Thursday, 11 July 2013

"Better Politics"? What IS going on?

I've been meaning to write something about current events in the Labour Party for some days, but things keep moving ahead at such a rate, and the story keeps getting murkier and stranger.  Here is my first attempt to draw some thoughts together.  Please comment, point out any inaccuracies, etc.  Also - quick disclaimer - I have no special knowledge about what went on in Falkirk and cannot confirm or deny anybody's guilt or extent of any wrong-doing.  Please take that as read

The Falkirk situation has led to some dramatic headlines, a gift for David Cameron and his speechwriters and an opportunity for New Labour columnists bizarrely to shriek about Militant and communists. It also provided an opportunity for some New Labour “blue sky thinkers” to push Blair’s “unfinished business” of breaking the union link and indeed has led Ed Miliband himself to propose some pretty dramatic proposals in that direction.

Except, of course, many on Labour's right wing understand that the union link was always quite useful for Tony Blair. We have a tendency on the left to romanticize the influence of unions in the party. The link is essential, it makes the Labour Party a party of labour and brings in an influence of millions of working people, keeping the party grounded in a way the other UK parties could never hope to be. But let us not pretend that union bureaucracies have not played their part in the Labour Party central machine’s barely covert war on the left.

There has always been some fixing in the Labour Party. The traditional aim of fixing was to stop the left. For most of the party’s history, constituency members’ preferred candidate in a selection would tend to be the most left-wing candidate, and official fixers (from party and unions alike) would work to ensure that a different candidate would be successful. The same alliance would work to ensure that conference votes rarely embarrassed the leadership and that choices in leadership and deputy leadership elections would always be limited. Tony Blair valued such a contribution at least as highly as any of his predecessors. But under his leadership, fixing moved out of the shadows and became the norm; became a culture that all were aware of but would rarely challenge or question (long after it ceased to be “necessary” from their own left-bashing perspective). Some of Blair's former acolytes have actually been quite open about this old relationship.

I attended training sessions at Young Labour conferences and Labour Student Council events in the 1990s and 2000s where new young members would be taught the dark arts of how to keep left-wing delegations out of conferences and how to ensure the “correct” results in internal elections. And the leading figures in the youth and student movement at that time are at the very top of the party today. Indeed some of them are among the names mentioned in much of the Falkirk coverage. It is one reason why some of us find the faux outrage that certain Shadow Cabinet members express pretty hard to take.

Because the row that has come to light in Falkirk does not have its roots in left versus right, middle-class SPADs versus working-class trade unionists or indeed really in any matter of principle or policy. Andrew Rawnsley evokes Militant, but the roots of this argument are very much in the 1990s rather than the 1980s. And the background is much less interesting outside Labour circles than the romance in the papers, although it is equally concerning to ordinary party and union members.

In the 1990s there were two “traditions” in Labour right student politics. One of them worked extensively with and through the old AEEU (now part of Unite). They were students, many of whom went straight from university to a sabbatical student politics position and then to a SPAD position or work as professional lobbyists. Some of them quickly progressed to Parliament and even Shadow Cabinet. However, they maintained an old Labour right identity. They would later identify themselves with the mysterious “Labour First” internal pressure group.

The other lot were there because of Blair, with no roots (real or imagined) with Labour’s history and an agenda of thinking the unthinkable. Many of them went on to align themselves with Progress. Many of them also found themselves in similar roles to their student “rivals”. I forgot to mention the important point that members of both groups got themselves into paid organiser positions in both the Labour Party and some of the unions.

As we know, these groups have worked together apparently very happily for many years, sharing slates for NEC elections and – let’s face it – fixing things. Fixing is pretty easy by the way. The key method is via discretion. You enforce the rules selectively. Some paid officials (and I stress some because others are excellent and fair) perform an enabling function when they deal with members who will vote the “right” way and a blocking function when dealing with “troublemakers”. This pre-dates the developments I’m focusing on here. I remember as a 19-year-old being elected as a delegate to the first ever Young Labour conference. I received a disappointing letter from a young Tom Watson to say that our delegation could not attend because of some procedural irregularity. An irregularity that also affected the young NUM group, as I recall. Alistair Campbell reports in his diaries that Jon Cruddas was able to inform him and Blair how the vote on Clause IV would go at that conference before ever the delegates assembled. Later I would hear party members proudly boasting how they were able to achieve such results. Over the years these people have turned into the machine. A machine that includes officials in the party and in the biggest unions.

But occasionally the cracks have shown in this “hard right” alliance and this is what appears to have happened in Falkirk. Others may have been carried along with apparent arguments about class and Unite's public spat with Progress, but something else seems to be at the root of all this. Disagreements are partly down to the leadership election in 2010: one group have maintained their furious loyalty to the leader of the day while the others moved into new, oppositional territory, still nostalgic for the Blair days. Suddenly there is no longer automatic agreement over who the chosen candidate should be. Two lots of fixers appear to have ended up fixing for different candidates, just as happened in Erith and Thamesmead in 2010. Karie Murphy (the Unite-backed candidate) has widely been described in the media as a "left winger" but I've seen no evidence of that, and she has been described to me as having "Labour First type politics". Whatever role Karie Murphy played (and I repeat the disclaimer from above)fixers use the same tactics, whether they're in the party or the unions, because they learnt them in the same school that built a murky, anti-democratic culture.

This cannot be dealt with by either an attack on the unions as hard-left wreckers, nor a defence of one group of fixers over another as the vanguard of working-class labourism. Both miss the point. The solution to this problem is in openness, democracy, consistency and transparency. Both the party and the big unions have a responsibility to end fixing and keep things open. Commenting on this from the left (who have pretty much always been the intended victims of this fixing culture) seems almost like intruding on private grief, but it is important for the integrity of the party and the movement - and for the selection of the best candidates and those who best represent the desires of party and union members.

I am not convinced that all of Ed Miliband's proposals fit this. Indeed it is quite hard to believe that they have all emerged as a speedy response to a crisis in Falkirk. There are things to be welcomed in what Ed has said, and it is important that the left are seen to engage with this. (Otherwise we'll hear more absurdities such as Paul Richards' tweet about "backing our leader against the Bennites"!)

So - I welcome restrictions on spending in selections. We have to be careful about it, because it could hit some candidates harder than others if some "approved" or "affiliated" candidates are given "services in kind" by their organisation. The advice provided to Progress members, for example, would cost a lot of money were candidates required to pay the consultants for the service. Furthermore, efforts would need to be made to restrict the spending of arms-length third parties. But it's a welcome proposal.

I also welcome some manner of recruitment drive among levy-paying union members. 500,000 new members drawn from the ranks of our unions would be an excellent thing. But I, inevitably, have significant concerns about this. What will it mean for the role of affiliated organisations in the future of the Labour Party? Ed talks about "mending" the link, but what are the medium and long-term prospects for the link should this happen? If a small proportion of current levy-payers make the active decision to opt in, will that not add weight to those within the unions arguing for disaffiliation? Then there are just practical logistical questions. Will affiliate members have precisely the same membership rights as ordinary members and join branches and CLPs, etc? If so, what about all the ordinary members who are also members of affiliates? Do they become "two members" (assuming they opt in) or can they choose their cheaper membership option... It's all a bit of a mess. Perhaps most importantly, where will any shortfall of money come from? Being more dependent on wealthy individuals is disastrous for Labour and for open politics more generally. I see very little evidence of union influence on policy (more's the pity, considering we are a party born from the labour movement) but the likes of Bernie Ecclestone appeared to get a clearer return on his investment. The same can be said with people in private health and education businesses and the current government.

Which brings me onto my last point (other than a rant about primaries - that'll have to come in a separate post!) - surely this is the worst time in the world for a spot of naval-gazing about process? Our communities are being assaulted by this odious right-wing government. What are we doing as an opposition? First we seem to retreat on policy, next we turn inwards and re-start the "refounding labour" conversations. Quite what the status of Ed's contributions are is a little unclear - are these things going to happen or are they proposals? What role will conference play?

The real way to build a mass membership party is to give people a reason to join. To inspire people. To propose radical alternatives. Impressive sounding "big ideas" like "One Nation" and "Better Politics" is not enough - what ultimately matters is what you'll do. We could perhaps start by giving union members some reasons to opt in.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Thatcher and the Politics of Fear

As Thatcher is buried today, I’d like to relate my experiences under Thatcherism.

We entered her tenure in a state of high inflation, where food prices and rents went up radically and we did all we could to ensure that our wages kept up.  The other price rises came in the form of interest rates.  Some of us were lucky to be in a position to save up the minimum 10% needed for a mortgage.  Interest-only was the mortgage offered to the hard-up, with a mandatory endowment payment. This resulted in a shortfall at the end of the term - not the promised bonus; and which lined the pockets of the financial district.  So there we were, trapped in a mortgage as council houses were being sold off and mortgage rates climbing to 18%. During these days of high interest rates, I learnt how to make a weekday meal out of soup and potatoes.

Life was filled with fear.

Fear of losing your job was the prime one.  To be on the dole made you a social pariah.  Bosses soon started annual redundancy rounds.  Jobs were re-organised and manipulated to hide the plan to drop staff at one salary level and replace them with the lower paid. And if you raised your head above the parapet with dissent – well it would be easy to get rid of you next time round. As unemployment went up so did the pressure at work – there were plenty of people to replace you.  That gut-wrenching feeling every morning...

Fear of unions was another.  She made the atmosphere so bad that those petrified workers in the private sector were too afraid to bring in a union to their workplace. They were totally without protection. Scargill was made the daily hate figure, ‘him and his unions will bring down the country’, ‘it’s all his fault’, ‘he’s a criminal’ and so on.  My mum stayed true to him, bless her. But as much as she taught me about what was going on, that Thatcherite-induced fear lay deep within me, I stayed quiet, I just let it all happen. After all, with a crippling mortgage I couldn’t afford to lose my job.  And slowly but surely, with the blessing of an anti-union public, the public sector that we had paid for with our taxes was sold off like the family silver.  The revenues were given to the rich in the form of tax cuts.

Fear of politics was perhaps the worst.  As the years under Thatcher and her successors rolled on, it became increasingly difficult to say you voted Labour.  It started very subtly, and was mostly positive toward her.  It was when she took on the unions that the negativity toward those on the left became slowly but surely more insidious. How did the atmosphere change so imperceptibly from one election to the next? Any mention of politics in the office meant being surrounded and shouted down by braying fools who made jokes about Michael Foot and Tony Benn. The atmosphere was a replica of McCarthyism. ‘Are you or have you ever been a member of the left?’  But what was the worst: it was your colleagues who were doing it to you. ‘Are you with us or against us?’ – although Bush didn’t go as far as Truman’s Loyalty Review Board the atmosphere was there for the Patriot laws.   

So let’s always remember Thatcher and how the left disintegrated under her thirty years ago.  My involvement in politics in those days was at the ballot box.  I don’t know why the left fractured so much – I do know they weren’t there when I needed them.  We must create an atmosphere where our friends do not fear admitting they are left wing, an atmosphere which is not black or white but allows the shades of grey of opinion. We must support one another in this fight against the Tories and remember what Edward Murrow said:

‘We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men.’

Friday, 25 January 2013

Briefing Website updated

Announcing the new website which is now complementary to the new house style of Labour Briefing:

Thursday, 14 June 2012

The Issue isn't Progress

There has been a lot of talk in the Labour blogosphere of late about Progress (the internal Labour Party pressure group as opposed to the concept) - some of it interesting, some of it infuriating.  I can't help wondering: is this really what the left should be talking about at the moment?  That said, I'm going to put my views on record, before moving on and writing about something more important.

Things came to a head with all this just lately, with a resolution passed at the GMB conference and a rather surprising statement from General Secretary Paul Kenny.  The resolution itself, while very critical of the activities of Progress, resolved to do little more than "monitor" future activities.  The statement from the General Secretary was more bold, talking about a motion to Party Conference that would "effectively outlaw Progress as a part of the Labour Party".  Quite what this means is unclear, but it suggests something along the lines of making it a proscribed organisation.

Now I don't need to point out to any readers of Labour Left Forum that I fundamentally disagree with the Progress faction in the Labour Party on many, many issues.  I think their analysis of the current political situation is wholly wrong and their prescriptions for winning the next election are desperately ill-conceived.  But I don't think they should be a proscribed organisation.

On various occasions throughout our history, the right of the party have engaged in rounds of using the machine to silence opposition through proscriptions and expulsions.  Such party luminaries as Sir Stafford Cripps and Nye Bevan have been expelled at various times.  The machine has conspired against left candidates and elected representatives as well as ordinary activists.  I am proud to say that on the few occasions where there has been a left ascendency (and I hardly need remind anybody this is not one of those occasions), we have not done the same.  You wouldn't know that if you read the caricatures of Labour in the early 80s that the right paint.  But whatever people might think about issues like reselection of MPs, this was the use of bottom-up structures, trying to inject democracy into our movement rather than trampling over it.

These manouvres against Progress do not appear to have emerged from the left.  The dossier that was circulated earlier in the year was not written in the language of the left, and had a broader "anti-group" and "anti-slate" perspective that few on the left could sensibly share.  It would appear that this attack comes from much closer to their home: perhaps even a disgruntled former associate.

It is understandable that some on the left might see this as an opportunity to curtail the activities of a group that has undoubtedly played a strong part in maintaining New Labour's grip on our movement and pursues an ideological agenda that we strongly oppose.  Furthermore, there might be those who imagined that bad headlines for Progress might impact on the success of their slate in internal elections.  I am sympathetic to both positions, but consider them ill-advised.  Apart from anything else it is very likely to backfire. 

The main impact of the arguments about Progress is likely to have been a general move away from slate-voting. 

I am in favour of slates for internal elections. 

It is the only way we can move these OMOV ballots away from simple name-recognition towards voting on issues and ideas.  It is as useful for me to know who the Progress/Labour First candidates are (so I can make sure I don't vote for them) as it is to know who the CLGA candidates are. 

Furthermore, should there be any curtailing of group activities proposed through rule changes, you can bet your bottom dollar that new rules will be used against the left with far more vigilence than against the right.  They always are.

The Labour Party is a broad church or it is nothing.  We have always had a right wing.  I would be the first to argue that there is an element associated with Progress that does appear alien to our traditions, with no interest in the trade union movement, for example.  Some have told me frankly (if a little embarassedly) that they would leave the Labour Party should the left ever have ascendency again: they are not, by definition, "real Labour".  But there are others who are as Labour as you and I, as much as we may fundamentally disagree with them.  The Labour Party has never wholly been a socialist party.

I understand there are those who have concerns about organisational issues relating to Progress, regarding funding and transparency.  Those are reasonable issues to raise and consider.  But let us move onto the real arguments now.

Let's defeat Progress by pointing out that their analysis is wrong, and by winning the argument in our movement.  Let's leave the fixing and machine politics to them.

Monday, 8 June 2009

Where Left?

If you glance the Guardian over the next few days, you'll see the same mouldy old opinion piece again and again - this election was not the victory of Conservative, hyper-Conservative and Nazi ideology, it says. Instead, it's just that there's a lack of je ne sais quoi about the incumbent party, the clear fault of boring Mr. Brown.

Other columns have this redundant thesis - that there is a natural cycle, established by Thatcher and then Blair, in which centre-left and centre-right take turns to move the country forward a decade at a time. Labour are unpopular because the very forces of nature decree it, and we'll have our turn again in 2020.

Many left bloggers shout for a spontaneous eruption of feeling, either within the Labour Party or outside it, which will throw out the bad leaders and supplant BNP voters' false consciousness with a genuinely popular party, winning elections from the grassroots. Now these rats are hurling themselves suicidally off their sinking ship, but we still see no changes.

All these people are wrong. Not just wrong, but their pleasingly sewn-up conclusions are reinforcing the very apathy at the core of the problem. Our party needs radical surgery to survive, but it is much easier to take a placebo and pray.

What would this radical surgery consist of? I can't say exactly - but I can give a broad overview - the party needs to become accountable to its members in a way that makes party membership worth participating in. The party needs to become as radically liberal as the public mood, and throw off its hard-won reputation for being curmudgeonly and authoritarian by restoring a shedload of lost rights and finding a way to capture the national imagination by going further.

There is an enormous paradox hanging over our recovery in that it depends both on a grassroots resurgence and on being backed by the big money necessary to fight modern campaigns. Handled well, this can become a virtuous cycle, of election victories and populism of the sort that Obama courted. Handled badly, electors will smell the sleaze oozing from the heart of an abandoned party.

A view from Yorkshire (reposted from Labourhome)

For the first time in my life I feel a bit ashamed to be from Yorkshire.

We were the first to send a British fascist to Brussels.

I think back to the 90s when I was a strong advocate of devolution to Yorkshire, after 18 years of a Tory government we didn’t support, Thatcher’s war on the Yorkshire miners (followed by Heseltine’s Cold War on the miners); Thatcherite bankers declaring that recession in the north was a price worth paying for growth in the south.

For us to be the first (in England at any rate) to send a far-right MEP to Brussels is humiliating and heart-breaking. And not just any far-right MEP: Andrew Brons, former leader of the National Front. A Nazi.

But we need to analyse it.

6000 fewer people voted BNP in Yorkshire in 2009 than in 2004. This was not some great upsurge of support for the BNP or their policies in this county. This was not some great defection from Labour to BNP (though I’m sure some voters did make that switch, this was not the headline issue).

What happened was, on the night of a record low turnout, Labour voters didn’t vote. When they did vote, many of them scattered themselves amongst the other parties in protest, in fury, in thought-out defection, and some in sadness.

As such, the BNP did not need to increase their vote. They just needed to hold it up as much as possible.

So while the events of last night which hurt the most are the scenes of BNP jubilation, their apparent successes do not contain the most important lessons. Nation-wide, fewer than 3% of people chose to register a vote for the BNP. This was despite a more professional and active national campaign than they have ever done before, and despite the quite effective masking of their fascistic and Nazi core. Even in Yorskhire, less than 10% of the 35% of people who bothered to vote at all voted for the BNP.

The 65% of people who didn’t vote at all should be of much greater concern to us. Many of those people are those whose votes we used to be able to rely on.

Why have they deserted us? Let’s not imagine that it is all to do with expenses. Yes the expenses have added to a general cynicism and anti-politics feeling, but it didn’t create it. And we would have had a dreadful night if the election were a month or so ago too.

We didn’t earn people’s votes. We didn’t give them enough reasons to vote for us.

I mean, politically, partly because the mood of the popular media is that Labour is finished, we have become poor at ‘the game’. The economic signs are actually that Brown’s approach might well have been quite successful. There are some signs of recovery, banks here are going to be in a position to start paying the tax-payer back sooner than elsewhere, etc, etc. - we’ve just lost the ability to sell that.

But also we’ve lost that connection to reality that should tell us that that isn’t enough. Because that doesn’t house anybody, that doesn’t help somebody who lost their job last month, or is likely to lose it next month. Talk of green shoots is just offensively ironic to those people.
We’ve lost other things too. We’ve lost the moral high ground. Yes, expenses played a part in that, but policies played a bigger part. Illegal wars, illiberal anti-terror laws and heartless welfare reforms have - for many - made us the nasty party.

We’ve lost our sense of purpose. I hate the word ‘narrative’ in a political context, but we don’t have one. Certainly don’t have a positive one. 10 more months of Labour (unless something wholly unexpected happens in that election) - what is that government FOR? We will all have ideas about what it should be for, but I don’t sense any communication of what Brown, or the people around him, believe it should be for.

We need a radical agenda for the last months of this term. That radical agenda has to be rooted in real policies that produce real, tangible and measurable improvements in people’s lives: new houses, new jobs, repossessions halted, etc. rather than more academic, constitutional change that - while much of it necessary - should not be at the top of our priority list while unemployment and homelessness still rises.

I’ve kept out of the leadership discussion as much possible this time as it has essentially been a tiresome personality clash within the time-serving husk of what was once New Labour.
But if Brown won’t lead a government with that radical agenda, then he will need to be toppled and replaced with somebody who will.
It is all we have left.

Monday, 27 April 2009

University Challenge - Undermine Trade Unionism through Lies

Joint Statement from SOAS UNISON and SOAS UCU on the Dismissal of SOAS
UNISON Branch Chair, Joseph Stalin Bermudez

"Dear Colleagues

"As we predicted, the School's hand-picked Star Chamber has rejected
Stalin's  appeal against dismissal. Graham Furniss, Ian Brown and Matt
Craven, advised by Peter Mitchell the HR Director, would appear to
share the same perverted sense of justice as Sharon Page who sacked
Stalin in February.

"SOAS UNISON, UCU, and the Student Union, along with several voices on
Academic Board, had called for a genuinely independent panel to hear
the appeal. The School rejected that. Presumably they had no
confidence in an independent panel to produce the result they wanted.

"Stalin was absurdly accused by Sharon Page of a perceived "threat to
kill" a colleague in September 2008. In fact, the original complaint
contains no such allegation. The perception explicitly relates to
alleged "death  threats" in 2007. Those allegations had been found to
be "unfounded and unsubstantiated" in an earlier grievance hearing.
Never mind. The investigating managers and Sharon Page fell over
themselves to use those unfounded and unsubstantiated allegations to
support the complainant's perception. Sharon Page made her decision to
dismiss Stalin on her perception of the complainant's perception. An
more unsafe conclusion could not be imagined.

"There was, however, an eyewitness to the alleged incident, Pablo
Grisales, a cleaner working temporarily in the post room. One might
have expected the investigating managers to ask for a written witness
statement, but that is not what happened. Pablo was called into an
intimidating meeting with three managers present (Richard Poulson,
Sian Jones and an OCEAN manager) and was read out a prepared statement
which he was not shown and which he was asked to confirm. He was given
no opportunity to qualify that statement (indeed, he was prevented
from doing so) or to provide his own independent statement of events.
That unsigned "statement" then became the "witness statement". No
written report of that investigatory meeting was provided except for
the manager's file note.

"At the disciplinary hearing Pablo attended in person to provide his
own witness statement which supported Stalin's recollection of events
that there had been no threats. But this was dismissed by Sharon Page
as a fabrication and she chose to believe the non-existent "witness
statement" from the investigatory meeting. She decided to privilege
the "evidence" of the managers' claim that Pablo had verbally
confirmed their prepared statement over that of Pablo's. What else
could one expect at SOAS? Obviously a black cleaner is less reliable
than two white managers.

"Here's what Sharon Page actually said: "In my role as Chair I was
being asked to conclude whether two long serving and trusted managers
were telling the truth, or whether Pablo Grisales had changed his
recollection of events. On the balance of probabilities I concluded
that I believed the two managers. I was satisfied that the evidence by
(the complainant) and the SOAS managers was on balance far more
credible than that of Jose Bermudez and Pablo Grisales."

"What kind of reasoning is this? Pablo had not “changed his
recollection of events” because he was never given the opportunity to
give his recollection of events during the investigatory meeting. The
managers were clearly not witnesses to the events. And just why is the
complainant's view "far more credible" than Stalin's or Pablo's (the
only independent witness to the incident)? Prejudice can be the only
explanation. To say that this borders on downright racism would be an
understatement. Sharon Page made her decision to dismiss Stalin on her
perception of the complainant's perception. One white manager's
perception of a white complainant's perception of a black employee. No
contest in SOAS.

"The greatest lack of credibility in this whole affair is in the way
the incident was investigated and the how the decision to sack Stalin
was arrived at. Even more incredible is the conclusion of the
"payroll" appeal panel which could regard Sharon Page’s conclusions as
being in any way “reasonable”. Quite frankly, this stinks. The whole
SOAS disciplinary process has been brought into utter disrepute.

"We cannot allow this to pass. As promised, UNISON and UCU will make
available all the documentation and evidence relating to this case so
that our members can make up their own minds. UNISON are currently
balloting for industrial action and UCU will support them taking such
action. Meanwhile a genuinely independent panel of professors will be
established to examine the evidence and documentation and
reinvestigate this miscarriage of justice.

"Sadly, SOAS management seem to want to drag us back to the state of
industrial relations at the end of 2005. If this is the case then both
unions are ready to respond."

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

LEAP Conference 2009

LEAP conference 2009: Capitalism Isn't Working
LEAP Conference 2009 'Capitalism Isn't Working' takes place on Saturday 25th April, 10:30am-4:30pm at Birkbeck College, Malet Street, London. The conference comes just three days after the 2009 Budget Statement, and is an opportunity to discuss the economic situation, share information and build campaigns.

In between participative plenary sessions, there'll be four sub-plenaries:
Resisting the recession & Defending Jobs: the industrial agenda
Where's our bailout? Benefits, pensions, poverty & housing
What to do with the City and Global Finance: socialising the sector
Neoliberalism Isn't Working: fighting the ideological battle

Speakers and contributors include: John Christensen (Tax Justice Network), Bob Crow (RMT), Paul Feldman, Andrew Fisher, Professor Gregor Gall, Gerry Gold, Colin Hampton (UWC), John Hilary (War on Want), Jerry Jones, John McDonnell MP, Rosamund Stock, Graham Turner, Professor Richard Wilkinson, Matt Wrack (FBU).

Register online for the conference. We've frozen last year's conference prices: it's £10 waged and £5 unwaged, and you can also pay on the door. Debate online at:

Before this event, there is of course the 'Their Crisis Not Ours' Day of Action:

They've bailed out the bankers who started the crisis – but millions of working people across the country are paying with their jobs, pay packets and their homes.

On Wednesday 22nd April, you will finally have your chance to demand of the Government: 'Where's Our Bailout?'

As the Chancellor delivers the Government's annual Budget, come and protest in front of the world's cameras.

The Day of Action is being organised by Their Crisis Not Ours, a new grassroots campaign launched by the Labour Representation Committee which is chaired by John McDonnell MP.

The following actions will take place:

11.30am: Protest with placards listing our demands on Whitehall along the route the Chancellor will take from No. 11 Downing Street to address Parliament

5pm: Protest outside the Treasury near Whitehall on 1 Horse Guards Road, London SW1A 2HQ.

7.30pm: Budget Question Time event in Committee Room 10, House of Commons with panellists including John McDonnell MP, economist Graham Turner and Clara Osagiede (RMT Cleaner’s Grade Secretary).

The campaign is backing the demands of the People’s Charter. On the day, we will call for a tax on the profits of big business and a crackdown on tax avoidance, an increase in pensions and unemployment benefit, an emergency council housing programme and an end to repossessions, a cap on energy prices, rail fares and rents, and free education for all.


P.S. Please join the Facebook group and event here:

Saturday, 11 April 2009

Postal votes and PPC selections

(Reposted from Labourhome)

There is a growing controversy surrounding the use of postal votes in PPC selections: is this a new way to manipulate selections to ensure 'favourable' results?
The current party rules are quite clear. Party members are entitled to a postal vote for PPC selections, but under quite specific circumstances:
(c)Postal votes shall only be granted to those who are unable to attend a hustings meeting - not to those who choose not to attend. Postal votes will be granted for those who cannot attend due to a medical condition, cannot make reasonable travel arrangements, are away on holiday, have work commitments or caring responsibilities or any other appropriate reason for non-attendance at the hustings as agreed by the NEC designate representative. They will not be made available to those choosing to undertake other engagements unless they are candidates for selection in this process.
(e) No shortlisted nominee or any person acting on behalf of a nominee should benefit from interference in the process of applications for, or the issue and return of, postal votes. Any evidence of such interference may lead to the disqualification of the nominee concerned.
Are these rules being kept to?
The controversy is particularly stirring in Erith and Thamesmead (read this article in the Tribune for details). A third of the CLP apparently had 'appropriate reasons' for requiring a postal vote. Now, in Calder Valley, 90 people voted by post (nearly double the 50-odd who attended the meeting) inevitably having a massive impact on the result.
Now there is a perfectly legitimate argument in favour of ensuring as many people can participate in this process as possible, but if people want to pursue the route of an OMOV postal ballot, then it has to be structured, it has to be fair and equal, and the party would have to pay for CVs and statements from all candidates to go to all members, etc. That is one option. There is an equally legitimate argument to say that this decision should be taken primarily by people who have engaged in the process, have heard all the candidates and had the opportunity to challenge them face-to-face. Either way, what is happening in Erith and Thamesmead, and what appears to have happened in Calder Valley, is something different entirely.
Is uncertainty about this rule being used by external influences to influence the results of selections? Are people working on behalf of some nominees (or perhaps more clearly, working very clearly against some nominees) in order to ensure the decision is taken at a distance, that the arguments aren't heard, that the candidates aren't challenged? If that is the case then this is a very serious issue indeed.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

"The Islamist", A Review

I read Ed Husain's book on Islamism in Britain at a particularly interesting time. The Israeli attack on Gaza had just ceased, and Husain's anti-Islamist think-tank has just been awarded a million pounds of government money. So what insights exactly are we paying for?

Husain's story begins in the East End of London during the Balkan Wars. Against the will of their parents, young Muslim men and women are creating radical Islamist groups fuelled by their frustration at massacres of Muslims in Bosnia. These groups, it turns out, are based on fantasies comparable to old Communist Party fantasies about the Soviet Union. Bearers of "true Islam" emanating from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan all come to London and find small crowds of Britons willing to listen to their messages and give their political backing to varying utopian visions of the Islamic state.

Husain's picture of the East End is worth noting. The only people willing to listen to and engage with angsty teenage Muslims are political Islamist or Trotskyite groups. The Socialist Workers Party pops up again and again as the only part of the scenery able and willing to challenge political Islamism by providing other solutions. As Husain's dad rages when he finds his son involved in extremist politics, "If you want politics, join the Labour Party", but apart from canvassing at election times, they aren't there.

One particularly appealing aspect of his analysis is an ongoing narrative about the history of different political Islamist factions. They are often based around particular ethnicities, but they have histories of splits and infighting to rival the British far-left: like the British far-left, they have developed their own political language and there is always a jockeying for position as different groups try to benefit from different issues by provocative grandstanding. But this world is a far tinier one than the British far-left. Husain knew the 7/7 bombers and knew most of the other active political Islamists in London at that time.

When he decides to split with the movement and teach English in Syria and then Saudi Arabia, the book changes noticeably in register, tone and opinion. Syria appears in the book as a good place to be: a place visited by British wannabe political Islamists who find that the locals don't really share their enthusiasm for jihad. Saudi Arabia, however, is a different story. The Saudis fund one of the three main strands of British Islamism highlighted in the book, but Husain's visit leads him to realise just how much of the liberal political atmosphere in Britain he has taken for granted. It also leads to several instances of more-than-casual racism, where Husain (himself a Bengali) damns the idea of an Islamic state because "[t]he racist reality of the Arab psyche would never accept black and white people as equal".

Ultimately the picture Husain paints is of a Britain where some young Muslims have created a political movement out of frustration and angst, have found funding from external sources to be no problem at all, and have created Leninist organisations mimicking the Trotskyites they competed with (a note here: Husain calls Hizb ut-Tahrir a "cell" organisation, but it has a clear hierarchy as described elsewhere in the book). Since many of these are gang-like (Hizb was certainly gang-like when it was still at SOAS) you get competition for turf. There is secrecy and hatred stirred up at non-Muslims ("kuffars") and attempts at creating 'party lines' so that all members know which lines to say and when. A surprising amount of "Islamic" material turns out to be Marx, Rousseau, Nietzche and Heidegger in disguise.

As history turns full circle, we need to show that it isn't only politicised Muslims who care about the slaughter of Muslims in Gaza. Husain gives his befriending of a self-described "liberal" American girl as his turning-point away from extremism. Bosnia radicalised him: Gaza may have radicalised thousands more, but it is only because Muslims felt alone in opposing the Bosnian killings that radicalisation felt like a reasonable option. I wonder what this foundation will do to prevent that.

Update: Better informed opinions can be found here and here.