30 September 2010


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 1 October 2010

Weird Labour Party conferences have been the norm for so long now I've stopped being surprised by them – almost. But this week's has been weirder than any I can remember, even including last year's, when Peter Mandelson was cheered to the rafters after making the campest speech delivered on a public platform in my adult lifetime.

Just about everything about Manchester has been bizarre from the very start, when Gordon Brown bade a belated farewell as a prelude to the announcement that Ed Miliband had won the leadership by the narrowest of margins from his brother David. Ed looked almost shell-shocked at his success, and the reaction of the conference was almost as surprised. OK, there had been a lot of talk about Ed picking up second-preference votes and maybe pipping David to the post - but hardly anyone really expected it to happen, let alone that he'd do it on the back of second and third preference votes by trade unionists in the affiliated organisations section of Labour's electoral college.

That was a gift to the columnists in the right-wing press – which was then wrapped beautifully by none other than Charlie Whelan, outgoing chief fixer of the largest affiliated trade union, Unite, who boasted that Ed would not have won without his union's efforts. Cue mad pieces all over the place claiming that “Red Ed” is a fundamentalist Marxist prisoner of the union barons, Neil Kinnock hailing Ed as his protégé, David Blunkett claiming that he is indecisive, lots of guff (not least from Ed himself) about how Labour has moved on a generation, David being a bit too sweetly generous in defeat.

And all this before Ed's first leader's speech on Tuesday, which was hailed by Edites as proof-positive that the new man was, er, a new man and condemned by anti-Edites as a reversion to the politics of class-envy...

It's certainly been fun to watch, but, as Charlie Whelan would have put it in his pomp, what a load of bollocks so much of it has been.

Of course, the Labour leadership matters – and the closeness of the result would have been remarkable even if the two main protagonists had not been related. But for all the unmissable psychodrama of the past week, as it seems compulsory to describe it, not a lot has actually been resolved apart from the identity of Labour's new leader.

Despite the months of leadership campaigning and thousands of words of analysis in every newspaper, Ed remains a largely unknown quantity. What he is not -- contrary to the scare-mongering of the right-wing press and the wishful thinking of much of the traditional left -- is either a throwback to the hard left of the 1970s and 1980s or a clean break with New Labour. For better or worse, and for all his protestations otherwise, nothing he has said or done has deviated much more than a millimetre from New Labour. What he turns out to be like as leader remains to be seen – but there's no reason to expect anything other than a sensible centrist social democracy from him: a bit more adventurous than Blair or Brown on green issues or constitutional reform or financial regulation, perhaps, but otherwise very much in the same mould.

There's also no reason to believe that Miliband will be the tool of the unions as leader. It's true that Labour has been reliant on union funding for the past five years, and it's true that the votes of trade unionists won him the top job. But there is no evidence that the unions are any more capable of “holding Labour to ransom” than at any time in the past 20 years – the current crop of union leaders is as unimpressive as could be imagined. And the trade unionists who voted for Ed were individuals voting as they chose, not union leaders wielding block votes for their unconsulted or phantom members.

The real worries about Ed are that he's unknown to the majority of the public and inexperienced as a senior public politician. As he showed as a government minister and has shown again this week, he is a competent platform speaker and good on TV. But what is he going to be like confronting David Cameron at prime minister's questions? And how is he going to handle the shadow cabinet? Most important, where is he going to take Labour politically in response to the Con-Lib government's slash-and-burn cuts programme?

Manchester has given little indication of the answers to these questions, but they will come along frighteningly fast. Ed has no time to learn to swim: he has been thrown into the deep end. I reckon we'll know by Xmas whether he's got what it takes.

  • This went to press before David Miliband announced that he was withdrawing from front-line politics.

17 September 2010


I met the east German artist and opposition activist Bärbel Bohley, who has died aged 65, only once, 25 years ago – but it’s a meeting I shall never forget.

I was working for European Nuclear Disarmament Journal, the organ of the neither-Washington-nor-Moscow British peaceniks, at a big conference in west Berlin of east European dissidents and west European anti-nuclear activists, libertarian leftists and greens, organised by the city’s Alternative List (the local green left).

The cold war was beginning to thaw, and the Hungarian and Polish communist regimes had allowed some high-profile dissidents out for the conference. But the east Germans had not. So, as an act of solidarity with our east German comrades, some of us made a point of crossing over to east Berlin to meet them.

The get-together I went to was in Bärbel Bohley’s apartment. She had been a founder of an independent feminist pacifist group a couple of years before and had been blacklisted and jailed for taking a public stance against the communist authorities. But here she was holding open house for fellow free sprits – 20 or so east Berlin dissidents, a handful of western sympathisers – in flagrant disregard of the consequences.

The evening was one of booze, fags, flirting and black humour – the recurrent joke, which she started, was the identity of the Stasi informer or informers at the party. Afterwards, my friends and I staggered back through darkened streets to catch the last U-Bahn to the west. We were stopped and interrogated briefly by the police at the station checkpoint, but I didn’t think anything of it. Fifteen years later I discovered that the evening’s reveleries had earned me a Stasi file.

Bohley became one of the key players in Neues Forum, the dissident group that turned into the movement that brought down the east German communist dictatorship in 1989. She and her comrades were in essence the last and most radical of the reform communists, though I don't think they would have put it that way. Whatever, their dream of a completely democratised east German “socialism with a human face” was radically at odds with the desire of most of their fellow citizens to join the federal republic (and the dream of capitalist affluence) as soon as possible. But they played a massive role in 1989, and their steadfastness and bravery in the face of a brutal police state should never be forgotten. Bohley was a real heroine.

  • David Childs has an obituary in the Independent here.

3 September 2010


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 3 September 2010

Do you hark back to a previous age? I certainly do. In fact, I hark back to several – and I suspect most people are the same. I had a very happy childhood in the 1960s, and nothing will ever quite recapture the excitement of being a teenager in the 1970s: sex, drugs, rock’n’roll, scorching summers, hitchhiking, Ipswich winning the FA Cup. And then there were those halcyon years at university doing just as I chose – and after that the thrill in my twenties of being paid to be a leftwing journalist, fantastic love affairs, meetings with remarkable men and women … Ah, those were the days!

Not, I hasten to add, that my life is dreadful today, let alone that I’ve given up hope for the future, still less that I think I can turn the clock back. But recognising that some of life’s past highs are unrepeatable and remembering them with fondness are not in themselves pathological symptoms. On the contrary, the person who feels that there is nothing worth looking back upon with yearning is surely as miserable as the person who feels that there is nothing to look forward to.

As in life, so in politics. This week Peter Mandelson caused a minor stir with his remarks to The Times warning of the danger that Ed Miliband as Labour leader would somehow create a “pre-new-Labour future for the party” and dismissing “people of a certain age like Neil Kinnock and Roy Hattersley” whose support for Miliband junior was the result of their wanting to “hark back to a previous age”. Paradoxically, however, that’s just what he was doing himself.

What he was talking about was Ed Miliband’s argument that Labour’s highest immediate priority in electoral terms is to win back the support of working-class and squeezed middle-class voters, outlined in a Fabian essay last month. Mandelson believes that Labour needs instead to appeal to a cross-class coalition of voters, including the well-off.

For what it’s worth, I think both Miliband and Mandelson are right. On one hand, the so-far scanty data show that Labour’s loss of support between 1997 and 2010 was proportionately greater among manual working-class voters (the C2DEs) than among clerical workers, managers, professionals and executives (the ABC1s). On the other, the manual working class thus defined is a declining proportion of the population as a whole and Labour has never won a general election by concentrating its efforts solely on attracting its members.

The real argument here is not about whether to reconstruct a winning electoral coalition but about how. Ed Miliband thinks Labour can gain from an explicitly redistributionist message (a permanent 50 per cent top rate of income tax, a high pay commission on top salaries, a living wage and so on); Mandelson thinks such measures would scare off rich and, more importantly, wannabe-rich voters.

Being of a certain age, I recognise this disagreement from long ago – the aftermath of the 1992 general election, which Labour lost after promising (very modest) income tax increases on higher earners to pay for (very modest) income tax cuts for lower earners and (very modest) increases in key areas of public spending. Rightly or wrongly, these promises were blamed by the party leadership for the election defeat, and well before Tony Blair became leader and inaugurated the age of new Labour they had been unceremoniously dropped.

Of course, Labour won in 1997 promising “no new taxes”, and bliss it was in that dawn to be alive for every Labour supporter. I hark back to it myself, and so, even more, does Peter Mandelson.

There’s nothing wrong with that in itself, nor is there anything wrong with arguing that Labour today can learn from the 1980s and 1990s. But we’re not where we were then. What was toxic about Labour in the 1980s and still toxic in 1992 is not, on the whole, what is toxic today. Then it was the legacy of the inflation and union militancy that undid the 1970s Wilson and Callaghan governments, the continuing fallout from Labour’s bitter early-1980s left-right schisms over Europe, defence and economic policy, the general air of incompetence around the party. Today, like it or not, it is parts of new Labour’s record that need to be flushed out: the culture of spin and the poisonous personal rivalries of the Brown-Blair years, Iraq, MPs’ expenses, loans for peerages and, yes, the ever-increasing inequality that led so many onetime Labour voters to believe that the party had abandoned them while indulging the rich.

i'm not voting for Ed Miliband, but to suggest that Labour needs to go beyond reheating the leftovers from the 1990s and early 2000s is not to retreat into old Labour sentimentalism but to begin to face up to reality. Mandelson is not only part of the problem but, in his insistence that Labour should simply be accentuating the positives of its 13 years in office, much more of a nostalgic than those he berates. A period of silence on his part would be welcome.