23 May 2007

British Party Politics

This short piece is a snapshot of the political situation following the municipal and Celtic assembly elections in May 2007. In some ways it has proved prophetic, but in other ways not.

The assumption of office of the minority SNP administration in Scotland and the likely rainbow coalition in Wales of Plaid, Tories and the Liberal Democrats (very damaging for Plaid in my view) creates a strange set up across Britain: Labour out of office in Edinburgh and Cardiff, but still holding the fort in London.

Labour’s position is contradictory and precarious. In the local election in May its vote fell to 27 percent (less than for Foot in the 1983 general election). New Labour for all its centre right polices was driven back to its urban heartlands north of the Severn Walsh line. Middle England for whom New Labour was designed wasn’t voting for it. In the so-called ‘sink estates’ whose interests Labour has abandoned, it wasn’t socialists who were chipping away at Labour, but the fascist BNP.

Cameron, now dressing up Toryism as an up-market version of Blairism, did well in the south and rural England, but made no headway in the English cities or in the Celtic countries. He may win in 2010 but only with difficulty. The fragmentation and ghetoisation of British party politics, which has accelerated since the 1980s (masked by Labour landslides in 1997 and 2003,) is very much evident, all of which makes the outcome of Westminster first-past-the-post elections somewhat arbitrary. But with the Liberal Democrats moving rightwards and jettisoning affinity with Labour, and with Celtic nationalism strengthening, the long term prospects for Gordon Brown’s Party geared towards the interests of people who don’t vote for it appears more and more precarious.

N. B. The rainbow coalition in Wales did not happen.

17 May 2007

Brown replaces Blair

The replacement of Tony Blair by Gordon Brown illustrates New Labour’s hegemony within the party, as well as Labour’s internal democratic deficit. Around ninety percent of the Parliamentary Labour Party have nominated Brown in the leadership ‘election,’ and it would seem that not to do so is an act of treachery to Gordon Brown, to the party, and to any future careers Labour MPs imagined for themselves. John McDonnell, who has been making the case for the left, has achieved only twenty-nine nominations, sixteen less than he needs to enter the race.

The transfer of power from Brown to Blair is one of style not substance. Gordon Brown is joint author of the New Labour Project: supporter of the Iraq War, Trident, religious city academies, PFI, etc. With around ninety percent of the PLP prepared to freely back him, there is no serious opposition to New Labour among Labour MPs. Outside Parliament the trade unions and constituencies are confirmed in their irrelevance: they won’t even have a say.

There is however one sop to democracy: a meaningless five - or perhaps six - way contest for the symbolic post of deputy leadership. All the candidates are Brown supporters, and all but one were or are ministers in Blair’s cabinet. The outcome hardly matters.

What should Labour Party socialists do? First, they should abstain in the deputy leadership election and not dignify the farce. Second, they should urge the twenty-nine McDonnell supporters to coalesce and act directly as a party within a party. Believing that the monolith of New Labourism can be modified rather than challenged is now a myth.

7 May 2007

Nothing Serious To the Left of the British Labour Party

As New Labour abandons social democracy, no serious force to the Left has emerged.

The last thirteen years of Blair and New Labour have seen the disappearance from British elections of a social democratic option on ballot papers. One issue for discussion is why Blair has been able to divorce the Labour Party so fully from social democracy (i.e. policies centring on redistribution and welfare universalism). The other – my concern today - is to focus on Labour’s challenge from the Left.

Three attempts at setting up left parties have been made since the 1990s: Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party (1996), Tommy Sheridan’s Scottish Socialist Party (1998) and George Galloway’s Respect (2004). Each one was set up by a charismatic and dominant leader, garnered a small devoted following, but soon fell to sectarianism leading to decline or implosion.

The two English left parties have been the least successful. Scargill’s party, based on authoritarian nostalgia, soon fizzled out into nothing. Respect retains a minor role thanks to its embedding in the Islamic community and support from the enduring SWP. The first-past-the-post electoral system (with the exception of elections for the Greater London Authority) has also hampered electoral prospects.

Scotland in 2003, though, was different. The SSP in the Scottish Assembly elections enjoyed a PR system that awarded seats to parties with approximately 5-6 percent of the votes. The SSP won six seats in five of the eight electoral regions. A start had been made. Yet within a few years the party had managed to split over a libel action about Sheridan participating in sex parties. In 2007 the Scottish electorate showed its contempt by wiping out the party from the assembly.

Setting up a new party is not easy even with PR. Convincing people that you are serious, and winning their trust, is hard. A successful party would need intelligent broad-minded socialists who can set up street stalls, campaign around local issues and get elected to local councils. Sadly in Britain the gap between New Labour and sectarian cultism has not been filled.

The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan

The nightmare of young children defending for themselves alone in 1970s Britain is imagined in this novel.

This is a short well-written tale of four children left alone after their mother's death. Their parents bequeathed them social isolation and ignorance. In the long hot summer of 1976 they attempt to live by themselves in their uncleared-up filth and incestuous psychological confusion. As with all McEwan’s novels there is a deeply sinister event; in this novel it is the encasement of their mother, after her death from cancer, in concrete in the basement of their house.

The story is narrated by the teenage boy of the household and is a powerful examination of the themes of adolescence.


The number of people viewing this post - now running into the hundreds - is a complete mystery to me. I read this book a few years ago, found it mildly of interest and made a few mediocre comments.

McEWAN, Ian - The Cement Garden, Vintage 2006 (first published 1978)


WALTERS, E. Garrison - Eastern Europe to 1945

Dorset 1988

Read March 2007

This is a well-written and well-set out account of the history of Eastern Europe from the end of the nineteenth century until the end of the Second World War.

The book has a somewhat encyclopaedic approach and is wide ranging in that it does not ignore geography of economics. Yet throughout the book has the feeling of giving of giving a useful overview rather than a detailed account of any specific period of history.

The premise on which the book is based is that there is a separate geographical and socio-economic entity of Eastern Europe as distinct from the western part of the continent. The author admits that he is retrospectively affected by the Cold War Divide and by the convenience of the ethnic line formed by the eastern borders of the German and Italian speaking world. This approach, of course, incorporates the Czech lands into the East whereas by many indicators they are more part of the West.

Overall the book is an excellent background text for understanding the background to the region.


ROTH, Philip - Everyman

Vintage 2006

Read April 2007

This excellent short novel starts at the end – the funeral of the protagonist. As with ‘American Pastoral’ it is a tale of a man of immigrant Jewish parents who grows up in post-war America, but in ‘Everyman’ the structure of the story is simpler and more accessible.

Essentially the protagonist is an egotistical character who is plagued by ill health and failing marriages. In old age he experiences the death of those around him as he is inevitably driven to his own end. The book is in many ways a simple tale whose brilliance lies in the detailed description and Roth’s slow build-up of the protagonist’s psychological make-up.


March 2007 Comments

House of Lords 2007.03.07
Unfortunately, the simplest and most democratic option for the House of Lords is not currently on the political agenda - abolition. If people are worried about the unrepresentative nature of the House of Commons, the obvious step is to elect it by proportional representation.

Against the existence of God 2007.03.07
The arguments people employ to sidestep reason and evidence in issues of divinity are never original. The problem for the scientific minded believer is however that religion does make statements about how the world is; and such propositions can be analysed in the same way as any other proposition. If religious people replace reason and evidence with faith, then of course it is - by virtue of that very reason - impossible to have a reasonable discussion with them. One issue is the argument about the origin of the universe which is, of course, the standard argument of the American creationists - now parading as intelligent design theory. Their argument is that for the universe to exist God would have had to have created it is weak. Why couldn't matter always have exited? If a creator is required, then the creationalist argument falls on its own assumptions, because who created the creator? And anyway even if the universe were created, science tells us that it didn't happen in the way the bible said it happened. Another argument is that the evidence for the existence of God is no weaker than that for the proposition that 'history is a history of class struggles.' I disagree, but the issue is irrelevant; for however weak the evidence may be for Marxism, it does nothing to strengthen the evidence for the existence of God. Believers then bizarrely introduce purported evidence for the existence of God, i.e. 'beauty of creation' - but the subjective aesthetic judgment of an object by people, however great the number, hardly creates evidence for the existence of another object; i.e. God. (If people changed their opinion would God then cease to exist?) It is indeed a fact that people believe in values (ought statements) and strive to change the world both for themselves and others. It is true that there is much we don't understand. None of this, however, implies that we should become agnostic in our beliefs, which would suggest that the evidence for and against the existence of God is either too complex or too equally balanced for us to make a decision.

Northern Ireland 2007.03.09
Commentary on Northern Ireland seems fixated on one issue: will the veteran Protestant and Unionist bigot, Ian Paisley, join a coalition with Sinn Fein to run the devolved province. What is not adequately noticed is that the ground on which Paisley is standing is washing away. Wednesday's provincial elections gave the unionist parties a five percent lead over the combined vote of Sinn Fein and the SDLP. Demography is against the unionists. Catholic population growth, however, is not the main factor. For seventy years, though poor, the north was a beacon of prosperity when set against the impoverished South. Today the centre of gravity is Dublin, and waves of prosperity pull the North - and in particular the Catholic border areas of the North - into the Southern economy. The Unionist power system has cracked, and Britain does not care.The next step, beyond devolved power sharing within a British ruled province, is power sharing the sovereignty of the province itself. The North should become a condominium of Britain and the Republic, using the Euro and adopting the Irish tax regime.

Northern England 2007.03.10
One thing is certain; the other is not sure. What is not sure yet is whether David Cameron's Conservatives will win the next General Election, but what is certain is that Labour will be the leading party in the north and will take a majority of its seats. The north of England, containing about a quarter of England's population, is actually a reasonably well defined area stretching from the historic counties of Yorkshire, Lancashire, Cheshire to the Scottish border. Though Cheshire and the countryside are conservative and prosperous, the vast majority of the population lives in economically impoverished former industrial towns. The northeast region, for instance, has a mere 60 percent of the average income per head of the UK; and none of the three regions comprising the north exceeds the national UK average.The dominant party of northern England, Labour, is internally undemocratic and is choreographed from London. Electoral success for Labour nationally does not depend on the north of England, leaving the north with neither collective identity in the minds of its people nor effective representation. While Wales should enjoy the same powers as Scotland, the north as one province in the UK should inherit the powers that Wales currently possesses: provincial identity, an elected assembly plus administration within the framework of devolved powers from London.

Britain's nuclear weapons 2007.03.13
With Tory support, it is almost certain that the motion in the House of Commons today to endorse the upgrading of Britain's nuclear weapons of mass destruction will be successful. Labour Party critics make two mistakes. First, they claim that having such weapons makes no sense. They are wrong: the possession of such weapons is just about Britain's only claim to be a world power. Second, they argue that having nuclear weapons sets a bad example to Iran and others. There is an insular arrogance here in believing that the rest of the world sees Britain as a moral example.Hopefully Britain's soon-to-be upgraded nuclear weapons will be as useless in the next half century as they have been in the past one. The case against them is that they are a massive waste of money, bind Britain's defence establishment into that of the US and make Britain a target for other people's nuclear weapons.

Abolishing prisons for women 2007.03.14
By all means highlight women's specific problems, but when or if the law is changed the rules must as far as possible be universal not gender specific. It is utterly unacceptable to have two entirely different codes of law - one for women and one for men.

Central European Language Salad 2007.03.19
March 15th (commemorating the Hungarian failed bid for independence in 1848) was a holiday in Hungary; and as it fell on a Thursday, the Friday was also free. Thus Hungarians were given a four-day break in the middle of March. We decided to travel abroad and leave the pompous official celebrations and the neo-fascist demonstrators behind. We went to Piestany (I can't type diacritic marks, but it is pronounced pi-esh-tyarni) which is a spa town in western Slovakia. I do speak a very little Slovak, but very soon I run into difficulties. Often, the solution, especially with younger people, is to switch to English, a language that I know well. But this is not always successful, particularly as 'taking the waters' is not so popular amongst the English. Instead, the regionally dominant language, German, exerts considerable pull as a majority of the tourists are German speakers. But if English and German fail what then? Of course the whole of Slovakia used to the Upper Hungary, and the imperial past combined with a significant Hungarian speaking minority mean that the Magyar tongue may well be understood. So in this situation we usually manage.You can mock, but I did not try Esperanto. Perhaps some of the people we met know it, but I will never know. Instead, I relied on imperialism to communicate - of the Habsburgs, Magyars and of US globalism.

School Uniform 2007.03.20
Today the Department of Education in England is issuing guidelines, which support schools which ban full-face veils on the somewhat common sense grounds that teachers otherwise wouldn't even know who was behind a particular veil. Yet, Education Minister, Knight, wants schools to consult with parents about religious sensitivities in school uniform policy.Britain, however, stands out from most other European countries in that most of its school children are forced to wear uniform. It seems to me a form of collective humiliation to impose these weird clothes onto the young. As an exception to the ethos of the age, the intention is to suppress individuality and to de-sexualise teenagers. Yet, the opposite appears to be the case: sexual fantasy is displaced onto school uniforms, as any quick survey of sex websites located in the UK will reveal. Aside from the ban on full-face veils, derogations in school uniform seem only to be granted on religious grounds, not individual choice. If a student wishes to wear a headscarf because a religious norm requires it, that is acceptable. If another wishes to wear one out of individual choice, it is not. We've reached a fine pass when a so-called centre left government upholds religious norms, but not those of individual freedom. Surely the socialist position on all this is simple: school pupils should be allowed to wear what they want to school (religious or not) unless what they are wearing impedes teaching and learning.

Blair's arrogance 2007.03.22
What turns the stomach about Tony Blair is not just his branch of neo-con policies and his humiliation of everything that Labourism ever stood for, but the sheer egocentric arrogance of the man. Here is a man who says of his job that he is stepping down, but disdains to say when. If anyone else in employment announced they were leaving within the next sixth months, but wouldn't say when, they'd get their marching orders immediately. Yet, that raises the question, just to whom is Blair accountable? In Britain's archaic constitutional system his employer is Elizabeth II. But according to convention (non-justiciable law), he is in office because a majority of the House of Commons (i.e. Labour MPs) acknowledge him as leader of the Labour party - a post he has held without election since 1994. It is the flavour of the democratic deficit that the ranks of hapless MPs and a hobbled Party outside Parliament stand idly by while Blair reduces the Labour Party to irrelevance.Two reforms are in order. First, different people should hold the post of leader of a political party and that of Prime Minister. Second, both should be subject to regular elections; the former by party members, and the latter by MPs.

Crimes and Misdemeanours 2007.03.23
The state promotion and funding of faith schools is a policy that runs counter to both socialist and liberal norms. Opposition is, therefore, correctly directed at the British government, which promotes this policy, and at the centre-left Labour Party, which perpetuates this betrayal of principle. However wrong this policy is, though, there is no sense in which it is illegal, nor that its proponents should face personal sanctions, other than progressive votes being cast against them in democratic elections. Blair's decision to order the British military to collaborate with the US in the invasion of Iraq is of a different order. This action, which to date has led to the loss of over half a million human lives, lacked any legal authority. The claim that Britain was acting in self-defence against the preparation of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction was false. Even if Blair didn't know that Saddam lacked such weapons, he certainly had little credible evidence for believing that he possessed them - and in any event Blair had agreed on the invasion with George Bush months before. As the UN failed to sanction the invasion, and as the defence of self-defence fails, the invasion should be seen for what it was: an act of military aggression. Military aggression (something less than crimes against humanity) is nonetheless a serious crime, which means that Blair should stand trial. And if convicted, as I think he would be, he should spend the rest of his days, not travelling around the US lecture circuit garnering huge fees, but sitting inside a British jail. However far-fetched the scenario, that is what ought to be the case, and people on the left should say so.

Stephen Cambone 2007.03.26
It is outrageous that a man such Stephen Cambone should be given an official welcome to Exeter University. His role, as a former assistant of Donald Rumsfeld, in organising prisoner abuse and torture should have sent him to Exeter jail not Exeter University. There he could have awaited extradition to Germany. (In November 2006 the German Federal Government announced that it had decided to permit the war crimes prosecution of Cambone for his alleged role in condoning the abuse of prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison during his tenure from 2001 to 2003 as U.S. Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence.) Imagine the response if in 1979 a senior planner of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and an aid to Brezhenev, had been ceremonially driven to the University in the Vice Chancellor's car. If members of the Exeter University Politics Department ingratiated themselves to this man, they reveal themselves as brown-nosed apologists of torture for whom academic truth and human rights mean nothing.

Britain's three strata 2007.03.28
Is Britain now - following in the American tradition - a country of three strata: i.e. the society of thirds. In writing of three strata, I don't mean that they are equal in size, or that the boundaries between them are clear and defined, but that three types of social group can be clearly identified. The top third, centred on owners of capital and the upper professionals, live securely and with all their material needs adequately met, holidaying in France in summer and skiing in the Alps in winter. The middle third - the so-called middle England - are the mass of people with mortgages to pay and worries about paying for retirement, sickness, their kids education. They are people who are under the constant threat of redundancy in the flexible job market. Though well off by historical standards, they are nonetheless chronically financially insecure, worried about taxes (seen transfers to the bottom third), crime (attacks by the bottom third) and downward social mobility (entering the bottom third). The bottom third encompasses the low paid, marginally employed, disadvantaged ethnic minorities, people without their own homes, single parents, the mentally ill, criminals etc. Since 1979 both their relative and absolute standard of living has declined. Thatcher, Major and Blair have followed mostly the same policy agenda of promoting social inequality through commercialisation, deregulation and benefit cuts; along with along with a philosophy of victimising the poor for the effects of their poverty. Labour, however, distinguished itself by attempting to push the unemployed into low paying work (e.g. the minimum wage, the New Deal) and by increasing expenditure on education (offset for the poor by greater selection) and on health (offset by PFI schemes), as well as introducing a system of tax credits for the working poor with children. However, all this - when set against the effects of the market - has done nothing to dent inequality as recent reports and statistics indicate. As a result the working class in Britain has seldom been more divided, chronically insecure and de-politicised. The bottom stratum is an electoral minority even if it could be bothered to vote. For the political right the disadvantage of Thatcherism was that it produced opposition reaching well into the middle stratum; the great victory of New Labour is to tie the middle strata into political conservatism or apathy, thus destroying any prospect of social reform in Britain.

Monato 2007.03.30
Towards the end of each month my copy of Monato drops through the letterbox. Monato, as the name suggests, is a monthly magazine; it is published in Antwerp and is made up of original material in the Esperanto language. While it claims to be a politically independent review, the thrust of its content is left-wing (I doubt whether I would subscribe to it otherwise) Though the magazine contributors are heavily concentrated in Europe, the magazine does have writers based around the world in such places as Israel and Madagascar, but especially in Russia, China and Japan. Monato manages to provide something that left-wing English periodicals cannot. Community magazines, which consist of news and opinion pieces on events and issues, are imprisoned within their language communities. There is no reason why a German speaker would write up local news and opinion in English (why should they?) and for it to be read by - for example - French speakers. Few ordinary people around the world speak English well enough to feel confident of writing articles in that language, anyway. Do you know about the cost to Japanese pensioners of removing snow from the their houses, or what Belgians think of the Iraq war? Professional journalists and translators will tell you if there is money to be made, but this does not thrust the pen into the hands of ordinary people; this is where Esperanto and magazines like Monato come into their own.