Saturday, 28 March 2015

Why the System Has To Go

What do we mean when we refer to “the system”?

It can of course mean a host of things, and many use the term simply to describe the political forces which prevail in the corridors of government in any given place. But to properly understand “the system” within any political construct we surely need to understand the internal dynamic which propels the society in which we live, or the society that we are examining.

The United Kingdom has a “system” which is based on more or less unfettered capitalism. It is true that governments make laws which even the rich and powerful have to abide by, and that on occasions even senior politicians or seminal figures from the world of business fall foul of them and end up in durance vile. All the same, within the limitations defined by the law of the land big business effectively runs rampant, sweeping aside not only organised (and even more so disorganised) labour but also honest small business in its wake. Witness the death of the family grocer or the independent high street trader as the likes of Tesco exploit farmers and their own workers alike to bring you their produce at the most competitive prices whilst still reserving for themselves the seemingly divine right to make a vast profit.

Under a totalitarian system such as fascism or communism the state will dictate just how far enterprise is allowed to go. Under the former it may be controlled or it may be permitted to run riot, but the fact remains that that permission is needed. The state, in theory at least, calls the tune. Under communism ownership is transferred to the government, which in practice operates a controlled economy of its own, the state replicating the role of the capitalist owner and the wider public playing the same part of the unquestioning consumer.

WEALTH AND POWER

In a “democratic” society such as ours however it is the forces driving the economy that are in control. This is because the conflation of wealth with power makes it inevitably so. The richer an individual or a corporation is, the more power he, she or it will inevitably wield. Power over the media, the power of patronage, the power to sell (or to distort) a message which can make or break a politician or decide the destiny of a political party. Within such a system it is inevitable that the political parties which take it in turns to man the offices of government will strive to serve the master. I wanna sell you a Tory, as the late Max Bygraves might have put it.

It is because of this unfailing logic that I, as those who know me will attest, instinctively wince whenever I hear some self-styled critic of the system bleating about how it is all going to change when the party they dislike the most is removed from office at the next general election and replaced by the party they have opted to endorse. At times I just want to wake up screaming. The two main parties are not the same, they protest, and of course they are right. Why, after all, would the system offer us two parties from which to make our selection and not imbue each of them with at least some kind of superficial defining characteristic? It is essential, in a “democracy”, to keep alive the illusion of choice.

What we are not given, of course, is the means through which to challenge the master. And in the master’s unrelenting drive towards ever greater profits there needs to be somebody else providing the labour, at as low a cost as possible, to drive the master’s success. Understand that and combine it with a recognition that neither of the major parties aspires to change that reality at source, and their essential sameness becomes a given. Any “difference” between them can only define the range of flexibility that the master is prepared to grant in order to preserve the illusion.

SYSTEM PARTIES

But to talk of there being just two “system parties” is of course overly simplistic. Whilst radical on matters of constitutional reform their support for the economic status quo demonstrates that the Liberal Democrats clearly are and have been since their inception a party of the establishment. I voted for them in 2010 in spite of this, not because of it, mostly because of the qualities of the local candidate but also because I felt the injection of the Lib Dems into the government of the country would in some way upset the apple cart. A crisis for capitalism perhaps not, but an unscripted fly in the ointment for the two-party system it indeed was.

Neither am I so blindly optimistic as to consider all if indeed any of the smaller parties that are currently enjoying some relative good fortune as being anti-system in the broadest sense. Certainly UKIP aspire to be and in some senses are already a party of the establishment. Rather like Trotsky’s theoretical fascists, they are a proto-establishment party waiting in the wings, currently something of a nuisance and an embarrassment but there if ever they are needed.

Which brings us to the left of centre, anti-austerity parties – the Greens, the SNP and Plaid. Are they the stuff of which revolutions are made? Probably not, but that is to miss the point somewhat. In our fast-changing political environment the establishment does on occasions find itself playing catch-up with events. The two-party system has, for the time being at least, already given way to the three-party system. If the three-party system in turn heralds the emergence of the four-, five-, six- or seven-party system then a fissure is created in the edifice of the all-powerful financial establishment which has effectively been the puppetmaster of our body politic for as long as any of us can remember.

ANSWERABLE

What emerges from the haze just may be better – more answerable, more democratic, more radical – than the fa├žade which went before. If it isn’t then nothing has been lost. The financial elites will, I have no doubt, attempt to buy into the new politics but the more widely they need to cast their nets the less control they can hope to exercise. The plethora of significant parties which challenge both major system parties from the left, and the further-left grouplets which are emerging by dint of social media from amid the growing dissatisfaction with Labour’s presumably permanent shift to the right, coupled with the threat to the Tories from their own right flank in the form of UKIP, is making political engagement in the run-up to May 2015 uniquely interesting.

On top of it all are the “Don’t Vote” voices and the “None of the Aboves”, both positions with which I have some sympathy although I do intend to cast my cross, on this occasion at least. For those who are serious about real, lasting, meaningful change the outcome of the traditional contest between the toxic twins of the old establishment is a sideshow of scarcely any relevance. The real determining events for the future of our politics are to be found about the periphery of this elaborate charade.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Back to the Barricades

Some depressing news is coming in from Isleworth's Ivybridge estate. It would appear that some seven and a half years after the old administration at the London Borough of Hounslow managed to unite the factions in the historically divided tenants' movement on the estate, its successor has contrived to prise them apart again, leading to the rebirth of the independent group Ivytag (Ivybridge Tenants' Action Group) after a group of former officials split from the Council-backed United Residents' Association (URA), which is operating unconstitutionally with the backing of the ward members and the Leader of the Council.

I don't have the full story as yet, but essentially we are back to the pre-2007 position in which one "approved" group exists to tick the boxes whilst another comprises an active group of residents which is likely to outflank and embarrass the recognised association by achieving a naturally higher profile through its work and its commitment to the estate.

Ivytag is planning a number of activities to draw attention to its re-formation and to garner support from residents. There will be more on this anon.

Thursday, 5 March 2015

How "Green" is Blue Labour?

It was Isleworth Labour councillor Ed Mayne who first introduced me to the concept of Blue Labour, in a conversation which took place between us shortly after he had been elected for the first time in 2010.

I had never heard of Blue Labour before. When I did I confess I baulked a little, because I kind of assumed that the “blue” aspect referred to a peculiarly rightist tendency within an organisation which had already moved too far to the right in my humble opinion. I envisaged a kind of ultra-Blairite movement within a movement, maybe something along the lines of the Progress grouping.

But it appeared that Blue Labour, oddly named as it was in my view, was something entirely different. Its emphasis was on fusing together “a progressive commitment to greater economic equality with a more 'conservative' disposition emphasising personal loyalty, family, community and locality”. The use of the term “conservative” is in this sense, of course, descriptive as opposed to organisational.

COMMUNITY AND LOCALITY

So it would appear that Ed had perceived my possible interest to lie with the “community and locality” aspect of Blue Labour’s outlook, as opposed to its “conservatism”. Which was fair enough, bearing in mind my deep-rooted commitment to a politics which sprang upwards from the grass roots as opposed to one that was imposed from on high.

The term “Blue Labour” was first coined in 2009 by a Labour life peer and academic by the name of Maurice Glasman, a senior lecturer in Political Theory at the Metropolitan University in London. Amongst its adherents was none other than John Cruddas, the hero of the successful struggle against the BNP in Barking and Dagenham and a man certainly associated with the left of the party rather than with any Blairite strand of thought.

It seemed to me, and still does seem, an odd choice of terminology for an idea which appears to transcend the traditional left-right divisions which engage the party at various times. Rather than taking either part in this historic debate, it instead positions itself as a champion (by Labour Party standards) of community co-operation and working class activism as opposed to the draconian “We Know Best!” mindset of the Labour Party with which I am much more familiar.

Because of its emphasis on family and locality many on the authoritarian left, as well as on the more dominant right, see Blue Labour as an attempt to shift the party in a more conservative direction on issues such as immigration. But Cruddas in particular has been clear in his thoughts on this subject, that whilst any kind of racist or xenophobic thought is rightly opposed it is legitimate to be concerned about the effects of rapid, unforetold immigration on such things as social cohesion and pay and living standards.

COMMUNITY-FRIENDLY

Blue Labour does not, as I see it, move the debate in a more leftwards or rightwards direction, but in a more community-friendly direction, to a place where the electorate whose votes are begged at five-yearly intervals are trusted during the intervening periods to hold opinions that may actually be worth listening to. It is not a left-right divide, in other words, but a Red-Green divide, Green being traditionally the colour of organic democracy alongside its other association with environmental politics.

It is no coincidence that environmentalist organisations such as the Green Party tend overwhelmingly towards a sympathetic view of localist democratic institutions, alongside small industry and ideally self-sufficiency. These are the aspirations which are most threatened by the relentless onward march of the big corporations – by the capitalism either of Big Folding Money or of the State.

I still fail to understand why such a radical tendency within the Labour Party is labelled “blue”, but whatever it chooses to call itself it seems to be one that is gaining currency.

Monday, 2 March 2015

Talking About BFC

With my single-minded pursuit of keeping my son Joe at school for the remaining four months – a commitment way above our means but necessitated by events elsewhere in our lives – my availability for attending Brentford matches has diminished to almost zero. By a happy coincidence however Joe himself, after a junior flirtation with Arsenal which cost me several items of the requisite kit during the course of his rapid growth, has matured into a fully-fledged Brentford season ticket holder in his own right and thereby, I like to believe, discharges my obligations by proxy.

But having been a supporter since 1965 I do nonetheless take a close interest in the fortunes of the team, and like everybody else have been excited by events this season, when a perennial lower league side (only one previous and very brief foray beyond what is today known as League One in the whole of my lifetime) has taken the Championship by storm, and brushed aside teams with the pedigree of Leeds United, Nottingham Forest and Wolverhampton Wanderers in the course of what had appeared to be a realistic, if unlikely challenge for promotion to the Premier League itself.

Then came the bombshell. And it was a bombshell of such magnitude that even long-suffering Brentford fans are calling it – well, a bombshell. An article in the Times (that’s the real Times not the local paper of the same name – such is the respect that Brentford has achieved in the football world) revealed that Mark Warburton, the rookie manager who had delivered so much success on the field of play, was to be surplus to requirements at the end of the season. Taken by surprise by the leak the powers that be at the club wobbled, panicked, and issue a verbose, almost Cantona-esque statement saying not very much at all which only served to make matters far, far worse than they were already for shocked fans as well, perhaps, as for the players, who subsequently slumped to a very untypical 3-0 defeat by a poor Charlton Athletic side who had all but played them off the field.

AWKWARD SILENCE

An awkward silence ensued, until a couple of days later a more considered statement emerged from the club, to which both owner Matthew Benham and manager Mark Warburton were signed up. The truth of the matter was that Benham wants to introduce a radical new management system much used on the continent but relatively unknown here in the UK, and Warburton and his closest staff had felt unable to work with it as it ran contrary to their own footballing philosophies. And so the parting of the ways, when it happens, is to be by mutual agreement. Now fans are hoping against hope that “Warbs” hangs around to finish the job of getting the Bees promoted to the dizzy heights of the Premier League, but most of us are realistic enough to know that if a top team were to come in for him now it would be very difficult for him to resist taking up the challenge, knowing that his days at Griffin Park are drawing to a close.

For the benefit of Bees fans, or for that matter of mere voyeurs who may wish to be kept regularly updated on this story, my advice would be to visit BFC Talk, an excellent private blog by Bees fan Greville Waterman which is frequently replenished with eloquent articles and well-presented news and views from around the club. On this particular subject, as with many others, regular new features are posted to this site to relate and offer intelligent comment on all the latest developments.

If you are a Brentford supporter BFC Talk deserves your unqualified support. Especially so as it is a useful, not to mention probably the most articulate source, of regular post-match analysis.

It would be a brave punter who was to commit to a position on Brentford’s likely performance for the remainder of this campaign. An uninspiring if uncharacteristic wipeout at Charlton was followed by an impressively dominant performance against high-flyers Bournemouth and a walkover against no-hopers Blackpool in which the 4-0 scoreline flattered the visitors, which in turn was followed by defeat at the hands of a less than spectacular Birmingham side.

This year’s ongoing Brentford saga is a fascinating one on and off the pitch, whether you are an avid fan or a mere passenger. It is a blessing that we have the tools to keep us well informed.