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Archive for January, 2009

News media; not just biased, but bad at their jobs

January 29, 2009 3 comments

News mediaI don’t know what confluence of planets has caused me to notice this at the present time, but the media are really, really bad at their jobs. I’m signed up to a number of RSS feeds, from the BBC and Sky onwards. I read the Guardian and the Times if not daily then every other day. And yet there are an enormous amount of stories which are of huge importance but which are receiving minimal coverage, for some reason.

Now obviously I don’t have to mention the Disaster Emergency Committee’s appeal for aid in response to the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Gaza and the BBC’s refusal to pick it up. However last month, the papers offered very poor coverage of situations unfolding in Greece and elsewhere, where stand-offs were developing between workers and the government. Indeed the collapse of the Icelandic government seemed to come out of nowhere for most of the mainstream media.

More recently, the coverage of the demand for a General Strike by some of the biggest trade unions in France has been pathetic. The existence of a movement that has effectively rendered Sarkozy a lame duck, through his general unpopularity and the increasing number of mass protests and strikes, has been virtually ignored. Reading the BBC coverage of the one-day stoppage taking place today, it’s pretty apparent that news-gathering is far down on the list of priorities.

Instead, AFP have provided half the coverage and the BBC has rehashed it. Do they even note the call by CGT, CFDT, FOR, FSU, CFE-CGC, CFTC, UNSA and SOLIDARY for a General Strike? Nope.

On local issues as well, the major news agencies have been pretty pathetic. Did anyone else notice the campaign ongoing against EDO-MBM, the arms manufacturer? In Sussex, a group of people broke into the offices to destroy equipment and disable the manufacturing of weapons which were being sold to Israel. The cost was estimated at some £250,000, or ten Hellfire missiles. And this is one of several such instances, such as a previous break-in at a Raytheon plant.

Agree or disagree with the actions, it’s important and news worthy. It demonstrates that there are people out there angry enough at the selling of weapons to Israel, permitted by the government, that they are prepared to violate the law.

Or there is the case of Manchester police seizing a server from Indymedia. Some commenter posted the address of a judge in the case of animal rights nutters, and the police wanted the IP address. However Indymedia doesn’t log IP addresses; they removed the comment in compliance with their site guidelines but in not logging IP addresses, they’re in breach of an EU Directive on data retention. Again this looks like an important story.

The police seized a server to get at someone who made comments, and according to the EU, what you say on the internet should be traceable by authorities. It wasn’t this time, and the EU Directive has not yet been tested in a UK court. All of this has ramifications for the constriction of what individuals can do online. As does the story about Irish ISP Eirecom having to settle out of court with the music industry and take measures to prevent P2P file transfers of copyright material.

Occupations by students across the country – in King’s College, SOAS and LSE in London, Oxford, Essex, Leeds, Manchester Met, Nottingham, Sussex and Newcastle – were a little better reported but still not headline news. These, our children, are standing up to declare that they care, that the narrative about depoliticisation is not true, and the media (where it is mentioned at all) bury it on inside pages. Interestingly, the blogosphere delivered much better stories than the MSM.

And the UK isn’t the only country that has been happening in either!

Each of these stories are one more reason why a concerted effort by the Left to publish grassroots stories and get the information out there is so necessary. This is why you should be involved with the Left New Media Forum, which will soon look something like this.

Categories: General Politics

How much would it cost to wipe the slate clean?

January 28, 2009 3 comments

Peter RobinsonAnyone paying attention to the news will have noticed a sudden surge of Northern Ireland stories, after the Consultative Group on the Past recommended a payment of £12,000 to the families of all those killed in the Troubles. This proposal [.pdf] has caused a lot of argument, with the Unionist Parties wheeling out widows and such to attack the notion that IRA members killed should be worth the same as policemen or innocent passers-by who were killed.

Personally I think the notion of paying £12,000 to a family for the death of a loved one is a preposterous idea. There are already memorial funds available for the families of those who died so one has to ask, what is this money for? In total the CGoP report documented the total cost of remuneration at £300 million. In Northern Ireland there are surely better things upon which to spend the money? A chronically underfunded series of Education & Library Boards, or our hospitals should be top of the list.

People aren’t going to feel better about a family member being killed simply because they’ve got a bit of money out of it. Mark Simpson, the BBC correspondent had an interesting take on it, however. He said that the tears of a mother are still tears, regardless of which side her dead children were fighting on. Cast like that, almost as an apology from the British government to the mothers of Northern Ireland, then I could live with the expenditure.

Unsurprisingly, the Unionists are completely hypocritical in their selection of Northern Irish history, and disingenuous in the stance that they take. Consider the words of First Minister Peter Robinson, DUP leader:

“The DUP has consistently opposed any equation between the perpetrator of crimes during the Troubles and the innocent victim…Terrorists died carrying out their evil and wicked deeds while innocent men, women and children were wiped out by merciless gangsters.”

Now obviously it would be a mistake to read into the words of Mr Robinson more than he has actually said, but such is the manner of the DUP that when he says terrorists, one can almost hear the subtext, “IRA”. The DUP were notoriously blind to the issue of Loyalist decommissioning of weapons, wrecking the first Assembly and the Ulster Unionist Party over the IRA’s weapons whilst remaining sotto voce on the UVF or its splinter groups.

The real problem with Mr Robinson’s words are actually that the ‘perpetrators of crimes’ during the Troubles were not always part of proscribed terrorist groups. And the victims of the terrorist groups were not always innocent. Undeniably there are a category of innocent people – shoppers, Catholic and Protestant men walking the wrong street at night, taxi drivers, bus drivers and so on, all of whom got caught in the cross fire.

However all of this neglects the Police, the army and the security services and their role in the Troubles – which was never that of Knight in shining armour. Whether the case of the SAS shooting-to-kill the IRA men in Gibraltar, killing unarmed men, any number of similar cases in the province itself, the murder of Pat Finucane or their collusion with the INLA in the murder of Billy Wright, the security services are far from blameless.

I don’t have to agree with Billy Wright, founder of the extremist LVF, born again hypocrite and all round odious man, to oppose his execution. I don’t need to have been brought up in a Catholic family on the Falls to see the unequal behaviour visited by the RUC on Catholics rather than Protestants. And I don’t need to support Bobby Sands or any of his lot to want justice for the murder of Pat Finucane and the role the RUC had in it.

Yet this dark underside to Irish history is completely missing from the Unionist view of four legs good, two legs bad, a fact that is underscored by the widows of RUC officers who have been wheeled out to attack the compensation proposals. My father was a policeman during the Troubles and perhaps had he been murdered by the IRA I’d feel differently, but I hope I wouldn’t. Justice cannot be done in secret, by special tribunal or vigilante or terrorist, something which Barack Obama has underscored for us.

A court may fail to deliver justice, for any number of reasons including the bias of our justice system towards those with money, but at least it is public. It does not usurp the right of the rest of us to watch the proceedings and make up our own minds.

The flawed opposition of the Unionists to the plan, however, does not make the plan any more worthwhile. People have died, and this does have an economic effect. People were injured and likewise this has an economic effect. The loss of livelihood and ability to work can mean the difference between making ends meet and penury, or between the kids going to work or the kids going to university – and that is something which needs addressed.

For the sake of the unity of the country, I think the best way to address it is not via a payment specifically related to the Troubles. It is via a comprehensive social security net – for all the people of Northern Ireland, of whatever faith or political creed. In one of the most depressed parts of the UK, that’s something we don’t have – and which we’ll have less of once water charges are finally introduced, or once the top up fees cap comes off.

With such a plan, we could leave behind the pontificating politicians with their petty point-scoring and actually achieve something worthwhile for all the families of Northern Ireland, whether they are subjectively branded innocent, terrorist, criminal or not.

Then maybe we could criticize some of the more worrying aspects of the CGoP report, such as “no new public inquiries”. This is a country where, potentially over the course of decades, Police, special branch and the security services colluded with terrorists to secure the murder of other terrorists. Or to secure the murder of individuals guilty of no crime other than a specific political allegiance. I’ve mentioned Pat Finucane so we might take his case as a starting point.

The government, under the Inquiries Act 2005, decided to have a secret inquiry. This despite full page adverts in the Times and the US House of Representatives passing a resolution demanding an independent inquiry. And the case of Pat Finucane is just one among many where the involvement of the State is suspect. There’s also the notion, incipient to the report, that an amnesty for past crimes may be considered by this future Legacy Commission, discussed today at the launch.

Truth is not a luxury and we should have the right to bring to justice those men who were responsible for the murder, in her home, of Roseanne Mallon, a 76 year old pensioner. Or the men responsible for any number of Republican bombs which blew apart shops and people in towns and cities from Omagh to London. It is a sad indictment of Northern Irish politics, however, that these parts of the report have been ignored in favour of a Unionist rush to condemn the IRA.

Such rhetoric can’t be worn threadbare quickly enough.

Categories: General Politics, Religion

Lenin versus Hattersley

January 24, 2009 6 comments

Strange bedfellowsI have in the past been less than complimentary towards Labour veteran Roy Hattersley. Today, however, the old boy managed to surprise me just a little. So used to hearing the ‘social democratic’ Left justify below inflation wage increases on behalf of their New Labour counterparts, it was refreshing to read Hattersley writing frankly about wealth redistribution, a house building programme and so forth. Hattersley even went as far as to attack the notion of social mobility as an end in itself.

As it happens, I agree with all of those points. However Hattersley’s critique of social mobility has a few holes in it. He notes that he would celebrate should one in every thousand (rather than one in every two thousand) students in his former constituency go on to medical school, but he doesn’t tell us why we should care if that’s the case. Hattersley attacks the notion that the working class don’t ‘get on’ simply due to their own inherent make-up, but doesn’t address the question of why ‘getting on’ is important.

If ten or twenty or a thousand of every two thousand in Hattersley’s constituency became doctors, then we’d draw our pool of manual labour and the lower-paid workers from somewhere else. As Hattersley seems to note, before veering off, social mobility is a zero-sum game, based on a competitive ethic that ensures somewhere at all times there are underpaid people performing menial tasks when they are capable of more than that. Hattersley simply comments that everyone needs an equal start and an open road.

Fine, but to what end? If, as Hattersley says, social mobility means nothing without deeper economic change, what sort of economic change does he have in mind? He doesn’t say. He supports building houses to improve the life chances of the working class, and no doubt free education and a better NHS, the touchstones of British social democracy. Yet his analysis doesn’t account for the opposition these things face in practice and for what reason they face opposition.

It is a laudable ideal that everyone should be able to reach whatever they aspire to be – but that’s not fundamental economic change. It may be possible in the UK, but largely at the expense of having the ‘lesser’ jobs exported to other countries. Even with that, we’ve still not rid ourselves of chronically low paid jobs, from the retail industry to service sector workers, greasing the skids on which the City of London runs day after day, week after week. I’m sure none of those people grew up wanting to do that.

Not that they’re not proud of what they do; anyone who works hard at their job has the right to take pride in it.

Nevertheless, the lot of these people is not a good one – and though Hattersley wants universal education and such to help them work their way up the ladder, it isn’t fundamental change. The fundamental change is lacking because of Hattersley’s conception of the State as an impartial, democratically influenced instrument to adjudicate the interests of different sections of society, whatever those different sections of society may be.

Such a notion forgets that the State is fundamentally grounded in the socio-economic system we call capitalism. It is the defender of property rights, and on the basis of private property, which can be amassed by individuals and collections of individuals, only an exploitative economic system can exist. The framework within which the State operates is therefore grotesquely biased, not to mention that any number of the politicians go to public schools with the same individuals who amass such property.

Without the overthrow of private property (and consequently the State) there will be no ‘fundamental’ economic reform. We might protect the poorest from the worst excesses of their poverty, and we might create and sustain a middle class bridge of small producers and professionals between the propertied and the propertyless – but this doesn’t enfranchise people within the democratic state. Nor does freedom of speech; there is a gap between voicing dissent and bending the actions of the State.

The gap can be filled by activism – within a political party for example – but where that action is designed to democratize or redistribute wealth, once again it will provoke class-based opposition. The contradictions of capitalism sharpen and either the activist movement collapses or the capitalist system of production is conquered; there is no middle way, no ever-vigilant body which cannot itself fall prey to the rhetoric of its opponents during the wars of ideological position.

After all, this is what happened to the Labour Party; the contradictions of maintaining a pro-redistributive party in the midst of economic crisis were resolved by the swing of arms of the Party to the right and to the left. To try to recreate that centre-left ground upon which Attlee and his successors stood is simply to attempt the repetition of history, on much less favourable terms, since we have not the militant resources that Bevan, Tribune and the Communist Party of that period had.

Hattersley may say that to promote a view of class war is to demand that we hang the bourgeoisie from the trees – but this is hyperbole. Similarly to attempt to explain away class opposition between worker and owner as merely resentment of ‘positional goods’ is to indulge in a mockery of politics as old as Aristotle’s euporoi and aporoi, and Aristophanes’ demos: the politics of envy is not what motivates people. No, the division is much more fundamental than merely haves and have-nots.

It is a resentment that a minority fundamentally control the means to create wealth, and a minority control the uses to which that wealth is put. The State, by refusing to intervene to a huge extent here, biases itself further still; far from being a neutral arbiter, the artificial division of ‘social’ from ‘economic’ sphere is inherent to the point of the State, protection of property rights. In short, the bourgeoisie can keep their goods, we’re simply aiming to take over the means of their creation, to put them to better use.

This is a distinction which Hattersley clearly fails to understand.

Categories: Labour Party News

Radical minorities under capitalism

January 24, 2009 2 comments

Peter TatchellThere’s an article at Comment is Free which neatly highlights some of the problems faced by the Left, both liberal- and extreme. Jane Czyzselska spears Peter Tatchell (and unnamed others) for seeing the change in gay rights activism towards civil partnerships etc as its deradicalization, rather than critiquing the whole notion of the family. She argues that this nod towards conformity is not a turn towards conservatism, that instead it is the realisation of gay equality.

Don’t get me wrong; I despise Peter Tatchell. Every time I read something by that self-important little twerp I have the urge to throw things. On bad mood days, I read Tatchell and think I’d rather just put him in a room with Lord Tebbit, and let the two of them scrap it out, well away from where I have to listen to them or read their arguments. Yet if it is Tatchell’s argument that the LGBT community is accommodating itself to capitalism, social conservatism and family values, he’s right.

We shouldn’t be surprised by this, and if we are, it’s because the Left has dug its own hole by wrongly assessing the nature of minorities under capitalism. We saw an example of this a few months back with John Pilger, talking about Obama as an “Uncle Tom”. For Pilger it was as though it is fair to assume that black people are all radical, should all be radical and should laugh to scorn any black person who is not radical.

There are black conservatives, there are a great number of gay conservatives, though, by all accounts, gay conservatives far predated the struggle for gay rights. There are Muslim conservatives. To a socialist, the notion that these people might join in a group which has made its bones attacking minorities seems confusing. I know gay Republicans in the US, members of a Party which largely thinks what they do is an abomination.

Yet that doesn’t consider the position of the individual. On an ideological level, the Press, the political parties, gutter snipes in school and the bloke down the Pub think that minorities are privileged. We hear it every day; equality legislation is wrong because it privileges minorities. All these immigrants getting houses and jobs before British-born people etc etc. Probability dictates this will have an effect on individuals of those minorities.

Probability is helped along, of course, by the nature of capitalism. There is nothing inherent to the system of capitalism which prevents any individual from a minority, the same as any individual from the white, British majority, excelling at capitalist enterprise. So armed, it is easy to see how they might be drawn towards the political groups which promise pro-business policies, lower taxes and maybe the odd government hand out.

This is one of the features which makes capitalism so versatile, and such a dangerous opponent. What minorities are working against is history. The history of Western European feudalism, where no ‘public sphere’ existed (cf. Habermas’ Structural Transformation), is one where great religious blocs battled each other, while vigorously purging any element of the other bloc from within its own borders.

With the advent of capitalism, this attempt to impose ideological uniformity fell apart with a vengeance – and indeed the nature of capitalism also promoted immigration and emigration, further weakening the ideological, cultural or racial cohesion of each geographical State. Yet still survived many vestiges of the old system; Christianity, for example, was and is still an ideologically motivating factor almost inexplicable using an economistic analysis.

Without a theocratic government, religious dominion over the public sphere was not assured – but that does not take into account the control of Christianity over the ramparts surrounding the public sphere; church, school, state and even media. Many of the revolutionary pamphlets of the 17th century were consequently religious – and there was a great market in the sale of small prayers and such.

Opposition to this came from two disparate interest groups; firstly, an empowered bourgeoisie, unwilling to be constricted in its consumption. Secondly, an awakening proletariat whose praxis directly conflicted with the venality of the churchmen and economic control of the Lords, both temporal and spiritual, whose estates they worked under the new capitalist system and who were imbued with this Christian ideology.

However, as Lenin and other revolutionaries were to note, when threatened by the emergent proletariat, the supposedly radical bourgeoisie forgot its radical pretensions, and, now and again, its espousal of religious tolerance. Indeed, today in the USA, radical religion is directly funded by large corporations, with mega churches and television channels springing up all over the most economically decimated parts of the American heartland (cf. Chris HedgesAmerican Fascists).

Under those circumstances,the bourgeois ideology is going to come into conflict with other ideas; in Hedges’ book, he outlines the direct conflict between radical Christianity and labour unions, and between radical Christianity and homosexuality, racial minorities and Islam. It is a cliché, I would say, that the sort of fundamentalist religion of this type attempts to stifle all dissent whatsoever. It is in these circumstances we can expect minorities to be radical.

Speaking objectively, Capital has mobilised an ideology in defence of its own interests, however awkward these bedfellows often are within the US Republican Party. It’s not coincidence, it builds on the history of Western Europe and by extension North America. Nevertheless, the form this ideological shield of capital takes can change. There will always be an ideological shield, which is a basic part of bourgeoisie hegemony, to distract from the ‘real’ differences which sustain that hegemony, i.e. class relations.

After all, if workers were going to line up beside one another, there’s billions more workers and labourers of all types than there are paid-up members of the capitalist class. This is not to say that the individual capitalists who promote their religion don’t genuinely believe it, but from the outside we should note how much of a coincidence it is that their interpretation of that religion is not the same as the vague “Jesus-was-a-socialist” crew, or indeed Liberation Theology.

In the UK, gays, racial and religious minorities are not treated equally – though I would be hard pressed to name State-led sanctions on the above. This is one reason why the argument that minorities seek special privilege is so convincing (not to mention so pervasive). How then are they not treated equally? From a subjective point of view, its easy to see black and Asian people discriminated against economically speaking.

Speaking generally and noting obvious exceptions, they function as the lowest rungs of the working class. In Camden, if you walk into a McDonalds, all the faces are black. In Belfast, if you walk into a McDonalds, the faces are a combination of Polish, Belfast-born and other assorted foreigners. The composition of these rungs is a game of swings and roundabouts, determined by immigration levels. That there must be a lowest rung is a function of capitalism; who comprises it is not so crucial to capitalism.

Muslims, on the other hand, can read daily in several papers ill-thought out criticisms of issues they feel to be important. This performs an ideological function; on the pages of the Mail, bile filled vituperations about whatever mad mullah they’ve dug up sit side by side with attacks on welfare mothers and populist rants about stealth taxes against the middle class. Obviously the goal is to sell papers, but this is achieved by selling the fears and directing the anger of the Mail target audience.

For example, say Person A is a well-paid professional who would like to send their kids to a good school (equating ‘good’ with ‘private’) and who wants to live in the suburbs. Through taxes, the government makes this harder – and the Mail teaches them to be angry at those groups not seen to be paying their way. In the Mail, this means the poor, though for the rest of us it means the millionaires and billionaires rolling in cash bonuses as their businesses sink.

It’s easier, in a way, to be angry at the poor because it doesn’t require a grasp of the Labour theory of value, and because so many of the activities reported from among the poor (or chavs, if one prefers) are objectionable. It’s hard to find a punchy headline-fitting answer to the question, “Why should we give houses to women who get pregnant simply because they hear they’ll get a council house?” There are a number of answers, not the least of which is to dispute the premise of the question.

Yet complicated and in-depth debate is not what the media does, whether Left or Right. It is this simplification which sees Islamic immigration as in some way related to terrorism, as though going to a mosque was the same as being in a terrorist training school. Sure, the Koran says some terrible things, but then so does the Bible and I don’t see Melanie Phillips whinging about that. It’s the same sort of simplification which permitted the victimisation of women’s groups and gay rights groups in the 1980s as the “Loony Left”.

We must recognize that this is an ideological function of capitalism, but we must also recognize that, now that state-led constraints are removed, there will be a readjustment amongst all minority communities. In some sections of the ethnic minorities in the UK, a right-wing allegiance seems almost normal given the strong attachment to the family and other socially conservative views, including homophobia. Similarly for some gay people, the Tories will be the natural party because they share views on Europe or want small state government.

This isn’t new – but with the attempted depoliticization of the 1990s, it has certainly become more pronounced. Michael Portillo, Alan Duncan…there is a growing list of gay Tory MPs. Sayeeda Warsi sits in the Shadow Cabinet, though she does have something of tokenism about her. Theresa May ran for the leadership of the Tory Party. Hell, in today’s California, Harvey Milk, whom Czyzselska attempts to appropriate for gay family values, may have been a Republican.

In the same way that today there are Conservative Feminists, much as that may sound a contradiction in terms to a socialist, so every minority eventually accommodates itself to one side or other of capitalism and, having done so, to a position on each question facing it not just as a minority but as citizens within a State.

There is no ‘homosexual ideology’ with which to critique foreign policy (for example). Homosexuality is simply a life choice that has no inherent ideological compass, though the individual may react to external pressures foisted upon him or her because of their life choice. This is one of the reasons why the sweeping comments of Pilger and Nader about how black people should think and vote are outdated. There are now black millionaires and billionaires in America, and a growing strain of black conservatism.

There’s now a black President, and whatever supposedly radical credentials President Obama carries, he’s not going to end the economic exploitation of black labour. He can’t. If in four years a Latino, gay woman is elected, she won’t be able to fix that particular problem either. Minorities will remain minorities, and many will remain oppressed even while this acclimatization goes on – but in so being oppressed, they are no different from the majority who serve the same economic function.

It will always be the case that a section of that majority will be the oppressors, motivated by an ideology not concomitant with their economic location in the capitalist mode of production. Conservative, wealthy white people have no problem employing other white people on crap wages, with no benefits to speak of, under the tyranny of a bosses whose only goal is to meet targets. Why should ethnic, racial, religious and other minorities be any different?

In terms of the gay-themed article I mentioned, the problem of the radical Left is to understand this and adapt their rhetoric accordingly, to provide nuance. The problem of the liberal left is that they never had the radical critique of family values, of social conservatism to begin with and now they’re finding themselves content to settle down with their civil partners, unquestioning of the social function that the family, the suburban house, the car and the 2.4 children play in the struggle for hegemony.

Oxford blues…

January 23, 2009 1 comment

While I attended Oxford, nothing happened. No real protests, students were remarkably apolitical. The whole scene suffered from underrepresentation, a perilously weak students’ union and political parties which were populist in their approach to students. What happens a few years after I leave? This.

Bloody typical.

It will be interesting to see whether John Hood and the Senior Proctor manage to discipline any of the students involved in the protest, or whether the students achieved their objectives. The last time the university was ‘occupied’ it was over top-up fees and it was (obviously) a manifest failure.

Now had students all around the country occupied all their universities, we might have had something. At the very least, this is an answer to those people who harp on about the depoliticized youth of today. Young people are ‘depoliticized’ because they don’t think they can act locally and yet have a national effect. In this case, it has been easier to understand how the local issue affects the national one.

It would be easy for me to sit back and poke holes in the populist nonsense that more than likely went into this protest, rather than any detailed understanding of the political situation and the value of a slogan, nevertheless I’m inclined to congratulate the participants.

Categories: General Politics

Why bother writing to your MP? FOI and expenses

January 21, 2009 Leave a comment

PortcullisI’ve always been a great believer in writing to my MP – whoever that has happened to be. I’ve had correspondence with a Unionist, a Conservative and have been to several Labour constituency surgeries. On which basis, I really don’t know why I bother at all. Consider the following email to a sitting parliamentarian:

Dear *blank*,

Buried under the recent and scandalous announcement that the government is to pursue a third Heathrow runway without so much as a parliamentary by-your-leave, was a plan to vote on how FOI laws apply to the expenses of parliamentarians such as yourself. This vote is to take place on this Thursday, 22nd of January.

It is my fervent hope that you will vote against any attempt to restrict the Freedom of Information laws under which the High Court ruled to publish honourable members’ expenses (ruling 16th May, 2008). I would genuinely like to know where you stand on this issue, as theyworkforyou.com marks you as absent on many key FOI votes during the current parliament.

Best wishes,

*blank*

Exactly what the constituent wants is clear. Either the MP can say “I’m sorry, I’ll vote for the restriction of FOI laws as they apply to expenses”, here’s why OR the MP can say, “Yes I completely agree with you and I’ll bother to turn up for the vote, to vote down a silly proposal by the government,” which such worthy organisations as theyworkforyou.com are campaigning against. Or there could have been an honest assertion that perhaps the issue is more complicated than that.

What no doubt would really enrage most constituents is a non-answer such as the following:

Dear *blank*

Thank you for your email of 19th January. I can fully understand your concerns about MPs’ expenses – I am myself very uncomfortable with the way the government has handled the whole business and I am pleased that David Cameron has plans to tackle the issue. He has said:

“…Clear declaration of expenses and allowances…” [snipped to the relevant part - Ed]

Last year I voted againsta proposal, based on an independent study commissioned by the government, to give MPs a substantial rise in pay – it was narrowly defeated. On the same day, there was a measure to open up MPs’ expenses to a full audit by the National Audit Office and achieve much greater transparency in the system. I voted in favour of this, but the vote unfortunately went the other way by a narrow margin.

David Cameron has subsequently drawn up a comprehensive plan for restoring trust in politics and politicians, including the issue of pay and expenses, and I attach a copy which I hope you will find interesting.

*squiggle*

Now, to be fair, this parliamentarian voted as I would have, in the above instances. Yet the question about Thursday’s vote was left unanswered – and in order to get the reply at all, the constituent swallows half a gallon of propaganda about David Cameron. This letter also left out the bit where, for all Cameron’s wonderful ideas, many of the votes around expenses were whipless and no few Tories voted to keep their expenses secret – which was why the thing went to the High Court in the first place.

Then there is the matter of the enclosed document from the Conservative Democracy Task Force. On the subject of MPs’ wages and expenses it makes for interesting reading, seemingly more concerned that increases in pay only look large because the government keeps asking the Commons to vote for pay increases below what the SSRB recommend. The report also misses the point when it tries to separate out MPs’ expenses from the money spent on staff supporting an MP.

For example, in the year 2003/4, Tony Blair spent about £58,000 on ‘staffing’. I would think it in the interest of people to be able to see exactly what ‘staffing’ Mr Blair was getting for £58,000 a year, and the same applies to the various Tories who employed their own family members. The Conservative Democracy Task Force disagrees; this should be separated out, they say, along with all stationary allowances and, ominously, only the other type of allowances should continue to be reported as at present.

Which is what the government is saying too; twenty six categories rather than nine, to separate things out. Plus an exemption from Freedom of Information Laws.

So, one really has to ask, why bother writing to an MP?

Categories: Gender Politics

We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal

January 20, 2009 1 comment

Obama Sworn InYesterday was Martin Luther King Day in the US, and today the first black President of the United States of America was sworn in. It doesn’t get much more symbolic than that. Few people will remember that a certain Senator John McCain voted against the creation of a day celebrating Dr King, and defended the governor of Arizona when he overturned the day of celebration created by his Democratic predecessor. History may have no consciousness independent of man, but it certainly has poetry.

In his speech Obama caressed each of the touchstones of American political rhetoric: scriptural flourish, a young nation, war dead, America as the product of each individual’s labour and so on. Despite this, many of Obama’s themes are likely to resonate with the Left; the restoration of science to its rightful place, state-led economic regeneration, though his naked defence of the market as creator of freedom and wealth should sound warning bells.

Similarly, the distortion of history, of “facing down fascism and communism” in the traditionally jingoistic fashion of the American political elite, falls well short of what we might have hoped for. For a nation so buried in truism and cliché, it would have been a sight to see had Obama’s inauguration made a radical departure, to be dissected, rehashed and reheated across the media from now til Obama’s first executive orders begin pouring out, to undo much of what GWB did.

For all the cynicism, the punditry or the willful naivety taking place in America tonight, in one of the most unequal nations on Earth, the whole scene stands in the shadow of great words, uttered long ago. “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal.”

Tory prosopography and the return of Ken Clarke

January 19, 2009 Leave a comment

Ken ClarkeIt is never quite easy to tell, from the outside, who is linked to whom within the Conservative Party. One reading of the period following Major’s leadership shows a swing to the Eurosceptic Right of the Party. William Hague’s leadership was assured by the backing of Thatcher, against popular rival Ken Clarke, and Hague was followed by a swing ever further and further Right.

On the other hand, just how superficial the ‘Eurosceptic’ label might prove to be to historians of the period seems indicated by the fact that in the 2001 leadership contest, Ken Clarke formed an alliance with John Redwood.

What the key battle lines are today within the Party, I do not know, but I look in curiosity at the changes panning out before our eyes. Ken Clarke has returned to the cabinet, in the mirror role of Peter Mandelson, and Tory apparatchiks are claiming that this was George Osborne’s idea. Plausible though that may be, it was only earlier in the week that some commentators were pointing out that Osborne was losing influence.

This perceived loss of influence was the result of Cameron having named William Hague as his theoretical, if not actual, deputy. The Shadow Foreign Secretary has reinvented himself since his unsuccessful stint as leadership. One might say, with his appearances on Have I Got News For You that he had taken a leaf out of foppish philanderer Boris Johnson’s guide to success.

So either Tory apparatchiks are suggesting that the move of Clarke, which has been suspected now for some time, is the idea of Osborne to offset his loss of face, or they are saying it because it is true. Not being intimately familiar with the factions within the Conservative Party, I sit and wonder, what is the white elephant in the room around which all of this factionalism is contorting itself?

Is it Europe? Duncan seems to be a Hague ally. In a medieval royal court, I would suspect that both Osborne and Hague were being warned not to challenge the King, the one by having an ally removed from the inner circle and the other by having a rival publicly preferred by the King. I don’t know if any of that is actually the case. The matter could still be a European one.

Duncan is a self-described Eurosceptic, but again the ephemeral nature of this position reveals itself: Duncan backed a personal friend (Hague) for leadership in 1997, and backed the Eurosoftie who most looked like continuing Hague’s policies in 2001 (Portillo). On the other hand, could it be a question of civil liberties rather than either Europe or personal rivalries?

For example, Ken Clarke is no libertarian, whereas Alan Duncan seems pretty libertarian straight down the line, arguing indeed for the complete legalisation of drugs. I confess to finding the whole thing fascinating; now that the Blair Years are over, the encomia to Blair’s stewardship of the Labour Party are pouring in thick, including a particularly good book edited by Anthony Seldon.

The Tory Party, on the other hand, hasn’t stood still long enough for anyone to catch a detailed snapshot of it. Many of the key players of past years – David Davis, Ken Clarke, William Hague – are still around and liable to be playing for political angles in anything that comes out of their mouth. I’m sure we in the Labour Party wait with baited breath to hear Clarke pronounce doom upon whatever minions Mandelson dispatches from DBERR to Commons’ debates.

EDIT: It seems that Alan Duncan has taken over as Leader of the House, a bit of a sidelining in the current climate surely? Interestingly new boy Chris Grayling may have been promoted to Shadow Home Secretary, according to Iain Dale, with Nick Herbert taking the reigns as Shadow DWP minister. That last is interesting since Herbert is even more of an extremist than James Purnell.

Categories: Terrible Tories

Does NuLab fuckwittery know no bounds?

January 18, 2009 4 comments

Okay. time for some honesty. I would love to see Labourlist, this new endeavour by Derek Draper, bite the dust hard. It unites a long list of supreme bores with their own agendas under the guise of building a Labour blogging community which could rival the supposed and oft-vaunted Tory hold of the blogosphere.

While proclaiming the death of “command and control” on the internet (whatever that means), it simultaneously indulges in a heavy editorial policy. The attitude of its seeming director, Draper, who I think is a pillock, is none too friendly with regard to dissent. This can be seen on Tim Ireland’s blog, here.

Draper only flaunts his lack of accountability, and rather jingoistically proclaims that in not answering criticism he is pursuing his original agenda of “mass media”, not “geek ghetto.” Very catchy. I also noted with interest that our dear friend Tom Miller is being copied in on these emails, mere days after we were having a discussion about hackery.

I wonder what Tom thinks of Draper’s antics and Labourlist, despite having agreed to contribute to that site.

Categories: Labour Party News

“There is no point in arriving without the passengers…”

January 16, 2009 19 comments

LabourWith the declaration of the government that there will simply be no vote on the proposed third runway at Heathrow, the shaky position of the socialist Left in Labour is thrown into stark relief. Left opposition concerns the Labour leadership not at all, evidenced by the fact that the leadership is more likely to rely on the Tory opposition for the passage of unpopular measures than to open a genuine discussion with the Labour backbenches.

Opposition to R3 has been significant, including the Climate Camp sit-in in summer 2007 and several protests throughout 2008. There has also been a gathering pace of declarations even from within officialdom – from 52 Labour MPs and from Boris Johnson. Politicians local to the area in which Heathrow’s expansion is to take place have been holding public meetings and reporting a vociferous opposition.

Still the Labour leadership takes no note. If socialist MPs, councillors and activists can’t influence the policy of Labour, one wonders why we should continue to be part of Labour at all? Our situation very much seems to resemble the song by Stealers Wheel, “Clichés to the left of us, Lib-Dems to the right… .” What are the pros and cons of being a socialist and supporting the Labour Party?

On an electoral basis, the claim that it is the best of a bad selection is on very uncertain ground. Frankly I’d prefer to elect Evan Harris, of the Lib-Dems, over pretty much any member of the Labour Cabinet. I’ll certainly be choosing Caroline Lucas of the Greens over Peter Skinner in the upcoming European elections. Yet this decision not to vote Labour cannot be translated into a rule-of-thumb. It is only in certain areas where I would choose to advocate that.

Labour MPs with impeccable socialist credentials will always have my support: John McDonnell and the Labour Representation Committee being at the top of the list. It is true, however, that for the Left the professions of faith in Labour as the least-worst option are becoming increasingly untenable. Nevertheless, the connections of Labour’s socialists to the Labour Party are more than merely about elections, rightly so, but problematically this often tends towards a nostalgia and unrealism.

This can be seen in arguments between individuals on Labour’s Left over the future course of the Labour Representation Committee. Without any hope of reconquering Labour or transforming the structures of the Party that would allow Left activism to re-take the Party from the bureaucrats, there are members who insist that we remain with Labour come hell or high-water. Their only valid argument is that to leave would almost certainly deprive us of parliamentary representation.

How important that representation is can be seen in the performances of people like McDonnell, in his stunt with the mace. Holding parliament in contempt was an important symbol, which was read about and listened to all over the country last night and this morning.

On the other hand, New Labour is firmly in control of the Party and the prospect of continuing LRC parliamentary representation is not bright. Labour Party Conference has been hollowed out in two ways; first, it has been stripped of its powers and secondly, those powers have been transferred to National Policy Forums. The constituencies which are meant to take part in these have been hollowed out by the New Labour agenda – which has led to crashing Labour Party membership figures.

One by one, the Socialist Campaign Group and the LRC lose their parliamentarians – and these are not being replaced.

Even within the LRC there are those who can see this happening. The LRC, and its youth wing, the Socialist Youth Network, are open to members of any Party which does not stand candidates against Labour and to members of no party. This is a reflection of the number of solid activists who deserted Labour over the Iraq War, over trades union issues and over the multiple courses of action on which the government has decided to ignore its supporters.

This multi-polar perception of socialist activism is in-built to the Labour Representation Committee, since its major union affiliates have broken from the Labour Party proper. Later this month, the LRC will be launching with the NUJ, the FBU, RMT and other unions a co-ordinating group to improve communications and the potential for joint action. Labour verus TorySimilarly, it is this multi-polar perception which gave rise to the Convention of the Left in Manchester last year.

CotL brought together many strands of socialism within Labour, as well as inviting participants from outside of the Labour Party: Scottish Socialist Party, Socialist Workers’ Party, CPB-Morning Star and the Greens, to name the major ones. The smaller Trotskyist sects also attended the conference, and a repeat performance is hopefully going to be organised for this year’s conference season, either to coincide with the TUC or Labour conference.

It was this multi-polar concept of socialism which drew me to the LRC, but it is also a weakness in one respect. In the LRC there are those more attached to and more engaged with the Labour milieu, and there are those more attached to and more engaged with a non-Labour milieu. The LRC is an important development, representing all that was ever good about the Socialist Campaign Group and little of what was bad, but it brings Labour socialists no closer to deciding whether or not to stay Labour.

The reason the LRC is so key to the discussion is that, whether or not one votes Lib-dem because they like the individual they vote for, it will be the institutions of activist socialism that will ultimately deliver for us the global change to capitalism which we want to see.

In the early 1980s, Paul Foot characterised Tony Benn’s movement as an engine driver who, seeing the end in sight, detaches the train from his engine and powers on ahead. By this, Foot meant to convey the view that the political swing to the Left by Labour was not being emulated on the ground; shop stewards were harder to find than in the 1970s and unions were less prone to organise work-ins or strikes over issues political rather than economic.

For Labour socialists, there is the danger that we reconquer the Party only to find we’ve left the working class on the platform. This would be to repeat the mistakes of Tony Benn et al, or worse still to repeat the mistakes of the Independent Labour Party. At any rate, I don’t think the Labour Left is yet strong enough with the unions and with its class to emerge on to the stage as a separate political entity. Continuation of multipolarity seems the best strategy for the present – but we should be under no illusions:

For better or worse, we have lost control of Labour, probably for good.

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