31 December 2010

26 December 2010

CAMILLA POKED WITH STICK – 3

Socialist Workers' Party ideological chief Alex Callinicos has responded to Laurie Penny on the student movement on the Guardian's Comment is Free website.

Surprise, surprise, he argues that Penny's rejection of Leninist "leadership" of the student movement is naive. She hasn't realised, apparently, that students need the power of the working class to achieve their ends. It might or might not be true that she hasn't realised – I think it's not – but:
  • Since when has the SWP provided an effective means for anyone to forge links with the organised working class?
  • Why are Callinicos and the SWP – or any other self-appointed Leninist experts or leaders – any better placed than informed independent-minded students to make decisions about the future direction of the student movement?
The condescension is laughable. As Linton Kwesi Johnson put it so perfectly in "Independent Intervenshan" on Dread Beat An' Blood back in 1978:
What a cheek, them think we meek
That we can’t speak up for ourself ...
The SWP can’t set we free
The IMG can’t do it for we
The Communist Party, true dem too arty farty ...
In short, Leninism is, as ever, part of the problem, not part of the solution. Do it yourselves: you don't need leaders. And you don't need me to tell you ...

  • Laurie Penny has responded to Alex Callinicos on her New Statesman blog here.
  • ... and Callinicos has replied on his Facebook page here.

23 December 2010

TOMMY SHERIDAN: YOU COULDN'T MAKE IT UP

The conviction of Tommy Sheridan for perjury is hardly a surprise to anyone who has followed the former MSP's case since he sued the News of the World for reporting his visits to a swingers' club in Manchester. It was clear from the outset that he had told his former comrades in the Scottish Socialist Party leadership a completely different tale to the one he related in his libel action, and it really was only a matter of time before the disparities between his accounts brought him down.

There remain two intriguing questions, however. The first is why he decided to take on the Screws when he knew it had him pretty much bang-to-rights even if it got some of the detail wrong, as he admitted to his SSP comrades. If he'd stuck to the line that he'd been a naughty boy but that it was nobody's business but his own (and his sexual partners'), the story would have been a flash in the pan – damaging to his reputation and to his relationships, almost certainly, but temporary. Instead, he lied brazenly, apparently convinced that his world-historical role as proletarian revolutionary leader excused him from being held to account for his actions. I can't help but see this as a Leninist personality trait.

The second question is what would have happened to the SSP if Tommy had not been found out. It was the most succesful electoral party of the far-left of the postwar era – a beneficiary of the proportional representation system introduced by Labour for the Scottish Parliament, lest we forget – and briefly threatened to transform the rules of British politics. But the Sheridan scandal caused it to implode just as it reached its peak of influence. A genuinely democratic left party might have survived and rebuilt: one based on the cult of the leader and the culture of Leninism had no chance.

  • The youth wing of the SSP has a long post here that makes a lot of sense.
  • And there's a very good BBC documentary with lots of talking heads here. I don't really need to know more: what a narcissist.

CAMILLA POKED WITH STICK – 2

It’s all gone quiet on the student revolt over the past week – for one simple reason: it’s vacation time, and the kids have gone home to rest. OK, parliament has also approved the tuition fees hike, so the immediate cause for mobilisation ain’t there no more, but that’s a technicality.

I’ve no idea whether student protests will spring up again after the holidays: hunch says they will, but it’s not down to me. What I do know is that the whole show will be scuppered if the students allow the traditional left – Leninist or Labour – to seize the controls.

The great strength of the student movement of the past couple of months is that it is self-organised and self-managed. It has done its business without leaders. It has made the New Labourite president of the National Union of Students, Aaron Porter, look a prat, and it has done so with minimal use of demo placards supplied by the Socialist Workers Party. Now it must ensure it protects its autonomy.

The hiatus of the winter vacation is being used by the SWP and the other 57 varieties of Leninist no-hopers to attempt to recruit the movement's militants. Meanwhile, the NUS bureaucrats who’d like careers in grown-up politics are doing their best to co-opt its anger and channel it into respectability.

But remember, kids – you’re better-off without self-appointed leaders. Do it yourselves. Develop your own ways of practising politics. Forget the trad left. And please occupy my university, any old way you choose.

  • Laurie Penny has a piece here on the Guardian's Comment is Free that makes some salient points. I don't agree with her about Labour: in the long run, under the electoral system we have, Labour is still the only place democratic left politics can have serious electoral purchase; and old-fashioned electoral politics matters as much as it ever did. But she's right about the Leninists and their entirely parasitic relationship with the student movement.

17 December 2010

DEATH AGONIES OF NEW LABOUR

Paul Anderson, review of Decline and Fall: Diaries 2005-2010 by Chris Mullin (Profile, £20), Tribune, 17 December 2010

The first volume of Chris Mullin’s diaries, The View From the Foothills, was one of the political publishing highlights of 2009 – a candid, witty and beautifully written account of the author’s life as a junior minister between 1999 and 2005 (with a gap in 2001-03) – and the second volume is even better.

Decline and Fall takes the former Tribune editor’s political journey from his dismissal from government up to this year’s general election, a period he spent on the back benches as Labour MP for Sunderland South. Unlike most political diarists and memoirists, Mullin makes no claim to be offering an insider’s view of the power struggles at the heart of government: his is the perspective of the poor bloody parliamentary infantry who catch fleeting glimpses of the general staff and pick up scraps of gossip in the mess.

The book is no less revealing for that. Mullin captures better than anyone the humdrum everyday existence of the backbench MP: the often frustrating, sometimes inspiring, always time-consuming work on behalf of constituents, the long train journeys, the routine business of parliament, the nervy election campaigns.

He is also a perceptive observer of what is going on inside government – and what a lot he has to observe here. There’s the slow demise of Tony Blair’s premiership as “The Man”’s authority is whittled away by the loans-for-peerages scandal and the growing restiveness of Labour MPs. Then comes Gordon Brown’s accession to the Labour leadership and all-too-brief political honeymoon, then the financial crisis that broke in 2008 and then the MPs’ expenses scandal, all topped off by Labour’s last year in office when no one in the party thought it could win under Brown but there was no obvious way to replace him.

On all this and more, Mullin is shrewd and funny, even when he reports feeling gloomy about the “madness” all around him. He has an acute sense of Brown’s inadequacy by comparison with Blair as a political leader – but he still records his dismay at the barrage of media hatred aimed at Brown every day, and he never wavers in his sense of pride in what the Labour government, for all its faults, has achieved.

Always warm and humane, never sensationalist or self-serving – except in the sense that Mullin gets the royalties – this is the best account yet of the death agonies of New Labour. I can’t wait for the next volume, on Labour in opposition before 1997.

13 December 2010

CAMILLA POKED WITH STICK – 1

Last week isn't the first time that useless royals have been caught by the anger of the people while on official business on the streets of London.

Back in January 1817,  the then Prince Regent, later George IV, a syphilitic fat alchoholic wastrel, was sitting in his carriage on his way to open parliament when he came under attack from a crowd of London citizens – and the window of his carriage was shattered by a missile. It was probably a stone or a potato, but it might have been a bullet: the papers chose the last. Media hysteria about even low-level anti-monarchist violence is nothing new.

The Prince Regent, heir to the throne, was almost universally reviled, not least because of the way he had treated Princess Caroline, his bright and sexy wife, whom he had disowned to consort with third-rate tarts. The people of his mad father's kingdom were sick of war and its aftermath – a disastrous economic slump. The context for the mobbing of his carriage was an extraodinary  popular revolt (some would say by the emergent working class) against the incompetence and venality of the largely aristocratic ruling establishment. The people saw the monarchy as a conspiracy of exploitative dunces and parasites.

Ring a bell? The bad news is that the then Tory government used the assault on the Prince Regent as an excuse to clamp down big-time on dissent  – it pushed through the notorious Gag Acts, which suspended habeus corpus  and effectively made it illegal to organise public meetings, political parties or trade unions.

The good news is that the 1817 mob – and the fear of it among the ruling class – forced the pace on reform over the next 20 years. The people didn't get all they wanted, but their agitation for a free press, universal suffrage and religious tolerance was not in vain.

Camilla got poked with a stick? My heart bleeds. She and Charles are lucky that the mob showed the "enormous restraint" attributed to the cops. They could have been strung up, and they should praise the Lord that they weren't. Next time, maybe.

4 December 2010

FIGHT THE CUTS? – 4

How should Labour councils respond to the coalition government's spending cuts? It would be nice if they could simply refuse to implement them – or, failing that, increase the council tax to compensate for the slashing of central government funding for local government. But, as Don Paskini makes clear here, it's more complicated than that:
In recent days, there has been some comradely discussion between lefties about what local councils, and specifically Labour councillors, should do in response to the cuts.

Leftie activists make helpful and informed points such as “on a point of principle, Labour councillors should resign rather than make any cuts and if you don’t agree then you are a sell out”, and Labour councillors make inclusive and coalition building points such as “you don’t know what you are talking about and I know better than you about why these cuts have to happen and aren’t my fault”.

Let’s try and find some consensus.

The leftie activist case argues that the duty of local Labour councillors is to resist the cuts, through a variety of strategies such as increasing borrowing rather than making cuts, transferring assets to community groups, resigning en masse and forcing central government to make cuts, and building a mass movement of resistance. This is inspired by the example of Poplar, Liverpool, Clay Cross and other past socialist heroes.

The councillors’ case is that the law is quite clear. Councillors have to set a legal budget, or the council’s designated section 151 officer will do so. Refusing to get involved with making cuts won’t stop them from happening, it will just ensure that there are bigger cuts which reflect the priorities of an unelected bureaucrat. People who are angry about the cuts shouldn’t be shouting at or denouncing councillors, but should focus their anger on the Tory/Lib Dem government which is responsible for these cuts.

In summary, the activists are Wrong but Romantic, the councillors Right but Repulsive.

The law is indeed quite clear, and was written to stop all the clever wheezes which Labour councillors came up with in the 1980s to avoid making cuts. In addition, councils don’t even have the option of raising council tax in the short term ...

There is no point in denouncing Labour councillors for making cuts this year. Sweeping moral statements about the immorality of making cuts achieve literally nothing except antagonising people. The position of calling for “no cuts” is not credible – is it really the case that lefties should oppose every single cut to the number of senior managers that a local council employs, for example?

This is not to let councillors off the hook, however. The specific solutions which leftie activists call for might not be credible, but they are articulating real and important concerns. Labour councillors need to do more than just work out how to minimise the impact of the cuts and then vote for a budget which adds up. Being a councillor is a political role, not a bureaucratic one.

Specifically, councillors need to make sure that they don’t get caught up in the town hall bubble. Local government finance is a very, very dull subject, most people don’t really know the difference between, say, a councillor and MP, and lots of people are going to be furious when they feel the impact of these cuts. There’s no particular reason in the abstract why people will understand the need for cuts, or understand why councillors chose to make the cuts which they did.

So councillors need to be out in the community, explaining their decisions to people, listening to their ideas and concerns, making sure that anyone can understand the dilemmas which they faced and – crucially – helping to organise people who are angry about the cuts to help them do something productive.

2 December 2010

FIGHT THE CUTS? – 3

The alternative to draconian cuts is of course to increase taxation – and according to Prem Sikka in a piece on the Guardian's Comment is Free website here, the bulk of the money required to reduce the deficit could be raised by soaking the super-rich:
According to the Sunday Times Rich List, the collective wealth of the 1,000 richest people in the UK rose to £335.5bn in 2010. 53 of the richest 1,000 are billionaires. In 1997, when Labour came to office, the collective wealth of the richest 1,000 stood at £98.99bn. No other group has received such a massive boost in its wealth. Even if they have all the clothes, mansions, cars, yachts and jets they want, they still cannot spend it all. They came into this world empty-handed and will exit in exactly the same way, but leave behind impoverished citizens and employees when they could easily give 25%, or some £84bn of their wealth away without any noticeable effect on the quality of their life. This redistribution would reduce and probably eliminate the need for deeper cuts.

Politics is about choices. The government can choose to punish millions of people for the recession that they did not cause, or inconvenience a few rich people. These rich people have gained the most in the boom years. The richest 1% of the population owns 21% of marketable wealth and the bottom 50% own just 7% of the wealth; and if the value of the dwellings is taken out then that figure stands at around 1%. The proportion of gross domestic product going to employees in the shape of wages and salaries has declined from 65.1% in 1976 and now stands at around 55%. Ordinary people just don't have the capacity to take economic hits...

Surely it is far better to inconvenience 1,000 people than destroy millions of lives. If rich turkeys don't voluntarily vote for Christmas they could be helped by a mansion tax, a wealth tax, the end of their offshore tax haven shenanigans, higher rates of income tax and a higher rate of value added tax on luxury goods.
Assuming these figures are correct, is there any argument against such a programme apart from the tired old excuses that the super-rich would attempt to evade paying and might leave the country (as if anyone would miss the bastards) and that HM Revenue and Customs is hopelessly bad at collecting money from them?