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Jack Straw and Tessa Jowell are utter berks…

December 27, 2009 3 comments

…but don’t worry, it’s just a quip, not part of a strategy.

Gordon Brown draws a fundamental distinction between Labour and the Conservatives, and suddenly everyone is focussing on his one remark about David Cameron having attended Eton.

The real point Gordon was making, which everyone seems so quick to ignore?

“Mr Brown made the comment [about Eton] at prime minister’s question time, claiming Tory plans for inheritance tax cuts would help millionaires but cost public service investment £2bn.” [BBC]

So weeks later, Tessa Jowell has to come out and say how beastly ‘class war’ is, and associate it with attacks on the backgrounds of individual politicians. As opposed to Cameron’s millionaire-loving policies which Brown was actually attacking instead of trying to emulate, for once.

This seems to be a developing theme from inside the leadership, that people are getting jittery about all this talk of investment in public services, rather than Tessa Jowell’s favoured ‘reform’ (read cuts, presumably).

She’s not the only one, apparently, with Lord Dracula, er, sorry, Mandelson apparently falling out with Brown about the current electoral strategy. The media seem to be insisting it’s part of a ‘core vote’ strategy designed to appeal to the working class.

No wonder the types who like tax breaks for the rich, whilst the rest of us don’t get a break, are feeling uppity. What a shower.

Defining coalition, defining class: the challenges and opportunities facing Labour (part 2 of 2)

December 26, 2009 15 comments

Before Christmas, I suggested that Labour’s shift by towards a ‘class war’ narrative of the type that’s giving Peter Mandelson and Tom Harris the heebie jeebies should not simply be dismissed as the empty rhetoric of a party falling back on its core vote in desperation not to lose the election too badly. 

However, I finished by saying that such a shift was not in itself enough, notwithstanding the odd policy on bankers’ bonuses move to reflect it, which are irrelevant in the grand scheme of things but enough to have John Rentoul and his ilk looking around for those forms they sent off for just in case.

A shift towards a loose ‘them vs. us’ narrative may shore up the ‘core vote’ in the short-term, as voters disillusioned with New Labour feel able to give the party the ‘one last chance’ that either their family traditions of voting Labour or their longstanding hatred of the Conservatives makes them hanker after secretly.

To create a more definitive shift back towards Labour, a temporary narrative showing up the Tories for what they are is insufficient, however effective in the short-term.

 To create a definitive shift needs, appropriately enough, definition about what Labour can and should be about, and how that contrasts to what the Tories (and LibDems) are about.

And in the end, what must make Labour different can only be about one thing; it can only be about class.

This is ‘class’ as set out by EP Thompson, as quoted at the end of part 1, but bearing repetition:

Class, rather than classes, for reasons which it is one purpose of this book [The Making of English Working Class] to examine. There is, of course, a difference. “Working classes” is a descriptive term, which evades as much as it defines. It ties loosely together a bundle of discrete phenomena. There were tailors here and weavers there, and together they make up the working classes.

By class I understand an historical phenomenon, unifying a number of disparate and seemingly unconnected events, both in the raw material of experience and in consciousness. I emphasize that it is an historical phenomenon. I do not see class as a “structure”, nor even as a “category”, but as something which in fact happens (and can be shown to have happened) in human relationships.

Quite simply, when Labour sets outs it’s’ them vs. us’ narrative, it needs to be clearer what the ‘them’ is.  It should identify as its ‘core vote’, and sell the idea as a key aspect of its electoral strategy, not the working classes – that group defined culturally be traditions of location, dress, learned behaviours etc.- but the working class - the very much bigger section of the British population which sells its labour for a living and takes home no surplus value (or would do if it were afforded the opportunity to work).

Conversely, it will not be sufficient to do what new Labour under Blair did (though the extent to which he actually did so is disputed in part 1) to win in 1997: simply to sell Labour as a party acceptable to the middle classes, defined as a cultural category and ascribed consumerist aspirations to foreign holidays and Mondeo cars.

This redefining of what it is to be working class, this re-establishment of what should be Labour’s core vote will necessarily bring with it a shift towards what Thompson identifies as the other main fault – the identification of class not as a cultural entity, but as an economic relationship with another class – the class made up of the owners of capital and those at the heart of the capitalist state institutions who are there to promote the interests of capital. 

In so doing, a new ‘them vs. us’ conception will be formed amongst the electorate, and policy will be driven by that new electoral mandate. 

Here is not the place to set out the exact terms of that policy, not least because they are well-enough established, and I will content myself with copying over the general priority terms in which Dave sets them out (in his post on hunting which also seeks to capture issues around how class defined as cultural characteristics works against the objective interests of the working class):

  • Lower taxes for the poor and middling; higher taxes for the wealthy and corporations.
  • Better public services, with confident unions prepared to intervene on behalf of the public interest, rather than abandoning ‘public service’ to profiteers.
  • Unions, organised nationally and internationally, with no State-enforced restrictions, that can fight for investment and better wages.
  • Universal healthcare, universal and universally good quality education right up to third-level.

These are policy commitments which, if sold to a reconceptualized electorate, will appeal to and meet the interests of what we now conceive of as the ‘middle classes’; that is why, indeed, Dave uses the term ‘middling’.  The challenge is to create an effective narrative to convey that reality.

Of course I am not suggesting that the Marxian language in which I set out the case above will be appropriate.  Even the world ‘class’, especially as it is used in the term ‘class war’, has been so negatively loaded by the right with negative cultural and historical connotations that it is unlikely that it can be used with positive effect by the Left in the short term. 

As Sunny has pointed out forcefully, the ‘register’ and type of language that we use is important (though he does so to suggest that Dave and I don’t understand the concept and that everything we ever write or do is by lengthy Marxian treatise). 

Instead of terms like ‘class’ and ‘surplus value’ we will need to talk in terms of the powerful and the exploited, but the aim should be to redefine the argument in economic rather than cultural terms, and in so doing to create – to use Laclau and Mouffe’s useful heuristic – ‘political frontiers’ with and ‘discursive antagonisms’ towards the Conservatives and the interests they represent.

Will all this happen, or is it simply wishful thinking on my part?  Well, of course it won’t happen in the way I set out, with a clear adoption by the Labour hierarchy of the rationale I set out above.  Any moves towards it will be more as a result more of short-term electoral desperation than any new commitment to class politics, and of course New Labour’s lamentable recent record in some areas of social policy like benefits, means that for many of the electorate nothing Labour ever does or says will be trusted, and however much reality has become mixed with a New Labour myth.

But there are also opportunities. 

The financial crisis has created a greater macro- economic literacy amongst the electorate, and the work that the newly founded New Political Economy Network of biggish centre-left hitters, while its main focus will be on exposing the plain stupidity in the Tories’ plans, may in so doing create a space in which to put forward a case for a renewed electoral focus on how Labour DOES have an objectively different constituency of interest.

In addition, as Stephanie Flanders has pointed out in her most recent post, the period before the election is quite likely to be marked by some large bond market/credit rating event around our sovereign debt, and while the Tories will play that for all it is worth as a sign of Labour’s economic imprudence, Labour should be able to portray any large upswing in yield curves and/or credit rating downgrading as an attempt by the forces of capitalism (and Conservatism) effectively to disenfranchise the electorate and impose a government committed ideologically, and supported in this commitment by the major financial institutions, to the further exploitation of the working class.

In short, I remain hopeful about the coming election, and of course I remain, contra Robert, convinced that it really DOES matter who wins it, not simply because what the Tories promise to do to us is so awful.  

Rather, I remain hopeful that the recent adoption by Labour of a new, electorally popular adversarial narrative will, if reinforced both conceptually and rhetorically in the coming months, and then in the next year or two, and if taking place concurrently with a grassroots takeover of the party’s institutions, may in fact create a Labour party, in power, which swings to the left and is glad of it -  a Labour party which no longer needs the likes of Peter Mandelson, or tolerates the likes of Tom Harris.

Class war, libertarianism and hunting

December 26, 2009 6 comments

The concept of class war has been getting a lot of attention. Whether it’s the Tory posters accusing Labour of pursuing it, or Labour denials on the subject even whilst they put the boot into the Tories for favouring the rich, or Sunny saying it’s playing well in the polls or Paul’s investigation into the substance of what’s going on, there’s plenty of chat about it.

Now there are headlines in the Independent, “Now Brown declares class war on hunting!” The article records how some Blairites are ‘wary’ of scaring off the ‘aspirational middle classes’. The headlines are a result of the new campaign to ‘strengthen support for the ban’, led by, of all people, Hilary Benn. And it has got off to a preposterous start, as one might expect.

In an article for the Indy, Benn writes, “Quite why this is something that would be a priority for a Tory government, instead of the economy or tackling other concerns, is hard to explain to the public and [the Conservatives] have failed to do so.” One could wonder the same thing about this new campaign by the current Labour government.

Could it be that any given government can focus on more than one issue at a given time? Else how does Mr Benn bother with anti-hunting editorials in national newspapers? Why is he not cloistered with Alistair Darling, sorting out the economy even on Boxing Day? But we shall pass over this unfortunate pot-kettle-black moment.

If the essence of class struggle is the fight of the working class to organise itself, against the fervid opposition of the ruling class, then hunting bans have little to do with it. If the essence of class struggle is the seizure of power and the means of cultural legitimation away from the bourgeoisie, then a hunting ban hardly furthers that aim.

The benefit of a hunting ban comes in the feelings held by much of the working class, ranging from irritation to anger to visceral hatred, against those who participate in the great hunts. Such as the hunts every Boxing Day. They are, in essence, red-coated Tory toffs, of wealthy background even though not all may be landed gents any longer.

This is the picture which emerges if we frame the debate in terms of class war. I’m not arguing that there are not other ways to frame the debate, such as cruelty to animals, but the media get a kick out of framing it like this. And the various pro-hunting groups also frame it like this, from the Countryside Alliance right down to the individual magazines.

Ironically, hunting is not exclusively the pursuit of the red-coated Tories. Reading any hunting magazine, the one-man-and-his-dog aspect to hunting is very clearly visible. The great hunts, which do not have universal appeal, can thus be repackaged as a fight of liberty against an overbearing State – and this has much wider appeal.

Our working class have every right to resent the State and its client political parties. They are remote from the average worker. The State is at once the soulless bureaucrat, the cut welfare cheque, the seemingly stupid H&S rules, the corrupt politician, the reason we’re out of a job and the friend of the bosses who want to make us work extra hours for no pay.

Libertarianism, which on the surface contains much rhetoric about fighting for individual liberties against State control, can thus be vested with much class content that can appeal both to the urban working class and the rural working class. The State, in a capitalist context, is the tool of enforcing bourgeois class demands and restricting working class demands.

So it should be no stretch to see how a ‘class war’ against the hunts can be obfuscated by ‘libertarian’ demands to repeal the powers of the State.

On hunting, urban workers may be more likely to see through the rhetoric. The Countryside Alliance, for example, represent themselves to rural-dwelling people as defenders of a ‘rural’ way of life. This is tosh, obviously, but identity politics can have a great pull on people who can find within  the proffered identity something that resonates.

Urban workers stand apart from that, but as hunting is not likely to be a key issue at the next election, Tories may win even in constituencies with large anti-hunting majorities. Thus the balance in Parliament is likely to tip. The answer is not to try and hike hunting up the agenda, it’s to beat the Tories on the issues which are high on the agenda.

The real class war, for example. Lower taxes for the poor and middling; higher taxes for the wealthy and corporations.

Better public services, with confident unions prepared to intervene on behalf of the public interest, rather than abandoning ‘public service’ to profiteers.

Unions, organised nationally and internationally, with no State-enforced restrictions, that can fight for investment and better wages.

Universal healthcare, universal and universally good quality education right up to third-level.

Labour’s problems in these areas are manifest. It fears the Unions. The PFI-PPP deals threaten the future of universal education and healthcare. The failure to structurally challenge neoliberal capitalism means selling off more ‘public’ industries rather than putting them to social use. And the failure to organise the working class means the inability to resist ruling class demands that the cost of the recovery be shouldered by workers.

This is why the easy visual of fighting horse-riding toffs in red jackets is a good out for New Labour. It’s not the prosecution of class war, it’s a way to escape having to prosecute class war.

Instead of such demands as the rather classless ban on hunting, the ideal Labour fifty-state strategy would target the terrible margins on which many rural workers have to live. It would reach into every small town and its environs to bring workers together in unions and communities, to take control of jobs, to demand and plan housing and so on.

We cannot escape the need to do this. In Kent, where I live, the vindictive destruction of the mining industry has removed a core plank of the organised working class. It’s easy to see the results; listless communities and high levels of youth crime, because a lot of people will never escape an area where joblessness is relatively high and education a low priority.

The Conservatives are never going to solve problems like this. Labour, left to its own devices, would never solve them either. But every revolutionary demand, that exceeds the capacity of capitalism to cope with unrest, must have a demand for reform – for building houses now, for changing the law now, for creating jobs now.

There’s no reason why a ‘reconquered’ Labour Party should not be the vehicle for that. Indeed it was one of Lenin’s truisms that the ‘reformists’ should be in power, that the working classes see what they are really like, in order to push the organised proletariat towards conscious, rather than incipient, socialist, revolutionary demands.

A ban on hunting doesn’t even address most of these issues. It is a front, and one which we need to move past sharpish.

Defining coalition, defining class: the challenges and opportunities facing Labour (part 1 of 2)

December 24, 2009 5 comments

It was interesting, and refreshing, to see Sunny from Liberal Conspiracy come out as a class warrior last week

Much of what he says about the way some kind of class-oriented electoral strategy makes a good deal of sense; the Tories’ poll lead has been reduced since (to use Sunny’s term) ‘class war erupted’, and this is confirmed in the polls coming out since Sunny wrote the piece.

In contrast, it was no longer surprising to see Tom Harris come out against ‘class war’ and in favour of ‘aspiration’.  For a sharp rebuttal, I can’t better what one commenter on Tom’s piece said:

You seem to be describing bankers as wealth creators, in which case 2006 just called – they want their conceptual framework back.

I laughed out loud at that one, but it was the laughter of recognition; a recognition that the ‘conceptual framework’ for many voters has indeed changed since the onset of the financial crisis and recession, and the values of Mandelsonesque aspiration that New Labourites like Tom once took as an unassailable mantra – ‘Labour is the party of aspiration’ – no longer hold the same weight.

For a more extended rebuttal of the Harris-2006 –conception-of-the-world-we-live-in, Will Straw’s new Fabian article is useful.  In particular he debunks the accepted wisdom amongst New Labour diehards about how the party developed an extraordinary winning coalition through its appeal to an aspirational ‘Middle Britain’

Protagonists argue that the Middle Britain strategy was an overwhelming electoral success, heralding an unprecedented period of Labour governance which has delivered a list of achievements so long it took Gordon Brown minutes to read through them at this year’s Labour Party Conference. But another interpretation shows that Labour’s 13.5 million votes in 1997 was lower than the 14 million that John Major achieved in 1992 and, because of low turnouts, fell to 10.7 million in 2001 and to 9.6 million in 2005 (fewer even than the Tories recorded in 1997).

There is scant academic evidence that the focus on ‘Mondeo Man’ worked in electoral terms. Research by Dr Malcolm Brynin at the University of Essex found that “neither of the main parties can woo supporters from the opposing main party in sufficient numbers to make a difference.

In a similar vein, and drawing on recent electoral experiences, Don Paskini sets out the argument that there is electoral success to be had in a ‘them vs. us political narrative:

In 2000, Al Gore trailed George Bush by 7.5% in opinion polls taken over the summer. Gore made the theme of his Convention speech ‘the people versus the powerful’, and by September, had gained 25 points over Bush in terms of being chosen as best able to handle the economy, the largest gain on any of the policy areas surveyed, and had taken the lead in the polls.

In short, there seems to be a growing recognition that the building of as broad an electoral coalition as possible, celebrated as the way forward for the centre-left as recently as Obama’s election, may not be eveything that it has been cooked up to be, and that there still may be life in that old idea of ‘adversarial politics’. 

New Labour may have been forced towards a renewed ‘them and us’ strategy because the Conservatives have been assiduously taking back the centre ground, though in a way that has in no way solidified into any kind of stable vote; the financial crisis may have afforded sudden opportunities around bankers’ bonuses and other media-friendly capitalist excesses – opportunities for short term opinion poll gain that have been seized out of this same sense of desperation, and you can also see the vacillation going on amongst the New Labour hierarchy as they struggle to come to terms with a narrative that smacks of Old Labour.

But, whatever the reasons, whatever the reluctance behind this new narrative, the language has changed perceptibly over the last month; I don’t think I am being unkind to Sunny if I suggest that he would nothave contemplated writing a piece advocating ‘class war’ ,however knowingly the inverted commas are used, even two months ago. 

Suddenly, Tom Harris and his ilk really do seem soooo 2006 with their talk of aspiration and wealth creation.

And to a limited extent, the changed narrative has led to small changes in policy direction.  While the decision to press forward with a tax on bankers’ bonuses is insignificant enough in financial terms, it is reflective of the government new understanding that confronting capitalist excess, alongside a strategy of pinning a ‘Tories are for the rich’ tag on the Tories can be electorally beneficial. 

This new realisation, set alongside a sudden appreciation that the grand ‘Middle England coalition might have been a bit of a useful myth all along, is a step forward, whatever the haphazard reasoning and series of events that have led to it.  It opens policy doors for the centre left, and all of a sudden Compass, for example, are able to portray themselves as policy leaders with real results to show for their efforts (and to be fair, to Compass, they have done well at capturing the moment, albeit within its usual PR constraints, while the Labour Representation Committee has seemed strangely silient, though this is more an issue of lack of resources than desire).

But this only takes us so far. 

Even in immediate electoral terms, it may be insufficient as a changed narrative, alongside the limited changes to the manifesto, to bring about victory in 2010, although I clearly hope that it will be. 

Beyond the coming election, too, while a changed narrative is important because it brings with it limited changes to policy as an inevitable method of defending the changed narrative as a reality, such a shift to a vague adversarialism will do little to change the political game overall, and Labour will face either the near-inevitability of defeat at a 2014/5 election as support from the core ebbs away further.

If Labour doesn’t win this time around it faces the prospect of 10 years or morein opposition while it waits for the electoral cycle of disillusion with the governing party to work its way through so that it can then recapture the ‘centre ground’ recenlty lost with  new photogenic but studiously non-committal, ‘non-ideological’ leader.  By that time, of course, the far right may have risen, and the game may be changed for good.

To avoid this, Labour needs to change its own conceptual framework, and it needs to start by digging deeper into the narrative it’s now starting to adopt as a short-term emergency measure.

Labour, with its Labour-friendly academics, commentators and bloggers leading the way, needs to move beyond using class as a handy (often deliberately ironic) part of this new narrative, and define what it means by class.

It could do worse than start with EP Thompson, whose first words at the start of The Making of the English Working Class hit the nail on the head:

The working class did not rise like the sun at the appointed time. It was present at its own making.

Class, rather than classes, for reasons which it is one purpose of this book to examine. There is, of course, a difference. “Working classes” is a descriptive term, which evades as much as it defines. It ties loosely together a bundle of discrete phenomena. There were tailors here and weavers there, and together they make up the working classes.

By class I understand an historical phenomenon, unifying a number of disparate and seemingly unconnected events, both in the raw material of experience and in consciousness. I emphasise that it is an historical phenomenon. I do not see class as a “structure”, nor even as a “category”, but as something which in fact happens (and can be shown to have happened) in human relationships.

I’ll leave you with those wise words for now. 

It’s Christmas, and to Christmas I will go. 

I’ll be back on back on Boxing Day to set out the importance of EP’s reminder that class is, in the end, about economic relationships under capitalism, and not a cultural phenomenon either of flat caps or Adidas trainers and vicious dogs. 

In so doing, I’ll set out how John Rentoul’s cursory dismissal of class consciousness (expressed as ‘class war’) as an outdated irrelevance reveals both his, and a more general shallowness in current political commentary, and one leftwing blogs like this need to work hard to challenge, as well as working to create a new grassroots narrative of class which does indeed prove Rentoul wrong.

Categories: Labour Party News, Marxism

Theory and practice of human rights: a Tory view

December 21, 2009 11 comments

The concept of human rights is a difficult one for me, as a Marxist. Some of the most provocative and revolutionary documents in the history of mankind have espoused a notion of rights that belong to an individual, by virtue of being human. The second sentence of the US declaration of independence is one of my favourites;

We believe these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Or Article 1 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Yet the material context in which these ‘rights’ have been enacted has made a liar of the ideals behind them. ‘Equal rights’ becomes a rhetorical talisman with which to ward off actual equality, a phrase behind which can hide vast poverty and exploitation. This is how many liberals tend to use the concept of equal rights, or that other much-prostituted phrase, ‘equal opportunities’.

It makes sense; the only thing required by capitalism is that each individual is free to sell his or her labour to the lowest bidder, and that each individual can be treated as a legal entity for the purposes of contract. ‘Equal rights’ then adds the gloss of the brotherhood of man to systemic inequality, where each can rise or fall on ‘merit’, and where the successful are still willing to look back and help the less successful.

This is one of the reasons I don’t understand the conservative attack on human rights, particularly in evidence in this article at Con Home. Let’s begin with some of the theoretical attacks:

Human rights are supposed to apply to all of us, regardless of the history of our cultures and constitutions and the legal systems that are their embodiments.  According to the human rights theorist it could never be that a culture could develop, say, in which familial relationships are so central that spouses have just one vote between them and that vote is delivered by the woman (and no, it is not silly for me to choose the woman rather than the man here; matrifocal societies are well-known).  Likewise, in no culture could the physical be so central that physical punishments are appropriate.  No society could be so collectivist that private property cannot be tolerated.  And many other such universal judgements.

This is a traditional objection to human rights in International Relations 101, that they override ‘cultures’ and constitutions or legal systems that have grown organically in any given region. The anti-imperialist spin is to take the actual rights currently espoused, rather than abstract human rights, and brand them as Western norms, and thus not necessarily appropriate for the rest of the world.

The trap into which this approach falls is to assume that what exists locally should somehow be superior to the concept of ‘human rights’, and a second is to assume that in our own case these human rights have been imposed from outside our local culture, constitution or legal system.

In the case of the second mistake, perfect retorts against British Conservatism are the high ideals of the Atlantic Charter, agreed between Churchill and Roosevelt, and in which the preservation of human rights were not only integral but were to be secured by the co-operation of sovereign nations, which is exactly how ‘human rights’ are secured to this day – the development of the EU notwithstanding.

A lot of the rights enumerated by the UN Declaration of 1948 flow directly from the meeting that secured the Atlantic Charter. These were rights that were to be owned by men by virtue of their humanity, for example, that ‘all men in all lands may live out their lives in freedom from fear and want.”

The reality, of course, was different – as Churchill and subsequent British governments were to demonstrate in their treatment of the Empire, and as Roosevelt and subsequent US governments were to demonstrate particularly in Latin America. But the ideals are clear enough. They were distillations of ideas that had been latent in Anglo-American society for centuries. That all people should be entitled to the same protections and support, particularly as regards their government.

Considering the segregration and subsequent annihilation of special groups, particularly the Jews, in German death camps, it shouldn’t be hard to see why this was such an issue – or why it was so popular when Churchill returned home. It was also the recognition that individuals should have inviolate rights against any national State, and that sovereignty should be abridgable in defence of these rights.

Agree or disagree with this stance, especially in view of its exploitation by successive governments, it’s a bit rich for Brits to speak in terms that oppose the British constitution or culture to the concept of human rights. Actually, we were amongst the originators.

It would be nice to say that other nations subsequently bought into these ideas by choice, and that peoples around the world subsequently endorsed them, thus making them integral to local cultures and constitutions around the world on the basis of a local choice. Yet it would be silly to say so. When these ideas were not enshrined into law at the point of a bayonet, they were enshrined as the dominant economic powers wrought change to systems of trade and industry, and by extension government, around the world.

Ironically the resistance to this overthrow of local cultures and constitutions can also take the form of a fight for human rights, demonstrating that in reality these rights are inflected with a class content not by their nature but in their appropriation by different movements. Take Ireland, for example – both Unionists and Nationalists approach the issue of marching couched in terms of the himan rights of each community. Even movements opposed to human rights attempt to adapt their language to make use of the ‘positive’ connotations of such rights.

Thus the right for employers to pay lower wages transubstantiates into the right of workers to get any job without interference by the government.

In any case, there’s nothing to say that the idea of individualism and human rights are inferior to local traditions. It’s a judgment call, and on the Left, one which has regularly resulted in the idealization of pre- or proto-capitalist cultures and their values, despite their own exploitative elements. But to say, as the article at ConHome does, that the fact of the subjectivity of the issue makes human rights unacceptable because there’s no capacity to opt out of them, is silliness.

Virtually every law is based on subjective judgments and ideology – so what makes the inability to opt-out of human rights more illiberal than the ability to opt out of legislation on property rights or legislation imposing the sort of moral standards Conservatives often wish to see?

My answer is ‘nothing’. This strand of thinking continues on a practical note:

[T]he equalities aspects of human rights doctrines are probably even more illiberal.  We are not allowed to express our moral views about others if our morality does not happen to coincide with human rights concepts.  If our views of Islam, or Christianity, or homosexual behaviour, or abortion, or the role of women, or any number of other things happens not to be perfectly aligned with the doctrines of human rights advocates, then giving anything more than the most factual, culture-appealing, subjectivist expression of them makes us human rights violators.  Employment tribunals and other court cases follow, along with ruin for the dissenters.

I suspect this is a hyperbole that reacts against the willingness of the British people to endorse the general concept of ‘human rights’ (even if not specific pieces of British or EU legislation passed in its name). No one likes being the minority opinion. I should know.

Yet the hyperbole exposes key weaknesses in the argument. Firstly, the concept of human rights defends the right of the individual to free speech. Conservatives can and do wax lyrical (often in defiance of empirical evidence) on various topics that impact on rights. Abortion or the ‘right’ to adopt being recent examples, following the recent HFE Bill.

The problem is that neither British law nor European law permits action that discriminates between individuals on the grounds of things like their religion or their sexual preference. So whilst people can think and say what they like as private citizens, their actions are restricted in their ‘public’ guise. This isn’t an equalities agenda run rampant, it’s a simple attempt to prevent employers or others who wield structural power from being racist, homophobic, sexist and so on. For this I’m quite happy, as we Irish have not always been as well-loved as we are now.

If Conservatives want to defend the right to be racist, that’s their call – but they should call a spade a spade. I suspect that the average voter will show them short shrift. And that is both our legal right as citizens in a nominally democratic state, and as humans, to collectively self-determine our own government.

Cheryl Cole and a ‘patriotic’ Christmas No. 1

December 20, 2009 5 comments

So Rage Against the Machine are still in the running for Christmas no. 1 here in the UK, as people buy the single in order to defeat the X-Factor’s Joe McElderry. Whoever wins, Sony wins, as that label has signed both artists. What’s particularly interesting is watching how the media, the celebrities and the political establishment are interacting at the moment.

Cheryl Cole’s remarks are intriguing, to say the least, attempting to motivate us patriotic Brits (excuse me while I vomit) to keep Americans off the Christmas number 1 spot.

“It’s David versus Goliath and it’s not fair on Joe. It’s getting out of hand…If that song, or should I say campaign, by an American group is our Christmas Number One I’ll be gutted for him and our charts.” (NME)

Simon Cowell was reported to have said something very similar, as regards David and Goliath, so it may be the party line or it may be an invention by the Sun. Not that the Sun newspaper would ever make up quotes. Absolutely not. Whatever the case, I suspect Cole thinks of Joe McElderry as “David”, in this story” despite his being plugged by Darth Cowell.

Some of Cole’s other remarks are egregiously offensive too, such as mouthing about how McElderry deserves to be Christmas No. 1 because of how hard he worked throughout the X-Factor. I suspect Rage Against the Machine, having been around forever and worked themselves up through clubs and small gigs rather than being invented by industry supremos, have never done a day’s work in their life.

But I can’t stand most Rage Against the Machine tunes, so I’m not here to repeat a populist plugging of the Facebook campaign to make them number one. I can’t say I’ve even heard McElderry’s tune – though that it’s a cover of a Hannah Montana song probably doesn’t spell success, except with brainless teeny bopping clones. What I found quite sinister is the symbiotic relationship the X-Factor seems to have with the Sun, such as Joe McElderry turning up to the Sun’s “Military Awards”, along with David Cameron, and waxing lyrical on the troops:

“I could not wait to perform – and it makes it special when it is for all these people who have stuck their necks out to save others…To think that they have the courage to do that and go out on to the frontline and just go for it – it is a big thing to do. I could never do that at this age, so I don’t know how they do it.” (The Sun)

It’s a bit sickening to watch elements of the media co-opt celebrities to their political ends, especially when that end is a faux patriotism of flag waving nationalism and “support the troops” nonsense. I’m sure any right-wingers out there would maintain the Left does the same thing, perhaps with Bono and third world debt, but I’ve always found that sickening too, so I hope I’m free of hypocrisy in this.

I think what’s most sickening is that the flag waving part of the ‘flag waving nationalism’ comes with complete with Sun logo, Sun-branded “support the troops” bumper stickers and lots of other regalia telling people how synonymous being a patriot and reading the Sun are. It is my considered opinion that people should be shot for such brazen idiocy.

Of course it gets better, because Cowell is rumoured to be preparing a political version of the X-Factor. First there was Cowell on Newsnight revealing that he wanted to have a programme where hot button topics were debated and then voted on by the British public, Then there was Cameron licking Cowell’s arse on talkSPORT, claiming that there’s probably stuff people in politics could learn from Cowell.

There problems with this are legion. First, if it’s going to get the tabloids on board, they’ll no doubt get influence over what’s debated. So we’ll have the greatest tabloid hits – death penalty, paedophiles, benefit scroungers, anti-youth laws, Islamophobia, political correctness and all the rest of it, in gory detail. Key issues for the Left, like effective public services and income equality will never get a look in – they’re not sexy enough.

Second, if it’s to appeal to the lowest common denominator, it’ll not be the great thinkers of our time debating these issues, it’ll be tabloid darlings. So serious Left policies will get snowed under in a blizzard of buzzwords and outright bullshit.

Stand by for Amanda Holden being asked to argue that the government should introduce hanging or castration for paedophiles. Or Joe McElderry back in our lives, arguing that patriotism is an important part of “Britishness”. It’s bad enough when seasoned politicians like Gordon Brown go on about that dross, never mind the newspapers having palpitations over some nausea-inducing celeb turned commentator.

Our society is one of the most technologically advanced on the face of the planet, and this is the Great Idea, a plebiscite with some flashing lights and theme music tacked on? Bollocks.

Copenhagen and Christmas; Carnival of Socialism #45

December 18, 2009 13 comments

Welcome comrades, to what seems likely to be the last Carnival of Socialism for 2009. There’s plenty that’s been happening, and is worth remarking upon from the last few weeks, while the Carnival has been inactive. So this is a bumper edition to call to arms all the sleepy socialist and lefty bloggers of the world for a last week before we slump down in front of the telly, sweetmince pies in hand. Let’s begin.

In recent news, the Copenhagen summit on Climate Change is drawing to a close. Matt Sellwood has a rather good rant bemoaning its failure. Liz Stephens from Third Estate was pretty pessimistic to begin with, as was Lenin and the Tombies. Socialist Unity carries an article by Ken Livingstone discussing the global north-south divide evident at the summit. This is rather reinforced by the one-sided view taken by Linda McAvan MEP, and no doubt some of her colleagues.

Over at Liberal Conspiracy, Unity has been unimpeachable on the UEA email ‘leak’ and climate change denialism.

Chris Dillow batters the short sightedness of national governments trying to hang on to power in the face of the global warming threat. Jim Jepps has a fun game of match the quotation to which berk or hero said it. Derek Wall records how Hugo Chavez ‘brought the house down‘ by telling it like it is. There’s also the matter of the protests in Copenhagen, and the police reaction, reported by Permanent Revolution, with more from Jamie Potter.

There’s some understated mocking of “Hopenhagen” at Vulgar Marxism and some “shooting fish in a barrel” style mocking of Sarah Palin over at Soul of Man Under Capitalism.

Other green news has been permeating the blogosphere, in the wake of Copenhagen. There’s Phil querying the merits of carbon capture and storage – which has bearing on article I wrote a while ago about the Kingsnorth plant not far from me. Will Straw at Left Foot Forward has an excellent article outlining a hundred reasons why people shouldn’t vote Blue if they want Green policies. Hopi Sen has some good stuff debunking a specific Tory “Green” policy (while Duncan talks about how George Osborne will hurt low earners).

Also stemming from Copenhagen, there’s meta-coverage on the media and green issues. There are two articles over at Paul Sagar’s Bad Conscience. Hopi Sen is pretty appalled. Sunny Hundal suggests that some right-wingers at least might simply deny anthropogenic global warming because it sends the Left into kinks.

In the culture wars this fortnight, there’s the fight to get Rage Against the Machine to the Christmas No. 1 spot rather than whatever witless robots Simon Cowell is sponsoring this year, helpfully discussed by Barry Kade. Meanwhile Sunder Katwala reports on Philip Davies MP and his BS campaign against ‘political correctness’.

There is an extended argument about the future of the Left over at Liam MacUaid’s place, following the “Back the Left” concept put forward by various individuals. Dave Osler also has some speculations on Left futures as regards the potential for a Lib-Lab pact in the event of a hung parliament. To which Giles at Freethinking Economist has a sharp retort.

Septicisle and Peter Kenyon each discuss the commentary and polling as regards Labour’s “pre-budget report”. Unrelated to Labour’s fortunes but definitely tied into the future of the Left, Counago and Spaves have an interesting snippet from the Harvard Business Review on the virtues of socialisation of labour, as opposed to an heirarchical management relationship.

A new tradition seems to be celebrating Christmas by going on strike, and for good reason. The BA Cabin Crews strike, though struck down at the last minute by the State, has received support from many corners of the blogosphere, including Jerry Hicks. Our comrades down under, such as Ben Solah, are also recognising the need to defy State anti-union laws – something pretty evident here in the UK.

Nevertheless, I think I agree with Champagne Charlie at Shiraz Socialist that the BA workers are in much too precarious a position, both legally and as regards public opinion, to consider wildcat action. However, it worries me that Ken Clarke’s plans, mentioned by Roe Valley Socialist, to privatise Royal Mail and to extend the anti-union laws have gone largely unnoticed.

The expenses row seems to have petered out a little this month, but Chris Paul leads with an investigation into exactly what Mad Nad of Mid-Narnia has been up to.

On a humorous note, there’s an excellent article at Bleeding Heart Show entitled “The Indie Fan’s Guide to Political Blogging” – and lots of the usual faces of the blogging world feature in amusing ways. Enemies of Reason carries an article not entirely critical of the Daily Fail; Christmas spirit seems to be infectious and Diane Abbot rightly wins Janine’s ‘Friday Fuckwit‘ award over at Stroppyblog.

Speaking of awards, Snowball is dishing it out at the Histomat Awards 2009. Personally I think Richard Murphy over at LEAP should get an award for this article on the cost of unemployment (and just how heavy the tax burden is on the low-to-medium-waged).

Foreign affairs delivers some choice samples this month as well; such as Brockley’s Bob, Kit and Flesh is Grass on the Honduran coup d’etat. New and promising blog The Prison Notebook also carries an article on Honduras – hopefully this blog will be updated soon. Last month, there were some interesting discussions about Chavez’ idea of a Fifth International, here, at Fruits of Our Labour, at the Unity Aotearoa blog and elsewhere.

Plus there’s the victory of Evo Morales in the Bolivian elections, as discussed at Raincoat Optimism.

Special mention goes to Resolute Reader, who wrote one of only two reviews this year that persuaded me to purchase a book – this one, Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, which I’m currently reading. I’m wetting myself with frustration that I will have to read the whole thing again before I can review it in full – it’s that well-written, entertaining and complex that it has so many levels.. The other review which persuaded me to purchase some books was the fitting epitaphios given by Splinty on the oeuvre of the late, justly lamented Chris Harman.

Last and far from least there has been our own Paul Cotterill returning to his theme of hammering the credit ratings agencies for being corrupt, incompetent and a plaything of economic illiterati in the Conservative blogosphere.

For further updates, I always recommend the weekly round-up at Obsolete, the weekly round-up at Daily (Maybe) and the recently daily round-up at Left Outside, which has picked up another contributor.

The Carnival of Socialism has been allowed to slide for a couple of weeks, probably because John Angliss and Jim Jepps actually have lives, unlike the some of us. Nevertheless, it’s something that should be maintained because it gets attention for lots of different Left blogs, it’s a chance to highlight the oeuvre of new blogs and generally it pulls everyone up the Wikio and Google rankings, which is generally a good thing if it moves towards a world in which Iain Dale gets less attention.

The next CoS is due to be at Kasam Project, on January 10th, 2010, so I pass on the baton. Good luck, comrades!

Merry Christmas all.

Breaking news: Rightwing nutjob bloggers proved wrong as judicial sense prevails

December 18, 2009 6 comments

Paul Clarke, the bloke gound guilty of firearms possession last month, will not be going to prison after all.

All the outraged nutjob bloggers and their commenters who went round saying that his conviction and fast-approaching five-year prison term were entirely reflective of Britain under ZanuLiebour will no doubt be blogging and commenting to say how wrong they were to jump to conclusions without first bothering to looks at any of the facts.

Yeah, I’m sure they will.

Categories: Law

Exclusive: Boris Johnson’s election may have been unlawful

December 18, 2009 5 comments

Though Cowards Flinch can exclusively reveal that Boris Johnson may not be the legitimate Mayor of London, and that the whole electoral ballot conducted in May 2008 may have to be re-run.

This shock news comes in the light of yesterday’s finding by Mrs Justice Laura Cox that ballots have to be absolutely perfectly managed and technically in order for the result to stand, even where discrepancies are small enough not to have any material effect.

Following the May 2008 mayoral election, the London Elections Review Committee found that 145 people had been disenfranchised when polling staff wrote electoral register numbers of the ballot papers (para. 3.5 of report).

In addition there was a ‘net discrepancy of 301 ballot papers between the number of ballot papers written on the ballot paper accounts by presiding officers at the polling stations, and town halls once the polls had closed and the number of ballots actually counted by the scanners at the count centres’ (para 4.15).

Although these discrepancies had no material effect on the outcome of the election, yesterday’s new legal precedent does mean that a High Court challenge to the legitimacy of Boris Johnson’s mayorship is now very likely.

Reaction from Boris Johnson to the shock news has been slow, but Cllr Paul Cotterill, who has nothing to do with Boris Johnson at all, commented:

Johnson is likely to be horrified at the prospect that, under English law, he’s not only mismanaged London for getting on two years, but also done so illegally , and will get some top lawyers on the case.

But fair’s fair. The people who ran the ballot made some mistakes, so the whole thing will have to be done again.  That’s what the law says.  The law is always impartial, and no-one is above the law, are they?’

Categories: General Politics, Law

High Court rules, blocks attempted Snow

December 18, 2009 2 comments

(Warning: this article is not really amusing except to people with a weird sense of humour like me)

Tensions between the Weather and BA mounted today as the High Court struck down an attempted Snow as illegal.

The move was based on a technicality, stipulating that many of the snowflakes provided with ballots were due to voluntarily melt long before the delay to passengers began.

Snow on a Luton runway vowed to continue with the action, even if it meant engaging in wildcat snow. One spokesman said, “BA bosses have made very clear they do not wish to negotiate. We therefore have no further option but to sit on the runway, halting all air traffic.”

BA boss Willie Wonka emerged from the courtroom triumphant. “This is a victory for the million people travelling home this Christmas. British Airways will return to profitability. Our customers have spoken – they will not accept the old-style snow to which the Weather is trying to return us”.

But to passengers at many airports in the midst of delays and cancelled flights due to wildcat snow, these words will sound hollow.

Pressed on the question of wildcat snow, Wonka admitted, “Having contingencies in place for snow in December would cost too much. So of course we haven’t.”

In other news, twelve thousand five hundred cabin crew members of Unite have decided to join up with the Weather, one pilot declaring, “Snow has managed to do what Unite couldn’t, so it’s time to go!”

Categories: Miscellaneous
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