18 January 2004

TACTICAL VOTING STILL MAKES SENSE

Paul Anderson, Tribune column, January 23 2004

My thanks to Tribune reader John Morgan of Grantham, whose generous letter the week before last demanding that I be fired as a columnist in case I commit a thought crime reminded me that I need to get on with drawing up a list of constituencies in which Labour supporters should vote Liberal Democrat at the next general election.

I would have done it for this week’s column had I not been too busy to get up to speed on the implications of constituency boundary changes since the 2001 election. Rest assured that the definitive list of where Labourites should vote Lib Dem to keep the Tories out will appear as soon as I’ve done the number-crunching — unless, of course, the editor takes Morgan’s advice and sacks me first. But you’re going have to wait.

For now, all I can do is restate the case for tactical voting — at least in first-past-the-post elections — to beat Conservative candidates. Morgan seems to think that this has lost much of its power since 2001: “Last time, there was an excuse. This time there will not be.” But I can’t work out what has changed.

Yes, the Tories have a marginally more competent leader than in 2001. Otherwise, they are pretty much what they were at the time of the last general election: a bunch of reactionary, authoritarian, xenophobic, anti-European zealots, out of touch with the modern world, committed to chipping away at the welfare state, hostile to public transport, eltist in eductaion — in other words, the main enemy. And because their leader is marginally more competent they pose a greater threat. Ergo, the case for doing what we can to minimise their parliamentary representation is greater than it was three years ago.

As for the Lib Dems, I’ll concede that they’ve shifted a little to the right since 2001 on taxation: they’ve abandoned their promise of a penny on the basic rate of income tax for education and no longer attack the government for failing to tax and spend enough. But they too are essentially what they were before: a pro-European, anti-Conservative party of the centre-left, with much more in common with Labour than diehards of either party think.

Where the Lib Dems differ with the government, their position is still either more explicitly egalitarian and redistributionist (top-up fees, council tax), more libertarian (asylum policy), more coherently democratic (electoral reform, the House of Lords, the European Union constitution) or more pacifist (the Iraq war). On the issues, Charles Kennedy is closer politically to Labour’s thinking soft left (Robin Cook, Clare Short, Chris Smith et al) than he is to Tony Blair, let alone to the Tories.

I don’t agree with the Lib Dems (or indeed Labour’s soft left) on quite a lot of this. On Iraq, I now think that the centre-left opponents of war (myself included) exaggerated the risks of military action to remove Saddam Hussein — and that the dubiety of the justification for war advanced by Blair and George Bush should not be allowed to cloud the fact that the regime change in Iraq has been a good thing. On top-up fees, the Lib Dems and the soft left are playing a self-indulgent game that endangers a large slice of money coming to the universities that they desperately need.

But that’s beside the point – as indeed is the Lib Dems’ opportunism, for example in earmarking the same tax rise to pay for several spending promises. Taking everything into account, it remains as sensible as in 2001 for Labour supporters to vote Lib Dem at the next general election wherever a Lib Dem is the sitting MP and wherever the Lib Dem came second to a Tory last time. It also makes sense for Lib Dem supporters to back Labour wherever the sitting MP is Labour and weherever Labour came second to a Tory.

* * *

On a different subject entirely, I’ve just received a circular letter from Jeremy Dear, fellow Tribune columnist and general secretary of the National Union of Journalists, imploring me to vote “yes” in a forthcoming ballot to set up an NUJ political fund.

I’m going to ignore his plea and vote “no”, simply because I can’t see why the NUJ needs a political fund. The way the law stands, the only circumstances in which a union must set up such a fund is to campaign at election time for or against a political party. Yet any attempt by the NUJ to back party-political campaigns at election time, even a negative “Don’t vote British National Party” one, would not only compromise the ability of union members to do their jobs as journalists but would also lead to a significant number of resignations (particularly among BBC hacks who are contractually obliged to remain politically neutral).

Dear and other supporters of a political fund insist that they don’t want to use it to back party-political campaigns. But if that’s the case, there’s no point in the fund: any extra campaigning they envisage could be paid for with an increase in ordinary subscriptions. Why don’t they just go for that?

8 January 2004

SADDAM'S ADMIRERS ON THE BRITISH LEFT - 4

I missed this in the holiday hiatus: a letter from Charlie Pottins to the Weekly Worker website on the Workers' Revolutionary Party's relationship to Saddam Hussein (for full version click here and scroll down).

"When I joined News Line [the WRP daily] at its launch in 1976, it was no secret that our leader, Gerry Healy, was soliciting funds from the Middle East, but we didn’t realise how far this would go. Under the guise of supporting the Arab peoples against imperialism and Zionism, Healy insisted on slavishly following the line of Arab regimes and leaders - not always easy when they were competing with each other to betray their peoples and pretended cause!

"To my shame, I accepted a report that the Ba’athist regime was conceding autonomy to the Kurds, but I was shocked when Healy denied the Kurds were a nation entitled to rights . . . Then in November 1977 I made the mistake of ‘prematurely’ criticising the Egyptian leader, Anwar Sadat, or suggesting the PLO had done so. I was removed from News Line’s foreign desk and sent to the Midlands to cover the firefighters’ strike. After the strike I was sacked.

"Hostilities between Iraqi intelligence services and the PLO put the News Line in a spot, as did the later outbreak of war between Iraq and Iran, but, when Saddam Hussein was attacking his own people, Healy had no problem deciding whom to support. This one-time ‘revolutionary’ had enjoyed VIP treatment and a motorcycle escort on his trip to Baghdad.

"The WRP came up with excuses for the execution of Iraqi Communist Party members, even calling a mass meeting to back the Iraqi regime. But that was not all. News Line photographers took pictures of a student demonstration outside the Iraqi embassy, probably assuming it was just a normal reporting task. But, when Healy asked them to make blow-ups to deliver to the embassy, one at least had the temerity to refuse, and she quit.

"In 1985 the WRP blew apart, and that’s when the truth about the leadership’s corruption came out. Unable to face the music, Healy and his loyal acolytes took off, with as many documents, etc as they could grab. One they forgot, left in Alex Mitchell’s desk, was a secret report on a visit to the Gulf states, during which Healy and Vanessa Redgrave had an audience with the Emir of Kuwait, but refused to meet Kuwaiti oppositionists, reporting their approach to the authorities instead.

"The ordinary members of the WRP had known none of this, and even the central committee had little idea what had been going on. But inexcusably, some of those who should have known refused to believe or admit anything when the truth began to come out. These are leading the present rump WRP and publishing News Line with money from I don’t know where. Sheila Torrance, until recently its general secretary, told people in 1985 that she could not see why they were making a fuss over 'a few Iraqi Stalinists' getting killed."

TROTS INTO CAPITALISTS - 3

I'm agnostic about genetic modification of crops myself, but the people at GM Watch have done an excellent job tracing the cadre of the Revolutionary Communist Party/Living Marxism/LM/Spiked!/Institute of Ideas gang. Click here and follow the links.

7 January 2004

EUROFIGHTER: WHAT A WASTE OF MONEY

Paul Anderson, Tribune column, January 9 2004

Journalists at the BBC are understandably nervous that their managers will react to expected criticism in the Hutton report by putting the dampers on critical and politically sensitive journalism. But they haven’t done so yet, as an excellent current affairs documentary on Radio Four, Eurofighter: The Plane Truth, presented by David Lomax, demonstrated this week (for audio click here).

The Eurofighter is one of the greatest unsung scandals of contemporary Britain — an aircraft designed to do something that is no longer necessary, which does not work properly and has cost billions of taxpayers’ money. Lomax’s documentary, made with only the most minimal co-operation from either BAe Systems, the main British Eurofighter contractor, or the Ministry of Defence, was a stunning expose of the whole farce.

Eurofighter made a certain amount of military sense when the plans that transmuted into the project were conceived in Britain in the late 1970s. The Cold War was at its height, and the Soviet Union had developed advanced fighters capable of outperforming anything the RAF possessed. A new fighter capable of matching these aircraft in high-altitude dog-fighting seemed a high priority. And, given the costs of developing advanced military aircraft and the perceived need not to rely wholly on the US for military procurement, it made economic and political sense to opt for a European collaborative effort to design and build it.

Even before the programme was actually started, however, the military rationale had all but disappeared. Dog-fighting fighters were effectively rendered obsolete by the development of smart air-to-air missiles in the early 1980s. But the then Conservative Government, under pressure from the RAF and, more importantly, from defence manufacturers desperate for big contracts, particularly British Aerospace, decided to go ahead; and, with Michael Heseltine as Secretary of State for Defence, the project soon evolved into a flagship for West European military-industrial co-operation between Britain and Germany, with Italy and Spain as junior partners. (France had initially been Britain’s major partner but withdrew at an early stage and built its own fighter, the Dassault Rafaele.)

Since then, as Lomax made clear, the story of the Eurofighter has been one of technical hitches, international squabbles, delays and ever-spiralling costs. The original plan was for it to enter service in 1992, but it is only now that the first few aircraft have been delivered (and they can hardly be described as operational because of technical problems). The estimated likely cost of the programme to the British taxpayer, £6 billion in the late 1980s, has risen to £20 billion.

And all this money has been spent on a piece of equipment that is of extremely limited military use. It became clear early on in the project’s life that the highly manoeuvrable dog-fighting aircraft originally envisaged was not what was required, and the plane was rejigged (at great expense) as an air-to-air missile platform. But this role itself became effectively obsolete as soon as the Cold War came to an end. Suddenly, there was no potential enemy against whom an advanced air-to-air combat aircraft might be useful.

This was an obvious point to cancel the whole project. Instead, although the Germans came close to pulling the plug, Eurofighter was rejigged again as a ground-attack aircraft — a role for which it is not really suited, which is reflected in the amazing fact that the ground-attack version might not be ready for squadron service for more than another decade.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the whole story — though this was barely touched upon by Lomax — is the cross-party support that this white elephant has enjoyed since the late 1980s. Labour originally opposed the project, but this stance, like nuclear disarmament, was one of the casualties of Neil Kinnock’s policy review, and by the mid-1990s Labour was an out-and-out enthusiast. David Clark, then the party’s defence spokesman, kept a model Eurofighter on his desk, and Tony Blair enthisastically endorsed the plane as “the cornerstone of the RAF’s capability as we enter the next century”.

Of course, Labour didn’t want to look soft on defence — and of course there are quite a few British jobs in the Eurofighter (its supporters claim 14,000), many of them in marginal Labour constituencies in the north-west of England.

But £20 billion, the bill for the Eurofighter, would generate substantial employment however it were spent — and there’s absolutely no reason it couldn’t have been put towards something useful: railway infrastructure, hospitals, schools, military helicopters or whatever. As it is, it’s difficult to disagree with the verdict of John Nott, the Tories’ Secretary of State for Defence in the early 1980s, who gave the scheme the initial go-ahead. “It was my biggest mistake,” he told Lomax, “a complete waste of money.”

28 December 2003

BOSNIA AND THE LEFT - 2

I've been meaning to link to Attila Hoare on the British far left and Bosnia for ages, but haven't. But here it is in all its brilliance.

TROTS INTO CAPITALISTS - 2

A University of Kent alumnus from the 1980s writes:

The activities of the Revolutinary Communist Tendency were one of the weirdest aspects of student politics at Kent.

Anti-nuclear meetings were routinely packed with RCT members who would denounce CND and call for the invention and immediate use of what was referred to as "the worker's bomb" which would wipe out in one stroke the entire world's bourgeoisie.

The group had all the hallmarks of a cult. The RCT had a particularly strange attitude towards sexual relations among its members. Sex between members was regulated by the group's central committee. Recruitment to the group was undertaken by means of what is known among religious cult watchers as "flirty fishing".

The RCT appeared to follow the line of Bolshevik commissar of social welfare Alexandra Kollontai who peddled a materialist view of sex as a physical impulse: "You make love just as you drink a glass of water."

Though this is ancient history it is possible to trace the present day concerns of the Insitute of Ideas crowd, Furedi et al, especially as regarding childhood, the family, abortion, cloning, genetic experiments with their previous crude materalism and anti-humanism.

OBITUARY: WALTER KENDALL

I hear via the grapevine that the historian Walter Kendall has died. As reviews editor of Tribune in the 1980s and early 1990s I commissioned him to write whenever he could because I was in awe of his history of the left in the early years of the last century, The Revolutionary Movement in Britain 1900-21: The Origins of British Communism, published in 1969. It still stands as the most comprehensive and politically nuanced account of the debilitating effect of the Bolshevik revolution on the British left, and I'm still in awe. RIP.