Sunday, 28 February 2010

Can a New Workers' Party Emerge?

One of the things that sealed the deal when I was thinking about joining the Socialist Party in autumn/winter 2005 was its decision to launch the Campaign for a New Workers' Party. For a long time the SP had been agitating around the need for a new party to take up the mantle of working class political representation, but up until then (at least as far as I was aware) it had not taken any concrete steps to bring it about. A declaration was circulated and there was a very successful launch conference. There followed a run of public meetings up and down the country and the statement managed a couple of thousand signatures. But gradually, save the ritual of steering group gatherings and an annual conference that diminished year on year, the CNWP failed to develop a life of its own and faded into the background with the development of No2EU, and its progeny, the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition.

Everyone knew the CNWP was not going to be the embryo of a new organisation, but it was hoped it would facilitate the coming together of the left, the trade unions and community campaigns in some way. And here in lies the problem with the strategy for building a new workers' party. None as such exists. I know from having done CNWP work that there is little appetite for a new party. People were certainly happy to come up to Stoke SP stalls and sign the petitions, chuck a quid or two in the pot, take a paper and nod along as you give them the spiel about the need or a new party, but only a tiny number would sign the declaration and the few that did invariably ended up joining the branch.

One shouldn't be too surprised about this. As anyone on the left will tell you 30 years of neoliberalism, a declining labour movement and the restructuring of British capitalism has thrown back working class consciousness, confidence and combativity. This being the case, where is a new workers' party going to come from? Is the emergence of a new alternative to Labour's left a likely prospect or fundamentally out of kilter with where the working class is?

Taking things as they are there are two possible avenues one could come about. The first is through trade unions breaking from Labour. This is more or less the position of the SP. They argue the Blair-Brown leadership has gutted the party of working class content in their quest to become the preferred party of British capital, and so are quite happy to privatise away, treat the unions as embarrassing relatives and happily launch attacks on workers at home and abroad. The SP argues the unions would neither stomach attacks on their members forever or be happy with their lack of influence over Labour, and so will be forced to seek political influence elsewhere - principally in the direction of founding a party that reflects their interests.

In part this perspective has been borne out. The FBU and RMT are no longer affiliated to Labour, the CWU's support hangs by a thread and even Dave Prentis of Unison has been forced to rattle the saber. But that's as far as it has gone. The RMT have retreated from being directly involved in elections after last year's
No2EU vote and are backing Labour (though branches have the freedom to decide who they endorse). The PCS will be doing its usual Make Your Vote Count campaign.

As for remaining trade union affiliates, if anything they are
increasing their commitment to Labour. Andy has variously blogged about the GMB's influence-building strategy it has adopted in Labour. It's oft-noted that Unite are bankrolling the party. And Paul Holme's Unison general secretary campaign makes clear the union should be using the Labour link to promote its policy agenda in the party, not the other way round. It seems unlikely the main unions will move away from Labour if they think there are still ways and means of securing their objectives through it, especially in the absence of an alternative home to go to.

Which brings me to the second possible avenue for a new party: the existing far left. When I was in the SP leading comrades were firmly of the opinion that cobbling together "the sects" would not bring us a step closer to a new party (and for some, left unity itself was a diversion from this task). Instead we'd have to wait for the trade unions and/or the vaunted "fresh layers" to become involved. But in Britain at least, experience has partially negated this perspective. At its height the Scottish Socialist Party attracted trade union support in the shape of the RMT. This would not have happened had Scottish Militant Labour not pursued a unity project with the rest of the left, and the subsequent fate of the SSP does not render this lesson null and void.

So left unity can work and pull in support from beyond the far left. But what prospects for it today? What are the chances of the positives of the SSP experience being replicated? The SP, SWP plus a few others are formally united under the TUSC banner for the next election, and Respect and the SSP will be ploughing their own furrows. So on the surface things don't look too bad. But look under the surface of TUSC and it has every appearance of being an alliance of convenience. SP members will be promoting SP candidates. SWP members will promote SWP candidates. There will be very little in the way of joint, unified action. And what about after the election? Will TUSC take on flesh or officially talked up at the moment it's being buried? Perhaps the worst won't happen, but the experience of the Socialist Alliance, Respect when the SWP were in it, and the barely-remembered Socialist and Green Unity Coalition are not encouraging.

This brings us to the basic problem at the heart of the British left. Its dominant tendencies act as discrete self-contained entities in competition for recruits, paper sales and influence. Each maintain a full-time apparatus with a semi-permanent leadership and collective world views that are more the subject of dispute and polemic than scientific investigation. Furthermore because none have wealthy backers the basic round of stalls, paper sales, and recruitment has to take precedence to keep the show on the road. This means working with other lefts are seldom and fleeting. So the problems with the far left are not entirely rooted in particular interpretations of democratic centralism, as the cpgb and others maintain, but more so the mode of work they undertake out
of necessity.

For example, where the SP have bases in working class communities - Coventry and Lewisham - the branches in those areas have grown to the extent that 'community work' can be undertaken in addition to the basic work. Respect is another case in point. Because its model of organisation building is not reliant on the same staples as its Trotskyist competitors they have been able to concentrate on putting down roots, with the result they stand a strong chance of
winning in three constituencies.

To return to the main point, because of the competitive models of party building favoured by the far left it is unlikely they will put together a lasting, unified organisation and therefore will not attract support from any union thinking twice about its links to Labour.

Perhaps an upsurge in struggle will change this situation, but I doubt it. Time and again the labour movement has proven it prefers to work pragmatically with the instruments it has to hand. The far left hasn't provided anything the unions can turn to, and they will not take the risks of founding something new themselves. On the other hand power has shifted in the Labour party. The independence the bourgeois pole assumed during the Blair years has receded and the party is dependent on the unions for resources. This constitutes a real opportunity for moving Labour to the left and strengthening the hand of socialist ideas in the labour movement. It's a tough perspective and a difficult one to argue for thanks to this government's record, but there is no way around it. The best place for rebuilding the labour movement and renewing working class politics is inside Labour.

The task in front of socialists today is not founding a new workers' party. It's working with the one we've got.

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Homeopathy's Surprising Allies

Just been alerted to this Early Day Motion via Ben Goldacre:
EDM 908 SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY COMMITTEE REPORT ON HOMEOPATHY

23.02.2010

Tredinnick, David
That this House expresses concern at the conclusions of the Science and Technology Committee's Report, Evidence Check on Homeopathy; notes that the Committee took only oral evidence from a limited number of witnesses, including known critics of homeopathy Tracy Brown, the Managing Director of Sense About Science, and journalist Dr Ben Goldacre, who have no expertise in the subject; believes that evidence should have been heard from primary care trusts that commission homeopathy, doctors who use it in a primary care setting, and other relevant organisations, such as the Society of Homeopaths, to provide balance; observes that the Committee did not consider evidence from abroad from countries such as France and Germany, where provision of homeopathy is far more widespread than in the UK, or from India, where it is part of the health service; regrets that the Committee ignored the 74 randomised controlled trials comparing homeopathy with placebo, of which 63 showed homeopathic treatments were effective, and that the Committee recommends no further research; further notes that 206 hon. Members signed Early Day Motion No. 1240 in support of NHS homeopathic hospitals in Session 2006-07; and calls on the Government to maintain its policy of allowing decision-making on individual clinical interventions, including homeopathy, to remain in the hands of local NHS service providers and practitioners who are best placed to know their community's needs.
Source here.

That this is being pushed by David Tredinnick is no surprise. Obscurantism and irrationality are essential life skills for your average Tory, though they usually tend to dress it up in the trappings of state sponsored religion. But Tredinnick is slightly different. In 2006 he
claimed over £200 on expenses for astrology software, and a further £300 in tuition fees from the company who supplied it. Incredible.

But what I find much more worrying is that *three* high profile left wing MPs have put their name to it too. John McDonnell, Alan Simpson and Jeremy Corbyn have joined forces with the Conservative member for moonbatshire to get the Parliamentary Science and Technology Committee to take another look at the "evidence" for homeopathy. What is wrong with these people? What possible motive could these otherwise well-respected socialists have for backing this quackery?

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Say Hello to Dr Phil

At 11 o'clock this morning I had a very important appointment. It was the moment four years of PhD work had been leading up to - the end point, the oral exam, the viva voce. And, thankfully, it went very well. The examiners spent the next 90 minutes quizzing me about my thesis, A Reflexive and Value-Added Analysis of Contemporary Trotskyist Activists in Britain. It's very difficult to remember the detail of their queries, but I can recall them asking why I settled on this topic, why the thesis drew on the sociology of social movements rather than political science, the relationship between the work and Marxism, the role of emotion and ideas in processes of radicalisation and commitment, the senses in which the work could be described as scientific, the importance of relationships, the contributions of Marxist anthropology and no doubt a few more things I've left out.

About half past 12 they sent me out the room to confer over their final verdict. When I walked back in it was crunch time. Had I passed? Or would I have to return to the coal face and resubmit after a substantial rewrite? There was no need to worry - the verdict was positive! I passed only with the need to undertake minor corrections - a few font size errors here, a couple of grammatical howlers there, and the addition of a short paragraph to flesh out what I mean by 'value-added'. But that's it. I'm a doctor. I can put the initials PhD after my name should bourgeois respectability demand it.

There are many people I need to thank for this. But most of all I'll forever be in debt to the 16 comrades in the Socialist Party and Socialist Workers' Party who very kindly sat down with me for up to four hours and told me about their lives as socialist activists. The thesis would never have got off the starting blocks without them freely giving their time.

So what now? Sort out the corrections ... write a few papers ... work the thesis up into a book ... try and find a job ... think about new projects ...

The PhD may be finished. But in many ways, I'm only just starting.

Monday, 22 February 2010

Bullying: The Real Scandal

In 1994 I got a job at a newly opened supermarket on the outskirts of Derby (I'll refrain from naming the firm - we live in litigious times). The wages were utterly shit (£2.21/hour starting rate for 17 years olds, going up to a whopping £2.63 when I turned 18), the company was crap, working hours long and hard, and the store management were awful. They were always looking for more reasons to find fault, bully and intimidate. And it was young folk and women who especially got it in the neck.

This more than anything else taught me that class mattered. If you have to work for a wage, you place yourself on the pain of dismissal at the mercy of those who manage your labour. Now if that isn't a recipe for abusive and exploitative relationships, I don't know what is.

Thanks to these experiences, even just thinking about workplace bullying makes me angry. So what do I make of the accusations made by a dodgy-looking "charity" that claim Gordon Brown has bullied prime ministerial office staff?

Well, they piss me off. Not because the credibility of the National Bullying Helpline is
seriously suspect. Nor because the Tories, who are looking to score off a cheap attack, conveniently and hypocritically forget a bullying scandal of their own. And as heartily sick as I am of the personalist and, yes, bullying attacks on the person of Gordon Brown, that hasn't worked me up.

What has is how workplace bullying is being used as a football in the daily kickabout of pre-election politics. If, for instance the Tories gave two shits about it at the very least we're entitled to a serious examination of the link between workplace bullying, macho management and the erosion of workers' rights that took place under their watch. Any chance of that? Not on your nelly.

And before any Labour readers start feeling smug, it is an uncomfortable truth that this government has done little to redress the situation. Indeed, Brown has presided over far more serious cases of bullying the right and the media are more than happy to cheerlead. That's to name but two.

That's the real scandal here, not some half-baked accusations cynically released to damage Labour's election campaign.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

The Shameful Music Meme

I haven't got the time to blog properly today. And so I'm being frivolous with y'all again and try and get another pointless Sunday meme off the ground. This one is a bit of a toughie for me. Since leaving my teeny bopper past behind me my musical tastes have evolved in a shamelessly snobby direction - first electronica/dance, followed by indie, then a detour into heavy rock, and for the last seven years or so back to the bleepy beaty side of things. It's the sound of the future, man. At all times I've dismissed the mainstream with a derisive snort, and quite rightly so - most of it is pap. But now and then one song stands out among the dross and gets its hooks into you. You can't get the bloody thing out of your head and to your eternal shame, you really like it. This post is dedicated to three such songs from the 80s, 90s and 00s.

I'm ashamed to say it but I've always liked this



This



And this



Shocking and shameful.

Now it's over to you. What three songs from the 80s, 90s and 00s do you hate to love? Would admitting you penchant for a bit of Cliff, Kylie and Boyzone wreck your standing as an arbiter of quality culture? Let's tag the usual suspects -
Jim, Dave and Paul, Louise, Splinty, Anna, Red Maria and Glyn.

Friday, 19 February 2010

National Front to Stand in Stoke Central

It's not very often the prospects of a National Front candidacy warms the hearts of anti-fascists, but I couldn't help a wry smile when the news below was announced. This comes via The Sentinel:
THE extreme right-wing National Front is to contest a Parliamentary seat in Stoke-on-Trent.

The party has set its sights on Labour MP Mark Fisher's Stoke-on-Trent Central constituency.

It will be the first time in more than 30 years that the whites-only organisation has fought a General Election in the city. The last time was in 1979 when it contested the Stoke-on-Trent North seat.

But this time the National Front (NF) faces direct competition from British National Party (BNP) deputy leader Simon Darby.

...

NF executive member Steve Reynolds confirmed that the party was contesting Stoke Central.

He said: "We have got a local man who will be standing for us, but we are not in a position to release his name just yet.

"Our main platform will be anti-Muslim and anti-immigration.

"We have always had a number of members in the Stoke-on-Trent area and we always get a lot of enquiries and feedback from there, so it's a natural choice for us.

"We are also getting a lot of disillusioned BNP members and supporters joining us, because they are not happy about the party's new membership rules."

But Mr Darby said he believed fighting a NF candidate will help his and the BNP's campaign.

He added: "We're always being accused of being the National Front in disguise, but now people will be able to see that we are two totally different parties with different policies."
The full report can be read at the link above.

The prospect of the far right vote getting split three ways certainly reduces the likelihood of Simon Darby overturning Labour's 9,774 vote majority (remember, former BNP council group leader Alby Walker is supposedly standing too). And contrary to received wisdom, going from previous experience the socialist challenge coming from the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition is as likely to eat into the BNP vote as Labour's. Considering the BNP were over 2,000 votes behind the Tories in 2005, these are votes they cannot afford to lose if they stand any chance of beating the Conservatives and the LibDems, let alone winning the seat.

The three way split doesn't mean anti-fascists can be complacent. The fact the NF - an organisation whose membership figures are on a par with the more marginal elements of the far left - feel it's worthwhile putting their slender resources into Stoke Central is indicative of how emboldened the far right is by the BNP's success in The Potteries. It is down to the anti-fascist movement to make sure the BNP, Alby Walker, and the NF take an electoral beating in the general and council elections (which seem very likely to be held on the same day) by turning out the support for the other parties.

But the main battles with the far right come after the election. If Labour win we have to make good the promises made to get Stoke regenerated and nationally pursue the kinds of policies Mark Fisher has put his name to. Otherwise the far right will continue to deform Potteries politics. If you provide new jobs and tackle the horrifying levels of deprivation seen across the city, the BNP and its ilk will wither on the vine.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

It Came from Outer Space

On slow news days it's inevitable stories normally reserved for the silly season start percolating through the filters and make the headlines. This is one of them:

Thousands of UFOs have been spotted in the last 20 years around the UK, according to newly released documents. More than 6,000 pages of reports describe people's experiences with unidentified flying objects between 1994 and 2000. They include reported sightings over Chelsea Football Club and former home secretary Michael Howard's Kent home.
Details have been released under a three-year project between the Ministry of Defence and The National Archives. The fifth instalment to be released consists of 24 files of sightings, letters and Parliamentary questions, which are available to view online. The reports detail how objects of various shapes and sizes have been witnessed flying over a range of locations. Some drawings by witnesses have also been released.
What the report doesn't say is the craft spotted near Michael Howard's house was John Redwood's favoured method of transport.

Confession time. I saw a UFO once. It was late afternoon in 1995. As I came out of college there was a bright flash in the sky that rapidly faded to a single point before disappearing. Not very exciting, I know. I put it down to a piece of debris burning on re-entry or an exploding meteorite.

But had that happened a few years previously, I would have taken it as proof positive of alien intelligences. For most of my early teen years (and before) I was fascinated by the supernatural generally and UFOs in particular. Nearly every story I wrote in English classes featured extra terrestrial visitations, and I regularly poured over the nine volumes of
The Unexplained my Nana gave me (I knew all about Roswell and government cover ups way before The X-Files were a twinkle in Chris Carter's eye). But as time wore on I grew into the miserable Marxist I am today and turned my back on the fantastical whimsies of my childhood. It seems obvious to me now an absence of hard physical evidence means an absence of alien visits rather than evidence for ultra-efficient conspiracies on the part of the US or a global shadow government.

That said, I still have a residual interest. You will never catch me leafing through a copy of
Nexus magazine, but if a story turns up in mainstream media outlets I'll take a look.

What do you think about this UFO malarkey? Can they explained scientifically with reference to anything but little green men? Are stories of abduction examples of exotic psychological and sociological phenomena? Have you seen a UFO? Do aliens exist, but they're holding off on first contact until we've overcome the barbarism of class society (
Posadas style)? What do you think? (Readers with alien tales to tell are encouraged to stay anonymous - you really don't want a visit from the men in black).

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Why I Resigned from the Socialist Party

This is not an easy post to write. After four years and one month of being an active member of the Socialist Party, I resigned a week last Thursday. I had been turning it over in my mind for a long time and it wasn't a decision I took lightly.

Why? Let me say my resignation is entirely political. I don't think Peter Taaffe has become the anti-christ. There are no personality clashes with other members. Nor do I think the CWI should retrospectively back the International Committee's split with the International Secretariat of the Fourth International in the early 50s. Instead it comes down to central questions of political strategy on three matters.

Firstly, I am opposed to
Stoke SP's decision to stand against Labour MP Mark Fisher in Stoke Central. There's no need to rehearse the reasons why - they are outlined in this report of the relevant meeting the branch held on the subject (though it's worth noting it still might not happen - the challenge is subject to national SP and the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition endorsement).

Secondly there is TUSC itself. In this
critical post I wrote on the new coalition I was very downbeat about its prospects after the general election as a vehicle that can weld the warring factions of the far left together and lay the ground for future developments. Since then there's nothing that has shifted me from my gloomy prognosis.

Thirdly is the question of the Labour party. For anyone concerned with socialist strategy and working class politics, how one deals with Labour remains *the* central strategic issue. Though I have blown hot and cold over the characterisation of Labour since being a SP member, I never believed the party's settled position that it was a straight party of capital not fundamentally different from the Tories and LibDems. Aside from the formal affiliation of most of the major trade unions, there remain thousands of small scale links. For instance the majority of union activists who are members of a political party are in Labour. You'll find thousands of Labour party members in community-based campaigns too. Neither can you hide from the fact that despite some decomposition in Labour's support, its working class base remains stubbornly welded to it. Where the far left have broken through, such as in Scotland in 2003 and Liverpool in the mid-80s the success has proven episodic. It remains an unfortunate political reality that despite the SP's excellent record in Coventry, every council election - including when Dave Nellist is up for re-election - is an up hill struggle.

All this is a round about way of saying there's life left in the Labour dog yet. At the next election it is highly likely the only socialists returned to parliament will be those standing on a Labour ticket. I've also become increasingly convinced over the course of the last year that it is in the interests of the labour movement to see the present government returned, despite its 13 year record of implementing a raft of regressive policies. Also, win or lose, because of the organic links to the labour movement Labour cannot insulate itself from debates and pressures coming from the organised working class forever. I think we've got to the point where the political space to Labour's left is closing and the space for socialist ideas are opening up inside the party (more on the character of that space
here).

It's plain to see that these strategic conclusions are not compatible with SP membership. That's why I have left and joined Labour and the Co-op Party. I don't join with any illusions. Stoke Central CLP has a job of work ahead of it to see off the challenge of the BNP's deputy fuhrer, Simon Darby. Things are not helped either by
an ongoing faction fight between the dominant faction in the CLP, and the city and regional party. Fun times!

I will however say this about my time in the SP. In contrast to the blood-curdling stories I've heard from ex-members down the years, my experience has been completely positive. The SP has given me an awful lot and I have much to be grateful for. But most important of all are the comrades and friends I've made, which made my decision to resign all the more difficult. When I told the local organiser I did not receive a curt note informing me of my responsibility to cancel my standing order but instead got an expression of genuine concern and regret. Other comrades I've spoken to have been the same. They disagree but have not cast me into the dark recesses of their minds. We *remain* friends and comrades and I wish them all the best.

There's something else I would like to say about the SP too. I may fundamentally disagree with its strategy but compared with the rest of the far left, including the SWP, its politics and methods of work are immeasurably superior. If you're an independent socialist I urge you to join Labour. But I know full well there are many leftists who won't touch Labour with a barge pole. If you fit in that category the SP is a serious Marxist organisation that avoids the twin pitfalls of moonbat politics and cult-like party practices. As I hope this blog has demonstrated, taking out SP membership does not mean you leave your critical faculties at the door.

What now? I plan to carry on dishing up the usual blogging diet of opinion, analysis and sectariana, but as you might expect my writing will be more pro-Labour than it has been previously. Please note, that does not mean uncritically so. I'm continuing being active too. I'm wedded to the same perspective as I was when I first joined the SP. The ongoing priority of socialists is the rebuilding of the labour movement. And whatever organisation we're in we should never lose sight of this.

Monday, 15 February 2010

Introducing the New 'Non-Racist' BNP

At a secret location in Essex yesterday, the BNP's boneheads voted to amend their constitution to allow non-white members take out membership for the first time.

Of course, this was foisted on the BNP by the Equality and Human Rights Commission on pain of facing further action in the courts and I'm sure some of the hardcore Nazis in the BNP's ranks will not be best pleased. I'm inclined to agree with former Stoke group leader and ex-BNP councillor Alby Walker who said "I think some hard-line members will see this as a sell-out by Nick Griffin and leave the party." With any luck this might include a few in The Potteries who then go on to stand against the BNP in the imminent local elections. If any of them are reading this I say go on, you know you want to ...

Ultimately this won't make a blind bit of difference. You can't really disagree with Weyman Bennett, chair of Unite Against Fascism, who notes "I think that regardless of the vote, the changes are cosmetic and have only happened because the courts forced them to stop racist practices." Even in the unlikely event of an influx of deluded idiots from BME backgrounds, nothing will stop the BNP facilitating and sustaining the racist networks that in turn animate the organisation. The window dressing of a few non-white faces will not prevent it from being a danger to the labour movement and any kind of democratic politics.

Fortunately, so far the BNP have proven completely inept. After a decade of near perfect conditions for the far right - a decay of the Labour vote, the ebbing away of 'class politics', media obsessions with radical Islamism, alienation and atomisation, the largest wave of immigration Britain has ever seen *and* an economic crisis - their support remains around the two per cent mark, they have around 50 local authority councillors (and, apparently, another 50 parish councillors), one member of the London Assembly and two MEPs. Only a political leadership devoid of all talent could equal the BNP's dismal show of support.

But one must not be complacent. I pretty much agree with this piece from Mark Seddon. The EHRC ruling will make it easier for the BNP to market itself as a non-racist populist hard right alternative to mainstream politics. Because the BNP's leadership are too stupid I don't think they will pull it off (plus there is too much ugly political baggage attached to the name). But that isn't to stop something even more frightening in the future from emerging. An immeasurably greater threat to politics as is would be a neo-fascist organisation at peace with the presence of most minorities and wraps its message up with a strong dose of liberal tolerance. It happened in The Netherlands once.

In the mean time, immediately after declaring the BNP "had changed" they proved their democratic credentials by assaulting an invited journalist and publishing an endorsement by a fictitious black guy. So the new 'non-racist' BNP marks a significant milestone in its history with violence and lies. Oh well, start as you mean to go on.

Photo source

Sunday, 14 February 2010

Miserable Music Meme

The old brain isn't in tip top condition today and seeing as the blog's been super serious of late, I thought I'd try and brighten things up by getting a new meme off the ground. Unfortunately all I could think of this Valentine's Day are bloody miserable songs about bloody miserable things. If you want happy, go and listen to Kylie and Jason or something.

I've selected one each from the 80s, 90s and 00s. They are:

Bronski Beat's Smalltown Boy (1984)




It doesn't get much grimmer than a song about suffering hassle for being gay (but it does look like Jimmy's going to crack up when his "dad" threatens to hit him).

There's no cheer to be found in my next choice. This one comes from 1999, which is probably the best year for electronic music in the history of ever. Mind you I can't see many going wild on the dance floor to this one. This is Portishead's Roads:




Fast forwarding to 2004, here's Dark Globe with Break My World:



Probably the most zeitgeisty video of the mid-00s.

That's my downbeat selection from the last three decades. Now it's over to you. I hereby tag
HarpyMarx, Madam Miaow, Everyone's Favourite Comrade, The Daily (Maybe), A View from the Public Gallery, Though Cowards Flinch, Luna 17, and Solomon's Mindfield. This should be easy for those comrades who spent their teenage years holed up in their bedrooms nursing dark thoughts ...

And those of you without blogs, what would be your misery picks from the 80s, 90s and 00s?

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Who's Afraid of a Minority Government?

Some things have always filled Tory hearts with dread. One thing is smelly, unruly working class people. Another is a general election resulting in a hung parliament. Where no one party has an overall majority, the party with a plurality of seats must form a coalition with others or attempt to stick it out and hope the parties of opposition don't find common cause. As the organic party of the British ruling class the idea Tories would have to share power with social inferiors political opponents is an anathema.

Political science has a thing or two to say about minority and coalition governments. In Kaare Strom's seminal work,
Minority Government and Majority Rule, he argues political science treats "normal" (i.e. majority) governments as unproblematic expressions of legislative majorities, be it a one party majority or one achieved through a coalition of two or more parties. Strom identifies a further type of coalition - an informal arrangement or 'policy coalition' in which a nominal minority government is supported in office by parties without government portfolio, but are content to support government legislation.

Just as there is an aversion on the part of the Tories (and for that matter, large swathes of Labour) to minority and coalition government, this is reflected in the body of relevant academic writing. They are often located as an outcome of political crisis and deemed not viable in the long term after things have died down. The literature also believed minority governments usually occur when the main parliamentary parties cannot cooperate sufficiently to form a majority government. Often this itself is a result of fractionalisation and conflict within and between the interests political parties represent. A party's receptivity to coalition building is conditioned by the intensity of the conflict raging around its social roots. For instance, the perpetual difficulties of trying to build coalition governments in Northern Ireland, or the recent massive constitutional crisis in Belgium are more than just personality clashes among politicians or wrangles over office holders. Whatever the case, the received wisdom of political science was that minority governments were likely an outcome of “unstable and conflictual political systems, whose party systems may be highly fractionalised. Such cabinets are sub-optimal and unstable solutions, which are resorted to only when all else fails. … minority governments are usually associated with social and political malaise”. (1990, p16).

The problem with the assumption that minority government is a recipe for ineffectual government is the tendency for the to stubbornly recur. In a 1984 study of 20 liberal democracies between 1945 and 1980,
Arend Lijphart found that 67 of 218 governments (30.7%) were minorities. For Strom, rather than being aberrations minority governments are an outcome of cost/benefit behaviours of party leaders working within the constraints of given party systems. He argues that parties (or rather, their leaders) in coalition negotiations pursue certain actions and strategies aimed at securing certain objectives (e.g. portfolios). These potential outcomes are organised into a preference order, and finally a consistent choice of strategies is associated with preferred outcomes. For example, until recently the Greens in Germany viewed the Social Democrats as its preferred coalition partner to pursue its office and policy oriented goals.

In other words, Strom pursues a
rational choice model to explain the formation of minority governments, cutting against the 'breakdown' assumptions of previous attempts to explain them (there are very serious issues with rational choice as a perspective, but Strom maintains that it works for modeling coalition negotiations). To demonstrate, because legislative majorities are unnecessary for government formation, party leaders might purposely not seek a majority, secure in the knowledge that an informal policy coalition will ensure the passing of legislation. Or a minority government could calculate that it's in the party’s long term interests to accept minority status for now, believing future electoral prospects will be enhanced by incumbency.

However, on some occasions 'core' parties (i.e. the major parties of a party system) form minority governments when the cost to them is greater than the apparent benefits, and sometimes even when this cost could be spread if they were in coalition with others. Why? For Strom coalitions contain their own costs, such as conflict between the constituent parts (as anyone who followed Italian politics before Berlusconi will tell you). Tensions with coalition partners could lead to future poor electoral performance; a cost perceived as greater than forming a minority government.

Core parties have assumed the mantle of minority governments in periods of extreme cost, i.e. periods where the party system is in danger of collapse and/or undergoing significant transition. Ultimately by attempting to save the system in this way, the party is taking an entirely rational view of its own long-term survival.

And so if the next election returns a hung parliament, the political system won't collapse. There will be an absence of panic on the streets of Britain. But those who are pinning their bets on meaningful electoral reform on such an outcome could be disappointed. Proportional representation is likely to be the price the LibDems demand for supporting a minority government, whether taking up posts themselves or coming to a policy-based arrangement. Because Labour and the Tories will lose out under a reformed system they may calculate soldiering on without a majority and call a further (snap) election when political fortunes pick up might suit their interests. A minority government in a few months time could preface a historical shift in how Britain does parliamentary politics, or be a short pause before resuming business as usual. Minority governments are not inherently unstable or harbingers of political doom. Their impact, as always, is conditioned by the relationship between parties and the social forces that sustain them.

Friday, 12 February 2010

Defining Stalinism

What is a Stalinist? It's a word that gets bandied about the left a lot. The Communist Party of Britain are often described as Stalinist. So is Cuba, China and North Korea. Even our very own (state-cap) Socialist Workers' Party has been described as such. Is Stalinism merely abusive shorthand for authoritarian practices in the labour movement, or is a more precise definition possible?
Shane on the ever-green Leftist Trainspotters discussion list has had a stab at a definition. He writes:
Stalinist is the proper appellation for self-described Marxists, Communists, or Socialists who practice or apologise for, in regard to the present and/or the past, extremely repressive or totalitarian oppression of the workers and peasants and intellectuals by self-described Marxists, Socialists, or Communists.
I think that's a pretty good starting point for a definition. It reminds me of a similar cursory attempt by Ralph Miliband in his entry on Stalinism in A Dictionary of Marxist Thought. He writes "... the terms 'Stalinism' and 'Stalinist' have been given a loose and highly pejorative meaning, notably on the left, and ... denote dictatorial, arbitrary and repressive modes of conduct by leftwing individuals and regimes" (1991, p.517).

But there remains two stubborn problems neither definition addresses. Most Trotskyists have no problem defending many actions of the early Soviet Union but obviously would bristle at being compared with those that continued to speak for the USSR after Lenin's death.

The second is a certain fuzziness over what constitutes the defence of the USSR and similar regimes, and an apology for them. Like the parties of official communism, Trotsky lauded the achievements of the Soviet Union in the 1930s in his
The Revolution Betrayed and made a case for defending it on the basis of its 'proletarian property forms' (planned economy, absence of the law of value, etc.). Does this make him an apologist for Stalin's regime? Similarly in a series of interesting posts on the former East Germany (see here and here for example) on Socialist Unity, Andy Newman has tried painting East German society and its regime in its full complexity, which includes acknowledging progressive economic and cultural features despite the repressive character of one party government. Is that apology or analysis?

Where do you draw the line? Can 'Stalinism' be spoken of scientifically or does it break down as a meaningful category when applied to anything other than Stalin's dictatorship at the height of its powers? I'm interested to see what readers think.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

SWP Split: What Now?

Yesterday's news that long-time leading member of the Socialist Workers' Party, Lindsey German has resigned after 37 years of activity has sent shock waves through the far left. That said since the expulsion of Alex and Clare for "factional activity" and the defeat of the Rees/German sponsored Left Platform at the SWP's conference this year, it was inevitable that there would be a parting of the ways somewhere down the line. Whether what's left of the Left Platform will decamp en masse now one of its leading figures has gone remains to be seen.

What triggered the amazing email exchange between Lindsey and SWP national organiser Martin Smith? Why did Martin go all Koba and "request" Lindsey not speak at a Newcastle Stop the War meeting? It all comes down to factional manoeuvrings and central committee paranoia.

Regular readers of Alex Snowdon's excellent Luna17 blog will be aware of ongoing shenanigans in the SWP's North East organisation. Writing about his expulsion last November here, Alex was the first casualty in the CC's move against the Left Platform - how else to interpret his ejection immediately prior to the three month pre-conference period when the SWP allows factions? In the same month the SWP publicly attacked another of its North East comrades. Tony Dowling is chair of the Tyneside branch of the National Shop Stewards' Network and his "crime" was not to send circulate an email on the North East SSN discussion/announcement list. In this he was merely observing the rules of the organisation which barred sending out party political news. Coincidentally Tony is described by Alex as his closest comrade.

The writing was on the wall. Just over a week ago Tony was asked to step down from the NESSN committee in the wake of the SWP's regional retreat from the network. Understandably he refused and resigned, followed by eight more comrades who left in solidarity. In the fevered factional imagination of Martin Smith and the new SWP CC, he obviously saw Lindsey's trip to Newcastle to speak not in terms of her capacity as a leading and relatively well known Stop the War activist, but to get together with Left Platform supporters (probably to plot his downfall or something like that).

And so passes Lindsey German's lengthy SWP career. It seems likely others will follow in a mix of in-solidarity resignations and maybe the odd expulsion.

What does this split mean for the SWP? In one sense it is comparable to the split in Militant between a small minority around its main theoretician and guru, Ted Grant, and the majority behind Peter Taaffe. For Militant it was something of a watershed for the organisation in which a section of the existing leadership left/were expelled (depending on who you believe). The same is true of the SWP. However there are two significant differences, which speaks volumes about the respective health of the organisations. Ultimately, the split in Militant was unavoidable because it was over strategic direction. The minority thought they should stick with Labour. The majority were for open work under their own banner (first Militant Labour and then later as the Socialist Party). However, in the SWP split the difference between the Left Platform and the majority is, on paper at least, nowhere near this level of magnitude. Indeed, apart from stressing the need for imaginative leadership there is very little politically between the majority and minority. Both are agreed on the importance of 'united fronts', both want to turn outwards to fresh layers of workers, and both see participation in the new struggles being thrown up by the recession as key to moving socialist politics forward. That the SWP cannot even accommodate such minor differences of emphasis within its ranks says everything about the kind of regime it operates.

Will the split in the SWP mark a beginning of a period of decline, just as the split with Grant et al. did with Militant? It's difficult to say. But there is one observation worth making about a comparison between the post-split Militant/SP and the SWP. For the former the 1990s were marked by a period of retreat and loss that only begun to be turned around in the mid 00s. It was also a period in which the labour movement really suffered and working class combativity underwent sharp decline. In contrast the SWP prospered, enabling it to establish a hegemonic influence over the far left in England and Wales. Since the split with Respect this has gone into reverse. As the labour movement starts showing signs of recovery and tentative, almost teasing green shoots of working class resistance begin sprouting it is the SP who are building influence and moving forward. Meanwhile the SWP is thrown into crisis.

It might be difficult to describe the split in Militant as a tragedy, but it is entirely reasonable to label the SWP CC's actions as farce.

NB Alex reports on last night's meeting of Newcastle Stop the War with Lindsey here.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Lindsey German Resigns from SWP!

Shocking but true! A comrade has forwarded me this incredible email exchange between Lindsey German and SWP national organiser, Martin Smith. There is background to this dispute, which is dealt with here on Alex's site. I will just say that after 37 years loyal service to the SWP, I find it amazing that Martin Smith can treat the resignation of one of its best known activists in such a cavalier fashion.


Dear Lindsey,

On behalf of the CC, we are repeating our request that you don't speak at the disputed StW meeting in Newcastle tonight [Wednesday 10th February]. We expect you, like all SWP members, to respect our decisions.

We also think that it is imperative that you meet with members of the CC at the earliest possible opportunity. Could you please give us some dates when you are free.

Martin Smith (SWP National Secretary)

...

Dear Martin,

I asked Judith whether I would be subject to disciplinary action if I went to Newcastle. Your reply is ambiguous on this question. Could you please clarify. The STW meeting is not disputed, as you put it. It was agreed at two Tyneside STW steering committees, despite our comrades raising why I was going to the meeting. I therefore think your request is misplaced.

Lindsey

...

Dear Lindsey,

We have already made our decision very clear to you. If you ignore our request we reserve the right to respond as we see fit.

Martin

...

Dear Martin,

It is clear from your reply that your request is in fact an instruction not to speak in Newcastle tonight at the Stop the War meeting.

I regard such a course of action as damaging both to the party and STW. The meeting is properly constituted as evidenced by two sets of minutes of steering committee. There is no good reason for me to withdraw and none that I could possibly justify to STW members locally or nationally.

I have always tried to prevent internal disputes from damaging the movement. I feel that you have brought these disputes into STW and that is unacceptable.

It is therefore with the greatest regret that I am resigning from the SWP. This is a very hard decision for me. I joined more than 37 years ago and have always been committed to building it, which in my view meant relating to the wider movement.

I was on the CC for 30 years, edited the Review for 20 and played a major role in the movement and party building. My respect and affection for many party members remains, and my commitment to socialism as ever. I hope to continue working with them in the wider movement.

Lindsey German

...

Lindsey,

I acknowledge receipt of your resignation and have amended our records accordingly.

Please note it is your responsibility to inform your bank to close your Direct Debit/Standing Order.

Martin Smith (SWP National Secretary)

MPs in Principled Stand Shocker

There's been some comment in the media and on politics blogs about electoral reform these last few weeks (not least myself, here and here). Last night a step was taken toward the introduction of Gordon Brown's favoured electoral system, the Alternative Vote, with the submission of the Constitutional Reform and Governance bill by Jack Straw. The bill passed by 365 votes to 187. A LibDem amendment that deleted references to AV and substituted it for the proportional Single Transferable Vote (STV) fell by 476 to 69 votes.

In all just three Labour MPs voted against the bill (usual suspects of the Labour right, like Tom Harris and Frank Field, abstained). So why did they vote against? Is it a matter of a mistaken but principled defence of the Westminster system as is, or are there more pressing concerns influencing the outcome - such as a small majority likely to be overturned at the next general election?

Surprisingly and in contrast to what cynical observers of parliament may think, it *does* appear to be a matter of principle. According to Hansard votes against Alternative Vote came from Diane Abbott (maj. 7,427), Kelvin Hopkins (maj. 6,487) and Meg Munn (maj. 11,370). Their opposition was not motivated by a desire for a proportional electoral system - all three voted with the government on voting down the LibDem amendment. Harris (maj. 10,832) and Field (maj. 12,934) also found it in themselves to register their disapproval of a more democratic system (strangely, James Purnell (maj. 8,348) voted with the LibDems).

Against what the naysayers of populist anti-politics might think and say, it would appear MPs are perfectly able to to vote on the basis of ideas. Shockingly, they are not always motivated by narrow political advantage or careerist interests.

Monday, 8 February 2010

New Blog Round Up

It seems ages since I last did one of these. There are plenty of new and newish blogs doing the rounds at the moment readers can get their teeth into. So, without further ado ...

First up is a rare departure for this blog. Normally I concentrate on socialist, Labour, feminist and Green blogging but just this once I'll allow a LibDem to slip through the net. But with good reason. Giles Wilkes' Freethinking Economist has rapidly established itself as one of the few must-read populist economics blogs out there (alongside the apparently defunct Duncan's Economics Blog and the ever-excellent Stumbling and Mumbling). I think that's reason enough for inclusion on this list!

Next on the conveyor belt of blogging goodies comes Red Rag, which is neither the blog-that-never-was that got Derek Draper into a spot of bother last year, nor the newish Tory-supporting effort that's recently been touted in Conservative blogging circles. This Red Rag is very much in the mode of an attack blog, aiming its fire at the easy ride the Tories get in the mainstream press. It also tries to make a nuisance of itself, such as this interesting piece on the Tories' treasurer, Michael Spence. If Red Rag gets an audience behind it, it could give the Tories a bit of a headache.

Reddebrek's Bowl is not a million miles away from my own blog in its intention. The author, 'Red Mike' writes "I'm a male 20 something politically active student who enjoys reading, long walks in the woods and being pretentious" and promises "an eclectic mix of Left leaning rants, pop cultural rambles and the odd grumble about the state of the telly and book world."

Time for a touch of greenery. Green Gabbles from Steve Gabb carries his personal musings about the Green party and green politics. His latest piece looks at Phillip Lee, the candidate who won the high profile open primary for the Tory safeseat of Bracknell and has since disappeared off the local political radar. Hopefully his inaction will see Labour and the Greens rack up decent votes. You can follow Steve on Twitter here.

This is another cheeky one stretching the definition of 'new' to the limit. Faithful to the Line has been going on and off since December 2008, and has recently started up again. Hopefully they will continue churning stuff out as the comment and opinion so far has been excellent. Show your encouragement by visiting, and visiting often.

The Novocastrian is the vehicle of Rob Carr, a "Labour supporting Christian living in Newcastle". If religion isn't your bag, don't worry. Rob doesn't do preaching. Instead his blog lately indulges attacks on the Tories, reflects on the John Terry saga, and some pretty revealing thoughts about weight and weight loss. You can follow Rob on Twitter here.

When you're an independent political activist, there is always a temptation to try and fish in the waters of anti-politics by projecting yourself as somehow new or fresh. Vote Gareth Allen does just that, claiming to offer a "new approach to politics". A pretty bold claim considering Gareth is standing on a number of social democratic policies. Nonetheless he typifies the kind of centre left voter/activist who Labour has alienated with its slavish submission to neoliberal dogma.

Time for another contribution from green politics. The collaborative blog, Bright Green Scotland does what you expect it to. It offers "news and analysis for Scotland's green and progressive movement" and covers quite a wide range of topics. You can follow BGS on Twitter here.

And now for the last blog this month. Wind From Nowhere is the platform of long time cpgb supporter and Weekly Worker writer, Eddie Ford. Like other cpgb bloggers (such as the legendary Milton Keynes Communists), the bulk of material consists of stuff Eddie or other comrades have written for the WW. That's not necessarily a bad thing (especially as the WW is generally the best written and least boring of the far left's official publications), but it can be much of a muchness as far as blogging is concerned.

And that is it for another month. If you know of any new left blog (i.e. less than a year old) that deserves a shout out, plug them in the comments box or write to me at the usual address.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Expenses: What is to be Done?

Elliot Morley, David Chaytor, Jim Devine. As Labour MPs go they're cards aren't they? It's not enough that they've allegedly swindled the system by submitting false expense claims *and* will be in receipt of at least £30k "relocation money" when they step down, but now the right honourable members have the cheek to pursue parliamentary privilege defence to avoid court action. In a society where the rich and powerful are litigious, this is an important democratic gain worth defending. So to see it dragged through the muck to defend the sullied reputations of men caught with their hands in the taxpayer's pocket is a sickening sight. You cannot but agree with Ruth Cox of the Hansard Society, who says
"If it is a defence against almost any action that an MP takes in parliament, in any relationship with their work, then I think that is going to be deeply damaging for the public. They will see that it is putting MPs above the public, giving them enhanced powers, making them essentially above the laws that they themselves make." (source)
Coming on top of the wider expenses crisis, if this defence is allowed and the trio of troughers emerge unscathed this will compound the widespread antipathy against 'official' politics. Not good news for the mainstream parties or the minor ones to their left, but it provides fertile environment for the far right.

What can be done to prevent a scandal like this from happening again? The anarchists have traditionally argued against seeking election on grounds that democracy in capitalist societies corrupts even the best representatives of the workers' movement. They have a point. I remember a Coventry SP comrade telling me of all the freebies and corporate invites that poured into Dave Nellist's office when he was elected to parliament in 1983. He turned them all down and, famously, only took the average wage of a Coventry skilled worker during the two terms he served.

Dave's example, as well as those of Militant's two other MPs and the Scottish Socialist Party's MSPs have provided the far left with a ready made answer to the expenses crisis. I'm sure many SP readers did their share of stalls calling for a workers' MP on a worker's wage at the height of the scandal (I certainly did a few). It sounds good and makes easily understood populist points, but how much of a solution is it?

The argument goes that limiting a MP's wage means s/he is not materially cut off from the people they represent. It's a lot easier to empathise with constituents who struggle to make ends meet if your income is not an order of magnitude higher. While this may be true the workers' wage, in and of itself, is problematic if uniformly applied. There is the wage cut argument (often picked up by Tories and other well-heeled members). If a MP's salary is not sufficiently attractive it will not draw in successful people from business, etc. I couldn't care less if business-types steered clear of the House of Commons (it's not like they're thin on the ground at the moment), but what about comparatively well paid sectors of the labour movement such as teachers, engineers, firefighters, social workers, etc? Some might be willing to take a wage cut for ideological reasons, but with kids to bring up and mortgages to pay off even a modest cut could be enough to put off otherwise dedicated activists. Second, implementing the average wage could exacerbate the already
disgraceful situation regarding MPs' second jobs and, for some, make them even more willing to accept the gratuities business lavishes on our elected representatives.

An alternative favoured by George Galloway is to
increase the salaries of MPs to the levels enjoyed by members of Congress in the United States. If they were paid a hefty salary out of which the cost of maintaining an office and employing staff was taken, everything would be above board. An unwieldy expenses system would be unnecessary, and MPs would be less likely to take on second jobs. But the problem of the income gap addressed by the average wage argument rears its head again.

Whatever the merits of the two income arguments, it's mistaken to present either as solutions that would banish the problem of institutionally corrupt politics altogether. Two reforms addressing the election and accountability of MPs would likely have more of an impact than either.

The Chartists were certainly onto something with their call for annual parliaments. They were entirely right that the more precarious position an MP is in, the more accountable they are to the electorate. I'm not sure if anyone has the appetite for a general election every year, but the implementation of mechanisms for recalling MPs could work just as well. This must go hand in hand with some form of proportional representation (
see here). If political parties and MPs have to fight for every single vote no one will coast into parliament on the back of safe, geographically concentrated majorities (and as Left Foot Forward pointed out, the worst expenses offenders also happened to have the safest seats).

But for any improved system to work, it's not enough to engineer better constitutional arrangements. Politics needs to re-engage the millions of people who've been alienated from it these last 20 years. It's not a matter of educating the electorate or forcing citizenship classes on school kids. Parties need to eat humble pie and listen to the real problems of 'real' people, and pay big business and the mythological 'Middle England' less mind.

Image by
Beau Bo D'Or.

Saturday, 6 February 2010

A Lesson from North Korea

Fed up with the love lives of footballers plastered all over our useless daily press? The Jucheist skivvies of the Dear Leader Kim Jong Il at the (North) Korean Central News agency show how sports stories ought to be treated by the media:
Pyongyang, February 5 (KCNA) -- The national football team of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, qualified for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, embraces a lot of competent players.

Typical of them is Hong Yong Jo, famous for many scores he has made in international and local tournaments.

He, who has been interested in sports, especially football, from primary school days, is characterized by running fast, dribbling well, taking scoring positions in time and skillfully getting goals.

He has been active as a forward in many international tournaments.

He fully demonstrated his skill by scoring three goals in the home-and-home matches with Jordan at the third-phase preliminaries of the Asian region for the 2010 FIFA World Cup.

Hong, captain of the national team, was crowned with the title of People's Athlete last year.
Much, much better than the The Sun's hand-wringing hypocrisy.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Defend Tory Politico!

It's not very often I rush to the defence of a Tory, but in the following case it is absolutely necessary to do so.

Mid-table Conservative Party blogger Tory Politico has, incredibly, received a cease and desist order from a Washington DC law firm. They ludicrously claim on behalf of their client, Capital News Company, that US internet users would confuse Tory Politico's blog with their own Beltway-centered Politico website. I would suggest Dow Lohnes, the law firm acting for CNC, have a very low opinion of the politically interested American public.

Tory Politico takes apart the Dow Lohnes/CNC argument here and vows to fight the order. He is absolutely right to do so as CNC have form when it comes to this sort of thing. All bloggers, regardless of where we stand on the political spectrum should back him anyway we can.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Electoral Reform and Socialism

Gordon Brown's speech on reforming the electoral system for parliamentary elections is overdue, but at least it nails down the government's plans after 13 years of ducking and diving on this issue. Unfortunately, the alternative vote system favoured by Brown may be a slight improvement over the current first-past-the-post system (also known as single member plurality, or SMP), but it is still far away from reflecting the democratic will of the voters. While Dave looks at Brown's motives for making this announcement now, here I will discuss some characteristics of the SMP and Alternative Vote systems, the proportional alternatives and why socialists (whether in the Labour party or not) should favour the introduction of PR.

Those who defend the current set up for Westminster elections (generally speaking, those who have most to lose in the two main parties) flag up three arguments in defence of what we have. Firstly, it's a simple system: the candidate who polls most votes wins. Second, SMP is more likely to turn out stable governments than other systems. As anyone who's a member of a small party will tell you, SMP presents a massive electoral hurdle. Effectively minor parties are locked out of the system. On the other hand, as defenders of SMP point out, this means governments do not have to rely on coalition partners who only command a minority vote. In West and later unified Germany between 1949 and 1998, the liberal Free Democratic Party was only out of government for seven years. The price of their cooperation would have met compromise on some of their senior partners' programme. Thirdly, parliament is made up of representatives elected by constituencies. This ties MPs to certain localities meaning, in theory, they have to adequately represent the interests of their locality to be returned in future elections.

In practice SMP has had a deleterious effect on politics in Britain. It has led to the creation of safe seats, meaning elections are decided by a comparatively small number of marginal seats. These tend to be identified with a socially conservative, relatively affluent, aspirational and upwardly mobile 'Middle England' by party strategists; and policies are designed to appeal to this strata. The likes of the Mail and Express are taken to be their authentic voice. In other words, the outcomes of liberal democracy in Britain is determined by a small minority.

Second the local link is overstated. While it sounds nice in theory, unless one has a rebellious Labour or Tory MP, in the vast majority of cases MPs will vote along the lines dictated by central office and enforced by the whips. Even parliamentary questions (where an MP can raise constituency-based issues) have been undermined by party discipline. You just have to watch an installment of Prime Minister's Questions to see how loyal backbench MPs effectively waste time by asking Brown if he agrees with them that the latest government initiative is the best thing since sliced bread.

Brown's proposals for reform (which will be put to a referendum should Labour win the next election) is couched very much in terms of the continuity it has with the present system. On alternative vote, he says:
The alternative vote system has the advantage of maintaining the benefit of a strong constituency link; allowing MPs to be not simply policy makers, but also community leaders, community organisers, and the strongest champions for neighbourhoods they know and love. But if the people decide to back the alternative vote, it also offers voters increased choice with the chance to express preferences for as many of the candidates as they wish. It means that each elected MP will have the chance to be elected with much broader support from their constituency, not just those who picked them as their first choice. In short it offers a system where the British people can, if they so choose, be more confident that their MP truly represents them, while at the same time remaining directly accountable to them.
Alternative vote was first introduced in Australia in 1918 for House of Representatives elections. Candidates are ranked by voters in order of preference. If one candidate has an absolute majority they win the contest. But if they do not the candidate with the least votes tends to be eliminated and their second preferences are transferred. This process is repeated until a winner with 50%+ emerges (there are variations on the theme - some elections are run that eliminate all but the top two candidates and have their second choices divided among them). While this is fairer and more adequately reflects the political mood of a constituency, it does not address the problem of marginal seats. In fact, the Australian experience has shown it strengthens the already-dominant parties because it favours their existing geographical concentrations of support. Alternative vote, though a slight improvement over SMP, will continue to replicate its problems and do little to combat politics' declining legitimacy.

What's the alternative? Socialists favour the extension of democracy in capitalist societies for a number of reasons. The more thoroughgoing the democratisation of the state, the harder it is for the state to be used as an unambiguous instrument of capital. The greater the habits of democracy are ingrained in a population, the more active so-called civil society is and the less likely wide sections of the working class fall into apathy and despondency. And the more the state comes under democratic control, the greater the pressure there is to extend democracy in the private dictatorships that run the commanding heights of the economy.

This is why socialists should support the introduction of proportional systems - not just because it improves the electoral prospects of small left groups.

Proportional representation comes in all shapes and sizes, but generally aim to express the democratic will of the voting population. For example, the PR system most UK voters will be familiar with is the D'Hondt list PR method, used for the European elections. Here parties present the electorate with a list of candidates to fill a number of available seats. Under the D'Hondt method the list with most votes wins the first seat. Their vote is then divided by two. The next seat goes to whoever now has the highest total, and so on until all the available seats are filled. This following anti-BNP video from the Green's European election campaign explains it simply:


 The Sainte-Laguë method works similarly, but divides results by 1.4 and results in less proportional outcomes. The proportionality of a system can and is often distorted by local peculiarities. For instance, the European parliament elects representatives by D'Hondt on a constituency basis, allowing proportionality to be effected by geographical variations in support. One way round this would be to treat a whole country as the only constituency. This is done in Israel, but there is a 1.5% threshold parties have to cross before entering the electoral formula. Elections for The Netherlands' 150 membered House of Representatives is probably the closest to a truly proportional system - it operates with an effective threshold of 0.67% to gain a seat.

An alternative to list systems is single transferable vote PR, which is proportional but retains a constituency link. The number of representatives a constituency returns is always greater than one. Therefore voters cast preferences. In the Irish Republic this can be as low as one and as high as the number of candidates. In Australia, STV proceeds by stipulating a minimum number of preferences that need be cast. Seat allocation is then decided by the Droop Quota. This is done by taking the total number of valid votes cast and dividing them by the number of seats plus one, and then adding another plus one to the resulting percentage. For instance, in an example in his 2001 book, Electoral Systems, David Farrell cites Dublin South's 1997 election results to illustrate the Irish STV system. 57,986 valid votes were cast to determine the representatives for five available seats. These were divided by six (five plus one) giving a quota of 9,665. The first seat went to Fianna Fáil, who had won 9,904 (giving them a 239-strong surplus). None of the other parties crossed the threshold, so in the second round votes were distributed according to the second preferences of voters and seats allocated according to these results. Further rounds maybe necessary involving third and fourth preferences until all the vacancies are filled (the returning officer also has the power to eliminate last placed candidates to ensure their second preferences are transferred. Here, proportionality is dictated by the size of the constituency. The greater the number of seats, the more likely the outcome will be proportional.

STV PR is not without its problems. As defenders of the Westminster model would point out, the multiparty system in the Republic has not been as stable as the British two-and-a-half party system, leading to criticisms around weak coalition governments and instability. Second, STV PR in Ireland has led to heavy localism as TDs compete with each other to secure election next time round. This at least renders the constituency-link critique by Westminster enthusiasts null and void.

These two examples of PR are far from problematic, but are much better from a socialist point of view. It is true they are more complex than FPTP but not prohibitively so. Is it really too much to ask voters to put a cross next to a party list or rank order in terms of preference? Not at all. The constituency link argument is a red herring too. Multi-member constituencies don't have to break geographical links. Many council wards up and down Britain return more than one representative to the council chamber (though often these are not all elected at once). If voters have a problem they want looking into, they have a choice of which member to contact. The strong government argument does not wash either. Only the UK and Barbados use the Westminster system for general elections. European countries use a mix of different PR systems, and there is no general tendency to electoral chaos (the difficulties of the Belgian and Italian party systems owe more to the specifics of those countries than the mechanics that govern their elections). In fact, for all the 'strong government' arguments used to back up the Westminster model it has, as we have seen, engendered a situation where liberal democracy faces a legitimation crisis in the face of mass "apathy" and narrowly defined politics around what plays well in key marginals. Coalition governments at least offer an opportunity for otherwise systematically excluded minorities to get their policies on the agenda.

As socialists we, to nick a Brownite soundbite, stand with the many and not the few. But our idea of the many - the working class - is very diverse and riven with all kinds of sexual, racial and sectional divisions, contradictions and interests. If we are to speak to, represent, and infuse it with a consciousness of its common interests we need to favour an electoral system that allows their free play. Neither SMP or Alternative Vote does this. 

Edit: Good post on why electoral reform is a class issue by Stuart White here.