24 April 2014

WE'RE OFF!

Right, nominations have closed. I'm up against a Tory, a UKIP bloke and a Lib Dem in Bixley ward in the Ipswich borough council election on 22 May (I'm standing for Labour, natch).

Nearly everyone has had the general Labour newsletter and a flashy flier from the local Tory MP, Ben Gummer, claiming that he has been personally responsible for all recent improvements to Ipswich hospital. Brass cheek. Vote Anderson leaflets to be picked up tomorrow...

It's a difficult ward for Labour to win – it has always been Tory – but John Cook, Labour's brilliant local organiser and agent, did very well in a county council byelection in 2012, taking 29 per cent to the Tory's 44, with UKIP on 12, the Green on 10 and the Lib Dem trailing on 6. That's the most recent election that is more-or-less comparable (there was no UKIP candidate for the borough that year).

With UKIP up in the polls, the Lib Dems in the doldrums and no Green – and with the Euro-elections on the same day and a decent campaign and a fair wind – we can win this one. Look at the opinion polls and do the maths. If anyone fancies helping out drop me a line.




14 April 2014

28 March 2014

I WANNA BE ELECTED!

I am the Labour candidate in Bixley ward for Ipswich borough council in the local government elections in May. If you live there, vote for me. I think my mum will, because she lives there, in a bungalow about half-a-mile from where we lived when I was a kid ... but otherwise it's a tough one. 'Tory since the beginning of time', as my dad put it 30 years ago. Anyway, I'm going to try not to say anything stupid or outrageous in the next couple of months but will be blogging on what it's like to be a first-time candidate in a solid Tory ward. And I'm really looking forward to it!

22 March 2014

THIS IS NEXT ...

Aaaargh! Press is pleased to announce that its next title will be Paint the West Red! The strange story of British Maoism by Paul Anderson.

26 February 2014

NEW BOOK FROM AAAARGH! PRESS

Shots-web-very-smallAaaargh! Press is pleased to announce the publication of a new edition of  Shots From the Hip by Charles Shaar Murray as a Kindle e-book. It's available from Amazon here

First published in 1991, it is a collection of Murray's legendary journalism on music and much, much more from the 1970s and 1980s in New Musical Express and elsewhere. The Guardian described Murray as 'one of the best British writers on pop music, and this is a compilation of HIS best' – and it's published here with a new introduction by Joel Nathan Rosen and a new afterword by CSM himself.

19 February 2014

THIS ISN'T HOW TO CHANGE THE CO-OP

The survey the Co-op is asking us all to complete is just like Tony Blair telling Rebekah Brooks to set up an inquiry with a pre-ordained outcome.

I've just done the bloody thing. You can't express the opinion that mutualism is a good thing in itself and should be encouraged, and all the questions on whether the Co-op should be involved politically are about whether "big businesses" in general – rather than member-controlled consumer organisations – should make political donations.

This is a shocking travesty of consultation that deserves nothing but contempt. YouGov should be ashamed for putting out such an amateurish and slanted questionnaire (though I'm sure they were only following orders).

Of course, the Co-op needs to change ... but "modernisation" in the sense of adapting to the cant of the day on market forces and becoming even more like every other rapacious capitalist corporation is the last thing it needs.

Do the survey, click on the most socialist options on the multiple-choice questions – not that there are many – and then complain to Co-op HQ that the new management has got it as wrong as the last lot.

10 February 2014

STUART HALL 1932-2014

Stuart Hall, who has died at the age of 82, was one of the most important intellectuals of the British left – and of the black Caribbean diaspora – for nearly half a century. In the late 1950s and early 1960s he had a major role in the New Left that extricated radical socialism from the prison of the Moscow line; in the late 1960s and 1970s he went on to become a pioneer in the development of the sociology of media and popular culture; and in the 1980s and 1990s he played a crucial part in reorienting left thinking in an age of capitalist triumphalism. He wasn’t always right, but he will be sorely missed.

9 February 2014

AAAARGH! PRESS WEBSITE DONE!

All right, I've been faffing about for ages with this ... but it's now all pro and shiny. Connect at www.aaaarghpress.com – and buy all our books.

7 February 2014

FUNDRAISER FOR RESONANCE FM

On Monday 10 February Charles Shaar Murray is doing his bit to raise money for the marvellous alternative radio station Resonance FM in a session on the state of music journalism. It’s been organised by the good guys: Neil Denny and Little Atoms, Soho Skeptics, The Pod Delusion. It’s at the Slaughtered Lamb pub in London’s trendy Clerkenwell, 34-35 Great Sutton Street, London EC1V 0DX. Doors at 7.45pm, starting 8pm. Tickets here. More details here. There is no need to bring a physical ticket – they’ll have names on a list. There will be a bar! Be there or be square.

6 February 2014

LABOUR'S UNION PROBLEM

Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 7 February 2014

Labour’s relationship with the trade unions has always been a problem.

The formalities of it date from 1918, when Labour was still, essentially, a means of getting working-class men (no girls allowed) elected to parliament – and when there was a vast number of trade unions, most of them either small or very decentralised. The party then drew up a new constitution (which also included the vague promise of socialism in Clause Four) giving the unions the defining role in the new structure at every level except electing the parliamentary leader.

The deal started to look creaky within a few years, as Ernest Bevin created a giant general union by amalgamation, the Transport and General Workers, in which power was concentrated at the top – and then other big unions, representing miners, engineers, railwaymen, local authority workers, more or less successfully emulated the T and G’s transformation into national centrally managed bureaucracies.

Union barons became fixtures in Labour politics, controlling local parties through their surrogates in much of the country and wielding decisive influence over the party conference – and between conferences they ran the National Executive Committee.

There’s no romantic narrative of class struggle. From the late 20s until the 50s, the unions were mostly bastions of the Labour right; in the 60s and 70s the left took control of many unions. But until the 80s the unions’ position in the party was taken as read by just about everyone – members, the party leadership and most MPs – as a fact of life. Yes, the block vote was ridiculous, yes the union bureaucrats acted as if they owned the show … but the unions had no role in leadership elections and they weren’t (generally) a co-ordinated bloc on policy. Anyone could get around them when necessary (well, most of the time).

Two things changed that happy world: Labour’s internal constitutional reforms introduced in 1980, which created an “electoral college” for leadership elections in which unions had a third of the vote; and the collapse of trade union membership as Tory Britain deindustrialised.

Changing the leadership election system was a left cause, the key victory of the idiotic left insurgency led by Tony Benn after Labour’s 1979 general election defeat to Margaret Thatcher. But it was a very dodgy business. Until 1993, actual members of trade unions had no right to vote unless their union boss decided otherwise. Fat blokes in pubs ruled supreme. It was a blessed relief for Labour that Neil Kinnock and John Smith were elected by massive margins under the system – and that the challenge to Kinnock from Benn in 1988 was so completely, utterly and totally inept in every respect.

Much more important, however, was the impact of the collapse of union membership during the 1980s and 1990s. There were 13 million trade union members in 1979: now the figure is half that. The main reason was simple: the closure of production in mining, steel, engineering; technological change in office work, printing, film and TV. And the way unions responded was simple too: merge.

Of the 6.5 million union members today, roughly half are members of three: Unite, with 1.4 million; Unison, with 1.3 million; and the GMB, with 600,000. Add the shop workers, the teachers, the civil servants, postal workers and construction workers and you’re over 5 million.

That makes Labour's federal structure particularly difficult to sustain. I’m all in favour of the old Wobbly slogan of one big union – but amalgamations create a problem for a national social democratic party with affiliates. Federalism works only with a plurality of engaged organisations. There’s a point where an affiliate gets too big.

Unless Labour is prepared to say that Unite and Unison should dictate policy it has to change its rules. But that’s only part of the issue.

In general, given a choice, you don’t put idiots in charge of anything – but with very few exceptions, Britain’s unions do just that. They are appallingly run. Their leaders are the worst we’ve seen for years and their research departments largely inept. When was the last time a trade union report made a headline? With very few exceptions, they’ve done bugger-all organising for years and years.

Useless unions deserve no role in Labour politics. And we’ve got spectacularly useless unions right now. Ed Miliband is going for change where it’s least necessary. His experience in the 2010 leadership election obviously matters to him, but he would have won anyway. And under his proposed changes there is nothing to stop Unite or Unison sending out voting recommendations to their members...

He should have got rid of the block vote at party conference.

29 January 2014

YOU REALLY MUST BUY THIS BOOK

I've got creditors banging on the door – OK it's only for the newspaper bill – and this book is my only chance of evading penury. Buy it.




10 January 2014

THEY CAN'T FLOG THE WIRE FROM THE RAILWAY

Tribune column, 10 January 2014

Scene in the local off-license, Ipswich, New Year’s Eve:
Old boy from Suffolk (white, about 75, slightly tipsy) Well, they’re coming over here...
Shopkeeper (brown, mid-50s, Punjabi) Yeah, they don’t wanna work, they just wanna nick stuff.
Old boy But it’s better now the scrap’s not cash. They can’t get the wire off the railway and flog it. Now they’ll just sign on.
Shopkeeper They’ve got to stop them coming. It’s out of control. 
The young man behind me in the queue coughs politely and I instinctively turn my head to him. He grins. I grin back. I don’t know him, but he must be Polish – who else would buy Polish beer?

+++

The past few months have seen the popular press whipping up panic about the supposed threat posed by Bulgarians and Romanians coming over to Britain now they’re properly part of the European Union’s single market for labour. They’re taking our jobs and houses and signing on for lavish benefits, we’re told – and it looks as if the nasty anti-foreigner mood will lead to a triumph for the saloon-bar rightists of UKIP in the European Parliament elections in spring.

Well, they’ve done it before – UKIP came second in share of the vote in the 2009 Euro-elections. But it doesn’t necessarily mean too much for the next general election. In 2010, UKIP slumped to 3 per cent of the vote and failed to win a single seat in the House of Commons. And I don’t think xenophobia is Labour’s main problem right now. The party is undoubtedly on the defensive on immigration and welfare scroungers and it still hasn’t killed the story that it was Labour profligacy that got us into this mess in the first place. But its biggest difficulty is the prospect of a house-price boom engineered by the coalition to make mortgage-holders feel good just in time for the 2015 general election.

+++

Of course, it’s not out of Labour’s control. Britain has a housing crisis: there are too few homes to satisfy demand, and prices and rents are ludicrously inflated. But inflated house prices and rents are very advantageous to a sizable minority of voters.

Most people who have bought a home in the past 50 years – whether a straight mortgage purchase or a subsidised council sale – have done very nicely, thank you very much. Particularly in London, if you were in on the act, you’ve got an asset that has appreciated by the week (for the most part) and in any case can be rented out for more than the repayments on what you borrowed.

There’s now a giant group of home-owners whose sense of well-being is based on what the estate agent says their home is worth (and who borrow to consume in line with that) and another, smaller, group of landlords living off the money they charge to other people to live in their properties, with rents inflated by shortage. The lovely Fergus and Judith Wilson, the buy-to-let millionaires of Kent, made the headlines again last weekend, this time not for charging extortionate fees to tenants but for deciding they’d no longer rent to anyone on benefits.

OK, spiralling property prices and rents are bad for everyone who is excluded from the bonanza, and they redistribute wealth and income in a radically unequal way – with a massive state subsidy for landlords in the form of housing benefit, even if the Wilsons reckon it’s no longer as bankable as it used to be. But housing is very dangerous territory for Labour. The party can win support by attacking rack-renting landlords and demanding the construction of affordable housing – but it also needs the votes of owner-occupiers whose interest is in the maintenance of the value of their properties. I’m sorry to start 2014 on a pessimistic note, but I’ve a horrible feeling that, come 2015, those owner-occupiers will prefer to vote Tory – and give David Cameron a victory that his party’s current poll ratings suggest is very unlikely.

1 January 2014

WELCOME CITIZENS FROM BULGARIA AND ROMANIA!

A hearty welcome to Bulgarians and Romanians who visit Britain or come to work here in 2014. You will find that the people of the UK are less small-minded that the Daily Mail and the Sun. Please open lots of restaurants serving delicious food and be cheery. I want smoked Danube eels.

19 December 2013

OBITUARY: HOWARD CLARK

I'm sad to hear of the death of the anarchist pacifist activist and journalist Howard Clark at the age of 63. He was a stalwart of Peace News and War Resisters International for many years, and I got to know him through European Nuclear Disarmament in the 1980s. He was a libertarian leftist of the old school, a sparkling, gregarious and tolerant man who put in untold hours keeping broke campaigns afloat but knew how to have a good time -- and his critical faculties were second to none. I remember him particularly for his ceaseless and brave activity in support of pacifists and draft-refusers in Poland in the 1980s in the face of a communist military dictatorship towards which much of the peace movement turned a blind eye. In the peacenik scene in Britain, he was a consistently solid comrade against  Leninist mountebankes of all stripes. I'd not seen him for ages when I heard he was gone; I wish I had. There's an appreciative notice by Michael Randle and Andrew Rigby here.

28 November 2013

THE CO-OP'S REAL PROBLEM

Tribune column, 29 November 2013

Maybe I’m a na├»ve libertarian, but I can’t be that bothered whether the Reverend Paul Flowers, the Methodist minister who was chairman of the Co-operative Bank, took illegal drugs and had sex with rent boys.

Not that I think that the Mail on Sunday should have been prevented from exposing him: it’s not good for people who run banks to be off their heads on crystal meth, just as it’s not good for airline pilots to be drunk, and religious leaders who preach against prostitution and hire prostitutes on the side are fair game. Even if it turns out that the Rev Flowers got wasted only at weekends and never met rent boys on Sundays, there is a public interest in the intrusion into his privacy that cannot be reduced to prurience, even before his links with Labour Party high-ups come into the equation …

But that’s as may be: the Rev Flowers’ louche lifestyle isn’t what really matters in the extraordinary story of the Co-op Bank. He wasn’t at the helm when it took the fateful decision to take over the Britannia Building Society in 2009, and he was by no means solely responsible for the bank’s subsequent failed attempt to acquire 631 branches of Lloyds Bank. Although he was obviously not up to the job of chairing the bank’s board – his display of ignorance of its assets in front of the Commons Treasury select committee was breathtaking – he should not be made a scapegoat for systemic failures of which his appointment was a symptom.

And, boy, were there a few of those. The most important factor in the story is the hubris that infected the upper echelons of the Co-operative Group, which owns the Co-op Bank, in the mid-noughties. Thirty years ago, what you might call the official Co-op – the consumer organisation with shops, insurance, banking and funeral services rather than the myriad co-operatively run businesses in industry and agriculture – appeared to be in terminal decline. It was fragmented into regional societies, split between wholesale and retail operations, ludicrously bureaucratic at every level. Its shops were losing trade to the big supermarkets. Its accountability to its members was minimal, its business acumen non-existent.

But in the course of the late 1980s and 1990s, the Co-op got its act together, or so it seemed. Most of the regional societies merged into a national body, and in 2000 the retail and wholesale sides of the national Co-op became one. The Co-op Bank began a successful campaign emphasising that its principles were different from its competitors’. Managers with serious experience were given key positions in the retail and wholesale operations. By the mid-noughties, the Co-op seemed to be in good shape.

Then, however, its bosses got hungry for growth – and that’s where it all started to go horribly wrong. The Co-op expanded aggressively, encouraged by the then Labour government. As well as the Co-op Bank taking over the Britannia Building Society, the group swallowed the ailing supermarket chain Somerfield. Concerns that it was moving too fast and carelessly were given short shrift both by politicians of all parties and by the markets – and in 2010 the Co-op Bank was given the go-ahead by the Tory chancellor, George Osborne, to take over branches of Lloyds, temporarily nationalised to prevent its collapse, to enhance banking competition on the high street.

I’ll come clean: I thought that the Co-op becoming a serious contender in consumer banking and growing as a supermarket was rather a good idea. But I wasn’t in any position to know whether it had the necessary means or whether its actual or potential acquisitions were turkeys. The members of the Co-op Bank board were. They all screwed up.

So is this the end of mutualism, proof that complex stuff like banking has to be left to the experts with no input from the oiks? You’d think so from most of the press, but I demur. The supposed experts got it as wrong in 2007-08 as the amateurs. And the problem with the Co-op is not that it’s too democratic, but that it’s not democratic enough. As in every other large mutual, supposedly member-controlled, organisation, including the trade unions, hardly anyone votes. And one reason for this is that elections are depoliticised: candidates for office never declare their intentions, affiliations or beliefs beyond motherhood and apple pie. The Co-op, like most of the trade unions, is dominated by a Tammany Hall culture of stitch-up and buggin’s turn in which knowing the right people and being part of the right set matters more than competence, integrity or principles.

It’s an old story: the pioneering political sociologist Robert Michels identified the “iron law of oligarchy” more than a century ago in his seminal work, Political Parties. How to break that iron law remains the biggest quandary of radical politics.

14 November 2013

SANDBROOK ON THE COLD WAR

I’ve just caught up on the first instalment of Dominic Sandbrook’s BBC TV series Strange Days: Cold War Britain, first aired on Tuesday.

It’s a very mixed bag. There is some good archive footage, not all of which I’d seen – but its tone is almost ridiculously sensationalist, and some of its elisions and simplifications are breathtaking.

I’m not going to give chapter and verse, but it’s really cheap to use the Cambridge spies and the idiotic “Red Dean” of Canterbury, Hewlett Johnson, as exemplars of inter-war left “idealism” about Soviet communism without making it clear that most of the key figures who had enthused about the Soviet Union in the 1930s changed their minds after the Hitler-Stalin pact in 1939. Sandbrook gives the impression that Churchill’s famous “iron curtain” speech in Fulton, Missouri in 1946 somehow determined British government policy – and misses out the role of Ernest Bevin in the creation of Nato. The list of Soviet sympathisers George Orwell handed to Celia Kirwan gets the over-the-top treatment that has now become familiar (please, it was a list of people it would be a bad idea for the Labour government to get to write democratic socialist propaganda, not suggestions for arrest and detention). There’s nothing on Greece, Yugoslavia or Malaya… 

This would have been an excellent topic for a World At War-style documentary – sober, considered, detailed, using film archives for the pictures. Instead, typically for a contemporary TV history documentary, the budget was spent sending the presenter to exotic locations around the world from which he speaks energetically to camera.

For all alternative view, I think more nuanced (but I would say that), buy this book by me and Kevin Davey.

9 November 2013

HONDOOTEDLY MOSSIS THATCHER

I had the privilege, briefly, of editing John Cole, who has just died, at the New Statesman in the 1990s, after he had retired from the BBC and became the paper's main political columnist. He was a very good writer, superbly informed and always a real gent on the phone and in person. He was a Labour soft-leftist too. We need more journos like him today. There's a warm obit by David McKie in the Guardian here.

31 October 2013

LOU REED WAS MY TEENAGE HERO

Tribune column, 1 November 2013

There’s one song every band can play. If the words don’t ring a bell:
Standing on a corner
Suitcase in my hand
the riff will do it for you. Da – da, da, di, da – da, da, di,da.

OK, maybe not. It’s “Sweet Jane”, and it was not a hit for the New York band that ripped off the lick and recorded it in 1970, the Velvet Underground. I don’t think it charted anywhere until Mott the Hoople, a cheery bunch of British rockers fronted by the great Ian Hunter, covered it in 1972 and released it as a single in Canada and Portugal.

The Velvets weren’t exactly obscure. Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison and Mo Tucker were the house band at Andy Warhol’s studio-cum-party, the Factory. Reed and Cale had by 1970 established serious reputations as artistes (though Cale had left the band and Reed was on the way out) even if no one bought their records.

But it was only after the Velvet Underground went under, after the release of Loaded, their most commercially-oriented LP, that people got Lou Reed. He was turned into an international superstar by David Bowie, then at the height of his fame, who produced Reed’s second solo album, Transformer, which became a global hit in 1972. After that Reed had a mixed career. There are plenty of his records that are very good – Berlin, Rock and Roll Animal, Coney Island Baby and Street Hassle stand out, and the Take No Prisoners live set from 1978 is stunning, one of the funniest recordings made by a rock musician. I’m a fan of New York and of Songs for Drella, the album Reed and Cale put out as a tribute to Warhol in 1990. I’ve even had Metal Machine Music moments. But nothing ever matched Transformer or the Velvets’ recordings.

Now he’s dead, and I’m sad. It might seem odd, but Lou mattered a lot to kids in Suffolk in the 1970s. He was a subversive suburban geek, and there weren’t too many of them around at the time. We bought sunglasses to try to look like him, We did his songs, badly but enthusiastically, in punk bands. I’d say he was more of an inspiration than Bob Dylan or the Rolling Stones.

 “Give me an issue and I’ll give you a tissue – and wipe my ass with it.” he told his liberal New York audience in 1978. They loved it. In later life he ditched some of the cynicism and came out for the Democrats in a rather curmudgeonly manner, but I’m not really sure it was an improvement.

+++

Russell Brand is a very different beast. The controversial comedian is in the spotlight after editing an issue of the New Statesman and appearing on Newsnight.

His not-so-unique selling point is that he is an anarchist. He thinks that Britain needs a revolution and needs it now – and his plea for revolution has gone viral.

I have some sympathy. Thirty-five years ago, when I wanted to be Lou Reed, well, I used to be an anarchist just like Russell Brand, though I wasn’t famous. I went on every demo against the Labour government in the late 1970s and lots against the Tories after that. I didn’t vote. I squatted.

Revolution was a lot of fun – certainly more fun than straight politics. I met some of my best friends through the anarchist scene in the late 1970s and early 1980s – and some of the ideas we were into back then have stood the test of time pretty well. Anarchism inoculated me for life against the authoritarianism of the Leninist left, and I’ve always held its do-it-yourself ethic in high regard. I also retain my disdain for the timidity of centre-left politicians whose actions are dictated by the findings of opinion polls and focus groups.

But anarchism also has severe limitations – not least that there aren’t many anarchists, which makes the dream of revolution just a little unrealistic. Even if there were lots more anarchists and revolution were a realistic goal, however, I’m not sure I’d actually want one these days. Revolutions are usually nasty, bloody things that lead to different wrong people being in charge. Maybe I’m just getting old, but I’d be quite happy settling for a robust universal welfare state and lots more spending on public transport, social housing, libraries and the arts. Which is what Labour used to offer, though now I’m not so sure.