Why we had to rejoice after Margaret Thatcher's death, by the editor behind provocative Socialist Worker front page
The newspaper is back in the news – and the journalist who runs it is rejoicing in the moment, she tells Ian Burrell
For many years, so it has seemed to me, the brand profile of a once-prominent political faction has been obscured behind the more recognisable initials of a small man currently playing at right midfield for Queens Park Rangers.
When I was growing up in Thatcher's Britain, the Socialist Workers Party – and its organ, the Socialist Worker – was a frequent sight wherever you went, and better known than Shaun Wright-Phillips would ever be: outside gigs, on student protests, at the end of the shopping precinct. "Soh-shull-eest Wurk-ah!!" was its war cry. But during the Blair years, it seemed to go off the radar, a political irrelevance in a booming Labour Britain.
Then last week its name was everywhere. The Socialist Worker – going where others feared to tread by featuring a gravestone marked "Margaret Hilda Thatcher" over the provocative headline "Rejoice" – was the focus of the international media. At celebration parties in several British cities, protesters gleefully brandished copies of the paper's front page. The party of the revolutionary left had finally emerged from the shadow of Shaun Wright-Phillips.
The breakthrough was a triumph for Judith Orr, editor of the Socialist Worker for the past two years. "It went everywhere across the world as being the most defiant front-page celebrating the end of Thatcher," she says proudly, over an orange juice in a café bar near to the paper's offices in south London.
In fact, the front page was tame in comparison to the paper's eight-page "Thatcher's Dead" supplement with a cover cartoon of the Baroness with her head in a noose and a white-on-black headline of "Gotcha!" (imitating The Sun's infamous coverage of the sinking of the Argentinian ship the Belgrano in 1982).
The Socialist Worker was founded in that red-hot revolutionary year of 1968. Orr, originally from Belfast, has been a class warrior since the mid-1980s when she was a union shop steward working for Camden council in London and headed north to show solidarity with the striking miners whose livelihoods were under threat from the policies of the Thatcher government. "It was not enough to be a socialist just turning up to things – what the SWP had was organisation," she says of her decision to join the party.
As someone who has been fighting the struggle for decades, it's not surprising that she denies that the party is a relic. "You've had over a decade of war," she points out. "We've had the ideas of anti-imperialism and an anti-capitalist movement. The economic crisis has exposed the system for being chaotic. If anything our ideas are more vindicated today by the world around us."
She was encouraged by the big trade union-organised marches last year and regards the violence that has marked some of those protests as a distortion by the mainstream media. "Having a mass demonstration of workers and unions doesn't fit with the narrative that the working class is no longer there and the unions are no longer relevant."
Orr is unabashed in using the language of the barricades. Would she like to see more strikes? "Absolutely!" Did she sympathise with the people who attacked shops during the protest marches. "I absolutely understand their anger." The London riots of 2011 were the result of "racism" and cutting youth benefits.
As Margaret Thatcher rose to power, the idea of the revolutionary socialist was being lampooned on the BBC by Robert Lindsay's deluded character Wolfie in Citizen Smith. "Come the glorious day," he would warn his fellow suburbanites. Orr is more pragmatic. "It's not a matter of wait for the revolution in an abstract, utopian way," she suggests. "It's about being part of an everyday struggle."
When she got a whiff of uprising in Egypt she headed straight out to Cairo and found the experience "utterly inspiring". She felt the need to be there in person "because we are revolutionaries… This is a moment of history". The use of the present tense is consistent with her belief that the uprising has not stalled with the election of the Muslim Brotherhood but is a work in progress. "Revolutions are a process not an event. It's far from a done deal," she says, in a rare capitalist slip of the tongue.
As a journalist, she was texting back updates from North Africa for the paper to use. The mobile phone was the ultimate symbol of the Thatcherite yuppie but the advance of technology means that Orr regards it as a "great tool".
By a coincidence, the death of Baroness Thatcher coincided with the re-launch of the Socialist Worker website. But the printed paper is still crucial to the party, because it is distributed by people who believe in the cause. It costs £1 and if they have a real "bumper" edition, such as last week, sales can approach 10,000, it is claimed.
"There's a sense that it's part of the class and the struggle," says the editor. She emphasises how the paper helps readers to organise and how to respond in political debate. In that, it sounds a little like Pravda, though Orr says her paper is "very different" from the Communist Morning Star, which also continues to publish from offices on the opposite side of London.
The SWP has been a determined opponent of racism – often standing up physically to far-right groups such as the English Defence League and the British National Party. The Socialist Worker (with its gender-balanced staff of five women and five men) would never use the term "far right" – only "fascist".
And although the leftie is sometimes characterised as a boring ideologue (witness the Dave Spart character in Private Eye), there is humour in its pages, with a diary column that satirises the hypocrisy of the rich and powerful. "It's not a dour thing being a revolutionary socialist," protests Orr.
"Sometimes the best way of exposing the inequality, the sheer gall that the rich ruling class have, is to take the piss." But clearly, a calculated and shocking insult suits the Socialist Worker just as well.
In history: The socialist worker
* Founded by the Socialist Review Group in 1961 as the Industrial Worker, then Labour Worker. Renamed Socialist Worker in 1968.
* Circulation rises during the miners’ strikes. Writers include Paul Foot and Eamonn McCann.
* Paul Foot, socialist investigative journalist, edits from 1970 to 1974, contributes until his death in 2004.
* Serves as launchpad for several writers including Garry Bushell and the Hitchens brothers.
*Influence wanes during Blair years.
*Judith Orr takes reins in 2011.
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