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An honest banker

June 30, 2010 2 comments

Steve Barrow, currency strategist, Standard Bank, in the FT:

[I]t’s the financial markets that have the power to strain governments and so bring about change, not the unions and the electorate.

Well, at least we know where we stand.

The picture above?  Oh, that’s 20 Gresham Street, London EC2V JVE, home to Standard Bank in the UK. According to the brochure, the building ‘creates an unparalleled corporate statement’.

Just like Steve Barrow, then.

(h/t: my old mate Garry)

Categories: General Politics

Real Left politics couldn’t be more personal

June 30, 2010 4 comments

(Guest post: What follows is a reaction to Liberal Conspiracy’s Blog Nation conference and subsequent blogging from veteran Leftie and journalist Kate Belgrave)

Way back in 2006, when we all had jobs and Tony Blair was standing down as leader very slowly, I talked to two older guys (a couple of the people that Carmen D’Cruz referred to so charmingly as ‘lessers’ in a recent column) about the reasons why they’d had enough of the Labour party. The party had lost several hundred thousand members by that point and was kicking the bucket before our very eyes, just like the Lib Dems are now.

As longtime grassroots Labour members, the two men were concerned about a very specific sort of Labour treachery.

They said that the party was abandoning the working class, because it was playing fast and loose with public services (we were at a John McDonnell for Leader meeting talking about the privatising of public services and outsourcing of public sector jobs). One of the men gave his name as Bob Mitchell (not the well known one). Originally from Battersea, he’d left home at 14 and gone straight to work in a munitions factory. After that, in peacetime, his job had been installing telephones.

‘Everything Blair has handled has been bad,’ he said. ‘Schools, hospitals, power.’ He felt that the government had prioritised finance for the Iraq war over public services.

The other guy was Patrick Clifford from Queens Park. He’d been a welder for British Rail for 25 years. ‘I never wanted Blair. He’s worse that Thatcher.’ He was absolutely clear about the point of public services, and the agenda of anyone who trifled with them. ‘Everything that was for the working class has been taken away. Health, education, even water. Those things were for us.’

So.

There was much dialogue at the Blog Nation conference about the role that personal accounts from so-called ‘lessers’ can play in the fight against public sector cuts. I propose that we start by using the ones above (and for more see below) to make a simple but signal point; that surely, surely, no leftie needs telling that our governments destroy public services to attack the working class.

Certainly that’s how the working class themselves perceive it. It follows that no socialist in his or her right mind (there are still a few) would so much as share a cab with a Lib Dem now, let alone poke around in that party’s Tory-driven budget for common political ground. The Lib-Dems in government are essentially propping up Tory cuts.

Enough of my small views: let’s get to the anecdotes that we want the political class to hear. Let’s hear from real, live people who have used and contributed to public services, and watched their lives go to pieces as the rules of provision have changed, often to squeeze a few pounds more out of welfare budgets, or to make way for private housing developments or for any number of a hundred other bad reasons.

There’s the Fremantle careworkers. Their salaries, terms and conditions were destroyed when Barnet council outsourced care services to the Fremantle trust. Fremantle’s hardline approach appeared to yield thin fiscal results. Budget problems continued and Fremantle’s partner, Catalyst housing, ended up in arbitration with the council over demands for millions of pounds in extra funds.

‘I said [to management] – how do you expect us to be able to cope [with these cuts]? What [management] said is that you have to do extra hours to make up your pay. But what about the quality of our life – our daily life?’ –Fremantle careworker Lango Gamanga, 2007.

‘As far as I’m concerned. I worked hard. I came here all those years ago and I worked hard and then I got more leave and more wages. I’m 48 now. I don’t want to go back to how I was when I was 30… we’re not asking for a pay rise or anything like that. We’re just asking for what we had.’ –Fremantle careworker Sandra Jones, 2007.

‘The whole notion of carework is being derailed. I wouldn’t recommend going into the care sector now. It’s not just the loss of terms and conditions. It’s the whole working ethos. It feels a bit like a warehouse.’ –Fremantle careworker and union convenor Carmel Reynolds, 2007.

The first picture in a photo-essay on this story can be found here; there’s a button underneath to scroll through the others.

Or there’s the Sheltered Housing tenants in Barnet. I interviewed a series of elderly such tenants who faced the loss of their onsite wardens when Barnet council (famed for their failed Icelandic investments to the tune of £27m) looked to recoup a comparatively small amount (£950,000, later reduced to £400,000) by eliminating the role of warden.

What follows are snippets of interviews with elderly sheltered housing tenants who faced the loss of their onsite wardens when Barnet council (famed for failed Iceland investments to the tune of £27m) looked to recoup a comparatively small amount (£950,000, later reduced to about £400,000) by eliminating the warden role.

‘The majority of people went into these flats on the condition that wardens were going to be provided. If it doesn’t happen, they have to find other arrangements. They feel so insecure… The £950,000 a year for residential wardens is peanuts to them [the council], absolute peanuts. They just spent £27m of taxpayers’ money in Iceland.’ –David Young, 78, Barnet sheltered housing resident.

‘[The warden] keeps an eye on me in case I get depressed, and when I was, he called the psychiatrist and he made sure that I was perfectly looked after. I’m not able to do anything else, because I’m not rich enough to go into a home. I’ll have to stay in the flat and make sure that nothing happens to me. I will be be terrified. I really will.’ –Shirley Shears, 66, a Barnet sheltered housing resident who has schizophrenia.

There’s the story of Helena Ishmail. Ishmail ran the much-utilised Somali support group ‘Horn of Africa’ until Hammersmith and Fulham council cut all funding to the group as part of a wider assault upon the voluntary sector.

‘I’ve been running this centre for 20 years in the borough, and dealing with the council, and they did not even tell me that they were thinking about taking all our funding. There was no time that they tried to talk to me while they must have been making that decision. They didn’t speak to us.’ (At a now-legendary April 2007 public meeting on voluntary sector cuts, the council’s cabinet ran out of the room when Ismail got up to ask council leader Stephen Greenhalgh why her organisation had been targeted).

Sophia El-Kaddah was a young women severely disabled with cerebral palsy was helped by the Hammersmith Law Centre when she took the Acton Housing Association to court over their failure to carry out agreed accessibility moderations on her flat. I did a number of interviews with people who used the Hammersmith Law Centre when the council cut the centre’s funding by 60% in 2007.

‘I signed a contract for my flat, but I couldn’t move in for eight months, because they wouldn’t carry out the adjustments. The occupational therapist [who assessed me before I moved in] said that I could move into this flat as long as the flat was adjusted for me. The Housing Association agreed to that. This flat was purposely built for a walking disabled person, so they needed to do a lot of extra work for me – things like lowering the toilet, and putting in the electric door-opener and hoists.

‘They did not do the works. I was still living with my Mum then, because I couldn’t move into my flat.’

Hazel Scully was a long-time Skelmersdale council tenant who was told in 2007 that her estate would be demolished as part of town-centre upgrade plans. She and other residents fought the proposal – their argument was that council tenants should not be shifted to less desirable parts of town to make way for private apartments for sale. Residents still don’t know if their estate will be demolished.

‘We don’t fit in. We don’t fit in with their vision of a new, updated Skem.’

How many more stories like these will be enough?

Conservative contradictions on crime and punishment

June 30, 2010 2 comments

What to make of Ken Clarke’s plans for prisons? His speech later today will apparently denounce the great and growing size of prison populations, call for a focus on cutting re-offending and will imply that it’s Labour’s outdated approach which is at fault; “[J]ust banging up more and more people for longer without actively seeking to change them is what you would expect of Victorian England.”

In actual fact, the Tories have long had what one might call a ‘progressive’ (ugh, hate that word) streak on crime and punishment. In the late 1980s, prison populations under the Tories began to fall as Douglas Hurd and others tried to establish consensus around non-custodial ideas, which would see people avoid prison. But to leave the matter there is to ignore staggering contradictions on the part of the Tories.

Firstly, there’s no proposal to get rid of what has essentially become a people-herding industry of private companies, to whom a lot of services have been outsourced. Clarke’s proposition of pay by performance on the basis of re-offending avoided will not fly – as in other outsourced industries, without cast-iron government guarantees of profit, private companies will avoid sectors that don’t look profitable.

Tory rhetoric here doesn’t escape the New Labourite paradigms.

Secondly, for all this talk about prisons being places of education – a solid and welcome return of a very old liberal idea – this won’t help a great deal if there aren’t any jobs to go to when people get out of prison. With millions unemployed, and Tory plans to slash the State sector to ribbons proceeding apace – and private sector investment not yet prepared to pick up the slack – education won’t stop a slide to crime.

Thirdly, if the answer to the second problem is the social welfare net, then this adds a further contradiction to ‘progressive’ Conservative plans for rehabilitating offenders. Said social welfare net is to face cuts. This, I suspect was one of the key problems with Douglas Hurd’s attempt to reduce prison populations; on his watch, he wanted fewer people in prison – but as inequality rose and communities fragmented under the Tories, crime rose.

Thus the voices on the Tory Right sounded a great deal more authoritative.

Fourthly, Clarke’s proposal is aimed in part at cutting costs – he has said so himself. Apparently the new soundbyte is that sending a man to prison (£38,000) is now more expensive than sending a boy to Eton. Several academics – such as Prof. Malcom Davies – have come forward to suggest that actually leaving potential re-offenders at large (and even with continuing educational measures, reoffending jumped by 8% from 2006-8) costs more than prison.

Since a large number of these people will surely be released to unemployment, this type of false economy can be compared to the Tory false economy of slashing Labour’s job creation schemes and calling it a saving. The upshot is a lot more people claiming various types of benefits, whereas the strategic use of Labour’s funds would have allowed private industry to reduce the cost of employing someone whilst still footing some of the bill.

If the Tories are allowed their own way on the economy, coalition or no coalition, the deeply reactionary hang ‘em and flog ‘em brigade on the right of the Tory Party will not be long in re-establishing themselves – something that happened to Ken Clarke when he was last Home Secretary. As privatisation and the attempt to extract ever more labour for less pay from prison staff continues unabated, I worry to think how our prisons will end up.

This is, after all, the same Conservative Party which resoundingly endorsed Labour’s massive expansion plans – worth some £4bn – of the prison system.

Your TCF Labour leadership wallchart

June 29, 2010 3 comments

Leading by a whisker

The world cup is nearly over, and most Labour party members will need a new wallchart for the kitchen wall. 

What better new adornment than TCF’s informative and easy-to-use Labour leadership scoring chart?

Here, then, is your week 1 scoresheet.

Click, print, browse the TCF customised weighted scoring at your leisure.

I’ll be updating it weekly from now on, and when ballot papers go out, we’ll be ready to announce the final result, telling you how you should list your leadership preferences.  It’s all based on our highly socialist scientific methods, with absolutely no chance of error.  By following the chart, you’re sure to get the best available leader of the Labour party, of those shortlisted.

The chart simultaneously takes the stress out of deciding which way to vote, while still capturing the nip and tuck and rising excitement of the final stages.

Candidates, their teams and their supporters are invited to submit articles to TCF for our consideration to try and improve their vital points tally.

So where are we after week 1?

Just out ahead is Ed Balls on 32.50%, with the Milibros just behind  on 31.83% (Ed) and 29.17% (David).  Diane Abbott trails slightly on 28.33%.  Andy Burnham’s a late starter, and enters the fray next week when we’ve worked out what he’s about.

It really is all to play for. 

Categories: Labour Party News

The Limits of Social Democracy?

June 29, 2010 13 comments

What follows is a paper presented by Dave Zachariah to the conference for the Swedish labour movement’s researcher network. Today’s article includes chapters 1 and 2, Introduction and Conceptions of the State. Chapters 3, 4 and 5, 6 then 7 will follow at intervals on this blog. Dave asked to have this posted here to see if an activist feedback would be forthcoming.

1. Introduction: How did social democracy turn from being one of the most successful political mass movements in history into a series of national parties in political crises and deep ideological confusion within one hundred years? The thesis in this article is that the crisis of social democracy is a long-term result of the fundamental problems that the political strategy of any reformist workers’ movement inevitably encounters in relation to the state and the economy, and which it has yet to solve.

These problems will increasingly bring the question to the fore: is the goal of social democracy to be a party in government or an organization for social transformation? Whilst this may at one point have been synonymous to its members, it will be argued why it necessarily ceases to be so with the passage of time.

2. Conceptions of the State: The struggle of early social democracy for the modern democratic rights and universal suffrage in particular rested on an impulse that went back to antiquity, best summarised by Aristotle’s observations of ancient Athens:

A democracy exists whenever those who are free and are not well off, being in a majority, are in sovereign control of the government, an oligarchy when control lies in the hands of the rich and better born, these being few.[1]

It was this class aspect that was the basis of the struggle by the upper classes to prevent or undermine democracy throughout centuries. Bourgeois thinkers, such as the liberal John Stuart Mill, worried about the “danger of class legislation on the part of the numerical majority, these being all composed of the same class”[2] and could therefore not accept equal votes.

The struggle for democratic rights by the workers’ movements was a precondition for it to become a strong mass movement with a base in the industrial working class. As long as organizing was illegal this strategy for social transformation would remain impossible. The struggle for universal suffrage was a part of the strategy. The spectacular membership growth of social democracy strengthened the belief that seizure of state power through the parliamentary road was inevitable. State power would be used for progressive reforms with the longterm goal to “transform the organization of bourgeois society and liberate the subjugated classes, to the insurance and development of the intellectual and material culture”.[3]

The split of the labour movement after the outbreak of World War I and the October revolution also implied a theoretical split in the conception of the state and thus different political strategies. In the social democratic conception, the existing state was an instrument that could be conquered by the workers’ movement while the followers of the Bolsheviks contended that the state always was an instrument for the ruling classes to uphold their domination.

The gains made by European social democracy would eventually show that the communist parties’ conception of the state in capitalist economies was mistaken. The altered political balance of forces after World War II brought social democracy to governments in several countries, in which it could implement a series of important working-class reforms.

Even in a country like Great Britain, whose parliamentary system was long considered to have kept the state safe from the workers’ movement, the Labour party could implement a series of nationalizations of industry and the country’s most important reform during the 20th century: the introduction of a National Health System that provided the population with health care according to socialist principles.

At the same time it became evident for the Western European communist parties, for instance the large Italian PCI and French PCF which had grown through their instrumental role in the anti-fascist struggle, that the revolutionary strategy based on the Comintern model was fruitless in societies with a stable capitalist economy and working parliamentary state with universal suffrage, as they all gravitated towards a reformist position during the postwar period. Only in parts of Asia, Africa and South America, where such social conditions did not pertain, did the original strategy still have relevance.

1-Aristoteles och Saunders [1, p.245].
2-Mill [9, ch.7,§.1].
3-Party programme of the Swedish Social Democratic
party (SAP) from 1911, [12, §.1].

Constituency size and liberal norms

June 28, 2010 19 comments

Voting: the tip of the democratic iceberg

I was at the Blognation event on Saturday, already covered here by Dave.

One speaker was a James Graham, from the Social Liberal Forum.  His main pitch was broadly:

We’re LibDems, and despite their being no evidence of it to date, because we’re LibDems we’ll have a restraining influence on the Tories, and this is a good thing for which you should all be grateful. 

Anyway , that’s where we are, so get used to it. 

Oh, and by the way, this means you have to support AV in a referendum, because that’s a good thing, and you lot in Labour had better do it if you want ever to be in government.

Or something. 

If I’m honest, I’d drifted off a bit after the opening statement.  

However, one thing made me prick up my ears.  This was when he rolled AV in with the Equal Constituency size thing, assuming no-one would notice or care.

This woke me up enough to wave my arms in the air, and when I got my say, to note that AV might be one thing, but that equal constituency size was quite another, and that it was wrong simply to assume acquiescence from Labour on this.

Someone else got up and said equal constituencies was a ‘no brainer’ to support, and that Labour had to get real about the democratic deficit it had created with its gerrymandering and blah de blah.

And so it is that I’ve had to dig out some data on the last election that I tinkered with in May, discovered some interesting stuff from, but then put to one side and forgot about.

Because the need for equal constituency size is only a ‘no-brainer’ for liberal numpties with no understanding of, or desire to engage with matters of institutional bias and the need for the left to counteract this balance as best it can. (This is a point made eloquently by Chris Dillow in relation to an earlier post of mine on PR, in which he talks of FTTP potentially being a tool of ‘Rawlsian justice’, where a seeming injustice in its own right is used to counteract greater systemic unfairness.

So what does the election data tell us about the fairness or otherwise of equal constituency sizes?

Consider these points, established from a bit of excel-based battering of the results data provided by the Guardian.

1)      The Tories won 306 seats, Labour won 258.

2)      The Tories got 10, 683, 258 votes. Labour got  8,601,349 votes.

3)      Average turnout in seats won by the Tories was 68.3%. In seats won by Labour, it was 61.2%.

4)      If Labour had gained its total vote figure on the basis of the Tories’s turnout (in places they won), they would have gained 9, 558, 670 votes in total across the country, about 950,000 up on the figures they actually did win.

5)      If then this hypothetically increased balance of Tory/Labour votes were used to adjust the number of seats won, the Tories would have won 297 seats to Labour’s 267.

6)      The balance of power for a coalition would have been with Labour, and life would be very different now.

Now of course this is all very broad brush, based on an excel crunch which took me about 20 minutes late one night.  (Let me know if you really want to see the workings, especially if you want to number crunch further, and I’ll email it to you.)

I simply want to make the point that all is not as clear-cut as James Graham and his mates would have us believe.

The key question we need to ask is why voter turnout in ‘Labour win’ seats was 7% lower than in ‘Tory win’ seats.  The standard liberal perspective will be that some voters simply decided to exercise their free will, and did not vote Labour in seats won by Labour, whereas Tory voters were more inclined to vote. 

But the other, more persuasive argument is indeed that of Chris Dillow: that there are institutional forces which militate against people in poorer areas exercising what is a legal right, but which they do not feel entitled or empowered to exercise.  This is more to do with life opportunity, education, hope, and a sense of self-value than it is to do with whether different political parties are any good at ‘getting out the vote’.

Of course there are many other considerations when it comes to debating constituency size, not least the inadvisability of constituency equality gaining primacy over identified locality (e.g. the absurd recent idea for a constituency covering part of the Wirral and part of Liverpool, with a 1.2 mile estuary in between). 

More importantly, there’s the question of voter registration, and the need to take not just registered voters but all possible voters into account when determining constituency size.

What we shouldn’t do, though, is simply ‘let this one go through’ as a minor adjunct to the AV issue, when it is clear that what may have been gained for Labour through constituency size differentials is only, arguably, a counterbalance to the inbuilt social injustices of parliamentary democracy.

The cards are stacked far enough in the right’s favour.  We don’t need to give them any more aces.

BlogNation 2010; packaging and practicality

June 28, 2010 7 comments

Paddles! 20mg Epi! Stat! Get this social movement on its feet!

What follows is a summary of the ten pages of notes I took at Saturday’s BlogNation event, organised by Sunny Hundal under Liberal Conspiracy’s banner. On a personal note, it was great to meet Paul Sagar, Paul Cotterill, Carl Packman, Kate Belgrave, Cath Elliott and Sunny himself, as well as seeing a bunch of other blogoland people I’d met before. Especially gratifying was the piss up afterwards.

There were four main elements to the conference; over the first two, six people spoke from the front of the room about upcoming battles for the Left and how we should address them. After three speakers had their turn, each table discussed the issues, what they thought they could add to what the speakers said and threw out ‘strategic’ ideas.

Part three was much more traditional – there was a full panel of high-profile individuals (which, to the mirth of several of us at the back, was described by Sunny as containing individuals from all across the Left – liberal to socialist), each of whom offered a contribution on Left co-operation, followed by contributions from the floor. For the last part, the conference divided into two – a forum for London bloggers and a forum where anyone could pitch any idea.

Parts one and two – coming battles and how we prepare
Individually, the ‘coming battles’ issues are well known and there’s no point in my only rehashing what the speakers said. Instead I’d like to view what was said – both from the platform and from the floor – through two categories: packaging and practicality. The first was by far the most dominant, which was perhaps expected in a roomful of bloggers and actual or aspiring journalists.

In this regard, some good ideas came out – though not anything that hasn’t come up before. One idea repeated multiple times in multiple contexts was the need for some means whereby to get out anecdotal evidence as well as statistical evidence, something that was also a feature of the stillborn Left New Media project. The immigration debate stressed this; it was noted than when communities were confronted with those who were likely to be deported, or with the realities of Yarls Wood and other camps, opposition developed fast.

What to do with such collated information ranged from the broad and insubstantial (e.g. Anthony Painter’s ‘be positive and passionate about the contribution of immigrants’) to the very specific and activist (e.g. Kate Smurthwaite’s desire that details of sex education in schools should be used to arm a campaign that could provide speakers and organise protests against faith schools and other educational bodies which deviate from basic science).

Only one of these responses moved from ‘packaging’ to ‘practicality’, and the failure to make this transition was a key feature of the contributions of many of those at the conference.

Tim Ireland phrased this problem quite well with his adaptation of the 1-9-90 equation. His argument was that we’re the 1% creating content, that the audience we write for is only another 9%, those who feedback, those who we engage with as activists etc, and that it’s the remaining 90% we need to bring on board – which we can do by appealing to technical wizardry like SEO or more skillful use of comedy and emulation of the soundbyte style of the Right.

Quite clearly these are solution to how the Left ‘message’ is packaged. It doesn’t address the more specifically political questions of whether or not that message is the right one, and what sort of political practice it is that our ideas demand. That the political practice of Right and Left will be different is essentially a Marxist idea predicated upon a class analysis that identifies more fundamental reasons behind the bias of the media than merely the Right being good at PR.

Packaging was also at stake when conferees argued that one of our key strategies should be to change the content of debate. On anthropogenic global warming, for example, it was argued by Leo of Climatesock that we should move the debate from whether or not AGW is for real to “what do we need to do about it” and the policy options. I’m not clear as to whether that means we bloggers should stop engaging with the Climategate controversy.

If so, I think that fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between the junk science that people like Nadine Dorries and fellow Tory nutters spout and the currency it has amongst the certain layer of the public. It is my view that it fulfills a social function which is not adequately addressed simply by putting out the opposite story, and especially not by trying to move on to some later stage of the same question.

In fact I would go so far to say that it’s the attempt to move on like this which produces a dangerous disconnection between government and people (an inevitable disconnection under capitalism).

All of that said, from different parts of the hall as well as from Kate Smurthwaite on the platform, there was a serious attempt to address practical measures and not just the packaging; the need to build definite organisations which could organise communities and workplaces. Sunny suggested that the conference should not address ‘movement’ issues, but should speak as bloggers and journalists about issues specific to us.

My view, though I didn’t make any contribution beyond at my own table, is of course that we don’t have any relevance beyond our our movement. Getting people to agree with us is great – but if the only people we’re appealing to are those who are already listening to us, we’re still hitting the thin end of the 1-9-90 wedge. Moreover, we’re failing to appreciate the dialectical relationship between argumentation and organisation.

A key part of the debate Saturday should have been what form that organisation should take, under which aegis all of us bloggers could stand. That would have exacerbated all the tribal divisions – Labour, Liberals, Socialist – but importantly there was a wide swathe of people as yet uncommitted to a party, community organisers and such. Of course there were also the anti-party crowd, but they’ll never amount to much and can be ignored.

Part three – scope for co-operation on the Left
From the get-go this discussion wasn’t going to be the one people wanted. The key mistake, I suspect, was involving James Graham of the Social Liberal Forum. He was meant to introduce the discussion and instead spent his time sermonising the hall on why we shouldn’t regard the Lib-Dems as liars and traitors to a Left ideal lest we drive them into the arms of the Tory Right.

Claude Carpentieri has already addressed this at Lib-Con and Dave Osler did so from the floor of the conference, rubbishing Graham’s contribution as partisan self-justification which glossed over the fact that a large part of ‘the Left’ don’t believe the Lib-Dems deserve that soubriquet. This received loud applause and cheers from the floor, stretching far beyond the Labour members present.

One of the most egregious comments Graham made was to suggest that while we need to guard against the Tory Right, Labour must rein in its own ‘headbangers’ (and mention was made here of those who ‘sabotaged’ a Lib-Lab deal). Evidently the conference wasn’t willing to stomach denunciation of Neil Kinnock-like proportions when hiding behind the remarks is a political party quite happy to sustain Tory attacks on workers, the disabled, pensioners and the unemployed – basically every disadvantaged group.

Beyond this, quite a proportion of the speakers kept their remarks focused on Westminster and the happenings there – on what one faction should do to woo another faction, on what ‘compromises’ must be made to stop further inroads being made against the issues we consider to be vital. Perhaps this was to be expected when members of the panels are MPs or former MPs (Evan Harris, Michael Meacher) or commentators on parliament (Graham, Alex Smith).

There was also room for comments that could be filed under the “bloody stupid” category – such as Rowenna Davis’ statement that since joining Labour she’d felt more ‘tribal’, more willing to defend policies she didn’t believe in simply because they were being evinced by her own party. While that’s useful for all readers of Ms Davis’ future contributions, her attempt to generalise this is of course nonsense – clearly she’s never met a real Labour Leftie, because as I can attest, smacking about Labour policy takes up a large part of our time.

Another stupid comment came from the floor, that it should be ‘disinterested groups’ who we look to, to campaign against the budget etc as the trades unions look too partisan. It’s in the interest of workers to campaign against cuts, therefore their motives are suspect. That one was beautifully shot down by Justin Baidoo, a community activist from Peckham. Implicit to a lot of this liberal dithering is the Aristotelian golden mean – which is a worthless concept in a society that cannot be anything other than dominated by particular interests. All we need to do is decide which.

Where things did become interesting (briefly, before wandering off again) was in the discussion around what Evan Harris said about Labour party democracy. His statement was clear; if Labour wants to win back the Left, they should give members a say again. I couldn’t agree more – though Harris’ subsequent elevation of the Lib-Dems to status of ‘people’s party’ by virtue of their internal workings is rather a laughing stock bearing in mind what the parliamentary party subsequently decided to do – i.e. go into coalition and toss out half the ‘member agreed’ manifesto.

Alex Smith’s view that we need to ‘build institutions to re-wire the progressive architecture’ drew plenty of attention – particularly his addendum that this means ‘more than just parliament’. Yet it was clear from subsequent remarks that what this means is up for debate – Alex appealed to a MoveOn.org style solution, returned to time and again by his queries, “How did the Americans do this?” and “How did the American Left win?”

The twists and turns of the Obama administration should give us pause for thought – as should Obama’s complete failure to articulate a relationship between politicians and popular movements beyond the wish that they should come when called and otherwise twiddle their thumbs. It’s this very factor which threatens the credibility of the Democrats at this year’s mid-term elections, especially given that the Dems have adopted policies hostile to the very movement which pushed them to a landslide victory in 2008.

It was left to Michael Meacher to say that he had no truck with ‘aspirational views’ as regards the Con-Lib coalition. He rightly said that it was this year’s disastrous budget which was likely to dominate politics for the next 5-10 years. Judging by IDS’ (less blunt) repeat of Tebbit’s “On yer bike” outburst against the unemployed, Meacher’s assessment seems bang on. Meacher said our only response must be to line up with the popular movement that develops to oppose the Tory agenda.

Where Meacher went completely off-beam, I thought, was his remark that, “Vince Cable and all the rest are decent people, but are completely overruled by the Tories”. No doubt Meacher made this comment in response to a clear tension between the Lib-Dem elements to the room (though several Lib-Dems, such as Linda Jack, proclaimed their alienation from their own party) and the rest of the conference – but the reality is that such a view merely obscures the real problem – that policies like supposed equidistance from labour and capital cut the Libs off from the Left.

This is why the Liberals found it so easy to go into coalition with the Conservatives. Lib-Dems who want to quibble with the Left about the ‘good’ the Liberals are doing in office are basically performing the political equivalent of sticking their fingers in their ears and singing “Lalala, I can’t hear you”. Thus Evan Harris’ comment that the ‘budget is not a Conservative programme” – reassuring ammunition for those of us on the Left who can point to the £11bn cuts and only £2bn in new tax revenues.

As a last note, probably the scariest and most reactionary part of the conference came whenever Alex Smith pontificated for several minutes on the need for a new “national narrative” as a means to restore the pride of being Left-wing. By this he meant a “chronology” about how “we” (presumably the British, though possibly the English) “built the NHS” and “defeated dictators” and that we needed to stress “Labour’s place in that”. All I can say is yikes.

The contributions concluded with Michael Meacher denouncing careerism, and the disengagement from communities, and his call to reinvigorate the Left at a local level. James Graham then summed up with another self-righteous justification; that he remembered similar talk about ‘localism’ in 1997 but that here were are, 13 years later. He said that “so long as most spending is decided in parliament, the daily parliamentary grind must be central to our concerns” – thus completely missing the point of Meacher and others that this means nothing without a popular movement.

Part four – 5 minute pitches
Since I’m not a London blogger and am thus spared having to listen to people angling to endorse Oona King or Ken Livingstone (and I’d prefer Genghis Khan to Oona King), I attended the session which permitted anyone to make a five minute pitch. Paul Cotterill made his expected presentation on the need for a local media effort, in print, that could take information to the masses and be a focal point in resistance efforts – especially important in light of current events.

There was a pitch for a MoveOn.org style organisation, to bring pressure to bear against individual candidates – and again the American example got cited. Amnesty International made a pitch about involving people in corporate responsibility campaigns. Reclaim the Pubs pitched something that sounded like speed-dating for politics; meet ups in pubs, open to all, designed to encourage political engagement, advertised to anyone who wants to come.

People around the Labour Values website announced that they’d be holding meetings of those outside Labour, to try and garner ideas from that angle, and that they would be establishing a blog with case-studies backing it up. David Babbs outlined the reach of the organisation 38 degrees and pressed everyone to tell his group what they should campaign on. One P. Casey argued for a British version of American groups like Factcheck.org.

A particularly interesting pitch was by the chap behind Political Scrapbook, in response to recent cases of left bloggers facing nuisance lawsuits, for a collective fund to fight such cases. This proposal was the ‘ultimate development’ of co-ops which could start small, by inviting bloggers to bunch together to purchase high quality hosting, and later premises in London with video editing facilities and access to subscription-based databases – as a lot of the mainstream media is about to become, online.

If anyone is interested in any of those, they should contact the relevant organisation or website. More can be read about the event at Liberal Conspiracy and on the pages linked to.

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Overall, I was happy to attend the conference. Even where someone disagrees with what is being said, it’s important to meet people outside of the controlled environment of the internet, where people can’t pre-vet what they say. Our little group of activists is only ever relevant based on the roots we put down in social movements – and what roots I have exist offline. But what to do with those roots – what tactics we use – is debated everywhere, online and off and it’s always good to get a fresh perspective. I look forward to Blog Nation 2011.

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