Archive for March, 2011

Cable confidence

March 29, 2011 1 comment

Vince Cable, 24th January 2011:

For the past eight months, we have been dealing with the public finances as we needed to do to restore business confidence.

Quarterly National Accounts (ONS), 29th March 2011:

Real household spending and fixed investment growth both fell in quarter four, which may reflect weakness in business and consumer confidence.

Five reasons not to be a councillor

March 28, 2011 2 comments

The nomination papers for the forthcoming council elections are due in 4th April.  It does feel a bit weird not to be completing the Bickerstaffe Ward 0nes, but the die is cast; I won’t be a councillor after 5th May.

I’ve worked bloody hard in my ward as a councillor, and achieved a lot. 

The 50 biggest achievements will be another blogpost (probably at the Bickerstaffe Record) but I’m quite proud of a 300,000 investment in nursery and community facilities, a village school that is burgeoning not declining, 30mph limits on roads where there were none, an HGV ban through the village centre, a popular music festival (though maybe a year off this year), bus services successfully defended and even improved, taking on a big factory over their noise pollution and winning, new bus shelters erected, public housing defended, funding brought in for the footie club, the Parish car park improved, the A577 safety scheme, flooding problems resolved, greenspace defended, a new rail station nearing fruition. 

That’s just off the top of my head. There was lot more when I noted it down, road by road, theme by theme.

There’s also plenty of other quiet case work around ‘difficult’ social services which I can’t talk about but where I’ve really made a difference to people’s lives.

Most of all, perhaps, I’m proud of the fact that many of the things above I can’t take sole credit for.  They’re often collaborative enterprises, but wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t got stuck in and offered the right support at the right time.  I think it’s called community organisation, nowadays, but I just took it as being a councillor.

I’ll miss a lot of this stuff.

So why stop now, many have asked, both locally and nationally.

Here’s five reasons:

1) I want to stay home

I’ve been out 3-6 nights a week, week in, week out, for the last few years.   I’ve missed a lot of bedtimes.  Now the kids are bigger, I want to be around more for homework, for goalie training, for the craic.  My wife wants me back too.

2) I don’t want to become stale

I don’t think councillors should become permanent fixtures, either in their wards or on the Council.  We should be encouraging short, high action, productive stints on the frontline, then letting other people have a go.  My time has come to move on.

I hope Bickerstaffe stays Labour, and I hope my successor brings new ideas, new energies, new talents.

3) Elected local government is important, but not THAT important

Labour labour parties is pre-occupied with local government, because it’s what people vote on and it’s where you beat the Tories/LibDems.  It fits with the national party’s campaigning party identity.

But there’s more to local politics than local government, which after all only controls a small percentage of local spend (and borough councils only a very tiny percentage in two-tier systems).

While many in local Labour parties focus their campaigning solely on local elections, local NHS services are being quietly dismantled under the ‘care’ of non-elected Trust and PCT boards, and the whole Voluntary and Community Sector is being decimated.

So one thing I’ll be throwing my energies into after May 5th is the whole local NHS agenda, and how local groups can work with GP commissioning structures with the aim of retaining and even expanding preventative, holistic services. 

That’s not something I can easily do as a local councillor, but it will use much of the same skillset I’ve developed in local elected politics.

I’ll also be doing stuff around legal challenge to Council service decisions which is better done from outside the Council.

In general, I look forward to becoming a free-ranging activist, unconstrained by the necessary niceties and conventions of public office.

4) Local councillors are too big for their boots

Councillors, especially those in senior positions (as I’ve been) tend to be regarded as the local party bosses.  They shouldn’t be.   This trend has developed because in many areas party infrastructure around policy making have withered in the face of demands from the centre that parties focus on electoral campaigning. 

We need to work harder now to establish routes of accountability to an expanding party membership, and to ensure that councillors are given mandates to act on behalf of increasingly representative parties (and local labour movements), not carte blanche to lord it over their branches.

I’m a bureaucrat by nature, and in time I want to play a part in the construction of a ‘wholer’ local party, which focuses its energies not just on local government but on everything that affects our constituents.  Now is not the right time for me to do this, as space is needed between my current and future roles in the local party, but the need and opportunity will come soon enough.

5) The Labour party is not the Labour movement

This is connected to 4) above, but deserves special mention as it’s where a lot of my post-councillor energies will be directed.

In West Lancashire, as in many areas, the day-to-day link between the union movement and the Labour party has more or less dissolved.   There is no longer a very active Trades Council (well as far as I can see, though some hardy souls have tried to keep it alive), and links are largely limited to some sponsorship of candidates and election campaigns (though I’ve worked at links with the Council trade unions in my time as opposition on the Council).

So in the next few months I’ll be getting back to my union roots, working with trade unionists beyond the local Labour party to re-establish the kind of union organisation now lost to many areas, though with a mind to 21st century conditions.

Workplace organisation and expanded recruitment remains the bedrock of the labour movement, and the best Trades Councils use this as a basis for work on local rights beyond the workplace e.g. the TUC unemployment centres which were a source of hope and solidarity for many under Thatcher. 

 This is stuff local Labour parties have trouble with both culturally and legally, but which must form part of the integral offer of the labour movement to our working class constituencies and constituents, irrespective of but not unconscious of how class identity and consciousness may differ from class as an objective capital/labour condition.

Formal affiliation to the Labour party should of course be a part of the Trades  Council development, but I suspect it will only be a minor aspect for consideration initially, as unions-in-the-community and recruitment capacity is developed to the point where both party and wider movement can engage properly on a clearly mutually beneficial basis.

The local media plan is in there as well, though initially it may be a different development strand.

That’s the plan. If anyone else is thinking of similar stuff around this aspect of labour movement organisation – and in the aftermath of March 26th could there possibly be a better time – I’d be happy to compare notes and look at mutual support.

The peaceful violence of the government

March 28, 2011 6 comments

Later on, Paul will be holding forth, with Hannah Arendt – on why “‘peaceful’ protestors who are also ‘angry’ at the cuts may not always compartmentalise their peacefulness and anger as they are instructed.”

Before he does that, I would like to address violence myself, in the context of Saturday’s protest.

Firstly some general context:

  • Conservative estimates suggest 300,000 people joined the march
  • Mainstream media pundits, trade union leaders, Ed Miliband and the police have all gone on public saying the day was overwhelmingly peaceful, though a break-off group in the evening targeted such hot-spots as Vodafone, Boots and notably Fortnum and Masons
  • £300,000 in damage by protesters has been quoted by the Daily Mirror
  • Another important backdrop for the violence was Vince Cable telling the “BBC that the government was listening to the trade unions but would not change its strategy because of yesterday’s march.”

What I will say is not new: when we’re told that those young people on Oxford Street and elsewhere have ruined a peaceful protest, we should remember the cuts to

  • NHS services
  • housing projects
  • libraries
  • domestic violence projects
  • adult education
  • initiatives for young people from deprived areas
  • the police force
  • transport services
  • disability services
  • fire and rescue teams
  • maintenance
  • play areas

When journalists point to the violent hardcore, thugs, and ruiners of a peaceful day, we must remember to put their violence, not in the context of the march as a whole – but in the context of a government which is chopping at the funding streams of services many people rely on in their everyday lives, while bending over backwards to give concessions to the rich in the name of economic growth.


Important to the debate of violence is the work of Slavoj Žižek in his book Violence: Six Sideways Reflections. Žižek’s task is to distinguish subjective from objective violence. The former is the perceptibly obvious violence seen on the news or on the streets in the form of “crime and terror, civil unrest, international conflict”. The latter violence is the unseen form of violence that takes the form of either the symbolic (bound in language and its forms, reminiscent of the point made by Jewish philosopher Emil Fackenheim that to speak or write about Hitler gave him a posthumous life) or the systemic (the catastrophic consequences of our economy when it is functioning as normal). The very notion that this objective violence is unseen sustains the level with which we perceive something as subjectively violent.

In this context, Vince Cable announcing on telly that the government will listen to the Trade Union movement but will do nothing, which means the government will go ahead with its viscious attack on public services, is the real violent act – because of its consequences on people’s lives and the poverty that will result.

In short, the violence on the streets of London on Saturday is nothing in comparison (see Martin Rowson’s Sunday illustration for another view).

Why doesn’t the government mind peaceful protest? Because they can ignore it.

In these times the violence done by the government deserves a name. I suggest peaceful violence. This is so because they do it from a desk; they aren’t throwing bricks themselves, or making people suffer using their own hands, but they are setting the conditions for people’s misery. It’s not perceptibly obvious, as Žižek might suggest, but nonetheless the government are preparing to unleash pain and they’ve admitted that peaceful protest will not stop them. Who can blame people for taking to civil unrest.

Categories: General Politics

My day out with the arthritic proto-hooligans

March 28, 2011 6 comments

Me, shuffling along carrying some wood

On Saturday, I eschewed the invitations of various strands of the bloggerati to join them for beer and debate about the merits of otherwise of direct action in the context of a mass protest.  I also declined the invitation to ‘get my ass’ up to Oxford Street.

Instead, I marched along with a group of Lancashire trade unionists and Labour activists who do not read blogs, do not have twitter accounts, and do not know who Laurie Penny is.  We arrived in London around 1130am, headed by tube for the back of the march, marched for four and a half hours, got on the tube to Swiss Cottage, had a pint, and came home.  

As a result, I got to witness an extraordinary save by my 11 year old on Sunday morning, plunging low to his right to keep out a volley from five yards and actually holding it.  But fatherly pride would have me digress…..

As Lancashire’s finest middle-aged trade unionists shuffled along Piccadilly around 4pm, it became clear that something was going on at Fortnum and Masons, a well known deli in those parts.

A young man was poking his arms out of  second floor window, waving a flag of red and black triangles.  It wasn’t clear from our viewpoint what was going on, and we had no idea at that stage that the shop floor had been occupied by a 100 or so ‘Uncut’ afficianados.  No police were present at that stage, as far as I could see, although there were a couple of vans parked close by.

But here’s the thing.

All the dull, middle-aged/elderly Lancashire trade unionists I was with roared their approval, waved their placards, and surged – in a midly arthritic way – towards what they thought might be a better vantage point. 

Only I, caught up with this whole blog-driven peaceful protest/direct action dichotomy thing, hung back, wondering for a second what my hitherto staid comrades – for whom the height of excitement on other Saturdays might be a SECOND pint down the Labour club before going home to Match of the Day – were up to. 

What were they up to? 

Well, just for a minute, before they realised time was marching on faster than the march was marching, and that we could do with getting the tube from Green Park if we were to squeeze in the real ale incident before the coach picked us up…. just for a minute, my comrades were well up for it.

On the coach on the way home, before people started to drop off, the coach was alive with jokes about Fortnum and Mason.  I was the only one on the coach with twitter, and they really liked the one about ‘15,000 worth of damage in F&M – a jar of olives has been knocked over.’

And that is the thing.  

There was no drama, no police involved, no calls to the wives and husbands to say that the kettle jokes we’d made at 5am the same morning weren’t just a joke anymore. 

Even so, I think this tiny little incident, replicated amongst many small groups like ours as the crowd turned and moved to the day’s high point of excitement, problematises the growing orthodoxy that people can be split neatly into two groups – the peaceful protestors and the others.

Inconvenient though it may be to the mainstream narrative, ‘peaceful’ protestors who are also ‘angry’ at the cuts may not always compartmentalise their peacefulness and anger as they are instructed.

Later on, when I’ve earned a living, I’ll carry through that problematisation, with special reference to Hannah Arendt. 


In the meantime, the most coherent intellectual analysis of the peaceful  protester/the others dichotomy narrative is at Paul Sagar’s Bad Consicience, which I’ll be drawing on.

Categories: Sectariana, Socialism

Does size matter?

March 25, 2011 1 comment

There’s a big march in London tomorrow.  You may have heard about it.

How big will it be?  Some people are estimating 100,000.  Some say 300,000.  Some reckon it might be more than a million.

But the more relevant question is whether it matters how big it is?

No, say the pessimists.  A million marched in 2003. The war still happened. Yes, say the optimists. It’s different this time.

I tend cautiously to the latter view.  I, and many others, are marching for the first time in a while because there has been a surge in collective responsibility, as well as a genuine interest in what it will be like. 

In addition, the TUC and False Economy, amongst others, have done a very good job organising and advertising public transport:  600 (known) coaches with 50 people on each, plus 10 special trains means that we’re already talking 30,000 from the regions, and the knowledge that this is happening will have spurred on many more to make their own arrangements to get down.  Even many local Labour parties have got their act together.

But the fact that it might be big doesn’t make it matter more in itself.  It will only really matter if it really changes, or starts to change the rules about what marches mean.

As Mark Ferguson has noted, marches generally just make marchers feel better (though I suggest the exeception is direct counter marches), and the size is an irrelevance. 

But that’s in Britain.  In France, size matters because there is an acceptance on both sides of the marching argument that it does.  Take, for example, this mainstream media reporting of demonstrations in France about the increase in the retirement age being imposed by the Sarkozy regime:

Quelque 395.000 personnes ont manifesté en France pour la défense des retraites, dont 22.000 à Paris, selon le ministère de l’Intérieur, tandis que la CGT a fait état d’un million de manifestants…..

Ces taux sont moins importants que ceux de la journée d’action du 23 mars, date de la dernière journée de mobilisation, note le ministère dans son communiqué. La mobilisation avait été de 18,9% dans la Fonction publique d’Etat, 11,1% dans la Fonction publique territoriale, et 7,9% dans la Fonction publique hospitalière.

In France, both unions and the Interior Ministry measure the ‘strength of feeling’ by counting (and contesting) the number of demonstrators and associated strikers. 

This reflects the validity, rooted deeply in French political tradition, of the demonstration as proxy (even potent symbol) for what may come next.  It remains enough to have the ruling Parisian classes discussing the potential for working class foment over a soirée au 15ème, and to ensure that the appropriate ‘coups de téléphone’ are made the next morning.

The question is whether we can impose that validity in Britain, whether we can force the government to accept that size matters, especially by effective use of comparison with demonstrations in Egypt and elsewhere; whatever the disimmilarities, we should not let the media forget about Cameron touring Tahrir Square in a cynical attempt at reflected glory in the achievement of the Egyptian people.

I don’t know whether we can change what marches mean in the UK, especially for a first big march; as in France, it may be the trend in numbers which matters more than absolutes.  

But at the very least we should be aware of this as an objective, and as part of the strategy for the day we should be ensuring that we do get a statistically reliable picture of the numbers on the march so that the inevitable understimates emerging from the police can be properly countered. 

(This might be done most easily by a number of people simply recording the march as it goes past, counting the numbers moving through the frame in a minute, and then mutiplying this by the number of minutes taken for the start and end of the march (there will be some fuzziness at the end), again properly recorded and timed.)

Book Review: Sozaboy: A novel in rotten English

Spolier Warning

Sozaboy: A novel in rotten English is a novel by Ken Saro Wiwa who was a Nigerian Human Rights activist. Of the many things he highlighted in his political life, according to Lucy Harrold writing for felix Online, one important point was to show the “paradox that somehow the more resources a country has the poorer it is.” He argued that multinationals must share the wealth made from resources with the people who live, and survive, on that land, especially on the Niger Delta, often referred to as the “oil rivers”.

On November 10, 1995, Wiwa was hanged by Nigerian authorities, accused of inciting riots and separatism, though this was false. Instead the authorities were disposing of a political enemy that had truth on his side. One year after his death, Wiwa’s family brought lawsuits against Royal Dutch Shell, accusing the company of being involved in his death. Shell settled out of court, explaining their decision as the desire to “move on” thereby raising suspicions that they had a good deal to hide.

His book, narrated by a young man by the name Mene, deals with The Nigerian Civil War from July 6 1967 – January 13 1970. The focus on Mene (facilitated by a first-person narrative style) allows us a very personal insight into the fear and pointlessness attached to war, and the heavy heart he suffers for his family, including his Mother who pleads with him not to become a soldier during the beginning of the tale, fearing the risky consequences.

The Nigerian Civil War has a very long, complex history. To be brief, it was a conflict caused by the secession of south-eastern provinces, the so-called republic of Biafra. Nigeria as it is known today has always been known for its differing tribes and cultures, but it was in the interest of old colonial masters to try and keep the country as one to make it easier for controlling vital resources. After 1914 the North and the South were amalgamated, though the only commonality between the two was the name of the country in which they found themselves; unity and cohesion had been further set on the backfoot and division, hatred and rivalry grew stronger.

The resistance to keep dominance over certain sections of Nigeria, distinct from the rest of the Federation, soon began, leading to a struggle that eventually entered into coup, shortly followed by a bitter and bloody civil war.

Sozaboy documents the empowerment of local self-proclaimed leaders in the aftermath of the European colonialisation attempt – namely in Chief Birabee. In the effort to round up troops, leaders such as Birabee would go about recruiting whoever was young and close by. Mene, at this point an apprentice driver, was one such candidate. Torn between talk of war as being a duty by locals in the African Upwine bar (the tall man, who eventually is known as Manmuswak – translated literally from Rotten English as “Man must live (eat) by whatever means.”), by his friends and then by Agnes, the women he was to fall in love with and marry, as well as the anti-war stance by his Mother, he eventually joins up to show everyone that he is a real man, a real sozaboy.

For Ikwinter on the subject:

the destructive after-effects of botched colonialism runs its course. Tribal identity crises, senseless wars over the control of resources, the pollution or effacement of cultural customs and languages lost through the years of externally imposing forces, all of these comprise only a fraction of the damage.

Out of this damage came confusion about the war itself, which just about sums up the corruptness of the local leaders, extending their remit as pseudo-colonisers. According to Kulutempa at The Hyena’s Belly blog, Mene’s effort in the war meant he could be “fighting against a group of people of whom, only a few hours earlier, were a part of his own team.”

To make matters worse for sozaboy, Manmuswak, who he heard in the bar, at one point in the novel saves his life shortly after he escaped a bombing campaign which killed his friend Bullet, then at another, after being arrested by Chief Birabee – who now considers Mene an enemy soldier* – narrowly escapes being killed by him. The device used here by the author is to show that during war one is out for oneself; Manmuswak represents this sentiment perfectly well. But it also highlights the devious cunning of the leaders, for whom the cost of human life means nothing compared with gain for themselves.

As Jonathan R. Greenberg notices about the character, through seeing Manmuswak on both sides of the war throughout the rest of the novel:

Manmuswak has symbolic meaning: after witnessing the corrupted ideals of the war first as a naive apprentice driver and later as a sozaboy himelf, Mene comes to understand that his own survival, not grand ideals like freedom, have first priority.

It wouldn’t be unkind to suppose Wiwa thought this attitude had found its way into the Nigerian consciousness altogether; exactly how the corrupt corporations would want it.

Other than corruption and war, another device appears to be at play in the novel, that of salt. Sozaboy comes across one who he refers to as the ‘thick man’ preaching a sermon. During this sermon he saysAnd salt must be inside your salt otherwise they will throw you away like mumu, foolish idiot. Amen.” Salt, here, seems to work on two levels; during the story we are aware that there was a scarcity of salt, and what there was of it was rather expensive, which was particularly erring since so much of the Nigerian diet relies on salt. Indeed during World War Two it was considered as precious as gold in Nigeria. Since there seemed to be some embedded notion that salt shortages required soldiers to fight, no doubt this was used as a propaganda tactic to drum up support for the war effort.

Furthermore, when the ‘thick man’ refers to “your salt” he seems to imply a link between what we eat, what we must fight for, and who we are – quite literally we are salt, and we must fight for ourselves.

Is there not this sub-text running through every war effort? It’s no good war leaders selling war as this effort for abstraction, for some external cause, the cause must be sold as something from within. Salt has this very meaning here, and it is no surprise that it is mentioned throughout the novel – it shows that the propaganda effort worked, keeping Nigeria from being one (arguably even in this very day).

Ken Saro Wiwa succeeded in writing a book set on freedom and how leaders often falsify our stake in liberty to get what they want. It’s a commentary with a strong post-colonial context, and a disturbing look at how power corrupts. It’s as relevant today as it was on its publication, and it should be celebrated while we never forget those responsible for his premature death.

*The reason sozaboy is considered an enemy is not simply a product of the confusion of who is fighting who, but also because the villiage thought him dead, and after reports that he was bringing bad luck to his villiage of Durkana as a ghost, it would have been impossible for him to stay in the area. At least, this is the version of events as told by Duzia – an old disabled man, friend of sozaboy and former soldier.

Categories: General Politics

Did George Osborne move the Lib Dems away from the centre?

James Forsyth said on Sunday:

When trying to understand George Osborne Budgets, you need to bear in mind the mantra that he and his team live by: in opposition you move to the centre, in government you move the centre.

Lo and behold, Brendan Barber notes that:

Lib Dems are “abandoning centre-ground”

Or perhaps not. Maybe Osborne is simply moving the centre, as his team’s mantra describes.

I certainly hope so, because I know a certain party who are only too happy to fill in for the absence of centre-ground politics.

(A clue: he’s not actually that red at all)

Watch your squeezed middle…


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