Black Lives Matter UK: Who are its organisers?

30 Jun

Yesterday, Keir Starmer made an important distinction during an interview with BBC BreakfastWhile he acknowledged that the Black Lives Movement had been about “reflecting” on the dreadful events in America, he regretted that it had become “tangled up… with the organisation Black Lives Matter”, a statement that he received equal doses of praise and backlash for.

What Starmer highlighted is that there’s a crucial difference between the statement “black lives matter” – which surely any decent human being agrees with – to “Black Lives Matter”, an organisation that has clear goals.

But here it gets slightly more complicated, as the movement is largely “non-hierarchical”, making it harder for Starmer, and other leaders, to engage with its UK representatives.

What British groups do have in common is their inspiration: the American BLM movement, which was prompted by the acquittal of George Zimmerman after he fatally shot Trayvon Martin, an African American teenager walking to a family member’s house, in February 2012.

This shocking event prompted Twitter users to form the hashtag – #BlackLivesMatter – to highlight racial inequalities in the judicial and policing system – and it increasingly gained traction with the help of three activists, Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi, who encouraged the growth of networks and calls to action.

Despite the fact that the organisation is decentralised with no formal hierarchy, everyone knows who these founders are. They regularly give interviews, with their biographies listed on the Black Lives Matter website, and people know their political views.

Cullors once described her and Garza as “trained Marxists” and said she would not sit at the table with President Trump who is “literally the epitome of evil, all the evils of this country”, singling out “capitalism” as one of them.

Given this level of political openness, people in the UK might want to hear from BLM leaders about their aims for this country, but it’s tricky as the movement is divided into many groups, such as Tribe Named Athari, Black Lives Matter Leeds, All Black Lives UK, and Black Lives Matter UK, the latter of which Tribe Named Athari has said it has no direct affiliation with.

Black Lives Matter UK, set up in 2016, is arguably the most famous branch here, with 72.1k followers on Twitter (at the time of writing). In recent days, it gained prominence for criticising Israel on social media, and posting “FREE PALESTINE”, as well as attacking Starmer for his comments on defunding the police (a goal of BLM US).

Though the group doesn’t have a website, Black Lives Matter UK has a Go Fund Me page, where it has raised £1 million. Organisers state their aims are “to dismantle imperialism, capitalism, white-supremacy, patriarchy and the state structures that disproportionately and systematically harm Black people in Britain and around the world.”

Although the group says it is endorsed by Patrisse Cullors, it refuses to name anyone else, posting: “Amongst calls for transparency and demands to reveal the leadership behind BLM UK, we are currently dealing with emergency legal matters following last week’s protests in addition to the hostility of far-right groups. This is a genuine threat to our safety”. So this appears to be the rationale for hidden identities.

Then there’s the website (BLMUK on Twitter – where it has 1,500 followers). On its front page, it tells visitors that it is not connected to “the activist coalition using: Twitter @ukblm” (the branch mentioned above) or the Instagram account @blmuk, even going so far as to point out “The UKBLM coalition do not have an official website”.

Furthermore, in its “About us” section, it writes: “There are many independent activist groups across the UK who do and will not publicly identify themselves, nor having leadership or declare leadership, no office base or website to go to, preferring a small or for some a huge interest and following from profile statuses on social media platforms and some raise funds via gofundme, crowdfunding pages and alike.”

Another website is called the Black Lives Matter Movement, which explicitly states that it’s “not connected to BLMUK” (above). It is founded by Gary McFarlane, an author on its site, who is a prominent member of the Socialist Workers Party.

On Russia Today, he said “In all revolutionary situations statues are toppled and that’s a good sign for the future because we do need a revolution in this country and many others.” The SWP has been accused before of trying to infiltrate Extinction Rebellion (XR) and the Labour Party, and some BLM representatives released a statement distancing itself from it.

Clearly there is a socialist undercurrent to some of these movements; indeed, Natalie Jeffers, founder of BLMUK, was quoted saying that we must fight “capitalism with socialism” and “dedicate ourselves to revolutionary politic power”. But it’s hard to know the extent of this sentiment, due to how spread out the movement is.

Although all of these groups are fighting for the same broad cause – to end racism, but the decentralised system could cause confusion around what policies they are proposing.

Whereas XR also favours a dencentralised system, which led to protesters doing their own thing – such as jumping on tube carriages, it arguably has more practical demands for the Government (citizens’ assemblies), compared to BLM’s (US) desire to “disrupt the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure”.

XR has also fielded representatives onto television, such as Skeena Rathor, the “co-leader”, as well as Zion Lights, a spokesperson. The Hong Kong protests, too, though “decentralised”, have had Joshua Wong as their figurehead. As far as ConservativeHome is aware, there has not been an equivalent spokesperson for BLM UK in this way. 

Perhaps the closest is Imarn Ayton, an activist, who has demanded a meeting with Boris Johnson and called for the statue of Winston Churchill to be removed on Radio 4. Whether she is accepted as overall leader of the movement is less known, though.

Either way, with the movement growing in power in recent weeks, politicians – and TV producers – will increasingly want to know what’s being proposed for the UK. Perhaps Andrew Neil is already gearing up for an interview. But with no clear BLM UK leader, different funding levels for each group, and separate manifestos, it’s not obvious who will answer questions.

Johnson, Starmer – and their strategies in firing people

26 Jun

After years of Jeremy Corbyn doing nothing to tackle anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, many were astonished yesterday by Keir Starmer’s decision to sack Rebecca Long-Bailey as Shadow Education Secretary

He took action after she Retweeted an article by actress Maxine Peake, containing an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory; namely that Israel was linked to the killing of George Floyd in the US.

According to The Huff Post, Starmer gave Long-Bailey four hours to delete the post and apologise, but she did not do this – also refusing to take calls from his office, culminating in her prompt dismissal.

Many marvelled at Starmer’s decisiveness, using this as evidence for the increasingly fashionable assumption that Conservatives should be worried about him at future elections (one that this writer does not agree with, incidentally; the “taking the knee” photo will haunt him for years).

The move challenged stereotypes of Starmer – that he’s “forensic” and lawyerly in manner – as it was combative, as well as making him look straightforward (certainly something of an achievement after Labour’s past calculations to thwart Brexit).

Starmer’s decision to remove Long-Bailey from his Shadow Cabinet first and foremost reflects his commitment to eradicating anti-Semitism – and thank goodness for that. 

But it may also demonstrate two other things. First, that he is sceptical about Long-Bailey’s overall popularity with the electorate – and wanted to get rid of her anyway. One suspects outside the Twitter bubble, voters overwhelmingly associate her with Corbyn’s dire tenure, and haven’t been won over with her tendency to use phrases such as “democratising the economy” and “progressive patriotism”, as well as her obsession with the “Green Industrial Revolution”.

Second, it arguably gives Starmer more leverage to demand Boris Johnson sacks members of his own team. The Prime Minister has already been under enormous pressure to do this, following the saga with Dominic Cummings, as well as recent attacks on Robert Jenrick, the Housing Secretary. 

He is accused of trying to force through permission for a development by Richard Desmond – a billionaire donor he “inadvertently” sat next to at a dinner – who then paid £12,000 to the Tories soon after he got the green light.

Newspapers appear to have given up on getting rid of Cummings, and have now turned their sights on Jenrick, perhaps viewing the mild-mannered MP as an easier target. 

Take The Daily Mail (Desmond is the former owner of the Express newspapers, as Iain Dale points out here, incidentally), which accused the Prime Minister of not being decisive enough over his Housing Minister. “It’s also another instance of Boris Johnson failing to act decisively when one of his ministers or senior advisers falls short of the standards the public expect”, read its leader, which praised Starmer’s “non-nonsense approach” and suggested Johnson “should learn from” it.

Anyone reading The Daily Mail over the last few months will know that it’s been consistently against (pro-Brexit) Johnson, so the attack is no surprise – but does the paper have a point? Has he been weak over the Covid-19 crisis when it comes to sacking people? 

The events over the last few months have arguably softened Johnson’s image, with his u-turn on free school meals, and the enormous sums being spent on Covid-19 protections. He comes across as something of a yes man.

With all this, it’s easy to forget that he can be ruthless when it comes to his team. This was clear in his first reshuffle as Prime Minister, in which he sacked Jeremy Hunt as Foreign Secretary, replacing him with Dominic Raab, as well as asking Hunt’s supporters Liam Fox and Penny Mordaunt to go. It was “the biggest government clearout since Harold Macmillan’s infamous ‘Night of the Long Knives’ in 1962”, wrote PoliticsHome.

Later on, in what was referred to as the St Valentine’s Day Massacre, Johnson fired five Cabinet ministers, including Julian Smith, the Northern Ireland Secretary, and Sajid Javid resigned after the Prime Minister demanded he lose his team of advisers. Clearly Johnson is ready to strike if he sees fit to – so his critics will demand why Cummings and Jenrick don’t fit the bill.

This, one suspects, is not part of some grandiose plot, but down to the simple principle of belief: the Prime Minister does not think that either man is in the wrong.

A lot has been said about Cummings, but my own view is that his explanation made sense – and furthermore that No 10 could have gone on the offence in reminding people how unusual his circumstances are. A chief adviser in a nationwide pandemic, living in a house that receives death threats, who’s had the press (seemingly permanently) camped outside, and Covid-19, will have one of the most challenging lockdowns.

Jenricks’ case, on the other hand, is ambiguous and will come increasingly under scrutiny, with Labour now reporting him to parliament’s watchdog.

Text messages between him and Desmond demonstrate the latter to be a pushy character, repeatedly trying to get his housing scheme through. Jenrick seems uncomfortable in response, reminding Desmond that he’s Secretary of State and that he cannot have contact with him “whilst he was making” a “decision with respect to the planning application”.

As Andrew Gimson sets out in his recent profile of Jenrick, one Tory backbencher has described him as “a decent man”; one is less flattering, suggesting that he’s “a suit” – who simply takes orders. He has released 129 pages of emails, texts and letters in total – to clear his name. From reading some of the exchanges, one suspects, if anything, his main issue is being too polite.

Either way there is a false equivalence between what may be a mistake, and Long-Bailey’s disgraceful post. Especially after Starmer cautioned her, it would have been unacceptable for her to stay in her position.

What was especially poignant about yesterday, on a semi-related note, is how shocked members of the Left were with what happened, not used to being on the receiving end of such swift justice.

In recent years, it’s the Right that has been accustomed to its figures being “cancelled” – be it Toby Young’s resignation as Theresa May’s university adviser, or Roger Scruton’s firing after being misquoted.

A big feature of May’s tenure was her inability to stick up to the mob on such matters, as well as the endless departures under her leadership, ranging from misconduct (Gavin Williamson’s dismissal after he leaked highly classified information about 5G) to those leaving on behalf of Brexit strategy.

With his massive majority, Johnson has not faced such a chaos – his team is far more loyal, but it will still remain a priority of the Government to stand strong against the cancel culture fostered by members of the Left.

Yes the Government should dismiss MPs on legitimate grounds – if any investigation shows Jenrick to have deliberately been in the wrong than he has to go – but the Tories no longer need to cave to media pressure and concocted outrage. Voters will respect them for this, too.

Starmer has a totally different goal, however; restoring a sense of moral order to Labour. As aforementioned, I believe his actions this week will only take him so far. Long-Bailey was an easy win for a party that knows Corbynism was a major, defeating factor at the last election.

Showing bravery in other contexts – how about condemning statue-toppling, for starters? – is a much different enterprise. On these less crowd-pleasing matters, Starmer’s “non-nonsense approach” is fairly non-existent.