Thursday, June 29, 2006

Hizb ut Tahrir and the far left

The comments box on the post below has somehow been taken over by a slanging match on the attitude the revolutionary left should adopt towards the Iraqi resistance. That's a valid debate, although it has been running for the last three years, and positions are fairly entrenched by now.

But here's something along the same lines that is a rather fresher topic. For the last two academic terms, I've been taking an undergraduate-level course on Islam, International Terrorism and International Security at Birkbeck.

I'm just back from the final session. The lecturer, Numan Hanif - who blogs intelligently on Islamic political issues here - expressed his opinion that Al Qa'eda will ultimately amount to little. The real challenge to the West, he argues, is Hizb ut Tahrir. On his estimation, there is a 70-80% chance of HT establishing state power somewhere in the Islamic world within the next 10-15 years.

For political Islam, the establishment of an expansion-minded caliphate led by HT would be what the Russian revolution was for the revolutionary socialist tradition. Such a state would definitely be in the business of 'exporting revolution'. Sections of HT elsewhere would rapidly rise to become mass parties, much as sections of the Third International did after 1917.

A question, then, for both Janine and Lenin, as well as anybody else with something to contribute. What should the revolutionary socialist attitude be to such a development?

HT's politics are both explicitly pro-capitalist and anti-democratic. Socialist currents would not be able to organise politically. Yet starting from the current political orientation of the SWP, it would not surprise me to see sections of the British far left hail the advent of the caliphate as a blow against imperialism.

Another question, too. Why has political Islam replaced ostensibly Marxist currents as the radical opposition to corrupt ruling regimes in so many Islamic countries? That says a lot about our failings, I believe.

PS: For those that need it, there are primers on HT here and here.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

CWU: postal workers to vote on strike

The industrial relations picture at privatisation-threatened Royal Mail has been fraught for some time, and now matters have come to a head:

‘Up to 136,000 postal workers are to be balloted on strike action after pay negotiations broke down.

‘The Communication Workers Union made the decision after it failed to reach an agreement with the Royal Mail. 'The union said the move followed the imposition of a 2.9% pay rise and the failure to reach a deal on plans to axe thousands of jobs.

‘The Royal Mail has controversial modernisation plans that include issuing workers with a 20% share in the company.

‘But unions fear that this could mean 40,000 of the organisation's 165,000 workers losing their jobs, with many other workers forced to work part-time.’

A long time ago I spent a few weeks working as a postie over Christmas. It’s hard work, especially when it’s raining, and pretty badly paid.

Small wonder that strikes - including unofficial local walkouts - are commonplace. But this fight will be on a much broader scale than that. It will be difficult to win, too, giving the rise of email and private sector postal services.

At the political level, it is likely to bring the issue of the CWU’s Labour Party affiliation to the forefront once more, especially given that Royal Mail chairman Allan Leighton is a paid up Labour Party member and essentially a Blair appointee. This is definitely one to keep an eye on.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Poll: public support for public ownership

Several previous posts on this blog have lamented the way in which the case for social ownership is simply no longer being made in sectors as varied as the railways, water and the car industry.

Obviously, the New Labour leadership actually believes in the inherent superior of the private sector in all areas of economic activity. Many Labour backbenchers, party members and trade union are sympathetic to a democratic socialist perspective, but probably figure that dangerous leftwing ideas are a sure-fire vote-loser.

But the evidence is the electorate is at least of the opinion that enough public assets have been sold off already, if this press release from the anti-privatisation campaign Public Services Not Private Profit is anything to go by:


‘An opinion poll commissioned by the joint-union Public Services Not Private Profit campaign has revealed overwhelming public opposition to the government’s privatisation agenda.

74% of people asked thought that the main priority of private companies when running public services was to make profits. Only 24% thought that their main priority was to serve the public.

‘When asked how much of a role private companies should have in running public services, 74% of respondents opposed any further role. Only 17% supported more privatisation of public services.

‘John McDonnell MP, Chair of the campaign said: "Gordon Brown can no longer ignore the overwhelming evidence in this and other polls of the public's total opposition to his policy of privatising public services"

‘"His privatisation agenda has now provoked what will be the broadest alliance of trade unions as part of the largest lobby of parliament in decades on this issue."

‘"People simply do not believe 'private sector good, public sector bad'. Thousands of trade unionists and Labour Party members from all over the country will be coming together at Central Hall, Westminster on 27th June to demand that parliament calls a halt to this privatisation madness."’

‘Mark Serwotka, General Secretary of PCS - pictured above left - said: "This poll shows that wool hasn't been pulled over the public's eyes when it comes to privatisation and that people have had enough of the privatisation of key public services."

‘"With thousands of people converging on Westminster on Tuesday to voice their support for public services not private profit it is time the government halted its dogmatic approach to selling off public services."’

For PR reasons, the campaign correctly decided not to lead on the angle of how much positive support exists out there for social ownership. But in the footnotes to the press release, we read:

‘The second question asked was ‘How much of a role do you think that private companies should have in running public services?’ 17% said ‘More than they do now’, 27% said ‘The same as now’, 29% said ‘Less than they do now’, 18% said ‘Should not be involved at all’, and 8% said ‘Don’t know’.’

Let me run that one past you again. Getting on for half the adult population would like to see at least some privatised services back in the public sector, and almost one in five would favour seeing all of them out of private hands.

No figures for how Labour voters answered question two were made available. But it is almost certain that the figures would be overwhelmingly positive. Democratic socialism. It only looks dead.

PS: I won’t be able to make the lobby myself. But I hope it goes well. Why not get there if you can?

One day is fine, the next is Black

The possibility of an spell behind bars has moved another step closer for Conrad Black, the Tory peer and former owner of the Daily Telegraph, Sunday Telegraph and many other leading newspapers around the world.

Thatcher's Canadian buddy - pictured left - faces trial in the US next year on fraud charges, with claims that he ripped off Hollinger International to the tune of $400m during his stint as chairman and chief executive.

But now federal prosecutors have asked a judge in Chicago to revoke his bail. A court filing argues that Black lied about his assets and made misrepresentations about a lien on his mansion in Palm Beach, Florida. Prosecutors also say he failed to make a mortgage payment on the property, in violation of a court agreement.

In addition, they doubt his claim only to have liquid assets worth $300,000, given that he recently wrote a cheque for $460,279 to pay Florida property taxes, and reportedly made a donation of $500,000 to a Canadian opera company.

Talking of prison sentences, erstwhile City Slicker James Hipwell has now served his three-month sentence for his part in the Daily Mirror share tipping scandal. After paying his debt to society, he has this observation about the role of his editor at the time, a certain Piers Morgan:

‘The fact is, he emptied his bank account into Viglen, sold everything in his Personal Equity Plan, everything in his wife’s PEP, and ended up with nearly 70 grand in stocks and shares. And we’re meant to believe he didn’t know we were writing about Viglen? Bollocks.’

Friday, June 23, 2006

Water privatisation and the case for social ownership

Water privatisation has had disastrous consequences in many third world countries. It has hardly been a roaring success in Britain, either.

In March, this blog looked at the case of Severn Trent – Britain’s largest water company – which was ordered to reimburse overcharged customers to the tune of £42m, after deliberately supplying false information to industry regulator Ofwat, so that it could press its case for higher prices.

Now we have the disgraceful case of Thames Water. Industry regulator Ofwat authorised the company to increase prices by 24% above inflation between 2005 and 2010, so that it could undertake infrastructure improvements.

Remember, this is an outfit that loses 30% of the water it produces through leakage. That's the equivalent of 357 Olympic-size swimming pools every day. Given that the southeast of England is drier than southern Spain, that's just not on.

Yet Thames has not delivered on its water leakage reduction targets for four years running. Instead, it has imposed a hosepipe ban, and is seeking a drought order.

That doesn't stop it trousering the extra dosh. This week the company announced a 31% increase in profits to £346.5m. It's German owner, RWE, hiked the dividend it pays itself by 53% to £216m.

Hey, Thames Water. As a Londoner, I have no choice but to be one of your customers. And I'm extremely peeved at being ripped off in order to line your pockets.

Ofwat is said to be considering a fine of up to a maximum of 10% of turnover, which equates to about £140m. Not good enough.

What Britain lacks right now is a self-confident labour movement willing to make the obvious case for taking basic utilities back into social ownership, where they belong.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

RMT suspends signals strike

Press release from RMT:

'Strike action by 5,000 Network Rail signalling and operational staff scheduled for Sunday June 25 has been suspended as the RMT executive put the company’s latest pay and conditions offer out to a referendum.

'The result of the referendum will be known on Thursday June 29, and if the offer is rejected the RMT executive will schedule fresh strike dates.'

Additional information from RMT activists welcome in the comments box.

Campaign Group: Gordon Brown wrong on Trident

Press release from the Socialist Campaign Group on our prime minister in waiting's enthusiasm for nuclear weapons:

'Labour MPs from across the Party have reacted angrily to the Chancellor’s Mansion House speech last night, in which he announced he would go ahead with replacement of the Trident nuclear weapons.

'Jeremy Corbyn MP, Campaign Group MP and National Vice Chair of CND, said:

'“Gordon’s announcement of spending up to £25bn on Trident replacement is sad and wrong. In 1970, Britain signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty which commits us to long-term disarmament. A Trident replacement would be illegal, and removes any arguments we might have for opposing the proliferation of nuclear weapons in other countries.

'“Nuclear weapons do not deter, are not independent, and not only kill indiscriminately when used – they leave a legacy of maimed and suffering population for decades to come, as the people of Hiroshima can testify”.

'John McDonnell MP, Chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, said:

'“The whole tenor of the Chancellor's speech is a slap in the face for the Labour and Trade Union movement."

'"Gordon has laid down a clear marker for the approach he intends to take to the leadership of the party. It is a worrying sign that he is prepared to ignore the strong feelings of Labour Party members and trade unionists on this and other key issues of concern."

'“The Chancellor has constructed an image of prudence, yet he is prepared to waste £25bn on weapons that are unusable, illegal and ridiculously wasteful of public resources that could be better spent on improving our public services.”'

So ... you guys gonna challenge him for the succession, then?

Swedish finance minister downplays red menace

I had been under the impression that Trotskyism was doing moderately well in Sweden. I mean, I accept that the country is probably not going to be the epicentre of the world revolution.

But Rättvisepartiet Socialisterna - Swedish section of the Committee for a Workers' International, the international tendency centred on Peter Taaffe's Socialist Party in the UK - has won a handful of council seats in working class areas.

So I was well gutted to read an interview given by the country's finance minister Pär Nuder (pictured left) to the Financial Times - shortly before joining Gordon Brown to watch the England-Sweden game, incidentally - in which he appears to diss the local far left as a bunch of wusses:

'We have more "pro-change" trade unions than continental Europe because the trade unions know we have robust and stable social security systems. We don't have trade unions where there are very loud, strong minorities, organised Trotskyites, that can say No to any change that is proposed by the management.'

Get your act together, comrades ...

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Iain Dale on what's wrong with leftwing blogging

Widely-read Tory blogger Iain Dale – a sometime sparring partner of mine since the National Dock Labour Scheme strike of 1989, but that’s another story – has some telling observations on the impact of British leftwing bloggers in this week’s Tribune:

‘But as the right is on the ascendant on the internet, the left seems somewhat stagnant.’

Granted, he has got some nice words for yours truly, which makes a change from the days when the bastard used to try to get me sacked:

‘Apart from the usual suspects such as Tribune columnist Paul Anderson's excellent Gauche blog and Dave Osler's newly-created Dave's Part, few blogs on the far left have registered at all outside that particular political milieu.’

On top of that, I do think Dale's on the money with points such as these:

‘There's no left-of-centre equivalent of the leading rightwing blog ConservativeHome or the font of rightwing gossip Guido Fawkes.

Bloggers4Labour has made a valiant effort to bring all the Labour blogs together but it hasn't developed beyond being a glorified links page. It ought to be emulating ConservativeHome, but shows little sign of wanting to do so.’

I try to look at the all of the main Brit left blogs at least a couple of times a week. Standards vary. But none of them qualify as 'must reads' in the same way that, say, Guido manages to be, just by so obviously being in the loop.

Up until a year or two back, Harry’s Place was clearly number one, however much one disagreed with its pro-war editorial line. There was even some semblance of rational debate in the comments box. But it has lost most of its focus of late, to put it politely. Anyway, I have recently been banned, for reasons I still cannot fathom.

I sometimes enjoy Lenin's Tomb, largely because I too was once young, gifted and ultraleft myself. It's the sort of blog I'd produce if I was still in my twenties, and I'm not surprised it's getting a high readership. But the mildest criticism of SWP orthodoxy is usually enough to generate multiple rounds of apolitical abuse from his devoted following.

The main problem with the best of the rest is that they don't post particularly frequently. I do try to post daily, but real life sometimes gets in the way. And while I've enjoy blogging the last few months, I'll admit to being disappointed at the lack of comments. I'm forced to conclude that all rational people agree with me, all of the time, and therefore have nothing more to add to my bons mots.

But the class struggle left in cyberspace still has plenty of work to do in creating a serious online standard bearer for our brand of politics. So I particularly invite comments from other leftie bloggers. What are we doing wrong? How can we wrest the iniative from the Tories and the Eustonites?

Alan Simpson MP: Blairites target leftwinger

Nottingham South MP Alan Simpson – pictured left, and probably the sharpest and most articulate member of the Campaign Group – is in for a serious ticking off today, pour encourager les autres.

Officially, he is being disciplined for comparing Downing Street under Mr Blair to Franco's Fascist regime and dismissing his replacement by Mr Brown as being like Saddam Hussein being replaced by his notorious son Uday.

‘But it is being seen as an attempt by Downing Street to stop the left openly calling for Mr Blair's early departure. Mr Simpson is refusing to apologise for his comments …

‘"Downing Street may not have liked my comments about the war, but they really need to get out more. It is the party's self destructive abandonment of principles that is causing the haemorrhage of support for Labour, not those who try to criticise it," he said.’

If the Blairites decide to get really tough, he could even lose the Labour whip, making him ineligible to stand as a Labour candidate at the next general election.

But it’s worth noting that the inability to withstand a few wisecracks is hardly the hallmark of a confident Labour Party leadership.

New Labour, big business and Sir Philip Green

Bhs and Arcadia boss Philip Green - pictured left - is the latest top businessman to pick up an honour from New Labour, after being awarded a knighthood last week.

Let's pause and reflect on this one. This is the man that last October decided to award Arcadia shareholders a £1.3bn dividend.

And you know what? Green and his wife own 92% of the group, and therefore received £1.17bn, the largest payout to an couple in British corporate history.

Oh well, I hear you say, at least he paid tax on it. Nope. Living in Monaco he doesn't have to, and thereby saved himself £300m.

Let's also consider how he made this pile. Read what anti-sweatshop campaigners Labour Behind the Label and Women Working Worldwide have to say about the business practices of Arcadia's suppliers, which are said to include poverty pay, excessive hours and the repression of trade unions. And remember, this is a guy that New Labour want you to call 'Sir' from now on.

And finally let's look at what he does with the dosh. Green owns a £20m yacht and a £16m private jet. He shelled out £4m for his son's Bar Mitzvah, flying 200 people to the French Riviera for the occasion, which included a gig by Destiny's Child. For one of his birthdays, his wife bought him a solid gold Monopoly set, featuring his very own acquisitions.

Independent business editor Jeremy Warner is nobody's idea of a leftwinger . Nevertheless, he makes some good points about this whole sorry episode:

'The massive dividends [Green] draws from these businesses are paid offshore, which means both that they avoid tax, and because they are financed from borrowings, that the Exchequer receives less corporation tax ...

'Mr Green's assets are owned by his family in Monaco, with the effect that the Green family doesn't have to pay any tax on the massive dividends it takes out of Mr Green's private equity acquisitions ...

'When it was elected, Labour promised to do something about the growing number of the world's super rich who earn their living in Britain but pay little or no tax here. Curiously, this commitment has been almost wholly forgotten during the Government's slide into moral decay.

'To the contrary, entitlement to a knighthood now seems to rest with those who make the most, boast the most and manage to avoid paying tax on it to boot. If Mr Green had paid UK tax on the £1.2bn he paid himself last year it would have funded countless inner city academies without the Government needing to go looking for handouts from the super rich.'

Quite so.

PS: Memo to Ken Livingstone: yes, he's Jewish. Just so you know, like.

Elsewhere in the blogosphere

Meanwhile, on other blogs …

Will seems to have taken exception at the new array of bloggers and commenters at the once-great Harry’s Place:

‘Dear me. What a bunch of stupid or pompous or ignorant or, let's just use a shorthand phrase -- middle class wankers with lots of time on their arses-- If you skim over their crap , you'll quickly see any and all possibility of an objective world or verifiability of any truths about it has been banished from their heads. In other words - the absurdity of post-modern and feudal excrement in combination, all claiming the inheritance of the enlightenment. It's all just the latest installment of bourgeois cretinism against Marxist clarity.’

Quite, comrade. But then I’m still smarting from being banned from the HP comments boxes, without explanation.

Stroppybird and Louisefeminista follow up their imperishable post ‘What do radical feminists do in bed … ?’ with a learned discussion entitled ‘In defence of the blow job’. Not quite what Trotsky called his book, is it, girls?

And in similar vein to Stroppyblog, there is Paleofeminist. I'm in love already:

‘Short, fat, frizzy-haired, furry-legged, dirty, lazy, bisexual superfreak (high-heel and fishnet free) hiding behind heterosexual privilege. Occasionally a dipstick lesbian (when changing the oil).’

Another interesting newcomer, the Irish SWPer Red Aspie, proffers his thoughts on subjects ranging from Billy Piper’s departure from Doctor Who to the rise of Morales in Bolivia.

Whatever happened to Leon Trotsky? points to the joint sponsorship of a protest march against the Forest Gate shootings by Newham Respect and Newham Conservatives. No, really. How low can the SWP go? The above blogger is a teenage member of the AWL, which talks sense on the crisis in the Scottish Socialist Party.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Ian Paisley, the Democratic Unionist Party and class politics

Ian Paisley- pictured left - and his Democratic Unionist Party is usually regarded as the voice of Northern Ireland’s protestant working class. But you want a more accurate take on the social interests it serves, there’s a particularly revealing story in the FT this morning:

‘Northern Ireland politicians pressed Gordon Brown to cut corporation tax for local companies when the chancellor made a flying visit to the province yesterday.

‘Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionists, the largest party, called for a rate below the 12.5% in the Irish Republic as a way to woo foreign investors. A DUP official said this would be a temporary measure "to help build Northern Ireland up".

‘Mr Brown is understood to be set against breaking up the fiscal unity of the UK by allowing a region to adopt a separate rate of tax. But officials say he is ready to consider some form of financial package if the parties can agree a formula to restore the assembly, which has been suspended since October 2002 when the Ulster Unionists threatened to withdraw their ministers in protest at continued IRA activity.’

Northern Ireland is already a low-wage economy, with workers earning on average just 85% or so of the standard UK wage packet. Why not just go the whole hog and declare it an offshore export processing zone for the benefit of multinational capital?

Independent trade unionism in Iraq

Most of the pro-war left puts great stress on the democratic credentials of the al Maliki government, and frequently argues that the 2003 invasion – sorry, ‘liberation’ – of Iraq opens the way for free trade unionism in the country. Wrong.

Meanwhile, most of the anti-war left – blinded by its hero-worship of ‘the Iraqi resistance’ - remains incapable of even basic solidarity with organised labour. SWP theoretician Alex Callinicos, for instance, last year disgracefully dismissed the ‘resistance’ murder of an Iraqi trade union leader as ‘a hullabaloo’. Wrong again.

Here’s a press release from Naftana, the Iraqi oil workers’ union, that should give both sides something to think about:


‘We have just confirmed reports that the Iraqi regime has frozen all the bank accounts of the Iraqi oil workers' union, both abroad and within Iraq.

‘Wave of anti-union activity by government:
The Iraqi regime's decision comes in the wake of a series of anti-union measures, including the disbanding of the council of the lawyers' union, freezing the writers' union accounts and the September 2005 decree making all trade union activity illegal. For that anti-union act the regime used the pretext of promising the promulgation of a future law to 'regulate' trade union organisations and their activities.

‘This action follows in the footsteps of US administrator Paul Bremer:
In 2004 Paul Bremer, the occupation's then pro-consul in Iraq, declared trade union activity in the state sector illegal. That decision re-enacted Saddam Hussain's 1987 decree banning workers' unions in the state sector by declaring them to be 'civil servants' rather than 'workers'.

‘Hamstringing opponents of oil rip-off:
Iraq's enormous oil wealth is being groomed for Production Sharing Agreements, which would transfer effective control over all aspects of oil policy, production and marketing to multinational oil companies. The oil workers' union is one of the most effective opponents of this policy, organising an anti-privatisation conference last year and another one to come this year.

‘Naftana member Ewa Jasiewicz is prepared to deal with enquiries. You can call her on 07749 421576.’

The only consistent democratic socialist position is to start from the premise of full support for the self-organisation of the working class. That so few forces on the left can any longer understand such a basic principle is a sure sign of just how bad things have become.

Livingstone and the Reuben brothers: the clue's in the name

Mayor of London Ken Livingstone - pictured left - has been fully exonerated for his suggestion that property developers the Reuben brothers – born in India or Iraqi-Jewish parents – should "go back to Iran and try their luck with the ayatollahs".

Peter Keith-Lucas, inquiry officer at local government watchdog the Standards Board for England, found thus:

"Livingstone's remarks cannot have been anti-semitic, in the sense of being directed towards the Reuben brothers on account of their being Jewish, as Livingstone did not at the time believe them to be Jewish."

Now, I’ve got no particular brief for a couple of asset-stripping billionaires. But allow me to make one observation. Livingstone had no idea that two guys called David and Simon Reuben were Jewish?

Nisht geshtoygen, nisht gefloygen.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Cliffism auf Deutsch

Florian Kirstner – leader of Linksruck, the German offshoot of the British SWP, until his expulsion in 2001 – reveals to German leftwing newspaper Junge Welt the recruitment tactics mandated by none other than the late Tony Cliff himself (pictured above):

‘Linksruck hatte immer etwas von einem leninistischen Pfadfinderbund. Das war Ahmed und mir bei aller Arbeiterorientierung auch immer klar, wir fanden es eh’ total geil – und unser Revolutionslehrer Tony Cliff förderte diese Einstellung nach Kräften. Ich höre Cliff noch am Telefon krähen: »Forget all the normal people. You have to go for the mad ones, find crazy people, crazy people is what you need!« (Vergeßt all die normalen Leute! Ihr müßt die Verrückten finden. Verrückte Leute sind das, was ihr braucht!«)’

Loose translation: Linksruck always had something of the Leninist boy scouts about it. Ahmed [Shawki, a British ex-pat Linksruck cadre] and I were always clear about that, despite our orientation to the workers, and found that really cool. Our revolutionary teacher Tony Cliff forcefully supported this attitude. I can still hear Cliff on the telephone crowing: ‘Forget all the normal people. You have to go for the mad ones, find crazy people, crazy people are what you need!’

‘Nuff said.

[Hat tip: I hate my neighbours]

One big union. Not.

GMB members have voted not to go through with the superunion merger with the T&G and Amicus. Can’t say I blame them, really.
In principle, the old IWW slogan ‘One Big Union’ gets it pretty much right. But I can understand activist concern at the prospect of moving from the extensive regional autonomy traditional in the GMB to a heavily centralised top-down structure.

One thing, though. Forget all that talk about the three-way get-together having too much clout in either the Labour Party or the TUC. Their combined block vote stays the same whether they join forces or not.

And, as I argued on a post earlier this week, what impact do unions have on the Labour Party anyway? Anyway, here’s how TGWU secretary Tony Woodley - pictured above - broke the news to his troops:

To all Members of the General Executive Council - Copy to all Officers and Staff

14 June 2006

Dear Colleague,

Towards a New Union

As you may be aware, the GMB conference has voted, in spite of recent optimism but not surprisingly, to withdraw from further talks on the creation of a New Union.

Obviously we are disappointed at this decision which, in our view, is a missed opportunity for the GMB above all.

However, we fully respect the GMB’s democratic decision and will continue to work closely with them for the benefit of our movement.

As previously agreed by the General Executive Council in February 2005, we will continue our talks to create a new Union with Amicus. It was clear at the time that this, indeed, would be the case if the GMB failed to pick up our invitation to join the talks as an equal partner.

The New Union created by the T&G and Amicus will meet the great challenges facing working people in the 21st century. It will be a democratic and campaigning union which will fight back for employees in the workplace, will take trade unionism out to the millions of unorganised workers, will stand up for equality for all and advance its members’ interests politically – in short, the vision and the need remain unchanged.

There is no doubt that such a new union will, we believe, rapidly become attractive to other unions in this country and will also build ever-stronger links with trade unions around the world as we confront the opportunities of the globalised economy As I told the GEC last week, ultimately this will be much more than a two-way amalgamation.

In the light of the decisions taken by the GEC last week, we will now be working rapidly with our colleagues in amicus to produce a Framework Agreement for the creation of the New Union, which will form the basis for further consultation throughout the T&G.

Yours sincerely

Tony Woodley

[Hat tip: John Perry]

Old school ties

All that 1970s retro-chic class politics nonsense went out with glam rock, didn’t it? Every last Paul Smith besuited man jack of us is tippling from the same bottle of Oddbins New Zealand sauvignon blanc, sitting back as house price inflation lifts our net worth without us lifting a finger. Right?

Wrong, it seems. Not only are the rich getting richer, but their offspring continue to land the lion’s share of the top jobs, especially in law, politics and the media.

Just 7% of children go to private schools. But a new study has revealed that those getting a costly private education make up 76% of judges, 68% of barristers, and well over half of all life peerages and top journalism posts in both newspapers and television. They account for 32% of MPs and 42% of frontbenchers in a New Labour government. A meritocracy Britain ain’t.

The findings have produced no small degree of handwringing, accompanied by the inevitable calls to bring back grammar schools. Inevitably, the moralising misses the real political issues.

A central strategy of both Conservative and Labour government for almost three decades, in response to the upsurge in trade union militancy in the 1970s, has been to adopt policies expressly designed to favour the rich against the poor and the employers over the trade unions. The inevitable outcome has been a sharp rise in social inequality.

Unless the British labour movement actually fights to reassert the social democratic values that created the welfare state, that trend can only continue. As globalisation continues to drive wages down and make even the concept of a steady job unreachable for millions, things may even get significantly worse.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Gordon Brown on Islamic finance

Muslims. They're not just good for shooting in the chest at 4.00 am in the morning for no particular reason, you know. Sometimes you can make fat profits out of them, too. Here’s Gordon ‘son of the manse’ Brown at a conference on Islamic finance in London yesterday:

‘Gordon Brown addressed the gathering by declaring: "Asalaam aleikum" - peace be with you - in carefully enunciated Arabic, and then declared his intention to make the UK the "global centre for Islamic finance".

‘This endeavour, the chancellor pointed out, would not just benefit the UK economy but also help to narrow divisions between the west and the Muslim world.

‘"I believe that countries can become closer through trade and economic co-operation," he argued in a speech that covered topics ranging from global poverty to inflation, and was liberally peppered with quotes from the Koran, the Muslim holy book.’

Building London as a centre of Islamic finance will do plenty to bolster the profits of HSBC, Citigroup, Barclays Capital, Deutsche Bank, BNP Paribas and Standard Chartered. It will do little to rebuild relations with the predominantly working class Islamic community in Forest Gate. So much for the chancellor's alleged affinities with Old Labour.

And if you really want to foster better relations with Islamic world, Gordo, closing Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, withdrawal from Iraq and democratic outcomes in Palestine, Chechnya and Kashmir are a better way to go about it.

Blair's 'passionate defence' of New Labour

Are you a trade union or Labour Party activist who feels frustrated with Tony Blair? How unfair of you. That sort of talk hurts our prime minister, you know.

Consider this report of his speech to the GMB union conference yesterday, as reported in the Independent. The message is clear. He’s not accountable to us. We are accountable to him.

‘Tony Blair has vented his frustration on Labour activists who yearn for a left-wing government and want him to quit. Warned that working people felt "betrayed" and that traditional supporters had been "alienated" by his policies, Mr Blair delivered a passionate defence of his record.

‘Speaking after a barrage of criticism from delegates at the GMB general union's annual conference in Blackpool, an uncompromising Mr Blair said his Government had achieved "masses" for ordinary people.

‘The Prime Minister was addressing an audience who will be expected to act as foot soldiers in Labour's election campaign. But he said the Government had been elected by attracting a "broad coalition of support" and that a left-wing administration was not going to be elected "some time soon".

‘In response to a question from the floor, Mr Blair said: "You say people are losing faith in the Labour Government, well it's better than having a Tory government. This Government has done masses for ordinary people …

‘It was easy to forget what the 18 years of Tory rule was like, Mr Blair said. "I don't want to see them back ever again. We've make mistakes, but I'm proud of what we've achieved.’

OK, it’s true that over the last nine years, New Labour has enacted some timidly progressive measures. The minimum wage is the one that springs most readily to mind.

But much of what the Blairites claim credit for – such as the recent ruling that bank holidays do not count towards the minimum annual leave entitlement of 20 days per annum – result from EU directives. The Tories would have implemented them as well.

And the slogan ‘vote for us, we’re slightly less bad than the other lot’ is not exactly inspirational, is it? But that’s what seems to count as a ‘passionate defence’ of New Labourism these days.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Cash for peerages: the case against the House of Lords

Scottish National Party MP Angus MacNeil has published a draft bill designed to tighten up the rules on the grant of peerages to political donors.

MacNeil’s Honours (Prevention of Corruption) would both limit donations after an honour has been awarded, and forbid the grant of a peerage for two years after a donation.

It would also see the creation of an Honours and Appointments Commission with the power to veto nominations for honours.

I’ve got a simpler idea. Why not scrap the House of Lord saltogether? Power should reside in an elected assembly, with checks and balances provided by independently-minded members and a written bill of rights.

Labour’s constitutional ‘modernisation; has taken us only from the 15th century principle of heredity to 18th century principle of patronage. A largely-appointed second chamber is surely an untenable anachronism in a modern democracy.

GMB: Kenny threatens 'illegal' industrial action

It’s years since I can recall hearing the general secretary of a major British union argue openly that the anti-union laws – praised by Tony Blair as the most restrictive in the developed world – are there to be broken.

So I nearly choked on my morning croissant when I read the following outburst from Paul Kenny of the GMB in this morning’s FT [subscription required]:

‘One of the biggest unions has threatened mass illegal picketing at offices of agency workers if the Asda supermarket chain tries to use them as strike breakers.

‘The GMB, which is holding its annual conference in Blackpool, is balloting about 7,000 Asda distribution workers for strike action in a long-running dispute over national bargaining rights and pay.

‘Paul Kenny, GMB general secretary, accused Asda yesterday of preparing to hire agency workers if distribution staff voted for a strike. He said this would be illegal under employment agency legislation introduced in 2004.

‘"If anyone thinks I am going into a dispute playing by the Marquis of Queensberry rules while they hire in labour in order to do our members' jobs while they are in legitimate, legal, lawful dispute then you are living in cuckoo land," said Mr Kenny.

‘"I will be calling for the massed ranks of the GMB and other trade unionists to picket depots wherever these scabs come in to try to do our members' jobs.

‘"You cannot have a law that the employers can ignore but binds us. If they are going to break the law, we will both break the law."’

I was aware of Kenny’s reputation as a leftie during his time in charge of the union’s London region. But I didn’t have him down as ready to take this kind of stand.

So ... is he all mouth and no trousers, or the second coming of Arthur Scargill? Opinions welcome, especially from GMB members.

Of course, there’s a big gap between talking the talk and walking the walk, so we’ll just have to see what he delivers. But perhaps this outburst is another pointer to a changing mood in the British labour movement.

Oh, and US readers take note: Asda is of course the UK subsidiary of Wal-Mart, the famously anti-union US union chain. So any victory this side of the pond could boost the struggle on the other side of the Atlantic, too.

Monday, June 12, 2006

IBM and corporate totalitarianism

The multinational is dead. Long live the multinational. That seems to be the message of a thinkpiece in the Financial Times today from Sam Palmisano, chief executive of IBM.

It seems that the big boss at Big Blue fears a backlash against the untrammelled power of the over-mighty multinational corporation:

‘People may ultimately elect governments that impose strict regulations on trade or labour, perhaps of a highly protectionist sort.’

How dreadful. Democratically-elected governments bringing in legislation to protect jobs and workplace rights. What a truly appalling prospect.

But any government that thinks like that would only acting on the basis of a serious misunderstanding. You see, as the headline of the article puts it, ‘multinationals have been superseded’.

That’s right. While you weren’t looking, the MNC has been replaced by … cue drumroll … ‘the globally integrated enterprise’. Unsurprisingly, Palmisano doesn’t come up with a very convincing description of the way they differ from the old school MNCs we know and love.

But the way I read it, the concept he is trying to describe can be summed up as the rise of genuinely stateless capital. And Palmisano effectively calls for this stateless capital to be allowed to extend its influence into all areas of society, from education and healthcare to some of the basic military functions of the state:

‘Indeed, organisations of all types must come together. I believe public sector leaders will find in business a willing partner to reform healthcare and education, secure trade lanes and electronic commerce, advance innovation, train and enable the displaced and dispossessed, grapple with environmental problems and infectious diseases and tackle the myriad other challenges that globalisation raises.’

In making this case, Palmisano glosses over both the role of business in causing these problems in the first place and its lack of any real interest in solving them. Business simply does not want to tackle infectious disease, for instance. There isn’t enough profit in it.

And why should democracies hand over such key government functions to unelected and unaccountable major corporations? Put simply, Palmisano is making the case for corporate totalitarianism, 1984 with a free market face.

Colombia: FARC declares war on ELN

When groups on the British far left fall out, the polemics sometimes get pretty heated. But that's generally the worst it gets.

In Colombia, it looks like the bullets will shortly start to fly between the two main leftist insurgent armies. And the issue is not ideology, but rather what the struggle to control what are described as 'sources of income'. That's almost certainly a euphemism for the cocaine crop.

The local BBC correspondent adds: 'There is nothing likely to make the Colombian army happier than the prospect of the two principal Marxist rebel groups fighting each other.'

The whole affair should be an object lesson to those inclined mindlessly to cheer on anybody in the third world that can tote a Kalashnikov while simultaneously quoting Lenin. FARC and ELN have sadly long had more to do with drug trafficking than 'anti-imperialism'.

Friday, June 09, 2006

David Blunkett protects his good reputation

David Blunkett - parodied left - obviously goes to great lengths to protect his good reputation. There are some things he quite rightly will not let be said about him, some slurs and slanders he cannot let go unchallenged whenever and wherever they arise. It’s instructive to consider what they are.

Remember, this is the former Home Secretary who specialised in cheap rhetorical attacks on civil liberties, and openly pandered to racist sentiment over asylum. If anything, he revelled in the resultant adulation in the rightwing press.

Want to see the right to trial by jury eroded, or the traditional prohibition of double jeopardy undermined? Need a fast-track visa application for your mistress's nanny? Blunkett’s your man.

As Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, he headed the department charged with cracking down on claimants doing cash-in-hand work.

That didn’t stop him breaching guidelines on second jobs for politicians, or buying £300,000-worth of shares in a company of which he was a director, paying just £15,000.

Possibly the one-time working class hero had lost touch with working class reality to the point where he genuinely believed nobody could possibly think he was doing anything wrong here.

But please, let’s get one thing straight. Never … ever … accuse David Blunkett of having an affair with an estate agent. Got that?

Sir Bill Morris on Labour-union relations

'Former TGWU leader Sir Bill Morris (pictured left) has called for trade union influence over the Labour Party to be curbed. '

What trade union influence over the Labour Party?

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Liberal Democrats retreat on progressive taxation

Conventional political wisdom argues that it would be impossible for any party to be electorally successful on a manifesto backing progressive taxation. The Lib Dems have taken notice.

Ming Campbell today announced that - in place of such past favourites as a penny on the basic rate to fund education or a 50p tax band for six-figure earners – the party is now offering a 2p reduction in income tax.

But just what is wrong – or even necessarily unpopular – with the proposition that, yes, billionaires should pay a higher proportion of their income than cleaners and carers?

It is worth remembering that during the period of high Thatcherism from 1979 to 1988, the top rate of income tax was 63%.

At present, many of the super-rich are effectively getting a free ride. For instance, Rupert Murdoch’s News International has paid no net corporation tax in this country for over a decade, despite profits topping £300m. Yet it couldn’t operate without public goods, from roads to rubbish collection.

This is not a call in favour of taxation for taxation’s sakes. But Britain does need to get away from the collective delusion that public investment is by definition squandering money.

If we want the higher levels of healthcare enjoyed by countries like France and Sweden, we need the higher levels of public spending that go with them.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Industrial action in the UK

In so far as they represent a proxy measure of class struggle, that latest figures for industrial action in the UK make interesting reading for socialists:

‘The total number of working days lost in the first three months of the year was almost four times the total for the whole of 2005. In the first quarter, 616,000 equivalent work days were lost, compared with 158,000 days for the whole of last year, the lowest on record.’

OK, hardly a return to the glory days of Red Robbo addressing mass meetings in the car park. But given that working-class disaffection with New Labour is clearly on the rise, it could just represent another small pointer to a change in the prevailing mood music. Consider these statistics, too:

‘Only 5% of all working days lost to strikes in the first quarter of this year were in the private sector, with 95% being lost in the public sector, according to official figures … The public sector accounts for about 20% of employment.’

The message here is that there is still a massive job of work for the labour movement to do when it comes to rebuilding itself. On the other hand, today’s front page lead in the Guardian reports on Gordon Brown’s call for a public sector wage freeze. That isn’t going to be popular, and is likely to harden attitudes, both in the workplace and at the ballot box.

UPDATE: Here's the Labour left/trade union take on the pay freeze, contained in a press release from Public Services Not Private Profit campaign:

'John McDonnell MP, Chair of the Public Services Not Private Profit campaign, said:

'“The Government’s programme of job cuts and privatisation is undermining its own investment in our public services and is having a devastating effect on the morale of public sector workers. Rather than listening to big business, the Prime Minister should listen to the workers who are delivering services if he wants advice on how to run public services.

'“Brown’s call for a pay freeze for workers in our public services is yet another blow to staff morale which is already at breaking point."'

New Labour and NHS privatisation

The latest New Labour steps towards a more market-driven NHS merit this report in today’s Financial Times:

‘Senior executives from some of Britain's biggest companies are to join the boards of foundation hospitals to help them prepare for a newmarket-based health service.

‘Tony Blair will host a seminar today with health managers and representatives from companies including Tesco, Lloyds TSB, GlaxoSmith-Kline, Unilever and Smiths Group, under a scheme to make foundation hospitals with budgets of up to £500m more commercially-minded.

‘Downing Street stressed the initiative would not mean the private sector taking over or bailing out the National Health Service, even if businessmen joined the trusts as board directors.’

Now, far be it from me to be cynical about these things. But isn’t GSK a giant pharmaceutical company that counts the NHS as a major client? How then can it be relied upon to approach these management reponsibilities with suitable disinterest?

And isn’t Tesco a major purveyor of the sort of sugar- and fat-laden processed foods that cause health problems for so many? Come to that, it's a fair bet that they are Britain's largest retailer of tobacco products. Not exactly NHS-friendly, that.

Incidentally, Tony Woodley of the TGWU is quoted as suggesting that this move is designed to soften up the path for privatisation. The more New Labour insists it isn’t, the more I am inclined to believe him.

Monday, June 05, 2006

The rate of exploitation in the USA

In Marxist political economy, the rate of exploitation is defined as the ratio between the total amount of unpaid labour carried out (surplus value) and the total amount of wages paid (the value of labour power).

It forms one of the key theoretical bases for the socialist contention that all wage labour is, in its very nature, exploitative.

Now, I’m probably not reading the right specialist journals. But I don’t recall any recent attempts in the left press to calculate this statistic for the major capitalist economies.

But by way of a proxy measurement, here’s a story from today’s Financial Times, which makes the recent trend in the rate of exploitation in the US only too clear:

‘US companies have increased their share of the economic pie at a faster rate over the last five years than at any time since the second world war.

‘Recent government figures show that profits from current production as a share of the national income have risen from 7% in mid-2001 to 12.2% at the start of this year.

‘This rate of growth is unprecedented since collection of these figures begun in 1947.

‘Profits have climbed 123% over the same period, soaring from $714.5bn (£378.89bn) to $1,595.4bn – also the fastest increase since records begun.’

And, as the slogan used to go, what about the workers?

‘As profits have increased as a share of national income, the return going to workers has been in decline, falling from 58.6% in the middle of 2001 to 56.2% in the first quarter of 2006.

‘Paul Donovan, a global economist at UBS, believes that the negotiating position of US workers may have been weakened by globalisation.

‘”The US labour market may be tightening, but there is still an ample supply of workers worldwide, and this may be capping what domestic workers can demand,” he said.’

Friday, June 02, 2006

MG Rover inquiry

The collapse of MG Rover in April 2005 saw the four men at the top - John Towers, Peter Beale, John Edwards and Nick Stephenson – walk away with £40m.

Not a bad return on the miserable tenner they shelled out to acquire the business just five years earlier, as part of a deal that included a £427m interest-free loan.

It was a different story for most of the 6,000-strong workforce, who got just £280 per year of service, capped at a maximum £3,360.

I suppose the saga does, in a negative way, underline the dynamism of the private sector ... at least when it comes to building the bank balances of the bosses. If you want more background on the affair, check out an earlier post on this blog.

The sad thing is that thanks to the current lack of confidence in the British trade union movement – at both rank and file and leadership levels, it has to be said – there was never even the prospect of a serious fightback.

Right now the same outcome is likely at Vauxhall and Peugeot. The TGWU and Amicus will limit their efforts to taking out some advertisements, calling for a consumer boycott of one or both companies.

Few will take any notice, and the ‘campaign’ will quietly fold inside a few months, having achieved nothing. Nobody will even make the democratic socialist case for common ownership under workers’ control.

The Rover affair was such an obvious scandal that even New Labour recognised there was something amiss, and ordered an inquiry. So … how is the work progressing?

‘The inquiry into the collapse of MG Rover has cost taxpayers more than £4.5m, and the bill is increasing by £500,000 a month, new figures reveal.

‘The bulk of the fees for the investigation into the demise of the carmaker is being paid to BDO Stoy Hayward, the forensic accountancy firm, according to Department of Trade and Industry figures.'

There's still no word of when the accountants will finish the job, although on those kind of fees, I guess they are not in the slightest hurry.

‘Even if the cost of the inquiry exceeds £10m, it will be dwarfed by the cost to the taxpayer of the demise of the carmaker and the government's efforts to limit the impact on the West Midlands economy. The total bill to the state could exceed £250m, according to a National Audit Office report in March.’

I wonder what the Pheonix Four are up to right now? Hope you’re enjoying spending the cash, boys.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

The truth about Haditha

Want to know the truth about what the US Marines do in Haditha? If so, forget all those horrible stories you might have read about them murdering 24 Iraqi civilians – including many children - in that town last year.

Instead, check out this article posted last weekend at Operation Iraqi Freedom, the official website of the Multi-National Force-Iraq. And no, it isn’t a parody.

Marines help improve Haditha

Story and photo by Sgt. Roe F. Seigle, 1st Marine Division


'Maj. Chris K. Mace loves to hand out cash.

‘The 38-year-old leads a handful of Marines who spend their days rebuilding schools, hospitals and giving monetary reimbursements to Iraqis whose property has been damaged during three years of combat operations.

‘"We have made a lot of progress, but there is still a lot more to be made," said Mace, a Pottstown, Pa., native who leads one of 17 civil affairs teams operating throughout Al Anbar province. "We are going to make as big an impact on the community as we can."'

Impact on the community? You can say that again.

‘Notable progress in the region’s stability has made such civil affairs projects within the region possible, said Mace.

‘"As security and stability in the (area) increase, the willingness of the local populace to cooperate with us will progress as well," said Mace.’

And there’s more good deeds …

‘Recently, Mace and his Marines visited several schools in the region and repaired doors and windows which were damaged by insurgents, said Mace.

‘A principal at one of the local elementary schools said the students were in dire need of basic school supplies such as paper, markers and pencils.

‘The Marines delivered hundreds of pencils, markers, backpacks embroidered with cartoon characters, erasers and paper notebooks.’

It is thanks to activities such as this that local people are learning to trust the Marines:

‘"Many of the local people are starting to realize the Marines are good people and are concerned with their wellbeing," said an Iraqi interpreter assigned to work with the Marines. "The Marines have begun to build good rapport with the residents and this opens the door for us to communicate with them."

‘Though Coalition forces make every effort to minimize collateral damage in local towns and villages during military operations, some damage can occur, such as broken doors and damaged vehicles, said Sgt. Paul Flores, a 24-year-old from Los Angeles.’

And here’s the clincher, courtesy of Staff Sgt Omar Palaciosreal:

‘"You earn a lot of credibility when you show residents you care about their well-being and their children," said Palaciosreal.’


Peter Hitchens rediscovers Leninism

Hitchens the younger - pictured left - wants to get rid of our useless bourgeois parliament:

‘What we need instead is a scheme to allow proper people, bricklayers, train drivers, schoolteachers, small businessmen and women, experienced parents, for example to become part-time MPs, paid no more than the salaries they would normally get during a few weeks a year but provided with excellent research and secretarial staff so that they could really examine the rubbish the government is always trying to slip through Parliament.’

Hmmm, let me see. Ordinary workers, paid ordinary workers' wages, serving as readily recallable delegates to lawmaking bodies. Haven’t I heard those ideas before somewhere? Lenin, in State and Revolution, I do believe.

Congratulations, Peter! Your years in the International Socialists have obviously not been entirely lost to you.

Mamma Mia: Swedish bosses busted

Today’s FT unveils the latest corporate bribery scandal to rock Scandinavia:

‘The chief executive of TeliaSonera, the Swedish telecoms company, is to be charged with bribery after inviting clients to see the musical Mamma Mia, which features the music of Abba, the 1970s Swedish pop group.

‘Anders Igel will be charged alongside Marie Ehrling, the head of the company's operations in Sweden, after prosecutors decided that listening to Abba songs would have constituted "an unwarrantable reward for the recipients in the official discharge of their duties".’

Bribery? Sounds more like a deliberate attempt to lose the account if you ask me.

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