a cut-up swab, and I left half of it in the hotel room, which is quite funny. And then I reassembled it for my child to carry when we got back. Then I made a smaller one that was lighter, to put all the different safe and effective treatments that are available, instead of using treatments that kill people.
That’s basically it. I’m just an activist. I am quite informed but I don’t like public speaking and I don’t like carrying a megaphone or anything like that. So, I just walk with a swab. And some people love it. Not everybody loves it. I love that I’m seeing like loads of familiar faces here today. And that’s it. I’m just happy to be part of the movement.
Eli: And following on, Naomi will also speak about direct action.
Naomi Bridges: Thanks, Eli. I will keep it brief. We managed to roll back the Gender Recognition Act but the battle has not been won. It’s coming in through the back door. One of the ways we did that was putting on events. I spoke about that earlier. When Kate and I did those events, we also had a podcast which was about how to put on an event because we thought, where do you start? It’s on Suffragette City radio. We talk about how a lot of campaigning is drudgery. It’s doing annoying emails, finding a venue, finding people to speak, things like that. It’s also about just getting out there, having conversations, finding alternative forums, if you can. I mean, I don’t think many people imagined that Mumsnet would become a hotbed of radicalisation. But women will speak to each other about issues that affect them.
When you get censored by Twitter, you can find somewhere else. I want to reiterate the importance of trying to meet in person and trying to meet other people where they’re at, as well. With the lockdown issues, if you’re trying to convince your friends, they might not come to where you are because they’ll be a bit afraid, so meet them outside. It’s meeting them where they’re at.
Stickering is effective, it caused quite a few incidents with the Gender Recognition Act and with the lockdown, although I would never recommend graffiti.
To echo some of the other stuff that’s been said by the panel, remember that you’ve got more in common with your neighbour who votes differently to you than you do with the people who walk the corridors of power.
My neighbour’s annoying and he is probably an anti-feminist and I’d be happy to tell him how he’s wrong in person. But I know I’ve got more in common with him than any of the MPs that walk the corridors of power who know nothing about my life and know nothing about his life.
Choose one angle, that was a theme that came up again. I talk a lot about how the lockdown hurts women, that’s just because I know about it. It doesn’t mean that I don’t care about the ways that the lockdown has hurt disabled people, or Black working-class men. I care about all these things. But because I know a little bit about that, I can go in with that angle and hopefully convince the people in my tribe as well, the feminists who are concerned about women’s issues.
Try and stay focused. It’s hard, but just don’t get dragged into something. If they’re going to call you names, don’t rise to it. And it’s so much easier said than done. I’m guilty of not doing it. But try and stay focused, if you can.
Draw parallels. It’s helped me by speaking about the way that the suffragettes organised in person and how we’ve organised in person through the Gender Recognition Act. We need to organise in person now.
I want to end with an Emmeline Pankhurst quote that I’m probably going to misquote because I’m a terrible feminist. But we took our name from this quote, Make More Noise. Emmeline Pankhurst said, “You have to make more noise than anybody else, you have to fill the papers more than anybody else, you have to make yourself more obtrusive than anybody else. In fact, you need to be there all the time and see that they do not snow you under.” Thanks.
Eli: It’s really exciting and inspiring. We’ll be able to talk more about it in the effective campaigning breakdown group. Finally, I’m pleased to be able to welcome Silkie Carlo of Big Brother Watch.
Silkie Carlo, Big Brother Watch
Silkie Carlo: Thank you so much. And thank you, Eli, for organising this because it’s fantastic, much needed. No offence to anyone, but I’m surprised there are so many people here because I’m used to feeling like the conversation on the left has been a small one. But it’s not today. I have to say, just personally, the last couple of years have been very dark. I think they have for a lot of us. And it’s been a real light in the dark to be able to meet people like a lot of the people here today and campaign alongside you in really difficult circumstances. Hopefully, there are some things that can flourish out of this very miserable two years.
I’m Silkie Carlo. I’m the director of Big Brother Watch. We are a civil liberties organisation. Obviously, this is a meeting for people on the left. We are nonpartisan, we do cross party work. And we’ve done that on this issue throughout as well.
I should also clarify a position on lockdown, since lockdown is in the title of the organization of this meeting. We’re not scientists, we are civil liberties campaigners. So, we can’t take a view on the efficacy or otherwise of lockdown. But we’ve always been against criminalising people for everyday actions. We can see how that has panned out really disastrously and that the fines have been levelled at ordinary working people, not the people in Number 10 as has become pertinently clear.
We were straight off the bat when lockdown started in March 2020. The first thing that I did was call around pretty much everyone in my phone book who was in Parliament to talk to people and warn them that this is a really serious situation, of course, but we are about to see, as we always do in the wake of a crisis, a strong swing to authoritarianism. And for those of us who are alive to this risk, we need to make a statement now that yes, measures will need to be taken, but they’re going to need to be proportionate, and they need to end as soon as possible.
We did the ‘Two years is too long’ campaign, and I had ex-ministers and people across the political spectrum join me in a letter that first weekend when Boris Johnson announced the lockdown, and we had also Amnesty and Liberty and other human rights groups at that stage. That was really important, and I think that’s something to bear in mind.
When crises happen again, setting the narrative immediately and being on the front foot is really important because if you leave a gulf, the people that want to seize the narrative for authoritarian ends will do, and then it’s so much harder. It’s good to pin people down to their values immediately.
The first thing to say is that Big Brother Watch is cross-party and non-partisan. The second is that the pandemic obviously created huge issues of concern for people on the left, whether that was workers’ rights, sick pay, health and social care, race and gender disparity, let alone the civil liberties issues, free speech, and all the kinds of inequality that have been exacerbated over this period. I don’t need to convince you of this. I expect that’s why you’re here.
I did a talk at Labour Conference on why I think it’s an issue for the left, which is titled something like ‘Silkie Carlo, I will not comply’. I’m not going to rehash it. But I think that’s obvious to all of us.
The third thing I want to say is we have campaigned successfully. The position that the UK is in compared to the rest of the West is remarkable. When we look across to people in Canada and New Zealand and Australia, we can see how much worse it could have been. That is a real credit to every single person who has taken any action, large or small, which is everyone in this room, by the way, because even taking an interest, even being here, it’s all something.
And the counterfactual is awful. Had we not done those small actions, had we not emailed our MPs or supported a new group or supported an old group or taken the actions that we have, then there’s no doubt, we can see where we would have been. And that’s something that we all ought to be really proud of. Most of the West is in the grips of terrible, terrible authoritarianism that is going to be very hard to extract from.
Now, I’m going to say stuff that might be unpopular. I think if we are honest, we can’t honestly say that the success that we have had is down to the left. We have to be honest about that. These things that we’re up against are squarely issues for the left. We’re talking about health care, we’re talking about sick pay, inequality, civil liberties. How is it that the right has managed to, let’s be honest, win most of this fight? That’s a real issue.
My analysis, for what it’s worth, is this: First of all, we have a problem with institutions that we rely on, the rights institutions and professional political institutions. I think there are a couple of reasons for this. One is that, in my experience, they are overwhelmingly run by middle- and upper-class people. And they don’t understand and they don’t share the same perspective.
As someone who works in human rights, I have felt like an outsider my whole life, because I’m not from that background. It does mean that there are certain barriers, and I think we’ve felt that with disastrous effect over the past couple of years. It’s a problem. The links between some of those institutions and working-class people have been too weak. It’s not possible to suddenly have pop up groups or pop-up movements that can suddenly harness unions and rights institutions. It doesn’t work like that. You need to have pre-existing relationships and you need to have trust. Those groups need to be able to trust the people they’re listening to. And that clearly wasn’t there because most of the rights institutions, and there have been exceptions, have ignored the needs and views of working-class people over this time, and they’ve ignored their duties.
I can’t tell you how sick and actually a bit scared it makes me when I look at some of the rights groups that I’ve worked with for a long time, or I look to the institutions at the European level – for example, when things kicked off in Austria, what are they doing over there? Are they having sleepless nights like me? Are they working till four in the morning like me? Are they doing more than they’ve ever done before? No, they are talking about totally unrelated issues. They’re not even acknowledging that it is happening. They had wilful blindness. That’s a real problem.
Why is that? Like I said, I think it’s for two reasons. Firstly, they have terrible middle- and upper-class capture. Secondly, the links with the people that they need to represent are too weak. One thing I take away from this is that people on the left need to build stronger links with the institutions that are supposed to represent us. That means joining rights groups and joining unions, and they ought to be the unions that are supposed to represent you. Don’t be tempted to go off to fringe ones that are grifting through this process. I might say more about that.
Focus and discipline have been missing. We are experts in our own experience. And I think we ought to stick to that. There have been so many issues that have been raised over the past two years that are health-based, scientific, or so many different areas of expertise. We can only claim to speak in the areas where we have expertise. That means if you work in the NHS, you’re qualified to talk about your experience working in the NHS. Don’t let other people speak for you. Don’t let people take your voice. If you are a woman or a feminist campaigner, just like Naomi was saying, talk about that experience. If you’re part of a minority group, talk about that experience. You’re qualified to.
Where I think there’s a risk is that people have been bombarded with information, facts, science, and it has been a risk to say, well, I can win the scientific debate, I can win the scientific argument, I’m going to throw stats and figures. We’re beyond that. First of all, if we’re not qualified to do it, we’re not going to be able to do it with any authority. Second, you’re going to lose. Because if you don’t have the authority to talk about these issues, you’re going to be dismissed immediately. The one thing you can’t be dismissed on is your experience, your work, your expertise, your life experience.
Equally, I think that means that for people from all different walks of life, the best thing you can do is talk about that. Talk about your experience there.
The third thing I want to say is that in terms of lessons to take away from this, our enemies’ enemies are not our friends. I think that because we’ve been let down by some institutions that shouldn’t have let us down, there’s a risk of thinking, well, I’ll just side with anyone who’s willing to listen or anyone who’s got a platform, anyone who’s on my side. There’s a difference between bridging divides and coming together and siding with people who don’t genuinely have your interests.
As people on the left, you have to know what your values are. You have a basic set of values, and you have to stick to them and be uncompromising about those key values. Then you can bridge divides, but don’t abandon all of those values.
I have to say, one of the things that concerned me was when the legal challenge against the vaccine mandate in the NHS was announced, they chose Nigel Farage’s show on GB News to do it. What an own goal. Because the easiest smear for any campaign group right now is that you are far right or you’re mad, anti vax, all of this kind of stuff.
For a movement that is about vaccine mandates in the NHS, that is not something that Nigel Farage genuinely gives a shit about. There will be people on the right that will try to harness the interests of the left for their own benefit. People on the right are very good at seizing ownership of things; it’s what they do. They will seize ownership of left-wing campaigns if they can.
It also makes it more difficult to bring on board people on the left. I can tell you this because I’m trying to do it a lot. When we’re trying to do cross party campaigns and you go to people on the left and in the Labour Party or in the Greens, they have a perception that a lot of this is right-wing and that to be concerned about civil liberties and some of these policies is a right-wing project.
I think if people on the left are organising way too cosily with people on the right and not making their own voice heard, then you kind of fulfil that prophecy. There’s no cushioning for people that are silently there and want to be involved and want to have a say. They don’t see that there’s a place for them. That’s an issue.
I also think that pushing people to unions like the Workers of England Union is a bad idea. They’re run by people from a right-wing party called the English Democrats. They’re against the Human Rights Act. They’re against equality law. They’re right-wing nationalists. It’s an act of self-sabotage because where that energy should be going is the mainstream unions. Make them do their jobs. They stand for you. If you’re paying them, they need to speak for you. That’s where the initial energy should go. I could say so much more about that.
There’s a lot to be proud of. There’s a lot that has been won, and there’s a lot to celebrate. This time now as things are starting to come to a close on this phase – there will always be future crises – people should get involved with groups, local politics, institutions. Don’t be afraid of doing it because they don’t represent you; make them represent you. That’s the only way to do it. When people in the mainstream try to push you to the fringe, don’t go there. Push back. Be a part of these institutions that are supposed to speak for you. Health is a left issue. It’s about nurture, compassion, care, healing. This whole idea has been completely dominated now by the language of authoritarianism and control, and we have to continue to push back on that and set the terms of the debate.
The greatest lesson, in terms of effective action, is from the truckers in Canada. It really encapsulates everything I’ve said and everything I’ve been speaking about. The people who are affected by the law are campaigning on the law. They are taking direct action. It’s classic union style collective action. And they are withholding profit from the paymasters in doing so.
You can see that everyone from Trudeau to the New York Times and mainstream media is yet again having this anti-working-class language of authoritarianism lobbed at them, that they are these brutish Islamophobic, transphobic, far right people, whatever it is that Trudeau says. Well, I think they’ve done a really good job of not permitting that in their spaces, and they clearly have great courage and solidarity and that is really important. That’s all I wanted to say. Thank you.
Eli: Thank you so much, Silkie. I’m so pleased you were able to raise these issues. There are going to be some thorny issues ahead but we must carry on being bipartisan and non-sectarian and working together and feeling part of the movement. Thank you. Chris will be officiating the Q and A.
Questions and Answers
Chris: Firstly, a reminder that it’s questions and answers and discussion from the panel. Limit your preambles, move quickly to the question. And it’s a question not questions. We’ve got four panellists plus Naomi and Colleen. I’ll try and do justice to everybody. Over to you.
Question: Hi, a quick comment for Andrew and then a very specific question for Silkie to do with human rights organisations. Andrew, as you will know, there is a big organisation in the UK called Jews for Justice for Palestinians. I would say they are the most prominent left-wing Jewish organisation. I’d just be very careful about the name that you’ve chosen, Jews for Justice.
My question for Silkie: You mentioned reasons why the human rights organisations, I guess you mean people like Liberty, Amnesty and so on, haven’t stood up properly on this issue. I think your points are well made. However, I wonder if there’s another thing as well, that has a bit more history. It’s been noted that, especially in America, organisations like Human Rights Watch and the American branch of Amnesty, there’s a revolving door complex, with people being in the political administration, then coming to work for those organisations, and going back again. Many people have criticised them for being too close to government. What I was wondering is, if you agree that this process has happened with bells on in this situation, in that these organisations have been corrupted or nobbled, if you like, by those in charge?
Silkie: That’s not my experience in the UK, I have to say. And by the way, I do think that our civil society organisations have been better on these issues than in other countries. I’m obviously going to count Big Brother Watch in that. I mean, we’ve been hyperactive over the past couple of years. We have done campaigns with Liberty, and Liberty is anti-vaccine mandate and anti-Covid Pass. But sure, Amnesty have been very quiet. And Human Rights Watch have been very quiet, and then the European rights institutions have been quiet. Across the rest of the world, I hold my head in shame. The ACLU has absolutely plummeted over the past few years. The Canadian Civil Liberties Association, I haven’t seen them doing any advocacy for the truckers. There are lots of others around the world that I’ve worked with before who have been shamefully silent.
We’ve got to join those groups that are capable of speaking for us and let them know that we want them to speak for us because otherwise they’re only acting on behalf of the people that are part of those groups. The other thing is, and this is just a realistic political point, whether it’s right or wrong, it’s just the reality, is that the caricature of some of the people involved in the pushback to measures over the past couple of years have been broadly right wing or that people who are anti-vaccine mandate are anti-vaccine. This is why I spoke about focus and discipline, because if you’re involved in campaigns that give any space for that slur to manifest in reality, we will just lose so many people. Unfortunately, I do think that that’s been a large part of the problem as well. And it’s just meant that it’s toxic. It means that people don’t want to go there. It means that for the people in the Labour Party who are anti-vaccine mandate and will privately tell you that they are, some of them didn’t feel, rightly or wrongly, and I think wrongly, but they didn’t have the courage, to be honest, to do more about it because they thought they were going to be associated with right-wing lunatics. That’s why it’s incumbent on organisers to be incredibly focused and disciplined in the way that we do things.
Chris: I’ve got a few hands up here. Woman on the edge of the middle in the pink top. The microphone is coming your way. And just a reminder, this is all about activism and campaigns and what works. Bear in mind also we’ve got a session on this later on to create ideas. Over to you, thank you.
Question: Silkie, this is really a question for you. I’m a university lecturer, and my union, UCU, if it were up to them, we would still be teaching on Zoom wearing masks, everyone would have to have five vaccines in order even to do Zoom classes. I love your organisation so much, but I really have to disagree with you. I don’t think those values are the left’s values anymore. That’s the problem. Just thinking about the truckers, who I think are wonderful, you look at what magazines like Jacobin were saying, it was incredible – that the truckers are right-wing fascists etc. And that’s coming from the left. I’m totally politically homeless in that sense, and more often than not, I find myself saying to my friends and colleagues, thank God for Desmond Swayne, where would we be without those right-wing politicians? I wrote endlessly to my MP Rosena Allin-Khan, saying, what are you going to do about the vaccine mandates? And she just said, well, it could be a bit of a problem … I don’t know where one can go because I don’t think there is a left that I would understand.
Silkie: You’re not alone in feeling politically homeless. A lot of people do. You’re certainly right that some of the dominant narratives on the left prioritise what might be called safetyism. I don’t know if this is quite the right term. But people who go to work do have a right to feel safe. Of course, they do. When we talk about campaigning around civil liberties, it is important also to have discussion about things like sick pay. It is like Alan said earlier, that the left response at the beginning was around support. No-one was saying just take everything away, and let’s all fend for ourselves. It was about communities coming together and supporting and looking after each other. That kind of approach needs to be reinvigorated in the unions and on the left, rather than just the kind of cold hard authoritarianism.
All I would say is, and I have to be careful about how I say this because we’re a non-party organisation, I would think that if you were a campaigner on the left, and you see people who are on very much the right speaking for you, then of course, that’s something that you’ll be relieved by.
But there are still anti-authoritarians on the left. The Socialist Campaign Group, which includes Shami Chakrabarti, Jeremy Corbyn, Diane Abbott and Bell Ribeiro-Addy, all of the socialists in the Labour Party, they are there. And I think if too much oxygen is fed to some of the characters on the right by constituents on the left, then a trick is being missed with some of the representatives who are on the left but may not be hearing enough from their people, from their own people about how important their advocacy is. So, it’s not only Desmond Swayne, by any means. There are a lot of people on the left, they may be less vocal, but if anything, they would need to be emboldened and hear from other people on the left about why they’re important.
Andrew: I would say campaign on very specific issues. I know that was the point that Naomi was saying, and Silkie was also saying campaign on what you know. Jews for Justice represents a broad spectrum in a relatively small group. We have left, centrist, right, people who don’t know where they are politically, we have non-practising Jews and Orthodox Jews. There’s very little we agree on. But one thing we do agree on is our campaign. That’s why we’re keeping a very focused campaign because we are all reading from the same page.
Alan: Solidarity is about winning hearts and minds and convincing people about a certain set of values and principles. Silkie talked about the left’s values and principles. That’s a really important discussion for anyone who thinks they’re on the left. But quite frankly, it has left the room in many public places.
Worse than that, people that call themselves left are actually the ones imposing some of the most draconian, anti-freedom measures that we see.
I don’t usually use terms like left and right because I think they should be jettisoned in the dustbin of history. We’ve got the opportunity to create, like the Paris Commune, a moment where ordinary people take control of their lives. But what happens is people end up mirroring and reflecting ideas in an attempt to say, ‘we don’t want to be tarnished by them’.
I think it’s problematic if you accuse something like the Workers of England Union of being strongly nationalist and you don’t say the same thing about the Welsh Parliament and the Scottish Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly, because what the English Democrats actually said was that there should be an English Parliament.
Now, I don’t happen to agree with that. But if you then say all of the unions without exception did nothing until very late on because they’re dominated by bureaucrats that have long since sold working-class people down the road, then what happens is you get nothing.
NHS 100k showed what happens when workers are way ahead of where the unions are. They took control and led the way and showed what it means to have autonomy, courage, confidence and take a stand. It was these people, like Matt Taylor initially and then Steve James and others, who stopped the far-right caricature.
The Workers of England Union, as it happens, were the only union that defended people during the care homes strike and they said that would defend members, not once they got sacked, which is all the other unions said they’d do, but in the actual real-time space.
I think it’s important to judge the actions, words and deeds of the characters rather than fall prey to something that can stop solidarity and winning and prevent innovative ways with which we can organise in a spirit of what used to be called left wing. It’s really important that we hold the line on this.
Say what you will about Nigel Farage, but, like Tony Benn said, when there’s a democratic decision and it’s won in Britain and someone is associated, you can say what you want about that. [Ed. Cannot find a source or context for this quote.] You could say it’s a calculation that was misplaced. But Lilith from NHS 100k who went on that show did that. Farage happens to be doing a show which is called far right and terrible and all those things, but GB News is one of the few places during lockdown that actually aired these issues. So now we’ve been able to. And some of us have been able to get that in the mainstream press and on the BBC, Channel Four and ITV when they just weren’t covering it. We forced them to do it.
I think it’s really important to promote the idea that we take autonomous action. Sometimes it’s dangerous and risky, and they’ll call us horrible things. And sometimes we’ll get nervous because we don’t want to be seen in a certain way. But I can tell you this, when people in the Labour Party started seeing all those people doing that, they weren’t going, Oh, I won’t do this now because it might be inappropriate. You either decide you’re going to take a stand, you get inspired, and you get involved and you do it, or you don’t. You lead by example.
Charlotte: I work in the NHS. In November, when Sajid Javid made the announcement about the mandates, I was concerned. I was lucky enough to be part of Together, we got that campaign up and running very quickly. Unison weren’t there to represent me. The Workers of England Union stepped up, NHS 100k formed. We mobilized people really quickly. Had we waited for people supposedly on the left with supposedly the values that should be there to care about us and support us, we would never have defeated these mandates. So those old ideas of left and right don’t matter anymore. People like Nigel Farage, Charles Walker, Desmond Swayne were there. I don’t see them as right. I just see them as people who supported us in this movement.
Silkie: First of all, Tony Benn, I love to invoke his name and his memory, he was a good friend of Big Brother Watch, and he was a cross-party player. He came to the launch of Big Brother Watch with David Davis, and they worked on a lot of campaigns together. Tony Benn was also, in essence, anti-EU, he was a Brexiter. But I can tell you now, he would not be seen dead with Nigel Farage because he is a far-right person who doesn’t share the same values. There’s a difference between building bridges and abandoning your values because it’s politically convenient. There’s a very big difference. And that’s why if you’re a single-issue campaigner who’s not concerned about being on the left or the right, and bear in mind, I’m talking from a non-partisan perspective, that’s fine. But if you are trying to build up these values on the left, it doesn’t mean that you take the path of least resistance.
Yes, it’s hard to get the unions on board when in these adverse circumstances, and it’s hard to get some of the Labour MPs on board. But if you’re on the left, that’s your project, not to drift to where there are no obstacles and find yourself sat next to Nigel Farage.
In terms of the Workers of England Union, I didn’t just say that they were nationalists, which they are, which is up to them, I said that they’re far-right nationalists because they are. They are against the Human Rights Act. They’re against Equality Law. The people that run the English Democrats, which is the far-right Nationalist Party, run the Workers of England Union. They’re against the Human Rights Act. They’re against the Equality Act. They’re against the refugee convention. They’re quite firmly on the right. It’s not a controversial thing to say.
If we’re having a conversation about people on the left who care about these issues, let’s not turn it into a purely anti-left conversation. And let’s not blame the left for the excesses of authoritarianism. Yes, there is an authoritarian wing of the left. But don’t tell me that Justin Trudeau is a leftist. He’s a dynasty politician who’s done blackface more times than he can count. Don’t tell me that Kier Starmer is a left-wing politician.
A lot of the people that we’re talking about who may claim to represent the left are not of the left. I’m getting a lot of memories here of what happened when people came into the Labour Party who supported Corbyn. People who wanted the left to represent them, who are of the left, came into the party, they got involved and they got active. Do you see the parallel? If you want left anti-authoritarian representation, you have to go into the groups and parties and institutions and claim it.
Eli: One of the challenges we have is that the vaccine mandates aren’t over and that digital ID looms as a threat. They really want to lock us into digital enslavement through making smartphones compulsory through connecting finance apps with health apps. We have some real campaigning goals, and I think that those of us on the left will probably make different decisions. My position has been a fairly libertarian one, and I have worked with right-wing people. I sometimes watch that Nigel Farage show. It is really hard; we’re in confusing times and we find ourselves doing strange things. I just wanted to say one thing I have found difficult as a lefty being part of the freedom movement, is that I have encountered racism and anti refugee sentiment, which I find really difficult. All this anger about desperate people from Syria, about people in Calais, people coming over on little dinghies, there’s bigger fish to fry. Get your priorities straight. If we could sort it out with racism, I think we’d just be so much stronger as a movement wherever we’re coming from. That’s what I’m getting from this conversation, which I could listen to for hours.
Chris: That was a great debate and it cut to the core of a lot of what we talked about today. It can be continued in one of the breakout sessions. One more question, and it’s the third row back, man with a check shirt. I’m afraid that will have to be the last one for this session.
Question: Thank you. There’s a difference to me between a united front, which Together is, where you work with anyone, whoever they are, and building a left organisation. I’d like to know what the panel feel about the difference between those two. I’d like to get out of this day some idea that we can perhaps start building some sort of freedom left network. I don’t know what you would call that. A left organisation and a united front are both absolutely essential. I’d be interested to know what people think of that.don’t
Chris: That’s a good question and it’s requires a detailed answer. We can do a quick response now but it’s also the kind of thing that should be carried over into the breakout session. Everything to do with the purpose of this group, the question of alliances, concepts will be an ongoing discussion.
Alan: It is a very important question. I come from the position of the left from a long time ago, and everything that I do personally is still informed with the idea of what the people are. It’s often the case that the people are characterised contemptuously and disdainfully, and I think that’s a problem.
There are specific reasons for this over the last thirty years or more, such as the defeat of the miners and the end of the Cold War – we’ve seen the collapse of what I would call the public. Through Brexit that was resuscitated a little bit but not much.
I think under COVID, what we’ve seen is a suppression even more of the public with these anti-human, anti-people sentiments, the idea that you can’t trust people to make judgments, that essentially we’re disease vectors, that we need to be locked down, put away, not engaged with sensibly, that we can’t be creative curators of the world.
I always thought when I was growing up, that the left was about a radical transformation of society by the people. I think that what’s happened is that because people have given up on people, the left and the right, as it happens, but in different ways, the right historically in how they understand tradition, and the left in terms of transforming society, they’ve become scared.
When I say the left now, I mean those old institutions, what I would consider something like the Labour Party and unions, they’ve become scared and detached from, generally, the people and the public and often see them as more dangerous than the creators of a better world.
Anything I try to do is in the spirit of trying to engage with people as being agencies of change, transforming the world in a better way. Now, it just so happens that we can organise with people that have all different views and have completely different ideas, people that love Edmund Burke. They might be really good on freedom of speech and liberty and rights and not having the state imposing things.
At that particular juncture, I would want to work with as many people as possible, but you get strange bedfellows. Then you end up being in a position where you might make new alliances, and you can change people’s ideas about immigrants or race or any of those ideas in the midst of the struggle. All of those things can happen, in my opinion. I think the aspiration is to get out and do it and win people over. That’s been the tenet of the Together Declaration. It is broad and open, and it’s about winning.
Silkie: I think that question is the critical one. And my understanding of the purpose of today is to talk about how to build up the campaign on the left, not about this kind of broader campaign that is critical as well and that needs to happen.
But it’s important to recognise that even if you do have an interest in just the broad cross-party, anyone-joins campaign, you need to have a strong left as well, because otherwise it just becomes by default a partisan campaign. That’s why I’m trying to focus on the things that people who are on the left can do to mobilise the left and build up the strength of some of those institutions. It’s not all just about mass mobilisation. You can have, of course, people movements that are not just left-wing; unfortunately, you can get really far-right people movements as well. It is about having a thoughtful and strategic movement on the left that feeds into broader cross-party type of actions.
Andrew: We are a completely open free speech organisation. We don’t discriminate against who we will talk to. We’ve had a bit of discussion about this because there are a lot of podcasters with whom some people in our group say we shouldn’t have any communication because they’ve spoken to Holocaust deniers or they’re borderline anti-semitic, but we’ll argue with anyone. We’re completely in favour of open debate. But we’re a single-issue organisation so it’s different.
Chris: And finally Charlotte, and then we are going to wrap things up.
Charlotte: I’m also politically homeless now but my background was on the left. I don’t think the labels matter anymore. I think they’re divisive. What we need to do is to bring people together. The beauty of Together is that we work with everyone, and that’s the way we defeat vaccine passports, mandates, restrictions, and that’s the way we move forward. We have to build alliances. You may not agree with some of the people you’re working with but the important thing is that you find the common ground and you move forward.
Chris: Thank you so much. That’s the end of this session. A massive thank you to Silkie, to Andrew, to Charlotte, to Alan, to Colleen, and Naomi who had to go back to Manchester, and to all of you.