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Archive for April 13th, 2015

The following is a guest post by Tower Hamlets deputy mayor Cllr Oliur Rahman about his trip to Greece last month. He went with fellow Tower Hamlets First councillors Shahed Ali, Mahbub Alam, Shafiqul Haque, and various trade union activists. I wrote about it at the time here. The verdict in the Lutfur Rahman trial is expected next week, according to my latest information. Should that judgment go against Lutfur, Oli could be acting mayor for a short period. Clearly there are discussions even among Lutfur’s Tower Hamlets First party about who might stand in any mayoral by election in the event of a ‘guilty’ verdict. They’re only human after all.

oli rahman, mahbub alam

Deputy mayor Oli Rahman is wearing the hat

 

As the General Election draws closer, this should be a time of excitement and interest in politics. But for many, the opposite is the case. Huge numbers of people feel alienated from the political process, cynical with politicians, and don’t see any real difference between mainstream parties united on wanting to slash public spending. As the rise of the SNP and decline in Labour in Scotland demonstrates, people want to shake up the political order. And not just in Britain.Nowhere is this more evident than in Greece which has recently seen the election of the left-wing Syriza party on a programme of tackling austerity. A few weeks ago I decided to lead the first ever British local authority delegation to Greece. I did so because I am committed to build European solidarity against the austerity that is destroying the lives of fellow EU citizens. But I went for another reason. I wanted to see up close what this new kind of politics that Syriza stand for actually meant in practice.

On arrival our delegation – comprising of councillors, trade unionists and community activists – was taken into the Greek Parliament to meet with representatives of the International Aid Department. This was timely. The government was in the news for sticking to their pre-election commitment that they would not slash their international aid budget and ignoring demands from EU finance bureaucrats. It was refreshing to come across politicians who don’t actually pay lip service to humanitarianism, but put their words into practice.

The message from the Syriza representatives was loud and clear: for the peoples of Europe to defeat austerity we need a strong European-wide anti-austerity movement. This message was repeated in our meetings with activists in our visits to two social centres – these are citizen-run health clinics, food centres and legal aid hubs which have emerged to fill the gaps left by austerity.

The activists in the centre were at pains to emphasise that the aims of the centres is not about charity and just about helping people in desperate need. They are also about empowering citizens so that they can exercise power to shape and influence the political decisions affecting their lives. I was really impressed by the social centres and the representative from the Unite community centre on Cable Street agreed to look into twinning their centre with one in Athens.

As we travelled around Athens it had the appearance that all is well. The cafes were full, there seemed to be a buzz in the shopping malls. You see people sleeping in the streets but you do so in London too. However underneath the surface the figures tell a level of crisis much more severe than here. It is estimated that half the population are below the poverty line. Household incomes have fallen by a third since austerity hit. Many of those queuing at food banks belonged to the upper middle classes not so long ago.

Politicians with reactionary politics and simplistic solutions have done well in response to the crisis, and none more so that Golden Dawn, an openly neo-Nazi party that has scored up to 15 per cent in the opinions polls and whose members have been complicit in racist assaults and murder. They have made their gains on the back of trying to scapegoating migrants.

The reality of the impact of racism was brought home to us in a meeting we had with the anti-racist and anti-fascist organisation KEERFA which gathered together African, Pakistani and Bangladeshi members of migrant rights organisations. Their plight had been highlighted recently over the case of 35 illegal strawberry pickers who were shot at by their farm guards for asking for pay that was five months overdue.

Shockingly, when the case went before a court the guards were responsible were acquitted. We were privileged to meet with one of the leaders of the fruit workers, Tipu Chowdhury, whose testimony about their plight was very moving. We agreed we would organise a fundraising dinner in support on our return.The issue of the lack of basic rights for migrants was one that came up a lot on our visit. The local Bangladeshi community organised a dinner in our honour with over 200 people crammed into a tiny restaurant and we met members of the Greek Bangladeshi community who have been living in Greece for decades but still had not citizenship rights. As with all the Greeks we meet on our visits, the warmth of their welcome was overwhelming.

Hearing that we were in town we received a call on the eve of our departure from Athens from Zoi Konstantopoulo, the most senior woman in Greek politics, a human rights lawyer who sued Britain over the Iraq War, and Syriza’s President of Parliament asking us to come see her. We were honoured to meet her and were all impressed by her easy, relaxed style – she insisted we address her by her first name – and her lack of the airs and graces.

Zoi talked about how five years of austerity had strangled the Greek economy, the importance of building an international solidarity movement and the new government’s commitment to tackling racism. The Greek parliament has already made commitments to improving rights and Zoi affirmed the government’s commitment to redress this issue.

I know I am speaking for everyone on our delegation in writing that our trip to Greece was a really positive experience. It demonstrated the determination of the new Greek government to challenge the austerity agenda wreaking havoc in the EU.

I am came back from my trip more committed to the idea of a European Union, but one that is a Europe committed to the interests of all its citizens.

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