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.

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.

FOREIGNERS NOT WELCOME HERE

Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 7 September 2012

The crisis at London Metropolitan University, which has had its right to educate non-EU foreign students withdrawn by the UK Border Authority, is by far the biggest faced by any UK higher education institution in living memory. According to its vice-chancellor, Malcolm Gillies, if the university’s legal appeal does not overturn the UKBA’s decision, it stands to lose nearly one-fifth of its income, more than £25 million. That’s enough to make it go bust.

If the UKBA decision is upheld by the courts, some 2,600 students and prospective students will be directly affected, of whom nearly 500 will be deported – with the rest given four weeks to find another course. Several courses with large numbers of non-EU foreign students will cease to be viable, with knock-on effects for UK and EU students and for staff.

It is difficult to imagine a more heavy-handed and ill-timed response to what the UKBA says is London Met’s problem – that it has admitted large numbers of students who are inadequately qualified or have the wrong visas, and has given places to people who aren’t students at all but are using student visas as a means of getting into the UK to work.

 I’ve no idea whether London Met is guilty of any of these things – though if it has never recruited sub-standard overseas students in order to pocket their fees it is unique among British universities. But it has the means to weed out students who shouldn’t be there because they aren’t up to it or aren’t there because they registered at the start of the academic year and didn’t turn up again.

At the very latest, the useless and the bogus are caught when they fail or do not show either for their first-year exams or for the resits, at which point they are unceremoniously chucked out. Of course, it might be that London Met’s assessment system is or has been slack and needs to be tighter. But that is not what it is being pulled up for. The UKBA’s complaint is that it has not been checking students’ visas with sufficient rigour and has failed to keep detailed records of student attendance – essentially, that it has failed in its duty of immigration control.

The implication is clearly that nothing short of regular inspections of students’ visas and registers in every lecture would suffice to persuade the UKBA that London Met deserves to be allowed to educate non-EU students. This in itself represents a drastic curtailment of the university’s autonomy – and the idea that non-EU foreign students should be subjected to special status checks and attendance controls is insulting to them because it rests on the assumption that they are up to no good unless they prove otherwise.

But the UKBA didn’t just insist on the university adopting more intrusive surveillance of non-EU foreign students. It is demanding that it throws out all of its non-EU foreign students a few weeks before the start of the academic year. Even if all 500 of those slated by the UKBA for deportation had registered for a course at London Met purely as a scam for getting into the country and had never done a day’s study – and of course that isn’t the true picture – that still leaves more than 2,100 students and prospective students who have been expelled from a university where they were studying or hoping to study in good faith and at considerable expense.

The UKBA’s action has sent a message loud and clear to anyone outside the EU who might be thinking of coming to Britain to study: if you don’t want to risk being arbitrarily thrown off a course you’ve paid thousands of pounds to take, go elsewhere.

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The question of whether there should be a statue of George Orwell placed outside the BBC headquarters at Broadcasting House briefly engaged the upmarket papers last month after Joan Bakewell said that outgoing BBC director-general Mark Thompson had dismissed the idea because Orwell was far too left-wing. I was annoyed that nearly everyone who expressed an opinion said either that Orwell wasn’t left-wing, which is simply untrue, or that he was but his politics are irrelevant to his enduring appeal, which I think is quite wrong.

What really got me, however, was that no one said that Broadcasting House is completely inappropriate as the site for an Orwell statue. True, he worked for the BBC broadcasting to India in 1942-43 – but he hated it, describing it as “two wasted years”, and left to join Tribune (which was then, as now, left-wing) and for the next four years contributed to it some of his best journalistic work. The best place for a central London statue would be close to Tribune’s then offices at 222 The Strand. There’s plenty of space opposite, on the pavement outside the Royal Courts of Justice.