Boris and the RCP,  Dress Down Friday


So, we have the first Boris-RCP related furore.

It was blogger Dave Hill who had the story first. He’d seen a draft poster for the Rise festival, and noticed that it didn’t proclaim itself an “anti-racist” event. Then, the Socialist Action front group, the National Association Against Racism got their act into gear, and issued a press release:

‘We were contacted by the Greater London Authority last week and told anti-racism will no longer be the central message of the Rise festival. This is confirmed by initial publicity which drops the message “London united against racism” and all reference to opposing racism. Support for the festival from performers and communities has always been based on this anti-racist message so the change is sure to be highly controversial. The sincerity of Boris Johnson’s claimed commitment to opposing racism in his election campaign is shown to be false by that fact that one of his first decisions is to abandon Europe’s biggest anti-racist festival

Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?

Ever ready to get involved in a ruck, the BNP’s Richard Barnbrook boldly claimed that  the Mayor was merely taking his advice on the subject.

Then the Cuba Solidarity Campaign discovered that it wasn’t going to get a stall. No celebration of the Cuban Monarchy this year!

Fortunately, the RCP’s Munira Mirza was on hand to explain what was really going on. The emphasis of the festival would shift from negative, human potential sapping, boring old anti-racism, to a new sparkly autonomy affirming celebration of human potential:

To give some background: in 1996 the Trades Union Congress and various political groups organised Respect (later renamed Rise), intended as a festival against racism. One of the organisations involved was the National Assembly Against Racism (NAAR). In 2000, the then newly-elected Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, effectively nationalised the event by giving it large sums of public money. Several of Ken’s key aides at City Hall had links to NAAR, including Lee Jasper.

Over the years, Rise was proclaimed by Ken & Co as a key weapon in the fight against racism and fascism. In reality, it became an annual jamboree for Ken’s favourite political activist groups, many with no clear link to anti-racism. The Cuba Solidarity Campaign, Socialist Workers Party and CND, among others, brought in their armies of volunteers to man stalls, hand out leaflets, sell newspapers and rattle donation buckets. The “community” area of the festival looked more like Sussex University freshers’ fair circa 1970. Not without good reason did Rise become known as “Kenstock“.

The deterrent effect of this highly politicised atmosphere should not be underestimated. Although the event was supposed to be inclusive and attract people from ethnic minorities, the GLA’s own research (conducted while Ken was mayor) shows that 65%-70% of attendees in the last two years were white. That is disproportionately whiter than the population of London. It seems reasonable to conclude that the political baggage and relentless sloganeering was actually putting people off. And no doubt many individuals and families who did come on the day were there primarily for the music or a nice day out.

Londoners deserve a great, free music festival with excellent bands from around the world. They don’t need to be hectored about why racism is bad or accosted by activists explaining why Castro is a hero. We don’t have anti-racist fireworks on New Year’s Eve and we don’t need to organise an anti-paedophile concert to prove our moral credentials on the issue. Sectarian political festivals are not the way Londoners want their money to be spent. Most of us, I suspect, just want to be trusted to get on with other people and not be instructed by activists about the dangers of racism.

That’s why the GLA has decided to go ahead with Rise this summer, but to change the emphasis. We are stressing the cultural aspects of the festival and keeping the vibe positive. We are also bringing in grassroots ethnic and community organisations that have not previously been involved. Above all we are making Rise fun. As a result, the festival will hopefully attract a more diverse audience.

Londoners voted for change on May 1 and the new Rise is part of that change. Out will go the political sloganeering and heavy-handed propaganda but by bringing Londoners from different backgrounds together to share their love of music Rise will be doing anti-racism for real.

Uh huh.

So, what do we reckon?

Personally, I like the Sussex University Freshers’ Fair vibe of a good old fashioned Kenstock. But then, I’m a bit autistic about weird fringe political groups. I’m in a minority. And if we could have a festival which encouraged a true celebration of the best that all Londoners, new and old, have to offer, which pulls in grass roots community organisations, that would be an achievement to be proud of.

Socialist Action can hardly complain that it has been left off the bill. And there is certainly the argument that many of London’s newest arrivals, from Eastern Europe, might be put off by the cheerleaders for one of the world’s last surviving Communist autocracies.

Still, I don’t feel too glum. We’ve got weeks of arguing about this decision to come. That is guaranteed to provide fun for all the family.