Why Slaney Street? Why a free paper? Why now?
Why you should join and get involved.
In advance of the conference taking place on the 23rd of this month, this article was also written with an eye to what Slaney Street aims to be now and in the future. This article has been written by Kelly Rogers and Edd Bauer, who have both been editors for Slaney Street’s opening trial months. The content is their own and does not represent the views of Slaney Street which is home to a diverse range of opinions.
Historic changes are currently taking place across Birmingham. The last serious grassroots ties and channels of communication between activists and the city’s masses are being uprooted. The major trade unions have faced several severe setbacks and defeats and the most unionised workplaces in the city council and other public services are facing obliteration.
In the last three years Birmingham City Council has lost 27% of its employees – and the bulk of the cuts have yet to come to the workforce. The unions homing these workers still provide the backbone of much of the political activity in the city, and this as very serious long-term crisis for a city that faces the immediate threats of austerity and the far right.
There are still areas of dense trade union organisation; transport, fire brigades, education. However we must recognise that the prospects of these unions risk diminishing; privatisation in the fire brigades and many schools through academisation are very much on the cards for the next decade. In the early ‘70s there were over 50 factories employing thousands of unionized workers in Birmingham and the Black Country. Now there are only three.
We are also faced with a serious crisis in the death of any vitality in the Birmingham Labour Party. Birmingham is seeing a complete dearth of organised activity within the party. The Blair years ushered in a rigorous erosion of democracy and a collapse in Labour party membership by two-thirds in the last 20 years, leading to this vital community link being significantly reduced, or even severed. An illustration of the unbridled inefficacy of the Birmingham Labour Party can be seen in the recent Kingstanding by-election result. A deprived working class ward – a safe seat held by the Labour since the 1960s – was lost only a few weeks ago to the Conservative Party. This is, of course, in spite of the Conservative Party pursuing an overt agenda of devastating austerity against the working class.
With UKIP planning on targeting “working class Labour wards” and explosions in far right activity, defeats like this should set alarm bells ringing. We must question how much exposure working class are being given to alternative views and be worried about the lack of a visible alternative to the far right . If this is not dealt with and action is not taken to construct serious alternative organisational machines then we face being swept away.
There are moments when we are faced with premonitions of what type of society we could be subjected to. For example, let’s take the summer of 2013. The mass EDL demonstrations in response to the murder of Lee Rigby in Woolwich led to attacks on Birmingham mosques and to, in support, the Birmingham Mail running an editorial calling on the police to round up Muslims “in times of terror and hold them until they could prove themselves innocent”. This was alongside several Labour and Tory councillors calling for the re-installation of special CCTV cameras in the predominantly Muslim areas of Birmingham. If we don’t take serious action to build systems that counter the prevailing political tendencies in the capitalist parties, press and system then this is the type of society that we should become used to seeing.
We are now living in a society that is more atomised than ever. We work in the same place for shorter periods; young people are more likely to move away from their family home to find work; and, for many, religious institutions are becoming less influential. Traditional ties within communities are dissipating; social interactions are less likely to be long term. While exceptions to this rule will, of course, be common – the indisguisable wider trend means that we are no longer going to be able to rely on long-term community relationships acting as a hotbed for political consciousness.
Young activists activists often cannot find secure enough work to pursue trade union activities, and even in secure workplaces heavy anti-union legislation disincentivises participation. Further to this, the activist base of the Labour movement is ageing: “Trade union members are increasingly older employees. Over the seventeen years to 2012, the proportion of employees who belonged to a trade union has fallen in all age groups except those aged over 65. About 36 per cent of trade union member employees were aged over 50 in 2012, compared with 22 per cent in 1995” – Department of Business report 2012. Consider, then, that the average active trade union representative belongs to the older cadre. Within a decade a significant bulk of the trade union activists may well be retiring.
As such, action on our part cannot simply be a routine repetition of the stalwarts of activism, which remain vital but inaccessible to a generation recently radicalised. Turning up to workplaces and attempting to work miracles in highly precarious, casualised work forces or focusing on a rapidly diminishing swathe of secure workers would not be sufficient. In doing so, we would fail to reach the insecure, casual young force, which numbers many: Birmingham is Europe’s youngest city, and with 40 per cent of our population under 25 the youth must remain central to our activism.
With many traditional avenues for activism denied, people naturally turn to the most accessible forms of political expression. Regularly engaging activity such as community activism, public meetings, blogging and engagement with political internet communities are the most common forms of activism. The online communities often act as the springboard of youth mobilisations. It is these forms that are best placed to rebuild politically-conscious Left communities, and it is these forms that are the grassroots networks most likely to generate the next generation of trade unionists.
Overcoming isolation: organising for the win
For most the process of acquiring and developing political beliefs is heavily influenced by the people and ideas they are exposed to. It takes place on a grassroots level, largely through friends and family, in the context of the mainstream media and hegemonic political discourse. Community groups are unlikely to fully recruit someone into activist activity without a degree of implicit consent from their networks or without support of their friends, family and communities they may be embedded in.
Our highly atomised society has the tendency of isolating us from each other, and from recognising our common interests and goals. We are prevented from taking collective action against problems which have the same root cause.
In the face of an racist, sexist, ableist, homophobic and classist society in which the state and media is becoming ever more totalitarian, projects like Slaney Street are crucial in providing a fall back. These initiatives offer communities a mass system for intellectual self-defence, helping them to link up and calcify around issues and ideas they share.
How can we build a strong politically-conscious city from the base we already have?
Community activists and online communities across Birmingham are crying out for a mass audience, provided it was created on a democratic basis – free from attempts to co-opt them into an agenda outside of their control.
We have seen a number of attempts to artificially bring groups together into hub websites, but none of these have reached the critical mass of participation required to become permanent and useful.
A physical paper copy of the online hub offers the gravity and draw that makes participation worthwhile: it encourages groups and activists to write, contribute and participate in a mass community, when otherwise they may not due to feelings of isolation and irrelevance.
However, it is very clear that the current method of selling the paper on the street must change. A hundred years ago when Left organisations from the CNT, IWW, Marxist and Leninist parties made selling the paper part of the core of their activity the paper was the primary means of communication in capitalist society. This is no longer the case today. The internet has fundamentally and permanently altered the media landscape, and sale of physical newspapers is down across the board – including mainstream, corporate papers – especially amongst the digitally-native youth demographics. With the ease of dissemination and reproduction of news and information, the premium that young people are prepared to pay for a physical newspaper has collapsed, hence the rise of the free paper.
It was reported in June 2010 that this had been a successful move by the Standard; instead of selling around 140,000 copies a day, the paper now prints around 750,000 copies a day, and returns a profit, unlike many paid-for papers like The Guardian. Even in Birmingham the ‘freemium’ paper is emerging. The declining Birmingham Mail is declaring a turn around in fortunes following the introduction of its free Friday edition, and The Metro is omnipresent on all modes of public transport.
There is no promised land online
Some advocate a promised land of cheap and easy communication solely online, hoping to see a repetition of the explosion of the organised student movement in 2010. However, only 50% of people in Birmingham use Facebook and far less use Twitter. Further to this, in the next few years it is expected that Facebook will enter a serious crisis, and it is already seeing its ability to recruit new user begin to flag. Facebook has begun a process of monetisation that inhibits its usability by on-the-ground community groups, without serious investment in paid-for advertising.
We should also keep in mind that the authorities have demonstrated their willingness and ability to control, map and watch social media. In the riots in 2011 accounts were blocked and shut down, and the evidence left in the wake of 2010 provided the basis for several prosecutions. It would be hugely irresponsibly, as we approach turbulent times, to be constructing a political edifice based on a means of communication wholly owned by the corporate and political elite.
Initiatives like the Manchester Mule have shown progress which can be achieved under alternative media strategies; using a collaborative relationship between the trusty physical newspaper and the increasingly vital online community, perhaps moving into more secure online spaces with greater radical potential.
Internet communities provide a haven for many and engagement for many online can provide a forum in which they can talk overcoming anxiety issues they may feel in a public meeting. However repeated studies have shown that Facebook is generally associated with jealousy, social tension, isolation and depression. It is a means through which we are encourage to project perfected copies of ourselves in competition with each others who have posted amplified visions of their achievements 24/7. Rather than enhancing self-esteem and well-being online spaces like Facebook actively undermine it and build a deeper level of isolation and disempowerment into our interactions.
We must challenge the illusion that surfing the web can change the world. The presence of Slaney Street argues for reaching out of their online social networks. It is the embodiment of Michah White’s quote: “clicktivism is to activism as McDonalds is to a slow-cooked meal. It may look like food, but the life-giving nutrients are long gone.”
Our projects must be emancipatory and bring together new networks. While it is often easy for young people to seek out political projects online, and we should be prepared for that – it is very difficult to build beyond already existing networks in an online space.
A free paper can move towards bridging the generational gap, uniting and supporting community campaigns and providing a forum for the politicisation of a new layer of activists in a way that paid-for papers, or a solely online presence cannot achieve due to the failing of both mediums.
This is, at its core, a question of how class struggle and social struggle to overcome racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia and transphobia can be recovered, in the wake of the obliteration of traditional community and workplace organisational spaces.
There is hope in the new swathes of activists wanting to develop an anti-authoritarian Left wing politics. Slaney Street attempts to embody that by attempting to create a broad, democratic paper which utilises social media effectively. To create a platform in which different visions and tendencies can co-exist. A free mass paper is accessible to important social struggles the Left has too often dismissed and has the capability overcoming divisions between the ‘Old’ and ‘New’ Left by giving them a shared forum for strategic thinking and a mass audience.