Where are the extremists?

Most Liberal Democrats will live their lives in blissful ignorance of a weekly publication called the Methodist Recorder, to which I occasionally contribute book reviews. This week one of its more conservative readers, a retired minister (in Methodist parlance a “supernumerary” like me, which I think means “surplus to requirements”) appeared on the letters page raising some interesting points about extremism. He was concerned about one of the demands at the school pupils’ strike over climate change which he claimed had nothing to do with climate change. This was the demand for the voting age to be lowered to 16. He clearly didn’t see any great value in encouraging an age group, who are going to be at the sharp end of the consequences of  our success or failure at combatting climate change, to put their concern and energies into democratic political processes.

However he then went on to suggest that the Socialist Workers Party banners visible in the demonstration represented political extremists using children for their nefarious purposes. It takes a remarkably eccentric understanding of extremism to persuade me to defend the SWP! Liberal Democrats who have shared in broad-based campaigns with Socialist Worker members on a variety of issues will know that the SWP are very open in saying who they are. They turn up with as many red banners as possible emblazoned with “Socialist Worker” in large letters. In my experience these tend to be occasions for observing that flogging copies of the SWP newspaper appears to be a rather thankless task.

Provoked by my fellow Methodist minister, the serious point I want to make is this. “Extremist” can be as imprecise and slippery as the term “moderate.”  Some people will see the SWP as an extremist socialist party. Some of its members may find their way into other forms of less visible political activity that can give cause for concern. There are other groupings that are far more dangerous than this small political party. The extremists we should worry about are those who conceal their identity and intentions, operating through front organisations, or even infiltrating mainstream political parties. 

I was never a fan of Tony Benn. However I believe that one of his best contributions to political thought was one of his briefest, a mere 82 words, on democracy. He said this:

“In the course of my life I have developed five little democratic questions. If one meets a powerful person – Adolf Hitler, Joe Stalin or Bill Gates – ask them five questions: What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you exercise it? To whom are you accountable? And how can we get rid of you?”

Those are not just useful questions for dealing with the obviously powerful. They have a place across the full range of political activities and within our political parties. They are helpful in making sense of alleged extremists – or alleged moderates for that matter.

* Geoff Reid is a Liberal Democrat Councillor in Bradford

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5 Comments

  • The SWP is an interesting organisation. When I was active in a trade union there were a number of SWP members that I knew. It seems the we’re encouraged to sell a certain number of copies of their paper each week, or however often it came out. The member I have in mind bought the papers for resale, then put them in the bin. They did now always have the placards to give out at demonstations – sorry demos – or pickets. I noticed that there was little relationship between the views of the party they claimed to support and what they said at union meetings. At least issues that had to do with their jobs. They had clear policies on what to do about South Africa, nuclear weapons, etc.
    The same of course applied to me. Except that I simply said what I thought about our own issues. I was never keen on spending time solving problems which had nothing to do with us.
    The serious issue is how we build a participatory democracy to meet the needs of the present century. There was a time when I hoped the Liberal Party would be able to lead the way on this. But now I accept that this isn’t going to happen.

  • Jayne Mansfield 13th Mar '19 - 10:26am

    @ Tom Harney,
    I have reason to be grateful to the SWP, as I became a grateful recipient of the SWP placards they handed out.

    Without one at anti -EDL demonstrations / demos, I found that I clearly looked like an old lady who had accidentally been caught up in the maelstrom, the target of well -meaning policemen and civilians who tried to encourage me away from danger. I lost count of the number of people who would tell me to, ‘ move back love, its about to kick off’.

    As the same old lady with a placard, I was left to my fate, clearly deserving all that might come my way!

    I would agree with Geoff Reid, they are a small party that lays its cards on the table, it is the covert extremists in power that we need to worry about, and he normalisation and spread of extreme right wing ideas in general discussion.

  • Jayne, I have no objections to the SWP. Just indulging in my memories. At one time we had a branch committee with communists, supporters of militant rendancy, mainstream Labour. Oh and me. Although the SWP supported the tendency people, they seemed to regard themselves as different.
    The interesting point was that the groups were really defined by knowing each other. They met at meetings of their group outside the committee and were able to make sure that people were nominated when they met them at the meetings of the outside groups.
    It was all rather like the Freemasons.
    Of course this is what poiitics as we know it is about. People are more likely to vote for people they know. Our opinions, even our memories appear to be influenced by people around us.
    As far as being old is concerned, I do not need a banner. I find that people offer help me. One day for example I was heading down to the platforms on the Paris Metro. Three people offered to help me with my case. What did puzzled me was why each of them spoke to me in English.

  • Jayne Mansfield 13th Mar '19 - 9:13pm

    @ David Raw,

    Unfortunately David, my eccentricities pre-dated old age, and what a rich life I have had as a consequence.

    @ Tom Harney,

    My comment wasn’t a criticism of what you said in your post, Tom, it was just a personal experience of my limited knowledge of what the SWP believe. I actually believe that anti-racism in the UK today is not a class issue.

    In my 60-s and the first half of my early seventies, as a northerner, I have had to heavy a heavy case across London to reach airports. When men of different colours and accents, have seen me struggling on steps and escalators etc, they have removed the burden from me. There have been men who have rushed down steps and escalators in the rush of London and then seen me struggling and returned and helped me.

    I still have a liberal view of the essential goodness of human beings.

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