31 August 2010


Labour has just about entered the internet age with its leadership election but the elections for its National Executive Committee are opaque to put it mildly. If you Google "Labour NEC candidates" you get a load of whingeing blogposts about who messed up the left slate, and unless I've missed something there is nothing obvious on the party's official website where you can read candidates' manifestos (let alone any discussion). I'm only saying cos I was trying to put together a Gauche slate and only had 10 minutes ...

Update I've voted David Miliband 1, Ed Balls 2, Ed Miliband 3 in the Labour leadership election and cast my NEC votes for Luke Akehurst, Ann Black, Deborah Gardiner, Oona King, Peter Wheeler and Pete Willsman. A balanced ticket, n'est ce pas?

18 August 2010


The death last week of Andrew Roth at the age of 91 marks the end of several eras. After Michael Foot died earlier this year, Roth was the last surviving author of the Left Book Club (his Dilemma in Japan came out in 1946, two years before the demise of the club); and he had for several years been the sole survivor of the small band of American leftists who sought refuge in the UK from the red scare of the early post-war years that is now generally known as “McCarthyism”.

In Britain he established himself as a journalist in an unprecedented role, setting himself up freelance (after spells on various newspapers) as compiler and editor of Parliamentary Profiles, a more-or-less-regularly updated précis of his increasingly exhaustive files on every single MP in the country, published in multiple volumes as and when funds permitted, that became a bible for every political journalist in Westminster. Without his efforts, there would be none of the scrutiny of our representatives that we now take for granted.

I worked with Andy on the New Statesman in the 1990s and fed him material for Profiles – and he reciprocated by allowing me to use his archive for free. That would have been a decent deal in itself, but he added value with his conversation. He had been a Communist Party member (or at least a fellow traveller) in the late 1930s at City College in New York, and he retained a sharp eye for minute but telling ideological differences on the left well into his 80s.

He couldn’t really avoid the communist connection: as a US intelligence officer in 1945 he had been arrested for leaking state department material that appeared in an obscure communist-sympathetic magazine, Amerasia, and the case rolled on high-profile for five years before he upped and left America. The red-scare line was that he was a Soviet spook. He said, and I believe it, that he was just a popular-frontist with an area of expertise who worked with fellow free spirits and a few useful idiots. But he could never have been a Trotskyist, he insisted, and the Mensheviks were just irrelevant…

He was very good company and very rude about his enemies. Raise a glass.

  • Ian Aitken has an obituary here.

11 August 2010


An excellent John Sweeney BBC World Service two-parter on intellectuals and politicians who played (or play) the role of "useful idiots" to dictatorial regimes abroad here. George Galloway refused to be interviewed in the second part, apparently because he was scared of Sweeney's temper, but is still made to look foolish. Tony Benn does appear, and it's car-crash radio.

5 August 2010


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 6 August 2010

Whoopee! It’s the holidays. School’s out, parliament’s risen, the interminable Labour leadership hustings are over – and it’s raining. Just what you need to wash away the blues …

And, boy, do I need cheering up. A sense of gloom about British politics has been gnawing at me for rather a long time now. I’m not sure exactly when it started, fitfully at first – some time around the 2005 general election, I guess – but it has been pretty much relentless for nearly three years. I had a brief surge of optimism about Labour’s prospects after Gordon Brown became PM. Perhaps, just perhaps, he could rescue a government that had squandered the potential of 1997 in caution, bickering, kow-towing to big business and ill-thought-out military adventures? Well, he couldn’t, though he did a good job of handling the 2008 banking crisis. The polls dipped again, the bickering resumed, the MPs’ expenses scandal broke, and from then on it was a matter of clutching at straws as election day approached.

The election itself was bad enough – a comically incompetent national campaign followed by a near-wipeout for Labour in the south and east of England outside London. But since then it’s just got more and more depressing for anyone on the left. Despite the coalition’s kamikaze economics and breakneck-pace schemes for “reforming” the welfare state while cutting it to the bone, it has enjoyed a remarkably good honeymoon press. And so far Labour has done little to sketch out an alternative. The leadership election has involved an immense expenditure of effort to generate a minimum of light.

All right, that’s pretty much what I expected, it’s early days yet, everyone needs a break, and the battle against the coalition resumes on 25 September when the Labour leadership election result is announced. Looking on the bright side, at least there’s little sign of Labour descending into a self-destructive ideological battle as it did between 1979 and 1983. And the coalition does look vulnerable: there are an awful of lot of on-diary banana-skins coming up in autumn, not least the Lib Dems and Tories’ separate party conferences, that could make for some good political slapstick.

If we assume, however, that the coalition is not all over by Xmas, Labour has got a problem. It can of course continue relentlessly to oppose the cuts – and indeed it should – but that will not be enough to regain the credibility it has lost as a governing party over the past decade unless it also manages to popularise the practices of Keynesian demand management in the short term and redistributive taxation and a big state in the longer term.

Lest we forget, this was something it failed to achieve either in government in 2008-10, when it was actually doing big-state redistributive demand management, or in opposition in the 1980s, when a Keynesianism of sorts was still the orthodoxy among most economists and Labour still thought it could sell tax increases to the electorate. Perhaps an explicit “invest, borrow and tax for security and jobs” line would fare better in 2015 than the watered-down versions did in 2010 or 1992 if it were closely argued and costed. I’d certainly like to think so. But it’s a big risk, and I’m not convinced that Labour has the intellectual confidence or coherence to take it.

Beyond that, what? There’s certainly room for Labour to unlearn some of its more idiotic mangerialist and authoritarian-populist traits of the 1990s and 2000s. Everyone has their own bugbears – my own are the pub smoking ban and the ever-more-intrusive (but utterly useless) “quality assurance” regimes imposed on education and other public services; others care much more about ID cards or ASBOs or detention of terrorism suspects without trial or ringfencing of local authority budgets in key areas. But reining-in the over-centralised nanny state and embracing civil liberties are what the coalition says it wants to do, and it will be difficult for Labour to seize the initiative even though many coalition plans are fraudulent – most importantly GP commissioning and school “independence” – simply because of its enthusiasm in office for stultifying bureaucracy.

In foreign and defence policy, there is similarly limited space for manoeuvre: getting out of Afghanistan ASAP is coalition policy (and not a good one, though popular); and even the Trident replacement programme looks vulnerable to the squeeze on military spending. Worse, there doesn’t yet appear to be a great deal of wriggle room on constitutional reform – unless Labour comes out straight for proportional representation, which would be a real act of daring – or on the environment or on benefits reform. (The last of these is also a potential minefield for any Labour leader, but that’s another story.)

Oh well, at least it has stopped raining. Time to get out the rucksack and the walking boots and the pile of books I’ve not read in the past six months, and do some serious thinking. See you in September.

2 August 2010


Paul Anderson, review of More Work! Less Pay! Rebellion and Repression in Italy 1972-77 by Phil Edwards (Manchester University Press, 2009), Red Pepper, August 2010

Unlike anywhere else in Europe, Italy experienced a “second 1968” during the mid-1970s – an extraordinary wave of student occupations and innovative mass wildcat direct action in its major cities, reaching a climax in 1976-77 and involving hundreds of thousands of people, that included rent and fare strikes, large-scale squatting, organised shoplifting and a widespread “refusal of work” by young people.

The movement was chaotic and diverse, embracing unreconstructed Leninists and stoner anarchist pranksters, radical feminists and macho leather-jacketed street-fighting men, university lecturers and ex-cons. It was also riven with differences on political tactics, particularly on the use of violence. Some participants were pacifists, others out-and-out enthusiasts for armed struggle. Most were somewhere in between.

These differences ultimately proved to be the movement’s nemesis. Faced with the unrelenting hostility of the Italian Communist Party (PCI), the main party of the left, which at the time was attempting to effect an “historical compromise” with the centre-right Christian Democrats, a small but significant minority of activists opted for armed struggle to the exclusion of all else. After that the state came down hard on anyone publicly associated with the “area of autonomy” (regardless of what they had actually done), arresting and incarcerating hundreds from 1978 onwards.

Phil Edwards first caught wind of what was happening in Italy as a teenager reading the British anarchist press, and his book is the product of many years’ research. It is very much a hybrid – in part narrative history, in part a contribution to the political sociology of social movements. He argues convincingly that it is wrong to look at the mid-1970s rebellion merely as an aftershock of Italy’s “Hot Autumn” in 1969, when a wave of worker and student militancy rocked Italian society – by the mid-1970s, a new generation was involved – and he makes telling points about the short-sightedness of the PCI’s anathematisation of the new movement. In its single-minded pursuit of the “historical compromise”, he argues, it lost the chance to renew itself by taking on at least some of the movement’s demands.

This is a serious piece of work that deserves a much wider readership than it is likely to get retailing at £60. Steal this book!

1 August 2010


Joe Haines, Harold Wilson's spin doctor and later Mirror hack, has a go at Peter Mandelson in Tribune:
The Third Man is a continuous justification of a serial offender with no convictions, unable to understand why he, one of the “three founding fathers of New Labour,” was badly treated by the other two (Blair and Gordon Brown). Everything was the “three of us” who began the “reforming crusade”, with Alastair Campbell blanked out of this adventure.

He knew Gordon best, he says, and worked closest with him, and Tony couldn’t do without him. He approvingly quotes a Guardian article which described Blair and Brown as “star pupils of the Peter Mandelson finishing school” in media presentation. Personally, if Brown were one of my star pupils, I’d have kept quiet about it, but this book abounds with embarrassing false modesty and insensitive boasting. He has the conceit of Caligula, not the wisdom of Machiavelli.

He doesn’t understand that he was never the equal of the other two.