Archive for August, 2008

The Convention of the Left

August 30, 2008 2 comments

Convention of the LeftSusan reveals something I didn’t know about the Convention of the Left, though I doubt it was a secret: the Socialist Party won’t be attending the Manchester conference. Bearing in mind that the Socialist Party has been at the forefront of efforts to create the basis for a new worker’s party to replace the Labour Party, I was curious as to their justifications. Unfortunately I couldn’t find anything about it on either the SPEW website or that of their International, the CWI.

I must confess, I didn’t know much about the Convention of the Left to begin with, but more and more this complete blank in the direction of the Convention by the Socialist Party intrigued me. After all, even the Communist Party of Great Britain (PCC) has decided to attend, despite their Campaign for a Marxist Party. Surely there could be no reason for the people behind the Campaign for a New Workers Party not to attend? So, I have been casting around for information.

Apart from the Socialist Unity blog, the two Convention websites and scattered other resources, there isn’t a huge amount of information circulating. The Convention of the Left is backed by many of the usual figures and organizations, a list of which is on the CotL website. More and more, therefore, I wonder what the point of the whole thing is? Is it to rival the Labour conference? Is it to pull in new faces in northern England? Both are worthwhile goals – but the fanfare about the Convention doesn’t seem to be quite merited.

A few discussions, the submission of a few research papers and the eventual dissolution of the Convention into its constituent components after its conclusion seems to be about all that will be achieved. The more I read, the more it occured to me to ask, don’t we already know what needs to be done and aren’t we merely talking because it distracts us for a while from the hard graft of doing it?

Most people won’t dispute that the remnants of socialism in the UK are fairly pathetic. Each political party has a handful of activists and a members on various bodies amongst the trades unions. Each is concerned with starting campaigns that will allow it to recruit members from amongst students, community activists and yet more trades unionists. Yet for all of this, the absolute decline in socialist consciousness has continued more or less unabated among workers.

In most cities, the basic building blocks of trade unionism no longer exist, rendering the acquisition of elected positions within unions pretty pointless. When there are a great number of workplaces without any unionization and a great number where the unionization is largely passive and doesn’t stretch to activist shop stewards, the muscles of trades unions have atrophied and little can be done except on the ground, recruiting new members. This is the easiest method whereby we can bring in the mass numbers of people whom we will weld or will weld us into a unitary political grouping.

People like Bob Crow and Jeremy Dear who support the Convention come from opposite ends of the union spectrum: one from a union that survives because it is so militant and because it has thoroughly unionized its workplaces, the other from a union that is virtually toothless but represents a profession which is being squeezed ever harder. The other unions, surviving on ageing (and declining) members are evidently too busy with bureaucratic manoeuvres to be interested.

Whilst I support the concept of a democratic, centralist, socialist party as a vehicle for organising any potential revolution (obviously several steps down the line), I’m most inclined to simply trust individual socialists at the moment. Trust them to work in their localities with other socialists, regardless of party labels and with a sense of independence from party lines. Party lines haven’t done so well over the last few years, whatever the various propagandists of each party may say.

RESPECT was little short of a disaster, so secretive that most of the members only found out about its dissolution with the rest of the country, via the Socialist Worker or the blogosphere. The Campaign for a New Workers Party doesn’t seem to have moved much forward in its three years of existence. Similarly the various other groups don’t seem to be progressing much either. Campaigning goes on as usual – for activists on the verge of deportation or for dismissed unionists and so forth, but only very unusually does the level of activism achieve the critical mass necessary to bring in wider layers of workers.

It is to the achievement of that critical mass which we should be turning our attention. For example, there are many GAP stores throughout the country – and the vast majority have no trade union representing any of the workers. Having activists building up a basic level of trade union activism not as an end in itself but as the means to educating workers in socialism seems to me much more important than the building of each sect to the point where it feels competent to launch a campaign for a mass party.

None of this detracts from the socialist theory that the most advanced layer of the working class will form a political party and this will organize class struggle on a national scale. Yet this party has to be built out of living, breathing people who are themselves involved in political and economic struggle with capitalism. The Convention of the Left could be a good opportunity to send people away with the message that they should begin looking around them for allies to help in the recruitment of these people, and be ready to disregard their party political leadership.

That’s a lesson which the members Socialist Party could probably do with, if their silence on the subject of a Convention of the Left is deliberately orchestrated. I am glad, however, that the Convention is taking place in Manchester. Another lesson the Left could do with is, less protests in London, more working in the localities. Without wishing to be accused to propagating a ‘stage-based’ theory of revolution, one has to walk before we can all learn to run. Running in step is another lesson still, but if we can actually begin to organize local issues having to bus in protesters, we’ll be well on our way to learning it.

Categories: General Politics

Continuing the faith school debate

August 30, 2008 Leave a comment

Faith schoolsSince I haven’t been able to blog for three weeks, I feel like I’m making up for lost time at the moment, scouring B4L and various other Labour sites to see what everyone is talking about. I happened upon the following article by one of TB’s former advisers and lo! and behold that this adviser is comparing those of us who’d like to get rid of faith schools to the East German government during its phase as a Stalinist state. How characteristic that in the face of people not quite willing to be overawed by the ex-Dear Leader’s professions of faith, his lackeys should almost but not quite call us all Stalinists.

A coalition of secularists, involving some religious leaders according to the BBC, is trying to get the faith criteria which faith schools impose dropped for both potential students and staff. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a laudable goal. Particularly considering that quite a proportion of faith schools are funded by the LEA (voluntary controlled schools) or at least partly funded (voluntary aided schools), I see no reason why the children within a given area should be disbarred from attending. After all, their parents are paying the very taxes which keep the school running. Moreover, the staff should not be selected on the basis of religion – it’s effectively legalized discrimination.

Conor points out that this is part of a campaign which seeks to ’emasculate’ faith schools step by step. If only it were! Nevertheless I do not concede the point that faith schools are somehow better than other schools by virtue of being religious. The italicized text is important; many faith schools are among the best schools in the country. Looking down the top 100 schools (listed by Contextual Value Added), many of them are religious. Leaving aside the problems that in these league tables the ‘confidence’ measure of the data isn’t taken into account, this still does not prove that these schools are better because they can select staff and pupils according to religion.

If that were the extent of the argument – that faith schools provide better education by virtue of being religious, then I would disagree but at least it would be a rational argument. Actually from arguing that poorer kids do better via faith schools, Conor departs into the most vaporous of multiculturalist contentions. Apparently, “Irish Catholics were able to make their mark in Britain thanks to Catholic schools; other religions deserve the same chance.” Which sounds great right up to the point where you realize it’s bollocks.

Even if it is true that Irish Catholics achieved their break in the UK thanks to faith schools, we should remember that a uniform system of state education is comparatively recent. If one thinks of state education as being consolidated between the Balfour Education Act of 1902 and the Butler Education Act of 1944, of course religious minorities will have benefitted for a large part of that period from schools wherein they wouldn’t be subjected to a bias against minorities. As attitudes to minorities changed and the state education sector was broadened, reliance upon faith schooling decreased – until the Baker Education Act of 1987.

To say, in the modern era, that any minority needs the right to exclude others from its own schools if they are not part of that minority is an amazing contention. Conor is also either misinformed or deliberately vague: the 25% quota of other faiths that can be admitted to faith schools is a promise on the part of the Church of England, applying to any new C-of-E schools. It is not law and it does not apply to any other faith schools. The proposal to make that 25% compulsory was defeated in parliament in 2002, when it was proposed by Frank Dobson.

When I finally resume my career as a teacher, ethos will be an important part of any school. What I find belittling to those of us fighting the corner of comprehensive education for all is that our position is taken as meaning we don’t care about the culture of the school and want ‘sameness.’ This is precisely what Conor says. The truth is that I refuse to believe that anything achievable by a religious school isn’t achievable by every other school in the country and for all children of all faiths and none. I have never seen any evidence to the contrary and by Conor none is offered.

Votes at sixteen: why does it matter?

August 29, 2008 2 comments

Whenever I was sixteen, I was absorbed by the cut and thrust of politics and enamoured of a rather romantic idea that all politics truly needed was the right person to change the world. Needless to say a corollary of that idea included the right person being me. Many years later, the cynic in me has won through and, though I was once an ardent advocate of votes for 16 year olds-plus, now I don’t really see the point in it.

The whole matter has been receiving attention, first from a Private Members’ Bill which was denounced by various Tories as a ‘gimmick’ and then from a circular passed around by Young Labour. Stephanie Peacock (by all accounts a wannabe) and Liv Bailey (who has a brain and for whom you should vote at any given opportunity) are pleased that the National Policy Forum has endorsed the idea of votes at sixteen plus.

Stephanie and Liv are respectively the youth representative for the NEC and the Vice Chair of Young Labour and are hoping to get the idea approved by Conference and, presumably, integrated into the next manifesto. The whole thing smells to me of a populist bid on the part of Labour leadership and this sense is reinforced by the language of the email circular from Young Labour.

“…Lowering the voting age to 16 will give young people more of a voice and a stake in their communities… Labour is taking this bold step to empower young people, but the battle isn’t won yet.”

Even if that is the case, it shouldn’t impact our assessment of the issue in itself: it doesn’t matter if Gordon Brown supports it and then leaves it to a Private Members’ Bill, which the government allows to be talked out of existence. If it’s worth pursuing we should pursue it – but I’m still at a loss to why we should make a song and dance about it. Will this change anything, apart from adding to the categories of ‘stakeholder’ to which the government must attempt to seem accountable?

After years of being involved with the European Youth Parliament, Youth Councils in the town where I grew up and various other political endeavours for ‘der yoof’ I am firmly convinced that these things are set up largely as a boon to different levels of government. At every level, they can be pointed to as though they mean the government is engaged with young people and they also provide excellent photo-opportunities. Many of the council-employed staff who often devote hours to helping run them don’t want things to be like that – but they are.

They cannot be anything else, largely because they incorporate the ‘individualist’ view of politics which is endemic to the adherents of the mainstream political parties. It’s no different in Northern Ireland, where the major parties go by different names and policies. The only real difference is that in England there are some councils such as Medway which go all out to provide facilities and then fill them by practically ordering every school to send young people along, so that the whole effort seems less lacklustre than elsewhere.

If one confronts politics as though it is the equivalent of sitting in a room, alone, and choosing between the pre-set alternatives then no amount of effort is ever going to engage the 18-24 age grouping, never mind if we add the 16+ groups. Young people are no different from the rest of the population – they have opinions and ideas – but there is no avenue whereby change can be effected. An enduring feature of trade unions at the moment is their startling lack of young members in many areas – and as vehicles for change, Labour isn’t doing any better at attracting young people.

People who have had life long attachments to the Labour Party are currently dropping away at an alarming rate. Anecdotal evidence has put the Party at membership levels on par or lower than those in 1918, when individual membership was first counted. A document from the Welsh Labour Party reveals the increasing detachment of the New Labour elite from the complete disintegration of the Party at branch level. As older members pass on, there are no young people to pick up the slack. How will allowing people to vote at 16 change this much wider malaise?

The answer is of course that it won’t. Young people don’t feel disfranchised because they don’t have the vote – ask any 18 year old. They feel disfranchised because they don’t see how things can change. The irony is that the very Labour leadership which professes to want people to engage with politics has spent the better part of the past twenty-something years trying to make sure that even within the Party, the popular voice is drowned out. It is for that reason I don’t feel like helping out with this campaign.

As a brief addendum, it seems that the Irish government is going to continue having referendums on European integration until it gets the answer it wants. One can bet that if this was the situation in the UK, our own government would do exactly the same thing. When ones vote evidently counts for so much, the whole idea of voting at all can seem wholly ridiculous. The only thing left to wonder at is why sixteen year olds want the vote at all! I suppose the truth is that most don’t care.

No excuses, no nannying?

August 27, 2008 2 comments

ObesityHow wonderful it is to see the Conservatives acknowledging that obesity might be a problem in our modern society. Having recently checked my Body Mass Index, suitably adjusted for a non-smoker, I find that I am something like 0.4 of a point overweight, so I was particularly interested to see what Andrew Lansley might propose to help get our nation of lard-arses on the move again.

Once more it turns out that the Conservative Party is all about big talk but limp wristed action; so with pornography, now also with the health of the nation. The grand plan is to ask the food industry if they would be good chaps and reduce the size of the portions they dish out, presumably meaning in ready-meals, frozen meals and desserts. I imagine that the food industry will have no problem with that as they’ll keep the sticker price the same, padding their profit margins.

Along with a few government initiatives to make it seem cool to eat healthy and signing up to the EU mandates about having nutritional information on the front of the pack (which most supermarkets’ own brands largely comply with anyway), Lansley’s speech was remarkable mostly for its demonstration that the Conservatives actually don’t have a coherent health policy. Apparently things like halting the fire-sale of school sports pitches aren’t viable alternatives.

Lansley commented, “… we must be positive – positive about the fun and benefits to be had from healthy living, trying to get rid of people’s excuses for being obese by tackling the issue in a positive way.” So the Conservative policy seems to be a case of talking away the causes of obesity instead of actually tackling them, believing that most people are obese largely by choice. So not anything to do with time constraints, declining skills in fresh cooking, increasing costs of fresh produce and other more mundane considerations.

Here’s a thought. Why shouldn’t half an hour of every week-day involve paid cardio-vascular exertions? The incoming Tory government could plan leisure facilities on a scale not seen in decades (which reminds me, might not a cause of obesity be a result of the rise in price of surviving leisure facilities and the declining level of these overall?). For each town and city, per several thousand people we could provide gyms and we could compel companies to write into their staff contracts paid time every week-day for a work-out session.

Boom, the whole nation is suddenly on the road to cardio-vascular health and obesity rates are drastically decreased. Obviously exceptions could be built into the plan – such as those with heart problems, the unemployed, the disabled and so forth. Even if this is unworkable in the specifics, the idea is sound – it just seems that these days an ever decreasing number of people is interested in imaginative solutions to the problems which are confronting the entire Western world and are therefore unlikely to be solely due to  bad personal eating and exercise habits.

“Tainting the Al-Qaida brand”

August 27, 2008 1 comment

John ReidChatting with a friend about a government which seems intent upon destroying the thin barrier between the arms of the state and the sphere of democratic debate, I remarked that all too often, modern governments seem intent upon using Orwell’s novel, 1984, as a guide-book rather than as a cautionary tale. For anyone aware of Nick Davies’ book “Flat Earth News,” the cautionary tale came another step closer to reality with yesterday’s stories about the activities of Home Office department RICU, set up by Bruiser Reid, and their American counterparts.

The Research, Information and Communications Unit is apparently embroiled in a plot to “taint the Al-Qaida brand” by targeting the BBC and media-oriented web forums using “volunteers” to disseminate carefully chosen themes, in the hope that they will be picked up by the media. This is part of a two-stage plan, the other half of which involved trying to reach “decision makers and other stakeholders” by having anyone likely to be interviewed briefed via crib-sheets that target the same themes: Al-Qaida on the wane, Al-Qaida having no answers etc.

Few people will argue that Al-Qaida can contribute anything of worth to a genuine debate surrounding the future of our country, but that doesn’t make the fact that the government is trying to covertly interfere with that debate any less worrying. There exist vast problems in how the media chooses what stories to cover: more so now than ever before, editorial judgment at some of the most responsible newspapers and broadcasting organisations seem irreparably impaired, to the benefit of government and private capital.

One need only consider Roger Alton and the pro-war pronouncements of the Observer, despite evidence that their journalists had in their possession that much of the anti-war claims were in fact totally correct. This is interference high above the level of that which Rupert Murdoch frequently resorts to, such as when preventing his own newspapers from running the same scurrilous stories about his Chinese wife as all the other tabloids ran when first those stories broke. It is much more dangerous too.

We may not have reached the level of the Cold War just yet – but for those seeking another cautionary tale, I recommend Frances Stonor Saunders’ book “Who Paid the Piper?” Saunders documents the war waged by the Western governments and their cultural elites against the spread of communist ideas, often via innocuous-sounding or even left-wing think-tanks and cultural groups, much funded by the CIA. The current level of ‘information management’ is not so all-pervasive but is much more adapted to the current institutional configurations of the press – and thereby may carry its own dangers.

For those who think that it’s safe because it’s directed at Al-Qaida, I can only suggest that they look into the history of what seems to be RICU’s closest predecessor in terms of job description: Edward Heath’s Information Research Department and its involvement with the campaign to join the common market. Or, closer still to home, the campaigns of the British security services against those groups surrounding the 1984 NUM strike. Just because the information management is directed against groups both left and right can’t abide is no excuse.

Most worrying of all is that this sort of thing is happening under the auspices of a Labour government. Heath’s IRD was shut down by David Owen, under Wilson’s term of government. Where now is the Labour bulwark against the expansion of the propagandist powers of the state? Actively co-operating by the looks of things, for all of Gordon Brown’s remarks on fighting the culture of secrecy – and then openly considering the reduction in scope of freedom of information laws. Should a resurgent labour movement spring up, rest assured powers of information management are unlikely to go unused.

It’s easy, at this point, to come off with a quote from Jefferson about how the price of freedom is eternal vigilance – but in truth it would be trite because our vigilance has failed. It will not be restored merely because we can get together under the banner of a few NGOs and protest in parliament square (though one wonders for how much longer even that luxury will be afforded to us). If our freedom is circumscribed by the power of the state to regulate, by default, editorial decisions which affect what information we get in the first place, we really have no freedom at all.

This is precisely the scenario we’re now facing, where senior commanders in the military, senior civil servants and senior politicos can go to conferences where they all learn how to control the media coverage of whatever event or policy they’ve been charged with managing. Telling among the “line” to be taken on Al-Qaida is the various ways the state is trying to discredit the personalities whipping up support, and place on pedestals those religious figures who oppose Al-Qaida. How far is it from this to simply making up scurrilous stories about foreign political opponents? We tread a very dangerous path indeed.

Categories: Labour Party News, Law

Weeks pass, nothing changes

August 27, 2008 Leave a comment

GeorgiaSo in case nobody noticed, I’ve been away. Around the time I disappeared, South Ossetia brought us one step closer to World War 3. At this time I would like to assure my readers that I had nothing to do with this. Any emails I sent to Presidents Medvedev and Saakashvili describing them as imperialist aggressor / American lackey (apply as appropriate), each email being signed as though it came from the other President, are purely coincidental.

Nice to see that the usual pro-war crew haven’t failed to disappoint, joining in the almost hysterical reaction to Russian aggression that the British media has taken. At least we haven’t quite fallen to FOX news’ level of counting the number of times we can fit the phrase “Russian bear” into one punditry broadcast. On the other hand, plenty of them, particularly the Labourites, have failed to notice the yawning chasm between the principled rhetoric of David Miliband and the reality that we’ve been selling Russia and Georgia the weapons they’re using to kill each other.

Likewise, I see that back home in Northern Ireland, the fine fellows we call our leaders are using the silly season to best effect. In yesterday’s Guardian, DUP minister Jeffrey Donaldson was criticizing Sinn Fein’s threat that power sharing might be nearing the end of the road, should devolution for policing and justice not continue apace.

Donaldson said, “Such language as has been used [by Sinn Fein], begins to cast doubt upon Sinn Fein’s commitment to progress at Stormont.” The words “pot,” “kettle” and “black” aren’t anywhere near my mind. Frankly I think that Donaldson is an outstanding MP and not a hypocritical bigot who in the past has helped to bring down power-sharing arrangements simply on the basis that the DUP occasionally need to have a huff with their Republican partners, to keep the grassroots happy.

In other news, I learned today of the death of a venerable old member of Canterbury CLP, Phil Bond, former headteacher and the first Labour member I spoke to when moving to Canterbury. He was an integral part of the CLP, readying the newsletter and making sure it was passed out, and his loss will, I think, put one more nail in the coffin of the Labour organisation down here. I also learned of the death of author Robert Jordan, which leaves me profoundly put out, because I had been waiting for his next book.

Finally, my internet problems are still far from solved, but I shall be more rigorous in trying to publish articles.

Categories: Miscellaneous

God or evolution?

August 8, 2008 Leave a comment

DawkinsJustin Thacker, a doctor of theology, has been arguing over at Comment is Free why Richard Dawkins is an example of the argumentative overreach of many strident atheists. Since I count myself among those strident atheists, I thought I would pick up on a few points which Thacker made – though I agree with his broader point that ‘evolution’ is not firmly established as the basis for all existent matter. Thacker’s basic thesis is that evolution and god are not mutually exclusive.

Naturally I disagree, for a variety of reasons which Thacker does not even address. First and foremost, there is the fact that the idea of evolution and the idea of god have been arrived at by terribly different methods. Christian theology has never adequately addressed the social origins of ‘god’ and the identifiable phases into which religion settles as the society in question itself develops from primitive to modern. It can’t – god is an ahistorical concept.

If ‘god’ is adapted according to different material circumstances, then surely what is at the root of ‘god’ are those very material circumstances? Scientific enquiries are what led to the theory of evolution – and there are plenty of scientific theories for the origins of god. The route which Thacker takes does not compare like with like; the god which set evolution into motion is still a god of the gaps – even if that gap can never be filled.

For all that Thacker dislikes Dawkins’ polemical style, Thacker himself is hardly making a clean argument, citing Dawkins numerous times for merely picking on fifteen year olds in his new television series. My retort to that is simple: arguing with theologists who have spent years enmeshed in the strange world of religion is hardly a profitable activity. Many of their preconceptions are bogus and they operate on a different plane of argument.

The sort of people whom atheists should aim at are the young precisely because of the pressures to which many of them are subjected as regards religion.

If the practices and beliefs of religion were taken to task by someone who had not had his opinions ameliorated through prolonged exposure to religion, I imagine the result would be exceptionally harsh. Theologians are the most ameliorated of the lot, wholeheartedly giving themselves to queer notions about how bread and wine actually physically become the blood and body of Jesus b. Joseph of Nazareth.

Even when one gets outside of the mystic practices of the Roman Catholic Church, the view that there is a part of the body entirely independent of the physical is not concomitant with any branch of the sciences. The view that one is raised up to heaven or sent to hell on the basis of texts which admit of wildly different interpretations is also something of a leap. Why debate theologians who have devoted their lives to preserving through obscurantism this archaic behaviour?

The inevitable refrain to which Thacker resorts is that many religious men have been scientists – but I’d be surprised if he could demonstrate the practical relevance of their religious beliefs to the conduct of their scientific research. People are welcome to their personal beliefs and religious scientists wouldn’t be the only people in the world to hold inconsistent beliefs. Simply look at the variety of people holding public office in the Western world.

In the same vein, Thacker is welcome to his evangelical views – so long as he recognizes that within science and religion, the internal currencies are vastly different. One is based on evidence, the other is based on persuasion and rhetoric based around creative licence taken with the central documents of the religion in question. For that reason, god and evolution are incompatible. Evolution hasn’t abolished god in the popular conscious but there are few god botherers who can’t be silenced by scientific argument and so long as that is the case in this country, we can benignly tolerate their arcane practices.

Categories: Religion

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