Friday, March 31, 2006

Time to play hardball

No group of organised workers – especially one with a historic reputation for combativity – would tolerate having its wages slashed by 53%. But that’s the scale of the concessions Delphi, North America’s biggest car parts manufacturer, is seeking from the United Auto Workers, according to today’s Financial Times.

The company wants to see average hourly rates slashed from $27 to $16.50 – or even as low as $12.50 without financial support from number one client General Motors – over the next 18 months.

The ‘jobs bank’ system – which guarantees full wages during slack periods – also faces the axe.

A strike seems to be in the offing, and the stakes are high. Any stoppage would quickly bring GM to a standstill, and maybe even push it into chapter 11.

What are the UAW’s chances of success? According to sociologist Jonathan Cutler of Wesleyan University, the union is heavily bureaucratised.

Cutler maintains that the UAW ‘has become a geriatric union to preserve job security for a very small elite at the expense of the future of the union. They have yielded more to the corporations than they have to the discontent of their own membership’.

But as he also argues:

‘This is no time for labour statesmanship … This is a time for the UAW to defend the American middle-class worker.’

Middle-class worker? Gosh, you never know what these academic sociologists are going to come up with next. But otherwise, Cutler’s point is well taken.

Or, as I believe our American cousins put it ... it’s time to play hardball.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Dumping Dubya

What are the chances of seeing George W Bush impeached over Iraq next year? Not bad at all if the Democrats do well in the midterm congressional elections in November, according to an article currently on the website of neocon house journal The Weekly Standard.

‘The Impeach Bush movement has made great strides over the last few years, and today impeachment isn't just a looming carnival of the absurd, quacking and clanging about on the horizon - it's a real possibility for 2007,’ writes the magazine’s online editor Jonathan Last.

Ralph Nader has apparently been pushing for just such a move since 2003. At first, the very idea was considered so off the wall that even the utterly deranged Lyndon LaRouche denounced it as crazy.

But the tide seemed to turn in May last year, after revelations that Bush had seriously countenanced the idea of bombing al Jazeera. A month later, a Zogby poll found 42% of Americans agreed with the idea of impeachment if it could be proved that Bush lied over Iraq. Some subsequent polls have found a majority in favour of the proposition.

Last continues: ‘ So far, 11 town councils have taken up resolutions supporting impeachment; eight have passed, the largest being in San Francisco. State Democratic parties have adopted similar resolutions in California, Nevada and Wisconsin. ImpeachPAC, a political-action committee devoted to supporting pro-impeachment candidates, lists 14 Democratic candidates mounting congressional campaigns centering on impeachment.’

So, what happens next? Well, according to a poll conducted for Time and published on Wednesday, the GOP are in for a pounding come next November:

If the congressional elections were being held today, would you be more likely to vote for the Republican or Democratic candidate?: Democratic 50% Republican 41%

Regardless of which candidates you favor, would you rather see the Republicans or the Democrats control Congress?: Democratic 49% Republican 38%

I’ll be looking forward to the gyrations of the ‘pro-war left’ on this one. Norm, Nick and HP will surely feel themselves honour bound to defend the liberator of Iraq. Meanwhile, can I be the first British blogger to extend moral support to the impeachment cause?

UPDATE: As one rightwing US blogger points out here, there is a downside: step forward, President Cheney. Gulp!

Meanwhile, commenter Grouchy reminds me of the campaign to impeach Blair, which seems to have run out of steam of late. But check out

They're not lovin' it

The latest pearl of wisdom from a top management consultancy, courtesy of Michael Heseltine's new magazine World Business:

A quarter of workforce 'disengaged'
Source: Towers Perrin Global Workforce Study
Reviewed: 28-Mar-06

'In August 2005, Towers Perrin’s HR Services business consulted more than 85,000 employees working for large and mid-sized companies in 16 countries on four continents. The study is the largest of its kind taken of a single global working population.

'The survey shows that at a time when companies are focused on expansion and looking to their key talent to achieve that growth almost a quarter of employees are ‘disengaged’ and just 14% are ‘fully engaged’. The study is the largest of its kind taken of a single global working population.'

That's right. One in four admits to being disengaged. It's a good bet that at least twice as many are too canny to answer stupid questions from management consultants.

Politics and punk rock

It’s 30 years on since the first Sex Pistols gig, and the BBC website does a round-up of reminiscences from the period, include Jean-Jacques Burnel from the Stranglers, Pauline Murray from Penetration, that bloke from Tenpole Tudor and Eddie from the Vibrators. None of them uses a current photograph, I notice. Wonder why that could be?

Fair brings the safety pin years flooding back. My GF of the period looked the spitting image of Pauline Murray, and dressed up like her, too. She sometimes used to get asked for Pauline’s autograph. Then she ditched me for Kettering Town’s centre forward. Sob.

I suppose no one ever forgets the time in their lives when they discover sex & drugs & rock & roll. It is a period of heady firsts, after all, from first job to first kiss, from first joint to first demo.

In many ways, the late seventies were a pretty tough time to be a teenager in Britain. But the punk explosion almost made up for everything else.

On top of being the greatest youth movement ever, Punk was also relatively politicised. Not all of the politicisation was towards the left, either.

The Jam used to drape their Vox AC30s in Union Jacks and Weller boasted about voting Tory. Sham 69 flirted with far right support for a while, and Skrewdriver went on to do a damn sight more than that.

The Pistols touted themselves as anarchists, but still managed to sport swastika symbolism and come up with songs such as ‘Bodies’ and ‘Belsen was a gas’. Even the more comic book Ramones sung about being Nazis fighting for the fatherland.

But on the whole, the left won out. These were the years of Rock Against Racism, the Anti Nazi League and Youth CND, and bands like the Clash, the Ruts and Crisis helped win a generation of activists over to leftwing ideas. Great days indeed.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Poor little loves

Geoff Hoon has been complaining about what a hard time Britain's politicians get from evil journalists:

'There is not a media in the developed Western world that is as dismissive or as aggressive or as intrusive as ours.'

Translation: The bastards sometimes find out what we are up, and then have the temerity to report it.

Message for you, Geoff. It's not the hacks that are bringing politics into disrepute in this country. It is the activities of politicians themselves. It is the corrosive drip-drip effect of one scandal after another since 1997 that is eroding public trust in the government.

Ecclestone. The Hinduja Brothers. Lakshmi Mittal. Mandelson's mortgage, Blunkett's company directorship, David Mills' backhander. Another week, another scam. If this is Tuesday, it must be loans for Lordships.

I know you'd like it if none of this ever got in the press, Geoff. So maybe - just maybe - New Labour could consider not acting in these kinds of ways. Then there would be nothing nasty for journalists to write about.

Dismissive? Aggressive? The Daily Mail, for instance, can certainly dish it out. But today even that paper summons up nothing like the vitriol it devoted to Labour when Labour was recognisably left of centre.

And the dominant tone in the broadsheets/Berliners is overtly deferential. When was the last time cutesy big-eyed New Labour puppies such as Patrick Wintour or John Rentoul ever criticised anything that emerged from the Blairite camp? Come to think of it, it's a wonder Wintour is able to come up with any copy whatsoever now that Mandelson is no longer in Westminster.

A huge chunk of other media coverage is essentially apolitical, spinning soap opera story lines about whether Tony and Gordon are on speaking terms this week. The trivial is the political. Again the net effect is to enable politicians to escape scrutiny.

Intrusive? Not particularly, either. A year or so back, all newspapers sat on a story concerning a leading politician's child, and rightly so. Most drug habits and extra-marital relationships are also deemed not worthy of newsprint these days. These days, gay MPs that wish to stay in the closet do not get forced to come out.

Hoon's mindset harks back to the days of not that long ago, when the serious newspapers devoted a broadsheet page a day to uncritically reporting parliamentary speeches, more or less verbatim and with little extraneous comment.

There was arguably something to be said for that approach, which was axed around the late eighties. When debates are polarised - as they were throughout most of the Thatcher period - it is good to know who said what. But there's still Yesterday in Parliament, and Hansard is available online for those that want this kind of stuff.

Meanwhile, here's another fascinating glimpse of Hoon's contempt for the electorate:

'Enoch Powell famously refused to declare his interests. Wouldn't even fill in the form. It would be interesting to see how modern newspapers would treat him today, given that principled position that he took, as far as he was concerned.'

So refusal to make a declaration of interests is suddenly 'a principled position'? In other words, the public do not have a right to know which interests are paying MPs more than their already not inconsiderable salaries, and judge for themselves how that colours the political positions of their elected representatives. Sorry, but any press criticism of an MP trying that one on would be entirely justified.

Robust independent journalism is essential in a healthy democracy. Politicians are big girls and boys, and should just get used to it.

PS: Guido is worth a read on this one.

Tories off their tits

According to the BBC website, Labour MP Martin Salter - quite a nice bloke as I remember him, and always good for a quote - has claimed that a Chinese heroin baron funded the Tories in 1994. Hey, what's the point in having parliamentary privilege if you don't use it, right?

The allegation seems to have eluded other media outlets. I can’t find it reported elsewhere, and the Hansard website search engine doesn’t return anything either.

Needless to say, I’m intrigued. But I just don’t have time to look into it this afternoon, as I have to be at Westminister to cover a select committee meeting. Anybody got any further info?

This little revelation comes the day after I am reliably informed - by a bloke in a pub whose GF works as an MP's researcher, so it must be true - that one leading Tory politician's acquaintance with Bolivia’s number two export commodity went well beyond a bit of run-of-the-mill student dabbling in drugs.

I wonder how all this is playing in the average suburban Conservative Association?

UPDATE: Thanks to SH in the comments box, who comes up with the following 1998 story from the Independent, co-written by the late Tony Bevins:

'The family of Ma Sik-chun, the heroin smuggler who gave £1m to the Tory Party, yesterday claimed that three senior Conservatives knew that the money was given in return for "certain commitments".

'In a letter to the party asking for the money back, Ma's son, Ma Ching-kwan, said former treasurers Lord Hambro and Lord Harris and the former Cabinet minister David Mellor were told the donation came with strings attached.'

Strikes me that if the allegations about the Top Tory can be substantiated - and apparently there are enough witnesses from the guy's university days, so maybe that's not such a big if - the combination could be a propaganda gift to New Labour.

While we're on the subject ... I'll never forget Phil Woolas - New Labour minister for something or other these days - being grilled on whether or not he'd ever smoked a joint while he was president of NUS. He replied that he'd never smoked so much as a cigarette in his life. Funny. He used to scrounge loads of fags off me in the eighties.

Angst over Accenture

One of the major companies closest of all to New Labour is Accenture, the US-based consultancy outfit.

Its reputation is not of the highest, to put it politely. Accenture and its predecessor Arthur Andersen were involved in many of the worst business scandals in both Britain and America in recent decades, from De Lorean to Enron.

Even the Tories considered them too dodgy to do business with. Yet when an important multinational starts hitting on it, the Labour Party invariably swoons.

Since the early 1990s, the Arthur Andersen/Accenture set up has provided ample free policy advice and lucrative employment for key Labour figures.

For its part, Labour has awarded Accenture many lucrative public sector contracts that were debarred to it under Thatcher and Major.

Among them is a $3.5bn contract to design, build and manage information systems for the National Health Service. The project includes such vital functions electronic medical records, appointment booking and prescription systems.

The bad news for NHS users among us is that Accenture is messing it up big time. Delivery has slipped badly behind schedule.

But last July, the company assured everybody that things had been sorted out. Not so.

The work is now so seriously delayed that the government has been forced to let doctors and local healthcare providers use alternative computer systems.

Meanwhile, Accenture has today announced a $450m charge to its accounts.

By way of a bit of background, here’s an extract on Accenture from my book, Labour Party plc:

‘The Tories had stripped Arthur Andersen of the right to receive government contracts in 1982, after it failed to prevent fraud at Northern Ireland-based car maker DeLorean, resulting in the loss of massive amounts of public money. Andersen had even then mastered the knack of doing whatever it takes to keep a client happy.

‘Three years later, the British government sued the firm for £200m. The action dragged on for years, excluding the company from all the lucrative privatisation work of the Thatcher period.

‘Still out in the cold by the mid-1990s, both wings of Andersen actively courted the opposition. In 1993, Andersen Consulting offered its services to an internal Labour commission on social justice. The following year, the commission’s deputy chair Patricia Hewitt left her job as Kinnock’s press officer to become Andersen Consulting’s director of research.

‘Three years later, the firm arranged a seminar for Labour backbenchers on how to handle being a minister. Meanwhile, Arthur Andersen provided Gordon Brown with substantial cut-price help in devising his policies on the windfall tax, capital gains tax and advanced corporation tax.

‘After Labour’s 1997 election win, the legal action was rapidly settled, following the Treasury solicitor’s proposals for mediation. Andersen paid just £21m, only one-tenth of what the Conservatives had demanded. It went on to advise the Government on numerous matters, including the London Underground sell-off, Railtrack, the Millennium Dome, Education Action Zones, the Jubilee Line extension, British Nuclear Fuels, the air traffic control privatisation and many other deals.

‘Two senior Andersen staffers, Chris Wales and Chris Osborne, became advisers to Brown and Robinson at the Treasury. The firm also proved helpful to beleaguered Paymaster General Geoffrey Robinson.

‘As liquidator of Robert Maxwell’s private companies, Andersen controlled many of the papers relating to the £200,000 payment allegedly made by Maxwell to Robinson, but prevented parliamentary investigators from seeing them.

‘Hewitt, meanwhile, had got herself elected MP for Leicester West, and was rapidly promoted to Economic Secretary to the Treasury, then e-business minister. After the 2001 victory, she became Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, giving the firm a former employee in high places.

‘But the backlash from Enron has left Andersen no longer in a position to call-in any outstanding favours. Following the defection of a string of major clients, Andersen is in the process of being dismembered, with practices in various countries sold off to the highest bidder.’

Accenture, of course, represents the bulk of what emerged from the wreckage, and has been mopping up PFI deals ever since.

UPDATE: I see from my stats counter that Accenture servers in both Britain and the US have been reading this post. Hi, guys.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

The future of Labour

Readers in the London area will be able to hear me join a panel discussion on the future of the Labour Party on Resonance 104.4 FM at nine pm on Wednesday this week. Other guests include Lib-Dem blogger Nick Edwards and someone from the Institute of Public Policy Research. You can also listen to the webcast here. I'll post a link for the podcast if there is one.

UPDATE: Thoroughly enjoyed that. And Resonance FM was a bit of a revelation. A seriously cool radio station. I've just added it to my DAB pre-sets.

Racism without adjectives

In 1999, the McPherson Inquiry found the Metropolitan Police to be 'institutionally racist' after its handling of the investigation into the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence.

Now the Independent Police Complaints Commission has accused four Humberside police officers of 'unwitting racism' after the death of former paratrooper Christopher Alder in Hull police station.

There were monkey noises clearly audible on the CCTV footage of the man's dying moments. Unwitting racism, of course. And Alder was described as a 'negroid'. More unwitting racism, I suppose.

Five officers were subsequently cleared of manslaughter and misconduct. Four of them retired on 'medical grounds', with pay offs of up to £66,000.

I wonder if anyone in authority will ever have the guts to describe police behaviour in such cases for what it is. Racism without adjectives.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Kamm, Respect and fascism

There are many derogatory epithets that can reasonably be applied to the Socialist Workers' Party and Respect. But 'fascist' isn't one of them, despite the remarkably cheap argument advanced by the expensively-educated Oliver Kamm to this effect:

'Look closely at the organisation, its methods and propaganda, and you find what is, alongside the British National Party, the most prominent racist and fascist organisation in Britain today.'

The post this quote comes from cites the political peregrinations of obscure French micro-groupuscules of the 1930s to butress the case that the path from Marxist left to fascist right is well worn. In fact no organisation of any meaningful size has ever - in all of political history - moved from the classical expression of one pole to the classical expression of the other.

Kamm is not unique in such stupidity. Harry's Place, Johann Hari and Nick Cohen - all linked to in my sidebar - have made similar charges, presumably with a straight face.

One might just as well start from the obvious point that Oswald Mosley was once a Labour MP, and argue that mainstream Labourism is therefore somehow incipiently fascist. Don't think so, comrades.

Essentially, Kamm & Co rehash the all-too-familiar cod liberal 'politics is horseshoe-shaped' thesis, which contends that the revolutionary left and the fascist right are more or less the same thing.

Then they throw in the stupid Stalinist caricature against 'Trotsky-fascism' last seriously propagated 70 years ago. Somebody really needs to send these people back to resit political sociology 101. Fascism either has a specific meaning, or it has no meaning at all and becomes simply an insult to be flung around freely at anyone any two-bob writer or orator considers reactionary.

In the early eighties, a section of the British left seriously debated whether or not Thatcherism represented 'creeping fascism'. But the concentration camps never materialised. Drink and drugs have done over more lefties in the last two decades than the Tories ever managed to execute. Today there are those in the US that maintain that Dubya is fascist. They make the same mistake. Both Thatcher and Bush are parliamentary democrats.

Saddam Hussein ran a reactionary and oppressive regime. Even opponents of the US invasion of Iraq should frankly state that it is a positive thing he is no longer in power in Baghdad, instead of brainlessly chanting 'Victory to the Iraqi resistance!'. But Saddam wasn't a fascist. Nor was General Pinochet. They were military dictators.

Anti-semitism, in and of itself, isn't fascism either. If it was, Russia in the 1950s and Poland in the 1960s would have constituted fascist states. They were Stalinist.

Nor were the Iranian revolution or Afghanistan under the Taliban 'Islamofascist', for that matter. They were ugly theocracies.

If you want clarity on what fascism is and what fascism is not, turn to Trotsky's theoretical writings on the question. For my money, they are the best work he ever produced. Fascism is a specific means of mobilising and organising the petty bourgeoisie in the social interests of finance capital, specifically as a counterweight to a working class on the political offensive. It is not a catch-all buzzword expressing disapproval of a given political formation.

I'm no lover of Gorgeous George, of course. My extensive criticisms of Galloway are on record here and here and here, and a fair cross-section of the far left isn't on speaking terms with me any more, precisely because of these articles.

Despite two brief periods of membership, these days I'm not a fan of the SWP, either. By premising so much of their politics on their new-found alliance with political Islam, they forfeit any claim to be considered revolutionary socialists. But not even that heresy makes the SWP in any sense fascist.

Respect is lots of things. It was hatched in secret, without any internal democracy or any real support in the labour movement. It's an unprincipled abandonment of secularism. It is an opportunist collapse into communalism for simple electoral advantage. But fascist? Really? Where's the backing from any section of the ruling class? When has Respect ever attempted to smash up a trade union meeting?

If Respect were truly fascist, the self-styled 'decent left' should logically be arguing for physical confrontation with the organisation, along the lines of the Battle of Cable Street, and the disruption of its 'fascist' gatherings. ¡No Pasarán!, remember?

They should be insisting that no Respect supporter hold any position whatsoever inside any democratic trade union. They don't, of course. All mouth, no trousers.

Or perhaps they believe their heroine Oona King shared a platform with a fascist when she debated Galloway? No, that would actually be politically consistent of them. And we simply can't expect joined up thinking from this crew.

Ou sont les jeunes gauchistes?

Signs of life on the Labour left. I got an email today detailing the launch meeting for a new campaign that will go by the moniker of Public Services Not Private Profit, sponsored by an impressive tally of 14 trade unions.

Backers are predominantly smaller unions with ex-Trot or ex-tankie general secretaries, including RMT, FBU, NUJ and PCS. No surprises there, then. But promisingly, the NUT has also signed up.

The proceedings take place on Wednesday March 29 in committee room 10 of the House of Commons, from seven til nine in the evening. Chairing the meeting - and the campaign itself - will be MP John McDonnell, arguably the leader of the parliamentary Labour left, if anybody merits such a title these days.

Trouble is, the advance publicity makes the affair sound as worthy but unexciting as an invite-only Tracy Chapman benefit gig on behalf of North London Social Workers for World Peace. You can't quibble with the cause, but the prospect of having to sit through the evening does not spontaneously generate a major adrenaline rush.

Billed speakers include no less than ten trade union officials, which perhaps isn't a good sign. 'Listening to trade union officials speechify' could enter the cliche manuals to replace 'watching paint dry' as a descriptive term for less-than-stimulating activity.

Anyway. The press release quotes McDonnell as telling us:

'This joint union campaign is bringing together workers from right across the public sector with supportive MPs and organisations representing those who depend upon our public services to oppose this undermining of the very concept of public service provision.

'We will be tabling an Early Day Motion in Parliament this week and we shall be taking the campaign forwards in the country by holding a mass rally and lobby of Parliament on June 27 at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, which will be attended by thousands of trade unionists from all over the country.'

Er ... good, in as far as it goes. Not anywhere near as good as tomorrow's strike to defend local government pensions, of course. But it's obviously a cause that everybody on the left can wholeheartedly support, and everything that contributes to the overall effort obviously helps.

It would be wrong to prejudge its prospects. But I do wonder just how far it is going to be able to engage people beyond the ranks of existing trade union and Labour left diehards.

The suspicion has to be that it will not be democratically run, and function largely as another tightly stitched-up subsidiary of Socialist Action Enterprises plc.

Even its very name gives it the 'let's do the time warp again' sound of 1980s anti-Thatcherism, except this time there are a different bunch of corrupt neoliberals in government.

So does its methodology, which smacks of dozens of other labour movement campaigns launched over the last twenty years and more. Launch in a Commons committee room, rally at Westminster central hall. Then no life whatsoever beyond a quarterly committee meeting.

OK, OK. Maybe I'm just jaded. I've been at this game far too long. I freely admit I haven't got any better ideas. But judging by the reports that are coming in from across the Channel, we badly need to ship over some genuine French combativity over on Eurostar.

Until a social movement in this country throws up a layer of fresh activists with a more direct action take on politics, the British left will remain more or less where it is now. And that is a pretty uninspiring middle-aged place to be.

Sorry. Didn't mean to be so negative when I started writing this.

Blindingly obvious

Here’s an official Labour Party press release, issued last Tuesday:

'John Prescott MP, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, today called on David Cameron to publish details of all Conservative Party loans.

'John Prescott MP said: "Following Labour's decision in the interests of transparency to publish the full list of names and amounts of all the loans received, we call on David Cameron to match his words on openness with actions by publishing details of all the Tories' loans."

'The Conservative Party has referred queries about loans it has received to its annual accounts for 2004. However the Tories have not revealed the total amount of all the loans received by the party since the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act came into force, including the figures for 2005 - neither has it so far revealed the names of those who gave loans.'

What? John Prescott? Proprietor of the John Prescott Campaign Research Trust in the 1990s, which has never revealed the wealthy individuals that filled its coffers with secret donations? Surely not. That would be tantamount to double standards, wouldn’t it?

My book, Labour Party plc, recaps most of what little that is known about ithe JPCRT:

‘MP Alan Meale, trustee of the John Prescott Campaign Research Trust, argues that most of the money that came in was generated by Prescott's outside earnings, such as fees for speeches and articles.

‘But at least £10,000 was given by Haris Sophoclides, a British-based Greek-Cypriot property developer. Prescott has holidayed on several occasions at Sophoclides villa in Cyprus, after getting a taste for the country during his days as a steward on cruise ships in the eastern Mediterranean.

‘Sophoclides owns J&P Ltd, one of the Middle East's largest property and construction firms, building hotels, airports, hospitals and military bases worldwide.

'He also plays an influential role in the Greek diaspora as president of the Greek Cypriot Brotherhood, an organisation which is in its own right a corporate donor to the Labour Party, and is vice-president of the World Council of Hellenes Abroad, described as a non-governmental organisation, albeit one "created by a 1995 presidential decree".

‘His son Tony Sophoclides spent four years as a Prescott aide before becoming a lobbyist. While working for the Deputy Prime Minister in 1997, Tony led a delegation of Labour MPs - including Meale, Rudy Vis, Stephen Twigg and Joan Ryan - to the island, where they met top Cypriot politicians.

'Sophoclides senior has been officially accredited as a parliamentary researcher too, with privileged access to the Commons courtesy of a pass provided by Meale.’

The ever-indispensible Guido also draws attention to a letter from Margaret Beckett to Tory leader David Cameron on Friday, requesting that he reveal the source of loans to the Tories under Michael Howard.

Ms B has the chutzpah to demand:

‘I am sure you will recognise that failure to do so would seriously compromise your party's credibility and remove all legitimacy from any call you made to argue the case for openness and reform to the system ... We understand that some of these loans may have been given on the basis of confidentiality. But it is clear that the public interest in outlining the full extent of loans received, as we have done, is sufficiently strong to justify any such undertakings you have given being overridden.’

Margaret Beckett was in the 1990s the beneficiary of the Margaret Beckett Research and Administration Trust. Needless to say, almost a decade on the electorate still doesn’t have a scoobie who funded this set up.

While we’re at it, I could mention the Labour Front Bench Research Fund, an umbrella fund that financed John Smith’s shadow cabinet.

OK, Labour. You’re right. The Tories should immediately ‘fess up in full. But then so should you. Who paid? How much? And when?

(Hat tip: Tim Worstall)

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Newsflash: ISM dissolves

The International Socialist Movement - politically the hegemonic grouping in the Scottish Socialist Party - has dissolved after five years of existence. The move wasn't entirely unexpected.

A statement issued to explain why is unusually self-critical for a tendency rooted in the broad Trotskyist tradition. In effect, the ISM puts its hands up and explicitly admits to having lost its way.

'Electing six MSPs in 2003, all accepting the average wage of a skilled worker and on a socialist programme was a brilliantachievement. Yet this correct orientation had a price, namely the neglect of thestructures and identity of the ISM as a discrete platform withinthe Scottish Socialist Party ... The diminution of the ISM's coherence though meant that no clear political direction was given on a number of issues.'

It also freely concedes 'the absence of a successful campaign to unite the parliamentary work and grassroots campaigning like the abolition of warrant sales achieved between 1999 and 2001.'

Factors behind the dissolution are cited as a low level of class struggle, the launch of the Independence Convention and the anti-war and Make Poverty History movements.

'This contradictory combination of processes is a clear reason for some of the disorientation in the ranks of the SSP – the absence of a focussed campaign where socialists have a clear leading position coupled with the growth of amorphous "anti" movements: anti-war,anti-poverty.

'This contrasts with the earlier period of the SSP in the run-up to the electoral success of 2003 where a positive proactive vision of socialism was combined with full involvement in a multitude of campaigns. But the ISM's paralysis and absence from the SSP has also exacerbated the "log-jam" within the structures.

'One thing that has not been created is a grassroots leadership across the entire country despite this being one of the stated aims ofthe ISM in its formative documents of 2001. All of these factors have meant that Marxist forces in Scotland are less organised than they have been for a decade.'

Then follows some criticisms of the two other major Marxist groupings in the SSP, which strike me as pretty much on the money:

'Other left platforms notably the CWI and SWP who are part of external internationals with their own uniform "line" and support mechanisms - have to some extent been inured from the fluctuations within the party and even to some extent broader society.

'Significantly, in response to this current period of society the SW platform have actually moved quite considerably to the right sincejoining the party in 2001 – in line with the development of the SWP in England. Whereas the CWI have become very static with their programme which means they have not really engaged with the problems facing Marxists today.'

The conclusion from all this is that it is now 'game over' for the ISM as a distinct current:

'We are of the view that the ISM has fulfilled its historical role within the Scottish Socialist Party and now is no longer of any utility with its current structure, in truth this conclusion is probably about a year overdue.

'The role of Marxists within the SSP will best beserved by exploring new options. These will need to take stock of developments within the party over the last two years.'

The new game plan is to work with 'progressive' members of the SSP, particularly those informed by feminism and environmentalism. That, the ISM believes, necessitates new forms of organisation.

'The ISM needs to wind up and dissolve as an organisation to allow people to take these processes forward with other comrades.This critical egalitarian method which has been the lifeblood of the party will help to regenerate and reinvigorate the SSP in the next few years.'

I have always regarded the ISM as one of the most forward-thinking far left tendencies anywhere in the world, so I'm disappointed it has decided to wind itself up like this. Obviously, living in London, I'm not close enough to know whether or not there is any backstory.

But the move reopens the debate over the appropriate form of socialist organisation for the twenty-first century. Personally, I'm as liquidationist as the next libertarian Marxist. I no longer favour of the Leninist democratic centralist model. However, I do think that socialists should maintain a core cadre organisation at all times and fear the ISM might have taken an unnecessary step backwards.

Interestingly, I can't find this statement - which, before you ask, I got in an email from an SSP comrade without attribution - anywhere online yet. It doesn't seem to be on the ISM website, for instance. If I get any more info, I'll update later.

UPDATE: The CWI platform is quick off the mark in offering its analysis of where things all went wrong here.

Arms and the man

Arms dealer Wafic Said was a major financial supporter of the Tory Party in the 1990s. According to today's Sunday Times, the little inconvenience of a ban on foreign donations hasn't put a stop to that.

'The Tories under David Cameron have accepted £100,000 from the wife of a foreign arms dealer barred from making political donations in Britain.

'Wafic Said, a Syrian-born Saudi, and his British wife Rosemary are accused of exploiting a loophole in the rules to fund the Tories, who are under increasing pressure to reveal their financial backers.

'According to a senior Conservative source, Said used to give donations to the Tories until he became a tax exile and foreign gifts were banned. His wife now bids at fundraising auctions, which friends say is his way of supporting the party.

'Last month the Saids bid £100,000 for an eight-person dinner that will be provided by Albert Roux, the chef, at Cameron’s first fundraising ball. Nicholas Soames, the former shadow defence minister, and Boris Johnson, current higher education spokesman, were offered as wine waiters.'

Posh boys Soames and Johnson pouring the booze? It'll be the first evening's honest work of their Old Etonian lives.

'Over the past two years the Saids are understood to have given at least £550,000 to the Tories at auctions but none of it has been declared publicly.'

All of this is playing badly with loyal rank and file over at the must-read blog Tory Diary. One commenter writes:

'So I presume the big businesses David Cameron wants to stand up to don't include the international arms trade.'

Well said, that chap.

To cringe before the rich man's frown

The Conservatives have confirmed that hedge fund boss Michael Hintze lent the party £2m - and gave it £250,000 - ahead of the last general election.

He can afford it, of course. It seems he pays himself £60m a year through the Cayman Islands registered company CQS.

The main reason companies that operate in London register themselves in the Caribbean is to avoid having to pay the taxes that fund British schools and hospitals. Hintze effectively rips society off by tens of millions of pounds a year.

The Observer also reports that the Tories got £15,000 from Finnish property billionaire Poju Zabludowicz. This man cannot legally make direct political donations because he is not a British citizen. Instead, he simply circumvented the the law by channelling the gift through his UK company, Tamares Real Estate Investments.

Tory leader David Cameron also described claims that Swedish businessman Johan Eliasch made the party an emergency loan of £1m, which has now been rolled over, as 'speculation'. But given that the chief executive of sportswear marketer Head is the Conservatives' deputy treasurer, we'll take that as a yes, Dave.

The Sunday Times annual Rich List has Eliasch down at number 127, with an estimated worth of £345m. Much of that wealth comes from the surplus labour of workers in sweatshops across the global South.

Head subcontractors include PT Busana in Indonesia, where 174 employees were last year sacked for taking industrial action. According to an account from one young woman:

'Management illegally dismissed all of us who participated in the strike. Since then, we have not been able to work, we have received no severance pay, no child support, no benefits. None at all. It is very hard for us right now to support ourselves, let alone our families.'

No chance of a donation to their hardship fund I suppose, Mr Eliasch? Or even a loan?

Meanwhile, both the Sunday Times and the Sunday Telegraph reveal that deputy prime minister John Prescott made key planning decisions in favour of Minerva, a company chaired at various times by Labour lenders Sir David Garrard and Andrew Rosenfield.

Prezza insists that he has never met either of them, and certainly did not know that they were financial supporters of the Labour Party.

John, mate if you're reading this ... I sort of half recall a song that I used to see you join in with at Labour Party conferences. It had this line in it. Something to do with cringing before the rich man's frown or something. If you can remember the lyrics, drop me an email.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Chavez and the international far left

Venezuela is one of the most divisive issues on the international far left today. Groups such as Socialist Appeal in Britain and Democratic Socialist Perspective in Australia have become enthusiastic de facto Chavistas. Others - such as the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty in the UK - advance an almost anarchist critique of the Bolivarian regime.

The recent heavy duty polemic between Paul Hampton of the AWL and the CPGB’s Nick Rogers will not have escaped readers of the British left press.

I avidly follow Latin American politics from Spanish-language sources. But Hampton and Rogers slug it out at such a high level that much of their argument went over my head. Perhaps that’s a sign that neither of them were landing their punches.

From what I know about the country, I’d count myself as a critical backer of Chavez. No, make that 'highly critical backer'. OK, he’s from a military background and - depending on the direction of events - might yet emerge as just another bog standard Latin American caudillo.

On the other hand, he’s one of the few politicians on a global scale engaged in building mass popular opposition to neoliberalism. It would be crazy to argue that workers in Venezuela should prefer the notoriously corrupt local social democracy against el presidente.

In the latest exchange on this question, the AWL have published a damning review of a new SWP pamphlet on Venezuela, under the almost certainly bogus by-line of ‘Pablo Velasco’. I do wish Trot groups would drop the laughable practice of pretending to have supporters they simply haven‘t got. It doesn’t fool anybody, comrades.

If you need a taster of what 'Velasco' has to say, here’s the money paragraph:

‘Chavez does not head a workers’ government, nor does he promote working class politics, whatever the rhetoric about “socialism”. For the working class to take power in Venezuela today, it will have to smash the existing state, a state currently headed by Chavez. It will have to expropriate capital currently protected by Chavez’s government. That makes Chavez a class opponent of Venezuelan workers, an obstacle in the way of their own self-liberation.’

First three sentences? Sure. The fourth? Well, I doubt if the class struggle in Venezuela - or South America as a whole, come to that - would be at its current pitch were it not for the activities of Chavez. The balance sheet isn’t all negative.

PS: English language translations of selected articles from Fraccion Trotskista's journal Estrategia Internacional are available here. A touch ultra-leftist for my liking, but invariably informative. If your Spanish is up to it, bookmark this page.

PPS: My old mate Roland offers a similarly indecisive vacillating Pabloite perspective on Venezuela over at his blog Storyboard.

Imperialism and globalisation

Heavyweight Marxist theory alert. Consider what follows as the blogging equivalent of a full-length weekend newspaper supplement think piece. I'm happy to take on any hardcore Trot headbangers out there who fancy a Lenin quotefest on this one. Normal people may well have better things to do with their spare time.

As is always the case with theory, there are implications for praxis. I believe the SWP's mistaken understanding of imperialism in the current period has led the largest organisation on the British left to dump the self-emancipation of the working class as the organising principle of its politics.

That's how come Socialist Worker can end up carrying without criticism articles upholding al Qa'eda politics as 'the new anti-imperialist ideology'. And anti-imperialism just has to be a good thing, doesn't it, comrades?

How should the revolutionary left make sense of world politics today? Does the end of formal empires equal the end of imperialism? Or is US occupation of Iraq the rebirth of direct colonialism?

And does globalisation today represent something qualitatively different to the ‘globalisation’ of 100 years ago? Questions such as these are currently at the forefront of current debates in radical international political economy.

Many of our top theoreticians take a ‘back to the Leninist future, stance, making the case that we are now entering a period comparable to 1880-1914. And we all know how that particular movie ends.

This camp includes writers such as Alex Callinicos in The New Mandarins of American Power, Alan Freeman and Boris Kagarlitsky in The Politics of Empire: Globalisation in Crisis and writers around the US Marxist journal Monthly Review, in a volume called Imperialism Now.

By contrast, other writers believe that much has changed over the intervening decades, and attempt to theorise it in a more-or-less Marxist fashion. Particularly interesting here are Michael Hart and Toni Negri in Empire, Leo Panitch and Colin Leys in The New Imperial Challenge: Socialist Register 2004 and David Harvey in The New Imperialism.

And what if all aof them re wrong? If the neoliberal permanent revolution brings world peace and prosperity to all - as proponents insist it can - then capitalism is only beginning. The socialist project is definitively over.

Mutatis mutandis, the Marxist tradition retains much explicatory value. But there is still a job of work to be done in understanding the latest trends. Globalisation is a complex phenomenon, not entirely without progressive aspects. One might with justification describe it as a new stage of capitalism. And it is at least the second new stage since Lenin famously declared imperialism to be the culmination of capitalist development.

After the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the take-off in globalisation in the years that followed, writers in the British SWP tradition - led by Callinicos and Chris Harman - initially predicted the rise of what they called ‘the New Imperialism’.

They maintained that ‘the West’ had been frozen into a more or less cohesive unit by the Cold War. With the demise of the USSR, it would unfreeze, initiating a dangerous period of intensified inter-imperialist rivalry.

Many on both right and left would now either regard this picture as over-simplified, or just not recognise it at all. For liberals and neoliberals, all is essentially well. The odd rogue state here and there might be kept in line, by force if need be. But developed countries are increasingly interdependent, and have too much to lose by going to war. Interestingly, Callinicos has partially backpedalled, particularly following his recent polemic with Panitch and Gindin.

For Hardt and Negri - popular thinkers in the anticapitalist movement - the Leninist concept of imperialism is no longer applicable. Competition between nation-states has given way to a single power, namely ‘Empire‘. Empire, they argue, is ‘post-colonial, post-imperialist‘. As they see it, ‘in this smooth space of Empire, there is no place of power - it is everywhere and nowhere’.

Harvey draws explicit parallels between Marx’s famous account of the primitive accumulation of capital in England and the mass privatisations across the third world, which he dubs ‘accumulation by dispossession’. This represents ‘the heart of contemporary imperialist practice’ since the economic crisis of the 1970s, and is the primary contradiction that must be confronted by the antiglobalisation movement.

For Harvey, the working classes in the advanced capitalist countries made the mistake of supporting imperialism to prop up their own privileges. Thus classical class struggle will not represent the main form of fightback within civil society. That role is now played by resistance to the destruction of habitats, bio-piracy and expulsions from the land.

Panitch and Gindin have attempted consistently to theorise globalisation in Marxist categories, to my mind producing what is at the very least a credible framework for further debate. In their polemic with Callinicos, they summarise their position thus:

‘Our argument is that there was a fundamental transformation in capitalist imperialism in the last half century along the following lines: (a) the closest linkages among capitalist states were now between the American state and the other states of the West, rather than with the South as in the old imperial era; (b) the internationalisation of capital was fundamentally different in the second half of the twentieth century than in the nineteenth and early twentieth, based as it now was on foreign direct investment and the multinational corporation; (c) the interpenetration of production and finance in the contemporary era dissolved the coherence of the old national bourgeoisies that was the basis of the earlier inter-imperial rivalries; (d) what Marx in the Grundrisse called “many capitals” came to depend on many states; and (e) the internationalisation of the state reflected this in terms of the responsibilities states took on for managing the contradictions and crises of global capitalism, while still trying to make their territorial spaces attractive as sites of accumulation for foreign as well as domestic bourgeoisies.’

As Callinicos puts it, Panitch and Gindin believe that the historic achievement of the US state after world war two was the construction of a ‘transnational economic and geopolitical space that unified the entire advanced capitalist world under US leadership’.

Through the ‘partial dissociation of economic and geopolitical competition’ - a notion that Callinicos as an over-reverent Bukharinite clearly has difficulty with - economic rivalry no longer has the same inherent potential for military confrontation.

In addition, Panitch and Gindin argue the economic crisis of the 1970s was resolved through a neoliberal revolution that broke the power of organised labour, reconstituting capitalist dynamism under US hegemony. The result was, in a word, globalisation.

The parallels with Kautskyite notions of ultraimperialism - the idea that rival imperialist powers could form some sort of cartel to exploit the rest of the world, which has been considered heresy ever since it emerged - are obvious. Yet the model appears to me to have greater explanatory power than SWP-style flat earth Leninism.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Top of the economist pops

The name is a bit of a joke, and many will find it just a little insulting, too. But the post-autistic economics movement - led by Bernard Guerrien and backed by a whole bunch of Cambridge PhDs - is a serious enough idea. You'd expect nothing less, given that heavyweight intellectual backers include Galbraith and Heilbronner.

Now some 1,249 subscribers to Post-Autistic Economics Review have made their choice of the greatest economists of all time. The result is a Nick Hornby-style list that will offer the cognoscenti hours of fun in debating who is and who isn't worth their place.

In line with the movement's left-leaning propensities, the choices seem to reflect a certain bias towards progressives. So victory for JMK is hardly surprising, and I am thoroughly glad that he whipped Hayek and Friedman's sorry asses. But how come the latter two names make the cut, while Smith and Ricardo don't?

I'm also pleased to see my Marxist main man, Ernest Mandel, at number 29, just pipping von Mises at number 30. Surely his magisterial theoretical contributions place him ahead of, say, the interesting but not outstanding soft Stalinist Sweezy? Why Prebisch, but not Wallerstein or Gunder Frank? As for Coase at number 18 ... puh-lease.

1. John Maynard Keynes 3,253
2. Joseph Alois Schumpeter 1,080
3. John Kenneth Galbraith 904
4. Amartya Sen 708
5. Joan Robinson 607
6. Thorstein Veblen 591
7. Michal Kalecki 481
8. Friedrich Hayek 469
9. Karl Polanyi 456
10. Piero Sraffa 383
11. Joseph Stiglitz 333
12. Kenneth Arrow 320
13. Milton Friedman 319
13. Paul Samuelson 319
15. Paul Sweezy 268
16. Herman Daly 267
17. Herbert Simon 250
18. Ronald Coase 246
19. Gunnar Myrdal 216
20. Alfred Marshall 211
21. Albert Hirschmann 208
22. Nicholoas Georgescu-Roegen 205
23. Kenneth Boulding 174
24. Wassily Leontief 153
25. Nicholas Kaldor 141
26. Douglas North 138
27. Raul Prebisch 102
28. John Hicks 97
29. Ernest Mandel 87
30. Ludwig von Mises 78

Incurable anoraks should click the link to the publication, as they will be delighted to find the poll stretches to over 100 names.

Meanwhile, a group blog of economists debates the political correctness of the taking the name of a such a debilitating personality disorder in vain 'post-autistic' here.

Teenage depression

First-hand experience of long-term youth unemployment in the early Thatcher years is one of the main reasons I became a socialist.

So today's revelation that the number of post-GCSE teenagers without a job has trebled since Labour came to office leave me feeling angry, on both a political and a personal level.

According to a report from the Office for National Statistics, the number of economically inactive 16 and 17 year olds rose from 11.4% at the end of 1998 to an all time high 28.1% at the end of last year.

Yet the government's main policy directed towards this age groups seems to consist of a ban on hooded sweatshirts.

Now that the Labour Party no longer represents any alternative to Conservatism, it might be frightening to see which direction any radicalisation among today's equivalents of Dave Osler circa 1980 will take.

The far right - in both its British National Party and political Islamist guises - would love to start recruiting more disaffected youth than they do already. I only hope the kids go in for a little bit of street rioting and car burning a la francaise instead.

Best practice in child-rearing

As Gilbert and Sullivan – and not either Gilbert O’Sullivan or Gilbert and George – observed as long ago as 1882:

Then let’s rejoice with loud fal la – fal la la!
That nature always does contrive – fal la la!
That every boy and every girl
That’s born into the world alive
Is either a little liberal
Or else a little conservative!
Fal la la!

Actually, the contention is not quite true. My two were born little revolutionary socialists. Both know full well that if they have not signed up with a young Trotskyist faction by their early teens at the latest, daddy will be forced to reconsider the traditional strictures against senseless and brutal corporal punishment that usually go with 'right on parent territory'. Never did me any harm, did it?

Now the latest edition of The Journal of Research into Personality - not regularly on my reading list, it's true - investigates matters further. A two decade study of 90 children in Berkeley, California has concluded that the nice, well-adjusted kids grow up to be lefties, while the insecure ones turn into rightwingers.

‘The whiny kids tended to grow up conservative, and turned into rigid young adults who hewed closely to traditional gender roles and were uncomfortable with ambiguity,’ concludes professor Jack Block.

‘The confident kids turned out liberal and were still hanging loose, turning into bright, non-conforming adults with wide interests. The girls were still outgoing, but the young men tended to turn introspective.’

As the Yiddish aphorism has it, and this is news?

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Unison suspends support for New Labour

Local government superunion Unison has finally twigged that there is a contradiction between pushing for the re-election of Labour councils at the same time as leading strike action against them. Here's a statement from Keith Sonnet of Unison Labour Link, the body which handles Unison's relations with New Labour:

'In the circumstances of the union taking national industrial action against the deputy prime minister, John Prescott, named as regulator and decision maker regarding the LGPS [Local Government Pension Scheme - DO], it is felt that it is not appropriate or politically sensible to be organising, on one hand, for industrial action by the union while sending out letters and leaflets to many of the same members asking them to vote Labour.

'The decision has been taken to suspend our election campaigning work for Labour in the May elections while the industrial action is going on.

'Labour Link will not be giving any further donations or support to the campaign until we reach a solution to the present LGPS issue.'

Almost insurrectionary stuff, this. This isn't stroppy old RMT or the FBU we are talking about here. Politically speaking, the Unison leadership are mainstream Labour loyalists, or at best soft left if you're stretching the point. They must be mighty riled to take a step like this. We can only assume the rank and file disaffection is palpable.

UPDATE: A Unison activist on the UK Left Network list adds:

'We had taken a decison regionally (London) not to support them with canvassing etc, apart from in Barking and Dagenham so as to stop the BNP.

'Not sure what the national position is for campaigning individually as Unison and Labour Party members, but there has been a call for Unison or the Labour Representation Commitee to ask candidates to sign their support for our strike or even better to join us on the picket lines, and then we would support them.'

UPDATE II: The Morning Star are keen on this one. I gather a full-page spread on the story is planned for the Saturday issue.

Capita and the Blair network

Guido - easily the best-informed UK political blogger - runs a piece on links between Capita and New Labour, as mediated through the New Local Government Network.

At the centre of the nexus are NLGN alumni Ruth Turner, personally appointed by Tony Blair as Special Adviser for Government Relations, and Ben Lucas of PR firm LLM Communications.

His Fawkesness also helpfully draws attention to the following PQ, tabled by Peterborough Tory Stewart Jackson:

To ask the Prime Minister, if he will list meetings his Adviser on Government Relations has had with (a) Capita, (b) organisations acting on behalf of Capita and (c) Mr Rod Aldridge in the last 18 months; what the purpose of the meeting was in each case; and if he will make a statement.

While we await the answer on this one - and it will doubtless be intriguing - here’s the skinny on NLGN, in yet another extract from Labour Party plc:

Local government is also now an important market for the private sector, with contracts on offer worth something like £5bn a year. Council-oriented contractors enjoy a ready-made circle of influential New Labour friends, in the shape of the New Local Government Network.

Endorsed by the Prime Minister himself, this group is an ideologically Blairite caucus of around 1,750 Labour councillors and others, seeking to develop a ‘modernisation agenda’ for local government.

In plain English, this largely entails advocating increased private sector input into public services. NLGN often works closely with the Confederation of British Industry in organising road shows, away days and other events.

NLGN has heavily pushed the mayor/cabinet/manager model of local governance as a replacement for traditional local democracy. Such arrangements facilitate direct dealings with business, without the tiresome need to win the vote of the majority of councillors.

In its own words, NLGN is ‘a relatively small independent research and campaign organisation’ with six full-time staff and a turnover of £650,000 a year, but one that ‘continues to have an influence and an impact that is arguably well above and beyond this limited resource’.

The network is chaired by Professor Gerry Stoker of the University of Manchester, also a member of the Institute for Public Policy Research Commission on Public–Private Partnerships. Founder Lord Filkin is a former head of the Association of District Councils, and the husband of sacked parliamentary watchdog Elizabeth Filkin.

Other key figures include Professor Paul Corrigan, partner of former Local Government minister Hilary Armstrong. Corrigan lobbies on behalf of firms pitching for NHS contracts, while at the same time advising Secretary of State for Health Alan Milburn on PPPs.

He is joined on the executive by figures such as Ben Lucas of cash for access lobby firm Lawson Lucas Mendelsohn, CBI official Amanda McIntyre and KPMG corporate affairs director Neil Sherlock.

Just to illustrate that the traffic travels both ways, former NLGN executive director John Williams has recently been appointed market development director of PFI player Serco.

The NLGN’s 37 sponsors – openly thanked for providing ‘intellectual and financial support’ – include Andersen Consulting, Amec, Amey, BT, Capita, Carillion, the CBI, the Corporation of London, Deutsche Bank, Jarvis, KPMG, ICL, Nord Anglia, Onyx, Serco, Serviceteam, Sodexho, W.S. Atkins and Xerox. Many of these companies stand to benefit from the policies they pay the NLGN to push forward.

(Hat tip: Blood and Treasure)

Alphabetical order

Rod Aldridge is out. The chairman of Capita is stepping down, so becoming the first head to roll in the cash for peerages scandal.

The man who lent New Labour £1m told the Today Programme:

‘There have been suggestions that this loan has resulted in the group being awarded government contracts. This is entirely spurious.

‘Whilst anyone who is associated with the public procurement process would understand that this view has no credibility, I do not want this misconception to continue, as I remain passionate about the group's wellbeing.’

I’m almost prepared to concede the man some grudging respect for having the balls to take the rap, although other blogs have suggested this is a case of getting out while the going's good.

Meanwhile, an earlier post queried the appointment of former Severn Trent chairman David Arculus as president of the Confederation of British Industry, after Ofwat ruled that Britain’s biggest quoted water company deliberately supplied false information to the regulator, enabling it to overcharge customers by £42m.

Arculus commented:

‘I am confident that high standards of governance were in place at Severn Trent plc and that the board, under my leadership, acted properly when the problems emerged.

‘However, as chairman of the parent company at the time the allegations were made against the subsidiary, Severn Trent Water Ltd, I believe I must bear my share of the responsibility for events in the organisation.’

Good to see that, in the two-and-a-half short weeks of its existence, this blog has toppled two top capitalists whose surnames begin with A. We’re taking a few days off before moving on to the Bs next week.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Ka-shing in on both parties

The business pages today relate how Gordon Brown has recruited a group of 12 top business superstars to advise him on how the UK can increase its international competitiveness.

For a start, there's Microsoft's Bill Gates. The software monopolist currently faces a Eur2m a day fine from the European Union, which alleges non-compliance with a 2004 anti-trust ruling. But Gates will advise on ... competitiveness. Like, duh.

Then there's Lee Scott, chief executive of Wal-Mart. The world's biggest retailer is notorious for its anti-union stance. There's a post on the way its UK affiliate Asda recently copped a sizeable fine for its unlawful attempts to crush the GMB earlier on this blog.

But most shocking of the lot is the inclusion of Li Ka-shing. That's right, the same Beijing-linked Hong Kong ports baron who donated at least £1m to the Conservative Party under Thatcher and Major. Here he is, standing on the right of the picture and pressing the flesh with post-Tiananmen Square dictator Jiang Zemin.

The gig with Brown bears witness to the rapidly burgeoning love affair between British multinational capital and Chinese Stalinism. Bear this alliance in mind next time you hear Blair claim he only backed the invasion of Iraq because he believes in democracy everywhere. One party states can be just fine and dandy sometimes, it seems.

And the moral of the story? In British politics these days, the same million pound bung seems to buy the permanent favour not just of one major party, but both of them.

Moral Maze

Radio Four listeners will be able to hear me debate 'cash for peerages' on The Moral Maze tonight, which goes out live at eight o'clock. Panellists include Mad Mel and Polly Portillo. Could be interesting ...

UPDATE: That is one tough show to be on. It's a lot harder being grilled live than being fed soft questions with the option of a second take if you fluff your lines.

But anyway, I now know that I am miles better looking than Michael Portillo in the flesh. And better dressed.

Tipping point

Today is budget day, so I guess the ‘loans for lordships’ scandal is just about dead as a story for the time being, at least as far as broadcast news and the nationals are concerned.

So the issue now becomes, will the revelations of the past week have any long-term political impact?

At first glance, the answer would appear to be no. The alienation of much of the electorate from the electoral process has reached such an extent that these disgraceful goings on will further reinforce the popular idea that ‘politicians are all the same’.

Speaking as someone with two political science degrees and 25 years of activism under my belt, I reckon Joe Voter has just about got that one right, at least as far as the establishment parties are concerned. So the most probable beneficiary will be the Apathy Party.

Yet I’m still mulling the implications of the Lib-Dem win in the Dunfermline by-election. New Labour spindoctors write off the loss to local factors. An Old Labour MP I was chatting to this morning pointed to complacency, resulting from the party having held the seat for decades.

On the other hand, my spies north of the border speak of a collapse in the bedrock working class Labour vote in pit villages surrounding the town, who have secured very little from nine years of government from the party that once purported to represent their interests.

Now it is proven beyond reasonable doubt that Labour are a bunch of corrupt nogoodniks, cheerfully flogging seats in the House of Lords to fill party coffers, it’s just possible a tipping point has been reached. Just maybe the Blair Backlash starts here.

The forthcoming local government contest will be one of the first pointers. Although I regard Respect as a disasterous project for the left in general, it is obviously in with a shout of winning some seats in Muslim areas.

I also reckon the Lib-Dems will do surprisingly well, and we could even see the green shoots of recovery – hey, remember Norman Lamont? – for urban municipal Toryism.

But the real worry is how many council seats Labour sleaze will win for the British National Party. Let’s keep our fingers crossed and for once hope that mass abstention fortunately triumphs.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Why it gets called Crapita

Capita - one of Britain's largest public sector outsourcing businesses - is all over the newspapers today, after revelations that executive chairman Rod Aldridge was one of New Labour's hush-hush £1m lenders.

He has yet to cop a peerage, a knighthood, or even a gong. But perhaps he is happy enough with the £1bn or more his company has raked in from central and local government contracts.

Here is a firm that Private Eye - in its inimitable smutty schoolboy way that still makes me smirk - routinely refers to as Crapita. Small wonder, when you look at some of the cock-ups that this lot has been responsible for.

I listed many of them in my 2002 book, Labour Party plc. Capita was sacked by Lambeth after bringing the south London borough's housing benefit service to near collapse, with tens of thousands of unprocessed claims leaving many families in danger of eviction.

One year into a similar 15-year contract in Blackburn - hailed by local MP Jack Straw - claims were taking an average of 74 days to process. Benefit fraud inspectorate checks on Capita operations in Bromley and Westminister found significant shortcomings.

Failures in Capita's IT security contributed to the collapse of Individual Learning Accounts, the government's nationwide £260m flagship training support scheme. Computer disks containing account holder names and PINs circulated on the black market, allowing unscrupulous education providers to cash in. Not for nothing did some wags call it the Great Training Robbery.

It also took over Connexions, the funky new name for the careers advisory service, and promptly used the opportunity to start promoting McDonalds burgers and PlayStation magazine.

Today's Financial Times brings the story up to date:

'Capita also runs the literacy and numeracy strategy for the Department for Education and Skills, runs the Criminal Records Bureau, collects the television licence fee and has operations in almost every part of the public sector.

'Capita says it has so far secured 34% of the market in administration and processing for government departments and local councils. In 2004, 52% of Capita’s revenue came from public sector outsourcing, and its business has grown from a turnover of £112m in 1996, chiefly from local government contracts, to almost £1.3bn in 2004 because of an explosion of demand for its services.

'Many of the contracts have attracted criticism, among them the collapsed individual learning accounts scheme, which was hit by fraud. After ILAs were wound up, the DfES angered teaching unions by going back to Capita for administration services when it introduced education maintenance allowances.

'Last week, the company was fined £300,000 by the City watchdog after an alleged £1.8m fraud attempt by some of its own employees. The fine for a subsidiary of the group was the first time that the Financial Services Authority had penalised a company for a failure of anti-fraud controls.

'But Capita’s public sector contracts continue to grow. Over the next three years, Capita will be running BBC human resources, and Birmingham city council has asked it to provide all its IT with a £424m contract. It has retained a contract with the Department of Trade and Industry to administer its miners’ personal liabilities claims scheme.'


Monday, March 20, 2006

The names are out

In 2002, I wrote a book called 'Labour Party plc: New Labour as a party of business' . In the conclusion, I argued:

'Much as it craves the love of a good businesswoman, New Labour's problem is this. The Tories have networks within the establishment that date back centuries. Labour still has no real organic links with the ruling class.

'After starting almost from scratch, even after a decade its business base is still relatively limited. Accordingly, most of the controversial donations have come not from the FTSE 100 crowd, but from the sort of business wide boys still anxious enough about their social position to pay to shore it up.'

Wanna know something? I'm not actually sure that statement still stands. Labour has now released the names of 12 businessmen who, entirely because of their commitment to Labour values of course, lent the party money in secret. They are:

Rod Aldridge - £1m
Richard Caring - £2m
Gordon Crawford - £500,000
Professor Sir Christopher Evans - £1m
Sir David Garrard - £2.3m
Nigel Morris - £1m
Sir Gulan Noon - £250,000
Dr Chai Patel - £1.5m
Andrew Rosenfeld - £1m
Lord David Sainsbury - £2m
Barry Townsley - £1m
Derek Tullett - £400,000
Total: £13,950,000

And here what The Times has to say about some of them:

'A businessman whose company won more than £1bn of government contracts was revealed last night as one of Labour’s “rich list” who secretly backed the party with loans before the 2005 general election.

'Rod Aldridge, the founding chairman of the technology company Capita, whose contracts include administering the Home Office Criminal Records Bureau and handling the miners’ compensation claims, handed over £1m in response to an urgent plea for funding to help Tony Blair to win a third term.

Can't deliver on the honours right now, guys. Never mind. Plenty of PFI contracts to go round.

'The list of a dozen supporters, rushed out before today’s critical meeting of the Labour National Executive Committee, also includes a venture capitalist whose company is under investigation by the Serious Fraud Office.

'Sir Christopher Evans, head of Merlin Biosciences, also lent £1m. He denies the misappropriation of £2.5m from investors in a fund that he manages.

'Other names on Labour’s list include Richard Caring, the owner of some of London’s most fashionable restaurants, including The Ivy and Le Caprice, who lent £2m, and Andrew Rosenfeld, who was interviewed four years ago for the post of Conservative Party treasurer, contributed £1m.

Probably hasn't changed his political ideas much. Just his political party.

'As previously reported in The Times Lord Sainsbury of Turville, the Science Minister, lent £2m on top of his £6.5m donations. Three of the lenders, including Mr Aldridge, have given millions to Mr Blair’s flagship city academy projects.'

Meanwhile, Paul Anderson surely speaks for many Labour supporters when he observes:

'I'm shocked, and disinclined to get my finger out for the local elections. I can't see any alternative to Labour, as long as it is cleaned up ... but it needs to be cleaned up fast for me and everyone else I know who works for the party.

'This looks like a Lloyd George-style loans-for-peerages scam that stinks of old-fashioned corruption, a betrayal of all we hold dear — even though we've given up the rheoric of betrayal. Blair has some work to do to regain any kind of credibility. And I think it's beyond him.'

If I were still a Labour Party member, I'd be feeling like that too.

Unions and Labour funds

Peter Hain clearly wants his tuppence ha'penny worth - or as this is New Labour we are talking about, more like his £2.5m-worth - on the 'loans for lordships' debate. This is his observation about conservative calls for a cap on political gifts in today's Guardian:

'The Tories' cynical and sudden conversion on donations is an opportunistic trap to damage the historic link between the trade union movement and the Labour party.'

If anybody is being cynical and opportunistic here, it's not just the Tories but Hain himself as well. Thanks to New Labour, the relationship between Labour and the unions has been under sustained assault for more than a decade.

When cabinet ministers suddenly come over all palsy-walsy when discussing 'this great movement of ours' - TGMOO to the cognoscenti - then it's time to check the cutlery.

Tory assistance to damage the union link still further is surely surplus to requirements. It's not David Cameron that is calling for the union block vote at Labour Party conference to be cut from 50% to 15%, is it? It's Alan Johnson, a former trade union general secretary, displaying all the typical zeal of a Blairite neophyte.

The Times reported that story under the headline 'Labour plots to cut power of its union paymasters'. But somehow, the idea that Labour is now in the hands of 'big business paymasters' never gets a look-in.

With 1.5m public sector workers gearing up for strike action in defence of their pensions later this month, Labour affiliated unions really need to think again about funding an increasingly corrupt neoliberal party that begrudges some of society's hardest grafters early retirement on £30 a week.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Things fall apart

'What's going right in Iraq' was the title Los Angeles Times subeditors chose for an upbeat article by Christopher Hitchens and three others in October 2004. The authors observed:

'Dire predictions of civil war between ethnic and sectarian groups did not materialize ...'

Hey, the Project for the New American Century liked the piece so much they still carry it on their website.

Fast forward. Here's Iyad Allawi, Iraq's former interim prime minister talking to the BBC today:

'We are losing each day as an average 50 to 60 people throughout the country, if not more. If this is not civil war, then God knows what civil war is.

Iraq will fall to pieces, Allawi goes on to predict:

'Sectarianism will spread throughout the region, and even Europe and the US will not be spared the violence that results .'

He could well be right. The very concept of 'Iraq' itself lacks any real historical legitimacy, of course. It is an imperialist construct that has existed for just 80 years of Mesopotamia's 8,000-year history.

Kurds want their own homeland. On some accounts, oil-rich southern shias are seeking closer ties with Iran. According to other sources, Arab animosity towards Persians overrides coreligionist feeling.

The sunnis have neither oil nor a majority. They do have guns and a willingness to use them.

How ironic that the neoconservatives justified the invasion with the argument that toppling Saddam would spark off a domino effect that would bring pro-US/pro-Israel free marketeers to power across the Middle East.

It certainly hasn't done that so far. Now it's starting to look like the dominos could collapse in the opposite direction.

Cash for peerages latest

Hmmm, this one is not playing too well for New Labour with the general public, according to some reports:

'In a YouGov poll for the Sunday Times, 56% of people said they believed the prime minister had given peerages in return for donations and loans. Just 14% thought Tony Blair had not.

'Among Labour supporters, only a third accepted the prime minister's word that he had never given peerages in exchange for cash. The poll surveyed 1,811 people.

'Another poll for the Sunday Telegraph found that seven out of 10 people thought Labour was as "sleazy" as the scandal-prone Tories under John Major. In the ICM poll of 1,003 people, just under half said they believed Labour had offered peerages in return for big loans.'

Meanwhile, BBC Online offers a backgrounder to the scandal, with quotes from my Newsnight appearance on Thursday, here.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Saudi Arabia, socialism and Islam

Today I took part in the anti-war demonstration in central London. It seems to have attracted relatively more mainstream peaceniks and rather fewer lefties and Islamists than similar marches in previous years. Nevertheless, I'll use the occasion as an opportunity to republish this article, which was written following a visit to Saudi Arabia four years ago. It originally appeared in the 9 November 2002 edition of the Alliance for Workers' Liberty publication Solidarity.

George Orwell himself probably could not have thought up a name as archetypically Orwellian as the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. But that is the name the police go by in Saudi Arabia, and their control of public space is almost total. Riyadh is what the fictional 1984 looks like in the actual 2002.

Punishment for the slightest criticism of the system is harsh. Torture, amputations and executions are routine. There are no political parties, no elections, no independent judiciary, and no independent human rights organisations. Welcome to a country described by Tony Blair as 'a good and dependable friend to the civilised world'.

It is a good and dependable friend to the US in particular, which has based around 20,000 troops there since 1991. Saudi Arabia deserves the description of imperialist client state every bit as much as Israel. And it is no secret why the west sponsors this particular client. It is home to 25% of proven world oil reserves.

But how should socialists understand Saudi politics? It is probably more useful to consider Saudi Arabia as a capitalist dictatorship that exploits religion to secure legitimation rather than a genuine theocracy.

True, the monarchy justifies its rule by King Fahd's formal title of 'custodian of the two holy mosques'. But for the royal family and its hangers-on - a milieu saturated with Johnny Walker Black and imported prostitutes - the pretence of Islamic conviction is a mere flag of convenience. If devout they be at all, their devotion is to the oil wealth that has made them the contemporary personification of Mammon.

Muslim radicals see the House of Saud in the same light as Trotskyists regarded the ruling class in the former USSR, misruling in the name of their highest ideals. They would consider it, so to speak, a 'degenerate Islamic state'. And on some accounts, the country may now be close to Islamic 'political revolution'.

Leading commentators have argued that such is the distaste for the decadent ruling elite, a single inflammatory speech from a radical cleric is all it would take to bring the regime's collapse. In the homeland of Osama bin Laden and almost all of the September 11 hi-jackers, that could come at any time, without the slightest warning. What would emerge would truly be an ideologically-driven Islamic fundamentalist state, with incalculable consequences across the Middle East.

Earlier this year I spent several weeks on a journalistic assignment in Saudi Arabia, visiting Jeddah, Riyadh and the oil-dominated Eastern Province, a virtual state within a state controlled by Saudi Aramco.

The first challenge was getting in at all. Visa applications from journalists are routinely refused, so I was forced to lie about my occupation. The next difficulty came in even arranging interviews. I wasn't looking for controversy, but rather for information on the oil and tanker shipping sectors, with a view to the sort of routine analysis that fills the pages of the western business press.

But such is the fear of even accidentally falling foul of the state that several people halted appointments after a few minutes, once it became clear that I was a reporter. Others spoke only on condition of anonymity.

Nor was the local media much of a source of information. The English language press reported little beyond the latest Israeli atrocities in Palestine and the speeches of prominent mosque leaders, while many internet destinations were blocked.

There was no question of getting out and talking to ordinary people. Although there isn't a curfew, there might as well be. No public entertainment is available whatsoever. Saudi Arabia is one of only two countries in the world that forbids cinemas. Western films circulate legally in video format, although strict censorship sees even kissing scenes scissored out.

With public consumption of alcohol strictly prohibited, there are no bars. The few coffee shops are inhabited exclusively by men, and closed by evening. The position of women remains worse than the position of blacks under apartheid.

In South Africa, blacks could at least wear what they liked, drive cars and trucks, or eat in black sections of restaurants without white accompaniment. In Saudi Arabia, the veil is strictly enforced, while women are denied driving licenses and can only eat out if accompanied by a male family member, in specially segregated 'family sections' of restaurants.

Saudi Arabia's social structure is unique. The royal family is absolutely parasitic on the country's oil wealth, which enables it sustain a bloated state bureaucracy that - until around a decade ago - was able to guarantee employment to all Saudi men .

Most productive work is undertaken by the five million or more non-nationals in a population of 23 million. A relatively small layer of mainly European or middle class Indian expatriates dominate professional and managerial jobs.

Most Britons I spoke to were earning around the same as they would in a similar job at home. But because salaries are tax free, and accommodation on one of the so-called 'compounds' for westerners part of the package, in real terms they were about twice as well off.

Many were younger people intending to work five or ten years and save what they could. Others were typically older men seeking a new start after collapsed marriages.

Expat life is made more bearable by compound parties thrown almost every night of the week, fuelled by home-brewed hooch and casual sex, and largely tolerated by the authorities. Such behaviour is probably more a reflection of their alienation than the desire for a good time.

There are in addition millions of immigrant workers - Filipinos, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis - doing the manual jobs, working the waterfront, driving the taxis and cleaning the hotel rooms. They are again there for the money, and most will freely tell you that they hate the place.

Until the immediate past, the native Saudi proletariat was almost non-existent. But with mass unemployment in recent years - perhaps reaching 20%, although the government sits on the statistics - there has been a policy known as 'saudisation'.

Private companies are faced with the requirement to fill an increasing proportion of jobs with Saudi nationals each year. In a bid to diversify away from oil, the state has also sought industrialisation, constructing purpose-built cities such as Jubail, with its huge petrochemical plants.

For the first time, there is now a layer of Saudis in blue collar work. But as far as anyone is aware, there are not even the first stirrings of trade unionism, let alone socialist organisation.

Normally one of the first things I do when visiting a country on assignment is to seek out local leftists and arrange face-to-face discussions. But Saudi Arabia is one of the few large countries in the world to lack a known socialist current of any description, even in exile.

Yet there is said to be massive discontent just below the surface. While normal methods of socialist agitation are almost impossible, one possibility of revolutionary contagion did occur to me. Most guest workers earn enough to make annual visits to the families left behind in their countries of origin. Pakistan and the Philippines have both seen growth of Trotskyist trends in recent years.

But the likelihood must be that Islamic fundamentalism will fill any vacuum long before socialists ever could. What attitude should we take to insurrection, if and when it comes?

'Left' and 'right' are meaningless adjectives applied to official politics in Saudi Arabia. Of course we have no truck with the monstrous regime in Riyadh.

But to argue that socialists therefore should back clerical uprising as somehow an 'objectively anti-imperialist' progressive alternative to the existing government fails to convince me at all. Tragically, that is a mistake which much of the British left - unable to grasp the ideas of Third Camp politics - could shortly make.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Screws for socialism

The Prison Officers' Association is one trade union the left has always regarded with a certain ambiguity. It wasn't that long ago that the POA constituted the main toehold of fascist sympathisers in the labour movement.

That was then and this now. Here's POA general secretary Brian Caton in the latest edition of The Socialist:

'We will be looking constructively at any declaration about a new workers' party. I'll read it and discuss it with those on the left in my union.

'Capitalism is wrong, it's unfair and it leads to an uncivil society. I don't want to live in an uncivil society where greed is the master and crime becomes the norm.'

It's certainly an eye-opener for those whose ideas about prison warders haven't moved on since the days of Mr McKay in the 1970s sitcom Porridge.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Organise the poor immigrant

As the recent Irish Ferries dispute demonstrated, attempts to deploy low-wage labour from eastern Europe in high-wage western Europe are set to become increasingly commonplace in the next few years.

If employers are allowed to get away it, everybody's pay packet will suffer. Bank of England governor Mervyn King has got a convoluted way of putting things. But that, in plain English, is what he is saying here:

'If the increased demand for labour generates its own supply in the form of migrant labour then the link between demand and prices is broken, or at least altered. Indeed, in an economy that can call on unlimited supplies of migrant labour, the concept of the output gap is meaningless.

'The UK is not in that extreme position, but the inflow of migrant labour, especially in the past year or so from Eastern Europe, has probably led to a diminution of inflationary pressure in the labour market relative to previous experience.'

Seen in that light, the current unofficial strike of British and east European construction workers at a desulphurisation plant at Cottam - that's between Nottingham and Lincoln - could become a landmark dispute. Workers' Liberty has details in the latest edition of Solidarity.

Taking it on trust, part one

I'll be appearing on both Newsnight and The World Tonight this evening, talking about the New Labour 'cash for peerages' scandal.

In today's twist to the soap opera, party treasurer and TGWU official Jack Dromey insists that he knew nothing about the matter, and has launched an inquiry into the whole thing.

Significantly, Dromey is a loyal Labour Party man and not usually given to complaining. He certainly used to be a Blairite, although I notice suggestions that these he finds himself in the Brown camp.

As a reporter, I've spoken to him on industrial relations stories from time to time for more than a decade, and he's always played things with a straight bat.

Dromey's wife, constitutional affairs minister Harriet Harman, has given up responsibility for Lords reform, to avoid any conflict of interest.

It now appears that New Labour fundraising supremo Lord Levy was the architect of a scheme that raised £14m for the party, without having to be declared to the Electoral Commission.

It's also pretty clear that three rich backers - one of them a former Tory - were expecting peerages as a result of their generousity.

Four years ago, I covered the topic of Labour's relationship with business at book length in Labour Party plc, with a foreword by my all time journalistic hero Paul Foot. Amazon is still selling copies.

It's interesting that I couldn't get the media appearances I got today when the book came out in September 2002. Maybe the political climate in this country really is changing.

The chapter on Levy was extracted in the Marxist discussion journal What Next? But given that the whole question is newly topical, I'll take this opportunity to republish:

Alvin Stardust, Bad Manners and The Darts are just a few of the naff 1970s pop acts that get walk-on parts in the New Labour story, courtesy of former record boss Michael Levy. Close friend Pete Waterman once remarked: "People say he is a schlock merchant, he likes twee rock 'n' roll."1 Given the roster of bands Levy signed during his music biz days, even that description grossly overestimates the man's musical tastes. That was an earlier life, of course.

These days Levy has reinvented himself as a world statesman, a Foreign Office minister in all but name, as the Prime Minister's special envoy to the Middle East. This is an astonishing appointment for a man whose open espousal of Zionism and ties to the Israeli establishment automatically compromise him in Arab eyes. Yet there is nothing on his curriculum vitae that indicates any experience relevant to this delicate diplomatic role in a perpetually crisis-ridden region.

One only has to hope that Blair's appointment was not based solely on Levy's activities between these two careers. As the Prime Minister's special envoy to the extremely rich, Levy has raised around £10m for the New Labour cause. "He knows how to shake down the fat cats", one Labour insider remarked disapprovingly. "He takes them to meet Blair for 20 minutes and then marches them off to the nearest cash point."2

Much of this money bypassed the party proper and went straight to Blair's private office, increasing the leader's financial – and thus political – independence from both the membership and the trade unions. Among the posts the funds helped pay for while Labour was still in opposition were those of chief press officer Alastair Campbell and chief of staff Jonathan Powell.

Levy's importance to Blair can hardly be overstressed. The two first met at a dinner party in 1994, given by senior Israeli diplomat Gideon Meir, and Levy soon became the politician's tennis partner. After financially backing Blair's leadership bid from his own pocket, the following year he was entrusted with setting up the so-called Labour Leader's Office Fund blind trust to finance the Leader of the Opposition's private office. Equally importantly, he also revolutionised the Labour Party's already established efforts to find high-value donors.

The phrase "blind trust" refers to a funding conduit that allowed people to make donations to politicians via independent trustees, without the politicians themselves knowing who their backers were. Theoretically, this ruled out the possibility of donors buying influence. There was an added bonus for businesses, as, unlike gifts to a party, support for a blind trust did not have to be declared in company annual reports. Throughout the mid-1990s, Labour made full use of such mechanisms. Neither the money nor the benefactors were listed in the party's voluntary annual round-up of £5,000-plus donors, as donations to Labour frontbenchers through blind trusts were not deemed donations to the Labour Party itself. The trusts themselves were not bound to make their accounts public. The common missing link here is accountability.

The problem with blind trusts is that they are not so much blind as just a little bit short-sighted. Not only did the beneficiaries regularly find out who their supporters were, but sometimes the world and her cohabiting partner did so as well. Such was the public disquiet that such arrangements are now banned under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000.

But Levy took full advantage of the system while the going was good. His adept blind trust fundraising enabled Blair to run the biggest opposition leader's office in history, employing some 20 full-time staff on appreciable salaries. Although figures remain confidential, the best guess is that in just three years the Labour leader received around £2.5m in this manner before becoming Prime Minister.3

Most of this came from an unknown number of wealthy individuals. To this day, only four of Blair's benefactors have been identified for certain, while there are fingers pointing to a few other names. But of the known donors, two subsequently received peerages. While it does not necessarily follow that the scheme was anything other than the model of probity, there is at least an argument that Lloyd George knew its father. With full details unlikely ever to emerge, we will probably never be in a position to make an informed judgement.

Blair was not the only Labour politician on the blind trust bandwagon. John Prescott, Gordon Brown, Margaret Beckett and some lesser lights were also in on the act. David Shaw – the Conservative backbencher who led the charge on the issue for the Tories – claimed in 1997 to have identified a constellation of six or possibly seven New Labour blind trusts. These he named, under parliamentary privilege, as the Leader of the Opposition's Fund; the Deputy Leader's Fund; the Shadow Chancellor's Fund; the Industrial Research Trust; the Westminster Objectors' Trust; the Front Bench Research Fund; and the Soho Fund, linked to Mandelson. In a none-too-subtle dig at Mandelson's sexuality, Shaw added: "I shall not say anything more about the honourable gentleman and his connections with Soho."4

Shaw now freely admits he milked the issue for party purposes and has little in the way of documentation. The Westminster Objectors' Trust, for example, was primarily a local vehicle for opponents of the activities of Westminster's Tory council leader Shirley Porter, and thus hardly in the same political league. He also appears to have missed out the Marjorie Mowlam Research Fund. In 1999, Mowlam was rebuked bv the Commons Committee on Standards and Privileges for failing to declare a donation of £5,000 made five years previously by Greg Dyke, the media chief now in charge of the BBC.

Who else paid into the blind trusts? How did their interests subsequently fare under New Labour? Details are sketchy at best. But one point is both clear and extremely important to grasp. Big business was the provenance of most of the money that flowed in. That, of course, dovetailed nicely with Blair's political project. Financial independence from union funding was seen as a good in itself. Conversely, the willingness of a layer of business people to put their hands in their pockets represented one of the first concrete manifestations of rapprochement with the private sector. In short, the rise of the blind trusts marked an important staging post in the party's transformation.

Yet the first Labour politician to take advantage of such arrangements was the rather more traditionalist John Smith, the main beneficiary of the Industrial Research Trust, established in April 1993. Prime mover in its foundation was Smith's close friend Lord Haskel, a key player in the Labour Finance and Industry Group. The Leeds-based textile manufacturer, born in Lithuania, was ennobled as one of Smith's first batch of working peers. Haskel himself will neither confirm nor deny being one of the actual trustees.5

Less reticent about involvement in the Industrial Research Trust, although not exactly forthcoming, are Lord Gregson. industrialist and president or the Defence Manufacturers Association, and Baroness Lockwood. The one-time chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission, who have admitted their role as trustees.6

Some 20-30 parties made donations to the trust, the trustees confirmed. These induced the Caparo Group, owned by Indian-born industrialist Dr Swraj Paul, which has gone on the record as giving £130,000 over a number of years. Dr Paul was upgraded to Lord Paul in 1996.7

Smith didn't keep all the cash to himself. Money from the Industrial Research Trust was also paid to other senior Labour politicians including Brown and Cook, as their entries in the register of members' interests reveal.

Senior frontbenchers quickly cottoned on and set up blind trusts of their own. Prescott's office, with a staff of seven, established the John Prescott Campaign Research Trust. Cook was backed by the World Affairs Research Trust, and Beckett by the Margaret Beckett Research and Administration Trust. Yet another fund, the Labour Front Bench Research Fund, helped meet the costs of other frontbenchers.8

On taking over the party leadership in 1994, Blair found himself entitled to more than £1m in so-called Short Money, as state handouts enabling parties with seats in parliament to fulfil their duties are called. Blair could also claim a cut – presumably the lion's share – from the old Industrial Research Trust.

But he evidently found such backing insufficient. So in 1995 the Labour Leader's Office Fund was born. Trustees in this instance included Lord Merlyn-Rees, home secretary under Callaghan; Baroness Jay, Callaghan's daughter; and Baroness Dean, the erstwhile print union leader. Although not a trustee, Levy had the job of bagman.9

No press release was issued proclaiming the fund's establishment. Its existence only became public knowledge with an article in the Sunday Times in November 1996. The Blair camp was quick to defend its integrity. One unnamed spokesperson argued: "It is not a secret fund, it is a blind trust, which means that no one in the office knows who the donors are. Certainly not Tony."10

Certainly not Tony? Given that details of four prominent businessmen backers were published in the newspaper, that argument hardly passed muster. Among those named were the late Sir Emmanuel Kaye and Sir Trevor Chinn.

Kaye had sold his industrial vehicles business Lansing Bagnall to Linde of Germany for an undisclosed sum, reportedly £100m, in 1989. Getting him on board was a particular coup for Levy. Kaye, who died in 1999, had a history of mobilising business for the Conservatives. In 1968, he founded the Unquoted Companies Group, an alliance of major private firms. It waged political campaigns against Labour industrial relations reforms, and later lobbied Thatcher for tax breaks for entrepreneurs.

He was also a member of the CBI council from 1976 to 1989, and its financial policy committee from 1985 to 1992. As befits a staunch eurosceptic, he had given substantial cash backing to the Conservatives. Yet, somehow, Levy managed to bring him into the Labour funding milieu. Kaye went on to become an important financial backer for the Labour Party, with at least one six-figure donation under his belt.

Chinn joined the board at Lex Service in 1959, building a small group of garages into a self-described "broad-based provider of motoring and business solutions". Lex acquired the Royal Automobile Club in 1999, and the following year severed all ties with the motor retail sector on which it was once based.

Like Levy, Chinn had long been involved in charity work, including such causes as the Variety Club and the Great Ormond Street Hospital Wishing Well appeal. Indeed, his charitable activities were the official reason for the award of a knighthood from Margaret Thatcher in 1990.

The other two persons named by the Sunday Times as Labour Leader's Office Fund donors – printing millionaire Bob Gavron and Granada Television's Alex Bernstein – both subsequently secured peerages. That all four of the backers, as well as Levy himself, were Jewish was a point picked up on by commentators as diverse as the Jerusalem Post and the British National Party.

There are further Jewish connections. The trust's books were handled by London accountants Blick Rothenberg, which also looks after many major Israeli companies operating in Britain. The Conservatives allege that Maurice Hatter, chairman of IMO Precision Controls, also gave to the trust.11 Hatter is known for certain to have given £1m to government education initiatives, £10,000 to Labour election funds and £25,000 towards Frank Dobson's abortive London mayor campaign.

Late publisher Paul Hamlyn was already a substantial Labour donor and is also likely to have given to Blair's blind trust. He was friend of both Gavron and Levy, who later extracted from Hamlyn a £2m donation to the party proper in 2000.

But in this case there is no need to resort to anti-Semitic conspiracy theory to explain all this. First, there is a longstanding layer of Labour-leaning Jewish business people, which formed the core of the Labour Finance and Industry Group. Second, in the early days Levy was quite obviously working his own contacts. As one Labour source put it:

"The nexus is not sinister. It is probably the social relations that surround a particular reform synagogue in North London. If you crack that congregational network, you have probably cracked much of the cross-linkage. It may explain some of the anomalies in the fundraising and the unexpected sources of funds traditionally associated with the Tories."12

What of the other blind trusts? MP Alan Meale, trustee of the John Prescott Campaign/Research Trust, argues that most of the money that came in was generated by Prescott's outside earnings, such as fees for speeches and articles.13 But at least £10,000 was given by Haris Sophoclides, a British-based Greek-Cypriot property developer. Prescott has holidayed on several occasions at Sophoclides villa in Cyprus, after getting a taste for the country during his days as a steward on cruise ships in the eastern Mediterranean.

Sophoclides owns J&P Ltd, one of the Middle East's largest property and construction firms, building hotels, airports, hospitals and military bases worldwide. He also plays an influential role in the Greek diaspora as president of the Greek Cypriot Brotherhood, an organisation which is in its own right a corporate donor to the Labour Party, and is vice-president of the World Council of Hellenes Abroad, described as a non-governmental organisation, albeit one "created by a 1995 presidential decree".14

His son Tony Sophoclides spent four years as a Prescott aide before becoming a lobbyist. While working for the Deputy Prime Minister in 1997, Tony led a delegation of Labour MPs – including Meale, Rudy Vis, Stephen Twigg and Joan Ryan – to the island, where they met top Cypriot politicians. Sophoclides senior has been officially accredited as a parliamentary researcher too, with privileged access to the Commons courtesy of a pass provided by Meale.

Gordon Brown received a £50,000 cheque from Kaye through the Industrial Research Trust. The donation followed a meeting between the two men at a function organised by the Labour Friends of Israel group in 1996. A spokesperson insisted: "Gordon had no idea, neither had any of his staff, who funded the blind trust."15

But some of those who saw the blind trust system up close and personal are not so sure just how blind it was. Henry Drucker, briefly a key player in Labour's search for big donations, has described the set-up as essentially "evil". This is criticism from a surprising quarter. The US-born academic, who now holds dual nationality, is a longstanding Labour Party member. In 1979 he co-edited a book with Brown, and was later chairman of Cook's constituency party.16

Drucker founded the Oxford Philanthropic fundraising consultancy, known as Oxphil, which specialises in finding backers for good causes. Clients include Nottingham University and the Welsh National Opera. He successfully raised £340m for Oxford University, Alma Mater of many a leading politician. Little wonder Labour wanted him on board.

In March 1996, Drucker was hired until after the next election to work on ways of extracting sums of £25,000 or more from companies and wealthy individuals. This was a time when Labour still considered a £5,000 donation a relatively big gift. But, as Drucker points out, the super-rich are happy enough to hand over £100,000, or even £1m, for causes they truly support.

Right from the start, press coverage pointed to probable tension between Drucker and Levy. But no matter. The appointment was obviously personally sanctioned by the party leader himself. Drucker recalls being recruited by Blair's chief of staff Powell after Blair had just returned from a trip to Hong Kong. "People told Blair the Tories came to Hong Kong with a bag and left with it full of cheques. Basically he wanted to know how to do the same thing."17

Oxphil agreed to assess the market, its standard methodology, and was given a tight deadline. Powell supplied a list of people he thought would give sizeable sums, and Drucker set about interviewing them. That didn't prove too difficult. "This was a period of maximum charisma for Blair and New Labour", Drucker recalls. "They were clearly going to win the next election, and all sorts of people wanted to be on Blair's good side."18

The object of market assessment is to tell clients what they have to change about themselves to get the money rolling in. What Drucker found was enormous resentment of blind trusts, and widespread disbelief that they were indeed anonymous. Additionally, people were fed up with being approached by multiple competing blind trusts. The whole shooting match was also considered hypocritical on the part of a party pledged to openness in matters of political funding. No message could have been more guaranteed to infuriate Levy.

Drucker made his findings clear through progress reports fed to Powell, who by now realised blind funds were a big issue. "What I, in retrospect foolishly, didn't appreciate is that there was no way Michael Levy was going to live with the recommendation of no blind funds, and no way Blair was going to live with recommendations Michael Levy would not live with."19

After just seven weeks Drucker and Labour parted company. The official line was that the party had decided to keep fundraising in-house rather than relying on a paid outsider. But the main reason for the rapid divorce was Drucker's moral concerns.

A showdown between Levy, Drucker and fellow Oxphil consultant Rebecca Rendel took place at Levy's home in the spring of 1996. Drucker recalls the gathering vividly.

"I think I was set up by Levy. He knew perfectly well what we were saying because Jonathan told Tony and Tony told him. As soon as we got to the house we were subject to a verbal assault. He was shouting and unpleasant.... It was obviously an authority issue. Who the hell did we think we were? He was running this. What the hell were we doing making recommendations? I knew he was running Tony's blind fund so I didn't anticipate a very pleasant meeting. It was basically, 'this is what I am doing and therefore you will accommodate it'."20

Shortly afterwards, Drucker formally presented his findings to a Labour delegation at Pall Mall's Reform Club that included general secretary Tom Sawyer, finance director Paul Blagbrough and two or three others. The meeting made no difference. Drucker was thrown off the case. His views found sympathy in some quarters, however. He recalls a one-and-half-hour telephone consolation chat with Donald Dewar – later First Minister of the Scottish assembly – who advised him not to take things personally.21

Despite parting on bad terms, Drucker is still unwilling to disclose the names of the donors he canvassed. "You would be able to guess two-thirds of them", he maintains. "The other third is too obscure." Nevertheless, he does recollect some pretty in-your-face approaches from honours-seekers. One British-based businessman with foreign connections came right out and asked how much the going rate was for a peerage. He was willing to pay several million pounds for the privilege, Drucker believes.

He also offers an interesting insight on one of the ways that blind trust donors could be sure that Tony knew of their kindness.

"If Michael Levy thought you would give a lot of money to the party, he would invite you to play tennis at his house and say 'there's a fair chance Tony will turn up'. Tony turned up, of course. When Tony left. Levy asked for money. I'm sure Levy, being the sort of guy he is, would ring Blair up ten minutes later and say, 'we got two £500,000 cheques today'."22

Just when the blind trust issue was all but forgotten, the Labour Leader's Office Fund hit the headlines again with the publication of Geoffrey Robinson's memoirs in 1999. The former Paymaster General insisted that he had been "happy" to give a substantial donation to support Blair's work as leader of the opposition. Controversy revolved around both the size of the gift – as much as £250,000, according to press reports – and the channel through which it was made. Labour went to some lengths to quash any suggestion that the money was paid into the Labour Leader's Office Fund.

Parallel to the blind trusts, but rather less secretive, Labour has, with initial trade union encouragement, maintained a high-value donors' unit since the early 1990s. After a shaky start, its efforts have met considerable success. Levy has played a major role in the unit's work. For instance, he was directly involved in soliciting the £1m donation from Formula One chief Bernie Ecclestone through the unit.23 But much of the graft was undertaken by his protégé Amanda Delew, whom he had met through the charity Jewish Care. Delew took the job of fundraising consultant to Blair in 1996. Together, Levy and Delew are reported to have raised £12m before the 1997 election.

The following year Delew, whose CV also includes stints at the Imperial Cancer Research Fund and Scope, transferred from Blair's staff to the head office payroll, running the high-value donor unit until her departure in 2001. Not for nothing did Millbank insiders refer to her as "Amanda the Loot". Her approach to fundraising appears openly to have been based on the maxim "flattery will get you everywhere". As Delew explained in a memo written just after the 1997 election win, but only leaked the following year: "Major donors expect to be invited to Number 10. If this cannot take place then income levels may be affected."

What she appears to be saying is that she considered it her job to sell the rich the chance to rub shoulders with the powerful. The document set down her strategy to bring in £12.5m over the following four years.

"The support of Tony Blair and Jonathan Powell is critical to the success of the programme. Major donors need to feel they are at the centre of things.... Jonathan offers an opportunity for them to meet someone at the focus of all activity, who will answer their questions, while providing a reason for them to visit Number 10. He offers authority and integrity and his proved his ability at charming and impressing ... donors."24

Her ideas on the subject didn't stop there. She called on the Prime Minister to hold "private meetings with some of the more interested supporters.... These meetings should never address the subject of money and wherever possible Michael Levy should be in attendance. The meetings should simply be for Tony to meet people who are supportive of the party".25

When the text of the memo hit the press. Labour spokesperson Dave Hill was at pains to dismiss the document as naive, and, what is more, one that was quashed before it even reached the party leadership. "No one who gives money to the party is given preferential treatment and no one can buy access to Downing Street", he indignantly insisted. Secretary of State for Culture Chris Smith insisted it was merely "a paper that was prepared by a middle-ranking official". That was hardly an accurate description of a woman who played a central role in the party's drive to attract six-figure donations.26

For instance, it was Delew who organised the event dubbed "the most expensive cheese and wine party in British political history", held in January 1997. Business and celebrity guests included Greg Dyke, Jeremy Irons, Melvyn Bragg and David Puttnam. The keynote speech was made by Peter Mandelson, who – only half-jokingly – suggested that no one should leave before they had donated £25,000. Moreover, such subsequent £2m Labour donors as Christopher Ondaatje and Lord Hamlyn have been regular guests at Delew bashes.27

A second leaked Delew memo made it to the press in September 1999, when the Sunday Telegraph revealed a list of high-value donations and pledges to Labour totalling over £5m. The 31 names mentioned formed an eclectic mix of people from the worlds of business, media and the arts.28 Showbiz names were prominent, including Creation Records chief Alan McGee and Simply Red singer Mick Hucknall. But business people were also to the fore. These included such usual suspects as Lord Haskins, Gavron and Bernstein. Some names were slightly more surprising. Previously-unsuspected Labour supporters included property tycoon John Ritblat and publishing boss Felix Dennis.

Ritblat – chairman of British Land, Britain's second largest property company – had been an outspoken Thatcher enthusiast. He was a reported past donor to the Millennium Club, a Tory fundraising group that requires a minimum payment of £2,500, although Ritblat denies this is the case. After publication of the Delew list, he also denied having given any money to Labour, causing the Sunday Telegraph to retract the suggestion.29

Dennis first hit the headlines as a defendant in the Oz obscenity trial in 1971, before making good as the lad-mag entrepreneur behind Maxim magazine. In the process, he has accumulated a £200m fortune, and any residual hippy idealism has gone out the window. Dennis has pointedly failed to deny the suggestion that he keeps ten girlfriends on the go at any one time, owns countless cars including five Rollers and a Bentley, and has 23 kitchens spread across several homes.

Pledges, however, are a different matter from money in the piggy bank. The memo acknowledges that only £1m was actually in hand. Much of the remaining £4.38m may have been more by way of Delew's wish list than hard cash.

Three of those named – Hatter, Haris Sophoclides and David Goldman – were listed as having pledged £1m each. Labour admitted that Goldman, chairman of BATM Advanced Communications, had not actually made such a commitment, despite five-figure donations to Labour in the past. Hatter also denied having promised £1m in this instance, past generosity notwithstanding. Whatever the case, within months of the alleged pledge, he received a knighthood for public services. Sophoclides' largest known donation to Labour is £5,000-plus worth of dinner tickets in 1999, although his support for Prescott as an individual politician has been at least twice that.

The largest subsequently confirmed donation on the Delew list came from Gavron, then chairman of the Guardian Media Group, owner of the Guardian newspaper. He had in the past both expressed his admiration for Thatcher and been courted by the SDP. Gavron gave Labour a reported £500,000, handed over in the same month he became a peer.

Another subsequent donor was Gulam Noon, founder of Noon Products, which makes frozen curries for Sainsbury, Waitrose and Marks & Spencer. The company was involved in a bitter strike in 1998, when it refused to recognise the GMB union at its plant in Southall, even though 90 per cent of the 300-strong workforce had joined. There were allegations of low pay, oppressive management and favouritism at the factory. Noon – one of Britain's wealthiest Asians, worth some £10m – gave Labour £100,000. He picked up a knighthood in 2002.30

Jeremy Mogford, founder of the Brown's restaurant chain, pledged £100,000, while Derek Johnson, chairman of shipping agents JSA, admitted that he had indeed promised £100,000 but had not yet paid up.

Delew has now moved on to become campaign director at the Giving Campaign, a government-backed initiative to increase support for charities, where her job will once again be to encourage the corporate sector to put its hands in its pockets. Giving Campaign backers include Blair peer and Labour donor Lord Joffe, former chairman of Allied Dunbar.

Further down the food chain from the high-value donor unit is the 1000 Club, Labour's organisation for those in a position to contribute a comparatively modest annual £1,000 or so, which has existed since the early 1990s. The symbolism is all-important here. While its activities may make middle-class participants feel like big shots, it has few links with the real centres of power in the Labour Party.

Early efforts were headed by Jack Cunningham, with a steering committee including Lord Graham of Edmonton. Labour right fixer Mary Goudie, MEP Pauline Green, and Sarah Macaulay of Hobsbawm Macaulay Communications, later to marry Gordon Brown. Great and good involvement in the early period also included European commissioner Bruce Millan, novelist Ruth Rendell, Jonathan Powell and Tom Sawyer. Three of the steering committee have since been awarded peerages, and are now known as Baroness Goudie, Baroness Rendell and Lord Sawyer respectively.

The covering letter accompanying the club's promotional literature in March 1996 – laden with such Blair cliches as "young country" and "new economy" – promised invitations to special summer and Christmas receptions, an annual conference dinner, campaign briefings and chances to meet members of the Shadow Cabinet. The reply-paid envelope was addressed to Hobsbawm Macaulay Communications in Soho's Poland Street.

The 1000 Club organises Labour's £500-a-plate fundraising dinners, an annual event that raises around £500,000 while spreading warm fuzzy feelings among those well-heeled enough to attend. For what was once a workers' party, this event is probably the ultimate in post-modern irony.

The first of these dinners took place in 1991, with speeches from Kinnock and barrister-playwright John Mortimer, and a celebrity auction featuring actor Stephen Fry as master of ceremonies. Items up for grabs included the script of television drama A Very British Coup, an early 1980s fantasy about the election of a working-class left-winger as Labour prime minister.

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