Dead Men Left

Thursday, March 31, 2005

Oscar Romero and historical truth

Laban Tall, to my slight surprise, has expressed his admiration for the murdered Archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero. Romero was assassinated whilst saying Mass 25 years ago this month, after loudly and courageously denouncing the activities of the military junta then ruling El Salvador. I say "surprise", since I'd naturally thought of Romero as one of us, a man of the left, a spokesman for the poor, and a leading light for Latin American liberation theology - a widely-held political judgement that would surely outweigh whatever personal example he had provided.

It is, however, a peculiarity of religious figures that their legacies are open to wildly varying, and often plainly opposed interpretations, even when their political actions seem unambiguous. This site lays out in brief the leftist narrative of Romero's life and works; this, written by a conservative Catholic, accuses the left of "body-snatching" and tells quite a different story.

There is - or there should be - nothing surprising in this. Religion, both (as Marx put it) the "opium of the masses" and the "heart of a heartless world", is inherently contradictory. The whole edifice of theology is built around that fact. Yet there has been a tendency on the supposed left, perhaps increasing in strength, to interpret religiously-motivated political activity as simply and one-sidedly bad: quite separately from the action taking place, and the intention involved. Christian Voice protesting against Jerry Springer: the Opera is plainly bad; Oscar Romero protesting against a military dictatorship is plainly good. Both based their claims on the Bible, but it would be quite wrong to judge them both solely by that criterion.

Naturally, it is not Christianity that bears the brunt of this interpretation. How else, other than through the crudest reduction of reality, can this eminently reasonable and liberal man be both banned from entering the US, and described by a "left-wing" micro-sect as an "Islamist reactionary"?

New blog trawl

Via Shot by Both Sides, the Yorkshire Ranter on Magna Carta Clarke's control orders:

This man is such an imminent danger to national security that he was locked up in Belmarsh Prison's maximum security wing for three years without trial, without even being told the charges against him, without even charges being laid, in fact, because he is so dangerous that the information of what he is supposed to have done cannot be given to him for fear he will somehow contrive to commit terrorist acts with it. But - apparently - only at night! By night he schemes to crash jets flaming into the silvery towers of Canary Wharf, to scatter a silent dust of anthrax spores in the corridors of Parliament itself, to riddle the glowing high-end retail spaces of Heathrow Airport with machine gun strikemarks and spilt blood, yes, even to consume all London in the momentary sun of a nuclear explosion. But by day, he is an absolute pussycat, as dangerous as a potato and as remarkable as a commuter, free and weird on the streets!

Onto the blogroll with the Ranter, to be joined by Our Word is Our Weapon.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Those DWP/IFS figures again

There's a couple of other bits to mention on this.

First, the IFS report a very slight decline in average income over 2003/04, the first since the recession of the 1990s. The Treasury response was brutal (and predictable):

The Treasury was quick to criticise the IFS analysis.

A Treasury spokesman said the 0.2% drop could be explained in a number of ways.

The most significant was the large drop in take-home incomes reported by self-employed individuals whose profits were hit by worldwide economic slowdown.

Incomes would have actually risen by 1.8% if that group was discounted, the Treasury added.

"The IFS analysis is complete rubbish," a Treasury spokesman said.

"These figures show that since 1997, reported average take-home incomes have risen by almost 20% in real terms and are rising again this year thanks to the maintenance of stable economic growth."

"Complete rubbish", but they're happy to cite other IFS figures from the same report to make the claim. The fall in self-employed income is staggering: down 30.4% since 2000/01. Self-employed earnings are generally more volatile than others types of income - but even so this looks like a very large, not entirely explicable drop that should have lead to some obvious effects. (Possibly there is also some composition effect here, with individuals switching declining self-employed earnings for reasonably steady income elsewhere.)

Secondly, I've been rather too generous to the government - a rare mistake. On the BBC:

...the number of pensioners living in poor households has remained at 2.2 million since 1997.

Based on the IFS saying (p.30):

Using the 60 per cent of median income definition, the rates in 2003/04 imply there are now 2.0 million pensioners in AHC [After Housing Costs] poverty, down from 2.8 million in 1996/97. BHC [Before Housing Costs] pensioner poverty remains unchanged at 2.2 million...

The discrepancy is accounted for by the fact that 2/3 of all pensioners own their homes outright - a very high fraction relative to the general population - which reduces housing costs substantially.

"Poverty and Inequality in Britain: 2005"

Back from the Institute of Fiscal Studies presentation on “Poverty and Inequality in Britain, 2005”. They’ve crunched their way through the latest release of figures from the Department for Work and Pensions for low incomes, detailing the financial year up to 2003/04. The results make a less than convincing case for this government’s minimal reforms. (That doesn’t stop the IFS trying, however.)

A few results stick out. Pensioner poverty, measured as the number of pensioners living on below 60% of average income, has declined slightly under New Labour, from about 26% to 20%. Poverty for this group tends to move strongly with the economic cycle, since pensioners’ incomes are fixed when everyone else’s are free to rise. When the economy booms, pensioners are made relatively worse off; when it slumps, everyone else’s declining incomes cause pensioners to become relatively better off. It is, then, a marginal achievement that New Labour has broken this trend, though the decline is not pronounced, and fades next to cyclically-induced declines under Thatcher and Major.

Child poverty, another government target, has also declined, but somewhat less than expected. Faced with a complex tax-credit scheme and severe implementation problems, many of those entitled to increased handouts have gone without; the IFS estimates that around 160,000 less children would be in poverty without those two effects. The net result is that the government will fail, by some distance, to actually meet its target for this year.

Both these relative successes need to be set against the increase in poverty amongst workless households. This group includes, by-the-by, large numbers of the disabled and those on long-term sick-leave; and there are large increases in poverty amongst the 39% of the population that are working-age adults without children. Clearly, targeting has had some effect, and the deliberate attempts by New Labour to address specific social groups are one reason why it is not possible to dismiss them as driven solely by “line of least resistance” politics. But the policy has left significant chunks of the population with a noticeable deterioration in their position. Relative poverty has worsened under Blair for childless adults.

At first glance, income inequality appears to have declined over the last three years. However, the decline is not statistically significant, which means that we can’t be confident it actually occurred at all. Even if we allow that it did, income inequality is still higher now than it was when Blair first arrived in office. Prattle about Gordon Brown being the “most redistributive Chancellor ever” is hot air.

The IFS attempted to claim that Labour was “running to stand still”, citing major pressures working against equality, but could not – when pushed – convincingly name what these great demons were. The fall in unemployment should certainly work heavily in its favour, alongside long-term demographic changes; the most convincing, and partial, explanation the IFS offered was the presence of unequally distributed returns to education, with the incomes of the highly-educated rising faster than the average. This, alongside continued high job polarisation, probably accounts for a great deal of persistent income inequality. Even so, with significant forces acting to reduce inequality, New Labour’s achievement looks paltry.

The situation is still worse if we consider inequalities of wealth. From the Economist (26 March, p.33):

In 1997, the average British chief executive of the one of the top 200 British companies took home £955,000. The typical boss of a comparable sample of American companies was paid £2.86m, nearly three times as much. By 2003, the gap was down to 1.7 times: British bosses’ pay had risen 77% to £1.96m, compared with only a 6% rise (to £2.83m) in America.

“Salaries” here, by the way, does not mean stricly income, including also forms of wealth such as stock options. Wealth inequality in Britain has risen dramatically under Blair. The top 1% of wealthiest individuals, some 600,000 people, increased their share of the national wealth from 20% to 23% from 1996 to 2002. By contrast, the bottom 50%, around 30m people, owned 7% of national wealth in 1996, but only 5% in 2002.

It’s necessary to bang on somewhat about all this, since New Labour apologists of late have made an effort to defend the government’s social record. After eight years, it is extremely difficult to conclude that the “Third Way” – policy measures designed around targets, attempts to utilise market mechanisms for social justice – has delivered. This IESR paper provides a cogent critique of the targeted benefit approach. If it were possible to ignore Iraq, there would be little enough reason to reward New Labour with a vote.

Dunwich Dynamo 2005

Ed's assembled a list of links for the bum-clenching agony that is the Dunwich Dynamo. 120 miles overnight by bicycle to the middle of nowhere, if anyone fancies it.

Sectariana, with apologies

"I felt like it was when the Berlin Wall fell down":

DN: We know that the ski companies are implicated in the Iraq war, aren't they?

ECH: Yes. Well you know they're all - all the kind of lubricants ski companies use are the same, uh, the same that, you know, come from oil and they all come from oil. They're petroleum-based products, so, Rossignol is quite clearly, you know, implicated in the war. And these petroleum-based lubricants that the ski companies use, I think must end. The domination of the lubricants...

DN: So-so-so its clear that, that the ski industry, the ski complex is completely involved in the invasion of Iraq

ECH: I think absolutely, absolutely.

Revenge of the spurned wonk

They may look harmless, but these people have literary teeth. David Clark, former special advisor to Foreign Office, puts the boot in:

To his critics on the left, Blair is a market fundamentalist with a coherent, if only partially declared, agenda to privatise as much of our lives as possible: a neoliberal cuckoo in the social democratic nest. The Blairite counter argument states the opposite. He is the ultimate Fabian gradualist, busily transforming Britain in a thousand ways so subtle as to be invisible to the human eye. One day we will all wake up in the New Jerusalem and wonder how we got there.

Though "Tony=Tory" is an equation sometimes still drawn, I'm not sure how many on the left would be prepared to make it now. New Labour (as Clark's "Blairite counter argument" says) believes in itself, or at least it did until it ran into the sand of Iraq. Blair and his coeterie genuinely see themselves as part of gradualist Fabian tradition. This effects what he says, what he does, and the constituency he appeals to.

There is no incompatability between saying this, and also saying Blair is fundamentally not a Labour Party man. Many of the early Fabians were staunch supporters of the Liberal Party, and Blair is on the record as bemoaning the fact that "progressives" in Britain ever split into Liberal and Labour factions. It is the complete absence of any sense of class is what mark Blair and New Labour as distinct from earlier Labour Party reformists.

Little of the period of Blair's leadership makes sense if we assume he is simply a covert Tory. How else do you explain the minimum wage? The Family Credit? The New Deal? How else to explain the great landslide of 1997? A covert Tory would not have ridden the great leftwards shift that drove the actual Tories out of office with such aplomb. Ideological considerations, given most explicit form in the late, unlamented "Third Way", have marked Blairism from the off. That the Third Way and its derivations were weak and feeble implements, and that large parts of the so-called Blair Project were filled with mumbo-jumbo and hot air does not change the analysis. It's an inadequate, miserly ideology, but in the absence of immediate challenges, with the alternative ruling party in disarray and alternative political poles of attraction still reeling after Thatcher, Blair-thought could hold sway.

It is only since entering the dangerous adventure of Iraq that the Blair Project has lost its sense of strategy and its vision; and it is hard to believe anything but a directly ideologically motivated Prime Minister would have launched the invasion, given countervailing domestic political pressures, clear divisions in the British ruling class and yawning great divide between the US and the EU.

When Clark writes, then, that Blair is simply pragmatic, following the line of least resistance, he misses an important part of what makes New Labour tick:

The political consequences of this defensive mindset are profound. Just as surely as you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs, you can't build a fairer society without challenging wealth and power. That is something Blair is psychologically incapable of. In the battle against what George Orwell once colourfully described as "the lords of property and their hired liars and bumsuckers", Blair will always be with the liars and bumsuckers - not because he agrees with them, but because he is mesmerised by their power.

On the contrary, Blair and New Labour believe in being liars and bumsuckers.

Final word from Clark:

Labour supporters are tired of being taken for granted, and increasingly coming to the conclusion that the ballot box is the only place where they have the power to make themselves count. This is why many of them, against their deepest political instincts, will wake up on May 5 with the solemn intention of hurting Tony Blair. It's the only language he understands.

"Bluffer's guide to Bolkestein"

Graham Copp, my one-time comrade in the glorious people's struggle against imperialism, has suddenly re-emerged as "head of research at the Centre for a Social Europe". He's penned a useful guide to the bare bones of the Bolkestein directive for Red Pepper. Worth a look, as coverage in the UK of the issues involved unhampered by casual EUphilia has been minimal.

DML guide to successful blogging

Re: hyperlinks. If you copy and paste text directly from MS Word, you'll need to carefully amend every single bloody link you've included before the HTML works.


Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Johann Hari and his incoherent rant

Johann Hari has thoughtfully provided his readers with a handy resume of an article by David Aaronovitch, originally penned for the Guardian last year. Hari has updated it with a few of the tics and foibles he has claimed as his own, and it all provides the amusing spectacle of pro-war, pro-Blair Johann Hari trying to lay down the line to anti-war, anti-Blair left-wingers. It is, as such, hard to take seriously, though the magnitude of Hari’s smears leads me to try.

First up, the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB). Joint organisers of the great anti-war demonstrations, the Muslim Association of Britain has made the unwise move of being both vociferous and Muslim; and that, in these dangerous, post-9/11 times, can obviously only mean they are suicide bombers in waiting.

This is, of course, piffle; MAB are an integrationist organisation who tack to the left on some issues (redistributive taxation) and to the right on others (gay rights). I don’t agree with MAB on a whole number of questions, but I’m more than happy to march with them alongside many others who I also don’t agree with. They aren’t “fascists”, “Islamofascists” or some meaningless, Rick-like variation on this theme. If you’re out opposing a government hell-bent on launching a war, unity is important. This seems eminently reasonable. Such unity becomes a necessity when dealing with the war on terror’s immediate domestic victims.

Further, if I as a secular socialist want to win an argument with anti-war Muslims – pace, on one side, Blair and Bush, and on the other, the political Islamists – that the entire Clash of Civilisations thesis, however applied, is a myth, and that unity with secular forces is necessary to defeat Bush and Blair, I will only do it by respecting their autonomy.

The real political Islamists, those in the small but vociferous organisation Hizb’ut-Tahrir, campaigned against the Stop the War Coalition on the grounds that there were two types of “Western imperialism”: those imperialists, like Bush and Blair, who wanted to slaughter Muslims, and those imperialists, allegedly in the Coalition, who wished to culturally assimilate Muslims. To defeat that argument – and it is to the movement’s immense credit that it was overwhelmingly defeated – it was necessary to ask for unity only on the basis of opposing the war. From that point of maximum unity, further arguments could be won – about the participation of gay organisations, for example, all of which helped undermine the political Islamist argument.

Yet Hari seems to think the tactical alliance of the anti-war movement has transformed into a strategic coalition in Respect. He thinks MAB has joined Respect. He is curiously misinformed. MAB are not in Respect; they have never been in Respect; and, in the last national poll, in June 2004, they called for votes for Greens, Ken Livingstone and even the Liberal Democrats in preference to Respect candidates.

It is time, I think, that the mythology of the sinister MAB/Respect alliance was laid to rest. Individual members of MAB can join on the same basis as everyone else. That means agreeing to a programme which has the strongest and clearest policy on gay rights and a woman’s right to choose of any political organisation in Britain. Both policies were passed by large majorities at the last Respect conference: read them here. If they accept that, they can join. No doubt the fact that such a political programme can appeal to working-class Muslims, as it does in East London, causes some Islamophobic consternation – but they’re Muslims, they must be bigots – but that is the simple truth.

Beyond this minimum programme, I’m quite certain I don’t agree with everyone in Respect on every political question. From his comments regarding individual members of Respect, Hari evidently view this as a weakness. I view it as a healthy plurality.

What are those criticisms? Predictably, Hari retells a few tired old stories pertaining to George Galloway. Here’s one of them:

When the military staged an anti-democratic coup in Pakistan in 1999, Galloway wrote in his weekly column for the Tory newspaper the Mail on Sunday, “In poor third world countries like Pakistan, politics is too important to be left to petty squabbling politicians. Pakistan is always on the brink of breaking apart into its widely disparate components. Only the armed forces can really be counted on to hold such a country together... Democracy is a means, not an end in itself."

This is really quite amusing. Strip away his inimitable phrasing, allow for Hari’s selective editing, and Galloway’s position on Musharraf’s coup was damn near identical to that of the UK government at the time. Galloway was a loyal Labour Party member, loyally sticking to the party line. Hari may disagree with that party line, but these are hardly grounds to argue for a Labour vote. Still worse, whilst Galloway has been awarded a civilian honour for services to democracy in Pakistan, Blair has thanked the military dictator Hari apparently so despises for his “strong, courageous support” in the “war on terror”. Take your pick: Galloway merely wanted a country to avoid falling apart; Blair actively welcomes the strategic support of a dictator in committing an act of aggression.

Hari then rehashes his atrocious “review” of Galloway’s book, I’m Not the Only One. Lenin of Tomb infamy obliterated Hari’s hopeless mash of half-truths, misquotes, and outright falsifications shortly after it was first printed. Hari chooses just one near-slander this time round, claiming that Galloway ‘…even described Saddam’s genocide of the Kurds as “a civil war” that “involved massive violence on both sides.’ This description was applied by Galloway to the 1991 uprising, not (as Hari implies) Saddam’s earlier genocidal assault on the Kurds – a fact noted in Hari’s original piece. Galloway, for the record, was amongst the few Labour MPs protesting the Halabja attack at the time. For some reason, Hari fails both here and in his earlier “review” to inform us of the context, which – as Lenin says – is of Galloway’s support for the 1991 uprising and the overthrow of Saddam by the Iraqi people.

A few minor points: Galloway opposes capital punishment, and supports a woman’s right to choose. It is strange that journalists who we might presume have some concern for the truth have been unable to carry out the basic fact-checking that would have made this clear. (This evangelical Christian website inadvertently reveals Galloway’s commendably liberal voting record.)

On to Yvonne Ridley. It is only a decidedly ill-framed mind who can see Ridley’s comments on the Taliban as announcing her support for the regime. Expressions of empathy for one’s kidnappers are not unknown – Terry Waite and Brian Keenan have made similar remarks in the past, though I very much doubt that either support the establishment of an Islamic Republic in Palestine. I don’t support the Taliban, Yvonne Ridley does not support the Taliban, Respect does not support the Taliban. Hope that’s clear.

Finally, the SWP, a major player within Respect, at which point Hari entirely changes tack:

Nor is the SWP in any sense a democratic organisation. They aim to create a society modelled on Lenin’s Soviet Union – a bloodthirsty dictatorship that slaughtered democrats and liberals. They claim the Soviet Union only went awry with Stalin, and that Lenin provided a “model for the world”. Yet their hero Lenin set up Russia’s secret police and ordered countless executions and massacres. He argued that “the foundation of socialism calls for absolute and strict unity of will... How can strict unity of will be ensured? By thousands subordinating their will to the will of one." As the academic Neil Harding has written, “Leninism would have found its Stalin sooner or later.”

For someone who becomes so upset by Stalinism, Hari accepts their interpretation of history: that Lenin lead to Stalin. Ignoring all historical experience, ignoring everything Lenin and Trotsky wrote on the subject of the revolution and its degeneration – bar a few lines, wrenched from context – Hari buys the Stalinist lie wholesale: that Stalin was the heir of the October Revolution, not its bloody murderer. (Those wanting to pursue this discussion could do worse than to glance at the excellent polemic on “What Is To Be Done?” from US socialist Hal Draper.)

Whatever your views on the SWP, however, it is clearly illogical for Hari to simultaneously claim that the SWP is necessarily anti-democratic, over-centralised, and thus imparts this character to Respect at the same time as criticising Respect for holding a plurality of views in the form of George Galloway, various left-wing Muslims and Yvonne Ridley.

Hari concludes:

The RESPECT Coalition might dupe some decent left-wing people, but Labour activists should not be mistaken: this is - to a significant degree - a party of the totalitarian-right.

I absolutely defy anyone – anyone at all – to search through Respect’s founding declaration, its conference resolutions, its public policy announcements and its campaigning activity over the year of its existence and draw that conclusion. It is ludicrous nonsense that only even approaches credibility when buttressed by an unsightly confection of half-truths and smears; but no doubt anti-war, anti-Blair Labour supporters will have more sense that to believe pro-war, pro-Blair Hari. Respect is a principled party of the left of which I am very proud to be a member.

"Let it bleed"

Tariq Ali, back in 1970, penned an article under that title for the International Marxist Group’s weekly newspaper, arguing that he didn’t care whether Tories or Labour won the election – indeed, he might even want the Tories to win so as to deliver a swift lesson in proper capitalist rule. (Consumed by a rising tide of working-class militancy, the following three years and nine months of Conservative government produced many strange and notable sights: it remains Margaret Thatcher’s greatest achievement, for example, that she opened more comprehensive schools than any other Education Secretary - though I imagine she’s not entirely proud of her record.) Thanks to Ali’s rhetorical skills, “Let it bleed” remains amongst the classiest statements of ultra-left principle.

It is, unfortunately, a dreadful position: a Conservative government might lead to workers becoming more militant; then again, it might – and, all things considered, is far more likely to - lead to the dismemberment of working class organisation, a colossal reverse of its many gains, and the destruction of large chunks of the welfare state. Not a great idea.

Thirty-four years later, Tariq Ali is dangerously close to arguing the same line. For Ali has arrived upon a formulation perhaps unique in British politics: support the Iraqi resistance, vote Liberal Democrat.

Normally, people vote to assert their political sympathies. But this is not a normal general election. It will be the first opportunity to punish the warmongers and, given the undemocratic voting system, the votes cast for the Greens, Respect and others will have no impact, with a possible exception in Bethnal Green and Bow, east London, where George Galloway confronts the warmonger Oona King. It is possible that in some constituencies the Green/Respect vote could ensure the return of a warmonger, as we have seen in the odd byelection. So why not treat this election as special and take the politics of the broad anti-war front to the electoral arena? If the result is a hung parliament or a tiny Blair majority, it will be seen as a victory for our side.

With a single (heavily qualified) exception, Ali sees this election as a golden opportunity to march the legions of the anti-war movement into supporting a sickly yellow Tory Party. The great tragedy of the 2005 election will be the swollen vote for the pro-war, pro-occupation Liberal Democrats from anti-war, anti-occupation left-wingers. It may be the case – though I think it far-fetched – that an anti-war vote can deliver a hung Parliament; Charles Kennedy, the Lib Dem leader, has ruled out a coalition with Blair under such circumstances, but the grim prospect of Tory/Lib Dem alliance remains. Unfortunate voters in solidly Labour cities like Birmingham and Leeds have found just such an unholy pact ruling their towns.

The Liberal Democrats are a party of the free market; they wish to ban strikes; they cannot even be trusted on civil liberties issues. The most prominent ideological tendencies within, and simple tactical considerations without the party both lead them to lean further to the right. Given all this, it is not enough to make voting decisions based solely on the Iraq war, and especially not when rewarding an essentially pro-war party. We have to think longer-term, about rebuilding left-wing political organisation in opposition to all the parties of neoliberalism and war. Part of that longer-term strategy will mean, in some areas, campaigning and voting for Respect. (In others, the Greens will be a sensible choice.)

If we wish to build credible political alternatives to New Labour and the rest of the shower, we have to start delivering votes. Everywhere else, it means laying roots and creating new networks of activists and supporters. There are council elections in 2006, and there are any number of campaigns before then. The thread that can tie all these elements together is a new political organisation of the left, linking the struggle for representation with grass-roots campaigns against (for instance) housing privatisation or for improved local healthcare. Any such organisation must be able to present a clear and convincing alternative to the endless rounds of privatisation and deregulation, and that is one reason why I am supporting Respect.

Yet it is absolutely true that a well-aimed cull of Labour MPs would deliver a salutary lesson to the party’s leadership. Where no other left-wing alternative exists, the case for a solid anti-Blairite vote is clear. Though we are unlikely to claim any major scalps, a la Portillo in 1997, the swarms of Blairite yes-men and women need to be cleared out of Parliament – the more, the better. (Half-decent anti-war MPs should remain, suitably frightened where necessary by their colleagues' sudden disappearance.) A vote for a Lib Dem in a marginal Labour seat, with a pro-war loyalist MP and where the Liberals are best placed to unseat the creature is eminently justified – if, and only if, it is done alongside strenuous efforts to ensure that this Hobson’s choice never arises again.

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Almost like a scene from Hogarth due to the large numbers of balloons

That was rather fun.

Respect turnout, outside the Safeways on Roman Road, Bethnal Green and Bow: 30 (so we spread ourselves out a bit)
Labour turnout, same place: 3

I started feeling rather sorry for the Labour trio, a group of well-dressed young things who had the unenviable task of persuading extremely bitter Tower Hamlets residents that Oona King and New Labour had done anything much for them over the last eight years. They slipped off after an hour and a half, taking their helium cannister and red balloons with them. I don't doubt, when it comes to polling day, the grumbles and frequent outright hostility they faced this afternoon will turn into a rather grudging vote - but it's clear many won't bother, and for equally large numbers Respect is starting to represent a viable alternative voice.

There's a common belief, out there on the pro-Labour, pro-war side, that George Galloway is wildly unpopular with white working class voters. I don't see it; the unrepentant racists don't like him, there's a few Labour supporters who become extraordinarily agitated by him - but (purely anecdotally, having campaigned for George in the past) for many people he represents an appealing break from the norm - a politician who doesn't talk like a middle-manager. There's nothing wrong with populism if it means you're popular, though becoming both popular and credible is a step again. I think Galloway's getting there, for many reasons, and not just within the obvious so-called "Muslim vote".

Seeing as election fever is rapidly reaching epidemic levels, here are some sites for the amateur psephologist:

Strategic Voter 2005: recommendations for tactical and "strategic" anti-war voting in 2005

So Now Who Do We Vote For?: spinning off from the John Harris book of the same name, a site for disgruntled soon-to-be ex-Labour voters.

Military Families Against the War: Reg Keys, father of a military policeman killed in Iraq, will be standing against Blair. (Interview here.)

Backing Blair: they're not.

Political betting: brutishly debasing the high arts of Politics for sordid pecuniary gain

...and, as if the last eight years never happened, Tactical Voter: will provide clear and concise information on how to use your vote tactically. Our aim is not just to stop the Tories making a come back in 2005 but to defeat even more of them, including top names in the Shadow Cabinet.

We believe that Britain has suffered enough at the hand of the Tories and it is time for a more progressive political debate.

Things Can Only Get Better.

A sense of proportion

Tory MP is inadevertently too honest about the Conservatives' real public spending plans. Result: Howard Flight is keelhauled by Tory leader, sacked from his senior position, and barred from standing again as a Tory MP - they've even, Stalin-style, unpersoned him on the Tory website.

Tory MP tells racist joke of a virulence even Jim Davidson now avoids to baying crowd of drunken rugby players. Result: Anne Winterton is sacked from senior position... and then cracks another viciously inappropriate joke a few months later. No serious attempt has been made to bar Anne Winterton from remaining as an MP, and the Conservative Party website brags of her many public roles.

(See also the rehabilitation of the Monday Club.)

"Lower than vermin," as Aneurin Bevan said.

Gilbert Achcar has a polemic on Z-Net, "Marxists and Religion - yesterday and today". The first half is a concise exposition of the classic Marxist attitude regarding religion, with a couple of gems:

Even at the beginning of the split of the French workers' movement between social democrats and communists, a right wing emerged among the communists of the metropolis themselves (without mentioning the French communists in Algeria), particularly distinguishing itself by its position on the colonial question. The communist right betrayed its anti-colonialist duty when the insurrection of the Moroccan Rif, under the leadership of the tribal and religious chief Abd el-Krim, confronted French troops in 1925.

The statement of Jules Humbert-Droz about this to the Executive Committee of the Communist International retains certain relevance:

"The right has protested against the watchword of fraternisation with the insurgent army in the Rif, by invoking the fact that they do not have the same degree of civilisation as the French armies, and that semi-barbarian tribes cannot be fraternised with. It has gone even further, writing that Abd el-Krim has religious and social prejudices that must be fought. Doubtless we must fight the pan-Islamism and the feudalism of colonial peoples, but when French imperialism seizes the throat of the colonial peoples, the role of the CP is not to combat the prejudices of the colonial chiefs, but to fight unfailingly the rapacity of French imperialism."

The second half, alas, is an ill-founded grouch about Respect and the Muslim Association of Britain, whose website seems to be down at the minute. It being a glorious spring day in London and with a general election offing, I have a Respect stall to go to, so for now I'll leave Achcar without further comment. Any responses to, or thoughts on, the piece are welcome in the comments boxes (naturally, I will filch any really good suggestions for use later).

Friday, March 25, 2005

Robin Cook on Blair's bedtime thoughts

In The Guardian:

I suspect also that as Tony Blair turned out the bedroom light last night, he was mystified that the controversy over Iraq still haunts him. In the many conversations we had in the run-up to the war, he always assumed that the war would end in victory, and that military triumph would silence the critics. In his worst nightmares Tony Blair never dreamt that Iraq would dog him a whole two years later.

Part of the reason why Iraq has stubbornly stayed at the top of the agenda is the breathtaking naivety with which both the White House and Downing Street believed the easy promises of Iraqi exiles that foreign occupation would meet with no resistance. As the defence select committee pointed out in its timely report yesterday, a consequence of that glib assumption was that the coalition forces were woefully badly prepared for the hostile environment in which they have had to operate.

Amongst the good reasons for supporting Iraqis right to resist are the immense difficulties its successes create for governments like Blair's, embroiled in Iraq but simultaneously pushing privatisation and attacks on welfare at home. Unlike the debased Wilsonian moralising that terribly enlightened "left" apologists for colonialism indulge in, real international solidarity has always been like this. Working-class self-interest demands a genuine internationalism. Freeing Iraq means striking a blow against neoliberalism everywhere else.


This entire site is riddled with typos, dropped words, bad grammar and - worst of all - misplaced links. Ahem. Sorry.

Reportedly, anti-war socialist Billy Bragg will be playing a benefit gig for pro-war Blairite Oona King.


Liberal left mythology on Europe

Out there on the unreservedly pro-EU liberal left is a strand of thought claiming tying Britain closer to European institutions will pull this country in a progressive direction. It is a line of thinking that slots neatly alongside the persistent myth of British exceptionalism on the left: that Britain - or, more precisely, just England - is a uniquely conservative country, and that British (especially English) workers are not to be trusted with their own or anybody else's liberation. Jacques Delors, speaking to a more than usually demoralised TUC in 1998, got the ball rolling in Labour Party circles. It has become a commonplace amongst Labour-inclined liberals, and the swing away from habitual Euroscepticism was a major factor in discretely uniting former SDP supporters with New Labour.

It is, of course, cobblers, and worryingly parochial cobblers. As the debate around the Bolkestein directive has indicated, far from the EU pulling Britain leftwards, the British government - as always - is a major drag on the EU to the right. Under these circumstances, tying the UK more tightly into Europe means placing still greater pressure on social rights and benefits across the contintent. Far from bringing Britain up to usual EU standards, it helps push the rest of the continent down. The liberal-left view is taken down the wrong end of the telescope.

With a referendum on the European constitution impending, and with a major chunk of those on the left in Britain having a (understandable) strong reaction against Kilroy-Silk and his cohorts, there is a pressing need for the left-wing, internationalist anti-constitution case to be well and clearly made.

Thursday, March 24, 2005


HUH?'s got "international philosophy paparazzi" shots of Slavoj Zizek's wedding.

"Slavoj who?" you're saying. "Where's Kylie?"

Quick plug for Islamophobia Watch, a site dedicated to "documenting the war on Muslims". They've already got up the neocon noses at Hally's Prace, which is as good a recommendation as any.
Another plug: Tariq Ali has finally stopped sitting on the fence and will be speaking alongside Craig Murray at the Respect London rally, 7.30pm at The Bishopgate Institute, 230 Bishopgate EC2, on 6 April. We're also promised "special guest speakers". Speculation is rife, a celebrity endorsement must be in the offing - I'm hoping for someone classy like Will Young or the one from Girls Aloud who isn't a racist, but I expect I'll be disappointed.

Bolkestein defeated (for the time being)

Between this and Blair's pensions climbdown, it's turning out to be a good week for gumming up neoliberalism. Lenin (yet again) has the goods:

Named after Frits Bolkestein, the former EU internal market commissioner who introduced the idea in January 2004, the law enables the company you work for to transfer its headquarters to a country in which legal protection for workers is particularly weak, and you would suddenly find that you no longer have the benefit of protections won by decades of trade union and social struggle in your own country. The right to strike, pay negotiations, pensions - forget all that. Bolkestein has suggested that the law is about harmonising rules in the EU. Effectively what it does is level down, so that the lowest common denominator in terms of regulation prevails. Unsurprisingly, our oleaginous Prime Minister, after striving to weaken protection for British workers on his last Euro-adventure, is in the vanguard of this movement. Peter Mandelson, that paragon of self-effacing asceticism, has accused opponents of the directing of wanting to lead "a cosy life".

The original, starry-eyed vision was to chomp away decisively at all those tedious rights and protective laws workers across Europe get so het up about. Facing massive public opposition, France, along with Germany and Sweden, have cajoled their EU partners into redrafting the directive somewhat. The new, watered-down Bolkestein will now "preserve the European social model". It's not quite time to celebrate, however. Admist the grinding and gnashing of frustrated free-market molars, dire warnings are still being given:

The directive will not be withdrawn. Only the Commission could do this. The European Council does not have the right to pass injunctions of this type to the European Commission. If the directive were withdrawn, we would give the impression that the opening of services had vanished from the European agenda. It must remain on the European agenda because the Lisbon Strategy, which speaks of growth, employment and competitiveness, requires us to open the services market.

La lotta continua (he says, hoping to demonstrate his internationalism). Apostate Windbag posted a rant a week ago about the perceived inadequacy of the UK left when dealing with Europe; I tended to agree with him, whilst Wat Tyler's Ghost took the view that:

Of course the proposed neo-liberal European Constitution links many of them - but then so does our economic system which is why we are trying to overthrow it and ‘replace it with something nicer.’ Yet nobody with a brain suggests a general campaign against capitalism at this moment in time?

And anyway do constitutions make a lot of difference. Many of the worst dictatorships have had pretty good constitutions.

...which, to be blunt, is precisely the kind of attitude we need to work against. Our own New Labour government is leading the neoliberal charge across Europe. We, on the UK left, are failing workers across the continent if we are allowing Blair to continue unhindered.

Abu Rideh interview


The control orders were rushed through parliament earlier this month in the face of widespread opposition. The contradictions inherent in them are clear from Mr Abu Rideh's experiences since being released on bail almost two weeks ago:

· He is not allowed to make arrangements to meet anybody, but he can drop in to see anyone if he does so unannounced;

· He cannot attend any pre-arranged meetings or gatherings, but was present at the anti-war demonstration at Hyde Park last Saturday. He says he stumbled across it while playing football in the park with his children;

· He is banned from having visitors to his home unless they are vetted in advance, but he is allowed to arrange to attend group prayers at a mosque;

· He thinks he is being followed on the tube, but if he calls a taxi, no one tails him.

See also this Statewatch report on "counter-terrorism" plans across the G8 and EU. As so often in Europe, Britain is leading the charge in the wrong direction. Statewatch accuse the UK of "policy-laundering", turning Draconian US legislation over for EU consumption.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

"Ongoing Tory decline"

Sensible post from Shuggy on the latest ICM poll (PDF file), which reveals the Tories lagging behind Labour in all the issues - bar immigration - voters take seriously:

We've just been watching Howard make exactly the same mistake as Hague who focused on asylum seekers/immigration and the Euro.

But the lesson that no-one on the Howard team seems to have taken on board is that while Joe Public tends to agree with the Tories on these issues, they simply don't care enough about them to return a Tory government.

I think he's correct to put this incorrigibility into a narrative of continuing Tory decline. However, that doesn't prevent them thrashing around and churning up unpleasant waters as they fade. What's unsettling is how weak the centre-left is when confronted; the knee-jerk reaction when facing the Sun and Michael Howard at their worst is to tut and scowl, rather than to tackle the issues. Every dismissive wave of a hand confirms the existence of the "liberal elite", and fuels the cycle. Jonathan Freedland makes the alternative case:

So a progressive, populist case for immigration would note the success of the recent BBC2 series Who Do You Think You Are?, in which celebrities traced their family roots. Nearly half had immigrant stories to tell. Audiences were moved by the courage of Moira Stuart's forebears, and Meera Syal's and David Baddiel's. The implicit message was clear. These immigrants might have been spat upon and reviled at the time - but look at the contribution they have made to this country, embodied by their children and grandchildren. Ironically, the man who personifies this case best, the son of an asylum seeker, now an alternative prime minister, is one Michael Howard.

What Freedland doesn't mention is that it is the liberal-left who started this whole process, playing a dangerous (and, for the left, unwinnable) game by shoving the posturing, macho idiot, David Blunkett front-forward to spit and snarl. There was no good reason for him to talk about schools being "swamped", or brag about establishing camps for refugees.

Enoch Wade and Rebekah Powell

The last true Blairite (perhaps - dammnably hard to tell nowadays) at British Spin draws a parallel between the Sun's current campaign against gypsies, and Enoch Powell's 1968 "rivers of blood" speech: be strictly accurate, Enoch Powell was quoting a letter sent to him. However, I believe this was a rhetorical device to distance himself from the prejudice in his position, and I believe the sun is using the same technique. as an example, this letter to the Sun today: “I’ve had my van broken into four times, stealing tools worth hundreds of pounds. It just so happens a gipsy camp had set up not far away. Telling police was a waste of time.”- Of course, you are free to believe that the Sun and enoch Powell in no way meant to endorse these respective veiws, and selected them neutrally and without approval.

Emerging consensus

Cast your mind back, if you can, to 1997 and the debate on public expenditure. New Labour, in order to cement its reputation for "prudence", made a commitment to maintain Tory public spending levels for the first two years of a Labour government. Gordon Brown duly stuck to this pledge, and we are still living with the effects of two further years of neglect and deterioration. Labour, under public pressure, has since been forced to run and catch up; but what is interesting is that, as it has done so, the debate has shifted entirely.

The purported £35bn Tory "cut" isn't a cut at all. The Tories are planning to also increase public expenditure, but by somewhat less than Labour. The argument has inverted itself, from reducing public spending, to boosting it. Labour's 1997 pledge would, in these circumstances, be electoral suicide. A new consensus has emerged.

Martin Wolf in the FT writes (subscription required):

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (whose data have the merit of comparability), the share of general government spending in UK gross domestic product is forecast to rise from 37.5 per cent in 2000 to 45.2 per cent in 2006. No significant country will have a comparable rise in the spending share (see chart). Many will even have falling shares of government spending. The UK's rising spending will bring the country from fifth lowest of the 22 countries shown in the charts (after Ireland, Switzerland, the US and Australia) to ninth. Its share will remain below the eurozone's 47.7 per cent in 2006, though it will be well above the weighted average for all OECD members, at 40.4 per cent.

He goes on to present a few graphs which, very easily, make the none-too-surprising point that increased public expenditure has no effect on growth. His conclusion, however, bears repeating:

In making the decision on what to put into the public sector and how much to spend on it, we have to place substantial weight on underlying social and political values. Bue we must also ask, first, what we must do through the government (defence and law and order, for example); second, what we want, fo reasons of social solidarity, to do through the government (provision of basic incomes for all, of universal education and of basic health services, for instance); third, whether we wish to pay for services through general taxation or user fees; fourth, what is the least costly way of raising revenue; and, finally, whether we want services to be paid for and provided by the government or merely paid for by the government and provided by competitive private suppliers.

Thus, the liberal paradigm in all its glory: supposedly grand questions about "underlying social and political values" are reduced to a shopping-list. Broad questions about the type of society we live in - how just it is, how democratic it is - disappear entirely, replaced by a pick 'n' mix of discrete policy questions. This is to reduce the minimal democracy we have to the status of a supermarket.

Et Alia has a go at an eye-wateringly stupid internet political quiz, noting however that:

...This quiz isn't as stupid as the Political Compass—whose designer should be run through a wood chipper—because at least it doesn't equate the set of all possible political positions with a bounded set. “But the Political Compass is two dimensional, not one dimensional!” its defenders scream. Right, I say—that means it commits the same mistake twice and is therefore twice as stupid...

Do-it-yourself focus groups - cack-handedly reproducing the myopic categories of conventional politics, singing along with the bad karaoke version of a marketing guru's teeth-grindingly foul original, grinning and drooling as you do so whilst the crowd stares, aghast - I can't see the point of endlessly generating these things, either. It must be the same urge that drives people to watch the West Wing.


Found, in the middle of an Alexander Cockburn article, Gramsci's thoughts on elephants:

...I don't know if the elephant can (or could) evolve to the point of becoming a being capable, like man, of dominating the forces of nature and of using them for his own ends--in the abstract. Concretely the elephant has not had the same development as man and certainly will not have it because man uses the elephant, while the elephant cannot use man, not even to eat him.

What you think about the possibility of the elephant adapting his feet for practical work does not correspond to reality: in fact the elephant has the trunk as a 'technical' element and from the 'elephantish' point of view it serves him marvelously for lifting trees, defending himself under certain circumstances, etc.--You wrote that you liked the story and so we came to the elephant's trunk. I think that to study history it is better not to fantasize too much about what would have happened 'if' (if the elephant had stood on his hind legs to develop his brain more, if, if; and if the elephant had been born with wheels? He would have been a natural tram! And if he had had wings? Imagine an invasion of elephants like an invasion of grasshoppers!).

It is already very hard to study history as it actually developed, because the documentation for a large part of it has been lost; how can you waste time establishing hypotheses that have no foundation? And in your hypotheses there is too much anthropomorphism. Why should the elephant evolve like man? Who knows if some wise old elephant or some whimsical young elephant, from his own point of view, is not hypothesizing why man did not develop a trunk...

Rampant electoral fraud and Labour disintegration

Good report in the Indy a few days bac, mercifully not yet hidden away from freeloaders:

...a specially-convened election court in Birmingham has heard shocking allegations that, here in Bordesley Green and also in Aston, another inner-city ward, last year's council elections were rigged - on a grand scale.

The court has heard that the elections were subverted by threats, intimidation and the wholesale theft of postal votes, with thousands of others being diverted to "safe houses" where the ballots were allegedly filled in on an "industrial scale". Bags full of voting papers are alleged to have changed hands in the streets; a postman is said to have been threatened with death. Two days before the poll, it's alleged, police found Labour candidates for Aston and supporters in a warehouse at midnight, with nearly 300 unsealed postal votes on a table.

The former Liberal Democrat councillor Ayoub Khan - who lost his Aston seat in those elections - claims some votes were up for auction. "I knocked on one door," says Khan, a 31-year-old trainee barrister, "and the householder said to me, 'I've been offered £10 for my vote, but I'm looking for £15...'" Khan also told a court he'd received "numerous death threats" during the election campaign. He says these have continued since he helped to mount a legal challenge to the Aston result. "People have phoned me at all hours, from withheld numbers. They play a recording: it'll say things like, 'We're watching you; we're going to shoot your kneecaps off.'"

I remember hearing hair-raising reports from Birmingham back in June. The Peace and Justice Party, with the support of Respect in the city, has understandably been raising a stink. Despite holding all the elements of a good story, it's failed to catch more press attention; though given the all-encompassing Westminster bias of the British media, this probably isn't too surprising. (There is also a niggling suspicion that disenfranchised Asians aren't considered worth bothering with until the riots break out.)

More chunks of Labour's crumbling fortresses can be found in my home town, Wigan, where the Community Action Party has come eaten away at one of the most solid Labour boroughs in the country. There's an interview with their leader, Cllr Peter Franzen, complete with the obligatory Wigan Pier joke, here. It's noticeable that support for the BNP across the borough has declined sharply since the CAP was launched and, to his credit, Franzen states that:

The bottom line is that every councillor has the right to vote with their conscience but, by persuasion, we would hope to reach agreement. Only if someone started spouting racist or anti-asylum seeker rubbish would I seek to get them expelled."

He also hints, elsewhere, that the CAP were victims of postal ballot irregularities (Leigh Observer, 18 June 2004 - not online)

"People are sick of the bullying and the lies of this Labour Government and Labour Council.

"They have used every tactic in the book to try to hang on, including this absolutely disgraceful postal ballot shambles and if not for that we probably would have taken over the council."

It's a little hard to place this lot - in fact, they make a virtue out of it. ("Populism," says the Gramscian, applying a strict definition to an over-used word.) Labour's great hope is that this, the PJP, and Respect will remain as minor local difficulties.

Swan terrine

Via Hungbunny, word on Sir Peter Maxwell Davis, a "mentalist" and illicit devourer of swans:

"On Monday morning a police car came whizzing up the lane with a very charming young man and a very beautiful young lady. They didn't accuse me of killing the swan, they accused me of being in possession illegally of a corpse of a protected species.

"I had to give a statement. I offered them coffee and asked them if they would like to try some swan terrine but I think they were rather horrified. That was a mistake, wasn't it?

Yum yum. Here's the recipe:

Swan terrine

375 g bacon rashers; rind removed
2 fresh bay leaves; (2 to 3)
1/2 ts whole black peppercorns
1 1/2 kg swan, hung for four days
500 g veal mince
2 tb dry breadcrumbs
Salt and ground black pepper
1/2 ts freshly grated nutmeg
1 egg
1/3 glass dry sherry

1. Pre-heat oven to 160deg.C. Line a terrine mould or loaf tin with greaseproof paper. Place bay leaves upside down and scatter over the peppercorns.

2. Line the mould with bacon rashers, being careful not to dislodge the bay leaves and peppercorns. Dice the remaining bacon very finely and place in a mixing bowl.

3. Remove skin from swan and cut the flesh from the bones, taking the breasts off in a two pieces. Cut breasts into long strips and set aside. Place remaining swan meat into food processor and process on short bursts until finely cut, but not a paste. Scrape into bowl with diced bacon and add veal mince, breadcrumbs, seasoning, egg and sherry. Mix together very well.

4. Place a layer of the minced mixture into the terrine, pressing down well. Cover with strips of swan breast, then add more mixture and repeat layers until all the ingredients have been used, finishing with a layer of the minced mixture. Fold the bacon rasher over the top. Cover with a layer of greaseproof paper, then press a layer of aluminium foil on top, sealing around the edges.

5. Place in a large baking dish and pour in enough boiling water to come halfway up the sides of the mould. Bake for 1 1/4 hours. Remove from the oven and rest for 1/2 hour before placing weights on top of the mould and refrigerating overnight to cool completely and compress.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Wolfowitz and neoconservative "development"

Although his nomination from the US has caused obvious alarm amongst much of the rest of the world, including at the World Bank’s own staff association and even – to continue a theme - the Economist (“Wolf at the door”, 19 March), it is still most likely that Paul Wolfowitz will become the next Bank president. The procedure has a vague nod at democracy, with contributing nations being awarded votes based roughly on their contributions to the Bank’s funds, but this is unlikely to matter. Those unhappiest amongst the other major voting nations will almost certainly not want to break their current rapprochement with the Republican administration, and – even if they were so inclined – are unlikely to be able to stitch together the voting coalition needed to defeat the US nomination.

Wolfowitz’s appointment isn’t simply bluster on Bush’s part, however, or a display of “chutzpah” (as the Economist has it). Whilst attention was focused in early 2002 on the formation of the so-called “Bush doctrine”, as sweepingly formulated in the new National Security Strategy, alongside the overtly militaristic posturing was a more subtle attempt to reshape foreign policy. Aid and development had been acknowledged as pressing world concerns in the signing of the Millennium Development Goals by 189 nations at the General Assembly of the UN in September 2000. These listed such laudable aims as halving world poverty by 2015 and achieving universal primary education by the same year. In March 2002, the Bush administration unveiled what they called a “new global development compact”, in the form of the Millennium Challenge Account (MCA).

Crucially, the MCA broke with the previous liberal development consensus by explicitly tying the Development Goals to the National Security Strategy. Where previous development strategy had emphasised what was usually called “human security” and fundamental freedoms, the “compact” pushed by the MCA redefined development as an issue of national security.

The most obvious consequences for this were the use of what Susanne Soederberg calls “pre-emptive development”. (“American imperialism and new forms of disciplining the ‘non-integrating gap’”, Research in Political Economy 21). Rather than supplying aid, often in the form of loans, so that developing countries could achieve development goals, the Bush approach is to expect certain preconditions are met. These are a set of 16 indicators, assessed by not only (as expected) the World Bank and other international bodies, but also conservative think-tanks like Freedom House and the Heritage Foundation, expected to make judgements on “trade policy”. On meeting these eligibility criteria, grants can be made available. Bush, speaking at the UN-sponsored Monterry conference in 2002, claimed he wanted significant increases in the US’s aid budget, aiming for a 50% increase between that year and 2006. The legislation for all this eventually dribbled out of the Washington machine in February 2004, with Congress making hefty cuts in the original proposals. Nontheless, the US aid budget increased by around $1.5bn.

This has been enough to lure certain grizzled poverty campaigners into making outlandish claims for Bush’s good intentions. Away from Bono, Geldof and Africa’s other self-appointed saviours, the rest of us should be – as you might have guessed – more wary. The “pre-emptive” conditions exclude aid from those in “failed states” that desperately need it (PDF file), like Sudan and Somalia. The exclusive and unilateral nature of the aid proposed is intended, quite explicitly, to trammel countries into following a wildly discredited, one-size-fits-all model of neoliberal (non-)development. The added bonus, for the neoconservatives, is the potential to align development goals with the Bush administration’s wider foreign policy aims. By withholding aid from where it is needed, the Bush gang are presumably happy to allow millions to starve, remain at risk of preventable diseases, or go without rudimentary education.

Wolfowitz’s nomination, seen in this light, looks less esoteric. At one stroke, Bush has neatly tied together the anti-war movement’s implicit critique of neoliberalism (“Beds not bombs,” as the placards have it) with the anti-capitalist movement’s explicit denunciations. Just as we opposed Wolfowitz’s plans in Iraq, we should oppose the Bush administration’s designs on the global economy. A realistic strategy for development would allow maximum autonomy for the developing world, not effectively sacrifice yet more lives for a grand imperial vision.

Associated Newspapers to lose London monopoly

Almost hurrah:

Ken Livingstone has formally begun the bidding process for a new London newspaper to be distributed in Underground stations, pre-empting a long awaited decision by the Office of Fair Trading.

The London mayor announced today that Transport for London will invite proposals for a free afternoon paper in the capital after Easter - even though Associated Newspapers still has an exclusive deal in place to distribute its newspapers in London Underground stations.

..."almost", because the Evening Standard's new competitor is most likely to be run by porn baron Richard Desmond; or, failing that, Rupert Murdoch. On the plus side, with the London market for journalistic bigotry and reactionary bile already cornered by Associated, it'd be nice to think that competitive pressure for advertising revenue would produce a pleasant, even-tempered, left-leaning free-sheet of some sort. Either that or it's tits 'n' bums 'n' gypsies for me every morning.

UPDATE: Associated Press: respectable wire-service. Associated Newspapers: people who print the Daily Mail and the Evening Standard.

Also nonexistent: the vision thing

Andrew Rawnsley, generally a sharp and well-connected commentator in the Observer, inadvertently exposed the limitations of the neoliberal worldview this Sunday:

Gordon Brown is capable of doing the vision thing. So is Tony Blair. Charles Kennedy has an ambition for his country. And Michael Howard is capable of articulating one, too. They may have very different concepts of a good society, but I credit them all with having one.

Before the auction gets anymore frantic, it would be valuable to hear each of them explain their vision of the good society. Then people might have a better idea of what they are really being asked to buy.

Exactly the same damn product. The toppings vary slightly - more refugee-bashing over here, more rhetoric about "liberty" over here - but the cake remains the same. With all economic questions relegated to bickering over efficient management, there's little difference in "vision" between any of the main parties.

Nonexistent bogeymen

Tories still not going to win election shock:

Gordon Brown's budget has halted the Tory revival in its tracks and stretched Labour's opinion poll lead from three points last month to eight points now, according to this month's Guardian/ICM poll.

With 44 days to go to the expected May 5 general election, Labour, with a 40% share of the vote, holds its biggest lead since December.

Yes, it's only one poll, yes, the fat lady is nowhere near singing as yet - but Michael Howard is not going to be moving into Number 10 any time soon. (Gordon Brown, on the other hand, might be.) That doesn't prevent the Tories - and we might be able to detect an attempt at longer-term thinking here - making a nuisance of themselves, at best; at worst, shoving British politics way over to the right somewhere, in order to clean up next time round. (The hard-right tack has been a while coming, but there were signs of it emerging last year.)

Interesting aside: seems the kids aren't frightened by fairy stories any more:

Labour hopes that the sight of an early Tory bandwagon scaring its voters to the polls appear to have been misplaced with only 5% of Labour voters believing a Conservative victory is on the cards.

New Labour is faced with terrible prospect of actually having to persuade people of its own merits. Thank goodness for Gordy's big oily pork-barrel.

Monday, March 21, 2005

A brief tirade about the Economist

I don't buy it, obviously; the damn thing plops onto my desk every week. Every so often it manages to say something useful. Mostly, it concentrates on berating predictable targets - Gerry Adams, Hugo Chavez, the French - and preening, constantly reminding itself how clever it is. Although I suspect it's been toned down since the heyday of muscular neoliberalism, with the odd concession to the touchy-feely style of free-marketeering that New Labour pioneered, the whole self-satisfied, superior attitude that a belief in market efficiency so promotes grates enormously.

That's not what I wanted to get cross about, however. What irritates me to a quite extraordinary extent is that every time - every damn time - the Economist wants talk about Gordon Brown, they seek to demonstrate what a sneaky social reformer he is by using the same graph. It's on page 39 in the March 19th issue, bottom right-hand corner. It shows "Net income, % change, by income-decile group" and appears to demonstrate an extraordinary amount of redistribution taking place under New Labour, with the income of the richest 10% apparently dropping by nearly 8%, and the poorest 10%'s rising by the same amount.

This is, as you might expect, complete and utter bollocks.

First, in small writing, the graph says that these figures are produced " a result of Labour's budgets, 1997-2004". In other words, this isn't showing actual changes in income. The richest 10% aren't earning 7% less than they used to be. Instead, this graph shows by how much, in total, income altered after each budget. That the rich have to pay more tax than the poor and that the poor receive more benefits than the rich is hardly astounding news. At best, it indicates that Brown's budgets have not been as actively perverse as, say, Nigel Lawson's in seeking to transfer cash from the poor to the rich.

Second, the gain in incomes for the richest over the last seven years has been enough as to completely annul even this minimal shift. After falling under John Major's Conservative government, income inequality has risen somewhat under New Labour.

Third, by looking at only income we ignore the huge growth in the inequalities of wealth.

Seven years of Third Way experimentation have failed to deliver. Grrr.

Victory (for the time being)

When I first heard, very early on Saturday, that Unison were calling off their strike on Wednesday, like many people I instantly assumed the worst. It's a familiar story: another greasy sell-out, union leadership strings pulled by a Labour government, defeat from the jaws of victory. Over a million workers, from all the major public sector unions, were set to put the boot into the government on Wednesday - but their supposed generals had taken fright.

Only after seeing the story on the front cover of the FT did I realise how wrong I was. Here's the Guardian, with a slightly fuller account:

John Prescott, the deputy prime minister, said he was prepared to revoke a parliamentary order forcing more than 1 million local government workers, from April 1, to have to work to 65 to get a full pension. The move looked to be enough to call off next Wednesday's one-day strike .

Alan Johnson, the works and pension secretary, wrote to the TUC offering a fresh start to negotiations on pensions and asking Brendan Barber, the general secretary, to broker talks between Whitehall unions planning to strike.

And it's annoyed all the right people:

The CBI employers' organisation has responded to a climbdown by ministers on changes to public sector pensions by accusing them of "backing down in the face of political pressure" ahead of the general election...

John Cridland, deputy director-general of the CBI, said: "There is real cause for concern over this. The cost of public sector pensions appears to be spiralling out of control and that would suggest that immediate and robust action is needed. This is sending the wrong signal when the government seems to be backing down in the face of political pressure in the run-up to an election."

Had it been the CBI's "political pressure", he wouldn't be objecting. Nice to see them not get their own way. Come May 6, the government will just as suddenly drop its new enthusiasm for negotiation and compromise - but after this demonstration of their own strength, union members should be all the more confident about taking them on.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Banned: the inherent irrationality of censorship exposed

Polite, well-spoken Daniel Brett, Detrimental Postulation (joined, truly inexplicably, by Make Poverty History - possibly it's the photo of Bono) fall foul of my workplace web-blocker whilst potty-mouthed Hungbunny and Lenin's Tomb can breathe the free air of liberal democracy. There's no justice.

"Fused group" is a flashy name for this sort of thing

Lenin has a report on yesterday's shennanigans, which I'm linking to mostly because he's being flattering about my Nostradamus-like forecating skills[*].

As he says, it was indeed a splendid day out for all concerned, despite (in my case) being hauled down to Hyde Park Corner at some unholy hour to help out on a stall. The sun was shining, the birds were singing, Pizza Hut was doing an undeservedly roaring trade, etc. I'd only add to Lenin's report the slightly bewildered air hanging over much of the crowd: no-one could quite believe everyone else had turned up, even if they were always going to march themselves. Len ends with his only criticism, a plea for more imagination on these events; that'll come when we start to recognise our own strength again. Sitting and watching the carefully-managed TV news is an extraordinarily good way to become - yes, quite angry - but also demobilised. It takes events like yesterday's demo to assemble all the fragments of the anti-war movement and drum home the realisation that this is actually a movement. (Sartre, by the way of explanation, is reviewed here.)

[*]Making predictions so vague as to fit any remotely plausible outcome.

Friday, March 18, 2005


Very high turnout. Around 100-200,000, giving a police estimate of 20-50,000.

Derisory media coverage.

Real Men

...and here we see Comrade #1 of a "pro-liberation" website goading his crowd of recidivists and Islamophobes into a grunting misogynistic frenzy, then later (comment March 17, 9:00pm) threatening violence against peace demonstrators. I suppose if you forget basic left-wing stuff like "not supporting imperialism" it's only a short step to forgetting, for instance, "not being a sexist pig".

John B from splendid blog Shot By Both Sides, responding to my snarls about the Liberal Democrats, suggests that we should refer to the Lib Dem Vince Cable-Mark Oaten axis of evil as "left-wing free-marketeers".

"Left-wing free-marketeers"?

Whilst I don't hold John personally responsible for George Bush's election victory - that honour belongs to Ian "Operation Clark County" Katz - this quip does neatly summarise how the US left manage to stuff up the elections so badly.

Without even the pretence of challenging the free market, the mainstream left, particularly in its "left-liberal" guise, has taken its arguments entirely into the sphere of culture. Brown's greatest claim is that he has created "stability" in the British economy for the last eight years; this is self-aggrandising, of course - Black Wednesday had more to do with it - but it also ignores the underlying political question of whose stability, from which other practical questions emerge: why it is that inequalities have widened so much under New Labour, or how working hours could have increased, and so on. Political arguments over the economy are replaced by managerial decisions, buttressed on occasion by (untested) claims as to the all-conquering powers of globalisation and financial markets.

The soft left has been forced, by necessity, onto the shaky terrain of "culture". In November 2004, this was fatal: Bush's team skilfully turned the cultural arguments against the Democrats, even as the scale of their economic mismanagement became all too obvious. Working-class Americans were persuaded to vote against their bottom-line economic interests by dubious cultural arguments.

Conversely, when we have in the UK a small scion of the political class wanting to do broadly the same economics as Bush, but not seriously questioning the long-established and hard-won tolerant political consensus over gay rights, women's rights, or anti-racism, they get labelled "left-wing free-marketeers".

There is no "left-wing" edition of free market. To support unrestrained market forces, as the Liberal Democrats unquestionably do, is to support a reactionary economic policy. What's more, it's to concede the most critical grounds that we have, the point at which all the other claims about not being racist or sexist or whatever can be tied together: an appreciation of the economy as a uniquely contested zone has enabled the left in the past to create solid blocks of support from the different oppressed groups in society. It did so by talking about class, and how class affected economic outcomes, and what it could do to offer an alternative.

This is Paul Foot's major theme in The Vote. The left can't win anything unless it starts to at least talk about economics.

The cloying, inescapable fear

I was out with a few Labour Party acquaintances a few weeks back. Not a Blairite amongst them, but all afflicted by the combination of well-intentioned loyalty, outright despair and blind terror that glues too many Party members to this government. Sheer blue funk is the major bind. It was during a discussion of prospects for the Britist left that one of them leaned over and, slightly conspiratorially, remarked that, "Of course, we all know that if proportional representation were introduced tomorrow, a right-wing populist party would sweep the board."

As an admission of utter hopelessness, it's pretty good. It also seems to be a keenly-felt concern amongst a certain sort of resigned left-winger:

But widening public disaffection with the political process has profound implications that stretch well beyond the immediate election. The recent audit by the Electoral Commission found barely a third of the population believed that they really can change the way the country is run by getting involved. Alienation on such a scale is profoundly dangerous. In the long term, ebbing public confidence in democracy will erode it of legitimacy. In the short term, it leaves our electoral process vulnerable to the sudden rise of flash parties with a populist agenda, of the kind which in the Netherlands swept their Labour government from office.

So this is what keeps Robin Cook up at night. The pessimistic belief in British exceptionalism and in a uniquely conservative Britain has long formed a central part of Labour loyalist mythology. It has provided both an elitist strain to Old Labour attempts at social reform - the ungrateful brutes simply don't know what's good for them - and an embarrassing faux-populist streak to New Labour, from the People's Princess to SMASH TEEN GANGS.

It has never applied in practice; it would be difficult to explain, for example, the continued existence of the NHS on the grounds of innate recidivism. The annual British Social Attitudes survey, the most comprehensive purview of public opinion, has shown majorities in favour of left-wing measures such as redistribution, greater nationalisation, higher benefit spending and so on for at least a decade. Cook admits as much in the same comment piece when he confesses that "...for two years opinion polls have discovered that Labour supporters now regard [the government] to the right of their own opinions." Tony Benn, a rare Old Labour figure who never bought into this version of the exceptionalist thesis, made the same point with more force a few days ago.

The thesis' most recent manifestation, in this peculiarly acute pessimistic form, seems to be the product of the widespread belief that politics has changed so utterly that the old ways to engage people simply don't apply any more: no more mass membership parties, no more public meetings, no more canvassing, no more protests and so on. We are left, instead, at the mercies of an unrestrained and unpleasant media that wholly dictates politics and that only adepts like Blair and Mandelson can hope to steer in a remotely progressive direction.

The anti-war movement dealt (or should have dealt) a death-blow to this belief, though Cook seeks to replace the loss of New Labour's allegedly skilled management of the media with its control by committee - a somewhat typical reaction. Cook falls down, too, in his suggestion that turnout will slide still further in this general election. I'm not so sure. Turnouts in by-elections have been picking up for some time, whilst the 2004 Euro-election turnout was hailed as one of the best ever recorded.

The driving factor with both has been the sense of competition, that there has been something worth fighting for. Comparing by-elections across Wales and Scotland, where competitions are more usually split four (rather two or three) ways between Labour, Tories, Lib Dems and the nationalists, show higher turnouts in general. When elections open up and the results are not foregone conclusions, turnout improves. Cook's real fear, I suppose, is that thanks to a war he did not support, the government he does is blundering into an election which is no longer a foregone conclusion.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Oona King: more dirty tricks

The saga continues:

George Galloway is taking legal action once more against Oona King MP over "an apology that wasn't and a smear that has been repeated once more".

King, the Bethnal Green and Bow Labour MP, had been forced into a humiliating climbdown over defamatory allegations she made against the Respect MP who is contesting her seat at the forthcoming General Election. The terms of the settlement included a one-off payment to a charity of Galloway's choice, the payment of his legal costs and an undertaking that she would not repeat the allegations.

"No sooner was the ink dry on the supposed agreement than she repeated the smear," Galloway told the East London Advertiser. "She is quoted in last week's Advertiser as saying she was too busy to fight the case and that 'It's up to others to decide whether they believe Galloway has behaved improperly' and 'Galloway has a lot to answer for'. The implication is clear and that is a glaring breach of the solemn undertaking she gave. My lawyers are acting urgently on this and I will be taking it all the way."

On a happier note, Respect has now delivered something like 160,000 newspapers advertising itself across the four East End constituencies we are standing in. Naturally, this has severely rattled the opposition who appear to be resorting to a half-witted smear campaign. As the Evening Standard recognised a few days ago in a report by Andrew Gilligan on tactical voting, Respect is the only force that can beat Labour out there. It's particularly impressive that this is being done from an principled, left-wing, anti-war position - to which New Labour have no credible response.

Chavez and computers

Via Histologion, news that

50% of Venezuela Government Software will be Open Source by 2007

...According to a presidential decree passed in December 2004, Venezuela’s public administration must present a plan within three months for how it will raise its usage of free software. The best known example of free software is the Linux operating system, which is steadily gaining in market share worldwide, relative to the private operating system Microsoft Windows. Following the president’s approval of the plans, the departments of the public administration will have two years to implement it.

This is a profoundly sensible move, for at least one major reason. Anybody who's seen the gross failings and absolute shambles of privately-sourced public sector IT over the last decade or so will appreciate just how badly private firms can screw the public sector. By maintaining tight proprietory control over the systems and the intellectual property needed to maintain them, EDS, Siemens and Accenture have all taken handsome amounts of public funds for inadequate - often catastrophically inadequate - IT services.

Breaking out of these monopolies, and tapping into the vast resource that is open source software should both remove Venezuela's dependence on unreliable private providers, and produce big savings whilst they're at it.

Confessions and controversy

I have always hated the slogan "NOT IN MY NAME". (Those black and red Katherine Hammett t-shirts were crap, too.)

And don't even get me started on "MAKE TEA NOT WAR".

Neither is enough to prevent me attending the demo on Saturday.

On dirty tricks

A hagiographic interview with Oona King appeared in the Observer last December. The sainted one declared of her election campaign against George Galloway that:

'I hope it doesn't get too dirty,' she says, 'but everyone tells me that with one of the candidates, that's inevitable.' There doesn't seem to be much doubt which one she means.


The Labour MP Oona King has issued an apology and made a settlement with rival MP George Galloway over allegations she made last year.

The two are locked in a tight and increasingly personal battle for Ms King's Bethnal Green and Bow constituency in London, which Mr Galloway is fighting for the anti-war Respect coalition.

Last week Ms King paid Mr Galloway's legal costs and made a £1,000 donation to charity over allegations she made in a press conference and press release last year about sexually improper behaviour.

Even worse than Bono

You heard me - worse than Bono; much, much, worse:

There has been a cool response to President Bush's nomination of Paul Wolfowitz to be the next head of the World Bank, a key development agency.

Mr Wolfowitz, 61, currently US Deputy Defence Secretary, has a reputation as a "neo-conservative" hawk and was a key architect of the Iraq war.

Jeffrey Sachs, a sackcloth-and-ashes reformed free-marketeer and a man who knows a thing or two about inappropriate policy, lays out the opposition case:

Hundreds of millions of people depend for their lives and their livelihood on World Bank efforts to fight extreme poverty - we need an individual with a demonstrated track record and relevant professional expertise.

Mr Wolfowitz does not fit those criteria at all. He is a man without international development experience, without professional qualifications.

He has not demonstrated an interest in the Millennium Development Goals, the shared international commitments to the fight against extreme poverty...

You wouldn't choose Mr Wolfowitz to be surgeon-general, a position for a doctor. You wouldn't choose Mr Wolfowitz to be solicitor-general, a position for a lawyer. And for the same reason, you shouldn't choose Mr Wolfowitz to be head of the World Bank.

Aha, reply Wolfowitz's supporters, he actually knows all about developing countries' problems. Why, Mr Wolfowitz was once ambassador to Indonesia:

Wolfowitz’s career is a textbook example of cold war politics that focused for nearly 50 years on the care and feeding of dictators like Suharto, Chun Doo Hwan in South Korea, and Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines. While there were differences in nuance between presidents, these policies remained remarkably consistent from administration to administration. Where Wolfowitz and the Reagan Republicans departed from the Democrats was in their public stance toward these unsavory figures.

Wolfowitz was (Richard) Holbrooke’s immediate successor in the top Asia slot at the State Department, serving there from 1982 to 1986. For the next three years he was U.S. ambassador to Jakarta, and from 1989 to 1993 he was the “principal civilian responsible for strategy, plans, and policy under Defense Secretary Dick Cheney,” according to his official biography. He has remained tightly linked to Indonesia through his role in the U.S.-Indonesia Society, a private group funded by the largest U.S. investors in Indonesia that, behind the veneer of “cultural exchanges,” pushes for closer ties with Jakarta. Its past members have also included members of Indonesia’s intelligence and military forces... During his tenure in the Reagan and Bush administrations, Wolfowitz played a key role in defining U.S. policy toward South Korea and the Philippines at a time of intense repression and growing opposition to authoritarian rule.

The most obvious logic behind this otherwise grossly inappropriate appointment seems to be a deliberate attempt to profoundly shift the Bank's priorities from the top downwards. It is of course true that the World Bank has been a dismal failure in recent years, as the resignation of former Bank chief economist, Joe Stiglitz, demonstrated. Stiglitz's particular complaint was the Bank's political incapacity when set against its Bretton Woods partner, the International Monetary Fund. The Bretton Woods institutions were established by international agreement at the end of WW2 to stabilse and regulate a post-war global economy centred on a system of fixed exchange rates.

The IMF and the World Bank group underwent one mutation after the collapse of the fixed exchange-rate regime in the early 1970s. The shift then was especially pronounced on the part of the IMF, which moved from a provider of short-term currency stability to direct involvement in establishing long-term macroeconomic frameworks: for the global South, the notorious "Structural Adjustment Programmes" were the immediate (and disastrous) consequence. The World Bank adapted itself to meekly trailing behind the neoliberal lead set by the IMF.

Both institutions entered deep political crisis in the late 1990s, the product of external and (at least for the World Bank) internal discontent. They have, so far, not come close to a successful resolution. Is it possible (he idly speculates) that some further mutation is being engineered?