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Sometimes the “politically correct” have a point

July 30, 2009 7 comments

I’ve never been one for politically correct utterances or sentiment. If it ever transpired that city councils really were trying to ban Christmas trees, and that these stories weren’t tabloid concoctions, I’d be out with my pitchfork just like everyone else. On the other hand, sometimes things labelled politically correct in order to evoke a knee-jerk negative reaction in the public do not deserve such a reaction.

For the moment, set aside suspicions that the following story has been exaggerated and distorted out of all recognition. Apparently CO18, the specialist operations unit in charge of security at airports, was handed a ban on wearing Union Jack badges purchased from the Royal British Legion. The newspapers have claimed that it was a result of someone protesting that they found the badges offensive.

A petition to the Prime Minister’s office has attracted a couple of thousand signatures and today the Daily Mail and various London freebies have announced that the ban has been scrapped: police officers will now be permitted to wear the badge, which costs £1 and is supposed to be in support of the British troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. Naturally the interwebz has been full of outraged citizens attacking political correctness gone mad.

Stop and think about the ban for a moment. If any of us – police or not – wore badges to work which proclaimed our personal political opinions, we’d be asked to remove them. As a teacher, if I wore a red flag lapel pin to school, I’d be hauled over hot coals. Why are the police any different? Let me explain my reasoning for the hard of understanding.

Firstly, is wearing a Union Flag lapel pin a political statement? It is, and this is maintained by all press mentions and the response of Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson’s press office, “[T]he Met should be openly showing their support for British troops currently serving abroad. On this occasion it seems entirely appropriate that officers are able to show their support for these brave men and women.

There can be no doubt that wearing the small flag is a political statement. So, if I was a policeman and decided to wear a Stop the War badge, would that be permitted by the powers that be? It’s unlikely that they’d face a tabloid backlash, so I doubt it. Therefore support for the wearing of these badges is first and foremost hypocritical.

Secondly, are there grounds for complaint about the badge, even excusing the inherent hypocrisy?

I, and many others, do not support the troops in Afghanistan or Iraq. In fact I, like many others, would like to see an end to these wars as fast as possible, and an independent judicial investigation as to how much the military, government and intelligence services know and have known about various actions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The whole conflict requires documentation and examination lest we should find out about similar instances to the use of white phosphorus as a weapon at Fallujah. In Afghanistan, some civilians are thought to have been killed and injured by US use of this incendiary material. British personnel complicit in similar actions should be arrested and tried for war crimes at the Hague.

But forget about the idea that our troops are not lilywhite and that a thorough investigation might see the arrest and prosecution of personnel all the way up the chain of command. There’s still something obscene about wearing a badge supporting British troops that are essentially paid to uphold Islamist oppression. In almost any other context, the Islamophobic press would be jumping all over such a violation of human rights – but it’s a different story when we’re essentially propping up the people responsible.

My point in this long-winded denunciation of the war, and the role of the British Army in it, is to outline that there’s good reason for people to object to shows of support for the troops on the part of the police, especially in a professional context. Just as people would object if the police wore anti-war badges. When war crimes and torture are at stake, we can’t glibly dismiss objections as political correctness gone mad.

(Appendix; this guy gets an award for most amusing and apposite inquiry on the matter).

Categories: General Politics

Obama’s two-front war isn’t over, and neither is ours

July 28, 2009 9 comments

As if we needed to be reminded, the war on terrorism is not over. More than a hundred and fifty British soldiers wounded in action, and at least seventeen military deaths in a month. Which means the deaths of who knows how many others, including non-combatants. Well-informed commentators are quick to point out that casualties are this low only because we’ve effectively purchased the support of local women-hating warlords who are just as bad if not worse than their Taliban equivalents in Afghanistan. Some brave new world.

That’s not the war I’m talking about, however. Barack Obama won the US Presidency on a platform which promised to end the war in Iraq and focus on Afghanistan, but amidst his supporters and activists were hundreds of thousands who wanted all US soldiers to be brought home immediately. Many of whom, even from the outset, felt let down by Obama’s ‘pragmatism’ in announcing delays to troop withdrawals. When funding for Obama’s strategy came up for vote through supplemental appropriations, Democratic Congressmen were browbeaten into supporting it – though some thirty Democratic Congressmen voted against it.

In the video linked to above, Jane Hamsher (author of Firedoglake) discusses how anti-war activism is falling down the priority list of many people in the USA. While attention is drawn to healthcare, however, conservative grassroots sentiment in the USA has not gone away – and is still as simplistic as ever. I experienced some of this myself yesterday on Facebook. The status of a friend demanding the shutting down of a group which is titled “Soldiers are not heroes” – and the sentiments which followed such a status were jingoistic rubbish reminiscent of Tony Blair’s response to a heckler that he wouldn’t get away with heckling in Iraq. As if that justifies absolutely anything.

Why is a non-event on Facebook important? Have a look at the two groups: ‘Soldiers are not heroes’ (hardly a revolutionary contention about men and women paid to kill people) has a mere 3,710 members. Yet it engenders a frothing hatred in denizens of the group “Petition to remove ‘Soldiers are not heroes’ from Facebook“. Which, wait for it, has 473,721 members at the time of writing. People who are saying not that they hate soldiers but that they think hero-worship should be controlled are compared to racist groups, denounced as terrorists and so on. “Our soldiers are the only reason you can say that, they’re fighting for our freedom!” is a pretty regular refrain.

If culture is ‘shared attitudes, values, goals and practices’ then such a vociferous Facebook group definitely counts. It is a clear sign that we have a long way to go to convince people that attacking nations like Iraq and Afghanistan – regardless of what it will do to their internal situation – has zero positive effect upon the ‘freedom’ in the UK and US. In fact, in respect of something Prof. Geras was criticizing yesterday, I’d maintain the war had a negative effect. There were any number of people who felt that they were being pressured and bullied to keep their mouths shut.

Support for the war, critical or uncritical, was also support for the social and political pressures mounted by the ruling class as it geared up for war. You couldn’t, for example, be for the war and against the nationalistic fervour co-opted to it. One constituted the other; jingoism and racism are always and forever factors in war between capitalist nation-states. In America, this effect was much worse than in the UK just as (I gather from speaking to American friends) everything from the media, peer and even institutional pressure was brought to bear against dissent.

My point is that the victory of even an ostensibly anti-war candidate in a Presidential election has not altered the basic landscape in the US. The same hegemonic practices continue to exist. The anti-war movement hasn’t completed its victory, and whatever gestures Obama makes to demonstrate a united America, America is not united. The fault lines that divide America on the war are going to come back and bite the Obama administration on plans for social health care – because though dispersed in different ways through the Washington political elite, on the ground the fault lines seem to be the same, or at least substantially similar.

Considered on their own merits, the ‘birther’ argument or the idea that Obama is a communist preparing an unconstitutional Marxist takeover of the US might seem pretty fringe. If we dismiss them at that, we err. A Republican Senator from Oklahoma publicly backed the birther argument only a few days ago (before admitting Obama to be an American) and members of the McCain campaign, US media not to mention Melanie Phillips were all at the same thing during the elections. Comments about how bailing out the US auto industry is backdoor communism has also been voiced on the floor of the House of Representatives.

Like the ultra-nationalism and petty jingoism during the war, all of this is ammunition and smokescreen to be used as a sideshow by the seriously powerful corporate muscle lining up against President Obama’s healthcare reform package. Although, and this needs to be said, with pharmacorporations already having secured their barrels of pork and lining up to support the plan, corporate muscle is fighting on both sides of the debate and the loser may be the public: the idea of a single-payer, or NHS-style public health system has been relentlessly crushed and many Democrats are afraid to bring it up.

How Obama and the Democratic leadership responds to this, and whether or not they make the choice to fire up their campaign activists to launch a street-by-street campaign, could potentially determine the future course of the Presidency. Right now things look shockingly familiar to 1993; confronted by conservative Democrats holding the balance of power in Congress, the Democratic leadership blinked on healthcare and a the Republicans scored a slam-dunk in the 1994 mid-terms, which became a referendum on big government.

Obama buying out the auto-industry, passing a massive subsidy to the IMF, floating American banks and proposing (something that isn’t, but will be spun into) socialized healthcare will likely give the Republicans a similar angle by which to win the debate. I see three possible results. One, the current malaise continues, energising the Republicans with the result of trouble in 2010. Two, Obama’s bill is so watered down (and it already is substantially watered) that it passes and activists lose faith, stoking up New Labour-style trouble ahead. Three: the Obama administration pushes for the nuclear option and street by street Obama activists run local campaigns to support universal socialised healthcare.

Already, the President’s favourables versus unfavourables are looking dicey – and that is accompanied by a complete collapse in his favourables in the southern states – arguably an area where the Democrats need more momentum, not less. They simply can’t rely on relatively stable support from the north-east and mid-west: it will not last forever. This is one reason why I’m for Option 3. Another is that ff Labour can undergo a transformation in its first few years of opposition, this may be what Labour activists demand of their own leadership upon a return to government. Like Obama and the Democrats, our war for hearts and minds is not over. It hasn’t even begun.

Amateur Hour: a new People’s Front of Judaea

July 27, 2009 3 comments

Apparently a bunch of former CWI members have decided to launch a new International. The founding document of the group, published in May, runs to some twenty five chapters. It is written in the manner of a GCSE-level essay: cramming as much information into as short a space as possible to cover up an actual lack of nuance and understanding. That said, I’m not going to pick apart the document piece by piece – it would be shooting fish in a barrel and in any case, it is way too long. Seriously, everyone should read it themselves to understand why I’m so dismissive.

Most telling should be that it takes the group until Chapter 24 to come to the point about why they don’t feel like they can remain within the Committee for a Workers International. And the point, when it comes, is basically that the perspectives of the CWI went wrong some time in the mid-1980s. Which is why it has taken until 2009 for this new group to split. That must be the longest learning curve in the history of the socialist movement. Even Trotsky himself took only two years before getting pissed off with some American socialists and agreeing to expel them.

What shocks me the most is just the combination of historical ignorance and bad writing. If you’re going to found a new group with a view to being the 9th-and-a-half Worker’s International, it might be a good idea to do some solid research into the events you refer to. Or perhaps referencing Marxist theory in a more consistent (I daren’t hope for eloquence or elegance) manner. Further amusing and derisory comments can be found at the Socialist Unity blog. Irony doesn’t come much better than that.

Categories: Miscellaneous

Labour Party Propaganda, Norwich North and Red Toryism

July 25, 2009 10 comments

Hardly a day goes by when Labour Party members don’t emailed en masse by some cabinet minister, senior party apparatchik or other figure within the Labour Party. Often these are of questionable quality. Every second sentence is a request for money. The type of analysis-lite gushy nonsense sent out in these emails would surprise absolutely nobody who has even the most cursory familiarity with New Labour. Particular weaknesses are evident, however, when Tory policy comes into focus.

A recent example is the press release about Tory education policy, dated July 15th. It attacks a Tory policy document which suggests culling one-seventh of the number of schools to be rebuilt under Building Schools for the Future. Of course, the small print is that the cull is to reallocate money to the ‘Swedish schools’ project (Raising the Bar, Closing the Gap, Opportunity Agenda, Conservative Party, Policy Green Paper No. 1, 20 November 2007, p.39). Merits of each policy to one side, the obvious intent of the release is to continue the Party line that Tory = cuts, without suggesting what alternative Labour offers.

In the recent Norwich North by-election, the Party seemed to have  pulled out all the stops (not to mention all the politics) from its leaflets in a bid to prevent the Tories from winning the seat. The leaflet in question, which can be read at the link, offers a choice between Labour and the Tories and scare-mongers against the Tories. I’m all for hitting the Tories where it hurts: their policies will help the wealthy, harm the rest of us and are best jettisoned into the dustbin of history – but scaremongering is not how to do that, for several reasons.

Firstly, it jars too obviously with the softly-softly approach of the Conservatives. As Jim Jepps outlined in a Morning Star piece earlier in the week (and followed up at his blog), there are different stripes of Tory. Jim’s thesis was about how, right now, the lambs are leading the lions of the deep shires because it suits the lions to have an element of the sheen of early New Labour about the place. Phillip Blond’s recent fame and his emphasis on community, with other Tories hammering away on ‘choice’, is not just borrowing but wholesale theft of New Labour sentiment.

Actually this emergence of ‘soft’ sentiment is what generally precedes an election. Anyone who remembers the 1979 election will remember that it was a key area of Thatcherism to emphasize the need for the success of small business (with associated clichés about human industry and ingenuity) against monopoly capital, while advocating a rolling back of the State. Under Thatcher, of course, large companies grew even larger – to the detriment of many independent businesses and producers – and the State seized as much power as it possibly could. ‘Red Toryism’ is only new in nuance – but it can successfully deflect blunt attacks.

Damning all Tories with the same battery of criticisms at every turn deadens the effect and dabbles in an expectations game that Labour cannot win. If we are claiming that the world as we know it will end come a Tory victory, then we’re going to look very stupid when it doesn’t. There will be cuts, that much is certain, people’s lives will get worse in different ways, but the police are not going to be defunded, schools will continue to operate and Sure Start will carry on in whatever renamed guise the Tories dream up to claim the idea was theirs. Yet these are all things highlighted on the above Labour leaflet, which is headed “Don’t wake up on Friday with a Tory MP” in large, red, bolded letters.

Being remotely politically knowledgeable, we know in advance that Conservative rhetoric is pretty hollow. How then do we communicate such a sentiment to the electorate without such scaremongering? This leads me to the second weakness of Labour Party propaganda. That is, it is clear that the Labour Party cannot attack the Tories with one hand while being very similar. If Labour is to be the bulwark of a fightback against the Conservatives, it can’t be a Labour Party which is so easily tarred with the same brush. Let me take another Norwich North example:

“The Tory candidate is a Westminster insider; who will always put her political career before our interests. She even tried to become the MP for Ipswich. We’re not interested in being anyone’s second choice.”

Er, whoops. Turns out that joining Labour at all was Chris Ostrowski’s second choice. He was originally part of Conservative Futures at UEA, and judging by his desire to offer support to any shadow cabinet members coming to speak, he already had his eyes on the prize: a shot at a parliamentary seat. Not to mention that any number of New Labour flunkeys are parachuted into safe seats after having fought or attempted to get selected in other seats. The whole attack is hypocrisy of the highest order – and not the only example of it.

Any sort of criticism rings hollows when it the person or group making it is standing in a dubious position vis a vis their own actions. This is going to be the stick which will beat New Labour the hardest at the next election, one they’ve made for their own back. The first priority of Labour after the elections should be cleaning house: if we are the people’s party, then I see no reason why we our representatives shouldn’t act like it. Our PPCs should be local (and locally chosen; take note, NEC!). Our first policy goal should be casting the mote from our own eye before casting aspersions at the Tories. This we will never be in a position to do with Blairites, Brownites and their sorts about the place.

Speaking of Blairites and Brownites I’m brought to my final criticism of Labour Party propaganda. If exposed to it for any length of time, it becomes painfully easy to see through. Labour Students had transport laid on for activists to go to Norwich and get involved in canvassing – and the results of the canvassing were mentioned at Labout List. Judging by the results in the by-election, which Ostrowski lost by more than seven thousand votes, the report that ‘voters showed a very warm response to Chris’ was both exaggerated and very, very premature.

I use the example from the LabourList post on Norwich North simply because it is topical. There are plenty of other examples of glossing over unappealing truths offered by New Labour. The rhetoric, in some cases, is practically Orwellian, as I have discussed in many different articles over the course of my online witterings. If something is bad, we should be able to say it is bad. The only reason being honest within our own movement can ever be a danger is when the link of accountability between leadership and movement is so weak that press speculation replaces genuine debate and discussion.

These several criticisms, being neither an exhaustive list nor balanced by examples of some ‘good’ work done by activists, are still relevant as we move to fight the next General Election.

Cruddas is all piss and wind, so why are people still listening?

July 23, 2009 23 comments

Jon Cruddas demonstrates in a recent interview just how bad a choice he would be as leader of the Labour Party. The interview with Mary Riddell for the Fabian Review of Summer 2009 was brought to the attention of the Labour millions when Tom Miller helpfully posted it to Facebook. Because let’s face it, the activists of Labour would probably rather shave their eyebrows than read the dreary rubbish that the Fabians publish on a regular basis. Cruddas rules himself out of a leadership bid, and categorically outlines why he would be useless anyway.

“See I was never into scientific socialism. I was quite interested in Blair’s communitarianism. Early Blair. [...] A lot of the debate around the Labour Party’s future in the coming years will be about reinstating aspects of Blairism. Blair lost the language and the ethical dimension, but there was quite a rich texture to the early Blair.”

In the aftermath of an electoral crucifixion, it will be interesting to see what elements of the PLP survive and whether it is a Blairite pretender or a soft left advocate who can gain the confidence of whatever is left of the parliamentary party. However, the weakness of Cruddas’ analysis (Cruddas being a fair marker for the rest of the softies on the PLP) demonstrates exactly what I have been warning about: an attempt to replay Labour 1994-1997 sans Blair, and without having learned the lessons of the period either.

Historiography from the Right of Labour would have one believe that ‘modernising’ the Party was what won the victory of 1997, and that Labour’s flexibility, its claim to more efficient management of the economy and so on was what did for the Tories even in their own heartlands. Cruddas is lining up behind this shallow moralising with his view that ‘Blair lost the language and the ethical dimension’. In reality, Blair’s language was a mask; nothing changed about Blair and Brown except that people lost faith in their rhetoric.

People lost this faith because after a while the hyperbolic oratory grated against an agenda of privatisation and ‘modernisation’ designed to bite into whatever was left after eighteen years of Tory rule. Things got progressively worse because the government survived in office only to be caught out by its own promises on things like top-up fees. Various scandals over the deals done by New Labour with the business elite, several preposterous wars and a determined attack on civil liberties later, it doesn’t take a genius to see why nostalgic glances to ‘early Blair’ are likely to gain support. Especially from those people who did well then, and aren’t doing so well now.

Without changing the Blairite agenda, we won’t change the popular mood. However, wait ten years. After ten years or so of Conservative government, a new Blair will be able to emerge in the same way that David Cameron has. The ever-increasing troubles post-2001 will have been forgotten amidst Tory cuts and a disorganised Left, having failed to restore some institutional democracy to Labour, will not be able to prevent a re-run of 1994-1997. But Cruddas has some credible policies, so why is he wasting his time talking up ‘early Blair’?

Cruddas is not one for cynical political manoeuvers – at least, not yet. He genuinely believes, it would seem, that up until 2001, New Labour was performing quite well and that only subsequently did things go off the rails. As in an interview with Hopi Sen, he asserts that their authoritarian approach resulted in a ‘shrill, sour politics from 2001′. To borrow from Hopi’s interpretation of the interview, problems arose when Labour continued to focus on the needs of a rather small group of the electorate with such unpopular policies as ID cards, welfare reform etc.

On the subject of policies, I think Cruddas is dead right when he says that when we have some five million people in need of social housing and 75,000 repossessions, housing should be priority number one. I think Cruddas is dead right right when he says it is time to regulate the market in agency workers. Though even on this, I suspect that Cruddas will prove to be a damp squib. There’s an obvious answer – take the gloves off the unions and let a new generation of young workers bring their agency equivalents into the union fold.

Yet Cruddas returns time and again to the praise of New Labour. The failure of New Labour (says he) was nothing to do with their utter crushing of internal accountability, the ability of party leadership to parachute its lackeys into safe parliamentary seats – a double blow to parliamentary oversight and the Labour grassroots, or with the privatisation agenda that has cost the country billions more than straight-up government borrowing would have. It’s that New Labour is for the good times, that it was ‘ill-equipped for when the music stopped.’

Crucially, Cruddas doesn’t analyse why. Here, I think, is his key weakness. Cruddas’ populism is great – especially if ever it results in a couple of million more houses – but he simply has nothing to say about why New Labour failed, about why they were so ill-equipped, or why they seem to focus on such a narrow interest group in society. It’s as if New Labour was great, at one point, then the circumstances changed but New Labour didn’t, thus New Labour failed. The deficiencies which Cruddas exhibits in both interviews should be obvious.

Despite Cruddas’ love for discussion and debate, he continually ignores the structural locations in which such debates occur and the fundamental interests which prejudice them. But Cruddas’ narrative is itself flawed. New Labour was certainly not radical – 1997-2001, if thought of in context: a supremely large majority, with the mandate to reform British democracy and to strike a blow for workers. The best we can say is that some rights at work were reformed, and we got a minimum wage. Which still doesn’t pay enough, and was matched by the opt out from the EU Working Time Directive. Meanwhile key deregulations were being planned, and the post-2001 trajectory was being written.

This failure to match his favoured narrative to the reality, and the gaping whole where some form of structural, material appreciation should lie, is how Cruddas manages to go from demanding real radicalism from the government, to recommending Harriet Harman, David or Ed Miliband or (of all people!) James Purnell as potential future leaders. It is the same sort of shallow politics that has always dogged the soft Left, allowing them to sit on the sidelines and carp as though they are Left wing, then turn around and elect the sort of people they were originally carping about.

Total Politics Top Ten Blogs

July 17, 2009 10 comments

The polling for the Total Politics top blogs have opened. You can vote by emailing toptenblogs@totalpolitics.com with your top ten: rules can be found here. Be sure, after you vote, to share who you voted for. I voted as follows:

1. Though Cowards Flinch (obviously)

2. Bickerstaffe Record

3. A Very Public Sociologist

4. Enemies of Reason

5. Don Paskini

6. Grimmer Up North

7. Obsolete

8. The Third Estate

9. Rebellion Sucks

10. Chicken Yogurt

There are a few absences and trends which deserve explanation. Firstly, Miljenko’s blog is not on the list; despite some really good essays recently, especially this one on anti-politics which was thought provoking even if it gave some grounds for challenge, I haven’t been following it as often as I should.

Larger sites tend to come further down the list than reflects how much I use them – ChickYog, for example. Two huge blogs, Liberal Conspiracy and Pickled Politics are completely absent even though I use them more than almost any other blog. The reason for this is simple; the smaller blogs deserve a bigger shout out, I think. Everyone will vote for LC – and so they should!

The only potential exception is AVPS, which is actually a very popular blog and ranked highly the last time around. I don’t think any other blog (saving Paul’s Bickerstaffe Record) does quite so much for the discussion of socialist theory and politics on the internet.

So many blogs I couldn’t include, because I only have ten votes; Socialist Unity being an obvious one, the Daily Maybe and Bob from Brockley too. Collectively these form my most read blogs, or the ones I utilize most (e.g. Obsolete’s SepticIsle  for his weekend round-ups). I hope a free link from TCF makes up for it guys!

Categories: Miscellaneous

CSF Committee reports on the ‘unjust’ suspension of teachers

July 16, 2009 2 comments

The suspension of a colleague from school is one of the great taboos of teaching. Upon the lodging of a sufficiently serious complaint, a teacher can be automatically suspended. While suspended, the teacher in question may not contact co-workers, and co-workers are often handed an injunction not to talk about the issue among themselves by Senior Management Team. These are serious conditions to impose upon someone who has just faced the shock of accusations and suspensions, and upon their friends.

MPs say that it comes very close to violating the tradition of “innocent until proven guilty“.

A new report just released by the Committee on Children, Schools and Families (HC695) has called these practices ‘unjust’ and ‘inhumane’. Chair of the Committee, Barry Sheerman – MP for Huddersfield – said, “My committee heard shocking evidence about the treatment of accused staff and the devastating impact unfounded allegations of misconduct can have on those involved, which can ruin careers and can come at a significant physical, mental and financial cost.” I suspect most teachers who have seen colleagues suspended would agree.

Teachers base a lot of their lives around their school. Their colleagues are intimate friends, forming a support network for one another. Rudely to rip someone from those connections is very unfair. There is a counter-argument to be made that if other teachers in the school become aware of who is making the accusations, they may attempt to bully the child into silence. There’s also the case to be made that, if someone genuinely is mistreating a child, it’s unfair to allow that mistreatment to continue while evidence is gathered.

From the point of view of child protection, therefore, better an adult should suffer than a child. Whatever percentage of accusations ultimately prove true, even if they are as low as 5% (which is what the Unions say), it is still better that 95% of innocent teachers be put through the stress than the 5% of children making well founded accusations. That said, I don’t believe the either-or situation is healthy, nor do I believe it is necessary. I believe it exposes some weaknesses in the heirarchical nature of education in the UK.

Pupils behave just like any other sector of the workforce. Some are lazy, some are ambitious, some are calculating, some are needy. Yet the interests of all are served in just the same way – through a collectively expressed self-interest. When it comes to pupil welfare, there can be no greater protection than having pupils look out for one another – each knowing how to access support and proactively address situations as they arise. A big problem, of course, is that giving pupils such self-confidence can backfire upon management in a number of ways.

As a very political pupil, I was threatened with exclusion on several occasions – in one case with permanent exclusion. Having appeared on two regional radio interviews, to encourage pupils to walk out of school when bombing began in Iraq, I was accosted by the Principal and Vice-Principal (Discipline) and told in no uncertain terms that if I led a walk-out of school, I would be expelled. Six hundred students chose to walk out, rendering the bluster of senior management completely ineffective. A self-confident student body would create numerous such headaches.

Actually on that occasion I was kept behind after school to hear an extended version of the usual lecture, which is quite a serious breach of protocol. For any after-school detention, parents are supposed to be given 24 hours’ notice.

While I support the conclusions of the Parliamentary report that keeping a suspended teacher away from his or her colleagues is a bad idea, I think it will take some time before we can treat teachers as entirely innocent until proven guilty. Without additional protection, we can’t simply let accused teachers continue to teach, and we can’t take the risk that others may choose to act unprofessionally in defence of someone they may feel to be innocent, rightly or wrongly. Children deserve protection. That additional protection comes in the form of pro-active students, collectively encouraged to take things into their own hands.

We spend enough time trying to work out how to encourage our students to learn independently – this is just as important. It involves our young people knowing the correct procedures for child protection, including whom to turn to. Pupils should be encouraged to have expectations of how their teacher will act in a classroom and out of it; and they should know not to leave any of their number alone in a classroom with only one adult. These should be the sort of things addressed by the (hitherto mostly ineffective and puppeteered) Student Councils in each school.

From the point of view of teachers, encouraging this sort of positive action is a win-win situation. When it comes to demanding better terms and conditions, our pupils should be asked whether or not they support the demands. They have the right to a say – and such a step might prevent them being used as a political football by the Department for Children, Schools and Families, the default press release of which is “Teaching Unions obviously don’t care about the education of children, which they are preventing by going on strike” etc.

Giving young people responsibility for and input into matters of welfare policy begins to prepare them for taking responsibility for political issues, as citizens in a democracy. In truth our young people should have the power to determine many things about their education, which are prescribed for them. What they learn in a classroom, for example. Determining whether or not teachers are permitted to shout in a classroom, or knowing when to approach senior staff and with what evidence they might need, would be a good step towards giving pupils more authority.

All of this probably sounds quite high minded until one thinks that we’re talking about children from the ages of 11 upwards. Pupils aged 16 might be able to deal with such issues, you might think, but surely most 11 year olds are still playing cops and robbers when they go home? I don’t rate such an approach; one of the professional standards of teaching is to show a consistently high expectation from pupils – and ok, we can’t teach them Quantum Physics til they know the basics about Atomic Physics, but we can construct a ladder up which they proceed in this just as in any other aspect of learning.

If it saves the pain of hundreds of teachers, unfairly suspended, put through hell, kept away from their friends and potentially forced out of work, then that’s a bonus.

Categories: Uncategorized

Why does blogging continue to feel insufficient?

July 15, 2009 14 comments

I made the decision to set up a blog with its own domain name in 2007. Actually the second anniversary of this blog is not too far away – September. My decision was influenced in two ways – first, to collaborate with a friend on writing and critiquing both our own and others’ work. That hasn’t turned out how I thought it would but there are similar rewards from having such a dedicated and intelligent coterie of very regular visitors (Paul, Charlie and Mil, to name a few). Secondly, I wanted to opt out of Members’ Net and Labourhome.

For those of you who don’t know what those are, Members’ Net was a site set up in 2006 by the powers that be in the Labour Party. It seemed to attract a really bad group of people – either the genuinely and despicably right-wing, or the hopelessly vague and wilfully ignorant. Only a few good eggs were to be had. As for discussions of political theory or even labour history, there was little room – some regular commentators even prided themselves on just how anti-intellectual they could be. I was part of Members’ Net for about a year, but rapidly got bored.

Labourhome was a different kettle of fish. I posted there only rarely, but the sort of discussions which were going on either took in the sort of trollishness which one finds on Comment is Free or would have involved the sort of conversations I got really bored having when I was about fifteen. If you are vaguely political, you’re bound to know the one; someone likes to think of themselves as an authority on politics and almost immediately you get into a conversation taking in the broadest possible generalities. This conversation ends up with arguments about semantics (e.g. whether fascism is Left or Right wing) or with me beating that person over the head with a chair.

Not to say that there aren’t some good articles on Labourhome, just as there are on Comment is Free. It just wasn’t for me. Similarly, except to post the odd comment when I feel someone’s arrogance is just getting too much, I have stayed off the new Labour List site. That said though, I still feel there is an element lacking as regards the blogosphere. Sites like Liberal Conspiracy exist to discuss issues du jour, such as this superb attack on Tory ‘family fetishism’ by Laurie but there’s still no generally accepted area for explicitly discussing the theory of politics.

It’s a fair question to ask how necessary such discussion is.

Well, most members of the blogosphere are also political activists. Our very actions are shaped by theory, whether the theory is explicit or implicit. To give an example from the only Tory blog I regularly read, Blimpish Tory in his most recent blog article states, “I’m with Paul [Evans] – for politics before any ideological principle”. This is a subject which practically begs for a discussion of political theory; doesn’t the statement elevate ‘politics’ to an ideological principle? Or better still, isn’t the notion of ‘politics’ (however conceived by Blimpish and Paul Evans), both ideologically conditioned and itself profoundly ideological?

There doesn’t seem to be much room for discussions of this manner in the blogosphere – outside a very few blogs, such as Phil at AVPS, who is doing a Sociology PhD, which gives him something of a leg up.

All of this occurs to me because I noticed the site of the London Socialist Historians Group. I know next to nothing about the group apart from that its convenor is from the SWP and they had Richard Seymour of Lenin’s Tomb speaking there recently. What I do know is that they hold seminars and have a newsletter, and they have an annual conference. Papers are delivered on various subjects and questions are fielded and then everyone retires to the bar. All quite genteel really, but probably more useful than diatribe and counter-diatribe between the SWP and SP on the subject of Left Unity. At least those involved are in the same place and could talk to one another.

Surely some equivalent of this could encourage more political activists to be more reflective, which can only make them more rigorous as they question each of their assumptions, and those assumptions displayed by others – both in our ‘tribe’ and not?

Paul Cotterill will be writing a paper himself on the usefulness of political theory to the practice of politics at local government level, and I look forward to reading it. Yet that was a result of a one-in-a-thousand chance meeting on a blog between Paul and some chap who organises the conference in question. I’m not content for us to wait around to be asked by our academic betters. It is my feeling that those of us, especially the ones who consider themselves Marxists, should be actively pursuing better understanding.

From the point of view of party politics in the Socialist Party, Socialist Workers’ Party and elsewhere, I think it there is a compelling case to be made that organisational democracy depends upon it.

Every Party member should be armed with enough theoretical knowledge to critique the practice of theiry own Party. For example, theories such as the difference between a ‘Popular’ and a ‘United’ Front have direct relevance to modern political practice – taking in such varied bodies as the Convention on Modern Liberty, RESPECT and Unite Against Fascism. I work around the Labour Party milieu, and I’ve recently been discussing potential changes in the demography of party membership. Just how important that is revolves around the theory of class.

It’s fairly obvious that I am talking from the point of view of a Marxist, but on the other hand there are some Liberal Democrats over at Liberal Conspiracy who clearly believe the default position of any socialist should be membership of the Lib-Dems, and they conscript JS Mill to their defence. I may not agree with the argument, but it has clear implications for the organisation of “the Left” and therefore deserves to be discussed. After all, individually we are responsible for the vague grouping known as ‘the Left’ and what strategy we adopt can have ramifications for future success or failure.

So, the First Annual Socialist Bloggers Conference anyone?

Categories: Miscellaneous

On the Twelfth Day of July, is the DUP bleeding?

July 12, 2009 12 comments

“The price for power-sharing.” With such words was the news greeted last year that six councillors in Ballymena, a DUP stronghold, were defecting to the Traditional Unionist Voice. Since then, defections have continued. Sixty-six thousand votes in the European elections later, TUV have lost their only MEP – Jim Allister, who was elected under a DUP banner – but they have not been alone in their losses. Apart from defections to TUV – which amounts to something like 13 councillors, the DUP have also recently lost one in Dungannon to the UUP and one in Ballymena to the Conservatives.

If I was asked for some poetic reasoning behind these defections, I can do no better than to turn to Cllr. Robin Sterling, who jumped ship from DUP to TUV soon after Ian Paisley was removed as Moderator by his own creation, the Free Presbyterian Church: “I think a bigger factor is that the DUP are attempting to modernise and to free themselves from Paisley’s past – his extravaganza of throwing bibles, the street politics and the tasteless attacks on the Roman Catholic church.” In a nutshell this encapsulates the appeal Paisley exerted on Unionist grassroots.

Unionism is a contradiction, seeking to politically mobilise the Protestant working class even whilst it demands that this working class accept a leadership that doesn’t act in working class interests. As the DUP ‘modernises’ itself, in response to the demands of the Northern Irish political establishment and of power-sharing with Sinn Fein, it loses the ability to reconcile these elements through charismatic figures such as Ian Paisley. Indeed Ian Paisley built up his credibility by attacking Unionist politicians and dispensers of patronage who danced the very masquerade of ‘community dialogue’ and power sharing that has characterised Northern Irish politics since Sunningdale.

Continuing this contradiction will either destroy power-sharing, or destroy the DUP, as a new charismatic leader emerges to continue the myth so necessary to sustaining the position of the Loyal Orange Lodges, Unionism and a vitriolic Protestantism in the eyes of half the Northern Irish working class. The Republican movement is subject to this pressure as well, but it does not share many of the traditions of the Unionist movement – there is no clear precedent for knifing one’s comrades, and no touchstone over which to do so, such as the forced collapse of the Sunningdale executive forms for those seeking to overturn the Good Friday Agreement and current power-sharing.

Today is the Twelfth of July, a day significant for the Unionist population of Northern Ireland. Last year, at Orange marches scheduled around the Twelfth fortnight, some DUP politicians were given a cold reception by the grassroots. David Simpson (an MP) was heckled from the sidelines, and refused to return the way he had come, after marching with the Orange Order through Scarva. Daryl Hewitt was also heckled. It will be interesting to see how the senior figures of Unionism, of the DUP stripe, are received this year. Peter Robinson, First Minister and DUP leader, has been meeting with the reviled Republican, Brendan MacCionnaith.

MacCionnaith heads the residents association of Garvaghy in Portadown. This is a vital area as the Orange Order holds a big march (and often a subsequent protest when they are refused their march by the Parades Commission) up the Garvaghy Road. In 1995 and 1996, this resulted in widespread riots and the seizure of roads and public transport on the part of both Republicans and Unionists. It is a continuing bone of contention, over which the UUP was seen to be more amenable to compromise while the DUP maintained their hard line. As the issue seems to be less pressing than in 1996, the DUP have escaped with some fudging.

Traditional Unionist Voice are still hot on the issue. In his (pisspoor) policy document, which relies heavily on the book of a Daily Mail columnist, Jim Allister, leader of TUV and now former MEP, declares, “The fundamental problem lies not with the Loyal Orders but with Republicans”. Compare this to MacCionnaith’s assessment of Peter Robinson, who ostensibly toes the same line as Allister: “He accepted that there was widespread opposition to the march through the nationalist community in Portadown. He is trying to see the views on both sides of this.” All the potential fault lines are there; a little stress and the Unionist vote is off to the races.

A slow haemorrhaging of councillors or unionist sympathy from the DUP could be just the beginning of a realignment.

Categories: Uncategorized

Perspectives on 1994-1997: Left failures?

July 12, 2009 12 comments

The period prior to the 1997 elections looks distant, from the current perspective of the Labour Party. Copies of Will Hutton’s bullish book, The State We’re In, now forlornly grace charity shop shelves. The rhetoric of Blair, which then seemed to rout all before it, is now mockingly mirrored in the address of equally empty hair-do, David Cameron. Only the polls give some cause for comfort; the Labour Party was scoring in the 50% region more often than not pre-1997. Cameron’s Tories have thus still not sealed the deal with the electorate, despite an ailing government.

Yet, if we are not to repeat the same mistakes, the period of reform of the Party from 1981-1997 is a crucial area for investigation and lesson-taking, as at least one other blogger recognises. Paul searches for the causes of a failed Labour government and finds them in the choice of ‘the Left’ not to hold the feet of the government to the fire, partly out of delight that an 18 year wildnerness that encompassed the Thatcher Years had ended. Rather than agency and wilful treason, Paul sees structure, though added to which is the failed agency of activists – who didn’t act when perhaps they should have. I wish to suggest a difference of nuance.

That discussion revolves around where ‘we’, the activists, the members of a political party, went wrong. It assumes that ‘we’ want some accountability between the membership of the Labour Party and its leadership, and that the possibility is open within the structures of membership to achieve that accountability. The fault for its absence, would therefore be ours. However I don’t think that some of these premises hold true, and moreover I think the subject is really quite complex when we start considering things like the composition and goals of the Party membership, which are not uniform, despite the pretences of the Left to be the entirety of the grassroots.

We should consider, for example, that in the period 1994-1997, a hundred thousand people joined the Labour Party. Who were they? I have little useful statistical information to hand beyond a few recent books on Labour Party history. New Labour history and whatever I can cull from the internet and I do not know that the research exists – but I would guess that the ‘progressive alliance’ built up by New Labour triangulation recruited altogether different types of members to Labour, who neither knew nor cared for what the Labour Party used to be, or what the socialist Left expected it to be. They were not working class nor would they understand what that was if asked.

I frankly admit that my opinions on this are probably coloured by my experience at Oxford, where a large proportion of the members of the Labour Club were timeservers and careerists. From social to social, the conversations being held with individuals about every political subject were just depressing by how completely they revealed the chasm between the embryonic masters and fixers of the Party and ‘real life’, i.e. the genuinely hard time of it the rest of us have in finding a job and keeping food on the table. The culmination of this was when one member told me he’d rather be a Conservative than a Trotskyite.

Think that through for a moment. As politically disagreeable as we might find some Trotskyites, on the other hand, many of them live lives of ascetic poverty to devote themselves to a fight for wages, services and generally a better deal for working people. Far from the energetic posers of the student campus, most of the Trotskyites I have known are singularly dedicated. This effect is only lessened because, against the backdrop of capitalist hegemony and working class depoliticization, Trotskyites look like they are trying to use the working class to their own advantage, rather than simply acting as a catalyst for otherwise inchoate demands that arise from present social relations.

Compare that to what the Conservative Party is composed of and stands for.

Whether or not that is actually the case that such people began to arrive in the Party in greater numbers, I can’t prove or disprove. What I do know is that Labour’s vote in 1997 increased radically its support from the top of the demographics tables. Labour had won elections in the past without doing that. If we assume that the change in tone even between Smith and Blair attracted people who weren’t socialists-of-necessity (as one tends to find the working class) then we shouldn’t be talking about Left failures, more Right successes. The battles over Clause IV (with 90% CLP assent to the change, and 65% of members in support) and the Union bloc vote seem to reinforce this.

The Left did its best with the materials to hand. Every Right success, however, disillusioned the Left and caused their capitulation or their fall away from politics proper. Not to say that the Left hasn’t made mistakes; whilst maintaining some semblance of national organisation and national strategy is important, the Left relied on its high-profile figures altogether too much, and grew to love talking to itself rather than using a national network of activists to build and reinforce local networks, perhaps winning the odd local fight and consolidating itself. Yet to reap strength from any solid strategy takes time, which works in favour of the other side.

Even a Left that had a solid blood-and-toil strategy in place would not have been able to get rid of Labour’s leader, whose alliance with business secured the high profile endorsements of the News of the World and the Sun and secured access to a big tranche of funds with which to fight the election. There’s also the issue that Labour could probably have run Genghis Khan against John Major’s Conservatives and still pulled off an overall majority in the House of Commons in 1997. However even the very disunity of the Tories was in part attributable to depoliticization. Without Communism or even the Trades Unions around which to gather, the Tories had internal differences to fight out.

As the Left had gathered strength, it would have changed the objective condition of depoliticization, in turn re-uniting the Tories, not to mention stressing once more the relationship between working class Labour members and activists and the PLP. Meanwhile, in this alternative timeline, Tony would still have been pressing onwards – though the 12 years in government may have been compressed into five or six, with the Tories sorting themselves out and business and the media rediscovering their natural affinity with that Party. My basic point is, by the mid-90s, whatever Labour members and activists did, we couldn’t have avoided this Labour government.

It existed in the space where angry popular disaffection with the Conservatives met a popular retreat from engagement with politics at everything bar the most facile of levels. Our mistake at that point wasn’t in holding Tony et al to the basic ethos and promise of the Labour movement, but in seeing them as any different from the Conservatives in the general thrust of their attitudes to business, to popular participation in government and to the welfare services which we expect that the State will provide. Whatever the strains placed on people when in situ, in high positions of State, by the security services or the global financial system, it was never the goal of Tony Blair and his coterie to enact socialist changes.

Anyone paying attention will have noted that in opposition, Blair and Brown were dead set against ID cards, decried Tory attacks on civil liberties and so forth. We know how that turned out. Blair in his maiden speech made an impassioned plea against tax relief for the wealthy, and against multinational companies who would use the north of England for as long as suited them, before departing to pastures greener. Yet his government presided over the non-dom scandal and cuts and loopholes that allowed the wealthy to escape taxation, though the poor and middling paid it through the nose.

By 1997, having courted Rupert Murdoch and others, it was a different ball game from 1983. Our mistake was not in holding the government to its promises; having scaled down its promises to five simple issues which even most Conservatives would be for (*), it kept every one. Our mistake was in seeing the new government as a vehicle of change. Having believed in it, only to be rudely brought down to earth once more, many members of the Party wandered off – both from Left and Right, as the current state of the Labour Party attests. All of this, which is so much surmise, begets another question then.

Having established that we haven’t held the Party leadership to account, and that Labour can trudge along quite merrily even while the most class conscious battalions of the movement are dead-set against the leadership, we really need to ask, is it possible to hold our leaders to account? This is a question I’ll be searching for answers to over the remaining five chapters of Paul’s own “What is to be done?”

(*) Cut class sizes for infants, speed legal proceedings against young offenders, reduce NHS waiting lists, maintain low inflation and move 250,000 young people from welfare to work. Source: Andrew Thorpe, A History of the British Labour Party, Second Edition, p230.

Categories: Labour Party News
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