Sunday, 13 October 2013

Complete Control

The late Celtic football manager Jock Stein was reportedly once asked whether, faced with the opportunity to sign either a Catholic player or a Protestant player who were of exactly equal talent and were both available for the same price, which would he sign?

He replied that he would sign the Protestant.

His reasoning was simple. If he signed the Catholic then the Protestant would probably sign for Rangers. But if he signed the Protestant then Rangers would not want the Catholic, so he could have him too.

I once heard an allegation, completely unproven but from a source that I consider honest and who would know, that in the dim and distant past a local developer offered a substantial pecuniary inducement to councillors on the London Borough of Hounslow in return for planning consent for a major project. What is interesting however is that the inducement was allegedly offered not only to members of the ruling Labour Group, but also to members of the opposition Conservative Group. He was unable to say whether or not the offer was taken up and I cannot vouch for the veracity or otherwise of the story, but if it were true it would make good sense. Grease the palms of the ruling group and the opposition will scream, no matter how small their number. Include them in the deal and there is nobody left to protest.

In business success is about more than just having a good product to sell. If somebody else is selling an equally good product then that guy will be taking a share of the market that could otherwise be yours. You can of course improve the quality of your product, but then so can your competitors. You can cut the price, but your competitors can cut their prices too. But what if you get the opportunity to buy your competitors’ businesses? You can carry on using their brand names, does it really matter if you now own the brand?

To prevent this kind of thing from happening the then government in 1949 set up the Monopolies Commission, now known as the Competition Commission. But of course there is only one of them!

In the world of politics the West is run in practice by a financial elite rather than by sovereign governments or heads of state. Its model is capitalism and its instinct is to grow. It knows no national boundaries, and precious few ethical ones either. Whether it is selling long-range bombers or air-raid shelters, fast food or drugs to combat obesity, the name of the game is to make a fast buck. If there was a financial benefit to be had for Coca Cola to set up a drinks stall at an anti-globalisation protest rally they would do it with neither a pang of conscience nor a hint of irony.

International capitalists control the news media which reports to us on the big political issues of the day. We have seen at election after election how the press can make or break a politician, or a political party, more or less at will. It is completely within their power to talk down good news, talk up bad news, destroy the reputation of one individual or promote another. We have seen time and again how all the major parties court the press, especially in the run-up to an election, because they understand its power. The “free press” is free only to those rich and powerful enough to own it.

So on what basis, and for what reason, will media barons woo politicians, and political parties? Why, for instance, did Rupert Murdoch court New Labour? Was there some deep-felt, fundamental change involved in his political conviction (which he later reversed)? Or did he just recognise a winner when he saw one?

The answer of course is that the relationship between the media barons and politicians is a symbiotic one. Just as political parties need the co-operation of the media to show them in a favourable light before the voters, so the press bosses seek the favour of whichever government is in office, or is about to assume office – for reasons too obvious to be worth stating here.

This doesn’t only apply to capitalists in the media, of course. The list of business luminaries who threw their lot in with Tony Blair and New Labour in preference to their traditional friends in the Tory Party is impressive and the reasons are simple and twofold – first they wanted the favour of the incoming government at a time when the Tories looked destined to be washed up for a generation, and second it was not good for their respective brands to be associated in the public mind with losers.

The powerful financial interests that control the West wield clout not because of their support for the parties of government but due to their willingness and ability to offer support, at whatever level is deemed to be appropriate at the time, to the parties of opposition. Nobody, surely, can seriously believe that when one government leaves office and another steps forward the giant corporations and press magnates and oil barons lose all their power over nations just because their party of preference has lost its majority?

Incredibly some do. I despair of otherwise intelligent people who, whilst recognising the power that big business interests clearly wield over the current government, pine for the election of Labour who, they honestly believe, will (this time) put the interests of the workers and the unemployed, the dispossessed and the underprivileged to the fore and fight the good fight in the cause of fairness of justice.

As for the Labour Party itself, it has played its part well. It denounces Tory attacks on benefit claimants whilst muttering quietly that it doesn’t actually intend to do anything to reverse them. Its members pass resolutions to renationalise the Royal Mail which it publicises loudly before its leaders quietly drop them. In fact beyond a pledge to increase the minimum wage by some negligible amount there is nothing at all of substance for the bosses who currently pull the strings of the Conservative Party to worry about.

What irritates and annoys me most of all is that those hundreds and thousands of basically good people throughout the world of social media who faithfully publicise and expose every Tory sleight of hand and every Labour condemnation thereof are destined, in the event of a Labour government after 2015, either to sit in embarrassed silence for five years or to switch hats and try to defend the kind of shocking abuses of which they are rightly so critical now.

It has long been my belief that the explosive growth of Internet technology and social media, and of the awareness that it generates, must inevitably do for the rotten two-party charade that is our party politics. But I fear we still have a while to wait before that finally happens.

Excellence is Not Always Popular

When one looks back at the 20th century there are two governments which, for me, stand out above all the others.

The first was the wartime National Government of Winston Churchill. When it comes to achievements, winning a war in the face of what at first had seemed to be insurmountable odds certainly ranks up there amongst the best of them. Whatever his shortcomings were, and they were many, they are rightly considered inconsequential and even remembered with some affection as a result of what he pulled off as a wartime leader.

When Britain went to the polls in 1945 then, after the war had been won, one could have been forgiven for thinking he would be a shoe-in. Not only was he not a shoe-in, but he was kicked out of office as Labour under Clement Attlee romped home with a large majority.

The Attlee government was the other great government. Just as Churchill had delivered in wartime, so Attlee led a revolution in peacetime the likes of which has not been seen by any living person before or since. The introduction of the National Health Service, the creation of the welfare state, the National Insurance Act, meaningful powers of requisition for local authorities - Attlee enshrined in law the notion that we as a society have a collective responsibility towards those who through no fault of their own may have fallen upon difficult times. True it may be that the mindset created by the crisis of war allowed for radical measures in peace which may otherwise have been unthinkable, but the fact remains that Attlee's government not only achieved more than any other peacetime government of the 20th century, but arguably more than the rest of them put together.

There is one other thing that the war leader Churchill and the post-hostilities Prime Minister Attlee had in common. Both of them were booted out in short order once their fine achievements had been delivered. Yes I know that Attlee won the general election of 1950 - just - but he was a dead man walking and Churchill was restored to office in 1951 to lead one of the most unnoted and unspectacular governments of anybody's time, into and some would say well beyond his dotage.

Although the significance and scale is immensely different, there may be a message here for us locally. If the opportunity ever arises again for us to deliver significant change to the way local affairs are managed we should do so with regard to the result of the previous election, much more than to that of the next one.

Deja Vu as Labour's Attempt to Bully Tenants Backfires

Former councillor Paul Fisher
 with Linford Christie on Ivybridge
Back in the mid-1980s the Labour Party in what was then Isleworth South ward launched a sustained offensive to take control of the New Ivybridge Tenants’ Association (NITA). In line with its general policy towards residents’ associations at the time it sought to achieve this by ensuring that whichever members it had in the catchment area were active on the association, and these would then be sustained and promoted at every opportunity by the ward councillors, who would use any influence at their disposal to have them elevated to the most senior Committee posts.

On Ivybridge the Labour offensive was helped along by the fact that one of the people who had been elected to serve on the fledgling Committee was a member of the fascist National Front. Alan Minehan was himself an inoffensive and mild-mannered man, a fact conceded even by his critics, but nevertheless he was a member of an avowedly racist party serving on a tenants’ association on a multi-cultural estate. There were quite valid concerns about the message that his presence on the Committee would send out to estate residents.

Not that I accepted them as valid at the time. For in 1987, when it all began, I was still the NF organiser in the area. Taking its cue from Labour the local NF had also developed a strategy of attempting to infiltrate residents’ groups, and it was not unreasonably assumed that his presence on the NITA Committee had been part and parcel of that strategy.

As it happens though the assumption was incorrect. The first I knew of Alan Minehan’s involvement with the association was after he had been elected to the post. I distinctly recall my sense of surprise when he strolled into the Victoria Tavern in Isleworth that very evening, after the meeting, and told me all about it. He said they had asked him to be Treasurer - I advised him against it, counselling that the man holding the purse strings would be the easiest person for an adversary to set up once his presence on the Committee had become known to the local political establishment. But I told him also that he should hold firm and resist any attempts by anyone to boot him off on the grounds of his politics.

Sure enough, a storm blew up and the appointment made the headlines of the local newspapers. The councillors objected to his appointment and a number of his fellow Committee officials, most but not all of them Labour members, called upon him to stand down. Acting on my advice, he stayed put.

Looking at those events in retrospect I see them now in a very different light. Were a similar thing to occur today I would oppose the presence of a member of a racist political party at the top table of a local residents’ group with every fibre of my being.

However none of this detracts from the fact that Labour’s motivation in opposing Minehan, as both he and I suspected at the time, was primarily a cynical and self-serving one. This was borne out by subsequent events. Just as I had predicted, once he had been removed from the Committee a similar purge was conducted against other non-Labour members, none of whom had anything to do with the NF or held racist views of any kind. And the defection of one of the "approved" group's number to the cause of the purged residents confirmed the accuracy of our suspicions for once and for all.

In those days, as now, there were divisions within the ranks of the Labour Party locally. When a Feltham councillor by the name of David Archer, now sadly deceased, wrote to a local newspaper urging Alan Minehan to leave and denounce the National Front as a resolution to the estate’s sorry predicament I wrote back to attack him for his comments. It is only now that I understand his motive for making the suggestion, far from being hostile, was to offer us a way out of the impasse that had been created which would have well and truly scotched his party colleagues’ plans for the association. Through my own limitless arrogance and stupidity, a golden opportunity fell to waste.

Now let us fast forward 26 and a bit years, and to an incident which has truly demonstrated not only the paucity of Labour’s claim to have been acting out of the loftiest principle back in 1987, but that they have learned absolutely nothing from the emergence of the ICG and its not inconsiderable success, notwithstanding our election defeat in 2010, during the long intervening period.

A couple of months ago former ICG councillor and leading local activist Paul Fisher was co-opted to the Committee of the United Residents’ Association of Ivybridge (URA), the successor organisation to NITA. Unlike Alan Minehan, no claim of racism or fascism could conceivably be laid at Paul’s door. Nevertheless, prior to the URA’s last meeting its officers had been contacted by the local Labour group demanding that it reverses its decision to co-opt Paul.

Apparently Labour in Isleworth still operates under the peculiar misapprehension that it can decide who may or may not serve on the management committee of a local residents’ association. However, unlike in 1987 the association today is truly independent. Even the one high-profile member that Labour has on the Committee, who had been pressured by his party to lead the charge against Paul, told them to do one, and Paul’s continued presence on the Committee was reconfirmed by a unanimous show of hands.

Anybody who doubts that, even if the wake of 2010, the goalposts have moved significantly in the community’s favour in its dealings with the dictators should consider the experience of Paul and the URA and reflect upon it.