THE PROBLEM WITH THE CO-OP

Tribune column, 29 November 2013

Maybe I’m a naïve libertarian, but I can’t be that bothered whether the Reverend Paul Flowers, the Methodist minister who was chairman of the Co-operative Bank, took illegal drugs and had sex with rent boys.

Not that I think that the Mail on Sunday should have been prevented from exposing him: it’s not good for people who run banks to be off their heads on crystal meth, just as it’s not good for airline pilots to be drunk, and religious leaders who preach against prostitution and hire prostitutes on the side are fair game. Continue reading

LOU REED WAS MY TEENAGE HERO

Tribune column, 1 November 2013

There’s one song every band can play. If the words don’t ring a bell:

Standing on a corner
Suitcase in my hand

the riff will do it for you. Da – da, da, di, da – da, da, di,da.

OK, maybe not. It’s “Sweet Jane”, and it was not a hit for the New York band that ripped off the lick and recorded it in 1970, the Velvet Underground. Continue reading

LABOUR TRAITORS?

Tribune, 18 October 2013

The Daily Mail’s assertion that Ralph Miliband, father of Labour leader Ed, was a stooge of the Soviet Union who ‘hated Britain’ has created a massive storm. But it is only the latest in a long line of right-wing smears against the Labour left – with Tribune as a particular target – claiming it kow-towed to communist Russia … or worse. In an exclusive extract from their new book, Moscow Gold? The Soviet Union and the British left, Paul Anderson and Kevin Davey tell the grisly story of the lies of the 1960s and 1970s Continue reading

FUTURE PROSPECTS

Tribune column, 4 October 2013

It’s taken long enough, but at last Ed Miliband seems to be finding a distinctive voice. His speech at Labour conference in Brighton was less than earth-shattering, but it was better than his previous efforts, not least because it contained some hints about what a Miliband Labour government would be like.

The most important, of course, was his promise of a two-year freeze on energy bills – a modest proposal but one sufficiently at odds with the free-market consensus to send the Tory press into a frenzy about how “Red Ed” was plotting a return to the extreme state socialism of the 1970s. Continue reading

RIGHT AND WRONG

Review of Robert Colls, George Orwell: English Rebel (Oxford University Press, £25), Tribune, 4 October 2013

I started Robert Colls’s new biography of George Orwell with some trepidation. Colls is a writer I like who has written intelligently and provocatively on working-class history and the creation of an English national identity – but I was wondering what a new biography could possibly add to the already massive literature on Orwell.

I was wrong to worry. Continue reading

THE LEFT’S DIRTY SECRET

Aaaargh! Press has just published Moscow Gold? The Soviet Union and the British left by me and Kevin Davey. Buy it!

Moscow Gold? The Soviet Union and the British left by Paul Anderson and Kevin Davey is a fine little book you can read in a day – 168 pages for just £3.50 on Kindle. Anderson and Davey have taken advantage of the vast amount of research into communism since the end of the Cold War. They wear it lightly, and refreshingly, are open about their political position. As members of the democratic left, they believe that communism was a disaster for left wing politics. It tied the left to tyranny and the lies and disillusion that went with it. Leaving everything else aside, the far left burnt out activists. For generations, idealistic men and women joined the Communist Party, Militant and the SWP, and left disgusted, not just with Leninism, but with politics of any kind.’
NICK COHEN

PROPER IMPERIALISM IS NOT ON THE AGENDA

Tribune column, 6 September 2013

The fall-out from last Thursday’s House of Commons defeat for David Cameron over military intervention in Syria has been spectacular. The newspapers and current affairs broadcasters have had a week of field days as the various political protagonists have laid into one another and pundits have tried to grasp the significance of the vote. Is Cameron finished? Is Ed Miliband an opportunist toe-rag? Is this the end of the special relationship?

Largely sidelined by the furore, however, has been any serious concern for the substantive issue supposedly at stake – what if anything the rest of the world should do about the civil war in Syria, in which some 100,000 people have died, 2 million have fled the country as refugees and 4 million have become displaced persons within its borders.

Of course, that’s not an easy question to answer. Although the internet is awash with images of atrocities, it is by no means clear exactly what is happening in Syria except that it’s bloody and unpleasant. There are conflicting reports about the strength and nature of the opposition to Bashar al-Assad’s regime: some say it’s still largely composed of moderate Sunnis who would be quite happy to live in harmony with everyone else, others that it is now dominated by murderous jihadists with strong al-Qa’ida connections. It’s not obvious how far Assad is now reliant on support from Iran and its Lebanese surrogate Hezbollah – rather more important regional players than his friends in Moscow, who have been grandstanding for all they are worth as well as supplying him with arms – and we don’t know how far the opposition is serving the interests of Riyadh, Doha and Ankara. As I write, it’s not even beyond question that it was the regime and not agents provocateurs that unleashed the nerve gas massacre that brought about last week’s call to action from Cameron (and I’ve not succumbed to conspiracy theory, honest).

It’s possible that the intelligence agencies of the world know a lot about the situation on the ground of which journalists are wholly unaware, but even if they do that’s not the end of the problem. The strong opposition of Russia and China to any sort of international intervention against Assad might well be more a matter of cynical self-interest than a statement of anti-imperialist principle, but it rules out the possibility of United Nations endorsement of even the most minimal “shots across the bow”. Israel is a wild card, utterly unpredictable because driven by hostility both to Assad and his enemies. Egypt is more-or-less under martial law after the coup against the Muslim Brotherhood; Iraq is out of the headlines but seething with sectarian tensions. And public opinion in the US and the UK is sceptical about the claims of the political class that intervention will work: memories are fresh of Afghanistan and Iraq, where successful regime-changing assaults were followed by years of bloody counter-insurgency operations. An invasion of Syria that learnt the lessons of Afghanistan and Iraq – Germany 1945-style, with regime-change, forcible disarmament of the population, an occupation involving hundreds of thousands of troops, the securing of borders and all the rest – would probably work, but “boots on the ground” are the last thing any western politician could now sell to an electorate. Proper imperialism is not on the agenda.

Which means that the people of Syria will continue to suffer in agony as humanitarians and liberals in the west wring their hands. The most that Barack Obama will sanction, as things stand, is a no-fly zone, and that’s assuming Congress gives him its backing. It won’t work, and will lead to lots more innocent people being killed.

Last week in the House of Commons, MPs refused to back something even more minimal. I can understand why, though I have no sympathy with the Tory and Liberal isolationists who can’t be bothered with quarrels in faraway countries between people of whom they know nothing. And it matters, because it creates a crisis of authority for the British government and marks a change in Britain’s perception of its role in world affairs. It makes very little difference, however, to what happens in Syria. If I were a Syrian, I think I would probably have a lot to say about that.

TIME TO BE TOUGH?

Tribune column, 12 July 2013

The giant bust-up over Labour’s parliamentary selection in Falkirk has eclipsed everything else in British politics for the past couple of weeks – and Labour’s relationship with the trade unions has the potential to escalate into the story that dominates the summer and the conference season.

And of course it matters – just as it mattered last time it became the really hot issue, 20 years ago, when Labour went through months of hell arguing the toss about John Smith’s attempt to introduce the principle of “one member, one vote” to internal Labour elections while continuing to allow affiliated unions a key role in the party’s organisation. Smith got his messy compromise through in the end, but it was only at the very last minute after some desperate behind-the-scenes conference fixing. It made for marvellous high drama, and the settlement reached in 1993 proved much more resilient than seemed likely.

How much the whole hoo-hah really changed is another question, however – and Labour’s preoccupation with its own structures undoubtedly diverted it from more important things. I have a feeling that the same might be about to happen now, if it’s not already happening. Until Falkirk came along, the shadow cabinet was obviously attempting to get into pre-election mode.

Last month’s speeches by Ed Miliband and Ed Balls accepting that an incoming Labour government in 2015 would have to stick to the coalition’s budget for a year were followed by a lacklustre intervention by the shadow education secretary, Stephen Twigg, in which he announced that Labour would not do anything against “free schools”, though it wouldn’t actually promote them.

 Last week was supposed to be when Labour made it clear that it wasn’t actually against a referendum on British membership of the European Union – though it wasn’t exactly in favour of one either. The party just about got the point across because someone left a briefing paper in the gents’ that was subsequently published by a right-wing blogger (or am I mixing this up with something else?).

But thanks to Falkirk it made only the online equivalent of a paragraph on page nine. Now, a cynic might suggest that Labour’s attempts to deal with the important issues have been so utterly hopeless that the confrontation with Len McCluskey is a welcome opportunity for Miliband to prove he can make tough decisions, and that he should now pull out all the stops to push through radical changes to Labour’s constitution.

I’m not so sure – and not just because I’d like to see Labour coming up with some bold alternative policies rather than turning inwards. One problem is timing. A giant internal constitutional battle is all very well for an opposition party in the first year of a parliament – it can even be cathartic – but is very dangerous less than two years from a general election, particularly when it’s only now that proposals are being tabled.

Miliband this week made it clear that he wants to move from opting out of Labour for union payers of the political levy to opting in, primaries for the London mayor selection and other selections, an overall cap on political donations – much of which makes sense in principle but, as OMOV showed 20 years ago, the devil is in the detail with this sort of thing, and there’s not a lot of time to sort it out.

The real problem, however, is it that it’s by no means clear that Miliband will win on the terrain on which he has chosen to fight. And if he loses, his credibility will be utterly destroyed. He has got his work cut out. Not for the first time, I’m glad I’m not in the Labour leader’s shoes. Oh well. The sun is out and the sky is blue, and it’s nearly holiday time. And a Scotsman has won the men’s singles at Wimbledon for the first time since 1896. It’s not all completely depressing, is it?

WHERE IS THE VISION?

Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 15 June 2013

The two big policy speeches by Ed Miliband and Ed Balls last week have not transformed the political landscape.

No one outside the political class noticed them – and the reaction within the political class was low-key and predictable. The usual suspects said the usual things. The far left and the Tory right proclaimed that Miliband and Balls had performed a U-turn to adopt the policies of the coalition government – committing Labour to austerity and abandoning the principle of universalism in the welfare state. Hardline Blairites sniffed at the failure of the two Eds to take a truly tough position on reducing government debt and pruning the welfare bill: they had shown they were was still beholden to the trade unions and left-wing activists who got Miliband elected as leader in 2010, and there was nothing of substance in what they said.

So has Labour embraced austerity or not? Actually, it has done neither and both. What happened last week was that Labour shifted into pre-election mode. After two-and-a-half years of repeatedly making the point that Labour wouldn’t have started from here, the party leadership is now talking about what it will do if it wins in 2015. Like it or loath it, by then we will have had five years of coalition austerity – and the room for manoeuvre for an incoming Labour government will be severely constrained. Miliband and Balls were simply relaying the message that if they win they won’t go mad, the very first prerequisite of a successful general election campaign.

Some say that it’s not before time for Labour to present itself as an alternative government, others that the Eds have moved too soon – that the economy and politics are in such flux, the next two years so unpredictable, that firming up Labour’s programme now will create big hostages to fortune. For what it’s worth, I think they’ve timed it about right. Until very recently, there was at least the possibility of a government U-turn on austerity or a debilitating split in the coalition, which made the lightness of Labour’s baggage an advantage. It now seems that George Osborne intends to stick to his script, and the coalition appears robust enough to survive until 2015 – though it might not – so it makes sense for Labour to get its act together.

Whether the messages the two Eds have chosen to highlight are the right ones is another matter. “We’ll not splash out on the social security budget and we’ll keep a strict watch on overall public spending” is not the stuff to set the pulse racing – and there wasn’t much else beyond Balls’s cack-handed indication that some universal benefits enjoyed by pensioners would be means-tested.

Miliband’s hint that Labour will come up with ways to revitalise the contributory element in social security benefits is a step in the right direction, as is his identification of housing benefit as a scandalously wasteful subsidy to petty rentier capitalists (as his dad would have described them). But he didn’t flesh out what Labour would actually do about either. Are we talking a return to earnings-related unemployment benefit as it existed in the 1970s – or an extra 25 quid a week for people who have worked 30 years and are made redundant? Is it strict rent controls and a three-year emergency programme of putting up council pre-fabs – or is it tax-breaks for the construction industry to build blocks of luxury flats with the odd “affordable” broom cupboard with a view of the car park?

OK, I’m not really expecting a return to earnings-related dole, and there are problems with enforcing rent controls. But if Labour is saying that it is going to have to deal with the circumstances it inherits from this disastrous government in 2015, it needs to leaven the dour – it’s going to be tough – with a compelling story of how it could be different.

So far, the vision thing is absent: Labour looks and sounds timid and unadventurous, driven by focus groups and opinion polls that tell it to play safe. Labour won in 1997 on “safety first”, but things are different now. We’re in the middle of the worst depression since the 1930s, and there is a sullen anti-immigrant, anti-Europe, anti-scrounger mood among the voters that cannot be ignored. Labour needs to offer hope, and it isn’t doing it.

QUOTING AGAINST THE WAR

Paul Anderson, review of The March That Shook Blair by Ian Sinclair (Peace News Books, £10), Red Pepper, June-July 2013

The argument about the significance of the 15 February 2003 march in London opposing war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq has been going on ever since – and got serious again with a flurry of polemics to mark the 10th anniversary a few weeks ago.

Peace News journalist Ian Sinclair’s oral history is part of that argument. The very fact that he spent years producing this book shows that he thinks the demo was very important, a point he makes explicit in his introduction.

I’m not persuaded that The March That Shook Blair vindicates his conviction, but he has put in an impressive amount of work – more than 70 face-to-face interviews, dozens of email exchanges and a trawl through the clippings – and the book provides fascinating insights into the thinking of a lot of the key people in the anti-war camp, including several who are critical of the role of the Socialist Workers Party in the Stop the War Coalition, which organised the giant march. Future historians of the British left will mine this book shamelessly.

There are two major problems with it.

First, it is too narrow. It doesn’t give enough space to demonstrators who were neither involved in the organisation of the march nor old hands in the peace movement and the left; the left pro-war argument gets a look-in only through reproduction of old clippings; and there’s no room at all for waverers or people who fell out with Stop the War (of whom there are quite a few).

Second, it doesn’t adequately contextualise the anti-war movement of 2002-05. Yes, it was primarily a reaction to the Bush administration’s “war on terror” after 9/11 and Tony Blair’s support for it – but that’s not the whole story. Most of the key players interviewed by Sinclair had been around for ages before, but few talk about their previous formative experiences – the collapse of the Communist Party and the Labour left and marginalisation of CND in the late 1980s, the 1990-91 Kuwait war, the giant left bust-ups over Bosnia and Kosovo, the Socialist Alliance. Read this book, but it’s not the last word.