Monday, 13 October 2014

Labour's UKIP Problem

Of course some potential Labour voters, and others in areas that have traditionally voted Labour are considering voting UKIP.  Some have always voted Tory (and UKIP present themselves - somehow - as a less-toxic Tory Party in defiantly non-Tory areas).  Some have, in previous years, voted for the BNP or the National Front.  We live in very difficult times in which people have found themselves poorer and poorer and the only explanatory narrative that finds public utterance is that this is caused by a combination of immigration, welfare and Labour's record of public spending.

It is of course extraordinary double-think.  The only thing keeping many people even vaguely afloat is access to some benefit payments and access to services paid-for by public spending and both require the taxes of a working-age population, increasingly dependent on immigration in the context of an aging population.
But people are not hearing an alternative explanation anywhere.  It was once the job of the labour movement to provide that explanation; to be active on the ground, to mobilise, to inform and to challenge.  But the Labour Party has become increasingly reticent on the issue of causes of low pay, insecurity and marginalisation.  And they are becoming increasingly likely to validate the ludicrous UKIP explanation - by echoing it in awkward, embarrassed liberal terms - than they are to confront it.
There are two possible reasons for this reticence.  One is that the leading lights of the labour movement are genuinely unclear as to why we see such problems in our society. By abandoning a socialist analysis in the 80s and 90s they can no longer make a diagnosis.  The other is that they see this as a purely psephological problem: "how do we keep these voters?" rather than "how do we end low pay and insecurity?"  If the latter is true then it is because they are so removed from the problem: the low paid are now an "other" to be dealt with rather than the heart of the movement.  If this is true, then that is the real heart of Labour's UKIP problem.  UKIP will never be a workers' party - they are a more-Tory-than-the-Tories Thatcherite party - but they are able to temporarily exploit the absence of any workers' party, as fascist movements have done before them elsewhere in the world.
The elephant in the room is capitalism.  Capitalism causes low pay, insecurity and marginalisation and no party is more committed to its unfettered future success than UKIP.  They want fewer regulations on pay, working conditions and job security.  They want more cuts and privatisation.  They are the party that is 100% committed to making life worse for the least well-off in the United Kingdom.  That this party gets a single vote in an inner-city constituency is the worst kind of indictment of Labour's failure to engage with its base.  Tony Blair's "Clause IV" moment was more significant than many (even he) gave it credit at the time.  We fought it hard, but we knew no Labour government had ever sought "the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange" so it wasn't the end or the final defeat.  But by deleting that historic commitment and instead embracing a "dynamic market economy" and "the rigours of competition" the Labour Party lost the intellectual ability to challenge the economic dogma that creates UKIP's disingenuous explanation for social problems; an explanation echoed in the popular press and from the government.
The reason that every newspaper blames immigration, benefit claimants and the Labour Party for all social ills is that they are utterly and uncompromisingly committed to their real cause.  We can (and should) blame bad employers paying rock-bottom wages and slum landlords charging sky-high rents but it's more than that.  It is a system whose very logic dictates that employers should pay as little as they can get away with and landlords should charge as much as they can get away with, all of it bailed out by a state which increasingly sees its role as clearing the way for the pursuit of capital rather than to support a decent standard of living for its population.
Farage is disingenuous in his rhetoric on immigration.  Farage's problem is not really immigration (indeed he says this himself when trying to sound reasonable) it is a way of focusing opposition to Europe (and his opposition to Europe is really an opposition to regulation).  He does not want to replace European regulation with UK regulation, not in terms of working conditions but not in terms of migration either.  After all, that same system that creates social ills contains within it the logic for employers in the UK to seek their employees wherever they see fit in order to find workers who will work longer and longer for less and less.  Farage's real problem with EU immigration is that it prevents the expansion of non-EU immigration and his supporters' ability to find workers even more easily exploited.  That Farage has not been more easily taken down can only be explained by the conclusion that the establishment wishes to keep him exactly where he is.
The only approach that Labour can and should take to this is to face down and expose UKIP and to attack the real causes of low pay, insecurity and marginalisation.  Echoing Farage's rhetoric on immigration only validates UKIP's argument and pushes more voters into their arms, while alienating a host of other voters.  It is also morally, politically and intellectually bankrupt.
It must be possible - it is possible - to face down UKIP without seeming to patronise or insult people who have been attracted to their rarely-challenged rhetoric.  But Labour has to be brave to do this, because in facing down UKIP they are effectively facing down the full forces of the UK establishment who have found Farage's simple prescriptions the easiest way to detract attention from their beloved economic polity and the misery it creates.

Monday, 22 September 2014

The North Must Unite to Prevent an English Parliament

Why was power devolved to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London in the 1990s?  If it was simply about nationalism, then there is some case for an English Parliament or English Votes on English Laws (though it would no doubt be challenged in the future by a growing dissatisfied regionalism).  But that wasn't really what it was about.  It was about representation and accountability.  Scotland kept getting governments it didn't vote for, and the Westminster parliament was - in social and economic terms, rather than national terms - unrepresentative.  Of course, this has always been true of some of the regions of England too.  In this article I refer to the north, but it is not exclusively a north/south issue.
But while parts of England are poorly represented by the legislature in Westminster, that parliament is far more representative of the North - in socio-economic terms - than it would be if the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs were absent.  Essentially - in practical, material ways, rather than in matters of national identity - the north of England is more like the UK than it is like England.
It is essential that Scotland gets its Devo Max, but the regions of England need to be very wary of what is termed "the English question".
The first proposal, as we have heard from David Cameron, is English Votes for English Laws.  It is, superficially, simple.  It provides an answer to the West Lothian Question, though it raises many new questions of its own.  First, it is not absolutely straight-forward which votes Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs would be excluded from.  Each piece of legislation would need to be examined in terms of jurisdiction before certain MPs were barred from participating.  To be logical and consistent there would even be laws that London MPs would be excluded from, if it was on a matter that - for their constituents - was one for the Mayor.  There would be other laws that would be just English MPs, others where the Welsh and the Northern Irish could vote, but not the Scots.  In the context of Devo Max, suddenly it would seem that there would be very little legislation that Scottish MPs would be required for.  This raises questions about their precise role, their levels of pay and their potential role in the executive.  No, English Votes for English Laws is an unworkable proposal designed purely for Conservative political advantage and to embarrass the Labour Party.  It is not a serious constitutional proposal.
Some ask for an English Parliament. On the face of it, this is more logical and coherent.  But before we even consider the  Northern Question (a question that will not go away with any "English solution") it is a bizarre notion.  England makes up the bulk of the UK.  A devolved English parliament and executive would be a hugely powerful body, with an English First Minister challenging the authority of a UK Prime Minister.  Imagine the scenario of coalition Prime Minister Ed Miliband, trying to deal with First Minister Boris Johnson...  If the English executive had the same devolved powers as the Scottish one, just what would be the role of the "federal government" in Whitehall?
The only answer to the question that actually makes any sense is a regional one, but we cannot escape the reality that there is more appetite for this in the north (and perhaps the far south west) than elsewhere in the country.  While the internet might be full of calls for "Home Rule for Yorkshire" it is not full of calls for "Home Rule for the South East (Excluding London)."
For that reason, the "easier" answers based on devolution to England, rather than devolution in England might well be the ones to gather momentum.  This must be resisted.  An English answer to this constitutional puzzle will be one that sees a worse deal for provincial England.  If Westminster is socially unrepresentative of the UK (and it is) an English Parliament can only intensify this.  The easy answers to "the English question" only raise "the Northern question".  There will be a wide range of views on regional devolution, from those seeking regional assemblies and executives akin to the national ones in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, to those seeking to empower "city regions" and local councils.  I know which approach I would prefer, but those debates are for the years to come.  What is most important now is to resist this rich man's parliament that the Tories are trying to create.
So let's join together and speak with one voice, whether it's to David Cameron or to Miliband's constitutional convention: the north of England wants no part of an English Parliament and, in the absence of regional devolution, would prefer to be represented by all UK MPs than just by English ones.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

In his haste to rescue his legacy, Blair has deserted the final refuge of the pro-war case

Tony Blair will forever be remembered for Iraq.  Not for peace in Northern Ireland or the minimum wage, nor the Human Rights Act or devolution to Scotland and Wales.  Blair does little to help this: he rarely comments on political developments in the UK, but always does the rounds of the television studios when questions of UK military intervention are raised.

And Tony Blair’s Iraq legacy is a dreadful one.  It is rightly remembered as one of the worst foreign policy disasters in British history.  Millions who marched against the war understood the situation far better than the Prime Minister and those close to him.  It was a disaster that cost at least 100,000 lives, two thirds of whom were civilians.

The arguments that Blair made in 2002 and 2003, along with his colleagues in Washington, collapsed one by one.  There were no weapons of mass destruction and there was no link between the Iraqi regime and 9/11 or Al Qaeda.  The last argument – one that was not central to the case for war at the time – was the need to remove Saddam Hussain, a brutal dictator.  Anti-war voices rightly pointed to the dictators and repressive regimes that Bush and Blair not only tolerated but even actively supported.  But the defence against that was that this was “whataboutery” – it wasn’t an argument against removing Saddam.  So the final refuge of the dinted and damaged pro-war case was that, but for the intervention, Saddam would have remained in power.

Tony Blair’s latest written intervention in the Iraq crisis unwittingly erodes that case.  The current crisis in Iraq sees a jihadist group (ISIS), battle-hardened in the Syrian civil war, approaching Baghdad, taking northern cities and the Iraq army deserting its posts and its US and UK-funded equipment.  There are very disturbing reports of massacres.  Blair thinks it “bizarre” and “wilful” that people should blame the 2003 invasion for this situation.  He correctly identifies other sources of the crisis (the Syrian crisis and al-Maliki’s sectarianism) though he chooses to ignore any western culpability in either.  But he also chooses to point out that Iraq would be no more stable today had they not intervened in 2003 and therefore the current crisis might still have happened.  It is dangerous to indulge in counter-factuals, but I suspect he is probably right.  He correctly points to the extraordinary events of the Arab Spring.  But in doing so, Blair raises the question of whether Saddam could have been removed by the Iraqi people, without intervention.  At the very least it undermines the argument that the only way there could have been change in the Iraqi regime was the path taken in 2003.

More problematic, it is no longer at all clear which side Blair would have chosen in such a situation.  His position on the Arab Spring is, at best, ambiguous.  While last summer, Blair backed air strikes against the Syrian regime, he now appears to back air strikes against elements of the Syrian opposition and, back in April, proposed a Syrian settlement that would leave Assad in power.  Furthermore, in the same speech he gave full support to the military coup in Egypt. While conceding that he “strongly disagreed” with the mass death sentences handed out to members of the Muslim Brotherhood, he urged people to “show sensitivity” to the regime.

In the light of this, it is darkly ironic that Blair (correctly) notes the “inconsistency” of recent UK policy towards the Middle East.  It is hard to escape the conclusion that – in any given situation – Blair would have made his decisions about the future of Saddam’s regime in terms of his impression of British (or, more accurately, western capitalist) geopolitical interest, not on the basis of the rights of the Iraqi people or even a democratic mandate.  If Saddam was president today, it is entirely believable that Blair would be calling for western intervention to protect his regime.  This is the last nail in the coffin of the “regime change” case for war.

Where I am sure we all agree with Blair is that what happens now is more important than “differences of the past”, but unless we can learn from the mistakes of the past we will get it wrong again.  Tony Blair seems incapable of learning from the past, he simply wants to try and rewrite it in order to recast himself as hero rather than villain.  Discussions about what is happening in Iraq are urgently needed but a period of silence from Tony Blair would be welcome.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Tony Benn - a personal tribute

I only met Tony Benn a few times, but he had a profound impact on my life and my politics, as he had on so many other people.  His death this week has inspired a lot of words (some of them a tad hypocritical and some of them downright rude and disrespectful).  This short article is not an appreciation of Benn's incredible life and career (that will come in a future article) but is instead a collection of memories. Please excuse the personal nature of this.

Tony had always been there, on the television and the radio and in the newspapers when I was a child.  I was a left-leaning youth, inspired by a combination of intensely disliking Margaret Thatcher's government policies, straight-forward morality and common sense.  Like most of my friends who thought about such things, I was anti-nuclear, pro-Labour, concerned about the environment and an opponent of elitism and privilege.  Tony Benn had always been there, but one day I started listening properly and realised here was an incredibly eloquent and serious politician saying things that other politicians didn't say.  I quickly realised that radicalism did not have to go hand in hand with cynicism; that there was a real alternative, although it was a difficult one.  I assume I was in my mid teens at the time.

In the first year of my A Levels I saw an advertisement that Tony Benn was going to be speaking at a bookshop in Leeds and signing copies of the newly-released edition of his Diaries (End of an Era, 1980-1990).  I persuaded a friend from school to go with me. I later learned that friends with whom I was later to work closely in student politics were also present that evening.

Tony spoke passionately and without any notes and took questions, all of which he answered directly and at some length.  The friend who I went with said that he agreed with every word, but wondered whether an orator of similar skills might not have persuaded him of a completely different case.  That was not how I felt.  I was hugely impressed by the way Tony spoke, but what I was really interested in was what he said.  It was content, not form, that really impressed me. His analysis of the 1980s and the Thatcher era, that had only recently come to an end, made complete sense to me.  It seemed so obviously right that I found it hard to understand how anybody could hear the arguments and reach a different conclusion.

I bought the diary, and Tony signed it "For Duncan, In Unity, Tony Benn". He smiled and said "good night, God bless" and I went home a Bennite.  I read the book in a couple of nights, spell-bound by it.  I then read everything else I could find about the politics of the 1980s (particularly early 80s Labour difficulties) to see how Tony's view fitted in with other "versions" of the story.  I then bought all the other volumes of the diaries and, as a result, certainly knew more about the detailed debates of Labour cabinets in the 1960s and 70s than any of my school friends!  It also changed how I reacted to the news and current affairs.  A vague, moral, natural and instinctive egalitarianism and radicalism had been augmented - if not replaced - by an analysis.  I started reading Marx.  When I passed the people selling left-wing newspapers on roadsides, I started buying them, reading them, realising that I agreed with some of them and strongly disagreed with others.

I was furious about the pit closures. I had a more complex and equivocal reaction to overwhelming events in Eastern Europe than the news suggested I should have.  I began to question things I had once taken for granted, including elements of my religious beliefs (beliefs that had no doubt contributed to my pre-Bennite, nascent ethical socialism).  During this time I corresponded with Tony and he sent me articles of interest, or petitions to take around the school and send back to him.  It was an unusual kind of early political activism, but I had not realised I could join the Labour Party before I was 18.  I joined on my 18th birthday, only to discover I could have joined years earlier.

By this time we had already lost the 1992 election - something I took badly.  My analysis was at odds with the mainstream Labour analysis, as it was to remain so!  For me it was that Kinnock didn't offer a radical enough alternative to Major.

When I first joined the Labour Party, Tony Benn was a marginalised figure, but not a marginal figure.  He was on the National Executive Committee, and he always spoke at conferences.  As such, I joined the Labour Party as a rebel, a "lefty"; a Bennite.  I had few if any illusions in it and, as such, can honestly say I have never been disillusioned by the Labour Party despite profound disagreements over the years.

When I got to York University, I immediately joined the Labour club and became very active.  My correspondence with Tony continued and included, at this time, fairly regular invitations for him to come and speak at the university.  In my second year, I was elected External Secretary (along with my great mate and comrade Neil Ormerod) and I kept writing "that" letter (along with similar ones to people like Dennis Skinner and Alan Simpson).  Alan Simpson came along and spoke to us about Clause IV and later came again to address an anti-racism festival.  Dennis Skinner didn't come but called me at home to explain why.  I was out and my (non-political) friend, H, answered the phone and was not entirely convinced it was Dennis Skinner on the phone.  He took the message anyway ("I see Parliament as a full-time job...")  Tony always replied that he would like to come and speak to us, had a very busy diary and would try and fit us in.  All through the same time (and I think for a year longer than me) another mate, Jago Parker (who became Internal Secretary when we became External Secretary - we were far too anarchic to have a Chair) had also been writing to Tony and, when he was elected President of the student union, he asked him to come and speak to the first Union General Meeting of his presidency, and Tony agreed.

So it was October 1995 when he came to York.  Jago met him and Neil and I went to see him in Jago's room in the halls of residence.  Oddly we were both pessimistic, I recall, and were worried that something would have occurred to mean that he couldn't come.  As we got to Jago's door we heard that unmistakable voice from inside saying "well, I'm a vegetarian too".  We had to run into the stairwell and calm down!  I remember us all talking for quite some time before the first meeting.  I had a carrier bag full of diaries, books and videos which Tony signed for me.  I was worried that this might have made me seem a bit of a "fan boy" but I was not alone, and he was characteristically charming about it.  I tried out the only joke I knew that involved socialism and tea and he said he hadn't heard it before.  He laughed politely, but it never made it into his speeches!  (Why do Marxists drink herbal tea?  Because proper-tea is theft). 

Other friends joined us for that chat and I remember my mate Mike - a Biology student - raising some scientific issue and being amazed that Tony knew about the topic in such great detail. He was clearly so very interested in the world that if something caught his interest he would find out everything he could about it.  People have commented in recent days about how certain he seemed about various issues, despite expressing occasional doubts in his diaries.  I don't think he reached his positions rashly at all, but he certainly approached most as moral questions and as such there was a right position and a wrong one.  I think that was one of the things that appealed to me, and one of the things that might alienate those that see politics more in terms of negotiations than morality.

We took Tony across to the Labour meeting. It was the best attended meeting we ever had (and we were a popular political society with quite well-attended meetings most weeks). It was certainly the only time the Vice Chancellor came to a Labour meeting!  It was a great meeting - an inspirational and encouraging speech, followed by the usual lively questions. 

Neil and I had to phone Tony a taxi and the taxi firm took a lot of persuading that we weren't joking when we said we were booking it in the name of Tony Benn...

So many of my university friends talk about the union general meeting from that evening.  It was a landmark evening in so many of our lives.  When the news of Tony's death came through, my Facebook news feed was full of recollections of that evening.  We counted 900 people at the meeting - the University Central Hall was the fullest I ever saw it.  Tony had to get a train at a particular time and I remember being frustrated that many of the union's executive officers all gave long wordy reports before his speech (presumably pleased to have the chance to talk to a big audience)!  Walking with Tony after the meeting he spoke with great approval of these speeches that had so irked me!  He also quietly suggested we should stop trying to call the union building the Tony Benn Building.

As we walked with Tony out of the hall, some tory came across and asked some rude question which Tony answered with the sort of polite put-down that many a stand-up comedian could do with perfecting.

Tony was worried he might miss his train and the taxi wasn't there when we got to the place we'd asked for it to come.  Somebody offered him a lift and he accepted gratefully, asking me and Neil to wait and explain to the taxi driver.  I confess that, while we waited for a few minutes, we were impatient to return to the meeting and in the end thought "who's going to believe Tony Benn wanted a taxi from York uni!"  It was only later we discovered that Tony had got a taxi up from the station with the same firm, so there's probably a taxi driver somewhere in York who ended up believing all the tabloid demonization of Benn.  Sorry.

As we packed up, I finished Tony's flask of tea (now cold).  It was really milky and sweet.

Years later, when the Free at Last diaries were released, I asked Tony what he had recorded in his diary on that day (as it wasn't included in the published edition).  He very kindly sent me the typescript of the day and it's a treasured memento.  I transcribed it and shared it with other friends who remembered that evening.

I met Tony on several other occasions, at public meetings, conferences, protests and demonstrations, at an educational conference and even briefly at a folk festival.  He helped me with research questions, and offered support and words of encouragement during campaigns.  But I never had another chance to ask all the questions I had, to discuss the causes we had in common or his thoughts on the future of the Labour Party.  I wish I had, but I don't think Tony Benn would want those people who he encouraged and inspired to spend long mourning.  He would want us to learn from him and keep the flames of confidence and hope burning. It is ironic that one of the most memorable and enduring messages of Tony's was that what matters in politics is policies and issues, not personalities.  He was, of course, one of very few great personalities in the politics of the second half of the 20th century.  But he was absolutely right.  Just as the free-market, neo-liberal, right-wing politics of Margaret Thatcher were not buried with the personality last year, neither has the alternative been buried this week.  The best memorial that we can give Tony Benn is to keep fighting, keep questioning, keep putting people before profit.  For me, Tony Benn developed the idea of democratic socialism more than anybody else in Britain.  Let us use his words, his ideas, his spirit and his encouragement to make that idea a reality.