Mar 02 2004

Politics can be bad for your health

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 07RCN @ 2:55 pm

Mary Ward argues why communists must take an holistic approach to health and health care.

In socialist circles, when you talk about campaigning around health issues, comrades, understandably, turn their thoughts to fighting to defend the NHS.

The cuts in provision, introduction of the mysterious internal market, the quangos that run our local health services, waiting lists, cuts and more cuts. The list goes on and we can understand why these considerations are uppermost in comrades minds.

Next we think of the horrendous figures relating to the physical health of those who live in this country. Premature deaths due to heart disease, smoking induced cancers or due to consumption of that other legal drug alcohol. Poverty takes its toll physically on so many people that we know, and postcode prescribing ensures that the working class are always at the end of the queue when it comes to diagnosis and treatments.

Yet we need to move our thinking forward. We cannot stay in an economistic mindset. As socialists we need to learn a holistic approach to health. I am not suggesting for one second that we ignore campaigning around traditional health issues – far from it. I pride myself as being a long-standing activist against cuts and closures. I mean that we need to define health in such a way that we demand not just what the capitalist system thinks we barely deserve but what is absolutely necessary to be fully human.

Eradicate the artificial divide

For a start, we need to stop thinking of health as an absence of illness but in terms of well-being. The artificial divide between physical, social and emotional health needs to be eradicated and questions relating to mental health and sexual health should not be seen as marginal but central to all our lives.

Whoa! I can hear it now. What is all this middle class namby pamby psycho-babble? Working class people need their illness treated and the waiting lists reduced. We need to fight PPP and hospital closures not indulge in peripheral nonsense.

Comrades, these issues are not peripheral, but integral, to a struggle to bring about a society where people are truly valued. That is about how we feel in emotional, as well as physical, terms and it’s about being able to express our sexuality and sexual needs openly and honestly. And mental health issues are class issues. Those living in poverty are three times as likely to be admitted to hospital for depression and three times more likely to commit suicide. Suicide rates in Scotland are among the highest in Europe, particularly for young men.

Let us consider the interconnection between the physical social and emotional. We all recognise that some illnesses can bring on depression; at a very basic level if we have flu we can feel down and easily upset. It also has an obvious effect on our ability to engage with others and to fully socially integrate. Imagine this effect extended to someone having HIV. Discrimination can make us socially isolated and depressed. This can have an effect on our immune system. Social isolation can exacerbate our feelings and who is in a position to say whether it is the physical affecting the emotional or the social affecting the physical etc. The three are, so clearly, inextricably linked.

Mental health issues have been to the fore lately in the media. Thanks to the very brave and open stance of Rosie Kane SSP MSP a dialogue about mental ill health has started even amongst macho (not just the men, by the way) socialists.

I an delighted to see two resolutions to SSP annual conference on mental health and the understanding that this is not about other people but about all of us.

The numbers of young people who exhibit self-harm from cutting themselves, to binge drinking, to eating disorders, to suicide is growing daily and the age at which this behaviour starts is getting younger. We must take these issues on board not just from the point of view of treatment but also from the perspective of prevention. An understanding of mental health and mental illness (two different but related things) is essential.

A nurturing environment is needed

The very adversarial nature of politics as practised in this country can have an extremely detrimental effect on people’s health. The capitalist ‘democracy’, we live under, values structures not families, and human relationships are daily sacrificed while trying to play the game. No wonder so many people are alienated from the political process. To take part in it is to subject ourselves and our families to a form of abuse.

We need to define what we expect from our politicians and undoubtedly people will make sacrifices but we need to construct a nurturing environment which supports out comrades not one which is prepared to see them fall by the wayside. Our elected representatives are our responsibility. We need to take on the role of boosting their resilience while they are working inside the enemy camp. Otherwise, we will be destined to have only a certain type of elected representative. We want healthy politicians who do not deny their emotional needs but who can understand the emotional needs of our class.

All aspects of health matter

Sexual health is an area many comrades simply refuse to discuss beyond the alarming rise in Chlamydia rates. Under the guise of privacy, questions of sexual liberation and orientation are glossed over. The extent of our conditioning in these areas is rarely discussed in any depth and many working class people feel that this part of their life bears no relation to politics. Well, for socialists that is rubbish. Every aspect of our being is affected by capitalism. It distorts our relationships and creates a barrier between men and women, which affects our lives in every area. A lack of understanding about our own bodies and our own desires leads on to a lack of understanding between partners and a lack of respect. The culture of our personal relationships is for me a reflection of our political culture. That is why we cannot turn a blind eye if comrades are involved in domestic violence or abuse (verbal, physical and emotional). We cannot ignore bullying or intimidating behaviour in political debates. We need to constantly work on creating structures and an environment of open democracy where minorities are heard and where people feel safe to express their ideas. It is bad enough out there without our political organisation simply mirroring the macho culture of capitalism.

Comrades, our health, in all its aspects, matters. We can lead the way in innovative social policies but we need to make sure we do not just stick to the parameters capitalism says are valid. We need to be considering education programmes for schools, which help build resilience, and self esteem. We need to promote positive mental health and we need to change behaviour, which has a bad effect on health. Physical emotional and social are all parts of the whole.

I passionately believe that health is a subject not just to be left to the health professionals. It is an area in which our practice has to be as robust as our theory. We need to educate ourselves and support one another while we strive for better health – physical, emotional and social. Remembering, however, that although politics can be bad for your health, taking control of your life, being part of the struggle and establishing close relationships with comrades can act as the best form of immunisation you can get.

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Dec 03 2002

Official Anti Racism – sanitised and useless

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 04RCN @ 1:38 pm

As the Scottish Executive launches its official anti-racism poster campaign, Mary Ward provides an alternative, but more effective, way to beat racism.

Scotland one nation many cultures! the official message is emblazoned on billboards across Scotland in the attempt to convince the chattering classes that the Scottish Executive is tackling racism. We can hide behind this glossy veneer and pretend that racism is something which is a problem in England and that Yildiz Dag, Surgit Chokaar and Dungavel detention centre for asylum seekers are mere blips in a happy picture that would not be out of place on the cover of Watchtower. The Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2002 came into effect on 30th November 2002. This is quite a significant piece of legislation which could have an effect on local authority workplaces, particularly to our practice in schools (if anybody bothers to put it into practice) and Jack McConnell Scotland’s First Minister has proposed the introduction of a law to make religious hatred an aggravated offence.

The Scottish Executive is convinced they are playing their part in eradicating racism in Scotland.

The annual STUC anti-racist rally took place on 30th November 2002 in Glasgow and although the numbers were down on the previous year, the platform was adorned by Margaret Curren (Scottish Justice Minister), Bill Speirs (STUC General Secretary) and Shona Robison (SNP MSP) showing that the rally continues to have the support from the highest levels within the Scottish political establishment. There is probably more going on in raising the questions of racism and sectarianism than there has been for many years in Scotland.

Capitalism: the true cause of racism

Yet there is something rotten at the very core of this official anti racism. It is the result of years of safe, white, liberal multiculturalism. It is complacent misguided and ultimately useless. Of course I would agree that racism needs to be tackled at a multitude of levels: in the streets, workplaces, communities and schools but we are in the process of seeing the buck being passed – racism is portrayed as the fault of the poor, working class and needs only to be tackled at that level. There is no real understanding of institutional racism and even when that is acknowledged, the solutions are based around sorting out individuals concerned.

The true cause is clearly the result of the capitalist system which rejoices in dividing the working class along ethnic and religious lines. Its real roots lie in the heart of the establishment itself. The ‘officials’ refuse to consider that government legislation and rhetoric on asylum seekers fosters racism. They refused, at the anti-racist rally, to discuss Dungavel detention centre for asylum seekers or to recognise that the justice system under Labour has failed the Chokaar family and many more victims of the system.

Across Britain, black deaths in police custody are swept under the carpet and families are left broken-hearted looking for answers and justice. Black people are eight times more likely to be stopped by the police than non black people and meanwhile the killers of Stephen Lawrence, and Surgit Chokaar walk the streets taunting the bereaved families.

We need to look at how we, on the revolutionary left work to defeat, not just the racists, but also the official non-racists who disarm the movement.

Just over one year ago, (December 2001) the report into the race riots in Burnley, Oldham and Bradford was produced. The report was an indictment of multiculturalism which did not encompass anti-racism. Far from communities being assimilated into a happy Christmas card melting pot, it was found that the communities operate on the basis of parallel lives. In other words separate development. In other words, apartheid Britain.

All official bodies from the police to local councils were slammed and in an effort to show the fair handed (or institutionally racist) nature of the report itself, so were the inward looking Asian communities. Blunkett’s response was incredible. He demanded that the Asian families learn to speak better English. He of course missed the point that these were British Asians in these conflicts. Their English was as good as yours or mine and they believed they were defending their communities against the fascist BNP.

This, however, must not be seen as Blunkett supporting racism. On the contrary, he is giving the only type of response available to these official anti-racists – blame the individuals and miss the culpability of the system in creating the problem.

The establishment cannot tackle these problems in other than a reactionary way. Hence we have this year the wide promotion of One Nation values and citizenship, which are at the heart of the new legislation, alluded to earlier. We see the attempt to establish forced multiculturalism and assimilation from above. Meanwhile the BNP continues to find electoral support not from neo Nazis but from working class women and men who turn on their neighbours because of the failures of official multiculturalism and endemic institutional racism and the failure of the state to address issues of poverty, poor housing and alienation.

Le Pen & the French presidential elections

The European situation last year added an interesting dimension to the problem with the defeat of Jean Marie Le Pen in the second round of France’s presidential elections. Millions of French people took to the streets to show their opposition to the ideology of the leader of the French National Front. The best the left could do with this anger and militancy was to secure the re election of Jaques Chirac, (the lesser of two evils approach?). Chirac of course would never be the prisoner of the left. On the contrary, he immediately began to appease the right through security measures relating to immigration controls. But at least he was officially anti-racist!

The SWP suffers from this distorted logic in its front organisation the ANL. Julie Waterstone, full timer in the SWP famously, at a series of ANL meetings, showed how united fronts must guard against popular frontism. She told the meetings of an incident where people joined an ANL protest even though they were against asylum seekers because they hated Nazis more. Julie saw this as a positive development. The ANL logic is vote for anyone as long as they can defeat the BNP. The same logic, which defeated Le Pen and put back Chirac.

The idea that this will lead to the defeat of racist ideas is patent nonsense just as Blunkett’s English speaking classes are nonsense, just as the one nation approach is nonsense. The ANL is useful in mobilising, particularly young people, to confront organised Nazis but it provides no political agenda which can take working class people forward. The ANL has a great appeal for anyone with a genuine desire never to see the rise of fascism again but it is a mistake to think that if we get rid of these nasty people in jack boots then we’ll all be sorted. Generally, where the neo Nazis have raised their heads in Scotland they have been met by working class direct action – not always led by the ANL! Communities in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee and Aberdeen have taken on this scum (whether it appeared in bovver boots or suits) and sent them packing.

But with another BNP councillor elected in Yorkshire in January 2003, what about the working class people who are voting for them? As capitalism fails the working class, Blair cannot deliver anything better than the Tories did before him. Where does the independent working class revolutionary alternative come from? Certainly not from the cross class collaboration of the ANL.

The hysteria surrounding asylum seekers in Glasgow threw up an endemic racism which has nothing to do with Nazis and requires a different way of fighting. Racists in Britain are seldom stereotypes of Hitler or even Nick Griffin. In fact, many people with racist ideas would have nothing to do with Nazis in any form.

The hard thing to come to terms with, particularly on the left, is that racism is found in us, our friends and family and our workmates. To think it is confined to a small group of boneheads is a very dangerous illusion. Even the Scottish Executive recognises this!

The truth about asylum and race is not being taught in our schools and certainly does not permeate even our officially anti-racist media.

Establishing a culture of fear

Having watched Michael Moore’s powerful and analytical film, Bowling for Columbine, it becomes clear how the sustained permeation of a society by a culture of fear, can create a truly terrifying result. The monster created via the effects of television, newspaper, film and all official state apparatus, including schools, allows not just a few but many to become xenophobic, racist and violent. The imminent war with Iraq is just another manifestation of this only on a global scale as Gulf War I, Nicaragua, and Vietnam were before it. In fact such a culture at home is a necessary prerequisite for making war abroad. We surely have to believe that we ourselves are about to die if we are to be prepared to sacrifice the lives of others.

When we look at how asylum seekers are being linked to terrorism in Britain at this time, we can see the horrible prospect of creating a climate where anyone who is Asian or Muslim is a potential target for racism and for a denial of their civil rights.

Already cries can be heard for any suspects to be deported before the result of their asylum application is known. Opinion polls consistently show that people across Britain think there is a problem with asylum seekers entering this country. And a media which consistently show foreigners as criminals or a potential physical threat which casts a shadow of suspicion on anyone who appears foreign.

No amount of ANL Nazi bashing will halt this. And Scotland is not immune despite its glossy spin on multiculturalism. Our ethnic communities are at risk – right here, right now. Not from fascists but from frightened communities who are being prepared for their country attacking and killing men women and children in Iraq. There seems to be reluctance on the part of the SWP to participate in broad based, anti-racist campaigns, which involve a bit more than instant confrontation and hunt the Nazi.

Where do we go from here? On the one hand official anti-racism which denies the right of any confrontation in favour of being nice and official anti-Nazism which cannot survive unless the BNP continue to exist?

Effective anti-racism

When it comes to fighting racism, we should not settle for liberal multiculturalism, but demand effective anti-racist education at all levels in society. A couple of hours of racism awareness in workplaces is seen by many workers as tokenistic and irrelevant. Such is the quality of much of the training.

Meaningful anti-racism means telling the truth about Britain’s colonial past. We must face up to Britain’s role in the subjugation ofother nations and cultures. The way we built an empire, our use of slavery and how we continue to create situations worldwide that require people either to fight for their lives or flee, all need explored. We need only think of Palestine, Afghanistan, and Iraq to get the ball rolling. As our population and skill base declines, we should publicly be making a case for economic migrants to come to Scotland – End all immigration controls! We must work to turn the slogan Asylum seekers welcome here! from a forlorn wish to a statement of fact. For this to happen, political and economic problems need to be clarified so black and white can fight on a class basis not on the basis of ethnicity.

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Aug 05 2002

Letters

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 03RCN @ 12:57 pm

Bob Goupillot’s article on progress in E&L 2 was illuminating. The nature of the communist society of the future is not a matter of crystal ball gazing but, for materialists, should be a matter of some urgency. It will not develop organically if we just let it grow but is there to be determined and shaped by our human, revolutionary or reactionary actions. Bob’s views open up for communists, a debate on both the shape of a communist world and a vision of how we get there. What if capitalism had been halted in its tracks at one of the points of resistance in our past? That would, to some, have been a non-progressive act. Yet surely the revolutionary resistance to the dehumanising horrors of capitalist expansion must have been causes that we would fight for?

Take the Highland Clearances. I have heard comrades declare that these murderous acts of ethnic cleansing were ultimately progressive, in a sense inevitable, in the making of the proletariat and the industrialisation of the country. Of course these comrades would condemn the brutality involved, the senseless replacement of working crofts with sheep, which ultimately destroyed the land and the enforced emigration of a people. But, they accept that as part of the process from feudalism to capitalism to communism, these sacrifices while regrettable were essential.

So today, non historic peoples, peasants and farmers have the capitalist stage to look forward to – and all the misery that that implies – before they can throw off their proletarian slavery and join us in the socialist revolution towards communism. I think I would find this orthodox version of Marxist development a wee bit difficult to sell to tribal people and indigenous people across the planet. Come and join us as communists! We promise you the alienation only found under capitalism, which will destroy much of your culture, land and population. But do not worry; liberation will come which will make it all worthwhile. There are no short cuts for these orthodox Marxists only their essential stageist approach to human history which was discredited by the Russian revolution itself which failed to follow the model. Bob’s article looks at a different way forward and one, which certainly makes the orthodox view seem not only ridiculous but in essence, anti communist. Bob looks to take the socialist revolution from where people are without the necessity of first becoming an industrialised proletariat.

I strike a cautionary note however. I always get wary when people speak of a golden age of communism in the distant primitive past. The vision of being part of an undeveloped tribe struggling to survive does not fill me with any great desire to return to the land. No matter how egalitarian the distribution of labour it was still a bloody, hard and short existence. And it still is for millions of people on this planet. I know I see the world from a Euro centric western standpoint but the communist future cannot be the denial of the scientific, medical and technological advances we have achieved. Rather we must cherry pick without of course the all-consuming profit motive as our slave master. Let us by all means question what is progress and let us look with fresh eyes at what is good, valuable, and progressive in so called “primitive” lifestyles. Our communist world will require us to have the ability to constantly think in a revolutionary way. Even if that means critical re-evaluation of Marxist orthodoxy. Only thus will it be rich, diverse and fully human.

The simple life is not for me nor I suspect for the industrialised masses. The abandoning of commodity driven lifestyles will lead to greater expression of ideas and in a sense more individuality in a positive sense. Not driven by the dictates of fashion, people will display a diversity, colour and imagination denied by the mass conformism of the fashion moguls.

I have no time for comrades who fantasise about the good life technology free existence. We want decent housing, food, clothes but with all the mod cons too. I watched my mother and grandmother bend under domestic drudgery. We surely do not want this for our sons and daughters. I am keeping my central heating no matter how ethnic the log-burning stove may look! We can all see the advantages of the Iroquois Indian over the alienated wage slave but workers have from wage slavery created many advances for human kind and these intellectual, technological and scientific achievements should not be thrown away.

But as Bob points out, communists need to be open-minded as Marx himself was. The ologies must not be dismissed as bourgeois deviations or we will ignore so many truths about ourselves as human beings. What so many of these studies show is that human beings are not innately greedy or self seeking or driven by ambition. So-called human nature is determined by our society. It is the nature of capitalism to be greedy self centred not the nature of people.

It’s the old bread and roses thing. We need to stop thinking of art music poetry etc as luxuries. They are expressions of our humanity and as that grows under communism so will our culture. In a state of abundance, people will have time and energy to be creative as technology is used to enhance the quality of life for everyone not just the privileged few.

Mary Ward

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Jul 26 2002

Women’s Liberation and Socialism

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 02RCN @ 7:48 pm

Mary Ward reviews Women’s Liberation and Socialism by Gill Hubbard and Angela McCormick published by the Socialist Workers’ Platform, part of the Scottish Socialist Party. £1.50

I started reading the above pamphlet with some trepidation. It was produced in the midst of a heated, divisive and misleading debate on whether or not to adopt a mechanism for the party list section of the Scottish parliament elections, which would ensure that women and men were equally represented on the lists. It was therefore, I suppose, inevitable, that a pamphlet written at this time by two women in favour of the proposal should seek to find theoretical, historical and Marxist backing for their position. My concern was that in order to substantiate their position, these comrades would set out to bend the stick. Unfortunately, this pamphlet lived up to my fears.

It starts out with a dishonest description of the nature of the debate itself:

Debate is taking place within the Scottish Socialist Party about whether to have equal numbers of men and women on parliamentary candidate lists

This was not the debate. The SSP has always supported the position of complete gender equality. How this is achieved was the issue. The disagreement was over whether or not the SSP puts in place a mechanism, which determines the gender of the comrade most likely to be elected to the Scottish parliament, at the top of the list in each region.

(The RCN opposed the tokenistic proposal for a mechanism and fully backed the amendment from Dundee West and Kilmarnock branches that looked at ways of involving women in all levels of party work. The amendment rooted the cause of women’s double oppression under capitalism and sought to change the male dominance of the
SSP.)

The pamphlet goes on to claim that it, seeks to address these arguments, and explain why fighting sexism and ending women’s oppression are central to the struggle for socialism. It succeeds in achieving none of these aims.

As an opponent of the proposed change, I did expect the pamphlet to deal with the main arguments being aired up and down the country over the question of how gender equality can be achieved under capitalism. I had the right to expect that the many genuine questions raised by comrades in opposition would be answered: How do we attract more women to the ideas of socialism? How do we bring them into the structures of the SSP? How do we change the SSP to allow this to happen? How do we relieve women of their double oppression so they can fully participate? Does such a mechanism leave democracy in tatters? Does it not simply benefit a few ambitious women while doing nothing to change women’s position in society? And how will this mechanism help in fighting sexism, and ending women’s oppression?

Gesture politics

Instead of serious polemic, these questions are swept aside in the best tradition of gesture politics,

But these arguments do not take into consideration the long standing oppression of women which means that many women do not always put themselves forward to play a leading role. Many working class women lack confidence in their own abilities and don’t see themselves as political leaders in the workplace, community or within socialist organisations.

Tell us something we didn’t know like how this mechanism will change any of the above! Furthermore, reassure us that this imposed schema can be justified in terms of the questions posed by the opposition. There is little further direct reference to the debate but there is a strong suggestion that the proposal is the direct political manifestation of Marxism as applied by every great thinker of our Marxist tradition. Sylvia Pankhurst, Rosa Luxemberg and John MacLean are used in manner that suggests they would have had no possible quibble with this proposal!

As a history of the struggle for women’s liberation, it is a complete mish mash. It fails to develop any particular strand of the struggle to any depth nor does it make the reader feel identification with the women cited. It falls into the traditionally male trap of presenting political argument devoid of emotion. Consequently, the struggles of the suffragettes and the fight for legal safe abortions are depicted in a clinical matter of fact way that fails to move or inspire. And for any women who live outwith Glasgow, their struggles are completely invisible. Glasgow-centric-ism (I know that is not the right word but you know what I mean) debilitates the SSP in many spheres of its work but you always hope that new writers would recognise and try to deal with it. A mention of the women who have fought and sacrificed in factories, mills, fishing villages and on the land all throughout Scotland would at least have acknowledged that heroic battles have taken place outside the auspices of the Red Clydeside.

More than just a mechanism

No socialist could fail to agree with the main premise of each chapter:

  • Fighting sexism and women’s oppression is central to the struggle for socialism
  • Women are doubly oppressed under capitalism
  • Women have led tremendous struggles for the liberation of themselves and others
  • The Women’s Liberation Movement failed because of a lack of class politics
  • Capitalism is the enemy not men
  • Marxists fight for the liberation of all of humanity
  • The struggle for women’s liberation goes on today

But we need more than such bald statements in order to take us forward. We need the combination of Marxist theory and practice. We need to develop fresh ways of thinking and acting towards each other. All of this means more than just passing a motion to put in place a mechanism.

The proposal for 50-50, had the backing of the SSP executive, SSP Women’s Nework and the Socialist Worker Platform. Given such prestigious backing, winning this mechanism should have been a walkover for the party leadership. Instead, it resulted in a massive split within the party, a split within the leadership ISM platform and a group of comrades walking out of the conference when their amendments were not voted on. The Executive/Women’s Network won, but the victory was pyrrhic. The conference debate was marred by the destructive nature of the arguments used by the movers. Telling comrades they should find another party if they disagreed with the motion, that their arguments were cretinous, and the attempts to bully a woman into not speaking against the motion left a very nasty taste in the mouth, and swayed votes, not to the proposers but, against them.

A couple of weeks after the conference I walked up to join my comrades setting up a Saturday stall, the only woman amongst a fairly macho looking bunch. I could not help wondering when the 50-50 proposal would make a difference to me as a woman in the SSP, or to the hundreds of working class women walking past us.

This pamphlet was, I think, quite a brave attempt to add some theory into a debate, which at times verged on the farcical. Sadly, the haste with which it was produced, and its failure to address the central elements of the argument mean that it reflects the state of gender politics in the SSP. Like the conference resolution itself, this pamphlet lacks the vision to provide real solutions.

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Mar 24 2002

Red Republicans or just Red Reformers?

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 01RCN @ 7:52 pm

As Elizabeth Windsor’s Golden Jubilee approaches, Mary Ward argues why all democrats should be republicans

If, like me, you view the events of the coming Jubilee with a mixture of revulsion and anger, then you may well be assuming that the republican left has gone to sleep or all been deported such has been the lack of activity from our side. The palace spin-doctors have done what they always do and couched the event in such reasonable and philanthropic terms that only mad extremists could possibly have room for complaint.

The Labour Party left (what remains of it) has been warned to be at best mildly supportive at worst silent. The media looks forward to a photo bonanza while we in the SSP can look forward to a conference battle on whether or not we, as an anti monarchy party, should just close our eyes and hope the Jubilee goes away or whether we actually organise democratic events in opposition to the parasitic rule of the unelected monarch and her family.

Continue reading “Red Republicans or just Red Reformers?”

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