Dead Men Left

Thursday, August 26, 2004

I'm off on holiday for the next few days. No blogging for a while.

Kamm again?

Oliver Kamm has taken a rest from his labours. He has spent the past week in apparent engagement with the “non-debate” on the “death of the left”, as sparked by Nick Cohen’s recent New Statesman article. From a great height, he surveys the doings of the Socialist Workers Party in regards to British Muslims, and pronounces judgement: the "totalitarian left" is "supporting fascism". This is an habitual rhetorical trick of Kamm’s: adopting a position of deep, ineffable knowledge on a subject of which his readers can be safely assumed to know little: endogenous growth theory; Polish dissidents. The “war on terror” has provided the opportunity to work this device to its full capacity: whilst understandably few care to take an interest in the squabbles of the British far-left, it is more unfortunately the case that a blunt ignorance of Islam – let alone “political Islam” - is pervasive. On these two posts, Kamm rests his fine conclusions: a “war on terror” worthy of the name, no less, befitting latter-day “anti-fascists” like himself.

(Before we start, may I note how strange – how truly odd - it is that in all Kamm’s many writings on fascism in Britain, the fascists of the British National Party receive barely a look-in?)

Kamm has happened upon an article by Salma Yaqoob, in the International Socialism Journal, issue 100, quarterly “theoretical journal” of the Socialist Workers’ Party. It is, we are told, “One of the most remarkable articles I can recall in an ostensibly secular Left-wing journal.” Kamm, warming up, advises his readers of its provenance:

(I should explain, for those unfamiliar with the practice of Leninist parties, that International Socialism Journal is not a magazine like,say, The New Statesman or Prospect, where writers of different points of view are represented. A party that operates on principles of democratic centralism sets a line, which its publications then adhere to.)

His “explanation” is deeply misleading. Susan George, Walden Bello and Robin Blackburn would perhaps be amused by the claim that they subscribe to the SWP “line”. Robert Service, I imagine, would be truly astonished. The point is this: Salma Yaqoob is not an SWP member. She was invited to write – as those non-members above were invited – in the International Socialism Journal(ISJ) on the grounds that a reasoned dialogue amongst the left is to be encouraged. Yaqoob’s article is informed by her experience in the Birmingham Stop the War Coalition, and by her faith, rather than by an SWP “line”. That the article was entitled “a British Muslim perspective” should perhaps have alerted Kamm to this fact. Allowing for that, there ought to be little in what Yaqoob wrote that a considered, secular leftist would refuse to engage with. Kamm quotes Yaqoob:

The challenge for many non-Muslims, especially in the West, is to admit the possibility that there are values as universally valid as their own, and that it does not have a monopoly over the production of modernity. For example, the breadth and complexity of the Islamic movement and the Muslim presence, with its contribution to Western culture historically and its current role in extending modernity in the Middle East, needs to be acknowledged.

Occasioning him to provide a clear statement of his own beliefs:

Here, by contrast, is my position as a liberal, secular, European leftist. I proclaim the "universal validity" of the western Enlightenment values of liberal political rights, free expression,scientific inquiry, religious liberty, the rule of law, limited (not'minimal') government, female emancipation, and separation of civil and religious authority. Anyone who subscribes to those broad principles - whatever his view on second-order issues such as the right balance between private enterprise and the public sector in the economy - is my ally. Anyone who doesn't, isn't.

We will return to this statement shortly. For the moment, it should be noted, first, that Kamm explicitly denies any validity to a “Muslim experience”, whether historically or in its “current role”: modernity is solely and emphatically Western; and secondly, Kamm on those grounds should count Yaqoob as his “ally”. For in the same ISJ article, noting how certain individuals could “not conceive of any notion of Islam other than an extreme one”, she writes:

The irony is that the very things that many Muslims consider as fundamental to their faith -- respect for freedom of choice, importance of human rights, equality of men and women, emphasis on solidarity and fighting for justice -- are the things least associated with Islam. Instead the polar opposites --intolerance of others, abuse of women, mindless violence and terrorism -- are the more usual associations. The unremitting condescension and lack of any positive discussion of Islam is tiring, at the least, and often frustrating and dispiriting for many Muslims.

Again, we are forced to deal with Kamm’s pervasive habit of selective quotation reinforced by insinuation. (Note the “by contrast” in his statement of principle. What contrast?) In this instance, he relies on precisely the stereotype of Muslims Yaqoob criticises and whose presumed values she explicitly rejects in order to sedulously imply Yaqoob conforms to that stereotype. Kamm here deliberately uses an Islamophobic discourse to smear (we may presume) a sincere activist. Directly following this, he has engaged in a back-slapping exchange with Nick Cohen, of whom Yaqoob writes:

Sadly, despite the successful experience of Muslims and non-Muslims working alongside each other in the anti-war movement, many prejudices are still very much alive. A recent example was an article by Nick Cohen with the headline 'Why is a British socialist group forming a political alliance with repressive, Islamic fundamentalists? Because it really is exceedingly stupid', referring to Birmingham Muslims in the Stop the War Coalition. In the article we were called 'the enemies of political freedom, and the enemies of religious and sexual freedom', 'friends of tyranny', and 'supporters of dictatorship'. Repeating the slanderous claims about the 'Peace in Troubled Times' rally, he stated that 'clerics and their supporters instructed Asian women to sit separately from the men', and that 'Iranian socialists had to be shut up when they protested that they knew from bitter experience where religious bigotry led'. All these claims were completely unfounded.

In both Kamm and Cohen’s case, there is an unwillingness to deal with Muslims as anything other than a sinister, ideologically homogenous bloc, in the belief that politics can be instantly read off from religious faith. To claim otherwise is not simply to assert the freedom of individual religious belief that is (pace Cohen and Kamm) integral to and indeed constitutive of the “Western Enlightenment” – that to hold a faith is a matter of personal choice separate from individual political and social decisions, even where it may inform such decisions: to maintain Kamm and Cohen’s fallacy is to miss perhaps the fundamental dynamic of British Muslims’ engagement with the anti-war movement. Yaqoob captures it well:

Interestingly, there was one occasion at which an extreme Muslim group tried to disrupt a Stop the War coalition meeting, campaigning under the (somewhat ridiculous) slogan 'Don't Stop the War Campaign', calling on Muslims to refrain from working with non-Muslims. They were attempting to threaten the sense of unity and solidarity the coalition had built. The marginality of their views, however, was quickly made apparent whenthe Muslims present rejected them completely. The event proceeded smoothly, and they were not seen again.

Or, to put it another way: the Birmingham Stop the War Coalition was built precisely in opposition to the “fundamentalists” that Kamm apparently sees in every hijab or skull-cap. The experience in East London was similar: assorted extremist sects were left isolated by the practical, political experience of successful engagement between Muslims and non-Muslims. The Muslim isolationist argument was that western imperialism arrived as either the bombs launched by Bush and Blair that sought to physically annihilate Muslims; or it arrived in the “softer” form of the Stop the War Coalition and “liberalism” that sought toculturally destroy Muslims through assimilation. To undermine such arguments required the Coalition not to parrot the rhetorical demands of the “war on terror”: this “war” has little to do with “defeating terrorism” and much to do with pure imperial opportunism, combined with the domestic harassment of Muslims. (Kamm, as an aside, attempts to portray the SWP as “apologists” for al-Qaida. The SWP’s “line”, if you will, was made perfectly clear on 15 September 2001: “But whoever was responsible [for the WTC attack], socialists have a clear attitude. We abhor violence, and oppose indiscriminate bombings of civilians.” The Coalition, for its part, made its condemnation of the 9-11 attacks explicit in its founding declaration.)

The slogan “no to war, no to terror” was rejected by the Coalition shortly after 9-11, and with good reason: it is either a meaningless platitude – “Down With Nasty Things!” - or it repeats a liberal imperialist’s hypocritical handwringing: we don’t want to have a war, but… The SWP and others argued successfully within the Coalition for set of slogans that encapsulated the most pressing political issues in Britain: “no to war”, “defend civil liberties”, “no to the racist backlash”. Everything that the cynical, murderous “war on terror” has since brought to the world confirms how aptly chosen those slogans were. Everything the “war on terror” has brought has confirmed how necessary it was to announce, from its launch, the clearest possible opposition.

This opposition has included the defence of a woman’s right to dictate her own appearance. When Salma Yaqoob mentions that young Muslim women had taken to wearing the hijab in response to overt displays of Islamophobia after 9-11, as an assertion of their identity, Kamm can only recoil in horror:

The astonishing spectacle of the far-Left around the Respect coalition defending the progressive character of - among other aspects of Muslim particularism - the hijab is the 'left' variant of the same phenomenon.I stress that we are not talking here of Muslims' right to adopt the practices and observances of their faith, for religious liberty is an essential principle of the Enlightenment tradition. I mean instead the insistence that the character of those observances is itself a principle to be defended.

You will notice how Kamm – aware that he is dangerously close to breaking his own alleged belief in “religious liberty” – hurriedly suggests that his issue with the hijab is not because he opposes Muslims’ rights “to adopt the practices and observances of their faith”. No, what Kamm has a problem with is the “insistence that the characterof those observances is itself a principle to be defended.” The “character” of those “observances”, if we follow Yaqoob - who makes no claims about the hijab’s place in Islamic belief - is that young Muslim women who wish to wear the hijab do so to assert themselves as precisely that: as Muslim women, a deeply denigrated category in this society. You will notice from this that the defence of the right to wear a hijab has little to do with either a pervasive stereotype in the West about “submissive” Muslim women; or that it bears any necessary, “particularist” relation to the religious practices involved in its wearing. What is at stake is the universal right of women to dictate their own appearance: “female emancipation”, in Kamm’s words. It is because a women’s right to choose should be defended that socialists defend the right to wear the hijab in the West. Equally, the right of women not to wear a hijab should be fought for where necessary. To fall solely on one side or the other is denial of women’s autonomy; an autonomy to which Muslim women are as entitled as any other. (Kamm, who is evidently a keen reader of the ISJ, would be well advised to study Antoine Boulange on “Hijab, racism and the state” in ISJ 102, where this argument is made much clearer. It is, alas, currently unavailable online, though I doubt it is beyond his wit to order a copy.)

Kamm thus attempts to prop up his alleged belief in “religious liberty”, but then denies the right of certain women to be free to choose something as simple as their own appearance – and on no other grounds that they are Muslims. At every step, this peculiar feature: claims are made about democracy, secularism, Kamm’s virtuous defence of both, Kamm’s esteemed position on the “civilised left”; at every stage, each grand claim is perilously undermined. The fault-line, at each point, forms around Kamm’s insistence that Muslims be treated as a special case, to be denied the benefits of his “Enlightenment” values.

This is a highly dubious claim when made by a fervent supporter of type of Christian fundamentalism, and of a polity – Israel – whose own separation of state and religion is at best deeply problematical. (Perhaps Kamm thinks the advance guard of armed Zionism – the settlers - are seeking solely to bring a “western Enlightenment” to poor befuddled Arabs.) But let us leave aside Kamm’s lop-sided thinking, and address his claims here head-on.

Kamm offers a quote from what he calls Gilles Kepel’s “excellent” book, Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam (Cambridge, MA: 2002). It is spread over p.46-47:

Under Turkish secularism, which was unique in the Muslim world, the state did not remain neutral in religious matters, as it does in Western democracies, or aloof from religious activities. On the contrary, Turkey placed strict limits on those activities and exercised very careful control.... The secular character of the republic founded by Ataturk was the legacy of Comtean positivism, but it also owed a lot to the institutionalising of Islam by the Ottoman empire. One of the duties ofthe sheikh of Islam, chosen by the sultan-caliph, had been to make sure that the state's authority was not undermined by overzealous clerics.

(As Kamm finds Kepel’s book to be so “excellent”, I will quote from it extensively in what follows. It is an assessment I broadly share, by the by.) Curiously, Kamm cites “Turkish secularism” as an example emanating within “political Islam”: “there is no counterpart in political Islam to the separation of church and state, even in the obvious exceptional case”, which he follows with the quote above. If I have read this extraordinary clause rightly, Kamm views the Turkish republic as an “exceptional case” within “political Islam”. How, just how exactly the Turkish republic can be described as an example of “political Islam”, I do not know. Kamm appears to be labouring under the delusion that “political Islam” is identical to “Muslim politicians”, or even “a state with a majority of Muslims”. This is revealing; it explains much of his ill-conceived condemnations of Yaqoob, for example: a Muslim opposing the war on Iraq can only be a "political Islamist", and (by incorrect extension) a support of tyrrany, Osama bin Laden, and so on. But – as someone citing Kepel’s “excellent” book should be well aware – “political Islam” is decidedly not the same as being a “political Muslim”. The distinction emerges in the paragraph immediately following that cited by Kamm, p.47 again:

Likewise, in the socialist Arab countries, the religious legitimacy of regimes was carefully fostered, but religious issues were kept out of the public eye, which was supposed to be trained instead on the battle against imperialism and Zionism. Thus, Egyptian, Syrian and Iraqi schoolbooks of the 1960s went out of their way to impress on schoolchildren that socialism was simply Islam properly understood.

These allegedly “socialist” regimes may have laid claim to some religious justification, but the character of their official public politics was resolutely secular – “religious issues were kept out of the public eye”. That a broadly secular regime should also claim a religious legitimacy is not unusual: notice which book the next US President swears his oath upon. But this is emphatically not “political Islam”, as the development of the Muslim Brotherhood’s opposition to Nasser’s regime in Egypt made plain. Kepel describes the drive to modernise in the “socialist Arab” countries as driven by an “authoritarian nationalism”. But he admits of other driving forces, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, pp.28-29:

The Islam of the Brothers raised the standard of “Islamic modernity” as an alternative to the modernity of Europe. The exact meaning of Islamic modernity has never been settled, and this ambiguity has allowed a wide variety of social groups to assemble under its umbrella…

The ambivalence inherent in the Brothers’ message has not gone unnoticed, and it has been interpreted in a variety of contradictory ways over the passing years. Left-leaning Arab intellectuals have traditionally regarded the Brothers as a populist movement whose aim was to enlist the masses and dilute their class awareness with a vague religious sentiment – a tactic that, ironically, played into the hands of the established order. This analysis pointed the similarities to the workings of European fascism during the same period, the 1930s. But in the 1980s, a new interpretation of the Brotherhood’s ideology appeared among progressives, who saw the Islamist movement of their own time as a continuation of what the Brothers had begun. By offering a way for disenfranchised groups who had not come to terms with the culture of Europeanised elites to enter modern society, the Brothers assisted the process of democratisation. Thanks to them, according to this view, the people could gain political power through, rather than in spite of, their Islamic culture. This debate over the merits of the Brothers’ Islamic ideology is still under way today. But both analyses tend to reduce Islamism to the bottom-line interest of a single social group: either the reactionaries who manipulate populist movements or the “people” whose cultural authenticity is idealised.

There are parallels in the West: Gramsci’s analysis of the populist movements in deeply Catholic southern Italy, in a similar period, points to analogous features. Kepel, like Gramsci, wishes to highlight theambiguity of such movements. His argument is subtle and hinges on the interaction between the uneven economic development of the Muslim world, during and after colonialism, with the ambiguities of Islamic thought. It can be summarised, without (I hope) too much damage, as stressing the ability of political Islam to bind together heterogenous social groups in a relatively cohesive formation; however, both these groups’ very heterogeneity, and political Islam’s pronounced inability to solve the Muslim world’s political problems, have lead it to a profound crisis.

Far from being the dominant element in contemporary political Islam, al-Qaida is a recidivist throwback: a reversion to extreme violence as a desparate (and futile, and barbaric) attempt to “solve” this crisis: “…[T]he attack on the United States was a desperate symbol of the isolation, fragmentation, and decline of the Islamist movement, not a sign of its strength and irrepressible might.”(p.374) Carrying more weight, though still products of political Islam’s decline, are (p.368)

…those militants and former militants who now, in the name of democracy and human rights, are looking for common ground with the secular middle class. They haveput aside the radical ideology of Qutb, Mawdudi and Khomeini; they consider the jihadist-salafist doctrines developed in the camps of Afghanistan a source of horror, and they celebrate the“democratic essence” of Islam. Islamists defending the rights of the individual stand shoulder to shoulder with secular democrats in confronting repressive and authoritarian governments.

The attempted solution to political Islam’s woes is a drive towardsdemocratisation. It is placed, as the writings of Abdel Wahab al-Effendi demonstrated, in explicit opposition to the violent extremism of al-Qaida and similar. Kepel picks out a few, prominent examples (p.372): the Muslim Brothers who formed the "centrist, democratic" Al Wasat party, Islamist participation in elected assemblies, not questioning democratic principles, and the setting aside of the "sovereignty of God" deemed necessary for political participation by Qutb and Mawdudi.

This thoughtful academic, in his “excellent” book, could not draw conclusions themselves more sharply opposed to Kamm’s. In the violence with which Kamm chooses to denounce – not merely Islamists, but any politically engaged Muslim who opposes the New World Order – he echoes the rhetorical claims of bin Laden. As one Independent correspondent put it (Letters, 19 August 2004), attacking another (more successful) ideologue of the new Cold War, Ann Coulter:

Nothing can convince her that a Muslim can be a decent, law-abiding human being. In a way, she is no different from Osama Bin Laden. She does not want to have a dialogue but to impose her way of life on everyone.

Kepel notes Tariq Ramadan, an academic based in Geneva whose writings have engendered a significant debate in France. Ramadan’s most recent work in Enlish, Western Muslim and the Future of Islam, (New York 2004), in its active engagement with “western Enlightenment” values, and its concerns with dialogue, places him far from Kamm’s stereotype. Explaining his interpretation of Islam’s relation to the political, Ramadan writes, p.145:

There is a difference in nature between the Islamic principles related to religious ritual and those that concern the affairs of the world and society: the first are very detailed and precise, while the second are,with very rare exceptions, general and give guidance in a certain direction, rather than fixing a restricting framework…[T]he methodologies in these two areas are the complete opposites of each other: only the text is to be relied on for deciding what is allowed interms of ritual practice, whilst the scope for reason and creativity is very wide when it comes to social affairs, which are limited only by the prohibitions found in the scriptual sources, and these are in fact not very numerous.

This separation is not identical to what Ramadan sees as the particularly Western separation of “Church” and “State”; however, (to summarise, without, I hope, too much damage to his argument) he suggests the two distinctions allow the creation of a common zone of engagement, of broadly shared values, upon which a functioning political dialogue can be built, p.147:

So Muslims continue to find in their scriptual sources principles that inspire their social and political commitment without ever imposing a... dogma for action. On thinking about it, we realise this approach, apparently peculiar to Muslims, is in fact not so: many Christians, Jews, Buddhists, agnostics, and atheists are inspired in their social and political commitments by their religious, humanist, and ethical convictions to try and act in a coherent manner.

This is, at least, one scheme for dialogue. Ramadan has distinguished himself by engaging with the global justice movement in France, making a critical appearance at the European Social Forum in Paris last year. The search for common values that allow both an acceptance of necessary diversity, and the formation of common political programmes, has exercised the anti-capitalist or global justice movement since its rude eruption into the Northern world, the anti-WTO protests in Seattle of November 1999. That it can do both – rejecting a facile relativism, or a monolithic universalism, a la Kamm, is one of the movement’s great promises - Alex Callinicos, George Monbiot, Hilary Wainwright and Michael Albert are amongst those authors who have recently attempted to fulfil both these criteria. How successfully is left to the reader to judge; but such a debate exists, and becomes all the more pressing when too many voices announce specious “liberal” values as cover for a latter-day imperialism. That those bewailing the “death of the left” say so little about anti-capitalism is telling; their acceptance of post-1989 “New World Order”, and their resignation to the inevitable travails of social democracy blinds them to it. Above this resignation, a deeply, unpleasantly authoritarian world order is being constructed. (Blunkett enacts his own toy-town version of the same, here in Britain.)

Resignation is not unfamiliar to the left. E.P. Thompson, writing “Outside the Whale” in the very depths of the Cold War, drew attention to Orwell’s retreat into “quietism”, later followed by a host of post-war intellectuals who saw themselves as “hopeless victims of the world-process”. Criticising Orwell’s 1940 essay “Inside the Whale”, as ressurected by the collapse of critical thought into Cold War norms – an accomodation to what Thompson called “Natopolis” – Thompson turned his scorn on these preachers of disengagement:

It was a repudiation of responsibility, a trahison des clercs, as abject as any that had gone before: not the repudiation of Stalinism, but the inert surrender to the established facts of Natopolis: not the discovery that the motives of some men were wrong, but the capitulation to Eliot’s sophistry in which human motives, in an affirmative social context, must always be wrong. (E.P. Thompson, “Outside the Whale”, reprinted in The Poverty of Theory and other essays, London 1978: p.20)

The left today is declared dead, because the demand to think through the freshly-imposed categories of a new Cold War are too overwhelming: the “Clash of Civilisations”, and 1989, and neoliberalism, are all too much. And so disengagement, a retreat "to the watchtower", as Isaac Deutshcer once argued; coupled with a blind, delirious hope that moral claims made for the Great Powers' military action translate into reality.

A critical thinker is reduced to denouncing his old comrades. And why? Because, in an extraordinary turn of phrase, they are “stupid”: stupidly ill-disposed to the strictures of the New World Order. But some small, quiet voice of resistance remains. Whilst Kamm is a loud and enthusiastic enforcer of mental straitjackets, braying for dissent’s blood, Cohen still maintains his crticial distance. His article in the Observer, 22 August 2004, suggests his attachment to the moral certainties of New Labour's post-Cold War politics is not complete:

…In 2004, when it risked seeing the Liberals take Birmingham Hodge Hill, Labour reshuffled the pack and played the race card which had been played against it so many times before.

Liam Byrne, the Labour candidate, told the voters, 'I know that people here are worried about fraudulent asylum claims and illegal immigration.Y et the Lib Dems ignore what people say. They ignore what local people really want. The Lib Dems want to keep giving welfare benefits to failed asylum seekers. They voted for this in Parliament on 1 March 2004. They want your money - and mine - to go to failed asylum seekers.' Labour didn't mention that the disputed measure was a plan to take the children of asylum seekers from their parents and put them into care, which Michael Howard had denounced as 'despicable'.

Cohen makes a direct comparison with Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech, and the notorious Smethwick by-election. (The same comparison is made here.) It is apposite. The Hodge Hill campaign was filthy; the more so, coming from a party supposedly fighting for progressive politics, and I know of Labour Party members who simply refused to campaign there because of it. Commenting on Hodge Hill, Oliver Kamm, the staunch Cold Warrior, quipped parenthetically:

(I should also congratulate Labour MP Tom Watson for his robust campaigning in the Hodge Hill by-election; apparently it annoyed a lot of Liberal Democrats, which saddens me greatly.)

So there you are: racist filth is “robust” campaigning, an occasion for snide remarks on those foolish enough not to share Kamm’s lip-smacking delight in the exercise of authoritarian power. (A strong word, but there can be little other way to describe New Labour’s asylum regime.) The deliberate targetting of the most desperately vulnerable members of our society and the pandering (and promotion) of racism is solely – solely! – commented on as the moment to kick the Liberal Democrats. Labour's Hodge Hill campaign was obsence; Kamm’s response, equally so. Kamm concludes the first of his missives by quoting another's plea for “liberals” and conservatives to unite in a truly unholy alliance:

The differences between conservatives and liberals [in the American sense], when the terms are reasonably construed, are family differences among adherents of a free society, defined as one whose institutions ultimately rest on the consent of those affected by their operations. When the security of a free society is threatened by aggressive totalitarianism, these differences must be temporarily subordinated to the common interest in its survival. There is always the danger that in the ever-present and sometimes heated struggles between liberals and conservatives, each group may come to fear the other more than their common enemy. If and when that happens, the darkness of what Marx called 'Asiatic despotism', in modern dress to be sure, will descend upon the world.

The difference between democrats and authoritarians of Kamm's ilk is that the presumed belief in human freedom, or the creation of better world, is not mired by the celebration of existing power, the screeching dismissals of alternatives, the denial of legitimate dialogue and the imprecations against difference. Kamm displays an ill-concealed power-worship, and his thought runs constantly to a dead-end authoritarianism. No plausible left, no humane oreven “civilised” left, could ally itself with a reactionary of this stamp. Whatever lefts we build will be formed in direct, explicit opposition to the new authoritarianism and its apologists.

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Private firm "to break strike"

The government is prepared for an almighty show-down, it seems:

Private contractors could be used to requisition and operate modern red fire engines if crews strike next month after the Ministry of Defence warned John Prescott's department it does not have enough troops to provide full emergency cover.

Officials in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister have discussed paying commercial firms to support the hard- pressed military for the first time in the bitter two-year-old pay dispute should firefighters unleash a fresh wave of walkouts.


Contractors could also be asked to cross picket lines to transfer the appliances to military depots - police and defence chiefs are making clear they want to avoid clashing with firefighters.

And which sorry, squalid firm does any government turn to when it has some nasty little business it needs clearing up? Naturally, it's Group 4, who have had some experience in dealing with irate firefighters:

Firefighters and police tackling the blaze at Yarl's Wood asylum detention centre last month [Feb 2002] say they were blocked from entering the building by staff from Group 4, the private security firm that runs the centre.

Fire Brigade representatives claim there was a 'potentially catastrophic' delay of at least an hour when officers were barred from the site - not by detainees, as reports claimed, but by Group 4.

They are pretty adept union-busters, too, at least on their own patch. The merger between Group 4 and Securicor met immediate opposition from the main US involved:

Group 4 Securicor will inherit 340,000 staff in 100 countries, many of them in the US working for Group 4 subsidiary Wackenhut. Union officials representing Wackenhut workers said the business was built on "paying poverty wages, providing minimal training, resisting unions, retaliating against workers who point out security problems, and refusing to work toward higher industry standards". Wackenhut workers, in the main, act as security guards for public and private buildings.

Senior officials from SEIU, America's largest security officers' union, met competition officials in Brussels to argue against a merger. "Both [Group 4's US subsidiary] Wackenhut and Securicor have shown little regard for workers' rights in the US," said SEIU international secretary-treasurer Anna Burger.

She said staff training by Wackenhut was almost non-existent and the firm suffered from 100% turnover of staff in some cities."People are paid extremely low wages, so it's not surprising they leave after a few months. But security is a serious issue and buildings with well-trained staff who know their environment are safer than those where the staff don't know where the exits are."

Just the ideal firm for a scabbing operation, then; in fact, so pleased has New Labour been with Group 4's performance that it allowed the company to continue running Yarl's Wood after the security firm's ineptitude allowed it to burn to the ground. No-one was prosecuted for arson as a result of the fire, the detainees accused being found not guilty, but the presiding judge was moved to remark on Group 4's management: it was "inconsistent with their office" and Group 4 "had shown themselves to be incapable of handling an emergency." Since the reopening of Yarl's Wood, Group 4 have been hauled up in an official report by the prisons ombudsman for the racist abuse of imates held there. A fine company, and a shining example of how the private sector can bring its much-needed dynamism to the public. The dinosaurs at the FBU are simply trying to frighten us all.

Spectacularly lazy blogging

Heavy-handed parody sites be damned. Dead Men Left brings you a fine selection of Things That Ought To Be Parodies (But Probably Aren't). A small prize* is available for spotting the real spoof.

Date to Save: "Not only can we date cute guys, but hopefully we can lead them to God and save them from the burning fires of Hell."

W4Prez: "I am twenty three and have been foloowing George W. Bush ever since he won his first presidential election in 1988."

Fuck the Vote: "Believe it or not, even the most deeply rooted right-wing ideologue can be manipulated by sex."

Maoist film reviews: "If Spider-Man had any (spider-) "sense" at all, he would fight the police repression under which gold miners work in Azania and China to produce the gold coins stored in the vault of the bank that is robbed in the movie. "

(via Nick Barlow, Taxloss and HUH?)

*this is an obvious lie

Roy "Chubby" Brown?

Here's some sound advice: never ask the soft-headed readers of a cod-educational Cold War propaganda granny-mag who they think are the "funniest Britons":

1. Tommy Cooper
2. Peter Kay
3. Billy Connolly
4. Morecambe and Wise
5. Bob Monkhouse
6. Ken Dodd
7. Roy 'Chubby' Brown
8. (equal) Norman Wisdom
8. (equal) Les Dawson
10. Lee Evans
11. (equal) David Jason
11. (equal) Dawn French
13. (equal) Jim Davidson
13. (equal) Rowan Atkinson
15. Benny Hill
16. Jasper Carrott
17. Lenny Henry
18. Spike Milligan
19. John Cleese
20. (equal) Eddie Izzard
20. (equal) Freddie Starr

Virtually everything about this list is bad and wrong.

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Resile, sir? Resile?

I'm easily pleased, obviously, but this is close to inspired:

...There is no question, in a civilised society, of us having anything to do with the remains of our opponents. I am not sentimental about this, but it has to do with recognising that there is a sphere of life that is totally private and unconnected to politics. Contrary to Leninist unwisdom, the personal is not the political. Obviously, the remains will have to be disposed of, but this ought to be carried out as far as possible by private cleaning firms. I hold it a duty of the state to ensure that our streets are not cluttered with bodies, but I also think it appropriate to delegate as much of this responsibility to efficient profitable enterprises as possible...

Grrrmphhhteeheehee, as they used to say in the Asterix cartoons.

Nader, very briefly

DoDo, the Manic Net Preacher, has a few words on the Nader candidacy, though noting:

I'm not comfortable with this subject, because it is their Nader-bashing where the Democrats (both party leadership and sympathisants) let me down the most.

A fair point: when "Nader-bashing" has extended so far as an attempt to stifle democratic choice - pushing for Nader's removal from ballot-papers, successfully in Illinois - it is particularly reprehensible. DoDo makes this point, and few others, not least that the drive towards negative campaigning has fostered an inability amongst Democratic candidates to say anything positive about why anybody ought to vote for them. Kerry is a particularly egregious example, attempting to coast through on the revulsion that many voters (rightly) feel for George Bush. But as DoDo says, the key problem for a supposedly "progressive" campaign is that of engaging non-voters:

As [Howard] Dean rightly noticed but Kerry's DNL/DNC pushers still haven't learnt (and had many Democratic acitivists forget again), you should focus on getting non-voters. And if you still want Nader-voters too, the win to win them over is through policy promises, by making Kerry more likeable.

Kerry has, in truth, gone almost out of his way at late to dull those potential voters into submission. Responding to Bush's challenge as to whether "knowing what we know now" Kerry would still have voted for the authority to invade Iraq, Kerry's answer was unambiguous:

Yes, I would have voted for the authority. I believe it is the right authority for a president to have but I would have used that authority effectively.

He is little better on other issues. The Washington Post reports hat Kerry has "rejected sweeping policy changes such as... moving too quickly to provide health coverage to every American."

DoDo' analysis is broadly correct. Where it falls down is in missing out the vital role a non-Democratic progressive left can play in pressuring the Democrats. In lazy fashion, I reproduce what I argued elsewhere (Socialist Review, forthcoming), but it fits here:

What Nader means is that the Democrats cannot take a "left" vote for granted. As Nader put it, "when you're taken for granted, you are taken": by disabling itself politically, and supporting the Democrats come what may, the US left's Lesser Evilism has allowed the Democrats to tail-end the Republicans’ drive to the right. This, in turn, removes any serious pressure on the Republicans from the left, as seen in the Democrats’ craven support for the “war on terror”. It has a created a vicious circle, in which the sort of radical politics that could appeal to millions of US workers – of taxing the rich to fund public services, or of defending the environment – are excluded. But the need to fight for progressive politics becomes more, not less, important when the space to do so becomes constrained, as it has since 9-11. As in 2000,
Nader has been a vociferous critic of the Tweedledee and Tweedledum system of Republicans or Democrats. "We are trying to destroy the two-party corporate system," he said in a recent interview. "Both parties are pro-war, pro-Patriot Act; both parties are pro-WTO."

Nader won't win, as DoDo notes; but what he can do is force open a space in US politics where a variety of taboo subjects can be can be critically discussed and radical (or, hell, just progressive) alternatives voiced and fought for. Not just of Palestinian rights, on which Nader has spoken courageously, earning abuse from predictable quarters, but of the simpler issues noted above, like healthcare, or environmental protection. He provides a means to both pressure the Democrats from the left, and, in doing so, provide an effective opposition to the lunacies of the "war on terror". It is hard to see how aping after a committed supporter of that "war" can help strengthen the left in the US: should Kerry lose, the Democrats will - as DoDo suggests - have only themselves to blame for failing to mobilise potential support. A left unafraid to see this election through will be strengthened in combatting Bush, something that Kerry and the Democrats have wholly failed to do. (Doubtless Nader would be scapegoated; incidentally, 12% of registered Floridian Democrats marked their vote for Bush in 2000. That cannot all be due to confusing ballot papers.) should Kerry win, the disillusion with his rule (already so committed to so much of Bush's) will be immense amongst those who now place some small faith in him. Without a clear left alternative, that disillusionment can turn to despair. The fight for a left-wing politics in the US does not stop at the election: Kerry may wish that it did.

Monday, August 23, 2004

"White police claim racism"

Unfortunately, this did not turn out to be an edifying example of self-criticism on the part of the Metropolitan Police. Rather, it would seem that a selection of London's finest have decided the blacks and Asians are getting a little uppity:

Around half of the long-running race cases being taken to employment tribunals by Met officers now involve white complainants, according to evidence submitted to the Morris inquiry, which is examining the force's treatment of its staff.

The inquiry has uncovered a bitter undercurrent of resistance to change in anonymous interviews with officers, one of whom complained that 'if you are from a [visible ethnic minority] whatever you want, you can have.'

(What, I wonder, stood in the place of "visible ethnic minority"?) In response to the Macpherson Report's finding of "institutional racism" in the Metropolitan Police in 1999, a certain amount of pressure has been applied to the Met to reform. In true New Labour fashion, this has meant the adoption of targets: the Met wishes to see 25% of its force come from ethnic minorities by 2009.

But here is the flaw. The Met maintains this target and provides the pretence that it is dealing with the problem - but nothing much changes. As the figures on stop and search demonstrated, the Metropolitan Police remains as biased against blacks and Asians as ever, continuing to harrass disproportionate numbers of both communities. Racism - not just the perception of racism, but a deeply-ingrained ethos - remains rife inside the Met. The result is that few black and Asian recruits come forward to join London's police - since who would wish to join a flagrantly racist organisation? - and, even more telling, those who do still drop out far sooner than their white counterparts. Last year, for example,13%of ethnic minority recruits failed to complete their training at Hendon, compared to just 6% of white. So great is this lag that Ray Powell, president of National Black Police Association, suggests that to meet the 25% target by 2009 would require up to 80% of new recruits to come from ethnic minorities - which, for the Met, "is ridiculous".

The result is that a variety of apparently far-reaching reforms are having little result but to antagonise the white officers who make up the great majority of the Met's force. Well immersed in the so-called "canteen culture", treating anti-racist initiatives with derision, this pampered group are profoundly unwilling to accept any responsibility for reform. The Morris inquiry itself was established precisely in response to pressure for change, after the collapse of high-profile internal investigations of ethnic minority officers added to the sense that the Met's own procedures are deeply flawed. It has been a grave error to allow the Met to attempt to scrub itself clean; any significant changes must come from outside. Inquiries like Morris' or Macpherson's provide a much-needed exposure of the Met's underbelly, but to enforce inquiry recommendations is another issue: London has never known the benefits of effective, democratic controls over its police force, and the Met's current status of privileged quasi-autonomy is profoundly open to abuse. Whilst racism runs much deeper than just through this sorry organisation, a serious and persistent scrutiny of the police and the application of substantial political pressure may compel some real changes.

Scottish anarchist in voting shock

The Guardian has an interview today with legendary anarchist Stuart Christie, who achieved infamy in the mid-sixties for his part in a botched attempt to assasinate General Franco. After joining the Labour Party Young Socialists in Glasgow, sharing a branch with Paul Foot, Christie was "soon disillusioned with the chicanery of Labour politics, and [I was disgusted] with the executive committee going out with Rangers scarves on to make sure that the Protestant candidates were accepted." He continues:

"The idea of revolution was quite alive in Scotland at the time," he says. "There was the political radicalisation of the 50s, satire, rock music and the collapse of the credibility of the Communist party." But a greater influence was Spain and the cause that had prompted many of his compatriots to join the International Brigade a quarter of a century earlier. He moved south to London where he worked as a sheet-metal apprentice and on an ironmongery stall in Shepherd's Bush. He met Spanish anarchist exiles in Bristol and decided that "I had to do more than just demonstrate and leaflet. I offered my services." The mission he was assigned was to deliver explosives to Madrid for the latest attempt - the 30th, as it happened - to blow up Franco. In Paris, he met his fellow desperadoes, who were tickled when he introduced himself with the phrase, "Zut alors!" His limited knowledge of French had led him to believe that that was what one said in the circumstances.

Was he frightened? "Not really," he says. "It was fun. I got an adrenaline buzz and I was doing good at the same time. No one knew. My mother thought I was grape-picking." He hitchhiked south, having packed his kilt, which he had found was a great way to get lifts. This was to lead to some confusion: it was reported in the Argentinian press that the man trying to kill Franco was a Scots transvestite.

He was intercepted just inside the border, and - narrowly avoiding a death-sentence - was held for three and a half years in a Spanish jail. Read the rest of the interview here.

(The "voting shock"? Well...

He voted for the first time in the European elections. "I voted against Tony Blair and for Respect. The furore it caused from anarchists when it appeared on a website! The next thing, I'm getting emails from Italy saying, 'What are you doing voting?' It was because of the war primarily, but also everything else. I can feel the hairs on the back of my neck when I see Blair on television. He has subverted the good name of Scottish radicalism with the people he surrounds himself with." this a recommendation?)

Thursday, August 19, 2004

Pressing work demands mean - once more - that blogging will tend towards the intermittent over the next week. (I say this now. More likely is that I will become distracted from "pressing work demands" and continue posting regardless of imminent and alarming deadlines.) So as a compromise, here is a mixed bag of oddments from the web:

Chris Lightfoot prises open a dubious defence of authoritarian policy over here. It is a wonder, given the most cursory grasp of British history, that anyone can argue "[l]acking sharply-defined ideological differences, Westminster politics has little sense of the malign, let alone totalitarian, as opposed to illiberal or merely incompetent, exercise of power", but this tabloid journalist manages it. The peculiar logic that an absence of "sharply-defined ideological differences" in the legislature prevents the emergence of a "malign... exercise of power" we also will not dwell upon. (Though I might deign to suggest that in the British case, it is precisely those periods of greatest ideological consensus at Westminster that have produced the most sharply authoritarian policy. But anyway.)

(Instant Kamm, by the way:

slightly obscure cultural reference, portentous tone, grammatical sniping, the inevitable bitching about a Liberal Democrat, and a rhetorical attack on Soviet communism, only fifteen years too late

...surely it should be possible for a small, simple computer program, running an algorithm based on this outline to replace the real Kamm? Any takers?)

It is also strange that, just days before a left-wing populist wins an overwhelming democratic mandate in a referendum on his Presidency, Nick Cohen chose to lament the "death of the Left". (One, vaguely cosmopolitan, politically decisive example to match the smattering of parochial cultural flotsam Cohen presents.) Chris Brooke at The Virtual Stoa, responding to one of Cohen's approximate fellow-travellers, presents a reasoned case in favour of the Left's continued good health, concluding:

And what of the counter-examples? Well, they're the usual suspects, I'm afraid: the global justice movement, or the "movement of movements", as it's sometimes called, and the various bits and pieces that get grouped together under that heading: those who work with refugees, asylum seekers and other migrants; the Brazilian landless workers movement and other land rights movements around the world; the Karnataka State Farmers Association and many other trade unions; ATTAC and the international Social Forums (Fora?) which it's helped to spawn; Oxfam; the opposition to Robert Mugabe's thuggish regime (and yes, even some of the neoliberal MDC opposition to Mugabe); the Rawlsians and their leftist critics in the universities; Amnesty International; the Zapatistas; Students United Against Sweatshops and their ilk; the governments of Lula and Hugo Chávez (much of the time); European social democratic governments (some of the time, increasingly rarely, in fact); the food sovereignty movement; just about any attempt to redistribute resources from the affluent to the poor; together with the usual spectrum of organisations continuing the long, hard work of liberating and empowering women, sexual minorities, the disabled, indigenous peoples, and so on, and so forth, and so it goes on. You can guess some of the rest.

That's my left, perhaps it's even my Left, and it's one that gives me quite a lot of hope for the future, even if it does get buffeted a bit by the currents of history along the way. But then, how could it not be?

Daniel Brett, whose blog is persistently worth reading, pens a cautionary note on the latest round of "anti-terror" arrests.

Charlotte Street somehow manages to bestow gracious knowledge upon ignorant apes like myself without being horribly patronising. Unless you're Johann Hari, of course, in which case it is rather deserved.

Finally, a tittersome blogging in-joke, may god have mercy on us all.

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Hugo Chavez - a damn sight better than Blair

Hugo Chavez won the recall referendum. Won it substantially. Won it by 1.5m votes, 58% to 42%. Won it fairly, if Jimmy Carter's word is anything to go by. After years of coups, plots, slanders in his own media, and a constant, corrosive drip-drip-drip from Washington, Chavez has come through it all to finally deliver something the left and all progressives worldwide can smile about. By no means perfect, by no means ideal, Chavez has spat in the face of the mandarins of the "Washington consensus"; and spitting with him are the bulk of the Venezuelan people. Tariq Ali, in today's Independent, makes the case for Chavez's popularity:

Just under a million children from the shanty towns and the poorest villages obtain a free education; 1.2 million illiterate adults have been taught to read and write; secondary education has been mmade available to 250,000 children whose social status excluded them from this privilege during the ancien regime; three new university campuses were functioning by 2003 and six more are due to be completed by 2006...

Between 1958 and 1994, four years before Chavez's first election victory, Venezuela earned $300bn from oil exports. Very little of this immense wealth trickled down to the poor. Neo-liberalism arrived with a vengeance in 1989, under President Perez's "Great Turn". The numbers living in the direst poverty increased from 36% to 66%; Perez shot down thousands of demonstrators. Under Chavez, whilst the wealthy, Washington-inclined elite have conspired, crossing the boundaries of supposedly sacred legality with abandon, the Chavez government has delivered immense benefits for the impoverished of Venezuela.

This is not the self-emancipation of the working class. This is not the foundation of a new society. But in a world dominated by a shameless connivance to the market, this is something to be supported. And yet, somewhere along the line, a small group of self-styled pro-war "leftists" have missed out on all this. How strange, though it has provoked me to blog the happy occasion. For the rest of us, time to follow Blair's advice: "rejoice!"


Someone, somewhere has got the union bosses' backs up:

Union leaders have warned the deputy prime minister, John Prescott, that the fire service dispute could "sour the wider industrial relations climate", and undermine the public services agenda.

Leaders of some of the country's heavyweight unions urged the government to persuade employers to reopen negotiations with the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) to avoid "embittering" industrial relations which could spread to other unions, after talks broke down earlier this month over bank holiday cover.

The TUC's general secretary, Brendan Barber, brokered the talks to help break the deadlock, but without success. Employers insist that firefighters should carry out normal duties on bank holidays, while the FBU wants its members to undertake only essential services, similar to the terms of employment for night shifts.

The last paragraph is perhaps slightly misleading. The Independent gave a different account of the negotiations, in which a deal was to be intentionally spoiled at the last minute:

Labour Party hardliners are involved in a last-ditch attempt today to sabotage an agreement aimed at averting fresh national industrial action by firefighters, according to a senior management source.

Some Labour local authority representatives are seeking to derail an outline deal worked out with the Fire Brigades Union in weeks of negotiations ending last Thursday, it is understood.

Lo and behold, the talks collapsed in acrimony. (I blogged this earlier, over here.) Shortly afterwards, FBU assistant general secretary Mike Fordham was clear on who to blame:

“I am stunned and angry. We had 14 days of detailed daily talks and reached agreements which the union honoured this morning.

“A clear agreement was reached. A Government inspired wrecking crew from London has been sent in to destroy this deal and they have done it.

“Nick Raynsford has stepped in behind the scenes to wreck this deal. He does not want agreement on any terms, he only wants confrontation.

“He threatened to withdraw the £30 million transitional funding if a deal was reached. He has bullied these councilors into adopting a position many of them are disgusted with.

“All this was happening when we were in talks to try and reach agreement. He has deceived us, the TUC and the councillors who were present.

“He is driven by vindictiveness, the vilest of motives. We reached a deal with honourable and decent people. This deal has been wrecked by dishonourable and deceitful people lurking in Labour's political shadowland."

Far from intervening against a recidivist and unrepentantly militant union, the senior union leaders involved are now intervening against a recidivist and unrepentantly militant government determined to wreck a negotiated settlement. The general secretary of the TGWU, Tony Woodley,claimed last monthafter the National Policy Forum deal that "[a] united trade union movement is being treated again with respect and dignity" by New Labour. Within weeks, he is forced into a letter-writing campaign, reminding the same "respectful" Labour government of basic union principles. A union boss's capacity for humiliation knows few bounds, it would seem.

Monday, August 16, 2004

"Chavez claims victory"

From the Grauniad, with no further comment:

Hugo Chávez, the leftwing president of Venezuela, today claimed victory in a national referendum on his rule.

The Venezuelan electoral commission said that, with 94% of ballots counted, Mr Chávez had 58% of the vote. His opponents have 42%.

In a speech to thousands of cheering supporters, the president said it was "impossible" that his victory could be reversed.

The recall vote - which Mr Chávez had to win to stay in power - was expected to be close. A much higher turnout than had been predicted raised fears among the president's campaign team that opposition support had increased.


The presidential recall vote, the first in Venezuela's history, was intended to end two years of sometimes violent protest against Mr Chávez's rule.

He was briefly ousted in a 2002 coup, and last year had to battle against a two-month general strike and political riots.

The protests, however, may not end. Haydee Deutsch, an opposition leader, alleged that fraud had been committed, and said the opposition was in "no doubt that we won by an overwhelming majority".


Sunday, August 15, 2004

Lloyd George knew my father, Father knew Lloyd George...

Oh joy! From The Times, through (variously) Blood and Treasure, Nick Barlow and Labour Watch:

'Alpha' courses to restore Labour faith


LABOUR is to start conducting weekend “academies” to win wavering supporters back to the moral values upon which the party was founded.

The idea is pioneered by Hazel Blears, the Home Office Minister of State, who said that they would run along similar lines to the Alpha courses, the popular beginners’ guide to Christianity.


Groups of 25 people will commit themselves to two full Saturdays, as well as homework in the form of reading key texts on Labour’s history — including works by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown — to serve as the basis for discussions of personal morality.

She felt that they were necessary to restore idealism in the party after the Iraq war, two terms in government, and the Conservative Party moving on to Labour’s ground.

Labour Watch wonders of the lucky 25 "how much Keir Hardie they'll be reading". It's fair to say that after a giddy day awash with such dangerous concepts as "personal morality" and "idealism", they'll need the sure and steady anchor of Keir Hardie to stop them becoming quite delirious:

[Hardie's] most marked characteristic is his love of animals. He is often to be seen stopped to talk to a horse in the street.
(Daily Mirror, 18 May 1906)

To be fair, a faddish belief in reincarnation (and the resulting desire to natter with horses) is no worse than smearing your naked, screaming body with papaya juice to become "reborn", buying "bio-electric" pendants to ward off the evil spirits aroused by computers, or subscribing to a fervent belief in the existence of Iraq's WMDs. Actually, it seems considerably less worrying than all of the mysticism the Blairs have indulged themselves in. Anyone for a seance?

Friday, August 13, 2004

It's that man again

This - from The Times, via Guacamoleville - sounded strangely familiar:

THE Hartlepool by-election has already become so rancorous that the deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats has formally complained to the chairman of the Labour party about dirty tricks.

The two parties are waging a fierce battle in the contest triggered by the departure of Peter Mandelson. Sir Menzies Campbell has taken the unusual step of writing to Ian McCartney asking for Labour’s “personalised and misguided” attacks to stop.

Sir Menzies said it was unacceptable for Labour to accuse their candidate, Jody Dunn, of “making excuses for junkies” just because, as a barrister, she represented them in court.

"Making excuses for junkies." That elegant turn of phrase. That careful, well-considered attack. It all pointed to one man...

Tom Watson, the Labour MP, who has been acting as the campaign manager in Hartlepool, has accused Ms Dunn of being “soft on drugs” because she represented a heroin addict in court four years ago. “How many other junkies has she made excuses for in court?” said Mr Watson.

Yes, it's Tom Watson, fighting a hard and valiant battle for the title of Britain's Most Unpleasant MP. The campaign manager responsible for a 27% swing against Labour in the Hodge Hill by-election has been despatched to work a little of that same old magic in Hartlepool. Currently, he is expressing his faith in the criminal justice system by subscribing to an odd belief in guilt-by-association for barristers. On previous occasions this deep concern for justice has manifested itself in the view that old-fashioned worries about guilt or innocence are of little worth in creating "yob-free streets", and its worth recalling some of the pithier statements for which he bears responsibility:

From Watson's blog:

[The Lib Dems] should stick to the issues - like why they don't want crack heads and junkies to go to jail.

The blog again:

Here's what Simon Hughes said in the House when explaining why the Liberal Democrats intended to oppose the Anti-Social Behaviour Bill:

[we should] “stick up for people’s rights to behave normally, as they choose and with their own freedom of expression, even if sometimes their presence causes other people some distress or alarm.”

...So why don't the Lib Dems come clean and admit that they are soft on yobs and tough on Birmingham?

An inadvertently revealing moment, discussing Hodge Hill:

Just got back after a busy, busy day. Three cabinet ministers, a dozen ministers and another dozen MPs helped our hardy band of campaigners with leafleting and canvassing.

(Three Cabinet ministers and a dozen ministers taken canvassing and leafletting in an exceptionally safe Labour seat... the mind boggles.)

And, of course, from the Hodge Hill campaign:

Labour is on your side—the Lib Dems are on the side of failed asylum seekers...

We have taken tough action against those who abuse the system as a cover for economic migration.

While Labour were tough the Lib Dems were wimps—they tried to stop us taking away benefits from failed asylum seekers and they voted against plans to speed up deportations.

Between Mandelson and Watson, it is possible to see all that is so wrong with New Labour. Never mind the complaints from Renewal magazine: Tom Watson is a corruption of everything we might once have thought Labour stood for. Decidedly Old Labour Cllr Bob Piper (whose blog, naturally, is vastly superior to Watson's) would disagree, but having plumbed such depths it is difficult to see how the Labour Party could ever recover to even the minimal standards it used to hold.

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Tower Hamlets: where rugby comes first

Resolute Cynic has been attending political meetings again:

...Respect supporters on the Isle of Dogs turned up to their selection meeting last night, to be leafleted by an 'unofficial' representative of Poplar and Canning Town Labour party.

The leaflet, "An open letter to 'Respect' members from concerned voters on the Isle of Dogs", was nothing more than a begging letter, desperately urging Respect not to stand.

"Do you want to help elect a Tory councillor on 9th September" it asks.

It continues "there is a local working class Labour candidate, who has ALWAYS opposed the war from a local party that has always opposed the war.... and who not just opposes but is actively involved in fighting privatisation and luxury development on the Island".

At the Respect meeting, long standing East London activists racked their brains to remember when they saw this person at a Stop the War rally, an anti-privatisation picket-line, a campaign against meeting or anything.

But the most ludicrous statement is the following:

"The people of Millwall - and the people of Iraq on whom so much suffering has been influcted by lying US and UK war leaders - do not deserve a Tory toff". (Their emphasis).

Now, both Labour MPs in Tower Hamlets supported the war and were not even challenged for re-selection by their local CLP. It is a Labour war leader persecuting the Iraqi people. These obvious points, clearly escape the notice of the local Labour Party member who wrote this amazing leaflet.

The strangest thing here is the contrast with the forthright statements of Cllr Kevin Morton to the East London Advertiser:

"Mainstream politicians did not pander to the bigotry behind the BNP's support back in the 1990s and we should not pander to the bigotry behind this new victory for the forces of extremism."

Cllr Morton stands curiously at odds with the Labour member flagrantly "pandering to bigotry" by leafletting a Respect selection meeting. (Possibly this is a cunningly two-pronged strategy. Or possibly they don't have a clue.) Morton was previously notable largely for his cutting observation that "we only win world cups under a Labour government"; although, strangely, "winning the world cup" is not the first item that springs to mind when considering the many and varied achievements of the Blair government. Perhaps if Cllr Morton spent a little longer drawing up a more comprehensive list of all those splendid things New Labour have bestown upon us in the last seven years, he wouldn't need to berate his own electorate as "bigots". Failing that, it's kind of him to keep the seat warm for us.

Monday, August 09, 2004


Schoolboy giggles and Schadenfreude. Cringe.

Sunday, August 08, 2004

Circle Line party

Curiously, it would seem that several hundred people descended on the westbound Circle Line platform at Liverpool St on Friday evening, boarded a few trains, and proceeded to party like they weren't on the Underground. Loud music, drinks, ocassional communal singing (including that old anti-capitalist favourite, "We All Live in a Yellow Submarine"), possible fancy dress, inflatable sharks, bunting, pole-dancing, and sweaty merriment all round: though the highlight, I might hazard, was the delighted reaction of the innocent commuters, drawn away from a metro-boulot-metro-dodo routine into a near-orgiastic pit of debauchery where they expected a tube carriage. (A report of last year's bash is available here. It would also seem that a number of people from the Dunwich Dynamo turned up for this weekend's vaguely anti-cap outing. The Dynamo, by the way, was a doddle. More or less. Next weekend: anti-capitalist golf, played through the City of London with Nestle powdered milk tins.)

The descent to the common room

Oh, I probably ought not to, but once more Charlotte Street has applied a manual implement of redoubtable weight to the summit of a metallic device for the desirable suspension of objets d'art with a minimum of superfluous persiflage or unwarranted tergiversation.

Saturday, August 07, 2004

A post here on Greens for Nader, interesting mostly for its details on a certain strange desperation in the Anybody But Bush camp, and the paucity of their arguments. The critical point against Nader rests on the assumption that those voting for him would otherwise be persuaded into the polls to vote for the Lesser Evil. (Hal Draper's article on Lesser Evilism can be read here; swap "neoliberalism" for "statification" and the argument is as relevant today as it was in the 1960s.) Yoshi at Critical Montages has recent opinion poll data on Nader's support showing more support for him in 2004 than in 2000, and some anecdotal evidence reinforcing the general point: Nader can persuade people into the polling booths who otherwise would not turn up.

Thursday, August 05, 2004

Preparing for Emergencies

This site - extensively referenced by possibly every other blogger in the world, so I thought I'd better get in on the act - managed to irk the government sufficiently that it now includes a disclaimer. Tchoh. If we are all going to die horribly in a Bin Laden/sarin/flooding London/plane-crashing scenario, we may as well look on the bright side of things. What would Eddie "the Eagle" Edwards make of such humourlessness in the face of adversity?

Addendum: forgot to thank The Common Man for pointing this link out in the first place.

Somehow ended up in the Guardian's weblog pick-list. Blimey.

FBU: Labour "sabotage"?

How do we square this:

A ballot of firefighters on new national strike action has been branded "irresponsible" by the Government as it emerged back-up cover from the military may not be ready in time for any walkout.

The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM) confirmed that the armed forces will begin training in preparation for action by firefighters, which could start as early as September 7.

A spokesman said: "This latest ballot for industrial action by the FBU is wholly irresponsible.
"Further strikes by the union put lives and property at risk.

"However, public safety is paramount.

"That is why the Government is reluctantly starting the training of the armed forces personnel for firefighting duty."

With this:

Labour Party hardliners are involved in a last-ditch attempt today to sabotage an agreement aimed at averting fresh national industrial action by firefighters, according to a senior management source.

Some Labour local authority representatives are seeking to derail an outline deal worked out with the Fire Brigades Union in weeks of negotiations ending last Thursday, it is understood.


It is understood that local- authority representatives from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, including Labour councillors, are in favour of a settlement. However some Labour councillors from England, together with Conservatives, are opposed to it.

This sounds remarkably similar to what then occurred. Following previous hopes that a deal had been reached, brokered by the TUC and accepted by all sides, the local authority employers suddenly backed away. If it is "irresponsible" for firefighters to act in defence of their pay and conditions, how much more irresponsible would it be for a governing party to apparently provoke their action? Between the civil servants and the firefighters, the government gives every indication of spoiling for a fight in the public sector. Significantly, both the FBU, which recently voted to break its ties with the Labour Party, and the PCS, with its notorious "Trot" general secretary, Mark Serwotka, have been at the forefront of challenging New Labour's political hold over the trade union movement. The stakes for the Left are raised rather high.

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

And, hey, just because I can:

A HUGE cheer went up outside the election count as the full scale of Respect’s victory in Tower Hamlets, east London, became known.


There is shock and turmoil in Tower Hamlets Labour Party after its candidate, Shah Habibur Rahman, crashed to third place in what was Labour’s third safest seat on the council.

New Labour’s head office was on the phone to leading party figures in Tower Hamlets the morning after the result to find out what had gone wrong.

Some Labour activists blame the tactic of sending the two Tower Hamlets Labour MPs—Oona King and Jim Fitzpatrick—into the ward to canvass. “They both supported the war and having them going door to door cost us votes,” said one.


“This was an informed vote,” says Respect supporter Nur Monie. “The Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats fought very hard. So people knew what they were voting for when they voted for us in this historic election.

“This is a huge step towards getting some representation for working people.”
The election has also shaken the Liberal Democrats who sent their “big hitter” Simon Hughes MP into the ward to canvass.

I particularly like the detail about Oona King and Jim Fitzpatrick putting voters off. If the call from Labour HQ is anything to go by, they are worried. Rightly so.


Further accounts of the abuse and torture in Guantanamo Bay have been released, including this telling detail:

Britain and the US last night faced fresh allegations of abuses after a British terror suspect said an SAS soldier had interrogated him for three hours while an American colleague pointed a gun at him and threatened to shoot him.

The allegation is contained in a new dossier detailing repeated beatings and humiliation suffered by three Britons who were captured in Afghanistan, then held in Guantánamo Bay for two years, before being released in March without charge.

Rhuhel Ahmed, one of the "Tipton Three", claims in the 115-page dossier that shortly after his capture in November 2001 he was interviewed in Afghanistan by a British interrogator who said he was from the SAS. Mr Ahmed alleges he was taken by US guards to be interrogated by the British officer in a tent. "One of the US soldiers had a gun to his head and he was told if he moved they would shoot him," the report says. The SAS officer pressed him to admit he had gone to Afghanistan to fight a holy war. Last night the Ministry of Defence said it would investigate the allegation.


The dossier also alleges complicity by Britain in their treatment. The three challenge a claim by the Foreign Office junior minister, Chris Mullin, who in the Commons said no Briton had complained of their treatment in Guantánamo. Mr Iqbal says a British embassy official took down a two-page list of alleged abuses, while the two others say they made their complaints orally. Mr Rasul says he was interrogated by British personnel up to seven times, with MI5 officers questioning the Britons repeatedly.

Victoria Brittain, writing in today's Guardian, adds some background on the brutal incompetence of proceedings:

Bishar al-Rawi, who is Mr Banna's close friend and translator, has lived here for 20 years, including schooling at Millfield, and has a sister and brother here who are British citizens with business interests. The two men were kidnapped by the Americans, with the connivance of the British, while they were on a business trip to Gambia to start a mobile peanut oil factory in October 2002, and taken to Afghanistan.

Mr Rawi's older brother, Wahab, a British citizen, was arrested at the same time in Banjul, but released after 27 days' interrogation, and came back to England having lost $250,000 on his failed business venture. Bishar went through about 50 interrogations in Guantánamo, including some that asked him about the very same Argos catalogue battery charger that got him arrested in the UK in 2002 as he was about to board the plane to Gambia. The British judge threw the case out then.

What is going on here when the US investigators did not know the outcome of the court case in Britain against Bishar? Or that Abu Qatada, one of the Islamic clerics who interest them so much, is in Belmarsh prison?

Nor were they, or British officials in Guantánamo, very quick to find out that, although the investigators forced the Tipton men to confess they were three men in a video of a Bin Laden rally in Afghanistan, their court, workplace and university records show they were at home when the video was shot in 2000.

And how can British intelligence officials quietly go along with the US practice of sending men like Mamdouh Habib, an Australian, to Egypt to be tortured?

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Avocado-related conspiracy theories

Guacamoleville is a short-life blog set up to cover the impending Hartlepool by-election, called following Peter Mandelson's departure to Brussels. And a complete circus it is turning out to be, too: between H'Angus, Hartlepool's monkey-costume mayor, a self-styled pirate and owner of an offshore off-licence, and the curiously orange Robert Kilroy-Silk, all of whom have threatened to stand as candidates, the good people of Hartlepool will be wondering what has hit them.

The real wild-card in all this is the collapsing Labour vote. Mandelson's greatest legacy is not the trail of corruption he leaves, but the destruction of Old Labour - and with it, Labour's core vote. His old seat requires a 22% swing against Labour to return any other party; once, this would have looken unassailable - but 22% is less than the anti-Labour swing in both Hodge Hill and Leicester South by-elections. Mandelson will remain the epitome of New Labour: cynical, sleazy, and above all taking voters for granted. He was out of the limelight, somewhat, before the invasion of Iraq, having been consigned to the backbenches for a second time after it was revealed he obtained passports in return for donations to the benighted Millennium Dome. (It is occasionally forgotten that Mandelson was the minister responsible for the Dome.) As a result, he has avoided some of the fallout from the Iraq war, confining himself to the odd word afterwards in support of Blair, but he has been wholly unable to lose his diabolical image as the manipulative genius behind New Labour. The infamous story - from which Guacamoleville takes its name - about Mandelson's confusion between mushy peas and guacamole on a visit to a chip shop supposedly sums him up: clever and cynical he may be, but utterly distant from ordinary people - whose native wit may, every so often, let them get one over the New Labour men in suits.

("Mushy peas" - an explanation: this traditional accompaniment to fish and chips is consumed in alarming quantities in the north of England. Virulently green, lumpy, and generally served in a small polystyrene cup, mushy peas - like cloth caps, Vimto and rugby league - are an emblem of the northern proletariat. Guacamole, on the other hand, is what soft southerners consume at their poncy dinner parties, probably in Islington. The cultural resonances of all this are very important indeed.)

Except it didn't happen. Of course not. Andy McSmith, in Faces of Labour (Verso, 1997), relates what he claims is the real story. It involves a group of proto-Blairites campaigning at the Knowsley North by-election, near Liverpool, in November 1986, and their difficulties in finding food:

Working from a disused office in what had been the industrial quarter of Kirby before recession had reduced it to a brick-strewn wasteland, thier only source of food was a chippie nearby in a small row of shops where the shutters stayed up all day as a precaution against vandals... it was so very different from the home life of Shelley Keeling, daughter of a wealthy East Coast American businessman, who was completing her studies by spending a year working in the parliamentary office of Jack Straw, who was in Knowsley North as the candidate's political advisor. One day, a party researcher named Julian Eccles.. invited her to the chippie to taste the local fare. Sunk into the counter was a large metal dish containing something green and viscous. 'That looks delicious; is it avocado?' she enquired. It was mushy peas. (p.292)

Knowsley North was facing a by-election due to the resignation from Parliament of its previous MP, one Robert Kilroy-Silk. Kilroy-Silk, at that time, was a forgettable right-wing Labour MP, best known for his boast on entering the House of Commons in 1974 that he expected to be Prime Minister within fifteen years. Twelve years later, having deeply irritated an otherwise docile constituency party, Kilroy-Silk was making his excuses - "infiltration" of Knowsley North by the Militant Tendency (McSmith claims Militant had "no organised presence" there, p.116) - and leaving. Eighteen years pass, and Kilroy-Silk is the perma-tanned former TV presenter whose oleaginous style and overt racism endeared him sufficiently to East Midlands voters that they made him their MEP. Brussels not being to his liking, however, Kilroy-Silk is now threatening to stand in Mandelson's old Commons seat.

The mushy peas make one more mysterious appearance, however. Peter Mandelson was for a time employed by the Labour Party as director of communications. He was responsible, amongst other things, for introducing the red rose symbol for the Party as a replacement for the red flag. On his departure from that post in 1990, Neil Kinnock, then Labour leader, gave a short, well-wishing speech to thank Mandelson, in which he recounted the story of the mushy peas and claimed Mandelson was the mistaken apparatchik involved. Kinnock appeared to be basing his story - not at this point generally connected to Mandelson - on an account printed in The People's political column a month before. The columnist had retold the tale, placing the peas in Hartlepool with Mandelson - whilst denying that this had ever occurred, of course, but keeping the rumour alive nontheless. The columnist's name? Peter Mandelson. (McSmith, p. 292-293)