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The Left Should Not Hitch Its Wagons to the Duggan Crusade

15/01/2014 10:35 GMT | Updated 16/03/2014 09:59 GMT

As causes célèbres go, it is a pretty abject choice. Yet, elements of the Left, among them some of my colleagues in the trade union movement, have been promoting the 'Justice for Mark Duggan' campaign as if it were the new lodestar in the struggle for the emancipation of the working-class. They seem to have taken at face value the glib claim made by Duggan's aunt Carole, that "the majority of people in this country know that Mark was executed", and set about trying to prove it.

For them, the tide of seething anger felt by working-class people about what happened that day in Tottenham creates an opportunity for political gain too good to pass up. What a mistake they make.

Most working-class people I have spoken to, far from believing that Duggan was ruthlessly slain by a racist and trigger-happy arm of the state, conclude that what happened to him was sadly inevitable. They aren't taken in by the characterisation of him as a 'rough diamond'. Instead, they see the hard evidence that Duggan, a convicted criminal with gangster connections, took possession, on that fateful day, of a gun (for the supply of which an associate was later jailed); plainly harboured malevolent intentions of one sort or another, possibly involving taking another life, when he travelled with it in a taxi; and was holding the weapon when he alighted the vehicle after it was stopped (albeit that he tossed it aside a micro-second before the first bullet struck him).

It wasn't a cabal of establishment men in grey suits who adjudged that Duggan was lawfully killed; it was an independent jury of his peers, drawn from the local community.

But these truths do not dissuade the Duggan campaign from crying "Murder", nor some sections of the Left from hitching their wagons to the crusade for 'justice'.

That some unrepresentative groups have pledged explicit support to the cause, while disappointing, is predictable. More dispiriting is the weak-kneed equivocation of more mainstream figures in the labour and trade union movement who, while refraining from giving overt backing to the Duggan campaign, subtly imply that some kind of injustice has been dealt and talk of the need for lessons to be learned.

It is this moral ambivalence that led the same people to qualify any condemnation of the nihilistic riots of 2011 with talk of an imperative to tackle the 'root causes' - as though it were pre-ordained that the scrapping of the Education Maintenance Allowance would provoke the nation's youth into launching petrol bombs through every shop window in the high street.

All of this is the result of fifty years of liberal influence on socialist thought, the manifestation of the warped belief - itself rooted in the concept of Marxist determinism - that morality isn't possible under capitalism and there are always wider sociological explanations for immoral behaviour.

In truth, there is no inconsistency in fighting today's neoliberal economic agenda - wretched and unjust as it is - while still acknowledging that working-class people have obligations to each other and free will remains the ultimate factor in determining whether it's right to deal in drugs, mug a passer-by or lay waste to one's own neighbourhood.

The problem for those who espouse the path of soft liberalism is that their ideas have little resonance with - indeed, risk alienating entirely - the people whose support they most seek: ordinary voters in working-class heartlands who remain imbued with an instinctive sense of right and wrong, are tired of society making excuses for every example of wrongdoing, and are able to discern with ease whether a particular cause is worthy of support. For these people, the distinction between right and wrong will always take primacy over that between Right and Left.

Members of my own union - firefighters - were in the frontline when the violence engulfed English cities after the shooting of Duggan. Some had paving slabs hurled at them while they were battling the flames. Ask them what they think of the 'Justice for Mark Duggan' campaign and whether their union would be right to throw its weight behind it in their name, and you'll get short shrift.

Defending the Mark Duggans of this world does nothing to advance the fight against poverty, injustice, low pay, privatisation, racism, inequality and war. Duggan was no Steve Biko, and it ill-behoves us to present him as a victim of racist state oppression.

Those of us on the Left should not allow ourselves to be inveigled into lending support to campaigns that have no merit and present no opportunity, especially of the type that violate the intrinsic values of those for whom we purport to speak.