28 November 2008


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 28 November 2008

Last week, one of my best friends died. I first met Patrick Fitzgerald at a meeting of the Oxford Anarchist Group in the first week of term when I went up to university in October 1978. It was in Danny Simpson’s Exeter college room in a house on Turl Street.

We were both 18, but Pat was a seasoned veteran. He’d been an anarchist for all of two years and a university student for one, having started at Keble at a tender age because he was such a brilliant mathematician. And he was rather suspicious of the influx of raw new recruits to the anarchist group from freshers’ week. He sat on Danny’s bed looking sullen, smoking, rigged out in unfashionable denim – flared trousers when flares were out – and a Chelsea scarf. Pat’s style was always his own.

We didn’t make friends at first. We were rivals over several girls – and Pat always won. But, through a shared enthusiasm for pills, booze and rock’n’roll, we bonded. And we became – literally – partners in crime.

I have no idea how he acquired the knack, but as a youth Pat was an accomplished cat-burglar. He was always one for digging up dirt – and one of his main means of doing it when he started out in the late 1970s was the break-in.

He burgled dons who were recruiting for MI5, and wrote up his findings in Back Street Bugle, Oxford’s alternative paper. He burgled the army recruitment office. And he burgled college bars for money – an enterprise that went badly wrong when he and two others were caught red-handed.

When the Oxford University Student Union had a general meeting at which the left hoped it would secure a majority to occupy a building that became the social science department library – the idea was that we’d turn it into a proper central students’ union that put on gigs – it was Pat who waited with the crowbar for the call that never came from the meeting. (He was waiting with Sarah Baxter, now of the Sunday Times, who had a bicycle.) It was Pat too who cut the outside broadcast link from Billy Graham’s Christian revivalist meeting in Oxford town hall that we disrupted as a protest against – well, Billy Graham.

I only once benefited materially from any of this, and only in a small way. The heist – and it was a great one – was of booze from an Oxford college boat clubhouse, the getaway transport a punt on to which crates of summer drinks were loaded before it was inexpertly floated a couple of miles down the river, where a waiting crew spirited the haul to their bedsits in east Oxford. Ten years later there were still unopened bottles of Pimm’s in many former Oxford anarchists’ parents’ drinks cabinets.

Meanwhile, Pat got serious. After he left Oxford, he started a doctorate at the University of Kent but soon decided that his vocation was as an investigative journalist. He did work for various radical magazines – including Tribune from the mid-1980s – and Fleet Street newspapers, but put his main efforts into books. British Intelligence and Covert Action, co-authored with the émigré South African journalist Jonathan Bloch, appeared in 1983. A ground-breaking exposé of secret operations since the second world war, it met a furious response from the political and military establishment, but its accuracy on all its key stories remains unquestioned. In 1987 came Stranger on the Line, co-authored with Mark Leopold, an exhaustive account of the British state’s enthusiasm for phone-tapping, and a side project, The Comic Book of MI5, with illustrations by the Irish cartoonist Cormac.

Pat was an enthusiastic hedonist, and at times in the late 1980s and 1990s he overdid it, but he kept up an impressive journalistic output, covering intelligence and security issues for Tribune and the New Statesman among others and earning money writing business travel guides. He was less obviously prolific in recent years – partly because of lack of outlets, partly because of poor health – but still managed a great deal, most recently doing a substantial body of work on a soon-to-be-published book on the war on terror with Jonathan Bloch and Paul Todd.

He’d not been well for some time – he contracted cellulitis earlier in the year, and the treatment had dragged on and on without apparently working – but his sudden death was a shock to all his friends, not least his partner of 20 years, Leila Carlyle, with whom he lived in east London. Frighteningly intelligent and well informed, immensely funny and above all extraordinarily kind, he will be missed. There’s a wake for him tonight (November 28) in the Calthorpe Arms in Gray’s Inn Road, London EC1, just up the road from Tribune’s old offices.

31 October 2008


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 31 October 2008

I hope that somewhere else in this magazine there is a cheery announcement that Tribune has secured financial backing and that this will not be the last issue. But I’m not sure there is, so I’d just like to take this opportunity to thank you, dear readers, for having me. It’s now more than 22 years since I first wrote for Tribune and 10 since I started this column, and your persistent poisonous sniping and personal abuse have sustained me through many a dark hour.

Seriously, if this isn’t the last issue – and I don’t think it is – it has been a damn close-run thing, as the Duke of Wellington didn’t actually say of the Battle of Waterloo. Perhaps it’s not quite as close as it was in 1988, when we ran a front page adorned with the words “DON’T LET THIS BE THE LAST ISSUE OF TRIBUNE” after the then board of directors decided to pull the plug in a week – this time, the magazine has had all of a month to organise a rescue. But it’s closer than at any time in the intervening two decades.

Of course, Tribune has a glorious history of financial crisis. It was launched as a newspaper in 1937 by two rich Labour MPs, Sir Stafford Cripps and George Strauss, as a vehicle for the Unity Campaign, a quixotic attempt to unite the Labour left with the Communist Party and the Independent Labour Party, with Cripps and Strauss putting up £18,000 of their own cash (roughly £800,000 in today’s money). They assumed they would achieve a break-even circulation of 50,000 in a matter of weeks and then recoup their investment – but in fact the paper used up all the dosh in nine months and barely hit 25,000.

Cripps continued reluctantly to subsidise its losses through 1938 and 1939 – a period when Tribune became an adjunct to the publisher Victor Gollancz’s Left Book Club – but then lost interest and dropped out of completely in spring 1940 on his appointment as ambassador to Moscow, leaving control of the paper to Aneurin Bevan and Strauss. Strauss picked up the tab and continued to do so for several years – but he too blew hot and cold and dropped out on becoming a junior minister in the 1945 Labour government.

By the late 1940s, Tribune was on its uppers again and resorted to selling editorial space to Labour Party headquarters – and in 1950 it was forced to go fortnightly, resuming weekly publication only in 1952. Throughout the 1950s, it survived only thanks to non-stop fundraising, most of it from readers but some from anonymous rich benefactors. One of these was the maverick Tory press baron Lord Beaverbrook, who handed over £3,000 when his rival Lord Kemsley sued Tribune for libel.

The 1960s and 1970s were decades of relative stability for the paper despite a slow decline in circulation – largely because many of the trade unions were left-led and were persuaded to take bulk orders and solidarity advertising – and in the early 1980s Tribune’s finances were buoyed by advertisements from local councils under left-wing Labour control, particularly Ken Livingstone’s GLC. But in the mid-1980s the financial situation deteriorated rapidly. The unions, with membership in decline, tightened their belts and merged. The GLC was abolished by the Thatcher government and the rules on local council spending were tightened. By the end of 1987 it looked as if the writing was on the wall, and in early 1988, with circulation around 5,000, the board decided Tribune would have to close.

It didn’t, for two reasons. The paper’s readers rallied round magnificently, raising £40,000 in a little more than a fortnight, and the unions agreed to pay for a promotion campaign. That worked, but not quite well enough, and there was another minor crisis in early 1991 that led to the paper going down from 12 tabloid pages to eight for six months. In the meantime, however, we raised sufficient funds to buy desktop publishing equipment, which slashed production costs – and the rest of the 1990s were plain sailing.

There was another wobble in 2002-03, which was resolved by a consortium of unions taking ownership of Tribune and promising long-term investment – but by this spring they had got cold feet, and last month they decided that this would be the last issue unless a buyer could be found. Every time I’ve spoken to the editor since, he has expressed cautious optimism about the prospects. I’ve just been keeping my fingers crossed: I hope we haven’t used up our nine lives.

And the moral of the story? Well, there isn’t one, except that it has always been difficult to sustain left-wing newspapers. Whether it is more difficult now than it used to be is a moot point – but that’s for another column. If there is one …

8 October 2008


The leftwing weekly Tribune will close after its 31 October edition unless a buyer can be found.

At a meeting of its board last night, its trade union shareholders agreed to what its editor Chris McLaughlin called an "amicable parting of the ways" with the magazine. Tribune is now actively seeking a new owner.

McLaughlin said that he was optimistic about interest already being shown but that a deal would have to be done very soon to ensure continuity of publication.

A consortium of five trade unions took over ownership of Tribune four years ago, promising substantial investment in the magazine. But the unions declined to give financial support to a business plan put forward earlier this year by McLaughlin and his team.

Tribune, founded in 1937 by Sir Stafford Cripps and Aneurin Bevan, has lived a precarious existence for most of its life. It currently sells 4,000 copies a week.

5 October 2008


The clock is ticking for the left weekly Tribune, which desperately needs its union proprietors to cough up the cash they promised four years ago to have a chance of survival. And the crunch could come in the next couple of days. The paper's editor, Chris McLaughlin, makes it abundantly clear here what's at stake. More to come on this...

4 October 2008


Paul Anderson, review of The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front 1915-1919 by Mark Thompson (Faber and Faber, £25), Tribune, 3 October 2008

The Italian front in the first world war has not been a favoured topic for historians writing in English. It would be wrong to say that it has been completely ignored – but by comparison with the western front, the war at sea, Gallipoli, the eastern front or even Palestine it has received scant attention, apart from two key battles: the central powers’ rout of Italy at Caporetto in autumn 1917, which was followed by a spectacular Italian retreat; and the Italians’ decisive triumph of Vittorio Veneto a year later, after which the Italians recovered all their lost territory (and seized some more) in the last days before the war ended.

In some respects, this lack of attention is hardly surprising. Italy joined the allies late – in spring 1915 – and the front lines established by the Italians and the Austro-Hungarian empire within days of the start of hostilities changed only marginally over the next two-and-a-half years. For the western allies (Britain and France), Italy was a sideshow compared with the western front and the German blockade, and they committed few troops and little hardware until almost the very end; for the Russians, the Italian campaign was of interest solely because it tied up large numbers of Austro-Hungarian troops that would otherwise have been sent to fight them. Germany was directly involved in the Italian campaign only briefly (although its intervention was almost decisive).

Yet, as Mark Thompson makes clear in this fascinating book, the Italian front was rather more important than it seemed at the time to outsiders or has since appeared to most non-Italian historians. It is a commonplace that the experience of war is socially and politically cathartic, and many historians have remarked on the importance of the first world war in the breakdown of Italy’s fragile, flawed democracy and the rise of Mussolini’s fascists: 1.2 million Italians died, nearly half of them civilians. But Thompson makes that process extraordinarily vivid, using an impressive range of sources – official reports, newspaper articles, veterans’ memoirs, intellectual manifestos – to put into context and humanise the story of military actions and casualty statistics.

The picture he paints is little short of horrifying. Italy was bounced into war by a cynical nationalist propaganda campaign in which most liberals and socialists acquiesced. Then the Italian commander-in-chief, Luigi Cadorna, adopted tactics of breathtaking stupidity – frontal assaults up bare mountainsides against well-defended Austro-Hungarian positions – that he stuck with, despite shocking casualties, for more than two years. The troops were treated as dirt, even when they were not being sent to their deaths in futile attacks on mountain redoubts: their rations and clothing were inadequate and their leave minimal, and summary execution of supposed malingerers and cowards was the norm. (This extended to the systematic execution of soldiers chosen by lot to discourage their comrades from mutiny or desertion.)

Cadorna regarded the democratic politicians that were supposedly in charge with utter contempt – and was cheered on loudly by Mussolini (miraculously transformed from socialist militant into ultra-patriotic publicist) and other extreme nationalist intellectuals, among them the poets Gabriele d’Annunzio and Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. Cadorna was sacked after the debacle of Caporetto, but by then Italy’s liberal political class had lost the plot. After the war ended, it found itself outmanoeuvred by insistent and hysterical right-wing nationalist demands for Italy to be rewarded for its sacrifices with Trieste, Fiume and a large swath of the northern Adriatic coast – and, to cut a long story short, it capitulated.

The White War – the title refers to the snow and limestone of the mountains over which most of the Italian campaign of 1915-18 was fought – is meticulously researched and a gripping read. I could have done with a big fold-out map, but otherwise this is an exemplary and erudite work of popular history.

1 October 2008


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 3 October 2008

So – surprise, surprise – there was no attempt to topple Gordon Brown in Manchester last week, and he lives to fight another day. Indeed, thanks largely to a better-than-expected speech that seems to have given Labour a big bounce in the opinion polls, his position appears significantly stronger after Labour conference than it did just before.

How lasting this new strength will prove is another matter. It might well have started to dissipate by the time you read this – the first polls after David Cameron’s main Tory conference speech were due to be published as Tribune went to press – and there is so much that could go wrong for Brown in the very near future. The sullen internal Labour Party truce observed (for the most part) in Manchester is fragile at best, and it would not take a lot for hostilities to break out again: a botched reshuffle, a couple of really bad polls, defeat in the Glenrothes by-election, you name it …

But the best guess is that Brown has won himself some breathing space. The young pretender, David Miliband, no longer looks quite such an obvious alternative as he did in summer. The media consensus is that he had a poor conference – his nadir being pictured holding a banana, which is apparently something only done by nerds. Whatever, there is no one else remotely credible as a would-be prime minister.

So the likelihood is that what will determine both Brown’s and Labour’s fate is the way the government handles the economy in the next six to 12 months.

The only certainty here is that it will not be easy. Economists differ on precisely how severe a downturn Britain will experience as a consequence of the combined credit crunch, energy squeeze and banking crisis. But nearly all agree that it will be severe, particularly if the housing market, currently pretty-much frozen, goes into meltdown US-style. The worst-case scenario, horribly plausible in a way that premonitions of slump have not been for 30 years, is of a vicious circle of collapsing consumption, business failures, rising unemployment and mortgage defaults that creates the worst recession in living memory.

Brown and Alistair Darling are aware of the threat – which is more than can be said of the Conservative opposition, whose economic illiteracy this week has been utterly breathtaking. The prime minister and the chancellor both made it clear in their conference speeches that current economic conditions necessitate the state playing an active role not just in restoring confidence in the banking system but also, crucially, in maintaining the overall level of demand in the economy and in ensuring that the poor do not bear the brunt of the downturn.

In other words, unlike the Tories, they do not appear to be singing from the same song sheet as Ramsay MacDonald and Philip Snowden in 1931: in the medium term at least, Labour will borrow and spend to compensate for the effects of tight private credit and will not slash the welfare state.

But if that’s reassuring, it’s not enough. Coded statements of intent in conference speeches are all very well, but they need to be translated into hard policy to have any serious impact either economically or politically – and so far the government’s proposals have been timid, unimaginative and short-term. Of course, dealing with the immediate financial crisis has to be the priority and is in itself a daunting challenge, but the government also needs to come up with concrete medium-term plans for taking the sting out of recession.

The key here is a serious programme of public works – social housing, renewable and nuclear energy, dedicated cycle tracks in every city, urban trams and light railways, a high-speed rail network – to take up the slack in the economy. Needless to say, it would take time to assemble and cost, but that is precisely why the government should be working on it right now even though the scale and duration of the downturn are unclear.

Bad economic times generally do governments no good, and it would be foolish to be too optimistic about Labour’s chances of weathering the gathering storm. The opinion polls are dire even with the post-conference bounce. The party’s position is not, however, completely hopeless. The Tories have no credible economic policy to deal with the recessionary times in which we are now living. With a coherent and bold programme of state intervention to alleviate the pain of market failure, Labour might just persuade the voters to give it another term in spring 2010. Who knows, it could even manage it under its current leader.

23 September 2008


Not a bad effort by Brown (here) – but I don't think it's anything like enough to turn his fortunes around.

22 September 2008


I was planning to get to Manchester for Labour conference but a mixture of work commitments, the utter hopelessness of Britain's railway system and my own incompetence means that I'm not going to make it.

Bah! But so far it seems that the comrades are making the best of a very bad job. Alistair Darling is never going to be the world's greatest orator, but his speech today (here) was a sober assessment of the current financial crisis and its implications, and I didn't disagree with much of it.

David Miliband (here) was rather hesitant and nervous but said all the right things about foreign policy – he made a credible, reasoned defence of the democratic left interventionist position – while managing to steer the fine line he had to between expressing loyalty to Gordon Brown and placing himself as the front-runner to succeed Brown if and when Brown's position becomes utterly hopeless.

For what it's worth, my own hunch, as it has been for some time, is that the shit looks very likely to hit the fan for Brown next spring as the polls remain as bad as they are and Labour is humiliated in the European and local elections – not before. But my old comrade Meghnad Desai demurs today in the Evening Standard, and he could be right.

I don't think, however, that Brown's speech tomorrow is really quite as make-or-break as most of the commentariat is claiming. It's certainly important, but it will be the key moment in his demise only if he really bombs, which right now doesn't seem too likely.

To sum it up in two hoary old journalistic cliches: this show looks as if it will run and run, but we shall see.

15 September 2008


I did a short piece on Tribune for Comment is Free last week, and today it seems that the powers-that-be at the Guardian are in sympathy...

14 September 2008


Who can disagree with this?


Well, I suppose it supplies some mood music, but a handful of Labour MPs demanding nomination papers for a leadership election hardly constitutes a serious plot against the hopeless Gordon Brown.

OK, if 70 of them nominated the same candidate there would have to be a contest, and I dare say that there would be one if they got to 50. But, er, who is the candidate? Presumably not David Miliband, who has effectively disowned the nomination papers rebels. Charles Clarke, maybe? Not since no one rallied to his New Statesman piece. John Reid? Jack Straw? It doesn't make any sense without an identified stalking horse, and there isn't one, so far at least.

And another thing. Surely the nomination form can be copied – so all it takes is for one of our brave rebels who has been sent the document to photocopy the thing and send it around or even post a scan as a PDF online? I only ask.

6 September 2008


Just to clear it up with Paulie:

Princess Diana's death — 31 August 1997
In bed in Hackney with my then girlfriend, with whom I’d written a book on the Labour Party that was about to be published. Someone called to tell us very early in the morning and woke us up. My first thought was that it would mean we'd get no reviews, but I was wrong.

Margaret Thatcher's resignation – 22 November 1990
In the Tribune office in 308 Gray’s Inn Road, doing an honest day’s work as reviews editor. John Booth came round with a bottle of champagne. The Tribune staff drank it then spent a couple of hours in the Lucas Arms across the road.

Attack on the Twin Towers —11 September 2001
On a TGV travelling down to the south of France to hitch up with my then girlfriend and others. The train was stopped just outside Lyons and I caught the explanation that it had something to do with “events in the United States”. But it was only when I arrived in Montpelier several hours later that my friends told me what had happened. I then spent three days glued to the television and wrote a piece about Victor Serge.

England's World Cup semi-final against Germany – 4 July 1990
Round my mate Graham’s place in Finsbury Park supporting Germany, to the disgust of his friend John, who has not spoken to me since.

President Kennedy's assassination — 22 November 1963
Well, it might not be true, but the family story is that I was in the living room in Ipswich on my own aged four watching television when a news flash came on announcing that Kennedy had been shot. I went into the kitchen and told my mum, who was making the tea: “Someone’s killed the president!” She replied: “Don’t be silly, dear!”

5 September 2008


Everything else might be miserable, but in Ipswich they're reopening town-centre pubs. A year ago the property speculators who own a vast swath of Britain's licensed premises saw their holdings simply as real estate to be flogged to the highest bidder: the only story anyone was telling was of pubs being shut to be converted into luxury flats or razed for speculative development. But the collapse of the property market seems to have changed the rules of the game. I've just had a couple of pints with my neighbours in the Horse and Groom, Woodbridge Road, Ipswich, which reopened tonight after a year dark. It's bit lager for my liking but it's there and friendly and I hope it survives. The Water Lily down the road is also reopening after a year shut. So can't complain ...

3 September 2008


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 5 September 2008

There’s a lot that is simply depressing about the Georgian crisis of the past month. There’s the extraordinary stupidity of the Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili, in thinking he could retake the Russian-backed breakaway region of South Ossetia by force without the Kremlin using it as the pretext for rolling in the tanks already waiting to go in.

Then there’s the type of force the Georgian military apparently used: an artillery barrage against a small town, which, although small-scale by Russian standards in Chechnya and a long way short of “genocide”, presented Moscow with a better excuse for moving in than it could ever have imagined.

But most of all there’s the premeditated Russian invasion itself – prepared over years by issuing Russian passports to South Ossetians and over months by amassing a serious invasion force – and its aftermath of brutal ethnic cleansing of Georgians from South Ossetia and beyond, mainly by irregular paramilitaries. As I write, the Russians are still occupying swathes of territory they promised to vacate and have recognised the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, quite obviously with the intention of absorbing both into the Russian Federation in the not-too-distant future.

It should not have come to this, and that it has speaks volumes both of the sick state of Russian politics and of the failure of the western democracies to support Georgia.

Why did Russia invade? Forget the cant about protecting ethnic minorities and defending the right to national self-determination: this has been an exercise in blatant power projection aimed at showing Georgia who is boss. A large part of the Russian elite – backed by public opinion – cannot stand the humiliation of having been rejected by Georgia in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union and has been spoiling for a fight ever since.

But the Kremlin would probably not have pushed it as far were it not for the incompetence of western policy on Georgia, particularly in the past six months.

Georgia is not an easy country to deal with. Its democracy is new and flawed. Corruption, endemic five years ago, is still widespread, and its record on human rights is patchy. South Ossetians and Abkhazians are so few in number they could never form viable independent states, but they have genuine cause to fear Georgian “territorial integrity” since the vicious civil wars of the early 1990s (though many more Georgians found themselves forced from their homes then than anyone else). And of course there is the role of Russia, backing the secessionist enclaves and professing outrage about western interference in its near-abroad – just as the west’s reliance upon Russian energy supplies has become critical.

Yet none of this can excuse the way the west has messed up. The first decade of Georgian independence – under the presidencies first, briefly, of the chauvinist Zviad Gamsakhurdia, then the increasingly corrupt and authoritarian former Soviet foreign minister Edward Shevardnadze – made it abundantly clear that Georgia still had a long way to go before it could be considered properly democratic.

Rightly, western governments and non-governmental organisations, particularly those funded by the financier George Soros, gave support to Georgians attempting to open up civil society and institute a real democracy – and as such played an important though hardly determining role in the protest movement against rigged elections that became the “rose revolution” of 2003, which led to Shevardnadze’s resignation and new elections in 2004 that Saakashvili won convincingly.

Saakashvili as president deserved western support, but not the wholly uncritical sort he got from the Bush administration. It should not have been beyond the EU and the US to negotiate a plan for Georgian accession to the EU after cleaning up Georgia’s human rights record and negotiating substantial autonomy for South Ossetia and Abkhazia – with possible Nato membership much later. Instead, stupidly, Georgian membership of Nato became the big immediate issue, on Georgian and American insistence, and as soon as it became clear earlier this year that France and Germany would not sanction it, Moscow knew it had the perfect opportunity to teach both Tblisi and Washington a lesson if it could provoke Saakashvili to act against its secessionist clients.

What next? Gordon Brown and David Miliband are surely right to argue that the world should not acquiesce in Russia’s aggression, but it is difficult to see how Moscow can be persuaded to return even to the status quo ante of the beginning of August. It’s a matter of making the best of a bad job, making clear in small ways that the democratic world disapproves of Russia’s actions while giving Georgia serious material and political support – say by offering it EU membership in five years and Nato membership in 10. Would that set off a new cold war? Probably not, but if it did the prime responsibility would lie with the irredentists in the Kremlin.

25 August 2008


Excellent day out in Clapham yesterday: the Hives were great, I'd never seen Soulwax before ... and the Ig was, like, totally awesome man!

19 August 2008


The crisis in Georgia becomes ever more depressing, with Russian troops stationed in Georgia and credible reports of thugs allowed into South Ossetia by the Russians engaging in pogroms.
David Miliband's piece in the Times today makes all the right points, but I'm currently more concerned by the unanswered questions about the events of the past fortnight. The most important surround what exactly happened immediately before the Russians moved in. Russia claims genocide by Georgia against its citizens in South Ossetia; Human Rights Watch numbers casualties as below 100. The Russians claim the Georgians shelled Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian county town; but was the attack on military targets or indiscriminate? Peter Wilby argued in the Guardian yesterday that Georgia has won the PR war with the Russians, but the extent to which Russia's invasion was planned has still not been properly investigated by the British press.

The trad British left has for the most part played a shameful role in all this, backing Russia because Georgia is in the western camp and has a leader who, though democratically elected, is a hothead. An utterly shameful collapse in the face of naked Russian imperialist aggression – but not for the first time.

13 August 2008


I've been busy, so no time to post. But check out this piece from the New York Times, which makes it rather clear what sort of self-determination South Ossetian UDI is all about.


So the war seems to be over. Russia and Georgia have accepted a peace plan largely brokered by France – for which credit seems primarily be due to Bernard Kouchner, the French foreign minister. Good, but what happens next, we'll see. This is a peace, if it holds, that will reward the bully. The Kremlin is crowing over its victory and still issuing threats to Georgia; and any hope Tblisi had of establishing authority over South Ossetia and Abkhazia has now vanished for the foreseeable future.

I'll explain in a future post why I think Abkhaz and South Ossetian claims for national self-determination do not deserve international backing while Georgia's territorial integrity does. For now, I think we need to set up a Georgia Solidarity Campaign. You know: small country in the near-abroad of a superpower under serious threat of annihilation because it dares to adopt policies the superpower dislikes – and, hey!, the small country is not even a one-party dictatorship but a democracy, so it really is a matter of self-determination rather than a sham! Surely a no-brainer for every anti-imperialist in town?

10 August 2008


The Georgia crisis grows increasingly depressing. What was in Mikhail Saakashvili's mind when he decided to use force to take control of South Ossetia? OK, Georgia was provoked – but the provocation was designed by the crooks in the Kremlin to provide an excuse to humiliate Georgia much more forcefully, which is exactly what has happened. The speed and violence of the Russian response these past two days are evidence enough that events have gone exactly as Moscow wanted. Saakashvili fell into a trap, but why on earth did he do it? Stupidity, arrogance or what?
Now Georgia's position is desperate. It cannot resist Russia's military might; and the west is not going to come running to help Tblisi militarily. Everyone can call for a ceasefire and hope for the best, but that won't make any difference: Russia is in full imperialist flight right now and can get away with just about anything anything it wants. Most of the governments of Europe will keep quiet because they don't want any more trouble over the price of gas; and the western cretino-left will argue that it's just payback for the west backing independence for Kosova. Sick, sick, sick – but I want to find something more constructive to do than express impotent rage. Ideas please?

Good post here from Marko Atilla Hoare.

8 August 2008


On the face of it, there are few places in the world less worth fighting over than South Ossetia. It is a barren and desperately poor mountainous area in the north Caucasus, about the same area as Suffolk, with a population of around 70,000 – the same as Lowestoft – of whom two-thirds are (or were in the 1990s) ethnic Ossetians and Russians and one-third ethnic Georgians.
During the brief period of Georgian independence after the overthrow of Tsarism in 1917, South Ossetia was part of Georgia, where the revolutionary government was Menshevik (helped by first German and then British military protection, the latter shamefully withdrawn by David Lloyd George). And it remained in Georgia under successive Soviet constitutions after the country was invaded and subjugated by the Bolsheviks in 1921, albeit as an "autonomous" region.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, Georgia won its independence again, and the old communist apparatus in South Ossetia (with backing from the Kremlin) declared UDI. Ever since, South Ossetia has been a rogue Russian satrap regime, a mini-mini-me for the ex-KGB crew who control the Russian state – and (of course) a safe haven for former-Soviet mafiosi.

It has been refused recognition by the rest of the world – as has Abhkazia, the north-western bit of Georgia that was the beach-holiday destination of the Soviet elite. (Abhkazia is a bigger problem: about the size of Lincolnshire, with a population equal to that of Milton Keynes, but also run by the Kremlin and its tame crooks.)

I have no idea how the military operations of the past couple of days – started it seems by a Georgian move (under serious provocation) to clear out Vladimir Putin's bent South Ossetian puppets, but escalated by Russia – will develop. But right now it's looking horribly like a naked attempt by Moscow to reassert its dominance of its "near abroad" just as it did in Germany 1953, Hungary 1956, Czechoslovakia 1968 and Afghanistan 1979. All because Georgia wants to join Nato and rather too many European governments are worrying about the price of gas rather than democratic principle.

There's a good post here on the Guardian website. This is good too, from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (which despite its origins has been reliable as a source for a long time). It's looking like it's going to be solidarity-with-Georgia time – and this is a lot closer to home than most people think.

7 August 2008


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 8 August 2008

What an extraordinary fortnight in politics. Labour, in the doldrums in the polls and recently humiliated in local elections in England and Wales, loses what was a safe Westminster seat in a by-election in urban Scotland, and there is an outbreak of apocalyptic doom-mongering among columnists and backbench MPs. Then the prime minister goes on holiday – and the foreign secretary writes a comment piece for the Guardian in which he says that Labour has rather a lot to be proud of but should admit it has made mistakes…

At which point everyone goes completely bonkers. For ten days the papers are filled with denunciations of Gordon Brown, profiles of the young pretender David Miliband – has he got what it takes? – and rumours of plots to unseat the PM, one of which is apparently aimed at getting him out by the end of the month.

All right, I’m out of the loop, and it’s entirely possible that, as I write, Miliband and his supporters are furiously phoning, emailing and texting colleagues in an attempt to get them to ditch the hopeless Brown before Labour conference – but somehow I doubt it.

Miliband’s article and subsequent media appearances undoubtedly constitute a conscious attempt to position himself as the front-runner for the Labour leadership should a vacancy arise – but the qualification is important. I don’t think they presage an attempt to challenge Brown directly, even though it’s quite apparent that Miliband (just like every other Brit with an interest in politics) recognises that Brown is completely incapable of winning the next general election.

The reason Miliband’s actions don’t seem to me the prelude to a straight leadership challenge is simple: Labour Party rules. When Labour last changed its arrangements for electing its leader, way back in 1993, it made it ludicrously difficult to depose a Labour prime minister. I once asked Larry Whitty, the party’s general secretary at the time of the rule change, how it could be done – and his response was that, as a former Stalinist, he’d made sure it was impossible.

He was joking – but only a bit. By the rules, the only way an incumbent Labour leader, however useless, can be ditched is by a de facto vote of no confidence at party conference. To organise that except in the most extreme circumstances would be as near to impossible as you can get. Maybe I’ve missed something, but I don’t think Gordon is going to be given the boot by the massed delegates in Manchester next month.

There is another way formally to force a leader out. No parliamentary Labour leader could continue without the support of Labour MPs. Again, I might have missed something, but I don’t think the PLP is in the mood to organise a vote of no confidence against Brown, however poorly it rates him, and even if it was I’d doubt its ability to do it.

Which leaves the proverbial men in grey suits – a delegation of senior cabinet and party figures that goes to see Brown and tells him his time is up. It’s not impossible; it might just happen. But to have any chance of success the delegation would need to include several hardcore Brown allies: I’d say Alistair Darling, John Denham and Harriet Harman, all of whom have professed undying loyalty this week. No go, there, it seems, at least for now.

So – it looks like it’s a matter of persuading Gordon to go gently, drip by drip. It doesn’t need a plot: everyone who meets him simply needs to tell him straightforwardly and politely that he hasn’t a hope of winning the next election and that he ought to resign (at the right time) for the sake of the party. If he ignores the advice, so be it – but then Labour can guarantee disaster 1931-style at the next general election, with or without Derek Draper.

Miliband is the blindingly obvious alternative to Brown. He is not perfect, but he is a good man. He is a centrist in the current Labour Party (not a Blairite). He is young and attractive. He has done a decent job as foreign secretary. And he has some sensible ideas about how Labour can renew itself that are not the usual bollocks. He is also remarkably uncontaminated by the vicious infighting at the top of the Labour Party over the past 20 years.

My fear is that Brown holds tight then loses disastrously. Then it would be 2019 or 2020 at least before we see another Labour government again – by which time I’ll be drawing my pension. Gordon, please agree to go. Please. It’s been nice having you, but your time is up. We can’t force you out but you know what you need to do. Sword. Fall on. Early next year. The party will be grateful.

5 August 2008


One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, the novels of the Stalinist camps and, above all, The Gulag Archipelago were - are - crucial documents of the 20th century. More than anyone else, Solzhenitsyn was the witness, the truth-teller about how Soviet communism was a relentless, vicious, criminal, murderous regime - and he did it fearlessly. So what if he was a reactionary. RIP.


John Lee Hooker:

26 July 2008


OK, I know Glasgow East was a very bad result for Labour, but can we have a bit of perspective, please? It is not unprecedented for a governing party to suffer spectacular mid-term by-election defeats in apparently safe seats – and then go on to win general elections.

Most recently, Labour managed it in 2005 after the 2003 Brent East by-election, which the Lib Dems won with a swing nearly 30 per cent from Labour. And the Tories pulled off a similar trick in 1992 after the disasters (for them) of the Mid-Staffs, Eastbourne and Ribble Valley by-elections, in March 1990, October 1990 and March 1991 respectively, in all of which there were swings of more than 20 per cent from Tory to Labour (Mid Staffs) or Lib Dem (the other two).

Which is not to say that Gordon Brown should stay or that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds for Labour. But now is a time for keeping your head when all around are losing theirs – and working out how Gordon can be persuaded to go quietly some time next year.

Update I notice I chose the same headline for this post on Glasgow East as Luke Akehurst chose for his. Which goes to show either that great minds think alike or that no one can resist an obvious cliche.

25 July 2008


Bah, the fishheids beat us. It means rather more than previous Glasgow SNP by-election victories because the tartan Tories are now in charge in Holyrood, it says a lot about how general disillusionment with the government has spread – and it speaks volumes of the hopelessly complacent organisation of the Labour Party in its supposed Scottish heartlands.

The last is hardly new: I remember reports of safe Labour constituencies in Glasgow with tiny inactive Labour parties 30 years ago. The story of the sitting MP who tells the keen raw recruit: "Don't worry about canvassing round here, laddie. We put out an election statement then I do a tour on polling day in a loudspeaker car," might well be apocryphal, but it's not far from the truth as it has been for several decades: Labour's desperate high-profile campaigning efforts in Glasgow East were notable largely because they contrasted so dramatically with the norm.

In two years, the success of the SNP in one of the seemingly strongest of Labour strongholds might in retrospect be seen as a seismic shift, a pivotal moment in Labour's decline and fall in Scotland - mix your metaphors as you like. As for what it means for Gordon Brown right now, however, I don't think it makes a lot of difference. A Labour win would have done him good, but the narrow defeat after a recount is hardly a massive humiliation. I could be wrong, but Glasgow East suggests a lot of scenarios for the next two or three years, not many for the next couple of months. Unfortunately.

23 July 2008


The Guardian ran a great piece by Ed Vulliamy this morning, reminding us that Radovan Karadzic was considered sole legitimate representative of the Bosnian Serb people by Britain and France at the height of his powers. The Times, meanwhile, treated us to the thoughts of David Owen, one of the guilty men in the Karadzic appeasement disgrace. The Times does not for some reason seem proud of its scoop in getting Owen to write on Karadzic's arrest: at some point today his article disappeared from the paper's comment menu.

13 July 2008


Glasgow East is mainly Glasgow Shettleston, which was an Independent Labour Party stronghold for nearly 40 years, represented by John Wheatley (MP 1922-30) and then John McGovern (MP 1930-59). Wheatley was an extraordinary character, the one successful minister of Ramsay MacDonald's first administration and the man who got the Catholics of Glasgow to vote left. McGovern was a lesser figure, but still notable for his stands in the 1930s against the Stalin show-trials and for the revolutionaries in Spain (even though he went off the rails at the end of his life). Since his demise, however, it's been downhill all the way. The MP from 1959 to 1979, Myer Galpern, was an old ILPer more interested in the ermine than the workers, and his successor, David Marshall, spent nearly 30 years representing the constituency without anyone noticing. Now Labour is on track to lose or come close to losing the by-election caused by Marshall's resignation on grounds of health. OK, the place has changed rather a lot since 1922. But this is potentially seismic.

10 July 2008


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 11 July 2008

Forget the Henley by-election, 42 days detention, the resignation of Wendy Alexander and whatsisname’s no-show at the Glasgow East selection – the worst news of the past few weeks for Labour is the economy, stupid.

Any hopes the government had three months ago that the worst of the credit crunch was over now seem certain to be dashed. With property prices in free-fall, the housing market has seized up. Construction companies are laying off workers. Retailers report that the buoyant consumer demand of the early months of the year has evaporated. Britain looks to be heading for recession just as soaring commodity prices, most noticeably oil and food, have introduced a nasty dose of inflation into the economy – which effectively rules out the obvious monetary policy response to the threat of recession, interest rate cuts.

So the government is in a tight spot. Voters have been hit by hikes in food, gas, electricity and petrol bills (and in many cases mortgage payments) just as the value of their homes has plummeted and the chances of losing their jobs have increased. Unsurprisingly, they are angry – and most blame the government.

This is a bit unfair. It is not the government’s fault that the US house price bubble burst last year, leading large numbers of Americans to default on their mortgages, which in turn led to banks everywhere refusing to lend to one another because no one knew how exposed anyone else was to “sub-prime” loans, which in turn caused the general credit crunch that burst the UK housing bubble. Nor is it the government’s fault that the rapid growth of India and China has increased global oil and gas demand or that there have been bad harvests in much of the world in the past year.

But it’s no good Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling pleading they are the victims of unforeseen circumstances beyond their control. For a start, it’s not the whole truth. The government allowed the UK housing bubble to grow as big as it did, and plenty of people had predicted it would burst, even if no one identified the mechanism. The vulnerability of the UK economy to the rampant oil price speaks volumes of Labour’s failure to invest in rail, renewables and nuclear energy. And, most important in terms of public opinion, it is the government that introduced income tax changes that hit the poorest hardest and the government that is blithely exacerbating the pain of petrol-price increases with new taxes.

There is little point, however, in wondering what might have been: the question is what the government can do now to rescue the situation. Its credibility on economic management has been severely damaged, it has less than two years before the next election – and the indications are that things are not going to get better for some time whatever it does.

But the position is not hopeless. With a clear strategy and a little luck, the government could yet haul itself out of the mire.

The first thing it needs to do is make amends for its recent faux pas on tax to make the tax regime more equitable. That means apologising for the 10p starting rate fiasco and ditching the planned motoring taxes, then reforming the whole tax system to ensure that the rich rather than the poor pay. The devil is in the detail here: the last thing Labour needs is to frighten middle-class voters. But there are all sorts of possibilities: increased personal allowances paid for with a 60 per cent top rate on incomes above, say, £200,000 and ending the upper earnings limit on national insurance; or maybe abolition of council tax bands so the contribution of those living in palaces is not capped. Redistribution from rich to poor makes sense in tough times. The poor spend their cash locally, which means more jobs and spending in the UK; the rich go on holiday in the Bahamas and import yachts. OK, I’m exaggerating – and it’s less of a no-brainer than it used to be because of the globalisation of industrial production – but you get the principle.

The second pillar of Labour’s anti-recession campaign should be a major public works programme to take up the slack left by withering consumer demand. This should not be paid for by an overall increase in taxation, which would be counter-productive, but by borrowing, both directly by the state and – insofar as they remain viable post-credit-crunch – private finance initiatives. There is no shortage of projects worthy of support: a high-speed rail network; dedicated cycle routes in every city; expansion of wind, wave, tidal, hydro and nuclear electricity generation; social housing; et cetera … Yes, it would bust Gordon’s rules on borrowing – or would it? – but needs must.

New Labour it ain’t, but sensibly countercyclical and social democratic it is. Actually, it’s straight John Maynard Keynes circa 1930. Anyone got a better idea?

27 June 2008


Labour's performance in the Henley by-election tells us what we already know: the voters don't like Gordon Brown or Labour. But it's a safe Tory seat and mid-term. The BNP isn't going to take over tomorrow.

18 June 2008


Well, that’s the message tonight from Alistair Darling in his Mansion House speech – and to be fair there is a point in what he was saying about the dangers of getting into an inflationary wage-price spiral. We all need to tighten our belts.

But, and the but is all-important here, there are ways to do this that are fair and ways that are not. In particular, there is no better time than now to rejig the tax system to ensure the burden of taxation falls on those who most deserve to pay: the rich.

My modest proposal:

1. An increase in personal allowances to take everyone on £10,000 a year or less out of income tax altogether.

2. Introduction of new top-rate income tax of 60 per cent for everyone earning more than £60,000, 80 per cent on £80,000-plus and 100 per cent on £100,000 or more.

3. Standardisation of national insurance rates so everyone pays the same percentage on every penny of income above £5,000.

4. An end to all non-dom privileges.

5. A council tax revaluation with abolition of bands and a straightforward proportional relationship between value and payment, so households in £10m homes pay 100 times what a household in a £100,000 home pays.

6. Abolition of inheritance tax up to £500,000 and introduction of 100 per cent inheritance tax over £1m.

So footballers would whinge and plutocrats would quit London? Pah! If we’re talking austerity it’s got to be shared, as I'm sure Sir Stafford Cripps would have said.

13 June 2008


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 13 June 2008

I might have said it before, but I’ll say it again. One of the most frightening things about middle age is realising that events you consider recent actually took place ages ago.

The thought strikes me often because I work as a university lecturer, and each year’s intake of students is younger than the last. I’m currently recruiting undergraduates born as recently as 1990 for entry in September. They’re still Thatcher’s children – or at least the Brits among them are – but only just. The other week I went out for drinks with a group of students to celebrate a 21st and was taken aback to discover that the birthday girl had a strong recollection of Labour winning in 1997 because she was 10 the day that Tony Blair arrived in Downing Street. There are still mature students and postgrads with teenage memories of John Major or Monica Lewinsky, but year after year their numbers get fewer.

What really got me this week, however, was not the youth of my students but the jolt of recognition that it’s 25 years since I decided I ought to join the Labour Party. I’m not expecting anyone to start a collection for a long-service presentation – apart from anything else, I didn’t in fact sign up for some time, and the only award I deserve is for most indolent party member not sitting in the House of Lords.

And who would want to draw attention to the circumstances of my mini-epiphany? It was, of course, the general election defeat of June 9 1983, when Labour’s national share of the vote slumped to under 28 per cent, only just ahead of the SDP/Liberal Alliance, and Labour won just 209 seats in the House of Commons. Labour doesn’t want to remember it because it was a humiliation, and for the Tories to commemorate it would seem hubristic. Apart from one meeting of Labour historians in the House of Commons that I missed, the anniversary has gone unmarked.

I’m not proud to admit it now, but I treated that election purely as a spectator sport. I was far too left-wing to get involved, and anyway – whatever the opinion polls said – I was confident it would result in the Tories being defeated and some centrist Keynesian corporatist Labour-Alliance coalition taking their place. That would leave the serious left to push for social revolution through rank-and-file workplace organisation and grassroots social movements. In other words, I thought it would be back to 1960s-1970s business-as-usual (as I then understood it, need I emphasise).

But in the early hours of June 10 1983, as the results came in and the beers went down, it dawned on me with horror that I had got it completely wrong. It was a straightforward Tory landslide. The authoritarian free-market right was utterly triumphant. The idea that somehow there would be space for anything other than desperate defence of the welfare state and trade union rights against the Thatcherite onslaught suddenly struck me as incredibly stupid. Whatever was wrong with Labour, the only alternative in a first-past-the-post electoral system was the Tories – and they were a great deal worse.

A statement of the bleeding obvious, you might think. I certainly do. I’ve not wavered in my belief that Labour is the lesser evil for a whole quarter-century (even while advocating tactical voting for the Liberal Democrats on occasion, though that’s a different story).

But it doesn’t seem that way for rather a lot of people right now. The opinion polls in the past few weeks bear a frightening resemblance to the result of the 1983 general election, and so did the local elections last month. My own focus groups – well, actually, the people I meet in everyday life – confirm all the trends. Gordon Brown is hopeless and Labour is finished if it continues on its current course.

Yes, it’s mid-term; yes, the economy might not be in quite as dire a state as the pessimists claim; yes, the Tories are coming back from a performance in terms of seats that was little better than Labour’s in 1983. But it’s looking less and less likely that Brown will be able to pull anything out of the hat. He is the day-before-yesterday’s man, and nothing he has done this year suggests that he has a clue how to restore Labour’s fortunes.

If Labour wants to avoid a repeat of 1983 in 2010, Brown should not be leader then – and the efforts of all party loyalists for the next few months should be devoted to persuading him to fall on his sword in an orderly manner. I don’t think he’ll do it, but it’s at least worth a try. The other options, professing undying loyalty to a leader who has no hope of winning or attempting to force him out, are recipes for electoral disaster.


It’s almost too depressing:

1. The whole palaver over 42-day detention has been ridiculous. I accept that the cops need more time to collect evidence from Islamist terrorist suspects than they do, from, say, football hooligans. But why go for bang ‘em up for six weeks for interrogation? No one has explained. Why not risk prosecutions going wrong? OK it’s expensive, but how much more so than the complex compensation packages that seem to have emerged this week in order to win over Labour doubters? Why piss off every lawyer who thinks that Magna Carta did not die in vain? It’s plain stupid.

2. The deals that appear to have been done to win 42 days are disgusting – and I mean kow-towing to nostalgic Stalinists who enjoy the hospitality of Fidel Castro over EU sanctions for jailing writers as much as greasing up to reactionary Northern Irish Protestants who want backdoor constraints on reproduction rights. The whole thing was rank.

3. David Davis is an unprincipled scumbag, and his resignation stunt may well implode under its own momentum. But Davis versus (or rather colluding with) Kelvin Mackenzie and the Sun, with Rupert Murdoch footing the bill for Mackenzie, is potentially a stunt on the scale of the Beaverbrook/Rothermere United Empire Party in 1930-31 – a blatant attempt by reactionary media interests to shift the political agenda to the right.

“Power without responsibility: the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages”, as the Tory leader of the time described it – but we won’t get that from David Cameron. This is scary.

4. The Irish vote against the Lisbon treaty raises the whole question of Europe again in UK politics even thought the vote was a farce – and the Tories look good on it even though they are obnoxious opportunists.

Add it all to the 10p tax rate fiasco and inflation and collapsing house prices, and – oh shit.


2 June 2008


I've got 280 exam scripts to mark this summer, and I'm in the mood to rant and rave about the idiots who run higher education.

But I shan't. I'm keeping cool because I have an escape mechanism: I'm going to the Cambridge Strawberry Fair on Saturday. Come along. You can do what you like and it's now the biggest free festival in the UK. Bands are local but good, not many cops, loads of beer and grub, plenty of stuff for kids. Facebook mobile numbers to text to meet up.

23 May 2008


The Crewe and Nantwich defeat is the worst Labour by-election result since the dog days of the early 1980s. It's not time to panic, but Brown must go before very long. He has lost the plot.

20 May 2008


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 16 May 2008

So, farewell then, Chris Mullin, Labour MP for Sunderland South, as Private Eye's resident poet E. J. Thribb would have it (though only if Mullin had died, which of course he hasn't).

Last week the former Tribune editor – that's Mullin not Thribb – told the Sunderland Echo: "After careful thought, I have reluctantly concluded that my useful life in parliament is over. I will not, therefore, be a candidate at the next election."

Mullin will be missed. He held only junior ministerial office, from 1999 to 2001 and 2003 to 2005. But – like Gwyneth Dunwoody, who has died – he played a crucial role in fearlessly chairing a select committee, in his case home affairs from 1997 to 1999 and 2001 to 2003. He has been one of the most effective backbench MPs of the past two decades and parliament will be the poorer without him.

But that's enough elegiac fawning – ed. Or maybe not, because another admirable thing about Mullin is that he's decided that it's time to quit after carefully considering how much he could achieve by staying.

As such, he's unusual among Labour MPs. There are now 351 of them sitting in the House of Commons. I have not kept a record of who is stepping down in 2010 – we can safely assume the election date, I think – but the pollster Anthony Wells has, on his excellent UK Polling Report website, which lists 26 Labour MPs as having announced that they are retiring at the end of this parliament.

If you add Mullin and Clare Short, who was elected as Labour but resigned the whip, the figure comes up to 28, but so what. The point is that very few Labour MPs have said that they are bowing out, and most of those that have are either very old or represent seats that will be abolished through boundary changes – or both.

It's true that the election is two years away. It's also true that on past form quite a few veteran Labour MPs will hang on until the last moment before announcing their retirements – a course of action that has historically been a good way of securing a peerage, because it allows the grateful Labour leadership to parachute favoured candidates into safe seats irrespective of the wishes of local Labour Party members.

Arise, I suspect, Lords Mitchell of Haddock and Chips, Skinner of Legover in a Baseball Hat and Meacher of Mad Conspiracy Theory.

All the same, the small number of announced retirements is noteworthy, even though it's easy enough to explain without reference to where we are in the electoral cycle or the cynicism of might/might-not retirees.

Labour won a landslide in 1997, in which no fewer than 178 of its 418 MPs were elected for the first time, and more than a third of the 240 others elected that distant glorious day have retired, died or been defeated since, most of them replaced by Labour members despite the losses of 2001 and 2005. I've not worked out the precise numbers, but the Parliamentary Labour Party now has a large majority of MPs first elected in 1992 or after. And those MPs think, some with justification, that they still have a way to go before they pass their sell-by dates.

But it's easy to get sell-by dates wrong. Labour's problem right now is that it is as appetising as the steak-and-kidney pie you discover at the back of the deep-freeze labelled "Best before July 2007". It might be safe to eat, but do you take the risk or make your supper from the stuff Sainsbury's delivered this morning?

It's most critical at the top: if Gordon Brown fails to turn round his and Labour's dismal opinion poll ratings before the autumn, he should take a deep breath, admit he isn't the man for the job and resign to let someone new – let's say David Miliband – take over before the next general election.

But it's not just Gordon who should be thinking he's not as fresh as he could be. There are several cabinet ministers with nothing left to give: Jack Straw springs immediately to mind, but there are others. And there are dozens of Labour MPs elected in 1987, 1992 and 1997 who have done a lot less in their time in parliament than Chris Mullin and who have no prospect of making any difference if they hang on.

Of course, getting new people in isn't a panacea. Rejuvenating Labour is much more a matter of new ideas, of which we've heard virtually nothing, than it is of new people. But people matter. The lot we've got are not, on the whole, very impressive, and very few of them would be missed. And in the worst-case scenario we'd be better-off losing with a bunch of hungry youngsters than going down with battling old pros.

8 May 2008


The decision to reclassify cannabis is utterly cretinous. It won't stop anyone smoking it, and it won't deal with the problem of kids becoming psychotic from getting stoned too much.

The reason more of them are getting wasted today than 20 years ago (even though overall cannabis consumption seems to have gone down) is that the dope is stronger. The skunk that has being doing the rounds the past seven or eight years – probably longer, my memory is shot to hell – bears the same relationship to the red Leb or even the Afghan black of the 1970s as whisky does to beer.

But why is the dope stronger? Er, skunk's dominance of the market is the result of clamping down on smuggling of milder cannabis resins from warmer climes. Raising ultra-strong homegrown under lights in a cellar or a loft or a business unit in Stoke-on-Trent is a lot less risky than coming into Los Angeles bringing in a couple of keys. And it takes a bit more work and money to extract the resin than it does to dry out the plants.

The answer is to legalise the lot, make them all available in premises licensed to sell them – they don't have to be licensed for consumption – and make sure the taxation system dissuades the punters from the strong stuff. You could even introduce tax breaks or an appellation d’origine contrôlée system for producers who maintain traditional techniques for making classic hash. Just about anything would be better than threatening people who use Britain's fourth-most-favoured recreational drug – after caffeine, alcohol and nicotine – with tough policing and serious gaol sentences.

And, like, man – the working class smokes too these days. It isn't the dog-whistle to "Labour's natural supporters" that it probably was in 1967.


I have just received a joke from a Labour Party comrade.

Q. What's the difference between Gordon Brown and the first world war?

A. The first world war wasn't finished by Xmas.

3 May 2008


Labour's disaster at the polls on Thursday was so massive it's only now really sinking in. This is not mid-term blues: it is worse than meltdown. Labour has lost it with the voters and will lose the next general election unless it changes course and does it soon.

The architect of Labour's catastrophe is easy to identify: Gordon Brown, whose smart-arse last budget and utterly incompetent premiership over the past six months have left Labour staring into the abyss not only in comfortable middle England but in its northern and Welsh heartlands.

He is not up to the job and should never have got it. That he did was down to Tony Blair's idiotic agreement back in 1994 that Brown would be his preferred successor — a deal that guaranteed that no one else in 10 years of government came close to growing into a contender.

For 10 years in office, Brown played his cards with one intention, to shaft potential rivals for the top job when Tony eventually decided to go — and Blair acquiesced. By the time Brown's half-wit supporters in the parliamentary Labour Party made their move to force Blair's resignation in autumn 2006 there was no one left standing to take Brown on. Robin Cook was dead, and the rest of the would-be contenders, most importantly Charles Clarke, were busted flushes — at least in terms of their government careers.

So we ended up with Gordon, nem con apart from a handful of diehard Trots.

But we don't need to keep him. Thanks, paradoxically, to his promotion of assorted youngsters to cabinet in order to refresh the government's image, there are now credible alternatives as there were not 18 months ago. David Miliband in particular stands out as everything Brown is not: telegenic, dynamic, engaged.

Of course, changing leader is not a panacea: Labour needs more than a different face at the top, most of all a credible narrative about how Britain would be better as a more equal society. But leadership matters all the same. Brown should recognise that his time has been and gone, and retire inside the next nine months. It does not need to be a dramatic resignation: he could discover a prostate problem as Harold Macmillan did or calmly announce that he has had enough of the strains of high office after all these years. But go he must.

24 April 2008


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 25 April 2008

Unlike dozens of 40-something lefties I know, I'm not going to be wandering around the Love Music, Hate Racism carnival in Victoria Park this Sunday reminiscing fondly about the day 30 years ago when the very same place was the site of the first Anti-Nazi League carnival with the Clash, the Tom Robinson Band, Steel Pulse and others.

Don't get me wrong: I've got nothing against Love Music, Hate Racism and I'd be there if I could, but I'm working. And even though I can't make it, I shall pause during my shift to indulge in a little misty-eyed nostalgia for the 1978 carnival.

I hitch-hiked down from Ipswich for it with a posh girl from Colchester called Gabriel whose parents would have gone bananas if they'd known where we were going and how. And it was one of the two best days of many good ones I remember from that spring. (The other best was Ipswich beating Arsenal 1-0 in the FA Cup final a week later.) Victoria Park was heaving with people – something between 80,000 and 100,000 showed up – and the gig was brilliant. On the way home Gabriel kissed me... I wonder what she's doing now?

But enough of that Miss J Hunter Dunn moment. I hope everyone has as good a time on Sunday as I had 30 years ago – and that no one spends too long thinking seriously about historical parallels between 1978 and 2008, because that could all too easily spoil the party.

The context for the 1978 carnival was of course the rise of a xenophobic far-right gang in electoral politics, the National Front – and obviously there is a contemporary equivalent in the shape of the British National Party. If Sunday does anything to galvanise opposition to the BNP in the run-up to next week's London elections, it will have performed an extraordinarily useful function.

Yet, unpleasant as the prospect is of the BNP sitting in the London Assembly, the rise of the far right in London is not the most disturbing similarity between 1978 and now. That distinction goes to the national political scene, where now as then a deeply unpopular Labour government seems to be stumbling towards oblivion in the face of a Tory revival.

I know there are differences. The Labour governments of the 1970s had bigger problems than Gordon Brown has today - runaway inflation, growing unemployment, dire industrial relations, a currency crisis - and from 1977 Labour had to rely on a pact with the Liberals for a majority in the House of Commons. By contrast, Brown has (on most things) a comfortable parliamentary majority, growth has been continuous for a record period, inflation is relatively low and unemployment is falling. The unions – teachers' days off aside – are supine.

But Labour's economic prospects today look much less rosy than its recent record – and the Brown government shares with the Callaghan government of the late 1970s an aura of aimlessness and exhaustion that augurs very badly.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the crisis over the abolition of the 10p starting rate of income tax. The measure was announced in Brown's final budget as chancellor of the exchequer last year as part of a package that included reduction of the basic rate of income tax from 22p to 20p – and at the time nearly everyone heralded it as a master stroke. (I demurred but so limply it is embarrassing.) The very few critics who asked how it would affect people on low incomes were reassured that any ill-effects would be minimal as tax credits would compensate.

This was simply not true - as Labour backbenchers came to realise long after they had voted the tax changes through parliament. In fact, abolition of the 10p rate means that some 5 million low-paid people will be worse-off, some of them by nearly £4 a week.

It's difficult to fathom what was going on in Brown's head when he hit on these tax reforms. If he did not realise what their impact would be he was stupendously careless – and if he did realise but thought no one would notice he was plain stupid.

Not that the MPs who were this week threatening to rebel over the issue have much to be proud about. It should not have taken Labour backbenchers the best part of nine months to discover that rather a lot of people would be hit hard by Brown's changes. To mix metaphorical clichés, the threatened backbench rebellion was one of headless chickens trying to shut the door after the horse has bolted. They got Brown to U-turn, in the end, but at a massive price to not only his but their party's credibility.

Will Brown survive this fiasco? I think so, but whether he does or doesn't I'm starting to get a feeling in my bones that the next prime minister will be David Cameron. It would take a massive swing for the Tories to win the next general election. But on the evidence of the past few weeks, I have a hunch they could do it. Right now, Labour isn't working – as the famous 1978 Tory poster had it.

19 April 2008


I was in a great mood this morning until I read this pernicious nonsense from the playwright David Edgar in the Guardian – the point of which is that Christopher Hitchens, Nick Cohen, Andrew Anthony and others who have objected to the left getting into bed with reactionary Islamists are defectors from the “progressive” cause who have abandoned any commitment to defending the most exploited people in our society. Edgar fails to explain how Hitchens, Cohen et al have "defected" – he simply takes it as read – and does not engage with any of the supposed defectors' arguments. But he does claim, on the basis of the scantiest of evidence, that Islamists are getting more “progressive” on homosexuality and women’s rights as a result of their engagement with the left intelligentsia. I'm used to reading utter bollocks in the Guardian, but this really takes the biscuit.

18 April 2008


I've been doing some saddo cleaning up and indexing on this blog – OK, I'm so 1999 HTML – and found this.


I had no idea that Aimé Césaire, the Martinique poet, playwright, political intellectual and politician, was until yesterday still alive, when he died at the age of 94. I have never been an uncritical admirer, but his 1939 poem Cahier d'un retour au pays natal (translated as Return to my Native Land) is one of the most stunning works of 20th-century Modernist poetry – up there with the best of T. S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, the Surrealists and the Futurists. The Times has an obituary here.

3 April 2008


Members of Suffolk National Union of Journalists braved the wrath of a major hotel chain to protest against plans by Ipswich's daily papers to axe sub-editors' jobs.

They distributed leaflets opposing the cuts to members of the Suffolk Chamber of Commerce, which was holding a meeting at the Ipswich Novotel where senior executives of Archant, owner of the East Anglian Daily Times and the Evening Star, were speaking.

The two activists were asked to leave the hotel carpark by a Novotel employee but refused to go until they spoke to a senior manager. The delay this caused allowed them to hand out more than five extra leaflets.

Suffolk NUJ member Paul Anderson said: "It's mad to think you can produce newspapers or websites or anything else without subs. We are essential if publishers are going to avoid major libel actions and serious embarrassment over inaccuracies."

Archant recently announced that it would be replacing sub-editors on its Ipswich titles with advertising layout production staff.

25 March 2008


There are some great archive clips here that catch the spizz-energy of the anarchist group Class War in its pomp in the mid-1980s.

I was there at the foundation, believe it or not. Class War started in 1983 after Ian Bone -- one of the two geezers ranting in the clips (the other is Martin Wright, the genius who invented the anarcho class-hatred thing) -- walked out of a meeting of the London Workers Group.

The London Workers Group was the early-1980s forum for class-struggle anarchists, autonomists and council communists that met every week in the upstairs room of the Metropolitan pub in Farringdon Road. I was a regular: the week before Bone came along I'd delivered a talk on the legacy of the council communist tradition at which two ancient militants, as the French call them, had nearly come to blows.

Whatever, Bone arrived in an attempt to recruit us to his new project for an in-your-face tabloid anarchist newspaper, and when he got a lukewarm response he flounced out, denouncing us as a bunch of fucking wankers. Fucking wanker.

24 March 2008


UK Polling Report is awesome for all sorts of stuff on British electoral politics and I've been meaning to give it a plug for ages.


I was planning to have a go later at the BBC4 programme on the Turin Shroud, shown on Saturday and fronted by Rageh Omar, that gave completely unjustifiable credibility to flakey "new research" that supposedly places in doubt the evidence that it is a fake. But there's no need for me to bother. Heresy Corner has done it for me. (Hat tip: Oliver Kamm.)


The Guardian leads today with news that the government is set to propose the introduction of the alternative vote for elections to the House of Commons – which, if true, would be deeply depressing.

Under AV, single-member constituencies are retained from the current first-past-the-post system, but voters mark their ballot papers not with a single "x" but by numbering their preferences. If no candidate gets more than 50 per cent of first preferences, the bottom-placed candidate is eliminated and his or her second preferences are added to the other candidates' totals, and so on until one candidate tops 50 per cent.

In practice, its main effect would be to ensure that results in marginal seats were determined in most instances by the second preference votes of supporters of third- or fourth-placed candidates. In nearly all the Labour-Tory marginals that decide British general elections, that would mean Lib Dem supporters deciding whether they'd rather keep Labour or the Tories out.

On one hand, this would reinforce the already stifling trend in British politics towards lowest-common-denominator populist politics. And on the other, as Lib Dem supporters' second preferences piled on the agony for whichever of the major parties they disliked more, it would also exacerbate the in-built tendency of FPTP to yield landslide election results.

Although in 1997, 2001 and 2005 this would probably have benefited Labour, throughout the 1980s, when Liberal and Social Democratic Party voters generally saw the Tories as less bad than Labour, it would almost certainly have given Margaret Thatcher even more commanding majorities than she actually won.

Under the present electoral system, Labour is in danger of losing its overall majority at the next election on a very small swing to the Tories (as the document referred to in this story from the Sunday Times yesterday makes clear). Labour supporters of AV, believing that Lib Dem voters would be more likely to make Labour rather than the Tories their second choice in 2009 or 2010, think that AV would be a neat way of saving those imperilled seats. But if their assumption about Lib Dem voters is wrong – as it could be – a change to AV could easily deliver a Tory landslide.

The problem, put simply, is that, far from yielding a House of Commons that more accurately reflects the spread of party support across the country – which should surely be the goal of any change to the electoral system – AV could make the Commons less representative. It is not a step towards proportional representation but a step away from it - and as such deserves nothing but contempt from democrats across the political spectrum.

21 March 2008


I might be missing something here, but since when has a post office been the key to the survival or cohesion of any community? OK, if it's also a village store or a pub, I accept, and it's important that old folk can pick up their pensions in a relaxed and reassuring setting. But most post offices have no social function whatsoever. They are shops where you can buy all sorts of stuff you can buy anywhere else. What exactly is the rationale for massive public subsidy?

19 March 2008


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 21 March 2008

Events, dear boy, events... It's a cliché - but Harold Macmillan's famous line about what's most likely to blow a government off-course remains as apposite as when he is supposed to have uttered it.

And doesn't Gordon Brown know it this week. Amid an international financial crisis that sober experts say could be the worst for the world economy since the Wall Street crash of 1929, the opinion polls appear to have turned irrevocably against Labour. According to YouGov and ICM, Alistair Darling's attempt at reassurance in his first Budget last week has gone down with the punters like a bucket of dodgy oysters.

OK, it's not all over by any means. Precisely what the collapse of the US investment bank Bear Stearns signifies for Britain or indeed anywhere else is not yet clear - and there are always good reasons to resist the temptation to predict the imminent breakdown of the capitalist system. A dull Budget that enthuses no one is not necessarily an omen of electoral disaster. There are still two years before Brown has to go to the polls, and mid-term unpopularity is something governments should treat as the norm rather than the exception (contrary to Labour's experience since 1997). And the Tories are still a long way short of being a shoo-in.

But it doesn't look good at all. The panic in the stock markets might not last for long - indeed it might be over as I write - but the credit crunch is for real, and it's difficult to see how it won't at very least bring the British housing bubble to an end.

UK house prices have been ludicrously inflated for at least five years, and we Brits - or rather those of us who consider ourselves home-owners, though in fact we're not because we've borrowed to buy - have been binge-consuming on the back of more borrowing against our equity.

Now that is all grinding to a halt, it seems. If banks won't lend money to one another because they're worried about their competitors' US sub-prime exposure, they certainly won't lend to any but the least-risky Brit consumers. The scenario every Labour politician fears is that everyone who has lived the high life on equity-based credit tightens his or her belt, the bottom falls out of the housing market, repossessions rocket, businesses of all kinds go bust - and in six months we're into a recession deeper than that of the early 1990s.

Will it happen? I don't know any more than anyone else, but right now I'm not optimistic. And the thought that we might be facing recession makes me gloomier than I have ever been about Labour's chances at the next general election.

Governments do sometimes survive recessions: the Tories won in 1992, remember. It's not impossible to imagine public opinion rallying to dull, dependable Labour if times really were to get tough. Hunch tells me, however, that it wouldn't be like that. Voters would want to punish Labour for bringing the housing bonanza to an end - and the Tories would reap the benefit. Not a pleasant prospect, but has anyone got a more realistic one?

* * *

On a different matter entirely, I spent Tuesday evening at a meeting of the Suffolk branch of the National Union of Journalists. It was unusually full - in part, no doubt, because of the pulling power of the main speaker, Jeremy Dear, NUJ general secretary and fellow Tribune columnist, but also because of the subject of discussion: the announcement by Archant, the publisher of the Ipswich East Anglian Daily Times and Evening Star, that it was going to replace many of its sub-editors with non-journalist (and worse-paid) page-designers.

You might think this an arcane matter of obvious interest to those whose jobs are threatened but of little wider importance. But it's not. It's yet another example of aggressive newspaper management sacrificing quality journalism in pursuit of greater profits - part of the culture of "churnalism" attacked with such verve by the Guardian's Nick Davies in his book Flat Earth News. Getting rid of subs might save Archant several thousand pounds a year - but it would also inevitably mean stories being published full of grammatical, spelling and factual mistakes.

And that's not because the reporters and feature-writers on the Anglian and the Star are incompetent - just that they're human and fallible. I've been working as a sub at least part of the time for nearly 25 years now, and I have never come across a writer whose work has not been improved by subbing. Even the most elegant stylist will now and again misspell a proper name or attribute a quotation to the wrong person - and many of the best reporters do not write very well. It's true that technology has changed the sub's job out of all recognition since I started, but it hasn't rendered it obsolete - and never will.

10 March 2008


Congratulations to our comrades in the PSOE. Much more important than anything in Venezuela or Cuba; hardly reported.

6 March 2008


The 29 Europhobe Labour MPs who voted with the Tories for a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty:

Colin Burgon (Elmet), Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley), Frank Cook (Stockton North), Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North), John Cummings (Easington), Ian Davidson (Glasgow South West), David Drew (Stroud), Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe & Nantwich), Frank Field (Birkenhead), Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent Central), Roger Godsiff (Birmingham Sparkbrook & Small Heath), Kate Hoey (Vauxhall), Kelvin Hopkins (Luton North), Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley), Lynne Jones (Birmingham Selly Oak), John McDonnell (Hayes & Harlington), David Marshall (Glasgow East), Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby), Anne Moffat (East Lothian), George Mudie (Leeds East), Denis Murphy (Wansbeck), Alan Simpson (Nottingham South), Dennis Skinner (Bolsover), Graham Stringer (Manchester Blackley), Gisela Stuart (Birmingham Edgbaston), David Taylor (Leicestershire North West), Paul Truswell (Pudsey), Robert Wareing (Liverpool West Derby), Mike Wood (Batley & Spen)

27 February 2008


I thought it was a big lorry that shouldn't have been out so late. But in Market Rasen it was something else, according to the BBC:
At the offices of the town's local newspaper, the Market Rasen Mail, the earthquake broke the usual daily news agenda.
Michael Steed, one of the paper's two reporters, said the earthquake had happened too late to make this week's edition, but it was likely to be the front page story next week.

22 February 2008


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 22 February 2008

Few books have caused quite such a stir of late as the Guardian journalist Nick Davies’s excoriating expose of British journalism, Flat Earth News. It has been reviewed at length in every quality national, discussed in columns and on radio and TV, excerpted by four different newspapers and magazines.

And it’s not hard to see why there is such interest. Davies breaks the journalistic convention that “dog doesn’t eat dog” – in other words, that journalists don’t attack one another in public – and he does it with panache. No newspaper or broadcaster is spared in his assault on what he calls “churnalism”, “journalists failing to perform the basic functions of their profession; quite unable to tell the reader the truth about what is happening on their patch”.

But is he right? On quite a lot, yes. Journalists too often fail to question received wisdom of all kinds. They are too often bamboozled by spin doctors, corporate public relations companies, axe-grinding pressure groups and disinformation specialists from the spook world. Too many journalists – particularly on local newspapers – are so overworked that they spend nearly all their time recycling press releases, interview only over the phone (never face-to-face) and rarely leave the office. In many news organisations, pressure of time means that facts aren’t checked. Many newspapers and broadcasting outlets have cut back on investigative journalism because it’s too expensive. Some journalists use extraordinarily dubious methods to dig up information; some get too close to their sources. There’s a deeply unpleasant culture of bullying in some national newspapers; others are utterly cynical about running any story that will boost circulation even though they know it to be untrue.

All the same, Davies over-eggs the pudding. He started work on Flat Earth News, he says, because of “a single, notorious story – the long and twisting saga of the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq”: “As the sand settled after the invasion in March 2003 and the weaponless reality slowly began to emerge, journalists across the world started looking for the truth and yet almost all of them wrote about it as though this were a screw-up generated only by intelligence agencies and governments, invariably failing to expose their own profession’s global contribution.”

Yet the chapter of the book that focuses most directly on WMD and Iraq is in the end its weakest. It’s an account of how the Observer – which is of course the Guardian’s sister paper – got the story wrong in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The chapter starts well: its first part is about the reporter David Rose, who ran a series of articles in the wake of 9/11 based on dubious sources: Iraqi exiles and US and British intelligence officials. Rose swallowed the story that there was an Iraqi connection to 9/11, used ropey evidence to question the credibility of Scott Ritter (the American former-weapons-inspector who questioned whether Saddam had WMD) and generally got caught up in what he later described as “a calculated set-up, devised to foster the propaganda for war”. It’s an amazing tale of journalistic misjudgment and Davies tells it well, though I’m unconvinced by his assumption that Rose’s work had a massive impact on the minds of Observer readers: I remember his stories well, and like everyone I know took them with a very large pinch of salt.

What has got them talking in Farringdon Road, though, are Davies’s allegations about the relationship between the Observer and the British government in 2002-03. He has it that the Observer’s editor, Roger Alton, and its political editor, Kamal Ahmed, were manipulated by Alastair Campbell into becoming mouthpieces for No 10 Downing Street – and it’s here that I start to get really sceptical.

Davies suggests that Alton and Ahmed were tricked into supporting the toppling of Saddam and then themselves used underhand means to ensure that the Observer, in defiance of its liberal traditions, backed the government. But a much more plausible explanation of their actions is the simplest: that they came independently to the conclusion that Saddam was a vile dictator who should be overthrown, and so backed the war. They might have been wrong, but there is insufficient evidence to impugn their integrity as Davies does.

I also think he exaggerates both the reliance of the quality national press on news agencies and the unreliability of agency copy – and there are plenty of counter-examples that undermine his claim that investigative journalism is disappearing, not least from his own paper (though you can also find it on occasion even in the Daily Mail). In other words, most journalism in Britain is pretty good, and the best of it is excellent.

But Flat Earth News provides a salutary warning about where things are wrong and what could happen in a worst-case projection of current trends. And you know what? Dog eating dog is horribly watchable.