CAMERON’S UKIP PICKLE

Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 17 May 2013

The extraordinary surge in support for UK Independence Party in the local elections has undoubtedly been the big British politics story of the month. UKIP came from (almost) nowhere to take a surprisingly large share of the vote in the shire counties and unitary councils voting this year and increased its number of council seats by 139.

Precisely how big its share was is still unclear. The BBC’s figure for UKIP’s “projected national share” of the vote as 23 per cent is what made the headlines – but that is just a little problematic because it is an estimate of what would have happened across the country in local elections if they had taken place everywhere and if UKIP and the three main parties had been contesting every seat.

It could be that the BBC’s psephologists built a very sophisticated model to make their projection, but their assumptions have not been published and nor, so far, have the raw data for votes actually cast. I might be wrong, but my hunch is that they have probably exaggerated the evenness of the distribution of UKIP support across the country: UKIP’s actual seats are concentrated in the east and south-east in run-down coastal towns and in agricultural areas where there are lots of east European vegetable-pickers. We shall see.

Still, UKIP undoubtedly did very well – and that has sent much of the Tory party into a state of panic. Tory MPs could live with the prospect of UKIP getting the most votes in next year’s European elections, but until this month UKIP’s successes in any other elections were minor. It had a tiny number of council seats and, although it had been runner-up in a handful of parliamentary by-elections, in all apart from Eastleigh its second places had been distant. Now the fear has swept the Tories that UKIP will split the right-wing vote in the 2015 general election and let Labour through the middle.

It might happen, it might not: the general election is a long way off. What is important, however, is that the Tories’ fear is affecting their behaviour in the here and now. UKIP does not have coherent policies for government, and Nigel Farage is difficult to take seriously as a national political leader. But on one issue above all UKIP addresses directly the concerns of a large number of working-class and lower-middle-class voters who mainly voted Tory in 2010: immigration. That much was known before the local elections – the anti-immigration measures in last week’s threadbare Queen’s Speech were not dreamed up in desperation over the previous weekend – but the Tories are in shock at having lost so much of the anti-immigrant electorate, and their ugly chauvinist rhetoric is getting uglier by the day.

The government’s problem here is that, as UKIP never tires of pointing out, there is very little it can do to deter anyone from other European Union countries coming to Britain as long as we remain in the EU, and the government does not want to leave. It is difficult to see how David Cameron can get out of this one. He has already promised as much as he can that is tolerable to his Liberal Democrat coalition partners – a renegotiation and the promise of an “in-out” referendum in the next parliament – but it is not enough for the hardline Tory Eurosceptic right. Cameron now faces trouble on Europe every bit as serious as the endless bickering that undermined John Major during the 1990s.

Labour can enjoy the Tories’ predicament – but only a little. Its local election campaign was well targeted on marginal Westminster seats, but it too took a hit from UKIP, and its overall share of the vote was unimpressive. More important, it is going to be much more difficult than in the 1990s for Labour to exploit a giant bust-up on the right about Europe. Back then, the economy was booming, immigration meant asylum-seekers, and the right’s anti-Europeanism was all about Brussels bureaucracy rather than east Europeans coming over here and taking our houses and jobs. Labour cannot ignore voters’ worries about immigration and Europe, but it needs to be very careful that it is not sucked into an anti-Europe, anti-immigrant bidding war.

THATCHER WAS A FAILURE

Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 19 April 2013

The death of Margaret Thatcher has prompted a wave of public controversy that is quite extraordinary – if only because she had not been a player in British politics for so long. She left office in 1990 and had only a minor role after that – notably in criticising her successor as prime minister, John Major, for his failings on former-Yugoslavia (on which she was right) and the European Union (on which she was wrong). No one now under the age of 43 voted in a general election in which she was a candidate; no one under 52 was a voter when she became prime minister.

Of course, her time in office was eventful, sometimes dramatic, and a lot changed while she was in charge. On the home front, her government destroyed the power of the trade unions – aided by the inept leadership of the National Union of Mineworkers – and privatised the utilities and most of the nationalised industries. It let council tenants buy their homes, allowed manufacturing industry to collapse, started the deregulation of the City and radically curtailed the autonomy of local government.

In foreign policy, there was the Falklands, resolute pursuit of the cold war and a policy on Europe that favoured the single market but opposed anything smacking of federalism. And of course, she did what she did with a distinctive style, which you either loved or loathed if you were around at the time.

But was Thatcher really the game-changer that both her fans and her critics claim? It’s true that the unions have never recovered from their 1980s defeats – and the chances of any future government engaging in a programme of renationalisation are small, if only because it would be expensive.

Otherwise, however, the big changes of the Thatcher years, where they weren’t crudely implemented adjustments to the inevitable, look increasingly thin and very much reversible.

 Coal and steel would have withered in the face of international competition under any government: Thatcher’s approach brutally hastened their demise and maximised the pain to communities reliant on heavy industry for work. Manufacturing would also have declined under any government because of competition from the far east, though it was made worse by the absence of any coherent industrial policy from the Thatcher government (or any of its successors). Deregulation of the City – continued by subsequent administrations, Tory and Labour – gave us the crisis of 2008 from which we are yet to recover despite massive state intervention to rescue the banks. The sale of council housing to tenants was a bonanza for those who bought, massively subsidised by the taxpayer, but councils were not allowed to use the receipts to build new homes, and, particularly in London and the south-east, right-to-buy owners soon sold up to buy-to-let landlords who charged obscene rents paid by housing benefit. Now we’ve got a housing crisis.

As for foreign policy – well, the Falklands really doesn’t matter except for patriotic myth-makers, and the cold war is long over, though it’s worth noting that Thatcher was completley ineffectual in its last phase. She might have identified Mikhail Gorbachev as a man with whom she could do business, but she resisted the removal of nuclear weapons from Europe in the late eighties and opposed the unification of Germany in 1989. On the European Community, her record was disastrous. Britain’s bone-headed obstructionism under her watch in the late 1980s played a key part in framing the Maastricht treaty on European Union along lines that have since 2008 been exposed as utterly idiotic – a central bank committed to quell inflation and nothing else, no European federal government.

Thatcher seemed a big figure, but she wasn’t really. She won the 1979 general election with a small majority because Labour’s corporatism had failed – and then got lucky. She won massive majorities in 1983 and 1987 after a small part of the Labour leadership defected to set up an Atlanticist pro-Europe centrist party in alliance with the Liberals. She then became a heroine of the anti-European right, which took control of the Conservative party in the 1990s and lost three general elections in a row.

And that’s it. There’s not a lot in the legacy to fear apart from the remarkable success of her appeal to affluent working-class voters in 1983 and 1987. Can David Cameron do the same in 2015? Almost certainly not – and that’s despite the fact that, with the help of the Liberal Democrats, he’s engaged on a plan to shrink the state that Thatcher could only dream about. I’m not dancing on her grave, but she was a failure whose reputation will fade as soon as Britain elects a decent democratic socialist government.

LOOK FORWARD TO SCUMBAG ONLINE

Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 22 March 2013

Now, I’m not going to do this, you understand, but …

What if I set up a website – let’s call it Scumbag – and got it hosted on a web server in the United States. Scumbag would be explicitly committed to publishing stories about UK celebrities obtained by fair means or foul that involved the most outrageous breaches of privacy, would be explicitly racist, misogynist and homophobic, would campaign relentlessly in favour of climate-change denial and reduction of welfare payments to supposed scroungers, and would never allow anyone it traduced to reply (let alone publish apologies). Familiar profile?

Although Scumbag would concentrate entirely on UK stories, as its sole proprietor I would not be resident in the UK but in Sicily. Scumbag would have no UK employees (though it would use UK freelances) and it would not register the website with any UK regulator.

The question is this: is there anything in any of the proposals currently being made for UK press regulation – including the Leveson-lite compromise that seems to have been agreed by the party leaders last weekend – that would stop Scumbag in its tracks?

I don’t think so. Scumbag would no more be published in the UK than the New York Times is published here – but it would be available to anyone with an internet connection. I’d be in Italy, ogling the girls on the beach and smoking big cigars. Scumbag’s UK freelances would be vulnerable to libel actions in the UK, but the cunningly clever ruse of not giving them bylines and refusing to identify them when anyone contacted HQ in Sicily would make them very difficult to sue. They would also of course be subject to the criminal law in the UK, but if they got caught hacking phones or trespassing in the grounds of royal properties it would be their look-out. No (overt) legal support, though Scumbag would reward initiative generously…

OK, that’s enough grim fantasy – though to be honest, we’re almost there already with dreck like the Guido Fawkes blog and Press TV available to anyone with a smartphone. You’d need a good business head for Scumbag to wash its face as an enterprise, but it already looks an awful lot easier than publishing a highbrow leftwing dead-trees weekly or fortnightly.

But if you do want to publish a highbrow leftwing dead-trees weekly or fortnightly – let’s call it Tribune – in Britain, old-style, and you don’t have big money or even small money, and it’s difficult getting it legalled every issue because you’re broke, all of the proposals put up by self-styled reformers post-Leveson are grounds for panic. You don’t have a Scumbag escape.

Most of the reformers are media studies academics who last worked as journalists 30 or more years ago and have had little published – except think-pieces on media reform and dull stuff in academic journals – for more than two decades. They’re all in favour in theory of insurgent journalism, investigations and all the rest, but they’ve not done any real journalism themselves for ages and are pretty much clueless about how the media have changed since the arrival of the internet. For the best of academic reasons circa 1987, they’re focused on the big players of the late 20th-century, the Murdochs and the Rothermeres. But they don’t know about the internet, and they are barely aware of the minnows on the edges of commercial viability.

And actually, it’s the internet and the minnows that matter. Leave grand principles aside. How much is it going to cost to sign up for being part of the regulatory system that would allow participants in a Leveson-type scheme to avoid being subject to exemplary damages in libel actions if you don’t join – something backed by all parties right now? If it’s twenty quid a year, maybe cough up. If it’s £2,000? Well, that’s the difference between survival and death, so bollocks to that.

As for the idea that third-party complainants – people who think a piece is outrageous for one reason or another though it has nothing directly to do with them – should be given rights to reply or to moan at length that can be enforced by a regulator or a court of law? Bollocks again, to the Freedom Association, the East London Mosque, the British National Party, the various publicists for Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the Socialist Workers Party, who have no right whatsoever to any kind of reply from Tribune or my blog apart from the opportunity of contributing to the letters page or comments, with publication at the editor’s – in the case of this blog, my – discretion. And if they don’t like that, they can stick it wherever they want.

The would-be regulators are sad old men with leather patches on the elbows of their tweed jackets. Hacked Off, the campaign to support the victims of phone-hacking, has been very successful in getting party political support for its proposals to clamp down on the press as it remembers it in the 1980s. But it should be told to get lost. It’s now dangerously past-it.

A CONSCIENCE CLAUSE IS NOT ENOUGH

Paul Anderson, Free Press, March-April 2013 

It’s a measure of how far the left has retreated in recent years that the best most media reformers can imagine to defend journalists’ independence is a “conscience clause” in their contracts to allow them to refuse their bosses’ instructions to act unethically.

There’s nothing wrong with the idea. The National Union of Journalists has supported it since the 1970s, and it was backed by Lord Justice Leveson in his report on press regulation at the end of last year.

If implemented, it would provide a small but significant protection for journalists.

But it addresses only at the margins the fundamental problem of how little most journalists control what they produce. You get a lot of leeway if you’re a big name – a star broadcaster or a columnist on a quality national newspaper. But journalists are generally kept on a tight rein.

Media organisations are run by managers answering to owners or (in the case of the BBC) political appointees. The bosses set the agenda in every way: the editorial line, news values, what you cannot touch for political or commercial reasons. Journalists do what they are told.

To some extent, this is inevitable: there will always be a tension between the individual journalist’s autonomy and the collective will of his or her organisation. Any journalistic enterprise that’s more than micro, new media or old, needs editorial direction and a division of labour. But it’s quite feasible for the producers to determine both.

Why isn’t anyone today making the case for workers’ self-management in the media? One reason is that it seems unrealistic. The “right to manage” ethos is entrenched even in liberal media organisations (and it’s getting worse). Even the most diluted forms of self-management –workers on the board or a say for journalists in the choice of editor – would be resisted vigorously by those in charge. Maybe, in the circumstances, the priority is defending what little space we’ve got.

But unrealistic is not impossible. The idea that workers’ self-management in the media has been tried and failed and isn’t worth trying again is a canard.

True, there were several examples of self-managed magazines and newspapers in the 1970s and 1980s that failed:

  • The Scottish Daily News, created with the help of a large government loan by former staff of the Scottish Daily Express after it closed, lasted six loss-making months in 1975. 
  • The Leveller, a libertarian left current affairs magazine based in London, managed six crisis-ridden years (1976-82) before folding.
  • City Limits, an alternative London listings magazine, did brilliantly for several years after emerging from a strike at Time Out in 1981 (with funding from the Greater London Council) but started to lose money in the late 1980s and expired in 1992. 
  • News on Sunday, a national left-wing paper launched in spring 1987 with trade union backing, ran out of cash in weeks and closed by the end of the year.

But none of these failures shows that workers’ self-management cannot work. News on Sunday was a farcical demonstration of how not to do it – as chronicled by Chris Horrie and Peter Chippendale in their book Disaster! – and the Scottish Daily News was an attempt to revive a corpse. The Leveller and City Limits both came within an inch of success, however: it was undercapitalisation that did for them.

And times have changed. All those experiments were in print, before desktop publishing and long before the internet. The internet allows anyone to publish for free to a worldwide audience – and today you can do everything online: words, pictures, audio, video.

Yet 15 years into the internet age, it’s notable how little the potential of the web has been exploited by collaborative self-managed journalistic projects in the UK. Yes, there’s Open Democracy, there’s the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, there are dozens of group blogs, and plenty of media and campaigning organisations have adapted successfully to the online world. But even at local level there are few independent journalism-led and journalist-run web initiatives that go further than providing forums for the expression of opinion.

Of course, journalism costs money, and no one has quite yet worked out how to make the internet pay. Open Democracy, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and the successful group blogs rely for income on fundraising or selling stories to established media outlets. But there are signs that it won’t be long before a robust business model for online publication is established, through a mix of online advertising, subscriptions and micro-payments: it’s already beginning to happen in the US and elsewhere.

And once it is – well, the possibilities for self-managed media are endless. Radical journalists in Britain need to be putting a lot more thought into how, together, we can at last seriously exploit the potential of what was once known as the information super-highway.

IRAQ STARTED A DISMAL DECADE

“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,” wrote William Wordsworth of the French revolution. “But to be young was very heaven!” And to quite a lot of people, the same seems to apply to having gone to the giant London demonstration of 15 February 2003 against British participation in the war to topple Saddam Hussein.

 I’ve lost count of the pundits who have told us how it changed their lives and opened their eyes and nothing was ever quite the same again. Yes, it was massive, the biggest demo in London maybe ever – 1 million, 2 million? No one knows. We came from all over, all sorts of people. It was an extraordinary mobilisation, and it felt good to be part of a giant crowd.

But that was it. We came, we hung around in office-land, we eventually got to Hyde Park. A month later, Robin Cook resigned from Tony Blair’s cabinet and there was a backbench Labour revolt in the House of Commons. Then Britain went to war.

In short, the demo failed. OK, it might have been more effective – a Tory MP on the platform, perhaps, or a bit of direct action? – but the brutal truth is that a lot of us turned out to say we didn’t want war, and the government, which had won a big majority in 2001, ignored us, as was its democratic right.

So why is everyone talking about it ten years after? It’s not just the convenience of anniversaries for editors. Ian McEwan’s novel Saturday, framed by the day of the protest, captures the unease that made the Iraq war a watershed for liberals and leftists. Should we be opposing the overthrow of the most murderous tyrant of the late 20th century? Or should we be backing an imperialist adventure that has every prospect of failing? It was a defining moment, and the arguments continue to this day, filled with passionate intensity.

At the time, it seemed that the scale of opposition to war might prove fatal to Blair’s premiership. But it turned out to be only a nagging wound for New Labour. For all the sound and fury, Blair won another general election in 2005, and Iraq played only a small role in the manoeuvring by Gordon Brown that eventually ousted him.

The war did, however, prove critical for the confidence and credibility of the left in the Labour Party. It was riven over the war but also committed to maintaining Labour in power. Cook’s resignation speech won a standing ovation in the Commons, but most Labour MPs who agreed with him stuck with Blair. Individual Labour Party members opposed to war drifted out of the party, and the anti-war cause became the property of the Liberal Democrats, the Leninist far left (the Socialist Workers Party, the Communist Party of Britain and George Galloway), the mosques with whom the far left had allied, and the Greens.

None of them managed to capitalise on the political collapse of the Labour left. The Lib Dems won 62 seats in the 2005 general election, the biggest haul for a centre party since the 1920s but only 10 better than 2001, then jettisoned two leaders before turning to the free-market right. George Galloway won Bethnal Green for Respect after a campaign directed at traditionalist Muslims, but Respect soon split after a bust-up between Galloway and the SWP. Galloway resurrected his Bethnal Green strategy to win a by-election victory in Bradford last year, but it’s hard to see that as more than a one-off. The Greens retained the European Parliament seats they won in 1999 in 2004 and 2009 and won representation on local councils, though it wasn’t until 2010 that they got their first MP (and that had little to do with Iraq).

Meanwhile, Labour lost power in 2010 to the most reactionary government we’ve had since the 1930s. Iraq was not a major factor in the defeat – at least by comparison with the MPs’ expenses scandal, immigration and the press trashing of Brown and Labour’s record on economic policy. But it was a factor, and it was an issue in the leadership election that followed. Ed Miliband won in part because, conveniently, he’d not had anything to do with the decision to go to war.

The war marked the start of a dismal decade for the British left. Can we move on, please?

BRITISH LENINISM IS DEAD

Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 25 January 2013

The economy is in free-fall, the government is stumbling from crisis to crisis, Labour is somnambulant … but what has the British left been talking about this past month? Online transsexuals bullying the feminist journalist Suzanne Moore about an article in the New Statesman – and an extraordinary bust-up in the Socialist Workers Party over an allegation of rape against a senior male member.

The storm over the ugly threats to Moore has had more media coverage – in part because Julie Burchill responded to them by accepting a commission to write an incendiary piece for the Observer lampooning what she called “a bunch of dicks in chicks’ clothing”. Her article, which is very funny, was removed from the paper’s website by its editor, John Mulholland, after readers (and his editor-in-chief, Alan Rusbridger) complained – a quite astonishing failure of editorial nerve. I’m with Suzanne and Julie on this one: however misunderstood and oppressed you are, you don’t Tweet rape threats to the birds.

But the SWP sexual assault scandal has wider ramifications. The story is simple. Some years ago, a woman member of the party complained of sexual harassment by a party bigwig – and last year she accused him of rape. The party referred the case to its disputes committee, the members of which were friends of the accused; and the committee conducted a slapdash inquiry and found the accusation not proven. It then reported its verdict to a closed session of the party’s conference in early January – which voted to accept it, but only by the narrowest of margins.

Then the shit hit the fan. A transcript of the conference debate on the disputes committee report was sent to the Socialist Unity website by a party member disgusted by the leadership’s lack of openness on the case. This in turn was the cue for several resignations and a spate of polemics from suddenly dissident SWPers – prominent among them the writers Richard Seymour and China Miéville – loudly denouncing the party leadership they had supported unswervingly for years. The hypocrisy is breath-taking, but never mind. The SWP is now in what looks like a terminal crisis.

So what, you might think. But although the SWP doesn’t matter much, it does matter. Until this latest scandal, it was the sole survivor of the Leninist far left in Britain that could claim to be more than a website or a network of old comrades in their fifties with salaried positions in the labour movement, academia, the media and various pressure groups (though of course it was that too). Since the early 1990s the SWP has been the biggest faction on the far left in Britain (which isn’t saying much: its membership is almost certainly less than 2,000).

It was a beneficiary of the implosion of its competitors. The Communist Party of Great Britain split during the 1980s. The Eurocommunist majority abandoned Leninism to create Democratic Left (which dwindled to nothing, changed its name twice and handed over what remained of the Moscow gold to a constitutional reform pressure group). The CPGB’s Stalinist minority regrouped in the tiny Communist Party of Britain, most of whose members are now pensioners. A little later, the SWP’s main rival on the Trotskyist left, the Militant Tendency, went into catastrophic decline after it was expelled from the Labour Party (except briefly in Scotland, where it was the core of the Scottish Socialist Party until its charismatic leader Tommy Sheridan fell from grace, though that’s another story).

During the 1990s, the SWP recruited a swathe of leftists left homeless by New Labour, and after Labour won in 1997 made an opening to its rivals, setting up a party to fight elections, the Socialist Alliance, with Militant (by then the Socialist Party of England and Wales), which contested the 2001 general election. The SA won nothing, and meanwhile the brains behind the SWP got old and died: Tony Cliff (2000), Duncan Hallas (2002), Paul Foot (2004).

The SWP terminated the great Trot love-in amid recriminations, but after 9/11, the SWP threw itself into anti-war activism – and found itself new allies in the form of the Muslim Association of Britain and the maverick pro-Saddam Hussein Labour MP George Galloway. The result, after Galloway’s expulsion from Labour in 2003, was the creation of a another new electoral party, Respect, which did very well for Gorgeous George, who won Bethnal Green and Bow in 2005, but not so well for the SWP, which got few recruits from the initiative and a lot of ridicule for cosying up to barmy reactionary Islamists.

The SWP left Respect and jettisoned the two leading figures most responsible for the Islamist turn, John Rees and Lindsay German, who now run a website-cum-party called Counterfire. It was obvious when they left that the party was in trouble, but it still dominated the far-left scene: every union branch had a resident SWPer. Now the party is a laughing-stock: no one will even talk to them after all this. I’m not mourning, but it’s worth noting. British Leninism is finished.

THE GUARDIAN NEEDS A PLAN B

Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 30 November 2012

Management and unions at the Guardian and the Observer are set for an almighty confrontation after management this month announced the start of compulsory redundancy proceedings in order to get rid of 100 journalists out of 600-odd on staff.

Guardian News and Media management claims that it needs 100 to go to save £7 million a year – and that only 30 have offered themselves for voluntary severance. After four years of job cuts that have seen some 250 editorial staff leave voluntarily, management says that GNM is losing £44 million a year.

GNM journalists say that the losses have nothing to do with editorial over-staffing and everything to do with a misguided commercial strategy. Rather than getting rid of journalists, they say that GNM needs to rethink its commitment to offering all content for free online and to reduce spending on exorbitant management salaries and expensive marketing gimmicks.

The Guardian is no stranger to financial crisis. Until the 1980s, it relied on a subsidy from its sister paper, the Manchester Evening News, to cover its losses – and in the 1960s its management got so jittery that they seriously considered a merger with the Times. Nothing came of it, the MEN continued to pay the bills, and the Guardian put on circulation and cornered the market in advertising for media and public-sector jobs. By the late 1980s, after production costs (and printers’ jobs) were slashed by the introduction of new technology, the Guardian was making money. For a good 15 years it enjoyed a commercial golden age. The Guardian Media Group bought the Observer in 1993 and took over Auto Trader, the profitable used car listing magazine, then in the mid-noughties paired up with a venture capitalist firm for a leveraged buy-out of the magazine company EMAP.

So what has gone wrong? The easy answer is the internet and recession. The internet allows us all to access what news we want online for free, so we don’t buy newspapers as much. It is also how we find out about jobs (and houses and cars) and increasingly how we buy consumer goods. All this means there’s less advertising for print publications. And in a recession advertisers cut back on spending and readers buy fewer newspapers.

This is a challenging environment for all newspapers. With print advertising and sales on the slide, they need to find new revenue streams. And that is what the Guardian has failed to do.

It embraced the internet early, and by 2000 its online audience was bigger than that of any newspaper in Britain – with the website attracting increasing traffic from the US. While other newspapers tried paywalls or limited access to their print versions, the Guardian made everything free to all. The hope was that before long the site would attract sufficient online ad revenues to make up for any fall in sales and print advertising.

But the online advertising has not materialised – or at least not in sufficient quantity. At which point, you might think, the old adage “If you’re in a hole, stop digging” might come into play. Not a bit of it. The Guardian management has stuck to plan A – pour money into online in the hope that web advertising comes to the rescue – with messianic zeal, declaring its strategy to be “digital first”, pouring cash into a new US office in an attempt to establish the Guardian as a genuinely global brand and embracing what editor Alan Rusbridger calls “open journalism”, roughly speaking the idea that the barrier between journalists and reader-contributors will be broken down by digital interactivity.

Its commitment was epitomised by its vastly expensive TV advertising campaign earlier this year, an animation showing a zippy online Guardian awash with user-generated content retelling the fairy story of the three little pigs. Much praised by the ad industry, it had no effect on print sales, but that didn’t stop the man behind it, David Pemsel, being taken on as GNM’s commercial supremo this autumn. Meanwhile, the message from the Guardian to advertisers remains that its online reach is stupendous – but advertisers just won’t pay very much for digital ads.

Of course, GNM needs to stop haemorrhaging money. But getting rid of journalists really isn’t the best way to do it. The work they produce is the main reason people buy the Guardian and Observer and visit the website – not the user-generated content or the dating agency or the coolness of the brand or the interactivity of the mobile apps. I’m not surprised that they’re up in arms and demanding a plan B.

UNVERSITIES: A CASE OF MARKET FAILURE

Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 2 November 2012 

 It is, I admit, difficult to feel sympathy for the Russell Group of elite universities. Its 24 members – Oxford, Cambridge, most of the University of London and 17 other institutions, which between them scoop up more than 80 per cent of higher-education research funding – have a deserved reputation for special pleading. The Russell Group universities enthusiastically embraced Labour’s introduction of student loans and the current coalition government’s move to make higher education entirely student-debt-funded by hiking fees to a maximum of £9,000 a year for undergraduates. We’ll be all right, they said, and sod the rest.

 But now, it seems, they’re starting to have second thoughts. Last week, the director of the Russell Group, Wendy Piatt, told a BBC Radio Four documentary that its members have taken a hit of £80 million in lost income because of the shortfall in student recruitment caused by the increase in student fees.

And if they’re hurting, just think of the non-elite universities. The Russell Group have been the main beneficiaries of the government’s decision to relax recruitment controls and allow higher education institutions to recruit as many students as they want with top A-level grades.

The recruitment figures for “post-1992” universities – the former polytechnics – are not yet available. But all the anecdotal evidence suggests a slump in numbers that threatens the viability of many courses and departments.

Universities are in crisis as a consequence of a half-arsed government policy, even the posh ones. And last week, a projection by the Higher Education Policy Institute, a think tank, suggested that there is a £1 billion “black hole” in the government’s calculations of its likely income from the repayment of student loans because of ludicrous optimism about graduates’ pay in the future. They didn’t think this one through.

I’ve been teaching journalism at various higher education outfits for more than 20 years, and so far there is no sign of any collapse in demand for journalism courses – which is a relief for me but also a concern, because there aren’t many jobs in journalism right now.

Yes, there are opportunities for young journos with the right skills. I’m as committed as ever to getting talented working-class and ethnic-minority kids into the business. My students today are as good as any I’ve had. But I’m worried that the pell-mell expansion of HE journalism training over the past two decades – driven by an extraordinary boom in journalism employment from the mid-1980s to the mid-2000s – has gone too far. I had a particularly brilliant group that finished a university course I ran two years ago that I thought would take over Fleet Street: they’ve done well, but they’re mostly not working in journalism. I wouldn’t go as far as a former colleague, who described the journalism training business as “a giant Ponzi scheme”, but we’re training too many journalists today, and that’s not responsible (even if it pays my mortgage).

It’s not quite as ridiculous as pathology, which, as a result of the popularity of TV crime dramas featuring forensic scientists, has seen an increase in the number qualifying as pathologists rising from five 10 years ago to more than 400 – prompting the vice-president of the Royal College of Patholgists, Suzy Lishman, to tell the Times the other week: “If all these young people want a job when they qualify, at least half will have to retrain as mass murderers.”

But the brutal fact is that it is senseless to organise higher education on front-end market demand: particularly with vocational courses, what seems sexy now won’t be so hot in three years. It’s essential to plan ahead with an eye on the employment market.

OK, there will always be a lag and some guesswork, but there is a role for the person in Whitehall who knows better than 18-year-olds who want to be Julian Assange or the star in a TV cop show.

That isn’t, however, the only problem. Just as idiotic as allowing the passing fancies of 18-year-olds to determine the shape of higher education, the way the worth of university teachers and courses is now assessed is a tick-box questionnaire that all undergraduates get before they do their finals, the National Student Survey. A bad NSS is higher-education death – even though it is usually the result of cock-ups and foibles: one lecturer is parachuted in and pitches the lectures too high or low for the students, another is a particularly tough marker, another has a cohort of students he or she fails to enthuse after a badly judged first lecture.

I’ve been all those, and I regret nothing apart from the stupidity of university managements who accept the tick-box questionnaire as the last word. I’ve never handed out over-generous marks to keep students quiet in the NSS, but I know plenty of lecturers that do. The NSS means grade inflation and falling standards. And it doesn’t empower students a jot.

I know it’s old-fashioned, but what Britain’s universities need now is national planning, professional independence for lecturers and funding from general taxation. Marketisation has been a disaster. It privileges the stupid wannabe and the whinger above all others. Time for a change: politics back in command.

OBITUARY: ERIC HOBSBAWM

Paul Anderson, Tribune, 19 October 2012

Eric Hobsbawm, who has died at the age of 95, was the last survivor of an extraordinary generation of British Marxist historians who first developed their ideas in the late 1940s and early 1950s as members of the Communist Party Historians Group – among them Christopher Hill, Edward and Dorothy Thompson, Raphael Samuel. John Saville and George Rudé. The group broke up after its majority left the Communist Party in protest at the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 – but Hobsbawm stuck to the CP to the very bitter end in 1991, and never apologised for his decision to do so.

Perhaps it had something to do with his experience as an adolescent. Born into a central-European Jewish family in Egypt in 1917, he spent his early childhood in Vienna before his parents died and he moved to Berlin with an uncle – where he witnessed at first hand the violence of the Nazi party as it rose to power, escaping to Britain in 1933. The story is told well in his 2002 memoir, Interesting Times.

For Hobsbawm, until his death, the hopes of 1917 and the role of the Soviet Union in the defeat of fascism always trumped the crimes of the Soviet regime, and there was little in 20th-century history (1917-56 at least) on which he did not take a line that in the end was sympathetic to the official Soviet position at the time. He remained hostile to the anarchists in the Spanish civil war and the 1956 revolutionaries in Hungary and was evasive about the Moscow show trials and the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939-41 even in his most recent writing.

But he was much more than an apologist for Stalinism. In the CP after 1956, though hardly an active member, he took a reform-communist position, criticising the Soviet suppression of the Prague Spring in 1968 and then in the 1970s becoming the leading Anglophone advocate of the Eurocommunism of the Italian Communist Party. He and Stuart Hall played a crucial role in developing a left critique of the militant workerism of the traditional left in the Labour Party, the CP and the trade unions in the dying days of the 1974-79 Labour government, which in turn inspired both the Labour soft left and the Eurocommunist magazine Marxism Today in the 1980s – though the idea that he was somehow responsible for New Labour is quite ridiculous (and something he rejected).

What he will be remembered for above all are his books on world history, epic works of synthesis covering giant swaths of time and geography but never lacking in telling anecdotes. Whatever their lacunae, they are brilliant accounts of the growth and crises of global capitalism.

But just as thrilling are Hobsbawm’s more focused works, essays on small aspects of social history that are an utter delight to read even when they’re wrong.

Hobsbawm’s students remember him as kind and generous as a teacher, and he was indeed a lovely man. He will always be a subject of controversy because he never said sorry for being a communist. But he will be missed.

LET THE LIB DEMS STEW

Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 5 October 2012

There was a time, not so long ago, when I was all in favour of co-operation between Labour and the Liberal Democrats. From the early 1990s until 2007, I couldn’t see fundamental ideological differences between the two parties – and thought that the Lib Dems’ enthusiasm for Europe, proportional representation and civil liberties, and their caution on foreign military adventures, might be good influences on Labour. I annoyed Tribune readers during the 2001 and 2005 general election campaigns by arguing for tactical voting against the Tories – which was, I admit, my intention.

Two things changed my mind: the refusal of the then leader of the Lib Dems, Menzies Campbell, to consider the offer of cabinet seats soon after Gordon Brown became prime minister in summer 2007; and the election of Nick Clegg as Lib Dem leader after Campbell resigned later that year.

Clegg was the real decider for me. He was an ambitious young politician – elected to parliament for the first time in 2005 – who had been one of the moving spirits behind the Orange Book, a collection of essays published in 2004 that marked a concerted attempt to shift the Lib Dems from the social-democratic ground they’d occupied since their creation into small-state free-market liberalism.

I twigged that Clegg would go with the Tories pretty much from the start, though I was surprised at the alacrity with which he concluded the coalition deal in 2010 and initially almost as surprised at the concessions he appeared to have got from David Cameron.

Today, it’s clear that the deal has gone horribly wrong for the Lib Dems. As Polly Toynbee and David Walker make clear in their scathing new book on the coalition, Dogma and Disarray, the one thing they got from the Tories that has actually come to pass, the raising of income-tax thresholds, isn’t particularly progressive, and every one of the Lib Dems’ much-vaunted political reforms – electoral reform for the House of Commons, a largely elected second chamber, reform of political funding – is dead.

Orange Book liberalism has turned the Lib Dems into foot-soldiers for the most right-wing government since 1945, a national coalition like that of the 1930s, making similar policy mistakes.

And now, well, the reckoning. Left-leaning voters have long-since abandoned the Lib Dems: the party has been on 10 per cent or thereabouts in the opinion polls for nearly two years and shows no sign of recovery. Last week’s Lib Dem conference in Brighton was a sorry spectacle, Clegg’s leader’s speech the worst at any conference since Iain Duncan Smith’s “quiet man” performance 10 years ago. There’s still talk about Clegg being usurped by Vince Cable, but Cable’s time has run out: he’ll be 73 by the time of the next election if it happens as planned in 2015. And otherwise the Lib Dems have the lovely Christopher Huhne – who is still embroiled in a ludicrous legal action with his ex-wife – and, er, that’s just about it. Paddy Ashdown might just give them some credibility, but he’s the same age as Cable. And as for Simon Hughes …

The desperation of the Lib Dems’ plight has given rise to merriment in Labour ranks, which I share to some extent. They got themselves into this mess, and it’s down to them to get themselves out of it.

But a few words of caution. First, a collapse of the Lib Dem vote will benefit the Tories more than Labour, even without boundary changes or a Tory-Lib Dem electoral pact. Except in a handful of seats they hold, Lib Dem MPs face Tories as their main challengers. If Ukip supporters vote Tory at a general election and the Lib Dems plunge, the Tories get a lot more seats.

Second, it’s still not impossible that the Tories and Lib Dems will agree a pact before the next general election. All the talk in the past couple of weeks has been about how the Lib Dems are differentiating themselves from the Tories and possibly preparing for life in a centre-left coalition – but that isn’t their only option by any means. The Tories and Lib Dems could still arrange a non-aggression agreement on sitting MPs, for example, and the temptation to do so will increase every month that the opinion polls show the Tories well below what they need to win an outright victory and the Lib Dems heading for a parliamentary party that can fit in the back of a London cab.

Labour has to keep open the option of co-operation with the Lib Dems after the next general election – and it would be sensible to have a plan for a possible coalition ready to roll if needs be in 2015. But it would be idiotic to cosy up to Clegg or Cable right now. Let them stew, and see how it goes.