Monday 31 January 2011

Blue for Eurovision

Longtime readers know this blog is one of the few standard bearers for Eurovision in the British left. In my self-declared role as its champion in our ghetto I am happy to report that, for once, the UK is in danger of entering a contender. The BBC have shown a bit of Eurovision nous and has selected an act those pesky continentals will have heard of, and that act is the recently-reformed Blue.

It seems the lessons have been learned from last year's
debacle. Contrary to popular myth, the UK has performed dismally in recent years not because of the Iraq War or the Putin/Gazprom-orchestrated block vote. The explanation for our dismal scoring is more mundane: one, our songs have been crap; and two, they've been fronted by complete nobodies.

Blue aren't to my tastes, but they are known to the European record-buying public. They have scored number ones in Italy and the Netherlands, and top ten hits in Austria, France, Germany, Ireland, and Switzerland. Will this be enough to see off the regional star power of other entries? We shall see.

Sadly, Blue's song,
I Can, isn't available anywhere at the moment. So allow me to play out with this wonderful ditty from last year's contest. This choice had absolutely nothing to do with Paula Seling.

Saturday 29 January 2011

Unison Socialist Party Members Vindicated

The press statement below from the Socialist Party is very good news. There is a long and sorry tradition of bureaucratic proscriptions and bans being used against "undesirables" in our movement. The court judgement against Unison could mean their day is done:

At a time when 150,000 council workers are facing redundancy and another 100,000 have been told they will be sacked if they don’t accept cuts in their pay and conditions UNISON members would rightly expect that every minute and every penny of union resources be spent on fighting the cuts.

However, UNISON’s leadership have spent three years and tens of thousands of pounds witch-hunting some of its most effective fighters. Today an Employment Tribunal has ruled that campaign of bullying to be unlawful. All of the trumped up charges against the four UNISON activists and Socialist Party members – Glenn Kelly, Brian Debus, Onay Kasab and Suzanne Muna – were thrown out. UNISON is now required to reinstate all four to their positions in the union including Glenn Kelly being put back on the National Executive of the union.

UNISON members will be lobbying the National Executive on 8 February to demand that this is immediately carried out.

Friday 28 January 2011

Egypt's Day of Rage

You wait years for a revolution, and then two turn up at once. With the revolutionary process at an earlier stage than Tunisia, Egypt nevertheless stands on the brink.

At the time of writing Hosni Mubarak's regime is looking very shaky indeed. The excellent coverage on Al Jazeera this evening has broadcast images of the National Democratic Party's Cairo headquarters being looted and then torched without any kind of intervention from the security forces (simultaneously, protesters are apparently protecting the the priceless artifacts housed in the Egyptian Museum, making attempts by the BBC to portray them as "a mob" look lazy and unsustainable). Evening news broadcasts on terrestrial channels have shown footage of protesters and riot police squaring up and fighting running battles earlier in the day. But now, Al Jazeera is saying the police have left the streets and been replaced by the army. Again, like Tunisia, the army were welcomed by some sections of the uprising as a power that will protect them from the regime. On the other hand, as troops approach strategic infrastructure (TV and radio stations, security apparatus ministries) the protesters are giving the military's an increasingly frosty reception.

Again, as with Tunisia the army can play a Bonapartist role in the Marxist sense of the term. According to Ibrahim Arafat of Qatar University, the army and the rest of the security apparatus are institutionally separated in the Tunisian and Egyptian dictatorships. Because the military played no overt role in the day-to-day repression of the two regimes it could appear as an entity standing above and apart from the rest of society, in a manner analogous to Britain's constitutional monarchy's relationship to mainstream politics. Therefore it can pose as the repository of all manner of hopes and illusions - as guarantors of the constitution, as protecters of the nation, and so on. This institutional separation is the basis of an ideological cloak that hides the fact the military top brass are as much a part of the
ancien regime as Ben Ali's and Mubarak's secret police henchmen.

Nevertheless the army is not immune from the forces demolishing the regime's foundations. The army is overwhelmingly working class in composition. The military brass value their own necks. This underlines the main question: which direction will the army swing? Will they dampen down the protests and obey the president's increasingly desperate decrees, or refuse to carry out his orders? And if so, what role will it go onto play in a post-Mubarak society?

With any luck, Hosni Mubarak will
follow the footsteps of his son and hightail it out on a plane. I wouldn't be surprised if an underling's already been on the phone to the retirement home for washed-up despots in Saudi Arabia. In the mean time not only will other North African and Middle Eastern dictatorships and monarchies be biting their fingernails, the USA itself will be concerned for its strategic interests. Along with Israel and Saudi Arabia, Egypt is the third key US regional ally. The protesters are fully aware the self-proclaimed champion of democracy and universal human rights have been training and supplying the security apparatus for many years. And US planners know one mistaken step could see their carefully-crafted geopolitical strategy unravel as quickly as Mubarak's legitimacy.

NB: Excerpts of a translated Egyptian protest manual are available
here, and follow the uprising's Twitter topic here.

Wednesday 26 January 2011

Tommy Sheridan Sentenced To Three Years

Karen Greensheild, a reporter with STV News at Tommy Sheridan's sentencing this morning tweeted "Scent of blood, anticipation in the air, wonder if this is what it's like at a Public Hanging?" How could the atmosphere be otherwise? Since being found guilty of perjury charges on December 23rd the presiding judge Lord Bracadale told Tommy he could expect a prison sentence.

In a 45 minute long mitigation speech to the judge,
Tommy refused to admit his guilt, but talked about his low risk of reoffending, the length of perjury sentences, his and Gail Sheridan's health, and his caring responsibilities toward his Dad. Sentencing, Lord Bracadale said he thought Tommy was a "hard-working and effective politician" but that he "brought the walls of the temple crashing down on your own head", before imprisoning Tommy for three years. What a shame. What a waste.

No doubt this sentence will lead to another round of
bilious infighting and denunciation. There will be more than a few people shopping around the far left for an organisation that suits them who stumble across what passes for the Sheridan "debate" and decide to take their time and effort elsewhere. And I can't blame them.

The whole process of the trial from the notorious SSP executive meeting on a November evening in 2004 to its denoument today has exposed an ugliness at the heart of the far left, an ugliness you wouldn't expect to find not in a movement built on solidarity and socialist values. Tommy's expectation that his comrades should lie for him so he could trouser £200k from the
News of the World was contemptible, as were the shrill attacks on those who refused to risk perjury charges and told the truth in court. But equally appalling were the pre-and-post defamation trial actions by those SSP members who ensured Tommy's confession was leaked to the press, went out their way to collaborate with the police, and of course, have done nothing to disavow the actions of George McNeilage - the former best man who taped his admissions.

But what I find most disturbing is the frenzied attacks by those who reside in England and have absolutely no connection to the trial whatsoever. This hatred - for that is what it is - by members of nominally Trotskyist outfits closely resembles what you'd expect from a cult. When Scientologists are criticised, no one is surprised they intimidate and denounce opponents. That is, after all, what cults are all about. But for socialists to ape this behaviour? It speaks volumes of the fundamentally unhealthy organisational practices of self-described Leninist groups. Democratic centralism - a principle of organisation Lenin thought appropriate to mass parties, not tiny groups of a couple of thousand - tends not to be exercised around action, but rather is a principle for regulating the boundaries of permissible thought. Freedom of discussion becomes circumscribed discussion. Unity in action is, in practice, unity behind the positions formulated by the opaque and unaccountable executive/central committee. This is no recipe for generating critically minded working class politicians and Marxist cadre. But it does create a small following happy to swallow it all and regurgitate it when occasion demands. Such as when one of their key allies gets in a spot of bother with the law.

If there are political lessons to be drawn from this episode, they have to centre on the far left's culture, on its promotion of and slavishness toward charismatic leaders, its pronounced tendency toward group think, and its inability to handle disputes in anything but a mature fashion. If some good is to come from the tragic and shameful waste of Tommy Sheridan's fate, a thorough rethink of all this would be it.

Tuesday 25 January 2011

Socialist Party on NSSN Anti-Cuts Campaign

This has been circulated to Socialist Party activists after Saturday's conference of the National Shop Stewards' Network agreed to set up its own anti-cuts campaign. This letter from Linda Taaffe is reproduced here for readers' info.

I want to thank everyone who attended and helped organise yesterday's excellent NSSN Anti-Cuts Conference in Camden. Well over 500 shop stewards/workplace reps, community campaigners and students debated whether the NSSN should launch an anti-cuts campaign. It was a model of democratic debate with both sides having the same number of speakers and equal speaking time. After 2 and a half hours of discussion, the trade union delegates at the Conference voted to launch the anti-cuts campaign by 305 votes to 89. We then went on to elect a Campaign Committee. As we received 11 nominations for the proposed committee of 10, Conference agreed to accept the slightly enlarged committee, which will meet over the next couple of weeks.

We are now looking forward to working with all other forces fighting the cuts. We will especially welcome the suggestion in Matt Wrack’s (Gen Sec FBU) letter last week for a Unity conference called by the Trade Union Coordinating Group (TUCG). We will also follow through on the initial contacts made with the other anti-cuts organisations to see how we can work together more smoothly. Just before the Conference, the NSSN signed a letter along with Coalition of Resistance, Right to Work and others to the TUC offering our assistance to build for the biggest possible turnout at the demo in London on March 26th.

We will lobby on that march and in all other arenas for the unions to organise co-ordinated strike action to defeat the government's cuts. We also believe that the platform of speakers on the day should include those workers and students who are currently fighting the cuts. Our NSSN campaign has been launched on a clear 'Oppose ALL cuts' platform and will therefore call on Labour councils to refuse to implement the cuts. We will organise protests and support industrial action against them if they vote to pass the attacks onto workers’ jobs and services.

The character of the NSSN will not change as a result of Saturday’s decision. We will still play a crucial role in bringing together and developing trade union activists at the grassroots, which we hope and believe, will help revitalise the trade union movement. The continuing attacks by the ConDems on trade union rights are clearly linked to trying to prevent workers fighting back against the cuts and the bosses’ offensive.

The next meeting of the NSSN Steering Committee will be on February 19th, where we can begin to discuss, amongst other things, the planning for the annual NSSN conference in the summer, as well as how the Network will continue to organise rank and file workers. We appeal to whole of the Steering Committee to recognise the democratic decision of the Conference and play a full part in the development of the NSSN. We are confident that the decision yesterday will actually bring us in contact with a whole new layer of workers as they confront this brutal cuts package.

Linda Taaffe (NSSN Secretary)

Monday 24 January 2011

Melanie Phillips: Marketing Bigotry

There are days I wish Melanie Phillips would act like a proper troll and only sally forth from under the bridge to harass passing goats. But as the Daily Mail columnist you love to hate, Mel wouldn't be doing her job if she didn't cause a shit storm once in a while. And that's what she's gone and done this morning with her latest rant, 'Yes, gays have often been the victims of prejudice. But they now risk becoming the new McCarthyites' (you can read the snappily-titled piece here without having to visit Mail Online).

In her latest broadside against The Permissiveness Undermining Our Nation and Endangering Your Children, Mel uncovers a secret plot hatched by the cunning homosexualists who pull the government's strings. As "part of the ruthless campaign by the gay rights lobby to destroy the very ­concept of normal sexual behaviour" the biggest threat to kids are no longer the perverts hanging round the school gates, but the gay propaganda infiltrating exercise books and course content. Witness the shocking imminent changes to the curriculum:

"In geography, for example, they will be told to consider why homosexuals move from the countryside to cities. In maths, they will be taught statistics through census findings about the number of homosexuals in the population.

In science, they will be directed to animal species such as emperor penguins and sea horses, where the male takes a lead role in raising its young."

Trigonometry exercises illustrated by pink triangles, crafts geared around the production of soft furnishings, French replaced by Polari, and Year Ones not progressing until they've learned how to spell 'tribadism' can only be a fey handclap away. In short, unless we stop this sick filth now our schools will become madrassas for queer fundamentalism. People will stop having babies, Britain as we know it will vanish and this sceptered isle will be open to colonisation by the Allah-worshipping hordes.

In the real world and not the one existing inside Mel's bigoted brain, it is entirely proper the curriculum normalises trans, lesbian, bi and gay folk. The Tories especially have a historical debt to pay as Section 28 was introduced on their watch - a debt Dave himself
has acknowledged and apologised for - and any positive moves to making good on that should be welcomed. But despite the massive strides made in gay acceptance legally, culturally, and socially these last 30 years, homophobic bullying remains an unwelcome rite of passage for LGBT and straight kids alike. As this BBC Report from 2007 shows, far from schools being the gay-friendly spaces Mel imagines them to be bullying remains endemic.

Not that Mel and her ilk particularly care. Like the
seriously deranged big mouths across The Pond, Mel is a professional right wing provocateur. She knows as well as anyone her career as a columnist and media pundit would be done if she ceased raiding the circa 1981 Monday Club ideological grab bag. She ain't going to shut up as long as there's a buck to be made.

This material interest in continued exposure fits those of Mel's employers as snug as a bug in a rug. A market exists for reflecting back the bigoted prejudices of the angry and the alienated, and is one
The Mail has long since cornered. But in Britain it has pioneered the capturing of a new and growing audience interested in right wing news 'n' views: that of the outraged left/liberal/Labourist/Graun/Indy/C4News milieu. DMGT doesn't care what those muesli-eating Marxists and the occasional lefty celeb are tweeting about, just as long as the newest slice of reactionary bilge upsets them enough to drive more people to the website so they can be disgusted and angered, and who in their turn drive more people to the website.

In short what DMGT have is a business model for successfully attracting large numbers of relatively well educated, relatively affluent people who wouldn't ordinarily touch their toxic rag with a pair of hazmat gloves. It's a stroke of genius: exploit your opponents' right-on politics and they will market your putrefying product across their social media networks for you.

Just remember that next time Melanie Phillips says or writes something stupidly bigoted and controversial.

Sunday 23 January 2011

Too Many Cooks?

It's done. Yesterday a special conference of the National Shop Stewards Network voted by 305 to 89 to set up yet another anti-cuts campaign. As I've said before what with UK Uncut, Right to Work, Coalition of Resistance, Trades Councils and various localised groups already organising opposition, I'm not convinced an additional group patronised by a Trotskyist organisation is anything other than surplus to requirements, especially as many of the charges the Socialist Party makes against their RtW and CoR rivals are somewhat economical about their real positions. But such is life on the far left. With self-defeating sectarianism like this, who needs satire?

We shall now see if Son-of-NSSN offers anything superior to what's already available as it's tested in the white heat of the anti-cuts movement. A conference report from the SP's Judy Beishon can be read
here. A more critical take from Martin Thomas of the Alliance for Workers' Liberty is here so comrades who weren't present can make up their own minds.

One thing surprisingly missing from the SP's website at the moment is a report on the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition conference that took place immediately afterwards. I think the comrades involved are on a hiding to nothing (as demonstrated by TUSC's
election results) and are set to do poorly at this May's local elections, in spite of their anti-cuts politics. But that's for another post. Anyway, here's Pete McLaren's report of the conference.


Dave Nellist opened the Conference by expressing the need for hundreds of candidates in the May elections to fight the cuts and provide opposition to the BNP.

Michael Lavellette (SWP) spoke about his 9 years as a Socialist councillor in Preston. He argued we must stand together against the cuts. Five Labour councillors had informed the local TUC they would oppose cuts only to vote for cuts in the Council vote. He still thought we needed to find ways of working with those 60,000 new members of the Labour Party who had joined since the General Election.

Clive Heemskerk (SP) called for candidates rooted in the anti cuts movement. Councils were at the forefront of the struggle, but, as the TUSC platform spelt out, they did not need to implement cuts. Councils should set a “Needs Budget” and demand the government makes up the rest, as Liverpool did in the 1980’s. Surcharging was no longer a major issue as it only now existed for individual fraud. Any Councillor accused of breaking the Code of Conduct, according to the Standards Board, would be entitled to a hearing, which itself would be a focus for mass protest, and at worst case could only result in a 5 year ban from being a councillor! Councillors should use reserves and prudential borrowing powers.

Owen Herbert (RMT) apologised for arriving late. He outlined how Labour had betrayed the working class and was now calling for cuts, but a slower pace. The results were the same. In Swansea, the Labour Council had threatened to sack its workforce if they would not accept its cuts package and then re-instate workers on new inferior conditions. The Welsh TUC was doing nothing, and a TUSC intervention was essential.

Alan from Darlington UNISON moved the one amendment to the platform - that council tax could be raised above inflation if approved by the electorate.

The platform was opened for discussion, and 22 individuals spoke – 11 from the SP, 2 from the SA, 1 from SR, 3 from the SWP and 5 independents. Points made included the following;

* We need to work with Labour Party members
* There is no evidence of activism amongst the new layer of Labour Party members
* There should be national issues in the TUSC local elections platform
* There needs to be a new Party, and it should champion democracy
* There should be something on pay and conditions within the TUSC platform
* Candidates need to be involved in local campaigns
* We need to build TUSC. The fortnightly Bulletin should help.
* TUSC should stand in Barnsley to help establish itself
* The TUSC Steering Committee has agreed to there being an Independent Socialist Network within TUSC to encourage involvement from independent socialists
* We should use the TUC Demo to publicise TUSC
* We should oppose all cuts, rent and council tax increases as they are all attacks on the working class
* TUSC provides a political direction for the anti cuts movement
* Setting up a local anti cuts group can persuade local trade union activists to come on board, and in the longer term this could be a basis for a new workers’ party
* We should not include Labour councillors as part of our campaign unless they are prepared to vote against cuts
* TUSC should be opened up and become fully democratic
* We should work with all who oppose the cuts, whatever their label
* Green councillors do not vote against cuts in Council meetings
* TUSC should work with Labour councillors who do vote against cuts whilst standing against those who don’t
* We should write to ask Labour candidates whether they would vote against cuts
* We need to discuss our position on police cuts
* We should add our opposition to any attacks on pay or conditions to our platform position

In their replies, Michael Lavalette explained that all SWP members opposed all cuts. He went on to argue there needed to be a clear alternative to Labour, adding that if a Left Councillor was elected it boosted workers’ confidence.

Clive Heemskerk argued for as many TUSC candidates as possible, adding that ‘Trade Unionist & Socialists Against the Cuts’ had also been registered. He accepted that TUSC was a work in progress.

Dave Nellist concluded proceedings by putting the proposed TUSC platform to the vote. It was agreed unanimously. He went on to announce that the TUSC SC would discuss AV, and reminded delegates that TUSC candidates would need formal nomination so there would be a need to communicate with the TUSC SC

Pete McLaren 22/01/11

Saturday 22 January 2011

Blogging Language and Criticism

In the comments on the recent Ed Balls post (below), Modernity asks "Why is it that ex-Trots in the Labour Party seem to dance around criticising the LP leadership? If I read you, Dave Osler or even [Andy] Newman, instead of saying the LP leadership are right-wing shite and utterly useless politically, instead of that I find understatement, careful wording and opaque criticism."

I can only speak for myself. And I don't accept this is the case.

Since joining Labour almost a year ago and thereby ending my association with Trotskyist politics (though I haven't regarded myself a Trot from long since
before joining the Socialist Party), I've penned 18 pieces looking at some aspect or another of Labour's leadership. In the few months since Ed's election as Labour leader I think seven blog posts could be described as commentary on his leadership (that doesn't count guest posts like this). One - the most recent - might utilise understatement, but previous reflections on Ed Miliband certainly do not. This and this critically analyse the position of the Labour party leadership in relation to the contradictions emodied by the organisation as a whole. This piece criticises Ed on workers' struggles ("on further commitments he's proving more slippery than an eel dipped in KY jelly"), and here and here criticises Ed for his appointment of Alan Johnson and the subsequent evolution of their economic "alternative" to the Tories' sole preoccupation with deficit reduction.

True, they fall well short of explicitly calling out the Labour leadership as "right-wing shite and utterly useless politically", but then again, so are this blog's many critical posts about the Tories and LibDems.

As far as I'm concerned what's written here is part of a
political project. My arguments are an effort to persuade readers of the merits of my positions. They are not, like many a Trotskyist denunciation of Labour and trade union leaderships, exercises in revolutionary identity politics. They're an attempt to grasp hold of the political situation to see what can be done to push things in a socialist direction. The language used and the form adopted by critique are conditioned and disciplined by these concerns. And it should go without saying that when you're pitching these arguments to left and labour movement audiences there's no need to extraneously drop in the fruity stuff when it's obvious your default position is critical.

Thursday 20 January 2011

Ed Balls: Let Tories Tremble

I never believed Ed Miliband was going to lead the Labour Party into a glorious socialist future, but I was disappointed when Alan Johnson was appointed shadow chancellor. I was then and remain convinced this had more to do with the internal balance of forces in the party and the desire to squash the 'Red Ed' label than anything else (see here). With a political career not exactly synonymous with economics, this decision didn't show Ed's leadership in its best light.

But now Alan Johnson has stepped down for 'family reasons' and Ed Balls has been shuffled into his position. Good.

Of the Labour leadership candidates during last summer's contest, only Balls and Diane Abbott offered a decent alternative to the 'slow and shallow cuts' consensus of the other three. And of the two Balls offered a comprehensive and serious critique of Tory/LibDem economic policy. In my opinion, Abbott's shopping list of left demands were worthy but lacked the necessary grasp of the issues. It was also obvious the Tories feared Balls and his Keynesian agenda more than any other contender.

What does this mean now for Labour's economic policy? Ed Miliband has said the new appointment will not effect his economic policy. This is not, strictly speaking, true. The Miliband/Johnson
orientation (it would be mangling the language to call it a policy) said more things about investment and growth than the Tories, but were fundamentally in agreement with them on the necessity for cuts. Balls's strategy boils down to placing more emphasis on the former than the latter - his Bloomberg speech does accept a role for cuts, but it is entirely swamped by the argument for economic activism. Luckily for Ed Miliband, policy up until now has been so vague that Balls could take it in a more Keynesian direction while allowing Ed to save face by pretending this is what he favoured all along.

As far as I'm concerned, Ed Balls doesn't go far enough. There is absolutely no reason for cuts. Period. As Paul Mason explains in his "interview"
with Marx, this crisis is one part a crisis of investment. It follows if private capital in its totality is fighting shy of investing, the state has to step in to get things on the move. The multiplier effects of creating jobs and stimulating demand creates conditions more conducive to private investment. Cutting only worsens the climate and makes the private sector-led recovery Osbourne and Dave are pinning their hopes on fanciful and utopian, and their actions irresponsible and dumb. As the world's economy is jittery, as Portugal, Spain, Italy and Belgium aren't looking good and the unwelcome spectre of currency wars is frightening economists and chancelleries, investment at home is the strongest inoculation possible the UK economy can take against a global economic chill.

That said, Ed Balls as shadow chancellor is a step in the right direction. With a strong advocate for investment over cuts in one of the most influential political positions in the land, the hand of the labour and anti-cuts movement has been strengthened ahead of the fights to come.

Tuesday 18 January 2011

N Staffs Against Cuts Conference: 26th January

Press release and statement of conference aims. I'll be going, are you?

North Staffs Against Cuts Press Release 17/01/2011
North Staffs Against Cuts (NSAC) will be holding an anti-cuts conference on the 26th January at the Forum Theatre, Hanley Museum, 7pm.

Speakers invited from local anti-cuts groups and trade unions

Everyone who wants to fight back against the cuts are invited to attend this very important conference for the local anti-cuts movement.

NSAC Chair Matthew Wright says: "We must prevent the government's and local council's inevitable attempts to divide the anti cuts movement by playing off one campaign against the other (“If we save this swimming pool we will have to close that children's centre”) .

Therefore we will maintain a firm commitment of opposition to all cuts not just in words but also in deeds. “Not a Single Job Lost Not a Single Penny Cut!”

As real concrete cuts are revealed and their effects are felt, campaigns will spring up across the area. NSAC will offer support to these campaigns and strive to link them together into a general anti-cuts movement."

Press contact:
Matthew Wright (Chair) v1w02 at 07817772531
Jason Hill (Organiser) nstuc at 07778913528

Conference Statement


- To assist in the struggle to Stop ALL CUTS

Two sections are key to stopping cuts
a) Trade unions, still with a potential power of 6 million organised workers, have a crucial role to play together with workplaces where no trade union representation yet exists.
b) Anti-cuts campaigns - as well as student groups, welfare claimants, tenants, pensioners organisations, disability groups etc.

For unity in opposition to all cuts, closures and privatisations:
We must prevent the government's and local council's inevitable attempts to divide the anti cuts movement by playing off one campaign against the other (“If we save this swimming pool we will have to close that children's centre”)

Therefore we will maintain a firm commitment of opposition to all cuts not just in words but also in deeds. “Not a Single Job Lost Not a Single Penny Cut!”

As real concrete cuts are revealed and their effects are felt, campaigns will spring up across the area. NSACF will offer support to these campaigns and strive to link them together into a general anti-cuts movement.

For a democratic and effective structure:
A federal type structure, where each affiliated body is free to pursue its own independent campaign but can in turn draw on the support and united strength of NSACF and all its affiliated bodies, is the most effective method of organising a democratic and united opposition.

Each individual organisation, community group etc will be asked to affiliate to NSACF. A committee will be elected to represent all affiliated organisations and campaigns plus a chair, secretary and other officers where necessary. All affiliated bodies will be asked to send representatives to form this committee with each representative having full voting rights.

Raising money to produce leaflets etc will be vital so all affiliates will be asked to make a donation (a minimum of £15). We will set up a bank account and elect a Treasurer to oversee our finances.

Immediate tasks:
• Continue to inform people about the true facts and involve the public in our campaigns against cuts.
• Relentless lobbying of councils, councilors,and other bodies, to persuade them NOT to vote for cuts.
• Organise a march in North Staffs and build for a strong contingent for the TUC demo in March.

Image Source

Monday 17 January 2011

Chomsky on Poststructuralism and Postmodernism

Many thanks to Brian of Mindful Pleasures for doing some cyber archaeology and digging this out of a rusty late 20th century server (his blog post failed to mention whether he unearthed a series of small walls as well). Around the time this first appeared on t'internets I was undergoing a crash course in postmodernism at the feet of Clive Wiltshire, my Nietzschean-anarchist hall mate and comrade. When I wasn't carrying his gangly inebriated form *to* the union bar or preventing him from crawling into the communal oven, we whiled away many an evening talking about philosophy and radical politics. Clive introduced me to anarchism and the work of Noam Chomsky and forced me to think more deeply about the Marxism I had imbibed via A-Level Sociology and the crap working conditions at Derby Morrison's (Clive will be revisited if I ever get round to writing another 'my influences' post).

As he was a big fan of Chomsky the linguist as well as Chomsky the dissident, I remember asking Clive what question would he ask if he ever got to meet the man. Clive said he would have asked his opinion on structuralist linguistics, whether they're compatible at all with his own position, and what he made of the poststructuralist revolution in philosophy and social theory more generally. Well, the below piece touches on this sort of material and remains - according to Brian - Chomsky's only considered statement on matters PoMo. In the unlikely event you're reading this Clive, I hope it goes some way to answering your question 15 years after you formulated it!

Regarding Chomsky's positions themselves I'll probably write something more on this over the next week or so.


I've returned from travel-speaking, where I spend most of my life, and found a collection of messages extending the discussion about "theory" and "philosophy," a debate that I find rather curious. A few reactions --- though I concede, from the start, that I may simply not understand what is going on.

As far as I do think I understand it, the debate was initiated by the charge that I, Mike, and maybe others don't have "theories" and therefore fail to give any explanation of why things are proceeding as they do. We must turn to "theory" and "philosophy" and "theoretical constructs" and the like to remedy this deficiency in our efforts to understand and address what is happening in the world. I won't speak for Mike. My response so far has pretty much been to reiterate something I wrote 35 years ago, long before "postmodernism" had erupted in the literary intellectual culture: "if there is a body of theory, well tested and verified, that applies to the conduct of foreign affairs or the resolution of domestic or international conflict, its existence has been kept a well-guarded secret," despite much "pseudo-scientific posturing."

To my knowledge, the statement was accurate 35 years ago, and remains so; furthermore, it extends to the study of human affairs generally, and applies in spades to what has been produced since that time. What has changed in the interim, to my knowledge, is a huge explosion of self- and mutual-admiration among those who propound what they call "theory" and "philosophy," but little that I can detect beyond "pseudo-scientific posturing." That little is, as I wrote, sometimes quite interesting, but lacks consequences for the real world problems that occupy my time and energies (Rawls's important work is the case I mentioned, in response to specific inquiry).

The latter fact has been noticed. One fine philosopher and social theorist (also activist), Alan Graubard, wrote an interesting review years ago of Robert Nozick's "libertarian" response to Rawls, and of the reactions to it. He pointed out that reactions were very enthusiastic. Reviewer after reviewer extolled the power of the arguments, etc., but no one accepted any of the real-world conclusions (unless they had previously reached them). That's correct, as were his observations on what it means.

The proponents of "theory" and "philosophy" have a very easy task if they want to make their case. Simply make known to me what was and remains a "secret" to me: I'll be happy to look. I've asked many times before, and still await an answer, which should be easy to provide: simply give some examples of "a body of theory, well tested and verified, that applies to" the kinds of problems and issues that Mike, I, and many others (in fact, most of the world's population, I think, outside of narrow and remarkably self-contained intellectual circles) are or should be concerned with: the problems and issues we speak and write about, for example, and others like them. To put it differently, show that the principles of the "theory" or "philosophy" that we are told to study and apply lead by valid argument to conclusions that we and others had not already reached on other (and better) grounds; these "others" include people lacking formal education, who typically seem to have no problem reaching these conclusions through mutual interactions that avoid the "theoretical" obscurities entirely, or often on their own.

Again, those are simple requests. I've made them before, and remain in my state of ignorance. I also draw certain conclusions from the fact.

As for the "deconstruction" that is carried out (also mentioned in the debate), I can't comment, because most of it seems to me gibberish. But if this is just another sign of my incapacity to recognize profundities, the course to follow is clear: just restate the results to me in plain words that I can understand, and show why they are different from, or better than, what others had been doing long before and and have continued to do since without three-syllable words, incoherent sentences, inflated rhetoric that (to me, at least) is largely meaningless, etc. That will cure my deficiencies --- of course, if they are curable; maybe they aren't, a possibility to which I'll return.

These are very easy requests to fulfill, if there is any basis to the claims put forth with such fervor and indignation. But instead of trying to provide an answer to this simple requests, the response is cries of anger: to raise these questions shows "elitism," "anti-intellectualism," and other crimes --- though apparently it is not "elitist" to stay within the self- and mutual-admiration societies of intellectuals who talk only to one another and (to my knowledge) don't enter into the kind of world in which I'd prefer to live. As for that world, I can reel off my speaking and writing schedule to illustrate what I mean, though I presume that most people in this discussion know, or can easily find out; and somehow I never find the "theoreticians" there, nor do I go to their conferences and parties. In short, we seem to inhabit quite different worlds, and I find it hard to see why mine is "elitist," not theirs. The opposite seems to be transparently the case, though I won't amplify.

To add another facet, I am absolutely deluged with requests to speak and can't possibly accept a fraction of the invitations I'd like to, so I suggest other people. But oddly, I never suggest those who propound "theories" and "philosophy," nor do I come across them, or for that matter rarely even their names, in my own (fairly extensive) experience with popular and activist groups and organizations, general community, college, church, union, etc., audiences here and abroad, third world women, refugees, etc.; I can easily give examples. Why, I wonder.

The whole debate, then, is an odd one. On one side, angry charges and denunciations, on the other, the request for some evidence and argument to support them, to which the response is more angry charges --- but, strikingly, no evidence or argument. Again, one is led to ask why.

It's entirely possible that I'm simply missing something, or that I just lack the intellectual capacity to understand the profundities that have been unearthed in the past 20 years or so by Paris intellectuals and their followers. I'm perfectly open-minded about it, and have been for years, when similar charges have been made -- but without any answer to my questions. Again, they are simple and should be easy to answer, if there is an answer: if I'm missing something, then show me what it is, in terms I can understand. Of course, if it's all beyond my comprehension, which is possible, then I'm just a lost cause, and will be compelled to keep to things I do seem to be able to understand, and keep to association with the kinds of people who also seem to be interested in them and seem to understand them (which I'm perfectly happy to do, having no interest, now or ever, in the sectors of the intellectual culture that engage in these things, but apparently little else).

Since no one has succeeded in showing me what I'm missing, we're left with the second option: I'm just incapable of understanding. I'm certainly willing to grant that it may be true, though I'm afraid I'll have to remain suspicious, for what seem good reasons. There are lots of things I don't understand -- say, the latest debates over whether neutrinos have mass or the way that Fermat's last theorem was (apparently) proven recently. But from 50 years in this game, I have learned two things: (1) I can ask friends who work in these areas to explain it to me at a level that I can understand, and they can do so, without particular difficulty; (2) if I'm interested, I can proceed to learn more so that I will come to understand it. Now Derrida, Lacan, Lyotard, Kristeva, etc. --- even Foucault, whom I knew and liked, and who was somewhat different from the rest --- write things that I also don't understand, but (1) and (2) don't hold: no one who says they do understand can explain it to me and I haven't a clue as to how to proceed to overcome my failures. That leaves one of two possibilities: (a) some new advance in intellectual life has been made, perhaps some sudden genetic mutation, which has created a form of "theory" that is beyond quantum theory, topology, etc., in depth and profundity; or (b) ... I won't spell it out.

Again, I've lived for 50 years in these worlds, have done a fair amount of work of my own in fields called "philosophy" and "science," as well as intellectual history, and have a fair amount of personal acquaintance with the intellectual culture in the sciences, humanities, social sciences, and the arts. That has left me with my own conclusions about intellectual life, which I won't spell out. But for others, I would simply suggest that you ask those who tell you about the wonders of "theory" and "philosophy" to justify their claims --- to do what people in physics, math, biology, linguistics, and other fields are happy to do when someone asks them, seriously, what are the principles of their theories, on what evidence are they based, what do they explain that wasn't already obvious, etc. These are fair requests for anyone to make. If they can't be met, then I'd suggest recourse to Hume's advice in similar circumstances: to the flames.

Specific comment. Phetland asked who I'm referring to when I speak of "Paris school" and "postmodernist cults": the above is a sample.

He then asks, reasonably, why I am "dismissive" of it. Take, say, Derrida. Let me begin by saying that I dislike making the kind of comments that follow without providing evidence, but I doubt that participants want a close analysis of de Saussure, say, in this forum, and I know that I'm not going to undertake it. I wouldn't say this if I hadn't been explicitly asked for my opinion --- and if asked to back it up, I'm going to respond that I don't think it merits the time to do so.

So take Derrida, one of the grand old men. I thought I ought to at least be able to understand his Grammatology, so tried to read it. I could make out some of it, for example, the critical analysis of classical texts that I knew very well and had written about years before. I found the scholarship appalling, based on pathetic misreading; and the argument, such as it was, failed to come close to the kinds of standards I've been familiar with since virtually childhood. Well, maybe I missed something: could be, but suspicions remain, as noted. Again, sorry to make unsupported comments, but I was asked, and therefore am answering.

Some of the people in these cults (which is what they look like to me) I've met: Foucault (we even have a several-hour discussion, which is in print, and spent quite a few hours in very pleasant conversation, on real issues, and using language that was perfectly comprehensible --- he speaking French, me English); Lacan (who I met several times and considered an amusing and perfectly self-conscious charlatan, though his earlier work, pre-cult, was sensible and I've discussed it in print); Kristeva (who I met only briefly during the period when she was a fervent Maoist); and others. Many of them I haven't met, because I am very remote from from these circles, by choice, preferring quite different and far broader ones --- the kinds where I give talks, have interviews, take part in activities, write dozens of long letters every week, etc. I've dipped into what they write out of curiosity, but not very far, for reasons already mentioned: what I find is extremely pretentious, but on examination, a lot of it is simply illiterate, based on extraordinary misreading of texts that I know well (sometimes, that I have written), argument that is appalling in its casual lack of elementary self-criticism, lots of statements that are trivial (though dressed up in complicated verbiage) or false; and a good deal of plain gibberish. When I proceed as I do in other areas where I do not understand, I run into the problems mentioned in connection with (1) and (2) above. So that's who I'm referring to, and why I don't proceed very far. I can list a lot more names if it's not obvious.

For those interested in a literary depiction that reflects pretty much the same perceptions (but from the inside), I'd suggest David Lodge. Pretty much on target, as far as I can judge.

Phetland also found it "particularly puzzling" that I am so "curtly dismissive" of these intellectual circles while I spend a lot of time "exposing the posturing and obfuscation of the New York Times." So "why not give these guys the same treatment." Fair question. There are also simple answers. What appears in the work I do address (NYT, journals of opinion, much of scholarship, etc.) is simply written in intelligible prose and has a great impact on the world, establishing the doctrinal framework within which thought and expression are supposed to be contained, and largely are, in successful doctrinal systems such as ours. That has a huge impact on what happens to suffering people throughout the world, the ones who concern me, as distinct from those who live in the world that Lodge depicts (accurately, I think). So this work should be dealt with seriously, at least if one cares about ordinary people and their problems. The work to which Phetland refers has none of these characteristics, as far as I'm aware. It certainly has none of the impact, since it is addressed only to other intellectuals in the same circles. Furthermore, there is no effort that I am aware of to make it intelligible to the great mass of the population (say, to the people I'm constantly speaking to, meeting with, and writing letters to, and have in mind when I write, and who seem to understand what I say without any particular difficulty, though they generally seem to have the same cognitive disability I do when facing the postmodern cults). And I'm also aware of no effort to show how it applies to anything in the world in the sense I mentioned earlier: grounding conclusions that weren't already obvious. Since I don't happen to be much interested in the ways that intellectuals inflate their reputations, gain privilege and prestige, and disengage themselves from actual participation in popular struggle, I don't spend any time on it.

Phetland suggests starting with Foucault --- who, as I've written repeatedly, is somewhat apart from the others, for two reasons: I find at least some of what he writes intelligible, though generally not very interesting; second, he was not personally disengaged and did not restrict himself to interactions with others within the same highly privileged elite circles. Phetland then does exactly what I requested: he gives some illustrations of why he thinks Foucault's work is important. That's exactly the right way to proceed, and I think it helps understand why I take such a "dismissive" attitude towards all of this --- in fact, pay no attention to it.

What Phetland describes, accurately I'm sure, seems to me unimportant, because everyone always knew it --- apart from details of social and intellectual history, and about these, I'd suggest caution: some of these are areas I happen to have worked on fairly extensively myself, and I know that Foucault's scholarship is just not trustworthy here, so I don't trust it, without independent investigation, in areas that I don't know --- this comes up a bit in the discussion from 1972 that is in print. I think there is much better scholarship on the 17th and 18th century, and I keep to that, and my own research. But let's put aside the other historical work, and turn to the "theoretical constructs" and the explanations: that there has been "a great change from harsh mechanisms of repression to more subtle mechanisms by which people come to do" what the powerful want, even enthusiastically. That's true enough, in fact, utter truism. If that's a "theory," then all the criticisms of me are wrong: I have a "theory" too, since I've been saying exactly that for years, and also giving the reasons and historical background, but without describing it as a theory (because it merits no such term), and without obfuscatory rhetoric (because it's so simple-minded), and without claiming that it is new (because it's a truism). It's been fully recognized for a long time that as the power to control and coerce has declined, it's more necessary to resort to what practitioners in the PR industry early in this century -- who understood all of this well -- called "controlling the public mind." The reasons, as observed by Hume in the 18th century, are that "the implicit submission with which men resign their own sentiments and passions to those of their rulers" relies ultimately on control of opinion and attitudes. Why these truisms should suddenly become "a theory" or "philosophy," others will have to explain; Hume would have laughed.

Some of Foucault's particular examples (say, about 18th century techniques of punishment) look interesting, and worth investigating as to their accuracy. But the "theory" is merely an extremely complex and inflated restatement of what many others have put very simply, and without any pretense that anything deep is involved. There's nothing in what Phetland describes that I haven't been writing about myself for 35 years, also giving plenty of documentation to show that it was always obvious, and indeed hardly departs from truism. What's interesting about these trivialities is not the principle, which is transparent, but the demonstration of how it works itself out in specific detail to cases that are important to people: like intervention and aggression, exploitation and terror, "free market" scams, and so on. That I don't find in Foucault, though I find plenty of it by people who seem to be able to write sentences I can understand and who aren't placed in the intellectual firmament as "theoreticians."

To make myself clear, Phetland is doing exactly the right thing: presenting what he sees as "important insights and theoretical constructs" that he finds in Foucault. My problem is that the "insights" seem to me familiar and there are no "theoretical constructs," except in that simple and familiar ideas have been dressed up in complicated and pretentious rhetoric. Phetland asks whether I think this is "wrong, useless, or posturing." No. The historical parts look interesting sometimes, though they have to be treated with caution and independent verification is even more worth undertaking than it usually is. The parts that restate what has long been obvious and put in much simpler terms are not "useless," but indeed useful, which is why I and others have always made the very same points. As to "posturing," a lot of it is that, in my opinion, though I don't particularly blame Foucault for it: it's such a deeply rooted part of the corrupt intellectual culture of Paris that he fell into it pretty naturally, though to his credit, he distanced himself from it. As for the "corruption" of this culture particularly since World War II, that's another topic, which I've discussed elsewhere and won't go into here. Frankly, I don't see why people in this forum should be much interested, just as I am not. There are more important things to do, in my opinion, than to inquire into the traits of elite intellectuals engaged in various careerist and other pursuits in their narrow and (to me, at least) pretty unininteresting circles. That's a broad brush, and I stress again that it is unfair to make such comments without proving them: but I've been asked, and have answered the only specific point that I find raised. When asked about my general opinion, I can only give it, or if something more specific is posed, address that. I'm not going to undertake an essay on topics that don't interest me.

Unless someone can answer the simple questions that immediately arise in the mind of any reasonable person when claims about "theory" and "philosophy" are raised, I'll keep to work that seems to me sensible and enlightening, and to people who are interested in understanding and changing the world.

Johnb made the point that "plain language is not enough when the frame of reference is not available to the listener"; correct and important. But the right reaction is not to resort to obscure and needlessly complex verbiage and posturing about non-existent "theories." Rather, it is to ask the listener to question the frame of reference that he/she is accepting, and to suggest alternatives that might be considered, all in plain language. I've never found that a problem when I speak to people lacking much or sometimes any formal education, though it's true that it tends to become harder as you move up the educational ladder, so that indoctrination is much deeper, and the self-selection for obedience that is a good part of elite education has taken its toll. Johnb says that outside of circles like this forum, "to the rest of the country, he's incomprehensible" ("he" being me). That's absolutely counter to my rather ample experience, with all sorts of audiences. Rather, my experience is what I just described. The incomprehensibility roughly corresponds to the educational level. Take, say, talk radio. I'm on a fair amount, and it's usually pretty easy to guess from accents, etc., what kind of audience it is. I've repeatedly found that when the audience is mostly poor and less educated, I can skip lots of the background and "frame of reference" issues because it's already obvious and taken for granted by everyone, and can proceed to matters that occupy all of us. With more educated audiences, that's much harder; it's necessary to disentangle lots of ideological constructions.

It's certainly true that lots of people can't read the books I write. That's not because the ideas or language are complicated --- we have no problems in informal discussion on exactly the same points, and even in the same words. The reasons are different, maybe partly the fault of my writing style, partly the result of the need (which I feel, at least) to present pretty heavy documentation, which makes it tough reading. For these reasons, a number of people have taken pretty much the same material, often the very same words, and put them in pamphlet form and the like. No one seems to have much problem --- though again, reviewers in the Times Literary Supplement or professional academic journals don't have a clue as to what it's about, quite commonly; sometimes it's pretty comical.

A final point, something I've written about elsewhere (e.g., in a discussion in Z papers, and the last chapter of Year 501). There has been a striking change in the behavior of the intellectual class in recent years. The left intellectuals who 60 years ago would have been teaching in working class schools, writing books like "mathematics for the millions" (which made mathematics intelligible to millions of people), participating in and speaking for popular organizations, etc., are now largely disengaged from such activities, and although quick to tell us that they are far more radical than thou, are not to be found, it seems, when there is such an obvious and growing need and even explicit request for the work they could do out there in the world of people with live problems and concerns. That's not a small problem. This country, right now, is in a very strange and ominous state. People are frightened, angry, disillusioned, skeptical, confused. That's an organizer's dream, as I once heard Mike say. It's also fertile ground for demagogues and fanatics, who can (and in fact already do) rally substantial popular support with messages that are not unfamiliar from their predecessors in somewhat similar circumstances. We know where it has led in the past; it could again. There's a huge gap that once was at least partially filled by left intellectuals willing to engage with the general public and their problems. It has ominous implications, in my opinion.

End of Reply, and (to be frank) of my personal interest in the matter, unless the obvious questions are answered.

Sunday 16 January 2011

Tunisia: A Domino Falls

There are moments when history speeds up, when mighty events are compressed into and play themselves out over a matter of hours and days. So it has been with the ignominious collapse of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali's 23 year rule in Tunisia. No long and drawn out process. No gradual assumption of the president's power by parliament. The Tunisian masses took to the streets in the face of brutal repression and toppled Ben Ali's gang from high office. And now the dictator has fled to Saudia Arabia, long the Costa Brava of forcibly retired tyrants, Tunisia's remaining political and military elites struggle to funnel the uprising down the constitutional road.

Ben Ali's regime is the first to meet its end by revolutionary means since the onset of the economic crisis in 2008, and it couldn't have happened to a nicer fella. Bu while the events in Tunis and elsewhere are inspiring is there a possibility Tunisia could be a retread of Eastern Europe's colour-coded revolutions? These were, to dust off a Trotskyist concept, political revolutions. Corrupt and authoritarian governments were swept from power by concerted mass action from below, but capitalism generally and the oligarchical spawn of mass privatisations particularly retained their class power and class privilege. They were very much a case of meet the new boss, same as the old boss - albeit punctuated by a revolutionary interregnum.

The Tunisian revolution however significantly diverges from this "model". The Ben Ali regime was prepared to use violence, torture and repression against its own population to a degree not seen in Eastern Europe. This meant grievances and contradictions accumulated without outlet for a long period of time to the point where all of society was a tinderbox. What passed for liberal democracy was even more transparently fraudulent. Both meant the upwelling of anger was stronger and more self-sustaining than the colour code revolutions. And once the revolutionary tide rose and swamped the security apparatus, the military point blank refusal to put down the uprising.

This point is particularly interesting because of its possible strategic consequences. While the military are currently occupying key parts of Tunisia's infrastructure the agencies directly responsible for attacking demonstrations and murdering protesters have more or less dissolved. The head of Ben Ali's secret police has been arrested by the army-backed interim government, neighbourhoods are organising their own self-defence squads and, according to the Tunisia Scenario blog, all that is left of the police are the murderous elements most associated with the regime. Indeed, it appears the military has acquired some prestige because it appears to stand above society, helping push out Ben Ali when the writing was on the wall and making half-hearted efforts at protecting the people from death squads and other regime detritus.

If the latter interview with a CWI correspondent is accurate and no revolutionary opposition exists that can deepen the process at the moment, it seems unlikely the political revolution will pass over into social revolution. The stance of the military, whether by the general staff's deliberate design and/or
fear of a rank-and-file revolt may have the effect of dampening anger toward it and the Tunisian ruling class because of its disassociation from Ben Ali. But it is too early to say. Rising food prices were responsible for touching off a conflagration of the accumulating contradictions and were in turn amplified by Ben Ali's stupid brutality. At present the interim government have announced an election within the next 45 days but crucially the underlying grievances - spiralling prices, a slowing economy, mass youth unemployment - remain unaddressed.

Elections are traditionally a tool used by ruling elites to diffuse a revolutionary situation, but if underground parties like the Workers' Communist Party or legal but hitherto supine left opposition parties such as the ex-communist Movement for Renewal can merge with the masses and make their demands their own there's an opportunity a blow could be struck for democracy and the road be opened to a socialist future. If the nascent and ad hoc neighbourhood self-defence groups remain, the trade unions - driven from below - continue to press their claims, and the people carry on flooding the streets with protests and demonstrations the coming election could be a moment in the revolution's consolidation, not its dissipation.

Tunisia could light a touch paper that spreads like revolutionary wildfire across the Arab world and beyond.
Jordan, Algeria, Morocco, and Egypt can already feel the flames licking at their feet. Even Saudi Arabia has experienced a rare protest! The overall balance of forces are beginning to shift across the region. With sustained struggle and determined action, the dictatorial obscenities of the Middle East could be entering their final days. Let despots everywhere tremble as the revolutionary gale howls about their ears.

A Note on the Oldham East Turnout

I might be late to the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election commentary party, but there's something I'd like to add about the turn out (see Boffy for a wider analysis, and Andy on Ed Miliband's subsequent love bombing of the LibDems).

I've come across the odd Tory or two trying to rubbish the
wide margin by which Labour held the seat. Their argument goes that a majority of 3,558 is hardly encouraging when turnout was down to 48% from the 61% of the general election (if this should be a sobering result for Labour what does a feeble 4,481 votes mean for them?). But the Tories do have a point, don't they? Should a 13% fall in turnout be cause for concern?

Not really. Political science distinguishes between first and second order elections. The first order are taken more seriously by the electorate at large and refer to general and presidential elections. i.e. Those determining the political colours of a national government. Second order is every sort of election below this level. Falling into this category in the UK are the Scottish parliament, Welsh, Northern Ireland, and London assembly elections, European elections, local elections, referendums and by-elections. In the eyes of the electorate these tend not to matter so much and therefore turnout is invariably depressed compared with general elections. To illustrate, turnout at the May 2010 general election was 65.1%. Elections for the devolved governments were 51.8% for Scotland and 43.7% for Wales in 2007 (Northern Ireland saw a turnout of 62.1% - reflecting the higher levels of politicisation in the province). The 2008 London Assembly election saw 45.3% and at 2009's European elections it was only 34%.

Therefore attaching any kind of significance to a by-election result depends in large measure on how its turnout compares with other second order elections. In Oldham East and Saddleworth's case its 48% holds up very well in comparison to recent mainland Britain elections. The same is true of the by-elections fought during the last Parliament. In reverse order the last five before May 2010 were Glasgow North East (33%), Norwich North (46%), Glenrothes (52%), Glasgow East (42%), Haltemprice and Howden (34.5%).

It stands to reason the strengthening of Labour's support in Oldham reflects the wider turn to the party reported in poll after poll - whatever grumbling Tories might think.

Friday 14 January 2011

Dave and Employment Law

Guest post by Lawrence Shaw, NUJ Assistant Organiser (North and Midlands of England). Personal capacity.

Does anyone recall the momentous day in the spring of 2008 when the Tories hired an envoy to approach trade unions after more than 25 years of not talking to each other?

This trivial shift of posture was exaggeratingly hailed as a major change in Conservative Party ideology. No longer did “the old antagonisms” between the Tories and the unions exist, the corpulent Eric Pickles told a bemused Tory conference in Manchester in 2009. The appointed Tory emissary Richard Balfe spoke in glowing terms of unions as “great voluntary organisations” and assured union leaders in cosy private meetings that there were “
no plans” to change employment law.

Justifying himself, Balfe drew on the many
criticisms made of New Labour's approach to employment law that came from within the union ranks. He argued that as Labour was so bad to unions the Tories couldn’t possibly be any worse – somewhat ironically a very similar position to that taken by ultra-left parties and sects.

Now, less than a year after the general election, huge strikes loom large, the Tories want to weaken employment law and the trade union envoy who assured us everything would be OK is nowhere to be seen. Intriguingly, Balfe now doesn’t even like to mention his time as the Tory trade union envoy
on his CV.

Senior Tories like Boris Johnson are openly salivating at the prospect of further restricting some of the most restrictive laws on taking industrial action to have ever existed in the developed world, seemingly ignorant of the fact our un-elected judiciary
has been doing the job already over the past few years.

Outrageously, the Tories also
plan to double the length of employment service required for individuals being able to claim unfair dismissal at a tribunal.

This will mean that anyone in a job for less than two years can be sacked for no reason, with no legal recourse or compensation available whatsoever. The fact they may have up to 23 and half months unblemished, loyal service will matter not a jot.

It also leaves the sacked worker potentially
unable to claim jobseekers benefits for up to 6 months following dismissal. As for the private mortgage or income protection insurance people buy into, it is always hidden in the small print that in the event of a “dismissal for misconduct” the insurer is not obliged to pay out. And, of course, all-important references to try to secure future employment are impossible to obtain so people often have to pretend they haven’t been working at all. Anyone who has ever faced this situation knows that longer the gap on your CV, the more difficult it becomes to disguise where you have been and that you got sacked.

An unfair and unjustified sacking on the abstract grounds of “misconduct”, especially at a time when jobs are scarce, can quickly throw an individual or a family from relative security straight over the edge of the precipice into poverty and destitution. I have seen it happen to people, and it can often affect individuals more deeply and fundamentally than a violent crime or chronic health problem.

The ludicrous justification put forward by Cameron for planning to raise the threshold is to limit the number of “vexatious claims” that go in front of the employment tribunals and, in doing so, make it “easier for employers to hire people”.

Not one shred of statistical or analytical evidence that stands up to any scrutiny has been put forward by him, or anyone else, to back up this wild claim.

As the TUC has correctly pointed out, the move to raise the unfair dismissal threshold will not create a single job. There are no crowds of entrepreneurs and investors waiting for the unfair dismissal threshold to rise to two years before they rush in and splash the cash in a jobs-creation bonanza. The estimated
£600bn record corporate cash surplus sitting idly in the banks isn’t going to be freed up and invested in the country because you can sack workers a bit easier.

There is even an argument that making it easier to sack people actually goes against the hallowed labour market flexibility and social mobility that neo-liberals venerate. People are less likely to risk the upheaval of moving to another employer as they lose rights and face a longer period of insecurity, and end up staying in a job where at least they know they are relatively safe from sacking, meaning the natural churn of the job market slows.

The one-year threshold that currently exists is, in itself, an on-going national scandal. Only yesterday I was contacted by a union member concerned at the number of casual staff being taken on at his workplace. After completing 10 months service the casuals are forced to take a one month unpaid “sabbatical” - sacked to anyone else - then taken on in the same job again once the continuous service is sufficiently broken.

It is abundantly clear through examples like this that employers can easily find routes and loopholes around existing laws if they are so minded to do so. So what is the real rationale behind Cameron’s plans?

In weakening employment law, Cameron wants to send a message to employers that they can get away with being unfair towards their staff. This is because he wants to create a greater climate of fear amongst people considering fighting back. Worried that the on-going political demonstrations flaring up are likely to spill over into the workplace, Cameron now wants to put fear in the minds of individual employees, particularly younger people who are unlikely to have continuous employment of more than two years. The message coming down from on high is that daring to question anything you are told to do by authority – be it from the state or from your management - will see you out of a job and destitute. And that you can basically forget about getting any sort of retrospective justice, even if you’re innocent.

Quite how all this squares with the Lib Dems assurances on delivering “fairness” prior to the election remains to be seen.

It’s true to say that New Labour's improvements to employment laws and rights were imperfect and in many cases only implemented because of European pressure rather than through any genuine desire by Tony Blair to help ordinary workers.

But there were significant improvements nonetheless, and improvements that have made things fairer for people at work and for union reps. To dismiss them now as minor is to wilfully ignore the reality facing union reps and officials on the front line fighting for every job. The many real improvements we have seen since 1997 are all now very clearly under threat.

People join unions, in the main, for protection from bad treatment at work. It is the bread and butter of trade unionism, and what ties up the vast majority of union officials – both paid and voluntary - on a day-to-day basis. The ultra-left mantra that full-time union officials simply sit there colluding with managers to preserve capitalism is not based in reality. Fact is that four days out of five, all officials I work with and know are tied up in lengthy and complex talks over individual and collective situations to try to win justice for members, spending whatever time remains trying to organise and encourage demoralised members to collectively fight back against constant attack.

Our ability to protect union members on a day to day basis relies on both the law AND the wider general political climate which is why the number one priority for trade unionists and socialists must be to get the Tories out of office and a new government elected on a clear mandate of protecting existing employment laws, and improving them in the future.

The lies being peddled by Cameron on the unfair dismissal threshold cannot be justified on any factual or scientific basis and the plans will negatively affect all workers at all levels, from headmaster to classroom assistant, from Michelin-starred chef to McDonald’s staffer. The Labour party would be pushing at an open door to highlight and build widespread opposition to this straightforward workplace injustice that cannot be seriously defended, and should be doing so as a key priority. That is, if the Labour party wishes again to solidify a base amongst the very many politically aware trade unionists in workplaces across the country.

Wednesday 12 January 2011

A Car in a Skip

Blogging might be a touch slower this week, what with having to work and showing my face at a couple of evening events. So I thought I'd share this gem snapped by my nearest and dearest. This is what life on the mean streets of Stoke-on-Trent looks like:

Your eyes do not deceive you. That is a car. In a skip. In an already-full skip.

What I'd like to know is a) if the car was fly tipped (makes a difference from mouldy old mattresses) and b) how the car got into the skip in the first place.

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Tuesday 11 January 2011

Glenn Beck on the Arizona Shootings

Hard right demagogue Glenn Beck has come under sustained fire in the aftermath of the Arizona shootings. Along with the Ann Coulters, the Rush Limbaughs, the Bill O'Reillys, and the Sarah Palins few have done more to poison American politics with outright lies and violent language. Quite rightly there has been an outpouring of criticism against this style of politics but as warranted and wide ranging it has been, it doesn't go far enough. How American politics became synonymous with smears and bombast owes everything to the generalised violence that suffuses US culture, as Dave explains here.

Whether violent political rhetoric played a direct part in the conditioning of Jared Lee Loughner is hard to say. But we are all stamped by culture. It underpins every action, every thought. It makes us possible as thinking, feeling human beings. To get on in life, let alone climb the greasy pole, we unthinkingly practice the mores we've imbibed since birth in 1,001 everyday actions. Mumbling something about the weather to strangers, saying thanks after handing money to a checkout operator, we do these things not because we're cultural dopes, but because they help us rub along. They're the small things culture uses to haphazardly glue our variegated and antagonistic society together. If you live in a 'happy' society, the stronger the glue and the social solidarities it throws up. If you live in a climate of fear, the weaker the ties and the greater the atomisation. These is a reason why the Scandinavian social democracies are much less violent societies than the United States.

Therefore, what makes a man murder is a complicated business. Psychological problems are often cited, but human psychology is only possible through sustained exposure to the socialisation process. When Jacques Lacan said the unconscious is structured like a language, he wasn't wrong. Experiences and ideas react with each other in an unending dialectic of thought and action, which is at all time and always conditioned by one's relation to the world. Everything is full of meaning, and how that is received depends on one's (conditioning/conditioned) mentality. It is difficult to tease out, but culture is right at the heart of the process. The weight with which cultural expressions of violence impinge on individual psyches vary from person to person and how that plays out in their lives and their actions varies, but it's real, and it's always (already) there (more

It would be naive to expect a nuanced appreciation of the relation between cultural expressions of violence and acts of violence on Monday night's installment of Glenn Beck's show on Fox News. It's just as well I was anticipating nothing of the sort.

Sat on his desk like a doey-eyed jabberwock it wasn't long before faux sincerity gave way to the polemical rumblings of a rant. Once he heard about the shootings he chose to stay silent, and ordered his staff to do the same. What he claimed he was waiting for was a member of America's political establishment to talk common sense. Instead figures in the media and politics fell over themselves to score points. They, aided and abetted by the Washington establishment, had turned a tragedy into a political opportunity.

As criticisms go, this is about as reasonable as Beck gets. There is a semblance of an argument here. Without a shred of evidence, the "left" (i.e. anyone not sold on Fox's diet of repetitive propaganda) has tried to pin the shooting on the right. From the moment the first pundit began speculating about the shootings the weight of liberal media bias was thrown behind spinning the story to suit their anti-Palin, anti-Beck, and anti-Limbaugh agendas. The only outlet not to engage in "wild speculation" was Fox itself. While this is true (even Beck occasionally utters a truth), it was certainly a first for them. Were Jared Lee Loughner of Middle Eastern descent I doubt this uncharacteristic even handedness would have been much in evidence.

At that point Beck goes off the deep end. "Progressives" such as Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and CNN have seized upon the tragedy to drive forward their agenda, which is nothing less than the schema of communist revolution. You see, having poured over the Old Beards Glenn knows the tricks of the revolutionary trade and sees them at work everywhere where liberals have influence. The schema goes something like this. The communists/progressives/liberals have a solution, they get people into government, they use their position to stir up social problems, the system collapses, the people rise up, and the revolutionary elite can rescue the situation by imposing their top down solution.
Et voila. Communism.

Progressive policies in their entirety can be boiled down to this project. Here lies the danger represented by the Tea Party, Palin and Beck. They can spy the elitist and totalitarian core at the heart of the Obama administration and the progressive agenda and this is why they do everything possible to shut the right down (Beck's own activities are suppressed to the extent he sold
five million books in the 2003-2010 period, and Palin regularly packs out rallies).

Jared Lee Loughner therefore is a convenient idiot in the left's grand plan. Unfortunately for them their attempt to use him as foil is flawed because there is no evidence he had any politics as such. As far as Beck's concerned the most dangerous people in America are 9/11 troofers, those who think the moon landings were hoaxed, and people who only believe in big government solutions (of course!). And, surprise, surprise, Loughner was a troofer, believed the
Mars Rovers were faked, and his favourite books were the Communist Manifesto and Mein Kampf: the two tracks of the same totalitarian train [sic].

In Beck's eyes, Loughner wasn't a right wing or a left wing nutjob. He was just a nutjob. Violence just happens. It's not a problem of political ideas, it's a problem of people. You can't change human nature.

Of course, while denouncing the political blame game Beck isn't above turning it round into a new crusade, or, as he calls it, 'Glenn's Challenge'. In a
rambling statement Beck makes a series of mom-and-apple-pie demands that boil down to keeping violence out of politics. Referring to a blackboard behind him, he confidently predicts that of the various political and media personalities stuck on there only Sarah Palin will sign his statement. I guess he forgot his own image was up there too.

There you have it. In a remarkable act of self-deception Beck rubbishes and (intentionally?) misunderstands the points his critics have made about the violent discourse of American political culture. At the same time he rules out the very possibility of wider explanations of the shootings, crushing all the detail, all the complexity down to dumb old human nature and insanity. The result? The dehumanising language of Beck and his stable mates have zero culpability and, if anything, the right comes out of the shootings with the moral high ground, a high ground Beck has few scruples using to hit back at his opponents. Cue the resumption of politics as usual and clear consciences for right wingers everywhere.

Beck does have a high profile. It's to his credit he's toxified American conservative politics to the extent where he and his inimitable brand of frothy hyperbole is identified with
mainstream US conservatism at home and abroad. But it's worth remembering his political base is very small in the grand scheme of things. In the first five months of 2010 his TV audience figures halved. His radio listeners amount to around nine million, though there are signs this is declining. In a nation of some 300 million people this is small fry indeed - his top position as a "highly rated" TV and radio personality says more about the fragmentation of the American media than any real social weight.

This isn't to say Beck isn't dangerous. Nor does it negate criticisms of his never ending torrent of rubbish. But his power needs putting in perspective.

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