26 December 2007
Simon Sebag Montefiore, Young Stalin
An absolute corker: lots of stuff from the Georgian archives and a stunning narrative. You couldn’t make it up.
Claude Lefort, Complications: Communism and the Dilemmas of Democracy
Veteran French libertarian democratic leftist responds (belatedly in English translation) to the hardcore French anticommunist histories of the 20th century. They’re not tough enough intellectually, he says. Right on!
Patrick Wright, Iron Curtain: From Stage to Cold War
Not quite sure it coheres, but this is a great history of the left’s delusions about Soviet communism.
Kenneth O Morgan, Michael Foot: A Life
Very readable and perhaps over-friendly, but hey, a solid piece of work on a lovely geezer.
Nick Cohen, What’s Left: How Liberals Lost Their Way
Well, I would, wouldn’t I?
21 December 2007
James Lamond, the former Labour MP who died last month at the age of 78, was not someone I knew well. I interviewed him for news stories in the late 1980s and early 1990s and met him several times, mostly at meetings. He was, in my limited experience, a polite, witty and friendly man – and by all accounts he was an excellent constituency MP, first of all for Oldham East and then for Oldham Central and Royton, and an assiduous parliamentarian.
But in one crucial respect his politics reeked. He might not have made headlines in the London papers, but to the rest of the world he was the most prominent Soviet fellow-traveller in Labour’s parliamentary ranks during the 1970s and 1980s, serving for several years as vice-president of the World Peace Council, the Moscow-funded front organisation created early in the cold war to campaign for Soviet and against American foreign policy.
The reason I interviewed him was precisely to get the residual pro-Soviet Labour left line on events as the cold war first froze and then melted in the course of the 1980s. And he never failed to oblige. He echoed the official Soviet position on every issue, defending the invasion of Afghanistan, the suppression of Solidarity in Poland, the stationing of SS-20 missiles in eastern Europe and all the rest. The last time I saw him, I think in 1990, he admitted to being depressed by the fall of the Berlin wall.
Lamond was not a mainstream figure. His extraordinarily uncritical brand of pro-Sovietism was always at odds with official Labour policy, and by the early-to-mid 1980s was freakish even among the most hard-left Labour MPs, shared by a handful of veteran Stalinists whose careers were coming to an end (Frank Allaun, Joan Maynard) and a smattering of younger dupes (Ron Brown, George Galloway).
But Lamond’s politics had a colourful history. As Patrick Wright shows in his brilliant new book, Iron Curtain, the British left’s fascination with and delusions about Soviet Russia started as soon as the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917. Through the 1920s and 1930s, a string of British left-wing tourists -- most famously George Bernard Shaw and Sidney and Beatrice Webb, but they were not alone -- declared that they had seen the future and that it worked. Much of the Labour Party leadership agreed.
Stalin’s betrayal of Spain, the show trials and the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact immunised a generation of Labourites and left-wingers to the charms of the Soviet Union; the onset of the cold war did the same for another tranche. But in the 1950s, as the historian John Callaghan has related convincingly, the Labour left for the most part reverted to wishful thinking about the possibilities for democratic reform of what became known as “actually existing socialism”.
All that was distant by the 1980s -- Czechoslovakia 1968 and Poland 1981 had intervened, along with an increasingly apparent crisis in the Soviet economy. But pro-Sovietism retained a significant foothold in the left outside the parliamentary Labour Party. In the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament there was a strong pro-Soviet minority. The World Peace Council and its British affiliate, the British Peace Assembly, had sufficient support to be taken seriously by their opponents, and many people who should have known better accepted their bona fides. In several trade unions, particularly in Scotland, there was a well-organised pro-Soviet lobby, based on the Communist Party’s industrial organisation, which was efficient at getting resolutions passed by Labour Party and union branches and union conferences.
Even those parts of the British left least prone to pro-Sovietism got caught up in the show after Mikhail Gorbachev became general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1985 and initiated a reform programme that fleetingly promised a democratic socialist transformation of the Soviet police state. “Gorbymania” was an idiocy, but it was heartily embraced by Tribune, every Trot in town and the whole of the Labour leadership.
But back to James Lamond. I have no doubt that he was sincere in his belief that the Soviet Union wanted nothing other than peace. He told me once that he had been convinced of the pacific intentions of the Soviet people by a tour of Russia in the 1960s, when he met a veteran of Stalingrad. (He told the same story to the historian Darren Lilleker, whose book on the pro-Soviet left in the Labour Party, Against the Cold War, was published three years ago.)
But his sincerity is neither here nor there. At best, Lamond’s naivety was astounding. His and his comrades’ idiotic identification of the Soviet Union as the grand hope of the socialist movement, 60-plus years after Kronstadt, 40-plus after the Stalin show trials and 20-plus after the Hungarian revolution, did nothing but harm to the cause of democratic socialism in Britain.
3 December 2007
28 November 2007
19 November 2007
Heaven knows I don’t need another online distraction to add to Facebook, Radio 4 Listen Again and the Ipswich Town fanzine’s message board. But last week I found one that I know is going to consume hours and hours of my life: the Guardian and Observer Digital Archive, launched this month, which makes accessible online every issue of the Manchester Guardian (latterly without the Manchester) from 1821 to 1975 and every issue of the Observer from 1900 to 1975.
It’s fully searchable, really easy to browse – and completely addictive. Why, I was so engrossed last Saturday morning that I didn’t poke my favourite Facebook pokee (you know who you are) for two whole hours.
Seriously, though, it is an absolutely stunning achievement that is both a real service to serious historians and something that will enthral general readers. From a purely selfish point of view, it’s going to make it a lot easier to do the research for my lectures at City University – I teach two modules on the history of journalism – and for a couple of book projects I have under way. Much as I love the British Library Newspaper Library in Colindale, it’s three hours from home and one from work, and any alternative to microfiche is a blessed relief.
Not that the Guardian/Observer online archive is the first of its kind or even the biggest. The Times put its archive online four years ago. It has the advantage (for now at least) that you can get access to it for free via most public library websites if you are a member of the public library: you have to pay for access to the Guardian/Observer archive, although you can try it out for free for the rest of this month.
But by comparison with the Guardian/Observer site, the Times one is a bit clunky – and, well, the Times is the Times. For most of the past 150 years it has been the establishment’s paper of record – whereas the Manchester Guardian started as a voice for reform and has remained one, and the Observer has been of the centre-left since the 1940s. The Times is of course an indispensable historical source, but it is not always the best one, particularly if you want to know what liberals, socialists, trade unionists and feminists were thinking and doing.
Probably the most exciting project in this area, however, is the British Library’s massively ambitious plan to get all its newspaper collection digitised and online, which went live last month with more than 1 million pages from 19th-century British newspapers available free online to anyone from a UK further or higher education institution. I’ve not yet had a chance to try it out and the 19th century isn’t my speciality, but the Xmas vacation looms. In a couple of weeks I have a feeling I’ll be wondering what I ever saw in Facebook.
On a different matter entirely, I have been mightily entertained by the shenanigans that have split Respect, the George Galloway Trots-plus-Islamists party, in two. They started in the summer when Galloway, the party’s sole MP, picked a fight with the main Trot faction in Respect, the Socialist Workers Party, demanding that the Islamists be given greater prominence in the organisation – and ended last weekend with the farce of two competing Respect events being held simultaneously in different parts of London, a national conference at the University of Westminster (dominated by the SWP) and a rally (starring Galloway and his chums) near Liverpool Street station.
I always thought Respect was an alliance of (deeply unattractive) incompatibles and that it would all end in tears – and it’s gratifying to be proved right by the course of events. The question now is whether Galloway has retained sufficient support to make a serious challenge to Labour at the next general election in the new Poplar and Limehouse constituency, most of which covers the same area as the current Poplar and Canning Town constituency where Jim Fitzpatrick is MP.
Galloway currently represents the next-door constituency of Bethnal Green and Bow but is switching because Poplar and Limehouse has a greater concentration of Muslim voters he thinks he can attract with the help of assorted “community leaders” and Islamists. Hunch tells me he’s unlikely to win – but hunch told me he wouldn’t win Bethnal Green and Bow in 2005.
Whatever, it’s going to be some fight. There are quite a few Labour activists who consider the defeat of Galloway a higher priority than any other – and Tower Hamlets’ politics are more fractious (and volatile) than any other London borough’s. It won’t be as important to the national picture as, say, Worcester or Battersea, but, as long as Galloway stands, Poplar and Limehouse will certainly be top of my list of results to look out for next election night.
28 October 2007
In the wake of the election that wasn’t, it seems a bit strange to congratulate Gordon Brown for not losing his bottle when it matters. But – so far – our boy is keeping his nerve on something more crucial.
All the indications are that there will not be a referendum on the European Union treaty that tidies up various institutional arrangements in the wake of enlargement. And that is cause for democrats to celebrate – because it means that Brown has decided to call Rupert Murdoch’s bluff.
Murdoch is Britain’s biggest press magnate, possibly the world’s biggest media magnate, and his anti-Europeanism is visceral. Last month he ordered his mass-market daily, the Sun, to start a campaign for a referendum on the EU treaty. The first blast came on the Monday of Labour’s conference. The paper ran a front-page montage of Brown’s head imposed on Winston Churchill’s body, with the composite figure sticking up two fingers to readers alongside the headline “Europe: never have so few decided so much for so many”.
It wasn’t the greatest tabloid splash – but the message was clear enough, and the Sun followed it with a week of populist anti-European invective mixed with heavy hints that it would back the Tories at election time. The next week was the Tories in Blackpool, which ended with the polls swinging in David Cameron’s favour. And the weekend after that Gordon met Rupert and announced that there wouldn’t be an election this autumn.
What future historians would give for the transcript of that Brown-Murdoch meeting. I wasn’t there, I wasn’t briefed. But hunch tells me that the key conversation went something like this. Murdoch: “I’ll back you in an early election if you promise a referendum on the treaty.” Brown: “Sorry, no deal.”
There are of course other scenarios that are easily imaginable. The most depressing is as above but with a different answer. Brown: “Thanks very much and I’ll do it when the time comes, but not right now because the polls have gone against us.” Or try this, which is maybe more realistic. Brown: “I’d go for it if the polls were OK, but you’re going to have to live with no referendum – because an election isn’t happening.”
Whatever, Brown’s statement this week on the EU negotiations makes me think my hunch is right, even if there are qualifications to Brown’s “no way”. He might not be particularly enthusiastic about the treaty, but he seems to have recognised that he has no alternative but to get it through parliament despite Murdoch’s opposition.
Now – if I’m right – this isn’t the first time a powerful media owner has been defied by a democratically elected British politician. A century ago, Lord Northcliffe, aka Alfred Harmsworth, the prototype press baron who had a portfolio of newspapers even bigger than Murdoch’s – at its peak his empire included not only the biggest-selling national daily, the Daily Mail, and the Times, but also the second-biggest-selling national daily, the Daily Mirror, and a whole lot more besides – was consistently at odds with the great reforming Liberal government elected in the landslide of 1906. But the government told him to get lost on pretty much everything, leaving Northcliffe fuming impotently on the sidelines until the first world war started to go horribly wrong.
In the late 1920s and early 1930s, the press barons of the day – Northcliffe’s brother Rothermere, a fascist-sympathising bean-counter who had inherited most of his brother’s papers, and Beaverbrook, the eccentric megalomaniac who ran the Daily Express – set up a political party to fight the Tories’ opposition to protectionism for the empire. It got nowhere and is remembered mainly for the jibe of the Tory prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, that the press barons exercised “power without responsibility – the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages”.
Labour and right-wing media moguls never used to get on, but for the past 13 years – since Tony Blair became leader – the party’s leading lights have consistently kow-towed to Murdoch in order to win his newspapers’ backing at election time. Precisely what has been conceded to him to win his favour is a matter for conjecture, but it’s safe to assume it has been quite a lot, if only in the field of media regulation.
Was it worth it? Well, Labour has won three elections in a row, which it had never done before. But whether that is down to the support of the Murdoch press is a moot point.
Now, however, the love-in seems to have come to an end – though what that means remains to be seen. My hope is that breaking with Murdoch on the Europe referendum will have a liberating effect on the government as Labour politicians realise they have a great deal more freedom for manoeuvre than they have assumed in recent years. But we shall see.
18 September 2007
I know it’s a bit late to give you my take on the materials released at the beginning of the month by the National Archives – but I’ve not had a chance before now, so you’re lumped with it. I’m talking about the surveillance files on George Orwell, of course, which occupied the up-market papers for a day or two four weeks ago and since have been completely forgotten.
The documents show that Orwell was tracked by Special Branch and the spooks pretty much from the point at which he decided to quit the imperial police in Burma in 1928 until his death in 1950. The files include reports on his most mundane journalistic activities researching The Road to Wigan Pier – and one Special Branch plod described him in 1942 as holding “advanced communist views”. Cue an outburst of surprise that the powers-that-be could be so stupid as to mistake the author of Animal Farm and Nineteen-Eighty-Four for a communist-sympathising subversive.
Now, there is certainly something newsworthy about the author of two of the 20th century’s most famous warnings against totalitarian surveillance being watched over and reported on by Britain’s security state – and the files make fascinating reading. (You can get them free as downloads online here.) Yet it’s not so strange that the security state took an interest in Orwell – and the truth is that the people who kept an eye on him were by no means as daft as most commentators on the newly released material suggest.
Orwell was an avowed revolutionary socialist for at least five years of his life, from 1936 to 1941, and he was sympathetic to revolutionary socialism both before and after this period. He fought for a militia in the Spanish civil war that was explicitly dedicated to the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism, then joined the Independent Labour Party during its most intransigent and rhetorically insurrectionist phase. He discussed with Herbert Read the possibility of setting up an underground guerrilla anti-war resistance movement if war came. And then, in the first couple of years of the second world war, he argued that only a revolution could save Britain from fascism. He saw the Home Guard – yes, Dad’s Army – as a would-be revolutionary proletarian militia.
As he wrote in Tribune on 20 December 1940: “We are in a strange period of history in which a revolutionary has to be a patriot and a patriot has to be a revolutionary. We know, even if the Blimps don’t, that without a radical change in our social system the war cannot be won.”
There was even a brief point when he was a communist fellow-traveller. Despite the disparaging references to the Communist Party in The Road to Wigan Pier and his vehement anti-communism from 1937 until his death, before his experience of the Stalinist suppression of the revolutionaries in Spain in 1937 he was not unsympathetic to the communist line. Before his eyes were opened by the Barcelona May Days, he almost joined the communist-dominated International Brigades.
In other words, Orwell was for a significant period of his life a vocal subversive – if one with very little chance of success – and it shouldn’t come as any surprise that there are Special Branch and security service files on him. If there was going to be a revolution in Britain in the late 1930s (and OK, it wasn’t very likely) Orwell was going to be part of it, if only as the first victim of a Stalinist firing-squad.
What is genuinely remarkable, by contrast, is that the files, or at least those that have been released, are for the most part accurate. Apart from the goof by the Special Branch officer who over-enthusiastically claimed Orwell to be a communist sympathiser in 1942 – a report, incidentally, that some superior dismissed as crap – there is little that is other than routinely factual. There is also no evidence that any of the material collected on Orwell did him any harm: he was cleared to work for the BBC in 1942 and as a war correspondent for the Observer in 1943 (although he didn’t do it for a couple of years, becoming literary editor of Tribune instead).
Whether the state should monitor those it sees as subversive is, of course, another question. When I was a revolutionary – and I was, honestly – my comrades and I took it for granted that we were monitored by the state. After all, we were its enemy, and we posed a threat. Since giving up on that revolution stuff, I’ve taken the view that surveillance needs to be kept to a minimum and strictly controlled. But where do you draw the line? Twenty years ago I would have been outraged at tabs being kept on cuddly Paul Foot and harmless Tariq Ali. Now I worry that intelligence on Islamist crazies is utterly inadequate.
15 September 2007
What did you do this summer? I spent the Saturday on the beach at Felixstowe and the Sunday working.
OK, weak joke – but it’s true. So far in Suffolk we’ve had just one weekend of temperatures soaring into the 80s (that’s above 27C for younger readers) and not a single day to prompt the East Anglian Daily Times to run a “Phew! What a scorcher!” headline. Just about the only thing to feel smug about is that it hasn’t been quite as wet here as it has Yorkshire and Middle England.
But the worst of it is that I spent one of the two properly sunny days we’ve had stuck in an office staring at a screen. Ever since I left university, I’ve had a vague sense every year that I’ve missed half the summer working – and this year I know I have.
To which you might reply: “Stop whingeing” – and you’d have a point. What I do for a living is hardly onerous: I’m an academic and journalist, which means that I spend summer marking exams, preparing lectures, doing odd newspaper shifts, grinding through dull academic administration et cetera. And it’s partly my own stupid fault that I do as much work as I do. If I organised my time better, if I delegated more, if I switched off the mobile phone, if I said “no” more often, I’d get a lot more time off.
The thing is, though, that I currently just want it to stop – and it never does. Twenty years ago I had academic friends who seemed to spend a good 10 or 12 weeks every summer away from the office in the library doing research or in the south of France dossing about, and the main reason I went for an academic job seven years ago was that I wanted a bit of the same. In my dreams!
The truth is that I’ve never seen work as a massively good thing. When I was an anarchist student, I was very impressed by various Italian and French Marxist theorists who saw a growing “refusal of work” on the part of the proletariat as prefiguring the revolutionary transcendence of capital – and although that particularly daft idea lost its appeal for me not long after the grant cheques stopped coming, I’ve never reconciled myself to the idea that work is anything but a more or less unpleasant necessity.
My favourite work of classical Marxism remains The Right to be Lazy by Paul Lafargue, Marx’s son-in -law, first published in 1883, with its ringing declaration: “In capitalist society work is the cause of all intellectual degeneracy.” And the one public pronouncement by US President Ronald Reagan with which I have some sympathy is his gag: “It's true hard work never killed anybody, but I figure, why take the chance?”
Now, I know this line of argument winds up a lot of Tribune readers. Last time I used it the paper got lots of angry letters, most of them arguing that I wouldn’t have such an anti-work attitude if I’d ever tasted serious unemployment. Fair enough: if there’s one thing worse than the tedium of wage labour, it’s being involuntarily deprived of it and condemned to hopeless poverty. I’d accept, too, that some sorts of work, in moderate quantities, can be genuinely fulfilling.
But, leaving aside the fact that many if not most jobs are anything but fulfilling, you can have too much of any job – and most of us in Britain do. We work some of the longest hours in Europe and take the fewest days holiday. We commute longer distances than anyone else and suffer more work-stress-related disease.
Why? The main reason is that we need the money. Particularly in southern England but increasingly elsewhere, housing is prohibitively expensive. There is a shocking shortage of social housing, private rented housing is a gigantic rip-off, and the extraordinary inflation of house prices has put first-time buying beyond the reach of all but workaholics on fat salaries and the offspring of rich parents. And once you’ve managed to get somewhere to live at exorbitant cost – almost certainly miles from where you work -- you’ve then got to add the punitive costs of commuting and child care and all the rest.
Building more affordable homes, particularly in the south-east, as promised by Gordon Brown as he became prime minister, is part of the solution, but it will not be enough on its own. We also need faster and cheaper commuting, incentives to encourage companies to introduce electronic homeworking, more public holidays and enhanced rights for workers to allow them to resist employers’ demands for overtime and to reduce their own working hours as they choose. Oh, and summers that last more than a weekend so we can enjoy our more leisurely lives. That’s not too much to ask, is it?
22 July 2007
It's not the booze: it's the people. The Horse and Groom, aka the Doom and Gloom, was a proper old-fashioned working-class boozer. The landlord, Eddie, and his wife, Sarah, ran the place as pubs used to be run. There was a crib team, a darts team, a pool team. And there were regular quizzes, a meat raffle, a lottery syndicate and an annual coach trip to the Newmarket races. You could sit there and read the papers or talk as you fancied. And now - it's sinking in - it's all over.
They had a great send-off the weekend before last, but then the shutters went up - or rather the corrugated metal sheets they now screw over windows and doors to stop squatters and break-ins. And now ... well, now, it's a choice between the Dove or the Grinning Rat (previously the Olive Leaf) 100 yards away or the Milestone 200 yards in the other direction.
So what, you might think. But the reason Ed and Sarah got out was that they'd been made an offer they could only refuse by the company that owned the pub freehold - increased rent plus a continuation of a disgraceful tied deal on booze that meant they were forced to buy most stock at wholesale prices that were beaten by every local supermarket's retail offers. On those terms, they couldn't make a living.
And the reason the company made that offer was that it saw the pub simply as real estate. With Ipswich's dockside redevelopment moving apace, you can get £250,000 no problem for a two-bedroom flat round here - and the pub could easily be turned into four or five bijou dwellingettes. Conveniently, because there are so many boozers within walking distance, change of use is a potential walkover, particularly with a Tory council. No one has been moved in to manage the pub.
Three weeks ago, this time on Sunday, I was thinking of going over for a pint - and I did. Today, I could catch one somewhere else before closing-time if I went out now. But all the other pubs are anonymous places where I don't know anyone. I still see my neighbours, but there's no longer an automatic meeting point: the football and rugby and cricket on the telly, the Saturday lunchtime get-together of the old Labour guys, Nick two doors up very late on a Friday, old Terence talking about books at opening time early evening when the cricket's on.
The point is simple: closing proper pubs wrecks communities, and the criminally anti-competitive practices of the property companies that now run so many of them deserve to be busted. But as things stand there is nothing we can do to stop our boozers being shut and turned into yuppie residences. Time for some serious legislation, Gordon?
Bah! I was going to treat you all to a pastiche of the Alastair Campbell diaries in this column – but that’s already been done by all the Sundays and Private Eye and I don’t want to appear a copy-cat. So instead of sending up Campbell’s deathless prose, I’ll just write about what’s in the book.
Which is, of course, precisely what everyone else has done, but so what. The Blair Years is the UK political publishing sensation of the past decade – I can’t think of a political book that has had anything like its impact since Will Hutton’s The State We’re In way back in 1995, and that was a much slower burner – and I want to share my twopence-halfpenny-worth.
Not that I have deep insider knowledge to impart on the events described by Campbell: far from it. I met him on many occasions in the 1990s when I was working as a political journalist, but the only one that sticks in my mind is a New Statesman lunch at the Groucho Club in summer 1995 when we had a shouting match. He suggested that we should tell him in advance when we were about to publish a story that might embarrass New Labour. I suggested that he could go fuck himself, and it went downhill from there. Nine months later, the Statesman was bought by Geoffrey Robinson, who installed as editor the ultra-Blairite Ian Hargreaves, who in turn fired me and all the other lefties on the magazine apart from John Pilger. So maybe I should have been more diplomatic in dealing with Campbell.
Whatever, I decided around that time that I’d had it with political journalism, at least in the sense of hanging around Westminster chasing stories, covering the party conferences and all that. I’d done 10 years at Tribune and the Statesman, and it had mostly been fun. But I’d had enough of dealing with poisonous spin-doctors and I was sick of politicians who acted as if they had a god-given right to interfere with the left press. I was jaded. It was time for a change. A book on the Labour Party, then goodbye to all that.
I didn’t quite manage the definitive breach – I’m still writing this column, still addicted to political news – but for the past 10 years I have been pretty much spin-doctor-free. I’m in touch with a few politicians I meet for lunch or a couple of beers. But that’s just about it. I’m almost completely out of the loop, which makes me feel just a tad twitchy.
But you know what? It doesn’t matter. Having read the Campbell diaries from cover to cover, I realise that I’m not that much worse informed about what’s going on than the journalists who are closest to the action.
There might not be much that is news in The Blair Years, though there is a lot more than the first dismissive reports of the book’s contents suggested last week. But there is a great deal that is new. The picture the book paints of life in Tony Blair’s court is more vivid and more detailed than anything an outsider could produce – and it is also at odds in crucial respects with received journalistic wisdom.
On the internal dynamics of the Blair government, for instance, most accounts have hitherto stressed Blair’s dominance of the government or the fraught relationship between Blair and Gordon Brown. But it’s clear from Campbell that, in the first term at least, it makes much more sense to think of the government in terms of a complex series of trade-offs among a “big four” of Blair, Brown, John Prescott and Robin Cook.
No one before Campbell has ever captured the extraordinary intensity and drama-queen pettiness of the rivalries at the heart of New Labour. Nor is there any previous account that makes clear just how neurotic Blair and his entourage were about public opinion. There is also a vast amount in The Blair Years that is genuinely revelatory on the Irish peace process, the Kosovo crisis, Europe and the “special relationship” with the US.
Yes, the Campbell diaries are a self-serving effort by someone whose reputation for truth-telling is not what it might be. Yes, they reveal him to be hate-filled and hate-fuelled. Yes, they have been cut to comply with the Official Secrets Act and to remove anything likely to damage Gordon Brown. There is nothing much in them on policy, and the sections on the build-up to the Iraq war and the post-invasion bust-up between Campbell and the BBC are particularly disappointing, adding little to what is already in the public sphere.
In short, The Blair Years is not trustworthy, nor is it the last word on anything. But it is an important work of contemporary history that will change the way we look at Labour’s first decade in office after 1997. It’s funny how it seems so long ago...
11 July 2007
9 July 2007
The original motion called for the NUJ to call on the TUC to organise a boycott of Israeli goods. The motion having been passed, we wrote to the TUC with this suggestion. The TUC said "no". On Friday the NEC decided that this should be the end of the matter - we have done what we were asked, and will now do no more.
6 July 2007
Douglas Hill, the reviews editor of Tribune from 1971 to 1983, has died after being run over by a double-decker bus as he walked over a pedestrian crossing in north London. He was 72.
A charming Canadian polymath with a razor-sharp but self-deprecating wit, he was a prolific author. The best-selling of his 50-odd books were children’s science fiction and fantasy titles: before the arrival of Harry Potter he was the most popular children’s author in Britain. But he also wrote science fiction for adults and several non-fiction titles, among them an anthology-cum-history of this newspaper to mark its 40th birthday 30 years ago, Tribune 40: Forty years of a socialist newspaper, which remains the only book-length account of the first half of its life.
Born in Manitoba and educated at the universities of Saskatchewan and Toronto, he arrived in Britain in 1959 with his then wife Gail Robinson, becoming an editor at a publishing company. He joined Tribune as reviews editor in 1971, taking over from Elizabeth Thomas. “My intention was to carry on, in my way, what she and others before her had established as the proper roles and obligations of the reviews section of a socialist paper,” he wrote modestly in 1977, but it is no insult to Thomas, herself a great reviews editor, to say that he did much more than that.
Under his stewardship, the reviews pages started to fizz, just as the rest of the paper became increasingly worthy-and-dull in its obsession with the arguments against Britain joining (and then remaining in) the Common Market. His choice of reviewers was inspired in its eclecticism, and the column he wrote most weeks, “Platform”, was the closest the paper has come to emulating George Orwell’s “As I Please” column of the 1940s in its intellectual range and in its humour. Many of the people he recruited as writers are still valued contributors more than 20 years on.
He remained in touch with Tribune long after he left: he wrote reviews until well into the 1990s and was a regular at the editorial lunches organised by Sheila Noble, the paper’s production editor, chief sub and unofficial social secretary. Although he joked about being past-it when I last saw him a few months ago, he looked as spry as he was in the 1980s – and his repartee was as dazzling and as mischievous as ever. His sudden death is a shock, and everyone lucky enough to have known him will miss him. He is survived by his son and his former wife.
24 June 2007
1st round: MPs, Members, Unions, Total
Benn 4.26, 7.21, 4.93 T:16.4
Blears 4.99, 3, 3.77 T: 11.77
Cruddas 4.63, 5.67,9.09 T 19.39
Hain 4.81, 3.87, 6.64, T:15.32
Harman: 6.54,8.04,4.35 T;18.93
Johnson 8.08, 5.53, 4.55 T:18.16
Now, what this means in terms of real first preference votes, given that there was a 99 per cent turnout among the 371 MPs and MEPs, a 53 per cent turnout among the 180,000 individual members and an 8 per cent turnout among the 3 million affiliated trade unionists is something like this:
Benn 57,000OK, all these figures are very rough (and they're exaggerated because of multiple voting, in particular by people who are individual members as well as members of affiliated organisations). But they do suggest that a genuine one member, one vote ballot would probably have yielded a very different outcome (at least if members of affiliated organisations were included, which is a moot point). Hunch tells me it would have gone to Cruddas against Benn in round four — though of course there's no way of telling.
If you exclude members of affiliated organisations, first preferences stack up like this:
Benn 22,000With all the necessary caveats, I reckon that would mean Benn by a whisker against Harman in round four...
The Guardian has a neat chart here.
23 June 2007
At least it’s nearly over. Labour’s deputy leadership contest has been even more uneventful than I expected when I wrote about it last month. It hasn’t set off a serious debate about the future of British social democracy inside the Labour Party — let alone among the voters as a whole. In fact, it has barely engaged even my most political friends. I don’t remember a single discussion of it lasting more than two minutes that went beyond speculation about who will win.
Which of course is the only interesting thing about it, not least because it may well highlight the absurdities of the electoral college Labour uses for leadership and deputy leadership elections.
Labour headquarters and lazy political commentators always describe the party’s means of choosing its leaders as “one member, one vote”, but it’s a bit more complex than that. Every member does have a vote. But, because the electorate is divided into a three-section electoral college, each section with one-third of the total vote, some members have more than one vote because they belong to more than one section. And, more important, the weight of your vote depends on what sort of member you are.
In the first section are Labour MPs and MEPs; in the second individual Labour Party members; and in the third members of affiliated organisations (mainly trade unions). So, because there are 371 MPs and MEPs, 180,000 ordinary members and a little more than 3 million members of affiliated organisations, the vote of each MP and MEP is worth nearly the same as 485 ordinary members’ votes and more than 8,000 affiliated trade unionists’ votes. (These figures are based on the assumption that everyone entitled to vote does so, which of course isn’t so, but you get the picture.)
I’ll accept that this system, adopted in 1993, is less of a dog’s breakfast than the electoral college that preceded it, introduced in 1981. In that electoral college, the unions had 40 per cent of votes, MPs 30 per cent and constituency Labour parties 30 per cent — and neither the unions nor the CLPs were under any compulsion to ballot their members before casting block votes at Labour conference. At least the current electoral college involves the counting of individual votes rather than an aggregation of decisions taken by various committees behind closed doors.
The current system is a dog’s breakfast all the same, however. The only time it has been used before this deputy leadership election was in 1994, when Tony Blair swept to victory in the leadership election and John Prescott won the deputy leadership, with both securing more than 50 per cent of first-preference votes in each of the three sections of the college. But this sort of clear, unequivocal result is by no means guaranteed. The electoral college could also produce a winner who has — say — little support among MPs but strong support among individual members and trade unionists. And in a six-candidate contest the winner could be the fourth on first preferences who picks up a large proportion of second preferences. And so on.
I’m not saying that this weekend will see a messy result, just that it might. And if it does ... look forward to 18 months of Labour doing what it used to do best: arguing about its leadership election procedures. I don’t really want to go there, but if pushed I’d back the leader being elected by MPs alone, with the deputy elected by ordinary members alone — and mandatory annual parliamentary selections. (Just kidding about the last one.)
OK, it's last week’s news, but I’d like to add my tuppence-worth to the controversy over Tony Blair’s assault on the “feral beasts” of the media last week. Having been at the receiving end of the Blairite spin machine during the 1990s, I’m not inclined to sympathy with the man or his way of operating. It was cowardly of him to pick on the poor old Independent and the BBC as his only examples of how the media have dropped the habit of straight reporting: he should at least have fingered the Mail. And he should have made it clear that Rupert Murdoch’s policy of editorial support in return for relaxed media regulation (and no euro) is an outrageous affront to democracy.
But Blair has got a point. The arrogance, cynicism, pack mentality, superficiality, sensationalism and sheer ignorance of much British media coverage of politics are not new, but their ubiquity is. Twenty years ago you could avoid them by shunning the popular national press, local radio and William Rees-Mogg: if you stuck to the qualities, the weeklies, the BBC and ITN you could get your politics straight and in depth. No longer. There is plenty of good political journalism out there, but the smart-arsed, the asinine and the hysterical now crop up pretty much everywhere — and far too much goes unreported. As to why this is so — well, that’s another column.
Footnotes: Gordon Brown is brilliant on Newsnight here. And Hitchens, C does us all proud on Question Time here. Maybe there's some hope after all.
The Offbeat Radicals is a book I can imagine being published in the 1930s. It is an erudite introduction for the general reader to a vast swathe of English radical writers from the French revolution to the early years of the 20th century who would once have been labelled “romantic”. It’s rather like what H. N. Brailsford or G. D. H. Cole used to do.
Footnotes are sparse; précis is the norm. The autodidact who reads it from cover to cover will get a very good idea of what a large number of (broadly speaking) 19th-century polemicists and poets had to say – some of them, such as Blake and Shelley, read widely today but rarely put into context; others, such as Godwin, Carlyle and Bradlaugh, very much forgotten; still others, such as Morris, acknowledged but largely ignored.
Ashe is a specialist in Arthurian myth and a great enthusiast for G. K. Chesterton. His theme here is the persistence with which, after the French revolution went sour for English radicals, the latter adopted a rhetoric and a way of looking at life that were borrowed from dissident Christian myths of a pre-capitalist world of co-operation, equality and social cohesion. They were alternative medievalists, precursors of “small is beautiful” and dead keen on tradition.
Some Tribune readers will recognise this as an old anti-socialist tune. And indeed Ashe’s target, if there is one, is those who would subsume the Godwins, the Blakes, the Shelleys and so on, right up to William Morris, into a narrative of class struggle and proto-Marxism. My hunch is that he wants to capture them for something mistily and nostalgically Eurosceptic.
If you, like me, are still there with Edward Thompson in your reading of the 19th century, you will have a problem with this. Although Ashe is right when he argues that there is a tradition of radicalism that goes beyond left and right as we now know them, he underplays the extent to which it influenced working-class culture in the early and mid-19th century and socialism (and indeed modernism) in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His calling it “offbeat radicalism” is also annoying: the old tag “romantic radicalism” works much better, not least because it is familiar. (It is also as flexible, if not more so, than his clumsy coinage.)
But these are small points. There is no better recent introduction to the radical writers of 19th-century England than this. It is beautifully written, difficult to put down, and more books like this should be published.
18 June 2007
The central tenet of Simon Sebag-Montefiore’s account of Stalin’s early life – from his birth in 1878 to the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 – is that nearly everyone else has got it wrong as a result of taking Trotsky at his word.
For Trotsky, Stalin was a “provincial mediocrity”, a bit-part player before 1917 whose subsequent rise to supreme power owed everything to his skilful bureaucratic manoeuvring after the Bolshevik revolution. With a couple of exceptions, says Sebag-Montefiore, all those who have written about Stalin have concurred: most biographies deal cursorily if at all with the first 40 years of his life.
He is exaggerating a bit: there’s actually quite a lot on Stalin’s early life even in such pioneering attempts at biography as those by Boris Souvarine (1937) and Isaac Deutscher (1949). But he has got a point. Apart from Robert Tucker’s Stalin as Revolutionary, published more than 30 years ago, most studies of the man baptised Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili have focused almost exclusively on what he did to seize power and what he did once he seized it. How it was that “the pre-1917 mediocrity” became “the twentieth-century colossus” has remained something of a mystery. This book is the first in English to use recently opened archives in Georgia to put flesh on the bones provided by Souvarine, Deutscher and Tucker – and it is an absolute gem.
Even if some of the story is familiar – joyless childhood, training to be a priest in a seminary, conversion to revolutionary politics, Bolshevik underground work, imprisonment, exile to Siberia – Sebag-Montefiore has found an extraordinary amount of new material that gives human colour to his narrative, and he writes with unusual zest and terseness.
The book opens with a brilliant reconstruction of a notorious 1907 bank robbery in Tiflis (now Tblisi) that the young Dzhugashvili organised, and its pace never slows. Sebag-Montefiore handles everything deftly: his subject’s poetry, his love affairs, even the notoriously dry and fractious politics of the Russian empire’s Marxist left in the early years of the last century. Dzhugashvili – he adopted the nom de guerre Stalin only in 1913 – comes across as a complex, dynamic figure: a vicious thug and a charlatan, to be sure, but also a charmer, an accomplished journalist and a much more central figure in pre-revolutionary Bolshevik politics than Trotsky-inspired authorities allow.
Sebag-Montefiore’s account of the influence of Stalin’s experience as a young man on his actions as Soviet dictator is for the most part convincing. For example, it is difficult to disagree with his insistence that the paranoia that set in train the Great Terror of the 1930s was rooted in Stalin’s past in a revolutionary underground milieu riddled with Tsarist secret-police spies and accusations of treachery. (Stalin himself was probably a spook for a spell.)
But there are points on which Sebag-Montefiore takes things too far. Stalin’s being a Georgian undoubtedly made him an outsider in Russia, but did it really predispose him to tribalism and blood feuds? Georgia was the only part of the Russian empire that briefly established a working democracy after 1917, under a Menshevik government that was crushed by Bolshevik force of arms in 1921. Georgia’s most famous son might have embraced psychopathic gangsterism, but it’s hardly a national characteristic.
24 May 2007
I have never quite worked out why so many people who are involved in politics think that party leadership contests provide a marvellous opportunity for debate. Every time the top post falls vacant in any of our major political parties — and in Labour’s case when the deputy leader goes — the cry goes up that there must be a contest to ensure a debate on the party’s future. Then there’s either a lot of huffing and puffing about how the absence of a contest means that debate has been stifled, or else there’s a contest, in which all the candidates make a point of welcoming the chance for debate that the contest offers.
What rarely if ever happens, however, is any actual debate. Sure, the candidates produce vague personal manifestos, give interviews to the newspapers and the broadcast media, tour the country delivering anodyne speeches and — these days — make fools of themselves on the internet. Sometimes they even appear on hustings platforms with one another. But I can think of only one leadership or deputy leadership contest in any of the major political parties in the past 20 years in which candidates have engaged in substantive discussion of their party’s overall direction.
That was way back in 1988, when Tony Benn and Eric Heffer challenged Neil Kinnock and Roy Hattersley for Labour’s leadership and deputy leadership. (John Prescott also stood for deputy, but that’s another story.) Against the shift towards the political centre that Kinnock and Hattersley had started since 1983, Benn and Heffer offered a clear left alternative: renationalisation of everything the Tories had privatised, withdrawal from the European Community, no compromise on unilateral nuclear disarmament, no expulsions of Trotskyists from the Labour Party. Labour in those days had a system for electing its leaders in which unions and constituency parties did not have to ballot their members before casting their votes, so the official result showing Benn taking 11.4 per cent of the vote and Heffer 9.5 per cent needs to be taken with a large pinch of salt. But the scale of the left’s defeat was awesome — so awesome in fact that many on the left wondered afterwards whether it might not have been more sensible not to have mounted a challenge.
Since then, Labour has had two leadership and deputy leadership contests and is now having a leadership non-contest and deputy contest; the Tories have had six leadership contests and one non-contest; and the Lib Dems have had two leadership contests. But not one of them has sparked a serious internal debate about a party’s direction.
Although all but the last two of the Tories’ battles in the past 20 years have in the end been a pro-European versus an anti-European (or at least someone thought by supporters to be anti-European), none has been conducted in explicitly political terms: all have been about the personal qualities of the candidates.
Of course, that’s partly because the Tories always do politics that way — but the phenomenon is just as marked with Labour. There were real enough political differences between John Smith and Bryan Gould in 1992, particularly over Europe, but they spent most of their time during the contest (if indeed it should be described as such) agreeing with one another about how crucial it was to reform Labour’s internal structures. In 1994, Tony Blair was as much of a shoo-in as Smith had been two years earlier, with both John Prescott and Margaret Beckett interested only in which one of them became his deputy.
Maybe it would all have been different this time had John McDonnell made it on to the leadership ballot, but I have my doubts. Nothing he could have done or said would have changed his position as a hopeless outsider, and Gordon Brown would have found it easy to avoid giving hostages to fortune. In any case, McDonnell didn’t make it, so all we have is a deputy leadership contest with six candidates, all of whom know that the media will pounce on any hint of their differing with Brown.
I’m already sick of it, and we’ve still got four more weeks. For what it’s worth, as things stand I’m voting for Hilary Benn because I think he talks sense on foreign policy, but I’m also impressed by the things John Cruddas has been saying about Labour’s need to revitalise its appeal to working-class voters — and I’ve always liked Peter Hain. In fact, I’m not going to despair whoever wins.
What I’m not expecting any of them to do is add much to the discussion about what a Brown government should do by way of policy. Nor will any of them have any say in who gets which jobs in that government. The truth is that all the cards are now in Brown’s hands, and nothing forseeable of great importance will happen until he chooses to play them.
26 April 2007
Small things can cheer you up sometimes, and this week’s small thing for me was that Segolene Royal came second in the first round of the French presidential election. I spent Sunday night feeling pleased.
I’m not entirely sure why it did the trick. It was only the first round, for heaven’s sake, and she has a lot to do to win. She won only 26 per cent of the vote, and only 11 per cent of voters chose far-left no-hopers in the first round and have nowhere else to go. (Note in passing here the pathetic showing by the candidate of the once mighty French Communist Party, who took less than 2 per cent of the vote.)
After that, it’s grim. Royal desperately needs suport from people who backed the centrist Francois Bayrou in the first round — 19 per cent of the extraordinary 85 per cent of voters who turned out — and from supporters of the fascist Jean-Marie Le Pen (11 per cent). She’ll get few of the latter (though more than many expect) but her real problem is the people who voted for Bayrou. The opinion polls suggest that more than half of them will vote for the scary Nicolas Sarkocy, the right-wing candidate Royal has to beat in the second round, who got 31 per cent last weekend. As I write, Royal’s plea to Bayrou for a second-round alliance — a daring but desperate move — has not been answered.
At least, though, it isn’t a repeat of 2002, when self-indulgent leftists voting Trot, Stalinist and Green denied the Socialist candidate Lionel Jospin a place in the second round, leaving Jacques Chirac to fight it out with Le Pen — with no choice for anyone decent but voting for Chirac as the lesser of two evils. Even if it looks as if Royal has too much ground to make up before the second round, she does have an outside chance, and that in itself is progress on five years ago.
On another subject entirely, I was shocked and surprised by the news last week that the annual delegate meeting of the National Union of Journalists, of which I have been a member for nearly 25 years, has voted to boycott Israeli products.
I can see the rationale for the boycott: I’m no fan of the current Israeli administration, which has done nothing to promote a lasting peace deal with the Palestinians and a lot to reduce the likelihood of such a deal. And I think that it’s perfectly legitimate for the west to put pressure on Israel to return to the negotiating table, give up the West Bank settlements, tear down the wall and so on.
My problem is that I don’t think that the NUJ boycotting Israeli goods is a very clever way of putting pressure on the Israeli government to do these things. The NUJ is tiny, so there is no way that the boycott, even if observed by every one of its members, could have any significant impact on the Israeli economy. Politically, however, the boycott has a much greater impact — and it is entirely counterproductive if the goal is to get the Israeli government back to the negotiating table to talk about a workable two-state solution in Israel/Palestine.
If NUJ members (or indeed anyone else outside Israel/Palestine) are serious about doing their bit to facilitate a lasting peace deal, they should be encouraging dialogue and compromise between Israelis and Palestinians and discouraging confrontation. Boycotting Israeli goods can only do the opposite. On one hand, it gives succour — if only a thimbleful — to Hamas, Hizbullah and all the others who would like to see Israel destroyed and reject all compromise with “the Zionist entity”. On the other, it reinforces (if only a little) the defensive mindset of the Israeli diehards who see nothing but enemies in the outside world.
In my view, rather than boycotting Israel, we should be doing precisely the opposite: arguing for more trade with both Israel and the Occupied Territories, more cultural and educational exchanges, more tourism and so on.
So, much as I respect the role of the NUJ’s ADM in setting union policy, I have no intention of observing the boycott. Indeed, as I write I have a friend searching out a selection of kosher delicacies in Israel that I hope she will deliver when she gets back to Britain next week. I invite the NUJ executive to discipline me for my flagrant and wilful breach of union policy.
The current London Review of Books is a very good one, with half-a-dozen must-read articles — one of them an elegaic review of recent books about the Communist Party of Great Britain by the eminent Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, the only prominent intellectual who stuck with the CPGB to the bitter end.
It is a fascinating piece, nowhere more so than when Hobsbawm claims that during the second world war, British communists “would have gone underground if they had had to, as they did on the Continent ..., and organised resistance to the German occupation”. Not in 1940 they wouldn’t, comrade. That was when the Hitler-Stalin pact was in operation. Remember?
22 April 2007
According to the exit polls, she got something like 25 per cent of the vote, behind Sarkozy on 31 per cent but ahead of the centrist Francois Bayrou on 18 per cent and the fascist Jean-Marie Le Pen on 11 per cent. Royal can probably rely on second-round backing from most of the 11 per cent of voters who supported one of the far-left candidates, the Green or the anti-globalisation farmer Jose Bove; and Sarkozy can do the same with the 4 per cent or so who voted for minor right-wing candidates.
But this still leaves a big question mark over which way supporters of Bayrou and Le Pen vote in the second round. Hunch tells me it's going to be very close — but we shall see.
20 April 2007
14 April 2007
12 April 2007
7 April 2007
4 April 2007
23 March 2007
21 March 2007
It's true that most of that comes from abolition of the 10 per cent lower band, and I'm not entirely convinced about the benefits of doing it – but it's good enough to stuff Cameron, which I like, and with everything else taken into account it's redistributive from rich to poor, which I like more.
And even with my excessive booze and fags habits I'm told by the BBC ready reckoner that I'm £68 a year better-off. So I'm voting Labour next time, no problem.
19 March 2007
But it is an idiotic scheme. On one hand, as we know from the argument about the feasibility of a graduate tax when student funding was a big issue a couple of years back, there is no way of telling who has a degree and who has not. There is no central database of graduates, and no institution has the means to check university by university. So wannabe students can simply make up their parents' educational histories as they choose.
On the other, as an admissions tutor, I can't help but think that the knowledge that Sparta Sporg's mum is that Ethel Sporg, feminist historian at the University of Neasden, and that her dad did a doctorate in English at Oxford supervised by the legendary Terence Mountebanke, author of Post-Post-Modernism: A Critique, might tilt even the most right-on equal-opportunities leftist in the poor girl's favour.
Wasn't Ethel in the IMG with Tarquin who teaches sociology at Bermondsey? And didn't Terence go out years ago with Julia, who then had an affair with that bloke on the Guardian?
At least Sparta will know about books ... so give her a place, make up the access quota elsewhere on the quiet – and pass the sickbag.
11 March 2007
On page 436 (as incredulous readers can confirm for themselves), Morgan examines why and how Michael Foot became leader of the Labour party and concludes, with masterly understatement, that it was not 'in order to win an election'. He was elected 'to keep the party together'. But, dubious though that contention is, it cannot compete for improbability with what Morgan goes on to claim about the way in which Foot discharged that duty: 'This he did with patent sincerity and literary flair.'
In fact, he did not do it at all. He certainly tried. But during the first year of his leadership, Labour suffered a split that was worse than anything in its history except possibly the schism led by Ramsay MacDonald in 1931; and the number of defections from both the parliamentary party and the party in the country were far greater than those that followed the creation of the National Government. And, unpleasant though the fact may be, it was all precipitated by the choice of Foot as leader.
A couple of weeks before Jim Callaghan's resignation, I discussed the party's future with David Owen as we walked from the TUC to the House of Commons. Owen told me: 'It looks as if Denis [Healey] will get it and we'll be all right for another three years.' Last week, to confirm what I remembered, I asked Lord Owen if he would have left a Labour party that was led by Healey. He replied that the thought would not have entered his head. Nobody doubts that Healey would have produced a better election result than Michael Foot managed in 1983. We must not create the myth that Healey's defeat in the leadership election was necessary for the party's welfare.
The crucial votes that guaranteed Healey's defeat came from craven members of the parliamentary Labour party who mistakenly believed that troublemakers in their constituencies would quieten down if an old left-winger became leader. They preferred the certainty of Labour losing the next general election to the risk of being ejected from their safe seats. Their cowardice was compounded by the treachery of a group of Social Democrat defectors who postponed their resignation from Labour until they had voted for the party leader who in their estimation was most likely to guarantee electoral disaster. Morgan identifies three of them. They did not think that Healey was the wrong choice to lead a revival.
Now I don’t want to reopen old wounds – and I was nowhere near the action in 1980 (I wasn’t even in the Labour Party) – but I think Hattersley gets Labour’s mood in 1980-81 completely wrong here. To put it bluntly, he refuses to recognise that the party in the country – both the constituency parties and the unions – had swung (petulantly but decisively) way to the left, and that Healey’s election as leader would have been followed by an even-worse civil-war-cum-schism than the one that ensued under Foot. Which would in turn have resulted in an even-worse electoral defeat than Labour suffered under Foot in 1983.
I don’t buy the story that the Gang of Three would have stayed if Healey had won: their planning for a new party was too far advanced by the time Foot won, and the real reason they left was not Foot but policy on nuclear arms, Europe and mandatory reselection of Labour MPs. I’m not a great fan of the Bennite insurgency of 1979-82, but it was much more than a few troublemakers in the constituencies, and only a leader from the soft left could have kept any sort of lid on it. Foot was the only credible candidate that came close to fitting the bill – and although he had a torrid time as leader (and wasn't very good at certain aspects of the job, not least sorting election manifestos), he did see off Tony Benn and made a start on chucking out the Trots. Morgan, in other words, is right.
10 March 2007
4 March 2007
I've told them not to do it. I'm penalising those that have. I make it clear that there are legitimate and illegitimate sources for academic work.
But – aargh! – I can't stop them. I really can't. It's not that they still do it: it gets worse year by year. I'm fighting a losing battle.
So I've decided that there is no alternative but to improve the historical entries relating to the history of journalism that appear on Wikipedia. But I can't do that on my own, so I'm appealing for help.
Anyone who knows anything about the history of the press in the UK, please take on one of the Wikipedia pages on a UK national newspaper and turn the rubbish that now appears in the history section into cogent and accurate prose. I've started myself on the Daily Herald and the Sun, but nearly every entry needs rewriting.
3 March 2007
Never mind that it is not a school pic – these disgusting parasites were at university when they dressed up for their little show. The photograph has been so widely reproduced that it is now public property, and it is a crucial political and social document. The use of copyright law to suppress freedom of expression should be resisted by any means necessary. In other words, reproduce it at once on your blog or other website to ensure its continued dissemination and send it to all of your friends.
The more of us do it ... you know the script.
1 March 2007
Sometimes even Alastair Campbell gets it right. The old bruiser was up to some new tricks in the Times last week, dispensing advice to the Tories about how to win the next election.
Not that his advice was particularly useful. It amounted to little more than the assertion that David Cameron needs to do a lot more solid policy work if he is to have a hope of emulating Tony Blair’s reinvention of Labour in 1994-97. The Tories are not as far ahead in the opinion polls as they need to be to win next time, the onetime spindoctor went on, and the government under a new prime minister has every chance of winning a fourth term.
I don’t buy all of this — not least because Blair didn’t have to change much policy from Labour’s early-1980s dog-days, for the simple reason that his predecessors, Neil Kinnock and John Smith, had already done it. (Don’t forget that Gordon Brown’s declaration of the end of “tax-and-spend” and Blair’s “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” soundbite both date from 1992-93, under Smith’s leadership, or that Blair’s abandonment of Clause Four, though obviously important symbolically, changed party policy not a jot.)
But Campbell is on the money when he says that the Cameron Tories are an empty vessel and that — as things stand — they are not well placed to beat a Brown government.
So far, Cameron has played his hand as well as anyone else in his party could have played it. He has done the casual nice-guy routine with some panache (certainly more than Gordon has managed so far) and there’s something about his media image that is attractive. He is saying the right things — from his party’s point of view — about how the Tories have learned from their mistakes, are no longer nasty or extreme, are concerned about poverty and all the rest. He’s bidding for the centre ground, in other words.
But he’s not doing so well as to induce panic. Open-neck-shirt visits to sink estates will not shake off the perception that he is a Etonian toff (as he is). The bike to work followed by the chauffeur was bad. The picture of him posing with the Bullingdon Club at Oxford is potentially disastrous, because it suggests that he has an inner arrogant-aristo arsehole struggling to get out. It should be used relentlessly in Labour propaganda.
And as Campbell says, there isn’t a lot of substance to Tory policy. What would a Tory government do about the big issues with which it would have to deal? All we get on the NHS, education, the environment, Europe, Britain’s relationship with the US and so on is mood music. They’re seriously embarrassed by their yet-to-be-jettisoned voter-unfriendly baggage. In Labour terms, they’re Mandelsonised Kinnock circa 1986.
As for the polls, the Tories are doing well, but not brilliantly.
On the standard “Which party would you vote for if there were a general election tomorrow?” test, the Tories are running at 37 per cent on average, with Labour on 32.5 and the Lib Dems on just under 20. It looks a commanding Tory lead, but even under the new constituency boundaries for the next general election it would be enough only to give the Tories roughly the same number of seats as Labour in a hung parliament, with a massively reduced number of Lib Dem MPs holding the balance of power. Again, it’s Kinnock circa 1986.
Which is another way of saying that opinion polls a long way from a general election don’t necessarily matter. Campbell is again right to point out that the government has had a torrid time for the past six months and that there is every reason to believe its poll fortunes are at or close to their nadir — particularly as there is a change of prime minister in the offing.
OK, so Gordon isn’t exactly inspiring, but he’s a lot better than John Major in 1990 when he replaced Margaret Thatcher — and Major’s succession gave a massive poll bounce to the Tories that carried them through to victory in 1992.
Here, the polls asking people how they would vote if Brown were PM now with Cameron as leader of the opposition need to be taken with a lorry-load of salt. Brown is not PM and has been keeping a low profile sticking to his brief while Blair takes the flak. We simply don’t know either what he’d be like in charge or how voters would respond.
There is plenty that can go wrong for Labour. The leadership and deputy leadership elections have the potential to turn into chaos — the first with no credible candidate but Brown, the second with too many candidates that have nothing to say apart from how proud they are to have served (with minor qualifications). Iraq and loans-for-peerages are not over yet. And then there’s the other stuff...
But as long as the succession is handled competently and hysteria over Iraq subsides — and as long as no one is nicked on loans-for-peerages — Brown should look a fresh enough start. And it needs just a tiny swing to Labour from the current polls for Brown to give Cameron a tonking in 2009 or 2010 and secure a clear majority for Labour. Don’t give up the fight. We’re still in the driving seat.
27 February 2007
23 February 2007
Michael Meacher's decision to stand for the leadership of the Labour Party and thus for the Prime Minister's crown is an unmitigated disaster.
He is yesterday's man, having stood for the deputy leadership 23 years ago in the heyday of a long departed Bennism...
What we need is a left-leaning candidate who will offer a sensible critique of New Labourism, whilst being serious about troop withdrawals and will adopt a Labourite platform which won't frighten the birds...
The alternative to Gordon and John McDonnell should be Peter Hain. He has at least made noises in Government to show that he isn't in tune with the general thrust of New Labour.
My only disagreement is that I'd go for Charles Clarke as challenger of choice. Whatever, Gordon needs to make it clear he wants a serious contest that will not exclude the loser from a senior job in cabinet. Meacher and McDonnell are jokes.
19 February 2007
17 February 2007
10 February 2007
It's not a defence of his position on the war in Iraq, and it's not an assault on the whole of the left by a renegade. Nor does it pretend to be a piece of cutting-edge original research or scholarship, contrary to Stuart A's fisking.
It's a polemic by a democratic leftist who watched in mounting frustration and disbelief as the democratic left around him screwed up by tolerating the intolerable and excusing the inexcusable.
What started him off was the refusal of a large section of the democratic left to dissociate itself publicly from (mainly Leninist) apologists for the intolerable and the inexcusable in the wake of 9/11 – lest we forget, indiscriminate mass murder in New York and Washington DC. He then found much the same phenomenon in the anti-war movement of 2002-03, in the left's response to 7/7 and in the left's continuing obsession – on the whole – with banging on about whether invading Iraq was right, oblivious to the actual situation in Iraq. And, boy, do his leftist critics prove him right.
1. Not one left critical review of Cohen has admitted that he's got a point when it comes to the disgraceful excuses for Islamist terror put out in the wake of 9/11 and 7/7 by the New Statesman, the Guardian and others.
2. Not one has accepted that it was at best moronic for anti-war democratic leftists to acquiesce in the Socialist Workers Party, George Galloway and a reactionary Islamist pressure group – all of them de facto revolutionary defeatists when it came to the war, and thus not anti-war but protagonists of Saddam – appointing themselves as the leadership of the anti-war movement in 2002-03.
3. And not one has even engaged seriously with Cohen's argument that, regardless of what you thought about the rights and wrongs of the war, what should matter for the left now, with Saddam overthrown and Iraq on the verge of civil war, is how to prevent a sectarian bloodbath there – not continuing a self-indulgent debate about the rights and wrongs of the decision to invade.
As I've said before, though the caveat means less and less as time goes by, I disagree with Cohen about the war. But the left consensus – not just the Stalinists and Trotskyists and Islamist apologists – is as putrid as he describes it, if not worse.
8 February 2007
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27 January 2007
So it would be easy to dismiss as mutual backscratching my broad agreement with the argument of his book, that since 9/11 a large section of the British left has been so blinded by its anti-Americanism that it has embraced the worst sort of Islamist reaction. But it isn’t backscratching. I’ve been saying much the same for as long as he has – though with little of his rhetorical force or skill – and I’d recommend his book had I never met him. It’s a brilliant excoriating polemic that should be read by everyone on the left.
Not that I think he’s right about everything. As others have pointed out, he’s got a terminology problem that runs through the book. I don’t think “liberal-left” works as “a cover-all term for every shade of left opinion”, nor is “liberals” synonymous for me with “the middle-class left”. Unlike him, I opposed the war against Saddam in 2003 on the grounds that it was likely to be protracted and bloody and that the US had no credible plans for what happened afterwards. I don’t think Cohen recognises how many people who were against the war in 2003 also found the pro-Saddam posturing of George Galloway and the Socialist Workers Party utterly disgusting and distrusted the alliance with reactionary Islamists that Galloway and the SWP created in the Stop the War Coalition.
Still, Cohen’s central thesis is absolutely to the point. Most opponents of the war who did not share the “revolutionary defeatism” of Galloway and the SWP or the reactionary politics of their Islamist allies turned a blind eye to them. They certainly did nothing to distance themselves publicly – let alone anything to seize leadership of the anti-war movement.
And since 2003 the obsession of most people on the non-Leninist left who opposed the war – I know there are honourable exceptions – has simply been to get their own back on George Bush and Tony Blair for starting it. For the parochial self-righteous left, the important thing about the growing sectarian strife in Iraq is not that it threatens to turn into a full-scale civil war that then engulfs the whole Middle East. It is that it shows Bush and Blair were wrong three years ago — just as we said they were. Pinning the blame on Bush and Blair and demonstrating we were right matters more than working out how best to support the Iraqi people against the murderous militias terrorising their country. It's comfortable collective political narcissism, no more.
There are lots of good things in What’s Left? apart from the core argument about the left, 9/11 and Iraq – among them an excursion into the left in the 1930s and the Communist Party’s defeatism during the period of the Hitler-Stalin pact, a pointed assault on the idiocies of postmodernism and a chilling account of how the Trotskyist Workers Revolutionary Party took money from Saddam (and praised him to the skies) in return for spying on Iraqi dissidents in Britain. I don’t think he captures just how wrong the left consensus was in the 1930s or how the WRP’s relationship with Saddam was only a little more compromised than that of other Leninist sects with other third world dictators, but these are minor points. This is extended pamphleteering at its best.
23 January 2007
20 January 2007
This book of three essays recalling the life and culture of the Communist Party of Great Britain in the 1940s and 1950s is a reminder in more ways than one that time flies. Surely it can’t be ten years since Raphael Samuel died? Surely it can’t be nearly 20 years since the last of these pieces appeared in New Left Review? But it is, and it won’t be very long before the CP described so sympathetically here is beyond living memory.
Samuel was born in 1934 into a middle-class Jewish family, and his mother joined the CP in 1939. But although he was “brought up as a true believer” and joined the party as soon as he could, his membership was brief. He left in 1956, like so many other intellectuals, over the Soviet invasion of Hungary, then played a major part in the first New Left in the late 1950s and early 1960s before going on to found History Workshop, an organisation (if that’s the right word) bringing together academics and amateurs committed to “history from below”.
The Lost World of British Communism is a fitting way to mark the tenth anniversary of Samuel’s death. It shows him at his very best both as a historian and as a writer. The everyday life of a tiny political party that was obsessively deferential to the Soviet Union and had few major internal disputes (at least from 1939 to 1956) might not seem a promising topic – and indeed there are plenty of studies of British communism that are painfully boring. But Samuel makes the CP come alive, mixing his own and other former members’ reminiscences with excerpts from novels, letters and material from the official archives to produce what is still by far the best account of what it was actually like to be a communist 50 to 60 years ago.
But it is more than that. Samuel wrote these essays after the end of the 1984-85 miners’ strike, just as the Communist Party was going through the bitter split that finally destroyed it – and they are also his take on the state of the left at the time. And even though it feels like only yesterday that they appeared, it’s strange to be reminded how much has changed since then.
I have a hunch no one will be writing elegaically in 20 years’ time about the cosy comradeship of Marxism Today or the day-to-day rituals of Straight Left and the Morning Star. The bust-up between the “Eurocommunists”, who felt that the CP should move away from confrontational class politics and pro-Sovietism, and the “tankies”, the traditionalists who preferred business as usual, was a vicious affair that ended with schism and both factions utterly marginalised.
Samuel was writing as someone who believed that a viable socialist left could emerge from the wreckage after the defeat of the miners, the implosion of the CP and the rightward mid-1980s turn of Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party. It never happened. The past 20 years have seen a succession of single-issue campaigns – against the poll tax, against road building, against various wars – but no left revival worthy of the name. Could it have been any different if only we’d taken notice of Samuel 20 years ago and rediscovered the virtues of 1940s communism (while ditching the bad bits)? Perhaps not, but rereading these essays did get me wondering.