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Mandelson has not yet made his case over Royal Mail

February 24, 2009 3 comments

Reading over the notes sent out by Peter Mandelson and Pat McFadden to the PLP and constituencies, it’s clear to me that the government has not yet made its case for this 1/3rd privatisation of Royal Mail. As a matter of course, let us be clear that privatisation is what is involved, whether we say it outright or refer to it as the ‘expertise and investment of a strategic minority partnership’.

The notes are details-light, naturally, neither discussing how much the new company (set to be TNT, presumably, since no one else has shown any interest) will pay in investment, or how much they will be permitted to cream off as profit. They simply hammer home the point, again and again, that we need ‘modernisation’ and that the government won’t pay a no-strings bail out for the ailing Royal Mail pension fund.

Dropping letter volume – down 7% to 78 million per annum since 2005 – is mentioned, as is the need to mechanize the Royal Mail. All of this begs the question, however; if Royal Mail can be made profitable, don’t we want the profits to be social, paying off a healthy pension fund and relieving the government of their £150 million bill that sustains the Post Office Limited arm.

Capital costs can be stumped up by the government, and heaven knows this government is mad keen on bringing in outside advisors from the commercial sector – even when they make a mess of everything – so why must this outside investment be brought in? Moreover, where does this potential ‘strategic partner’ expect that it will make its money from?

Could it be, perhaps, that yet again the government will indulge in a privatisation deal that guarantees their strategic partner will make money, and that their partner can walk away with no giant bill if they wish? It seems, these days, like all privatisation is a choice between MetroNet and or any number of the firms that have worked on IT programmes for this government:

Either they go bankrupt or they walk away after an appalling job, with their programmes years off target and nothing to be said for the vaunted private sector efficiency.

I suspect that one of the reasons that CWU is hopping mad is because this part-privatisation will mark a determined attempt to outsource jobs to staff not protected by union negotiations. Not to mention laying off staff and giving everyone else more to do. Private companies are better at doing this sort of thing than the government is and, moreover, the government doesn’t have the sort of resilience it once had when it took on the Fire Brigades Union.

Conservative Home has reported that unspecified back bench MPs may be voting against the government this time around, but that with Lib Dem support and Tory support, the government will get its plans through parliament. Hat tip to Tom Miller for that link. This is probably accurate – and the rebellion may go even beyond back bench MPs, since the CWU has threatened disaffiliation and a number of MPs have small majorities to keep their eyes on.

Interestingly the commentary on Conservative Home has been to react against plans for privatisation, though from somewhat doubtful motives. Royal Mail as a national institution, protectionism and Europhobia (since EU Directives are blamed) feature highly. The key point is that once again the government has failed to argue its point and by pushing ahead is hastening its own demise.

Categories: Labour Party News

Scattered thoughts on home schooling

February 23, 2009 62 comments

Reading an article on Liberal Conspiracy about home schooling, my first reaction was negative. What follows are some of my thoughts – both pro and con – as regards the article and the issue.

First, a bit of background. The government’s Rose review and the simultaneous but independent Cambridge review have now each been published, examining in a far reaching way primary education. In particular, the Cambridge review is critical of current levels of access, which are narrowed by extensive testing (CR topsheets, .pdf).

To this extent, then, I agree with the instinct of those parents who choose to withdraw their child from the education system. The Cambridge review damns the system for inadequate training of teachers beyond the core subjects, for not seeing standards and breadth of teaching as compatible and, ultimately, for its lack of purpose, due to consistent micro-management by the government.

When I have kids, it’ll be an open question as to whether or not I home school them, on this basis. However, I am not an advocate of home schooling generally and there are many reasons why. The article at LibCon amply demonstrates a multitude of them.

Firstly, as a teacher, I’m not willing to be told what I can and can’t empirically examine by a political lobby. Those who provide education in schools are in a position to examine the education provided by home educators. It may be that the home school lobby don’t want to listen to some of the things which have to be said – but that’s a different issue.

My concerns are as follows: a) what does the child want; b) is the child getting the same breadth of education as in a classroom; c) is the child simply being taught to regurgitate the world-view of the parents; d) does the child have access to sufficient resources to support learning to a level equal to that which his or her peers will reach by the same age.

All of these things can be measured. I have always been particularly concerned about c) since I know that in the United States, home schooling is increasingly prevalent among extreme Christians and I have seen it suggested that this trend is the same in the UK. If home schooling can be a vehicle to prevent scientific learning, then we have a duty to those children to regulate it.

The consequences for science of d) are equally important. If a child is to be kept out of primary school, this question is of less importance, but post-11 large swathes of science teaching are practice-led. Titrations, dissections, circuit-building, oscillations and so forth are just some of the practicals for which the equipment is unlikely to be just lying around one’s house.

I am not so narrow minded, of course, to suggest that the lack of this equipment means that home schooling should be dispensed with. It may simply mean that the LEA should have a remit extending to the provision of such equipment to community centres, where home schooling families can access it. Whether or not it gets used could also be monitored, in order to paint a picture of the opportunities which home schoolers allow their children.

Obviously, in respect of things like cooking or the arts and humanities, an interested parent with the ability to give a child one-to-one time is a huge advantage. As teachers, we can see this even in school – and we know, when meeting parents or talking to pupils about their homework routines, which parents are especially good at this sort of thing.

I’ve never believed in measuring skirt lengths, tucking in shirts and so forth – and one-to-one teaching obviously gets rid of this sort of requirement. Additional time, with a suitably able parent, also offers the chance for a much broader range of activities – from mechanics to ornithology to wood work. However its a big step from saying, “This is possible” to ensuring that every home schooled child has these opportunities.

Ensuring these opportunities needs to be the responsibility of a body with no intellectual bias towards one form of education or the other – but since primary legislation is the responsibility of the State, it is to the State such a body must answer.

Collectively, as a society, we have a responsibility to our children – who are not the property of their parents and shouldn’t be treated as such. Without taking away the right of a child to learn what interests them, there are also certain necessary things every child should know, whether John Holt and his fellow pro-home schoolers want to admit it or not.

We don’t find that a controversial thing to say when we mean the basic life skills – such as toilet hygiene. I am not referring to basic life skills of course, I’m referring to things like the scientific method, skepticism and all forms of rational argument and the examination of evidence required to support or disprove such an argument.

After all, this is a democracy. However distorted our public sphere is by a bias towards Capital, the opinions of the individual still have social consequences. So, as a fellow citizen in a democracy, I want everyone to know about things like evolution and to be able to judge the merits of an argument on the basis of rational thought, not on the basis of prescribed doctrine.

My only problem is that, even in schools, teaching to this standard is far from secure!

In conclusion, I haven’t met a teacher yet who will deny the important role that family can play in a child’s learning. Also I don’t doubt, looking at the Swedish model as example, that there are better ways to organise education than what we currently have. Home schooling certainly has the potential to be one of these better ways – but how we talk about it is key.

Currently the State may be biased against home schooling – but there is no excuse for the near-hysterical reaction of home schoolers to a desire to regulate what they do. We need to find ways to open opportunities for child learning – at home or in school – and we need to do so knowing that this may be against the express wishes of the parents.

This is at the core of my problem with home schooling; parents have replaced the absolute authority of the State with the absolute authority of themselves – and both need to be a lot more open to democratic regulation. This is reflected, to some extent, in the US figures below; of particular interest should be the 38% who are home schooled on religious grounds, and the 12% who object to what the school teaches.

It highlights the hypocrisy at the heart of the home school movement and begs the question, since when are parents more qualified than teachers to choose what their children can and can’t learn? This is the same type of hysterical reaction which objects to the State keeping an eye on home schooled children, as though someone other than the child’s parent can’t evaluate quality of education.

Whether boards of governors, LEAs or some body that will collectively represent home schoolers, this sort of regulation is the right of a democratic society – however we collectively decide to arrange it.

Categories: General Politics

CND and the inconsistencies of anti-unilateralists

February 20, 2009 Leave a comment

I am in favour of unilateral nuclear disarmament. I’m not a peacenik, in that I don’t hold all violence to be inherently unjustifiable, but the very idea of nuclear war makes my mind boggle. That we, that is, the UK, retain a nuclear arsenal with the capacity to wipe out millions if not hundreds of millions of lives is effectively a crime against all humanity. I’ve met a few Labourite activists who believe we should keep our weapons, but I’ve never yet met one who is consistent about it.

The question is intrinsically bound up with our view of the State, and how we view the mechanisms of international diplomacy established under American-Western European hegemony. Let’s take Tom Miller’s view as an example.  He approvingly links to Nick Cohen, who asked the following question:

Hudson demanded that Iran be left alone and expressed her ‘deepest concern’ at the news that the UK, France, Germany, the United States, Russia and China were to report the mullahs to the UN Security Council as part of the anti-nuclear proliferation treaty enforcement procedures.

What is going on? Why is CND doing everything it can to cheer on a reactionary regime that wants to go nuclear?

Far be it from me to stand up for Iran, but there seems an element of character assassination built into this selection from Cohen. Isn’t it possible that the concern on the part of Kate Hudson was rather that this referral is the first step towards a military strike? It is concerning that CND invited the Iranian ambassador to come speak to them, and then evicted Iranian anti-nuclear activists who protested inside the hall, but let’s not suddenly pretend that the UN Security Council is a disinterested anti-proliferation enforcer.

I’m not exonerating Hudson; it’s entirely possible that she and others believe Iran has a right to nuclear weapons, on the grounds of national sovereignty or some other rubbish. I’m simply saying that Cohen is out to portray this badly.

Tom suggests that this tendentious approach on the part of CND is related to Lenin’s revolutionary defeatism – which I think is balderdash. First of all, Lenin campaigned for the soldiers, workers and peasants of Russia to force upon the Russian ruling class an immediate surrender. This was the quickest route to peace. Yet he did not campaign on this while considering the nation-state as the building block of world politics, he campaigned believing the global proletariat to be the basic building block of any political theory.

Thus Lenin advocated a policy of revolutionary defeatism for all nations equally, each working class to deprive its own ruling class of the means to wage war. The difference between a tendentious approach and revolutionary defeatism should be blindly obvious, and Tom is wrong to calumniate Lenin’s practical call to action on the basis of this CND behaviour. If Cohen is correct, it is not calling for revolutionary defeatism at all. Not only that, but we should be ‘concerned’ about the referral of Iran to the UN Security Council as it probably is the first step towards bombing.

Invasion of Iran by Western forces – even for a purpose so limited as bombing – is likely to set back opposition to the regime in Tehran, giving credence to Ahmedinejad’s nonsense about the Great Satan. Moreover, it is gross hypocrisy for Russia, China, the US, the UK and France to talk about non-proliferation when virtually all of these powers have been involved in proliferation – not just in terms of obvious things like fissile materials, but in ballistic weapons technology, trained personnel in the construction of nuclear reactors that have the capacity to produce enriched uranium and so on.

Bearing these things in mind, my questions to the non-unilateralists run as follows.

Are there any circumstances where you would consider the use of nuclear weapons? If not, why have them? Even if another nation launched a nuclear attack against the United Kingdom, we would have notice of it but we couldn’t stop it. For what reason would we return fire and kill millions of people, none of whom actually had any hand in the death of these islands? I don’t think there is anything any nation could do which would justify the extermination of whole peoples with nuclear fire.

If you think our possession of nuclear weapons lowers the chance that someone will attack us, why would you be against Iran having them? Surely every country has a right to protect itself? I suspect the answer to this, if stripped of all pretention, boils down to the belief that the US and UK are the ‘good’ guys in international diplomacy – peace, freedom and homemade apple pie etc. Iran, so the theory runs, is much more likely to use nuclear weapons in a war…but what is there to substantiate such a theory?

I’m against any nation having nuclear weapons, and the essence of revolutionary defeatism calls for us to support any Iranian movement towards unilateral disarmament, whilst equally demanding the government disarm our own weapons. I don’t think possession of nuclear weapons reduces the possibility of nuclear war, I think it raises the possibility of further proliferation. Moreover, its only by continuing to exert ‘imperial’ pretensions of influence that we invite other national ruling classes to oppose us violently.

Let’s stop doing that, for a start. No more Afghanistans, no more Iraqs. Forcing the end of such policies is a big part of a campaign of revolutionary defeatism, and would tie into unilateral disarmament in various ways.

Finally, there will come a point at which we choose either unilateral disarmament or to purchase new nuclear weapons. We can certainly advocate multilateral disarmament – but if that fails, at the end of the life of our nuclear weapons, are we to buy more? If not, we disarm by default. If so, we’re effectively rearming ourselves and continuing the cycle anew. In such circumstances, people who aren’t unilateralists either become such by default or become no different to those who say we need nuclear weapons.

Unilateral nuclear disarmament is thus the only consistent position.

Crystal ball gazing and 2010

February 20, 2009 7 comments

This week has seen some crystal ball gazing by different pundits, Tory and Labour, on the subject of a 2010 election, and what the results might be should Labour win. Neither, I think, have cut to the core of the matter. Blimpish Tory’s article repackages some seriously dodgy truisms as a rule of thumb to understanding elections. Tom Harris, on the other hand, demonstrates a hilarious inverse hubris.

Harris’ intellectual exercise can be dismissed in a paragraph. The internal culture of the Labour Party is such that another election victory would simply sustain inertia. That inertia will shatter Labour, either by defections from the PLP or by the final collapse of CLPs. Gordon Brown and his cohort have not learned to think in different ways, to challenge orthodoxy and so have nothing new to offer.

This is why they’re not going to win in 2010, much less win a convincing majority. Too many factors are obviously conspiring against them, not the least of which is the desertion of even the ‘liberal’ wing of the intelligentsia. Taking into account Chris Dillow’s interesting article on spending, another Labour term, covering a period of recovery, might see the old spartan Treasury logic reasserted – surely a death knell.

Blimpish Tory isn’t interested in hubris but is guilty of vast assumptions and simplifications which don’t bear out, in my view. The relationship of each Party to the electorate is complex, just as the electorate is not a homogeneous mass. Moreover, the ‘message’ of each Party changes over time. It would be silly to assert, for example, that the presentation of the Tory 2010 manifesto will be like 2005.

I genuinely suspect that 2010 will be a landslide victory for the Conservatives, contrary to Tory Blimp’s expectations. The historical contingencies and vagaries which he doesn’t value so highly are coming into alignment: disillusioned trades unionists – probably not helped by the PMs reaction to the wildcat strikes – will not vote Labour. Civil liberties will put people off voting Labour. Stuttering over house building will put people off Labour.

Meanwhile, Michael Howard really was a dream opponent for Tony Blair; he practically frothed at the mouth over things like immigration. That was just about the only thing likely to fire up the declining Labour activist base. Having Lord Ashcroft about to outspend an ailing Labour in the marginals also helps, no doubt – and that financially ailing Labour is a metaphor for the ‘third way’ twits who lead the Party.

That’s not all. Tory Blimp attempts to substantiate his argument by reaching into history to examine other Tory victories from Opposition. Yet the argument ignores the fact of class struggle, which can either sharpen the distinction between Labour and Tory or, depending on the role of the Labour leadership, give an ill impression of the Labour Party and push working class voters towards the opposition.

At the moment, working in the favour of the Tories, is the fact that Labour seems very little different to the Tories from the point of view of workers. A lot of the public money being spent is ‘invisible’, in that people have got used to banks not going under and are still wondering about dilapidated trains and other public services. These have remained private and prices have inclined in this period of recession.

This is essentially because, despite the best efforts of socialist activists, barring certain islands which will be defended to the death, the Labour Party is now owned, lock, stock and barrel, by its leadership. That leadership, and its union cronies, will act to curtail open class struggle – as was shown by Brown’s reaction to the wildcat strikes recently. Workers, therefore, don’t have an alternative, they have two parties of Capital.

I’m not arguing that there aren’t differences. When the private sector moves, as Chris Dillow suspects, to fulfill their expenditure plans once the credit crunch ends, the Tories may or may not be more aggressive in retrenchment of public spending. Nevertheless, both parties are constrained by the same economic logic – thus on the macro scale, Labour is simply a Tory-lite party in different clothing.

Should the Labour clothing prove to be enough, the real fall out of a Labour victory in 2010 would be when chickens come home to roost from ill-planned PFI deals. As has been demonstrated by successive consultants and contract renegotiations, PFI service providers essentially have the government over a barrel as regards bailing them out, should things go sour.  This will have ramifications for ‘new’ public spending.

Our Tory Blimp tries to round off his commentary with the assertion that the age of mass politics is over. As with ever concrete, historical movement, such a bald assertion is worthless unless we put it into its material context. My counter-contention would be that the age of mass politics didn’t so much end as was beaten out of existence. It was forcibly replaced with consumer culture, as it represented a threat to capitalism.

I would go on to discuss this in terms of class struggle, social capital and other concepts of political sociology, but I think that deserves a separate article. Suffice it to say, there are only two ways Labour will recover – either by reawakening that spirit of mass politics or by continuing to play the presentation game with the Tories, appealing to the last vested interest standing, Capital, while giving that a social face.

Only one of those routes would I commend and consent to be a part of.

Difficulties with St. George’s Day celebrations

February 19, 2009 23 comments

It has always seemed something of an irony that the imagery adopted by parts of the far right in the UK has been of a mythical individual, a foreigner, who never visited England. That England celebrates St. George’s Day as its national day has always struck me as somewhat absurd, bearing in mind the number of eminent Saints who graced these shores: the healing St. Cuthbert, the humble St. Thomas Becket who stood up to autocracy, or the learned humanist, Thomas More.

Why we have to have a Saint’s day as a national day is a debate for another time, but suffice it to say that the militaristic St. George complements the vision the political Right have of British history. In particular, it’s easy to see the difference between the Irish celebrating St. Patrick’s day and the English celebrating St. George’s day. As nations, neither Ireland, Scotland or Wales have much history of subjugating other nations to their power. England, on the other hand…

That’s not to say that the ‘loony left’ – that’s me – don’t object to overt and irritating celebrations of other national days. Overt patriotism bugs me, and it’s hardly ameliorated when the overt patriotism is essentially a celebration of several hundred years of butchery. I should be immune, having grown up between two armed camps where green, white and orange, and red, white and blue adorned even the kerbstones, but somehow that makes it even worse.

To the dismay of the hysterical anti-PC brigade in Sandwell, the local council has cancelled funding for a St. George’s Day parade. Suddenly a cause celebre, the issue is discussed on Stormfront, and has become part of a campaign by nationalist nutjobs, the English Democrats. This news has been picked up by our own Bob Piper and has received stinging rebuke from Tory Harry Phibbs of Conservative Home. One wonders if Councillor Phibbs knows what sort of company he is keeping on the issue.

He should do, if he reads his own comment box.

Phibbs, and the various further right commentators, skip over the part where Sandwell council actually organised an investigation into incidents that were reported from the previous years’ events. This included interviews with witnesses, as reported by the BBC. They also skipped over the part where Sandwell council pointed out it would be spending £38,000 on St. George’s Day celebrations, just not on the parade element; this would include a family fun day and a concert at the town hall in West Brom.

Hardly a case of criminalising Englishness, I would think. Phibbs asks, “do the Councl not see that cancelling the event is a gift to the BNP?” It’s a gift only when berks like you don’t report all the facts, nor correct some of the flagrantly ill-informed assertions in your comments post. The same goes for the local media, which had a details-light article on the subject.

Parades are a difficult issue; they tend to bring out the worst in people. In Northern Ireland, ordinary Protestant workers who don’t care about religion for 351 days a year get worked up over the course of the 12th of July fortnight and dangerous things happen. If the council thinks there are better, more family-friendly ways to celebrate St. George’s day, while still actually celebrating St. George’s day, isn’t that to be applauded? Especially by the Right, one would think, since they’re still getting the celebration.

Instead, Phibbs rather short sighted article tries to trumpet the activities of Conservative-run Calderdale….which, significantly, don’t include a parade. Sandwell and Calderdale actually share numerous features, such as entertainment at the city hall and the raising of English flags on April 23rd. If the Conservatives and their allies in the media ever wonder about the inscrutable actions of the ‘loony left’ (me again), perhaps they should first consider how their behaviour and misinformation contributes to the problem, rather than solving it.

Pamphlets, polemics and a left press

February 18, 2009 1 comment

Dave Osler posted a while ago on the subject of a crashingly dull left press, and subsequently about what made political pamphlets great. These are important questions to ask, and they’ve been in my thoughts of late. What follows, then, aims to describe in short what I think ‘the Left’ needs in regard to its press, and what could make it interesting.

I don’t think the age of political pamphleteering has gone. Our problem is to properly conceive what pamphleteering involved.

Broadly speaking, pamphlets divide into two categories. The first is the scurrilous, satirical pamphlet, often of bawdy content. Daniel Defoe and others like him wrote in this style; a wealthy man of means Defoe could dedicate time and resource to his political aims. This tradition was taken over by Punch magazine and Private Eye.

Good writers of simple style and shrewd eye, like Gerald Winstanley or Thomas Paine, and their more earnest tracts, only came to the fore during revolutionary times. Paine, Winstanley, Marx and others had few other means than what they could carry with them. Paine and Marx travelled Europe during the course of their writing career.

For these men, pamphleteering was not an individual activity; it occurred within a specific milieu of support. That’s one of the things we lack today. Men like Paul Foot and Leon Trotsky survived through their journalism, which was of high standard. Trotsky’s war dispatches from the Balkans are even today an important repository.

Avenues such as that have been largely closed to us too, as anyone who has been reading Nick Davies’ oeuvre will recognise. However it is important to recognize that doors like this one may gradually re-open as interest resumes in struggle around the world, thrown into sharper relief by heightened tensions and struggles at home.

Our real difference is technological. If we look back at 20th century literary fashion, modernism, existentialism, structuralism, postcolonialism and postmodernism to name a few, we realise that the largest part of these passed mass movements by. Intersection ‘twixt people and intelligentsia occurred only rarely, often only in the pages of the press.

Pamphleteers such as Orwell famously wrote for the Daily Mail and went the route of populism. At the opposite pole, specialisation grew up where the authors in question required a specialised vocabulary to explain academic concepts and categories and their relevance to a wider audience. This was the generation of the New Left Review, for example.

The line between pamphlet and ‘news’ blurred.  The subject of the pamphlets we remember were rooted in the events du jour, but added an abstract element. More quickly forgotten were the pamphlets that were entirely based upon events and which sought only to provoke amusement. Hence why I keep my London Review copies and bin Private Eye.

We need a combination of both. I don’t think that to say this is controversial. Making fun of television, witty book reviews and cartoons all from a left-wing slant – even the most populist – slot neatly between articles of substance. Here lies the combination of both types of pamphleteer – the Olly’s Onions and a writing style like I make a pretence at.

All of this needs to be tempered, however, with genuine news. One of the most successful columns, to my mind, in Private Eye, is their Rotten Boroughs. It’s only by reading this that I’ve even come close to understanding just how power is being leeched out of democratic institutions by full-time staff, ‘consultants’ and red tape.

Blogs by local councillors help with this to some extent, though I’ve yet to see one so prodigious and insightful as Paul Cotterill’s. By stressing something like this, I’m presupposing that the hypothetical publication is prepared to be ‘ideological’ and that some common ground exists amongst a wide potential audience – and I don’t think that’s unreasonable.

If we counterpose something like this to an institutional magazine, like the Young Fabians’ Anticipations, we can automatically see the difference. Seven articles in the latest Young Fabians’ magazine deal with the Millenium Development Goals – zero articles deal with practical, activist-driven politics on our own doorstep.

I don’t mean this as a criticism; navigating CLPs are hard at the best of times. Trying to puzzle out a) what local government are doing and b) whether it is legal, fair or the right thing to do when no one is prepared to actually sit down and explain the basics is damn near impossible. Nor do I mean to say that local should forever override international issues.

As Dave Osler says, however; maybe our publications would be more interesting and more relevant if instead of writing pieces about Chavez and Venezuela, or having ghost-written copy under the names of union leaders, we actually focussed on what activists were doing. Add a touch of verve and satire to this and I genuinely think we’d be off to the races.

One of the mistakes I think that Derek Draper’s Labour List has made is involving literally ANY government minister. Ministers should be relegated to the comments boxes and the articles themselves commissioned by specialist editors and written by activists who are free to make whatever criticisms they wish.

A section for local government, a section for the latest Tory policy proposals, a section for public services, a section for issues of union and Party democracy…all of these could have been built into Labour List. Draper and his editors could then have trawled the entire Laboursphere and asked those likely to be ‘in the know’ to write specially commissioned articles.

I think the opportunity for this sort of structured – and therefore more open – engagement has been lost to the anarchic whirlwind that reduces Labour List to a more erudite, more famous version of MembersNet. A hard copy publication of whatever interval can’t follow such a pattern of anarchy and therein would lie its strength, in my humble opinion.

Concretely, however, a big problem is finding the resources for such an endeavour. Whether Labour Briefing, the New Statesman or the Socialist Campaign Group News, those involved in these efforts are also invested, in that they want the efforts to succeed and would consider it a failure if their way of doing things had to change.

The internet can potentially revolutionise news gathering, meaning that a small, dedicated staff of professional journalists could be notified quickly by an activist base of stories that required following up. Added to this flexible, responsive reporting could be perhaps one or two articles per publication from theoretical heavyweights.

Academics on the socialist Left still exist, whether it’s Professor Callinicos or the collected members of LEAP, and there are plenty in the blogosphere who have a claim on some theoretical expertise. Regardless of party affiliation, they should be invited to contribute, and there should be energetic and amusing debate in the letters’ section.

Problem number one, of course, remains: where will the funding come from?

Categories: General Politics

Cameron’s Conservatives are prepared to trust the Plebetariat!

February 17, 2009 4 comments

David Cameron struck a nerve with me today, in his Comment is Free article entitled, “A Radical Power Shift”. The Orwellian usurpation of Tony Benn’s “irreversible shift in wealth and power” byline to one side, which is playing to the recent media fad for “Red Tories”, Cameron comes out in favour of subsidiarity. Cameron wants devolution of power ‘to the people’ but his democratic rhetoric belies a rather obscenely undemocratic core, covered by this notion of plebiscites to create elected mayoralties and control Council spending.

The Tory leader has announced the scrapping of the cap on Council Tax rises – which should ring alarm bells, bearing in mind the behaviour of the last Tory government. Instead, a rise of more than 5% will trigger a ‘referendum’. It’s only subsequent to Cameron’s speech that the details of these things have emerged; in his actual speech, Cameron said,

“We’re going to change that by giving people the power to instigate referendums on local issues – including council tax rises. If there’s a local consensus that a tax increase is unnecessary, people will be able to club together and vote it down. This isn’t the sham “power to the people” of a one-day consultation or a citizens’ jury; it’s real power in the hands of local people.”

So one referendum, on council tax rises. And, for large cities, one referendum whether they want it or not, on whether or not to institute an elected mayorship. Because all the others have been shining success stories, since Labour enacted legislation to let towns and cities choose to have elected mayors if they wanted. Probably more intrinsic to the whole process are the remarks by Caroline Spelman, shadow spokewoman for local government (and evidently another version of Hazel Blears):

“Back in 1979 the whole landscape of local government was very different.

“You quite often hear commentators describe a problem of what they called ‘loony Left’ councils.

“That is not the situation we face today. The landscape has changed. Conservatives actually control three times as many councils as our opponents put together – and I think this is the time to actually trust in local democracy and return power to the local level.”

So basically the Conservatives have announced this transfer of power because they control the local councils. If their political opponents controlled the local councils, it would be a bad idea. God forbid giving the Left any political power; 150 Acts of Parliament centralising virtually every power you can think of saw to that. But now that the local councils have turned Tory, it’s a fine idea. I’ve been accused recently of being sectarian as regard the Tory positions on liberties…this sort of thing is precisely why.

The media, of course, have done their job of regurgitating what was said, and finding packing peanuts such as comments by Labour and the Lib-Dems to stuff into the ‘story’ rather than offering any sort of intelligent critique. Labour are on record as saying, “Well, we’ve done this already” and the Lib-Dems as saying, “The Tories are doing this because it suits them now, hypocrites.” Nevertheless, the central idea of the Conservatives standing up for decentralisation, however laughable, is now ‘out there’, to be repeated ad nauseam.

What I’ll be intrigued to see is, will Cameron actually go beyond Labour and return to councils powers over social housing? The state of local Labour Parties, with some exceptions, is frankly frightening. There is a disconnection between Labour members young and old, not to mention the mass desertions from the Party. The capitulation of large swathes of the Labour Party to the use of ‘consultants’ and to the logic of privatisation of council services is also an ongoing bugbear.

If Cameron’s commentary is more than just rhetoric and actually is ridiculously opportunistic, handing over power because he doesn’t fear what his own party will do with it, what should our response be? Labour in the 1980s scored major victories for the Left by refusing to accede to the demands of central government and borrowing money to meet needs, rather than ignoring needs to meet spending requirements. This continues to be the argument of some parts of the Left and, I believe, it is a good one.

It is an argument we should employ today. The question is, will we be advancing the argument in the context of Labour, again, knowing full well what our leadership will do if we actually gain control of a council, or should the Convention of the Left be seeking to co-ordinate Labour activists and non-Labour activists to campaign on behalf of parties that may not be their own? By which I mean, should the Convention of the Left become a more accountable, better organised Socialist Alliance for the next local government elections?

By campaigning in such a way, we acknowledge that a) it does matter if a socialist gets elected, regardless of what Party they are from, rather than a reactionary and b) we leave ourselves more options in the event of a renewed witch hunt by the party machine, or by new attacks on the LRC by the second and third generations of New Labour. The problem with this is, of course, that such an approach almost invites a new witch hunt, since it would mean campaigning behind candidates who may or may not be standing against Labour.

Campaigning within Labour is still viable, but, of course, the problem here is that the reach of the Labour Left is curtailed by a general collapse in political activism, weakening the networks by which we traditionally fought back against the bureaucracy. Either way, is anyone else feeling that frisson of excitement that gripped me when I read this notion of Cameron’s, or its slightly more radical version from New Labour?

Convention on Modern Liberties: a brief reply

February 17, 2009 25 comments

Sunny Hundal, who delights in throwing me to the trolls without warning, has put my article on the Convention up on Liberal Conspiracy. Subsequently there have been some misunderstandings about why I queried the involvement of Tories. I asked, “why would we allow Conservatives to take stands at a Convention on Modern Liberties?” People expressed surprise at the idea that an undefined ‘we’ might exclude them, and some took it as an attack upon the universal application of liberty.

Firstly, my phrase is not an attack on the universal applicability of the liberties I’d like to see restored to the people of these islands. I’m in favour of extending liberties to my opponents – rights of protest, of free speech, of our homes being our castles. I don’t mind if Tories exercise those rights; I don’t mind if the BNP exercise those rights either. Debating which rights should be enjoyed by which people, however, is not the same as debating how we’ll best achieve our goals. It is the latter which my query addresses.

From the point of view of an activist, unconnected to and unconvinced by the party political elites – either those in power or those being lined up for the Convention on Modern Liberties – putting the Conservatives and Lib-Dems on pedestals, where liberty is concerned, is to set ourselves up for a fall. Party political ideology does not correspond only to its internal logic; it evolves in a specific context of materiality and power. This is how Labour went from attacking ID cards, when they were proposed by the Conservatives, to implementing them.

An elected government, unless compelled to eliminate the illiberal measures which many of the Convention’s participants are against, will be prey to the same context of materiality and power that befuddled Labour. If our goal is to develop a consistent, strong and cogent movement to push for liberties that have been taken away from us, then allying us with the political elites, whose pledges will be the first victims of that context, will have a demoralising effect and will weaken the momentum of any campaign.

My objection to the Liberals on these grounds is less strong, because the Liberals are a long way from obtaining power and are not subject to the same scrutiny as Labour and the Conservatives are, by virtue of their electoral position. When they get within spitting distance of forming a government, of course, that will be a different matter. My mention of the Liberal-enacted Official Secrets Act in the previous article was simply to flag up a time when these pressures were exerted upon the Liberal Party.

Almost a hundred years along, do we really have reason to suspect that things would be different, in regard to these fairly constant pressures? I don’t think so. Thus my primary aim, where liberty is concerned, is the creation of a movement independent of parliamentary groups. If the Tories are going to vote down all these illiberal measures anyway when they form a government in 2010 (which I don’t believe), they don’t need the liberal sections of the media elite blowing sunshine up their bottoms.

Meantime, we should take thought for what happens if they don’t. Nothing good, if we’ve spent all our time between now and then cosying up to the Conservatives, the Countryside Alliance and other suspect groups. What cannot be stressed enough is that New Labour is a thoroughly Thatcherite project, with the sheep’s clothing long since cast aside. The Conservatives have not made a break with that Thatcherite past; at the best, they have borrowed from New Labour’s mid-90′s media relations strategy.

To put things in a theoretical context, we shouldn’t view liberties as descended to us from ancient rights. Liberties are a means for ‘the people’ to ensure that their voices are heard; they sustain a space – though it may be corrupted by its dependence on organised capital – for popular dissent from government. From my own point of view, they enable a socialist movement to arrange opposition to the policies of organised capital, as represented by the government, whichever political party is in power.

If we view liberties in this way, as a constant battle between political elites (sustained and driven forward by various logics intrinsic to capitalism) and ‘the people’ (more specifically those who don’t have a media podium from which to moan about it, so ‘the working class’), then the notion of praxis comes into play. Our democratic aims necessitate democratic, ground-up methods – and those methods are placed under threat when we invite parts of the political elite to take leading roles in our discussions.

We shouldn’t be inviting them to tell us what they want to do; we should be independently telling them what they will do. The terms of the debate are ours to set…unless we forfeit the chance. From all this, therefore, it should become obvious who the ‘we’ I’m talking about refers to. It’s not the organisers of the Convention, it’s the grassroots attendees, the ones not serving a party political agenda, and the only ones who make the thing a genuine forum for a debate on how to organise a movement that is aiming to listen to democratic, grassroots concerns.

Categories: General Politics

D’you know what really annoys me? On chavs and other subgroups

February 16, 2009 13 comments

The choice of title here is a phrase I am often heard to utter right before departing from issues of carefully crafted analysis and descending into the bear pit of pub gossip. In doing so I’m joining Tom and a few others, to discuss the subject of chavs. What are they? Who are they? Working class? Better or worse than punks and mods and skinheads? Apply within dear reader and all of this will be answered…

As a kid growing up in Northern Ireland, I wore tracksuits. I got my first named brand pair when I was about eleven – two pairs of the latest Adidas. I had Reeboks, Lecoqsportif and Kappa too. This was all the rage at the local youth club, held in the local Catholic secondary school. Said school was no picnic, but it was emblematic of the very real social divide that occured after primary school.

Kids who were poorer, without exception, went to the secondary school. Kids who were richer, without exception, went to the grammar school. My mother wasn’t wealthy, at least to begin with. I’m not sure when we crossed from being ‘poor’ to being ‘well-off’ but the shift was subtle. It may have been to do with the influence of richer kids at the grammar school or part of a universal trend…but the tracksuits fell by the wayside.

Jeans took their place. Jeans and shirts. And, when I had the money to afford it, long dark coats and fancy shoes. The tracksuit and baseball cap subculture continued to exist. When I went into town, I tended not to eyeball these kids too closely, largely because I was never the fighting type except at need. I remember an attempted robbery by a group of three of them, as a matter of fact. Broad daylight, walking down the streets of Belfast!

So when people talk of the chav stereotype, I have something to relate to. In Northern Ireland, actually, we called them ‘steeks’ or ‘spides’. I’ve heard that we also called them ‘skangers’ but I suspect that was a Derry or countryside slang. Some guys I know were interested in punk and dressed all in black with the funny hair and they got beaten up occasionally – though they did the same in return to the chavs.

Yet, strangely, all the people I knew who were interested in Rancid and Jello Biafra and the Dead Kennedy’s were at grammar school. At our grammar school, that was one extreme, then there were the non-jocks, listeningn to Nirvana, Pearl Jam and stuff. Then you had the jocks and I’ve got no idea what they listened to; they were the ones going to the different discoes to pick up girls and having relationships. Presumably they listened to some combination of whatever was ‘hot’ at the time.

Separate from all this were the chavs, who didn’t enter within the confines of school. This may be a Northern Irish thing because we still had the transfer exam, but only in very unusual cases did one come across a chav at our school. At home, they were everywhere, rarely walking alone, often shouting insults and trying to pick a fight for no other reason than they enjoyed it.

Did I like them? No, not really. I lived in a town suburban to Belfast, combining some of the wealthiest and poorest parts of Northern Ireland and chavs roaming the streets after chucking out time largely alienated me from that town. So when I went to university and began having lots of free time, I spent most of it either on campus in Belfast or at home – online, playing computer games or reading.

Overwhelmingly these people were poor and lived in squalor. They weren’t the only ones; some of the middle class punk kids would eventually choose to live in “communes” in Belfast, and I suspect these were no different. One of the reasons I never fully committed to political activism while at university in the same way that some of my peers did was that I was heart scared of becoming like them. I enjoyed having a computer, and money for books and listening to classical music. I wanted to get out of Northern Ireland.

For all that, however, chavs were just accepted. It’s another part of youth culture, no different from any other. Who gives a toss what people wear? Certainly no one did when I was growing up, and though we took the piss out of boy racers in their Vauxhall Novas, or out of local crap radio station with its dance tracks, Energy 106, that’s where the maliciousness and the sneering ended: a joke.

One of the things that really irks me about all this is how the media have managed to convince everyone that being a chav is somehow morally degenerate. Sure, there are plenty of benefits scroungers out there…but how is that different to corporate tax avoidance? There are people getting knocked up because they want a house from the Council (fat chance, these days!) but how is that different to prostituting yourself to the press on your wedding day for lots of lolly?

Endlessly we read about different celebrities going out to get pissed, falling down, exposing themselves, fighting or whatever. We don’t read about the ones who sit in, maybe have a glass of wine over a book and cook some dinner. This sort of activity is not limited to the poor or to people who can be categorized as ‘chavs’. Young blokes, lagered up, will fight. So what? Chav clubs employ teenage, underdressed girls as dancers and this teaches us to see women as breasts and an ass. That’s life.

We’re not going to fix it by attacking the subculture itself. Just because you happen to like Vivaldi over Scooter doesn’t make you a better person. It doesn’t cure you of racism. You may not pass around jokes about Muslims or ethnic-subgroup-of-the-week, and you may volunteer at the local church fayre, you may be well qualified but smugness with regard to these things is just about as harmful as it gets.

Indeed, some of the alternatives to being a poor kid dressed in tracksuit bottoms are even worse. I was sitting in my usual coffee shop having a cup of tea the other day and I noticed a guy’s hands. He’d been saying something snide about a political matter, and on each of his fingers was a symbol of one of the world faiths. My first reaction was, “What a wanker!” I’d rather be illiterate than be that far up my own arse.

But Dave, you say, maybe he is just religious. To which I retort, “So?” I’m political and I don’t go round wearing a red star with a hammer and sickle. I grew out of that when I was sixteen. We all get a pretentious git phase, and this guy was about thirty. Maybe this is the part of me which is irredeemably chav, but I resent most students. They may pass exams but they have an ignorant, dull and unimaginative streak that’d put a chav to shame. Worse, they think of themselves as somehow better.

Working in Tesco, I was alongside kids who failed their GCSEs or AS levels, which woke them up sharpish. They were working to put themselves through tech – and to keep their chav-mobiles on the road, and to get themselves the latest phone and to pay rent. Now correct me if I’m wrong, but for a large number of the rest of us, this is similar to why we work? They wanted to get a trade, to make money; most university kids haven’t a clue what they want to do, so they pick arts subjects.

I always knew I wanted to rule the world, so history was a natural choice really.

Often some of the most inoffensive people have some of the most authoritarian, tyrannical views. One chap I get along well with is Catholic; he believes that secularism is unfair because it constricts Catholics from living how they ought (by which he means, telling the rest of us how to live and compelling us to do so). He thinks that formal education is wrong as parents should be allowed to teach their kids whatever they want. He believes that rebelling against social or economic factors is irrelevant because Christians should live in any world in the same Christian way.

Frankly, give me a chav and a can of lager any day.

Or law students. I’ve never met such a bunch of weasels. Not a passionate opinion between them. I’d rather be an ignorant and lecherous chav, with some peroxide blonde girl astride me than so completely unable to take a genuinely, full-on, red blooded position on real issues of the day. What really annoys me, therefore, is pretty much everything; chavs don’t get a bye-ball, why should you?

Categories: General Politics

CoML: Animal Rights and odd bedfellows

February 16, 2009 23 comments

Convention on Modern LibertyI hope to write a few articles discussing different aspects of the Convention on Modern Liberty, beginning with the bedfellows we seem to have chosen – some of which rather dislike one another. My recent copy of SchNEWS (no. 666, issued on Friday 13th February!) discusses the Convention in none-too-flattering terms. Henry Porter, co-organiser, remarked that none of the participants wish to get rid of the State, but SchNEWS points out that actually many of the people bearing the brunt of the anti-liberties legislation are anti-statist – from animal liberationists to anti-militarists to no-borders activists.

While I don’t really share the views of SchNEWS, I think the tone in which it addresses the CoML is important. I think it reflects something of a disconnect between ‘grassroots’ activists and the ‘personalities’ who will be organising and no doubt dominating the Convention. We’re all concerned with the state of civil liberties, but many of us aren’t really comfortable taking part in an event a large part of which seems geared towards flattering the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, who headline a lot of the sessions.

In SchNEWS’ case, one of the issues is that the Countryside Alliance are co-sponsors of the event. Issues of hunting and animal cruelty cast me in the unlikely mould of a moderate. Some of the stunts pulled by the Stop Huntingdom Animal Cruelty group irritate me. They seem unwilling to accept, despite evidence and while presenting flawed evidence of their own – backed by the word of arts graduates rather than scientists – that some degree of animal testing is an important tool in pursuing cures for various human ailments.

Our good friend over at Directionless Bones recently carried a post suggesting that arguments based around human health were somewhat hypocritical, since governments and companies are perfectly prepared to ignore human health issues which can be addressed. Domestic homelessness, substance abuse, not to mention the vast tracts of the world without clean water. The companies are built around the very market mechanisms to which I am opposed, but that is not a reason to discontinue work which saves lives.

All research – on animals or not – is based around that mechanism, until we have a movement of such cogency and power that will act to overthrow it. Even then, clean drinking water, universally available contraceptives and so forth won’t cure Parkinsons or other diseases.

Similarly, on the other side, I have always quite enjoyed hunting. Tracking down rabbits or shooting woodpigeon with an air rifle, out in the middle of nowhere, is a great way to get some fresh air. You can learn things about cooking – over campfires or at home – and about the countryside, including how to survive. Nevertheless, the site of a pack of dogs chasing down a fox, followed by various humans armed with shotguns makes something in me rebel. Neither a sport nor a learning experience.

I would not for a moment suggest that each region shouldn’t control the populations of foxes and badgers, in the same way that they control the population of rabbits – by killing them. This does not require dogs, however; it simply requires someone to be paid to manage the land.

You might ask, what has any of this to do with civil liberties? On the one hand, there are some draconian sentences being handed down to animal rights activists. The incident with the Indymedia servers and the arrest of their internet host on Monday rankles with my sense of fair play and demonstrates the lengths to which the police will go, with some of their new powers. Cases where the police unlawfully stop people exercising their right to protest aren’t unusual – nor, seemingly, is conspiracy amongst Police officers themselves.

Countryside Alliance, on the other hand, is hoping to get the Hunting Act repealed by the next Parliament. Its Liberty and Livelihood march attracted some four hundred thousand people in 2002; bound up in this march was a perception that the Hunting Act was an example of a government overstepping its bounds. Slogans such as “I love my country, I fear my government” were to be seen on the march, as were slogans inviting preference for British goods or bewailing the languishing state of the countryside versus the cities of England.

It says something when both animal liberationists – many of whom are also involved with organisations such as the League Against Cruel Sports – and pro-hunting lobbyists can get on the same bandwagon. However, I’m very firmly of the opinion that the alignment of the Countryside Alliance with the Convention on Modern Liberties is something of a danger signal. The Countryside Alliance might also be seen as a political lobbying group for private landowners, rural businesses against tax and for less restrictive planning laws.

Why would we jump into bed with this group? Similarly, why would we allow Conservatives to take stands at a Convention on Modern Liberties? David Cameron has already admitted, on numerous occasions, that he will not be seeking to overturn a lot of the government’s legislation – and indeed, it was the Thatcher government where the trend of legislating for every tabloid headline truly started. Equally, the drive for tougher sentencing and reduced judicial discretion has often come from the Conservative benches.

Or the media. Every time a judge finds something redeeming about a rapist or a drunk driver and reduces his sentence accordingly, the tabloids scream. Every time there appears a chance someone charged with terrorism might be coming home from Guantanamo, the newspapers jump all over it…and from there it’s only a short trip to “Soft Touch Britain” rhetoric. These pressures will not disappear with a Conservative government – however much people like Paul Kingsnorth and other liberals may have fallen in love with the idea.

These are all themes I’ve mentioned before, but they’re thrown into stark relief by the attitude of some activist groups to the Convention. What the Convention is not is a programme of direct action – and that is significant. In our search for a broad coalition on civil liberties, first of all we’ve forgotten that the fight is not purely ideological. We’ve forgotten the database economy – as Unity argues in a piece of superb clarity. All the bloggerati and lobbying of pro-liberties groups won’t combine to equal Tesco, Sainsbury and the other giants who benefit.

Conservatives are just as in hock to these groups as Labour. For all that Henry Porter might pontificate about Labour MPs using their time on an important committee to read letters instead of pay attention to critiques of Labour policy, it was a Liberal government who first introduced the authoritarian Official Secrets Act, rushed through in a sparsely populated chamber, one Friday afternoon. All of this should remind us that it is not simply one party that should be distrusted, it is the whole mechanism of politics on which those parties stand.

A Convention on Modern Liberty that focusses on the main parties is going to fail because it will be blind to this crucial issue. For the same reason, any answer which is focussed on voting out those MPs who don’t stand up for civil liberties is bound to fail also. It simply pushes people towards sham alternatives. Even if we’re talking about the Liberal Democrats, some of whom have good records on civil liberties, as an ‘alternative’ they aren’t going to be in a position to have much of an effect for quite some time.

So instead of pushing people towards a parliamentary answer, which remains at all times trapped within the logic of a media and business lobbyists who disdain liberties – one for the purposes of whipping up moral frenzy and the other for a quick buck – why don’t we begin building an activist response to the issue? This may not overturn the Coroners and Justice Bill immediately, but, on the other hand, it might begin to challenge that very logic which we’re working against.

Strand one would involve harassing MPs. A sufficiently well organised and funded campaign could start by sending lots of letters to them, especially to their home address, to remind them just how much we hate spam; it could arrange protests outside their constituency offices whenever their surgery hours are scheduled, whenever votes are coming up. Strand two could network local government workers, health workers and others involved in creating our uber database to resist implementation of the laws passed.

Our coup de grace would be, in the case of the Coroners and Justice Bill, to arrange a boycott by the Coroner’ Society of England and Wales, especially if this could be backed by well-funded legal challenges every time the government tried to use its new-found powers. Getting prominent figures on board is an important step in creating the credibility necessary to exert influence over professional bodies, trades unions and other groups we might need in a bid to stop the implementation of laws.

I suspect an added bonus to such an approach – targeting MPs at home, organising the public sector and getting bodies like the BMA or Coroners’ Society to go along with us – would be a separation of wheat of chaff in respect of which parliamentarians climb on board. Many would probably be alienated by any potential campaign of direct action or civil disobedience – the latter of which is particularly relevant in the case of laws clamping down on our rights of protest and dissent. Photographing police is one example of such a campaign.

Yet we should welcome this. If we can keep out the opportunists, it’ll make the political statement of that campaign all the stronger. To broaden our appeal, we shouldn’t be afraid to take a leaf out of the Countryside Alliance’s book. It went from being a primarily pro-hunting organisation to attempting to speak on behalf of rural England, on every grievance that could be thought of. Our equivalent would be generalising from infringement of liberties to linking underfunding of public services with wasteful and invasive measures such as ID cards.

That would be an especially powerful weapon, since local government workers will be called to implement many of the new plans – like Councils that will soon be snooping on calls and emails. With those workers on our side, we have a powerful bargaining chip which no number of media whores and lobbyists will equal. More importantly, organising in this manner dictates a ground-up method, rather than “interested individuals” being invited to take part in a day’s event or longer campaign. Accountability, if we’re to seek it in government, should also be a watchword for our campaign on modern liberties.

Categories: General Politics
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