Monday, 24 August 2015

How "Left" is Labour Now?

I have always instinctively eschewed political labels. “Left”, “right”, “centre”, “extremist”, “moderate”, “conservative”, “liberal”, “radical”, “reactionary” – not only do they generalise and pigeon-hole people in a way that consigns the necessarily complex and interdependent facets of political idealism to mutually exclusive silos, but the lexicon always seemed to me to be organised in such a way as to create an instinctive notion of good guys and bad guys, when political discourse should really be about the relative merits and demerits of honestly-held opinions.

Nevertheless the current Labour Party leadership contest, or more precisely the controversial participation of Jeremy Corbyn therein, has inevitably ignited the debate between what is commonly understood to be the left and right of the party.

Not that many in the Labour Party would claim for themselves the “right-wing” epithet. Instead the argument has broadly played out into one between those who would build a movement based upon sound principle which would then set about seeking power, and those who argue that without power principle is impotent and that pursuit of power is therefore the primary goal, after which the party’s universally-held objectives can be realised – undeterred by the fact that on the one occasion when Labour has had the opportunity to put such a strategy into practice, in 1997, it manifestly failed to do so.

Unwittingly, I have been drawn into this debate on the various social media platforms that I use. In that debate I would identify myself as a progressive, but the terms “left” and even “socialism” leave me a tad uncomfortable – possibly, I do confess, as a result of my own distant political background, as well as my various unpleasant experiences with the Labour Party on a local level, which conspire to make it difficult for me to see any good in it whatsoever as an organisation.


But even for those who like to use them, the terms “left” and “right” can mean very little unless we have a firm idea of wherein lies the centre ground. Furthermore, we need always to be mindful of the fact that the centre ground is not firmly rooted in one particular place in perpetuity. It moves, and what once might have been considered a right-wing position may today be thought of as centrist.

In social terms we live in many respects in a more enlightened age. Equal marriage, a greater understanding and acceptance of cultural difference, a rejection of bigotry and of stereotyping – these are all aspects in which what was once considered left-of-centre or liberal thinking has become mainstream. Yet there can be little doubt that in economic terms the centre ground in British politics has shifted rightwards over recent decades. This is without doubt the legacy of the Thatcher era. So when Jeremy Corbyn is vilified by the right-wing press for his left-wing “extremism”, it needs to be considered in the context of the age. In the 1970s Corbyn would have been said to have been of the relatively moderate left. It is difficult indeed to imagine him being dragged away from a picket line, kicking and shouting, by a brace of burly policemen.

It was with this in mind that I first hit upon the idea of looking at what passes for the centre or even centre-left within Labour today, and comparing it with the moderate pre-Thatcher Conservative administration of 1970-74 (that is pre-Thatcher in the sense that it was led by Edward Heath – Thatcher served as Education Minister during that administration). For perspective it soon occurred to me that one needed also to look at the immediate post-Thatcher Conservative administration of John Major, which was routed by Blair in 1997, paving the way for thirteen years of unbroken Labour hegemony.

In January 1970, as Leader of the Opposition, Heath hosted a brainstorming meeting of the shadow cabinet at the Selsdon Park Hotel in Croydon. Its brief was to formulate policies for the Conservative manifesto in the approach to the general election of that year. The outcome was a radical free market agenda which was blasted by the then Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, as evidence of an “atavistic desire to reverse the course of twenty-five years of social revolution”, coining the term "Selsdon Man" as a pejorative reference to those who bought into it. However shortly after being elected Heath abandoned the manifesto in his efforts to seek a more consensual relationship between his government and the trade unions.

This did not prevent Heath from introducing the Industrial Relations Act in 1971, designed to reduce union power. Striking dockworkers were imprisoned for illegal picketing under legislation described by Wilson as a “legal monstrosity”, and after confrontations with the miners which led to the misery of the three-day week his four-year administration famously ended abruptly in February 1974 after his “Who Rules Britain?” general election was met with a curt, if numerically less than emphatic “Not You!” by the British electorate. His government introduced cutbacks on sickness benefit, prescriptions and school meals, including the infamous “milk snatch” under the direction of Mrs. Thatcher. The travel firm Thomas Cook was privatised under Heath, as were a number of pubs in Carlisle which had been taken into public ownership in 1916, at the height of the First World War. Surprisingly there was also at least one nationalisation, that of Rolls Royce, taken into public ownership in order to save it from collapse.


In spite of the cuts it did make, the Heath government oversaw a significant increase in welfare spending. He introduced improvements to Widows' Pension, encouraged a program of nursery school building and committed long-term capital investment in other schools, made provision under National Insurance for pensions to be paid to elderly people who had been excluded from pre-1948 schemes, and introduced Attendance Allowance for those needing care at home, rent allowances for private tenants and Invalidity Benefit for the long-term sick.

Despite the horrors of Bloody Sunday which took place on his watch, Heath’s government entered into unofficial talks with the Provisional IRA long before the idea had suggested itself to Major and Blair. His willingness to do so may at least in part have been down to his barely disguised loathing of the Ulster Unionists. He sacked Enoch Powell after his notorious “rivers of blood” speech and reportedly never spoke to him again. And, in 1973, he took the United Kingdom into the European Economic Community, now known as the EU and detested by many of his political descendants, at a time when much of his Labour opposition was sceptical.

In October 1973 Heath ordered an embargo on all combatants in the Yom Kippur War. He refused to permit US intelligence gathering from British bases in Cyprus. He also refused permission for the US to use any British bases for resupply.

Amusingly, many years later during the invasion of Iraq he telephoned Tony Benn and asked “How are we going to get rid of Blair?” Both had earlier flown out to Iraq in an attempt to mediate, fearing that the UK was being drawn into a war which threatened its national interests by making it a satellite of the United States. He also maintained strong and cordial diplomatic links with the People’s Republic of China. Upon Heath's death in 2005 Tony Blair, then Prime Minister, described him as “a man of vision, principle and integrity”.


Industrial confrontation didn’t end with the Wilson/Callaghan government, indeed it intensified, culminating in the Winter of Discontent. Finally, in 1979, Thatcher assumed power with a large majority and, after an uncertain start, became the defining period of the late twentieth century with the following election won on the back of a patriotic war against Argentina for the Falkland Islands, the crushing of the miners, mass privatisations and the widespread sale of social housing stock which brought working class and hitherto Labour-leaning voters into property ownership and imbued sufficient numbers of them with the “I’m All Right Jack” mindset of rampant, unfettered capitalism to shift the epicentre of British politics rightwards and to create the neoliberal presumption which has underlined our politics ever since.

Less successful for Mrs. Thatcher was the Community Charge, more commonly known as the Poll Tax, and demonstrations without coupled with unease within led to her overthrow at the hands of her own party which, after tottering on the verge of replacing her with the left-of-centre Tory Michael Heseltine, settled upon the compromise candidate that was John Major.

Set against the backdrop of Thatcher’s time in office Major was always going to be regarded as a moderate, but his record in office was a mixed bag. He abolished the hated Poll Tax, if for no other reason because it was damaging to his party, and appeared to spend most of his time in office fending off a loony fringe within the ranks of the parliamentary Conservative Party which seemed to despise all things European as well as, in certain cases, accepted norms of dress sense. And he privatised the railways. He supported and participated in Gulf War One, but where Bosnia was concerned he was reluctant to commit.

When Blair was elected with a landslide victory in 1997 things, we were told, could only get better. Weary of opposition, his whole party had been more or less complicit with a new strategy which, members had been led to believe, involved assuming power by donning the clothes of the enemy and then using that mandate to achieve positive change from a position of power.


And the government of Blair and of his successor Gordon Brown achieved some notable successes, such as the introduction of the national minimum wage, Sure Start and income tax credits, the banning of fox hunting and the signing of the Social Charter. British Aerospace was nationalised as was, later, the Northern Rock building society. As with Ted Heath and Rolls Royce, the latter was purely a move to rescue an ailing company.

Within the Labour Party itself Blair amended Clause Four prior to becoming Prime Minister, which had stressed Labour’s commitment as a party to public ownership, replacing the words associating it with such with sundry anodyne references to “the means to realise our true potential” and “a spirit of solidarity, tolerance and respect”. In so doing the commitment of Labour to socialism and the principle of significant wealth distribution were formally brought to an end.

PFIs, or Private Finance Initiatives (the use of private capital to fund public projects, inevitably with a profitable return for the investor), which had come into being under Major, flourished under the New Labour administrations of Blair and Brown despite them having earlier been described by Labour as “half way privatisations”. With the rise of UKIP as an anti-immigration force more or less within the political mainstream, Labour began to compete. Brown’s slogan “British Jobs for British Workers” was lifted verbatim from the literature of the far-right National Front in the 1970s. Even Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron promptly pointed out that such a commitment was illegal under EU law.

From the very beginning of the so-called “War on Terror” by George W. “Dubya” Bush, Blair faithfully followed US interventionist (read dollar imperialist) foreign policy. In 2003 he took the UK into an illegal invasion of Iraq, claiming to have been in possession of intelligence which suggested that Iraq had at its disposal Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) which could have been unleashed upon British forces within 45 minutes. This “intelligence” later turned out to have been entirely bogus. Over 100,000 Iraqis perished, and several British lives were lost, as a consequence of the invasion, and the vacuum which was left created ideal conditions for the rapid rise of Islamic fundamentalism, and yet no apology was ever forthcoming.

Blair later became Godfather to one of Rupert Murdoch’s children.


In 2010 Labour lost the election and a Conservative-led coalition assumed the reins of power. One of its more typical deeds was to privatise the Royal Mail, an idea which had originally been mooted by Labour’s Lord Mandelson during the previous government. Labour stood by and uttered not a word. The coalition government also embarked upon a program of “austerity”, ostensibly as a means of cutting the budget deficit but in practice as a vehicle for further redistributing wealth from the poorest in society to the well-heeled. Labour’s response was to draw up its own, alternative austerity proposals.

Blair and Brown both oppose Scottish independence, the latter having been wheeled out by a Conservative-led coalition of interest during the referendum in 2014 to make the case for the union, including a number of promises which he was not in a position to make and certainly not to deliver. Following its second consecutive election defeat, in May this year, Labour descended into a heated leadership contest to appoint a successor to Ed Miliband, who had led the postmodern Labour Party to defeat. As I write that contest is under way, with three “official” candidates who are loyal to the new postmodern agenda and a fourth Jeremy Corbyn, from the more traditional left.

It is because there are protestations, myopic and absurd though they are in my view, from some supporters of certain of the establishment candidates as to their “left” credentials, that I felt it would be an interesting exercise to take a look back at our recent political history so that we may better, and more accurately, place them on the political compass of our time. Far from being on the political “left” by any sensible measure, it could fairly be argued that Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham and certainly Liz Kendall would not have been on the left of Edward Heath’s Conservative government of 1970-1974, had they been a part of it. And would they even have stood out as radical voices within the government of John Major?

Monday, 17 August 2015

"Corbynmania" - What Does it Mean for British Politics Going Forward?

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If it is true that no serious commentator on UK current affairs can be without an opinion on the current political phenomenon that is "Corbynmania", then I guess the same must apply at least to some extent to less serious commentators such as myself.

This is because although the identity of the next leader of the Labour Party really only matters either to those who are in it or those who actively oppose it, the wider implications for the British body politic justify some examination both of what it is and of how it is likely to affect our political discourse in the future.

"Corbynmania", for the benefit of those who have just arrived among us from planet Zanussi, is the enthusiastic response with which the candidacy of a mild-mannered man in his mid-sixties with all the fashion sense of a chemistry teacher for the leadership of Her Majesty's official Opposition has been greeted by those who would wish him to win. Amongst this number is included a large number, arguably a majority, of members of his own party as well as many others on the left of British politics and also, for entirely different reasons, not a few on the right.

Love him or loathe him, Jeremy Corbyn sits outside of the official political consensus. Whilst the other three candidates in the contest parrot the established pro-austerity and neoliberal line, albeit in differing tones depending largely upon who is listening, Corbyn has remained more or less true to the socialist principles which have inspired him to defy his own party whip more than 500 times since he entered Parliament in 1983. His rivals, by contrast, deliver themselves of the view that the most important quality a Labour leader should have is the ability to win an election, seemingly impervious to the obvious (to everybody else) truism that devoid of any political principle or belief, a Labour Prime Minister is of no more use to the poor and needy than a Tory one.

Of the other candidates Liz Kendall is the unabashed right-of-centre Blairite option whilst the other two, Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham, whilst following a near-identical agenda to that of Kendall, try to hover around in the space between in the hope of hoovering up votes from Labour Party members who prefer to adorn their Tory-lite values in ever-so-slightly leftish trappings.


At the beginning it was doubtful that Jeremy Corbyn's name would even make it onto the ballot paper. He required the endorsement of at least 35 members of the parliamentary party and only managed about half of that when canvassing his own supporters in the House. He reached the threshold only when a number of MPs who fundamentally oppose him signed his nomination papers in order that there could be "a wide debate". On the mentality which persuades right-wing MPs that a left-wing face should also be presented to the public by the party, more anon.

The general idea was that Corbyn would represent a small constituency within the party and, probably, lose on the first ballot whereupon his vote could safely be distributed amongst the "serious" (i.e. establishment) candidates under the Alternative Vote system which the party uses for its own internal elections but declines to trust us with at general elections.

Unfortunately (for them) it hasn't quite worked out that way. Ordinary Labour members, like small children finally allowed out into the playground after having spent an hour locked inside chanting their five times tables, have spilled out to tell any opinion pollster who will listen that they intend to vote for Jeremy Corbyn to be leader of the party.

The reason this has come as a shock is that it is in stark defiance of the official narrative, which has it that Corbyn is "unelectable". No matter that when each of his individual policies is cited the public are largely, sometimes overwhelmingly, in agreement - and perhaps surprisingly not only amongst Labour supporters (there is some evidence to suggest that the renationalisation of the railways is supported even by most Conservative voters). Collectively they comprise a policy program which exists outside of the "consensus" identified for us by the mainstream media and other right-leaning vested interests and are therefore unrealistic, unpopular and unachievable.

The root cause of this outbreak of disobedience would appear to be the unrelenting growth of social media, through which we have free access to opinions other than the official one. Whilst there are many who still swallow the establishment line, more than ever before there is a significant and increasing number who can see through it. More than ever before, people are thinking.


But whilst the radical genie is out of the bottle the chances of a Corbyn victory should not be overstated. A recent YouGov poll told us that 53% of Labour members and supporters intend to vote for him in the ballot, against 31% for Burnham who is in second place. Huge though that margin may seem, the alleged support for Corbyn is of course only marginally into the territory from which a second ballot would not be needed. A few percentage points less and the last-placed candidate will be required to drop out and their second preference votes distributed amongst the other candidates. Assuming this will be Liz Kendall, the Blairite candidate who is running last in the opinion polls, how many of her second preference votes are likely be for Corbyn? Ditto Yvette Cooper, and Andy Burnham. There is still everything to play for.

In addition, one would need to factor in the possibly, nay likelihood, that a goodly number of those party members and supporters who are brave enough to "vote" for Corbyn in a YouGov poll may be less brave when it comes to the real thing. With the Labour tribal instinct so often placing the pursuit of power above the quest for ideological correctness, how many will in the final analysis buy into the notion that the three establishment candidates are better placed to win the next general election?

Nevertheless, when all is said and done what just a few weeks ago was the unthinkable - a Corbyn victory - is now entirely thinkable. For all the usual personal attacks, media smears and Labour grandees being wheeled out to prophesy doom, Corbyn does appear to be holding his ground. And by being cute enough to sideline some of his own more contentious aspirations, such as his wish to see the monarchy abolished, he has managed to contain his opponents to mere hysteria as opposed to outright insurrection.


So what would be the consequences of a Corbyn victory? How would what I collectively term "the establishment" - by which I generally mean the Conservatives, the Labour right, the mainstream media, the banks and the corporate bosses - deal with such a situation? Would it be enough to slaughter him as he has been slaughtered by the right of his own party and just hope that the voting public doesn't see through it all?

One, and arguably the most likely, possibility is that the right will use its total dominance of the parliamentary party to stage a prompt coup. The excuse given will be that the Corbyn victory was brought about by entryism and/or skulduggery by Labour's political opponents. Attempts to fob off the left will be made through the time-honoured medium of the "Jolly Roger" scenario - that the party will achieve power by pretending to follow a Tory agenda and then unfurl the pirate flag once in office. Like it did in 1997 - not. The likely reaction of the voters to such a public statement of dishonest intent is invariably lost on Labour policy makers.

If the establishment were to stage a coup "in the best interests of the party" how would those who supported Corbyn in the ballot respond to such a blatantly undemocratic manoeuvre? If the history of the Labour left is anything to go by they wouldn't - more likely they would declare their undying loyalty to the right-wing party with which they are so hopelessly in love and wait another hundred years for the coming of the next false messiah. But then history is no guarantee of the future, for this has been a unique contest with uniquely engaged participants. There is little doubt in my mind that at least some of the Labour left will walk, and will join with progressives outside of the party to help build a viable new alternative.

Or the Labour right could stay but undermine him from within. It would not be very difficult, bearing in mind its overwhelming numerical superiority in the parliamentary party. This would end up in much the same way as a clean and surgical coup, but would take much longer to achieve. A guerrilla war by the right would serve nobody's interests.


The third possibility is that Corbyn would take the establishment shilling, and would slowly but surely reposition himself closer and closer to the mythical political "centre" much beloved of Labour career politicians. He is of course, like Tony Benn before him and others on the Labour "left", a Labour member first and foremost and a radical only after that. But then he has policies which have been demonstrated to be popular and by scrapping Trident he will have given himself a formidable war chest with which to finance his anti-austerity agenda. Hopefully, at 66, he will consider himself too long in the tooth to have any interest in advancing himself by selling out the core beliefs with which he has been associated for all his political life.

The other possibility is that the right leaves to form some kind of SDP Mark 2. Whether or not there is political space for such an animal is debatable, but what it would do is pave the way for a progressive realignment, either within the structures of the present Labour Party or preferably without.

What appears certain, and what excites me on a personal level, is that Labour as a political party will no longer be able to sustain the pretence of being all things to all people, an anti-establishment movement headed by a pro-establishment elite, peddling the bullshit notion that as a movement engaged in "perpetual revolution" against itself it is simultaneously the natural home of the capitalist and of the socialist, of the conformist and of the revolutionary, of those who advocate austerity and of those who oppose it. Whatever comes of this leadership election, when the smoke has cleared this wretched party is going to have to stand for something, whatever that something may be. No longer can it just be a private club for individuals who believe that the object of winning power is to be in power, enforcing and reinforcing its contradictions by depending on the use of blind organisational loyalty as an override.

I have resisted the temptation to enlist as a Labour supporter to cast my vote for Jeremy Corbyn, whose election I would like to see as a means of forcing the issue and of hastening the inevitable split. As one who has no goodwill for the Labour Party it would be hypocritical for me to do so. It is my belief that the entire Labour Party mindset is fundamentally flawed, and that our politics would benefit from its demise and its replacement by something both more radical and more honest.

I am excited that this leadership contest would at last seem to make such a thing possible. Some might say inevitable.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

600 Years of Syon Abbey 1415-2015

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Two exciting local events organised and promoted by the local community to celebrate 600 years of Syon Abbey:


An open-air ecumenical celebration of the 600th Anniversary of the Foundation of Syon Abbey in 1415

All are welcome to join in celebrating this important and historical occasion.

Hosted by His Grace
The Duke of Northumberland
Led by Cardinal Vincent Nichols

Sunday 19th July 2015 from 3.00 to 3.45pm

The site will be open from 2.00 to 5.00pm. Music from 2.15pm

Medieval recital by candlelight

‘From Magna Carta to Agincourt:
Music from England 1215-1415’

The Lovekyn Consort present a selection of songs and instrumental music from the period reflecting themes of devotion, disillusionment, love of nature and political loyalty from Medieval England, using voice and copies of Medieval harp and flute.


Sophie Brumfitt Maisey – Soprano
William Summers – Medieval Flute
Mike Parker – Medieval Harps

St. Bridget’s Church, Memorial Square
Twickenham Road, Isleworth TW7 6DL

Thursday 23rd July 2015 – 8.00pm

The Pain in Spain

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I’m currently somewhere in the middle of the second of two summer holidays, having spent last week with Caroline at Thorness Bay on the Isle of Wight. This week I’m at the Infiniti Beach Resort at Vera Playa in Spain’s Almeria province with my daughter Rosie, having been wrongly informed that there was no availability at my preferred port of call – the Clube Praia da Oura in Portugal, my regular Iberian haunt.

No matter, IBR is a beautiful place – a quaint holiday village a few hundred yards from the wide and relatively unpopulated beach at Vera. The resort itself is tiny by comparison with CPO – the apartments are to a similar standard but boasting two medium-sized pools and a small bar/restaurant which closes at 9pm, in contrast to CPO’s bustling portfolio of facilities and activities, pool parties, ballroom dancing and big screens.

The town itself reminds one a little of the Mid West, at least the one of popular televisual mythology. Wide streets and hazy, arid horizons overshadow bars and small stores which spill out onto the road. Trading and social interaction, mostly indigenous but some of it English, combine to lend character to Vera which is quite unlike anything I have experienced in the course of my admittedly limited travels.

But my short Spanish adventure has been hampered by the advent of a debilitating malady which began to afflict me during the latter days of my Isle of Wight holiday but which has asserted itself with a vengeance over here. Attempts to self-diagnose have thrown up such options as sciatica, proformis syndrome and a slipped disc, but whatever it is it is damned painful, and make attempts to walk even the few hundred yards to the beach or into town a real ordeal, and a thing to be dreaded whenever I contemplate a move, no matter how slight or unambitious, from the settee in my apartment.

Perversely, it has also made me consider how lucky I am that my pain is not (I hope) permanent – that I can, usually, walk good distances without pain in spite of advancing years. It has forced me to remember that for many, pain is a regular fact of life and that not having to endure it is a privilege, not a right.

Sometimes it takes a little suffering of our own to enable us to understand the much greater suffering that others have to put up with in their lives. I hope I will remember Vera Playa for the pool and the palm trees, the beach and the bars, and not for the itinerant pain which travels with impunity from my hip to the base of my spine and back again, stopping to rest at various points in-between. The doctor will tell me more, I hope, when I get to see him on Monday.

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Red, Green or Something In-Between?

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It is now just over four weeks since I launched the Facebook group Forum for Progressive Action, since which time it has steadily developed into a highly active - and interactive - resource for some 230+ participants. Whilst quality over quantity remains the watchword, not a day passes without useful new contributors being added to the roll.

What has already become clear is that one of the great debates that is developing revolves around the nature of today's left (a convenient generic term with which I do not necessarily myself identify). Specifically, whether the progressive Green/SNP/Plaid vision which made itself known for the first time to so many of the uninitiated in the build-up to the recent general election is the real deal, or whether the future lies in a rallying of the masses to the more "traditional" left.

I say one of the great debates, of course, because this discourse cannot be separated from the question of whether the long-term future for progressive politics lies within or without the Labour Party. This is particularly so right now within the context of the Labour leadership challenge from Jeremy Corbyn. At the very least the sense of resigned inevitability that has accompanied the otherwise apparent consensus that the future of the party lies in an even further shift to the right has been stalled by this event, although Corbyn's equally inevitable rejection by the party through fair means or foul is likely only to emphasise the point when it happens.

One senses a soreness amongst some stalwarts of the socialist tradition towards the "Johnny Come Lately" leftists of the Scottish National Party, the Green Party and Plaid Cymru. Certainly what unites all of these parties is that the wider public knows them best for other things - in the case of the Greens for their environmentalism, and of the SNP and Plaid for their respective advocacy of Scottish and Welsh independence. Whilst these are themes which need not contradict a left-wing political perspective, it is undoubtedly true that they are not necessarily exclusive to same and could equally be embraced by people of a centrist or even right-wing disposition. Thus the fear is that for adherents of what I will hereafter lazily refer to as the new left, progressive politics is merely additional ballast to a worldview formed around other priorities.


The attraction of the new left lies in its potential to turn progressive politics into a mass movement around an identifiable party banner. This has certainly been so in Scotland, where the SNP took 56 out of a total of 59 parliamentary seats on an openly left-of-Labour, anti-austerity platform to which its traditional theme of Scottish independence was successfully subordinated. Whilst the Greens only managed to hold onto their one Westminster seat the party's vote share increased enormously and one senses that it is just a few years of experience and training in the harsh truths of realpolitik away from a real breakthrough.

By contrast the old left has never demonstrated the ability to form a viable party capable of sustaining mass appeal. Certainly when it comes to individual causes it has been able to turn out the bodies - nuclear disarmament, the anti-racist and anti-fascist rallies of the 1970s, the Poll Tax demos and the protests against the invasion of Iraq to name just a few. But politically that opposition to the system has been fragmented between the Labour entryists and exitists, and between the plethora of left groups which themselves exist outside of the Labour Party, and then liberally spread like watered-down butter throughout 650 constituencies around the UK in a way that renders any prospect of political power via the parliamentary road improbable to put it politely. The one party that has managed momentarily to buck the trend, Respect, has been far too focused around one man, in one place and at one time to offer any lasting threat to the established order.

The old left argues, not without some justification, that there are some distinctly unleftish aspects to the wider politics of the new kids on the progressive block. The Greens' desire to protect the Green Belt could be seen as running contrary to the notion of a widespread building program as a remedy to the housing crisis. Scottish and Welsh nationalism is, well, nationalism, which belies the internationalism of classic socialist doctrine.

Add to this the ovine tribalism of that significant section of progressive opinion - if one still accepts it as such - which places organisational allegiance, even to a right-wing and neoliberal party, above ideology or political principle and even in broad terms what is loosely thought of as one movement would seem irreparably divided into three distinct camps.

Under the circumstances the prospects for political unity, in the sense of bringing progressives together under one organisational roof, appear remote. Furthermore, unless the issues of fundamental import which divide progressives can be resolved it is questionable whether such a unity would even be desirable.

What can and must be achieved however is the kind of unity which allows progressive opinion to act in unison whenever a wider interest is served. On the streets, when the occasion demands, this is already happening. Witness last weekend's anti-austerity protests in London and elsewhere.

The task of unaligned progressives is to harness united action around a defined list of points of agreement - areas where all of us see things the same way and from which some mutual benefit may be derived from working together. If nothing else this should be the task for the duration of this parliament.

Monday, 25 May 2015

Let's Organise and Co-ordinate Progressive Action

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I’ve left it for a couple of weeks or so to comment on the result of the general election as it is always helpful to wait for the dust to settle before trying to acquire a clear view.

For starters let us say I got it wrong – but with YouGov, MORI, ComRes, the whole of the world’s media and most inside political opinion I was in pretty good company. I still maintain that a Lab-LD coalition would have been the outcome had the numbers stacked up differently, but with the Tory overall majority that is just so much history and speculation. Probably we will never know.

As seems to be the norm these days when serious parties lose elections their leaders fall instantly upon their swords. There was the Clegg resignation and the Miliband resignation, the Farage resignation and then the Farage unresignation. The expected SNP landslide in Scotland did indeed materialise, UKIP and the Greens are left ruing the inequities of First Past the Post as the millions of votes they attracted between them earned them one solitary seat apiece. The Lib Dems now are not only unable to claim third party status but can only with a certain stretch of the imagination profess to be Britain’s fourth party, having been soundly beaten by UKIP in terms of votes and boasting fewer members than the Greens and only the same number of parliamentary seats as the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland.

Meanwhile David Cameron will by now have unpacked the furniture at No.10 once again, while the new member for Uxbridge takes a look around and makes notes.


That the Lib Dems will come back some in the fullness of time from their 8-seat nadir is in little doubt. British politics needs a viable, UK-wide third party. But the big issue of the day is wherein lies the future for the Labour Party, which was second to the Conservatives by a massive 99 seats, not only leaving the Tories as the largest party but even handing them a completely unanticipated overall majority, albeit one of only twelve seats, making redundant all the pre-election speculation about the dreaded SNP holding the balance of power.

Already Labour has set out its stall for a leadership contest in September, accompanied by a very public bout of naval-gazing. The party consensus would appear to be that Ed Miliband led a party into the election that was “too left-wing” and which paid scant regard to the electorate’s “aspirations”. A headlong rush back into the arms of Blairism, or at least of some horrible mutation thereof, now appears inevitable.

Certainly the Labour narrative employed during the campaign, that electing a Labour government was a matter of life and death to which all considerations of working for a better system and a fairer and more sustainable society in the long-term had to be subordinated, was distasteful. It was also appallingly hypocritical when one considers that incessant criticisms of “Tory austerity” were quite deliberately constructed to mask the fact that the intended remedy was its replacement with a programme of Labour austerity.

However the argument that Labour’s rejection arose from the fact that its agenda was not sufficiently identical to that of its Conservative opponents would appear to have been given the lie by the fact that the Scottish National Party, which contested the election on a manifesto far more progressive than that of Labour, swept all before it, capturing half the Scottish vote and in the process taking 56 of Scotland’s 59 parliamentary seats.


One could argue of course that Scotland is different. What works north of the wall may not, indeed probably will not, work in the leafy shires of South East England. But against that argument one could equally point out that swathes of northern England and even the Midlands have far more in common with Scotland than they have with Kent or Berkshire.

The other inherent danger faced by Labour when embracing a strategy of trying to out-Tory the Tories in what has come to be described as “Middle England” is that any chance of it succeeding depends very much on the more traditional Labour vote acquiescing faithfully without a murmur. What Tony Blair and New Labour got away with in 1997, before the social media revolution and in the wake of an orgy of self-destruction from within a crumbling and decrepit Tory Party that had been in office for almost two decades, there is no certainty it will get away with again. With the Green Party slowly acquiring some political nous and the example of the SNP to show us the way, there will be viable options for progressive opinion which simply did not exist in 1997. Labour abandons these people at its absolute peril.

I make no secret of the fact that I detest the Labour Party as an institution. The completely undeserved and unwarranted sense of superiority that it imbues in its followers is a nauseating spectacle for me and others like me on the outside to behold. If there is anything worse than elitism itself it is elitism coming from a group of people who profess to be about equality for all and to eschew discrimination and bigotry. The vicious anti-community agenda that we here in my locality have been compelled to witness stems entirely from a belief that people existing outside of the Labour organisational bubble are inherently incapable of working for the betterment of their own society, and that any evidence which appears to suggest the contrary must be ruthlessly expunged before it has the opportunity to manifest itself as a viable counter to the party orthodoxy.

Nevertheless it is an undeniable truism that in order for progressive politics to break through from the fringes of English politics it will be necessary to bring with us many of those people who currently still regard themselves as loyal followers of Labour. At times the inane tribalism of some folk makes this appear an almost impossible ask, but then there can be little doubt that very many of those who rallied to the SNP banner earlier this month were former Labour voters and in many cases former members. When the conditions are right and the argument is made, nothing is impossible.


What progressives need to do right now is to prepare the ground for a social media-inspired offensive which will lift them from the fringes and elevate them into a viable political force, taking full advantage of Labour’s problems which should be viewed as an opportunity rather than cause for regret. We need to remember that as an organisation Labour is there to manage our expectations rather than as a vehicle for real change. Ultimately its demise is essential before progressive politics can have any hope of making meaningful progress.

This in turn requires some semblance of unity, or at least a vehicle for interaction between those on the progressive wing of politics who may themselves have their own fields of vision obscured by organisational loyalties. To this end I have set up a humble forum through the medium of Facebook, for friendly and constructive discussion between those of a radical bent, whether they happen to be members or supporters of the SNP, Plaid, the Green Party, community organisations, “traditional” left groups or indeed of none in particular.

Called the Forum for Progressive Action, the objective of it is simple – to engender debate and to explore possible options for practical co-operation to the benefit of all.

I don’t profess to operate with any authority, with any special knowledge or in possession of any particular talent which might be of significant benefit to the struggle. I only believe that an opportunity exists in the aftermath of Labour’s electoral drubbing which must be seized mercilessly, and soon, and that as a starting point for such an initiative a Facebook forum must be as good as any. Please use it, and encourage others to do likewise.

Friday, 22 May 2015

Brentford Near Miss?

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I took this photo over Otho Court on Brentford Dock at 1.00pm today. The helicopter was hovering and the aeroplane was descending on the flightpath to London Heathrow.

In actual fact they were at least a thousand feet apart, the chopper being much closer to the ground. So whoever said the camera never lies wasn't quite correct. Scary though eh?

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

"With a Heavy Heart, and in the UK's National Interest"

Am I really the only person who can see the elephant that fills the proverbial living room as we crank our necks around it to watch the dying throes of the UK’s longest ever election campaign on our television screens this evening?

Much energy has been expended discussing the prospect of anything between 35 and 59 SNP Members of Parliament holding the balance of power, and what an outrage it would be to have Scottish MPs that nobody in England voted for legislating for the whole of the UK in a way that only English parties that nobody in Scotland voted for should be permitted to do. In the constitutional fog that has been visited upon us from Alba we could be excused for forgetting that the Liberal Democrats had ever existed.

And yet in spite of their low poll ratings, the Lib Dems look good for maybe 25 to 30 seats as they fight a rearguard action in their areas of strength whilst remaining content to battle it out with Bus Stop Elvis in the remainder. Thirty seats of course is less than the SNP is expected to receive, but probably enough if combined with either of the major parties to be able to outvote the other one.


It occurs to me that, with the SNP having pledged to do nothing to help put the Tories back into office, a new dynamic has been created which moves the hitherto forgotten Liberal Democrats very much centre stage.

Assuming (as we shouldn’t, but for the purposes of this article we must) an outcome tomorrow which is something akin to what we have been seeing in the opinion polls, a 30-seat Lib Dem premium added to either the Tory or the Labour total would, discarding for the moment other parties, give the beneficiary a numerical advantage over its competitor. For whatever reason the assumption would appear to be being made that the Lib Dems will line up with the Tories. But if the combined total number of seats won by Labour and the SNP was to exceed the combined total for the Tories and Lib Dems (possibly fortified by those of the DUP and/or UKIP) then both Tories and Lib Dems would suddenly find themselves powerless. And powerless is not what Nick Clegg aspires to be.

If, on the other hand, the Lib Dems were to throw their lot in with Labour in what would probably still be a minority coalition, it kind of dares the SNP to line up with the Tories or face being effectively airbrushed from the picture. Abstaining on votes would not be enough. In order to defeat the (Lab-LD) government on any vote the SNP and the Tories would have to join forces, if only on an ad hoc basis and strictly for the purpose of.

Would the Liberal Democrats abandon their present course and join with Labour instead? There are a number of catalysts which have the potential to unite to bring this about, the first being the Tories’ proposed EU referendum which is being touted as a red line issue for the Tories in any potential future negotiations. As the most Euro-friendly amongst the parties this cannot be an easy one for the Libs. Labour, taking the opposite position, may have more appeal.


And then there is the question of proportional representation. A major negotiating chip for Nick Clegg in the coalition talks of 2010, he somehow allowed David Cameron to schmooze him into accepting the half-arsed Alternative Vote option as an acceptable substitute and then suffered the indignity of watching his coalition partner rubbish it as being, well, a half-arsed alternative, at the ensuing referendum. Although Labour is, on balance, opposed to PR (and for pretty much the same self-serving reasons as the Tories), there is a substantial body of opinion within the party – including, significantly, Ed Miliband – which sees things differently, looking upon PR as having the potential to rally progressive voting support under one roof, thereby providing a near-guarantee against a conservative majority at any time in the future.

Informed opinion has it that Nick Clegg, as Leader of the Liberal Democrats, is instinctively more comfortable around the Tories than he would be with the Labour Party. This could help to explain why reports from Clegg’s constituency in Sheffield Hallam are strongly predicting widespread tactical voting for Clegg from Tory supporters as a counter to a strong electoral challenge from Labour. But were Clegg to lose his seat, or were he to be ousted through an internal coup as soon as the new Parliament is formed, his successor might well be less wedded to the Tories in any event.

Other Lib Dem “red lines” might not prove insurmountable. Clegg has thus far promised more in increased funding to the NHS than has Miliband, but then Miliband has already told us he wishes to be a Prime Minister who “under-promises and over-achieves”. More spending on the NHS is unlikely to be a cause for violent protests from traditional Labour supporters. The Lib Dems also insist upon lifting more of the lower-paid out of tax, which is a euphemism for saying that for an ever-greater number of people wages should be kept so low that their tax contributions will not be missed. As we move towards a society in which “Minimum Wage” effectively becomes the wage that almost everybody can expect to earn, Labour is already doing its bit to manage expectations by raising it to a marginally more generous level.


Which leaves Clegg’s obsession with “legitimacy”, a term which he treats as being synonymous with a party having won the largest number of seats, surely a peculiar position for an opponent of First Past The Post to take. Most of the polls seem to have the Tories slightly ahead in this regard, although unlike Ed’s promises it is far from being carved in stone. But his policy is only to speak to the largest party first, not necessary to ally himself with that party. If a better deal can be made with the second largest party we can bet our bottom euro that is where the Lib Dems will be heading.

When all is said and done the clincher could well be that by allying himself with Labour, and in so doing rescuing Ed Miliband from the indignity of having to depend on the hated SNP for support, Clegg could consider himself to be “acting in the UK’s national interest”, much indulging his penchant for striking a lofty pose. The elephant in my living room tells me that this is a prospect he will find difficult to resist.

Meantime the reaction of the Scottish voters to having been stitched up a second time is unlikely to differ very much from the first. The case for independence will become incontestable. The case for change moves ever forward.

Monday, 20 April 2015

Postponed Until Further Notice? The Fight for Democracy and Social Justice

I’ve been spending rather too much of my time of late on social media, involving myself in arguments of varying degrees of ferocity and passion about the upcoming general election.

Not being involved in anybody’s campaign for once, and having no real enthusiasm for any of the leading contestants, the sensible thing for me to have done would probably have been to have put my feet up, sent off my postal vote when and if I found the time, and looked forward to watching Peter Snow, tinny in hand (me, not Peter Snow), trying to pre-empt the verdict during the counting of the votes. What I have done instead, as is my wont, has been to throw myself into endless online debates and squabbles, typically between loyal Labour voters and those generally to their left who have opted for one or other of the smaller, anti-austerity parties which have been propelled into the public gaze largely as a result of their participation in the various televised leaders’ debates.

Finding myself rather naturally on the side of the revolutionists, I have encountered opposition (sometimes civil, sometimes abusive) from Labour Party supporters who can broadly speaking be broken down into two distinctive categories – the hopeless (and often mindless) partyists for whom Labour can do no wrong and those who argue that, whatever the merits or otherwise of more deep-rooted, radical change, the urgency of the present situation requires a single-minded, “all hands on deck” approach to getting rid of David Cameron and the Conservatives. Any lingering concerns about what might be achieved when the Tories are gone, they argue, can be addressed once the deed is done.

It is fair that I should record, at this stage, that I have long-standing and ongoing quarrels of a purely local character with the Labour Party in my own backyard. Where I live the Labour Party is a vile organisation, opposed almost to the point of derangement to any kind of organisation from within the community, unless it is guided by its own hand. It matters not whether we are talking about a borough-wide tenants’ federation, a single-issue action group or a domino club at a sheltered unit for the over-60s, if the Labour Party isn’t involved in some organisational or directional sense then it has to be crushed. Where such an approach is resisted there is no restraint upon the unholy horrors that may be unleashed. Even physical violence has not proved beyond them, and it is probably only due to lack of personal courage that this has thus far been restricted to property rather than person, and then on a purely hit-and-run basis, but rather than being restrained those responsible have actually been rewarded for their efforts with senior office, telling us all we need to know about the local party on an institutional level.


Somebody close to me who is a supporter of the Labour Party has suggested that my instinctive dislike of the party may have been influenced by my local experiences. It is a fair point to make, but I don’t think it is true. My observations during this general election campaign have been inspired by what I have seen of the party at a national level, and of the approach it has taken in its quest for national office.

For the tribal herd I have nothing but contempt. In politics our duty surely is to choose, and if necessary to change, our party loyalty according to our principles, not to change our principles according to our party loyalty. One almost forms the impression that some of these types would champion the slaughter of the firstborn if it was in the manifesto. It was this kind of blind organisational obedience which landed us with Tony Blair, and which permitted a party whose leader took us into a war which led to the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of innocent people, many of them children, on the back of a lie, to continue along afterwards almost as though nothing had happened.

Those who plead the “urgency” of the situation, on the other hand, deserve to be heard. That said, I believe their argument to be flawed on two very basic counts. The first is that it demands our righteous anger over the treatment of the poorest and most vulnerable in our society by the present government, without paying much heed as to how the lot of these people can be expected to improve when Labour replaces the Tories in office. It is not enough to be stirred by poverty and deprivation. Without a radical programme for the redistribution of wealth from those whose greed has brought the current situation to pass the indignation of the “other side” is meaningless.

Indeed, perversely, there is an argument that suggests the fortunes of the poor and hungry may actually deteriorate further under Labour. Certainly many of the food banks have been contributed to and staffed by Labour activists and supporters, whose sincere altruism will not have been lessened by the desire to drive home a political point. When a Labour government assumes office the temptation to make another point – that the food banks are no longer necessary – will certainly be present. Those finding themselves locked out, food cupboards still empty, may have cause to reflect.


The second weakness can best be summed up by the old maxim “tomorrow never comes”. If there is an urgency now to get rid of the Tories then in the event of Labour failing in that objective on May 7th that urgency will become all the greater, from the day after polling day all the way to 2020. Conversely if Labour wins the election the imperative will be to keep the Tories out. Either way the cause of working for real, meaningful, lasting, root-and-branch change will be placed yet again onto the back burner, a convenient place for it to stay in the symbiotic eyes of the major parties, both of whom stand to benefit from things remaining precisely as they are in perpetuity.

In any event the election on May 7th provides genuine radicals with an opportunity which may never again arise in our lifetimes – a likely stalemate between the two major parties coupled with the meteoric (although not necessarily permanent) rise of a real anti-austerity force, the Scottish National Party, with the potential to deliver an uneasy pact of convenience which promises (or threatens, depending on where you happen to stand) to shake up our politics forever by corrupting the ethos of the First Past The Post system in a Union of contradictions.

The decision of the SNP to discount at a very early stage any prospect of co-operation with the Conservatives and to offer instead to support a Labour Prime Minister brings in its wake a dynamic all of its own. Now, whether Scottish voters stick with Labour or jump ship to the SNP there is no net gain to be had by the Tories. In other words the Labour soundbite which would have it that a vote for the SNP is a vote for the Tories is revealed to any thinking person to be so much nonsense. Beyond tribal loyalty there is precisely no excuse for any Scottish elector who stands against cuts and austerity to plump for the Labour candidate in preference to the SNP one.

The permutations, and implications, of the SNP holding the balance of power at Westminster compel us to think the unthinkable. A broadly centrist pro-Union Labour Prime Minister kept in office by a left-wing anti-Union party which doesn’t even need the support or the goodwill of 90% of the voting population of the UK. Or, to consider another interesting scenario, a politically doable but almost universally unwelcome Con-Lab coalition with (probably) Alex Salmond, heading a regional party (in UK terms), as Leader of the Opposition. The mind truly boggles.

In the plans of the “urgency” advocates there is no time for change, not now or not ever. In my eyes and in those of many others, there is no time like now.

As for me, I think I’ve probably said more or less enough on this subject in the course of my many forays into the land of social media. What will be will be. But having sampled the sweet taste of opportunity that the convergence of coincidences can bring I am determined, once this election is over, to do something and to play some kind of role, tiny though in the wider scheme of things it must inevitably be, to hasten the change that some of us desire but have never until now really thought possible.