31 December 2010


Don't know about you, but I'm in the mood for PiL:

Thanks to Madam Miaow for finding this.

26 December 2010


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

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

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

23 December 2010


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

17 December 2010


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

13 December 2010


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

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

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

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

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

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

4 December 2010


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

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

Let’s try and find some consensus.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 December 2010


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

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

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

29 November 2010


Bill Myers of Leicester has this in the current London Review of Books (scroll down from here):
Whatever Ross McKibbin may say, opponents of AV are not ‘cave dwellers’ (LRB, 18 November). AV maximises the votes of extremist candidates, since anyone voting for them knows their second preference votes will still count, while the second preference votes of the last candidate to be eliminated have no impact on the result, though as many as 40 per cent of the votes may be affected. In constituencies where the Labour and Lib Dem candidates are the leading contenders, for example, only the second preferences of Conservative, UKIP and BNP supporters will matter. It is possible, however, that if their own candidate is defeated, Labour voters would prefer to be represented by an ‘honest-to-God’ Tory than a ‘pragmatic’ Lib Dem. The second preference votes of the last candidate to be eliminated should take precedence over those of the least successful candidates. Under the standard counting procedure, AV is demonstrably less democratic than first past the post.
I'm not sure that redistributed second preferences of voters whose first preferences are for extremist candidates are any more problematic than the second preferences of any other voters – why should anyone's second preference be worth than anyone else's or indeed the same as anyone else's first preference? – but there is a valid point here. Andrew Rawnsley picked up on it here in his otherwise entertainingly knockabout but vacuous piece in the Observer on Sunday, in which he fails to recognise that quite a few of us reject AV not because we love the present electoral system but because it is not a proportional system or even a step on the way to one.

28 November 2010


If there is one message that defines the Tory-Lib Dem coalition, it is anti-statism. The Tories and Lib Dems agree that the British state is too big, too interventionist, too centralised, too bureaucratic, too authoritarian, too inefficient. The key task of the current government, they concur, is to set the people free by reducing the size and scope of the state and decentralising what remains and subjecting it to the disciplines of the market.

The imperative of deficit reduction, as Nick Clegg argued in his Hugo Young lecture last week, is a blessing in disguise. The pain the cuts will cause, as he didn’t put it, will be a price worth paying for liberation. Much the same point was made by the Tory journalist, author and former Thatcher apparatchik Ferdinand Mount in the annual George Orwell lecture on Friday, in which he argued, unconvincingly, that Orwell, in life a democratic socialist Labour supporter, would today endorse the coalition’s hostility towards “oligarchy”. (For a pointed demolition of Mount’s case, see Anna Chen here.)

“We need to get the state off our backs!” is hardly a novel narrative – it’s very much in line with what the Thatcherites proclaimed in the 1970s and 1980s and what liberals of a certain stripe have argued since time immemorial – but it’s one that Labour is finding hard to counter.

This is partly because Labour itself fought the general election earlier this year on a programme of cuts (albeit less rapid and less draconian), but that’s not the whole story. The reasons it embraced cuts were many and varied. Some of the party’s leading lights had bought into parts of liberal anti-statism (though not the whole package), and many beyond this group were genuinely convinced that the scale of the deficit demanded drastic immediate action. Others, however, saw the promise of cuts opportunistically as a useful gesture to placate the bond markets, the right-wing press or tax-averse “aspirational” middle-class voters, to be reconsidered in the fullness of time; and still others accepted cuts only through gritted teeth because the alternative was a potentially catastrophic revolt by some on the Labour right.

In other words, the root problem is that Labour is seriously divided on some of the most fundamental political questions, those of the proper roles and proper organisational principles of the state. Its upper echelons include bigger-staters and smaller-staters, centralisers and decentralisers, democratisers and quangocrats, privatisers and anti-privatisers, authoritarians and libertarians. And just to confuse matters further, there are bigger-staters on macroeconomic management who are smaller-staters on benefits spending and housing, centralisers on education who are decentralisers on urban planning, authoritarians on anti-social behaviour who are libertarians on detaining suspected terrorists without trial, and so on.

The upshot is that Labour doesn’t have a strong, coherent over-arching message to counter the anti-statism of the Tories and Lib Dems. It can of course argue that the anti-statist message is simplistic, iniquitous, impractical and hypocritical (which it is) and selectively oppose those coalition cuts, deregulatory measures and other reforms that are least popular. But this falls a long way short of articulating a convincing and attractive distillation of the case for social democracy in the early 21st century, which is what Labour desperately needs.

Can it develop one? I think so, but only if it begins by subjecting the coalition’s anti-statism to a rigorous critique and restating some basic social democratic political principles that it was mealy-mouthed about at best in government.

For a start, Labour needs unashamedly to make it clear that, contrary to the coalition’s rhetoric, there is a strong case for a big state – one that manages the overall level of demand in the economy, redistributes income and wealth to ensure freedom from want for all, plays the major role in provision of education, health care and other welfare services, and generally steps in to deal with market failure, particularly in transport, housing and energy policy.

Secondly, it needs to revive the argument that a big state does not have to be and should not be authoritarian, unaccountable, stiflingly bureaucratic, frivolously meddlesome or ultra-centralised. Here, some profound self-criticism of the New Labour era is in order, as well as a raft of big symbolic libertarian, decentralising and democratising policy measures. Right now, off the top of my head, I’d go for radical libel law reform, handing control of the schools curriculum back to councils, ending both central government capping of local taxation and ring-fencing of local spending, proportional representation (not the alternative vote) for the Commons and a democratic second chamber. This is by no means a definitive list or one that will necessarily be apposite come the next general election – nor is this sort of stuff a panacea for all of Labour’s ills – but you get my drift.

I haven’t a clue whether Ed Miliband’s policy review, announced yesterday, will go in anything like this direction. But I can’t see any credible alternative.

25 November 2010


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 26 November 2010

“If Cleopatra’s nose had been shorter,” Pascal famously remarked, “the whole face of the world would have been changed.”

His point was that the Egyptian queen was so extraordinarily attractive that she was able easily to seduce first Julius Caesar and then Mark Antony, the two most powerful Romans of her era – and that these liaisons had earth-shattering results.

Which seems fair enough … until you do a little thinking. For a start, there’s no evidence that it was Cleopatra’s nose that turned the lads’ heads, rather than, say, her delightful smile, her powerful thighs, her ready repartee or her fabulous wealth. And though their heads were undoubtedly turned, it’s not at all clear how that changed the course of events. Maybe Caesar would have pissed off fewer key people if he hadn’t been carrying on with Cleopatra, and so would have avoided assassination – but it’s just as plausible that he would he have been a less successful general without regular leg-overs. Perhaps Mark Antony would have done rather better against Octavian in the battle of Actium if he’d been able to stop day-dreaming about Cleopatra. Then again, it’s more than possible that he’d have met a sticky end if he’d spurned the come-on when they first met.

In other words, there is no way of telling what would have happened differently had Cleopatra’s nose been shorter. All we know is that it wasn’t, and what happened, er, happened. It might be fun to speculate about the broader impact of apparently trivial historical phenomena, but, as Bertrand Russell pointed out years ago, it is not serious history.

As with Cleopatra’s nose, so with Harriet’s goose. Thanks to the efforts of various assiduous journalists and contemporary historians, we can now be pretty sure that Harriet Harman, Labour’s deputy leader, hosted a dinner party last New Year’s Eve at which, over roast goose, she, Patricia Hewitt and a couple of other senior Labour MPs concocted a plot to force Gordon Brown’s replacement as Labour leader ahead of the spring general election.

That meeting was followed, of course, by the farcical attempted coup against Brown of January 6 this year, when Hewitt and Geoff Hoon circulated a letter demanding a ballot of the Parliamentary Labour Party to “resolve” what they described as “the question of the leadership” – an initiative that fizzled out when not a single member of the Cabinet came out publicly in their support.

It was obvious at the time that Hewitt and Hoon had expected more, and easy enough to guess which Cabinet members most wanted Brown out. Now, 11 months on, the full extent of the plot has emerged. Cue an orgy of speculation by Blairite nostalgics to the effect that if only Jack Straw had brought matters to a head with Gordon on January 4, if only Harriet hadn’t wavered, if only Alan Johnson and Peter Mandelson and David Miliband had been properly brought on board, Gordon would have gone, David would have stepped up, Labour would have soared in the polls and won the election …

A credible scenario? Well, up to a point – but no more so than any number of others with less happy endings for Labour. What if Straw and Harman had told Brown he should go and he had refused, then fired them? What if the goose plot had succeeded and the Brownites had resigned en masse from the government?

I know, it doesn’t matter in one sense, because of what actually transpired. But in another it does. The Blairites’ insistence that the party lost in 2010 only because of Brown’s unfriendly public persona and his hostility to the nostrums of New Labour is symptomatic of their failure to grasp either how uninspiring so much of the New Labour package had become even in the latter stages of Tony Blair’s premiership or the substantial political continuities between Brown and Blair.

Yes, there were good things about New Labour both in opposition between 1994 and 1997 and in government thereafter. Blair appealed to voters previous Labour leaders could not reach, and his government delivered ten years of prosperity, a swathe of constitutional reforms (albeit cut short), the minimum wage, hundreds of new schools and hospitals, Sure Start and a lot more besides. But the party’s electoral touch was on the wane by 2005 – and the list of its failures in office is long: Iraq, the culture of spin, MPs’ expenses, housing, financial regulation, civil liberties, prisons, energy, transport. If Labour is to win in 2015, it has to get to grips with where it went wrong between 1997 and 2010. And although Brown deserves to take his fair share of the blame, it is frivolous to think that everything would have turned out fine if only another hand had been on the tiller for the general election campaign. Ed Miliband is right: Labour needs a fresh start.

24 November 2010


Jonathan Freedland gets it when it comes to the task facing Ed Miliband:
Rather than trying simply to repeat the Blair trick of 1994 – where he declared his intention to scrap the party's commitment to "common ownership of the means of production" – a better focus would be generating a coherent answer to the question of why Labour lost in 2010 and what it would do differently next time around.

To their credit, those close to Miliband acknowledge the party has become disconnected from the British public, that it no longer looks or sounds like them. Remedying that, the leader's camp insists, will be a challenge to the party – "It will not be comfort food," says one adviser, but it will lack the macho simplicity of crushing the unions, as the uber-Blairite scribblers demand.

In the meantime Miliband needs to look outward and do the job of opposition. Lord knows, there is no shortage of things to oppose. Above all, he needs to shift the emphasis of Labour's economic argument. Right now, the party begins with the concession that, yes, there have to be cuts – and then offers quibbles about the timing and degree. That doesn't work. The only way Labour can punch through is by saying that the coalition is taking a reckless gamble with the British economy – with Ireland as a warning from hell – and that any cuts in spending should wait until the return of growth. Otherwise it simply won't get heard.

16 November 2010


I get the horrible feeling that the past fortnight has defined Labour’s response to the coalition government’s cuts programme – and that it is to take the line of least resistance.
I’m not talking about the frosty official Labour response to last week’s demonstration against higher education cuts (and fee increases) that ended with student anarchists and others trashing the Tories’ HQ building and one of them throwing a fire extinguisher at the cops from its rooftop. No one would expect any mainstream political party in Britain even to say – truthfully - that the fracas got the protesters publicity that they would otherwise have missed or to admit that the demonstrators expressed an anger that is widespread.

No, the important evidence is in dry policy speeches, notably this one from Alan Johnson, the shadow chancellor, and interviews by Johnson and other senior Labour figures. (The key Johnson interview was in the Times, so no link.) The line from Johnson and the rest is that the government is lying when it claims it was left a dreadful economic legacy by Labour and that it is cutting too hard and too fast – but that the rationale for the cuts (and for “welfare reform”) is essentially sound.

Fair enough on the first part, but, I’m sorry, the rest is selling the pass. The historian Ross McKibbin has an excellent piece in the current London Review of Books in which he makes several salient points:
To the historian, especially of the 1931 crisis, the whole thing is sadly familiar. There is the same paralysis on the part of the Labour Party (which might now wonder whether a four-month leadership election was really a good thing) and everywhere the same ramped-up rhetoric: the country is on the edge, going bankrupt, capital will flee, and it is all Labour’s fault. And this time, as in 1931, there is much that is spurious. The country is not on the verge of bankruptcy. There is no evidence that the bond market was reacting against British debt, despite the best efforts of the Conservative Party to encourage it to do so. Our fiscal position was never like that of Greece, which had cooked the books and was struggling to cope with short-term government debt, though Osborne et al insisted it was.

Why was it necessary to take such drastic action at all? Our debt ratio was much higher after the Second World War and neither Attlee nor Churchill felt any obligation to do what Cameron, Clegg and Osborne have done. Even Darling’s proposed schedule of deficit reduction seems excessively prudent. A less political chancellor might simply have allowed economic recovery (i.e. increased tax returns to the Treasury), modest reductions in new spending and inflation to deal with the debt…

I doubt that the cuts have very much to do with the economy: if they did they would have been more plausible and less risky. It is very unlikely that Osborne, if asked, could give any economic rationale for them. Nor could the Conservative MPs who cheered and waved their order papers when he had finished telling them that everything was going to be made significantly worse. The importance of the cuts is not economic but political and ideological…

The notion that the state should conduct its own finances in the manner of a prudent household has always been thought plain common sense by many voters (though no one in the Treasury would agree), even if in the last 20 years the electorate has conducted its affairs anything but prudently. Thus from the point of view of a rather rudderless Tory Party the very hugeness of the cuts is an advantage: they magnify the crisis and Labour’s recklessness in causing it. Further, they restore a sense of authority to the Conservative Party and to its interpretation of British politics and society, something it has lacked for a long time. That the cuts are promoted by a coalition government including the soft-hearted Lib Dems is an added advantage. It shrouds the Thatcherism of the exercise in a cloak of fairness.
The coalition is arguing for a cuts-to-tax-increases ratio in its consolidation programme of 80:20, with the axe to come down as soon as possible to eradicate the deficit in the lifetime of a parliament. Before the election, Labour was going for 67:33 cuts-to-tax to halve the deficit over four years; today it is arguing for 50:50. But even 50:50 to halve the deficit over four years is unnecessarily draconian. Why not 40:60, as advocated by Ed Balls during the Labour leadership contest, or even 30:70, with the bulk of tax increases being paid by the top 20 per cent of earners, by the wealthy and by banks? And why over four years and not six or even eight?

A cynic would say that 50:50 over four years is simply to keep Peter Mandelson and other New Labour nostalgics from sabotaging Ed Miliband’s leadership by banging on about the impossibility of selling tax increases to “aspirational” middle England. John Rentoul explained it rather more generously in the Independent on Sunday, where he praised Labour’s “Tardis” strategy, according to which “the way to win the next election is for the party to imagine itself into the future … Imagine it is November 2014; the general election is six months away. How has the opposition party demonstrated its economic credibility?”

I'm not convinced. OK, it makes sense for Labour to think long-term and to avoid hostages to fortune. Economic credibility is undoubtedly a Good Thing. But we don't know what the state of the economy will be in 2014 and what will then count as “credible”; and the most obvious hostage to fortune in current circumstances, with recovery weak and imperilled by the likely impact of spending cuts in reducing demand in the economy, would be a commitment to over-hasty and over-severe austerity.

The real danger for Labour, in short, is not that it appears insufficiently keen on cuts but that its timidity in questioning the fundamental assumptions of the coalition's slash-and-burn assault on the welfare state will render it incapable of benefiting from popular anger at the effects of government policy. I hope I'm wrong, but the party currently looks as if it is sleepwalking into a trap.

12 November 2010


Paul Anderson, review of Czechoslovakia: The State that Failed by Mary Heimann (Yale, 2009), Tribune, 12 November 2010

Mary Heimann’s history of Czechoslovakia is both a supremely competent and detailed narrative account of the short lives of a central European state (1918-39 and 1945-92) and a brilliant piece of iconoclasm.

For most in the west, Czechoslovak history means four things: the Munich crisis and its aftermath, when a plucky little democracy was betrayed to Nazi Germany by the appeasing governments of Britain and France; the communist coup of 1948 that put paid to a nascent democracy; the crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968, when Soviet tanks snuffed out a brave experiment in “socialism with a human face”; and the Velvet Revolution of 1989, when peaceful protest forced the collapse of the communist regime.

Heimann tells all these stories with verve – but in doing so makes it clear that there was more to each of them than most in the west realise. Czech and Slovak chauvinism were “among the principal causes of the instability that led to the Munich crisis”, she argues; and the same phenomena played a major role both in the anti-Jew and anti-gypsy persecutions of second world war years and in the hardline Stalinism that characterised the country’s communist regime for most of its existence. Czechoslovakia, in other words, was not simply a put-upon victim but at least to some extent the architect of its own misfortunes.

This is a controversial thesis, but Heimann marshals her evidence convincingly, never overstating her case. She shows that the first Czechoslovak Republic (1918-38) was never a straightforward liberal democratic utopia. It was, as its architects intended, dominated by Czechs (the majority population in the western two-thirds of the country, Bohemia and Moravia), with the Slovaks (the majority in the eastern third, Slovakia) and other nationalities (Germans in the west, Hungarians and Ruthenes in the east) marginalised from the start and increasingly attracted to authoritarian and fascist anti-Czech nationalism.

She then tells the unsettling story of the short-lived second Czechoslovak Republic (1938-39, after Munich), in which anti-semitism took hold of popular opinion as the far right rose in what remained both of Slovakia and of Czech-majority Bohemia and Moravia – paving the way for widespread willing co-operation with the Nazi Final Solution – and goes on to make clear how far nationalism and anti-semitism embued the communist regime that seized power in 1945.

All that changed after 1968, when the regime was rescued from collapse by Soviet arms and its claims to represent the national interests of its peoples lost all credibility: the next 20 years, Heinmann says, were widely felt as a “foreign occupation”. And when the system finally cracked, it took only three years for tensions between Czechs and Slovaks to reach breaking point. The Czech Republic and Slovakia became separate states on January 1 1993.

This book is a fascinating study of the enduring importance of nationalism and an eye-opening expose of the myths behind received historical wisdom. It is essential reading for anyone interested in 20th century central European history.

11 November 2010


D. J. Taylor has a piece on Remembrance Day in the Independent that sums it up perfectly for me.

6 November 2010


Next year's promised referendum on changing the electoral system for Westminster elections from first-past-the-post to the alternative vote looks set to be an even damper squib than it did a couple of months ago now that Labour has announced that it will be not campaigning for a "yes" vote.

The "yes" campaign is likely to comprise only the Liberal Democrats, a smattering of Labour MPs, various small electoral reform lobbying groups and a handful of columnists in the upmarket press. And rather a lot of people in the "yes" camp will be campaigning half-heartedly or reluctantly because AV, in which you vote preferentially in single-member constituencies ("1, 2, 3, 4 ..." rather than "X"), is not a system of proportional representation, which is what they actually want. Indeed, I suspect that most supporters of a "yes" vote will justify their position on the grounds that AV would be a "step towards" PR.

As I've written before, I don't buy this argument. AV is not only not a system of proportional representation, it is in no sense a "step towards" it. In many circumstances it would yield results that were even less proportional than FPTP. And there is no evidence whatsoever to believe that introducing AV would unleash a dynamic successful movement for PR. (My hunch is that the reverse would happen, and that we'd be stuck with AV for the long term.)

Add the fact that AV has flaws that FPTP does not have - most notably that it gives the same weight to some voters' second (and third, and fourth ...) preferences that it gives to others' first preferences - and I really can't fathom why anyone who is serious about PR isn't campaigning for a "no". As a long-time supporter of PR, I feel like a vegetarian in a restaurant being offered the choice of pork and beef.

So although I'm glad that Labour has opted not to campaign for a "yes", I don't want to leave it there. On the other hand, I don't want to throw in my lot with the Tory "No 2 AV" crew or the neanderthal Labour defenders of the status quo. I've been discussing with a few friends the idea of setting up for setting up an "AV is not PR: vote 'No'!" campaign, and we're definitely going to go ahead. If you're interested – and if you've got any ideas for a snappy name for the campaign – email Gauche or use the comments box.
  • I've now launched a blog, AV IS NOT PR, to put the case for a "no" vote in the referendum on the grounds that proportional representation is not on offer.

31 October 2010


I have only just discovered that the French political philosopher and activist Claude Lefort died at the beginning of the month at the age of 86.

A student of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, whose executor he became, he was briefly a Trotskyist in the mid-1940s but, with Cornelius Castoriadis, broke with Trotskyism in 1948 and founded the review Socialisme ou Barbarie, which over the subsequent 17 years developed a far-reaching and immensely influential left-libertarian critique of societies both sides of the iron curtain and of the programmes, organisations and intellectual assumptions of the traditional left – Leninist and social democratic.

Lefort left S ou B in 1958, believing that Castoriadis still retained more than a vestige of Leninism in his prescriptions for revolutionary organisation, but they remained close enough to collaborate (along with Edgar Morin) on a widely read account of the events of May 1968, La Breche (The Breach) and continued to work in parallel during the 1970s and 1980s.

Lefort’s writings on bureaucracy, democracy and, especially, totalitarianism, most of which were translated into English and published in the mid-1980s by Polity Press, are his most accessible, and they mark him out as one of the most incisive and forceful political thinkers of the second half of the twentieth century – but there was a lot more to him than that. One of his most stimulating books, Ecrire (Writing), is a collection of essays that form an extended erudite meditiation on what it is to write; another is a sustained and subtle reflection on the nature of history. He will be missed.


Don Paskini has an excellent post here.

29 October 2010


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 29 October 2010

I can’t be alone in feeling that the immediate response of the Labour leadership to the coalition government’s savage cuts programme has been appallingly lacklustre.

All right, no one knew exactly what George Osborne was going to unveil in the comprehensive spending review last week – and, because Labour wasted four months on a leadership election campaign that could have been conducted in six weeks, members of the shadow cabinet had just 10 days to master their briefs before Osborne got to his feet.

And OK, Labour was stymied by the fact that the speed of deficit reduction was one of the few issues on which the candidates disagreed during the leadership campaign and one of the few on which Ed Miliband had to do some swift manoeuvring after winning. Miliband knew that anything less austere than sticking to Alistair Darling’s pre-election plan for halving the deficit in four years would be portrayed by the Tories and their allies in the press as a deficit-denying lurch to the left. Hence the appointment of Alan Johnson rather than Ed Balls as shadow chancellor.

In the circumstances, I suppose, Johnson did a decent ad lib job of the instant riposte to Osborne’s speech in the House of Commons – and Yvette Cooper’s denunciation of the government’s plans for disproportionately targeting women was well made. John Denham was pretty good on Question Time, Darling more-or-less convincing on Radio 4’s Week in Westminster, Douglas Alexander all sweet reason on Andrew Marr – and Ed himself had a cogent piece in the Observer.

But, and it’s a big but, there’s a limit to the impact of well improvised speeches in Commons debates and lucid contributions to the highbrow media – and there’s a limit too to the credibility of Labour’s excuses for not having done much better.

The cuts programme had been widely trailed even if Osborne did spring a few surprises. More important, the grotesque iniquity of making the poorest bear the brunt of the cost of crazily rapid deficit reduction through swingeing cuts in various benefits is so easy a target that Labour should have hit it hard at once, regardless of lack of preparation. It didn’t. Ditto the proposals for throwing public sector workers on to the dole, the slashing of local government services, the giant reduction in higher education spending, the massive hikes in train fares – and the failure to make the bankers pay for the mess they got us into. If the party’s leaders don’t give it a bit more welly than they have this past week, they will soon find either that they have lost the argument to the coalition or that they have lost touch with a rapidly growing wave of popular anger at what the coalition is doing.

Not that the trade unions have been any better. The union leaders all knew way back in early summer what was happening on October 20 and do not even have the excuse that they are all new to their jobs. They dutifully turned up in the TV studios to denounce Osborne on the day. Yet despite four months’ notice they did virtually nothing to mobilise their members to protest, except in Scotland. Last weekend’s anti-cuts demonstrations south of the border were poorly publicised and thinly attended.

Why do we have to wait until next March, for heaven’s sake, for an official TUC march in central London, when even by the government’s own admission some 500,000 public sector workers are going to lose their jobs as a result of the spending cuts and large swaths of the welfare state face destruction? Isn’t this the sort of vicious assault on working people and what used to be called the “social wage” that demands an urgent response – at very least a major national demonstration In November?

And no, I’m not turning into a bulging-eyed Trot chanting “They say cut back! We say fight back!” I don’t think that a simple anti-cuts campaign is a panacea for Labour or for the trade unions, even in the short term. I know that the coalition’s assault on “welfare scroungers”, however mendacious, is popular. And I accept that the deficit needs to be reduced as soon as economic recovery is secured (which seems unlikely for some time under any circumstances and even more unlikely once the cuts have sucked demand out of the economy).

But the coalition’s plans are so callous, so dangerous, so unfair that they demand an immediate and vigorous co-ordinated campaign of opposition not just in parliament but on the streets, in public meetings, in the media, in workplaces and on the doorstep. We don’t need to wait until spring, let alone until Labour has worked out every last detail of its alternative to the coalition’s slash-and-burn gamble.

20 October 2010


The Quilliam Foundation has been all over the media with its case study of radical Islamists at City University, where I teach. The full report is available here.

5 October 2010


The Policy Network think-tank is publishing a 2010 update of Giles Radice's 1992 pamphlet on why Labour lost in the south of England, Southern Discomfort, next week. Details here: should be worth a look.

30 September 2010


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 1 October 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

17 September 2010


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

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

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

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

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

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

  • David Childs has an obituary in the Independent here.

3 September 2010


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 3 September 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

31 August 2010


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

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

18 August 2010


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

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

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

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

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

  • Ian Aitken has an obituary here.

11 August 2010


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

5 August 2010


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 6 August 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 August 2010


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

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

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

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

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

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

1 August 2010


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

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

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

23 July 2010


The government's proposed question for the referendum on the voting system has been released:
Do you want the United Kingdom to adopt the 'alternative vote' system instead of the current 'first past the post' system for electing Members of Parliament to the House of Commons?
Put that way, I'll withdraw my plea for supporters of proportional representation to spoil their votes. Just vote no.
  • Trevor Fisher has a good post on this on the Chartist blog here.

21 July 2010


1. It is increasingly clear that the people who will pay for Britain’s economic crisis are those least able to do so and that the Con-Lib coalition’s cuts will do serious damage both to economic recovery and to the fabric of British society.

2. It is just as clear that a vast number of people whose primary source of income is selling their labour power – the proletariat in Marxist jargon, though the category has long extended way beyond manual industrial workers into what most think of as the middle class – are happy with this. They're the ones in work that aren't in the public sector. They didn’t vote Labour.

3. Most of this group has nothing but disdain for the work-shy or, paradoxically, for over-eager immigrants who undercut wage rates. (This disdain is spread much more widely, but that's another question.)

4. They feel, with reason, that they have a stake to lose – their job, their nice house, their top-notch motor, their credit rating, their regular holidays – and want to minimise their taxes because they want to keep what they’ve got in tough times.

5. They see the economy as an extension of household budgeting – so if you’ve maxed-out on your credit card as a nation you have to rein in pretty soon. Keynes doesn’t get a look-in.

6. They don’t give a damn about the Third Way, the Big Society or electoral reform.

7. So someone has got to work out a means of dragging suburbia back to the social democratic project. It ain't going to be easy.

All right, I know it’s an amalgam of J K Galbraith 20 years ago and contemporary cynicism, but take it as a starting point...

13 July 2010


Gary Younge has an excellent column in the Guardian today about how petty the Gordon-Tony-Peter stuff all is here.

10 July 2010


David Miliband's lecture to the comrades in the valleys is worth a look here:
I agreed completely with Gordon Brown, when he became prime minister in 2007, that we needed renewal. I supported and voted for him. I agreed that we needed greater moral seriousness and less indifference to the excesses of a celebrity drenched culture. I agreed with him when he said that we needed greater coherence as a government, particularly in relation to child poverty and equality. I agreed with him on the importance of party reform and a meaningful internationalism that would be part of a unified government strategy. I agreed that we needed a civic morality to champion civility when confronting a widespread indifference to others.

But it didn’t happen.

It was not just more of the same. Far from correcting them, failings – tactics, spin, high-handedness – intensified; and we lost many of our strengths – optimism born of clear strategy, bold plans for change and reform, a compelling articulation of aspiration and hope. We did not succeed in renewing ourselves in office; and the roots of that failure were deep not recent, about procedure and openness, or lack of it, as much as policy.

8 July 2010


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 9 July 2010

It is easy enough to see why Nick Clegg supports introduction of the alternative vote for elections to the House of Commons. All the indications are that it would make it much easier for the Lib Dems to retain the parliamentary seats they currently hold – and they could well need all the help they can get after jumping into bed with a Tory party that seems intent on crashing the economy just as it did in the 1980s.

Why anyone apart from Clegg and his party should want AV is, however, something of a mystery. AV would do nothing to address the major flaws in the first-past-the-post system we currently use for Westminster elections, which are its gross disproportionality and its concomitant tendency to turn general election campaigns into battles for the votes of a few hundred thousand wavering voters in a hundred of so marginal seats. And AV might make these flaws worse.

AV is not, repeat not, proportional representation. It is not even a step towards it. It is the electoral system used in Australia for the House of Representatives, in which voters in single-member constituencies rank candidates on the ballot paper in order of preference (1, 2, 3, 4 etc) rather than putting a single “X” next to their first choice as we do in first-past-the-post elections in the UK. If no candidate wins more than 50 per cent of first preferences, the second preferences of the candidate with the lowest number of first preferences are redistributed. The process is then repeated until one candidate reaches 50 per cent plus one of votes cast.

AV has two superficial attractions over FPTP. Every winning candidate under AV can claim to have the support (however grudgingly faute de mieux) of a majority of his or her constituents; and AV makes the practice of tactical voting much less of a guessing game for voters. A UKIP supporter in a Tory-Labour marginal who prefers the Tories to Labour, for example, would be able under AV to vote “UKIP 1, Conservative 2” with a reasonable level of confidence that the second preference would count rather than, as now, having to decide whether or not to put an “X” next to the Tory candidate’s name for fear of letting Labour in by “wasting” a vote on UKIP.

But there are downsides even to these attractions. Is a candidate in a three-way AV contest who wins by 51 per cent to 49 per cent with the help of second preferences, having trailed 46-29 on first preferences, more democratically legitimate than someone who wins a three-way FPTP contest 46-29-25? Why should your second choice have the same weight as my first choice?

AV encourages the worst kind of lowest-denominator politics – every marginal contest is a sordid scurry to be everyone’s second choice – and, partly because of this, it delivers more ludicrous landslides than FTPT whenever one political party is no one’s second choice despite having a solid core of first choices. Labour was massacred in 1983 under FPTP: it would have been worse under AV. Ditto the Tories in 1997.

Sorry, but this is a farce. FPTP is crap – but so is AV. We are going to be asked to choose between the two, if the government has its way, in a referendum next May. The choice is an insult. If the referendum bill cannot be amended to include a genuinely proportional third option, reformers should spoil their ballots in the referendum by scrawling “AV is not PR” across their papers.

* * *

On a different matter entirely, I was sorry to read last week of the death of Ken Coates at the age of 79.

I first met him in the early 1980s through European Nuclear Disarmament, when he was chair of the co-ordinating committee that organised annual anti-nukes conventions for thousands of activists from across the continent. He had recently fallen out with most of the rest of END in the UK over who ran the organisation’s magazine – Edward Thompson referred to him as “the renegade Coatesky” (if you don’t get the joke, don’t worry) and I was in the Thompson camp – but he struck me as a strangely impressive figure.

A veteran not only of the implosion of the Communist Party after 1956 but also the first wave of CND, the early-1960s revival of Trotskyism, the anti-Vietnam war campaign and the early-1970s movement for workers’ control, he was extraordinarily well connected and well read … and a faction-fighter of the old school. He became a Labour MEP in 1989 and worked impressively to persuade the world of the benefits of a co-ordinated European full-employment policy before falling out irrevocably with Tony Blair as Labour leader, being expelled by Labour and fighting the 1999 European election as an independent.

I disagreed with him a lot, but he was personable and kind and a Tribune regular for more than 40 years. RIP.


I meant to post a link to Rosie Waterhouse's piece in the Independent last week here but forgot. So here it is.

6 July 2010


An excellent piece on the former-RCP spiked crew by Jenny Turner in the London Review of Books here.

10 June 2010


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 11 June 2010

So, as the Clash put it so memorably in one of the stand-out tracks of their London Calling album in 1979: “What are we gonna do now?”

Well, to judge by the rhetoric of the contenders in Labour’s so-far somnambulant leadership election campaign, not a lot different from what we did between 1994 and 2010, but without Tony Blair or Gordon Brown.

Not one of the credible contenders to become leader of the opposition – Miliband, Miliband, Balls, Burnham – has deviated more than 0.5 degrees from New Labour magnetic north. One of them is not quite sure about Iraq, another thinks the former government made a bit of a hash of getting across its immigration policy, another believes a slightly more Eurosceptic line would have made sense, another hints that clamping down more vigorously on anti-social behaviour might have made a difference. All of them are keen on warm words about reconnecting with Labour’s grass roots.

In some ways, this is hardly surprising. I have written before about how party leadership elections are rarely the occasion for fundamental debate about the overall political direction a party should take, and it looks as if Labour’s 2010 contest will not be an exception to the rule.

It is too soon after the general election defeat for a serious rethink of Labour’s fundamental strategy, and all the young-ish men who made it on to the ballot paper were cabinet ministers in the last government and implicated in its controversial decisions. On the biggest issue of the day, the Con-Dem coalition government’s policy of slashing public spending even as we search for the green shoots of recovery, there is a real prospect of Labour making hay – and the coalition looks (in some lights at least) a fragile jerry-built construction that might be easy to demolish. In opposition, in any case, what a party leader can do in the short term is rather limited: change the party constitution a bit, come up with vague policy initiatives that suggest modernity and change.

So everyone plays it safe, which is fair enough – except that Labour needs a Plan B if the coalition does not implode. Everyone knows that “reconnecting with Labour’s roots in the unions”, “selecting more women and ethnic-minority candidates” and “making sure that party members’ voices are heard in its upper echelons” are Good Things, particularly if you are standing for Labour Party office. Labour has to re-engage its members and recruit a lot more of them. But changing the internal organisation and culture of the Labour Party will not solve its problems, which are more fundamental.

In large swathes of England, lower middle-class and skilled working-class voters have abandoned Labour in droves. Their reasons for doing so are many and varied – and so far yet to be researched in detail – but on the basis of anecdotal evidence they do not suggest that there is an easy way for Labour to win these voters back. They stopped voting Labour because they were worried about their house prices going down, worried about their jobs disappearing abroad or being taken by immigrants, worried about their pensions. They didn’t like Gordon Brown, they didn’t like MPs who made small fortunes on property speculation at the public’s expense. They had ceased thinking Labour was fair or economically competent or interested in them. They had had enough of spin and endlessly repeated soundbites.

However attractive most readers of Tribune might find the supposed policy panaceas of the traditional Labour left – ditch Trident, leave Afghanistan, build more social housing, extend trade union rights – none of them apart from housing addresses the core concerns of those who didn’t “come home” to Labour on 6 May. And the prescriptions of the Labour right – tougher on crime and immigration and, er, that’s it – are the policies on which Labour lost the election. Meanwhile, constitutional reform and environmentalism have been appropriated by the coalition. I never thought I’d write this, but to get an elected Lords, Labour in opposition will have to support a Tory-dominated government. The same goes for green energy policies.

Maybe I am being overly pessimistic, but my hunch is that Labour faces a bigger challenge in reinventing itself now than it did after it lost power in 1979. At very least it needs a leader who – as well as exploiting the weaknesses of the coalition day-to-day – is prepared once elected to think through the options for British and European social democracy as thoroughly as any Labour leader has ever done. I believe the best choice for this task (by a small margin) is David Miliband. He is bright, sophisticated, personable, experienced and telegenic. But the clincher for me is that he used to play cricket for Tribune.

6 June 2010


David Taylor in today's Independent on Sunday here:
There must be a decent percentage of the population whose ideal Culture Secretary would be a man (or woman) who revealed that he never watched commercial television, demanded to know why BBC4 was so negligibly funded, declared that tabloid newspapers were vulgar, and wondered why BBC2 had to waste so much public money on gardening programmes and property makeovers when it could be commissioning quality drama.

13 May 2010


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 14 May 2010

Quite understandably, most political commentary on the general election has focused on the extraordinary aftermath – Gordon Brown’s decision to stay in Number 10 Downing Street, David Cameron negotiating terms for coalition with Nick Clegg, Brown’s resignation – but I’m not going to deal with any of that here. I'm filing before it has all been sorted out.

Instead, I want to concentrate on the results and what they mean for Labour. Like every other Labour supporter, I went into election night in a nervous mood. Labour’s election campaign had been very variable in quality and energy. Brown ended on a high, but before that plumbed the depths of campaigning incompetence, and anecdotal evidence suggested that Labour’s local efforts were far from uniformly vigorous even in marginal seats.

The polls forecast a hung parliament with the Tories as the largest party, but the figures were so tight that anything seemed possible from a safe Tory majority to Labour emerging as largest party despite coming third in share of the vote – and who could tell whether the polls were right?

As became clear in the course of the night, all the polls apart from the exit poll had got it significantly wrong, underestimating Labour’s share of the vote and overestimating the Liberal Democrats’. And although the exit poll got overall national shares of the vote right and forecast the seats each party would win astonishingly accurately on the assumption of uniform national swing, there were actually wild variations in swing among different regions and among constituencies in the same region.

There are nevertheless some general conclusions that can be drawn. First, Labour did a lot better overall than pessimists had feared, performing very well in Scotland and London and to a lesser extent in Wales and its northern English heartlands. Second, however, it did very badly (with notable exceptions) in East Anglia and southern England, and almost as badly (outside the major conurbations) in the Midlands.

Labour now holds only two seats in the East Anglia region – Luton North and Luton South. It lost 11 out of 13 seats won in 2005, including all of them in Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk.

In the south-east region, the party lost 13 of its 17 seats: its representation is reduced to Oxford East, Slough and two seats in Southampton. There are no Labour MPs any more in Kent or Sussex. In the south-west, Labour lost eight out of 12 seats it held, in the East Midlands 12 out of 26 (but with one gain), in the West Midlands 14 out of 38.

Of course, history never quite repeats itself – but I have a horrible sense of déjà vu. For Labour, it’s 1987 all over again, with the major difference that the Lib Dems did a lot better this year than the Liberal-SDP Alliance in 1987 and the Tories under Cameron did a lot worse than under Margaret Thatcher. Labour is back to where it was not just before New Labour, but before Neil Kinnock’s policy review.

The first analyses of voting by class appear to show that Labour’s 2010 problem is much the same as its 1987 problem. Relatively affluent lower-middle-class and skilled working-class voters in the south, the east and the midlands, the C1s and C2s who voted in their droves for Labour in 1997 and mostly stayed on board in 2001 and 2005, feel that the party has nothing to offer them.

So what to do? The extraordinary circumstances of the moment mean that very few Labour minds are focused on what the party needs to do to revive its electoral fortunes in the medium term. But under any possible scenario – including the very unlikely one of the next general election taking place under proportional representation – the thinking is going to have to start soon. Whatever happens, Labour is going to have to work out how to change to attract the C1 and C2 voters it has lost, in terms both of programme and of personnel.

It will not be easy. Recycling the old New Labour riffs about being tough on crime and immigration – which were at the core of the party’s message during this campaign – cannot cut the mustard. Nor can the Blairite mantra of public service reform. “Economic competence” is a busted flush, and there are few votes in constitutional reform or environmentalism. The obvious left alternative, a return to an early-1980s “fight the cuts” agenda, is a recipe for disaster.

Brown is going, but to be replaced by whom? It has to be someone fresh yet credible both with the party and with the voters. I’d go for David Miliband myself – but will the party as a whole?

This looks like being a tough time for Labour. At least, however, there is no sign of a hard-left revolt against the party establishment as happened 30 years ago. We might be all at sea, but no one yet is insisting that we steer bravely for the rocks.

  • Written before David Cameron and Nick Clegg signed up for coalition