19 December 2013


I'm sad to hear of the death of the anarchist pacifist activist and journalist Howard Clark at the age of 63. He was a stalwart of Peace News and War Resisters International for many years, and I got to know him through European Nuclear Disarmament in the 1980s. He was a libertarian leftist of the old school, a sparkling, gregarious and tolerant man who put in untold hours keeping broke campaigns afloat but knew how to have a good time -- and his critical faculties were second to none. I remember him particularly for his ceaseless and brave activity in support of pacifists and draft-refusers in Poland in the 1980s in the face of a communist military dictatorship towards which much of the peace movement turned a blind eye. In the peacenik scene in Britain, he was a consistently solid comrade against  Leninist mountebankes of all stripes. I'd not seen him for ages when I heard he was gone; I wish I had. There's an appreciative notice by Michael Randle and Andrew Rigby here.

28 November 2013


Tribune column, 29 November 2013

Maybe I’m a naïve libertarian, but I can’t be that bothered whether the Reverend Paul Flowers, the Methodist minister who was chairman of the Co-operative Bank, took illegal drugs and had sex with rent boys.

Not that I think that the Mail on Sunday should have been prevented from exposing him: it’s not good for people who run banks to be off their heads on crystal meth, just as it’s not good for airline pilots to be drunk, and religious leaders who preach against prostitution and hire prostitutes on the side are fair game. Even if it turns out that the Rev Flowers got wasted only at weekends and never met rent boys on Sundays, there is a public interest in the intrusion into his privacy that cannot be reduced to prurience, even before his links with Labour Party high-ups come into the equation …

But that’s as may be: the Rev Flowers’ louche lifestyle isn’t what really matters in the extraordinary story of the Co-op Bank. He wasn’t at the helm when it took the fateful decision to take over the Britannia Building Society in 2009, and he was by no means solely responsible for the bank’s subsequent failed attempt to acquire 631 branches of Lloyds Bank. Although he was obviously not up to the job of chairing the bank’s board – his display of ignorance of its assets in front of the Commons Treasury select committee was breathtaking – he should not be made a scapegoat for systemic failures of which his appointment was a symptom.

And, boy, were there a few of those. The most important factor in the story is the hubris that infected the upper echelons of the Co-operative Group, which owns the Co-op Bank, in the mid-noughties. Thirty years ago, what you might call the official Co-op – the consumer organisation with shops, insurance, banking and funeral services rather than the myriad co-operatively run businesses in industry and agriculture – appeared to be in terminal decline. It was fragmented into regional societies, split between wholesale and retail operations, ludicrously bureaucratic at every level. Its shops were losing trade to the big supermarkets. Its accountability to its members was minimal, its business acumen non-existent.

But in the course of the late 1980s and 1990s, the Co-op got its act together, or so it seemed. Most of the regional societies merged into a national body, and in 2000 the retail and wholesale sides of the national Co-op became one. The Co-op Bank began a successful campaign emphasising that its principles were different from its competitors’. Managers with serious experience were given key positions in the retail and wholesale operations. By the mid-noughties, the Co-op seemed to be in good shape.

Then, however, its bosses got hungry for growth – and that’s where it all started to go horribly wrong. The Co-op expanded aggressively, encouraged by the then Labour government. As well as the Co-op Bank taking over the Britannia Building Society, the group swallowed the ailing supermarket chain Somerfield. Concerns that it was moving too fast and carelessly were given short shrift both by politicians of all parties and by the markets – and in 2010 the Co-op Bank was given the go-ahead by the Tory chancellor, George Osborne, to take over branches of Lloyds, temporarily nationalised to prevent its collapse, to enhance banking competition on the high street.

I’ll come clean: I thought that the Co-op becoming a serious contender in consumer banking and growing as a supermarket was rather a good idea. But I wasn’t in any position to know whether it had the necessary means or whether its actual or potential acquisitions were turkeys. The members of the Co-op Bank board were. They all screwed up.

So is this the end of mutualism, proof that complex stuff like banking has to be left to the experts with no input from the oiks? You’d think so from most of the press, but I demur. The supposed experts got it as wrong in 2007-08 as the amateurs. And the problem with the Co-op is not that it’s too democratic, but that it’s not democratic enough. As in every other large mutual, supposedly member-controlled, organisation, including the trade unions, hardly anyone votes. And one reason for this is that elections are depoliticised: candidates for office never declare their intentions, affiliations or beliefs beyond motherhood and apple pie. The Co-op, like most of the trade unions, is dominated by a Tammany Hall culture of stitch-up and buggin’s turn in which knowing the right people and being part of the right set matters more than competence, integrity or principles.

It’s an old story: the pioneering political sociologist Robert Michels identified the “iron law of oligarchy” more than a century ago in his seminal work, Political Parties. How to break that iron law remains the biggest quandary of radical politics.

14 November 2013


I’ve just caught up on the first instalment of Dominic Sandbrook’s BBC TV series Strange Days: Cold War Britain, first aired on Tuesday.

It’s a very mixed bag. There is some good archive footage, not all of which I’d seen – but its tone is almost ridiculously sensationalist, and some of its elisions and simplifications are breathtaking.

I’m not going to give chapter and verse, but it’s really cheap to use the Cambridge spies and the idiotic “Red Dean” of Canterbury, Hewlett Johnson, as exemplars of inter-war left “idealism” about Soviet communism without making it clear that most of the key figures who had enthused about the Soviet Union in the 1930s changed their minds after the Hitler-Stalin pact in 1939. Sandbrook gives the impression that Churchill’s famous “iron curtain” speech in Fulton, Missouri in 1946 somehow determined British government policy – and misses out the role of Ernest Bevin in the creation of Nato. The list of Soviet sympathisers George Orwell handed to Celia Kirwan gets the over-the-top treatment that has now become familiar (please, it was a list of people it would be a bad idea for the Labour government to get to write democratic socialist propaganda, not suggestions for arrest and detention). There’s nothing on Greece, Yugoslavia or Malaya… 

This would have been an excellent topic for a World At War-style documentary – sober, considered, detailed, using film archives for the pictures. Instead, typically for a contemporary TV history documentary, the budget was spent sending the presenter to exotic locations around the world from which he speaks energetically to camera.

For all alternative view, I think more nuanced (but I would say that), buy this book by me and Kevin Davey.

9 November 2013


I had the privilege, briefly, of editing John Cole, who has just died, at the New Statesman in the 1990s, after he had retired from the BBC and became the paper's main political columnist. He was a very good writer, superbly informed and always a real gent on the phone and in person. He was a Labour soft-leftist too. We need more journos like him today. There's a warm obit by David McKie in the Guardian here.

31 October 2013


Tribune column, 1 November 2013

There’s one song every band can play. If the words don’t ring a bell:
Standing on a corner
Suitcase in my hand
the riff will do it for you. Da – da, da, di, da – da, da, di,da.

OK, maybe not. It’s “Sweet Jane”, and it was not a hit for the New York band that ripped off the lick and recorded it in 1970, the Velvet Underground. I don’t think it charted anywhere until Mott the Hoople, a cheery bunch of British rockers fronted by the great Ian Hunter, covered it in 1972 and released it as a single in Canada and Portugal.

The Velvets weren’t exactly obscure. Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison and Mo Tucker were the house band at Andy Warhol’s studio-cum-party, the Factory. Reed and Cale had by 1970 established serious reputations as artistes (though Cale had left the band and Reed was on the way out) even if no one bought their records.

But it was only after the Velvet Underground went under, after the release of Loaded, their most commercially-oriented LP, that people got Lou Reed. He was turned into an international superstar by David Bowie, then at the height of his fame, who produced Reed’s second solo album, Transformer, which became a global hit in 1972. After that Reed had a mixed career. There are plenty of his records that are very good – Berlin, Rock and Roll Animal, Coney Island Baby and Street Hassle stand out, and the Take No Prisoners live set from 1978 is stunning, one of the funniest recordings made by a rock musician. I’m a fan of New York and of Songs for Drella, the album Reed and Cale put out as a tribute to Warhol in 1990. I’ve even had Metal Machine Music moments. But nothing ever matched Transformer or the Velvets’ recordings.

Now he’s dead, and I’m sad. It might seem odd, but Lou mattered a lot to kids in Suffolk in the 1970s. He was a subversive suburban geek, and there weren’t too many of them around at the time. We bought sunglasses to try to look like him, We did his songs, badly but enthusiastically, in punk bands. I’d say he was more of an inspiration than Bob Dylan or the Rolling Stones.

 “Give me an issue and I’ll give you a tissue – and wipe my ass with it.” he told his liberal New York audience in 1978. They loved it. In later life he ditched some of the cynicism and came out for the Democrats in a rather curmudgeonly manner, but I’m not really sure it was an improvement.


Russell Brand is a very different beast. The controversial comedian is in the spotlight after editing an issue of the New Statesman and appearing on Newsnight.

His not-so-unique selling point is that he is an anarchist. He thinks that Britain needs a revolution and needs it now – and his plea for revolution has gone viral.

I have some sympathy. Thirty-five years ago, when I wanted to be Lou Reed, well, I used to be an anarchist just like Russell Brand, though I wasn’t famous. I went on every demo against the Labour government in the late 1970s and lots against the Tories after that. I didn’t vote. I squatted.

Revolution was a lot of fun – certainly more fun than straight politics. I met some of my best friends through the anarchist scene in the late 1970s and early 1980s – and some of the ideas we were into back then have stood the test of time pretty well. Anarchism inoculated me for life against the authoritarianism of the Leninist left, and I’ve always held its do-it-yourself ethic in high regard. I also retain my disdain for the timidity of centre-left politicians whose actions are dictated by the findings of opinion polls and focus groups.

But anarchism also has severe limitations – not least that there aren’t many anarchists, which makes the dream of revolution just a little unrealistic. Even if there were lots more anarchists and revolution were a realistic goal, however, I’m not sure I’d actually want one these days. Revolutions are usually nasty, bloody things that lead to different wrong people being in charge. Maybe I’m just getting old, but I’d be quite happy settling for a robust universal welfare state and lots more spending on public transport, social housing, libraries and the arts. Which is what Labour used to offer, though now I’m not so sure.

18 October 2013


Tribune, 18 October 2013

The Daily Mail’s assertion that Ralph Miliband, father of Labour leader Ed, was a stooge of the Soviet Union who ‘hated Britain’ has created a massive storm. But it is only the latest in a long line of right-wing smears against the Labour left – with Tribune as a particular target – claiming it kow-towed to communist Russia … or worse. In an exclusive extract from their new book, Moscow Gold? The Soviet Union and the British left, Paul Anderson and Kevin Davey tell the grisly story of the lies of the 1960s and 1970s

After the 1963 defection to the Soviet Union of Kim Philby – the “third man” among the Cambridge spies, the first two of whom, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, had defected to Moscow in 1951, incontrovertible revelations of Britons spying for the Kremlin were few and far between. Indeed, apart from the fourth and fifth men of the Cambridge ring, Anthony Blunt and John Cairncross, exposed in the late 1970s, there were only a dozen or so until after the cold war had come to an end, most of them sordid blackmail cases, the highest-profile that of Geoffrey Prime, a paedophile working at the Government Communications Headquarters in Cheltenham imprisoned in 1982.

By contrast, unsubstantiated rumours that Britons had acted as Moscow’s agents were rife, most of them with their origins in the conspiracy theories of Peter Wright and other paranoid right-wing members of MI5 who were convinced that the Cambridge spies were just the tip of a giant subversive Soviet network at the heart of the British establishment. In the mid-1970s these stories, fuelled by anti-semitism, came to play a pernicious part in British politics, as Wright and his associates mounted a concerted smear campaign against leading figures in the Labour Party and the trade union movement they considered spies or “security risks”.

The most prominent of them was none other than Harold Wilson, Labour prime minister 1964-70 and 1974-76. Wilson had been president of the board of trade between 1947 and 1951, in which role he had taken over a controversial plan to sell jets to the Soviet Union (eventually scuppered on US insistence) and had generally been an enthusiast for developing trade with the eastern bloc. In 1951, he had resigned with Aneurin Bevan from the Attlee Labour government in protest at chancellor Hugh Gaitskell’s insistence on accepting US demands for increased military spending. From the early 1950s, he worked for Montague Meyer, a company importing Soviet timber, as an adviser. His job gave him the opportunity for frequent high-profile visits to the Soviet bloc and it introduced him to a circle of businessmen, many of them Jews, who were engaged in east-west trade.

Throughout the 1950s, Wilson kept up a campaign to relax restrictions on east-west trade, starting with a 1952 Tribune pamphlet, In Place of Dollars, and pushed a dovish position on the cold war. He was the first prominent British parliamentarian to visit senior Moscow politicians after the death of Stalin in 1953. He met Khrushchev in Moscow in 1956, refused to join the chorus of disapproval at the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian revolution and took a conciliatory line when the Berlin Wall went up.

All this made Wilson a target for public Tory accusations that he was soft on communism and sotto voce gossip in the Security Service to the effect that, along with his Jewish friends, he was a closet communist or even a Soviet agent. In the early 1960s it remained merely gossip. But after Wilson became Labour leader on Hugh Gaitskell’s death in early 1963, the story was given legs by the KGB defector Anatoly Golytsin, who, as well as exposing Philby, told MI5 that he had heard that the KGB had poisoned an un-named leading western politician to get their man in as party leader. Wright and others took this to mean Gaitskell and Wilson – even though Gaitskell died a year after Golytsin defected.

There followed 13 years of attempts to expose and undermine Wilson, despite there being no credible evidence against him. Wright and his cronies investigated not only Wilson himself but a vast swathe of others as part of their attempt to nail the Labour leader – his friends and former business partners, his political associates in the Bevanite movement – as well as Labour MPs, Labour Party officials and senior trade unionists with pasts in or close to the Communist Party, current connections with communists or any kind of links with the Soviet bloc. Jews were particularly suspect.

Two of Wilson’s friends were of particular interest to MI5, the Labour-supporting businessmen Rudy Sternberg and Joseph Kagan, both Jews of central European origin. Sternberg arrived in Britain from Austria in 1937, and after the war built up a substantial petrochemicals and trading empire. He first came to public attention when he organised a British parliamentary delegation to the Leipzig trade fair in East Germany in 1961, just after the construction of the Berlin Wall, and was accused with some reason of buying up MPs to forward his commercial interests. He became personally friendly with Wilson, subsidised his office as leader of the opposition between 1970 and 1974 and was given a peerage in Wilson’s resignation honours list. Sternberg was monitored closely by MI5, which spread rumours to journalists about his supposed political unreliability but never proved anything. Nothing damning has emerged since, at least on that score.

Kagan, born in Lithuania, was not really an east-west trader. He survived the war in his native country, arriving in Britain in 1946, and made a fortune in Huddersfield manufacturing waterproof coats. He too became a personal friend of Wilson and was constantly in and out of Downing Street during Wilson’s first term, contributing large sums to his office in opposition and getting the reward of a seat in the Lords in 1976. He was friendly for a period with a Soviet intelligence officer based at the London embassy, which massively excited MI5 in 1971 after a defecting KGB agent, Oleg Lyalin, relayed tales of Kagan’s boasting about his access to Wilson. Nevertheless, intensive surveillance in the early 1970s revealed no proof of espionage. Although many years later in 1980 Kagan was gaoled for theft, there still isn’t any credible evidence that he was anything other than a dodgy businessman.

Of the MPs targeted as “security risks” by MI5 during the Wilson years, only one admitted taking money, from an agent of the Czechoslovak intelligence service (the StB), the obscure backbencher Will Owen, a former member of the Independent Labour Party and MP for Morpeth after a byelection in 1954, who was named by the StB defector Josef Frolik in 1969. Owen, who had been on Sternberg’s payroll and was himself an east-west trader, had been a long-time Czechoslovak embassy contact and was on a list compiled by the Gaitskellite Labour right-winger Patrick Gordon Walker in 1961 of “cryptos” that he supplied to MI5 (reproduced in Christopher Andrew’s official history of MI5, published in 2009). He admitted the StB payments when he was arrested and was tried in 1970 for espionage, though he said he had not passed on secrets and was acquitted for lack of evidence: Andrew says that the files show Owen, who died in 1981, was indeed an StB agent.

Frolik also claimed that the postmaster-general since 1967 and MP for Wednesbury, John Stonehouse, had been in the employ of Prague. He had no proof, however, and Stonehouse, who had made much of his anti-communism as a leading player in London Co-op movement politics before becoming a government minister, denied he had done anything untoward. In 1974, Stonehouse, facing ruinous debts, rather spoilt his reputation for straight-dealing. He faked his own suicide and eloped to Australia with a woman who was not his wife. Misidentified as the wanted British peer Lord Lucan by local police, he was arrested, deported and, after a high-profile trial back in the UK, gaoled for fraud. According to Andrew, in 1980 another StB defector confirmed Stonehouse’s status as an agent; and in the 1990s an extensive StB file on Stonehouse was discovered in the Czech Republic that included complaints about the poor quality of information he supplied. Stonehouse died in 1988 after collapsing on a live TV show.

The third Labour MP named by Frolik was an even more colourful character, Tom Driberg. From a Jewish family and a member of the Communist Party from adolescence, Driberg became a journalist after Oxford University, working as a gossip columnist for Lord Beaverbrook’s Daily Express under the by-line William Hickey. Flamboyantly and promiscuously homosexual – at a time when homosexuality was illegal – he was expelled from the CP in 1941 after the party discovered that he had been meeting Maxwell Knight, the head of MI5, to exchange stories, and won Maldon in a by-election the next year standing as a left-leaning Independent in defiance of the wartime electoral truce among the coalition parties. He joined Labour in 1945, becoming one of the stars of the fellow-travelling left. After losing Maldon in 1955, he produced a biography of Beaverbrook, went to Moscow to interview Guy Burgess for a fawning but sensational biography, then returned to parliament as MP for Barking in 1959. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, he was a fixture on Labour’s National Executive Committee, an advocate of CND and dozens of left-wing causes. It is difficult to conceive of a more unlikely figure becoming a politician let alone a spy, yet he appears to have talked to everyone and taken money from anyone prepared to offer it, quite possibly under threat of exposure for homosexuality. As well as keeping in with MI5, he is down as an agent for the KGB rather than the StB in documents copied by the former KGB archivist Vasiliy Mitrokhin, published as The Mitrokhin Archive in 1999. He was apparently persuaded to supply information to the Soviet spooks after being caught cottaging in Moscow while on his Burgess mission.

The other Frolik name, Barnett Stross, MP for Hanley 1945-50 and Stoke-on-Trent Central 1950-66, was a Jewish doctor who was an enthusiast for British-Czechoslovak friendship, but he died in 1967 and so far nothing beyond Frolik’s claims have turned up anywhere.

Frolik’s list aside, five Labour MPs are known to have been identified by MI5 during the Wilson years as “security risks”: in alphabetical order, John Diamond, Bernard Floud, Judith Hart, Niall MacDermot and Stephen Swingler.

Diamond, chief secretary to the Treasury between 1964 and 1970, was a rightwing pro-European who later joined the SDP; MI5 told journalists that a photograph of him with two Yugoslav women in Venice in 1964 was a KGB entrapment attempt (it wasn’t).

Floud, a former communist who might have had connections with Soviet intelligence as a student in the 1930s, was driven to suicide in 1967 after he was told by Peter Wright that he would not get the security clearance required to become a minister. All the evidence is that he had broken decisively with the CP, of which he had been an open member in the 1940s, in 1952.

Hart was hauled in by Wilson in 1974 after being accused by MI5 of illicit communist connections: she had called CP headquarters to ask for information about communists imprisoned by General Augusto Pinochet’s coup in Chile. There is no evidence that she was involved in anything approaching espionage.

MacDermot decided to walk away from British politics in 1968 after MI5 decided on the basis of sheer prejudice that his half-Italian, half-Russian wife was a security threat and Wilson caved into its demands that he be denied security clearance.

Swingler was a mercurial former-communist identified as a pro-Soviet “lost sheep” by Labour’s general secretary Morgan Phillips in a list compiled in the 1940s, and had been the moving force behind the pressure group Victory for Socialism that was the principal organisation on the Labour left in the late 1950s and early 1960s – which included as members Ralph Miliband, Michael Foot, Ian Mikardo, Jo Richardson, Judith Hart and many others who later became prominent in Labour left circles. Swingler was denied promotion to the cabinet in 1968 after MI5 cast aspersions on his east European connections, even though, like Floud, he had broken with the CP in the early 1950s and had been at most a fellow-traveller ever since. He died in 1969.

Others that got the MI5 treatment include Wilson’s secretary, Marcia Williams; the Jewish businessmen Robert Maxwell and Sidney Bernstein; and the trade union leaders Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon. All were investigated and smeared by MI5 spreading unsubstantiated allegations to favoured journalists. In none of their cases has evidence turned up that can be said to implicate them in espionage.

Jones was named, after his death in 2009, by the former Soviet-British double-agent agent Oleg Gordievsky as having accepted payment for information in the mid-1960s and then again in the 1980s (when Jones was running the National Pensioners Convention). But Gordievsky’s reliability is questionable – in particular on anything that is alleged to have happened in the UK in the 1960s, when he was a KGB gofer in Copenhagen. No end of friends of Jones have come forward to say that the TGWU leader made a point of arguing with Soviet bloc officials when he met them and debriefed MI5 on the meetings.

There is certainly no more reason to accept Gordievsky’s word on Jones than there is on Michael Foot. In 1995, the Sunday Times quoted Gordievsky naming Foot as a KGB “agent of influence”. Foot was supposed to have taken serious money for Tribune from the Soviet embassy. In fact, what Foot had done was accept Soviet journalistic contacts’ contributions to the bill after sharing lunch at the Gay Hussar, the east-European restaurant in Soho that remains a favourite venue for the political class, and had put the money – which was never much – into the Tribune "slush fund”, a venerable institution that lasted well into the 1980s and provided the float for the bar at the paper’s end-of-year party. Foot threatened to sue the Sunday Times for libel and won a hefty out-of-court settlement, an effective admission that Gordievsky’s claims would not stand up in court.

The Sunday Times also quoted Gordievsky naming Ian Mikardo as a “KGB target” (which means nothing more than that Soviet intelligence was inquisitive about the east-west trading business he ran for 20 years). Mikardo could do nothing because he had died in 1993, but contemporaries said that the idea of Mikardo compromising his politics for cash was ridiculous, and there is no evidence against him. Mikardo undoubtedly had delusions about the potential of Soviet socialism, but a more important part of his international politics was an unswerving enthusiasm for Israel that was profoundly at odds with Moscow’s anti-Zionism.

There have been plenty of other allegations published in recent years about supposed Soviet infiltration of Labour, ranging from the utterly idiotic – the Spectator’s presentation in 2009 of extracts from the diaries of a Soviet foreign policy adviser as proof that all the leading figures in the 1980s Labour Party were in cahoots with Moscow – to the more-or-less plausible. Was Dick Clements, editor of Tribune from 1960 to 1982, the journalist identified by Mitrokhin as “Dan”, the KGB’s main agent of influence in 1960s London, as the Sunday Times claimed in 1999, responsible inter alia for a series of articles attacking Wilson’s policies from the left? It’s possible that Dick was indeed Dan, to the KGB at least. But the idea that Clements needed help, let alone instruction, from the KGB to criticise Wilson from the left is utterly laughable. Clements, who died in 2006, responded to the Sunday Times piece by suggesting that one of his Soviet embassy journalistic contacts might have been fiddling his expenses by pretending to hand over cash. There is no reason to disbelieve him.

And what about Ray Fletcher, a journalist who was a regular in Tribune in the 1950s and early 1960s, a columnist in the Times in the 1970s and Labour MP for Ilkeston from 1964 to 1983? The Mitrokhin Archive refers tantalisingly to his having been recruited by the KGB in 1962 but then dropped in 1964 after it discovered he was in touch with the Czechoslovak StB; and there is an even more gnomic reference in the same book to Polish intelligence suspicions that he had been co-operating with the CIA since the late 1950s. Fletcher himself said shortly before he died in 1991 that he had eastern bloc contacts who subsequently turned out to be intelligence agents (and claimed to have been the target of an attempted blackmail attempt by MI5 after he had a holiday affair with a woman in Hungary). Was he actually an agent, and if he was did it matter at all? We just don’t know, and the fact that in the early 1960s he wrote a pamphlet against Tory defence policy and Panglossian pieces about the eastern bloc for Tribune proves no more than his consistent pro-Europeanism or his columns for the Times in which he supported the rehabilitation of Nikolai Bukharin. 

The case of another Labour backbencher, Bob Edwards, Labour MP for Biston 1955-74 and Wolverhampton South East 1974-87, seems at first sight more clear-cut. He was co-author of a 1961 exposé of CIA chief Allen Dulles that drew on Soviet source material, and Andrew’s official history of MI5 confidently names him as having worked for the KGB and having been rewarded for his efforts with a medal. Nevertheless, there’s still something odd about the story. Edwards was a veteran of the ILP and had led the ILP contingent that fought in the Spanish civil war with the POUM, which included George Orwell – hardly the background to be expected of a KGB informant. In the 1950s, as leader of the chemical workers’ union, he had been a member of the advisory council of the anti-communist trade union propaganda group Common Cause.

So what are we to make of all this? The most important lesson is that it is a good idea to be very sceptical about allegations of Labour espionage for the Soviets. Soviet bloc intelligence agencies counted as an “agent of influence”, “target” or “confidential contact” anyone who was prepared to talk to one of their placemen working under some cover or other. They had an obvious interest in exaggerating the success of their efforts to headquarters. MI5, particularly after the Cambridge spies and the Golitsyn defection, was all too ready to suspect anyone who had contact with eastern bloc officials in exactly the same terms. So was (and is) the Tory press.

At their most egregious, the stories of penetration of the Labour Party are little more than attempts to besmirch the reputations of the party and of socialist opponents of the cold war inside it who were at worst naïve and mistaken and at best incisive critics of received establishment wisdom. There’s also a nasty whiff of anti-semitism about many of the allegations.

Of course, it would be foolish to dismiss every claim as a smear. The cases against Owen, Stonehouse and Driberg appear today to be solid, and those against Fletcher and Edwards are at least credible. Yet even if we accept that these five MPs all provided information to the Soviets or their stooges as agents, we have little idea what it comprised – and it was probably not very much. Only one of them, Stonehouse, was a minister with access to any sort of state secrets, and it’s by no means clear which if any of them he handed over. The others could only have provided information already in the public sphere and political gossip, and they weren’t serious political players. The trade union leaders and left-wing journalists accused of espionage were similarly out of any loop that mattered when it came to state secrets however stupid they might have been.

The truth is that the only British leftist credibly confirmed as a serious Soviet bloc spy since Blunt had nothing to do with the Labour Party. She was an open, card-carrying member of the Communist Party of Great Britain: Melita Norwood. A former secretary for the British Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association, she was unmasked in 1999 by Mitrokhin as having been a supplier of documentation on atomic research to Moscow in the 1940s and a KGB agent until the 1970s. She turned out to be living a modest life as an octogenarian Morning Star supporter in a London suburb – the least likely secret agent imaginable.

3 October 2013


Tribune column, 4 October 2013

It’s taken long enough, but at last Ed Miliband seems to be finding a distinctive voice. His speech at Labour conference in Brighton was less than earth-shattering, but it was better than his previous efforts, not least because it contained some hints about what a Miliband Labour government would be like.

The most important, of course, was his promise of a two-year freeze on energy bills – a modest proposal but one sufficiently at odds with the free-market consensus to send the Tory press into a frenzy about how “Red Ed” was plotting a return to the extreme state socialism of the 1970s. That was a strange reaction, largely because no one under the age of 50 has an adult memory of the 1970s but also because anyone who, like me, was around then would be hard-pressed to remember much that was extreme or socialist about the Labour governments of Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan – though we all have vivid memories of the lights going out during the three-day week in 1974, which happened under Ted Heath’s Tory government.

David Cameron and other senior Tories seem to have realised that the spectre of a return to the 1970s is not a runner. The line from the government is now that it feels the pain of gas and electricity bills but is powerless to act against the market – a breathtakingly hypocritical gambit given George Osborne’s enthusiasm for subsidised mortgages that will inflate further the already dangerous house price bubble in the south-east, but never mind.

The truth is that the pledge of a two-year energy bill freeze is not in itself a particularly big deal. The energy companies don’t like it, but they have been forewarned. They will almost certainly compensate by hiking their charges to consumers between now and spring 2015 and by buying gas and electricity in advance.

Nevertheless, it’s a politically astute move. The promise of an energy bill freeze chimes with the widespread feeling among voters that we’re being ripped off by private profiteers charging outrageous prices for the basics of life: not just heat and light, but rents, food, public transport, home insurance, water, telecoms, you name it.

Upmarket newspaper commentators have condescendingly tagged Miliband’s initiative as “populism” – by which they mean that it’s headline-grabbing and in tune with what people think – but it might just be more than that. For the first time in 20 years, a Labour leader dared to talk explicitly about market failure and suggested a small-scale palliative. It’s hardly a return to classic social democratic reformism, but at least it’s a start.


I have spent the past month grappling with the challenges of publishing books online. A year ago, my friend Anna Chen and I set up an imprint to publish alternative books of various kinds, dead trees and electronic, Aaaargh! Press.

Since then we’ve put out a book of poems, Reaching for my Gnu by Anna (in print and as an ebook) and two Kindle ebooks, the first a collection of columns by the legendary music journo Charles Shaar Murray, The Guitar Geek Dossier and the second Moscow Gold? The Soviet Union and the British left by me and Kevin Davey.

We’re learning as we go along. Lesson number one is that you can’t do without Amazon: Jeff Bezos has established a global near-monopoly on book-selling, and you have to join in: Kindle is the only ebook format that makes sense or money. Lesson number two is that it isn’t free: Amazon takes at least 30 per cent of the sale price plus fees for hosting your book (otherwise known as sitting pretty). And lesson number three is that promotion is as difficult online as it ever was. If you offer a freebie, you lose sales. Hardly anyone looks at a Facebook post more than 30 minutes after it appears on your page. You’re lucky if you get five minutes’ attention for anything you put on Twitter. Everyone junks email from unknown senders.

But publishing online is also exciting. We’re not there yet, but I’ve seen the future and it might just work. Even on Amazon’s rates for hosting, you get 70 per cent minus a bit. As long as you don’t publish rubbish, as long as you publish enough, it could be how left-wing journalists keep body and soul together in the 21st century. If not, well, something else had better turn up …

2 October 2013


Review of Robert Colls, George Orwell: English Rebel (Oxford University Press, £25), Tribune, 4 October 2013

I started Robert Colls’s new biography of George Orwell with some trepidation. Colls is a writer I like who has written intelligently and provocatively on working-class history and the creation of an English national identity – but I was wondering what a new biography could possibly add to the already massive literature on Orwell.

I was wrong to worry. This is a stunning piece of work, well researched, tautly written and often funny. Colls’s take on Orwell is that he should be understood as a writer grappling with his Englishness and with England.

His story is essentially one of how Orwell got to know and embrace the society into which he was born but from which he was semi-detached by his family’s class, his privileged education and his early career as a colonial policeman. The watershed is 1939-40, the start of the second world war, though it’s a bit more complicated than that.

 The key episodes and events are now as familiar as the writing they spawned, from Down and Out in Paris and London to Nineteen Eighty-Four. But Colls’s accounts are fresh, sometimes exhilarating. He weaves discussion of Orwell’s novels and most important essays apparently effortlessly into his exegesis of political and cultural context: there are no sharper précis of the 1930s novels, and Colls’s sense of the world in which Orwell was writing is spot-on time and again.

He is as pointed on everyday life in the empire as on the twists and turns of the Moscow line or the grim story of appeasement. He has read a great deal and taken it in, though he doesn’t show it off too blatantly. Colls is an admirer of Orwell, but not a slavish one. He is impatient with his subject’s hard-line left revolutionary politics in the late 1930s and his hypocritical anti-intellectualism, but he acknowledges what Orwell got right about Stalinism and its supporters among the British intelligentsia. I’ve not read a more judicious weighing up of Orwell’s experience in Spain in 1936-37 or a better summary of his brutal critical lashing of W H Auden.

The passages on the context of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty Four are not as good … but by then the argument has largely been made. There are lacunae and what I think are errors of judgment. Colls has little to say about Orwell the left-wing journalist, most importantly as a columnist on Tribune in the 1940s – and that means he is prone to downgrade the extent to which Orwell was in tune with the Labour left in the 1940s (although he catches perfectly Orwell’s relationship with Aneurin Bevan).

Like a lot of Orwell’s anarchist, Trotskyist and right-wing friends who thought his Labourism a terrible sell-out, he gives too much attention to the old trope that Orwell was a “Tory anarchist”, a joking self-description from the early 1930s, and too little to the Trotskyist and left-libertarian influences on his thinking that offer better explanations for his deviations from the left orthodoxies of his day than any vestige of Toryism (for which see John Newsinger’s excellent Orwell’s Politics and Bernard Crick’s now venerable biography). And, most important of all, I think Colls underplays Orwell’s sense of himself not as an English intellectual but as a European democratic leftist: there’s another reading of his life and concerns, still to be written, that places him squarely as a pioneer of left-wing European republican federalism.

But these are quibbles: we all have our own Orwell. Colls’s is not mine exactly, but this is a volume to enjoy and with which to disagree. It is the best book on Orwell to appear for several years, erudite and original. It catches the extent to which Orwell lived on his wits better than any other account of his life. It’s up there with Crick, Gordon Bowker and D J Taylor.


The Daily Mail has provoked a storm with its idiotic attempt to portray Ralph Miliband, the Marxist intellectual father of Ed, as somehow unpatriotic because, as a young Jewish refugee from Nazi-occupied Belgium in wartime London, he noted in his diary the extraordinary nationalism of the British people he met. 

Several people have pointed out (correctly) that the Mail has a brass cheek casting aspersions on the patriotism of Miliband senior given its own disgraceful record in the 1930s.

But the instance of its perfidy most often quoted in the past few days, the brief flirtation in the early 1930s of the Mail’s proprietor, the first Lord Rothermere, with Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, wasn’t actually its nadir.

Daily Mail owner Lord Rothermere: Nazi stooge
True, it yielded the notorious headline “Hurrah for the blackshirts!” above an article by Rothermere (left) praising the BUF – and similar fascist nonsense appeared in the Daily Mirror, also owned by Rothermere, though for some reason no Mirror journalist has acknowledged it in the past few days. But Rothermere’s enthusiasm for Mosley was nothing to compare with his enthusiasm for making money. Within days of the appearance of his endorsement of the BUF, advertisers threatened to withdraw from Rothermere’s papers after the BUF beat up hecklers at an infamous rally at Olympia. Rothermere unceremoniously abandoned Mosley – even dropping an advanced plan to market BUF-branded cigarettes.

The real scandal was and is Rothermere’s support for Hitler, which was consistent from 1933. A vicious reactionary anti-semite, Rothermere saw the Nazi dictator as an ally against the spread of (Jewish) communism and backed Hitler's actions to remove Jews from public life in Germany. This, I think a Mail article originally though it's from an Australian paper, is typical: there are many more Rothermere encomiums to Nazism in the archives. He visited and corresponded with his hero Hitler and was a strong supporter of appeasement. During the Munich crisis of 1938 his papers urged capitulation to Hitler's demands for the German-speaking regions of Czechoslovakia (though they did advocate rearmament, just in case). The Mail objected time and again to the admission to Britain of Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria. Rothermere died in 1940 a broken man, desperately disappointed that the great dictator in Berlin had not forged an alliance with London to vanquish Stalin. He was an utterly disgusting human being.

Rothermere was pro-Nazi. The Daily Mail was pro-Nazi. The Daily Mail is the traitors' paper. Never forget, never forgive. Lower than vermin, as Aneurin Bevan once said.

28 September 2013


Here's the Amazon sales ranking for Moscow Gold? The Soviet Union and the British left by Paul Anderson and Kevin Davey. Buy it now!


'Moscow Gold? The Soviet Union and the British left by Paul Anderson and Kevin Davey is a fine little book you can read in a day – 168 pages for just £3.50 on Kindle. Anderson and Davey have taken advantage of the vast amount of research into communism since the end of the Cold War. They wear it lightly, and refreshingly, are open about their political position. As members of the democratic left, they believe that communism was a disaster for left wing politics. It tied the left to tyranny and the lies and disillusion that went with it.'

26 September 2013


Ian Bone, late of Class War, gives a plug to Moscow Gold? The Soviet Union and the British left on his blog. It didn't go down well. The first comment, from "EUSTONED? aint we all" reads:

'Nick Cohen says: "A fine little book that reveals Stalin’s deathbed plans to subvert the decent British left for the next 60 years. Chapter five suggests that 'Owen Jones' is really Olga Jonovitch, the crazed Islamo-fascist creation of the KGB’s secret mind labs, programmed to murder Ed Miliband and establish a Victor Serge-Billy Braggist 'volk' dictatorship and the mass-production of bright red three-wheel Lada cars. I call on every decent left liberal opinion-former to read this book, subscribe to Tribune, bomb Iraq and inform on your mates. If you have any. AND ask yourself: 'What would Orwell do? And his animals?'"


25 September 2013



'Moscow Gold? The Soviet Union and the British left by Paul Anderson and Kevin Davey is a fine little book you can read in a day – 168 pages for just £3.50 on Kindle. Anderson and Davey have taken advantage of the vast amount of research into communism since the end of the Cold War. They wear it lightly, and refreshingly, are open about their political position. As members of the democratic left, they believe that communism was a disaster for left wing politics. It tied the left to tyranny and the lies and disillusion that went with it.'

7 September 2013


I know this is hardly the question of the moment in the UK, but the way the Australian general election is panning out does show how the alternative vote – preferential voting in single-member constituencies – can lead to landslides even more unproportional than those that often happen under first past the post. The exit polls suggest a right-left percentage share of the vote of 53-47 but a right-left percentage share of seats of roughly 66-33.


I'm sad to hear of the death of Geoffrey Goodman, the left-wing journalist who was one of the greatest supporters of and contributors to Tribune, at the age of 91. I never knew him well, but he did reviews for me at Tribune and we met over lunch at the Gay Hussar many times in the company of others. He was a legend – a veteran of the Communist Party (which he left in 1951 over Tito, I think, though others have it as 1956 over Hungary), the Bevanite movement, the News Chronicle of the 1950s, the Daily Herald and Odhams' Sun in the 1960s, the Daily Mirror in its 1970s "golden age", one of the labour correspondents that were must-reads when trade unions mattered a lot – and he was a fantastic writer and very kind. There's an obituary in the Guardian by Mike Molloy here, with an appreciation by Ian Aitken here. Dennis Kavanagh's warm obituary in the Independent, here, includes a howler that Goodman would have picked up with glee (note to Independent subs: it was the Daily Mail that took over the News Chronicle). Here is the Mirror's tribute. RIP.

5 September 2013


Tribune column, 6 September 2013

The fall-out from last Thursday’s House of Commons defeat for David Cameron over military intervention in Syria has been spectacular. The newspapers and current affairs broadcasters have had a week of field days as the various political protagonists have laid into one another and pundits have tried to grasp the significance of the vote. Is Cameron finished? Is Ed Miliband an opportunist toe-rag? Is this the end of the special relationship?

Largely sidelined by the furore, however, has been any serious concern for the substantive issue supposedly at stake – what if anything the rest of the world should do about the civil war in Syria, in which some 100,000 people have died, 2 million have fled the country as refugees and 4 million have become displaced persons within its borders.

Of course, that’s not an easy question to answer. Although the internet is awash with images of atrocities, it is by no means clear exactly what is happening in Syria except that it’s bloody and unpleasant. There are conflicting reports about the strength and nature of the opposition to Bashar al-Assad’s regime: some say it’s still largely composed of moderate Sunnis who would be quite happy to live in harmony with everyone else, others that it is now dominated by murderous jihadists with strong al-Qa’ida connections. It’s not obvious how far Assad is now reliant on support from Iran and its Lebanese surrogate Hezbollah – rather more important regional players than his friends in Moscow, who have been grandstanding for all they are worth as well as supplying him with arms – and we don’t know how far the opposition is serving the interests of Riyadh, Doha and Ankara. As I write, it’s not even beyond question that it was the regime and not agents provocateurs that unleashed the nerve gas massacre that brought about last week’s call to action from Cameron (and I’ve not succumbed to conspiracy theory, honest).

It’s possible that the intelligence agencies of the world know a lot about the situation on the ground of which journalists are wholly unaware, but even if they do that’s not the end of the problem. The strong opposition of Russia and China to any sort of international intervention against Assad might well be more a matter of cynical self-interest than a statement of anti-imperialist principle, but it rules out the possibility of United Nations endorsement of even the most minimal “shots across the bow”. Israel is a wild card, utterly unpredictable because driven by hostility both to Assad and his enemies. Egypt is more-or-less under martial law after the coup against the Muslim Brotherhood; Iraq is out of the headlines but seething with sectarian tensions. And public opinion in the US and the UK is sceptical about the claims of the political class that intervention will work: memories are fresh of Afghanistan and Iraq, where successful regime-changing assaults were followed by years of bloody counter-insurgency operations. An invasion of Syria that learnt the lessons of Afghanistan and Iraq – Germany 1945-style, with regime-change, forcible disarmament of the population, an occupation involving hundreds of thousands of troops, the securing of borders and all the rest – would probably do the business, but “boots on the ground” are the last thing any western politician could now sell to an electorate. Proper imperialism is not on the agenda.

Which means that the people of Syria will continue to suffer in agony as humanitarians and liberals in the west wring their hands. The most that Barack Obama will sanction, as things stand, is a no-fly zone, and that’s assuming Congress gives him its backing. It won’t work, and will lead to lots more innocent people being killed.

Last week in the House of Commons, MPs refused to back something even more minimal. I can understand why, though I have no sympathy with the Tory and Liberal isolationists who can’t be bothered with quarrels in faraway countries between people of whom they know nothing. And it matters, because it creates a crisis of authority for the British government and marks a change in Britain’s perception of its role in world affairs. It makes very little difference, however, to what happens in Syria. If I were a Syrian, I think I would probably have a lot to say about that.

23 July 2013


I've just discovered that the comrades at libcom.org have scanned the libertarian socialist magazine Solidarity for Social Revolution from the late 1970s and early 1980s and put it online. The last few issues include quite a bit from me, much of which is rubbish. I also did a lot of the production work. Am I embarrassed? Not at all! It's here in all its glory ...

22 July 2013


Now, I hate to do this but … the royal baby is rather a long way distant as king or queen unless the proverbial bus does its business.

The new baby is third-in-line to the throne, after his great grandma, his granddad and his daddy.

This lot have got to die first:

  • HM the Q (1926-)
  • Prince Charles (1948-)
  • Prince William (1982-)

  • Now, given the longevity of the royal family and the quality of their private health care, it’s not mad to suggest that Prince William will die in 2083. That means that the sprog accedes to the throne at the age of 70 and rules at the end of the 21st century. O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!

    Why not put this nonsense to sleep?

    12 July 2013


    Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 12 July 2013

    The giant bust-up over Labour’s parliamentary selection in Falkirk has eclipsed everything else in British politics for the past couple of weeks – and Labour’s relationship with the trade unions has the potential to escalate into the story that dominates the summer and the conference season.

    And of course it matters – just as it mattered last time it became the really hot issue, 20 years ago, when Labour went through months of hell arguing the toss about John Smith’s attempt to introduce the principle of “one member, one vote” to internal Labour elections while continuing to allow affiliated unions a key role in the party’s organisation. Smith got his messy compromise through in the end, but it was only at the very last minute after some desperate behind-the-scenes conference fixing. It made for marvellous high drama, and the settlement reached in 1993 proved much more resilient than seemed likely.

    How much the whole hoo-hah really changed is another question, however – and Labour’s preoccupation with its own structures undoubtedly diverted it from more important things. I have a feeling that the same might be about to happen now, if it’s not already happening.

    Until Falkirk came along, the shadow cabinet was obviously attempting to get into pre-election mode. Last month’s speeches by Ed Miliband and Ed Balls accepting that an incoming Labour government in 2015 would have to stick to the coalition’s budget for a year were followed by a lacklustre intervention by the shadow education secretary, Stephen Twigg, in which he announced that Labour would not do anything against “free schools”, though it wouldn’t actually promote them.

     Last week was supposed to be when Labour made it clear that it wasn't actually against a referendum on British membership of the European Union – though it wasn’t exactly in favour of one either. The party just about got the point across because someone left a briefing paper in the gents’ that was subsequently published by a right-wing blogger (or am I mixing this up with something else?). But thanks to Falkirk it made only the online equivalent of a paragraph on page nine.

    Now, a cynic might suggest that Labour’s attempts to deal with the important issues have been so utterly hopeless that the confrontation with Len McCluskey is a welcome opportunity for Miliband to prove he can make tough decisions, and that he should now pull out all the stops to push through radical changes to Labour’s constitution.

    I’m not so sure – and not just because I’d like to see Labour coming up with some bold alternative policies rather than turning inwards. One problem is timing. A giant internal constitutional battle is all very well for an opposition party in the first year of a parliament – it can even be cathartic – but is very dangerous less than two years from a general election, particularly when it’s only now that proposals are being tabled.

    Miliband this week made it clear that he wants to move from opting out of Labour for union payers of the political levy to opting in, primaries for the London mayor selection and other selections, an overall cap on political donations – much of which makes sense in principle but, as OMOV showed 20 years ago, the devil is in the detail with this sort of thing, and there’s not a lot of time to sort it out.

    The real problem, however, is it that it’s by no means clear that Miliband will win on the terrain on which he has chosen to fight. And if he loses, his credibility will be utterly destroyed. He has got his work cut out.

    Not for the first time, I’m glad I’m not in the Labour leader’s shoes. Oh well. The sun is out and the sky is blue, and it’s nearly holiday time. And a Scotsman has won the men’s singles at Wimbledon for the first time since 1896. It’s not all completely depressing, is it?

    5 July 2013


    Some points about the great Falkirk controversy (I was going to write about it in my Tribune column next week, but forget that):
    1. It is distasteful if a close friend of a general secretary of a trade union that is Labour’s largest funder is vigorously promoted by that union as a potential candidate for a safe Labour seat.
    2. It is wrong if the promotion of that would-be candidate involves the union paying for large numbers of its members and people its organiser met down the pub to join the Labour Party solely to vote for the would-be candidate.
    3. It is worse still if that would-be candidate is employed by a Labour Party general election co-ordinator who is also a friend of the trade union general secretary.
    4. It becomes ridiculous if the trade union general secretary’s chief of staff is a member of the hard-line Stalinist Communist Party of Britain, if he himself was very close to the Trotskyist Militant Tendency, and if his union has openly adopted a policy of recruiting members in order to get hard-left candidates sympathetic to the Stalinists and Trots selected.
    5. It turns into farce if the main alternative "New Labour" candidate is the partner of an MP in the shadow defence secretary’s team and a major player in the Labour Party’s communications outfit.
    6. It becomes totally ludicrous if the alternative candidate also paid for people to join the constituency Labour Party in order to secure selection votes.
    7. It gets utterly barmy if the shadow defence secretary then has a go at the union general secretary…
    8.  … and barmier if the union general secretary has a go back ...
    9.  … and barmier still if the press gets involved, and then the leader of the Labour Party and everyone who has an opinion about politics take the bait and it’s all over the media.
    10. It is solved by various people leaving the scene.
    The general election co-ordinator is a start. The shadow defence secretary and the trade union general secretary’s chief of staff would, for example, be small sacrifices to the cause. Otherwise, it's stuffed.

    26 June 2013

    13 June 2013


    Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 15 June 2013

    The two big policy speeches by Ed Miliband and Ed Balls last week have not transformed the political landscape.

    No one outside the political class noticed them – and the reaction within the political class was low-key and predictable. The usual suspects said the usual things. The far left and the Tory right proclaimed that Miliband and Balls had performed a U-turn to adopt the policies of the coalition government – committing Labour to austerity and abandoning the principle of universalism in the welfare state. Hardline Blairites sniffed at the failure of the two Eds to take a truly tough position on reducing government debt and pruning the welfare bill: they had shown they were was still beholden to the trade unions and left-wing activists who got Miliband elected as leader in 2010, and there was nothing of substance in what they said.

    So has Labour embraced austerity or not? Actually, it has done neither and both. What happened last week was that Labour shifted into pre-election mode. After two-and-a-half years of repeatedly making the point that Labour wouldn’t have started from here, the party leadership is now talking about what it will do if it wins in 2015. Like it or loath it, by then we will have had five years of coalition austerity – and the room for manoeuvre for an incoming Labour government will be severely constrained. Miliband and Balls were simply relaying the message that if they win they won’t go mad, the very first prerequisite of a successful general election campaign.

    Some say that it’s not before time for Labour to present itself as an alternative government, others that the Eds have moved too soon – that the economy and politics are in such flux, the next two years so unpredictable, that firming up Labour’s programme now will create big hostages to fortune. For what it’s worth, I think they’ve timed it about right. Until very recently, there was at least the possibility of a government U-turn on austerity or a debilitating split in the coalition, which made the lightness of Labour’s baggage an advantage. It now seems that George Osborne intends to stick to his script, and the coalition appears robust enough to survive until 2015 – though it might not – so it makes sense for Labour to get its act together.

    Whether the messages the two Eds have chosen to highlight are the right ones is another matter. “We’ll not splash out on the social security budget and we’ll keep a strict watch on overall public spending” is not the stuff to set the pulse racing – and there wasn’t much else beyond Balls’s cack-handed indication that some universal benefits enjoyed by pensioners would be means-tested.

    Miliband’s hint that Labour will come up with ways to revitalise the contributory element in social security benefits is a step in the right direction, as is his identification of housing benefit as a scandalously wasteful subsidy to petty rentier capitalists (as his dad would have described them). But he didn't flesh out what Labour would actually do about either. Are we talking a return to earnings-related unemployment benefit as it existed in the 1970s – or an extra 25 quid a week for people who have worked 30 years and are made redundant? Is it strict rent controls and a three-year emergency programme of putting up council pre-fabs – or is it tax-breaks for the construction industry to build blocks of luxury flats with the odd “affordable” broom cupboard with a view of the car park?

    OK, I’m not really expecting a return to earnings-related dole, and there are problems with enforcing rent controls. But if Labour is saying that it is going to have to deal with the circumstances it inherits from this disastrous government in 2015, it needs to leaven the dour – it’s going to be tough – with a compelling story of how it could be different.

    So far, the vision thing is absent: Labour looks and sounds timid and unadventurous, driven by focus groups and opinion polls that tell it to play safe. Labour won in 1997 on “safety first”, but things are different now. We’re in the middle of the worst depression since the 1930s, and there is a sullen anti-immigrant, anti-Europe, anti-scrounger mood among the voters that cannot be ignored. Labour needs to offer hope, and it isn’t doing it.

    7 June 2013


    "In the heart of the British Empire there is a police state where the rule of law has broken down, where the murder and torture of Africans by Europeans goes unpunished and where the authorities pledged to enforce justice regularly connive at its violation."
    Barbara Castle, Tribune, 30 September 1955

    29 May 2013


    I had Alex Butterworth's The World That Never Was: A True Story of Dreamers, Schemers, Anarchists and Secret Agents (Vintage, 2011) on my pile of books to read for some time. I've now just read it: a page-turner, a quite brilliant piece of work about the European left between the Paris Commune and the first world war. Read it for yourselves: stunning.

    16 May 2013


    Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 17 May 2013

    The extraordinary surge in support for UK Independence Party in the local elections has undoubtedly been the big British politics story of the month. UKIP came from (almost) nowhere to take a surprisingly large share of the vote in the shire counties and unitary councils voting this year and increased its number of council seats by 139.

    Precisely how big its share was is still unclear. The BBC’s figure for UKIP’s “projected national share” of the vote as 23 per cent is what made the headlines – but that is just a little problematic because it is an estimate of what would have happened across the country in local elections if they had taken place everywhere and if UKIP and the three main parties had been contesting every seat. It could be that the BBC’s psephologists built a very sophisticated model to make their projection, but their assumptions have not been published and nor, so far, have the raw data for votes actually cast. I might be wrong, but my hunch is that they have probably exaggerated the evenness of the distribution of UKIP support across the country: UKIP’s actual seats are concentrated in the east and south-east in run-down coastal towns and in agricultural areas where there are lots of east European vegetable-pickers. We shall see.

    Still, UKIP undoubtedly did very well – and that has sent much of the Tory party into a state of panic. Tory MPs could live with the prospect of UKIP getting the most votes in next year’s European elections, but until this month UKIP’s successes in any other elections were minor. It had a tiny number of council seats and, although it had been runner-up in a handful of parliamentary by-elections, in all apart from Eastleigh its second places had been distant. Now the fear has swept the Tories that UKIP will split the right-wing vote in the 2015 general election and let Labour through the middle.

    It might happen, it might not: the general election is a long way off. What is important, however, is that the Tories’ fear is affecting their behaviour in the here and now. UKIP does not have coherent policies for government, and Nigel Farage is difficult to take seriously as a national political leader. But on one issue above all UKIP addresses directly the concerns of a large number of working-class and lower-middle-class voters who mainly voted Tory in 2010: immigration. That much was known before the local elections – the anti-immigration measures in last week’s threadbare Queen’s Speech were not dreamed up in desperation over the previous weekend – but the Tories are in shock at having lost so much of the anti-immigrant electorate, and their ugly chauvinist rhetoric is already getting uglier.

    The government’s problem here is that, as UKIP never tires of pointing out, there is very little it can do to deter anyone from other European Union countries coming to Britain as long as we remain in the EU, and the government does not want to leave. It is difficult to see how David Cameron can get out of this one. He has already promised as much as he can – a renegotiation and the promise of an “in-out” referendum in the next parliament – that is tolerable to his Liberal Democrat coalition partners, but it is not enough for the hardline Tory Eurosceptic right. Cameron now faces trouble on Europe every bit as serious as the endless bickering that undermined John Major during the 1990s.

    Labour can enjoy the Tories’ predicament – but only a little. Its local election campaign was well targeted on marginal Westminster seats, but it too took a hit from UKIP, and its overall share of the vote was unimpressive. More important, it is going to be much more difficult than in the 1990s for Labour to exploit a giant bust-up on the right about Europe. Back then, the economy was booming, immigration meant asylum-seekers, and the right’s anti-Europeanism was all about Brussels bureaucracy rather than east Europeans coming over here and taking our houses and jobs. Labour cannot ignore voters’ worries about immigration and Europe, but it needs to be very careful that it is not sucked into an anti-Europe, anti-immigrant bidding war.

    17 April 2013


    Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 19 April 2013

    The death of Margaret Thatcher has prompted a wave of public controversy that is quite extraordinary – if only because she had not been a player in British politics for so long. She left office in 1990 and had only a minor role after that – notably in criticising her successor as prime minister, John Major, for his failings on former-Yugoslavia (on which she was right) and the European Union (on which she was wrong). No one now under the age of 43 voted in a general election in which she was a candidate; no one under 52 was a voter when she became prime minister.

    Of course, her time in office was eventful, sometimes dramatic, and a lot changed while she was in charge. On the home front, her government destroyed the power of the trade unions – aided by the inept leadership of the National Union of Mineworkers – and privatised the utilities and most of the nationalised industries. It let council tenants buy their homes, allowed manufacturing industry to collapse, started the deregulation of the City and radically curtailed the autonomy of local government.

    In foreign policy, there was the Falklands, resolute pursuit of the cold war and a policy on Europe that favoured the single market but opposed anything smacking of federalism. And of course, she did what she did with a distinctive style, which you either loved or loathed if you were around at the time.

    But was Thatcher really the game-changer that both her fans and her critics claim? It’s true that the unions have never recovered from their 1980s defeats – and the chances of any future government engaging in a programme of renationalisation are small, if only because it would be expensive.

    Otherwise, however, the big changes of the Thatcher years, where they weren’t crudely implemented adjustments to the inevitable, look increasingly thin and very much reversible.

     Coal and steel would have withered in the face of international competition under any government: Thatcher’s approach brutally hastened their demise and maximised the pain to communities reliant on heavy industry for work. Manufacturing would also have declined under any government because of competition from the far east, though it was made worse by the absence of any coherent industrial policy from the Thatcher government (or any of its successors). Deregulation of the City – continued by subsequent administrations, Tory and Labour – gave us the crisis of 2008 from which we are yet to recover despite massive state intervention to rescue the banks. The sale of council housing to tenants was a bonanza for those who bought, massively subsidised by the taxpayer, but councils were not allowed to use the receipts to build new homes, and, particularly in London and the south-east, right-to-buy owners soon sold up to buy-to-let landlords who charged obscene rents paid by housing benefit. Now we’ve got a housing crisis.

    As for foreign policy – well, the Falklands really doesn’t matter except for patriotic myth-makers, and the cold war is long over, though it’s worth noting that Thatcher was completley ineffectual in its last phase. She might have identified Mikhail Gorbachev as a man with whom she could do business, but she resisted the removal of nuclear weapons from Europe in the late eighties and opposed the unification of Germany in 1989. On the European Community, her record was disastrous. Britain’s bone-headed obstructionism under her watch in the late 1980s played a key part in framing the Maastricht treaty on European Union along lines that have since 2008 been exposed as utterly idiotic – a central bank committed to quell inflation and nothing else, no European federal government.

    Thatcher seemed a big figure, but she wasn’t really. She won the 1979 general election with a small majority because Labour’s corporatism had failed – and then got lucky. She won massive majorities in 1983 and 1987 after a small part of the Labour leadership defected to set up an Atlanticist pro-Europe centrist party in alliance with the Liberals. She then became a heroine of the anti-European right, which took control of the Conservative party in the 1990s and lost three general elections in a row.

    And that’s it. There’s not a lot in the legacy to fear apart from the remarkable success of her appeal to affluent working-class voters in 1983 and 1987. Can David Cameron do the same in 2015? Almost certainly not – and that’s despite the fact that, with the help of the Liberal Democrats, he’s engaged on a plan to shrink the state that Thatcher could only dream about. I’m not dancing on her grave, but she was a failure whose reputation will fade as soon as Britain elects a decent democratic socialist government.

    12 April 2013


    The New Statesman  is 100 years old today. Raise a glass!

    27 March 2013


    Funny as it is that someone once nicknamed “Brains” has joined an outfit called International Rescue – if you don’t get it, you didn’t watch Thunderbirds in the 1960s – it’s not really big news. David Miliband was never going to be part of his brother’s top team, simply because the former foreign secretary can never escape the fact that Ed beat him for the Labour leadership in 2010.

    I wonder, though, whether David sees himself as Stafford Cripps. The onetime darling of the Labour left, expelled from Labour for advocating a popular front with the Communist Party, Cripps was sent to Moscow  by Winston Churchill in 1940 as ambassador. When he came back in 1942 – having brought Uncle Joe into the war according to popular myth – there was widespread support for Cripps to replace Churchill as PM. Of course, it didn't happen, but ...

    26 March 2013


    Who or what is Magna Carta?
     An assertion of feudal landowners' powers against the monarchy
     A brave Hungarian peasant girl who closed the boozers at half past ten
     A $21.3 million investment
     A primary school in Staines, Middlesex


    I’ve never been a great one for “once a Leninist, always a Leninist”, but certain biographical details are missing from the call for a new left party by Ken Loach, Kate Hudson and Gilbert Achcar published in the Guardian today. Loach was a member of the (Trotskyist) Workers Revolutionary Party and is still – gasp! – a Trotskyist; Hudson, formerly of the (Stalinist) Communist Party of Britain, has long been a fan of Leninist left unity and is married to Andrew Burgin, once of the WRP; and Achcar is a disciple of the late Trotskyist thinker Ernest Mandel and a contributor to the (Trotskyist) International Viewpoint website.

    The initiative is an opportunist attempt by jackals in the Leninist swamp – the most orthodox Trots, I’d say (and I know that jackals don't live in swamps: it's a joke!) – to get naive people to sign up to the same old rubbish that they’ve been peddling for years. Why on earth has the Guardian published it? It couldn’t be just because Loach has a new film out?

    21 March 2013

    TEN YEARS ON ...

    I've been so busy I missed this blog's 10th anniversary a fortnight ago ... not that there's cause for celebration, but I thought I should at least mention it.

    19 March 2013


    Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 22 March 2013

    Now, I'm not going to do this, you understand, but ...

    What if I set up a website – let's call it Scumbag – and got it hosted on a web server in the United States. Scumbag would be explicitly committed to publishing stories about UK celebrities obtained by fair means or foul that involved the most outrageous breaches of privacy, would be explicitly racist, misogynist and homophobic, would campaign relentlessly in favour of climate-change denial and reduction of welfare payments to supposed scroungers, and would never allow anyone it traduced to reply (let alone publish apologies). Familiar profile?

    Although Scumbag would concentrate entirely on UK stories, as its sole proprietor I would not be resident in the UK but in Sicily. Scumbag would have no UK employees (though it would use UK freelances) and it would not register the website with any UK regulator.

    The question is this: is there anything in any of the proposals currently being made for UK press regulation – including the Leveson-lite compromise that seems to have been agreed by the party leaders last weekend – that would stop Scumbag in its tracks?

    I don’t think so. Scumbag would no more be published in the UK than the New York Times is published here – but it would be available to anyone with an internet connection. I’d be in Italy, ogling the girls on the beach and smoking big cigars. Scumbag’s UK freelances would be vulnerable to libel actions in the UK, but the cunningly clever ruse of not giving them bylines and refusing to identify them when anyone contacted HQ in Sicily would make them very difficult to sue. They would also of course be subject to the criminal law in the UK, but if they got caught hacking phones or trespassing in the grounds of royal properties it would be their look-out. No (overt) legal support, though Scumbag would reward initiative generously…

    OK, that’s enough grim fantasy – though to be honest, we’re almost there already with dreck like the Guido Fawkes blog and Press TV available to anyone with a smartphone. You’d need a good business head for Scumbag to wash its face as an enterprise, but it already looks an awful lot easier than publishing a highbrow leftwing dead-trees weekly or fortnightly.

    But if you do want to publish a highbrow leftwing dead-trees weekly or fortnightly – let’s call it Tribune – in Britain, old-style, and you don’t have big money or even small money, and it’s difficult getting it legalled every issue because you’re broke, all of the proposals put up by self-styled reformers post-Leveson are grounds for panic. You don’t have a Scumbag escape.

    Most of the reformers are media studies academics who last worked as journalists 30 or more years ago and have had little published – except think-pieces on media reform and dull stuff in academic journals – for more than two decades. They’re all in favour in theory of insurgent journalism, investigations and all the rest, but they’ve not done any real journalism themselves for ages and are pretty much clueless about how the media have changed since the arrival of the internet. For the best of academic reasons circa 1987, they’re focused on the big players of the late 20th-century, the Murdochs and the Rothermeres. But they don’t know about the internet, and they are barely aware of the minnows on the edges of commercial viability.

    And actually, it’s the internet and the minnows that matter. Leave grand principles aside. How much is it going to cost to sign up for being part of the regulatory system that would allow participants in a Leveson-type scheme to avoid being subject to exemplary damages in libel actions if you don’t join – something backed by all parties right now? If it’s twenty quid a year, maybe cough up. If it’s £2,000? Well, that’s the difference between survival and death, so bollocks to that.

    As for the idea that third-party complainants – people who think a piece is outrageous for one reason or another though it has nothing directly to do with them – should be given rights to reply or to moan at length that can be enforced by a regulator or a court of law? Bollocks again, to the Freedom Association, the East London Mosque, the British National Party, the various publicists for Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the Socialist Workers Party, who have no right whatsoever to any kind of reply from Tribune or my blog apart from the opportunity of contributing to the letters page or comments, with publication at the editor’s – in the case of this blog, my – discretion. And if they don’t like that, they can stick it wherever they want.

    The would-be regulators are sad old men with leather patches on the elbows of their tweed jackets. Hacked Off, the campaign to support the victims of phone-hacking, has been very successful in getting party political support for its proposals to clamp down on the press as it remembers it in the 1980s. But it should be told to get lost. It’s now dangerously past-it.

    2 March 2013


    The result in Eastleigh has provoked a lot of commentary – which is hardly surprising, because the by-election was hyped as the most important in living memory by rather a lot of people who should have known better.

    Yet what Eastleigh actually shows is rather banal. The Liberal Democrats hung on after a backs-to-the-wall by-election campaign in a constituency they had held with a comfortable majority in 2010 in which they completely dominate local government – but they did so despite haemorrhaging support. The other government party, the Tories, also haemmoraghed support. And the beneficiary was UKIP, which came second, not Labour, which came fourth.

    If the result had been different by just a little, of course, it might have been a game-changer. But, er, it wasn’t. Eastleigh means business as usual. David Cameron faces a little more pressure from the right of his party to be more like UKIP – but that pressure has been there for a long time. And the failure of the Tories in Eastleigh means that he has no practical option but continue to keep the coalition with the Lib Dems going just as before for the foreseeable future. (That in turn makes an electoral pact between Cameron and Nick Clegg before the next general election more likely, though that’s another story.)

    UKIP’s performance in Eastleigh was impressive, to be sure, but it was in line with national opinion polls – and it is no clearer today than it was four weeks ago whether it will prove capable of mounting a credible general election campaign in 2015.

    As for Labour, its poor result is hardly a disaster even though its campaign was inept. Several senior figures raised unrealistic expectations that Eastleigh was Labour’s chance for a big breakthrough in the south of England – and selecting John O’Farrell as candidate was not very clever. He’s funny as a writer and affable as a human being, but he was an outsider parachuted into a campaign dominated by local issues, and no one in the Labour camp seems to have thought that there might be quite a few hostages to fortune in his writing. The hoo-hah over his admission in his 1998 book Things Can Only Get Better that he had momentarily regretted that the IRA did not kill Margaret Thatcher was not the main reason for Labour’s poor showing, but it didn’t help. Whatever, the upshot is that Labour still needs to show that it can win in the south.

    At least, though, there was a proper by-election special on the BBC…

    25 February 2013


    NICK CLEGG: Danny, I’ve heard rumours that Chris Rennard has been a bit naughty! Will you have a word?
    DANNY ALEXANDER: Righto, Nick!

    Later …
    DANNY ALEXANDER: Chris, I’m told there are rumours you’ve been a bit naughty! Are they true?
    CHRIS RENNARD: No, but I resign on grounds of ill health.
    DANNY ALEXANDER: Splendid, Chris, I’ll pass that on!

    Later still ... 
    NICK CLEGG: Did you have a word with Chris?
    DANNY ALEXANDER: Yes. He says there's no truth in the rumours and has resigned.
    NICK CLEGG: Phew, that's a relief!

    Some years later on TV …
    MARGOT BONHAM CARTER (former Lib Dem candidate): That rotter Chris pinched my bottom! I told him off and then went home.
    PAMELA ASQUITH (former aide to Nick Clegg): I felt his fingers fondly caressing my thigh as we discussed alternatives to the council tax after dinner at his flat. He was really creepy, so I immediately called a taxi back to Tooting.
    MARIGOLD THORPE (Lib Dem leader of Pendon council): When he suggested we went upstairs for a 'pervy quickie' at the conference hotel, I burst into tears and ran off to my room.
    ANONYMOUS (Lib Dem activist): I went over to his house to see his collection of Lib Dem Focus newsletters. But I thought he was revolting and left after a drink.

    Back at Lib Dem HQ
    NICK CLEGG: This is a crisis! We must make a statement! Danny, do you remember the rumours about Chris?
    DANNY ALEXANDER: Rumours? I’m sure the first I heard was when Margot and Pamela went public on TV.
    NICK CLEGG: Oh, I thought I heard something vaguely before and told you about it. Never mind! If we both tell everyone what we remember, I’m sure the truth will out!

    24 February 2013


    The threat Labour is posing to the libel reform bill is breathtakingly dumb and cynical.

    It is a small piece of legislation that would curb some of the worst idiocies of our libel law – making it just a little more difficult for charlatans and foreign billionaires to suppress legitimate criticism – and was making its way through parliament with cross-party support.

    Then up pop Labour Lords Puttnam and Falconer to amend the bill with a lot of proposals based on Lord Justice Leveson’s report on press regulation – which get the support of the Labour leadership. No matter that their proposals are utterly illiberal where they are not entirely irrelevant (they include the creation of a body that would vet material before publication, which is outrageous): they know that their action endangers the entire bill, because the government will withdraw support for it if amended. Indeed, the sole purpose of their intervention appears to be to embarrass David Cameron for wavering over Leveson.

    There’s 24 hours for Labour to change tack and drop this opportunistic wrecking move: the Lords vote tomorrow. If Labour doesn’t withdraw, it will lose all credibility with journalists … and it wouldn’t want that, would it? Read Nick Cohen, John Kampfner and Tim Luckhurst.

    21 February 2013


    Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 22 February

    “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,” wrote William Wordsworth of the French revolution. “But to be young was very heaven!” And to quite a lot of people, the same seems to apply to having gone to the giant London demonstration of 15 February 2003 against British participation in the war to topple Saddam Hussein.

     I’ve lost count of the pundits who have told us how it changed their lives and opened their eyes and nothing was ever quite the same again. Yes, it was massive, the biggest demo in London maybe ever – 1 million, 2 million? No one knows. We came from all over, all sorts of people. It was an extraordinary mobilisation, and it felt good to be part of a giant crowd.

    But that was it. We came, we hung around in office-land, we eventually got to Hyde Park. A month later, Robin Cook resigned from Tony Blair’s cabinet and there was a backbench Labour revolt in the House of Commons. Then Britain went to war.

    In short, the demo failed. OK, it might have been more effective – a Tory MP on the platform, perhaps, or a bit of direct action? – but the brutal truth is that a lot of us turned out to say we didn’t want war, and the government, which had won a big majority in 2001, ignored us, as was its democratic right.

    So why is everyone talking about it ten years after? It’s not just the convenience of anniversaries for editors. Ian McEwan’s novel Saturday, framed by the day of the protest, captures the unease that made the Iraq war a watershed for liberals and leftists. Should we be opposing the overthrow of the most murderous tyrant of the late 20th century? Or should we be backing an imperialist adventure that has every prospect of failing? It was a defining moment, and the arguments continue to this day, filled with passionate intensity.

    At the time, it seemed that the scale of opposition to war might prove fatal to Blair’s premiership. But it turned out to be only a nagging wound for New Labour. For all the sound and fury, Blair won another general election in 2005, and Iraq played only a small role in the manoeuvring by Gordon Brown that eventually ousted him.

    The war did, however, prove critical for the confidence and credibility of the left in the Labour Party. It was riven over the war but also committed to maintaining Labour in power. Cook’s resignation speech won a standing ovation in the Commons, but most Labour MPs who agreed with him stuck with Blair. Individual Labour Party members opposed to war drifted out of the party, and the anti-war cause became the property of the Liberal Democrats, the Leninist far left (the Socialist Workers Party, the Communist Party of Britain and George Galloway), the mosques with whom the far left had allied, and the Greens.

    None of them managed to capitalise on the political collapse of the Labour left. The Lib Dems won 62 seats in the 2005 general election, the biggest haul for a centre party since the 1920s but only 10 better than 2001, then jettisoned two leaders before turning to the free-market right. George Galloway won Bethnal Green for Respect after a campaign directed at traditionalist Muslims, but Respect soon split after a bust-up between Galloway and the SWP. Galloway resurrected his Bethnal Green strategy to win a by-election victory in Bradford last year, but it’s hard to see that as more than a one-off. The Greens retained the European Parliament seats they won in 1999 in 2004 and 2009 and won representation on local councils, though it wasn’t until 2010 that they got their first MP (and that had little to do with Iraq).

    Meanwhile, Labour lost power in 2010 to the most reactionary government we’ve had since the 1930s. Iraq was not a major factor in the defeat – at least by comparison with the MPs’ expenses scandal, immigration and the press trashing of Brown and Labour’s record on economic policy. But it was a factor, and it was an issue in the leadership election that followed. Ed Miliband won in part because, conveniently, he’d not had anything to do with the decision to go to war.

    The war marked the start of a dismal decade for the British left. Can we move on, please?