Fighting On Home Turf: Community Politics & the IWCA

A Black Flag article on the working class community politics of the Independent Working Class Association (IWCA) from 2003.

Submitted by Fozzie on January 24, 2019

We are printing this article on the IWCA because it is an example of political activists acting as a catalyst for working class communities to act on their own behalf. Struggling over real problems makes a difference, whether at work or where you live. Anarchists need to be aware of what other activists are doing and learn from them.

The article does not address in detail the IWCA tactic of putting up candidates for elections. Nor does it go into the arguments for and against elections that most of us are familiar with. This is because electoralism isn't a central plank of the IWCA strategy (which is one of the reasons they actually do better) but also why we should look at their successes in reaching people no one else wants to know about. Clearly most anarchists reject electioneering as a tactic and as a contribution to this debate we will run an article in the next Issue on anarchist rejection of electoralism and what we can do Instead. Until then, we hope this article will provoke debate and provide an example of practical work in the community.

In 1995 elements in Anti-Fascist Action started to look outside the physical opposition to fascism that the organisation had carried out for a decade. It was obvious to many involved that the election of the Labour government would provide an opportunity for the far right to flourish. AFA had argued that the street cleaning work it was doing should have been making space for a working class alternative politics to emerge. The Independent Working Class Association (IWCA) was formed to make this happen. AFA continued to operate but suffered internal difficulties and external pressures. By 1997 a number of IWCA local groups were launched. At this time the IWCA comprised AFA activists, Red Action members but also anarchists from the anti-fascist movement. While the IWCA is perceived by many as a front for Red Action, there were anarchists openly involved and working within it. In time, AFA activity declined - it was felt that the BNP needed to be opposed politically, that whacking a few of them was not going to prevent electoral success or prevent them gaining influence amongst a wider working class. So how far has the IWCA come as a working class response to New Labour or as an alternative tactic in the fight against fascism?

Winning in the polls?

While the fascists have by no means made the same electoral gains as their counter¬parts in Europe, the BNP has grown in size and in influence. Every electoral gain gets them national publicity in a way the Green Party can only be, well, green with envy over. On the other hand, proportionately, candidate for candidate, the IWCA have done phenomenally well. Over 10% of their candidates got elected. Well, one, in fact. Oddly this success as well as some very close results in North and East London - has not benefited them with the same media hype as the BNP.

But the elections are neither the most important nor the most interesting part of what the IWCA groups have been doing. Much of their work over the past few years is extremely relevant to class struggle activists, in raising issues that need tack¬ling, and in providing an opportunity for strengthening work that many already do.

The strength of the IWCA is its relevance to working class people in the areas where they are functioning. This is because the IWCA activists are working in their own communities. An early example of the direction that has been followed was in Newtown, Birmingham, where community activists mobilised against anti-social crime and found themselves confronting the police, racists and the local authorities as well as the muggers themselves. This was reported in Red Action 75 Autumn 1997 and is or the Red Action website. This was not the IWCA as such but the Newtown Independent Residents Association.

Community responses to anti-social behaviour

Crime is one area where existing IWCA groups have responded to the real genuine concerns of the people around them (as opposed to fears whipped up by Crimewatch or the Daily Mail) and shown how a community response can work. The anarchist movement has produced little more than a few "anti-mugger" stickers and articles optimistically hoping for community control "after the cops fuck off". If we are serious about living without government we have to take this issue seriously now.

Harold Hill is in the borough of Havering in East London. Here local IWCA activists have helped organise meetings and set up an action group to deal with anti-social behaviour by gangs of young people. The Petersfield (an estate on Harold Hill) Action Group was set up and the IWCA organised citizens patrols along with other locals.

In groups of three or four, local people took to patrolling the streets in and around the Petersfield area, The IWCA worked alongside residents patrolling areas where groups of 30-40 youths had been causing various problems.

The patrols were at first every night, but they were so successful in reducing anti-social behaviour that nightly patrols became unnecessary. Various tactics were used including taking photos and videos to unnerve those who were known to be involved in anti-social behaviour. However at all times the IWCA stressed that confrontation was not the aim of the patrols.

After the problem had reduced some local people along with the IWCA continued to hold regular patrols to monitor the situation. Local shop keepers and those most affected by the problem gave unanimous support for what had been done (and indeed had backed the setting up of the patrols at the first anti-social behaviour meeting).

The IWCA's work was constantly advertised in its local newsletter the Harold Hill Independent. This led to work being under¬taken in at least five other parts of the estate and the IWCA successfully stopped a spate of garage break-ins after its patrols spent a week patrolling on the Briar Road area of the estate.

Local people who were given a small flyer which informed them the Citizens Patrol had been in the area, actually came to their front doors and thanked the IWCA for the work they were doing.

It should be stressed that the IWCA has more recently moved onto arguing that to solve the ongoing problem of anti-social behaviour then youth investment is essential. They have supported efforts by local youth and community to engage the youths not only in getting involved in a positive way on the estate, but also to lead the way in promoting issues that directly and indirectly affect young people.

And the backlash?

Predictably, the police and councillors were more concerned about "vigilantism" than about the suffering of the people on the estate. The police response has been periodic ineffectual swamping of the area when budgets or elections are on the horizon. The IWCA's work has continued -working to reinforce the strength of the local community, talking to the young people involved and pushing for better leisure and youth provision.

Another of the local IWCA campaigns was support for a young man who had been left in a wheel chair after an attack but had twice been refused compensation by the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board. He was finally successful in his appeal.

On Blackburn Leys estate in Oxford, the IWCA have a councillor, Stuart Craft. There the IWCA have been involved in action against drug dealers - publicising the addresses in public meetings and pressurising landlords to evict. You might expect the police to be grateful for the community spirit but at the time, July 2002, Inspector Gratwohl of the local Police said that residents who tried to gather their own evidence or demonstrated outside the homes of drug dealers risked 'contravening the human rights of those implicated'

Early IWCA newsletters had covered concerns about other anti-social behaviour by a couple of residents and the failure by the Housing Association to act against them. More recently local residents have had to resist the local Housing Association’s threats against "noisy street games". It is of course this street presence - along with action such as reclaiming parks used by crack dealers by using them for football and kick boxing - that allows communities to resist the police tactics of containing drug dealing, and the problems associated with the trade, on particular working class estates.

As a councillor Stuart Craft has a more obvious profile with the police (he pays their wages) but has resisted, publicly, attempts to draw him in to the system and refuses to attend meetings with the police unless they are open to Blackburn Leys Constituents.

The IWCA national website places anti¬-social behaviour and the idea of community restorative justice at the top of its manifesto. More usefully the local groups in Oxford and Havering have been instrumental in showing how communities can take control in this area. However as well as promoting practical responses IWCA groups have pushed other vital - though perhaps less immediately obvious - issues. In Finsbury and South Hackney, areas of central London, a central plank of IWCA activity has been resistance to gentrification and the driving out of working class people from these areas.

Resisting gentrification

Finsbury is part of the borough of Islington. After over a decade and more of council house sales, rent rises, gentrification of pubs and shops, parts of the borough are unrecognisable. However there is still a large working class community in Finsbury and in other parts of the borough. If you are in any doubt about what class hatred is - and the necessity for working class resistance - listen to local businessman and New Deal Board member David Abramovitch:

"People who have lived here for 40 years are upset about it changing - but what's so wrong about change? The new businesses and people who come in are the ones who are going to bring change. The older generations will fade away, while the people who run the coffee bars and the restaurants - like it or not - will remain."

(Islington Gazette - 7,3.02). He's just one businessman but he is a New Deal Board Member.

New Deal is a government scheme to put money into inner city areas. The amounts of money are large in terms of local resources - £5M per year in Finsbury - though minimal in the bigger picture. Obviously the money does not come from anyone other than ourselves as taxpayers. The money is allocated by a New Deal Board. These have some locally elected members (who, it is hoped will be easily manipulated, whilst giving the appearance of community participation) and others drawn from "partners" such as the police or council and some local appointees. In Finsbury the IWCA decided to back local activists and won all the available seats - only one was contested. In a new twist for democracy the unsuccessful candidate managed to still make the board - as an appointee. A second election in early 2003 was more heavily contested - as the political parties put up front candidates but the IWCA continued to support the local activists who were ultimately successful. Getting involved in these structures is a new direction but it gave a much-needed boost to a community whose needs and views have been pushed aside over the last 20 years. It didn't do the IWCA any harm either.

In Shoreditch the IWCA worked with tenant activists to fight off proposals by the New Deal board there that would have led to estate sell-offs and, instead, pushed successfully for the money to be spent on refurbishing council flats. The New Deal organisation had their own paper which, together with the council's propaganda sheet (both paid for by you and me) attacked the activists and tenants organisations who were opposing sell-offs. The IWCA countered by distributing their own paper amongst local people. The New Deal realised the strength of opposition and tried to put forward a "preferred option" of demolishing 20% of council housing in the area. But when 100 angry tenants turned up at the board meeting they backed down. The New Deal was not intended to involve local people - the hope was that local representation would be tame, unrepresentative or easily outmanoeuvred. In Finsbury and Shoreditch the IWCA have helped people mobilise to take some degree of control.

Council housing sell-offs

Harwood Court is a rundown block on prime land that the council had been running down for some years. It was targeted for demolition. Working with the Tenants Association the IWCA talked to virtually all the tenants and established that rather than be moved out they simply wanted the repairs, services and security they are entitled to. Meetings were held and 90% of tenants signed a petition to the New Deal board making it very difficult to say that demolition was acceptable to them, and work has now started on some improvements.

Estate sell-offs is a major issue for both Hackney and Islington IWCA. As the prospect of blatant privatisation has become less welcome on the estates, the idea of Arms Length Management Organisations is being pushed. These are clearly bad for any real tenant control and also for the council's workforce. Given that most people who live on council estates will have a jaundiced view of the council's ability to run housing effectively, it is important that tenants realise what is going on. For those of you who don't understand ALMOs check where Islington IWCA have helpfully posted a Centre for Public Services report on ALMOs. More immediately, IWCA in Hackney were alerted to a "consultation" meeting where tenants on one estate were being asked if they favoured a private landlord or an ALMO. 40 tenants made it to the meeting- waving the IWCA leaflet demanding 'Option 3" (the one they hadn't been offered.)

Given what is happening in South Hackney it is no surprise that a major part of the IWCAs work there has been over housing. It has given them good contacts with tenants associations and respect and appreciation from the tenants themselves. This converted into a close second at the last local elections in the ward where they stood.

Local campaigns

One of the key features of the IWCA's work is the sheer hard work they put in. In Shoreditch a small group distributes 15,000 newsletters across estates - fortunately they now have contacts on many estates who will help out with this. However they also spend a lot of time talking to tenants about what issues concern them. Hackney IWCA carried out a survey - knocking on people's doors and asking them what they thought the important issues were… and since then have taken these issues up. A novel approach for any political organisation or movement - including - sadly, many of our own.

The action these issues have led to have not always been massively successful. An idea for promoting better street lighting, hassling the council to mend lights in areas where people felt unsafe did not get lots of people involved - though the lights in question were mended.

The IWCA's contacts made their involvement in a campaign to stop the closure of Laburnam School (in South Hackney) useful. Long-term contact made it easier to draw links between this, the closure of a local swimming pool, threats to a one o'clock dub and the overall move to exclude ordinary people from the area. They felt they could point to the bigger picture - of how the local authorities work with the City and how gentrification affects these decisions.

Other initiatives include Islington IWCA's support for a campaign by a family whose son, Christopher Pullen, had been killed when a steel door left on his estate fell on him while he was playing. Neither the council nor the Health and Safety Executive had taken their responsibility for this incident seriously. The campaign has centred around supporting his mother's attempts to see the authorities brought to account. Now the HSE are facing a judicial review of their failure to act. With luck this cannot now be swept under the carpet.

Hackney IWCA took on the cases of individual tenants facing eviction when they fell into arrears when their housing benefit was being mismanaged by the private firm IT net - at a time when due to cuts to the local advice centre many found it hard to get any representation or advice.

More happily Hackney IWCA organise shows in tenant's halls for children. Inspired by Blackburn Leys children's film club, these have been well attended. They showed Harry Potter which reflected the wishes of the children rather than the ideology of the local IWCA.

The lessons for anarchists

There is no compatible anarchist organisation doing the same sort of work. Only Haringey Solidarity Group has had the same level of involvement with community politics in recent times. However many anarchists are involved with Tenant's Associations, anti council sell off campaigns, local initiatives on saving schools, libraries or other resources, usually on a fairly individual basis. All too often, when one campaign ends that's it. Some contacts or friendships are made but the impetus is lost. However the IWCA approach is to support these initiatives as well as-providing a political perspective and some longer term sustainability. I think the approach of asking people what they want, what concerns them, is key to this. Some left wing militants are often seen as "parachuting in" - even when they have lived or worked in a community for many years. This is because ultimately their agenda is from outside that community.

On 28 July the IWCA moved on from their "pilot projects" and re-launched as a national organisation - with a website and manifesto. There aren't lots of local groups as yet - it certainly does not have the same national coverage as AFA ever at its lowest ebb. They intend to stand a candidate in the London Mayoral elections. This is obviously quite a gamble - their electoral success in Oxford and respectable showings elsewhere have come as a result of consistent intelligent hard work by local activists. At present they do not have the numbers - or the time - to have the same sort of impact across London.

Many anarchists may feel uneasy about the IWCA’s standing in elections - particularly for the London mayor. This article is not going to rerun arguments about elections or representation. However, even if they stood for Parliament, it would not write off the work that they have done in promoting working class self-activity and strengthening the idea and the practicality of working class resistance. Equally there are issues where their manifesto is totally silent - such as work place organisation. However the point is that what they are doing they have shown them-selves good at.

The sort of work the IWCA do is not "sexy" for some activists. This is not a bad thing. Firstly we need to ask why some activists describe political activity as "sexy" anyway. Secondly I think we are starting to see how unsustainable the "sexy" activist protest politics of the last few years has become. If there is to be any effective resistance to the state it has to be sustainable. The IWCA are not writing off direct action or confrontation but neither are they making promises they can't keep or threats they can't back up. In areas where there are IWCA groups it makes sense to work with them at whatever level works. What they are doing and promoting comes down to necessary self-defence. We have the same interests.

IWCA, BM 1734, London, WCiN 3XX