Friday, 30 May 2008

The Wire

If you want compulsive, intelligent alternative to the vacuous reality tat of Big Brother, The Hills, I'd Do Anything, etc, the The Wire is for you. I have been meaning to write about it for a very long time but every attempt doing so fell flat. Why? For the simple reason The Wire is the best television show I have ever seen. And by that I include all those great 80s kids' TV programmes. I am not joking. I cannot heap enough superlatives on to the show. It is at once funny, complex, gritty and heartbreaking. If I was writing a lengthy piece I wouldn't know where to begin. So I was very pleased to see a review appear in the latest issue of The Socialist from the pen of Michael Wrack. The comrade has written about it, so I don't have to:

When The Wire first started it could easily have been mistaken for just another 'cop show', and a particularly slow, dialogue-driven one at that.

The first series focused on one police detail, involving a case against a local drug kingpin. But the show was about much more. Avoiding simplistic distinction between good and evil it shows different aspects of 'the war on drugs'; we see the similar hierarchies of the police and the gangs, with the rank and file on both sides fighting the war for their bosses' careers.

The police working on the detail are constantly told to make things fast and simple, to lock up a few low-level drug dealers rather than build the wiretap and surveillance case needed to catch the people at the top.

Except we find out that the people at the top of the drug chain may not even be the top. The detail is shut down when, instead of just following the drug deals as instructed, they follow the money, revealing investments in local property and political donations.

Each series continues the story, while expanding to show the root causes of the drug problem. Closing down docks leads to a lack of work, and the inevitable pressures on communities.

We see city hall corruption, back-scratching and backstabbing, and the effects this has, when filtered down through local government policies, on the street level. Touching on people-trafficking, homelessness, urban gentrification, unions fighting for political influence, and much more, we're provided with a story of those left behind by capitalism; an America forgotten by the 'American dream'.

The Wire explains how the drug trade wholeheartedly follows the rules of capitalism. A high ranking drug dealer goes to an evening class at business school to learn the rules of the market.

A question constantly posed by the show is who these people could have become if they were born somewhere else, with different options. Does this serve as an excuse for the drug trade? Not exactly. Marxists believe people have free will, but we also believe the choices they make are shaped by the conditions they live under.

This is the central theme of series four, which changes focus again to put four school kids, and the failings of inner city education, at the centre of the show.

At the start of the series, as we watch them enjoy the summer, they could be the archetypal 'they may be poor but at least they're happy' TV children. As we find out more about them, we see how damaged they are.

Born into poverty-stricken communities, destroyed by drugs, they are children of addicts, or in one case a dealer and murderer. They are children brought up by other children and have all been, to varying degrees, abused; physically, psychologically or sexually.

We see them at a school that has all but given up on them, with the lure of the criminal life always so close. Far from admiring the local gangs, the kids fear them, even making up childish ghost stories about them to scare each other.

But when one of the kids faces a horrific problem at home he and his friends wonder who he could turn to for help. 'Snitching' to the police is immediately discounted; the motives of a local boxing coach are questioned, leaving a choice between his teacher and one of the gangsters. The results of his choice are far-reaching.

It is to the writers' credit that, despite the harsh issues dealt with, the show never once seems melodramatic. This is because no 'TV people' work on the show, the creators being a former crime journalist and a police officer-cum-school teacher. The show is so grittily real because it is based on reality, the real people and real events that they came across in their former jobs.

Critics have been lining up to hail The Wire as the best show on television. It may also be the most damning indictment of the world we live in found anywhere in popular culture.

Thursday, 29 May 2008

Procrastination

This was shown prior to the awful Indiana Jones movie at my local cinema and was by far my highlight of the whole experience. It was as if I was the guy in the skit:



I wonder if any of the old beards had this trouble?

Wednesday, 28 May 2008

The Tory Attack on "Dependency Culture"

For all their liberal do-gooding posturing it didn't take the Tories long to start hitting the poor. First we have Boris Johnson cancelling the oil deal with Venezuela, depriving some 80,000 of the capital's poorest residents of cut price public transport use. And now we have Chris Grayling (pictured), the Work and Pensions shadow, proposing to attack under 21s on benefit by forcing them to work for it. Naturally, in keeping with the 'Tender Tory' image this is dressed up as tough love. Tony Blair used to like calling it 'compassion with a hard edge', but it all amounts to the same thing: if you go on the dole, you're going to have to work for it.

Grayling's proposals wax lyrical about the economic growth of London these last 10 years, but pauses to reflect on the unchanging levels of child poverty. As he puts it:

For the people that have not shared in the growth of the last 15 years, poverty and deprivation remain endemic. I've met some of those people, trapped in a cycle of worklessness. They are often personable and likeable. But they are also a mile away from the job market - lacking experience, self-confidence, the basic know-how about how to get and hold down a job.
This situation is the responsibility of none other than Gordon Brown. For Grayling, New Labour have relied on migrant workers to fuel the economic growth rates rather than tackle the issue of welfare reform. It is the government's failure to do so that has trapped millions into generational cycles of poverty. That's right, in the Tory variant of neoliberal orthodoxy, the welfare state creates deprivation rather than tackles it.

This shouldn't be too surprising. A central trope flagged up time and again by the right is the notion of 'dependency culture'. It would have us believe benefits promote a climate of entitlement whereby some layers of the working class - especially the young - expect the welfare state will provide for them without ever having to work. This is the spirit animating Grayling's proposals and the very strong implication is this is why an estimated five million Britons are financially dependent on benefits. Therefore tackling unemployment isn't concerned with creating jobs because the market will miraculously supply the requisite number. Instead, the experience of being unemployed as to be as unattractive and unpleasant as possible. Under the Tories then, 18-21 year olds could look forward to:

- Intensive programmes of work-related activity for those who don't find a job within three months.

- Full-time community work programmes for those who spend a year out of work.

- Tougher limits on the amount of time young people can spend at home on benefits.

Mixed in with all this is renaming the dole office 'back to work centres' along with the promise of employment 'boot camps'. Surely it's only a matter of time before the work house makes its reappearance?

Leaving aside the gross inhumanity of the proposals, I'd like to take a look at this idea of dependency culture. Firstly, blaming the unemployed for being unemployed is incredibly stupid. Unemployment is a structural characteristic of all capitalist societies. It predates the rise of state-financed welfare provision and continues to be endemic in societies where unemployment benefit ranges from the meagre to the non-existent. Secondly in Britain the dole was easier to obtain in most of the post-war period than it is today, in a period where unemployment was nowhere near the scale of what Thatcher and her successors have presided over. Simply put, welfare does not encourage joblessness, it does not generate cultures of dependency.

That said for all the ideological hay neoliberals make of dependency culture, there is a rational kernal inside the mystifying shell. There are many working class communities effectively thrown on the scrap heap after their big employers have either moved or closed. There are pockets of persistent long term unemployment. Take Stoke for example, in Bentilee - one of the local BNP strongholds - about half of the ward's residents do not work. If we are serious about solving these problems we have to understand why joblessness remains high, even when new industries have come in to the area. Only then can effective strategies can be developed.

Such an investigation has been carried out by Valerie Walkerdine in an ESRC-funded project. She was at Birmingham University presenting her findings in a paper titled Masculinity, Femininity and Shame in the South Wales Valleys. The anonymous town she looked at saw its steel works closed in 2002 and very little coming in to fill the void. Six years on the unemployment visited on the community has persisted and crossed the generational divide. Unskilled young men who left school without qualifications have inherited the joblessness of their fathers. Why?

For Walkerdine, it is not just a question of a lack of opportunity. The loss of work impacted heavily on the community's cultural infrastructure, and particularly how gender relations are constituted. Being a steel worker required a certain toughness, resilience and strength. As jobs they unpleasant and occasionally dangerous but it allowed for a certain kind of working class masculine identity, where the nature of the work, the all-male workplace camaraderie and the relatively high wages ticked all the manly boxes. A steel worker was strong. A steel worker provided for his family. But take that work away and these gender dynamics are thrown into crisis. For many workers, they went from bread winner to house husband. As they lost their jobs their spouses and partners had to take on work. Women went from nurturers to providers while the men were 'feminised' by their unemployment. They became the dependents.

Young men were affected by this fluctuating climate. From the standpoint of a masculinity defined in terms of steel working there is a severe cultural clash between steel and new jobs. Whereas young men could leave school with no qualifications in the 1980s and still find a sort of male dignity at the mill, no such pride exists among service industries. These had previously been coded as 'women's jobs' and took place in what had hitherto been marked as feminine spaces. The 'nurturing' nature of service work, compulsory uniforms, the subjection to micromanagement and the emasculation of trade unionism were a world away from 'men's work'. Young men reported a perceived sense of shame if they ended up working as shelf stackers, checkout operators and trolley attendants down their local Tesco. It was a shame enforced by their peers and their families. Despite the fact their fathers were out of work there was still an expectation young men adhered to received masculine codes. Older men could draw consolation from having once 'been a man'. Younger men could not. Therefore, rather than being seen to trade their masculinity in for a wage, they can escape humiliation by refusing to work. In other words, a culture of shame fuelled persistent unemployment, not welfare dependency.

If the Tories get the chance to implement their policies, the issues sustaining long term unemployment will go unaddressed. Using Walkerdine's findings, one can surmise that forcing young men into 'feminising' work on pain of losing benefits will create all kinds of problems. There will be resistance to it, but this resistance is more likely to assume pathological, individualised forms in the absence of an upsurge in class struggle. Crime is a route out for some. For others, drink or drug dependency offers an escape. Others will prefer to sign off and fall back on family support, which will lead to more conflict and pressures in the very institution the Tories claim to champion. And forcing young men on to community work programmes is more likely to alienate rather than engender any kind of local community spirit.

How then to reintegrate this layer of working class men back into the labour force? Walkerdine said the findings would be taken back to the local council to inform its youth workers and develop a localised strategy. But as far as I can see this is only part of the solution. We need a radical overhaul of the welfare state tied to a programme that aimed at changing workplace relations themselves. This is not simply a case of demanding more benefits and higher wages, though this has its part to play. The bottom line is the empowerment of our class vis a vis the state and the bosses. It was the left (albeit the New Left) who pioneered the critique of the disempowering and atomising effects of welfare, but as welfare came under attack from the late 70s onwards the left's criticisms were subsumed by the need to defend existing provisions. This effectively ceded the language of empowerment to the neoliberals of the centre and the right. But as experience has taught us their 'a hand up, not a hand out' rhetoric has been a cover for dismantling provision and the institution of workfare measures.

The left needs to reclaim this language.

Monday, 26 May 2008

Indiana Jones and the Sub-Cold War Hogwash

This could have been a good idea. I haven't got a problem in principle with the resurrection of the Indiana Jones franchise. But I do have a very big issue with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. You see, there is a world of difference between the original trilogy and this. They were good. This is rubbish.

On the face of it, the plot doesn't sound too much of a departure from previous Indy movies. The Russians, led by the evil Rosa Clebb-alike Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett) kidnap Indy and force him at gunpoint to help them steal the corpse of a Roswell alien, recovered from the site of the 1947 UFO crash. There follows a chase through the warehouse, an adventure with an atom bomb test, another chase at Indy's university. The action moves to Peru in the search of his former friend, Harold Oxley (John Hurt), who's gone missing searching for the fabled crystal skull. To cut a convoluted story short, Indy finds the skull, the Russians find Indy, he finds the lost city of Akator, the Russians find Indy again, the crystal skull is returned to its owner - who turns out to be a transdimensional alien being - everything starts falling to pieces, the baddies are sucked into a portal, the city is destroyed, a giant flying saucer rises from the rubble ... and Indy marries his long lost love, Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen). The end.

The main problem with Indy IV is this: it's tedious and dull. The first three movies were utterly absurd but nevertheless entertaining. This one looks as if Steven Spielberg sat down with George Lucas and came up with the daftest excuse they could find to marry whip-crack away adventuring with Spielberg's little grey alien obsessions and Lucas's CGI fetish. The result is a total mess. Chase sequences, of which there seem to be several dozen, are overlong and pointless. The relationship between Indy and his soviet nemesis goes from warm cooperation to hostility to cooperation again. And worst of all, it insults the viewer by frequently flying off into incredulity.

For example, the opening scene has a US army convoy travelling across the Nevada desert to a military installation. Surprise, surprise, this turns out to be a KGB operation ... with soliders who couldn't look more Slavic if they had 'My Name is Sergei' painted on their foreheads. And what's more, only one of them could speak English (that would be Spalko) ... and that's with a thick Russian accent. Yet we are expected to believe they could easily infiltrate the USA at the height of Cold War paranoia! And then there's the atom bomb scene. Indy escapes the Russian's clutches and makes it to a nearby town, except this town is a mock up for the purposes of nuclear testing. Too late Indy realises he's got a few tens of seconds to find shelter or he's cooked. He frantically tears around the house, and with seconds to spare clambers into a fridge - conveniently lead-lined. The bomb goes off, the town is blown away and the blast wave hurls the fridge into the air at great speed, before crashing down multiple times and coming to a rest. Against the backdrop of an impressively rendered mushroom cloud, Indy staggers out ... completely unscathed. Finally, in Peru, Indy's gang end up going down the river where they meet not one but three waterfalls. They go over each one, including the awesome Iguazu Falls ... without a single scratch! Okay, the first three movies bend the rules a bit, after all it's not everyday Nazi's faces melt off or peoples' hearts can be removed by one's bare hands. But at least they were done well so disbelief could be suspended. Here, it just makes the movie look ridiculous.

Some hay has been made of the Cold War backdrop to the film. The so-called Communist Party of the Russsian Federation are not too pleased. An open letter to Harrison Ford from the party's St Petersburg branch said "in 1957 the USSR was not sending terrorists to America but sending the Sputnik satellite into space!” There have also been ravings about Spielberg wanting to start a new Cold War, or some such nonsense, and some calls for it to be banned in Russia. This is certainly over-egging the pudding, but there is a trace of anti-communist polemic mixed up in the proceedings.

One of the major plot devices is that thanks to his association with Mac (Ray Winstone)- an undercover soviet agent and fellow adventurer, Indy comes under suspicion from a McCarthyite FBI and is forced to leave his professorial post, which sets the sojourn to Peru in motion. Once he's there, as if to prove what a good American he is, Indy faces challenges from a succession of communists - primitive, contemporary and advanced. It is not enough that he and his merry band of rugged individualists (his fiery ex Mary, Mutt (Shia LaBeouf), his James Dean clone of a son, Mac, and the deranged Oxley) do battle with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of faceless soviet soldiers, he manages to avoid the regimented swarms of millions of killer army ants (which, alas, a couple of henchmen fall prey to), runs from hordes of faceless Andeans, whose tribe protects the lost city, before finally meeting the aliens who, we're told, possess a hive mind. So we have four distinct groups of communists - the ants eat the Russians, the Russians machine gun the tribe, and finally, the aliens destroy the Russians. At the climax the aliens offer Indy's group and the soviets a "gift" - Spalko's too enamoured with these advanced communists from another dimension to decline, while Indy's individualist suspicion smells a rat and he and his party get away, just before the place starts collapsing and Spalko is vaporised by the knowledge the aliens burn directly into her brain.

The moral of the story? Collectivism is dangerous. It is out to get you. It will use you, consume you, and burn you out before it destroys you and itself.

I enjoy reactionary sub-texts and cod anti-communism as much as the next movie goer. But if Spielberg and Lucas want to use Indiana Jones again for polemical purposes, let's hope it will at least be entertaining.

Sunday, 25 May 2008

Another Musical Interlude

Arrgh, it's another one of those weeks when nothing decent's coming out. So I've been forced to plunge into the recent past in search of a half-decent tune. And rather bizarrely, my choice comes from France's Eurovision entrant, Sebastien Tellier. Now, be warned, this video is definitely not work safe, and its selection will probably do nothing to dissuade comrades who are convinced I'm treading the same risque path as Splintered Sunrise. But it is a rather top tune, so many thanks to my close comrade and confident, Catherine Buca for reminding me how good it is.



While we're on a Eurovish tip, Louise confessed in last week's thread that she's been listening to Taylor Dayne. Well Louise, just for you, here she is with the fabulous Tell it to my Heart. Watch it before Sony BMG disable the embed code!



And last but not least, not only was I annoyed by the lack of top choonage this week, I was utterly scandalised by the latest atrocity Celine Dion has perpetrated. Picture the scene. Myself, brothers A and GC, and sister M travelling back from last Monday's Socialist Party regional on May '68. Just as we entered the environs of Stoke, Dion's grating screech pierced the comradely atmos of the car with her cover ... of Alone.

I'm sorry, this is utterly unforgivable. Heart's original stands at the very apex of 80s poodle rock. It's a fist clenching celebration of heaving silicon, huge guitars, soaring vocals and big drums. Dion's version is utterly despicable. It is limp. It is over produced. It lacks all emotion and passion. For this she has booked herself a pass to the gulag for cultural enlightenment when the expropriators have been expropriated. So here's the original, to help erase the memory of her musical vandalism:

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

Neoliberalism and Disaster Capitalism

As part of a nationwide tour to promote the paperback edition of her latest book, The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein visited Manchester today for a short talk about the rise of 'disaster capitalism'. Her starting point is the story of how neoliberalism (or corporatism as she preferred to call it) has spread its tentacles across the globe. The received wisdom pumped out by the media and "learned" academics is free peoples and free markets go hand in hand. As totalitarianisms and dictatorships have crumbled, the liberal democracies and deregulated capitalist economies that have sprung up in their wake is the clearest, most perfect expression of freedom to date. Klein's task is to puncture this myth and show the alternate, real history of neoliberalism.

Klein's thesis is simple, but explosive. The neoliberal love-in with democracy is a complete scam. The truth is neoliberalism does not flourish in stable democratic societies; it thrives best when democratic freedoms are curtailed, suspended and suppressed. Her talk began with Hayek, Friedman and the rest of their friends in the Mont Pelerin Society. In the immediate post-war period their doctrines were consigned to the fringes. It had appeared the pursuit of Keynesian-inspired economic policies had done away with mass unemployment and capitalist crisis. But as the system broke down in the 1970s, neoliberalism increasingly came to the fore as a programme that could resolve the crisis in capital's favour.

This was not just conjecture, it was based on neoliberal experiments in Latin America. Up until the 70s, developmental policies across the continent were dominated by 'pink' economics. These were standard mixed-economy fare not dissimilar to the prevailing Keynesian orthodoxy, but were deemed too close to 'communism' in the eyes of some of the US ruling class. The US government part-funded a programme sponsoring cadres of Latin American graduates to study under Friedman in Chicago. In the context of the cold war, it was hoped they would return home and affect a sea-change in economic policy that, in the long run, would benefit capital. However the arguments of these 'Chicago Boys' fell on deaf ears. It took bloody coups in Chile and Argentina before they were given the freedom to restructure their economies according to neoliberal precepts. The results - according to David Harvey's recent book - were a strengthening of the capitalist class at the expense of everyone else by subordinating society to ever greater degrees to the market. These policies were then introduced in a more watered-down form in the USA and Britain.

But returning to Klein, a quarter of a century of neoliberalism in Argentina ended up turning the country into a basket case. Almost overnight in 2001 it went from globalisation's poster child to an embarrassing relative it would rather keep locked up under the stairs. For example, the Chicago Boys pushed through a complete deregulation of the banking sector, opening it to unfettered take over by overseas financial interests. But once the Argentine economy went into meltdown they took their money and ran, wiping out savings and plunging millions into poverty. These same millions took to the streets. Neighbourhood committees sprang up filling the gap left vacant by bankrupt local government, and factories standing idle by capital flight were occupied and reopened. For Klein this massive movement signified the first successful national uprising against neoliberalism, which has no spread to nearly all the continent.

This neoliberal shock therapy - only possible once all forms if democracy had been suppressed - is possible in other crisis situations, such as those that can be found in the aftermath of natural disasters. The Asian tsunami in 2004 is a case in point. While working class people the world over dug deep and donated hundreds of millions to aid agencies, money and resources under the control of our governments came with strings attached. Sri Lanka's east coast infrastructure was destroyed by the sea and tens of thousands were drowned, but philanthropy was the last thing on our rulers' minds. If the Sri Lankan government wanted access to Western 'reconstruction' money they had to pass laws establishing labour market flexibility and privatise water and electricity. This it did four days after the waves. And there was more to come. Within six months the government had forcibly enclosed the affected areas up to 200 metres from the coast denying survivors the right to return. This land instead was turned over to (primarily Western) construction interests for the building of new ports and hotels. Such is the reality of neoliberal "aid".

The Sri Lankan example is symptomatic of what Klein calls 'disaster capitalism' - the privatisation of responses to every situation of crisis and disaster. This has reached its apogee in the US heartland itself. The disaster of September 11th was the catalyst for opening up the security, correctional, surveillance, and intelligence complex to market forces. Insurance companies, risk management agencies, think tanks, glorified private detectives and mercenaries now comprise a $200 billion market that did not exist before 2001. For this sector uncertainty is good for business. The worst things get for us, the better they are for them.

We can see a clear line of descent. Neoliberalism began as a response to the general crisis of Keynesian/mixed capitalism. It has been imposed during situations of crisis as shock therapy. And now it is the received wisdom informing all responses to all crises - even those caused by previous neoliberal policies.

Asked if Russia and China offer alternative authoritarian models to neoliberalism, she suggested they were both examples of how neoliberalism happily co-exists with autocracy and undermines democracy. In the Chinese city of Shenzen, a city originally built 30 years ago as part of China's 'special economic zones', a new experiment with free market economics is going on. The repressive functions of the Stalinist police state are up for tender. Plans exist to increase the current 200,000 CCTV cameras by a factor of 10. This will require building an infrastructure capable of transmitting and recording millions of hours of footage and software speeding up the process of analysis. And who are stepping up to this market opportunity? IBM, General Electric, etc. A clearer case of markets facilitating the repression of democracy and freedom is seldom found.

On the Katrina disaster, we saw a rolling out of the same programme that befell Sri Lanka. Klein suggested (in my opinion wrongly) the left failed to make much of a case in the US about the scandal of the levys because it was 'indecent'. Unfortunately the right had no such scruples. Haliburton turned up sniffing for construction contracts and Blackwater sensed an opportunity for deploying some of its mercenaries. In all between them they came up with 32-point programme that basically amounted to the privatisation of the entire public infrastructure in New Orleans, from the drains to the schools. The tragedy is an alternative was possible, it just wasn't profitable. Public money was available and could have been used to bring the people themselves into the reconstruction effort. Disaster victims are agents too and rebuilding is the best form of therapy. They are the experts, they know what they want their city to be. But disaster capitalism is the opposite. It has dispersed and disempowered the city's working class and hired cheap migrant labour for the reconstruction. In short, New Orleans has become capital's playground.

One recurring problem with Klein's work has been the question of agency and alternatives. In answer to the perennial 'what is to be done?' she has previously looked to the anti-capitalist/global justice movement encompassing the varied and various social movements that opposing capital piecemeal or in their entirety. Again today she did not move beyond that position, except to say we need to draw lines in the sand and assert key principles. Unfortunately this is not much to be going on with, seeing as capital has been freely burying the hard-won gains of previous decades. What is missing from Klein is the need to build a clear political alternative to neoliberalism, which immediately brings socialism and Marxism back into the political picture. As a former Ralph Miliband fellow at LSE she cannot be unaware of this.

But there is no doubting she can pull a crowd. The audience for her talk was a new one on me. It was the first time I had been to something you could broadly call a left event where the majority of the 200 or so present were younger than my tender 31 years. And it's not difficult to see why. Klein's work is uncompromising in its hostility to capitalism. However neoliberals try to prettify their system, it is fundamentally exploitative and unjust. We all deserve something better, and given the chance, we can build it.

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Remembering May '68

When I first learned about May '68 it was like a revelation. I was just 18 and it was as if my friend Clive had introduced me to a world that had been hidden away from me. Here was a massive movement of the working class that shook our enemies to the core, a series of events they tried to expunge from history by denigrating it as a student jolly or ignoring it completely. To keep the memory alive, to help ensure the memory of May '68 is put out there, the Socialist Party has organised a speaking tour and currently has an excellent special edition of Socialism Today out to commemorate this explosive period of history.

Last night saw the CWI bandwagon hit the legendary United Services Club in Birmingham. Comrades with fond memories of this traditional red base in the West Midlands will be amused to hear it now bills itself as a 'conference and banqueting' centre, but I digress.

Dave Nellist was the master of ceremonies this evening, introducing Dadou, a comrade who was in the Young Revolutionary Communists and participated in the events in Rouen, and has been a member of Gauche Revolutionnaire for the last 12 years. Clare Doyle was the other speaker. She quipped that the blurb on the original print run of her book, France '68: Month of Revolution placed her in France that year. This was true ... she was there in August for her honeymoon! But she did take the opportunity to meet up with banned organisations such as the YRC to bring money raised by Labour Party Young Socialist branches and messages of solidarity from Militant.

Dadou began by saying it was her great fortune to have participated in the events in Rouen, and wanted to convey something of what it was like to the assembled comrades. But, she said, the spirit of '68 is still there in France despite Sarkozy's vow to destroy it. It's alive in the teachers and school students who are currently taking action. You can see it in the fisherman who are currently blockading some ports, and in the train, metro and airline workers who will be on strike next week. But today's struggles take place in a very different context. The France of 40 years ago was a France of economic good times, of increasingly porous borders and competition from other European states in the common market. Also with De Gaulle's assumption of power in 1958 he simultaneously attacked welfare spending while encouraging the development of French industry. New factories sprung up across the country concentrating thousands of workers into single workplaces. Higher education underwent a massive expansion to feed the factories the technical expertise they required, but this expansion was haphazard and for the most part, unplanned - Dadou recalled having to sit classes in corridors because the buildings couldn't cope with the volume of students. On top of this was a stifling conformist culture the family and formal institutions tried to impose on young people. For example, the pill was made freely available in 1967 but its price put it out of the reach of most women - it, combined with traditional expectations, thwarted young peoples' desires to 'live and love freely'.

Another key mobilising factor was the USA's war of aggression in Vietnam. In Paris six students were arrested for attacking a US-owned bank whose sentencing on May 10th provoked a 'night of barricades'. Paving slabs laid down after the 1848 revolution were torn up and turned against the police, and very quickly the general population of Paris came down on the side of the students and young workers. Not only did riot police have to face the barricades, they were attacked from the air as residents hurled objects from their apartment windows. The television was silent about all this, but the police violence did not go unnoticed. On the 13th the FEN teachers' union (affiliated to the 'official communist' Parti Communiste Francais-led CGT federation) called for a one day general strike that brought some four-five million workers out. But this was just a prelude, from the 20th-29th 10 million workers struck and completely paralysed France. Factories and other workplaces across the country were occupied and, surprisingly given the role the PCF played later on, it was its activists that played a leading role in many areas organising this massive movement.

In these nine days we had a pre-revolutionary situation. The government in any meaningful sense of the word simply disintegrated and workers were filled with a sense of their own power. But the traditional leadership of the French working class - the trade unions and the PCF - were all at sixes and sevens. After years of focusing political activity around elections they could not present a way forward beyond elections. If the PCF was a revolutionary party, it was so in words only. Over the 25th-27th these organisations entered into talks with De Gaulle and managed to secure some impressive reforms in return for their cooperation in demobilising the movement: a 35% increase in the minimum wage, a 10% across the board wage rise and crucially the freedom for trade unions to organise in any workplace. But these reforms were small fry compared to the prize that was in the offing, and workers knew it. Where union and PCF representatives went to try and sell the deal time and again they received a hostile reception. But this prevarication meant the establishment, up until now in complete disarray, was able to seize the advantage. After securing the army's support De Gaulle announced fresh elections. The capitulation of the workers' leadership to the 'constitutional solution' was the moment initiative passed backed to the ruling class. The end of the month saw a million demonstrate in Paris in support of reaction, and throughout June occupations either ceased or were violently broken up by the police with arms in hand. The promised reforms were implemented but many revolutionary groups were driven underground. The immediate threat to French capital had passed, but the spectre of the movement haunts them still.

Dadou was asked about what impact May '68 had on the position of French women and how prominent were women in the struggle as compared to movements in the past? She replied it was different because women had started to enter the formal workforce in large numbers thanks to De Gaulle's development programme. In 1968 there were approximately one million women workers and tended to be concentrated in certain kinds of enterprises, where they mad up the majority of the workforce. The effects of participating in such a titanic class battle transformed their expectations and the culture of the working class family. It was this energy that helped spur on the French feminist movement in the seventies, which eventually won free access to the pill and the right to have an abortion, and helped increase women's wages. But these gains are under threat - particularly where it comes to women's reproductive freedoms. Family planning centres have been closing over the last 15 years, there are fewer doctors and it's becoming more difficult to access abortion services.

In a lengthy contribution, Brother TH expressed his irritation at the abuse of May '68. He singled out the radical publishing house, Verso, as someone who should really know better. In their publicity material for the reprint of Henri Lefebvre's Critique of Everyday Life they claim it provided the philosophy behind the 'student revolution' in France. Simultaneously this reduces the movement to the musings of a left-wing professor, and one limited to just the universities. Socialists need to reclaim our heritage, he argued.

Sister J warned that we need to be always aware that trade union leaders will mostly let us down when it comes to the crunch. Another comrade drew parallels with the situation here in Britain today. Whereas the French working class had a leadership who let them down, at the moment there are very few who can even claim the mantle of 'workers' leaders' here. Our party can play a role in helping build that new leadership. Brother G argued that we shouldn't be unduly frightened by the lower numbers of workers in unions today. In 1968 the French trade union movement could only boast having just under three million members split among three different confederations, and still class anger managed to explode. But nevertheless the labour movement does need rebuilding and it won't be New Labour doing the necessary spadework. This task falls to socialists.

Clare Doyle was last to speak and concentrated on the situation in France today. The main question is whether the working class, after a period of deindustrialisation, has the social weight it possessed 40 years ago? At the moment there remains 3.7 million industrial workers, half of whom are in large workplaces. And this total doesn't necessarily count for all transport and power workers. As the Grangemouth dispute in Scotland illustrated, small numbers of organised workers do have the ability to cause severe disruption. But also, she suggested white collar is the new blue collar. This is certainly recognised by Sarkozy, who is trying to break the teachers by employing council workers to take over schools during industrial action and look after the pupils. Understandably teachers are angered by this move ... and it's not too popular with parents either! She concluded by noting how increasing numbers entering into struggle are asking about the ideas of socialism. This is an opportunity not only for all socialists, but to put it back on the political agenda for the first time in a generation.

Sunday, 18 May 2008

It's Eurovision Week!

Once a year a small group of socialists forget their internationalism and spurn the bonds that tie our class together across national borders. They hold aloft their country's flag and make like it's 1914 all over again. For one night the most ugly nationalist bile spews forth from their mouths as they huddle in front of their TV sets. Only one occasion can turn the most principled of comrades into unabashed chauvinists, and that event would be the Eurovision Song Contest.

That's right. Eurovision is taking place this weekend and the BC household cannot wait! The UK entry, Andy Abrahams' Even If may well be forgettable tosh, but it's our tosh, and he deserves douze pois all round just because he's the UK entry.

You'll find the usual tacky rubbish among the rest of the entries. But there are a couple whose chances I fancy.

Behold, Gisela's Casanova:



She represents the mighty Andorra and has, as far as I'm concerned, the least worst song in the competition ... except for these guys, Iceland's Euroband:



Brilliant vid and utterly camp, it has got to be the most perfect thing Eurovision has seen in years. East European voting blocs withstanding, surely it will win?

Thursday, 15 May 2008

Branch Meeting: Socialism and Ecologism

Stoke SP this evening heard from Sister M, a guest speaker from the Green Party speaking on the relationship between environmentalism and socialism.

Her starting point were some of the criticisms she has encountered in the burgeoning field of green political theory from a 'conventional' left-wing standpoint. These critiques suggests greens are pessimistic about our species' ability to extricate itself from the mess it has created, and suggesting the development of 'green' markets and consumerism strengthens bourgeois class relations. M acknowledged there was some truth to these positions and advanced some of her own.

First, environmentalist movements in the West give the impression of being stocked with affluent white activists. They tend to be motivated by so-called 'post-material' concerns and rural-centric in their political focus. The second problem is the anti-humanism implicit in some branches of the environmental movement. The very name of Earth First! suggests people come second. The exploitation of nature takes primacy over the exploitation of workers and peasants. From this can flow a green colonialism: to make wealthy Westerners feel better, their environmental conscience can be salved by funding nature reserves in the 3rd world. But it is not unknown for people to be forcibly moved off the land to make way for these parks, leading to all kinds of tensions and conflict. Hand in hand with anti-humanism goes a implicit authoritarianism. It may well be true Green parties are not the tightest political entities, but some strands of green politics rest on definitions of the 'interests' of nature articulated independently of the role our species has had shaping and constituting it. Nature here is a reified thing that only experts can know and advise upon.

Fourthly the mainstream of green politics does not attack capitalism enough and is often complicit in green washing the system. It is happy to push environmentally friendly consumption, implying markets are part of the solution, rather than the root of the problem. Fifthly as a product of the 'new social movements' to have emerged in the sixties and seventies, greens as a whole eschew traditional left-right labeling and resist explicit alignments with any class base. One outgrowth of this is a haphazard approach to collective action and greater emphasis on individual agency. M summed this up as 'you can change yourself if you can't change the world'. Finally green politics can lend itself to conservative conclusions. The romanticism and nostalgia of winding the clock back to pre-industrial ages glosses over the inequalities and class relationships bound up with that period.

However, not all is reactionary in the environmentalist garden. M drew attention to the 'ecologist' tendency in green political theory as an example of moves to overcome the problematic positions of the past. She defined this ecologist moment as a "green ideology encompassing views that reorder socio-political life and adjust relations with the non-human world". It talks about limits to rapacious capitalist growth, ascribes value to the planet and avoids deep green pitfalls by emphasising the rights of generations not yet born.

Ecologism connects with socialism on the grounds that capitalism is inherently wasteful and dehumanising. It recognises environmental degradation weighs disproportionately on the poor and that poverty itself places strains on local ecosystems. For example, the turning of workers and peasants to poaching and deforestation to make ends meet in the 3rd world is well documented. It follows from this that environmental crisis and control over the planet's resources are inextricably linked - ecologism needs socialism, and socialism needs ecologism.

In the discussion, J reiterated many of the points about environmental destruction being driven by capital's thirst for profits. Part of the problem, she thought, was how capitalism presented the acquisition of goods as the only way to live. This is an impoverished view of humanity; there's more to life than piling up on the lastest must-haves. E suggested one plus to have come out of the green movement is a challenge to this lifestyle. It has helped articulate an anti-consumerism by redefining what counts as wealth and making more of 'quality of life' issues. She also suggested a link between expanding markets and population growth: capital demands ever widening pools of labour it can suck into the production process, and the poverty the majority of the global working class and peasantry find themselves in paradoxically encourages more children.

Picking up on this, L asked if lifestyle change and green consumerism was at least a step in the right direction? M replied the problem is 'low impact' lifestyles at present are the preserves of the affluent. You need money to buy organically grown fair trade produce. A added another problem with green reforms of capitalism is that not only will the system resist anything it is uncomfortable with, there is a danger it will dispense with them completely once the economic climate turns harsh. For example, if recession threatens the growth of supermarket profits, the pressure will be on to bury their conspicuous philanthropic environmentalism to ensure the main shareholders keep their nice dividends.

For P, suggested another problem of consumer politicking is the danger of making its proponents look preachy and unattractive. He cited a story about a debate that took place between the SP and another left group in the old Lewisham Socialist Alliance. This group wanted to set up LSA pickets in front of local McDonald's outlets to enforce a consumer boycott. Our comrades were opposed because it overlooked the fact that for some workers, McDonalds is the only place cheap and convenient enough for them to eat out. Trying to prevent people from entering would have alienated customers and staff from the LSA and the causes it was trying to promote. Unfortunately, P believed this is the road some green activism has gone down.

But what to do now? It's all very well counterposing our green, socialist alternative to capitalism but what can socialists do now to offer practical ways out of the crisis? E suggested a scheme whereby firms have to pay for the damage their activities cause. On food, A recommended an interlinked series of demands around wages, improved food education and the democratic control of food production to overcome shortages and cut out the profiteers. P also drew attention to the green wash schemes many companies and institutions operate. They may not be as thorough-going as we'd like, but they present an opening for holding them to account and an opportunity to demand more. But ultimately saving the planet depends on organising for it.

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Feminism, Sexuality and the Law

Between 15 and 20 attended the annual day-long Keele Gender, Law and Sexuality postgraduate symposium. Participants were treated to a question and answer session with academics for whom their completed PhDs lay in the very recent past as well as a presentation on the vexing post-doctorate research application procedures. A number of students within the law school also took the opportunity to present some aspects of their research.

Up first was Wei Wei Cao who looked at the application of feminist legal and ethical methodologies to bioethical research. She began identifying the main streams of feminist thought; liberal, Marxist/socialist, radical and postmodern, and suggested there are two themes uniting these disparate perspectives: the distinction between sex and gender; and the recognition masculine culture has traditionally defined women and womanhood. What feminism does is to build on these core insights by using women's experience to help liberate women.

Where bioethics are concerned feminism opposes legal obstacles placed in the way of women's access to (reproductive) medical services. But, Cao argued, there has been a tendency for feminism to place emphasis at different times on legal arguments, and at others ethical arguments, instead of a more coherent approach. This failure to combine them effectively can lead to the enshrining of progressive legal rights on paper, but in practice, serving to perpetuate the patriarchal structures they aimed to combat. For example, in Cao's native China, abortion law is very liberal. But far from enhancing women's reproductive rights, it has strengthened patriarchy's hold over women's fertility by "encouraging" the abortion of female foetuses, particularly in rural China. Taken with the one child policy this has resulted in there being somewhere in the region of 50-60 million more (mainly young) men than women.

And as we know, in the more liberal societies of the West, abortion is still taboo. Many women who undergo the procedure often have to deal with the difficulties of doing so in silence.

Therefore, Cao suggests that while the fight for reproductive autonomy remains a key feminist objective it needs to be more sensitive to women's experience. It should avoid reifying legal objectives as the desired outcome and adopt a more sensitive, intuitive strategy. For Cao this 'relational feminism' would be about fusing the legal and the situational, of somehow encoding a moral dimension to prevent the abuse of reproductive freedoms. For example, how can China's abortion law be modified to assist the struggle against forced terminations? How can the law be reformed here to aid the movement against restrictions to access?

Suzanne Jenkins' paper was concerned with her methodological choices for her research on "higher end" sex work and prostitution. Feminist debates on sociological method have typically critiqued quantitative methodologies for suppressing information that does not fit the variables, decontextualises data and exploits it. Instead, research should embody feminist ethics and be reflexive, interactive and empowering. Taking this on board, feminism's desire for emancipatory context-sensitive research ill-disposes it toward computer mediated research methods - mainly because email or chat-based surveys and interviews do not take place face to face, and with it the rapport and dialogic elements of the process are absent.

Jenkins experience with CMC-based research suggests some of these concerns maybe overstated. Looking at a simple comparison of face to face and phone interviews with email and instant messenger discussions, the former tend to be more costly, more prone to digressions, more time-consuming and less convenient than the latter. In contrast, CMC requires less time, less money and above all negates the need to transcribe! Though the appreciation of non-verbal cues are missing in these research settings, Jenkins believed interviewees were more likely to take time over their answers and provide more detailed and precise responses. Also, contrary to feminist suspicions, following Nicola Illingworth's argument, online research can be more egalitarian and less intimidating than a corporeal encounter. The distance, the faux anonymity of the internet and the absence of the researcher can actually be liberating and allow respondents to unburden themselves to a degree not usually possible in a real-world meeting. Jenkins concluded with a call to feminists to embrace CMC, albeit critically.

The final session was Ella Hayes on the conceptualisation of domestic abuse in gay women's relationships. When she was working in a women's refuge she was struck by the small but significant number of women who were seeking sanctuary from abusive lesbian relationships, and simultaneously the gap in feminist literature on same sex domestic violence. Generally speaking, feminism has understandably concentrated on explaining the gendered patriarchal dynamics underpinning domestic and sexual violence perpetrated by men on women. But to use this as a lens through which to theorise such violence among lesbian relationships is, in Hayes' view, deeply unsatisfactory.

She argued available research, such as it exists, tries to explain the violent partner in terms of an internalisation of the male, of assuming a male role and 'being a man' as she pummels her partner to a pulp. This is problematic for a couple of reasons. First is the essentialisation of violence as inherently male, and second is the reinforcement of the heteronormative myth that all same sex partnerships adopt conventional gendered husband/wife roles. Instead research needs to look at the specific experiences of victims and perpetrators of this violence and generate theory on that basis instead of trying to fit it into pre-existing perspectives. This will not only be fruitful in this context, but could point to ways in which gay male and female-perpetrated domestic violence could be thought through, and offer insights to traditional approaches to "conventional" abuse.

Overall these contributions each in their own way helped illustrate fertile avenues for feminist thinking that can enrich sociological and "movement-relevant" theory alike. Whereas British feminism as a visible social movement may largely be in abeyance it nevertheless demonstrates that feminists are still at the cutting edge of social research, research that the rest of the left would do well to engage with.

Sunday, 11 May 2008

Gladiators and Nostalgia

Ah, another trip down memory lane. Is it possible to feel nostalgic for a programme that last visited our screens a short eight years ago? Sky One certainly thinks so. The changes made to Gladiators from last time around are merely cosmetic. Gone are the irritating double act of John Fashanu and Ulrika Johnson and in comes the twee pairing of Ian Wright and Kirsty Gallacher. Meanwhile the old (classical?) Gladiators have been pensioned off and new blood taken on. As you would expect they're hard bodied, rippling with muscles, athletic and very, very sexy. The events haven't really changed either, but this is nostalgia so would we really want them to?

We were treated to just five events in this debut. The new Gladiators showed their mettle by easily disposing of their opponents in the one on one events. Wielding the pugil sticks Panther to send the hapless female contestants flailing into the waiting pool below, while Spartan ("the flirt in the skirt", apparently) made short work of the men. And on the Pyramid our contenders were, as they say in parts of Derbyshire, given a good shewin'.

They fared slightly better on Hit and Run and Powerball - events that put the contestant against a team of Gladiators. The latter involves running around and dumping a ball in glorified buckets, while avoiding rugby tackles, grapples and the like. And the former sees our plucky contenders sprint across a bridge, trying their best to dodge attempts by the Gladiators to bump them off with a foam padded demolition ball.

With the end of the show in sight, the new Eliminator was revealed. The old Krypton Factor assault course had nothing on this. Swim a length, climb a cargo net, get on the monkey bars/hand bike, run up the pyramid, glide down to the travelator, scramble up it and over the line ... and into the quarter finals! In short, harmless fun for all the family!

The return of Gladiators is symptomatic of the deep nostalgic tendency within contemporary Anglo-American culture. The fluidity and rapidity of change, the heaving complexity of social relations stretched across the surface of the globe, the unchecked dominance of capital; all conspire to generate cultural economies of great uncertainty. The paradox of the erasure and absence of tradition is the creation of a longing for it, and it is a longing capital tries to fill to feed its eternal hunger for more profits, more accumulation. And so capital meets existential crisis with packaged titbits of nostalgia: Rick Astley's Greatest Hits, limited edition Whispers, skinny leg denim, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and Gladiators.

But this is commodified nostalgia. It anchors you temporarily in the illusion of a time when things seemed so much simpler. And so for an hour Gladiators trod the well worn path of the first series, minus the 80s hair hang overs that afflicted many of the original bunch. Oblivion is Wolf. Spartan is Warrior. Atlas is Hunter. Inferno (pictured) is Jet, etc. But this is disposable nostalgia. As new TV shows fill the nostalgia vacuum, the short-lived celebrity of the cast will disappear with the inevitable demise of Gladiators, until a third revival at an unspecified point in the future with a new cadre of built bodies, and so on for as long as capital stands as the arbiter and driver of culture.

You want Gladiators forever? Then you need socialism my friend ...

Saturday, 10 May 2008

Worst Election Leaflet Ever?

Can you believe this was one of the official election leaflets Labour put out in Stoke Abbey Green ward? This is an electoral communication of one Gary Elsby, a regular at Guido's and Bob Piper's blogs, and regarded as something of a joke by the good people of Abbey Green. It's not difficult to see why after you've glanced at this incoherent jumble. Also bear in mind this was a candidate Labour chose to stand in a ward regarded as a national priority by the BNP. Makes you wonder how seriously Labour regard the fascist threat in Stoke when they stand someone of the calibre of "brother" Elsby.

All mistakes and spacing are as they appear.

New Labour for Britain

Political Parties for 2008, Policies and Candidates:

BNP: Racist party offering a 'one trick pony' policy of racism and fail everyday in their quest of hatred. Put a leaflet out across the country with BNP members dressed as Muslims and sticking two fingers up. A bunch of maniacs who are on the Internet gassing themselves with Zyclon B (Auschwitz gas) to prove the holocaust did not happen. Only in the press regarding Shelton and never about the Abbey or Bucknall, and continue to do nothing as our schools and care homes are being shut by the Mayor and his coalition.

Green Party: They want everyone to be vegetarian. Wants to ban angling. Consider NATO to be 'war criminals' and want Richard Branson to close his airline because he pollutes the skies with people holidaying abroad. Wants the speed limit on Motorways reduced to 55 mph. Wants family tax credits withdrawn, job seekers allowance removed and PAYE increased from 22% to 35%. You pollute the air, so get your wallets and purses out. (NB. There is more ice in Antarctica than in the last ten years and the Ozone layer, healed its self).

Conservative: Andrew Wragg's new party. This is his 6th Party in 5 years. I entered him in a National contest to find the most parties in one man. He came second, but I've asked for a re-count as the winner re-joined one party 3 times. My own view is that Andrew Wragg has been in more Parties than George Best! Andrew has no political credibility. Didn't attend the local public meeting on crime. Tories and bnp love those that don't vote around here.

Independent: (Independent of what? winter fuel allowance? family tax credits? free bus travel? minimum wage? New Hospitals and schools? Free eye tests? More police? More nurses?) A wasted vote.

This area has been done over by the BNP & A.Wragg.

They are discounted in the Town Hall and therefore, Abbey Hulton and Bucknall has no voice or proper representation.

What we need is someone who will represent this area in the best possible way. That person is myself because I live in this area with my wife and children. I am appalled at the possibility of Dimensions closing and I hammered all councillors for even thinking of it.
I am totally against the idea that the Mayor and his coalition have for the reorganisation of our Schools. I would never vote for their proposals. They ignore local needs and hide behind statistics that do not exist. My vote would reflect my upbringing in this ward and I challenge everyone, to prove my words wrong! I'm up for this fight so vote me in, sit back and see what happens. First stop, the Mayor and to challenge his views.
A vote for me is a fair vote for this area. If you disagree with my politics, then vote for me, as a local person who will fight everyday to challenge and voice opinions for were I live. Believe me, I will be heard!
Please come out and vote for me, as I almost did it last time, and this area can swing it for me.
People still believe that Labour runs this City. It doesn't! A coalition of Tories, Liberals and Labour does.
I believe they have got it wrong on Dimensions, as there isn't a financial argument for its closure .I would vote to keep it. On Schools, I fear for a two tier education system unfolding and reject the numbers given for closure. I would vote against this plan. There are more Labour members who oppose these plans, than there are other political parties and members, combined. The Sentinel and Radio Stoke don't tell you that! As a Labour candidate, you can rest assured that I have a priority of public service delivery and not a desire to shut a kiddie's paddling pool.
Let's get rid of this coalition of Tories.

There is more Labour support here than for any other party
VOTE GARY ELSBY, LABOUR

Blogs and Sods

These last few weeks I've felt oddly disconnected from the blogging world. It seems all I have time for is scribbling the odd post and nothing else. No commenting elsewhere. No perusing new blogs to any depth. And it looks like the same could happen this weekend too. Once again I will be exiled from the internet as my dear beloved assumes control over the computer to write the final essay of her degree. But then you never know, I might just be able to squeak on.

Since I last went over the blog roll, I've added Climate Change and Trade Unions, Dreaming Neon Black, Enemies of Reason, Green from Below, Harpymarx, Random Blowe, Occasional Dugsie, Spoof Akehurst, and The G Spot.

And in the establishment's corner the roll welcomes pro-capitalist musings from "celebrity" LibDem blogger, Alix Mortimer and even more yellow belly aching from Quaequam Blog.

If there's a blog not on the rolls that you think should be, let me know.

I've also decided to skip two posts I announced previously. You can view the Socialist Party's election results here. Though do so with a word of caution - it has us Stokies down as scoring 3.5% when in fact we polled a massive 5.3%! Who knows what other percentages were mixed up? And practically the world and its leftist uncle have talked over the SWP's election results. I wouldn't really be adding anything new.

I wasn't too impressed with the new releases this week, so I plumped for Benny Benassi's pervy classic, Who's Your Daddy over in the top tunes section. Definitely not safe for work.

But while we're on the subject of music, I've been waiting a long time to stick this vid from Orbital up. Back in the day when I used to do things like getting drunk and kissing girls, Satan was a regular down our old union on the main meat market nights. Was the DJ trying to let us cool kids know he wasn't really into the Take That/Oasis/The Rembrandts/Alex Party pap of the day?

Thursday, 8 May 2008

(F)Right Night

This post was written last weekend and I've had no internet access since. It may be old hat, but there you go.

Discounting the victory for Dave Nellist of the Socialist Party in Coventry St Michaels, the win for Respect in Birmingham Sparkbrook and a few other creditable results for the left up and down the country, the results that came trickling through last Thursday and Friday were grim reading for leftists of whatever political persuasion. This was particularly so in London where Ken Livingstone was turfed out of office, Barnbrook got a seat on the assembly for the fascists and as a rule the left performed comparatively poorly. Even Respect's association with Galloway was not enough for it to overcome the electoral fall out of its split with the SWP.

It was also the case that May 1st, the day of the workers, was the occasion when the mantle of the preferred political 'A-Team' of British capital passed from an organisation rooted in the organised working class to the organic party of Britain's ruling class. At this point it looks as if David Cameron's Tories will be the government after the next general election.

It's not difficult to see why. New Labour are a busted flush. 10p tax ... perception of dithering ... non-doms ... post office closures ... the list goes on and on. And yet, incredibly, none of Labour's leading figures seem capable of acknowledging where it all went wrong. Brown appeared on practically every politics chat show going to claim he's the "listening" prime minister. And yet you also had ministers such as Yvette Cooper and Ruth Kelly doing the rounds indicating that it will be business as usual. Leading New Labour blogger Luke Akehurst is typical of this tendency. In his world Labour lost because it hadn't been listening to Middle England enough. To win them back from the Tory fold Labour needs to "triangulate" more and tack even further to the right. So expect the government to use the Tory front benches as its personal think tank with greater unseemly regularity. You don't need to sit through a thousand focus groups to tell you this prescription is suicide for Labour. Why would a Tory supporter back a pale pink version of their party when the real thing appears in rather rude health?

Akehurst couldn't be more mistaken. If Labour wants to return to winning ways it needs to inspire its working class and 'progressive' middle class cores to turn out and support it, and they only will if it consigns its neoliberal dogma to the bin where it belongs. But this is unlikely. A cursory look in Akehurst's comment boxes reveal there are clued up members of his party who know the lie of the land, but they are not the one whose hands are on the steering wheel. The party machine is stuffed with clones, hacks, careerists and time-servers. Though I somewhat optimistically wrote of the prospects of the Labour left earlier in the year I can't see them getting very far, let alone affecting a sea change before the next general election. This will probably take being ejected from office, but given the grip the Blairite-Brownite bloc have on the apparatus, it is by no means certain we will see a return to social democratic principles.

And so, the Conservatives are starting to look like a government in waiting. Any opposition would benefit from having to put up with the same bunch of chancers in government for the last 11 years, regardless of their political character. But there might be something deeper going on. For some, Cameron's Toryism can appear superficially attractive to a wide range of voters. It is socially liberal - the acceptance of civil partnerships comfortably sits beside its soft pro-family focus. The 'Cameroons' are environmentally friendly, tough talking on crime, anti-authoritarian and measuredly euro-sceptic. Cameron possesses an inoffensive Etonian charisma which is unashamedly establishment, albeit an establishment (officially) reconciled to meritocracy and the presence of minority communities. It is also an establishment that want to be seen to be taking its responsibility toward those it rules seriously. This is all guff - it just so happens the velvet glove covering the Tory mailed fist is particularly frilly these days. But to those who aren't confirmed politicos this can look many times more attractive than New Labour's grey managerialism.

Already much ink has been spilled on Boris Johnson's victory in the race for London mayor. Some have predicted a four-year long nightmare has settled on the capital and blogging Tories have been urging the new administration to pursue a radical (i.e. reactionary) agenda from the outset. Making predictions in politics is a very risky business, but I cannot see Johnson pursuing a hard right trajectory, at least not for the first couple of years. He may occupy the second most powerful elected office in the land but he is not his own man in the same way his predecessor was. From the moment Johnson walked through the doors at City Hall on Tuesday morning the reign of Tory central office began. BoJo the Clown will be on a very tight leash because nothing can be allowed to jeopardise Conservative election chances. So measures that have been associated with Johnson's campaign, such as the scrapping of the congestion charge and the London minimum wage for city employees, are not likely to be enacted. If they were, it would sit rather uneasily with Cameron's new patricianism. That said they wouldn't be so reticent about taking the RMT and the capital's unions on if it came to the crunch.

Sunday, 4 May 2008

Going for a Nap

Over the next few days my access to the computer will be fleeting at best, so a short break from blogging is being forced upon me. Please don't judge AVPS too harshly if you happen to see tumbleweed blowing through these parts. Posts have been written on what the elections mean for Labour and the Tories, and where now for Respect and the SWP. I also have the full results for all the SP's election contests. All these will be posted up as soon as I can.

In the mean time feel free to chatter about any kind of guff that comes to mind. Might be an ideal opportunity for Dave Festive to practice his trolling techniques.

Saturday, 3 May 2008

Labour Cracks in the Potteries


Stoke-on-Trent didn't buck the national trend. Here, the Labour vote collapsed along with everywhere else. Of the sitting 11 councillors defending their seats, only two were able to hold on to them. Compounding the disaster, group leader Mike Tappin and his deputy, Mervin Smith, were two of those ejected from the council chamber. This was the third year in a row Labour had lost their leader. As a consolation it picked up two more seats from elsewhere, but this will do nothing to dispel the gloomy great cloud hanging over the local party.

Stoke Labour's fortunes are not all the doing of Brown's gross ineptitude. Since last year, Labour have been the senior partner in a grand coalition of the LibDems and the Conservative and Independent Alliance groups. Existing as a glorified committee dedicated to rubber-stamping the elected mayor's neoliberal plans, its most high profile policies have been met with anger and opposition. For example, the mayor's office are determined to drive through a "shake up" of the city's high schools by closing and merging some of them into New Labour's flagship City Academies. This has provoked a storm of protest from those set to be affected by the changes. The depth of the opposition was such that the local party bureaucracy granted recalcitrant Labour councillors permission to fight the programme ... as long as they fell into line and voted for the closures at the council's budget meeting. Every single one of them fell into line, and in so doing many of them sealed their fate at the polls. Labour have also suffered from its attempt to close the popular Dimensions splash pool in Burslem, for the sake of a £60,000 shortfall in the council budget. Announcing such a measure in the lead up to local elections wasn't the smartest of political moves. But such blunders are typical of the mayor's office. He has presided over forced demolitions, care homes closures, more council job losses. 

These are the reasons why Labour got such a kicking. And yet, incredibly, it has learned nothing from the defeat. In Saturday's Sentinel Mark Meredith opines about making "some very, very difficult decisions in the last 12 months in order to get the city's finances in order". He's backed up by the likes if Roger Ibbs and Jean Bowers, of the Tories and LibDems respectively, who signal it's business as usual where the coalition are concerned. Not that Labour councillors currently care that much - it will be another two years before any of them face election again. Instead it's the turn of Meredith himself in 2009 as the mayoral election swings round again. If the rumours are true about him upsetting luminaries in the local party it will be difficult for him to secure the Labour nomination again, let alone his grip on office.

Thursday also threw up some other interesting results. In Norton and Bradeley, former Labour leader Mick Salih was returned as an independent. Known locally as a fiery critic of Blairism-Brownism, his inclusion should galvanise opposition in the council chamber. Also, some may remember Dave Sutton, who along with his brother Paul paid Stoke Socialist Party's ranks a flying visit back in 2006. After being voted out last year in Tunstall as the sitting member for the short-lived LibDem Alliance grouping, he squeaked back in as a full member of the yellow party by a single vote! In the same ward Barry Stockley, yet another former Labour council leader humiliatingly trailed in last 100 votes adrift. In Stoke and Trent Vale, "independent" fascist, Spencer Cartlidge, polled a poor 45 votes. In Longton North Labour were able to get back in as the far right vote was split between the incumbent former BNP'er, Mark Leat, and Pauline Smith of the BNP proper.

Speaking of which, the fascists had another good round of results. They took their councillor tally to nine, winning seats in Abbey Green, Bentilee and Townsend, and Meir Park and Sandon. Local fuhrer, Alby Walker, has pledged his party will contest all 20 wards in Stoke-on-Trent in two years time with the medium term view of capturing the council itself. This is not beyond the realms of possibility. However, two years is a very long time in politics and the BNP could become victims of their own success. As they've won councillors with depressing regularity they've had to expand beyond the key cadre who kept the show on the road during the bad times. The BNP has a proven track record of winning elections and is now seen as a vehicle for careerist aspirations for those prepared to say anything for a taste of power. Take Stan Leese in Northwood and Birches Head for example. In 2006 he stood as a localist independent against the Socialist Party in Abbey Green and probably cost us a couple of hundred votes. But desperate to get back into the council chamber he's realised there's a better chance of getting in if he hitches a ride on the fascist bandwagon. Also, with power comes responsibility, and there will be many in Stoke - not least among its own support - who will be scrutinising what the BNP say and do on the decision-making committees they have access to.

Internal problems aside, how are we to combat the BNP? Labour are not in a position to arrest their corrosive influence, being utterly committed to a neoliberal programme. And unfortunately, the local anti-fascist campaign, North Staffs Against Racism and Fascism (NorSCARF) remain "politically neutral" and bound to a strategy that limit themselves to pinning the Nazi tail onto the fascist donkey. It is a strategy that has failed to stem the BNP tide time and again. It has not challenged the BNP politically and nor has it mobilised non-BNP voters to come out in sufficient numbers to 'swamp' BNP support. Turns outs remain at the usual 20-30% local election benchmark. A counter-strategy has to take into account the unpalatable fact that many in Stoke (and nation-wide) now see the BNP as 'their party'. There are layers of young workers who have only ever put a cross next to the fascists on the ballot paper. No amount if moralising will shift them from this position.

Stoke SP's result in Burslem South of 130 votes (5.2%) signifies a good beginning in a ward we've never stood in before. To put things in perspective this is around double of what we poll when we have staked out virgin territory in the past. Accounts of the campaign can be read here and here. Over the coming weeks we will be following up contacts, arranging a public meeting and leafleting. But we're not daft enough to believe this is anywhere near the scale of the far right's challenge. We cannot fill the vacuum to Labour's Left by ourselves, and we certainly won't be in a position to offer a socialist alternative in every ward within the next two years, barring unforseen events. This will take a good deal of long-term work building our influence and alliances with the rest of the Stoke left, and we are already taking steps to this end. We pledge to ensure the ruling coalition and the BNP get as bumpy a ride as we can possibly give them.