30 December 2011


Five zero-net-cost measures that could be implemented at once:

  • Increase vehicle tax to £500 a year and use the income to take rail fares down to Italian levels
  • Integrate rail and bus service timetables
  • Legislate to make the companies that own pubs allow their tenants and landlords to buy them at market rate as a right
  • Legislate to allow private tenants the right to buy, with the same discounts allowed council tenants, paid for by a tax on landlords who provide substandard accommodation (which of course requires intrusive local authority inspection)
  • Introduce a new zero-business-rates regime for bookshops, butchers, grocers, fishmongers, ironmongers and hobby shops in town and city centres paid for by increased business rates on out-of-town shopping complexes.
All right, none of it will happen, but ...

29 December 2011


The latest pamphlet from the Labour moderniser pressure group Policy Network, Cameron’s Trap, got the front page lead in the Guardian today and a piece on the comment page by its authors, the historians Ben Jackson and Gregg McClymont (the latter now not only an MP but a frontbencher, which I'd not registered), so I decided to download the whole thing and read it (here).

In some ways, it’s an interesting piece of work. The core of their argument is that the Tory prime minister that David Cameron most resembles is Stanley Baldwin, who held the office in 1923-24, 1924-29 and 1935-37 and was the real power in Ramsay MacDonald’s Tory-dominated National Government of 1931-35. Baldwin, they say, was an astute political player who used the ideology of austerity and the practice of coalition as a trump card to beat Labour – and unless Labour is smart, Cameron could do the same in 2015.

On all this I’d agree, at least up to a point. Baldwin didn’t look such a brilliant tactician in the 1920s, when he contrived to lose the 1923 and 1929 general elections and let in Labour minority governments – and his success from 1931 was as much down to the extraordinary implosion of MacDonald’s Labour government as it was to his own political savvy.

All the same, Jackson and McClymont are right that a mix of austerity and coalition might just prove a winning Tory formula in 2015: I thought that just after the 2010 election. What I’m least sure about is their prescription for Labour now to counter this, the two key points of which are:
  • Refuse to be driven into a simple defence of the public sector and public spending and instead mount a patriotic appeal to the nation to improve growth and living standards.
  • Put forward a more convincing strategy for private sector growth than the Conservatives. A key element of a credible growth strategy would need to be a widely-supported active industrial policy. In this way “Labour can evade the trap of the ‘tax and spend’ argument of 1992, by making the key measure of governing competence the creation of new and sustainable jobs that improve living standards. Labour is more comfortable than the Conservatives with the idea of an activist state: the Conservatives have reason to fear a political contest organised around which party can best promote growth rather than which party can best reduce spending.”
Surely “defence of the public sector and public spending” are essential components of any serious strategy for private sector growth, for the simple reason that, in the absence of private demand, public spending has to take up the slack to ensure private sector growth? And if the public sector doesn’t take up the slack, what does? Can you get an "activist state" without paying for it? I think we should be told.

21 December 2011


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 23 December 2011

The journalist and author Christopher Hitchens, who died last week at the age of 62, was never associated with Tribune.

Indeed, in the 1970s, when he was a young journalist on the New Statesman and a member of the far-left International Socialists (the forerunner of today’s Socialist Workers Party), there was no love lost between him and this paper. He was with the competition – and his Trotskyist loathing of the compromises made by the traditional Labour left was reciprocated.

In 1978, after the New Statesman splashed a speech by Michael Foot from 10 years earlier on the front page, to contrast Foot’s critical attitude to the Wilson government of the 1960s with his supposedly shameless participation in the Callaghan government, Tribune’s parliamentary correspondent Hugh Macpherson wrote a column defending Foot’s achievements as a minister, warning against the left habit of treating any compromise as treason against socialism and attacking the Statesman for confusing the political circumstances of 1968 and 1978. In response came a blistering letter from Hitchens:
Many of us never thought of Michael Foot as a great socialist, and are therefore spared the pain of explaining his present conduct in those terms. But Macpherson's argument could be applied, without changing a word, as a defence of Denis Healey, Shirley Williams, David Owen or Roy Hattersley, all of whom deserve as much credit as Foot for the ‘achievements’ of this government.
Does Macpherson really think that the aftermath of Anthony Barber's chancellorship justifies support for, in no special order; the neutron bomb, the Shah of Iran, the Official Secrets Act, the 5 per cent pay limit, the savaging of social expenditure, the hoisting of unemployment figures, the deportation of dissidents and the burying of the Bingham Report? …
Like Foot's enthusiasm for Indira Gandhi's dictatorship, these are options, consciously and deliberately decided upon as matters of policy. Alternative strategies, to coin a phrase, were available in all cases and still are. If the mesmeric figure of Foot was not present among the ‘insiders’, this might be clearer to some people – which is why one assumes he is kept on …
Michael Foot's defenders seem entirely worthy of his political position – dishonest with an occasional whine from the left corner of the mouth.”
As far as I’m aware, this letter, published in Tribune on 24 November 1978, is the only thing Hitchens ever wrote for the paper. I remember it well – the Tribune-Statesman spat was a big talking point on the Oxford student left then  – and at the time I was on Hitchens’s side.

Hitchens remained a sworn enemy of Foot and a target for Tribune sniping until 1981, when Hitchens upped sticks and left the Statesman and Britain for the Nation and the United States. Relations warmed after Tribune ran approving reviews of Hitchens’s books in the late 1980s and early 1990s and took much the same position as him on the break-up of Yugoslavia, and I interviewed him for the paper in 1993. But we still never got a written word out of him.

Tribune and Hitchens were on opposite sides of the argument over the post 9/11 western military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq but never completely fell out. Mark Seddon invited Hitchens to put the case for military action to remove Saddam Hussein at the Tribune rally at the 2002 Labour conference, and Hitchens agreed. His speech was received in silence and politely applauded. In his memoir published last year, Hitch-22, Hitchens described the engagement as “my last appearance as a man of the left”.

I don’t think Hitchens ever completely ceased to be of the left, but that doesn’t matter. For all his faults and for everything that he got wrong (and there was plenty), his was a voice that was always worth taking seriously even when – particularly when – he was most at odds with the left consensus. He was the most accomplished literary-political journalist in the English language of the past 30 years, a brilliant stylist with an extraordinary range of interests and an unparalleled independence of spirit. He will be not be easily replaced.


With this issue Tribune celebrates its 75th birthday. The paper first appeared on 1 January 1937, and has been going ever since.

But it nearly didn’t make it. A couple of months ago it appeared to be on its death bed. Kevin McGrath, the businessman who had supported it financially since 2008, had announced that he was going to close it as a print publication and continue it as a website with an automated news feed. It was only after several weeks of negotiation that he agreed to sell it for a nominal sum to a new co-operative of staff and readers, the public launch of which will be announced in the new year.

It’s not going to be easy, but with a bit of luck and a lot of hard work I’m sure we can pull through. Here’s to the next 75 years.

16 December 2011


The death of Christopher Hitchens at the age of 62 is hardly a surprise but is sad all the same. He was a great writer and great company. I became a fan when I was a teenager and he was on the New Statesman – but I didn’t really appreciate his brilliance until the 1980s, after he’d given up on the Statesman and decamped to the United States.

It was then that he really spread his wings, publishing some quite extraordinary essays on a wide variety of political and literary themes in a wide variety of periodicals (the best of them collected in two collections, Prepared for the Worst and For the Sake of Argument). The 1980s was also when he wrote what I think is far-and-away his best book, Blood, Class and Nostalgia, a rumination on the relationship between Britain and America.

He kept up his output through the 1990s and into the new millenium: there were articles galore, books denouncing Mother Teresa, Bill Clinton and Henry Kissinger, dozens of broadcast appearances – but what turned him into an international intellectual superhero/supervillain was his response to 9/11.

He famously declared his support for George W Bush’s war on terror and backed military intervention to remove the Taliban from Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein from Iraq, leading many of his one-time admirers to denounce him for capitulation to US imperialism. A lot of these ex-fans think that he did little worthwhile after 9/11, but even though I think he was wrong about Iraq, I disagree. His 2002 book on George Orwell, Orwell’s Victory, a pithy polemical defence of its subject, and his 2007 atheist manifesto, God Is Not Great, are both up there with his work in the 1980s and 1990s – and his occasional journalism continued to deserve attention right up to his death. He will be missed.

  • My Tribune review of Blood, Class and Nostalgia from 1990 is here, my Tribune interview with Hitchens from 1993, just as he was getting into his anti-Clinton stride, here, and my Tribune review of The Trial of Henry Kissinger from 2001 here

9 December 2011


Ian Aitken, Tribune column, 9 December 2011

I was a bit taken aback when I opened my copy of the last issue of Tribune and found a piece by my old friend and colleague Paul Anderson in which he threatened to slag off his Eurosceptic chums for indulging in a little Schadenfreude over the present difficulties of the eurozone.

Mind you, he didn’t actually do it, saying that it was a subject for a later ­column. But his gentle warning set me thinking about how two lefties such as Paul and me could see the matter from such radically different angles, and how I came to be a sceptic rather than an ­enthusiast like him.

Looking back, I think I can trace my original distrust of the so-called European ideal to my old hero Aneurin Bevan. ­Although he was dead by the time the ­subject became a major political issue ­following Harold Macmillan’s original ­application to join the Common Market, I was in no doubt about his views. He saw the Treaty of Rome as a two-pronged ­effort first to entrench the ­capitalist system and the free market in a binding Europe-wide law, and then to ­­provide a solid ­economic foundation for Nato and the Cold War.

I can’t actually provide chapter and verse for this interpretation of Nye’s view. But that was the general view surrounding Tribune and the Bevanites at the time. We argued and debated about it often, ­although mainly in the context of the Cold War, and there was no question that Nye shared that view and gave it his endorsement. Moreover, I don’t think it would have changed if he had survived: by then, he had become Hugh Gaitskell’s Shadow Foreign Secretary, and Gaitskell was a ­passionate opponent of Macmillan’s ­attempt to take Britain into Europe. Their remarkable alliance could not have ­survived a disagreement over such a central issue.

By the time Macmillan made his doomed application, I was on the Daily Express, whose proprietor was passionately hostile to Europe. As I have mentioned in this column before, Lord Beaverbrook saw the chance to create an improbable electoral alliance between his newspapers and the Labour Party, and he chose me to be the channel of communication between him and Hugh Gaitskell. The only thing that ­prevented the Express from urging its ­readers to vote Labour was Charles de Gaulle’s sudden veto, which scuppered Macmillan’s ambitions just as they seemed about to be fulfilled.

Not long after this, with Bevan, Gaitskell and Beaverbrook all dead, I moved from the Express to the Guardian and found myself in a new phase of my ­European journey. Where the Daily ­Express had been passionately anti, the Guardian (or some of its staff) was passionately pro, and I learned something alarming about the Euro-enthusiasts: they were so desperate to get in that they were ready to accept almost any terms that would satisfy General de Gaulle. This ­attitude was typified by the then deputy editor of the Guardian, a nice man called Harford Thomas. Late one night in the ­office, I said to him that I often got the­ impression that real Euro-enthusiasts would be prepared to go into it with their trousers down and dragged backwards through a holly bush. “Yes”, he said, “I would be ­prepared to go in on those terms”.

I don’t actually believe that Macmillan’s application fell into quite the Harford Thomas category. His was a typically calculated move, and probably had a lot to do with the wishes of John F Kennedy and the US State Department. They were dead keen to get us in as a reliable proxy for the United States – which, of course, was ­exactly why de Gaulle wouldn’t have us. But Edward Heath, the Prime Minister who eventually took us in, was very definitely a holly bush man. The only constraint he felt in his ­negotiations was what he could get away with at home – which is why he did not allow a referendum in spite of his promise to seek the “full-hearted consent of the British people”, and then drove the treaty bill through the House of Commons on a series of three-line whips. If Roy Jenkins (another holly bush man) and his followers had obeyed the Labour whip, the bill would have been defeated.

Then came Harold Wilson’s referendum – a typically clever ruse to get round the fact that his party was split from top to bottom on Europe. If it had been a vote on whether to go in, it probably would have been lost. But this was a vote on whether to come out, a much more difficult ­proposition to sell. The “Yes” campaign was fought on the basis of some truly ­spectacular lies – among them the ­assertion that our membership involved no loss of sovereignty – and was financed by gigantic sums donated from the City. The man who organised the fundraising wrote a book afterwards about how the ­result was bought.

So that is how I came to be a sceptic, even if I am rather more ambivalent now. But looking at events across the Channel, it is hard to resist a hollow laugh even at the risk of offending dear old Paul ­Anderson. As for that little matter of ­sovereignty, we now know where we stand: if you want to be in the eurozone, you will have to appoint your cabinet from the London Business School and then ­submit your budget to Brussels for inspection and approval. Maybe that’s the way it’s got to be – as Paul seems to be suggesting. But if so, I want no part of it. I will stay at home and read old Agatha Christies.


Paul Anderson, review of A Walk-On Part: Diaries 1994-1999 by Chris Mullin (Profile, £20), Tribune, 9 December 2011

The third and final volume of diaries from Chris Mullin is actually a prequel to the first two, covering his life and times as a Labour MP from 1994, when John Smith died and Tony Blair was elected Labour leader, to 1999, when he joined Blair’s government as a junior minister.

A Walk-On Part shares the qualities of the volumes covering 1999 to 2010, The View From the Foothills (2008) and Decline and Fall (2010). Mullin writes clearly and candidly, with an eye for telling detail and amusing anecdotes, some of them about the most unlikely people. He pulls no punches in his assessments of colleagues, including supposed superiors (Gordon Brown is described as ““a workaholic who is burning himself up for no apparent purpose” and every MP's complaint about Peter Mandelson's machinations is recorded) and, despite writing in his preface that “much pessimism and agonising has ended up on the cutting-room floor”, he has done little to excise from the record opinions or predictions that might now seem embarrassing or naive.

“We're going to lose. Blair knows it too. I can see it in his eyes every time he appears on the TV news,” runs an entry just a week before Labour's spectacular landslide in the 1997 general election.

The diaries are not just a political record, moreover. There is a lot about his family and friends, some of it funny and some of it poignant.

All this makes A Walk-On Part immensely enjoyable. But it has a serious purpose too – or rather several serious purposes. It is, for a start, an extended meditation on the role of the backbench MP in modern British politics. Mullin represented Sunderland South as a backbencher from 1987, and he paints a vivid picture of what the job entailed: the surgeries with constituents (some of them utterly unreasonable), the endless meetings, the constant travel back and forth from London. Some MPs might be snout-in-trough, lazy careerists, but Mullin was clearly assiduous and selfless in representing his constituents’ interests.

Throughout the period covered by this volume, Mullin had an important role in parliamentary politics as a senior member of the House of Commons Home Affairs select committee (from 1997 to 1999 as its chair), and the book deals in some depth with its work – often unsung and dreary but utterly essential in holding the executive to account. Mullin is always sceptical about the effects of his and his committee’s efforts, but A Walk-On Part is in its subtle way as convincing an argument as I’ve read for massively increasing the power and independence of the select committees in order to improve parliamentary scrutiny of government.

Mullin also has plenty that is serious to say about Labour politics. The diaries encompass the birth and electoral triumph of New Labour and the first two years of the Blair government – a quite momentous period, or at least that is how it seemed to most observers and participants at the time.

Most of the left to which Mullin belonged – he had been a strong supporter of Tony Benn as editor of Tribune in the early 1980s and in 1994 was a member of the hard-left Campaign Group along with Tony Benn, Dennis Skinner and Ken Livingstone – saw Blair as a cuckoo in the nest and opposed his every move, with ever-decreasing effectiveness. Mullin did not.

His diary entries abhor the vacuity of New Labour’s marketing and slogans, are withering about the idiotically centralised regime of party management at the core of New Labour, and are unsparing in their criticisms of much New Labour policy – particularly Gordon Brown’s timidity on just about every aspect of economic policy and the craven approach to Rupert Murdoch adopted from 1995. But Mullin recognises early on that Blair, for all his faults, is Labour’s best hope of winning and holding on to power, and he has no time for the oppositionist stance of his erstwhile comrades, choosing his rebellions against the leadership with care. It’s clear from his account that the marginalisation of the old left by New Labour was aided and abetted by the old left itself.

The events with which this book deals took place a long time ago – before 9/11, Afghanistan and Iraq, before the internet became a mass phenomenon, before boom turned to bust. Many of the people who appear in its pages are dead – Michael Foot, Peter Shore, Jack Jones, Joan Maynard, Joan Lestor, Robin Cook, Mo Mowlam – or long retired.

It is nevertheless remarkable how strangely recent it all seems. In part, this is because so many of the key players in Labour politics in the 1990s were still there at the bitter end of the 1997-2010 Labour government (most notably Brown and Mandelson). But it is also because so many of the issues then central in Labour politics remain so today.

The Labour leadership spent the 1990s desperately seeking credibility on the economy and chasing the votes of affluent middle-class voters. Mullin despaired and still despairs of many of the means it used in the process – “control freakery, a soft spot for rich men, the obsession with spin” – but thought and still thinks that the broad strategy was right. In his preface, he writes of Blair: “He was surely right about the need to seize the middle ground and stay there. His decision to rewrite Clause Four of the Labour Party constitution … was in retrospect a master stroke, though it didn’t feel that way at the time. His strategy of promising little and delivering more, in contrast to the over-promising and under-delivering of previous governments, was also surely validated. Likewise his determination to tackle the huge benefit culture (ironically the new government’s most enduring legacy from the Thatcher decade) and to reform public services, education in particular.”

Whether such a strategy will work against the background of economic crisis and insecurity as well as it worked during a period of boom is, of course, the big question facing Ed Miliband right now. If he hasn’t read this book already, he could do worse than put it on his Xmas list.

6 December 2011


The death of Christopher Logue brings to an end an extraordinary life as activist, satirist, translator and poet. Mark Espiner has an excellent obituary in the Guardian here. This is his best-known poem, as first published in Tribune.

Tribune, 25 March 1966

I shall vote Labour because I believe in God — and God votes Labour.
I shall vote Labour because they are tolerant of traitors like Ian Smith.
I shall vote Labour because upper-class hoorays annoy me in expensive restaurants.
I shall vote Labour because Ringo votes Labour.
I shall vote Labour because Kensington Borough Council made Portobello Road a one-way street.
I shall vote Labour because if I don't somebody else will.
I shall vote Labour because if one person does it everybody will be wanting to do it.
I shall vote Labour because I am obedient I shall vote Labour because I am a shareholder in Wincarnis.
I shall vote Labour because if I don't my balls will drop off.
I shall vote Labour because I would like to be violent but lack the strength.
I shall vote Labour because I would like to rape President Johnson.
I shall vote Labour because there are too few cars on the road.
I shall vote Labour because Mrs Wilson promised me £5 if I did.
I shall vote Labour because I love Look at Life films.
I shall vote Labour because I failed to become a dollar millionaire aged three.
I shall vote Labour because I do not want pot-smoking legalised (the prices will sky-rocket).
I shall vote Labour because I want to see Nureyev dance with Fonteyn in Swansea Community Centre.
I shall vote Labour because I want a shopping precinct with covered footways, stretching from Yeovil to Ballbearinggrad.
I shall vote Labour because, deep in my heart,
I am Conservative.

5 December 2011


A group of Labour opinion-poll wonks have put together a case for Labour to adopt a conservative fiscal policy, In the Black Labour, which has had some enthusiastic press.

The argument is simple: the voters don't like what they perceive as reckless borrowing. So stop talking Keynesian and get on with the cuts.

As Jenni Russell put it in the Evening Standard today:
Instead of expecting voters to understand Labour's thinking, and being bewildered when they don't, they suggest that Labour must move to where the voters are. That means embracing the need for austerity, balanced budgets and carefully targeted spending.
Sorry, but this is pernicious nonsense. The critical question now facing Labour, Britain, Europe is not how to woo Daily Mail readers to vote Labour in Britain but how to woo the Germans off the hard-line monetary and fiscal conservatism that has so far prevented them from doing the necessary to prevent meltdown of the euro -- and how to woo the French off their Gaullist high-horse posturing about how the nation-state is all that really matters. The priority is to make Keynesian thinking about the economy (in other words, spending to counter the effects of slump) part of the common sense of our age, even for Germans, and to counter nationalist and xenophobic thinking everywhere.

The Eurozone crisis demands that the Germans compromise on their balanced-budgets-uber-alles ideology, which is now utterly at odds with what the world needs, however honourable the reasons for which it was adopted. They need to OK Eurobonds.

But that's not all. The citizens of Europe need:

  • France to abandon its Europe des patries stance, particularly on national sovereignty over the economy – that's what fiscal union means. Gaullism is dead. It would be good if the French Socialist Party could stop squawking opportunistically on this, because it knows the score even though there's an election coming up in which the far-right threatens ... Really, the French have to concede on democratising supranational EU institutions, which means giving the European Parliament control over the Commission and lots of what is currently done by the Council of Ministers.
  • Germany to agree to an expansionist redistributive Keynesian regime for the new European fiscal union that it is currently proposing, and the whole show to be made democratically accountable to the European Parliament. A federal Europe, with a democratic federal government that is anything but fiscally conservative.

And, according to the best-placed commentators, we've got four days for the French and the Germans to reach a deal. Right now we need the ghosts of Ramsay MacDonald and Philip Snowden that haunt In the Black Labour like we need a small outbreak of the Black Death.

27 November 2011


I share the enthusiasm of many for the high-modernist experimentation in the arts that was part of the early phase of the Russian revolution, but the current exhibition at the Royal Academy,"Building the Revolution: Soviet Art and Architecture 1915-1935" (until 22 January) is a disappointment. They've got a marvellous attempt to construct a scaled-down version of Vladimir Tatlin's never-built wiry "Monument to the Third International" in the courtyard outside, but that's the best bit (and free). Inside it's (very good) photos of decaying 1920s and 1930s Futurist and Constructivist buildings taken over the past 20 years -- have any been restored? -- and lots of architects' plans. The full catalogue that goes with the exhibition explains it all, but the casual viewer can get little of the context from what's on show or from the bare notes made available on the walls. I don't think you can make sense of the avant-grade of the first decade of Soviet power without reference to what was happening elsewhere in Europe and in the United States at the time: here we get the bare minimum, and a very confused account of how the disgusting spectacle of Lenin's mausoleum came about. A wasted opportunity to put the Soviet architectural modernists up where they belong with Gropius and Le Corbusier.

24 November 2011


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 25 November 2011

Eurosceptics crowing about how they have been vindicated by the Eurozone crisis are beginning to drive me nuts. I don’t think they have been vindicated, but that’s for another column. What matters now is this:

1. Like it or not, a calm negotiated dissolution of the euro is not possible
It is true that currency unions have in the past been dismantled without catastrophic economic disruption. In recent years, Britain’s currency union with Ireland ended in 1979 when Ireland joined the European exchange rate mechanism; and Slovakia and the Czech Republic introduced separate currencies in 1993 after Czechoslovakia’s “velvet divorce”.

It is imaginable that at some time in the future the Eurozone could be broken up by mutual consent of its participants without precipitating disaster (whether that is a desirable outcome is another matter). This is, however, utterly implausible in the near future. The bond markets are in a state of panic and smell blood, and not even the smallest reduction in Eurozone membership – a Greek exit – could take place without triggering further panic that forced Italy, Portugal and Spain out too. The only plausible scenario for ending the euro as we know it in the foreseeable future is a chaotic collapse.

2. The collapse of the euro would be a disaster for Britain
Such a collapse would be ruinous for every country that was forced out. In the run-up to exit, they would experience catastrophic capital flight. Their banks would implode and credit would disappear. As businesses failed, unemployment would rocket – and people left in work would find their living standards and purchasing power slashed as a result of the devaluation that euro exit would inevitably bring.

The impact would be felt throughout the world. Germany and other countries still in the Eurozone would go into deep recession as their banks took the hit of defaults on loans to the leaver countries and as their exports to those countries slumped. Britain would take an economic hammering. The Eurozone is Britain’s biggest export market, responsible for nearly half of British export revenues, and British banks are massively exposed to Eurozone debt. The disintegration of the Eurozone, and the consequent wider economic downturn, would be a calamity for Britain.

3. The euro must be saved
It follows that it is in everyone’s interests, including Britain’s, for the euro to be rescued. The key question is how. This, of course, is what the European political class has been arguing about for months – without providing a credible answer, which in turn has exacerbated the crisis as the markets have factored in the possibility of meltdown.

The immediate priority is to end the bond market panic to allow the Eurozone debtors to borrow more at reasonable rates of interest. The problem is that this requires the Eurozone as a whole to underwrite their borrowing – which means Germany, as Europe’s biggest creditor nation, taking on responsibility for the debts of southern Europe, either directly or indirectly. Up to now, however, the Germans have refused to do so. The German economic policy establishment, horrified by the prospect of inflation above all else, considers that the priority is for the indebted countries to reduce their debts and has ruled out the European Central Bank acting as lender of last resort. German voters balk at their taxes bailing out what they see as profligate and lazy southern Europeans.

The most likely way out of this impasse is that a deal will be struck whereby the Germans relent on bankrolling the Eurozone, but only on condition that the debtor countries immediately implement draconian austerity budgets and accept tough, intrusive Eurozone-wide budget rules.

That would calm the bond markets, but at great cost:
  • Austerity would almost certainly strangle what little growth there is in southern Europe, with knock-on effects for everyone else.
  • Such a regime would place the burden of paying for the sovereign debt crisis – which, lest we forget, is the result of the global banking crisis of 2008 and the ensuing recession, not decades of state profligacy – almost entirely on the shoulders of the working class.
  • Handing over responsibility for overall economic policy to the Eurozone would mean that the key decisions on taxation and spending would no longer be taken by democratically elected governments – a dramatic erosion of national sovereignty.
So what should democratic socialists do? First, argue for a recasting of the role of the European Central Bank to include pursuit of growth as well as stability. Second, press for a fairer sharing of the pain of austerity by ensuring that the rich pay more, starting with a Tobin tax. And third, demand a massive increase in the powers of the European Parliament, the only Europe-wide democratic institution, to maximise accountability of the new economic policy regime.

It’s hardly a panacea, but it’s a lot better than crowing.

  • This paper from the Breugel think-tank is worth a look.

10 November 2011


The sociologist Frank Parkin, who has died at the age of 80, was my political sociology tutor at Oxford more than 30 years ago. I saw him for a couple of hours once a week for eight weeks in his room at Magdalen College and never got to know him socially, but he played a bigger role in shaping the way I think than any other teacher. He was a brilliant tutor: enthusiastic, sharp and above all extraordinarily rude about other sociologists. His Marxism and Class Theory: A Bourgeois Critique (1981) is the funniest book of sociological theory I have ever read, a no-holds-barred polemic that opened a generation of students' eyes to the stupidities of academic Marxism. He followed it with two novels, Krippendorf's Tribe and The Mind and Body Shop, that are brilliant satires on academic life. Krishnan Kumar has an obituary in the Guardian here.

3 November 2011


The following statement has just been published on the Tribune website:

Tribune fights on: co-op structure staves off closure

In a last-minute deal to stave off closure in its 75th year, staff, management and the National Union of Journalists have agreed a plan which switches ownership to a co-operative model from next week.

The move will allow continuity of publication and a different form of funding with more direct reader involvement. It follows talks in which owner Kevin McGrath agreed to release the title debt-free, granting Tribune a viability which had been threatened by the build up of historical debt, responsibility for the discharge of which has been accepted by Mr McGrath.

Terms for a transfer of ownership of the title were agreed during the tripartite talks after Tribune staff met with advisers on the creation and structure of co-operatives and agreed in principle this would be the best route to pursue, provided the right conditions applied to the transfer of ownership to the new company. Mr McGrath subsequently agreed to positively assist in giving the new venture a fresh start and successful future.

The change comes after a substantial cash injection failed to raise subscriptions and income to target levels and it was agreed by all parties that the title would stand a better chance under a co-operative model.

Final details of the model are being worked out in conjunction with Tribune’s advisers at Principle Six and Co-operatives UK but will involve readers as shareholders and democratic participants in future.

In the meantime, we are appealing for help with short-term funding to bridge the start- up gap until the new structure is up and running (cheques payable to Tribune at 218 Woodberry, Green Lanes, London N4 2HB). Donations will be registered as a formal interest under the new structure.

Mr McGrath said: “I am very pleased to be able to pass Tribune on to the staff in a workers co operative which I fully support and urge everyone in the labour and trade union movement to support the magazine under its new ownership. It has been an honour to have been involved in keeping Tribune going and I am delighted that the history and heritage of Tribune has been safeguarded in the digitising of the whole 75 year archive which is a proud achievement.

“Importantly, I would like to place on record my sincere thanks to the staff, our contributors and the readers for their continued and invaluable support over the past three years.”

The need for Tribune, with its mix of news, analysis, revelation and debate, has never been greater than under the present political climate. This is an exciting step, a co-operative is the right place for Tribune to be. It is a challenge, too, one which we hope you, the reader will join us in facing.

29 October 2011


Tribune editor Chris McLaughlin has just sent me this:
Staff, management and the National Union of Journalists have agreed a last-minute plan to stave off closure of Tribune. At the end of talks ending Friday evening, it was agreed that the title should become a co-operative. Publisher Kevin McGrath has offered to take on historical debts and release the title "debt free" and told the meeting that he would do everything possible to help the success of the transfer to a co-operative. Terms are to be drafted in time for a full meeting of the Tribune staff, which has to approve the deal, on Monday.
This is good news, but it's going to take a serious recapitalisation of the paper, a great deal of work and a measure of luck to rescue it. Circulation is down to 1,200, which isn't a sustainable level. To get it back to 5,000, which is roughly what it needs to be to generate the sales and advertising income to employ journalists and production staff, it will have to spend a lot on promotion (and do it intelligently).

I don't buy the argument that a democratic left weekly that generates most of its income from selling printed copies is doomed to fail. Tribune's core political stance – socialist, egalitarian, democratic, libertarian – remains as relevant as ever, and it is less marginalised in Labour politics than at any time since the early 1990s. And if it concentrates its efforts on direct debit subscription sales rather than desperately trying to break into newsagents, it has at least a decent chance of re-establishing itself commercially. Subs-based print periodicals can thrive in the internet age, particularly those with a niche market – witness the London Review of Books and Prospect.

But it is going to need money. I've no idea what target for funds the paper will announce next week, but I think that something like £500,000 is what's required. That's rather more than I've got in my piggy bank, but it's not much more than the price of a semi in Neasden – and it's not beyond reach. If 200 people stump up £1,000 and 400 put in £500, there's £400,000 in the kitty, which would be quite enough to make a decent start on reviving the old lady.

27 October 2011


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 28 October 2011

On the face of it, now does not seem a particularly appropriate time for Labour to reassert its pro-European credentials.

The euro zone is in the throes of a giant crisis that it is only beginning to get under control and could yet end in disaster, and the prospects of Britain joining it any time soon are close to non-existent.

Opinion polls show that a majority of Britons would definitely or probably vote to leave the European Union given the chance, and the Tory party is spectacularly split over whether there should be a referendum on Britain’s relationship with the EU. This week, 81 Tory MPs defied the whips to vote for one – the biggest backbench rebellion in any party ever over Europe, dwarving even the revolt by Labour pro-Europeans in favour of British membership of what we then called the Common Market in 1972.

It must be a temptation for Ed Miliband and Ed Balls simply to enjoy David Cameron’s discomfort while tutting at the irresponsibility of a holding a referendum at such a critical time for Europe and emphasising that it was Labour (specifically, their onetime boss Gordon Brown) that decided not to join the euro in the late 1990s.

That is a better line to take than jumping on the Tory Eurosceptic bandwagon to demand a referendum now, as 19 Labour MPs did this week – but it is not a coherent long-term Labour policy on Europe. And, like it or not, the party is going to need one before the next general election.

Of course, there are some very good reasons not to get into too many specifics just yet. The next general election is not due until 2015 – though it might come sooner if Cameron suffers many more rebellions on the scale of this week’s – and no one knows what will happen between now and then.

The eurozone might have as many participating countries as it has today; it might have more or fewer. It might be deep in recession; it might be in the bloom of economic health. The EU might have developed a credible redistributive fiscal regime, or it might not. There might be treaty changes in the offing to amend the EU’s economic policy institutions, or proposals for new decision-making procedures in the Council of Ministers, or plans for extra powers for the European Parliament. And there might be different governments in power – a particularly important possibility in the cases of France and Germany, which face general elections next year and in 2013 respectively.

It is also undoubtedly true that nothing Labour says in opposition is going to make the slightest bit of difference to how Europe deals with the eurozone crisis in terms either of immediate fire-fighting or institutional reform.

Nevertheless, it would be a mistake for Labour simply to watch and wait to see what happens in Europe. If it wins in 2015 – and it has to act on the assumption that it will – it is going to have to deal with the EU. And if it has ruled out British withdrawal, which it has for 25 years, it needs to work out how it will engage most constructively.

Here, it is essential that the party learns from the mistakes of the Blair and Brown governments between 1997 and 2010, which were marked firstly by zealous British enthusiasm for free markets and deregulation and secondly by foot-dragging on reforms to make the EU more accountable to its citizens.

It was Labour Britain that was the main force behind the EU’s drive for deregulation and privatisation throughout the first decade of this century. And it was Labour Britain, acting in concert with France, that ensured that the changes to the EU’s institutional arrangements that were eventually brought about by the 2007 Lisbon treaty (after the farce of the EU constitution being rejected by French and Dutch voters in 2005) did so little to enhance the powers of the EU’s only democratically elected body, the European Parliament.

Even if Labour leaves the details for later, it needs to make it clear that it has left all that behind and now stands squarely for stronger European workers’ rights, comprehensive Europe-wide financial and environmental regulation and a radical democratisation of the EU’s institutions, in particular giving the European Parliament the power to initiate legislation on certain areas of policy.

What it should not do, under any circumstances, is flirt with Euroscepticism. It might be the flavour of the moment in the press and among the Tories, but it is not a viable option for a modern internationalist social democratic party. What Europe needs to overcome its current difficulties is more integration, more powers of economic management and more democracy – and Labour should not be afraid to say so.


This is what I wrote last time Tribune faced closure in a matter of days, back in 1988. I think the same today.

Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 22 January 1988

Now is the time for all good comrades to come to the aid of Tribune. As things stand, Tribune is set to close after this issue unless we get help, to the tune of £16,000 in total, in the next few days.

This is serious. There is no sugar daddy to bail us out. The Greater London Council was abolished some time back, and the unions are broke. There is no Moscow gold or CIA funding here. Tribune really is reliant on its readers and supporters to give it enough at once to ensure its survival.

Of course, we all have our criticisms of Tribune. The paper has sometimes erred in its choice of targets; and often it has been too shrill or insufficiently radical.

Sometimes the fact that the paper is ridiculously under-staffed and over-worked means that we go wrong -- being less grateful than we should to everyone who does so much for us (for no payment) being the most common sin.

But for all its faults, Tribune has been a vital part of the British left's political culture — and as such a vital part of Britain's culture.

Being part of some British political tradition does not, in itself, guarantee the usefulness of an institution: look at the House of Lords, the monarchy and much more besides. That Tribune has in the past had a role does not necessarily mean that it has one now. I believe it does have one, and that's not simply because my job is on the line.

Tribnne is the only open forum for debate among supporters of the British Labour Party and the Labour-sympathetic left. All the arguments of the British democratic left take place in its pages. Unlike others, the paper is not afraid to give space to unfashionable opinion. On the assumption that a democratic, discursive movement of the left is necessary for the left to have any success, Tribune is utterly essential.

As this issue goes to press, the future remains in the balance. We've had an extraordinary surge of donations and messages of support: we did not know everyone cared so much, and we're grateful to you all.

But we're not there yet; we will go under unless we raise another £16,000 in one week. Bung us a fiver please everyone, and get all your friends to do the same. Really.

25 October 2011


The following statement will appear in the issue of Tribune to be published this Friday:

Tribune is to cease publication in its 75th year. Unless arrangements can be found for new ownership or funding within days the last edition will be next week, 4 November. The decision has been made by Tribune Publications 2009 Ltd after a substantial cash injection failed to raise subscriptions and income to target levels.

The company intends to maintain a Tribune website, which will carry automated feeds from other left of centre sources and will require no staff. All six full-time and part-time staff are to be made redundant.

Owner Kevin McGrath has indicated to staff that if they wish to continue to run Tribune as a co-operative he is prepared to transfer the Company and the archive of 75 years editions to them free of any historical debt, which he has committed to honouring. In collaboration with senior officials from the National Union of Journalists, the editor and staff are exploring the possibility of setting up a co-operative to keep the title alive but with a deadline of Friday 28 October, time is regrettably short. Talks are taking placed in advance of a crunch meeting on that date at which new arrangements will be agreed or the company will be closed. Among the options under review with experts in co-op models of management is an appeal for short-term donations from readers and supporters on the basis that these funds would be converted into capital in a jointly-owned worker-reader co-op, with representation on a new board. The staff have agreed to continue working in order to get out a final edition and allow some time, short as it is, for an alternative to be found.

Mr McGrath, who rescued the paper after a consortium of trade unions relinquished ownership in March 2009, said: "The newspaper format of Tribune has, in a changing world of electronic communications and economics, become unsustainable. We are, however, determined to keep the Tribune brand alive by moving all publication to its web site and through the continued maintenance of the archive of the paper's 75 years.

"This means that the company has safeguarded the history of Tribune and will keep the brand alive through the web site which will run on an automated basis feeding off other left of centre political and arts web sites and will offer immediate, up-to-date news coverage. It is a positive and exciting move into the 21st century.

"I would personally like to thank all the staff for their hard work and commitment to Tribune over the years. I'd also like to take this opportunity to thank all our loyal readers for their support and hope they will stay with Tribune at www.tribunemagazine.co.uk and www.archive.tribunemagazine.co.uk.”

Since its launch in January 1937 Tribune has been a renowned journal of intellectual, literary journalistic and artistic merit. As a weekly, independent journal of the labour movement it is needed now more than ever.

29 September 2011


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 30 September 2011

When was a book last published that was a real game-changer for the left in Britain? The 2004 Liberal Democrat Orange Book, edited by David Laws and Paul Marshall, certainly signalled to anyone who was awake that the up-and-coming Lib Dem generation was ideologically at odds with the social-democratic centre-leftists who had dominated their party since its birth in 1987. But that was more an announcement of impending defection from social democracy than a contribution to its cause.

Nick Cohen’s What’s Left?, published in 2007, was seen the same way (wrongly) for its rip-roaring denunciation of the left’s failure to face up to radical Islamism and dictators in the developing world. And going back further, there was The Blair Revolution, by Phillip Gould and Peter Mandelson, first published in 1996, the nearest thing there was to a coherent statement of the New Labour case (which isn’t saying a lot), and before that Will Hutton’s The State We’re In, an improbable best-seller that caught a pro-Europe social democratic mood when it came out in 1995. It’s now available at all good Oxfam shops, a sad reminder of what Labour could have done in government but didn’t.

And, well, that’s it for the past 20 years. It’s not that there haven’t been good left-wing political books published – just that none of the vision-thing left efforts have had any lasting impact. All those collections of earnest essays put out by Demos, the IPPR, the Fabians and the rest are not even on the shelves in Oxfam, though if you’re lucky you can pick them up at the Samaritans.

But I have a feeling that the Purple Book, the collection put out by Labour’s “modernisers” last week, will not be on even the Samaritans’ shelves in 10 years’ time.

It’s not without its strengths. The opinion polling on which most of its contributors base their efforts is as almost certainly better than Mark Abrams’s after the 1959 general election, which convinced Hugh Gaitskell to try to abandon Clause Four of the Labour constitution and Mirror Group to turn the Daily Herald into the Sun. The voters, polled late last year, don’t think that the state has done them proud. After 13 years of Labour in power, the electorate is concerned about waste in public spending above all else.

Which isn't really fair on the last Labour government. It's true that it presided over some disastrous public-spending excesses – most notoriously a raft of IT projects that went way over budget and never worked properly and various ludicrous defence procurement deals. But until the banking crash of 2008, it didn't seem to most observers that it had overspent wildly. As Ed Balls said in an impressive speech on Monday, although Labour had woefully underestimated the level of risk to which the world's banks had exposed themselves, the 2008 crisis was not the product of increasing public spending, most of which had gone on new schools and hospitals that were desperately needed after years of Tory neglect.

By 2009, however, the bond markets were getting itchy about Britain's public debt, and the government decided to rein it in with a phased austerity programme. Meanwhile, the Tories, who until 2008 had backed Labour's public spending plans, changed their line to attack Labour's supposed gross profligacy, and, strongly supported by most of the press, mounted a no-holds-barred election campaign accusing Labour of criminal incompetence. In the circumstances, given the difficulty of getting non-economists to understand the principles of Keynesian demand management, it's not altogether surprising that the message struck a chord with the voters.

But this much has been obvious since at least early 2009. The question is what Labour can do to rescue the situation and re-establish its reputation for economic competence. Here, the Purple Book is for the most part deeply disappointing. Its authors' preferred solutions – a credible debt reduction strategy, a new emphasis on the non-statist, decentralist, co-operative traditions of British social democracy, a renewed appeal to “aspirational” voters in the south and east – have been widely touted before, and some are appealing. A bigger role for co-ops and mutuals in Britain would be a good thing, and everyone knows that Labour won't win another general election unless it wins seats in relatively affluent parts of the country. (This has been true, incidentally, since the 1920s, but never mind.)

The problem is that none of this really addresses the bigger questions raised by the crisis that has engulfed the world economy since 2008. Is a smaller state really the way to deal with the extraordinary power of the markets, or popular worries about insecurity of employment and about pensions, or sovereign debt in the Eurozone? I'm not convinced. Labour's going to have do a much more profound rethink of what it's about than is on display here.

18 September 2011


Nick Cohen has a blistering piece in the Observer about the impact of Julian Assange's decision to publish unredacted American diplomatic material.
The grass or squealer usually blabs because he wants to settle scores or ingratiate himself with the authorities. Assange represents a new breed, which technology has enabled: the nark as show-off.

16 September 2011


The long-running saga of Johann Hari's dubious journalistic ethics seems to have come to an end of sorts with his public mea culpa in the Independent. He admits that he "improved" his interviews by presenting quotations from his interviewees' writings as words spoken to him; and he admits having used a pseudonym to post vitriolic and untrue Wikipedia entries about his critics and perceived enemies. He says that he has returned the Orwell Prize he was awarded in 2009 and that he will be taking a journalism course to learn what he hadn't previously taken in about how journalists should behave.

The Hari affair is  small potatoes by comparison with other recent scandals of journalistic ethics.

As far as we are aware, his plagiarism was not on the scale of Jayson Blair, whose ripped-off and made-up reporting so damaged the reputation of the New York Times.

Hari played faster and looser with the quotes and attributions than any journalist ever should, but every journalist knows the temptation to which he succumbed. Whether you're writing news or doing interview features, you have to clean up quotes, and every journalist knows there are times when you have to do quite a bit of interpolation to make an interviewee's spoken words coherent.

Lifting whole sentences (or more) from an interviewee's book or previous interviews and presenting them unattributed as spoken quote is wrong, of course. But no one uses unadulterated verbatim spoken quote for anything written: when did you last see an "um" or an "er" or a "sort-of" or a "like" in a news story except for effect?

Where you draw the line on modifying and improving quotes is, in short, a grey area. Hari went out of the grey and into the black in spectacular fashion, but he's not the first to do so, and he won't be the last. I don't think, one-off, that it's a sackable offence, though if you do it systematically, as Hari appears to have done, it is.

Writing pseudonymous libellous Wikipedia entries about journalistic rivals is a different matter. Anyone can do it, and a couple of morons have done it to me. And if you're found out, it should be out-the-door time, though if you're in the process of a nervous breakdown there are extenuating circumstances that demand that the ejection be humane.

All the same, it's a minor infraction by comparison with the systematic invasion of privacy engaged upon by the News of the World's phone-hackers. I know how Nick Cohen and Cristina Odone feel about Hari's attempts at character assassination, but they're big enough to fight back (as indeed they have done). Nothing Hari has done has endangered anyone's life, and he doesn't seem to have told substantial lies in the interests of governments, corporations or any of the myriad causes he supported.

Which takes us to Hari's punishment or treatment – a year off from the Indy and a course in journalism. I've been teaching journalism for 25 years now, and I think I know what journalism training can do. It can teach you how to write a news story, how to structure a feature, how to lay out a page, how to make a news programme for TV or radio, how to set up a blog, how to do an interview. What it can't do is teach you what is right. Even after the most intensive course on journalism ethics, a plagiarist remains a plagiarist, and I don't know any journalism course that addresses the habit of denigrating one's peers anonymously on Wikipedia. At best, Hari will be made aware of the shades of grey that are everywhere in the business of journalism. He might learn how he should behave, but it won't make him behave any better.

The only way that Hari's doing a journalism course fits the bill is that it's humiliating for him to go back to basics after a decade in the limelight. As rehabilitation, it's useless. As an editor, I would have fired him, end of story.

15 September 2011


It's Battle of Britain Day, and time to revive this dormant blog. I was only sleeping, honest.

5 August 2011


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 5 August 2011

It would be difficult to create a more half-arsed political initiative than Blue Labour if you set out to fail.

The small group of academics and politicians that was touted earlier this year as the coming big thing in Labour’s intellectual firmament is now officially finished, according to Jonathan Rutherford on the New Statesman's blog,having produced no more than a (very patchy) e-book of first thoughts.

Oh, no, it's not, counters the group's prime mover and guru, Maurice Glasman, in the print edition of the Statesman, apologising for a series of ill-considered – not to say intemperate – public statements calling for an end to immigration, discussions with supporters of the English Defence League and (implicitly) British withdrawal from the European Union that had drawn the fire both of the Trots and of Peter Mandelson.

Such a pronounced schism at such an early stage does not, shall we say, bode well. But if Blue Labour is indeed all over before it properly started, I'm not crowing. And before Tribune readers reach for the computer keyboard or the green ink to denounce me, I've not been converted either to an intolerance of immigration that makes Migration Watch look liberal, or to consorting with the EDL, or to UKIP-style Euroscepticism.

Blue Labour was and is a dreadful name for Glasman's ideas and his group, and the e-book they published a couple of months ago, The Labour Tradition and the Politics of Paradox, is neither coherent nor comprehensive. Indeed, it reads as what it is, a string of papers by a group of people who are interested in pursuing certain themes but haven't quite worked out what they think, with the only really thought-through contribution a schematic and in many respects eccentric essay by Glasman himself that raises more questions than it answers.

Nevertheless, I think that Glasman, for all his extraordinary ability to put his foot in his mouth while dropping a bollock, has some important things to say that need to be said. Dismissing him as a clown or as some kind of far-right infiltrator into Labour's ranks is easy but a big mistake.

His most telling point is that Labour over the past two decades has abandoned any critique of capitalism as a destroyer of social solidarity and community in favour of cheer-leading for its creativity and dynamism. New Labour's unqualified enthusiasm for the “modernising” effects of globalisation, flexible labour markets and free competition has, he argues, left large swathes of the working class utterly alienated from Labour. And the first priority for anyone interested in rescuing Labour must be to reconnect it to working people's lives as they have been and are actually lived. For many of them, a lot that has happened in the past 40 years – breakdown of communities, collapse of secure employment, ever-increasing shortages of affordable housing – has been for the worse, under Labour as well as Tory governments.

Now, the way Glasman fleshes this out is intensely problematic. There are times when he appears to be romanticising a working class that never existed, others when he seems hopelessly notalgic about a world to which we cannot return. His prescriptions, both in terms of organisation and policy, are often wrong. He sees community mobilisation as a panacea, on very flimsy evidence, and seems to think that it can thrive if only the over-mighty technocratic state is cut back. And moving in one leap from the observation that working-class worries about immigration are real and will not go away to the conclusion that immigration should be stopped at once (and that we should leave the EU if it doesn't allow us to stop allowing free movement of labour) is breathtakingly simplistic.

But at least Glasman is asking what Labour is for, and his insistence that it cannot survive if it remains disengaged from the everyday lives of the people that were once its core support makes a lot of sense. An arid, abstractly liberal Labour that fetishes the new, professing that "things can only get better" and turning its back on everything rooted or old, can never inspire a movement – and as Harold Wilson famously (though cynically) put it, the Labour Party is a crusade or it is nothing. And right now? Well, it ain't a crusade.


On a different matter entirely, I was shocked to read in the Guardian this week that City of Westminster police's “counter-terrorism information desk” had issued a leaflet urging members of the public to inform on anarchists. “Any information relating to anarchists should be reported to your local police,” it read. “Anarchism is a political philosophy which considers the state undesirable, unnecessary and harmful, and instead promotes a stateless society, or anarchism."

The leaflet was hurriedly disowned by Scotland Yard, which issued a statement saying that it was a poor choice of words by a minion at a single police station (Belgravia, I kid you not) and that all the leaflet should have said was that the Met was looking for information on people who had caused criminal damage to business premises this year. “The Metropolitan police does not seek to stigmatise those people with legitimate political views,” ran the official line.

Oh yeah? I'll wager a fiver that, when the records are opened in 30 years (or whenever), we'll find that a substantial part of Special Branch's anti-terrorism budget since the end of the Cold War has been devoted to keeping track of anarchists … who in that time have been responsible for precisely zero terrorist attacks in Britain, and not a single death.

19 July 2011


Former Labour leader Neil Kinnock put his foot in it on the Today programme this morning when he told John Humphrys that he favoured regulation of the press to ensure political balance in its coverage, along the lines of the rules governing broadcasting in Britain. Such regulation would spell the death of polemical partisan campaigning journalism – and as a former member of the board of Tribune he should know better.

Which is not to say that there should not be stricter rules to limit concentration of media ownership in order to encourage pluralism, but that's a different issue.

Incidentally, Nick Robinson was telling only a very small part of the story when he said on the same programme that the impartiality rules governing broadcasting were introduced because of lack of bandwidth. They date from the creation of the BBC in the 1920s, and by far the most important reason for them was the fear of the political class that without a politically neutral public monopoly broadcaster, radio in Britain would become as fiercely partisan as the press. Much the same fear was behind the maintenance of the impartiality rules when the BBC's monopoly was finally broken with the creation of ITV in the 1950s.

15 July 2011


It's all marvellous television – or would be if the BBC's journalists weren't on strike – but the implosion of News Corporation's damage-limitation exercise in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal doesn't really make a lot of difference to anything apart from News Corp's share price.

The resignation of Rebekah Brooks, following sharply on the closure of the News of the World and the formal abandonment of News Corp's bid for full ownership of BSkyB, is certainly newsworthy. How significant it is remains a moot point. Call me a cynic, but I'd put money on the following. News Corp does a lot of grovelling this week, launches a Sunday Sun in early September and puts together a "revised" bid for BSkyB around the same time. By Xmas we're back to business as usual, maybe with a superficially beefed-up Press Complaints Commission.

The only things that would really change the game would be a statutory press standards regime (unlikely, and also a bad idea) or legislation to ban any company or individual from owning more than a 10 per cent share – say – of outlets in the newspaper or subscription TV markets. But something tells me that serious constraints on media ownership are the last thing on David Cameron's mind.

As for Rebekah, I'm sure she has a future in reality TV.

14 July 2011


Shadow Welsh secretary Peter Hain wants the Welsh Assembly elected by first-past-the-post rather than the proportional additional member system,. "The only acceptable option given the AV referendum result is to have all AMs elected by first-past-the-post, and we believe that each of the 30 new constituencies should elect two AMs by that system," he says.

Hain is generally a good thing, but this is reactionary Labour tribalism of the worst kind. (Labour would do much better in Wales under FPTP, probably so well that it would become a permanent ruling party.) The result of the AV referendum was in no sense an endorsement of first-past-the-post, and – contrary to Hain's claims – there is no evidence that Welsh voters find AMS too complicated. The system has worked well in both Wales and Scotland, and there's a strong case for using it for Westminster elections too.


The closure of a newspaper is always a sad thing. People lose their jobs and there’s less to buy on the newsstands. But some closures matter more than others.

The end of the News of the World has certainly been spectacular, and it undoubtedly matters in the here-and-now of politics. The fall-out from its phone-hacking is immense: we could be looking at statutory regulation of the press within a year.

But the NoW going doesn’t in itself matter very much. Phone-hacking apart – if we accept that the NoW was the only hacker, which seems unlikely – it wasn’t doing anything journalistically that its competitors weren’t doing or trying to do on more limited resources. The Sunday Mirror, the People and the Mail on Sunday will continue to supply us with coke-and-hookers celeb disgrace stories after the NoW has gone. The NoW wasn't doing anything distinctive.

Even if News International doesn’t launch a Sunday version of the Sun, the closure of the News of the World is small potatoes.

7 July 2011


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 8 July 2011

Last week could have been worse for Ed Miliband. Labour won a decisive victory in the Inverclyde by-election – and, after the party’s disastrous performance in May’s Scottish Parliament elections, there had been a real danger that it would lose the seat to the rampant Scottish National Party.

But winning Inverclyde was hardly cause for wild Labour celebrations – it was one of the party’s safest seats, after all – and in any case the victory was eclipsed by the Labour leader’s extraordinarily ham-fisted handling of last Thursday’s public sector strikes over pensions.

It was never realistic to expect that Miliband would come out with a ringing endorsement of the day of action: rightly or wrongly, Labour leaders have never taken sides in industrial disputes, and there was no reason to believe this time would be any different. What Miliband could easily have done, however, was the familiar flannel job honed over the years by his predecessors – express sympathy with the workers’ cause, emphasise that they had a right to strike and that it had been their decision to come out, blame the government for the mess and call for negotiations in good faith.

Maybe that was what he was trying to do. What came across, however, was very different – the line that “these strikes are wrong”. No doubt some bright-spark focus-group wallah had told the Labour leader that this would go down well with middle-class target-voters who were annoyed that the day of action meant that they’d had to take a day off work to look after the kids. But at a stroke the phrase put the backs up of a vast swathe of public sector workers who feel, with justification, that they have been forced to take a gigantic pay cut. Miliband seemed to be saying that the prospect of your losing thousands of pounds a year of pension as a result of government diktat matters less than the minor inconvenience of taking a day’s annual leave when you’d rather not.

As if to compound the insult, Miliband repeated it ad nauseam – most ridiculously in a television interview with Damon Green of ITN, in which he robotically answered a string of different questions with the same rehearsed non-answer: "These strikes are wrong... the government has acted in a reckless and provocative manner... both sides should put away the rhetoric and get around the negotiating table." The technique has been used for years by politicians who want to get a particular 10-second soundbite on to the TV news but is rarely exposed to public view because broadcasters usually acquiesce in it. This time, however, the full ludicrous exchange was posted by the BBC on its website – apparently without malice – and went viral on the internet.

The “Miliband loop” has effectively nullified more than a year of marketing Ed as somehow different from other politicians – more ordinary, more down-to-earth, someone who “speaks human” as his supporters had it during the leadership contest last year – and has made a laughing stock of Labour’s claims to have learnt the lessons of the over-spun New Labour years. Its full impact is almost certainly yet to be felt. It’s the sort of clip, like that of Neil Kinnock falling into the sea on Brighton beach in October 1983, that is destined to be repeated endlessly. Only it’s worse. Kinnock looked like a bumptious prat. Ed looks like an automaton.

In the meantime, Labour is missing the boat on pensions. The party has failed miserably to counter the popular perception – encouraged by the Tories and their supporters in the press -- that public sector pensions are ridiculously generous and unfairly subsidised by the taxpayer. It has been left to a journalists, economists, policy wonks and the trade unions to point out that the public sector pensions bill is eminently affordable and that the real scandal is that private-sector companies have largely opted out of support for decent occupational pensions. (The bill for this, in the form of means-tested top-up benefits for former private-sector workers without adequate pensions, is of course being met by the taxpayer, but that’s another story.)

Add Labour’s lacklustre response to the government’s idiotic and divisive plans for higher education, its increasingly passive line on spending cuts and its general sense of drift on just about every other area of policy, and it’s difficult to find any grounds for Labour optimism right now. But it could get worse. If Miliband’s “these strikes are wrong” mantra presages an attempt to show the unions who’s boss by introducing symbolically big (but practically inconsequential) changes to the Labour Party constitution to reduce the unions’ formal role, we can look forward to another wasted year of introspection and incoherence. Remember 1992-93 and the battle over OMOV? Oh well. At least it’s nearly time for the holidays.


Even though it is owned by the evil Rupert Murdoch, the Times has been consistently better as an all-round quality newspaper than the Guardian or the Independent for at least five years. Discuss.

6 July 2011


Tom Watson MP in the House of Commons this afternoon (from Hansard):

News International’s decision to throw Andy Coulson to the wolves last night was an attempt to divert us from an even bigger wrong: that company was systematically, ruthlessly, and without conscience or morality, interfering with the phones of victims of murder, cruelly deceiving their families and impeding the search for justice. Glenn Mulcaire has accepted some share of responsibility for this moral sickness, but the editor in charge of him refuses to take responsibility. Indeed, far from accepting blame, she has – amazingly – put herself in charge of the investigation into the wrongdoing; the chief suspect has become the chief investigator... 
I believe that Rebekah Brooks was not only responsible for wrongdoing, but knew about it. The evidence in the paper that she edited contradicts her statements that she knew nothing about unlawful behaviour. Take the edition that she edited on 14 April 2002, which reveals that the News of the World had information from Milly Dowler’s phone. In other words, they knew about the messages on her phone...
It was a central part of the paper’s story that it had evidence from a telephone – evidence that it could get only from breaking into that phone at the time. The story that Rebekah Brooks was far from the Dowler events is simply not believable when her own newspaper wrote about the information that it had gained from that phone. 
I want to inform the House of further evidence that suggests that Rebekah Brooks knew of the unlawful tactics of the News of the World as early as 2002, despite all her denials yesterday.
Rebekah Brooks was present at a meeting with Scotland Yard when police officers pursuing a murder investigation provided her with evidence that her newspaper was interfering with the pursuit of justice. They gave her the name of another senior executive at News International, Alex Marunchak. At the meeting, which included Dick Fedorcio of the Metropolitan police, she was told that News of the World staff were guilty of interference and party to using unlawful means to attempt to discredit a police officer and his wife. 
Rebekah Brooks was told of actions by people whom she paid to expose and discredit David Cook and his wife Jackie Haines, so that Mr Cook would be prevented from completing an investigation into a murder. News International was paying people to interfere with police officers and was doing so on behalf of known criminals. We know now that News International had entered the criminal underworld. 
Rebekah Brooks cannot deny being present at that meeting when the actions of people whom she paid were exposed. She cannot deny now being warned that under her auspices unlawful tactics were used for the purpose of interfering with the pursuit of justice. She cannot deny that one of her staff, Alex Marunchak, was named and involved. She cannot deny either that she was told by the police that her own paper was using unlawful tactics, in that case to help one of her lawbreaking investigators. This, in my view, shows that her culpability goes beyond taking the blame as head of the organisation; it is about direct knowledge of unlawful behaviour. Was Mr Marunchak dismissed? No. He was promoted... 
Families who trusted Rebekah Brooks when she said she felt their pain, families who have been cruelly let down by the intrusion into private grief and the callous exploitation of their suffering – anguished families, indeed – are now being tortured yet again by the knowledge that in the world of Rebekah Brooks no one can grieve in private, no one can cry their tears without surveillance, no one can talk to their friends without their private feelings becoming public property.
The whole board of News International is responsible for the company. Mr James Murdoch should be suspended from office while the police investigate what I believe is his personal authorisation to plan a cover-up of this scandal. Mr James Murdoch is the chairman. It is clear now that he personally, without board approval, authorised money to be paid by his company to silence people who had been hacked, and to cover up criminal behaviour within his organisation. That is nothing short of an attempt to pervert the course of justice. 
There is now no escape for News International from the responsibility for systematically breaking the law, but there is also now no escape from the fact that it sought to pervert the course of justice. 
I believe that the police should also ask Mr James Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks whether they know of the attempted destruction of data at the HCL storage facility in Chennai, India. Mr James Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks now have to accept their culpability, and they will have to face the full force of the law. 
Their behaviour towards the most vulnerable, their knowledge of lawbreaking and their failure to act, their links with the criminal underworld and their attempt to cover up lawbreaking and to pay for people’s silence, tell the world all we need to know about their character – that they are not fit and proper persons to control any part of the media in this country.
Well done, mate.

28 June 2011


The government’s white paper on higher education, unveiled today by David Willetts, contains few surprises. It more-or-less follows the Browne report’s recommendations last year for a university system in which the customer rules supreme. “Student satisfaction” will determine which courses survive and which do not – which in turn will determine which universities survive and which do not. It’s difficult to think of a more depressingly philistine approach to higher education.

I’ve been teaching at universities for the past 20 years, and some of the Willetts/Browne approach makes sense. How students rate their courses matters. They should not be fobbed off with poor teaching or inadequate resources. They have a right to expect regular tutorials, well equipped libraries and decent student halls. Universities should publish details of contact hours students can expect on a course, and they should do their best to present honest statistics about their graduates’ careers and salaries. There should be robust systems available to allow students to express their views of their courses.

But making student satisfaction the be-all and end-all is a recipe for disaster. Education is not a commodity, and pleasing the customer is only part of what it is about. What makes students most happy? A lovely first-class degree! The Willetts/Browne scheme effectively formalises incentives for grade inflation that can only compromise standards. If universities privilege “the student experience” above all else, they give unaccountable power to the whingeing second-rater who thinks she or he deserves a top grade despite having done substandard work - all on the basis of simplistic tick-box questionnaires , completed in minutes, on which lecturers have no comeback – and set up lecturers to encourage non-whingeing students’ positive responses.

And little of it is of any value. I’ve been handing out tick-box feedback forms as a course director for 10 years, and it has been an almost complete waste of time. There have been a handful of occasions when it has flagged up problems with modules of which my course team was already aware – because, hey, we talk to our students and to each other! – but the report of the external examiner and regular course meetings with student reps have always been infinitely more useful in pointing out where we’ve gone wrong (when we have, which isn’t that often).

The root of the problem is that university managers and professional politicians are utterly clueless about what universities actually do. They don’t know the first thing about most of the subjects taught, and they are too lazy – or too busy counting beans - to turn up to lectures to see whether they’re any good. Tick-box feedback has become a means of camouflaging impotence, ignorance and a grotesque breakdown of trust between the people who run higher education institutions and those who actually do the worthwhile work in the lecture theatres and seminar rooms.

There are lecturers who are indolent and incomprehensible, true, but the major problem with higher education right now is that far too much is being spent on bureaucratic back-watchers and careerist hacks and too little on teaching. “Quality assurance” and "the student experience" are nothing but convenient cover for the managers' and ministers' incompetence and stupidity – but they're now the only game in town.

22 June 2011


My thoughts on Labour's policy review.

Stay Keynseian on economic policy
Keep going Ed-Balls-style. Never abandon John Maynard Keynes. We stand for jobs and growth. If we need to tax, we tax the rich  – and if they leave the country, good riddance to parasitic traitorous scum. People first.

Go federal on Europe
Tell it as it is: we need an EU fiscal policy to sort out the Greek mess. Britain should be an enthusiastic supporter of an EU finance ministry and of an EU-wide Keynesian public works programme concentrated on transport and telecommunications infrastructure. Whether we join the euro is another matter, but it shouldn't be ruled out. In the long run, we should be part of a federal Europe. Meanwhile, we need more power for the European Parliament. Its current incumbents are hopeless, but it's the only way to keep the EU bureaucracy under control. People's Europe.

Embrace citizen's income
Abolish pensions and every other benefit – along with income tax allowances – and introduce a flat citizen’s income.Means-testing dies. Everyone gets a basic income every week, then pays tax on everything they earn on top of it – end of story. There would have to be some means-tested supplements for the disabled, and dealing with children and immigrants is an issue … but these are minor details. Everyone deserves a living.

Democratise the state
An elected second chamber is the bare minimum. Add PR for the Commons, elected regional assmblies and a federal consttituion for the UK on the German model and we're moving. Restore local authorities' right to set taxation as they choose. Power to the people.

Axe military spending
Abandon nuclear arms and hi-tech fighter aircraft. They are a monumental waste of money. Spend the cash saved on education and encouraging small businesses. Make peace, not war.

Take it easy on health
Play it by ear. What we’ve got is pretty good and we need to defend it. NHS: keep it free.

Set education free
Abandon the national curriculum and give curriculum control back to local education authorities. Insist they all teach history. Elect local education authorities directly. Set up a libertarian free school in every city. Sack the “quality assurance” bureaucracies in further and higher education and employ more lecturers. Replace student loans with a retrospective graduate tax levied on everyone who has a degree – even those who were at university in the 1950s. Let's learn.

Kick ass on housing
Build council homes and reintroduce rent controls. Set up a private landlord register and nationalise the biggest landlords, then hand over control to democratic housing co-ops. Give mortgage-holders the right to convert their loan into a council tenancy. A home for every household.

Go in hard on transport
Renationalise the railways and introduce serious tax measures to curb the private motor car. Then legislate to make all local bus companies user-controlled co-ops. Move on.

Play it soft on law and order
Keep it under control: there’s no solution. String 'em up, it's the only language they understand.

OK, that’s it. But of course I've been here before.

20 June 2011


The Economist (on the Greece crisis) sums up what's wrong with the EU right now:
Sharing budgetary resources, either through direct transfers or through the issue of “E-bonds” underwritten by the euro area’s taxpayers, is anathema in Germany, where the notion of a “transfer union” in which the better-off subsidise the worse-off is political poison, not least because of the vast transfers from western to eastern Germany since reunification. Northern taxpayers would also recoil from the idea of a future “ministry of finance of the union” which Mr Trichet recently floated.
Actually, what we need is precisely a "transfer union", an EU-wide fiscal policy settlement that does for the struggling economies of the EU periphery just what German unification did for the former German Democratic Republic.  I understand the German right's antipathy to anything of the sort. What I can't fathom is why pro-EU social democratic politicians haven't made the case, at least in principle, even if they're running scared of the populist anti-EU right in electoral contests. And Germany still has obligations to the rest of Europe: remember, ah hem, the Nazis.

9 June 2011


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 10 June 2011

When the Tories and Liberal Democrats stitched up their coalition a little more than a year ago, my immediate reaction was that it wouldn’t last. OK, the Tories and the Orange Book Lib Dems shared an ideological commitment to the free market and a smaller state – but too much divided the parties for the coalition to hold in the long run: constitutional reform, Europe, civil liberties, defence…” I’ll give it two years at most,” I confidently told a group of friends the day David Cameron and Nick Clegg staged their press conference in the Number Ten rose garden.

I started having second thoughts within a couple of weeks, and by Xmas I’d reached the conclusion that the coalition might just survive the full term. I wavered a bit in the final stages of the alternative vote referendum campaign, when Lib Dem anger at the nastiness of No To AV’s attacks on Clegg nearly boiled over. But in the past month I’ve become ever more convinced that the coalition will last until 2015.

The reason is simple: the Liberal Democrats have nowhere else to go. They were thrashed in the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and English local elections last month, and they are bumping along with 10 per cent support in the opinion polls. In a general election, they would, in the absence of an electoral pact, be reduced to a handful of MPs, and they know it. It’s possible to imagine them leaving the coalition without precipitating an immediate general election. Cameron might in certain circumstances decide to soldier on as prime minister of a minority government. But it’s much more plausible that he’d respond to a Lib Dem walk-out by going to the country. And that is something the Lib Dems will not want for as long as their support is in the doldrums.

So my money is now on the coalition surviving until 2015. Which is when it could start to get really interesting. Let’s assume that in early 2015 the opinion polls are roughly as they are today – a daft assumption in many respects, I accept, but bear with me – with Labour on 41, the Tories on 38 and the Lib Dems on 10. Even with the government’s planned reduction of the size of the House of Commons, that would translate into a small overall Labour majority. The Lib Dems, meanwhile, would be reduced to a rump. How would Cameron respond?

Well, he might just shrug his shoulders and prepare for the election in the expectation that the Tories would overhaul the slim Labour lead during the election campaign and emerge with a Commons majority. That would cause him least grief with his own party – and it would probably work. But it would not be his only option. He could offer the Lib Dems an electoral pact.

Now, there are all sorts of electoral pacts. They can be formal or informal, national or local. There hasn’t been one in Britain, at least for Commons elections, for a very long time (except in Northern Ireland), but they used to be commonplace.

In the early years of the 20th century, Labour and the Liberals agreed not to stand candidates against one another in selected seats – an informal deal that allowed Labour to emerge as a serious electoral force. In 1918, the parties of David Lloyd George’s coalition put together a formal national electoral pact. In the 1920s, the Tories and the Liberals gave each other’s candidates free runs in selected seats to keep Labour out; and in 1931 and 1935, the parties supporting the National government did not stand against one another anywhere. Between 1939 and 1945 there was the wartime agreement among all the main parties not to oppose incumbent parties in by-elections, the so-called electoral truce; and from 1945 until 1959 the Tories and Liberals reverted to their 1920s practice of allowing one another free runs in selected seats to keep Labour out. There’s a strong case for arguing that this saved the Liberals from extinction in 1951: of the six Liberal MPs returned that year, only one, Jo Grimond in Orkney and Shetland, faced a Conservative opponent.

By 1959, Grimond had replaced the ineffectual Clement Davies as Liberal leader and the Tory-Liberal non-aggression pact had dwindled to a couple of seats. It was finally consigned to history by the Orpington by-election of 1962, in which the Liberal Eric Lubbock famously won what had been one of the Tories’ safest seats.

At least, that’s the way it seemed to just about everyone for nearly half a century. But just about everyone could be wrong. Unless there is a radical change in the opinion polls, Cameron has little to lose by offering the Lib Dems a selective non-aggression pact, and the Lib Dems have everything to gain. The Tories agree not to run against Lib Dem ministers and any sitting Lib Dem MP whose main challenger is Labour; and in return the Lib Dems withdraw from selected Labour-Tory marginals. Both the Tories and the Lib Dems do much better under such an arrangement than they would have without it, and the election results either in an outright Tory victory, in which case Cameron can decide whether or not to continue with the coalition, or a majority for the coalition parties, in which case it’s business as usual.

OK, it’s just speculation – but such a scenario is anything but implausible, and it should be setting Labour’s alarm bells ringing. That no one seems to have even thought about it speaks volumes of the cluelessness that is all-pervasive in the party’s upper echelons.